Last week we began our study of the epistles of John with an introduction. This week we are diving into John’s own introduction to his first epistle, chapter 1, verses 1-4:
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
If reading the first four verses of 1 John seems confusing, take heart dear one, you are not alone. “While the opening verses of 1 John are not tongue twisters, they do present us with an “abrupt,” “exceedingly complex,” “syntactically convoluted,” “frequently ambiguous,” “complicated interweaving” of “stammer[ing],” “infuriatingly obscure,” “‘insider’ language,” as a compilation of commentators puts it, or, more plainly, “a grammatical tangle.””
Our efforts to nail down exactly what John is saying began with searching out what or who he means by “That which was from the beginning,” and so, we began at the beginning of Scripture, which tells us of the beginning of all creation and went from there to other passages which shed even more light on who exactly was present at the beginning:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-4)
“And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:5)
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13)
Not only Moses and John (inspired by the Holy Spirit), but from the lips of Jesus himself we have the testimony that Jesus himself was “from the beginning,” and as we go through our lesson we will further see that it is the good news of the gospel, anchored in the eternal covenant of redemption, that John has in mind. “That which was from the beginning,” then, is the promise, the person, and the work of Christ.
This easily handled the cultural ridicule that Christianity was a “new” religion by pointing to its eternal origin. Jesus the man may have lived and died (and risen and ascended to heaven) within the memories of many who were living when John penned his letters, but Jesus the Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, had been the agent through whom God created the world, and was therefore present long before any other false religions were invented, or even the true religion of the Jews, which had been pointing to him all along.
The grammar of the opening sentence of this epistle doesn’t find its action until after we leap over the parenthetical verse 2 and reach verse 3. (spoiler alert) The entire opening thought is concerned with the proclamation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. John builds his case using the actual physical senses of hearing, sight—expanded with the idea of deeper investigation when he writes that they “looked upon,” and finally, touch. John speaks for himself and the apostles when he writes this, but he does not mean to say that literally seeing, hearing, and touching Jesus is necessary for true faith. What do the following passages tell us?
And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. (John 12:44-46)
for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)
In John 12:44-46 Jesus parallels sight with faith: seeing Christ is the same as believing in Christ. If we believed in Jesus, we have “seen” him, and if we have seen him, we have believed also in the Father who sent him (1 Peter 1:21), and this believing sight fills us with inexpressibly glorious joy. But what about those believers who lived before the incarnation of Christ?
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. (Psalm 146:8)
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. . . [long list of Old Testament saints]. . . These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. . . [more O. T. saints] . . . And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:1-3, 13, 39-40)
It is the Lord alone who opens eyes blinded by unbelief to see with the eyes of faith the hope held out to us in the gospel. In Jesus’ day there were plenty of people who saw him, heard him teach, and witnessed his miracles, and yet did not believe that he was the Christ. Quite the opposite—rather than believe some even plotted to stifle his works and to put him to death (John 12:9-10; Acts 2:22-23)! And though the Old Testament saints had no name, address, or birthdate by which to know their anticipated Savior, according to Hebrews 11:39-40, the faith they held in the promised Messiah was no greater than the faith we hold today. Just because we can look back at the cross and resurrection of Christ doesn’t make it any easier to believe than those who lived prior to his incarnation. Our faith comes from the same source as the faith of Enoch and Abraham and David— faith does not require sight, for it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).
Why is John is taking such pains to set before us the evidence for the truth of his testimony and proclamation (v. 2)? The following passages provide valuable insight:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. (John 19:32-35)
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)
John and the other apostles were eyewitnesses of his daily life for the three years of his ministry. He and Peter and James were the three who were invited by their Master to witness his transfiguration, when a corner of the veil, so to speak, was lifted, and his divine glory was revealed (Matthew 17:1-3). They knew that they were not following fairy tales or “cleverly devised myths.” Moreover, John stood at the foot of the cross on that awful day and watched Jesus die. The sight of his beloved Master hanging lifeless, as the soldier thrust the spear into his side was seared into his memory. When Jesus got up from where he lay in the tomb three days later and began appearing to his followers, John was among the first to believe. John is, therefore, qualified to take the witness stand and declare beyond all shadow of doubt that Jesus is the Christ, the Living Son of the Living God.
But he has not only been called to testify before a court—which he would do—he and the rest of the apostles have been commissioned by Him who holds all authority in heaven and earth to be witnesses and to make disciples. They have been entrusted with news—the best news ever to be proclaimed—and they are to take this news to a dying and thirsty world of lost souls. But they aren’t carrying this message alone or on their own strength. They have been invested with the power of the Holy Spirit and they are assured of their Master’s presence with them. The message of the gospel comes to us on the authority and by the eyewitness testimony of the Spirit-empowered and Jesus-accompanied Apostles.
