Keep God First
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
As John brings his letter to a close, he summarizes some of his major points. The intent of the letter is to encourage the churches in the region around Ephesus by leading them to reject several heresies that are being spread among the congregations, and restoring the confidence that their members have in their faith and its expression. The main errors in these heresies led the fellowship into the denial of the true nature of Jesus Christ, and pressed them to doubt the voracity of their salvation when requirements other than faith in God were introduced.
John 5:13. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.
This may very well be the most important statement in John’s letter, and it serves as a form of a hinge-pin between its content and his summary. John has already referred to several reasons of his writing this epistle, yet this one should be made familiar in the life and experience of every Christian: that you may know for certain that you have eternal life.
The word that is rendered “know” is knosis in the Greek, and its meaning is important. This form of knowledge goes far beyond a surface understanding, to the deepest level of understanding possible. This type of knowledge involves an intimate relationship between the one who knows and the object of that knowledge. This type of knowledge produces children in a marriage. Knosis is a certain knowledge that contains no mixture of doubt. The text could have been accurately rendered, “know for certain.”
Some heretics were teaching that God is so High and Holy that we cannot have a relationship with Him; that God is unknowable. John is directly contradicting this teaching by letting people know that, through faith in Jesus, such knowledge is attained.
John is speaking to those who believe on the Name of Jesus Christ: those who have accepted Him for who He is, LORD and Savior, doing so through faith and trust in Him. He is speaking only to people who have placed their faith and trust in Jesus. Where the heretics have been causing these to begin to doubt their salvation, John makes a clear affirmation that they can now know for certain that they are saved, and have been given the gift of eternal life.
John’s message of encouragement is as relevant today as it was when he wrote his letters. There are those who would add works or some form of special knowledge to the requirements for salvation, demanding something from adherents in addition to faith. Some claim that you are not saved unless, __________ (fill in the blank.)
Probably one of the more effective heresies practiced in the modern church is the teaching that one who has placed their faith and trust in the LORD can lose their salvation by committing some sin, or by failing to complete the works that their adherents demand. The gift of salvation was given by God to those who place their faith and trust in Him, following Him in obedience. However, this act of salvation did not bring about the cessation of sin in the life of the believer. However, the believer has a different relationship to sin than one who is lost.
One who is lost is condemned to eternal separation from God because their sin remains unforgiven. However, when one comes to the LORD in faith, He is faithful to forgive the sin of the believer, and through that promise, sin has lost the power to condemn the believer. ‘
The impact of sin on the believer is also different. Where sin is the nature of an unbeliever, sin brings conflict into the life of a believer. The consequences of sin in the life of a believer serve to separate him/her from others and from the LORD. Sin in the life of a believer can create as much hurt and pain as it does in the life of the lost, and many blessings can be lost due to sinful practices. However, even though sin can still create no little strife in the life of a believer, it will not separate the believer from God at the final judgment.
Part of the concept of faith in the LORD involves submission to Him as LORD. This means that as a Christian grows in the faith, the draw of sin should diminish, and the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer will help them conquer those sins in their lives that serve to damage their relationship with God. One who comes to the LORD in faith is not sinless, but they do sin less as they seek to honor the LORD they love.
1 John 5:14-15. And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: 15And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.
Those who teach of an unknowable God also would hold that He is disinterested in us as individuals, and does not hear our prayers. John counters their heresy with a statement that serves to assure the faithful that the LORD hears and responds to our prayers. Some have taken this text out of its intended context, creating a “name it and claim it” heresy that interprets this passage from its literal English form, and holds to the idea that if one’s faith is great enough, God will do whatever we ask. However, this is an heresy that only serves to discourage the faithful.
John declares that our prayers to the LORD can be stated in great confidence that He will respond, but He does insert a very important disclaimer: that what we ask is “according to His will.” Certainly we can pray a self-centered prayer that solicits God for some great blessing, and if it is the LORD’s will, He certainly can provide it. However, some misunderstand this passage and become disappointed or disillusioned when they do not hear or understand God’s response to their prayers.
We might pause a moment and consider the overwhelming and awesome wisdom of God. When we pray for anything that calls upon some form of change, we are already prescribing that change. We cannot ask God for anything that requires more wisdom than that which we each have. Yet, His wisdom is infinitely greater, and when we think we can out-wisdom God, we are quite mistaken. His answer to our prayers are formed from the foundation of His wisdom, and will often, if not usually, dramatically different than anything we ever expected.
