The following are my thoughts on 1 John 1 in the New Testament. God-willing this commentary may aid your study of scripture.
“That which was from the beginning,”
This introduction is similar to the prologue found in the Gospel of John, in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word”. The introductions to the Gospel of John and 1 John are both meant to remind us of the introduction of the book of Genesis. John 1:1 uses the same Greek words as Genesis 1:1 in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament translated in 200 BC):
ἐν ἀρχῇ (In the beginning) – Genesis 1:1
Both say “In the beginning”, which is a reference to the beginning of creation. In the same way that God was present at the beginning of creation in Genesis, John’s Logos was in the beginning as well. This Logos described in John 1 is Jesus Christ, and therefore John’s Gospel ascribes deity to Jesus Christ. Just as God was in the beginning and created all things, the Logos, who is Jesus Christ, was in the beginning, and created all things, for “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Jesus is “from the beginning” because Jesus was present at creation.
Coming back to 1 John 1, Jesus is the one being described here. Jesus is “That which was from the beginning”. Jesus is from the beginning because he is the true God (1 John 5:20) who existed “in the beginning with God” (John 1:2) the Father.
“which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands,”
This part of the verse appears to emphasize the reality of the incarnation and also the personal encounter people have had with Jesus. Jesus is the final and full revelation of God, because he is God himself. Through Jesus, God the Father is revealed to us. This is why Jesus said:
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9)
We are shown God the Father through Jesus Christ, his character, and his doctrine, so that all who know him likewise know the Father. He is the image of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3).
Jesus was not a ghost, a feeling, a phantom, or an impersonal principle, but the eternal God who took upon himself human flesh and dwelt among us. He was physically incarnated (John 1:14) and was physically raised from the dead (John 20:27-28).
“concerning the word of life – “
The word “word” here is the Greek word “Logos“, which can be translated as wisdom, rationality, logic, argument, doctrine, teaching, instruction, debate, intelligibility, etc. It is the same Greek word that is found in John 1:1 when it says, “In the beginning was the Word”. It is better to translate “Logos” as “Wisdom” when Jesus is being spoken of, so that we can recognize its intellectual emphasis.
This life that is mentioned relates to the intellect also. Jesus defines eternal life in terms of knowledge in John 17:3 when he says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Although the New Testament does speak of physical life and physical resurrection, it also talks about spiritual life. This spiritual life is defined in terms of knowledge.
The words spirit, mind, and heart are all used in scripture to denote the same thing. Christian and cultural myth-makers have helped to define “spirit” and “spiritual” as mysticism or non rational emotionalism. We must not pay attention to how our culture defines these terms, but how the Bible defines them. To give an example of where scripture defines one’s spirit as their mind, 1 Corinthian 2:11 says, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?” The mind is the only human faculty that thinks and intellectually comprehends. Since Paul says that the spirit of a person is what thinks and comprehends, that means that the spirit is identical to the mind. To give an example in scripture of where the heart is equated to the mind, Jesus says in Mark 7:21-22, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts…foolishness.” Once again, since foolishness and evil thoughts come from the heart, it is identical to the mind, since it is the mind that thinks. All dichotomies between mind and heart, or mind and spirit, are completely invalid according to scripture. Because of all this, spiritual life cannot mean anything other than intellectual life.
What it means for Jesus to be the “word of life” is that he is the principle and authority over all life, both physical and intellectual. Peter also calls Jesus “the Author of life” in Acts 3:15, further proving that all life originates in him. Jesus gives physical life to whom he wills, and also gives spiritual life to whom he wills, having “authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom [the Father has] given him” (John 17:2).
Jesus is the “Logos of life” because it is through belief in his logos (i.e. his teaching, doctrine, or word) that gives life. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word [logos] and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). We have life through knowing God and believing him. This was John’s whole purpose for writing his Gospel: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). John throughout his writings has an overwhelmingly intellectual emphasis.
It is also worthy to note here that Jesus’ person and Jesus’ doctrine are identical. To accept his person is to accept his doctrine, and to accept his doctrine is to accept his person. They cannot be divided. Not only are Jesus’ doctrines that are found in scripture “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68), but Jesus is himself “the word of life”.
“the life was made manifest,”
Jesus is the life by his own confession in John 11:25, “the life” having a connotation of knowledge and doctrine. He was made manifest through his incarnation in history and his earthly ministry. During this ministry he preached his doctrine, revealed the nature of the Father, and accomplished atonement for his people, to mention a few.
“and we have seen it,”
A repetition of the previous verse, emphasizing that John and others have personally encountered the word of life. He is not an impersonal principle or a ghost, but was a tangible human being in the days of his flesh.
“and testify to it”
Just as a person testifies in a court of law about the truth or falsehood of something, all believers testify to the truth of Jesus and his Gospel. It means to solemnly declare something to be the case. As a point of interest, the Greek word for testify is marturéo. The English word “martyr” comes from this word. The early Christians who testified to the truth of the Gospel became martyrs for the faith.
“and proclaim to you the eternal life,”
Jesus is eternal life and the word of life. Through belief in his word (logos) we have eternal life (John 5:24). He is again identified with his knowledge and doctrine, for eternal life is knowing the Father and Son (John 17:3).
