By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXXXII) 05/10/23

5:19 We know that we belong to God, but the Evil One controls the whole world.

Expositor and systematic theologist Michael Eaton (1942-2017) states that the Christian faith is not composed of “sinning believers.” We know that everyone who is born of God does not sin. John’s message of fellowship with God by the blood of the Anointed One is encouraging, but it does not give easy permission to sin.[1] In this sense, the Christian “does not sin.” The new birth has given them a unique nature, a tendency to love God, and the ability to love fellow Christians. The Christian has confidence in their security under Jesus’ care. The One who is born of God keeps them, and the wicked one is unable to steal them.[2]

There are a number of interpretations of this line, but it likely refers to the ministry of Jesus in protecting His people. The description of Jesus as the One who is born [begotten] of God is exceptional, but we have noticed before John’s fondness for putting things in unexpected ways. The believer can feel safe because Jesus can protect them.[3] The truth is that “the evil one does not get hold of them.” Satan can attack the believer, entice the believer, trick the believer, deceive the believer – but he cannot remove the believer from the Anointed One’s protecting hands.

The second matter that “we know,” says John, is that he and his disciples hold to the authentic faith, as opposed to the proto-Gnostics whose message John refuses to acknowledge. We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the grasp of the evil one. One observes again the note of strong affirmation: ‘We know (without doubt or introspection) that we (not the proto-Gnostics) are (not “want to be” or “hope to be”) of God. As distinct to the Christian fellowship, “the whole world lies in the grasp of the evil one.”

This world has only two communities: God’s people and all others. Jesus grasps one, and Satan grabs the other. Jesus will not loosen His grasp; Satan will not voluntarily loosen his grip. The Christian is in a situation of conflict against spiritual enemies. A a godless society is not in a position of conflict. It is not struggling; it lies almost asleep in Satan’s grip.[4]

After scrutinizing the Apostle John’s subject theme, William Loader (1944) indicates that verse eighteen focuses on behavior as the fruit of a system, while verse nineteen emphasizes belonging within the system, being part of the relationships, which make proper behavior possible as opposed to fitting in with a godless society system where the values of the evil one prevail and produce the fruit of rebellion. We are God’s family (literally: “we are of or ‘out of God’”). To the Apostle John, there is no neutral territory. We are either in one system or the other. When we are least conscious of being involved in a value system, we are often most influenced by either love reigns or its opposite reigns.

Similarly, the Apostle Paul warns his readers not to be “conformed to the pattern of this present world” but to be “transformed by the renewal of their minds.”[5] In verse nineteen, John reiterates the foundation of his thought about God: it is the occasion of the coming of God’s Son. Through that event, we have received understanding. That understanding consists of knowing the true God. There are false gods; the epistle will end with knowing the true God. There are false gods, and the epistle will end with a warning against them: Children be on guard against idols.[6]

Great Commission practitioner David Jackman (1945) sees the Apostle John talking here in verse nineteen about a new attitude to a godless society. Christians know that they belong to God and not to this world. John’s second great affirmation focuses on the personal relationship between God’s children and their Father. Literally, “we know that we are of God.”

The construction of this phrase stresses that God alone is the source of our life. It explains and justifies the NIV’s inclusion of the “we” and “children.” All that we have comes from Him, so we belong to Him totally, body, mind, and spirit. That is something a Christian knows, not presumptuously, but because of the positive evidence in life and behavior of the new birth, as John’s letter has outlined and described them. By definition, God’s family is separated from a godless society. Children of God live differently from the non-Christian society surrounding them.[7]

After studying the context surrounding this verse, John W. (Jack) Carter (1947), the Apostle John describes the vast gulf between those who are faithful to the LORD and those who are not. The heretics have been trying to cause the faithful to doubt their salvation.  Through this letter, John has argued that those who love the LORD are secure in their faith, and though they still struggle with wrongdoing, they are not and never will be characterized by wickedness. 

However, wickedness is the very nature of this godless world.  Just as it is possible to witness the character of godliness in those who love the LORD, it is possible to detect the nature of wickedness in those who do not.  People of faith can be confident that they are of God because they are not surrendered to the wickedness of this world.  Christians still wrestle with the issues of law-breaking tendencies and behaviors against God’s Word, but what differentiates that person of faith is that it is, indeed, a struggle.  Because they battle with sin in a sincere effort to be obedient to the LORD, people of faith can know they are part of God’s family and be confident in that faith.[8]

A man who loves sharing God’s Word, Robert W. Yarbrough (1948) notes the second “we know” statement in verse nineteen begins by echoing verse eighteen, only in different words. Instead of “born of God,” believers simply are “of God.” They are His creation and His re-creation in the Anointed One, and therefore His eternal possession. John does not speak of hope explicitly, but the assurance of the knowledge of being God’s possession in a world of sin, the devil, and death is equivalent to it.[9]

Skilled in Dead Sea Scroll interpretation and Final Covenant writings, Colin G. Kruse (1950) has the Apostle John continuing in verse nineteen to reassure his readers, using the second of his “we know” expressions found in verses eighteen and twenty to contrast their position with that of the rest of a godless society. The NIV has rather unnecessarily added the word “children” in its translation of the first clause (literally translated, it would read: “we know that we are of God”).

