We’re beginning a new series of sermons today on the letters of John. John, of course, was one of the twelve disciples who followed the Lord Jesus during his earthly ministry and who witnessed all he said and did. But more than that, along with Peter and James, John was part of the Lord’s inner circle of disciples. So, those three disciples — and only those three — were with the Lord at the time of his transfiguration. And not only was John one of the Lord’s inner circle, but he was known as the Lord’s beloved disciple. That is, he’s sometimes referred to as the disciple whom Jesus loved. And that tells us that he was the Lord’s closest disciple.
And John, the beloved disciple, wrote the gospel of John, which has a different character or feel to it that the other gospels. After all, John is the only one who begins his gospel with the Word, who was with God in the beginning and who was God; and through him all things were made and without him nothing was made that has been made; and in him was life and that life was the light of men; and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. None of the other gospel writers began their gospels in this magnificent way. And John also wrote the book of Revelation, which is once again unlike any of the other books of the New Testament, because it contains all those visions of heaven. John was able to see the Lord God Almighty on this throne. And he saw the Lamb, Jesus Christ. And he saw the worshipping angels and the saints in glory. And he saw the destruction of this world and the coming of the new heavens and earth and the new, heavenly Jerusalem, where God dwells with his people forever.
So, John wrote the gospel of John and the book of Revelation. And he also wrote these three short letters. Now, his name doesn’t appear in the letters, which is unusual, because it was normal in those days for the writer of a letter to write his name at the beginning of the letter to make clear who it was from. That’s what Paul did. That’s what Peter did. That’s what James did. That’s what Jude did. But John doesn’t do it. The writer of the book of Hebrews doesn’t do it either. And I suppose John just takes it for granted that the original recipients of these three letters would know that they’re from him. But though his name doesn’t appear, the church has always believed that these letters were written by John.
And the opening four verses of his first letter recall the opening of his gospel, because the opening of his gospel and the opening of his first letter tell us about the incarnation of God’s Eternal Son.
The Word of Life
The first three verses are really one long sentence in the Greek text, but the NIV translators have broken up that one long sentence into four separate sentences to help us. And even then it’s hard enough to follow the flow and to make sense of what John is saying. But let’s focus on verse 1 for now. And let’s focus on the end of verse 1 where John says: ‘this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.’ So, this John’s subject. This is what he wants to tell us about. He wants to tell us something concerning the Word of life.
Who or what is the Word of life? Some of the commentators suggest that the word ‘Word’ should not begin with a capital W, because they think John is referring not so much to ‘the Word’ of life as to ‘the message’ of life. In that case, what John wants to proclaim is the message about life; or the message about the Life who is Jesus Christ; or the message which is life-giving. And it’s a life-giving message, because all who believe the message receive eternal life from God.
Of course, it’s true that the gospel message brings life. However, the NIV is perhaps right to use a capital W, because John is referring to a person. He’s referring to the Word, which is a title for God’s Only Begotten Son, who, according to John’s gospel, was with God in the beginning and who is God and who became flesh and who dwelt among us. So, John’s subject is him. He wants to tell us about him. What we proclaim concerns he who is the Word of life.
And that’s a great title for Jesus Christ, isn’t it? He’s the Word because he tells us about God. When we meet someone for the first time, the way we get to know one another is by speaking to each other. ‘Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? Where do you live now? What do you do? Tell me about your family.’ We use words to communicate with one another. And God the Father sent his Son into the world as his Word to us, to tell us about God; and to tell us about God’s willingness to pardon us for our sins; and to tell us about God’s willingness to give eternal life to all who believe.
And since we know from John’s gospel that not only was the Word from God, but the Word was God, then we know that whatever he reveals to us about God must be true. It must be true, because who better to tell us about God than God himself? And that’s who the Word is, because the Word is God’s Only Begotten Son. And, as the writer to Hebrews tells us, God’s Only Begotten Son is the exact representation or imprint of God’s being. Think of a stamp or seal which someone uses to mark a letter. The image left by the stamp is an exact likeness of the stamp itself. And God the Son is an exact likeness of God the Father. He’s not different from the Father, but he’s a repetition of the Father. And since he’s a repetition of the Father, then his whole life on earth was a revelation to us of what God is like.
And he’s the Word of life. So, he came into the world to give eternal life to his people. In the beginning, when God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life in the centre of the Garden held out to Adam the promise of everlasting life in the presence of God. But God also warned Adam that he would surely die if he ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. And first Eve and then Adam ate the forbidden fruit. And therefore Adam forfeited the right to eat from the Tree of Life and to live forever in the presence of God. He forfeited the right for himself and he forfeited the right for all who are descended from him in the normal way. And so, because of Adam’s sin, death came into the world, so that we all die.
