Most people understand that the important things in life are not things at all - they are the relationships we have. God has put a desire for relationship in every one of us, a desire He intended to be met with relationships with other people, but most of all, to be met by a relationship with Him. In this remarkable letter, John tells us the truth about relationships - and shows us how to have relationships that are real, for both now and eternity.
A. The purpose of the letter: to bring you into relationship with God.
1. (1-2) John begins with the center of relationship: Jesus Christ.
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, concerning the Word of life; the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us.
a. The beginning John speaks of is not the beginning of this world; nor is it the beginning of creation - it is the beginning of Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1, the beginning there was before there was anything, when all there existed was God.
i. The beginning of Genesis 1:1 is simple: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The beginning of John 1:1 is profound: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John is taking us back to this time in eternity past, to meet this One which was from the beginning.
ii. Whoever, or whatever, John is speaking of, he says his subject is eternal - and therefore is God, because they have existed before all else, and are the source and basis of the existence of all things.
b. This eternal being - That which was from the beginning - came to earth, and John (among others) had personally experienced this eternal One: which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.
i. The idea that this eternal subject of John has been audibly heard, physically seen, intently studied (have looked upon), and tangibly touched (hands have handled) would have enormous implications for his readers.
ii. Enormous because it says that this eternal God has become accessible to man in the most basic way, a way that anyone can relate to. This eternal One can be known, and He has revealed Himself to us.
iii. Enormous because it proves that John's words have the weight of eyewitness evidence; he is not speaking of a myth or a matter of clever story-telling. He carefully studied this eternal One, and he knows whom he is talking about.
iv. Enormous because it debunks dangerous teachings that were creeping into the church, known as Gnosticism; part of the teaching of Gnosticism was that though Jesus was God, He was not actually, physically man, but some kind of pseudo-physical phantom - but John says, "I heard Him! I saw Him! I studied Him! I touched Him!"
c. John identifies this eternally existent being, who was physically present with John and others (note the repetition of our, not "my"), as the Word of Life - the same Logos spoken of in John 1:1.
i. The idea of the Logos - of the Word - was huge for John, for the Greek world of his day, and for the Jewish world of his day. For the Jew, God was often referred to as the Word, because they knew God perfectly revealed Himself in His word. For the Greek, their philosophers had spoken for centuries about the Logos - the basis for organization and intelligence in the universe, the Ultimate Reason which controls all things.
ii. It is as if John is saying to everyone, "This Logos you have been talking about and writing about for centuries - well, we have heard Him, seen Him, studied Him, and touched Him! Let us tell you about Him!"
d. This life was manifested, that is, made actually, physically real; John solemnly testifies as an eyewitness (we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you) that this is the case. This is no fairy tale, no "once upon a time." This is real, and John is telling us about it as an eyewitness.
e. Eternal life which was with the Father: In calling Jesus eternal life, not only is John recalling the words of Jesus (John 5:26; 6:48; 11:25; 14:6), he is also repeating the idea expressed in his first words: that Jesus Himself is eternal, and therefore God.
i. We say that people are eternal, and that God's Word is eternal; but we say this with the understanding that we mean they are eternal in the future sense - they will never perish, being immortal (Isaiah 40:8; John 5:29). Yet even people and God's Word are not eternal in the past sense; to say that something is eternal in the past sense is the same as saying that it is God.
ii. The eternal existence of Jesus is also declared in Micah 5:2 - But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting. The word everlasting here literally means "beyond the vanishing point."
f. In saying that this being, who is eternal, and is eternal life Himself, is distinct from the Father (was with the Father), John builds the New Testament understanding of the Trinity - that one God exists as three Persons, equal and one, yet distinct in person.
2. (3) An invitation to relationship.
That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
a. That you may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ: The purpose of John's declaration about this eternally existent, physically present, Word of life who is God, yet is a person distinct from the Father, is to bring his readers into fellowship with both God's people and God Himself.
b. The idea of fellowship is one of the most important ideas in this letter of John's. It is the ancient Greek word koinonia, which speaks of a sharing, a communion, a common bond and life. It speaks of a living, breathing, sharing, loving relationship with another person.
c. John simply, and boldly, says that we can have fellowship . . . with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. To say one can have this kind of relationship with God would be astounding to many of John's readers, and it should be astounding to us. The Greek mind-set highly prized the idea of fellowship, but restricted to men among men - the idea of such an intimate relationship with God was revolutionary.
i. Jesus started the same kind of revolution among the Jews when He invited men to address God as Father (Matthew 6:9). We really can have a living, breathing relationship with God the Father, and with Jesus Christ. He can be not only our Saviour, but also our friend, and our closest relationship.
ii. Speaking honestly, for many people this is totally unappealing. Sometimes it is because they don't know who God is, and an invitation to a "personal relationship with God" is about as attractive to them as telling an eighth-grader they can have a "personal relationship with the assistant principal." But when we know the greatness, the goodness, and the glory of God, we want to have a relationship with Him.
