1 John chapter 5 - Part 7
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
Cycle 3, ‘The revelation of the love of God’, began by identifying love as fundamental to the Christian life, 4. 7, something that brings assurance to the believer. John brought out the nature of the love of God, 4. 7-16a, and then went on to describe its effects in our experience, vv. 16b-21. The first section of chapter 5 relates loving God to loving God’s children. At the same time, there is a subtle shift of focus to faith and its content.1
Victory enabled by faith, love, and obedience, 5. 1-5
John traces the various activities of love to its source in God. Faith in God must go hand in hand with a love for God and His people, 5. 1. Love is not a mere emotion, but demonstrates itself practically in glad obedience to God’s commandments, vv. 2, 3. John has had much to say in this letter about the world system in its opposition to the Christian, and here we learn that faith in Jesus the Son of God is the secret of victory over the world, vv. 4, 5.
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, v. 1. By his reference to ‘Whoever . . . everyone’, i.e., any believer, John rebukes the exclusiveness of those false teachers who made out that they were the only ones who were right.2 Faith in Jesus as the Christ,3 is a sign of being born again, as is the practice of love, 4. 7.
And everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him.
‘Him who begot’ is the Father. Those truly born again have a love for all the dear children begotten by God, who therefore possess the same divine nature.
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments, v. 2. This verse gives the converse of chapter 4 verses 20, 21. Fellowship with God and believers must go together, 1. 3, 7. How do we know our love is genuine? It is, if we love God and have a concern to be obedient, to do (RV) his commandments.
Verse 3 True love of God is evidenced in that we keep His commandments. This is not hard and difficult, nor is it a matter of penal servitude, for His commandments are not burdensome. Through the new birth the believer has a capacity to ‘delight in the law of God according to the inward man’, Rom. 7. 22, indeed God writes His laws on our hearts! Heb. 8. 10; He creates in us a desire to obey.4
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world, v. 4. John’s use of the neuter term ‘whatever’ rather than ‘whoever’ puts the focus on the power of the new nature in the believer. In each cycle,5 John has characterized the world in its opposition to the believer: here the emphasis is on the opposition of the world to keeping the commandments of God. To keep God’s commandments will be unpopular and difficult, because the entire world system is hostile to His principles and commandments. We observe this throughout human society – its values, literature, and media. Yet victory is assured, indeed the very existence of our faith in Jesus the Son of God points to a victory that has overcome the world. Note the past tense in this statement; in every case of conversion a decisive victory has already been won; the conquering Son of God liberates the soul from Satan’s clutches, Luke 11. 21-22; John 12. 31. But there is also necessarily a corresponding ongoing ‘overcoming’ in the life of each genuine believer, vv. 4a, 5, where the present tense is to be noted. Once again it is the characteristic of the normal life of the believer that he overcomes6 the world; he does not persist in sin.7
Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? v. 5. Christian faith is not woolly and ill-defined, as some people talk about ‘faith’ in general terms today. Rather, it is highly specific: Jesus is the Son of God. This is distinctive, irreducible, and exclusive – it is what makes a person a Christian, cp. Acts 4. 12. It is also precisely what John’s opponents were denying – the permanent identity of the man Jesus as the eternal Son of God. The tense here confirms the thought in the previous paragraph, i.e., who is he that overcomes the world? He that continues to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
Three witnesses: the ground of assurance, 5. 6-12.
Sceptics often misrepresent biblical faith as ‘blind’ faith, as though it were an irrational leap into the unknown. The following section, verses 6 to 12, shows that this is simply not so. The keyword in this section is ‘witness’/‘testimony’, and shows that faith in Christ is not irrational, but absolutely well-founded and firmly evidence-based. The evidence comprises three witnesses, the Spirit, the water and the blood, vv. 6-9. Complementing these is the internal, subjective, yet no less real, witness of the Spirit in the heart of every believer, vv. 10-12. John is careful to tie this latter witness to the great historical fact of the gospel.
