7. God's Testimony Regarding Jesus (1 John 5:1-21)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (43:58)

Simon Ushakov, St. John the Theologian (1673)
Simon Ushakov, "St. John the Theologian" (1673), Sergiev Posad State History and Art Museum-Reserve, Moscow.

We live in a day in which orthodox Christian doctrine is considered narrow and inflexible. People feel that any sort of opinion about Christ is okay. In today's lesson, the Apostle John contends strongly for an accurate belief about Jesus, the Son of God. As we've seen in the Introduction and earlier lessons, John's opponents in Ephesus had downgraded Jesus to the role of a pious man who was neither the Christ nor the Son of God.

The history of Christianity instructs us that what a person believes about Christology, who Jesus is, will affect every other part of his life, including his righteousness, his love, his sin, and his lifestyle.

Loving and Obeying (5:1-3)

In his typical manner, John has discussed these themes earlier in the letter, but now doubles back again to summarize before he breaks new ground:

"1 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." (5:1-3)

Here, John affirms several points he has made earlier:

  1. Belief in Jesus as the Christ is characteristic of those who have the Holy Spirit (are "born of God"), in contrast to John's opponents.
  2. Only those who love the Christian brothers and sisters ("love his child" -- literally, "the ones who have been begotten") have genuine love for the Parent (literally, "the One who begat").
  3. Christian discipleship requires obeying the command to love one another ("carrying out his commands").

His Commands Are Not Burdensome (5:3b)

We have seen all this before, but in the last part of verse 3, John distinguishes between obeying in love and the legalism that characterized Judaism in Jesus'day:

"And his commands are not burdensome." (5:3b)

"Burdensome" (NIV, NRSV), "grievous" (KJV) is barys, "heavy," here used figuratively, "pertaining to being a source of difficulty or trouble because of demands made."1Verse 5b is an echo of Jesus'own teaching. The rabbis of the Pharisees laid a "yoke"2of teaching on their disciples that required minute observance of hundreds of laws.

Jesus: "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them." (Luke 11:46)

Peter to the Judaizers: "Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10)

Paul to a church influenced by the Judaizers: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1)

But Jesus'"yoke" was different.

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

Jesus was not lawless, like John's opponents in Ephesus. But the "yoke" he imposed on his followers was summed up in two commandments -- love God and love one another -- to be lived out with utmost seriousness (Matthew 22:35-40). The alternative of lawlessness is not legalism, but love lived out consistently in one's life. Lived this way, love fulfills the Law, for love is the spirit of the Law (Galatians 5:14; Romans 13:10).

Overcoming the World (5:4-5)

Now John braids in a strand that he had touched on twice before -- overcoming:

"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." (5:4-5)

"Overcomes" (NIV, KJV), "conquers" (NRSV) is nikaō, which we saw in 2:13-14 ("you have overcome the evil one") and 4:4 (you have "overcome them"). It means "to overcome someone, vanquish."3The noun "victory" is nikē. Here it is used as abstract for the concrete, "the means for winning a victory."4(In Greek mythology, Nike is the goddess of victory -- and the source of the brand name for the famous sneakers.)

Sadly, Christians often have a defeatist mentality. We are often passive in the face of evil and evil men. John, no doubt, recalls his Master's words:

"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33b)

We have victory, John is saying, because our Master has taken on the world and won. Maintaining this victory over the dominant culture in our own day requires (1) an understanding of Jesus'victory over sin, the world, and the devil, and (2) our faith, that is, our willingness to stand in this truth in our day and live by it. Even though the call of the world rings in our ears, the voice of Jesus is louder still.

In the Book of Revelation, an angel chronicles the victory of the martyrs on earth:

"They overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death." (Revelation 12:11)

We are called to gird ourselves with the armor and armament of God and then stand our ground in faith and expectation of victory (Ephesians 6:10-18). When you read the end of the Book you find that we win! Hallelujah!

Q1. (1 John 5:4-5) How does a defeatist mentality differ from a belief that in Christ we have overcome the world? What part does faith have in this overcoming? What part does unbelief have in a defeatist mentality?




The Testimony of the Spirit, Water, and Blood (5:6-8)

The next verses about water and Spirit and blood aren't easy for us to understand. They're obviously symbolic and are intended to be a powerful antidote to the false teachers. But what do they mean?

