28 January 2009

The Johannine Letters: I John 5: 13-21

The cross on a relief carving in Saint John’s Basilica in Ephesus. In I John, the secessionists are compared with idolaters (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

I John 5: 13-21

The Epilogue

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

14 And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. 16 If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one – to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.

18 We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. 19 We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one. 20 And we know 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, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

13 Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ἵνα εἰδῆτε ὅτι ζωὴν ἔχετε αἰώνιον, τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ.

14 καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ παρρησία ἣν ἔχομεν πρὸς αὐτόν, ὅτι ἐάν τι αἰτώμεθα κατὰ τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ ἀκούει ἡμῶν. 15 καὶ ἐὰν οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀκούει ἡμῶν ὃ ἐὰν αἰτώμεθα, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἔχομεν τὰ αἰτήματα ἃ ᾐτήκαμεν ἀπ' αὐτοῦ. 16 Ἐάν τις ἴδῃ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἁμαρτάνοντα ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον, αἰτήσει, καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ ζωήν, τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσιν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον. ἔστιν ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον: οὐ περὶ ἐκείνης λέγω ἵνα ἐρωτήσῃ. 17 πᾶσα ἀδικία ἁμαρτία ἐστίν, καὶ ἔστιν ἁμαρτία οὐ πρὸς θάνατον.

18 Οἴδαμεν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει, ἀλλ' ὁ γεννηθεὶς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ τηρεῖ αὐτόν, καὶ ὁ πονηρὸς οὐχ ἅπτεται αὐτοῦ. 19 οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐσμεν, καὶ ὁ κόσμος ὅλος ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ κεῖται. 20 οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἥκει, καὶ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν ἵνα γινώσκωμεν τὸν ἀληθινόν: καὶ ἐσμὲν ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ. οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος.

21 Τεκνία, φυλάξατε ἑαυτὰ ἀπὸ τῶν εἰδώλων.


We have reached the end of I John, and the Epilogue. In 1960s and 1970s television thriller dramas, we were often treated to “The Epilogue,” in which we were told what happened afterwards to the villain or the hero. In this Epilogue in I John the readers are told what faces them and the secessionists if they follow or fail to follow what the writer has asked of them.

We could summarise the whole purpose of the author of I John as giving his children, the faithful members of the Church in Ephesus, the assurance that they share in the divine life of Christ. Of course, the Gospel according to Saint John shares the same purpose – and this is stated in the conclusion of both the Gospel and this Epistle.

Verses 13-17:

In this Epilogue, the writer returns to the theme of asking for things according to God’s will. The Early Church soon discovered that private requests in prayer were not always granted.

The author of I John is cautious as he tells his readers that while prayers will be heard in regard to most sins and most sinners, there is one sin so serious that he does not encourage people to pray for the offender.

Why does I John not tell us what this sin is? Have you ever wondered what it is?

Probably I John here is referring to the secessionists in the Church in Ephesus, and their apostasy, with the hint that this sin would be judged harshly throughout the Church. Many of the Early Fathers of the Church taught that schism was worse than heresy, because schism tore the Church, the Body of Christ apart, while heresy could be admonished and corrected with careful teaching.

It’s not that schism is unforgivable; it’s that we should leave it and those who breach the fellowship of the Church in God’s hands.

On the other hand, the idea that every other sin is open to forgiveness through prayer could lead to a very lax and libertine attitude within the Church.

In verse 16, there is a reference to mortal sin? What do you think of the distinctions some people make between mortal sin and venial sin?

Verses 18-20:

The author returns once more to contrasting sin with being a child of God. The words in verse 18 translated in the RSV as “is protected” are rendered in some manuscripts as “protects himself.” Jesus, the Son of God, protects Christians from the devil, and so the children of God stand divided from Satan’s world.

Then in verses 18-20, we find a series of three “We know” (οἴδαμεν) statements:

● We know that those who are born of God do not sin;
● We know that we are God’s children;
● We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding.

These three statements are defiant proclamations against the secessionists. We know what they don’t know; while they claim secret knowledge and wisdom, in reality they know nothing of importance at all.

The last of these three “we know” statements in verse 20 – “and we know 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, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” – triumphantly confesses the coming of the Son of God, the acceptance of his revelation, and the consequent union with the Father through the Son.

Does the final sentence – the phrase “He is the true God and eternal life” – refer to the Father or to the Son? If it refers to the Son, then I John ends, as Saint John’s Gospel ends, with a dramatic statement of the divinity of Christ.

If we compare the prologue ands the epilogue, we will notice too the theme of life in the prologue is repeated again in the epilogue.

Verse 21:

The last words could be a warning against the readers falling back into the cult of Artemis and the other idolatrous cults in Ephesus. But it is more likely that are a warning to them not to join the secessionists, for they are professing a false Christology, and in their false teachings they may as well have gone over to the worship of idols.

Next: II John

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study with a tutorial group on Wednesday 28 January 2009.

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