This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ, v. 6. These words have given rise to a variety of interpretations.8 Most likely they are a reference to the Lord’s baptism at Jordan (‘water’) and His death at Calvary (‘blood’). Indeed, the former pointed forward to the latter, Matt. 3. 15; 20. 22. Although sinless Himself, our Lord identified with the penitent at Jordan as the pledge of His ultimate identification with sinners at the cross, Isa. 53. 12. But why is John so emphatic: not only by (the) water, but by9 (the) water and (the) blood? It seems that there were those (such as Cerinthus) who were teaching that the divine Christ descended upon the man Jesus at His baptism, but abandoned Him prior to the cross, thus ensuring His demise. Against this destructive heresy John affirms that the cross is central to the mission of Jesus Christ – He came by blood, i.e., it was the incarnate Son of God who died on the cross. There can be no salvation for those who reject this.
And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. This can be literally rendered, ‘the Spirit is the witnessing One’. In addition to the two great historical events that bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah (His baptism, and His death), John highlights the witness of the Holy Spirit, precisely the role predicted by the Lord Jesus, John 15. 26-27. Here the present tense points to the Spirit’s gracious activity of interpreting the saving significance of the Saviour’s death. He it is who by the scriptures confirms the truth of the gospel in our hearts.
There are compelling reasons why verse 7 should be regarded as a late addition and not part of the text of the original letter. See Endnote for further details.10
And there are three that bear witness the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one, v. 8. These three witnesses ‘are continually delivering their testimony’, A. Plummer. All three point to the deity of Christ, and ‘to one act of God in Christ for man’s salvation’, L. Morris. ‘A threefold cord is not quickly broken’, Eccles. 4. 12. The Spirit was prominent in marking out Christ at His baptism, descending upon Him as a dove, John 1. 32f. At Calvary, John himself bears most careful eyewitness testimony to the blood and water flowing from the Saviour’s pierced side, 19. 34-37, and highlighting two Old Testament prophecies that were thus fulfilled, Exod. 12. 46; Zech. 12. 10.
If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater, v. 9. If we accept man’s testimony (which generally we do), how much more should we unreservedly accept the word of the God who cannot lie? This is essentially the same argument that Jesus used in His controversy with the Pharisees, John 8. 17, 18. For this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. The deity of Christ, the ‘Son of God’ has been spelled out by the Evangelists, with particular emphasis on this by John, and also by Mark, Mark 1. 1; 15. 39. The perfect tense (‘has testified’) that John uses reflects God’s permanent witness to His Son. We see this in Old Testament prophecy, the Gospel records, and supremely in Christ’s resurrection and enthronement.
He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself, v. 10. By accepting the witness of God, as we believe on11 the Son of God we find that the Spirit makes the record real in our experience. It is no longer second-hand or a mere report. As the Samaritans could say, ‘Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world’, John 4. 42.
He who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. John spells out the implications of unbelief in typically uncompromising terms, cp. 1. 10. Such a person has no confidence in God or the record He has given us concerning His Son. Once again there is no possibility of ‘sitting on the fence’, there is no middle way.
And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son, v. 11. What a gift God has given to those who believe on the Son! Eternal life is literally the ‘life of the age to come’ to be enjoyed by all who will experience the resurrection of life, John 5. 29. Yet the fact that God has given it to us means that we who believe on Christ and are thereby ‘in His Son’ already possess it as God’s amazing gift!
He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life, v. 12. John’s contrasting statements are rarely exact verbal opposites. Here we have a solemn extension of thought emphasizing the eternal loss of the unbeliever: He who is rejected is no less than the ‘Son of God’,12 cp. John 3. 36; Heb. 6. 6; 10. 29.
Epilogue – Certainties of Christian belief, 5. 13-21.
Just as the Letter opened with four verses which form the Prologue and introduce the theme, eternal life, this section rounds off the letter with final assurances and a very sharp reminder.13 Assurance of eternal life and brotherly love stimulates boldness in prayer. Then John notes three great certainties which believers ‘know’. He thus picks up the favourite ‘knowledge’ emphasis of the Gnostics, but insists that the ordinary believer, not the false teacher, has the authentic knowledge of God in Christ that matters most. The letter comes to its climax with the glory of eternal life and the true God experienced in Christ. All substitutes are to be shunned.
- Assurance of eternal life, v. 13.
- Confidence in prayer, vv. 14-17.
- Three things that are known, vv. 18-20.
