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15. Exegetical Commentary on 1 John 5:13-21

    Structure

This section forms the conclusion and epilogue to the entire letter.708 It is composed of two subsections, the first composed of 5:13, the conclusion (which is also a transitional statement from the body of the letter) and the second composed of 5:14-21, the epilogue. The epilogue in turn consists of two subsections, 5:14-17 and 5:18-21, to which v. 21 forms a conclusion and final warning.

In the conclusion the author tells his readers why he has written the letter (5:13). He is writing to assure and strengthen them in their christology (5:9-12) because this is what is threatened by the false teaching of the opponents, and as far as the author is concerned, only a faith that is based on a correct christology results in life. The correct christology is the one espoused by the author and his fellow apostolic eyewitnesses (1 John 1:1-4), with its emphasis on the salvific significance of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, including his sacrificial death on the cross.

    5:13 I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

    Summary

The expression these things refers to what has preceded. Compare 1 John 1:4 where the same expression (these things) looks forward to what follows. Taken together the two expressions serve to bracket the main contents in between. Once again the author writes to reassure his readers (so that you may know) that they possess eternal life.

    Exegetical Details

The referent of tau'ta (tauta, “these things”) in 5:13. Theoretically the pronoun tau'ta (tauta) could refer to what precedes or to what follows. Since it is followed by a Jina-clause which gives the purpose for the writing, and a new subject is introduced in 1 John 5:14 (“the confidence that we have before him”), it seems almost certain that the tau'ta (tauta) in 5:13 refers to preceding material. Even at this, some would limit the referent of tau'ta (tauta) only to 5:1-12709 or even 5:12, but more likely tau'ta (tauta) in 5:13 refers to the entirety of 1 John,710 for two reasons: (a) based on the structural analogy with the Gospel of John, where the conclusion refers to all that has preceded,711 it is probable that the conclusion to 1 John likewise refers to all that has preceded; and (b) the statement tau'ta e[graya uJmi'n (tauta egraya Jumin, “I have written these things to you”) in 5:13 forms an inclusion712 with the statement kaiV tau'ta gravfomen hJmei' (kai tauta grafomen Jhmeis, “thus we are writing these things”) at the end of the prologue (1 John 1:4) and encompasses the entire body of the letter.

The force of the conjunction i{na (Jina, “so that”) in 5:13. This Jina introduces a clause giving the author’s purpose for writing “these things” (tau'ta, tauta), which refers (as explained in the previous section) to the entirety of the preceding material. The two other Johannine statements about writing, 1 John 1:4 and John 20:31, are both followed by purpose clauses introduced by Jina, as here.

The syntactical relationship of the dative participle pisteuvousin (pisteuousin, “to you who believe”) to the remainder of 5:13. The dative participle in 5:13 is in simple apposition to the indirect object of the verb e[graya (egraya, “I write”), the pronoun uJmi'n (Jumin, “to you”): “I have written these things to you [namely, the ones] who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know….” There is an exact parallel to this structure in John 1:12, where the pronoun is aujtoi' (autois) and the participle is toi' pisteuvousin (tois pisteuousin) as here.

    5:14 And this is the confidence that we have before him: that whenever we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.

    Summary

The author now asserts the confidence that believers have regarding answered prayer. Asking according to God’s will brings assurance that God hears believers when they pray.

    Exegetical Details

The referent of the pronoun au{th (Jauth, “this”) in 5:14 and the force of the Joti-clause. For the third time in 1 John 5:9-14 the author uses the construction au{th ejstiVn (Jauth estin [“this is”], in 5:9, 5:11, and here). As in the previous instance (5:11) the Joti-clause which follows is epexegetical (explanatory) to the pronoun au{th (Jauth) and explains what the “confidence” (parrhsiva, parrhsia) consists of.713 More literally, the clause can be rendered, “And the confidence which we have before him is this, [namely,] that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”

The meaning of parrhsiva (parrhsia, “confidence”) in 5:14. In the immediate context, the “confidence” described by the Greek term hJ parrhsiva (Jh parrhsia) here primarily relates to the Christian’s confidence in asking things of God.714 The term also occurs in contexts connected to the parousia (i.e., the second advent, 1 John 2:28, 4:17), and thus may also allude to the Christian’s assurance of a positive outcome at the judgment when Jesus returns.715 This is possible here as well because of the mention in the following verses of the “sin to death” which would involve God’s judgment, although the primary context here deals with confidence in regard to answered prayer.

