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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1 John 5



Other Authors
Verses 1-12


(8.) FAITH THE TEST OF LOVE (1 John 5:1-12).

(a) Its power (1 John 5:1-5).

(b) The evidence on which it rests (1 John 5:6-10).

(c) What it contains (1 John 5:11-12).

(8 a.) St. John has been setting love in the supreme place which it held in our Lord’s teaching and in St. Paul’s. But there is another faculty which has to regulate, purify, direct, and stir up our weak and imperfect loving powers, and that is, faith. Without faith we cannot be certain about the quality of our love. He begins very simply with a position already laid down: genuine faith in Christ is the genuine birth from God. From that faith, through that birth, will come the proper love, as in a family: the love of our spiritual brothers and sisters. (This is specially sympathy with real Christians; but it does not exclude the more general love before inculcated.) If we are doubtful about the quality of our love, or are not sure whether any earthly elements may be mingled with it, we have only to ask ourselves whether we are loving God and keeping His commandments: the true work of faith. The love of God does, indeed, actually consist in keeping His commandments (and none can complain that they are tyrannical, vexatious, or capricious). The very object of the divine birth is the conquest of all that is opposed to God and to His commandments, and the instrument of the conquest is faith. There can be no victory over these elements that are opposed to God, and, consequently, no pure, true, God-like love, except through faith.

(8 b.) Having left the discussion about the effect of faith on love with the same thought which began it—belief in Jesus Christ—he is led to state the grounds on which that faith rests. These are here stated to be three: water, or Christ’s baptism, symbolising the complete fulfilment of the Law in His own perfect purity, and thus appealing to the Old Testament; blood, or His meritorious cross and passion, symbolising His own special work of atonement and reconciliation; and the Spirit, embracing all those demonstrable proofs of His kingdom which were from day to day forcing themselves on the attention of believers. If we accept human testimony on proper grounds, far more should we receive this divine testimony of God to His Son—the witness of the Old Testament, of the work of Christ, and of the Spirit. This witness is not far to seek, for it is actually within the true believer.

(8 c.) The contents of the record which God has thus given us are at once most simple and most comprehensive: the gift of eternal life in His Son. The presence of the Word of God in the heart is the sole condition of life.

(8 a.) (1) Whosoever believeth . . .—What may be the works of God among those who have not heard of His Son we do not here inquire. Enough that those who have this privilege are sons if they accept the message.

Begotten.—Of those who have the new birth, in a general sense: quite distinct from “only-begotten.”

(2) By this we know . . .—Love and obedience to God will assure us of the truth of our love to others. In 1 John 2:3; 1 John 4:20-21, obedience to God and love to our fellows were the signs of knowledge of God and love to Him. The two are really inseparable. If love of God is absent, then our love of our fellows is not genuine—is earthly, is a mockery. If love of our fellows is absent, then we have no love for God. All friendship must be tested by loyalty to God; all love to Him must be tested by charity.

(3) For this is . . .—These words are introduced to show that what were treated as two separate qualities in the last verse are in reality the same thing.

And his commandments are not grievous.—A transitional thought, introduced for encouragement, and forming a bridge to the next statement. (Comp. Matthew 11:30.) God has commanded us nothing for His own sake, but everything for our own highest profit and happiness. Were we perfect, we should not find them commands at all, for they would be our natural impulses. The more sincerely we serve God, the more enjoyment we shall derive from them. Only to those whose inclinations are distorted, perverted, and corrupted by sin can God’s laws seem irksome.

(4) The difficulty experienced by some in keeping God’s commands arises from the influence of all that is opposed to Him in our surroundings. But he who is born of God—the true child of God—fights with this only as a conqueror, because, as far as he is born again, God is in him. God overcame the world in Christ, and is still ever conquering through Him in His sons: so that to such the commands are congenial. (Comp. 1 John 3:9; 1 John 4:4; John 16:33.)

And this is the victory . . .—A new thought, suitable to the tenor of the passage, which lays down that faith is the measure of love. As the conquest that is overcoming the world is wrought by human instruments, its agent may be regarded as our faith, which appropriates Christ’s work, and carries it out for Him and through Him. (Comp. 1 John 2:13-14; 1 John 2:23; 1 John 4:4; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57.)

(5) Who is he that overcometh?—An appeal to the consciousness of Christians. If there be any besides the disciples of Jesus who have vanquished all that is opposed to God, where are they? God has declared that He will not harshly judge the Pagan world (Romans 2:13; Romans 2:15); but salvation by uncovenanted mercies is a very different thing from the glories of the illuminated and victorious Christian heart. Where are they? Not Socrates, with his want of the sense of sin and his tolerance of evil; not Cicero, with his tormenting vanity; not the Gnostics, with their questionable lives: only those in whom had dawned the bright and morning Star.

(8 b.) (6) This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ.—“Water” and “blood” are referred to as two of the three great witnesses, or sets of evidence, for Christ. They are symbols, and look back to two of the most characteristic and significant acts of His personal history. The one is His baptism, the other His cross. Why His baptism? The baptism of John was the seal of the Law. It was the outward sign by which those who repented at his preaching showed their determination to keep the Law no longer in the letter only, but also in the spirit. Jesus, too, showed this determination. Baptism in water was His outward sign and seal to the Old Testament: that He had not come to destroy but to fulfil the Law; not to supersede the prophecies, but to claim them. It was to show that in Him the righteousness and purification which the Law intended was to be a reality, and through Him to be the law of His kingdom. Thus it pointed to all the evidence which the Old Testament could possibly afford Him; and, through the Old Testament, it pointed to the dispensation of the Father. Thus, when this most symbolic act was complete, the Almighty Giver of the old Law or covenant was heard saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

“Blood.” in the same way, refers to the special work of Christ Himself—the work of reconciliation and atonement by His death and passion, the realisation of all that the sacrifices and types of the former state of religion had meant. That He was the true sacrifice was proved by the perfection of His life, by the signs and wonders with which He had attracted and convinced His followers, by the fulfilment of prophecy, by the marvels of His teaching, by the amazing events which had happened at the different crises of His life, by His resurrection and ascension, and by the confession of all who knew Him well that He was the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, and with the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father.

Not by water only.—John the Baptist might have been said to come by water only: he came preaching the washing away of the personal results of sin through turning again to the truth and spirit of the Law; Jesus came by blood also, for His sacrifice atoned for sin as rebellion against God.

And it is the Spirit that beareth witness.—The Holy Spirit had descended on Jesus at His baptism, had proved Him to be the Son of God in every word and act of His life, had raised Him up on the third day, and glorified His body till it could no longer be seen on earth. He had made new men of His disciples on the Day of Pentecost, had laid far and wide the foundations of the new kingdom, and was daily demonstrating Himself in the renewed life in all parts of the world. (Comp. Matthew 3:16; John 1:32-33; John 3:34; Romans 1:4; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18.)

Because the Spirit is truth.—Rather, the truth; the sum and substance of God’s revelation in all its fulness, regarded as personally proceeding from the divine throne, teaching the prophets their message, accompanying the Son on His human pilgrimage, and bringing all things afterwards to the remembrance of His disciples.

(7) For the reasons why this verse cannot be retained in the text, see the Introduction.

(8) The text of this verse is properly, For there are three that bear witness; the Spirit, and the water, and the blood. It is a repetition of 1 John 5:6 for the purpose of emphasis. The fact that the three that bear witness are in the masculine gender bears out the interpretation given of 1 John 5:6; that they imply the Holy Spirit, the author of the Law, and the author of Redemption. It also explains how 1 John 5:7 crept in as a gloss.

And these three agree in one.—Literally, make for the one. The old dispensation, of which the Baptist’s preaching was the last message, had no other moaning than the preparation for the Messiah; the sacrifice of Calvary was the consummation of the Messiah’s mission; the kingdom of the Spirit, starting from that mission, was the seal of it. The three witnesses to Christ have their counterparts in the Christian soul: “baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God;” “the blood of Christ purging our conscience from dead works to serve the living God;” and “the baptism with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”

(9) If we receive the witness of men.—Any human testimony, provided it is logically binding on our understandings, to establish common facts or to prove opinions. (Comp. Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; Hebrews 10:28-29.)

The witness of God is greater.—Any message that clearly comes from God is to be accepted by us with a readiness infinitely greater than in the case of mere human testimony. St. John considers the threefold witness from God to convey a certainty which no human evidence could claim.

For this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.—Such witness from God there is: for this three-fold testimony is what He has said to us about His Son. If any should doubt whether the carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth, was in reality God, St. John would refer them to the righteousness and predictions of the Law and the prophets all fulfilled, to the life and death of Christ which spoke for themselves, and to manifest inauguration of the reign of the Spirit. Under these three heads would come all possible evidence for Christian truth.

