Overcoming the World (1 John 5:1-5)
Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of him” (5:1). This verse continues the theme found in the closing verses of the former chapter, where we read, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar” (4:20).
Who is our brother? Some people have the idea that our brethren are those who happen to belong to the same denomination. If I belong to one certain church, my brothers are those who go to that church. In other words, if I am a Methodist, my brothers are Methodists. If I am a Presbyterian, my brothers are Presbyterians. If I am a Baptist, my brothers are Baptists. Our poor minds are inclined to narrow down the family of God to some special fellowship. But in 1 John 5 the Lord Himself gives the limits of the family when He says, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God.” Our brothers are those who in every place have exercised faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The statement, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ,” is not merely an intellectual acceptance of the fact that Christ is the Son of the living God, but rather a true, vital confidence—a personal faith in the Lord Jesus as the Christ, the anointed One of God. If you have faith in Him, you are born of God. All who trust in Him enter into this relationship. It is not a question of who you associate with or what church you attend, for there is only one great assembly—the body of Christ—which God Himself recognizes as His church. When we speak of church membership, we are usually referring to a local fellowship, but when the Word of God speaks of church membership, it is referring to the vast company of believers over whom Christ is the glorified Head in Heaven. Every believer belongs to that church. Our brothers include the whole church of God and our love must go out to them all.
There is no use talking about loving the Father if you do not love the Father’s children. There is no use talking about our devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ if we are not devoted to those for whom He died. Love is a very real and practical thing. We often speak sentimentally of loving the people of God, but how do we show it? What form does our love take? Scripture says that love “suffereth long, and is kind; [love] envieth not; [love] vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up…Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7). Take some of these simple statements and test your own love to find where you stand. Are you envious of any of God’s people? When honor comes to others that does not come to you, do you rejoice with them? Scripture says, “Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). When people are saying good things about someone else and not saying them about you, does your heart rejoice in that? Are you thankful to see others honored and exalted, even though you may be passed over? Real love of others will lead to that very thing. It will always endeavor to put others first.
Love is active. It seeks to serve and delights to minister. Are you trying to serve the people of God or are you someone who loves to be served? Some Christians are always wanting others to do for them, while other Christians are always trying to do for others. The people who are constantly looking for attention are never happy. They are always feeling hurt and slighted. But how different with those who are showing the love of Christ! Someone once said to me, “When I go to such and such a church, I find they are very cold. I never see any love exhibited.” I replied, “Do you ever show any?” He looked at me and said, “Well, perhaps not as much as I should.” Standing next to him was a woman who attended the same place. “How do you find them down there?” I asked her. “Are they cold?” “Why,” she said, “I think they are the most loving and affectionate group of Christians I have ever seen.” She was showing love to them, and was getting love in return. You usually find what you are looking for.
A while ago I read of a man who spent a few months in India. When he came back, he was discussing India at the home of some of his friends, and the talk drifted to missions. This man, out of his wide experience of about five months in India said, “I have no use for missions and missionaries. I spent five months there, and didn’t see that they were doing anything. In fact, in all that time I never met a missionary. I think the church is wasting its money on missions.” A quiet old gentleman spoke up and said, “Pardon me, how long did you say you were in India?”
“What took you there?”
“I went out to hunt tigers.”
“And did you see any tigers?”
“Scores of them.”
“It is rather peculiar,” said the old gentleman, “but I spent thirty years in India, and in that time I never saw a tiger but I saw hundreds of missionaries. You went to India to hunt tigers and you found them. I went to India to do missionary work and found many other missionaries.”
Love is a practical thing—“Every one that loveth him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of him.” Scripture also says, “Love covereth all sins” (Proverbs 10:12). And again, “[Love] shall cover the multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). In the King James version the word
charity is better translated
love. These verses mean that if you know your brother or your sister has failed—if you know of some sin, even some grievous sin that has come into their lives—you will never mention it to anyone but God. If you really love them, you will go to them first and try to help them recover. “Love covereth all sins.” You will never be a talebearer. You will never be a gossip. You will never go around talking against your brother. When you know of anything wrong, you will go to God about it. When you talk to other people against your brother, you only spread things that hurt others, but when you go to God, the Holy Spirit of God can, in answer to your prayer, begin to work in the heart and conscience of the wrong-doer. He will be brought to repentance or be broken down under the discipline of the Lord. Love in all its fullness will lead you to go to that brother and tenderly, graciously, and kindly seek to help him in his trouble. You will lovingly point out the wrong, offer to pray with him, and leave it with God if he bows in repentance before Him.
