4. CONCLUSION OF EPISTLE ; without, however, any marked break between this section and the last On the contrary, the prominent thought of eternal life through faith in the Son of God is continued for final development. This topic is the main idea alike of the Gospel ( John 20:31 ) and of the Epistle, with this difference—in the Gospel the purpose is that we may have eternal life; in the Epistle, that we may know that we have eternal life.
And the confidence that we have towards him consists in this. The thought of knowing that we have eternal life ( 1 John 5:13 ) leads back to the thought of confidence before God in relation to prayer ( 1 John 3:21 , 1 John 3:22 ). This idea is now further developed with special reference to intercession for others; a particular form of prayer which is in close connexion with another main idea in the Epistle—love of the brethren.
Liberty and prevalence in prayer.
Connecting link: The knowledge that we have eternal life is, in fact, a coming to feel perfectly at home in the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus. Where this is the case, confidence, freedom of speech, is enjoyed towards God; and this holy freedom will find expression in prayer. The thought uttered here by the apostle is nearly akin to that in 1 John 3:22 (see homily on 1 John 3:19-22 ). There are, however, one or two not uninteresting points of detail peculiar to these verses, which will suggest a very brief homiletic outline. Topic— Liberty and success in prayer.
I. ONE OF THE PRIVILEGES OF KNOWING THAT WE HAVE ETERNAL LIFE IS FREEDOM IN PRAYER . (See closing sentences of preceding homily.) The word παῤῥησία , as remarked in homilies on 1 John 2:24 , 1 John 2:28 ; 1 John 3:19-22 ; 1 John 4:17 , 1 John 4:18 , is equivalent to "freedom of speech." If we know that we have eternal life, we shall have unreserved openness in communing with our God. The relation between the knowledge and that freedom is clear.
1 . Knowing thereby that we are the sons of God, we can speak freely to the Father.
2 . Knowing that we are redeemed and saved, we can be at entire liberty in communing with our Saviour.
3 . Knowing that we are "alive unto God," we can breathe out that life towards its Giver and Sustainer.
II. ONE FORM OF PRAYER WILL BE " MAKING REQUEST UNTO GOD ." £ ἐάν τι αἰτώμεθα . "One form," we say, and that advisedly. For the outbreathing of love and desire to God will be the habit of the soul, and will include vastly more than the asking for specific objects. So that we must regard the apostle here as not covering the whole ground of prayer, but as simply indicating one direction that prayer may take (in the next homily a still further limitation is noted). We may freely "make our requests known unto God." Faith, reverence, and love will, however, regulate this boldness in prayer. "If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." Even so. God's will is infinitely wiser than ours. And our faith in him wilt lead us to offer all our petitions subject to that will. This is not, however, a fetter upon our freedom. It is a safeguard to it. Otherwise the greater the freedom the greater the peril.
III. SUCH REQUESTS WILL CERTAINLY BE GRANTED , There are two issues of such a prayer.
1 . We know that he hears us. The ἐὰν in 1 John 4:15 does not indicate any uncertainty. If we know, as we certainly do, that he hears us, £ our petitions are not wasted breath; they go not forth to empty air ( Psalms 50:15 ). This fellows from the truth in Psalms 103:13 .
2 . We know that we have the petitions we desired of him. τὰ αἰτήματα , if not τὰ αἰτηθέντα , "The substance of the requests, if not necessarily the actual things asked for," says Canon Westcott, beautifully. The mother of Augustine prayed earnestly that he might not go to Rome, fearing it would be his bane. Her son, however, went to Rome; but his going was one of the steps which led to his conversion. As Augustine himself said afterwards, God regarded the hinge of the petition. So it ever is. God hears the prayer, but answers it according to his infinite wisdom rather than according to our limited foresight. Note: Though this at first sight seems a restriction upon prayer, yet it is precisely this which makes us free to pray. Were it otherwise, we could not open our lips to ask aught which we deemed a boon, should the gift asked for be. granted even though it would prove a bane. God, in his love, buries our mistakes in prayer, and gives us just what we should most desire could we see as he sees.
The Christian's confidence toward God in relation to prayer.
"And this is the confidence that we have in him," etc. We have in our text.
