Thoughts on 1 John 1 – Authority and Integrity @brianmore59
I went to another church tonight and caught the introductory sermon to their new series. It put me in the mood to read the book they are going to be studying over the summer. I might study it too. Here then are my thoughts on the first chapter of 1 John 1:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
Quite an introduction. I get the feeling that the writer of this letter was pretty excited about what he was about to say. In a way, this opening line is pretty confusing, unless you know what he is talking about; it is not immediately apparent.
What is “That which was from the beginning”? Is he making a reference to Genesis and the first “In the beginning”? Is he making a reference to the opening of his gospel account “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” I think that this reference to “the beginning” links to both passages. He is going to restate what he proclaims about the “Word of Life” – this Word that was referred to in the gospel as being necessary to creation.
He is launching straight into the unimaginable – he is saying that this “Word of Life” was from “the beginning” – from a time that the writer himself can barely conceive of. More astounding than that, he claims that he has personally met this “Word”.
He explains this in physical terms – he has heard, seen with his eyes, looked at, and touched with his hands. Here, the writer claims to be an eye witness. He himself has lived alongside Jesus as God Incarnate the Word made flesh. The privilege of this has not been lost on him.
By opening his letter in this way, the writer makes two important points: He is talking about the Word of Life from “the beginning” – the creative force through whom all things are made and secondly he, John, has met this one and the same person, Jesus, in the flesh, in physical reality. These two points build up to a stance of experience leading to authority; the writer knows who and what he is talking about.
“The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.”
So, what does he proclaim? “The life appeared” – the incarnation took place. He met Jesus during his earthly life – “we have seen it and testify to it”. The writer then moves beyond the physical earthly life of Jesus to refer to his eternal life as already suggested by the reference to “the beginning”; he extends this to a proclamation of “the eternal life which was with the Father and has appeared to us”. He asserts that Jesus had life beyond his temporal earthly life and that he was a physical witness to that. Again he emphasizes the physical fact of his status as an eyewitness: “what we have seen and heard”.
Why does he want to impress upon the reader the eternal nature of the Word of Life, and his own experience of meeting Jesus during his earthly life and being a witness to his “eternal life”? He states: “so that you also may have fellowship with us”.
So this letter sets out its initial purpose – to bring fellowship. He wants his readers to share with him in this knowledge of the Word of Life. This fellowship is extended through Jesus to God. By drawing the readers into the fellowship the writer enjoys with the Father and his son Jesus Christ, he anticipates that this will make his “joy complete”.
“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”
John then launches into his message. Again he prefaces it with the authority he has already claimed. It is “the message we have heard from him and declare to you.” He is not making it up. He is declaring what he says he has been told and been witness to: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.
Once again we go into the realm of the unimaginable. I’ll try and stay out of metaphor for a moment and think about the first “In the beginning” moment. “And God said, ‘let there be light’”. To make the formless and desolate earth habitable, the first words spoken were spoken in order to make light – light that is needed for all human, animal and plant life. I can’t help but tip into metaphor now when the contrast is made with darkness – and I think that the writer does the same.
If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out 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, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
He is writing about integrity and hypocrisy. He is warning against saying one thing and doing another. He is warning against knowing truth but ignoring it. He encourages the readers to “walk in the light”, to be part of a fellowship and to thereby stand in a place of purification. One’s beliefs have to have a practical outworking to make any sense. There then follows three sentences that all begin with “If”. Each sentence gives a scenario and a consequence:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
Perhaps those he is writing to had been claiming that they were without sin. Maybe they thought they had risen above sin. Maybe they thought that what they did and thought didn’t count as sin. The writer, with authority, points out that this is wrong – they have fallen short.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
The writer then gives them the good news, once they have acknowledged that they are sinful – there is a way to be forgiven and to be purified.
If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. This third sentence echoes the first – again this implies that the recipients of the letter had perhaps been claiming that they were ‘without sin’ and perhaps didn’t need forgiving. By saying they are, in effect, perfect, John states that they have missed the point and are living lives that are in darkness while claiming to be in the light.
This opening to John’s letter highlights his authority as a writer. He was an eye witness to Jesus’ earthly life and resurrection. He had direct teaching from and experience of Jesus. He is motivated by a desire for fellowship – he wants the recipients to share his direct teachings from Jesus so that they can share a broader fellowship with each other and with the Father, through Jesus. He is having to write because the recipients seem to think that they are not in need of forgiveness for their sins, indeed, it is implies that they have managed to deny that they have sin in their lives. The writer points out that this is an error and leads to a confused witness where one thing is said and another is done.
For Christians today then, what does the first chapter of 1 John have to say to them?
Jesus is eternal and is the ultimate authority. He is the incarnation, the embodiment of the Word of God. Miraculous as it is, it is possible for people to have fellowship with God through Jesus and to therefore have fellowship with each other. It is not correct to see our failings as anything less than sin. Sin can be dealt with through Jesus who, if we confess our sins, will forgive us – and he has the power to do so. When Christians do not deal with their sin and do not live lives that reflect the light of Christ, their lives are confused and contradictory. They bring Christ and the gospel into disrepute and make it impossible for believers to share fellowship with each other and with God.