“These things I have written 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, ESV
John remains one of my favorite biblical authors. Sure, Paul can make you really think through his logic, pondering the depths of the Old Testament and New working to understanding of letters like Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Peter wrote some great letters on suffering and throws in with the likes of Jude to bring in references from the some of the OT’s stranger passages (Gen 6:1-4) and for good measure reference to non-canonical books like 1 Enoch. But then there is John. Who else can stop you in your reading tracks and make you go, “wait – what!?!?” Who else can say,
“Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you…” (1 John 2:7-8)
So, which is it, John? A new commandment or not?
How about this one,
“If we say we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-9)
Okay John, now you are making sense. But then he writes,
“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3:6)
Now that really bakes your noodle doesn’t it.
And at the end of the letter called 1 John he writes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:13
Wait…we did? We do? What assurance has John given us? So steady yourself and let’s have a look at 1 John.
What John Was Writing About
When you are looking at letters in the bible, you must look at a lot of perspectives and contexts. Questions of how it fits in the Bible, history, geography, to whom he is writing, and why. We cannot look at all of this right now, but at least let’s grasp some of the purpose. 1 John is after all a letter. The letters in the Bible were certainly intended to be distributed to other churches. However, they are also all written in response to a situation or to a particular church’s attention in some cases. Consider 1&2 Corinthians, obviously written to the church in Corinth but with content applicable beyond that church. For John, he is writing due to a particular situation.
There were a group of people that had developed their own ideas about the Gospel and who Christ was. Kruse in his Pillar New Testament Commentary calls them ‘secessionists’ These are people that separated from the church that John was writing to, but who were not content to simply leave them be. They developed some ideas that contradicted John’s Gospel and teaching. And they seemed to be working to convert others in the church to their thinking. John calls them ‘false teachers’ or even ‘antichrists’. Here John is talking more along the lines of people who do not believe that Jesus was Christ as opposed to the more dramatic antichrist of the book of Revelation. These false teachers were pressing the misguided idea that Jesus was not the Christ or God, and that his death was not needed for the forgiveness of sins. Further, they claimed for themselves some hidden special knowledge, and that they were sinless. So, John in his letter is working to accomplish two things. First, refute the false teachers. Second, remind the people of the salvation through Christ Jesus. With this in mind, we can walk through a few of the major sections of the letter and see how John, in his unique manner, does both at the same time.
John’s In Your Face Introduction
To kick it off, John just doesn’t make a friendly introduction, he makes an authoritative statement. The first verse should sound very familiar as it is reminiscent of the Gospel of John. John and other authors refer to other books, events, and theologies through this method. John is pulling everything he spoke about in the Gospel of John forward into their minds. We do this in the modern world as well. We might drop a line in a sentence like, “No soup for you!” or “That’s some bad hat, Harry” or “Can’t you read the writing on the wall”. So, you don’t get too distracted, the first is from the Seinfeld TV Show, the second from Jaws, and the third… is the modern adaptation of an OT story (Daniel 5:1-30). It is always fun to hear people quote scripture without realizing it. Back to John. He is reminding people of the reality of Jesus and his gospel. Further, he is reminding people that he was there, a direct witness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He is in a superior, apostolic position to bear witness to the Gospel. In your face secessionists.
The Three Pillars of Assurance
John makes a summary statement in verses 1:5-9. This represents the three assurances that we are blessed with salvation. First, God is light or holy emphasized by the double-negative in Greek represented as “no darkness at all” in the ESV. Jesus is the source of cleansing of sin, that is salvation. We are sinners in need of a savior. Claiming otherwise make Jesus’ sacrifice an unneeded lie, which is what the false teachers or secessionists were claiming. Each of the topics are addressed in the letter, tying them together and refuting the falsehoods.
God is the Light, Truth, Love, and Salvation
That God is the light, is John’s way of indicating that God is the source of truth, is holy, the source of salvation, and is the source of love (1:5,7-9; 2:5;2:20;3:5;3:16;4:7;5:11). Throughout the letter John mentions each of these attributes of God. In fact, he repeats himself throughout the letter. This is John’s style – tell them until they get it. They are treated in three different ways. First, they are each treated as axioms. John does not spend his time building an argument for why each of these are from God. He is relying on his reference in the beginning of the letter to his Gospel, and likely the other gospels at this point as John is thought to have been written later than the other three. Second, these attributes are conveyed in each case to Jesus as well. The path is laid repeatedly that to know the Father one must know Jesus (2:1; 3:23; 4:1-2,15:5:1). That Jesus is God is also a major theme of John’s Gospel. This is also one of the major items that the false teachers were refuting. Third, they are use as indicators of people who believe in Christ. John has believers participating in creation in a way that reflects Jesus and God. Reaching as far back as the Genesis 1 and 2, we would recognize that John is speaking of us as image bearers for God. You can check out my three-part posts on this topic here; The Image Bearers of God Part 1, The Image Bearers of God Part 2 , and Image Bearers God Finally the Answer | Paul Hinsberg (patheos.com). John is pointing out that those who believe do more than just believe, they change and act.
