The Apostle John And His Writings
III. The First Epistle of John
Eternal Life (1:1-4)
"That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes; that which we contemplated, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life; (and the life has been manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and report to you the eternal life, which was with the Father, and has been manifested to us:) that which we have seen and heard we report to you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is indeed with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we to you that your joy may be full." (1:1-4)
In John's introduction we find the aim of the book. Three times in Scripture we find a book beginning with the beginning:
- Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth",
- John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" and here in
- 1 John, "That which was from the beginning". Each of these beginnings are different.
John 1:1 takes us back farthest, indeed we cannot go farther back that this. Whatever we can go back to, there was the Word. Moses tells us in Psalm 90, "From eternity to eternity Thou art God" (v.2), and so we can never get back to the beginning of God because in the beginning God was there.
Genesis 1:1 takes us back to the beginning of this creation, "In the beginning God (who was already there) created the heavens and the earth". There are many and various theories as to how things started and what happened next. The date for that beginning has been set by some scientists at fifteen billion years ago but, right or wrong, it seems that when we come to scientific theories as to the age of the earth for quite a while every twenty years their estimate was doubling. So we do not want to give too much credence to what man says. Man guesses (hopefully it is an educated guess) but what God says in His Word is definite and not to be questioned. There we simply read that "In the beginning God created".
Now in 1 John 1:1 we have the beginning, we may say, of Christianity, or perhaps of the new creation.
At the beginning of anything we can go back to, the Lord Jesus was already there, but John was to write of the beginnings of Christianity and this began with Christ. John loved to speak of Christ and he spoke of what he and others had heard. We were not present at the beginnings in John 1:1 or Genesis 1:1, and at the time of writing the apostle John was the last one left who was at the beginning of what he was writing about. This beginning is not just a time but it is a Person with whom this new creation that we enjoy had begun, the Person around whom Christianity centers. John wrote here, 'We heard [Him] that which was from the beginning, we have seen [Him] with our own eyes and (again using that term) we have contemplated [Him]. We have spent time thinking about Him and our hands have handled [Him]'. The Lord, standing before His disciples in resurrection said, "Handle Me and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as ye see Me having" (Luke 24:39). Before the crucifixion as well as after the resurrection the disciples had the opportunity physically to touch the Lord Jesus. John lay on His breast at the 'last supper' (John 13:23), he was physically leaning against the Lord in the place of affection.
The second verse, "The life has been manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and report to you the eternal life, which was with the Father, and has been manifested to us" is a parenthesis. It took me a long time to learn that eternal life does not just mean to live forever because, while the unbeliever is never said to have eternal life, once a human life begins, whether he believes the gospel or not, it goes on forever. Any person born into this world will continue to exist forever either with the Lord in glory and bliss or in eternal condemnation in hell, but this second fate is spoken of as "the second death" (Rev.2:11, 20:6,14, 21:8) and never "eternal life". The Lord Jesus said in John 17, "And this is the eternal life, that they should know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (v.3). The word 'knowing' as it is used in Scripture generally denotes more than simply knowing something or someone with the mind. As a result of Adam 'knowing' Eve a child resulted (Gen. 4:1). So the knowledge referred to in Scripture is usually much more intense than knowing about something. Knowledge speaks of a relationship. There was a relationship between Adam and Eve and there were consequences of that relationship, and while our relationship with the Lord is not the sexual relationship of a husband and wife it is an intimate relationship. The thought of having eternal life in John 17 is that we not only know who He is and know something about Him but we are in relationship with the only true God and with Jesus Christ. This is the essence of eternal life. Yes, it goes on forever, thank God for that, but it speaks of a loving and appreciated relationship that continues forever. Any relationship of knowing a human being in the sense that Scripture uses the term ultimately comes to an end, but this relationship that we have with God the Father and with the Lord Jesus will never end. As the hymn says, it will be 'sweeter as the days go by'.
John as an old man meditating upon these things spoke of the wonder of this eternal life which was with the Father and which has been manifested to us. We have this opened up before us. It took several years of walking with the Lord Jesus for the disciples to know Him and to appreciate Him, and John had lived perhaps sixty-five years beyond that before he wrote this here. It is not something that is swiftly grasped. We may be saved in an instant, but we have a lot of growing to do in our appreciation of the Lord Jesus afterwards.
