1 John 5:21 – Keep Yourselves from Idols

Many have observed this is a strange ending for the letter, there is nothing about idolatry in the entire book so it seems odd for John to drop this line as a conclusion to the letter. Was there another paragraph which explained this line? Did the usual ending of an epistle get lost before the letter was added to the canon?


Artemis of Ephesus

That this is the seventh time John has called his readers children is significant. This is a planned statement not a last minute addition to fill out a page of papyri. In fact, Jobes says the original readers would have read this like a punchline, the rhetorical conclusion to the letter, answering the question the whole letter has been asking, if all this is true and we know what is real, can we really worship idols? (Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 242).

For many interpreters, this is a command to avoid literal idolatry. Rejection of the Roman imperial cult led to some kind of persecution of John’s community. “Those who deny that Jesus is the Christ in this letter (2:22–23; 4:3; cf. 2 John 7) are people who yield to these pagan demands so as to avoid martyrdom” (Kruse, Epistles of John, 200).

For others, this command is a metaphor. Taking the word idol as “phantom,” Sugit argued this is a warning away from Docetism (J. N. Sugit, “I John 5:21,” JTS 36 (1985): 386–90). Raymond Brown took idolatry as a reference to the successionists, stay away from the liars and deceivers who John has called the antichrists (Epistles of John, 627–28).

“By idols he means not only images of the gods, but all false or counterfeit notions of God such as lead to the perversions of religion against which he has written” (Dodd, Johannine Epistles, 141)

“Most modern interpreters identify ‘idols’ with the idolatry of the secessionists who left the worship of the true God to follow after a false Christology” (C. Marvin Pate, The Writings of John, 316)

But idolatry is a strange metaphor for some kind of Christological error. The people who read this letter originally lived a world full of idolatry, it was impossible to avoid gods living in first century Ephesus!

Although this is necessarily speculative, I suggest the people who left John’s churches and claim not to sin offered worship to Rome or Artemis in order to avoid persecution. Several times in the letter John has implied that the opponents think that they do not sin. There’s no reason to think that sin would not include idolatry, so that worship of the Roman Empire in order to appear to be a good and loyal citizen would be perfectly acceptable to them. As I suggested in a previous post, few modern Christians consider pledging allegiance to the American flag to be idolatry. But for a person living in first century Ephesus, to “pledge loyalty” to the Roman Empire meant some kind of participation in the Imperial Cult.

Once again we find ourselves in the same territory as the seven letters of the Book of Revelation. There are several references there to people who participate in some form of idol worship, and certainly the rest of the book of revelation is about the worship of the beast, if the beast is Rome then the Roman imperial cult is not far from the surface.

1 John 5:16 – What is the Sin that Leads to Death?

Many readers assume John is referring to the so-called deadly sins (murder, adultery, etc.) One problem with this is that there is no list of deadly sins in the Bible. In the Law there are several examples of sin which is committed with the full intention of breaking the law as “unforgivable.” Leviticus 4:2 for example, the one who sins with a “high hand.” Even someone like Paul who caused the death of Stephen found forgiveness from that murder.

Jobes points out that Jesus taught anger is as bad as murder, and lust as bad as adultery (Matt 5:21–22, 27–28; Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 238). The gospels blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28–30), but this is a particular rejection of the Messiah by the Pharisees when they attributed the work of Jesus to the devil.

Cemetary GateIt is possible John has recanting one’s faith in the face of persecution in mind, as in Hebrews 6:4-6. Persecution is not obviously in view, unless the reference to idolatry in the last line of the letter refers to the imperial cult.

Some have considered the “unforgivable sin “to be the act of suicide. Aside from the fact suicide is not addressed as an unpardonable sin anywhere in scripture, it seems highly unlikely John would say “don’t bother praying for someone who has committed suicide.” But John cannot have in mind physical death, because all people die whether their sins are forgiven or not.

