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Bible Commentaries
1 John 1

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Verse 1

1 John 1:1

The Word of Life.

St. John sets forth in his writings no theory of life. He cannot, or does not, formulate his conception of it into a system; he simply feels a power, not of death, but of life, working in his own soul. He is sure there is nothing in the world or beyond the world that can destroy it. Its evident tendency to God attested its origin from God. There might be other media to other men; to him it came through Christ.

I. As a rule of life, bidding us be pure, and unselfish, and kindly affectioned; as a high ideal, stimulating us to forget the things that were behind and to reach forward unto things that were yet before; enlightening us where we saw but dimly; enabling and capacitating us where we Were feeble and incompetent; purifying us where appetite and passion were in danger of blunting the finer perceptions of the heart, the nobler purposes of the soul; laying the foundations of an ampler and higher life, first for the individual and then for society and the race it was thus that the "word of life" presented itself to the mind of St. John. If it had free course; if all who preached it practised it; if the failure of other systems to explain the phenomena of humanity, and still more to relieve its admitted ills and sorrows, were more fairly estimated and more fully known, perhaps it would be thought and seen that Christianity had not said its last word.

II. We first frustrate the grace of God, and do despite to it, trample it under our feet, and then call the Gospel a failure. We make Christian influence impossible, and then ask, Where is it to be found? We first grieve, and finally quench, the Spirit of God, and then say we can recognise no tokens of His presence or His power. And yet, under all these circumstances of disadvantage, there are to be found in palaces and cottages pure, and brave, and noble souls; and where one such soul lives and breathes, diffusing the fragrance of its beneficent influence and the power of its saintly life, there is the proof of the truth of Christ's Gospel, there is the witness that Christ still leaves of Himself in the world. Let us beware of separating religion from morality. When St. Peter has stirred our spiritual impulses by telling us, as St. John also tells us, of the exceeding great and precious promises by which we are, as it were, made partakers of the Divine nature, he at once brings us down from heaven to earth again by saying, "And, besides all this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue"; when St. Paul would pray for the best gifts for his Thessalonian converts, he prays that God would "sanctify them wholly, and that their whole spirit, soul, and body might be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Bishop Fraser, University Sermons; p. 154.

Reference: 1 John 1:1-3 . Clergyman's Magazine, vol. ii., p. 158.

Verses 1-6

1 John 1:1-6

The Ground of Christian Ethics.

I. St. John begins with speaking of that which he saw, and heard, and handled. Those who read his letter could have no doubt that he was referring to the time when he saw the face of Jesus Christ, when he heard His discourses, when he grasped His hand, when he leaned upon His breast. There might be some still upon earth who had been in Jerusalem at that time, who had even been disciples of Christ. There would not be any of them upon the earth long. And there was none of them who would have thought he had as much right to use these expressions as the son of Zebedee had. Here, then, he claims for himself the full dignity of an Apostle.

II. St. John says that that face of His which he saw, that voice of His which he heard, those hands of His which he handled, were "about the word of life." A life there was within that body just as there is a life within the body of each man we converse with; but St. John says that this life which was in Him was not merely a life, but the life the life from which all the life that is in us and in the other creatures is derived.

III. St. John introduces a parenthesis here: "For the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness," etc. He must make the Ephesians understand that this is the beginning and end of all he has been saying to them since he began to dwell among them. A life has been manifested; the life has been manifested. That which he saw of Christ while he was with Him upon earth was to enable him to testify of this life. He had no other business than to tell them that it had been fully revealed. But that he may perform that task properly, he must tell them what kind of life it was. It was the eternal life, not a life of years, and months, and days, and instants, but a fixed, permanent life the life of a Being in whom is no variableness, nor the shadow of a turning. If the life is that which was manifested in Christ, in His words and acts, it is a life of gentleness, justice, truth. You cannot measure these by the clocks; you do not wish or try to measure them. And if that is the life of God, surely it is not a terrible thing, though it may be an awful thing, to recollect that He is, and was, and is to come, and that He is not far from any one of us.

IV. "That ye also may have fellowship with us." There is nothing which John claims for himself as an Apostle that he does not claim for those to whom he writes. The very highest privilege which can belong to him he affirms to be theirs. His reward is that he has the delight of announcing to them that it is theirs, and how they may enter into the enjoyment of it. Fellowship or communion with God, he is to tell them, is possible for man.

