John spent the latter years of his life in Ephesus and wrote his first letter sometime soon after he wrote his Gospel. 1 John was written as circular letter for the churches around Asia Minor to fortify their faith against the attack of heretics. Paul had warned the Ephesian elders: I know after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).
One example of the type of heresy John was opposing was from a heretic named Cerinthus. In His Against Heresies, Irenaeus tell a humorous story he heard from Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, about the Apostle John encountering Cerinthus in an Ephesian bath-house: John the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of truth, is within." 1
Cerinthus believed Jesus was a historical man but denied His divinity. He taught that Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism but departed from Jesus before he suffered. Cerinthus, then, denied that Jesus is the Christ (2:22). Whether Cerinthus was one of the defectors in John’s letter or not, He was a proponent of the heresy John was battling.
John’s opponents had defected from the church (2:19) and were attacking the gospel foundation of the Church by denying the truth regarding the person and work of Jesus. Chiefly, they denied that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh (2:22; 4:2-3), which led to denying his death was necessary for the forgiveness of sins (5:6-12). When you miss on Jesus, you simply miss altogether. The defectors’ error on Christ was the source of all their remaining theological shortcomings. John addresses their error on the person and work of Jesus and the resulting errors they held.
We will mainly learn about their heretical teaching by seeing it mirrored in the text as we work through the letter.
Because the defectors were carrying on an itinerant ministry among the churches (2:26; 4:1), John wrote to protect the churches by buttressing their faith with the truth, giving them the instructions they needed to evaluate the claims of the defectors, and assuring them that they were in the truth by holding to the apostolic witness from the beginning (3:11; 5:13).
This is why the tone of the letter is more pastoral than polemical. In other words, John’s primary concern is to preserve the faith of the faithful that has been shaken by the teaching of the defectors. He is not writing to his opponents to convince them of the truth but to the churches to remind them of the core truths of Christian faith.
John begins with the core. I want us to see the core truth of the person and work of Jesus this morning.
John begins his letter by reminding the churches of the eyewitness account by the apostles of incarnate LORD and His gospel. Here is the irony of the position of defectors. They sat in judgment on something of which they had no knowledge as if they were all-knowing. Though the apostles were eyewitnesses, the defectors discounted the apostolic witness for their own account of events. They affirmed the historical man Jesus but denied He is the Son of God who came to reveal the Father and put us in right relationship with Him. To deny the apostolic witness is like telling Buzz Aldrin he didn’t walk on the moon.
The first three verses of 1 John 1 are one long unwieldy sentence. The letter begins with 4 relative clauses of eyewitness affirmation of the identity of the word of life (1), interrupted by a parenthetical clarification on what is meant by word of life (2), another relative clause to put us back on track with the eyewitness thought before the interruption (3a), and finally the main verb, we proclaim (3b) to affirm the content of the eyewitness account. After the main verb, the rest of verse 3 and verse 4 describe the purpose of apostolic proclamation: so that you too many have fellowship with us (3c) and so that our joy may be complete (4).
In verses 1-4, John gives us the foundation and ground of the Church: the apostolic gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
To combat the heresy, John pulls out his apostolic credentials as witness to the word of life. As you read this text, you will ask yourself, Is John talking about a message or a person? The answer is both. For the message the apostles proclaimed was the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ. That message is quantitatively and qualitatively different than any other message. We cannot separate the Person and message of the gospel. Getting the gospel right is of primary importance for the church.
John speaks first of the eternality of the word of life. The message that the apostles proclaimed was not some innovation like the novel teaching of the defectors, but it was from eternity. The word of life existed eternally before being revealed in time. That which was from the beginning (1) is parallel with which was with the Father in verse 2. The eternal Son was before his historical manifestation. That which was from the beginning, precedes which we have heard, seen, and touched.
Second John speaks of the historical manifestation of the word of life. John carefully emphasizes the eyewitness account of the apostles. In verse 1 they heard, saw, looked upon and touched. In verse 2, they testify and proclaim what they saw. In verse 3, they proclaim what they saw and heard. The idea in verse 1 of looking upon and touching (both aorist verbs) points to a definite point in the past of intently gazing and handling. These perhaps refer to post resurrection encounters with Jesus.
