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;
Verse 1. - The first clause states what or how the object is in itself; the next three state St. John's relation to it; "which," in the first clause nominative, in the others is accusative. The neuter (ὅ) expresses a collective and comprehensive whole (John 4:22; John 6:37; John 17:2; Acts 17:23, etc.); the attributes of the Λόγος rather than the Λόγος himself are indicated. Or, as Jelf expresses it, "the neuter gender denotes immaterial personality, the masculine or feminine material personality." In the beginning is not quite the same as in John 1:1; there St. John tells us that the Word was in existence before the world was created; here that he was in existence before he was manifested. Thus far all is indefinite; the philosopher, about to expound a law of nature, might begin, "That which was from the beginning declare we unto you." What follows is in a climax, making the meaning clearer at each step: seeing is more than hearing, and handling than seeing. The climax is in two pairs, of perfects and of aorists; the aorists giving the past acts, the perfects the permanent results. Together they sum up the apostolic experience of that boundless activity of Christ, of which the world could not contain the full account (John 21:25). Beheld ἐθεασάμεθα is more than have seen ἑωράκαμεν. Seeing might be momentary; beholding implies that steady contemplation, for which the beloved disciple had large and abundantly used opportunities. In our hands handled we may see a reference to Luke 24:39, where the same verb is used ψηλαφήσατε; and still more to John 20:27, where the demanded test of handling is offered to St. Thomas, provoking the confession of faith to which the whole Gospel leads up, "My Lord and my God!" Had St. John merely said "heard," we might have thought that he meant a doctrine. Had he merely said "heard and seen," we might have understood it of the effects of Christ's doctrine. But "our hands handled" shows clearly that the attributes of the Word become flesh are what St. John insists on, and probably as a contradiction of Docetism. "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" (Maurice). Between the first clause and what follows lies the tremendous fact of the Incarnation; and St. John piles verb on verb, and clause on clause, to show that he speaks with the authority of full knowledge, and that there is no possible room for Ebionite or Cerinthian error. The first clause assures us that Jesus was no mere man; the others assure us that he was really man. Precisely that Being who was in existence from the beginning is that of whom St. John and others have had, and still possess, knowledge by all the means through which knowledge can have access to the mind of man. (For "seeing with the eyes," cf. Luke 2:30; for θεᾶσθαι of contemplating with delight [Stark 16:11, 14], John 1:14, 34; Acts 1:11.) Concerning the Word of life. "Concerning" περί may depend on "have heard," and, by a kind of zengma, on the other three verbs also; or on the main verb," we declare." "The Word of life" means "the Word who is the Life," like "the city of Rome,... the Book of Genesis;" the genitive case is "the characterizing or identifying genitive." The περί is strongly against the interpretation, "the word of life," i.e., the life-giving gospel. Had St. John meant this, he would probably have written ὅν ἀκηκόαμεν... τὸν λόγον τῆς ζωῆς ἀπαγγέλλομεν (John 5:24, 37; John 8:43; John 14:24); περί is very frequent of persons (John 1:7, 8, 15, 22, 30, 48, etc.). Moreover, the evident connexion between the introductions to his Gospel and Epistle compels us to understand ὁ Λόγος in the same sense in both (see on John 1:1 in this Commentary, and in the 'Cambridge Greek Testament' or 'Bible for Schools'). What St. John has to announce is his own experience of the Eternal Word incarnate, the Eternal Life made manifest (John 14:6); his hearing of his words, his seeing with his own eyes his Messianic works, his contemplation of the Divinity which shone through both; his handling of the body of the risen Redeemer.
(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;)
Verse 2. - Parenthetical. The main thought of verses 1 and 3 is, "We declare to you a Being both eternal and yet seen and known by us." That of verse 2 is, "This Being, in his character of the Life, became visible, and in him are centered all the relations between God and man." Quite in St. John's style, verse 2 takes up and develops a portion of verse 1, using its last word as the basis of a new departure (comp. John 1:14; ἐφανερώθη gives the same fact as σάρξ ἐγένετο from another point of view). Became flesh is the fact in itself; the incarnation of the Λόγος. "Was manifested" is the fact in reference to mankind; their admission to the knowledge of it. The union of "see" with "bear witness" recalls John 19:35; and here, again, verse 2 resumes and develops part of verse 1. Have seen sums up the four verbs in verse 1; for in all languages sight is used of experience generally. Bear witness and declare carries us a stage further - the communication of the experience. It is doubtful whether τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον is the object of all four verbs or of ἀπαγγέλλομεν only. Note the double article: the life, the eternal life. The Epistle begins and ends with this theme (1 John 5:20). (For ἥτις and πρός, cf. John 8:53; John 1:1.) Which indeed (as all must know) was with the rather. The verse ends as it began, but not with a mere repetition; the Life was manifested, and in particular 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.
