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First John 1:1-10

I.               Introduction: The Apostolic Message - 1:1-4

A.             The Substance of the Apostolic Message - 1:1-2

These opening verses are quite difficult grammatically. There are four clauses (with a fifth in v. 3a), each beginning with "which" (a neuter pronoun designed to express "the whole career of Jesus" [Brown], i.e., the person, words, and works of Jesus), each declaring and describing the reality of the Incarnation. All four clauses are the direct objects of the verb "declare" that doesn't appear until v. 3. What follows is simply an expanded paraphrase of what John is saying:

"When we set before you the gospel of Christ (the Word of Life) there are certain factors that must be stressed, not least of which is the fact that the Eternal, that which was from the beginning, that very Life which was with the Father, has been historically manifested. You may rely on our proclamation of this because we have heard him, we have seen him with our own eyes, we beheld him and our hands even grasped him.

What are the implications of this for us today who have not "heard, seen, beheld, and grasped" the historical, physical reality of God incarnate in the person of Jesus? Is our faith less real? Is our relationship with him less dynamic and personal? See John 14:18,23. As Burge notes, "Johannine theology does not see the Ascension as a terminus of Christ's presence" (61). Because of the unique relationship between Jesus and the Spirit, the Spirit's presence in and with us is the presence of Jesus in and with us. See 1 John 3:24 ("And we know by this that He [Jesus] abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us") and 4:13 ("By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit"). See John 20:29; 1 Peter 1:8.

This manifestation unto us has become a proclamation unto you and thus we are testifying to it and are announcing it unto you. It is important that we do so because, as you know, some say that the body of Jesus was not real flesh, that it only seemed to be so (from the Greek verb dokeo = to seem or to think; hence their view is known as Docetism = the heretical doctrine of later Gnostics which states that Jesus' body was a phantasm, not real flesh and blood). It is also their teaching that the divine Logos or Christ who was with the Father from eternity past is distinct from the man Jesus upon whom he descended at the baptism and from whom he departed before the crucifixion. But we stand opposed to such ideas. His body was not a phantasm. It was real! We heard him speak. But even more than that, we saw him with our eyes and we beheld him and even laid our hands upon his flesh. Moreover, this man Jesus was the Christ. They are one and the same person. He who was with the Father was historically manifested as the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Some have tried to argue that the language of sense perception in these verses is not literal but metaphorical. For example, they contend that the 'hearing does not refer to a first-hand, personal hearing of Jesus' own preaching by John himself but a hearing of the message about Jesus handed down to him by others. But this language, when combined with the eyes seeing and the hands touching, can hardly be explained as anything other than first-hand, empirical, sensory experience (see the discussion in Kruse, pp. 52-56).

B.             The Purpose of the Proclamation of the Apostolic Message - 1:3-4

1.              to promote fellowship between the apostles and the readers - 1:3

John here describes Jesus as the 'son (huios) of the Father, a term used of him alone, 22x in 1 John. When John 'refers to believers as God's children, he never uses the word 'son' (huios), as, for example, Paul does (Rom. 8:14,19; 9:26; 2 Cor. 6:18; Gal. 3:7,26; 4:6,7; 1 Thess. 5:5), but consistently uses the word 'child' (teknion or teknon). This appears to be his way of marking the fundamental distinction between Jesus as the Son of God and believers as God's children (Kruse, 58).

2.              to complete the joy of the apostles - 1:4

"We know that these liars have disrupted your lives and your walk with the Lord. As a result, our relationship with you has been strained and weakened. Consequently, we write these things in order that the fellowship between Christians for which we all so dearly pray may again be ours together. Only then will our joy truly be fulfilled."

Q: Does it bother you that John's purpose in writing is to bring his own personal joy to completion? He almost sounds like a Christian hedonist! Some would argue that this is selfish. Indeed, a number of manuscripts read: 'we write these things to you to make your joy complete. What do you think?

