The Man Who was God – 1 John 1:1-4
By: Alistair Brown
For thousands of years people have created forged art. The Romans copied Greek sculptures. Students in ancient China copied the works of their masters. The great Italian sculptor, Michelangelo, painter of the Sistine Chapel, is said to have forged an ancient marble statue when he was a student. More recently a forger claimed to have made over one thousand fakes of famous paintings, many of which were sold by well-reputed auction houses to important collections. These forgeries were good – really good – and most people would not see the difference from the real thing, but they were not the real thing.
When John wrote his letter, his epistle, he was trying to save people from believing in a fake Christ. John believed – as do Christians today – that Jesus was both God and man. He was both when he lay in the cradle,
both when he was baptized in the Jordan,
both when he taught in Galilee,
both when he healed the sick and raised the dead,
both when he died on the cross,
both when he rose again and ascended back to his heavenly Father.
The Messiah – the Christ – was always God and always man.
But from early on in the life of the church some developed a view called Docetism which denied that. Docetism gets its name from the Greek word dokein which means ‘to seem.’ The Docetists did not believe Christ was ever a man, just that he seemed to be a man. He looked like a man, but he never really was. His human body was just an illusion. A similar sort of view is called Cerinthianism. Cerinthus, its chief propagator, made a complete separation between the man Jesus and the Christ. The Christ was a kind of divine spirit and not the same as the earthly man Jesus. Cerinthus taught that the divine spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism and then left Jesus before his crucifixion.
One of the main reasons John wrote his letter was to warn people against Docetic views like Cerinthianism. Why? What difference did it make if someone believed like Cerinthus?
All the difference in the world and beyond this world, John wanted to say. At the heart of the Christian gospel is that God and man were perfectly united in one body, Jesus. That God-man lived the perfect life, revealed the truth about God, suffered and died on the cross and rose again. Because he was fully human as well as fully God, he could do that on behalf of every man, woman, and child. One of the earliest Christians put it very concisely: “He became what we are to make us what he is.” But if Jesus did not become what we are, he could not represent us. He could not act on our behalf. It is an essential truth of Christianity that Jesus was always fully human and always fully divine.
For John and other early Christians, any denial of that was a fake gospel. It might look like the real thing but it was as false as a crude copy of a masterpiece and just as worthless.
The letter of John is written with all of that in the background. John wrote to correct theological mistakes – heresies.
Now, to the opening verses:
1 John 1: 1-4
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.
If those opening sentences are not easy to follow, you should be thankful you are not reading it in the Greek language in which John wrote it originally, because in Greek it is almost all just one sentence! Translators into English usually rearrange the order of words to work better, but it is still difficult.
Let us take John’s argument in stages.
First, John focuses on the Word of life.
The Good News translation gets straight to the point:
We write to you about the Word of life, which has existed from the very beginning. We have heard it, and we have seen it with our eyes; yes, we have seen it, and our hands have touched it.
Starting with “We write to you about the Word of life” does home in on John’s message, but John didn’t write it that way. He built up to his main theme with several phrases. It’s like the curtain in a theater being pulled back a little at a time, and gradually you see more and more of the scene until all is revealed. That’s how John began his letter, with a build up to the unveiling of his subject.
The New English Bible captures that very well:
It was there from the beginning; we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hands; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the word of life.
The Word of life – that’s what the good news is all about – that will be John’s great theme in this letter.
He is talking about Jesus. Some people disagree that is what he means here. They think that when John talks about proclaiming the Word of life, he’s talking about telling the good news, preaching the message of the gospel. But that does not make best sense. All the words nearby are about hearing, seeing, and touching the Word. He’s talking about a person, and of course that person is Jesus.
Besides, describing Jesus as “the Word” is exactly how John’s gospel begins. Here is verse 1 and verse 14 of John 1:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
Jesus – the Word who was God – became flesh.
In his letter, John also wants there to be no doubt about that. The one who walked among us is the Word of life.
Second, John stresses Jesus’ eternal existence.
“In the beginning was the Word,” says John’s gospel.
“That which was from the beginning,” writes John in this letter.
For an ordinary child there is a date of conception and a date of birth. In other words, there is a moment of origin. That’s true of anything which is made. I remember phoning a manufacturer about a garden appliance. I wanted to know how old it was. I gave him the item’s serial number, and after checking records he said, “That was made in 1988.” That was the year it came off the production line. That was the year it came into existence.
It is not like that with Jesus:
“In the beginning was the Word.”
