You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘The Letters of John’ category.
3 John is one of the few letters in the New Testament written to an individual (the others are 1, 2 Tim, Titus and Philemon). As you can see, this letter is addressed to a “beloved” friend named Gaius. Gaius was a very common name in N.T. times. Indeed we find four references to men named Gaius in the N.T. (including this one): Acts 19:29; Acts 20:4; Rom. 16:23; and here. None of the first three can be identified with this one. Therefore we know nothing about this Gaius beyond what we learn in this letter, which isn’t much.
Gaius apparently was a member of one of the churches over which the elder has oversight. Some persons have suggested that Gaius was an officer in a local church. That is possible, but there’s nothing in the letter to support it.
The author once again identifies himself as “the elder.” This is the same elder who wrote 2 John. As we established in the previous essay, the elder was the apostle John, the son of Zebedee.
You will notice that in the salutation of this letter John does not give the usual Christian blessing. Instead of offering a general “grace, mercy and peace” blessing, such as he had given in 2 John, we see him here offering a specific blessing for Gaius. He wishes Gaius good health, both physically and spiritually; and he expresses joy in the knowledge (gained from certain visiting brethren) that the spiritual health of Gaius is good.
Next John moves, in verses 5-12, to the primary reason for his writing. Therefore those verses constitute the body of the letter. We shall deal with this section in three parts beginning with verses 5-8. We saw in our consideration of 2 John that the traveling missionaries and prophets, who were the main source of proper teaching for the church, depended on the hospitality of local church members. Apparently Gaius had been hospitable to such people, and John commends him for that.
In 2 John the apostle mentioned the negative side of this matter of hospitality to traveling teachers. He said, in 2 John 10 and 11, that Christians should not give hospitality to false teachers. Here in 3 John, we see the positive side. Gaius is commended for having provided hospitality to traveling leaders. In addition to apostles Gaius probably aided various prophets, preachers and teachers. In other words, giving hospitality to traveling ministers was a good thing, if the ministers were not deceivers.
John’s point is still applicable today, though in different ways. For example, it is important that we provide support for missionaries in order that the gospel might be proclaimed to the multiplied millions who yet need to respond to Christ. Support of missionaries and financial support of other faith ministries are a means of propagating the gospel that falls within the biblical mandate. And a large number of evangelists and missionaries are supported that way. This is a modern-day way of doing what Gaius was doing in the first century.
But that isn’t the only way that we can support missions. We must not forget prayer support. Tillie and I have a list of missionaries and ministers for whom we pray regularly, even though we cannot support all of them financially.
In verses nine and ten, John shifts gears. In these two verses we see the heart of the problem about which John was concerned. John had written to “the church.” This probably was the church of which Gaius was a member, though it possibly could have been another one nearby. In that church, whatever the relationship of Gaius to it, a man named Diotrephes had rejected John’s authority and was asserting himself as a church “dictator.” Diotrephes not only had refused hospitality to traveling preachers who were legitimate, he had put people who had supplied hospitality out of the church.
Again we see that the New Testament Church was not perfect. They had their problems, just as we have ours. John makes it clear to Gaius that he would deal with Diotrephes when he, John, personally came to the church. Interestingly John expresses himself in rather mild terms (a fact that has puzzled the commentators). The best explanation of the mild words of John is that he is a patient, loving human being. There is no doubt that he faced genuine provocation on the part of Diotrephes. But John used loving restraint in his response to Diotrephes.
You will notice in verses 11-12 that the elder first encourages Gaius to do good rather than evil (in contrast to Diotrephes who is doing evil). And then John tells Gaius about another man named Demetrius. Thus we have another “shift of gears,” so to speak.
John gives very little information about Demetrius. But the way he introduces him indicates that Demetrius probably was one of the traveling preachers that John had been discussing. Moreover, Demetrius probably was the bearer of the letter to Gaius. Remember, there was no postal system. Because John was certain that Diotrephes would not provide hospitality to Demetrius, he sent Demetrius to Gaius, and asked Gaius to extend the hospitality.
As he did at the close of 2 John, John gives some closing remarks in verses 13-15.
In summary, we have considered two important matters here. First is the hospitality issue. Of course the New Testament presents hospitality as a kind of general virtue. But here, John relates it specifically to traveling ministers of the gospel. We interpreted that as having primary application today in regard to financial support of today’s evangelists and missionaries, though hospitality in our homes still may be needed on occasion.
