I heard another preacher compare John’s first letter to a spiral staircase. Imagine you’re walking up a spiral staircase. And as you go up and round the staircase, you pass a window and see a mountain in the distance. You go on up and round and pass another window and see a lake. You go on up and round and pass another window and see a forest. And as you continue up and round the spiral staircase, you pass more windows and there’s the mountain again and there’s the lake again and there’s the forest again; and there’s the mountain again and there’s the lake again and there’s the forest again; and so on. As you go up and round you see the same things again and again.
And John’s first letter is like that, because he keeps returning to the same themes. He writes repeatedly about being born of God; and about believing the truth about Christ; and about loving God; and about loving God’s people; and about obeying God’s commands; and about eternal life. He mentions those things again and again. And we see them again in today’s passage, because in verse 1 he writes about being born of God; and about believing the truth about Christ; and about loving God the Father; and about loving God’s people In verse 2 he writes about loving God’s people; and loving God; and obeying his commands. In verse 3 he writes about loving God; and obeying his commands. In verse 4 he writes about being born of God. And in verses 5 to 10 he writes about believing the truth about Christ. And in verses 11 and 12 he writes about eternal life.
So, John keeps coming back to the same themes as he writes his letter, because he wants his readers to be clear that Christians have been born of God; and they believe the truth about Christ; and they love God; and they love God’s people; and they obey their heavenly Father; and they have eternal life. This is how you know who is a true believer and who is not. The true believer is someone who has been born of God. The true believer is someone who believes the truth. The true believer is someone who loves God and who loves God’s people. The true believer is someone who obeys God. And God gives to the true believer the free gift of eternal life. And so, let’s turn to today’s passage to see what John says about these things.
Verses 1 to 5
According to verse 1, everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. What he means is that all those who have been born again by the Spirit of God believe the truth about Christ. So, it’s not that, because they believed, they were born again. It’s the other way around: because they were born again, they believed. Before they were born again, they were unable to believe the truth, because they were dead in their trespasses and sins. They were spiritually dead and unable to believe. But then God the Holy Spirit came into their lives so that they were born again and made new. And they were now able to believe.
And what did they believe? They believed the truth about Christ. John has already written about the false teachers, those antichrists, who denied the truth about Christ. They did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God who had come in the flesh to save us. The false teachers, those antichrists who were against Christ, did not believe the truth. But everyone who has been born of God believes. In other words, only those who have been born of God believe; and the mark which shows that someone has been born again is whether or not that person believes.
And then John says that everyone who loves the Father loves his child as well. The NIV writes the word ‘father’ with a lower case f, whereas the ESV writes it with a capital F. The NIV takes it that John is stating a principle that people who love a man will love his children too, whereas the ESV takes it that John is saying that people who love God the Father will love his children too. I think the ESV is correct. And so, those who have been born of God not only believe in Christ, but they love God the Father. And they don’t just love God the Father, but they love everyone else who has been born of God.
This is the same point which John has made before: that believers must love God’s people. And that means loving them not with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth, because true love involves action. If our fellow believer is in need, and we’re in a position to help, then we ought to help. That’s what John told us in chapter 3. And just as God loved us with a sacrificial love, so we’re to love one another with a sacrificial love. That’s what John told us in chapter 4.
And so, everyone who has been born of God believes. And everyone who loves God the Father loves everyone else who has been born of God. The mark which shows that someone loves God is whether or not that person loves God’s people.
But in verse 2, it’s as if John does a kind of loop de loop or flip-flop because he then says that this is how we know we love God’s children: we know we love God’s children by loving God. So, he’s already said that loving God means we will love God’s children. Now, he’s saying that loving God’s children means we will love God. That is to say: the mark which shows that someone loves God is whether or not that person loves God’s people; and the mark which shows that someone loves God’s people is whether or not that person loves God. As one of the commentators says (Kruse), John appears to have gone in a circle. And this is because these two things cannot exist apart from one another. They are inextricably linked. Loving God and loving God’s people are wrapped up so tightly that they cannot be separated. Someone who loves God loves his people; and where you find someone who loves God’s people, there you find someone who loves God.
And John then adds something else to the mix. Look at the end of verse 2 where he adds ‘carrying out God’s commands’ to the mix. And he continues along this theme in verse 3 where he says that this is love for God. So, what does love for God look like? What does it consist of? What is the mark of a true love for God? This is love for God: to obey his commands. Those who love God, will not only love God’s people, but they will endeavour to obey God’s commands. The false teachers were saying that obedience does not matter. They were saying you can have a relationship with God and live a sinful, immoral life, because sin doesn’t matter and obedience doesn’t matter. But John has been teaching us that sin does matter. Sin does matter; and so does obedience. The mark which shows that someone really loves God is whether or not that person wants to obey God.