The prologue makes two important points:

(1) Christian fellowship is not possible other than on the basis of common belief in Christ Jesus (v. 3). Fellowship with each other is possible only if we all have fellowship with the Father and the Son. As Burge says, John "assumes that intimate fellowship in the Christian community is only possible when there is consensus about the identity and presence of Jesus" (52). Our fellowship as Christians is not "some passing association of people who share common sympathies for a cause. Nor is it an academy where an intellectual consensus about God is discovered" (Burge, 55). Christian fellowship is a spiritual partnership grounded in a common experience of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

(2) It is not possible to have a true relationship with God apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ. The point of vv. 1-3 is that God has spoken. He has taken steps to communicate with humanity and grant us life, but on His terms. And those terms are belief in His Son. God, not the church, is responsible for the narrow and exclusive terms on which one may enter heaven. The eternal life which God offers is His Son. There is no other life. Burge explains: "Eternal life is not the by-product of some enlightenment or knowledge acquired mystically. Eternal life is historically anchored in what we may call the scandal of particularity unique to Christianity. The life of God has been channeled to us through a historical event, an event that John says has been verified by people who saw it" (54).

*          The nature of post-modern pluralism and the exclusive claims of Christianity

*          Discuss Burge, pp. 56-60

II.             The First Series of Tests - 1:5-2:27

A.             The Moral Test (1) - 1:5-10

According to one perspective on this passage, the contrasts here are between two types of Christians: those who are "in" fellowship with God and those who are "out" of fellowship with Him. Thus, John is instructing the believer not to hide his/her sins (v. 6) or deny them (vv. 8,10), but to expose oneself to the light (v. 7) and to confess one's sins (v. 9). Thus with one's sins confessed and forgiven, one maintains temporal fellowship with God.

My understanding, however, is that John is making his initial application of the Moral Test. He first describes characteristics of the false teachers in order to expose them as unbelievers and then describes the genuine believer in order to confirm his faith and assure him of eternal life. But how can John be referring to non-Christians in vv. 6-10 when he repeatedly uses the pronoun "we"?

In vv. 1-5 John uses "we" 13x. In vv. 6-10 "we" is used 12x. The "we" of vv. 1-5 refers to the apostles (v. 1). But whom does the "we" of vv. 6-10 include? Some say the apostles, as in vv. 1-5. It would seem, however, that a shift has occurred as John begins his application of the tests of authentic Christianity. I take the "we" in vv. 6-10 to be what is known as the preacher's "we". Stott explains: "The author does clearly identify himself with his readers in many parts of the Epistle, as a preacher does with his congregation in a sermon. . . . In these (and other) 'we' sentences the author is neither speaking editorially nor associating himself with the other apostles but identifying himself with the whole Christian community, or at least with his readers" (28). I.e., John is simply stating general principles which are applicable to all men equally. This kind of "preacher's we" is often heard in the pulpit. E.g., "If we reject the claims of Christ we will be eternally lost, but if we trust Christ as our Savior we will be eternally saved." The "we" really means anyone, but in order to associate with his readers he uses "we". Cf. also 2:9-11,22 ("the one who") and 2:23,29; 3:3,4 ("everyone who").

1.              the basis of the moral test - 1:5

The basis of the moral test is the character of God himself: "God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all" (v. 5). Marshall points out that John "is fond of emphasizing his propositions by a restatement of them in negative form, and so he at once adds, 'in him there is no darkness at all'" (109).

What does it mean to say that "God is light"? See Ps. 27:1; 36:9; Isa. 49:6. It may refer to His ineffable radiance and splendor or His self-revelation of truth or His holiness and righteousness or perhaps all combined! Given the context of the argument in 1 John, the emphasis would be on His absolute and unwavering truthfulness in both word and deed as well as His transcendent holiness and immeasurable purity. Says Stott:

"The miserable errors of the heretics were due to their ignorance of God's ethical self-revelation as Light. . . . And if God is also light in the sense of possessing an absolute moral perfection, their claim to know Him and have fellowship with Him despite their indifference to morality is seen to be sheer non-sense, as the author goes on to demonstrate" (70).

Smalley concurs: 'The statement 'God is light' carries with it an inevitable moral challenge: 'his followers must walk in the light' (20).

What significance is there in the fact that John writes this of God after his experience described in the book of Revelation and after the visions granted him of the justice, purity, power, majesty, and holiness of God?

Here we see the first hints of Johannine dualism (an ethical, not metaphysical dualism):

truth vs. falsehood

good vs. evil

joy vs. sorrow

safety vs. peril

life vs. death

love vs. hate

children of God vs. children of the Devil

of God vs. not of God

not of the world vs. of the world

knowledge vs. ignorance, etc. . . .

