A Life Like No Other: Jesus the Incarnate Word
1 John 1:1-4
Main Idea: Jesus Christ is the God-man who is the one basis of true Christian fellowship and eternal life.
- Have a Passion to Know This Life (1:1-2).
- He is divine.
- He is human.
- Have a Passion to Share This Life (1:3).
- We want to invite everyone into our fellowship.
- We want to invite everyone into our family.
- Have a Passion to Enjoy This Life (1:4).
- Promote joy that is full (1:4).
- Press on in holiness (2:1).
- Pursue correct doctrine (2:26).
- Provide assurance of salvation (5:13).
Christianity stands or falls on the person and work of Jesus Christ. It succeeds or fails on whether or not a true and genuine incarnation actually took place in space and time. The options as to who Jesus is and what Jesus did can basically be reduced to four. He could have been a liar—someone who simply was not who he claimed to be and knew it. He could have been a lunatic—someone who thought he was somebody, but in fact he was not. He could have been a legend—someone who was not who others later imagined him to be. Or He could be the Lord—He is who He said He is, and His birth, life, death, and resurrection prove it to be true.
In our twenty-first-century context, we constantly face confusion, distortions, inaccuracies, and outright denials of the Jesus revealed in the Bible. This is nothing new. The apostle John faced the same challenges in the first century, and he penned 1 John to set the record straight. He knew that it was absolutely essential to get the "Jesus question" right!
John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James (the first apostle to be martyred, cf. Acts 12:2), wrote five books of the New Testament. He wrote the Gospel of John to convert sinners. He wrote the epistles of John to confirm the saints. And he wrote the book of Revelation to coronate the Savior.
John is a wonderful author who always gives us his purpose for writing. In his Gospel the key is located at the end, in John 20:31, where he writes, "But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name." In Revelation the key is deposited at the front, in Revelation 1:19, where he quotes Jesus: "Therefore write what you have seen, what is, and what will take place after this." In 1 John, however, there are four keys that are scattered throughout the five chapters and 105 verses that help us unlock this much-beloved letter. In 1 John 1:4, John says he wrote to promote full joy in the family of God. In 2:1 he says he wrote to prevent sin in the family of God. In 2:26 he says he wrote to protect from false teachers in the family of God. And in 5:13 he says his purpose was to provide assurance of salvation in the family of God.
In this book—written from Ephesus sometime between ad 80 and 95, most likely to churches in Asia Minor (modern Turkey)—three important themes are linked to the four purposes that open the doors to the wonderful truths we discover in this letter: (1) right belief in Jesus; (2) right obedience to God's commands; and (3) right love for one another. These themes provide "avenues of assurance," whereby I can know that I am a Christian. Similar to how the Gospel of John was written that we might have eternal life (John 20:31), 1 John was written that we might know we have eternal life. By repeatedly applying these avenues of assurance, John will expose those who profess Christ but do not know Him, and he will assure those who know Christ but may have doubts about their salvation. In other words, it is possible to know Christ and have doubts. It is also possible to profess Christ and be a liar.
There is great timelessness to the truths we will encounter in this letter that are true anywhere, anytime, and under any circumstances. They are truths for the community of faith that confesses Jesus as Lord, keeps the commands of the Father, and loves one another. John begins in this prologue by putting before us three great truths about the life of Jesus. In so doing he says, "Look! Here is a life like no other!"
Have a Passion to Know This Life
1 John 1:1-2
First John 1:1-4 constitutes the introduction to this General Epistle. These verses make up one of the four great beginnings in the Bible. Genesis 1:1 recounts the beginning of creation. Mark 1:1 tells of the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John 1:1 reveals the Word who is God and was there in the beginning. And here, in 1 John 1:1, John reveals the incarnate Son, who became a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
John wants us to know, and know rightly, this "Word of life" who invaded space and time and who makes it possible for us to have fellowship and eternal intimacy with the one true God (v. 3). He draws attention to two important truths concerning this life, the life of Jesus, which is like no other.
