|When God Breaks In (1 John 1:1-4)
When God Breaks In
1 John 1:1-4
Minister’s Summary: Authentic spiritual community has been made possible through the divine initiative. The “word of life” has been revealed. Its proclamation makes fellowship possible – both with God and with a community of his redeemed people.
1 John 1:1-3a is a single sentence rhetorically structured by the five-fold use of the neuter relative pronoun (ho, "that which" or "what"). This is followed by a single declarative sentence that elaborates the nature of the fellowship envisioned.
What (ho) was from the beginning;
what (ho) we have heard;
what (ho) we have seen with our eyes;
what (ho) we have beheld and our hands touched
concerning the word of life (and the life was manifested,
we have seen it and testify to it, and we announce to you the eternal
life which was with the Father and has been manifested to us)
what (ho) we have seen and heard,
we also announce to you, in order that you might have fellowship with us.
And truly our fellowship is with the Father and his son Jesus Christ.
The basic sentence is "What was from the beginning we announce to you so that you might have fellowship with us." What was from the beginning is the incarnational reality—the presence of eternal life or the word of life in concrete form. This reality was “seen” (3x), “heard” (2x) and “beheld and hands touched.”
This incarnational reality is "from the beginning". There is a question whether this phrase refers to eternality (as in the prologue of the Gospel, though there it is "in the beginning") or to the beginning of the revelation of Jesus Christ. I prefer the latter (though with an echo of the former). The phrase occurs also in 1 John 2:7, 13, 14, 24; 3:8, 11. It is this incarnational reality that is proclaimed, that is, the whole of the ministry of Jesus Christ is affirmed (thus, the neuter rather than masculine gender of the relative pronoun).
The incarnational reality reveals life. It is about life, embodies life; it is life. The text highlights this point: “life was manifested” (2x), “word of life,” “eternal life,” and it is life that participates in the life of the Father (“with the Father).” The life revealed is eternal life, the word of life. Does this last phrase mean "Word of life" (thus, linking to John 1:1) or "word of life" (thus, referring to the message)? I prefer the former here because this "Word" was "with the Father" (pros ton patera) just as the "Word" was "with God" (pros ton theon) in John 1:1. This is eternal life itself. Thus, to have the Son is to have eternal life (1 John 5:13, 20).
The nature of this life is the life which the Father and Son share. It is the life that is the life of the Son with the Father. In the beginning, the Son was with the Father, and this was life. It is the very definition of life itself—the fellowship of the divine communion; participation in the divine community.
Thus, John writes that “we proclaim” (2x) or “testify” about the fellowship and life that this incarnational reality brings. The message proclaimed is the incarnational reality that grounds the fellowship between God and humanity. "We" refers either to the original eye-witness community that testifies to the genuine reality of this revelation or to the handed-down tradition of that testimony (depending on who you think authored the letter). Either way, it is a witness grounded in history and a witness concerning eternal life. Further, it is a witness that establishes and shapes a community.
This fulfills the goal of God—to share the fellowship of the divine community with the human community. Our fellowship is with each other (the humanity community) because the human community has been invited into the fellowship of the divine community (Father and Son). John writes: you "have fellowship,” which reflects the abiding character of this possession; it is a continuing possession. The author, audience and the divine community share the eternal life together. They form one community through this fellowship.
1 John 1:4 express the purpose of the letter: “And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” "These things" refers to the whole letter. Here the purpose is focused on the writer ("our joy") whereas the purpose statement in 5:13 is focused on the audience ("you might know"). The two are intertwined. The knowledge that his children have eternal life is the joy of the author. This reflects the pastoral character of the letter as John finds his joy in his children's welfare (cf. 3 John 3).
This prologue to the letter has plunged us into the thought-world of the Gospel of John. There are many shared terms between this prologue and the one in the Gospel (John 1:1-18): the beginning, word, life, testify, Father and Son. Just as those in the Gospel “heard and saw” (John 3:32; cf. 3:11), so the author here testifies as well. Consequently, “complete joy” here, as in the Gospel of John (3:29; 15:11; 16:24; 17:13), is shared communion with fellow-believers as that community is enveloped and loved by the divine community. Genuine, authentic joy is the joy of communion with God and each other in love.
First, the incarnational presence of God in Jesus is the fundamental truth of the Christian community. Christology is the focus of the message. But this is not a Christomonistic message, but one that reveals the eternal life that the Father and Son share. It is theocentric as it reveals the Father and Christocentric as Christ is the medium of that revelation.
The genuine character of this revelation is grounded in the historic act of the incarnation. The Christological revelation of God is tangible, empirical and historic. God was revealed in the flesh that was seen, heard and touched. The historical Jesus is the Christ of faith. The historical Jesus is the revelation of the eternal life of God in the flesh.
The intersection and union of the finite and infinite -- of humanity and deity -- is the uniqueness of the incarnation. It is the uniqueness of Christianity and centered in this thought: the eternal God was manifested in the historic Jesus. We know who God is because we know Jesus. This was no mystical union, but it was a "hypostatic" union (the person of the Word was united with flesh) -- God became one of us ("The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us," John 1:14).
