1 John 1:1-4

1john_title1 John 1

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I would like to begin by sharing three book titles.

  • Peace at the Edge of Uncertainty: Finding Beauty in Mystery, Reclaiming Truth From the Myth of Certainty
  • The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & The Risk of Commitment
  • The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs

My point is not to comment on the contents of these books, but rather on what their titles suggest about the current religious mood with Evangelicalism. Regardless of the actual arguments of these books, the hook of these titles is clearly the instinctive revulsion to dogmatism that many Christians feel today. By “dogmatism” I am referring to a kind of mindless belief that accepts something as true just because an authority figure says it’s true.

But I wonder if these titles do not point something more subtle and more pernicious, namely a growing sense among modern people that there really is something distasteful about the concept of certainty itself, whether it be dogmatic or not. I wonder if we are entering an age in which not only mindless acquiescence is condemned but also quiet confidence as well? In other words, I wonder if any and all certainty is now being viewed as so much arrogance by those who profess to have it.

John begins his epistle with a strong emphasis on the verifiability and trustworthiness of Christianity. He begins his gospel in this way because the Church was being harassed by false teachers who were downplaying the physical, downplaying the body of Christ, and downplaying the cross of Christ. They were downplaying it in favor of a non-physical, purely spiritual emphasis on the spirit of Christ as opposed to the God-man Jesus. Thus, John wanted to begin his letter by grounding all that he was about to say in the solid and historically verified and verifiable realities of Christianity.

John believed that Christians could have certainty concerning the gospel, concerning right Christian belief. It was only on this basis that false teaching could be called “false.” The first four verses of 1 John 1 are critically important for the establishment of Christian confidence.

Continuity: “the beginning”

John begins his letter by talking about the beginning.

1 That which was from the beginning…

It is an interesting introduction and one that is not unusual for John. He began his gospel thus: “In the beginning was the word…” (John 1:1).

Of course, what this brings immediately to mind are the first words of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1). For this reason, John’s usage of “the beginning” is usually seen as a reference to the deity of Christ. That is, John links the story of Jesus to the story of creation to say that in Christ the Creator God is with us and among us. This is a powerful point!

But there is something else happening here. In 1 John, John is seeking to establish the truthfulness of the gospel against false teachers who are seeking to change it. By linking the truthfulness of Christian orthodoxy to “the beginning,” John is making a profound statement about continuity. He is saying that what he has taught, what the apostles taught, what Jesus taught is that which is true and has always been true from “the beginning.” John is not making up stories. No, the gospel is rooted in “the beginning,” in God Himself. The innovations of the heretics are just that: innovations. They are new things seeking to change a very old thing.

New Testament scholar Frank Thielman has taken note of John’s frequent use of “the beginning.”

            In contrast to the apparent emphasis of the secessionists on the progressive nature of their teaching, the Elder points his audience back to two traditional “beginnings” from which they should not stray: the beginning that God effected through his Word and their own beginning as Christians. The prologue of John’s gospel affirms that precisely the Jesus who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” was with God “in the beginning.” Echoing this statement, the Elder opens his composition by telling his audience that he proclaims to them “that which was from the beginning… (1:1; cf. 2:13a, 14a). Then throughout the rest of his composition he recalls to his audience their “beginning” as Christians. They heard the commandment to love their brothers and sisters “from the beginning” (…2:7; 3:11), and they should abide in the teaching that they heard “from the beginning” (…2:24).[1]

John anchors his teaching in “the beginning” throughout 1 John.

  • “That which was from the beginning” (1:1)
  • “an old commandment that you had from the beginning” (2:7)
  • “because you know him who is from the beginning” (2:13a)
  • “because you know him who is from the beginning” (2:14a)
  • “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you.” (2:24)
  • “this is the message that you have heard from the beginning” (3:11)

The Christian gospel comes from the very heart of God. It is from “the beginning.” Deviations of it are necessarily distortions, for there is only one gospel. Paul told the Galatians in Galatians 1 that they were to reject any edited or changed gospel even if it appeared to come from an angel.

