1 John 1:1
That which was from the beginning] The similarity to the opening of the Gospel is manifest: but the thought is somewhat different. There the point is that the Word existed before the Creation; here that the Word existed before the Incarnation. With the neuter ‘that which’ comp. Joh_4:22; Joh_6:37; Joh_17:2; Act_17:23 (R. V.). The Socinian interpretation, that ‘that which’ means the doctrine of Jesus, and not the Incarnate Word, cannot stand: the verbs, ‘have seen’, ‘beheld’, ‘handled’, are fatal to it. In using the neuter S. John takes the most comprehensive expression to cover the attributes, words and works of the Word and the Life manifested in the flesh.
was] not ‘came into existence’, but was already in existence. The difference between ‘to be’ (1Jn_1:2) and ‘to come to be’ or ‘become’ (1Jn_2:18) must be carefully noted. Christ was from all eternity; antichrists have arisen, have come into existence in time.
from the beginning] The meaning of ‘beginning’ must always depend upon the context. Here it is explained by ‘was with the Father’ in 1Jn_1:2. It does not mean the beginning of the gospel, or even of the world, but a beginning prior to that. It is equivalent to ‘from all eternity’. The Gospel is no new-fangled invention, as Jewish and heathen philosophers contended. The same Greek phrase is used in LXX. for ‘Art Thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God?’ (Hab_1:12), and when this is denied of idols (Wis_14:3). See on Joh_1:1.
which we have heard] With this clause we pass from eternity into time. The first clause refers to something prior to the Creation. Here both the Creation and the Incarnation have taken place. The second clause refers to the teaching of all the Prophets and of the Christ. There is no need to make ‘which’ (better, that which, to bring out the exact similarity of the first four clauses) in the different clauses refer to different things; e.g. the words, miracles, glory, and body of Christ. Rather, each ‘which’ indicates that collective whole of Divine and human attributes which is the Incarnate Word of Life.
have seen with our eyes] Note the climax: seeing is more than hearing, and beholding (which requires time) is more than seeing (which may be momentary); while handling is more than all. ‘With our eyes’ is added for emphasis. The Apostle would have us know that ‘see’ is no figure of speech, but the expression of a literal fact. With all the language at his command he insists on the reality of the Incarnation, of which he can speak from personal knowledge based on the combined evidence of all the senses. The Docetic heresy of supposing that the Lord’s body was unreal, and the Cerinthian heresy of supposing that He who ‘was from the beginning’ was different from Him whom they heard and saw and handled, is authoritatively condemned by implication at the outset. In the Introduction to the Gospel there is a similar assertion; ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us—and we beheld His glory’ (Joh_1:14). Comp. 2Pe_1:16.
which we have looked upon &c.] Rather, that which we beheld and our hands handled: we have first an imperfect, then a pair of perfects, then a pair of aorists. ‘Beheld’ implies deliberate and perhaps pleasurable sight (Joh_1:14; Joh_1:34; Act_1:11). We can hear and see without intending to do so; but we can scarcely behold and handle unintentionally. The aorists probably refer to definite occasions on which the beholding and handling took place. ‘Handled’ seems to be a direct reference to the test demanded by S. Thomas (Joh_20:27) and offered to the other disciples (Luk_24:39, where the same verb is used as here). “The clear reference to the Risen Christ in ‘handled’ makes it probable that the special manifestation indicated by the two aorists is that given to the Apostles by the Lord after the Resurrection, which is in fact the revelation of Himself as He remains with His Church … The tacit reference is the more worthy of notice because S. John does not mention the fact of the Resurrection in his Epistle” (Westcott). Tertullian is very fond of insisting on the fact that the Lord was ‘handled’: Adv. Prax. XV. twice; De Animâ XVII.; De Pat. III.; comp. Ad Uxorem IV. So also Ignatius (Smyr. iii.); “I know and believe that He was in the flesh even after the resurrection: and when He came to Peter and his company, He said to them, Take, handle Me, and see that I am not a bodiless demon.” Bede points out that the argument has special force as coming from the disciple who had lain on the Lord’s breast. No greater proof of the reality of His Body before and after the Resurrection could be given.
