What was from [the] beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked on, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and report to you the eternal life, the which was with the Father and was manifested to us); that which we have seen and have heard we report to you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us; yea, and [or, and also] our fellowship [is] with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things [we] write [to you] that your joy may be made full."*
*The unlearned reader may be assured that there is no variant in the ancient and best authorities of the least significance doctrinally here. "Also" is added after "to you" in ver. 3, not because it is certain, but in deference to the Uncial MSS. and some of the Old Versions. But it affects emphasis only, as it may be due to the same form in the next clause. There is more doubt as to the emphatic "we" and "to you" in the beginning of ver. 4; but the more common "of you" is retained in the last clause with excellent witnesses (and the Text. Rec.), though recent critics lean to the well-supported "of us" (with the text of Stephens). Both are certainly in sense true. The question is which suits best the context as helping to decide where the external evidence is nearly balanced. But these pronouns are sometimes confused in the best copies, as they differ by one letter only. - The italics express, not a supplied word (as in the A. V.), but the personal pronouns used with emphasis.
A nobler opening than this has no Epistle, though that of the Epistle to the Hebrews may fairly stand by its side, however different in style for good reason from all the other Epistles. Those both, and without preface of any kind, at once introduce the incarnate Son, the Word become flesh: the one to fix the eye of faith in the Jews who confessed Jesus as the Christ on His glorified person and His office in heaven, founded on His work of redemption; the other to guard the believers everywhere from all innovation of doctrine or practice by recalling them to "What was from the beginning" in the unchanging grace and glory of His person as He manifested Himself on earth, as truly God as man united in Him for ever. It is the Man ascended to heaven which characterises the one; as God come down in Christ giving life eternal - is no less characteristic of the other. Nevertheless the Epistle to the Hebrews is rich in its unfolding of His person also, as this First Epistle fully presents His atoning work throughout.
It is notable too that both Epistles dispense with the name of the writer as well as of the persons addressed respectively. For this the supremacy of Christ before their own hearts, and to impress it the more on their readers according to the will of God the Father, may well account, though other reasons too may have concurred. The apostle to the Gentiles had not failed, even in his direct sphere among the nations, to say, and act on it, that the gospel is God's power for salvation to every one that believes, both to Jew first and to Greek; here toward the close he sends his last message to such as believed, and with blessed self-effacement. For as he presents the Lord as Apostle no less than High Priest of the Christian confession (uniting the types of Moses and Aaron, whilst far above them), he speaks neither of the Twelve nor of himself by that designation; and writes throughout rather as a Christian teacher expounding the Old Testament might write, (though none but an inspired man could) than as revealing fresh truths with the authority of an apostle and prophet.
Then, again, his love for his brethren after the flesh might readily, at least at the beginning, suggest keeping his name in the background, knowing their prejudice against one so jealous of any infringement on Gentile liberty; whilst his allusion to Timothy at the end would point to his great friend that wrote the Epistle, when itself had prepared the way, and the truth had filled their hearts with Him who was speaking to them from heaven.
Another consideration may have had its influence: the principle in our Lord's charge (not to the Twelve in Luke 9, but to the Seventy in Luk_10:4), Salute no one on the way. It was a final mission. Times of serious danger and imminent ruin call for urgency, and the amenity of salutation on the way ought to yield to the solemnity of such a message as entails the deepest woe on those who despised it. This, too, may have weighed with these inspired servants of God. For one was giving his last words to his Jewish brethren, in view of the destruction of the city and the temple, that they might henceforth have their hearts set on the heavenly sanctuary, and also go forth unto Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach, before the judicial crisis compelled them. The other wrote to the family of God with quite as great importunity in face not merely of evil flowing in, but of the still more awful character of the "last hour" come for Christians, and "many antichrists" going out in open antagonism who had once been among them, but "not of us, for they would have remained with us."
However these things may have been, of this every believer is certain that the Holy Spirit had the best reasons for guiding both writers to a course so unusual as withholding each his name from these two Epistles. Let us now turn to the beginning of the Epistle before us.
The first verse implies that the Gospel of John was already written and known to the readers. How else could the Word of Life be understood? Such phraseology as this would be unintelligible if we had not John 1, where a great deal is revealed concerning Him. But if the Gospel alone prepares the way for the opening words of the Epistle, yet there is also a marked difference which is not only full of interest, but of immense value as a testimony to the truth.
In the Gospel we read: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This unique unfolding of grace and truth was due to, and is worthy of, Him whose glory had never been revealed so simply yet profoundly. The contrast is striking with the philosophic mysticism of Philo, the Alexandrian Jew, contemporary in part with the apostle who is most distinct to the believer. None of the Gospels has an introduction like the first eighteen verses of that chapter. The first title of Christ in it is "the Word." "In the beginning" (vers. 1, 2) means before creation. This is clearly proved by verse 3, which attributes to the Word the existence of all the universe. He gave all things their existence so absolutely that none existed apart from Him. But go back as far as you may in thought, He was in being with God, yet having His personal subsistence as God, in contrast with every creature. There is no point of duration that could be taken in eternity before the work of creation began, but there He was "in [the] beginning." The absence of the article in Greek is a nicety for conveying the truth which our own tongue here fails to express. If inserted in Greek, it would have fixed attention on a known point; whereas the very aim is to exclude such a thought and to characterise His uncreated being by a phrase which admits the illimitable. "In the beginning God created," etc., begins time; "In the beginning the Word was," leaves the door open for the eternal. It is therefore well said that Joh_1:1 is before Gen_1:1. But if we are there told that "In [the] beginning was the Word," ver. 14 tells us that "the Word became flesh" in time. The First Epistle starts with the fact so wondrous on God's part, so rich in blessing for saints, and for sinners too as all once were. Not only the Word eternally was, but in due time the Word became flesh. Consequently, in the Epistle it is not "In the beginning," but "From the beginning."
