1 John 5 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

1 John 5
Pulpit Commentary
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.
Verses 1-12. - Faith is the source of love. Verse 1. - The verse is a sorites. To believe in the Incarnation involves birth from God. To be born of God involves loving God. To love God involves loving his children. Therefore to believe in the Incarnation involves loving God's children. Τὸν γεγεννημένον ἐξ αὐτοῦ is not to be understood as meaning Christ to the exclusion of Christians; it means any son of God, as the next verse shows.
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.
Verse 2. - Another mark by which we can test our love towards the brethren. In verse 1 faith in the Incarnation is shown to involve this love. Here obedience to God is the test. To obey God proves love to him, and this again involves love of his children.
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
Verse 3. - Reason for the preceding statement. "For the love of God consists in this (1 John 4:17), that we keep his commandments: and these are not grievous." These are the words, not merely of an inspired apostle, but of an aged man, with a wide experience of life and its difficulties. "Difficult" is a relative term, depending upon the relation between the thing to be done and the powers of the doer of it. The Christian, whose will is united with the will of God, will not find obedience to that will a task.
For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.
Verse 4. - Reason for the preceding statement: the opposition which causes the difficulty is already overcome. Nothing, however, is gained by transferring the full stop from the end of verse 3 to the middle of verse 4, any more than from the end of verse 2 to the middle of verse 3. The punctuation of the Authorized Version and the Revised Version is to be preferred. It is the world that hinders obedience to God's commandments and makes them seem grievous. But everywhere God's children πᾶν τὸ γεγεννημένον, as in John 6:37, 39; John 17:2) conquer the world, and that by means of faith. The aorist ἡ νικήσασα marks the victory as already won and complete: "the victory that hath vanquished the world is this - our faith."
Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?
Verse 5. - What other way is there of conquering the world? And how can he who believes fail? Belief in Christ unites us to him, and gives us a share in his victories; and he has overcome the world (John 16:33).
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.
Verses 6-12. - The section takes a new turn; the test of the Christian life furnished by the witness of the life itself. This witness is that of the Spirit (verse 6), identical with that of God (verse 9), and possessed by every believer (verse 10). Few passages of Scripture have produced such a mass of widely divergent interpretation. Verse 6. - This (Son of God) is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ. This may be regarded as one of the main propositions of the Epistle - that the eternal Son of God is identical with the historic Person, Jesus. Of the water and the blood widely differing interpretations have been given. It would be tedious and unprofitable to enumerate them. Our estimate of John 19:34, "the most perplexing incident in the Gospel," will probably influence our interpretation of this "the most perplexing passage in the Epistle." Not that we have here any direct reference to the piercing of Christ's side, and its results. Yet both passages teach similar spiritual truths, viz. the ideas which underlie the two sacraments, and teach them by reference to facts in the life and death of Jesus Christ. But the facts are not the same in each case. It is difficult to believe that this passage contains any definite and immediate allusion to John 19:34. Why in that case the marked change of order, "water and blood" instead of "blood and water"? And if it be thought that this is explained by saying that the one is "the ideal, mystical, sacramental, subjective order," the ether "the historical and objective order," and that "the first is appropriately adopted in the Epistle, the second in the Gospel," we are not at the end of our difficulties. If St. John is here referring to the effusions from Christ's dead body, what can be the meaning of "not in water only, but in water and blood"? It was the water, not the blood, that was specially astonishing. And "in" in this case seems a strange expression to use. We should have expected rather, "not shedding blood only, but blood and water." Moreover, how can blood and water flowing from the Lord's body be spoken of his "coming through water and blood"? The simplest interpretation is that which refers ὕδωρ to the baptism of water to which he himself submitted, and which he enjoined upon his disciples, and αῖμα to the baptism of blood to which he himself submitted, and which raised the baptism of water from a sign into a sacrament. John came baptizing in water only ἐν ὕδατι βαπτίζων (John 1:31, 33). Jesus came baptizing in water and blood, i.e., in water which washed away sin through the efficacy of his blood. This interpretation explains the marked change of preposition. Jesus effected his work through the baptisms of water and blood; and it is by baptism in these elements that he comes to his followers. Moreover, this interpretation harmonizes with the polemical purpose of the Epistle, viz. to confute the errors of Cerinthus. Cerinthus taught that the Divine Logos or Christ descended upon Jesus at the baptism, and departed again when Jesus was arrested; so that a mere man was born of Mary, and a mere man suffered on the cross. St. John assures us that there was no such severance. The Divine Son Jesus Christ came not by water only at his baptism, but by blood also at his death. Besides these two abiding witnesses, there is yet a third still more convincing. And there is the Spirit that beareth witness (to the Divinity of Christ); because the Spirit is the truth. There can be no higher testimony than that of the truth itself (John 14:17; John 15:26; John 16:13). It is surprising that any one should propose to translate, "The Spirit is that which is witnessing that the Spirit is the truth." What has this to do with the context?
