It’s taken me a long time to finish 1 John. Which is, honestly, somewhat odd because I’ve preached through 1 John several times and greatly enjoyed it. I do not remember who first suggested it, but I remember being advised that the best place to point a new believer in the Bible was to 1 John. Through these five short chapters, one can gather a background in the basics of Christian belief, the person of Jesus, and the way of walking with Him.
That being said, let us take a look at this last chapter. John presents his closing arguments to the church. He is writing, per 1 John 5:13, to help them have confidence in the eternal life that comes through Christ. But that eternal life is not a “later-on” thing which holds no import in the current day. Instead, the beliefs underpin a changed life now. It starts with loving God, which is demonstrated by keeping his commands (1 John 5:3) but then goes on to “conquer the world,” (1 John 5:4). Conquest would be something clearly understood in the original time: the Romans were typically ruling over places that they had conquered at some point in the past, and that past was not too far away. John himself would have been well-aware of the life of Israel as a land conquered by Rome, and many in the churches would have been descended from those Rome had overrun.
In focus, though, look at how this conquest takes place: 1 John 5:5 speaks of Jesus conquering. He is the One who has conquered not just by water but by water and blood, with the Spirit testifying to the truth of this. This should be understood as a reference to both the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus, showing this is how He demonstrated who He is and why He came.
This is not the type of “conquest” that many people were looking for. It is a conquest that starts with individuals converting from their self-driven kingdoms and surrendering to God. The change, the new kingdom starts within and works outward, loving God and loving one another.
What, then, do we do?
First, we need to get our focus right. Our conquest of the world starts with allowing God, through His Word and His Holy Spirit, to conquer us. That’s entirely different than forming political action groups or gathering to boycott, protest, or any other form of earthly structures. If we are not mastered by the Word of God, then we are in no shape to be part of God’s plan in the world around us. To get there, we must learn His Word that we may follow Him, that we may obey Him.
Second, let us keep in mind that we are conquering. That should put in our hearts a readiness for opposition. That opposition should be coming from the world, though, and not structured by our own hearts or our fellow conquerors.
Which brings us to point three: guess what you learn in the study of history? Most conquests fall apart not from lack of strength but because, internally, strife and division destroyed the unity and strength of the conquerors. And if you look at the church today, why do we not conquer? Disunity and strife. Strife from abusive leaders that should be removed, corrected, and guided to repentance. Division from church members who think the church is their property and not the property of the Living God. Strife from the tyranny of traditions and division from the chaos of trying to always embrace the new.
The solution is to be unified in the power of God, grounded in the Word of God.
A. There’s a textual criticism issue with 1 John 5:7, which most newer translations footnote with “late mss (for ‘manuscripts’) add testify in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. 8. And there are three who bear witness on earth:” followed by v. 8 as we have it in the text. Because those manuscripts are the foundation of earlier Bible translations, like the King James or the Geneva Bible, the first appearance here is that newer translations are removing part of Scripture. However, the other side of the debate suggests that, historically, at some point a scribe copying 1 John added the phrase, and the newer translations are restoring the original text. Which is accurate? I personally hold that the text is without error in its original form, so here I would say whatever and however the Holy Spirit inspired John to write, that was inerrant. If the Holy Spirit did not inspire the longer rendering, then it should be out.
And we can figure this out with some degree of certainty, but it is not a great place to camp out dogmatically. Textual criticism (the term for this branch of study) is a science, and as such remains open to new evidence, new methods. We can be certain, though, that no doctrine is at risk here. The doctrine of the Trinity is pretty explicitly spelled out in the later reading, but it’s not like it’s absent in the rest of Scripture. Plus, there’s a potential lean in the wrong direction of restricting the Trinity to Heaven only with that line rather than seeing the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit at work on earth. Still and all—don’t get overwrought by some of the textual questions. There are good scholars who take the Word of God seriously who spend their lifetimes on this stuff; not everyone with a textual question is a heretic out to destroy the faith. Many of the faithful women and men in Biblical Studies as an academic field are trying to make sure we understand fully rather than only through tradition.
B. John’s conclusion is quite different from Paul’s letters: there are no personal greetings here, no notes of travel plans. Just a final warning: beware of idols. It’s a good one for us, as well: guard yourselves from idols. An idol cannot do anything to you unless you embrace it.
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