Colin Kruse suggests John “very likely that he has the sin of the secessionists in mind” (Kruse, Epistles of John, 192; Jobes agrees, 236). Although it seems extremely strange to say, “don’t pray for those unrepentant sinners,” Kruse points out the prophet Jeremiah was told not to pray for Israel “because her sins were so repugnant (Jer 7:16-18; 11:14; 14:11).”

The one who has been born of God does not “keep on sinning” (5:18-20). This final paragraph returns to a theme found throughout the letter that the one who has been born of God does not continue in their sin. As we have observed at other times in the letter, John does not say that the Christian never sins, but they don’t persist in a continual state of sin.

John has already mentioned the power of the devil several times in the letter, but here he promises that God will protect his children for the power of the evil one (vv. 10-20). This is extremely important since John’s congregation is living in the city of Ephesus where the power of Rome was on display for all to see. It is possible John’s congregation feared the power of Rome as Christianity grew.

Taking the book of Revelation into consideration, this is not a promise the Christian will never suffer, but rather a promise that God will overcome the power of the devil. Even though the church is persecuted, and some may even die for their faith, they still do not fall into the power of the devil.

I think this “sin that leads to death” has something to do with the enigmatic final line of the book, “keep yourself from idols.” Perhaps John’s opponents are teaching their followers they can perform some kind worship of the Emperor or veneration of Rome to avoid persecution. This would be analogous to an American Christian pledging allegiance to the flag. Just as most Christians do not see this pledge as an act of idolatry, so too John’s opponents may have interpreted Imperial worship as an oath of loyalty and not actual worship of gods. They may have considered eating meat sacrificed to idols or attending meals or banquets held at local temples to be “not a sin.”

If this is on the right track, then the “sin that leads to death” is putting oneself in a place where they may not be sinning (yet), but there is a real danger of returning to the worship of idols. This is a very real problem for Christians living in cultures where gods are worshiped regularly. For Christians living in places which venerate ancestors, there is a very real struggle for the Christian to return to those practices in order to keep the pace within a family. The willful choice to return to idolatry is, for John, a sin that is so dangerous is “leads to death.”

1 John 5:7-8 – What Does John Mean by the Water and the Blood?

Who is Jesus, the son of God? John says, “the one came by water and blood.” This is an obscure answer. Although there are many modern suggestions for what John meant, Karen Jobes suggests the original readers would have understood this allusion because they have firsthand knowledge of the teaching of the ones who have left the church. John only needs to briefly allude to them by means of these obscure words and they would understand what he meant (Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 220).

Water and BloodIncluding the Spirit, there are three things are in agreement that Jesus is the Son of God. There are two possible allusion to the Gospel of John in these verses. In John 3:5, one cannot see the kingdom of Heaven without being born of water and the Spirit. In John 19:34, when Jesus is pierced water and blood flow from his side. When the soldiers approach Jesus, he is already dead but they confirm this by piercing his side with a spear.  As a result, blood and water flow, indicating that the blood was already separating.

The main point of this flow of water and blood was to confirm the death of Jesus. That he was “really dead” is important for the resurrection.  The Romans did not take a partially dead man from the cross who could “revive” with a little medical attention.  Indeed, Jesus was dead.  John may be alluding to Scripture, such as Exodus 17:6, “strike the rock and the water will flow.” Water is the source of life, certainly water from the hand of God in Exodus 17 is a symbol of salvation provided by God.  There are many verses which describe God himself as the Rock of Salvation Ps 18:31, for example).

John tells us the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side bears witness this is truly what happened. The beloved disciple also witnesses this piercing, so that John’s claim here in 1 John is “I am an eyewitness of the water and the blood.”

