1 John 5 – God’s family

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

Studying John’s first epistle, we have heard both demanding and stern sermons as well as consoling and confidence-inspiring assurances of grace. Now, in the last chapter of the epistle, John speaks mainly about the recipients of the epistle and addresses them, urging them to love one another.

5:1-4 Common Father brings about brotherly love

John turns to speak to the recipients of his epistle. He does not talk about people of the world or about mankind in general but specifically about the relationships between Christians. Faith in Christ does not come from man but from God. A believer is birthed by God, born again. He or she is not, however, the only child in God’s family, but the Lord has also many other sons and daughters. They all are, for the Christian believer, brothers and sisters of faith, children from the same Father. Whoever loves the Father, also loves his children – all those who, by the grace of God, have as wonderfully as we become partakers of the faith. To love God is something very concrete: it shows, on the one hand, in our relationship with those who belong to him, and, on the other, in our relationship with his commandments. The faith, underlying all this, is God’s gift, and because it is from God, it also overcomes the world. The flame of faith will not die out but burns and warms up others with its love. God’s commandments are not burdensome for the faith, but easy to keep.

John’s first epistle includes incredibly many things in just a few words. It is the same here, too, and we can look at many important things. Contrary to the claims made, we cannot generate faith on our own. It is God’s gift. It is just like with childbirth: if the mother does not give birth, the child is not born. If God does not cause us to be born again i.e. give us the gift of faith, the faith just cannot emerge in us. No amount of religious pressure or intimidation will help, nor polishing the image of the church or being an excellent example, because faith is, and will always be, a gift from the Holy Spirit. This makes us humble before the Lord. We pray to the Father, with no pride and without any strength of our own, to give it to us that we may comprehend his grace and love. We do not want to just stand around doing nothing and waiting for coming to the faith. For it to happen, we want to use the tools of God’s Holy Spirit, the Holy Bible, and the sacraments: Baptism, Absolution and the Holy Communion. Through them, God works among us and creates and keeps our faith. Without this, there will be nothing happening in this most important field of our lives.

We often speak about ‘brothers and sisters in faith’. While we are at this Bible passage, it may be worth noting that these expressions are not just pretty words. We have the same Father. There are no homes where the parents would want their children to keep fighting like cats and dogs with each other. Dispute among children or resentment between members of the family is a bitter issue for many parents. Love towards one another, on the other hand, makes them happy. It is just the same with God’s family. No room should be allowed for hatred and resentment in God’s family either – and, in particular, not there!

God’s commandments are quite impossible for people who are relying on their own strenght. For unbelievers, the commandments only show their godlessness. Unbelief will not submit to God’s wisdom. A believer is, as we have often emphasized in the course of studying this epistle, incomplete and sinful in many ways. Even so, the faith given by God will submit to the commandments given by God. There is a fight inside us: our own self, i.e. unbelief, against Christ in us, i.e. the faith. With this going on, we either hold on to every coin or happily give away thousands of euros; we either revenge an insult with an insult or forgive; and we either sleep tight on Sunday or go to a worship service to praise our Redeemer together with God’s people

5:5-12 God’s message to us

A very simple gospel can be found in the next section. Not only people bear witness about Jesus but also, and above all, Father God. He bears witness about his Son Christ Jesus like this: God has given us eternal life in Christ. If we have Christ, we have eternal life. If we do not have Christ, we do not have eternal life. God has given this testimony several times. It resounded when Christ was baptized, but it was also evident in his death and resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is God’s great ‘amen’ by which he showed that he accepted the atoning sacrifice that his Son gave for the sins of the whole world. So, God’s work of salvation is very closely connected, in particular, with the historical Jesus’s walk on the earth.

The section of verses 6-8 becomes understandable when we know that some false doctrines of that time denied Jesus’s suffering and death on the cross. They did acknowledge that God confessed Christ as his Son during the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. For them, however, Jesus was only a kind of divine being and a spirit who could in no way suffer and die on the cross. In contrast to these heresies, John teaches, in a simple and sober way, the whole truth of God: Jesus was not only true God but also true man who shed his precious atoning blood on the cross. His baptism bears witness about the same fact as his death, and the Holy Spirit is with this witness. Our own baptism and partaking of the Communion mean that God did not give his witness only once in the Holy Land, but he gives it continuously in his church.

5:13-21 Ending of the epistle

John begins to end his epistle. The concluding section starts with a joyous assurance that those who are God’s own truly have eternal life and have received adoption as his children. We also have the confidence that our prayers are heard in heaven. In this context, the question is pre-eminently about intercessory prayer for another believer. We are given assurance that the prayer will definitely be heard and forgiveness is certain for the sake of Christ, unless the person has committed a sin that ‘leads to death’.

The expressions ‘sin that leads to death’ and ‘sin not leading to death’ have given rise to many questions among the present-day readers of the epistle. Are there sins that can be confidently committed? And are there sins that are excluded even from intercessory prayer?

It is often so that the Bible requires of its reader knowledge of how some situations and customs of the early church were in practice. The early church understood that it consisted of sinners who needed mercy and forgiveness. Even so, there were issues because of which a person was to be driven out of the congregation. One such case is described in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (chapter 5). When somebody was expelled from the church, it was made clear to him or her that God’s grace and forgiveness were no longer theirs. Church discipline was stern, but it was part of the counselling. Those expelled knew at least that they were on the road to hell if they did not repent and turn. They could come back and again embrace forgiveness. It meant that they would return to the flock and give up heresies or some gross outward sin by which they had been blaspheming God. Behind the cryptic words of 1 John, there is apparently this very practice: Within the congregation, there was continuous mutual intercession, prayer to God for him to have mercy on also other Christians for their sins. Those expelled from the church were not embracing the work of Christ, and this praying did not relate to them. What could be prayed for them was repentance and turning away from sin, but it is a completely different matter.

To us it is surprising and tough to learn about church discipline in the early church. It is something that we hardly ever practice nowadays. But the only reason for this is our individualistic and liberal time: in the thousand-year church history, the early church is not an exception, but we are. Do we think that the road to hell has become narrower and the door to heaven wider, as we no longer warn or exhort people? The early church had a clear understanding about God’s severity and grace. It led to responsibility for the neighbour, also when some extremely severe measures had to be taken. Where is our responsibility for our neighbour? Do we ask like Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In the last verses of the epistle, John makes a broad summary. Whoever is born of God does not practise sin and is not under the control of the evil, like the world is. At the last day, we will be saved through Christ who is true God and eternal life. Whoever denies him is an idolater, and John gives a strong warning against them.

Thus, the last words of the epistle emphasize the same points as the whole epistle. We are to live like a child of God does and not like the world, and we must abide in Christ, for he is the sinner’s only hope. Most of the message of John’s first epistle seems to fit into these two concepts. It is a very warm epistle, counselling us, and even its severity and toughness reflect the author’s great love towards his readers.