Letters From An Old Man, Part 11

1 John 5:13—21

The thing that strikes us first in these concluding verses is their similarity to what John wrote in his 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)

Elsewhere in this letter John had suggested several reasons why he wrote it, but, just like in his gospel, he left the main purpose until the very end—

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.  (verse 13)

The phrase “these things” points the readers back to the things he has written throughout the letter.

The second thing that strikes us about verse 13 is exactly to whom the letter was written.  Note the phrase:  “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God.”  John has a specific and exclusive group of people in view; Christians who continue to place their faith in Christ.   He is not an evangelist here; he is not trying to win converts with his letter; he is writing to people who already have faith and his is purpose is singular in nature:  “…so that you may know that you have eternal life.”  The phrase “you may know” means properly, “to know with certainty.”  These people already know that they have eternal life, but John wants them to have assurance.  His gospel was written in order that people might have life and his letter in order that they may know with full assurance that they have it.

There is a minor but important lesson here for us.  Even believers, whose faith seems unswerving, need encouragement and words of assurance from time to time.  False teachers, bad teaching or just the cares of day-to-day living can all conspire to wear our faith down.  This is why church is so important.

1.  The grounds of our assurance, verses 14—17

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.

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.  All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

John actually repeats himself in these two verses, for earlier he wrote—

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.  (3:21—22)

There are two points of interest in these four verses (Kistemaker).

  • Confidence.  Three times previously John wrote about confidence; twice in connection with judgment and once in connection with prayer.  The Greek word used each time, parresia, and means to “have full assurance” or “confidence” or to be “convinced” of a thing.  In Christ, then, we have confidence not only of the future, but also of the present.  We know we have access to God and that when we pray to Him He hears us.   In John’s writings, “hearing” not only means “being listened to, but “heard favorably” (Barker).   This is exciting news for the genuine believer:  when we pray, God hears our words with a favorable attitude.  But, there is a qualifier:  when we pray, we must pray according to God’s will.   This is, of course, exactly how the Son of God prayed—

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  (Matthew 6:10)

“Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  (Mark 14:36)

Our confidence (or boldness) is linked to our freedom:  we must approach God.  When we have a need or a petition, the onus is on us to approach God.

  • Promise.  Verse 15 seems repetitious, but John adds a word of encouragement that is absolute.  When a believer prays according to God’s will, he not only has the assurance or the confidence that his words are being heard, but that he possesses the answer to the prayer the moment it is prayed.  John could not write more directly or definitely when he wrote the words, “we know that we have what we asked of him.”   John does not write in the future tense (we will have), but the present tense:  we have.   In other words, during the process of praying, we have the answer.   Now, that answer may take a while to be manifested, but we need to have the assurance that the thing asked for will be granted, if the prayer is prayed according to God’s will.   This cannot be stressed enough.  We are not pray in hopes of convincing God to fulfill some desire of ours, even if it is a worthwhile desire.  No, we must learn to lift up our wills to meet God’s will and pray to that end.

With verse 16, John seems to be starting a new topic, but he is really continuing the same topic, namely, prayer.  Believers should never pray only for themselves or only for their own needs, especially if those needs are spiritual in nature.   The sense of what John wrote is this:  If you, as a Christian, see a fellow Christian falling into sin, you are obligated to pray to God on his behalf.  This is God’s will; there is no question about it.

The question that comes to mind is this:  Why does John say we should pray for such a person?  Why not simply tell the person to pray for himself?   Here is another minor, yet very important lesson.  As members of the body of Christ, we are all interconnected.  If one member commits a sin—and here the suggestion is an “inadvertent sin”—that sin not only affects the one who committed, but it also affects the entire church.   Or, another way to look at it, when a brother sins, he not only sins against God, but against the body of Christ, as well.  So, that brother needs to be forgiven through intercessory prayer as an expression of the church’s forgiveness.   This is in line with the teaching of Jesus in John 20:23—

“If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

The second half of verse 16 bears closer examination because is somewhat difficult to understand.  What did John mean when he wrote:

There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that.

Clearly, intercession is not needed if the sin committed “leads to death.”  Some scholars suggest that John is teaching the doctrine of “the unpardonable sin.”  However, in this passage, John gives us no clue as to what kind of sin or habit that God will not forgive.  He may have in mind the sin of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:29), although in the context of this letter, perhaps John has in mind false teaching.  That is, if a brother has sold out to the false teachers, now hates their brothers, and refuses the mercy of God, then the needs of that person should not be prayed for.  Indeed, prayers for a believer who has wandered from the Church should be limited to asking for their repentance and a return to the body of Christ.