He Is Divine
The Son Jesus Christ (v. 3) is "what was from the beginning" (v. 1) and is "the eternal life that was with the Father" (v. 2). Jesus Christ, who is the Father's Son (v. 3), has always eternally existed with the Father as God. There has never been a time when the Son was not. Never. He was before the beginning, in the beginning, and from the beginning. This is what John believed. This is what Jesus taught. Jesus Himself boldly declared in John 8:58, "Before Abraham was, I am" (indicating He is the God of Exod 3:14). In John 10:30 He said, "The Father and I are one." And in John 14:9 He told Philip, "The one who has seen Me has seen the Father." Clearly Jesus believed Himself to be God, and John confessed the same. This life is the life of undiminished deity made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. There never was a time when the Son was not, and there will never be a time when He will not be.
He Is Human
John now, as an apostle and friend of Jesus, presents a rigorous defense of the real and genuine humanity of the Son. John speaks as one who was an eyewitness of all that Jesus said and did. This is neither hearsay nor a secondhand account. The apostle presents an eyewitness account of what John Piper has called "the stumbling block of the incarnation" ("Eternal Life"). John says four things concerning this "Word of life": (1) We heard Him with our ears. John repeats this in verse 3 for emphasis. (2) We saw Him with our eyes. John states this three times for emphasis in the first three verses. Furthermore, "we have observed" Him. There was an intentional, intense, and continuous gazing at and contemplation of this man named Jesus. For three years we watched and observed His every move. (3) We touched Him with our hands. He was a real flesh-and-blood human being. He was no ghost or phantom. (4) We testify and declare (both present tense), as bona fide eyewitnesses, this "eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us." Notice again how John uses repetition. Twice he says the eternal life was manifested to us in Jesus Christ. He presents for anyone to consider an audible, visible, and tangible witness concerning Jesus, the Word of life, the eternal life.
Let me make both a historical and a theological observation at this point. Historically, John was countering an early form of what is called "Gnosticism," a term based on the Greek word that means knowledge. Gnostics appeared in a number of varieties, but they all had two basic convictions in common. First, they believed that matter is evil (or at least inferior to spiritual realities). Second, they believed that salvation is by a mystical, even secretive, knowledge. This bred extreme arrogance and pride among the Gnostic factions, and it led them to deny with great fervency a true and genuine incarnation of the Christ. One camp, called "Docetists" (from the Gk dokein, meaning "to appear"), claimed Jesus was a ghost or phantom—He only appeared to be human. Another camp, led by a man named Cerinthus, said the Christ-spirit came on and empowered the man Jesus at His baptism, but it also left Him at the cross. John deals with the Docetists here in 1:1-4. He will take on Cerinthus in 5:6-12.
Theologically, it is imperative that we understand the essential nature of the doctrine of the incarnation. The biblical Jesus is no myth, fairy tale, or fable. He is no ghost or illusion. He is indeed the God who took on full humanity. "The Word became flesh," says John (John 1:14). And Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. He is not half God and half man, all God and no man, or all man and no God. Nor is He simply a man uniquely in touch with the divine. No, He is the God-man, like no one else who will ever live. He has always been with the Father, and at Bethlehem He came to be with us. This is the scandal, the stumbling block of the incarnation. Piper says it so very well:
Many are willing to believe in Christ if he remains a merely spiritual reality. But when we preach that Christ has become a particular man in a particular place issuing particular commands and dying on a particular cross exposing the particular sins of our particular lives, then the preaching ceases to be acceptable for many.
I don't think it is so much the mystery of a divine and human nature in one person that causes most people to stumble over the doctrine of the incarnation. The stumbling block is that if the doctrine is true, every single person in the world must obey this one particular Jewish man. Everything he says is law. Everything he did is perfect. And the particularity of his work and word flow out into history in the form of a particular inspired book (written in the particular languages of Greek and Hebrew) that claims a universal authority over every other book that has ever been written.
This is the stumbling block of the incarnation—when God becomes a man, he strips away every pretense of man to be God. We can no longer do our own thing; we must do what this one Jewish man wants us to do. We can no longer pose as self-sufficient, because this one Jewish man says we are all sick with sin and must come to him for healing. We can no longer depend on our own wisdom to find life, because this one Jewish man who lived for 30 obscure years in a little country in the Middle East says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."
When God becomes a man, man ceases to be the measure of all things, and this man becomes the measure of all things. This is simply intolerable to the rebellious heart of men and women. The incarnation is a violation of the bill of human rights written by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is totalitarian. It's authoritarian! Imperialism! Despotism! Usurpation! Absolutism! Who does he think he is!
