So this is our last week in the first epistle of John. Our passage today is 1 John 5:13-21.
13 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. 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.
16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them 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 you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. 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 by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.1 John 5:13-21
Similar to the opening, these last verses of 1 John don’t really strike us as a typical closing to a letter. The first verses of the book don’t have the usual salutation elements that we see in Paul’s letters, for example. And the final verses don’t have the usual final greetings, blessings, and etc. that we might be used to seeing. This may lend credence to the view that 1 John was a circular type of letter – that is, it may have been sent to several different communities, with a personalized salutation and conclusion added depending on the congregation. (Or it could be something else entirely).
Now this is probably not particularly interesting. And the only reason I bring it up is to point out that the closing verses (that we have) are still fully enfolded in the themes that we’ve been exploring throughout the letter (as opposed to wrapping up personal concerns). And I think it’s important to keep that in mind so we understand what John is talking about here.
So to review, the main message or theme that we’ve been seeing in 1 John (probably) has to do with the distinction between those who are in Christ and those who are not. And it is likely that this question is raised because of a group of opponents or false teachers who are claiming that something more is needed in order to “be in God,” or to achieve spiritual enlightenment – that is, something more than what John and the apostles have been preaching (which, interestingly, raises the question of authority). In contrast to this false teaching, John (along with the apostles and according to the revelation of God) asserts that the only thing needed is Jesus Christ – the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and the work that He accomplished on the cross. Now this entails, according to John, right belief or theology about Jesus (that is, the Jesus one follows must be the Jesus who is actually revealed), right living (that is, holiness, or choosing the Jesus-life as opposed to some other life), and right relationships (that is, this is worked out in community, especially how we love one another).
Now this should hopefully be readily apparent to us as we’ve been working through 1 John. And I point this out because there are elements in our passage today which may seem confusing and can lead us off track.
So, for example, we read in our passage today:
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.1 John 5:14-21
So these verses seem to be talking about prayer. And it might appear to assert that God will answer any prayer that we might ask (as long as it is according to his will). Now does this mean that God is going to answer any of our prayers – which seems obviously false (because I still can’t fly)? Or does it mean that God is going to do whatever God is going to do (which seems like a meaningless or at least unhelpful assertion)?
16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them 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 you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.1 John 5:16-17
This is a passage which has led to all kinds of theological speculation and debate. Firstly, does verse 16 suggest that we can pray for the forgiveness of someone else’s sins? Also, what exactly does John mean by “sin that leads to death?” We can certainly understand the “sin that does not lead to death.” That is, we know that Jesus forgives sin. But does John mean that there is some kind of sin that cannot or will not be forgiven? And what exactly is that sin?
18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.1 John 5:18
And does verse 18 suggest that Christians are not subject to temptation? Or less subject to temptation? Does it suggest that if one does not sin, he or she is not truly born of God? Or more problematic, does it mean that Christians are less subject to misfortune? So that if something bad happens to you, does this mean that your faith is somehow lacking?
And finally, what might be most puzzling is the way that John ends his letter. Verse 21 says, simply:
21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.1 John 5:21
Now the verse itself isn’t problematic. It’s the way that it ends the letter – it’s almost a non-sequitur. Certainly it’s theologically correct and great advice; but why is it the last verse of the letter?
Now I’ll try to address some of these, but my point is that these verses are ones that are often taken out of context in order to support all kinds of bad (or at least limited) theology and poor Christian ethics. More importantly, these kinds of questions (though perfectly fine questions) may lead us away from what John has been doing – and is likely still doing – throughout this letter. In other words, we need to read this all in context. Let me try to explain.
The very beginning of this passage (verse 13) tells us what John has been doing throughout the letter, and I would argue, what he is doing here.
13 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.1 John 5:13
We can recognize in this what is essentially a thesis statement, John’s concern for those who are in God vs. those who are not in God – or, those who have eternal life vs. those who do not have eternal life. Specifically, given the false teachers who are questioning, changing, or attempting to add to the apostles’ teachings, the community is beginning to doubt their eternal status. Therefore, John’s concern is for how one knows – or how one can have confidence – that they have eternal life.
So if we revisit these “problematic” verses, we might look at them through a slightly different lens:
13 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.
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.1 John 5:13, 14-15
Here, in light of verse 13, we can see that John’s exhortation to pray – to ask God – should probably be framed in terms of the question, “How can I be sure that I have eternal life?” In other words, John is probably making a pretty specific claim about praying to God about one’s salvation. That is, one does not have confidence by seeking special or elite knowledge (i.e. the Gnostics). One does not have confidence by seeking particular spiritual enlightenment. One has confidence in God, in Christ, alone. And it is in petitioning God that we can find assurance of salvation. Carrying on:
13 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.