Second is the matter of Church conflicts. Diotrephes had become a Church dictator. He had defied, and apparently even maligned, the apostle John. John was the apostolic authority over Diotrephes’ local church; but Diotrephes was determined to do what he wanted to do, even in the face of apostolic directions to do otherwise.
This was not a subtle situation. There was no doubt who was in the wrong. And John expected Gaius to support John’s apostolic authority by taking care of the needs of Demetrius. We should be willing to do the same. In Church conflicts, where it is clear who is in the wrong (and I realize that isn’t always possible) we must support what is right.
In our last essay we completed our study of 1 John In this essay we are going to study 2 John. The letter begins in 1:1-3 with a rather typical salutation for a Christian letter in the first-century culture. But the author doesn’t give his name. Rather he identifies himself as “the Elder.” It is as if a Bishop or minister, today, wrote a letter to a congregation and signed it “Your Bishop,” or “Your Pastor.”
The term “elder” had four possible meanings when the letter was written. One, it could mean an old man generally. Two, it could refer to an old man who exercised leadership in a given community. Three, it could refer to a person who held a local church office. Or four, it could refer to a traveling minister who had authority over a group of churches much in the sense of an apostle. In light of the content of the letter, the fourth possibility is by far the most likely.
There is some scholarly debate about authorship; but we are not going to go into that, other than to say that evangelical scholars generally believe that John the Apostle, the Son of Zebedee, and a member of the Twelve, wrote all three of these epistles and the Gospel of John. So I will refer to John as the author.
Next, John addresses “the elect lady and her children.” Now there are two basic possibilities as to who the elect lady was. John could have been addressing an actual woman and her children; or he could have been using the woman and children as a metaphor for a church and its members.
It is impossible to know with absolute certainty which of these John had in mind. But there are a couple of clues that tip the scales for me towards the latter view. First, notice that in verse 13 John sends a greeting from the lady’s “elect sister.”
Then 1 Peter 5:13 provides some help. It reads: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings” (RSV). That greeting is very similar to the one in John. And since the reference in 1 Peter almost certainly is a reference to the church at Rome, rather than to an actual woman in Babylon, for me that tips the scales towards the metaphorical interpretation, because it proves that at least one other early Christian apostle used that metaphor. And so I believe that John wrote this letter to a church and its members. But I cannot guarantee that.
Next, we see that the lady is elect, that is, chosen. This adjective often is applied to all Christians. It means that God chose, that is called, them to be his people. The term “elect” always signifies those who have responded to God’s call and thus have become God’s people. Therefore we have the so-called doctrine of election.
However there are two major views of election in Protestantism. Classic Reformed theology says that God arbitrarily chooses a limited number of persons to be saved, that is, he elects particular individuals for salvation; and they are the ones who respond to his call.
Wesleyan-Arminian theology on the other hand says that God elects all persons to be saved. That is, the election is corporate, rather than individual. And God gives each individual the freedom to say, “No.”
All right, as we move on, notice that the elder loves the lady and her children “in the truth.” The word “truth” here means not simply “really” or “truly,” but refers to “reality.” And “reality” for John is Christ. This becomes clear in verse two, where he goes on to say why he loves them in the truth. It is, quote, “because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever.”
For those of us who are familiar with John’s Gospel, or with the first epistle, this idea is neither strange nor new. Truth is an important concept to John; and in his Gospel he quotes Jesus as saying, “I am…the truth” (14:15-17). And in both the Gospel and first epistle John stresses the idea that we are to abide in Christ and allow Christ (or the Spirit of Christ) to abide in us. It is this basic concept to which John is making reference. Of course this is closely related to the doctrine of sanctification.
We now are ready for the body of the letter, that is, for its central focus, found in verses 4-11. But we will take it in two parts. In verse 4-6 John begins by describing the great joy he feels upon learning that some of the “children,” i.e., the church members, have been “following the truth.” The word, “some,” implies that there are other church members who are not living as they should. And thus the series of exhortations that follow would seem to be aimed primarily at those who are not. However, since they are addressed to the lady, there has to be a sense in which they are addressed to the entire congregation.
