Confessing Christ in the Midst of Error—A Greek Exegesis of 1 John 5:18-21

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Corporate Confession of 1 john 5:18-21

The Big Idea

Context

The recipients of John’s first epistle were apparently dealing with false teaching that had been the cause of major turmoil in the recipients’ church(es). This schism over the person and work of Christ apparently went so deep that the false teachers ended up seceding from the church. John has spent the last five chapters both correcting these errors and painting a portrait of a true believer. His aim was both to inform his recipients regarding the nature of the true church and to provide comfort and assurance to the regenerate in light of the terrifying implications of persisting in heresy (5:13).

In the immediate context (5:16-17), John has just instructed the recipients to pray for a brother committing a sin not leading to death (ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον). On the other hand, there is a sin leading to death (ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον), and they are not to pray for someone who is committing such a sin.

Main Idea of Passage

On the heels of that heavy truth, John ends his epistle with a vital and comforting corporate confession of faith. 1 John 5:18-21 presents the recipients with a series of three corporate confessions, all marked by the triumphant affirmation, “We know that…” (1 Jn 5:18, 19, 20; οἴδαμεν ὅτι). The content of this confession is a glorious affirmation of the essentials of the Christian faith. In this text, we confess the deity of Christ, His advent and prophetic role of revealing the Father to us, our union with Him, and Christ’s preserving work in the life of the believer. The passage (and the whole epistle) is ended with one last exhortation to stay faithful to this confession contrary to the heretical affirmations and denials of the false teachers in their midst.

Textual Analysis

The passage opens the first affirmation with the first of three uses of the phrase, “οἴδαμεν ὅτι”. The first person plural “οἴδαμεν” functions in all its three occurrences to include the recipients with the author in affirming the truths that bind them together as apostolic Christians. Marshall makes the case that the use of the perfect active indicative emphasizes a state of knowledge, as opposed to the process of coming to know something.1 These are things that, as born again believers, John and his recipients know for certain.

The affirmation of verse 18 is that no one who has been born of God sins, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one cannot touch him. I believe both genitive phrases are genitives of source, focusing on our identity as new creations of God. As is apparent from my translation above, I take the phrase, “ἀλλ’ ὁ γεννηθεὶς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ τηρεῖ ἑαυτόν,” ([NA28]) to identify Jesus as the One who was born of God, and as the One who keeps everyone who has been born of God. This translation is based on a variant, which reads ἀυτον in the place of the ἑαυτόν adopted in the [NA28]. Marshall, Kruse, Yarbrough, and Baugh all agree that the variant ἀυτον is probably the original reading.2345 The witnesses to this variant are found in A* B 1852 latt. The reflexive element of ἑαυτόν is part of what makes it unlikely to have been original. Given that reading, the passage would be saying that Christians do not sin because they keep themselves and the evil one cannot touch them. While the theme of a Christian’s effort in their own sanctification is not foreign to Scripture, such a theme does not seem to fit well in the consistently Christ-centered theology of this corporate confession, in which we are powerfully comforted by the truth of Jesus’s saving and preserving power.

So according to verse 18, what is it about the keeping power of Jesus that accomplishes our inability to sin in the way dealt with in this text? He keeps us from the “evil one” (ὁ πονηρὸς). This is a reference to the devil, in whom the whole world lies, according to verse 19. This last clause in verse 18 about the evil one not being able to touch him ends with a genitive αὐτοῦ for “him”, the referent being ὁ γεγεννημένος—the ones who have been born [of God]. This unusual use of the genitive is explained by the fact that ἅπτεται takes an object in the genitive.

Verse 19 introduces the second confessional “οἴδαμεν ὅτι” phrase. “We know that we are of God and the whole world lies in the evil one.” The “ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ” is, again, a genitive of source, and the “ὁ κόσμος ὅλος ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ κεῖται” is perhaps either a dative of possession or union, communicating the idea of being in the evil one’s grip. Yarbrough says that the word “κεῖται” carries the idea of languishing, as if the world lies down powerlessly under the devil’s dominion without the strength or slightest ability to rectify themselves.6

The third and final “οἴδαμεν ὅτι” affirmation occurs in verse 20. The weighty truths confessed here are the deity of Christ, His advent and prophetic or revelatory role in making Father known, and our union with God through Christ. “ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ” is a genitive of relation, emphasizing the relation of the Son to the Father. The verb “ἥκω” is translated with a perfective force, in spite of the fact that it is present in form, according to BDAG.7 “The Son of God has come…” The dative of the phrase, “δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν” could be called a dative of conveyance, communicating the idea that Jesus has come and has given us understanding.