[The tests which follow fall into two categories: First, the lifestyle test, i.e., how one lives; the overall characteristic tendencies of an individual's practice. This is found in vv. 6-7. Second, is the hamartiological test, i.e., how one understands and responds to the nature and reality of sin. This is found in vv. 8-10.]

2.              the nature of the moral test: lifestyle - 1:6-7

a.              exposure of the unbeliever - 1:6

John's phrase, "if we say" (vv. 6,8,10) points to his concern with how our conduct corresponds to our claim. One need not conclude that the false teachers actually made these exact claims, but they are no doubt an accurate representation of their point of view. The point is: a person's verbal profession is only as good as the practice of his/her life.

The meaning of "fellowship with Him" will depend on whether one takes this as synonymous with salvation or as a reference to experiential harmony with God. I take it to be the former, and thus a claim to have experienced genuine conversion. Cf. 2:4,9.

To "walk in the darkness" may not seem so bad until one realizes that "God is light" (v. 6a)! "To walk" (peripateo) is metaphorical = "to live" (see John 8:12; Rom. 6:4; Gal. 5:16; Eph. 5:1). The present tense of the verb stresses the habitual nature of living. To walk in darkness is not merely to commit an act of sin but refers to a lifestyle characterized by darkness, i.e, that which is the moral antithesis of God. "Darkness" is obviously the opposite of "light" (i.e., truth and holiness), hence error and unrighteousness. Cf. 2:9-11; 3:10. I conclude that to be "in darkness" = to be "not of God," i.e., lost. See John 11:9,10; 12:35,36,46; Eph. 5:8-9; 1 Thess. 5:5; 1 Pt. 2:9; Acts 26:18.

John's point is that the person who claims to be in fellowship with God (i.e., saved) yet consistently and characteristically walks in darkness is a liar. What do they lie about? . . . their claim to be Christians! "We are right," says Stott, "to be suspicious of those who claim a mystical intimacy with God and yet 'walk in the darkness' of error and sin, paying no regard to the self-revelation of an all-holy God. Since God is light, such claims are ludicrous. Religion without morality is an illusion" (74). What does this tell us about our tendency to naively believe everyone's "verbal profession" of faith in God/Jesus?

Observe John's reference to "doing" the truth. The truth of Christianity is not simply something to be believed. It is not merely a matter of theological reflection or intellectual persuasion. It is, rather, a comprehensive embrace by both our minds and in our lives of all that God has revealed

b.              confirmation of the believer - 1:7

To "walk in the light" is the ethical antithesis of walking in darkness. At minimum, it refers to a desire or a yearning for truth and righteousness in one's life. This is not sinlessness, but it does mean that we will sin less. It is a life characterized by "a conscious sustained endeavor to live a life in conformity with the revelation of God, who is light" (Brooke, 15). It means living with an open heart before God, honest and vulnerable, quick to confess and repent. Walking in the light results in two things:

we have fellowship with one another - This is surprising. One would think, in light of v. 6, that it would read: "we have fellowship with God." John's point seems to be that 'there is no real fellowship with God which is not expressed in fellowship with other believers. It would appear from what is to come later in this letter that this unexpected statement about the consequence of walking in the light is made to rule out the claim of the secessionists who say they do have fellowship with God while not sharing fellowship with other believers (in this case, with those of the author's persuasion) (Kruse, 64). Evidently, genuine "fellowship" between believers can only be sustained as we walk in the light.

the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin - The word "sin" (without the definite article) = hamartia = the guilt of sin; the focus is on quality (John 8:21; 9:41; 1 John 3:5). Hence, we are cleansed from "every kind of guilt." The verb "cleanses" is again in the present tense, hence "continues to cleanse." Brian Christie explains: "Every believer is cleansed and kept clean as a result of faith in Christ at salvation. The present tense is then understood in the sense that the blood of Jesus 'keeps us clean' from all guilt. This is the earmark of the Christian, for in John a genuine Christian is a 'clean one'. This view, then, relates this cleansing to 1 John 2:1-2" (43).

Stott asks an interesting question: "What sin needs to be cleansed if we walk in the light?" (80). He concludes that "the reference here must be to cleansing not from deliberate sins but either from 'every sin', even those committed unconsciously, or, as may be suggested by the use of the singular sin, from the defilement of our fallen nature" (81).

