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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

1 John 1

Verses 1-10

1 John 1:1

The ancient philosophers, too, spoke of a wise man who was the type and exemplar of all goodness, about whom strange paradoxes were affirmed that he was a king, that he might be happy on the rack, and the like. This was their mode of describing philosophy. But they never supposed that Socrates or Chrysippus, or any other great teacher, really fulfilled this ideal. They did not 'see with their eyes,' nor 'touch with their hands,' the Word of Life. Nevertheless the Greek ideal, which is not confined to the Stoics, but is found to a certain extent in Aristotle and Plato, does throw a distant light on the relation of Christ to His disciples in the first ages. For it seems to show that in all ages mankind have been seeking for something more than ideas; they have wanted a person like themselves in whom they might see truth and goodness face to face.

Benjamin Jowett.

I do not know what Christians generally make of that first Epistle of John. As far as I notice, they usually read only from the eighth verse of the first chapter to the second of the second; and remain convinced that they may do whatever they like all their lives long, and have everything made smooth for them by Christ. And even of the poor fragment they choose to read, they miss out always the first words of the second chapter.... But whatever modern Christians and their clergy choose to make of this Epistle, there is no excuse for any rational person, who reads it carefully from beginning to end, yet pretends to misunderstand its words. However originally confused, however afterwards interpolated or miscopied, the message of it remains clear in its three divisions: (1) That the Son of God is come in the flesh (ch. 4:2; 5:20, and so throughout); (2) That He hath given us understanding that we may know Him that is true (3:19; 4:13; 5:19-20); and (3) That in this understanding we know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren (3:14). All which teachings have so passed from deed and truth into mere monotony of unbelieved phrase, that no English now is literal enough to bring the force of them home to my readers' minds.

Ruskin, Fors Clavigera (LXXXI.).

For an Exposition of the Epistles see: Fellowship in the Life Eternal: An Exposition of the Epistles of St. John, by G. G. Findlay.

References. I. 1-2. J. R. Gregory, Preacher's Magazine, vol. iv. p. 268. I. 1-3 Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 145.

1 John 1:2

'Nothing,' says Herbert Spencer in Education (ch. II.), 'requires more to be insisted on than that vivid and complete impressions are all essential No sound fabric of wisdom can be woven out of rotten raw-materials.'

References. I. 2. Newman Smyth, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 392. J. N. Bennie, The Eternal Life, p. 1. R. J. Campbell, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvi. p. 211. J. T. Stannard, The Divine Humanity, p. 12. C. Kingsley, The Good News of God, p. 19. H. Bonar, Short Sermons for Family Reading, pp. 20, 26. Expositor (5th Series), vol. v. p. 254. I. 2, 3. Archbishop Cosmo Lang, Church Times, vol. lix. p. 817.

The Indwelling God

1 John 1:3

I. How are we to conceive of the indwelling God?

All nature is a revelation of God, and nature must be interpreted by what is highest in man. When we think of man we think not only of his will, his mind, and his goodness, but of something higher still of which he is capable the quality of love. God therefore cannot be less. He can only be infinitely more than all we can conceive of love in its utmost intensity and self-sacrifice. In Him wisdom, will, goodness, love, reach to the highest imaginable point of intensity and reality, and this God is every moment within you closer than your breathing, nearer than your very selves, 'so close that He is not even so far off as to be near'.

II. What is the right relationship with this indwelling God? What is the relationship that we may conceive Him to desire for us? What God is yearning for is that we may enter into fellowship with Himself. We are made for this fellowship with God; it is the law of our being. Are you not conscious as you think of this necessary fellowship between you and the indwelling God of at least two obstacles to our attaining to it? (1) The first is our ignorance. (2) The second obstacle is our sin.

Archbishop Cosmo Lang, Church Family Newspaper, vol. XIV. p. 792.

