New European Commentary


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Deeper Commentary


1 John

1 John 1

1:1 That which existed from the beginning, which we have heard- The Gospels are transcripts of the version of the Gospel taught by e.g. John. The converts learnt or probably memorized the Gospels, and then after their baptisms, the preacher followed up with them by visits and letters. This is what John is doing in his letters, written to the 'Johannine community', the house churches converted as a result of hearing or reading his version of the Gospel which we have in the gospel according to John. It's therefore to be expected that the letters of John are going to build on his Gospel, and allude back to it constantly.

The prologue of 1 Jn. is an example of this; it is a conscious allusion to and clarification of that of Jn. 1. Consider the following links:

In the beginning was the word

What was from the beginning

The word was with God

The eternal life which was with [Gk. in the presence of] God

In [the word] was life

The word of life

The life was the light of men

God is light

The light shines in darkness

In Him there is no darkness at all

The word became flesh

Seen, touched, handled by the apostles

And dwelt amongst us

and was manifested to us

This life was manifested

We beheld his glory

What we looked at

Of his fullness we have all received

The fellowship which we have is with

Through Jesus Christ

the Father and with his son

The only Son of God

Jesus Christ


You will note that the parallel for "the word" of Jn. 1 is 'the life' in 1 Jn. 1, the life which Jesus lived, the type of life which is lived by the Father in Heaven, and the life which was manifested in resurrection that it might be further manifested by the preaching of the disciples. That word was made flesh (Jn. 1:14) in the sense that this life was revealed to us in the life and death of Jesus. So the word becoming flesh has nothing to do with a pre-existent Jesus physically coming down from Heaven and being born of Mary. It could well be that the evident links between the prologue to John's Gospel and the prologue to his epistle are because he is correcting a misunderstanding that had arisen about the prologue to his Gospel. 1 Jn. 1:2 spells it out clearly- it was the impersonal "eternal life" which was "with the Father", and it was this which "became flesh" in a form that had been personally touched and handled by John in the personal, resurrected body of the Lord Jesus. And perhaps it is in the context of incipient trinitarianism that John warns that those who deny that Jesus was "in the flesh" are actually antiChrist.

John begins his first letter with an elaborate prologue. Raymond Brown comments: "Many commentators observe that a Prologue is an extraordinary beginning for an epistle since it violates all the standards of letter format". This 'violation' appears typical of how Scripture so often appears to 'violate' contemporary usages of language. [Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John (Garden City: Doubleday, 1982) p. 176].
The perfect unity within the Lord Jesus, between the person He portrayed and who He really was, is reflected in much New Testament language concerning Him. Thus "life" in 1 Jn. 1:1,2 is personified as Jesus; He was the life (Jn. 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn. 5:20). The person whom people knew, saw and touched in first century Palestine was the essence of the eternal life, the life God lives, and the life we by grace will eternally live. He wasn't acting human; He was human, genuinely human, and yet that human life which He lived was the ultimate and inner life of the Spirit.

“The beginning” is a term used in John's letters with reference to the beginning of the Lord's ministry, or to the beginning of a believer's conversion. See on Jn. 1:1 In the beginning. Seeing His ministry and life is to be ours, there's an appropriacy in this double usage; His beginning becomes the beginning for each believer when they begin believing in Him. He is “the beginning [s.w.] of the [new] creation of God" (Rev. 3:14). John writes of the commandment and message which his converts had "in the beginning"- clearly referring to the beginning of their conversion, when they first began to hear the message of the Lord Jesus (1 Jn. 2:7,24; 3:11; 2 Jn. 5,6). John mentions that the "fathers", the older converts, knew Him from the beginning (1 Jn. 2:13,14); this may simply mean that they had known Jesus as a person, from the beginning of His ministry.

“Which we have heard” is an idea often used in John's Gospel about those who heard the historical Jesus, perhaps with special application to how they first heard Jesus in the incidents recorded at the "beginning" of His ministry in Jn. 1.

Which we have seen with our eyes- A reference to the transfiguration? Their eyes were there "opened" to see Jesus in glory (Mt. 9:30). It is John's Gospel more than the others which records believers 'seeing' the historical Jesus, both literally and in the figurative sense of 'understanding'.