At any rate, there follows a series of exhortations that are intended to inspire some folks to do better in certain areas. The first exhortation is that Christians are to love one another, verse 5. This is essential in John’s view, and he comes back to this theme time and time again in his writings. We are to love one another.
The second exhortation is closely related in John’s mind with the first, though it is not the same. He says that Christian love involves keeping the Father’s commands, that is, doing God’s will, verse 6. This is very important. It means that doing the will of God is not primarily a negative thing. That is, it is not a matter of don’t do this, and don’t do that, simply because God says so. Rather, doing the will of God is a positive thing. It is an aspect of love. That is, it is tied into our relationship with God. We do his will; we keep his commandments, because he loves us, and because we love him.
Before John gives us his third exhortation, he turns in verse seven, to a specific problem that faces the congregation to which he is writing. There are certain “deceivers,” or we might call them false teachers, who “have gone out into the world,” and who are teaching that Christ did not come in the flesh. John terms such a person an antichrist.
The word “antichrist” that appears at the end of verse seven comes from a Greek preposition, anti, which literally means “against,” or “instead of,” and the noun christos, which of course means Christ, or Messiah. In 1 John 2:18-19, we saw John gave this term a two-fold technical meaning in Christian theology. He refers to an antichrist, singular, who is to come in the future. This is the end-time antichrist, the end-time opponent of Christ, whom Jesus will crush at his second coming.
But John also refers to antichrists, plural, who already were present in John’s day. John points out that these are false teachers, who have gone out from the Christian fellowship, away from apostolic authority. And they are teaching false doctrines about Christ, including the one he mentions here in 2 John; namely, denying that Jesus is Christ in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3). We know from both the Gospel and John’s first epistle that John was much concerned with this matter, called in theology the incarnation. The term incarnation literally means ”in-flesh-ment.” It refers to the becoming flesh of the pre-existent Word (or Son) of God. For John it was essential that believers understand and believe that there had been a true incarnation, that the creative Word of God had become flesh and remained flesh to the end.
Apparently, the basic idea underlying this heresy about which John is concerned is that promoted later by the Gnostics. The Gnostics believed that spirit is good and matter is evil. Therefore, the Christ could not possibly have become flesh, because that would be saying he became evil. Hence some of them suggested that Jesus did not have a real body, but only seemed or appeared to have one. In other words, the Christ did not really become a human being, but only pretended to do so. Other Gnostics suggested that Jesus was a genuine human being, but not the eternal Christ. In their view, the eternal Christ came upon Jesus at his baptism and left him prior to the crucifixion.
But as you can see, either type of teaching effectively destroys the idea of a real incarnation. And whatever the specific teachings of the “deceivers” in John’s day were, it was anti-incarnation; and thus in John’s view, it was antichristian. Thus the antichrists (plural) of the Johannine epistles are those false teachers who deny the real incarnation of Christ.
Coming back to John’s list of exhortations, the third exhortation is given in verse 8: “Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward.” We can boil down the message of verses 7-8 taken together to be this: be careful about false teachings. These verses constitute a sort of warning to the congregation that they stand to lose at least part of their reward as Christians if the false teachers take them in. But it is even more serious than that, because in the next verse John claims that any person who does not abide in the correct doctrine “does not have God.”
This warning still is valid today. There are teachers today who go far beyond what the Bible actually says. They say that they have a “key” or a new revelation that enables them to know more than the Bible plainly reveals. This is a sure sign of danger regardless of the doctrine involved, though John was concerned at the time about the doctrine of Christ.
The opposite, positive, side also is stated in verse 9; he who “abides in the teaching [meaning the teaching about the incarnation] has both the Father and the Son.” Now there is a caution that we should mention at this point. John is not saying that spiritual life comes from holding a correct doctrine. A person can believe all the right things and be “dead as a doornail” spiritually. When John speaks of abiding in the teaching, in his mind it includes abiding in Christ. That is, it involves the dynamic relationship with God in Christ by means of the Holy Spirit that we have learned about. Correct doctrines are important; but they certainly are not the whole matter.
John closes out the body of the letter in verses 10-11 with a fourth exhortation; namely to refuse to receive, or even greet, the false teachers. That’s rather clear isn’t it? He’s saying, you know the truth. So do not give any encouragement whatsoever to false teachers. This matter was much more significant in their situation than ours, though it certainly can apply to us. On the one hand, in those days the churches were considerably dependent upon traveling prophets and teachers for teaching and spiritual nurture. But on the other hand, fine motels did not exist in every city, as is the case now. Therefore it was essential that the members of the church provide hospitality to these people. And of course that meant receiving them into their homes and providing for their needs. And John is saying, do not provide hospitality to these false teachers.