Let’s summarize what we have so far. God is the source of truth, love, and salvation – axioms based on John’s Gospel. Jesus is the Son of God and is God, again John is not arguing the point but relying on his Gospel. Finally, there is a sense of our participation in the created order as reflections of Jesus and God, image bears. Let’s get started on the last two of the above statements.
Jesus Our Advocate
Throughout the letter, John points out that Jesus is the Son of God and is in fact God. While this is an important point, John emphasizes that Jesus is our advocate and our propitiation from sin. That is, his sacrifice and resurrection work for those who believe to cleanse them from sin. There is a lot in those statements, so let’s look at them a bit more. First the word ‘propitiation’ which appears in most Bibles has some issues (1 John 2:2, 4:10; Romans 3:25-26). The term is being used to translate a Greek word. We should keep that in mind that when translating languages there often are no completely exact terms that match the other language. In this case the word is the Greek term, ἱλασμός (i-las-moss). ‘Propitiation’ is a common word used for this term but there are others. We could use ‘expiation’, sacrifice to atone, or sin-offering (BDAG is a common lexicon for looking up Greek words). The problem is that ‘propitiation’ can sound like it is appeasing a wrathful God, which clearly is not what John is proposing. The other terms like ‘expiation’ present their own problems as it makes it sound like a gift or sacrificed object which is far too impersonal. The intention of the term is that God is sinless and our hope to be in his immediate presence one day is inhibited by our sin. Jesus was sinless. His death paid a price that was required to cleanse us of our sin. Further, since Jesus is God in flesh that cleansing was completely efficacious. His work offers the cleansing of sins to anyone who believes in him.
The Gift of Jesus Advocacy
This is how John can say that Jesus is our path to the Father, God. This is also how he can call Jesus our advocate for he has once and for all advocated for everyone. The problem John points out is that our belief or faith in Jesus and this propitiation is kind of important for us. The problem is not that Jesus requires our assistance to wipe the sin from us, he is after all God. The issue is that since God is love and love must be a choice to be real, not a compulsion. We are left to choose.
I would not treat this as if a person’s will is stronger than God’s and that we can overrule his cleansing gift. God is love. Just as he so loved us that he gave his only son, he also so loves us that he honors our own decision towards his love. Imagine, someone with the power to create the universe and control you completely, surrenders that power to simply give you the choice to love him or not. That is what John is talking about when he says that God is love and that Jesus is our way to salvation. John points out that the false teachers have chosen to not believe in the advocacy that God offers through Jesus and further is trying to convince others.
What does it Mean?
I always like to end my posts with this question as too often you will see a paper or hear a sermon which in the end says a lot of great things about God or the Bible but doesn’t draw the connection to how we live. Hopefully I can do that here.
John’s letter has not been a treaty on God, Jesus, or theology. John’s letter is a down to earth discussion on what a Christian looks and sounds like. He is drawing the stark comparisons between the false teachers and what we as believers should be acting like. John had pointed out some key characteristics of God and Jesus. However, he didn’t stop there. He noted that we are to participate in Jesus household. Saying that your statement of belief just isn’t enough. You are expected to change, to reflect your true nature as an image bearer of God. Jesus has demonstrated what that looks for us. Oh, he knows we cannot be sinless which is why Jesus died for us. But he expects us to try. We do not have perfect love but on every occasion, we are to seek perfect love of brothers, sisters, neighbors, and even enemies. We are to walk in the light, that is we are to know that God is with us, and Jesus is our advocate. Our walk in life should shine with that realization. We are to practice righteousness (1 John 3:7). We are not earning the salvation that has already been given through Christ but reflecting the expected behavior of one who loves God and wishes to honor him by reflecting at every opportunity the goodness that he has shown us. It is all about developing, practicing, and demonstrating Christian integrity.
 Kruse, Colin G. The Letters of John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos, 2000,2.