January 13 2013

Signs from God – a response to “two jars”

God's existence

My brother Tony recently performed an experiment to see if God would prove his existence to him.
He describes what he did and what his experiment taught or confirmed for him.
If you have not read his blog entitled, “Two Jars”, you must stop reading now and click HERE,
as this blog is a personal response to my brother’s blog.

Tony, your blog was really interesting, moving and caused me to reflect on my own experience of God.

Honestly, I am sad God did not move the stones. Unlike the hypocritical theists you refer to in your blog, I do not have any problem with the idea that God could or would do such a thing. In fact, one of the first questions I asked after reading your blog was, “Why didn’t God do it?”

For you, I can see that the experiment and its result was very significant and genuine. I also see that for you, the result does not prompt in you the same question it does for me. For you, it “puts to rest my belief in a particular type of God” and “It was like I had asked if this world was actually the matrix. The answer was that this is real; the earth, sky, my family and me are all very real.” In this blog, all I would like to do is encourage you to be cautious about what exactly you “put to rest”.

Before performing the experiment you prayed this prayer:

“Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please empty the jar I have filled with stones and fill the empty jar next to it.”

paint cornerYour prayer was simple and innocent and I believe genuine. But by praying this prayer did you think that you were painting God into a corner? Or even, painting yourself into a corner? What I mean is, was your prayer a question or a test? Read your prayer again. Did you allow for God to simply say, “no”?

Now, I don’t mean this as if you were being petty or childish, but was the subtext of your prayer something like, “Yahweh, if you are there and real, then you will give me a sign. I ask that the sign that you use to prove your existence to me be to move these stones from one jar to another.”?

Again, I don’t imply that you prayed that mockingly like the Pharisees saying to the crucified Jesus, “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42). I only suggest that, by concluding that a particular type of God was put to rest by your experiment, you had some huge expectations behind it all. And by your “Matrix” analogy, these expectations were as great as if you were questioning reality itself.

The reality is, all you have done is put to rest the particular type of God that proves his existence to us on command with experiments that we set up for him to complete. Did you allow for the possibility of God saying, “I want to prove my existence to you another way.” or “Despite your noble motives, it will not be good for you or others for my existence to be proven to you through such an experiment, so I’m going to answer no on this occasion.” Have you joined in with Nick Cave singing, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” a little too soon?

no godYou experiment actually reminds me of Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, who argued for an atheist state (not that I’m saying you’re doing this) by suggesting that if God was real then the first man in space would have seen him: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” (this is often misquoted as something the astronaut, Yuri Gagarin actually said himself). But like you, only a particular type of God was put to rest by this experiment – the type of God that is visible to those who travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere. But to throw out God completely by this experiment – or by yours – is sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The first issue I want to address is, are you right to expect that if God exists he will prove his existence to you by an experiment like the “two jars”?

This seems fundamental to the whole experiment and your acceptance of this premise seems to come from a couple of biblical examples of people doing similar “testing prayers”.

In your blog you refer to Kings and Judges, obviously referring to the stories of “Elijah and the prophets of Baal” in 1 Kings 18, and “Gideon and the Fleece” in Judges 6. You flesh these examples out a bit more in your previous blog, “Pray em if you got em”, where you also include a third example from Isaiah 7:10-14, where God actually rebukes King Ahaz for being reluctant to ask for a sign. You write, “In fact the testing prayer is very biblical. In the Old Testament such tests are common.” I’d have to disagree with this. These are three of thousands of examples of prayers throughout the bible and I would have to say that “testing prayers” are actually exceptionally rare. They are never commended as a general way in which we should pray and these three examples are quite unique.

In your “Two Jars” blog you ask the question to the Christian reader, “How can they claim the truth of books like Kings and Judges while predicting from the get go that I would not find the stones moved?” Now, I didn’t predict that the stones wouldn’t be moved, but I will answer why I think these stories from Kings, Judges and Isaiah, should not be used as a template for us to ask similar “testing prayers”.

