What does I John 5:7-8 mean?

Question:

"For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one." (I John 5:7-8 KJV). What does verse eight mean? I know that God and Christ are in heaven (Acts 7:55; Colossians 3:1). Does verse 8 mean that the Holy Spirit is still on earth? Please explain this to me.

Answer:

There are two readings for I John 5:7-8,

"For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one" (I John 5:7-8 NKJV).

"For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement" (I John 5:7-8 NASB).

The highlight text is what is in dispute. The New King James Version has the extra words because they were in the King James Version. The King James Version has the extra words because they were in Erasmus' Greek New Testament (third edition, 1522), a composite text that was used as the basis of the King James translation. The extra words were not in the first two editions of Erasmus' work because the evidence pointed to the fact that these words were originally someone's marginal notes that accidentally got pulled into the text by some scribe. However, Erasmus was pressured by the Roman Catholic Church to include the words anyway. His work would not have sold well without acceptance by the Roman Catholic Church and the extra words were in the Latin texts that the Roman Catholic Church favored.

The extra words are only found in nine Greek manuscripts:

  • 221 originates from the 10th Century and includes the reading in a marginal note that was added after the original copy was made, probably in the 15th or 16th century.
  • 177 originates from the 11th Century and includes the reading in a marginal note that is dated to later than the mid-16th century.
  • 88 originated in the 12th century and includes the reading in a marginal note that is dated to the 16th century.
  • 629 originated in the 14th century. This is a Latin / Greek text. Evidence shows that the scribe translated the Latin wording into Greek and added it to the Greek text to make the two match.
  • 429 originated in the 14th century and includes the reading in a marginal note that is dated to the 16th century.
  • 636 originated in the 15th century and includes the reading in a marginal note that is dated to the 16th century.
  • 61 originated in 1520, in Oxford and was apparently made to order to force Erasmus to change his text.
  • 918 originated in the 16th century from Spain
  • 2318 originates from the 18th Century (identical to Erasmus' wording)
  • 2473 originates from the 18th Century from Athens

"Thus, there is no sure evidence of this reading in any Greek manuscript until the 1500s; each such reading was apparently composed after Erasmus' Greek NT was published in 1516. Indeed, the reading appears in no Greek witness of any kind (either manuscript, patristic, or Greek translation of some other version) until AD 1215 (in a Greek translation of the Acts of the Lateran Council, a work originally written in Latin). This is all the more significant, since many a Greek Father would have loved such a reading, for it so succinctly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. The reading seems to have arisen in a fourth century Latin homily in which the text was allegorized to refer to members of the Trinity. From there, it made its way into copies of the Latin Vulgate, the text used by the Roman Catholic Church" [Daniel B. Wallace, "The Textual Problems of I John 5:7-8", Bible.org].

"The only Greek manuscripts in any form which support the words, "in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness in earth," are the Montfortianus of Dublin, copied evidently from the modern Latin Vulgate; the Ravianus, copied from the Complutensian Polyglot; a manuscript at Naples, with the words added in the margin by a recent hand; Ottobonianus, 298, of the fifteenth century, the Greek of which is a mere translation of the accompanying Latin. All the old versions omit the words. The oldest manuscripts of the Vulgate omit them: the earliest Vulgate manuscript which has them being Wizanburgensis, 99, of the eighth century" [Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary].

"The textual evidence is against 1 John 5:7. Of all the Greek manuscripts, only two contain it. These two manuscripts are of very late dates, one from the fourteenth or fifteenth century and the other from the sixteenth century. Two other manuscripts have this verse written in the margin. All four manuscripts show that this verse was apparently translated from a late form of the Latin Vulgate"[Dr. Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, 2003, pp. 100-101].

The Latin manuscripts do have older evidence of the extra words existing:

  • León palimpsest (7th century from Spain)
  • Frisingensia Fragmenta (7th century from Spain)
  • Codex Theodulphianus (8th-9th century from France)
  • Codex Sangallensis 907 (8th-9th century from France)
  • Codex Cavensis (9th century from Spain)
  • Codex Ulmensis (9th century from Spain)
  • Codex Sangallensis 63 (9th-10th century from France), but the added words are in a marginal note.
  • Codex Complutensis I (10th century (A.D. 927) from Spain)
  • Codex Toletanus (10th century from Spain)

However, the oldest Latin manuscripts do not contain the extra wording. Ancient Syrian and Coptic manuscripts also do not contain the extra wording.

The earliest that the Latin version, which reads differently from Erasmus' Greek version, is found in the writings of Priscillian of Avila, a Spaniard who wrote around c. A.D. 380. An English translation of his statement is, "As John says and there are three which give testimony on earth the water the flesh the blood and these three are in one and there are three which give testimony in heaven the Father the Word and the Spirit and these three are one in Christ Jesus." This was written without punctuation, as it would have been found in Latin. What we don't know is how much was quoted and how much was Pricillian's commentary.

The conclusion is that it was added by scribes in the Roman Catholic Church, probably to clarify their view of the Godhead. Since the added words first appear in Spanish copies of the Latin text, there is strong possibility that someone jotted Priscillian's words in the margin of a manuscript and it got blended into the Latin text. Since the Latin text was heavily used, scribes added the words as a marginal note to many of the Greek manuscripts that they had in their possession.

What It Means

"Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son" (I John 5:5-9 NAS95).

Truth is established by two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15) and John is stating that there are three witnesses to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. What I believe John is referring to are the witnesses to Jesus' divinity.

When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven stated, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). This could be the witness of the water.

The second witness that John cites is Jesus' death on the cross. "But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, "Not one of His bones shall be broken." And again another Scripture says, "They shall look on Him whom they pierced"" (John 19:34-37). This is why John said, not by water only but by water and blood. It is absolute proof that Jesus died. In his death is evidence again that Jesus is the Son of God. "So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, "Truly this Man was the Son of God!"" (Mark 15:39).

The third witness is the Holy Spirit. One aspect is that the Bible came about by the Holy Spirit inspiring men to write, "for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (II Peter 1:21). Without that evidence, we would not know about Jesus. "Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus is accursed"; and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit" (I Corinthians 12:3). The Spirit also testified by predicting in advance the coming Messiah. "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners" (Isaiah 61:1). And it was by the same Spirit that guided the apostles to proclaim to the world what had happened and proved that their words were true by the miracles that accompanied them. "And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him" (Acts 5:32).

John said if we can accept the testimony of men to determine the truth, the testimony that God provides is greater.