The force of ejavn (ean, “whenever”) + present subjunctive in 5:14 and the conditional clause it introduces. =Eavn (ean) + present subjunctive introduces a third-class condition. Because the apodosis also contains a present tense verb (ajkouvei [akouei, “he hears”]) this construction belongs in a subcategory of third-class conditional sentences known as present general. Haas calls the force of ejavn (ean) here “expectational” rather than conditional.716 In the Koiné period ejavn (ean) can mean “when” or “whenever” and is virtually the equivalent of o{tan (Jotan).717 Thus the meaning here is, “whenever we ask anything according to his will, [then] he hears us.”718

Answered prayer and the phrase according to his will in 5:14. The qualification the author places on this promise of answered prayer for the believer is that the request must be in accordance with God’s will. This is just what the author said earlier in 1 John 3:21-22, in a context where “confidence” before God was the subject, as it is here.719 In 3:22 the author stated that the reason believers receive from God whatever they ask is “because (Joti) we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing to him.” To “keep God’s commandments” in 1 John 3:22 is to do God’s will, and this is why the believer may confidently expect to have his or her prayers answered.

If in 3:22 to “keep God’s commandments and do the things that are pleasing before him” is to do God’s will and thus make one’s prayer requests according to God’s will, doing God’s will in the context of 5:14 may be more narrowly defined as praying for the person who sins but does not commit the “sin resulting in death” (5:16a) while not praying for the person who does commit the “sin resulting in death” (5:16b).720

    5:15 And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask, then we know that we have the requests that we have asked from him.

    Summary

Assurance that God hears believers when they pray gives assurance that they will get answers to their requests.

    Exegetical Details

The force of the first ejavn (ean, “if”) + perfect indicative in 5:15 and the conditional clause it introduces. =Eavn (ean) used with the indicative mood rather than the subjunctive constitutes an anomalous usage. =Eavn (ean) is used here instead of eji (ei) to introduce a first-class condition: “if we know (oi[damen [oidamen], indicative mood) that he hears us [in regard to] whatever we ask, [then] we know that we have the requests that we have asked from him.” The reality of the condition (protasis) is assumed for the sake of argument; given the protasis, the apodosis follows. Such substitution of ejavn (ean) for eji (ei) is rare, but not without precedent.721

The structural pattern of 5:14-15. Once again there is a chiastic structure in 5:14b-15a:

        [A] aijtwvmeqa (aitwmeqa)

        we ask

        (1st pers. plur.)

 

          [B] ajkouvei (akouei)

          he hears

          (3rd pers. sing.)

          [B´ ] ajkouvei (akouei)

          he hears

          (3rd pers. sing.)

        [A´ ] aijtwvmeqa (aitwmeqa)

        we ask

        (1st pers. plur.)

Note that the chiasm involves not only the lexical meaning of the verbs but also their person and number (first person plural and third person singular). The key term oi[damen (oidamen, “we know”) occurs twice in this verse. It indicates the assurance that believers can have of answered prayer.722

    5:16 If anyone sees his fellow Christian committing a sin not resulting in death, he should ask, and God will grant life to the person who commits a sin not resulting in death. There is a sin resulting in death. I do not say that he should ask about that.

    Summary

Here the author asks his readers to pray for the fellow believer who commits a sin not resulting in death. The sin resulting in death, on the other hand, is the sin of the secessionist opponents, whom the author has consistently regarded as unbelievers (1 John 2:19; 3:14-15, 17).723

    Exegetical Details

The conditional clause introduced by ejavn (ean, “if”) + aorist subjunctive in 5:16. =Eavn (ean) in 5:16 again introduces (as in 5:14) a third-class condition, but this time, with the future indicative (aijthvsei [aithsei, “he should ask”]) in the apodosis, the conditional construction is known as “more probable future.” As Blass-Debrunner’s standard reference grammar points out, such a condition describes what is to be expected under certain circumstances.724 If a person sees his Christian brother committing a sin not resulting in death, it is expected that he will make intercession for the sinning brother (“he should ask…”), and that life will be granted to the sinner in answer to the request. The author has already pointed out in 5:14-15 that if believers make requests of God in accordance with his will they may have confidence that they will receive the requests they have asked for, and this is a specific instance.

The referent of the (understood) third person subject of dwvsei (dwsei, “will grant”) in 5:16. Once again the author’s meaning is obscure. Several possibilities have been suggested for the referent of the understood subject of this verb:

(1) From a grammatical and syntactical standpoint, it would be easiest to understand the subject of dwvsei (dwsei) in 5:16 as the person who makes the request, since this person is the subject of the preceding verb aijthvsei (aithsei, “he should ask”) and the following verb ejrwthvsh/ (erwthsh, “he should ask”).725 From a theological standpoint this is extremely difficult, however, since it would make the person who prays for the sinner the giver of life, and it is questionable whether the author of 1 John (for whom God is the ultimate source of life) would say that one believer could ‘give’ life to another. In this case the meaning would be: “he [the petitioner] should ask, and he [the petitioner] will grant life to him [the sinner], namely, to those who sin not to death.”