I. AN ASSURANCE THAT GOD HEARS PRAYER . "This is the boldness that we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us." Prayer is much more than petition. Canon Liddon admirably defines it: "Prayer is the act by which man, conscious at once of his weakness and of his immortality, puts himself into real and effective communication with the Almighty, the Eternal, the self-existent God.… Prayer is not only—perhaps in some of the holiest souls it is not even chiefly—a petition for something that we want and do not possess. In the larger sense of the word, as the spiritual language of the soul, prayer is intercourse with God, often seeking no end beyond the pleasure of such intercourse. It is praise; it is congratulation; it is adoration of the Infinite Majesty; it is a colloquy in which the soul engages with the All-wise and the All-holy; it is a basking in the sunshine, varied by ejaculations of thankfulness to the Sun of Righteousness for his light and his warmth Prayer is not, as it has been scornfully described, 'only a machine warranted by theologians to make God do what his clients want;' it is a great deal more than petition, which is only one department of it: it is nothing less than the whole spiritual action of the soul turned towards God as its true and adequate Object.… It is the action whereby we men, in all our frailty and defilement, associate ourselves with our Divine Advocate on high, and realize the sublime bond which in him, the one Mediator between God and man, unites us in our utter unworthiness to the strong and all-holy God." Such is prayer in its highest and largest significance. But in our text prayer is viewed simply as petition. "If we ask anything;… whatsoever we ask.… the petitions which we have asked of him." Notice:
1 . The offering of prayer. This implies
2 . The hearing of prayer. How marvelous is the fact that God hears the innumerable prayers that are ever being presented unto him! None but an Infinite Being could hear them. And a Being of infinite intelligence cannot fail to observe every longing which is directed towards him. No utterance whatever escapes the Divine ear. None but a gracious Being would regard the prayers which are offered by such unworthy suppliants. Great is the condescension of God in attending to our requests. That he does graciously hear and attend to them is repeatedly declared in the sacred Scriptures (see 2 Samuel 22:7 ; Psalms 22:4 , Psalms 22:5 , Psalms 22:24 ; Psalms 30:2 , Psalms 30:8-12 ; Psalms 31:22 ; Psalms 34:4-6 ; Psalms 50:15 ; Matthew 7:7-11 ; Luke 18:1-8 ; John 16:23 , John 16:24 ; James 1:5 ; James 5:16 ).
II. AN IMPORTANT LIMITATION OF THE SCOPE OF ACCEPTABLE PRAYER . "If we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us."
1 . This limitation is necessary. God's will is supreme. The well-being of the universe is bound up with the execution of his will. Therefore he cannot grant the petitions which are not in harmony therewith. This limitation is necessary also, inasmuch as different suppliants may be seeking from him at the same time things which are thoroughly opposed to each other. Thus in time of war between two Christian nations, prayer is presented to God for the success of each of the contending armies. The requests of both cannot be granted.
2 . This limitation is beneficial. The judicious and kind parent does not give to his child the thing which he asks for, if it will prove hurtful or perilous to him. In our ignorance we may pray to God for such things as would be injurious to us, in which case it is well for us to be denied. Thus the request of St. Paul was not granted, though his prayer was graciously answered ( 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 ). On the other hand, the clamorous cry of the unbelieving and self-willed Israelites for flesh was acceded to, to their sore injury ( Numbers 11:4-6 , Numbers 11:31-34 ; Psalms 106:15 ).
3 . This limitation allows a large sphere for the exercise of prayer. There are many things which we know are "according to his will," and these are the most important things; e.g., supplies for bodily and temporal needs, forgiveness of sins, grace to enable us to do or to bear his will, guidance in our quest of truth and in our way of life, the sanctification of our being, and possession of an inheritance in heaven. We may seek the salvation of others, the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom, and the final triumph of his cause throughout the world. These and other things we know accord with his will.
III. AN ASSURANCE THAT THE THINGS SOLICITED IN SUCH PRAYERS WILL BE GRANTED . "And if we know that he heareth us whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him." Alford calls attention to the present,… "we have the petitions," with the perfect, "which we have asked of him." "The perfect reaches through all our past prayers to this moment. All these 'we have;' not one of them is lost: he has heard, he has answered them all: we know that we have them in the truest sense, in possession." It is important to bear in mind here the character of those to whom St. John writes. They are genuine Christians; possessors of Jesus Christ, and of eternal life in him. Their will is that God's will may be done. In them is fulfilled the inspiring assurance of the sacred psalmist: "Delight thyself in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart." In whomsoever this character is realized, the desires are in harmony with the will of God, and the things solicited in prayer are such as God takes pleasure in bestowing and man is blessed in receiving. And this assurance which the apostle expresses is confirmed by the experience of the godly in all ages (cf. Exodus 32:11-14 , Exodus 32:31-34 ; Numbers 11:1 , Numbers 11:2 ; 1 Kings 17:17-24 ; 1 Kings 18:42-45 ; 2 Kings 4:28-36 ; Psalms 116:1-8 ; Isaiah 38:1-8 ; Daniel 9:20-23 ; Acts 12:1-17 ). Let us seek a character like that indicated by the apostle (verses 11-13), and then this inspiring and strengthening "confidence toward God" may be ours also - W.J.
