The First Epistle of John - Part 2
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
Prologue, 1. 1-4
John introduces his letter with a complex sentence, consisting of a series of profound statements. He sees no need to identify himself, implying that he is well-known to those to whom he writes and his authority is widely acknowledged. As with the opening of ‘Hebrews’, this ensures full focus on his message and the One in whom it centres. Since the main verb ‘declare’ (or, ‘proclaim’) is not encountered until verse 3, Bruce supplies the following helpful paraphrase:
‘Our theme is that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we beheld and our hands handled. Our theme in short, concerns the word of Life – that Life which was made manifest. Yes, we have seen and we bear witness; we make known to you the Eternal Life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us. What we have seen and heard we make known to you also, in order that you in your turn may have fellowship with us’. 1
The opening words remind us of the beginning of John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word’; however, there are some significant differences. Whereas in the Gospel the theme is Christ presented as ‘the Word’, John 1. 1, 14, the unifying theme of this letter is eternal life.2 Here ‘word’ is to be understood in the ordinary sense of ‘message’, hence in the above paraphrase it is appropriately in lower case. The repetition of the neuter pronoun ‘that which was’ strictly points to the gospel message, but this centres in the person of Jesus Christ – the Life personified; hence the first-hand experiences which John describes.
‘From the beginning’. This significant phrase occurs nine times in the letter:3 in each occurrence the context must determine exactly which ‘beginning’ John is referring to. In this instance it refers to the beginning of our Lord’s life here on earth. In making this statement, ‘that which was from the beginning’, John sets out to expose and confound those who argued that Christ had not come in the flesh. Throughout the letter, it is not the existence of the eternal Word that is at stake, but rather the denial that the eternal Word had permanently become flesh.
Note the sense of excitement and progress in the verse, ‘we have heard, seen with our eyes, beheld’ RV, our ‘hands have handled’. These rich experiences set John and his fellow-apostles apart from the opposing false teachers who could make no such claim in spite of all their pretences. ‘The words “have heard” imply that their hearing Him personally has terminated, but His message still continues to ring in John’s ears’, Hiebert.4 ‘Seeing is more than hearing, and beholding (which requires time, John 1. 14, 34; Acts 1. 11) is more than seeing (which may be momentary); while handling is more than all’, Plummer. These statements demolish at once the Docetic heresy (see Introduction: ‘Heresies, Gnosticism’) which claimed that Christ’s body was a mere phantom. The incarnation is no myth, but solid objective reality; John, along with Peter, was an eyewitness of His majesty, 2 Pet. 1. 16. This matters enormously, for if He who is the Life did not become incarnate in genuine humanity as Jesus Christ, there can be no salvation! The next two verbs, ‘looked upon, handled’, point to specific occasions when Christ in grace offered Himself to be ‘handled’ by Thomas, John 20. 27, and the other disciples, Luke 24. 39,5 references to events after the resurrection.6
‘With the Father’, v. 2. This does not merely signify Christ’s location, John 1. 1; rather, that the Life was that which satisfied the Father, the shared bliss of the life of the Godhead. The Life is thus personal; eternally it enabled the fellowship of divine Persons, and it was revealed in Jesus Christ. The Gospel opens by asserting that the Word was with God, whereas this letter asserts that the Life was with the Father; the former is directed to the world to evoke faith and produce spiritual life, John 20. 30, 31; the latter is directed to believers and supplies the tests by which we can judge whether we possess eternal life.
The emphasis here is on the historical manifestation of the Life, indicating that we can know exactly what is (and is not) eternal life – it has been fully displayed in Christ, John 1. 18. Had the Life remained with the Father, what utter darkness we would be in! God Himself has come down to us. Now there can be no need to speculate for the ‘life has been manifested’!7 The word ‘manifested’ implies Christ’s pre-existence. Christ’s work is all about revelation – the revelation of the reality of God, for example, the love of God, 4. 9.
‘That you also may have fellowship with us’, v. 3. John helpfully tells us why he is writing; see also 5. 13. Fellowship can have different shades of meaning: e.g., close relationship; intimate communion; to participate in something with someone; common possession of something with someone. Peter’s ‘partners’ shared with him in the fishing operation, Luke 5. 10. Generally in this letter, though not always, ‘us’ signifies the apostles. We cannot exaggerate their authority – it is the authority of Christ Himself, ‘he who receives you (apostles) receives Me’, Matt. 10. 40. Many of the problems addressed in the letter are caused by departure from the apostolic teaching; recovery, therefore, requires the recognition of the unique, complete, and permanent validity of the apostles’ witness, which for us is preserved in the New Testament. See also 2 Peter 3. 15-16.