iii. Other people turn from this relationship with God because they feel so distant from Him. They want a relationship with God, but feel so disqualified, so distant. They need to know what God has done to make this kind of relationship possible.
d. The kind of relationship John describes (fellowship . . . with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ) is only possible because Jesus is who John says He is in 1 John 1:1-2. If someone invited you to have a "personal relationship" with Napoleon, or Alexander the Great, or Abraham Lincoln - or even Moses or the Apostle Paul - we would think them foolish. One cannot even have a genuine "spiritual" relationship with a dead man. But with the eternal God who became man, we can have a relationship.
e. The word fellowship has in it not only the idea of relationship, but of sharing a common life. When we have fellowship with Jesus, we will become more like Him.
f. That you also may have fellowship with us: We may think it curious that John first considers fellowship with God's people; but this is often how people come to experience a relationship with God: they first encounter God through relationships with God's people.
g. At the end of verse 3, John finally names this being - eternally existent, physically present, the Word of Life, God yet distinct from the Father - it is God the Son, whose name is Jesus, who is the Christ (Messiah).
3. (4) The result of relationship.
And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.
a. That your joy may be full: The result of fellowship is fullness of joy; and this is joy, an abiding sense of optimism and cheerfulness based on God, as opposed to happiness, which is a sense of optimism and cheerfulness based on circumstances.
i. John the Baptist's joy was full when he was glorifying Jesus (John 3:29-30); Jesus told us that joy was ours as we abide in Him and His word (John 15:11); and that fullness of joy also comes from the kind of intimate relationship with God that sees prayer answered (John 16:24).
b. God has put within every person the need for joy; and that need can only be fulfilled by relationship with Jesus. Until we come to a relationship with Jesus, there is a God-shaped piece missing from our lives.
4. Observations on this first portion of the book, which is one long sentence in the original Greek.
a. John begins with the beginning - the eternal God, who was before all things.
b. He tells us that this God has been physically manifested, and that he and others can testify to this as eyewitnesses.
c. He tells us that this God is the Word of life, the Logos.
d. He tells us that this God is distinct from the person of God the Father.
e. He tells us that we may have fellowship with this God, and that we are often introduced into this fellowship with God by the fellowship of God's people.
f. He tells us that this eternally existent God, the Word of Life, who was physically present with them, and present for fellowship, is God the Son, named Jesus Christ.
g. He tells us that fellowship with Jesus leads to a life lived in fullness of joy.
h. We could say that in these four verses, John gives us enough to live our whole Christian life on! No wonder one commentator says, "Observe the note of wonder in the Apostle's language. Speech fails him. He labours for expression, adding definition to definition." (Expositor's)
B. John's message from God: maintaining relationship in the midst of sin.
1. (5) Sin and the nature of God: God is sinless and perfect.
This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.
a. This is the message: John isn't making this up; these are not his own personal opinions or ideas about God. This is God's message about Himself (which we have heard from Him), that John is now revealing to us (and declare to you).
i. What John will tell us about God is what God has told us about Himself. We can't be confident in our own opinions or ideas about God unless they are genuinely founded on what God has said about Himself.
b. We must begin our understanding of relationship with God at this place: if there is a problem with our fellowship with God, it is our problem, not His, because there is no sin or darkness in Him at all.
c. John declares this on the simple understanding that God Himself is light; and light by definition has no darkness at all in it; for there to be darkness, there must be an absence of light.
d. Any approach to relationship with God that assumes, or even implies, that God might be wrong, and perhaps must be forgiven by us, is at its root blasphemous and directly contradicts what John clearly states here.
2. (6) The application of the truth of God's sinlessness to our relationship with Him.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.
a. God has no darkness at all (1 John 1:5); so if one claims to be in fellowship with God (a relationship of common relation, interest, and sharing), yet does walk in darkness, he is not telling the truth.
b. John speaks of a walk in darkness, indicating a pattern of living. It isn't speaking of an occasional lapse, but of a lifestyle of darkness.
c. John does not say that a Christian may not temporarily walk in darkness; but if he does, his claim to fellowship with God is a sham and a lie - but one can be a Christian and, for a time, be out of fellowship with God.
3. (7) The blessing of walking in the light.
