The Prologue to the Letter, 1-4
1:1 This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life—1:2 and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us). 1:3 What we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you may have fellowship with us (and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ). 1:4 Thus we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
The first four verses consist of a single sentence in the Greek. Scholars regularly comment on their complexity (‘convoluted’ is one word used), with Strecker going so far as to say that ‘one may…ask whether the choppiness of the style and the conscious avoidance of clear definitions allow the conclusion that the author is deliberately making a mystery of the subject being addressed.’ (Cited by Harris). Such scholars seem regularly to miss the simple if rather obvious point that the writer was probably very old!
‘The prologue…introduces many of the Letter’s major concerns: the reality of the incarnation, the nature of the life revealed by Jesus, and the importance of participation in the community if one is to share in that life.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)
Smalley ‘sees three “main themes” being introduced in the prologue that are developed later in the epistle. They are “life in Christ,” developed further in 1 John 5:11–12 and 20; “the historical reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ,” developed in 1 John 4:2 and 5:6; and “the idea of ‘seeing’ in association with witness,” developed further in 1 Jn 4:14 and 1 Jn 5:6–12.’ (summarised by Derickson)
Various themes in this short passage are shared with the Fourth Gospel:-
- Jesus is the word of life (Jn 1:1–2);
- Jesus is fully human (Jn 1:14);
- Jesus has been seen by us (Jn 1:14);
- in Jesus eternal life has been revealed to us (Jn 3:5, 8);
- fullness of Joy (Jn 3:29; 15:11; 16:24; 17:13)
Harris suggests, with some plausibility, that the echoes of the prologue to the Fourth Gospel reflect the use which his opponents made of that prologue in setting out their own Christological position. The opponents may well have regarded the Christ of the Fourth Gospel as some ‘heavenly’ figure, altogether detached from the physical realities of this world (even though the rebuttal to their heresy was to be found precisely in that prologue (Jn 1:14).
Only this letter and that to the Hebrews begins without any greeting.
That which – neuter, suggesting a message, rather than to a person. But, because John goes on to write of hearing, seeing, and touching, it seems right to equate the message with the person. The ‘Word of life’ is both a message and a person.
From the beginning – note the ‘noble sweep’ (Stott) of this passage, moving as it does from ‘the beginning’ to ‘fullness of joy’ (v4). In fact, ‘five stages are discernible in the unfolding of this divine purpose, indicated by the words beginning (archēs, 1), appeared (ephanerōthē, twice in v. 2), we proclaim (apangellomen, 3), fellowship (koinōnia, twice in v. 3) and joy (chara, 4).’
Johnson thinks that the writer is referring to the ‘beginning’ of the Christian movement, the life and teaching of Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Jn 2:7). Harris, similarly: ‘If the controversy with the opponents is over the importance of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, and if the relative clauses what…, what…, what…, what… in v. 1 refer to the apostolic eyewitness testimony about Jesus, then it is much more likely that the phrase from the beginning in v. 1 refers to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry which marked the beginning of his self-revelation to his disciples.’
Kruse, similarly, maintains that the primary reference is to the incarnation of Christ. He notes that ‘The expression ‘from the beginning’ (ap’ archēs) occurs ten times in the Johannine letters (1 John 1:1; 2:7, 13, 14, 24 [2×]; 3:8, 11; 2 John 5, 6), and in various connections: (i) It is used here in 1:1 in connection with the ‘Word of life’ that was heard, seen, and handled at the beginning by the eyewitnesses. (ii) In 2:24 it denotes the message of the gospel as it was first heard by the readers of the Johannine letters. (iii) In 2:13, 14 it refers to Christ, who is known by the readers as the one who was from the beginning, that is, the incarnate one (see commentary ad loc.). (iv) It is used in 3:8 in connection with the devil, who is described as sinning from the beginning. (v) It is used most frequently in relation to the command to love one another, which the readers heard as part of the gospel message from the beginning (1 John 2:7ff.; 3:11; 2 John 5, 6).’
But we are inclined to the view that the apostle is emphasising that underlying the gospel is an eternal reality. This is consistent with what the apostle then goes on to say about ‘the eternal life’ which was ‘with the Father’ and which ‘appeared’. Clement of Alexandria: ‘when he says “which was from the beginning” he is referring to the generation of the Son which has no beginning, because he exists coeternally with the Father.’ The gospel is no novelty, no afterthought. Even more is he emphasising the incarnation: that what ‘appeared’, and had been heard, seen and touched, was what he existed with the Father from all eternity.
- the beginning of the story of Christ, Lk 1:2;
- the time of the delivery of the law, 1 Jn 2:7;
- the institution of a thing, Mt 19:8;
- the fall, Jn 8:44;
- the creation, Joel 2:2.
But none of these is meant here: not the first nor second, for before Abraham was, he was, Jn 8:58. Not the third, fourth, or fifth, for he himself created all things, Jn 1:3.
There is another ‘from the beginning’, which is higher than all these, namely from the beginning of eternity – which, lacking beginning, implies that he was before all beginnings, Prov 8:23.
