The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 1:1-4 (1 John 1:1-4)

1. THE INTRODUCTION . It declares the writer's authority, based on personal experience; announces the subject-matter of his Gospel, to which this Epistle forms a companion; and states his object in writing the Epistle.

These opening verses help to raise the reader to the high frame of mind in which the apostle writes. Emotion, suppressed under a sense of awe and solemnity, is shown by the involved construction through which his thoughts struggle for utterance. We are reminded of the introduction to the Gospel, especially in the first clause. Both announce to us the subject of the writing which follows—the Word who is the Life. Both set before us, in the simplest language, truths of profoundest meaning. But while in the Gospel he seems to lose sight of his readers in the magnitude of his subject, here the thought of his "little children" is uppermost.

The construction of the first three verses may be taken in more ways than one; but almost certainly the main verb is ἀπαγγέλλομεν , and the clauses introduced by ὅ give the substance of the ἀπάγγελία . The sentence is broken by the parenthetical 1 John 1:2 , after which the main part of 1 John 1:1 is repeated for clearness. Reduced to a simple form, the whole runs thus: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life, we declare to you also, that ye also may have communion with us."

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 1:1 (1 John 1:1)

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 Luke 16:11 , Luke 16:14 ], John 1:14 , John 1:34 ; 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 , John 5:37 ; John 8:43 ; John 14:24 ); περί is very frequent of persons ( John 1:7 , John 1:8 , John 1:15 , John 1:22 , John 1:30 , John 1:48 , 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.

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 1:1-4 (1 John 1:1-4)

Dr. Edersheim £ makes the remark that there are two great stages in the history of the Church's learning of Christ: the first, to come to the knowledge of what he was by experience of what he did; the second, to come to experience of what he did and does by knowledge of what he is. The former, he says, is that of the period when Jesus was on earth; the second is that of the period after his ascension into heaven and the descent of the Holy Ghost. This is true. And there is also an intermediate truth with which we are closely concerned. It is the truth of which we are reminded at the opening of this Epistle, viz. that the instrumentality by means of which we now pass on to the second stage is the writings of those who passed through the first. This is evidently intended to be the effect of this inspired letter; written, it can scarcely be questioned, by the author of the Fourth Gospel; written upon a specific theme, on a distinct method, with an avowed aim. Two preliminary statements hereupon require distinct and emphatic notice here.

1 . There is a declaration that the writer was one who had been brought into close contact with the Person of the Lord Jesus, who had himself intimately known him, and who had associates in knowledge of and fellowship with him.

2 . The internal evidence that the author of this Epistle is the same who wrote the Fourth Gospel is unusually clear. If any man could be known by his style of writing, surely the Apostle John can be by the way he plays upon the words "life," "light," "love." Note: Each apostle has his own key-words. Those of John are the ones just specified. That of James is "works." That of Paul is "faith." That of Peter is "hope." The main keyword of John here is "life." In these introductory verses the apostle opens up his theme. The purport of his Epistle, yea, not only of his Epistle, but of his entire apostolic and ministerial life, is indicated here; it has to do with "the Word of life," i.e., (cf. Westcott, in loc. ) with the revelation of life; may we not rather say with the Life and its self-revelation? £ In opening up this introductory paragraph we may trace the Life in five stages.

I. THE LIFE ETERNALLY EXISTENT . "That which was from the beginning." With God there is no beginning. With him there shall be no end. But Divine revelation is worded to suit the exigencies of our limited apprehension. Finite minds make their own horizon of thought. Both back and front there are limits beyond which thought cannot go. £ Hence we are mercifully allowed to think as of a beginning and as of an end. Not as if either were a "definite concrete fact." £ Let us, then, go back to this "beginning." It is not said, either here or in John 1:1-51 , that the Life then ἐγένετο came to be, but ἦν was (cf. Proverbs 8:22-31 ; also Philippians 2:6 , ὑπάρχων . There is here no thought of life apart from a Living One—a personal Being. There can be none. That Living One was before all creation—its ground, its medium, its reason, its center of support. In him all things hold together. This Life was "from the beginning." But note—

II. THE LIFE WAS MANIFESTED IN TIME . "The Life was manifested" ( Philippians 2:2 ). From what afterwards follows, there can be no question that the apostle here refers to the Lord Jesus Christ. And in thus declaring that he passed out of eternity into the limits of time, out of the invisible to the visible realm, he thus avows the mystery of the Incarnation. A mystery, without the assumption of which the words and life of the Christ can no more be accounted for than the stability of the framework of nature can be accounted for without the law of gravitation. The difficulties that gather round the doctrine would be insuperable if it were a mere marvel, leading nowhere and effecting nothing. But since it is the center of a framework of doctrine around which the noblest hopes do gather, and the substratum of the renewed life of an entire living Church, the difficulties gather rather round its denial than around its assertion. The Life was manifested. The Divine Life can only be manifested to man by taking the form of man.