Which we saw and our hands handled- The two Greek words for 'seeing' are different; they had literally seen and also perceived. The Lord had promised that the Comforter would enable them to have His presence ever in their hearts, as really as if He were physically present. John is saying that he not only had literally seen the resurrected Lord, referring to the 'seeing' of the risen Lord and the way they responded to His invitation to handle Him (Mk. 16:14; Lk. 24:39); but had also experienced the "I will see you again" promised in the gift of the Comforter. Note the chronological progression- from first 'hearing' Him at the 'beginning' of His ministry and the 'beginning' of their path with Him; to seeing with their eyes at the transfiguration and throughout His ministry; to seeing and handling Him after His resurrection.

Concerning the word of life- The apostles had seen and known the physical, historical Jesus. They had known Him 'from the beginning'. But 'Jesus' was one of the most common male names in first century Palestine. What was unique about Jesus of Nazareth was the word about Him, the logos, the essence, the inner ideas of that Jesus; and His life, lived out in the manifestation of a sinless character. This was the essence of that man, and it was this which the apostles were preaching and fellowshipping in with their converts.

1:2 The life was manifested- This is not talking about the Lord Jesus personally, but about His life. His life, sinless and totally Godly as it was, was the life of God. That life, those principles, existed with God and in God; but that life, spirit, essence, logos of God was manifested in the person of the historical Jesus who came into existence as a foetus in Mary's womb. It was this life which the apostles were 'declaring'. Therefore verse 5 says that it was "the message" which the apostles were declaring. The message was the life- the life lived by Jesus of Nazareth, seeing it was the life of God. For although human by nature, the Lord Jesus was of perfectly God-like character and personality. "The life was manifested" in the sense that the Lord Jesus "manifested [s.w.] Your Name unto the" apostles (Jn. 17:6). God's Name was declared to Moses in terms of His characteristics and personality; this was the life of Jesus, and it is "the eternal life", the kind of life we shall live for ever, and which we can begin to live now. For in this sense, in John's terms, we 'have eternal life'. Not that we shall never die, but in that we can now live His life, the kind of life we will live in His Kingdom, the essence of the kind of life He lived and lives.

And we have seen and testify and declare to you the life- I suggest there is a chronological progression here. The apostles had 'seen' the life lived by the Lord Jesus, a perfect life, the essence of the life which is with God; they had preached / testified it to the people who had been baptized and were now in the group to whom John was writing; and now he was 'declaring it' to them, apaggello meaning 'to show again'. The basis for his pastoral work with this group was to declare again to them the way of life which was in Jesus Christ. The essence of John's preaching and pastoral teaching was the life of the Lord Jesus. This is why such a large proportion of the New Testament is taken up with the Gospel records.

The eternal life, which existed with the Father- John's Gospel is full of reference to the gift of eternal life being available now; not that the recipients shall never die, but in that by living His life, we are living the life we shall eternally live in the Kingdom, and shall resume living that life at resurrection. "Which existed with the Father" is an unhelpful rendering. The life was pros the Father, and the idea is of being with or towards the Father. Thus the prodigal son decided to come 'to [pros] his father' (Lk. 15:18,20). The life lived by the Lord Jesus was inclined towards the Father, it was a life lived with God. Notice it was not the literal person of Jesus which is in view here. Rather is John talking about the life, the essence of God which was lived out in perfection in the sinless character of Jesus. There is no hint here at the personal pre-existence of the Lord Jesus. It was the life, not Jesus personally, which was pros the Father. We now can come pros the Father (Jn. 14:6, AV "cometh unto the Father"); so being pros the Father doesn't require that we are personally located in Heaven, nor is it language which can only be used about the Lord Jesus. Paul likewise speaks of himself as being pros the Father in prayer- whilst here on earth (Eph. 3:18).

And was manifested to us- It was the life of God which was manifested to the disciples through Jesus; they had received the gift of eternal life as promised by the Lord. They had received it by seeing it manifested in the Lord personally, and accepting the gift of His spirit, whereby His life / spirit would live within them. It was not any pre-existent Jesus who was manifested to them, but an actual life lived in a person. What was manifested was what they in turn declared to others (:3); and they declared the life and message and personality of Jesus, rather than His literal body.