(10) He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself .—To the real believer the three-fold testimony of God no longer remains merely an outward object of thought to be contemplated and grasped: it has become part of his own nature. The three separate messages have each produced their proper result in him, and he can no more doubt them than he can doubt himself. The water has assured him that he is no longer under the Law, but under grace, and has taught him the necessity of the new birth unto righteousness (John 3:5; Titus 3:5). The blood has shown him that he cannot face God unless his sins are forgiven; and it has enabled him to feel that they are forgiven, that he is being daily cleansed, and that he has in himself the beginnings of eternal life (1 John 1:7; 1 John 2:2; John 6:53). And the Spirit, which has had part in both these, is daily making him grow in grace (Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 5:9).

He that believeth not God hath made him a liar.—The negative contrast, as usual, to strengthen the affirmative. St. John regards the evidence as so certain, that he to whom it is brought and who rejects it seems as if he was boldly asserting that what God had said was false. The sceptical reply that the message did not really come from God at all it is not St. John’s purpose to consider; his object is to warn his friends of the real light in which they ought to regard the opponents of the truth. There should be no complacent condoning; from the point of view of the Christians themselves, such unbelievers were throwing the truth back in God’s face.

(8 c.) What Faith contains (1 John 5:11-12).

(11) This is the record.—This is the substance of the witness of God. The Christian creed is here reduced to a very small compass: the gift of eternal life and the dependence of that life upon His Son. Eternal life does not here mean the mere continuance of life after death, whether for good or evil; it is the expression used throughout St. John’s writings for that life in God, thought of without reference to time, which can have no end, which implies heaven and every possible variety of blessedness, and which consists in believing in God the Father and in His Son. Its opposite is not annihilation, but the second death: existence in exclusion from God. (Comp. 1 John 2:25; John 17:3; 2 Timothy 1:10.)

(12) He that hath the Son hath life.—The emphatic word here is “hath.” As this sentence is addressed to the faithful, there is no need to say “the Son of God.” “Having the Son” is His dwelling in the heart by faith: a conscious difference to human life which transforms its whole character. “Having life” is the birth of the new man within which can never die.

He that hath not the Son of God hath not life.—As this is contemplating unbelievers, the words “of God” are added, to show them what they have lost.

Verse 4

Victory over the World

And this is the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith.—1 John 5:4.

1. These words occur in a letter written by St. John to all the different Christian communities in the cities and towns of the Empire. These little churches or congregations consisted of men and women of humble position, little or no wealth, not much learning, not much influence, and they were found in cities given up for the most part to modes of life wholly incompatible with Christianity. The little Christian communities had gone through the severest persecutions. Hundreds and thousands of Christians had been put to death for refusal to worship the Roman Emperor; they were condemned as disloyal subjects, as atheists—because they had no image of their God—as secret conspirators. The power of Rome was irresistible. They were surrounded with a society which tolerated evils and vices which would shock them, and on which at present they had made little or no impression. There was wild extravagance of luxury, and abject poverty and starvation side by side, with no poor law, no hospitals, and but very slender private charities. There was a cruelty towards slaves and children which was so common that it had ceased to shock people. There were vices which cannot be named, against which Christians set their faces like flint. This was the world that St. John saw, and these were the little communities to whom he wrote. And what he said was: “This is the victory that over-cometh the world, even our faith.” Is it not an amazing, a sublime audacity, to say that the faith of these little insignificant churches was overcoming this great powerful world of Roman armies, pagan vices, and heathen cruelties and superstitions? Yet this is what St. John says: “Our faith is overcoming this world.”

2. Of all the Apostles there was none that dwelt so constantly on “overcoming” as St. John. One can see that the idea of battle and triumph runs through his Epistles, as well as through the Book of Revelation. It is he that speaks of “overcoming the wicked one”; it is he that records those glorious promises which we find in the Epistles to the Seven Churches, promises that belong to the overcoming one. In all these references we have the thought of a victorious power overcoming a mighty, perpetual, opposing force. And yet, what is St. John’s ideal of the Christian life? Is it one of feverish excitement and strain? No, it is the very opposite of this. He more than all the disciples had learned the secret of the rest of faith; he knew what it was to abide under the shadow of the Almighty. He it was that learned the meaning of the paradox that the secret of all real activity is stillness of soul, and that the condition of continuous victory is an attitude of repose on the power of God. Well, that teaches us that the man who knows most about victorious conflict is not the man of restless energy and intense human activity, but the man who realizes his own weakness and knows fully what it is to rest in Divine omnipotence. “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”


The World that Challenges the Believer

1. What is the world? The term rendered “world” means properly “arrangement”; and is then applied to the universe of created things in its orderly and systematic conformation, as opposed to the confusion of the original chaos. In all this, however, the idea is rather that of God’s handiwork than of God’s antagonist: in this sense, the world is not God’s enemy, but God’s witness. The term passed, however, in the hands of the inspired writers, into a designation of things visible and temporal, the state of things that now is, and the persons who have their treasure, their home, and their all, in it, as opposed to things spiritual and eternal, the state of things that shall be, and the persons who belong, even in this life, as to their home and higher being, to that Heaven in which God dwells. The world thus became a brief title for all that is not God nor of God, all that is earthly, sensual, and evil, all that tempts to sin, and all those who live without God, apart from God, or in enmity against God.

In the Apostle’s time, the world meant, no doubt, the whole mass of human society, with the exception of the handfuls here and there of those who had embraced the Christian faith. The line of separation between the Christian and the non-Christian elements of society could be readily and sharply drawn. But it is not so now. The Church has leavened the world; the world has leavened the Church. The non-Christian element of society is no longer a distinct and definable aggregation of men. The world exists, but it is, so to speak, no longer visible and separable. Its existence is as real, but its form is vaguer. It is the sum of the many forces, principles, and tendencies which oppose and counteract the progress of the spirit and the spiritual. It exists not only among us, but in us. It is all that part of each one of us which gives a more or less active resistance to growth in goodness, in knowledge, and in sympathy; the sum of the influences of fashion, and prejudice, and selfishness: “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”1 [Note: Memorials of Edwin Hatch, 4.]

The world of the nineteenth century is very different indeed from that of the first. There is no Nero or Domitian now on the world’s throne; there is no Coliseum with its hungry lions, and with its hungrier, crueller crowd of brutes in human form, to gloat over the sufferings of their innocent victims. The fight of faith is in another region, perhaps a harder one for us, for it was not of a lesser but of a greater conflict that the Apostle spoke when he said, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” The wrestling of the nineteenth century has been of that high and difficult kind; the great foe has been Materialism, uttering itself in sceptical thought on the one hand, and in selfish luxury on the other. The world which is faith’s antagonist has laid aside in our day its bludgeons, and all its apparatus of torture and intimidation, and has taken up instead flute, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of music to soothe conscience and to allure along the flowery paths of inglorious ease to sunless gulfs of ignominious death. And it is unutterably sad to think what multitudes allow their faith to lose all its fibre, and permit the aspirations and enthusiasm of youth to die down into the dullest commonplace, till they find satisfaction enough for their immortal spirits in coining their hearts, and dropping their blood for drachmas. Not the ferocious dragon of the Revelation, but the insidious Mammon installed in our time as the prince of the power of the air, and his wiles are as much to be dreaded as the ferocity of the beast.1 [Note: J. Munro Gibson.]

This is the world of which Carlyle said, “Understand it, despise it, loathe it; but cheerfully hold on thy way through it with thine eye on the highest loadstars.” This is the world of which Horace Walpole wrote, “It is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” This is the world of which Wordsworth wrote:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

2. This world is a gigantic power, not easily resisted. It is not a thing of yesterday: it is a tradition of many ages, of many civilizations, which, after flowing on in the great current of human history, has come down, charged with the force of an accumulated prestige, even to us. To this great tradition of regulated ungodliness each generation adds something; something of force, something of refinement, something of social or intellectual power. The world is Protean in its capacity for taking new forms. Sometimes it is a gross idol-worship; sometimes it is a military empire; sometimes it is a cynical school of philosophers; sometimes it is the indifference of a blasé society, which agrees in nothing but in proscribing earnestness. The Church conquered it in the form of the pagan empire. But the world had indeed had its revenge when it could point to such Popes as were Julius ii., or Alexander vi., or Leo x.; to such courts as were those of Louis xiv. or Charles ii.; for it had throned itself at the heart of the victorious Church. So now between the world and Christendom there is no hard and fast line of demarcation. The world is within the fold, within the sanctuary, within the heart, as well as without. It sweeps round each soul like a torrent of hot air, and makes itself felt at every pore of the moral system. Not that the world is merely a point of view, a mood of thought, a temper or frame of mind, having no actual, or, as we should say, no objective existence. It has an independent existence. Just as the Kingdom of God exists whether we belong to it or no, and yet, if we do belong to it, is, as our Lord has told us, within us as an atmosphere of moral power and light; so the world, the kingdom of another being, exists, whether we belong to it or no, although our belonging to it is a matter of inward motives and character. The world penetrates like a subtle atmosphere in Christendom, while in heathendom it is organized as a visible system. But it is the same thing at bottom. It is the essential spirit of corrupt human life, taking no serious account of God, either forgetting Him altogether, or putting something in His place, or striking a balance between His claims and those of His antagonists. And thus friendship with it is “enmity with God,” who will have our all. And a first duty in His servants is to free themselves from its power, or, as St. John says, to overcome it.

