1st Letter of John: Introduction
1 John 1:1-2
“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.”
As we know, the apostle John wrote the two life-giving books in the New Testament, the first being the Gospel according to John, and the, the last of the New Testament book, the Book of Revelation. He also wrote 3 other books, called epistles or letters, the first of which we are beginning the study of today. Some people consider this first of the three letter books not a letter at all because it is not written in the form of a letter. It has no greetings to any particular person nor church either at the beginning or at the end of the epistle. It is written instead in the form of a sermon. It is very likely that John wrote this 1st epistle of John during his imprisonment at the Patmos Island, which places the date of this letter somewhere around a.d. 100.It has all the mark of a very devoted pastor for a truly beloved congregation. We know that John served as the pastor of the Ephesian church, the same Ephesian church founded by the Apostle Paul. He died in Ephesus and was buried there.
In order for us to understand this 1st epistle of John, it’s important for us to be a little familiar with the city of Ephesus itself at the beginning of the 2nd century. We can say that it was very much like the larger towns and cities of this day. And if we consider a few aspects of life that prevailed during his time, we can better understand the purpose of the writing of this great letter. First of all, let me say that the people then were very much familiar with Christianity by then and felt comfortable around it. Many of the believers were the children and grandchildren of the very first Christians. The wonderful spirit of the early Christian faith was by then blurred. The newness had worn off. The thrill of adapting the Christian faith in the face of tremendous difficulties had by then begun to fade. There was a time when Paul challenged the idol worshiping city with the gospel which even caused riots. How glorious was their love and devotion to Christ in those early days! But years later, we read in the Book of Revelation the Lord’s very words to the Christian church in Ephesus, and we realize from what heights they had fallen. “I hold this against you:” he tells them: “You have forsaken your first love.” (Revelation 2:4) It was happening to them exactly what Jesus long ago had already warned would happen to them: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) The Ephesian Christians devotion and commitment to Christ was diminishing.
The 2nd aspect of life we ought to consider is this. The once high standards by which the Christian faith and Christians embraced and lived made them different from all other people. But the children and grandchildren of the first Christians did not want to be different. They wanted to be like the non-Christian people, and do as these others do. The believers, those who had embraced Christ were called “holy” or “saints”. The primary meaning of this word is to be “set apart for God’s use alone— that which belongs to God”. There were many things that were holy— set apart for God. There is the Sabbath, it is holy; it is set apart for God’s use, for it belongs to God. The Christians as well were to be holy saints— different from all others, and set apart for God’s use. But the Ephesian Christians were corrupted with the corruption that is born out of compromise. They had become artificial Christians. They were of a different mold than Jesus’ disciples to whom Jesus had said: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:19) Jesus had also prayed to the Father like this: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.” (John 17:14) The Christian faith and spirit in those Christians was not the same as their fathers. It had really become radically dulled.
The 3rd aspect of Christian life in Ephesus we have to look at is this: At the time, persecution was not the enemy of Christianity. The great danger to the believers in the Ephesian church was not persecution from the outside but seduction and corruption from the inside. Jesus himself had warned us all of this when he said: “For false christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect— if that were possible.” (Matthew 24:24) And Paul also had warned the Ephesian elders: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30) Of course, the Christian faith was not in danger of being destroyed. But it was in danger of being changed! False teachers weren’t trying to destroy Christianity, they were trying instead to improve it. They were trying to make it better— more respectable to the intellectual mind and the philosophical mind.
Here’s a 4th aspect of life in Ephesus. Gnosticism was the rising enemy of Christianity and the Christian faith and that enemy has risen and persisted throughout the generations, even until today. This “Gnosticism” was the basic philosophy of the Roman world, and it took many forms. But we can say that one idea or ideal summarized all of them. And that is, that material things were essentially all evil, and only spiritual things or things of the spirit were good. For that reason they despised the body, believing that within the body there was a spirit of good, like a seed in very dirty ground. It doesn’t make sense unless you realize that today this kind of thought is at the heart of modernists and liberals who say that there is a bit of good in everyone, and that each person should develop that park of good in them. The Bible tells us that such a thing is bogus. There is neither any good in you and me nor can we develop this imaginary seed of good in us either. But the Stoics of every generation have and teach very rigid rules of self discipline. And the Epicureans of every generation hold that while it is good to satisfy the desires of one’s intellect and deny one’s sensual desires, it is better to go ahead and satisfy the sensual desires of the body so that their bodies wont have to bother them any more. This kind of philosophy was and still is rampant in the modern Christian realm.
