1 John 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Witness to the Word of Life
Probably each of us has had the experience of speaking in a situation of emergency, under duress or out of anxiety. Our words spill forth, racing ahead of our thoughts, until we run out of breath or someone gently urges us to "slow down." In some ways, the preface of this epistle (1:1-4) 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; twice to what he proclaims. But if the wording of the preface is a bit awkward, the author's goal and message is not. Clearly he wishes to underscore that what he is bearing witness to is no figment of his imagination, no invention of his own. He wishes to set before his readers the life that is in Jesus Christ.
John's statements are two-pronged. On the one hand, he is stressing that he himself has the credentials of witness: he personally experienced that to which he bears witness. But, on the other hand, his role is only that of a witness, of one who points beyond himself to those realities of which he speaks. He does not want to draw attention to himself so much as to the object of his experience (Marshall 1978:100), namely, the realities of Jesus' life and ministry. His stance is like that of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John: "[Jesus] must become greater; I must become less important" (Jn 3:30).
Moreover, the role of witness is not limited only to testimony that certain things really happened. A witness also proclaims the meaning and significance of those events. And for John, the significance of what hap pened in Jesus can be summarized by one word: life. Jesus himself is the life of God (1:1) and came to give eternal life to those who believe (1:2).
Thus the message that is proclaimed, the Word of life, originates in the words and works of Jesus. Because Jesus was a real human being of flesh and blood, the author can write that the life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father. The order of these verbs (have seen . . . testify . . . proclaim) is chosen deliberately. They "express in order the three ideas of experience, attestation and evangelism which form part of any gen uine and lasting response to the Gospel" (Smalley 1984:9).
Because he fulfills these tasks, this author and witness brings subsequent generations into fellowship with God (v. 3). He is one link in a chain of witnesses, stretching from the first eyewitnesses to the present day. In that chain, each generation of believers, when it appropriates and testifies to the truth of the gospel, becomes the next link, the next recipient and guardian of that witness. To be sure, both the function and the experience of the eyewitness are distinctive, but they are not thereby superior. Believers--like John's read ers and like us today--who have "not seen and yet have believed" (Jn 20:29) are no less in touch with the Word of life who was made manifest.
That life was with the Father. This descriptive phrase testifies to both the origin and character of true life. Life, whether physical or spiritual, is the gift of a gracious, creating, life-giving God. God alone creates and sustains life. And in Jesus, God offers eternal life, which is neither more nor less than knowledge of and fellowship with the one living God (Jn 17:3). God's desire is not to bring death, destruction or condemnation, but life, healing and release. This life can be experienced here and now, for it is received as one becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ. Through the proclamation of the word of life, that is, the message (word) about Jesus (the life), subsequent generations of believers come to know about and ultimately to appropriate life for themselves (compare Jn 4:42). Even as God became visible and tangible in Jesus, so for all subsequent gener ations of believers, the word of life is that visible and tangible witness to Jesus (Culpepper 1985:7).
Because the message that is proclaimed serves to mediate knowledge of and fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ, John finds it necessary to stress that this message has not changed. The truth has been the same from the beginning. The word was the truthful mes sage that was proclaimed by Jesus, heard by the eyewitnesses and now handed on to subsequent generations (1:1, 5; 2:6-7). The warning to the church is implicit: "The baton is being passed to you--don't drop it!"
Apparently the message has been changed in unacceptable ways by some members of the congregation, to the extent that the message they preach no longer can be called the word of life. And those who do not adhere to the Word of life cannot have true fellowship together with those who do. For ultimately the fellowship that believers share together is not simply that of an accidental conglomeration of people with some things in common. Rather, what believers in Christ have in common is fellowship with God. Those who know and love God are joined to each other as well.
For the author of 1 John, then, failing to confess the true message has dire consequences. Failure to hold to what is true means that one can have fellowship neither with the faithful nor with God. But how is right belief the basis for fellowship? Does John really mean to assert that fellowship with other believers and with God depends on the correct ness of all one's beliefs? We do well to remember that the epistle con tends for the most fundamental of all religious beliefs, namely, belief in God. More specifically, what is at issue is the relationship of the Father and the Son (v. 3) and, hence, the way in which one comes to know God. If it is not the God made known in Jesus Christ in whom we place our trust, then fellowship is with some other god (5:21) and not with the God who has always been proclaimed (from the beginning).
This implies, in turn, that there is no true fellowship with those who do not hold the same confession about the Father and Son. Fellowship literally means "sharing in common." Where people deny the basic confessions about God that the word of the gospel affirms, friendship or meaningful relationship can exist. But there cannot be Christian fellow ship such as John envisions it. Fellowship is the unity of those who have appropriated the life granted to them by God. The shared experience of life in Jesus alone constitutes true Christian fellowship.
Christian fellowship is and ought to be characterized by joy--a joy that John describes as "complete" or "fulfilled" (Jn 3:29; 15:11; 16:24; 17:13; 2 Jn 4, 12; 3 Jn 4). Here John writes that his joy will be completed when his readers heed his words and continue in fellowship with him and with God. Joy is given through and rests on this fellowship. Like the psalmist, who proclaims "you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand" (Ps 16:11), John describes joy as a gift of God, which comes from the knowledge and experience of the life that God gives.
Biblical writers continually looked for the day when they would know joy, when they would rejoice. But John writes in this epistle that the expected joy of fellowship with God is now available to those who fellowship with God through Jesus. No need to wait any longer--full joy can be ours through Jesus Christ. A long-awaited blessing of the messi anic age is here. Joy is not given to us apart from the circumstances of our earthly life, or as a substitute for pain or an escape from sorrow. Joy does not depend upon the elimination of the things that weigh us down or trouble us here. Joy comes from the deep trust of knowing that precisely in this world one is nevertheless in touch with the God who has given us life in the midst of the death that surrounds us. So with the psalmist the author of the epistle would gladly say that there is joy in the presence of God. We have joy now as we experience God's presence in Jesus. Sharing together God's presence, God's gift of life, completes our joy.