In the final chapter of 1 John, the letter to the believers of Asia minor penned under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we arrive at essentially a summary of the entire book. Verses 1-5 serve to tie up loose ends and bring to a close the tests of assurance that have been scattered throughout. The style of this letter, as has been pointed out, resembles closely that of a spiral. In one instance John may introduce a singular point and abandon it, only to circle around to it again at a later point, which he develops more fully. In this way, the author certainly is logical in his writing, though the pattern is less linear, as with Paul. Never is this pattern more clear than at the beginning of chapter 5, as seen below.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
Here, our focus is on three main ideas, seen in the passage above, which have been instrumental throughout the letter and often presented in a kind of test or measuring stick for professing believers. They are, faith – sometimes expressed as an intimate knowledge of God, love – for both God and the brethren, and obedience. Knowing God – Showing love – Growing in Obedience. (I write this just shy of a decade since I once preached these three themes at a fall youth retreat.)
Our first idea, faith, introduces the passage cited above. Everyone who believes…that is those who have placed their faith in something, or better Someone. This is the faith rooted in a knowledge of Who the object of faith is. It is never a blind faith, never an ignorant faith, rather it is an informed faith, one that has come to know and believe that Jesus is the Christ. Perhaps it should be pointed out that Jesus Christ is not our Lord’s first and last names. Jesus is His name, Christ is His title. It means Anointed One, or Chosen One, i.e. Messiah. He is the object of the faith expressed here as the outcome, or evidence, of regeneration. Without delving into a deep discussion on the ordo salutis (order of salvation), it seems most consistent to conclude that the Holy Spirit regenerates the heart giving a person the ability to repent and believe in Jesus, which is contrary to the idea that faith precedes regeneration. The order in this verse describes those who have been born again are those who believe that Jesus is the Christ. With this first summary point, John is wrapping up earlier passages which expressed a similar idea, noteworthy among them are 1 John 2:22-23 and 1 John 3:23.
While being born again is the point of connection in the opening of this section, there is a transition from the evidence of faith to the evidence of love, our second major idea. Expressing love for God the Father is a reality for those who have been born again. This has been a prominent theme throughout the letter, most notably in 1 John 2:10-11; 3:1; 3:11-18; 4:7-21 and is really the central theme in the section before us today. The vertical love that a believer has for their heavenly Father is complimented by the horizontal love that they have for others who have also been born again, i.e. the brethren. This common new birth creates a familial relationship. Just as we have love for our physical, blood relatives, in a deeper and more profound way are we to have love for our spiritual brothers and sisters. To love God without loving other believers is inconsistent, put more strongly according to 1 John 4:20-21, it is impossible. We may conclude then that belief is the personal evidence of being born again while love for God and other believers is the outward, relational expression of that inward faith.
But this is not the only outward expression. In verse 2 above, we are reminded again of the previously developed relationship between love and obedience, our third major idea or test in the letter. To get there, we must circle back through the evidence of our love for the brethren, namely love for God, then arrive at obedience to Him. In verse 1 we saw the order of:
regeneration –>faith–>love for God–>love for the brethren.
Here we see:
love for the brethren–>love for God–>obedience to God’s commands.
On a whirlwind summary of the Christian life, John has led us back to the starting point. Faith and obedience are not contradictory, rather they are complimentary. This isn’t a legalistic, external obedience, rather it is gospel obedience, obedience that comes from the heart. Similarly, in 1 John 3:23 we see that the commandment of God is to “believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ.” Furthermore, we have the commandment to love God and love the brethren (1 John 4:21, etc.). Commandments to believe and commandments to love, neither of which can be accomplished in any meaningful way apart from the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, changing our heart’s affections and giving us the desire to obey. In a sense, we are not blazing a new trail in this 5th chapter, we are backing up over familiar ground laid down throughout the book in order to drive home these points.
This idea of obeying the commandments of God is further developed in verse 3, crystallizing the relationship between love for God and obedience to His commands. This is one of the promises for believers in the New Covenant, that with the regenerate heart comes faith and obedience – a desire to obey, the law that has been now written on our hearts. God says as much in His promise of the New Covenant found in Ezekiel, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Ezekiel 36:27
In the latter half of verse 3, we find, as is typical with John, a pithy commentary on a point he’s just made. In effect he says, evidence of loving God is obeying His commandments, and by the way, His commandments are not burdensome. They’re not tiring. They’re not laborious and draining as were their Old Covenant, external, written on stone counterpart. Rather, because we now have the law written on our hearts, having been given both the ability and desire to obey, we therefore obey not merely as a duty, rather as a delight.
Bringing this passage to a conclusion, verse 4 serves somewhat as a note of application, bringing us back to the practical realities of regeneration and faith. Having already seen that faith, love, and obedience, are interrelated, and that those who have these qualities, have been born again, further we read that those who have been born again have “overcome the world.” Added to this is the supporting clause acting again as a commentary, “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” Then Finally, this passage concludes with, “Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Three times we see the author’s use of world, cosmos, which is a key word used throughout the letter, as well as in John’s gospel account.
In order to understand what is referred to by the use of world, we need to at least look at some previous uses of it in 1 John. In 1 John 4, we read that the spirit of antichrist, those who do not confess that Jesus is from God, is in the world. Following that, we find a parallel use of world and overcomer, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” Here we see that one aspect of the world is its universal denial of Christ. In contrast, overcoming the world is directly related to our union with Christ, a point we’ll need to tuck away for understanding chapter 5. Furthermore, in chapter 2, we read of the exhortation to not love the world, nor the things in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, all of which are contrary to the Father, and that this corrupt world is temporary and passing away. The world, that which we overcome by faith, via our union and communion with Christ, is replete with those things which are contrary to the person and work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as contrary to those who have been born again. Our victory comes because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33) and greater is He, in me, than he that is in the world. This victory is secured by the supremacy of Christ, through His finished work on the cross, and His gift of faith to the regenerated hearts of all of God’s children.
This is the summation of the Christian life, and it is a grand encouragement in this present evil age. In all of the things that this world brings, we are more than conquerors, through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)