Many Trinitarians claim this verse identifies Jesus as "the true God." They do this by insisting the antecedent to the word "this" is a reference back to "Jesus Christ" in the previous sentence. The claim involves implying the nearest antecedent for the word "this" should most readily be understood as the closest person mentioned in the preceding context.
Examination of the Claim
The word translated as "This" is the Greek word houtos. The word "this" requires an antecedent. It refers to something which has been mentioned or will be immediately mentioned. An antecedent is a noun or noun phrase to which the word "this" is referring. Trinitarians are attempting to suggest that the nearest person mentioned in the preceding context is always the most likely antecedent to the word "This" (houtos). However, grammatically speaking, the Trinitarian claim is very disingenuous, and in their passion to promote Trinitarian doctrine, they are simply not being honest with themselves. In both English and Greek, the antecedent is not the nearest word in the preceding context. The antecedent is rather the most recent subject under discussion. The most recent subject under discussion just might be the last thing mentioned prior to the word "This" but it commonly is not. And so Trinitarians are really resorting to a wishful thinking pattern in order to have it the way their desires want it to be.
In other words, if we used this Trinitarian line of reasoning, what would happen with the following statement?
"In New York city was a superb Chef in a fine restaurant. However, they had to fire the chef. He blinded the dishwasher by poking him in the eye with a fork from the customer. This was New York's finest cook."
If we used the Trinitarian line of reasoning, the customer is the very last thing mentioned, and according to their wishful argument, the customer is therefore "the nearest antecedent," and we would all need to conclude that the word This really meant that this particular customer was the finest cook in New York city. It is a ridiculous claim. By just reviewing how people speak in both English and in Greek, we can easily see that the nearest antecedent is the most recent subject under discussion not the very last thing mentioned.
The Ludicrous Implications of the Trinitarian Claim
The Trinitarian claim is that we should consider the nearest word to "this" to be the antecedent to the word "This." Notice carefully what happens if we use the Trinitarian method in these two verses from John:
Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This (houtos) is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. 1 John 2:22.
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This (houtos) is the deceiver and the antichrist. 2 John 1:7
Here are two passages, one from this selfsame letter of John, and one from his next letter. If we used the same Trinitarian line of reasoning for these two verses, we would need to conclude that the referent for the word "This" at 1 John 2:22 is the Christ and we would therefore have John saying that Christ is the antichrist and Christ denies the Father and the Son. We would need to conclude at 2 John 1:7 that the referent for "This" is the flesh of Jesus and we would therefore have John saying that Jesus' flesh is the deceiver and the antichrist. The Trinitarian line of reasoning results in preposterous implications.
Analysis of the Facts
1. The Greek word alēthinos (ἀληθινός)
The Greek word for "truth" is alētheia. The Greek word for "true" is alēthēs and refers to something objectively true. The Greek word alētheuō means to tell the truth. The Greek word alēthōs is usually translated as "truly." The word alēthinos is used in a variety of ways in Scripture and essentially refers to something, or someone, as inherently true.
The following is a more literal translation:
"And we know that the Son of God comes and has given us understanding, to know the true one, and we are in the true one, in the son of him Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life."
2. The Identity of "Him who is true" (The True One)
It is quite clear that "Him who is true" is the Father for two reasons:
1) We read that the Son comes to give us understanding so that we might know "Him who is true." Jesus has come to give us understanding of the Father that we might know God the Father through His Son.
2) We also read "we are in Him who is true, in HIS son Jesus Christ. Here we see that Him who is true has a son named Jesus, "HIS son Jesus Christ." This is necessarily a reference to God the Father.
3. The Vocabulary of 1 John 5:20
The language of 1 John 5:20 militates against the Trinitarian claim. John is talking about "Him who is True" or more literally, "the One who is True," or "the True One."
And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may 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.
Him who is TRUE
and we are in
Him who is TRUE
Son Jesus Christ.
the TRUE God
It is also quite clear that the "Him" and "His" refers to the Father because we read that "Him who is true" is also the one who has a son named Jesus Christ, "HIS son Jesus Christ."
Him who is True
and we are in
Him who is True
Son Jesus Christ.
the True God
It is therefore abundantly clear that "Him who is true" or "the True One" is the Father because we read that this identity has a son named Jesus, "HIS son Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we read, "This is the TRUE God," we should most readily identify this with "Him who is TRUE," that is, the Father.
Him who is TRUE
HIS son Jesus Christ
This is the TRUE God
4. The Antecedent
When we review all the facts, it becomes quite clear that the person Jesus is not the antecedent to the word "This." Rather, the antecedent is the one who has a son Jesus Christ, namely, God the Father.
And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may 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.
If we read this with honesty and integrity, it is quite clear that the person Jesus Christ is not the antecedent.
"And we know that the Son of God comes and has given us understanding so that we might 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."
"And we know that the Son of God comes and has given us understanding so that we might know the Father and we are in the Father, in the Father's Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life."
Father.... this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. John 17:3 (see also 5:43-44).
Jesus is not the only true God here. Rather he is the one sent by the only true God, the Father, so that we might have understanding and know the Father, the true God.
There are, however, more important considerations. Two important considerations are to recall that Jesus identifies himself as "the Truth" at John 14:6 and is identified by John as "the Word of Life" and "the Eternal Life" at 1 John 1:1-2. It is important to review these facts since John here is talking about "Him who is True" and not only says "This is the True God" but he also says, "and the Eternal Life."
Jesus as "the Truth."