This very expression the inspired Luke employs to give his characteristic exhibition - though, of course, by the Holy Ghost - of the Lord's life here below. He does not begin, as Mark did, with His ministry of the gospel, the "beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God." Luke goes farther back, having followed up all things from the outset. Accordingly, he is the one who, beyond any other, brings before us the Lord in His early days of youth. As His holy humanity is specified, so we see the Babe in the manger and in the temple, object of homage to Simeon and Anna, and of testimony to all that looked for Jerusalem's redemption. Then what a glimpse of His growth at home, before and after the touching scene in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them and asking them questions! All His hearers, for so it was, were amazed at His understanding and His answers. Thus, in short, Luke presents the Lord "from the very first" as a man on the earth more fully than anyone else. Even if he speaks of others who delivered to us the matters fully believed among us, he describes them as those that were "from the beginning" eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word.
Here then we may next notice a singularly expressive term, "The Word of Life." It is, indeed, in the closest connection with the main object of the Epistle; but at the first mention not the smallest preparation is made for it, without the introduction of John 1. We are suddenly and at once introduced into the august, the divine, theme that the Holy Spirit deigned to take up and give us. Can we not see what a testimony to the Lord it was, there to begin with the Word, an eternal Name, but now with manhood entered into His person? The little children, and even the apostle John, must retire, no one must be mentioned save the object of faith for man. The Word, the Word of Life, is at once ushered before the believer's view. Could anything show so well the reverence that filled the apostle's heart, or that is due from ours? But here we begin, remarkable to say, with the Word of Life Man, and, it may be added, as another thing of importance, the Word of Life Man not in the heavens but on the earth. The glorified Man on the throne of God above has its great importance with the apostle Paul. Here, on the other hand, the greatest possible care is taken first to show the Word when He walked here below, not before He was made flesh, as is done in ver. 2, nor after He died and rose again, as elsewhere in the Epistle. Those positions or states of our Lord appear appropriately in their due place; but here he is treating of eternal life manifested on earth with its just and full proofs, and its all-importance for giving fellowship with the Father and the Son, to the fulness of joy of all who share it in the grace of God. Hence it is that he forthwith brings us to hear the report of the Word of Life as the disciples saw and heard Him on the earth.
"What was from the beginning." This was true before any saw Him. "Which we have heard." This was the way in which the tidings of the Lord Jesus reached their ears. The earliest apostles were disciples of the Baptist; and John's privilege (though not here specified) was to be one of the earliest to betake themselves to the Lord Jesus. They, like others also, heard from His herald before they saw Him. In fact, it was the Baptist's testimony to the Lord which led two of his disciples, leaving himself at least afterwards, to follow the Christ. The other was not Simon Peter, but Andrew, Simon's brother. We need have no doubt or difficulty who his companion was - the writer of the Gospel and of the Epistles. It of course lends no little interest to all when we know that John was so early in the field along with Andrew. He was therefore, though for still better reasons, pre-eminently suited to tell us of the Word of Life. But he was led of the Spirit to speak of "us," the chosen witnesses, in quite general terms: "What we have seen with our eyes." It is exactly what they had heard: "Behold the Lamb of God." They had heard that testimony, they had seen with their eyes that blessed Person; they "followed Jesus" and "abode with Him that day." Such was the beginning of that divine link between the Lord Jesus and the disciples. Who more, and if we take into account his special place in the Lord's affections even among the Twelve, who so suitable to bring all out, in the power of the Holy Spirit, as John in his own peculiar style?
But the delay is also remarkable. For we might have thought that the best time to furnish the saints with such intimate reminiscences was when all was fresh in his heart and memory. But God directed that the truth should be, not indeed hid in his heart, but held back from his pen for fifty years at the least. And His way is ever wisest and best for all, though vain man likes to have his. [It seems, as it is, too empty]. But the Holy Ghost was here to give the more intelligent waiting on God that His will might be done. And it was His time and way that the apostle John who was at the first should abide to be the last witness. It was his lot to convey to the Angel of the church in Ephesus (so bright when the apostle wrote to it late in his day) the Lord's call to repent and do the first works; else He would remove their lamp except they repented. It was his to convey to the Angel of the church in Laodicea the Lord's threat to spue it out of His mouth, without condition of repentance, though summoning to repentance. It was before the Lord's letters to the Seven churches of Asia were sent that the last apostle writes of the fatal evil rising up, and the "last hour" coming with its "many antichrists."
This gives character to the Epistle before us beyond what we have in those of Peter or James. The antichrist is portrayed in an early epistle of Paul, though not so designated, but as the man of sin, the son of perdition, and the lawless one. The apostle John alone writes of "the antichrist," as of many antichrists already, forerunners of the great coming one, who figures in Rev_13:11-18, etc., as the Beast of the earth with his two lamb-like horns, the false prophet. We can understand that he who was given to present Christ so vividly in His divine dignity should be given also to set out His human adversary, filled and governed by His spiritual enemy Satan, and under the name of the antichrist. If there was a heart on earth that would resent a blow struck at the Lord Jesus, it was our apostle, who enjoyed His love beyond others, and loved Him, perhaps, beyond all. As a rule, the sinner that feels his sins most deeply enters accordingly into the love of the Saviour, as He proved to and by the man who had no right sense of either: he loves most who has most forgiven. But who can doubt that the beloved disciple had had an exquisite sense of His Lord's love to him personally, and also a correspondingly deep sense of sin? The apostles Peter and Paul estimated and felt His love in another way, but hardly in the same way. One wonders not therefore that John was chosen to write words to us of fervent love and deep solemnity, words of grace and truth pre-eminently adapted to secure the believer under the worst perils for Christians on earth, the most insidious efforts to subvert and deny the name of Jesus. This is exactly what we are contemplating in these Epistles, especially in the First.
