Faith in the Son of God
1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.
Stott draws attention to the way in which John has been applying the three tests of Christian profession. In ch. 2 he describes the tests of obedience, 1 Jn 2:3-6, love, 1 Jn 2:7-11, and belief, 1 Jn 2:18-27. In ch. 3 he deals with obedience, 1 Jn 2:28-3:10, and love, 1 Jn 3:11-18. In ch. 4 he returns to belief, 1 Jn 4:1-6, and love, 1 Jn 4:7-12, then combining these two tests in 1 Jn 4:13-21. Now, at the beginning of ch. 5, he combines all three tests again. Notice how belief, love, and obedience crop up in vv1-5. John evidently wants to show the essential harmony and inter-relatedness of these three tests, and so weaves them together into a virtually seamless fabric.
True faith trusts Jesus as the Christ. This confession comes not from human insight, but is enabled by God. This same divine enabling produces love for our fellow-believers, for everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.
2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
True love for God is an obedient love – it wants to carry out God’s commands.
His commands are not burdensome – Cf. Mt 11:30; Rom 12:2. This is contrast to the Pharisees and scribes, who laid many heavy burdens on people with their manmade rules, Mt 23:4; Lk 11:46. John is not saying they are not difficult, but that they are not irksome. Is this your attitude to God’s commands?
God’s ‘commands’, for John, particularly centre on the command to love one another.
‘In fact, his commands are no more burdensome than wings are to a bird. They are the means by which we live in freedom and fulfilment, as God intended us to do.’ (Jackman, BST)
‘Nothing within the whole sphere of religion is imposed upon unreasonable terms. When God bids us serve him, it is no unreasonable request; out of free grace he will enthrone us in a kingdom. When we hear of repentance, steeping our souls in brinish tears for sin; or of mortification, beheading our king-sin, we are ready to grumble, and think this is hard and unreasonable. ‘But, do we serve God for nought?’ Is it not infinite bounty to reward us with a kingdom? This kingdom is as far above our thoughts, as it is beyond our deserts. No man can say, without wrong to God, that he is a hard master; for though he sets us about hard work, yet he is no hard master. God gives double pay; he gives great perquisites in his service, sweet joy and peace; and a great reward after, ‘an eternal weight of glory.’ God gives the spring-flowers, and a crop; he settles upon us such a kingdom as exceeds our faith. Praemium quod fide non attingitur The reward which is not attained by faith. Augustine. Such as mortal eye has not seen, nor can it enter into the heart of man to conceive. 1 Cor 2:9. Alas, what an infinite difference is there between duty enjoined, and the kingdom prepared! What is the shedding of a tear to a crown! So that God’s ‘commandments are not grievous.’ 1 Jn 5:3. Our service cannot be so hard as a kingdom is sweet.’ (Thomas Watson)
‘Speak, soul, what account have you of the commandments? Do you look upon them as an iron chain about your legs, and think yourselves prisoners because you are tied to them? or do you value them as a chain of gold about your neck, and esteem yourselves favourites of the King of heaven, that he will honour you to honour him by serving of him? So did as great a prince as the world had: ‘Who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly,’ 1 Chron 29. Not, ‘Who am I, that I should be a king over my people?’ but ‘that I should have a heart so gracious to offer willingly with my people.’ Not, ‘Who am I, that they should serve me?’ but, ‘that thou wilt honour me with a heart to serve thee with them?’ The same holy man in another place speak of sin as his prison, and his obedience as his liberty: ‘I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts,’ Ps 119:45. When God gives him a large heart for duty, he is as thankful as a man that was bound in prison is when he is set at liberty, that he may visit his friends and follow his calling. The only grievous thing to a loving soul is to be hindered in his obedience. This is that which makes such a one out of love with the world, and with being in it – because it cumbers him in his work, and many times keeps him from it. As a conscionable faithful servant, that is lame or sickly, and can do his master little service, O how it grieves him! Thus the loving soul bemoans itself, that it should put God to so much cost, and be so unprofitable under it. Speak, is this thy temper? Blessed art thou of the Lord! There is a jewel of two diamonds, which this will prove thou art owner of, that the crown jewels of all the princes of the world are not so worthy to be valued with, as a heap of dust or dung is to be compared with them. The jewel I mean, is made of this pair of graces -faith and love. They are thine, and, with them, God and all that he hath and is. But, if the commandments if the commandments of God be ‘grievous,’ as they are to every carnal heart, and thou countest thyself at ease when thou canst make an escape from a duty to commit a sin, as the beast doth when his collar is off and he in his fat pasture again; now thou art where thou wouldst be, and can show some spirits that thou hast. But when conscience puts on the trace again, thou art dull and heavy again. O, it speaks thee to have no love to God, and therefore no faith on God, that is true. That is a jade indeed who hath no mettle but in the pasture.’ (Gurnall)
There are three references to ‘overcoming the world’ in v4f. What does it mean?
