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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

1 John 5



Other Authors
Verses 1-21

WHEN WE CONTEMPLATE the responsibilities which are ours in connection with our brethren, we are always apt, if the flesh prevails with us, to fall back upon Cain’s question, asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Not exactly his keeper perhaps, but we certainly are to be his helper in the spirit of love. We are also apt to fall back upon a question similar to the one asked by the lawyer in Luke 10:1-42. Wishing to justify himself, he asked, “And who is my neighbour?” We may ask, “And who is my brother?” The answer to this question is given to us in very direct fashion in the opening words of chapter 5. “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” So then we have to recognize as our brother every one that believes in Jesus as the Christ, whoever he may be. There can be no picking and choosing.

Many of these believers, who are born of God, may not appeal to us in the slightest degree upon a natural basis. By upbringing and habits we may have very little in common; moreover we may not see eye to eye in many matters connected with the things of God. Now these are just the ones to put us to the test. Are we at liberty to disclaim all interest in them, and pass by on the other side? We are not. If I love the brother who is nice and agreeable to me I am only doing what anybody might do. “If ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?” (Matthew 5:46). If I love my brother because he is begotten of God, even though he be not nice and agreeable to me, I am displaying the love which is the nature of God Himself. And nothing is greater than that.

Verse 1 John 5:2 seems to sum the matter up in telling us that we know that we love the children of God when we love God and walk in obedience. The love of

God moves us to love His children, and the commandment of God enjoins us to love His children. Then for a certainty when we do love God and keep His commandments, we do love His children. Moreover love and obedience go together, as we have previously seen in this epistle, so that it is impossible to love Him without being obedient to Him.

Perhaps we have seen before now a child full of apparent love for the mother— “Oh, mother I do love you!” followed by many hugs and kisses. And yet within five minutes mother has given the child directions which slightly cross its wishes, and what an outburst of anger and disobedience has ensued! The onlookers know how to appraise the “love” that was so loudly protested a few minutes before. It is worth exactly —nothing. Well, let us remember that “this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.”

The child may have found its mother’s demand to be grievous in some small degree, as keeping it from its play. If we stray into ways of disobedience we have not even that excuse, for, “His commandments are not grievous.” What He enjoins is in exact keeping with love, which is the Divine nature. And we possess that nature, if indeed we are begotten of God.

It would indeed be grievous if we were commanded that which is totally opposed to our natures—just as it would be for a dog to eat hay, or a horse to eat meat. The law of Moses brought “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne,” but that was because it was given to men in the flesh. We have received commandments, but we have also received a new nature which delights in the things commanded; and this makes all the difference. John’s word here is corroborated by Paul when he says, “God... worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). James also corroborates in speaking of “the perfect law of libertyJames 1:25).

We gladly recognize every true believer as our brother, inasmuch as he is begotten of God. Now, in verse 1 John 5:4 we discover that another feature marks him—he overcomes the world. Moreover, this victory over the world is connected with our faith. “Faith” here, we believe, is not merely that spiritual faculty in us which sees and receives the truth, but also the truth which we receive—the Christian faith. The very essence of that faith is that Jesus is the Son of God, as verse 1 John 5:5 shows us.

Now, see the point at which we have arrived. We have had before us the Christian circle, the family of God, composed of those who have been begotten of Him. God is love, and hence those begotten of Him share His nature, and dwell in His love. Abiding in Him, He abides in them, and they love one another and thus keep His commandments. But also they overcome the world, instead of being overcome by the world. Though they pass through the world, the family of God are separated from the world and superior to it.

The secret of the overcoming is twofold. First, the Divine work wrought in the saints. Second, the faith of Jesus as the Son of God, presented as an Object to us, and to be received by us in faith.

In 1 John 2:14, we found that overcoming “the wicked one” was possible for those born of God. In 1 John 3:9, that the one born of God “doth not commit sin.” Now we have it that the one born of God overcomes the world. So the fact really is that this Divine begetting ensures victory over the devil, the flesh and the world.

But another element enters into the question. Not what is done in us, but what is set before us in the Gospel. Jesus is the Son of God. He was not merely the greatest of the prophets, to bring in an order of things on this earth to which the prophets had looked forward. He was the Son in the bosom of the Father, and He made known heavenly things lying far outside and above this world. Let faith once lay hold of that, and the world loses its attraction, and can be laid aside as a very little thing. He who is born of God, and lives in the faith of Jesus as the Son of God, cannot be captured by the world. He overcomes it.

