1 John 1.1-4: Intro to Letters of John
May 1, 2011 Series: Letters of John
Topic: New Testament Passage: 1 John 1:1–1:4
Introduction to John & His Letters
Today begins our verse by verse series on the three letters written by the apostle John. The elders believe it is important to begin each series with an introduction to set the stage for the entire series. Much of what I share today will come out of the study guide we’ve prepared for your personal study. Be warned, though his letters are some of the shortest in the NT, John’s words are some of the most weighty in all of Scripture. These letters are so simply constructed, that for better or worse, they are both simple to read and simple to understand. In other words, it is difficult to misunderstand most of what John says.
And though John intended to address churches that existed several thousand years ago, God wrote intended to write for us today. In the last letter he wrote, the apostle Paul warned that a day would come “…when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2Timothy 4.3).” We are living in that day, a day when new versions of “Christianity” immerge in an effort to make gospel truth easier to swallow. False teachers of varying shapes and sizes write books, blogs, and are afforded public platforms online and on television talk shows to promote a view of the world that denies the existence of sin or the need for a savior like Jesus. Some of these charlatans come sheep’s clothing, twisting Scripture to their own humanistic ends in search of a “Better You” by connecting true faith with God ordained health and wealth. Others employ secular psycho-babble, encouraging people toward self-pride (self-esteem), to get in touch with their inner child, or to live life to the fullest by freeing themselves from the slavery of religion, morality, or cultural outmoded institutions like “traditional” marriage. Heresy abounds as Jesus is dismissed as a great teacher like Gandhi, Confucius, or Muhammad.
John doesn’t attack the logic or morality of the false teaching, he goes straight to the problem—JESUS. The most important truth that will govern all other truth is, WHO IS JESUS. Denial that Jesus of Nazareth is the historical, bodily, final, and complete revelation of God the Creator is, according to John, THE SIN that leads to death. Our theology, our doctrine, and our teaching matter because ideas inspire behaviors and attitudes with consequences. And like a good pastor, John writes to affirm gospel truth and to assure the church of exactly what genuine Christians believe and, as a result, how Christians live. John’s letter amounts to a test for faith, not just the faith of false teachers, but our own:
- We either accept God’s Word as authoritative or we act as our own authority
- We are either freed from sin or we are enslaved to sin.
- We either walk in the light confessing our sin or we walking in the darkness hiding our sin.
- We either love our brother or we hate our brother.
- We either have eternal life or we have eternal death.
- We either possess and are guided by Holy Spirit or we follow demonic spirits
- We either believe or we do not believe.
In the end, it all comes down to whether or not we believe that God stepped into our world, became the flesh-and-blood person Jesus, bore our sins upon Himself on the cross, died, and was resurrected three days later to remove God’s wrath, take away our sin, and destroy the works of the devil. It is a life and death decision.
John the Disciple
Who was John? John was one of the 12 original disciples appointed by Jesus. John had a brother named James who was also one of the 12 (Not to be confused with James, Jesus’s brother, who wrote the letter). John and his brother James were part of a smaller group of three leaders within the 12, which included Peter. They were all blue collar fisherman, John and James fished for their Father Zebedee. Following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, James was the first of the 12 disciples martyred (Acts 12). John was the last disciple to die, living close to be around 100 years old.
As young disciples, the brothers were named the Sons of Thunder by Jesus. Though we don’t know exactly why, it is safe to assume these were bold, loud, and passionate young men. Luke 9 records an example of the brother’s zeal when a Samaritan village rejects Jesus: 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.
John the Apostle
In John’s own gospel, he not only provides a surprising image of Jesus and he gives us a distinctive picture of himself. His gospel introduces us to a man called, “The Beloved Disciple” who, though never identified by name, is clearly connected with John. The gospel presents John as possessing special relationship with Jesus—like a best friend. Not only do we see him reclining on Jesus’ bosom at the Last Supper, he is also entrusted with the care of Jesus’ mother at the crucifixion, and the first to enter the tomb after the resurrection. Later, he is the one to rightly identify the risen Jesus standing on the shore (John 21). And it is in his final conversation on that shore, with Peter, that Jesus answers questions about whether the “disciple whom He loved”, would live until Jesus 2nd coming.