of the word of life] Better, concerning the Word of life; it is not the single genitive, but the genitive with a preposition. The preposition is strongly in favour of ‘Word’, i.e. the personal Logos, rather than ‘word’, i.e. doctrine. For this preposition used of testimony concerning persons comp. 1Jn_5:9-10; Joh_1:15; Joh_1:22; Joh_1:30; Joh_1:48; Joh_2:25; Joh_5:31-32; Joh_5:36-37; Joh_5:39; Joh_5:46, &c. We can hardly doubt, moreover, that ‘Word’ or ‘Logos’ in this Introduction has the same meaning as in the Introduction to the Gospel; especially as the Epistle was written as a companion to the Gospel. ‘The Word’, therefore, means the Son of God, in whom had been hidden from eternity all that God had to say to man, and who was the living expression of the Nature and Will of God. See on Joh_1:1 for the history of the term, which is peculiar to the phraseology of S. John. But of the two terms, Word and Life, the latter is here the emphatic one as is shewn by 1Jn_1:2 and by the fact that ‘the Life’ is one of the main topics of the Epistle (1Jn_2:25, 1Jn_3:14, 1Jn_5:11-12; 1Jn_5:20), whereas ‘the Word’ is not mentioned again. ‘The Word of life’ may be analogous to ‘the tree of life’, ‘the water of life’, ‘the bread of life’, where ‘of life’ means ‘life-giving’; but more probably to ‘the temple of His body’, ‘the sign of healing’, where the genitive is one of apposition. ‘The Word which is the Life’ is the meaning. Christ is at once the Word of God and the Life of man.
1 John 1:2
For the life was manifested] Better, And the life &c. It is S. John’s characteristic use of the simple conjunction. ‘Manifest’ (φανεροῦν) also is one of S. John’s characteristic words, frequent in Gospel and Epistle and occurring twice in Revelation. Words and phrases which connect the Epistle with the Gospel, or either of these with the Apocalypse, should be carefully noted. ‘Was manifested’ means became such that He could be known by man. Note that the sentence does not begin with a relative, ‘which was manifested’, but that the noun is repeated. This repetition, carrying on a part of one sentence into the next for further elucidation and development, is quite in S. John’s style.
have seen] This is the result of the manifestation: the Divine Life has become perceptible by the senses. In what way this took place is told us in 1Jn_4:2 and Joh_1:14.
and bear witness] The simple connexion of these sentences by ‘and’ is also in S. John’s style; and ‘bear witness’ (μαρτυρεῖν) is another of his favourite words, occurring frequently in Gospel, Epistle, and Apocalypse. Testimony to the truth, with a view to producing belief in the Truth, on which eternal life depends, is one of his frequent thoughts. But the frequency of ‘bear witness’ in his writings is much obscured in A. V., where the same verb is sometimes rendered ‘bear record’ (1Jn_5:7), ‘give record’ (1Jn_5:10), and ‘testify’ (1Jn_4:14, 1Jn_5:9), and so also in the Gospel and the Revelation. Similarly the substantive ‘witness’ (μαρτυρία) is sometimes translated ‘record’ (1Jn_5:10-11) and sometimes ‘testimony’. The R.V. in this respect has made great improvements. Comp. ‘This Jesus did God raise up, whereof (or, of whom) we all are witnesses’ (Act_2:32).
and shew unto you] Better, and declare unto you: it is the same verb as occurs in the next verse; rare in S. John (Joh_16:25, but not Joh_4:51 or Joh_20:18) but frequent in S. Luke. In this parenthetical verse, as in the main sentence of 1Jn_1:1; 1Jn_1:3, the Apostle emphatically reiterates that what he has to communicate is the result of his own personal experience. ‘He that hath seen hath borne witness, and his witness is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye also may believe’ (Joh_19:35: comp. Joh_20:30-31, Joh_21:24).