But whatever their philosophy may be, and no matter how seemingly spiritual they may seem in their intellectual view and their disciplinary view, they agree on one thing— they both deny the Messiahship of the Lord Jesus. In this letter, John tells us: “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist— he denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:22) They deny the Incarnation of Jesus saying that God could not have taken human body because all flesh is evil. That’s why John emphatically tells us in his Gospel: “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.” (John 1:14) And in this letter John again he tells us: “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.” (1 John 4:2-3) The heresies denying the deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus, and his coming in the flesh and dying in the flesh, were rampant and still are in every generation. The early church fathers really battled against these heresies and maintained this truth at all costs: “He became what we are to make us what he is.” For this reason we believe that John wrote this letter to answer to the errors of Gnosticism.
Actually John had a fivefold purpose in writing this letter: (1) “so that you also may have fellowship with us” [other believers] “… and with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1:3). (2) “…To make our joy complete.” (1:4). (3) “…So that you will not sin.” (2:1). (4) “…That you may know that you have eternal life.” (5:13). And (5) “That you may believe in the name of the Son of God.” (5:13).
This 1st letter of John has been called the “Holy of Holies” Of the New Testament and for a good reason too! Because it takes the child of God from a place on the outside of the house and family, right to the inside of God’s house so that he or she might have fellowship with the Father in his own home as a family would. We can say that while Paul’s epistles and all other epistles are church epistles (written for the church), the book of 1st John is more of a family epistle (written as for believers as God’s family in God’s house). And therefore, we must treat it like a family epistle. What I mean is that most of the church epistles teach us about our blessed position in Christ— that those who believe in Christ stand in Christ and with Christ in the heavenly realm with all the blessings of heaven. When we put our faith in Christ, we are immediately raised to our heavenly position in Christ and with him— and as a church together we stand in him. That’s what epistles teach us! They teach us about justification and righteousness and sanctification and glorification and such, where the church stands in Christ. They teach us what is the role of the church in this world, how we ought to stand united for Christ and fight the good fight of faith contending for the gospel. But when we believe in Christ Jesus, something else happens to us as well. We are brought into God’s family, and we become the family of God which our Father intended for us to be. And in a family, we have a relationship, which can be broken we when sin and restored when we confess our sins. Then God our Father is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) This letter of1st John talks about the relationship we have with God and with each other as a family. It is even of greater importance to us than the church epistles. I can almost say that it is vital in the growth and development of our congregation.
Let me outline this letter for you before we delve into it. To begin with, in this little book or letter, there are three definitions of God. (1) God is light. (2) God is love. And (3) God is life. And we can divide this letter accordingly (The division and structure of the book of 1st John, as well as the theme development throughout the introduction is borrowed largely from Dr. J. Vernon McGee’s commentary).
We will discuss these issues one at a time as we study this wonderful letter of 1st John in the coming few weeks. As mentioned before, however, John wrote this letter to counteract the first heresy which had invaded the church at the time, which was (and still is) Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed and bragged that they had some kind of super-knowledge— some kind of extra knowledge of spiritual things, of God and of the spirit. They accepted the deity of Jesus, that is, they acknowledged that Jesus is divine. But they denied Jesus’ humanity, that is, they denied that he literally came in human flesh. It was a terrible heresy to deny Jesus his humanity. It is not enough to believe that Jesus was fully God, it is equally as vital for the Christian to believe that Jesus was fully human as well. Salvation depends on it. So it was necessary for John to write this letter to establish once for all Jesus who is God did appear in human flesh. Today we will only look at John’s prologue, that is verses 1-2, to see how he introduces the Savior of our Christian family. What we are interested in is not some super knowledge, but the genuine and true knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So let’s see.
