16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
(1 John 5:16-17 NIV)
John continues with his concluding remarks today, again focused on prayer.
Yesterday John taught us that our first assurance after salvation is answered prayers (verses 14 and 15). John says that because of our reconciled relationship to God through Christ, God hears and responds to our prayers when our will is aligned with His.
Today John extends that power of prayer from ourselves to others. God listens and answers prayers that we pray on behalf of others when our will is aligned with His.
Before we dig into today’s passage, let me say that this is a tough passage to read and understand. Even Bible scholars are not exactly sure what John is saying here. Too much time and history have buried the context of John’s comments. So we will discover what we do know, and admit what we don’t know and trust the Lord for the rest.
First of all, John begins by identifying the ones being prayed for as any “brother or sister”. From the beginning of this study, we have understood that John is writing to the churches in Asia Minor, specifically to the followers of Jesus Christ in those churches. John has used the “brother” / “sister” phrase ten other times in this letter, all referring to a man or woman who follows Christ. This use of “brother” / “sister” in verse 16 fits with the other usages in this letter and gives no indication that we would understand or treat it differently.
John also is clear that this prayer is to be based on first-hand observation, not hearsay. John says if we see another follower of Christ sin. John does not say if we “hear about” another follower of Christ sinning. Gossip is destructive to relationships and to a church. John relies on God’s teaching of first-hand witnesses being required before any action is taken.
In this context, John says that our action is to pray for that brother or sister that is sinning. Other Scriptures talk about confrontation and restoration; in this context, John tells us to pray.
Now the hard part… what does John mean when he talks about “sin that does not lead to death”?
John is quick to identify that there is a “sin that leads to death”, and he makes it clear that he is not talking about those sins. When I read this passage, I am reminded of open, premeditated, defiant sin where God takes the person’s life. Examples of this are Korah and his friends that led an open rebellion against Moses and God (Numbers 16:1-50), Ananias and Sephirah who knowingly and willfully lied to the Apostles and to God about bringing their entire land sale proceeds to the Lord (Acts 5:1-11), and the Corinthian believers that turned the communion table into a drunken party and willfully and completely disrespected the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). What John seems to be saying is to not waste our time praying for those who are living in open, willful, premeditated rebellion against God, as God will deal with them directly.
What John does seem to be talking about are all other sins outside those willful, premeditated sins, about normal sins of omission and commission that we all do. Our heart is to be obedience to God’s Word. As part of God’s family, John tells us to pray for one another.
As we see this passage in the larger context of John’s letter to us, we understand John’s command to pray for one another as a practical outgrowth of loving God and loving one another. Praying for one another is love in action and not just love in facts, theory, or emotion.
This is a tough passage, and there are many unknowns. May we focus on what we do know and obey what God has made clear to us.
As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”