‘The stress laid on Jesus’ preincarnate dignity and glory (John 1:1–9; 17:5; 2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:1–3; 1 John 1:1) made a mode of entry into incarnate life that involved proclamation of the glorious role he was coming to fulfill (Matt. 1:21–23; Luke 1:31–35) more natural than any alternative.’ (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology)
That…which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – Note the repeated emphasis on personal experience: v. 1: “heard,” “seen,” “looked at,” “touched”; v. 2: “seen,” “testify”; v. 3: “seen,” “heard”. The apostle is writing about something that is audible, visible, and tangible. All of this emphasises the Jesus is no shadowy mythical figure, but a physical, historical reality. And John insists that he, and certain others, were eyewitnesses.
Ross remarks on the impact this seeing and hearing and touching had had on the apostle. He is reaching back in his memory some sixty years, yet ‘what we saw and heard has left on us an impression which lasts until this day.’
‘The eternal entered time and appeared to human beings. The Word became flesh and thus presented himself to people’s three higher senses (hearing, sight and touch).’ (Stott)
‘The four relative clauses proceed ‘from the most abstract to the most material aspect of divine revelation’ (Westcott). To have heard was not enough; people ‘heard’ God’s voice in the Old Testament. To have seen was more compelling. But to have touched was the conclusive proof of material reality, that the Word ‘became flesh, and lived for a while among us’.’ (Stott)
Which our hands have touched – Cf. Lk 24:39, where the same word is used for ‘to feel, touch, handle’.
Cotton remarks that Jesus is said to have explicitly been in physical touch when he caught Peter by the hand, Mt 14:31, when he washed his disciples’ feet, Jn 13:5, and when John leaned on his breast, Jn 13:15.
But John may have been thinking more particularly about our Lord’s post-resurrection appearances. For, ‘whereas the two earlier verbs have heard and have seen are in the perfect tense, suggesting the abiding possession which results from the hearing and seeing, [looked at and…touched] are both aorists, and seem therefore to refer to a particular time, perhaps after the resurrection, when the apostles had an opportunity both to gaze thoughtfully upon the Lord Jesus and to handle him (cf. Luke 24:39; John 20:26–29).’ (Stott)
Westcott agrees that the tenses of expressions translated ‘looked at’ and ‘touched’ suggest a tacit reference to the resurrection, a reference all the more telling given that John does not mention it elsewhere in this epistle.
Cousar (Feasting on the Word, Vol 2) comments that, unfortunately, docetism is still very much alive today. It is alive in those who imagine Jesus as some kind of ‘superman’ figure, untouched by our human fears and frailties. It is alive, to, in those who consider Jesus to be a spirit, having nothing to do with the physical dimension of life. But John could not have affirmed in any clearer or stronger terms the real incarnation of the Son of God.
We proclaim – brought forward here in the NIV from v3, in order to make better sense of the present verse.
‘The emphasis in the opening verse on authoritative proclamation and eyewitness testimony is most naturally seen as a reflection of John’s apostolic calling (John 19:35; 20:3–8; 21:24).’ (The Reformation Study Bible)
The Word of life – Combining ideas found in Jn 1:1 and Jn 14:6. The capitalisation is, of course, interpretative on the part of the NIV translators. Stott thinks that this expression is not personal, referring to the Son of Jn 1, but impersonal, referring to the message of the gospel (as in Acts 16:7).
But it is better to embrace the ambiguity regarding the personal/impersonal nature of this phrase. The word is life and then gives life. It is a person first, and only then a possession. ‘Paul could say, “We preach Christ” (1 Cor. 1:23; cf. 2 Cor. 4:5) showing that the message and the person are ultimately identical.… Our writer here wants to emphasize that the Christian message is identical with Jesus; it took personal form in a person who could be heard, seen and even touched.’ (Marshall)
‘Let us refresh our minds and our memories with some of the Scripture adjuncts connected with “the word,” and realize, in some degree at least, the manifold relations which it bears both to God and our souls. It is called “the word of Christ,” because much of it was given by him, and it all bears testimony to him…It is called “the word of his grace,” because the glorious theme on which it loves to expatiate is grace, and especially grace as it is seen in Christ’s dying love for sinful men. It is called ololoj tou staurou, “the word of the cross,” (1 Cor 1:18) because in the crucifixion of the divine Redeemer we see eternal mercy in its brightest lustre. It is called “the word of the gospel,” because it brings glad tidings of great joy to all nations. It is called “the word of the kingdom,” because it holds out to all believers the hope of an everlasting kingdom of righteousness and peace. It is called “the word of salvation,” because the purpose for which it was given is the salvation of sinners. It is called “the word of truth,” because, as Chillingworth says, it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without mixture of error for its contents. And we will only add, it is called “the word of life,” because it reveals to a sinful, perishing world the doctrines of life and immortality.’ (Graham, in A Commentary on the First Epistle of John, 1857)
We learn from this verse that ‘he who was from the beginning truly God, was in the fullness of time truly man.’ Cotton (whose words have just been quoted) addresses those who might prefer to hear of the benefits that Christ confers, rather than the doctrine of his person: ‘If you see a maid betrothed to a man, who desires to hear and speak of the gifts and presents he will bestow upon her…; and has no mind at all to hear or speak of his person, would you not say she loved his gifts more than himself?’
The life appeared – It existed ‘from the beginning’, but could only become known to us when it ‘appeared’ in the incarnation.
‘The manifestation of Christ in the flesh was no phantasm or delusion, but a most evident and palpable truth…A truth so certain, that the assertors of it appealed to the very enemies of Christ for the certainty thereof, Acts 2: 22.’ (Flavel, The Method of Grace)
Note the definite article: John is speaking of a particular life, ‘the life’, the life which was with the Father and has appeared to us.
