NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
By Dr. Robert R. Seyda
FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN
CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXXXVIII) 05/17/23
5:20 And we know that God’s Son has come and given us understanding. So now we can fellowship with the true One and live in union with that true God. We are in His Son, Jesus the Anointed One. He is the true God, and He is eternal life.
Familiar with John’s writing style, William B. Pope (1822-1903) says that the Apostle John’s words in verse twenty should remind us of the only occasion “God’s Son is come,” is used in this sense is when our Lord declared to the Jews in one sentence the mystery of His eternal Sonship, His presence in a godless society by incarnation, and His mediatorial mission: “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but He sent me.” The children of God know with an assurance that is above all doubt that God’s Son is incarnate with the human race and “lived among us.”
It is John’s triumphant closing of his Epistle, as it is a testimony to the manifestation of eternal life and a protest against all anti-Christian error. Keeping both these objects in view, John goes on: “and has given us understanding that we may know Him that is true.” This word “understanding” signifies the inner faculty of the Spirit, which discriminates “know,” which is the result of the “unction from the Holy One.”
Through this inward enlightenment by Him, who is the Truth, through His Spirit, we “know” Him that is true, as the “only real God.” It is the “only true God” in His unapproachable distinction from all false gods or objects of hope, who is eternal life. In the words of Jesus, the Anointed One has come because He was sent. But He came as God revealed, and John hastens from the spiritual knowledge to the spiritual experience of fellowship with that Father, not “and” Jesus but “in union with Him.” Thus, we are one with His Son Jesus the Anointed One. The absence of “and” leaves the plain assertion that we are in the true God by being in His Son – thus making the true God and His Son one – is the solution to the question to whom the following clause refers.
This is the true God and eternal life. His Son Jesus the Anointed One is Himself the true God, His revelation and presence with us; nor know we any other. Since He has come, those who do not see God in Him serve a god of their imagination. When the apostle adds “and eternal life,” it brings joy for the privilege of all believing Christians. They have in the Son the Father’s perfect Love manifested to us. Thus, the end of the Epistle revolves back to the beginning. Christian doctrine is the revelation of the true God in the Anointed One, and Christian blessedness is life everlasting in the Father and the Son.
A strong supporter of church laity in ministry, Willibald Beyschlag (1823-1900) notes that the Apostle John saw God only in the face of Jesus the Anointed One. No person could be more pierced than by John becoming conscious that through Jesus, new knowledge of God, the only actual knowledge of God, had come into a godless society. That’s what John is talking about here in verse twenty. Before this knowledge of God in the Anointed One, everything narrated in the First Covenant of Moses seeing God and the prophets grow pale. Don’t you know, no one has seen God at any time?
This concept contradicts the Scriptures that say the only begotten Son in the Father’s bosom has revealed Him. This new knowledge of God is expressed in the name of God as Father, which, in confirmation of what we have learned about Johannine Christology, is nowhere narrower in its extent than the name “God,” to leave room for a God the Son beside a God the Father; it coincides throughout with what we read in John’s Gospel, with that is said in his Epistle, and gives to the idea of God the character of eternal love made manifest to humanity.
With holiness doctrine expertise, Daniel Steele (1824-1914) gives us a point-by-point exposition of verse twenty and remarks that even in the intellectual sphere, in which the Gnostics (knowing ones) claim to have such advantages, the Christian is, by the Anointed One’s bounty, superior. In the Greek, this reiterated “we know” is in this case introduced by the adversative particle “but,” making a startling antithesis with the preceding clause. Bad as a godless society is under the tyranny of Satan, there is no ground for pessimistic despair. “That which is as yet dark will be made light.”
We are given the power of ever-advancing knowledge and present divine fellowship. We can wait, even as God waits. The words “The Son of God has come” implies His permanent presence, inspiring life, hope, and strength in every believer. And the promise “He has given us an understanding” expresses the permanency of this gift elsewhere described in the Paraclete who came to stay, whose office it is to reveal the Anointed One to the eye of faith to give insight into spiritual truth.
The Apostle John continues, “That we may know.” It means knowing more and more of the depths of Divine love through a never-ending exercise of our ever-expanding powers. This is eternal life. “Him, that is true.” The Heavenly Father revealed in His Son the loftiest and purest idea of God possible in mankind’s mind, in contrast with the imaginary, unreal and imperfect objects of worship which mislead and debase all the pagan nations. So the statement, “We are in Him that is true,” is not by physical incorporation into the body of the glorified Anointed One but by genuine and blissful fellowship. Thus, “So far as believers are united with the Anointed One, they are united with God.” Shows John’s assumption of humanity explains how the union is possible.” Therefore, John says, “This is the true God and eternal life.”