Fellowship with Christ (for St. John the Evangelist's Day)

1 John 1:3

Is it surprising that fellowship should be the keynote of this Epistle? Do we not find the explanation in that beautiful description recorded in the Gospel for the day, that St. John was 'the disciple whom Jesus loved?'

True fellowship is the union of a common service of love for Christ's sake. What really is the triumph of Christianity in each life, in the Church, and in the world? It is getting each one to serve the others with his best.

I. Our Fellowship in Christ is Based on Relationships. It is 'with the Father'. We are, as Christians, not a separated, scattered family; we are all with the Father; we are all at home; we are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, in the actual relations of family life, and our Father is with us. They who have present fellowship with the Father make up the 'whole family in heaven and in earth'. St John wanted those disciples to whom he wrote to have full fellowship with him; but he knew that they could only gain it as they had what he had, 'fellowship with the Father'.

II. Our Fellowship in Christ is Based on Character. 'With His Son, Jesus Christ.' God smiled out of heaven upon His Son, and said, 'This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased'. It was Christ's character with which He was so pleased. Christ bade His disciples 'follow Him'; but He did not merely mean, 'attend upon Me; or step into My footprints'. He meant, 'Be like Me; do like Me; have My mind; breathe My spirit; work My works; be changed into My image; be such sons of the Father as I am'. St. John so carefully says, 'Fellowship with the Son,' to remind us that the spirit of sonship is essential both to fellowship with the Father and with each other. Be a son with Christ, and it will be easy to keep in brotherhood. Keep in full fellowship with the Son, by being good and sonlike as He was, and there need be no fear about our fellowship with one another.

1 John 1:3

If we cannot commune with our friends, we can at least commune with Him to whom they are present, who is infinitely with them as with us. He is the true bond of union between the spirit-world and our souls; and one blest hour of prayer; when we draw near to Him and feel the breadth and length and depth and height of that love of His that passeth knowledge, is better than all those incoherent, vain, dreamy glimpses with which longing hearts are cheated. They who have disbelieved all spiritual truth, who have been Sadduceeic doubters of either angel or spirit, may find in modern spiritualism a great advance. But can anyone who has ever really had communion with Christ, who has said with John, 'Truly our fellowship is with the Father and the Son' can such an one be satisfied with what is found in the modern circle?

Harriet Beecher Stowe.

References. I. 3. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. vii. No. 409; vol. 1. No. 2905. I. 3, 4. A. H. Moncur Sime, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. p. 84. F. W. Farrar, Truths to Live By, p. 16.

St. John the Evangelist's Day

1 John 1:4

St. John, whose festival we commemorate today, gives in our text his reason for writing the Epistle. The Apostle, who lay on the breast of the Master at supper, and who describes himself as he 'whom Jesus loved,' carried ever after with him the atmosphere of sweet and holy rest. It breathes in all his writings; the spirit of one who knows his God, who has felt the Divine love, and can with confidence look forward to the future. He speaks with simple directness of the fellowship that the believer should have in Christ. He shows, as he has proved in his own life, the connection between sound doctrine and holy living, between faith and practice. The love of Jesus Christ is his greatest experience, and this love has kindled a corresponding flame in his own heart which is as the mainspring of all his actions. He would have all believers know this love, and experience a like peace and rest He writes these things 'that their joy may be full'.

I. Joy in God. As we have seen, St. John saw an intimate connection between right believing and right living, and his right faith and right conduct brought him that piece of mind and gladness which should ever be a heritage of the Christian. A special note of his message is its calm assurance and confidence in the Divine love, and this confidence he feels should also be the portion of every believer in Jesus Christ. In emphasis of his message, twenty-seven times, in this short Epistle, the word 'know' occurs. His desire is that we should have the joy and gladness, the great benefit to our souls, of knowing that as God's children we are in His keeping; that our spiritual progress is carefully guarded and fostered by him; that He concerns Himself to sustain and protect His people. And from this knowledge of the goodness of God and His unremitting love will spring joy and confidence. Was it not part of the very purpose of the Son of God in coming to this earth to change sin and sorrow into gladness and joy? His life and death of sorrow were that we might have happiness. He rose with healing in His wings that pain and suffering might be relieved. His will is that his children may know by faith the very real joy of His presence in their hearts, and look forward to that greater joy and gladness when they shall see Him face to face, and shall dwell in His presence for ever.

