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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1 John 1

Verses 1-4

[1.

The Exordium (1 John 1:1-4).

(1)

OBJECT AND PURPOSE OF THE APOSTOLIC PREACHING: The setting forth of the historical Christ for the spread of human fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:1-3).

(2)

DESIGN OF THE EPISTLE: Fulness of joy for those who should read it (1 John 1:4).]

(1) That which was from the beginning.—The profound emotion, the hearty sympathy, the tender anxiety which St. John feels as he begins his counsels to his friends, mark off this introduction very distinctly from the parallel passage in the Gospel. There it was calm contemplation of the height and depth of Christ’s existence; here he vehemently insists on the personal relation between the Word and those to whom He had been revealed.

As in the Gospel, he starts with the grandeur of an indefiniteness beyond which no eye can pierce: At the beginning of all that concerns us, be it world or universe or all creation, there was——that which we are announcing. “That which,” not “Him who,” because it is not merely the Person of Christ which he is going to declare, but also His Being, all that relates to Him, His gospel, the treasures of wisdom that lay in Him, His truth, all that could be known about Him by human ken.

The vibrating eloquence of the passage makes the construction at first sight obscure. But take “that declare we unto you” (1 John 1:3) as the principal verb, set aside 1 John 1:2 as a parenthesis, notice the rising climax of 1 John 1:1 (heard, seen, looked upon, handled), pause at the end of 1 John 1:1 to sum up the results of this climax in the words “of (or, that which concerns) the Word of life,” and at the beginning of 1 John 1:3 resume the thoughts interrupted by the parenthesis, and all is at once clear.

Which we have heard.—All those gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth, enough to fill countless books could they have been noted down. St. John has given us more of these than any other of the Evangelists; and their effect upon him was such that it is almost the same as if he had written down nothing at all of his own; for the thought and style of Him who had loved him more intimately than others, had moulded his own thought and style into a strikingly close resemblance. “We” includes ail the eye-witnesses. (Comp. Luke 1:2.)

Which we have seen.—All that is meant by the Word of God in its fullest sense had been seen in the human Person of Jesus of Nazareth during His earthly sojourn, and especially during the three years’ ministry. In a similar sense Jesus Himself said, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father,” John 14:9. (Comp. 1 John 4:14; Isaiah 40:5; 2 Peter 1:16.)

With our eyes.—This gives the same force as “the Word was made flesh;” it was an actual personal visible revelation, as opposed to the evolving of a religious system out of the inner consciousness or reflection.

Which we have looked upon.—A more deliberate and closer contemplation; for which John had special opportunities, as one of the inner three, and again as he who lay on Jesus’ bosom. There is a change of tense implying emphasis on the historic fact, “which in those days we gazed upon.”

And our hands have handled.—Comp. Matthew 26:49; Luke 24:39; John 20:27. This and the foregoing expressions might be directed against Cerinthus and the Doketists—those that held that Christ was only a phantom.

Of the Word of life.All that concerns the Word of the true Life, the Reason, or Son, or Express Image of God, in whom was inherent all life, material as well as moral or religious. (Comp. John 1:4; John 5:26; John 11:25; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:3.)

(2) For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us.—The parenthesis reiterates with redoubled force that the whole essence of the relation of God to man lies in the audible, visible, tangible, historical appearance of God in Jesus. After the manner of St. John, the word “life” at the end of the last sentence suggests the form of the phrasing in the new sentence: Jesus was that Eternal Life which was at the side of the Father, in communion with Him, in equal intercourse with Him; that Life on which all other existence, physical and spiritual, depend (1) for its license to exist, (2) for its fulfilment of the end for which it was created. (See Note on John 1:4.)

Verses 5-10

[2.

First Half. God is Light (1 John 1:5 to 1 John 2:28).

(1)

STATEMENT OF THE LEADING THOUGHT (1 John 1:5).

(2)

FIRST INFERENCE: The true fellowship (1 John 1:6-7); the Christian must not sin.

(3)

SECOND INFERENCE: Confession of sins (1 John 1:8-10); the Christian must not conceal his sin.

(4)

THIRD INFERENCE: Remedy for sins (1 John 2:1-2).

(5)

OBEDIENCE THE SIGN OF WALKING IN LIGHT (1 John 2:3-8).

(6)

ESPECIALLY BROTHERLY LOVE (1 John 2:9-10).

(7)

THE THINGS THEY MUST NOT LOVE IF THEY WALKED IN THE LIGHT (1 John 2:12-17).

(8)

THE MANIFESTATIONS OF DARKNESS (1 John 2:18-28).

(a)

Signs whereby they should know the forerunners of the last time (1 John 2:18-23).

(b)

Exhortation to continue in the light (1 John 2:24-28).]

(1) (5) This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you.—What the Son had received from the Father, this the Apostles were to report to the world. The attention is aroused, as by the silence before the thunderstorm, to expect a central and fundamental notion of the utmost importance.