Of course in all this we are still viewing things abstractly. We are looking at things according to their fundamental nature, and for the moment eliminating from our minds other considerations connected with our present state down here, which would introduce qualifying clauses. It is of great value to view things in this abstract way, for thereby we are instructed in the true nature of things, and see things as God sees them. Moreover we are seeing things as they will be displayed in the day to come when God has finished His work with us, for He “will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

If it be a question of our realized state today, how far are we from what we have been considering! How little do we dwell in love, and consequently dwell in God, and God in us! Let us be honest and acknowledge it; while at the same time we maintain the standard, and judge ourselves by it. This will contribute to our spiritual health and fruitfulness.

The faith that Jesus is the Son of God lies at the very heart of everything Jesus Christ—that historic Personage—has been in this world. No one can successfully deny that fact. But who is He?—that is the question. Our faith—the Christian faith—is that He is the Son of God.

That being settled, another question arises. How, and in what manner, did He come? The answer to this lies in verse 6: He came “by water and blood.”

This is another of those brief statements which occur so frequently in John’s writings; very simple as to form, though rather obscure as to meaning, and yet yielding to devout meditation a rich harvest of instruction. The reference clearly is to that which happened when one of the Roman soldiers with a spear pierced the side of the dead Christ, as recorded in John 19:34. No other of the Evangelists records this event, and John lays very special emphasis on it in recording it, saying, “He that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe.” John wrote his Gospel that we might “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). So evidently this episode of the blood and the water bears witness to the fact that He is both Christ and the Son; and these two points are before us in our passage.

In the first place, the water and the blood witness to His true Manhood. The Son of God has come amongst us in flesh and blood; a real and true Man, and not a phantom, an apparition. This fact was never more clearly established than when, His side being pierced, forthwith there came out blood and water.

Water and blood each have their own significance. The water signifies cleansing, and the blood, expiation. We may further say therefore that the coming of Jesus Christ was characterized by cleansing and expiation.

These two things were absolute necessities if men were to be blessed: they must be cleansed from the filth in which they lay, and their sins must be expiated, if they were to be brought to God. The one settles the moral question, the other the judicial; and both are equally necessary. Neither a moral renovation without a judicial clearance, nor a judicial clearance without a moral renovation, would have met our case.

Here then is another witness to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. He was indeed a true Man, but no mere man could come in the power of cleansing and expiation. For that He must indeed be the Son, who was the Word of Life.

In the Gospel it is “blood and water,” in the Epistle it is “water and blood.” The Gospel gives us, what we may call, the historic order: first our need of forgiveness, second our need of cleansing. But in the Epistle the great point is that which is wrought in us, inasmuch as we are born of God; and the holy and blessed characteristics of our new life, a life so essentially holy (“he cannot sin, because he is born of God”) that a wonderful cleansing has thereby reached us. Very appropriately therefore does water come first; and it is linked in our thoughts with the death of Christ, for we must never separate in our minds the work wrought in us and the work accomplished for us.

But though the water is mentioned first, it is specially emphasized in verse 1 John 5:6 that His coming was not by water only, but by “water and blood.” His coming into the world was not only for moral cleansing but also for atonement. This is a peculiarly important word for us today, for one of the pet ideas of modern religious unbelief is that we can discard all idea of atonement while holding that Christ came as a reformer to set a wonderful example to us all, and to cleanse men’s morals by the force of it. They hold that He did come by water only. His death, as the supreme example of heroic self-sacrifice, is to exorcise the spirit of selfishness from all our breasts. His death, as an atonement by blood for human guilt, they will not have at any price.

Those who deny the blood, while admitting the water, will have ultimately to reckon with the Spirit of God, whose witness they deny. The Spirit who bears the witness is truth, therefore His witness is truth; and they will be exposed as liars in the day that is coming, if not before. In the Gospel, where the historic fact is related, the Evangelist is content to take the place of bearing witness himself, as we have seen. By the time he wrote the Epistle however men had arisen who were challenging all that was true, so John steps back, as it were, from himself the human channel of witness, to the Spirit who is the Divine and all-important witness-bearer, and points out that He who is truth has spoken. His witness establishes who it is that came, and what His coming really signified.