Thus is brought before us the person of the Lord Jesus, and that not as received up in glory. Admirable object before us is the glorified Man for lifting the believer above the false glory of the world, as the power of His resurrection is suited for giving a firm hold against earthly pretensions in religion. Saul of Tarsus was converted by the sight of Christ in glory by the power of the Spirit: this became his distinctive theme, not only in the gospel, but for setting forth Christ as head of the church, the great truth that is found in him beyond any other of the inspired writers. But, for reasons sufficient and wise to the Giver of every good gift, our apostle goes back to Christ down here, as true man as He is true God. His object was not so much to show Him heavenly but to prove that really man He is a divine person. The heavenly Man has given glorious privileges in God's grace; yet, after all, the heavenly must give place to the divine. Heavenly relationship God uses to deliver the saints from the tendency to be earthly-minded; but divine life in power thoroughly uproots man's pride, lusts, and will to set himself up, and thus fall under Satan against the Father and the Son. The mind of the flesh not only resists the Lordship of Christ, but is utterly blind to the deeper glory of His person in His own right far above that which was conferred. The apostle Paul dwells more on the glory that was given Him. John turns peculiarly to the glory that belonged to Him eternally, not as the firstborn from the dead, but as the only-begotten Son. There He is alone. Paul speaks of union with Him for members of His body; John, of the Father's love to those who are even now His children. No wonder that it is now the hour to abandon earthly service, even in the sanctuary of Jerusalem, and as true worshippers to worship the Father in spirit and truth; for also the Father seeketh His worshippers of such a sort.
Let us seek then to be true to the Lord, to keep His word, and not deny His name. Indisputably, as involved in the Lord's personal glory, the truth in the Epistle which we are now entering, on is intended to set out the positive side of life, as in Him, so in those that are His, on the earth. No spiritual person acquainted with error as to this at work of recent years can fail to discern how the truth in the Gospel and the Epistle of John leaves not the smallest excuse for it, but peremptorily excludes it. It is a sorrowful fact that some of us have known two assaults on the Lord, one in the forties, the other in the nineties of last century, as we wait for the blessed hope and the appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
As of old, so now, there is the like urgent ground for children of God to cleave to the Lord with purpose of heart, and to deepen in their consciousness of eternal life in him, so that they may the better help the simplest believers to know it as theirs. Thus is Satan's wile turned to the good of those that love Him, the called according to purpose. Be not deceived by such as try to persuade themselves and others that in what was quite plain one mistook its nature and bearing. Such is ever the cry when heterodoxy is seen through. Then follows the effort to gloss it over, to disguise the evil, if they cannot deny it wholly, in order to avoid detection and discredit. It is never so where there is honesty before God. If a true-hearted saint was betrayed into error, he would be too thankful to have it laid bare in order to repudiate it with grief and humiliation. But hiding, minimising, and excusing error so fundamental is unworthy of those who once suffered the loss of not a little in this world for the truth. It exposes themselves to the danger of falling into what they tamper with, or the loss of spiritual discernment. Is it not the working of the spirit of error?
The first verse describes our Lord Jesus here below as an object of near and thorough inspection, with the closest familiarity to the disciples. His way was as far as possible from that of the potentates in the East particularly, who affect honour and glory by keeping even their grandees at a distance. It was death, as all know, of old without a summons to approach "the great king." Life depended on his holding out the golden sceptre that they might touch it and live. But here the Higher than the highest came down in humiliation of grace to the least and lowest. Never sinner that came to Him did He reject. He touched as well as healed the leper. He wept at the grave of him whom He raised from the dead. Who accessible as He always and to all? But what opportunities of seeing with their eyes, of looking on Him, and even of handling Him, He gave those expressly chosen "that they might be with him!" Impossible to doubt that the Holy One of God was veritable man.
Yet it is well to notice "seen and heard" in verse 3: "what we have heard," in verse 1, precedes "what we have seen." The truth always comes through the ear first, not the eye. They "heard" and believed. Faith for their own souls was by hearing, not by sight. Nevertheless Christ was to be seen with their eyes, and to be contemplated too for their witness to others, not once in a way but "What we looked upon and our hands handled." How wonderful the truth, the Creator of heaven and earth becoming a man, and allowing even such evidence of His humanity that their hands should handle Him! He also did so when raised from out of the. dead; not to Mary of Magdala for special reasons, but to the women of Galilee, and to the incredulous apostle Thomas - "Reach hither, etc." And so it had been when the Lord was here below, because He well knew, and by anticipation provided proof against, the fearful system of evil which dared to deny the reality of His human nature. Therein was His grace even to death for us.
On the other hand, the opposite form of evil is quite as sternly denounced, or more so, which denied that He was God, counting Him but a man endowed with unequalled power but to the exclusion of His Godhead. He was truly God and man, and in one person. Accordingly He is called here "the Word of life." All the different clauses of verse 1 are "concerning the Word of life." For "life," and in this case the highest spiritual life, belongs to God alone. It is distinct from, and higher than, creative power, as we are taught in the comparison of verses 3 and 4 of 1 John 1. Here His designation combines "the Word" and "life" for the scope of the Epistle. "And the life was manifested." This was the truth to state here. To whom is not said, but the simple and general fact. It was for anybody to see, for all that beheld Christ our Lord; not believers only, but unbelievers. To the latter it was casual, and without vital effect, because they were not taught of God through their need of Him; for to real purpose and blessing we must come in the truth of our sins; but they could. see how wonderful He was, if not in Himself, in His dealing with every man, woman, or child that drew near Him. Yet to their blind eyes He did not discover God and Himself as to the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee, to her of Samaria, or to the robber converted on the Cross. They could not fail to discern that there was something far beyond man in Him. Each of them at that crisis of their life was enabled effectually to hear the Word of Life. It seems indubitable, if the first woman was already a believing and repentant soul, then brought to pardon and peace, that the words of the Saviour were what quickened the Samaritan as well as the crucified robber, who discerned the infinite grace and dignity of the Lord Jesus in the hour of His greatest shame and contempt.
"And the life was manifested:" such is the keynote of the Epistle. Here it was manifested, "and we have seen and bear witness, and report to you the eternal life, the which was with the Father, and was manifested to us" (ver. 2). There is nothing said about "hearing" now. It takes for granted that they were already intimate with the Lord, and "we have seen and bear witness." It is not, as at first, hearing and seeing, but now seeing and bearing witness, and reporting to the saints the eternal life, which had the character of being with the Father [i.e. in eternity], and was manifested to us in time when He lived here below.
