Observations for discussion and questions:
The following passage as a whole is delimited by three recurrences of belief in relation to Jesus: who believes that Jesus is the Son of God (5:5), who believes in the Son of God (5:10), and who believe in the name of the Son of God (5:13). Besides these there are the recurrences of faith and witness. Among the three subunits the first one is delimited but recurrences of water/blood (5:4b-8), the second by recurring references to God”s witness that he/God has born to his Son (5:9-10), and the last one by recurrences of life/eternal life (5:11-13)
4b And this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. 7 And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. 8 There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree.
9 If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God that he has borne witness to his Son. 10 He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself. He who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne to his Son.
11 And this is the witness, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.
First a comment on the three belief statements. In the first one the emphasis is obviously on the cognitive element of belief, i.e. “believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” In the second and third instances the focus is more on the relational aspect of trust and commitment, i.e. “believes in the Son of God/in the name of the Son of God.” Since the “name” stands for the person, the latter expression would be a more emphatic expression that says, “believes in the very person, namely the Son of God.” In other words, both mind and heart are engaged in this belief, i.e. the whole person.
Furthermore, the victory that this faith brings is over the world. The world in what sense? Most likely in the sense of sensual lust and material arrogance as already defined in 2:16. This victory has “eternal life” as its goal (5:11-13). To have the Son is to have this life, because this life is in God”s Son (5:11). The rest of the passage deals with the basis for belief that and faith in, namely the witness of the Spirit and of God. (In Greek both the verb and noun for faith/belief have the same root word, pisteuo/pistis.)
Firstly, the Spirit is the witness the Jesus “came with the water and with the blood” (5:6-7) and even the water and the blood stand as witnesses along with the Spirit (5:8). There are several possible interpretations of “water” and “blood” as used here: 1) they both may be taken as referring to the real, physical birth of Jesus as a child is born with birth water and blood; 2) they may to the baptism and real death of Jesus; and 3) they may refer to the water and blood that flowed from Jesus” side to testify of his real death. All of these would be valid ways of calling into question a Gnostic-like, dualistic re-interpretation of Jesus, namely that at either at birth or at baptism Jesus was only a human being. At the baptism the Spirit entered the ”man” Jesus and communicated enlightenment through him, but left him to die a human death at the cross. The name for this teaching in the Early Church was ”docetism.” Any of the interpretations above would go against such a teaching that can be seen to have denied “Jesus as having come in the flesh” (4:2).
The preferred interpretation seems to be that of references to the baptism and death of Jesus, since the Spirit most easily fits with Jesus” baptism as “witness” to the baptism (Matt 3:16) and not some divine, enlightening being that enters and speaks through the man Jesus. This view is strengthened by the next section (5:9-10) which refers to the witness that God has born to his Son. One can hardly doubt that John is referring to the witness of God at the baptism of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son…” (e.g., Matt 3:17). To deny this is to make God a liar (5:10). Thus while ”son of God” could be used of a regular human being who loves and is committed to God, Jesus is God”s Son in a unique sense, i.e. he was both “with the Father in eternity” (1:2) and came in the flesh (4:2) to provide atonement for sins (2:2; 4:10). Thus, eternal life has to do with victory over moral evil, the world of sensual lust and material arrogance, by faith and trust in Jesus and his atonement and not by ascetic discipline as most dualistic religions propose (see Col 2:23). This is why John insists that “he who confesses the Son has the Father” (2:23) and “he who confesses the Son has life” (5:12).
Finally, in 5:10 a further basis for belief would be how belief in the Son of God provides the witness in oneself. One of the most powerful evidences that one”s belief is valid is the internal evidence of its power within one”s life to provide moral victory, not on the surface level, but at the root by engendering love at its deepest level.
- John seems to be addressing the question of faith in relation to a world view that had entirely different presuppositions than that of the Judeo-Christian world view. Is his response still relevant today?
- Must one understand the Gnostic-like dualism of John”s day to make practical sense out of what he says for us today, or is it simply a bonus to have that understanding?
- Do we find similar threats to the Christian view of Christ today around us? What seems to make them so attractive to people?
- What is it in general that makes it so hard for so many to simply trust in Jesus? For many, it seems that the particularity of Jesus, his being a person located in a specific culture in an obscure land at a particular point in human time, becomes a hurdle to belief at a level of ultimacy. Is there any way to get past this or to mitigate this by human reason?