And John adds that God’s commands are not burdensome. They are a burden to those who do not love God. The person who does not love God hates God’s commands. That person despises God’s commands. Why must I do what God commands? Why must I do what God says? Why can’t I do whatever I like? Who gave God the right to tell me what to do? Or think of the Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s really the parable of the Two Sons, because while one son went off and squandered the Father’s money, the elder son remained at home. And though he was the obedient son who stayed at home to work the farm, do you remember how he described his work? He referred to his work as ‘slaving’ for his father. He said: ‘All these years I’ve been slaving for you….’ He was obedient to his father, but it was a burden to him. It felt like slavery instead of like joy. But when a son loves his father, it’s the son’s joy and delight to do his father’s will and to please his father in all things. And when we love God the Father, it’s our joy and delight to do our Father’s will and to please him in all things. It’s not a burden, but a joy. And it upsets us whenever we disobey him, because what we want to do more than anything else in all the world is to please him.
Why is it a joy to do the Father’s will? Because that’s the way we demonstrate our gratitude to him for all that he has done for us. Didn’t he make us and give us our life? Doesn’t he sustain us every day; and doesn’t he fill our life with good things to enjoy? Didn’t he send his Only Begotten Son to be our Saviour and to sacrifice himself for us and for our salvation? Didn’t he send his Spirit into our lives to enable us to believe? Doesn’t he help us every day and doesn’t he hear our prayers? Hasn’t he promised us eternal life in his presence in the new and better world to come? He’s done all of this for us. And so, it’s our joy and delight to obey him because this is how we express our gratitude to him. And so, whenever we’re tempted to disobey him, not only should we remind ourselves of his commands, but we should also remind ourselves of all that he has done for us. And by remembering all that he has done for us, we’re reminded why we love him. And, in this way, our gratitude and our desire to please him will be revived.
And his commands are not burdensome, says John in verse 4, because everyone who has been born of God has overcome the world. We have overcome the world by means of our faith, because the ones who overcome the world are those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Do you see that in verse 5? John Stott suggests in his commentary that when he refers to the world, he’s referring to all the things we encounter in the world which make obedience difficult. And so, he’s referring to the pressure we feel to conform to the sinful ways of an unbelieving world. We often want to fit in with our unbelieving friends and with the people we work with. We don’t want to stand out and appear different from them. And so, we feel a pressure to conform, which makes obedience to our Heavenly Father difficult. And, of course, John has already explained that loving the world involves giving in to our own sinful desires. Our own sinful desires within us put us under pressure to disobey our heavenly Father. And as well as those moral pressures on us, John may also be referring to the pressure believers face because of the threat of persecution. And so, to avoid persecution, we disobey our Heavenly Father.
And so, those are the kinds of pressure which we face: the pressure to conform; and the pressure of our own sinful desires; and the pressure of persecution. And we overcome those kinds of pressure through faith, because through faith we look to God for the help we need. We know that we are weak, but he is strong. And just as a child will cry out to his father for help whenever he’s in trouble, so God’s children cry out to their lovingly heavenly Father for help whenever we’re in trouble.
However, since John goes on to say that those who overcome the world are those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then he may be thinking of one particular kind of pressure which we can face. It’s the pressure that comes from heresy and false doctrine. The false teachers in John’s day were trying to undermine the truth of the gospel and to lead the people away from what the apostles had taught about Christ. The false teachers, those antichrists, denied that Jesus is the Son of God who had come to earth in the flesh to save us. And it’s always the case that when false teachers arise in the church, there are some who listen and who are led astray. But the way to overcome the pressure which comes from false teachers is to keep believing the true apostolic message that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh who came to earth to die for sinners. We’re to hold on to the gospel message about him and we’re not to let go of it. We’re to stand firm in the faith, which was once for all delivered to us, and we’re not to budge from it in any way. And those who keep believing that Jesus is the Son of God will overcome the false teachers who are part of the unbelieving world around us.
And so, everyone who has been born of God will believe in the Son. And everyone who loves God will love everyone else who is born of God. And everyone who loves God’s people will love God and will obey God. And everyone who keeps believing in the Son will overcome the world. And so, the mark which shows you have been born again is whether you believe in the Son. And the mark which shows you love God is whether you love his people. And the mark which shows you love his people is whether you love God and want to obey him. And the way to overcome the world is very simple. It’s to keep believing in the Son.
Verses 6 to 12
And having referring at the end of verse 5 to Jesus, the Son of God, John goes on in verses 6 to 12 to tell us about him and about a threefold testimony to him which we’re to believe.