"6 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."(5:5-8)

First, the key words are the verb "testify/testifies" (NIV, NRSV), "bear witness, bear record" (KJV) and the related noun, "testimony/witness."5The verb is martyreō, "to confirm or attest something on the basis of personal knowledge or belief, bear witness, be a witness."6John wants his readers to know the "evidence" that Jesus of Nazareth is both Christ and Son of God in his flesh. The three witnesses combine to give a unanimous testimony -- Spirit, water, and blood. They are "in agreement" (NIV), literally, "are one" (NRSV, KJV).

An Addition to the Greek Text (5:6-8)

Before we examine each of these witnesses, it's important to read verses 7-8 in the KJV. They are different from modern translations:

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

The words between the brackets are not found in the most ancient Greek manuscripts. Bruce Metzger states:

"The passage is absent from every known Greek manuscript except four, and these contain the passage in what appears to be a translation from a late recension of the Latin Vulgate."7

Erasmus, who compiled and published the first Greek text of the New Testament (1615), adjusted the text in many places to correspond with readings found in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. The resulting Textus Receptus, which formed the Greek language basis for the King James translation for 1 John 5:7-8, contained the spurious words. Metzger explains:

"Apparently the gloss arose when the original passage was understood to symbolize the Trinity (through the mention of the three witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood), an interpretation which may have been written first as a marginal note that afterwards found its way into the text."8

However, the absence of the passage in the earliest Greek manuscripts does nothing to undermine the firm New Testament teaching about the Trinity.9

What Do Water and Blood Represent?

Now that we've established the meaning of "testify/witness" and determined the most accurate text, the task remains to figure out what John meant by the water and the blood.

"6 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."(5:6-8, NIV)

There have been three main interpretations of the meaning of "water and blood":

  1. Sacraments: water = baptism, blood = Lord's Supper.
  2. Crucifixion. Water and blood refer to what flowed from Jesus'side when a spear was thrust into him after his death (John 19:34-35).
  3. Historical experiences that Jesus had passed through: water = Jesus'baptism, blood = Jesus'crucifixion.

To study scholarly comments on these arguments, see the commentaries.10However, the third explanation makes sense to me based on the particular Christological heresy that John was facing. His opponents, such as Cerinthus (as discussed in the Introduction), believed that the divine Christ came upon the human Jesus at his baptism, but departed from him before the cross. With this in mind, John's explanation in verse 6b makes lots of sense:

"Jesus Christ ... did not come by water only, but by water and blood." (5:6b)

In other words, Jesus Christ (his divine title) came not only through water (baptism), as the heretics would acknowledge, but also through blood (crucifixion), which the heretics would not acknowledge.

How Do the Three Witnesses Testify?

Jesus'baptism testifies to his full divinity in at least three ways:

  • John the Baptist sees and testifies to the fact that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus in bodily form.
  • God's voice is heard: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."
  • John the Baptist, as a prophet of God, testifies that Jesus is both "Son of God," who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33-34) and "Lamb of God," who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36).

Jesus'crucifixion and its surrounding events testify to his full divinity in several ways, as well:

  • Jesus acknowledged that he was Christ, the Son of God before the chief priests at his trial (Mark 14:61-62).
  • Jesus'claimed his kingship before Pilate (John 18:36-37).
  • Jesus is crucified for claiming to be the Son of God (John 19:7).
  • The inscription over Jesus'cross is, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" (John 19:19), reflecting Jesus'claim to be king, that is, "Messiah" or "Christ."
  • Many scriptures were fulfilled at Jesus'crucifixion (John 19:36).
  • The Roman centurion, who witnessed his crucifixion, saw the darkness over the land, and felt the earthquake that took place at his death, testified: "Surely this man was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39).
  • Jesus'resurrection is God's clear seal of authenticity that Jesus is his Risen Son.

The Witness of the Heart (5:9-10)

While water and blood both represent external, objective witnesses to the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit (mentioned as the third witness in verse 8) is seen as a subjective internal witness to his divinity (in verses 9-10).

"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." (5:9-10)

When it comes to evaluating testimony, Jewish jurisprudence required the presence of two or three witnesses to establish a fact in court (Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 10:28). That is why John's argument about the adequacy of the witness to Jesus'divinity is compelling, since God confirmed it with events as well as with his own voice: "God's testimony is greater" (5:9).

