Jottings from John’s First Epistle (Paper 1)
Dennis Williamson, Belfast
That the First Epistle of John provides us with the character and conduct expected of those who belong to God's family is beyond doubt. A very casual reading of the Epistle as a whole will serve to illustrate this fact abun-dandy. If this, however, were all we could see as a result of its perusal, then we should miss very much. The reader must seek to delve a little into the background and see that, in spite of the difficulties and departure which surrounded the beloved apostle, in spite of the varied denials relating to our blessed Lord which John so adequately and effectively refutes, we have here a man who has known something of communion with his Lord. The quality of this communion enables him, not merely to rise above the circumstances, but to continue living soberly in the strength resulting from such a worthy occupation, however pressing, darkening and isolating those circumstances might become. Surely one has much to learn from John's experience as it comes to us through the pen of inspiration in his Epistle.
We shall not examine in detail the historical setting of the Epistle in these six short papers, but merely focus the attention of readers on some of the salient features of the letter in order that our appetite may be whetted, our hearts refreshed, our spirits quickened and our desire be similar to that of the psalmist, "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God", Psa. 42. 1.
However strange may seem the grammatical arrangement of chapter 1 verse 1, let us not miss in our meditation a very simple yet salutary lesson. Whether John writes historically (Gospel), didactically (Epistles), or prophetically (Apocalypse), he commences with the glory of the Person of Christ! The man of Jesus' bosom, of reflection, the man of quiet yet sober meditation, realizes the nothingness of self and the all-excelling greatness of the Lord. Simple, but learned only through one's personal practice of the sanctuary of God.
We watch with holy reverence, and we observe "the disciple whom Jesus loved", as the awe-inspiring majesty and glory of the One whose feet trod the sands of time pass before him. His heart is "inditing a good matter"; his tongue is "the pen of a ready writer", Psa. 45. 1. Yet he will guide his pen slowly, deliberately, orderly, to bring to our attention the miracle and manifestation of a Life which was unique in all its aspects and "altogether lovely" (totally desirable), Song 5. 16. And so in chapter 1 he begins to show us, first from his own experience, then by exhortation, the deep-rooted happiness of those who belong to God's family. He then speaks of the health of the family in chapter 2, emphasizing the various stages of spiritual growth. In chapter 3 he begins by drawing our minds to the hope of the family with its resultant practical effects here and now. This leads him to the heart of the family in chapter 4, "he that is in you", v. 4; "God dwelleth in us", vv. 12. 15, 16. Finally, he concludes in chapter 5 with the thought of the holiness of the family, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols", v. 21. Let us then, with this brief introduction, begin to peruse the letter, so that the Holy Spirit may minister to us by taking of the things of Christ and showing them unto us.
A Fellowship of Life. The Person of whom John speaks is One with whom he is intimately acquainted. This fact is impressively stressed in verse 1, with the use of the verbs "we have heard", "we have seen with our eyes" "we have looked upon", "our hands have handled" of the Word of Life. Surely if proof were needed of the reality of His Person, here it is in few words, audibility, visibility, tangibility. The One who dwells eternally with the Father, John 1. 1; Heb. 1. 2, 3; Col. 1. 17; Phil. 2. 6, etc., in that timeless, limitless mode of existence, was manifested. By the language he employs, the apostle emphasizes not only the reality of the Life that was manifested but the very uniqueness of that Life; it is "that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us", v. 2. He was distinctly eternal in contrast to every other human being, while at the same time manifested in all the undeniable reality of a perfectly human body. The majestic sweetness of Paul's language in Colossians 2. 9 is pertinent: "For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily". May we stress, then, what we feel the writer is underlining: the fellowship of which he speaks is essentially a fellowship of life, "the Word of life", v. 1, "the life was manifested . . . that eternal life", v. 2. Incidentally, it is instructive to notice how John develops his doctrine under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In chapter 1 of his Gospel, the Lord Jesus is presented as the Word; here He is called the Word of life, but when we reach Revelation 19. 13 His name is called the Word of God. Mere statement of doctrine, apart from the warmth of the Holy Spirit, can leave the reader or listener cold, however accurate such statement might be. Thus the apostle follows the example of his Lord in John 6. 63, "the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life". He pulsates, so to speak, with the glory inherent in the doctrine vouchsafed to him. He would fain pass it on so that we might grasp it by faith; it is indeed a fellowship of life.
A Fellowship on a Particular Level. "Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ", v. 3. What a dignity the term "fellowship" assumes when we behold it in this way! Fellowship with Deity is held forth by the writer as the potential portion of every believer. We may note carefully the "level" or plane upon which this fellowship is enjoyed. The writer of Ecclesiastes could confirm that he had tried and tested the pleasures which are to be found "under the sun". After persuing ardently these various avenues of proposed enjoyment, his repeated testimony was "all is vanity and vexation of spirit". To him it proved merely to be "a pursuit of the wind", enjoyment which was totally evasive and disappointing. How beautiful to appreciate that, when all the riches and wisdom of this world could produce nothing, our God abundantly provides for each of His children by bringing us into a sphere and on to a level where true fellowship brings "fulness of joy". Well could the psalmist express "in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore", Psa. 16. 11.
