1 John 5:18-21 The conclusion of John's letter
Last week we looked at 1 John 5:16-17 which says, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.”
We addressed the fact that there are questions that you and I may have concerning that text. For example,
What is the sin that leads to death?
Is the sin that leads to death a reference to one sin or to a habitual sin that is allowed to continue in heart hardening un-repentance?
Is John still addressing a believer in verse 17 concerning the sin that leads to death?
Is John speaking about how this sin leads to physical death or is this about spiritual death?
How will we know when we should not pray for someone?
Last week we discussed a process through which we could determine the answer to such questions by looking at Proverbs 2:1-15. There we discovered that we can come to know and understand righteousness, justice, equity and every good path when we have been born-again, when we treasure the Word of God in our heart, when we pray, and when we walk in integrity.
There are four observations that we can see in this text that may help us with some of our questions.
Concerning the sin that leads to death there is no definite article before the noun sin. In fact, the word sin in this text is in the ‘anarthrous’ form which specifies that it has no definite article. John does not say, “There is (the) sin that leads to death...”. Therefore, this is not referring to a specific sin but to the character and the quality of a sin. This sin could be one thing for one believer and another sin for another.
The participle ‘sin’ is in the present tense. This is not referring to a momentary sin or an occasion in which one sins. It is referring to a pattern, a habit, a consistent engagement in some sin in which there is no repentance and instead there is a hardening of the conscience towards sin.
In verse 16 we see that the sin is committed by a believer. John says, “If you see a brother committing a sin...”. This is not a false convert, this is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this is not a person who pretends to be a believer, a hypocrite, or someone who merely professes to be a believer. Genuine believers sin but their overall walk is one of sanctification and Christ likeness.
The sin is visible and is understood by the one to sees it to be something that is very serious. We often try to hide sin but there is a blessing that can occur when it becomes visible because it may lead us to repent and turn from it. Recently I watched a documentary about Joe Namath. He was struggling with alcoholism and for a time few people knew about it. But one night during a Monday night football game he had to much to drink and was caught on camera saying some things that embarrassed him and his family. The person he said those things too was gracious and because of that even Joe Namath sought help and overcame his alcohol.
Our text this morning is 1 John 5:18-21,
We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
Have you ever talked to someone and the conversation went something like this, “Sometimes I feel so far from the LORD. I have a hard time thinking that he cares for me. I know that this sort of thinking is wrong but this is how I feel.”
What would you say to that person?
Not only have we heard such a thing from others but we have also felt this way ourselves.
What do you say to yourself when you experience this?
I think this text will offer us some help in these times. This is a text that can help us align our thinking to the reality of our relationship with the Lord.
Four times in these verses John writes about things that a believer ‘knows’ (18,19, and 20). And it is upon this topic that I would like to focus in on today. John says,
‘We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning’ (18) In other words, John is saying that a believers life will not be characterized by ongoing sin. The Lord will not allow them to continue in sin indefinitely.
‘We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (19)
‘And we know that the Son of God has come and given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true…’ (20) As we will see, there are two different words that are used in this verse that are translated ‘know’.
There are two words in the Greek that can be translated to ‘know’ in the New Testament. They have similar meanings and are often used interchangeably in the New Testament. However, there is a difference between the two of them.
‘Ginosko’ speaks of knowing something through study or through experience. It speaks of something that is learned. We can learn about God’s glory and power through what He has created but this knowledge alone is insufficient for salvation.
Then there is the word ‘eido’. Which speaks of something you know intuitively, something you possess inside of you, something that becomes personal and internal.1 This is what happens to a believer when they hear the gospel and the Holy Spirit brings these truths with power. The gospel then changes us inwardly and we come to know certain truths.
2 Corinthians 4:6 – “For God who said, ‘Let light shine in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’”
1 Thessalonians 1:4-5 – “For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
In his book, Life in God, Matthew Boulton describes these two aspects of knowing and how they interact with each other. He writes, “The term knowledge...does not refer to a speculative, abstract, or merely mental affair, but rather to a concrete, relational, affective (causes emotion or feeling), and experiential one, what we might call a ‘knowledge of’ as opposed to merely a ‘knowledge about’.”
This process is expressed in John 4:42 when the Samaritan’s said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know (eido) that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” John uses the same word here in this verse that he uses three times in our text today. These people had come to know, not just in the mind, but in the heart that Jesus is the Savior of the world.
Put together these two Greek words speak about how the gospel, when understood and received by faith, becomes a reality within us. And this process is meant to continue to grow and mature throughout our life which leads to a life of sanctification and great gratitude. (5:18 – We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning...)
I mention that this process is meant to continue because of the way John writes in verse 20 when he says, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ.”.
John speaks of ‘knowing’ here in the subjunctive mood which can mean that there is some uncertainty or doubt about what is being expressed. Therefore it is translated, ‘...that we may know Him who is true.’ This tense also suggests that ‘knowing’ is a continual process in which there is some condition that is placed upon the subject of the verb.
Genuine believers will have seasons in which their knowledge of God is growing quickly and it is being internalized deeply. But then they will also experience seasons when their knowledge of God is growing slowly and we may not be aware of any great internalization of these things.
There are reasons for times such as these. For example,
Some of this may be because we are not engaging in the process that was described last week in Proverbs 2:1-15. They may not be reading their bible, or praying, or walking in integrity.
We may be too busy and preoccupied to consider the LORD as we do in other seasons.
We may be too tired, weary, to discouraged or to sick to grow in these things in certain seasons.
There may be philosophies and thoughts that have been exalted above Christ and have yet to be pulled down.
