We are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ.
1 John 5:20
Oh, how I wish that I could adequately set forth the glory of the One who is worthy to be the object of our worship!
I do believe that if our new converts—the babes in Christ—could be made to see His thousand attributes and even partially comprehend His being, they would become faint with a yearning desire to worship and honor and acknowledge Him, now and forever!
I know that many discouraged Christians do not truly believe in God’s sovereignty. In that case, we are not filling our role as the humble and trusting followers of God and His Christ.
And yet, that is why Christ came into our world. The old theologians called it “theanthropism”—the union of the divine and human natures in Christ. This is a great mystery, and I stand in awe before it!
The theanthropy is the mystery of God and man united in one Person—not two persons but two natures. So, the nature of God and the nature of man are united in this One who is our Lord Jesus Christ!
Lord Jesus, You are the only hope for this world. You provided the perfect plan for our redemption. Though Your supernatural being may be beyond our human comprehension, Your grace and mercy and love are worthy of all our praise.
That Christ Is the True God
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. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (5:20–21)
These closing verses finally bring the epistle full circle. John began with the coming of the Word of Life (1:1–4); now he closes with the certainty that the Son of God has come. The present tense of the verb hēkō (come) indicates that Jesus has come and is still present. The Christian faith is not theoretical or abstract; it is rooted in the practical truth that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ.
Because no one can know “who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Luke 10:22), Jesus has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true. But beyond mere knowledge, Christians have a personal union with Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 8:1; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Peter 5:14). The Bible teaches that the only way to know the true and living God is through Jesus Christ. No one can be saved who does not believe in Christ, for there is no salvation apart from Him (cf. 2:1–2; 4:10, 14; 5:1; John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
John’s threefold use of the word alēthinos (true) in this verse stresses the importance of understanding the truth in a world filled with Satan’s lies. The last use of the term points to the most significant truth of all—that Jesus Christ is the true God and eternal life. The deity of Jesus Christ is an essential element of the Christian faith, and no one who rejects it can be saved. (For a detailed biblical defense of Christ’s deity, see John 1–11, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 2006], chapter 1).
John’s concluding warning, Little children, guard yourselves from idols, reflects the crucial significance of worshiping the true God exclusively. The danger of idolatry was especially serious in Ephesus (where John likely wrote this epistle), center of the worship of the goddess Artemis (Diana). A few decades earlier, the ministry of the apostle Paul had sparked a riot by her zealous worshipers (Acts 19:23–41). But the danger was not confined to Ephesus, as Paul’s warning to the Corinthians, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21), indicates. Though few in our contemporary culture worship physical idols, idolatry is widespread nonetheless. Anything that people elevate above God is an idol of the heart. Every “lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5) must be smashed, and only Christ exalted.
In a dark world filled with uncertainty, Christians have the glorious certainty based on divine revelation—“the prophetic word made more sure … a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). While the world stumbles blindly in the darkness (Jer. 13:16), God’s Word is for saints “a lamp to [their] feet and a light to [their] path” (Ps. 119:105), because “the commandment is a lamp and the teaching is light” (Prov. 6:23).
The Third Affirmation (v. 20)
This leads to the third of John’s affirmations, which is, as Stott notes, “the most fundamental of the three.” This strikes at the very root of the heretical Gnostic theology, for it is the affirmation that the Son of God, even Jesus, has come into this world to give us knowledge of both God and salvation. In other words, it is the assurance that he and nothing else is at the heart of Christianity; he and only he provides what all men desperately need. The need is not for philosophical enlightenment, as valuable as that may be in some areas. The need is, first, to know God, and second, for a Savior.
Knowledge of God
The first gift Jesus has brought us is the capacity of knowing God. This suggests not only that Jesus is God and that we see God in him, as he said to Philip (John 14:9), but also that we are incapable of spiritual sight until he gives it to us. Indeed, we are like the blind man of John 9 who could not see Christ and did not even seek him until Jesus first of all sought him out and healed him. After that we grow in knowledge, as the blind man grew (cf. John 9:11, 17, 33, 36, 38).