Verse 3. - The main sentence is resumed from verse 1, only the chief points being retouched. We declare to you also καί must be read before ὑμῖν, on overwhelming authority); i.e., "you as well as we must share in it," rather than "you as well as others to whom we have declared it." Of course, ἀπαγγέλλομεν, must be rendered alike in both verses "we declare." To what does it refer? Not to this Epistle, which does not contain the writer's experience of the Word of life manifested to mankind, but to his Gospel, which the Epistle is to accompany. The parallel between the two writings must often be noted, especially between the Epistle and John 17. Compare this verse with John 17:21. St. John's aim in writing his Gospel is that the great High Priest's prayer may be fulfilled - that believers may be one in that communion of which the unity between the Father and the Son is the pattern and the basis; may "be joined together in the same body, the same belief, the same knowledge, the same sins, the same hopes, the same destinies" (Jelf). Communion with Christians is shown to mean a great deal - no less than communion with the Father and with the Son. Note the double μετά St. John's writings teem with indications of the unity and yet distinctness between the Father and the Son. Communion with the one, so far from absorbing and canceling communion with the other, implies it as a separate bliss. The clause καὶ ἡ κοινωνία δὲ κ.τ.λ.., does not depend on ἵνα, as the δέ shows; we must supply ἔστι, not ῇ. (For καὶ.. δὲ, cf. John 6:51, where, as here, καὶ is the leading conjunction; in John 8:16, 17 and John 15:27, δέ leads.) "Blessed are they that see not and yet believe. It is we who are here described, we who are designated. Then let the blessedness take place in us, of which the Lord predicted that it should take place. Let us firmly hold that which we see not, because those tell us who have seen" (St. Augustine, in loc.).
And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.
Verse 4. - While verses 1-3 refer to the Gospel, this refers to the Epistle; but, although ταῦτα in 1 John 2:26 and 1 John 5:13 refer to what precedes, there is no need to limit ταῦτα here to these opening verses; it covers the whole Epistle. The reading ἡμεῖς seems preferable to ὑμῖν, and ἡμῶν to ὑμῶν. But ἡμεῖς and ἡμῶν are not coordinate: ἡμεῖς is the apostolic "we;" ἡμῶν means "your joy as well as mine." This verse takes the place of the usual "grace and peace" in the opening of other Epistles; and as verse 3 recalls John 17:21, so this recalls John 17:13. The joy is that of knowing that, though in the world, they are not of it, but are one with one another, and with the Father and with the Son. The gospel is always joy: "Rejoice alway" (1 Thessalonians 5:16); "Rejoice in the Lord alway" (Philippians 4:4). To know that the Eternal Life has been manifested, that we have communion with him, and through him with the Father, must be joy. Whereas Gnosticism, by denying the atonement, and "the personal office of God in the salvation of the world," cuts off one great sphere of God's love, and consequently one great cause of the believer's joy. To sum up this introduction: St. John gives his Gospel to the Church ἀπαγγέλλομεν in order that all may share in the union for which Christ prayed; and to the Gospel he adds this Epistle καὶ ταῦτα γράφομεν, that all may realize the joy resulting from this union - that our joy may be fulfilled. In this introduction we find the following expressions which are characteristic of St. John, serving to show the common authorship of the Gospel and Epistle, and in some cases of the Revelation also: ὁ Λόγος ἡ ζωή φανερόω μαρτυρέω ζωὴ αἰώνιος η΅ν πρός ἡ χαρὰ η΅ι πεπληρωμένη. It is among the many excellences of the Revised Version that characteristic expressions are marked by a uniform translation; whereas in the Authorized Version they are obscured by capriciously varying the translation: e.g. μαρτυρέω is rendered in four different ways - "bear witness," "bear record," "give record," "testify" (cf. page 10).
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.
Verse 5-1 John 2:28. - 2. FIRST MAIN DIVISION. God is Light. Verse 5-1 John 2:6. -
(1) Positive side. What walking in the light involves; the condition and conduct of the believer.
