1 John offers a Twitter version of John 3:16 as the central claim of this week's text: "God gave us eternal life, and this life is in God's Son." (1 John 5:11b).
The "open essay" (or perhaps a sermon, but certainly not a letter) of 1 John is written to encourage a community that is divided over the question of the humanity of Jesus. Yes, Jesus' humanity. That sounds a little odd in our day, where modern and post-modern questions are more likely to arise around the divinity of Christ. Nonetheless, some of the members of the 1 John community have split off from the church, [apparently] denying that Jesus is the Christ (2:22) or that he came in the flesh (4:2-3). The author is intent on encouraging those who remain that their confession of the earthly Jesus as the Christ and Son of God is true.
Whom to believe?
If word count is any measure, the central issue in the assigned text is testimony (Greek =marturia, "witness"), and specifically the validity and content of God's testimony about God's Son.
The opening line is a conditional sentence with a protasis assumed to be true: "If we receive human testimony (which, in fact, we do), the testimony of God is greater..." We should note that the emphasis here is on the weight of the testimony (i.e., God's testimony exceeds human testimony and makes a greater demand on our assent). This claim about God's testimony sets up the rest of the passage, and it sets up a choice as well, suggested in verses 10-11.
Will we, or will we not believe the "testimony that God has testified" concerning God's Son (5:10)?
Commentators often point to a comparable construction in the Gospel of John 5:33-37, where Jesus says of John the Baptist's testimony, "Not that I accept such human testimony...But I have a testimony greater than John's. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf." The best witness that Jesus is God's own son is God Godself.
In the midst of a theological conflict, can there be any higher authority than God?
Evidence for the testimony
What is this proof that God's testimony is true? That is, how can the believer know that the earthly Jesus is, indeed, the Christ, the Son of God? Evidence for the validity of God's testimony is not simply a lofty claim made by the author of 1 John. It is validated by the experience of the community, which has heard, seen, looked at and touched the evidence for it-self (1:1-2). Further, the Spirit, the water (baptism) and the blood (Jesus' death on the cross) also testify to the truth (5:8).
Equally important, this truth is the possession of each believer, who "has" the testimony within (5:10).1 "And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in God's Son. Whoever has the Son has life..." (5:11).
Thus, the most compelling evidence is the gift of eternal life.
The author is not trying to persuade people to believe in Christ -- his readers are already among the believers. Instead, he is encouraging them with the knowledge that they already possess eternal life (5:13). Eternal life is the strongest evidence for God's testimony, and it is manifested among them in ways they have already experienced.
Both the Gospel of John and 1 John understand eternal life to be a present reality as well as future promise for those who believe in Jesus Christ. "Life" in this sense (Greek = zoē) has to do with a quality of existence that death cannot destroy. That is, it is "eternal," not in the sense of lasting forever, but in its quality, in its manifestation in the here and now.
How does the community know that it has eternal life? Evidence offered elsewhere in 1 John suggests the following:
a) by its love for one another (3:14);
b) by laying down life for one another (3:16);
c) by sharing the world's goods with those who are in need (3:17);
d) in its obedience to Jesus' commandment, which is to believe in his name and love one another (3:23; 5:3-5).
Thus, the most persuasive evidence for eternal life is seen in the extent to which the community walks in the manner that Jesus walked (2:5b-6) and demonstrates its love for one another (4:11-12; 20-21).
The preacher has an opportunity to show (tell, give evidence for, testify) to the love of God that is already manifested in the gathered community. What does eternal life look like from where you sit? Where do you see love enacted in the lives of your people? Where is generosity made manifest, what is being sacrificed for the sake of the other? If we receive such human testimony, the testimony of God is greater: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in God's Son.
1The NRSV inclusivizes the passage by rendering it in the plural, but the Greek text contains a singular subject: "the one who believes... the one who does not believe." The NRSV "in their hearts" is not present in the Greek; a better translation, consistent with the NRSV plural forms is, "Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in themselves.")