What does John mean when he says: "Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart" (5:10a)? The apostle seems to be referring to an interior witness of the Holy Spirit, who, in First John, is the source of being born of God, God's seed, the anointing, and the "one who is in you," who is greater than the devil.11

Paul, too, refers to this inner testimony of the Spirit, who gives assurance and connects us to the Father:

"For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.'The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children." (Romans 8:15-16)

Life Is in the Son (5:11-12)

John writes in the next few verses to bolster the sometimes lagging assurance of believers in the face of the lies the false teachers have been spreading:

"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." (5:11-12)

In the previous verses, John has used the word "testimony" six times. Now when John says, "This is the testimony" (NIV, NRSV) or "record" (KJV), he is summarizing. Here's the gist of it all. Here it is in a nutshell.

  1. "God has given us eternal life" (5:11a). "Has given" is in the Aorist tense, speaking of a gift given at a particular point in time in history. "Eternal" is aiōnios, "pertaining to a period of unending duration, without end,"12life without end! To live longer has been the quest of man since the beginning of time. The rich young ruler fell at Jesus'feet with the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17). This is the prize, the promise of Jesus. Point One: God has given eternal life to us. So far, the heretics would agree.
  2. "This life is in his Son" (5:11b). The preposition is en here is a "marker of close association within a limit, 'in'... under the control of, under the influence of, in close association with."13The eternal life cannot be separated from the Son. It resides in him personally -- not in a body of doctrine or in a church. No denomination has an exclusive franchise on Jesus. Churches may point men and women to Christ -- in fact, they must -- but the actual life is found in association with him and with him alone.

    Eternal life is not some kind of irrevocable life insurance policy issued at conversion that can be presented to St. Peter upon arrival at the "pearly gates." It is a living relationship. The life can't be separated from the Son. Life is bound up in the faith relationship between you and the Son -- a relationship based on God's amazing grace.

    At this point, the heretics were out. They believed in Jesus as a pious man, not as the divine Son of God. John is, on the one hand, reassuring the true believers, and on the other, drawing a line between true faith and the false teaching that had divided the church. Point 2: Eternal life is found in Jesus the Son, and in him only.
  3. "He who has the Son has life" (5:12). "Has" is the present participle of the very common verb echō, "have, possess." Here it means, "to stand in a close relationship to someone, have, have as." The word is sometimes used of intimate relationships, such as of having a father, a wife, children.14We see a similar usage in the Bible only in John's letters:

    "Whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also." (2:23)

    "Anyone who ... does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son." (2 John 9)

    To "have" the Son means to enjoy living, personal fellowship with him, to be able to reach him in prayer, to share his blessings, to receive his forgiveness, to experience his eternal grace.15 Conversely, not to "have" the Son of God means you don't have eternal life and are missing out on all his blessings.

The purpose of John's statement is not to make the true believer agonize over whether or not he "has" the Son, but to give assurance. However, dear reader, I ask you this question: Do you 'have'the Son? Do you believe in him, put your trust in him, enjoy fellowship with him? If so, praise God! But if you're not sure, right now, where you are, bow your head, confess your sins to him, promise to be his disciple, and put your faith in him. Do that! Then receive him by faith. For in him is bound up your eternal destiny, your eternal life.

One way to express the concept of "life in the Son" to a person with whom you are sharing Christ is to take a piece of currency and place it in a book with the end sticking out just a bit. Ask the other person to take the bill. If he tries to pull the bill out of the book, grip the book more tightly so he can't. Explain that to get the bill, he must take the book, since the bill is in the book. It's perhaps a crude analogy to "the life is in the Son," but it may help "the lights go on" for someone.

John Stott sees three important truths in these verses:

  1. Eternal life is not a prize to be earned, but an undeserved gift.
  2. Eternal life is found in Christ.
  3. This gift of life in Christ is a present possession to be enjoyed now.16

Assurance of Eternal Life (5:13)

John is now summarizing, moving to conclude the letter.

"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." (5:13)

The purpose of this letter is not only to clarify and refute the opponents who have spread false teaching. It is also to encourage the believers who may have been shaken by the turmoil in their congregation, so that they might "know" assuredly that they have eternal life. This verse sounds much like the purpose statement at the conclusion of John's Gospel:

"But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:31)

A certain brand of Christianity denies that a person can have any real assurance or confidence that he or she will go to heaven. "Only God knows," intone the skeptics. But this verse clearly states that a believer can and should have assurance of salvation and eternal life. It tells us that a person can have such a witness or testimony in his or her heart (5:10). If you've been in doubt, take hold of verse 13, memorize it, and make it your own, "so that you may know that you have eternal life" (5:13).

