1 John 5 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

1 John 5
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.

(8.)FAITH THE TEST OF LOVE (1 John 5:1-12).

(a)Its power (1 John 5:1-5).

(b)The evidence on which it rests (1 John 5:6-10).

(c)What it contains (1 John 5:11-12).

(8 a.) St. John has been setting love in the supreme place which it held in our Lord’s teaching and in St. Paul’s. But there is another faculty which has to regulate, purify, direct, and stir up our weak and imperfect loving powers, and that is, faith. Without faith we cannot be certain about the quality of our love. He begins very simply with a position already laid down: genuine faith in Christ is the genuine birth from God. From that faith, through that birth, will come the proper love, as in a family: the love of our spiritual brothers and sisters. (This is specially sympathy with real Christians; but it does not exclude the more general love before inculcated.) If we are doubtful about the quality of our love, or are not sure whether any earthly elements may be mingled with it, we have only to ask ourselves whether we are loving God and keeping His commandments: the true work of faith. The love of God does, indeed, actually consist in keeping His commandments (and none can complain that they are tyrannical, vexatious, or capricious). The very object of the divine birth is the conquest of all that is opposed to God and to His commandments, and the instrument of the conquest is faith. There can be no victory over these elements that are opposed to God, and, consequently, no pure, true, God-like love, except through faith.

(8 b.) Having left the discussion about the effect of faith on love with the same thought which began it—belief in Jesus Christ—he is led to state the grounds on which that faith rests. These are here stated to be three: water, or Christ’s baptism, symbolising the complete fulfilment of the Law in His own perfect purity, and thus appealing to the Old Testament; blood, or His meritorious cross and passion, symbolising His own special work of atonement and reconciliation; and the Spirit, embracing all those demonstrable proofs of His kingdom which were from day to day forcing themselves on the attention of believers. If we accept human testimony on proper grounds, far more should we receive this divine testimony of God to His Son—the witness of the Old Testament, of the work of Christ, and of the Spirit. This witness is not far to seek, for it is actually within the true believer.

(8 c.) The contents of the record which God has thus given us are at once most simple and most comprehensive: the gift of eternal life in His Son. The presence of the Word of God in the heart is the sole condition of life.

(8 a.) (1) Whosoever believeth . . .—What may be the works of God among those who have not heard of His Son we do not here inquire. Enough that those who have this privilege are sons if they accept the message.

Begotten.—Of those who have the new birth, in a general sense: quite distinct from “only-begotten.”

(2) By this we know . . .—Love and obedience to God will assure us of the truth of our love to others. In 1 John 2:3; 1 John 4:20-21, obedience to God and love to our fellows were the signs of knowledge of God and love to Him. The two are really inseparable. If love of God is absent, then our love of our fellows is not genuine—is earthly, is a mockery. If love of our fellows is absent, then we have no love for God. All friendship must be tested by loyalty to God; all love to Him must be tested by charity.

(3) For this is . . .—These words are introduced to show that what were treated as two separate qualities in the last verse are in reality the same thing.

And his commandments are not grievous.—A transitional thought, introduced for encouragement, and forming a bridge to the next statement. (Comp. Matthew 11:30.) God has commanded us nothing for His own sake, but everything for our own highest profit and happiness. Were we perfect, we should not find them commands at all, for they would be our natural impulses. The more sincerely we serve God, the more enjoyment we shall derive from them. Only to those whose inclinations are distorted, perverted, and corrupted by sin can God’s laws seem irksome.

(4) The difficulty experienced by some in keeping God’s commands arises from the influence of all that is opposed to Him in our surroundings. But he who is born of God—the true child of God—fights with this only as a conqueror, because, as far as he is born again, God is in him. God overcame the world in Christ, and is still ever conquering through Him in His sons: so that to such the commands are congenial. (Comp. 1 John 3:9; 1 John 4:4; John 16:33.)

