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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
1 John 1

 

 

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Verse 1

EXORDIUM.—

The writer’s authority as an original personal witness, 1 John 1:1-4.

1. That—A highly inverted sentence embracing the three verses. The commencing verb is in the third verse, declare we. Of this verb the which, thrice expressed and once implied in the first verse, are the objectives; and the true order is this: We declare unto you that (real, bodily personality) of the Word of life which was from the beginning, which… heard, which… seen, which… looked upon, and which our hands have handled. The reason why St. John uses the neuter that which, (which might as well have been the English compound relative what,) instead of the masculine him whom, is because the heretics questioned not that he, Christ, really appeared, but questioned his nature. He was, they said, a docetic, incorporeal phantom; or the Jesus was a mere man upon whom the superhuman Christ descended and rested.

From the beginning—This phrase, in application to his readers, St. John uses in 1 John 2:7; 1 John 2:13; 1 John 2:24; 1 John 3:11 of the beginning of the preaching of the gospel; but in 1 John 3:8 of an ante-mundane beginning of Satan. And so here we have the same ante-mundane beginning as in the first verse of St. John’s Gospel, where see notes. The same is the ante-mundane existence of the “Son” in Hebrews 1:3, where see notes. We—John and the other apostles. St. John’s we (1 John 1:3) includes himself personally, and all the apostles representatively, whose office it was to be witnesses of what Jesus said, and did, and was. Note on Luke 1:2. We, apostles, are original authorities; whereas the heretics are strangers, basing their speculations on third or fourth hand testimonies, supplemented by their own fancies. And as we saw his miracles, heard his own account of himself, and handled his very physical body, so our account is original and ultimate, the first and last word.

Have—The Greek uses the perfect tense of the first two verbs, have heard and have seen; but the aorist, without the have, of looked upon and handled. This is a significant change of tense, lost in our English translation. It indicates that the apostles are persons who have seen and have heard, and that remains in its effect the permanent fact. But they also specifically and at the moment looked upon, that is, contemplated and deeply studied, the inner nature, and also felt, so as to deeply cognize the bodily substance of the Lord. This specialty is increased from the fact that the first was done with our bodily eyes, and in no dream, and the last with our hands, the surest instruments of touch. Though he was from the beginning, and was truly the Word of life, he submitted himself to our most bodily perceptions that we might most surely declare his determinate personality. Of—This preposition does not here represent, as usually, the Greek genitive, but the preposition περι, in the sense of pertaining or belonging to; as in Luke 22:37 : Philippians 1:27; Colossians 4:8.

The Word of life—That Word whose property was life so essentially that he truly called himself “the Life.” “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” John 1:4, where see notes. These first three verses are an essential reference to John’s Gospel, especially its first four verses. They evince that both Epistle and Gospel were by the same author; and John truly bases the doctrines of this Epistle upon the facts and declarations of the Gospel.


Verse 2

2. For—St. John interrupts himself with this parenthesis to guard us against supposing, for a moment, that his material phrases overlook the true eternal spiritual nature of Christ. He holds that the apostles handled that eternal Word, existing even from the beginning, when they touched his bodily person. Word of life, I say, for that essential life which he originally was became corporeally realized in him to whom we bear witness.

That eternal life—A life which has neither beginning of existence nor end. And this light was so manifested that we saw it and touched it as a human person.

With the Father—Just as in John 1:1, the “Word” was “with God.”


Verse 3

3. That which… seen… heard declare we—St. John resumes the connexion interrupted by the parenthesis by bringing down and repeating that which of 1 John 1:1, to make them the objective of declare. It should be noted how earnestly and persistently he repeats the evidence of his senses in perfectly knowing Jesus. This is because he makes that absolute ocular and tactual ascertainment of Jesus the foundation of his authority for the announcements of doctrine in this epistle. Standing on this foundation as an original bodily witness, he will not argue, prove, and refute by a series of logical inferences; but he will declare—will dogmatically pronounce— what the truth in Jesus is. He pronounces because he knows.

Unto you— Primarily, the public mind of Ephesus; inferentially, the whole Christian world, and the whole world that should be Christian.

Fellowship—That is, communion, common participation. It is a life that we declare, and the purpose of our declaring is, that the universal you may be common sharers in that life.

