Every letter in the New Testament has a theme which explains the purpose of the letter. The theme of John’s letters is Gnosticism, an error that was creeping into the church and robbing believers of the truth. Gnosticism was one of the most dangerous errors in the first two centuries of the church. It taught that the spirit was good and matter was evil and this resulted in five very important and dangerous errors:
- Man’s body, matter, is evil, in contrast to God, who is spirit, and therefore good.
- Salvation is escape from the body, achieved not by faith in Christ, but by special knowledge (gk. Gnosis means knowledge, hence Gnosticism)
- Christ is viewed in one of two ways: (1) If matter is evil then Christ – who is God – only seemed to have a body (Docetism, from the gk. Dokeo, ‘to seem’, and (2) Christ “joined” Jesus’ body at baptism and left it before he died (Cerithianism, after Cerinthius who taught this error)
- Since the body is evil it is treated harshly, a form of asceticism (see Col.2:21-32)
- Since matter rather than breaking God’s law is evil, breaking God’s law doesn’t matter (licentiousness)
As we read this passage against this background how does John counter these errors?
He introduces us to a new term, faith (pistis). He doesn’t use it elsewhere, although he does use a similar term, believe (pisteuō) numerous times. John is emphasising how important it is to believe the right things about Christ, about his purpose in coming and about our response to him. He points out that faith and love go together as evidence of true Christian faith; faith that Jesus is the Christ and love for God and his children. It is in him that we have the victory.
Other New Testament writers identify the same characteristics of a Christian:
“Ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Eph.1:15-16)
“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints” (Col.1:3-4)
“We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes.1:3)
“Though you have not seem him [Christ], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Pet.1:8)
The world sees faith as an end in itself, it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere and it makes you a better person. Tolerance becomes more important than truth, feelings of hope and optimism more significant than facts. “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” said Robert Louis Stevenson. Faith, however, is not whatever I choose to believe; it has an object and there is objective truth involved.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God… Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is Son of God” (1 Jn.5:1&5)
To believe in Christ is to believe in his deity (John 1:1-3), in the power of his death to cleanse from all sin (1 John 1:7) and to avert the righteous wrath of a holy God (1 John 2:1-2). It means to believe the clearest and fullest expression of God’s love is the cross of Christ (1 John 4:9-10) and that eternal life is only attained by faith in him, which is a product of grace, and appropriated by faith (1 John 5:11-12) To know victory we must know and trust the right Jesus.
Just as Jesus could command Lazarus to rise from the tomb (Jn.11:43), so he can raise the spiritually dead to new life (Eph.2:1-8) As we witness we are talking to the spiritually dead and it is God’s work and initiative to breath life into them, as Jesus raised Lazarus. So wee need not fear that the gospel will fail, or the enemy prevail. All is in God’s hands.
John points out that if we claim to be Christians but do not love our brothers our claim is false (1 John 4:20). Those who walk in the light have fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7) However, this is not a duty we strive to fulfil but a family characteristic we grow increasingly to show (1 John 5:1) Victory in the Christian life shows. How does this work out?
The Bible tells us, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour” (Ex.20:16) We show our love for God by obeying his command and our love for our neighbour by preserving his or her character and reputation. The strands of love and obedience combine to give us the third of victory. This is how we grow in confidence.
Loving God is not expressing a liking for him, a preference in his direction. Love, agapē love, is sacrificial (1 John 4:9-10) A Christian keeps God’s commands; not perfectly, but characteristically. He doesn’t go on habitually practising sin (1 John 3:9) but he does sin (1 John 2:1) But John is not saying this is how Christians should behave, but how Christian do behave. We have to understand what it looks like in practice.
“Everyone born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4a) How do Christians overcome the world? “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4b) This is why it is so important that our faith is not misplaced. The object and focus of our faith is Jesus, the Son of God, and his eternal work of salvation; this is the faith that conquers.
Our life experience tells us the conflict between good and evil is not over, but our faith assures us that the outcome is settled (Ro.8:38-39; Jn.16:33) David Jackman sums it up like this:
“So God calls us to a life of faith, demonstrated by love for him and for one another, by obedience to his commands and by victory over the world. As we exercise that faith, we find that it works. God keeps his promises and fulfils his Word. As we believe that when God says ‘Do this,’ or, ‘Not that,’ he knows what is best for us, we do what he says, trust him with the consequences and prove him to be true. When we are living that way, the world cannot trap us. This sort of faith is the only way to victory.”