Moreover, the knowledge of God that Christ gives is knowledge, not just of any God, but of the true or genuine God. The word translated “true” in this verse is the word alēthinos, which is a popular one with John. In the Gospel he uses it of true or genuine worshipers (4:23), the true or genuine bread (6:32), and the true vine (15:1). In this first letter he has already used it of the true light that is dispersing the darkness (2:8). “True” refers to that which is authentic as opposed to that which is false, the ultimate reality as opposed to that which is merely its shadow. In John’s day the Gnostic teachers had made much of their supposed knowledge of God, but it is John’s contention that apart from the work of the Christ of history, who reveals God, such knowledge is not knowledge at all. At least it is not knowledge of the real God. Only through the real Son of God is the real God known.
The second gift of Jesus is salvation, which John suggests by one of his favorite terms: “eternal life.” Elsewhere he has indicated that the basis on which we enjoy such life is the atoning death of Jesus Christ through which God’s just wrath against sin is turned away and a new relationship is established between God and the sinner. He has also indicated that the channel through which this life is received is faith, that is, believing in what God has said concerning the work of his Son and committing oneself to him as Savior. Here, however, John dwells once more on the idea of “eternal life,” indicating that the knowledge of God and union with him is life, in the sense of a complete salvation.
When John writes, “He is the true God and eternal life,” it is possible that the word “He” refers to an antecedent immediately preceding, namely, Jesus Christ. If this is so, then this is an exceptionally clear statement of the deity of Christ. Indeed, many of the church fathers took the text in this manner. On the other hand, we must also say in all honesty that “He” can also refer to “him who is true,” in which case all three uses of the word “true” refer to the same person, even the Father. This seems preferable. In view of the scope of biblical theology, there is little difference, however, for Jesus is said to be the “true” one elsewhere, and we are also said to abide in him as we are said to abide in the Father.
The proper contrast to the true or genuine God is that which is a false god or idol. Consequently, John concludes with the otherwise unexpected warning, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” In the context of this book we are probably not to think of the various carved idols of antiquity, though the admonition must include these as well. Rather, we are to think of the false god of the schismatics, who, though he was presented under the name of the Christian God, was not the true God, just as his apostles were not true teachers.
The application of this truth to today is in the fact that the mere names of Jesus Christ or God or Christianity do not authenticate the message or religion of the one proclaiming them. On the contrary, the profession must be tested by the basic doctrines of apostolic Christianity. What does the one speaking really believe about Jesus? Is he God incarnate or just a teacher? Did he die a real, atoning, vicarious death for sinners? Or is his death merely exemplary? Did he rise from the dead? Is the teaching of Jesus true, complete, and authoritative? Or is his teaching partial, thereby needing the teaching of others to bring us to a higher and indeed needed form of “Christianity”? According to John’s book, and indeed to the entire Word of God, anything that detracts from Christ is idolatrous, for he is the true God, the true revelation of the Father, the true atonement for sin, the true bread, the true vine. He is the beginning and end of all true religion. Consequently, to know him is to know the true God and eternal life.
Once we know him, what then? Then we must keep ourselves from idols. In verse 18 John has written that the Son of God will keep the Christian, but this does not relieve the Christian from his own responsibility to persevere in God’s service. Rather than drifting, he must draw near to God and grow in the knowledge of him. For only then will he be truly kept from idols. An anonymous Keswick hymn puts it like this:
Draw and win and fill completely,
’Till the cup o’erflow the brim;
What have we to do with idols
Who have companied with Him?
Son of God
- 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.
For the last time, John writes “we know” (3:2, 14; 5:18, 19, 20). This time, however, he reminds us of the coming of the Son of God and our understanding of Jesus. Even though we see corruption in every sphere and sector of the world, we know that Jesus Christ has come to give us insight into his true nature. In a world of deceit and falsehood, God has revealed himself in the Son of God as the one who is true. God has not forsaken us to the powers of darkness, but has endowed us with the ability to discern truth from error.
