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Bible Commentaries
1 John 1

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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Verses 1-4

The apostle introduces this catholic Epistle by a compendious description of the object, nature, and design of the apostolical announcement concerning the Incarnate Word of life. Its object is the Eternal Logos who was manifested as the life; its nature is the testimony of personal witnesses of the incarnation; and its design is the establishment of fellowship with the Father and the Son. The immediate purpose of the present communication is the perfecting of the common joy of writer and readers. This Introduction resembles the Prologue of the Gospel; but with such variations as the one writer of both would himself be likely to make, when addressing readers of both. The construction is peculiar, but perfectly regular: its peculiarity being that the whole mystery of the incarnation, and its evidence to the apostles, is poured forth in one long contemplative sentence, which has the secret of the incarnation itself as the manifested life in its heart as a parenthesis. But over the whole sentence as well as the parenthesis hovers always the idea that the apostles are witnesses: the Gospel Prologue being in this respect altogether different.

1 John 1:1. The object of the apostolical announcement may be said to be complete in the first verse: what is added afterwards in the parenthesis limits that object or more closely defines it by expanding one term which occurs in it, ‘the life.’ Remembering that ‘we declare’ rules the paragraph in the distance and is coming, we must begin with the words concerning the Word of life: the Logos who is Himself the life eternally and to the creature imparts life. In the Prologue of the Gospel there is no ‘concerning,’ because the Person of the Incarnate is there the immediate subject: here and throughout our Epistle it is not so much His Person as the blessedness and benefits of fellowship with Him which are the immediate subject. Again, remembering that the parenthesis is also coming with its closer explanation, we distinguish the announcement as twofold. First, concerning the eternal being of the Logos, that which was from the beginning: the’ was’ is really, as in the Gospel, opposed to ‘became flesh,’ though this latter is here unexpressed; ‘from the beginning’ we shall find used in various senses, but here its meaning is determined by the first words of the

Gospel, as also by ‘with the Father’ in the next verse: it is ‘from the depths of eternity,’ as in St. Paul’s ‘chosen from the beginning’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13), and St. John is as it were unconsciously looking back from the moment of the incarnation. In chap. 1 John 2:13 we have ‘Him that was from the beginning,’ but here the neuter ‘that which’ is used because the thought of the supreme mystery combines the whole verse into one great object of contemplation. Secondly, concerning His whole historical appearance on earth, seen of men as well as of angels, of which the apostles were the ordained and special witnesses, we read: that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled. These clauses must be taken together, and viewed in their various relations. The first two refer to the entire manifestation as one great permanent whole, in the perfect-present; the other two refer to certain express manifestations which were in the apostles’ memory for ever, such as the special revelations of the ‘glory as of the Only-begotten’ before and after the resurrection. Then we must note the ascensive order: from hearing to seeing with the eyes, to contemplation of the deeper mystery behind, and the actual contact with the Incarnate One. Yet the testimony rises and falls as an arch: it springs from the simple hearing, which certainly includes the testimony of others such as the Baptist, to the much higher seeing with the eyes and beholding as it were without the eyes, and then descends again to the touching, which was limited to individuals and limited generally.

1 John 1:2. We term this a parenthesis; but the ‘and’ must suggest that it is not a parenthesis in our modern sense, as it includes and condenses the whole subject in its completeness. And the life was manifested: it is not here ‘the Word became flesh;’ but the life which inheres eternally in the Logos, as the fountain of existence to the universe, came forth into visibility as the eternal life, so called to distinguish it from the life simply that had been manifested apart from the incarnation. The two are one, however, in the personal Logos, for the latter, the eternal, is even the life, the same life which was with the Father and was manifested unto us. The three verbs of testimony, if carefully allotted, explain this more clearly. We have seen and bear witness refer to the ‘Life’ absolutely: the apostolic complete eye-witness becomes an official testimony to the Person of Jesus. The chief thing, however, here is not that, but the announcement which follows: and declare unto you the eternal life. Our Lord is never once called ‘eternal Life,’ but ‘the Life.’ ‘Even the life which was with the Father’ singles out the life from the compound term, and expresses, as nearly as human words can express it, an eternal relation of personality to the Father corresponding to His temporal relation to us. ‘With God’ in the Gospel becomes ‘with the Father’ here, to mark the personality of that relation.

