1 JOHN 1 — FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD
Most people understand that the important things in life are not things at all — they are the relationships we have. God has put a desire for relationship in every one of us, a desire He intended to be met with relationships with other people, but most of all, to be met by a relationship with Him. In this remarkable letter, John tells us the truth about relationships — and shows us how to have relationships that are real, for both now and eternity.
A. The purpose of the letter: to bring you into relationship with God.
1. (1–2) John begins with the center of relationship: Jesus Christ.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us.
a. That which was from the beginning: The beginning John wrote of is not the beginning of this world; nor is it the beginning of creation. It is the beginning of Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1, the beginning there was before there was anything, when all there existed was God.
i. The beginning of Genesis 1:1 is simple: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The beginning of John 1:1 is profound: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John takes us back to this time in eternity past, to meet this One which was from the beginning.
ii. Whoever, or whatever, John wrote of, he said his subject was eternal and therefore was God because the subject existed before all else and was the source and basis of the existence of all things.
b. Which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled: This indicates that this eternal being — the One from the beginning — came to earth, and John (among others) personally experienced this eternal One.
i. “We deliver nothing by hearsay, nothing by tradition, nothing from conjecture; we have had the fullest certainty of all that we write and preach.” (Clarke) The idea is that this eternal subject of John has been audibly heard, physically seen, intently studied (have looked upon), and tangibly touched (hands have handled). This idea would have enormous implications for his readers.
ii. The implications were enormous because they said that this eternal God became accessible to man in the most basic way, a way that anyone could relate to. This eternal One can be known, and He has revealed Himself to us.
iii. The implications were enormous because they proved that John’s words have the weight of eyewitness evidence. He did not speak of a myth or of a matter of clever story-telling. He carefully studied this eternal One and he knew whom he spoke about.
iv. Enormous because it debunked dangerous teachings that were creeping into the church, known as Gnosticism. Part of the teaching of Gnosticism was that though Jesus was God, He was not actually a physical man, but instead some kind of pseudo-physical phantom. Yet John declared, “I heard Him! I saw Him! I studied Him! I touched Him!”
c. The Word of Life: John identified this eternally existent being, who was physically present with John and others (note the repetition of our, and not “my”), as the Word of Life. This is the same Logos spoken of in John 1:1.
i. The idea of the Logos — of the Word — was important for John and for the Greek and Jewish worlds of his day. For the Jew, God was often referred to as the Word because they knew God perfectly revealed Himself in His Word. For the Greek, their philosophers had spoken for centuries about the Logos — the basis for organization and intelligence in the universe, the Ultimate Reason which controls all things.
ii. It is as if John said to everyone, “This Logos you have been talking about and writing about for centuries — well, we have heard Him, seen Him, studied Him, and touched Him. Let me now tell you about Him.”
d. The life was manifested: This life was manifested, meaning that it was made actually and physically real. John solemnly testified as an eyewitness (we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you) that this was the case. This was no fairy tale, no “Once upon a time” story. This was real, and John tells us about it as an eyewitness.
e. Eternal life which was with the Father: In calling Jesus eternal life, John remembered the words of Jesus (John 5:26, 6:48, and 11:25). He also repeated the idea expressed in his first words of this letter: that Jesus Himself is eternal, and therefore God.
i. We can say that people are eternal, but we say this with the understanding that we mean they are eternal in the future sense — they will never perish, being immortal (John 5:29). Yet people are not eternal in the past sense; to say that something is eternal in the past sense is the same as saying it is equal to God or God’s Word.
ii. The eternal existence of Jesus is also declared in Micah 5:2 — But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting. The word everlasting here literally means, “beyond the vanishing point.”
f. Which was with the Father: This refers to the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. There was an eternal relationship of love and fellowship between the Father and the Son. Jesus referred to this in John 17:24: “For You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”
i. This eternal relationship is clearly described in the Scriptures, but we could also understand it from simple logic. If God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is eternal (Micah 5:2), we understand that love in isolation is meaningless. Love needs an object, and since there was a time before anything was created, there was a time when the only love in the universe was between the members of the Godhead: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
g. Was with the Father: The word with indicates that this being, who is eternal, and is eternal life Himself, is distinct from the Father. John builds the New Testament understanding of the Trinity — that one God exists as three Persons, equal and one, yet distinct in their person.
i. The Bible links together the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a way that is unimaginable for other persons. We read, Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Yet we would never say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of Michael the Archangel.”
ii. We read, The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14). Yet we would never say, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of the Apostle Paul, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
iii. We read, Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:2). Yet we would never say, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of the Apostle Peter.”
