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Bible Commentaries
1 John 5

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This chapter embraces the following subjects:

I. A continuance of the discussion about “love,” 1 John 5:1-3. These verses should have been attached to the previous chapter.

II. The victory which is achieved over the world by those who are born of God. The grand instrumentality by which this is done, is by the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, 1 John 5:4-5.

III. The evidence that Jesus “is” the Son of God; or the means by which that truth is so believed as to secure a victory over the world, 1 John 5:6-12. In this part of the chapter the apostle goes fully into the nature of this evidence, or the ways in which the Christian becomes so thoroughly convinced of it as to give to faith this power. He refers to these sources of evidence:

  1. The witness of the Spirit, 1 John 5:6.
    1. The record borne in heaven, 1 John 5:7 - if that verse is genuine.
    2. The evidence borne on earth, by the Spirit, the water, and the blood - all bearing witness to that one truth.
    3. The credit which is due to the testimony of God, or which the soul pays to it, 1 John 5:8.
    4. The fact that he who believes on the Son of God has the witness in himself, 1 John 5:10,
    5. The amount of the record, that has given to us eternal life through his Son, 1 John 5:11-12.

IV. The reason why all this was written by the apostle, 1 John 5:13. It was that they might know that they had eternal life, and might believe on the name of the Saviour.

V. The effect of this in leading us to the throne of grace, with the assurance that God will hear us, and will grant our requests, 1 John 5:14-15.

VI. The power of prayer, and the duty of praying for those who have sinned. The encouragement to this is, that there are many sins which are not unto death, and that we may hope that God will be merciful to those who have not committed the unpardonable offence, 1 John 5:16-17.

VII. A summary of all that the apostle had said to them, or of the points of which they were sure in the matter of salvation, 1 John 5:18-20. They knew that those who are born of God do not sin; that the wicked one cannot permanently injure them; that they were of God, while all the world lay in wickedness; that the Son of God had come, and that they were truly united to that Saviour who is the true God, and who is eternal life.

VIII. An exhortation to keep themselves from all idolatry, 1 John 5:21.

Verse 1

Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ - Is the Messiah; the anointed of God. On the meaning of the word Christ, see the notes at Matthew 1:1. Of course, it is meant here that the proposition, that “Jesus is the Christ,” should be believed or received in the true and proper sense, in order to furnish evidence that anyone is born of God. Compare the notes at 1 John 4:3. It cannot be supposed that a mere intellectual acknowledgment of the proposition that Jesus is the Messiah is all that is meant, for that is not the proper meaning of the word believe in the Scriptures. That word, in its just sense, implies that the truth which is believed should make its fair and legitimate impression on the mind, or that we should feel and act as if it were true. See the notes at Mark 16:16. If, in the proper sense of the phrase, a man does believe that Jesus “is the Christ,” receiving him as he is revealed as the Anointed of God, and a Saviour, it is undoubtedly true that that constitutes him a Christian, for that is what is required of a man in order that he may be saved. See the notes at Acts 8:37.

Is born of God - Or rather, “is begotten of God.” See the notes at John 3:3

And everyone that loveth him that begat - That loves that God who has thus begotten those whom he has received as his children, and to whom he sustains the endearing relation of Father.

Loveth him also that is begotten of him - That is, he will love all the true children of God; all Christians. See the notes at 1 John 4:20. The general idea is, that as all Christians are the children of the same Father; as they constitute one family; as they all bear the same image; as they share his favor alike; as they are under the same obligation of gratitude to him, and are bound to promote the same common cause, and are to dwell together in the same home forever, they should therefore love one another. As all the children in a family love their common father, so it should be in the great family of which God is the Head.

Verse 2

By this we know that we love the children of God ... - This is repeating the same truth in another form. “As it is universally true that if we love Him who has begotten us, we shall also love His children, or our Christian brethren, so it is true also that if we love His children it will follow that we love Him.” In other places, the apostle says that we may know that we love God if we love those who bear His image, 1 John 3:14. He here says, that there is another way of determining what we are. We may have undoubted evidence that we love God, and from that, as the basis of an argument, we may infer that we have true love to His children. Of the fact that we may have evidence that we love God, apart from that which we derive from our love to His children, there can be no doubt. We may be conscious of it; we may find pleasure in meditating on His perfections; we may feel sure that we are moved to obey Him by true attachment to Him, as a child may in reference to a father. But, it may be asked, how can it be inferred from this that we truly love His children? Is it not easier to ascertain this of itself than it is to determine whether we love God? Compare 1 John 4:20. To this it may be answered, that we may love Christians from many motives: we may love them as personal friends; we may love them because they belong to our church, or sect, or party; we may love them because they are naturally amiable: but the apostle says here, that when we are conscious that an attachment does exist toward Christians, we may ascertain that it is genuine, or that it does not proceed from any improper motive, by the fact that we love God. We shall then love Him as His children, whatever other grounds of affection there may be toward them.

And keep his commandments - See the notes at John 14:15.

Verse 3

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments - This constitutes true love; this furnishes the evidence of it.

And his commandments are not grievous - Greek, “heavy” - βαρεῖαι bareiai; that is, difficult to be borne as a burden. See Matthew 11:30. The meaning is, that his laws are not unreasonable; the duties which he requires are not beyond our ability; his government is not oppressive. It is easy to obey God when the heart is right; and those who endeavor in sincerity to keep his commandments do not complain that they are hard. All complaints of this kind come from those who are not disposed to keep his commandments. Indeed, they object that his laws are unreasonable; that they impose improper restraints; that they are not easily complied with; and that the divine government is one of severity and injustice. But no such complaints come from true Christians. They find his service easier than the service of sin, and the laws of God more mild and easy to be complied with than were those of fashion and honor, which they once endeavored to obey. The service of God is freedom; the service of the world is bondage. No man ever yet heard a true Christian say that the laws of God, requiring him to lead a holy life, were stern and “grievous.” But who has not felt this in regard to the inexorable laws of sin? What votary of the world would not say this if he spoke his real sentiments? Compare the notes at John 8:32.

Verse 4

For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world - The world, in its maxims, and precepts, and customs, does not rule him, but he is a freeman. The idea is, that there is a conflict between religion and the world, and that in the heart of every true Christian religion secures the victory, or triumphs. In John 16:33, the Saviour says, “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” See the notes at that verse. He obtained a complete triumph over him “who rules the darkness of the world,” and laid the foundation for a victory by his people over all vice, error, and sin. John makes this affirmation of all who are born of God. “Whatsoever,” or, as the Greek is, “Everything which is begotten of God,” (πᾶν τὸ γεγενημένον pan to gegenēmenon;) meaning to affirm, undoubtedly, that “in every instance” where one is truly regenerated, there is this victory over the world. See the James 4:4 note; 1 John 2:15-16 note. It is one of the settled maxims of religion, that every man who is a true Christian gains a victory over the world; and consequently a maxim as settled, that where the spirit of the world reigns supremely in the heart, there is no true religion. But, if this be a true principle, how many professed Christians are there who are strangers to all claims of piety - for how many are there who are wholly governed by the spirit of this world!

And this is the victory - This is the source or means of the victory which is thus achieved.

Even our faith - Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, 1 John 5:5. He overcame the world, John 16:33, and it is by that faith which makes us one with him, and that imbues us with his Spirit, that we are able to do it also.

Verse 5

Who is he ... - Where is there one who can pretend to have obtained a victory over the world, except he who believes in the Saviour? All else are worldly, and are governed by worldly aims and principles. It is true that a man may gain a victory over one worldly passion; he may subdue some one evil propensity; he may abandon the “happy” circle, may break away from habits of profaneness, may leave the company of the unprincipled and polluted; but still, unless he has faith in the Son of God, the spirit of the world will reign supreme in his soul in some form. The appeal which John so confidently made in his time may be as confidently made now. we may ask, as he did, where is there one who shows that he has obtained a complete victory over the world, except the true Christian? Where is there one whose end and aim is not the present life? Where is there one who shows that all his purposes in regard to this world are made subordinate to the world to come?

