1 John 5:20-21
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. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
The True God and Eternal Life
Last weekend, we looked at the first two closing statements that begin with the phrase “we know” in 1 John 5:18-19. Now this weekend we will look at the last “we know” statement in verse 20.
Just to manage your expectations, I confess that I picked the title for this sermon before I knew I would not get to the last sentence of 1 John. I will save that last verse, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” for my next two sermons. At that point, we can take some time to look at the biblical depiction of the sin problem of man as an idol problem—a worship problem. Thus, we will see the fight of faith as a fight against the idols of our lives. Our text today will set that up.
The point in our text today is this assurance from the Apostle John, “We worship the true God through Jesus Christ.” That is the opposite of worshipping idols. The point of the “we know” affirmation in verse 20 is to assure us that that we worship the true God through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As I see it, this word of confidence in verse 20 unfolds in four steps:
- The Incarnation of Christ
- The Revelation of God
- Our Union with Christ
- The Reality of God
My aim is that God would grant you confident assurance of these four spiritual realities for the advancement and joy of your faith.
1. The Incarnation of Christ
Verse 20, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding.” John is saying first of all that we know the Son of God has come. John’s gospel begins with this same assurance, “In the beginning was the Word [the Son of God], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14).
The point of our text is this, “Rest assured that the eternal Son of God took on flesh, lived and walked the earth. Count on it. It is a fact. We know that the Son of God has come.” But not only has the Son of God come, verse 20 goes on to say, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding.” The perfect tense of the verb translated “has given” tells us that the coming of the Son of God continues to give understanding.
This is significant because we are by nature “darkened” in our “understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in [us]…due to [our]…hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18).
In our nature, we are darkened in our understanding of God, not enlightened. We are ignorant, not informed, because the hardness of our hearts. But not only that, the Evil One, “the god of this age,” is actively working to prevent us from having this understanding of God. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
So we can say that the “Son of God has come to give understanding,” which triumphs over the ignorance that is ours by nature and the blindness that is ours by the work of the Evil One.
Hebrews 1 makes clear what the Son of God is revealing as it contrasts the coming of Christ with the prophets of old, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by [literally, “in”] his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Most essentially, the understanding given by the Son of God is a revelation of the true and living God. There is grounding for our faith here. Our understanding of God is rooted in the historical coming of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received spiritual understanding. Jesus has given us understanding of God.
2. The Revelation of God
Biblically, there are several biblical reasons we can cite for the coming of Christ. The chief overarching end was to glorify God. But also, beneath that, according to other verses in 1 John we know Jesus appeared “to take away sin” (1 John 3:5) and “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
Now here, according to verse 20, the reason Jesus came with the gift of understanding was, “so that we may know him who is true.” Jesus didn’t just come so that we would know about God. His life was not merely an information dump. You see, it’s one thing to study up to know about President Obama, and it’s another thing to know him. It’s one thing to know about Justin Bieber, and it’s another thing to know him. It’s one thing to know about Jesus Christ the Son of the living God, and it’s another thing to know him. It’s one thing to know about Almighty God, and it’s another thing to know him.
Christianity is more than knowledge of systematic theology, the doctrine of God, biblical theology, proper exegesis of the written Word or knowing the gospel. You see, it’s one thing to know about God and quite another to know him. The difference between the two is enormous. This text says the Son of God came so that we might “know him who is true” and not merely know about him.
Matthew 7:21-23 is one of the most sobering passages of the Bible for me as a pastor because there Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
In other words, we may know a great deal about Christ and not know him. We may do great ministry in the name of Christ, we may speak prophesy and great teaching in the name of Christ, we may even cast out demons in the name of Christ, we may do many mighty works in the name of Jesus, and we still may not know him.
One of the burdens we prayed in the prayer room before the service is that God would take any here in this room who merely know about God and bring them into a state of really knowing God through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
I’ll never forget what Barry McGuire said at a concert I attended shortly after becoming a Christian in 1973, “It is one thing to know that fire is hot and it is another thing to have been burned by it.” The essence of Christianity is to know God through Jesus Christ. To know him—not merely know about God but to know God.
