Christ's promise to be with his church until the end of the age’delivered on the eve of his departure’is one of those gospel promises that comes wrapped in a riddle. Once the riddle is understood, it no longer obscures the truth but rather reveals it all the more profoundly. The profound truth revealed by this riddle is that Christ is more truly present with his church by his Spirit than he ever was while he walked the earth. Jesus had to leave his disciples in order to truly be with them.
The Spirit is not less than Jesus, nor a poor substitute, but more. This "more" is extensive, so Jesus can be present with all believers equally and is no longer constrained by physical proximity. But it is also more qualitatively, as the Spirit conveys to us the fruits of Christ's heavenly labors. He is the Spirit of the Risen Christ, the Spirit that Christ received as a promised inheritance from the Father when he ascended on high, and the Spirit he distributes as an abundant gift to each and every one who calls on his name by faith. The Spirit represents the fruits of Christ's labors, granting the church not local but universal fellowship with the Lamb who was slain.
It is unfortunate, though understandable, that we associate the Spirit most immediately with his extraordinary outpouring on Pentecost’unfortunate because the Spirit is seen especially as a marker of the opening of the apostolic age, the passing of which is assumed to diminish his activity. One useful corrective is to turn from the opening of the apostolic age to its close. Though not as clearly marked out in the New Testament’this age passed not with a bang but with a whimper’we nevertheless catch an intimate, first-person glimpse of it in the Epistles of John. For John by all accounts was the last living apostle, the last direct link to the Savior. No one had imagined a church without apostles. How would she fare without them?
The Apostolic Witness: Seen with Our Eyes, Touched with Our Hands
John writes his Gospel with a clear purpose. After recording Jesus' words to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not yet seen and yet have believed," John tells us that he has written his Gospel "so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ…and that by believing, you may have life" (John 20:29, 31).
His first Epistle’more of a sermon really’has a different but related purpose: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13). John desires to comfort and assure the church in a time of trial, and a cursory reading of 1 John shows why. Antichrists have arisen, deceivers who are leading people astray, denying their sin, and denying that Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh. The church has been torn apart. As a result, there is a crisis of confidence, with false prophets peddling false gospels.
John responds to this crisis of authority with a full-blown articulation of his own apostolic pedigree: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you….This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you" (1 John 1:1-5).
One can scarcely imagine the power of these words when they were read for the first time. The demoralized gathering of saints, living some sixty years after the events of Pentecost, were hearing the life-giving message of the Lord from one who heard it from his own lips, one who leaned on his breast the night before he was crucified. This is like a veteran of D-Day walking into our midst and telling stories of that frightful day.
But the power of John's apostolic authority, rightly revered in the church, would have had a corresponding effect. How many more missives would the church receive from an eyewitness? Who would unmask the next antichrist and rebuke the next false prophet?
The Gift of the Spirit: Eternal Life
Doubtless the same thoughts were coursing through John's mind as he was writing the letter, seeking to comfort his little children that they were indeed heirs of eternal life. As he does so, his thoughts turn increasingly from the message of the eyewitness to the Spirit who safeguards this message in the life of the church. John assures his readers that the Word of God, what they have heard from the beginning, abides in them. In the face of the deceivers, he assures them that their anointing abides in them, even as the Word does, teaching them all things. This is the principal activity of the Spirit, as Jesus taught in the farewell discourse; he is the Spirit of truth who brings to remembrance all that Jesus said. John goes further and tells us the Spirit is truth.
Not surprisingly, John closely associates the anointing of the Spirit with the new birth. The evangelist who recorded Christ's nighttime conversation with Nicodemus has a very concrete sense of what it means to be born from above: "God's Spirit abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God" (3:9). We shouldn't flinch from this apparent perfectionism in 1 John any more than we should flinch from the truth that those anointed by the Spirit "have no need for a teacher" (2:27). The reality of sin and the need for godly instruction are patently clear throughout the letter.
The Spirit is God's seed planted in the believer, God himself living within, and the principles of truth and love necessarily take root from his presence within. Likewise, faith is a sure sign that the seed has been planted: "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God" (4:15). We know that we abide in him, and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit.
One cannot overestimate the importance of the Spirit's association with the new birth in John's thinking. This is why he addresses the church in his care as his "little children." The Spirit who brings new birth is the giver of eternal life, for he brings the heavenly life of the Lord Jesus to those with whom he dwells. And so John's confidence regarding the purity of his children is born of the life that he knows lives within them. The seed of God has been planted; it will grow up into a fruitful tree. This is a coming reality that is guaranteed not merely by the word of promise, but by the fact of the one who lives within them, the heavenly Lord who nevertheless dwells in their midst.
Of course, the false prophets claim their own spirits as well. This is why John urges his children to test the spirits. The nature of this test’the confession that Jesus Christ has come from God in the flesh’demonstrates that the Spirit of truth is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If you don't confess this fleshly Christ, crucified and risen, then you don't possess His Spirit.
The Spirit and the Water and the Blood
As John draws his letter to a close, the Spirit comes into ever greater focus. It seems that the apostle recognizes that the time of his authority, his personal witness to the Word of Life, is also drawing to a close. Yet the end of the apostolic age is not the end of the Spirit's activity, for he continues to bear witness in the church: "This is he who came by water and blood’Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree" (1 John 5:6-8). (1)
This is a scary moment for the church. It is a moment of truth’the moment when the apostolic training wheels will be taken off, one way or another. And just as John opened the Epistle with his own testimony, the testimony of a man soon to pass away, so he concludes his letter by leaving his "little children" with a lasting testimony, in fact, two lasting testimonies: the Spirit and the water and the blood, who all three agree; and the testimony of God himself concerning his Son.
