Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The First Epistle General of St John] This title exists in very different forms both ancient and modern, and is not original. As we might expect, the oldest authorities are the simplest; thus, 1. Of John A.; 2. First Epistle of John 3. Catholic Epistle of the Holy Apostle John 4. First Epistle of the Evangelist and Apostle John. So also with the English Versions.
‘General’ means Catholic or Universal. The Epistle is not addressed to any particular Church or individual, but to the whole Church throughout all ages. It is as suitable to the Church of England in the nineteenth century as to that of Ephesus in the first.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;1. That which was from the beginning] The similarity to the opening of the Gospel is manifest: but the thought is somewhat different. There the point is that the Word existed before the Creation; here that the Word existed before the Incarnation. With the neuter ‘that which’ comp. John 4:22; John 6:37; John 17:2; Acts 17:23 (R. V.). The Socinian interpretation, that ‘that which’ means the doctrine of Jesus, and not the Incarnate Word, cannot stand: the verbs, ‘have seen’, ‘beheld’, ‘handled’, are fatal to it. In using the neuter S. John takes the most comprehensive expression to cover the attributes, words and works of the Word and the Life manifested in the flesh.
was] not ‘came into existence’, but was already in existence. The difference between ‘to be’ (1 John 1:2) and ‘to come to be’ or ‘become’ (1 John 2:18) must be carefully noted. Christ was from all eternity; antichrists have arisen, have come into existence in time.
from the beginning] The meaning of ‘beginning’ must always depend upon the context. Here it is explained by ‘was with the Father’ in 1 John 1:2. It does not mean the beginning of the gospel, or even of the world, but a beginning prior to that. It is equivalent to ‘from all eternity’. The Gospel is no new-fangled invention, as Jewish and heathen philosophers contended. The same Greek phrase is used in LXX. for ‘Art Thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God?’ (Habakkuk 1:12), and when this is denied of idols (Wis 14:3). See on John 1:1.
which we have heard] With this clause we pass from eternity into time. The first clause refers to something prior to the Creation. Here both the Creation and the Incarnation have taken place. The second clause refers to the teaching of all the Prophets and of the Christ. There is no need to make ‘which’ (better, that which, to bring out the exact similarity of the first four clauses) in the different clauses refer to different things; e.g. the words, miracles, glory, and body of Christ. Rather, each ‘which’ indicates that collective whole of Divine and human attributes which is the Incarnate Word of Life.
have seen with our eyes] Note the climax: seeing is more than hearing, and beholding (which requires time) is more than seeing (which may be momentary); while handling is more than all. ‘With our eyes’ is added for emphasis. The Apostle would have us know that ‘see’ is no figure of speech, but the expression of a literal fact. With all the language at his command he insists on the reality of the Incarnation, of which he can speak from personal knowledge based on the combined evidence of all the senses. The Docetic heresy of supposing that the Lord’s body was unreal, and the Cerinthian heresy of supposing that He who ‘was from the beginning’ was different from Him whom they heard and saw and handled, is authoritatively condemned by implication at the outset. In the Introduction to the Gospel there is a similar assertion; ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us—and we beheld His glory’ (John 1:14). Comp. 2 Peter 1:16.
which we have looked upon &c.] Rather, that which we beheld and our hands handled: we have first an imperfect, then a pair of perfects, then a pair of aorists. ‘Beheld’ implies deliberate and perhaps pleasurable sight (John 1:14; John 1:34; Acts 1:11). We can hear and see without intending to do so; but we can scarcely behold and handle unintentionally. The aorists probably refer to definite occasions on which the beholding and handling took place. ‘Handled’ seems to be a direct reference to the test demanded by S. Thomas (John 20:27) and offered to the other disciples (Luke 24:39, where the same verb is used as here). “The clear reference to the Risen Christ in ‘handled’ makes it probable that the special manifestation indicated by the two aorists is that given to the Apostles by the Lord after the Resurrection, which is in fact the revelation of Himself as He remains with His Church … The tacit reference is the more worthy of notice because S. John does not mention the fact of the Resurrection in his Epistle” (Westcott). Tertullian is very fond of insisting on the fact that the Lord was ‘handled’: Adv. Prax. XV. twice; De Animâ XVII.; De Pat. III.; comp. Ad Uxorem IV. So also Ignatius (Smyr. iii.); “I know and believe that He was in the flesh even after the resurrection: and when He came to Peter and his company, He said to them, Take, handle Me, and see that I am not a bodiless demon.” Bede points out that the argument has special force as coming from the disciple who had lain on the Lord’s breast. No greater proof of the reality of His Body before and after the Resurrection could be given.