2. (3) An invitation to relationship.
That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
a. That you may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ: The purpose of John’s declaration about this eternally existent, physically present, Word of life who is God, yet is a person distinct from the Father, is to bring his readers into fellowship with both God’s people and God Himself.
i. You can enjoy this fellowship even though you do not understand all the intricacies of the trinity. You can use your eyes even though you don’t know every detail of how your vision works. You can know God and believe in Him as He has revealed Himself, even though you can’t understand everything about His person or nature.
b. Fellowship: The idea of fellowship is one of the most important ideas in this letter of John’s. It is the ancient Greek word koinonia, which speaks of a sharing, a communion, a common bond and common life. It speaks of a living, breathing, sharing, loving relationship with another person.
i. “This is one of the greatest statements of the New Testament, and it may safely be said that its greatness is created by the richness of the word which is the emphatic word, viz., fellowship.” (Morgan)
ii. “The Greek word koinonia is derived from the word koinos, which very literally means common, in the sense of being shared by all.” (Morgan) The use of the word in Acts 2:44 is very helpful: Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common. The word common is the ancient Greek word koinonia.
iii. “Those who have a fellowship one with another, are those who share the same resources, and are bound by the same responsibilities. The idea becomes almost overwhelming when it is thus applied to the relationship which believing souls bear to the Father, and to His Son Jesus Christ… The Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and all believers have all things in common. All the resources of each in the wondrous relationship are at the disposal of the others. Such is the grace of our God, and of His Son.” (Morgan)
c. Fellowship… with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ: This simple and bold statement means that one can have a relationship with God. This idea would surprise many of John’s readers, and it should be astounding to us. The Greek mind-set highly prized the idea of fellowship, but restricted to men among men — the idea of such an intimate relationship with God was revolutionary.
i. Jesus started the same kind of revolution among the Jews when He invited men to address God as Father (Matthew 6:9). We really can have a living, breathing relationship with God the Father, and with Jesus Christ. He can be not only our Savior, but also our friend and our closest relationship.
ii. Actually, for many people this is totally unappealing. Sometimes it is because they don’t know who God is, and an invitation to a “personal relationship with God” is about as attractive to them as telling an eighth-grader they can have a “personal relationship with the assistant principal.” But when we know the greatness, the goodness, and the glory of God, we want to have a relationship with Him.
iii. Other people turn from this relationship with God because they feel so distant from Him. They want a relationship with God, but feel so disqualified, so distant. They need to know what God has done to make this kind of relationship possible.
d. Fellowship… with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ: The kind of relationship John described is only possible because Jesus is who John says He is in 1 John 1:1–2. If someone invited you to have a “personal relationship” with Napoleon, or Alexander the Great, or Abraham Lincoln — or even Moses or the Apostle Paul — you would think them foolish. One cannot even have a genuine “spiritual” relationship with a dead man. But with the eternal God who became man, we can have a relationship.
i. The word fellowship has in it not only the idea of relationship, but also of sharing a common life. When we have fellowship with Jesus, we will become more like Him.
ii. The disciples did not have this close fellowship with Jesus when He walked this earth with them. As Jesus said to Philip at the very end of His earthly ministry, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip?” (John 14:9) Their true fellowship was not created by material closeness to the material Jesus, but by a work of the Holy Spirit after the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Therefore we can enter into the same fellowship with God that the Apostles could enter.
e. Our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ: We have the potential of a relationship of a shared life with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. It is as if the Father and the Son agree together to let us into their relationship of love and fellowship.
i. This idea of a shared life is essential. This doesn’t mean that when Jesus comes into our life He helps us to do the same things, but simply to do them better than before. We don’t add Jesus to our life. We enter into a relationship of a shared life with Jesus. We share our life with Him, and He shares His life with us.
f. That you also may have fellowship with us: We may think it curious that John first considers fellowship with God’s people; but this is often how people come to experience a relationship with God: they first encounter God through relationships with God’s people.
i. “When fellowship is the sweetest, your desire is the strongest that others may have fellowship with you; and when, truly, your fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ, you earnestly wish that the whole Christian brotherhood may share the blessing with you.” (Spurgeon)
g. With the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ: Here John finally names this being — eternally existent, physically present, the Word of Life, truly God (yet distinct from the Father) — it is God the Son, whose name is Jesus, who is the Christ (Messiah).