That’s how the Bible begins. But then, God so loved the world that he sent his Only Begotten Son so that all who believe in him shall not perish away from the presence of God, but shall have eternal life in the presence of God. God the Father sent his Son, the Word of life, into the world so that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life.
Heard, Seen, Touched
So, this is John’s subject. This is who he wants to tell us about. ‘This we proclaim’ — he says — ‘concerning the Word of life.’ And what does he want to tell us about the Word of life? Let’s go back to the beginning of verse 1. He wants to tell us that the Word of life was from the beginning; and that we have heard him; and that we have seen him with our eyes; and that we have looked at him; and that we have touched him with our hands.
So, the Word of life was ‘from the beginning’. The phrase ‘from the beginning’ refers, not so much to the time of the creation, when the world began, but it refers to eternity. So, he’s referring to before the creation of the world. Before the creation of the world, before God created the heavens and the earth, before time began, the Word of life already existed. And the Word of life already existed, because the Word of life is God; and God is eternal, without beginning and without end. So, John wants to proclaim to us that the Word of life is eternal. He is from the beginning. He is from before the creation of the heavens and the earth. There never was a time when he was not there.
But, John adds, we have heard him and we have seen him and we have looked at him and we have touched him. When he refers to ‘we’, he’s presumably referring to the apostles, because the apostles were with the Lord throughout his earthly ministry so that they witnessed everything he said and did. And so, they heard him while he was on the earth and when he was teaching the people and when he taught them in private. They heard what he said.
But not only did they hear him, but they also saw him with their own eyes. And so, throughout his earthly ministry, they were watching him and they saw the things he did, including all his mighty miracles. And, of course, they saw him die on the cross; and they saw where he was buried; and they saw him alive again afterwards. They were eye-witnesses of the resurrection.
And John says they also looked at him. What’s the difference between seeing him and looking at him? The word translated ‘look at’ conveys the idea of beholding him or gazing upon him and looking at him with discernment and understanding. So, one person might have seen what he did, but did not understand; whereas another person looked at him and understood who he really is. And that’s what the apostles did: they not only saw him, but they beheld his true identity as the Word of life.
And then they also touched him. So, after the Lord’s resurrection, when the Lord appeared to his disciples, he invited them to touch him so that they would know that he wasn’t a ghost who had appeared to them, but that he had really risen physically and bodily from the dead.
This we proclaim to you concerning the Word of life. He was from the beginning, but we have now heard him and seem him and looked at him and touched him.
How was this possible? How were the apostles able to hear him and see him and look at him and touch him? That’s what verse 2 is about, because in verse 2 he tells us that the life appeared. And when he refers to the life, he means the Word of life. The Word of life appeared when he became one of us and was born as a baby in Bethlehem. And so, he appeared on the earth; and, during his earthly ministry, the apostles heard him and saw him and looked at him and they touched him.
Testify and proclaim
And now that they have heard him and seen him and looked at him and touched him, they’re able to testify to it. Do you see that in verse 2?
Think of an accident which has taken place and the police go around looking for witnesses. ‘Did you hear what happened? Did you see what happened? What can you tell us about this accident?’ If someone heard something, or saw something, then they can bear witness to what happened. And that’s true of the apostles, because they were with the Lord Jesus and they heard him and they saw him and they touched him. In fact, the Lord Jesus appointed the apostles to be his official eye-witnesses and to tell the world what they heard him say — all those parables and sermons and the other things he said — and to tell the world what he did — all those mighty miracles and acts of kindness and how he died on the cross and was buried — and to tell the world that they touched him to prove that he really did rise from the dead. So, he appointed them to be his official eye-witnesses and to testify to all he said and did.
And, of course, the result of their testimony is that we now have the gospels so that all of us are able to read for ourselves their official eye-witness testimony of what he said and did. It’s been written down and preserved for us so that we don’t need to wonder what the Lord was like or what he said or what he did, because we have their official eye-witness testimony. Did he really say these things? Did he really do these things? How can we know? How can we be certain? We can be certain because the apostles heard him and saw him and have testified to it.
And not only did John and the apostles testify to it, but they were also appointed to proclaim something. So, we’re still in verse 2. John says ‘we proclaim to you the eternal life’. He’s referring to the Lord Jesus, who is not only known as the Word of life, but he’s also known as Eternal Life. And he’s known as Eternal Life because he himself is eternal and he gives eternal life to all who believe in him. And John adds that the Eternal Life was with the Father and he has appeared to us. He was with the Father from all eternity, but, when the time was right, he appeared to the apostles.
And after he appeared to them, he sent them out into the world to proclaim him and to call on sinners everywhere to repent and to believe in him for the forgiveness of their sins and for the hope of eternal life.