John the Pastor
John did live long, but not that long. At the time of writing these letters, John was almost 90 years old. All of the other apostles had long been martyred for their faith in Jesus, and John himself had survived an attempted boiling in oil and an extended exile on the Island of Patmos where he received the “Revelation” from Jesus. Now living in Ephesus, the churches that John had started in the region were being infiltrated by false teachers bringing a different gospel filled with attractive but heretical ideas that were destroying the churches. Most people in these churches were full of Christians who had never seen Jesus face to face. Like us, their faith was built upon the preaching and teaching of the apostles. But when wolves began to attack these young sheep and then start their own different church, they began to question their own salvation. They were allured by this new version of Christianity that could free them from sin, give them “secret” insight and understanding of Jesus, welcome them into an elite community of the truly spiritually enlightened; where they could have a deeper spiritual experience.
Understandably, the faith of these young believers began to falter, and many were leaving the church to join this growing demonic craze devoid of sound doctrine. While it might have seemed modern and appealing, those new spiritual gurus actually taught an early form of Gnosticism John had combated before in his gospel. In addition to foolishly (but effectively) teaching that salvation came from learning mysterious spiritual truths to free them from a material world that was EVIL. Their favorite false teaching denied the central truth of the Apostle’s teaching, the INCARNATION: that the Son of God put on human flesh. For John, this was absolutely flawed: if Jesus were not FULLY God and FULLY man, he could not be the Savior. If Jesus only seemed to be God, or if God only seemed to become a man, then Jesus was a liar, he himself was a fool, and the whole thing was the greatest deception ever invented.
So John writes these three letters to reinforce the historical reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his best friend and his God. John not only affirms the central truths one must believe to be a Christian, but goes further to detail the good fruit that believing good theology will produce in contrast with the rotten fruit of bad theology. Now on to the text at hand, 1John 1.1-4.
V.1-2 The Proclamation of John
The first four verses of John’s letter set the tone for the remainder of the book. In verse one he writes: 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—
Eyewitness to Life
From the first words, the letter reads like a sermon. Unlike traditional letters which usually began by identifying its author and audience, followed by a greeting, John starts by establishing his credibility to teach. In his letter, John establishes himself not only as a loving shepherd but as an authoritative one over and above the wolves claiming special knowledge and leading sheep astray to start their own church. Like all complete pastors, John is both the BELOVED DISCIPLE with his head on the bosom of Jesus AND a SON OF THUNDER.
Without apology, John reminds his readers of his unique position. The “WE” he refers to are the disciples who were at the BEGINNING when Jesus began his public ministry with his public baptism, or as Mark 1.1 describes it, “The beginning of the gospel”. John is the last man standing of the 12 disciples, the ones who most closely walked with Jesus and lived out the gospel with him. John is the most credible teacher, most likely the only eyewitness still living. And in combating the false teachers that are dividing church, John does pull his authority card in order to attack bad methods, bad policies, or bad behaviors. He concerns himself FIRST and FOREMOST with bad theology, specifically, the word of life. The Bible also calls this “The word of the kingdom” (matt. 13.19), “The word of this salvation” (Acts 13.26); “The word of reconciliation” (2cor. 15.19); we call it the gospel.
John has not experienced this “word of life” second hand; he personally HEARD the word of life; he personally SAW the word of life; he personally TOUCHED the word of life. He was there when the word of life was made manifest as Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person. And since the Romans invented everything else BUT tape recorders, cameras, and YouTube, eyewitness testimony is the most reliable evidence for ancient history. These first verses affirm the value of the eyewitness accounts and undeniable proof of Jesus’ birth, of Jesus’ miracles, of Jesus’ teaching, of Jesus’ identity as both fully God and fully man, Jesus death’ on the cross, and of Jesus’ Resurrection. John intends for his first-hand testimony to both strengthen the faith of his readers and weaken the influence of false teachers armed with their books, web sites, radio programs, television shows, and the like. The word of life is not just a more attractive message about Jesus, a better church for Jesus, or new kind of Christianity following Jesus, it is Jesus himself. False teaching, bad doctrine, and spiritual depression does not begin with a perverted view of what it means to be a Christian. It begins with wrong unbiblical answers to the question of “WHO IS JESUS CHRIST.” Wrong answers about Jesus = Wrong Answers about God.