GOD! (Piper, "Eternal Life")
Benjamin Franklin perfectly exhibits this aversion to the historical reality of the God-man. In a letter dated March 9, 1790, Franklin said,
As to Jesus of Nazareth ... I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now. (Franklin, "Letter to Ezra Stiles")
On the contrary, it is never needless to busy ourselves with Jesus. If He is who He claimed to be, that identity changes everything. We should all have a passion to know this life.
Have a Passion to Share This Life
1 John 1:3
The impact that Jesus has on His followers cannot be put into words. They were radically changed and really did "turn the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). The impact of the life of Jesus, this "life like no other," compelled them to take Him and His gospel to the nations. They simply believed they must. They had no choice. What they had experienced in Jesus they wanted others to experience too.
We Want to Invite Everyone into Our Fellowship
Verse 3 begins with the phrase "what we have seen and heard." As we noted earlier, "seeing" is highlighted in each of the first three verses. Interestingly, the main verb of the prologue does not appear until now. It is the word "declare." It means to "proclaim" (ESV) or "announce" (GNT, NET). John says we cannot remain silent about this eternal life-giving Word. What we have heard, seen, looked upon, and touched we must share with others. We will testify and bear witness concerning Jesus Christ, and we will proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
To what end? "So that you may have fellowship along with us." John speaks of fellowship four times in this letter, all in 1:3-7. The Greek word is koinonia, and it speaks of sharing in common something that is significant and important. It entails the joy and oneness in a group of people who are in accord regarding something that really matters. You share common values, beliefs, and goals. You love the same things. You pursue a common agenda.
John so loves the church, the believing community of faith in Jesus, that he wants to invite everyone to become a part. No one is to be excluded from this invitation. No one who comes by the way of Jesus—the Word who gives life, eternal life, a life of both quality and quantity—will be denied entrance. The moment you enter into a personal relationship with Him, this life is yours. And this fellowship is yours as well.
We Want to Invite Everyone into Our Family
The fellowship that exists among followers of Jesus is far richer and deeper than that of a college fraternity or sorority. It is far richer and deeper than that of a favorite sports team or community club. It is far richer and deeper than even that of national identity or ethnic heritage. It is the "fellowship of family" that transcends any and all artificial barriers that have afflicted the human race since the fall. By means of the incarnation and His perfect atoning sacrifice (2:2), we are now a "fellowship family" with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. When Jesus becomes our Savior, God becomes our Father. It is a package deal. Later, in 2:23, John will write, "No one who denies the Son can have the Father; he who confesses the Son has the Father as well."
Unlike every other religion in the world, Christianity brings us into intimate relationship with a God who is Savior and Father. And He is a perfect Savior and a perfect heavenly Father. In addition, you get a whole bunch of brothers and sisters thrown in as well "from every nation, tribe, people, and language" (Rev 7:9). We Christians must never forget that we have more in common with a Chinese Christian, an African sister, and a brother in South America than a next-door neighbor who does not know Christ. And never forget that this eternal life that has transformed us is the eternal life we must proclaim to our neighbor here and among the nations in order that they might become family. We continually want to add more!
Have a Passion to Enjoy This Life
1 John 1:4
God is glorified in us when we find our joy in Him. A common theology, a common Savior, a common Father, and a common experience of joy unites all who have come to know this life that is like no other, life in Jesus the incarnate Word. These common blessings are woven into a beautiful tapestry throughout 1 John, and they are highlighted by the four keys we noted earlier, keys that he introduces by saying that he is writing or has written "these things." How might we enjoy these blessings?
Promote Joy That Is Full (1 John 1:4)
John wrote this letter "so that our joy may be complete." Not partial, but complete. Full. All we could want or ever need. John is echoing the words he heard from Jesus: "I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete" (John 15:11); and "Until now you have asked for nothing in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete" (John 16:24). We have a fullness of joy in our shared life with Jesus. That fullness of joy is ours through our friendship with one another and with God, who is now our Father. And all of it made possible by the gospel of Jesus Christ, God's Son.