Now in verse 3 we come to his purpose, "That which we have seen and heard we report to you". John was the last of the twelve original apostles left and false teachers had come in denying the deity and the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ come in flesh (1 Jn.4:2-3). These teachers falsely taught that believers went to God through a series of intermediate beings, but the truth is that we have a direct relationship with the Son of God who is Himself God, a Divine Person from eternity past, the eternal Son of God. There are people even today who will teach you that Jesus became the Son of God when He was born into this world and there are others who say at His baptism He received the 'Christ-consciousness' or that when He was a boy at the age of twelve He was awakening to a sense of who He really was, but this is all nonsense, and worse than nonsense, it is blasphemous teaching about the Person of the Lord Jesus. John wrote to combat this line of teaching as one who had personally known the Lord Jesus, had personally been called to follow Him and had personally enjoyed a relationship with Him. He wrote for the benefit of those whom he called "little children" (1 Jn.2:18).
Unfortunately the King James translation mixes up these terms because one of the instructions given to the translators of the King James Bible was, Do not overwork any one word but rather use a variety of words, use synonyms. Now this may be a good instruction for writing high school essays but when it comes to translating the Word of God it is not good instruction. If we appreciate a careful translation let us read the Darby translation which carefully distinguishes these terms. John used this diminutive term, "little (or 'dear') children" often. It does not have to do with how old or mature a believer is but it is a term of affection. In chapter 2 he distinguished Christians by their growth, by their spiritual maturity, there we have children, young men and fathers, but the general term he used was one of affection. John did not use the term "sons" as Paul often did (e.g. Rom.8:14). Paul loved to present us in the dignity of our relationship as sons by adoption.
A Roman citizen could not just adopt a baby into his home and raise it as his child as we would. There was a custom among the Romans that when the father of the family, the head of the house, felt his son had grown mature enough that he could handle things, that he could represent him, he would take him to the proper authorities and declare 'This is my son'. He had been his child all along, had been under tutors and governors (as Galatians 4 tells us) but the time hopefully would come in the life of a boy when his father would declare, 'This is my son'. The Romans called this 'adoption', and this is the sense in which Paul often uses the term that we are declared sons, that we come into the privilege and dignity of sonship. Such a son was an heir too (e.g. Eph. 1:5).
John does not use this term. Instead he uses a term, generally speaking, that indicates that we have been born into the family, that there is an intimate relationship. It is not the dignity, it is the relationship that he stresses.
John goes on to say in verse 3, "That which we have seen and heard we report to you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is indeed with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ". The "we" is not just the plurality of majesty, grammatically speaking, but, though the other apostles had gone on to be with the Lord, essentially their message was the same and I believe they all would have wanted to communicate the same truths. John was the last one who was able to express them but he wanted to report this which they had all seen and heard. This comes out clearly in the early chapters of Acts. The Lord had said to His own just before He left them, "Ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth". So when the Sanhedrin called on Peter and John to say in what name or by what power they had healed the lame man in Acts 4 they replied that it was done "in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazaraean" (v.10). They bore witness that this Jesus was the One whom they had crucified, but whom God had raised from among the dead, it was by Him that this man stood before them sound in body. He was the stone which had been set at naught by the builders, the Jews, which had become the corner stone and salvation was in none other, "for neither is there another name under heaven which is given among men by which we must be saved". John was still using these kinds of terms, "That which we have seen and heard we report to you, that ye also may have fellowship with us". The apostles' fellowship was based on something firm. In Acts 2:42 the early disciples continued in "the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and breaking of bread, and prayers" and we cannot properly have fellowship if we are not standing on the same doctrinal footing. Present day Christianity tries to gloss over differences, taking the attitude and saying in effect, 'Do not talk about doctrine at all, let us just have fellowship together', but we cannot have real fellowship if there is not that which we hold doctrinally in common. John clearly states this.
Finally, 'our fellowship is indeed with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ". Why does he say that our fellowship is with the Father? The Father delights in His Son, the Lord Jesus, He finds all His joy in Him, and so when we learn to find our joy in the Lord Jesus, when we learn to appreciate Him, we have fellowship with the Father. John had learnt to share a common object with God the Father, but he does not limit it to that. John says, "And with his Son Jesus Christ". The Lord Jesus delighted in the Father, He delighted in presenting and manifesting the Father. Early in the morning before daybreak He would rise up and go and pray (Isa. 50:4) and we find Him praying through the night sometimes (Luke 6:12). He was in constant communion with His Father and He was the One who made the Father known to His followers (John 14:9, 17:6). Before leaving this scene after His resurrection He sent Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples, "I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (John 20:17). The One whom He rejoiced in, the One with whom He had fellowship, the disciples could also now fellowship with and, John says, 'I want to share all this with you so that you can have fellowship with us, and this is the fellowship that we already enjoy'. Many times, sad to say, when we talk about fellowship we use terms like 'He is in fellowship' or 'He is not in fellowship yet'. We use these terms in an altogether different sense from how Scripture uses them. Being 'in fellowship' means far more than taking part in the breaking of bread. We need to be more careful of how we use terminology, especially the terminology that Scripture uses, being careful not to narrow it down and make it mean something that Scripture does not make it mean.
