1 John 1:1-4.
Jesus: the Word of Life

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2015, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


Advice from an elder.  There are probably few times or experiences in our lives that cannot take advantage of wise advice from an experienced and learned elder who has the ability to take a broader view of our circumstances than we can, and assist us in navigating our way through the maze of our experiences.  The wise elder has often experienced the same situations that we are facing, has overcome them, and can look back upon the experience and share what he/she has learned. 

When John, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, brother of James settled in Ephesus following his exile on the island of Patmos, he was appropriately considered as an elder of the faith, and was referred to as such in both the biblical text and numerous literary works that were created by first- and second-century Christian historians.  Also, by this time, John was the only remaining Apostle known to be alive, after each of the others faced martyrdom at the hands of enemies of the faith.  As the only remaining Apostle, and one of only a few Christian disciples who had first-hand experience under the teaching of Jesus Christ, John’s position of elder, or presbyteros, was affirmed.

Being advanced in years, and as the sole remaining Apostle, John took to writing, and by so doing established a legacy that would become an important part of the biblical canon, a legacy that includes the Gospel of John, the Revelation of John, and the three epistles. 

The authorship of the Johannine epistles is largely uncontested.  No fewer than fifty-one parallel references are found between 1 John and John’s gospel.[1]  The literary style, and use of Greek grammar and style also attest to the common authorship.  The early church firmly held that John, the apostle, wrote the gospel, the Apocalypse, and the epistles from Ephesus in the latter years of his life, placing the writing somewhere within ten years of 90 A.D.

Though John had already written the gospel that had been distributed among some of the churches, there arose an event in the church that required an additional response by John.  Some in the church leadership had been teaching an heretical doctrine concerning the nature of Jesus Christ and the nature of sin, denying the deity of Christ and the voracity of sin, and had left the church fellowship to start their own group, taking their adherents with them.  However, they continued to attack the church from the outside by sending adherents to the churches in order to convent members to their views.  John addressed these controversies by reminding the church of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the primacy of righteousness in the fellowship, and the unconditional love that is both shown by God, and is to be shared by the faithful.  These are the three primary themes of this first of John’s three epistles.  We also find quickly that John’s purpose was to encourage the church, to remind them of the joy of their salvation, a joy that was being stolen by the heretical doctrine and the conflict that it created in their fellowships.

Because of this need, we find a relatively complete presentation of Christian theology in this short letter as John addresses theology (the doctrine of God), hamartiology (the doctrine of sin), Christology (the doctrine of Jesus Christ), pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit), soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), and eschatology (the doctrine of last things.)[2] 

Also, because John’s target audience were the general population of Christians whom he served and loved, the letter is written in a grammatically simple style that does not present as many challenges to translation as some other biblical texts.  The succinct and compact presentation of important doctrines and its almost-poetic grammatical style lends the text to memorization.  Consequently, there are many verses in this book that are common to memorization, and as we peruse its content we will undoubtedly hear the melody of many songs that have used these words as lyrics. 

The introduction in any literary work, particularly one that has such an important message and purpose of this letter, can present a challenge to the writer.  However, led of the Holy Spirit, and taking advantage of his knowledge and experience, John sets aside the traditional salutations, identification of the sender and receiver, and the initial blessing and begins by addressing the substance of his letter immediately.

JESUS IS THE ETERNAL WORD OF LIFE

1 John 1:1.  That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;

John opens the letter with a statement that is similar to his opening of the gospel when he stated, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.[3]  The concept of the Word, the Logos (pronounced, ˈlō-ɡōs, or ‘lō-ɡäs), is important.  This form of logos carries the idea of the power that is realized in the spoken word.  For example, if you were walking down the street and someone behind you calls out your name, you would probably turn around.   The spoken word had an effect on you that created a response or a change.  The ancients believed in the power of words to create responses and change.  The creation narrative in Genesis refers to God speaking the universe into existence.  The Word of God has ultimate power over all of creation. 

If there is any doubt as to who it is that John is describing as the Logos, all is removed when he later writes in the gospel, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”[4]  John is referring to Jesus Christ.  As he did in the gospel, John refers to Jesus as the Word, and in this reference identifies Him as the Word of Life.  Jesus is the One who has power over life itself, both in creating it, and in the eternal sustenance of it.  The message of the gospel, the revealed Word of God, and the person of the gospel, the Word of God, cannot be separated. 

John is defending the primacy of his gospel as opposed to the heresies that the church is hearing by noting his own relationship with the truth.  John makes it clear that his theology comes from the first-hand knowledge of Jesus Christ, and was taught the gospel by Him directly.  Unlike the heretics that are creating chaos in the church by preaching a gospel of their own creation, John can prove that his presentation of the true gospel to the church is based upon his own personal relationship with Jesus.   He had heard, seen, observed, and touched Jesus.  John reminds the church that Jesus is real.  He is one who could be seen, heard, and touched. 

