1 John 1:1–4

Prologue: What Has Been Heard, Seen, and Touched

Every reader familiar with the Gospel of John recognizes the relation of the letter’s prologue to that of the Gospel. The important theological terms and concepts are the same or similar; there is a significant overlap of theological vocabularies. Nevertheless, there are also significant differences, and we shall have to attend to both. Strangely, these differences from the Gospel do not immediately distinguish 1 John as a letter, for there is no conventional greeting.

Although we speak of the Johannine letters, only 2 and 3 John have epistolary salutations and endings. On the other hand, 1 John not only begins like the Gospel but ends abruptly (5:21). Still, the author immediately indicates he is writing to someone (1:4; cf. 2:12). This is a written communication from a Christian leader—he never identifies himself by name or title—to other Christians, presumably a community or church. (In 2 and 3 John the author in the salutation immediately names himself “the Elder,” and in 3 John he also makes it quite explicit that he is addressing a church.)

It may well be that 1 John lacks an epistolary opening precisely in order to evoke the Gospel. Instead of a greeting we find a prologue. By emulating the form of the Gospel’s prologue, the writer immediately calls the reader’s attention to the importance of the relationship of what he is writing to the Gospel. Thus the Epistle immediately evokes and recalls the Gospel, and the priority of the Gospel becomes clear.

Why not the other way around? That is, why should we not regard the Gospel’s prologue as a development of the more or less inchoate expression of 1 John? In ways we shall observe, the prologue of 1 John becomes intelligible on the basis of the Gospel, but without the Gospel 1 John 1:1–4 would be a most enigmatic text. It is over-full and digressive; the syntax is not immediately clear. (Verse 2 might well have been set within parentheses, although the RSV chose dashes.) In light of the Gospel we immediately sense what John 1:1–4 is about, and, indeed, the passage becomes intelligible, not only in itself, but as a kind of commentary upon John 1:1–14.

The very opening phrase “that which was from the beginning” seems to echo John 1:1 “in the beginning,” but there is an important difference. John 1:1 begins a narrative, strange and mysterious though it may be, about the Word (Greek: logos), its being and function with God and its journey into human life and history. It presupposes nothing except the reader’s attention and familiarity with the terms. Without explicitly saying so, 1 John 1:1 seems to assume the narrative of the Gospel and comment upon it. Only at the end of verse 1 does the reader learn that the pronouns (“that which,” “which”; NRSV adopts the more idiomatic English “what”) refer to “the word of life.” Here two fundamental concepts, word and life, familiar from the prologue of the Gospel, are brought together. As John 1:4 makes clear that the Word brought and brings life, so 1 John appropriately brings the two terms together. Yet in verse 2 the subject of the sentence is no longer the word but life. The Christian reader, at least the reader familiar with the Gospel of John, will immediately recognize that “life” has become a way of referring to Jesus.

By writing “word of life,” 1 John evokes another possible reading or understanding. In early Christian vocabulary, “the word” (or word of God) is also the gospel message, the good news about Jesus Christ and the salvation brought through him (Acts 4:4; Phil. 1:14; 1 Thess. 1:6). So the “word of life” is at once a reference to Jesus the Word who is the origin of life and an allusion to the preaching about him. That preaching or message is alluded to in the following verse (v. 2: “testify to it”) and explicitly mentioned in verse 5. (It is worth noticing that RSV and NRSV capitalize “Word” in John 1:1 but not in 1 John 1:1, perhaps reflecting the fact that it is clearly a title of Jesus in the Gospel but not so clearly so in the Epistle.)

“The beginning” in the Gospel (1:1) manifestly is the cosmic beginning, primordial time, so to speak. Here that sense may be alluded to, but emphasis immediately shifts to Christian beginnings. Thus 1 John speaks of what has been heard, seen, looked upon, and touched. The reader remembers the climactic affirmation of John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Probably that is exactly what the author intended. In several ways 1 John’s prologue and the statements following it refer to the incarnation, as Christian theology will call it, and invite the reader to reflect upon its nature and importance.

The parenthetical verse 2, set off by dashes in RSV, describes “the life,” which is the content of the word (v. 1), and emphasizes its manifestation, its having been seen, and the testimony that is borne to it. The NRSV speaks of life’s being “revealed,” as the Greek verb phaneroun is consistently so translated. The life is further defined as the eternal life that was with God (cf. John 1:4). Eternal life as something other than physical, biological life is a recurring theme of the Fourth Gospel particularly and is not foreign to the rest of the New Testament (see Mark 10:17), although the term “eternal life” is less frequent elsewhere. Jesus is the bringer of eschatological life, the life that is final but without end, the life of God’s new age.

