The Good Pastor, John, writes a tightly reasoned circular letter intended for the various congregations in his extended parish. He intends to use his writing to assuage their frustrations about (apparently) large numbers of erstwhile believers leaving their Christian churches to join with one of the gnostic heretical groups.
The gnostics (the name comes from a word meaning “knowledge”) hew to the line of the various branches off the Christian tree. Cults, heretics, major and minor, deny either the humanity of Christ or His very exclusive deity (only begotten son of God). The Gnostics manage to do both. Gnostic influences are still felt today, as major book sellers “rediscover” lost books of the Bible from time to time. These lost books are invariably Gnostic literature and are not so much “lost” as they were excluded from the canon of the New Testament, for very good reasons.
No, I am not intending here to rehearse the transmission and production of the canon of Scripture. I do intend to say this; what happened then (1st Christian century) happens still. The Evil One (Satan, the Adversary) still steals hearts and minds. Here is his appeal: Just be a bit less with God so you can be a bit more with us. The us is undefined but the appeal is clear. If you do not go with him, the evil one, you miss a great party.
And, you know, it may be a great party for awhile, but, like many great parties, there can be a terrible hangover. John, the Good Pastor, is not out to spoil anybody’s good time. He intends to point out the cost of going the wrong way.
John offers a tightly reasoned, carefully presented argument for five chapters and twelve verses. Then, in I John 5:13, he lapses into a repetitive summation, which, sadly, he seems reluctant to end. He does end it, in 5:21, with a sudden warning against idols. To make this passage seem reasonable, it is necessary to give a careful reading, in order to approach cogency. The whole of I John 5:13-21 is better read in the general than the specific, in categoric terms.
For instance, throughout these verses, the Good Pastor warns against the Evil One. The Evil One is the one who seduces. He is the Adversary, first of God, and so of Humankind, in his intent to pull humans away from God. He seduces us in various ways:
- He offers us knowledge, but it is knowledge that leads to hubris, not humility. As with original man and woman, so it is in every generation, the Adversary changes the human pursuit of discovery to this; promote yourself over God by what you do, so that you become more than God and have no need for God. Here is the problem. Knowledge without moral foundation has ghastly results.
- He offers us something to see (an idol), the result of which is this; we need not plum the depths of the soul or seek the mind of God. Idols may be lovely, but they do not change much, do they? To venerate an idol need not require much of us, it is static religiosity rather than dynamic religion.
- He sinks to the lowest sensual level, wherein those things that might be good in the proper context become the doorway to human destruction, of body, mind and soul. Marital love becomes sexual impurity, debasing male and female. A happy, social drink becomes drunkeness, success in work becomes exploitation of the masses, a social safety net creates a permanent underclass, et al.
John warns against idols, about the Evil One, alerts his readers to the dangers of habitual sin (unto death). John knows a higher message, of grace, mercy and peace. He also knows he must warn his readers about the common human tendency to use others and so lose themselves. Avoid the Evil One, he might have put it, and so…
….claim the name of God. Now, understand, all human language about God is approximate rather than accurate, so much is lost in the translation. We struggle with what we know and then with how to say it so that the whole thing does not sound remarkably unlikely. Traditional, orthodox Christianity teaches us this; the eternal Christ (Son of God, Second Person in the Trinity) comes into history as the human, Jesus, born to Mary, suffers under Pontius Pilate, is crucified dead and buried, resurrected on the third day after and ascended into heaven, from thence He comes to judge the living and the day (someday, but there is a lot between “ascended” and “returned to judge”).
John is a Good Pastor, which means he is a preacher. He tends to repeat his main themes, so much so that he finally just tells his readers to “believe on the name.” By this, he means, “accept the brand.” John stresses the name of the God “you can see,” meaning Jesus, because, well, what else is He (Jesus) doing in the flesh, if not so we can see God at work?
Here is the crux of the matter. Since none of us will ever be God as Jesus is God, which requires eternality, which we ain’t got, you and me, the ethical purpose of Christ’s mission must be to show us how to be Human as God intends humanity to be, so we can see how we ought to be. And, it follows, as with all ethics, this is how we ought to live when we accept the brand, as if we can be perfected in Christ and are intending that end as we set our goals.
Grace ultimately enables us to be perfected in love. We ought to believe in the name of the Son of God, so to live as if we intend to be perfected in love.
A venerable philosophy of religion professor used to say, “If you are going to wear your character forever, take care to make it a good one.”
Since we are being perfected in love, since we wear the name, we can be sure God hears/answers our prayers when we pray in God’s will, v. 15, 16. Since we take this instruction in context, we cannot take from the context any teaching but the one in the text. That is, the misused verse fifteen, which seems to say we might ask anything we want so long as it is in God’s will and expect to get it, must be allowed, rather, to say what it says in context.
That is, our inspired brother qualifies the meaning of verse fifteen in verse sixteen. One who sees his brother start to slide ought to pray for his repentance. This is in keeping with the general context of the book, which is about guarding your brother against faith loss and the specific context in these last verses, which is about the sin of apostasy, or, sin that leads to death, meaning spiritual death.
Let’s sort this out.
First, we cannot take verse fifteen without verse sixteen because the author put them together. This means we cannot use 5:15 as a proof text for the Prosperity Gospel. If you sincerely believe God will give you whatever you ask, at all, any time, then what happens when God does not? No, the Prosperity Gospel is just another heresy, like when the TV preacher urges you to send money to God but then gives his address. Won’t work.
Then, since verse fifteen is coupled so closely with verse sixteen, we are left to assume our writer means what he writes. Watch your brother to guard him against the evil one lest he die in his sin. Pray for transforming justification and perfecting sanctification. John’s clear teaching in his clumsy ending has the same intent as all else he writes; to enshrine Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, the Christ, and to urge persons to love Jesus, so to love for Him.
This is our guard against the Evil One.