There are those now, as there were then, who break away from one form of sin, and from one circle of sinful companions; there are those who change the ardent passions of youth for the soberness of middle or advanced life there are those who see the folly of profaneness, and of gaiety, and intemperance; there are those who are disappointed in some scheme of ambition, and who withdraw from political conflicts; there are those who are satiated with pageantry, and who, oppressed with the cares of state, as Diocletian and Charles V were, retire from public life; and there are those whose hearts are crushed and broken by losses, and by the death, or what is worse than death, by the ingratitude of their children, and who cease to cherish the fond hope that their family will be honored, and their name perpetuated in those whom they tenderly loved - but still there is no victory over the world. Their deep dejection, their sadness, their brokenness of spirit, their lamentations, and their want of cheerfulness, all show that the spirit of the world still reigns in their hearts.

If the calamities which have come upon them could be withdrawn; if the days of prosperity could be restored, they would show as much of the spirit of the world as ever they did, and would pursue its follies and its vanities as greedily as they had done before. Not many years or months elapse before the worldly mother who has followed one daughter to the grave, will introduce another into the frivolous world with all the brilliancy which fashion prescribes; not long will a worldly father mourn over the death of a son before, in the whirl of business and the exciting scenes of ambition, he will show that his heart is as much wedded to the world as it ever was. If such sorrows and disappointments conduct to the Saviour, as they sometimes do; if they lead the troubled mind to seek peace in his blood, and support in the hope of heaven, then a real victory is obtained over the world; and then, when the hand of affliction is withdrawn, it is seen that there has been a work of grace in the soul that has effectually changed all its feelings, and secured a triumph that shall be eternal.

Verse 6

This is he - This Son of God referred to in the previous verse. The object of the apostle in this verse, in connection with 1 John 5:8, is to state the nature of the evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. He refers to three well-known things on which he probably had insisted much in his preaching - the water, and the blood, and the Spirit. These, he says, furnished evidence on the very point which he was illustrating, by showing that that Jesus on whom they believed was the Son of God. “This,” says he, “is the same one, the very person, to whom the well-known and important testimony is borne; to him, and him alone, these undisputed things appertain, and not to any other who should claim to be the Messiah and they all agree on the same one point,” 1 John 5:8.

That came - ὁ εἰδὼν ho eidōn. This does not mean that when he came into the world he was accompanied in some way by water and blood; but the idea is, that the water and the blood were clearly manifest during his appearing on earth, or that they were remarkable testimonials in some way to his character and work. An ambassador might be said to come with credentials; a warrior might be said to come with the spoils of victory; a prince might be said to “come” with the insignia of royalty; a prophet comes with signs and wonders; and the Lord Jesus might also be said to have come with power to raise the dead, and to heal disease, and to cast out devils; but John here fixes the attention on a fact so impressive and remarkable in his view as to be worthy of special remark, that he “came” by water and blood.

By water - There have been many opinions in regard to the meaning of this phrase. See Pool’s Synopsis. Compare also Lucke, “in loc.” A mere reference to some of these opinions may aid in ascertaining the true interpretation.

(1) Clement of Alexandria supposes that by “water” regeneration and faith were denoted, and by “blood” the public acknowledgment of that.

(2) Some, and among them Wetstein, have held that the words are used to denote the fact that the Lord Jesus was truly a man, in contradistinction from the doctrine of the “Docetae;” and that the apostle means to say that he had all the properties of a human being - a spirit or soul, blood, and the watery humors of the body.

(3) Grotius supposes that by his coming “by water,” there is reference to his pure life, as water is the emblem of purity; and he refers to Ezekiel 36:25; Isaiah 1:16; Jeremiah 4:14. As a sign of that purity, he says that John baptized him, John 1:28. A sufficient objection to this view is, that as in the corresponding word “blood” there is undoubted reference to blood literally, it cannot be supposed that the word “water” in the same connection would be used figuratively. Moreover, as Lucke (p. 287) has remarked, water, though a “symbol” of purity, is never used to denote “purity itself,” and therefore cannot here refer to the pure life of Jesus.

(4) Many expositors suppose that the reference is to the baptism of Jesus, and that by his “coming by water and blood,” as by the latter there is undoubted reference to his death, so by the former there is reference to his baptism, or to his entrance on his public work. Of this opinion were Tertullian, OEcumenius, Theophylact, among the fathers, and Capellus, Heumann, Stroth, Lange, Ziegler, A. Clarke, Bengel, Rosenmuller, Macknight, and others, among the moderns. A leading argument for this opinion, as alleged, has been that it was then that the Spirit bare witness to him, Matthew 3:16, and that this is what John here refers to when he says, “It is the Spirit that beareth witness,” etc. To this view, Locke urges substantially the following objections:

(a) That if it refers to baptism, the phrase would much more appropriately express the fact that Jesus came baptizing others, if that were so, than that he was baptized himself. The phrase would be strictly applicable to John the Baptist, who came baptizing, and whose ministry was distinguished for that, Matthew 3:1; and if Jesus had baptized in the same manner, or if this had been a prominent characteristic of his ministry, it would be applicable to him. Compare John 4:2. But if it means that he was baptized, and that he came in that way “by water,” it was equally true of all the apostles who were baptized, and of all others, and there was nothing so remarkable in the fact that he was baptized as to justify the prominence given to the phrase in this place.

(b) If reference be had here, as is supposed in this view of the passage, to the witness that was borne to the Lord Jesus on the occasion of his baptism, then the reference should have been not to the “water” as the witness, but to the “voice that came from heaven,” Matthew 3:17, for it was that which was the witness in the case. Though this occurred at the time of the baptism, yet it was quite an independent thing, and was important enough to have been referred to. See Lucke, “Com. in loc.” These objections, however, are not insuperable. Though Jesus did not come baptizing others himself John 4:2, and though the phrase would have expressed that if he had, yet, as Christian baptism began with him; as this was the first act in his entrance on public life; as it was by this that he was set apart to his work; and as he designed that this should be always the initiatory rite of his religion, there was no impropriety in saying that his “coming,” or his advent in this world, was at the beginning characterized by water, and at the close by blood. Moreover, though the “witness” at his baptism was really borne by a voice from heaven, yet his baptism was the prominent thing; and if we take the baptism to denote all that in fact occurred when he was baptized, all the objections made by Lucke here vanish.

(5) Some, by the “water” here, have understood the ordinance of baptism as it is appointed by the Saviour to be administered to his people, meaning that the ordinance was instituted by him. So Beza, Calvin, Piscator, Calovius, Wolf, Beausobre, Knapp, Lucke, and others understand it. According to this the meaning would be, that he appointed baptism by water as a symbol of the cleansing of the heart, and shed his blood to effect the ransom of man, and that thus it might be said that he “came by water and blood;” to wit, by these two things as effecting the salvation of people. But it seems improbable that the apostle should have grouped these things together in this way. For.

(a) the “blood” is that which he shed; which pertained to him personally; which he poured out for the redemption of man; and it is clear that, whatever is meant by the phrase “he came,” his coming by “water” is to be understood in some sense similar to his coming by “blood;” and it seems incredible that the apostle should have joined a mere “ordinance” of religion in this way with the shedding of his blood, and placed them in this manner on an equality.

(b) It cannot be supposed that John meant to attach so much importance to baptism as would be implied by this. The shedding of his blood was essential to the redemption of people; can it be supposed that the apostle meant to teach that baptism by water is equally necessary?

(c) If this be understood of baptism, there is no natural connection between that and the “blood” referred to; nothing by which the one would suggest the other; no reason why they should be united. If he had said that he came by the appointment of two ordinances for the edification of the church, “baptism and the supper,” however singular such a statement might be in some respects, yet there would be a connection, a reason why they should be suggested together. But why should baptism and the blood shed by the Saviour on the cross be grouped together as designating the principal things which characterized his coming into the world?