(2) A second possibility is to see God as the subject of dwvsei (dwsei) in 5:16, but the person who makes the request (rather than the sinner) as the referent of the indirect object aujtw'/ (autw, “to him”) in 5:16. This is possible because the indirect object aujtw'/ (autw) is singular, while the dative substantival participle toi' aJmartavnousin (tois Jamartanousin, literally “to those who sin”) which follows (which clearly refers to those who sin) is plural. Thus the meaning would be: “he [the petitioner] should ask, and he [God] will grant life to him [the petitioner], with reference to [his praying for] those who sin not to death.” This option is improbable because it seems clear that it should be the sinner for whom intercession is made, rather than the petitioner, who becomes the recipient of life. (The petitioner would be assumed to possess life already or he could not be making a request which God would hear.) In this case the change from the singular dative indirect object (aujtw'/, autw) to the plural dative substantival participle (toi' aJmartavnousin, tois Jamartanousin) is merely a loose construction (which by this time should come as no surprise from the author of 1 John!).

(3) A third option is to see God as the subject of dwvsei (dwsei) in 5:16 (as in the previous view) and the giver of life to the sinner.726 This is far more consistent theologically with the author’s perspective on God as the giver of life everywhere else, but it is somewhat awkward grammatically because it involves a shift in subjects for the three third person verbs in the context from the person who makes the request (aijthvsei [aithsei, “he should ask”]) to God (dwvsei [dwsei, “he will grant”]) and back to the person who makes the request at the end of the verse (ejrwthvsh/ [erwthsh, “he should ask”]). In this case the meaning would be: “he [the petitioner] should ask, and he [God] will grant life to him [the sinner], namely, to those who sin not to death. There is a sin to death. I do not say that he [the petitioner] should ask concerning that.”

Although this is a difficult and awkward construction no matter what solution one takes, on the whole the third alternative seems most probable. Even if option (1) is preferred it must be acknowledged that God is ultimately the source of life, although it is given as a result of the petitioner’s intercessory prayer and the petitioner becomes, in a sense, the intermediate agent. But in the preceding context (5:11) the author has emphasized that God is the giver of life, and in spite of the awkwardness in the change of subjects, that would seem to be the most likely meaning here, so option (3) is preferred.

The meaning of the sin resulting in death (aJmartiva proV qavnaton, Jamartia pros qanaton) in 5:16. This concept is a notorious crux interpretum. The concept of sin resulting in death occurs occasionally in the Old Testament (Num 18:22; Deut 22:26; Isa 22:14) and the Jewish intertestamental literature (Jub. 21:22; 26:34; 33:13, 18; T. Iss. 7:1). In all these instances the concept involves physical death as a consequence of sin. Sin resulting in sickness or death is also mentioned a number of times in the New Testament (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor 5:5; 11:29-30; cf. also 1 Tim 1:20; Jas 5:15; Rev 2:23) although here too the reference appears to be primarily to physical sickness or death. Yet there is no indication in the immediate context here that “sin resulting in death” refers to physical illness leading to physical death.

This still leaves several possible explanations for the “sin resulting in death” mentioned here, as follows:

(1) One common interpretation sees this as merely a way of referring to serious sins, as opposed to minor sins.727 In this case (a) the author may be telling his readers they may intercede for a brother on behalf of a minor sin, but should leave those who commit more serious sins to be dealt with by God. In this interpretation the author’s statement “I do not say that he should ask about that (i.e., the sin resulting in death)” is interpreted as a refusal to command prayers for such serious sins, which does not forbid such prayers but simply does not command them. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that the author’s statements in v. 16 do seem to imply that he does not want the readers to pray for someone who commits the “sin resulting in death”; he is not merely refusing to command such prayer, but is in effect forbidding it. (b) Another variation of this interpretation is to see the “sin resulting in death” of 1 John 5:16 as related to (or identical with) the “unforgivable sin” mentioned by Jesus in Matt 10:33, Mark 8:28, and Luke 9:26 and 12:9. Luke 12:10 also mentions in connection with this the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt 12:32, Mark 3:29). Thus the readers are being instructed not to pray for fellow believers who commit the unforgivable sin and thus forfeit their salvation.728 Here the distinction is still between a serious sin versus less serious sins, but in this case the serious sin is one which cannot be forgiven (and thus should not be prayed for). But if this is the case, it is far from clear that believers are capable of committing such a sin, and even if they were, since by nature it is unforgivable, why should the author of 1 John have to instruct his readers not to pray for it?

(2) Another common interpretation sees the “sin resulting in death” as referring to physical death: the sinner has committed a serious sin which leads to physical death as a punishment, but the petitioner’s request results in a ‘stay of execution.’ While there is certainly precedent in the New Testament for thinking of a sin which leads to physical death (Acts 5:1-11, perhaps 1 Cor 5:5) and Jesus’ statement about Lazarus in John 11:4 (“this sickness will not lead to death”) refers to physical death, it is not clear that this is what the author of 1 John has in mind. There is also precedent in the Johannine literature for a reference to spiritual, rather than physical, death. Rev 3:1 evaluates the Church at Sardis as follows: “you have a reputation that you are alive, but in reality you are dead,” a description that surely refers to a condition of spiritual deadness.

