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First John 1:1-4: Theological Commentary

“We declare to you what was from the beginning” The treatise opens by hearkening back to the first proclamations of the Johannine Gospel (cf. John 1:1-4). That which “was from the beginning” echoes the first statement of the Johannine Gospel, that “in the beginning was the Word.” Here, however there is perhaps more of a double entendre at work. Throughout the treatise there is recurring emphasis on the “message” which the recipients of the letter have had “from the beginning” (cf. 1 John 2:7, 24, 3:11; also 2 John 5-6). So, the elder here may be referring, not simply to Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, but the truthful proclamation regarding the Word that the community has had and received from the beginning of their existence (but, see also 1 John 2:13, 14b). However, it is clear that both ideas are difficult to disentangle in Johnnaine theology. He who is from the beginning is disclosed in and through the true teaching, the tradition that has been handed on to the church from their own beginning. The point, however remains the same regardless. At the outset of the letter, the elder is making a declaration, a theological manifesto that he is presenting to the congregation regarding the truth about the Jesus Christ. What we have in 1 John is an act of proclamation par excellence. At the heart of the treatise is is the centrality of proclaiming the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word who came in the flesh.

“What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us” Having introduced his treatise with the declaration of the his intent to proclaim that gospel, the true teaching about Christ, the elder moves on by filling out the nature of Christ’s being-revealed, and the nature of his own witness to Christ’s revelation. What is clear in the description here is the fullness of the reality of Christ’s own self-disclosure. Christ has not just been heard, but seen, looked at, and touched. In short, Christ has a fundamentally historical, or even empirical reality to his person. Moreover, Christ’s concrete, earthly reality is connected here precisely with his role as the giver and possessor of life. It is precisely in and as the historical, tangible, and fleshly person of Jesus that the divine Word of life enters and saves the world. The life of the Father is embodied in the seen, heard, and touched flesh of Jesus the Son. This is the reality that is proclaimed.

This fixation on the fleshly tangibility and historicity of Christ is central throughout Johannine theology, and is the distinctive emphasis of 1 John. Indeed it proves to be one of the two central issues of contention in the rest of the treatise. Above all it is important to the elder that the congregation rightly understand the relationship between Jesus’ fleshly, historical reality and the fullness of salvation and deification. There is no union with God, no transformation other than participation in the singular reality of Christ’s flesh, his history, his worldedness.

“We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us” Now the elder begins to give the rational for his proclamation of Jesus up to this point. The point of his proclamation of the Gospel of Christ is fellowship, communion. Within this claim lies the corollary that outside of the this proclamation and its acknowledgement there is no fellowship between the elder and the congregation. Their unity, their fraternal bond is to be found nowhere else than in their mutual confession of the truth of the Gospel (cf. 2 John 4).

“And truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” Moreover, the elder is concerned, not simply with communal bonds between himself and the congregation, as if they were ends in themselves or independent goods. Rather, his concern for mutual fellowship is grounded in the fact that he and those who share in the true confession of the Gospel of Christ are united in fellowship with the Father. It is unity in confession of the truth of the Gospel that is the prerequisite and assumption of communion with the triune God. And indeed, as the rest of the treatise will make clear, it is impossible to have communion with the Father outside of the the true confession of Jesus’s lordship, which as we shall see is intimately concerned with the assertion of his historical, tangible humanity.

“We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” Finally the elder makes clear the ultimate cause of his proclamation: the completion of his joy. True life, communion with the triune God, communal harmony, indeed all good gifts are to be found only in the proclaimed reality of Christ who has come in the flesh. As such, the apostolic heart of the elder is restless until all those whom he knows and loves find rest in Christ. And this is the outcome of all those who strive to proclaim the Gospel: the joy of common participation in the life of the Trinity. The outcome of truthful confession, of exhortation, of intercession for the Gospel is the fullness of joy that is only accomplished through God’s gracious giving of Godself in Jesus, in the Word made flesh. This desire, for the common union of the congregation with God though Christ is the underlying end, the supreme desire and goal of the elder’s heart. All the he writes throughout this letter is animated by this impassioned longing, for communion with the triune God, not without, but only with his brothers and sisters.

3 Comments

  1. Mike Ivaska wrote:

    A thoughtful and life giving analysis of the text. Thanks, brother.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  2. bobby grow wrote:

    I like John. Thank you for sharing, Halden!

    Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 3:22 am | Permalink
  3. What! Where’s the 50+ posts on authorship, textual receptivity, etc. You make it sound like 1 John is actually about God, God’s Son and us. Amazing. Who would ever have thought that the ‘point of [John's] proclamation of the Gospel of Christ is fellowship, communion’ and that through ‘confession of the truth of the Gospel’.

    A wonderful intro to what promises to be a great series. Thanks Halden.

    Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

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