That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw 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 may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.
The only letters in the New Testament which do not mention who wrote them are the three epistles of John and the epistle to the Hebrews. The title over the letter in our Bibles ("The First Letter of John") was added by the church. But there are three good reasons why we believe the apostle John wrote the letter.
Three Arguments for Johannine Authorship
First, because the earliest Christian writers acknowledge that John is the writer—Irenaeus (d. 200), Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), and Tertullian (d. 220).
Second, because the writer identifies himself as an eye-witness of Jesus' earthly life (1:1): "we have seen with our eyes . . . we have looked upon and touched."
Third, the style and terminology are almost identical with the style and terminology of the gospel of John.
At the end of John's Gospel (21:24) we are told explicitly that the apostle who wrote it was the "the beloved disciple"—that is, the disciple who had the most intimate personal friendship with Jesus, the one who at the last supper reclined close to Jesus' breast (13:23), the one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother (19:26), the one who outran Peter to the empty tomb (20:2–4).
But the beloved disciple is never named. He had to be one of the inner three, Peter, James, or John. He can't have been Peter because he outran Peter! And according to Acts 12:1 James was killed by Herod about ten years after the death of Jesus. It's very unlikely that the gospel of John was written that early. So the most likely conclusion is that the beloved disciple and the author of the gospel and the epistles was the apostle John.
Why Johannine Authorship Is Important
In one sense this is unimportant, since the author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit did not tell us his name, and in the end the meaning of the book doesn't depend on being sure who the author was.
But in another sense it is important, because a rejection of the authorship of John almost always goes hand in hand with a rejection of his claim to be an eye-witness of the Lord. Virtually no scholars say, "It wasn't John. It was another of the twelve." Everybody knows that if the author of this letter was close enough to Jesus to touch him, then it was John. There are no other probable candidates among the disciples of those earthly days.
So the rejection of John is virtually always a rejection of the truth of the very first verse of the letter: "What we have heard, what we have seen, what we have touched with our hands . . . " If it wasn't John, it wasn't an eye-witness and the integrity of the author (who claims to be an eye-witness!) is impugned from the outset.
So the reason I begin with these thoughts on the authorship of this letter is to force the issue with which the author begins: he had heard, seen, and touched the Son of God.
Come to the Light
On the judgment day God will ask people who have read this letter and not believed its testimony, "Why did you not believe the testimony of my servant John? Did he manifest the traits of a liar or a lunatic? Was his teaching not consistent with itself? Did the message of his letter contradict reasonably established facts of history? Did his insights into your heart and the ways of God not help make sense of reality? Did his testimony not fit with the other testimonies to my Son? Why did you not believe his testimony?"
On that day of truth there will only be one answer: "Every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed" (John 3:20). It is not because we lack reliable testimony to the truth of Christ that we are slow to believe. It is because to believe is to be broken and to let the blackness of our hearts be exposed to the light of God's holiness.
As we lay ourselves open for the next 21 weeks to this testimony of John, I urge you not to shut the inner rooms of sin in your life, but to come to the light and ponder long and hard the fact that in this letter we have to do with the message of one who actually saw and touched the Lord of glory.
Five Assertions in John 1:1–4
In order to unpack the meaning of these first four verses, I have tried to put in logical order the five main assertions that I see.
- Christ, our Life, has eternally existed with the Father.
- Christ, our Life, was manifested in the flesh.
- Through Christ's incarnation John has obtained fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
- Therefore John makes the proclamation of Christ the basis of his fellowship with other believers.
- John longs for the fullness of joy that comes when others share his delight in the fellowship of the Father and the Son.
The spring from which the river of this text flows is Christ who never had a beginning but has existed eternally with the Father. And the ocean to which the river of this text flows is the joy of our fellowship with each other and with the Father and the Son.
So what I would like to do with you this morning is to walk along the river of this text and take a brief drink at these five places. My goal would be that God will use the water of his Word to refresh your confidence in Christ and intensify your desire for the joy of his fellowship.
1. Christ, our Life, has eternally existed with the Father.
I get this mainly from verse 2: "The life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us."
Christ Is Our Life
First, notice that Christ is simply called "the Life". "The life was made manifest." It was Christ who was made manifest. Christ appeared in human form. But as 1 John 5:11–12 says, "God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life." So the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is our Life. When we have fellowship with him, we share in life.