All the scholars agree that “this” may grammatically refer to the Father, the principal noun in the previous sentence, or to Jesus the Anointed One, the nearest noun. In favor of the first theory are the following arguments: (1) The Father is the leading subject of discourse. (2) It is precisely John’s style to repeat with some addition what has been already written. (3) The Father is the primary source of life, and the Son is secondary. (4) This view harmonizes with John’s Gospel. (5) The fact that God is the true God is in reference to the argument against idolatry, a more special point than the Divinity of His Son.
The following are reasons for referring “this” to the incarnate Son of God: (1) His is the noun last mentioned. (2) The Father, having been twice called “the true one” in verse nineteen, to call Him so the third time would be needless repetition. (3) In this Epistle and John’s Gospel, the |Anointed One is styled “the life.” (4) Athanasius thus interprets this text in his controversy with the Arians. (5) The primary purpose of this Epistle is to establish the reality of the Anointed One’s humanity, that God’s Son who has come in the flesh is worthy of worship. He is the revelation of the true God; He is the true God.
A novelist whose specialty was composing allegories about mankind’s pilgrimage back to God, George Macdonald (1824-1905), shares his story about the Marquis of Lossie. In describing the groom, Malcolm MacPhail’s sister Florimel’s frustration with Lady Clementina for refusing to join her to discuss Malcolm’s mistreatment of a treasured horse named Kelpie. But after a good night’s sleep, she woke up somewhat humbled.
So, Macdonald comments, “All sorts of means are kept at work to make the children obedient and simple and noble. Joy and sorrow are servants in God’s nursery; pain and delight, ecstasy, and despair, minister in it; but amongst them, there is none more marvelous in its potency than that mingling of all pains and pleasures we especially give the name of Love.”
For Macdonald, this illustrates what the Apostle John was saying that we know that God’s Son has come and has given us understanding. So now we can understand the true One and live in that true God. We are in His Son, Jesus the Anointed One. He is the true God, and He is eternal life. So, John concludes that we should live like a person who knows God equipped for these situations.
British Critic, journalist, and theologian Richard Holt Hutton (1826-1897) states that it seems that a great deal of the wonderful beauty of the Book of Psalms consists in the fact that this time had not yet come. The sacred heart was in those days alone with God, in a sense in which it has never been alone since. The lesson which the Apostle John enforces here in verse twenty, and which it was most accessible for those to implement, in whom a single human love had concentrated at once all that they counted most authentic in their whole life, human or Divine – was a lesson entirely foreign to the minds of the more significant number of the Psalmists. The authors of these beautiful poems found it much easier to love God than to love humans, and their only theme of perpetual wonder was how it had been possible for God to love humanity.
After sufficient examination, Brooke Wescott (1825-1901) acknowledges that the Apostle John’s third affirmation of knowledge is introduced by the adversative particle (“and”). There is, this seems to be the line of thought, a startling antithesis in life of good and evil. We have been made to feel it in all its intensity. But at the same time we can face it in faith. That which is as yet dark will be made light. We are given the power of growing knowledge and present divine fellowship. We can wait even as God waits.
The Greek particle de (“that”) is not frequent in John’s writings. Faith rests on the permanence of the fact and not upon the historical record only. This is the only place in which the term occurs in John’s writings; generally, nouns that express intellectual powers are rare.
Thus, John never uses dianoia (“mind,” disposition,” “thought,” nor is nous (“understanding”) found in his Gospel or Epistles. That with which “God’s Son” Incarnate has endowed believers is a power of understanding, of interpreting, of perceiving the correct issues, the complex facts of life; and the end of the gift is that they may know, not by one decisive act but by a continuous and progressive apprehension “Him that is true.” Thus the object of knowledge is not abstract but personal: not the Truth, but Him of Whom all that is true is a partial revelation.
Considered a monarch in the pulpit, Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910) notes that once more, John triumphantly proclaims, “We know.” The sound of deep conviction rings in his voice. He is sure of his footing. He does not say “We incline to think,” or even “We believe and firmly hold,” but he says, “We know.” A very different tone from that of many of us, who, influenced by currents of present opinions, feel as if what was a rock to our fathers had become quicksand to us! But John in his simplicity thinks that it is a tone which is characteristic of every Christian. I wonder what he would say about some Christians now. This third of his triumphant certainties is connected closely with the two preceding ones, which have been occupying us in former sermons. It is because “God’s Son is come” that people are born of God and are of Him.
It is so in another way, for the words of our text should not read “And we know” rather than “But we know.” The preceding observations suggest them, and they present the only thought that makes it tolerable to know that while the whole world lies in the wicked, we know that God’s Son has come. Falling back on the certainty of the Incarnation and its present issues, we can look in the face of humanity’s grave condition and still have hope for a godless society and ourselves.