The contrast between true believers and those of the rest of a godless society is that the former belongs to God, while the latter lay under the evil one’s control. In the light of the previous verse, believers are no longer under the power of the evil one because Jesus the Anointed One keeps them safe so that the evil one cannot harm them. The teaching that the rest of a godless society is under the control of the evil one has its counterpart in the Gospel of John, where the evangelist mentions the prince (ruler) of this world three times.[10] In the context of First John, those in a godless society include the secessionists, whom John now regards as belonging to a godless society.[11] [12]

Believing that Christians can fall away from the faith, Ben Witherington III (1951) sees the picture the Apostle John paints in verse nineteen as quite gloomy of the world’s godless society lying hopeless under the dominion of the Evil One.[13] Literally it says that the entire world lies “in the Evil One” and not “in the Anointed One.” This is why the whole world, all of human society, needs to be and is the object of God’s salvation plan. It does not mean that it is as bad as it might be or is unredeemable, but rather that the wickedness of the Evil One has affected it like self-rising yeast.

Yet amid this darkness, there is a community of light in which believers are protected from the Evil One, who need not surrender to his temptations but can survive living in a godless society, and the antichrists. Indirectly, but nonetheless, this community is a godless society’s only hope, for only there does one find the saving presence of Jesus directly. This verse also stresses that “we know that we are born of God.”

It is not something that needs to be hypothesized or surmised; it is simply known. But this is not all that is known. Things will suddenly become a lot brighter in verse twenty. To use Westcott’s terms, John will contrast the Active Enemy with the Watchful Guardian. The Christian knows that both in the moral nature they inherited, and the moral sphere in which they live, there is an ever-widening gulf between them and a godless society.[14]

With her crafted spiritual insight, Judith Lieu (1951) also notes the second affirmation repeals the assurance that brought readers and John together in the face of the threat of the false prophets.[15] That “from God” signifies more than belonging to God or coming from God; it has been shaped by the images of birth and being children, so it means having one’s origin and being in God.[16] It is not something that can be said of anyone but only those who have declared their common allegiance. Who they are is determined by the opposition they face; over against them is “the whole world,” which, as often in this letter, represents all that is opposed to God.[17]

John now makes explicit what so far has been implicit, that in his dualistic scheme, a godless society is inseparably tied to the evil one. Yet John does not say that a godless society is “of the evil one” but lies under or in the evil one’s power. Perhaps this offers a glimmer of hope of snatching a godless society from the evil one’s grip. If so, it would soften the contradiction with John’s earlier declaration that Jesus is a source of forgiveness even for (the sins of) “the whole world.[18]

However, John has repeatedly shown himself not uncomfortable with such contradictions in his thought process. The real concern at this point in the letter is not whether a godless society will also join God’s realm but with those whom John invites to share this affirmation. By making these words theirs, they will effectively be distancing themselves from any contamination from a godless society, where the power of the evil one is at work. Success in a godless society and its pursuit can hold no attraction for them. Nonetheless, they need the protection of the one born of God against the evil one shows that they have not left a godless society behind; it remains in place.[19]

Conclusively, says Vincent Cheung (1952), it is no secret that “the whole world lies in wickedness,” so functioning in human society will involve interaction with non-Christians. The Apostle Paul admitted that it was unavoidable.[20] Necessary relations aside, the issue is whether we should associate them on a personal level. Few Christians who befriend non-Christians as Jesus did are effective in ministry to sinners, assuming they have one in mind in the first place.

Many are dishonest – they have no intention of demanding conversion from non-Christians. To repeat Paul’s admonition, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’”[21] That is, we should not be so deceived as to think that it makes little difference with whom we associate. It is foolish to assume that no tragedy will befall those who enjoy the company of non-Christians.[22] [23]

Contextual interpretation specialist Gary M. Burge (1952) notes that verse nineteen is the Apostle John’s second bold affirmation. The sustenance and protection of Jesus are essential because a godless society lies (NIV, “is under the control of”) in the grip of Satan. Again, John’s imagery is striking. A godless society is not under siege by Satan; it hardly struggles against him. Instead, a godless society rests in Satan’s arms. John’s dualistic outlook again draws sharp boundaries between church and state, light and darkness, and God and evil. Christians reside in the rival camp to Satan, but our security is assured because Jesus lives there with us. A godless society is used to Satan’s embrace, but he cannot hold Christians.

