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Bible Commentaries
1 John 1

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

The "beginning" (Gr. arche) may refer to the beginning of all things (John 1:1) or the beginning of the creation (Genesis 1:1). It could also refer to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (i.e., His incarnation; John 1:14), the beginning of the readers’ experience as Christians, or the beginning of the Christian gospel. The last option seems most consistent with what John proceeded to say about that beginning (1 John 2:7; 1 John 2:24; 1 John 3:11; cf. Mark 1:1-4; Acts 1:21-22). The baptism of Jesus, the start of His public ministry and its proclamation, signaled this beginning.

John’s verbs indicate progressively closer approach to the object of investigation. The essence of fellowship is increasing intimacy. Our fellowship with God must involve drawing closer to Him and viewing Him more intently all the time to be genuine fellowship. The same is true of fellowship on the human level. John used his three basic senses to highlight the reality of the object so his readers would know that he was not speaking metaphorically. He cited personal experience and appealed to empirical evidence to support the humanity of Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 24:39). Some false teachers denied His humanity. [Note: Bruce, pp. 16-17.]

"Extreme Docetism [i.e., Docetic Gnostics] held that Jesus was not human at all but was merely a prolonged theophany, while moderate Docetism [i.e., Cerinthian Gnostics] considered Jesus the natural son of Joseph and Mary, upon whom Christ came at the time of baptism." [Note: Ryrie, p. 1464. Cf. Robertson, 6:200.]

Specific instances of personal encounter with Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 24:39) had left a continuing impression on John, as is clear from the verb tenses (perfect in the Greek text).

John may have used "we" editorially to represent himself personally, or "we" may include all Christians. It is more likely, however, that "we" represents John and the other eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ. In this epistle John was speaking for others beside himself, and he was seeking to persuade still other believers of something not all of them had experienced or acknowledged (cf. Luke 1:2). [Note: D. Edmond Hiebert, "An Expositional Study of 1 John," Bibliotheca Sacra 145:578 (April-June 1988):203.]

The "word of life" probably refers to the message about Jesus Christ, namely, the gospel. [Note: Westcott, pp. 6-7; C. H. Dodd, The Johanine Epistles, pp. 3-6; and J. L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johanine Epistles, pp. 50- 52.] John referred to Jesus as "the Word" in his Gospel, and he described Jesus claiming to be "the life" (John 14:6). The phrase "word of life" seems more likely to describe the message about the Person who is and who personifies life (cf. 1 John 1:2; Philippians 2:16; Acts 5:20). John probably spoke of Christ as "what" rather that "He" because John wanted to emphasize here the content of the message about Christ rather than the person of Christ.

Verses 1-4


"This writing begins without any of the formal features characteristic of a letter, such as we found in 2 John and 3 John. Since the conclusion also lacks any typical features of a letter, we must conclude that the writing is not so much a letter as a written sermon or address." [Note: I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, p. 99.]

John began this epistle by explaining to his audience why he wrote. He said he wrote so his readers would enjoy the fellowship with God that is possible only to those who have seen Him. This fellowship, he explained, rests on the reality of Jesus Christ’s incarnation, and it results in full joy for those who experience it.

"No writer in the New Testament holds with greater intensity the full reality of the incarnation." [Note: William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude, p. 17.]

Verse 2

"Life" is a title of Jesus Christ here as "Word" is in John’s Gospel (John 1:1). It reflects Christian experiences about which John wrote here whereas "Word" (Gr. logos) reflects the facts Jesus declared and that John recorded in the fourth Gospel. Grace and truth explain the Logos in John’s Gospel (John 1:14), but light and love clarify Life in his Epistles.

In 1 John 1:1 the progression in the series of verbs (heard, seen, beheld, and handled) reflects increasingly intent attention to Jesus as the essence of fellowship. The progression in the verbs in 1 John 1:2 (manifested, seen, bear witness, and proclaim) shows the result of contemplating Jesus Christ and enjoying His fellowship, namely, witness. One first sees the manifested Christ. Then, having seen, he or she is able to bear witness. Finally one feels impelled by what that one has seen to announce to others the message of life.

There is a strong stress on the eternality of the life, Jesus Christ, in this verse. The emphases on the quality of the life (eternal) and its equality with the Father make this point (cf. John 1:2). The Incarnation is in view.

Eternal life is such a dominant theme in this epistle that one writer even entitled his commentary on 1 John, The Epistle of Eternal Life. [Note: G. Goodman.] In John’s writings "eternal life" is synonymous with "salvation." [Note: Smalley, p. 10.]