6 This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood.
The one who came by water and blood – Does this refer to (a) the bread and wine of the eucharist? No: not only does John write in the past tense (‘he came’, not ‘he comes’), the elements do not match: he refers to ‘water and blood’, not to ‘bread and wine’. Does this then refer to the blood and water that came from our Lord’s side, at his crucifixion? No: it would make no sense to say that he ‘came’ in this way. Rather, it refers to (c) his incarnation, as marked especially by his baptism (‘water’) and death (‘blood’). Contra the beliefs of the Gnostics, Jesus’ life was marked by the hard physical realities of water and blood at the outset of his earthly ministry, and at its close.
‘In 1 Jn 5:6-8 ‘water’ refers to Jesus’ own baptism as a continuing witness to the reality of Jesus’ incarnation.’ (NBD)
Irenaeus tells the story of an occasion when John once went to a public bathhouse in Ephesus, but saw Cerinthus, a prominent Docetist, there and refused to shared the same water. Cerinthus taught that the divine essence, or ‘cosmic Christ’ entered Jesus at his baptism and departed before his crucifixion. It is possible that this verse is a direct response to this idea, although Cerinthus held a number of other heterodox beliefs that are not addressed in this letter. (Drane, Introducing the New Testament, p450).
And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.
Bart Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus) makes much of the fact that 1 Jn 5:7f was thought to contain the one unambiguous reference to the Trinity in the entire New Testament, and yet the relevant phrase is known to be spurious.
Daniel B. Wallace, Executive Director, Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts responds by saying that ‘virtually no modern translation of the Bible includes the “Trinitarian formula,” since scholars for centuries have recognized it as added later. Only a few very late manuscripts have the verses. One wonders why this passage is even discussed in Ehrman’s book. The only reason seems to be to fuel doubts. The passage made its way into our Bibles through political pressure, appearing for the first time in 1522, even though scholars then and now knew that it is not authentic. The early church did not know of this text, yet the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 affirmed explicitly the Trinity! How could they do this without the benefit of a text that didn’t get into the Greek NT for another millennium? Chalcedon’s statement was not written in a vacuum: the early church put into a theological formulation what they saw in the NT.’
F.F. Bruce notes that ‘the doctrine of the Trinity is…well enough established in the New Testament apart from this passage (cf. Mt 28:19; 1 Cor 12:4-6; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 4:4-6). The interpolation first appear in in a Latin treatise by a Spanish Christian names Priscillian who died in AD 385. Erasmus felt obliged to include it (reluctantly) in the third edition o the Greek New Testament (1522) because of an incautious promise he had made, and so it found its was into successive early printed editions of the Greek Testament and thence into the AV.’ (Answers to Questions, p134)
9 We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.
Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar – ‘Not to believe God’s veracity, is to affront God…A person of honour cannot be more affronted or provoked, than when he is not believed.’ (Thomas Watson)
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
Ross points out that John gives us several reasons for writing his epistle: his wants his readers to be joyful ( 1 Jn 1:4); he wants them to be holy (1 Jn 2:1,12,13); now he want wants them to be sure.
Indeed, although this concluding section seems to consist of a rather miscellaneous array of instructions, the main unifying theme is that of ‘confidence’, or ‘assurance’: assurance of eternal life, assurance of answered prayer, assurance of true faith, assurance of about the identity of Jesus Christ.
In the words of Johnson, he assures them ‘of several certainties of the Christian life, with regard to possessing eternal life (13), asking and interceding in prayer (14–17), not sinning (18), being God’s children in an evil world (19), and knowing Jesus Christ, the true God (20). In the light of these great realities comes a final warning (21).’
Note the following:-
- v13: “that you may know”;
- v14: “the confidence we have”;
- v15: “we know … we know”;
- v18: we know;
- v19: “we know”;
- v20: “we know”.