(6) There remains, then, but one other interpretation; to wit, that he refers to the “water and the blood” which flowed from the side of the Saviour when he was pierced by the spear of the Roman soldier. John had himself laid great stress on this occurrence, and on the fact that he had himself witnessed it, (see the notes at John 19:34-35); and as, in these Epistles, he is accustomed to allude to more full statements made in his Gospel, it would seem most natural to refer the phrase to that event as furnishing a clear and undoubted proof of the death of the Saviour. This would be the obvious interpretation, and would be entirely clear, if John did not immediately speak of the “water” and the “blood” as “separate” witnesses, each as bearing witness to an important point, “as” separate as the “Spirit” and the “water,” or the “Spirit” and the “blood;” whereas, if he refers to the mingled water and blood flowing from his side, they both witness only the same fact, to wit, his death.

There was no “special” significancy in the water, no distinct testifying to anything different from the flowing of the blood; but together they bore witness to the “one” fact that he actually died. But here he seems to suppose that there is some special significancy in each. “Not by water only, but by water and blood.” “There are three that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one.” These considerations seem to me to make it probable, on the whole, that the fourth opinion, above referred to, and that which has been commonly held in the Christian church is correct, and that by the “water” the “baptism” of the Saviour is intended; his baptism as an emblem of his own purity; as significant of the nature of his religion; as a rite which was to be observed in his church at all times. That furnished an important attestation to the fact that he was the Messiah (compare the notes at Matthew 3:15), for it was by that that he entered on his public work, and it was then that a remarkable testimony was borne to his being the Son of God. He himself came thus by water as an emblem of purity; and the water used in his church in all ages in baptism, together with the “blood” and the “Spirit” bears public testimony to the pure nature of his religion.

It is possible that the mention of the “water” in his baptism suggested to John also the water which flowed from the side of the Saviour at his death, intermingled with blood; and that though the primary thought in his mind was the fact that Jesus was baptized, and that an important attestation was then given to his Messiahship, yet he “may” have instantly adverted to the fact that “water” performed so important a part, and was so important a symbol through all his work; water at his introduction to his work, as an ordinance in his church, as symbolical of the nature of his religion, and even at his death, as a public attestation, in connection with flowing blood, to the fact that he truly “died,” in reality, and not, as the “Docetae” pretended, in appearance only, thus completing the work of the Messiah, and making an atonement for the sins of the world. Compare the notes at John 19:34-35.

And blood - Referring, doubtless, to the shedding of his blood on the cross. He “came” by that; that is, he was manifested by that to people, or that was one of the forms in which he appeared to people, or by which his coming into the world was characterized. The apostle means to say that the blood shed at his death furnished an important evidence or “witness” of what he was. In what way this was done, see the notes at 1 John 5:8.

Not by water only, but by water and blood - John the Baptist came “by water only;” that is, he came to baptize the people, and to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus was distinguished from him in the fact that his ministry was characterized by the shedding of blood, or the shedding of his blood constituted one of the peculiarities of his work.

And it is the Spirit - Evidently the Holy Spirit.

That beareth witness - That is, he is the great witness in the matter, confirming all others. He bears witness to the soul that Jesus came “by water and blood,” for that would not be received by us without his agency. In what way he does this, see the notes at 1 John 5:8.

Because the Spirit is truth - Is so eminently true that he may be called truth itself, as God is so eminently benevolent that he may be called love itself. See the notes at 1 John 4:8.

Verse 7

For there are three that bear record in heaven ... - There are three that “witness,” or that “bear witness” - the same Greek word which, in 1 John 5:8, is rendered “bear witness” - μαρτυροῦντες marturountes. There is no passage of the New Testament which has given rise to so much discussion in regard to its genuineness as this. The supposed importance of the verse in its bearing on the doctrine of the Trinity has contributed to this, and has given to the discussion a degree of consequence which has pertained to the examination of the genuineness of no other passage of the New Testament. On the one hand, the clear testimony which it seems to bear to the doctrine of the Trinity, has made that portion of the Christian church which holds the doctrine reluctant in the highest degree to abandon it; and on the other hand, the same clearness of the testimony to that doctrine, has made those who deny it not less reluctant to admit the genuineness of the passage.

It is not consistent with the design of these notes to go into a full investigation of a question of this sort. And all that can be done is to state, in a brief way, the “results” which have been reached, in an examination of the question. Those who are disposed to pursue the investigation further, can find all that is to be said in the works referred to at the bottom of the page. The portion of the passage, in 1 John 5:7-8, whose genuineness is disputed, is included in brackets in the following quotation, as it stands in the common editions of the New Testament: “For there are three that bear record (in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth,) the Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and these three agree in one.” If the disputed passage, therefore, be omitted as spurious, the whole passage will read, “For there are three that bear record, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and these three agree in one.” The reasons which seem to me to prove that the passage included in brackets is spurious, and should not be regarded as a part of the inspired writings, are briefly the following:

I. It is missing in all the earlier Greek manuscripts, for it is found in no Greek manuscript written before the 16th century. Indeed, it is found in only two Greek manuscripts of any age - one the Codex Montfortianus, or Britannicus, written in the beginning of the sixteenth century, and the other the Codex Ravianus, which is a mere transcript of the text, taken partly from the third edition of Stephen’s New Testament, and partly from the Complutensian Polyglott. But it is incredible that a genuine passage of the New Testament should be missing in all the early Greek manuscripts.

II. It is missing in the earliest versions, and, indeed, in a large part of the versions of the New Testament which have been made in all former times. It is wanting in both the Syriac versions - one of which was made probably in the first century; in the Coptic, Armenian, Slavonic, Ethiopic, and Arabic.

III. It is never quoted by the Greek fathers in their controversies on the doctrine of the Trinity - a passage which would be so much in point, and which could not have failed to be quoted if it were genuine; and it is not referred to by the Latin fathers until the time of Vigilius, at the end of the 5th century. If the passage were believed to be genuine - nay, if it were known at all to be in existence, and to have any probability in its favor - it is incredible that in all the controversies which occurred in regard to the divine nature, and in all the efforts to define the doctrine of the Trinity, this passage should never have been referred to. But it never was; for it must be plain to anyone who examines the subject with an unbiassed mind, that the passages which are relied on to prove that it was quoted by Athanasius, Cyprian, Augustin, etc., (Wetstein, II., p. 725) are not taken from this place, and are not such as they would have made if they had been acquainted with this passage, and had designed to quote it. IV. The argument against the passage from the external proof is confirmed by internal evidence, which makes it morally certain that it cannot be genuine.

(a) The connection does not demand it. It does not contribute to advance what the apostle is saying, but breaks the thread of his argument entirely. He is speaking of certain things which bear “witness” to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah; certain things which were well known to those to whom he was writing - the Spirit, and the water, and the blood. How does it contribute to strengthen the force of this to say that in heaven there are “three that bear witness” - three not before referred to, and having no connection with the matter under consideration?

(b) The “language” is not such as John would use. He does, indeed, elsewhere use the term “Logos,” or “Word” - ὁ Λόγος ho Logos, John 1:1, John 1:14; 1 John 1:1, but it is never in this form, “The Father, and the Word;” that is, the terms “Father” and “Word” are never used by him, or by any of the other sacred writers, as correlative. The word “Son” - ὁ Υἱός ho Huios - is the term which is correlative to the “Father” in every other place as used by John, as well as by the other sacred writers. See 1 John 1:3; 1Jo 2:22-24; 1 John 4:14; 2Jo 1:3, 2 John 1:9; and the Gospel of John, “passim.” Besides, the correlative of the term “Logos,” or “Word,” with John, is not “Father,” but “God.” See John 1:1. Compare Revelation 19:13.