“which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – “
John notes the distinction between the Father and the Son. The Son was with the Father, just as John 1:1 says that “the Word was with God” and Jesus had glory with the Father before creation in John 17:5.
Modalists believe that Jesus is the Father, that he became the Son in his incarnation, and now he is known as the Holy Spirit; God is like a single person who wears three different masks. Therefore, they deny the eternal Son of God, because they believe that the Father became the Son in the incarnation. Modalism, also known as sabellianism, is heresy.
The New Testament never says that the Son is the Father, but that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct, coeternal persons who each possess the fullness of deity. Each person is fully God, and these three persons make up the one being of God. For some reason, this is an incredibly hard concept for people to grasp, but it is not so hard as they make it. 1+1+1 does not equal 1. We must define what we are talking about. 1 person + 1 person + 1 person = 3 persons, and these 3 persons make up the one being of God. Being and person are two different categories.
When we distinguish between the categories of God’s persons and his being, we do not run into the confusion that people so often run into. It is true that it is difficult to understand how we will experience the Trinity in glory, but we certainly know its scriptural definition. The Trinity is not contradictory or a difficult concept to understand, but is the rational and logical conclusion of the teaching of scripture.
“that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us;”
John repeats the fact that they have seen and experienced Jesus personally while he was with them. He proclaims Jesus’ doctrine to them, which includes human depravity, the atonement, grace, repentance, and resurrection; in short, he proclaims the Gospel to them. He does this so that the one who hears the proclamation of the Gospel will believe it, and through this belief, those who were once unbelievers enter into Christian fellowship.
This fellowship that John mentions is absolutely exclusive to believers, so the only way those who hear the Gospel can enter into fellowship with Christians is through faith and repentance. Faith means to intellectually assent to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and repentance literally means a change of mind, to turn away from former beliefs and actions and turn towards God. In both cases, this acceptance into Christian fellowship is based upon one’s intellectual acceptance of God’s doctrine and rejection of the world’s doctrine. The prerequisite to fellowship is not based upon earthly wealth, personality, or other trivialities, but upon belief.
Christians have absolutely no fellowship with unbelievers. Christians are light and unbelievers are darkness. As Paul rhetorically asks in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “what fellowship has light with darkness?” The obvious answer is none. The duty of Christians is to proclaim Jesus and his teaching so that others may believe, and through this belief, people enter into the Christian fellowship.
“and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
When we believe Jesus’ logos (doctrine), we have eternal life and enter back into right relationship to him. We are no longer God’s enemies, but have been reconciled to the Father through the work of the Son. We are justified by faith alone, and through this faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). Thus, we have fellowship with God.
As a point of clarity, we do not choose to believe God by our free will. Free will is a lie. Rather, God controls everything including our actions. God has predestined his elect for salvation from eternity past. Not one of them will be lost, and not a single person will enter into fellowship with God that God has chosen not to save. As 1 Corinthians 1:9 states, “you were called into the fellowship of his Son”. Divine calling is where God compels or summons his chosen people to come out from the world to have faith in Jesus. It is intricately related to predestination: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). God’s decree of predestination happened in eternity past, and the divine call happens in time to accomplish God’s decree of predestination.
All who are called into fellowship with God are those who have been predestined from eternity to believe in Jesus.
“And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
The theme of joy is found in other parts of John’s writings. For instance, John quotes Jesus as saying, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Joy is related to proper teaching and love. Love (agape) is defined by John as obeying God in 1 John 5:3 and 2 John 6. Jesus also says that if we love him, we will keep his commandments.
This joy is not a fleeting emotion or an internal feeling of elation, but is long lasting and based upon the knowledge we have of God. We are commanded to count it joy when we suffer for righteous’ sake, because this suffering makes our faith stronger (James 1:2). The joy is found in the knowledge of God, and knowing that we have been reconciled to him, evidenced by our faith and obedience. We may approach God through Jesus Christ, and as David said, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
“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.”
Here John specifies the message that he is proclaiming to them. In verse 3, I commented that John was proclaiming the Gospel to them, and through belief in the Gospel some of the recipients of the letter who still do not believe may be incorporated into Christian fellowship. In this verse, John says that the message that he proclaims is that God is light and has no darkness in him. This message is intricately related to the Gospel, so there is no incongruity between the two.
Light is often depicted in scripture as a metaphor for knowledge. For instance, 2 Corinthians 4:6 says “the light of the knowledge…” Also Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Scripture is depicted as light because it makes wise the simple (Psalm 19:7) and is profitable for instruction (2 Timothy 3:16). In other words, scripture conveys the mind and knowledge of God. God is light because God is truth, his doctrine is true, and in him are hidden are the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).
It is because of these things that explains why “God is light” relates to the Gospel. Since the Gospel is God’s doctrine, and God’s doctrine is light, the Gospel is light also. When a person accepts that God is light, they accept and believe what God says. Therefore, by saying that God is light, John says that God’s doctrine is true, and God commands it to be believed and obeyed.
Another point that can be made is that this verse proves that God cannot change or lie. James 1:17 uses this same metaphor of light and darkness when it says, “…the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” There is no deceitfulness or ignorance in God. God determines reality and owns the monopoly on knowledge. Since God is himself light, everything he says is ipso facto true because he is the standard of truth; he is truth.