II. Joy in a wholehearted Service of Love. This was doubtless the Apostle's own experience. In the midst of a long and arduous life of toil for the Master, during periods of bitter and cruel persecution of the Church, he still maintains this note of full confidence of the glory of perseverance for a cause bound to be ultimately victorious. And love was the motive power; the sense and knowledge of the individual care and love of the Son of God for him, and a deep concern for the souls for whom Jesus came to die. And what a transforming power such love for and personal knowledge of God brings! How it changes and alters the character, bringing in the joy of conscious strength! The weak man is made strong; the nervous man confident; the vacillating is given decision of character. Moses, shy and apprehensive, fleeing from vengeance, is changed into the bold and purposeful leader. Now rebuking Pharaoh upon his throne, again withstanding the people and pronouncing judgment upon their unfaithfulness. Jeremiah, bewailing his youth and inexperience, is changed into the prophet conscious that he is God's mouthpiece, condemning sin and foretelling further punishment Zacchaeus, the tax-gatherer, is changed from the oppressor of the poor to the conscientious follower of Christ, righting past wrongs and giving liberally of his means. Saul of Tarsus, the bigoted oppressor of the brethren, proud of his position and intellectual attainments, is changed into St. Paul, the earnest missionary and humble-minded follower of Christ. 'The people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits.' A life of strong, purposeful service for Christ is a life of true joy, such as the idler in the vineyard can never know. It matters not where our field of service lie: whether in the home circle, the place of business, the workshop, or in more directly spiritual work among the young, teaching them their inheritance in the kingdom, or in service in the house of God; whenever we do it from motives of love, anxious for Divine commission and enabling power, it becomes to us a service of truest heart-satisfaction and joy.

1 John 1:4

'There comes a period of life,' says Maeterlinck, 'when we have more joy in saying the thing that is true than in saying the thing that is merely wonderful'.

Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste.

Charlotte Brontë.

References. I. 4. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vii. p. 97. 1. 5. Ibid. vol. ii. p. 322. R. J. Wardell, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xviii. p. 83. R. W. Church, Village Sermons, p. 296. F. W. Farrar, Truths to Live By, p. 31.

1 John 1:6

The great and real source of doubt in which all lesser doubts seem to be swallowed up, is the apathy and indifference of Christian men, saying one thing and doing another.... No intellectual arguments have any power to pacify such doubts; the only answer to them is the removal of the grounds upon which they rest.

Benjamin Jowett.

References. I. 6. F. W. Farrar, Truths to Live By, p. 47. I. 6, 7. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxiii. No. 1986.

The Cleansing Blood of Christ

1 John 1:7

While there are happily many signs of return to a deeper and more Evangelic conception of Christianity, there are also symptoms that disquiet and dishearten. Among these we place the acceptance, so far as it has gone, among Evangelical teachers, of Bishop Westcott's exegesis of the text, 'The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin'. By Dr. Westcott the cleansing action is explained not in connexion with propitiation and acceptance, but as the internal purification of will and thought and heart by the life-power of our Lord in His people. In other words, the blood is practically the life or spirit of Jesus Christ working in His members. Even the literary sense might teach that the Apostle meant something far deeper than that. But while human nature remains what it is, there will be a strong tendency to put forward the impartation of spiritual life and a subjective moral deliverance, and to throw into the far background all that has to do with the satisfaction of Christ, the broken law, the sense of guilt and remorse, and the reversal of Divine condemnation.