16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them 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 you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.1 John 5:13, 16-17
The concern in these verse seems specifically to address the “of God” vs “not of God” dichotomy. And we remember here that John is dealing with a community that is struggling with division. There are some in the community who have been, or are being, led away from true faith in God. To those struggling with this situation, I think John is encouraging the community to pray for those who are wrestling with the question – that is, the question of “how do I have confidence that I have eternal life?” And it’s important to remember that one of the specific false teachings that John has been dealing with in this context is the question of holiness – the question of sin.
So I would argue that John is encouraging the believers to encourage the doubters. However, there are those who are not in doubt and have (essentially) decided that Jesus Christ is not, in fact, the last word (at least the Jesus Christ that is actually revealed in scripture and to the apostles). These are the ones who steadfastly refuse to believe John’s message that there is no other name besides Jesus. These are the ones who commit the “sin that leads to death,” because life is found only in Jesus. We can repent and be forgiven for every other sin – because God is a God of grace – but the refusal to turn to Jesus cannot be forgiven because it is only in Jesus that forgiveness can be found.
18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.1 John 13, 18
This verse seems to build on the previous (v. 16-17) as it relates to the importance of holiness. Remember that the false teachers are likely making the claim that physical or earthly sin doesn’t really matter. And following the assumption that these verses must be understood in the context of verse 13, specifically, and the entire letter generally, it seems to me that John is once again exhorting the community that faith in Christ must lead to a Christ-like life. Here, it might be helpful to keep in mind the distinction between life in Christ and life in/of the world. But because life through Jesus entails life through grace, those who trust in Jesus can have assurance of salvation or assurance of eternal life – the evil one cannot take it away.
And finally, the concluding verse thus should make a lot of sense, and make a lot of sense specifically in the context of what John has been talking about:
21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.1 John 5:13, 21
And this makes sense because ultimately what John is talking about is the life in God vs. the life that is not in God. The question of how we can know, or how we can ensure that one has eternal life, is ultimately to be answered by what God do you look to? What kingdom do you want to be a part of?
And what we have seen throughout this letter by John is that there is no other name under heaven or on the earth by which we can be saved. We remember, therefore, the opening verses of 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 our joy complete.1 John 1:1-4
“This we proclaim…” says John. The Word of life, the Son of God, Jesus. It’s not an idea or some secret knowledge. It’s not a method or technique. It’s not an attitude or approach. What John proclaims is the person of Jesus who won for us eternal life by His death and resurrection in obedience to the Father. This is what we proclaim.
All of this to say, life is found in Christ alone. Not in our theology, not in our denomination, not in our good works, but in Christ alone. Our confidence is in what Jesus has done. And so we can have complete confidence. Because what Jesus has done is completely sufficient. And only what Jesus has done is sufficient. Nothing can be added and nothing can be taken away.
What this means is that we are completely free to seek the fullness of life that is made possible for us – even while we are still in the in-between (the already/not yet). We seek to take hold of that life, not to prove that we are worthy of salvation, not to earn our salvation, but so we can participate in and proclaim the Christ-life while we wait for the fullness of that life to be revealed in all creation. And we don’t have to worry that we’re not good enough, we don’t have to worry that we’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing (though, we should certainly try to do the right thing), and we don’t have to try to be perfect. We can simply rest in Christ and trust in the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in us to perfect us according to His plan and His purposes.
So, if we hear the word of God in 1 John, we try to remember what it means to take hold of the life in Christ.
We seek to know this Jesus who gives us life. We seek to know the Jesus who is actually revealed, in faith and obedience that the revelation of God is true and trustworthy. So, therefore, we must pay attention to scripture. And in a similar way, we pay attention to scripture as it is actually given, not as we want it to be.
Likewise, we seek holiness – not just to avoid sin but to seek life. We are seeking to avoid sin because it separates us from God. But we are not just running away from wrong acts – we are actively trying to run towards God. Because we believe that the life that is revealed in Jesus is the only true life, and the life for which we are created.
And finally, following 1 John, we make a concerted effort to love one another. Because we are created for community, created for relationship. We love one another because He first loved us. We ought to be willing to lay down our lives for our brothers and our sisters because Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. Anyone who loves God must love their brothers and sisters.
So with that, we wrap up our series on 1 John. I hope that we will allow God’s word to work in us, and that we will seek the Holy Spirit to transform us according to His word.