So these three things – the coming of the Anointed One, the knowledge of God which flows into a believing heart through that Incarnate Son, and the dwelling in God, which is the climax of all His gifts to us – these three things are in John’s estimation certified to a Christian heart and are not merely matters of opinion and faith, but in cases of knowledge. We must know for ourselves if we would lead others to believe. 
Like a spiritual farmer planting the seed of God’s Word, Henry A. Sawtelle (1832-1913) points out that in verse twenty, we have the summation of “we know.” The same “we know” beginning each of verses eighteen, nineteen, and twenty gives them “the appearance of a confession or summary of faith.” So, “That God’s Son is come into a godless society, in the flesh; to emphasize this basic matter, especially against the perversion of the antichrists; and it was a comforting, satisfying fact, at the very basis of atonement and redemption, and the dismay of him who cuddles a godless society in his wickedness. But God gave us understanding. This “understanding” is “divinely empowered inner sense,” or spiritual faculty, which the Anointed One gives us, made compelling by His Spirit on our minds, making us capable of spiritual knowledge, as the following clause shows.
The natural man needs this spiritual action upon his understanding that he may know spiritual things. And the Anointed One has come and given the Spirit for this creative work. So that we may know or, as in the Revised Version, (the indicative; declaring the object of the understanding and the fact that we already have the thing, in one statement) Him that is true (or the True One). The “True One” is God, as the pronoun in the expression “His Son” that follows, demonstrates. And He is called the True One, and not “true”), the real, genuine God, to assert his distinction from all fictitious or false gods having a godless society’s heart, whether the devil (god of this world) or images.
It is, then, one privilege of the Gospel to know God; to know Him, not merely by reason or conscience, not merely through theological propositions, but with the knowledge of personal experience, as one knows the scent of flowers, the sweetness of music, or the refreshment of the morning dew, attaining that sensible, satisfying appreciation of God, marked in words of Job’s friend, Eliphaz, “Submit to God, and you will have peace.”
That we are in Him that is true (the True One) is distinguished from those who are in partnership with the false and “wicked one.” We not only know God in spiritual experience, but we are in Him, in the life element of God the Spirit, in union with His Son, Jesus the Anointed One. Verses nineteen and the first part of twenty are not separated even by a verb that joins a subject to an adjective or noun. It’s as though they are so involved as to repeat what has been said. To be in fellowship with the True One is to be in harmony with His Son.
These two facts are inseparable. In fact, we have a relationship with the Father through unity with the Son. This same Spiritual association with the Father and the Son stood before John’s mind at the Epistle’s opening; appropriately, it comes back into view at the close. The new life is filled with a conscious partnership with the Father and the Son. This is the true God and eternal life. To whom does the word “this” refer; to the remote True One or His Son, Jesus the Anointed One? We must favor the latter reference with the ancient interpreters and against many modern ones because: (1) The Son is the nearer and more obvious antecedent, apart from all theologizing. (2) The connection calls for it. In effect, John said that to be in the Father was to be in the Son. “How so?” the mind queries. Because the Anointed One is the true God, not less than the Father. (3) It does not advance the thought and seems like repetition after the Father has been designated as the True One twice. This (true one) is the true God.
 John 8:42
 Pope, William B., The International Illustrative Commentary on the N.T., Vol. IV, op. cit., p. 42
 John 1:18
 Ibid. 17:3
 1 John 1:2
 Beyschlag, Willibald: New Testament Theology, Trans. Neil Buchanan, Vol. II, pp. 426-427
 See Luke 8:17
 John 5:26
 Ibid. 17:3
 Cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9
 Cf. John 1:4; 6:33, 35; 8:12; 11:26; 14:6; 17:3; 20:31; 1 John 1:2; 5:12, 20
 Steele, Daniel: Half-Hours with St., John’s Epistles, op. cit., pp. 150-152
 MacDonald, George. The Marquis of Lossie, Published by C. Kegan Paul & Co., London, 1878, Ch. XLIII, A Perplexity, p. 198-199,
 Hutton, R. H., Criticisms on Contemporary Thought and Thinkers, MacMillan and Company, London, 1894, Vol. II, XXII Dean Church on the Psalms, p. 235
 Cf. 1 John 1:7; 2:2, 5, 11, 17; 3: 12, 17; 4:18; 3 John 1:14
 Cf. John 8:42; 1 John 3:1; 4:13; see 3:23;24
 See Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27
 Westcott, Brooke F., The Epistles of St. John: Greek Text with Notes, op. cit., pp. 195-196
 Maclaren, Alexander: Sermons and Expositions on 1 John, op. cit., “Triumphant Certainties – 3”)
 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; Hebrews 13:20
 Ephesians 1:18
 John 17:3
 Job 22:21
 John 14:6, 20; 17:23