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.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.