Our only authority is the apostolic witness, and our gospel is based upon what they have said. . . [Their testimony] is the whole foundation of the preaching of the church, and there is no message apart from it. . . . If what we have reported in the Bible by those first witnesses and Apostles and others is not true, if their facts are not true, well then, I have no Christian faith, for to be a Christian is not to believe an idea, nor is it to undergo some subjective experience. . . . The Christian position is that we accept and believe this testimony, that these things here reported have happened. We base it solidly upon the authority and the testimony of these men of God.
Let us also remember that one of John’s purposes in writing this epistle was to calm the fears of the believers in his churches who had been alarmed and confused by the teachings of heretics. These false teachers were denying that Jesus was the Christ come in the flesh, some denied that he had actually been killed, others that he had really risen from the dead. John is writing to assure his beloved people that what he taught them and what they had believed about Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, was really true.
The Word of Life
We turn now to consider the multi-faceted purpose for which the eternal word of life was made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. The following verses give us several glimpses into the glorious reasons for Christ’s appearing:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:14-18)
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. (John 17:1-4)
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, (Ephesians 3:8-11)
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, (2 Timothy 1:8-10)
The purpose for which Jesus was made manifest was so that we would receive grace upon grace; to bring grace and truth; to make the Father known and bring him glory; to give eternal life to all the Father has given him; that we may know the only true God and Jesus; to accomplish the work (of redemption) that the Father gave him to do; to realize God’s eternal purpose in Christ, which was to make known the manifold wisdom of God in the creation of the church—which was the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God; to abolish death and to bring to light life and immortality through the gospel, manifesting God’s own eternal purpose and grace.
Oh, sisters, the list could go on and on—these are only a few verses in which we see the purpose for Christ’s advent written plainly for us to behold. How humbling to read that our Lord Jesus Christ, who dwelled eternally with the Father in the glorious realms of heaven, humbled himself that he might bring us to glory. We aren’t merely salvaged wrecks, fished from the sea of lost and sinking humanity, but we are trophies of his grace upon which the very angels in heaven gaze in wonder and amazement before turning to glorify the Father even more for his manifold wisdom!
And how does the word give life?
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, … and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:1-5)
since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God (1 Peter 1:23)
Jesus’ very words are spirit and life, given life by the Spirit himself. We were dead in the water when God, by his rich mercy, great love, and free grace, made us alive together with Christ—apart from Christ there is no life! This new birth is accomplished by the imperishable seed of the living and abiding word of God. This is why it is vital to our lives of faith that we read the word, meditate on the word, study the word, pray the word, and—most importantly—sit under the faithful preaching of the word every Lord’s day, as members of a local church, where we are exhorted, admonished, encouraged, warned, enriched, and enlivened by The Word.
Apart from God, life, as we call it, is really death; we are all born in trespasses and sin. We exist, yes, but we are spiritually dead. But eternal life is true life. It is an endless life, but it is, in addition, a life with a different quality; it is really life in a sense that nothing else is. And that, John tells [us], is what has been made possible to all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is the proclamation of which John writes in verse 3a?
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn (Isaiah 61:1-2)
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)
The proclamation is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, by which the poor are cheered, the brokenhearted are restored, the captives are set at liberty and prisoners freed, and the mournful are comforted. God has shown his favor to us in the proclamation of the gospel, by which all who believe are saved and are being saved. It is of first importance that we know and believe that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on he third day in accordance with the Scriptures. This is good news to all who are justified in Christ.
But did you notice that the proclamation isn’t all “good news”? There’s another side to the news of the coming of Christ; for those who do not believe it is the proclamation of their doom. All unbelievers will be condemned and suffer the vengeance of our God. This is a sober truth indeed, and believers hold the two sides of this truth in a holy tension. We do not rejoice in the lostness of unbelievers, no. But we do rejoice and find comfort in knowing that perfect justice will fall upon all evildoers and those who continue to despise our beloved Lord to the end.
John writes his gospel and his epistles because he has a mandate from his Master to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). He isn’t obeying this mandate grudgingly, but enthusiastically, because he has found truth and he wants to share it. He tells us what he knows to be true (2 Tim. 1:12).
The gospel affects those who are convinced of its truth by implanting in our hearts an obligated eagerness to share the good news with others. We ought to be unashamed in joining the apostles in proclaiming this good news of the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. As partakers in the light and life of Christ we have become stewards of the greatest treasure which grows the more we give it away (Romans 1:14-16; 1 Cor. 9:16-17; 2 Cor. 5:14-15)!
