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Bible Commentaries
1 John 5

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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A. The Meaning of Brotherly Love 4:20-5:3a

John proceeded to clarify how to love our brethren. In the process, he dealt with potential excuses for not loving them.


"John no doubt intended his letter to be read publicly to all the members of each congregation-even if the addressed readers of First John were the elders, or leaders, of the church or churches to which this letter went. This public reading would have a twofold effect. First, it would buttress the authority of the local leadership so that they could stand more effectively against the Revisionists. Since the author was an apostle, his endorsement both of their doctrine and personal qualifications (cf. 1 John 2:12-14) was vital. But second, it would make the letter a teaching vehicle to all the Christians who heard it, and later to untold millions who would read, study, and hear it preached.

"Since the apostle John was unquestionably one of the greatest teachers the church has ever had, he must have known perfectly well that the level of experience he described might seem hard to some of the less mature in his audience. In the final segment of his epistle, which serves as a conclusion to all that has gone before, the writer addresses the practical concerns that his teaching on Christian experience might raise." [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 209.]

Verse 1

The first part of this verse is one of the clearest statements in Scripture of what a person has to do to be saved. There is no other way that John ever defined a Christian. We must believe that Jesus of Nazareth is "the Christ" (i.e., the Anointed One whom God promised to provide as a substitute sacrifice for the sins of the world). What defines a Christian is his or her faith in Jesus Christ, not lifestyle, good works, or obedience to God.

Our brothers and sisters are those who believe that Jesus is the Christ. Even though we may have little in common with some Christians, we can still love them because we share the same Parent and are members of the same family.

Verse 2

We must love other Christians to be obedient to God’s commandments. Genuine love for God will result in obedience to His commandments. This love expresses itself in action, not just emotion. We love other Christians best when we obey God.

Verse 3

God’s commands are not burdensome (oppressive, so as to crush love) because every believer has already exercised the faith in God that is essential for obedience (cf. Matthew 11:30; 1 John 4:4).

"The reason why God’s commandments are not heavy is the power that comes with the new birth from God." [Note: Robertson, 6:238.]

Verses 3-15

B. The Empowerment of Brotherly Love 5:3b-15

If love for our brethren really boils down to keeping God’s commandments, how can we do that? It sounds difficult, even impossible. John proceeded to respond to this concern.

Verse 4

Every Christian has overcome the world by his or her initial faith in Jesus Christ. To continue to overcome and obey God all we need to do is continue to exercise faith in God (cf. Romans 8:37; 1 Corinthians 15:57).

"It is striking that John does not say ’whoever’ but ’whatever’ (Greek: to gegennemenon, neuter gender). This suggests that there is something inherently world-conquering in the very experience of being born of God. We are now immediately told what this is: ’and this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith.’" [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 216.]

Verse 5

Continuing to overcome is not automatic for the Christian. Not all Christians continue to overcome the world (cf. 2 Timothy 4:10). Only those who continue to live by faith (i.e., trust and obey God) do. However, no one can overcome the world unless he or she believes that Jesus is the Son of God. It is in this sense that John refers to overcomers here; every Christian overcomes essentially because we believe in Jesus Christ.

Verse 6

This "water" probably refers to John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus in water. The "blood" probably refers to His atoning death by crucifixion. [Note: See Ryrie, "The First . . .," p. 1476.]

Some false teachers in the early church taught that the divine Christ descended on the human Jesus at His baptism but left Him before His crucifixion, for example, Cerinthus and other Gnostics. [Note: See Barclay, p. 10.] John referred to this teaching in this verse. He considered this teaching untrue. Jesus Christ, one Person, came at His first advent not just to experience baptism in water but also to die.

"The true identity of Jesus, the writer appears to be saying, is only to be discovered by looking at the whole of his life, including its end." [Note: Marshall, p. 278.]

