1 John 5:13-21
Recently my daughter and I were throwing around ideas for a possible mission statement for our church, one that would shortly and succinctly state what we, as a church, are purposed to do in our community. In a similar way, John gives us his purpose statement at the end of his letter, a trend that he also followed in his longer writing of the Gospel of John. John 20:30-31 give us the purpose of his gospel: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing, you may have life in his name.” John, as well as the other Gospel writers, could just as easily be referred to as an evangelist, as that was the purpose of the Gospels. Now, in John’s letter, he is writing to people who have believed, who have life in his name, but, perhaps are questioning that in some way. Can you be sure of your salvation? If so, how can you be sure? That is the purpose statement that John gives here at the end of his letter, a purpose that is woven through the entire text of the letter but is brought out with specific emphasis here in chapter 5.
John writes to give an objective sense of assurance. The key word in vs. 13 is the word “know”. John seems to indicate that it is possible to know that one has eternal life; to know in an objective, certain sense. The initial question we face in vs. 13 is what does John mean when he says “these things?” While it is possible that he is meaning the previous 12 verses of chapter 5, it is more likely that John has in mind all of this epistle; that all of the words he has written to this point are written with the purpose of giving assurance to a group of people that have shown genuine faith in Christ. This purpose can be seen throughout the letter, as we see John drawing a distinction between what we say and what we do, with our actions speaking louder than our words, not in earning salvation but giving evidence of its genuineness in us. So, John brings this to the forefront in the last section of his letter, reminding us that we can have an assurance, we can know that we have eternal life.
The confidence that John seeks to build in his readers, though, is not just limited to our salvation, but also extends to the hope we have in prayer. Verses 14-15 are used often to support the idea that God is beholden to our prayer, assuming we are praying with true faith. The reality is, though, that these verses are not a promise that God will always give us what we ask, but rather, that true and confident prayer is always found in the context of our will being completely aligned with God’s will. It is more a statement of our confidence in God than in our fervency in prayer. It is more a declaration that God’s will is always best and when our prayer matches God’s will, we can have confidence that God is going to accomplish His will. God is going to hear. God is going to act. Not because we have prayed well, but we have prayed God’s will.
In vs. 16and 17, John leads us to an example of a prayer that according to God’s will: a sinning brother. There is a significant divergence of opinion among scholars as to what John means when he refers to a “sin not leading to death.” John’s initial readers probably had a good idea of what John was referring to in this statement, but for us reading it today, the concept is not so clear. Some suggestions for what this means include that “a sin leading to death” is a specific, deadly sin; or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; but a more likely way explanation would be that it refers to someone who is not a believer who is completely rejecting the truth of the gospel. John does not forbid praying for such a one, but his instruction is specific about a brother involved in sin, the need to pray for such a brother, and the confidence we may have that God will give life, according to His will. This does not mean that everyone we pray for will turn back and receive life, but as it fits within God’s will, we will see live given.
John then ends his letter with one more statement of assurance focusing in that the believer can know that he is free from the power of sin, free from the power of the evil one, and free from the power of idolatry, an idolatry that grows from a doubting of who God is and what is true about His character.
Taking a closer look at the closing of the letter, John addresses three things that we know to be true, three things that bring to a close this letter which emphasizes assurance of salvation as much as anything else. The first thing we know is that sin does not characterize the genuine believer. This is not to say that the genuine believer does not sin, nor does it say that he does not battle sin. The point John is making is that he will not be someone who is primarily identified with a particular sin. The reason that John brings out for this is seen in the second half of this verse; that the one born of God is one protected from the evil one. While there are differing views on this, the “one born of God” is likely referring to Jesus and His work of protecting His children. The second thing we know looks at the flip side of the first: the whole world lies in the power of the evil one, except those who belong to God. John leaves no middle ground here: either you are from God (i.e. genuine believers) or you are under the power of the evil one. Finally, the third thing we know is the true God, the true Savior, the truth of the gospel that is given by the grace of God at the expense of His Son, Jesus. John uses the word “true” three times in vs. 20, making it clear that we follow the true God, as opposed to those false imitations the world has to offer and John tells us to avoid in vs. 21.
Vs. 21 seems to end the letter abruptly. It does connect rather well with the truth communicated in the previous verse. If we know that God is true, that the Son of God has come, and that eternal life is through Jesus alone, we stamp out the possibility of idols. Idols are false and worship of them is pointless. Yet as long as man has walked the earth, they have been tempted to doubt God more than idols. Even today, we put our faith in our jobs, our families, even our governments, and leaders. We feel good when the bank account is full and the bills are low. We are pleased when our children have stable jobs and have “turned out right”. For those of us who are in the USA, we have put more stock in the American Dream than living a life of faith in a good and holy God. The assurance that John wants us to find is never to be found in anything the world has to offer. It is only to be found in God and His love alone.