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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

1 John 1

Verse 1

JOHN'S FIRST LETTER

The beautiful prologue (1 John 1:1-4) is like the one in John's gospel, having the profoundest dimensions and embryonically stating the theme as: "God manifested in Jesus Christ, that man may have fellowship with the Father through the Son."[1] The remaining six verses are part of a complicated paragraph running through 1 John 2:28 and which begins with "God is light" (1 John 1:5), the first of three epic statements about God which are usually cited by scholars as marking in a rough sense the three major divisions of 1John. The other two are: "God is righteous" (1 John 2:29) and "God is love" (1 John 4:7,8). As noted in the introduction, however, a satisfactory classical outline of this letter is hardly possible.

The echoes of the great prologue in John's gospel are so pronounced in these first four verses, with just those variations which are believable in John but which no forger would have dared to attempt, that this shorter prologue here has been understood by the Christians of all ages as a convincing Johannine signature. Nobody except John could have written this.

Verse 2

(and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us)

This verse is parenthetical, but it regards the very thing in John's mind from the first verse, namely, the Holy One, the same who in the beginning was "with God" and "was God" (John 1:1), called in the gospel "the Word" and here "the Word of life" (1 John 1:1).

This life manifested ... Moffatt was doubtless correct in capitalizing "Life" in both verses. "Manifested" is a term frequently used in the New Testament of the appearance of the Son of God in flesh (1Tim. 3:16,1Pet. 1:20,1 John 3:5,8). It is further illuminated by the counterpart of it in the gospel, "The word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:31). John also used the same word to describe the resurrection appearances of Jesus (John 21:1,14).

And we have seen, and bear witness ... By this, John refers to his gospel, to which, in a sense, this letter is an appendix. His "witness" or "testimony" is incorporated in that which he wrote. Again, "we" refers to the apostles. Macknight paraphrased the words here thus: "We apostles who accompanied him during his abode on earth, etc."[12] Clemance also understood this whole verse as concerning Jesus Christ. He wrote: "From what follows, there can be no question that the apostle here refers to the Lord Jesus Christ."[13] "Bear witness" means to proclaim, testify, or bear testimony, such words appearing no less than nineteen times in these epistles. Thus, John's assault on error was a thundering reiteration of basic gospel truth. As Hoon said:

Because this epistle was occasioned by heresy and misconduct, argument and denunciation frequently appear. But the author did not first engage in apologetics; he knew that error is best met by confronting it with the truth it denies.[14]

[12] James Macknight, op. cit., p. 27.

[13] A. Clemance, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 22,1John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 6.

[14] Paul W. Hoon, The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XII (New York: Abingdon Press, 1957), p. 216.

Verse 3

that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that we also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ:

That ... we declare unto ... The word "declare" is here repeated from 1 John 1:2, indicating the close unity of the whole passage. "The proclamation (declaration in our version) need not refer to the Gospel of John specifically. It is the substance of all gospel or apostolic preaching."[15] Furthermore, the present tense shows the established and continual nature of that proclamation through the lives of the apostles and their writings. It is wrong to limit the proclamation to the contents of this epistle.

That which we have seen ... This repeated stress upon the eyewitness nature of the apostolic gospel is important, as it affirms dogmatically that the writer is himself one of the eyewitnesses.

Unto you also, that ye also ... One of these words (also) may be construed as applicable to the proclamation, "readers thus being informed that this letter is supplementary to the basic witness of the gospel."[16] "It also means `ye also' who have not seen Jesus."[17]

That ye also may have fellowship with us ... Fellowship is from the Greek word [@koinonia], meaning "a close relationship or harmonious association as partners or sharers of the gospel."[18] Note too that a definite purpose of the epistle is the maintenance and extension of Christian fellowship, a fellowship which was threatened by the rise of heresies and the ensuing bitterness and strife which resulted. The purpose of the apostles regarding this essential fellowship of Christians "rebukes much of our modern evangelism and church life."[19]

And our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ ... Oneness with God in Christ is the basis of Christian fellowship, and it cannot exist without it. That is why the doctrinal and ethical nature of the Christian message should continually be stressed from the pulpit; because, in this essential basis is the principle of cohesion that binds Christians first to God in Christ and then to each other. Any congregation or church which depends upon a superficial social camaraderie to replace the word and doctrine as its cohesive power blunders fatally. If there would be fellowship, first let the heresies be denied and thwarted and the ethical behavior of Christians restored. This was exactly John's purpose in this letter.