(c) Without this passage, the sense of the argument is clear and appropriate. There are three, says John, which bear witness that Jesus is the Messiah. These are referred to in 1 John 5:6; and in immediate connection with this, in the argument, 1 John 5:8, it is affirmed that their testimony goes to one point, and is harmonious. To say that there are other witnesses elsewhere, to say that they are one, contributes nothing to illustrate the nature of the testimony of these three - the water, and the blood, and the Spirit; and the internal sense of the passage, therefore, furnishes as little evidence of its genuineness as the external proof. V. It is easy to imagine how the passage found a place in the New Testament. It was at first written, perhaps, in the margin of some Latin manuscript, as expressing the belief of the writer of what was true in heaven, as well as on earth, and with no more intention to deceive than we have when we make a marginal note in a book. Some transcriber copied it into the body of the text, perhaps with a sincere belief that it was a genuine passage, omitted by accident; and then it became too important a passage in the argument for the Trinity, ever to be displaced but by the most clear critical evidence. It was rendered into Greek, and inserted in one Greek manuscript of the 16th century, while it was missing in all the earlier manuscripts.

VI. The passage is now omitted in the best editions of the Greek Testament, and regarded as spurious by the ablest critics. See Griesbach and Hahn. On the whole, therefore, the evidence seems to me to be clear that this passage is not a genuine portion of the inspired writings, and should not be appealed to in proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. One or two remarks may be made, in addition, in regard to its use.

(1) Even on the supposition that it is genuine, as Bengel believed it was, and as he believed that some Greek manuscript would still be found which would contain it , yet it is not wise to adduce it as a proof-text. It would be much easier to prove the doctrine of the Trinity from other texts, than to demonstrate the genuineness of this.

(2) It is not necessary as a proof-text. The doctrine which it contains can be abundantly established from other parts of the New Testament, by passages about which there can be no doubt.

(3) The removal of this text does nothing to weaken the evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity, or to modify that doctrine. As it was never used to shape the early belief of the Christian world on the subject, so its rejection, and its removal from the New Testament, will do nothing to modify that doctrine. The doctrine was embraced, and held, and successfully defended without it, and it can and will be so still.

Verse 8

And there are three that bear witness in earth - This is a part of the text, which, if the reasoning above is correct, is to be omitted. The genuine passage reads, 1 John 5:7, “For there are three that bear record (or witness, μαρτυροῦντες marturountes) - the Spirit, and the water, and the blood.” There is no reference to the fact that it is done “in earth.” The phrase was introduced to correspond with what was said in the interpolated passage, that there are three that bear record “in heaven.”

The Spirit - Evidently the Holy Spirit. The assertion here is, that that Spirit bears witness to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, 1 John 5:5. The testimony of the Holy Spirit to this fact is contained in the following things:

  1. He did it at the baptism of Jesus. Notes, Matthew 3:16-17.
  2. Christ was eminently endowed with the influences of the Holy Spirit; as it was predicted that the Messiah would be, and as it was appropriate he should be, Isaiah 11:2; Isaiah 61:1. Compare Luke 4:18; Notes, John 3:34.

(3)The Holy Spirit bore witness to his Messiahship, after his ascension, by descending, according to his promise, on his apostles, and by accompanying the message which they delivered with saving power to thousands in Jerusalem, Acts 2:0.

(4)He still bears the same testimony on every revival of religion, and in the conversion of every individual who becomes a Christian, convincing them that Jesus is the Son of God. Compare John 16:14-15.

(5)He does it in the hearts of all true Christians, for “no man can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Ghost,” 1 Corinthians 12:3. See the notes at that passage.

The Spirit of God has thus always borne witness to the fact that Jesus is the Christ, and he will continue to do it to the end of time, convincing yet countless millions that he was sent from God to redeem and save lost people.

And the water - See the notes at 1 John 5:6. That is, the baptism of Jesus, and the scenes which occurred when he was baptized, furnished evidence that he was the Messiah. This was done in these ways:

  1. It was proper that the Messiah should be baptized when he entered on his work, and perhaps it was expected; and the fact that he was baptized showed that he had “in fact” entered on his work as Redeemer. See the notes at Matthew 3:15.

(2)An undoubted attestation was then furnished to the fact that he was “the Son of God,” by the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and by the voice that addressed him from heaven, Matthew 3:16-17.

(3)His baptism with water was an emblem of the purity of his own character, and of the nature of his religion.

(4)Perhaps it may be implied here, also, that water used in baptism now bears witness to the same thing,

(a)As it is the ordinance appointed by the Saviour;

(b)As it keeps up his religion in the world;

(c)As it is a public symbol of the purity of his religion;

(d)And as, in every case where it is administered, it is connected with the public expression of a belief that Jesus is the Son of God.

And the blood - There is undoubted allusion here to the blood shed on the cross; and the meaning is, that that blood bore witness also to the fact that he was the Son of God. This it did in the following respects:

  1. The shedding of the blood showed that he was truly dead - that his work was complete - that he died in “reality,” and not in “appearance” only. See the notes at John 19:34-35.

(2)The remarkable circumstances that attended the shedding of this blood - the darkened sun, the earthquake, the rending of the veil of the temple - showed in a manner that convinced even the Roman centurion that he was the Son of God. See the notes at Matthew 27:54.

(3)The fact that an “atonement” was thus made for sin was an important “witness” for the Saviour, showing that he had done that which the Son of God only could do, by disclosing a way by which the sinner may be pardoned, and the polluted soul be made pure.

(4)Perhaps, also, there may be here an allusion to the Lord’s Supper, as designed to set forth the shedding of this blood; and the apostle may mean to have it implied that the representation of the shedding of the blood in this ordinance is intended to keep up the conviction that Jesus is the Son of God. If so, then the general sense is, that that blood - however set before the eyes and the hearts of people - on the cross, or by the representation of its shedding in the Lord’s Supper - is a witness in the world to the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, and to the nature of his religion. Compare the notes at 1 Corinthians 11:26.

And these three agree in one - εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν eis to hen eisin. They agree in one thing; they bear on one and the same point, to wit, the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. All are appointed by God as witnesses of this fact; and all harmonize in the testimony which is borne. The apostle does not say that there are no other witnesses to the same thing; nor does he even say that these are the most important or decisive which have been furnished; but he says that these are important witnesses, and are entirely harmonious in their testimony.

Verse 9

If we receive the witness of men - As we are accustomed to do, and as we must do in courts of justice, and in the ordinary daily transactions of life. We are constantly acting on the belief that what others say is true; that what the members of our families, and our neighbors say, is true; that what is reported by travelers is true; that what we read in books, and what is sworn to in courts of justice, is true. We could not get along a single day if we did not act on this belief; nor are we accustomed to call it in question, unless we have reason to suspect that it is false. The mind is so made that it must credit the testimony borne by others; and if this should cease even for a single day, the affairs of the world would come to a pause.

The witness of God is greater - Is more worthy of belief; as God is more true, and wise, and good than people. People may be deceived, and may undesignedly bear witness to that which is not true - God never can be; men may, for sinister and base purposes, intend to deceive - God never can; people may act from partial observation, from rumors unworthy of credence - God never can; people may desire to excite admiration by the marvelous - God never can; people have deceived - God never has; and though, from these causes, there are many instances where we are not certain that the testimony borne by people is true, yet we are always certain that that which is borne by God is not false. The only question on which the mind ever hesitates is, whether we actually have his testimony, or certainly know what he bears witness to; when that is ascertained, the human mind is so made that it cannot believe that God would deliberately deceive a world. See the notes at Hebrews 6:18. Compare Titus 1:2.

For this is the witness of God ... - The testimony above referred to - that borne by the Spirit, and the water, and the blood. Who that saw his baptism, and heard the voice from heaven, Matthew 3:16-17, could doubt that he was the Son of God? Who that saw his death on the cross, and that witnessed the amazing scenes which occurred there, could fail to join with the Roman centurion in saying that this was the Son of God? Who that has felt the influences of the Eternal Spirit on his heart, ever doubted that Jesus was the Son of God? Compare the notes at 1 Corinthians 12:3. Any one of these is sufficient to convince the soul of this; all combined bear on the same point, and confirm it from age to age.

