The author of 1 John claims to be an eyewitness of Christ (1 John 1:1–3)
- Emphasizes his sensory perception of Jesus, “the Word of life”
- Testifies to what was physically revealed to the apostles
Unfortunately, Johannine authorship and the author’s claim to eyewitness testimony has come under attack from modern scholars
- Many suggest a leader (or leaders) of a “Johannine Community” in the second-generation Church as the author
- Such claims do not come from internal evidence within this epistle or historic objections to Johannine authorship
- They come from deep skepticism and unbelief towards the divine nature of God’s word
Message and Purpose
John elucidates four primary purposes for writing his epistle:
#1. In 1:3, he writes so that he and his readers may have fellowship with one another and with God
#2. In 1:4, he writes so that they may experience joy
#3. In 2:1, he writes so that they “may not sin”
#4. In 5:13, he writes so that they might have assurance of their salvation on the basis of their belief in Jesus (5:13)
John carefully constructed this letter so that everything carefully builds on and progresses from what is written in the prologue.
So, he begins by writing about the richness of eternal life experienced in their fellowship with God and with one another. He builds on what Christian fellowship means by progressing to the idea of joy. Then John progresses the idea of Christian joy in divine fellowship by showing the centrality of holiness and the exclusivity of “light” and “darkness”. And then he concludes by showing them fruit of their fellowship, joy, and holiness in the assurance of salvation by faith in Christ!
Chapter 1: God is Light
We’re going do a verse-by-verse exposition of 1st John and unfold “the message of beginnings” as we work through all of John’s 105 verses.
Verse 1: The Beginning
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—
The apostolic testimony about Jesus was not second-hand tradition; it came from their personal experience with the one and only Son of God.
They heard the living Son of God speak with their own ears. And they saw him heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, curse fruit trees, walk on water, calm the storms; they saw him transfigured on the mount, standing in all his glory accompanied by Moses and Elijah; most of all, they saw the crucified Lord raised from the tomb by the power of the Holy Spirit!
The apostles were eye witnesses of the Son of God, commissioned to deliver his testimony to the world:
John 15:26-27 (CSB) When the Counselor comes, the one I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 You also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.
Luke 1:1-2 (CSB) Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us.
The apostles were unique witnesses of Christ in that they not only personally witnessed the Risen Lord, but were given the Holy Spirit to confirm the message of the gospel with many signs and wonders:
Acts 2:43 (CSB) Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles.
Hebrews 2:2-4 (CSB) For if the message spoken through angels was legally binding, and every transgression and disobedience received a just punishment, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? This salvation had its beginning when it was spoken of by the Lord, and it was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4 At the same time, God also testified by signs and wonders, various miracles, and distributions of gifts from the Holy Spirit according to his will.
Therefore, the apostles received their doctrine directly from the Son of God through the Holy Spirit and delivered their apostolic doctrine as the foundation of the Church.
“What was from the beginning”: the apostle has something specific in mind:
John 1:1-2 (CSB) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.
John knew Jesus was the eternal wisdom of God incarnate. Jesus is the message of God that intimately explained God to the whole world in ways that were previously hidden from all mankind. For John, he was not only witness to a “who”, but also to a “what” – Jesus, the Word of Life.
This message of “beginnings” carries throughout the apostle’s first epistle:
1st John 2:24 (CSB) What you have heard from the beginning is to remain in you. If what you have heard from the beginning remains in you, then you will remain in the Son and in the Father.
1st John 3:11 (CSB) For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another,
Verse 2: We Testify
that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—
This may feel redundant, but it introduces us to one of John’s most-used literary mechanisms: “repetition” is how he emphasizes key points.
What is John emphasizing here by repetition? “Life”
He uses repetition to emphasize life, the last word of v 1, by repeating it three times in three lines:
- John has heard, seen, and experienced the word of life
- That life was manifested to him
- He has seen, testified, and proclaimed the eternal life that came from the Father
John’s epistle is about life, but not just in general terms, his epistle is about the manifest life of Christ that has appeared from the Father.
John 11:25 (CSB) — 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live.
John 14:6 (CSB) — 6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
The eternal life of God was physically present with John.
In commenting on this verse, Bede the Venerable, (c. 672–735) who was born in Northumbria and was put under the care of the Benedictine monks of Saints Peter and Paul at Jarrow when he was 7 years old, wrote the following:
The life of which John is speaking here was the same as that of which we read in his Gospel, when Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ It was manifested and declared in the flesh by the divine miracles, and the disciples who were present saw and later testified to them with undoubted authority.
In other words, Christian doctrine does not come from human traditions or philosophical opinions, it comes directly from the divine life of the Son of God!
Therefore, John wrote about Jesus, saying:
John 1:4-5 (CSB) In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it.
Verse 3: Fellowship
what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
John’s chief aim in unfolding the word of life is to bring believers into the fellowship of the saints and their fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
“So that you may have fellowship with us;”: who does “us” refer to? One way to answer this question is to connect the “us” here to the “we” in verses 1-2, concluding that John is inviting his beloved children to have fellowship with the apostles, who have fellowship with the Father and his Son.