Our fellowship is with the Father, and… Christ—The receiver of the witness shares not barely the truth, but the mystical participation of a common life with God and Jesus. The nature of that communion, and how it is allowed and retained, and how the opposite sin and error are to be avoided, are the sum total of this epistle.


Verse 4

4. Joy… full—And the object of so certifying his readers of this glorious truth is their joy. If all doubt is removed, and they know on his authority from Christ himself that this fellowship with God is a reality, a joy full and inspiring will fill their hearts and strengthen their souls for all goodness.


Verse 5

5. This… messageMessage is the noun of which declare, or announce, in 1 John 1:3, is the verb, and includes the entire doctrine of the epistle. Heard… and declare from Christ unto you.

God is light—As perfect universal truth and purity; yet not universal so but that there is an opposite darkness. Yet the darkness is not in him, but is the perfect reverse of him. Truth and falsehood, love and malignity, light and darkness, are the intensest possible opposites. They may mix, but cannot be identified.


Verses 5-10

A preliminary summary of the entire epistle, 1 John 1:5-10.

Our apostle now summarizes the substance of his message or epistle, by unfolding the true Christian doctrine of purity from sin in opposition to the errorists’ theory of purity in sin. God is absolute purity, and the only method of coming into oneness with his purity is, by absolute confession of sins, repentance, the atonement, the pardon, and the sanctification. Every other method is a fatal falsehood.


Verse 6

6. If we say—The errorists who say this are never, in this epistle, far out of John’s sight. Thrice in this brief summary does he allude to them with an if we say.

Fellowship with him… walk in darkness—The vital heresy of the errorists; claiming that divine communion is perfectly compatible with wicked conduct; professing that they “know God,” and are thereby relieved from all obligation to do right.

We lie—It is a guilty error, not a mere mistake. We say it in order to claim holiness, and yet indulge in sin.

Do not—Practise not.

The truth—The moral truth of the divine commandments reproduced in the gospel.


Verse 7

7. Walk in the light—A beautiful image of a true and holy life. It implies purity, truth, transparency; and all these are as light, identified in thought with the blessed nature and substance of God himself.

Fellowship—I, we, and God have a common fellowship and threefold oneness in this one common light. We are all light unified.

Blood… cleanseth—We must beware of the great error of making this wonderful image of being washed and cleansed in the blood of Jesus a literality. There is no vat of actual blood into which our bodies or souls are plunged. And there is no literal cleansing. This glowing imagery so reigns in parts of the New Testament, especially in John’s writings, as well as in our sermons and hymns, that many Christians pass their whole lives without once looking through the figure into the literal. They are thence liable to be deceived by arguments based on the figure which have no base in the literal. This figure simply means, first, that our sins are, upon our faith, forgiven us on account of the death of Christ; and, second, that the Holy Spirit being given in consequence of that death, does, in the completeness of that work, so strengthen and energize our moral and spiritual powers that we are able to reject temptation and avoid sin; and just in the measure and fulness of that power in exercise is the entireness of our sanctification. When that divinely-bestowed power is complete, the sanctification is entire. But it is to be noted, that while our pardon is immediate from Christ’s blood, our sanctification is mediate through the Spirit purchased by his blood. We are justified by Christ; we are sanctified by the Spirit.

All sin—That is, from all guilt and practice of sin, not from all sinward liability or tendency, so but that apostasy is possible.


Verse 8

8. If we say—As the Nicolaitans (or antinomian Gnostics) do. See notes on Revelation 2:15, and Introduction to this epistle.

Have no sin— Whether we say by denying we have done wrong, or by affirming that no wrong we commit is sin.

Deceive ourselves—We are not merely mistaken or deceived, but we are also our own deceivers. We are the deceived and deceivers in one. We have the misfortune to be mistaken, and the guilt of framing the deception by which we mistake.