We need not fully subscribe to O’Day’s feminist convictions to agree with her comment that ‘body/spirit dualisms were, and continue to be, detrimental to women’s place in Christian experience. As the spirit/body dualism was refined in later Christianity, women were increasingly identified with the inferior, and even evil, realm of the body. Feminist theologies of embodiment recognize what the author of 1 John also knew: Christian religious experience begins with the incarnation, and so the body is an essential, not an optional, element of Christian theological doctrine. First John is an important theological resource for conversations about embodiment, because it emphatically negates body/spirit dualisms and affirms the corporeality of Christian faith.’ (Women’s Bible Commentary). We would only respond by saying that this is an issue for all people, not just (or even especially) for women.
We have seen it and testify to it – ‘Martyreisthai indicates the authority of experience. To testify is an activity which belongs properly to an eyewitness. He must be a witness before he is competent to bear witness. (Compare Luke 24:48, ‘You are witnesses of these things’, with Acts 1:8, ‘you will be my witnesses’.)’ (Stott)
See also Lk 1:1-4, with its insistence that the gospel is based on eyewitness testimony.
- ‘to magnify his power, for he was able to persuade the whole world to embrace him and his doctrine by such weak instruments, 2 Cor 4:7; Acts 4:13.’
- to prevent any thought that the gospel might have been ‘the device of a man’s brain, a human policy devised by great men to keep the rest in awe (1 Cor 2:6, 8)…
- ‘to teach all ministers, both how to become most able and sufficient preachers of the gospel, and how to deliver the gospel as to be most for God’s glory. If learning and skill in human knowledge would have made us most able ministers of his gospel, he would either have chosen such to be his witnesses, or have made them so by instructing them…Being such simple men, the apostles were fitted to deliver it so as might be most for God’s glory, not in excellency of words but in evidence of the Spirit, 1 Cor 2:4f.’
We proclaim to you the eternal life – ‘If martyreisthai is the word of experience, apangellein indicates the authority of commission…For the Christian message is neither a philosophical speculation, nor a tentative suggestion, nor a modest contribution to religious thought, but a confident affirmation by those whose experience and commission have qualified them to make it.’ (Stott)
Boice (Foundations of the Christian Faith) says that gnosticism had two characteristic beliefs: (a) the necessity of an initiation into ‘secret knowledge’ as the means of salvation; and (b) a radical distinction between matter and spirit, with the former being evil and the latter good. In such a scheme, (a) it would be nonsense to believe that God could have come in (evil) flesh; (b) salvation consists of escape from the material world; and (c) it does not matter what we do with our bodies.
‘Unlike proto-Gnosticism and later Gnosticism, this “Life” was made known openly (announced) rather than being hidden or obscured such that only a few could know. Rather, all of the world could know.’ (Derickson)
But does ‘eternal life’ here refer to salvation, or to Christ himself? The context would seem to support the latter, for it is the Son of God who ‘was with the Father and has appeared to us’. Christ is eternal life personified and embodied.
‘The expression ‘eternal life’ here, then, does not denote an impersonal quality of life that comes from the Father, but refers to the Word of life, the Son of God, who was with the Father prior to his incarnation, and in whom eternal life is found (cf. 1 John 5:11–12).’ (Kruse)
Traill: ‘Christ himself is called eternal life, 1 Jn 1:2 and v20. When Christ came into the world, eternal life came into it: when Christ is shown and revealed, eternal life is made known; when Christ is embraced by faith, eternal life is got: 1 Jn 5:11, 12. …He that hath the Son, hath life. O that all men did but know, how closely, how inseparably, and how eternally, Christ and eternal life are linked together! No eternal life without Christ; no Christ without eternal life.’
‘Behold them the great and fearful unthankfulness of the world, who put most of these men to death for declaring unto them eternal life.’ (Cotton)
Cotton infers from this that ‘we are all to be exhorted diligently to be conversant in the writings of the apostles. What the Saviour said of the writings of the apostles, Jn 5:39, my text also says of the writings of the apostles: they bear witness of Christ and show us eternal life. Ministers most of all are to be conversant in their writings, because we succeed the apostles in bearing witness unto Christ; and we must declare him without differing from their message, or else we bring a curse upon our heads (Gal 1:8).’
Cotton urges us ‘to praise the Lord’s goodness unto us, for he has granted unto us their writings (as Ps 147:12,19,20). It was a great preferment to the Jews to have the writings of the prophets (Rom 3:1f); but their witness to Christ is much more dark and obscure than this of the apostles. Without their writings, we should but have groped after God (Acts 17:27); and as for Christ, this eternal life, we should never have dreamed of him. May the Lord make us more thankful and more careful to walk worthy of these blessings, lest he taken them from us.’
With the Father – Note how Jn 1:1 also teaches that the Son was ‘from the beginning (cf v1) and ‘with God’. In both verses the underlying idea is of the Word being ‘near’, or ‘face to face’ with God the Father. Cotton remarks that if we ourselves can be delighted by created things: food, drink, company, recreation, and so on, how much more the Father and the Son can be delighted by one one another. And they were so delighted since before time began.