(1) Sometimes the world brings its power to bear on us by direct assault. In the first ages of the Church, when it was confessedly pagan, it made great use of this instrument for enforcing its supremacy. It imprisoned and killed Christians from the days of Nero to the days of Diocletian. It persecuted by social exclusiveness, by inflicting loss of property and position, by bodily tortures and by death. The mildest forms of persecution are all, thank God, that are now possible in this country, but if a man be deprived of advantages which he would otherwise have enjoyed, if he be met by a cold bow or a vacant gaze where he expects a cordial greeting, if he feels, in short, that he is under a social ban, and all this because he has dared to obey his conscience where obedience has been unwelcome or unpopular, he is, to all intents and purposes, persecuted. And if he can stand this persecution patiently, calmly, silently, so much the better for him. “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness, sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But how is he to stand it? By “seeing him who is invisible.” Who that has had to undergo a painful operation does not know the support that is derived from holding the hand of a friend who stands by, full of love and sympathy, till all is over? And faith links the hands of the persecuted with the very hand of Christ. “Fear not,” He says, “for I am with thee. I have called thee by my name: thou art mine.” And it is thus that the world, when it has done its very worst, is vanquished.

(2) The world assails us by offers of compromise, by appealing to our interests, our desires, our passions. It seeks to throw its spell over us. As music charms the ear, so do the world’s honours, applause and popularity the hearts of many. Over some they exercise an irresistible sway. Over all they are mighty. There are few who can bear, without a sense of pain, the turning away from them of the world’s favour. It may be regarded as a test of the strength and sincerity of one’s religion, that one can bear without wincing the frown or scorn of the world. It requires more than human strength to contend against and overcome that for which we have a warm desire. But the more we delight in the favour and approval of God, the less will we care for that of the world. The approbation of God and our own consciences is a better support than all the smiles the world can bestow.

(3) The world seizes the opportunity of attacking us when we are worn out by manifold cares and duties and troubles. Its influence is continuous and persistent. It seeks to absorb us. How many notable housewives, busy from morning to night with their household affairs, their children, their servants, could tell us that they scarce can find a minute to read the Bible, or to stop and think where they are going; and that at morning they are so anxious to get to the avocations of the day, and at evening so completely wearied and worn out, that they have not time or heart for prayer! How many a toiling, anxious man, working and scheming to make ends meet, and to maintain his children, and to advance them in life, has not a thought to spare for the other world—for his own soul’s eternal destiny, or for the eternal destiny of those he holds dear! It is when we are “careful and troubled about many things,” that we are ready to forget that “one thing is needful.”

The world overcomes us, not merely by appealing to our reason, or by exciting our passions, but by imposing on our imagination. So much do the systems of men swerve from the truth as set forth in Scripture that their very presence becomes a standing fact against Scripture, even when our reason condemns them, by their persevering assertions, and they gradually overcome those who set out by contradicting them. In all cases, what is often and unhesitatingly asserted at length finds credit with the mass of mankind; and so it happens, in this instance, that, admitting as we do from the first that the world is one of our three chief enemies; maintaining, rather than merely granting, that the outward face of things speaks a different language from the word of God; yet, when we come to act in the world, we find this very thing a trial, not merely of our obedience, but even of our faith; that is, the mere fact that the world turns out to be what we began by actually confessing concerning it.1 [Note: J. H. Newman, Oxford University Sermons, 122.]

One of the severest trials of Gladstone’s life was the assassination of his trusted lieutenant and most intimate personal friend, Lord Frederick Cavendish. And it is pathetic to be told that in the stress of duty and responsibility following on this tragedy he referred sadly to the impossibility of dwelling on his loss as one of the penalties of his position. But think of the faith that could so rise superior to a gnawing grief as to be in no wise unfitted by it for the closest thought and most assiduous application. It is an illustration of the restful side of his faith.2 [Note: J. Munro Gibson.]

3. If the world is not being overcome by us, then we are being overcome by the world. It is like a stream. We are either going up against the stream, or we are being carried down by the current. When is it that the world is conquering us? When we are induced to accept its views, its maxims, instead of the principles of God’s holy word; when we are influenced by the opinion of men and by the spirit of the age. The world is conquering us when it is petrifying all our desires after God, when it chills all our aspirations upward, and when it steals out of our hearts the very inclination to pray to God and to listen to His voice. The world is overcoming us when it fills us with the fear of man, so that we are afraid to speak for Christ, and are dumb. The world is conquering us when it fills us with love of earthly things, and leads us to set our affections upon things below.

This is the victory wherewith the world overcomes us, even our doubt. The world has a principle, a bond of union, a faith; and the world must conquer us if we have none. It is necessary that we should keep hold of this truth, which we have, it would seem, almost forgotten, that faith is meant to defend us, not to be defended, to be an active principle within us, not the dead body round which the battle rages. Faith and religion ought to be our weapons of warfare, the instruments by which we are to do our duty. But how far will our present faith answer to this definition? “A man’s religion consists not,” as Carlyle has said, “of the many things he is in doubt of, and tries to believe, but of the few he is assured of, and has no need of effort for believing.”3 [Note: A. T. Lyttelton, in Keble College Sermons, 1877–1888, p. 193.]

The world, which he defined as “the activities of this life with God left out,” seemed to him to invade everything in London, even the Church, tempting some of the clergy to aim at success and popularity, and become absorbed in efforts to gather large congregations around them by competing in attractions with neighbouring churches.

“We have moved to London House till Easter. It makes my work easier for me, as I have not so much travelling. It also brings me more visitors and makes me feel more in the world. But oh! how much world there is! The devil and the flesh are not nearly so dangerous combined. The trial of a bishop is that he is always engaged in outside matters. I really rejoice in Confirmations, which bring me into contact with the young. I do not find so many human beings in London as there were at Peterborough.”

“I am perpetually overwhelmed with work. I have to express more opinions than I have time to verify. I am in the very centre of all that is worldly. I am exposed to all the most deteriorating influences. All that I can do is to realize these facts, and try to possess my soul as well as I can.”1 [Note: Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, ii. 224.]

Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset-touch,

A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,

A chorus-ending from Euripides,—

And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears

As old and new at once as nature’s self,

To rap and knock and enter in our soul,

Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,

Round the ancient idol, on his base again,—

The grand Perhaps! We look on helplessly.

There the old misgivings, crooked questions are—

This good God,—what He could do, if He would.

Would, if He could—then must have done long since:

If so, when, where and how? some way must be,—

Once feel about, and soon or late you hit

Some sense, in which it might be, after all.

Why not, “The Way, the Truth, the Life”?2 [Note: Browning, Bishop Blougram’s Apology.]


The Faith that Conquers the World

1. Faith is not a new faculty conferred upon the soul, but the quickening and expansion of a faculty that we already possess. Cold iron is precisely identical with iron heated in the fire; but though the metal is the same, the fire that has entered into it entirely transforms its condition, and endows it with a new power. And the fire also, by entering the iron, takes upon itself new action, making of the metal a vehicle of its dynamic potency. So does the Spirit of God take and transfuse and transform our ordinary faculties for His own great ends.

Thus faith is the conquering principle in religion. For Christian faith is not a thing apart from one’s ordinary human nature and imposed upon it from without; it is the expansion of an original inherent moral quality, common to us all; it is the spiritualization of a natural faculty; it is the daily energizing, vitalizing power in which we live and do our best work, brought into contact with the Divine power. So glorified, it overcomes the world—the worldly spirit with its carnal aims, countless temptations, and unholy methods, being the hardest there is to overcome. But even unglorified, it has this overcoming power, and if we only come to see this clearly, we shall not find so much difficulty in transferring to the life of religion a quality which we have learnt to regard as the supreme essential in every secular sphere.

Without belonging to any religious communion, Renan has his full share of religious feeling. Though he himself does not believe, he is infinitely apt at seizing all the delicate shades of the popular creeds. I may perhaps be understood when I say that faith does not possess him, but that he possesses faith.1 [Note: Anatole France, On Life and Letters, 284.]

