The Apostle John’s First Letter Part 6

Verse by Verse Comments on 1 John

Combining the Three Tests (5:1-5)

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Loving God and Loving Your Fellow Christians

John shows the close connection between right belief, obedient righteousness, and love. The true Christian, born from above, believes in the Son of God, loves God and the children of God, keeps the commands of God, and overcomes the world (5:1-5). God puts righteousness, love, and right belief together. We should never try to separate them. These are true marks of being born of God. The new birth brings us into a new relationship with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, with the Father, with the church, and with the world.

Therefore, “birth from above” is the true link between the answers to the three self-examination questions. Right belief, love, and obedience are all outcomes consistent with “birth from above.” Faith and love are evidence (4:13-16) of the mutual indwelling of God and His people. The tenses of the Greek verbs for born and believe (5:1) indicate that believing is the consequence, not the cause, of new birth. Our present continuing activity of believing is the result of our past experience of new birth by which we became God’s children. 

The 3 Witnesses (5:6-12)

“This is the one who came by water and blood– Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. 9 We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Verses 5:1-5 begin and end with reference to faith – i.e., to believe that Jesus is Christ come in the flesh. The foundation of faith is the inner work of the Holy Spirit plus hearing external testimony. Paul speaks of this in Romans 10:8-17. In verses 5:6-12 John focuses on specific testimony. He first describes the nature of the testimony and then the result of believing that testimony. Jesus has been previously identified as “the Christ” (5:1) and “the Son of God” (5:5).  His identity is now further linked to his earthly mission (5:6).  

Witness of the Water and the Blood

He came by water and blood. This phrase was apparently well known to John and his first readers, but not to us. Several interpretations have been proposed. The most likely begins with recognizing that John wrote this letter in the midst of the turmoil of a form of Gnostic heresy. The Gnostics claimed that the “Christ spirit” was united with Jesus at his baptism and left him before he died on the cross. John says NO! Jesus was always (and still is) the Christ. He was Christ before his baptism, during it and forever after. He was Christ when he died on the cross. Water signifies his baptism (this the Gnostics agreed with) and blood signifies his death (the Gnostics denied that the Christ died on the cross). 

Witness of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit testifies that Jesus is the Christ. John stresses the unity of Christ’s earthly life. Not only the testimony from the Spirit, but also that of the water, and the blood all agree. Even human evidence is accepted when it comes from two or three independent witnesses. God testified to His Son in history (in the water and the blood), and to this day God through His Spirit testifies to Him in the hearts of believers. The initial purpose of testimony is to evoke faith, but belief brings deeper assurance and the believer “has this testimony in his heart,” not only in his mind.  

Belief is a stepping-stone between God’s initial testimony and His subsequent testimony.  The unbeliever (who has refused to believe the initial testimony) forfeits deeper testimony from God because he has rejected the first testimony. In so doing the unbeliever “has made Him out to be a liar.”  Unbelief in the face of God’s testimony is not only a misfortune to be pitied, but a sin to be deplored. The way to life is trust in God and His testimony!

The Blessing of Belief

 In 5:11-12 John summarizes the blessing given when we respond to God’s testimony. “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Why the Letter is Written

“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Here in John’s own words is his reason for writing the letter.

Confidence in Prayer (5:14-17)

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us– whatever we ask– we know that we have what we asked of him. 16If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.”

John assures believers they may boldly approach God knowing He hears – but there is a qualification – He hears that which we ask, “according to His will.”  This means that what we ask should not be in opposition to the commands of God or His revealed character – these factors apply to all believers. Then, there is a specific will for each person. God usually reveals to a person only that portion of His specific will that is needed to carry out present duties. We are to trust God for that which is unknown.

We pray “never-the-less, not my will but thy will be done.” Prayer is not a convenient device to impose our will on God, or for bending His will to our will. We are to desire that His will be done on earth perfectly, just as it is done in heaven. Prayer is the God-given way of subordinating our will to His. By prayer we seek God’s will, embrace it, and align ourselves with it. That is not to say God does not welcome our petitions. He does, but His will, not ours is the focus. God hears such prayers with favor. In this way, to say “we know that He hears us” is the same as saying “we know that we have what we ask of Him.”  Our proper petitions are granted at once; yet the result may not appear until later.  

John gives a specific illustration of an answered prayer of intercession and includes a cautionary limitation (5:16-17). Our assurance of eternal life must not lead us into preoccupation with self to the point that we neglect others. We are not to ask, “am I my brother’s keeper” and then do nothing. When we see a brother commit a sin, we are to pray for him. God hears such prayers and will give the sinner life. But not every sinner can be given life in answer to intercessory prayer. For those who commit “a sin that does not lead to death”, John says pray and by prayer God will give life to the sinner. For those who commit “a sin that leads to death,” John does not say pray, nor does he explicitly forbid prayer, but he clearly doubts the efficacy of prayer in such cases. No doubt John’s first readers were familiar with the expression, “a sin that leads to death,” and knew exactly what John meant. Unfortunately, the clear meaning is lost to us and several possible meanings have been proposed.  