of the word of life] Better, concerning the Word of life; it is not the single genitive, but the genitive with a preposition. The preposition is strongly in favour of ‘Word’, i.e. the personal Logos, rather than ‘word’, i.e. doctrine. For this preposition used of testimony concerning persons comp. 1 John 5:9-10; John 1:15; John 1:22; John 1:30; John 1:48; John 2:25; John 5:31-32; John 5:36-37; John 5:39; John 5:46, &c. We can hardly doubt, moreover, that ‘Word’ or ‘Logos’ in this Introduction has the same meaning as in the Introduction to the Gospel; especially as the Epistle was written as a companion to the Gospel. ‘The Word’, therefore, means the Son of God, in whom had been hidden from eternity all that God had to say to man, and who was the living expression of the Nature and Will of God. See on John 1:1 for the history of the term, which is peculiar to the phraseology of S. John. But of the two terms, Word and Life, the latter is here the emphatic one as is shewn by 1 John 1:2 and by the fact that ‘the Life’ is one of the main topics of the Epistle (1 John 2:25, 1 John 3:14, 1 John 5:11-12; 1 John 5:20), whereas ‘the Word’ is not mentioned again. ‘The Word of life’ may be analogous to ‘the tree of life’, ‘the water of life’, ‘the bread of life’, where ‘of life’ means ‘life-giving’; but more probably to ‘the temple of His body’, ‘the sign of healing’, where the genitive is one of apposition. ‘The Word which is the Life’ is the meaning. Christ is at once the Word of God and the Life of man.
Chap. 1 John 1:1-4. The Introduction
That the first four verses are introductory is generally admitted. They are analogous to the first eighteen verses of the Gospel and to the first three verses of the Revelation. Like the Prologue to the Gospel, this Introduction tells us that what the Apostle purposes to write about is the Word who is the Life. At the same time it states the authority with which he writes, an authority derived from the irrefragable evidence of the closest personal experience: and it states also the purpose of the letter,—to complete their joy in the Lord.
1–4. The construction is somewhat involved and prolonged. Such complicated sentences are not common in S. John: but we have similar sentences, extending over three verses, John 6:22-24; John 13:2-4. Various ways of connecting the clauses have been suggested, making ‘is’ understood, or ‘handled’, the main verb, thus; ‘That which was from the beginning is that which we have heard’, or ‘That which was from the beginning, which &c., our hands also touched’. But beyond all reasonable doubt ‘we declare’ is the main verb, and, ‘that which’ in each case introduces the thing declared. 1 John 1:2 is a parenthesis, and then part of 1 John 1:1 is repeated for emphasis and clearness. The complication is due to the crowding of profound thoughts which almost strangle the Apostle’s simple command of language.
“S. John throughout this section uses the plural as speaking in the name of the apostolic body of which he was the last surviving representative” (Westcott).
(For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)2. For the life was manifested] Better, And the life &c. It is S. John’s characteristic use of the simple conjunction. ‘Manifest’ (φανεροῦν) also is one of S. John’s characteristic words, frequent in Gospel and Epistle and occurring twice in Revelation. Words and phrases which connect the Epistle with the Gospel, or either of these with the Apocalypse, should be carefully noted. ‘Was manifested’ means became such that He could be known by man. Note that the sentence does not begin with a relative, ‘which was manifested’, but that the noun is repeated. This repetition, carrying on a part of one sentence into the next for further elucidation and development, is quite in S. John’s style.
have seen] This is the result of the manifestation: the Divine Life has become perceptible by the senses. In what way this took place is told us in 1 John 4:2 and John 1:14.
and bear witness] The simple connexion of these sentences by ‘and’ is also in S. John’s style; and ‘bear witness’ (μαρτυρεῖν) is another of his favourite words, occurring frequently in Gospel, Epistle, and Apocalypse. Testimony to the truth, with a view to producing belief in the Truth, on which eternal life depends, is one of his frequent thoughts. But the frequency of ‘bear witness’ in his writings is much obscured in A. V., where the same verb is sometimes rendered ‘bear record’ (1 John 5:7), ‘give record’ (1 John 5:10), and ‘testify’ (1 John 4:14, 1 John 5:9), and so also in the Gospel and the Revelation. Similarly the substantive ‘witness’ (μαρτυρία) is sometimes translated ‘record’ (1 John 5:10-11) and sometimes ‘testimony’. The R.V. in this respect has made great improvements. Comp. ‘This Jesus did God raise up, whereof (or, of whom) we all are witnesses’ (Acts 2:32).
and shew unto you] Better, and declare unto you: it is the same verb as occurs in the next verse; rare in S. John (John 16:25, but not John 4:51 or John 20:18) but frequent in S. Luke. In this parenthetical verse, as in the main sentence of 1 John 1:1; 1 John 1:3, the Apostle emphatically reiterates that what he has to communicate is the result of his own personal experience. ‘He that hath seen hath borne witness, and his witness is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye also may believe’ (John 19:35 : comp. John 20:30-31, John 21:24).