‘You also’: just as Peter, 2 Pet. 1. 1, rejoiced that those who had not seen Christ (as he had) had come to share in faith in Him, so John writes so that we can also enjoy the same glorious fellowship of knowing Him.
‘With the Father and with8 His Son Jesus Christ’.
New birth enables a communion between our hearts and the Lord. More than this though, it enables us to enjoy common possession of eternal life with God. This is a permanent fact whether we are always conscious of it or not – a participation in the very life of God himself, John 14. 23. Only the power and grace of God can bring about such an amazing thing!
Cycle 1 – Revelation of the life eternal 1. 5 – 2. 28
John’s flow of thought may be seen from his purpose in writing, as stated in chapter 5 verse 13, ‘These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life’. He presents a series of tests to validate Christian faith, designed to:
- promote the assurance of personal salvation in the lives of his readers;
- enable them to detect and reject false teachers.
John introduces the moral test of fellowship with God, 1. 5 - 2. 6. Following on directly from the nature of God as light, 1. 5, this test is designed to expose those who made out that provided you were part of their circle, sin was not an important matter.9 Chapter 1 verses 6-10 shows how sin hinders fellowship and he points to the corrective action required; chapter 2 verses 1-2 identifies God’s gracious provision for maintaining us in fellowship with Himself.
Walking in the light: Test – sin confessed, 1. 5 – 2. 2
This section spells out the implications of fellowship with God, v. 4. What is the character of the God who has called us into fellowship with Himself? John’s message is plain and emphatic, 1. 5, ‘God is light’ and in Him is no darkness at all’. Later, he will declare that ‘God is love’, 4. 8, a truth all the more wonderful given that He is also light. Light is the beginning of His creation, Gen 1. 3, and it is His covering, Ps. 104. 2. Christ declares Himself to be the Light of the world, John 8. 12. But what does this really mean? God is ‘light’ in two related senses:
- Intellectually – Positively, God is self-revealing; His nature is to make Himself known. He is the source of all reality and truth; giver of all understanding and knowledge. Negatively, He exposes all that is false,
- Morally – He is holy, righteous, and pure. It is particularly this moral aspect that is prominent in 1 John. Light and darkness correlate with good and evil, Isa. 5. 20.
We must understand that John is not here distinguishing between two types of believer, those who walk in the light and those who do not, nor the different experiences of a believer, sometimes in light, sometimes not; rather he is introducing a stringent test to differentiate a true believer from one who is a mere professor. The genuine believer not only ‘comes to the light’ at conversion but characteristically continues to walk in the light.10 John supplies clear tests to expose those who ‘walk in darkness’. This is in keeping with John chapter 3 verses 20 and 21, where response to the light of God distinguishes the believer from the unbeliever.11
Throughout the letter John addresses issues in black and white, allowing no shades of grey, 3. 10, yet his objective is always to bring assurance to those who are genuine. At the same time, we as readers must not be complacent, but, instead, realize the radical implications of the gospel for how we live.
‘Walk’ in the Bible signifies the ordinary course of life – one’s progress, behaviour, Eph. 2. 2. This section, 1. 6-10, supplies a series of tests of eternal life – means for distinguishing those who are truly born again from those who are not. John is very fond of moral and spiritual opposites.12 The table below highlights these opposites and indicates the increasing audacity of the claims of those in error, and correspondingly John’s condemnations. The positive promises of verses 7 and 9 are interleaved.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him,
and walk in darkness,
we lie and do not practice the truth
But 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.
If we say that we have no sin,
we deceive ourselves,
and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins,
He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins
and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
If we say that we have not sinned,
we make Him a liar,
and His word is not in us.
If chapter 1 is concerned with where we walk, chapter 2 will go on to discuss how we walk. All believers should be conscious of sin in the light of God’s holiness, Isa. 6. 5; Ps. 36. 9. Once ‘darkness’, they are now ‘light in the Lord’, Eph. 5. 8, and have the privilege of walking before God, Gen. 17. 1. Note that John humbly uses the pronoun ‘we’ throughout. These principles are fundamental and apply universally – even to apostles!
Apparently, some of John’s opponents were claiming fellowship with God, yet they had little concern about their behaviour denying the seriousness of sin. Evidently, therefore, they belonged to the environment of sin and darkness, and their claims were bogus. We must beware that merely being orthodox in doctrine is no substitute for God-honouring behaviour, Matt. 7. 16.
