Incredible things happen in history. One incredible story is of the First Marine Division who ran out of mortar rounds at the Chosin Reservoir in 1950 during the Korean War. They radioed for more mortar rounds to be airdropped using the code name Tootsie Rolls for the ammo. Whoever took the call, apparently didn’t know the code, so when the airdrops came, the ammo boxes were filled with tootsie rolls. Yes. The candy. The marines used the tootsie rolls for needed nutrition, and they discovered they could patch bullet holes in fuel lines by warming the tootsie rolls until they became pliable and then letting them re-freeze over the holes. Some of the marines began to refer to themselves as the Tootsie Roll Marines.i Those who survived were known as the The Chosin Few, and at every reunion they had the Tootise Roll Industry would supply, you guessed it, tootsie rolls. That is an incredible story.
Stories are labeled incredible, not because we don’t believe them, but because if they were not verifiably true no one would believe them. What if I told you that God the Son became a man by means of a miraculous conception, being born of a virgin? Being both fully God and fully man, he lived a sinless life, died for our sins, and was raised on the third day, inaugurating the age to come. Through faith in him, all that he is for us, his atoning death is applied as payment for our sin, and we now have forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
John wrote his epistle to argue the veracity of this very truth (5:13). Apparently, John’s opponents, who had defected from the faith (2:19), were endeavoring to erode the confidence of community in the gospel itself (2:26; 3:7). The defectorsii called into to question the identity (nature or person) and work of Jesus Christ. To bolster the confidence of his readers, John wrote to hold up the gospel he had received of the incarnate Son of God (1:1), whose sinless life, atoning death, and present advocacy provides forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those who believe.
In this final section of his epistle, John shows that eternal life is ours through faith in the Son. John bookends his epistle with eternal life—the eternal life of the Son (1:2) and eternal life through the Son (5:20). In his epistle, John uses the words life or eternal life to refer to the same reality in the believer.iii To have eternal life is to experience something of the life of the age to come in the present time.
God has given infallible testimony that eternal life is in His Son, Jesus Christ (6-12). (see verse 11)
God commands that all people place their faith in the Son, and He has given testimony to the person and work of his Son. The words testimony and testify are repeated 10 times in verses 6-11 (6,7,9x4 (borne—same as testify), 10x3 (borne),11). Every word John uses is loaded.
Jesus Christ, the Divine-human Son of God came. In John’s Gospel he is the coming one (Jn. 1:27; 6:14: 11:27 cf. Ps. 118:26). In First John he is the one who came. From where did he come? The implication is of his heavenly origin.
Three witnesses to the coming of Jesus
John points out that there are three witnesses—the Spirit, the water, and the blood. He begins with the water and blood and moves to the Spirit (6). Then he begins with the Spirit and moves to the water and the blood (7) forming an inclusio. That the witnesses agree is that they testify to one solitary truth—Jesus Christ, the divine-human Son of God, came into the world, for the purpose of living a perfect life and offering his life as atonement for our sin, so that by faith in His Name we would have eternal life.
What does his coming by water and blood mean? You might guess that this has been interpreted variously in history. Some say that this is a reference to the sacraments. The verb came, however, clearly indicates not some present activity but the past historical coming of Jesus Christ. The thing signified and the sign cannot be the same thing.
Others say the reference is to the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s pierced side. If anything is testified to in that event, it is his death, but what is being testified to in this text is the divine human person of Jesus Christ.
The most satisfactory interpretation is that the water is his baptism and the blood, his death.iv In John’s Gospel both events attested to the Sonship of Jesus (Jn. 1:32-34; 12:27-28). Water and blood bookend his ministry. This interpretation answers the defectors who were seeking to deceive the faithful. They held that Jesus was a mere man upon whom the Christ came at his baptism and from whom Christ departed before his death.v
This is why John adds, Not by the water only but by the water and the blood (6). John argues that Jesus Christ was the divine-human Son before, during, and after his baptism and his death. The defectors would agree that he was Christ at his baptism but not his death. John is saying that Jesus Christ from his birth to his death and forever more is the Son of God. This is vital because if the Son of God did not assume our nature in his birth and our sins in his death, there is no reason to give testimony to him.
This is the only message the Sprit testifies to (cf. 2:20,27). The Spirit does not testify to the defectors message. Without the Spirit’s testimony to the gospel, no one would believe it. Do you see here the absolute uniqueness of the Christian gospel? There is no other message like the gospel. The only saving message that God has endorsed is the gospel of His Son. In the historical realities of his baptism and death, God has testified to the Sonship of Jesus, and in the work of the Spirit, God still testifies to the saving reality of Jesus Christ (perfect tense verb verse 9).