Verse 10

He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself - The evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. Compare the notes at Romans 8:16. This cannot refer to any distinct and immediate “revelation” of that fact, that Jesus is the Christ, to the soul of the individual, and is not to be understood as independent of the external evidence of that truth, or as superseding the necessity of that evidence; but the “witness” here referred to is the fruit of all the evidence, external and internal, on the heart, producing this result; that is, there is the deepest conviction of the truth that Jesus is the Son of God. There is the evidence derived from the fact that the soul has found peace by believing on him; from the fact that the troubles and anxieties of the mind on account of sin have been removed by faith in Christ; from the new views of God and heaven which have resulted from faith in the Lord Jesus; from the effect of this in disarming death of its terrors; and from the whole influence of the gospel on the intellect and the affections - on the heart and the life. These things constitute a mass of evidence for the truth of the Christian religion, whose force the believer cannot resist, and make the sincere Christian ready to sacrifice anything rather than his religion; ready to go to the stake rather than to renounce his Saviour. Compare the notes at 1 Peter 3:15.

He that believeth not God hath made him a liar - Compare the notes at 1 John 1:10.

Because he believeth not the record ... - The idea is, that in various ways - at his baptism, at his death, by the influences of the Holy Spirit, by the miracles of Jesus, etc. - God had become a “witness” that the Lord Jesus was sent by him as a Saviour, and that to doubt or deny this partook of the same character as doubting or denying any other testimony; that is, it was practically charging him who bore the testimony with falsehood.

Verse 11

And this is the record - This is the sum, or the amount, of the testimony (μαρτυρία marturia) which God has given respecting him.

That God hath given to us eternal life - Has provided, through the Saviour, the means of obtaining eternal life. See the notes at John 5:24; John 17:2-3.

And this life is in his Son - Is treasured up in him, or is to be obtained through him. See the John 1:4; John 11:25; John 14:6 notes; Colossians 3:3 note.

Verse 12

He that hath the Son, hath life - See the notes at John 5:24. John evidently designs to refer to that passage in the verse before us, and to state a principle laid down by the Saviour himself. This is the sense of all the important testimony that had ever been borne by God on the subject of salvation, that he who believes in the Lord Jesus already has the elements of eternal life in his soul, and will certainly obtain salvation. Compare the notes at John 17:3.

And he that hath not the Son of God, hath not life - He that does not believe on him will not attain to eternal life. See the John 3:36 note; Mark 16:16 note.

Verse 13

These things have I written unto you - The things in this Epistle respecting the testimony borne to the Lord Jesus.

That believe on the name of the Son of God - To believe on his name, is to believe on himself - the word “name” often being used to denote the person. See the notes at Matthew 28:19.

That ye may know that ye have eternal life - That you may see the evidence that eternal life has been provided, and that you may be able, by self-examination, to determine whether you possess it. Compare the notes at John 20:31.

And that ye may believe ... - That you may continue to believe, or may persevere in believing. He was assured that they actually did believe on him then; but he was desirous of so setting before them the nature of religion, that they would continue to exercise faith in him. It is often one of the most important duties of ministers of the gospel, to present to real Christians such views of the nature, the claims, the evidences, and the hopes of religion, as shall be adapted to secure their perseverance in the faith. In the human heart, even when converted, there is such a proneness to unbelief; the religious affections so easily become cold; there are so many cares pertaining to the world that are suited to distract the mind; there are so many allurements of sin to draw the affections away from the Saviour; that there is need of being constantly reminded of the nature of religion, in order that the heart may not be wholly estranged from the Saviour. No small part of preaching, therefore, must consist of the re-statement of arguments with which the mind has been before fully convinced; of motives whose force has been once felt and acknowledged; and of the grounds of hope and peace and joy which have already, on former occasions, diffused comfort through the soul. It is not less important to keep the soul, than it is to “convert” it; to save it from coldness, and deadness, and formality, than it was to impart to it the elements of spiritual life at first. It may be as important to trim a vine, if one would have grapes, as it is to set it out; to keep a garden from being overrun with weeds in the summer, as it was to plant it in the spring.

Verse 14

And this is the confidence that we have in him - Margin, “concerning.” Greek, “toward him,” or in respect to him - πρὸς αὐτὸν pros auton. The confidence referred to here is that which relates to the answer to prayer. The apostle does not say that this is the only thing in respect to which there is to be confidence in him, but that it is one which is worthy of special consideration. The sense is, that one of the effects of believing on the Lord Jesus 1 John 5:13 is, that we have the assurance that our prayers will be answered. On the word “confidence,” see the notes at 1 John 3:21; 1 John 4:17.

That, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us - This is the proper and the necessary limitation in all prayer. God has not promised to grant anything that shall be contrary to his will, and it could not be right that he should do it. We ought not to wish to receive anything that should be contrary to what he judges to be best. No man could hope for good who should esteem his own wishes to be a better guide than the will of God; and it is one of the most desirable of all arrangements that the promise of any blessing to be obtained by prayer should be limited and bounded by the will of God. The limitation here, “according to his will,” probably implies the following things:

(1) In accordance with what he has “declared” that he is willing to grant. Here the range is large, for there are many things which we know to be in accordance with his will, if they are sought in a proper manner - as the forgiveness of sins, the sanctification of the soul, 1 Thessalonians 4:3, comfort in trial, the needful supply of our wants, grace that we may do our duty, wisdom to direct and guide us, James 1:5, deliverance from the evils which beset us, the influences of his Spirit to promote the cause of religion in the world, and our final salvation. Here is a range of subjects of petition that may gratify the largest wishes of prayer.

(2) The expression, “according to his will,” must limit the answer to prayer to what “he” sees to be best for us. Of that we are not always good judges. We never perceive it as clearly as our Maker does, and in many things we might be wholly mistaken. Certainly we ought not to desire to be permitted to ask anything which “God” would judge not to be for our good.

(3) The expression must limit the petition to what it will be “consistent” for God to bestow upon us. We cannot expect that he will work a miracle in answer to our prayers; we cannot ask him to bestow blessings in violation of any of the laws which he has ordained, or in any other way than that which he has appointed. It is better that the particular blessing should be withheld from us, than that the laws which he has appointed should be disregarded. It is better that an idle man should not have a harvest, though he should pray for it, than that God should violate the laws by which he has determined to bestow such favors as a reward of industry, and work a special miracle in answer to a lazy man’s prayers.

(4) The expression, “according to his will,” must limit the promise to what will be for the good of the whole. God presides over the universe: and though in him there is an infinite fulness, and he regards the wants of every individual throughout his immense empire, yet the interests of the whole, as well as of the individual, are to be consulted and regarded. In a family, it is conceivable that a child might ask for some favor whose bestowment would interfere materially with the rights of others, or be inconsistent with the good of the whole, and in such a case a just father would of course withhold it. With these necessary limitations the range of the promise in prayer is ample; and, with these limitations, it is true beyond a question that he does hear and answer prayer.

Verse 15

And if we know that he hear us - That is, if we are assured of this as a true doctrine, then, even though we may not “see” immediately that the prayer is answered, we may have the utmost confidence that it is not disregarded, and that it will be answered in the way best adapted to promote our good. The specific thing that we asked may not indeed be granted, (compare Luke 22:42; 2 Corinthians 12:8-9), but the prayer will not be disregarded, and the thing which is most for our good will be bestowed upon us. The “argument” here is derived from the faithfulness of God; from the assurance which we feel that when he has promised to hear us, there will be, sooner or later, a real answer to the prayer.

We know that we have the petitions ... - That is, evidently, we now that we “shall” have them, or that the prayer will be answered. It cannot mean that we already have the precise thing for which we prayed, or that will be a real answer to the prayer, for

(a)The prayer may relate to something future, as protection on a journey, or a harvest, or restoration to health, or the safe return of a son from a voyage at sea, or the salvation of our souls - all of which are “future,” and which cannot be expected to be granted at once; and,

(b)The answer to prayer is sometimes delayed, though ultimately granted. There may be reasons why the answer should be deferred, and the promise is not that it shall be immediate. The “delay” may arise from such causes as these:

  1. To try our faith, and see whether the blessing is earnestly desired.

(2)Perhaps it could not be at once answered without a miracle.