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
Verse 7. - For those who bear witness are three, and thus constitute full legal testimony (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1). It will be assumed here, without discussion, that the remainder of this verse and the first clause of verse 8 are spurious. Words which are not contained in a single Greek uncial manuscript, nor in a single Greek cursive earlier than the fourteenth century (the two which contain the passage being evidently translated from the Vulgate), nor are quoted by a single Greek Father during the whole of the Trinitarian controversy, nor are found in any authority until late in the fifth century, cannot be genuine.
And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
Verse 8. - When all three witnesses are enumerated together, the Spirit naturally comes first. He is a living and a Divine witness, independent of the two facts of the baptism and the Passion, which concur with him in testifying that the Son of God is Jesus Christ.
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.
Verse 9. - An argument a fortiori. If we receive expresses no doubt, but states an admitted fact gently (see 1 John 4:11; and comp. John 7:23; John 10:35; John 13:14). "If we accept human witness [and, of course, we do], we must accept Divine witness [and, therefore, must believe that the Son of God is Jesus Christ]; for the witness of God consists in this, that he has borne witness concerning his Son." Note the pertinacious repetition of the word "witness," thoroughly in St John's style. The perfect μεμαρτύρηκε indicates that the witness still continues.
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.
Verse 10. - Hath the witness in him. This rendering is to be preferred to either "in Him," i.e., God, or" in himself." The former is obscure in meaning; the latter, though probably correct as an interpretation, is inaccurate as a translation, for the better reading is αὐτῷ, not ἑαυτῷ. But ἐν αὐτῷ may be reflexive. The believer in the Incarnation has the Divine testimony in his heart, and it abides with him as an additional source of evidence, supplementing and confirming the external evidence. In its daily experience, the soul finds ever fresh proof that the declaration, "This is my beloved Son," is true. But even without this internal corroboration, the external evidence suffices, and he who rejects it makes God a liar; for it is God who presents the evidence, and presents it as sufficient and true. The second half of the verse is parenthetical, to show that the unbeliever, though be has no witness in himself, is not therefore excused. In verse 11 we return to the main proposition at the beginning of verse 10.
And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
Verse 11. - "And the substance of the internal testimony is this - we are conscious of the Divine gift of eternal life, and this we have in the Son of God." St. John's ζωὴ αἰώνιος is not "everlasting life:" the idea of endlessness may be included in it, but it is not the main one. The distinction between eternity and time is one which the human mind feels to be real and necessary. But we are apt to lose ourselves when we try to think of eternity. We admit that it is not time, that it is the very antithesis of time, and yet we attempt to measure it while we declare it to be immeasurable. We make it simply a very long time. The main idea of "eternal life" in St. John's writings has no direct reference to time. Eternal life is possessed already by believers; it is not a thing of the future (John 3:36; John 5:24; John 6:47, 54; John 17:3). It is that life in God which includes all blessedness, and which is not broken by physical death (John 11:25). Its opposite is exclusion from God.
He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.