3. (4) The result of relationship.
And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.
a. That your joy may be full: The result of fellowship is fullness of joy. This joy is an abiding sense of optimism and cheerfulness based on God, as opposed to happiness, which is a sense of optimism and cheerfulness based on circumstances.
i. John clearly echoed an idea Jesus brought before His disciples the night before His crucifixion. He wanted fullness of joy for them — even knowing that the cross was directly in front of them.
· These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full (John 15:11).
· Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full (John 16:24).
· But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves (John 17:13).
b. That your joy may be full: Fullness of joy is certainly possible for the Christian, but it is by no means certain. John wrote with the desire that believers would have fullness of joy — and if it were inevitable or very easy to have, he would not have written this.
i. The Christian’s joy is important, and assaulted on many fronts. External circumstances, moods and emotions, or sin can all take away our joy. Yet the Christian’s joy is not found in the things of this world, as good as they might be. When John wrote about these things, he wrote about this relationship of fellowship and love we can share in with God the Father and the Son Jesus Christ.
ii. Too many Christians are passive in their loss of joy. They need to realize it is a great loss and do everything they can to draw close to God and reclaim that fullness of joy. “If any of you have lost the joy of the Lord. I pray you do not think it a small loss.” (Spurgeon)
4. Observations on this first portion of the book, which is one long sentence in the original manuscript.
a. John began with the beginning — the eternal God, who was before all things.
b. He told us that this God was physically manifested, and that he and others could testify to this as eyewitnesses.
c. He told us that this God is the Word of life, the Logos.
d. He told us that this God is distinct from the person of God the Father.
e. He told us that we may have fellowship with this God, and that we are often introduced into this fellowship with God by the fellowship of God’s people.
f. He told us that this eternally existent God, the Word of Life, who was physically present with the disciples and others (and present for fellowship), is God the Son, named Jesus Christ.
g. He told us that fellowship with Jesus leads to a life lived in fullness of joy.
h. We could say that in these four verses, John gave us enough to live our whole Christian life on. No wonder one commentator wrote, “Observe the note of wonder in the Apostle’s language. Speech fails him. He labours for expression, adding definition to definition.” (Expositor’s)
B. John’s message from God: dealing with sin and maintaining relationship.
1. (5) Sin and the nature of God.
This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.
a. This is the message: This is a claim to authority. John isn’t making this up; these are not his own personal opinions or ideas about God. This is God’s message about Himself (which we have heard from Him), which John now reveals to us (and declare to you).
i. What John will tell us about God is what God has told us about Himself. We can’t be confident in our own opinions or ideas about God unless they are genuinely founded on what God has said about Himself.
b. God is light and in Him is no darkness at all: We must begin our understanding of God here. John declares this on the simple understanding that God Himself is light; and light by definition has no darkness at all in it; for there to be darkness, there must be an absence of light.
i. A good definition of God is, “God is the only infinite, eternal, and unchangeable spirit, the perfect being in whom all things begin, and continue, and end.” Another way of saying that God is perfect is to say that God is light.
ii. “LIGHT is the purest, the most subtle, the most useful, and the most diffusive of all God’s creatures; it is, therefore, a very proper emblem of the purity, perfection, and goodness of the Divine nature.” (Clarke)
iii. “There are spots in the sun, great tracts of blackness on its radiant disc; but in God is unmingled, perfect purity.” (Maclaren)
c. God is light and in Him is no darkness at all: Therefore, if there is a problem with our fellowship with God, it is our fault. It is not the fault of God because there is no sin or darkness in Him at all.
i. Any approach to relationship with God that assumes, or even implies, that God might be wrong, and perhaps must be forgiven by us, is at its root blasphemous and directly contradicts what John clearly states here.