In one sense all sin “leads to death” for death is the penalty for sin (Romans 5:12, 6:23; James 1:15). Some suggested meanings for the phrase “sin that leads to death” include certain specific sins (e.g., the 7 deadly sins of Catholic doctrine), a continuing state or habit of sin willfully chosen and persisted in, or apostasy. These suggestions all seem inadequate.  

It appears neither the persons referred to in the “sin that leads to death” nor “a sin that does not lead to death” are true believers. That person whose sin leads to death is clearly not born of God (John has repeatedly said that one born of God has eternal life and will not persist in habitual sin). In verse 5:16 John says the person whose sin does not lead to death will be given life through intercessory prayer. Although their sin does not lead to the second spiritual death of total separation from God (Revelation 20:15, 21:18), yet that person is spiritually dead in their sins and must be given life by God (1John 5:16). If this person were already born of God, he would have already passed from death to life. Thus, both types are “dead in transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). The difference is that one may receive life, but the other will ultimately die the second death.

Calling a person whose sin leads to death a “brother” is a more general meaning of brother than in the phrase “brother in Christ.” The most likely meaning of the “sin that leads to death” would seem to be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This sin is a deliberate, open-eyed rejection of known truth. The Pharisees ascribed to Beelzebub the mighty works of Jesus (which by the evidence available were clearly done by the “Spirit of God” – Matthew 12:28. Such sin, Jesus said, would never be forgiven either in this age or the age to come. One who commits such sin “is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29, Matthew 12:22-32). Such sin leads inexorably into a state of incorrigible moral and spiritual obtuseness. Of such a person, John has said, they have “loved darkness instead of light” (John 3:18-21).  Such sin leads to death, spiritual ruin, including final separation of the soul from God.

“All wrongdoing is sin.” The revealed will of God provides an objective moral standard that we are to live by. In distinguishing between sin that leads to death and that which does not, John in no way intends to minimize the gravity of any sin in the eyes of Holy God. All wrongdoing is sin – all sin is bad news for the one who sins – God cannot be mocked – we reap what we sow – but God has provided a way for us to be pardoned from the eternal consequences of our sin – for His Son, Jesus Christ has borne the penalty for our sin.  

Conclusion (5:18-21)

“We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true– even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”

Throughout this letter, the Apostle has been concerned with the true basis for Christian assurance. He identifies three crucial areas of concern – (1.) righteous behavior (obedience), (2.) love (right relationships), and (3.) right belief (truth). Progress in these areas is evidence of being born of God, of being a true Christian. When we miss the mark and sin, we are to confess, repent, and be forgiven and cleansed.

The letter closes with three assertions and a final admonition. These are bold, dogmatic Christian statements that summarize the truths he has been discussing. In 5:18a, he reminds us (1.) “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin.” Being born of God produces lasting results. Satan is strong and subtle, maliciously active – but, the Son of God came to destroy the devil’s work (3:8). In 5:19a we see that (2.) “We know that we are children of God.”  Having been born of God, God remains the source of our spiritual life and being. In 5:19b in dreadful contrast “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” Every person is either born of God or remains under the control of the evil one.  

Verse 5:20 tells (3.) “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.  And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ.  He is the true God and eternal life.” The mediation of Christ is necessary both for knowledge of God and communion with him.

The Son of God has come into the world in the form of a man, come in the flesh! He reveals the Father. Through Him alone can we be rescued from the evil one and be delivered from the world. Both revelation and redemption are His gracious work. Without Christ we could neither know God nor overcome sin. He has come and given us understanding that we may know Him who is true (utterly real). Unlike the world which is “under the control of the evil one”, we are “in God” – “of God” – and have received spiritual life and being from Him. We cannot be “in the Father” without being “in the Son” (2:22-23).

In 5:21 John says, “Dear children, keep (guard) yourselves from idols.”  Knowledge of and communion with the one true God is inconsistent and incongruent with being devoted to idols.  False teachers fashion false mental pictures of the Son (and hence of the Father). All God-substitutes, all alternatives to the one true God (as revealed in Jesus Christ) are idols. Devotion to idols (that are unreal and dead) is not compatible with that saving knowledge of the true God that is eternal life (John 17:3).  

The life of one who has been born of God (who is light and love) is incompatible with habitual sin, hate, and false belief. John says we should examine ourselves, correct what needs correcting, rejoice in what God has done and is doing for us, and live like one “begotten of God” – for that is just exactly who we are!

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