It was so hard for the Jewish mind to conceive that a man walking down a dusty Galilee street was the awesome God of Sinai manifested in flesh. And it's hard for us too. This is why the whole struggle over the trinity has come about; people just can’t find the faith to believe that a real man could have been the just as real perfect Son of God. It’s our same struggle when we come to consider the cross; that a body hanging there, covered with blood, spittle, dirt and flies, an image as palatable as a hunk of meat hanging in a butcher’s shop... was and is the salvation of the world, the real and ultimate way of escape for us from the guilt of our iniquity. The life the Lord Jesus lived was 'the sort of life that was in the Father's presence' (1 Jn. 1:2 Gk.). The sort of life God Almighty lives, the feelings and thoughts He has, were the life and feelings and thoughts and words and deeds of the man Jesus. This has to be reflected upon deeply before we grasp the huge import which this has. That a Man who walked home each day along the same dusty streets of Nazareth was in fact living the sort of life that was and is the life of God in Heaven. 
John calls Jesus “the eternal life” (1 Jn. 1:2). The life that He lived was the quality of life which we will eternally live in the Kingdom. The personality of Jesus was the living quintessence of all that He preached- as it should be with the living witness which our lives make. To preach “Christ” was and is therefore to preach “the things concerning the Kingdom of God”, because that Kingdom will be all about the manifestation of the man Christ Jesus (Acts 8:5 cp. 12). So, Jesus was “the word” in the sense that He epitomised the Gospel. This is why James 1:18 says that we are born again by the word of the Gospel, and 1 Pet. 1:23 says that the word who begets is the Lord Jesus.

1:3- see on Mt. 28:10; Jn. 3:32; Jn. 20:18; Acts 4:20.

What we have seen and heard, we declare to you also, so that you may also have fellowship with us. Yes, and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ- The Lord Jesus is called "the life, the eternal life, which existed with the Father, and was manifested unto us" (:3). In this lies the importance of a Christ-centred life and mind; He is the definition of eternal life. This is what eternity will be like, John is saying: life lived as the Lord lived and lives, the eternal life is a knowing of the Father and Son, a relationship with them (Jn. 17:3). Eternal life isn't defined in terms of sitting under a fig tree in a perfect climate watching the animals living happily together (although we are invited to believe that by God's grace this will be a part of our Kingdom experience). It is the life of Christ our Lord; and that's why one of His titles is “the life, the eternal life". He shewed us what eternal life will be about, and invites us to begin that experience, however imperfectly, even now (cp. Hos. 6:3 RV). And it is in this sense alone that "we may know that we have (now) eternal life" (1 Jn. 5:13). 

John exalts in the fact they touched and saw “the word of life"; the Lord Jesus personally was and is the voice of God’s word. When John writes that “that which we have seen and heard we declare unto you", he doesn’t mean to say that he is simply giving a transcript of the Lord’s spoken words. He is telling men about the person of Jesus, the man he personally knew, and in doing this he was declaring God’s essential logos / word to them. If the very being of the Lord Jesus was the expression of God’s word, it is little to be marvelled at that the cross, being as it is the crystallisation of all He was and is, should be in an even more intense sense the voice of God to us. And the same process of the word becoming flesh must be seen in us too.

There are different levels of fellowship; as we actually know from our own observed experience. There are some we are 'in fellowship' with whom we don't feel so close to as others. John says that he wanted to declare to them the depths of the understanding of Christ, “that you may also have fellowship with us" (1 Jn. 1:3), even though they were already technically 'in fellowship'. And so it is with our communal life. A close binding together in the depths and heights of the Lord Jesus leads to ever higher experiences of fellowship. It may be that there are even different levels of fellowship between men and God. Thus God’s original intention was that His presence in the Angel should go up to Canaan in the midst of Israel; but because of their weakness, He went in front of them, somewhat separate from them (Ex. 33:2,3). Likewise the glory of God progressively distanced itself from the temple and people of God in Ezekiel’s time. The basis of our fellowship, both with the Father and His people, is the life and living of the Lord Jesus. It is not a set of theological tenets per se. It is common experience of living His life, sharing His spirit. We sense this fellowship intuitively with others who live and have it, and if we later discover that we have points of difference over some matters of interpretation, this cannot take away from our connection together in the spirit of Christ. And conversely, sharing simply the same theological tenets is no guarantee of itself that fellowship shall be experienced.

Fellowship with each other is predicated upon fellowship with the Father. To deny fellowship to another is therefore to say something about their fellowship with the Father and Son. To break fellowship with His children is likewise to break fellowship with Him, as developed in chapter 4. It is therefore utterly fundamental to our fellowship with the Father to be open in fellowship to all His children, all who are in His Son. If we have His spirit within us, this will happen naturally; we just have to ensure that denominational laws and the fear of what others think of us doesn't lead us to go against the Spirit and deny the experience of unity in the Spirit which is naturally created.