Verse 12. - Eternal life is not granted to the whole world, or even to all Christians en masse; it is given to individuals, soul by soul, according as each does or does not accept the Son of God. The order of the Greek is noteworthy - in the first half of the verse the emphasis is on "hath," in the second on "life." Here, as in John 1:4, the article before ζωή should be translated, "hath the life... hath not the life." The insertion of τοῦ Θεοῦ in the second half of the verse points to the magnitude of the loss: the possessor has no need to be told whose Son he has.
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.
Verses 13-21. - 4. CONCLUSION OF EPISTLE; without, however, any marked break between this section and the last On the contrary, the prominent thought of eternal life through faith in the Son of God is continued for final development. This topic is the main idea alike of the Gospel (John 20:31) and of the Epistle, with this difference - in the Gospel the purpose is that we may have eternal life; in the Epistle, that we may know that we have eternal life. Verse 13. - These things I have written to you sums up the Epistle as a whole. At the outset the apostle said, "These things we write, that our joy [yours as well as mine] may be fulfilled;" and now, as he draws to a close, he says the same thing in other words. Their joy is the knowledge that they have eternal life through belief in the Son of God. There is considerable variety of reading in this verse, but that of the T.R., represented by the Authorized Version, is a manifest simplification. That represented by the Revised Version is probably right. The awkwardness of the last clause produced various alterations with a view to greater smoothness. The verse, both as regards construction and meaning, should be carefully compared with John 1:12. In both we have the epexegetic addition at the end. In both we have St. John's favourite πιστεύειν εἰς, expressing the very strongest belief; motion to and repose upon the object of belief. In both we have the remarkable expression, "believe on his Name." This is no mere periphrasis for "believe on him." Names in Jewish history were so often significant, being sometimes given by God himself, that they served not merely to distinguish one man from another, but to indicate his character. So also with the Divine Name: it suggests the Divine attributes. "To believe on the Name of the Son of God" is to give entire adhesion to him as having the qualities of the Divine Son.
And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:
Verse 14. - And the confidence that we have towards him consists in this. The thought of knowing that we have eternal life (verse 13) leads back to the thought of confidence before God in relation to prayer (1 John 3:21, 22). This idea is now further developed with special reference to intercession for others; a particular form of prayer which is in close connexion with another main idea in the Epistle - love of the brethren.
And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.
Verse 15. - The point is not, that if God hears our prayers he grants them (as if we could ever pray to him without his being aware of it); but that if we know that he hears our prayers (i.e., trust him without reserve), we already have what we have asked in accordance with his will. It may be years before we perceive that our prayers have been answered: perhaps in this world we may never be able to see this; but we know that God has answered them. The peculiar construction, ἐάν with the indicative, is not uncommon in the New Testament as a variant reading. It seems to be genuine in Luke 19:40 and Acts 8:31 with the future indicative, and in 1 Thessalonians 3:8 with the present. Here the reading is undisputed. Of course, οἴδαμεν is virtually present; but even the past tenses of the indicative are sometimes found after ἐάν (see Winer, pages 369, 370; see also Trench, 'On the Authorized Version of the New Testament,' page 61).
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.