There is a beautiful picture in the Old Testament which illustrates this point. Among the furnishings of the tabernacle was a candlestick. The Lord told Moses to make a golden candlestick with seven lamps. The candle was really an olive oil lamp with a wick. The wick would burn just so long, and then turn over charred and blackened, needing to be trimmed. The snuffers and the snuff dishes were made of pure gold (Exodus 25:31-40). What is important about snuffers and snuff dishes? Well, you see if a lamp is going to shine brightly, it needs to be snuffed or trimmed sometimes, and if I want to burn brightly for Christ, there will be many a time when I have to judge myself in the presence of God, or I will be just like the burned wick that obscured the light. The Old Testament priest was to go in and trim the lamp using a golden snuffer. Gold in Scripture speaks of that which is divine, so the believer who reproves his brother is to go to him in fellowship with God. I may be able to help my brother if I go in tenderness and grace. What did the priest do with the wicks when he trimmed them away? Did he scatter them around, get them on his robe and hands, and go around defiling the garments of other priests? No. He was to take that dirty black snuff, put it in a golden snuff dish, and cover it up so that it would not defile anyone else. That is what love does. You do not spread around your brother’s failures, but you show real love by covering them up in the presence of God. That is love in a practical sense.
First John 5:2 suggests something more. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.” What an interesting book the Bible is! First, John said, that we know we love God because we love the brethren. Then he said we know we love the brethren when we love God. It seems like circular reasoning, but God is above all our rules of logic. In God’s eyes the two are inseparable. If we love God, we love the children of God also. If we love the children of God, we love God and keep His commandments. Love is faithful. It does not make light of sin. It does not seek to excuse evil. It leads us to put the truth of God first and to bring all else into subjection to it.
I do not love my brother when I condone his wrong-doing, or agree (for the sake of peace) to what is in direct opposition to the command of God. Take the question of divorce and remarriage. There may be circumstances where people have to be separated, but if so, they are to remain unmarried (unless divorced for clear scriptural reasons), and yet what a lot of preachers there are who marry people who have been divorced contrary to the Word of God. Some ministers may say, “I love these people so much I don’t want to hurt their feelings.” But love does not help them to do something that is contrary to the Word of God. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.” Real Christian love exhibits itself when we put the will of God first and seek to show love to His people, according to His Word, and lead our brethren in the path of obedience to that Word.
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (5:3). But someone might say, “That’s all very well, but I find it awfully hard to do some things that God wants me to do.” If I felt that way, I would begin to wonder whether I were really born again. If unsaved you have only one nature, and that nature hates the things of God. When you are born again, you have a new nature, and you ought to glory in the will of God. You will do so if you are walking in the power of the Spirit. If you are a Christian and do not find delight in the will of God, it is because you are grieving the Holy Spirit. There is something in your life that is dishonoring the Lord, and so you have lost your joy. Judge everything in your life that is contrary to the Word of God, and you will be surprised to find how sweet His will is. “His commandments are not grievous.”
“For whatsoever is born of God [the new nature, the new life which is communicated to you] overcometh the world” (5:4). It is a blessed fact that every true believer will be an overcomer at the last. But some of us, like Jacob, will never be overcomers until we are almost at the end of life. Jacob had been a child of God for many years, but it was not until he was down to the very end that he manifested the graces that God was seeking to work in him throughout all those years. Then we read, “By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff (Hebrews 11:21). By faith when he was dying, he was brought to the place of an overcomer. What a pity to have lost all that time. What a pity if you and I should be so set on having our own way that we lose out through the years—years that can never be recalled.
What does it mean to overcome the world? “All that is in the world” is described in verse 16 of the second chapter of this Epistle—“the lust of the flesh,” which is carnal indulgence of any kind; “the lust of the eyes,” or the pleasures of the senses; and “the pride of life,” ambition and struggling after fame and praise in the world. These are the things that constitute “the world.” Some Christians have the idea that worldliness consists of going to the theater, playing cards, dancing, taking part in certain worldly pleasures. No doubt these satisfy one form of worldliness—the lust of the flesh and perhaps the lust of the eye. But you may never have crossed the threshold of a theater, you may never sit down at the card table, you may never have been on the dance floor in your life, and yet you may be just as worldly as the people who do these things. The lover of money is as worldly as the lover of pleasure or fame or ambition. The one who is trying to crush others and push himself to the front is just as worldly as the man who spends half the night at the theater. Don’t think that you can, as Samuel Butler said, “compound for sins (you) are inclined to by damning those (you) have no mind to.” Overcoming the world means being delivered from the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” As you obey the desires of the new nature you are set free from the world, because this new life finds delight in the things of God.
