Studies in the
First Epistle of John
1 John 1.1-7
John's epistles were written in the serenity of old age. The words run on in undisturbed flow, with no outbursts of ebullient zeal or passionate declamation as might be expected if the pen was being wielded by a younger man. The great days of John's activity were over and his life was now given up to exhorting his brethren in brotherly love and Christian consistency. The doctrinal disputations and opposition of false brethren belonged to a bygone time. These letters were addressed, not to the immature in the faith who required care and attention lest they be ensnared by misleading teachings or drawn away by the persecution of civil rulers. They were to mature Christians of many years standing, men and women who had known and laboured with the "beloved disciple" over many years. It is very probable that he composed these gems of thought as his final exhortation before the Lord should call him home.
We do not know exactly when these epistles were wrtten but it might have been about the year AD 90, when John was about eighty-five years of age, during a time when the Church had a rest from persecution of which there is no hint in any part of the epistles and no exhortations such as might be expected if the brethren were undergoing such trials. The time of writing must therefore have been some while after the terrible days of Nero and the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70). Sometime between 80 and 90, therefore, fifty years after the Crucifixion and twenty years after the death of Paul, John then the only surviving Apostle, sat himself down to write these precious words to the Church.
Where were they written? Again we cannot be certain. The tradition is that they were written at Ephesus. The New Testament tells us nothing about John's movements after the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15, which would have been held about AD 51. He does not seem to have been at Ephesus when Paul took leave of the elders there for the last time, in AD 58 (Acts 20). But Ephesus was a notable centre of the Church for a considerable number of years afterwards. Timothy was its elder for a long time. Probably John took up residence there after the destruction of Jerusalem and spent perhaps twenty-five years there in devoted service before he died. He may have even written these epistles in anticipation of exile or martyrdom, and in such case he would obviously have expected these letters to constitute his final leave-taking of his brethren in the flesh.
Why were they written? That, at any rate, is an easy question to answer. They were for the comfort and admonition of his brethren and for all that should come after them and read his words. They were written in fulfillment of his commission as an Apostle, not only to his own generation and people but also to all who in every place and in every time, call upon the name of the Lord.
They were written that we who live nearly two thousand years later may derive Christian instruction and enlightenment from the Spirit-filled mind of the "beloved disciple". "He being dead, yet speaketh".
"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… that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you. that ye also may have fellowship with us" (1 John 1.1-3. omitting the parenthesis which is v 2).
"That which was from the beginning", not only Christ as a Person, but as the glorious Divinity Whom we acknowledge and revere. The use of the term 'that' instead of the personal pronoun 'He' indicates that John is including all that Christ stood for, all His Gospel, all the treasures of wisdom laid up in Him, all His reconciling power and all that His redemptive sacrifice will yet achieve for the sons of men. All of this was provided and foreseen in God's Plan for the "Lamb slain before the foundation of the world" and it is all this that John is going to declare unto us. But the centre of it all is the Person of Christ; the focal point of all that he is going to talk about and to which he is going constantly to point, is the Man of Nazareth, Jesus, Who gave Himself a Ransom for All and, being resurrected, is drawing all men unto Himself (John 12. 32).
The beginning, then, to which John refers must be that beginning when the Son took His place beside the Father and commenced to exercise those mighty powers which have resulted in creation as we know it. "Without Him was not anything made that was made (John 1.3). The "Wisdom" passage of Prov.8 has its application here. "The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old, or ever the earth was. . . then I was by him as one brought up with him, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him" (Prov.8.22-30). The Jews of old looked upon this passage as describing the embodiment of the Divine mind and wisdom directed towards this earth, its creation and its affairs. We know that they were right, and that Jesus our Lord is the embodiment of the mind of God so far as this creation in which we live and move and have our being is concerned. In just what way the "Logos", as the Jews termed this personification of Divine Wisdom, commenced to exercise the powers that we believe the Logos did exercise from the beginning of creation, we do not know. God speaks of Him as His "only-begotten Son" and that definition we must accept and there leave the matter. It touches upon mysteries too great for us. But John in his gospel brings it into the realm of understandable things when he says that the "Logos was made flesh. and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory. full of grace and truth" (John 1.14).
We may not easily understand just how the Logos was, in the beginning, the manifestation of God to His creation, but we do know that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth He appeared to us in form as a man, having laid aside the glory which He had with the Father before the world was (John 17.5), taking upon Himself the bondman's form for the suffering of death (Phil.2.7) and moving amongst us, seen and heard of all. There was a heresy current among the early Christians of John's day called Docetism which claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was not really the Christ at all, that the Christ had entered into a human Jesus at Jordan, inhabited his body, phantom-like, for three and a half years, and departed from it when that body was nailed to the Cross, so that it was only the human Jesus who died. There are many varieties of such 'phantom' theories in Christian theology and they are all wrong and dishonouring to God. Jesus Himself said plainly "I came from the Father and have come into the world: again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father" (John 16.28), and at that the disciples exclaimed "Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not in any figure." They could understand that; so John here in his epistle is able plainly to say that this very One who was from the beginning is the very One Who, in the days of His flesh, we saw with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and handled with our hands. Acceptance of that plain Scriptural truth is essential to a right understanding of God's Plan of salvation.