that eternal life] Rather, the life, the eternal (life). “The repetition of the article brings forward separately and distinctly the two notions of life and eternity” (Jelf). It is well known that the translators of 1611 did not perfectly understand the Greek article. Sometimes they ignore it, sometimes they insert it unwarrantably, sometimes (as here and 1 John 5:18) they exaggerate it by turning it into a demonstrative pronoun. Comp. ‘that Prophet’, ‘that Christ’, ‘that bread’ (John 1:21; John 1:25; John 6:14; John 6:48; John 6:69; John 7:40). For ‘the Life’ as a name for Christ comp. ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’: ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life’ (John 11:25; John 14:6). ‘Eternal life’ is another of S. John’s characteristic phrases, a fact somewhat obliterated in A.V. by the Greek phrase being often rendered ‘everlasting life’ or ‘life everlasting’. ‘Eternal’ is better than ‘everlasting’, although in popular language the two words are synonymous. S. John’s ‘eternal life’ has nothing to do with time, but depends on our relation to Jesus Christ. S. John tells us over and over again that eternal life can be possessed in this world (1 John 5:11; 1 John 5:13; 1 John 5:20, 1 John 3:15 : see on John 3:36; John 5:24; John 6:47). He never applies ‘eternal’ (αἰώνιος) to anything but life, excepting in Revelation 14:6, where he speaks of an ‘eternal gospel’.
which was with the Father] Or, which indeed was with the Father: it is not the simple but compound relative, denoting that what follows is a special attribute; ‘which was such as to be with the Father’. For the ‘was’ see on 1 John 1:1. ‘With the Father’ is exactly parallel to ‘with God’ in John 1:1. It is anticipated in the passage on the Divine Wisdom; ‘Then I was by Him as one brought up with Him’ (Proverbs 8:30). It indicates the distinct Personality of ‘the Life’. Had the Apostle written ‘which was in God’, we might have thought that he meant a mere attribute of God. ‘With the Father’ is apud Patrem, ‘face to face’ or ‘at home with the Father’. Comp. ‘to tarry a while with you’ (1 Corinthians 16:7); ‘when we were with you’ (1 Thessalonians 3:4); ‘whom I would fain have kept with me’ (Philemon 1:13).
was manifested unto us] Repeated from the beginning of the verse. In both cases we have a change from the imperfect tense (of the continuous preexistence of Christ) to the aorist (of the comparatively momentary manifestation). But S. John’s repetitions generally carry us a step further. The manifestation would be little to us, if we had no share in it. But that Being who was from all eternity with the Father, has been made known, and made known to us.
That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.3. That which we have seen and heard] In returning to the main sentence he repeats a portion of it. The ideas of the first half and of the second half of the main sentence are not the same. In 1 John 1:1 he is thinking mainly of what he has to declare, viz. One existing from all eternity and intimately known to himself: in 1 John 1:3 he is thinking mainly of why he declares this, viz. to promote mutual fellowship.
declare we unto you] Add, also; ‘you as well as we’, or possibly, ‘you as well as others, who have already been told’, must have a share in the good tidings. Comp. ‘We cannot but speak the things which we saw and heard’ (Acts 4:20). Where does S. John declare Him who was from the beginning and was so well known to him and to others? Not in this Epistle, for no such declaration is found in it; but in the Gospel, which consists of such a declaration. We shall miss the purport of the Epistle if we do not bear constantly in mind that it was written as a companion to the Gospel. Parallels between the two abound: in what follows we have a striking one. Note the sequence of ideas: 1. the evidence on which their conviction was based, ‘have seen’; 2. their declaration of these convictions as Apostles, ‘bear witness’; 3. their declaration of them as Evangelists, ‘declare’.
that ye also may have fellowship with us] Comp. ‘that they may be one, even as We are’ (John 17:11). Christ’s prayer and S. John’s purpose are one and the same. See on 1 John 1:4. ‘Ye also’, who have not heard, or seen, or handled.
fellowship] Or, communion; almost always used of fellowship with persons (1 Corinthians 1:9) or with things personified (2 Corinthians 6:14). The word is rare in N. T. outside S. Paul’s writings. It “generally denotes the fellowship of persons with persons in one and the same object, always common to all and sometimes whole to each” (Canon Evans on 1 Corinthians 10:16). This is S. John’s conception of the Church: each member of it possesses the Son, and through Him the Father; and this common possession gives communion with all other members as well as with the Divine Persons.
and truly our fellowship] Or, yea, and our fellowship: there is a double conjunction in the Greek, as in John 6:51. The Apostle will tell them what ‘fellowship with us’ really means: ‘but our fellowship is not merely fellowship with us; it is fellowship with the Father and the Son’ (John 14:23). The ‘our’, like ‘eternal’ in 1 John 1:2 is very emphatic: ‘the fellowship that is ours, that we enjoy’.
His Son Jesus Christ] This full description is given for solemnity; and also perhaps to bring out the idea of which the Epistle is so full, that Christians are all one family, and in their relation to God share in the Sonship of Christ. Comp. ‘God is faithful, through whom ye were called into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1 Corinthians 1:9).