1 John 1:3. The great sentence goes on by selection. All that precedes is resumed and summed up as that which we have seen and heard seen coming first, because of the word in the previous verse declare we unto you also, as it was manifested to us. There is no reference yet to his readers specifically. Witness, testimony, declaration, either generally by the Gospel or by writing in particular, are the order: much of the declaration is universal; and out of that rises the special Epistle. The object of the universal announcement, which these readers had already heard and rejoiced in, was in order that ye may have -not obtain or hold fast or increase in, but have generally fellowship with us. Fellowship is union in the possession or enjoyment of something shared in common: that common element being variously viewed as God Himself, imparted through the knowledge and eternal life and hopes of the Gospel; or the external seals of communion of the Church; or even the spirit and gifts of its charity. In our Epistle we have only the first; and in this sentence it is fellowship with the apostles in their experience of the manifestation of the Son, in their enjoyment of the supernatural, true, eternal life which united them with God.

But, as if to preclude any perversion of this thought, it is added: and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. It is evident that the apostle does not linger for a moment on any fellowship that falls below the highest. ‘Our fellowship,’ still spoken generally of all Christians, is with the Father through His Son Jesus Christ, that is, His Son as Mediator, and therefore common to the Father and to us. He is the element as well as the bond of the communion; and ‘the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:9) is through His Spirit, common to Him and to us, of whom mention will be made in due course, whose common possession by believers is ‘the communion of the Holy Ghost’ (2 Corinthians 13:14). But all this is not in the text. That simply expresses the Saviour’s prayer in another form: ‘that they may all be one, as Thou Father art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in us.’ What is common to the Father and to us, and common to the Son and to us for the ‘and’ introduces a distinction is not here said; but in the Lord’s Prayer we read, ‘All Mine are Thine, and Thine are Mine;’ and again, ‘I in them, and Thou in Me;’ and once more, ‘That the love wherewith Thou lovedst Me may be in them, and I in them’ (John 17:21; John 17:23; John 17:26). It is observable, and the observation is our best comment, that the term ‘fellowship’ in this supreme sense occurs no more; but always reappears in the form of the mutual indwelling of the Trinity and the believer who ‘abideth in Him, and He in him. And hereby we know that He abideth in us by the Spirit which He gave us’ (chap. 1 John 3:24). Here are all the gradations of the fellowship in God and among the saints with God.

1 John 1:4. Now follows the specific design of this Epistle. And these things we write, that our joy may be fulfilled. ‘Our’ joy, our common joy, as in the same prayer: ‘that they may have My joy fulfilled in them’ (John 17:13). Joy is the utmost elevation of ‘eternal life’ viewed not as purity or strength, but as blessedness; and here again the best comment is the fact that the word never recurs, but we find, where that might have been expected, always ‘eternal life.’

Verse 5

The Message, which is the compendium of Christ’s teaching.

1 John 1:5. And, resuming the ‘we have heard’ in the Introduction, this is the message which we have heard from Him: from ‘His Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3), the ‘Him’ being enough if we remember the ‘fellowship’ between the Father and the Son. As the apostle condenses the whole of the revelation of Christ’s Person into one word ‘was manifested,’ so he condenses the sum of His teaching into one word ‘message:’ this word occurs again only in chap. 1 John 3:11, there concerning love as here concerning light.

And announce unto you or, as it were, ‘re-message’ to you; the word being different from declare, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all: the positive and negative assertion of a truth, so characteristic of this Epistle, here begins; and the two clauses must be combined in one concept. The subject is fellowship with God; that is, the possession of something common to God and to us. This is hereafter love, ‘God is love;’ here it is light, or unmingled and diffusive holiness. All interpretations that refer this to the essence of God are superfluous. God in His moral nature is to us light: ‘light’ is one of the predicates of God, as related to moral creatures. It is purely ethical, as love is in the other passage: the Epistle does not contain one reference to the essence of God, or the manifestation of His essence. It is only said that ‘no man hath seen Him at any time;’ and it is remarkable that the ‘glory’ so common in the Gospel and Revelation is absent here: the only revelation is in Christ, and as such only a revelation of holiness and love. Holiness in God repels evil, and that to the sinner is its first aspect: ‘in Him is no darkness’ of sin that can be common to Him and us. But holiness in Him is diffusive, as the light is, or it could not become common to Him and to His saints. Both aspects unite in the atonement which is near at hand with its explanation.