Verse 7. But on what condition can we dwell in God’s searching light? ‘If we walk (an ongoing, continuous experience) . . . we have fellowship with one another (i.e., with fellow believers similarly in fellowship with God) . . . and the blood of Jesus Christ13 His Son cleanses us from all sin’. That is, the believer is cleansed from the defilement and pollution of sin on the basis of the permanent value of the sacrifice of Christ, cp. Heb. 9. 14. Those in darkness have no access to these purifying benefits.
Bread of the Presence, Ex. 25. 30 ESV (or ‘Shewbread’, KJV): God and man ‘feed’ on the same bread, Lev. 24. 1-9. In order to eat, the priests must come into the holy place, into the light - the normal sphere for their activities. We too must come and walk in the light; it is not an issue of how well we walk, but where we walk.
Some opponents may have believed that they had matured spiritually to the point where they need no longer be concerned about holiness – they denied their sinfulness and thus they saw no need for cleansing, v. 8! Not only did they not practice the truth, v. 6, the truth itself is ‘not in them’, cp. John 8. 44.
On the other hand, we do not need to be sinless in order to walk in the light, but instead must be willing to recognize and ‘confess’ our sins which will inevitably be exposed.14 By contrast with verse 8, ‘If we confess’, v. 9, He is ‘faithful and just (righteous) to forgive us our sins (those confessed) and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’, compare 5. 17. ‘He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy’, Prov. 28. 13. Note that confession is much more than some vague blanket acknowledgement that we have sinned! To confess means, literally, ‘to say the same thing’, i.e., agree with God against ourselves. It is specific, directed to God, and is evidence of sincerity.
Verse 10, ‘if we say we have not sinned’ presents a most daring and outrageous position!15 Such a claim contradicts the consistent testimony of scripture, Rom 3. 23. To make God out to be a ‘liar’ is much worse than lying, v. 6, or self-deception, v. 8. ‘His word is not in us’ implies that the gospel has never been appropriated and so cannot govern the life – a sure mark of remaining in unbelief, cp. John 5. 38; 8. 37. In contrast with verses 6 and 8, John offers no remedy for such a position, since it displays rebellion against God and His word.
- Bruce, Frederick. F., The Epistles of John. London: Pickering & Inglis Ltd., 1970, p. 34.
- See 1 John 1. 1, 2; 2. 25; 3. 14, 15; 5. 11, 12, 13, 16, 20.
- See 1. 1; 2. 7 (2t), 13, 14, 24 (2t); 3. 8, 11.
- The first two verbs, ‘heard’, ‘seen’, are in the perfect tense signifying the abiding result of a past action.
- In the Greek these verbs are in the aorist tense.
- ‘The tacit reference [to the Lord’s resurrection] is the more worthy of notice because St. John does not mention the fact of the Resurrection in his epistle’, B. F. Westcott.
- Manifested’ is a favourite word of John’s, occurring 9 times in the Gospel and 9 times in 1 John.
- The repetition of the preposition ‘with’ points to the distinct Persons of the Godhead, and, incidentally, the full equality of the Son with the Father.
- The test ‘is largely directed against the Gnostic doctrine that to the man of enlightenment all conduct is morally indifferent’, A. Plummer.
- See John 8. 31, 32; 12. 35, 36.
- ‘Those whose fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ will in their lives reflect the character of God; they will “walk as children of light”’, F. F. Bruce.
- ‘The cycle of the epistle largely consists of progress from one opposite to another’, A. Plummer, p. 48. See also John’s Gospel for other instances of dualism.
- Critical texts here omit ‘Christ’ on good authority. ‘Jesus’ points to his life and death here as a real man, while ‘His Son’ underlines the fact of His deity as the incarnate Son of God. ‘This assertion of His dual nature repudiates the Gnostic denials of the reality of the incarnation’, (D. E. Hiebert).
- In an absolute sense, the believer has received forgiveness and deliverance from the guilt of sins once for all on the basis of the death of Christ, 1 John 2. 12. He is now in the family of God, and can never be disowned. Yet if he now sins, it is a serious matter: his fellowship with the Father is thereby impaired and needs to be restored by confession. He remains saved, but needs to be restored to the full enjoyment of fellowship with God.
- A. Plummer observes, ‘Those who deny their sinnership charge God with framing a vast libel on human nature’.