Consequently, there are two elements to prayer that are often overlooked by those who expect God to follow their prayerful direction. First, since the answer to our prayers will always be consistent with His will for us, our prayers need to be in agreement with that will. Some might surrender the effort of finding God’s will by simply praying “if it is your will, LORD…” prior to making a request. Praying in God’s will necessitates us to find out what that will is. We can find God’s will in the confluence of several sources which include, Holy Scripture, Bible-based preaching and teaching, listening to the “still-small” voice of the Holy Spirit, listening to the wise counsel of other people of faith, and simply observing what the LORD is doing around us.
Many times we simply pray for things we want, with little or no consideration of what God’s will is for the situation of our prayer. John reminds us that our prayers must be submitted to the will of the LORD, and must be sensitive to what He, in His great wisdom, provides for an answer.
John 5:16a. If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death.
The LORD has created us as social beings… part of our basic needs include a network of relationship with others. God ordained that we would have a relationship with Him that would serve to inform our relationships with one another. Sin serves to break relationships. People of faith can become caught up in sin to the point that their relationship with God has been so compromised that they can neither pray, nor hear God’s still=small voice. Sin also serves to break our relationships with others as the character and nature of that sin is often destructive to them.
Since every Christian struggles with sin, the first line of support for those facing the struggle is the caring ministry of other Christians. John reminds us of the responsibility we have to one another to provide accountability and correction. Since the LORD calls us to love one another unconditionally, that love will lead us to seek to bring an errant believer back to a proper relationship with the LORD and with others. The Christian ministry is a ministry of reconciliation. If a Christian observes another Christian in an act of sin, the loving response is to confront the individual in a wise and caring manner with the mission of returning that individual to a full relationship with God, and absent from the sin that was practiced.
If one can correct another who is caught up in sin, that correction can serve to obfuscate any number of consequences that the unabated sin could have created.
John simply states that when a person of faith observes another person of faith who is caught up in a sin, the appropriate response is to help lead the individual away from it in a caring and loving manner. By doing this, the one doing providing the godly counsel can be used of the LORD to help the one caught in sin to be saved from its dramatic consequences, restoring to the individual an opportunity for a life that is free from that specific stressor.
John 5:16b. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.
John uses several words in the native Greek language to refer to different types of sin. The sin that John refers to in the first half of this verse is referring to the sin of “missing the mark.” This is any of the myriad of sins that people of faith commit when, though sincerely desiring to be obedient to the LORD they simply fall short. Their faith in God is intact, but their ability to be fully obedient has been compromised by any number of distractions and influences of this world or their “human” nature.
However, there is another word for sin that John uses here that is rendered as “sin unto death.” The only sin that can eternally separate one from God for eternity is that same sin that keeps all people from eternal security: taking their rebellion against the LORD to the grave. These are those who never made a sincere profession of faith in the LORD in their lifetime. This is the “unpardonable” sin. This is the literal interpretation of the commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain.” One who takes His name in vain (refusing to accept the nature of God in their hearts) to the grave has committed the sin unto death.
The second part of this phrase can be a little difficult to easily render, but an illustration might help us understand what John is saying. There is no person, regardless of the depth of their sin, or the height of their rebellion who cannot be saved. All people are ultimately redeemable, though most who have set their hearts against God have put up a wall against salvation that is almost impenetrable. Yet, with God anything is possible. As people of faith, when we observe the behavior of one who is obviously living a lifestyle that demonstrates “sin undo death,” we can be reminded to pray that somehow the Holy Spirit will break through their walls of self-centeredness and rebellion, and bring them to a saving knowledge of Himself. This is what we do pray for in the life of one who is lost.
1 John 5:17. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.
A person of true faith can be encouraged to know that, though all sin is an expression of unrighteousness, that sin can no longer separate them from the LORD’s promise of an eternal home with Him. Heretics were teaching (as they still do today) that if a person of faith commits any sin, they are instantly declared unrighteous, and have lost their salvation until they, subsequently find a second forgiveness through some work of confession or atonement. They might be required to report to a priest and seek forgiveness from God through him, or face eternal damnation. They might be required to perform some act of attrition, or pay some form of indulgence to reconcile themselves.
However, we find no such doctrine in the words or illustrations in the post-resurrection covenant with God. The Old Testament sacrificial system was simply an archetype, an example that would cause us to recognize the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Since the resurrection of Jesus, the sacrificial system is no longer needed. Forgiveness is found through faith in God, and the sacrifice of atonement was paid by God Himself on the Cross of Calvary.