This Life Is Eternal
Second, notice that this life is eternal. "The life was made manifest . . . and we proclaim to you the eternal life." This is the best commentary on the first phrase of verse 1: "That which was from the beginning . . . " "From the beginning" means, Christ our Life was there when creation began. He is eternal. He had no beginning. He will have no ending. He is not part of creation. In the beginning he is the source of creation. All life comes from him. He is the spring, not part of the river. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:1–3).
So the most fundamental assertion of this text is that Christ our Life has eternally existed with the Father. Everything else flows from this. We do well to meditate often and deeply on the majestic reality that Christ has existed without beginning from all eternity.
2. Christ, our Life, was manifested in the flesh.
Again verse 2 makes this plain: "The life was made manifest." That is, the eternal Christ became visible. He appeared. And the sense in which he appeared is made clear in verse 1: "That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands . . . "
The Stumbling Block of the Incarnation
The fact that John claims to have touched what was from the beginning, namely, the manifested eternal Life, shows plainly that the point here is incarnation. The eternal Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and indeed was God—this Christ appeared in flesh. He became a man.
Here is a great stumbling block. People have stumbled over it from the days of John until our own day (cf. The Myth of God Incarnate). John says in his second letter (v. 7), "Many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist."
Many are willing to believe in Christ if he remains a merely spiritual reality. But when we preach that Christ has become a particular man in a particular place issuing particular commands and dying on a particular cross exposing the particular sins of our particular lives, then the preaching ceases to be acceptable for many.
When God Becomes Man . . .
I don't think it is so much the mystery of a divine and human nature in one person that causes most people to stumble over the doctrine of the incarnation. The stumbling block is that if the doctrine is true, every single person in the world must obey this one particular Jewish man. Everything he says is law. Everything he did is perfect. And the particularity of his work and word flow out into history in the form of a particular inspired book (written in the particular languages of Greek and Hebrew) that claims a universal authority over every other book that has ever been written.
This is the stumbling block of the incarnation—when God becomes a man, he strips away every pretense of man to be God. We can no longer do our own thing; we must do what this one Jewish man wants us to do. We can no longer pose as self-sufficient, because this one Jewish man says we are all sick with sin and must come to him for healing. We can no longer depend on our own wisdom to find life, because this one Jewish man who lived for 30 obscure years in a little country in the Middle East says, "I am the way the truth and the life."
When God becomes a man, man ceases to be the measure of all things, and this man becomes the measure of all things. This is simply intolerable to the rebellious heart of men and women. The incarnation is a violation of the bill of human rights written by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is totalitarian. It's authoritarian! Imperialism! Despotism! Usurpation! Absolutism! Who does he think he is!
The Doctrinal Test of Spiritual Authenticity
And therefore the doctrine of the incarnation has from the beginning been a touchstone of orthodoxy and spiritual authenticity. 1 John 4:2, "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God."
Only the Spirit of God can break our rebellion against the authoritarian particularity of the incarnation and cause us to submit gladly to this one Jewish man as our absolute sovereign. And therefore the confession that God has come in the flesh is John's doctrinal test of whether we are of God.
3. Through Christ's incarnation John has obtained fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
The last part of verse 3 says, "Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." Fellowship (koinonia) is a personal experience of sharing something significant in common with others. It's the pleasure of being in a group when you see eye to eye on what really matters. It's having similar values and responding with the same kind of affections to what really counts. It's what makes working with Tom and Steve and Dean and Char one of the greatest delights of my life. It's what gives root and fiber and fruit to a Christian marriage.
So to say you have fellowship with the Father and his Son means that you have come to share their values. You believe what they believe and love what they love. And so you delight to spend time together. You love to include them in all that you do. You cherish the thought of spending an eternity getting to know them better.
Fellowship Through Word and Prayer
Very practically what this means is that we repeatedly call up into our minds memorized portions of God's Word; and as the Lord speaks a word of warning or promise or guidance, we pray for his help to respond as we should; and then we trust him as we walk with him in the light. He draws near to you in his Word. You draw near to him in prayer. And in the power of that fellowship you do his will. It is the most wonderful way to live your life.
Fellowship Through Jesus Christ
John knows that he owes the gift of this fellowship to Jesus Christ. Christ came and made himself the friend of tax collectors and sinners. He offered his fellowship to any who would be willing to change their values and see things eye to eye with him. You can't have fellowship with Jesus if you don't trust his judgment. But if you do trust Jesus, you have fellowship not only with him but also with God the Father. John says in 2:23, "No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also." Fellowship with God comes only through Jesus Christ his Son.