‘If Christ was with the Father, in whose presence is fullness of joy and pleasure for evermore (Ps 16:11), then how unspeakable was the love of Christ to such wretches as we! For our sakes he would leave his Father, to take part of our miseries so that we might be partakers of his pleasure.’ (Cotton)
‘If Christ was with the Father, then the children of God may comfort themselves that we shall also be with God too, to behold the glory which Christ had with the Father. Christ is now where he was from eternity (Jn 16:28); and where he now is, he has prayed that we also may be (Jn 17:24), and so prays until this day (Rom 8:34); and the Father hears him always (Jn 11:42).’ (Cotton)
Appeared to us (cf. 1 Tim 3:16) adds to the idea of an historical incarnation that of a witnessed incarnation. The idea is, perhaps, of ‘the breaking forth of the sun from under a cloud’ (Cotton).
‘We could not have seen the one who was eternally with the Father unless he had taken the initiative deliberately to manifest himself. Human beings can apprehend only what God is pleased to make known.
As John emphasises the incarnation he has in the back of his mind the denials of the followers of Cerinthus, to whom he make allusion later in his letter.
Johnson observes the timeline in this verse: the eternal life ‘was with the Father’, he ‘appeared to us’, ‘we have seen him’, and can therefore testify and proclaim to you what has been experienced.
The historical Jesus and the eternal Christ, John insists, are the same person, both divine and human. ‘Such an emphasis on the historical revelation of the invisible and intangible is still needed today, not least by the scientist trained in the empirical method, the radical who regards much in the Gospels as ‘myths’ (but you cannot ‘demythologize’ the incarnation without thereby contradicting it) and the mystic who becomes preoccupied with his subjective religious experience to the neglect of God’s objective self-revelation in Christ.’ (Stott)
‘Christ was made manifest in the flesh, yet some knew him not (Jn 1:5; 1 Cor 2:8), while others did (Jn 1:14). And the reason why some saw him not is threefold: (a) they shut their own eyes (Acts 28:27); (b) the devil blinded their eyes (2 Cor 4:4); (c) God blinded them (Jn 12:37-40).’ (Cotton) But, as Cotton adds, there is now no excuse for not knowing Christ, since the veil has been removed.
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard – ‘The manifestation to us (2) becomes a proclamation to you (3).’ (Stott)
With this repetition of verbs to do with seeing and hearing, ‘John seems to warn the readers against false doctrines that deny the human nature, physical appearance, and bodily resurrection of Jesus. John testifies that he has seen Jesus and has heard his voice. John wants his readers to know the core of the apostolic message: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has appeared in human flesh.”’ (Kistemaker)
‘The apostles taught nothing but what was manifest to their senses (2 Pet 1:16). Sense took away doubting even from unbelieving Thomas (Jn 20:25-28).’ (Cotton)
Fellowship – The basis idea of koinonia is ‘partnership’, and it was used of partnership in business, Lk 5:10. As Jackman says: ‘Perhaps John could look back on the distant days when he and his brother James had been shareholders in the Zebedee Fishing Company.’
In the present context, ‘‘fellowship’ denotes, not only a personal relationship with the author, but also partnership with him in his work of proclamation.’ (Kruse)
But here it is almost a synonym for ‘salvation’, for ‘Christian fellowship means sharing the common life in Christ through the Holy Spirit’ (NBC). This is so because redemption brings us into fellowship with the Father and his Son, and then into fellowship with one another. As Stott remarks, ‘this is the meaning of salvation in its widest embrace, including reconciliation to God in Christ (fellowship … with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ), holiness of life (see v. 6), and incorporation in the church (you … with us).’
Here, as Stott points out, is echoed our Lord’s prayer in Jn 17:21, ‘that all of them may be one’ and that they may ‘also be in us’.
True unity is based on a common belief in the apostolic testimony: ‘There is no other way into genuine membership of the body of Christ, into true fellowship with God, than by believing the apostolic testimony. You cannot know God without knowing Christ. You cannot know fellowship without receiving the truth….That is why all attempts to cobble together a man-made unity between groups of professing Christians on any foundation other than God’s revealed truth in Scripture, the Word of life that is the gospel, are bound to fail.’ (Jackman)
Fellowship with God involves a drawing near to him, Heb 10:22, and seeing him, Heb 11:27.
Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ – who, clearly, are regarded as both equal and distinct.
In this letter, John refers to Christ as ‘Son’ (‘huios‘) no less than 22 times. He does not ever use this term of Christian believers: he refers to them, rather, as ‘children’ (‘teknion‘ or ‘teknon‘). As Kruse remarks: ‘this appears to be his way of marking the fundamental distinction between Jesus as the Son of God and believers as God’s children.’
Kistemaker picks out some of the more significant references to Jesus as ‘the Son’ in this epistle: ‘Throughout his epistle he mentions the fellowship of the believer with the Father and the Son (1:7), the redeeming work of the Son (1:7; 4:10), the mission of the Son (3:8), God’s testimony about the Son (5:9), the gift of the Son in terms of eternal life (5:11, 13), and last, the coming of the Son (1 Jn 5:20).’
Although koinōnia (‘fellowship’) and its cognates occur over 60 times in the NT, in all of John’s writings they only occur in this passage (vv 3,6,7). Kruse infers from this that it is not a term characteristic of John, but rather of his opponents. John then picks up the term in order to combat what they were claiming, which is that they could have fellowship with God without having fellowship with God’s people (i.e. John and his fellow-believers).