III. THE LIFE PERSONALLY VERIFIED . "We have 'seen,' 'tasted,' 'handled,'" etc. This should be compared with John 1:14 , "We beheld his glory." The seeing of the glory was by no means coextensive with beholding the bodily form. "The eye only sees that which it brings with it the power of seeing." Some saw Christ to vilify; others to adore him. "The pure in heart will see God." The Nathanaeis will see heaven opened, but the "wise and prudent" will miss the sight.

IV. THE LIFE THUS VERIFIED IS AUTHORITATIVELY DECLARED . "That which we have seen… declare we unto you." Here are, as Westcott admirably remarks, "in due sequence the ideas of personal experience, responsible affirmation, authoritative announcement." This latter is involved in the words, "we declare." Some object to authority in matters of religion. But why? Only ignorance can demur to it, so long as the authority is a lawful one. And since the authority here implied is that which comes from adequate knowledge on the matter in hand, none ought to demur to it for a moment.


1 . That of a kindred fellowship of souls who are in communion with the Life! No other fellowship to compare with this. It is

2 . That out of the closeness of fellowship there might come a fullness of joy. Life is the root of joy. Joy is the fruit of life. A plant is not in perfection till it blooms. The Christian life is not perfected till it smiles and sings.

In conclusion, note:

1 . The real and only valid succession in the Church is that of life.

2 . There can be no value in forms, except as they express life.

3 . Through the Divine Life men are reborn to the noblest fellowship with God and with one another!

1 John 1:5 - The message.

Connecting link: The Son of God, whom we have seen as manifested Life, has brought us a message from the invisible and everlasting Father. Topic— The message from heaven brought by the Lord Jesus Christ. A careful study of the text will suggest several points for consideration and expansion.


1 . Whom it concerns. "God." "The announcement as to the nature of God is a personal revelation, and not a discovery" (Westcott, in loc. ) . We know something of God by reasoning upward from the works of nature. Nature speaks ( Psalms 19:1-4 ). Her works are a manifestation of God. But not a full or a clear one. We want a testimony direct from God, as to what he is, as to his thoughts towards us; and here it is.

2 . What does it tell us about God?

II. WHENCE THE MESSAGE CAME . "We have heard from him ;" i.e. from the Lord Jesus Christ, as the incarnate Manifestation of the Invisible. Obviously, the value of such a message depends on the Person who brings it. If, then, we ask the all-important question—Who brought this message down to earth? apostles, one and all, join with unwavering tongue in declaring that it was brought by the everlasting Son of the Father, who came from him. This is the distinctive assertion of Christianity. It is made, not doubtfully, not apologetically, but categorically and positively, for the acceptance and salvation of man. This message was brought to man directly by the greatest Messenger from the eternal throne that even heaven itself could send!

III. HOW THE MESSAGE REACHES US . "We announce unto you." The Lord Jesus Christ asserted his claims and proved them. He sealed them by his death, confirmed them by his resurrection, and gave to apostles the unwavering certitude of their validity by the gift of the Holy Ghost. They, thus sure of and confirmed in the message, living on it themselves as their own life and joy, preached and taught it, and also put it down in writing, that it might be spread over the world through the after-ages. They gave it forth authoritatively, with the authority which comes

Thus the message reaches us. In the Epistles we have the sum and substance of that which in the first century was orally received. It is utterly useless for the adherents of the mythical school to urge the later authorship and miracle-embellishments of the Gospels with the view of weakening this position; since, whatever be the age of the Gospels, there are known letters of the apostolic age, by Paul, Peter, James, and John, from which alone the ground-plan of the Redeemer's life and the gist of his message could be reproduced, even if the misfortune of the loss of the Gospels could be supposed possible. The historic position is one which never has been and never can be shaken; that in the Epistles we have the sum of that which apostles gave forth orally—the message which has remained unchanged from the beginning of the Christian age. The verse of our text has as much force as if the Apostle John were now living and actually uttering the words in our ears: "This is the message," etc.

IV. HOW DOES THE MESSAGE BEAR UPON US ? We can but briefly suggest.

1 . The fact of this truth coming as a message from God unto us, shows us that God is concerned about his intelligent creatures knowing who and what he is.

2 . It shows us also that, if we are adequately to know who or what God is, it must be by a message from him to man, and not through man attempting to search out him.

3 . We see, further, that by means of such a message, brought by such a Messenger, we may come to know the very greatest fact in the very simplest way.

4 . This revelation of the nature of God is not for the purpose of satisfying speculative inquiries; it is intended to yield practical results (cf. verses 6-10).

5 . The right use of this message will yield us a knowledge of God and of his Son Jesus Christ, which is in itself" the eternal life" (cf. John 17:3 ).