I write these things to you who believe so that you may know that you have eternal life – ‘These things’ refers to the entire Epistle.
It was not the secessionists, but his readers ‘who manifested the authentic marks of those who have eternal life: they were the ones who continued in the teaching first proclaimed by the eyewitnesses; they were the ones who continued to obey the commands of the Lord; and they were the ones who loved the children of God, which is the essential mark of those who have eternal life.’ (Kruse)
This in contrast to John’s Gospel, written ‘that you may believe’, Jn 20:31. The Gospel was written with the aim of conversion, the Epistle with the aim of assurance. Cf. 1 Jn 1:5, where (part of) John’s stated purpose was to ‘make our joy complete’.
Christ himself is called ‘the ‘eternal life’, 1 Jn 1:2 and 1 Jn 5:2. So, as Wiersbe remarks, ‘Eternal life is a gift; it is not something that we earn (John 10:27–29; Eph. 2:8–9). But this gift is a Person—Jesus Christ. We receive eternal life not only from Christ, but in Christ. “He who has the Son has the life” (1 John 5:12, NASB). Not just “life” but “the life”—the life “which is life indeed” (1 Tim. 6:19, NASB).’
- do what is right, 1 Jn 2:29
- cannot go on sinning, 1 Jn 3:9
- love the brethren, 1 Jn 3:14
- know God, 1 Jn 4:7
- overcome the world, 1 Jn 5:4
Stott: ‘Putting together the purposes of Gospel and letter, John’s purpose is in four stages, namely that his readers may hear, hearing may believe, believing may live, and living may know.’
‘Faith is not assurance. If it were, Saint John might have spared his pains, who wrote to them that believe on the name of the Son of God, that they might know that they have eternal life. They might then have said, “We do this already.” (William Gurnall)
‘Clearly one cannot enjoy a gift unless one knows that one possess it. Therefore, is God means us to receive and enjoy eternal life, he must mean us to know we possess it.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, p211)
As Wiersbe remarks: ‘It is one thing to know that Jesus is God and that we are God’s children; but what about the needs and problems of daily life? Jesus helped people when He was here on earth; does He still help them? Earthly fathers take care of their children; does the Heavenly Father respond when His children call on Him?’
This verse begins with an untranslated ‘kai‘ (‘and’). Eternal life issues in a life of prayer. We can have assurance of eternal life and assurance that our prayers are heard. The two belong together.
This is the confidence we have in approaching God – ‘Confidence’ has been mentioned three times already in this letter, 1 Jn 2:28 (confidence at the time of his coming); 1 Jn 4:17 (confidence on the day of judgement); 1 Jn 3:21-22 (confidence of our access to God). In each case the reference is to confidence before God. The word carries connotations of ‘freedom of speech’; of being able to speak what is on one’s mind without fear.
‘In approaching God’ or, ‘in God’s presence’ (so Kruse).
If we ask anything according to his will – Cf. Jn 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-27; 1 Jn 3:21-22. (See also Mt 6:10)
If we are to have confidence in prayer then we must (a) have a heart that does not condemn us (1 Jn 3:21f; Psa 66:18; Jn 15:7; 1 Pet 3:1-7), and (b) pray according to God’s will (Mt 6:10).
‘All of these conditions boil down to being in an intimate relationship with God/Jesus. To “remain in Jesus” or “ask in his name” is to be in such a relationship with him. To “obey his commands” or for “his words to remain in us” are expressions of this relationship as one lives in obedience to the declared will of God/Jesus. This, then, is what asking according to God’s will means; it is to ask in submission to that will…John is talking about knowing and praying the specific will of God in a given instance. This is not always pleasant; nor does one come to know and submit to this will easily. Jesus in Gethsemane also prays, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mk 14:36) He did not come to this submission without a struggle. He appears to have begun his prayer dreading what was coming and hoping that there might be a way in the will of God for it not to happen. In his struggle in those hours he apparently saw clearly that the Father had only one way, the cross. Therefore Jesus comes to the place of submission to that will. But it was not easy; it was not without groans and cries and sweat. John, then, is suggesting to his readers a relationship with God in which they too will pray God’s will back to him. It may be no easier for them than for Jesus, who, although he wrestled with bigger issues, did not have a background of sin and disobedience to fight against and had a more intimate relationship with the Father than believers experience. But the process is analogous. Believers live in obedience to God (having repented of sin); now they come in prayer, perhaps already knowing the divine will, but otherwise listening and praying until they know that they are in line with God. It is then that the confidence comes that this prayer will indeed be heard.’ (HSB)
As Johnson remarks, ‘“Your will be done” was not only in Jesus’ teaching model of prayer (Matt. 6:9–13), it was a condition to which he subjected himself (Matt. 26:39, 42; John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38–40).’