"Of the Word of Life." How often it is that the Scriptures associate the three words - Word (or Logos) - Life - Light! "In Him was life", says John. "and the life was the light of men". That was the true Light, that lights every man that comes into the world. This is really a three-fold definition of Christ's appearing and His message. As the Word, or Logos, He came to us from the Father, speaking in the Name of the Father. As the Light, He is the Light of the world, enlightening men with the knowledge of His truth and dispelling the darkness of ignorance and superstition and fear. As the Life, He is the source of all that men have to hope for in the coming Age, when He is to be the everlasting Father (Isa.9.6) giving life to the willing and obedient of all mankind. It might truly be said that in these three words is summed up all His great works of three Ages - in the past, He was the Word of God, the Logos, by which Word all that has been made was made, the all-sufficient agent of the Father, the personification of the Father's boundless creative energy and activity, of His infinite Wisdom and Power. In the present, He is the Light, shining first into our hearts to give knowledge of His glory and grace, and through us to pierce with its streaming rays the darkness of this world's sin and death, bringing comfort and hope to weary souls. In the future He will be the Life, calling all men from the grave. He will set their straying feet on the high road that leads to eternal life, revivifying with His mighty power not only the dead hearts of men but also the wasted and despoiled earth itself so that the desert may blossom as a rose and the land shall yield its increase. When death shall be no more and the heavenly Jerusalem reign supreme over the peoples, when the River of Water of Life glints its sparkling waters back to the blue sky of God's faithfulness above, and the Trees of Life give their fruit for the sustenance of all men, then indeed will Christ be the Life in which all will move and find their being.
The subject is so entrancing and glorious to John, and he is so anxious to impart his assurance to his readers, that he has to throw in a parenthesis between verses 1 and 2, a parenthesis which does not break his chain of thought but intensifies what he has to say. He says, "the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness. and show to you, that eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us." He repeats himself time and time over in his eagerness to impress his points. The wonder of the revelation of Christ to the disciples was that they saw: they heard. To a Jew that must have been a tremendous thing. The nations round about them were accustomed to seeing the images of their gods, but the child of Israel grew up and lived all his life in the teaching that God is invisible and cannot be seen by mortal eyes. Even Moses was permitted but a glimpse of his passing glory, for "there shall no man see me and live" (Ex.33.20) And now God had found a way to reveal Himself to His worshippers. The Word, made flesh, could be seen and heard of men, and it was a wonderful thing. Peter was smitten with the same awe when he said "we were eye-witnesses of His majesty… and this voice that came from heaven we heard, when we were with Him in the holy mount" (2 Pet.1.18).. The Logos was manifested, was seen and heard, and they would never lose sight of that great truth.
From verse six the beloved apostle begins to talk of fellowship. The theme is linked up with his previous words. In the first few verses of the chapter he has shown how the Word, the Logos, was manifested in the earth, that He was Life and the source of life, and then that Life was the light of the world. Now he passes on to show the connection between that life and that light, and the fellowship which we claim with God and with our brethren. and when truly entered into, is the hall-mark of our acceptance with God. "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren" (1 John 3.14). But such a fellowship is not easily entered into nor lightly bestowed; and the word itself implies much more than is generally supposed.
"If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not tell the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Chnst His Son cleanses us from all sin" (vs 6-7).
What is that fellowship with Him?
The word really means communion, and that in turn is the same thing as common union. The bread which we break, asks the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor.10, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? The same word in the original there, is here rendered "fellowship". "By whom you were called to the fellowship" - communion - "of His Son Jesus our Lord" (1 Cor. 1.9). This fellowship with God is something much more deep than a mere feeling of oneness arising from our desire to work the works of God. Abraham was called the Friend of God; David a man after God's own heart; Daniel one "greatly beloved": and all of these entered into close converse with God and some considerable measure of understanding and knowledge of Him but none of them - nor any others in Old Testament: times - entered into the fellowship with God which John is talking about here. This fellowship, this communion, is reserved for those who come to God and are included in that "people for His Name' (Acts 15.14) which He is taking out from the nations to become His means of world blessing and world conversion in the next Age. And the proof of this lies in the fact that the indispensable foundation of this entering into fellowship is that the blood of Jesus Christ His Son first cleanses us from all sin. We cannot enter into this fellowship with God until that has taken place. "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand" (Rom.5.1). None of the heroes of Old Testament times, even although they were justified by faith (Jas.2.21) could know this reconciliation to God by faith in Christ, because Christ had not yet appeared and the Ransom had not yet been given. Even Abraham, and Samuel, and Daniel, must wait until their resurrection into the Messianic Kingdom for that justification.
John tells us that we cannot walk in darkness and have communion with God at one and the same time, and that if we say we can, we lie, and do not the truth. The fact ought to be self-evident; but of course we tend greatly to walk in darkness without admitting or even realizing the fact. We are so apt to make the best of both worlds, to reconcile the irreconcilable, to take the standards of God on our lips but in action to give tacit acceptance, at least to some degree, to the standards of the world. John condemns that. He demands nothing less than absolute sincerity; only thus can we hope to walk in the light. Paul. too is equally emphatic. "What fellowship" he enquires "hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?" (2 Cor.6.14‑16). There can be no two ways about this; if we would enter fully into communion ‑ fellowship with God then we must renounce all those things which are not of God and give ourselves completely and unreservedly to His service, faithful to our covenant for the rest of our days. That is consecration.
It is thus that we are enabled to walk in the light, for God is light, and he who walks in fellowship with God cannot help but be walking in the light. "He that follows me" said Jesus, "shall not walk in darkness. But shall have the light of life" (John 8.12). John's Gospel is full of these little sayings of Jesus concerning light and the way of life: it is a theme on which his heart was evidently set. "If any man walks in the day, he stumbles not, but if a man walks in the night, he stumbles" (John 11.9‑10); and logically "he that walks in darkness knows not whither he goes" (John 12.35). To have fellowship with God means to dwell, by faith and in the spirit of the mind, in 'the light which no man can approach unto' to be in the presence, again by faith, of Him "whom no man hath seen, nor can see" (1 Tim.6.16).
This is the position we must occupy if we would have fellowship with God, and that is why it cannot be that we have fellowship with Him if we are still walking in darkness.
(To be continued)