1 John 5:13-21New Revised Standard Version (NRSV
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
14 And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. 16 If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.
18 We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. 19 We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
The first thing to note in this passage is the obvious contradiction. The first section is about praying for the brothers and sisters who have sinned, albeit not by a mortal sin. The second section begins by telling us that those who are born from God do not sin. I noted before that these authors may have believed that sins committed before becoming believers would be forgiven through the sacrificial death of Jesus, but that believers would not thereafter sin. Here it is admitted that after all believers do sin and need forgiveness. The language used may give is a clue for solving the contradiction, for the authors do not say that the sinner will be forgiven, but rather, given life. Sin involves a surrender to the power of death, in such a way that all sin is a kind of apostasy, a trust in idols. Believers do not sin since a sinful action is in itself unbelief.
Here again the authors refer to the gift of parresia, bold, honest speech to God, in this case on behalf of someone who has fallen into sin. Doubtless they believe that God is ready to rescue, but human beings must ask for it. This is a powerful demonstration of how the life enjoyed by believers is communal: one brother has sinned, falling away from life, but is restored to life by the prayer of another. The sinful brother does not dwell in sin but in life and is not surrendered to the power of the evil one.
The world, the kosmos, lies under the power of the evil one but believers are enlightened by Jesus to know him as the True One, that is, the one in whom God is unconcealed (Greek, a-lethinos), who gives Life.
I cannot read this concluding section of the letter without again feeling a sense of concern. Am I as a reader dealing with a bunch of nutters who think only they have the truth, only they have life, only they know God? I’m not sure. There is evidence of profound theology – the declaration that God is love, the understanding of true life as shared life, the trust in Jesus as the unveiling of God. At the same time however I do not see any commitment to sharing God’s love with those outside the group, or to the shared life including compassion for the unbelieving neighbour, or any remembrance of the ministry in which Jesus unveiled the character of God. Above all, there is no evidence of the virtue most typical of Jesus, love of enemies.
Similar difficulties in the The Revelation, which is somehow related to the tradition of John, can be understood more easily since the believers of that book are undergoing severe persecution by the Empire. Some have been killed because of their faith. In that situation an emphasis on holding fiercely to the truth against all the world is understandable. Here in this letter where there is no evidence of persecution, the defensive assertion of the believers’ sole possession of truth can sound a little hysterical. If the crisis which led to the letter was a split due to doctrinal difference, I would regard the reaction as excessive, but that may be because I am afflicted with a kind of Jewish conviction that right action is more important than right doctrine.
I have no doubt that the community to which the authors belong had inherited a distinctive tradition of faith, in which the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were understood in a profound and radical way, more extensively portrayed in the Gospel of John. In this letter, whatever we think of the motives of its authors, we have access to some of the precious discoveries of that tradition, especially to the truth that God is love. For that reason, it’s worth reading and re-reading.