Verse 7

The Holy Spirit testified to the identity of Jesus as God’s Son at His baptism (Matthew 3:17). Cerinthus taught that the Spirit was the divine Christ, God’s anointing, which descended on Jesus then. [Note: See Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 219, footnote 10.] John corrected this error by pointing out that the Spirit was a witness to Jesus’ identity, not the Christ. John further stressed the reliability of the Spirit’s witness by reminding his readers that the Spirit is truth. The Spirit’s testimony about Jesus’ identity at His baptism was true because the Spirit Himself is truth, even God Himself (cf. John 14:6).

Verse 8

Really there are three witnesses to the truth. These witnesses are the Holy Spirit teaching through the apostles and prophets, the water of Jesus’ baptism, and the blood of His crucifixion. John personified the latter two in this verse. The testimony of eyewitnesses and prophets as well as that of the historical events affirmed the divine and human character of Jesus Christ.

A few late manuscripts of 1 John insert other witnesses between the words "bear witness" and "the Spirit." The addition reads, ". . . in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth . . ."

"Not a single manuscript contains the Trinitarian addition before the fourteenth century, and the verse is never quoted in the controversies over the Trinity in the first 450 years of the church era." [Note: Ryrie, "The First . . .," p. 1477.]

Verse 9

God gave His witness concerning His Son through the prophets, at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17; John 1:32-34), and at His crucifixion (John 19:35-37). All three witnesses came from God ultimately.

Verse 10

Having spoken of the character of the divine witness to Jesus (1 John 5:6-9), John moved to discuss the results of that witness (1 John 5:10-12). The witness is the truth about Jesus Christ that the indwelling Holy Spirit bears. This may be the objective witness of Scripture, or it may be a subjective witness in the believer’s heart. The Spirit witnesses in both ways. If someone does not believe this testimony, he is saying that God has lied (cf. 1 John 1:10). John clarified the implications of rejecting the gospel in stark terms.

"The writer, then, cannot allow that one can profess belief in God, as did his opponents, and yet reject God’s testimony to his own Son. Such rejection cannot be excused on the basis of ignorance. The evidence is too clear and too weighty. Rather, it is deliberate unbelief, the character of which in the end impugns the very being and character of God. If Jesus is not God’s own Son in the flesh, then God is no longer the truth. He is the liar." [Note: Barker, p. 352.]

Believing in the Son of God is the same as believing that Jesus is the Christ (cf. 1 John 5:1; John 3:15-16; John 3:18; John 20:30-31).

"There is nothing here about ’head or heart belief,’ or about a ’faith that yields to God as over against mere intellectual assent,’ etc. The Bible does not complicate faith like that. Once we have understood the message, the issue is: Is it true or false? Do we believe it, or do we not?" [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 224.]

Verses 11-12

This is the content of God’s testimony. Eternal life is inseparable from the person of Jesus Christ. Some of the false teachers seem to have tried to separate them (cf. 1 John 2:25-26). Jesus Christ and eternal life are one gift from God.

"’Eternal’ life is qualitative, not quantitative; it is the highest kind of spiritual and moral life, irrespective of time, which God enables the believer to share in relationship with Jesus." [Note: Smalley, p. 287.]

1 John 5:12 is not an offer of eternal life, such as John 20:30-31, but a confirmation of what God had done for the readers, as the next verse verifies.

Verse 13

The phrase "these things" evidently refers to what John had just written about God’s witness (1 John 5:6-12) rather than to his whole epistle. The "these things" in 1 John 2:1 likewise refer to what immediately precedes in 1 John 1:5-10, and the "these things" in 1 John 2:26 refer to what immediately precedes in 1 John 2:18-25. [Note: See Robert N. Wilkin, "’Assurance: That You May Know’ (1 John 5:11-13a)," Grace Evangelical Society News 5:12 (December 1990):2, 4.] John stated the purpose of the whole epistle in 1 John 1:3-4. [Note: Westcott, p. 188.]

"This assertion [i.e., 1 John 5:13] is very frequently, and wrongly, taken as a statement of purpose for the entire epistle . . . . But this is contrary to the writer’s usage." [Note: Hodges, The Gospel . . ., p. 51. Cf. Wilkin, "Knowing God . . .," p. 3.]

