1 John 1:1-4 is concerned to emphasize the physical reality of the person of Jesus when He was in this world. Evidently some interpreters of the gospel held to a 'docetic' view of Jesus. They regarded the Christ as a phantom or spirit. John reveals his concern that the Christians have true fellowship, and the test of such fellowship is that it will be in accord with the testimony of the apostle John and his co-workers. If the apostolic testimony concerning the physical reality of the Son of God is not accepted, there will be no fellowship with the Father and the Son. In John's mind there may be true Christians whose fellowship with God has been damaged, so that they are not at this present moment in fellowship with the Father and the Son. John is not writing to his adversaries. Rather he wants his 'little children' to have fellowship with God. Such fellowship is not automatic even in the lives of true disciples.
John begins: 1Our theme is that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have beheld and our hands have handled. Our theme concerns the message of the Life. 2And the Life was manifested and we have beheld and bear witness and announce to you that Eternal Life which was with the Father and was manifested to us. 3That which we have seen and heard we also announce to you, in order that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. 4And these things we are writing to you in order that your joy might be fulfilled.
The only giver of fellowship with God is the one and only Lord Jesus Christ. It is not any philosophically invented 'Jesus' who gives fellowship, nor any mythical figure who is given the title 'the Son of God'.
Who then is this Son of God?
Firstly, He was 'from the beginning'. 'Our theme is that which was from the beginning...'. John has a habit of using deliberately ambiguous language. It has jokingly been said that 'every sentence in 1 John can be interpreted in three ways'. John seems to delight in using simple words that can be taken in more than one way, and more than one way of reading them is often (but not always) valid. 'The beginning' can mean (i) before creation, (ii) the beginning of history, (iii) the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry, or (iv) the beginning of the Christian faith of John's readers. John seems to like to leave us to choose which of his various meanings is appropriate at any particular point. Here the phrase has the first meaning because John is making the point that the eternal Son of God became manifested.
Secondly, this One who was from the beginning became manifested in human flesh. 'We have heard... seen with our eyes... beheld and our hands have handled... the Life was manifested... manifested to us... we have seen and heard.' John has a repetitive style, pressing home in phrase after phrase the main points of what he wants to say. The Son of God was physically tangible. It was possible to see Him, hear Him, gaze upon Him, touch Him. It is a message embodied in a person whose being was physically real and substantial. John clearly is alluding to an early form of the heresy of 'docetism' which regarded Jesus' body as an illusion. This meant either that Jesus did not really suffer on the cross, or that the 'Jesus' who suffered was not the same as the 'Christ, the Son of God'. The presence of the Son of God was, for such people, a masquerade. Against this, John insists that Jesus was the Son of God come in the flesh. 'Fellowship' can only come through Jesus as He really is, not through a 'Jesus' of theological imagination. Such docetism was still troublesome in the years following John and received strong opposition from Ignatius early in the second century. 'Be fully persuaded in the matter of the birth and suffering and resurrection in the time of the regime of Pontius Pilate,' wrote Ignatius, 'for these things were truly and certainly done by Jesus Christ' (Ignatius to the Magnesians 9:1). There were people who did not believe that the basic facts of the gospel 'truly and certainly' happened.
Thirdly, the Son of God is characterised by Life. 'Our theme concerns the message of the Life... the Life was manifested... we have beheld... that Eternal Life', says John. It has always been true that 'in Him was life' (John 1:4). He is life (see John 11:25; 14:6). There is in Him mobility, creativeness, enabling power, holy energy, vibrant love, energetic animation, pure zeal. Other forms of life have life in Him; He has life in Himself (John 5:26). Every kind of 'life' finds its origin in God. One of the most basic descriptions of God is that He is the 'living God'. Other so-called gods are idols, the creation of human hands or human minds, gods that cannot intervene. But the essential characteristic of God is liveliness, ability to get involved with humankind, ability to speak, ability to act.
God's life was shared by the Son of God even before He took flesh. 'In Him was life' may be said of the eternal One who was with the Father (see also John 1:1-3). When that 'One who was from the beginning' became flesh (John 1:14), it pleased God that the incarnate Son should have life within Himself as the man Jesus. It is the exalted Jesus, Son of God and truly man, who is the source and channel of fellowship. Men and women feed on Him because He is the bread of life (John 6:35, 48). Understanding and illumination come to those who know Him as the 'light of life' (John 8:12). He dispenses 'living' water (John 4:10; 7:38) and 'living' bread (John 6:51). His words are 'spirit and life' (John 6:63) and 'utterances of eternal life' (John 6:68). He gives life to the world (John 6:33; 10:10; 1 John 4:9).
'Eternal life' has many aspects to it. But one way of speaking of eternal life is this: the Son of God is eternal life. The Son of God has eternally been with the Father. He is equally divine ('the true God', 5:20) yet distinct from the Father. He has life within Himself as much as the Father has life within Himself.
There was one generation of men who were present on planet earth when this 'Eternal Life' was walking around in the land of Israel. John says 'we' witnessed him. Although some want to make the 'we' to be the Christian community (as is the case elsewhere in the letter), here there can be no doubt that 'we' refers to the first generation of eyewitness-apostles. There is a case for arguing that apostles are to be expected throughout human history, but there was a generation of apostles who were unique, who were eyewitnesses of a literal incarnation and a literal resurrection.
The apostles came into the experience of fellowship with this Son of God, this Lord Jesus Christ. 'Fellowship' is essentially sharing the good things of God. When the apostles were with Jesus He talked to them, encouraged them, rebuked them, guided them. They on their side observed Him, picked up His ways, talked to Him, asked Him questions. For three years they shared everything with Jesus.
It was wonderful for those who were physically present with Jesus to have had fellowship with Him. But what about those in subsequent generations? John's answer is that when Christians who are not eyewitnesses of a physically manifested Eternal Life come to accept the apostolic testimony concerning Him, they begin to share the fellowship with Jesus and with the Father that the apostles have known. The apostles themselves had had to change the style of their fellowship. Jesus told them that with regard to his bodily presence He would leave them, but it would be to their advantage that He would go away (John 16:7), because when He was exalted as the king of the universe He would send them the Holy Spirit in greater measure than ever before. They would lose Him in the body but get Him back more than ever by the Holy Spirit. So John says: Believe our testimony and though you never knew Him 'according to the flesh' you will know Him as much as we apostles know Him and in the same way—by the Spirit. You will have fellowship 'with us'.
Intimate fellowship includes a distinct experience of God the Father and of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We become distinctly conscious of the Father's presence and protection and provision. We become distinctly conscious of the sympathy and the heavenly intercession of the Son. It may be asked: is there a distinct fellowship with the Spirit? To which I answer: Yes, one may be conscious of a distinct working of the Spirit pointing to the Father and the Son, but since this fellowship consists of the Spirit's pointing away from Himself to the Father and the Son, it is appropriate that the Spirit's name is not mentioned. The experience of the Spirit glorifies the Son. The Son glorifies the Father. The Spirit never glorifies Himself. For that reason He may be omitted in the account of fellowship with God.
The experience of fellowship involves fullness of joy. If knowledge of the true Jesus was real and was derived from the message of John and his fellow-apostles, it would lead to the kind of vibrant rejoicing and exultation that was characteristic of New Testament Christians. It would lead to the enthusiasm and strength of spirit that joy brings.
Yet this joy would not be simply a mystic experience of some mysterious non-physical 'Jesus'. There is no way of by-passing the testimony of the apostles to Jesus and yet still having fellowship with God. Joy will come to us only by faith in the incarnate Son of God, the Jesus of the New Testament.