The apostle writes in verse 4, "And these things write we to you that your joy may be full". This is the object of this book. He had already said that they might have their fellowship with them. Now he was going to write about the Father and the Son, he was going to write about these things which were essential if they wanted to have fellowship with the apostles who had fellowship with the Lord Jesus and with the Father. The end goal of fellowship is joy, "that your joy may be full", and he was writing this to people here on earth. When we are in heaven our joy will be full, and we are looking forward to that, either by way of the resurrection or the rapture, for "in Thy presence (or 'Thy countenance') is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand are pleasures for evermore" (Ps.16:11). But on the other hand, we can already enjoy full joy according to this epistle. This was one of the objects of which John was writing.
"These things have I written to you that ye may know that ye have eternal life who believe on the name of the Son of God." (5:13)
This is another distinct object about which he was writing. There is a lot of confusion about this today and there are many dear children of God who teach or believe that you can be lost after you are saved and so you then have to be saved again. This verse (and there are many others also) ought to settle the matter once and for all, for this is another of the purposes for which John wrote. He did not want Christians to be in doubt. Those who believe on the name of the Son of God can know for sure that they have eternal life.
I knew a patriarch of the brethren in Jamaica who lived to be ninety-four. I believe he trusted Christ when he was twenty-one so that he spent over seventy years in the Lord's service. In the early years when I would visit there he was already a patriarch and I appreciated so much a man like this who knew and appreciated these things. He often referred to 1 John 5 as the verses that gave him assurance of salvation, "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater. For this is the witness of God which He has witnessed concerning His Son. He that believes on the Son of God has the witness in himself; he that does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness which God has witnessed concerning His Son. And this is the witness, that God has given to us eternal life; and this life is in His Son" (vv.9-11). This is what the Lord used to witness to that brother. When he was a young man he thought that it was preposterous to think that you could assert, 'I have eternal life, I will not be lost,' and so on. However, reading these verses he realized that if he followed that kind of teaching, humble as it might sound to men, he was calling God a liar, for when God says, 'The one who believes in My Son has eternal life', we have got to take His word for it.
Fellowship and Sin (1:5-2:11)
"And 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. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not practise 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 Christ His Son cleanses us from all 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 righteous to forgive us our sins, and 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." (1:5-10)
1:1-4 deals with eternal life and its manifestation in Christ, "And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent" (John 17:3). From 1:5 we have fellowship following on from verse 3 "that ye also may have fellowship with us".
Well, what is fellowship? Does it simply mean that a person is allowed to break bread? No, because breaking of bread is not mentioned in this epistle at all. We must use terms in the way that Scripture uses them. We saw in John's Gospel that there are three themes, three 'L's, life, light and love. Nowadays, as far as man is concerned, the first one is at his disposal, he thinks he can destroy it even before it comes out of the womb. Man rejects the light also. The Lord Jesus said in John's Gospel, "Men have loved darkness rather than light; for their works were evil" (John 3:19). They would not come to the light. Then we are left with love; 'Smile, God loves you', they say. Well, thank God, He does, and we can smile about it, but to tell the unsaved person that 'Yes, God loves you', is not enough. We can tell the unsaved person that, but it is not enough, the unsaved person needs to repent and come to the Lord Jesus. Love however has been brutally misused. It is a very popular word in the world today and a word that is used in ways far different to the way Scripture uses it. Here in 1 John we read much about love but we begin with the fact that "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all" (1 Jn.1:5). There are many people who like to talk about love. They put up a big plaque, "God is love" (1 Jn.4:8,16), and this is a good Scriptural expression. Indeed we find it in this very book, but very seldom do we see the term that goes with it and precedes it, "God is light" (1 Jn.1:5). Man does not want that, but to have God be love at the expense of being light is quite a distortion of Scripture.
Then we have conditions of fellowship and how far we can get from it, "If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another". So fellowship is not just that a man has asked to break bread and brethren have visited him and have recommended him to the assembly and he has been received, then we have fellowship one with another. No, our fellowship is based on a common life, on a common walking in the light, and so then the question of sin needs to be taken up. "If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves". It is very hard to convince others that I have no sin, and to convince God that I have no sin is impossible, but some people have very foolishly convinced themselves. However, I have found that if you withstand them in this they usually get very angry and it does not take long before it is obvious to everyone but themselves that what they have is rather more than righteous anger.