Verse 3

"You," the recipients of this epistle, must have been genuine believers in view of how John referred to them (cf. 1 John 2:12-14; 1 John 2:21; 1 John 2:27; 1 John 5:13). They had not known Jesus Christ in the flesh as the apostles had. John wrote so they could enter into and continue to enjoy the intimate fellowship with Him that the apostolic eyewitnesses enjoyed (cf. Acts 10:40-41). [Note: Westcott, p. 4.]

"This verse introduces the purpose of the Epistle: ’that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.’" [Note: Glenn W. Barker, "1 John," in Hebrews-Revelation, vol. 12 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 307.]

"The main theme of the Epistle is fellowship with God." [Note: John G. Mitchell, Fellowship, p. 14. Cf. Hodges, The Epistles . . ., pp. 34, 50.]

"Here we are given, without any hesitation, a description, the summum bonum, of the Christian life; here, indeed, is the whole object, the ultimate, the goal of all Christian experience and all Christian endeavour. This, beyond any question, is the central message of the Christian gospel and of the Christian faith." [Note: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Fellowship With God: Studies in 1 John, p. 77.]

Fellowship requires and rests on information, a common body of knowledge, and mutual acceptance of that data. John wrote to share this information with his readers.

"Thus two fundamental truths, which the philosophical heresies of the age were apt to obscure or deny, are here clearly laid down at the outset: (1) the distinctness of personality and equality of dignity between the Father and the Son; (2) the identity of the eternal Son of God with the historical person Jesus Christ." [Note: Alfred Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, p. 20.]

"It is an interpretive mistake of considerable moment to treat the term ’fellowship’ as though it meant little more than ’to be a Christian.’" [Note: Hodges, "1 John," p. 883. See 3:24.]

False teachers were preaching information about Jesus Christ that was not true. John also wrote to combat their deception.

". . . the epistle . . . is written to a believing community that is dealing with fallout from the departure (1 John 2:19) of persons with beliefs and practices the author cannot endorse." [Note: Yarbrough, p. 29.]

Verse 4

Here "we" is probably editorial. "These things" refers to what John wrote in this epistle. Not only would his readers experience full joy, but so would John as the readers entered into and continued in intimate fellowship with God (cf. 3 John 1:4). Joy is the product of fellowship with God. When there is no joy, there is no fellowship (cf. John 15:11; John 16:24).

In summary, John wrote as an apostolic eyewitness. He identified two dangers to readers that are still prevalent in the church today. One is the assumption that Christian fellowship is possible without common belief in Christ. The other is the assumption that someone can have a relationship with God without a relationship with Jesus Christ. [Note: Marshall, p. 107-8.] John wrote this epistle so his readers might join and continue in the fellowship with God that is possible only for those who have seen God, as the apostolic eyewitnesses of the incarnate Christ had done.

"He has the heart of a pastor which cannot be completely happy so long as some of those for whom he feels responsible are not experiencing the full blessings of the gospel." [Note: Ibid., p. 105.]

These verses, rather than 1 John 5:13, constitute the comprehensive purpose statement of the epistle. There are four purpose statements in 1 John (1 John 1:3-4; 1 John 2:1; 1 John 5:13) plus 10 imperatives (1 John 2:15; 1 John 2:24; 1 John 2:27-28; 1 John 3:1; 1 John 3:7; 1 John 3:13; 1 John 4:1 [2 times]; 1 John 5:21) any of which could possibly provide John’s purpose for writing. But 1 John 1:3-4 give his most comprehensive primary and secondary purposes in writing. [Note: Yarbrough, p. 46. See also Smalley, p. 15; and Gary W. Derickson, "What Is the Message of 1 John?" Bibliotheca Sacra 150:597 (January-March 1993):89-105.]

"It is usually true that in the introduction to a book we find the key to that book. In the first four verses of this Epistle we find the key." [Note: Mitchell, p. 21. Cf. Hodges, "1 John," pp. 883-84.]

A. Staying on the Path by Walking in God’s Light 1:5-2:2

John began his explanation of what it means to live in the light of God’s fellowship by stressing the importance of continuing to walk in God’s light. Some antinomian Gnostics believed that knowledge was superior to virtue and morality, and John’s revelation here countered that error.