The fulness of the expression (comp. 1 John 3:23) is not so apparent in the English as in the Greek, which literally rendered runs thus; is with the Father and with the Son of Him, Jesus Christ. Both the preposition and the definite article are repeated, marking emphatically the distinction and equality between the Son and the Father. Thus two fundamental truths, which the philosophical heresies of the age were apt to obscure or deny, are here clearly laid down at the outset; (1) the distinctness of personality and equality of dignity between the Father and the Son; (2) the identity of the eternal Son of God with the historical person Jesus Christ.
And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.4. these things write we] These words apply to the whole Epistle, of which he here states the purpose, just as in John 20:31 he states the purpose of the Gospel. Both ‘write’ and ‘we’ are emphatic: it is a permanent message that is sent, and it is sent by apostolic authority.
that your joy may be full] According to the better reading and rendering, that our joy may be fulfilled. Tyndale in his first edition (1525) has ‘your’, in his second (1534) and third (1535) ‘our’. In the Greek we have a passive participle, not an adjective: that our joy may be made full and may remain so. Moreover the expression that joy is made full or fulfilled is one of S. John’s characteristic phrases, and this should be brought out in translation. The active ‘fulfil my joy’ occurs Php 2:2; but the passive only here, John 3:29; John 15:11; John 16:24; John 17:13; 2 John 1:12. Comp. ‘These things have I spoken unto you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled’, and ‘These things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves’ (John 15:11; John 17:13). Once more Christ’s prayer and S. John’s purpose are one and the same. See on 1 John 1:3. ‘Our joy’ may mean either the Apostolic joy at the good results of Apostolic teaching; or the joy in which the recipients of the teaching share—‘yours as well as ours’. In either case the joy is that serene happiness, which is the result of conscious union with God and good men, of conscious possession of eternal life (see on 1 John 5:13), and which raises us above pain and sorrow and remorse. The first person plural used throughout this Introduction is the plural of authority, indicating primarily S. John, but S. John as the representative of the Apostles. In the body of the Epistle he uses the first person singular (1 John 2:1; 1 John 2:7-8; 1 John 2:12-14; 1 John 2:21; 1 John 2:26, 1 John 5:13). The concluding words of the Introduction to the Epistle of Barnabas are striking both in their resemblance and difference: “Now I, not as a teacher, but as one of you, will set forth a few things, by means of which in your present case ye may be gladdened.” Bede remarks, doubtless as the result of personal experience, that the joy of teachers is made full when by their preaching many are brought to the communion of the Church and of Him through whom the Church is strengthened and increased.
The following profound thoughts struggle for expression in these four opening verses. There is a Being who has existed with God the Father from all eternity: He is the Father’s Son: He is also the expression of the Father’s Nature and Will. He has been manifested in space and time; and of that manifestation I and others have had personal knowledge: by the united evidence of our senses we have been convinced of its reality. In revealing to us the Divine Nature He becomes to us life, eternal life. With the declaration of all this in our hands as the Gospel, we come to you in this Epistle, that you may unite with us in our great possession, and that our joy in the Lord may be made complete.
We now enter upon the first main division of the Epistle; which extends to 1 John 2:28, the chief subject of which (with much digression) is the theme God is Light, and that in two parts: i. the Positive Side—What Walking in the Light involves; the Condition and Conduct of the Believer (1 John 1:5 to 1 John 2:11): ii. the Negative Side—What Walking in the Light excludes; the Things and Persons to be avoided (1 John 2:12-28). These parts will be subdivided as we reach them.
This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.5–7. Fellowship with God and with the Brethren
5. This then is the message which we have heard of Him] Better, And the message which we have heard from Him is this. ‘This’ is the predicate, as so often in S. John: ‘But the judgment is this’ (John 3:19); ‘The commandment is this’ (John 15:12); ‘The eternal life is this’ (John 17:3): comp. 1 John 3:11; 1 John 3:23; 1 John 5:3; 1 John 5:11; 1 John 5:14; 2 John 1:6. In all these cases ‘is this’ means ‘This is what it consists in, This is the sum and substance of it’. The conjunction does not introduce an inference: here, as in the Gospel, the main portion of the writing is joined on to the Introduction by a simple ‘and’. Tyndale, Cranmer, and the Rhemish all have ‘and’: ‘then’ comes from Geneva, apparently under the influence of Beza’s igitur. The connexion of thought seems to be this. S. John is writing that we may have fellowship with God (1 John 1:3): and in order to have this we must know 1. what God is (1 John 1:5), and 2. what we consequently are bound to be (6–10). The word for ‘message’ (ἀγγελία) occurs only in this Epistle (1 John 3:11) in N.T., but is more frequent in LXX.
