Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 12, 2024

1 John 5:9-13 Commentary

North American culture struggles to define “life.” That shows up in some ways most visibly in our struggles to determine human life’s boundaries. Some of our most contentious debates about ethics, including abortion and euthanasia, revolve around just when human life begins and ends.

So preachers might follow the Spirit’s guidance to explore with our hearers just what constitutes life. Is human life little more than a beating heart and functioning brain? Can it be shrunk to the basic acts of eating, sleeping, working and procreating? Or does genuine human life necessarily include a component of enjoyment and pleasure? Or is there somehow something more to genuine life?

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson devotes a lot of attention to “testimony.” I wrote an earlier commentary on that aspect of this text. My colleague Scott Hoezee also posted an insightful commentary about 1 John 5:9-13.

However, preachers who follow the Spirit’s promptings might also explore with our hearers what John says about “life,” especially near the end of the Lesson. After all, in just three verses (11, 12, 13) the apostle mentions “life” five times. Those uses of that term may not explicitly help us define the boundaries of human life. However, 1 John 5:9-13 helps Jesus’ friends think about what human life looks like within those boundaries.

Of course, verse 11 doesn’t just mention “life.” It also refers to this Lesson’s prominent theme of “testimony” [martyria]*. God, says John, offers testimony regarding God’s Son (9). Jesus’ friends who believe in Jesus have that testimony in the very central core of our beings (10).

But what, the apostle, goes on to ask, is the content of that testimony? It is that “God has given [edoken] us eternal [aionion] life [zoen]” (11a). So John insists that the “life” about which he writes comes from God. It isn’t something we or anyone else creates. The life about which the apostle writes in verse 11a is a gift of God’s amazing grace.

The “life” about which the apostle writes, however, is also aionion (“eternal”). The life with which God graces us about which John writes has no end. While humans may struggle to define just when life ends, we generally recognize that our physical life does eventually end. By contrast, John professes, while the life that is a gift from God has a beginning, it has no end.

This “life” with which God graces God’s dearly beloved children, John continues in verse 11b, “is in [en] his Son [Huio].” That’s not an easy concept to fully understand. However, it at least means that we live our life that is a gift from God in close relationship with God’s Son Jesus Christ. In fact, it’s such a close relationship that it’s sometimes be difficult to separate our life from Christ’s. In Colossians 3:3 Paul even goes so far to assert that our “life is now hidden with Christ in God”!

John continues in verse 12a, anyone who has “the Son has [echei] life.” However, the person “who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (12b). This strongly implies that not everyone who has a beating heart and functioning brain has the life about which John writes. Some people are like walking dead people. While those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with a faithful relationship with God’s Son are physically alive, we are somehow less than fully alive.

Countless friends of Jesus have wondered over the millennia whether God has truly gifted us with eternal life. We’ve sensed that our faith, obedience or both are so flawed that we wonder if we are alive in the sense that 1 John 5 describes. In verse 13 the apostle writes, “I write [egrapsa] these things to you who believe in the name [onoma] of the Son of God so that you may know [hina eidete] that you have eternal [aionion] life [zoen].” The Message paraphrases this as, “My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion.”

As with so much of John’s first letter, this assertion echoes the gospel of John. In John 1:12 the gospel writer says, “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” What’s more, in 20:31 the gospel writer says, “These [accounts of Jesus’ miraculous signs] 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.”

Of course this almost immediately raises the question of what the apostle refers to in verse 13 as “these things.” He’s likely referring to his entire letter that we call I John. The New Testament scholar Alicia D. Myers invites Jesus’ followers to “follow the chain of words in 1 John 5:9-13 backward, tracing the path [John] has used throughout [the epistle].”

As preachers do that, we might note that life is characterized by love for God and our neighbor (5:2). The life with which God graces Jesus’ followers includes belief, as well, in the Son of God (5:10). It’s, further, marked by confession of sin (1:9), living in the light (2:10) and a willingness to test the spirits (4:1ff.). Myers (ibid) summarizes this as “those who are experiencing eternal life are those who are inspired by God’s Spirit to speak truth and live out love that is consistent with God’s revelations through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.”

In fact, as I noted in an earlier commentary on I John 3, John at least implies that the Spirit can use our concrete acts of love for each other to confirm in us God’s love for us. As Christians do things like share our material possessions with our brothers and sisters who are needy (3:17), the Spirit confirms our knowledge that we have eternal life. The apostle says something similar when he insists, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers” (3:14).

The biblical scholar Audrey West suggests that this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers look for and share examples of the ways that life is showing itself within our local churches, the Church and God’s world. What, she invites us to consider and then share, does eternal life look like from where we stand?

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In his book, Self-Conscious: Memoirs, John Updike writes about eternal life: “Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn’t it terribly, well, selfish. . . to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of the biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stoic virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gratefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do …

“The idea that we sleep for centuries and centuries without a flicker of a dream, while our bodies rot and turn to dust and the very stone marking our graves crumbles to nothing, is virtually as terrifying as annihilation … Our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe. We cannot imagine a Second Coming that would not be cut down to size by the televised evening news, or a Last Judgment not subject to pages of holier-than-thou second-guessing in ‘The New York Review of Books’

“The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience.”


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