This is the way that the Catholic Church interprets this text, and it is one of the ways in which they uphold Papal authority.
However, another way to answer this question is to complete the sentence.
“indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”: Who enjoys fellowship with the Father and the Son?
John 14:23 (CSB) — 23 Jesus answered, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
Ephesians 2:18–19 (CSB) — 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household,
1 Corinthians 1:9 (CSB) — 9 God is faithful; you were called by him into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
John is inviting his beloved children into the fellowship of the Church so that they may share in their divine fellowship.
One of the hallmarks of apostolic doctrine is its concern for the unity of the body (See Ephesians 4:3). When our doctrine shows no concern for the unity of the body, and considers frivolous division as a matter of little consequence, whatever we are preaching, it is not the doctrine of Christ. Undoubtedly, the Light of Truth will divide those who love darkness from those who love the light (Jn. 1:5). But God hates one who divides brothers (See Proverbs 6:19)!
Therefore, the foundational principle of Christian fellowship that John is teaching here is the principle that our fellowship with God is particularly in the unity of our faith, both with the purchased possession of Christ (the Church) and with God and his Son Jesus Christ.
Application: Does your fellowship with Christ sometimes feel dry?
The order of fellowship is significant:
- First we have fellowship with the assembly of saints who share in the manifest eternal life
- Then we have fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ
This reflects the discourse in chapter four, where John writes, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” The Church is the body of Christ and it is in fellowship with the assembly of believers that our fellowship with God is richest!
Verse 4: Complete
We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
“We are writing”: John does not consider his apostolic testimony to be one brand of apostolic doctrine, but believes that the apostolic testimony that is being written here one and the same as that of the other apostles. In fact, it is plausible that some of these teachings may have been co-written with the other apostles!
John’s prologue to his first epistle picks up where the epilogue to his gospel leaves off:
John 21:24 (CSB) This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
In fact, John’s prologues are very important and his letters always unfold from them. This concept of “writing” dominates John’s first epistle (2:1; 7-8; 12-14; 21-23; 5:13):
- John is writing this epistle so that we may not sin (2:1)
- But have eternal life (5:13)
- He isn’t writing a new commandment by human authority, but the original commandment of Christ (2:7)
- Yet the commandment is new because of Christ’s light that is shining in us (2:8)
- He’s writing because their sins are forgiven by Christ’s name and they know the Father (2:12, 14)
- He’s writing because they know the everlasting Christ (2:13, 14)
- He’s writing because they’re, strong, have conquered the evil one, and God’s word remains in them (2:13, 14)
- He’s writing, not because they don’t know truth, but precisely because they do know the truth (2:21)
The blessing of this written testimony is that their joy may be made complete.
In other words, joyless Christians will benefit from this letter because it unfolds the words of life for them!
This expression is unique in John’s first epistle, but abundant in John’s gospel:
John 15:11 (CSB) I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.
John 16:24 (CSB) Until now you have asked for nothing in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.
John 17:14 (CSB) Now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy completed in them.
This joy is clearly wrapped up in the Word of Life, which they are now boldly proclaiming to the Church.
This joy is inseparable from the person of Jesus Christ himself, who is the object of the blessed fellowship that John has testified about (v.4):
John 17:3 (CSB) This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent—Jesus Christ.
The fullness of joy abounds, not merely in continued life, but in the fellowship that we have with the Triune God!
Unfortunately, there is some controversy concerning the expression “our joy” verses “your joy”:
- Numerous important manuscripts read “your”
- Our most reliable manuscripts read “our”
- The majority of Byzantine minuscules are split between the two readings
I believe the controversy is easily resolved by understanding how verse 4 informs us that John’s written testimony is given to us so that we may be included in their fellowship with the Father and his Son. As their joy is wrapped up in the eternal life of knowing Christ, so we too may share in the blessing of their fellowship and unrestricted joy in Jesus Christ!
“Our” should not be understood as the apostles “verses” the rest of us, but instead, as the apostles “together with” the rest of us. Nothing in this text indicates that John is gloating over an exclusive joy that does not belong to the Church. He is extolling the eternal joy of unrestricted and unashamed fellowship with Jesus Christ!
What does John mean when he says that our joy will be made “complete”?
The concept of completeness is a consistent and unified theme throughout his first epistle, which I suggest tells us that our joy in the eternal fellowship of Christ is brought to maturity in those who keep his word by God’s perfect and abiding love, which will commend us to him in confidence on the day of judgment:
1st John 2:5 (CSB) But whoever keeps his word, truly in him the love of God is made complete. This is how we know we are in him
1st John 4:12 (CSB) No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is made complete in us.
1st John 4:17 (CSB) In this, love is made complete with us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because as he is, so also are we in this world.
1st John 4:18 (CSB) There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears is not complete in love.
The expectation is that the joy John is writing about is made complete by abiding in the word of Christ and keeping the love of God.
These are the high aims of John’s first epistle!