The next phrase tells us that He has given this understanding in order that we might know Him who is true. Yarbrough argues for a variant against the [NA28] rendering, replacing the subjunctive “γινώσκωμεν” with a future indicative “γινωσκομεν”.8 This variant has a fairly wide attestation (MSS א A B* P 33. 81. 307. 442. 1243. 1735. 1881), and has added weight due to being the more difficult reading by replacing the expected subjunctive with an indicative. In spite of the merits of his argument, I find that the subjunctive idea better fits with the flow of thought in the passage. John’s focus seems to be on what we have now in Christ, not what we will have.

The articular adjective, “τὸν ἀληθινόν,” contains an implied pronoun—“Him who is true”. I take the two dative phrases, “ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ,” as datives of union or location, and the genitive, “αὐτοῦ,” as a genitive of relation. The phrase “ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ” refers to God the Father, and we are said to be in “ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ,” in His Son, Jesus Christ. Two persons are necessarily in view here. We are united with God the Father because we have been united with God the Son, who is one with God the Father. If we are in Christ, we are in God, and no one can be in God apart from Christ.

This final “οἴδαμεν ὅτι” confession ends with a bold declaration of the deity of Christ. There is debate over the referent of the “οὗτός” in “οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος,” but Kruse makes the case that grammatically, having Jesus as the referent is supported by the fact that “Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ” is the closest antecedent.9 Marshall convincingly argues that, “It is precisely because Jesus is the true God that the person who is in him is also in the Father.”10 Wallace concludes that there is absolutely no grammatical reason that this “οὗτός” cannot refer to Jesus Christ.11

The closing verse, verse 21, contains one last command from the apostle: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” Baugh argues that the aorist imperative, “φυλάξατε,” carries a specialized meaning. It could either have an inceptive nuance (“set your guard out against…”), or a sharp, emphatic warning (“Watch out!”).12

Themes in the Text

The themes touched on 1 John 5:18-21 are some of the most vital truths one can know. In this passage we clearly see the deity of Christ, His advent and prophetic role of revealing the Father to us, our union with Jesus, and His preserving work in the life of the believer. Considering the purpose and content of the letter, it’s not surprising that John would conclude his epistle with such a glorious, acute, doctrinal crescendo. Because of the rich and critical nature of the themes found in these affirmations, there is no shortage of witness to them in the rest of 1 John, or in the Bible as a whole.

Textual Themes Throughout Letter

Verse 18 opens by identifying a certain type of person—one who has been born of God. This is a theme seen throughout the letter in the form of familial titles given to Christians (3:1-2, 10, 14-17), references to God’s seed abiding in us (3:9), and many explicit references to our being “born of God” (3:9, 4:7, 5:1-2). The idea being expressed here is that we have entered our new life in union with Christ by means of God’s grace. The statement being made about everyone who is born of God is that they do not sin. Clearly, John does not have sinless perfection in view here. In 1:9, John reminded us of the promise of God’s faithfulness to forgive our sins when we confess them. In fact, John said that “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1:8) Clearly, then, what’s in view here is a certain kind of sin that the Christian is unable to commit. This understanding comes from 3:4-10. In those verses, John pivots from talking about the kind of sin Christians commit to a lawless sin that Christians are unable to commit. Christians will in fact sin during this lifetime, but our sin will always be before the face of God. Our sin can never again be the lawless rejection of Christ that it was before we were born of God because our minds have been irrevocably opened to His Lordship. All that we do after the new birth is done in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. We are unable to sin lawlessly. This distinction between different kinds of sin is likely what is in view in John’s differentiation between sin leading to death and sin not leading to death in 5:16-17. Verse 18 is undoubtedly given to comfort and encourage the believers that might be disturbed by the thought of the sin leading to death discussed in the previous 2 verses. A hardened, damnable sin is indeed a horrifying thought, so John follows that thought by picking up the reassurance of 3:4-10 that if they are in Christ, they are unable to commit such a sin.

This inability to sin is due to the preservation of Christ in the life of the believer. Our minds are irrevocably opened to the Lordship of Christ because Jesus preserves us in that state. This preservation is seen in the anointing that abides in us and teaches us all things that Jesus has given His people (2:27). This is inextricably associated with the new birth. In fact, the language of 2:27 is almost certainly a reference to Jeremiah 31:34, which promises that in the new covenant, parties to the covenant will no longer teach one another to know the Lord, for all will know Him. This is said to be the result of a transformation of the heart where the Lord puts His law within us. We are kept by Christ and the evil one cannot touch us (cf. Jn 17:12)!

The truth communicated in verse 18 is a precious and gloriously comforting truth in light of the reality of verse 19—that the entire world is subject to the devil. In the world there is fleshly disregard for God, idolatrous lusts, and death (2:15-17). The world does not know God, and hates His children (3:1, 13). False, antichrist, lying spirits fill this world, which lies in the evil one (4:1-6). And through the death and slavery of mankind to sin, the world is powerless to escape his grip. But all who are born of God are of God, and are guarded by Christ, and the evil one cannot touch them! This does not mean that Christians are spared the ravaging effects of sin in this world, but that their final perseverance and future glorification is sealed in Christ.