Based on Kruse’s discussion, we may say that in the NT fellowship may include the ideas of:-
- working together towards a common purpose (Gal 2:9; Phil 1:5; 3:10; Phlm 6; 1 John 1:3);
- sharing in a personal relationship (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 6:14; 13:14; Phil 2:1; 1 John 1:6, 7);
- sharing financially with believers who are in need (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13; Heb 13:16);
- participating with others in the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16).
With regard to the present passage, Kruse concludes: ‘Koinōnia in 1 John 1:3, 6, 7 appears to denote a personal relationship with the author or with God, and may, in 1:3 in particular, include the idea of commitment to a common task, that of the proclamation of the Word of life.’
Following Candlish, we may say that this fellowship involves (a) insight and understanding: a God-given apprehension of what he is, and what he has done for us in his Son; (b) faith: ‘personal, appropriating, and assured faith’; (c) participation in the nature and conformity to the character of the Father and the Son; (d) being of one heart with the Father and the Son: feeling as they feel, judging as they judge, loving as they love, hating as they hate; (e) entering into the joy of the Father and the Son; into their joy, ‘as the joy of ineffable complacency between the Father and the Son from everlasting to everlasting, – in the counsels of a past eternity, in the present triumphs of grace, in the consummated glory of the eternity that is to come, – you are called to enter.’
This fellowship’ (writes Cotton), ‘is a conjunction of men’s persons, not by an outward bond (such as God’s ordnance is to marriage) but by an inward bond, one Spirit resting in Christ above measure and in the saints according to their measure (1 Cor 6:17; 1 Jn 4:13; Rom 8:9). Hence it is that the same mind is in us which was in Christ (Phil 2:5), and all the members are alike affected and disposed toward God, Christ, their own sins, good works, and one another.’
In this communion, writes Cotton, we partake of Christ’s benefits:-
- adoption, Gal 4:4-6;
- his righteousness imputed to us, 2 Cor 5:21;
- holiness, 1 Cor 1:30 (both mortification, Rom 6:6, and vivification, Jn 15:5;
- protection of angles, Psa 91:11f; Heb 1:14;
- dominion over creation, Heb 2:7f; 1 Cor 3:22f;
- a glorious inheritance, Gal 4:7; Col 1:12.
Cotton adds that ‘we communicate these benefits to one another:-
- in heart, as we pray for one another, Eph 6:18. ‘Hence a Christian man, as a rich merchant, has agents dealing for him with God in every country’;
- in voice, as we instruct, 2 Tim 2:25f; Acts 18:25f, reprove, Gal 6:1f, and console, 1 Thess 5:14, one another;
- in action, bu our good example, Mt 5:16, Phil 2:15, and by generous giving to one another, Gal 6:10.
‘The Elder’s opponents, the secessionists—those who have left the community (1 Jn 2:19) and are antichrists (1 Jn 2:18), false prophets (1 Jn 4:1), deceivers (2 Jn 7), and liars (1 Jn 2:22)—are not in fellowship with the author, and they no longer have either the Father or the Son (2 Jn 9; cf. 1 Jn 2:22–24). They are outside the “circle of salvation.”’ (Johnson)
Guthrie says that fellowship with God is often misunderstood amongst believers: ‘If by fellowship be meant the walking in our duty, as in the sight of a living God, who sees and hears us, and is witness to all our carriage, it is a thing common unto all gracious men; they all have it habitually, and in design-‘I have set the Lord always before me.’ (Ps 16:8) Yea, and often they have it actually in exercise, when their spirit is in any good frame: they walk as if they saw God standing by them, and have some thought of his favor through Christ-‘Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.’ (1 Jn 1:3) If by fellowship we mean a sweet, refreshing, familiar, sensible, conversing with God, which doth delight and refresh the soul (besides what the conscience of duty doth); it is then a walking in the light of his countenance, and a good part of sensible presence: and although it seemeth Enoch had much of it, whilst it is said, ‘He walked with God’; (Ge 5:24) yet it is not so ordinary as the former, nor so common to all Christians; for here the soul is filled as with marrow and fatness, following hard after its guide, and singularly upheld by his right hand- ‘My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness: and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips. My soul followeth hard after thee, thy right hand upholdeth me.’ (Ps 63:5,8)
‘O it is sweet to have fellowship with those that have fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. Christ has communicated to the saints varieties of graces, in different measures and degrees; And as they all receive from Christ the fountain, so it is sweet and most delightful to be improving themselves by spiritual communion one with another: Yea, for that end one is furnished with one grace more eminently than another, that the weak may be assisted by the strong, as a modern divine well observes. Athanasius was prudent and active, Basil of an heavenly, sweet temper, Chrysostom laborious, without affection, Ambrose resolved and grave, Luther courageous, and Calvin acute and judicious. Thus every one has his proper gift from Christ, the fountain of gifts and graces, 1 Cor 7: 7. One has quickness of parts, another solidity of judgement, but not ready and presential; one is zealous, but ungrounded; another well principled, but timorous; one is wary and prudent; another open and plain; one is trembling and melting; another cheerful and joyous; one must impart his light, another his heat: The eye, the knowing man, cannot say to the hand, the active man, I have no need of thee. And O how sweet would it be, if gifts, graces, and experiences were frequently and humbly imparted: But idle notions earthly mindedness, self- interests, and want of more communion with Christ, have almost destroyed the comfort of Christian fellowship everywhere in the world.’ (Flavel, The Method of Grace)