George Mueller said that ‘prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance, but laying hold of his highest willingness.’ Wiersbe adds: ‘We are not beggars; we are children coming to a wealthy Father who loves to give His children what they need.’
This presupposes that we will be concerned to discover what God’s will actually is. Wiersbe comments: ‘There are times when we can only pray, “Not my will but Thine be done,” because we simply do not know God’s will in a matter. But most of the time we can determine God’s will by reading the Word, listening to the Spirit (Rom. 8:26–27), and discerning the circumstances around us. ‘
Candlish remarks that this asking ‘according to his will’ only exceptionally involves that full assurance that would come from knowing precisely what it is that God in his providence intends to grant. Nor is this qualification merely to be some kind of routine tag attached to our prayers. No: the main point here is that our asking should be in accord with what we believe that he wills. ‘In asking it, we put ourselves in the same position with him in willing it. He and we look at it from the same point of view. We who ask identify ourselves with him who wills. Whatever we ask, we ask as from within the circle of his will; we being one in our asking with him in his willing.’
The same writer contrasts this view of prayer with that of the heathen: ‘the heathen view of prayer, like the heathen view of sacrifice proceeds upon that notion of subjecting God’s determination to men’s desire; the prayer and the sacrifice being both alike intended to work upon the divine mind so as to change it into accordance with that of the worshipper. The idea is that God needs to be appeased, and that he may be persuaded; that he needs to be appeased by sacrifice, so that wrath may give place to pity; and that he may be persuaded by prayer to act otherwise than his inner nature might prompt, in compliance with solicitations, or in deference to pressure, from without.’
What a mercy that answers to prayer are circumscribed by this one condition: ‘according to God’s will’. What horrors our prayers would wreak if they were granted only according to our own wills! See Psa 106:15 ‘So he gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease upon them.’
He hears us – It is not merely that God registers our prayer, but that ‘we have what we asked of him.’ Cf. Jn 9:31; 11:41-42.
We know that we have – not, ‘that we will have’. ‘The realization of our prayer has already begun when we have asked in faith for something, no matter what it is, that is God’s will for us. This is the uniform testimony of the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 7:7f; 18:19; 21:22; Mk 11:24; John 14:13–14; 15:7; 16:23–24; Jas. 1:5–8; 4:2–3; 5:16b; 1 John 3:22).’ (Johnson)
‘That our petition is answered is not dependent on whether or not we have personally observed the answer. Some answers to prayer are recognized immediately, others later, and some are not recognized in our lifetime.’ (EBC)
“But if it is God’s will for me to have a thing, then why should I pray about it?” Because prayer is the way God wants His children to get what they need. God not only ordains the end, but He also ordains the means to the end—prayer. And the more you think about it, the more wonderful this arrangement becomes. Prayer is really the thermometer of the spiritual life. God has ordained that I maintain a close walk with Him if I expect Him to meet my needs.’ (Wiersbe)
Wiersbe adds: ‘What breathing is to a physical man, prayer is to a spiritual man. If we do not pray, we “faint” (Luke 18:1). Prayer is not only the utterance of the lips; it is also the desire of the heart. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17) does not mean that a Christian is always saying an audible prayer. We are not heard for our much speaking (Matt. 6:7). No, “Pray without ceasing” suggests the attitude of the heart as well as the words of the lips. A Christian who has his heart fixed on Christ and is trying to glorify Him is praying constantly even when he is not conscious of it.’
Wiersbe again: ‘Though He was God in the flesh, Jesus depended on prayer. He lived on earth, as we must, in dependence on the Father. He arose early in the morning to pray (Mark 1:35), though He had been up late the night before healing the multitudes. He sometimes spent all night in prayer (Luke 6:12). In the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed with “strong crying and tears” (Heb. 5:7). On the cross He prayed three times. If the sinless Son of God needed to pray, how much more do we?’