(3)It might not be consistent with the divine arrangements respecting others to grant it to us at once.

(4)Our own condition may not be such that it would be best to answer it at once.

We may need further trial, further chastisement, before the affliction, for example, shall be removed; and the answer to the prayer may be delayed for months or years. Yet, in the meantime, we may have the firmest assurance that the prayer is heard, and that it will be answered in the way and at the period when God shall see it to be best.

Verse 16

If a man see his brother sin a sin ... - From the general assurance that God hears prayer, the apostle turns to a particular case in which it may be benevolently and effectually employed, in rescuing a brother from death. There has been great diversity of opinion in regard to the meaning of this passage, and the views of expositors of the New Testament are by no means settled as to its true sense. It does not comport with the design of these notes to examine the opinions which have been held in detail. A bare reference, however, to some of them will show the difficulty of determining with certainty what the passage means, and the impropriety of any very great confidence in one’s own judgment in the case. Among these opinions are the following. Some have supposed that the sin against the Holy Spirit is intended; some that the phrase denotes any great and enormous sin, as murder, idolatry, adultery; some that it denotes some sin that was punishable by death by the laws of Moses; some that it denotes a sin that subjected the offender to excommunication from the synagogue or the church; some that it refers to sins which brought fatal disease upon the offender, as in the case of those who abused the Lord’s Supper at Corinth, (see the notes at 1 Corinthians 11:30); some that it refers to crimes committed against the laws, for which the offender was sentenced to death, meaning that when the charge alleged was false, and the condemnation unjust, they ought to pray for the one who was condemned to death, and that he would be spared; but that when the offence was one which had been really committed, and the offender deserved to die, they ought not to pray for him, or, in other words, that by “the sin unto death,” offences against the civil law are referred to, which the magistrate had no power to pardon, and the punishment of which he could not commute; and by the “sin not unto death,” offences are referred to which might be pardoned, and when the punishment might be commuted; some that it refers to sins “before” and “after” baptism, the former of which might be pardoned, but the latter of which might not be; and some, and perhaps this is the common opinion among the Roman Catholics, that it refers to sins that might or might not be pardoned after death, thus referring to the doctrine of purgatory.

These various opinions may be seen stated more at length in Rosenmuller, Lucke, Pool (Synopsis,) and Clarke, “in loc.” To go into an examination of all these opinions would require a volume by itself, and all that can be done here is to furnish what seems to me to be the fair exposition of the passage. The word “brother” may refer either to a member of the church, whether of the particular church to which one was attached or to another, or it may be used in the larger sense which is common as denoting a fellow-man, a member of the great family of mankind. There is nothing in the word which necessarily limits it to one in the church; there is nothing in the connection, or in the reason assigned, why what is said should be limited to such an one. The “duty” here enjoined would be the same whether the person referred to was in the church or not; for it is our duty to pray for those who sin, and to seek the salvation of those whom we see to be going astray, and to be in danger of ruin, wherever they are, or whoever they may be. At the same time, the correct interpretation of the passage does not depend on determining whether the word “brother” refers to one who is a professed Christian or not.

A sin which is not unto death - The great question in the interpretation of the whole passage is, what is meant by the “sin unto death.” The Greek (ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον hamartia pros thanaton) would mean properly a sin which “tends” to death; which would “terminate” in death; of which death was the penalty, or would be the result, unless it were arrested; a sin which, if it had its own course, would terminate thus, as we should speak of a disease “unto death.” Compare the notes at John 11:4. The word “death” is used in three significations in the New Testament, and as employed here might, so far as the word is concerned, be applied in any one of those senses. It is used to denote:

(a)Literally, the death of the body;

(b)Spiritual death, or death “in trespasses and sin,” Ephesians 2:1;

(c)The “second death,” death in the world of woe and despair.

If the sin here mentioned refers to “temporal” death, it means such a sin that temporal death must inevitably follow, either by the disease which it has produced, or by a judicial sentence where there was no hope of pardon or of a commutation of the punishment; if it refers to death in the future world, the second death, then it means such a sin as is unpardonable. That this last is the reference here seems to me to be probable, if not clear, from the following considerations:

  1. There is such a sin referred to in the New Testament, a sin for which there is forgiveness “neither in this life nor the life to come.” See the notes at Matthew 12:31-32. Compare Mark 3:29. If there is such a sin, there is no impropriety in supposing that John would refer to it here.

(2)This is the “obvious” interpretation. It is that which would occur to the mass of the readers of the New Testament, and which it is presumed they do adopt; and this, in general, is one of the best means of ascertaining the sense of a passage in the Bible.

(3)The other significations attached to the word “death,” would be quite inappropriate here.

(a) It cannot mean “unto spiritual death,” that is, to a continuance in sin, for how could that be known? and if such a case occurred, why would it be improper to pray for it? Besides, the phrase “a sin unto spiritual death,” or “unto continuance in sin,” is one that is unmeaning.

(b) It cannot be shown to refer to a disease that should be unto death, miraculously inflicted on account of sin, because, if such cases occurred, they were very rare, and even if a disease came upon a man miraculously in consequence of sin, it could not be certainly known whether it was, or was not, unto death. All who were visited in this way did not certainly die. Compare 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, with 2 Corinthians 2:6-7. See also 1 Corinthians 11:30.

(c) It cannot be shown that it refers to the case of those who were condenmed by the civil magistrate to death, and for whom there was no hope of reprieve or pardon, for it is not certain that there were such cases; and if there were, and the person condemned were innocent, there was every reason to pray that God would interpose and save them, even when there was no hope from man; and if they were guilty, and deserved to die, there was no reason why they should not pray that the sin might be forgiven, and that they might be prepared to die, unless it were a case where the sin was unpardonable. It seems probable, therefore, to me, that the reference here is to the sin against the Holy Spirit, and that John means here to illustrate the duty and the power of prayer, by showing that for any sin short of that, however aggravated, it was their duty to pray that a brother might be forgiven. Though it might not be easy to determine what was the unpardonable sin, and John does not say that those to whom he wrote could determine that with certainty, yet there were many sins which were manifestly not of that aggravated character, and for those sins it was proper to pray.

There was clearly but one sin that was unpardonable - “there is a sin unto death;” there might be many which were not of this description, and in relation to them there was ample scope for the exercise of the prayer of faith. The same thing is true now. It is not easy to define the unpardonable sin, and it is impossible for us to determine in any case with absolute certainty that a man has committed it. But there are multitudes of sins which people commit, which upon no proper interpretation of the passages respecting the sin which “hath never forgiveness,” can come under the description of that sin, and for which it is proper, therefore, to pray that they may be pardoned. We know of cases enough where sin “may” be forgiven; and, without allowing the mind to be disturbed about the question respecting the unpardonable sin, it is our duty to bear such cases on our hearts before God, and to plead with him that our erring brethren may be saved.

He shall ask - That is, he shall pray that the offender may be brought to true repentance, and may be saved.

And he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death - That is, God shall give life, and he shall be saved from the eternal death to which he was exposed. This, it is said, would be given to him who offers the prayer; that is, his prayer would be the means of saving the offending brother. What a motive is this to prayer! How faithful and constant should we be in pleading for our fellow-sinners, that we may be instrumental in saving their souls! What joy will await those in heaven who shall see there many who were rescued from ruin in answer to their prayers! Compare the notes at James 5:15, James 5:19-20.

There is a sin unto death - A sin which is of such a character that it throws the offender beyond the reach of mercy, and which is not to be pardoned. See Mark 3:28-29. The apostle does not here say what that sin is; nor how they might know what it is; nor even that in any case they could determine that it had been committed. He merely says that there is such a sin, and that he does not design that his remark about the efficacy of prayer should be understood as extending to that.

