That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1–4)
Apart from the Epistle to the Hebrews, no other letter in the New Testament begins as impressively as this one does. In some way or other, they all give an indication of the identity of their author and his standing in the church, and they designate those addressed in terms of their character or locality or both. Such introductions, which had a counterpart in first-century secular correspondence, draw attention to the historical setting and personal character of each letter. By contrast, 1 John seems to lack all such touches. All that we have are “we” and “you.” But those pronouns are not as impersonal as might be thought, because the “we” frequently gives way to an “I” and those addressed are described as “my little” or “dear children”—and sometimes the “we” includes the “whole family”! This letter is not only personal but also truly pastoral.1
Although there is this warm-hearted immediacy about the letter, its opening sentence (vv. 1–3) is rather abrupt. It does not read smoothly in the original from a grammatical point of view. But that, of course, was deliberate on John’s part, because he was posting headlines to gain the attention of his readers. He began what he was going to write about (the object) and piled up a series of clauses to climax in its description—“concerning the word of life” (v. 1). This functions as a kind of title, which he then explains in a lengthy parenthesis (v. 2) before returning to his opening words and supplying the main verb, which is “we proclaim to you” (v. 3a). Finally, he makes an explicit declaration of his purposes in writing the letter (vv. 3b–4).
We are going to take the expression “concerning the word of life” as the overall theme of this study and consider it from various angles.
“The Word” of Life
This Epistle can be said to have a “prologue,” as does the Gospel, and in both John refers to a “beginning” in connection with “the word” and “the life.” But there is a difference between them that should be noted and appreciated. In John’s Gospel, “the word” refers exclusively to a divine person, but in the Epistle it is also related to a message about him. We may therefore say that while the Gospel prologue presents “the Word,” the Epistle presents “a word” about that “Word.” This is shown by two facts: (1) the relative pronoun that opens the section cannot mean “who,” and (2) several references are made in it to human testimony and proclamation. Its opening expression, “that which was from the beginning,” is therefore best understood as a reference to the inauguration of the new covenant era along the lines indicated in Jesus’ own expression to his disciples in the Upper Room: “You also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27; see also 1 John 2:7–12; 2:24; Acts 1:22).
To put it rather blandly but bluntly, something about somebody is being referred to in these verses—and it is by someone who knows what he is talking about. That being so, why did the author speak in the plural? It should not be thought that he was functioning as a scribe who recorded the combined efforts of a committee. When it comes to great artistic productions of any kind—and the First Epistle is as great a composition as the Gospel or the Apocalypse—“too many cooks spoil the broth” is more apposite than “many hands make light work.” John used the pronoun “we” because he was aware that what he was writing was a testimony that others were also able to give—namely, the apostles of Jesus Christ. He was specifying them, as is obvious from his mention of “our eyes and hands” (v. 1), and so distinguishing them from those addressed. The apostle Peter did the same when he wrote, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:16).
Christianity did not begin with the apostles but with the coming of the Messiah himself.2 “Apart from me you can do nothing. . . . You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you” (see John 15: 5, 16). The message of “great salvation . . . was declared at first by the Lord” before being “attested . . . by those who heard” him (Heb. 2:3).
This letter is therefore not only personal and pastoral but also “official,” because in their teaching, the apostles communicated the mind and will of Jesus Christ as head of the church. Their word about what they had “seen and heard,” accompanied by the Holy Spirit’s power, was the appointed means by which many came to know Jesus Christ, the Son of God (it still is!). Peter and John preached “all the words of this life” in Jerusalem (Acts 5:20) and elsewhere. In this letter, John is reminding believers in Ephesus of what he has proclaimed, and he is continuing to do so through what he is writing. Their ministry was not just church-founding but church-building.