We must believe God’s testimony to the Son to have eternal life (10-12)
The testimony God has given must be believed. This believing, however, is not like believing the story of the Tootsie Roll Marines. This believing is receiving the gospel of Jesus into ourselves. To not believe is a grievous sin, because it is to deny the truthfulness of God. Nothing could be more absurd than a god who does not tell the truth. Those who receive the testimony of God concerning his Son have life. Those who do not have (believe) the Son do not have life.
John has presented us with a very serious message. People who do not know Christ in his the saving work are lost and headed for destruction. They need not do anything extra to draw divine displeasure. This is why the cross must be central to all we preach.vi
God has given infallible testimony that eternal life is to be found through faith in the person and work of His Son.
God would have us be certain of our possession of eternal life (13-17).
John writes that the community may know they have eternal life and life comes through believing in the name of the Son of God (5:13). Apparently, the assurance of the eternal life of the community had been shaken by the defectors.
Assurance of Eternal Life (13)
Some say you can have no assurance of eternal life in this life. Others say you can have assurance of eternal life. From this text, it seems that John is concerned that the community know that eternal life is theirs.
Some cynics charge that those who claim eternal life are arrogant. How can a person claim to have eternal life and assert that Jesus is the way to life? But assurance and humility are not mutually exclusive. The arrogant position is to deny the reality of it. When we have an epistle full of assurance and evidence of eternal life, the denial of it is the position of arrogance. When we have 2000 years of Christian history, the denial of the reality of it is the position of arrogance. When we have churches dotting the landscape of the world filled with people who testify to it, the denial of it is the position of arrogance.
It seems from this text and many others that eternal life can be known and experienced now. Throughout his epistle John has argued that faith, love, and righteousness are evidences of eternal life. Also, there are things that rob us of assurance of eternal life—known sin, disobedience, lack of fellowship in the community (not loving the community and pulling away from it). These all lead to doubt. If you are living in known, unrepentant sin, you should lack assurance. Your lack of assurance is calling you to repentance.
Leads to confidence in prayer (14-15)
Oddly, the result of the assurance of eternal life John offers is confidence in prayer (14-15). John ties our confidence before God in prayer to our assurance of eternal life with the conjunction and, which has the sense of therefore. This the fourth time John has mentioned the believers’ confidence (2:28; 3:21; 4:17; 5:14). Of those four mentions of confidence, two are related specifically to prayer. In the first case (3:16-22), John tells us to love the community to the extent that we would lay our lives down for it. To illustrate such love, he called on us to meet one another’s needs. In that context, we may have the inclination not to love our brother in need. God can overcome the reluctance of our hearts and give us confidence before him to ask for whatever we need to walk in obedience.
Here the understanding of our possession of eternal life leads us to confidence in prayer (14). When I understand that the Son of God came through water and blood, that is through offering up his sinless life for me and sending his Spirit to apply his sinless life and atoning death to my account, it gives me confidence to call on Him in prayer. If God did that for me, surely he will answer my prayer. So you see how the knowledge of eternal life leads to prayer?
John moves us yet deeper into this issue of prayer because nothing is so relational with God as prayer. John would have us be mature in our praying, so he says, if we ask anything according to his will he hears us (14). For God to hear and for us to have what we request (15) are all the same thing.
John said the same thing with different words the first time he mentioned confidence in prayer (3:21). There he wrote, Whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him (3:22). The asking and his commandments and what pleases him are intimately related. When we ask for what he commands and what pleases him, it is the same as asking according to his will (14). Asking according to his will requires trusting that what the Father wills is the absolute best for me. What father does not want the best for his children?
Someone might retort, You mean I’m limited to praying God’s will? If you find the mind of the omniscient, all-powerful God limiting, then, Yes, you are limited to the will of God. In praying, we first learn to pray like little kids looking at the WishBook. Ok. I know most of you have never seen a Wishbook. For you, perhaps it’s better to say, Cyber Monday. But the idea is, we approach prayer from the premise of What do I want? (Jas. 4:2b-3). What we want is not always what is best for us, what is best for the community, and what is God’s will.
Here we see the settled knowledge of eternal life, leading us to deeper relation with God in prayer, brings us to the place of thoughtfulness in our praying. We must learn to pray for the will of God, but to pray for it we must know it and trust it.
But what if we don’t know God’s will in a matter? Sometimes we simply don’t know what our Father will do. Pray anyhow. This is why John says, ask anything and whatever you ask. Pray trusting if God does not give it, it would not benefit us.
The Kingdom of God is a lens to help us pray. Prayer is not to change God’s will. It is not to convince him of something he hasn’t thought of yet. Prayer is to lay hold of God’s will. Prayer is always to be for the Kingdom to come and the Father’s will to be done (Mt. 6:10). I need to think through my asking in light of God’s coming Kingdom. You realize that when the Kingdom comes we will never have another need!