Read 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.” He says: “That which was form the beginning.” What beginning is John talking about? Actually in the whole Bible there are three distinct beginnings. The first one we read in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We cannot date that beginning at all regardless of how many experiments we run or how much we advance in the sciences. We really don’t know when God created the heavens and the earth. Much has been written about when this phenomenon occurred, but none can place it at any moment in time. Science advances and scientific theories keep evolving from the absurd to the bizarre. And the truth remains that no one can actually date that beginning, since no one was there to record the moment in time. Someone has said that the author of Genesis who is God wrote “In the beginning” for us rather than “at the beginning” because while at the beginning implies a starting point, in the beginning does not, and therefore, in the beginning is the same as saying, sometime in the vast eternity of God, God decided to create what we have come to know as the heavens and the earth. Even that is beyond the comprehension of our limited and finite minds.
Yet there is something that we must come to understand through all this— the first verse of Genesis declares that God himself is the Creator of the heavens and earth. And until we are ready to accept that as fact, we are really unprepared to read any further in this the word of God, the Bible, simply because the remainder of the Bible hinges or rests upon this first verse in the Bible. Anyway, it is quite ridiculous to believe that the universe came into existence by chance. Suppose a man happens at Mount Rushmore for the first time, would he say to himself that the mountain evolved into the likeness of the first presidents of the United States, or would he intuitively know that there was definitely a designer behind the structure! Let us be clear that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth. And God surely created the heavens and the earth for a purpose. God is working out a plan in his glorious eternity which is bigger and greater than any human mind can fathom. Suffice it to say that we are part of that great plan God had when he willed the heavens and the earth into existence somewhere in eternity.
There is another beginning which we find also in the word of God. It is the first verse of the gospel of John. It says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) And he adds, “He was with God in the beginning.” (John 1:2) After this he tells us about creation saying: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:3) It is incredible that the Lord Jesus Christ, the creator of all things in heaven and on earth was there in the Beginning. Regardless of how far back in time we go, there has always been and is and will be the Christ at the center of all things created and that are seen. He is the Ancient of days. He is the one who was there even before the beginning of time and space as we know it. Jesus Christ is not just a man who came to help humanity lead a noble and moral life. He is the Creator God who was there in the beginning.
Then there is a third beginning and we find it right here in the letter of 1st John to the early Christians. Let’s read it again. “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.” And this beginning refers to the time when Christ came into the world and was born in Bethlehem of Judea. When Jesus was about 30 years old, the author John became acquainted with him for the first time. John and his brother James met him in Jerusalem. Later on, they were with their father mending their fishing nets when Jesus came by and called them to follow him. At the time, John and his brother left everything behind and began to follow Jesus. This is the same Jesus that John is now telling us he would like to tell us about him. And it is necessary to note his affirmation. He says: (1) We have heard. They heard him through their own ears. (2) We have seen. They saw him with their eyes. (3) We have looked at. This word is more like gazed intently upon, and (4) our hands have touched. They had touched him with their own hands. John is talking here about the incarnation of the Lord Jesus as a Man and his own association with him when he walked on the earth for that period of time together with them and the other disciples.
John tells us: That….. which we have heard.” John is not talking some nonsense here about his own opinion or imagination. He is talking about the fact that he had actually heard the Lord Jesus; he had heard his voice; and when he listened to him, he was sure he was listening to the very voice of God the Father. Jesus’ voice was the most precious voice he and the others had every heard in their lives. It was the voice of the Father who spoke truth and life into the wounded and desperate hearts of all people who heard him. John also says: “That which we have seen with our eyes.” The apostles did not only hear Jesus speak, but they also saw him with their own eyes. Today, we cannot see him with our physical eyes. But we can surely see him with our eyes of faith. The apostle Peter says: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8) When Thomas doubted that the other apostles had seen the Resurrected Christ, Jesus came to him so that Thomas’ hands might touch him. Then Jesus told him: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
Today, the Lord Jesus Christ is as real to us who are walking by faith as he was on that day when he let Thomas seen him and touch him. For three and the half years, John tells us that he and the others looked at him. They had gazed upon him intently because in him they not only saw the Shepherd of their souls, but they saw in him the majesty of God Almighty. Who could look away from such glory! Only those without faith can see nothing but the filth and despair of this world and they perish with the world. The Risen Jesus told his disciples these words: “’Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.” (Luke 24:39-40) Those who have faith can easily see and look upon the one who had done everything to bring them out of death into life. But we can only see him with eyes of faith. We have to see that the Incarnate Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead to clear our sin debts and to make us the children of God.