that eternal life] Rather, the life, the eternal (life). “The repetition of the article brings forward separately and distinctly the two notions of life and eternity” (Jelf). It is well known that the translators of 1611 did not perfectly understand the Greek article. Sometimes they ignore it, sometimes they insert it unwarrantably, sometimes (as here and 1Jn_5:18) they exaggerate it by turning it into a demonstrative pronoun. Comp. ‘that Prophet’, ‘that Christ’, ‘that bread’ (Joh_1:21; Joh_1:25; Joh_6:14; Joh_6:48; Joh_6:69; Joh_7:40). For ‘the Life’ as a name for Christ comp. ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’: ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’ (Joh_11:25; Joh_14:6). ‘Eternal life’ is another of S. John’s characteristic phrases, a fact somewhat obliterated in A.V. by the Greek phrase being often rendered ‘everlasting life’ or ‘life everlasting’. ‘Eternal’ is better than ‘everlasting’, although in popular language the two words are synonymous. S. John’s ‘eternal life’ has nothing to do with time, but depends on our relation to Jesus Christ. S. John tells us over and over again that eternal life can be possessed in this world (1Jn_5:11; 1Jn_5:13; 1Jn_5:20, 1Jn_3:15: see on Joh_3:36; Joh_5:24; Joh_6:47). He never applies ‘eternal’ (αἰώνιος) to anything but life, excepting in Rev_14:6, where he speaks of an ‘eternal gospel’.
which was with the Father] Or, which indeed was with the Father: it is not the simple but compound relative, denoting that what follows is a special attribute; ‘which was such as to be with the Father’. For the ‘was’ see on 1Jn_1:1. ‘With the Father’ is exactly parallel to ‘with God’ in Joh_1:1. It is anticipated in the passage on the Divine Wisdom; ‘Then I was by Him as one brought up with Him’ (Pro_8:30). It indicates the distinct Personality of ‘the Life’. Had the Apostle written ‘which was in God’, we might have thought that he meant a mere attribute of God. ‘With the Father’ is apud Patrem, ‘face to face’ or ‘at home with the Father’. Comp. ‘to tarry a while with you’ (1Co_16:7); ‘when we were with you’ (1Th_3:4); ‘whom I would fain have kept with me’ (Phm_1:13).
was manifested unto us] Repeated from the beginning of the verse. In both cases we have a change from the imperfect tense (of the continuous preexistence of Christ) to the aorist (of the comparatively momentary manifestation). But S. John’s repetitions generally carry us a step further. The manifestation would be little to us, if we had no share in it. But that Being who was from all eternity with the Father, has been made known, and made known to us.
1 John 1:3
That which we have seen and heard] In returning to the main sentence he repeats a portion of it. The ideas of the first half and of the second half of the main sentence are not the same. In 1Jn_1:1 he is thinking mainly of what he has to declare, viz. One existing from all eternity and intimately known to himself: in 1Jn_1:3 he is thinking mainly of why he declares this, viz. to promote mutual fellowship.
declare we unto you] Add, also; ‘you as well as we’, or possibly, ‘you as well as others, who have already been told’, must have a share in the good tidings. Comp. ‘We cannot but speak the things which we saw and heard’ (Act_4:20). Where does S. John declare Him who was from the beginning and was so well known to him and to others? Not in this Epistle, for no such declaration is found in it; but in the Gospel, which consists of such a declaration. We shall miss the purport of the Epistle if we do not bear constantly in mind that it was written as a companion to the Gospel. Parallels between the two abound: in what follows we have a striking one. Note the sequence of ideas: 1. the evidence on which their conviction was based, ‘have seen’; 2. their declaration of these convictions as Apostles, ‘bear witness’; 3. their declaration of them as Evangelists, ‘declare’.
that ye also may have fellowship with us] Comp. ‘that they may be one, even as We are’ (Joh_17:11). Christ’s prayer and S. John’s purpose are one and the same. See on 1Jn_1:4. ‘Ye also’, who have not heard, or seen, or handled.
fellowship] Or, communion; almost always used of fellowship with persons (1Co_1:9) or with things personified (2Co_6:14). The word is rare in N. T. outside S. Paul’s writings. It “generally denotes the fellowship of persons with persons in one and the same object, always common to all and sometimes whole to each” (Canon Evans on 1Co_10:16). This is S. John’s conception of the Church: each member of it possesses the Son, and through Him the Father; and this common possession gives communion with all other members as well as with the Divine Persons.
and truly our fellowship] Or, yea, and our fellowship: there is a double conjunction in the Greek, as in Joh_6:51. The Apostle will tell them what ‘fellowship with us’ really means: ‘but our fellowship is not merely fellowship with us; it is fellowship with the Father and the Son’ (Joh_14:23). The ‘our’, like ‘eternal’ in 1Jn_1:2 is very emphatic: ‘the fellowship that is ours, that we enjoy’.