God sent his Son “so that we may know him who is true.” The verb to know in this clause denotes knowledge we acquire by close association. In the fellowship we have with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ (1:3), we come to know his truth. We learn to know what belongs to God and what comes from Satan. God is true. “By true God [John] does not mean one who tells the truth, but him who is really God.” The adjective true is descriptive, for it reveals God’s nature (see John 17:3; Rev. 3:7).
John says that in addition to learning to know God, “we are in him who is true.” That is, we have intimate fellowship with him through his Son Jesus Christ, who is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). We are in the Father and the Son. In his high-priestly prayer Jesus prayed, “Just as you are in me and I am in you[,] may they also be in us” (John 17:21).
And last, having woven the golden thread of Jesus’ divinity and sonship through the cloth of his epistle, John completes this verse with the following words: “Even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” The Gnostic teachers denied that Jesus was the Christ, Son of God. Therefore, in this last verse John summarizes the basic teaching of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, is truly divine, and is eternal life.
The translators of the New International Version have adopted the reading “He is the true God” instead of “This is the true God.” Some scholars say that the pronoun he refers to the nearest noun, Christ. Others vigorously dispute this view and claim that the pronoun refers to God the Father. They point to the wording in John 17:3, “the only true God,” and see the parallel in 5:20. They have to admit, however, that their reading of verse 20 is redundant: “And we are in [God] who is true … he is the true God.”
Proponents of the first view argue, quite rightly, that John ascribes eternal life to Jesus (1:2; also see John 11:25; 14:6). They also show that the entire epistle expounds the identity of Jesus, the Son of God. Therefore, a conclusive statement on the divinity of Jesus at the end of the letter is most effective. I believe that the supporters of this view, namely, that the pronoun he or this is a reference to Jesus and not to God, have the stronger argument.
20 John’s third statement of what believers “know” summarizes the two major themes of the epistle: the identity of Jesus and the difference between true believers and the world/Antichrists. Jesus is the Christ, the Son, and the “true God” in contrast to the false “idols” (v. 21) promoted by the Antichrists. Jesus “has come” for the purpose of giving those who accept him a true understanding of God. The perfect tense indicates that this understanding was not only for those who witnessed the human Jesus but also extends to those who now accept authentic testimony about him. The same point is made at John 1:18, where it is stressed that no human being, not even Moses, has ever seen God, so that only Christ, “who is at the Father’s side,” can reveal God to the world. Of course the “understanding” (dianoia, GK 1379) God gives is synonymous with John’s witness about Jesus, so that knowing God means accepting John’s Christology. As a consequence, anyone who denies Jesus has a distorted view of God.
In what sense has the Son “given us understanding”? If v. 20 parallels verses such as John 14:26 and 16:13, one might conclude that John is thinking of a supernatural revelation of religious truth through the work of the Spirit. However, the focus of 1 John 5:18–20 is not on a mystical ascent to knowledge of God but rather on the knowledge of God that came through the descent of Christ to earth. Most likely, then, “the moment of the giving of the dianoia (understanding) or revelatory insight is surely the moment when the author’s readers became Christians” (Brown, 639). In conjunction with John’s teaching on the “anointing” at 2:27, 5:20 suggests that those who accept John’s witness already have a complete and full knowledge of God, which the world and the Antichrists cannot enjoy.
5:20 The third great truth is that of the Incarnation. We know that the Son of God has come. This is the theme with which John opened his Epistle and with which he is now about to close it. The coming of the Lord Jesus revealed to us Him who is true, that is, the true God. God the Father can only be known through the Lord Jesus Christ. “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” Then John adds: and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. Again the emphasis is that it is only as we are in Jesus Christ that we can be in God. “No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This is the true God and eternal life. In other words, John is teaching what the Gnostics denied, namely, that Jesus Christ is God, and that eternal life is found only in Him.
 Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 209–210). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Boice, J. M. (2004). The Epistles of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 147–149). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 366–368). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 504–505). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2325–2326). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.