Volume 13, Issue 1: Exegetica
From the Beginning - 1 John 1:1-4
As we begin our study of this epistle, we should consider the identity of the author, his purpose for writing, and his intended audience. We should do this, not for the sake of idle curiosity nor to vainly display our knowledge, but simply to protect us from the errors prone to moderns, who tend to view everything through modern eyes.
These and similar errors will be at least partially avoided if we can examine the letter in its proper historical context, uncovering the original intent of the author to his audience. To be sure, the whole Bible-including this epistle-was written for us. But it was not written to us. Understanding to whom it was written, by whom, and why will assist us in proper interpretation. The author is nowhere named in the epistle, but for several reasons we can be confident that the penman was John the Apostle. We will consider three.
First, the epistle clearly has the same author as the gospel of John. The parallels in style and content, even nearly identical phrases, make the connection unmistakable. Compare, for example, the first two verses of the John's gospel ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; The same was in the beginning with God") with the opening verses from this epistle: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us)."
Both prologues echo Genesis 1:1, bringing to mind the pre-existence of the second Person of the Trinity, Who inhabited eternity with the Father. Both call Him the Word, the Creator of all things, for by the Word of the Lord were the heavens made. These two parallels are the first of at least thirty between the two books.
Second, the author of this epistle evidently enjoyed a firsthand, intimate acquaintance with the Lord Jesus, as we know of the apostle John. His ears had heard Him, his eyes had seen Him, and his hands had touched Him. This is the same one who with his brother James wanted to sit at Jesus' side in glory, who leaned against His breast at the Lord's supper, who ran faster than Peter to the empty tomb, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Note that John first says, "Which we have heard," for it is the spoken words of Christ, rather than His appearance, that has been recorded for us in Scripture, the words by which we are saved. This is followed by "Which we have seen with our eyes." The Lord not only spoke, He came visibly, to the great blessing of those who saw and heard Him (Matt. 13:16-17). Then he says, "Which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled." The Lord was seen and heard, not as in the past by the prophets, in dreams and visions, but now in His incarnation in the person of God's Son, Jesus Christ. Christ was manifested in the flesh, crucified in the body, and raised from the tomb in that same body. Christ in His incarnation is tangible.
Third, the author of this epistle speaks with apostolic authority: "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3, cf. 4:6). He who has seen and heard has the authority of a witness. But he who preaches has the authority of one who has been commissioned. We read here that John's commissioning authorized him to invite his readers into fellowship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
John mentions many reasons for writing this epistle. He first says, "And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full" (1 John 1:4, cf. John 15:11). Fullness of joy comes from a confidence solidly rooted in Christ. Their joy may have been diminished by the false teachers that had been among them, of whom he says, "These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you" (1 John 2:26). He will call them liars, antichrists, false prophets, children of the devil. They had gone out into the world "that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us" (1 John 2:19).
John wants his readers to avoid the sin of these men: "These things write I unto you, that ye sin not" (1 John 2:1). His readers had overcome them (4:4), but apparently to the shaking of their confidence, a confidence which John seeks to restore: "These things have I written unto you ... that ye may know that ye have eternal life" (1 John 5:13, cf. John 20:31).
Who were these seducers, these false prophets? They were in error both in morals (3:7) and in doctrine (2:26). Their moral error was in believing that they were in the light while they in reality walked in darkness (1:6). Their doctrinal error was in denying that Jesus had come in the flesh (4:3). From the writings of the church fathers we know something of the historical situation. John probably wrote this letter while residing in Ephesus1 where he lived until the time of Trajan.2
There he combated a heretic named Cerinthus, a leader among the early gnostics, who denied that God created the world, that Jesus was born of a virgin; and who asserted that Christ came into Jesus after his baptism and departed from Him before his death.3 John, on the contrary, affirms that Jesus was the Christ "that came by water and blood" (1 John 5:6).
Gnosticism had two main beliefs: the impurity of matter and the supremacy of knowledge. The belief in the supremacy of knowledge led them into their moral error, and that of the impurity of matter into their doctrinal error. John will deal with these errors throughout this epistle.