Father ... and Son Jesus Christ ... The equal dignity of Jesus Christ with the Father is clear in John's association of their names together at the very outset of his letter.

[15] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 23.

[16] R. W. Orr, op. cit., p. 609.

[17] David Smith, Expositor's Greek New Testament, Vol. V (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), p. 170.

[18] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 24.

[19] John R. W. Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), p. 64.

Verse 4

and these things we write, that our joy may be made full.

We write ... It has been debated whether this applies primarily to the whole apostolic message just referred to in the prologue or to the epistle about to follow. Scott is likely correct in referring both to the apostolic proclamation "Declare we (1 John 1:3) and write we (1 John 1:4) refer to the same message."[20] Since the epistle itself is part of the apostolic message, this appears to be logical.

A NOTE REGARDING "ETERNAL LIFE"

Before leaving this study of the prologue, a little further attention to the subject of eternal life is appropriate. It is well known that both in the gospel and the epistles John often speaks of eternal life as the present possession of Christians. J. W. Roberts has given a thorough discussion of this in his commentary. He cited many passages that indicate that, "In some sense, John sees the Christian as enjoying eternal life here and now,"[21] a proposition that is obvious to any reader or student of John. He concluded that, "The eternal life which the believer has (present tense) is to be interpreted not as quantitative (everlasting) but as qualitative."[22] Those qualities of the Christian's present "eternal life" are evident in the declarations that he "has passed from death into life," that he is a "partaker of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), and that he arises from baptism to walk "in newness of life."

No disagreement whatever is felt with regard to Roberts' analysis; but it seems appropriate to guard against any misunderstanding of it. The Christian's possession of eternal life now and here must be understood in the sense of his enjoying the blessed promise of it. The earnest of it (Ephesians 1:13) which he now sheds forth in his heart many qualities of the ultimate eternal life that shall crown the efforts of the faithful in heaven; and, in that possession of the earnest, the Christian certainly enjoys qualitatively the eternal life yet to come; but it should always be remembered that in no sense should the earnest (which of the whole is only a very small part) ever be equated with the entirety of that eternal life, which according to the blessed promise of the Christ himself is the ultimate reward of the faithful in Christ. Nor can it be thought even of those qualities of eternal life enjoyed in the present time, that they are in any sense to be equated completely with the ultimate "eternal life." The very term earnest forbids this. Not all the joys of eternal life are ours now; nor can it be thought, even of those fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22f) which we already possess, that they have the same fullness, quality, and intensity of the eternal life to come. Thus, in Roberts' statement about having eternal life qualitatively, it would be wrong to understand it as totally so. It is more accurate to view the present possession of eternal life as prospective. It is ours in the sense of our possession of the blessed promise and the confident expectation of receiving the fulfillment of it at "the last day."

There is abundant testimony in the New Testament to the effect that not all of those qualities of eternal life ultimately expected are in the possession of the saints now. Even the apostle John's joy was not yet full when he wrote this epistle, as indicated by the last verse of the prologue (1 John 1:4) above. Paul's statement that it would be "better" to depart and be with Christ; John's declaration that "it is not yet made manifest what we shall be" (1 John 3:2); the absolute inability of any Christian ever to rise completely above all sin; the fact that it has never even entered into the heart of man (1 Corinthians 2:9) the things that God prepared for them that love him; the constant attendance upon human footsteps of sorrow, pain, and tribulations; - all such considerations deny the quality of that eternal life in Christians now as having any complete correspondence to the eternal life given on the last day to them who shall be invited to "enter thou into the joy of thy Lord" (Matthew 25:23). "Entering in" cannot be equated in any complete sense with "You have already entered."

[20] Ibid.

[21] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 26,27.

[22] Ibid.

Verse 5

And this is the message which we have heard from him and announce unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

It is not merely an abstract teaching with regard to the nature of God that John presented here (though some of that is in it). His general theme regarded the fellowship mentioned in the prologue; but as Roberts said, "John's thoughts are not arranged logically and symmetrically."[23] The most practical organization of the next few verses lies in the arrangement of his thoughts around such words as "if we say," which are undeniably addressed to the prevailing errors he was exposing.