Q2. (1 John 5:11-12) What is the difference between saying "this life is in the Christian Church" and "this life is in his Son"? What should we be doing differently so that we teach a faith relationship rather than a religion? What is the difference between "faith" and "faith in Jesus"?




Assurance of Answered Prayer (5:14-15)

One of the blessings of having a relationship with the Father and Son is answered prayer:

"14 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." (5:14-15)

We've seen the word "confidence" (NIV, KJV) or "boldness" (NRSV) several times before, since this word characterizes the kind of assurance John wants us to have before God (2:28; 3:21; 4:17). The word is also seen in Hebrews in the context of coming before God:

"Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 4:16, NRSV)

Why should we come with such confidence? Because we know that he'll hear and grant our requests. But notice that God answering our prayers is conditional:

"If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." (5:14b)

How do we know what God's will is? The Scriptures are full of indications of what he is in favor of and what he isn't. So when his will is clear in Scripture, we can be confident of an answer. If it's not, then we seek his will prayerfully and pray as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane:

"Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." (Luke 22:42)

There are two conditions to prayer given in 1 John:

  1. Our obedience (3:22)
  2. God's will (5:14)

Prayer is never intended to cajole God into giving in to our desires. Rather, prayer is about seeking him and his will with the intent of seeing his will come to pass in our lives. That doesn't mean that we have to always pray tentatively. When we believe we know God's will, then bring it boldly before God as did the saints in the Bible.17It is wrong to pray:

Father, I know that Hitler is doing some questionable things. But it may be your will for him to rule Germany and kill the Jews. I just don't know how to pray. Amen.

Find the will of God and then pray it boldly before the Father.

Q3. (1 John 5:14-15) What are the two conditions to answered prayer in 1 John? (See also 3:22.) How do we determine God's will so that we can pray boldly, confidently? How often will our prayers be answered when our main motive is to achieve our will?




Prayer to Restore Sinners (5:16)

Now, John encourages Christians to boldly pray for Christian brothers and sisters whom they see sinning, so that God might restore them. The initial idea of verse 16 is simple -- when you leave out the conditional clause:

"If anyone sees his brother commit a sin18... he should pray and God will give him life." (5:16)

Basically, the word "brother" would indicate a fellow Christian and the phrase "give him life," would mean that God would restore the sinning brother to the path of eternal life. This verse parallels others in the New Testament:

"My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins." (James 5:19-20)

"Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore19him gently." (Galatians 6:1)

The New Testament writers urge us to pray powerful prayers of intercession for our sinning brothers and sisters, asking that God might graciously "grant" them repentance (2 Timothy 2:25), and bring them back into full fellowship with God and his family, the church,

"... that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will." (2 Timothy 2:26)

So far, the idea is pretty clear.

A Sin that Leads to Death (5:16-17)

What makes the issue muddy is John's introduction of a sin we are not to pray for:

"16 If 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." (5:16-17)

John is clearly saying: You have no obligation to pray about certain serious sins. Rather, leave in God's hands those who commit such sins.

The question, of course, is: What is this sin we're not to pray for? The text calls it a "sin that leads to death" (NIV) or, literally, "a sin unto20death" (KJV). Brown translates it as "deadly." The translation "mortal sin" (NRSV) gets us off onto a wrong track, since it uses a Roman Catholic technical term, "mortal sin." But in church history, a distinction between "mortal" and "venial" sins didn't develop until centuries later.21

This is a notoriously difficult verse to interpret with any confidence. It's easy to spend a lot of time speculating and theorizing, while coming no closer to an assured answer. Nevertheless, let's look at the issues briefly.

