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Barnes' Notes on the Bible
Introduction to 1John
Section 1. The Authenticity of the Epistle
Little needs to be said respecting the authenticity of this Epistle, or the evidence that it was written by the apostle John. There are, in general, two sources of evidence in regard to ancient writings: the external evidence, or that which may be derived from the testimony of other writers; and the evidence which may be derived from some marks of the authorship in the writing itself, which is called the internal evidence. Both of these are remarkably clear in regard to this Epistle.
(1) The external evidence:
(a) is quoted or referred to by the early Christian writers as the undoubted production of the apostle John. It is referred to by Polycarp in the beginning of the second century; it is quoted by Papias, and also by Irenaeus. Origen says, "John, beside the Gospel and Revelation, has left us an epistle of a few lines. Grant also a second, and a third; for all do not allow these to be genuine." See Lardner, vi. 275, and Lueke, Einlei. i. Dionysius of Alexandria admitted the genuineness of John's First Epistle; so also did Cyprian. All the three Epistles were received by Athanasius, by Cyril of Jerusalem, and by Epiphanius. Eusebius says, "Beside his Gospel, his First Epistle is universally acknowledged by those of the present time, and by the ancients; but the other two are contradicted."
(b) It is found in the Old Syriac Version, probably made in the first century, though the Second and Third Epistles are not there.
(c) The genuineness of the First Epistle was never extensively called in question, and it was never reckoned among the doubtful or disputed epistles.
(d) It was rejected or doubted only by those who rejected his Gospel, and for the same reasons. Some small sects of those who were called 'heretics,' rejected all the writings of John, because they conflicted with their unique views; but this was confined to a small number of persons, and never affected the general belief of the church. See Lucke, Einlei. 9ff.
(2) There is strong internal evidence that the same person wrote this Epistle who was the author of the Gospel which bears the same name. The resemblance in the mode of expression, and in the topics referred to, are numerous, and at the same time are not such as would be made by one who was attemptinG to imitate the language of another. The allusions of this kind, moreover, are to what is unique in the Gospel of John, and not to what is common to that Gospel and the other three. There is nothing in the Epistle which would particularly remind us of the Gospel of Matthew, or Mark, or Luke; but it is impossible to read it and not be reminded constantly of the Gospel by John. Among those passages and expressions the following may be referred to:
First John Comparedwith The Gospelof John 1 John 1:1 John 1:1, John 1:4, John 1:14 1 John 2:5 John 14:23 1 John 2:6 John 15:4 1 John 2:8; 1 John 3:11 John 13:34 1 John 2:8, 1 John 2:10 John 1:5, John 1:9; John 11:10 1 John 2:13-14 John 17:3 1 John 3:1 John 1:12 1 John 3:2 John 17:24 1 John 3:8 John 8:44 1 John 3:13 John 15:20 1 John 4:9 John 3:16 1 John 4:12 John 1:18 1 John 5:13 John 20:31 1 John 5:14 John 14:14 1 John 5:20 John 17:2
This language in the Epistle, as will be easily seen by a comparison, is such as the real author of the Gospel by John would be likely to use if he wrote an epistle. The passages referred to are in his style; they show that the mind of the author of both was turned to the same points, and those not such points as might be found in all writers, but such as indicated a unique mode of thinking. They are not such expressions as Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or Paul would have used in an epistle, but just such as we should expect from the writer of the Gospel of John. It must be clear to anyone that either the author of the Gospel was also the author of this Epistle, or that the author of the Epistle meant to imitate the author of the Gospel, and to leave the impression that the apostle John was the author. But there are several things which make it clear that this is not a forgery.
(a) The passages where the resemblance is found are not exact quotations, and are not such as a man would make if he designed to imitate another. They are rather such as the same man would use if he were writing twice on the same subject, and should express himself the second time without intending to copy what he had said the first.
(b) If it had been an intentional fraud or forgery, there would have been some allusion to the name or authority of the author; or, in other words, the author of the Epistle would have endeavored to sustain himself by some distinct reference to the apostle, or to his authority, or to his well-known characteristics as a teller of truth. See John 19:35; John 21:24. Compare 3 John 1:12. But nothing of the kind occurs in this Epistle. It is written without disclosing the name of the author, or the place where he lived, or the persons to whom it was addressed, and with no allusions to the Gospel, except such as show that the author thought in the same manner, and had the same things in his eye, and was intent on the same object. It is, throughout, the style and manner of one who felt that his method of expressing himself was so well understood, that he did not need even to mention his own name; as if, without anything further, it would be apparent from the very Epistle itself who had written it, and what right he had to speak. But this would be a device too refined for forgery. It bears all the marks of sincerity and truth.
Section 2. The Time and Place of Writing the Epistle
Almost nothing is known of the time and place of writing the Epistle, and nearly all that is said on this point is mere conjecture. Some recent critics have supposed that it was in fact a part of the Gospel, though in some way it afterward became detached from it; others, that it was sent "as an epistle" at the same time with the Gospel, and to the same persons. Some have supposed that it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem, and some long after, when John was very aged; and these last suppose that they find evidences of the very advanced age of the author in the Epistle itself, in such characteristics as commonly mark the conversation and writings of an old man. An examination of these opinions may be found in Lucke, Einlei. Kap. 2; and in Hug, Introduction, pp. 456ff; pp. 739ff.
There are "very few" marks of time in the Epistle, and none that can determine the time of writing it with any degree of certainty. Nor is it of much importance that we should be able to determine it. The truths which it contains are, in the main, as applicable to one age as to another, though it cannot be denied (see Section 3) that the author had some prevailing forms of error in his eye. The only marks of time in the Epistle by which we can form any conjecture as to the period when it was written are the following:
(1) It was in what the author calls "the last time," (ἐσχάτη ὥρα eschatē hōra,) 1 John 2:18. From this expression it might perhaps be inferred by some that it was just before the destruction of Jerusalem, or that the writer supposed that the end of the world was near. But nothing can be certainly determined from this expression in regard to the exact period when the Epistle was written. This phrase, as used in the Scriptures, denotes no more than, the last dispensation or economy of things, the dispensation under which the affairs of the world would be wound up, though that period might be in fact much longer than any one that had preceded it. See Isaiah 2:2 note; Acts 2:17 note; Hebrews 1:2 note. The object of the writer of this Epistle, in the passage referred to, 1 John 2:18, is merely to show that the closing dispensation of the world had actually come; that is, that there were certain things which it was known would mark that dispensation, which actually existed then, and by which it could be known that they were living under the last or closing period of the world.