And this is the victory . . .—A new thought, suitable to the tenor of the passage, which lays down that faith is the measure of love. As the conquest that is overcoming the world is wrought by human instruments, its agent may be regarded as our faith, which appropriates Christ’s work, and carries it out for Him and through Him. (Comp. 1 John 2:13-14; 1 John 2:23; 1 John 4:4; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57.)

(5) Who is he that overcometh?—An appeal to the consciousness of Christians. If there be any besides the disciples of Jesus who have vanquished all that is opposed to God, where are they? God has declared that He will not harshly judge the Pagan world (Romans 2:13; Romans 2:15); but salvation by uncovenanted mercies is a very different thing from the glories of the illuminated and victorious Christian heart. Where are they? Not Socrates, with his want of the sense of sin and his tolerance of evil; not Cicero, with his tormenting vanity; not the Gnostics, with their questionable lives: only those in whom had dawned the bright and morning Star.

(8 b.) (6) This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ.—“Water” and “blood” are referred to as two of the three great witnesses, or sets of evidence, for Christ. They are symbols, and look back to two of the most characteristic and significant acts of His personal history. The one is His baptism, the other His cross. Why His baptism? The baptism of John was the seal of the Law. It was the outward sign by which those who repented at his preaching showed their determination to keep the Law no longer in the letter only, but also in the spirit. Jesus, too, showed this determination. Baptism in water was His outward sign and seal to the Old Testament: that He had not come to destroy but to fulfil the Law; not to supersede the prophecies, but to claim them. It was to show that in Him the righteousness and purification which the Law intended was to be a reality, and through Him to be the law of His kingdom. Thus it pointed to all the evidence which the Old Testament could possibly afford Him; and, through the Old Testament, it pointed to the dispensation of the Father. Thus, when this most symbolic act was complete, the Almighty Giver of the old Law or covenant was heard saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

“Blood.” in the same way, refers to the special work of Christ Himself—the work of reconciliation and atonement by His death and passion, the realisation of all that the sacrifices and types of the former state of religion had meant. That He was the true sacrifice was proved by the perfection of His life, by the signs and wonders with which He had attracted and convinced His followers, by the fulfilment of prophecy, by the marvels of His teaching, by the amazing events which had happened at the different crises of His life, by His resurrection and ascension, and by the confession of all who knew Him well that He was the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, and with the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father.

Not by water only.—John the Baptist might have been said to come by water only: he came preaching the washing away of the personal results of sin through turning again to the truth and spirit of the Law; Jesus came by blood also, for His sacrifice atoned for sin as rebellion against God.

And it is the Spirit that beareth witness.—The Holy Spirit had descended on Jesus at His baptism, had proved Him to be the Son of God in every word and act of His life, had raised Him up on the third day, and glorified His body till it could no longer be seen on earth. He had made new men of His disciples on the Day of Pentecost, had laid far and wide the foundations of the new kingdom, and was daily demonstrating Himself in the renewed life in all parts of the world. (Comp. Matthew 3:16; John 1:32-33; John 3:34; Romans 1:4; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18.)

Because the Spirit is truth.—Rather, the truth; the sum and substance of God’s revelation in all its fulness, regarded as personally proceeding from the divine throne, teaching the prophets their message, accompanying the Son on His human pilgrimage, and bringing all things afterwards to the remembrance of His disciples.

(7) For the reasons why this verse cannot be retained in the text, see the Introduction.

(8) The text of this verse is properly, For there are three that bear witness; the Spirit, and the water, and the blood. It is a repetition of 1 John 5:6 for the purpose of emphasis. The fact that the three that bear witness are in the masculine gender bears out the interpretation given of 1 John 5:6; that they imply the Holy Spirit, the author of the Law, and the author of Redemption. It also explains how 1 John 5:7 crept in as a gloss.

And these three agree in one.—Literally, make for the one. The old dispensation, of which the Baptist’s preaching was the last message, had no other moaning than the preparation for the Messiah; the sacrifice of Calvary was the consummation of the Messiah’s mission; the kingdom of the Spirit, starting from that mission, was the seal of it. The three witnesses to Christ have their counterparts in the Christian soul: “baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God;” “the blood of Christ purging our conscience from dead works to serve the living God;” and “the baptism with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”

(9) If we receive the witness of men.—Any human testimony, provided it is logically binding on our understandings, to establish common facts or to prove opinions. (Comp. Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; Hebrews 10:28-29.)