“And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). Seven times over in Revelation we hear the Lord say to the seven churches, “To him that overcometh.” He is not singling out a superior class of Christians, but is saying that in every age Christians will be overcomers. By faith they will finally overcome the world in every instance.
“Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (5:5) Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God? It is not merely accepting a statement of creed, but it is trust in the blessed Son of God. It is trust that He went to Calvary’ s cross, and there shed His precious blood to put away your sins. Have you trusted Him? Have you believed on Him? Peter wrote, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever…And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Peter 1:23, 25). When you believe the message of the gospel and receive the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as your personal Savior, then you are born of God. You are given a new nature, and your faith is manifested by love. Whatever failures, struggles, or temptations you may have to meet, you will come through triumphant at last because it is God who will bring you through. It is not a question of your own power or steadfastness, but you are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).
The Three Witnesses (1 John 5:6-13)
We have three witnesses presented to us in this section. Contrary to how it may appear in the King James version we do not have six witnesses in this chapter—three in Heaven and three on earth. In the King James version, verse seven reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” This verse is not found in any critical translation of the New Testament. My statement may trouble some and cause you to question the dependability of Scripture. Let me try to explain, very briefly.
You must remember that the Bible was translated into English from Hebrew and Greek sources. The Hebrew and Greek were hand written and came down through the centuries, copied first by one scribe and then by another. It is quite possible for one man writing a manuscript to insert or to leave something out. It is possible for something to be put in the margin of one manuscript which the next scribe may assume belongs to the text. The oldest Greek manuscripts from which the King James version was taken were probably written in the twelfth century. Since then literally thousands of manuscripts have come to light from as far back as the end of the second and the beginning of the third century, and in none of them are these words found. They probably got in because some scribe made a comment on the margin of his manuscript, and someone copying it thought the words belonged to the text, and so inserted them.
In 1 John 5:6 we read, “This is he [that is, the Lord Jesus Christ spoken of in verse 5], that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.” Then verse 8 reads, “And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” What does the apostle mean when he speaks of these three that bear witness or testimony? To what do they give testimony? They testify to the effectiveness of the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. The three witnesses are the Spirit, the water, and the blood.
The Spirit, of course, is the Holy Spirit of God who, after the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, came from Heaven to dwell in the church on earth. He came to empower those proclaiming the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is a vast difference between merely explaining doctrine and preaching the gospel in the Spirit’s power. Anyone can do the former, and everything said might be true, but there is no power in it. Preaching the gospel in the energy of the Holy Ghost is another thing altogether, and therefore we read, “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Jesus said, “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit, then, is a witness to the effectiveness of the cleansing power of the blood of Christ. He has come down from Heaven to assure us that Christ’s sacrifice has been accepted for us.
The other witnesses are the water and the blood. In John’s Gospel we are told that they broke the legs of the thieves who hung on either side of the Lord Jesus Christ. When they came to Jesus, they marveled because He was already dead, and so they did not break His legs, for it was written, “A bone of him shall not be broken” (John 19:36). Instead one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and, John writes, “Forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:34). That made a great impression on the mind of John as he saw those two elements mingled and flowing from the wounded side of the Savior.
Years later when John wrote this Epistle to the children of God, he said, “This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood” (1 John 5:6). Why does he draw our attention to the water and the blood which flowed from the side of the Son of God? In these two elements we have suggested two characters of cleansing.
As a sinner I learn that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin. But that cleansing is judicial—that is my cleansing before God. When God looks at me as a believer, He sees me cleansed from every stain by the blood of His Son. But that cleansing alone does not satisfy me. As a Christian, I want to know practical deliverance from the power of sin. I am not content to know that my sins have been put under the blood if I find that I am still living under the power of sin. I want sin to be taken away practically—I want to be set free, to be cleansed from the things that curse my life—and I find practical cleansing through the “washing of water by the word.” We read in Ephesians 5:25-26, “Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” The Word of God applied to my heart and conscience sets me free from sin as a habit. I am delivered from its power. A Christian poet wrote:
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save me from its guilt and power.
