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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

1 John 5



Other Authors
Verses 1-21

Chapter 5


5:1-2 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has experienced the birth which comes from God; and everyone who loves the father loves the child. This is how we know that we must be loving the children of God, whenever we love God and keep his commandments.

As John wrote this passage, there were two things in the background of his mind.

(i) There was the great fact which was the basis of all his thinking, the fact that love of God and love of man are inseparable parts of the same experience. In answer to the questioning scribe Jesus had said that there were two great commandments. The first laid it down that we must love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength; and the second laid it down that we must love our neighbour as ourselves. Than these commandments there are none greater (Mark 12:28-31). John had in mind this word of his Lord.

(ii) But he also had in mind a natural law of human life. Family love is a part of nature. The child naturally loves his parents; and he just as naturally loves his brothers and sisters. The second part of 1 John 5:1 literally runs: "Everyone who loves him who begat, loves him who was begotten of him." Put much more simply that is: "If we love a father, we also love his child." John is thinking of the love which naturally binds a man to the father who begat him and to the other children whom the father has begotten.

John transfers this to the realm of Christian thought and experience. The Christian undergoes the experience of being reborn; the father is God; and the Christian is bound to love God for all that he has done for his soul. But birth is always into a family; and the Christian is reborn into the family of God. As it was for Jesus, so it is for him--those who do the will of God, as he himself does, become his mother, his sisters and his brothers (Mark 3:35). If, then, the Christian loves God the Father who begat him, he must also love the other children whom God has begotten. His love of God and his love of his Christian brothers and sisters must be parts of the same love, so closely interlocked that they can never be separated.

It has been put: "Man is not only born to love, he is also born to be loved." A. E. Brooke put it: "Everyone who has been born of God must love those who have been similarly ennobled."

Long before this the Psalmist had said that, "God gives the desolate a home to dwell in" (Psalms 68:6). The Christian by virtue of his rebirth is set within the family of God and as he loves the Father, so must he also love the children who are of the same family as he is.


5:3-4a For this is the love of God, that we should keep his commandments; and his commandments are not heavy, because everything that is born of God conquers the world.

John reverts to an idea which is never far from the surface of his mind. Obedience is the only proof of love. We cannot prove our love to anyone other than by seeking to please him and bring him joy.

Then John quite suddenly says a most surprising thing. God's commandments, he says, are not heavy. We must note two general things here.

He certainly does not mean that obedience to God's commandments is easy to achieve. Christian love is no easy matter. It is never an easy thing to love people whom we do not like or people who hurt our feelings or injure us. It is never an easy thing to solve the problem of living together; and when it becomes the problem of living together on the Christian standard of life, it is a task of immense difficulty.

Further, there is in this saying an implied contrast. Jesus spoke of the Scribes and Pharisees as "binding heavy burdens and hard to bear, and laying them on men's shoulders" (Matthew 23:4). The Scribal and Pharisaic mass of rules and regulations could be an intolerable burden on the shoulders of any man. There is no doubt that John is remembering that Jesus said, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30).

How then is this to be explained? How can it be said that the tremendous demands of Jesus are not a heavy burden? There are three answers to that question.

(i) It is the way of God never to lay a commandment on any man without also giving him the strength to carry it out. With the vision comes the power; with the need for it comes the strength. God does not give us his commandments and then go away and leave us to ourselves. He is there by our side to enable us to carry out what he has commanded. What is impossible for us becomes possible with God.

(ii) But there is another great truth here. Our response to God must be the response of love; and for love no duty is too hard and no task too great. That which we would never do for a stranger we will willingly attempt for a loved one. What would be an impossible sacrifice, if a stranger demanded it, becomes a willing gift when love needs it.

There is an old story which is a kind of parable of this. Someone once met a lad going to school long before the days when transport was provided. The lad was carrying on his back a smaller boy who was clearly lame and unable to walk. The stranger said to the lad, "Do you carry him to school every day?" "Yes," said the boy. "That's a heavy burden for you to carry," said the stranger. "He's no' a burden," said the boy. "He's my brother."

Love turned the burden into no burden at all. It must be so with us and Christ. His commandments are not a burden but a privilege and an opportunity to show our love.

Difficult the commandments of Christ are, burdensome they are not; for Christ never laid a commandment on a man without giving him the strength to carry it; and every commandment laid upon us provides another chance to show our love.

We must leave the third answer to our next section.