The truth—It is not said that there is not truth in us, for all men have some truth. But the divine truth of pure fellowship with God through Christ is not in us, the only truth by which we are saved. Huther and Alford maintain that this saying, we have no sin, refers even to the true Christian. But, 1. Surely of a Christian who is by forgiveness freed from all guilt of sin, and by sanctification cleansed from all unrighteousness, it may be truly said in an evangelical sense that he has no sin. God imputes to him no sin. And to say that such a non-imputation to the Christian of sin makes God a liar, is, to say the least, very severe language. 2. Very plainly, the apostle is showing how the sinner may come into fellowship with the divine light. He tells such sinner that it is not by denying his sins, but by confessing them, that he can become right. The deceive ourselves refers to the man, therefore, before justification. 3. But in truth, the four instances in this chapter of if we say, are quotations of the language of Nicolaitan antinomians, who maintained that however bad their conduct they were still sinless.


Verse 9

9. If—In 1 John 1:7 St. John, beginning with the final result of unity with the divine light, ends with the instrument by which that unity is accomplished, namely, Christ. He now states the condition, once for all, by which that instrumentality becomes available, namely, reliant confession of our sins in view of the blood. That is, the flinging ourselves as confessed sinners upon Christ and his propitiation for pardon and purity.

Confess our sins— Confess not only that we have done wrong, but that all our wrong-doings are sins. St. John, in specifying the faith-condition of salvation, emphasizes confession, because the uttered denial of sins, even though they committed misdeeds, was the fatal error of his opponents. That confession, however, includes a faith in view of the atonement and justification for which the confession is made. And this faith-confession, it must never be forgotten, underlies this whole epistle, as it does the whole gospel. He—God; who is the pardoner of sins, as Christ is the mediator of the pardon.

Faithful—As having promised. No confessor need ever doubt the divine trueness. Or, we may say that pardon, justification, as the invariable sequent of true faith-confession, is the law of God’s spiritual kingdom, and to it he will be faithful.

Just—But in what sense can God be called just in forgiving the confessor? Not, certainly, because justice requires that a transgressor should be forgiven because he is penitent. No human or divine law holds a guilty man to become innocent because he repents. Indeed, true repentance acknowledges the permanent justice of penalty. God is called just in forgiving in this passage because the atonement makes satisfaction, so that God can be “just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Romans 3:26. Alford is strenuous in maintaining that such an idea does not fairly lie in the present current of thought. But Huther well remarks, that “God punishes as just, but he also blesses as just, and, indeed, the aim of realizing his kingdom is, that he should assign victory to goodness over badness.”

Forgive—Forgiveness holds the transgressor constructively as if he had never sinned, so far as penalty is concerned.

Sins—Transgressions of God’s law in thought, word, or act, as well as those permanent states of mind voluntarily retained adverse to the law. These are pardoned in our justification.

Cleanse us—Under the image that unrighteousness (that is, an inward preference for that which violates the law) is an impurity impregnating our being, the blood, through the Spirit, is said to cleanse the impurity away. By the Spirit, that is, the love of God is poured into the soul, and the love of the unlawful is neutralized by the power of that holy affection. Yet our free agency for sin, our sensitivities to temptation, our need of vigilant exertion of power over sin, our capabilities of apostasy, are never removed until we attain paradise.

The distinction between the forgive and the cleanse should be carefully retained. Forgiveness removes guilt and penalty for past sins; sanctification inspires to future sinlessness. One looks back, and the other looks forward. One says, “Thy sins be forgiven thee;” the other says, “Go, sin no more.”

A father may forgive a wicked son, and the son remain as wicked as before. But when our heavenly Father pardons us, he breathes into our hearts a spirit of obedience, which, if we obey, we never need incur his displeasure.


Verse 10

10. This concluding verse is added, as parallel and completing to 1 John 1:8, in order to emphasize the fact that not only is the denial of sin as a state, but of sin as an actual commission and practice in the past, flagrantly false.

Have not sinned—The applying this to the Christian (as Alford and Huther) is, as above on 1 John 1:8, clearly erroneous. If the supposition be that the Christian says, I have not sinned since my conversion, no sensible Christian ever said that, and the admonition is absurd. If it be, I have not sinned in a particular case, it may be true. Clearly, John is laying the foundation of conversion of sinners to Christ in deep confession of sin both of character and act.

Make him a liar—For both the universal condemnation of men and their universal redemption through Christ, is based upon the assumption that all men, of full responsible age and powers, have sinned.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on 1 John 1:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/1-john-1.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, September 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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