2.  Divine knowledge, verses 18—20

In the letter’s final three verses, John summarizes three main things that his readers have learned.  Each of these eternal truths begins with the words “we know.”

  • 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 (verse 18).  The first part of this verse is a repeat of what John wrote in 3:9.  This time, however,  he adds “We know,” suggesting that while a child of God may occasionally sin, his normal state is to resist the temptation to sin (Plummer).

The next clause is a little more difficult to grasp:  the one who was born of God keeps him safe. Obviously two individuals are mentioned, one born of God and the one he keeps safe.  So the question, then, is who are these two people?  As to the one being kept safe, that obviously refers to the believer.  The believer is kept safe and the Devil cannot touch him.  But who is “one born of God?”  It must refer to Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ, the one born of God is the one who keeps the genuine believer from continuing in sin.

  • We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one (verse 19).  This second eternal truth builds on the first one, but emphasizes the believer’s position:  they are children of God.  This is exciting, especially when read with verse 18 in mind.  The one born of God keeps those born of God from sinning! Like the Son of God, genuine believers have their origin in God and like the Son of God, we belong to God.  John contrasts our position as God’s children with the position of the world:  it is under the control of Satan.  But notice what John does not say:  he does not say that the world belongs to Satan, merely that at this moment he has control of it.  We know that his control is temporary and was given to him by God.  Consider what Satan told Jesus in Luke 4:6—

And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.

One day, though, things will change—

The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said:   “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,  and he will reign for ever and ever.”  (Revelation 11:15)

  • 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  (verse 20).  This last eternal truth is a summary of the whole letter (Barker).  This verse alone strikes a blow to the false teachers and their teaching.  Genuine Christian faith is all about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who through the Incarnation came into human history.  Plummer comments—

Both revelation and redemption are His gracious work.  With Him we could neither know God nor overcome sin.

The Son of God has “given us understand,” wrote John.  Kistemaker makes a keen observation—

In a world of deceit and falsehood, God has revealed Himself in the Son of God as the one who is true.  God has not forsaken us to the powers of darkness, but has endowed us with the ability to discern truth from error.

That is such a powerful thought.  A Christian need never be deceived because God sent His Son “so that we may know him who is true.”  How do we acquire this knowledge?  Through knowledge of the Word to be sure, but the verb to know is this case illustrates knowledge acquired through association.  In other words, as we fellowship with God the Father and His Son, we come to know the truth.   The false teachers by contrast, taught that only fellowship with God was necessary.  Time and again throughout this letter, John has confronted that teaching to stress the absolute necessity of fellowship with both the Father and the Son.  God can only be known through grasping the historical and spiritual reality of the Son.  Divine revelation cannot come apart from knowledge of the facts surrounding Jesus Christ, and those facts are put forth in the Word of God.

The last phrase, He is the true God (NIV), has caused some debate.  The NIV assumes John is referring to Jesus Christ; HE is the true God.  Others believe John is referring, not to Jesus, but to God the Father as being the true God.   It’s all a matter of translation and interpretation and both views could correct.

Those who hold to the first view point out that the whole emphasis of John’s letter was to show Jesus Christ’s position as the Son of God.  A major theme, for example, is that eternal life descends from, not the Father, but the Son (1:2).  It seems logical, then, that at the summation of this majestic defense of the divinity of Jesus Christ, John should make the definitive statement to that effect:

He is the true God.

3.  Conclusion, verse 21

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

The letter ends on a distinctly affectionate note.  John, for the last time, uses the term “dear friends,” or “loved ones” in addressing his readers.  Despite their problems or wavering faith, they forever remain close to John’s heart.  But the admonition to avoid idols seems a bit out of place, not having been even hinted at in the rest of the letter.  Did John write this last verse?  Did he intend to write a little more?  Was more written that is now lost?  Not likely.   The connection between the false teachers and their teaching and idolatry is clear:  to leave the truth for a lie is the ultimate apostasy from the true faith.  To follow after false teaching is to become nothing more than an idolater.  John could not be blunter.  The purpose of the false teachers was to promote a false god, an invention of their own minds.   And believers should give a wide berth to people and teachings like that.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd
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