That God is light.—Here is the essence of Christian theology, the truth about the Deity as opposed to all the imperfect conceptions of Him which had embittered the minds of the wise. To the heathen, Deity had meant angry, malevolent beings, worshipped best by the secrecy of outrageous vice; to the Greeks and Romans, forces of nature transformed into superhuman men and women, powerful and impure; to the philosophers, an abstraction either moral or physical; to the Gnostics it was a remote idea, equal and contending forces of good and evil, recognisable only through less and less perfect deputies. All this John, summing up what the Old Testament and our Lord had said about the Almighty Father, sweeps away in one simple declaration of truth. Light was God’s garment in Psalms 104:2; to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:2), the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord was brightness; to Habakkuk (1 John 3:3), His brightness was as the light; Christ had called the sons of God children of the light (John 12:36), and announced Himself as the Light of the World (John 8:12); in the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:3), Christ was the refracted ray of the Father’s glory, “the express image of His person;” to James, the Almighty was the Father of all lights (James 1:17); to Paul, He dwells “in the light that no man can approach unto” (1 Timothy 6:16); to St. Peter, the Christian state is an admission “into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). These ideas John comprehends: God is Light. Light physical, because (1) it was He who called everything first out of darkness, and (2) from whom proceeds all health and perfection; light intellectual, because (1) He is the source of all wisdom and knowledge, and (2) in His mind exist the ideals after which all things strive; light moral, because (1) His perfection shows that the difference between good and evil is not merely a question of degree, but fundamental and final, and (2) the life of Christ had exhibited that contrast sharply: once for all. Thus, on this declaration depends the whole doctrine of sin: sin is not merely imperfection; it is enmity to God. There can be no shades of progression, uniting good and evil: in Him is no darkness at all. Good and evil may be mixed in an individual: in themselves they are contrary.

(2) (6) If we say.—A favourite form with John, expressing sympathetic delicacy.

That we have fellowship with him. . . .—Some of the Gnostics (like the Anabaptists) said that on account of their spiritual knowledge they were free to act as they liked, without committing sin. For walking as a description of the spiritual state, compare 1 John 2:6; 2 John 1:6; Romans 6:4; Romans 8:4; Ephesians 4:17; Philippians 3:20.

Darkness would include any conscious habit which was opposed to God’s example of perfection.

We lie.—We are a self-contradiction, and we know it.

And do not the truth.—The truth with St. John is as much a matter of action as of thought and word; that sphere of conduct which is in harmony with God, whose nature is Light.

(7) As he is in the light.—The effulgence of the atmosphere of the perfectly good, the sinlessly loving, the gloriously pure, which, created by God and proceeding from Him, is specially “His throne.” At the same time, wherever such characteristics of Divine Light are found, there He is particularly present.

We have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.—The antithesis to “lying and doing not the truth,” presented under the twofold aspect of (1) the brotherly result of walking with God, (2) its purifying influence. Each human being that comes near us becomes the object of our friendly sympathy; and the sacrifice of Christ has both put away the sin of the world and prevents sin from reigning in our mortal bodies; it obtains forgiveness for us, and by reminding us that it was sin that brought Jesus to the cross, has a continually purifying power over us, through the Spirit of Christ and of the Father. (See 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 1:19-20; Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19-23.)

(3) (8) If we say that we have no sin.—The preceding words had reminded St. John that even mature Christians, though certainly not “walking in darkness,” yet have sinful tendencies in themselves: sensuous impulses, non-spiritual inclinations, lack of self-knowledge, a lowered standard, principles and views borrowed partly from the world, wavering of will, and hence even graver faults. Not to admit this would be to mislead ourselves, and in us the power and energy of light, searching the very corners of the heart, would not be working. (See Romans 7:18-23; Galatians 5:17.)

(9) If we confess our sins.—An advance in the thought from the general “having sin.” Confession to God must recognise and measure each particular fault. (Psalms 32:5; Psalms 51:3; Proverbs 28:13; Luke 15:21.)

He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.—He, from the context, cannot possibly be any other than God. Here another grand progression of thought meets us: not merely “we are in the truth,” but the actual and glorious result on God’s side; faithful and just on account of Christ’s sacrifice and our repentance. For the double notion of forgiving and cleansing, see Note on 1 John 1:7. The Romish interpreters, in their arbitrary way, limit the cleansing here to purgatory.

(10) If we say that we have not sinned.—The argument of the passage equally excludes the interpretation “freedom from guilt since conversion” as “innocence during the whole life.” St. John is here repeating, in a more emphatic form, the thought of 1 John 1:8.

We make him a liar, and his word is not in us.—Stronger far than “we lie,” or “the truth is not in us.” Our foolish presumption is regarded in its worst aspect: an impiety against God, whose word, revelation, appeal to our conscience, and witness by the Spirit, are thus blasphemously contradicted. Parallel to “we do not the truth” and “the truth is not in us,” the practical result here is that we cannot be regarded as having in any sense received God’s revelation into our hearts.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 John 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-john-1.html. 1905.