Studies in I John, I Witness to the Word of Life, Text: 1:1-4, Title: The Three Proclamations

Introduction

The author is not identified in this letter but internally the content  of this Epistle and the Gospel of John are very similar in style and expression and share many of the same concepts, so they are often mutually explanatory. Externally, the authorship of John is clearly attested by the early church fathers. Papias, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen all quote it by name. Thus we can confidently say that this letter was written by the beloved Apostle, initially, for the churches in Asia Minor surrounding Ephesus where John labored. However, it is written for the church of all ages and its continuing value is to remind us that we are a community of life in fellowship with Christ, through the Word of life. It describes that community as the sphere of life and light, of holiness and righteousness, of love to God and to the brethren; and as the absolute antithesis to the world. Today we turn to the preface of the letter in 1:1-4 which points to the urgency of the situation in which the Elder finds himself. His ideas and words tumble forth in his eagerness to express his concerns. Almost awkwardly he repeats himself. Four times he refers to what he has seen or looked at; twice to what he has heard; three times to what he proclaims. 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. 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. Before we look at this passage in  detail we should think about our calling. John is reminding us of the importance of witnessing for the Lord. John’s authority rests in part on his role as witness. The word translated “testify” and “to bear witness” has its roots in the sphere of legal terminology. As in a court of law, witnesses are responsible for the integrity and truthfulness of their testimony. Thus witnesses not only vouch for their personal experience of something, but for the truthfulness of what is stated. In the first century believers cherished those who were “eye-witnesses” to Jesus. You can catch John’s excitement about telling what he has seen and heard in these verses. He and all the other apostles could not wait to tell others about Jesus, and the good news. We are often intimidated and fearful, but they were not, for they had seen the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord. These words of our preface can be seen as three proclamations; the proclamation of the manifestation, of the mystery, and of the meaning.

I The Manifestation

The account of the manifestation of Jesus can be seen in verse 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. The Apostle may be hearkening back to his gospel which starts with the statement, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word is identified in that context as the Son of God who came in the flesh, and so the “In the beginning,” means when God created the universe, the Son of God was already there; He was with God and He was God. Here in I John, however, many expositors believe that the reference to the beginning more likely means the beginning of the revelation of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In that case John would be saying that God’s entrance into the flesh was observed from the beginning and was subject to all our senses; hearing, seeing, touching. This is very likely because one of John’s vital concerns here is to combat Gnosticism which, in the Greek tradition, teaches that spirit is good and matter is evil. The danger of gnosticism is easily apparent.  It denies the incarnation of God as the Son.  In so doing, it denies the true efficacy of the atonement since, if Jesus is not God in the flesh, He could not atone for all of mankind and we would still be lost in our sins. John refers to this in a number of places but especially in chapter 4:1-3, Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. Gnosticism disregarded objective historical revelation in anything material. Salvation was achieved through special knowledge (gnosis). They believed in finding their own truth. Does that sound familiar? In today’s world we face post-modernism that rejects all objective material revelation. There is no objective truth, but rather, your truth or my truth. Salvation is totally subjective, but if Jesus was not God in the flesh, then He could not redeem this human nature. And so, our Apostle firmly rejects the false prophets who poisoned the minds of first century believers with this nonsense by placing an extreme emphasis on the reality of the incarnation. In fact John not only says they heard and saw and touched, but the word translated “look,” in the original Greek, implies an examination of the evidence with continuity and careful attention. It reminds us living twenty centuries  later that the historical foundation of our faith is unassailable. It reminds me of Peter’s last will and testament in II Peter 1:16-19,  For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty...For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there was borne such a voice to him by the Majestic Glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: and this voice we ourselves heard borne out of heaven, when we were with him in the holy mount. And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed. Like John, Peter assures believers of every age of the firm foundation of their faith.

II The Mystery

What John is proclaiming next is what the New Testament calls the mystery of Godliness. So we read in verse 2, 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. The mystery of godliness is different from what the New Testament often calls a mystery. Mostly in the New Testament a mystery is simply a previously unknown, but now-revealed truth. For example Jesus talks about the mysteries of the kingdom which he reveals through parables. Paul speaks of the mystery of the gospel and the mystery of Christ which are basically the revelation that the gospel is for Jew and Gentile alike, for the whole world. However in I Timothy 3:16 it means not only something newly revealed, but the mystery of the incarnation, that is, God in the flesh. So we read,  Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. This introduces another way that the word mystery may be used which is to speak of something that cannot be comprehended by the finite mortal mind. In this reference John is talking about eternal life which was above and has now come down to us, so that we can see and hear and touch it. He is carrying forward the idea presented in the prologue to his gospel where he writes, in verses 1-5 and 14, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. Chapter 2 of the Westminster Confession says, “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin,  and who will by no means clear the guilty.” This awe-inspiring Scriptural description of God must awaken us to the reality that we being finite and temporal can never rise to the level of fully comprehending God, and in fact as the framers of the confession state, God is incomprehensible. The union of two natures, fully human and fully divine, in one person, Jesus Christ, is a mystery which John lays before us plainly here and in his gospel. Psalm 145:3 says, His greatness no one can fathom.

III The Meaning


The proclamation is not only about the manifestation and the mystery, it is about the meaning of that colossal event. Thus in verses 3 and 4 he says, 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. Joy and fellowship are two words common in John’s writing. In the church of John’s day we read in Acts 2:42, They devoted themselves … to fellowship … Have you heard about the “virtual church”? Church is experienced totally through the internet. People worship by logging onto a worship service on their computer screen. They send in donations by credit card. They participate in communion with the wine and bread near their keyboard. The virtual church may be helpful for the sick and infirm, but it is not the best choice if people use it to avoid meeting with other Christians. Many people today have lost sight of the pattern God intends for the church. Pointing to failures in individual Christians or particular churches or congregations, people often say they’ll take Jesus but not the church. The “virtual church” was unacceptable to John as it is to God. The Church is the creation of Jesus. In Matthew 16 He calls it my Church and says he will build it Himself. So  John emphasizes the family of God which is the Church. He calls believers children of God and calls upon them to live as  brothers in love, praying for one another and rejoicing together. This is the fellowship that makes his joy complete. It’s the aim of the proclamation.