1 John 1:1-4
The Way of Life
- From the Beginning (1Jn_1:1-4)
- God is Light (1Jn_1:5)
- The Walk in the Light (1Jn_1:6-10)
From the Beginning
The first four verses in our English text are really one long song-like sentence from John. The atmosphere of the sentence is exciting, immediate, and intensely personal as we, the readers, are invited into a relationship of joy with the writer John and those brothers and sisters with him and the Lord. At the same time the sentence is vast and historically far-reaching.
As the words begin we are reminded of the prologue to the Gospel of John and also of the opening words of Genesis 1. "In the beginning God created … and God said …" What is it that John intends us to think and feel as we hear these opening words? Is he referring to "the beginning" as seen in the more close-at-hand sense of the beginning of the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ which John himself knew of personally and directly and now invites those of us who read his opening words of this chapter to experience with him? Or does John intend the more mysterious and extensive connection of these words "from the beginning" to the opening song of Genesis? In this case John connects the Jesus Christ of his personal relationship to the very source and origin of everything. John is then telling us that this Jesus Christ of our experience is the One who stands with the Father in the beginning before creation itself.
It seems the most reasonable interpretation to me that John intends both of these meanings in these opening words. The evidence that supports this interpretation is found in the obvious connection of these four verses to the great prologue at the opening of the Gospel of John. In the Gospel's prologue, the Logos is firmly identified with the Father in the beginning before creation. In fact John tells us "all things were made through him" (Joh_1:3). What we have in 1Jn_1:1-4 is a practical commentary upon the mighty prologue of the Gospel of John. The great theme about life in the original prologue, "In him was life, and the life was the light of men" (Joh_1:4), is now made understandable and practical, totally accessible to mere human beings. John tells us in concrete terms about this wondrous "Word of life." His main point is that we have seen, looked at, touched this Word of life. Whatever the Word of life is, one thing is clear to us from John: the Word of life can be known and experienced by people. This is the contention of John, and he makes his point several different ways within these four verses so that there can be no misunderstanding.
Let us examine his vocabulary just to see how John develops his exciting affirmation. Notice the visual vocabulary that John makes use of: two vision or seeing words are used by John within these few verses. The one word theōmai means "to gaze" or "behold," and it contains within it a dramatic and powerful sense. It is the idea of a spectacle now seen in full power and wonder. From this Greek word we have the root for the English word "the-ater." The word horaō in Greek is the more common and ordinary word and means plainly and directly "to see, to catch sight of." With this word John emphasizes how real and actual was his own experience of Jesus Christ. The word offers an earthy companionship to the more dramatic sense of seeing in theōmai. John's experience was both a mysterious perception of the living Lord and yet it was also very basic and down to earth. Jesus was no phantom of the spiritual realm but He was Jesus of Nazareth.
The most vitally important phrase in this paragraph is made up of the three words, "Word of life." What does John mean by the use of the word Logos? "Word" within the Greek world of thought carries in it the sense of meaning, reason, purpose of it all. It is a vast word that integrates other lesser words within itself. Within the Old Testament world of thought, "word" carries the sense of authority, disclosure, decision, and action. "God said, 'Let there be light.'" Word is powerful, and because of it not only do things happen but disclosure of the will and character of God takes place. When God speaks we meet Him. By His Word He creates, by His Word He is known, by His Word He judges, forgives, and fulfills.
John has already proved to his readers that he is totally fluent in the Greek language. C. K. Barrett has observed that though John's Greek vocabulary is very simple, as a writer he is never at a loss for the right Greek word to express himself. John's Greek in this letter of 1 John is the simplest Greek in the New Testament. For this reason it is a very good book for the beginner in Greek studies to try out his or her language skills. This book is written in "Dick and Jane" Greek, but do not let that fact lead you, the interpreter, to a false conclusion. John is the same kind of writer Winston Churchill was a speaker. Both favor short, crisp sentences and plain, clear words. But both are fully aware of the words they are using, and that idiomatic fluency and correctness intensify the power of what is written. John is fully aware of the rich philosophical content hidden within the Greek word Logos. He now deliberately makes use of this loaded, awesome word, brilliantly seizing hold of it and giving it the flavor and decisive power of the Old Testament sense of "word." The more subtle Greek nuances of meaning and reason in Logos are not lost, but they are drawn into the larger, more primitive power of the Old Testament sense of the God who speaks and who makes Himself known, the God who creates by that very speech.