The witness of God is greater.—Any message that clearly comes from God is to be accepted by us with a readiness infinitely greater than in the case of mere human testimony. St. John considers the threefold witness from God to convey a certainty which no human evidence could claim.

For this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.—Such witness from God there is: for this three-fold testimony is what He has said to us about His Son. If any should doubt whether the carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth, was in reality God, St. John would refer them to the righteousness and predictions of the Law and the prophets all fulfilled, to the life and death of Christ which spoke for themselves, and to manifest inauguration of the reign of the Spirit. Under these three heads would come all possible evidence for Christian truth.

(10) He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself .—To the real believer the three-fold testimony of God no longer remains merely an outward object of thought to be contemplated and grasped: it has become part of his own nature. The three separate messages have each produced their proper result in him, and he can no more doubt them than he can doubt himself. The water has assured him that he is no longer under the Law, but under grace, and has taught him the necessity of the new birth unto righteousness (John 3:5; Titus 3:5). The blood has shown him that he cannot face God unless his sins are forgiven; and it has enabled him to feel that they are forgiven, that he is being daily cleansed, and that he has in himself the beginnings of eternal life (1 John 1:7; 1 John 2:2; John 6:53). And the Spirit, which has had part in both these, is daily making him grow in grace (Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 5:9).

He that believeth not God hath made him a liar.—The negative contrast, as usual, to strengthen the affirmative. St. John regards the evidence as so certain, that he to whom it is brought and who rejects it seems as if he was boldly asserting that what God had said was false. The sceptical reply that the message did not really come from God at all it is not St. John’s purpose to consider; his object is to warn his friends of the real light in which they ought to regard the opponents of the truth. There should be no complacent condoning; from the point of view of the Christians themselves, such unbelievers were throwing the truth back in God’s face.

(8 c.) What Faith contains (1 John 5:11-12).

(11) This is the record.—This is the substance of the witness of God. The Christian creed is here reduced to a very small compass: the gift of eternal life and the dependence of that life upon His Son. Eternal life does not here mean the mere continuance of life after death, whether for good or evil; it is the expression used throughout St. John’s writings for that life in God, thought of without reference to time, which can have no end, which implies heaven and every possible variety of blessedness, and which consists in believing in God the Father and in His Son. Its opposite is not annihilation, but the second death: existence in exclusion from God. (Comp. 1 John 2:25; John 17:3; 2 Timothy 1:10.)

(12) He that hath the Son hath life.—The emphatic word here is “hath.” As this sentence is addressed to the faithful, there is no need to say “the Son of God.” “Having the Son” is His dwelling in the heart by faith: a conscious difference to human life which transforms its whole character. “Having life” is the birth of the new man within which can never die.

He that hath not the Son of God hath not life.—As this is contemplating unbelievers, the words “of God” are added, to show them what they have lost.

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.
Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?
This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.
He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son.
And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.
[4.The Conclusion (1 John 5:13-21).

(1)FRESH STATEMENT OF THE PURPOSE OF WRITING, equivalent to that at the beginning of the Epistle, but differing from it (1 John 5:13).



(a)God’s sons do not sin (1 John 5:18);

(b)Personal assurance that we are God’s sons (1 John 5:19);

(c)Personal assurance that Christ is come, of the gift of the spiritual sense, and of abiding in the God of Truth through His Son (1 John 5:20).

(4) LAST WARNING (1 John 5:21).]