Press On in Holiness (1 John 2:1)
Christians never become sinless in their time on earth, but they should sin less as they enjoy their new life in Christ. This striving to be more and more like Jesus (and note the amazing promise in 3:2!) is a life of joy lived not out of obligation, but gratitude—gospel gratitude, because Jesus died the death we should have died (2:2) and He lived the life we should have lived (2:6). This life of holiness is marked particularly by joy, by keeping Christ's commands (2:3), and by loving one another (2:10).
Pursue Correct Doctrine (1 John 2:26)
When John writes a letter to help us enjoy Jesus, the Word of life, he fills it with theology. This theology is doctrinal and it is practical. It is also pastoral. Thus he warns us concerning those who would deceive us with false doctrine—those he marks in the most striking manner with the designation "antichrists" (2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7).
John believes theology matters and so should we. Our joy—which is made complete in fellowship with the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and one another—is grounded in a shared theology. To enjoy this life we must believe the theology about this Word of life. There can be no cafeteria approach to Jesus Christ, where we pick what we like and leave what we don't. John had no interest in a "Jesus minus theology" or a "Jesus plus theology." Thabiti Anyabwile says it like this:
To receive the Word of life is to embrace Jesus as He offers Himself in the gospel. That phrase—"as He offers himself in the gospel"—is very important. We must receive Jesus—the Word of life, the eternal life, the Son of God—not as we imagine Him to be, or as we like to think of Him, or as someone else believes Him to be. We do not truly receive Jesus if we do not accept Him as He defines Himself.
We know that we are Christians and have received God's salvation when we humbly accept the Word of life, which means to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who appeared in our flesh, was crucified to take our punishment for our sin, was raised from the grave three days later for our justification with God, and is coming again to bring the fullness of God's kingdom. Is that the Jesus you have received? (unpublished sermon manuscript)
Provide Assurance of Salvation (1 John 5:13)
John knew it was possible to be saved and doubt. Those who deny this must deny 1 John 5:13. I believe he also knew that doubt will discourage us, cause us to fear and lose confidence, and negatively impact our joy. So he wrote these five chapters to provide assurance that we are in the family because we have believed and trusted in Jesus the Son of God. Anyone who says, "If you are 99-percent certain you are saved you are 100-percent lost!" is teaching false doctrine, at least concerning this important theological truth. Still, John does not want us to wonder if we are saved. He wants us to have assurance that we are saved. First and foremost, we must look to Christ and believe. We must look to the cross and trust. Then we must examine our obedience and our affections. These avenues of assurance are found on every corner in 1 John.
In ad 325 church leaders from around the Roman Empire gathered in Nicea (in modern day Turkey). The issue on the table was "Who is the Son?" A popular Presbyter from Alexandria named Arius said, "God became a Father, and the Son was not always; ... once He was not; ... He was created" ("Athanasius: Select Works and Letters" in Schaff). Two men, Alexander and Athanasius, strongly opposed this view, believing that biblical truth and the doctrine of salvation itself hung in the balance. In God's providence the Arians were defeated, and what we know as "The Nicene Creed" was set forth as the biblical and orthodox understanding of the nature and person of Jesus. Both His humanity and His deity are beautifully affirmed. And His person and work as the Christ are wonderfully balanced. In glad confession and worship, may we also confess with our spiritual fathers that this too we believe!
The Nicene Creed
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen. (https://www.ccel.org/creeds/nicene.creed.html, accessed Feb. 11, 2014)
Reflect and Discuss
- How are the person and work of Jesus central to Christianity? What alternative ideas have you heard someone propose about the heart of Christianity?
- Read through the book of 1 John. Where do you see the themes of right belief about Jesus, right obedience to God's commands, and right love for one another?
- Why does John emphasize both Jesus' humanity and His deity at the beginning of this letter? How might we go astray if we do not affirm both truths?
- How is the doctrine of the incarnation offensive or threatening to those who have not understood and embraced the gospel?
- How does an encounter with Jesus fuel missions?
- Why does John want others to share in the knowledge of Christ? How can we grow to experience the same motives?
- How is Christian fellowship similar to and different from simple friendship?
- Some theologians maintain that the very purpose of life is to experience and express joy in a relationship with God. Do you agree? What does it mean for joy to be "complete"?
- When you think of holiness, do you see it as a burdensome obligation or as a blessing and a joy? How is holiness often misunderstood?
- Why is assurance important for the believer? What are the grounds of our assurance?