V. The proposition, "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all," is the proposition from which all others start. It does not only tell you of a goodness and truth without flaw though it does tell you of these it tells you of a goodness and truth that are always seeking to spread themselves abroad, to send forth rays that shall penetrate everywhere and scatter the darkness which opposes them.

F. D. Maurice, The Epistles of St. John, p. 19.

Reference: 1 John 1:2 . J. T. Stannard, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xiv., p. 204.

Verse 3

1 John 1:3

The Doctrine and Fellowship of the Apostles.

I. As to the knowledge: "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you" that which we have seen and heard of the "Word of life" "the Life" which "was manifested," that Eternal Life which was with the Father, and "was manifested unto us." These names and descriptions of the Son undoubtedly refer in the first instance to His eternal relation to the Father, of whose nature He is the image, of whose will He is the expression, of whose life He is the Partner and the Communicator. But this eternal relation, what He is to the Father from everlasting, must be viewed now in connection with what He is as He dwells among us on the earth. It is "the Man Christ Jesus" who is the "manifested Life." In the midst of all the conditions of our death this life is thus manifested. For He who is the Life takes our death. Not otherwise could "that Eternal Life which was with the Father be manifested unto us."

II. So much for the communicated knowledge. The communicated fellowship comes next: "That ye may have fellowship with us." The meaning plainly is, that you may share our fellowship, which truly "is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ." (1) The object of this fellowship is the Father and the Son the Father and His Son Jesus Christ; not each apart, but the two, both of them, together, with whatever the Spirit of the Father and the Son may be commissioned to show, and your spirits may be enabled to take in, of the "counsel of peace" that is "between them" both; that is what is presented to you as the object of your fellowship. (2) The nature of the fellowship can be truly known only by experience. In so far as it can be described in its conditions, its practical working, and its effects, it is brought out in the whole teaching of this epistle, of which it may be said to be the theme. But a few particulars may here be indicated: (1) That it implies intelligence and insight, such intelligence and insight as the Spirit alone can give. (2) There must be faith, personal, appropriating, and assured faith, in order that the intelligence, the insight, may be quickened by a vivid sense of real personal interest and concern. (3) This fellowship is of a transforming, conforming, assimilating character. (4) It is a fellowship of sympathy. (5) The fellowship is one of joy.

R. S. Candlish, Lectures on First John, p. 1.

References: 1 John 1:3 . Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. vii., No. 409; J. Clements, Church of England Pulpit, vol. i., p. 218.

Verse 4

1 John 1:4

The Joy of the Lord and its Fulness.

I. Joy, as it is commonly understood and exemplified among men, is a tumultuous feeling, a quick and lively passion or emotion, blazing up for the most part upon some sudden prosperous surprise and apt to subside into cold indifference, if not something worse, when fortune threatens change or custom breeds familiarity. All the joy of earth partakes more or less of that character, for it is dependent upon outward circumstances, and has no deep root in itself. Even what must in a sense be called spiritual joy may be of that sort. Such joy is like "the goodness which, as a morning cloud and as the early dew, goeth away." It is Christ's joy that is fulfilled in him who is truly and heartily the "Bridegroom's friend." Christ's twofold joy: (1) His joy as the Bridegroom possessing the bride and (2) His joy as the Son possessing the Father.

II. This joy, "His joy," is to become ours; it is to "remain in us." "Our joy is to be full" by "His joy being fulfilled in us." Let us notice first the reality and then the fulness of this fellowship or partnership of joy between Christ and us. Christ would have His joy to be really ours. First, in His standing with the Father He calls us to share, and, secondly, He makes us partakers of, the very same inward evidence of acceptance and sonship as He Himself had when He was on earth; and, thirdly, we have the same commission with Christ, the same trust reposed in us, the same work assigned to us. The chiefest element of Christ's joy is that He is "meek and lowly in heart"; and therefore "His yoke is easy, and His burden is light" so easy, so light, that we may count it joy to bear them. We must share that meekness of His, that lowliness of heart; we, like Him, must be emptied of self, for no true joy is or can be selfish.

III. The reality of this joy, Christ's own joy remaining in us, may now be partly apparent. But who shall venture to describe its fulness? "That My joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full." Misery ends and fulness of joy comes when we think, and feel, and wish as God does. Therefore fulness of joy may be ours, ours more and more, when "beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord," this glory of His being the Father's willing Servant and loyal Son, "we are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."