5:4b-5 And this is the conquest which has conquered the world, our faith. Who is he who conquers the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

(iii) We have seen that the commandments of Jesus Christ are not grievous because with the commandment there comes the power and because we accept them in love. But there is another great truth. There is something in the Christian which makes him able to conquer the world. The kosmos (Greek #2889) is the world apart from God and in opposition to him. That which enables us to conquer the kosmos (Greek #2889) is faith.

John defines this conquering faith as the belief that Jesus is the Son of God. It is belief in the Incarnation. Why should that be so victory-giving? If we believe in the incarnation, it means that we believe that in Jesus God entered the world and took our human life upon himself. If he did that, it means that he cared enough for men to take upon himself the limitations of humanity, which is the act of a love that passes human understanding. If God did that, it means that he shares in all the manifold activities of human life and knows the many and varied trials and temptations and sorrows of this world. It means that everything that happens to us is fully understood by God and that he is in this business of living along with us. Faith in the incarnation is the conviction that God shares and God cares. Once we possess that faith certain things follow.

(i) We have a defence to resist the infections of the world. On all sides there is the pressure of worldly standards and motives; on all sides the fascinations of the wrong things. From within and without come the temptations which are part of the human situation in a world and a society not interested in and sometimes hostile to God. But once we are aware of the presence of God in Jesus Christ ever with us, we have a strong prophylactic against the infections of the world. It is a fact of experience that goodness is easier in the company of good people; and if we believe in the incarnation, we have the continual presence of God in Jesus Christ.

(ii) We have a strength to endure the attacks of the world. The human situation is full of things which seek to take our faith away. There are the sorrows and the perplexities of life; there are the disappointments and the frustrations of life; there are for most of us the failures and discouragements of life. But if we believe in the incarnation, we believe in a God who himself went through all this, even to the Cross and who can, therefore, help others who are going through it.

(iii) We have the indestructible hope of final victory. The world did its worst to Jesus. It hounded him and slandered him. It branded him heretic and friend of sinners. It judged him and crucified him and buried him. It did everything humanly possible to eliminate him--and it jailed. After the Cross came the Resurrection; after the shame came the glory. That is the Jesus who is with us, one who saw life at its grimmest, to whom life did its worst, who died, who conquered death, and who offers us a share in that victory which was his. If we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we have with us always Christ the Victor to make us victorious.


5:6-8 This is he who came through water and blood--Jesus Christ. It was not only by water that he came, but by water and by blood. And it is the Spirit which testifies to this, because the Spirit is truth; because there are three who testify, the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three agree in one.

Plummer, in beginning to comment on this passage says: "This is the most perplexing passage in the Epistle, and one of the most perplexing in the New Testament." No doubt, if we knew the circumstances in which John was writing and had full knowledge of the heresies against which he was defending his people, the meaning would become clear but, as it is, we can only guess. We do, however, know enough of the background to be fairly sure that we can come at the meaning of John's words.

It is clear that the words water and blood in connection with Jesus had for John a special mystical and symbolic meaning. In his story of the Cross there is a curious pair of verses:

One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once

there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne

witness--his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the

truth--that you also may believe (John 19:34-35).

Clearly John attaches particular importance to that incident and he guarantees it with a very special certificate of evidence. To him the words water and blood in connection with Jesus conveyed an essential part of the meaning of the gospel.

The first verse of the passage is obscurely expressed--"This is he who came through water and blood Jesus Christ." The meaning is that this is he who entered into his Messiahship or was shown to be the Christ through water and blood.

In connection with Jesus water and blood can refer only to two events of his life. The water must refer to his baptism; the blood to his Cross. John is saying that both the baptism and the Cross of Jesus are essential parts of his Messiahship. He goes on to say that it was not by water only that he came, but by water and by blood. It is, then, clear that some were saying that Jesus came by water, but not by blood; in other words that his baptism was an essential part of his Messiahship but his Cross was not. This is what gives us our clue to what lies behind this passage.