I. When we look at the text, 'The blood of Jesus Christ His Son, cleanseth us from all sin,' and keep in view the analogy of the Apostle's writings and the tenor of the New Testament, we can hardly fail to come to the conclusion so ably advocated by Dr. Moule as against Westcott by a long array of Scriptural passages from the Old and New Testament Dr. Moule shows that the blood of Jesus Christ God's Son is the blood of death, the seal of the covenant, the cruor of atoning sacrifice. The idea of life does not enter at all. Fellowship with God and walking in the light can never take sin away. No emotion, no feeling, no attainment, no height of spirituality, can remove our guilt. Our guilt was taken away by the great Propitiation, when He suffered without the gate, and knew the withdrawings of God. We have our peace not from the reigning Saviour, but from the bleeding Saviour, not from the King in His glory, but from the Redeemer in His shame. For this text speaks of a complete cleansing. We are cleansed from all sin. Even though the body of sin crucified within us is dying its slow, difficult death, there is a great sense in which we are even now delivered from all evil. Through the blood-shedding of Christ we have remission of sins now, and are truly forgiven as we shall be when the light of the glory of God falls on the resurrection face. So far as sin is a matter of guilt before God, it is taken away even to the last relic of evil, and we walk with God in the light, having our conversation above the skies. Is it impossible to understand this? Are the words of the hymn dark to us?

He beheld her broken-hearted,

Ruined and undone;

Yet enthroned among the angels,

Brighter than the sun.

When we fall again, when the imagination plays traitor, and the affections parley, and the soul is betrayed, still we claim again the merit of the atoning sacrifice, and are cleansed from all sin. No doubt it is true that the Spirit uses the doctrine of the Atonement to the fostering of holiness, and turns the sinner's face to God. But evermore what cleanses us is that which remained of Christ when the fire had passed over Him, even the enduring merits of His great sacrifice sprinkled upon us through the Holy Ghost.

II. In full keeping with this are all the references in St. John's books. When we turn to the Apocalypse we find ourselves instantly in the presence of the Lamb slain and immaculate in the midst of the throne of God. Jesus was the Lamb of God's Passover, not merely consecrated, not merely bruised and smitten, but put to death slain. The blood that cleanses is not the blood of a martyr, but the blood of the Lamb. The blood of a martyr could no more take away sin than the blood of bulls and goats, but through the blood of the Lamb we have eternal redemption. We overcome the Arch-enemy by the blood of the Lamb. If we face the Accuser with argument drawn from our works and our feeling, we shall infallibly be overthrown. But the wounds of Jesus plead for us, and we overcome him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of His testimony. Therefore said one: 'Lie asoak in the Atonement, put thy broken heart to sleep over the breast of Christ, hard by His wound'. If we do this, through the blood of the Lamb, Who has paid our debt, fought our battle, endured in our stead, we are righteous in God's presence even now. Sin is removed from the conscience, and the day approaches fast when all sin will end. For when the Sabbath of eternity breaks, there will come with it the last sprinkling with hyssop, and we shall be cleansed so clean every whit. Meanwhile it is through this blood that the olden curse of the race is gone, that the doom of the past is taken away, that the remaining perils of this mortal life are overruled, that we are to be brought through the terrors of the end, the falling of the star Wormwood, the final dreadful struggle between good and evil, the last trials of the sons of God.