St. John, thinking perhaps of the close of his Gospel, where he states the same purpose (John 20:31), and reminded by 1 John 5:11 of the supreme importance of having eternal life, and of the necessity of finding this in the Son, sums up the object of his Letter in these two ideas. He tells his friends again that he writes to them because they believe on the name of the Son of God, and explains his wish to be that, by the thoughts which he has put before them, they may feel certain that the eternal life which ought to be theirs is theirs already, and that their belief may not cease, but may be really vital. Thinking then of those who would be deceiving themselves if they pretended to any such hopeful assurance, he reminds the faithful of the power of prayer. Beginning with the general statement that confidence in God means that He hears us, he goes on to show that hearing must imply that our petitions are granted; and next, that it would be a petition quite in accordance with God’s will, and therefore likely to be heard, if a believer were to pray for a sinning brother. At the same time it must be recollected that there is such a state of wilful, hard-hearted rebellion that it is past praying for. Meantime they must remember again that as far as they were born of God they could not wilfully sin; that if they were what St. John thought them they had ample proofs that they were of God, and must not forget that the whole world was corrupted; and that there could not be any doubt that the Son of God was come, and had given them the spiritual sense necessary to discerning the true God. In that true God they were, through His Son. The God of whom the Son had spoken was that true God, and to know Him as such in His Son was eternal life. The last request was, that they should strictly guard themselves against any appearance or tendency whatsoever which might claim their sympathy or allegiance apart from God.


(13) Comp. John 20:31. The expression here is more positive than in the Gospel: there, “that ye might believe, and that believing ye might have life;” here, “that ye may know that ye have.” He wishes to produce in them a good hope. The specific object at the beginning of the Epistle was the communication of joy through fellowship with the Apostles the knowledge of possessing eternal life and the continuance of their faith would be precisely that joy.


(14) And this is the confidence.—The assurance intended in 1 John 5:13 implies confidence, and confidence means the conviction that God is not deaf to our prayers. But these must not be contrary to His will. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that the Person referred to here is the Father.

(15) That we have the petitions.—The goodness of God as Light and Love is so fully established that if our petitions are according to His will it follows necessarily that He grants them.

(16) If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death.—Here are meant such stumblings as do not imply any distinct, wilful, deliberate severance from the faith of Christ. To divide sins, on the authority of this passage, into venial and mortal is to misunderstand the whole argument of the Epistle and to seduce the conscience. St. John only means that though prayer can do much for an erring brother, there is a wilfulness against which it would be powerless: for even prayer is not stronger than freewill. (Comp. 1 John 2:1; Luke 22:31-32; John 17:9; Hebrews 7:25.)

And he shall give.—The interceding Christian is regarded as gaining life for the erring brother and handing it on to him.

There is a sin unto death.—The limit of intercession is now given: such conscious and determined sin as shows a loss of all hold on Christ. Such a state would be a sign of spiritual death. Hardened obstinacy would be invincible; and as it would not be according to the will of God that prayers, by the nature of the case in vain, should be offered to Him, St. John thinks that intercession ought to stop here. At the same time, he is careful not categorically to forbid it; he only says that in such cases he does not recommend intercessory prayer. (Comp. Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:29; Hebrews 6:4; Hebrews 6:6; Hebrews 10:26-27.) “His brother” is here, of course, a nominal Christian.

(17) All unrighteousness is sin.—Here St. John reminds them that all Christians might, at one time or another, stand in need of intercessory prayer, even those who, on the whole, might be considered as “sinning not” (because their permanent will was against sin, and for holiness), because every declension from the perfect righteousness of God is error or sin. Nothing that was not hopelessly deliberate need be considered a sign of absolute spiritual death. (Comp. 1 John 3:4.)

And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:
And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.
If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.
All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.
We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.

(a)God’s sons do not sin (1 John 5:18).

St. John refers back to “that ye may know” in 1 John 5:13, and sums up three points from former portions of the Epistle, describing the true consciousness of the Christian. Each begins with “We know.”

(18) Sinneth not.—There is no reason to supply “unto death.” (Comp. the Note on 1 John 3:9.) St. John means strongly to insist, in this the solemn close of his Letter, that the true ideal Christian frame is the absence of wilful sin. Stumbles there may be, even such as need the prayers of friends, but intentional lawlessness there cannot be.

