"That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ."—1:3.
"They continued stedfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship."—Acts 2:42.
Evidently the desire and aim of the writer of this Epistle is to place all to whom it comes in the same advantageous position which he himself and his fellow-apostles enjoyed, as regards the knowledge of God in Christ, and the full enjoyment of the holy and divine fellowship which that knowledge implies. That is his great design throughout; and this is his announcement of it at the very beginning of his treatise.
Some think that he is here pointing to his Gospel, and that, in fact, this Epistle was meant to accompany that previously-published narrative, either as a sort of supplement and appendix, or as an introductory letter, explaining and enforcing the lessons of his great biography of his Master. It may be so, although I incline, after some vacillation, to my early formed opinion as to that biography being the loved disciple's last work. And here, at any rate, I rather understand him as referring, not to that particular book at all, but to his ordinary manner of teaching, and its ordinary scope; and as including in the reference all his brethren in the apostleship. When he says, "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you," I cannot doubt that he means to indicate generally the "apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2:42)—the common doctrine of all of them alike. "That which we have seen and heard"—all of us alike—"declare we"—all of us alike—in order that we may have you, our disciples and scholars, our hearers and readers, to be sharers with us in our knowledge and in our fellowship. We would have all the privileges of both attainments common between you and us.
In regard, indeed, to knowledge, we cannot make you as well off as we ourselves have been; not at least so far as knowledge comes through the direct information of the senses, and is verified by their testimony. We have "heard and seen, and looked, and handled" (ver. 1). We have had a personal acquaintance with Jesus in the flesh, and have come into personal contact in the flesh with whatever of God was manifested in him, by him, through him. We have gazed into his face; we have hung upon his lips;—I, John, have leaned on his breast. We cannot make you partakers with us in that way of "knowing Christ after the flesh" (2 Cor. 5:16); nor consequently in the sort of fellowship, so satisfying and soothing, "after the flesh," for which it furnished the occasion and the means.
Even if we could, we would not consider that enough for you—enough for the expression of our good will to you—enough to meet and satisfy the necessity of your case.
For we have ourselves experienced a great change since the sensible means and opportunities of knowledge and fellowship have been withdrawn. That former knowledge of Christ, with the fellowship that accompanied and grew out of it, ranks with us among the "old things that have passed away." We have all learned to say with our brother Paul, "Yea, though I have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know I him no more" (2 Cor. 5:16). It is not of course that we forget, or ever can forget, all the intercourse we have had in the flesh with our loved and loving Master when he was with us on the earth. Never can we cease to cherish in our hearts the holy and blessed memories of these precious historical years. But the Holy Ghost has come "to teach us all things, and bring all things to our remembrance, whatever Christ then said unto us" (John 14:26). That former knowledge does not depart; it is not obliterated or annihilated. But it has become new—altogether new, invested with a new spiritual meaning and power; presenting to the spiritual eye a new aspect of light and love.
It is true that what, under this new spiritual illumination, "we have heard, and seen, and looked at, and handled, of the Word of life," is simply what, "after the flesh," we had "heard, and seen, and looked at, and handled" before. It is nothing else, nothing more. But it is all new; radiant in new light, instinct with new life and love. With new ears, new eyes, new hands, we have listened, and gazed, and felt. It is a new knowledge that we have got, and consequently also a new fellowship. And it is into that new knowledge and that new fellowship, not into the old, that we would have you to enter as joint participators with us.
I. As to the knowledge, "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you;" that which we have seen and heard of the "Word of life;" "the Life;" which "was manifested;" "that Eternal Life which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us" (vers. 1, 2).
These names and descriptions of the Son undoubtedly refer, in the first instance, to his eternal relation to the Father; of whose nature he is the image, of whose will he is the expression, of whose life he is the partner and the communicater. But this eternal relation—what he is to the Father from everlasting—must be viewed now in connection with what he is as he dwells among us on the earth. It is "the man Christ Jesus" who is the "manifested life." He is so from first to last, during all the days of his flesh; from his being "made of a woman, made under the law," to his being "made sin and made a curse" for us, and thereafter, "for his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross, highly exalted;" from the Baptist's introduction of him to John and others of the apostles as "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world," to the hour when, as John so emphatically testifies, his side was pierced, and "there came out blood and water." Every intervening incident, every miracle, every discourse, every act of grace, every word of wisdom and of love, is a part of this manifestation. In every one of them "the eternal life which was with the Father is manifested to us." He who liveth with the Father evermore, dwelling in his bosom, is manifesting to us in himself—in his manhood, in his feelings, sayings, doings, sufferings, as a man dwelling among us—what that life is,—not liable to time's accidents and passions, but unchanging, eternal, imperturbable,—which he shares with the Everlasting Father, and which now he shares also with us, and we with him.