God is light ... Orr supposed that a similar grand pronouncement found in 1 John 3:11, introduced by words almost identical with the introductory clause here, might indicate that we have in the words "God is light" an actual saying of Jesus Christ repeated by him at various times.[24] He based this upon the fact that the statement in 1 John 3:11, that we should "love one another" was indeed an actual saying of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. It has the same authority either way. "To the Christians alone, God is revealed as light, absolutely free from everything material, impure, obscure or gloomy."[25] Light is a symbol of all that is lovely, beautiful, holy, good, desirable, righteous and lovable. To the pagans, God was hatred, vengeance and fear; to the ignorant, God was a God of darkness, an unknown Being to be propitiated, not a Person to be loved; to the philosopher, God was an abstraction, an idea, having no connection at all with man; to the Jew, God was a God that hideth himself and a consuming fire.

However, John had a practical reason behind this statement about God. "The apostle intended that his words should emphasize the difference between the light which God is and purely intellectual enlightenment, so-called,"[26] which was claimed by the philosophical pretenders who were disturbing the church, and which even today has by no means disappeared from the earth.

In high is no darkness at all ... Darkness, contrasting with light, is a symbol of all that is wicked, ignorant, gloomy, shameful, depraved and perverted. Paul described the deeds of the wicked as the "works of darkness." And there are several kinds of darkness. Plummer cited "physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual darkness."[27] Note too that John did not say that there is no darkness in God's presence, but that there is no darkness "in him."

Now this verse has its application to the problem of fellowship because the false teachers were walking in a moral darkness of the worst intensity, while at the same time claiming to be "in God." The impossibility of their pretensions having any merit was proved by this very first sentence of the message proper. It is preposterous for one to claim fellowship with God while walking in darkness.

The message which we have heard from him ... Commentators have difficulty deciding on who is the antecedent of "him," since both the Father and the Son Jesus Christ were mentioned together in 1 John 1:3. To one with John's exalted view of Christ, this was no problem. He most likely referred to the personal instruction which he and the other apostles had received from Christ himself.

[23] Ibid., p. 28.

[24] R. W. Orr, op. cit., p. 609.

[25] A. Plummer, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 22,1John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 4.

[26] James William Russell, op. cit., p. 597.

[27] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 4.

Verse 6

If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:

In this verse, the apostle made the application of his remarks in the verse preceding. Smith identified the false teachers refuted by this as "the Nicolaitans who held to the heresy of antinomianism."[28] John did not honor their heresy nor the names of any of its advocates with any identification whatever. Plummer thought that the heresy in view was that of the "Carpocratian Gnostics, who taught that to the enlightened all actions are indifferent, because neither impurity nor filth Can change the nature of pure gold."[29]

And do not the truth ... This is changed in the RSV to "do not live according to the truth," but Morris assured us that the ASV is the correct rendition.[30] This very statement is found in John 3:21 and in the Qumran scrolls. "Truth can be a quality of action as well as of speech."[31]

The false claim in this verse is that of affirming that we walk with God even while we are walking in darkness. "Walk" in this passage, as frequently in the New Testament, is an idiom for the totality of human conduct.

[28] David Smith, op. cit., p. 171.

[29] A. Plummer, op. cit., p. 4.

[30] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 1261.

[31] Ibid.

Verse 7

but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin

If we walk in the light ... When the light from God, as revealed in Christ Jesus and the preaching of the apostles, is entered and walked in by the Christians, "Walking in the light shows up their sins and frailties, revealing the need for constant cleansing."[32]

Roberts pointed out that John's teaching here "implies that only the sinless can have fellowship with a sinless God," adding that this involves a contradiction between our own "admitted sinfulness and the affirmation that we do have fellowship with God (1 John 1:3)."[33] Roberts resolved the "contradiction" in the considerations of: (1) Christ's propitiation for our sins; (2) the cleansing action in view in this verse; and (3) the intercession on our behalf of Jesus Christ our advocate. Here indeed is the achievement of that absolute perfection required of all who hope to enter heaven, as announced by Jesus Christ in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:48). The whole doctrine of Perfection requires a great deal more attention to it than is evident in current Christian literature. For a further study of it, see in my Commentary on Galatians, pp. 130-133. For those who walk in the light, the continual, ceaseless and effective cleansing through the blood of Christ is the means of their continuing in a state of absolute perfection. This cleansing, however, is not necessarily automatic. "It is based upon confession, penitence, renewal (1 John 1:9), and keeping his commandments (1 John 2:3)."[34] Even beyond this, however, the cleansing effect of Jesus' blood is operative unconditionally in instances of the believer's unawareness of sins that lie hidden from himself.