Elijah’s Testing Prayer

mt carmel elijahFor those who don’t know the story, Elijah is a prophet who sets up a test. There are two bulls. The prophets of Baal can pray to Baal. He’ll pray to Yahweh. Whichever “god” sends down fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice – they are the real God. This is Elijah’s prayer as found in 1 Kings 18:36-37:

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Yahweh, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

The most obvious thing to note from this story is that this whole episode is not about testing God, it is about the people. Elijah is not unsure of who is the real God. He knows Yahweh is God and throughout all the stories of Elijah, including this one, he goes where Yahweh tells him to go, says what Yahweh tells him to say and does what Yahweh tells him to do. That’s what the “prophets” did. He even says in the prayer that the whole two bulls experiment was something he set up at the “command” of Yahweh. This is God’s test, not Elijah’s. It’s something God told Elijah to do because he intended to answer it in the dramatic way he did – not to prove to Elijah that he was real, but to show the people of Israel that he was real. This is much more akin to the story of God turning Aaron’s staff into a snake in Exodus 7:8-12:

Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as Yahweh commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.

Basically, my point is, God did not tell you to set up the “Two Jars” experiment and so you shouldn’t use 1 Kings 18 as an example of an equivalent “testing prayer”.

 Gideon’s Testing Prayer

Gideons fleeceThe story of Gideon and the fleece from the Book of Judges is much more interesting and seems to be more of what you based your test on (in the fabricated part of your blog, you talk about doing the test twice, each time overnight, and the second time in the opposite direction – just like Gideon).

Unlike Elijah, Gideon’s tests are his own idea and they are specifically set up because of his own personal doubts that God is speaking to him. As he says in Judges 6:17, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.”  Gideon wants to know if God’s Word to him is real and he actually tests God three times (before the fleece tests, he asks to set up an offering which God then causes to be consumed by fire).

Describing it this way, it’s seems a perfect example of your “Jars Test”, but I question whether Gideon’s is a good example of us to follow. All three of Gideon’s tests are done in the context of Gideon being uniquely visited by God and being asked by God to perform a very specific task (“Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” – Judges 6:14). There are may parallels in the commissioning of the reluctant Gideon in Judges 6:1-24 and the commissioning of the reluctant Moses in Exodus 3. If you keep reading Gideon’s story, after the fleece tests God has a couple of tests of his own (see Judges 7:1-7). He whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000, down to only a measly 300 men. Why does he do it? Well, in 7:7 he explains that he want to make sure in this battle it is abundantly clear that God is at work. This seems to be a big theme in the entire Gideon story and it may be why God is so gracious to Gideon to grant his request during “testing prayers”. It is not the Gideon doubts that God exists. Gideon doubts himself: “How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Judges 6:15). God specifically wanted to show Gideon that God will go with him and God will win the battle that Gideon is being commissioned to lead.

We must also take into consideration the cultural time period this story falls within. It is the time of the Judges. There is no king leading the people in God’s truth. There is no mention of the Old Testament  scriptures being accessible or read publicly or privately. Gideon is in hiding as a foreign enemy threatens his life, and God want to send him out to be the leader of the Jewish people. The parallels between Gideon’s situation and yours are pretty limited. You both doubt God (and maybe yourself). But that’s about it. Just because the “fleece” test is how Gideon responds to his doubt, does not mean that is how God expects you to respond. Just because God responded to Gideon’s test with a miraculous answer, does not mean God has set up a biding precedent in which anyone who ever sets up a similar test should expect to be responded to in the same way. There are many, many, many examples throughout scripture of people who have doubts about God and they respond to those doubts in a variety of ways. Some, like Abraham, take matters into their hands. Some, like the psalmists, cry out to God in confusion. Some, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (though his prayer is more about his anguish than his doubt), pray to God for a way out and receive the answer “No”. The problem, which I see many Christians do as well, is to come across an interaction with God mentioned in the Bible and apply it as prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Prescriptive vs Descriptive

To say an action of God is prescriptive is to say that God is promising to do this thing in the same way every time. An example of a biblical prescriptive text is something like 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” or Acts 2:38 “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” and if you want an Old Testament one, you can see Joel 2:32 which is quoted also many times in the New Testament: “Everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved.” These along with many other passages, are God’s promises. They can be relied on and I believe they will never fail.

