Commentary on 1 John 5:9-13
As with the previous eight verses of this chapter, 1 John 5:9-13 persists with connections to the Gospel traditions, especially John 20.
These connections include the emphasis on believing language about the Son of God, “writing these things,” and having eternal life. A quick glance back at John 20:31 illustrates this point; here the Evangelist explains, “These things have been written so that you should believe that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus and that by believing you should have life in his name.” In addition, 1 John 5:13 replicates language from the Gospel Prologue as well, repeating the line “the ones believing in the name” (see John 1:12). Bringing together high points of tradition from the Gospel, along with themes from the sermon of 1 John, the preacher moves toward his conclusion and emphasizes, again, the gift of eternal life that comes from God alone, through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and which is experienced by means of the Spirit.
Looking more closely at 1 John 5:9-13, this section of text can be divided into an introduction in verse 9, followed by a chiastic arrangement in verses 10-12, and a conclusion in verse 13. Of course, these verses form only part of chapter five and should be read in conjunction with their context, but this description can guide our reading of this pericope and centers our attention in particular on verse 11. My translation and arrangement are as follows:
9If we receive the witness of people, the witness of God is greater.
For this is the witness of God that he has witnessed concerning his Son.
10The one believing in the Son of God has the witness in him.
The one not believing in God has made him a liar because he has not believed
in the witness which God has witnessed concerning his Son.
11And this is the witness:
God has given eternal life to us.
And this is the life in his Son.
12The one having the Son has the life.
The one not having the Son of God does not have the life.
13I wrote these things to you, the ones believing in the name of the Son of God,
so that you might see that you have eternal life!
Verse 11 falls between two couplets in verses 10 and 12, both of which offers a positive description (the one believing, the one having) followed by its negative opposite (the one not believing, the one not having). Moreover, verse 11 contains its own chiastic structure that narrows the focus even more squarely on the middle phrase: God has given eternal life to us. This emphasis on eternal life continues through the rest of verses 12-13, and resurfaces at the end of the sermon as well: “And we know that the Son of God has come and he has given understanding to us, so that we might know the True One, and we are in the True One, in his Son, Jesus Christ. This One is the True God and Eternal Life” (1 John 5:20).
The focus on eternal life, however, brings up a key question: what is “eternal life” and how are believers experiencing it? The answer comes when we follow the chain of words in 1 John 5:9-13 backward, tracing the path the preacher has used throughout the sermon. In 1 John 5:11, God’s having given “eternal life to us” is the gist of his “witness.” Moving backward to 1 John 5:6, we find that the “witness is the Spirit,” who is also described as the “Truth.” Still further back in the sermon, we find a discussion of the “Spirit of Truth” in contrast to the “spirit of deception” in 1 John 3:23-4:6. The Spirit of Truth is characterized as having its source from God, and its presence among the “children of God” is evidence of the community’s fellowship with God:
And this is his [God’s] commandment:
that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ
and we should love one another, just as he gave us a commandment.
And everyone who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he remains in them. And in this we know that he remains in us, he has given to us from his Spirit (pneumatos). (1 John 3:23-24)
According to 1 John, therefore, those who are experiencing eternal life are those who are inspired by God’s Spirit to speak truth and to live out love that is consistent with God’s revelation through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
First John was written in a world where “Spirit” or “breath” (pneuma) was understood as an animating force involved not only in respiration, but also in the conception and generation of an unborn child. Living people take in “spirit” when they breathe, but they were also shaped by “spirit” in their mothers’ wombs. Not surprisingly, different spirits could animate positively or negatively depending on their sources (compare with 1 John 4:1). For 1 John, the “children of God” are those who have been begotten by means of God’s Spirit and have God’s “seed” in them (3:9). Having been formed by this Spirit anew, the children are enabled to confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2) and to show God’s love in their own lives (3:16; 4:7; 5:1-4).
For the preacher of 1 John, therefore, it is when we recognize God’s life-giving Spirit among us that we see the eternal life we already have. It is by means of this Spirit, given only after Jesus’ return to the Father, that we can participate in the fellowship God has made possible for us. We gather and exist as “children of God” together, and we experience fellowship with God as well as with one another. It is the Spirit who enables such fellowship by animating the “children of God” and connecting them with the Father, and the Son, who are together in heaven (1 John 2:1-2). This Spirit communicates God’s love, and God’s will of life, to all who are animated by it.