Commentary on 1 John 1:1—2:2
Ask a non–Christian–even ask some Christians–what the point of Christian faith is.
For many, it is “Jesus came so that I’ll live forever.” In the Gospels, however, Jesus never promises that he will be crucified and his disciples will be the risen ones.
Such self–centeredness renders us deaf to a keynote in all of this Sunday’s lections: the capacity of the risen Christ to draw individuals into authentic life together.
In John 20:19-31, Jesus appears to the Twelve, not only to quell their distrust, but also to unite them as a disciplined church (cf. verse 23). In Acts 4:32-35, the power of Jesus’ resurrection graces his church with an uncommonly open heart, out of which every material need is satisfied. Even Psalm 133 accents the joy of community: “How good and sweet it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity” (Psalm 133:1). Lastly, 1 John 1:1–2:2 is a candid yet encouraging meditation on life in a community whose Lord is Jesus.
First, John’s opening plays a riff on the Fourth Gospel’s first verses. Notice their similar language:
- the Word or “the word of life” that was “in” or “from the beginning” (John 1:1; 1 John 1:1)
- a life made manifest and testified to (John 1:4, 7, 15; 1 John 1:2)
- the intimacy of God the Father with his Son Jesus Christ (John 1:14, 17-18; 1 John 1:3)
- the proclamation of the Word (John 1:4-5, 7-9) or of God (1 John 1:5) as light unquenched by darkness
In contrast, the distinctive contributions of 1 John 1:1-4 are to draw at least two things out of John’s background and set them center stage.
First, the Gospel highlights Christ’s divine glory, assuming his incarnation (John 1:1-3, 14). 1 John reverses the polarity by repeatedly stressing the sensory character of “the eternal life that was with the Father and made manifest to us” (1 John 1:2): “what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, and we have beheld and touched with our own hands” (1 John 1:1, 3).
Most of these verbs are conjugated in the perfect tense, which connotes a past reality extending into the reader’s present. Right out of the starting gate, 1 John commends as truthful confession “Jesus Christ’s coming in the flesh” (1 John 4:2), and repudiates any denial of the Son’s genuine humanity (1 John 4:3).
1 John’s other manifest concern is the importance of genuine fellowship (koinonia) “with us” and “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
In simple terms, this is 1 John’s theme throughout: the coherence of the church with God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ. In practice, it is not at all simple; for soon we learn that the letter’s author is distraught over a schism in that church, a divorce over who Jesus is and the difference his coming has made (cf. 1 John 2:18-25; 4:1-6; 5:1-12). The author writes with heartfelt hope that “our joy may be consummated” (1 John 1:4).
In 1:5, the author reminds listeners of the gist of his (God’s or Jesus’) message: God is unmitigated holiness, or metaphorically speaking, light without any darkness whatever. Having absorbed the Fourth Gospel’s penchant for dualistic imagery, 1 John 1:6-10 now unfolds the implications of that affirmation for the church in a series of contrasting hypotheticals.
If (on the one hand) we say we have fellowship with him (God or Jesus), yet walk in darkness (conduct ourselves unscrupulously), we’re lying and aren’t doing the truth (1 John 1:6). But if (on the other hand) we walk in the light, as he is in the light (live in accord with his righteousness), then we indeed have fellowship with one another. Such community is based on Jesus’ power to cleanse us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
On the subject of sin: If (on the one hand) we say we don’t have sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8). But if (on the other hand) we confess our sins, he is dependable, righteous, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
And if (on the one hand) we say we haven’t sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word (his promise of forgiveness) is not in us.
This last possibility breaks the pattern, leaving the listener hanging without a countervailing “other hand.” Note that the writer of 1 John does not play the role of omniscient scold, rampantly condemning a few misguided souls while claiming for himself and the majority superior righteousness. Real churches act in this way. For no matter how truthful the gospel they have received, all Christians are capable of both clear–eyed contrition and self–deluded evil.
The author hastens to pastoral comfort (1 John 2:1-2). He writes, not to stir up sin or despair, but to console a riven church that Jesus Christ is a living, righteous force that releases us from our sins.
The images for that redemption are both judicial and cultic. Christ is our advocate (parakletos) with the Father, adopting the role that Jesus in the Fourth Gospel attributes to the Holy Spirit who comes after him (John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-11). At the same time, Jesus has sacrificed himself as the expiation (hilasmos) for sins; not merely ours, but the whole world’s (1 John 1:7; 2:2; see also Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:11–10:18).
First, John’s memo to the church: let’s not pretend that for generations the message handed down is some figment of a sick or infantile imagination. Let’s not sing of community while stabbing others in the back. Let’s not kid ourselves that we’d never think of such a thing and haven’t done it. God is no fool, and Jesus didn’t give his life for us to continue living our lies.
Easter is God’s refusal to leave the world in the lurch, the risen Son’s promise to reclaim us and everyone else for his Father.
April 19, 2009