Commentary on 1 John 5:1-6
In his splendid study of the Epistles of John, David Rensberger points out that with 1 John 5:1, the emphasis of our author shifts from love to faith and belief.1
Yet, throughout this homily, the twofold stress of John’s gospel is recapitulated and refined. Christian life requires both faith in Jesus and love of the brothers and sisters.
Notice what faith looks like here. It requires the twofold confession that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1), and he is the Son of God (1 John 5:5).
I suspect that this twofold requirement represents our author’s interpretation of the very last verse of the Gospel of John, before the epilogue of John 21: “But these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
One issue at stake for our author’s community is whether the Messiah was fully incarnate in human flesh, or was instead a kind of spiritual Christ only pretending to take on humanity.
In that case, this epistle’s reading of John 20 might be somewhat different than that of the NRSV: “These things are written so that you may come to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.” That is, true faith consists not in believing that the Messiah/Son of God appeared in Jesus like form, as if the human were divine. True faith consists in believing that in Jesus the divine (God’s Word) becomes human.
With this reading, it might be better to translate 1 John 5:1 and 5:5 a little differently, too. “Everyone who believes that the Messiah is (really) Jesus has been born of God” (5:1), and “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that the Son of God is (truly and entirely) Jesus?” (5:5).
That might help us understand the puzzling Christological claim of 1 John 5:6. “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.”
The water seems to refer to the waters of baptism (cf. John 3:5), and it may be that for our author’s opponents, Jesus’ baptism was the point where the divine Word took on the appearance of flesh.
But if the baptized Messiah might only appear to be human, the crucified Messiah is inescapably human. Blood binds the godhead to the world. Again the passage echoes John’s gospel. When the soldier pierces Jesus side with a spear, “at once blood and water came out” (John 19:34).
In the classes I teach on the Gospels, students sometimes want to make a distinction between what Jesus does as a human (argues with the Syro-Phoenician woman) and what Jesus does as God (heals her daughter).
Granted, there are times in the Gospel of John where Jesus seems so close to his Father that he has one foot in heaven. But the epistle writer warns his people against any sense that the divine being “Messiah” and “Son of God” was only masquerading as this human Jesus. He insists again and again on what the Gospel says most clearly in its great overture: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) — by the water and the blood.
The First Epistle of John is rather like the movement of a classic symphony. A theme is introduced by the strings and seems to disappear, only to return again played this time by the woodwinds.
In these six verses familiar themes of the epistle recur with fresh nuances. And again, each theme reminds us not only of the first chapters of this epistle, but of John’s Gospel which must have served as scripture for this community.
Though the epistle’s stress has shifted from the emphasis on love to the emphasis on belief, it is clear that love of God is inseparable from love of one’s Christian sisters and brothers.
In 1 John 5:2, the order of priority shifts. It is not that we know we love God because we love the sisters and brothers. Rather, we know that we love God’s children because we know that we love God.
The twofold loyalty to God and to brothers and sisters is inseparable. We know we love God because we love others; we know we love others because we love God. And there is no love of God without the love of one’s neighbor.
What if we turned our homiletical strategy around to fit this passage? Our usual sermon is “You really shouldn’t be here worshipping God unless you love your neighbor.”
A sermon on this passage might say, “I notice that you are here worshipping God and doing so in good conscience, therefore — even more than you may realize — you are one who loves your brothers and sisters, too. I can tell by your piety the potential for your loving kindness.”
The life of faith is a life within family. God is the parent in this family; believers are brothers and sisters. As in any healthy family, the community grows both in parental and in sibling love and loyalty.
However, the family of faith is defined over against the world without.
The family consists of all those who confess that the Messiah is Jesus; the world is those who deny it. In the context of this epistle, we suspect that the world is not only those who have no faith. Now, it is also the world of those whose inadequate Christian faith leads them away from the truth.
Lastly, the family of faith lives under the Spirit. For this Epistle as for John’s Gospel, the Spirit testifies to Christ. And like Christ, the Spirit is not only true, but truth.
1David Rensberger, Westminster Bible Companion: The Epistles of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001) 81.