Many are aware of a strange effort made to draw a distinction even in the New Testament, between "life" and "eternal life." Is it not refuted here? While "the Word of life" is the expression in the first verse, and we simply hear of "the life" in the beginning of the second, soon after, in the same verse, we find "the eternal life." Surely, then, "the life," and "the eternal life," denote precisely one and the same thing, looked at in a slightly different way. It is bound up with the person of the Word, and manifested in the Lord Jesus Christ. What can be plainer? In the parenthetical verse 2 we are informed of the other great truth that Eternal Life was with the Father before He was manifested in the flesh here below. He was not only the Word and the Only-begotten Son, but also "the eternal life"; as much the eternal life then as when afterwards He deigned, for God's glory and man's redemption and blessedness, to be born of woman, and so display what He gives to the believer.
It is remarkable that here eternal life is expressly predicated of the eternal Word, the Son of God, before He came into the world; but it never became the known portion of the believer till Christ was manifested. When He went up to heaven, this is not manifestation, but, on the contrary, to be hidden in God. No, it was here in the world of sin, sorrow, and misery; it was here where the first man utterly failed unto death, that the second man displayed life eternal, obeying unto death, and by His death defeated Satan, and found an everlasting redemption for all that believe. And those who believe have life eternal in Him, that they may live now of His life, not of their own fallen life.
The manifestation of the life is precisely in this world and nowhere else. Heaven is not the scene of its manifestation; still less could manifestation be said of it when that life was with the Father. Certainly, as far as men are concerned, the manifestation was when the Son of God became man, and was seen and heard as the faithful and true witness of God the Father. When the Son of God became man, then, and then only, was manifested the eternal life, the which was up till then with the Father. Life was in His concrete and manifested person here below, as hitherto it had been in Him above. A certain chosen number of disciples who heard beheld its presence in Him, under all possible tests of reality, to report to others God in man with the eternal life of Christ in its unsullied perfect excellency manifested among men on earth.
How blessed for us, even though with felt weakness, yet looking to our Lord's grace, we take up the task. Our title is Christ Himself, as good now as for those to whom the Epistle was written. The apostle herein writes to his "dear" or" little children," the family of God now as really as then. Does not the self-same relationship abide as long as the list hour endures? Whatever our shortcoming today we humbly receive the apostle, believe in the love of the Father, confess the grace and the glory of His Son, the Lord Jesus, and reckon on the indwelling Spirit of God, that we may now reap profit by what had been already communicated when that hour began. We acknowledge our deep need and the pitiful goodness of Him who directed them, as He does ourselves, to find in Christ the unfailing reserve of faith and the answer to every want.
"What we have seen and have heard we report to you also that ye also may have fellowship with us." Is not this a precious legacy of divine love in presence of such declension and danger? Is not the fellowship of the apostles a blessed fellowship or association in such circumstances (compare Act_2:42)? "And also our fellowship [is] with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (ver. 3). Soon the last apostolic hand would cease; but if he had survived till now, what could be written more comforting and reassuring than that the Pentecostal fellowship of the apostles abides; yea and the fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ abides for our enjoyment by faith today in virtue of life eternal in the Son, both theirs and ours? The declared purpose, then, of this divine communication is that we might have the same fellowship as the apostles had with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, and the gracious aim thereby to fill our hearts with joy. If such a blessedness at all fail, nothing conceivable could effect that result. Is there not beyond comparison far more to fill our hearts with joy than in any other boon that could be given us? Eternal life manifested in our Lord Jesus as the new and divine nature in us who believe for fellowship with the Father and with His Son, expressly to fill us with a joy that bespeaks itself divine in its source and character! Let us then consider, with the heed that is due, the grace and the truth in Christ set before us in these the opening words of the Epistle. This is its fundamental principle and design.
The central truth of Christianity is here briefly laid down, and its avowed object in the darkest hour is to fill the saints with God's own joy; when Satan was active as never before in undermining Christ. It is not a summons to guard souls by exposing argumentatively the various heterodoxies and their baneful issue. Still less is it turning the energies of God's servants to preaching the gospel to all the nations. Nor yet is it the revelation of woes imminent on Christendom and the world at large, as at length came in the Apocalypse, with the glories to follow, not "the things that are," but coming judgments. The Old Testament prophets had things communicated, which they learnt were not for themselves but for us (1Pe_1:12). And so the saints to follow the church will have accordingly the Spirit of prophecy as the testimony of Jesus to them: a remarkable expression, which means the Spirit, not as the power of present fellowship, but "of prophecy," as of old, casting the saints on the future when Jesus comes in power and glory.
In contrast with that is the action of the Holy Ghost now. What is revealed is revealed to us, and what is revealed to us is for our knowledge of God in the Spirit, and enjoyment of fellowship with the Father and the Son. It is for God's children not only to enter in but enjoy to the full even in the evil day. Everything revealed to us is intended to fall in a continual shower of blessing on our hearts. To be born again and be forgiven through Christ and His work is the only right start; for we know God by the Spirit thus awakening the conscience. But to abide there, no matter how devoted to spread the glad tidings, falls quite short of God's mind about us. It is not Christ leading us, on possession of life eternal, into the fellowship here so distinctly announced to fill us with joy. Naturally we are but sinful creatures going blindly on to judgment; but in receiving the Lord Jesus we are born of God, and resting on redemption we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and are thus anointed and sealed. We are thus capacitated by that life and empowered by the Spirit, as acknowledging the Son, to have the Father also. Our bright privilege is to have this fellowship as ours, with unstinted and joyful assurance by the will and word of God.
Listen not to those who count such blessing beyond you on earth and now. He that had the best robe for the returned prodigal would have you as His child to enjoy communion with Himself and His Son. It is, without doubt, wholly above man's nature. It is for partakers of a divine nature. The love of the Father and the Son is its spring, working by the Holy Spirit sent down to be in us and with us for ever as the power. It therefore peculiarly concerns the Christian; and all the more when the outward aspect of the Christian profession is filled with falsehood and evil. Undoubtedly he that denies the Father and the Son would treat it as a myth and a delusion. But why should you, a Christian, stop short of your proper portion?