(3) If we understand the “sin resulting in death” as referring to spiritual death, not physical death, then it seems clear that the author could not have envisioned believers committing such a sin. The petitioner in 5:16 is instructed to pray for the fellow member of the Christian community who commits sin not to death. Many interpreters assume that a member of the Christian community likewise could commit the “sin to death”729 (in which case the readers are instructed not to pray for them), but the author does not say this. Within the antithetical (either/or) framework of Johannine thought, believers possess eternal life (John 5:24, 1 John 3:14a) while unbelievers remain in darkness, that is, spiritual death (John 3:19-20, 1 John 3:14b). Thus the “sin resulting in death” is a sin committed not by believers but by unbelievers. The problem with this view is that 1 John is clearly being written to believers, not unbelievers. Why would the author address himself at this point to the situation of unbelievers? They are “in the world,” not in the Christian community (1 John 4:4-6). If by “unbelievers” we merely mean “pagans,” the question is a valid one.

This question, however, pushes us in the direction of what appears to be the best solution to the difficulties presented by the verse. The comment about the “sin resulting in death” in 5:16 is somewhat parenthetical in nature: “If anyone should see his brother committing a sin not resulting in death, he shall ask, and he [God] will grant life him, to those who sin not to death. (There is a ‘sin resulting in death.’ I do not say that he should ask concerning this.)” The “unbelievers” whom the author has in mind at this point, who have committed this ‘sin resulting in death’, are not just any pagans, but the secessionist opponents, whom the author has consistently regarded as unbelievers (1 John 2:19, 3:14-15, 17). The opponents, who seceded from the community of believers to which the author is writing, showed by their departure that they did not belong to it and never really were believers to begin with (1 John 2:18-19). They have departed into the world (1 John 4:1) and the world has received them as its own, because they speak the world’s language and the world listens (1 John 4:5). In the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John when Jesus prayed for his disciples, he specifically excluded “the world” from his prayer (John 17:9). With Jesus’ own refusal to pray for the world as precedent, it makes perfect sense to understand the author of 1 John as discouraging his readers from praying for the opponents (who may claim to be fellow-believers, but really belong to the world).730 Thus the “sin resulting to death” in 1 John 5:16 refers to the christological heresy of the opponents, which has marked them as unbelievers and sealed their fate. Refusal to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (cf. John 20:31 and 1 John 5:12) is a dire sin indeed. It is the one sin which cannot be forgiven, because it denies the only means of forgiveness there is.

    5:17 All unrighteousness is sin, but there is sin not resulting in death.

    Summary

Here, having implied that sins committed by believers (sins “not resulting in death”) may be prayed for and forgiven, the author does not want to leave the impression that such sin is insignificant, because this could be viewed as a concession to the views of the opponents (who as moral indifferentists have downplayed the significance of sin in the Christian’s life). Therefore he reminds his readers that all unrighteousness is sin.

    Exegetical Details

The meaning of ajdikiva (adikia) in 5:17. The meaning of ajdikiva (adikia) here is “unrighteousness.”731 It refers to the opposite of that which is divkaio (dikaios), “right, just, righteous,” which is used by the author of 1 John to describe both God and Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9, 2:2, 29; cf. John 7:18).

    5:18 We know that everyone fathered by God does not sin, but God protects the one he has fathered and the evil one cannot touch him.

    Summary

Since the author has just said that believers do sin (5:16), when he says here that everyone fathered by God does not sin, he must be referring to the sin to death committed by the opponents. Genuine believers do not commit that sin, because God protects the one he has fathered and the evil one cannot touch him.732

    Exegetical Details

The meaning of gennavw (gennaw, “I beget/father”) in 5:18. The concept represented by the verb gennavw (gennaw) here means to be fathered by God and thus a child of God. The bold imagery used throughout 1 John is that of God as the male parent who fathers children.733

The author’s claim in 5:18 that “everyone fathered by God does not sin.” This statement is essentially the same as the one made by the author in 1 John 3:9, “everyone who is fathered by God does not practice sin…and thus he is not able to sin, because he has been fathered by God.” There we concluded that the “sin” which the person fathered by God cannot commit is the sin of the opponents with their false christology, and that the author is speaking on a polemic level, in an absolute sense, against the opponents who, as moral indifferentists, are saying that sin is unimportant for the Christian and does not interfere with one’s relationship to God. The author is making essentially that same point here.734

The meaning of the phrase oJ gennhqeiV ejk tou' qeou' threi' aujtoVn (Jo gennhqeis ek tou qeou threi auton, literally, “the one fathered by God, he keeps him”) in 5:18. Again the author’s capacity for making obscure statements results in several possible meanings for this phrase:

(1) “The fathering by God protects him [the Christian].” Here a textual variant for the participle oJ gennhqeiV (Jo gennhqeis, “the one [he has] fathered”) has suggested to some interpreters that the passive participle should be understood as a noun (hJ gevnnhsi [Jh gennhsis], “fathering” or perhaps “birth”), but the manuscript evidence for the noun is extremely slight (1505, 1852, 2138, 2495, and a few of the early versions). This almost certainly represents nothing more tha a scribal attempt to clarify an obscure phrase.