R. S. Candlish, Lectures on First John, p. 18.

Verse 5

1 John 1:5

I. A part of the teaching of the words, "God is light," is to show that we cannot see God. You cannot see "light." You see things by the light. You may in a certain sense see "light" reflected; but you cannot see "light" Its very lustre prevents you looking at it; by its nature it protects itself from human vision and makes itself invisible. It is possible it may be a mere piece of poetry or fancy, but it may be a fact, that all the "light" which shines on this earth is a reflection from the actual person of God. It comes from the sun to us; but we all know now that the sun is only a reflector. But whence does it come to the sun? may not it be from the person of the great Creator and Fountain of all things? It is conceivable, and the conception is grand. But you will do well to make a distinction. God the Father is "light." He is not. "the Light of the world." "I," Christ says "I am the Light of the world." And the reason is plain. God is in Himself "I am" "I am what I am": light unapproachable. But all that man can see of it, Christ is, and Christ shows. The communication of it to the universe is Jesus Christ.

II. Look at some of the practical results which lie in the thought that "God is light." How do we see anything? By "light." "Light" touches the object, and then the "light" which has touched the object touches us. It makes a picture on the eye, and so we see it. How can we see a truth? How can we see all truth? How can we see God, where all truth is? Christ came from God; the Holy Ghost comes from Christ; the Holy Ghost touches a man's mind, enters into a man's mind, makes an impression upon a man's mind. By that path, coming down from God, that mind, touched by the Holy Ghost, sees Christ; through Christ he sees God. "God is light." The ray emanates from God, passes into Christ, travels to us by the Spirit, carries us back through Christ to the Father, from whom it sprang; and so, and only so, we know God. "Light" is a very penetrating, searching thing. Do you wish "light" to come into your soul? That entrance will disclose strange things, the hidden wickednesses and weaknesses that are in your heart, just as the sunlight coming into a dark chamber shows all the dust and the dirt, which lay as thick before, but till then unrevealed. Again and again in God's word "light" is joy, and our "God is light." Then our God is a happy God. Then we are happiest when we are most like God. Keep near Him, and you will walk in sunshine. The heart where He is will always carry its own inner radiance; and glad thoughts and sweet smiles will by their beautiful reflections be the best preachers, and tell to the whole world that "God is light." Things at this moment may be dark about you in the world, and darker still when you look down into your own heart. Think of this. Go up and down in God. It is all "light" there. It is a wonderful triumph of scientific power by which man has learnt to paint by the sun, and by a process of simple nature every object can cast its image only by "light." But what is all photography but a shadow of the still higher truth that there are passings and repassings between a soul and God by which God casts His own image? and if only we look, "we shall be like Him," here and in eternity, just in proportion as we "see Him as He is."

J. Vaughan, Sermons, 13th series, p. 173.

References: 1 John 1:5 . E. Blencowe, Plain Sermons to a Country Congregation, vol. ii., p. 27; Clergyman's Magazine, vol. v., p. 31.

Verses 5-7

1 John 1:5-7

I. The form of the announcement in the fifth verse is very peculiar: "This then is the message which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you." It is not a discovery which we make concerning God. It is an authentic and authoritative communication to us from Himself. The message is twofold. First, positively, "God is light"; next, negatively, "in Him is no darkness at all." (1) Positively, "God is light." Light is clear, transparent, translucent, patent, and open, always and everywhere, as far as its influence extends. It comes in contact with all things; it is itself affected by nothing. Thus "God is light," in His character perfectly open and perfectly inviolable. (2) Negatively, "in Him is no darkness." The light shineth in darkness, and "in Him is no darkness at all."

II. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth." The thing itself is impossible, for light hath no fellowship with darkness.

III. From the solemn message in the fifth verse and the faithful warning in the sixth the gracious assurance in the seventh fitly follows: "We have fellowship one with another," God with us and we with Him. It is our joint fellowship with God, and His with us, that alone is to the purpose here.

R. S. Candlish, Lectures on First John, p. 37.

Reference: 1 John 1:6 . Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 328.

Verse 6

1 John 1:6

Light and Darkness: Sin and Purification.

