1 John 1—Eyewitness to the Life and the Light
By the end of the first century, Christianity had exploded into the Roman Empire. Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) was a province of Rome, but its culture, language and philosophy was Greek. Various heretical movements began to appear within the Christian churches that were derived from Greek philosophy. Those false movements with their false teachers began pulling normal Christians away from the simplicity of the Gospel. At the very best, these cultish groups were a distraction that threatened to destroy the unity of the church. Naturally, Christians began asking the questions: What is Christianity? and, What is the nature of Jesus Christ? Was Jesus a spirit that appeared as a man as the Docetists claimed, or was He a spirit that inhabited a human’s body, as the Gnostics claimed? In his introduction, the Apostle John meets those questions head on. John answers the heresy of the Gnostics, and establishes the core of Christianity at the same time. The essence of Christianity is belief in the historical Jesus Christ, and who knows the truth about Jesus except the Apostles who were eyewitnesses to everything He said and did? The Gnostics claimed to have special elite knowledge about spiritual things, so John was first disputing their claim by establishing that only the Apostles were there during Jesus’ ministry and were qualified to tell who He was, what He did, and what He said. Only the real historical Jesus that was explained by John and the other eyewitnesses could accurately teach who Jesus is and what He did. Only the real Jesus could be called the “Word of Life”. The Gnostics had a religious system, but a system is not life, and their system does not transform life like Jesus does.
A major problem posed by Gnostics in the church was their immoral lifestyle. Greek philosophy promoted “dualism”, which is the belief that we are made up of a rotten evil body and a perfect spirit. Therefore they did not worry about the immoral lifestyle in Greek culture, because we long to be rid of these evil bodies and live on in the spirit. They did not believe in the bodily resurrection, so whatever the physical body did could be excused or ignored because it was by nature evil, and all they cared about was the eternal spirit. The result was that they claimed not to be sinners or have sin, when in fact their lifestyle was to practice the self indulgence of all their fleshly desires. In John’s first epistle to the churches in Asia Minor, he refuted the heresy of Gnosticism, and at the same time established the essence of Christianity. John’s thematic statement of his purpose in writing can be found in 1 John 5:13. The name Gnostic came from the Greek word Gnosis meaning knowledge—they claimed to have special elite knowledge. In 1 Jn.5:13, John uses the word “know” with a double meaning. He said “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may KNOW that you have eternal life.” True believers are the only people who KNOW the real Christ and have transformed life in His name. Therefore, the false teachers claim of special knowledge is wrong. The heretics had claimed Jesus was just a spirit, but John says we saw Him and touched Him, and handled Him. We saw His tears, and saw Him bleed, and in John’s case, he saw Jesus die on the cross and witnessed His dead body taken away and buried.
The Word of Life
In 1 John 1:1, we must first figure out the meaning of all of John’s words and phrases. The “beginning”
he refers to must be the beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry and the beginning of the Christian era. John went on to say that in the beginning they saw and heard Jesus, so the beginning would be at the baptism of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospel of John chapter 1:29-34. The Apostles were there and saw Jesus introduced, heard the voice of God confirm that Jesus is the Son of God, and saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Him. Next in 1 Jn.1:1, “we” must be the 12 Apostles that were called by Jesus to follow Him during the entire course of His ministry. The “Word of Life” is a descriptive name for Jesus explaining who He is and what He does. Jesus is the Light that came into a dark world to reveal the spiritual life that God was offering us through Jesus. By receiving Jesus we undergo transformed life, therefore Jesus is the Life and also gives us the Life. By stating that John was an eyewitness from the beginning, John is establishing his credentials and authority to explain the person of Jesus and the message from Jesus that gives life. The message was true from the beginning, and it had continued to be unchanged and true. Sinners can only be reconciled to God through the atoning work of Christ that was witnessed by John. False teachers try to alter or add on to the unchanging Gospel, but the Gospel is permanent and unchanging. The Gnostics claimed new ideas and higher learning, but Christianity is more than higher learning or a nice religion. It is an historical reality attested to by many eyewitnesses. John and the other Apostles perceived “the Word”, Jesus, with all their senses. John saw Him and all His works, he heard His teaching, and John touched, kissed, and held Jesus. The Gnostics claimed Jesus was a vision or a spirit being, but Jesus was a real man who did the work of God, revealed the light and life of God, and was bodily resurrected from the dead.