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. 10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Notice that Paul saw the safeguarding of the gospel as something that was pleasing to God. Why? Because the truth of the gospel was true “in the beginning” and so must it ever be!

In the late 100’s AD, in his writings against the Gnostic heretics, Irenaeus wrote:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself, and should conceive of some other God besides Him who is the Framer, Maker, and Preserver of this universe, (as if He were not sufficient for them), or of another Christ, or another Only-begotten.[2]

The term that Christianity uses to refer to the unedited gospel that has been from the beginning is orthooxy. Theologian Thomas Oden has recently sought to revive what is known as “the Vincentian Canon” as a helpful tool for thinking about this.

What is orthodoxy? In brief, [it] is that to which Vincent of Lerins pointed in the phrase quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“that which has been everywhere and always and by everyone believed”)…[3]

There is some validity to this idea. Of course, the scriptures stand above tradition and they must always do so, but we should deviate from the class consensus of the Church over the last two millennia only very cautiously and only when it is true that the Church has fallen in error. To be sure, the Church has fallen in error throughout its history, and, as Baptist Christians, we believe that the Church has erred on some matters for a very long period of time. Even with an issue like infant baptism, however, the argument of Baptists is that infant baptism is not the teaching of the Bible and was not the practice of the early church from the beginning even if it became the practice of the church early on and for a very long period of time.

Regardless, the essence of the gospel as recorded in scripture is the great non-negotiable. We must not depart from that which we have received “from the beginning.” In his amazing little letter, Jude put it like this:

3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

“Once for all delivered to the saints”: that is how we view the truth of the gospel. It is from the beginning. It will be true for all eternity.

Verification: “seen…heard…touched”

John also places a very strong stress on verification in these first four verses. He speaks of the life of teachings and the events of the gospel as not merely something they believe but also something that they have heard.

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3a that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you…

Notice the strong emphasis on the senses in this passage:

  • “which we have heard”
  • “which we have seen with our eyes”
  • “which we looked upon”
  • “and have touched with our hands”
  • “the life was made manifest”
  • “we have seen it”
  • “and was made manifest to us”
  • “that which we have seen”
  • “and heard”

This emphasis on the personal and eyewitness verification of the contents of the gospel is also reflected in Luke’s gospel. We find this in the introduction to the gospel in Luke 1.

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke spoke to “eyewitnesses” who “have delivered them to us.” Tellingly, he says he is relating their testimony so that those who hear the gospel and receive it can have “certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Paul heavily stresses the role that eyewitnesses played in the early spread of the gospel. We find this in 1 Corinthians 15.

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

The first eyewitness Paul mentions is Peter. It is not surprising then that we find this in 2 Peter 1:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts

Christianity is a religion that places a heavy emphasis on the verifiable truth of the events of the gospel: the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In this, it separates itself from religious claims that have no historical basis.

In 1950, famed British author Evelyn Waugh wrote a little work of historical fiction entitled Helena. Waugh felt like it was his best work, though it is not his best known work. Regardless, it is an important little novel. It is about Helena, known today as St. Helena, Constantine the Great’s mother. Among other things it is about her own conversion to Christianity. The Empress Helena is also considered the first archaeologist because of her fascination with and search for the original artifacts of the faith in Palestine. In a general sense.

There is a fascinating scene in the book in which Helena is listening to a gnostic guru named Marcias deliver a lecture on his esoteric religious beliefs. He is waxing eloquent and vague and ethereal, much to the delight of those listening, when Helena, unable to control herself any longer, asks a simple question.

            The voice rippled on, and when Helena at length had hold of herself, was at the peroration. The hostess said her words of thanks: “…I am sure we are all a great deal clearer than were on this important topic…the lecturer has kindly consented to answer any questions…”

            No one spoke immediately; then: “I was not quite sure whether you said that the Demiurge was an Aeon.”

            “No, madam. It was one of the aims of my poor discourse to demonstrate that he was not.”

            “Oh…thank you.”