Though John is writing from a singular personal witness, he utilizes the word “we” when he refers to the witness of Jesus Christ.  John is addressing at least two issues by using this plural first-person form, each serving to enable him to write with authority and yet maintain his deep personal need to remain humble. 

First, rather than speaking for himself, he shares his testimony with the other Apostles.  John would never wish to imply that he had a special place among the Apostles.  Even in his gospel presentation he never draws attention to himself, never refers to his name, and on those occasions when identity was necessary, he referred to himself simply as, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”[5] 

Second, because of this sincere humility, John would be uncomfortable using the first-person, “I” in a way that could draw undue attention to himself.  Though he does actually use the first-person “I” at least twelve times in the epistle, each is used in reference to the task of writing of the epistle, not to the experience of the writer.  In most of these uses, John writes, “I write unto you…” and follows with a purpose behind the letter.  Though it is quite evident that John’s writing maintains his nature of true humility, He was not abashed in denoting that he is the writer, nor does he compromise his reasons for writing.

It may be noted that the next verse is a continuation of this sentence as John continues to identify Jesus as the eternal Son of God, the source of the truth that he preaches.

1 John 1:2.  (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)

Though the English renderings often omit it, the Greek word, kai, is used to link these two statements.  Kai is simply, “and” in English.  The KJV illustrates that this verse is a parenthetical illumination of the first verse.  John adds an important concept to the life of the one who appeared, the one who they saw, heard, and touched:  His is a life that is eternal, one that abides with God, the Father.  Furthermore, he notes that through the Life, eternal life is available to us as it was given to John.

As with the opening of his Gospel, John opens the letter with a description of the true nature of the Messiah, Jesus.  His purpose for writing is to counter the heresies that are being sown among the members of the Christian churches.  The predominant heresy held that Jesus was not the Messiah, that he was simply a man who was blessed by God, and that the Messiah is yet to come.  They could not understand how Jesus could be fully man and fully God, so they had to settle for Jesus as a man.

If one is to deny the nature of the Messiah that John herein describes, one is denying the truth of the gospel, and denying the foundational truth upon which faith stands.  One of the inviolable characteristics of Jesus’ nature is His eternal nature, His deity: His identity with God.  What we believe about Jesus is referred to as our Christology, and John starts by addressing this doctrine.  God has revealed His character to us through three persons, or three sets of attributes: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For example, we understand that the Holy Spirit is that set of God’s attributes through which all of His work is done. 

We may understand the Messiah as YAHWEH, Jehovah:[6] that set of attributes through which God created the heavens and the earth, by whom all of the world will be judged, and through whom all actual physical communication with man takes place.   Old Testament references to the LORD often refer to YAHWEH, and He is present in physical forms many times.  It was Jehovah who spoke to Moses through the fire on the hillside.   It was Jehovah who wrestled with Jacob.  These examples may be referred to as the “pre-incarnate Messiah,” or the “pre-incarnate Christ.”  It was Jehovah who came to earth in the form of the Christ child to communicate and empower the plan of salvation for all mankind, providing a means that all people have the opportunity to receive the gift of eternal life.  It is this incarnation of the Messiah, the Christ, that John describes as “with the Father and manifested to us.”

One may easily recognize many heretical positions simply by their denial of the deity of Jesus Christ:  these positions deny that Jesus is the incarnation of the Messiah, Jehovah in the form of a man.  Consequently, John begins this letter by standing firm against the heresies that deny the deity of Christ.

FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD

1 John 1:3a.  That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us:  

Where the heretics are presenting their arguments from their own opinions, John reminds his readers that his Christology comes from first-hand experience of seeing and hearing the Messiah.  It is this historical Jesus that John has been proclaiming to the church from the beginning.

John also notes that the purpose of his declaration of the gospel is so that those who respond can have fellowship with himself and others who have responded.  We may first note that the opposite is then implied:  those who reject the gospel have no true fellowship with believers.  In this way John is excluding the heretics from that fellowship, but including all who have placed their faith and trust in Jesus.

However, there is far more to this fellowship than accepting people into the group of believers:

1 John 1:3b.   and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.

The purpose of John’s proclamation of the gospel far exceeds a simple argument against the views of the heretics.  John proclaims the gospel so that those who respond positively to it can find true fellowship, koinonia, with “us” meaning the church, but most importantly, with God the Father, and with Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  The word, koinonia, refers to a common sharing in community that is based upon the acceptance of one another in unconditional, agape, love.  John also equates fellowship with God with eternal life, teaching that fellowship with God is eternal.  “This fellowship is dependent on one’s reception of life, which is, in turn, dependent upon one’s believing reception of the Word of life, Jesus as the incarnate Son of God.”[7]

In the remainder of the letter, John describes what it means to have a koinonia relationship with God, one that is entirely lost to the heretics.