Eternal life Was Manifested in Christ
In 1 John 1:2-3, John and the authors of the New Testament had a calling, a stewardship to testify and be a witness to the message of eternal life in Christ. The revelation was given by God to a few to pass on to the many. Here John wrote a purpose statement that he worked hard in the ministry so that the church could have fellowship with the Apostles and in doing so with God the Father and Jesus the Son. He rejoiced at this shared life in Christ. Every other relationship we have is subject to competition, but the fellowship in Christ only seeks for His glory. Fellowship means a mutual participation in a common cause, or in other words a shared life. In Christ, our shared relationship has no roots of selfishness, but it is all about exalting Him. As they fellowship with Christ in sharing the Gospel and making disciples, they see the transformation of hearts and lives which brings John great joy and fulfillment (v.4).
The Light and the Darkness–1 Jn.1:5-7
John sees the world we live in as a dark place of evil and depravity, violence, ignorance, and self-indulgence. The people in the world typically have no idea what their meaning, purpose, origins, or future is which keeps them in a darkness of spiritual ignorance. Paul wrote in 2 Cor.4:4-6, “The god of this world has blinded the unbelieving that they may not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. For God, who said that light shall shine out of darkness is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” John is saying the same thing in his epistle that Jesus Christ is the perfect source of revelation regarding who God is and what God is doing. John says here in 1 Jn.1:5 that “God is light”. The truth about reality, meaning, purpose, and the future can be found only in Him. The glory of God is a major theme throughout the Bible. In Exodus, God’s bright shining glory in the pillar of cloud led Israel through the wilderness to the promised land. 1 Timothy 6:14-16 tells us that “God dwells in unapproachable light”. At the transfiguration of Matthew 17:2, Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and in Rev.1:14, “Jesus’ eyes were like a flame of fire”. In the Gospel of John 1:5, we read that “the light (Jesus) shines in the darkness (of the world) and the darkness did not comprehend it”. This is further elaborated in John 3:19-20 quoting Jesus who said, “the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light…For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light lest his deeds be exposed”.
Three Denials of the False Teachers Claims
An important part of the Gnostic teaching was that there really is no sin because the physical body is just prone to gratify all its lusts, and it really doesn’t matter what you do here, it only matters for your good spirit to continue on. They said they had no sin of consequence. They were proud elitists who were deceiving themselves claiming to live on a higher plane. Therefore, in 1 John 1:6-10, the author lays out three alternating contrasts. In v.6, 8, and 10 we have what the false teachers say but wrongly do; then in v.7, and v.9 we see what true believing Christians do to have real fellowship with God. Verses 6, 8, 10 begin with “If we say” then are followed by John’s denial of their claim. The heretics say that they fellowship with Him, but they walk in darkness and lie. They say they have no sin, but are just deceiving themselves, and they say they have not sinned denying what God has already said. On the other hand, John and his disciples who have true fellowship with him in Christ, know that “the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin”. True believers know that they need a walk with God in which they are confessing their sins as God will then “cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. The cleansing refers to that lifelong practice of God’s Spirit working within us to transform our lives. Theologians refer to this as sanctification, and is not to be confused with justification. We were initially saved from the penalty of sin by Christ’s atoning work on the cross, but as we live our lives in a fallen world, we need to regularly recognize what is wrong in our lives so that we allow God to change us. John makes the distinction in 1 Jn.3:4, saying that the false teachers “practice sin”, meaning it is a lifestyle that they defend and justify. We are saved and forgiven, but we will still fail to live holy lives unless we recognize our faults and with God’s help become transformed people experiencing “He is faithful and righteous to cleanse us”. John was saying that ongoing confession of sin is crucial to “walking in the light”, and experiencing spiritual growth.