The context of "eternal life" (5:13) seems to require spiritual life and death, rather than death as a physical punishment.22

The Old Testament and Judaism distinguished between (1) unintentional, unwitting sins, sins of ignorance that could be forgiven, and (2) blatant, defiant sins that could not be atoned for. For example:

"If just one person sins unintentionally, he must bring a year-old female goat for a sin offering. The priest is to make atonement before the LORD.... But anyone who sins defiantly,23whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORD's word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off;24his guilt remains on him." (Numbers 15:27-31)

If this is the distinction John is making, then in 1 John "he is most concerned about the sins which are incompatible with being a child of God." Such as sin would be the refusal to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This sin above all others leads to eternal death, because "it includes a deliberate refusal to believe in the One who alone can give life."25This is in sharp contrast to the Christian brother or sister who is tempted and sins out of weakness, but longs to be freed from sin and still believes in Jesus Christ. Yes, the sin may have been deliberate at the time, but the sinner shows remorse and repentance. Praise God, there is forgiveness for our sins!

Is the "sin unto death" the same as the "unforgiveable sin" of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? (Matthew 12:31). Yes, I believe so. The Pharisees, even in the face of miracles, attributed Jesus'miracles to the devil. They absolutely and steadfastly refused to believe in Jesus. They "blasphemed defiantly" and so could not be saved because they persisted in their unbelief.

My dear Christian friend: If you grieve because you believe you may have committed the unforgiveable sin, I can assure you that you haven't. If you had, you would be defiant in your sin, not heartbroken. Don't let the devil trick you! Jesus can and will forgive your sins of weakness!

In the context of 1 John, it seems clear to me that the sin that leads to death is the brazen and steadfast denial by John's opponents that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. From that denial flowed both their lovelessness and their lawlessness with regard to sin.

While this is my own conclusion after looking at the evidence, it doesn't answer all the questions and difficulties raised by scholars. For example:

Was the person who sinned unto death once a Christian? This is a theological objection, not one raised by the text. John told us:

"They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us." (1 John 2:19)

Were they apostates who were once Christians, but who had turned from Christ? Stott says, "In John's view they were not apostates; they were counterfeits." But this objection need not get in the way. John's point in the passage is that we are to pray for a Christian brother whom we see in sin. The situation of the opponents'stubborn antichrist position is an afterthought. John is saying: Pray for a brother who sins -- oh, but that doesn't mean you should pray for the heretics who seemed to be brothers but who have left the church.

Can a true Christian lose his salvation? It's a great question, but far beyond the scope of this study, and not really the central issue here. I know this is a cop-out, but I need to stay on track.

Why shouldn't we pray for a person who sins unto death? Frankly, I don't know. Perhaps because we tend to be always hopeful of repentance, though there comes a time to "shake the dust off our feet" and move on (Mark 6:11; also Jeremiah 14:11). On a couple of occasions, the Holy Spirit has led me to stop praying for a person. I find that hard. Nevertheless, I must obey and leave them in God's merciful hands. If you look carefully, however, verse 16b doesn't command us to stop praying for a person who has sinned unto death, only that John is not commanding us to pray for that person.

Why should we pray for a sinning brother? Just because a person's sin isn't "unto death" doesn't mean we shouldn't pray for him. It is possible, of course, for a true Christian to stray from the path. We are to pray that God will bring him back. When we see our brothers and sisters in any kind of unrighteousness, it is a serious matter. We should pray because we seek their best -- life with an eternal quality. We pray for our brothers and sisters to be walking in the light and in full fellowship with God.

All Unrighteousness Is Sin (5:17)

John concludes this short section on prayer with a reminder that, though there is such a thing as a sin that leads to death, all sin is serious:

"All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death." (5:17)

"Wrongdoing" (NIV, NRSV), "unrighteousness" (KJV) is adikia, "an act that violates standards of right conduct, wrongdoing," then "the quality of injustice, unrighteousness, wickedness."26Earlier, John had defined sin in terms of "lawlessness" (3:4), an attitude of rebellion towards God. But sin isn't just an attitude. The attitude works itself out in acts that are wrong, unjust, and unrighteous.

You may not have meant to sin (you tell yourself), but that doesn't mean that you didn't commit a sin, that is, do an unrighteous deed. It's clear in the Old Testament that one could sin unwittingly, but it was still sin. In jurisprudence, there's a saying: "Ignorance of the law is no excuse." Paul wrote:

"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23)

Three Things We Know (5:18-20)

John is now summarizing as he winds up the letter. He prefaces his assertions with three "We know" statements:

"18 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." (5:18-20)

We discussed, "anyone born of God does not continue to sin," in Lesson 4 at 3:9. Stott comments:

"The new birth results in new behavior. Sin and the child of God are incompatible. They may occasionally meet; they cannot live together in harmony."27

God Keeps Us Safe (5:18b)

The latter part of verse 18 adds something we haven't seen before:

"The one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him." (5:18b).

