Commentary on 1 John 5:1-6
The community to whom 1 John was written was facing a crisis.
Former members of the community were denying that Jesus was truly the Messiah, God’s flesh and blood, fully human, son. Like many churches facing doctrinal conflict, 1 John’s community seems to have been confused, afraid, and unsure what to do. Whom should they believe? How could they know what was true, and what was not? How should they react?
1 John’s simple, confident response is as relevant today as it was when the letter was first written: You know who you are, you know whose you are, and you know what you have been told from the beginning. God’s own Spirit shows us what is true. There’s no need to panic or argue. Focus on living your faith instead. God has the whole situation under control.
1 John reminds the community that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah — the anointed Son of God — has been born of God. They have no reason to be afraid, for they belong to God. As God’s children, they can rest assured that they are loved and protected by their divine parent.
If they love God, then naturally they will love anyone born of God too, because how can one love a parent without loving the child whom the parent brought into being? The child of God referred to in 1 John 5:1 is first and foremost Jesus, but the author also means to say any child of God, as verse two makes clear. Jesus is born of God, but everyone who believes in him becomes his brother or sister. Whoever loves the parent loves not just one of the parent’s children but all of them. The consequences of this conclusion are enormous: every child of God is linked to Jesus. Every injustice done to a child of God echoes the injustice done to him. Every act of violence committed against a child of God recalls the violence committed against Jesus.
Loving God, loving God’s children, and keeping God’s commandments form inseparable links in a circular chain. In its depiction of this interwoven reality, 1 John echoes Jesus’ conversation with his disciples on the night before his death: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15); “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (John 14:21); “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:14).
1 John reminds its readers that God’s commands are not burdensome. Here again we hear an echo of Jesus, who denounces the religious leaders for loading people down with “heavy burdens hard to bear” (Matthew 23:4). The Greek word that NRSV translates as “heavy” is barus, the same adjective translated as “burdensome” in 1 John 5:2. By contrast, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). Like Jesus, 1 John insists that God’s commands are not difficult. In essence, they consist in the call to love, “not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Genuine faith, therefore, is firmly connected with active love.
Those with true faith also confess that Jesus is the Son of God. For 1 John, confessing that Jesus is the Son of God means believing that Jesus is the one who came through (dia) water and blood (1 John 5:6). The verse goes on to specify, “not in (en) water only, but in (en) water and in (en) blood” (my translations). Scholars argue about the precise meaning of this phrase. Some suggest that it refers to the blood and water that came out of Jesus’ pierced side after his crucifixion (John 19:34). Others see it as referring to the water in which Jesus was baptized and the blood that flowed from him during his crucifixion, or as encompassing his whole life from the breaking of his mother’s bag of waters to his bloody death. Whatever the precise meaning of the phrase, its basic point is clear: Jesus did not simply appear to be human. He was truly flesh and blood. Nor was he God’s Son only during his baptism and ministry. The fact that he was God’s Son did not mean that Jesus somehow escaped the full consequences of being human. He shared the whole human experience of living and dying. He remained God’s Son even in his agonizing death by torture on the cross. Jesus was born, baptized, and crucified to empower all of us to become God’s children, cleansed by his blood (1 John 1:7). This is not some inessential doctrinal point. 1 John insists that this is the heart of our faith.
Truly Christian faith conquers the world not by military might or doctrinal arguments or coercion, but by love. Christians believe in the Son of God who, rather than shedding the blood of others to prove that he was the Messiah, allowed his own blood to be shed. God’s children triumph not by inflicting suffering on others or by avoiding pain at all costs but by allowing God to work within and through them even in their suffering. What applies to individual Christians applies also to the Christian community. The Church triumphs over false teaching not by force or argument, but because of and through the suffering love of the crucified Messiah. This is the truth to which the Holy Spirit testifies: God’s son was tortured and broken for us. This is the faith that overcomes the world: God’s love brings life even out of brokenness and death. This is the victory to which we are called: loving God’s children, and thus living our faith in the crucified, risen Son of God.