21 January 2017

1 John 5:1-21

“The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (v. 3)

Psalm: Psalm 90


Today's chapter must rank among the most difficult in the New Testament, and scholars are widely divided over its interpretation. The basic reason is that we know nothing about those the writer is arguing against except the hints we are given in what he says. Also, the writer's style, moving on from one idea to another and back again, gives the impression of going in circles. Nevertheless there is plenty of food for thought.

Verses 1 to 4 summarise points made earlier in the letter. Those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ) sent from God become children of God. If this is a reality it will express itself in our loving fellow-believers, and not in a merely sentimental way, but in a practical way, by keeping God's commandments.

Verses 5 to 12 offer evidence that Jesus is the Son of God: the water, the blood and the Spirit. It is not clear what the writer had in mind. The most attractive interpretation would point to Jesus' Baptism in the river Jordan, when God declared him to be God's Son (Mark 1:10-11), to his death on the cross (Colossians 1:20), and to the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts (John 15:26). Some older English Bibles have a longer version of verses 7 to 8, referring to witnesses in heaven and witnesses on earth, but this has been shown to be a later addition, and more recent translations omit it or relegate it to a footnote.

Many readers will find verses 16 and 17 equally difficult. What is the distinction between mortal and other sins? Perhaps it is the same distinction as in Luke 12:10, where Jesus declares that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. Is that because there is an attitude of mind which refuses to recognise right from wrong and therefore neither desires nor is capable of receiving forgiveness?

To Ponder

  • What do you understand by 'eternal life'?
  • Is anything unforgivable, even if we repent?
  • Does God always answer prayer (verses 14-15)?

Bible notes author

The Revd Brian Beck

Brian Beck is a Methodist minister, now retired, and a former president and secretary of the Methodist Conference. A large part of his ministry has been spent in theological education, both in Limuru, Kenya, and in Cambridge, England..