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1 John 5:9-13

1 John gets personal in the verses given to us this week. Not personal as in individualistic though. Rather, the author is moving from what has largely been an emphasis on intellectual belief and trust that Jesus is the Christ to a heartfelt faith in him. Of course, everything the author has said to this point has been in deeply relational language. Still, his focus has been on the readers agreement to the doctrinal claim that the man Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Christ and the Son of God. In the second reading this week, the author talks about the personal experience of faith.

The author is writing to a church community that has had members leave, apparently unable to believe that the man Jesus was the Christ (see 2:19-23). This is likely due to an inability to confess that the Son of God had been killed; a common proto-Gnostic problem. The author is writing that those who have remained together and confessing Jesus as the Christ and Son of God are those who have life (v. 12) and that they would be encouraged to continue placing their faith in that truth.

Our text begins in the middle of a thought. Because this Epistle isn’t a linear argument but is more circular, it can be difficult to find a starting point without the paragraphs that our English translations give us. But this also means that we can start reading anywhere and begin to see what the author is driving home to the readers/listeners.

Verse 9 begins in the midst of an explanation on testimony to Jesus. The language here has a legal sense to it. The author moves from the human testimony to the testimony of the Spirit/God. The human testimony (marturia) could refer to receiving the Gospel message from human witnesses (martyr). Or, and more likely, the author is stating that it’s simple logic that if humans are willing to accept a human’s testimony in any matter at all they should be all the more willing to accept the “testimony of God that he has testified [concerning] his Son” (v. 9).

And here is where it gets personal. The author claims that those who accept God’s “testimony that God has given [literally: testified] concerning his Son” have God’s “testimony in their heart.”

The ESV translates this “has the testimony in himself” which is more accurate as the word “heart” is not in the Greek here. The NRSV adds “heart” to be inclusive and to help us understand the more personal nature of what the author has moved to. This is a movement from head faith to heart faith. “The cognitive truth of God’s witness grasps us at the center of our beings…The witness of God is not to be intellectualized, but interiorized.”[i]

Rick Williamson explains a shift in the language that takes place in the passage this week that further makes this a faith of the heart. The author goes from saying “believes that Jesus is…” (vv. 1, 5) to “believe in…” (vv. 10, 13). The difference in the Greek signifies a change that focuses on “personal trust.”[ii]

The promise of this text is that our faith is not just a historical, scientific, or philosophical fact; this faith is assurance of forgiveness, new life, and a restored relationship with God. When we bring this intellectual belief from our head into the center of our being and make it the purpose of our existence, we have the assurance of life (v. 12).

In verses 11 and 13 the type of life we receive is said to be “eternal life.” A familiar term in Johannine books of the New Testament, eternal life is often diminished to simply mean life after death. And while we certainly hope for heaven, this text is a perfect example of the biblical writers intent when using this term. Eternal life is clearly not just referring to what happens when we die in this text. Eternal life, rather, is experienced now because of our faith in Jesus. Verse 12 doesn’t say “Whoever has the Son will have life.” The assurance of our faith is itself eternal life; it is life restored to God, life now in this life.

While this text is full of good news for those who have faith in Jesus it could be easy to oversimplify the text and ignore the very real doubt that many church people experience. The kind of assurance described in this text or that John Wesley describes when he says that he felt his “heart strangely warmed” is not known by many of us who have intellectually agreed that Jesus is the Son of God. Many can get behind the idea that the creator God loves us enough to take on all the brokenness of the world for our sake. But feeling the assurance that the author describes is a constant struggle. What we need more than anything is a patient and listening community where we are not shamed for our doubt. It is, after all, to a community of believers that the author writes and not to individuals. It is, after all, “our faith” (5:4); a shared faith that we live out together.

The assurance is certainly something that we seek as believers in our own hearts but it is something that we cannot simply seek on our own. We often need to lean on others who have stronger faith than we do. And this is a central purpose of the church; to join together and walk with those who struggle to bring our head faith to our hearts. I think that’s why the author writes this letter. Writing to a group of believers who have had some leave, the author encourages them to keep on in their faith and through their perseverance in the faith they will know eternal life here and now.

[i] Rick Williamson, 1, 2, 3 John: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition. New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2010), 163.

[ii] Ibid, 166.