Verses 5-10

First the apostle announces his message that God is light and only light (1 John 1:5). Then follows (down to chap. 1 John 2:2) a universal statement of the evangelical conditions of fellowship with Him in holiness. In chap. 1 John 2:3-6 the knowledge of God is exhibited as a stimulant to perfect obedience. From 1 John 2:7 to 1 John 2:11 the walk in light is viewed with special reference to brotherly love. 1 John 2:12-14 bear emphatic and redoubled testimony to the reality and truth of the Christian life generally, and of that of his readers in particular: this being introduced because of the stern contrasts which have preceded and will follow. Then comes an exhortation against the love of the world in its darkness, 1 John 2:15-17. From 1 John 2:18 to 1 John 2:27 believers are warned and protected against the doctrinal errors of the world. And, lastly, in 1 John 2:28, the whole is wound up by a reference to the coming of Christ and the Christian confidence before Him. It may be said that in the seven sections of this first part the whole sum of the Christian estate, from the revelation of sin to full preparation for judgment, is found, with its perfect opposite. But it is governed by the idea of the holiness of the Gospel as a sphere of light; and two points in it, regeneration and faith through the Holy Ghost, are afterwards more fully evolved.

Verses 6-7

The atoning provision for fellowship in the light of God, viewed generally and with specific reference to the Christian life.

1 John 1:6-7. If we say: this is a keyword throughout the section, and marks off the utterly unchristian or antichristian spirit from the perfect opposite which in each case follows it. Surely there is here no union of the apostle with his hearers, any more than in St. Paul’s ‘shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?’ ‘We’ is the universal we of mankind, though it may have special allusion to the Gnostics, who said precisely, in their theory and practice, what is here alleged. They affirmed that, the seed of light being in them, they might live enveloped in darkness and sensuality without losing the prerogative of their knowledge.

That we have fellowship with him, and walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: we lie in the ‘saying,’ and in the ‘walking’ do not the truth; ‘the truth’ being the outward manifestation, ‘as truth is in Jesus’ (Ephesians 4:21), of the light of holiness, its revealed directory of word and deed.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light. Mark the decorous emphasis on ‘walk’ and ‘is:’ our ‘walk’ is the fellowship with His ‘being.’

We have fellowship one with another: our fellowship with God is not a lie, but a reality; we ‘have’ the fellowship that it is supposed we also ‘say’ we have. And our walk does not impeach us; for provision is made to enable us ‘to do the truth.’

And the blood of Jesus his son cleanseth us from all sin. The ‘and’ does not mean ‘for,’ in the sense that the cleansing is the fellowship; nor ‘and therefore,’ as if the fellowship were the condition of the cleansing. The converse of that would be nearer the truth. The two clauses are simply co-ordinate; the ‘and’ as it were explaining and obviating objection. We have fellowship with God we, the universal ‘we,’ but how can these things be, seeing that the light of Divine holiness detects in us nothing but sin? Here then comes in the counterpart or undertone of the great message. We have fellowship with God through His Son, but through Jesus the crucified Saviour, His Son, who ‘came by water and blood.’ the blood, however, being made prominent now as the sacrificial expiation carried into the sanctuary for sin. This is the first of many allusions to the atonement, and must be remembered throughout the Epistle: the blood itself not the Person of Christ here, nor faith in Him, nor faith in it is the objective ground of our deliverance from sin. Its use here is explained by the leading theme, the holiness of God, the sphere of which distinctively is not the judicial court of satisfaction, nor the household where regeneration is introduced, but the temple where the sacrificial blood was offered. The link between it and our cleansing is not yet exhibited. The term ‘cleanseth’ is to be similarly explained. It includes in the phraseology of the temple the whole privilege of deliverance from sin viewed as the pollution detected and repelled by holiness: it is not sanctification internal as opposed to justification imputed, but cleansing as including both in the terms of the altar economy. It is the present tense, however; and simply preaches a perpetual removal of all sin as pollution in the sight and in the light of God.