In the midst of all the conditions of our death this life is thus manifested. For he who is the life takes our death. Not otherwise could "that eternal life which was with the Father be manifested unto us." For we are dead. If it were not so, what need would there be of a new manifestation of life to us? Originally the divine life was imparted to man, the divine manner of living; for he was made in the image of God. But now that image being lost or broken and marred by sin, death is our portion, our very nature; death, a manner of being the reverse and opposite of God's; having in it no element of changeless repose, but tumultuous tossings of guilt, fear, wrath, and hatred. Such are we to whom the eternal life which was with the Father is to be manifested. We are thus dead; sentenced by a righteous doom, as transgressors, to this death; already and hopelessly involved in its uneasy, restless darkness. How then can life, the life which is with the Father, be manifested to us, if it be not life that overcomes this dark death,—that is itself the death of it,—that completely disposes of it, and puts it finally and for ever out of the way?
So he who is "the eternal life which was with the Father" is "manifested to us" as "destroying this death." He destroys it in the only way in which it can be destroyed righteously, and therefore thoroughly; by taking it upon himself, bearing it for us in our stead, dying the very death which we have most justly deserved and incurred. So he gives clear and certain assurance that this death of ours need not stand in the way of our having the life of God manifested to us,—and that too in even a higher sense and to higher ends than it was or could be manifested to man at first.
For now that life of God is manifested personally, in one who is himself "the life," being "the Son dwelling in the bosom of the Father." He who so wondrously and so effectually takes our death from us is himself the life,—"that eternal life which was with the Father and is manifested to us;"—so manifested that as he takes our death he gives us his life; he being one with us and we one with him. So, in him who is "the life" we enter into life;— into that eternal life with the Father wherein there can be no more any element of unquiet guilt or stormy passion, but only trust and love and peace evermore.
"The life was thus manifested" while the Word of life, "made flesh, dwelt among us full of grace and truth; and we beheld his glory"—we, his apostles—"the glory as of the only begotten of the Father" (John 1:14). What we beheld of his glory, as on the mount of transfiguration, we could not indeed then understand, any more than we could understand what we heard Moses and Elijah talking with him about, "the decease to be accomplished at Jerusalem;" or what we witnessed of his agony in the garden, in the near prospect of that decease. What our bodily senses then perceived was all dark to our minds, our souls, our hearts; insomuch that when he was taken away we accounted him lost, and ourselves lost with him, and could but cry woefully—"We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel" (Luke 24:21). But new senses of spiritual insight, hearing, touch, have been imparted to us, or opened up in us. And the whole meaning of that exchange of our doomed accursed death for his blessed divine life,—which all the while he was among us he was working out,—has flashed upon us; placing in a new light, and investing with new grace and glory, all that presence of our Lord and Master with us, which otherwise must have been to us as a tale that is told.
To have declared to you what we saw and heard, as we saw and heard it at the time, would have been of little avail. The most lifelike photographic painting, the most word-for-word shorthand reporting, could only have placed you in the position of our brother Philip, to whom, as representing us all, the Lord had occasion so pathetically to put the question, "Have I been so long with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip?" He added, however, then, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." And now we can say that we have seen him. All that we witnessed of the grace and truth of which he was full, when as the Word made flesh he dwelt among us, we can now say that we have seen. It is all now before us in its true significancy, as the revelation of "the eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us."
What that "eternal life" is; how he is that life with the Father—righteous, holy, loving; how he is that life to us, miserably dead in sin; this is what is manifested in him as he was on earth, and in all that he taught, and did, and suffered. And it is as manifesting this that we, his apostles, "declare unto you that which we have seen and heard." Taught by the Spirit, we would have you to know, taught also by the Spirit, what that eternal life is of which the Lord himself testifies in his farewell prayer for his people, when he says: "This is life eternal, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3).
II. So much for the communicated knowledge. The communicated fellowship comes next—"that ye may have fellowship with us." The meaning plainly is, that you may share our fellowship, which truly "is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" (ver. 3). The object and the nature of this fellowship—"the apostles' fellowship" (Acts 2:42)—fall now to be considered.
1. The object of this fellowship is the Father and the Son. I say the object, for there is but one. No doubt the Father and the Son may be considered separately, as two distinct persons with whom you may have fellowship. And in some views and for some ends it may be quite warrantable, and even necessary, to distinguish the fellowship which you have with the Father from that which you have with his Son Jesus Christ. As Christ is the way, the true and living way, to the Father, so fellowship with him as such must evidently be preparatory to fellowship with the Father. But it is not thus that Christ is here represented. He is not put before the Father as the way to the Father, fellowship with whom is the means, leading to fellowship with the Father as the end. He is associated with the Father. Together, in their mutual relation to one another and their mutual mind or heart to one another, they constitute the one object of this fellowship.