Now there are at least two ways that this can apply to us. First, today there still are some false teachers who travel around and want hospitality from Christians. Where it is clear that they are false teachers, this principle should be applied. We must not encourage such people.
On the other hand, second, we must be careful not to go to the opposite extreme and be unkind to fellow Christians, who simply differ from us on minor theological points, or in debatable areas of biblical interpretation. John is dealing here with one of the essential doctrines, not a secondary doctrine.
The last two verses are closing remarks and greetings. In closing, let me summarize the four exhortations of the letter: Love one another (v.3). Follow God’s commandments (v.6). Be careful about false teachings (vv. 7-8). And Don’t encourage false teachers (v.10).
In the last essay we studied 1 John 5:13-15. In those verses John assured us of two important matters of faith. One, we can have knowledge of eternal life, verse 13. And two, we can have confidence in prayer, verses 14-15.
All right, in this essay, John turns from prayer in general to intercessory prayer. When we pray not for ourselves, but for others, that is intercessory prayer. The first thing we notice in verses 15-16 is that these verses are a powerful affirmation of intercessory prayer. And there are many others in the New Testament that do the same. For example, Paul says to the Thessalonians “Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25). The author of Hebrews makes the same request: “Pray for us” (Heb. 13:18). James calls upon the elders of the church to anoint the sick with oil and pray for them (James 5:14); and Timothy suggests that prayers should be lifted on behalf of all men (I Tim. 2:1). So intercessory prayer definitely is scripturally based.
John’s particular illustration is a bit mysterious, because he makes a distinction regarding sin that he doesn’t explain. The distinction is between sins that are mortal and those that are not mortal. The distinction is important, because he says we are to pray for those persons who commit sins that are not mortal, but not for those who commit sins that are mortal.
Thus there are two kinds of sin. The problem is, what is the difference between them? The Greek here (pros thanaton) literally means “toward death.” Evidently mortal sin is sin that is moving towards death, meaning spiritual death. That is, the goal and end of mortal sin is death. If one persists in this kind of sin it will result in death. But the question remains, which sins are mortal and which are not?
The Christians to whom John was writing obviously already knew what he meant by this distinction between mortal and non-mortal sins, because he didn’t explain it. We do not know. So the Scholars have discussed and cussed (metaphorically) the issue.
One point of scholarly discussion is the Old Testament distinction between unconscious or unwitting sins, on the one hand, and deliberate, highhanded sins on the other. The unconscious sins are not deliberate, or at least they are not premeditated. They are done out of ignorance, or in a moment of passion. The sacrifices made on the annual Day of Atonement atoned for those sins.
The highhanded sins, on the other hand, are done deliberately, knowing it is against God’s will. And under the Old Covenant, there was no atonement for that kind of sin. Although this distinction is helpful and may present part of the truth, in and of itself it does not fit the New Testament teachings of forgiveness. It leaves the category of sins leading to death much too broad.
Scholars offer many, mostly unsatisfactory, possibilities for what John meant by “mortal” sins. For example, it has been suggested that John meant sins punishable by death under man’s law. But the passage quite clearly means more than a matter of breaking man-made laws.
A second suggestion is that John meant sins punishable by death under God’s law, meaning the Mosaic law of the Old Testament. But most scholars agree that such an interpretation throws Christians back under the Old Covenant after the New Covenant was established.
Still a third suggestion is that John meant sins punishable by excommunication. But excommunication is hardly the same as death. So that idea has not gained support.
A fourth interpretation is that John meant post-baptism sins. The idea is that God forgives all previous sin when one is converted and baptized, but does not forgive sins committed after one is converted and baptized. But that idea goes beyond the overall teaching of the New Testament, which makes it clear that God does forgive post-baptism sins.
The best interpretation in my opinion is yet another one. I cannot guarantee that it is correct, so we have to sit lightly on it. It is the suggestion that the sin that leads to death, the mortal sin, is the one sometimes called the unforgivable sin.
