John is a big one for knowledge. “I write these things to you who believe in the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life,” he says. This is closely akin to his purpose statement near the end of his gospel, in John 20:31: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” That we may know who Jesus is, that we may act on that knowledge by putting our trust in him, that we may know that in him we have eternal life—that’s what John is driving at here; and in this conclusion of his letter, he backs that up with statement after statement about what we as Christians know about who God is and who we are in him. Not merely what we think, not just what we want to believe, but what we know—what is bedrock, what is absolutely certain; what we can stake our lives on.
And as part of that, he calls us to stake our lives on what we know. These days, we tend to think of knowledge the way we do in school, as a collection of facts that we have to be able to remember to answer the questions correctly and pass the test. You tell me stuff, I tell it back to you to prove that I was listening and remember what you said. It’s rather like mama bird feeding little baby birds—eat worm, regurgitate worm, repeat.
That’s not the biblical definition of knowledge, and it’s not what John is on about. Biblically, true knowledge, knowledge of the truth, produces true action; it shapes and forms the way we live. Thus John says here, “I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life,” but back in 2:1, he wrote, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” To us, these sound like different things, but to John, they aren’t. Knowing we have eternal life in Christ—and Christ alone—affects how we live; it draws us away from sin and toward God. We don’t learn not to sin by force of will or fear of punishment or some form of manipulation, we learn not to sin by coming to know God and his blessings, and so to love him, and value them, more than the pleasures and promised rewards of sin.
That truth underlies the points John is making in this final section of his letter. “This is the confidence we have in God’s presence,” he tells us, “that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” “Hearing” in this context doesn’t just mean that God knows we said something, but that he responds positively to our request, and thus that we can know that we will receive what we ask. If we ask according to his will. In which case, isn’t our prayer redundant?
No, it isn’t. You see, God can bless us whether we ask him to or not; but he can’t bless us as an answer to our prayers unless we pray. And more than that, God doesn’t do things capriciously or without reason; why should we assume that his will doesn’t take our prayers into account? Our prayers don’t force God to do anything, but does that mean he doesn’t will to do things in part because we ask him to? I think one reason we have trouble thinking about prayer is that we implicitly have a transactional model of prayer, as if we were asking the bank for a loan, or the library for a book. We say prayer is about our relationship with God, but we don’t really think through what that means. Prayer is how God involves us in what he’s doing; we give him what’s on our mind and heart, and he takes that into his counsel, and he helps us to understand his will and what he intends to do. We learn to see our lives in that light, and to want what he wills.
This begins, though, with knowing—not just in our heads, but in our hearts and in our bones—that in Jesus, we have a different kind of life from the world at large, something more than the world has to offer. Prayer according to God’s will begins with the trust that God’s will really is better—and better for us specifically—than our own ideas and plans. Sin, by contrast, is the practical expression of the belief that we cannot trust God. They’re polar opposites of each other.
That may be why John commands us in verse 16, if we see a fellow believer sin, to pray for them: the first response we should have to the public sin of another is not condemnation, or lecturing, which are applications of our own power to punish, but prayer, which is an appeal to the power of God to heal and restore. Yes, public discipline is sometimes necessary as well, but that isn’t where we should start—and even discipline must be combined with prayer, because nothing we can do can bring people to repentance; only God can do that. Only he can give life.
Now, John distinguishes between “the sin that does not lead to death” and “the sin that leads to death”; people have come up with various random suggestions for what “the sin that leads to death” might be, but I don’t think John’s making a random reference here. Remember the context; remember the false teachers against whom he’s writing, who have deliberately turned away from Christ, choosing darkness over light. That deliberate rejection of our only hope of salvation is the sin that leads to death, because it is the sin of choosing death over life; we call it apostasy, and John says, “I don’t command you to pray for such people.” You can, but he isn’t going to force the issue, because that will break your heart. It’s not a bad thing, that what breaks the heart of God should break our hearts as well; but it isn’t easy to bear.
The danger in talking about this is that in bringing eternal punishment into the conversation, it can inspire fear; I remember a couple conversations in high school with classmates who were afraid they had committed the unforgivable sin. Thus John follows up with strong words of reassurance, reminding us what we know, why we need not fear or lose heart. None of this is new, he’s said it all over the course of the letter, but he wants to make sure it sticks. “We know that anyone born of God does not keep on sinning”—yes, we do sin, but we repent, we ask forgiveness, and we give it to Jesus, who took it all on the cross. Jesus protects us, and he keeps the evil one from leading us into the sin that leads to death. The system of this world is under the control of the evil one, but we know we’re free of that, because we are of God—we belong to him alone.
“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, who is the true God and eternal life. Therefore, little children, keep yourselves from idols.” “Therefore” isn’t in the text, but I think it’s implied. John’s closing thought is at once a profound statement of praise and a call to action—a call to live lives in accordance with that praise.
We’re tempted to go after idols—to put our trust and our faith and our love in people or things ahead of God; but how foolish is that, really? In God, we have nothing to fear, and there is nothing better we could desire—the Son of God has come, and through him we are able to know the one who is true, the God of all creation, the source of all light and goodness and grace. More, we are in God, we live in him and he lives in us, because we are in Jesus Christ, who is God, who is eternal life. We have been united with Christ by his Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, who lives in us by the will of God the Father; he is the source of truth and grace and love, hope and joy and peace and all good things.
Don’t settle for idols; accept no substitutes. Jesus came that we may know God—not just know about him, or worship him, or know his commandments, but know him, as we know our closest friends and family. He came to be the way for us to God, and there is no better way. Indeed, there is no other way, never has been and never will be; and John writes so that we may know this beyond all doubt, and be moved to praise, and to trust—and to follow.