1 John 5:20 – We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us an understanding, that we 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. — World English
The above scripture is often used to support the trinity or oneness doctrines, or other teachings that would have us believe that Jesus is Jehovah. However, is John here actually saying that Jesus is Jehovah (Yahweh), the only true God?
Without the preconceived notion that Jesus is God Almighty one would naturally conclude from the context that the true God referred to is “him” — the one that Jesus is the Son of, for the very fact that Jesus is said to be the Son of the God referred to. (Elsewhere, we have shown that the default reasoning is not to imagine and assume that Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but rather that he was sent by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.) To read it any other way would take it from its natural context, and the only reason we could see to read it any other way would be to have it appear to say that Jesus is the true God (that he is son of). This would be done to please those teachers who have presented a lot of imaginative assumptions formed into their dogma.
For reference, let us note a transliteration of the verse below:
oidamen de hoti ho huios tou theou heekei kai
WE HAVE KNOWN BUT THAT THE SON OF THE GOD IS COME, AND
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dedwken heemin dianoian hina ginwskomen
HE HAS GIVEN TO US MENTAL PERCEPTION IN ORDER THAT WE ARE KNOWING
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ton aleethinon kai esmen en tw aleethinw en tw
THE TRUE (ONE); AND WE ARE IN THE TRUE (ONE), IN THE
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huiw autou ieesou christw houtos estin ho
SON OF HIM TO JESUS CHRIST. THIS (ONE) IS THE
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aleethinos theos kai zwee aiwnios
TRUE GOD AND LIFE EVERLASTING.
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Westcott & Hort Interlinear from “The Bible Students Library DVD”
Some argue that the antecedent for “this” [Greek, houtos] is Jesus Christ, and thus Jesus is the “true God” being spoken of. Whether the antecedent of the pronoun “this” is Jesus or the Father has been debated for centuries, even by trinitarian scholars. The Twenty-First Century New Testament translation renders this: “We are also aware that the Son of God came and gave us discernment so that we know who is true, so we are one with him who is true, Jesus Christ the Son of the God who is true.” This translation reflects the idea that it is Jesus who is the Son of the true God, and thus that it is the Father that is the true God. But if we look at The Message translation, we read: “And we know that the Son of God came so we could recognize and understand the truth of God – what a gift! – and we are living in the Truth itself, in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. This Jesus is both True God and Real Life.” Thus one translation is positive that Jesus is not the one that is being spoken of as the “true God”, and the other is positive in saying that Jesus is the one spoken of as the “true God”. Most translations, however, are more neutral, as in the World English Bible translation as quoted at the beginning of this document. At any rate, there is disagreement as to who is being referred to as the “true God”, the Father or the Son. For this reason alone, 1 John 5:20 cannot be conclusive proof of the contention that Jesus is Jehovah, the only true Supreme Being.
But can we identify with any degree of certainty who is the “true God” being spoken of? While most translations are not clear as who the true one is, the wording and context lets us know that it is the Father of Jesus Christ, not Jesus himself. The phrase says “in his Son Jesus Christ”. Whose son? The son of the true God, the source of eternal life, which life was made manifest through Jesus. (1 John 1:2) The Christian believer comes to know the only true Supreme Being, the God and Father of Jesus, (John 17:1,3) through Jesus who came to explain him. (Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22; John 1:18; 17:25) Through Jesus we are in the true God, and in his Son Jesus. — John 14:20; 17:20-23; 1 John 1:3.
Some have claimed that in the context the predominant subject is Jesus, the Son, and thus this provides proof that Jesus is the one spoken of as “true God”. But is this really so? If we look at the context of the entire chapter, what do we find? Verse two mentions God’s love. Verse 4 mentions those born, or begotten, of God. Verse 9 mentions the witness of God. Verse 10 mentions those who do not be believe as making God a liar. Verse 11 tells us that it is God who has given us eternal life. Verses 14,15 speak of the believers petitions that we make to God. Verse 18 tells us that those begotten of God do not practice sin. Verse 19 tells us the we [the believers] know that we are of God, while the world is the power of the evil one. It is true that while the Son of God is mentioned a few times in 1 John 5, it is God that is the predominant person being spoken of, and Jesus is presented as the Son of, and representative of God. John speaks of God and his attributes, and our relationship to God, as the predominant theme of John 5. In view of this context, it is reasonable to conclude that John is summarizing his statements concerning the God and Father of Jesus (John 20:17; Revelation 2:7; 3:2,12), when he says: “This is the true God, and eternal life.” And this agrees with what Jesus said in prayer as recorded by John in John 17:1,3.
