John's readers had seen some of their number leave (2.19). These men had been linked with God's people, but the passing of time made clear that they had never been genuine. Among other things, their preaching denied the true manhood of the Lord Jesus (4.1-3), an error that has been dubbed "docetic Gnosticism". Part of their teaching was the argument that everything that is material or tangible is evil, so how could the holy Son of God occupy a physical body? They depicted Him as some kind of phantom being, rather than "the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim 2.5).
Along with their heresies they were claiming to have reached a level of spirituality tantamount to sinlessness, a mountain peak that only the initiates into their mysteries could attain! All this would have unsettled the believers, and the withdrawal of these men afforded some relief, but they had left a legacy that John was compelled to address.
There is no particular structure to the epistle and the apostle sometimes refers to issues that he has already raised. However, a thread that does run through the letter is the thought of the family of God. For example, the Father is mentioned frequently, and there are numerous references to the new birth. John addresses them as "little children", a term of endearment that could be legitimately translated as, "dear children". There are constant appeals to express warm affection in the family.
The epistle is interspersed with statements that explain John's purpose for writing, the first as early as chapter 1.4. However, the major reason for the epistle is described like this: "that ye may know that ye have eternal life" (5.13). John's Gospel was written to encourage people to believe in order to receive eternal life (20.31); this epistle was written to give them the assurance that they had it!
Seen and heard (1.1-2)
Without preamble or greetings, John embarks on his theme. The antichrists had preached new things; he was communicating truth that had been taught from "the beginning". In this context "the beginning" is very likely the beginning of the Christian era as in 2.7, or even the beginning of their own Christian experience as in 2.24. What they had learned about the true humanity of Jesus from earliest days had been under assault; John now reaffirms it, based on his personal association with the Saviour during the days of His flesh. He asserts fundamental truth about the Lord Jesus.
• He is "the Word of life", and John combines two ideas from the prologue to his Gospel. As the Word, the Lord Jesus is the embodiment of every communication from heaven. In Him the Father has conveyed the sum total of all that we need to know about Himself (14.9). Christ is also the source of all life be it physical or spiritual, but in His own being He is the life (14.6), and some translations capitalise the word "life" here in v.2 - "the Life was manifested".
• "The Word was God" (Jn 1.1), and here John gives evidence of that with the usage of the word "eternal" and the concept of manifestation, implying a previous existence. Here He is said to have been "with the Father", not "with God" as in John 1.1, although the Father is God. In referring to His pre-incarnate intimacy with One described as "the Father", there is an incidental evidence of His eternal Sonship, for how could there be a Father without a Son? In human relationships a father exists before his son, but he is not a father until the birth of his firstborn. In the Godhead, both Father and Son are unoriginated and eternal, thus there was never a point in history when their relationship as Father and Son commenced - it is an eternal fixture. If the Father was the Father in what we call eternity past, the Son was the Son, for He was "with the Father".
• "The Word became flesh" (Jn 1.14, RV). That was John's way of expressing the truth of the incarnation in his Gospel. Here he tells us that "the life was manifested", a word that will feature in the letter in various contexts, sometimes translated "appear". The Gnostics had denied that there was any bodily substance to that manifestation; that was the issue at stake, and so in these early verses John stresses the reality of the Lord's manhood. He was audible, and only John records that he had heard Him speak of "my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (Jn 6.51). He had come "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom 8.3). He was visible to the extent of being closely scrutinised: "we beheld his glory" (Jn 1.14). But He was also tangible. Simeon, Peter's mother-in-law, Jairus's daughter, a leper, a man born blind, children whom He blessed; these and many others could have testified that the One who had dwelt in light unapproachable had now come so close that they experienced physical contact with Him. What condescending grace! But doubtless the "we" in the verses refers specifically to the apostles with their constant exposure to the reality of His true manhood. John knew that He was no phantom; the Lord had passed bread and fish from His hand to John's. He had taken John's feet into His hands to wash them. On that same evening, John had leaned on His breast. He was a real man, audible, visible, tangible. The Life had been manifested.
Fellowship with us (1.3-4)
John's desire was to share his knowledge and understanding of the Lord Jesus. It was not truth for the band of apostles alone; he wanted others to have "fellowship" with them in the enjoyment of these fundamental facts about the Saviour. There is the suggestion that true fellowship with each other has a doctrinal foundation. It is true that there is a common factor in the life of every member of the body of Christ in that the Holy Spirit indwells each one. "There is one body, and one Spirit" (Eph 4.4). The Spirit has created a vital unity in the body (v.3). But a visible expression of fellowship can be exhibited only on the basis of doctrinal uniformity. It is significant that before there is mention of early believers continuing in fellowship, there is reference to the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2.42). Because they all subscribed to the apostles' doctrine their fellowship was cemented and obvious. Thus John wanted his readers to be in fellowship with him in a noticeable way without that fellowship being impaired by any of the doctrinal irregularities to which they had been exposed, and so he shared with them his first-hand knowledge of Christ. These were people who had not seen, and yet had believed (Jn 20.29). They had not seen and yet they loved (1 Pet 1.8). John had seen (Jn 19.35) and was now sharing his personal experiences to foster mutual fellowship.
But fellowship is more extensive than that which exists between believer and believer. "Our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ". Resulting from His death, former aliens and enemies enjoy intimacy with Persons of the Godhead. They have become recipients of "the divine nature" and share common interests with the Father and His Son. In this context, the emphasis is on the need to share wholeheartedly the Father's thoughts regarding the nature and character of the Son. The practical enjoyment of fellowship can only be experienced when our thinking about these issues coincides with divine revelation. Hence John's desire to impart the truth of which he had been an eyewitness.
"Fellowship…with the Father", and the believer is in the enjoyment of a relationship with deity that ensures a constant stream of tender affection, care and understanding from One who is a Father (Ps 103.13-14).
"His Son Jesus Christ", and with deliberate precision John describes the Saviour. God's Son is Jesus, a real man, for it was at His birth that He became known as Jesus (Mt 1.21). He is also Christ, and the usage of the Messianic title, the Anointed One, is an assault on another assertion of the Gnostics that somehow Jesus and Christ were not one and the same. Their notion was that "The Christ" was a divine emanation that came upon Him at His baptism and left Him before His death, possibly in Gethsemane! John insists here, God's Son is Jesus Christ and we have a living relationship with Him.
And so John writes, for a clear understanding of the true identity of their Saviour would fill out the joy of salvation (v.4). There is nothing like hearing about the Lord Jesus to promote joy in the Christian's heart. Versions are divided about whether v.4 should read, "your joy" or "our joy". If you adopt the alternative reading the practical point is that ministering Christ brings great cheer to the heart of the preacher too!
To be continued.