(2) it is quite evident that the Epistle was composed after the Gospel by John was published. Of this no one can have any doubt who will compare the two together, or even the parallel passages referred to above, Section 1. The Gospel is manifestly the original; and it was evidently presumed by the writer of the Epistle that the Gospel was in the hands of those to whom he wrote. The statements there made are much more full; the circumstances in which many of the peculiar doctrines adverted to were first advanced are detailed; and the writer of the Epistle clearly supposed that all that was necessary in order to an understanding of these doctrines was to state them in the briefest manner, and almost by mere allusion. On this point Lucke well remarks, 'the more brief and condensed expression of the same sentiment by the same author, especially in regard to peculiarities of idea and language, is always the later one; the more extended statement, the unfolding of the idea, is an evidence of an earlier composition,' Einlei. p. 21. Yet while this is clear, it determines little or nothing about the time when the Epistle was written, for it is a matter of great uncertainty when the Gospel itself was composed. Wetstein supposes that it was soon after the ascension of the Saviour; Dr. Lardner that it was about the year 68 a.d.; and Mill and LeClerc that it was about the year 97 a.d. In this uncertainty, therefore, nothing can be determined absolutely from this circumstance in regard to the time of writing the Epistle.
(3) the only other note of time on which any reliance has been placed is the supposed fact that there were indications in the Epistle itself of the "great age" of the author, or evidences that he was an old man, and that consequently it was written near the close of the life of John, There is some evidence in the Epistle that it was written when the author was an old man, though none that he was in his "dotage," as Eichhorn and some others have maintained. The evidence that he was even an old man is not positive, but there is a certain air and manner in the Epistle, in its repetitions, and its want of exact order, and especially in the style in which he addresses those to whom he wrote, as "little children" - (τεκνία teknia) - 1 John 2:1, 1 John 2:12, 1 John 2:28; 1 John 3:7, 1 John 3:18; 1 John 4:4; 1 John 5:21 - which would seem to be appropriate only to an aged man. Compare Lucke, Einlei. pp. 23, 25, and Stuart in Hug's Introduction, pp. 732, 733.
As little is known about the place where the Epistle was written as about the time of its writing. There are no local references in it; no allusions to persons or opinions which can help us to determine where it was written. As John spent the latter part of his life, however, in Ephesus and its vicinity, there is no impropriety in supposing that it was written there. Nothing, in the interpretation of the Epistle, depends on our being able to ascertain the place of its composition. Hug supposes that it was written on Patmos, and was sent as a letter accompanying his Gospel, to the church at Ephesus. - Intro. Section 69. Lucke supposes that it was a circular epistle addressed to the churches in Asia Minor, and sent from Ephesus - Einlei. p. 27.
To whoM the Epistle was written is also unknown. It bears no inscription, as many of the other epistles of the New Testament do, and as even the Second and Third Epistles of John do, and there is no reference to any particular class of persons by which it can be determined for whom it was designed. Nor is it known why the name of the author was not attached to it, or why the persons for whom it was designed were not designated. All that can be determined on this subject from the Epistle itself is the following:
(1) It seems to have been addressed to no particular church, but rather to have been of a circular character, designed for the churches in a region of country where certain dangerous opinions prevailed.
(2) the author presumed that it would be known who wrote it, either by the style, or by the sentiments, or by its resemblance to his other writings, or by the messenger who bore it, so that it was unnecessary to affix his name to it.
(3) it appears to have been so composed as to be adapted to any people where those errors prevailed; and hence it was thought better to give it a general direction, that all might feel themselves to be addressed, than to designate any particular place or church.
There is, indeed, an ancient tradition that it was written to the "Parthians." Since the time of Augustine this has been the uniform opinion in the Latin church. Venerable Bede remarks, that "many of the ecclesiastical writers, among whom is Athanasius, testify that the First Epistle of John was written to the Parthians." Various conjectures have been made as to the origin of this opinion, and of the title which the Epistle bears in many of the Latin mss., (ad Parthos,) but none of them are satisfactory. No such title is found in the Epistle itself, nor is there any intimation in it to whom it was directed. Those who are disposed to examine the conjectures which have been made in regard to the origin of the title may consult Lucke, Enlei. p. 28ff. No reason can be assigned why it should have been sent to the Parthians, nor is there any sufficient evidence to suppose that it was.
Section 3. The Object of the Epistle
It is evident from the Epistle itself that there were some prevailing errors among those to whom it was written, and that one design of the writer was to counteract those errors. Yet very various opinions have been entertained in regard to the nature of the errors that were opposed, and the persons whom the writer had in his eye. Loeffler supposes that "Jews" and "Judaizers" are the persons opposed; Semler, Tittman, Knapp, and Lange suppose that they were "Judaizing Christians," and especially "Ebionites," or apostate Christians; Michaelis, Kleuker, Paulus, and others, suppose that the "Gnostics" are referred to; others, as Schmidt, Lucke, Vitringa, Bertholdt, Prof. Stuart, suppose that the "Docetoe" was the sect that was principally opposed.
It is impossible now to determine with accuracy to whom particularly the writer referred, nor could it be well done without a more accurate knowledge than we now have of the peculiarities of the errors which prevailed in the time of the author, and among the people to whom he wrote. All that we can learn on the subject that is certain, is to be derived from the Epistle itself; and there the intimations are few, but they are so clear that we may obtain some knowledge to guide us.