I. The expressions, "light" and "darkness," were wonderfully suitable for those to whom St. John wrote. The Ephesians had paid a special worship to Artemis or Diana. They connected her with the moon, the night ruler. They had paid a worship, in common with the other Greeks, to Apollo; him they connected with the sun that rules the day. They connected them, I say, with these beautiful objects; but they were never satisfied with doing so. They worshipped the visible things from which they thought that the light proceeded. All the time they felt that men were better than these things; therefore, if they worshipped these things, they must also worship men. St. John had believed that God had revealed Himself, not in the sun or in the moon, but in a humble and crucified Man. With this conviction becoming every hour deeper and deeper in his mind, he had settled in the city where Apollo and Diana were worshipped. Hut he did not think that the Ephesians had been wrong when they dreamt of a God of light. That was a true dream; Christ had come to fulfil it. That light which belongs especially to man, that light by which he is to guide his steps, that light which keeps men in fellowship with each other, that was His own true light, His own proper nature; that was what God had manifested to men in His Son.

II. "If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another." The darkness of which St. John speaks is an utterly unsocial condition. A man thinks about himself, dwells in himself; the rest of the universe lies in shadow. It is not that he has not continual transactions with other people; it is not that they do not supply him with things that he wants; it is not that he could dispense with them. But all they do is only contemplated in reference to himself; they work, and suffer, and think for him. Our selfishness is too strong for all, however bright, in earth, and sea, and air to overcome. It is not too strong for God to overcome. We may walk day by day as if we were in His presence, as if He were looking at us and guiding us, and guiding all our brethren and all this universe. And then we have fellowship one with another. If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, wherever we are, in lonely rooms or in crowded streets, we may have fellowship with each other; we may see each other, not as reflections of ourselves, but as images of Him.

III. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Instead of the fancy that we are without sin being a proof how clearly the light is shining into us, it is a proof that we are shutting out the light, for that would reveal to us our own inclination to flee from it and choose the darkness. God's faithfulness and justice are the enemies of our sins; therefore to them we may turn from our sins. They are the refuges from the darkness that is in us. He forgives us that He may cleanse us. The forgiveness is itself a part of the cleansing. He manifests His righteousness to us that we may trust Him. By trusting Him we are delivered from the suspicion which is the very essence of sin.

F. D. Maurice, The Epistles of St. John, p. 34.

References: 1 John 1:7 . Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xi., No. 663; vol. iv., No. 223; Ibid., Evening by Evening, pp. 206, 246; Homilist, 4th series, vol. i., p. 181; W. J. Woods, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xvi., p. 194; R. W. Dale, Ibid., vol. xxvii., p. 184; J. Edmunds, Fifteen Sermons, p. 80.

Verse 8

1 John 1:8

I. The Apostle declares that the imagination of our sinlessness is an inward lie. The particular causes of this delusion will vary with every variety of individual character. Every temptation that occupies, and by occupying excludes all other occupants, may claim its share in the perpetuation of this melancholy illusion. The whole host of Satan are engaged to drug this opiate. All their enchantments are accessory to this, and result in this. It would be vain, therefore, to think of specifying the particular causes of this evil; we can only speak of some of the general principles on which it rests.

II. (1) The first and darkest of Satan's works on earth is also the first and deepest fountain of the misfortune we are now lamenting the original and inherited corruption of the human soul itself. It is ignorant of sin, just because it is naturally sinful. There is a sense in which it may be said that the heart knoweth not its own bitterness. One chief object of the Gospel history, as applied by the Spirit of God, is to humble and yet animate us by a portraiture of moral excellence which, as observation cannot furnish, so assuredly nature will never spontaneously imagine. We cannot know our degradation, we cannot struggle, or even wish to rise, if we have never been led to conceive the possibility of a state higher than our own. (2) So far, then, it appears that Nature, herself prone to sin, may be expected, in virtue of that very tendency, to tell us we have no sin, and that therefore her evidence is to be received with suspicion; but it must next be remembered that, properly speaking, no human being can be seen in this state of nature alone. Man is far advanced upon his way before his steps are arrested. Repeated acts are become principles of action, and every man is the creature of his own past life. If Nature alone, treacherous and degraded Nature, is silent in denouncing sin, if she has no instinctive power to arouse herself, what shall she be when doubly and trebly indurated by habit? (3) No man arrests that evil in himself which his eyes have never ceased to contemplate in others. Even follies that at first are odious lose their oppressiveness when we are surrounded with nothing else, as the enormous weight of the air becomes imperceptible from its pressure being universal. (4) How the power of this universality of sin around us to paralyse the sensibility of conscience is augmented by the influence of fashion and rank, I need not assert. "Who can understand his errors?" Let us urge the humble petition of the Psalmist, "Cleanse Thou me from secret faults."

