By the time John wrote his epistle, errors regarding what it meant to be Christian were threatening the believers in Jesus. So with a pastor’s heart, John writes to encourage readers that we can have assurance of salvation when our lives are scrutinized in light of three tests:
- Obeying God (moral)
- Believing the truth about Jesus (doctrinal)
- Loving others faithfully (social)
Distinctions between John’s Gospel and First John make it clear that he seeks to bolster our confidence. Whereas the Fourth Gospel was written primarily for unbelievers to prompt faith in Jesus (Jn. 20:31), 1 John was written for believers to provide assurance of eternal life (1 Jn. 5:13). And, while his Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ deity (Jn. 1:1, 18; 20:28), John’s first epistle emphasizes Jesus’ humanity (1 Jn. 1:1; 3:16; 4:2; 5:6). Since John repeatedly insists that we can have assurance of eternal life (1 Jn. 1:2; 2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20), this letter undoubtably emphasizes confidence in our standing before God.
To catch readers’ attention, John begins abruptly. He writes not only from knowledge, but also from his profoundly personal experiences with the “Word of Life.” John recounts that he had heard, seen, looked at, and touched his Subject. Three possibilities as to the identity of this “Word of Life” are:
- The gospel message, which conveys new life
- The person of Christ
- Both 1. and 2.
Option 3 is best. Most likely John’s readers would have identified the “Word of life” with the “Word made flesh” of Jn. 1:14. Indeed, eternal life and Jesus were practically synonymous for John (Jn. 17:3; 1 Jn. 5:20).
Moreover, Jesus said of himself that he is life eternal (Jn. 11:25; 14:6) and Paul said that Christ is the gospel message (1 Cor. 1:23). Therefore, the “Word of Life” is the message of the gospel incarnated in Jesus the Son of God.
By the time John’s epistle was written, the early stages of a heresy called Gnosticism had begun to surface. This heresy taught that the physical, material world was evil and only the immaterial, intangible world was divine. So, the divine could never become human. And, since being human entails being physical and material, some were teaching that the divine Son of God could not have been fully human. John wanted his readers to know that this teaching was false and that his audible, visible, and tangible witness to the “Word of Life” is conclusive proof that “the Word of Life” was material, divine reality.
John states that Christianity is not a human fabrication, nor an elaboration of some other world religion. Rather, Christianity is a revealed religion (“the life appeared”). Were it not for God graciously choosing to reveal himself finally and completely in Christ, we would all be blinded by the darkness of our imaginations (cf., Rom. 1:20-23; 2 Cor. 4:3-6).
John’s experience reminds us that although Christianity is not a “private” religion, it is an intensely “personal” one. Consequently, we testify not only to what God has done in history, but to what God has done in us (cf., Acts 26:12ff; Rom. 5:8).
Our experience of Christ should be similar to that of John’s:
- we “see” the truth of the gospel
- we “testify” to it (= affirm it to be true)
- and we “proclaim” it to others.
John assures his readers — and us — that the truth about salvation is both objective and subjective. It is grounded in the personal and historical; the perceiver and the perceived; the experience and the experienced.
However, lest we forget that experiencing and proclaiming Christ is merely a means to an end, John reminds us that God is bringing about his objectives in our salvation.
John states two intended purposes for proclaiming the Word of life:
- “Fellowship” (to share and actively participate in a close union or bond; to partner with another). John says that fellowship with him and his apostolic colleagues necessarily depends upon a relationship with God through Christ. It is impossible to have genuine, biblical fellowship with other believers and not have fellowship with God through his Son Jesus (and vice versa). Christians are related to one another as a branch is related to a vine. We are spiritual family. To Consider: What happens when the human or divine elements of fellowship become one-sided? Human fellowship minus divine fellowship is like a tree without roots. Likewise, divine fellowship minus human fellowship equals false piety. To Consider: Evangelism that does not involve fellowship will leave new disciples with a serious case of malnutrition (cf., Heb. 5:12-14). Similarly, fellowship that does not issue forth in evangelism will leave a static and lifeless “holy huddle.”
- “Joy” (not a cheap glow that depends upon circumstances). Biblical “joy” is a quiet, inner confidence that our salvation is secure (Ps. 28:7; Is. 12:3) Biblical “joy” is delighting in all the blessings of a relationship with God and his people (Philip. 4:1; 3 Jn. 3)
What was experienced, seen, heard, felt, and subsequently affirmed, proclaimed, and written down is the historical and deeply personal reality John calls the “Word of life.” This “Word of life” is none other than the gospel message incarnated in Jesus. This “Word of life” is: Revealed, experienced and, proclaimed and the effect is: fellowship with God, his Son, and God’s people, resulting in joy and assurance of our salvation.