Once more we have a striking parallel between Gospel and Epistle: the Gospel opens with a sentence very similar in form; ‘And the witness of John is this’ (John 1:19). All these similarities strengthen the belief that the two were written about the same time, and were intended to accompany one another.
from Him] From Christ. The pronoun used (αὐτός) is not the one (ἐκεῖνος) commonly used for Christ in this Epistle. But here the context decides: ‘Him’ refers back to ‘His Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3), the subject of the opening verses (1–3). Moreover, it was from Christ, and not immediately from the Father, that the Apostles received their message.
and declare unto you] Better, and announce unto you: not precisely the same verb as was rendered ‘declare’ in 1 John 1:2-3. Both are compounds of the same verb; but while the former has merely the notion of proclaiming and making known, this has the notion of proclaiming again what has been received elsewhere. The one is annuntiare, the other renuntiare. S. John hands on the message received from Christ: it is no invention of his own. It is a message, and not a discovery. So also the Spirit makes known or reveals to us truths which proceed from the Father (John 16:13-15): comp. John 4:25; 2 Corinthians 7:7; 1 Peter 1:12, where the same verb is used in all cases.
God is light] This is the theme of the first main division of the Epistle, as ‘God is Love’ of the second: so that this verse stands in the same relation to the first great division as 1 John 1:1-4 to the whole Epistle. No one tells us so much about the Nature of God as S. John: other writers tell us what God does, and what attributes He possesses; S. John tells us what He is. There are three statements in the Bible which stand alone as revelations of the Nature of God, and they are all in the writings of S. John: ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24); ‘God is light’, and ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). In all these momentous statements the predicate has no article, either definite or indefinite. We are not told that God is the Spirit, or the Light, or the Love: nor (in all probability) that He is a Spirit, or a light. But ‘God is spirit, is light, is love’: spirit, light, love are His very Nature. They are not mere attributes, like mercy and justice: they are Himself. They are probably the nearest approach to a definition of God that the human mind could frame or comprehend: and in the history of thought and religion they are unique. The more we consider them, the more they satisfy us. The simplest intellect can understand their meaning; the subtlest cannot exhaust it. No philosophy, no religion, not even the Jewish, had risen to the truth that God is light. ‘The Lord shall be to thee an everlasting light’ (Isaiah 60:19-20) is far short of it. But S. John knows it: and lest the great message which he conveys to us in his Gospel, ‘God is spirit’, should seem somewhat bare and empty in its indefiniteness, he adds this other message in his Epistle, ‘God is light, God is love’. No figure borrowed from the material world could give the idea of perfection so clearly and fully as light. It suggests ubiquity, brightness, happiness, intelligence, truth, purity, holiness. It suggests excellence without limit and without taint; an excellence whose nature it is to communicate itself and to pervade everything from which it is not of set purpose shut out. ‘Let there be light’ was the first fiat of the Creator; and on it all the rest depends. Light is the condition of beauty, and life, and growth, and activity: and this is as true in the intellectual, moral, and spiritual spheres as in the material universe.
Of the many beautiful and true ideas which the utterance ‘God is light’ suggests to us, two are specially prominent in this Epistle; intelligence and holiness. The Christian, anointed with the Holy Spirit, and in communion with God in Christ, possesses (1) knowledge, (2) righteousness. (1) ‘Ye know Him which is from the beginning’ (1 John 2:13-14); ‘I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it’ (1 John 2:21); ‘Ye need not that anyone teach you’ (1 John 2:27); &c. &c. (2) ‘Every one that hath this hope on him purifieth himself, even as He is pure’ (1 John 3:3); ‘Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin, because his seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God’; &c. &c.
and in Him is no darkness at all] Or, retaining the telling order of the Greek, and darkness in Him there is none at all. This antithetic parallelism is characteristic of S. John’s style. He frequently emphasizes a statement by following it up with a denial of its opposite. Thus, in the next verse, ‘We lie, and do not the truth’. Comp. ‘We lead ourselves astray, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8); Abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him’ (1 John 2:10); ‘Is true, and is no lie’ (1 John 2:27): comp. 1 John 2:4. So also in the Gospel: see on John 1:3. The denial here is very strong, the negative being doubled in the Greek; ‘none whatever, none at all’.
Another parallel between the Gospel and the Epistle must here be pointed out. In the Prologue to the former we have these ideas in succession; the Word, life, light, darkness. The same four follow in the same order here; ‘the Word of life’, ‘the life was manifested’, ‘God is light, and darkness in Him there is none’. Must we not suppose that the sequence of thought here has been influenced by the sequence in the corresponding portion of the Gospel?
The figurative use of ‘darkness’ for moral darkness, i.e. error and sin, is very frequent in S. John (1 John 2:8-9; 1 John 2:11; see on John 1:5; John 8:12). These passages shew that the meaning of this verse cannot be, ‘God has now been revealed, and no part of His Nature remains unknown’; which, moreover, could never be stated of Him who is incomprehensible. S. John is laying the foundation of Christian Ethics, of which the very first principle is that there is a God who intellectually, morally, and spiritually is light.
“In speaking of ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ it is probable that S. John had before him the Zoroastrian speculations on the two opposing spiritual powers which influenced Christian thought at a very early date” (Westcott).