- Conclusion and warning, vv. 20-21.
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, v. 13. In referring to ‘these things’ John looks back to the entire contents of his letter. His key pastoral aim has been to bring assurance of eternal life to believers who had, no doubt, been shaken and perplexed by the teaching of his opponents. He is reviewing what he has written and is about to summarize and emphasize some final points. The first matter to be assured about is that the saints already possess eternal life in Christ – they need no addition or ‘further revelation’.14
Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us, v. 14. Assurance of salvation should lead to boldness in pleading on behalf of others, ‘this is the boldness which we have toward him’ RV. This is the fourth and final mention of ‘boldness’. We have already encountered this attitude in relation to the Lord’s coming, 2. 28; 4. 17, and also in respect of prayer, 3. 21, 22. ‘Our conversation with God is to be uninhibited, open and relaxed, yet not without reverence and submission’, D. Jackman. Loving concern for our brothers and sisters will move us to intercessory prayer. To ‘hear’ in this sense means that God immediately hears and grants our petition,15 see John 9. 31; 11. 41, 42. Nevertheless, the wisdom of God may delay the fulfilment in our experience. Asking ‘anything’ is surely a great encouragement to the widest possible scope for our prayers; on the other hand, ‘according to His will’ puts a gracious limit on ‘anything’, and directs us back to the will of God as revealed in scripture. His will is always for our good and blessing.
And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him, v. 15. We have here an echo of the words of Jesus in the Upper Room, ‘And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son’, John 14. 13.
If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that, v. 16. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death, v. 17.
These verses have given rise to much debate, and sometimes anxiety, as to what exactly John had in mind. A full discussion would be outside the scope of this short commentary,16 but some guiding observations can be stated:
- ‘Life’ and ‘death’ in John’s writings normally have reference to eternal life and eternal death, not merely physical life17 and death.
- According to scripture all sin tends in the direction of death, that is, separation from God, Rom. 6. 23; Jas. 1. 15, yet curiously a distinction is made here between (literally) ‘sinning18 not leading to death’, and ‘sinning leading to death’. I hold that John here makes a solemn final reference (as throughout the letter) to his opponents who deny the reality of the incarnation, and consequently the value of the work of Christ. So doing, they exclude themselves from eternal life and guarantee themselves judgement, and eternal death; they are thus ‘sinning leading to (eternal) death’.
- The ‘brother’ for whom prayer is offered by the saints is engaged in some known sin. Yet his fellow Christians in faith expect that through prayer God will bring him to conviction, grant repentance, 2 Tim. 2. 25, and through confession he will be restored to the full enjoyment of fellowship with God and His people, 1 John 1. 9. This is my understanding of, ‘He will give him life’; the sinning brother had forfeited not the possession, but the enjoyment, of the life of fellowship with God.
- John does not encourage, but does not actually forbid, prayer for those who are ‘sinning unto death’. Note, however, that, significantly, he does not speak of a brother sinning unto death.
- James supplies an interesting and relevant parallel at the end of his letter, ‘Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins’, Jas. 5. 19-20.
To summarize, John finally states three things that ‘we know’, 1 John 5. 18-20a:
We know that whoever is born of God does not sin, v. 18. John reasserts that a true Christian cannot be a habitual sinner.19 It is a summary of the vital teaching presented earlier, 3. 4-9.
But he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him. Given the power and wiles of the devil, the wicked one, we might well fear that sin could overwhelm us, but we have an all-powerful Protector – the Son of God, ‘he who was born of God20 (Christ) protects him’ ESV. NKJV reads as though it is up to the believer to protect himself,21 but it is much more in keeping with scripture (and encouraging!) to understand our Protector as Christ, both directly and through His intercession, John 17. 12, 15; Heb. 7. 25. Satan may threaten and oppose, but he can get no hold on the believer who is safely guarded by Christ, John 10. 28, cp. Job 1. 12.
We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one, v. 19. The second vital piece of knowledge is personal. Throughout the letter John has supplied a whole series of tests of genuineness. If the true features of the family of God, i.e., obedience, love, and perseverance, are in evidence, believers can have assurance that they are ‘of God’ – He is the Source of their life. While the wicked one (the devil) cannot gain so much as a hold on the believer, v. 18, he has no such difficulty with the world, for it lies utterly helpless in his embrace. The world’s freedom is a total illusion, the cruel deception of a tyrant. Once again, the line of separation between the children of God and those of the devil is crystal clear.