I do not say that he shall pray for it - “I do not intend that my remark shall be extended to all sin, or mean to affirm that all possible forms of guilt are the proper subjects of prayer, for I am aware that there is one sin which is an exception, and my remark is not to be applied to that.” He does not say that this sin was of common occurrence: or that they could know when it had been committed; or even that a case could ever occur in which they could determine that; he merely says that in respect to that sin he did not say that prayer should be offered. It is indeed implied in a most delicate way that it would not be proper to pray for the forgiveness of such a sin, but he does not say that a case would ever happen in which they would know certainly that the sin had been committed. There were instances in the times of the prophets in which the sin of the people became so universal and so aggravated, that they were forbidden to pray for them.

Isaiah 14:11, “then said the Lord unto me, Pray not for this people for their good;” Isaiah 15:1, “Then said the Lord unto me, Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my mind could not be toward this people; cast them out of my sight, and let them go forth.” Compare the notes at Isaiah 1:15. But these were cases in which the prophets were directly instructed by God not to pray for a people. We have no such instruction; and it may be said now with truth, that as we can never be certain respecting anyone that he has committed the unpardonable sin, there is no one for whom we may not with propriety pray. There may be those who are so far gone in sin that there may seem to be little, or almost no ground of hope. They may have cast off all the restraints of religion, of morality, of decency; they may disregard all the counsels of parents and friends; they may be sceptical, sensual, profane; they may be the companions of infidels and of mockers; they may have forsaken the sanctuary, and learned to despise the sabbath; they may have been professors of religion, and now may have renounced the faith of the gospel altogether, but still, while there is life it is our duty to pray for them, “if peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth,” 2 Timothy 2:25.

“All things are possible with God;” and he has reclaimed offenders more hardened, probably, than any that we have known, and has demonstrated that there is no form of depravity which he has not the power to subdue. Let us remember the cases of Manasseh, of Saul of Tarsus, of Augustine, of Bunyan, of Newton, of tens of thousands who have been reclaimed from the vilest forms of iniquity, and then let us never despair of the conversion of any, in answer to prayer, who may have gone astray, as long as they are in this world of probation and of hope. Let no parent despair who has an abandoned son; let no wife cease to pray who has a dissipated husband. How many a prodigal son has come back to fill with happiness an aged parent’s heart! How many a dissipated husband has been reformed to give joy again to the wife of his youth, and to make a paradise again of his miserable home!

Verse 17

All unrighteousness is sin ... - This seems to be thrown in to guard what he had just said, and there is “one” great and enormous sin, a sin which could not be forgiven. But he says also that there are many other forms and degrees of sin, sin for which prayer may be made. Everything, he says, which is unrighteous - ἀδικία adikia - everything which does not conform to the holy law of God, and which is not right in the view of that law, is to be regarded as sin; but we are not to suppose that all sin of that kind is of such a character that it cannot possibly be forgiven. There are many who commit sin who we may hope will be recovered, and for them it is proper to pray. Deeply affected as we may be in view of the fact that there is a sin which can never be pardoned, and much as we may pity one who has been guilty of such a sin, yet we should not hastily conclude in any case that it has been committed, and should bear constantly in mind that while there is one such sin, there are multitudes that may be pardoned, and that for them it is our duty unceasingly to pray.

Verse 18

We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not - Is not habitually and characteristically a sinner; does not ultimately and finally sin and perish; cannot, therefore, commit the unpardonable sin. Though he may fall into sin, and grieve his brethren, yet we are never to cease to pray for a true Christian: we are never to feel that he has committed the sin which has never forgiveness, and that he has thrown himself beyond the reach of our prayers. This passage, in its connection, is a full proof that a true Christian “will” never commit the unpardonable sin, and, therefore, is a proof that he will never fall from grace. Compare the notes at Hebrews 6:4-8; Hebrews 10:26. On the meaning of the assertion here made, that “whosoever is born of God sinneth not,” see the notes at 1 John 3:6-9.

Keepeth himself - It is not said that he does it by his own strength, but he will put forth his best efforts to keep himself from sin, and by divine assistance he will be able to accomplish it. Compare the 1 John 3:3 note; Jude 1:21 note.

And that wicked one toucheth him not - The great enemy of all good is repelled in his assaults, and he is kept from falling into his snares. The word “toucheth” (ἅπτεται haptetai) is used here in the sense of harm or injure.

Verse 19

And we know that we are of God - We who are Christians. The apostle supposed that true Christians might have so clear evidence on that subject as to leave no doubt on their own minds that they were the children of God. Compare 1 John 3:14; 2 Timothy 1:12.

And the whole world - The term “world” here evidently means not the material world, but the people who dwell on the earth, including all idolaters, and all sinners of every grade and kind.

Lieth in wickedness - “In the wicked one,” or under the power of the wicked one - ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ en tō ponērō. It is true that the word πονηρῷ ponērō may be used here in the neuter gender, as our translators have rendered it, meaning “in that which is evil,” or in “wickedness;” but it may be in the masculine gender, meaning “the wicked one;” and then the sense would be that the whole world is under his control or dominion. That this is the meaning of the apostle seems to be clear, because:

(1) The corresponding phrase, 1 John 5:20, ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ en tō alēthinō, “in him that is true,” is evidently to be construed in the masculine, referring to God the Saviour, and meaning “him that is true,” and not that we are “in truth.”

(2) It makes better sense to say that the world lies under the control of the wicked one, than to say that it lies “in wickedness.”

(3) This accords better with the other representations in the Bible, and the usuage of the word elsewhere. Compare 1 John 2:13, “Ye have overcome the “wicked” one;” 1 John 5:14, “ye have overcome the “wicked” one;” 1 John 3:12, “who was of that “wicked” one.” See also the notes at 2 Corinthians 4:4, on the expression “the god of this world;” John 12:31, where he is called “the prince of this world;” and Ephesians 2:2, where he is called “the prince of the power of the air.” In all these passages it is supposed that Satan has control over the world, especially the pagan world. Compare Ephesians 6:12; 1 Corinthians 10:20. In regard to the fact that the pagan world was pervaded by wickedness, see the notes at Romans 1:21-32.

(4) It may be added, that this interpretation is adopted by the most eminent critics and commentators. It is that of Calvin, Beza, Benson, Macknight, Bloomfield, Piscator, Lucke, etc. The word “lieth” here (κεῖται keitai) means, properly, to lie; to be laid; to recline; to be situated, etc. It seems here to refer to the “passive” and “torpid” state of a wicked world under the dominion of the prince of evil, as acquiescing in his reign; making no resistance; not even struggling to be free. It lies thus as a beast that is subdued, a body that is dead, or anything that is wholly passive, quiet, and inert. There is no energy; no effort to throw off the reign; no resistance; no struggling. The dominion is complete, and body and soul, individuals and nations, are entirely subject to his will. This striking expression will not unaptly now describe the condition of the pagan world, or of sinners in general. There would seem to be no government under which people are so little restive, and against which they have so little disposition to rebel, as that of Satan. Compare 2 Timothy 2:26.

Verse 20

And we know that the Son of God is come - We know this by the evidence that John had referred to in this Epistle, 1 John 1:1-4; 1 John 5:6-8.

And hath given us an understanding - Not an “understanding” considered as a faculty of the mind, for religion gives us no new faculties; but he has so instructed us that we do understand the great truths referred to. Compare the notes at Luke 24:45. All the correct knowledge which we have of God and his government, is to be traced directly or indirectly to the great Prophet whom God has sent into the world, John 1:4, John 1:18; John 8:12; John 9:5; Hebrews 1:1-3; Matthew 11:27.

That we may know him that is true - That is, the true God. See the notes at John 17:3.

And we are in him that is true - That is, we are united to him; we belong to him; we are his friends. This idea is often expressed in the Scriptures by being “in him.” It denotes a most intimate union, as if we were one with him - or were a part of him - as the branch is in the vine, John 15:4, John 15:6. The Greek construction is the same as that applied to “the wicked one,” 1 John 5:19, (ἐν τῷ ἀληθινᾧ en tō alēthinō.)