Fellowship one with another ... Although not stated in this sentence, this fellowship is also with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 3). This fellowship stands for membership in the corporate spiritual body of Jesus Christ. Thus the cleansing here mentioned is not that from "old sins" prior to conversion, but from the accrual of sins daily by the Christian.

The blood of Jesus his Son ... All forgiveness for mortals, in the last analysis, derives from this source. John's mention of it so early in the epistle shows the high priority of this fundamental truth.

Cleanseth us from all sin ... "The singular sin sometimes denotes the principle of sin, but this cannot be the meaning here. All sin means `every act of sin.'"[35]

This great verse is the source of incredible joy, assurance and consolation to the child of God. He never needs to fear that some impulsive, unintentional, or atypical conduct might overtake him with the result of eternal condemnation. His walking "in the light" can be established by the long term directional thrust of his whole life upon earth and cannot be contradicted and negated by any temporary or insignificant lapse.

[32] Charles C. Ryrie, Wycliffe Bible Commentary, New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 1007.

[33] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 31.

[34] Ibid., p. 32.

[35] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 1262.

Verse 8

If 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 ... This is the second false claim John refuted, the first being that of 1 John 1:6. Here the error is that of claiming inherent sinlessness, perfection, the absence of any need of cleansing through the blood of Christ. Such a claim is capable of deceiving the claimant, but not anyone else! Despite the effrontery of such a proposition, entire religions are founded upon just such claims. "There is no sin" - this is the proposition that underlies a great deal of current thinking. See under 1 John 1:9. Scott and others have supposed that John might also have had in mind "the Gnostic subtlety that sin was a matter of the flesh and did not touch or defile the spirit."[36]

If we say ... is an expression of remarkable interest, because the apostle here identified himself with the false teachers, not through any agreement with them, but out of a delicate regard for his readers. This identification of an apostle with those addressed is prevalent in the New Testament. Hebrews 2:3 is a remarkable example of the same thing; and yet that instance of it has been perverted to mean that no first generation Christian could have written that epistle!

Some have pointed out that the need for John's teaching here resulted from the most audacious immorality advocated, indulged, and rationalized by heretics such as Valentinus. Irenaeus has a description of such views, which although later associated with the heretic whose name was given to the error, nevertheless existed early in the first century.

They hold that they shall be entirely and undoubtedly saved, not by means of conduct, but because they are spiritual by nature. It is impossible that spiritual substance (and by this they mean themselves) should ever come under the power of corruption, whatever the sort of actions they indulged. For as gold submersed in filth, loses not on that account its beauty, but retains its own native qualities, filth having no power to injure gold, so they affirm that they cannot in any measure suffer hurt, or lose their spiritual substance, whatever the material actions in which they may be involved.[37]

This ancient heresy exists today in a much more sophisticated form in what is heralded as salvation "by faith alone," which has exactly the same meaning as salvation "not by means of conduct."

Man's presumptuous blindness in denying the existence of sin, either as a principle, or as existent within himself, is self-deception at its worst. The Lord's Prayer which enjoined the petitions for daily bread and forgiveness, both assumed and implied the need of daily prayers for forgiveness. "Woe to that soul that presumes to think that he can approach God in any other way than as a sinner asking mercy."[38]

[36] John R. W. Stott, op. cit., p. 77.

[37] Iraeneus, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, On Heresies I, 6,2 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 324.

[38] David Smith, op. cit., p. 172.

Verse 9

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

If we confess our sins ... To whom shall sins be confessed? Certainly, the usual concept of a confessional in a church, where confession is a one-way street, is not what is meant here. Macknight paraphrased this: "If we confess our sins to God with a firm resolution to forsake them, etc." In any confession to other Christians, a mutual confession of sins "to one another" would be the requirement.