There appears a contrast between 'us' and 'you'. What 'we' see, 'we' declare to 'you'. The 'we' may refer to John and some elders, or even the original disciples, wishing to share their experience of life and fellowship with the Lord with Johns converts.

1:4 And these things we write, that your joy may be made full- John saw himself as manifesting to his brethren what the Lord Jesus had manifested to him. John records how the Lord had said: "I have said this to you... that your joy may be fulfilled" (Jn. 15:11), but he then says of himself that "We are writing these things so that your joy may be fulfilled" (1 Jn. 1:4 RV). He saw himself as the face and mouth of Jesus to his brethren; and so are all of us who are in Christ. He wanted them to receive the spirit of Christ, the Comforter, so that their joy might be filled up by having His spirit of joy. Perhaps John felt that his converts were lacking in the spirit, and wanted them to be filled with it as he was.

Note how John repeats his Lord’s use of various terms, e.g. “little children”; and how here he appropriates the Lord’s phrase “that your joy may be complete” (Jn. 16:24; 17:13) to the way he spoke (1 Jn. 1:4). These are just a tiny fraction of the examples possible. We are to speak, think and feel as He did; to be as He was and is; to be brethren in Him. 

1:5 And this is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you: That God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all- There is a negative attached to all truths; if something is true, then therefore other things or ways of life are not true. There are several Bible passages which bring out this dualism.

"God is light

and in Him there is no darkness" (1 Jn. 1:5)

"God is faithful

and there is no unrighteousness in him" (Dt. 32:4)

"God is righteous

and there is no unrighteousness in him" (Ps. 92:16)


It is therefore quite valid to understand that a set of true teachings by their very nature give rise to a set of untrue ones, to be rejected. But more personally relevant for each one of us, each truth we perceive leads to not only things we should do, but things we should not.

The references to light and darkness further allude to the prologue of John's Gospel. The word "was God", and was the light which shone in the darkness of the Jewish world, to which the Jewish world would not come because they preferred the darkness. John's converts were Jews, and the temptation to return to Judaism, or compromise with it, was strong. He therefore presents the light of Christ as being effectively the light of God, and compromise with the darkness was by nature impossible.

1:6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in the darkness, we lie and not do the truth- As noted on :5, the allusion to the light and darkness of the prologue in John 1 suggests John is warning against fellowship with the darkness of Judaism, which had rejected the light of Christ. The darkness will later be defined as walking in hatred of our brother (2:11). Jewish attitudes to the Lord Jesus and His Jewish followers were indeed a hatred of their brethren. To walk in the darkness of Judaism was therefore to walk in the darkness of hatred of our brethren. There could be no association with any such darkness, if they had the spirit of Christ.

John writes of doing the Truth (Jn. 3:20,21; 1 Jn. 1:6)- the truth is a title used for the Lord in John's Gospel, but the knowledge of Him must be 'done'. He and His logos cannot be known purely in the abstract, but must be lived. For He is "the life". The Lord Jesus was "the Truth" in His life example as well as in His teaching. This tendency to apparently 'know' the Lord Jesus on a purely abstract level is a serious temptation in this internet age.

1:7 But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin- To walk "in the light" means to be open and up front about our walk with Him, in His Son, whom He has appointed the light of our lives. The tendency for these Jewish Christians was to maintain synagogue attendance, with all its social benefits, whilst being secret Christians. John's Gospel has demonstrated how there were many like this during the Lord's ministry, who either returned to the Jewish world or 'came out' for the Lord, as Joseph and Nicodemus did. Walking in the light is not the same as living without sin; for it is those who walk in the light who are in an ongoing sense cleansed from all sin by the Lord's blood. Rather does it refer to a life lived and oriented around the person of the Lord Jesus, the light which the prologue of John 1 says came into the darkness, and was Him, His logos, the essence of Him as He was amongst men. If we live in this orientation, a life lived pros the Father (see on :2), then "all sin" that we commit is dealt with on account of our association with the Lord and His blood. This is not to say that sin is of no moment, but that our focus is to be upon living His life, walking in the light of Him, rather than seeking to avoid sin or endlessly badger Him to forgive it.