Augustus M. Toplady
The blood cleanses from sin’s guilt. The water of the Word applied in the power of the Holy Spirit cleanses from the defilement of sin. So then these are the three witnesses:
the blood witnesses that the sin question is settled to God’s satisfaction;
the Word witnesses that there is power to deliver from sin in a practical way;
the Spirit bears witness that this power is for every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son” (1 John 5:9). Men come to us and tell of things we have never seen, and we believe them. They make us promises that we believe. The entire commercial system of the world depends largely on the witness of men. Companies make certain promises, and because we trust them we go ahead and do business with them. If we are willing to trust our fellow men who may fail to keep their promises, and whose word may prove unreliable, surely we can say, “The witness of God is greater.” God has given us the witness of His Word, and His witness can be relied on, because it is impossible for God to lie.
“For this is the witness of God, which he hath testified of his Son.” God in His Word has given a testimony concerning His Son. He has told us that the Lord Jesus died on the cross for our sins, that He “was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25). This is God’s witness, and He calls on us to believe it.
“He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the [witness] that God gave of his Son” (1 John 5:10). The witness is not a question of feeling happy, or of a great emotional experience. Neither is it a question of “getting religious,” but it is a question of believing God and receiving His Word in your heart. When you do that, you have the witness in yourself, and the Spirit of God makes it real to you. When asked, “Are you saved?” you may answer, “Yes.” If someone inquires, “How do you know?” you say, “Because God has told me so.” You don’t know you are saved because you feel happy. You feel happy because you know you are saved. People often put the cart before the horse. They look for feelings of happiness as a testimony that they are saved, when they must first believe the Word. Then the joy will follow.
Alex Marshall, the Scottish evangelist, went as a young boy to a circus where an evangelist was preaching. As he sat in the balcony, he felt the need to be saved, but thought to himself, “If I could only get the happy feeling that some of these people have, I would know if it were real.” Often the Spirit of God gives a preacher just the right message for someone in the audience, and this preacher leaned over the pulpit, pointed to where Alex sat and said, “Young man, believing is the root, feeling is the fruit.” At that moment Alex Marshall understood, believed, and passed out of death into life. “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself.” Take God at His word and say, “Let God be true, but every man a liar” (Romans 3:4). You can rest on His Word.
Others may have believed on Christ but have no assurance of salvation because they are waiting for a feeling—waiting for the witness. This is what God says, “He that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son.” As long as your assurance depends on a feeling, you are making God a liar. God has told you something that He asks you to believe. What does it imply if you don’t believe? Suppose I told you something and you said, “Yes, well, I would like to believe you. I am even trying to believe you, but somehow I just cannot believe you.” What would that mean? It would imply that you really thought I was lying to you. It is just the same when you fail to believe what God has said in His Word.
“He that hath the Son hath life” (1 John 5:12). God’s Word says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). You might believe that you are saved, and not be saved at all. But you cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and trust Him as your Savior without being saved. When you lack the assurance of salvation after putting your trust in Him, you make God a liar, because you do not believe “the record that God gave of His Son.”
A friend of mine who died some years ago in India did not have the assurance of salvation. The thing that troubled him above everything else was that he believed that God had chosen an elect few that should be saved. As he had no evidence that he was among them, he could not know that he was saved. He went to a meeting where the preacher declared that a man was saved the moment he believed in Jesus, that he possessed eternal life, and that he could never perish. He wanted to have the same assurance. When he got home, he got down on his knees and prayed, “O God, if it is possible for a man to be sure he has eternal life, show it to me now from Your Word. But if it is not possible, show me that, and I will leave it with You.” He turned to 1 John chapter 5. When he came to verse 10 he read, “He that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son.” “I don’t want to make God a liar,” he said, “but I don’t know what that record is.” Then he read verse 11, “And this is the record.” He put his thumb down on the rest of the verse, and shut his eyes and prayed, “O God, I have just been reading that if a man does not believe the record that You have given of your Son, he makes You a liar; I don’t want to make You a liar, but I don’t know what the record is. I suppose I have it under my thumb. I am going to lift my thumb, and when I do, help me to believe whatever I find there, because I don’t want to make You a liar.” He almost dreaded to lift his thumb, but finally did, and read, “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” “Oh,” he said, “Blessed be God! Right here and now I can know!” His faith was confirmed as he read, “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (5:12). He saw that salvation was a matter of receiving Christ. Assurance of salvation was a matter of believing God’s Word. His heart found peace, and for years he preached this same truth to others.
