For the quarter beginning in March, my congregation’s adult classes will be studying 1 John. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. In fact, the first Bible class I ever taught in church was a series on 1 John, way back in 1978, while I was clerking for a law firm and studying for the bar. And I thoroughly enjoyed the book — and have only learned more from it since then.
For some reason, it’s a book we don’t teach from that often. I think it’s because John’s style is so non-linear. Unlike the linear Paul and largely linear narratives of the Gospels and Acts, John meanders. He introduces a subject, leaves it, comes back to it, leaves it, and returns once again. He is more cyclical, visiting and revisiting the subjects from slightly different angles.
Also, John writes in a highly abbreviated, figurative style. Where Paul might write a 60-word sentence, John says something like, “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling” (1Jo 2:10 ESV). And this forces us to ponder questions such as, “What is light?” and “What is ‘abides’? and even ‘What is love?” And this is the genius and glory of John — he forces us to wrestle with these images and words — which forces us to think hard about his ideas.
John is not at all the typical Western writer, and so isn’t very comfortable for us. He says open-ended things that leave us to reflect on his words without giving us nice, concrete do’s and don’t’s. Indeed, in many respects, like the Master Teacher, his style is Eastern, full of image and metaphor, and intentionally open to interpretation. You see, John shows us a way to think and to feel more than giving us pre-chewed answers. 1 John is a book that we have to allow to simmer — and savor. Like fine wine, you have to open it and let it breathe a bit. You can’t just instantly understand what he’s saying. It takes time and reflection and discussion. It’s perfect for group study.
It’s tempting to outline 1 John and perhaps summarize his themes in advance, as many commentaries do, but I believe it’s better to accept 1 John on its own terms. Rather than imposing Western approaches — outlines, themes — and even re-ordering 1 John to our taste, we should start at the beginning and let John instruct us in his own way, submitting to his style and his worldview.
(1Jo 1:1-3 ESV) 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.
What is “That which was from the beginning”? What is that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands”? Plainly, “that” is really “who,” who is really Jesus.
John chooses the impersonal “that” rather than “he” for some reason. Why? It seems foreign to us to depersonalize Jesus when modern evangelicals work so hard to make him very personal indeed. Why?
My best guess is that John wants to introduce Jesus as more than mere man. He begins with “which was from the beginning.” Jesus did not begin as a baby. He pre-existed the creation. He was there when the heavens and earth were made.
And yet, John quickly transitions from cosmic force/ancient creator to the very human Jesus — “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands” — drawing an immediate, powerful contrast. Jesus is both God and Man. Jesus is bigger than the universe and smaller than a manger. He was both fully human and fully divine.
John next describes Jesus as “the word of life.” Why?
We can’t help recall John 1, where Jesus is referred as the “the word” or logos. And here “word” again translates logos — and logos has several meanings, all of which are true and likely intended by John.
* Logos means message, and hence Jesus is the message of life, that is, the message for how to attain eternal life. Now, John doesn’t say the Jesus taught the word of life. He says Jesus is the word of life. He is himself the message. Indeed, in v. 2, he’ll refer to Jesus as “the life.” Jesus didn’t just tell us how to live but he showed us. His life exemplifies the life that leads to eternal life. And, of course, his life is the price that was paid for eternal life.
* Logos means a word spoken, and John’s image is of Jesus as the “word” of God, through whom the Creation was created. Jesus is thus God’s agent in creating the heavens and the earth, uniquely qualifying him to show us and tell us how to life. When God spoke the world into existence, he spoke a word, and Jesus is that word. It’s a very poetic way of saying that Jesus’ role in the Creation is the same as the words spoken by God — he is means by which God did the creating.
* Logos is a term borrowed from Greek philosophy for the logic or laws that hold nature together and make nature behave as it does. The logos is what, to borrow from Stephen Hawking, puts the fire in the equations. It is the ultimate source and foundation of the universe.
John is speaking in a very abbreviated fashion in deeply cosmic terms, giving the briefest summary of John 1.
John writes, “the life was made manifest, and we have seen it.”