We have seen again and again that behind this letter lies the heresy of Gnosticism. And we have also seen that Gnosticism, believing that Spirit was altogether good and matter altogether evil, denied that God came in the flesh. So they had a belief of which Irenaeus tells us connected with the name of Cerinthus, one of their principal representatives and an exact contemporary of John. Cerinthus taught that at the baptism the divine Christ descended into the man Jesus in the form of a dove; Jesus, allied as it were with the Christ who had descended upon him, brought to men the message of the God who had hitherto been unknown and lived in perfect virtue; then the Christ departed from the man Jesus and returned to glory, and it was only the man Jesus who was crucified on Calvary and afterwards resurrected. We might put it more simply by saying that Cerinthus taught that Jesus became divine at the baptism, that divinity left him before the Cross and that he died simply a man.

It is clear that such teaching robs the life and death of Jesus of all value for us. By seeking to protect God from contact with human pain, it removes him from the act of redemption.

What John is saying is that the Cross is an essential part of the meaning of Jesus and that God was in the death of Jesus every bit as much as he was in his life.

THE TRIPLE WITNESS (1 John 5:6-8 continued)

John goes on to speak of the triple witness.

There is the witness of the Spirit. In this John is thinking of three things. (i) The New Testament story is clear that at his baptism the Spirit descended upon Jesus in the most special way (Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:16-17; Luke 3:21-22; Acts 10:38; John 1:32-34). (ii) The New Testament is also clear that, while John came to baptize with water, Jesus came to baptize with the Spirit (Mark 1:8; Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16; Acts 1:5; Acts 2:33). He came to bring men the Spirit with a plenitude and a power hitherto quite unknown. (iii) The history of the early church is the proof that this was no idle claim. It began at Pentecost (Acts 2:4), and it repeated itself over and over again in the history and experience of the Church (Acts 8:17; Acts 10:44). Jesus had the Spirit and he could give the Spirit to men; and the continuing evidence of the Spirit in the Church was--and is--an undeniable witness to the continuing power of Jesus Christ.

There is the witness of the water. At Jesus' own baptism there was the witness of the Spirit descending upon him. It was, in fact, that event which revealed to John the Baptist who Jesus was. It is John's point that in the early church that witness was maintained in Christian baptism. We must remember that thus early in the Church's history baptism was adult baptism, the confession of faith and the reception into the Church of men and women coming direct from heathenism and beginning an absolutely new way of life. In Christian baptism things happened. A man plunged below the water and died with Christ; he emerged and was resurrected with Christ to a new life. Therefore, Christian baptism was a witness to the continuing power of Jesus Christ. It was a witness that he was still alive and that he was indeed divine.

There was the witness of the blood. The blood was the life. In any sacrifice the blood was sacred to God and to God alone. The death of Christ was the perfect sacrifice; in the Cross his blood was poured out to God. It was the experience of men that that sacrifice was availing, that it did redeem them and reconcile them to God and give them peace with God. Continuously in the Church the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, was and is observed. In it the sacrifice of Christ is full displayed; and in it there is given to men the opportunity not only to give thanks to Christ for his sacrifice made once for all, but also to appropriate its benefits and to avail themselves of its healing power. That happened in John's time. At the Lord's Table men met the Christ and experienced his forgiveness and the peace with God which he brings. Men still have that experience; and, therefore that feast is a continuing witness to the atoning power of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit and the water and the blood all combine to demonstrate the perfect Messiahship, the perfect Sonship, the perfect Saviourhood of this man Jesus in whom was God. The continued gift of the Spirit, the continued death and resurrection of baptism, the continued availability of the sacrifice of the Cross at the Lord's Table are still the witnesses to Jesus Christ.

Note on 1 John 5:7 :

In the King James Version there is a verse which we have altogether omitted. It reads, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one."

The English Revised Version omits this verse, and does not even mention it in the margin, and none of the newer translations includes it. It is quite certain that it does not belong to the original text.

The facts are as follows. First, it does not occur in any Greek manuscript earlier than the 14th century. The great manuscripts belong to the 3rd and 4th centuries, and it occurs in none of them. None of the great early fathers of the Church knew it. Jerome's original version of the Vulgate does not include it. The first person to quote it is a Spanish heretic called Priscillian who died in A.D. 385. Thereafter it crept gradually into the Latin texts of the New Testament although, as we have seen, it did not gain an entry to the Greek manuscripts.

How then did it get into the text? Originally it must have been a scribal gloss or comment in the margin. Since it seemed to offer good scriptural evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity, through time it came to be accepted by theologians as part of the text, especially in those early days of scholarship before the great manuscripts were discovered.