(2) “The one [Jesus] fathered by God protects him [the Christian].” This is a popular interpretation, and is certainly possible grammatically.735 Yet the introduction of a reference to Jesus in this context is sudden; to be unambiguous the author could have mentioned the “Son of God” here, or used the pronoun ejkei'no (ekeinos, literally “that one”) as a reference to Jesus as he consistently does everywhere else in 1 John. The use of the phrase oJ gennhqeiV (Jo gennhqeis) to refer to Jesus is also unparalleled elsewhere. This interpretation, while possible, seems in context highly unlikely.

(3) “The one fathered by God [the Christian] protects himself.” Again a textual problem is behind this alternative, since a number of manuscripts (Í, K, P, Y, 33, 88, 181, 1739, Byz, et al.) supply the reflexive pronoun eJautovn (Jeauton, “himself”) in place of aujtovn (auton, “him”) in 5:18. On the basis of the external evidence this has a good possibility of being the original reading, but internal evidence favors aujtovn (auton) as the more difficult reading, since eJautovn (Jeauton) may explained as a scribal attempt at grammatical smoothness. From a logical standpoint, however, it is difficult to make much more sense out of eJautovn (Jeauton); to say what a statement like “the Christian protects himself” means in the context of 1 John 5 is far from clear.

(4) “The one fathered by God [the Christian] holds on to him [God].”736 This results in even more awkwardness, because the third person pronoun (aujtou' [autou, “him”]) in the following clause (“and the evil one cannot touch him”) must refer to the Christian, not God. Furthermore, although threvw (threw) can mean “hold on to,”737 this is not a common meaning for the verb in Johannine usage, occuring elsewhere only in Rev 16:15 and (possibly) Rev 3:3.

(5) “The one fathered by God [the Christian], he [God] protects him [the Christian].” This involves a pendant nominative construction (oJ gennhqeiV ejk tou' qeou' [Jo gennhqeis ek tou qeou, “the one fathered by God”]) where a description of something within the clause is placed in the nominative case and moved forward ahead of the clause for emphatic reasons. This may be influenced by Semitic style; such a construction is also present in John 17:2 (literally, “so that to everyone whom you have given to him, he may give to them eternal life”).738 This view is defended by K. Beyer and appears to be the most probable in terms both of syntax and of sense.739 It makes God the protector of the Christian (rather than the Christian himself), which fits the context much better, and there is precedent in Johannine literature for such syntactical structure, as Beyer demonstrates.

The referent of oJ ponhrov (Jo ponhros, “the evil one”) in 5:18. As in 1 John 2:13-14 and 3:12, the expression oJ ponhrov (Jo ponhros, “the evil one”) is a reference to the devil (Satan).740

    5:19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

    Summary

Here the author affirms that the the whole world is still under the controlling influence of the evil one. However, believers do not belong to the world any longer. See 1 John 4:5-6.

    Exegetical Details

The force of the preposition ejk (ek, “from”) in 5:19. The preposition ejk (ek) here indicates both source and possession: Christians are “from” God in the sense that they are fathered by him, and they belong to him. For a similar use of the preposition compare the phrases ejk tou' patroV (ek tou patros, “from the Father”) and ejk tou' kovsmou (ek tou kosmou, “from the world”) in 1 John 2:16.

In what sense does the whole world lie in the power of Satan (tw'/ ponhrw'/ [tw ponhrw, “the evil one”]) in 5:19? The same phrase, “the whole world” used in 1 John 2:2.741 While it is true that God’s purpose in sending the Son into the world extended to the entire world (1 John 2:2; cf. John 3:16-17), it is also true that the world, comprised of unbelievers, lies in Satan’s power.742

    5:20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight to know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life.

    Summary

The author sums up the major assertions of the letter. (1) The readers know that the Son of God has come; (2) the Son has given the readers insight to know him (God) who is true; (3) believers are “in” God who is true; (4) believers are also “in” his Son Jesus Christ; (5) finally, the author asserts that This one (Jesus Christ) is the true God and eternal life.

    Exegetical Details

The force of the i{na (Jina) in 5:20. The Jina introduces a purpose clause which gives the purpose of the preceding affirmation: “we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight in order that we might know him who is true….” Because “in order that” here is somewhat awkward and pedantic in terms of contemporary English style, the NET Bible has translated the purpose clause by an English infinitive, “insight to know him who is true.”

