Our confidence in prayer
The epistle is not quite yet finished, and the end is no less important than the beginning. The subject now turns again to the matter of prayer.
“And this is the boldness which we have toward Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us; and if we know that He heareth us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of Him. 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” (5:14-16).
With these words he reminds us that it is the children of God who pray—or can and should pray—and draws our attention to four great facts. Firstly the children can pray with boldness, because they have both assurance and personal experience of the Father’s love. Secondly they can pray according to His will, because they know Him and because His word governs their lives. Thirdly, when they pray according to His will, they know that He will hear them and that therefore they will obtain what they ask of Him. And finally, as children of God they will exercise themselves in prayer for one another.
For whom do we pray?
Thus the apostle takes a line in these few verses (5:14-16) which we can all follow. We are in a family—God’s family—and have become aware of the love bestowed upon us. That love, shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, goes out now not only to our Father but also to our brethren, so that with affectionate concern we pray for them. We can do so with boldness, because we are approaching our Father and theirs, and are showing such interest in the well-being of other members of the family as the Father delights in. It delights the Father’s heart when one child feels and shows responsibility for another member of the family. The Father will readily hear, and especially so if our exercise is that our brother shall be kept in the path of obedience and righteousness, so as to be preserved from evil and held true to the family circle to which he belongs.
Nor should we stop here, for if our brother sins, then our prayers must be for his repentance and restoration. The child of God who is walking in the light has fellowship with the Father and the Son, and is able to feel the hurt the Father experiences when a child leaves the light and walks, even for a moment, in the darkness again. One who is thus enjoying the Father’s favour and is sensitive to His heart cannot but pray for the other who has gone astray; and his prayer will be directed according to the Father’s will, because it is according to the love known to be in the Father’s heart for the sinning child.
We should be able to illustrate these blessed truths from our own earthly families, but alas, in so many cases, there is so little seen that fulfils the divine pattern for the home and family. Nevertheless, where there is a united and God-fearing family, we do often witness examples of that which John writes of here as true of the heavenly family. However, with or without the earthly examples, we must apprehend our privileges and responsibilities in the family of God, and take our full part in them. If you see your brother sinning, you cannot be indifferent to it and say it is nothing to do with you. It is something very much to do with you, for you are your brother’s keeper (Gen. 4:9). Arise to your privilege, ask as the apostle says, and “God will give him life for them” (5:16).
The brother may be suffering in his body as the result of his sin, because sometimes God chastens us to correct us, and that chastening may be with sickness. John refers in verse 16 to a sin not unto death. He is no doubt speaking here of physical death, because he is talking about a brother, who has of course already received eternal life. Eternal life is the irrevocable gift of God to the believer in Christ: spiritual death is the lot of the unbeliever (John 3:16). Sin and physical sickness however—and even death—may sometimes be connected. When the Lord healed the man impotent for 38 years at the pool, he said, “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing befall thee” (John 5:14). James, writing to believers, asks, “Is any among you sick? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15). Here then is an example of obtaining life by prayer for those who are sick because they have sinned.
Where prayer will be ineffective
John sounds a warning however, when exhorting us to recognise and fulfil our responsibility towards our sinning brother, that there may be occasions of this type when we should not pray. This may be strange and difficult to understand. The Lord has told us before that there are sometimes requests that He will not answer, and therefore we should not pray for them. See for example His words to Jeremiah: “Pray not thou for this people” (Jer. 7:16). “They shall cry unto me, but I will not hearken to them” (Jer. 11:11). “Pray not for this people for good” (Jer. 14:11). This is alarming and arresting language, but it reminds us of what John says, here, that “there is a sin unto death: not concerning this do I say that he should make request” (5:16).
There was a time when the Lord said to Moses, “Speak no more unto me of this matter” (Deut. 3:26). Moses had made a request: “Let me go over, I pray thee, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan”. The Lord had already said “No”, and the reason was that Moses had sinned in not believing in God’s power to sanctify Himself in the eyes of Israel at Meribah (Num. 20:12). Moses had been provoked there and had sinned. Therefore the Lord had decreed that he should die in the wilderness.
This illustrates a sin unto death. Moses died beyond Jordan: yet he is found in due course with the Lord Jesus in glory (Matt. 17:3).
Note too that a sin unto death is not to be identified with anyone particular sin. So often a sin is made more serious by the circumstances, or by reason of the one who commits it. It was far more serious for a Moses to disobey or disbelieve than for one of the rank and file in the camp of Israel. It may be more serious today for a Christian leader to make a mistake than for a babe in Christ. We might feel that God had been rather severe with Moses and had overlooked all that he had had to bear with from that murmuring and unbelieving multitude. No, the Lord did not forget all that, but we have to ask ourselves what would have happened if God had made light of Moses’ own rebellious act? It would have given the whole nation an excuse to make light of sin. They would have said, “Moses sinned, and God overlooked it; He cannot justly do otherwise with us.” Moses illustrates how a person’s history and relationship to God and to His people may make a sin much more serious, and he is thus an example of a brother sinning unto death.
We have too a New Testament example of such a sin in the history of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. They sinned unto death in that they voluntarily professed a devotedness they did not intend, the circumstances in which they did it making it the more serious. In the church at that time, the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus was being very livingly expressed and demonstrated, and hence their deception, which secretly contradicted that sovereignty, was a very grave matter. When divine realities are before us and we understand them, we become responsible for our actions in relation to them in a way that was not so before they had yet made a claim upon us. It is the circumstances that make the sin more serious.
In type Moses represents a brother, and we conclude that Ananias and Sapphira were certainly in that category too. Paul, writing to the believing Corinthians, speaks of some sinning unto death by partaking of the Lord’s table (which is a testimony to our unity in the one body) while at the same time contradicting its testimony by their wilful disagreement with one another. “For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). In that epistle the word ‘to sleep’ is consistently used with the meaning of ‘to die’ and dearly has that meaning here. Of course we know that not every time a believer sins or disobeys the Lord or knowingly partakes of His table unworthily, does the Lord judge in such a summary way that he in fact literally dies. Nevertheless, the scriptures here do suggest that our life on earth may be brought to an untimely end, and may fall short of the Lord’s intention for it, because of sin. The apostle’s injunction not to pray for a brother who is sinning unto death, is not intended to encourage us to analyse one another’s sins. Rather is it given us as an explanation if we do not save a brother by our prayers.
The Lord does not want us to have any controversy with Him when He does what He knows to be best and acts in a sovereign way. If He takes away physical life to prevent more serious consequences. He does not want believers to be disaffected or alienated thereby. It is good to notice that nothing of that kind arose in the church over the death of Ananias and Sapphira. On the contrary, we read that “believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts 5:14).
The value of this passage in chapter five will become apparent to us only as we take up our responsibility as children of God to pray for one another. Only then shall we discover the meaning of the words, “God will give him life” (5:16).