“That which was from the beginning,” says John. The Son of God just “was.” He has no date of origin. He is eternal. He was there, always there.
Third, John stresses Jesus’ human existence.
“The life appeared; we have seen it,” John says (v.2). Actually, he says much more than only that he has seen it.
“…we have heard, … we have seen with our eyes, …we have looked at and our hands have touched” (v.1).
Jesus had physical form. He was no illusion. He was no ghost. You could see him, listen to him, touch his body. John knew Jesus was no phantom.
- He walked along the road with this man.
- He sailed on the sea with this man.
- He ate food with this man.
- He lay down to sleep on a rocky hillside alongside this man.
- He allowed this man to wash his feet.
- He saw this man put on trial before Pontius Pilate.
- He saw the flesh torn from this man’s body as Roman soldiers beat and whipped him.
- He saw blood pour from this man’s head when a crown of thorns was thrust there.
- He saw this man writhe in agony when nails were driven through his hands and feet.
- He heard this man’s final words and watched this man take his final breath, hanging on a cross.
When the apostle Thomas was told that Jesus was raised from the dead, he said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas needed to see and touch to believe.
John’s message in the opening verses of his letter is: “I have seen, I’ve heard, I’ve touched. This Word of life appeared to us.”
The Almighty God became a real human being and walked among us.
Fourth, John proclaims that Jesus brought eternal life from heaven to earth.
John writes: “…we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (v.2). In other words, Jesus carried eternal life in his person and brought it from heaven to earth that we might have it too.
Let me use a negative illustration to explain a positive truth.
In the early 1900s Mary Mallon moved around the New York area working as a cook, and everywhere she went people developed typhoid fever. What no-one knew at first was that Mary carried the pathogen associated with typhoid without being affected by it. She was an ‘asymptomatic carrier.’ Everywhere she went people caught typhoid and several died.
When she was identified as a carrier, she was kept in isolation. Then she was released on her promise not to work as a cook, but cooking paid more than other jobs and she went back to it, and again people caught typhoid. When Mary was found she was quarantined again, and spent the last twenty-three years of her life in semi-isolation. Mary Mallon is known now to history as Typhoid Mary, the person who carried the typhoid pathogen and infected those who came in contact with her.
That is the negative story. John tells the positive one. Jesus Christ embodies eternal life, and he has come from the Father to this earth and those who know him and follow him will gain eternal life from him.
“…The eternal life, which was with the Father … has appeared to us,” John writes. Jesus embodied eternal life, and anyone who is his disciple receives it from him.
Fifth, John proclaims this so others can have fellowship with him and with the Father and his Son.
I have an older brother. When he was born, there was just him and his Mom and Dad. When I was born I had him and the same Mom and Dad. John’s logic is a little like that. John saw and heard Jesus. He was in the first generation of believers. Now, as he tells the good news, others come to know Jesus for themselves. That means they are in fellowship with him and with the same Father God as he has. They belong to each other and all of them belong also to God.
John longs for that to be true for every person he knows. He worries some will be fooled by fake doctrines and miss out on that fellowship with him and with the Father and his Son. So he writes these things, trusting they will believe and find that fellowship. Nothing else, he says, would make his joy complete (v.4).
So John begins his letter. It is a complicated beginning but it sets out themes John will cover again and again in the letter.
Someone in today’s society might say: “Why bother? If some don’t get it right about Jesus, it’s not a big deal.” For John it was a big deal, a very big deal. To misrepresent Jesus was to rob the gospel of the vital truth that God himself was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). That mattered, and John was passionate that people must understand who Jesus was so their faith was based on truth. It really mattered.
Through the 1960s and half of the 70s, Bill Shankly was the legendary manager of the Liverpool soccer team in the northwest of England. He built up the team and led them to amazing successes. He loved his players, loved the fans and above all loved the game. There is one famous quote from Bill Shankly about soccer, which, coming from the UK, he called ‘football.’ “Football,” he said, “is not a matter of life and death… it’s much more important than that.”
Bill Shankly was half joking when he spoke those words. But he was only half joking. He took the game of football, of soccer, utterly seriously. It was the driving force of his life. For him it almost was more important than life or death.
The apostle John knew something and someone truly more important than anything ordinary about life or death. He knew God had come to earth and, as the man who was God, died for all of us, and now fellowship with this God and his Son Jesus was available. Eternal life was there for every man, woman, and child through Jesus.
That mattered. That really mattered.