The blood of Jesus cleanses us, in the present tense, from all our sins; the Lord Jesus loves us and frees us from our sins by His blood (1 Jn. 1:7; Rev. 1:5). The cross is ongoing. It is on this basis that we experience fellowship with each other, that fellowship naturally arises between those who are walking in the light of His life and experiencing their sin dealt with in this way. Fellowship is an experience which arises from these things; it is not created by an agreement to a common set of theological propositions. Even when such propositions are agreed between individuals, severe tensions still occur between them and many do not walk together who are basically theologically agreed. But fellowship as presented here is something which arises naturally and involuntarily. To consciously refuse a brother fellowship is to imply that he is in the darkness, and that the blood of Jesus Christ is not cleansing him from sin. Like it or not, to do so is a serious judgment of him, even if that is denied in words.

1:8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us- This attitude of "we have no sin" could have arisen from incipient Gnosticism, but it more likely refers [at least initially] to the attitude of Judaism, to legalistic self-righteousness in the Jewish world which was ever tempting the converts to whom John was writing. To do the truth is to walk in the light (:6), but walking in the light doesn't mean being without sin; rather it refers to a life focused upon the light of the Lord's life, in which our "all sin" is dealt with by the Lord (:7). To have "the truth" in us may well refer to the abiding presence of the Lord Jesus, "the truth", through the "Spirit of truth", the Comforter. The Comforter convicts the world of sin, and surely convicts us too. The presence of the Spirit within a believing heart doesn't mean that the person doesn't sin, but rather that they become conscious of sin, and the cleansing process can therefore begin.

1:9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness- Repentance needs to be verbalized- it must be “confessed”, which implies a verbal or written statement of the issues. It’s like praying or Bible reading out loud; it makes our minds think not quite so fast. We need to get to grips with all the aspects of our sin. We must face it, in all the ugliness of what we have done. The idea of cleansing from sin differs slightly from forgiveness; we need to be not only forgiven but cleansed so that we do not repeat them. This is the work of the Spirit, which is what sanctifies or cleanses us; there is a major connection between sanctification [cleansing] and the work of the Holy Spirit given to each believer (Rom. 15:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2). And yet we are cleansed by the Lord's blood (:7), and by His logos or word (Jn. 15:3). Our sanctification is by both "the blood of the covenant" and "the spirit of grace" (Heb. 10:29). These are all terms referring to the same thing. The Lord Jesus, as the sum of His personality, was His word made flesh; His blood, His Spirit, the light of His life, personality, spoken words and actions, His biography... all these things are summarized in His Spirit, which is given to us. As noted on :8, it is the Spirit of truth which abides in us and convicts of sin, and yet also sanctifies. 

1:10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us- It is the indwelling of "the truth" which convicts and then sanctifies / cleanses from the sin which it convicts (see on :8,9). I suggest it is not 'the Bible' which is in view here; it is not every word of that inspired book, including the Chronicles genealogies, which will convict of sin. If 'the Bible' were referred to then surely we would read 'the Scriptures', or at least, some other word apart from logos would be used. The logos of God is clearly defined in John's Gospel as His Son, and likewise here in :1. It is the indwelling of the Lord Jesus, by His Spirit (see on :9), which both convicts of sin and cleanses from that sin. Those who claimed to be without sin had not received the Lord's spirit, and were "none of His" therefore, as Paul puts it in Rom. 8:9- even if they claimed membership in some form of the Christian community.

Our experience of life, the way God works through our failures, almost overruling even (it seems to me) the kinds of sins we commit and their outcome, is all intended to bring us to an increasing realization of our own sinfulness. The more God's logos abides in us, the more we will know our sinfulness. Thus Paul speaks as if when Corinth are more obedient, he will reveal further to them the extent of their weakness (2 Cor. 10:6). On a racial level, it could be argued that over history, God has progressively revealed the sinfulness of man to him. Thus the early records of Israel's history in Egypt and in the wilderness contain very little direct criticism of them. But the prophets reveal that they were corrupt even then, taking the idols of Egypt with them through the Red Sea (Ez. 20). But then in the New Testament, Stephen brings together several such prophetic mentions, combining them to produce a stunning description of Israel's ecclesial apostasy, which culminated in their rejection of the Son of God. 

To just have an attitude that we haven't sinned, is read by God as stating that He is a liar- even though we would never dream of saying this. If we don’t believe Him, we likewise “make him a liar”, we slander or falsely accuse Him, because we call His witness to us in the Spirit / Comforter a lie (1 Jn. 5:10). We may recoil at this language. But it is so– to deny our sinfulness, to disbelieve what God says about it, is to slander God and resist the conviction of His Spirit.