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
a. If we will walk in the light - having fellowship with Him in our lives, and walk after His ways - then we will have fellowship with one another.
b. The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin: As we walk in the light, we will also enjoy the continual cleansing of Jesus.
i. We need a continual cleansing, because the Bible says we continually sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Even though we have been cleansed, our "feet" need cleaning (John 13:10).
c. This continual cleansing is ours by the blood of Jesus; not His literal blood, but His literal death in our place, and the literal wrath of the Father He endured on our behalf - His blood paid for all our sins - past, present, and future.
i. The work of Jesus on the cross doesn't just deal with the guilt of sin that might send us to hell; it also deals with the stain of sin what would hinder our continual relationship with God. We need to come to God often with the simple plea, "cleanse me with the blood of Jesus." Not because we haven't been cleansed before, but because we need to be continually cleansed to enjoy continual relationship.
ii. "'The blood' is more specific than 'the death' would be, for 'the blood' denotes sacrifice. It is always the blood that is shed." (Lenski)
d. From all sin: We can be cleansed, by the blood of Jesus, from all sin. The sin we inherited from Adam, the sin we committed as kids, the sins of our growing up. Sins against our father, against our mother, against our brother and sister. Sins against our husbands or wives, against our children. Sins against our employers or our employees, sins against our friends and our enemies. Lying, stealing, cheating, adultery, swearing, drugs, booze, promiscuity, murder. Sins that haunt me every day, sins I didn't even know I did - all sin cleansed by the blood of Jesus!
d. Cleanses us from all sin: It is in the present tense, not the future tense. We do not have to hope we will one day be cleansed; because of what Jesus did on the cross for me, I can be cleansed today!
4. (8-10) The presence of sin, the confession of sin, and the cleansing from sin.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
a. If we say we have no sin: John has introduced the ideas of walking in the light and being cleansed from sin. But he does not for a moment believe that a Christian can become sinlessly perfect.
i. To think that of ourselves is to deceive ourselves, and to say that of ourselves is to lie - the truth is not in us.
ii. There are few people today who think they are sinlessly perfect; but how many of us really think we sin? Many of us will say "I make mistakes" or "I'm not perfect" or "I'm only human," but usually we say such things to excuse or defend ourselves. This is different from know, and admitting, "I am a sinner."
iii. To say that we have no sin puts us in a dangerous place, because God's grace and mercy is extended to sinners. Not "mistakers" or "I'm only human" or "Nobody's perfect" people, but sinners. We need to realize the victory and forgiveness that comes from saying, "I am a sinner - even a great sinner - but I have a Savior who cleanses me from all sin."
b. If we confess our sins: Though sin is present, it need not remain a hindrance to our relationship with God - we may find complete cleansing (from all unrighteousness) as we confess our sins.
i. To confess means, "to say the same as." When we confess our sin, we are willing to say (and believe) the same thing about our sin that God says about it. Jesus' story about the religious man and the sinner who prayed before God illustrated this; the Pharisee bragged about how righteous he was, while the sinner just said God be merciful to me a sinner. (Luke 18:10-14) The one who confessed his sin was the one who agreed with God about how bad he was.
ii. Confess is a verb in the present tense; the meaning is that we should keep on confessing our sin - instead of referring to a "once-for-all" confession of sin at our conversion.
iii. You don't have to go to a confessional to confess your sin. When you are baptized, you are confessing your sin by saying you needed to be cleansed and reborn. When you receive communion, you confess your sin by saying you need the work of Jesus on the cross to take your sin away. But of course, we need to confess our sin in the most straightforward way: by admitting to God that we have done is sin, and asking for His divine forgiveness, based on what Jesus has done on the cross for us.
iv. Our sins are not forgiven because we confess; if this were the case - if forgiveness for a sin could only come where there was confession - then we would all be damned, because it would be impossible for us to confess every sin we ever commit. We are forgiven because our punishment was put upon Jesus, we are cleansed by His blood.
v. However, confession is still vital to maintain relationship with God, and this is the context John speaks from. As God convicts us of sin that is hindering our fellowship with Him, we must confess it and receive forgiveness and cleansing for our relationship with God to continue without hindrance.
vi. Confession must be personal; saying "God, if we have made any mistakes, forgive us" isn't confession, because it isn't convinced (saying "if we made"), it isn't personal (saying "if we made"), it isn't specific (saying "if we made any"), and it isn't honest (saying "mistakes").
c. He is faithful and just to forgive us: Because of Jesus' work, the righteousness of God is our friend - insuring that we will be forgiven, because Jesus paid the penalty of our sin. God is being faithful and just to forgive us in light of Jesus.
i. "He would be unrighteous if He broke His promise ratified by the blood of Jesus." (D. Smith)
d. The promise of 1 John 1:9 shouldn't lead us into sin, saying "Hey, I'll go ahead and sin because God will forgive me." It should lead us out of sin, knowing that God could only be faithful and just to forgive us our sins because the wrath we deserved was poured out on the sin. Since each sin carries with it its own measure of wrath, so there is a sense in which each sin we commit added to the agony of Jesus on the cross.
e. If we say that we have not sinned: If we deny the presence of sin, we are self-deceived and denying God's word. Yet, though sin is always present, so is its remedy - so sin need never be a hindrance to our relationship with God.
i. The idea that His word is not in us is related to the idea that Jesus is the Word of life (1 John 1:1); if we refuse to see sin in us, we show that Jesus is not in us.