16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
It is notable that the apostle moves immediately from prayer to intercessory prayer – prayer for others.
If anyone sees his brother… – ‘That the writer first thinks of intercessory prayer after his encouragement to pray in vv. 14–15 demonstrates the unselfish nature of true prayer. Authentic prayer reaches out to others in their need; it does not primarily grasp for things for oneself.’ (Johnson)
God will give him life – After reviewing several alternatives, Kruse concludes that the meaning here is that ‘God will give the promised resurrection life to sinning believers who repent.’
There is a sin that leads to death – ‘We should regard sin that leads to death as a state rather than an act; in Scripture there is no one specific act people do which results in death, but there is a state of sin, of being in rebellion against God, which John elsewhere calls remaining in death (3:14).’ (NBC)
‘Jesus warned that anyone who blasphemes against the Spirit ‘will not be forgiven’ (Lk 12:10), and it is this kind of thing that is in mind here.’ (NBC)
According to Cotton, two things concur in this sin unto death: ‘illumination in the mind and malice in the heart.’
‘Like the author of Hebrews, he may believe that it is impossible for them, “if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance” (Heb. 6:4–6; cf. Heb. 3:12–19; 6:1–8; 10:26–31).’ (Johnson)
I am not saying that he should pray about that – The apostle does not forbid prayer in this case, but he does imply that such prayer would not be effective. There was a time when Jesus refrained from paying for ‘the world’, Jn 17:9.
Pastorally, we must note that many sensitive Christians worry that they may have committed ‘the sin that leads to death’, or the ‘unpardonable sin’, or ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit.’ As Jackman advises: ‘a Christian minister may rightly try to counsel a distressed Christian by pointing out that any real dread is a sure indication that he is not guilty of this sin.’
v17, suggests Kruse, reassures believers that, though they fall into sin from time to time, their sin does not lead to death.
18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also 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—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
Now come three verses, each beginning with a resounding, “We know.”
Anyone born of God does not continue in sin – The verb is in the present tense. The assurance pinpointed in this verse is that the true believer does not persist in sin. Clearly, he or she may sin (v16), but sin is no longer inevitable, but incongruous. It is alien to a Christian’s new nature.
‘[This] expresses the truth, not that he can never slip into acts of sin, but rather that he does not persist in it habitually or ‘live in sin’ (Dodd). The new birth results in new behaviour. Sin and the child of God are incompatible. They may occasionally meet; they cannot live together in harmony.’ (Stott)
Of course, John has already stressed that we all do sin, 1 Jn 1:8. If that teaching opposes perfectionism, then the present verse opposes the complacency that we might otherwise fall into: ‘Of course I sin. John has made that perfectly clear. So there’s no point in fighting it. And, in any case, God is merciful. He will forgive me.’ This would then be a version of continuing in sin so that grace might abound, Rom 6:1.
The one who was born of God – a unique description of Jesus (though cf. Jn 18:37).
Keeps him safe – Cf. Jn 17:12–15; 1 Pet 1:5.
The evil one – the devil (cf. 1 Jn 3:8,10).
cannot harm him – The expression here literally means, ‘cannot hold him down or harm him’, and occurs elsewhere in the NT only in Jn 20:17. Cf. Jn 10:28; 1 Jn 4:4.
We know that we are children of God – lit. ‘we know that we are of God’.
The whole world is under the control of the evil one – Cf. Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11 – ‘the prince of this world; 2 Cor. 4:3–4 – ‘the God of this age’. See also Eph 2:2 and 6:12.
It is this ‘world’ that the secessionists have gone out into, and proved that they belong to the world and its ‘evil one’, or antichrist. See 1 John 2:18–19; 4:1–5
The sense is that the whole world lies in the arm of the evil one, like a baby sleeping in the arms of an adult. ‘It is not pictured as struggling vigorously to be free but as quietly lying, perhaps even unconsciously asleep, in the embrace of Satan. The evil one does not ‘touch’ the Christian, but the world is helplessly in his grasp.’ (Stott)
But, as John has already declared in 1 Jn 4:4, ‘He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.’ In fact, the only other time in this epistle that John uses the phrase ‘the whole world’ comes in 1 Jn 2:2, where we are told that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.’
Johnson remarks: ‘The Johannine community’s view of their relation to the world was, sociologically speaking, sectarian.’