Verses 8-9

1 John 1:8-9. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Another ‘if we say,’ strictly co-ordinate with the preceding; the phrases here being variations upon those contained in the former, but, after St. John’s manner, with some additional points of force. What is falsely asserted by the anti-christian spirit is the absence of that which renders an atonement necessary in order to walking in the light. Sin has been for the first time introduced, as that within us which answers to darkness, its external sphere: it is wrong, therefore, to interpret it as meaning that we may no longer ‘walk in the darkness,’ although we ‘have’ remaining sin within us. The two are synonymous: they who say that they are without sin are by that very token in the darkness; for the light of God’s holiness cannot be diffused through the soul until it has first revealed its evil. The rebuke runs parallel with the former, with appropriate change of phrase. Instead of lying simply, we are now self-deceivers, with strong emphasis on this: not without great violence could the perverters of the Christian system have brought themselves to deny the sinfulness of their nature. In fact, none who have ever been Christians could assert this; at least, the Christian revelation as truth cannot have remained in them, even if it had ever entered. ‘The truth is not in us,’ nor we in it.

If we confess our sins: here we have the universal preamble of the Gospel. This confession is the consenting together of the soul and the law in the conviction and acknowledgment of sin. It is the antithesis of the ‘saying that we have no sin;’ but, as the antitheses are never strictly coincident, this confession may include, and indeed must include, more than a mere internal sentiment. Two things are to be remembered here: first, that the confessing of ‘sins,’ not ‘sin,’ is the expression used in the New Testament for the true repentance that precedes the acceptance of the Gospel; and, secondly, that the word is used by St. John only in two senses, for the fundamental confession of sin and need, and for the fundamental confession of Jesus the Saviour from sin and need. He speaks of ‘confessing sin’ and ‘confessing Christ:’ he alone has this combination, and save to express these two he does not employ the word. Accordingly, St. John now introduces in the most full and solemn manner the whole economy of the Gospel as a remedy for sin: in an enlarged statement, and including now another idea, that of righteousness.

He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The two attributes of God, the Administrator in Christ through the Spirit of the redeeming economy, correspond to each other and to the blessings which they guarantee. He is ‘faithful’ to His holy nature, as it is revealed in His Son, and to the covenant which in Him pledges forgiveness and renewal, and to the express promises of His word: the ‘covenant of peace’ came to St. John from the Old Testament, and is as much his as St. Paul’s, though he never introduces the idea. Hence its antithesis is the making Him a liar; and its counterpart in us is our faith, not here expressed but implied. He is ‘righteous’ also: this term regards the holiness of God under a new aspect, that of a lawgiver; and declares that His universal faithfulness is pledged in a particular way, namely, as He imparts righteousness to the faith of those who trust in Him. St. John does not adopt the Pauline language, though he implies the Pauline teaching, when he says that God is righteous in order that He may forgive our sins. We receive this release from condemnation from His righteousness; for ‘He is just, and the justifier.’ He also imparts righteousness, that point St. John keep stedfastly in view throughout the Epistle, but as to that he changes the phrase; and, blending the holiness and righteousness of God in one sentence, declares that He is faithful and righteous also ‘that He may cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ This is a remarkable combination: the ‘cleansing’ is strictly from pollution; but here its meaning is enlarged beyond that of 1 John 1:7, and it is a cleansing from the very principle in us that gives birth to sin, our deviation from holy right or our ‘unrighteousness.’

Verse 10

1 John 1:10. In a third use of the universal. If we say, the great anti-christian lie is once more repeated, but as usual in a strengthened form,

that we have not sinned that we are not in fact sinners, as the result of a life of which sin has been and is the characteristic. We make him a liar, and his word is not in us: the rebuke is also repeated but deepened. We contradict the God of holiness; and His revelation, His word of truth, has absolutely no place in us. This third description of the unchristian nature has no counterpart: that follows immediately, but in another form. In all these sentences, let it be observed once more, the apostle has been laying down great principles. The ‘we say’ has no specific reference to his readers. But he would not have used the phrase ‘if we say,’ had he not included a universal application. While he does not declare that sin must remain in those who walk in the light, and that they must have sin in them, he warns them against the ‘saying’ that they have it not. He does not declare that it is true of all that they have sinned in their renewed life down to the present moment; but he forbids their ‘saying’ that they have not sinned. Supposing his later testimony concerning the destruction of sin as a principle, and the absence of sin from the regenerate, to be taken in its highest and deepest, that is, in its most natural sense, still all the sanctified avow themselves sinners who need the atonement until probation ends; they never separate between their new selves and their old in their humble confession; they still identify themselves with their sin, though this may be gone; and ‘say’ with the sanctified Apostle Paul (1 Timothy 1:15), ‘sinners, of whom I am chief,’ ‘looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life’ (Judges 1:21).

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on 1 John 1". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/1-john-1.html. 1879-90.
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