So, the Word of life is from the beginning, because he is the eternal Son of God. And when the time was right, he appeared on the earth as one of us. And when his earthly ministry was over, he appointed his apostles to be his official eye-witnesses to testify to him and to proclaim who he is and what he has done for sinners.
Fellowship and joy
And what is the purpose of their testimony and proclamation? John Stott distinguishes between the immediate purpose and the ultimate purpose. The immediate purpose is the subject of verse 3, while the ultimate purpose is the subject of verse 4. The immediate purpose is fellowship and the ultimate purpose is joy.
So, John says in verse 3 that we apostles proclaim to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us. So, whenever someone believes what the apostles have testified and proclaimed about Christ, that person is added to the church, which is a worldwide fellowship of believers, who have been brought together by God the Holy Spirit and united together under Christ our Saviour. And so, we’re no longer strangers, but we’re members together of Christ’s church. And if we were to go across to the other side of the world, we know we’d be able to go into any church on a Sunday, and be welcomed there, because we’re not strangers, but we’re members together of Christ’s church and we have fellowship together because of him. And because of this bond we have with one another, we’re meant to love one another and serve one another and help one another. And, of course, John will say more about this later in his letter, when he reminds us that we’re to love one another.
But he also teaches us in verse 3 that our fellowship is not only with one another in the church, but it’s with the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ. So, whenever we believe, we’re not only drawn together as members of the church, but we’re united to God the Father through Jesus Christ. And so, through faith in Christ, God is no longer a stranger to us, because we know him as our Father; and we can talk to him in prayer; and we can rely on his help everyday; and we know that he’s watching over us. Before we believed, we were cut off from God because of our sin and we could expect nothing from him but his wrath and curse. But through faith in Christ, we have peace with God and can look to him for all we need.
And so, the apostles proclaim to us what they have seen and heard so that we can have fellowship with fellow believers as members of the church; and have fellowship with God the Father and his Son. That’s the immediate purpose, which we enjoy in this life. But then Johns tells us in verse 4 that he writes these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the ultimate purpose, because while God fills our lives with joy in this life, we will only ever have perfect joy in the life to come.
When he says ‘our’ joy, he’s referring to himself and to his readers. So, it’s not my joy only and not your joy only, but it’s our joy together. Through faith in Christ, we all receive the joy of knowing our sins have been forgiven, because Christ gave up his life to pay for our sins; and he shed his blood to cleanse us. What a joy it is to know we’re forgiven! Whereas the Devil and our conscience accuses us and other people remind us of our failings, the Lord declares us forgiven and he promises to remember our sins no more. And through faith in Christ, we receive the joy of knowing that God loves us. How much does he love us? He loved us so much that he did not spare his Son, but gave him up for us. And if he loved us that much, then there’s no good thing he won’t do for us now.
And so, there’s joy now in this life. But there’s perfect joy, everlasting joy, fullness of joy, in the life to come. And whoever believes in Christ the Saviour knows that, when our life in this world is over, we’ll be brought into God’s presence where we will have that perfect joy forever.
Before we finish today, let me just say that the reason John refers here to what they heard and saw and looked at and touched is because there were people going around at that time who were denying that the Son of God had come in the flesh. There’s always been this tendency in every generation to say that the world is evil and that God wants nothing to do with the world. So, whatever is spiritual is good, and whatever is material or physical is evil. And if that’s the case, God would not have come in the flesh. And so, John was writing to make clear to his readers that God has come in the flesh. He became one of us. He became human like us. And the reason he became one of us was in order to give up his life for us and to pay for our sins in our place. And so, he came in the flesh. And because he came in the flesh, the apostles were able to hear him and see him and look at him and touch him.
So, John was writing to contradict those who were saying that God did not come in the flesh. But then, in every generation, there are people who doubt that God is real. They say that the only thing that matters is the physical world around us. This material world is all that there is. There’s nothing else. There is no other life. There are no spiritual beings. And there is no God. But then the whole of the Bible contradicts that point of view, because the whole of the Bible is about God. And John’s first letter takes us back to the beginning, before the material world existed and to the time when there was only God. So, those who say there’s only this world are wrong, because there’s the world, and then there’s God who made the world and who appeared in the world as one of us and who gives eternal life and everlasting joy in the world to come to all who believe in him.
And finally, since one of the purposes of the apostle’s testimony and proclamation of Christ is fellowship, then we should continue to meet together as a fellowship of God’s people to worship him and to encourage and help one another. One of the things we missed during the Covid-19 lockdown was being able to meet together as a church. However, every minister I have spoken to about it says that the number of members who attend church regularly after Covid is much less than it was before Covid. And yet, no one should stay away unnecessarily, because when Christ calls us believe in him for salvation, he also calls us into fellowship with one another. He creates a bond between us which we must not break. And so, each one of us should take care that we do not drift away from the church and that we should continue to have fellowship with one another in the name of Christ our Saviour.