Apostle John’s Three Letters . . . 1 John 5:18–21
What We’re to Know
Having been significantly challenged (in last week's summary) by Apostle John's two perplexing verses about two types of sin, today we come to a more comprehensible collection of four closing verses to his first epistle. Throughout First John, the author reminds us Christians what we know for certain. From the beginning, using firsthand certainty, having been an eyewitness to the life and teachings of Christ (1:1–4), he informed us of what we believers know: (1) “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands” (2:3); (2) to the fathers, John writes "You know him who is from the beginning" (2:13); (3) he reminds the dear children, "You know the Father" (2:14); and (4) in his passage about love and hatred, he says, "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other" (3:14). In the NIV, there are 42 instances of "know" in First John!
John completes the fifth chapter of his first letter by highlighting the thread of "what Christian believers know." We read in last week's summary what motivated him to write it: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13). Two verses later he adds, “And if we know that he hears us — whatever we ask — we know that we have what we asked of him.” And here in today's passage, he again uses this critical word, again and again: “We know... we know... we know...”
To Know about Us and the One Who Keeps Us Safe (1 John 5:18)
John closes his letter with a series of triumphant certainties, which he considers guaranteed to every Christian by his or her own experience. Such sureness isn't merely an intellectual opinion, it's the outcome of life.
There can be no doubt about how much John wants us to know, appreciate, adopt, and live by the opening paragraph's four knowledge-specific principles. After all, he wrote this letter to contradict and oppose false teachers who'd claimed to have been given a personal understanding of and about Jesus. John again will emphasize in v. 18 that born-again believers can't continue to sin habitually (3:6); although we sin occasionally, we must not allow or accept unrelenting sin. True believers hate sin and make diligent efforts to avoid it.
We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them (5:18).
It's not so much that we have the ability to prevent ourselves from committing sins. It's the One born of God or begotten of God (Greek gennetheis) who keeps us from sin. John undoubtedly calls to mind the "three 'P's of the indwelling Spirit of Christ" — his presence, power, and potential. When Christ is in us, he keeps us safe; the evil one can't harm us. The Greek word that John used for "harm" is haptetai. It denotes Satan "grasping or touching" believers. In the NASB and other versions, "does not touch him" is used to replace the NIV's "cannot harm them." There, "touch" means to affect so as to harm (see Job 2:3–5 and Psalm 105:15).
When John says that “the evil one cannot harm them,” he doesn't mean that children of God are completely isolated from Satan’s assaults. Far be it! The enemy can tempt us and "sift [us] like wheat" (Luke 22:31), but Satan does so with God’s permission. However, the devil can't continually make us prisoners of sin. Although he's a most powerful adversary, he can't break or destroy us, so long as we believers have truly dedicated ourselves to proclaim that we've chosen Jesus to become our Lord.
Evil Satan can't touch or harm those born of God, even when we sin. If the devil is bothering you, intentionally pray to the Lord, telling him that you await his answering of his promise to keep you safe. The devil can tempt and oppress you, but not beyond what you're able to withstand with Christ's powerful Spirit inside you. Satan doesn't have the power to extract you out of Father God's hand; the Spirit of Jesus has the requisite power to keep true believers safe and unharmed! As God's children, we know that we're to make sincere efforts to discontinue sinning; thankfully, the Spirit of the living God reminds us of the need to resist sinful practices; thankfully, he enables us to do so successfully, in collaboration with him. We begin our efforts to resist sinning when we pray.
In every battle that we wage against sin, we must remember to focus on who we are in Jesus Christ. When we know that we're "born of God," we can rest assured that we have at our disposal the requisite resources that enable us believers to remain free of habitual sin. Because we're "born of God," we have "One who was born of God" — Jesus — who acts as a protector against "the evil one" — Satan. Without doubt, that extraordinary protection is available to only those who are "born of God." When we believers know and affirm this truth, we become equipped to confidently and successfully win all spiritual warfare engagements.
To Know Ourselves and Who Can Control the World (v. 19)
The entire world, today, lies in the grip and power of the devil who was cast down to earth. We'll do well when we know and remember that the evil one is truly an enemy of believers, and that he's very powerful. Those who are not children of God are in Satan’s power; he's their master.
We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one (5:19).
John knows very well that, while we're God’s children, the rest of the world is under control of the evil one (see 2 Corinthians 4:4). Because we're "children of God," we can be released from the grips of worldly priorities; we're no longer under the evil one's domination the way that everyone else is. For us to truly know and believe this permits us to be free to remain who we are in Jesus, while separating ourselves from the world's structure that opposes the truth about God.
So far, we've been told this by John in vv. 18 and 19: We, those begotten of God, are kept from the evil one. However, those in the unbelieving world live passively under Satan's power and control. Throughout this letter, John's made a sharp distinction between believers and the world (3:1, 13; 4:4–5; 5:4–5): You're of one camp or the other; there's no third option allowing true believers to hold on to the world's attractive elements. You're either “of God” and separate from Satan's evil domain or you're of "the whole world" and submissive to the evil one. John says that we know this!
