1 John 1

I am aware that some have been disposed to take “That which was from the beginning,” as if it taught the same truth as “In the beginning was the Word.” No doubt there is an allusion, but there is also a marked difference. We gain nothing by forcing scripture: we always lose somewhat. In the Gospel, where Christ Himself directly and immediately is the object, the Holy Spirit starts with revealing His divine subsistence when there was none but God: “The Word was with God,” and lest there should be any question of His glory, “the Word was Godnot the creature. “The same was in the beginning with God.” Thus He had a distinct personal existence, which had been from everlasting. No matter how far one goes back, we may still find the Word, and the Word with God: it is not said exactly with the Father, but with God. We never in scripture find the “Word” coupled with the “Father.” We do find it in what is not scripture, as I shall show before we have done with considering this Epistle. In unquestionable scripture, “the Word” and “God” are correlative—the “Son” and the “Father.” Man cannot even imitate the word of God without exposing his own weakness.
The Gospel therefore, in order to assert His glory, goes back before all time. And “in the beginning”—no matter where you may ask to place the point within eternity—the Word was there. But this is not at all the object of the Epistle. It is assumed no doubt, but it is to show how truly the life is the very same. It is not union. Life is never confounded with union, though in the Christian closely connected. Union is by the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven, but life was before this, whether in Christ personally, or even in us. Christ Himself is our life.
Hence, when flesh had hindered and overlaid the power of the Spirit; when the world was gaining vast influence; when Satan was working with all subtlety to undermine the foundations, the Holy Spirit directs attention to Christ, in whom the life was manifested. In what the Son of God was before entering the world, there could be no instruction for us how the life is to be now displayed in us; and what God looks for, how by the Holy Spirit He nourishes and exercises us. The weightiest instruction turns on what Christ was here, having to do with man—with Satan—above all, with His God and Father. So have we. Hence, therefore, it is not here, “He was in the beginning with God,” but “That which was from the beginning.”
This is a phrase (ἀπ ἀρχῆς) constantly used as to the manifestation of the one or thing spoken of: it matters not whether it be good or evil. We find the formula used, for instance, of Satan. There is no reference to what he was before he became the devil; there is silence as to his subsistence as an unfallen angel, but when he departed from God, he sins from the beginning. Such is his character as devil: he sinned. As for our Lord Jesus, He was manifested as man here below; but before we hear of what was manifested, John says, “That which was from the beginning.” He had a personal being as man here below—a divine person no doubt, but He took a real place in this world. This seems to be referred to in the expression “which was from the beginning.” Next we have the fact that others are directed towards Him—what we have “heard” about Him—what we have “seen with our eyes.” It was not a mere phantom, but a real person in this world—hence “that which we have looked upon,” or contemplated. Even though from above, He was really an object seen; He was not a passing shadow, but a person, “which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled” (coming down as it were into the closest familiarity) “concerning the word of life.” It will be understood that all these different clauses refer to the Word of life—what was from the beginning about the Word of life: what we have heard about the Word of life: what we have seen, and so on.
“And the life was manifested.” The second verse yet makes the first plainer; for there we find His pre-existence with the Father, when the apostle has stated His manifestation (for that expression “the life was manifested” is a kind of summary of what had been laid down in the preceding verse): “The life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and announce to you that eternal life, which was with the Father.” Now here we have the Son’s eternal being, so that there is no holding it back in this verse. It is supposed and treated of as a known truth; but the present object is to put forward the Lord Jesus as He was displayed in this world; for “it was manifested to us: that which we have seen and heard” (taking up the two verses) “announce we to you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” Thus the evident aim here is to show that there has been a manifestation—an adequate personal revelation of God the Father. The only such adequate manifestation was Christ Himself. But it was Christ Himself in this world, a man as truly as any other, though infinitely above man, but a man who displayed what divine life is in all imaginable circumstances. He became a babe, a child, a full-grown man. He grew up subject to His parents; He entered on public life, as before He was traced in the unobtrusive privacy of His home after the flesh. He is then found confronted with the enemy, going forth in the power of the Spirit, dealing with every kind of pain and sorrow that pressed down humanity, in everything showing out what God is, but in everything also displaying what man ought to have been, and was not—Himself always absolute perfection, but perfection as man in dependence on God.