But how did it last, and how did it come to be in the King James Version? The first Greek testament to be published was that of Erasmus in 1516. Erasmus was a great scholar and, knowing that this verse was not in the original text, he did not include it in his first edition. By this time, however, theologians were using the verse. It had, for instance, been printed in the Latin Vulgate of 1514. Erasmus was therefore criticized for omitting it. His answer was that if anyone could show him a Greek manuscript which had the words in it, he would print them in his next edition. Someone did produce a very late and very bad text in which the verse did occur in Greek; and Erasmus, true to his word but very much against his judgment and his will, printed the verse in his 1522 edition.

The next step was that in 1550 Stephanus printed his great edition of the Greek New Testament. This 1550 edition of Stephanus was called--he gave it that name himself--The Received Text, and it was the basis of the King James Version and of the Greek text for centuries to come. That is how this verse got into the King James Version. There is, of course, nothing wrong with it; but modern scholarship has made it quite certain that John did not write it and that it is a much later commentary on, and addition to, his words; and that is why all modern translations omit it.


5:9-10 If we accept the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne testimony about his Son. He who believes in the Son of God has that testimony within himself. He who does not believe God has made God a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony which God bore to his Son.

Behind this passage there are two basic ideas.

There is the Old Testament idea of what constitutes an adequate witness. The law was quite clear: "A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained" (Deuteronomy 19:15; compare Deuteronomy 17:6). A triple human witness is enough to establish any fact. How much more must a triple divine witness, the witness of the Spirit, the water, and the blood, be regarded as convincing.

Second, the idea of witness is an integral part of John's thought. In his gospel we find different witnesses all converging on Jesus Christ. John the Baptist is a witness to Jesus (John 1:15; John 1:32-34; John 5:33). Jesus' deeds are a witness to, him (John 5:36). The Scriptures are a witness to him (John 5:39). The Father who sent him is a witness to him (John 5:30-32; John 5:37; John 8:18). The Spirit is a witness to him. "When the Counsellor comes...even the Spirit of truth... he will bear witness to me" (John 15:26).

John goes on to use a phrase which is a favourite of his in his gospel. He speaks of the man who "believes in the Son of God." There is a wide difference between believing a man and believing in him. If we believe a man, we do no more than accept whatever statement he may be making at the moment as true. If we believe in a man, we accept the whole man and all that he stands for in complete trust. We would be prepared not only to trust his spoken word, but also to trust ourselves to him. To believe in Jesus Christ is not simply to accept what he says as true; it is to commit ourselves into his hands, for time and for eternity.

When a man does that, the Holy Spirit within him testifies that he is acting aright. It is the Holy Spirit who gives him the conviction of the ultimate value of Jesus Christ and assures him that he is right to make this act of commitment to him. The man who refuses to do that is refusing the promptings of the Holy Spirit within his heart.

If a man refuses to accept the evidence of men who have experienced what Christ can do, the evidence of the deeds of Christ, the evidence of the Scriptures, the evidence of God's Holy Spirit, the evidence of God himself, in effect he is calling God a liar--and that is the very limit of blasphemy.


5:11-13 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life and that that life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son has not life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.

With this paragraph the letter proper comes to an end. What follows is in the nature of a postscript. The end is a statement that the essence of the Christian life is eternal life.

The word for eternal is aionios (Greek #166). It means far more than simply lasting for ever. A life which lasted for ever might well be a curse and not a blessing, an intolerable burden and not a shining gift. There is only one person to whom aionios may properly be applied and that is God. In the real sense of the term it is God alone who possesses and inhabits eternity. Eternal life is, therefore, nothing other than the life of God himself. What we are promised is that here and now there can be given us a share in the very life of God.

In God there is peace and, therefore, eternal life means serenity. It means a life liberated from the fears which haunt the human situation. In God there is power and, therefore, eternal life means the defeat of frustration. It means a life filled with the power of God and, therefore, victorious over circumstance. In God there is holiness and, therefore, eternal life means the defeat of sin. It means a life clad with the purity of God and armed against the soiling infections of the world. In God there is love and, therefore, eternal life means the end of bitterness and hatred. It means a life which has the love of God in its heart and the undefeatable love of man in all its feelings and in all its action. In God there is life and, therefore eternal life means the defeat of death. It means a life which is indestructible because it has in it the indestructibility of God himself.