The Father and his Son Jesus Christ; not each apart, but the two—both of them—together; with whatever the Spirit of the Father and the Son may be commissioned to show, and your spirits may be enabled to take in, of the counsel of peace that is between them both; that is what is presented to you as the object of your fellowship.
It is a great idea. Who can grasp it?
A father and a son among men; both of them wise, upright, holy, loving; of one mind and heart; perfectly understanding one another; perfectly open to one another; perfectly confiding in one another; together bent upon some one great and good undertaking; engrossed thoroughly in some one grand pursuit, characterised by consummate genius and rare benevolence;—that might be an impressive, an attractive picture. To be allowed to make acquaintance with them in their own dwelling where they are at home together; to be admitted into their study where they consult together; to watch the father's face when the son goes out on any errand or for any work agreed upon between them; to witness the embrace awaiting him on his return; to go with the son, as, through ignominy, and suffering, and toil, and blood, and loathsome contact with filth and crime, he makes his way to yonder outcast, and see how it is his father's pity for that outcast that is ever uppermost in his thoughts, how it is his father that he would have to get the praise of every kind word spoken and every sore wound healed; to sit beside the father and observe with what thrilling interest his whole soul is thrown into what his son is doing; and when they come to talk it all over together, when their glistening eyes meet, and their bosoms bound to one another, to be there to see;—that were a privilege worth living for, worth dying for. Such as that, only in an infinitely enhanced measure of grace and glory, is the object presented to you for your fellowship.
For the illustration so fails as to be almost indecorous.
The Eternal Father and the Eternal Son; what the Father is to the Son and the Son to the Father from everlasting; the Father's purpose in eternity to glorify the Son as heir of all things; the Son's consent in eternity to be the Lamb slain; the covenant of electing love securing the fulfilment of the Father's decree and the Son's satisfaction in the seeing of his seed;—then, the amazing concert of that creation-week when the Son, as the Eternal Wisdom, was with the Father, being "daily his delight, rejoicing always before him, rejoicing in the habitable parts of his earth, his delights being with the children of men;"—then, the Son's manifold ministrations as the angel of the covenant on the Father's behalf among these children of men from age to age till his coming in the flesh;—and then, still further—more signal sight still—what the Father and his Son Jesus Christ are to one another, how they feel toward one another, what is the amazing unity between them, all through the deep humiliation of the manger, the wilderness, the synagogues and sea of Galilee, the streets and temple of Jerusalem, the garden and the cross;—what, finally, is that sitting of the Son at the Father's right hand which is now, and that coming of the Son in his own glory and the Father's which is to be shortly;—such is the object of "the apostles' fellowship" and yours. It is fellowship "with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ."
2. The nature of the fellowship can be truly known only by experience. In so far as it can be described, in its conditions, its practical working, and its effects, it is brought out in the whole teaching of this epistle, of which it may be said to be the theme. But a few particulars may here be indicated:—
(1.) That it implies intelligence and insight I need scarcely repeat; such intelligence and insight as the Spirit alone can give. No man naturally has it; no man naturally cares to have it. You may tell me, in my natural state, of tangible benefits of some sort coming to me, through some arrangement between the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, of which somehow I get the good. I can understand that, and take some interest in that. The notion of my being let off from suffering the pains of hell, and of indulgence being extended to my faults and failings, in consequence of something that Christ has done and suffered for me, which he pleads on my behalf, and which God is pleased so far to accept as to listen favourably to his pleading,—is a notion intelligible enough, congenial and welcome enough, to my natural mind. But this is very different from my having fellowship in that matter, even as thus put and thus understood, with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. Even while reckoning with reckless confidence on impunity coming to me in virtue of some transaction between the Father and the Son, I may be profoundly and most stupidly indifferent as to what that transaction really is, and what the Father and the Son are to one another in it. In such a state of mind there can be no "fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ."
(2.) There must be faith: personal, appropriating, and assured faith; in order that the intelligence, the insight, may be quickened by a vivid sense of real personal interest and concern. There must be faith: not a vague and doubtful reliance on the chance, one might say, of some sort of deliverance turning up at last, through the mediation of the Son with the Father; but faith identifying me with the Son, and shutting me up into the Son, in that very mediation itself. There can be no fellowship without this faith; it is the ground and means of the fellowship; it is, in fact, the fellowship itself in essence;—in germ, embryo, or seed. For if I grasp Christ, or rather if he grasps me, in a close indissoluble union, I am to the Father, in a manner, what he is; and the Father is to me what he is to him. What passes between the Father and the Son is now to me as if it passed—nay, as really passing—between the Father and me. It has all a personal bearing upon myself; I am personally involved in it.