III. Another book, the teaching of which on this great theme is frequently misunderstood, is the Epistle to the Hebrews. We read there that the sacrifices offered year by year continually could not make the comers thereunto perfect. For if they could, the sacrifices would have been offered no more, because the worshippers once purged would have had no more conscience of sin. Wherefore since the law could not help, Christ came saying, 'Thou didst not will the offering of beasts. Thou didst prepare Me a body, and I am come to do Thy will and offer Myself in that body.' He did offer the true and final oblation for sin, and having made it He sat down at the right hand of God. He entered into the holiest with His own blood, and perfected for ever them that are sanctified. We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Once purged we have no more conscience of sin. His death and the offering of His blood, His entrance into the very communion and presence of the Being of God, opens the sanctuary on high for all believers. They are said repeatedly to be purged, sanctified, made perfect. The slightest examination of these passages should show that the reference cannot be to an internal purification. The Apostle speaks of a single act of purging or purifying the conscience. That cannot refer to sin as a moral condition of the mind, but to sin in that sense in which it is taken away by sacrifice. It means that the heart is sprinkled from an evil conscience, that the obstacle to fellowship raised by the sins of the people has been taken away by the Propitiation, and that no sense of guilt is left in the heart that has received a free and unburdened pardon. So, in the same way, when it is said that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus once for all, the idea of sanctification is not of a gradual change of mind from defilement to purity, not a progressive relation at all, but the bringing of the people into the relation to God of a worshipping people. And in the same way the perfection to which the Author of Salvation has brought us is not the endowment with every quality of excellence, nor the removal of every tendency to sin. It means that we have been brought within the Covenant relation, and that, being there, we shall come at last into the full and true fellowship of God.

W. Robertson Nicoli, Sunday Evening, p. 305.

1 John 1:7

'There is no such firm, such attaching bond, as that of prayer and a common work for Christ,' says Dora Greenwell in Two Friends (pp. 103, 104). 'A common work tends to a common life, fuller than the individual can ever live. Even in natural things there is no fulness except through participation; and I myself have been long persuaded that we do not fully live unto Christ except through mutual communion. How significant is that saying of St. John's, "If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another". The predominance of light as a figure and as a symbol in Clifford's writing will be remarked: he associates it with the right and all things good so constantly and naturally that it is one of the marks of his style. He had physically a great love of light, and chose to write, when he could, in a clear and spacious room, with the windows quite free of curtains.

Sir Frederick Pollock, on Prof. W. K. Clifford.

1 John 1:7

When James Chalmers of New Guinea was a young careless fellow at Inveraray in 1859, he was led to the light finally, out of great depression, by the text: the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin. It helped him to believe that salvation was possible for him, and so 'some gladness came,' followed by assurance soon afterwards.

About ten or eleven o'clock one day, as I was walking under a hedge (full of sorrow and guilt, God knows), and bemoaning myself for this hard hap, suddenly this sentence bolted in upon me: the blood of Christ remits all guilt. At this I made a stand in my spirit: with that, this word took hold upon me, the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. Now I began to conceive peace in my soul, and methought I saw as if the Tempter did leer and steal away from me, as being ashamed of what he had done. At the same time also I had my sin, and the blood of Christ thus represented to me, that my sin, when compared to the blood of Christ, was no more to it than this little clot or stone before me is to this vast and wide field that here I see. This gave me good encouragement for the space of two or three hours.

Bunyan, Grace Abounding (143, 144).

References. I. 7. E. A. Stuart, The Great High Priest and other Sermons, vol. xii. p. 17. W. Redfern, The Gospel of Redemption, p. 165. W. M. Sinclair, The Record, vol. xxvii. p. 780. F. W. Farrar, Truths to Live by, p. 74. R. J. Campbell, New Theology Sermons, p. 217. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xi. No. 663, and vol. iv. No. 223. Expositor (4th Series), vol. v. p. 122; ibid. (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 158. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture 1 John, p. 253.

Assumptions of Sinlessness

1 John 1:8

Let us consider the bearing of the text

I. On our conceptions of truth. Truth is a wide word, but I use it here in St. John's sense as equivalent to the truth of the Gospel the truth which regulates the kingdom of God. Some of these truths, to speak of it as consisting of many component parts, underlie the faith of the Church as such, and are embraced by all its branches. It is through these we become Christians, though some of them we may state in different terms, and apprehend from different sides, as Scripture itself does. But there are others, over and above, which it is difficult and indeed impossible to harmonise, and others, again, which it is not too much to say have not yet been fully understood. That we should do our best to understand and combine them into a consistent system, or creed, is not only natural and right, but we cannot do otherwise if we are earnest students of Holy Writ. But we must remember that our conclusions about many subjects, and points of doctrine, must be held provisionally, and with minds open to conviction and further light. God has not given us an infallible judgment, nor promised to guide us to an absolutely right verdict, in regard to all matters in dispute. An infallible judgment can only exist in perfect or sinless character.