The larger part of verse 1 John 5:7 and the opening of verse 1 John 5:8 have to be omitted, as having no real authority in the ancient manuscripts. The Revised, and other later versions show this. It simply is, “For there are three that bear record, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” The Spirit of God is the living active Witness. The water and the blood are silent witnesses, but all three converge on one point. The point on which they converge is found in verses 1 John 5:11-12. Verses 1 John 5:9-10 are parenthetical.

We are to realize that the witness, whether rendered by the Spirit or the water and the blood, is the witness of GOD and it demands that it be treated as such. We certainly do receive the witness of men: we are bound to do so practically every day of our lives. We do so in spite of the fact that it is frequently marred by inaccuracy, even when there is no wish to deceive. The witness of God is far greater in its theme and in its character. The Son is the theme, and absolute truth its character. When the Son was on earth He bore witness to God. Now the Spirit is here, and the witness of God is borne to the Son. Very remarkable, is it not?

Moreover, he who believes on the Son of God now has the witness in himself, inasmuch as the Spirit who is the Witness has been given to indwell us. We begin, of course, by believing the witness to the Son of God that is borne to us, and then “by the Spirit which He hath given us” we have the witness in ourselves. No unbeliever can have this witness within, for, believing not the witness which God gave of His Son, he has in effect “made Him [God] a liar.” A very terrible thing to do.

The witness of God is concerning His Son: but in particular it is that God has given to us believers eternal life, and that this life is in His Son. The Spirit of God is the living and abiding witness of this. He is spoken of elsewhere by the Apostle Paul as “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” To this also the water and the blood bear witness, only in a more negative way. When we see the life of the Son of God poured forth in death on behalf of those whose lives were forfeit, we know it means that there was no life in them. The Apostle Paul again corroborates this in saying, that if He “died for all, then were all dead.” That is it: all were dead, and hence the Son of God yielded up His life in death. The water and the blood testify that there is no life in men—the first Adam and his race—but only in the One who yielded up His life and took it again in resurrection.

The witness then is that eternal life is ours. It has been given to us of God; and it is “in His Son.” He who has the Son has the life, and he who has not the Son of God has not the life. The issue is perfectly clear. No one could “have” the Son who denied the Son, as these antichristian teachers did. In 1 John 2:22, 1 John 2:23, we saw that no one could “have” the Father who denied the Son. Here we see that they cannot “have” the Son, and consequently cannot have life.

Verse 1 John 5:13 indicates the significance of the word “have” used in this way. The better attested reading here is as the R.V., “These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God.” We might have expected John to say, “These things have I written unto you that have the Son;” instead of which he inserted what is involved in having the Son—believing “on the name of the Son of God.” It is the believer on the Son of God who has the Son, and has eternal life; and John was led to write these things that we who believe might know it.

No doubt, when John wrote these things he had in view the help and assurance of simple believers who might be overawed and shaken by the pretentious claims of the antichrists. They came with their advanced philosophies and their new light; and the simple believer who pinned his faith to “that which was from the beginning,” would be treated by them as quite outside the high intellectual “life” that they enjoyed. After all however it was just the believer on the name of the Son of God, who had the Son, and the life; and the life he had was the eternal life—the only life that counts.

And there the verse stands, with all its happy applications for trembling believers today. The Apostle John has given us the characteristic marks of the life in what he has written; and we may know that the life is ours, not only because of what God has said, but also because the marks of the life come out into display. Happy feelings, which some people think so much about, are not the great characteristic of the life: love and righteousness are.

Verse 1 John 5:14 seems to present us with an abrupt and complete change of thought. The Apostle picks up a thread, which he pursued for a few verses in 1 John 3:1-24, dropping it at verse 22. If we compare the two passages we shall find that the change is not so complete as it appears. There the point was that if we love in deed and in truth our hearts will have assurance before God, and hence have boldness in prayer. Here the sequence of thought seems similar. As the fruit of what John has written to us we have happy knowledge conscious knowledge—that we have eternal life. Hence we have confidence (or, boldness) in Him, to the effect that “if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us.” And if He hear us, our petitions are certain to be granted.

As having the life, His will becomes our will. How simply and happily then can we ask according to His will. This is the normal thing for the believer, resulting in answered prayer. Alas, that so often our actual experience should be the thing that is abnormal—because we walk according to the flesh—rather than normal.

