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.