The emphasis on seeing, hearing, and proclamation continues (v. 3) as a new concept, fellowship (Greek: koinōnia), is introduced. Only now do we find a finite verb (“we proclaim”) in the prologue, a deficiency that the NRSV remedies by beginning “We declare ...” (v. 1). (Yet in so doing it obscures the initial parallelism with the prologue of the Gospel.) Fellowship may be understood as communion, participation, or partnership. It is set out here as the goal of the proclamation of the gospel. This fellowship is, so to speak, vertical as well as horizontal. That is, it is fellowship with God and Christ and fellowship among people. God in the Johannine literature is very frequently referred to as Father. This is a heritage of Jewish and of Old Testament tradition, but it is also a reflection of Jesus’ own teaching in the Synoptic Gospels as well as John. In the Johannine writings the fatherhood of God is constantly set over against the sonship of Jesus and is a way of expressing their most intimate relationship. This relationship is entered into and shared by believers. It can be called koinōnia, fellowship, but it can also be spoken of in other ways, particularly in terms of abiding in God or Jesus (cf. 2:6, 10; John 14:10–11, 23; 15:7–10). There is a mutual indwelling among Father (God), Son (Christ), and believers that constitutes their fellowship. This fellowship is, to use common Christian parlance, the church—although the term occurs only in the Third Epistle. Interestingly enough, the term “fellowship” is not found in the Gospel, although the idea of mutual abiding or indwelling occurs rather frequently. Thus in the Gospel Jesus’ final prayer stresses the importance of the oneness or unity of believers in God and Christ (17:21, 23; cf. 10:16). Still, the rich concept of koinōnia (fellowship) belongs to 1 John and distinguishes it in the New Testament. (Otherwise, koinōnia appears a dozen or more times in Paul’s letters.) The NRSV emphasizes the importance of this fellowship: “Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Although “truly” translates no Greek word, the emphasis is valid.

The brief prologue of the letter ends on the role of joy (v. 4). John writes in order that “our” (or “your,” depending on the manuscript reading followed) joy may be complete or fulfilled, again a typically Johannine idea. Interestingly enough, in the parable of the true vine in the Gospel an emphasis on abiding in Jesus and his love (1:7–10) is also followed immediately by the promise of joy (v. 11). In all probability the existence of a similar pattern in the Gospel and 1 John 1:3–4 is not coincidental: Abiding in Jesus or his (and God’s) love leads to the ultimate, eschatological joy that is eternal life, the proper goal and fruition of human existence.

As clearly as 1 John 1:1–4 evokes the themes of the prologue of the Gospel, it is both more and less than a commentary on it. Aspects of the Gospel’s prologue do not appear here at all. The role of the Word or Logos in creation (John 1:1–5, 10) is at most alluded to in 1 John 1:1. There is no mention of John the Baptist (John 1:6–8, 15). The theme of light (John 1:4–5, 9) does not figure in 1 John 1:1–4, although it appears later (1 John 2:8–11). Neither does the rejection of Jesus by his people (John 1:11). The Gospel prologue’s related themes of becoming children of God (v. 12), and being born of God (v. 13), while not mentioned in 1 John 1:1–4, are, however, encountered later (3:9–10). The fact that no one has seen God (John 1:18) is not mentioned in 1 John’s prologue, but there is nevertheless a reflection of this theme in 4:12, 20.

In sum, 1 John 1:1–4 is reminiscent of John 1:1–18 but falls short of being a commentary on all of it. The Epistle’s prologue seems to presuppose the Gospel’s but manifests a particular interest only in certain aspects of it. What concerns 1 John particularly is the Gospel’s claim that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14). In fact, most of 1 John 1:1–4 can be understood as an elaboration of this theme. It is probably significant that although in 1:14 the Gospel writer claims to speak on behalf of those who have beheld the incarnate Word’s glory (doxa), there is no mention of this glory in 1 John’s prologue—or in the whole letter for that matter. (In fact, one scarcely glimpses in 1 John the biblical motifs, drawn from Genesis, the Exodus tradition, Isaiah, and elsewhere, that underlie the Gospel.) John does not now wish to emphasize the beholding of Christ’s glory so much as the simple realities of hearing, seeing, and touching, followed by testifying or proclaiming. Primarily, John has in view the visibility and palpability of the Word become flesh.

Apparently, 1 John lays down the lines along which John 1:14 should be interpreted. The Word’s becoming flesh means that Jesus Christ was a real human being, real flesh. The Gospel (1:14) seems to mean this but moves very quickly from the affirmation that the Word became flesh to the claim to have seen his glory. The Epistle, on the other hand, dwells upon the reality of Jesus’ flesh. Jesus was not only audible and visible but tangible. Later on the confession that Jesus has come in the flesh is affirmed, while those who refuse to confess this are condemned as antichrists (4:2–3; 2 John 7). Has the opposition that John faced led him to define the nature and meaning of Christ’s appearing, that is, of the incarnation, more precisely? It would seem so. No longer does it suffice to confess that the Word became flesh. Now the genuineness of that fleshliness must be underscored. If no mention is made of the revelation of the glory, that can be assumed. Probably the opponents agree that the revelation of God in Jesus was glorious.