The person and message of life appeared and is the subject of apostolic proclamation (2). You can see how this historical manifestation of the eternal life that was with the Father debunks the defectors denial of the divinity of Jesus.
Third John speaks of apostolic proclamation of the word of life.
The purpose of apostolic proclamation is twofold. First, they proclaim the incarnation of the eternal word of life to call a community into fellowship with the apostles around the gospel, which is an extension of the apostolic fellowship with the Father and the Son (3). Community is created by our participation in the fellowship of the Father and the Son. The one, our participation in the fellowship of the Trinity, creates the other, our fellowship in the apostolic community. You can’t have the one without the other. While the term church is not used, fellowship is the reality of participation in that community that is the aim of apostolic proclamation. I introduce you to church planting in First John!
This answers the false claims of those who had defected from the church (2:19) and hate their brothers (2:9). They show that they have no fellowship with the Father.
The second purpose of apostolic proclamation is that they may experience the completion of joy. It is remarkable that the joy of the apostles cannot be complete until all the church is gathered in fellowship around the Father and the Son. You well know this longing for joy. I hear it when you say, we have children who haven’t professed faith. This the love and longing we should cultivate for the church to be complete.
Proclamation, fellowship, and joy are the indicators that the Kingdom of God has broken into the present age. Or like John says it: the eternal life has been manifested, heard, seen, touched, handled, and proclaimed. This particular kind of proclamation, fellowship, and anticipated joy demands repentance and faith. This is the divine order—proclamation, fellowship, and joy.2 I introduce you to the particular mission of God who sent His Divine Son in order that through Him a unique people might be gathered for Himself so that they might participate in His community and know eternal joy!
From the foundation of apostolic proclamation John laid in verses 1-4, John moves on to further disclose the very message the apostles received and its implications for the church. The fundamental question of humanity is, If there is a God, how can I know Him and be in a right relationship with Him?
John will answer this question from several angles in his letter, but the central assertion of his letter is God is light (5).3 Light is a fitting metaphor to describe the nature and character of God. It is used in Scripture of God’s self-revelation and His moral perfection (Psa. 4:6; 104:2; Isa 42:6; 49:6).
The message, God is light, furnished John with the standard by which to measure his opponents and debunk their claims. John takes the claims of the defectors, marked by if we say (6, 8,10), and exposes and answers each error (7,9; 2:1-2).
First, John answers the issue of fellowship with God and cleansing from sin (6-7). In the previous section, John asserted that the purpose of apostolic proclamation is the creation of a community in fellowship. Apparently, the defectors claimed to have fellowship with the God, who is unapproachable light, while at the same time they rejected the apostolic witness to Jesus. Darkness is not sin simply in a generic sense, but it is the rejection of the message of the eternal life (the light).4 It is the rejection of the message of apostolic proclamation. John will tell us that an indicator of darkness is hating your brother (2:11). It is interesting that walking in darkness in both places (1:6,7 and 2:9-11) is related to community. Indeed, it is the rejection of light that makes fellowship impossible. Their claim is utter nonsense.
This claim is simply a lie (6). The one who lies is naturally the one who does not practice the truth (6). The liar is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ (2:22) and the one who hates his brother (4:20). You cannot claim to have fellowship God and at the same time reject the apostolic proclamation of light and community.
In contrast, walking in the light creates the apostolic community of faith through the ongoing efficacy of the blood of Jesus, the Son, to remove the stain of all sin (7). People walk in darkness to stay hidden because of the problem of sin. You would think that if you come to the light, you would experience nothing but condemnation. But walking in the light does the opposite—it gives us a community and ongoing cleansing of all sin (7). In the community of faith, you find relief from all the adverse effects of our fallen sinful nature and the residue of remaining sin.
Second is the issue of sin and self-deception (8-9). The previous issue of fellowship brought up the issue of sin. The defectors claimed to have fellowship with God but walked in darkness, denying the apostolic proclamation of truth. Their rejection of the message of the cleansing blood of Jesus was grounded in the idea that they viewed themselves as having no sin. Sin is singular, like in verse 7, and perhaps refers to the sinful nature.
To claim to be without sin is self-delusion and a denial of the saving offer of the apostolic message of forgiveness through the blood of the Son of God.