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, v. 20. This verse highlights the dignity and greatness of the One who came – the Son of God. He has come in the flesh, a reference to the incarnation and its ongoing, 4. 2, and ‘through water and blood’, 5. 6. One of His many gifts to us is ‘understanding’ – a faculty of spiritual understanding or perception, just as we have an anointing, 2. 27. Thus blessed, we need not worry about missing out on the claimed ‘insights’ of false teachers such as the Gnostics.
That we may know Him who is true. We could have no knowledge of God, were it not for the revelation that Christ has brought us, John 1. 18.
We are in Him who is true (the Father), in His Son Jesus Christ. This marks a new statement emphasizing our knowledge of the true God and His Son in contrast to the idols that John is about to warn against. To abide in the Father is to abide in the Son. Sophisticated teachers might claim to have arrived at some special relationship with the Father, but if it involved denial of the Son’s permanent entry into humanity, or His sacrificial death, they and their claims were thereby exposed as false. By contrast, in response to love expressed in obedience, both Father and Son will come to dwell with the believer, John 14. 23.
This is the true God and eternal life. The letter opened with life eternal embodied in the eternal Son. Now it closes with a most important statement of the deity of Christ. What God is, He is.22
Little children, keep yourselves from idols, v. 21.
John’s final loving appeal to his ‘little children’ is ‘guard yourselves from (the) idols’. The Son of God will keep them from the wicked one, v. 18, but here is the other side of the coin – they must guard themselves from idols. The letter is full of contrasts,23 and here is the final and most vital one, the living and eternal God, fully disclosed in His incarnate Son, contrasted with all false concepts of God. John’s readers would hardly need warning against material images of false gods and goddesses, though no doubt these abounded at Ephesus; more likely he has in mind the false ideas and heretical concepts of God which were being promoted to the saints to whom he wrote, and which he has been at pains to expose.
In our day we must remain faithful to the unique and awe-inspiring revelation of God in Christ, irrespective of the cost and pressure from pluralism and secularism. On a personal level, we must be on our guard against anything and everything that rivals God for our heart’s affection, and ruthlessly dethrone it. We must also recognize that God is supremely glorious, and if we dare to reconstruct for ourselves a comfortable, comprehensible ‘God’ according to our limited understanding of Him, that too is to misrepresent His Person, in fact an idol of our own feeble creation, ct. Matt. 11. 27.
- The final reference to ‘love’ occurs in verse 3, whereas ‘believe’ occurs only 3 times in the rest of the letter, 3. 23; 4. 1, 16, but 6 times in verses 1-13. It occurs 98 times in John’s Gospel; the noun ‘faith’ occurs only in 5. 4, and never in the Gospel. The dominance of the verb over the noun form suggests that John is much more concerned about the vital activity of believing on the Son of God, than in ‘faith’ considered as an abstract matter.
- See notes in Introduction, Section 4, ‘Occasion and Purpose’
- A. Plummer: ‘To believe that Jesus is the Christ is to believe that One who was known as a man fulfilled a known and Divine commission; that He who was born and was crucified is the Anointed, the Messiah of Israel, the Saviour of the world. To believe this is to accept both the Old and New Testaments; it is to believe that Jesus is that He claimed to be, One who is equal with the Father, and as such demands of every believer the absolute surrender of self to Him’.
- If this is no longer true in experience, it could indicate that we have allowed our love to grow cold, or perhaps unconfessed sin has robbed us of the enjoyment of fellowship with the Lord, cp. 1 John 2. 1, 2.
- See, in turn, (1) the seductiveness of the world, 2. 15-17; (2) the demonic origin of the world, 3. 10-13.
