< May 13, 2012 >

Commentary on 1 John 5:1-6

 

Verse 1 once again unites what this author has repeatedly refused to separate: belief in Jesus and love for one's brothers and sisters in the church (loving "the child" at the end of verse 1 is a reference to any other believer, not to Jesus).

Elsewhere in 1 John, the sign of being born from God has been love; here, the mark of being born from God is proper Christological belief. This does not indicate a contradiction within 1 John, since anyone who believes in Jesus as the Christ will love the Father who sent him, and anyone who loves the Father of Jesus will also love all God's other children. 

At the end of the previous chapter (4:20-21), the author argued that one could identify love for God by whether or not there was love for the brother or sister in faith. In 5:2 the author turns that equation around. One loves God's children by loving God and keeping God's commandments.  Though it may seem as though the author is just writing in circles, this is not nonsense. Love for God and love for God's children are integrally connected. They both flow from the belief that God sent the Son for our sake, and one love cannot exist without the other.

Although the mention of "commandments" in verse 2 could be taken to mean the moral code of the Torah or more narrowly the 10 Commandments, there is no focus on the Law in 1 John; in fact, the word "Law" never appears in the Johannine letters. The "commandments," which the author does mention frequently, have already been identified as two united concerns: belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and love for one another (3:23).

In the first part, what is called for is not simply belief in God, but belief in God specifically as the one revealed in the Son. Proper Christological confession is a commandment, since from the Johannine perspective neither faith nor obedience is possible without the revelation brought by Jesus. The second focus of what is meant by "commandments" has to do with mutual love. Although the world may be spoken of as the ultimate scope of God's love in sending the Son (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2), it is particularly within the community of the church, informed by faith and empowered by the Spirit, where love can be learned and lived. Thus love for God does not consist of ecstatic experiences or private feelings, but of concrete, public, and visible obedience: by confessing faith in God's Son, and by loving God's other children.

Obedience to these commandments is not a burden (verse 3) because those who have been born from God through faith have conquered the world (verse 4). Language about "conquering" or "victory" (the verb and noun share the same root in Greek) has appeared earlier in this book, where the author wrote about victory over the evil one (2:13-14) who is "in the world" (4:4).

Faith is victory over the world not because believers wield the world's power in a superior way, but because faith means confessing the Son of God and loving God's children, the very things that the evil one tries to prevent (4:1-4). Victory over "the world" does not require spiritual heroics or ascetic denial of creation. Instead, victory is found through faith in what Jesus is and has done; nothing else is needed. 

Verse 6 contains the most problematic section of this pericope. Jesus is described as the one who came not just "with" water, but "by" or "with" (there is probably no distinction to be made between the two prepositions here) water and blood. The puzzle about what this means has occupied interpreters from the earliest times of the church. Some have suggested that this is a reference to Baptism and Eucharist, though that suggestion is unpersuasive since there is no other sign that sacramental teaching has been a point of contention for this community. The mention of blood almost certainly refers to Jesus' death. Though there may be a faint literary echo of the blood and water that came from Jesus' side in John 19:34, that verse probably is not the primary referent since the word order there is different.

More likely is that the mention of water is meant to recall Jesus' baptism. Perhaps those who have left the community claimed that Jesus' ministry, begun with his baptism, was saving but that his death was not. Perhaps they even espoused the heresy for which there is later evidence, that Jesus became God's Son only at his baptism and that the divine incarnation abandoned the human Jesus at the crucifixion. Despite these uncertain possibilities of interpretation, what is certain is that the author insists that the "blood" is a crucial part of the Son's "coming," i.e. of his saving mission. Of this the Spirit is witness (verse 6b), a claim that may recall how Jesus gave the Spirit from the cross in John 19:30, but surely also points to how the Spirit bears witness to the saving importance of Jesus' death through the faithful confession of the church.

The insistence that Jesus' "coming" included his bloody death is a reminder that the victory claimed in 1 John 5 turns normal assumptions about "victory" on their heads, and it is a reminder about what the church claims at all times, but with particular focus in the Easter season. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, God's love has been revealed, and God's love has overcome all possible opposition. The deadly decisions and judgments of the world have been overturned once and for all.

This overcoming of the world is not a profound fable or inspiring mythology, but is reality made concrete in the community of the church, as God's love overcomes the divisions, animosities, and death that the world would promote, maintain, and exploit. Those who believe have overcome the world because their life, love, and identity are not determined by the deceptions of the world, but by the object of their faith, Jesus as the Son who was crucified and raised.