The children of God, even the little children or babes of the family, are all included in this blessedness, as truly in their measure as the more vigorous and the most mature. The babes are therefore invited to enter in and enjoy this fellowship to the full. On what ground? Eternal life in Christ. Justification by faith is precious, and conscious salvation, with the question of sins and sin settled for our souls with God; but here the positive side of eternal life is the truth insisted upon. The apostle Paul brings out not only the justification of each believer individually, but membership of the one body of Christ and its heavenly privileges as no one else does. To the apostle John was given in the days of decay to set forth eternal life, as even the great apostle of the uncircumcision did not so fully.
What is the source of the feelings of joy here commended to us by the Spirit of God? What is the basis and the substance of that fellowship with the Father and His Son to which we are called? What is the spring of this divine enjoyment? What gives the Christian to hate evil and to love the good according to God; to have doubts and fears for ever dissipated; to draw near to the Father with full confidence, and to delight in the Son? It could not be without faith in the Saviour's propitiation, but its receptive faculty lies in life, eternal life, the life of Christ.
If we look, however, at the children of God, we see one measure here and another there. If we could survey all the children of God, we should perceive a different measure in each. We are just as different in manifesting our spiritual life, as far as its exercises go, as we are in the natural life of man. It is of course the same in all, but the old life mixes, as it ought not, to produce these differences. Impossible to find satisfaction in a scene so shifting. One may find a little more of what the new life is in this one as compared with that. But for the truth of it one must turn to Christ as eternal life itself without the least alloy or obscurity. There only we behold it in all its perfection, as we follow the Lord Jesus as He is brought before us in the Gospels. There do we not find righteousness and grace, dignity and subjection, gravity and tenderness, burning zeal and lowliness of heart, purity in Himself and pity for others, love to His Father, love to saints, love to sinners, and withal the obedient man yet the divine Word and Son? This then all that shone through the veil of flesh, was the life eternal; and nowhere else can you find its fulness but in Him.
What could be more momentous, if we have life in the Son, than that we should clearly and in all variety of circumstance know what that life really is? For it is our life, and the rule of our life; inasmuch as the Holy Spirit has given it with a particularity beyond parallel in Holy Writ. He would impart to us, in the word of God, the fullest insight into that which formed the delight of the Father, that we might have the joy of knowing in communion that it is our very new life, and also a constant standard for self-judgment as well as example. Thus the joy would be made full, and ourselves made nothing in our own eyes by the sense of our shortcoming. This is what the Christian needs from God; and this is what our Father has provided for us in Christ.
What a lesson for us His maintenance of the bondman character! And this ever going up to His Father as a sweet odour of rest! If there be one thing which never fails in Him, it is obedience; obedience to His Father at all cost; obedience in every word and work, in the smallest as in the greatest. "The zeal of Thy house hath consumed me." Power others have shared: who but He never did His own will but the Father's? So in the afflictions, the contempt, the detraction, which try the heart, the meek Lord of glory stooped to the uttermost; and, though He deeply felt the woes which such unbelief entailed, He turns to His Father at the same hour with thanksgiving and entire submission. If the favoured but haughty people blindly refused Him, grace would reveal to the babes what was hid from the self-satisfied wise and prudent. These are the exercises and unfoldings of eternal life. If all were written out one by one as they deserve, not even the whole world itself, as our apostle says in the close of his Gospel, would contain the books written. The Bible contains the selection made by the Spirit of God. Who else is sufficient for these things? He gives us therein the food of God as our food; for therein we have in fellowship: what the Father has in the Son, and the Son in the Father; and this the fare not of the apostles only, but of the Christian, of the family of God.
Look at Moses, who had a most unusual place in his relation both to Israel's redemption and legislation, and as the writer of the Pentateuch. How little, after all, we know of Moses himself! How he kept himself in the background, the meekest of men till Christ came! But what was Moses in comparison with Him?
Then again Paul fills in unequalled part among the apostles and in the New Testament. Yet we have but glimpses of himself. How much men have wished a more intimate acquaintance! But the strong individuality of him, and of Peter and John, among the more known, separates them from Him in whom every characteristic was in harmony; in them things did stand out singly or distinctively as they did not in Him who was perfect man to God, and perfect God to man, besides as Son in the ineffable circle of the persons of the Godhead.
Eternal life then is not merely Messiah in the perfection of man; - but the Word and Son of God in a body prepared for Him, albeit Son of the Virgin. It was the union of Godhead with the manhood of the Lord Jesus that constituted the wonder of His person here "below, and the blessedness of the manifestation of eternal life in Him. This is the character of the new life to those that believe, to you and me. As we read of Him in the Scriptures of truth, honouring Him as we honour the Father, and finding in Him peculiar grounds of love which every Christian feels, do we say, as His grace and truth shine into our hearts, This is my life; this is your life, my brother? Have we not thereby fellowship with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ? And does not this incomparable blessing fill our hearts with joy unspeakable and full of glory?
Through faith in Christ it is that we all are common sharers of the blessedness in virtue of life eternal. First there is communion with the Father. How have we this? Because we have His Son Jesus Christ; and the Father's delight is in the Son: so is yours; and so is mine. The Father and His children have the depth of their joy, their joy together, in the Son. The Father hath sent and given us the Son; we have the Son. He that hath the Son hath the life; we have this wondrous life, because we have the Son; and He being what He is must be the delight of those that have life eternal. Only the Father knows perfectly the Son. He therefore appreciates the Son as He deserves. This we dare not say, though we have the Son, and love Him and delight in Him; and all this by the Spirit of God in our measure. And this is fellowship with the Father in the Son Jesus Christ.
