Letters From An Old Man, Part One

The Word of God is an amazing organism.

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

There is no other book in the world that can do that in a human being—only the Word of God. You and I, whose lives have been consecrated to God, know the reality of Hebrews 4:12. But that same Word of God must be taken to a world in which there are many competing and opposing ways of life. Even among Christians, these opposing ways of life and thoughts shred the Gospel of its power and throw believers into confusion. Into such a world God places certain individuals to help believers identify these “worldly” ways of life and so distinguish them from God’s truth and God’s will. John was one of those unique people, chosen by God, to help Christians in their day-to-day walk with the Lord. And John will help you, also, in living your best life.

1. Who?

The letter we call 1 John is unlike other letters in the New Testament. In fact, to the casual reader 1 John reads more like an essay or even a sermon instead of a letter, and nowhere in the letter does the author identify himself! We suspect the author of this letter was so well-known to its recipients he felt no need to put his name to it; perhaps he had written to them before or even preached in their churches so frequently that his style and verbiage was uniquely his. In 2 and 3 John the author uses an enigmatic title “the elder,” which could refer to anybody. However, the Gospel of John is also anonymous, except at the very end where we read:

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) (John 21:20)

“John” was the apostle much loved by his Lord and Savior, and his authorship of the Gospel that bears his name has been attested to by both church tradition and conservative scholarship, and there are glaring similarities between the Gospel of John and the letters of John. All four bodies of work are replete with parallel passages that could only have been written by the same man. The author of the three letters was John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.

2. When?

Barker, in his excellent commentary on 1 John, writes that setting a date for all of John’s letters is at the very least “problematic.” We know for sure that the Gospel of John was written sometime near 80 AD when it became evident that eyewitness accounts of who Jesus Christ was and what He did were necessary. Almost a generation had passed since the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, thanks to intense missionary activity, the Gospel had spread all over the known world like a wildfire, and these new converts needed to be taught the truth about their new faith and it’s Progenitor. At the same time, the apostles and Paul were aging, and dying and the truth had to be written down and preserved before it was lost as they passed. John in his gospel gives the exact reason for its composition:

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)

During the next ten years, false teachings about Jesus and the Christian life spread faster than the truth, separating Christian from Christian and splitting the churches John loved so much. So 1 John was penned, probably near 90 AD in response to this crisis of faith:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

The false teachers had so confused John’s friends about the nature of their salvation that they actually wondered if they had eternal life or not!

Have you ever wondered about that? Are you really a Christian? How do you know? Are you conscious of fellowship with God the Father and Jesus the Son? Are you 100% sure you have been born again? Do you know how to live the life God wants you to live? These questions are as old as the letters before us, and these are the exact questions John answers.

3. The Word of Life, 1:1—4

This introductory paragraph is simply one of the most astonishing and profound paragraphs in the entire Bible. It is also one of the most complex and its meaning is far deeper than it appears.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

It’s hard not to notice the similarity between this passage and the opening paragraph of Hebrews. Though similar, Hebrews was written with the flare of classical Greek while the passage before us was written Semitic Greek, a style of writing characterized by very short sentences and the over use of the conjunction “and.” John’s Gospel was written in the same style.

Four key clauses

  • “From the beginning” What’s interesting about how John begins his comments about Jesus Christ is the very first word: That. Obviously the subject of this paragraph is the Person of Christ, so why not begin with His Name? By starting with the very broad term, that, John makes it abundantly clear that Jesus Christ the Person cannot be separated from the Word of God, His message of hope and of Good News. John points to the coming of Jesus not just in the flesh, but as God’s divine revelation to lost humanity; Jesus reveals Who and What God is,
  • “Which we have heard” The “we” is editorial, as it refers to all the disciples, but also specifically to John. This beloved disciple had heard with his own ears the things Jesus taught. He saw all the things Jesus did. John knew that false teachers were slick talkers and could speak with convincing words and arguments, but not one had ever been with Jesus.
  • “Which we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands” From the teachings he heard, the Word, John now turns his attention to the Person, also known as the Word. John stresses in the extreme the fact that he saw with his own eyes and touched with his own hands a real Person. Jesus Christ was not some ethereal, other-worldly creature! Here was a Man who was also God at the same time! He was not just an idea in John’s head. He was John’s friend.
  • “This we proclaim” This phrase in the Greek is the main subject and verb of the paragraph, and in the Greek it doesn’t appear until the third verse, but the translators of the NIV have moved it up to make what John wrote more easily understood by English readers. As we read it, this phrase is emphatic, as though John wrote it in a moment of ecstasy; realizing who this Jesus was and is, recalling what He did and said, who could do anything but proclaim Him?

One key thought

Verse two is a restatement of the crux of what John was trying to get across, however, it is parenthetical, and the stress is upon the life and the fact that this life could be known because it was manifested. Darby’s translation serves the original well on this verse:

(and the life has been manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and report to you the eternal life, which was with the Father, and has been manifested to us:)

Nobody by searching can find the life, it can be seen and can be known only because it was revealed. The power behind this verse is staggering in its implication, and reminds us of what Jesus said in John 6:65—

“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

We are so wretched and lost in our sins, that God must draw us to Himself; we cannot muster the strength or intestinal fortitude to do it ourselves. It is a measure of the love that God has for us that He not only reveals Himself to us so we can find Him, but that He also pulls us to Himself.

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)

John was one whom God drew, and that’s why he writes that he has seen it, bears witness to it and proclaims it. Westcott has noted that three verbs—heorakamen, martyroumen, apangellomen—give the sequence of what happens when a person comes face-to-face with Jesus Christ and experiences Him personally: they see Him, they affirm Him, and they proclaim Him to others.

Key purpose

With the third verse, John spells out the purpose of his letter:

so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

What is this “fellowship” John writes about? The Greek word is koinonia, and it occurs over 60 times in the New Testament. Like many Greek words, it can mean a variety of things: fellowship, communion, partnership, share a common life. The root idea is “common” or “shared” as opposed to “ones own” (Barker). Every time it is used in the New Testament, it refers to the sharing of the supernatural life Christ imparts to those who trust Him. The new life that comes from Christ is both personal and corporate. It is experienced individually when a person calls on Jesus for salvation, and it is shared corporately in the Church. A person cannot have fellowship in the body of Christ unless they possess this new life.

Notice what John writes:

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.

John does not indicate that this new life comes from joining the Church or doing certain things in a certain way or even believing a set number of rules. New life comes to a lost sinner when we who know Jesus proclaim what we have seen, believed, and heard. It is the Word of God that we share with others that takes His life within us and gives it to those who hear, if they accept it.

The key to joy

Finally we come verse four, which says this:

We write this to make our joy complete.

Unbroken fellowship with God and unbroken fellowship with members of the Body of Christ constitute the ground of the believer’s highest joy. We cannot underestimate the importance the Church plays in the working out of one’s faith. It is within the sphere of the Church that our faith is fed, nurtured, and sometimes tested. John tells his readers that he “longs” to see them so that his faith may be encouraged and his joy made complete.

Do we approach Christian fellowship as John did? Is our joy made complete on Sunday mornings? Or do we view fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the Lord as a burden? The apostle Paul expressed a similar sentiment to John’s in his letter to the believers in Rome:

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. (Romans 1:11—12)

There is no better fellowship than fellowship with God and with His people.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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