Now, a key to John, as I’ve tried to show in v.1, is that ambiguous terms usually have both (or all) possible meanings. 1 John is highly abbreviated, and often packs two or three or more meanings into a single word. (He has an obvious love for language.)
“Life” thus means Jesus while alive as a human, but also eternal life, because Jesus both is eternal and the source of eternal life.
“We have seen it” again depersonalizes Jesus to emphasize his cosmic, eternal nature. He’s no mere human, but he is fully human. To have seen “the life” is to have seen the Eternal One and that he is eternal — demonstrated by his resurrection.
“We … testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life” is the language of a witness. Only a witness can give testimony. This is a claim to have seen Jesus personally.
“Proclaim” is to bring tidings or make a report but also to declare something openly. Thus, John is openly bringing news of what he has himself seen.
“Eternal life” is literally “life of the ages” or “life in the next age.” To have life eternal is to live in the age to come. John has seen eternal life, because Jesus is eternal life — because Jesus is eternal, was proven to be eternal by his resurrection, taught eternal life, and gives eternal life. He is eternal life.
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.
John returns to the humanity of Jesus — which he has seen and heard — and now proclaims to his readers. He becomes personal, saying that his proclamation to his readers will give them “fellowship with us.” “Us” is either John in the editorial “we” or, more likely, I think, the apostles. In effect, he’s saying, “Even though you weren’t there to see it/him yourselves, by our proclamation, you are invited to join with those who witnessed Jesus/eternal life in fellowship.”
Now, “fellowship” includes the ideas of sharing, participation, partnership, and commonality. And John declares that his fellowship is with God and Jesus.
What does John have in common with Deity? He is not claiming to be a god!! No, but he’s claiming to share in their eternal life, their immortality (more than this, but at least this). He and the other witnesses to Jesus have been given immortality to live in fellowship with God and Jesus forever — and his proclamation is designed to bring his readers into the same fellowship. The readers aren’t themselves witnesses and didn’t see or touch the flesh of Jesus, and yet the promise of life extends to those who receive the proclamation.
John sees his place in history as a witness to Jesus as eternal life as a rare and extraordinary privilege. He has received a gift that he must declare and share. It’s not enough to be in fellowship with the God who made the universe. He must invite others into this blessing!
We pass too quickly over “Son Jesus Christ,” being so familiar with the words we no longer hear them. Let’s ponder them for a moment.
“Jesus,” of course, is the human name for Jesus — meaning “Yahweh saves” and, in Hebrew, being the same name as “Joshua.” Joshua, of course, brought the people through water (the Jordan) into the Promised Land. Joshua was a warrior-leader, leading the people into the conquest of Canaan. Jesus is not only a human name, but a name chosen by God to show the parallels between Jesus and Joshua.
Joshua was not a lawgiver — that was Moses. Joshua was the leader of a people on a mission of conquest. God gave the victories, but the people fought the battles. But they often fought in unconventional ways, against impossible odds, always counting on God to give the victory. The children of Israel had to strap on their armor and pick up swords, but the greatest fighter — the Giver of Victory — was God.
Therefore, every time we hear a reference to “Jesus,” we should think of a leader who takes his people into battle, assured of victory despite impossible odds and unconventional methods, but assured of victory because God has promised it.
“Christ” translated christos, meaning anointed one. It’s the Greek for Messiah, which is Hebrew for anointed one. And “anointed one” means king. “Messiah” means the king long promised by God to restore the Kingdom and to restore justice and righteousness to the world. We might better translate “King” — meaning ruler and judge — as in those days, kings were the supreme court of their kingdoms.
“Son” is replete with meaning. God referred to the king of Israel as his “son.” He also referred to all Israelites as his “sons.” Thus, Jesus is king, but he is also the representative of his people before God. He is the Son on behalf of all sons.
This is all kingdom language, defined in the Law and the Prophets, but given deeper, greater meaning when God revealed that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son and the Messiah. And while John plainly attributes divinity to Jesus, these words are foremost about his authority as king of the earth and place in God’s history as the Savior of the world, as described by the Prophets. (We could do an entire quarter on this.)
Finally, as we’ll discuss as we go, the language of Messiah refers us to Isaiah prophecies of the Messiah’s as sacrifice. But I’m getting ahead of the text.