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.
In these opening four verses of 1 John the author tells us three important things: about his purpose, about himself, and about Jesus. Let us look first at what John tells us about his purpose in writing….
First, John tells us it is his desire for his readers to have fellowship with them.The “we” and the “us” in the opening of this letter probably refers to the group of disciples gathered around John the Evangelist in Ephesus. John’s desire is that his readers would have fellowship with them, and he states that their fellowship is with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.
Fellowship, koinonia, was a very important word designating a vital experience in the life of the early church. As it was used in classical Greek, koinonia was a common way of expressing the intimate bond of the marriage relationship. Here and throughout the New Testament, koinonia describes the Christian’s personal relationship with God through his Son, Jesus Christ, and the Christian’s relationship with other Christians.
At its most basic level, koinonia means: “sharing in common”. What we share in common as Christians is a personal relationship with the Father and the Son; the church is a family.
Thus, John’s purpose in writing this letter, or this sermon, this meditation, is to draw his readers closer to each other and closer to God. That ought to be our purpose in life as well. Do our words and our actions draw people closer to each other and closer to God?
Second, John says his purpose is to bring his readers joy. “We write this to make our joy complete.”
Joy is at the heart of Christianity. Paul tells us joy is an essential part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). If the effect of our words and our actions is to depress others, to bring them down, then we must ask if our words and our actions are truly Christian. Our purpose should be to lift people up into the joy of a relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ.
Third, John says it is his aim to set Jesus Christ before his readers.“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard…”
What do others see and hear in us? Jesus Christ, or something less? We will never be completely like Jesus in this life, but it should be our goal to become more like him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that our very lives will proclaim him.
What is your purpose in life? What is mine? Is it to draw people closer to each other and closer to God? Is it to bring joy to others, to lift them up rather than tearing them down? Is our purpose to proclaim Christ in all we say and do?
Victor Frankl, who lived through the Holocaust, loved to quote Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how’.” In other words, having a purpose in life can pull you through almost any circumstance without imploding. I believe the highest and the most stable purpose in life is, as the Westminster Catechism states: “to enjoy God and glorify him forever”. That is the greatest thing we can do in life, plus, we will never reach the end of that goal. There is always more to discover about God, enjoy about God, and glorify about God.
In addition to telling us three things about his purpose in writing, John tells us four important things about himself.
First, John says that he has heard that which was from the beginning: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard…”
The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures were always ones who had a “word from the Lord”. (Jeremiah 37:17) I think this is one reason why people come to church, or to religious institutions of any kind. They do not come to hear another person’s opinions or guesses about God. They come hoping to hear a word from the Lord. A wonderful way to approach church is to ask the Lord to speak to you and through you during your time in worship, and then actively look for the ways God will do just that. It was said of John Brown of Haddington that when he preached he would often pause as if listening for another voice. William Barclay says, “The true teacher is the man who has a message from Jesus Christ because he has heard his voice.” The author of 1 John made this very claim, that he had heard the voice of God.
Second, John says that he has seen that which was from the beginning. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes…”
The story is told about the great Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte that someone once said to him, “You preached today as if you had come straight from the presence.”
Whyte’s response was to say, “Perhaps I did.”
We do not see Jesus Christ in the body today as the first disciples did. However, we can see Jesus through the eyes of faith. Paul says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7)
A pulpit I once preached from in North Carolina had these words from John 12:21 emblazoned on the side of the pulpit facing the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.”
Third, John tells us he has gazed upon that which was from the beginning.What is the difference between seeing and gazing? In Greek, the word that is used for seeing is “horan” and simply means to see with our physical eyes. On the other hand, the word that is used for “gazed” or “looked at” is “theasthai” and that word means to gaze at someone or something until one grasps the significance of that person or thing.
1 John echoes the prologue of John’s Gospel where the Evangelist says about Jesus, “We beheld his glory.” The verb that is used in that case is also “theasthai”. The author of 1 John, like the author of the Gospel, has thought long and hard about who Jesus was and is, trying to understand something of the mystery of the incarnation: God taking on our human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.
Fourth, John says that he has touched that which was from the beginning.I think the author of 1 John is doing two things here. He is recalling how the disciple whom Jesus loved reclined on Jesus’ breast or bosom at the Last Supper.
