The Preface to the First Epistle of John
1 John 1:1-4
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked on…

This is a homiletical Epistle, the address of an absent pastor to his flock, or to disciples widely scattered and beyond the reach of his voice. It is a specimen of apostolic preaching to believers, a masterpiece in the art of edification. The address is based on the gospel history, which it presupposes throughout. Some have thought the Epistle written on purpose to accompany St. John's Gospel, in order to serve as its practical application and enforcement. The two lie so near to each other in their cast of thought and dialect, and are connected by so many turns of expression, that it is evident they are the outcome of the same mind, and, we may safely say, of the same stage and state of mind. The preface to the Epistle is, in effect, a summary of the Gospel according to John, as we see at once when we compare it with the opening and closing words of that narrative (John 1:1-18; John 20:30, 31). The revelation of God through His Son Jesus Christ, a revelation entirely human and apprehended already by his readers, is that which the writer desires to communicate and set forth in its living effect. This revelation is the spring of a new eternal life for all men, a life of fellowship with God Himself, in which St. John would fain make his fellows sharers with him. It is this preface that we have now to consider, consisting of 1 John 1:1-4. Its subject is the eternal life manifested. We adopt the revised translation of these four verses, preferring, however, in ver. 1, the marginal "word of life," without the capital. For it is on life rather than word that the stress of the sentence lies ("for the life was manifested," John continues); and Word must have stood alone to be recognised as a personal title, or could at most be qualified as it is in the Apocalypse (Revelation 19:13): "His name is called the Word of God." John's "word of life" resembles the "word of life" that Paul bids the Philippians "hold forth" (Philippians 2:16), "the words of life eternal" which Peter declared his Master to possess (John 6:68), and "all the words of this life" which the apostles were bidden to "speak in the temple to the people" (Acts 5:20). It is synonymous with "the gospel," the message of the new life which those bear witness to and report who have first "heard" it and proved its living power. "Concerning the word of life" stands in opposition to the four preceding relative clauses ("that which we have heard...our hands handled") and states their general subject matter and import; while the first clause, "That which was from the beginning," stands alone in its sublime completeness. "Declare," in vers. 2, 3 more precisely understood, signifies "report" (υἱος βροντῆς). It is the carrying of tidings or messages from the authentic source: "What we have seen and heard we report also to you" (cf. ver. 5) — we are the bearers to you of the word we received from Him. So in ver. 2: "We bear witness and report"; where, as Haupt acutely says, in the former expression the emphasis lies on the communication of truth, in the latter on the communication of truth. Readers of the Greek will note the expressive transition from the perfect to the aorist tense and back again, that takes place in vers. 1-3. When John writes, "That which we have heard" and "have seen with our eyes," he asserts the abiding reality of the audible and visible manifestation of God in Christ. This is now the fixed possession of himself and of his readers, the past realised in the present; and to this immovable certainty he reverts once and again in vers. 2, 3. The sudden change of tense in the middle of ver. 1, missed by our authorised translation, carries us back to the historical fact. Looking with John's eyes upon this mysterious Person, feeling and grasping with his hands its flesh and blood reality, and pondering its meaning, we say with him: "The life was manifested, the eternal life that was with the Father, was manifested to us." While ἐθεασάμεθα (we beheld) implies an intent contemplative gaze, ἐψηλάφησαν, occurring, in the New Testament, only in Acts 17:27, and Hebrews 12:18 beside these two passages, denotes not the bare handling, but the searching, exploring use of the hands, that tests by handling. So much for the verbal elucidation of the passage. Let us look at its substantial content.

I. ST. JOHN HAD WITNESSED, AS HE BELIEVED, THE SUPREME MANIFESTATION OF GOD. The secret of the universe stood unveiled before his eyes, the everlasting fact and truth of things, the reality underlying all appearances, "that which was from the beginning." Here he touched the spring of being, the principle that animates creation from star to farthest star, from the archangel to the worm in the sod: "The life was manifested, the life eternal which existed with the Father, was manifested to us." If "the life" of this passage is identical with that of the Gospel prologue, it has all this breadth of meaning; it receives a limitless extension when it is defined as "that which was from the beginning." The source of spiritual life to men is that which was, in the first instance, the source of natural life to all creatures. Here lies the foundation of St. John's theology. It assumes the solidarity of being, the unity of the seen and unseen. It contradicts and excludes, from the outset, all Gnostical, dualistic, and docetic conceptions of the world. This essential and aboriginal life, he tells us, became incarnate, that it may have fellowship with men; it was slain, that its blood may cleanse them from iniquity — for the cross is not far off, we shall find it in the next paragraph. It is the fourth verse, rather than the first of the Gospel, which supplies the text for the Epistle: "That which hath come to be, in Him was life; and the life was the light of men" (R.V. margin).