Principle: the new, immature believer sins a lot and hates it a little, whereas the older, mature believer sins a little and hates it a lot.

3.              the nature of the moral test: hamartiological - 1:8-10

a.              exposure of the unbeliever - 1:8

The claim, "we have no sin," probably means "we are free of guilt" (cf. John 9:41; 15:22,24; 19:11). This may be their response to v. 7, i.e., they argued that they did not need cleansing from sin because they had no guilt from which to be cleansed. Or, as Bruce puts it, "But, say some of those against whom John's polemic is directed, what is it to us if the blood of Jesus is not available to cleanse us from sin? We have no sin!" (44).

Burge argues that "in 1 John 1:8, 'to have sin' likely refers to a quality of personhood, an active principle at work in someone's life. It is a disposition of heart that lives in rebellion and constantly exhibits evil deeds" (81).

Kruse presents a slightly different view and argues that 'what the secessionists were claiming was, not that they were by nature free from the sin principle, but that they were not guilty of committing sins, by which they probably meant they had not sinned since they came to know God and experienced the anointing (66).

In any case, those who make such a claim are self-deceived (v. 8) and do not have the truth in them (v. 8). He is not saying merely that the truth is "not interwoven into the fabric of their thoughts," as some suggest. Rather, the truth is not in them. Period. As Marshall says, "This doesn't mean simply that they are telling a lie, but that they have no share in the divine reality despite their claim to the contrary" (113).

Whenever "truth" [aletheia] appears in the Johannine literature with the definite article ["the"] it refers to the body of Christian truth, i.e., the gospel in its fullness (cf. John 1:17; 3:21; 5:33; 8:32,40,44,45; 14:6,17; 15:26; 16:13; 17:17; 18:37; 1 John 2:4,21; 3:19; 4:6; 5:6; 2 John 1,2; 3 John 4,8,12).

Thus, says Stott, "not only do we fail to do the truth (v. 6); we are void of it. For if it did indwell us we should inevitably be aware of our sinfulness. John's affirmation is equally applicable today to those who deny the fact or guilt of sin by seeking to interpret it solely in terms of physiological, psychological or social terms" (77).

b.              confirmation of the believer - 1:9

The verb "confess" (homologeo) is used 26x in the NT: 6x in John's epistles (1:9; 2:23; 4:2,3,15; 2 John 7). It means to solemnly agree with some aspect of truth which is a test of genuine Christianity.

The phrase "forgiveness of sins" occurs only twice elsewhere in John's writings (John 20:23 and 1 John 2:12), both of which refer to the forgiveness one receives at the moment of initial saving faith in Christ. To be "cleansed from all unrighteousness" is synonymous with "forgiveness" . . . sin is a debt God remits and a stain God removes! John's point is that the true believer, as opposed to the spurious (v. 8), will not deny that he/she is sin-laden and guilty, but will confess one's unrighteousness to God. Burge argues that "to purify (cf. 1:7) carries a different nuance and suggests the removal of the residual effects of sin, consequences that linger (such as a stain)" (83).

Question: "Does v. 9 refer to our confession and forgiveness at the moment of saving faith (hence = justification), to our confession and forgiveness during the course of our Christian lives (hence = sanctification), or to both? See also Mt. 6:12-15; Luke 11:4; James 5:15; Psalms 32 and 51; John 13:10; 1 Cor. 11:27-32; Heb. 12:5-13.

Note that for God not to forgive us, when we confess, would be an act of injustice on His part. Why? We should keep in mind here Paul's discussion of the problem in Romans 3:21-26. There he raised the question of how God can be said to be 'righteous when he justifies (which includes forgiveness of sins) the 'unrighteous. His answer is that God has set forth Christ as the atoning sacrifice for their sins. God's justice, therefore, has not been ignored or slighted. Indeed, it has been fully manifested insofar as Christ himself was the object of the divine wrath which God's justice demanded.

c.              exposure of the unbeliever - 1:10

There is a slight difference between the claim of the false teachers in v. 8 ("we have no sin") and the claim in v. 10 ("we have not sinned"). What is it? To make either claim is to make God a liar (1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 14:3; Isa. 53:6; 64:6; Rom. 3:23) and to demonstrate that His word is not in us (John 5:38; 8:37; 1 John 2:14).