Second, the author of 1 John is responding throughout this letter or meditation to a group of people later called the Docetists. The name “Docetist” comes from the Greek word “dokeo” which means: “to seem”. The Docetists maintained that Jesus only seemed to have a human body. The Docetists believed that if Jesus was really divine then he would not dirty himself by having a human body.
John’s response to this is strong and categorical. He insists throughout his letter that Jesus did indeed have a human body and that Jesus’ disciples touched this human body; Jesus was not a spirit simply “seeming” to appear in a body; he really inhabited one.
Drawing these four things together that the author of 1 John tells us about himself, we can summarize it all by saying that the author insists he had a real and true experience of the word of life that appeared in Jesus of Nazareth.
William Hendricks writes in his book, Exit Interviews,
There is a splendid moment in the movie Jurassic Park, when world-class paleontologist Allen Grant, who has devoted his life to the study of dinosaurs, suddenly comes face-to-face with real, live prehistoric creatures. He falls to the ground, dumbstruck. The reason is obvious. It is one thing to piece together an informed but nonetheless imperfect image of dinosaurs by picking through fossils and bones. But to encounter an actual dinosaur—well, there can be no comparison.
For many people, spirituality amounts to picking through the artifacts of faith that survive from long ago and far away. In that bygone era, humans saw God, heard His voice, and experienced his awesome, at times terrible, power. But that was then. Today, those kinds of gripping encounters with God—with a God who wasn’t an illusion, but Someone who was real, Someone you could see, and touch, and feel—well, there could be no comparison.
We may not be able to see Jesus now with our physical eyes, or to touch him with our hands, but we can nonetheless have a true experience of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit living in us.
This leads to John’s final point in his mini-prologue to this letter or meditation: he tells us something important about Jesus.
John tells us that Jesus was from the beginning. Again, our author is echoing the prologue to the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…” The author of 1 John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus.
Yet, in the same breath he emphasizes Jesus’ humanity as well. Jesus had a human body that could be seen and touched, and his human voice could be heard.
Third, John tells us that by God taking on human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, he has thereby brought to us and to the world, the word of life that can impart to us the life of the ages.
Again, 1 John is echoing the opening of the Gospel of John which talks so much about the Word, the Logos, the Greek idea of the reasoning power behind the universe. Both the Gospel and 1 John identify this Logos with Jesus.
This is the only place where the exact phrase “the word of life” appears in the Bible. However, Paul talks about “a word of life” in Philippians 2:16. Beginning with Philippians 2:14 we read...
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out a word of life—in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.
The author of 1 John and Paul are both saying the same thing: we have a word to offer to people that can bring them life. That being the case, how can we hold back on offering that word in the midst of a dying world?
Matt Woodley writes…
Psychologist Madeline Levine has been counseling teenagers for over 25 years, but recently Levine has begun to see a new breed of unhappy teenagers—smart, successful, and privileged kids who feel utterly lost and empty. For Levine, one client in particular typified this kind of unhappy teenager. Late on a Friday afternoon—the last appointment of her week—Levine saw a 15-year-old girl who was “bright, personable, highly pressured by her adoring, but frequently preoccupied … parents.” The girl was also “very angry.”
Levine quickly recognized the girl’s “cutter disguise”—a long-sleeve t-shirt pulled halfway over her hand, with an opening torn in the cuff for her thumb. Such t-shirts are used to hide self-mutilating behaviors: cutting with sharp instruments, piercing with safety pins, or burning with matches. When the young girl pulled back her sleeve, Levine was startled to find that the girl had used a razor to carve the following word onto her forearm—“EMPTY.”
I tried to imagine how intensely unhappy my young patient must have felt to cut her distress into her flesh…. The most common thing I hear in my office from the kids is, “I’m fake.” The surface of [their family life] always looks good…. The lawns are always perfectly manicured, the houses always look beautiful. But when you get to what’s going on beneath these kids’ T-shirts, there’s not much happening inside.
Into such an “empty” world where nothing seems “real”, even into our own empty worlds of unreality, God speaks his word of life in Jesus: a life that offers us fullness instead of emptiness, joy instead of despair, life instead of death, real love instead of the apathy of “fake” relationships. The word of life is something, some One really, whom we are called to embrace for ourselves, and carry to others in our world who very much need “the life of the ages”.