An illustration of praying according to God’s will (16-17)
To help us learn to pray thoughtfully in the will of God, John gives us a practical illustration (16-17). When we approach these verses we get caught up in trying to figure out what the sin unto deathvii is and miss the point of the passage. The point is that the spiritual health and holiness of the community of faith is something that is squarely in God’s will, and we should expend a considerable amount of prayer capital asking God to bring it about.
In John’s community the sin unto death was the sin of the defectors. These were people who had claimed to have faith in Christ but, enticed by the wisdom of this present age, not only left the community of faith but actively sought to deceive the faithful. John says, I am not telling you to pray for them. Rather, I am telling you to pray for those who are being shaken in their faith by the unholy influence of the defectors.
Brothers and sisters, we ought to pray for one another! We need to pray thoughtfully, scripturally for one another. We should give our time to hearing one another’s requests, attending prayer meetings and small group gatherings, and together discerning the will of God for each other, and then laying hold of God in prayer. If you want to know how to pray and what to pray, let the Scripture saturate your prayers. Rather than finding the will of God limiting to your prayers, you will find yourself in the unlimited galaxy of God’s mind lighted by a billion stars of God’s willingness.
This is why God would have us be certain of eternal life. If the know we have eternal life (13), we know God hears us (15), and we know we have the requests we asked of him (15).
God would have the settled convictions of maturing faith grow out of the knowledge of eternal life (18-21).
In this final section of text, John recaps the essence of what he has written in his Epistle to emphasize 3 settled convictions of the Christian faith each introduced by we know. Growth in these Christian certainties will keep us from the idolatries of the present age.
We know that as children of God we are kept by the Son of God (18)
The language John uses here is reflects his discussion of the believer and sin in 3:4-9. In those verses, on the heels of exposing the defectors as impostors and antichrists, John asserts that those who remain in Christ do not sin and the one sinning has not seen him or known him (3:6) and those born of God cannot sin (3:9b). Here in 5:18, John again says, Whoever has been born of God does not sin. In all of the verses, the translators want to make sure we understand sin is a present tense verb, so they add keeps on to the verb sinning.
We know that John is not saying, Christians don’t sin. Any honest man will admit he sins. John has not changed his theology from what he wrote in 1:7-2:2. But I think the translators’ addition throws us off the scent of John’s meaning and puts us in mind of our own struggle with daily sin. That is a good application, because we do struggle, and we have assurance of the advocacy of Christ before the Father. The sin that believers don’t do is the sin of the defectors.
John is saying that those who have been born of God will never apostatize from the faith. When God makes us His children, he births us into his family, and His Son protects us and keeps us. If you are in faith today, it is because the Son of God is guarding you. Jesus kept John’s community from the satanic heresy of their day, and he will keep the church today from the heresies of our day. John has already warned us of the evil one. He has warned us the alluring ideologies of the world. If you find yourself being pulled away from the community by ideologies competing with the gospel, let them go, they are from the evil one (keep yourselves from idols).
This why it is important for us to embrace a second conviction.
We know that there is a line of demarcation between the church and world (19).
To be of or from God is the same thing as being born of God. We no longer belong to this present age but are citizens of the age to come. The present age, this world’s systems lie in the power of the evil one. People in this present age either belong to God through faith in Christ, or they are under the power of the evil one. There is no third category. There is no person who rejects Christ and somehow escapes the clutches of the devil.
We know the Son of God has come so that through him we might know God and have eternal life.
John here undercuts the whole structure of the theology of the heretics. It is only through the Son that we know God. He has revealed the Father, so that through Him we may know the Father and have life. It is impossible to know God without being in the Son.
This gospel of Jesus must be the settled conviction of the Christian.
i Accessed on 2/14/19, https://www.unbelievable-facts.com/2018/03/funny-stories-from-history.html. See also, https://usmc-mccs.org/articles/how-tootsie-rolls-accidentally-saved-marines-during-war/.
ii John calls the defectors liars (1:10; 2:22), antichrists (2:22; 4:3), children of the devil (3:10), and false prophets (4:1).
iii 2:25; 3:15; 4:9; 5:11x2,12,13,16,20
iv The only other place in the NT where in water is used is in John’s speech about his baptism of Jesus (Jn. 1:26,31,33). The only other reference to Jesus’s blood in 1 John is in 1:7. There it is the atoning, cleansing blood of Jesus.
v Stott, TNTC, 178.
vi Yarbrough, ECNT, 291-92.
vii Sin unto death and sin not unto death have been called mortal (unforgivable leading to the loss of eternal life) and venial (forgivable). In traditional Roman Catholic theology, deliberate sins against the self (suicide), others (adultery), and God (blasphemy) are classified as mortal sins. John does not have these sins in mind. He mentions none of them. Further, all sin is damning (Jas. 2:10). See O’Donnell in REC, 1-3 John, 162.