Sorrow and regret are our daily companions. We grieve over loved ones who have died, we regret missed opportunities and sinful failures in our past. We are content with fleeting pleasures of this world, consuming them with selfishness, and so even our joys are turned to sorrows; and, to bring us to the edge of utter despair, certain death awaits us all. Death which would seem to render everything in life meaningless. Does life have meaning? Can death be cheated? Are joys and pleasures just a cruel illusion? Or are we made for more?
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 upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.
Summary of the Text
John opens this epistle by bearing witness that life has been manifested in a person: “the Word of Life” (vs. 1-2); in this person is found “that eternal life which was with the Father.” These verses take direct aim at false Christologies; and what John proclaims here about Christ was offensive to both Jewish and Greek mindsets. The pluralistic Greeks would be offended that John took their philosophical terms and claimed to have found the truth in the person of Jesus Christ. The monotheistic Jews would be offended that John taught that Jesus, a historical man, was God in the flesh, their long-awaited Messiah.
Appropriately, John opens with a bang. The “logos of zoe” was manifested in flesh (had been seen, heard, touched), was God’s Son, and was the man Jesus Christ. Bearing witness to what the Apostles had seen and heard in Jesus Christ–the Word made Flesh (Jn. 1:14)–was the basis for fellowship between believers, whether Jew or Gentile. This introduction ends with quite the crescendo when John declares that all of this is written with the intention that their (and our) joy may be full (v.4).
Fellowship not Fraternity
While the Apostles had seen and heard Christ, many of their hearers had not. The obvious temptation was to uncertainties and errors regarding the Messiah. If you weren’t an apostle could you really have fellowship with Jesus? Was Jesus really God, or just a man God used? Was Christ really a man, or just God appearing as a man? It is in declaring Jesus Christ to be the Word of Life incarnate as a man that John intends to dispel these doubts and thereby gather all believers into the real fellowship which we have in Christ.
Our fellowship is no mere fraternity of humans. Rather, because of our union with Jesus Christ–the mediator between God and man–we have fellowship with God. Christian fellowship is not based on commonly held beliefs; it isn’t a country club. John Calvin once pointed out, “The ungodly have also a mutual union between themselves, but it is without God, nay, in order to alienate themselves more and more from God, which is the extreme of all evils.” Our fellowship is a spiritual communion of the saints through Jesus Christ which binds us into one body (Rom. 12:5, Eph. 2:16). It is in this fellowship with God by Christ that we are also reconciled to our fellow man (2 Cor. 5:18-21).
Imagine how the Gentile believers might have felt as they tried to sort through the promises given to Israel; they probably wondered if they were on the “outs” and therefore not really the people of God. On the other hand, for Jewish believers–who saw Jesus as the promised Christ–there was certainly confusion as to what they should expect (as it regarded the Law of Moses) of their new Gentile brethren, and what it meant that believing Gentiles were considered God’s people. This sets up John’s later emphasis on assurance (1 Jn. 3:19) and love for the brethren (1 Jn. 5:1-2); both Jews and Gentiles needed assurance that it was in Christ, and only in Christ that we might have fellowship with God and each other, on the grounds of the Gospel message of grace, new birth, and love for those begotten of God.
Joy: Endless, Boundless, Free
The story of mankind is quite simple. God is supremely happy in Himself. Man was made by God to enjoy God. Through sin, man was severed from fellowship with God, and therefore plunged into the deepest depths of sorrow. Through Christ the joy of fellowship with God is promised and restored.
The aim of this epistle is that your joy might be full. Though Christ we find the joy of sins forgiven, the joy of reconciliation with God and our fellow man, the joy of earthly pleasures becoming subservient to the highest pleasure of experiencing God’s joy in us as His redeemed children, the joy of God’s promised blessings coming upon us. All these joys are poured out upon us because the Word of Life was manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. The promised Christ took on flesh and became a man named Jesus. This is your salvation.
“And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace (Jn. 1:16).” Fullness, not morsels. God promises more than just a token measure of joy; rather, those who hear and heed this Gospel receive the fullness of the super-abounding richness of grace upon grace. This is why the Angel told the shepherds, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people (Lk. 2:10).” This is why Luke closes his Gospel with this description of Christ’s disciples after they beheld Christ’s ascension “And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Lk. 24:52).” This is why “there was great joy in that city [of Samaria] (Act 8:8)” after Philip preached to them the Gospel. This is why the Psalmist declared in anticipation of the Messiah’s reign at the Father’s right hand, “Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore (Ps. 16:11).” This is the pith of God’s promise to Abraham, “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed (Gen. 12:3).”
So when man wonders about the meaning of life and death and asks, “Does any of it have meaning, and where can I find lasting joy?” The Gospel answers, “Yes.” In the Word of Life made manifest we are offered eternal life. Therefore, death does not have the last word and can be welcomed as a servant ushering us into greater joy and blessedness. True joy and lasting pleasures are found in the glory of God alone. Calvin points out: “He, therefore, has at length made a proficiency in the Gospel, who esteems himself happy in having communion with God, and acquiesces in that alone; and thus he prefers it to the whole world, so that he is ready for its sake to relinquish all other things.” It is right and fitting for us to use the most overflowing superlatives to describe this. As one hymn-writer put it: “Joy, rich and endless joy! High Heav’n the praise prolong; Let holy joy all tongues employ and fill the world with song (C.S. Nutter).” God’s pleasure and joy in Himself, is now bestowed upon us because of our covenant union with the man Jesus who was the Christ.