It is crucial to note that this discussion of the Spirit's testifying work stems from the true confession of Jesus Christ as "he who came by water and blood." What does it mean that Jesus came by water and blood? Throughout his Epistles, John opposes those who deny the incarnation, specifically those who deny that Jesus "came in the flesh." One version of this Gnostic error held that the man Jesus was endowed by the Spirit of God at his baptism ("by water only"), and departed from him before his death ("blood"), thereby sparing the divine Son of God the indignity of the all-too-human acts of birth and death. Jesus anchors the confession of a fully human Christ in these flesh-and-blood events, birth and death.
The defense of the incarnation is not metaphysical speculation. It is not about the ontological transformation or assumption of human "stuff" into the divine. Rather, it serves the true preaching of the cross, and it is this truth of Christ crucified to which the Spirit bears witness. Yet one of the difficulties of this passage is in recognizing that John shifts his scene of focus from the birth, baptism, and death of Christ to the present working of the Spirit of the church. Though the terms "water and the blood" are not unrelated in these two settings, they have a distinct reference in the life of Jesus and in the life of the church; the first inspired John's elaboration of the second. We see the shift in the change of tense, from past to present: Jesus came by water and blood (his birth and death), but the Spirit testifies by water and blood now.
What is this present threefold testimony of the Spirit with water and blood? One clue is found at the foot of the cross, the preaching of which inspires this discussion. Recall that when the other sheep fled their shepherd, the beloved disciple alone stood true at the side of Mary and the women. Recall that John was adopted intimately into the earthly family of Jesus, even as he was adopted into his heavenly family: "Woman, behold your son…behold your mother." And recall what testimony John bears: "But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness’his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth’that you also may believe."
Water and blood both have profound symbolic significance in John's Gospel, from the living water at the well to the true flesh and blood of the Lord. This is far more than scientific testimony to the death of Christ. It is, for John, the symbolic link between the effusion of the life-giving Spirit and the cross.
And today, in the life of the church, the Spirit testifies to us of this life-giving reality of the cross through the sacramental elements, the water of baptism, and the blood of the Lord's Supper. In our baptism, the Spirit is testifying alongside the water, bearing witness to the truth of the water, that we have been buried with Christ in his death on the cross. In the Lord's Supper, the flesh and blood of Christ are made present to us through the power of the Spirit to all who believe, though he remains in heaven.
Baptism and the Lord's Supper mark the Spirit's outpouring at Pentecost and the beginning of the apostolic age: "And those who received the word were baptized…and they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." So they are found again here, testifying to the continued working of the Spirit long after the apostolic age has drawn to a close.
While the Spirit is clearly an inward, personal possession of all believers, John points us here to the Spirit's outward activity alongside the sacramental elements of the water and bread and wine. This is an important corrective, and Reformed churches in particular need to hear this teaching, where Calvin's discussion of the "internal testimony of the Spirit" has too often crowded out corresponding biblical models of the Spirit's work through means.
There is clear evidence that the Gnostics whom John opposed in the church were inclined to denigrate the sacraments, even as they denigrated the flesh of our Lord. Contemporary Gnostic tendencies incline evangelical Christians to a similarly "spiritualizing" worship. John's emphasis on testimony and witness ultimately urges us to look outside ourselves for the evidences and reasonableness of our faith. We see this in part in the works of Christian love that mark out the true community of the faithful, but we see them even more objectively in the working of the sacraments in our midst.
Through the power of the Spirit, these sacraments bring Christ into our midst, and not just any Christ, but the crucified Christ who sheds forth truth and life on the church. Instead of looking within, John urges us to look outside ourselves.
The Closing of the Apostolic Age and the Greater Testimony of God
While the Spirit is the presence of God among his people, John's reflection upon the threefold testimony of Spirit and Word and blood in the present life of the church leads him immediately to transition back to another testimony of God, again in the past tense:
If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. (1 John 5:9-12)
John cannot long dwell on the life-giving work of the Spirit in the church without being led back to the historic work of the Son. John's own preaching and teaching’the testimony of men’pales in comparison to the witness that God himself has borne concerning his Son. The power of the Word preached continues to reside in the One who is preached. He who is proclaimed is greater than the proclamation; he is the source of its life.
Witness and testimony are central themes of John's Gospel, and here we see why. Jesus submitted himself to the legal standards of veracity: "If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not deemed true." But he continues by saying that he receives a testimony that is not from man, "For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me" (John 5:36-37).
This is the great testimony of God, "that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son." In other words, that which John has borne witness to in his apostolic ministry, that which the Spirit bears witness to in the life of the church, is that there is life in the Son. The purpose of this contemporary witness’of men and God’is to make Christ present to us in all his saving work.
And so, as John concludes his letter, he traces a remarkable arc through the troubled times in which he lived. He opens by anchoring his authority in what he has seen, heard, and touched. But in drawing his "little children" back to those simple truths taught by their Lord, back to what they have heard from the very beginning, he comes to grasp the utter dependence of his own apostolic labors upon what God has given in Christ himself. He does not conclude that the foundation he has laid is insignificant’far from it. Instead, in directing our eyes’his own eyes’back to what he proclaims, the life that is in Christ, he has grasped that Christ himself is present with his church. He is present through the Spirit and present through what he has written, so that we might believe and have life, and so that they who believe might know that they have life. Now. In the Son.
So the Lamb who was slain is with us always, through the Spirit, in the church. Even to the very end of the age, when we shall all share in that glorious vision.