"If the readers are to have fellowship with the Father and with the Son (1 John 1:3), they must understand what makes this possible. They must know who God is in himself and, consequently, who they are in themselves as creatures of God. So the author first describes the moral character of God in terms of light (1 John 1:5) and then goes on to deny three claims made by those who falsely boast of their knowledge and fellowship with God. The false positions are (1) moral behavior is a matter of indifference in one’s relationship to God (1 John 1:6); (2) immoral conduct does not issue in sin for one who knows God (1 John 1:8); and (3) the knowledge of God removes sin as even a possibility in the life of the believer (1 John 1:10). True ’tests’ or evidence of fellowship with God or walking in the light are (1) fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7), with subsequent cleansing by the blood of Christ; (2) confession of sin, (1 John 1:9) which brings both forgiveness and cleansing; and (3) trusting that if we sin we have Jesus Christ as an advocate and sacrifice for our sins (1 John 2:2)." [Note: Barker, p. 309.]

Verse 5

This verse provides a basis for what follows in 1 John 1:6-10 and, in a sense, the whole rest of the letter. One commentator regarded this verse as the main burden of the epistle. [Note: Yarbrough, p. 46.] It gives the standard against which the three following Christian professions fall short.

The "message" is the truth that Jesus Christ, the first "Him," revealed to the apostolic eyewitnesses.

The figure of light that John used to describe God emphasizes His ability to reveal and His ability to deal with what the light of His holiness reveals (cf. John 1:4-5; John 1:7-9; John 3:19-21; John 8:12; John 9:5; John 12:35-36; John 12:46; Revelation 21:23). John elsewhere described God as spirit (John 4:24) and as love (1 John 4:8). All three comparisons of God stress his immateriality and essence. God exposes and condemns sin (called "darkness" in John 1:5; John 3:19; John 12:35 [twice], and in 1 John 1:5-6; 1 John 2:8-9; 1 John 2:11 [twice]). The light figure emphasizes these qualities in God: His splendor and glory, His truthfulness, His purity, His self-communicative nature (cf. Psalms 27:1; Psalms 36:9; Isaiah 49:6; John 1:9), His empowering activity (cf. John 8:12; John 12:35; Ephesians 5:8-14), and His right to demand (cf. John 3:19-21). The light-darkness motif was common in both the Hellenistic and Jewish thought life of John’s day and culture. [Note: Dodd, pp. 18-19; John R. W. Stott, The Epistles of John, p. 70; Theodor H. Gaster, The Dead Sea Scriptures, pp. 46, 49-51.] For John these concepts were mainly ethical (cf. Ephesians 5:8-14).

"Whatever other qualities this metaphorical designation may include, it clearly involves the intellectual and moral-enlightenment and holiness. Just as light reveals and purifies, so by His very nature God illuminates and purifies those who come to Him. His nature determines the conditions for fellowship with Him." [Note: Hiebert, "An Expositional . . .," 145:331.]

"As darkness has no place in God, so all that is of the darkness is excluded from having fellowship with God." [Note: Barker, p. 310. See Westcott, pp. 16-17 for a good discussion of God being light.]

John frequently clarified and emphasized his propositions by restating them in terms of what they are not, as he did here.

Verses 5-11


"Since the apostle’s expressed concern is that his readers might have fellowship with the apostolic circle and thus also with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3), it is reasonable to specify what this fellowship is really like. So, as an introductory section to his epistle, John discusses the nature of true fellowship with God" [Note: Idem, The Epistles . . ., p. 57.]

Verse 6

John may have used the "If we claim" phrase in 1 John 1:6; 1 John 1:8; 1 John 1:10 to voice the teaching of false teachers.

"It is probable that these claims were real statements made by people in the church to which John was writing, and that they reflect the outlook of the people who were causing trouble in the church." [Note: Marshall, p. 110. Cf. Barker, p. 310.]

"John is concerned to alert his readers to approaches to human wrong and wrongdoing that are-or are not-commensurate with God’s brilliant character as revealed in his Son." [Note: Yarbrough, p. 59.]

John’s claim here is that the Christian who professes to have fellowship with God who is light (holiness) but disobeys Him is lying. A practicing sinner cannot have close fellowship with a holy God, though he can have a relationship with God (i.e., be a true Christian). God revealed this truth throughout Scripture. Action was a very important part of true knowledge for John, and it must be for us as well (cf. James).

