Final exhortations - Chapter 5.14-21
John concludes his epistle with some final exhortations which are the basis of preservation in the fullness of the life into which we have been brought. The verses are set against the background of the hostility of the world in which we are living, and therefore we need to be aware of what is available to us, and to be prepared to use every defence at all times.
1. An Exhortation to Prayer (vv.14-17)
In these verses, we are given the basis of effective prayer. We can come in complete confidence that, if we ask according to the will of God, He will hear us. When John writes this, he does not expect us to add phrases such as, "If it be Thy will", to our prayers. The idea here is another aspect of the thought of asking "in the name of" our Lord Jesus Christ. There is a need for an exercise of heart to determine the will of God. Insofar as we walk in the good of what has been before us in this epistle, we shall come into the knowledge of His will, and therefore our prayers will be heard. Sadly, we are too lax in our preparation for prayer. We are frequently unwilling to spend the time in the presence of our Lord to learn what His mind us. As a result, we offer prayers which are superficial and general; either we ask for things which we do not expect to receive, or we make petitions in such a general way that we could make most circumstances fit the prayer. Let us set ourselves to live in the enjoyment of the presence of our God so that we can come before Him in perfect confidence that what we are asking is what He really desires from us. If this is true, then we can be certain that He will hear our prayers, and grant our requests.
There are a number of reasons why prayers may not be granted. David speaks of the Lord not hearing because we regard iniquity in our heart (Ps 66.18). James speaks of asking and not receiving because we want something to gratify our own lusts (Jas 4.3). Here, John gives another reason in respect of the family. There is a possibility of "sin unto death". In such cases, God will not grant a request for restoration. We might question what is meant by "sin unto death". It may not be that a specific sin is in view, but rather that a person has sinned against the Lord in a way that has brought them under His chastening as seen in 1 Corinthians 11.30. In such a case, the mind of the Lord is that they have no more opportunity to repent. While they will not suffer everlasting judgment, their life on earth is brought to a "premature" close because of sin.
John is very careful here to emphasise the fact that not all sin leads to death. Every act of unrighteousness is sin. If all sin led to death, then there would be no escape for any. 1 Corinthians 11 suggests that the sin is a result of a continuing failure to judge self, it may also be that wilful sin could bring similar consequences. We need to be wise in respect of the requests that we make for our fellow-believers because what we desire may not be what the Lord desires for them.
2. An Exhortation to Watchfulness (vv.18-19)
These verses remind us again of the character of the children of God. If we are living in the good of the life which we have in Christ, we will not sin. It is only as the old nature exerts itself that we fall into sin. As we have seen before, the Holy Spirit completely refutes the argument, "Its only natural". The power of sin has been broken in our lives by the coming of the Holy Spirit. We ought to live in a way that demonstrates that we have a life of a completely different order to the natural life. While we might expect that the world will sin as a matter of course, it should never be the same with us. We have the power to keep ourselves from the sin that is all around us in the world. This is particularly true today when many sinful actions have become a part of everyday life. It is nothing for the world to make use of company property for its own ends. We ought to recognise this as stealing. The same is true of every aspect of our life. The laws of the land ought to be obeyed rigorously unless they conflict with the Word of God. Beyond this, we ought to obey the Word of God in its fullness, and go beyond mere outward obedience to actions which come out of true devotion of heart. It is in this way that we are kept from the power of the wicked one. As long as our obedience is no more than an outward form, we shall be a prey for the devil. He may discourage our hearts from the pathway of obedience, or he may encourage pride in our hearts at our efforts to live according to the Word of God. Either form of attack is effective against the flesh, but neither will succeed where the character is a result of the new life working itself out in our lives.
The background to this is the conflict that we have to face in the world. We bear the character of God, while the whole world bears the stamp of the wicked one. We ought never to forget that conflict is the natural consequence of living for God in the world. In Galatians the conflict comes from within us, the flesh lusts against the Spirit (5.17). Here the conflict is outwith us. We are in an alien environment, and can only be preserved as we are living in the enjoyment of fellowship with God and His Son which feeds the new nature. We need to be careful to remember that we are living in a world that is totally hostile to everything we have. While this means that there will be open hostility at times, it also means that there will be subtle temptations to compromise in things which appear to be harmless until we find that we are on a path that drags us slowly and often imperceptibly into sin. We must remember that the devil is a master of making error seem plausible. Only fellowship with God, and obedience to the Word of God in simplicity will preserve us from his wiles.
3. An Exhortation to Understanding (vv.20-21)
John now speaks of the understanding that we have through the Son of God. Three words are used here which have a slightly different meaning. Our knowledge that the Son of God is come has the idea of something which is perceived. This reminds us that we have come into the good of this because we know the effect of His coming in our lives. This is not simply a fact that we learn.
The result of this is that we have understanding. This idea here is of a capacity to receive something. This reminds us of the teaching of 1 Corinthians 2. The things of God cannot be received by the natural mind. It is as a result of the life of God in us that we can receive the knowledge of God.
The idea of knowledge is the revelation of God practically in the details of life. Sadly, we often reduce the things of God to the ideas of men. We try to explain the truth of God instead of accepting it as something to be obeyed and worked out in practice. The basis of the idea here, and in many other passages, is that our understanding of God will come from the revelation of Himself as we obey His Word. We are not expected to gain an ability to explain. We are expected to live in such a way that it is evidence to everyone whom we meet that our whole lives are controlled by the knowledge of God. This is the aim of the Christian life and Paul writes of it to the Philippians in the closing years of his life (3.10). Even after all that he had been through, Paul knew that there was more to learn. We can all rejoice in a measure of the knowledge of God in our lives from the moment that we were first saved, but none can ever exhaust the fullness of His Person in a lifetime of obedient service to Him.
As John concludes the epistle, he warns of the dangers of idols. We may not have idols today in the sense of the first century, but the world frequently uses the term for stars in various spheres of entertainment and sport particularly. Let us never forget that such idolatry is more subtle than the idolatry of the first century. It is certainly no less dangerous. We must find everything in Christ if we are to be preserved from the attacks of the wicked one, and are to enjoy the fullness of life which our God desires for us today.