“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— 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— 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. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” (1 John 1:1–4 ESV)
Keys to the Letter
The letter of 1 John deals with the doctrines of those who had removed themselves from the brethren likely affecting a number of churches in a broad area. John comments in 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” Therefore, by reading the admonitions of the letter, we can get a profile of those who “went out.” Traditionally, it has been thought that these were associated with gnosticism, but there are also good reasons to relate these secessionists to the kind of unbelieving Jews described in John’s gospel (Cf. John 6, 8).
To further confirm this possibility, a second key to the letter is recognizing the similarities to John’s Gospel even to the point that John expects his message to be understood in light of his Gospel account. For example, in the opening text John makes obvious references to the Gospel’s introduction with words like, “the beginning,” “the Word,” the Word “of life,” “light,” and the “Word made manifest.” The themes of “life,” “light,” and “love” permeate both the Gospel and the letter. Therefore, to have a more complete understanding, it is helpful to compare similar thoughts expressed in the Gospel. John’s message in the Gospel relates primarily to Jews who “believed” but really didn’t believe in a full sense. The “signs” of the Gospel were intended to get them off the fence and cause them to believe so that they could have eternal life (John 20:30-31). John’s letter has a similar message (1 John 5:13), which would lead us to believe that the letter was written concerning secessionists who at one time “believed” but had some time later shown their true colors and rejected Jesus as the Christ who had come in the flesh. The similarities between the Gospel and letter are too obvious to overlook this possibility.
A third key to the letter is understanding John’s use of repetition. This can be confusing at first, but John’s purpose is to provide emphasis to his message. As you study, carefully note that John does not just repeat his principles, but also expands and amplifies his teaching so that by the end of the letter his message is unmistakeable. We notice this principle immediately in the introduction. The words “we have” are repeated, but also amplified in what “we have heard, seen with our eyes, looked upon, and touched with our hands.” All of the senses were involved in verifying the Word of life who was manifested to them. Therefore, there could be no doubt as to the testimony of the witnesses.
A fourth key is to recognize the apostolic “we” that is occasionally used in the letter. The “we” in the first four verses obviously refers to the apostles. As Luke proclaims, the apostles are the “witnesses” (Acts 1:21-23), and were commissioned to “proclaim” (1 John 1:2) the message of the Word of life. This helps us understand 4:6, “Whoever knows God listens to us.” Therefore, the apostolic message is the standard of what we believe and how we live.
Fellowship with the Apostles
The key to John’s introduction is, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us.” The Word of life was manifested to the apostles so they could have fellowship with the Father and his Son and then pass that fellowship on to others. There is an emphasis on the apostles’ work of “proclaiming” what they had seen and heard so that those who listen “will have fellowship with us [the apostles].” Therefore, our fellowship with the Father and with the Son is based on the mediation of the message of the apostles. This obviously was a critical difference in the secessionists. They had rejected the apostolic message had urged the brethren to listen to them instead of the teaching they had received from the apostles (2:27; 4:6).
We need to give careful attention to this word “fellowship.” Fellowship on the part of the apostles was a partnership with Christ in the work of proclaiming the Father and the Son. John stresses the apostle’s work of proclaiming what they had seen and heard so that “you too may have fellowship with us.” In other words, we need to recognize our fellowship with the apostles and with Christ as a partnership in their work. There is no such fellowship otherwise. We have too often spoken of fellowship as simply a relationship, and at times even a distant relationship. It is as if we think of it as a brotherly connection but not a participation in the same work as Jesus and the apostles.
When the secessionists claimed to have fellowship with God (vs. 6), their claim was false because “God is light” and they were not walking in the light. The secessionists did not have fellowship with the apostles or Jesus because they did not live the life of Jesus and the apostles. Fellowship with the apostles and with the Lord is a participation with them in their work. Therefore, John repeatedly depicts the standard for our lifestyle by the nature of God. Since God is light, we must walk in the light. God is love, so we must love. God is righteous, therefore we must be righteous. God is pure and thus we must be pure. This is what John and the eyewitnesses were proclaiming when they “proclaimed the Word of life.”
The Message for Today
Nearly every major religion since Christ was started and/or sustained by someone saying that God talked to them. The denominational world is filled with people who claim the Lord is sending them messages, signs or “leadings” that direct their lives. John’s proclamation is unchanged. He and the other apostles personally heard, saw, and handled the Word of life. Why would anyone consider a message from any other source? John’s apostolic eyewitness testimony would have given first century Christians the assurance needed to ground their fellowship with God. Jesus Christ, the Creator, the Word of life, the Word in the flesh, was not proclaimed on the basis of hearsay or messages produced by the random thoughts of one’s fleshly mind. The life of the Creator of the universe, the one “from the beginning,” was established by those who lived with him, saw him die, and touched him after his resurrection. As was announced on the holy mount, “This is my beloved Son; hear him.”