But how have we fellowship with His Son? It is in the Father, who is His Father and our Father. The Son was in eternal relationship as such with the Father; and He was pleased in communion with His Father's will and grace to make Him known to us as our Father (compare Joh_20:17). It was not enough to show us the Father. This would have sufficed the apostle Philip, but not divine love. He would be our Father, and have us His children; and so we are now, and thus have fellowship with the Son by grace, as the Father has the Son in the rights of Deity.
Thus we have fellowship with the Father in the possession of the Son, and fellowship with the Son in the possession of the Father. How could our joy but be full? Even heaven and glory everlasting dwindle in comparison; but we have these too. If we knew of such fellowship, and had it not, could our joy be as full as it is? We do not wait till we depart to be with Christ, or even for the change of our bodies into His image at His coming, to have this fellowship. Only unbelief hinders any child of God from enjoying it now and here on the earth. And we have the Holy Spirit personally given that divine power might effect it in us. Here the Son came down on earth. But for His coming we could not have had it as we have, if at all. With His presence on earth to this end the apostle began his instruction, and laid the basis of the divine fellowship in eternal life, which is the only true and adequate medium of having it as our portion. Without eternal life it had been impossible: else was only the flesh with which there could be no fellowship. Therefore the Lord over and over again announced its present known possession as essential to Christianity, and to this fellowship, its richest boon in virtue of life eternal, which is in Himself, the communicator of it to us.
"And this is the message which we have heard from him, and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not the truth. 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 cleanseth us from all [or, every] sin. If we say that we have no sin, we mislead ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all [or, every] unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."
*Testimony of weight casts doubt on reading "Christ" here; the usage of John rather favours it.
We have already seen that the opening verses give us the manifestation of God, and here expressly as Father, in His Son the Man Christ Jesus, the Word of life. For the utmost care is taken that while implicitly and supremely acknowledged as God, the all-importance of His taking manhood into union with His person should be distinctly laid down. So indeed it must be to reveal His grace, and to lay the needed and full basis for all that we boast in Christ the Lord. This is really Christianity on its positive side; for as yet we have nothing here said of the necessity for His bearing our sins, and God's condemning sin in the flesh on our behalf. Indeed the difference is striking.
May one not assume that hardly a Christian in the world, if he were writing on Christianity, would not begin at the starting-point of needy and guilty sinners? How infinitely more blessed to commence with Christ in the fulness of His grace! That is what the Spirit of God does here. He is not writing to let lost sinners know how to be justified in God's sight. The Epistle is to God's children, that they maybe filled with joy; and who or what is there that can fill with such joy as God in Christ produces hereby?
Clearly Christ is presented in this astonishing scripture as the manifestation of eternal life, Himself called personally "the eternal life which was with the Father," as before "the Word of life," because He expressed it to His own, that they too might have life in Him.
Such is the ground for the wondrous privilege of which He speaks - "fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ." This is impossible to be had unless we have Christ as our life. So momentous is the cardinal truth of the present possession of eternal life by faith. It is no doubt in Christ. But it is life now bestowed on us; and to deny or even weaken this is to do the enemy's work in a subtle and effective manner.
But the grace, however to our joy, is not all. It is of urgent moment for us never to forget, from the very beginning to know, that He who is our Father is God, and that, however the grace may flow, the truth of His nature, His holy nature, is brought into immediate association with our souls; and if it were not so, what are we? At best sounding brass or clanging cymbal. But this is "the message" which cannot be severed from "the manifestation," the manifestation of God in man in the person of Christ, bringing us into fellowship with the Father and with His Son. Assuredly we cannot have the joy flowing from that fellowship, or the life eternal on which it is grounded, without sharing the moral nature of God. Grace and truth are come through Christ. And the truth is that He is a God who reveals His hatred of sin, incomparably more now when He is known as Father than when He was adored by His people as Jehovah.
For of old He dwelt in the thick darkness; with many results excellent in exercise, as goodness, and righteousness, besides His power in government, pitiful and long-suffering, promises with blessed predictions and glorious hopes which He will assuredly accomplish in due time. For Jehovah is the everlasting God of Israel, and will make good to the children His promises made to the fathers. But before that day dawns on the earth, comes the total ruin of the Jew and all the world from the rejection of Christ. Christianity supposes this. What proof of ruin could be more complete than in the Lord Jesus slain by Jew and Gentile? Then man turned God in the person of Christ out of His own world, and did so with the utmost hatred and contempt, spitting in His face and nailing Him to the tree. Was not this the world, and the world even at its best? Not Rome, nor Babylon, the golden city of Chaldea, primarily; but Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, now crucifying thine own, Jehovah's own, Messiah!
Yet (on that overwhelming proof that there is no good in man, and that the most guilty of the race which had the best religious privileges for man in the flesh had but turned them to the worst account through their own unbelief) unto all the nations was to be proclaimed in the name of the Lord Jesus repentance and remission of sins, "beginning at Jerusalem." What unfathomable grace to those who deserved condign judgment! Grace is not confined within the small and feeble barriers of Israel, but now breaking forth on every side to every nation and land and tongue. For God will have His house on high filled with guests in virtue of the manifestation of life eternal that was thenceforth to be made known. The Life Eternal had been there; but how few then knew it! And those that did, knew it most imperfectly. Nosy it was announced plainly when the church indicated in all ways a ruin, as great for it as the world had already shown, though not at all in the gross way to which it has come now, but in a subtle and yet real way. For even the worst was sprouting then; every evil that was afterwards to be developed was there in germ before the apostles slept. For this reason came this blessed Epistle that the hearts of all the faithful might be established in grace and truth, and know that whatever the failure in responsibility, whatever the declension that had set in, Christ abode the same, unchanged and unchangeable, "What was from the beginning" never to fail for faith, whatever the shame to those that compromised His name, whatever the deadly loss to such as turned away. For it is a strange and perilous thing to trifle with Christ. How sad that any one could be so careless, how deplorable that any Christian should be so misled, as to become an instrument of such evil!