His Son Jesus Christ] This full description is given for solemnity; and also perhaps to bring out the idea of which the Epistle is so full, that Christians are all one family, and in their relation to God share in the Sonship of Christ. Comp. ‘God is faithful, through whom ye were called into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1Co_1:9).
The fulness of the expression (comp. 1Jn_3:23) is not so apparent in the English as in the Greek, which literally rendered runs thus; is with the Father and with the Son of Him, Jesus Christ. Both the preposition and the definite article are repeated, marking emphatically the distinction and equality between the Son and the Father. Thus two fundamental truths, which the philosophical heresies of the age were apt to obscure or deny, are here clearly laid down at the outset; (1) the distinctness of personality and equality of dignity between the Father and the Son; (2) the identity of the eternal Son of God with the historical person Jesus Christ.
1 John 1:4
these things write we] These words apply to the whole Epistle, of which he here states the purpose, just as in Joh_20:31 he states the purpose of the Gospel. Both ‘write’ and ‘we’ are emphatic: it is a permanent message that is sent, and it is sent by apostolic authority.
that your joy may be full] According to the better reading and rendering, that our joy may be fulfilled. Tyndale in his first edition (1525) has ‘your’, in his second (1534) and third (1535) ‘our’. In the Greek we have a passive participle, not an adjective: that our joy may be made full and may remain so. Moreover the expression that joy is made full or fulfilled is one of S. John’s characteristic phrases, and this should be brought out in translation. The active ‘fulfil my joy’ occurs Php_2:2; but the passive only here, Joh_3:29; Joh_15:11; Joh_16:24; Joh_17:13; 2Jn_1:12. Comp. ‘These things have I spoken unto you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled’, and ‘These things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves’ (Joh_15:11; Joh_17:13). Once more Christ’s prayer and S. John’s purpose are one and the same. See on 1Jn_1:3. ‘Our joy’ may mean either the Apostolic joy at the good results of Apostolic teaching; or the joy in which the recipients of the teaching share—‘yours as well as ours’. In either case the joy is that serene happiness, which is the result of conscious union with God and good men, of conscious possession of eternal life (see on 1Jn_5:13), and which raises us above pain and sorrow and remorse. The first person plural used throughout this Introduction is the plural of authority, indicating primarily S. John, but S. John as the representative of the Apostles. In the body of the Epistle he uses the first person singular (1Jn_2:1; 1Jn_2:7-8; 1Jn_2:12-14; 1Jn_2:21; 1Jn_2:26, 1Jn_5:13). The concluding words of the Introduction to the Epistle of Barnabas are striking both in their resemblance and difference: “Now I, not as a teacher, but as one of you, will set forth a few things, by means of which in your present case ye may be gladdened.” Bede remarks, doubtless as the result of personal experience, that the joy of teachers is made full when by their preaching many are brought to the communion of the Church and of Him through whom the Church is strengthened and increased.
The following profound thoughts struggle for expression in these four opening verses. There is a Being who has existed with God the Father from all eternity: He is the Father’s Son: He is also the expression of the Father’s Nature and Will. He has been manifested in space and time; and of that manifestation I and others have had personal knowledge: by the united evidence of our senses we have been convinced of its reality. In revealing to us the Divine Nature He becomes to us life, eternal life. With the declaration of all this in our hands as the Gospel, we come to you in this Epistle, that you may unite with us in our great possession, and that our joy in the Lord may be made complete.
We now enter upon the first main division of the Epistle; which extends to 1Jn_2:28, the chief subject of which (with much digression) is the theme God is Light, and that in two parts: i. the Positive Side—What Walking in the Light involves; the Condition and Conduct of the Believer (1Jn_1:5 to 1Jn_2:11): ii. the Negative Side—What Walking in the Light excludes; the Things and Persons to be avoided (1Jn_2:12-28). These parts will be subdivided as we reach them.