Our assurance of salvation rests on the testimony of God, His promise (1 John 5:12). It does not rest on the presence of spiritual fruit (cf. John 15:8). It rests on God’s Word, not on man’s works. Therefore we can be sure we have eternal life if we have believed on Jesus Christ.

One writer claimed to believe that the Christian’s assurance of salvation rests on both God’s objective promises in Scripture and on the subjective evidence of the believer’s works. [Note: John MacArthur, Faith Works, pp. 162-66.] However the following quotation from him seems to ground our assurance only on subjective evidence.

"Those who cling to the promise of eternal life but care nothing for Christ’s holiness have nothing to be assured of. Such people do not really believe. Either their professed ’faith’ in Christ is an utter sham, or they are simply deluded. If they did truly have their hope fixed on Christ, they would purify themselves, just as He is pure (1 John 3:3)." [Note: Ibid., p. 171. The emphasis is his.]

"Those who are willing to look at themselves with complete honesty will find more grounds to doubt their salvation than to be assured of it. Some even teach that this uncertainty is healthy! But this does not reckon with the fact that the apostle John expected his readers to know that they had eternal life. The irony is that once Christian experience is made the grounds for assurance, as some hold First John does, John’s statement in this verse about knowing becomes a complete impossibility!" [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 229.]

Verses 14-15

Prayer is another expression of the believer’s trust in Jesus Christ and confidence toward God (cf. 1 John 3:21). To do something in the name of another means to act on the authority of that person (cf. John 5:43; John 10:25).

"Prayer is not a battle, but a response; its power consists in lifting our wills to God, not in trying to bring his will down to us . . ." [Note: Smalley, p. 295. Cf. Law, p. 301.]

"Jesus teaches us to pray: ’Thy will be done,’ not, ’Thy will be changed.’" [Note: Barclay, p. 136.]

In the preceding context the subject is mainly obedience to the will of God (1 John 5:3-13). John’s point is that whenever we need help, but particularly help in obeying God, we can ask for it in prayer confidently (cf. 1 John 2:28; 1 John 3:21; 1 John 4:17). He conditioned the promise "whatever" (v.15) with "according to His will" (1 John 5:14). God hears all prayers, of course, because He is omniscient. However, He hears them in the sense that He hears them favorably because we are His children asking for help to do His will. He will always grant that kind of request. [Note: See Thomas L. Constable, "What Prayer Will and Will Not Change," in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, pp. 99-113; and idem, Talking to God: What the Bible Teaches about Prayer, p. 170.] We know the most important aspects of the will of God through Scripture.

"But, if prayer is to be made according to God’s will, why pray at all? Surely his will is going to be accomplished, whether or not we pray for it to be done? To speak in such terms is to assume that God’s will must be understood in a static kind of way, as if God has made a detailed plan beforehand of all that is going to happen-including the fact that we are going to pray in a particular way and at a particular time. But while the Bible does speak of God’s plan and purpose for the world, to speak in such deterministic terms is inconsistent with the freedom which the Bible itself assigns to God’s children, and it wreaks havoc upon the biblical idea of the personal relationship which exists between God and his children." [Note: Marshall, p. 244.]

Trust in Jesus Christ is therefore as basic to success in the Christian life as it is to obtaining eternal life.

Verse 16

John explained that prayer should extend to the needs of others (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1). He did this to clarify further what loving one’s brethren involves. The general subject of this verse is prayer for a sinning Christian. We can clarify the sense of this verse and the next by inserting the word "premature" before each instance of the word "death." Some writers wrote that the assumed modifier of "death" should be "eternal." [Note: Randall K. J. Tan, "Should We Pray for Straying Brethren? John’s Confidence in 1 John 5:16-17," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45:4 (December 2002):599-609; and Yarbrough, pp. 306-13.] This interpretation may result in concluding, erroneously I believe, that the brethren in view were either never saved in the first place or lost their salvation. Some sins bring God’s swift judgment and result in the premature physical death of the sinner (e.g., Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Corinthians 11:30). Others do not. The fact that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for us today to distinguish these types of sins should not lead us to conclude that a distinction does not exist (cf. Hebrews 6:4-6; Hebrews 10:26-29).