After Paul died in about a.d. 67 a heresy arose in the church called Gnosticism which we have talked about briefly at the beginning. Gnosticism is somewhat the opposite of agnosticism. Agnosticism tells us that the reality of God is unknown and in most probability unknowable. In other words no one can actually know God. There are many agnostics in our time, in colleges and universities, in office and in power and such. They don’t believe the Bible. They say: “I don’t know!” But the Bible tells us that in their inner hearts they do know the truth of God and of Christ, yet they make every effort to suppress it. (Romans 1:21) On the other hand, the Gnostics were the group which came into the church claiming that they know, only too much, much more than what the Bible is willing to reveal to the ordinary Christian. They claimed to know things of the Spirit that placed them ahead of other Christians who remain beneath them for lack of extra blessing and lack of extra knowledge. They behaved like super saints and despised and looked down on other Christians. There are many like this today as well. They visit churches and go from church to church and never settle down in any church. They go around flaunting their knowledge in this church and that church, feeling superior to others. When they study Bible in a group they do not study to learn, they study to teach and to show off that they have something others do not have. They are hypocrites who do not know how to humble themselves before the majesty of Christ and drink form his grace. While they claim to know Jesus, their attitude would tell us that Jesus might learn a few things from them, because they have been blessed with the spirit. What spirit they have I do not know, and what knowledge they have I do not know either. But I know that neither their spirit nor their knowledge are form the Lord.
The Gnostics of that day (like today as well) came up with a few new ideas to better the church and to put the church out there in the world where intellectuals and philosophers and liberals and such would respect it and approve of it. But neither Jesus Christ nor the church of the living God need the approval of the world. Ideas to better the church and make it digestible to all faiths and religions, even the modernist Christianity that approves all things and tolerates all things— we have to understand that the gospel of Jesus does not stand to be improved. The challenge is this: Jesus appeared in the flesh and lived as a man and died and rose again, and when he came back he was then flesh as well albeit a transformed flesh that we all look eagerly to receive upon his return and our own resurrection.
Read 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 life appeared. This means that that the Life himself came in person so that every man and woman and child could see it. John is talking about the Word of Life, here! He is talking about none other than Jesus Christ. He and we have seen it and we all testify to it, because we have been touched by it. And we proclaim it the eternal life which was with God in the beginning, and has appeared to us who are of this world. He appeared so that those who believe in him, will not perish in this world in their flesh, but have him who is our eternal life who is the source of their and our life and our salvation. This is how John begins his beautiful letter to his congregation. He asserts that Jesus is the Christ, and that he had come in the flesh. They had seen him and heard him. No one can testify otherwise and be truthful. All other testimonies that oppose this teaching are lies. May God help us to live in the truth, and to stand firm in this corrupt generation on the solid rock who is Jesus.
- I.  God is light (1:5) Chapters 1:1-2:2
- A. In this section there is first a prologue (1-2)
- B. After that John explains how the “children” (which is how John addresses us believers) can have fellowship with God. (1:3-2:2) And he does that by showing us three ways to have fellowship with God.
(1) By walking in the light (1:3-7),
(2) By confessing our sins (1:8-10), and
(3) By the intervention of our Atoning Sacrifice for sin— Christ himself (2:1-2)
- II. God is Love (4:8) Chapters 2:3-4:21
- A. In this section John shows us how we the children can have fellowship with each other. (2:3-14)
- B. How we the children must not love the world (2:15-28)
- C. How we the children can know each other and live together (2:29-4:21)
(1) The Father’s love for his children (2:29-3:3)
(2) The two natures of the believer in action (3:4-24)
(3) Warning against False Teachers (4:1-6)
(4) God is Love. And Children will love one another (4:7-21)
- III. God is Life (5:12) Chapter 5
- A. Victory over the world (5:1-5)
- B. Assurance of salvation (6-21)