What, it may be asked, has this to do with us? Everything. It is not true that we only want propitiation, or as guilty sinners to be justified. We want life—eternal life. But have not the children of God eternal life? Certainly, but where shall I look at it? I see a beautiful trait of the divine life in this saint; I see something else sweet, and at the same time humbling to my soul, in another—perhaps where least expected. But in all there is weakness and even positive failure. Who would not confess it? who does not feel it? This, then, after all, is but an unworthy expression of what divine life is, because it is shaded too often and modified by the effect of the world, by the allowance of nature, by a thousand thoughts, feelings, ways, habits which do not savor of Christ. All these things break in upon and mar the perfect outshining of that new life that is communicated to all the children of God. And here is the blessedness of what the Holy Spirit at once ushers in without a single note of preface, without the smallest allusion to any other person or topic. With Christ before Him, could it be otherwise? There was but one adequate and worthy object of the Holy Spirit, and it was Christ. Neither was it at all requisite to say for whom John was inspired to write thus. Of necessity, Christ was for His own. For whom could Christ be portrayed, if not for the Christian? But then the suitable homage to Christ was to bring into prominence none but Christ Himself; and so we find the epistle of John opening in a way unlike any other. There may be some approach to analogy in the remarkable manner the Apostle Paul writes to the Hebrews. He who writes and those who are written to are in the back ground, that God may unfold His ancient oracles about the Messiah His Son. But in Hebrews, the reason is rather the grace that condescended to Jewish weakness. In John, the reason is the all-eclipsing glory of Him, the Eternal Life, who deigns in grace and by redemption to be our life. It was John’s allotted province thus to bring Christ before those that are His; and he has done so in the power of the Holy Spirit, and with a wisdom that proves itself altogether divine to him who has ears to hear.
Through such a revelation as this the great comfort is that God is showing His children, conscious of their own weakness, what in this respect grace has given them in Christ—what the very life is that they have received. Often cast down and groaning in the feeling of how little they manifest the life of Christ, and needing to know what His life—their life—Christ—is in its own excellency, they are directed to Himself. In its perfection it is seen in Christ alone.
This it is therefore that opens our epistle; and what is the effect? “These things which we have seen and heard we announce to you, that ye also may have fellowship with us.” The apostles had fellowship with the Son of God, and they were particularly chosen out, as we find in the Lord’s prayer (the proper prayer of the Lord, not that which is commonly so called in Matthew 6, Luke 11, blessed as it is, but in John 17). For it is evident that the apostles have a singularly distinguished place assigned them. But Christians also are immediately concerned; for there is no doubt that others were to be brought in and to believe through their word. And thus they are expressly the objects of their Lord’s communications to the Father.
Here, too, the design was that others should have fellowship with the Son of God: the first favored ones were not to keep it to themselves, but to spread abroad the riches of His grace. As we see in John 17 that others were to believe through the apostles’ word, so here John acts on the intimation himself. The object is, “that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” It is with “the Father,” because He communicates what He loves best. Never was anything, or one in His sight, so precious as the manifestation of His own Son in manhood here below. It was what opened the heavens, so to speak; it was what caused the Father’s voice to be heard; and this in various critical circumstances, where it might have seemed that a dishonoring shade hung over the Anointed of God. But not so; it was but an appearance in the eyes of dimly seeing man—Christ was perfection always. Take, for instance, the scene of His baptism; or, again, the mount of transfiguration. Our fellowship then is with the Father. He shares with us the object of His own delight.
But our fellowship is no less with His Son Jesus Christ, who lets us into the secret of the Father’s love, and gives a place with Himself to His own, as far as it could be communicated to the creature. “Our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
And what is the designed effect? Fullness of joy. “These things write we unto you that your joy may be full.” If any believer, then, looks at Jesus as He was here below, and if the effect on his heart is to take away from the spring of joy in his soul, or to fail in ministering divine joy, it is clear that he has misapprehended God’s own object and love. He has not interpreted aright the revelation of the Son of God. Now there are many that do so read the gospels. They derive far more joy from that which Paul brings before them in Romans 5 or 8. One can understand this at first. Ought it to be so always? There are states no doubt where the clearing and consolidating chapters in the epistle to the Romans supply the requisite food of the soul. Nor could one in the least desire to weaken this, still less to set one part of scripture against or above another. But while assuredly in the first learning of salvation it is of consequence that we should be built up in the good news of grace that God sends us through the work of the Lord Jesus, the object of God in settling us on redemption is to make us free to enjoy the Son and the Father. We are not to be arrested along the way however precious, but to enjoy Himself who has reconciled us by Jesus Christ, to appreciate and adore our God and Father who has manifested His glory in Christ His Son. Short of this we cannot rightly stop. We may pause midway, but we ought to be going on until we can rest perfectly in this blessed communion of love—fellowship “with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
The effect then, I repeat, is fullness of joy. And mark, all this is simply from the manifestation of grace in Jesus Christ the Lord. There is not one question of ourselves, but the simplest receiving what God has brought and given us in His own Son; the intended issue is the overflowing of joy in the Holy Spirit.
