“And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.”
This verse is sometimes quoted as containing conclusive evidence of a trinity and of the supreme Deity of Christ. It is claimed that he is called “the true God and eternal life.”
The term “true God” is used three times in the New Testament. It would help us to examine the other two uses in order to get a better understanding of what John was trying to say.
Paul wrote, “For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9, 10). In this verse it is obvious that the term “true God” is applied to the Father alone. Let us read the remaining verse on this point.
“These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee:… And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:1, 3).
This text sheds the most light on the subject because it puts a limitation on the term “true God.” According to Jesus there is only one “true God,” the One He referred to as “Father.” This means that Christ could not be referred to as “the true God,” and if He were it would contradict Christ’s own words recorded by John. Since John is the author of the other text in question, it is very unlikely he would have directly contradicted what he wrote earlier.
Furthermore, the Greek word αληθινον that was translated true “contrasts realities with their semblances” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). The same Greek word is used in Hebrews 8:2, shedding light on this subject. The writer of Hebrews contrasted the sanctuary on earth, which Moses was commanded to build, with the sanctuary in heaven, by using the same Greek word. Of Christ, he wrote, “A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man” (Hebrews 8:2). The tabernacle on earth was not a false tabernacle, nor was it the original—it was a likeness of the original in heaven spoken of in the book of Revelation and elsewhere. The original tabernacle is distinguished from its likeness by using the word “true.”
With this understanding in mind, we realize that Christ is not the original or “true” God—He is “the image of God,” “the image of the invisible God,” and “the express image of his person” (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). An image is never the original, but always a likeness or duplication of the original. Christ is the Son of God and, therefore, the express image of His Father. It would be incorrect to say that the Father is the image of His Son because the Father is the original. In like manner, it would be incorrect to refer to Christ as the true or original God, since He is the image of the true God.
As we go back to 1 John 5:20 we find that God, the Father, is the subject of the verse. John says Jesus came to give “us an understanding, that we may know him that is true,” then he says, “This is the true God, and eternal life.” This concept is the same concept brought out in John 17:3. Jesus said, “…this is life eternal, that they might know… the only true God, and Jesus Christ…” (John 17:3).
The Greek grammar of 1 John 5:20 could make the term “true God” apply to either the Father or the Son and, based upon the testimony of Scripture, it must refer to the Father alone. Notice what Robertson has to say about this verse: “Grammatically ουτος may refer to Jesus Christ or to ‘the True One.’ It is a bit tautological to refer it to God, but that is probably correct, God in Christ, at any rate” (Robertson’s New Testament Word Pictures on 1 John 5:20).
One theologian wrote, “A person must be strongly wedded to a theory who can read this verse and not see the distinction therein contained between the true God and the Son of God. ‘We are in him that is true.’ How? ‘In his Son Jesus Christ.’ The distinction between Christ and the true God is most clearly shown by the Saviour’s own words in John 17:3: ‘That they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent’” (Joseph Harvey Waggoner, The Atonement, page 168).
Jesus is never called “the true God.” There are verses in the Bible that refer to Christ as “God,” but this is not one of them. (See John 1:1; Hebrews 1:8, etc.)