There may be dry seasons when for some reason in God’s wise providence that He allows Himself to seem distant and He allows the Word of God to be closed up to us.
Our growth in these things is not easy because of the world we live in which is under the power of the evil one. And this world is full of idols which we are drawn to give our affection too (5:21).
Despite all of this we would be well served to consider the wonderful things that John stresses in this text that help us to grow and internalize our faith with more consistency. At first glance there appears to be so much stacked against us but God has acted on our behalf. For example,
We see in verse 18 that we have been born of God. John says, “We know that everyone who has been born of God…”. We have a new life which delivers us from the bondage and slavery of sin. And when we sin God will give us life again when we turn from it. (5:16 – If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life.)
We also see in verse 18 that we are being protected by Christ and the evil one does not touch us, cling to us, or grab us like a predator like a bear or a lion. John says, “...and the evil one does not touch him.”
We will soon be studying the book of Esther and there is a part in the story when Haman falls upon Esther and the king says to him, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” (7:8) The king did not tolerate this and dealt with Haman severely. How much more will Christ protect us from the evil one and deal with him severely for assaulting His bride in this world.
In verse 19 we see that we are from God. John says, “We know that we are from God...” He has chosen us out of this world and brought us into the Kingdom of His Son Jesus Christ. We are citizens of heaven and no longer held under the power of of the evil one. Apart from God doing this for us we would remain in the power of the evil one. We would say with the disciples in Luke 18:26, "Who can be saved?” Thankfully Jesus replies, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
In verse 20 we are told that the Son of God has come to give us understanding so that we will know Him who is true. John says, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true...”
We are also reminded of the importance of Spirit baptism in which a believer is in Christ Jesus and Jesus Christ is now in the believer. John says, “...and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ.”
After reminding us of all of these things that God has done for us John simply ends this letter with these words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Dr. David Thompson points out that the emphasis of these words is on the command to ‘keep yourselves’ from idols. We all have a personal responsibility to keep our self from idols. We like to blame our idolatry on society, on our circumstances, on our lack of opportunity to escape, but John says that this is our own individual responsibility to keep ourselves from idols.
One of the ministries that we partner with here at Community Church is Plethos Discipleship. They stress what is called the BIG3 and one of those three things that they emphasize is that a believer needs to read systematically through the scriptures daily and hold themselves accountable. In a sense, when John says, “Keep yourselves from idols!”, he is encouraging us to do the same thing.
We live in an idolatrous world but John puts our attention throughout this letter upon Christ and all that He has done for us. God has manifested Himself, why turn to an idol? God delivers us from sin and death, why turn to an idol? God has defeated the evil one, why turn to an idol? We have been united to God through Spirit baptism, why would we turn to an idol? God is so good, gracious and great; therefore little children keep yourselves from idols!
Consider these words from John Calvin in his book, The Institutes of the Christian Life,
It will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honor and adore, unless we are also persuaded that He is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in Him. This I take to mean that not only does He sustain the universe by His boundless might, regulate it by His wisdom, preserve it by His goodness, and especially rule mankind by His righteousness and judgment, bear with it in His mercy, watch over it by His protection; but also that no drop will be found either of wisdom and light, or of righteousness or power or rectitude, or of genuine truth, which does not from Him, and of which He is not the cause. Thus we may learn to await and seek all these things from Him, and thankfully to ascribe them, once received from Him.
Four times in our text John writes about things that a believer ‘knows’. Three times he uses ‘eido’, and he uses ‘ginosko’ once (18,19, and 20).
Verse 18 - ‘We knowthat everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning’
Verse 19 - ‘We know(eido) that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’
Verse 20 - ‘And we know(eido) that the Son of God has come and given us understanding, so that we may know (ginosko) Him who is true…’
Let me make six observations about these facts.
First, it seems that John is intentional to speak about the inner reality of this knowledge by emphasizing ‘eido’ three times. Our minds may be full of doubt as our minds struggle with certain things but God has put these truths into our heart. It is this knowledge in the heart that is indispensable in sanctification, experiencing peace and protection, security despite the power of Satan, consistent comfort through the baptism of the Spirit, and our knowledge of Christ and His gracious blessings will keep us from idolatry.
Second, this knowledge is a reality even when we may not be aware of it in any given moment. We may not be aware of the grace that is always associated with this knowledge but it is there.
Thirdly, these two Greek words convey the comprehensive process that operates in a believers life. The Christian knows the gospel and this gospel affects our inner man. (Romans 12:1-2)
In any given moment we may be more conscience of one more than the other. A lot of time our bible studies seems like labor and toil with not much feeling. But eventually all this labor produces lasting fruit and a great harvest.
Fourth, there is a process that we are engaged in as we learn, know, and internalize certain truths.
If we are focused on the issues in the front end of this process we may neglect to appreciate the reality of those things that have already become internal. If we are in a place where God and His Word seems distant perhaps we need to shift our attention to what has previously been internalized and those things which give us peace and joy.
Or we may rest on what has been internalized and fail to cultivate more growth in Christ we will miss out on a future harvest and experience some lack.
There is no doubt that there are times when we will say, “Sometimes I feel so far from the LORD. I have a hard time thinking that he cares for me. I know that this sort of thinking is wrong but this is how I feel.”
The apostle John has ended this letter with some inspired words to encourage us to know that our fellowship with Him is more than head knowledge and even a temporary feeling. He is the true God and eternal life which we now enjoy.
1(Zodhiates Word Study of the New Testament and Mounce’s Dictionary of Biblical Words)