Instead of denying sin, John commends owning up to it (9).5 John moves from the singular sin to the plural sins. Our problem is not simply that we have an inherited sin nature but also that we do sin. Again the unexpected answer to sinning is confessing our sins because He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Our forgiveness is grounded in the faithfulness and justice of God.
How can God not only forgive sin but also remove every stain of unrighteousness, and leave the guilty unpunished? The cross is the only moral ground on which God can forgive sin. There the Son of God shed his blood to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. God is faithful to the new covenant stipulation, I will remember their sins no more (Jer. 31:34), and He is just in doing so because His Son died for our sins.
Third, is the issue of sin and misrepresenting God (10-2:2). It is possible to concede to acts of sin (9) while denying the human propensity to sin (8). Here John takes the argument one step further. He changes from the present tense of verse 8, to the perfect tense in verse 10. The nuance seems to be that the defectors claimed to have never sinned, or that at some point they ceased to sin and sin no more. The problem with this claim is it denies the Word of God (see Genesis 3-Revlation) and, thus, makes God a liar. In other words, the person who makes such a claim shows that the gospel has not done its regenerative work in him. The gospel assumes the sinfulness of man.
These claims, no sin tendency and no sin are not far removed from current cultural trends. There is a difference, however. The defectors said that God is so far removed from flesh that He is indifferent to what we do with our bodies. Today people say that He approves of what we do with our bodies. Both, however, make God a liar.
John answers this claim very pastorally (2:1). He makes clear he is writing to encourage the faithful not to sin. Perhaps, the defectors would offer that John’s defense would lead people sin. John will make clear in his letter that the ongoing, habitual, unrepentant practice of sin is evidence of being unregenerate (3:4-10). However, to one who knows the grace of Christ, what John has written is an encouragement not to sin. Yet, John assumes, the faithful will struggle with sin.
Some of the faithful may feel so defeated by sin that they are tempted just to give themselves over to it and, perhaps, leave with the defectors. John unfolds God’s provision for the sinning Christian.6 Hope lies in the fact that we have an advocate (parakletos, helper, intercessor) with the Father. Only John uses the word Paraclete in the NT. Jesus called the Holy Spirit another Paraclete (Jn.14:6). So we have a helper here and in heaven. In His resurrection and ascension, his intercession is ongoing. A man is seated at the right hand of God with five bleeding wounds they effectually plead for me. Forgive, o forgive, they cry nor let that ransomed sinner die. He is a qualified intercessor because He is righteous, and as the righteous one He is the propitiation for our sins. As the perfect sacrifice, one who is both God and man, He offered Himself on the cross for sinners, so that God could justly look favorably upon sinners.
Lest someone charge that this is a pagan idea of offering a sacrifice to make a god look favorably upon His subject John writes, In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16). The idea is not that we somehow propitiated God but God propitiated Himself. He brought about the condition that would allow His redeeming love to flow freely to sinners.
God has satisfied His justice that we might know His redeeming love.
That he is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world cannot be pressed to mean universal redemption, but it does mean that we can preach the apostolic gospel of Jesus to the whole world and all who by faith receive Jesus will know the forgiveness of sins.
Christian friend don’t despair for your sin. There is One who pleads eternally for you. Unbelieving friend, there is One whose blood when applied will cleanse you of all sin.
One more point needs to be made about sin and the Christian. If Jesus died for our sins, and all our sins past, present, and future are covered, why does this text encourage the ongoing confession and cleansing of sin? Why is the advocacy of Jesus ongoing for the sin of the Christian? Isn’t this work once for all? Jesus is not being crucified over and over again. If we are forgiven, why the need? The reason is God calls us into a living relationship with Him that takes place in time and extends throughout eternity. What He has purposed in eternity, He works out in real time. Jesus is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, but He was crucified at a point in time. The elect must repent and believe the gospel in real time to be saved. They are being sanctified in real time. While the full provision for the forgiveness and cleansing of all our sin has been made, it is applied in a real time relationship with the Father. As we walk in His light, the ongoing intercession of the Son covers all our sins.
We come to the table today to confess our ongoing faith in Christ alone for our salvation, not because we need to be saved again but because we are saved now.
ii John Stott, TNC vol. 19, 70.
iii Robert W. Yarbrough, ECNT, 1-3 John, 48.
iv Yarbrough, 54.
v Ibid., 62.
vi Stott, 85.