Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 5, 2024

1 John 5:1-6 Commentary

One of the first Christian songs I ever learned was “Trust and Obey.” Its chorus still echoes in my memory: “Trust and obey/, for there’s no other way/ To be happy in Jesus/ than to trust and obey.” This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson strongly suggests that the song’s link between trusting and obeying would please the apostle.

In 1 John 5:1, after all, the apostle seems to link faith and obedience: “Everyone who believes [pisteuon]* that Jesus is the Christ is born [gegennetai] of [ek] God, and everyone who loves [agapon] the father also loves his child as well.” The Message elegantly paraphrases this as “Every person who believes that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, is God-born. If we love the One who conceives the child, we’ll surely love the child who was conceived.”

John draws some grammatical parallels here. He repeats, for example, the word pas (“everyone”). So he’s talking about and to not just some of Jesus’ friends, but all of us. Every single person who trusts Jesus alone for our salvation is born of God (1a). What’s more, every single person who loves God also loves God’s adopted children (1b).

In verse 1 the apostle also repeats a form of genos (to “beget”). In fact, in verse 1 he never actually uses the Greek words that we translate as “father” and “child.” John uses, instead, a form of what we translate as “begets.” So it’s as if he literally says, “Everyone who loves the God who begets God’s children also loves whichever other children God begets.” Scholars tell us that grammatical repetition was an ancient precursor of the current practice of underlining. So the apostle is highlighting his reminders that all Christians both believe certain things and act in certain ways.

John insists that Jesus’ friends believe that “Jesus is the Christ” (1) and that “Jesus is the Son [Huios] of God” (5). This echoes John 20’s: “These [gospel stories] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Jesus’ friends join the Church in all times and places in professing that Jesus wasn’t just a nice guy or good teacher. He was also the Messiah. Christians don’t just profess that Jesus was a doer of good deeds and wise philosopher. We also profess that he was the Son of God.

This insistence may help John’s readers to understand verse 6’s mysterious assertions. There, after all, the apostle writes that the Jesus whom Christians profess is the Christ, the Son God “is the one who came [elthon] by water [hydatos] and blood [haimatos] … He did not come by water only [hydati monon], but by water and blood.”

The biblical scholar David Bartlett suggests that verse 6’s hydatos refers to the water in which John baptized Jesus. He also posits that John’s opponents insisted that the Second Person of the Trinity merely took on the appearance of being human at his water baptism. That, Bartlett continues, is why John believes he must underline Jesus’ actual humanity. The apostle does that by emphasizing how he came “by water and blood.”

But this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists that even an “orthodox” profession that Jesus is the fully human and fully divine Messiah and Son of God is, in some ways, only part of the grace “equation.” Jesus’ friends also love God’s other adopted children (1b). In fact, John immediately precedes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by asserting that “Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21).

Yet John adds a perhaps unexpected twist to his call to love our fellow Christians. We don’t just love them by seeking, working and praying for their well-being. Jesus’ friends also love our neighbors by “loving [agapomen] God and carrying out [poiomen] his commandments [entolas]” (2b). That is, in fact, how God’s children “know [ginoskomen] that we love the children [tekna] of God” (2a).

There is what may seem like an odd circularity to this argument. But it may suffice, with the Spirit’s help, to simply say this about verse 2: Christians’ love for God, our confidence in knowing both our love for each other and God’s love for us, as well as showing our love for our neighbor are all deeply intertwined. As the biblical scholar Brian Peterson writes, love for God and God’s children “both flow from the belief that God sent the Son for our sake, and one love cannot exist without the other.”

Preachers whom the Spirit guides might explore the relationship between lovingly carrying out God’s commands and loving God’s adopted children. Among other things, we might note that love for our neighbors (as well as for God) is the beating heart of God’s will for our lives. In fact, the Psalter Hymnal (CRC Publications, 1987) refers to “the second great commandment” as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This means that, it continues, “Love is the fulfilling of the law” that invites Jesus’ followers “to a life of faith working through love.”

John returns to the theme of love for God in verse 3 when he tells his readers: “This is love [agape] for God: to obey [teroumen] his commands [entolas].” It’s a reminder that love for God and our neighbor is always more than just talk. Both also involve concrete actions. Much as we love our neighbor through concrete actions, we love God through the concrete action that is obedience to God’s commands. This echoes Jesus’ insistence in John 14:15 that “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

Yet it’s not easy to know to what exactly God’s “commands” refer in verses 2 and 3. While we might assume that the apostle is speaking of them as Torah, as Peterson notes (ibid), I John doesn’t refer to the “Law.” Peterson suggests that John is talking about verse 1’s “commandments” to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and to love our neighbor.

Yet the call to obey even those commands, to say nothing of Torah, may feel “burdensome [bareai]” (3). John recognizes that there are times when professing our Christian faith and loving our neighbor feels too difficult. That’s why he insists in verse 4 that “everyone born [gegennemenon] of [ek] God overcomes [nika] the world [ton kosmon].”

Here the apostle seems to identify “the world” as all that would work to keep Jesus’ friends from loving God and our neighbor. John may even be alluding to the spiritual forces and powers that have aligned themselves against God’s plans, purposes and dearly beloved people.

By defeating those powers at the cross and empty tomb, Christ stripped “the world” of its power to keep those to whom God has given new birth from loving God and our neighbor. as a result, Christians and our faith don’t need to overcome the world. Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God has already accomplished that. His followers respond by trusting and obeying.

*I have here and elsewhere bracketed the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In his September, 2019 article in The New Criterion, “How the Great Truth Dawned,” Gary Paul Morson reflects on the intersection between faith and love for neighbor in the Soviet gulags. He notes that “Solzhenitsyn asks: how well does morality without God pass the test of Soviet experience? Every camp prisoner sooner or later faced a choice: whether or not to resolve to survive at any price. Do you take the food or shoes of a weaker prisoner? This is the great fork of camp life. From this point the roads go to the right and to the left . . . If you go to the right — you lose your life; and if you go to the left — you lose your conscience.”

“Memoirist after memoirist, including atheists like Evgeniya Ginzburg, report that those who denied anything beyond the material world were the first to choose survival. They may have insisted that high moral ideals do not require belief in God, but when it came down to it, morals grounded in nothing but one’s own conviction and reasoning, however cogent, proved woefully inadequate under experiential, rather than logical, pressure. In Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales … a narrator observes: ‘The intellectual becomes a coward, and his own brain provides a “justification” of his own actions. He can persuade himself of anything’ as needed.

“Among Gulag memoirists, even the atheists acknowledge that the only people who did not succumb morally were the believers. Which religion they professed did not seem to matter. Ginzburg describes how a group of semi-literate believers refused to go out to work on Easter Sunday. In the Siberian cold, they were made to stand barefoot on an ice-covered pond, where they continued to chant their prayers.

“Later that night, the rest of us argued about the believers’ behavior. ‘Was this fanaticism, or fortitude in defense of the rights of conscience? Were we to admire or regard them as mad? And, most troubling of all, should we have had the courage to act as they did?’ The recognition that they would not would often transform people into believers.”


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