But along with the manifestation of perfect grace comes the inseparable message of holiness. This is alike due to God, and necessary for the saints. What does it convey? "This then is the message which we have heard from him." They had heard it from Christ Himself; not exactly "of (περὶ him," but "from (ἀπὸ him," - "and report," for this is the exact word in our tongue - we "report to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." We see the distinctness from the manifestation, This was about or concerning the Word of life, the unmixed grace of God in Christ. Here it is not "concerning" but "from," not a manifestation of love, but a message against sin. It is also the first occurrence of the apostle's habit to mix God with Christ, because He is God. So here, after saying so much of Christ, he gives a message from "Him." This might mean God, but he had just been speaking of Christ. Such a transition perplexes the commentators; but it is a beauty, not a blemish. The message from Him applies God as light (and this too was in Him) to our standing and state.
Natural enough that the heathen should make Chaos the parent of Erebos and Nyx. Darkness essentially characterised some, moral darkness all that they called their gods. They were indeed divinities of gloom, and lust, and lying. But not so is our God: in Him is no darkness at all. And it is Christianity that brings this out distinctively in essence, principle and fact; Judaism but partially. For there He avowedly dwelt in the thick darkness. Thence He menaced with death him that ventured of himself to approach, or otherwise infringed His law. Yet the law made nothing perfect (Heb_7:19). We can say without reserve that God is light. He has fully proved His love. What can compare with His grace in Christ, as we read in the prefatory verses? But He is light also. We all know how common it is for men to descant on God as love, even to an extreme exaggeration in effect, not merely that God is love, but that love is God. Much less do we hear of the message that He is light. This, no doubt, is the ultimate folly of man's mind, that makes a mere idol of God. But if it be a truth that God is love, He is a great deal more than love. "Light" is a burning word, expressive of His intrinsic and absolute purity of nature; "love" of its sovereign activity to others as well as in Himself. There is no sacrifice of His light to His love; indeed if it were so conceived, it would entail the greatest loss on His children. But it is as untrue, as it is impossible. "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all." Therefore is He intolerant of darkness in His own, who are made free of His presence, and have fellowship with Himself. What could be more contrary to Christ and to Christianity? We are told elsewhere, that we were once darkness who are now children of light. No doubt this did not belong to John; it had been already taught by the apostle Paul.
But what John here says is also of the utmost possible moment, because he proceeds to touch on what is no less than some great inconsistencies of Christendom, and quite opposed to Christianity. There are in verses 6-10 three "if we says," all of them important in the extreme. First, "If we say that we fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth." Can we name a more evident or flagrant departure from the very nature of Christianity? It is saying, but not doing. This was bad enough in Israel; but how sad when and where, to us begotten by the word of truth, the light and the love have come out so truly and perfectly! "If we say that we have fellowship with him": in this and the other two cases the word "we" is used in a general manner, whereas in many scriptures it is said of the faithful.
We may learn from this that it is a mistake to found a canon of criticism on the partial use of a word. How many persons, as I have heard many myself, assume it as a matter of fact that "we" must always mean the family of God! So it is often, and we may say generally; but it is not always true. In Him "we" live and move and have our being, the apostle Paul applied to mankind universally, as he said it of heathen Athenians. Again, there is such a thing as God dealing with persons according to their profession; and the apostle John speaks here of these alienations from the truth which had begun then and pervade the Christendom of our day. Even Christianity admits a profession far more widely than Judaism could. For a man must ordinarily be a Jew to be accredited as such, being an outward fact; whereas one who is not a Christian might long pass himself off as one. Without being a deceiver he might deceive himself, and think he was a Christian. Now the message that the apostle here gives was intended even then to put to the proof the spreading profession of Christianity. Therefore, as they named the Lord's name, the apostle does not drop the word "we," but the state of not a few was such as to raise the most serious question of their reality before God.
Hence it is that, in order rightly to interpret the word, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is important too that we take the word with its context, which helps to the meaning that comes out for the most part as satisfactorily as if it were all defined. Thus it is far better for our souls and more to God's glory than if it were technically determined. Again God deals with us as His sons; for we are now arrived at our majority if we are in the true status of Christians. We are no longer babes at the A B C; we can now not only spell the words, but read them intelligently by grace, when somewhat more advanced in the knowledge of God and of His ways. And He looks for real progress. Is it not then deplorable to find so many Christians content to remain all their life at the elements, quite satisfied with the hope that their sins are or will be forgiven?
But besides this it is to be feared too often that when souls content themselves with the first privilege of God's grace, they may be gravely self-deceived. The gospel proclaims remission of sins, and faith receives it on God's word. Life eternal is given and the Holy Spirit, when one rests on Christ's redemption, in order that there should be enjoyment of our Father's love to us. And if we live of that life which is Christ, ought there not to be growth in the inner man, shown not only in outward service but in grace and in knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? It is plain that the later Epistles are solemnly occupied with warning against this very danger. But there is no one who takes it up in so profound a manner, as far as I can pretend to judge, as the apostle whose Epistle we are reading, and indeed in this Epistle pre-eminently.
"If we say" - how often only saying! - "If we say that we have fellowship with Him," it is the fruit of receiving Christ and in Him the gift of life. For eternal life is the basis of true fellowship with the Father and with the Son, the enjoyment of which necessarily leads to our souls' appreciation of its virtues, not only for the Christian walk, but in Christian worship, and in Christian converse with the living God is our Father and with His Son. "If we say we have fellowship with Him" claims that we have entered into the new relationship with God in grace, and that we share His nature, His mind and His affections. This is an immense thing where we need His true grace to stand in the light as well as the love of God. It is "God" here: "the Father" was said where the grace was shown out in fullest volume. But here an utter contradiction to its genuineness appears. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness": what is this? Walking in darkness is what a man of the world does; it is the description of one who is entirely unrenewed. It means a vast deal more than that a person has fallen into a sin, or got into an unhappy state of soul. Thus it was that the Puritans used to interpret this thing. Though they were truly pious men and worthy of all respect, they were rather narrow-minded, and savoured more of the Old Testament than of the New. They were in spirit under the law, which always dims and deranges spiritual judgment. It is only grace that enlarges the heart and that gives the mind, under the Spirit's guidance, to enter into God's heavenly counsels, and His ways for the earth. They were short in these weighty respects, and were led into that self-occupation which is the inevitable effect of the law upon a saint.