In verse 3 of our passage, John tells us that the two-fold purpose of the proclamation of the gospel is to bring us into fellowship with one another and also with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. John is speaking here of the Church. Because of Jesus Christ, we—people of every nation, tongue, and tribe, with differences all over the map—have the most important thing in heaven and earth in common: that we are in Christ. This is only made possible through the cross, where Christ made our peace with God. He not only made peace—he is our peace! By his death he brought us who were hopelessly far from God close to him, and not just close in proximity, but close in relationship. We who were once his enemies are now his beloved children. We who were once enemies with one another now share one Spirit as saints and fellow citizens. Reconciled first to God by the blood of Christ, we are reconciled also to one another (Eph. 2:11-22).
John closes his introduction by telling us the purpose of his writing these things to us is that we might have complete joy. Knowing that we have fellowship with God is the only true fountainhead of joy. This knowledge isn’t mere intellectual understanding, but it is a living hope—guarded by faith—in which we can rejoice even through trials, and by it we are filled with joy that is inexpressibly glorious (1 Peter 1:3-6, 8-9). One blessing of reading the Psalms is to discover the many ways that this true joy can be expressed, for example:
I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:8-11)
Because we are in fellowship with him our hearts are glad, our whole beings rejoice, we know that we dwell secure—if not here and now, certainly eternally—and this path of life in his presence brings fullness of joy, knowing that at his right hand there are pleasures forevermore. John certainly expresses this same joy in proclaiming to us the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“By full joy, [John] expresses more clearly the complete and perfect happiness which we obtain through the Gospel; at the same time, he reminds the faithful where they ought to fix all their affections. True is that saying, ‘Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also’” (Matt. 6:21).
The Covenant Thread
We wrapped our lesson by following the covenant thread through scripture, “from the beginning,” to the opening of John’s epistle. Re-reading 1 John 1:1-4 after reading through a number of other passages of scripture, we were able to see the interweaving of the covenant themes of the promise of God’s presence, the person of Jesus Christ, the people of God, and the practice of God’s people. In Genesis we saw God promising Abraham that his descendants will be the innumerable multitude of people which God will call his own. In the Gospels of John and Luke as well as epistles written by Peter and Paul, we found the Holy Spirit-inspired explanations of how and why the Christ, by whom all things were made, was made manifest in the person of Jesus for our sake. Through him we now have peace with God and as a result we have become the people of God and the practices of our lives are radically altered as we grow in holiness. This new birth and growth in holiness are a work of the Trinity in all who believe, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cooperating in building up a people for themselves which leads to fullness of joy. Through Jesus we have access to the Father—fellowship!— and as the household of God we have fellowship with one another.
God has been sending his prophets to proclaim his promise of a Redeemer, now fulfilled in the person and work of Christ Jesus our Lord, who then sent his apostles to proclaim the good news! John’s epistle is one portion of the grand tapestry, declaring the faithfulness of our covenant God and the salvation found in his Son. [see Gen. 17:1-8; 22:16-18; John 1:1-4; 1 Peter 1:20-21; Luke 2:10-14; Rom. 5:1-5; Eph. 2:18-22; Isaiah 6:8; Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:39-40]
Our fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ was no mere add-on to the gospel of salvation, not a nice afterthought tacked onto saving us from our sins. Our fellowship with one another and with God is the whole point of our salvation. If that seems too much to claim, let’s look at our Lord’s Great High Priestly prayer from the night of the Last Supper, and see what he prayed would be the result of his work on earth [parenthetical comments mine]:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word [that’s us], that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:20-24)
Jesus prayed for our unity with one another and our unity with the Godhead, both here while we still live, and ultimately in the realms of glory for eternity. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones comments on 1 John 1:3—
Here we are given, without any hesitation, a description, the summum bonum, of the Christian life; here, indeed, is the whole object, the ultimate, the goal of all Christian experience and all Christian endeavor. This, beyond any question, is the central message of the Christian gospel and of the Christian faith.
May the Lord continue his holy work of knitting us together in covenant unity as he builds us up into a holy temple for his own dwelling place.
Until next week—grace and peace to you.
 Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Reformed Expository Commentary, 1 – 3 John, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015), 3
 Martin Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, (Wheaton, Il: 2002), 47, 48.
 Ibid., 53-54.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the First Epistle of John, translated by the Rev. William Pringle, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2009)
 Martin Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, (Wheaton, Il: 2002), 73.