(1) the persons referred to had been professing Christians, and were now apostates from the faith. This is clear from 1 John 2:19, 'They went out from us, but they were not of us,' etc. They had been members of the church, but they had now become teachers of error.
(2) they were probably of the sect of the "Docetae;" or if that sect had not then formally sprung up, and was not organized, they held the opinions which they afterward embraced. This sect was a branch of the great Gnostic family; and the peculiarity of the opinion which they held was that Christ was only in appearance and seemingly, but not in reality, a man; that though he seemed to converse, to eat, to suffer, and to die, yet this was merely an "appearance" assumed by the Son of God for important purposes in regard to man. He had, according to this view, "no real humanity;" but though the Son of God had actually appeared in the world, yet all this was only an assumed form for the purpose of a manifestation to men. The opinions of the "Docetes" are thus represented by Gibbon: "They denied the truth and authenticity of the Gospels, as far as they relate the conception of Mary, the birth of Christ, and the thirty years which preceded the first exercise of his ministry. He first appeared on the banks of the Jordan in the form of perfect manhood; but it was a form only, and not a substance; a human figure created by the hand of Omnipotence to imitate the faculties and actions of a man, and to impose a perpetual illusion on the senses of his friends and enemies. Articulate sounds vibrated on the ears of his disciples; but the image which was impressed on their optic nerve, eluded the more stubborn evidence of the touch, and they enjoyed the spiritual, but not the corporeal presence of the Son of God. The rage of the Jews was idly wasted against an impassive phantom, and the mystic scenes of the passion and death, the resurrection and ascension of Christ, were represented on the theater of Jerusalem for the benefit of mankind." - Decl. and Fall, vol. iii. p. 245, Ed. New York, 1829. Compare vol. i.440.
That these views began to prevail in the latter part of the first century there can be no reason to doubt; and there can be as little doubt that the author of this Epistle had this doctrine in his eye, and that he deemed it to be of special importance in this Epistle, as he had done in his Gospel, to show that the Son of God had actually "come in the flesh;" that he was truly and properly a man; that he lived and died in reality, and not in appearance only. Hence, the allusion to these views in such passages as the following: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life - that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you," 1 John 1:1, 1 John 1:3. "Many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know we the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ 'is come in the flesh' is of God; and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God; and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come," 1 John 4:1-3. Compare 1 John 4:9, 1 John 4:14-15; 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:6,1 John 5:10-12. John had written his Gospel to show that Jesus was the Christ, John 20:31; he had furnished ample proof that he was divine, or was equal with the Father, John 1:1-14, and also that he was truly a man, John 15:25-27; but still it seemed proper to furnish a more unequivocal statement that he had actually appeared "in the flesh," not in appearance only but in reality, and this purpose evidently was a leading design of this Epistle.
The main scope of the Epistle the author has himself stated in 1 John 5:13; "These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God;" that is, that you may have just views of him, and exercise an intelligent faith.
In connection with this general design, and keeping in view the errors to which they to whom the Epistle was written were exposed, there are two leading trains of thought, though often intermingled, in the Epistle.
(a) The author treats of the doctrine that Jesus is the Christ, and,
(b) the importance of "love" as an evidence of being united to him, or of being true Christians.
Both these things are characteristic of John; they agree with the design for which he wrote his gospel, and they were in accordance with his uniqueness of mind as "the beloved disciple," the disciple whose heart was full of love, and who made religion consist much in that.
The main characteristics of this Epistle are these:
(1) It is full of love. The writer dwells on it; places it in a variety of attitudes; enforces the duty of loving one another by a great variety of considerations, and shows that it is essential to the very nature of religion.
(2) the Epistle abounds with statements on the evidences of piety, or the characteristics of true religion.
The author seems to have felt that those to whom he wrote were in danger of embracing false notions of religion, and of being seduced by the abettors of error. He is therefore careful to lay down the characteristics of real piety, and to show in what it essentially consists. A large part of the Epistle is occupied with this, and there is perhaps no portion of the New Testament which one could study to more advantage who is desirous of ascertaining whether he himself is a true Christian. An anxious inquirer, a man who wishes to know what true religion is, could be directed to no portion of the New Testament where he would more readily find the instruction that he needs, than to this portion of the writings of the aged and experienced disciple whom Jesus loved. Nowhere else can a true Christian find a more clear statement of the nature of his religion, and of the evidences of real piety, than in this Epistle.
This short chapter embraces the following subjects:
I. A strong affirmation that the Son of God, or the "Life," had appeared in the flesh, 1 John 1:1-3. The evidence of this, the writer says, was that he had seen him, heard him, handled him; that is, he had had all the evidence which could be furnished by the senses. His declaration on this point he repeats, by putting the statement into a variety of forms, for he seems to regard it as essential to true religion.
II. He says that he wrote to them, in order that they might have fellowship with him in the belief of this truth, and might partake of the joy which flows from the doctrine that the Son of God has actually come in the flesh, 1 John 1:3-4.
III. He states that the sum and substance of the whole message which he had to bring to them was, that God is light, and that if we profess to have fellowship with him we must walk in the light, 1 John 1:5-10.
(a) In God is no darkness, no impurity, no sin, 1 John 1:5.
(b) If we are in darkness, if we are ignorant and sinful, it proves that we cannot have any fellowship with him, 1 John 1:6.
(c) If we walk in the light as he is in the light, if we partake of his character and spirit, then we shall have fellowship one with another, and we may believe that the blood of Christ will cleanse us from all sin, 1 John 1:7.
(d) Yet we are to guard ourselves from one point of danger, we are not to allow ourselves to feel that we have "no" sin. We are to bear with us the constant recollection that we are sinners, and are to permit that fact to produce its proper impression on our minds, 1 John 1:8, 1 John 1:10.
(e) Yet we are not to be desponding though we do feel this, but are to remember, that if we will truly confess our sins he will be found faithful to his promises, and just to the general arrangements of grace, by which our sins may be forgiven, 1 John 1:9.
