The Apostle John’s First Letter: Part 2

John’s Purpose in Writing this Letter

One or more congregations under John’s care had been attacked by teachers of false doctrine. The teachers claimed they had new, more accurate, information about Christ and His salvation. Their teaching was counter to the apostles’ teaching. Some people believed the false teaching and left the congregation. Those remaining were uneasy. 

John wrote to remind and assure his readers of the truth about Jesus. That purpose permeates the letter. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13). James Montgomery Boice points to similar comments. “This is how we know we are in him” (2:5); “I write to you , dear children, because you have known the Father”(2:13); “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and  all of you know the truth”(2:20); “I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it” (2:21); “Dear friends, now we are children of God” (3:2); “We know that we have passed from death to life” (3:14); “We know that he lives in us” (3:24); “You dear children, are from God” (4;4); “We know that we live in him and he in us” (4:13); “This is how we know that we love the children of God” (5:2); “We know .. We know .. We know” (5:18-20).  

John uses various forms of the word “know” 39 times. “Descriptive” and “by acquaintance” are often used to distinguish between types of knowledge. Knowledge by acquaintance is knowledge through first-hand experience. Descriptive knowledge is knowledge obtained by other means, the most common means being verbal or written testimony of others. John has both first-hand and descriptive knowledge about Jesus. James, John’s brother, and other people talked to him about their experiences with Jesus. John, himself, walked with Jesus, heard Him speak in public, talked to Him in private, saw Him perform miracles, watched Him die on the cross, and saw Him after His resurrection. What he saw and heard overwhelmed him.

John writes with eye-witness knowledge and the authority of one commissioned by Christ. To him, belief in Christ is much more than ideas. Christ is reality, a person John knew intimately. John was an eye-witness to something “uniquely real” done by God in history. He uses a combination of historical facts, personal knowledge, and ethical truths to inform his readers. 

What Was the Nature of the False Teaching John Opposed?

The new teachers claimed to have privileged knowledge known only to the initiated. Their teaching was an early form of Gnosticism. To those who believed their teaching, they promised intellectual certainty and purity. Yet, their teaching actually brought confusion and uncertainty. There is something attractive about “privileged” secret information that seems to make believers susceptible to Gnosticism.

Cerinthus was a leader of early Gnostics. He preached that Jesus was a good man but only a man. The Gnostics taught that when Jesus was baptized, He was privileged to have the Christ Spirit descend on Him and “occupy” Him until just before the crucifixion. The Christ Spirit left Jesus before He was nailed to the cross. Christ and Jesus were distinct. There was no God-Man. 

This doctrine is a direct attack on the truth that Jesus is one person with two natures (wholly God and wholly man), God come in the flesh.  John shows the falseness of the Gnostic position to be wrong both in doctrine and practical living. Gnostic’s believed behavior was unimportant. They believed you could be “saved” and continue to sin as a lifestyle. John reminds his readers true doctrine demands righteous behavior like that of Jesus. The commandment by Jesus to “love one another” was ignored by the Gnostics but was vital to the apostles understanding of Jesus.

Then Questioning Jesus’ Divinity

Unbelieving Jews, as described in John’s Gospel, opposed Jesus’ message but didn’t doubt His humanity (which they witnessed). They doubted His divinity, doubted Him to be the Christ, Son of God. John uses “signs” of Jesus’ divinity known to many plus other historical information to prove Jesus the Man is Christ the Lord. John writes with evangelistic fervor. His desire is that through the Gospel his readers will be led to the truth about Jesus, the God-Man, who is the Christ, so that they might have eternal life.

Now Questioning Jesus’ Humanity

The situation addressed in this letter is different from that in the Gospel. Christian belief is being attacked.The dominant issue is the denial of the dual nature of Jesus, fully human and fully divine. The incarnation was denied. Instead, it was claimed that the Christ Spirit descended on the human Jesus for a time but did not interact with his humanity. This false teaching appears to be from people claiming to be Christians but who did not accept Jesus’ Gospel as taught by the apostles. They do not question the divinity of the Christ. They question that Christ came “in the flesh” to dwell among us. Christian’s believe Jesus was one person with two natures – divine and human. Gnostics said, “not true.”