If we take the translation as "him" (NIV, NRSV), rather than "himself" (KJV),28then "the one who was born of God" is Christ, rather than a believer, a switch from the first part of the verse.

"Keep safe" (NIV), "protects" (NRSV), "keepeth" (KJV) is tēreō. The word originally applied to prison guards, "to retain in custody, keep watch over, guard." Later, a figurative use developed, "'keep," etc., "unharmed or undisturbed."29"Harm" (NIV), "touch" (NRSV, KJV) is haptō, "touch," then "to make contact with a view to causing harm, touch for the purpose of harming, injure."30

Jesus protected his sheep so that "no one can snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:28). In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prays for his followers, "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one" (John 17:15). He taught his disciples to pray: "Deliver us from the evil one" (Matthew 6:13). Paul assured the Thessalonians, "The Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one" (2 Thessalonians 3:3). He is the one "who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy" (Jude 24).

John affirms in verse 19:

"We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of31the evil one." (5:19)

Despite the pervasiveness of the enemy's influence, we have a clear understanding of our identity as God's children. And we are safe: Christ's keeping power is active all around us.

Knowing the True God (5:20)

John concludes with an assurance that his readers are on the right track,

"We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.32And we are in him who is true -- even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life." (5:20)

Three times John affirms that the heretics are wrong. They have devalued Jesus into being merely a righteous man. But he is more -- much more. John does not hesitate in the least to call Jesus "God" (John 1:1, 18; 20:28). Here, as he closes the letter, John asserts Jesus'full divinity once again:

"He is the true God and eternal life." (5:20c)

Final Exhortation (5:21)

John's final word -- the old, old man to his dear children -- is simple, but puzzling:

"Dear children, keep33yourselves from idols." (5: 21)

Discipleship Lessons from John's Letters, e-book or paperback book
The study is available as a free e-mail Bible study, or as an e-book or paperback book at a modest cost.

Cities across the Mediterranean were filled with idol worship. But throughout this letter, the errors that John has confronted have focused on a wrong Christology, lack of love, and lawlessness. Why does he bring up idol worship now?

Because John has just exhorted his readers that Jesus Christ the Son is "the true God and eternal life" (5:20). The essence of idolatry is substituting something false and unworthy in the place of the true God. So John seems to be using idolatry in a figurative sense here. He is saying: Little children, watch yourselves so that you don't let anything false or unworthy take the place of your true faith in the true God -- a fitting way to conclude!

Q4. (1 John 5:21) Why does John exhort his "children" to "keep yourselves from idols"? What idols distract us from the true God? What idols compete with God for attention in your life?





Father, thank you for the personal assurance you give us as we walk with you. I pray for my brothers and sisters, that you might bless them with an intimacy with you and a love for you that will provide encouragement when life is hardest. We do love you. Increase our love. In Jesus'name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome." (1 John 5:3)

"Everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith." (1 John 5:4)

"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." (1 John 5:11-12)

"This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us -- whatever we ask -- we know that we have what we asked of him." (1 John 5:14-15)


1. Barys, BDAG 167, 2a.

2. Zygos is "yoke," used in the New Testament only figuratively of a burden (BDAG 429, 1).

3. Nikaō, BDAG 673, 2a.

4. Nikē, BDAG 673.

5. "Testimony" (NIV, NRSV), "witness, record" (KJV) is martyria, "confirmation or attestation on the basis of personal knowledge or belief, testimony" and "attestation of character or behavior, testimony, statement of approval" (BDAG 619, 1bβBet and 3).

6. Martyreō, BDAG 618, 1aα, b.

7. Bruce M. Metzger, Textual Commentary, pp. 716-718.

8. Ibid.

9. For more on the New Testament case for the Trinity, see my article, "Four Reasons Why I Believe in the Trinity," The Joyful Heart, August 22, 2000. www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/trinity.htm

10. Brown (Epistles of John, pp. 575-578) discusses the pros and cons of various theories thoroughly. He sees water and blood as referring to the death of Jesus. He is followed by Smalley (123 John, p. 279). However, I think the reasoning is too subtle for this to be likely.