Because of this, one is not going to lose their salvation through an act of sin. If this were possible, all people of faith would be without hope since our natural, self-centered spirit is always pressing us into thoughts and actions that fall short of God’s demand for perfection.
1 John 5:18. We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.
The word that John uses for sin in this verse refers to one who is immersed in a sinful lifestyle. Though Christians do sin, it is not their nature. Those who are born of God do not seek out and practice sin as their basic lifestyle. Because the Holy Spirit is working in them, their desire is not to sin, and though they stumble and fall, they continue to press toward the mark of the high calling of Jesus Christ. This is the nature of grace, that though we do not deserve it, the LORD has provided forgiveness for missing the mark.
Consequently, because of the LORD’s grace, those who have come to Him in faith find forgiveness for sin, and are assured of eternal salvation. By making this choice of faith, the believer has been given eternal protection against the evil one who would otherwise seal the eternal fate of death. Though the evil one has considerable influence over the life of the believer through both our natural desires and through the wicked behavior of others, he cannot take away the salvation of the faithful. He has no power to touch the promise of God. He has no power over the Holy Spirit.
1 John 5:19. And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.
John describes the vast gulf that exists between those who are faithful to the LORD and those that are not. The heretics have been trying to cause the faithful to doubt their salvation. Though this letter John has clearly argued that those who love the LORD are secure in their faith, and though they still struggle with sin, they are not and never will be characterized by wickedness. However, wickedness is the very nature of this godless world. Just as it is possible to witness the nature of godliness in those who love the LORD, it is possible to witness the nature of wickedness in those who do not. People of faith can be confident that they are of God because they are not surrendered to (lieth in) the wickedness of this world.
Christians still struggle with the issues of sinful attitudes and behaviors, but what differentiates that person of faith is that it is, indeed, a struggle. Because they struggle with sin in a sincere effort to be obedient to the LORD, people of faith can know for certain that they are part of the family of God, and be confident in that faith.
1 John 5:20. And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.
The early church, much like the church today, was under attack from many opponents from positions both outside of the fellowships and within. The culture tended to draw Christians away from the truth, pressuring them to accept their pagan beliefs and practices. There were those within the body who were attempting to influence others using anything from erroneous doctrine to outright lies and deception. John wrote this letter as a resource that would serve to return an embattled and scattering faith fellowship back to the truth of the gospel, the truth of the nature and purpose of Jesus, and the truth concerning the surety of their salvation.
John repeats the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, YAHWEH in the flesh, the WORD, and gives personal testimony that He did, indeed, come. Furthermore John reminds the church that through faith in the LORD, the faithful do know the truth if they will simply look deeply into their heart of understanding rather than the cacophony of false messages that are bombarding them. John reminds them that they are secure in the hands of God, the only God, the One who is always truth. Because He is truth, we can fully and confidently rely on His promises which include salvation for the faithful, a plan for blessing their lives, and an eternal home with Him.
1 John 5:21. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.
John closed his letter to the churches with an imperative. Throughout the letter John seems to have avoided the use of imperatives. Rather than tell people “what to do,” he has been reminding them of the truths that they already know, relying on the truth to provide that instruction.
However, in ending the letter John states a short and simple command: avoid any form of idolatry. When we observe the history of Israel, we find that the one sin that caused their ultimate demise was idolatry. By submitting themselves to the practice of idolatry, they removed themselves from the hand of the LORD’s protection, and were wiped out as a nation, with only a faithful remnant remaining. Consequently, the importance of idolatry’s consequence cannot be understated.
Idolatry is simply giving to someone or something other than God the authority and submission that is due to God and to Him, alone. Anything that takes priority before God is an idol. Anything that works to diminish one’s love for God, or one’s obedience to Him is an idol.
The LORD has a lot of competition for the hearts of people today, just as He has had from the beginning of the creation of man. However, John is writing to those who have placed their faith and trust in God. These are they who have overcome the messages of God’s enemy, and are secure in His hands. Yet, the competition for the heart continues. The evil one cannot take away the salvation of the faithful, but he can still steal and destroy much of that which God intends to be a blessing for those who love Him. When people listen and submit to the false doctrine and lies of the influential, ungodly, heretics, they can be robbed of the peace and joy that God has for them.John’s final statement is probably a fitting last statement from anyone who is ministering to the faithful: keep God first in your life. After all… you are first in His.