Again, Flavel writes: ‘Is it not sweet to have fellowship with them who have fellowship with Christ? O let all your delights be in the saints, and in the excellent of the earth, who excel in virtue, Psal. 16: 3. Yet, mistake not, there is a great deal of difference betwixt one Christian and another, and even the best of Christians are sanctified but in part. If there be something sweet and engaging, there is also something bitter and distasteful in the best of men. If there be something to draw forth your delight and love, there is also something to exercise your pity and patience. Yet this is most certain, that notwithstanding all their infirmities and corruptions, they are the best and sweetest company this world affords.’ (The Method of Grace)
‘When I have communion with a saint, I must not look so much whether he be of such an opinion, or whether he have taken the covenant, or to have been baptized once or twice or ten times, but see if he have fellowship with the Father, and with Jesus Christ.’ (Walter Cradock)
‘This statement of the apostolic objective in the proclamation of the gospel, namely a human fellowship arising spontaneously from a divine fellowship, is a rebuke to much of our modern evangelism and church life. We cannot be content with an evangelism which does not lead to the drawing of converts into the church, nor with a church life whose principle of cohesion is a superficial social camaraderie instead of a spiritual fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.’ (Stott)
‘The efficacy of that doctrine [of the apostles], or the power of it, argues its certainty. For that doctrine which gives us union with God, communion with the saints of God, and fullness of joy n ourselves, must be a most certain doctrine of heavenly truth.’ (Cotton)
Writing further about the power of the apostolic doctrine, Cotton remarks that ‘the apostles who declared it were, for the most part, poor and simple and unlearned men; the doctrine itself was but of a crucified Saviour, harsh to carnal ears (1 Cor 1:23). The times were such that it was not only everywhere spoken against (Acts 28:22), but also grievously persecuted throughout the Roman empire. And yet, so powerfully did it work that in the time of Tertullian (the next age after Christ) there were more Christians everywhere than of all other professions besides.’
Consider again the words of Cotton: ‘If the apostles preached nothing but what they were most certain of, then it must be our care also to preach to the people of God no uncertainties. We must preach nothing but what we have good warrant for from Scripture…1 Cor 4:6; Acts 26:27.’
Cotton notes here the wonderful efficacy of Scripture: ‘That which must bring us from having fellowship with Satan and the unfruitful works of darkness, to have fellowship with the saints, yes with God himself, and to enjoy fullness of joy – what admirable efficacy must it have! (Rom 1:16; 2 Cor 10:4).’
John will give additional reasons for writing in 1 Jn 2:1; 2:12-14; 5:13.
We write – There is some emphasis here. ‘The message is in a precise and abiding form and it is written by those who had full authority to write.’ (NBC)
Why does John put ‘we write’ and not ‘I write’? This is the only place where he uses such an expression (whereas he uses the expression, ‘I write’ or equivalent no less than twelve times). This can hardly be the plural of authority. Kistemaker thinks that John must have in mind the other apostles, who (or at least, some of them) also committed their eyewitness testimony to writing. Counting somewhat against this interpretation is the John must have known that most, if not all, of the other apostles had died by this time.
To make our joy complete – If the immediate purpose of the proclamation was fellowship (v3), the ultimate purpose is complete joy. Commentators are divided on whether the correct reading refers to ‘our joy’ (NIV, RSV, NRSV)’, or ‘your joy’ (AV). On balance, the former is probably to be preferred, if only because it is the slightly more difficult reading, and therefore more likely to be altered by copyists (who would have called Jn 16:24 to mind). But perhaps the NEB captures the sense: ‘we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete’. ‘Our joy’ is ‘yours as well as ours’.
Complete joy is, of course, unattainable in this life. ‘So verse 4 must be understood also to look beyond this life to the life of heaven. Then consummated fellowship will bring completed joy. ‘You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand’ (Ps. 16:11).’ (Stott)
Yet although the joy of the life to come is not excluded, the principle hope expressed here is for joy in the present life. Such joy is referred to by our Lord in Jn 15:11; 16:24; 17:13; by Paul in Rom 5:11; 2 Cor 6:9; by Peter in 1 Pet 1:8; and by James in Jas 1:2.
As Jackman remarks, ‘three times in the upper room, in the face of the cross, Jesus spoke of the joy that awaited his disciples (Jn. 16:20, 22, 24), joy that would be complete and indestructible. But it came to them only through the cross and because he gave himself resolutely to fulfil his Father’s purposes (see Heb. 12:2–3).’
Candlish says of this joy that it consists in sharing with Christ (a) his standing with, and before, the Father; (b) that joyful sense of being God’s child; (c) the same commission to make known God’s nature, counsel and purposes; (d) that ‘meekness and lowliness of heart’ which makes his ‘burden light, and his yoke easy’.
Cotton notes that fellowship with God and the saints, and fullness of joy, must be possible, for why else did the apostles preach and write about Christ to that end. ‘Satan keeps many from seeking these things, because they think them impossible to attain, as the Jews, Jn 6:52,66. Though at first Nicodemus could not conceive such a mystery as this, yet at length he came to Jesus by night to have it explained, and his doctrine took place in him, Jn 3:9; 7:50,52; 19:39.’
‘That religion which makes people melancholy and miserable and wretched-looking, is a very low type of Christianity, and far below the standard of Him who wished “joy to be full.”‘ (Ryle, on Jn 16:16-24)
God Is Light, So We Must Walk in the Light, 5-10
1:5 Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. 1:6 If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth. 1:7 But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 1:8 If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 1:9 But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness. 1:10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.