So every time someone bears witness to the truth of Jesus Christ—who he was, and what he did, and what he values—the opportunity exists for those who hear the testimony to stop rebelling against the will of Christ, accept his values, and begin to have fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
4. Therefore John makes the proclamation of Christ the basis of his fellowship with other believers.
Verse 3 says, "That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." Or to read the verse backward, "Since our fellowship is with the Father and his Son, the only way we can cultivate fellowship with you is to proclaim to you what we know about the Son whom we have seen and heard."
Shared Doctrine as the Basis for Christian Fellowship
At Bethlehem we talk about the three priorities of ministry: commitment to God in worship, commitment to each other in nurture, and commitment to the world in witness. Notice how clearly this verse supports the relationship between the first two. In order to experience fellowship with his readers, John tells them what he believes about Jesus Christ. In other words, there is no significant fellowship among people who do not share the same view of Jesus Christ. Shared doctrine is the basis of Christian fellowship.
When John wants to cultivate fellowship with a group of people, he writes them a letter filled with theology. When Paul wanted to prepare a missionary fellowship to support him and send him on to Spain, he wrote a theological book called Romans. The deeper and stronger you want your fellowship to be, the more theology must be shared.
There are so many lessons for us here. Let me mention three.
First, the great danger of the charismatic movement around the world today (with all the good I see in it) is that it often attempts to preserve fellowship among believers on the basis of a shared experience rather than on the basis of shared theology. This is not the biblical way, and will result eventually in the petering out of poorly founded experience or in the development of heretical theology to smooth over the differences.
Second, surely this text implies that no Christian should marry an unbeliever. Deep fellowship in the things that count most is not possible where we don't share the same understanding and affection for Christ.
Third, it is a great and sad irony that as a Conference, professing to cherish the Bible, we have the reputation of trying to preserve the unity of fellowship not by exalting the great doctrines of Scripture, but by avoiding them. When John wanted to cultivate and preserve the fellowship of his readers, he got theological. When the Conference wants to cultivate and preserve the fellowship, it gets a-theological. We are paying the price for this in many ways. And it is a great sadness.
God willing, we will set a different pace at Bethlehem. We will be explicitly theological and always lay our cards on the table. The last thing I want to do is attract or keep members by concealing the very distinctives that fill us with us with passion and zeal for the glory of God. To water down biblical theology to the lowest common denominator of acceptability is the death knell of worship and orthodoxy and missions and morality and growth. And the BGC is in trouble in everyone of those areas.
Let's be like John. Verse 3: "What we have seen, what we have heard, we proclaim to you, so that you may have fellowship with us." Here is what we believe of Christ! Do you cherish what we cherish? (Cf. 4:6.)
5. Finally, the reason John writes his testimony to Christ in this letter is because he longs for the fullness of joy that comes when others share his delight in the fellowship of the Father and the Son Jesus Christ.
Verse 4: "And we are writing this that our joy may be complete." I think all the modern versions are right in accepting the reading "our joy" instead of the King James' "your joy."
Of course in a church where one of our distinctives is Christian Hedonism, this is not a surprise at all. First comes the tremendous joy of knowing God and experiencing fellowship with him. But then we hunger for something more. Not that anything could be added to God, but that more of God can be experienced in the fellowship of the saints (cf. Psalm 16:1–3). If this were not true, the longing for fellowship would be idolatry. Our joy in God's fellowship is made complete in the joy that others have in God's fellowship.
This is the very essence of Christian Hedonism—the doctrine that it is not only permissible but necessary to pursue your own happiness in the holy happiness of others. If you were to make it your aim to lead a friend into the fellowship of God, but in your heart said, "It is a matter of indifference to me if he finds fellowship with God," you would be evil. God does not want our heart to be indifferent to the good we seek. He wants us to delight in it. He wants us to pursue our joy in it just like John did. "We are writing this that our joy may be complete."
What a devastating doctrine—to teach that it is wrong for a Christian to pursue his own happiness. This doctrine is an insult to God who commands us to delight ourselves in the Lord and to count it all joy when we lay down our lives in order to share that delight with others.
1. Christ, our Life, has eternally existed with the Father.
2. Christ, our Life, was manifested in the flesh.
3. Through this incarnation we obtain fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
4. Therefore we should make the biblical understanding of Christ the basis of the fellowship with other believers.
5. And we should seek to draw others into this fellowship because we long for the fullness of joy that comes when others share the delight we have in the fellowship of the Father and the Son.