The meaning of the preposition ejn (en, “in”) and the referent of toVn ajlhqinovn (ton alhqinon, “him who is true”) in 5:20. This phrase is used as a description of God the Father by Jesus in his prayer in John 17:3 (“the only true God”). The following clause in 1 John 5:20, which mentions “his Son Jesus Christ,” confirms that the same referent is in view here, making it clear that the phrase toVn ajlhqinovn (ton alhqinon, “him who is true”) in 1 John 5:20 refers to God the Father. With the use of the preposition ejn (en, “in”) the author, for the last time in the letter, makes a significant statement of indwelling. As in John 17:3, eternal life is to be found in the knowledge of the one true God, and in Jesus Christ whom he sent. This is life “in” the Son (1 John 5:11). Malatesta suggested that the author used the verb ei\nai (einai, “to be”) rather than mevnein (menein, “to reside, to remain”) here to emphasize that “to be in God and in Jesus is the condition, the way of being, to which the Christian community is called.”743

The referent of ouJtov (Joutos, “this one”) in 5:20. The pronoun is personified (“this one”), but it is far from clear whether it should be understood as a reference to God the Father or Jesus Christ.744 R. Brown comments, “I John, which began with an example of stunning grammatical obscurity in the Prologue, continues to the end to offer us examples of unclear grammar.”745

The immediately preceding words are “Jesus Christ,” so proximity alone would suggest that as the preferred antecedent, but on some occasions when “Jesus Christ” is the closer antecedent, the pronoun still refers to God.746 The first predicate following ouJtov ejstin (Joutos estin, “this one is”) in 5:20, oJ ajlhqinoV qeov (Jo alhqinos qeos, “the true God”), is a description of God the Father used by Jesus in John 17:3, and was used in the preceding clause of the present verse to refer to God the Father.747 Yet the second predicate of ouJtov (Joutos) in 5:20, zwhV aijwvnio (zwh aiwnios, “eternal life”), appears to refer to Jesus, because although the Father possesses “life” (John 5:26, 6:57) just as Jesus does (John 1:4, 6:57; 1 John 5:11), “life” is never predicated of the Father elsewhere in the Johannine writings, while it is predicated of Jesus in John 11:25 and 14:6 (the latter a self-predication by Jesus). Furthermore, the reader was introduced to the expression “the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us in 1 John 1:2, so if we understand ouJtov (Joutos) in 5:20 as referring to Jesus, it forms an inclusion with the prologue.748 Taking all this into consideration, it appears best to understand the pronoun ouJtov (Joutos) in 5:20 as a reference to Jesus Christ. The christological affirmation which results is striking, but certainly not beyond the capabilities of the author (cf. John 1:1 and 20:31): “This one [= Jesus Christ] is the true God and eternal life.”

    5:21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

    Summary

It is probable that the author of 1 John knew what idols he meant, even if we do not! Since the author has spent virtually the whole letter discussing in one form or another the secessionist opponents with their false teaching who are continuing to trouble the community, it would not be surprising to find him referring to them here. The opponents are called “idols” because of the course of idolatry they pursue.

    Exegetical Details

The referent of tw'n eijdwvlwn (twn eidwlwn, “idols”) in 5:21. True to form, the author in his closing remark in the entire letter has provided us with a final obscurity! Many interpretations have been offered, but it seems probable from the use of the Greek article that the author knew which specific idols he meant, and assumed his readers likewise would understand.

A number of interpreters have taken the reference to idols literally, usually in connection with the pagan culture of the time and some sort of persecution of Christians in which it was demanded of them that they offer sacrifices to pagan idols. M. J. Edwards, for example, sees this as the controlling scenario behind the entire letter: those who deny that “Jesus is the Christ” (2:22-23; 4:3) are those who submit to the pagan demands to sacrifice to idols in order to avoid martyrdom, whereas genuine followers of Jesus will remain faithful even to death.749 E. Stegemann proposes a similar interpretation, arguing that apostasy (through pagan idol worship) rather than christological heresy is the main issue in 1 John.750 Another view that takes the idols literally is that of J. Hills, who argues that in 1 John the theme of witness (which features prominently in the letter) is connected to the rejection of idolatry.751 G. Strecker, on the other hand, sees the statement here about avoiding idols as connected to the “sin to death” in 5:16-17. Apostasy, as exemplified by the worship of idols, is a particular instance of such a sin.752

Others have understood the mention of idols in the closing verse of 1 John 5 as metaphorical rather than literal.753 J. N. Sugit proposed that the term eijdwvlwn (eidwlwn, “idols”) in 5:21 retained some of its original meaning and meant “phantoms,” referring to the imaginative speculations of Docetics.754 While this is an interesting suggestion, it seems to depend far too heavily on the root meaning of the term in Classical Greek without sufficient regard for the Old Testament associations gained by the term through its use in the LXX. R. Schnackenburg also appears to prefer a nonliteral meaning for the idols here, so that the exhortation in the present verse is really an exhortation to avoid sin.755 S. Smalley and R. Brown both saw the reference to idols here as a slightly veiled reference to the secession of the opponents with their false christology – abandoning the author’s position, joining the secessionists and accepting their theology would amount to “going after idols.”756