Verse 16. - How does this position respecting God's hearing our prayers affect the question of intercession for the salvation of others, and especially of an erring brother? If any prayer can be made with confidence of success, surely it is this. It is an unselfish prayer; a prayer of love. It is also a prayer in harmony with God's will; a prayer for the extension of his kingdom. St. John points out that this reasonable expectation has limits. The prayer of one human being can never cancel another's free-will. If God's will does not override man's will, neither can a fellow-man's prayer. When a human will has been firmly and persistently set in opposition to the Divine will, our intercession will be of no avail. And this seems to be the meaning of "sin unto death; "willful and obstinate rejection of God's grace and persistence in unrepented sin. "Death" corresponds to the life spoken of above; and if the one is eternal (verse 13), so is the other. Sins punished with loss of life in this world, whether by human law or by Divine retribution, cannot be meant. Christians have before now suffered agonies of mind, fearing that they have committed what they suppose to be the "sin unto death." Their fear is evidence that they have not committed any such sin. But if they despair of pardon, they may come near to it. There are certain statements made respecting this mysterious passage against which we must be on our guard. It is laid down as a canon of interpretation that the sin unto death is one which can be known, which can be recognized as such by the intercessor. St. John neither says nor implies this. He implies that some sins may be known to be not unto death. Again, it is asserted that he forbids us to pray concerning sin which is unto death. The apostle is much more reserved. lie encourages us to intercede for a sinning brother with full confidence of success. But there is a limit to this. The sinner may be sinning unto death; and in that case St. John cannot encourage us to pray. Casuistical classifications of sins under the heads of mortal and venial have been based upon this passage. It lends no authority to such attempts; and they have worked untold mischief in the Church. The apostle tells us that the distinction between mortal and venial exists; but he supplies us with no test by which one man can judge another in this respect. By pointedly abstaining from making any classification of sins into mortal and venial, he virtually condemns the making. What neither he nor St. Paul ventured to do we may well shrink from doing. The same overt act may be mortal sin in one case and not in another. It is the attitude of mind with which the sinner contemplates his act before and after commission that makes all the difference; and how seldom can this be known to his fellow-men! The change from αἰτεῖν to ἐρωτᾷν is noteworthy. The former is used in verses 14, 15, and the beginning of verse 16; the latter at the end of verse 16. The latter is the less humble word of the two, being often used of equals or superiors requesting compliance with their wishes. Perhaps St. John uses it here to indicate that a prayer of this kind is not a humble one.
All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.
Verse 17. - All unrighteousness is sin. "Among the faithful this ought to be an indubitable truth, that whatever is contrary to God's Law is sin, and in its nature mortal; for where there is a transgression of the Law, there is sin and death" (Calvin). But this terrifying truth brings with it a word of encouragement. For if all unrighteousness without exception is sin, it follows that not every sin is unto death. It is incredible that the slightest departure from righteousness should involve eternal damnation (see notes on chapter 1 John 1:7).
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.
Verses 18-21. - With three solemn asseverations and one equally solemn charge the Epistle is brought to a close. "Can we be certain of any principles in ethics? St. John declares that we can. He says that he has not been making probable guesses about the grounds of human actions, the relations of man to God, the nature of God himself. These are firings that he knows. Nay, he is not content with claiming this knowledge himself. He uses the plural pronoun; he declares that his disciples, his little children, know that which he knows" (Maurice). Verse 18. - We know; οἴδαμεν, as in 1 John 3:2, 14, and John 21:24, which should be compared with this passage. These expressions of Christian certitude explain the undialectical character of St. John's Epistles as compared with those of St. Paul. What need to argue and prove when both he and his readers already knew and believed? We must have "begotten" in both clauses, as in the Revised Version, not "born" in one and "begotten" in the other, as in the Authorized Version. In the Greek there is a change of tense ὁ γεγεννημένος and ὁ γεννηθείς, but no change of verb. The whole should run, "We know that whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not, but the Begotten of God keepeth him." For the perfect participle, comp. 1 John 3:9; 1 John 5:1, 4; 1 John 3:6, 8: it expresses him who has come to be, and still continues to be, a son of God. The aorist participle occurs nowhere else in St. John: it expresses him who, without relation to time past or present, is the Son of God. The reading αὐτόν is preferable to ἑαυτόν. The Vulgate has conservat eum, not conserver seipsum, which Calvin adopts. The eternal Son of the Father preserves the frail children of the Father from the common foe, so that the evil one toucheth them not. The verb for "touch ἅπτεσθαι is the same as in "Touch me not" (John 20:17). In both cases "touch" is somewhat too weak a rendering; the meaning is rather, "lay hold of," "hold fast." The Magdalene wished, not merely to touch, but to hold the Lord fast, so as to have his bodily presence continually. And here the meaning is that, though the evil one may attack the children of God, yet he cannot get them into his power.
And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.