II. In the second place, observe the energy with which the apostle asserts THE ACTUALITY of the manifestation of the life of God in Jesus Christ. Thrice in three verses he reiterates, "we have seen" it, twice "we have heard"; and twice he repeats, "the life was manifested." This stupendous fact has, naturally, always had its doubters and deniers. In any age of the world, and under any system of thought, such a revelation as that made in Jesus Christ was sure to be met with incredulity. It is equally opposed to the superstitions and to the scepticisms natural to the human mind. In truth, the mind that is not surprised and sometimes staggered by the claims of Christ and the doctrines of Christianity, that has not felt the shock they give to our ordinary experience and native convictions, has hardly awakened yet to their full import. St. John feels that the things he declares demand the strongest evidence. He has not believed them lightly, and he does not expect others to believe them lightly. This passage, like many besides in the New Testament record, goes to show that the apostles were well aware of the importance of historical truth; they were conscientious and jealously observant in regard to this cardinal requirement. Their faith was calm, rational, and sagacious. They were perfectly certain of the things they attested, and believed only upon commanding and irresistible proof, that covered the whole extent of the case. But the facts they built their faith upon are so largely of the spiritual order, that without a corresponding spiritual sense and faculty they can never be absolutely convincing. Already, in St. John's old age, the solvents of philosophical analysis were being applied to the gospel history and doctrine. The Godhead incarnate, the manifestation of the infinite in the finite, was pronounced impossible and self-contradictory; we know beforehand, the wise of the world said, that it cannot be. The incarnation, the miracles, the resurrection, the ascension — what are they but a myth, a beautiful poetic dream, a pictorial representation of spiritual truth, from which we must extract for ourselves a higher creed, leaving behind all the supernatural as so much mere wrappage and imaginative dress! So the Apostle John confronts them, and their like in every time, with his impressive and authoritative declaration. Behind him lies the whole weight of the character, intelligence, and disciplined experience of the witnesses of Jesus. Of what use was it for men at a distance to argue that this thing and that thing could not be? "I tell you," says the great apostle, "we have seen it with our eyes, we have heard Him with our very ears; we have touched and tested and handled these things at every point, and we know that they are so." As he puts it, at the end of his letter, "We know that the Son of God is come; and He hath given us an understanding that we may know Him that is true." The men who have founded Christianity and written the New Testament were no fools. They knew what they were talking about. No dreamer, no fanatic, no deceiver, since the world began, ever wrote like the author of this Epistle.

III. And now, in the third place, there is founded upon the facts thus attested, there is derived from the eternal life revealed in Christ, A NEW DIVINE FELLOWSHIP FOR MEN. To promote this end St. John writes: "That you also may have fellowship with us." To communicate these truths, to see this fellowship established and perfected amongst men, is the apostle's one delight, the business and delight of all those who share his faith and serve his Master: "These things we write, that our joy may be fulfilled." We have a great secret in common, we and the apostles. The Father told it to Jesus, Jesus to them, they to us, and we to others. Those who have seen and heard such things, cannot keep the knowledge to themselves. These truths belong not to us only, but to "the whole world" (1 John 2:2); they concern every man who has a soul to save, who has sins to confess and death to meet, who has work to do for his Maker in this world, and a way to find for himself through its darkness and perils. The Apostle John is writing to Greeks, to men far removed from him in native sympathy and instinct; but he has long since forgotten all that, and the difference between Jew and Greek never once crosses his mind in writing his letter. He has risen above it, and left it behind through his fellowship with Christ. The only difference he knows is that existing between men who "are of God" and men who "are of the world." In St. John the idea of the Church catholic as a spiritual brotherhood is perfected. But our fellowship is not only with prophets, apostles, martyrs, saints of God. We do not hold with the apostle merely such fellowship as we have with other great minds of the past; nor was John's communion with his Lord that which we cherish with our beloved dead, the communion of memory, or at best of hope. If the facts the apostles test are true, they are true for us as for them. If the life manifested in the Lord Jesus was eternal, then it is living and real today. As it "was from the beginning," it will be to the end. Jesus Christ had brought His disciples into spiritual union and fellowship with the living God. He had shown them the Father. He had made them individually children of God, with Himself for elder brother. He had passed away from their sight, to be with them forever in His Spirit. In this way He had really come to them, and the Father with Him, when He seemed to be going (John 14:18-23, R.V.). They felt themselves to be in direct communion and communication, every day they lived, with the Almighty Father in heaven, and with His Son Jesus Christ whom they had known and loved on earth. To this fellowship they invite and summon all mankind. The manifestation of God in Christ makes fellowship with God possible in an altogether new and richer way. Does not the very distinction revealed in the Godhead render such communion accessible, as it could not be otherwise to human thought? "Our communion," writes John, "is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ" — with each distinctly, with each in and through and for the other. We have fellowship with Christ in the Father. He has explained the Father (John 1:18), and talked to us about Him; and we are entering into His views. We share Christ's thoughts about God. On the other hand, we have fellowship with God in the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is God's; but He is ours as well! God has told us what He thinks about His Son, and wishes us to think with Him. Showing Him to the world, He says: "This is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I am ever well pleased." And we agree to that: we are well pleased with Him too! We solemnly accept the testimony of God concerning His Son. Then we are at one with God in respect to Christ. And all harmony and peace centre there. "The Father Himself loveth you," said Jesus to His disciples, "because you have loved Me, and believed that I came out from the Father." In Him God is reconciling the world to Himself. Only when we think aright of Christ, and are rightly disposed toward Him, can we have fellowship with each other, and work together with God for the world's redemption.

(George G. Findlay, B. A.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: 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, of the Word of life;

WEB: That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we saw, and our hands touched, concerning the Word of life

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