According to the "spiritual (or eternal) death" view, the sin unto death is a reference to failure to believe in Christ. Sins not leading to spiritual death are those that will not result in a person’s damnation because God will give spiritual life to that one in answer to the prayer offered by the intercessor. Sins not leading to spiritual death could also refer to sins that do not irrevocably separate the believer from God, for which forgiveness is possible.

Under the Old Covenant, sinners who repudiated that covenant died physically because their repudiation represented a major rejection of Yahweh’s authority. The writer to the Hebrews warned his readers that repudiation of the New Covenant would result in inevitable judgment with no possibility of repentance (Hebrews 6:4-6; Hebrews 10:26-27). Repudiation of the New Covenant involves rejecting Jesus Christ. That may be the sin leading to death that John meant here.

"The early church took much more seriously than we do the possibility that a person may sin beyond hope of redemption." [Note: Marshall, p. 249. See also Westcott, pp. 209-14.]

In the case of sin leading to premature physical death, John revealed that prayer will not avert the consequences. Therefore praying in these situations will not avail. However, John did not say we should refrain from praying about them. [Note: Robertson, 6:244.] We may not know if a sin is one that God will judge with premature death. In such cases we can pray that God will bring His will to pass for a sinning Christian. [Note: See W. Robert Cook, "Hamartiological Problems in First John," Bibliotheca Sacra 123; 491 (July-September 1966):257-59; and C. Samuel Storms, Reaching God’s Ear, pp. 241-53.] Jeremiah continued to pray for the apostate Israelites even though God told him that his prayers would not avail because their doom was sealed (Jeremiah 7:16; Jeremiah 11:14; Jeremiah 14:11-12).

". . . John’s warning against sin, and the failure to maintain orthodox faith (1 John 2:24; 2 John 1:8-9), shows that while he expected his readers to walk in the light as sons of God (1 John 1:7; 1 John 5:18-19), he did not ignore the possibility that some believing but heretically inclined members of his community might become apostate." [Note: Smalley, p. 299.]

Many Christians have failed to realize that sinning always leads to some type of dying, even among Christians (Romans 6:23). While it is true that no Christian will ever experience spiritual death (eternal separation from God), we do normally experience the physical consequences of our sinning. The fact that we all die physically is the proof of this. Of course, the exception is Christians whom God will translate when the Lord Jesus returns for His own.

"A further question is whether the sin that leads to death can be committed by those who are truly God’s children. . . . A number of scholars have tried to show that this could not have been John’s meaning. Thus it has been argued that the people in question had merely masqueraded as believers but had never at any point truly believed in Jesus. Consequently, the sin that leads to death is to be understood as a sin of unbelievers which believers cannot in principle commit. [Note: Footnote 27: Stott, pp. 186-91.] However, this point must remain doubtful. The fact that John needed to warn his readers against the possibility of sinning and failing to continue in the truth and in the doctrine of Christ (1 John 2:24; 2 John 1:7-11) suggests that he did not altogether exclude the possibility that a person might fall away from his faith into apostasy [cf. Hebrews 6:4-6; Hebrews 10:26-31]. Nevertheless, it was his clear expectation that his readers would continue in their faith without falling away from it." [Note: Marshall, pp. 249-50.]

Verses 16-17

C. The Consequences of Brotherly Love 5:16-17

Although as believers in Jesus Christ we have every right and obligation to be concerned about our own obedience, we cannot truly love our brethren unless we have concern for their obedience too. Prayer according to God’s will is not only a resource for us so we can love one another, but prayer is also a resource whereby we can obtain help for our brethren.

Verse 17

Because some sin does not lead to premature physical death, we should pray for our brethren when they sin (cf. 1 John 1:9). Prayer for a sinning Christian is a concrete demonstration of love for that brother or sister (1 John 3:23).

These verses are not distinguishing between mortal (unpardonable) and venial (pardonable) sins, as Roman Catholic theology uses these terms.