This is the true God - o There has been much difference of opinion in regard to this important passage; whether it refers to the Lord Jesus Christ, the immediate antecedent, or to a more remote antecedent - referring to God, as such. The question is of importance in its bearing on the doctrine of the divinity of the Saviour; for if it refers to him, it furnishes an unequivocal declaration that he is divine. The question is, whether John “meant” that it should be referred to him? Without going into an extended examination of the passage, the following considerations seem to me to make it morally certain that by the phrase “this is the true God,” etc., he did refer to the Lord Jesus Christ.

(1) The grammatical construction favors it. Christ is the immediate antecedent of the pronoun “this” - οὗτος houtos. This would be regarded as the obvious and certain construction so far as the grammar is concerned, unless there were something in the thing affirmed which led us to seek some more remote and less obvious antecedent. No doubt would have been ever entertained on this point, if it had not been for the reluctance to admit that the Lord Jesus is the true God. If the assertion had been that “this is the true Messiah;” or that “this is the Son of God;” or that “this is he who was born of the Virgin Mary,” there would have been no difficulty in the construction. I admit that his argument is not absolutely decisive; for cases do occur where a pronoun refers, not to the immediate antecedent, but to one more remote; but cases of that kind depend on the ground of necessity, and can be applied only when it would be a clear violation of the sense of the author to refer it to the immediate antecedent.

(2) This construction seems to be demanded by the adjunct which John has assigned to the phrase “the true God” - “eternal life.” This is an expression which John would be likely to apply to the Lord Jesus, considered as “life,” and the “source of life,” and not to God as such. “How familiar is this language with John, as applied to Christ! “In him (i. e. Christ) was life, and the life was the light of people - giving life to the world - the bread of life - my words are spirit and life - I am the way, and the truth, and the life. This life (Christ) was manifested, and we have “seen it,” and do testify to you, and declare the eternal life which was with the Father, and was manifested to us,” 1 John 1:2.” - Prof. Stuart’s Letters to Dr. Channing, p. 83. There is no instance in the writings of John, in which the appellation life, and “eternal” life is bestowed upon the Father, to designate him as the author of spiritual and eternal life; and as this occurs so frequently in John’s writings as applied to Christ, the laws of exegesis require that both the phrase “the true God,” and “eternal life,” should be applied to him.

(3) If it refers to God as such, or to the word “true” - τὸν ἀληθινόν (Θεὸν) ton alēthinon (Theon) it would be mere tautology, or a mere truism. The rendering would then be, “That we may know the true God, and we are in the true God: this is the true God, and eternal life.” Can we believe that an inspired man would affirm gravely, and with so much solemnity, and as if it were a truth of so much magnitude, that the true God is the true God?

(4) This interpretation accords with what we are sure John would affirm respecting the Lord Jesus Christ. Can there be any doubt that he who said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God;” that he who said, “all things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made;” that he who recorded the declaration of the Saviour, “I and my Father are one,” and the declaration of Thomas, “my Lord and my God,” would apply to him the appellation “the true God!”

(5) If John did not mean to affirm this, he has made use of an expression which was liable to be misunderstood, and which, as facts have shown, would be misconstrued by the great portion of those who might read what he had written; and, moreover, an expression that would lead to the very sin against which he endeavors to guard in the next verse - the sin of substituting a creature in the place of God, and rendering to another the honor due to him. The language which he uses is just such as, according to its natural interpretation, would lead people to worship one as the true God who is not the true God, unless the Lord Jesus be divine. For these reasons, it seems to me that the fair interpretation of this passage demands that it should be understood as referring to the Lord Jesus Christ. If so, it is a direct assertion of his divinity, for there could be no higher proof of it than to affirm that he is the true God.

And eternal life - Having “life in himself,” John 5:26, and the source and fountain of life to the soul. No more frequent appellation, perhaps, is given to the Saviour by John, than that he is life, and the source of life. Compare John 1:4; John 5:26, John 5:40; John 10:10; John 6:33, John 6:35, John 6:48, John 6:51, John 6:53, John 6:63; John 11:25; John 14:6; Joh 20:31; 1 John 1:1-2; 1 John 5:12.

Verse 21

Little children - This is a favorite mode of address with John, (see the notes at 1 John 2:1), and it was proper to use it in giving his parting counsel; embracing, in fact, all that he had to say - that they should keep themselves from idols, and suffer nothing to alienate their affections from the true God. His great object had been to lead them to the knowledge and love of God, and all his counsels would be practically followed, if, amidst the temptations of idolatry, and the allurements of sin, nothing were allowed to estrange their hearts from him.

Keep yourselves from idols - From worshipping them; from all that would imply communion with them or their devotees. Compare the notes at 1 Corinthians 10:14. The word rendered “idols” here (εἰδώλων eidōlōn) means, properly, an image, specter, shade - as of the dead; then any image or figure which would represent anything, particularly anything invisible; and hence anything designed to represent God, and that was set up with a view to be acknowledged as representing him, or to bring, him, or his perfections, more vividly before the mind. The word is applicable to idol-gods - pagan deities, 1 Corinthians 8:4, 1Co 8:7; 1 Corinthians 10:19; Romans 2:22; 2Co 6:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; but it would, also, be applicable to any “image” designed to represent the true God, and through or by which the true God was to be adored. The essential things in the word seem to be:

(a)An image or representation of the Deity, and,

(b)The making of that an object of adoration instead of the true God.

Since one of these things would be likely to lead to the other, both are forbidden in the prohibitions of idolatry, Exodus 20:4-5. This would forbid all attempts to represent God by paintings or statuary; all idol-worship, or worship of pagan gods; all images and pictures that would be substituted in the place of God as objects of devotion, or that might transfer the homage from God to the image; and all giving of those affections to other beings or objects which are due to God. why the apostle closed this Epistle with this injunction he has not stated, and it may not be easy to determine. It may have been for such reasons as these:

  1. Those to whom he wrote were surrounded by idolaters, and there was danger that they might fall into the prevailing sin, or in some way so act as to be understood to lend their sanction to idolatry.

(2)In a world full of alluring objects, there was danger then, as there is at all times, that the affections should be fixed on other objects than the supreme God, and that what is due to him should be withheld.

It may be added, in the conclusion of the exposition of this Epistle, that the same caution is as needful for us as it was for those to whom John wrote. We are not in danger, indeed, of bowing down to idols, or of engaging in the grosser forms of idol-worship. But we may be in no less danger than they to whom John wrote were, of substituting other things in our affections in the place of the true God, and of devoting to them the time and the affection which are due to him. Our children it is possible to love with such an attachment as shall effectually exclude the true God from the heart. The world - “its wealth, and pleasures, and honors - we may love with a degree of attachment such as even an idolater would hardly shew to his idol-gods; and all the time which he would take in performing his devotions in an idol-temple, we may devote with equal fervor to the service of the world. There is practical idolatry all over the world; in nominally Christian lands as well as among the pagan; in families that acknowledge no God but wealth and fashion; in the hearts of multitudes of individuals who would scorn the thought of worshipping at a pagan altar; and it is even to be found in the heart of many a one who professes to be acquainted with the true God, and to be an heir of heaven. God should have the supreme place in our affections. The love of everything else should be held in strict subordination to the love of him.

He should reign in our hearts; be acknowledged in our closets, our families, and in the place of public worship; be submitted to at all times as having a right to command and control us; be obeyed in all the expressions of his will, by his word, by his providence, and by his Spirit; be so loved that we shall be willing to part without a complaint with the dearest object of affection when he takes it from us; and so that, with joy and triumph, we shall welcome his messenger, “the angel of death,” when he shall come to summon us into his presence. To all who may read these illustrations of the Epistle of the “beloved disciple,” may God grant this inestimable blessing and honor. Amen.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on 1 John 5". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/1-john-5.html. 1870.
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