The aged Apostle John is writing this epistle around AD90 to provide guidance and comfort to those brothers and sisters that had just experienced an ecclesial split, where those that followed the Gnostic heresy had left: They went out from us (2:19).

The Gnostics taught that they had a superior relationship (fellowship) with God because of their superior experiential knowledge (gnosis) of God and their superior enlightenment (light). They taught that Christ came without a body of substance. They also considered that their superior knowledge was more important for salvation than having faith or maintaining good conduct.

The prologue

The first four verses of chapter 1 are a prologue to set the scene before John deals in detail with the false teaching of the Gnostics: 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” (1 John 1:1).

The words, “from the beginning,” are an allusion to John 1:1 which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The term, “the beginning,” in the gospel of John refers to the beginning of creation. But in this epistle it refers to the beginning of the work of Christ (the beginning of the spiritual creation), which is proved by the use of the pronoun “we”. Who is the “we”? It can’t be a reference to John and his readers, because most, if not all, of his readers had never seen Christ. Rather John uses “we” to refer to himself and the other apostles who saw with their eyes, heard with their ears and touched the very real person Jesus Christ. This is an implied rebuff to the false teaching of the Gnostics that Jesus was not really a person, and was more like an apparition or a spirit.

The wording of this prologue conveys how profound was the apostles’ experience with the Lord:

  • “which we have seen” – the word for “seen” means to stare at. The apostles had stared in amazement as many miracles were done before their eyes.
  • “which we have looked upon” – Bullinger puts it “to contemplate earnestly”. The apostles had been moved to think very deeply about Christ, eg: when Christ stilled the storm (Matt 8:27) “they marvelled saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!”
  • “our hands have handled” – the apostles touched the real body of Christ. After the resurrection he said to them “behold my hands and feet … handle me” (Luke 24:39).

The apostles knew that Jesus Christ was a real person because of their personal experience. We have not had the personal experience that the apostles did, but through the gospel records we can develop a similar conviction of the absolute reality of Jesus Christ and that he is working for us now, though he is at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

Eternal life

What was it they saw and heard and handled in verse 1? Yes, it was Jesus Christ, but John terms him “the Word of Life”, or as it should be “the Word of the life”. We know that Jesus was the Word made flesh (John 1:14) but what is “the life”? This is answered in 1 John 1:2: “For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us”.

So “the life” is stated to be “that eternal life”. The term “eternal life” we normally consider to mean everlasting life given to the redeemed at the return of the Lord. This is not wrong. However, in 1 John 1:2, “eternal life” has been manifested (past tense) to the apostles in the life of Christ. This opens up a different dimension to the term “eternal life”. In John’s gospel and epistles, eternal life is something to be possessed now. (But not in the sense that the churches teach, that we are saved now.) For example:

  • “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life” (John 3:36; 5:24; 6:47).
  • “Whoso eateth my flesh, … hath eternal life” (John 6:54).
  • “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11).

In what sense can we have eternal life now? The answer lies in the fact that the word for “eternal” is the Greek aion and means of the age. So “eternal life” should be rendered “the life of the age”. So which age is John referring to? The kingdom age—John’s use of “eternal life” means not so much “endless life” but rather that quality of life which pertains to the kingdom age. As Brother Thomas writes1: Neither is aionian life so called because of its duration, but because it is the life pertaining to a course, or aion, which circles around the kingdom of the Deity.”

Hence John’s point is, that in the life that Jesus Christ lived, the apostles saw the moral characteristics and qualities of the life of the kingdom age. By implication, John is saying that the moral qualities of the life of the kingdom are the moral qualities of life we should be living now. If we truly desire to live in the kingdom of God, why would we not want to live the moral characteristics of the kingdom now?

Our fellowship is with the Father

In verse 3 John writes, That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

John’s readers would feel the shock of being out of fellowship with the Gnostics, which might include some brethren that they had previously respected. But John is reminding them that they are still in fellowship with the apostles, and in fellowship with the Father and Jesus Christ. There may be brothers and sisters that we have respected greatly and then they may fall into error or into personal sin. We may be shattered when they fall, and our faith may take a hit too. However, our spiritual life and fellowship should not depend on other human beings, because we can all fail. Our dependency needs to be on the Father and His Son, who will never fail us.

In verse 4, “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full (NIV complete)” John is alluding to the words of Christ in John 15:10-11: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love … These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” If we abide in the love of our Lord and the Father, and have fellowship with them, we can have full joy—despite life’s troubles—knowing that we will be in the kingdom to continue that fellowship.

God is light

The first major section of the epistle (1:5-2:28) is about “God is light”. God is not presented as “the light”, but just as “light”. Why? Because this emphasises that the very essence or character of the Father is light. Why have this emphasis? Because John is countering the Gnostic’s claim of having a special knowledge or light from within them. Man does not have light within, but rather the only source of light (spiritual light) is external to man; it is from God (and by extension, from God’s Word).

Sin and righteousness

In the first part of this section (1:6-2:1) John deals with contrasts of sin and righteousness. The structure of these seven verses is an example of the intricate structure of this epistle. As noted in the first article, the structure of 1 John is based on ‘threes’. Three main sections and three main themes etc.

