Saturday Series: 1 John 5:13-21

1 John 5:13-21

The section 5:13-21 represents the conclusion and closing of 1 John. The lack of any final greeting or benediction demonstrates again that the work is not a letter or epistle in the traditional sense (compared with 2 and 3 John, for example). It has more the character of an instructional treatise which was intended, presumably, for general circulation among the ‘Johannine’ congregations. The similarity between 5:13 and the conclusion of the Johannine Gospel (20:31) is doubtless intentional, as the author of 1 John clearly has drawn upon the thought and language of the Gospel (tradition says they were written by the same person [the apostle John], but that is far from certain). Compare:

“But these (thing)s have been written (so) that you would trust that Yeshua is the Anointed (One), the Son of God, and that, (so) trusting, you would hold Life in his name.” (Jn 20:31)
“I wrote these (thing)s to you (so) that you would have seen [i.e. would know] that you hold (the) Life of the Age, (you) the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God.” (1 Jn 5:13)

This closing section may be divided into three parts, each of which deals with the theme of sin and the believer, much as in the opening section of the main body of the letter (1:5-10ff):

    1. Praying for believers who sin, that they may be restored to life (vv. 14-17)
    2. The protection of believers from sin and evil, through union with Jesus (vv. 18-20)
    3. Closing exhortation for believers two guard themselves from “idols” (v. 21)

In each part there is at least one major critical question that needs to be addressed:

    • The meaning and significance of sin that is “unto death” (vv. 16-17)
    • The textual and syntactical basis for the theology/Christology in vv. 18-20
    • The significance and purpose of v. 21, i.e. what is meant by “images/idols”?

1 John 5:14-17

This portion begins with an assurance for believers that God will hear (and answer) their prayers, when they make a request “in the name” of Jesus (the Son of God). This promise draws upon Jesus’ own words in the Gospel, esp. the Johannine Last Discourse (14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26f), and is phrased here in a similar manner. The promise given by Jesus allows believers to be “outspoken” (noun parrh¢sía) in making a request of God. It is taken for granted that any such request by a true believer will be “according to His will” (katá to thél¢ma autoú). The author may have felt it necessary to specify the point, to help Christians understand, perhaps, why certain prayers did not always seem to be answered.

This brings us to the issue of praying for believers who sin, which is the main point the author wishes to address. Here are verses 16-17 in translation:

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning (a) sin not toward death, he shall ask, and He [i.e. God] will give life to him, to the (one)s sinning not toward death. There is sin toward death, (and) I do not say that (one) should make a request about that. All injustice is sin, and there is sin not toward death.”

There are two main difficulties here that have challenged commentators for generations: (1) the precise meaning of “sin” (noun hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in context, and (2) the significance of the expression “toward death” (prós thánaton). With regard to the first point, it is necessary to examine closely the author’s understanding of “sin” as expressed in the letter up to this point. The noun occurred 13 times, the verb 7 times. There are two main sections where the question of sin—that is, sin and the believer—is discussed: in 1:5-2:6 and 2:28-3:10. In the first of these it is clear that the author understands that believers do sin (1:7-2:2), while in the second he essentially states that they do not (3:6, 8-9). The same apparent contradiction is found here in vv. 16-19 as well.

I discussed the matter at some length in the earlier studies on 2:28-3:10; based on that analysis, I would here delineate again the specific theological vocabulary of the author (regarding “sin”), based on his distinctive use of the noun hamartía and the related verb hamartánœ:

    • The plural of the noun (hamartíai) refers to individual sins a human being commits, and which believers also may commit on occasion (1:9; 2:2, 12; 4:10)
    • The singular of the noun without the definite article signifies sin in the general (or generic) sense (1:7-8; 3:5 [second occurrence], 9)
    • The singular with the definite article (h¢ hamartía, “the sin”), primarily refers to violation of the great two-fold command (3:23-24), a sin which no true believer can commit (3:4, 5 [first occurrence?], 8)
    • The use of the verb , which refers to the act of sinning, can refer either to sin in the general sense (1:10; 2:1), or the specific sense of violating the great command (3:6, 8-9?), depending on the context.

Applying this information to 5:16-17, we may note that the noun hamartía occurs four times, without the article, suggesting that the reference is to sin in a more general sense. This would be appropriate for the distinction that is apparently being made—i.e., between two different kinds (or categories) of sin. The verb occurs twice (in v. 16), both as a verbal noun (participle) which indicates that the action characterizes the person, i.e. “(the one[s]) sinning”. In 3:6, “the (one) sinning” is set in direct contrast with “the (one) remaining in him”, i.e. the true believer in Christ. Thus, “the one sinning” serves effectively as the label for an unbeliever (or, one who is not a true believer). This should be kept in mind when considering the similar use of the articular substantive participle in 5:16 (“the ones sinning…”).

The second main question has to do with the expression prós thánaton, and the distinction between sin that is “toward death” and that which is, by contrast, “not toward death”. The preposition prós (“toward”) should be understood in the dynamic sense of something leading toward death—i.e. death as the fate or end result of “the one sinning”. The problem is how this applies specifically to the issue of sin and the believer. Many solutions have been offered for this much-debated question; however, in my view, there are really only two viable lines of interpretation. This first of these is based on traditional ethical instruction among early Christians, the second on the distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary. Let us briefly consider each of these.