1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
That which was from the beginning - There can be no doubt that the reference here is to the Lord Jesus Christ, or the "Word" that was made flesh. See the notes at John 1:1. This is such language as John would use respecting him, and indeed the phrase "the beginning," as applicable to the Lord Jesus, is unique to John in the writings of the New Testament: and the language here may be regarded as one proof that this Epistle was written by him, for it is just such an expression as "he" would use, but not such as one would be likely to adopt who should attempt to palm off his own writings as those of John. One who should have attempted that would have been likely to introduce the name "John" in the beginning of the Epistle, or in some way to have claimed his authority. The apostle, in speaking of "that which was from the beginning," uses a word in the neuter gender instead of the masculine, (ὅ ho.) It is not to be supposed, I think, that he meant to apply this term "directly" to the Son of God, for if he had he would have used the masculine pronoun; but though he had the Son of God in view, and meant to make a strong affirmation respecting him, yet the particular thing here referred to was "whatever" there was respecting that incarnate Saviour that furnished testimony to any of the senses, or that pertained to his character and doctrine, he had borne witness to.
He was looking rather at the evidence that he was incarnate; the proofs that he was manifested; and he says that those proofs had been subjected to the trial of the senses, and he had borne witness to them, and now did it again. This is what is referred to, it seems to me, by the phrase "that which," (ὅ ho.) The sense may be this: "Whatever there was respecting the Word of life, or him who is the living Word, the incarnate Son of God, from the very beginning, from the time when he was first manifested in the flesh; whatever there was respecting his exalted nature, his dignity, his character, that could be subjected to the testimony of the senses, to be the object of sight, or hearing, or touch, that I was permitted to see, and that I declare to you respecting him." John claims to be a competent witness in reference to everything which occurred as a manifestation of what the Son of God was.
If this be the correct interpretation, then the phrase "from the beginning" (ἀπ ̓ ἀρχῆς ap' archēs does not here refer to his eternity, or his being in the beginning of all things, as the phrase "in the beginning" (ἐν ἀρχῇ en archē) does in John 1:1; but rather means from the very commencement of his manifestation as the Son of God, the very first indications on earth of what he was as the Messiah. When the writer says 1 John 1:3 that he "declares" this to them, it seems to me that he has not reference merely to what he would say in this Epistle, for he does not go extensively into it here, but that he supposes that they had his Gospel in their possession, and that he also means to refer to that, or presumes that they were familiar with the testimony which he had borne in that Gospel respecting the evidence that the "Word became flesh." Many have indeed supposed that this Epistle accompanied the Gospel when it was published, and was either a part of it that became subsequently detached from it, or was a letter that accompanied it. See Hug, Introduction P. II. Section 68. There is, it seems to me, no certain evidence of that; but no one can doubt that he supposed that those to whom he wrote had access to that Gospel, and that he refers here to the testimony which he had borne in that respecting the incarnate Word.
Which we have heard - John was with the Saviour through the whole of his ministry, and he has recorded more that the Saviour said than either of the other evangelists. It is on what he said of himself that he grounds much of the evidence that he was the Son of God.
Which we have seen with our eyes - That is, pertaining to his person, and to what he did. "I have seen him; seen what he was as a man; how he appeared on earth; and I have seen whatever there was in his works to indicate his character and origin." John professes here to have seen enough in this respect to furnish evidence that he was the Son of God. It is not hearsay on which he relies, but he had the testimony of his own eyes in the case. Compare the notes at 2 Peter 1:16.
Which we have looked upon - The word used here seems designed to be more emphatic or intensive than the one occurring before. He had just said that he had "seen him with his eyes," but he evidently designs to include an idea in this word which would imply something more than mere beholding or seeing. The additional idea which is couched in this word seems to be that of desire or pleasure; that is, that he had looked on him with desire, or satisfaction, or with the pleasure with which one beholds a beloved object. Compare Matthew 11:7; Luke 7:24; John 1:14; John 11:45. See Robinson, Lexicon. There was an intense and earnest gaze, as when we behold one whom we have desired to see, or when one goes out purposely to look on an object. The evidences of the incarnation of the Son of God had been subjected to such an intense and earnest gaze.
And our hands have handled - That is, the evidence that he was a man was subjected to the sense of touch. It was not merely that he had been seen by the eye, for then it might be pretended that this was a mere appearance assumed without reality; or that what occurred might have been a mere optical illusion; but the evidence that he appeared in the flesh was subjected to more senses than one; to the fact that his voice was heard; that he was seen with the eyes; that the most intense scrutiny had been employed; and, lastly, that he had been actually touched and handled, showing that it could not have been a mere appearance, an assumed form, but that it was a reality. This kind of proof that the Son of God had appeared in the flesh, or that he was truly and properly a man, is repeatedly referred to in the New Testament. Luke 24:39; "behold my hands and my feet, that it is I:myself: handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have." Compare John 20:25-27. There is evident allusion here to the opinion which early prevailed, which was held by the Docetes, that the Son of God did not truly and really become a man, but that there was only an appearance assumed, or that he seemed to be a man. See the Introduction, Section 3. It was evidently with reference to this opinion, which began early to prevail, that the apostle dwells on this point, and repeats the idea so much, and shows by a reference to all the senses which could take any cognizance in the case, that he was truly and properly a man. The amount of it is, that we have the same evidence that he was properly a man which we can have in the case of any other human being; the evidence on which we constantly act, and in which we cannot believe that our senses deceive us.
Of the Word of life - Respecting, or pertaining to, the Word of life. "That is, whatever there was pertaining to the Word of life, which was manifested from the beginning in his speech and actions, of which the senses could take cognizance, and which would furnish the evidence that he was truly incarnate, that we have declared unto you.' The phrase "the Word of life," means the Word in which life resided, or which was the source and fountain of life. See the notes at John 1:1, John 1:3. The reference is undoubtedly to the Lord Jesus Christ.