2. The virtue of faith lies in its object. Faith is in itself nothing better than an organ, an instrument; and it derives its character entirely from that upon which it is fixed. The adorable majesty of God, His omnipotence, holiness, and love, His nature, so far as it has been revealed to us, the union of perfect God and perfect Man in the person of Jesus, the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction offered by Him for the sins of the whole world, the free and gracious offers of pardon which are made in Him, His mediatorial sovereignty over the world, the secret and mysterious workings of God the Holy Ghost—these are the objects proposed to faith, upon which, if we fix the eye of the soul, we shall assuredly have power to overcome the world in the strength of that Divine vision. And in all this there is one central figure, even the Son of God made very Man, nailed to the Cross, pouring forth His precious blood for our sakes and in our stead, and then in triumph risen, exalted, crowned, sitting on the right hand of God in the glory of the Father.

The Power is all in Christ. Faith is the link that binds us to Him. Is there any power in faith? None whatever. Is there any power in a railway coupling? No; but look at these carriages, look at that train, look at that locomotive. Where is the power? You see it moving along, and you say, “All the power is in the locomotive.” Well, how do these carriages manage to get along if it is all there? You say: “There is a coupling, a link, a very simple thing.” There is no power in the coupling, but it links the power in the locomotive with the carriages, and if you break the link, all the power is gone.1 [Note: E. Hopkins, in The Keswick Week, 1900, p. 27.]

People say, “Lord, increase our faith.” Did not the Lord rebuke His disciples for that prayer? He said, “You do not want a great faith, but faith in a great God. If your faith were as small as a grain of mustard-seed, it would suffice to remove this mountain!”2 [Note: Hudson Taylor.]

3. The faith that conquers is a personal force or power in the soul. Not only does the truth conquer all that is false; not only does union with our invincible head make our victory sure; but we also conquer in the exercise of a personal faith, sustaining us in all the conflicts in which we engage. Such was the faith of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and all the host of worthies whose names and deeds illustrate the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. It was by faith that “Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” It was by faith that “Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.” It was by faith that he chose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.” It was by faith that he esteemed “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” Faith made men strong, courageous, and capable of daring exploits. Through faith common men subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword. By faith Joseph exercised self-restraint, regarded sin as an offence to God, and said, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” By faith men still overcome temptations, endure cruel mockings and scourgings, bear privations and tortures, discharge duties, lay aside besetting sins, achieve the mastery over themselves and all their enemies.

Faith is not the mere sum of probabilities, conjecture, or reasonings of any kind.… It implies the action of the affections and of the will, the exercise of all those inner powers of our being which the Hebrews called “the Heart.”1 [Note: Edward King, 120.]

Often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss.2 [Note: W. James, The Will to Believe, 59.]

Yet over sorrow and over death

Cometh at last a song that saith—

“This, this is the victory,

Even our faith.”

Love maketh all the crooked straight,

And love bringeth love to all that wait,

And laughter and light and dewy tear

To the hard, blind eyes of Fate.

All shall look tenderly yet and free

Outside over the lea,

And deep within the heart of me.

4. The Apostle speaks of the victory in the past tense, as if it were already accomplished. Our Lord Himself exclaimed, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” These words were uttered by Him in the Upper Room in that hour when the burden of a great mystery rested upon Him, when He stood beneath the chilling shadow of the Cross itself before He descended into the valley of the Kidron, and crossing the brook, entered into Gethsemane, there amid the shadows of the Garden to pray more and more earnestly. Thus, before the conflict had as yet reached a deadly heat, the note of victory was sounded. This was the joyous anticipation of One who knew that virtually the conflict was now over. That fact was the inspiring assurance which He gave to His disciples. They, too, would have very similar tribulations, though not in the same degree, but those troubles would not necessarily mean defeat to them. He had conquered the world, why need they therefore be dispirited? The fact that He had conquered was the pledge of their final victory if they were His. He had supplied the great precedent. The world henceforth would be a conquered world. It would to the end of time have to acknowledge one total defeat at least. Christ, moreover, identified Himself with His followers, so that His conquering power should be also manifested in them.

5. The text does not say that faith is the means by which the world is overcome. It does not say that by faith the battle is fought and the victory is gained. It says that faith is the victory itself. It does not bid us marshal our forces against the world. It does not command us to contend with this or that evil. It does not require us to array on one side faith and on the other the world, and assure us that when the weary fight is done, through blood and toil and bitter contest, the latter shall be overcome. It draws us up into a higher plane. It leaves the world far below. It lets it move on for the time unheeded. It does not care for its hurried rush, its shout of defiance, its cry of victory. It places before the soul the eternal realities—heaven and hell, life and death, the power of the sacraments, the influence of prayer, the ministrations of the angels, the watchful love of an overruling Providence, and, above them all and in them all, the Incarnate Saviour uniting man and human nature to the Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Three in One and One in Three.

The one victory over the world is to bend it to serve me in the highest things—the attainment of a clearer vision of the Divine nature, the attainment of a deeper love to God Himself, and of a more glad consecration and service to Him. That is the victory—when you can make the world a ladder to lift you to God. That is its right use, that is victory, when all its tempting voices do not draw you away from listening to the Supreme Voice that bids you keep His commandments. When the world comes between you and God as an obscuring screen, it has conquered you. When the world comes between you and God as a transparent medium, you have conquered it. To win victory is to get it beneath your feet and stand upon it, and reach up thereby to God.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

One of our famous philosophers tells of an Italian who was placed upon the rack to secure a confession, and who bore the agony with courage by crying out continually: “I see it, I see it.” What did he see? The victim explained afterwards that he had conjured up the direr punishment that awaited him if he revealed his secret. He used the thought and vision of the scaffold to turn his mind away from the consciousness of present pain. So by looking at things which are not seen, men and women have borne the greatest hardships, and triumphed over the fiercest foes. And if it be the case that fear can in a measure expel the sense of pain and make torture tolerable, what will the passion of a great and thrilling love not do? Faith is the link that brings our love into contact with the Eternal Love, that puts us alongside the infinite resources of God. It is

The desire of the moth for the star

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow.

(1) Faith has been conquering the world of ignorance and error by the promulgation of truth, which is the law of the intellectual life. There is now a lessening tendency to acquiesce in what is false, a growing tendency to find out what is true. Men are beginning to regard facts rather than opinions, the things that are rather than the things that are imagined. New tracks are being opened up, and every step of the old tracks is being resurveyed. This spirit of investigation is the spirit of Christianity. There are, no doubt, unbelievers in the manifoldness of the works and ways of God, who take every discovery as a fresh rebuff, who would put chains upon the feet of every traveller into the domain of science or of history, lest his report of what is to be found there should be different from their own or other men’s dreams. But the number of such timorous doubters is lessening; the number of believers in truth is increasing.

When Dr. Lazeer, in Cuba, made up his mind by experiment that yellow fever was propagated solely through the bite of a mosquito, and gave his life in supreme testimony to this truth, the world not only added one more undying name to her roll of heroes, but began forthwith to act upon the new knowledge sanctified by this sacred test.1 [Note: D. Scudder, The Passion for Reality, 45.]

What thou of God and of thyself dost know,

So know that none can force thee to forego;

For oh! his knowledge is a worthless art,

Which, forming of himself no vital part,

The foremost man he meets with readier skill

In sleight of words, can rob him of at will.

Faith feels not for her lore more sure nor less,

If all the world deny it or confess:

Did the whole world exclaim, “Like Solomon,

Thou sittest high on Wisdom’s noblest throne,”

She would not, than before, be surer then,

Nor draw more courage from the assent of men.

Or did the whole world cry, “O fond and vain!

What idle dream is this which haunts thy brain?”

To the whole world Faith boldly would reply,

“The whole world can, but I can never, lie.”2 [Note: R. C. Trench, Poems, 315.]

(2) Faith has been conquering the world of selfishness, by erecting the republic of unselfishness, by spreading the spirit of love, which is the law of social life. There is a greater desire now to relieve the burdens of the afflicted and the poor, an increasing effort to reform the criminal, a growing admission of the possible variety of human beliefs, a lessening disposition to settle all international disputes by the terrible decision of war, a growth of the mutual respect which is the parent of liberty—for the mutual respect of each for each means the common liberty of all. The growth of this is a growth of Christian influence, and of the Christian temper: it is a victory of “our faith,” for it is the victory of Christian love.