To Know Who Has Come and Who Is True (v. 20)
If you're not yet sure whether you're “of God” or of "the whole world," it can be most reassuring to realize that you can know and believe the truth. John uses the word “true” three times for emphasis in v. 20.
We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (5:20).
Jesus Christ has come into our lives while giving us understanding. Such understanding must be given to us; we can't acquire it by our own efforts. And here we find yet another revelation: God has revealed himself to us; if he hadn't revealed himself to us, we'd never have found him. We can ask him for understanding and he'll give it to us freely (James 1:5). Then, "we may know him who is true. . . and are in him who is true." So long as we're "in his Son Jesus Christ," we're safe and we know the truth — because God is truth. Jesus is the key who opens and reveals true understanding. No other truth matters more than his truth! There's only one true God. Only he, being the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, can bestow on us the valuable gift of eternal life.
Jesus has given us the true understanding (Gk. dianoian) so that we might personally know God and comprehend what is true and what isn't. We learn in a number of places in Scripture that Jesus Christ is the true God. John tells us who Jesus is: a man (as declared in 1:1, 4:2, and 5:6) and much more than a man when he states this truth most emphatically: "He is the true God and eternal life."
Note the three certainties in these first three verses. Each statement points to a truth that John affirms, as well as to a reality that his readers have experienced: (1) the certainty that we can know assuredly that we can be victorious over sin and Satan and that the Christian isn't given over to sin (v. 18); (2) we can know that we belong to God, not this world (v. 19); and (3) we can know that Jesus Christ is the true God (v. 20). This third certainty is also a fundamental revelation about who Jesus is.
Remember: The Gnostics believed that they'd received a special revelation from God that was superior to the believers in the early church. Their supposed revelation was that Jesus was not the Son of God but was a Christ-Spirit that came upon him when he was baptized, then departed prior to his crucifixion. They argued that Jesus Christ didn't die in order to forgive people's sins; neither did he rise in three days and conquer death. But in John's explosive declaration (v. 20a) he deflated and refuted Gnostic heresy by writing this: "We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding."
While John's straightforward pronouncement is impressive, we must boldly affirm that our faith is rooted in what God has done historically: He sent his Son into our world so that (1) we'd know him as the Son of God, (2) we'd know that he gives his children the gift of salvation, and (3) we'd know that Jesus, no one else, is the essence of Christianity!
To Know and Worship the One True God (v. 21)
Looking back, today's first three verses are something of an overview of his epistle. Aside from the challenge we faced in correctly understanding that which we covered thoroughly in our last summary, regarding the two sin types in vv. 16–17, John surprises us with what he's written in his closing verse. It's his final exhortation.
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols (5:21).
Dear John: What in the world might have prompted you to drop that directive on us? You haven't said anything about idols in this first letter of yours. Or have you?
He's been reminding us of what we believing followers of Jesus are to know about him and his teachings. Nowhere in this first epistle of his does he use the word "idol" or warn us about pending idolatry. While it might appear to be off topic, consider it an overview. After all, the act of idol worship involves our substitution of a chosen god(s) for God Almighty, within whom we find the one and only Lord, Jesus Christ. In the Elder's home churches in Ephesus, false teachers had in fact made such substitutions, offering their self-presumed knowledge of a god whom they couldn't see and certainly didn't know. John’s six closing words ought to alert us sufficiently of Satan's ongoing temptations that might encourage us to look for, adopt, and idolize baseless, worldly creeds of which man devises.
If and when we allow worldly things to become our idols, we actually worship them not God. This closing exhortation mirrors what he's written in the middle of chapter 2. . .
On Not Loving the World
15Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the Father's love is not in them. 16For everything in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — comes not from the Father but from the world. 17The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (2:15–17).
As true believers of Jesus, we've become God’s little, "dear children." At first, we were immature in Christ, tending to be tempted and attracted to things of this world (Ephesians 4:14). It's not difficult for such attractions to become our idols. When we prioritize and worship those things, we make them our idols. As such, we can be choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures, thereby failing to become mature in Christ (Luke 8:14).
Let's not remain little children; let's instead grow to maturity in Christ, so that through him and in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, we'll bear good, healthy, spiritual fruit, while keeping ourselves from gaining the whole world but losing our souls (Mark 8:36).
Matthew Henry (1662–1714) said this about vv. 18–21: "All mankind are divided into two parties or dominions; that which belongs to God and that which belongs to the wicked one. True believers belong to God: they are of God, and from him, and for him; while the rest, by far the greater number, are in the power of the wicked one; they do his works and support his cause. This general declaration includes all unbelievers, whatever their profession, station, or situation, or by whatever name they may be called.
"The Son leads believers to the Father; they are in the love, union, and favour of both by the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. Happy are those to whom it is given to know that the Son of God is come, and to have a heart to trust in and rely on him who is true! May this be our privilege; we shall be kept from all idols and false doctrines, and the idolatrous love of worldly objects, and be kept by the power of God, through faith, unto eternal salvation. To this living and true God, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
- Q. 1 What does it mean that "anyone born of God does not continue to sin”?
- Q. 2 On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how successful are you at avoiding idols?
1 John 5:18–21