It is John's conviction that such a life comes through Jesus Christ and in no other way. Why should that be? If eternal life is the life of God, it means that we can possess that life only when we know God and are enabled to approach him and rest in him. We can do these two things only in Jesus Christ. The Son alone fully knows the Father and, therefore, only he can fully reveal to us what God is like. As John had it in his gospel: "No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (John 1:18). And Jesus Christ alone can bring us to God. It is in him that there is open to us the new and living way into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-23). We may take a simple analogy. If we wish to meet someone whom we do not know and who moves in a completely different circle from our own, we can achieve that meeting only by finding someone who knows him and is willing to introduce us to him. That is what Jesus does for us in regard to God. Eternal life is the life of God and we can find that life only through Jesus Christ.


5:14-15 And this is the confidence that we have towards him, that, if we ask anything which is in accordance with his will, he hears us; and, if we know that he hears anything that we ask, we know that we possess the requests that we have made from him.

Here are set down both the basis and the principle of prayer.

(i) The basis of prayer is the simple fact that God listens to our prayers. The word which John uses for confidence is interesting. It is parrhesia (Greek #3954). Originally parrhesia meant freedom of speech, that freedom to speak boldly which exists in a true democracy. Later it came to denote any kind of confidence. With God we have freedom of speech. He is always listening, more ready to hear than we are to pray. We never need to force our way into his presence or compel him to pay attention. He is waiting for us to come. We know how we often wait for the knock of the postman or the ring of the telephone bell to bring us a message from someone whom we love. In all reverence we can say that God is like that with us.

(ii) The principle of prayer is that to be answered it must be in accordance with the will of God. Three times in his writings John lays down what might be called the conditions of prayer. (a) He says that obedience is a condition of prayer. We receive whatever we ask because we keep his commandments (1 John 3:22). (b) He says that remaining in Christ is a condition of prayer. If we abide in him and his words abide in us, we will ask what we will and it will be done for us (John 15:7). The closer we live to Christ, the more we shall pray aright; and the more we pray aright, the greater the answer we receive. (c) He says that to pray in his name is a condition of prayer. If we ask anything in his name, he will do it (John 14:14). The ultimate test of any request is, can we say to Jesus, "Give me this for your sake and in your name"?

Prayer must be in accordance with the will of God. Jesus teaches us to pray: "Thy will be done," not, "Thy will be changed." Jesus himself, in the moment of his greatest agony and crisis, prayed, "Not as I will, but as thou wilt.... Thy will be done" (Matthew 26:39; Matthew 26:42). Here is the very essence of prayer. C. H. Dodd writes: "Prayer rightly considered is not a device for employing the resources of omnipotence to fulfil our own desires, but a means by which our desires may be redirected according to the mind of God, and made into channels for the forces of his will." A. E. Brooke suggests that John thought of prayer as "Including only requests for knowledge of, and acquiescence in, the will of God." Even the great pagans saw this. Epictetus wrote: "Have courage to look up to God and say, Deal with me as thou wilt from now on. I am as one with thee; I am thine; I flinch from nothing so long as thou dost think that it is good. Lead me where thou wilt; put on me what raiment thou wilt. Wouldst thou have me hold office or eschew it, stay or flee, be rich or poor? For all this I will defend thee before men."

Here is something on which to ponder. We are so apt to think that prayer is asking God for what we want, whereas true prayer is asking God for what he wants. Prayer is not only talking to God, even more it is listening to him.


5:16-17 If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which is not a sin whose end is death, he will ask life for him and he will give it to him, that is, to those whose sin is not a sin whose end is death. There is a sin whose end is death. It is not about that that I mean he should ask. All wrongdoing is sin; but there is a sin whose end is not death.

There is no doubt that this is a most difficult and disturbing passage. Before we approach its problems, let us look at its certainties.

John has just been speaking about the Christian privilege of prayer; and now he goes on to single out for special attention the prayer of intercession for the brother who needs praying for. It is very significant that, when John speaks about one kind of prayer, it is not prayer for ourselves; it is prayer for others. Prayer must never be selfish;, it must never be concentrated entirely upon our own selves and our own problems and our own needs. It must be an outgoing activity. As Westcott put it: "The end of prayer is the perfection of the whole Christian body."

Again and again the New Testament writers stress the need for this prayer of intercession. Paul writes to the Thessalonians: "Brothers, pray for us" (1 Thessalonians 5:25). The writer to the Hebrews says: "Pray for us" (Hebrews 13:18-19). James says that, if a man is sick, he ought to call the elders, and the elders should pray over him (James 5:14). It is the advice to Timothy that prayer must be made for all men (1 Timothy 2:1). The Christian has the tremendous privilege of bearing his brother man to the throne of grace. There are three things to be said about this.