Verse 1 John 5:16 assumes that we are not selfish in our prayers but concerned about others. We pray in an intercessory way for our brethren. The boldness that we have before God extends to this, and is not confined to merely personal matters. But it also makes it plain that, though we have boldness, there are certain things which we may not and cannot request. The government of God in regard to His children is a very real thing and cannot be waived at our request. The death spoken of here is the death of the body, such as we see, for instance, in the case of Ananias and Sapphira.

We may ask life—and doubtless anything short of that also—for any whose sin is not unto death; and all unrighteousness is sin, so that we have a very large field that may be covered. But if the sin is unto death our lips are sealed. It is possible that in writing this the Apostle had some definite sin in his mind, connected with the antichristian deceptions which were abroad, but he does not specify; so we are left to take heed of the broad principle. We know that hypocrisy and false pretence was the sin unto death in the case of Ananias, and gross disorder and irreverence at the Lord’s Supper was the sin unto death among the Corinthians.

In verses 1 John 5:16-17 we have things looked at practically as they exist amongst the saints, for the one who may sin a sin unto death is a “brother.” In verse 1 John 5:18 we come back to the abstract view of things. The one begotten of God does not sin, if we consider him according to his essential nature. This we have seen earlier in the epistle. Moreover, that being so, such are enabled to keep themselves so that the wicked one does not touch them. This last remark rather supports the thought that the sin unto death, which John has in view, is something connected with the wiles of the devil through antichristian teaching. Viewed abstractly, the one born of God is proof against the wicked one. Viewed practically, since the flesh is still in believers though they have been born of God, the brother may be seduced by the wicked one and bring himself under the discipline of God, even unto death.

We have now reached the closing words of the Epistle and things are summed up for us in a very remarkable way. Abiding in that which was from the beginning, there are certain things that we know. We know the true nature of those who are born of God, according to verse 18. But then we know that we—who are of the true family of God—are of God; and thereby wholly differentiated from the world, which lies in “wickedness,” or, “the wicked one.” There was no such clear differentiation before the time of Christ. Then the line was rather drawn between Israel as a nation owned of God, and the Gentiles not owned of God, though doubtless faith could always discern that not all Israel were the true Israel of God.

Now the line is drawn altogether apart from national considerations. It is simply a question of who are born of God and who are not, no matter what nation they may have belonged to. The family of God are wholly and fundamentally separated from the world.

Further we know what has brought all this to pass. The Son of God is come. That Person has arrived on the scene, and the life has been manifested in Him. Here we are brought back to the point at which the Epistle started, only with an added fact brought to light. At the outset our thoughts had to be concentrated on what was brought to light by His coming. But what has been subsequently unfolded in the Epistle has brought us to this, that as the fruit of His coming we have been given an understanding, so that we may know and appreciate and respond to the One who has been revealed. It is easy to see that if the understanding be lacking the most perfect revelation before us would be in vain.

Thank God, the understanding is ours. We have been begotten of God, and He has given us of His Spirit, as the Epistle has shown us, and we could never have been possessed of that Anointing if the Son of God had not come. Now we know “Him that is true,” for the Father has been made known in the Son. Yet the next words tell us that we are “in Him that is true, even in His Son Jesus Christ.” So, “Him that is true,” is an expression that covers both the Son and the Father, and we pass almost insensibly from the One to the Other. Another witness to the fact that the Son and the Father are one in Essence, though distinct in Person.

Then, having thus brought us to “His Son Jesus Christ,” John says very pointedly, “This [or, He] is the true God, and eternal life.” No stronger affirmation of His Deity could we have. Also He is the eternal life, and, as we have seen, the Source of it for us.

What a marvellous summary of the Epistle is this brief verse! The life has been manifested, and Him that is true made known in the coming of the Son of God. As the fruit of His coming we have received an understanding, so that we may be able to appreciate and receive all that has come to light. But then not only is “Him that is true” revealed, and we rendered capable of knowing Him, but we are in Him, by being in the One who has revealed Him. Apart from this we might have been merely wondering onlookers, without vital connection with God. But, thank God, that vital connection exists. And the One, in whom we are, is the true God and eternal life.

How apposite then the closing words, “Children [the word meaning all the family of God] keep yourselves from idols.” An idol is anything which usurps in our hearts that supreme place which belongs to God alone. If we live in the reality and power of verse 1 John 5:20, we shall certainly say like Ephraim, “What have I to do any more with idols?” (Hosea 14:8).

Once let the Son of God, and all that He has done and brought, fill our hearts, and the idols, that charmed us once, will charm us no more.


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on 1 John 5:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

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