3. 1 John 1:1-4
Here are the first four verses of John’s letter, and the beginnings of a discussion about them. There is so much here – we may be discussing this first paragraph for some time! After you have time to read and think about the verses, and the questions that follow, I invite your comments and questions. I hope that we can have a good, challenging conversation. Our reading of the passage will be much enriched and deepened if we listen to one another’s experiences and questions and insights and doubts. — Mtr. Kathryn+
That which was from the beginning,
which we have heard,
which we have seen with our eyes,
which we looked upon and have touched with our hands,
concerning the word of life –
the life was made manifest,
and we have seen it,
and testify to it
and proclaim to you the eternal life,
which was with the Father
and was made manifest to us –
that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us,
and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
That which was from the beginning
John began this first letter to the churches very much like he began his gospel. John 1:1 goes like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Clearly there are themes that John wanted to put up front so they would not be missed, truths that needed to be established as a foundation for everything else he would have to say. And perhaps the first thing we might notice is that in both of these opening statements we hear echoes of the opening verse of the whole Bible, Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
The apostle John, who knew Jesus of Nazareth as a friend and teacher, wanted first of all to make very clear that the man Jesus is also the God through whom the whole of creation came into being. The beginning of Genesis tells about a time when all was without form and void and God alone existed. John wanted us to know that Jesus was there with God, and further, that Jesus and the being we call God were and are One person.
John referred to Jesus as “the Word”. In his gospel, John spoke of Jesus as the Word who was with God and who also was God. In his letter, John called Jesus the “Word of life”. At the creation, when all things came into being, it was through God’s creative word. God spoke, saying, “Let there be light” and “Let the heavens teem with living creatures” and so on, and out of nothing the creation was formed. When John used the title “Word” or “Word of life”, he was identifying Jesus as the one through whom, by means of whom, all things were made. Paul said the same thing in his letter to the Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Col. 1:15-16) In John’s gospel, he put it like this: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (Jn 1:3)
In placing Jesus of Nazareth squarely at the beginning of all time and as the source of all being, John was making a huge claim to the churches he was addressing. The man that was so recently a part – and a controversial part at that – of their contemporary history was also the God from whom all human history originated. For any Jews in the audience that meant that Jesus the carpenter’s son was also the origin of the history of the Jewish people. John was claiming that Jesus was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of the Exodus, the God of the Law and the Prophets. The Incarnation, this idea that the One True God had come to live among his creation, in all the weakness and frailty of human flesh, was the Great Stumbling Block for them.
It is also a stumbling block for people today. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard someone say, “I believe in the God of the New Testament, the God of love and mercy, not the vengeful, violent God of the Old Testament.” If John’s claim in his opening verses is true; if Jesus of Nazareth was truly the Word that called light into being, then we can no longer separate the Scriptures into Good God/Bad God. If the man Jesus, that walked and talked and taught and healed in human history is truly the author of all history then we need to read the Scriptures as a single narrative. What John was telling us is that the Bible is the story of the One True God who loves his creation and wants all of his creatures to know and love him. And the climax of the whole story is that God himself chose to be born a creature because that was the only way we could know him perfectly.
Things to think about and discuss – and feel free to raise questions of your own:
Is it hard for you to think of Jesus the Jewish man as the God of Creation as well? Do you find that you are more comfortable thinking of him as either human or divine, but not both?
Is it is hard for you to perceive the story of the Old Testament, with all its violence and its all-too-human characters, as part of the single story of Jesus’s work of redemption?
When Jesus returned to the Father, he returned in the flesh – in his perfected, resurrection flesh, but human flesh nonetheless – and he will return to us in the flesh. When you pray to Jesus, do you think of him as a man that can be seen and heard and touched, as John describes in his letter?
Jesus shared our human life so that he could redeem it and share with us the new, undying life of the Resurrection. When you think of Christ’s return, do you imagine him returning in a human body? Can you imagine yourself living with God eternally in a flesh-and-blood body, but one that never gets hurt or sick, and never will die?
The Eucharist is the means Jesus ordained for us to continue to experience his physical presence with us even in this time of waiting for his return: through the tangible elements of bread and wine that we can taste and chew and swallow, and also through Jesus’s presence in a special way in the body of his people as we gather at his table together. Do you feel the presence of Christ in a particularly real way during the Eucharist?