(i) We naturally pray for those who are ill, and we should just as naturally pray for those who are straying away from God. It should be just as natural to pray for the cure of the soul as it is to pray for the cure of the body. It may be that there is nothing greater that we can do for the man who is straying away and who is in peril of making shipwreck of his life than to commit him to the grace of God.

(ii) But it must be remembered that, when we have prayed for such a man, our task is not yet done. In this, as in all other things, our first responsibility is to seek to make our own prayers come true. It will often be our duty to speak to the man himself. We must not only speak to God about him, we must also speak to the man about himself. God needs a channel through which his grace can come and an agent through whom he can act; and it may well be that we are to be his voice in this instance.

(iii) We have previously thought about the basis of prayer and about the principle of prayer; but here we meet the limitation of prayer. It may well be that God wishes to answer our prayer; it may well be that we pray with heartfelt sincerity; but God's aim and our prayer can be frustrated by the man for whom we pray. If we pray for a sick person and he disobeys his doctors and acts foolishly, our prayer will be frustrated. God may urge, God may plead, God may warn, God may offer, but not even God can violate the freedom of choice which he himself has given to us. It is often the folly of man which frustrates our prayers and cancels the grace of God.

SIN WHOSE END IS DEATH (1 John 5:16-17 continued)

This passage speaks of the sin whose end is death and the sin whose end is not death. The Revised Standard Version translates "mortal" sin.

There have been many suggestions in regard to this.

The Jews distinguished two kinds of sins. There were the sins which a man committed unwittingly or, at least, not deliberately. These were sins which a man might commit in ignorance, or when he was swept away by some over-mastering impulse, or in some moment of strong emotion when his passions were too strong for the leash of the will to hold. On the other hand, there were the sins of the high hand and the haughty heart, the sins which a man deliberately committed, the sins in which he defiantly took his own way in spite of the known will of God for him. It was for the first kind of sin that sacrifice atoned; but for the sins of the haughty heart and the high hand no sacrifice could atone.

Plummer lists three suggestions. (i) Mortal sins may be sins which are punishable by death. But it is quite clear that more is meant than that. This passage is not thinking of sins which are a breach of man-made laws, however serious. (ii) Mortal sins may be sins which God visits with death. Paul writes to the Corinthians that, because of their unworthy conduct at the table of the Lord, many among them are weak and many are asleep, that is, many have died (1 Corinthians 11:30); and the suggestion is that the reference is to sins which are so serious that God sends death. (iii) Mortal sins may be sins punishable with excommunication from the Church. When Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the notorious sinner with whom they have not adequately dealt, he demands that he should be "delivered to Satan." That was the phrase for excommunication. But he goes on to say that, serious as this punishment is and sore as its bodily consequence may be, it is designed to save the man's soul in the Day of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 5:5). It is a punishment which does not end in death. None of these explanations will do.

There are three further suggestions as to the identification of this mortal sin.

(a) There is a line of thought in the New Testament which points to the fact that some held that there was no forgiveness for post-baptismal sin. There were those who believed that baptism cleansed from all previous sins but that after baptism there was no forgiveness. There is an echo of that line of thought in Hebrews: "It is impossible to restore again to repentance, those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy" (Hebrews 6:4-6). In early Christian terminology to be enlightened was often a technical term for to be baptized. It was indeed that belief which made many postpone baptism until the last possible moment. But the real essence of that statement in Hebrews is that restoration becomes impossible when penitence has become impossible; the connection is not so much with baptism as with penitence.

(b) Later on in the early church there was a strong line of thought which declared that apostasy could never be forgiven. In the days of the great persecutions some said that those who in fear or in torture had denied their faith could never have forgiveness; for had not Jesus said, "Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 10:33; compare Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26). But it must always be remembered that the New Testament tells of the terrible denial of Peter and of his gracious restoration. As so often happens, Jesus was gentler and more sympathetic and understanding than his Church was.

(c) It could be argued from this very letter of John that the most deadly of all sins was to deny that Jesus really came in the flesh, for that sin was nothing less than the mark of Antichrist (1 John 4:3). If the mortal sin is to be identified with any one sin that surely must be it. But we think that there is something more to it even than that.