Here the class described were not at all so occupied; they had never judged themselves before God. They were no doubt baptised; they had come into the Christian association of the church, and they seem to have thought of little more. The failure was not in the good seed, but in the soil. Even if the word were received at once with joy, "such have no root," says the Lord, because of no divine operation on the conscience. They may believe in a human way for a time, and in time of trial fall away, or if they linger as here, they are dead while they live. Yet as they confessed in a sort the Lord's name, they were baptised with water for the remission of sins and joined their Christian associates. Was not all finished? Further exercise of soul was laid to rest, and nothing good could be said about them. Even in John's day here they were! Even then were persons walking in darkness who claimed nevertheless to have fellowship with God, for this is what the Christian really has. It is the proper confession of a Christian that we are now brought out of sins, and self, and Satan's power; that we have left the darkness behind; that even here we are called into His marvellous light. In that light we walk. These unrenewed souls claimed to be in fellowship with God. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth." Neither baptism nor eucharist can remedy this in the least. They were entirely unawakened; they had never met God in Christ about their sins; their faith was as fleshly as their repentance. Not even conscience before God had wrought, still less any true sense of their need of His grace which faith gives.
Every relationship involves commensurate responsibility. The sayers, who were not doers, had not only responsibility as men which ends in sin and death and judgment, but the immensely greater one of naming the name of the Lord. They were by their walk in darkness denying really the new responsibility of confessing in deed as well as word the second Man, the last Adam, Christ Himself, and could have no fellowship with God as God, to say nothing of fellowship with the Father and with His Son, the high Christian expression of fellowship. For in truth they were walking in darkness; just as if Christianity was only a creed or a dogma which the mind of man is capable of acknowledging and understanding in an outward and natural way. But what total blindness to the word of God! Was darkness compatible with life eternal? Not in the least. Eternal life is that we should know the Father, the only true God, and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whom He sent. If you, by God's teaching, know Him, it is divine love bringing you thus into fellowship with them both, with the Father and the Son.
Here were those that pretended to have it, but without any living effect on their daily walk, their objects, ways and ends here below. Have you ever seen Christians of that sort? Have you not seen a great many? Is not this a serious fact for every professor's conscience? Have you yourself thoroughly faced the truth? When God's grace wins the soul, the truth is welcomed, wherever it leads and whatever it costs within and without. Walking in the light, means that you walk henceforward in the presence of God fully revealed; you have so to do with Him in the light at all times. There is undoubtedly danger of inconsistency; and who is not ready to own that we all fail in always walking accordingly. But this is another thing. For be it observed here that it does not say, as many misunderstand, "If we walk according to the light." There was but One who ever did so, and perfectly. He alone when asked "Who art Thou?" could answer, "Absolutely what I also speak to you" (Joh_8:25). It was the Saviour, the Son of God, yet Man. He walked according to the light; as indeed He was the light, the True Light, the Eternal Life.
But we too who now believe are brought out of darkness into that marvellous light. Is not this predicated of every real Christian? And if you are brought into that marvellous light, does God deprive you of the light because you fall? In no wise. Therein we walk. Thenceforth we shall have the light of life, and not walk in darkness. Through unwatchfulness you may act unworthily of Him; you may be drawn awhile into some false principle or into wrong conduct; but neither drives into darkness nor takes away the light. if you are real and brought out of darkness, in the light you walk; only you lose the enjoyment of communion for the time, you need also to be restored, as we shortly shall see how. But here were professing Christians, who as a principle claimed to have fellowship with the Father and the Son, with God Himself, and yet were unconcernedly walking in darkness, just like any unconverted man. Yet there might be great differences superficially: some decent and morally respectable; others very much the contrary. Some may claim to be strictly religious, like the Pharisee in the Temple who despised other men, particularly "this publican" (or tax-gatherer). What did God think of the two? What did the Lord pronounce on them? And is not that for us now? We may not be publicans so-called, and we must in faith enter into the holies, if we would approach God; for I do not doubt that an earthly temple is all a mistake, now that Christ is gone up on high, and opened for us the heavenly sanctuary.
But we have to do with the same God, only fully revealed, which was and could not be then, till the veil was rent. But since Christ's death His love and His light are come out in perfection for the soul's deliverance, not yet for the world's, nor even for Israel as a nation, but for the Christian. Here were persons calling themselves Christians, who walked in darkness while they claimed the high and holy privilege of fellowship with God, and yet denied responsibility for the practice of His will. And what does He say about them? He says, if so we do, "we lie, and do not the truth." The whole life is a lie, because it denies the essential principle and necessary character of a Christian, who not only is the object of divine grace, but walks in the light of God. You can no more get out of that light really than a man who in the hours of day walks where the light of the sun shines. Such is what real Christianity means.
Next we have, on the contrary, the other and blessed side in verse 7. The apostle states the real place of the Christian, and puts it in a striking point of view. As there are three different ways in which professing Christians may belie Christianity (for this is just what he is showing in these latter verses, and what has come out now near the harvest of what was then only being sown by the enemy), here we find three great and essential marks of the true Christian. First of all is walking in the light - "But if we walk in the light." We may illustrate the truth by the figure here employed. Consider one in an entirely dark room, how he flounders about, fails in what he seeks, and injures himself and the things he knocks against. Let a full light enter, the perplexity ceases, and he walks with ease, comfort and certainty. So it is with the spiritual light which shines on the Christian's walk, and there in Christ it shines. It is here a question not of "how" but "where." Every real Christian by grace walks in the light It is therefore of high moment that all such should be aware (far as it is from the mind of many) that they do so. It is a great universal Christian privilege. It is not a mere sentiment or idea, but a conferred reality; and also a practical reality that God would have appropriated and enjoyed by every Christian. There may be, and there is, falling short in detail as already said; and we are responsible to feel our failures, and to acknowledge them all the more because we walk in the light.