1 John 1:5 to 1 John 2:28. God is Light
1 John 1:5 to 1 John 2:11. What Walking in the Light involves
This section is largely directed against the Gnostic doctrine that to the man of enlightenment all conduct is morally indifferent. Against every form of this doctrine, which sapped the very foundations of Christian Ethics, the Apostle never wearies of inveighing. So far from its being true that all conduct is alike to the enlightened man, it is the character of his conduct that will shew whether he is enlightened or not. If he is walking in the light his condition and conduct will exhibit these things; 1. Fellowship with God and with the Brethren (5–7); 2. Consciousness and Confession of Sin (8–10); 3. Obedience to God by Imitation of Christ (1 John 2:1-6); 4. Love of the Brethren (1 John 2:7-11).
If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:6. An inference from the first principle just laid down. God is light, utterly removed from all darkness: therefore to be in darkness is to be cut off from Him.
If we say] With great gentleness he puts the case hypothetically, and with great delicacy he includes himself in the hypothesis. This ‘if we’ continues in almost every verse until 1 John 2:3, after which it is changed into the equivalent ‘he that’, which continues down to 1 John 2:11; after that neither form is used. This is one of several indications that from 1 John 1:6 to 1 John 2:11 is a definite division of the Epistle, based upon the introductory verse, 1 John 1:5. With 1 John 2:12 there is a new departure.
walk in darkness] This ‘walk’ (περιπατεῖν) is the Latin versari and signifies the ordinary course of life. The word in this sense is frequent in S. Paul and in S. John. Comp. 1 John 2:6; 1 John 2:11; 2 John 1:4; 2 John 1:6; 3 John 1:3-4; Revelation 21:24; John 8:12. It expresses not merely action, but habitual action. A life in moral darkness can no more have communion with God, than a life in a coal-pit can have communion with the sun. For ‘what communion hath light with darkness?’ (2 Corinthians 6:4). Light can be shut out, but it cannot be shut in. Some Gnostics taught, not merely that to the illuminated all conduct was alike, but that to reach the highest form of illumination men must experience every kind of action, however abominable, in order to work themselves free from the powers that rule the world (Eus. H. E. IV. vii. 9). ‘In darkness’ should probably be in the darkness: in 1 John 1:6-7, as in 1 John 2:8-9; 1 John 2:11, both light and darkness have the article in the Greek, which is not merely generic but emphatic; that which is light indeed is opposed to that which is darkness indeed. In 2 Corinthians 6:14, ‘What communion hath light with darkness?’, neither word has the article.
we lie, and do not the truth] Antithetic parallelism, as in 1 John 1:5. The negative statement here carries us further than the positive one: it includes conduct as well as speech. See on John 3:21, where ‘doing the truth’ is opposed to ‘practising evil’. It is also the opposite of ‘doing a lie’ (Revelation 21:27; Revelation 22:15). In LXX. ‘to do mercy and truth’ is found several times. So also S. Paul opposes truth to iniquity (1 Corinthians 13:6); shewing that neither does he confine truth to truthfulness in words. In this Epistle we find many striking harmonies in thought and language between S. John and S. Paul, quite fatal to the view that there is a fundamental difference in teaching between the two Apostles.
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.7. A further inference from the first principle laid down in 1 John 1:5 : walking in the light involves not only fellowship with God but fellowship with the brethren. This verse takes the opposite hypothesis to that just considered and expands it. We often find (comp. 1 John 1:9) that S. John while seeming to go back or repeat, really progresses and gives us something fresh. It would have enforced 1 John 1:6, but it would have told us nothing fresh, to say ‘if we walk in the light, and say that we have fellowship with Him, we speak the truth, and do not lie’. And it is interesting to find that the craving to make this verse the exact antithesis of the preceding one has generated another reading, ‘we have fellowship with Him’, instead of ‘with one another’. This reading is as old as the second century, for Tertullian (De Pud. XIX.) quotes, ‘si vero’, inquit, ‘in lumine incedamus, communionem cum eo habebimus, et sanguis &c.’ Clement of Alexandria also seems to have known of this reading. This is evidence of the early date of our Epistle; for by the end of the second century important differences of reading had already arisen and become widely diffused.
as He is in the light] We walk, God is: we move through space and time; He is in eternity. Of Him who is everywhere, and knows no change, we can only say, ‘He is’. Comp. the similar thought of S. Paul; ‘Who only hath immortality, dwelling in light unapproachable’ (1 Timothy 6:16). That which is light must ever be in light. We then must make our spiritual atmosphere similar to His, that our thoughts and conduct may reflect Him.
fellowship one with another] This certainly refers to the mutual fellowship of Christians among themselves, as is clear from 1 John 3:23, 1 John 4:7; 1 John 4:12; 2 John 1:5. It does not refer to fellowship between God and man, as S. Augustine and others, desiring to make this verse parallel to 1 John 1:6, have interpreted. S. John would scarcely express the relation between God and man by such a phrase as ‘we have fellowship with one another’ (μετ' ἀλλήλων). Contrast ‘I ascend unto My Father and your Father, and My God and your God’ (John 20:17). In that ‘thick darkness’, which prevailed ‘in all the land of Egypt three days, they saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days’ (Exodus 10:22-23): i.e. there was an absolute cessation of fellowship. Society could not continue in the dark: but when the light returned, society was restored. So also in the spiritual world: when the light comes, individuals have that communion one with another which in darkness is impossible. In a similar spirit Cicero declares that real friendship is impossible without virtue (De Amic. vi. 20).
