I posted last month saying that I’m getting more regular pulpit time. I’ll be preaching again next week and posting my passage notes then. In the meantime, today we started working our way through 1 John in Sunday School. I decided to post my notes here, too. So when this is done in a couple of months, you’ll basically have a verse-by-verse commentary of the book.
So let’s get right into it. Not only is this going to be an analysis of the book, it’s also going to serve as something of a case study of how to read your Bible–that’s a field that Bible scholars call “hermeneutics.” So you’ll see me giving you several hermeneutical tools that you can apply as you study other books. And the first such tool is, naturally, reading in context. But “context” doesn’t only mean the verses right before and right after whatever verse you are in. It doesn’t even just mean the paragraphs before and after (although that’s a lot better than just the verses before and after). One of the major contexts is the purpose of the book. Why was the author writing? What was he trying to get his readers to understand? What’s the big idea he was addressing?
That’s really important, because if you get it right, much of the book will explain itself. But if you get it wrong, you’ll likely end up with hopeless contradictions within the book and with other books of the Bible. If you’ve ever found yourself reading and suddenly you come across a verse or passage that feels like it came out of nowhere and just doesn’t belong, that’s probably because you have missed the author’s overall point. We’ll see in just a bit how that works in 1 John as our example.
But before we do that, I want to mention a second, and related, context. That’s the flow of the argument. The biblical authors didn’t just make their point with a single sentence or two and be done with it (although Paul was pretty close to that with Philemon). No, they typically developed and proved their point by making an extended argument. So it helps to know how the part of the book you are in contributes to the overall purpose of the book. Once again, if you feel like a section of the book is totally out of place and doesn’t fit, that either means that you are misinterpreting it or that it doesn’t “fit” precisely because you’re not really following the biblical writer’s argument, and that in turn means you’ve probably misunderstood the author’s big idea.
1 John’s Big Idea
Let’s illustrate these ideas by looking at 1 John. Let’s start by asking ourselves, “Why did John write this letter? What is his big idea?”
Most preachers and teachers that I’ve heard teach this book will answer that question by pointing to 1 John 5:13. It says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (NIV). They take “these things” to refer to the content of the whole book, and therefore they conclude that John is writing to give his readers information they need to know that they are really saved. This reading of 1 John has been called “the tests of life view,” because–as we will see as we work our way through this book (and very shortly here in chapter one), John does, in fact, give us lots of “tests.” So, on this view, if we pass the tests, we can know we are saved. And if we don’t pass the tests, we don’t know we are saved–or worse, we know that we are not saved.
I think that’s the wrong view of this book, and that’s because I don’t think 1 John 5:13 is the purpose statement of the entire book. Let me try to demonstrate why by quoting three other verses in this book:
And we write these things so that your joy might be made overflowing (1 John 1:4)
My children, I write these things to you that you might not sin; and if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the Righteous One. (1 John 2:1)
I wrote these things concerning those misleading you. (1 John 2:26)
Look at the underlined portions of these verses. All all of these purpose statements of the book? Of course not. In fact, each of those three verses tell us why John wrote the immediately preceding sections. And that’s the same thing with 1 John 5:13. Specifically, 1 John 5:13 is talking about 1 John 5:10-12. We’ll see more about that in our commentary on 1:1-4 below.
I’ll be revisiting throughout these comments some reasons that 1 John shouldn’t be read as giving us “tests of life,” but let’s just stop with that for now and ask, then what is the purpose of this book? I’m going to propose to you that John is actually giving us the tests and means of fellowship, both with one another and with God through Christ. Fellowship and salvation are not the same thing. And that is a major theological point in this whole book. We’re going to see that what John is ultimately trying to do is help us complete or perfect our Christian lives . . . lives that are or would be deficient in some sense if we fall into the errors that he is writing against.
And what are those errors? That’s part of his argument. Let’s start looking at them with an analysis of chapter 1.
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 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, purifies us from all sin.
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1:1-10, NIV)
Let’s start by saying that we need to keep these three paragraphs together. It’s common to break the first paragraph off from the second two. I understand that for practical reason. There is, as you will see, a lot of material in these first four verses. But if we do that, I think we’re going to miss the flow of John’s argument. Still, for convenience, I’m going to break this post up into two parts, precisely because of how long it is. Just note that, while ultimately all of these posts will go together, this and the next one are something of a Part 1 and Part 2. They should be taken together as a single unit. My hope is that by the end of this, you’ll agree with me that there’s one major point being made in this section.
v1. Notice what John starts with: “That which was from the beginning . . .” Maybe this reminds of you John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word . . .” So what is John talking about? What was “from the beginning”? God, right? Yes, but keep reading. This thing that was “from the beginning” was also what “we have heard” and what “we have seen with our eyes” and even what “we have looked at and our hands have touched.” There may be a sense in which we have heard God, but have we seen Him with our eyes or touched Him with our hand? Of course not. John is talking here about the same thing he was in his Gospel: Jesus Christ. Jesus is “that which was from the beginning.” He was what they heard, what they saw, what they touched.
Don’t just skip over this. Notice that this is where John starts everything. John’s letter starts with Jesus Christ. So whatever we say the rest of this letter is about, we have to make sure everything is focused on Christ. And not in the abstract, theological sense, but in the real sense of John’s literal, human relationship with Him. John is concerned about proclaiming Someone and something he knew personally. And we’ll see why in just a bit.