Is it then a kind of selfishness after all?—selfishness refined and spiritualised, the care of my soul rather than my body, my eternal rather than my temporal wellbeing,—but still the care of myself? Nay, it is the death of self. For, first, even in the urgency of its first almost instinctive and inarticulate cry for safety—"What must I do?"—it springs from such a sight and sense of sin and ruin as carries in it an apprehension of the holy and awful name of God and the just claims of God being paramount over all. Then, secondly, in its saving efficacy, it is a going out of self to God in Christ; an acceptance of God in Christ; an embracing of God in Christ; having in it as little of what is self-regarding and self-seeking as that little child's nestling in its mother's bosom has. And thirdly, as the preparation for the fellowship, or as being itself the fellowship, it is the casting of myself, with ever-increasing cordiality of acquiescence and consent, into that glorious plan of everlasting love, in which I am nothing and Christ is all in all;—of which, when I join the company of all the saved, it will be my joy and theirs to ascribe all the praise "unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever."
(3.) This fellowship is of a transforming, conforming, assimilating character. In it you become actually partakers with the Father and the Son in nature and in counsel. For fellowship is participation; it is partnership. The Father and the Son take you into partnership with them. Plainly this cannot be, unless you are made "partakers of the divine nature;" unless your nature is getting to be moulded into conformity with the nature of the Father and the Son. For this end in part, or chiefly, that "eternal life which was with the Father has been manifested to you" in your human nature, that through his dwelling in you by his Spirit,—and so being "revealed in you,"—that human nature may become in you what it was when he made it his. Not otherwise can there be community or identity of interest between him and you; not otherwise than by there being community or identity of nature.
(4.) It is a fellowship of sympathy. Being of one mind, in this partnership, with the Father and the Son, you are of one heart too. Seeing all things, all persons, and all events, in the light in which the Father and the Son see them, you are affected by them and towards them, as the Father and the Son are. Judging as they judge, you feel as they feel. You do so with reference to all that you come in contact with; all that concerns, or may concern, that great business in which you are partners or fellows, fellow-wishers and fellow-workers, with the Father and the Son. What the business is you know. It is that of which the child of twelve years spoke to his mother and Joseph, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" In what spirit, and after what manner, the Father and the Son are "about that business," you also know. You know how, on the Father's behalf, and as having the Father always going along with him, the Son went about it all his lifelong on earth. The Father and the Son welcome—nay, they solicit—your fellowship, partnership, co-operation, sympathy, in that business. The Spirit is manifesting in you that "eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us," for this very end, that you may enter with us into that business which is the Father's and the Son's, with full sympathy and with all your hearts. It is the business of glorifying the Father. It is the business of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting the sorrowful, speaking a word in season to the weary. It is the business of going about to do good. It is the business of seeking and saving the lost. It is the business of laying down life for the brethren."
(5.) The fellowship is one of joy. Intelligence, faith, conformity of mind, sympathy of heart, all culminate in joy; joy in God; entering into the joy of the Lord. For there is joy in heaven. And if you, receiving what the apostles declare to you of what they have seen and heard,—receiving that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to them,—have fellowship with them in their fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ; the end of all their writing to you is fulfilled, "that your joy may be full" (ver. 4). Fulness of joy it well may be, if you share the joy of the Father and the Son: truly a joy that is "unspeakable and full of glory." Into that joy, as the joy of ineffable complacency between the Father and the Son from everlasting to everlasting,—in the counsels of a past eternity, in the present triumphs of grace, in the consummated glory of the eternity that is to come,—you are called to enter; you are to have fellowship in it with the Father and the Son.
Is the thought too vast, indistinct, infinite? Nay then, in that "eternal life which was with the Father being manifested to you,"—in the Son coming forth from the Father,—you have the joy in which you are to have fellowship with him and with the Father brought home to you with more of definiteness.
When the earth was prepared for man, and for the acting out of all heaven's purpose of grace to man, "I was," says the Son, "by him, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him." When he came in the flesh to execute that purpose, once at least in his humiliation it is testified of him, that he "rejoiced in spirit;"—it was when he said, "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight" (Luke 10:21). Into that joy of holy acquiescence in the wise and holy sovereignty of the Father you can enter. And you can hear him and obey him, when bringing home one and another of the poor wandering sheep he came to seek, he makes his appeal to you as knowing his mind and entering into his heart;—"Rejoice with me, for I have found that which was lost." Rejoice with me. Yes! Rejoice with me, as my Father calls me to rejoice with him! "It is meet that we should make merry and be glad, for this our brother was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found."