Although there are no more apostles of the Lord—their number being closed with the inclusion of Saul of Tarsus (see 1 Cor. 15:9), and their ministry as eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus not capable of being transferred to others—they still bear that authentic testimony to the coming of the Son of God into the world.3 Although our calendar is no longer marked by the letters BC or AD—both now being thought to be too pro-Christian—it is the watershed event in terms of God’s dealing with humanity. The apostle John insisted on it in this letter, as did the other apostles. And the church must insist on it too if she would be worthy of the name “Christian”!
“The Life” of the Word
In the light of what has just been said, John’s opening phrase “from the beginning” does not only refer to the apostles’ ministry and to the period post-Pentecost. It also includes the life-bringing ministry of Jesus that John twice describes by saying, “The life was manifested.” Pre-existence is necessarily implied in that verb—as it is in the frequently used verb “to come” in his Gospel, which is correlated with being sent. In prayer to his Father, Jesus said with reference to all humanity, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). It is a “hiddenness” brought to an end by asserting a presence visible to human eyes and tangible to human hands—and not previous nonexistence.
Describing that life as “eternal” and “with the Father” indicates that it was found in his Son (5:11) and the kind of relationship that exists between them. Having an identity of nature, the Father and his Son live in light and love with each other. They are distinct from each other and yet never separate, so that no one can “have” the one without the other and whoever denies the one also denies the other (2:22–23). “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” is therefore as much insisted on in John’s Epistle as in his Gospel. Over against those who claimed a knowledge of divinity that was dismissive of materiality, John thundered that Jesus was the Christ come in the flesh (see 4:2–3) and that the Son “came by water and blood—not by the water only but by the water and the blood” (5:6).
“Life” through the Word
Although John safeguards the uniqueness of the apostles in this letter, he does not use the pronoun “we” with reference to them alone. Sometimes—as was intimated in our opening paragraph—he includes those addressed as well; for example, the several affirmations of faith beginning with “we know” in the closing verses of the letter. Each use of the first-person plural pronoun in the Epistle has therefore to be considered in its context and on the basis that what is not specific to the apostles in their unique ministry applies to them and Christians generally. In this “prologue,” John speaks of “we,” “you,” and then “you . . . with us.” The word ministered by some and received by others results in “fellowship” with them but also “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” and consequent “joy.” The life of the word is therefore the life of the Son “with the Father”: life through the word is “with the Father and his Son.” What is “eternal” means belonging to “the age to come,” and so the “life” is only everlasting because it is “heavenly.” It is nonperishable (John 3:16).
By definition, “fellowship” cannot begin and end with oneself. Others must be included, because it involves interaction. A relationship is therefore required. An example is provided in that John himself and James, his brother, were in partnership with Peter (Luke 5:10). Applied to gospel work, this involved “giving and receiving” and “going and sending” (Phil.1:5; 4:15; 3 John 8). With regard to the gospel word, it consisted in the provision of “life” and the response to that blessing.
John deliberately describes this living interaction as being “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” He reserves the expression “with God” for a false claim to fellowship (v. 6). In the Gospel, God reveals himself as “the Father [who] sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14); and so response is to each and to both together—not with the Father to the exclusion of the Son, nor the Son to the exclusion of the Father (2:22–23), but each in distinction from and yet in association with the other. This is a powerful testimony to God as triune, although there is no mention of the Spirit in this paragraph. Life is provided by the Father in giving the Son to fallen humanity (John 3:16) and the Son’s self-giving for sinners (John 10:10). Those who receive that message respond (by the Spirit) to both and also to each. The Father testifies to the Son (5:9–10), the Son reveals the Father (5:20), and the Spirit adds his testimony to that mutual attestation (5:6).
Such fellowship was to be characterized by all-round joy. Even if John wrote “our joy” (the better reading) rather than “your joy,” what he was concerned about was that those addressed might—knowing joy through believing—cause him to rejoice as well (see 1 Thess. 2:20). So he wrote for that purpose, well aware that they had been unsettled (see 2:19) and that they were lacking in assurance that eternal life was theirs (5:13). Taking note of how John sets about helping them to such certainty will be our task next time.
Hywel R. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.