Our passage today is from 1 John 5:1-12. It reads:
5 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
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. 9 We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.1 John 5:1-12
Now right away I should note that some commentators have the beginning of chapter 5 as part of the passage we looked at last week. We notice the connection right away in the continuation of the discussion on love. Other commentators have verses 1-5 (or 1-4) as a (more or less) separate passage and the remainder of the passage as (again, more or less) a separate passage.
For simplicity’s sake, I am following the NIV and considering the verses as a single unit. However, as we’ve already seen throughout the letter, there’s a lot of fluidity in John’s writing. It’s perhaps more helpful to think about the major themes and motifs rather than focussing on the logical flow of verse to verse and chapter to chapter (which isn’t to say that the logical flow isn’t there).
So, to begin with 5:1,
5 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.1 John 5:1-5
Immediately, we will recognize that this passage continues the thought from last week’s passage: That is, that love is (or should be) characteristic of the people of God because it is characteristic of God, Himself. But here, John takes the thought further. He begins by saying that everyone who loves the Father loves his child as well – no problem there. But then he says something which may strike us as a bit odd. He says, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.” This is odd because we would expect something like the inverse. We would expect something like, “this is how we know that we love God: by loving the children of God.”
However, what I want to suggest is that the resolution to this possible confusion has to do with how we understand “keeping his commands.” We have already seen that keeping God’s commands includes loving our brothers and sisters (3:23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.) Here, John goes on to say, “his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world…” This should point to the truth that God’s commands are somehow set in opposition to the ways of the world. In other words, and to simplify considerably, “the commands of God” are not merely things that we have to do or things that we cannot do; the commands of God are not tests of worthiness; the commands of God are not restrictions on our freedom. Rather, the commands of God are about entering into or taking hold of the true life, the fullness of life. The commands of God are about rejecting the things of the world so that we might take hold of the Kingdom.
So, when John says “this is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands,” he’s likely saying something like, “true love for the children of God (one another) has to do with taking hold of the kingdom life. Or, true love for the children of God flows out of a desire and determination to live a God-life. This should remind us of the description of love that we read about in last week’s passage.
Now, this may be made slightly clearer when we read this verse in the ESV (also, NASB, NRSV):
2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.1 John 5:2 ESV (emphasis added)
Whereas the NIV’s use of “by” gives the impression of process, the translation with the word “when” gives more of a sense of conjunction.
At any rate, my point is that John is connecting loving one another with the notion of new life, specifically with the notion of overcoming the world. That is, truly loving one another is an outworking of overcoming the world, which is connected with John’s motif of taking hold of the kingdom life (i.e. walking in the light, fellowship with God, and etc.). Obeying the commandments of God (including loving one another) has to do with choosing the Kingdom of God and rejecting (or overcoming) the world.
And overcoming the world, says John, is only accomplished in and through Jesus Christ – it can only truly and finally be attained in and through Jesus Christ. Who is it that overcomes the world, says John? Only the one who believes in that Jesus is the Son of God. As we should recognize, this returns us once again to John’s main thesis or emphasis for the letter:
1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make ourjoy complete.1 John 1:1-4
“This we proclaim,” says John. We proclaim Jesus. This is the one who died or our sins. This is the one who leads us out of the world and into true life.
This brings us to the second part of our passage today:
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 theSpirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. 9 We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.1 John 5:6-12
Now there are a number of interpretive considerations here and (with apologies) I’m going to pass by an examination of these and essentially give you a summary. It should be noted that here John seems once again to be addressing the false teachers – the teachings of his opponents. The reference to “blood” in verse 7 is a fairly clear reference to Jesus’ death. But the reference to “water” is a little more ambiguous (to us, at least). It could be a reference to Jesus’ birth – that is, the ‘water’ might be a reference to amniotic fluid. However, (as far as my own research, which is limited, is concerned) there seems to be general agreement that ‘water’ refers to Jesus’ baptism. There are a number of reasons for this – for example, John’s usage of the phrase in his writings usually points to baptism. Also, it seems unlikely that John would have made an appeal to Jesus’ birth given the denial by his opponents of Jesus’ humanity. So, the phrase water and blood seems specifically to refer to Jesus’ baptism (which inaugurated his ministry) and his death – that is, we could say that it refers to Jesus’ Messianic work.
So, John emphasizes that Jesus came not only by water (that is, baptism) but by blood (that is, his death). Or, it’s not only the baptism of Jesus that gives testimony to who He is, but also His death. If we remember that John is addressing the heresy of the false teachers, this makes sense. Those who deny Jesus’ incarnation would have no problem accepting Jesus’ baptism as confirmation of his saving ministry, but would not be able to accept Jesus’ death (because, according to them, Jesus didn’t really have a physical, human body). And John says that the Spirit confirms the truth of the witness of Jesus’ life and death.
Now, again moving probably too quickly, John essentially sets the testimony of God as definitive regarding the revelation of Jesus. The witness of humans – for example, Jesus’ baptism and death are verifiable according to human witness – these are important, but ultimately it is God’s witness that gives unimpeachable testimony to the person and work of Jesus. And it is the work of God that must ultimately work in the hearts of human beings in order to receive the truth.
11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.1 John 5:11-12
So, in other words – and I’m editorializing a bit here – the revelation of Jesus isn’t just a historical event, dependent upon and speaking to human understanding. It is of cosmic significance.