            Minervina nodded as though to say: “I could have told you that, and I should have done so rather sharply.”

            There was a further pause; then in clear, schoolroom tone, Helena said: “What I should like to know is: When and where did all this happen? And how do you know?”

            Minervina frowned. Marcias replied: “These things are beyond time and space. Their truth is integral to their proposition and by nature transcends material proof.”

            “Then, please, how do you know?”

            “By a lifetime of patient and humble study, your Majesty.”

            “But study of what?”

            “That, I fear, would take a lifetime to particularize.”

            A little murmur of admiration greeted this neat reply and on the crest of it the hostess rose to dismiss the meeting.

Later that evening, Helena calls the Christian Lactantius to come to her so she can discuss the matter.

            That evening Helena sent for Lactantius and said: “I went to the lecture this afternoon…It’s all bosh, isn’t’ it?”

            “All complete bosh, your Majesty.”

            “So I supposed. Just wanted to make sure. Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?”

            “I should say that as a man he died 278 years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.”

            “Well, that’s a straight answer anyway. How do you know?”

            “We have the accounts written by witnesses. Besides that there is the living memory of the church. We have knowledge handed down from father to son, invisible places marked by memory – the cave where he was born, the tomb where his body was laid, the grave of Peter. One day all these things will be made public. Now they are kept a secret. If you want to visit the holy places you must find the right man. He can tell you, so many paces to the East from such a such a stone, where the shadow falls at sunrise on such and such a day. A few families know these things and they see to it that their children learn the instructions. One day when the church is free and open there will be no need for such devices.”[4]

Waugh is making a significant point in these imagined conversations between Helena and Marcias and Helena and Lanctantius. He is saying that Christianity has something that esoteric Gnosticism does not: raw, blunt historicity. To the question of how he knows what he is saying is true, the Gnostic lecturer waxes eloquent and empty about having years of study. When asked how he knows what he says is true, the Christian gives dates and places and the names of eyewitnesses.

There is a reason why Christianity produces archaeologists and Scientology never will.

Christianity depends upon what was seen and heard touched and experienced. The teachings were proclaimed because they were verified by the believers who saw these amazing events unfold. Verification is a key component of John’s argument.

Relationship: “fellowship”

What is more, the gospel becomes the basis for authentic relationships.

3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

The gospel is the basis, first, of our relationship with God. It is the basis, second, of our relationship with one another. Through the truth of Christian orthodoxy, through the power of the gospel, we are bound together under the lordship of Jesus Christ. In this way the Church becomes an experiential argument of the truth of Christianity.

Only a powerful truth can overcome the enmity that human beings inevitably feel towards one another and only a powerful truth can overcome the enmity that the Bible says exists between God and fallen man. The gospel tells us how to be reconciled to God and, in so doing, tells us how to be reconciled to one another. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes:

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Fascinatingly, Paul calls the ministry of the gospel “the ministry of reconciliation.” We enter into relationship with God through the cross of Christ. We also enter into relationship with one another! The gospel is therefore a relationship-creating truth that heals the divides between God and man and God and one another.

The implications of this are clear enough: the Church itself now becomes an argument for the truthfulness of the gospel. The Church is God’s apologetic today for the assertion Jesus is Lord. Our fellowship with God and with one another constitute our most concrete claim today for the truthfulness of our confession.

We do not embrace the gospel as a blind leap into the dark. We stand on the continuity of the message as well as the trustworthiness of the eyewitness testimonies that have been passed down to us in scripture. What is more, we see the truthfulness of the faith at work in and among us as we are and as we become the Church, the body of Christ.


[1] Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), p.543.

[2] The Church Fathers (2014-06-12). The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection: 3 Series, 37 Volumes, 65 Authors, 500 Books, 18,000 Chapters, 16.5 Million Words (Kindle Locations 11938-11962). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[3] Thomas C. Oden, Agenda for Theology. (New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979), p.34.

[4] Evelyn Waugh, Helena. (Chicago, IL: Loyola Classics, 1950), p.114-117.


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