God is light – ‘His point was not that God is energy particles—which would mean that God is part of the creation, something John elsewhere explicitly denies (John 1:1–3). Rather, John uses the phrase metaphorically and qualifies it by saying that in God “there is no darkness at all.” Only God is wholly true and good.’ (Heiser, The Bible Unfiltered)
John wrote this against certain people who were claiming that nothing they did was sin. ‘Light’, for John, means holiness and purity, as measured by God’s law, and in contrast to the moral perversity and unrighteousness represented by ‘darkness’, v6. In the light of this teaching, we may not interpret the statement, ‘God is love’, 1 Jn 4:8,16, as suggesting that God is indulgent, that he is indifferent to moral distinctions. He is a God who loves righteousness, who hates iniquity, a God whose ideal for his children is that they should be ‘perfect’ even as he is perfect, Mt 5:48. God’s love is morally strong, expressing holiness in the lover and desiring holiness in the beloved. We have no right to suppose that the God who is love will confer happiness upon people who will not seek holiness.
‘When John says that God is “light,” with no darkness in him at all, the image is affirming God’s holy purity, which makes fellowship between him and the willfully unholy impossible and requires the pursuit of holiness and righteousness of life to be a central concern for Christian people. (1 Jn 1:5-2:1; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1; Heb 12:10-17) The summons to believers, regenerate and forgiven as they are, to practice a holiness that will match God’s own, and so please him, is constant in the New Testament, as indeed it was in the Old Testament. (Deut 30:1-10; Eph 4:17-5:14; 1 Pet 1:13-22) Because God is holy, God’s people must be holy too.’ (Packer, Concise Theology)
‘Of the statements about the essential being of God, none is more comprehensive than God is light. It is his nature to reveal himself, as it is the property of light to shine; and the revelation is of perfect purity and unutterable majesty. We are to think of God as a personal being, infinite in all his perfections, transcendent, “the high and lofty One…he who lives for ever, whose name is holy” (Isa 57:15), yet who desires to be known and has revealed himself.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, p20)
If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth – v6 ‘John does not mince his words. If how a person behaves contradicts what he says, he is a liar. To claim to know God and have fellowship with God while we walk in the darkness of disobedience is to lie. (1 Jn 1:6 2:4) To claim to possess the Father while denying the deity of the Son is to lie (1 Jn 2:22-23). To claim to love God while hating our brothers is also to lie. These are the three black lies of the letter: moral, doctrinal and social. We may insist that we are Christian, but habitual sin, denial of Christ or selfish hatred would expose us as liars. Only holiness, faith and love can prove the truth of our claim to know, possess and love God.’ (Stott)
Paul Brand and Philip Yancey once wrote in Christianity Today (Feb 18, 1983) of the cleansing properties of blood as it flushes out impurities from the body. They regarded this as a wonderful picture of how the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin. ‘In fact,’ says D.A. Carson, ‘it is nothing of the kind. Worse, it is irresponsibly mystical and theologically misleading. The phrase the blood of Jesus refers to Jesus’ violent, sacrificial death.’ (Exegetical Fallacies, 34f)
The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin – Christ’s blood ‘cleanseth from all sin universally. For since it was the blood of so great a person as the Son of God, it is as powerful to cleanse us from the greatest as the least. Had it been the blood of a sinful creature, it had been so far from expiation, that it would rather have been for pollution. Had it been the blood of an angel, though holy (supposing they had any to shed), yet it had been the blood of a creature, and therefore incapable of mounting to an infinite value; but since it is the blood of the Son of God, it is both the blood of a holy and of an uncreated and infinite person. Is it not therefore able to exceed all the bulk of finite sins, and to equal in dignity the infiniteness of the injury in every transgressor?’ (Stephen Charnock, quoted in A Puritan Theology, p361)
Charnock goes on to explain that there is a threefold cleansing by the blood of Christ: ‘As the blood of Christ was offered to God, this purification was meritoriously wrought; as particularly pleaded for a person, it is actually wrought; as sprinkled upon the conscience, it is sensibly wrought. The first merits the removal of guilt, the second solicits it, the third ensures it; the one was wrought upon the cross, the other is acted upon his throne, and the third pronounced in the conscience.’
‘It is said that the devil approached Martin Luther one day and presented him with a long list of sins of which he was guilty. When he had finished reading, Luther said to Satan, “Think a little harder, you must have forgotten some.” This the devil did and added other sins to the list. At the conclusion of this exchange, Luther simply said, “That’s fine. Now write across that list in red ink, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.'” The devil had no answer to that.’
‘Release! Signed in tears, sealed in blood, written on heavenly parchment, recorded in eternal archives. The black ink of the indictment is written all over with the red ink of the cross: “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.”‘ (T. De Witt Talmage)
If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us – The NET translation is based on the understanding that the apostle is referring to a state of sin.
- NIV – ‘If we claim to be without sin’
- ESV, RSV, NRSV, NASB – ‘If we say we have no sin’
- Moffat – ‘If we say, “We are not guilty”
- God’s Word – ‘If we say, “We aren’t sinful”’
- The Message – ‘If we claim that we’re free of sin’
Clearly, there are two approaches to translation. The majority view is that the apostle is referring to a claim to sinful perfection, ‘that there is no sin inherent in their nature’ (Stott).