So to review what we’ve been saying, in the first paragraph (vv. 1-5), John is connecting the command to love one another with the acceptance of Jesus Christ as the one who has “overcome the world,” and therefore, the one through whom we can overcome the world. Loving one another is part of what it means (an essential part of what it means) to enter into the new life (that is, the life that is not of “the world”) through Jesus Christ – loving one another is an element of kingdom life. It is only through Jesus that we can truly take hold of this. And in the second paragraph (vv. 6-12), John is reiterating the truth (that is disputed by the false teachers) that it is only in and through Jesus Christ that one can have life: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
We can see this quite clearly if we compare the closing phrases of each paragraph:
- 5:5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
- 5:11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
So we should recognize immediately John’s dualism: Overcoming the world and having life fall under the same categories as walking in the light, fellowship with God, children of God, etc.
And again, John emphasizes the point that this is only in Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that we can have life. It is only in Jesus Christ that we can overcome the world. That is, the life that we have in Christ – the true life – is set in contrast to the world (this is a dichotomy that we’ve seen numerous times). And we, as the people of God, must overcome the world (we remember that “Choose life” were the words of Moses’ words to the Israelites) – but this is only accomplished in Jesus Christ. I want to emphasize and spend a little time on this point because I’m not sure we actually believe it (and I’m speaking in broad strokes here. I’m not addressing any thing in particular).
Bruce Hindmash has a book titled, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism. In it, he traces the development of Evangelicalism through several of the main figures including the John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, and Jonathan Edwards. One of the main themes that Hindmarsh traces is how these early Evangelicals responded to and adapted to the changes in the culture – these changes included things like Scientific Rationalism, the Enlightenment, and the advent and progress of Modernism.
Now Hindmarsh’s perspective – speaking generally – is that these changes in culture encouraged the early Evangelicals to re-think, adapt, or expand their understanding of the Christian faith. And he presents these as largely positive (though recognizing that it’s not unequivocally so). So, for example, some of the elements of scientific discoveries and the Enlightenment could be seen as influencing the development of apologetics.
However, Hindmarsh and others recognize that such developments in Evangelicalism have also led to potentially problematic elements of western Christianity. James Houston (again, among others) notes that the Enlightenment and Modernism (among other things) contributed to the development, especially within Evangelicalism but in Western Christianity, broadly speaking, of a marked individualism and a distinct almost-if-not-outright humanism. In other words, Evangelical Christianity tends to be extremely individualistic.
Another element of Western, Evangelical Christianity may be seen as arising out of the Industrial Revolution. Combined with other elements of the rise of Western civilization, there exists within Western Christianity the sense that even salvation is a human accomplishment. Alongside the achievements in scientific knowledge, technological capability, Health and Medicine, and etc. there exists the assumption that spiritual growth, spiritual enlightenment, or spiritual health is a matter of making the right discoveries, gaining the right knowledge, and applying the right techniques. God, however we understand that, might be the goal or the reward, but spirituality (or salvation) is ultimately a human achievement.
So what I’m saying is that all of these elements (again, especially in western culture) may lead to a paradigm in which we think that life is something that we can accomplish. Religion, or even Jesus, is merely part of the mechanism that we employ. Jesus can essentially become a tool in used to manufacture the life that (we think) we want, but he isn’t really the King that we submit to. I think this is what the Gnostics were doing. Jesus served as a kind of example or blueprint, but Jesus was really more of an idea and not a real person – truly God and truly Human. And I think what John would say is that in many ways this is part of the world that needs to be overcome.
We have talked about this many times before and I don’t want to go on about it, but what I do want to do is share one of the (many) things I take from Eugene Peterson. Peterson talks frequently about prayer, and particularly about how prayer is answering language; prayer is the language of response.
Now I have a lot of thoughts about prayer – not the least of which is that I need to learn to pray more and better. But one of the things I wonder about prayer is how we use it. Or how we think that it is a thing to be used. We think of the world as essentially an autonomous entity, to which God stands essentially apart. When things happen, or when we want things to happen, we offer up prayers in order to alert God to these happenings, in order that we might convince or coerce God to do the thing that, according to our own infinite wisdom and insight, will rectify the problem or create the appropriate outcome. In this kind of prayer, we are the initiator. God is essentially our instrument. In this kind of prayer, God responds to us; God answers to us.
But, according to Peterson (with whom I agree), prayer is answering language; prayer is responding language. We respond to God who is already and always at work in the world. In this kind of prayer, we recognize that God is sovereign over the world, over all creation. In this world, on this side of eternity, sin is prevalent and pervasive, but God remains sovereign. We cry out to God, not to make Him aware of our need, but to get in on what He is already doing. We petition God not to convince Him to act, but in order to desire more greatly His kingdom. We are not trying to change God’s mind but our own minds and heart.
What this means, in the context of our passage today, is that overcoming the world is about taking hold of God’s world, entering into the God-life. And this means taking hold of Jesus.
What I mean is that Jesus is not the means of overcoming the world, or Jesus is not the mechanism by which we overcome the world. Rather, we cling to Jesus because Jesus is overcoming (has overcome) the world.
Now all of this is simply to say, what we are doing or trying to do is simply to take hold of Jesus. It is only in Him and through Him that we take hold of true life; It is only in Him and through Him that we are freed from the false-life. Throughout this letter of John, we’ve seen some aspects of what this means. But in the end, it’s all about Jesus. Loving one another means choosing the Jesus-life. Obeying God’s commands means choosing the Jesus-life. This is the one in whom we put our faith. This is the one in whom we find redemption. This is the one in whom we find life.