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.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Understanding And Applying the Text
The first 4 verses are very difficult to follow and understand. The thought process seems to be a series of short loosely connected thoughts. When I started studying these verses, I thought it was just me having a hard time following the passage. But after reading some others I find they too have the same problem. I understand some of the most trusted scholars find it difficult. This is not very good Greek. In fact, J. L. Houlden noted that the first few verses of 1 John “can only be described as, formally at least, bordering upon incoherence” and “lapse into grammatical impossibilities.”*
The first 4 verses contain several parenthetical statements. That makes it difficult to understand. This convoluted and circular progression of thought will be typical of the rest of 1 John.
John does not identify himself as the author. Nor does he identify the audience. This has led some to conclude that this is a general letter to all the churches. But, John is addressing specific problems. That, plus the fact that this is not a clearly written epistle, suggests he wrote it in hast and to a specific congregation. John may have felt that he needed to get a letter to this congregation in a hurry.
Many scholars have suggested the use of the plural. e.g. “we have seen…,” “was made manifest to us…,” “our joy may be complete,” etc. is a literary device. John used it to emphasize his apostolic authority. i.e. He is an apostle and is speaking for all the apostles.
John starts the epistle by saying he is proclaiming what he has seen, heard, and touched. He is proclaiming the word of life. He claims to have heard, seen, and touched the word of life. The emphasis is on “life” rather than “word”. This makes clear his focus is on the life and ministry of Jesus. What he has seen, heard, and touched was Jesus. This is the very thing that was under attack as we will see later. And the use of plurals refers not only to him but also to the others.
The first words of the epistle reference back to the beginning. The beginning referred to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Yet, in the Greek, it is done in such a way that there is no mistake he is referencing back to the Gospel of John 1:1. This sets up the rest of the letter. John addresses the false teachers. These false teachers denied the significance of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.
John states the purpose of his writing was so the readers may have fellowship with the apostles. And that their (the apostles’) joy may be complete.
Bottom line, the prologue to the epistle makes two things clear. First John is writing about things he personally has seen and experienced. Second, he is claiming apostolic authority.
John starts off verse 5 saying that God is light. This is not intended to be a description of God but more of an analogy of God’s morality. In context, John is referring to the moral nature of God. God is pure righteousness. In God, there is not even a hint of evil or wrong. John then goes on to say that if we are evil and continue to sin we are not in fellowship with God. John repeats this theme throughout the epistle.
If we claim that we are good and a just God would not send us to hell. We are deceiving ourselves. We do not understand goodness. We do not understand sin. We do not understand justice. We do not understand righteousness. We do not understand ourselves. And we do not understand God. We sin. We are not good. If we claim we have not sinned. Or, our sin is not that bad. We are saying God is a liar and there is evil in God. We are blaspheming His name. And we have no fellowship with Him. But if we will confess our sins, God will forgive us and remove the guilt of sin from us.
John is writing the epistle for the benefit of the reader so that he may have fellowship with them. That would make his joy may be complete. One who loves Jesus wants His name proclaimed and Him to be honored and glorified. So there is a desire that others to glorify Him too. And in doing so we are in fellowship with each other and our joy is increased.
God is love. God is good. And we ask, “How can a good and loving God send people to hell?” But we forget God is also just. God is righteousness. God’s goodness is pure. If we have sinned, even a little sin, once, we committed treason against the King of everything. And the punishment for treason is death. But the truth of the matter is, we have not committed a little sin. We have not committed a sin only once. We sin often. If you do not agree, then you are deceiving yourself. And you are calling God a liar. You are blaspheming. Yet another sin!
The good news is that God has not left us in an impossible situation. He has sent His son to die on the cross, to take the punishment for us. Then He rose from the dead as He has raised us from the dead, and given us a new life with Him.
John says here that if we confess our sins God will forgive us of our sins. But there is a problem. I cannot even remember all my sins. Does that mean that I lose out? Does that mean I am destined for hell because I can remember each sin I have committed? No! In Romans 8:26-27, Paul explains “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Praise be to God! Not only has he given us His son as a sacrifice for our sins, but He even helps us to confess our sins. Now that is a loving God!
* J. L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles (Harper’s New Testament Commentaries; New York: Harper & Row, 1973) 45.