The scriptures for the unforgivable sin are Lk. 12:10 and parallels and Heb. 6:4-6. The Lukan passage talks about “blasphemy against the Spirit,” and the passage in Hebrews speaks about true apostates, persons who experience all there is to experience in fellowship with Christ, and yet turn their backs on him. I believe these two ideas should be equated. In the end blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is experiencing all that there is to experience in Christ and then rejecting him. Heb. 6:4-6 reads:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.
That is the unforgivable sin. And in my mind it is the sin that is unto death, for which it does no good to pray. Of course all conscious sin, if persisted in, leads to death. And John has made it clear that Christians are not to sin at all. Therefore the category of sin for which prayer is not helpful has to be a special small category.
In my opinion mortal sin refers to those fairly rare apostates to whom Hebrews 6 makes reference. Those people have (like Satan) deliberately, knowingly turned their backs on God and his salvation. They know the consequences of their decisions, and they don’t care. These are the people who have blasphemed the Holy Spirit, who have committed the unforgivable sin (Lk. 12:10 and parallels). It also is important to recognize that this sin is unforgivable not because God won’t forgive it. It is unforgivable because those persons do not want to be forgiven. That’s why it does no good to pray for them. They are unmovable. God who knows that gives up on them. Prayer in such cases is a waste of time, because God no longer has any influence on them.
The much broader category of sins, the sins that do not lead to death, and for which prayer is helpful, includes primarily conscious sins of which we need to repent and seek forgiveness. One might think that unconscious sins should be included, but unconscious sins are taken care of by Christ’s shed blood as a universal benefit of the atonement, so prayer isn’t really necessary for them. Sins become mortal in an ultimate sense only if a person refuses to repent or seek forgiveness. And that is precisely what those who commit the unforgivable sin have done.
All right finally, not only can we have knowledge of eternal life and have confidence in prayer, third, we can have complete, spiritual victory over sin. In verses 18-21 John declares several things about Christians. First, we are free from sin (v. 18). This is a restatement of an earlier teaching in chapter three, verses six and nine. And the reason we who are born of God (believers) are free from sin is because “the one who is born of God” (Jesus Christ) protects us from the evil one.
And that gives us a second point about Christians: Christ protects us from the evil one.
Third, we are aware that we are of God in contrast to the world (v. 19). In other words there are two groups: those of us who are children of God make up one group; and those among us who belong to the world and the evil one make up the second group.
Fourth, we are aware that the way to being children of God, and of maintaining our relationship to him, is Jesus Christ (v. 20). Through faith in him, and by means of our mutual abiding relationship with him, we are in the One who is true (God), and we have eternal life.
In the last essay, we studied 1 John 5:1-12. In those verses we saw John insist that being a Christian includes believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. In this essay we conclude our study of the letter by looking at 5:13-21. In this concluding passage, John assures us of three important matters of faith. One, we can have knowledge of eternal life (v. 13). Two, we can have confidence in prayer (vv. 14-17). And three, we can have victory over sin (vv. 18-21).
Let’s begin with verse 13. John is starting to bring things together now. Notice the mention of his purpose in writing. Several times throughout the letter John brought up his purpose in writing. For example, way back at the beginning of the letter, in 1:3-4, John indicated that he was writing so that the recipients could have fellowship with God and that their joy might be full.
I suggest you turn there and look at that: chapter one, verses 3-4. Look for the phrase “so that,” because that is John way of expressing purpose: “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
Then at the beginning of chapter 2, John says in regard to his purpose, “I am writing this to you so that you may not sin.” Obviously that means that the recipients’ not sinning was an important part of his overall purpose in writing. Then in verse twelve of chapter two, he announced the good news of forgiveness: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of my name.” Thus we saw that we are not supposed to sin, but if we do, genuine repentance always brings forgiveness.
And then finally, as we saw a moment ago in 5:13, John wrote, “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.” Now whether you realize it or not, John has brought you full circle. He began by stating his purpose to be fellowship with God and complete joy. And he ended his mention of purpose with a promise of eternal life. And, of course if you have eternal life, you are in fellowship with God, and your joy is complete.
John’s first point is clear: we can have knowledge of eternal life. Second, in 5:14-15 John informs us that we can have confidence in prayer. This is good news! John tells us two encouraging facts about prayer. First, he informs us that God hears our prayers (v. 14). And second, he tells us that God answers our prayers (v. 15). And because of this, we can be confident!