But if we had a manifestation, there is also a message. The manifestation, with its connections and result, was given us in the first four verses. The message begins from the fifth verse. If you have this life of Christ, if I too have it, if we who believe are brought thus into fellowship with the Father and with the Son Jesus Christ, if we possess the wondrous place of being (so to speak) in the family circle, and the most intimate affections of our God and Father through the Son of His love, I cannot be there, nor you, without the creating of a certain demand on our souls by virtue of the divine nature of which grace has made us alike partakers. No doubt love is the spring, but it is in truth; and the God who thus brings us by His own Son into the present enjoyment of life everlasting makes the soul sensible of the antagonism between the state of nature and of all around us with God Himself. But mark the grace of God: not a word of that whatever until fullness of joy is established, and this solely by the gift of Jesus the Son of God to us, and eternal life in Him. But having given us the joy, now He turns us back, as it were, and gives the eye inwardly to discern as those enabled to see according to God, to judge all that is of self, and consequently all false pretensions wherever they may be. It could not, ought not to be otherwise. We can afford to judge ourselves now that we have the fullness of the blessing, which is eternal life. Remember it, and Him in whom it is, and by whom only we could have it. God the Father has given in Christ that sure blessing, and assured it forever, in order that the soul may be free to look at anything, and to take up everything in the interests of His own holiness and glory, as having fellowship with the Father and the Son.
“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light.” It is not the Father now. In the early verses it was expressly and only as the Father, because there it was the outflow of grace through the Son. But now, this nature being communicated, we cannot if we would avoid having to do with God; and we feel for His will, holiness, and glory, just because we are so blessed by His grace. “This then is the message which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you.” It is not the law but a message. Grace does not put under law, but it does communicate the judgment of God Himself on all that is contrary to His nature.
The message is that God is light. Heathenism was founded on a quite contrary assumption. They supposed darkness to be the source of everything; but not such is God to the Christian. “God is light.” Consequently all is detected and judged. “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Even Moses, in view of the hardness of men’s hearts, allowed a little darkness; for the law made nothing perfect; it was not the perfect expression of God: Christ only is this. It is only divines, or those misled by their errors, who give His glory to the law as the image of God. But according to scripture (and it “cannot be broken”) Christ is the image of God: never is the law so styled. The law had not to reveal God but to deal with man, it condemned the first Adam. God under law had fallen sinful presumptuous man before Him. Law was really the expression of the lowest claim that God could assert over the first man had he been able to meet it. He could not abate those terms. It was the very least measure—the ten words—that God could accept even from a sinful man.
But it was altogether different when the Son of God came. Undoubtedly He vindicated the law, which fell through all other hands. Perfectly and in all things He retrieved the honor of God, which might else have seemed only committed to man to be sullied. Alas! the first man had done nothing but sin or break the law of God. The last Adam not only rescued the jewel from the filth of the men who had brought it into obloquy and turned it if not to corruption to their own ruin, but set it off so as to shed its own luster and glorify the God who gave it. The mischief lay in sin, never in the smallest degree in the law. There was everything wrong in the first man; and this was the true secret. But to lower the Son of God to a mere doer of the law is unconsciously to deny His divine glory; nay, it is unwittingly to deny even His human perfection. No doubt the Lord never failed to magnify the divine law; but I venture to say He never did one thing in which He did not go beyond the law. It must be maintained further that not to speak of Christ, the Christian, who does not go beyond the law does not understand, enjoy, or adorn Christianity. And so far is this rising above the character of law in our walk from being an extraordinary effort, it is what the Christian man is called to do every day in his life. I admit this, that you cannot even contemplate such a thing until you know your place in Christ, and that Christ risen is your life; but when this is a settled truth for your soul, you will soon understand its certainty and preciousness, as well as your own new responsibility, as living in the Spirit, to walk also by the Spirit.
Let me repeat once more the message—“God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Nothing is now allowed in view of the hardness of their hearts. This was the license under law, as our Lord Jesus Himself tells us, but it will not stand the revealed light of the gospel. There is nothing tolerated except what suits the nature of God Himself. Christ, the reality of it in His own person and ways on earth, alone has brought us the revelation of this truth. Where was it ever seen or heard of before? It was seen and heard in every way, in every word, of Jesus. It was so because He was God, but it was never so until He became man. It is there we see adoringly the wondrous truth of the person of the Lord Jesus. As long as He remained simply God, no such manifestation was or could be. Had He been merely man, it would have been simply impossible; but being not only what He was, but who He is, in Him here below we have God as well as man perfectly displayed. This it is that judges—judges everything in us.
