Who Is the “True God” in 1 John 5:20b?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 8:04pm
QUESTION: I am trying to understand 1 John 5:20, which says (NASB), “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This [“houtos,” “this one”] is the true God and eternal life.” Specifically, can you tell me who the “houtos” is in the last sentence? Is John here identifying Jesus as “the true God”?
ANSWER: Yes, I believe that “this one” (“houtos”) does indeed refer to Jesus, and that John is here identifying Jesus as “the true God.” The basic reason for this conclusion come from a fundamental rule of Greek grammar, namely, that the antecedent for a relative pronoun such as “houtos” will normally be the matching noun that immediately precedes it. “Houtos” is masculine singular; the immediately preceding nouns, “His Son” and “Jesus Christ,” are both masculine singular. Thus it is natural to think that “this one” (“houtos”) is referring to “His Son Jesus Christ.”
Another reason for saying that “houtos” refers to Jesus is that the predicate of the sentence identifies the “houtos” as “TRUE God.” In the earlier part of the verse the same adjective for “true” [“alethinos”] is twice used specifically for Jesus. John says first that the Son of God (Jesus) has come and has given us understanding so that we might know “the true one.” How do we know this “true one” is referring to Jesus? Because of the very next clause: “and we are in the true one.” The phrase “in the true one” is identical to the next phrase, “in His Son Jesus Christ.” These phrases are in apposition to one another; there is no “and” linking them. The NIV has it right when it says “And we are in him who is true—EVEN in his Son Jesus Christ.” Thus in the verse itself, Jesus is specified as the one who is TRUE. This helps identify Jesus as the “TRUE God” in the latter part of the verse.
The last reason for saying that “houtos” refers to Jesus is that the “houtos” who is the “true God” is also “eternal life.” And whom does this letter identify elsewhere as “eternal life”? Jesus! In 1 John 1:1 the Son is identified as “the Word of Life,” and verse 2 says “the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the ETERNAL LIFE, which was with the Father and was manifest to us.” There is no question here that Jesus is the one identified as “eternal life.” Thus in 1 John 5:20, the “eternal life” should also refer to Jesus. Thus in the sentence, “This is the true God and eternal life,” since the second predicate (“eternal life”) most likely refers to Jesus, the first predicate (“true God”) must also refer to him, since there is only one subject for the verb, namely, “this one.”
The conclusion is that this verse identifies Jesus as truly divine in nature. This is simply consistent with many other verses in John’s writings, and in the Bible as a whole.