However, prayer is not a magical process, as some would have us believe. There are certain conditions for answered prayer. Answered prayer is a consequence of our personal, love relationship with the Lord Jesus, which involves a number of factors. Let’s look at a series of passages that demonstrate this. The first is in the Gospel of John chapter 15, verse seven: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
That is an important statement. Clearly one must maintain the mutual abiding relationship that John has taught us about in order for God to answer our prayers. The next reference is John 14:14: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Here is another important prayer truth. We must pray in Jesus’ name for answered prayers. Now Jesus wasn’t suggesting that his name has magical powers. Rather praying in Jesus’ name means that our trust is in him and in no other.
All right, the next passage is in 1 John 3:22: “and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.” This is another condition of answered prayer. We must keep God’s commandments and do what pleases him.
Finally, we come to the extremely important verse in the passage we are studying (1 John 4:14): “And this is the boldness [or confidence] we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” Of course Jesus himself illustrated this in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed “not my will but thine be done” (Mt. 26:39,42). For answered prayer, we must pray according to God’s will.
The last three of these Conditions all stem from the first. If we aren’t abiding in Christ and letting his Spirit abide in us, we cannot pray in Jesus’ name, keep God’s commandments, or pray according to God’s will. And so if we are not in this mutual abiding relationship with Jesus, it is ridiculous for us to expect God to answer our prayers. True prayer is asking God for what he wants, not for what we want.
In our last essay we studied 1 John 4:7-21 in which we saw a wonderful discourse on love. We began with one of the most important, perhaps the most important, statement about God in Scripture, namely, that God is love. And I went on to say that this fact must influence our interpretation of every other revealed fact about God. God’s character is love. Everything he is, everything he does, flows out of that essential attribute. Thus I suggested that even when God exercises judgment and wrath, he does so out of a heart of love.
In this essay we are studying 1 John 5:1-12. In this final chapter, John brings his focus back to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and to what faith in Jesus is all about. In the first five verses he reminds us of some key ideas that he already stressed earlier in the letter, but with some fresh emphases.
I see in these verses five characteristics of persons who are born again. First, we believe that Jesus is the Christ, verse one. Second, we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, verse five. This confirms what we already know, that for Jesus to be the Christ and the Son of God means essentially the same thing. The reason that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one of God, is because he is the Son of God. And belief in him is essential for overcoming the world.
But it isn’t just a matter of the close relation of titles. John is concerned about what the false teachers he mentioned in chapter two have been teaching. They evidently were in favor of believing in God, but not in the Son of God.
You will remember that we saw in chapter 2:22-23 that the false teachers were teaching that Jesus was not the Christ, the Son of God. And in chapter four John indicated that they were denying that Jesus was God in the flesh (4:2). Now here in the last chapter John comes back to this important matter and stresses that those who are born of God believe that Jesus is the Christ and that “everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” That is to say, true believers believe not only in God the Father, but also in God the Son. The implication is that the false teachers were denying the Son.
Those of us who are born of God not only believe that Jesus is the Christ and that he is the Son of God, third, we love God and God’s children, verse two. We already have talked quite a lot about this, so I will not explain further now.
A fourth characteristic of those of us who are born of God is that we obey God’s commandments, verse three. Notice that John says God’s commandments are “not burdensome.” Undoubtedly he had in mind Jesus’ teaching found in Mt. 11:30: “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” You see, according to Jesus, obedience to him is not a burden. The power of the Holy Spirit is available to enable us to love and to obey. We merely must be willing.
The image that springs to my mind from Jesus’ teaching about the yoke is the two-ox type of yoke, where two oxen share the load. I envision Jesus in the yoke with me, helping me to pull the load of life, encouraging me, and strengthening me by his very presence. That is why the Christian life is not a burden. Jesus, by means of the Holy Spirit, helps us to handle it.
Finally fifth, those of us who are born of God believe that we can conquer the world through faith in him, verses 4-5. That is, we can have victory over sin and death. These verses bring to mind the John Yates hymn that was inspired by them, “Faith is the Victory.”
Encamped along the hills of light, Ye Christian soldiers rise,
And press the battle ere the night shall veil the glowing skies.
Against the foe in vales below let all our strength be hurled;
Faith is the victory, we know, that overcomes the world.
