Apostle John’s Three Letters . . . 1 John 1:1–4
Fellowship with God and Jesus
First John, chapter 1, is all about our fellowship with God. We'll begin by reading and meditating on 1:1–4. . . Okay, John the apostle is at the end of his life; he's speaking with great authority and influence because, at this point he's the only apostle still living; the only person who'd had an intimate communion with the Lord Jesus while both were alive. So, using fatherly counsel, and referring to his friends there as "My dear children" (2:1), he wrote to fellow believers in the house churches in Ephesus. Today, the purpose of John's first of three letters is to bring us into a right relationship with God and Lord Jesus.
So, what's John telling us in vv. 1–4? He begins in vv. 1–2 by centering his focus on having a personal relationship with God: Jesus Christ. In v. 3 we find his invitation to develop that relationship. And in v. 4, the resulting relationship is revealed. However, it's not easy to analyze this first epistle's four-verse prologue; it doesn't present a position or an argument that flows. In all five chapters, John the Elder tends to repeat prominent themes that he maintains are meaningful and valuable to a Christian's belief and life. Every time he repeats a theme, he often adds more to it, which is often helpful.
John Gives Three Tests to His Believing Friends and Us
John closes his four opening verses writing: "We write this to make our [or "your" in some manuscripts] joy complete." To his believing brothers, John wrote while all had been living in a world of confusion in three specific realms: (1) doctrine, (2) morality, and (3) society. He told his brothers that they needed assurance to survive. Before we explore John's text in vv. 1–4, let's realize what was in store then for these early believers. John presents three preliminary tests that, when passed, demonstrate how we can know that we're true Christians.
Test #1: The Realm of Doctrine There was among the house churches in Ephesus a breakaway group that we covered in our introductory summary: the Docetists, an early faction of Gnosticism. Regarding the person of Jesus, Docetists taught that the incarnate Christ appeared to be a man but was neither human nor physical but a ghost. They felt superior over Christians in their knowledge of the gospel and person of Christ, insisting that there was no incarnation. So, when John wrote in his gospel, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (1:14a), both groups refuted his claim. To them, it was unthinkable that Christ had a physical body because that would have been evil to them.
Here's Test #1's questions: Is the Christ who you know, relate with, and believe in the Christ that you find in your Bible? . . . Do you believe that he's Father God's Son? . . . And did he come as a man among men and did he die to fully redeem your sin debt? . . .
Test #2: The Morality Realm It's important to realize what we read in First John: A Christian's obedience isn't an option. It's all about distinguishing between these two graces of the gospel: "justification" and "sanctification," both of which always accompany the other. Justification is an act of God; it's his declaration that a sinner is righteous through the work of Jesus. Sanctification addresses the dominion and corruption of sin in our lives; it's God's transformation of a believer's whole being (his or her mind, will, behaviors, and affections) through the Holy Spirit. American Presbyterian AA Hodge (1823–1886), makes this distinction between the two graces of the gospel.
While none of us is perfect or acts as a true Christian, we're to genuinely appreciate our inadequacies. This is Test #2's "morality" question: Can you conclusively document in yourself a genuine, persistent, and devoted obedience to God's commands? . . .
Test #3: The Social Ream In First John we find the repeated themes of "our love" and "God's love." John wrote this about "love" in 4:20–21 of this epistle. . .
20Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:20–21).
Hopefully you correctly answered the doctrine and morality questions. Yes? How will you answer Test #3's love-related questions about humanity? Do you love your fellow brothers and sisters? . . . Might you hate one or more of them? . . .
Assuming that you've answered all three questions in a God-honoring way, you ought to appreciate your having gained assurance! First John is about "life": a life of assurance and confidence. It's also about "light" (φῶς): light in the midst of darkness. And it's about "truth": truth in the midst of error. Of course, it's about "love": Love in the midst of a loveless society. Now that we know First John's key elements, let's return to our reading and review of vv. 1–4.
Fellowship through the Incarnation of the Word of Life (1 John 1:1–4)
The opening verse begins with "That which was from the beginning." According to Albert Barnes (American theologian, 1798–1870), "There can be no doubt that the reference here is to the Lord Jesus Christ, or the 'Word' that was made flesh." This profound emotion, the sympathy and tender worry that John feels as he begins to counsel his believing friends differs distinctly from the parallel passage in his gospel. There it's a relaxed observation of the extent of Christ’s existence; here, John demands and expects a personal relationship between God's words and those to whom God manifested himself. The following clause, "which we have heard," refers to what theologian Charles Ellicott wrote about the Holy Word: "All those gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth, enough to fill countless books could they have been noted down. St. John has given us more of these than any other of the Evangelists. . . The 'we' in all four verses includes a number of eye-witnesses."
John's authority rests in part on his important role as an eyewitness. Such witnesses vouched for their own sightings or specific involvement; they also attested to the truthfulness of what had been stated. Those in John's house-church community treasured all who qualified as truthful "witnesses" to Jesus' statements, acts, and reality. John's eyewitness testimony quashed dangerous teachings of Gnosticism that had been creeping into house churches. Some Gnostics believed that, although Jesus was God, he wasn't actually a physical man. Other Gnostics adamantly denied that Jesus was a supreme being, claiming him to be merely a human. Others argued that Jesus was essentially a divine spirit appearing to men in the shape of a human form but not someone having a solid body. Nevertheless, John proclaimed in his letter's prologue, I heard Him! I saw Him! I studied Him! I touched Him!