Notice in this brief prologue of 1 John the two major affirmations that John announces to his readers: first, that life has its origin in God's character and nature; second, that this life from God has come among us. God is the source of life. Whatever life is, we learn from John that it derives from God; life is not seen by John as an abstract philosophical entity. This is why John is able to add to the word "life" the mysterious word "eternal." We know from the Old and New Testament doctrine of history that the created order of both heaven and earth are not in themselves eternal (Luk_21:33). Only God is eternal and His speech is eternal—His Word. The Word of life is eternal. John tells his readers that that Word of life has been made manifest. The Greek word John uses to describe this manifestation of the Word is phaneroō, which means to reveal, to become visible, plain, clear. The English word "phenomenon" comes from this Greek root. It is this sense of clarity that John wants to emphasize by the use of these words. He wants his readers to know that the decision God made which is described as the "Word of life" has become vivid and clear, personal and knowable. John himself and other witnesses as well had experienced a concrete personal relationship with God's speech, and now those who read his letter are assured that they too are invited to enter into fellowship with other disciples and with the Living Word.
One unusual feature in John's way of writing is that in both the Gospel of John and in his first letter, John withholds the name of Jesus Christ until the close of the prologue. It is not until verse 1Pe_1:17 of chapter 1 in the Gospel that the name of Jesus Christ is presented to the reader. By then it has become clear that the Logos of which John had written is in fact Jesus Christ "The Only Son" of God. Now in this letter, as John employs the same writing method, it is at the close of the prologue that we meet the holy name of the Logos of life. Jesus is the Word of life. He is the eternal life that John knows so well from personal experience, and now we who read John's letter are warmly invited to have fellowship with other disciples of Christ as well as with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
The word koinōnia is used in classical Greek as a term to express the most intimate kinds of human relationship as, for example, in marriage. Its basic root koinos means literally "common," hence "communion." It is this interpersonal and encouraging word that John now uses. Its meanings are warm and affirming. Koinōnia is the word for "generosity" as in Php_2:1. It can be translated with the word "participation" as in Phm_1:6. It may be translated in its noun form by the word "partner" or "sharer," as in Luk_5:10. We are not therefore surprised that John should conclude his prologue with a final one-sentence sigh: "And we are writing this that our joy may be complete." Manuscript evidence favors the pronoun "our" rather than "your" in his final sentence. The word "joy" is a light and whimsical word in Greek—chara. To this day the Greek-speaking world still makes use of this good word as a greeting. From this root the word charis ("grace") is developed particularly by Paul as an important word in his love vocabulary. There is the sense of surprise and acceleration within the word chara ("joy") and its companion charis ("grace")—the sense of a gift being given when no one expected it.
What has John said to us in these opening sentences of his book? And what is the significance of his prologue for our lives today? John has announced that from the beginning, before the creation itself, God who is the source of life had made His own decision to speak that eternal life into the time frame in which we human beings live out our historical existence. His breakthrough into our time has happened, and the mystery of this breakthrough is that we mere human beings have been able to understand and know the core of the mystery because at the very center of that mystery is the person Jesus Christ—not life or word as secrets to be decoded, but the Person to be known. The result of our discovery of Jesus Christ is a partnership, a sharing of our life with other human lives and with God the Father and the Son. Finally, this fellowship is so good it is fun. "Joy … is the gigantic secret of the Christian … ." (G. K. Chesterton,
Orthodoxy, p. 160). "When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead" (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 159). But when we look at the core of the cosmos we are met by the Living God who creates, who speaks for Himself, who has surprised us by knowing our names. When this surprise sinks in, then the joyous fellowship begins.
John has thrown a great stone into the water and the rings that encircle the stone are moving out in all directions. Here is life. The Life has broken in!