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In these closing sentences, the Elder is ready to summarize the heart of his concern and his letter, and he does so by assuring his readers that they have eternal life. His primary purpose in writing has been to offer pastoral encouragement, to instill confidence and hope by reminding his readers of the fellowship with God and with each other that they now enjoy. He has comforted them with the thought that, despite the defection of some members of the community, his readers can be assured of inheriting eternal life. Therefore, he urges them to stand fast and to remain loyal in their commitment to God.
The commitment that the Elder entreats them to hold is to believe in the name of the Son of God. In trusting themselves to the Son of God, they are granted eternal life as well as the confidence of having that life. To have eternal life is to have fellowship with God (1 Jn 1:2-3; Jn 17:3). "Eternal" means more than "everlasting." As Barclay points out, a life that lasted forever could be an intolerable curse, depending on the quality of that life (1976:113). But eternal life is a blessing and a joy because it is the life of God. Indeed, that is what the adjective "eternal" connotes. Only God enjoys eternal life, but in fellowship with God we share in the life of God. That is what God has given to us in the Son.
Because our fellowship with God is personal and intimate, like the relationship between a loving parent and child, those who have eternal life also have assurance in approaching God (or confidence . . . in approaching God; compare 2:28; 3:19-23; 4:17). Here the confidence in view is the confidence to come to God in prayer (3:21-23). But we are not merely told that we may approach God with confidence, but that we have confidence because we know that God hears us. To say that God "hears" prayer means more than that God acknowledges that we have prayed. "Hearing" implies that there is a response, and that the response is favorable. "Hearing" refers to the communication of those who are on intimate and familiar terms with each other (see Jn 5:30; 8:26, 40; 9:31; 11:22; 15:15). Thus in the Gospel of John, Jesus is confident that God always hears him (11:41-42). The promise that God hears us is the assurance that God listens to us favorably and grants us our requests, whatever we ask.
There are, however, some qualifications. It is assumed that our prayers will be made according to [God's] will. As noted above, this was the qualification of the prayer of Jesus, whose will was always one with that of the Father (Jn 4:34; 5:30), who himself did the will of God in com pleting the work that brings eternal life (6:38-40) and whose unity with God was manifested in God's "listening" to him (compare 9:30-33; 11:41-42; 12:27-30). That God heard the prayers of Jesus is taken as evidence that Jesus was intimately related to God and that his purpose and mission were at one with the will of God.
There are not many instances in which Jesus is actually shown at prayer in the Gospel of John. Two of them, however, show how Jesus provides the paradigm of prayer for the Christian community. He prays at the tomb of Lazarus for the dead man to return to life, confident that God always hears him (11:41). He prays for his "own," for faithful be lievers, that they may be protected "from the evil one" (17:15). And in 1 John 2:1, Jesus is referred to as our paraclete, the "one who speaks to the Father in our defense" (see the discussion on 2:1), which refers to his intercessory role on behalf of Christians who sin and confess that sin. Jesus prays for life for his followers—a restoration of life to Lazarus, perseverance for the faithful (Jn 17:15) and forgiveness of sin (1 Jn 2:1), so that they may continue to have life.
By analogy, just as God heard Jesus' prayers because of his obedience and unity with God, so God hears the prayers of the faithful, for they belong to God. But in the context of our passage, one specific kind of request is heard, and that is the petition on behalf of a member of the community who has sinned. The threat to the possession of eternal life is sin (compare v. 16, sin that leads to death, and v. 17). Even as Jesus prayed for the perseverance of his followers and continues to intercede for forgiveness, so too is the community charged with the role of in terceding for those who confess their sin. God will answer these prayers, and the sinner will be forgiven and kept safe in eternal life (v. 18). Thus the general statements about prayer in verses 14-15 provide the rationale and basis for the particular requests in verses 16-17. The prayer for life for another believer who is committing a sin that does not lead to death (v. 16) is not simply one example of the kind of petition God hears; it is precisely the prayer that God hears, even as God answered Jesus' prayers that his followers be given life. For it is the heart of God's will to grant life to those who believe.