This is remarkably black-and-white. We are not, after all, on various rungs of a ladder. The division is not horizontal, but vertical. We are sheep or goats, dead or alive, light or darkness. We are ‘of God’ or ‘under the control of the evil one’. ‘Clearly there is no middle ground for the author. To be born of God is to be safe from the power of the evil one. Not to be born of God is to be wholly under the power of the evil one.’ (EBC)
Observe the reiteration of ‘we’ in the previous verse and the present one. John was an apostle; he had seen the Lord. But the same experience of Christ that he had is open to us all.
The Son of God…has given us understanding – Johnson observes that the word dianoia (understanding), which is used only here in the Johannine literature, was widely used by the later Gnostics, to refer to the special insight into spiritual matters which they claimed.
Him who is true – According to Stott, the word is not alēthes (‘true’), but alēthinos (‘real’). The reference would seem to be to God, since Jesus is referred to as ‘his Son’. God is ‘true’, in contrast to the false idols of v21. Many beliefs and ideologies clamour for our attention, offering profound insights and exciting experiences. But do they correspond to reality?
We are in him – we have not only received understanding from him, but we also inhabit him.
21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
Sinclair Ferguson, in the course of his oral ministry on this passage, asks how we might have expected John to have completed this final verse of the epistle, having begun with the words, “Dear children…” He suggests that we would have expected the apostle to say, one more time, “Dear children, love one another.” The actual ending, then, surprises us.
Keep yourselves from idols – not tērein (as in v. 18) but phylassein, ‘guard’. Still, we may, as Stott remarks, refer to two ‘keepings’: ‘The Son of God will keep him (v18), but this does not relieve him of the responsibility to keep himself. For these two keepings, his and ours, see Jude 21, 24.’
Pagan idolatry was rife in Ephesus. But as Johnson remarks, it is not likely that John would have suddenly introduced a warning against such idolatry. According to Westcott (cited by Johnson), an idol is anything that takes God’s place in our worship and affections. More specifically, John may be thinking of those false images of Christ, which deny that he has come in the flesh, and which therefore are a denial of ‘the true God and eternal life’, v20.
Stott, similarly, thinks that ‘the allusion is to ‘the untrue mental images fashioned by the false teachers’ (Brooke), which, because of their false view of the Son and therefore of the Father, constituted a monstrous idolatry…John was writing in a time of crisis. ‘The Cerinthian heresy was a desperate assault demanding a decisive repulse’ (Smith). What is certain is that all ‘God-substitutes’ (Dodd), all alternatives to the true God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, are properly ‘idols’, and that from them the Christian must vigilantly guard himself.’
‘In a world full of alluring objects, there was danger then, as there is at all times, that the affections should be fixed on other objects than the supreme God, and that what is due to him should be withheld. It may be added, in the conclusion of the exposition of this epistle, that the same caution is as needful for us as it was for those to whom John wrote. We are not in danger, indeed, of bowing down to idols, or of engaging in the grossest forms of idol-worship. But we may be in no less danger than they to whom John wrote were, of substituting other things in our affections in the place of the true God, and of devoting to them the time and the affection which are due to him. Our children it is possible to love with such an attachment as shall effectually exclude the true God from the heart. The world-its wealth, and pleasures, and honours-we may love with a degree of attachment such as even an idolater would hardly show to his idol-gods; and all the time which he would take in performing his devotions in an idol-temple, we may devote with equal fervour to the service of the world. There is practical idolatry all over the world; in nominally Christian lands as well as among the heathen; in families that acknowledge no God but wealth and fashion; in the hearts of multitudes of individuals who would scorn the thought of worshipping at a pagan altar; and it is even to be found in the heart of many a one who professes to be acquainted with the true God, and to be an heir of heaven. God should have the supreme place in our affections. The love of everything else should be held in strict subordination to the love of him. He should reign in our hearts; be acknowledged in our closets, our families, and in the place of public worship; be submitted to at all times as having a right to command and control us; be obeyed in all the expressions of his will, by his word, by his providence, and by his Spirit; be so loved that we shall be willing to part without a murmur with the dearest object of affection when he takes it from us; and so that, with joy and triumph, we shall welcome his messenger, the angel of death, when he shall come to summon us into his presence.’ (Barnes)
Ross: ‘If, as some have supposed, this Epistle is the latest in date of all the NT writings, it is very striking to find that this is God’s last word to men.’
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only Thee.