Accordingly there follows the various testings of this divine nature in the believer. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” It is no longer a question merely of an open falsehood. Of course this cannot but remain always immoral and inexcusable; and its true gravity is brought out incomparably more under the gospel than ever it was under the law. But then what is spoken of here goes far deeper than a pronounced lie; it might be only such virtually and practically—a lie that we live and do where we may not speak one. “If we say we have fellowship with HPim, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” The Christian walks in the light; and the reason why he walks there is this, because he sees Christ, who alone is the light of life. And if he sees and follows Christ, which all His sheep do, he cannot but walk in the light, because following Jesus, who is the light, he necessarily walks in the light.
I do not say that he necessarily walks according to the light. This is a very different matter, often confounded with it, but in fact wholly distinct, though it too ought to be. But every Christian walks in the light. If he is walking according to it, then glory is brought to the Lord; if, as is too often the case, he fails to walk according to the light, he dishonors the Lord so much the more because he does walk in the light.
A Jew as such did not walk in the light. When God had His dealings with Israel, there was nothing of the kind. He, though always light Himself, dwelt in the thick darkness. Not that He was darkness: this never was nor could be; but He dwelt in the dark, veiled and shut in by curtains and clouds of incense, sacrifices and priests. Thus He dwelt because man was in the dark; and God, by the very fact that He dwelt surrounded by His people Israel, dwelt in dark seclusion in view of the condition of Israel—the first man—in whose midst He deigned to dwell.
But now that Christ the Son is come, the full unclouded light of God shines out in love. Accordingly, as we have seen, He reveals Himself as light, with whom is no darkness at all. More than this, “if we say we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” Further, “If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.” This total and evident contrast is what every Christian by his Christian profession assumes. If you are a Christian at all, you walk in the light; it is where you walk, and not here a question of how. The apostle John is not here at all discussing how far it may be made good, or how far you have realized it—albeit an important question for conscience. Here he is showing what is true and real, and so absolutely necessary that it is involved in the very being of a Christian man.
“But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light” (for Christ can be no less a standard than this) “we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Manifestly he is describing, not some special class among the faithful, but all genuine Christians, whoever they may be. As having seen and followed the Lord Jesus, they walk in the light, and being in that light, where all sin is judged, there is fellowship mutually. For the fellowship here is not with the Father and the Son: this had been already settled in the early verses. But here John is speaking of the communion of Christians one with another; and he says that being in the light of God (because the light is no less than Christ), the hindrances to fellowship are judged: “We have fellowship one with another.” You see it every day, and wherever you may be. If you pass through any circumstances where you look to find no Christian, a little word is dropped, Christ’s own name, or that which betrays to your heart the sense of His grace, and at once you are knit to the man, no matter who, indeed, the more, so to speak, because of the sound falling on your heart in such unexpected circumstances:”We have fellowship one with another.” Then there is another comfort not less needed—“that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” Such is the precious place grace has given us, the ever abiding power of the blood of Jesus Christ cleansing us from every sin.
This is not put here as a provision against our failure and for our restoration. The apostle treats of the place in which we are set by the grace of God from the beginning of our Christian career, and which remains unchanged right through. No doubt the apostle does not contemplate such a thing here as the departure of a real Christian from Christ. Still less, if possible, does he contemplate a Christian’s trifling with sin: this could not be, for the Spirit of God never does. We shall find, however, in its own just place, that if he slip into evil of a practical kind, or sin, God does not leave him without a resource. The grace that never fails appears for the child, if he have been drawn aside. But this is not at all the object in the verse before us, which is simply the assertion of the Christian’s place; and this, too, when it is a question of God’s own nature, which might produce (not searching only, but) trial and anxiety in the spirit. But if there is, the very place where the power of the blood of Jesus Christ cannot fail to cleanse you from all sin is asserted.
But there might be another form of pretension. Instead of setting up to fellowship with God, while indifferent to His will, without sense of or care for standing in the light of God, the flesh might assume another character of delusion—the denial of sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” By a Christian is not meant one insensible to his own sinfulness. The truth is in him; and he confesses instead of hiding or ignoring his sins. He has fellowship with God; but, far from saying along with this “I have no sin,” he is the very man that hates and spreads out his sins before God. Accordingly verse 9 tells the tale of that which grace and truth effect in the Christian: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So the Christian does from the very starting-point of his career.
Still less does the Christian refuse to own that he has sinned. This is a yet grosser form of contrariety to the truth of God. Therefore the condemnation is still more stern: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” The word of God, not to speak of conscience, declares so plainly that all have sinned, that it proves the audacity of unbelief and rebelliousness in those that deny, and this denial is incomparably more guilty since Christ came, to whose name these deniers laid claim.