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First John

Testimony, Fellowship and Joy

1 John 1:1-4

The Epistle of John "defies outlining," says one commentator. It is probably true. There are no great brush strokes here, no three point sermon outlines. This is the writing of a man deeply in love with God, with Christ and with the church. As happens in deep love, the communication hits only the most important points. So, like condensed cream, we shall have to take it a bit at a time.

Overview

Authorship

Until the late 19th century the authorship of the letters attributed to John was not in doubt. The letters under his name were universally taught to be those of John the Apostle. In the furious bustle of "higher criticism" of the late 19th century, the critics introduced an unknown "John the Elder," who was supposedly the author of these letters. This theory is still around, and often the innocent Christian is taken in by the sweeping assertions of commentators. But it is not so. The universal testimony of the early church - including Polycarp, who was John's disciple - is that these are the letters of John, the Apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Some doubt exists as to the date of writing. Some scholars feel that, because there is writing about sacrifice but no mention of the Temple being destroyed, John must have written before AD 70. It cannot have been too much before that, however. Other scholars hold it was closer to AD 100, for this would allow time for the Gnostic heresy to develop - which John was clearly addressing in this letter. We cannot say for sure (there are other pieces of evidence as well), but it seems to me that the later date is more likely correct. This is the writing of a mature Christian.

Watchman Nee has given us a fruitful comparison of three Apostles which will tell us much about the writing:

Peter is a fisherman - to whom Christ gives the task of being the fisher of men. He is the prototype preacher.

Paul is a tentmaker - to whom Christ gave the task of building the church in its various locations.

John was called by Christ while he was mending his nets - and thus he is the mender of things in the church, the one who puts things right.

Purpose

John clearly shows us his purposes in writing this letter:

First, that our joy may be full.

Next, that we may not sin.

Then, to warn us about those who would deceive us.

And finally, that we may know we have eternal life.

General Themes

While this letter is difficult to outline, it is not hard to see the themes which drive it:

This letter is a guide to authentic Christianity. It is designed to give us the tests which will tell the real from the fake.

This letter is about fellowship - fellowship with God the Father, fellowship with God the Son, and fellowship with each other.

This letter is about truth - and how to live it.

The Nature of Christ

We must begin at the beginning - with the nature of Christ:

(1 John 1:1-4 NIV) 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. {2} 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. {3} 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. {4} We write this to make our joy complete.

It seems deep and mysterious. Perhaps the Phillips translation will make it clearer:

We are writing to you about something which has always existed yet which we ourselves actually heard and saw with our own eyes: something which we had opportunity to observe closely and even to hold in our hands, something of the Word of life! For it was life which appeared before us: we saw it, we are eye-witnesses of it, and are now writing to you about it. It was the very life of all ages, the life that has always existed with the Father, which actually became visible in person to us. We repeat, we really saw and heard what we are now writing to you about. We want you to be with us in this--in this fellowship with the Father, and Jesus Christ his Son. We write and tell you about it so that our joy may be complete.

From the beginning

As C. S. Lewis once put it, "All that is not eternal is eternally out of date." It is most important for us to make the distinction between creature and creator. There are many good and wonderful things which God has given us in this world, but these will all pass away. We need to know those things which will never pass away. These are the things that do not change:

If something is eternal, it is always true. It cannot change; it is connected, somehow, to the very character of God the Father, and therefore it must be truth. So, if you seek for truth, you must seek the eternal.

It is always important (dare we say "relevant?") For if it is eternal, then God intends it to last forever - and thus must be important no matter what time it is.

It is therefore the foundation of all things temporal. If you wish to build something that will last, the foundation must be right. If it is to last for the rest of eternity, it must be built on eternal foundations.

And what is this "eternal?" None other than Christ Himself.

With the Father

John's Gospel amplifies this nicely, in that Christ is both "with God" and "is God." But this particular phrasing may be seen to tell us three things about Christ:

First, it is testimony to his divinity.

Next, Jesus is our model for our relationship with god the Father (who better?) The key to that relationship is, of course, Jesus' complete dependence upon and obedience to his Father.

Their relationship with each other should be the model for our relationship with each other. The key to that relationship is love.

The Word

Jesus is "the Word." This is very deep stuff, but we may safely point out two things:

He is the ultimate message from God to mankind. If you want to know what God wants, you must look to Jesus.

He is, personally, the source of all truth and wisdom. If you want these things, you must look to him.

Testimony

John does not see himself as a peer of Jesus - far from it. He sees himself as a witness to Jesus - one who testifies. We must see this as a chain reaction:

Testimony leads to fellowship

Fellowship leads to joy.

Let us examine, then, the testimony of the Apostle.

Nature of his testimony

"Testimony" is almost a "legal only" word in our day. Some translations don't use the word "testify;" they use "announce" instead. If we could include both words we'd come closer to the original meaning. John both announces the good news to his hearers, and also serves in the capacity of a legal witness to that good news. This can be seen in the nature of his testimony: it's very physical. He tells us that he has seen, he has heard, he has touched the very Word of Life. This may seem strange to us today - but you need to consider the attacks that were made, and were going to be made, upon the doctrine set forth by John, the mender of nets and churches.

The attacks on the church

Almost all the attacks on the church come in one of two forms: either they deny the divinity or humanity of Christ, or the reality of the Resurrection.

Some (the Arian heresy) deny the divinity of Christ. He is somehow subordinate to God, the chief of the angels perhaps. This doctrine is taught by the Mormons in our day (which is why they vilify Athanasius).

Some (the Gnostics) deny the humanity of Christ. They start with the philosophical idea that matter (physical reality) is inherently evil. Since God is not the author of evil, he could not have created physical reality (which is certainly a contradiction of Scripture). Therefore Jesus (while God) could not be man, for God could not be in an evil, physical body. Two flavors of this heresy had appeared early:

Docetism claimed that Jesus merely appeared to have a human body (from a Greek word meaning appearance). He left no footprints when he walked, they claimed. (Put your hands in my side, Thomas).

Those following Cerinthus held that Jesus was man - but Christ was not. Christ entered Jesus at baptism, and left before the Crucifixion.

You can see how readily the Gnostics would deny the Resurrection - for if there is no body, there need be no Resurrection. This is one form of the attack.

John's letter is set forth against these things. It proclaims forever his testimony that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God - God in the flesh.

Testimony leads to fellowship

One of my students once taught me this: "The secret of true fellowship is utter and complete devotion to Jesus Christ." It makes sense, for Christ is what we all have in common. One old sailor defined fellowship as a bunch of fellows on board a ship. Navy veterans know the pull of reunion with old shipmates. It's true: we're all in the same boat, the good ship Zion. We are the ones who share Christ; we share Him because of the testimony of John and the other disciples - and having him in common we have fellowship one with another.

What kind of fellowship?

Fellowship begins with "who?" We have fellowship with:

God the Father. Think of this: because of the Word brought to us, we have fellowship - something in common - with God the Father! What could we possibly have in common with God? How about the Holy Spirit?

God the Son. We also have fellowship with Jesus, the Christ. What do we have in common with Him? Perhaps our humanity, our life in the flesh - and the love of God the Father!

Each other. As we have Christ in common, we have fellowship one with another.

Which, taken all in all, leads to joy. This is one purpose of John's writing: that our joy might be made complete. It is joy because we celebrate what Jesus has done for us, the great victory over sin and death. It is complete because He is the Word, the final revelation of God to Man.

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