“He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:11-12). Have you received Christ? Then, “He that hath the Son hath life.” Are you rejecting Him? “He that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” If you have not received the Son of God by faith as your Savior you are still dead in your sins. But if you have received Him as your Savior, God says you have everlasting life. Take Him at His word.
“These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13). John was not speaking of an intellectual belief. Do you have faith in the Son of God? Do you trust in Him? Listen, then; I have a message for you, and I wish I could drive it home to every heart with power. Suppose a letter came addressed, “To you who believe on the name of the Son of God.” The courier announces, “I have a letter, and if the person to whom it is addressed is here, please come and claim it. It is addressed to ‘You who believe.’” What would you say? Do you believe on the name of the Son of God? Is the letter for you? Very well, then, open it and see what it says. “That ye may
know that ye
have eternal life, [even you who] believe on the name of the Son of God.” It is a message from Heaven to every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you been doubting the assurance of your salvation? Are you “sometimes up and sometimes down,” yet hoping all the while that you are Heaven-bound, but not very sure of it? Get it settled today. Put away your doubts and fears, and look by faith at the risen Christ. Take it from God Himself that “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life” (John 3:36).
Faith’s Confidence (1 John 5:14-21)
In these closing verses we have three major sections. First, John spoke of the confidence of faith, and of prayers heard and answered. Second, he gave a warning to those who sin unto death. And finally, in verses 18 to 21, the apostle summarized the teaching of the entire Epistle.
In verses 14 and 15 we read, “This is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.” The ordinary word for confidence in the New Testament is the same Greek word that is generally
translatedfaith, but the word used here is a different one. The apostle was not simply saying, “This is
the faith that we have in him,” or “This is the
trust that we have in him,” but he used a word that literally means
boldness. “This is the
boldness that we have in him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us.”
What a bold thing it is for a man or a woman, once a sinner condemned to die under the judgment of God, to dare to come into the presence of the infinite God, bringing the petitions of his heart. What boldness to know that if we bring these to Him, inasmuch as they are in accordance with His will, “he heareth us.” This is a boldness that the world cannot understand. Men and women who do not know Christ ask, Do you think that your puny prayers and petitions are going to change the mind of divine Omnipotence, and that the infinite God is going to listen to the pleadings of a poor finite creature of the dust? Abraham felt like that, and yet boldly came to God and said, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). And because he came in faith and in accordance with the will of God, his prayer was heard. Today we who know Him as Savior have this boldness, and so we come to Him knowing that “if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us.”
How do we know if our petition is in accordance with His will? This is a very important question. For a prayer to be in accordance with the
will of God, it must first of all be in accordance with the
Word of God. I might pray earnestly, but my pleadings will never be heard if they are contrary to the Word of God. On the other hand I might pray in accordance with the Word of God, but if I am not living in the will of God my prayer will still go unanswered, for “if I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18). The Lord tells us, “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:7). Under such circumstances, God’s will becomes our will, and so as we ask according to His will, we know He hears us. “And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask [that is, of course, whatsoever we ask in accordance with His will], we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.”
We may not get the answer to our petitions immediately. But if we ask in accordance with the will of God, and if we are in fellowship with God as we bring the petition, we may be definitely assured that He has heard and has answered, and that sometime, somewhere, we will see the answer. Of course, we have to remember our human limitations, for we do not always know what is wisest or best. Therefore we must be prepared to find that the answer sometimes comes in a way we least expect.
There was a Christian man who was the only survivor from a wrecked vessel after a storm at sea. He found himself on a small island, and by great effort managed to make a little shelter from the equatorial storms. He waited day after day praying for God to send a ship to rescue him. He used to go down to the shore of the island and wave a piece of his clothing every time he saw a ship passing in the distance, but they never saw him. One day as he was cooking his dinner, he spotted a ship some distance away and hurried to the shore, earnestly praying that this time they might see him and come to his relief. He waved frantically, but to no avail. Returning to his hut he was astonished to see that it had burst into flames. The wind had caught some embers and set the place on fire. Everything burned. He stood there utterly distressed, not knowing where he would be able to gather sufficient material to build another shelter. However, to his amazement, he noticed that the vessel he had seen earlier was headed straight for the island. As they neared the shore they sent a boat for him and took him on board. “Did you see me waving?” he asked. “Waving!” they replied; “We saw your smoke, and so we came to rescue you.” God had answered his prayer, but not at all in the way he expected it. Someday when we get home to Heaven, we will see that many of the prayers we thought God had not heard were answered in His own wonderful way.