I. THE AIM OF THE EPISTLE CONNECTED WITH ASSURANCE . "These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the Name of the Son of God." At the beginning of the Epistle, the apostle's aim was stated to be Divine fellowship and completed joy. In looking back, he feels that he has kept his end in view. In the restatement of his aim, he goes the length of completed joy. Beyond the quickening of their spiritual life, he has aimed at their having the joy of knowing that they had the life eternal actually begun in them. He has given them certain marks (usually introduced by "herein") by which to make clear to them their Divine birth, or possession of the Divine life as believers on the Name of the Son of God. When we have the right elements in our life, and can make a correct diagnosis of them, we have comfort. We are indebted to the apostle yet for the help he has given us, in this Epistle, to the right reading of cur life.
II. ASSURANCE IN RELATION TO PRAYER .
1 . Confidence of being heard. "And this is the boldness which we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us." Knowing that we have the Divine life, we are reasonably bold toward God, as children are bold toward their parents. Our boldness comes out especially in our asking. We are full of wants, and so we need to be constantly asking. We ask in the confidence of being heard. If we ask anything, he heareth us—which has only this limitation, that we ask according to God's will (not properly a limitation; for God's will is our highest good). If we are to ask according to God's will, then the meaning of that is that we are to have our desires in a proper state—to have them educated up to God's will. We are to have them chastened by proper submission to God's appointments; and we are to have them thoroughly enlightened, so that we desire with God, and up to the largeness of the blessing that he holds out to us. As Jesus was praying in a certain place, after he ceased, the disciples, filled with a sense of their own deficiencies, said, "Lord, teach us to pray." It is not the language of our prayers that we need to have improved, so much as our simple responsiveness to the Divine will.
2 . Certainty of having our petitions. "And if we know that he heareth us whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him." We have actually presented our petitions in confidence of being heard: how do we stand? We know that we are richer than we were before. Hannah rose to accord with the Divine will, and, knowing that she had her petition, it happened to the "woman of a sorrowful spirit" that "her countenance was no more sad." The Master was in perfect accord with the Divine will; and he had his every petition. "And I knew that thou hearest me always" ( John 11:42 ). In so far as we resemble him, in confidently expressing the Divine will, shall we know ourselves to be richer for our prayers.
III. ASSURANCE IN SPECIAL RELATION TO INTERCESSION .
1 . Promise. "If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for them that sin not unto death." This is asking suggested by the brotherly love which the apostle has been inculcating. Have we any ground of confidence to go upon in asking for a brother? We have here very distinct ground pointed to, even in the case of a brother who is seen sinning a sin. It is not a sin by which he is wholly deprived of life, but a sin by which his life is regarded as in part suspended. He is seen by one who is united to him by the tie of Christian brotherhood, who does not regard him with unconcern, who is moved by the sight to ask for him restoration of life. The promise is that the asker will be the instrument of giving life to those within the brotherhood of whom it can be said that they sin not unto death.
2 . Limitation of the promise. "There is a sin unto death: not concerning this do I say that he should make request." This must be taken in close connection with the context. The reference is simply to the brotherhood. Are we warranted in all cases to pray for an erring brother, in the expectation that we shall be the means, under God, of giving him life? The promise does not go that length. A (hitherto) recognized member of the brotherhood may unbrother himself, may cut himself off from fellowship with God, by denying (let us say) the force of the Incarnation. In such a case, the apostle does not say that we are to make request (familiarly) for him as for a brother. The virtue that there is in brotherhood and in brotherly intercession is there lost; and he is really to be dealt with as one unbrothered. That is not to say that we are not to pray for him at all; for we are to pray for all men.
3 . Large scope of the promise. "All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death." "Sin" is a wide word; it includes all violation of right. Every unbrotherly expression that we use is an offence against God. There is thus abundant room for the exercise of intercession. There is sinning through many degrees without sinning mortally. Let us, then, realize what is in our power. A brother, to our knowledge, sins even seriously. He does not sin, in our judgment, so as to put the Incarnate One decisively away from him; but he sins so as seriously to interrupt fellowship with God, which is his life. As belonging to the same privileged circle, we have a part to perform. We have to intercede with God on his behalf. We have to intercede confidently; for the promise of our giving him life is clearly applicable. In answer to our intercession there wilt be a wakening of him up out of the slumber that has been upon him, so that he enjoys renewed fellowship with God - R.F.