W. Archer Butler, Sermons Doctrinal and Practical, p. 140.

Reference: 1 John 1:8 . W. Landels, Christian World Pulpit, vol. vii., p. 344.

Verses 8-9

1 John 1:8-9

Divine Justice and Pardon Reconciled.

There are two extreme tendencies in human sentiment respecting God from which a devout and thoughtful heart shrinks with equal repugnance: a religion which begins with fear and a religion which ends without it. On the one hand is the passionate faith of remorse, which throws the shade of its own despair upon the universe of God, lies prostrate in the dark cell of alienation, and declares that if no mediator interpose, there is no hope or respite from the curse of inexorable law; on the other is the creed of lenient good-nature, which spreads the light of its mild indifference over all things, considers the sins of men as chiefly venial frailties, is pleased with its own tolerance, and trusts that Heaven will overlook what it must have foreseen and did not think it worth while to prevent.

I. It is a hard thing for our narrow mind to take in the infinite harmony of Divine perfection. Our conscience and our affections make incompatible demands on God. We require for our support that He be faithful; we look for our comfort's sake that He be tender too. If compassion be impossible to God, it is strange that He has implanted any in us; for He has more reason to pity us, than we can have to pity one another, we gazing in the face of an equal and a brother, He looking from His serene almightiness down upon our nature, tempted, sorrowing, struggling, dying. No, it is as much a part of perfection to receive the penitent as to reprove the sin, unless the noblest impulse of the human soul seeks vainly for its image and prototype in Him.

II. But how, you will ask, can both these things be? How can God at once swerve no hairbreadth from His threatened punishment, and yet be ever ready to forgive? Rightly to understand this, we must mark the distinction between His interior nature and His external government, between what He is in Himself and what He has written out and proclaimed in the legislation of the universe. Not all that dwells in His thought and lives in His heart has He put forth; and, vast as is the field and sublime the record of creation, solemn as we find the path of life, and awful the insight of His conscience, these are but a part of His ways; and there is yet a hiding-place of His thunder that none can understand. Everything to Him is infinite, and all the splendours of His revelation in the old earth and in the older sky, and on the heart of humanity, and even in the unique life of the Man of sorrows, are but a few faint lines of light, streaking the surface of immensity. Within the realm of law and nature He is inexorable, and has put the freedom of pity quite away; and as the Atlantic storm turns not aside to avoid the ship where sanctity or genius is afloat, so neither does the tempest of justice falter and pause to spare the head uplifted in repentant prayer. But it is otherwise in respect to the soul and person of the sinner himself: the sentiments of God towards him are not bound; and if, while the deed of the past is an irrevocable transgression, the temper of the present is one of surrender and return, there is nothing to sustain the Divine aversion or hinder the outflow of infinite pity.

J. Martineau, Hours of Thought, vol. i., p. 102.

Verses 8-10

1 John 1:8-10

I. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." It is not deliberate falseness that we are here warned against, but a far more subtle form of falsehood, and one more apt easily to beset us as believers even when most seriously and earnestly bent on "walking in the light, as God is in the light." I am not conscious of anything very far amiss in my spiritual experience or in my practical behaviour. I begin to "say that I have no sin," but I deceive myself, and the truth is not in me. "Guile" is taking the place of "truth"; and I am very apt to lose a precious privilege, the privilege of continual and constant confession in order to continual and constant forgiveness.

II. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." God is true true to Himself and true to us. "He is faithful and just in forgiving our sins."

III. If, in the face of such a faithful manner of forgiveness on the part of God, we continue to shrink from that open dealing and guileless confession which our "walking in the light, as God is in the light," implies, we not only wrong ourselves and do violence to our own consciousness and our own conscience, but, "saying that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us."

R. S. Candlish, Lectures on First John, p. 52.

References: 1 John 1:8-10 . Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxi., No. 1241. 1 John 1:9 . Ibid., vol. v., No. 255; J. H. Hitchens, Christian World Pulpit, vol. i., p. 93; R. Glover, Ibid., vol. vi., p. 88. 1 John 1:10 . A. Rowland, Ibid., vol. xxx., p. 203.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 John 1". "Sermon Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/sbc/1-john-1.html.
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