What about faith healing? If we pray for the sick, will they be healed? Yes, if it is His will. But sometimes it is not. While on earth, Jesus healed all the sick that came to Him, but that is not how He works today. It is true that the Lord is “the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He is an unchanging Savior, but His methods are not always the same. When He was here on earth He raised the dead, but He is not raising the dead now. However, when He returns, He will raise the dead and prove that His power is the same now as when He was on earth.
In verse 16 we read, “If any man see his brother [referring to a child of God] sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death.” The implication clearly is that sometimes—not always, but sometimes—sickness comes to the children of God as divine chastening. It is a means of correction and discipline because of waywardness. Sometimes the discipline has the desired effect in the spiritual restoration and the body is healed. But other times it does not seem to be the will of God to restore the disciplined believer. “There is sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it” (5:16). Of course it is physical death that John referred to, not eternal death. He is not speaking of the death of the soul, but of the death of the body under divine discipline. The indefinite article in this part of the verse should be omitted. It is not that there is some specific sin that always results in death, but there is
sin unto death.
Moses and Aaron sinned unto death when they became angry with the children of Israel and struck the rock in anger instead of speaking to it as they had been commanded. The Lord said, “Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). Now Moses had immediate repentance and restoration to fellowship. He pleaded with God that He would forgive him and permit him to enter the land, but the Lord said, “Speak no more unto me of this matter” (Deuteronomy 3:26). Moses had sinned unto death. If today every time Christians got angry they sinned unto death, how few of us would be here! I’m afraid most of us would be at home in Heaven. Why then was He so severe with Moses? Moses was one who spoke with God face to face, and with greater privilege comes greater responsibility. Don’t forget that.
Turning to the New Testament, we find the Spirit of God was working in great power in the early church. Among the professed converts were two, Ananias and Sapphira. They sinned against the Holy Ghost by pretending to have a devotion to God that they did not possess. When they were faced with the sin, they told a lie. The result was that first Ananias and then Sapphira his wife fell down dead. They had sinned unto death. If God were dealing with all Christians that way today, there would be few believers still here. How many Christians have never permitted others to think that they were holier than they really are? And is there a believer who has never been guilty of a lie? Perhaps you have repented, but for Ananias and Sapphira there was no restoration. They had sinned unto death when they pretended to be more spiritual than they were and then lied concerning it.
We find another incident recorded in 1 Corinthians. There was a great deal of laxity and carelessness of behavior at Corinth when they gathered together to take what we call today the communion or the Lord’s supper. Because of this laxity and carelessness that marked them, the apostle wrote, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:30). Sleep is a term used throughout the Bible for the believer’s death. If every time a Christian took communion carelessly God were to visit with temporal death, how often tragedy would follow the observance of the Lord’s supper! We cannot say of any particular sin that it is
the sin unto death. God gives His people opportunity after opportunity, but if at last they deliberately go on refusing obedience to His Word, He says, “I am going to take you home; I can’t trust you in the world any longer. I will deal with you at the judgment seat of Christ.”
Imagine a group of children playing in the evening, and eventually a quarrel develops. A mother appears in the doorway and calls to her child, “What’s going on here? You behave yourself.”
“Yes, Mother. I will try to do better.”
“If you don’t, you will have to come in.” After a while there is a fuss again, and the mother calls out, “You come inside.”
“Oh Mother, I’m sorry. We are in the middle of a game. I promise to be good.”
“Very well, but you be careful.”
The game goes on, and once again there is a quarrel. The mother tells her child, “You come inside now.”
“Not another word; you come inside.”
“But Mother, I will try to behave myself.”
“No, I can’t trust you anymore tonight. Come inside.”
So it is with God and His children here in this world. He gives them many chances because He is wonderfully gracious. After a failure they repent and say, “Now I have learned my lesson.” Perhaps a little later the same thing occurs, and God says, “Now I am going to lay My hand on you.” Perhaps there is a long siege of illness, and they have an opportunity to bring everything to God in sincere confession, but the Lord says, “You have sinned unto death. I can’t trust you anymore, so I am going to take you home.”