Alexander the Great, when he was master of the whole world, was the greatest slave within it, for he was discontented even with his victories; the pride of conquest held him in captivity by its iron chain. No; he who aims at the highest greatness in this world may only be more greatly selfish than the rest of mankind, and what is that but to be really little? He is truly great who is the most unselfish, and he is the least of all who lives for himself alone.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]

In the Patriarchate of Antioch there is a marvellous memorial to the victory of Christianity. In the centre of it, in a mountain region not far from Antioch, are to be found the ruins of one hundred and fifty cities within a space of thirty or forty leagues. In the most glorious days of Christianity, when it ruled the Roman world, these Christian cities were invaded by either the Persians or the Saracens, and, as the story goes, forsaken by their inhabitants in a single night. Twelve hundred years have passed away since then, and, in spite of time and earthquake and the burning Syrian sun, the traveller who visits them scarce dares to call them ruins. Not as thoroughly preserved, indeed, as Pompeii or Herculaneum, they still tell the story of Christian civilization in the days when the Church had recently won its victory over persecution and tyranny. The signs of comfort and of peace appear on all sides. Bath-houses and stables, balconies and shaded porticoes, winepresses, and even jars for preserving wine, yet remain. Still are to be seen magnificent churches, supported by columns, flanked by towers, surrounded by splendid tombs. Crosses and monograms of Christ are sculptured on most of the doors, and numerous inscriptions may be read upon the monuments. He who has visited Pompeii, with its sad record of the refinement and corruption of Rome, cannot fail to notice the difference, as he reads written over the door of a house, “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth for evermore”; and on another, “Lord, succour this house and them that dwell therein”; or on a tomb where the dead are sleeping, “Thou hast made the Most High thy refuge; no evil shall approach thee, no plague come nigh thy dwelling.”

But what is most observable is the tone of triumph and victory that the inscriptions seem to breathe. On the porch of a house is written, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” and a sepulchral monument records the triumphant sentence, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.” Even an obscure painter who, while engaged in decorating a tomb, tried, it would seem, his chisel on the wall of rock, as he rudely traced a monogram of Christ, in his enthusiasm as a liberated Christian, carved in the stone to remain for ages, “This conquers.”2 [Note: J. de Koven.]

“I do not know,” Mazzini says, “speaking historically, a single great conquest of the human spirit, a single important step for the perfecting of human society, which has not had its roots in a strong religious faith.”3 [Note: Bolton King, Mazzini, 223.]

Victory over the World


Arnold (T.), Sermons, ii. 8.

Banks (L. A.), John and his Friends, 166.

Brooke (S. A.), Sermons, i. 1.

Burrell (D. J.), The Church in the Fort, 306.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, ii. 76.

Deshon (G.), Sermons for the Ecclesiastical Year, 239.

Garbett (E.), The Soul’s Life, 268.

Gresley (W.), Sermons Preached at Brighton, 315.

Gurney (T. A.), The Living Lord and the Opened Grave, 279.

Hare (J. C.), The Victory of Faith, 3, 32, 63, 103, 151.

Hatch (E.), Memorials, 3, 283.

Hiley (R. W.), A Year’s Sermons, i. 209.

Jerdan (C.), Gospel Milk and Honey, 154.

Jones (W. B.), The Peace of God, 148.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Easter to Ascension Day, 201.

Kingsley (C.), Village, Town and Country Sermons, 231.

Liddon (H. P.), Easter in St. Paul’s, 253, 300.

Little (J.), Glorying in the Lord, 176.

Maclaren (A.), A Year’s Ministry, i. 85.

Macleod (D.), The Sunday Home Service, 328.

Newman (J. H.), Oxford University Sermons, 120.

Pike (J. K.), Unfailing Goodness and Mercy, 67.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, iii. 81.

Ritchie (A.), Twenty-four Sermons from St. Ignatius’ Pulpit, 90.

Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, iii. 15.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Christian Warfare, No. 14.

Spurgeon (C. H.) Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xlvii. (1901) 589.

Thomson (W.), Sermons Preached in Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, 263.

Vaughan (C. J.), Epiphany, Lent and Easter, 271.

Voysey (C.), Sermons, xiii. (1890) No. 18.

Westcott (B. F.), Village Sermons, 172.

Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), The Life of Duty, i. 209.

Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), Mission Sermons for a Year, 252.

Wilson (J. M.), Rochdale Sermons, 62.

Verse 13

[4. The Conclusion (1 John 5:13-21).

(1) FRESH STATEMENT OF THE PURPOSE OF WRITING, equivalent to that at the beginning of the Epistle, but differing from it (1 John 5:13).



(a) God’s sons do not sin (1 John 5:18);

(b) Personal assurance that we are God’s sons (1 John 5:19);

(c) Personal assurance that Christ is come, of the gift of the spiritual sense, and of abiding in the God of Truth through His Son (1 John 5:20).

(4) LAST WARNING (1 John 5:21).]

St. John, thinking perhaps of the close of his Gospel, where he states the same purpose (John 20:31), and reminded by 1 John 5:11 of the supreme importance of having eternal life, and of the necessity of finding this in the Son, sums up the object of his Letter in these two ideas. He tells his friends again that he writes to them because they believe on the name of the Son of God, and explains his wish to be that, by the thoughts which he has put before them, they may feel certain that the eternal life which ought to be theirs is theirs already, and that their belief may not cease, but may be really vital. Thinking then of those who would be deceiving themselves if they pretended to any such hopeful assurance, he reminds the faithful of the power of prayer. Beginning with the general statement that confidence in God means that He hears us, he goes on to show that hearing must imply that our petitions are granted; and next, that it would be a petition quite in accordance with God’s will, and therefore likely to be heard, if a believer were to pray for a sinning brother. At the same time it must be recollected that there is such a state of wilful, hard-hearted rebellion that it is past praying for. Meantime they must remember again that as far as they were born of God they could not wilfully sin; that if they were what St. John thought them they had ample proofs that they were of God, and must not forget that the whole world was corrupted; and that there could not be any doubt that the Son of God was come, and had given them the spiritual sense necessary to discerning the true God. In that true God they were, through His Son. The God of whom the Son had spoken was that true God, and to know Him as such in His Son was eternal life. The last request was, that they should strictly guard themselves against any appearance or tendency whatsoever which might claim their sympathy or allegiance apart from God.


(13) Comp. John 20:31. The expression here is more positive than in the Gospel: there, “that ye might believe, and that believing ye might have life;” here, “that ye may know that ye have.” He wishes to produce in them a good hope. The specific object at the beginning of the Epistle was the communication of joy through fellowship with the Apostles the knowledge of possessing eternal life and the continuance of their faith would be precisely that joy.

Verses 13-17


(14) And this is the confidence.—The assurance intended in 1 John 5:13 implies confidence, and confidence means the conviction that God is not deaf to our prayers. But these must not be contrary to His will. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that the Person referred to here is the Father.

(15) That we have the petitions.—The goodness of God as Light and Love is so fully established that if our petitions are according to His will it follows necessarily that He grants them.

(16) If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death.—Here are meant such stumblings as do not imply any distinct, wilful, deliberate severance from the faith of Christ. To divide sins, on the authority of this passage, into venial and mortal is to misunderstand the whole argument of the Epistle and to seduce the conscience. St. John only means that though prayer can do much for an erring brother, there is a wilfulness against which it would be powerless: for even prayer is not stronger than freewill. (Comp. 1 John 2:1; Luke 22:31-32; John 17:9; Hebrews 7:25.)

And he shall give.—The interceding Christian is regarded as gaining life for the erring brother and handing it on to him.

There is a sin unto death.—The limit of intercession is now given: such conscious and determined sin as shows a loss of all hold on Christ. Such a state would be a sign of spiritual death. Hardened obstinacy would be invincible; and as it would not be according to the will of God that prayers, by the nature of the case in vain, should be offered to Him, St. John thinks that intercession ought to stop here. At the same time, he is careful not categorically to forbid it; he only says that in such cases he does not recommend intercessory prayer. (Comp. Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:29; Hebrews 6:4; Hebrews 6:6; Hebrews 10:26-27.) “His brother” is here, of course, a nominal Christian.

(17) All unrighteousness is sin.—Here St. John reminds them that all Christians might, at one time or another, stand in need of intercessory prayer, even those who, on the whole, might be considered as “sinning not” (because their permanent will was against sin, and for holiness), because every declension from the perfect righteousness of God is error or sin. Nothing that was not hopelessly deliberate need be considered a sign of absolute spiritual death. (Comp. 1 John 3:4.)

Verses 18-21


(a) God’s sons do not sin (1 John 5:18).

St. John refers back to “that ye may know” in 1 John 5:13, and sums up three points from former portions of the Epistle, describing the true consciousness of the Christian. Each begins with “We know.”

(18) Sinneth not.—There is no reason to supply “unto death.” (Comp. the Note on 1 John 3:9.) St. John means strongly to insist, in this the solemn close of his Letter, that the true ideal Christian frame is the absence of wilful sin. Stumbles there may be, even such as need the prayers of friends, but intentional lawlessness there cannot be.

But he that is begotten of God keepeth himself.—Rather, he that is begotten of God keepeth him: that is, the Son of God preserves him. (Comp. John 6:39; John 10:28; John 17:12; John 17:15.)

