Unveiling the Identity of the Only True God
Jesus as the true God in 1 John 5:20
The following is another passage which provides further evidence that Jesus is the true God according to John:
“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 (houtos estin) the true God and Eternal Life.” 1 John 5:20
Contextually, the nearest antecedent to the words “he is” is Jesus Christ, which therefore means that he is the One whom John is identifying as the true God and Eternal Life. This is further confirmed by what John says at the start of his letter:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—the Life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the ETERNAL LIFE, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1-3
Here, it is the Son who is said to be the Eternal Life that was with the Father and who later manifested himself to his followers such as John.
In fact, all throughout John’s Gospel Jesus refers to himself as the Life, and as the One who gives eternal life to all whom the Father has given him:
“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.’” John 11:23-27 – cf. 14:6
“When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, AND Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’” John 17:1-3 – cf. 6:27-29, 32-40, 47-54; 10:28
And this is what John himself writes in the very same chapter where he mentions the true God and Eternal Life:
“And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:11-13
The Evangelist makes the same point in his Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” John 1:1-4
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20:30-31
Yet not once is the Father ever called Life in either the Gospel or the Epistles.
Thus, it seems reasonably certain that the Evangelist is identifying Jesus as the true God, especially when he has already referred to Christ as the Eternal Life at the start of his Epistle.
Besides, Jesus must be the true God in order for him to be the Eternal Life. After all, to a monotheistic Jew like John, there cannot be two distinct beings that are both called Eternal Life, especially when one of them happens to be a finite creature. Since John has clearly stated that the true God is also the Eternal Life, this means that the only way that Christ can be the Eternal Life is if he is also the true God.
On a related note, John even applies the adjective “true” (alethinos) to Christ in contexts which again presuppose that Jesus is the true God. Note, for instance, the following reference:
“In him was Life, and the Life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true Light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” John 1:4-5, 9-10 – cf. 8:12; 9:4-5; 12:35-36, 46
Jesus as the eternal Word is said to be the true Light that provides illumination for every person to find life, a life which comes from Christ.
However, the OT makes it abundantly clear that is in and from Yahweh’s light that believers receive the illumination which leads to life and salvation:
“Yahweh is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Psalm 27:1
“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” Psalm 36:9
Hence, in order for Christ to be the true Light he must be the true God; otherwise John would be guilty of ascribing a unique, divine characteristic of Yahweh to a finite creature.
Evangelical scholar Robert M. Bowman Jr. summarizes the reasons for taking 1 John 5:20 as a reference to Jesus as the true God:
10. 1 John 5:20. Admittedly, biblical scholars are split on whether the “true God” in this text is the Father or the Son. Three considerations favor the Son. First, the closest antecedent for “this one” is Jesus Christ (“in his Son Jesus Christ. This one…”). Second, in 1:2 the “eternal life” is Jesus Christ (who was “with the Father”), an apparent example of inclusio (repetition of a theme or idea at the beginning and end of a text). Third, the confession form “This one is…” (houtos estin) strongly favors Jesus Christ, rather than the Father, as the subject, since John uses this language repeatedly with regard to Christ (John 1:30, 33, 34; 4:29, 42; 6:14, 42, 50, 58; 7:18, 25, 26, 40, 41; 1 John 5:6; of the man born blind, John 9:8, 9, 19, 20; of the disciple, John 21:24; of the anti-Christ, 1 John 2:22; 2 John 1:7), but not once for the Father. John has just used this formula for Christ earlier in the same chapter (1 John 5:6). (Robert M. Bowman, The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity: An Outline Study, Part IV. The Son, Jesus Christ, Is God; *)
Dr. Robert A. Morey concurs with Bowman and provides a rather lengthy exposition demonstrating why we should view this as a statement about Christ:
“This passage, more than any other, illustrates the importance of following the normal rules of Greek grammar. The word houtos is a pronoun. No one can disagree with this. As a pronoun, houtos would naturally refer back to the person just mentioned. No one can disagree with this either. Robertson states the rule:
Houtos does, as a rule, refer to what is near or last mentioned and ekeinos to what is remote.
“But what about the few exceptions where houtos acts like ekeinos and refers not to the person immediately in view, but to someone before him? Anyone who is at all familiar with ancient literature knows that such ‘exceptions’ do not disprove the general rule that genders and numbers should agree.
“That there may be a few rare exceptions to a general rule does not mean that one should approach a text of Scripture with the a priori assumption that it will be an exception to the normal rules of grammar. Instead, we should approach a text with the a priori assumption that the normal rules of grammar and syntax will apply unless there are clear grammatical reasons to depart from those rules.
“Please notice that we said ‘grammatical’–not ‘theological’–reasons. Just because the grammar of a text leads to an idea which contradicts what you believe, this does not give you the right to throw grammar to the wind. Theology cannot overthrow or ignore the grammar of the sacred text. It can only bow before it…
“The Greek text of 1 John 5:20 is simple and straightforward. John used houtos fifty-five times in his writings. Thus, we are not talking about a rare usage of a rare word. There are plenty of places in John’s writings where houtos was used in the same kind of construction as found in 1 John 5:20 and no one has any problem with houtos referring back to the antecedent… Why then all the hysteria over whether houtos refers to Jesus in 1 John 5:20? Obviously, it is not the grammar or syntax of the Greek that causes people to question whether houtos refers to Jesus Christ per se. It is that it refers to Him as God. That is the real issue.
“If the text read, ‘Iesou Christo. houtos estin zoe Aionios (‘Jesus Christ. This is Eternal Life’), there would be no controversy whatsoever. Houtos would be seen as referring to ‘Iesou Christo. But once you add ho alethinos theos to the phrase, then the controversy begins.
“The evidence for Jesus being called ‘the true God’ and ‘Eternal Life’ is quite strong:
1. The general rule on pronouns is that it modifies the immediate antecedent. This means Jesus Christ…
3. While John elsewhere refers to Jesus as ‘Eternal Life’ (1 John 1:2), the Father is never called ‘Eternal Life.’ More importantly, in the immediate context, since Jesus is ‘eternal life,’ then to have Him in your heart is to have eternal life (1 John 5:11-12). In John’s writings, refers to zoe Aionios ‘Eternal Life’ Jesus.
4. John applies the adjective alethinos ‘true’ to Jesus many times…
5. That the Father is called ‘true God’ in John 17:3 and the Son is called ‘true God’ in 1 John 5:20 is no more a contradiction than the fact that they are both called the ‘true One’ (1 John 5:20; cf. Rev. 3:7).
6. The interpretation that ‘the true God’ refers to the Father leads to a meaningless tautology. Lenski explains:
In the first place, if houtos has as its antecedent ‘the real God’ (the Father), then the statement is a tautology; John would say: ‘This real God is the real God.’ He would say it after having twice said: we know the real God and are in the real God.” (Morey, The Trinity: Evidence and Issues [World Bible Publishers, Inc., Iowa Falls, IA 1996], Part IV: The New Testament Evidence, Chapt. 17. God the Son, pp. 354-357)
Hence, 1 John 5:20 supplies further evidence that both the Father and the Son make up the identity of the one true God.