The alternative view is articulated (although not supported) by Stott: ‘Other commentators argue that to ‘have sin’ in the Johannine literature means to “have guilt” or “be guilty”. It is thus translated by RSV in John 9:41 (cf. John 15:22, 24; 19:11), and Moffatt translates 1 John 1:8: ‘If we say, “We are not guilty” …’ Law urges that in the Fourth Gospel the phrase ‘specifically denotes the guiltiness of the agent’. In this case the denial here would not be so much of sin itself as of responsibility for it.’
Smalley supports the majority view:
The expression ἁμαρτίαν ἔχειν (“to have sin”) is found in the NT only here and in the Fourth Gospel (e.g. John 9:41; 15:22; cf. 5:26, ζωήν ἔχειν, “to have life”). To “have sin” is the equivalent of possessing a sinful character or disposition. Cf. the use of the phrase πιστιν ἔχειν (“to have faith”) in Matt 17:20, to describe the active principle of faith in the life of the believer. Thus “ ‘sin’ is the principle of which sinful acts are the several manifestations” (Brooke, 17). The latter, sinful acts, are distinguished as such in v 10 (οὐκ ἡμαρτήκαμεν, “we have not sinned”). However, perhaps the contrast should not be drawn too sharply; for man’s sinful nature is not, in fact, easily discerned apart from his sinful actions.
Law (Tests, 130) interprets the phrase ἀμαρτίαν ἔχειν judicially, to mean “having guilt or responsibility for wrong actions.” But although the idea of responsibility for one’s sin is certainly involved in the use of this phrase (rather than the verb, ἀμαρτάνειν, “to sin”) by the fourth evangelist (e.g. John 15:22), it is in any case only one aspect of the notion of sin in both Hebrew and Christian thought (see above, 24). For sin in biblical terms is basically a departure from right; and guilt or responsibility is therefore an inevitable consequence of sin, but not its inclusive character. In this v it is precisely a denial of sin altogether to which the writer is alluding.
Derickson, on the other hand, takes the alternative approach:
Interpreters vary in their understanding of what John means here, and later in verse 10. Some see this as a denial of a sin nature (Brooke, 18; Findlay, 106; Painter, 145; Schnackenburg, 83; Smalley, 28; Smith, “Epistles,” 172; Stott, 81–82; Westcott, 22; Yarbrough, 60; contra Hauck, 122). This would seem indicated by the anarthrous noun taking on a more indefinite conceptual sense. It is not “a” specific sin that is denied, but sinfulness in general. Others see it as a denial of guilt (Brown, 205–6; Dodd, 22; Hodges, 73, n. 5; Law, 130). In John 9:41; 15:22–24; and 19:11 this same construction is used in which Jesus combines “sin” and “have” to indicate a state of sinfulness resulting from sin, whether admitted or denied. Thus, this use of the anarthrous noun “sin,” though including denial of a single sin, focuses attention on the guilt aspect that would call for confession and admit to the need of Jesus’ cleansing work in the previous verse. This latter meaning would seem the better of the two choices in light of what follows, though the second is implied by the first.
Christ died to save us “from our sins,” not in our sins. It is not a good sign to hear a believer either defending or excusing his sin. We agree with Dr. A.J. Gordon, who said: “We gravely fear that many Christians make the Apostle’s word,”If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,”the unconscious justification for a low standard of Christian living. It were almost better for one to overstate the possibilities of sanctification in his eager grasp after holiness, than to understate them in his complacent satisfaction with a traditional unholiness…. If we regard the doctrine of sinless perfection as a heresy, we regard contentment with sinful imperfection as a greater heresy.”
We orthodox believers are prone to ignore John’s pointed word to us: “These things write I unto you, that ye sin not.” God wants a cleansed and righteous people. A sincere believer must want to be rid of all sin for all coming time.
And how true the word that “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ his son cleanses us from all sin.” Rom 6:19; 2 Cor 7:1; Eph 4:22-24; 1 Jn 1:7; 1 Jn 2:1.
Our capacity for self-deception is considerable. We can fail in our honesty, not only to God and others, but to ourselves as well. We ‘kid’ or ‘fool’ ourselves. This is particularly so in the moral sphere. We can convince ourselves that black is white, and that white is black. We can shift the blame for our own misdemeanours to others (“She made me do it!” – “It’s him, it’s her, it’s them, it’s it!”). We can find a thousand excuses for our attitudes and actions (“It’s they way I’m made, it’s my upbringing; I can’t help it”). We can refuse to face up to uncomfortable truths, as when the Samaritan woman was faced with the reality of her marital situation, and tried to change the subject of conversation from a moral and personal one to a theological and abstract one, Jn 4:23f. The Lord looks for ‘truth in the inner parts’, Ps 51:6.
There are two ways to keep a car running. You can wait for it to break down and then have the problem fixed. Or, by regular servicing and maintenance you can try to anticipate problems before they occur. This verse reminds us that when we do fall into sin, God’s forgiveness is available to us. Much better, however, to maintain a life of faith and discipline so that spiritual emergencies are kept to a minimum.
v9 ‘The proper Christian attitude to sin is not to deny it but to admit it, and then to receive the forgiveness which God has made possible and promises to us. If we confess our sins, acknowledging before God that we are sinners not only nature (sin) but by practice also (our sins), God will both forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. In the first phrase sin is a debt which he remits and in the second a stain which he removes.’ (John Stott, Authentic Christianity, 150)