"So long as a man in his heart of hearts hates sin and hates himself for sinning, so long as he knows that he is sinning, he is never beyond repentance, and, therefore, never beyond forgiveness; but once a man begins to revel in sin, and to make sin the deliberate policy of his life, and loses all sense of the terror and the awfulness of sin and also the feeling of self-disgust, he is on the way to death, for he is on the way to a state where the idea of repentance will not, and cannot, enter his head." [Note: Barclay, p. 143.]

Spiritual death is in view.Physical death is in view.
The offender is a brother.The offender is a brother.
The sin not unto death = any sin other than unbelief in ChristThe sin not unto death = any sin that does not shorten one’s life
God will grant spiritual life to the guilty in answer to prayer. (Prayer is never a guarantee of eternal life.)God will grant extended physical life to the guilty in answer to prayer. (God did this for King Hezekiah; cf. James 5:15.)
The sin unto death = unbeliefThe sin unto death = serious sin that shortens physical life
John did not commend prayer for the person who commits the sin of unbelief. (One would think that he would commend it; cf. Romans 10:1.)John did not commend prayer for the person who commits sin that shortens physical life. (Evidently he believed such praying would be useless; cf Jeremiah 7:16.)

We should demonstrate concern about the obedience of others as well as our own obedience. When we become truly concerned about our obedience we will become concerned about the obedience of our brethren. God gives us eternal life, but we can give physical life to others in some situations as we ask God in prayer to be merciful to them.

Verse 18

"We know" introduces this verse and the following two verses. John probably meant, We apostles know (understand) and now you readers also know in view of what I have written in this epistle.

As in 1 John 3:9, John affirmed that the basic nature of one who has God for his spiritual Parent is not to sin. The regenerate person as such is incapable of any sin. Furthermore because the new man in Christ possesses the sinless nature of the indwelling Christ, John could say that Christ keeps him from sin (cf. John 17:12; Revelation 3:10). Another view is that "he who is born of God" refers to the believer who keeps "himself" from sin. [Note: See Marshall, p. 252, footnote 37, for further discussion of the problem.] In addition, Satan cannot touch him. Evidently John restated this fundamental truth because people normally behave in harmony with what they believe themselves to be. Our behavior as Christians will be more holy when we view ourselves as children of God rather than as children of the devil.

Verses 18-21


John concluded this epistle by synthesizing the major thoughts he had presented to reinforce and review them for his readers. "We know" many things as a result of what Jesus taught and what John taught.

"The writer’s fundamental thought here is that if the readers perceive the truths he mentions, they will be fortified against the allurements of the idolatrous pagan practices around them." [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 241.]

Verse 19

Moreover, we are distinct from the world system that Satan controls since we are God’s children (1 John 5:9-13). We need not accept the worldly teachings of antichrists (1 John 3:7-8) nor capitulate to worldly lusts (1 John 2:15-17).

Verse 20

Finally, we have spiritual understanding through our anointing with the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20) whom Jesus Christ sent (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:15-16). Consequently we can come to know God intimately and can abide in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the true God and eternal life (cf. John 14:6). The full title "His Son Jesus Christ" appears only at 1 John 1:3 as well as here in this epistle providing bookends for what John wrote (another inclusio). This verse contains one of the clearest announcements of the deity of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

"Eternal life, for John, is a relationship with the Father and the Son. It begins in the present when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, but it continues uninterrupted into the age to come." [Note: Harris, p. 232.]

Verse 21

John closed with a final admonition. Departure from the true God and His teaching constitutes idolatry. As contradicting God is really calling Him a liar (1 John 1:10), so departing from God is really idolatry. Departing from God includes leaving apostolic teaching and practice, behaving as a child of Satan rather than as a child of God.

"False teaching is ultimately ’apostasy from the true faith.’ To follow after it is to become nothing better than an idol worshiper, especially if it is a matter of the truth of one’s conception of God. The author is blunt. The false teachers propose not the worship of the true God, made known in his Son Jesus, but a false god-an idol they have invented." [Note: Barker, p. 357.]

This verse is a New Testament restatement for Christians of the first commandment God gave the Israelites in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:3-5; Deuteronomy 5:7-9).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 John 5". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-john-5.html. 2012.
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