Finally, John makes clear our hope. If a godless society is experiencing disintegration and many are aligned with the forces of evil, what hope is there for us in a godless society? John’s answer in verse twenty is that Jesus the Anointed One has penetrated worldliness. He has worked as a saboteur, undermining a godless society’s systems and reversing its possibilities.

Note that John describes the work of the Anointed One as bringing knowledge so that we may know, but this should not be seen as a type of human logic – the very thing to which John is opposed! Christian knowledge is focused on genuine reality, something that happened in history. Thus, in verse twenty, John does not say we merely know the truth; instead, we know “Him who is the Truth.”[24] John uses an adjective rather than the usual noun to underscore that Christian certainty is not about abstract reasoning or inspired enlightenment but about God, the real God, “Him who is Truth,” the only true God.[25] [26]

A scholar who truly inspires Christian missionaries, Daniel L. Akin (1957), states that in stark contrast to the believer’s safety in the Anointed One, the security of worldly souls is left to the power of the evil one. We are safe, but a godless society is in slavery. On the other hand, believers in Jesus have a confident and settled knowledge that they are God’s property. Here is confidence, an inner assurance, that spiritual death has no claim on them. Here is a certainty of the soul that sin cannot dominate us, and the evil one cannot harm them without overcoming God’s protection.

So, how can a godless society continue living in such terror without seeking liberation? It is because those sinners are tragically caught up in the devil’s net of lies and the futility of this world system to redeem anyone. Satan numbs unbelievers’ minds, snatches God’s Word from human hearts,[27] deceives by miraculous signs and wonders,[28] and entices through fleshly desires and pride.[29]

In the writings of Roman dictator, Julius Caesar, we find mentioned that in one of his battles, the enemy gave a signal that they were ready for peace when, in fact, it was a disguised plan to outflank the Roman army and attack on the unprotected side. However, the Roman soldiers grew suspicious that this was done by the enemy to deceive them.[30] Has not Satan used this same tactic against God’s people His Church? So, beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.[31]

[1] 1 John 3:6

[2] Ibid 5:18b

[3] See also John 17:11,12,15; 1 Peter 1:5; Jude 24; Revelation 3:10

[4] Eaton, Michael: Focus on the Bible, 1,2,3 John, op. cit., pp. 196-197

[5] Romans 12:2

[6] Loader, William: Epworth Commentary, The Johannine Epistles, op. cit., p. 79

[7] Jackman, David: The Message of John’s Letters, op. cit., p. 169

[8] Carter, Dr. John W. (Jack). 1,2,3, John & Jude: (The Disciple’s Bible Commentary Book 48), op. cit., pp. 136-137

[9] Yarbrough, Robert W., 1-3 John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), op. cit., p. 317

[10] John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11

[11] Cf. 1 John 2:18-19; 4:1-5

[12] Kruse, Colin G., The Letters of John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[13] Cf. John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11

[14] Witherington, Ben III., Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2 Timothy and 1-3 John, op. cit., loc. cit. Kindle Edition

[15] 1 John 4:4, 6

[16] See Ibid 3:10

[17] Ibid. 2:15-17

[18] 1 John 2:2; 4:14

[19] Lieu, Judith: A New Testament Library, I, II, & III John, op. cit., pp. 231-232

[20] 1 Corinthians 5:10

[21] Ibid. 15:33

[22] See Psalm 26:4-5; 101:4-5; 119:115; 141:4-6; Proverbs 4:14-15; 13:20; 22:24-25; 1 Corinthians 5:6; Ephesians 5:3-4; 1 Timothy 6:20-21; 2 Timothy 2:16

[23] Cheung, Vincent. Systematic Theology, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[24] John 14:6

[25] Cf. 1 Samuel 3:7; Jeremiah 24:7; 31:34; John 1:9; 15:1; Revelation 3:7

[26] Burge, Gary M., The Letters of John (The NIV Application Commentary), op. cit., pp. 217-218

[27] Matthew 13:4, 9

[28] Ibid. 24:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:9

[29] 1 John 2:15-17

[30] Julius Caesar: Delphi Complete Works of: The Gallic Wars, Bk. VII, Kindle Edition, p. 233

[31] Matthew 7:15

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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