In the accompanying table, there are columns for “Error” and for “Truth” which are contrasted. There is error and there is truth; there is light and there is darkness. There is no half-truth or half-light. Our world has embraced the postmodern philosophy that there is no such thing as absolute truth, saying all truths are relative. We need to be on our guard against that and see truth and error as clearly as John presents it.

In the Error column there are three statements of error (introduced by the words “If we say”), followed by two resulting consequences. The first consequence of the statement is always put in the affirmative (eg: v6 “we lie”) and the second is a negative consequence (eg: v6 “and do NOT the truth”). The expression “if we say” is an indirect and gentle way of introducing the error of the Gnostics and showing its folly. He doesn’t say, “You Gnostics say…” but rather uses an inclusive expression “If WE say”. John wants to bring his readers with him on this journey of exploring the consequences of the Gnostic error.

In the Truth column there are three statements of truth (each one contains an “if”), followed by two affirmative consequences.

Error Truth
v6 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness Statement v7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light Statement
we lie Affirmative we have fellowship one with another Affirmative
and do not the truth Negative and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin Affirmative
v8 If we say that we have no sin, Statement v9 If we confess our sins Statement
we deceive ourselves Affirmative he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, Affirmative
and the truth is not in us Negative and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness Affirmative
v10 If we say we have not sinned Statement 2:1-2 (My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not).
And if any man sin
Statement
we make him a liar Affirmative we have an advocate with the Father Affirmative
and his word is not in us Negative he is the propitiation for our sins Affirmative

There is only space to cover some of the expositional and exhortational points in these verses.

Points from the Error column

In verse 6, John says, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him (the Father) and walk in darkness” with the affirmative consequence as “we lie”, by deduction, this is true. If we say we are in fellowship with the Father, we are saying we are in fellowship with light (for God is light), but if our life is characterised by darkness (walking in sin), then our claim of fellowship with God is a contradiction—it is a lie.

We might expect the negative consequence would be the negative equivalent of “we lie” and hence it should be ‘we speak not the truth’. But John puts the negative consequence as “and do not the truth”. How can this be? John skips a step of the analytical logic here, because his logic is deductive, and so he jumps directly to “and do not the truth” because if ‘we speak not the truth’ the result will be that we won’t ‘do the truth’. The evidence of whether someone does, or does not, have the truth is shown by what they do. As the Lord said: “Beware of false prophets … by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt 7:15-20).

Within the Error section, there is an escalating level of seriousness. The content of the “statements” escalate from “walking in darkness” (v6) to saying “we have no sin” (v8) to “we have not sinned” (v10). The affirmative consequences also escalate. In verse 6 the first consequence is that “we lie” (ie: we tell a lie), the second in verse 8 “we deceive ourselves” (ie: we believe a lie), then in verse 10 “we make him a liar” (ie: we make God a liar). We can see the same sequence occur in cases of doctrinal error today. For example, when someone believes theistic evolution, then they may revise their thoughts on the inspiration of the Bible (to accommodate a non-literal understanding of Gen 1) and the logical end result of that is that God is a liar.

Points from the Truth column

In verse 7, John has the statement, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light” and the first affirmative consequence is, “we have fellowship one with another”, that is really powerful deductive logic. If two brethren are walking in light (and hence both are in fellowship with the Father v3), they will automatically be in true fellowship with each other. Why? Because if they walk in the light, they must be of the one godly mind and hence, are in agreement and in fellowship.

Contrasts between Error and Truth columns

Each line in the Truth column is an indirect (or inexact) contrast of the equivalent line in the Error column.

For example, in verse 6 there is the statement, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him (the Father) and walk in darkness”. John gives the affirmative consequence as “we lie”. Now we might expect the contrast in the Truth column to be ‘we speak the truth’ in contrast to “we lie”; but John’s deductive logic jumps ahead to the result of ‘speaking the truth’, which is, “we have fellowship one with another”. When we think about that, it is true. As noted above, if two people believe the Truth and hence speak the truth, they will automatically be in fellowship because they are of the one mind. We can experience this ourselves. We can travel to the other side of the world and meet brothers and sisters whom we don’t know at all and discover within a short while that we have a close bond. Why? Because they believe the same Truth and try to live the same Truth, as we do.

Similarly, the negative consequence in verse 6, which is “and do not the truth”, is an indirect contrast to “and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin”. We might expect the contrast of the words “and do not the truth” would be the words ‘and do the truth’. But John does not make this contrast. Why? Well, can we say that at all times we do the Truth? Sadly, we are flesh and don’t always ‘do the truth’. Hence John’s deductive logic jumps straight to the answer to this dilemma—the contrast he presents to “and do not the truth” is “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin”. If we are really trying to ‘do the truth’ in our lives, but fail from time to time, we can be forgiven our sins through the blood of Christ.

This is just a little glimpse of the intricate structure and profoundly exhortational points that John has put in this amazing little epistle.

References:

  1. Eureka Vol. 5, p316 Logos Edition