The tradition (what was proclaimed from the beginning) provides rootage and continuity and is the basis for the ongoing testimony of the community. Through that testimony we believe that we have eternal life in Jesus. That tradition is proclaimed in the prologue of the Gospel of John. John 1:1, in particular, is significant. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In other words, the Son existed before the creation of the world (“was the Word”), and was in fellowship with the Father (“Word was with God”) and shared the eternal life of the divine community (“Word was God”). This Word became flesh (John 1:14) and dwelt among humanity exhibiting the glory of God—a glory that comes uniquely from the one who comes from the bosom of the Father and makes known (exegetes) the Father (John 1:18). The Father and Son are one—the share the same life, community and love. To know one is to know the other. The Son became flesh that we might know God and thus participate in the divine life, that is, to have eternal life.
Second, the fellowship of the redeemed community is triangular. The triangle is the author (the tradition=Gospel of John), audience (community) and God (the divine community existing as Father and Son).
The fellowship is what the three hold in common (what they share). I think this is
fundamentally "eternal life" for John. The Father is eternal life and this life is revealed in his Son who shares it with the humanity community. The author and the audience have fellowship because they both share the eternal life of the Father and Son. God shares his eternal life with his people and therefore they form a community with the Father and Son.
Eternal life, then, is shared in community. It is not found through some mystical, independent or "Lone Ranger" Christianity. It is found in the community of God as believers live out their faith together in accordance with the message that has been proclaimed "from the beginning." Our present community has continuity with the original community through the tradition (the message from the beginning) and the reality to which that tradition testifies (the revelation of eternal life in Jesus Christ) that is proclaimed.
Third, the literary function of the prologue is to link the letter to the tradition in the Gospel of John and to anticipate the conclusion of the letter in 5:20. The prologue, then, is a hinge on which the Gospel of John and the letter swing.
The theological function of the prologue is to root the fellowship of the community
in the fellowship of the Father and Son through the incarnational reality of God in Jesus. This is the message which the church proclaims that the eternal life of God is revealed in Jesus Christ and it is through Jesus Christ that we have fellowship with the Father and with each other.
It is important to link this text with John 1:1-18. The letter seems to summarize the Gospel’s prologue. Consequently, the reader should remember the prologue and fully embrace its theological message. It is the backdrop and ground of the whole letter.
The leader, for example, might read 1 John 1:1-4, and then immediately take the group to John 1:1-18 for a summary of what is presumed by 1 John. One can elaborate the themes of 1 John 1:1-4 in the context of John 1:1-18.
However, what 1 John 1:1-5 addresses specifically something which John 1 does not (though implicit even there), that is, the element of community. Specifically, the purpose of 1 John is to ground, illuminate and encourage the “fellowship” that exists between God and humanity. This is the fellowship that the Son shares with the Father, but now the Father shares with us through the Son so that we might experience the divine community with each other. The community is one and the experience is a shared one.
The leader should note carefully the relative pronouns in 1 John 1:1-4 and how what is seen, heard and touched is eternal life itself. Jesus is the embodiment of eternal life in the flesh—he is the presence of the Father with the humanity community and through whom the human community has fellowship with the Father.
In terms of application, several themes come to the front. First, the uniqueness of Jesus is proclaimed. We are living in a pluralistic age when one way to God is as good as another, or Jesus is relativized as a good man or religious genius. The tradition, however, affirms that Jesus is eternal life, the one through whom we have fellowship with God. We flee all idols in the light of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus (1 John 5:21).
Second, this revelation of God in Jesus is no mere mystical or spiritual revelation. Rather, it is historic in character. It is empirical in nature. In Jesus, people saw, touched and heard God. Christianity is not a mystical religion, but one rooted in the historic life of Jesus as the incarnate one. God came in the flesh—walked, lived, taught, and died. Christianity is no mere devotion of the mind to revealed light, but it is a way of living that follows the life lived by God in the flesh.
Third, the importance of community is highlighted. Christianity is a fellowship. It is not individualistic, but communal in nature. Eternal life is communal life—the life of the Father and the Son. We have eternal life when we have fellowship with the Father and Son. It is a communal life that we share in community with each other as well as the Father and the Son.
Function of Text: It roots the triangular fellowship between God, author and community in the historic incarnational reality of Jesus Christ as the one who reveals eternal life.
Theology: Eternal life is revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and is experienced through fellowship with him.
Application: We rejoice in the eternal life God has given us in Jesus Christ, that is, we rejoice in the experience of communion with the divine fellowship.
Teaching Outline: Where is Eternal Life?
1. Postmodern uncertainty abounds and pluralism is the new religious norm. Where do we find God? How do we come to know God? Why does not God show himself?
2. The message of the Christian faith is that God has shown himself: God has been seen, heard and touched in Jesus Christ. We know God in Jesus. We find God in Jesus. God entered history. God became one of us.
3. In Jesus, God has offered eternal life--genuine communion with him. It is a shared life in fellowship with God and each other. This is what is real. This is what is genuine. Here authentic joy is found. Here is the certainty of faith.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Have you encountered pluralistic thinking in your discussions with people or through the media? Provide some examples.
2. How does this text address pluralism? How does it answer pluralistic tendencies? What does this text affirm that stands over against pluralism?
3. What does “incarnation” mean? How is that a revelation of God? How does Jesus reveal God and make him known? Why is this a definitive revelation?
4. What does it mean conceptually that we have fellowship with the Father and with the Son? How is “eternal life” conceived in this connection?
5. What does it mean experientially that we have fellowship with the Father and with the Son? How is “eternal life” experienced in this connection? What does it mean in terms of our present experience to have “eternal life.” Offer a testimony of your fellowship with the divine community.
6. How do you experience fellowship with other believers? What forms or kinds of experiences are means of communal fellowship for you? Offer a testimony of your fellowship with other believers.