This knowing of God is a central aspect of the promised New Covenant. Jeremiah 31:34 says, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” This is the gospel, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Let me recap. The assurance of our text so far is this, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true” (1 John 5:20).
3. Our Union with Christ
In direct contrast with the previous verse (v. 19), which soberly reminded us that the “whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” John assures us in verse 20 that, “We are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ.” All of these words in our text are simple, teeny, tiny little words (“in” and “with”). However, the meaning of these simple words is so very profound. You don’t get the gospel if you don’t understand these little words.
We who believe are described as “in him who is true.” Notice verse 20 is not saying “he is in us.” That is true by the Spirit, and may well be implied because John says it both ways without hesitation elsewhere, such as in 1 John 4:13, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” But clearly the emphasis in 5:20 is that we are in Christ.
What does that mean? I take the phrase “him who is true” to refer to God the Father. And I take our being in him as explained by our being “in his son Jesus Christ.”
An Overview of our Union with Christ
In theological terms, we call this our “union with Christ.” That is the term under which we gather all the teachings of the Bible describing the fact that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. Ephesians 1:3 describes it by saying, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
1. Our Election: Our salvation was worked out before all eternity because God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:4, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
2. Our Righteousness: Our righteousness before God is due to the fact that we are in Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
3. Our Forgiveness: Our salvation from the anger of God toward sinners and our forgiveness is owing to the fact that we were in Christ when he died. 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” It is in this way that Paul can also say, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).
4. Our Justification: Our confidence of God’s grace is owing to the fact that we are in Christ. Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
5. Our Sanctification: Our hope for ongoing sanctification, our hope to change, our hope to repent of sin and become more godly people is rooted in the fact that we are in Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
6. Our Future Glorification: Our confidence of being with the risen Christ in glory forever is owing to our union with Christ. Colossians 3:3-4, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Ephesians 2:5-6, “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
7. Our Whole Lives: A good summary statement regarding the fact that all of the grace of God to us is rooted in our union with Christ comes from 1 Corinthians 1:30, “[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
What does this union with Christ have to do with where we are going in this text? Our union with Christ is central to the right worship of God and it works to wean us off of 10,000 self-made gods we prop up in our hearts. This reminder of being in Christ won’t let us settle into some tilted vision of the gospel. God will exalt the glory of his name through the exaltation of his Son to pour saving grace on those who are in his Son.
David Powlison insightfully writes about idolatry and how it relates to the gospel,
The Gospel is better than unconditional love. The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contraconditional’ love for you.” Christ bears the curse you deserve. Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness. Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.” He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.” The center of gravity is different. The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself. Rather, it radically decenters people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside themselves.”
That is the remedy for idol worship—worship of the true God through Jesus Christ for those who are in him.
4. The Reality of God
1 John 5:20, “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. He is the true God and eternal life.” It’s not clear if John is referring to the Son or the Father here. I tip 60/40 that John refers to God the Father. The meaning is this: The only way to know the true God, God the Father, is through Jesus Christ, the true Son of God. To be in the Son of God is to be in God. The deity of Christ is seen in the association.
Guard Your Heart From Idolatry
I would have expected that the final word in 1 John would have been something such as, “Little children, walk in the light” or “Little children, love one another and abide in the love of God.” But I never would have guessed that the Apostle John would close this letter to the church with, “Little Children, keep yourselves from idols.” His last word is a sober warning for the children of God to be on the alert against idolatry.
It ought to strike you that this is a word for believers, for the children of God, for those who know God. It is for us. David Powlison says of this last verse that the Apostle John…
Properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart. Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight? It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings…. Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?
Let me leave it at this. Verse 20 is this wonderful assurance, “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. He is the true God and eternal life.” Get that in the center and we don’t have an idolatry problem. But let that final sentence jar you into a heart search. I believe you will find in your hearts, like the people of Israel, many idols. The fight of faith is to believe verse 20 and not to fall into the idol worship in verse 21.
The next two weekends David Mathis will be preaching. He is Pastor John’s executive assistant and an elder here on the Downtown Campus. After that I’ll be back to do two sermons on idolatry, Lord willing.
Powlison, Vanity Fair, p. 49
 Powlison, Vanity Fair, p. 35.