We should also note that in verses 10, 12 and 13 Jesus is referred to as “the Son of God”. It would be noncontiguous that John would suddenly declare that Jesus is God Almighty, of whom he is the Son, especially since he never speaks of Jesus as God (or as a god) anywhere else in his epistle, and repeatedly refers to Jesus as God’s Son.
Additionally, we find the one being referred to as “the true one” earlier in 1 John 5:20 is the God of Jesus, and Jesus is being spoken of as the son of this true one. Therefore, it is not reasonable to assume that John suddenly switched so that called the son the true God. If this were true this would imply that Jesus is the true one that was spoken of earlier, that is, the Father of Jesus; thus if Jesus is the true one of whom he is the son, this would make himself his own son, which our trinitarian neighbors deny.
If one reads the scripture without the tint of trinitarian philosophy, or other philosophies that would have us believe that Jesus is God Almighty, the evidence supports that the antecedent would have to be the one spoken of as “true”, that is, his Father. Some claim that the Greek word houtos has to refer to the the person or thing that immediately precedes it. This is not so, as can be seen from a similar construct in 1 John 2:22 and 2 John 1;7. If one would is consistent with the kind of reasoning that some trinitarians (and some others) apply to 1 John 5:20, one should also believe that “this” in 1 John 2:22 is Christ; this would have John saying that Christ is the antichrist and thus that Christ denies the Father and the Son. Likewise, in 2 John 1:7, one should conclude that “this” is referring to the flesh of Jesus as being the deceiver and the antichrist. In reality, by comparing these verses, one should realize that in 1 John 5:20, “this is the true God” is referring back to him who is true, and not to Jesus. Also, there are many instances in which pronouns are used in the Greek NT that do not refer to the closest person or thing that precedes it.
In view of the above any proof offered from this verse that Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is actually circular; that is: we believe that by ‘this’ John meant the Son, and not the Father, thus because we believe this, this proves that John is calling Jesus “the true God”. There is definitely nothing in the verse that presents that God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as being more than one person, or three persons.
Nevertheless, due to the power and authority given to Jesus (as Mighty EL] by the only true Supreme, Jesus can also be called true EL, one of true Power — the one through whom we receive eternal life. — Deuteronomy 18:15,18-19; Genesis 14:22; Isaiah 9:6,7; Isaiah 11:1-5; Luke 1:32; John 5:22,23,24,26,27; 6:38-40; 7:18.
See our study: Hebraic Usage of the Titles for “God”
Many trinitarian scholars note, however, will readily admit that “houtos” in 1 John 5:20 could apply to either Jesus or back to “he who is true”, the Father of Jesus. For instance, Robertson notes the following concerning this verse:
Him that is true (ton alhqinon). That is, God. Cf. 1 John 1:8. In him that is true (en twi alhqinwi). In God in contrast with the world “in the evil one” (verse 1 John 19). See John 17:3. Even in his Son Jesus Christ (en twi uiwi autou Ihsou Cristwi). The autou refers clearly to en twi alhqinwi (God). Hence this clause is not in apposition with the preceding, but an explanation as to how we are “in the True One” by being “in his Son Jesus Christ.” This (outo�). Grammatically outo� may refer to Jesus Christ or to “the True One.” It is a bit tautological to refer it to God, but that is probably correct, God in Christ, at any rate. God is eternal life (John 5:26) and he gives it to us through Christ.
Robertson, A.T. “Commentary on 1 John 5:20”. “Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament”. Broadman Press 1932,33, Renewal 1960.
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