II. Consider the bearing of the text in relation to guidance in practical conduct. When we know the Gospel we wish to act in accordance with it. In other words, we desire not only to be led into right views of truth, but also into right conceptions of duty. In reality these two are one. To think truly will secure our acting rightly. If we always knew the truth completely, with that sympathetic knowledge which is a characteristic of Christian faith, we should always act rightly at least so far as the spirit and intention of our act is concerned. How does God answer our prayer for guidance? He gives us what the Scriptures call grace, inward enlightenment, or strength, according as the occasion may require. Without it sin works unqualified by any Divine control, with it sin is always under restraint. Hence no act or perception on the part of a Christian man is wholly the result of grace, but more or less of grace and more or less of sin. This being so there will always remain some liability to error even when grace is specially granted. The liability will, no doubt, decrease as we grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, but it will never wholly disappear.

C. Moinet, The Great Alternative and other Sermons, p. 171.

1 John 1:8

'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.' But although we have sin still abiding in us, and, like the bias in a bowl, warping us to the world, yet that vital seminal principle of the grace of God in Christ always keeps its ground, its life, and tendency towards heaven, and wears out, wastes, and gradually subdues the contrary tendency of sin and corruption.

Sir Matthew Hale.

Reference. I. 8. F. W. Farrar, Truths to Live By, p. 47.

The Sense of Sin

1 John 1:8-9

'If we say we have no sin.' Yes, but who would say it? How rarely we come upon anyone who would stand before his fellows in private or in public and claim to have no sin.

I. But there are other vehicles of expression besides words. Language has many modes. (1) Our prayers can say it. The very silence in our prayers can make it appear that we are not conscious of sin. (2) And surely our pride can say it. (3) And our very walk can testify to our fellows our conscious immunity from sin. (4) And, further than all this, I think that sometimes our very posture in the house of God testifies that the sense of sin is absent.

II. But in whatever way the assumption is made, we may deduce two inferences such as are drawn by the Apostle himself. (1) First of all 'the truth is not in us'. That is to say, the high standard is absent. (2) And the second and consequent inference is this, that we are self-deceived. 'We deceive ourselves.'

III. When we bring in the truth, the truth as it is in Jesus, and measure all the issues of our being by its exacting demands, our imperfections troop out in countless multitude. What, then, shall we do with them? 'If we confess.' But confess to whom? (1) Let us first of all confess them to ourselves. 'To thine own self be true.' (2) And there are some sins which we might very well confess to our brother. We are bound to confess them to our brother if we have done our brother a wrong. We can never find health and peace so long as personal injury is unconfessed and unrepaired. (3) But these confessions are only preparatory to the all-essential one of confession to the Lord.

IV. And what will be the issues of such confession? (1) Forgiveness. Freedom in the power of Jesus Christ our Lord. (2) And with the freedom there will come purity. The Lord will cleanse the life He has just emancipated.

J. H. Jowett, The British Congregationalist, 10th January, 1907, p. 36.

References. I. 8, 9. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. ii. p. 308. Bishop Gore, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 169. J. Keble, Sermons for Lent to Passiontide, pp. 63, 73. I. 8-10. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxi. No. 1241. I. 8, 20. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vi. p. 66. I. 9. Hugh Price Hughes, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liv. p. 225. J. Bunting, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 439. W. H. Evans, Sermons for the Church's Year, p. 78. S. Pearson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. 1. p. 140. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. v. No. 255. Expositor (5th Series), vol. viii. p. 373. I. 10. R. J. Campbell, Sermons Addressed to Individuals, p. 259. I. 12-14. A. H. Moncur Sime, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lv. p. 341. I. 15. H. S. Holland, ibid. vol. li. p. 321.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on 1 John 1". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/1-john-1.html. 1910.