ColesPromise_02The problem arises when you read a story like Gideon’s fleece and take it to be prescriptive. It is not. It is descriptive. When a passage is descriptive it means that it accurately describes what God truly did at a certain time in a specific circumstance. It shows that God is able to do that thing and so it may reveal something of God’s character, his power, his values, or his agenda. But it makes no promise that God will or should act in the same way, even if the exact same circumstance happens again.

For example, in Genesis 2, Adam needed a partner. So while he was asleep, God took one of his ribs and used it to form Eve. Now, that story is not prescriptive. If you are looking for a wife, you should not read that story and pray, “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please take one of my ribs while I am sleeping and make me a wife.” And if you do decided to do that, you should not conclude that the God mentioned in Genesis does not exist because you wake up and are still single. That may sound like a silly example, but sadly Tony, it is not! I have chatted with some Christians who have become completely disillusioned with God because they have prayed for a marriage partner and God has not provided one. But God does not promise that he will provide everyone with a marriage partner – even though the Bible includes many specific examples of him doing exactly that. This is the vital difference between understanding when a passage is prescriptive and when a passage is descriptive.

So why didn’t God move the stones when you asked him to so that you could have conclusive proof he exists? I don’t know. But I do know one thing. He never promised he would. Maybe he knows it would not have proved anything to you. Maybe he knows it would have developed in you a superstitious faith. Maybe he wants to prepare your heart and your motives before he revealed conclusively his existence to you. You seem to think God could not possibly have any good reason to not move those stones – unless he doesn’t exist or isn’t the sort of God that can move stones – but I would suggest the God of the Bible (if that’s who you were calling out to) is a God who knows all things, can do all things and works all things towards his ultimate goal. As Gandalf the wizard says, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Well, that does apply to us, but it doesn’t apply to God. He sees all ends and he determined that it was best to answer your “testing prayer” with a “no”. That doesn’t seem out of character to me, and I have been walking in relationship with God for nearly two decades now. He has answered many prayers of mine, and he has said “no” to many others – like for example, my prayer for God to prevent my divorce. I had to remind myself that although God’s clear biblical intention is for divorces to never happen, he makes no prescriptive promise anywhere that he will miraculously prevent them, even though I know that he can and does for many Christian couples.

A Wrong Sign

wrong wayThe final suggestion I wanted to make was that God wants to answer “yes” to the first part of your prayer, even if he answered “no” to the whole “moving stones” experiment. It may be that God is saying “Yes, Tony. I am here and real and I will grant your request for a sign.” But God knows what the best sign for us is.

Think about if I said, “Tony, prove you love me by paying off my credit card!” Now, you definitely could pay off my credit card out a motivation of love, and you do want me to really know how much you love me, and you know that if you did what I asked I would feel loved by you… but you still say to me, “Sorry, Simon. I do love you, but I won’t pay off all your credit cards.” In fact you may chose to respond that way out of love – even if I didn’t feel it. Even if I felt hated by that response!

Now, apart from not simply wanting to bail me out of debt when I should work that out myself, one of the reasons why you might not play along with my testing experiment, is because you want me to know that you love me for other reasons. You do want me to be confident of your love, but not because you paid off my credit card, but because of your kind deeds, your thoughtful words and your genuine affection for me as your brother (I’m guessing here, by the way). You don’t want my confidence in your love to be based on the wrong thing – or an arbitrary thing. You don’t want it to be built on the wrong foundation.