- The term overcomer (or ‘conqueror’) is frequent in John’s writings. Christ Himself is the supreme Overcomer, John 16. 33, Rev. 5. 5. In Revelation chapters 2 and 3 there are several references to the ‘overcomer’ in the messages to the churches, 2. 7, 11, 17, 26; 3. 5, 12, 21. The question is often posed, ‘Is every true believer an “overcomer”?’ The simple answer is yes. Note carefully the contrast between the believer and the lost, ‘He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death’, Rev. 21. 7-8. So in this sense, believers by definition are overcomers; deliverance from eternal doom is not secured by our works. That said, however, it is also true that the world is to be overcome on a daily basis, and here there will be differences in consistency and attainment, but the believer persists, on the basis of his faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
- This is not to say that a believer cannot be beset by sin, Rom. 7. 21; Heb. 12. 1. It does however mean that he can never be complacent towards sin, or comfortable in its practice.
- For various interpretations, see J. R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, pp. 179-181.
- There is here a change of Greek preposition from dia to en = ‘in’. En marks ‘the element or sphere in which the thing is done’, A. Plummer. See also, ‘He shall come into the holy place in a young bullock’ (i.e., with one), Lev. 16. 3 LXX; ‘in blood not his own’, Heb. 9. 25. The Lord’s baptism in water is thus closely tied to the baptism of blood at Calvary.
- J. N. Darby New Translation footnote: ‘To avoid any mistake, I add, in a note, what I have omitted in the text as having , as is well known, no real manuscript authority, [in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth,] and inserted by some here without adequate warrant’. The words are found in only a few very late manuscripts, none earlier than the 14th century. For a concise account of the evidence see F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John, pp. 129, 130; B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pp. 715-717.
- To ‘believe on’ is a favourite expression of John’s, both in the Gospel (34 times) and this letter. It means far more than accepting that facts are true. It means ‘moving towards and resting on’; it is to depend on, rely on, commit oneself unreservedly to, the Lord Jesus. It is the essence of salvation.
- A. Plummer aptly comments, ‘Those who possess Him know that He is the Son of God; those who do not, need to be reminded whose Son it is that they reject’.
- It is interesting to note that structurally chapter 21 serves the same ‘epilogue’ function in John’s Gospel, which also has a ‘Prologue’, 1. 1-18. There are other points of structural similarity between the Gospel and this Letter. For example, some have observed that Christ’s testimony in the world, John 1-12 corresponds to ‘God is light’; His ministry to believers, John 13-17, and His passion and resurrection, John 18-20, declare that ‘God is love’.
- There is considerable Greek manuscript variation in the remainder of verse 13 and it is most likely that the words ‘and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God’ are to be omitted, see NKJV margin, ESV. For further discussion see B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.
- ‘Constantly we hear God addressed as “the hearer and answerer of prayer”, a mere useless and vulgar pleonasm [unnecessary word], for the Scripture idea of God’s hearing prayer is just his answering it – “O thou that hearest prayer unto thee shall all flesh come”’, C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to my Students, quoted in F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John, pp. 123, 124.
- See helpful discussions in F. F. Bruce, D. Jackman, and J. R. W. Stott.
- Instances where physical death was inflicted in the early church as punishment for conspicuous sins, Acts 5. 1-11; 1 Cor. 5. 5; 11. 30, do not form convincing parallels to our text.
- Interpreters hence draw attention to a state of sinning rather than an isolated sinful action.
- One might wonder at this statement, following immediately on the case of a brother sinning, vv. 16, 17. The latter refers to a possible but exceptional situation, cp. 2. 1, 2; on the other hand, the statement of verse 18 denotes the habitual practice of sin.
- There is a difference here in the term ‘born of God’. The Greek uses the aorist participle (gennetheis), which expresses a once-for-all fact. ‘It refers to the One who was always born of God, outside of time, and who is therefore the eternal Son’, D. Jackman.
- The reading ‘him’ ESV, NKJV margin is to be preferred to ‘himself’ NKJV, on the basis of manuscript authority, and supports the interpretation adopted. Cp. NEB, ‘it is the Son of God who keeps him safe’.
- That the ‘True God’ here has reference to Christ is suggested by (1) Christ is the last mentioned subject (2) The Father has already been called the ‘True One’ twice in the previous verse (3) Christ is referred to as the ‘Life’ both in John’s Gospel and in this Letter.
- For example, light and darkness, love and hatred; God and the world, truth and error.