An anonymous writer put it like this: "I am glad as a Christian that my knowledge of eternal life is not built on the speculations of philosophers or even theologians, but on the unimpeachable testimony of those who heard, saw, gazed at, and handled Him who was incarnate."
"The Word of Life" (v. 1) speaks directly to what had been seen in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth while on earth, especially during his three years of teaching and ministering. The "which we have looked at and our hands have touched" reveals a more intentional and intimate observation: This eternal being — the One from the beginning — came to earth, and John (with others) personally experienced life with this eternal One. Thankfully, John had a unique, up-close advantage being one of the inner three.
John confirmed that Jesus was the eternally existent being who was "from the beginning" and was physically present with John and other eyewitnesses. Referencing him as "the Word of life" should direct our attention to the Greek "Logos" that John introduces his readers to in his gospel account, which begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (John 1:1–4). Clearly, the “Word” or "Logos" directly references Jesus Christ. In his gospel and this first epistle, John argues that Jesus, the Word or Logos, is both eternal and God. Further, all creation came about by and through Jesus who John presented as the true source of life.
In vv. 1–2, John intended, sometimes repeatedly with his "heard," "seen," "looked at," "touched," to underscore that what he'd witnessed was authentic, not a creation of his imagination. He wanted to clearly reveal to his readers the fact that there was, in fact, life in Christ Jesus. Because Jesus was a real human being of flesh and blood, John could attest in this epistle that Jesus is "the Word of life."
In v. 3, his readers, then and today, are invited to begin and sustain a personal relationship with Jesus, the Word of life. John's declaration that "our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" testifies to both the origination and nature of true life. His declaration's purpose was to bring his readers into fellowship with God’s people and God himself, as demonstrated in Acts 2:42–47.
Such a "brotherhood relationship" is an extremely valuable gift that comes from a most-gracious, generous, and loving God. He alone creates and perpetuates life. His words had always been the truthful message that Jesus proclaimed and eyewitnesses affirmed. But in John's eyes, Jesus' truthful message had been significantly modified and compromised by some in the local house-church community, causing the message that was being preached to no longer be accepted as the genuine "Word of life." As a result, those who failed to adhere to God's Word of life wouldn't have been able to meaningfully engage in true fellowship with those who'd adhered. It's essential that believers in Christ have not only a true fellowship with God but share that social relationship with others.
Fellowship is a word we might use too lightly in our "church talk." Looking more closely at the word and meaning of "fellowship," we ought to first describe it as "an interactive relationship between God and believers who share new life through Christ." The Greek koinonia captures the entirety of a deeper level of fellowship than an informal social gathering. It's derived from the word koinos, which literally means "common" in the sense of being intentionally shared by everyone. Koinonia involves active shared participation in Christian community: sharing the same spiritual resources, giving one another material blessings, and being bound by the same godly responsibilities. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer's interpretation of "Christian community." Good examples of koinonia being acted out are in these passages: Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Cor. 8:4; Galatians 2:9; and 1 John 1:6–7.
The essence of having a shared, participatory relationship with Father God and his Son is essential! It's all about "knowing God"! When we enter into a shared life relationship with God and Jesus, we're able to share our life with them interchangeably, as they share their life with us. The proclamation of the reality of the good news about Jesus (vv. 1–2), produces a fellowship of eternal life (v. 3) enabling shared fellowship in eternal life to produce joy (v. 4).
Two important notes: (1) Our eternal life flows from a relationship with God through Christ, made accessible through his Spirit; and (2) Our fellowship with the Father and Jesus doesn't begin when we find ourselves with them in heaven. Today we can ask Jesus to dwell within us in constant fellowship. Thankfully, such a meaningful relationship brings immediate assurance, peace, and joy to our sometimes stormy days.
While the text of vv. 1–3 refers to John's gospel account, v. 4's brief text stands by itself as being the prologue's closing result of what John presents in his three opening verses. When we know and believe that Jesus, the Eternal Life, has been manifested and brought forth, and we're certain that we have a shared koinonia communion with Jesus through the Father, our intentional efforts are bound to culminate in a full realization of joy: utter delight, great pleasure, total jubilation.
Finally, we come to the result of having a personal relationship with God and Jesus (v. 4). The text of the closing verse of this epistle's prologue — "We write this to make our joy complete" — uses almost the same language that Lord Jesus used when he addressed his disciples prior to leaving them: "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete" (John 15:11). Likely, when John wrote v. 4, he remembered those closing comments that Jesus had made to his followers. Christianity isn't just fellowship, it's the fullness of joy. The sense here is that full and clear visions and appreciations of Lord Jesus, plus our fellowship with him, Father God, and each other, will be a source of complete happiness that will overflow onto others, again and again.
- Q. 1 Why is John able to testify to what Jesus said and did?
- Q. 2 From this passage, what are some reasons John wrote this first epistle?
- Q. 3 In what ways have you, like John, heard Jesus? Seen Jesus? Looked at Jesus? Proclaimed Jesus?
- Q. 4 In what ways might you have fellowship with Father God (v. 3)?
1 John 1:1–4
New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 1 narrated by Max McLean.]
Intro Video: “Apostle John’s Three Epistles”
† Watch this summary video of “1, 2, and 3 John” created by The Bible Project.