Likewise, God may not want your belief in his existence to be based on a “stone moving” miracle. He may want you to be confident that he is real, but he may want the foundation of your faith to be something else. In fact, like the “love” analogy, he may be more content that you don’t believe in him at all, rather than you believe in him based on a sign like the “two jars”. Why? Well, maybe for God, believing in his existence is not really the be all and end all. Sure it’s important – vital even, but atheism doesn’t send people to hell. Think about it… even Satan is a theist. As Jesus’ brother, James wrote, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19) God is much more concerned about us being reconciled with him, and maybe moving the stones in the jars would have gotten you only as far as a demon – believing that God is there – but no closer than that.

The Promised Sign

maryThe third passage that you quote from in your blog, “Pray em if ya got em” as an example of “testing prayer” was from Isaiah 7:10-14. Here it is:

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Now here, God wants King Ahaz to ask him for a sign. Why? Well, not because “testing prayers” are something God wants us to experiment with. It’s because he has a sign that he wants to give him: The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. As you know, the apostle Matthew picks up this passage and in Matthew 1:18-24, he says that this sign that God promised to give to King Ahaz is fulfilled in Jesus.

Maybe Jesus isn’t as immediately impressive as stones moving from one jar to another. Maybe from the outside, you can only investigate Jesus through old manuscripts that you have serious doubts about as well, and the experiences and lives of those that already have a relationship with him – which seems pretty shaky ground as well. I concede, the record and the testimony of the gospel seems pretty weak compared to a miracle in your own backyard. But that is what God choses to use and he uses it every day to bring people from being a stranger to God to a friend.

The Sign of Jonah

Jesus himself was confronted with people wanting a miraculous sign that he really was from God. Understandably so, as Jesus made crazy claims like, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). In all four gospels this issue of a “testing prayer” in regard to Jesus is discussed and grappled with. If you want to get your head around what does the God of the Bible say about asking for a sign to prove his reality, then these would definitely be passages you would have to at least factor in. I will include two times in Matthew that Jesus tackles this question:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:38-42)

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (Matthew 16:1-4)

Jesus calls the Pharisees, “wicked and adulterous” for asking for a sign, but clearly he doesn’t do this because God’s not keen on giving signs, as he goes on to say that he plans on giving them a sign – the sign of Jonah. I think their wickedness and especially their adultery points to their “wicked” motivation which is not inspired by a love for God, but a desire to test Jesus to see him fail publicly. Jesus sees through their motives and tells them that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. And what is the sign of Jonah? Well, in Matthew 12:40 he makes it clear that it’s his death and resurrection. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and then emerged, and Jesus will be in the tomb for three days and will then emerge.

thomas_caravaggio

God understands our need for a sign. He understands that we can’t just swallow epic claims without testing them first. As you write, “I think if you are going to claim that ‘Magic happens’ for example then you ought to be able to show it happening.” I think Jesus gets that, but like the analogy of the “proof of love”, not just any sign will do. God has set up one major sign that he wants to be our primary foundation – the resurrection of Jesus. This is supposed to so be the base block of Christianity, that if you take it out the whole thing falls down like a theological game of Jenga. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.”

It is the Resurrection that is the sign of God’s existence (as raising the dead is far more impressive than moving stones), but at the same time, on top of that, it also points you to Jesus’ authentication as the one to be followed and worshipped. AsPeter preaches in Acts 2:32 & 36 “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”, and as Paul preaches in Acts 17:30, “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

Now I know that the Resurrection of Jesus has never been a very compelling sign (especially as it is not happening today in your backyard, but happened 2,000 years ago in another part of the world). In a comment on my previous blog, “How God Proves His Existence”, you wrote, “I don’t really understand how to respond to the biblical accounts of the resurrection. I put them in pretty much the same category of documentation of witches and werewolves or demonic possession or all sort of eyewitnessed events that just don’t correspond with my reality.” I understand and sympathise with this. I wish I could show you some magic tricks to prove God’s existence. I wish Jesus would dance like a monkey at my command so I could get him to prove himself to you. But he’s not a trained monkey, he’s an untamed lion, and I trust him when he says, “no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah”. So, I will continue to bang on about Jesus and continue to point you to him and to the Resurrection, even if you never find it compelling.