So, who is Jesus? He’s the one who came by water and by blood. Do you see that in verse 6? He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. Now, it’s not entirely clear what John means by water and blood. In what sense did the Lord come by water? In what sense did he come by blood? To what is John referring? The commentators discuss the various options, but it seems to me that the best option is that John is referring to the Lord’s baptism and to the Lord’s death on the cross. The water refers to his baptism and the blood refers to his death. When he was baptised, he was baptised in water. When he died, he shed his blood. His baptism in water signified the beginning of his earthly ministry, whereas his death and resurrection afterwards signified the end of his earthly ministry.
And from what John says, it seems likely that while the false teachers acknowledged Christ’s baptism, they did not acknowledge his death on the cross. They were prepared to say he came by water, but not that he came by blood too. And this fits with what we know about one heretic who lived in the time of the early church. He taught that Jesus was an ordinary man, but that the Christ — who was some kind of spiritual being — came down on him at his baptism and equipped him for his work. However, the Christ then left Jesus before he died. In other words, he came by water, but not by blood.
The false teachers were saying something like that. But John insists that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came by water and by blood. He was not only baptised, but he also died on the cross. And when he died on the cross, he gave up his life to pay the ransom for all that we have done wrong, so that by believing in him we may receive forgiveness and peace with God forever.
And then John goes on to refer to a threefold testimony about Christ: there’s the water of his baptism; there’s the blood of his death; and there’s the Holy Spirit as well. Christ’s baptism bears witness to him. Christ’s death bears witness to him. And the Holy Spirit bears witness to him, because the Holy Spirit is the one who enabled the apostles to know and to believe the truth about Christ and to record it for us in the New Testament. He is the Spirit of truth who led the apostles into all the truth about Christ which we needed to know. And the Holy Spirit is the one who enables us to believe what the apostles have written about Christ. Whenever we hear the reading and preaching of God’s word, or whenever we read the Bible at home, it’s the Holy Spirit who enables us to believe it.
And just as we accept man’s testimony, so we must accept God’s testimony. So, we accept man’s testimony. Think of a court case and a witness comes and is sworn in and gives his testimony. And the jury relies on his testimony to decide the case. But God’s testimony about Christ is much, much greater than that. His testimony is greater because of who he is. He is God. He is truth itself and he does not and he cannot lie. I’m reminded of our church’s Confession of Faith which says that the authority of the Holy Scripture does not depend on human testimony or a church’s witness, but entirely on God its author, who is truth itself. Therefore Holy Scripture is to be received and believed and obeyed because it is the word of God. Why should anyone believe God’s word? Because it is God’s word. Why should we believe the testimony of God about his Son? Because it God’s testimony.
Anyone who believes this testimony, which God has made concerning his Son, has this testimony in their heart. Do you see that in verse 10? John Calvin refers to two preachers: there’s the external preacher, the minister, whose message is addressed to our ears; and there’s the internal preacher, the Holy Spirit, who takes that message we have heard and he applies it to our hearts. And so, deep down inside in our hearts, we believe what we have heard. We know it’s true.
But the one who does not believe God has made God out to be a liar, because he hasn’t believed the testimony which God has given about his Son. Do you see that in the second part of verse 10? God sent the Holy Spirit to the apostles to lead them into all the truth about Christ which we need to know. And under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles wrote the New Testament so that they were enabled by God to write down for us the very word of God. And so, whenever we read what the apostles wrote, we’re reading God’s word to us.
But when people do not believe God’s word, they are saying that God is a liar. What he has said in his word about the Lord Jesus is false. He’s a liar. He’s a deceiver. He wants us to believe in his Son, but none of it is true. God is lying. That’s the implication of their unbelief. The implication of their unbelief is that they are saying God is a liar. His word cannot be trusted.
And since that’s the implication of unbelief, then that shows us that unbelief is a very, very serious sin, because the person who does not believe is dishonouring, not the apostles who wrote about Christ, not the preacher who is preaching about Christ, but they’re dishonouring God himself who has given us the message about Christ. And they are dishonouring him by saying that he is a liar whose word cannot be trusted. Think of the serpent in the Garden of Eden who told Eve not to believe what God had said about the Tree of Knowledge. Don’t believe his word. And those who don’t believe God’s word today are siding with the Devil. Don’t believe his word, they’re saying to themselves. Don’t believe his word about Christ.
And yet the testimony they do not believe is such good news. It’s good news, because the testimony of God is the message that whoever has the Son has life. That is, whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. The wages of sin is death. That’s what we deserve for our sins. But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God comes to us in his word and he offers us Christ. Here’s my Son who came in the flesh to give up his life on the cross to pay for your sins and to make peace between us. Here’s my Son, who died for sinners. Here’s my Son and whoever believes in him receives forgiveness and the free gift of eternal life. Here’s my Son. Take him. Receive him. Believe in him, because whoever believes receives eternal life. This is God’s testimony and he comes to us in the preaching of his word and he tells us to believe.