THE ESSENCE OF SIN (1 John 5:16-17 continued)

First of all, let us try to fix more closely the meaning of the mortal sin. In the Greek it is the sin pros (Greek #4314) thanaton (Greek #2288). That means the sin which is going towards death, the sin whose end is death, the sin which, if continued in, must finish in death. The terrible thing about it is not so much what it is in itself, as where it will end, if a man persists in it.

It is a fact of experience that there are two kinds of sinners. On the one hand, there is the man who may be said to sin against his will; he sins because he is swept away by passion or desire, which at the moment is too strong for him; his sin is not so much a matter of choice as of a compulsion which he is not able to resist. On the other hand, there is the man who sins deliberately, of set purpose taking his own way, although well aware that it is wrong.

Now these two men began by being the same man. It is the experience of every man that the first time that he does a wrong thing, he does it with shrinking and with fear; and, after he has done it, he feels grief and remorse and regret. But, if he allows himself again and again to flirt with temptation and to fall, on each occasion the sin becomes easier; and, if he thinks he escapes the consequences, on each occasion the self-disgust and the remorse and the regret become less and less; and in the end he reaches a state when he can sin without a tremor. It is precisely that which is the sin which is leading to death. So long as a man in his heart of hearts hates sin and hates himself for sinning, so long as he knows that he is sinning, he is never beyond repentance and, therefore, never beyond forgiveness; but once he begins to revel in sin and to make it the deliberate policy of his life, he is on the way to death, for he is on the way to a state where the idea of repentance will not, and cannot, enter his head.

The mortal sin is the state of the man who has listened to sin and refused to listen to God so often, that he loves his sin and regards it as the most profitable thing in the world.


5:18-20 We know that he who has received his birth from God does not sin, but he whose birth was from God keeps him, and the Evil One does not touch him.

We know that it is from God that we draw our being, and the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One.

We know that the Son of God has come, and that he has given us discernment to come to know the Real One; and we are in the Real One, even through his Son Jesus Christ. This is the real God and this is eternal life.

John draws to the end of his letter with a statement of the threefold Christian certainty.

(i) The Christian is emancipated from the power of sin. We must be careful to see what this means. It does not mean that the Christian never sins; but it does mean that he is not the helpless slave of sin. As Plummer put it: "A child of God may sin, but his normal condition is resistance to evil." The difference lies in this. The pagan world was conscious of nothing so much as moral defeat. It knew its own evil and felt there was no possible escape. Seneca spoke of "our weakness in necessary things." He said that men "hate their sins but cannot leave them." Persius, the Roman satirist, in a famous picture spoke of "filthy Natta, a man deadened by vice...who has no sense of sin, no knowledge of what he is losing, and is sunk so deep that he sends up no bubble to the surface." The pagan world was utterly defeated by sin.

But the Christian is the man who never can lose the battle. Because he is a man, he will sin; but he never can experience the utter moral defeatedness of the pagan. F. W. H. Myers makes Paul speak of the battle with the flesh:

"Well, let me sin, but not with my consenting,

Well, let me die, but willing to be whole:

Never, O Christ--so stay me from relenting--

Shall there be truce betwixt my flesh and soul."

The reason for the Christian's ultimate undefeatedness is that he who has his birth from God keeps him. That is to say, Jesus keeps him. As Wescott has it: "The Christian has an active enemy, but he has also a watchful guardian." The heathen is the man who has been defeated by sin and has accepted defeat. The Christian is the man who may sin but never accepts the fact of defeat. "A saint," as someone has said, "is not a man who never falls; he is a man who gets up and goes on every time he falls."

(ii) The Christian is on the side of God against the world. The source of our being is God, but the world lies in the power of the Evil One. In the early days the cleavage between the Church and the world was much clearer than it is now. At least in the Western world, we live in a civilization permeated by Christian principles. Even if men do not practise them, they still, on the whole, accept the ideals of chastity, mercy, service, love. But the ancient world knew nothing of chastity, and little of mercy, and of service, and of love. John says that the Christian knows that he is with God, while the world is in the grip of the Evil One. No matter how the situation may have changed, the choice still confronts men whether they will align themselves with God or with the forces which are against God. As Myers makes Paul say:

"Whoso hath felt the Spirit of the Highest,

Cannot confound nor doubt him nor deny:

Yea with one voice, O World, tho' thou deniest,

Stand thou on that side, for on this am l."