1 . This sublime truth, being presented to us as a message from God, indicates to us so far an element of truth in agnosticism. "The world through its wisdom knew not God" ( 1 Corinthians 1:21 , Revised Version).

2 . If the gospel be a message from the everlasting God, then the one point which has to be verified is, not whether the message be in all respects such a one as we might have expected, but whether the Messenger be at once capable and true.

3 . To demand the same kind of verification which a man gets of his own discoveries in physical science, is absurd. The only possible verification of a testimony lies in the proof of the ability and veracity of the witness. Each kind of truth has its lines of verification in its own direction, and in no other.

4 . Most jealous care should be taken that we do neither the Messenger nor the message an injustice through allowing any prejudice or any dogmatic assumption to interfere with the consideration of their claims.

5 . The substance of the message is in itself a strong argument for the truth of the Messenger. One assumption only is involved therein, viz. that God can reveal himself.

6 . There is an infinite difference between an agnosticism that is such because it never heard the message, and that which is such because it scornfully ignores it under the pretence that God is unknowable. The one is a grievous misfortune; the other, a more grievous sin. In the one there is a yearning for the light; in the other, a turning from it. "They did not like to retain God in their knowledge."

1 John 1:6-10 - "If… if:" which shall it be?

Connecting link: The purpose of God in revealing himself to us as Light is that we may come into fellowship with him; and that in this fellowship we ourselves may become sons of light, which by nature we are not. Topic— The only way in which the purpose of this Divine message about God himself can be accomplished in us is by our first recognizing truly and fully what we are, and then acknowledging our state before him.


1 . If we maintain that our fellowship with God follows as a matter of course, independently of moral considerations; e.g., if we

(a) false in word: "we lie;"

(b) false in practice: "we do not the truth."

The truth is not merely to be objectively perceived by the understanding, but is also to be transmuted into life. Men would soon go on to know more of objective truth if they would but put in practice what they already know. A fellowship in the Light, and a living and walking in the darkness, are far asunder as the east is from the west.

2 . If we maintain that there is no wrong in not being in fellowship with God, or if we deny that sin is the great barrier to fellowship, i.e., "if we say that we have no sin" ( 1 John 1:8 ),—in that case

3 . If we maintain that sin, albeit it may be located in us, has never broken forth into act; i.e., "if we say that we have not sinned" ( 1 John 1:10 ),—in that case


1 . Confession. "If we confess our sins" (verse 9); "not only acknowledge them, but acknowledge them openly in the face of men" (so Westcott). Unquestionably, open confession forms an essential part of our duty (cf. Romans 10:9 ). The open confession before men of Jesus as our Saviour from sin, obviously includes as its basis the acknowledgment of the sin from which we are to be saved. Certainly there must be

(a) the faithfulness and

(b) the justice of God.

Faithfulness in the fulfillment of the promise; and justice, in that, when the penitent puts away sin by forsaking it, God puts it away by forgiving it, through his method of mercy in Jesus Christ.

2 . Walking in the light is the second duty. We walk in the light, and God is in the light. Ours is to be constant advance; God's is permanent being. When once a penitent has by confession avowedly quitted the realm of darkness, he at once begins to move on in light, and towards fuller light. This second duty will also have a twofold issue.

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 1:1-4 (1 John 1:1-4)

The apostle's aim and method.

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard," etc.

I. HERE IS AN OBJECT EMINENTLY WORTHY OF AN APOSTLE OF JESUS CHRIST . "That ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full." St. John sought to lead his readers into:

1 . Participation in the highest fellowship. "That ye also may have fellowship with us," etc. (verse 3). The word "fellowship," or "communion," signifies "the common possession of anything by various Persons." By the "with us" we understand the apostles and others, who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ. And St. John's aim was that his readers should participate in the truth and trust, the life and love, which the older generation of Christian disciples already possessed; that they should share in his own highest and holiest experiences. And it was not into an exalted human communion merely that the apostle endeavoured to lead his readers. "And truly" he says, "our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ." In infinite condescension, the heavenly Father and the Divine Son admit Christian believers into vital and intimate communion with themselves. This fellowship is a thing of character and of life. They who share in it are "begotten of God;" they have "become partakers of the Divine nature; and they realize with joy the Divine presence. The apostle sought to lead his readers into:

2 . Realization of perfect joy. "And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full." Hitherto the joy of those to whom St. John wrote had not been full; for their acquaintance with Christian truth had been imperfect and partial. By the fuller disclosures of that truth he hopes that their joy may be fulfilled. How rich and manifold and abundant is the joy of the true Christian! The joy of the forgiveness of sins, of reconciliation with God, of progress in truth and holiness, of hope of future perfection and glory. Our Lord said, "These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full." "Rejoice evermore."