And that wicked one toucheth him not.—The last mention of the devil was in 1 John 3:10. The devil and his angels attack, but cannot influence so long as the Christian abides in Christ. (Comp. 1 Peter 5:8; Ephesians 6:11; Revelation 3:10.)

(3 b.) Personal assurance that we are God’s sons (1 John 5:19).

Next after the cardinal point that righteousness is the characteristic of the new birth comes the necessity that the Christian should make up his mind that he has been, or is being, born again, and is really different from the world. The proofs would be seen in 1 John 1:6; 1 John 2:3; 1 John 2:5; 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 3:14; 1 John 3:19; 1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:7; 1 John 4:13; 1 John 4:15; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:10.

(19) The whole world lieth in wickedness.—Rather, the wicked one. There is a constant danger lest Christians should forget this. (Comp. Galatians 1:4.)

(3 c.) Personal assurance of the Incarnation, of the gift of the spiritual sense, and of abiding in the God of Truth through His Son (1 John 5:20).

The series ends with a climax: the Son is indeed come; He gave us the faculty of seeing the true God; and in that Almighty Being we actually are. through the Son. The greatest fact of all to St. John’s mind is that his Friend and Master of sixty years ago was the very Word made flesh. (Comp. 1 John 1:1-2; 1 John 2:13; 1 John 2:22-23; 1 John 3:5; 1 John 3:8; 1 John 3:16; 1 John 3:23; 1 John 4:2; 1 John 4:9-10; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:5; 1 John 5:9; 1 John 5:11.)

(20) And hath given us an understanding.—Comp. Acts 26:18; 1 Corinthians 2:12-15; Ephesians 1:18. This spiritual faculty of discernment was one of the gifts of that Spirit which Christ was to send. (Comp. 1 John 2:20; 1 John 2:27; John 14:26; John 16:13.)

Him that is true.—The personality of God. Amid all the deceptions and fluctuations of the world, St. John felt, with the most absolute and penetrating and thankful conviction, that the followers of Christ were rooted and grounded in perfect, unshakable, unassailable truth. This could not be unless they were resting on the living Son and holding fast to Him.

This is the true God, and eternal life.—A most solemn and emphatic crown to the whole Epistle. “This God, as seen in His Son, is the true God.” If the Word had not been God, God could not have been seen in Him. “And God, seen in His Son, is eternal life.” This is only another way of putting John 17:3. (Comp. 1 John 5:11-13.) To make “this is the true God” refer only to the Son is equally admissible by grammar, but hardly suits the argument so well.

(4) LAST WARNING (1 John 5:21).

(21) Little children, keep yourselves from idols.—This parting word is suggested by the thought of “the true God.” Every scheme of thought, every object of affection, which is not of Him, is a rival of His empire, a false god, a delusive appearance only, without solidity or truth. We cannot conclude better than in the words of Ebrard: “This idea is a general and very comprehensive one: it embraces all things and everything which may be opposed to the God revealed in Christ and to His worship in spirit and in truth. Pre-eminently, therefore, it embraces the delusive and vain idols of the Corinthian Gnosticism, whether ancient or modern; but it includes also the idols and false mediators of superstition, to whom the confidence is transferred which is due only to God in Christ—be their name Madonna, or saints, or Pope, or priesthood, or good works, or pictures, or office, or church, or sacraments. The One Being in whom we have ‘the life eternal’ is Christ. . . . And this Christ we possess through the Spirit of God, whose marks and tokens are not priestly vestments, but faith and love. In this meaning, the Apostle’s cry sounds forth through all the ages, in the ears of all Christians, ‘LITTLE CHILDREN, KEEP YOURSELVES FROM IDOLS!’ The holiest things may become a snare if their letter is regarded and not their spirit. Every Christian Church has a tendency to worship its own brazen serpents. Happy are they who have a Hezekiah to call them Nehushtan!”

Verse 21

The Peril of Idolatry

My little children, guard yourselves from idols.—1 John 5:21.

These would seem to be the last words of Scripture that were written, the last charge of the last Apostle, the last solemn warning in which the Holy Spirit sums up the Gospel for all generations. Yet they sound strange. Surely we have no idols. What need have we of such a charge as this?

Not much, if wood and stone are needed to make an idol; but if we are putting anything whatever in God’s place, we are not so clear. Some calling themselves Christians have worshipped saints on every high hill and under every green tree; some have made the Church an idol, and some the Bible; some have made money their god, others have worshipped success, and others have sold themselves for pleasure.1 [Note: H. M. Gwatkin, The Eye for Spiritual Things, 91.]

It may well be that the Spirit had brought before St. John’s mind the danger arising from the fact that Jesus, the Son of God, was spoken of to them as a man like themselves; a fact that might lead them from the Deity of the man Christ Jesus to deifying other creatures, and investing these with Divine attributes, and attributing to them Divine power, and approaching them with prayer and praise, which, though fitting worship in the case of Jesus Christ, would be idolatry addressed to other creatures. And so St. John adds these words to the end of his Epistle, lest the doctrine he had just insisted on should be misused and perverted, as indeed we know from Church history it has been.2 [Note: W. E. Jelf, A Commentary on the First Epistle of St. John, 82.]


Tendencies to Idolatry

1. Man everywhere has some appreciation of the spiritual. We may describe it as we will, but everywhere man is conscious of it, in some form or fashion. If we take the lowest form of that conception of which we know anything, that which is called “fetish worship,” what is the root idea? It is a recognition of the spiritual, it is an expression of fear. A fetish worshipper, if he be unaccompanied by his fetish, will refuse to trade with you, will refuse to have any dealings with you. Why? Because he thinks that the carrying of his particular fetish keeps away evil spirits. His conception of the supernatural is the conception of antagonistic forces, and he endeavours to charm them away. All charms, all necromancy, all attempts to avert some catastrophe by this kind of thing, are of the same nature. They are a recognition of that which is beyond. And it is not only a recognition of the spiritual as beyond the material; it is also a recognition of relationship of some kind. Idolatry is always born out of this recognition, and out of a consciousness of need. The need is an anxiety. It may simply be a need of protection, or it may be a need of communion; but whether this or that, every idol is a demonstration of the Divine origin of man. As St. Augustine said long ago, God has made the human heart so that it can never find rest save in Himself. After that rest humanity everywhere is seeking, and all idolatry is a demonstration of the search.

When the populace of Paris adorned the statue of Strasbourg with immortelles, none, even the simplest of the pious decorators, would suppose that the city of Strasbourg itself, or any spirit or ghost of the city, was actually there, sitting in the Place de la Concorde. The figure was delightful to them as a visible nucleus for their fond thoughts about Strasbourg; but never for a moment supposed to be Strasbourg.

Similarly, they might have taken delight in a statue purporting to represent a river instead of a city,—the Rhine, or Garonne, suppose,—and have been touched with strong emotion in looking at it, if the real river were dear to them, and yet never think for an instant that the statue was the river.

And yet again, similarly, but much more distinctly, they might take delight in the beautiful image of a god, because it gathered and perpetuated their thoughts about that god; and yet never suppose, nor be capable of being deceived by any arguments into supposing, that the statue was the god.

On the other hand, if a meteoric stone fell from the sky in the sight of a savage, and he picked it up hot, he would most probably lay it aside in some, to him, sacred place, and believe the stone itself to be a kind of god, and offer prayer and sacrifice to it.

In like manner, any other strange or terrifying object, such, for instance, as a powerfully noxious animal or plant, he would be apt to regard in the same way; and very possibly also construct for himself frightful idols of some kind, calculated to produce upon him a vague impression of their being alive; whose imaginary anger he might deprecate or avert with sacrifice, although incapable of conceiving in them any one attribute of exalted intellectual or moral nature.1 [Note: Ruskin, Aratra Pentelici (Works, xx. 229).]

2. Man must have a God, and when he loses the vision of the true God, he makes a God for himself. The making of idols is an attempt to find God, and God is always built up out of the imagination, and according to the pattern of the builder himself. Every idol is the result of a conception of God which is the magnified personal self-consciousness of the man who creates his idol. Or to put it in another form, idolatry is self-projection. First man imagines his God, and the God he imagines is himself enlarged. “Eyes have they, noses have they, hands have they, feet have they.” The Psalmist in those words took the physical facts, and showed how man in making a God projects his own personality; and calls that magnified personality God. It is seen at once that the result is magnified failure, intensified evil. So all human conditions which are evil, being active in the thinking of the man who would construct his deity, are to be found intensified in that deity. To go back to the Old Testament, we have Baal, Molech, and all the evil deities. What are they but the evil things of humanity magnified? And so everywhere we find that men have made idols according to their own understanding.

Dear God and Father of us all

Forgive our faith in cruel lies,

Forgive the blindness that denies,

Forgive Thy creature, when he takes

For the all-perfect love Thou art

Some grim creation of his heart.