I knew a young man who left his home in obedience to the call of God to engage in Christian work in a needy district. He had not been there long before an offer of a prosperous job came between him and the Lord. His fiancee declared she would never marry a preacher, and so he decided to take the position. He settled down, made money, and succeeded in his work, but inwardly was always very unhappy. He knew he had sinned against the Lord because he had been called to a different service. Eventually he developed tuberculosis. He gave up his position and spent his savings in a sanitarium, where he lay flat on his back. He sent for me and said, “Brother, I want you to pray with me, but not that the Lord will heal me, unless He should make it very clear to you that it is His will. I have been facing a great many things lately. I see my failure now as never before. I believe I have sinned unto death.” I looked to the Lord asking, if it was His will, to heal him, but if not to give him great joy in departing. Two weeks later I saw him again and he said, “I will never see you on earth again. I have had two very wonderful weeks. The Lord has been very near to me, but He has told me that He is going to take me home. I lost my opportunity, and inasmuch as I chose my own comfort instead of His will He can’t trust me here any more. But, thank God, I am perfectly resigned to His will. I am going home!” And, sure enough, three days later he died. He had sinned unto death, and it was useless to pray for his healing, but he went home happy in Christ.
“All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death” (1 John 5:17). All unrighteousness is sin and is therefore distasteful to God, but there are certain circumstances that do not make some conditions quite so serious as others.
In verses 18 to 21 we have the epitome of all that has gone before. This section is divided into three parts. Each part is introduced by the expression, “We know.” The word translated
know really means “an inward knowledge.” We know not merely because we have read it or heard it, or because someone told us, but we know because of an inward assurance that has come to us. John said, “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not [doth not practice sin]; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not” (5:18). This is another way of saying that the child of God has received a new nature. Even though he falls into sin, he has an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. The accuser of the brethren will not be permitted to lay one charge against them, for they are in the hands of their own Father who will deal with them about their failures.
In the next verse we read, “And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (5:19). This is sometimes translated, “The whole world lieth in the wicked one.” It may seem like a bold assumption for Christians to say that they have inward knowledge—absolute assurance that they are of God—and that the whole world lieth in the wicked one. Yes, it may seem like assumption to men who do not know God, but there is a reality about it that cannot be explained to the world.
For instance, a young Christian who has recently come to Christ may be confronted by the specious arguments of atheists, agnostics, and other unbelievers and find that he is unable to answer their questions. They say to him, “See we have proven to you that you are wrong and that God never spoke to men.” The young believer looks them full in the face and says, “I don’t know how to answer your arguments, but I
know I have passed from death unto life.” A Christian who has been saved out of a life of sin is often unable to explain the transformation that has taken place in his life. But one thing he knows and can boldly claim, “Whereas I was blind now I see. Whereas I was once the victim of sinful habits that were wrecking and ruining my life, now I have found liberty in Christ Jesus.” Explain that if you can. Every believer as he walks with God has this blessed inward knowledge. The only believer who loses this knowledge is the one who is disobedient to God. He loses his sense of assurance. But when he comes back to God, makes a frank confession of his failure and is restored, he once again has this blessed inward knowledge given by the Holy Spirit.
Verse 20 reads, “And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.” Of course John could speak from actual knowledge, for he had leaned on the breast of the Lord. He had walked with Him for three and a half wonderful years. He had heard the message proceeding out of His mouth, and had seen His works of power. We have no such evidence, but we know nonetheless, for He has revealed Himself to us in His Word. The same divine life that was revealed in all its fullness in Christ can be part of every believer. And so, “we are in him that is true.”
Having spoken of our Lord Jesus, John immediately added, “This is the true God, and eternal life.” Eternal life is seen personally in Christ and is communicated by Christ to those who believe in Him.
In verse 21 we have the closing exhortation, and though brief, it is an important one: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Anything that comes between your soul and the path of obedience to God is an idol. Sometimes God has to come and take these idols away from us in a way that seems very hard, and we may even charge Him with being cruel. But He takes them away in order that Christ may have His rightful place and our hearts may be entirely devoted to Him. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Scripture says of Jesus Christ, “This is the true God.” Therefore, any god other than the God revealed in Jesus Christ is an idol. In Christ alone is God made fully known.