2(For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)
For the life was manifested - Was made manifest or visible unto us. He who was the life was made known to people by the incarnation. He appeared among people so that they could see him and hear him. Though originally with God, and dwelling with him, John 1:1-2, yet he came forth and appeared among people. Compare the Romans 1:3 note; 1 Timothy 3:16 note. He is the great source of all life, and he appeared on the earth, and we had an opportunity of seeing and knowing what he was.
And we have seen it - This repetition, or turning over the thought, is designed to express the idea with emphasis, and is much in the manner of John. See John 1:1-3. He is particularly desirous of impressing on them the thought that he had been a personal witness of what the Saviour was, having had every opportunity of knowing it from long and familiar contact with him.
And bear witness - We testify in regard to it. John was satisfied that his own character was known to be such that credit would be given to what he said. He felt that he was known to be a man of truth, and hence he never doubts that faith would be put in all his statements. See John 19:35; John 21:24; Revelation 1:2; 3 John 1:12.
And shew unto you that eternal life - That is, we declare unto you what that life was - what was the nature and rank of him who was the life, and how he appeared when on earth. He here attributes eternity to the Son of God - implying that he had always been with the Father.
Which was with the Father - Always before the manifestation on the earth. See John 1:1. "The word was with God." This passage demonstrates the pre-existence of the Son of God, and proves that he was eternal. Before he was manifested on earth he had an existence to which the word life could be applied, and that was eternal. He is the Author of eternal life to us.
And was manifested unto us - In the flesh; as a man. He who was the life appeared unto people. The idea of John evidently is,
(1) that the Being here referred to was forever with God;
(2) that it was proper before the incarnation that the word life should be given to him as descriptive of his nature;
(3) that there was a manifestation of him who was thus called life, on earth; that he appeared among people; that he had a real existence here, and not a merely assumed appearance; and,
(4) that the true characteristics of this incarnate Being could be borne testimony to by those who had seen him, and who had been long with him. This second verse should be regarded as a parenthesis.
3That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you - We announce it, or make it known unto you - referring either to what he purposes to say in this Epistle, or more probably embracing all that he had written respecting him, and supposing that his Gospel was in their hands. He means to call their attention to all the testimony which he had borne on the subject, in order to counteract the errors which began to prevail.
That ye may have fellowship with us - With us the apostles; with us who actually saw him, and conversed with him. That is, he wished that they might have the same belief, and the same hope, and the same joy which he himself had, arising from the fact that the Son of God had become incarnate, and had appeared among people. To "have fellowship," means to have anything in common with others; to partake of it; to share it with them, (see the notes at Acts 2:42); and the idea here is, that the apostle wished that they might share with him all the peace and happiness which resulted from the fact that the Son of God had appeared in human form in behalf of men. The object of the apostle in what he wrote was, that they might have the same views of the Saviour which he had, and partake of the same hope and joy. This is the true notion of fellowship in religion.
And truly our fellowship is with the Father - With God the Father. That is, there was something in common with him and God; something of which he and God partook together, or which they shared. This cannot, of course, mean that his nature was the same as that of God, or that in all things he shared with God, or that in anything he was equal with God; but it means that he partook, in some respects, of the feelings, the views, the aims, the joys which God has. There was a union in feeling, and affection, and desire, and plan, and this was to him a source of joy. He had an attachment to the same things, loved the same truth, desired the same objects, and was engaged in the same work; and the consciousness of this, and the joy which attended it, was what was meant by fellowship. Compare the 1 Corinthians 10:16 note; 2 Corinthians 12:14 note. The fellowship which Christians have with God relates to the following points:
(1) Attachment to the same truths, and the same objects; love for the same principles, and the same beings.
(2) the same kind of happiness, though not in the same degree. The happiness of God is found in holiness, truth, purity, justice, mercy, benevolence. The happiness of the Christian is of the same kind that God has; the same kind that angels have; the same kind that he will himself have in heaven - for the joy of heaven is only that which the Christian has now, expanded to the utmost capacity of the soul, and freed from all that now interferes with it, and prolonged to eternity.
(3) Employment, or cooperation with God. There is a sphere in which God works alone, and in which we can have no cooperation, no fellowship with him. In the work of creation; in upholding all things; in the government of the universe; in the transmission of light from world to world; in the return of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, the storms, the tides, the flight of the comet, we can have no joint agency, no cooperation with him. There God works alone. But there is also a large sphere in which he admits us graciously to a cooperation with him, and in which, unless we work, his agency will not be put forth. This is seen when the farmer sows his grain; when the surgeon binds up a wound; when we take the medicine which God has appointed as a means of restoration to health. So in the moral world. In our efforts to save our own souls and the souls of others, God graciously works with us; and unless we work, the object is not accomplished. This cooperation is referred to in such passages as these: "We are laborers together (συνεργοί sunergoi) with God," 1 Corinthians 3:9. "The Lord working with them," Mark 16:20. "We then as workers together with him," 2 Corinthians 6:1. "That we might be fellow-helpers to the truth," 3 John 1:8. In all such cases, while the efficiency is of God - alike in exciting us to effort, and in crowning the effort with success - it is still true that if our efforts were not put forth, the work would not be done. In this department God would not work by himself alone; he would not secure the result by miracle.
(4) we have fellowship with God by direct communion with him, in prayer, in meditation, and in the ordinances of religion. Of this all true Christians are sensible, and this constitutes no small part of their special joy. The nature of this, and the happiness resulting from it, is much of the same nature as the communion of friend with friend - of one mind with another kindred mind - that to which we owe no small part of our happiness in this world.
(5) the Christian will have fellowship with his God and Saviour in the triumphs of the latter day, when the scenes of the judgment shall occur, and when the Redeemer shall appear, that he may be admired and adored by assembled worlds. Compare the notes at 2 Thessalonians 1:10. See also Matthew 19:28; Revelation 3:21.
And with his Son Jesus Christ - That is, in like manner there is much which we have in common with the Saviour - in character, in feeling, in desire, in spirit, in plan. There is a union with him in these things - and the consciousness of this gives peace and joy.