One option but interpreting the water and the blood to take them as a reference to literal water and blood. There are two possibilities here: First, Jesus’s birth and death. Here water refers to the breaking of the water prior to birth and the blood refers to the crucifixion. Similarly, Kruse observes there are ancient Jewish sources describing the human body as composed of two elements, water and blood (Kruse, The Letters of John, 176). However, he does not cite any sources which actually say this. Jesus’s baptism and death. Using the Gospel of John as a guide, the phrase “in water only appears in the Gospel with reference to John’s baptism (John 1:26, 31, 33; Kruse, Epistles of John, 175). This would then refer to Jesus’s whole ministry from baptism through the death on the cross.

A second option is to take the water and the blood as a metaphor relating to something in the Christian life or practice.  For example, some church fathers took the water as a reference to water baptism and the blood to the Eucharist (Tertullian, Augustine, Ambrose). Sometimes this “water and blood” was related to John 4 (living water) and John 6 (bread from heaven), both commonly taken as an allusion to the (later) practice of the Eucharist (Calvin and Luther? Find a reference to this). It is likely there are a few commentaries to be cited that see this as an indication of a later date for the letter and reflecting the growing importance of the Eucharist.

The real problem for “blood” as a reference to taking communion is the cup as “the blood of Jesus” is not found in John’s Gospel, and in the synoptic gospels the cup represents the blood which initiates the New Covenant. It is only in later Catholicism the cup is understood as the literal blood of Jesus.

More recently, To Thatcher suggested water is the Holy Spirit and blood refers to the physical death of Jesus on the Cross. This is attractive because the Old Testament often portrays the Holy Spirit in liquid terms, he is “poured out” on God’s people. In addition, Paul’s description of the baptism in the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 connects the Spirit with water as well.

So what is the “water and blood”? The first phrase in verse 6 refers to the life and atoning sacrifice of Jesus (from baptism to crucifixion); the second in verse 7 adds the Spirit as a witness since the Spirit applies the atoning sacrifice to the life of the believer.

How does the Spirit, water and the blood agree in their testimony Jesus is the Son of God? The tradition of “two or three witnesses” is based on the Law, Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15, for example. Something is made certain by three witnesses. John may have in mind the witness of two at the baptism of Jesus (the Spirit descended on Jesus) and the two witnesses at the cross, the blood and water from the side of Jesus.

Bibliography: Tom Thatcher,“‘Water and Blood’ in Anti-Christ Christianity (1 John 5:6).” SCJ 4 (2001): 235–48; see also his commentary on these verses: “1 John,” “2 John,” “3 John.” Pages 414–538 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 13 (Rev. ed. Edited by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006); (Ben Witherington, III, “The Waters of Birth: John 3:5 and 1 John 5:6–8,” NTS 35 (1989): 155–58).

1 John 5:7 – What Happened to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

The one who overcomes the world believes that Jesus is the Son of God (5:6). John uses the full title of Jesus as the “Son of God.” He has described Jesus and the Father throughout the letter. In 1:3 our fellowship is with God the Father and with “Jesus Christ his son.” In the previous paragraph John stated the Father has sent the Son to be the savior of the world and that God will abide only those who acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God (4:13-16).

But there is a bit of controversy over the text of 1 John 5:7. Compare the KJV with any modern translation” The KJV reads “testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.” These words do not appear in most modern translations although they are usually in a footnote. The verse seems like solid proof text for the doctrine of the Trinity. So why do the words not appear in any modern translation?

Cut out of the BibleSome later manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate had “testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. 8 And there are three that testify on earth:” These words were not in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century and did not appear in Latin Bibles until after AD 800. Likely this was a marginal comment which was introduced to the text by a scribe who thought it ought to be inserted. He was either mistaken, or thought it was a god place for a solid Trinity reference and he added it in.

The handful of Greek manuscripts which did have the words were influenced by the reading in the Latin Bible. Erasmus omitted the line from his first two editions of his Greek New Testament, and was criticized by Catholic scholars who used the Vulgate as a proof text for the doctrine of the Trinity.