Next, notice John says that he wants to “proclaim [this] concerning the Word of life.” We’re familiar from the Gospel of John as thinking of Jesus as the Word, so I won’t comment on that here. But notice the qualifier: the Word of life. That ought to remind of the prologue to John’s Gospel, too. In John 1:3-4, he writes, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Life was and is in Christ. That’s going to be incredibly important going forward. John is proclaiming life–eternal life, even, in proclaiming Jesus.
v2. Now, John says that this life “appeared.” He is talking about the Incarnation and ultimately the public ministry of Jesus. He came into the world bringing light and life. And John says he did and is doing three things with that light: he saw it himself (he was with Jesus), he testifies to it (he is bearing witness to His ministry), and he proclaims it (he is telling us about Jesus). Once again, we see the centrality that John gives to Jesus. Everything is about Him.
Next, notice that this life was “with the Father.” This is a clear reference to Jesus’ preexistence and ultimately to His divinity. He was with God. He was and is life itself. And He has taken that Divine Life and brought it “to us.” We’ll start to see why in the next verse.
v3. Why is John proclaiming Jesus to his readers? “So that you may have fellowship with us.” Here we start getting at the purpose of this section and ultimately of this book. Why is John saying all of this? Because he is concerned about fellowship. He wants his readers to have fellowship with him.
Now let me pause and give you two tools to help you read your Bible more clearly that will also help this verse (and this whole passage) really come to life.
The first: take notice of purpose statements. Any time you seem the words “so that” or “because” or “therefore,” stop and pay close attention. If you aren’t afraid of a little Greek, get your Strong’s concordance out and notice where you have the word “hina.” When you see that word, you know that the author is about to tell you the reason he is saying what he is. There’s no need to guess because he’s telling you what’s on his mind. We don’t have to wonder, “Why is John talking about his relationship with Jesus?” and then try to come up with clever or spiritually sounding answers. And in this case, John is telling us that he is concerned with fellowship.
The second: take notice of pronouns. Look what John says here. He wants “you” (his readers) to have fellowship with “us.” But who is “us”? Take a second and go reread this whole passage. Look at the pronouns–“we” and “us” as opposed to “you” and “your.” We tend to read the “we” sections and just assume that John is talking about Christians, right? But wait a minute. Had John’s readers hung out with Jesus? Had they seen or touched Him?
No, they had not. So we see that the “we” refers to the people who had seen and touched Him. In a word, the “we” refers to the apostles (or the apostolic community). The “you” refers to the church that John was writing to (and by extension, to us). If we make that distinction, we start to see something very important in this passage:
John wants the church he is writing to to have fellowship with the apostolic community.
Keep that in mind. That is going to be huge, not just in this passage, but in the entire book. Remember our “so that” phrase. That is why John is saying all of this. That’s his point or goal. What he is telling us will help us have fellowship with the apostolic community. We see why that’s so important in the second half of v3: Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”
The apostolic community is in fellowship with the Father through Jesus. How is that possible? Remember that Jesus is life. Where Jesus is not, there is no life. There can be no fellowship without life, right? A pile or rocks or corpses in a cemetary may be close together, but they aren’t in fellowship, because there is no life in them. Now the apostolic community that had seen Jesus was in fellowship with Him, for He is life, and through Him they were alive. And since Jesus was in fellowship with the Father (remember that He was “with the Father”), then they were in fellowship with the Father, too. That means if this church were to be in fellowship with the apostolic community, who was in fellowship with Jesus, who was in fellowship with the Father, then they (that church) would also be in fellowship with the Father.
v4. Now John tells us again why he is writing all of this. He’s already said it is so that we can be in fellowship with the apostolic community and thus with God through Christ. But what does that mean? It means that our “joy may be made complete.”
[Technical note: some versions, like the NIV, say he is writing so that “our”–that is, the apostolic community’s–joy may be made complete. But I think that “your” is better here. This isn’t a problem with translation as much as it is manuscripts. Some Greek manuscripts say “our” and some say “your.” I think, for reasons I won’t get into here, that “your” is the proper reading. Notice the KJV and NKJV take this view as well.]
In other words, John is concerned that this church’s joy might actually be incomplete. But how is that possible? Isn’t our salvation enough to complete our joy?
It might surprise you, but the answer is “no.” Jesus didn’t save us to be an island. He saved us to be in fellowship with Him. But to be in fellowship with Him is to be a part of His Body, which is the Church. It is completely possible for you to get saved and never go to church. You can get your sermons on TV and your worship time in from Christian radio. But your joy will be incomplete. Why? Because a complete joy comes not just from being saved, but from being in fellowship with Christ, and you can’t truly be in fellowship with Him without being in fellowship with His body. So the bottom line is that John wants this church to be united with his community, because his community is united with Christ and so with God. John’s own community was exceedingly joyful, and to the extent that this church was united with Christ’s Church, they, too, would be exceedingly joyful.
And everything that follows in the rest of this book is going to deal with that question. The basic presumption is not that this church needs to know whether or not they are saved. It is that they need to know whether or not they are in fellowship with one another, with the apostolic community, with Christ, and ultimately with God, and all of this so that their joy may be perfected. Anything less would lead to an imperfect, deficient joy.
And that, by the way, is God’s real program for church growth. My church ought to be in fellowship with the Church Universal, which is in fellowship with God through Christ. I am in fellowship with my church so that I and my church get to experience a perfect joy. Then I go to you. I invite you to be in fellowship with me. And in being in fellowship with me, you get to be in fellowship with the Church, with Christ, and with God, and experience a perfect joy. And then you get to go and invite others to be in fellowship with you. What John is offering, what the Church is offering, what I am offering, and what you are offering, really is Good News. You aren’t just offering salvation. You are offering perfect joy. And how great is that?