(There is a real union between Christ and his people, which lies at the foundation of this fellowship. Without this union there can be no communion. But a "union with Christ in these things, i. e., in character and feeling, etc." is nothing more than the union which subsists between any chief and his followers; and why the apostle Paul, or others after him, should reckon this a great mystery, is not easily comprehended. Ephesians 5:32; Colossians 1:27. For a full view of the subject, see the author's notes, with the supplementary note at Romans 8:10.)
4And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.
And these things write we unto you - These things respecting him who was manifested in the flesh, and respecting the results which flow from that.
That your joy may be full - This is almost the same language which the Saviour used when addressing his disciples as he was about to leave them, John 15:11; and there can be little doubt that John had that declaration in remembrance when he uttered this remark. See the notes at that passage. The sense here is, that full and clear views of the Lord Jesus, and the fellowship with him and with each other, which would follow from that, would be a source of happiness. Their joy would be complete if they had that; for their real happiness was to be found in their Saviour. The best editions of the Greek Testament now read "your joy," instead of the common reading "our joy."
5This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
This then is the message which we have heard of him - This is the substance of the announcement (ἐπαγγελία epangelia) which we have received of him, or which he made to us. The message here refers to what he communicated as the sum of the revelation which he made to man. The phrase "of him" (απ ̓ αὐτου ap' autou) does not mean respecting him, or about him, but from him; that is, this is what we received from his preaching; from all that he said. The peculiarity, the substance of all that he said, may be summed up in the declaration that God is light, and in the consequences which follow from this doctrine. He came as the messenger of Him who is light; he came to inculcate and defend the truths which flow from that central doctrine, in regard to sin, to the danger and duty of man, to the way of recovery, and to the rules by which men ought to live.
That God is light - Light, in the Scriptures, is the emblem of purity, truth, knowledge, prosperity, and happiness - as darkness is of the opposite. John here says that "God is light" - φῶς phōs - not the light, or a light, but light itself; that is, he is himself all light, and is the source and fountain of light in all worlds. He is perfectly pure, without any admixture of sin. He has all knowledge, with no admixture of ignorance on any subject. He is infinitely happy, with nothing to make him miserable. He is infinitely true, never stating or countenancing error; he is blessed in all his ways, never knowing the darkness of disappointment and adversity. Compare the James 1:17 note; John 1:4-5 note; 1 Timothy 6:16 note.
And in him is no darkness at all - This language is much in the manner of John, not only affirming that a thing is so, but guarding it so that no mistake could possibly be made as to what he meant. Compare John 1:1-3. The expression here is designed to affirm that God is absolutely perfect; that there is nothing in him which is in any way imperfect, or which would dim or mar the pure splendor of his character, not even as much as the smallest spot would on the sun. The language is probably designed to guard the mind from an error to which it is prone, that of charging God with being the Author of the sin and misery which exist on the earth; and the apostle seems to design to teach that whatever was the source of sin and misery, it was not in any sense to be charged on God. This doctrine that God is a pure light, John lays down as the substance of all that he had to teach; of all that he had learned from him who was made flesh. It is, in fact, the fountain of all just views of truth on the subject of religion, and all proper views of religion take their origin from this.
6If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
If we say that we have fellowship uith him - If we reckon ourselves among his friends, or, in other words, if we profess to be like him: for a profession of religion involves the idea of having fellowship with God, (compare the notes at 1 John 1:3), and he who professes that should be like him.
And walk in darkness - Live in sin and error. To "walk in darkness" now commonly denotes to be in doubt about our religious state, in contradistinction from living in the enjoyment of religion. That is not, however, probably the whole idea here. The leading thought is, that if we live in sin, it is a proof that our profession of religion is false. Desirable as it is to have the comforts of religion, yet it is not always true that they who do not are not true Christians, nor is it true by any means that they intend to deceive the world.
We lie - We are false professors; we are deceived if we think that we can have fellowship with God, and yet live in the practice of sin. As God is pure, so must we be, if we would be his friends. This does not mean necessarily that they meant to deceive, but that there was an irreconcilable contradiction between a life of sin and fellowship with God.
And do not the truth - Do not act truly. The profession is a false one. Compare the notes at John 3:22. To do the truth is to act in accordance with truth; and the expression here means that such an one could not be a Christian. And yet how many there are who are living in known sin who profess to be Christians! How many whose minds are dark on the whole subject of religion, who have never known anything of the real peace and joy which it imparts, who nevertheless entertain the belief that they are the friends of God, and are going to heaven! They trust in a name, in forms, in conformity to external rites, and have never known anything of the internal peace and purity which religion imparts, and in fact have never had any true fellowship with that God who is light, and in whom there is no darkness at all. Religion is light; religion is peace, purity, joy; and though there are eases where for a time a true Christian may be left to darkness, and have no spiritual joy, and be in doubt about his salvation, yet still it is a great truth, that unless we know by personal experience what it is to walk habitually in the light, to have the comforts of religion, and to experience in our own souls the influences which make the heart pure, and which bring us into conformity to the God who is light, we can have no true religion. All else is but a name, which will not avail us on the final day.
7But 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.
But if we walk in the light - Compare the notes at 1 John 1:5. Walking in the light may include the three following things:
(1) Leading lives of holiness and purity; that is, the Christian must be characteristically a holy man, a light in the world, by his example.
(2) walking in the truth; that is, embracing the truth in opposition to all error of paganism and infidelity, and having clear, spiritual views of truth, such as the unrenewed never have. See 2 Corinthians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 2:9-15; Ephesians 1:18.
(3) enjoying the comforts of religion; that is, having the joy which religion is fitted to impart, and which it does impart to its true friends, Psalm 94:19; Isaiah 57:8; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 13:11. Compare the notes at John 12:35.
As he is in the light - In the same kind of light that he has. The measure of light which we may have is not the same in degree, but it is of the same kind. The true Christian in his character and feelings resembles God.
We have fellowship one with another - As we all partake of his feelings and views, we shall resemble each other. Loving the same God, embracing the same views of religion, and living for the same ends, we shall of course have much that is common to us all, and thus shall have fellowship with each other.