[And then the chorus:]
Faith is the victory! Faith is the Victory!
O glorious victory that overcomes the world.
To summarize these opening verses of chapter five, John has listed five characteristics of persons who are born of God: we believe Jesus is the Christ; we believe he is the Son of God; we love God and God’s children; we obey God’s commands; and we believe that we can conquer the world through faith in him. And the result is victory, victory over the world, its temptations and its opposition.
Now then, in verses 6 through 8 John gives a mysterious further explanation about three witnesses to who Jesus is. As you see, two of the three witnesses are the water and the blood. Now there have been many suggestions concerning what John meant by the water and the blood. Some scholars, especially Roman Catholics, tend to interpret the references to water and blood as references to the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. But the sacraments deal with Jesus’ continuing presence in the Church, and John is not referring to that here. Rather he is making reference to the reality of Jesus’ manifestation in history. There may be a legitimate secondary application here to the sacraments; but that definitely was not what was on John’s mind when he wrote the epistle.
Others interpret the verses in light of the passage in John 19:34 where John tells us that water and blood flowed from Jesus’ side when a soldier pierced him with a spear. But, although we are naturally reminded of that incident because it also mentions blood and water in connection with Jesus, there is no apparent connection between that incident and John’s words here.
Here John is saying that Jesus came “not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” There blood and water came out of Jesus’ side as he hung on the cross, but that does not explain how Jesus came with the water and the blood. Thus we conclude that there is no real connection.
Still others suggest that the water and blood symbolize the physical birth of Jesus, that is, they are symbolic of his coming in the incarnation as a human being. The idea is that John is stressing Jesus’ real humanity.
The large majority of scholars, however, reject all of these interpretations in favor of the idea that the water symbolizes Jesus’ baptism, and the blood his cross. In other words, it is the messianic ministry of Jesus that John has in view.
When John says that Jesus came “with the water and the blood,” he means that he came as the Messiah. That is, when the water flowed over Jesus at his baptism, it symbolized his coming as the Messiah; and when Jesus shed his blood on the cross for our sins, he was completing his purpose in coming as the Messiah.
This is more important than it looks on the surface. John wants us to understand that Jesus’ baptism and death cannot be separated. It was the divine Son of God who came as the human Messiah, and it was the Son of God who died on the cross. That’s why his death is sufficient to save us from our sins.
It is in verse eight that John mentions the third witness, the Holy Spirit. Of course the Spirit was present both at the baptism and the cross. And John could be referring to the fact that the Spirit was a participant in the major events of Jesus’ messianic ministry. That makes him the ideal witness, a divine witness. But more than that, the three witnesses stand or fall together. One cannot accept the witness of the Holy Spirit and reject the witness of the water and the blood. Indeed it is the Holy Spirit who witnesses through the water and the blood.
Now then, in 5:10-12 we find two things. First, we find out how the Holy Spirit witnesses or testifies to Jesus as the Messiah. He witnesses within individual believers. And second, we find the fourth major theme of the letter, Belief versus Unbelief.
John sets the theme in stark contrast in verse 10. A literal translation is, “He who believes in the Son of God has the witness [or testimony] in himself.” Both the NRSV and the NIV translators insert the word “heart” in an attempt to make it more clear. But it is fairly clear without that. He is saying that there is a witness of the Holy Spirit within individual Christians that Jesus is the Christ. John Wesley strongly emphasized this “witness of the Spirit,” in his theology. It is by the witness of the Spirit that we know we are saved.
John continues: “He who does not believe God has made him [God] a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne to his Son” (RSV). There is the theme, Belief versus Unbelief! Belief, that is faith, prompts the witness of the Spirit within us that confirms what we believe about Jesus; unbelief on the other hand makes God a liar and confirms us in our alienation from him.
The “bottom line” is that eternal life depends on faith in Jesus, the Son of God. As John puts it, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
Our postmodern culture has great difficulty with this. Many in our culture are convinced that there is no absolute truth, and that’s what our schools are teaching our young people. Anyone can believe what they want, but no one has the right to say that their belief is true and the beliefs of others are false. It is completely politically incorrect to make an exclusive claim such as John is making here in our passage for today. But if we are going to be biblical Christians, we must stand with John and the other New Testament writers and say that Jesus is the only way to salvation.