and the blood of Jesus Christ] Omit ‘Christ’ with all the oldest authorities: so also Wiclif and Tyndale’s first edition. The ‘and’ shews that this is a further consequence of walking in the light. “For this is the virtue of the Lord’s blood, that such as it has already purified from sin, and thenceforward has set in the light, it renders thenceforward pure, if they continue steadfastly walking in the light” (Tertull. De Mod. XIX.). One who walks in spiritual darkness cannot appropriate that cleansing from sin, which is wrought by the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross as a propitiation for sin.
His Son] Not redundant: (1) it is a passing contradiction of Cerinthus, who taught that Jesus was a mere man when His blood was shed, for the Divine element in His nature left Him when He was arrested in the garden; and of the Ebionites, who taught that He was a mere man from His birth to His death; (2) it explains how this blood can have such virtue: it is the blood of One who is the Son of God.
cleanseth] Note the present tense of what goes on continually; that constant cleansing which even the holiest Christians need (see on John 13:10). One who lives in the light knows his own frailty and is continually availing himself of the purifying power of Christ’s sacrificial death. “This passage shews that the gratuitous pardon of sins is given us not once only, but that it is a benefit perpetually residing in the Church, and daily offered to the faithful” (Calvin). Note also the ‘all’; there is no limit to its cleansing power: even grievous sinners can be restored to the likeness of God, in whom is no darkness at all. This refutes by anticipation the error of the Novatians, who denied pardon to mortal sins after baptism. Comp. ‘How much more shall the blood of Christ … cleanse your conscience’ (Hebrews 9:14), and ‘These are they which come out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ (Revelation 7:14).
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.8. If we say] See on 1 John 1:6. Doubtless there were some who said so, and more perhaps who thought so; ‘say’ need not mean more than ‘say in our hearts’. S. John’s own teaching might easily be misunderstood as encouraging such an error, if one portion of it (1 John 3:9-10) were taken without the rest.
we have no sin] ‘To have sin’ is a phrase peculiar to S. John in N. T. There is no need to inquire whether original or actual sin is meant: the expression is quite general, covering sin of every kind. Only One human being has been able to say ‘The things pleasing to God I always do’; ‘Which of you convicteth Me of sin?’; ‘The ruler of the world hath nothing in Me’ (John 8:29; John 8:46; John 14:30). The more a man knows of the meaning of ‘God is light’, i.e. the more he realises the absolute purity and holiness of God, the more conscious he will become of his own impurity and sinfulness: comp. Job 9:2; Job 14:4; Job 15:14; Job 25:4; Proverbs 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20.
we deceive ourselves] Not merely we are mistaken, or are misled, but we lead ourselves astray. In the Greek it is neither the middle, nor the passive, but the active with the reflexive pronoun: the erring is all our own doing. See on 1 John 5:21. We do for ourselves what Satan, the arch-deceiver (Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:10) endeavours to do for us. The active (πλανᾷν) is frequent in S. John, especially in the Apocalypse (Revelation 2:26; Revelation 3:7; Revelation 2:20; Revelation 12:9; Revelation 13:14; Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:3; Revelation 20:8; Revelation 20:10). An examination of these passages will shew that the word is a strong one and implies serious departure from the truth: comp. John 7:12.
the truth is not in us] Because we are in an atmosphere of self-made darkness which shuts the truth out. The truth may be all round us, but we are not in contact with it: it is not in us. One who shuts himself in a dark room has no light, though the sun may be shining brightly. All words about truth, ‘the truth, true, truly,’ are characteristic of S. John. Note the antithetic parallelism, and see on 1 John 1:5.
8–10. Consciousness and Confession of Sin
8–10. Walking in the light involves the great blessings just stated,—fellowship with God and with our brethren, and a share in the purifying blood of Jesus. But it also involves something on our part. It intensifies our consciousness of sin, and therefore our desire to get rid of it by confessing it. No one can live in the light without being abundantly convinced that he himself is not light.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.9. If we confess our sins] The opposite hypothesis is now taken and expanded, as in 1 John 1:7; see note there. But there is no conjunction, no ‘but’, as in 1 John 1:7; and the asyndeton is telling. Greek has such a wealth of connecting particles, that in that language asyndeton is specially remarkable. Here there is expansion and progress, not only in the second half of the verse where ‘He is faithful and righteous’ takes the place of ‘we are true’; but in the first half also; where ‘confess our sins’ takes the place of ‘say we have sin’. The latter admission costs us little: the confession of the particular sins which we have committed costs a good deal, and is a guarantee of sincerity. He who refuses to confess, may perhaps desire, but certainly does not seek forgiveness. ‘He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy’ (Proverbs 28:13). Obviously confession to Him who is ‘faithful and righteous’, and to those ‘selves’ whom we should otherwise ‘lead astray’, is all that is meant. The passage has nothing to do with the question of confession to our fellow-men.