And the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin - See the sentiment here expressed fully explained in the notes at Hebrews 9:14. When it is said that his blood cleanses us from all sin, the expression must mean one of two things - either that it is through that blood that all past sin is forgiven, or that that blood will ultimately purify us from all transgression, and make us perfectly holy. The general meaning is plain, that in regard to any and every sin of which we may be conscious, there is efficacy in that blood to remove it, and to make us wholly pure. There is no stain made by sin so deep that the blood of Christ cannot take it entirely away from the soul. The connection here, or the reason why this is introduced here, seems to be this: The apostle is stating the substance of the message which he had received, 1 John 1:5. The first or leading part of it was, that God is light, and in him is no darkness, and that his religion requires that all his friends should resemble him by their walking in the light. Another, and a material part of the same message was, that provision was made in his religion for cleansing the soul from sin, and making it like God. No system of religion intended for man could be adapted to his condition which did not contain this provision, and this did contain it in the most full and ample manner. Of course, however, it is meant that that blood cleanses from all sin only on the conditions on which its efficacy can be made available to man - by repentance for the past, and by a cordial reception of the Saviour through faith.
8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we say that we have no sin - It is not improbable that the apostle here makes allusion to some error which was then beginning to prevail in the church. Some have supposed that the allusion is to the sect of the Nicolaitanes, and to the views which they maintained, particularly that nothing was forbidden to the children of God under the gospel, and that in the freedom conferred on Christians they were at liberty to do what they pleased, Revelation 2:6, Revelation 2:15. It is not certain, however, that the allusion is to them, and it is not necessary to suppose that there is reference to any particular sect that existed at that time. The object of the apostle is to show that it is implied in the very nature of the gospel that we are sinners, and that if, on any pretence, we denied that fact, we utterly deceived ourselves. In all ages there have been those who have attempted, on some pretence, to justify their conduct; who have felt that they did not need a Saviour; who have maintained that they had a right to do what they pleased; or who, on pretence of being perfectly sanctified, have held that they live without the commission of sin. To meet these, and all similar cases, the apostle affirms that it is a great elementary truth, which on no pretence is to be denied, that we are all sinners. We are at all times, and in all circumstances, to admit the painful and humiliating truth that we are transgressors of the law of God, and that we need, even in our best services, the cleansing of the blood of Jesus Christ. The fair interpretation of the declaration here will apply not only to those who maintain that they have not been guilty of sin in the past, but also to those who profess to have become perfectly sanctified, and to live without sin. In any and every way, if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. Compare the notes at James 3:2.
We deceive ourselves - We have wrong views about our character. This does not mean that the self-deception is willful, but that it in fact exists. No man knows himself who supposes that in all respects he is perfectly pure.
And the truth is not in us - On this subject. A man who should maintain that he had never committed sin, could have no just views of the truth in regard to himself, and would show that he was in utter error. In like manner, according to the obvious interpretation of this passage, he who maintains that he is wholly sanctified, and lives without any sin, shows that he is deceived in regard to himself, and that the truth, in this respect, is not in him. He may hold the truth on other subjects, but he does not on this. The very nature of the Christian religion supposes that we feel ourselves to be sinners, and that we should be ever ready to acknowledge it. A man who claims that he is absolutely perfect, that he is holy as God is holy, must know little of his own heart. Who, after all his reasoning on the subject, would dare to go out under the open heaven, at midnight, and lift up his hands and his eyes toward the stars, and say that he had no sin to confess - that he was as pure as the God that made those stars?
9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
If we confess our sins - Pardon in the Scriptures, always supposes that there is confession, and there is no promise that it will be imparted unless a full acknowledgment has been made. Compare Psalm 51; Psalm 32:1-11;; Luke 15:18 ff; Luke 7:41 ff; Proverbs 28:13.
He is faithful - To his promises. He will do what he has assured us he will do in remitting them.
And just to forgive us our sins - The word "just" here cannot be used in a strict and proper sense, since the forgiveness of sins is never an act of justice, but is an act of mercy. If it were an act of justice it could be demanded or enforced, and that is the same as to say that it is not forgiveness, for in that case there could have been no sin to be pardoned. But the word "just" is often used in a larger sense, as denoting upright, equitable, acting properly in the circumstances of the case, etc. Compare the notes at Matthew 1:19. Here the word may be used in one of the following senses:
(1) Either as referring to his general excellence of character, or his disposition to do what is proper; that is, he is one who will act in every way as becomes God; or,
(2) that he will be just in the sense that he will be true to his promises; or that, since he has promised to pardon sinners, he will be found faithfully to adhere to those engagements; or perhaps,
(3) that he will be just to his Son in the covenant of redemption, since, now that an atonement has been made by him, and a way has been opened through his sufferings by which God can consistently pardon, and with a view and an understanding that he might and would pardon, it would be an act of injustice to him if he did not pardon those who believe on him.
Viewed in either aspect, we may have the fullest assurance that God is ready to pardon us if we exercise true repentance and faith. No one can come to God without finding him ready to do all that is appropriate for a God to do in pardoning transgressors; no one who will not, in fact, receive forgiveness if he repents, and believes, and makes confession; no one who will not find that God is just to his Son in the covenant of redemption, in pardoning and saving all who put their trust in the merits of his sacrifice.
And to cleanse us from all unrighteousness - By forgiving all that is past, treating us as if we were righteous, and ultimately by removing all the stains of guilt from the soul.
10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
If we say that we have not sinned - In times that are past. Some perhaps might be disposed to say this; and as the apostle is careful to guard every point, he here states that if a man should take the ground that his past life had been wholly upright, it would prove that he had no true religion. The statement here respecting the past seems to prove that when, in 1 John 1:8, he refers to the present - "if we say we have no sin" - he meant to say that if a man should claim to be perfect, or to be wholly sanctified, it would demonstrate that he deceived himself; and the two statements go to prove that neither in reference to the past nor the present can anyone lay claim to perfection.