(iii) The Christian is conscious that he has entered into that reality which is God. Life is full of illusions and impermanencies; by himself man can but guess and grope; but in Christ he enters into the knowledge of reality. Xenophon tells of a discussion between Socrates and a young man. "How do you know that?" says Socrates. "Do you know it, or are you guessing?" "I am guessing," is the answer. "Very well," says Socrates, "when we are done with guessing and when we know, shall we talk about it then?" Who am I? What is life? What is God? Whence did I come? Whither do I go? What is truth and where is duty? These are the questions to which men can reply only in guesses apart from Jesus Christ. But in Christ we reach the reality, which is God. The time of guessing is gone and the time of knowing has come.


5:21 My dear children, guard yourselves from idols.

With this sudden, sharp injunction John brings his letter to an end. Short as it is, there is a world of meaning in this phrase.

(i) In Greek the word idol has in it the sense of unreality. Plato used it for the illusions of this world as opposed to the unchangeable realities of eternity. When the prophets spoke of the idols of the heathen, they meant that they were counterfeit gods, as opposed to the one true God. This may well mean, as Westcott has it, "Keep yourselves from all objects of false devotion."

(ii) An idol is anything in this life which men worship instead of God and allow to take the place of God. A man may make an idol of his money, of his career, of his safety, of his pleasure. Again to quote Westcott: "An idol is anything which occupies the place due to God."

(iii) It is likely that John means something more definite than either of these two things. It was in Ephesus that he was writing, and it was of conditions in Ephesus that he was thinking. It is likely that he means simply and directly, "Keep yourselves from the pollutions of heathen worship." No town in the world had so many connections with the stories of the ancient gods; and no town was more proud of them. Tacitus writes of Ephesus: "The Ephesians claimed that Diana and Apollo were not born at Delos, as was commonly supposed; they possessed the Cenchrean stream and the Ortygian grove where Latona, in travail, had reposed against an olive tree, which is still in existence, and had given birth to these deities.... It was there that Apollo himself, after slaying the Cyclops, had escaped the wrath of Jupiter: and again that father Bacchus in his victory had spared the suppliant Amazons who had occupied his shrine."

Further, in Ephesus there stood the great Temple of Diana, one of the wonders of the ancient world. There were at least three things about that Temple which would justify John's stern injunction to have nothing to do with heathen worship.

(a) The Temple was the centre of immoral rites. The priests were called the Megabyzi. They were eunuchs. It was said by some that the goddess was so fastidious that she could not bear a real male near her; it was said by others that the goddess was so lascivious that it was unsafe for any real male to approach her. Heraclitus, the great philosopher, was a native of Ephesus. He was called the weeping philosopher, for he had never been known to smile. He said that the darkness to the approach of the altar of the Temple was the darkness of vileness; that the morals of the Temple were worse than the morals of beasts; that the inhabitants of Ephesus were fit only to be drowned, and that the reason that he could never smile was that he lived in the midst of such terrible uncleanness. For a Christian to have any contact with that was to touch infection.

(b) The Temple had the right of asylum. Any criminal, if he could reach the Temple of Diana, was safe. The result was that the Temple was the haunt of criminals. Tacitus accused Ephesus of protecting the crimes of men and calling it the worship of the gods. To have anything to do with the Temple of Diana was to be associated with the very dregs of society.

(c) The Temple of Diana was the centre of the sale of Ephesian letters. These were charms, worn as amulets, which were supposed to be effective in bringing about the wishes of those who wore them. Ephesus was "preeminently the city of astrology, sorcery, incantations, amulets, exorcisms, and every form of magical imposture." To have anything to do with the Temple at Ephesus was to be brought into contact with commercialized superstition and the black arts.

It is hard for us to imagine how much Ephesus was dominated by the Temple of Diana. It would not be easy for a Christian to keep himself from idols in a city like that. But John demands that it must be done. The Christian must never be lost in the illusions of pagan religion; he must never erect in his heart an idol which will take the place of God; he must keep himself from the infections of all false faiths; and he can do so only when he walks with Christ.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)



J. N. S. Alexander, The Epistles of John (Tch; E)

A. E. Brooke, The Johannine Epistles (ICC G)

C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (MC E)


ICC: International Critical Commentary

MC: Moffatt Commentary

Tch: Torch Commentary

E: English Text

G: Greek Text

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 John 5:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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