My Prayer for You

I was very moved by your desire to give God an opportunity to prove himself to you. I know you expressed some form of relief and even joy at the fact that your experiment failed – which does lead me to maybe question the sincerity of your motives – but either way, I do think God hears and responds to our prayers, even when they are half-hearted or prayed with mixed motives. I’ve always been confident that what matters is not the strength of your faith, but the strength of the thing that you are putting your faith in.

And so, if there was an element of your prayer that was putting your faith in God to respond to you, God is big and strong enough to hear and answer.

a_sign_from_god

Also, despite everything I’ve just said about the Resurrection being the primary foundational “sign” of God, I do believe God is active in this world here and now. There are several experiences I have had that are, for me, clearly God working miraculously, and there are thousands more that I experience week in and week out, where I see God at work (though in a less miraculous way). God has proved himself to me, fully and completely, which is what makes me so sad that he hasn’t done the same for you.

But like unfairly-named “Doubting” Thomas, God sometimes provides us with a clear, undeniable sign of his existence and work in Christ. I don’t know if that’s what you really need in order to see and respond to the gospel. If it is, then you have my prayerful support.

To be brutally honest, I don’t think you were wise, biblical or fair to set up the “two jars” experiment. But I do believe God has heard the first part of your prayer: “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me a sign.”

I am praying that God will one day either give you a sign, or make the “sign of Jonah” compelling to you. I know you think that God spectacularly failed your “two jars” test and it has allowed you to “put to rest” the idea of a real, personal, interventionist, biblical God. But I am writing this blog to you to encourage you to let God answer your “testing prayer” in his own time and in his own way.

I hope your testimony will be to one day recall your experiment with fondness and that you can share how you prayed a simple prayer that God heard and answered, even if it took longer than one night and was in a way you didn’t expect.

Until then, I will try to remember to pray on your behalf.

Yahweh, I know you are there and real. Please grant Tony a sign, so he can know that too.

I love you, my brother.

 

p.s. If you’re wondering what the image is from at the top of the blog, it comes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Enjoy the video below.

 

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October 5 2011

1 John Chapter 5 – Tricky passage explanation

This is a resource I wrote up for my Bible Study. We have been studying 1 John for the last few weeks and on the summary week (tonight) I took on the task of getting my head around some of the tricky verses that come up in chapter 5. If you don’t know the first letter of John, I highly recommend you read it and the following blog entry might not make much sense until you do.

For the sake of reference, here is 1 John chapter 5:

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

6 This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.9 We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also 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—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

 

There are lots of tricky concepts in chapter 5 of 1 John (and indeed throughout the whole letter) but from this last chapter I want to offer some explanation for two of the most trickiest. 

  1. The testimony of the water, the blood & the Spirit. (5:6-12)
  2. The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

 

 The testimony of the water, the blood and the Spirit. (5:6-12)

 This passage gets us asking a few questions:

  • What is the “water” and the “blood”?
  • Why is it important that Jesus didn’t just come by water?
  • How do the water the blood and the Spirit testify about Jesus?
  • Why is it important that there are three that testify?

 The first and most important thing to say about this passage is that although all this talk about water and blood is interesting, it isn’t actually the point of the passage. It’s easy to get distracted by the part of the passage that is the most confusing (and therefore the most interesting), but the most important thing is to see where John is going in all this. This will not only help us avoid getting distracted by peripheral issues, but it will also give us the context to help us understand why he is using such odd language.