The “YOU” John refers to is his audience, made up of 2nd and 3rd generation Christians who have learned the gospel through various disciples of Jesus. He is writing to people 60-70 years after Jesus resurrection and ascension. And even in that short amount of time, they have forgotten that the gospel is not about some character from a Greek myth—he was a real historical person. How much more then WE, 2,000 years later, do pervert the gospel message into a set of truths about how to live morally, ethically, or wisely and forget that the way, the truth, and the life is not good advice, it is Jesus himself—the way to and source of eternal life. This is a direct challenge to the “secret” wisdom of the Gnostics who declared God to have hidden things. We do not need to go searching for spiritual experiences—eternal life has been made manifest. God revealed himself through creation, through His word, but most clearly through His Son. (see HEBREWS 1.1-3)
V. 3-4 The Reason for the Proclamation
Following John’s explanation of the nature of the truth he proclaims, he gives the REASON for the proclamation. He writes, “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 stated goals of his writing, the hope for his people, are FELLOWSHIP and JOY. True fellowship and true joy are intimately connected with true doctrine. In other words, right theology, right doctrine, and right teaching matters because belief dictates behavior and attitudes, and both have temporal and eternal consequences.
Reason # 1 – Fellowship
The immediate purpose John states is fellowship with US. The US he refers to the fellowship created by Jesus and continued through the apostles and their teaching. John was present when Jesus first prayed these words, “20 I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17.20-23). Fellowship as the church, fellowship as a Gospel Community, is not an addendum, it is one of the purposes of salvation. And unlike the various “communities” available to the world, the church is not unified by whether we are all young, old, male, female, whether we dress the same, talk the same, whether we are artists, blue collar workers, or some other aspect of culture. The one thing that brings us unity is our common belief in the pure Gospel. Life-filled fellowship apart from Gospel Doctrine (the WORD OF LIFE) isn’t possible among people because it is not, ultimately, fellowship with God. To have fellowship devoted to the apostles’ teaching is to have fellowship with the Trinitarian God.
This does not mean we don’t have relationships with those who are not believers; on the contrary, we have relationships in order to love them by giving them the word of life we received. And this does not mean that we cannot have relationship with believers who have different methods, styles, or overall flavors than us. It does mean, however, that there are fundamentals truths of the faith that IF DENIED or worse TAUGHT AGAINST preclude me from calling you brother—no matter how nice or cool you are.
Reason #2 - Joy
John also states a secondary purpose—Joy. Notice there is a progression…..true proclamation leads into true fellowship which leads to experiencing true joy. There are probably few people who will immediately connect sound doctrine with JOY. Bad doctrine can cause spiritual depression, an overwhelming sense of despair, meaninglessness, guilt, and so many other things. Jesus himself said that truth, which is simply biblical doctrine, is what sets men free. Before Jesus, sinners are all committed to false doctrine. Romans 6.17-18 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching (NKJV ‘doctrine’) to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Like Paul does here, when we speak of committing to sound doctrine, this is more than the mind, it is a commitment of the heart. Gospel doctrine is the firm foundation that enables us to weather any physical, emotional, or spiritual trial. Gospel truth is what encourages us when we fail, and humbles us when we succeed. Gospel truth is what carries us through trials, what we use to combat the lies of Satan, what saves us, what protects us, what guides us, what gives us hope and contentment in this life on our way to the next. I’ll close with a quote from Pastor Martin Lloyd-Jones I speaking about the importance of doctrine:
One of the first things you are to learn in this Christian life and warfare is that, if you go wrong in your doctrine, you will go wrong in all aspects of your life. You will probably go wrong in your practice and behaviour; and you will certainly go wrong in your experience. Why is it that people are defeated by the things that happen to them? Why is it that some people are completely cast down if they are taken ill, or if someone who is dear to them is taken ill? They were wonderful Christians when all was going well; the sun was shining, the family was well, everything was perfect, and you would have thought that they were the best Christians in the country. But suddenly there is an illness and they seem to be shattered, they do not know what to do or where to turn, and they begin to doubt God. They say, ‘We were living the Christian life, and we were praying to God, and our lives had been committed to God; but look at what is happening. Why should this happen to us?’ They begin to doubt God and all His gracious dealings with them. Do such people need ‘a bit of comfort’? Do they need the church simply as a kind of soporific or tranquillizer? Do they only need something which will make them feel a little happier, and lift the burden a little while they are in the church? Their real trouble is that they lack an understanding of the Christian faith. – Martyn Lloyd Jones
And so begins ASSURANCE, our series in the letters of John. We’re preaching these books to our church for the same reason that John wrote them to his: to ASSURE people of the true identity of Jesus Christ, to ASSURE people how to find eternal life in Jesus, ASSURE how to find fellowship in the body of Jesus, and to ASSURE people of the joy that comes with a deep devotion to the gospel of Jesus, namely, his sinless life, his substitutionary death, and his life-giving resurrection.
To quote John out of his third letter, verse : 3John 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. May we all walk in a manner worthy of Jesus, all of us humble theologians, obedient from the heart to the doctrine that has been delivered to us from Jesus and His apostles.