Even the confession of sins by Christians to each other is a practice that can be very unrewarding and hurtful. Currently, there are outcroppings of a practice among fervidly religious groups of holding confessionals in which the most sensual and reprehensible conduct is unreservedly reported openly and publicly within such groups. In such a context, that is bragging about sins, not confessing them; and it cannot be possible that John had any such thing in mind. There are no New Testament examples of a religious service being built around any such orgy of self-revelation. Confessions of sins "one to another" among Christians means an admission of guilt where it exists as a barrier to their fellowship, a mutual sharing of blame, and a restoration of the broken harmony.

It is difficult for man's ego to admit blame and guilt, society as a whole being hardly capable of any such admission. More and more, the trend is to deny sin exists. Drunkards have merely contracted an unfortunate disease, alcoholism! Adulterers and philanderers are schizophrenic! Thieves, murderers, outlaws, etc. are not criminals at all, but anti-social, a state induced by society itself. Sinful behavior is not that at all, but the natural response to one's heredity, environment, deprivation or other things beyond the sinner's control. The apostolic word for all such thinking is "self-deception."

Our sins ... It is not the principle of sin merely that is to be acknowledged but the plurality of sins. This has been misunderstood as meaning "all of our sins publicly"; but no such meaning is in it. Rather the need for acknowledging and confessing sin again, and again, as multiple occasions arise requiring it, is the true meaning. The right course is not repetitious confessions of all the sins one can remember, but the admission of sin on the successive occasions when the believer stumbles. If this is done, the aggregate is "confessing our sins," no less than the indulgence of such things as the group confessionals mentioned above.

(God) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins ... It is a false view that construes this as meaning that God would not be just and righteous if he did not forgive us wicked sinners! God does not prove his righteousness by forgiving sinners, who in any just frame of reference must be accounted as worthy of eternal death. No, that is not what John meant. Roberts has the truth thus: "He is faithful in that he will not go back on the promise he made in Christ Jesus."[39] Scott also has a wonderful word on this: "He is faithful to forgive us because he has promised to do so, and just because his Son died for our sins."[40] In the forgiveness of Christians of their sins and his continual cleansing them from such sins, God displays loyalty to the sacred covenant he himself established. Furthermore, the theoretical grounds, the rational basis, upon which it is just for God to forgive sins is established in the Person and sacrifice of the Son of God. God may justly forgive us, because Christ paid the penalty that was due. The justice of God in allowing our participation in the benefits of that sacrifice is vindicated and proved by the manner of incorporating those to be forgiven into the spiritual body of Christ, and then justifying them, not in their own sinful identities, but as Christ and in Christ.

[39] J. W. Roberts, op. cit., p. 35.

[40] John R. W. Stott, op. cit., p. 77.

Verse 10

If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

If we say ... These repeated expressions (1 John 1:6,8,10) indicate the principal stream of the apostle's thought in this section. He is still dealing with evil heresies that had encroached upon the Christian fellowship.

If we say that we have not sinned ... This is the most blatant and offensive of all the false theories. "To go to the length of denying past sin and present guilt, is not only to becloud ourselves with sophistry but to give the lie to God himself."[41] God gave his only begotten Son upon the cross that man might be saved from sin, a salvation that was impossible for any man apart from God's redeeming act. If man had not been sinful and utterly helpless to achieve salvation for himself, all of the heavenly outpouring of God's merciful visitation in the person of his Son was unnecessary; the crucifixion was a useless murder; and every promise of the gospel is essentially a lie. John's language here is certainly not too strong. People who deny their need of redemption from sin, through the pretense of not ever having sinned, are of all people most guilty and contemptible. "To say that we have not sinned is not just to tell a deliberate lie, or to be self-deceived, but actually to accuse God of lying, to make him a liar."[42]

His word is not in us ... Characteristic of John's writings is his use of such words as "word" and "truth" to stand for the whole body of gospel teaching. Moreover, "the truth" or "the word" in John's view was not some indefinite and nebulous goal pursued by the Christians seeking to know it; it was something which they already knew, already had, already walked in, already obeyed. The reference, of course, is to the basic gospel of the New Testament which is perfect, complete, final, and sufficient. It is not to be added to nor taken from. Such is the Johannine conception of the message which he and other apostles delivered to people that they might be saved.

[41] Amos N. Wilder, op. cit., p. 225.

[42] John R. W. Stott, op. cit., p. 79.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 John 1". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-john-1.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.