 John states his main point in verse 13:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Whatever his argument is, the purpose of it is to help Christians have confidence in the truth of the fact that they have eternal life. In John 20:31, he writes that his purpose for writing the gospel record is so that people can HAVE life. In this letter, his audience is those who have now responded to the gospel and his purpose is that those that have life can KNOW that they have it. The next verse (v14) goes on to talk about the confidence we should have in prayer as a result of this “knowledge”, and the final verses of the letter (v18-20) are all about what we “know”. It even concludes with the purpose of Jesus coming is so that we may know him who is true (which is possibly why there is a final warning against idols – or “false” gods).

So the point of all these tricky verses is to give us confidence in the truth of who Jesus is and the truth of the life that he gives. Okay. So how does he get to that point?

Well, he sets up a picture of the Testimony of God (v9-10). The false teachers that John is refuting were teaching the idea that Jesus did not come in the flesh (see 1 John 4:2-3, 2 John 1:7). They believed that the flesh and everything physical was evil and so the Son of God could never have taken on a human body. They taught that Jesus only appeared to have a human body, but was really just a spirit. John believes this is completely anti-Christian (that’s why it’s the teaching of the antichrist) and throughout the letter uses lots of different arguments to show that it is false. 

In chapter 5 he sets up a picture of a courtroom, where the Testimony of God is given about the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and that life is found in the Son (v9-12). It’s not just John’s opinion, it’s God’s opinion and so we can have full confidence in it. In fact, John says in v10, if you don’t believe this testimony then you’re not calling John a liar, you’re calling God a liar.

So in this imaginary courtroom, John describes three witnesses who stand up and testify about this Testimony of God. The three are: the water, the blood and the Spirit.

Now, there are lots of theories about what the water and the blood mean. Some say it’s referring to the water and blood that spilled from Jesus side at the crucifixion (John 19:24), others say the water is his baptism and the blood is his death, still others try to argue that the water is the sacrament of baptism and the blood is the sacrament of communion (a big stretch if you ask me!).

For me, the best explanation is none of these. I think the best fit is the concept that the water is referring to Jesus’ physical birth and the blood is referring to his physical death.

Water is a common image used of birth and creation (think of the waters that the Spirit hovered over in Genesis 1:2) and in John’s gospel (3:5-6), John uses the concept of being “born of water” as a way of describing being physically born, or “born of the flesh”. In this passage, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he has to experience two births in order to see thekingdomofGod. He has to have a physical birth (born of water) and he has to have a spiritual birth (born of the Spirit).

I think this is what John is meaning when he uses the same language in 1 John 5:6. Here he says that Jesus “came by water”, meaning Jesus had a physical birth. This is exactly the concept that the false teachers were denying, and John pushes the point by talking about “blood” – another fleshy concept that the false teachers would have hated. This is probably referring to Jesus’ physical death, a death that was proven when the blood flowed from his side. Blood is used throughout the New Testament as a reference to Jesus’ death (including in 1 John 1:7), and so we can safely say this is what John is meaning here.

It makes sense too. He is arguing that the Testimony of God is that Jesus came in the flesh and two of the witnesses are the physical birth of Jesus (the water) and the physical death of Jesus (the blood). But it’s not just historical events the witness to Jesus, but God himself proclaims this testimony about Jesus through his Spirit. This is why John says in 1 John 5:6-7 that the Spirit testifies along with the water and the blood. This could be referring to Jesus’ baptism (John 1:32-34) or more likely where Jesus says that he will send the Spirit of truth who will testify about him (John 15:26-27). Either way, John’s courtroom scene is completed with three witnesses – the water, the blood and the Spirit, and these three are in agreement (1 John 5:7).

But why is it important that there are three witnesses? Well for that we need to understand one of the most important Old Testament laws in regard to courtroom justice. In Deuteronomy 19:15 the law states that a truth was not able to be established if there is only one witness. There had to be two or three.

One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

This law is re-enforced by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 when he teaches about how we should respond when a brother sins against us, and Paul uses this principle when talking about proving his ministry (2 Corinthians 13:1-3) and also when bringing a charge against an elder (1 Timothy 5:19).