Lord Jesus Thou who only art, The endless source of purest joy,
O come and fill this longing heart, May nought but Thee my thoughts employ.
Teach me on Thee to fix mine eyes, For none but Thou canst satisfy.
The joys of earth can never fill The heart that's tasted of Thy love.
No portion would I seek until I reign with Thee, my Lord, above,
When I shall gaze upon Thy face And know more fully all Thy grace.
"That your joy may be full", v. 4. That intimacy of fellowship enjoyed by John is extended to those to whom he writes, and thence to us. Internal evidence as to the reasons why the apostle wrote this Epistle may be gleaned from this verse, with 2. 1 and 5. 13. The very nature of this paper would preclude mention of the many external reasons for the inspired record.
To listen to the voice of the Spirit of God here and to learn that God's own desire is that our joy, as His children, may be full, is truly refreshing to the soul. This fulness of joy is repeatedly advanced by John in his writings. It is associated in his Gospel with Hearing His voice, 3. 29, Hearkening to His Word, 15. 11, Having answers to prayer, 16. 24, and High priestly intercession, 17. 13; in our present passage with the Holiness of communion, and finally in 2 John 12 with the Happiness of sharing God's Word with fellowbelievers. Further meditation on these passages in their respective contexts should lead to streams of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.
Fellowship in the Light. Exhorted by the writer to "behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple", Psa. 27. 4, he then proceeds to explain what this involves. We have observed that fellowship in God's family is a fellowship of life, then we are reminded of the dignity of this fellowship as seen in the level of its enjoyment, "with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ". From verse 5 another dimension is looked at. The one who has realized experientially something of the pathway John is treading will not be at all surprised that he now finds himself taken up with the One who pervades that fellowship. The message is couched in all the plainness and purity of divine revelation; the declaration is inspired! "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all". Let us stand for a moment in the unsullied holiness of that presence, and reflect that our only title, our sole access there, is through our Lord Jesus Christ. And yet this is where God Himself has placed us, in all the glory of His presence in that fellowship of light, so pure, so transparent, so revealing, so humbling, yet so refreshing, ennobling and protecting. The Supreme One, always moving in the light of His own throne that casts no shadow, James 1. 17, is thus presented to us. Shall we not gladly join with the Psalmist and "praise him according to his excellent greatness"?, 150. 2. Truly "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all".
Fellowship and its Language. Following hard upon such an absolute statement of truth, and indeed based upon it, we have certain tests applied. There will be no shadow, no mixture, no mistakes. Claims may be advanced, but these will be examined. Assumptions may be made, but under such beams only reality will prevail. As in the tabernacle proper no artificial light could exist, so here. The Shekinah glory envelops the scene; by God's grace we have been placed in that glory, in His very presence. There is however a language which corresponds to that fellowship and there is a language which does not. Note clearly: "If we say that we have fellowship", v. 6, "If we say that we have no sin", v. 8, "If we say that we have not sinned", v. 10. The radiance of verse 5 shines over the rest of the chapter, and all flows from this fundamental truth, "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all". Light and darkness are opposing elements. There can be no cohesion or drawing together, no compromise position. We belong to the light, but to walk habitually in darkness nullifies this statement. This brings to mind the reasoning of the apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 6. 13ff. While the interpretation of the passage will be according to context, one cannot fail to see that there is no basic difference in the implication of the questions asked: "What communion hath light with darkness?". The obvious answer in each case is in the negative. Thus here in 1 John 1, whilst written perhaps for different reasons, from another standpoint, and at a later date, it is edifying to note the relevance of doctrine as having a definite bearing on each case, Truth never grows old, however our appreciation of it, or exercise concerning it, may vary.
What is it, then, that we depend upon for maintenance in this sphere of light? "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin". Do we need, as some teach, a re-application of the blood when there is failure on our part? Decidedly not! Fellowship with God, v. 6, and fellowship with one another, v. 7, is on the basis of the work of Christ accomplished at Calvary by His Son. (We note carefully at this point John is not dealing with church fellowship but with family relationships). The value of this work no human mind can ever fathom; the extent and effects transcend all man-made limits. God has pronounced us "clean every whit", bathed all over, John 13. 10. The truth of this, brought to our remembrance by the Holy Spirit, will lead to the enjoyment of what has been secured for us in the work of Christ.
As we draw chapter 1 to a close, let us view clearly the case. Those who say, vv. 6, 8, 10, show by the very nature of their claims and their subsequent conduct that they are unreal, linked with the darkness. Conversely, those in verses 7, 9 and 2. 1 are of the light. Hence we see that there is an appropriate language suited to this fellowship, not as in Nehemiah 13. 24, where because of intermingling, some spoke "half in the speech of Ashdod". How blessed the contrast in Malachi 3. 16, "Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard". May we realize in truth the wealth of our position in the family of God, and the holiness of the fellowship into which we have been brought.