The Greek word translated "fellowship" (koinonia) here means sharing by two or more parties. It does not refer to sharing salvation. Some commentators take the phrases "have fellowship with Him" and "walk in the light" as describing salvation. [Note: E.g., Lloyd-Jones, pp. 130, 142. ] Advocates of this view say that if a Christian does not persevere in the faith he or she is not a Christian. This interpretation may result in back loading the gospel with works. One writer held that "walking in the light" describes the criteria for access to the Father. The criteria for that validation is not good works but believing the revelation of imputed righteousness and forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, which John defines as "the light" (revelation). Thus, one "walks in the light" if he or she believes in Jesus Christ. If one "walks in darkness," he or she does not believe in Jesus Christ and thus has no access to the Father. [Note: Charles P. Baylis, "The Meaning of Walking ’in the Darkness’ (1 John 1:6)," Bibliotheca Sacra 149:594 (April-June 1992):214-22.]

John earlier said his aim was that his readers, who were Christians (1 John 2:12-14; 1 John 2:21; 1 John 2:27), should enjoy fellowship with the apostolic eyewitnesses that they did not then share (1 John 1:3).

". . . all true ’fellowship’ is predicated on apostolic doctrine." [Note: Zane C. Hodges, "Fellowship and Confession in 1 John 1:5-10," Bibliotheca Sacra 129:513 (January-March 1972):52.]

Verse 7

Walking in the light means walking in the sphere that the light prescribes. The idea is more where we walk than how we walk. Had John said "according to" the light rather than "in" the light, he would have been requiring sinless perfection for fellowship with God. We must be open and responsive to the light that we have, which increases as we grow in our knowledge of God’s will.

"How do we do this? If I enter a lighted room and walk around in it, I am walking in the light; I am moving in a sphere which the light illuminates as it shines not only on me but upon everything around me. If I were to personalize the light, I could also say that I was walking in the presence of the light. Since according to this passage God not only is light (1 John 1:5), but He is also in the light, to walk in the light must mean essentially to live in God’s presence, exposed to what He has revealed about Himself. This, of course, is done through openness in prayer and through openness to the Word of God in which He is revealed.

"By contrast, to ’walk in darkness’ (1 John 1:6) is to hide from God and to refuse to acknowledge what we know about Him." [Note: Idem, The Epistles . . ., pp. 60-61.]

"One another" evidently means God and us rather than our fellow believers and us in view of the context. We share the light in which God dwells. Another view is that John meant that we cannot enjoy fellowship with God if we neglect fellowship with other Christians. [Note: Barker, p. 310; Westcott, p. 20.]

Two things are equally true of believers who walk in the light according to this verse: we enjoy fellowship with God, and we are experiencing cleansing from every sin.

"This ["every sin"] refers to man’s sinful nature in general, although it may include the wrong acts which can occur even when a Christian is living ’in the light.’" [Note: Smalley, p. 24.]

"The thought is not of the forgiveness of sin only, but of the removal of sin. The sin is done away; and the purifying action is exerted continuously." [Note: Westcott, p. 21.]

God cleanses us at conversion in the sense that He will never bring us into condemnation for our sins (cf. Romans 8:1; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 1:7). However, we need continual cleansing from the defilement that sinful daily living brings because it hinders our fellowship with God (cf. John 13:10). The "blood of Jesus" is a metonymy for the death of Jesus. [Note: Ryrie, p. 1467.] A metonymy is a figure of speech in which a writer uses the name of one thing for that of another associated with it or suggested by it. It is Christ’s death that cleanses us, not that Jesus’ blood cleanses us like a kind of spiritual soap.

"What John has in mind here is the cleansing of the conscience from guilt and moral defilement which is so insisted on in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 10:2; Hebrews 10:22), and which takes a leading place among the saving benefits of the redemptive self-sacrifice of Christ." [Note: Bruce, p. 44.]

Verse 8

This second claim (cf. 1 John 1:6) is more serious, and its results are worse: we do not just lie, but we deceive ourselves.

If a Christian claims to be enjoying fellowship with God, he may think he is temporarily or permanently entirely sinless. Yet our sinfulness exceeds our consciousness of guilt. We have only a very limited appreciation of the extent to which we sin. We commit sins of thought as well as deed, sins of omission as well as commission, and sins that spring from our nature as well as from our actions.

Some have interpreted the phrase "no sin" to mean no sin nature or no sin principle. [Note: E.g., Smalley, p. 29.] However this seems out of harmony with John’s other uses of "to have sin" (cf. John 15:22; John 15:24; John 19:11). Rather, it probably means to have no guilt for sin. [Note: Robert Law, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John, p. 130; Robertson, 6:208.]

