1 John 1 – The Word of Life

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

The word will stand! 1:1-4

John does not start his text with a greeting but with a declaration that bears close resemblance to the beginning of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. The Word of Life, Christ, exists from the beginning of eternity. He was born into this world, and in him life was made manifest. The witnesses of Christ, who themselves heard the Lord speak and could touch him, now proclaim the mystery of eternal life to all the world. Anyone experiencing this mystery will share in the joy that their fellowship with Father God and Jesus Christ brings about.

What John means is clear: the Christian faith is no illusion, or something based on myths devised by people. The foundation of the faith is Jesus Christ. His testimony is given to the Bible readers by those who themselves became convinced of the reality of the Lord’s presence.

Right from the first verses, we can learn important lessons. Many people say that we cannot know about God, but that we can only imagine about his greatness. This is, of course, partly true, because in this world that fell into sin, God is a hidden God. But it is often wrongly emphasized by saying that it is better not to make too much noise about the matters of faith and just to “live and let live”. John’s teaching is something totally different. The apostolic word is sure and steadfast, and it creates joy in the hearers, and gives them assurance. The question is not about something strange and ethereal, but about God’s great work of salvation. When we have the witness of God’s word on what Christ has done, we have found a strong foundation. It will certainly not crumble from under us – unlike everything made or invented by man.

The reader of the epistle will quickly learn that the writer wants to oppose false teachers. Defining such false teachers is always difficult when all we have available is the criticism focusing on them. However, considering that the witnesses could touch Christ with their own hands, the target of the criticism appears to be clear. Some people claimed that Jesus was only a spirit being, some kind of “body of light”, not born as a real human being and Son of God who died on the cross. John’s epistle tells us what the Nicene Creed phrases like this:

…“born of the Father before all ages.
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man”…

The early church lived in amazing times. The death and resurrection of Christ marked a huge explosion after which everything had to be seen in a new light. God is merciful and loving, but how does it go with the demands of right life? Jesus is the Son of God, but how could he suffer and die? There were many questions that were being posed among the vibrant, fast growing group of believers during the first decades, and the task was not easy. John’s epistles signpost a safe and bright way.

Darkness and light are not compatible 1:5

It is easy to pass over the fifth verse, but it is important, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

Anyone pausing to meditate on this verse is likely to be amazed. Is that really the message of the epistle? Rereading it, you would think it seems to present nothing new. Naturally, God is light and, of course, there is not one bit of darkness in him. Who is surprised by that? The verse seems to be completely void of content. But when you take a closer look at the first and second chapters, it begins to shine brightly. In the fifth verse, John gives, as it were, a headline to what he will go on to say later. The headline is then followed by short instructions, which we will look at one by one. The headline contains the main idea, and the instructions are derived from it. This series of instructions continues over to the second chapter.

God’s glory is awesome. Some people in the Old Testament saw God’s greatness and, sinking down to their knees, lamented their own guilt (Isaiah 6). It is from this viewpoint that the matters are studied in the instructions: what is and what is not in accord with God’s glory? Besides light and God’s kingdom, there is, namely, also darkness and Satan’s kingdom; besides heaven, there is also hell; and besides right life, there is also wrong life leading to destruction.

Before we continue with John’s text, it may be good to pause. Are we, any longer, at all able to ask the question like John does? Have we not grown to say and think that ideological questions do not matter that much, not even questions of faith? Has the consciousness of sin not become uncommon? In the Church service, we do say in our confession, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” and “Grant me your holy grace so that I, like Peter, would weep for my sins”. But do we have that consciousness, and do we weep? Perhaps this is exactly why we should study the consistent and vehement limit setting that John engages in here. So, we shall repeat the question: what is and what is not in accord with God’s glory?

A child of light does not live in darkness 1:6-7

The first limit John sets is simple. All who claim to be children of light, but feel much more comfortable in darkness, are self-contradictory and show that they are lying. Whoever has received the light wants to walk in light like a Christian walks. Most likely we understand, what this talk about light and darkness means. The question is about our everyday life. We draw conclusions on our Christian faith, act on it. If someone says he is a Christian but hates his neighbour (1 John 2:11), he is talking nonsense. Right life is part and parcel of the Christian faith. This is the way we live in fellowship with the Lord of glory, with forgiveness of sins. We are here dealing with a fact that the Bible repeats time after time. Indeed, we have received forgiveness of sins, and it is specifically for the sake of Christ, not for our own sake. If we let our Christian faith make us merciless, even though it carries this forgiveness for everything, we are utterly mistaken.

Children of light will not deny their sins 1:8-9

After the foregoing instruction, it is good to read the next one. God is awesome in his glory and holy in every aspect. The state of man is completely different. Everyone is a sinner and found guilty before God. Whoever denies this has fallen away from the right faith. Confessing the greatness and holiness of God, the Christians must face the fact that they are to keep confessing their own wickedness. We must confess our sins before God at every turn. This is how God shares his forgiveness by the blood of Christ and cleanses the sinner from all sin.

At times, and especially in this instance, we can be very grateful to heretics. It seems that there were teachers who claimed to be without sin. This gives cause for John to say that Christians must not hide their sin. What would be better for us than this word! We are sinners and deserve Gods’ wrath; facing God’s glory, we amount to nothing but to be cast out. We are absolutely hopeless cases. This is how God allows us think, and not only allows, but commands. And if we know ourselves, we know that all else would be lies and deceit anyway.

Thus, the word of life offered in this chapter is very simple. In yourself you are a sinner and deserve God’s punishment. Because of Christ, you are pure and holy, and that defines your life and your choices in your daily walk. No other instruction is in accord with God’s glory. From our own experience we can add that no other instruction can bring peace into the heart of a sinner.

The tenth verse belongs to the next instruction which continues to the second chapter, and we will discuss it with the next chapter.