Verse 19. - Omit the "and" before "we know." There is no καί or δέ in the true text; and the asyndeton is impressive. The whole world lieth in the evil one. This is the second great fact of which Christians have certainty. They, as children of God, and preserved from the evil one by his Son, have nothing to do with the world, which still lies in the power of the evil one. That "the evil" τῷ πονηρῷ is here not neuter but masculine is evident from the context, as well as from 1 John 2:13, 14; 1 John 4:4. "By saying that it lieth in the evil one (in maligno) he represents it as being under the dominion of Satan. There is, therefore, no reason why we should hesitate to shun the world, which contemns God and delivers up itself into the bondage of Satan; nor is there any reason why we should fear its enmity, because it is alienated from God" (Calvin).
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.
Verse 20. - And we know. The "and" δέ is here rightly given - it sums up the whole with a final asseveration. Whatever the world and its philosophy chooses to assert, Christians know that the Son of God has come in the flesh, and has endowed them with mental faculties capable of attaining to a knowledge of the true God. The Christian's certainty is not fanaticism or superstition; he is "ready always to give answer to every man that asketh a reason concerning the hope that is in him" (1 Peter 3:15); by the gift of Christ he is able to obtain an intelligent knowledge of him who is indeed God. "Him that is true" does not mean God, who is not, like the devil, a liar, but "very God," as opposed to the idols against which St. John goes on to warn them. The Greek is ἀληθινός, not ἀληθής. Thus the Epistle ends as it began, with a fulfillment of Christ's prayer. In chapter 1 John 1:3 we had, "That ye also may have fellowship with us," which is identical with "That they may be one, even as we are" (John 17:11). And here we have, "That we know him that is true," which coincides with "That they should know thee the only true God" (John 17:3). This prayer of the great High Priest is fulfilled. "We are in him that is true," says the apostle, "(by being) in his Son Jesus Christ." This is the true God, and eternal life. Does "this" refer to God or to Christ? We must be content to leave the question open; both interpretations make excellent sense, and none of the arguments in favour of either are decisive. The question is not important. "That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God," who was with the Father from all eternity, is the very foundation of St. John's teaching in Gospel and Epistles; and it is not of much moment whether this particular text contains the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ or not. But if, with St. Athanasius, we interpret "this" of Christ, the conclusion of the letter is brought into striking harmony with the opening of it, in which (1 John 1:2) Christ is spoken of as "the Eternal Life which was with the Father, and was manifested to us." Moreover, we obtain a striking contrast with what follows. "This Man, Jesus Christ, is the true God: it is no idolatry to worship him. Whosoever says that he is not God makes us idolaters. But idolatry is to us an abomination."
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.
Verse 21. - Keep yourselves from idols; or, guard yourselves from the idols. In verse 18 we had τηρεῖ; here the verb is φυλάξατε. The aorist, rather than the present imperative, is used to make the command more forcible, although the guarding is not momentary, but will have to continue (Compare μείνατε ἐν ἐμοί, John 15:4; τὰς ἐντολὰς τὰς ἐμὰς τηρήσατε John 14:15). What is the meaning of "the idols" τῶν εἰδώλων here? In answering this question it will be well to hold fast to the common canon of exegesis, that where the literal interpretation makes good sense, the literal interpretation is probably right. Here the literal interpretation makes excellent sense. Ephesus was famous for its idols. To be "temple-keeper of the great Artemis" (Acts 19:35) was its pride. The moral evils which had resulted from the abuse of the right of sanctuary had caused the Roman senate to cite the Ephesians and other states to submit their charters to the government for inspection. Ephesus had been the first to answer to the summons, and had strenuously defended its claims. It was famous, moreover, for its charms and incantations; and folly of this kind had found its way into the Christian Church (Acts 19:13-20). As so often happens with converts from a religion full of gross superstition, a good many of the superstitious observances survived the adoption of Christianity. With facts such as these before us, we can hardly be wrong in interpreting "the idols" quite literally. The apostle's "little children" could not live in Ephesus without coming constantly in contact with these polluting but attractive influences. They must have absolutely nothing to do with them: "Guard yourselves and abjure ἀπό them." Of course, this literal interpretation places no limit on the application of the text. To a Christian anything is an idol which usurps the place of God in the heart, whether this be a person, or a system, or a project, or wealth, or what not. All such usurpations come within the sweep of the apostle's injunction, "Guard yourselves from your idols."

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