2. (6) God’s sinlessness and our relationship with Him.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.
a. If we say that we have fellowship with Him: John first deals with a false claim to fellowship. Based upon this, we understand that it is possible for some to claim a relationship with God that they do not have. We can also say that it is possible for someone to think they have a relationship with God that they do not have.
i. Many Christians are not aware of their true condition. They know they are saved, and have experienced conversion and have repented at some time in their life. Yet they do not live in true fellowship with God.
b. And walk in darkness: John speaks of a walk in darkness, indicating a pattern of living. This does not speak of an occasional lapse, but of a lifestyle of darkness.
c. We lie and do not practice the truth: God has no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). Therefore, if one claims to be in fellowship with God (a relationship of common relation, interest, and sharing), yet does walk in darkness, it is not a truthful claim.
i. The issue here is fellowship, not salvation. The Christian who temporarily walks in darkness is still saved, but not in fellowship with God.
ii. If John said “That is a lie,” it means he thinks in terms of things being true or being lies. John sees things much more clearly than our sophisticated age does, which doesn’t want to see anything in black or white, but everything in a pale shade of gray.
iii. In 2004, the governor of the state of New Jersey was caught in a scandal. Though he was a married man with children, he was also having a sexual relationship with a man. At the press conference he held to admit this, he began by saying: “My truth is that I am a gay American.” Those were very carefully chosen words: My truth. In the thinking of the world today, I have my truth and you have your truth. But Jesus said, “I am the truth” and the Bible clearly tells us of a truth that is greater than any individual’s feeling about it.
3. (7) The blessing of walking in the light.
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
a. But if we walk in the light: This means to walk in a generally obedient life, without harboring known sin or resisting the conviction of the Holy Spirit on a particular point.
i. John’s message here means that a walk in the light is possible. We know that on this side of eternity, sinless perfection is not possible. Yet we can still walk in the light, so John does mean perfect obedience.
ii. The Christian life is described as walking, which implies activity. Christian life feeds upon contemplation, but it displays itself in action. “Walking” implies action, continuity, and progress. Since God is active and walking, if you have fellowship with Him, you will also be active and walking.
b. As He is in the light: Since God is light (1 John 1:5), when we walk in the light we walk where He is. We are naturally together with Him in fellowship.
c. We have fellowship with one another: We would have expected John to say, “We have fellowship with God.” That is true, but already in the idea of walking together with God in the light. John wants to make it clear that fellow Christians who walk in the light enjoy fellowship with each other.
i. This leads to an important idea: if we do not have fellowship with one another, then one party or both parties are not walking in the light. Two Christians who are in right relationship with God will also naturally be in right relationship with each other.
d. The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin: As we walk in the light we also enjoy the continual cleansing of Jesus. This is another indication that John does not mean sinless perfection by the phrase walk in the light; otherwise, there would be no sin to cleanse in this ongoing sense.
i. We need a continual cleansing because the Bible says we continually sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Even though Christians have been cleansed in an important general sense, our “feet” need cleaning (John 13:10).
ii. The verb form John used in cleanses us from all sin is in the present tense, not in the future tense. We can do more than merely hope we will one day be cleansed. Because of what Jesus did on the cross for me, I can be cleansed today.
iii. “Observe, yet again, that in the verse there is no hint given of any emotions, feelings, or attainments, as co-operating with the blood to take away sin. Christ took the sins of his people and was punished for those sins as if he had been himself a sinner, and so sin is taken away from us; but in no sense, degree, shape or form, is sin removed by attainments, emotions, feelings or experiences.” (Spurgeon)
e. The blood of Jesus Christ: This continual cleansing is ours by the blood of Jesus. This does not mean the actual drops or molecules of His literal blood, but His literal death in our place and the literal wrath of the Father He endured on our behalf. The blood of Jesus Christ paid the penalty for all our sins — past, present, and future.
i. The work of Jesus on the cross doesn’t only deal with the guilt of sin that might send us to hell. It also deals with the stain of sin which hinders our continual relationship with God. We need to come to God often with the simple plea, “cleanse me with the blood of Jesus.” Not because we haven’t been cleansed before, but because we need to be continually cleansed to enjoy continual relationship.