God’s truth, as Scripture reveals it, does not have a full hold on us, is not controlling our thinking, if we make this claim. "In us" suggests not that we have the facts in our mental grasp but that they have control over us. They are in us as a thread is in a piece of cloth rather than as a coin is in a pocket. The same contrast exists between intellectual assent and saving faith.

Verse 9

This verse is the converse of 1 John 1:8. Acknowledging the sins of which we are aware is opposite to saying we are not guilty for sinning. The Greek word translated "confess" (homologeo) literally means to say the same thing. Confessing therefore means saying about our sins what God says about them, namely, that they are indeed sins, offenses against Him, and not just mistakes, blunders, or errors. One scholar wrote that this is public confession. [Note: Westcott, p. 23] But there does not seem to be good reason to read that into the text.

"’He who confesses and condemns his sins,’ says Augustine, ’already acts with God. God condemns thy sins: if thou also dost condemn them, thou art linked on to God.’" [Note: A. Ross, The Epistles of James and John, p. 146.]

If we confess our sins, God will then forgive the sins we confess and will, in addition, cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Consequently we do not need to worry that He has failed to forgive us for sins of which we are unaware! Sin incurs a debt to God, but forgiveness (Gr. aphiemi) cancels the debt and dismisses the charge. Sin also pollutes the sinner, but God’s cleansing (katharizo) removes the stain so we can be holy again. God absolutely promises forgiveness that is consistent with His justice (because Jesus Christ paid the penalty for all our sins).

Some expositors teach that this verse cannot apply to Christians since God has already forgiven Christians and therefore we do not need to ask for what we already have. [Note: E.g., Peter E. Gillquist, Love Is Now, p. 64.] This viewpoint fails to distinguish between forensic forgiveness that we receive at conversion and family forgiveness that we need after conversion. For example, a judge could pay his own son’s fine in court but then discipline him when he got home. Jesus instructed His believing disciples to ask the Father for forgiveness (Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4). The fact that God has removed the penalty for our sins at conversion (1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 2:13) does not remove the necessity of confessing our sins frequently. Again, the issue is not acceptance by God but fellowship with God. Conversion (forensic, positional) forgiveness makes us acceptable as members of God’s family. Continual (family, practical) forgiveness enables us to experience intimate fellowship as sons within God’s family.

"Sin interrupts fellowship but cannot change relationship." [Note: The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1342.]

"The status just described is analogous to God’s full acceptance of Israel, as expressed in Balaam’s inspired utterance: ’He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel’ (Numbers 23:21). Yet, on a practical level, Israel was full of failures!" [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 67. For further discussion of this verse see Ed Glasscock, "Forgiveness and Cleansing in 1 John 1:9," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:662 (April-June 2009):217-31.]

"Confession of sin to God and to one another (James 5:16) is urged throughout the N.T. from John the Baptist (Mark 1:5) on." [Note: Robertson, 6:208.]

Verse 10

The false claim here is that the sin we have committed is not really sin. This is the third and most serious charge (cf. 1 John 1:6; 1 John 1:8). It puts God’s revelation of sin aside and makes man the authority for what is and what is not sin. This claim says God is wrong in His judgment of man and is therefore a liar. The claimant dismisses His Word as invalid (e.g., Psalms 14:3; Isaiah 53:6; John 2:24-25; Romans 3:23).

Each of these three false claims in 1 John 1:6; 1 John 1:8; 1 John 1:10 is a denial of the truth that immediately precedes it in 1 John 1:5; 1 John 1:7; 1 John 1:9 respectively. The corrective to each false claim follows in the verse immediately after it.

TruthFalse claim
God is light (1 John 1:5).We have fellowship with Him (1 John 1:6).
Walking in the light is necessary for fellowship with God (1 John 1:7).We have no guilt for sin (1 John 1:8).
Confession is necessary to restore fellowship with God (1 John 1:9).We have not sinned (1 John 1:10).

"It would be difficult to find any single passage of Scripture more crucial and fundamental to daily Christian living than 1 John 1:5-10. For here, in a few brief verses, the ’disciple whom Jesus loved’ has laid down for us the basic principles which underlie a vital walk with God." [Note: Hodges, "Fellowship and . . .," p. 48.]

"What then is the principle of fellowship with God? Succinctly stated, it is openness to God and full integrity in the light of His Word." [Note: Ibid., p. 60. Cf. Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, p. 482.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 John 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-john-1.html. 2012.
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