But he that is begotten of God keepeth himself.—Rather, he that is begotten of God keepeth him: that is, the Son of God preserves him. (Comp. John 6:39; John 10:28; John 17:12; John 17:15.)

And that wicked one toucheth him not.—The last mention of the devil was in 1 John 3:10. The devil and his angels attack, but cannot influence so long as the Christian abides in Christ. (Comp. 1 Peter 5:8; Ephesians 6:11; Revelation 3:10.)

(3 b.) Personal assurance that we are God’s sons (1 John 5:19).

Next after the cardinal point that righteousness is the characteristic of the new birth comes the necessity that the Christian should make up his mind that he has been, or is being, born again, and is really different from the world. The proofs would be seen in 1 John 1:6; 1 John 2:3; 1 John 2:5; 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 3:14; 1 John 3:19; 1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:7; 1 John 4:13; 1 John 4:15; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:10.

(19) The whole world lieth in wickedness.—Rather, the wicked one. There is a constant danger lest Christians should forget this. (Comp. Galatians 1:4.)

(3 c.) Personal assurance of the Incarnation, of the gift of the spiritual sense, and of abiding in the God of Truth through His Son (1 John 5:20).

The series ends with a climax: the Son is indeed come; He gave us the faculty of seeing the true God; and in that Almighty Being we actually are. through the Son. The greatest fact of all to St. John’s mind is that his Friend and Master of sixty years ago was the very Word made flesh. (Comp. 1 John 1:1-2; 1 John 2:13; 1 John 2:22-23; 1 John 3:5; 1 John 3:8; 1 John 3:16; 1 John 3:23; 1 John 4:2; 1 John 4:9-10; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:5; 1 John 5:9; 1 John 5:11.)

(20) And hath given us an understanding.—Comp. Acts 26:18; 1 Corinthians 2:12-15; Ephesians 1:18. This spiritual faculty of discernment was one of the gifts of that Spirit which Christ was to send. (Comp. 1 John 2:20; 1 John 2:27; John 14:26; John 16:13.)

Him that is true.—The personality of God. Amid all the deceptions and fluctuations of the world, St. John felt, with the most absolute and penetrating and thankful conviction, that the followers of Christ were rooted and grounded in perfect, unshakable, unassailable truth. This could not be unless they were resting on the living Son and holding fast to Him.

This is the true God, and eternal life.—A most solemn and emphatic crown to the whole Epistle. “This God, as seen in His Son, is the true God.” If the Word had not been God, God could not have been seen in Him. “And God, seen in His Son, is eternal life.” This is only another way of putting John 17:3. (Comp. 1 John 5:11-13.) To make “this is the true God” refer only to the Son is equally admissible by grammar, but hardly suits the argument so well.

(4) LAST WARNING (1 John 5:21).

(21) Little children, keep yourselves from idols.—This parting word is suggested by the thought of “the true God.” Every scheme of thought, every object of affection, which is not of Him, is a rival of His empire, a false god, a delusive appearance only, without solidity or truth. We cannot conclude better than in the words of Ebrard: “This idea is a general and very comprehensive one: it embraces all things and everything which may be opposed to the God revealed in Christ and to His worship in spirit and in truth. Pre-eminently, therefore, it embraces the delusive and vain idols of the Corinthian Gnosticism, whether ancient or modern; but it includes also the idols and false mediators of superstition, to whom the confidence is transferred which is due only to God in Christ—be their name Madonna, or saints, or Pope, or priesthood, or good works, or pictures, or office, or church, or sacraments. The One Being in whom we have ‘the life eternal’ is Christ. . . . And this Christ we possess through the Spirit of God, whose marks and tokens are not priestly vestments, but faith and love. In this meaning, the Apostle’s cry sounds forth through all the ages, in the ears of all Christians, ‘LITTLE CHILDREN, KEEP YOURSELVES FROM IDOLS!’ The holiest things may become a snare if their letter is regarded and not their spirit. Every Christian Church has a tendency to worship its own brazen serpents. Happy are they who have a Hezekiah to call them Nehushtan!”

And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.
And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.
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