Cast down our idols; overturn

Our bloody altars: let us see

Thyself in Thy humanity.

3. The whole history of the Jews, of which the Bible is the record, is one long warning and protest against idolatry. Abraham became the father of the faithful because he obeyed the call of God to abandon the idols which his fathers had worshipped beyond the Euphrates. Jacob made his family bury under the Terebinth of Shechem their Syrian amulets and Syrian gods. But Israel was constantly starting aside into idolatry like a broken bow. Even in the wilderness they took up the tabernacle of Molech, and the star of their god Remphan, idols which they had made to worship. Even under the burning crags of Sinai, “they made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped the molten image”; and for centuries afterwards the apostate kings of northern Israel doubled that sin in Dan and Bethel.

The seven servitudes of the Book of Judges were the appropriate retribution for seven apostasies. From Solomon to Manasseh, king after king, even of Judah, forsook Jehovah. Then came the crashing blow of the Exile, the utter ruin of every hope of domination or of independence. The agony of being thus torn from their temple and their home and the land they loved cured them forever of material idolatry; but they fell headlong into another and subtler idolatry—the idolatry of forms and ceremonies, the idolatry of the dead letter of their law. Pharisaism was only a new idolatry, and it was, in some respects, more dangerous than the old. It was more dangerous because more self-satisfied, more hopelessly impenitent; more dangerous because, being idolatry, it passed itself off as the perfection of faithful worship. Hence it plunged them into a yet deadlier iniquity. Baal worshippers had murdered the Prophets; Pharisees crucified the Lord of Life.

4. What gives this tendency its strength? The Jews were tempted to worship these idols because they saw in the lives of the nations around them that emancipation from shame, from conscience, from restraint, from the stern and awful laws of morality, for which all bad men sigh. They longed for that slavery of sin which would be freedom from righteousness. It was not the revolting image of Molech that allured them; it was the spirit of hatred, the fierce delight of the natural wild beast which lurks in the human heart. Molech was but the projection into the outward of ghastly fears born of man’s own guilt; the consequent impulse to look on God as a wrathful, avenging Being, to be propitiated only by human agony and human blood; and as One whom (so whispered to them a terrified selfishness) it was better to propitiate by passing their children through the fire than to let themselves suffer from His rage. It was not any image of Mammon that allured them to worship that abject spirit. It was the love of money, which is a root of all evil; it was covetousness, which is idolatry. And why should they worship the degraded Baal-Peor? Just because he was degraded; just because of “those wanton rites which cost them woe.”

Idolatry, kneeling to a monster. The contrary of Faith—not want of Faith. Idolatry is faith in the wrong thing, and quite distinct from Faith in No thing, the “Dixit Insipiens.” Very wise men may be idolaters, but they cannot be atheists.1 [Note: Ruskin, The Bible of Amiens (Works, xxxiii. 154).]

Do these tendencies not reveal themselves still? Is it not possible that we form to ourselves false conceptions of God? We think of Him on the one hand as a self-willed despot, or we think of Him on the other hand as a sentimental father, who has within Him no power of anger or of passion. Again, have we not thought of Him too often as an indifferent proprietor,—forgive the homeliness of the figure of speech,—an absentee landlord, who collects rents on Sundays, and cares nothing about what happens to His property during the week? How often shall we have to plead guilty to this charge, that we have a god to suit our own convenience; that we accommodate the doctrine of God which the Bible contains, and which Jesus uttered finally for the world, to our own low level of life; that we have allowed our selfishness to blur the vision of God, and to make or create a new god according to our own understanding?2 [Note: G. Campbell Morgan.]


Forms of Idolatry

1. Idolatry manifests itself at times in gross and material forms.—What was the sin of Jeroboam? That he set up golden images at Dan and Bethel, and in doing so provided for the people a representation of God. When Jeroboam set up those golden images, he had no idea of setting up new gods. That was not the sin of Jeroboam. In the wilderness, when the men, waiting for Moses, according to the ancient story, made a golden calf, they were not making any new god. When we read the story carefully, we discover that they were making a likeness of Jehovah, and when they had made their golden calf and bowed themselves before it, they observed a feast of Jehovah. That was the sin of Jeroboam also; not the setting up of a new deity, not the introduction into the national life of a god borrowed from surrounding countries, but an attempt to help Israel to know Jehovah by a likeness, a representation of Him which should be set up at Dan and Bethel. In so doing, Jeroboam was not breaking the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods,” but the second, “Thou shalt not make any likeness of God.”

We go a little further on in the history of Israel, and we find Ahab. The sin of Ahab was different from Jeroboam’s in that he introduced other deities and placed them beside Jehovah. He built temples for Baal and established the worship of Baal. That was not a representation of Jehovah, but another deity. The sin of Ahab was that he broke the first of the words of the Decalogue. The breach of the second word of the Decalogue always precedes the breach of the first in the history of believing peoples. First, something to set up to help us to see and understand God; and then presently other gods usurping the place of God. First, a false conception of God, and we worship it; secondly, some other deity by the side of God.

Dr. Buchanan, who was an eye-witness of the worship of Juggernaut in India, describes what he saw. The Temple of Juggernaut has been standing for eight or nine hundred years. The idol is like a man, with large diamonds for eyes; with a black face, and a mouth foaming with blood. Well, he says he saw this idol put upon a large carriage, nine or ten times as high as the biggest man one ever saw. And then the men, women and children (tens and hundreds of thousands were there together) began to draw the carriage along. The wheels made deep marks in the ground as it went along. And here there was a man who lay down before it, and the wheels went over him and killed him on the spot. And again there was a woman, who in the same way lay down before the idol, thinking she was sure to get to heaven if she was crushed beneath that idol’s carriage wheels. And he saw children there drawing the idol. And he tells about two little children sitting crying beside their dying mother, who had come to the city of the idol, and perished there from fatigue and want. And when they were asked where their home was, they said they had no home but where their mother was. And that mother was dying before her time because of her idolatry. Well might he have told such little ones how foolish and how wrong such conduct was, and said to them, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”1 [Note: W. H. Gray, The Children’s Friend, 111.]

As we were preparing a foundation for the Church, a huge and singular-looking round stone was dug up, at sight of which the Tannese stood aghast. The eldest Chief said,—

“Missi, that stone was either brought there by Karapanamun (the Evil Spirit), or hid there by our great Chief who is dead. That is the Stone God to which our forefathers offered human sacrifices; these holes held the blood of the victim till drunk up by the Spirit. The Spirit of that stone eats up men and women and drinks their blood, as our fathers taught us. We are in greatest fear!”

A Sacred Man claimed possession, and was exceedingly desirous to carry it off; but I managed to keep it, and did everything in my power to show them the absurdity of these foolish notions. Idolatry had not, indeed, yet fallen throughout Tanna, but one cruel idol, at least, had to give way for the erection of God’s House on that benighted land.2 [Note: John G. Paton, i. 201.]

2. There is also an intellectual idolatry when our own false notions are allowed to usurp the place of truth. The first meaning of the word “idols” is false, shadowy, fleeting images; subjective phantoms; wilful illusions; cherished fallacies. This is the sense in which the word is used by our great English philosopher, Lord Bacon. He speaks of “idols of the tribe,” false notions which seem inherent in the nature of man, and which, like an unequal mirror mingling its own nature with that of the light, distort and refract it. There are also “idols of the cave.” Every man has in his heart some secret cavern in which an idol lurks, reared there by his temperament or his training, and fed with the incense of his passions, so that a man, not seeking God in His word or works, but only in the microcosm of his own heart, thinks of God not as He is, but as he chooses to imagine Him to be. And there are “idols of the market-place,” false conceptions of God which spring from men’s intercourse with one another, and from the fatal force of words. And there are “idols of the school,” false notions which come from the spirit of sect, and system, and party, and formal theology.

All sin is an untruth, a defiance of the true order of earth and heaven. In one of Hort’s great sayings, Every thought which is base or vile or selfish is first of all untrue. These are the idols from which we have to keep ourselves. Whatever you think of God in your inmost heart, you will live accordingly. Whatever idol you make Him into, that idol will make you like itself.1 [Note: H. M. Gwatkin, The Eye for Spiritual Things, 94.]

George Herbert says that if you look on the pane of glass in a window, you may either let your eye rest on the glass, or you may look through the glass at the blue heaven beyond it. Now Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are windows through which we may see God. But, on the other hand, just as a man who looks at a window may let his eye rest on the pane of glass, instead of using the glass as a medium through which he can look at the glowing scene beyond, so we may allow our minds to rest on Beauty, or Truth, or Goodness, instead of using these as media through which to contemplate God.2 [Note: Hugh Price Hughes, The Philanthropy of God, 229.]

