Knowing with Boldness (1 John 5.13-21)
Social media, Facebook, Text messages, Skype, email . . . Communication today is so easy and immediate. Back in the 1960s, as Christian workers in North Sumatra and in South Thailand we lived in good-sized towns, but even the Post Office didn’t have a telephone! And letters took an age – ‘snail-mail’ would indeed have been a fitting description! For John too, in the 1st century, writing and sending a letter was a major undertaking. So, why did he write this first Epistle?
Were Christians in danger of uncertainty concerning the Lord’s gift of eternal life? Good Muslims feel reasonably hopeful that Allah will bring them finally into Paradise, but absolute assurance might deny God’s all-powerful sovereignty; Allah has the power to send whoever he wants to Hell or to Paradise. Most Europeans too will feel that their lives have not been too bad, so God (if he exists!) will probably bring them to heaven, but they may feel it is too presumptuous to know with complete confidence that they have eternal life.
John writes with the gloriously clear aim that his readers might “know that you have eternal life” (5.13). What glorious good news that as believers in Jesus as God’s Son we can have that total confidence! Dying may remain painful and distressing, but death has lost its sting. The gateway to glory awaits us!
Boldness in Prayer (5.14/15)
‘Knowing’ goes hand in hand with ‘boldness’. As believers in Jesus we have that assurance of eternal life, so boldness (Greek parrhesia) in prayer naturally follows. Because we are moving in our lives ever closer “towards (John’s favourite preposition of movement: Greek pros/towards) God” (5.14), we can have assurance also that God hears us and will respond positively to our prayers. And what a bold promise John gives us in 5.14/15! “Whatever we ask” God hears and “we know that we have what we asked of him”. Of course John is not thinking of self-centred or materialistic prayers – “Lord, please give me a Rolls Royce” or “Lord, I want a job with £100,000 a year”.
God’s promise relates to prayer “according to his will” (5.14). As followers of Jesus our aims in life should no longer follow the desires of the world. We should “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6.33). So this exhortation to bold assurance in prayer challenges us not only in the content of our prayers, but further also in the whole direction and purpose of our lives. If our primary aim in life is to follow the Lord and serve him, that will also determine what we pray for.
Loving our sister/brother (5.16-17)
Christian love and fellowship should be so joyful (cf. 1.3/4) that our primary concern embraces our fellow believers. So, when John talks of “whatever we ask”, of course he assumes that our prayers would immediately turn to our sisters and brothers in Christ. And what a heart-ache afflicts us if we see a Christian sister or brother beginning to backslide! When faced with the tragedy of someone moving back into the world, we should turn to prayer with the confidence that “God will give them life” (5.16). So John contrasts true life with the sad reality of sin. But John goes on to observe that two distinct levels of sin can afflict people. Some sin so definitely rejects any living faith in Jesus the Messiah that prayer for such people achieves nothing. Concerning them John says ‘he is not saying that we should pray’. But for those whose sin “does not lead to (Greek pros again!) death” God will assuredly respond to our prayer.
What do we know? (5.18-21)
“We know that we are from (Greek ek) God” (5.19) and “we know that anyone born from (Greek ek) God does not sin” (18). John here uses a continuous present tense, so the NIV translates this “does not continue to sin”. John does not mean that we never yield to temptation or that we live 100% pure and holy lives like God himself. But as children of God our lives are not characterised and marked as sinful. Sin no longer rules our hearts because wonderfully Jesus ‘keeps us safe’ (5.18). He was also “born of God”, so he understands us perfectly and knows our need of his protection from sin.
We know that we are from God; we know that anyone born from God does not sin; we also know the stark contrast that we are from (Greek ek) God while “the whole world lies in the evil one” (5.19). In our contemporary societies we grieve to observe the tragic consequences of life without the grace of God. We see the breakdown of relationships and the consequent loneliness; knives on our streets and violence both in the home and more widely ruins lives; sexual sin and so-called ‘freedom’ promise bliss and fulfilment, but actually produce a shallow emptiness. God’s standards of purity and holiness may appear legalistic and even discriminatory, but actually produce the fullness of life abundant. The Messiah Jesus is the true God who gives his people truth and life already now for life in this world, but also finally in ‘eternal life’.
Finally John asserts that “we know also that the Son of God has come” (5.20) which leads to the glorious climax that “we know him who is true” – John here uses a different Greek word indicating personal relationship. What an amazing privilege for us as believers in Jesus that we can enjoy an intimate relationship with him who is “the true God and eternal life” (5.20)! Good news (Gospel) indeed!
John has reached old age and now passes the baton on to the next generation of believers in Jesus. “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (5.21). John’s final word of exhortation touches us also. Don’t let anything else replace Jesus at the centre of our lives. If anything, good or bad, comes before our love and service for him, it/he/she becomes an idol. Let us not allow idolatry to spoil our lives! Jesus is Number One.
P.S. Elizabeth and I have just returned from a stimulating conference in Cambridge for Jubilee Centre. We were discussing relationships, a subject which of course lies at the heart of John’s thinking both in his Gospel and his first Epistle. I was asked to teach on Relationships in the Gospels, while other speakers taught on relationships in the Epistles, the Historical books, the Law, the Prophets and the Wisdom books. This was then applied to the educational world in Europe, big business in E. Africa, the banking world in Australia and NGOs in S.E. Asia. During the conference I was constantly reminded of John’s emphasis on Jesus’ relationships within the Trinity and his emphasis on love and fellowship amongst us as Christians.