(2) 1 John 2:7-28. Negative side. What walking in the light excludes; the things and persons to be avoided. Verse 5. - This verse constitutes the text and basis of this division of the Epistle, especially on its positive side. And the message which we have heard... is this. Again we have a remarkable parallel between Gospel and Epistle; both begin with a καί (which connects the opening with the introduction in a simple and artless manner), and with the same kind of sentence: "And the witness of John is this." The reading ἐπαγγελία (1 John 2:25, and frequent in the New Testament) must be rejected here and in 1 John 3:11 in favour of ἀγγελία (which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament), on overwhelming evidence. Ἐπαγγελία in the New Testament means "promise," which would be almost meaningless here. The change from ἐπαγγέλλομεν (verses 2, 3) to ἀναγγέλλομεν is noteworthy: the one is "declare," the other "announce." The message received from Christ, the apostle announces or reports (renunciat) to his readers. He does not name Christ ἀπ αὐτοῦ; he is so full of the thought of Christ that he omits to name him (cf. John 20:7, 9, 15). Ἀναγγέλλω is used of authoritative announcements; of priests and Levites in the LXX; of the Messiah (John 4:25); of the Spirit (John 16:13, 14, 15); of the apostles (Acts 20:20, 27; 1 Peter 1:12). St. John speaks with authority. God is light; not the Light, nor a light, but light; that is his nature. This sums up the Divine essence on its intellectual side, as "God is love" on its moral side. In neither case has the predicate the article: ὁ Θεὸς φῶς ἐστίν ὁ Θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν. Light and love are not attributes of God, but himself. The connexion between this message and the introduction is not at first obvious. But St. John writes with his Gospel before him, and the prologue to that supplies the link. There, as here, three ideas follow in order: λόγος ζωή φῶς. There, as here, φῶς immediately suggests its opposite, σκοτία. It is on the revelation of the Λόγος as φῶς, and the consequent struggle between φῶς and σκοτία, that the Gospel is based. And this revelation is the highest: men alone are competent to receive or reject it. Other organisms exhibit the creative power as life: none but men can recognize it as light. And to know the Λόγος as light is to know the Father as light; for the Λόγος is the Revelation of the Father's nature. That God is, in his very nature, light, is an announcement peculiar to St. John. Others tell us that he is the Father of lights (James 1:17), the Possessor of light (1 Peter 2:9), dwelling in light (1 Timothy 6:16); but not that he is light. To the heathen God is a God of darkness, an unknown Being; a Power to be blindly propitiated, not a Person to be known and loved. To the philosopher he is an abstraction, an idea, not directly cognizable by man. To the Jews he is a God who hideth himself; not light, but a consuming fire. To the Christian alone he is revealed as light, absolutely free from everything impure, material, obscure, and gloomy. Light was the first product of the Divine creative energy, the earnest and condition of order, beauty, life, growth, and joy. Of all phenomena it best represents the elements of all perfection. "This word 'light' is at once the simplest and the fullest and the deepest which can be used in human discourse. It is addressed to every man who has eyes and who has ever looked on the sun." It tells not only "of a Goodness and Truth without flaw; it tells of a Goodness and Truth that are always seeking to spread themselves, to send forth rays that shall penetrate everywhere, and scatter the darkness which opposes them" (Maurice). In like manner, darkness sums up the elements of evil - foulness, secrecy, repulsiveness, and gloom. In all but the lowest forms of existence it inevitably produces decay and death. Everything of the kind is excluded from the nature of God. And hence St. John, in his characteristic manner, immediately emphasizes the great announcement with an equivalent negative statement: Darkness in him there is not any at all (comp. verse 8; 1 John 2:4, 23, 27; 1 John 3:6; 1 John 4:2, 3, 6-8; 1 John 5:12). He does not say, "in his presence," but "in him." Darkness exists, physical, intellectual, moral, and spiritual; there is abundance of obscurity, error, depravity, sin, and its consequence, death. But not a shade of these is "in him." The Divine Light is subject to no spots, no eclipse, no twilight, no night; as a Source of light it cannot in any degree fail.
If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
Verse 6. - A corollary from verse 5. If God is Light to the exclusion of all darkness, then fellowship with darkness excludes fellowship with him. If we say ἐὰν εἴπωμεν; "if any of us, no matter who he be, at any time say." The construction marks the supposed action as one likely to occur. The apostle includes himself in the possibility, and of course he and his readers did say that they had communion with God. By" walking" περιπατεῖν ´ερσαρι is meant our daily life, our movement and activity in the world (John 8:12; John 11:9, 10; John 12:35; John 21:18; Revelation 21:24); this activity will inevitably express the κοινωνία in which we live. To have communion with him who is Light, and be continually exhibiting a life of darkness, is impossible. The Carpocratians and other Gnostics, who taught that to the enlightened all action is indifferent, because neither purity nor filth can change the nature of pure gold, are perhaps here aimed at (Mansel, 'Gnostic Heresies,' pages 117-121). We lie, and do not the truth. As in verse 5, St. John enforces a statement by denying the opposite. But the negative is not a mere equivalent of the positive: the two together mean, "we are false both in word and deed." Truth with St. John is not confined to language; it is exhibited in conduct also (cf. ποιεῖν ψεῦδος, Revelation 21:27; Revelation 22:15).
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.