THE JOY OF SALVATION

1 John 1:4.  And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.

Again, tying this statement with the previous ones, John explains one of the many reasons for writing this letter:  that those who receive it may be filled with joy.  John’s greatest desire is that his readers come to faith in God in sincerity, motivated by his knowledge of the tremendous blessing that is found in salvation.  He is not arguing with the heretics to win a philosophical or theological debate.  He is not accusing the heretics, nor is he pointing out their errors.  John is simply presenting, again, the truth of the gospel so that those who positively respond would find salvation, and would receive the abundant blessings that come with it.  The word rendered, “full,” can also be correctly rendered “overflowing.” 

There is some debate as to the recipient of joy in this verse.  Modern translations tend to render the phrase as “our joy,” which identifies a deeper and broader understanding of the joy that is experienced when one comes to faith in the LORD.  “Your” refers only to the one receiving salvation, and certainly John is extremely joyful when another comes to faith, though this rendering does focus on the benefits of receiving salvation.  However, when rendered, “our,” the joy is shared.  First, it is shared in community between the one who receives the gospel and John.  If taken in the first-person, John is noting that he shares in the joy of those who come to the LORD in faith, drawing them close to himself.  However, the “we” phrases in John’s letter do not typically limit the reference to the Apostle John, but rather includes the combined community of John and the Apostles.  Furthermore, since John teaches that salvation results in fellowship the God, the “our” is inclusive of himself, the Apostolic witness, the church, and God, Himself.

Christianity stands apart from every religion of the world, religions that seek to find ways for its adherents to achieve a final reward.  Christianity is a faith, not a religion:  it is following God’s plan and promise to bring people to Himself, asking only that they put their faith and trust in Him.  In this way, instead of participating in the vain attempt to make oneself righteous enough for reward, God performs the work of righteousness by simply forgiving the sin of those who place their faith and trust in Him.  The reward is an eternal relationship with God as the faithful communicate with Him through prayer, through interaction with the Holy Spirit, and the promise of an eternal home with the LORD.

Just as the church was under attack by the world around it, particularly by those who espoused alternate and false gospels, decried the voracity of church doctrines, and brought accusations against the church, the same is true today.  Many of our churches struggle with internal conflict as its members vie with one another for control, rather than submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ, and by so doing are presenting a false gospel.  The church is under attack from outside of the fellowship by those who seek to change the gospel message to suit their own world-view, usually by following the ancient heresies that confronted John’s church:  the denial of the deity of Jesus and denying the voracity of sin. 

John addressed these issues, not by warfare against those who are attacking the church, but simply by reminding the church of the truth.  The Word of God is undergirded by truth, by the work of the Holy Spirit, and the testimony of Jesus Christ: it can stand on its own.  When confronting the rivals of truth, the best “offense” is simply to stand firmly on the gospel, and sharing it in love, giving the hearer an opportunity to respond.  This leaves the responsibility for that response with the detractor, a response that the LORD will hold them responsible for. 

In only the first few verses of his short letter, John has established a foundation for the presentation of the gospel to a diverse community, as declared his first-hand knowledge of the gospel, and reminded his rendered that he was trained by Jesus Christ.  He began the defense of the gospel by holding firmly to the reality of the person of Jesus Christ, His identification as the Messiah, deity of Christ, His eternal relationship with the Father and with the church, and the promise of the receipt of abundant and eternal joy for all who come to Him in faith.

John did not confront his detractors with accusations, but with love.  He did not use a tactic of conflict with his detractors, but rather gave them the opportunity to respond to his offer of grace.  As we continue in our study of this letter, we will find a comprehensive presentation of Christian doctrine that can serve to encourage the faithful, train them in the nature of God, and help them to give a defense of the gospel that will empower them to stand in the evil day.

 

[1] A.E. Brooke.  A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles.  New York, NY:  Scribner’s.  ii-iv.

[2] Daniel L. Akin. “1,2,3 John.”  The New American Commentary.  Nashville, TN:  Broadman & Holman Publishers.  2001.  p. 35. 

[3] John 1:1.

[4] John 1:14.

[5] Juhn 19:36. 20:2, 21:7, 21:20.rr

[6] YAHWEH and Jehovah are one and the same.  The name “Jehovah” is simply the English rendering of the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name, “YAHWEH.”  This is evident if we pronounce YAHWEH in the original Hebrew, where the “Y” sound is replaced by the newer “J” sound, and the “W” sound is replaced by the “V” sound.  The name of YAHWEH is pronounced “Iehovah.”

[7] Ibid., Akin, p. 57.