Several forms of Gnostic beliefs have existed, all antagonistic in doctrine and practice to apostolic Christianity. Doctrinally, Gnostics placed mental enlightenment as superior to faith and conduct. Their argument is grounded in the claim that matter and spirit are distinct, non-interacting realities. The distinction is unbridgeable. Matter is inherently evil. Only spirit is good. Spirit and body are separate and distinct. One does not and cannot affect the other.

Since matter is inherently evil, there is no way God would or could become flesh and dwelt among us. Therefore, the incarnation was in appearance only. As already stated, one Gnostic explanation of how there appeared to have been an incarnation is that the “Christ Spirit” came upon the man Jesus at his baptism and left him just before His death. The Christ Spirit temporarily “occupied” the human Jesus, but did not interact with his humanity.

Their belief that evil matter and righteous spirit were distinct and unable to influence one another led to problems in life practice. Gnostics believed that what the body does has no effect on the spirit. Since moral conduct concerns the body, moral conduct is a matter of indifference. The body can “sin,” but it doesn’t degrade the spirit. Only the spirit has fellowship with God. Gnostics claimed to be a spiritual aristocracy of the enlightened – the only ones who had all the truth. They despised ordinary unenlightened people and did not exhibit love in their behavior.

Verse by Verse Comments on 1 John

1 John 1:1-4 – The Word of Life

“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. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.”

The reference to the “Word of life” in verse 1treminds us think of the opening verses of John’s Gospel where the “Word” is used as a reference to Christ. Here, that does not seem to be the case. There are of course direct references to Christ. “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” definitely refers to our Lord Jesus Christ.“The life appeared” and “the eternal life which was with the Father and has appeared to us” again refer to Jesus. However, “the Word of life” phrase seems to refer to the message of the gospel (See John Stott’s commentary). Emphasis is on the “life” and not on “Word.”  Christianity is the result of God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus. Christianity spread through the authoritative testimony of the apostles to the reality of that revelation. Without Christ there is no Christianity.

Eyewitness Reports to the Reality of Christ (1:1-4)

John begins this letter with a statement of his confidence in the reality of Christ. He is confident because he was an intimate friend of Jesus and eyewitness to what happened. The revelation of God in Jesus was not done in secrecy or off in a remote corner. Many had openly witnessed Jesus speaking words of blessing and performing miracles. A few followers were with him constantly. 

John’s initial comments concern objective evidence from John’s own firsthand experiences. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, John lived with Him and followed Him wherever He went. John heard and saw the reality of the word of life manifested in Jesus. John not only saw and heard Jesus, he walked with him, touched him, and stayed with Him day and night. Note the progression in the words from “seeing” and “hearing” to “touching.”  In judging physical reality, seeing, hearing, and touching are three sources of data.

John saw Jesus work miracles, witnessed His resplendent glory on the mount of transfiguration, and reclined against Him at supper on the night Jesus was arrested. John saw Him die on the cross, ran to the tomb on the third day where he saw that Jesus was no longer in the tomb. John was with Jesus frequently after His resurrection until He was taken up into heaven. 

Convinced by the Evidence

John and the other apostles were convinced Jesus the man and Christ the Lord was one and the same person. They knew He was human from their constant being with Him in His earthly ministry. Gradually they began to realize He was also divine. He did miraculous things which made them more and more sure of this truth. His resurrection was the final confirmation, convincing them Jesus is the divine Son of God come in human flesh. 

Take the Good News of Jesus to the World

Just before His ascension, Jesus commanded the apostles to take to the whole world the good news of Christ come in the flesh and what He accomplished for sinners (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). That command is a pointed reminder that neither the message the apostles received or their experiences with Jesus were for themselves alone. They were to use Jesus’ message and their experiences to reach out to others. This is in dramatic contrast to the proto-Gnostics who would share knowledge only with an initiated intellectually elite.