1. The Ethical Interpretation

For early Christians, as part of their ethical and religious instruction, was the basic idea that there were certain kinds of sinful behavior that no believer should (or would) ever demonstrate in his or her daily life. Paul, in particular, presents several of these “vice lists” as part of the exhortation and instruction in his letters—Romans 1:29-31; 13:13; 1 Cor 5:9-11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; cf. also 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 5:3-5, etc. Such instruction is traditional, with little that is distinctly Christian about it, the moral sensibilities being shared by Jews and pagans (in the Greco-Roman world) alike. For Christians, it would have represented the minimum standard of morality. Paul makes clear that no true believer could ever be characterized by such sinful behavior, as in Gal 5:21 where he states: “the (one)s practicing such (thing)s will not receive the kingdom of God as (their) lot [i.e. will not inherit it]” (similarly in 1 Cor 6:10).

This traditional righteous/sin or virtue/vice contrast was developed within early Christianity, being expressed in terms of two “paths” or “ways”, one leading to life, and the other to death. For example, in the early Christian writing known as the “Teaching (Didach¢¡) of the Twelve Apostles”, this dualistic contrast serves to structure the first half of the book, beginning with the opening verse:

“There are two ways—one of life, and one of death—and much carries through (that is different) between the two ways.” (1:1)

The immediate inspiration for this construct comes via the Gospel tradition, from Jesus’ illustration in the Sermon on the Mount (7:13-14). Indeed, when the Didache presents the “Way of Life” (1:2-4:14), it begins with Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. The “Way of Death” (5:1ff) consists of a lengthy list of blatant kinds of sinful behavior, similar to the Pauline vice lists. Much of the “Way of Life” also entails avoiding such evils (chaps. 2-4). Implicit in the very imagery is the basic principle that the person on the “way of life” could not possibly (at the same time) be on the separate “way of death”.

If we apply this line of interpretation to 1 John 5:16-17, then sin that is “toward death” could be understood as the kind of blatant and egregious sin typified by the vice lists, representing the way leading toward death, and no true believer could be on that path, sinning in such a way. Believers may indeed commit sin, but only sin that is “not toward death”, meaning they would never sin in such a grossly immoral manner. While this interpretation makes good sense, and is fully in keeping with early Christian teaching, it seems somewhat out of place in the context of 1 John, where the emphasis is more keenly focused on the two-fold commandment (3:23-24)—trust in Jesus and love for fellow believers—and those (false believers) who violate it.

2. The Interpretation based on Johannine Theology

As noted above, in discussing the distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary, in relation to the idea of “sin”, special emphasis is placed in the letter on “the one[s] sinning” the sin—meaning they violate the two-fold command. That is to say, while claiming to be believers, they do not have proper belief in Jesus and/or do not demonstrate true love to their fellow believers. This marks them as false believers, since no true believer can ever violate the two-fold command. The entire structure of the main body of the letter (especially in its second half, 3:11-5:12), alternates between these two components of the two-fold command: trust in Jesus and love. Sin, in its fundamental sense, is a violation of these two; and, in particular, it is the lack of proper belief in Jesus—who he was and what was accomplished through his life and death—which is central to the Johannine understanding of sin. In the Last Discourse of the Gospel, which is so similar to 1 John in language and thought, sin is virtually identified with unbelief (16:8-9, see also 15:22-24).

So then, according to this line of interpretation, the sin that is “toward death” is the great sin, the violation of the two-fold command. Those committing this sin are fated for death, and cannot be true believers at all. Genuine believers may commit sins, and be forgiven/delivered from them, but never the great sin. I am inclined to this particular interpretation, as it is more consistent with the overall teaching and emphasis in 1 John.

This may also help to explain why the author indicates that his readers should not make any request of God for those committing the sin “toward death”. Since those who violate the two-fold command cannot be true believers, there is no point praying to God on their behalf as though they were. The same might be said in regard to the ethical interpretation (#1 above)—i.e. those engaged in blatantly immoral behavior could not be true believers—but that sort of ethical emphasis has been the focus in the letter to this point. The author never once suggests that the ‘false’ believers are immoral in the conventional religious sense; rather, they are “antichrist” and guided by evil spirits in their false view of Jesus. They also commit “murder” and other terrible sins, but only figuratively, in that they do not demonstrate love to other believers—i.e., lack of love = hate = murder (3:10-15).

Does this mean that we should not pray for Christians who hold beliefs regarding Jesus that we might consider to be in error? Believers today should be extremely cautious in making such a widespread application. It is a legitimate question, but one which I feel it better to address when we come to a discussion of 2 and 3 John, where issues involving the ‘false’ believers or separatist Christians of 1 John are dealt with on a more practical level. Before proceeding to 2 and 3 John, it is necessary to bring our examination of 1 John to a close with a study on verses 18-21. In so doing, we will again be required to consider the Johannine understanding of sin in relation to the believer. I hope you will join me for this challenging study, next week.

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