Verse 20 opens with a confession of the truth that the Son of God has come. This harkens back to the opening verses where attention is given to the corporeal form of Jesus—the Eternal Life was manifested to them (1:2), and they heard Him, saw Him, and touched Him (1:1). God sent His Son into the world so that we might live through Him (4:9). And in His coming, Christ gave us understanding so that we may know Him who is true. Knowing God is a major theme in First John. There are 8 references to knowing God in the letter, and multiple references to those who do not know God. According to 5:20, Jesus came for the purpose of giving us understanding so that we may know God. Surely the knowledge of God is the most noble thing anyone could seek. In fact, Scripture teaches us that knowing God is eternal life (John 17:3)!

Verse 20 goes on to say that not only do we know Him who is true, but we are in Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true because we are in His Son, who is in Him. Union with the Father and the Son is a theme seen throughout First John (2:22-24, 4:4, 15-16). The reason 2:22-24 makes the statement that denial and rejection of the Son is denial and rejection of the Father and confession of the Son is possession of the Father also is because the Son and Father truly are God. To be in the Son is to be in the Father because the Son is the true God and eternal life!

First John paints a beautiful picture of the idea of eternal life. The last statement of verse 20 affirms that Jesus is eternal life. Believers are united with Him, and as He rose never to die again, so we rose in Him and are seated with Him in the heavenly places! 1:1-2 speaks of Jesus as the Word of Life that was manifested. He Himself is the eternal life that was with the Father and was manifested to us! And 2:25 makes the wonderful promise that God the Father has promised His church this Eternal Life! John says it clearly and beautifully in 5:11-13:

And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13)

The epistle ends on what may seem like an abrupt note, and its command may seem out of place. John bids his recipients to guard themselves from idols. Kruse says that this can be taken either literally or metaphorically—literally referring to pagan idols, metaphorically referring to the empty doctrines of the false teachers.13 Kruse, citing Sugit, suggests that since a gloss for “εἴδωλον” in classical Greek is phantom, the unreality of the ideas of the false teachers may be in view here.14 That seems probable, since these false teachers and their doctrines have been a main critique and quite possibly the biggest motivation for John’s entire letter.

Throughout the letter we have seen the black and white contrast of true believers and imposters, and we’ve been taught Christ—the center of who we are, the reason why we are who we are, and the only way that we will remain who we are. Accepting the metaphorical view of this final command, John’s concluding exhortation perfectly sums up the letter—“Christ is your God! The object of these false teachings is not Christ! Stay the course!” Seen this way, verse 21 is a final exhortation to guard themselves from error and cling to Christ.

Application

If enabling us to know God is the reason why Christ came and gave us understanding, one important application for church ministry is that we should carefully study the attributes of God. Given what we see about Him here, what more important study could you do with your church? By means of systematic and biblical theology, we can come to more profoundly understand the infinite glories of our Creator. Understanding what God has revealed about Himself in Scripture will cause us to grow in our capacity to marvel over His person and His work, in light of our sinfulness. This will also equip the church to guard themselves from idolatrous misconceptions about the character of God that cover America today!

Knowing God is eternal life, and that eternal life is in Christ alone! Union with Him alone is union with God. There is no life outside of Christ! The obvious application of this is that we must be rigorously Christ-centered! Foster trust and reliance upon the One who keeps us. To summarize, be a glory of God focused, Christ honoring, Bible saturated, local church minded minister!

bibliography

Arndt, William F, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick W Danker, and Walter Bauer.A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: A Translation and Adaptation of the Fourth Revised and Augmented Edition of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch Zu Den Schriften Des Neuen Testaments Und Der Übrigen Urchristlichen Literatur. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Baugh, S. M.A First John Reader: Intermediate Greek Reading Notes and Grammar. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 1999.

Kruse, Colin G.The Letters of John. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. ; Apollos, 2000.

Marshall, I. Howard.The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

Wallace, Daniel B, and Daniel B Wallace.The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar, 2000.

Yarbrough, Robert W.1-3 John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

1Marshall, The Epistles of John, 251.

2Baugh, A First John Reader, 79–80.

3Kruse, The Letters of John, 195.

4Marshall, The Epistles of John, 252.

5Yarbrough, 1-3 John, 316–321.

6Ibid., 317.

7Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.

8Yarbrough, 1-3 John, 321.

9Kruse, The Letters of John, 197.

10Marshall, The Epistles of John, 254.

11Wallace and Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax, 326–327.

12Baugh, A First John Reader, 81.

13Kruse, The Letters of John, 200.

14Ibid., 201.

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