We do know precisely why Jesus referred to himself as "the Truth." God the Father is True; He is the essence of Truth. Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God. This Word is the Father's Word of Truth because we definitely know that God's Word is True, the Truth. The Father's Word became flesh and declares or expresses the Father (John 1:18). A similar idea is found at John 5:43-44 where we read that Jesus comes in the name of his Father who he identifies as "the only God." This fleshly man named Jesus declared that he did not speak on his own but the Father gave him what to say and what to speak. He is the prophet in whom Yahweh said, "I will put my words in his mouth." So as the Word he expresses the Truth of God the Father and as the Word become flesh, he is the Truth of God the Father.
The Eternal Life
When we look carefully at 1 John 5:20, it becomes quite clear that John is essentially expressing the same concept as we find at John 17:3.
Father... This (houtos) is Eternal Life, that they may know You, and Jesus Christ whom You sent. (John 17:3)
In this verse, Jesus is not being identified as the only true God. However, it is true that eternal life is to know both God the Father and Jesus whom God the Father sent. However, we also read why in the Gospel of John:
For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself. (John 5:26)
We should see quite clearly that eternal life is to know God through his Son because God the Father gave the Son to have life in himself.
Why the Son comes
John says the Son comes to give us understanding that we might know Him who is true. The verb in question here is a present active indicative verb. This means the coming of the Son occurs as John is writing this letter. It is something which is presently occurring. We find a similar idea in John 6 where the bread of life is currently coming down out of heaven as Jesus is speaking. In the context of John's writings, we are to understand that John is talking about Jesus living in our hearts. At 1 John 2:20 he says we have the anointing from the Holy One, Jesus, and this anointing abides in us, that is, Jesus abides in us. This concept is found throughout John's writings and expressed in a variety of ways. Note how 1 John 2:20,27 says that because they have the anointing, believers know all things. This is precisely what 1 John 5:20 is about, that we may know Him who is true.
The Son comes into our hearts and gives us understanding that we may KNOW the True One who whose son is Jesus, "HIS son Jesus Christ." As Jesus prayed at John 17:3, "that they may KNOW You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent." 1 John 5:20 clearly expresses a similar idea to John 17:3.
At John 17:3, eternal life is to KNOW (1) the only true God and (2) Jesus. It is also implied that one knows the Father, described here as "the only true God," through knowing Jesus. At 1 John 5:20, Jesus comes that we might KNOW Him who is true and we are in Him who is true by being in HIS son Jesus. The same idea is again implied.
It should now also be clear that the "true God" is the Father for several reasons:
1) "The TRUE God" most naturally matches the identity in the preceding context "Him who is TRUE."
2) "Him who is TRUE" is also identified as the One who has a son, "HIS son Jesus Christ," that is, the Father.
3) The Son comes that might know Him who is TRUE most naturally means, especially in John's writings, that the Son has come that we might know the Father.
4) At John 17:3, the Father is the "only TRUE God" that we might know for eternal life through Jesus.
If we set aside Trinitarian wishful thinking, it is quite clear that the antecedent to the word "This" is not Jesus. All the facts indicate that John is expressing the idea that the true God, the Father, is known by being found in the only true God's son Jesus. The word "This" is not really a specific reference to a person. The antecedent to the word "This" is that the true God is revealed to us through Jesus His Son, that is, Jesus reveals the Father to us. In other words, the word "this" is not referring specifically to the person of the Father or the Son. "This" rather refers to the whole reality: that the Father, the true God, is revealed to us through His Son Jesus Christ.
Last Updated: July 7, 2011
Conclusion: Although it is certainly possible that houtos["this one"] refers back to Jesus Christ, several converging lines of evidence points to "the true one," God the Father, as the probable antecedent. This position, houtos = God, is held by many commentators, authors of general studies, and significantly, by those grammarians who express an opinion on the matter."-M. Harris, "Jesus as God, The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus," Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992, p.253.
"[1 John]5.20-21. Knowing the true God;... The Greek of 5:20 has only the true (one) and reads literally: we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding 'so that we know the true(one) and we are in the true(one)', in his Son Jesus Christ. 'This (one) is the true God and eternal life.' It is clear from this that 'the true (one)' is God throughout. Christ is his Son. In the final sentence this (one) most naturally refers still to God, not to Christ, as some have suggested. It is not unknown for Christ to be given God's name(Phil. 2:9-11) or even to be called 'God' (Heb. 1:8-9; John 1:1), but that would run contrary to the theme here, which is contrasting true and false understandings of God for which Christ's revelation is the criterion.
"5:20 reminds us of Jesus' prayer according to John 17:3: 'This is eternal life: to know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent...."- William Loader, The Johannine Epistles, Epworth Commentaries, 1992, p.79.(This commentary uses the Revised English Bible (1989) for it's quotations.)
"The final sentence of verse 20 runs: This is the true God, and eternal life. To whom does this refer? Grammatically speaking, it would normally refer to the nearest preceding subject, namely his Son Jesus Christ. If so, this would be the most unequivocal statement of the deity of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, which the champions of orthodoxy were quick to exploit against the heresy of Arius. Luther and Calvin adopted this view. Certainly it is by no means an impossible interpretation. Nevertheless, 'the most natural reference'(Westcott) is to him that is true. In this way the three references to 'the true' are to the same Person, the Father, and the additional points made in the apparent final repetition are that is is this One, namely the God made known by Jesus Christ, who is the true God, and that, besides this, He is eternal life...."-The Epistles of John, An Introduction and Commentary by The Rev.J.R.W.Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Tyndale Press, London, !st edition, July 1964, p.195, 196.