The idea is that although one witness may be telling the truth, it can only be validated or established as true and reliable when “two or three” witness to it. This is possibly what Jesus is talking about when he says: “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)

In relation to John’s argument, it means that in the imaginary courtroom scene that he is describing “there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” Do you see what he’s arguing? It’s John’s way of saying that the testimony that Jesus is the Son of God is reliable and is an established truth that we can have full confidence in.

And this in the end is his goal remember? He writes all of it, painting this elaborate courtroom scene, so that we can have confidence that God’s testimony about Jesus is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 

The sin that leads to death. (5:16-17)

Like the “water and the blood”, there are a few suggestions as to what John is talking about when he talks of the sin that leads to death. Some say it’s the unforgiveable sin of “blasphemy against the Spirit” Jesus talks about in Matthew 12:31-32 (a tricky passage in itself) or the sin of “lying to the Holy Spirit” that instantly kills Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, or even the sin of taking communion without acknowledging Jesus which seems to have been judged by God with sickness and death in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30.

These are all big stretches to squeeze into the context of 1 John and so the best and simplest way of understanding what John is talking about is to look at the letter itself.

Just before talking about the “sin that leads to death” John writes in v12, “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” This is the two distinct groups that he keeps going on about throughout the whole letter. There are two camps. In one camp is the Christ who gives life, and in the other camp there is the antichrist who gives death.

So what is the “sin that leads to death”? It is the sin that leads you away from Christ.

More specifically, it’s the sin that John keeps going on about – The sin of denying that the Son of God came in the flesh. This is the sin that leads people away from the truth of the gospel and so leads them to death.

Before talking about this sin, he encourages us to pray for a fellow believer who has sinned (v16). This fellow believer (or “brother”) believes the Testimony about God, has come to Jesus and has been given eternal life. This is a believer that John describes as being “born of God” (v18) and therefore will not continue sinning. John says that God will keep him safe and the evil one cannot harm him and earlier in the letter, John says that if a believer does sin then Jesus speaks on our defence and he atones for all of our sin by his death (1 John 2:1-2).

This is why, when we see a believer committing a sin, we are right to pray and ask God to give them life. God has promised to forgive them and give them life because all of their sin, past, present and future, has been dealt with by Jesus.

Then John makes a distinction. He refers to this sin that leads to death – this sin of rejecting Jesus consistently and deliberately – and he clarifies that he is not saying we should pray for that sin. Notice, he doesn’t exactly tell us we must not pray for that sin, but rather he clarifies, saying that the sins he is instructing us to pray for are specifically the sins of a believer. These are the sins we can have confidence God will forgive, and again remember, this is what this section of the letter is about – confidence in God.

That’s what John is referring to in the previous verses:

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15)

John is saying, when we ask God to forgive the sins of a believer and give them life rather than death, we can have confidence that he will give us what we ask. This is true, not because we are special, but because we are asking “according to his will” (v14). It is God’s will that he gives life to those that believe in Jesus. It is God’s will that anyone born of God will not continue to sin.

This is the sin that we should pray to God about. There is lots of sin that leads to death around us. Everywhere we look we see people rejecting Jesus, and John is saying we can’t have confidence that God will give life to every sinner. Maybe we should pray that God forgives. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should pray that people repent and that God has mercy. This passage actually doesn’t answer that issue. The point of John’s concluding words in 1 John is to encourage us to pray for Christians having full confidence that God will give them life.

The most important thing is to test our hearts and see which camp we are actually in. Are we committing the sin that leads to death by rejecting Jesus, the Son of God who came in the flesh? Or are we in danger of following false teachers who preach a false gospel about a false God?

We need to always be diligent to keep ourselves from these paths that lead away from eternal life and lead straight to eternal death. This is probably why John finishes this letter in with such an encouragement and a warning:

 “We know also 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 – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21)

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