This last interpretation actually has much to commend it. Since the author has spent almost the entirety of the letter discussing in one form or another the opponents with their false teaching who are troubling the Christian community he is writing to, it would not be surprising to find him referring to them here, using a metonymy: the secessionist opponents themselves are put for the course of idolatry they pursue.757 There is significant background in the Qumran literature for such usage; CD 20:8-10 speaks of “those who reject [the precepts] and set up idols in their hearts and walk in the stubbornness of their hearts; they shall have no share in the house of the Law.”758

Likewise 1QS 2:11-17 states,

    Cursed be the man who enters this covenant while walking among the idols of his heart, who sets up before himself his stumbling-block of sin so that he may backslide! …All the curses of the covenant shall cling to him and God will set him apart for evil. He shall be cut off from the midst of all the sons of light, and because he has turned aside from God on account of his idols and his stumbling-block of sin, his lot shall be among those who are cursed forever.759

Thus it seems best to conclude that when the author gives his readers a final warning to avoid idolatry, he is warning them once more to avoid the secessionist opponents with their heretical and dangerous false teaching, as he has done in 2:15, 2:27, and 4:1. This is also consistent with the author’s admonition in 2 John 10 not to greet the opponents nor offer them any hospitality.


708 Verse 13 is transitional, and could be grouped with the preceding material (vv. 5-12, so Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 127, 133; Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 289) or with the following section (vv. 14-21, so Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 188; Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles, 246-47; cf. niv, nrsv, nlt). On the place of this material in the structure of the letter as a whole, see the earlier section “Structure and Purpose of 1 John.”

709 So Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 142.

710 So Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 188; cf. Haas, et al., A Translator’s Handbook, 124, where it is pointed out that “assured eternal life” is a theme that has occurred a number of times in 1 John already (1:2; 2:12-14; 3:1, 14; 4:13; 5:11-12).

711 See the section “Structure and Purpose of 1 John” above.

712 The figure of speech known as “inclusion” (sometimes referred to by its Latin name, inclusio) involves the repetition of a word or phrase later in a document, which points back to the earlier use of the same word or phrase, and encompasses all the material in between.

713 Technically, in terms of the syntax of the Greek text, the subject is hJ parrhsiva (Jh parrhsia), the predicate nominative is the pronoun au{th (Jauth), and the Joti-clause explains (or stands in apposition to) the predicate nominative.

714 See the following Joti-clause, which gives what the “confidence” consists of, and the discussion in the preceding section.

715 See the section “The significance of the word play in 2:28 between parrhsivan (parrhsian, ‘confidence’) and parousiva/ (parousia, ‘coming’; translated by the NET Bible as ‘when he comes back’)” above.

716 Haas, et al., A Translator’s Handbook, 125.

717 BDAG 268 s.v. ejavn 2.

718 Regarding the concept of God “hearing and answering” (or “hearing favorably”) when prayer is concerned, see W. Mundle, NIDNTT 2:175-78.

719 The Greek term in 3:21, parrhsiva (parrhsia, “confidence”), is the same as the term used here.

720 See the section “The meaning of the ‘sin to death’ (aJmartiva proV qavnaton, Jamartia pros qanaton) in 5:16” below.

721 See Zerwick, Biblical Greek, 112, §§330-31. Cf. also BDF §372(1); Marshall, The Epistles of John, 245, n. 10. Substitution of ejavn (ean) for eji (ei) does not occur elsewhere in the Johannine literature of the NT, but see Luke 19:40; 1 Thess 3:8.

722 On the use of oi[damen (oidamen) throughout this whole section, particularly vv. 18-21, see Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant, 318-19.

723 The very fact that the author of 1 John can introduce the topic of “sin resulting in death” without explaining what it refers to argues that the “sin” of the secessionist opponents with their heterodox christology is in view here – since this was the major issue confronting the Christian community(s) to which the letter was written, an allusion to it here would be understood by the readers without difficulty.

724 BDF §371(4); see also BDAG 267 s.v. ejavn 1.a.a and N. Turner, who states that ejavn with the aorist subjunctive “represents a definite event as occurring only once in the future, and conceived as taking place before the time of the action of the main verb. It is expectation, but not fulfilment as yet” (MHT 3:114).

725 So Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 146; Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, 87, n. 16; cf. also the NT paraphrase by Phillips.

726 So Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 192; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 246, n. 17; Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 300; cf. rsv, neb.

727 This distinction might be related to the distinction found in the OT and intertestamental Judaism between accidental and deliberate sins (sins committed with “a high hand”). Sacrifice could atone for inadvertent or unconscious sin, but deliberate sins could only be resolved by the physical death of the sinner (Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15, 17-18; Num 15:27-31; Deut 17:12; Ps 19:13; cf. the references in Qumran documents, 1QS 5:11-12; 8:21-9:2; CD 3:14-15).