The Significance of Seeing (1:1-3)

John mentions “seeing” in each of the first 3 verses. He clearly considers evidence gathered through the eyes to be of utmost importance. Why? There are different “levels” of seeing. Chapter 20 of John’s gospel helps understand those differences. James Montgomery Boice has an excellent discussion of John 20 in his commentary on the Gospel. Here is a paraphrase of what he says: Chapter  20 deals with the events of resurrection morning, beginning with Mary’s first arrival at the tomb, and continuing with the race of Peter and the unnamed disciple (almost certainly John) to the sepulcher. Three different Greek words are used for “see,” culminating in the one used in 1 John 1:1-3. 

When Mary told Peter and John she had been to the tomb and the body of Jesus was missing, they immediately ran to the tomb. John, who was the younger, arrived first. He stopped at the door and looked in. He “saw” the linen bands in which the body of Jesus had been wrapped. The word used for “see” is blepo, the most common Greek word. It simply indicates that John identified the object presented to his eyes. From what is known of the circumstances, it is likely that in the dim interior with John outside in the light, he could not see the linen cloths very well.

A few moments later Peter arrived, and true to his forceful character, Peter did not stop at the door but brushed John aside and entered the tomb. Then Peter “saw” the linen cloths. Here a different word is used. It is theoreo, which means to “behold with intelligence, perceive, or scrutinize.” Apparently, there was something about the grave clothes that caused Peter to puzzle over them. For one thing, they were still there. Why? That alone was puzzling; for if the body of Jesus had been removed from the tomb, presumably the linen cloth wrappings would have gone with it. Moreover, the cloths were in order, lying just where they had been on the body. If the body had been unwrapped, for whatever inconceivable reason, the cloths would almost certainly have been scattered about and the spices spilled.  

Eventually, Peter and John noticed that the napkin which had been around Jesus’ head was not with the other grave clothes but was in a place by itself; that is, it was lying precisely where it had been when it was around the head of Jesus. It was separated from the other cloths by the space where, in accord with Jewish practices of embalmment, the unwrapped face and shoulders of the master had been. What would account for the presence and arrangement of the grave clothes? Nothing but a resurrection in which the transformed body of Jesus passed through the linen cloths leaving them undisturbed, just as later the risen Christ passed through closed doors (John 20:19). At this point the significance of the grave clothes penetrated John’s mind, for he tells us that he “saw” (the third word for “see,” horao, meaning “to see with understanding”) and he believed. It’s as though he first says, “Sure, I see the linen cloths.” Then, “Isn’t there position in the tomb and  their appearance puzzling?” And finally, “O, now I understand!” That is the progression. This last word horao (see with understanding) that John uses three times in the first three verses of 1 John. Others might doubt, but John, both before and after the resurrection, heard the Lord, scrutinized Him, saw Him with understanding, and believed. Boice is precisely right. 

Identification by Touch (1:1)

John also mentions that the apostles’ hands touched Jesus. This appears to be a reference to the experience they had after the resurrection when the risen Christ invited them to touch Him and see that He was real and the same person who died on the cross. Christ said, “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” (Luke 24:39). That experience is preserved by John’s own account of Christ’s appearance to Thomas (John 20:24-28).

Not only did the apostles have convincing objective experiences, they also had convincing subjective experiences. The Holy Spirit, especially after the resurrection, revealed Christ to them subjectively giving deeper meaning and significance to what they were experiencing objectively.   

