Wednesday, 3 June 2020
For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. 1 John 5:7
This verse is known as the Johanine Comma (the “exception” of John) and is one of the most disputed verses in the Bible. Many translations leave out the part which says, “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.” Even if this part isn’t completely left out, it is often only footnoted to indicate its disputed nature. For a breakdown of what manuscripts include it, and which do not, one can refer to Joseph Benson’s (or several other commentators) commentary on the verse at this link: https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_john/5-7.htm
Because it is included in many manuscripts, and because no theology is damaged because of its inclusion, it will be evaluated as if it is true and original.
John begins with, “For there are three that bear witness.” The words speak of a testimony or a record. They are a present participle – they are “bearing testimony,” and they do so “in heaven.” There is actually an article before “heaven.” Thus, it reads, “the heaven.” The importance of there being three is that of unity of testimony, and a confirmation of what is said.
The Law of Moses required the testimony of “two or three witnesses” for establishing a matter. Solomon speaks of “a threefold cord” which is not easily broken, signifying that there is strength in numbers. In Matthew 18, Jesus speaks of “two or three witnesses” as a confirmation of a matter. Paul repeats this in 2 Corinthians 13:1. Jesus also appeals directly to this type of thought in John 5 –
“If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. 32 There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true. 33 You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. 34 Yet I do not receive testimony from man, but I say these things that you may be saved. 35 He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light. 36 But I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish—the very works that I do—bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me. 37 And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. 38 But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe.” John 5:31-38
Multiple witnesses form a principle of establishing firmness in a matter. EW Bullinger notes that the number three in Scripture “stands for that which is solid, real, substantial, complete, and entire.” Therefore, it is right that such a witness be presented, even if it is found “in heaven.” These words are disputed as being in the original or not, but they form a contrast to the words “on earth” of the next verse in John’s letter. As John has presented numerous contrasts in this epistle, it is likely he would do so here as well.
John next continues with the words which are the most disputed, saying, “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.” The three members of the Trinity are presented here, each being a separate witness to the Person and work of Jesus Christ, demonstrating a fulness within the Godhead. One argument against the reliability of this clause is presented by Albert Barnes, stating, “The ‘language’ is not such as John would use. He does, indeed, elsewhere use the term ‘Logos,’ or ‘Word’ – ὁ Λόγος ho Logos, John 1:1, John 1:14; 1 John 1:1, but it is never in this form, ‘The Father, and the Word;’ that is, the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Word’ are never used by him, or by any of the other sacred writers, as correlative.”
That is a fallacy known as an “argument from silence,” meaning it “is to express a conclusion that is based on the absence of statements in historical documents, rather than their presence” (Wikipedia definition). If that argument is used, much of the Bible would have to be ignored as it is a book which constantly introduces new words and concepts which are never again used in its pages, even among individual writers.
John is making a theological point about the number of witnesses in heaven, and he therefore includes both the Father and the Word together. Stating “the Word,” rather than “the Son,” demonstrates the preexistence of the second member of the Trinity as based on his words both in his gospel and in his epistle, such as –
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— 2 the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1-3
John then finishes with, “and these three are one.” There is nothing surprising here. John was present when Jesus stated this in Matthew 28 –
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:18, 19
In Jesus’ statement, the word “name” is in the singular. In other words, though the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons, they are one essence. Therefore, John is again stating this truth. By using “Word” instead of “Son” John is actually confirming that Jesus is both the Son and the Word. He has always existed within the Godhead, and His union with humanity has not changed that status. He is the eternal Son of God, and He is the eternal word of God – dwelling in the single essence of the Godhead.
It should be noted that if the words, “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one” are removed, there is then a gender mismatch in the text. It would read –
“For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” (NASB)
The problem with this is that the words, “For there are three that testify,” are masculine. However, the words, “the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement,” are neuter. Because of this, the words, “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one,” actually appear necessary for a correct reading because they are masculine.
Either way, the unity within the Godhead can be determined elsewhere, and the truth of the statement concerning each member being in heaven and capable of testifying which is found in this verse can be verified elsewhere as well. Therefore, claims of “heresy” towards those who hold to the shorter reading are not well-founded.
Life application: Despite it not being in many ancient manuscripts, the contents of this verse date back to the time of Cyprian who lived in the 3rd century and it survives in his treatise against heretics who denied the Trinity. Of this verse, John Calvin said, “However, the passage flows better when this clause is added, and as I see that it is found in the best and most approved copies, I am inclined to receive it as the true reading.”
The term “best and most approved” in regard to manuscripts are subjective, as may also be his point about the passage flowing better, but he chose to accept the words as a true part of John’s epistle. On the other side, those who dismiss the words here will use the same terminology – “best copies,” “best manuscripts,” and “best editions,” to deny the authenticity of the words.
In the end, God knows the truth of whether this verse belongs in the Bible or not, but one thing we can know is that the verse is truthful, regardless of its authenticity. Apart from this verse, the Bible teaches that the Father, the Word (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit are One (as noted above), therefore, nothing is damaged in one’s theology by accepting the words here as true and reliable.
In the end, we are asked to study in order to show ourselves approved when studying and examining Scripture. When something difficult, such as this verse, is presented, we are asked to carefully consider each side of the debate, pray about the matter, and be ready to defend why we accept one side or the other – while being charitable in our stand towards those who feel otherwise, if their argument is not based on faulty doctrine or heresy.
Thank You, O God, for the mysteries in Your word… things that challenge us to even stronger faith and things which ask us to diligently study matters rather than accepting or dismissing their true intent without careful thought and contemplation. What a wonderful gift You have given us in the pages of Your reliable and trustworthy word, the Holy Bible! Amen.