728 Cf. Smalley, who summarized, “A deliberate refusal to fulfill those conditions [necessary for a genuine Christian experience] leads to the very opposite of light and life; it must end in darkness and death. Those who choose such a path are committing an unpardonable sin (cf. Mark 3:28-29 = Matt 12:31-32 = Luke 12:10); and by their basic denial of Jesus, and their lack of love, they are risking God’s denial of them (2:22-23; 3:10-15; cf. Mark 8:38 par.)” (1, 2, 3 John, 298). Cf. also Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 146-47; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 247-48.

729 See alternative (b) under view (1).

730 Note also that in 2 John 10 the readers are forbidden to greet the opponents or show them any hospitality.

731 BDAG 20 s.v. ajdikiva 2 states: “the quality of injustice, unrighteousness, wickedness, injustice.”

732 Malatesta noted that vv. 18-20 summarize, and to some extent explain, the theology of 2:29-3:10, with 3:9 = 5:18, 20; 3:8 = 5:18; 3:6 = 5:20 (Interiority and Covenant, 319-20).

733 See the section “The meaning of gegevnnhtai (gegennhtai, ‘fathered’) in 2:29” above for further discussion of this imagery.

734 See the section “The meaning of the final statement in 3:9 that the one who is fathered by God cannot sin” for more detailed discussion.

735 So, e.g., Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 194; Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 148-49; Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 138; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 252; Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 303.

736 So Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 133.

737 BDAG 1002 s.v. threvw 2.c (note, however, this usage in 1 John 5:18 is listed under both 2.b and 2.c).

738 John 17:2 in the NET Bible reads, “so that he may give eternal life to everyone you have given him.” The word order has been changed in the translation to reflect English style, although the Greek order is reflected in the translator’s note on “him.”

739 K. Beyer, Semitische Syntax im Neuen Testament (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck u. Ruprecht, 1962) 1.216. This view is also preferred by Painter (1, 2, and 3 John, 324).

740 See the section “The referent of toVn ponhrovn (ton ponhron, “the evil one”) in 2:13” above.

741 In 1 John 2:2 the word order in Greek is slightly different (o{lou tou' kovsmou, Jolou tou kosmou), but the meaning is the same. Cf. Smalley, who discusses a distinction between extent and state based on the different word order, but then concludes, “the distinction is probably oversubtle” (1, 2, 3 John, 305); I would agree.

742 For further discussion of the positive and negative connotations of kovsmo in the Johannine literature, see the section “The meaning of kovsmo (kosmos, “world”) in 2:2” above.

743 Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant, 321.

744 Favoring a reference to God are Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 196; Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 152-53; Stott, The Epistles of John, 195-96. Preferring a reference to Jesus Christ are Haas, et al., A Translator’s Handbook, 129-30; Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, 90; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 254, n. 47; Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant, 322-23, n. 11; Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles, 262; Brown, The Epistles of John, 625. Smalley hesitates to say the equation between Jesus Christ and God was explicitly present in this verse, though he acknowledges the association between God and his Son is clearly made here; he settles in the end for some degree of ambivalence (1, 2, 3 John, 308).

745 Brown, The Epistles of John, 625.

746 See, for example, the section “The referent of aujtovn (autou, literally ‘him’; translated ‘God’ in the NET Bible) in 2:3” above.

747 See the previous section “The referent of toVn ajlhqinovn (ton alhqinon, ‘him who is true’) in 5:20”

748 See the section “The meaning of zwhv (zwh, “life”) in 1:2” above.

749 M. J. Edwards, “Martyrdom and the First Epistle of John,” NovT 31 (1989): 164-71.

750 Ekkehard Stegemann, “‘Kindlein, hütet vor den Götterbildern!’ Erwägungen zum Schluss des 1. Johannesbriefes,” TZ 41 (1985): 284-94.

751 Julian Hills, “‘Little Children, Keep Yourselves from Idols’: 1 John 5:21 Reconsidered,” CBQ 51 (1989): 285-310.

752 Strecker, The Johannine Letters, 214.

753 Westcott defined an idol here as “anything which occupies the place due to God” (The Epistles of St. John, 197). Likewise Dodd saw the author urging his readers to keep away from sinful “God-substitutes” (The Johannine Epistles, 142); cf. also Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 138.

754 J. N. Sugit, “1 John 5:21: TEKNIA, FULAXATE EAUTA APO TWN EIDWLWN,” JTS 36 (1985): 386-90.

755 Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles, 263-64.

756 Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 310; Brown, The Epistles of John, 627-28.

757 A metonymy is a figure of speech in which one item is stated in place of a closely related item. For an example see the note on metonymy in 1 John 5:4b.

758 CD is a text most scholars believe to be related to the Dead Sea scrolls. It was found in Cairo and is sometimes known as the Damascus Document (CD = Cairo [Genizah text of the] Damascus [Document]).

759 1QS is one of the Dead Sea scrolls found in cave 1 at Qumran and known as Serek hayyah£ad (Community Rule, also known as the Manual of Discipline).

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Prayer