II. HERE ARE MEANS EMINENTLY ADAPTED TO ACCOMPLISH THIS OBJECT . St. John endeavoured to attain his aim by declaration of the truth concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice:

1 . The title applied to him. "The Word of life." Each term of this title demands consideration.

2 . His intimate communion with God the Father. "That eternal life which was with the Father" (cf. John 1:1 ). "The Word was with God." "He was not merely: παρὰ τῷ θεῷ , 'along with God,' but πρὸς τὸν θεόν . This last preposition expresses," says Canon Liddon, "beyond the fact of coexistence or immanence, the more significant fact of perpetuated intercommunion. The face of the everlasting Word, if we may dare so to express ourselves, was ever directed towards the face of the everlasting Father." Or, as Ebrard expresses it, the life "was towards the father. … A life which did indeed flow forth from the bosom of the Father, but which did at once return back into the bosom of the Father in the ceaseless flow of the inmost being of God."

3 . His manifestation to men. "And the life was manifested, and we have seen," etc. "The Word" also suggests the idea of revelation or communication; for the Logos is not only reason, but discourse; not only thought, but the expression of thought. The life was manifested in the Person of Jesus Christ—in his words and works and life amongst men. It was exhibited gloriously in his splendid triumph over death by his resurrection. "It was not possible that he should be holden of it." "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us," etc. We have said that these means—the declaration of the truth concerning the Lord Jesus Christ—were eminently adapted to lead men into participation in the highest fellowship and realization of perfect joy. The statement is capable of ample proof.

III. HERE IS AN AGENT EMINENTLY QUALIFIED TO USE THESE MEANS . The apostle was qualified by various and competent knowledge of him concerning whom he wrote.

1 . He had heard his voice. "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard." St. John and his fellow-apostles had heard his words on very many occasions both in public discourse and in private conversation.

2 . He had seen his human form and his mighty works. "That which we have seen with our eyes The Life was manifested, and we have seen it." There is, perhaps, a special reference to his having seen hint accomplish his great and beneficent miracles. But the apostles had seen their Master in various circumstances and conditions. They had seen him in his majesty and might quelling the tempest and raising the dead to life; and they had seen him exhausted and weary. They had seen him bleeding and dying on the cross; and they had seen him after he had risen again from the dead. John and two others had seen him bowed in anguish in Gethsemane; and they had seen him radiant in glory on Hermon.

3 . He had intently contemplated him. "That which we looked upon," or beheld. This looking upon him is more internal and continuous than the having seen hint with their eyes. With the most intense and affectionate and reverent interest the apostle contemplated him.

4 . H e had handled his sacred body. The hands of John and the other apostles must frequently have touched the body of their Divine Master. But there is, perhaps, special reference to the touching of him after his resurrection: "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me," etc . ( Luke 24:39 ). "He saith to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and see my hands," etc. ( John 20:27 ). Thus we see how eminently qualified St. John was to testify concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. How conclusive is the testimony which he bears! And how fitted is such an agent with such means to introduce men into the blessed fellowship and the perfect joy! Have we entered into this high fellowship? Do we realize this sacred and perfect joy? Let those who are strangers to these hallowed nod blessed experiences seek them through Jesus Christ - W.J.

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 1:1-4 (1 John 1:1-4)



1 . What is thrown into prominence.

One must be thought of as having timelessness and all that belongs to timelessness.

2 . Parenthetical statement.

3 . Former statement, which was left incomplete, resumed. "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also." We are not told who the recipients of this Epistle were. They were not all Christians, for, having declared their message to others, they declared it to them also. Their message was based on facts for which they had the evidence of sight and hearing. In accordance with what has been said, they presented those facts with their proper setting, viz. as facts in time concerning him who was before all time. They also presented them with their proper interpretation, viz. as showing the Divine desire for human salvation. This gave a great simplicity and power to their preaching: they had a few facts to tell, which they themselves could attest. Christ is not now in the world, so that we can have faith founded on the testimony of our own senses of sight and hearing; but we can have faith founded on apostolic testimony. We owe a debt of gratitude to the apostles that they were as careful witnesses, looking purposely and handling purposely, and that they took such pains to make their testimony known; and we owe a debt of gratitude to the great Head of the Church, who made use of them for the eliciting and establishing of our faith.


1 . Aim of the apostolic proclamation.

2 . Aim of this Epistle. "And those things we write, that our joy may be fulfilled." It is implied that his letter was in keeping with the apostolic proclamation. In the joy of the experiences connected with the Incarnation there was one element of pain. It was the feeling that man did not share, or did not share more fully, in the joy of these experiences. He sought relief from this pain in writing. He had some joy in his readers experiencing the joy of the Incarnation; he wished to have his joy completed in the completion of their joy. This was the apostle's feeling, which, as the last of the apostles, he was conserving in the name of all - R.F.

- The Pulpit Commentary