"My children, these things I write to you in order that ye may not sin; and if any one sin, we have a patron with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (2:1)
This is another object of the book, that we sin not, but if we do sin we have someone greater than ourselves who takes up our cause, we have a Patron with the Father. The Gospel of John was "written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life in His name" (20:31). It was written to reach out to unbelievers, but the First Epistle was written to children. It is written to the family of God and so when it deals with sin it does not say, 'You need to be saved'. It says, 'You have to confess your sin, and you have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous'. This sin which has temporarily interrupted or broken or marred our communion needs to be dealt with. It is not that we need to be saved over again. We have not lost our salvation, but we simply have to confess our sin. It does not even say that we need to have it forgiven, no, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. and if any one sin, we have a patron with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous".
1 John was one of the last books in the New Testament that I got into to any degree. It was always a book that frightened me as a young Christian. If there was one book that was dreadful to me it was 1 John because I had struggled for some years with the assurance of salvation. My dear mother did not help the situation. I was saved when I was about six or seven years old and when I got into a fight with my brothers or talked back to my parents my mother would say, 'You say you are a Christian, but is that the fruit of the Spirit?' It was not the fruit of the Spirit but this did not change the fact that I was a Christian. However, this only made me doubt and for several years I struggled with this. I went to the Lord practically every night, 'Oh Lord, You know I came to You, back then, but if I did not come the right way I am coming now for You have said, "Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out" (John 6:37)'. I do not know how many times I came to the Lord with that verse before the real impact of it came home to me, but John was writing to children and he was writing on the subject of fellowship and that fellowship needed to be restored if sin had come in.
The Children of God and Their Enemy, the World (2:12-4:6)
"See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God. For this reason the world knows us not, because it knew Him not. Beloved, now are we children of God, and what we shall be has not yet been manifested; we know that if it is manifested we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every one that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as He is pure." (3:1-3)
This is taken up in connection with the stages of growth in the Christian's life in chapter 2.
The Fountain of Love (4:7-21)
"Beloved, let us love one another; because love is of God, and every one that loves has been begotten of God, and knows God." (4:7)
Love did not originate in us. We take credit for so much, but we find that we are to love one another because love is of God. These verses were hard for me as a boy. John wrote in absolutes and this is the problem that we so often have with John's writings. This is not helped by the fact that this is one of the books most poorly translated in the commonly used King James Bible. Of all the New Testament books this is one we need to get some help on because such terms as committing sin and so on that are used are a bad translation in our present-day language. If I commit a sin does that mean that I have lost my salvation or that I was not saved? Is this the evidence that I was not really saved? The fact that John is dealing with absolutes explains this verse. He is saying the person who is a Christian has a new nature, he has been made a partaker of the divine nature and that new nature cannot sin, but the person who has the new nature unfortunately still has the old nature and this is a question of two natures. While it is not taken up as such in John this is very important to understand when reading John's Epistle. John wrote "These things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin". A Christian does not sin, a Christian cannot sin as a Christian, that is what he is before God with the new nature, but the person who is a Christian unfortunately is still quite capable of sinning and in fact that old nature often enjoys it. This is the struggle. So when John says "cannot" he is speaking in absolute terms, he is speaking about a person in virtue of what they are before God in the new nature, and yet he is dealing with persons who are still here and who unfortunately have the old nature too. If we do not realize that, we are going to have problems with 1 John.
John winds up his Epistle with some very important things about faith and about getting the victory. He deals with loving the children of God, our being partakers of the new divine nature, and because this is God's nature we cannot but love the children of God. I may not like the brother but I love him. We sometimes struggle with these things. These are some of the things of which John writes, and he points out especially at the start of chapter 2 that what we call believing, and what Scripture calls believing, has the element of obeying. Paul mentions this in Romans too, he speaks of "obedience of faith" (Rom.1:5, 16:26). Believing is not just my saying 'I believe' or of it having intellectually entered my head somehow, it involves a commitment of life, it involves what we speak of as obeying.
John stresses the word 'to know'. We can know, we can have certainty about what God has told us in His Word.
John points out in chapter 2 in the well-known verses "Love not the world, nor the things in the world. If any one love the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world" (vv.15-16). John is the one who teaches us very definitely about the antithesis between the Father and the world, the devil and the Lord Jesus, and the Spirit and the flesh. The world tries to replace the Father in the hearts of Christians.