faithful and just] Better, faithful and righteous, to bring out the contrast with ‘unrighteousness’ and the connexion with ‘Jesus Christ the righteous’ (1 John 2:1), where the same word (δίκαιος) is used. The Greek ‘and’ (καί) sometimes means ‘and yet’, and frequently does so in S. John: see on John 1:10. It is possible that it has this meaning here. ‘God is faithful (to His promises to us) and yet righteous (in hating and punishing sin)’. He keeps His promise of mercy to the penitent without losing His character for righteousness and justice. In any case beware of making ‘righteous’ a vague equivalent for ‘kind, gentle, merciful’. It means ‘just’ (which is to some extent the opposite of ‘merciful’), and affirms that God in keeping His word gives to each his due. The distinction which refers ‘faithful’ to mortal sins and ‘righteous’ to venial ones is frivolous. For ‘faithful’ in the sense of keeping promises comp. ‘He is faithful that promised’ (Hebrews 10:23); ‘She counted Him faithful who had promised’ (Hebrews 11:11): and for ‘righteous’ in the sense of giving just awards comp. ‘Righteous art Thou … because Thou didst thus judge … True and righteous are Thy judgments’ (Revelation 16:5-7).
to forgive us our sins] In spite of what some eminent scholars have said to the contrary, it is perhaps true that the Greek for these words includes to some extent the idea of intention and aim. Thus the Vulgate, fidelis est et justus, ut remittat nobis peccata nostra; and Wiclif, ‘He is feithful and just that He forgeve to us oure synnes’; and the Rhemish, ‘He is faithful and just, for to forgive us our sinnes’. In S. John we find the conviction deeply rooted that all things happen in accordance with the decrees of God: events are the results of His purposes. And this conviction influences his language: so that constructions (ἵνα) which originally indicated a purpose, and which even in late Greek do not lose this meaning entirely, are specially frequent in his writings: see on John 5:36. It is God’s decree and aim that His faithfulness and righteousness should appear in His forgiving us and cleansing us. Comp. ‘Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned … that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest’ (Psalm 51:4).
our sins] Those particular acts of sin which we have confessed, and from the punishment due for which we are thus set free. ‘I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin’ (Psalm 32:5). ‘He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy’ (Proverbs 28:13).
and to cleanse us] This is not a repetition in different words; it is a second and distinct result of our confession: 1. We are absolved from sin’s punishment; 2. We are freed from sin’s pollution. The forgiveness is the averting of God’s wrath; the cleansing is the beginning of holiness.
If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.10. that we have not sinned] This is not the same as ‘that we have no sin’ (1 John 1:8), and therefore we have once more not repetition, but expansion and strengthening of what precedes. ‘Have no sin’ refers to a sinful state; ‘have not sinned’ refers to the actual commission of particular acts of sin: the one is the inward principle, the other is its result. But the whole context shews that neither expression refers to sins committed before baptism: no Christian would have denied these: moreover S. John does not write to the recently converted, but to those who have had time to grow lukewarm and indifferent. Both expressions refer to sin after baptism, and the perfect (ἡμαρτήκαμεν) has the common meaning of the Greek perfect, present result of past action; ‘we are in the condition of not having sinned’. This use of the perfect is specially frequent in S. John.
we make Him a liar] Worse than ‘we lead ourselves astray’ (1 John 1:8), as that is worse than ‘we lie’ (1 John 1:6). This use of the verb ‘make’ in the sense of ‘assert that one is’ is frequent in the Gospel: ‘He made Himself the Son of God’; ‘Every one that maketh himself a king’ (John 19:7; John 19:12; comp. John 5:18, John 8:53, John 10:33). God’s promise to forgive sin to the penitent would be a lie if there were no sin to be repented of. And more than this; God’s whole scheme of salvation assumes that all men are sinful and need to be redeemed: therefore those who deny their sinfulness charge God with deliberately framing a vast libel on human nature. Whereas S. Paul says, ‘Let God be found true, but every man a liar’ (Romans 3:3).
His word is not in us] God’s revelation of Himself has no home in our hearts: it remains outside us, as the light remains outside and separated from him who shuts himself up in darkness. The expressions, ‘to be in’ and ‘to abide in’, to express intimate relationship, are characteristic of S. John: and either of the things related can be said to be in the other. Thus, either ‘His word is not in us’ (comp. 1 John 2:14), or ‘If ye abide in My word’ (John 8:31): either ‘The truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8), or ‘He standeth not in the truth’ (John 8:44). Sometimes the two modes of expression are combined; ‘Abide in Me, and I in you’ (John 15:4). ‘His word’ means especially the Gospel: as it is the sins of Christians which are being considered, the O.T., though not excluded, cannot be specially meant. ‘Word’ is more personal than ‘the truth’ (1 John 1:8), which does not necessarily imply a speaker.