Like all those who find their vent in Art, Jenny Lind seemed always as if her soul was a homeless stranger here amid the thick of earthly affairs, never quite comprehending why the imperfect should exist, never quite able to come down from the lighted above and form her eyes to the twilight of the prison and the cave.3 [Note: H. Scott Holland, Personal Studies, 18.]

3. But most frequently idolatry assumes a practical shape.—What does St. John mean by an idol? Does he mean that barbarous figure of Diana which stood in the great temple, hideous and monstrous? No! he means anything, or any person, that comes into the heart and takes the place which ought to be filled by God, and by Him only. What I prize most, what I trust most utterly, what I should be most forlorn if I lost, what is the working aim of my heart—that is my idol. In Ephesus it was difficult to have nothing to do with heathenism. In that ancient world their religion, though it was a superficial thing, was intertwined with daily life in a fashion that puts us to shame. Every meal had its libation, and almost every act was knit by some ceremony or other to a god; so that Christian men and women had almost to go out of the world, in order to be free from complicity in the all-pervading idol-worship. Now, although the form has changed, and the fascinations of old idolatry belong only to a certain stage in the world’s culture and history, the temptation to idolatry remains just as subtle, just as all-pervasive, and the yielding to it just as absurd.

Just consider what your feelings would be, were a heathen king to conquer this land, and to set up the images of his gods in the beautiful cathedral at Salisbury, where so many generations have been accustomed to worship God and His Son. Yet the heart of a Christian is far more beautiful, and far more precious, and far dearer to God, than that cathedral. The cathedral at Salisbury will not last for ever; Christ did not die for it, He did not purchase it with His own blood. But us He has bought; for us He has paid a price, that we might be His for all eternity. What, then, must be His feelings, to see His own hearts defiled and polluted by being given up to idols?1 [Note: A. W. Hare, The Alton Sermons, 493.]

Hear, Father! hear and aid!

If I have loved too well, if I have shed,

In my vain fondness, o’er a mortal head

Gifts, on Thy shrine, my God, more fitly laid,

If I have sought to live

But in one light, and made a mortal eye

The lonely star of my idolatry,

Thou that art Love, oh! pity and forgive!2 [Note: Mrs. Hemans.]

Many people spend their life as some African tribes do,—constructing idols, finding they are not the oracles they fancied, and breaking them in pieces to seek others. They have an uninteresting succession of perfect friends and infallible teachers. How many need the angel’s word, “See thou do it not.”3 [Note: John Ker, Thoughts for Heart and Life, 3.]

I went out into the garden to walk before dinner, and with difficulty refrained my tears to think how oft and with what sweet delight I had borne my dear, dear boy along that walk, with my dear wife at my side; but had faith given me to see his immortality in another world, and rest satisfied with my Maker’s will. Sir Peter Lawrie called after dinner, and besought me, as indeed have many, to go and live with him; but nothing shall tempt me from this sweet solitude of retirement, and activity of consolation, and ministry to the afflicted.… When he was gone I went forth upon my outdoor ministry, and as I walked to Mr. Whyte’s, along the terraces overlooking those fields where we used to walk, three in one, I was sore, sore distressed, and found the temptation to “idolatry of the memory”; which the Lord delivered me from—at the same time giving the clue to the subject which has been taking form in my mind lately, to be treated as arising out of my trial; and the form in which it presented itself is “the idolatry of the affections,” which will embrace the whole evil, the whole remedy, and the sound condition of all relations.1 [Note: The Life of Edward Irving, i. 258.]

4. But we must not imagine that God calls upon us to hide every sign of affection.—It is true that Jesus said “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”; but He also denounced those Pharisees who refused to help their parents under the pretence that they gave so liberally to the Temple treasury.

William Black, in his story In Far Lochaber, describes a household “where every natural instinct was repressed as being in itself something lawless; where the father held that he could not love God truly if he showed any demonstrative affection for his children.” In his own early home in Glasgow, Black had been brought up in that way. There was genuine family affection but no outward token of it. He revolted from that afterwards, very naturally, and the training of his own three children was very different. But that was the old Scottish idea, having its root in religion—“Keep yourselves from idols.” Mothers, losing a child, have sometimes said, “I made too much of an idol of my child, and God has punished me by taking it away.” No, no. Do not hide, do not limit natural affection in the name of religion. You make an idol of your child if you would do anything dishonourable for the child’s sake; if you say, as it were, my love for the child justifies me; or if you spoil the child by over-indulgence, or by want of rebuke when it does wrong. But do not in the name of religion hide or diminish the tokens of affection. There cannot be too much of that in the home life.

I took the poker, a few minutes before writing this, to break a piece of coal on the fire, and got a painful shock. I struck again, and struck harder, without feeling anything. I had struck the second time in the right place, about a third from the end of the poker. And human love may be more manifested, instead of less, when the love of God is at the root of it. The tokens of the earthly love will not then by any means injure or impair the heavenly.

I could not love thee, dear, so much

Loved I not honour more.1 [Note: John S. Maver.]

We cannot know or enjoy or love the world too much, if God’s will controls us. Has a mother anything but joy in watching the little daughter’s devotion to her doll? Not until the child is so absorbed that she cannot hear her mother’s voice. Did anyone ever love the world more than Jesus did? Yet was anyone ever so loyal to the Father’s will? Worldliness is not love of the world but slavishness to it.2 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 10.]


Defence against Idolatry

How are we to guard ourselves against idols? What is the defence?

1. We must cherish the vision of the true God and eternal life.—We have that vision in Christ. If I would know God, I must see Him in Christ. And if the God I am worshipping is any other than the Christ who came to reveal Him then the God I am worshipping is not the true God, and I have become an idolater. We cannot see God, cannot apprehend God, save as by the revelation that He has made of Himself. In that holy and infinite mystery of incarnation there is an adaptation of God Himself to man’s own method of finding God.

2. Another defence will be found in our love of truth.—It is not by learning or by culture or even by worship that we come to the knowledge of God. The utmost that even worship can do is to cleanse us for our higher duties—those duties of common life in which our God reveals Himself, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health alike. Even the Supper of the Lord would be a mockery, if Christ were not as near us in every other work of truth we do. Only let us be true, true in every fibre of our being, and truth of thought shall cleanse our eyes to see the truth of God which is the light of life.

The easiest lesson in the school of truth is to do our work in the spirit of truth. Petty as it may seem, it is the earthward end of a ladder that reaches up to heaven. It is a greater work to give the cup of cold water than raise the dead. Our single duty here on earth is to bend all our heart and all our soul and all our mind to the single task of learning the love of truth, for the love of truth is the love of God.1 [Note: H. M. Gwatkin, The Eye for Spiritual Things, 94.]

3. But it is not only our own effort that is needed; for just a sentence or two before, the Apostle had said: “He that is born of God”—that is, Christ—“keepeth us.” So our keeping of ourselves is essentially our letting Him keep us. Stay inside the walls of the citadel, and you need not be afraid of the besiegers; go outside by letting your faith flag, and you will be captured or killed. Keep yourselves by clinging to “him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless.” Seek fellowship with Him who is the only true God, and is able to satisfy your whole nature, mind, heart, will; and these false deities will have no power to tempt you to bow the knee.

“The Lord thy Keeper,” then: ’tis writ for thee,

By night and day, wayworn and feeble sheep!

Without, within, He shall thy Guardian be;

And e’en to endless ages He shall keep

Thy wandering heart.

The Peril of Idolatry


Aked (C. F.), Old Events and Modern Meanings, 119, 135, 151, 167.

Colenso (J. W.), Natal Sermons, ii. 329.

Cornaby (W. A.), In Touch with Reality, 11.

Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 23.

Dykes (J. O.), The Law of the Ten Words, 53.

Farrar (F. W.), Sermons and Addresses in America, 164.

Figgis (J. B.), The Anointing, 79.

Goodwin (H.), University Sermons, ii. 32.

Gray (W. H.), The Children’s Friend, 111.

Gwatkin (H. M.), The Eye for Spiritual Things, 89.

Hare (A. W.), Sermons, ii. 327.

Hare (A. W.), The Alton Sermons, 487.

Henson (H. H.), Ad Rem, 121.

Hughes (H. P.), The Philanthropy of God, 223.

Hunt (A. N.), Sermons for the Christian Year, ii. 10.

Jerdan (C.), Gospel Milk and Honey, 326.

Maclaren (A.), Triumphant Certainties, 31.

Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, ii. 300.

Stanley (A. P.), Sermons for Children, 10.

Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), Mission Sermons for a Year, 381.

Christian World Pulpit, lxvi. 401 (Henson); lxix. 232, 259, 325, 403 (Aked).

Church of England Pulpit, lxiii. (1908) 483 (Bernard).


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 John 5:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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