Quite possibly an emphasis on Christ’s glory has led to a diminution of his humanity. If so, we are witness to (or overhearing) an intra-Johannine debate, in the sense that this is an argument about how the central or climactic affirmation of the Gospel’s prologue is to be understood. Is the emphasis to fall on Christ’s glory in such a way that his humanity is in effect set aside, or is the reality of his fleshly existence the point that must be adhered to at all costs? Obviously 1 John affirms the latter, in all probability against those who would take the interpretation of the Gospel of John in a diametrically opposed direction.

The implications of this passage for Christian teaching are clear enough. We are dealing with a crucial aspect of what has since been called the doctrine of the incarnation. What is at stake here? In 1 John we find a definitive answer to the question of the nature of Jesus and his coming, set out over against a teaching that the author deems not only erroneous but pernicious. Jesus really came in the flesh, and to refuse to affirm this is heresy.

Historic and modern parallels and analogies are not far to seek. The definition of Jesus Christ’s humanity has been and continues to be an important issue in Christology. His humanity is easily affirmed but in fact all too often lost, particularly in attempting to affirm and ensure that he is, to use classical theological language, truly God as well. Can he be both? The confession that he is indeed both has been the classical paradox of Christology. According to the logic of Christian soteriology (doctrine of salvation), Jesus Christ is irrelevant to the human condition if he is not truly human. On the other hand, he will be unable to bring salvation as relief from the human condition of sin and death if he is not at the same time truly God. In verse 2 Christ as life and eternal life is said to be “with the Father”; thus the Gospel (John 1:1) is clearly evoked, where we read that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Yet, as we have seen, 1 John’s most urgent interest is reflected in the insistence upon Jesus’ tangible humanity.

Early in the development of Christian doctrine emphasis was laid on Jesus’ death. His death was the hallmark of his humanity, and his humanity was the necessary presupposition of his death. Through that death, salvation from sin was effected (1 Cor. 15:3; 1 John 2:2). Not surprisingly, toward the end of this letter John appears to underscore the importance of Jesus’ death (5:6) in the face of those who overlook it.

Preaching from this text might well proceed along similar lines, for it affords an admirable basis for preaching on the incarnation. The fact that close examination suggests a controversy behind the text is really no impediment to preaching, for the kind of controversy we discover is directly related to a tension always present in Christology when it is being true to its biblical roots, namely, the tension between Christ’s humanity and divinity. When that tension breaks down in either direction, orthodoxy is threatened and preaching becomes irrelevant or unreal.

Remarkably, the breakdown of that tension is a continuing threat. Very often, exactly at the point or in quarters where Jesus’ divinity is most strenuously extolled, the humanity that he shares with us is lost sight of or threatened. A kind of “Superman Christology” that refuses to contemplate a genuine humanity is as damaging to orthodoxy as its opposite. In such a Christology, Jesus’ humanity becomes only an incognito behind which the true God is hidden. Jesus remains omnipotent and invulnerable, not really subject to the dangers that encompass or threaten us. But according to the New Testament, Jesus was truly human and, as such, subject to the same temptations and perils as we (Heb. 4:15). His humanity was no disguise. His death is eloquent testimony to this fact.

Another aspect of this text is relevant to the task of preaching generally, namely, its heavy emphasis upon the task of witness and proclamation (vv. 2–3). In the Common Lectionary reading, which continues through 2:2, this emphasis is picked up again in 1:5, where John speaks of the “message we have heard from him and proclaim to you,” obviously the message of the gospel. The gospel is realized, actualized as gospel, precisely in the act of proclaiming it. In a quite real sense, this is a text about preaching as well as a text for preaching.

Thus although the Lectionary division of the text (1:1—2:2) appears to overlook the clear division between verses 4 and 5, it has its justification, for 1:5—2:2 elaborates the message about the coming, nature, and work of Jesus, and does so in a way quite typical of John. The division between light and darkness, found so frequently in the Johannine writings and elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Cor. 4:5), appears here and is quickly given an ethical application or interpretation. Whether we walk in light or darkness has everything to do with how we live, particularly in relationship to others, as verses 6 and 7 clearly indicate. The possibility of walking in the light poses the opposite and alternative possibility, walking in darkness, that is, sin. Thus the atoning work of Christ, his dealing with sin, becomes the next theme of the letter. The atonement is, of course, an ancient and central aspect of the primitive Christian preaching (1 Cor. 15:3). Rather distinctively in the Johannine literature, incarnation and atonement are here linked. While 1:1–4 is a discrete unit, and we have treated it as such, the Lectionary division also makes sense, not only theologically, but against the background of the earliest history of Christian preaching.