We make him a liar - Because he has everywhere affirmed the depravity of all the race. Compare the notes at Romans 1; 2; 3. On no point have his declarations been more positive and uniform than on the fact of the universal sinfulness of man. Compare Genesis 6:11-12; Job 14:4; Job 15:16; Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 51:5; Psalm 58:3; Romans 3:9-20; Galatians 3:21.
And his word is not in us - His truth; that is, we have no true religion. The whole system of Christianity is based on the fact that man is a fallen being, and needs a Saviour; and unless a man admits that, of course he cannot be a Christian.
Remarks On 1 John 1
(1) The importance of the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God, 1 John 1:1-2. On that doctrine the apostle lays great stress; begins his Epistle with it; presents it in a great variety of forms; dwells upon it as if he would not have it forgotten or misunderstood. It has all the importance which he attached to it, for.
(a) it is the most wonderful of all the events of which we have any knowledge;
(b) it is the most deeply connected with our welfare.
(2) the intense interest which true piety always takes in this doctrine, 1 John 1:1-2. The feelings of John on the subject are substantially the feelings of all true Christians. The world passes it by in unbelief, or as if it were of no importance; but no true Christian can look at the fact that the Son of God became incarnate but with the deepest emotion.
(3) it is an object of ardent desire with true Christians that all others should share their joys, 1 John 1:3-4. There is nothing selfish, or narrow, or exclusive in true religion; but every sincere Christian who is happy desires that all others should be happy too.
(4) wherever there is true fellowship with God, there is with all true Christians, 1 John 1:3-4. There is but one church, one family of God; and as all true Christians have fellowship with God, they must have with each other.
(5) wherever there is true fellowship with Christians, there is with God himself, 1 John 1:3-4. If we love his people, share their joys, labor with them in promoting his cause, and love the things which they love, we shall show that we love him. There is but one God, and one church; and if all the members love each other, they will love their common God and Saviour. An evidence, therefore, that we love Christians, becomes an evidence that we love God.
(6) it is a great privilege to be a Christian, 1 John 1:3-4. If we are Christians, we are associated with:
(a) God the Father;
(b) with his Son Jesus Christ;
(c) with all his redeemed on earth and in heaven;
(d) with all holy angels.
There is one bond of fellowship that unites all together; and what a privilege it is to be united in the eternal bonds of friendship with all the holy minds in the universe!
(7) if God is "light" 1 John 1:5, then all that occurs is reconcilable with the idea that he is worthy of confidence. What he does may seem to be dark to us, but we may be assured that it is all light with him. A cloud may come between us and the sun, but beyond the cloud the sun shines with undimmed splendor, and soon the cloud itself will pass away. At midnight it is dark to us, but it is not because the sun is shorn of his beams, or is extinguished. He will rise again upon our hemisphere in the fullness of his glory, and all the darkness of the cloud and of midnight is reconcilable with the idea that the sun is a bright orb, and that in him is no darkness at all. So with God. We may be under a cloud of sorrow and of trouble, but above that the glory of God shines with splendor, and soon that cloud will pass away, and reveal him in the fullness of his beauty and truth.
(8) we should, therefore, at all times exercise a cheerful confidence in God, 1 John 1:5. Who supposes that the sun is never again to shine when the cloud passes over it, or when the shades of midnight have settled down upon the world? We confide in that sun that it will shine again when the cloud has passed off, and when the shades of night have been driven away. So let us confide in God, for with more absolute certainty we shall yet see him to be light, and shall come to a world where there is no cloud.
(9) we may look cheerfully onward to heaven, 1 John 1:5. There all is light. There we shall see God as He is. Well may we then bear with our darkness a little longer, for soon we shall be ushered into a world where there is no need of the sun or the stars; where there is no darkness, no night.
(10) Religion is elevating in its nature, 1 John 1:6-7. It brings us from a world of darkness to a world of light. It scatters the rays of light on a thousand dark subjects, and gives promise that all that is now obscure will yet become clear as noonday. Wherever there is true religion, the mind emerges more and more into light; the scales of ignorance and error pass away.
(11) there is no sin so great that it may not be removed by the blood of the atonement, 1 John 1:7, "last clause." This blood has shown its efficacy in the pardon of all the great sinners who have applied to it, and its efficacy is as great now as it was when it was applied to the first sinner that was saved. No one, therefore, however great his sins, needs to hesitate about applying to the blood of the cross, or fear that his sins are so great that they cannot be taken away!
(12) the Christian will yet be made wholly pure, 1 John 1:7, "last clause." It is of the nature of that blood which the Redeemer shed that it ultimately cleanses the soul entirely from sin. The prospect before the true Christian that he will become perfectly holy is absolute; and whatever else may befall him, he is sure that he will yet be holy as God is holy.
(13) there is no use in attempting to conceal our offences, 1 John 1:8. They are known, all known, to one Being, and they will at some future period all be disclosed. We cannot hope to evade punishment by hiding them; we cannot hope for impunity because we suppose they may be passed over as if unobserved. No man can escape on the presumption either that his sins are unknown, or that they are unworthy of notice.
(14) it is manly to make confession when we have sinned, 1 John 1:9-10. All meanness was in doing the wrong, not in confessing it; what we should be ashamed of is that we are guilty, not that confession is to be made. When a wrong has been done, there is no nobleness in trying to conceal it; and as there is no nobleness in such an attempt, so there could be no safety.
(15) peace of mind, when wrong has been done, can be found only in confession, 1 John 1:9-10. That is what nature prompts to when we have done wrong, if we would find peace, and that the religion of grace demands. When a man has done wrong, the least that he can do is to make confession; and when that is done and the wrong is pardoned, all is done that can be to restore peace to the soul.
(16) the "ease" of salvation, 1 John 1:9. What more easy terms of salvation could we desire than an acknowledgment of our sins? No painful sacrifice is demanded; no penance, pilgrimage, or voluntary scourging; all that is required is that there should be an acknowledgment of sin at the foot of the cross, and if this is done with a true heart the offender will be saved. If a man is not willing to do this, why should he be saved? How can he be?