Erasmus told his critics that if even one Greek manuscript could be found with the line, he would add it to the next edition. A manuscript was quickly prepared (codex 61, the work of a Franciscan monk named Froy or Roy), and Erasmus added the line to the next addition of his GNT, although with a note explaining that he doubted the line was genuine. The four manuscripts that support the longer reading are ms. 61 (sixteenth century), ms. 88 (twelfth century), ms. 629 (fourteenth or fifteenth century), and ms. 635 (eleventh-century manuscript with the passage written in its margin during the seventeenth century).

Metzger reports that codex 61, which is housed at the library of Trinity College in Dublin, “almost opens of its own accord to 1 John 5–so often has it been consulted on this passage!” (The Text of the New Testament, 101, note 5). However, Peter Malik says the manuscript has an abundance of marginal notes added by two different hands after the codex was produced (in Hixson and Gurry, Myths and Mistakes, 158).

What does it matter? This is not a case of removing the Trinity from the Bible as some more conspiracy-minded people might suggest. This is a good example of textual critics doing their job and determining the most accurate form of the text from the existing variants. The doctrine of the Trinity does not stand (or fall) on 1 John 5:7. In fact, 1 John 5:6 mentions the Son and the Spirit together with God in verse 8. There are plenty of examples of Father-Son equality in the Gospel of John.

Does the lack of the words “the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one” change any Christian’s faith in the Trinity?  If it does, then that faith was thin to begin with.

1 John 4:16-21 – How is Love Perfected?

The simple statement “God is love” is very complex. What does John mean by this? (4:16b). Love is a “defining characteristic of God” (Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 190). If the father is love, then so too is the son. Those who have been born of God ought to have this same characteristic as their heavenly father.

Hanging JudgeRaymond Brown points out saying “God is love” is not the same as saying “God loves” (Brown, Epistles of John, 515). Since God is love, everything he does is an expression of his love. In this context, John mentions the coming Day of Judgment. Even rendering judgment and punishing those who remain in their sin is an act of love because God can only act in accordance to his loving character.

By abiding him God, his love has been perfected (4:17a). This is another example of John’s subtle use of grammar. He chooses the perfect passive form of τελειόω to emphasize God’s love has already been made perfect in the past and it remains perfect at the time he is writing.

By perfected (ESV), John means something like “brought to completion” or “reaches the intended goal.” This is not at all like the human emotion of love, which ebbs and wanes over the years. God’s love is not an emotional response; it is a real and concrete action based on his loving character to sacrifice everything on behalf of those who do not even recognize his existence or authority.

Because God’s love has been perfected in us, we will have confidence on the Day of Judgment (4:17b-19). The Day of Judgment is eschatological, looking forward to a time when the believer will stand before Jesus as a judge. This sounds as if one is judged on whether they are going to “go to heaven” or now, but that is not what John says. All he says here is when the one who has really grown mature in love or their brother and sister, they can have nothing to be ashamed about standing before the judge. They are “right with God” because God has provided his son as an atoning sacrifice (1 John 4:7-10) and they know that they have this relationship with God because they (in fact) love their brother and sister.

There is no fear of punishment on that day: perfect love casts out fear. This verse is usually taken out of context. Unfortunately there are many people who do have genuine fear because of they have experienced terrible things at the hands of people who claimed to be Christians. This may be judgement because of sin, but too many people have been abused by people claiming to have spiritual authority.

If the church was really doing the love of God as demonstrated in the gracious sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as an atoning sacrifice, then the church would be far more attractive to those who remain in the world. As John says in 4:20-21, one cannot claim to be a Christian if they hate their fellow Christian; how much more if they hate the unsaved?

The only reason we can love others are demonstrate that we abide in God is that God has loved us first and sent his some as savior.

One cannot claim to love God and hate a brother or sister in Christ (4:20-21). Once again John demands concrete action in the real world as evidence for one’s claim to love God. The person who claims to be a Christian and expresses hatred toward others is an impossibility for John.