Verse 7. - The contrary hypothesis is now stated, and the thought is carried a stage further (cf. verse 9). He again speaks conditionally ἐάν, and does so until 1 John 2:3; after which the participial substantive ὁ λέγων ὀ ἀαπῶν ὁ μισῶν represents the conditional clause. The change of verbs is significant: we walk, God is, in the light. We move through time; he is in eternity. Our activity involves change; his does not. Like the sun, he both is Light and dwells in the light; and if we walk in the light, which is his atmosphere, we have fellowship one with another. Darkness is an unsocial condition, and this the light expels. From verse 6 we might have expected, "we have fellowship with him;" and some inferior authorities read μετ αὐτοῦ. But St. John's repetitions are not mere repetitions: the thought is always recur or reset to carry us a step further (cf. verses 3, 4). Having fellowship with one another is a sure result of that fellowship with God which is involved in walking in the light. "Here is a reply to those who would restrain Catholic communion to their own sect" (Wordsworth). Another result of walking in the light is that the blood of Jesus (his sacrificial death) cleanses us day by day continually (present tense) from our frequent sins of frailty. This cleansing is not the same as forgiveness of sins (verse 9). The latter is the case of ὁ λελουμένος, the man that is bathed (John 13:10); the former is the frequent washing of the feet (cf. Revelation 7:14; Revelation 22:14). The expression, the blood of Jesus, in Christian theology, "is dogma with pathos.... It implies, as no other word could do, the reality
(1) of the human body of Jesus,
(2) of his sufferings,
(3) of his sacrifice."
By his blood new life-blood is infused into human nature.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Verse 8. - After the great message," God is Light" (verse 5) and its application to ourselves (verses 6, 7), we are now told what walking in the light involves:
(1) consciousness of sin and confession of sin (verses 8-10);
(2) accepting the propitiation of Jesus Christ the Righteous (1 John 2:1-2);
(3) obedience (1 John 2:3-6). If we say that we have not sin. The present ἔχομεν again shows that the daily falls of those who are walking in the light are meant, not the sins committed in the days of darkness before conversion. The Lord's Prayer implies that we must daily ask forgiveness. We lead ourselves astray from the truth, and have no right estimate of the gulf between our impurity and God's holiness, if we deny this habitual frailty. In the sunlight even flame throws a shadow; and that man is in darkness who denies his sin. The truth may be near him; but it has not found a home with him - it is not in him. Πλανᾷν is specially frequent in the Revelation, and always of arch-deceivers - Satan, the beast, antichrist, false teachers; it seems to imply fundamental error (comp. 1 John 2:26).
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Verse 9. - As in verse 7, we have the opposite hypothesis stated, and the thought advanced a stage. Not the exact opposite, "if we confess that we have sin;" but "if we confess our sins." It is easy to say, "I am a sinner;" but if confession is to have value it must state the definite acts of sin. The context ("deceive ourselves... he is faithful") shows that confession at the bar of the conscience and of God is meant. Circumstances must decide whether confession to man is required also, and this St. John neither forbids nor enjoins. Note the asyndeton; there is no δέ, as in verse 7. He is faithful and righteous, Δίκαιος must be rendered "righteous" rather than "just," to mark the contrast with unrighteousness ἀδικίτι, and the connexion with "Jesus Christ the Righteous" (1 John 2:1). To forgive... to cleanse. As explained in verse 7, the one refers to freeing us from the penalties of sin, justification; the other to freeing us from its contamination, sanctification. The sense of purpose is not wholly to be surrendered. No doubt ἵνα, like other particles, becomes weakened in later Greek; but even in later classical Greek the notion of purpose is mixed up with that of consequence. Much more is this the case in the New Testament, and especially in St. John, where what seems to us to be mere result is really design; and this higher aspect of the sequence of facts is indicated by ἵνα. It is God's nature to be faithful and righteous; but it is also his purpose to exhibit these attributes towards us; and this purpose is expressed in ἵνα ἀφῇ ἡμῖν.
If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Verse 10. - Once more we have no mere repetition, but a fresh thought. "We have not sin" (verse 8) refers to our natural condition; "we have not sinned" (verse 10) refers to definite acts. Note the climax: we lie (verse 6); we lead ourselves utterly astray (verse 8): we make God a liar (verse 10). The whole of God's dealing with man since the Fall, especially in the Incarnation, is based on the fact of man's innate sinfulness. To deny this fact, therefore, is to charge the God of light and truth with acting and maintaining a vast and persistent lie. It is difficult to see how this strong language can be reconciled with the Roman dogma of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary: why does not her "son" (John 19:26, 27) except her from its sweep? His word is not in us; i.e., we are cut off from all communication with him (John 5:38; John 8:31). "His Word" is the sum total of the Divine revelation. That which in itself is "the truth "(verse 8), when communicated to us is "his Word." How thoroughly the Church of England enters into the spirit of these verses (8-10) is shown by the fact that it appoints confession and absolution as part of public service every morning and evening throughout the year, as well as of every celebration of the Eucharist. As Bede points out, the Lord's Prayer itself, with the petition, "Forgive us our trespasses," is a conclusive answer to Pelagian opponents of St. John's doctrine.