11. See above on Lesson 5, "The Spirit as Our Proof" (3:24; 4:13). Stott (Epistles of John, p. 182) and Smalley (1, 2, 3 John, p. pp. 285-286) argue in favor of this as the inner witness. Against this interpretation are Brown (Epistles of John, pp. 589-590) and Marshall (Epistles of John, p. 240).

12. Aiōnios, BDAG 33, 3.

13. En, BDAG 327, 4c.

14. Echō, BDAG 420, 2a.

15. This idea of "having God" is found only in John's writing, part of what Hanse calls, "Johannine having" (Hermann Hanse, echō, TDNT 2:816-832, especially pp. 823-825). Hanse defines this kind of "having" as being able to reach him in prayer, sharing his blessings, his forgiveness and eternal grace, enjoying living personal fellowship with him. There is only an approximation of this in Hebrew: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3), is literally "There shall not be to you other gods," without a verb other than "to be" (rendered similarly in the Septuagint). Brown (Epistles of John, pp. 353-354) cites Jewish documents preserved in Greek from the New Testament period, such as "They possessed God even unto death" (3 Maccabees 7:16). The term was later used in this way by the early Fathers (Ignatius of Antioch, To the Magnesians 12:1; To the Romans 6:3; Shepherd of Hermas Commandments 12.4.3; 2 Clement 2:3), but also by the Gnostic writers.

16. Stott, Epistles of John, p. 183.

17. For examples of this, see my book, Great Prayers of the Bible (JesusWalk Publications, 2005).

18. The phrase "commit a sin" (NIV, cf. NRSV) is literally "sin a sin" (KJV). The verb is a present particle, which carries the idea of continued action in the present, that is, an on-going sin.

19. "Restore" is katartizō, "to cause to be in a condition to function well, put in order, restore" (BDAG 526, 1a).

20. The preposition "unto" is pros, "towards," a "marker of movement or orientation toward someone/something" (BDAG 874, 3cγ). There is a similar use in John's Gospel: "This sickness will not end in death" (John 11:4).

21. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, a "mortal sin" is a sin that, unless confessed and absolved, condemns a person's soul to hell after death. It must be a serious matter, committed with full knowledge, and with deliberate and complete consent. Catholic theology differentiates a mortal sin from a venial sin ("venial" means "forgivable"), for which penance can be done in purgatory if the sin is unconfessed.

22. Three times in the New Testament we see sins punished by physical death (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 11:30), but that isn't in mind here.

23. "Defiantly" (NIV), "high-handedly" (NRSV), "presumptuously" (KJV) is the verb rûm, used here in the idiom, "with a high hand" or "with an uplifted hand," that is, with boldness (Numbers 33:3), ready to strike (Isaiah 26:11; see rûm, TWOT #2133).  The idiom is used negatively against the wicked, who act deliberately, blatantly, "as though the transgressor was about to attack God or rebel against him wantonly" (R.K. Harrison, Numbers: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 1992), p. 227).

24. "Cut off" referred to the death penalty (Deuteronomy 17:12-13).

25. Marshall, Epistles of John, pp. 247-248.

26. Adikia, BDAG 20, 2.

27. Stott, Epistles of John, p. 192.

28. The KJV reads: "He that is begotten of God keepeth himself."  Which is the earliest text is a difficult call. United Bible Societies'Editorial Committee rated their preference of "him" (autos), rather than the reflexive "himself" (eautos) as a {C} ("considerable degree of doubt"), since early manuscripts supported each reading. But Brown (Epistles of John, p. 622) comments, "I find it hard to believe that if the Johannine writers thought that Jesus had been begotten by God, they would never elsewhere have used that language in the many passages on the subject."

29. Tēreō, BDAG 1002, 2b.

30. Haptō, BDAG 126, 5.

31. "Is under control of" (NIV), "lies under the power of" (NRSV), "lieth" (KJV) is keimai, "lie," here, "'find oneself, be,'in a certain state or condition" (BDAG 538, 3d).

32. Alēthinos, "true, pertaining to being real, genuine, authentic" (BDAG 43, 3b).

33. "Keep" is phylassō, "to carry out sentinel functions, watch, guard." Here it is used figuratively, "to protect by taking careful measures, guard, protect" (BDAG 1068, 2b).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text