Fellowship with the Father and the Son

John says that he tells his readers these truths about Jesus so that, like the apostles, they might have fellowship with their fellow believers grounded in fellowship with God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. The true basis for human fellowship is right relationship with God in Christ. If John’s readers have right fellowship with God and their fellow believers, it will make both their joy and John’s joy complete. The point John is making is that fellowship with the Father and His Son is eternal life. Remember what Jesus said in his high priestly prayer: John 17:3 “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” 

1 John 1:5-10 – Walking in the Light

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” 

Based on the revealed nature of God (God is light), John encourages his readers to discern and understand the conditions under which fellowship with God is possible. He deals with perception of righteousness, vulnerability to sin, and what to do when we sin. The Gnostics, with their presupposition that matter is evil and only spirit is good, claimed that behavior was of little consequence whether people called it moral or immoral was immaterial. In particular, being cleansed of sin was not a necessary criterion for fellowship with God. Is that a true statement?   

The Nature of God

God’s nature determines the conditions under which we can enjoy fellowship with Him. The question “What is God” is of vital importance. What is He like? What are His characteristics? How can we know Him? 

“What is God?’ is the fourth question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. That question has both puzzled and stretched the minds of people for generations. The catechism’s answer is that, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” It is a wonderful answer. 

John cites other things about God’s nature. Most biblical writers primarily tell of what God has done in creation and in human history. They describe the glory that surrounds Him and what He expects of us. John does that too. But, of all the biblical writers, John is the most expressive concerning the nature of God. His statements about God’s intrinsic nature are compelling and powerful. In so far as our behavior is concerned, the overarching picture is that God created us in His image with the intent that our behavior be consistent with His own character. For our behavior to be consistent with God’s character, our character must itself be consistent with God’s character. That is what the transforming power of salvation is doing for believers. By the indwelling Holy Spirit, believers are being transformed into a likeness of Christ.

Significance of “God is Light” (1:5-10)

In verse 5 John gives an answer to the question “What is God” that is both simple and more profound than the somewhat abstract and complex answer in the Catechism.  He says, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”  This statement overarches the other material in this section. John uses this statement to introduce and deal with three related denials which concern the nature and consequences of sin. (1.) “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.”(2.)“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”(3.) “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” 

John’s Three Helpful Phrases About God’s Nature

The first phrase is from the Gospel.  “God is spirit” (John 4:24). John uses two additional equally striking phrases in this letter. “God is light” (1John 1:5). “God is love” (1John 4:8). Jesus also said that to those who seek God, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). Properly understood, these statements are quite helpful in understanding God’s character. 

God is Light (In The Old Testament)

John’s positive statement that God is light should evoke vivid Old Testament imagery in the mind of the reader. Often light is used figuratively to mean either moral purity or truth. Here are a few of the Old Testament passages that describe God in terms of light: (1.)(Psalm 27:1): “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” (2.)(Psalm 36:9): “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” (3.)(Psalm 104:1-2): “You are clothed with splendor and majesty.  He wraps himself  in light as with a garment.” (4.) (Psalm 119:105) “Your word is a lamp to my feet    and a light for my path.” (5.) (Psalm 119:130) “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (6.)(Psalm 27:1)  “The Lord is my light ….”    

Christ as Light in God’s Self-Revelation  

 Isaiah wrote concerning God’s plan for Messiah in Isaiah 49:6, “I will also make you a light to the gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Jesus’ light reveals the world’s darkness and is victorious over it (John 1:4-5). Those who follow Christ are said to be “children of light” (John 12:36), or “light” (Matthew 5:14). Jesus refers to John the Baptist as a “kindled light” (John 5:35). All believers are to be “kindled lights” showing something of God’s righteousness. John reinforces his positive statement “God is light” with the negative statement “in him there is no darkness at all.”  In other words, God is light, completely, totally opposed to all that is sinful and false.

Light is Both Visible and Makes Other Things Visible

A fascinating truth about the nature of light is that light is both visible itself to the human eye and it makes other things visible. The Bible associates a strong ethical meaning with light – light is a symbol for holiness and purity (John 1:4, 3:19). God is righteous and holy, and believers are likewise to be righteous and holy. If anyone claims to know God while yet living a deliberate sinful life, he is either deceiving himself or lying (1John 1:6).

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