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JOHN commences without any preliminary introduction. His first words burst forth from the fulness of that which was the soul, the centre of his whole Christian life, that which formed the sum and substance of his preaching and of all his instructions. Taking his readers at once into the midst of that subject, on which no doubt all he had ever had occasion to say to them had turned, he begins by pressing home upon their hearts what had already become familiar to them from his lips; which needed only to be recalled to their remembrance, to be quickened and animated anew, and to be made the centre and axis of their whole christian life. We all remember the old tradition, that when this Apostle, in extreme old age, was carried in the arms of his disciples to the assemblies 20of the church, he did nothing but repeat this one admonition: “Little children, love one another.” When asked the reason, he replied: “Because it is the Lord’s command; and this being done, all is done.” In this single trait, handed down to us by tradition, is fully expressed the peculiar nature and personality of John. It is not the rich variety in the development and expression of ideas, and of their remote relations, which we find in Paul. Here, on the contrary, are a few essential truths, repeated. over and over in simple words, which, as they fell from the lips of Christ himself, had stamped themselves deeply into the susceptible spirit of John, and had become as it were ingrown into his own peculiar nature. With him all proceeds from the direct contemplation of Christ, the God-man, whose living image is ever present to his soul, and to whom he is ever directing alike his hearers and readers. He ceases not to testify of that which he has learned in daily intercourse with him, the divine source of life, and which is to him of all things the most certain. He can find no words strong enough to express the assurance of his conviction, that this divine-human life was a reality. His very 21forms of expression stand forth in strong contrast with that sublimation of the image of Christ by the Docetes, of which we have already spoken.
In his historical representation of Christ’s Messianic labors, he distinguishes himself from the other Evangelists in this respect,—that he does not commence with the immediately preceding historical preparation, the prophetic advent of the Baptizer, nor yet with the beginning of the earthly life of Christ; but rises above the manifestation in time, to that divine Original which revealed itself therein. This characteristic peculiarity of John meets us also here, at the very commencement of this Epistle. No otherwise could John have spoken. The fulness of the divine essence, leading back to the Eternal Source in the invisible God himself, and the human manifestation,—all this he contemplated inseparably and as one. He beholds in Christ the revelation in humanity of Him who is exalted above all time, who had no beginning in time; who, antecedent to all creation, was from the beginning; the Eternal Image of the unknown divine existence. This having now presented itself in human nature to human apprehension, it was necessary that John, in reproducing 22the image of Christ to the view of his readers, should first of all comprehend both these in one; viz. that which was from, the beginning,—and that which had become, to those who witnessed his life on earth, an object of unquestionable physical perception. He begins, not with abstract ideas, but by referring to a fact, the highest of all facts in human history, and to its attestation by personal experience.
Ch. i. 1.] “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.” It is noteworthy, that John here expresses himself in the indeterminate form. We should naturally expect a personal designation of Him who was from the beginning; who in his temporal manifestation had permitted himself to be seen and heard and handled, thus subjecting his reality to the test of all the senses. Yet John expresses himself thus indefinitely: “That which was from the beginning, that which we have seen and heard;” and again afterwards he resumes the same form: “That which we have seen and heard, declare we unto you.” In the intermediate clause also, he designates him not personally, but by 23something relating to him,—“of the word of life.” These expressions, taken in connection, are the very clue which is needed, to introduce us into the peculiar spirit and manner of John. All which he has to say to men proceeds from Christ, and leads back to Christ; it is Christ himself that appears in all; the sole object is to gain Him entrance to the hearts of men, to bring within reach of man that fountain of all true life, the self-communication of Christ. Thus it naturally happens that, in John’s mode of conception, the distinction between the impersonal and the personal is lost from view. That which he has to announce, that which was from the beginning, that which he has seen and heard, is no other than the self-revelation and self-imparting of Him, who was from the beginning.
Ch. i. 2.] John does not immediately carry out this thought, in the form of expression with which he had begun; but interrupting himself, expresses in a new form what was already in his mind and filled his soul while writing the first words: “Of the Word of life (for the Life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that Eternal Life which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us)”.24
What now are we to understand by “the Word of Life”? Shall we, as elsewhere, understand “word” in the sense of announcement? We must then refer it to that original proclamation of the Life, which was made by Christ. Even thus the mind would still be directed to the appearing of Christ himself: as, in what immediately follows, not merely the proclamation of the Life is spoken of, but the manifestation of the life in its self-revelation among men; and also the expression “That which was from the beginning” refers, as we have seen, not merely to an indefinite something, but to Him who was from the beginning. He it is, then, whom we here find represented as the “Word of life.” The mind is thus directed to what John calls “The Word,” at the beginning of his Gospel. Christ himself is the Word, in whom the hidden being of God has revealed itself. Since, in his temporal manifestation as the revelation of God in human nature, he is the perfect expression of the divine nature in human form; this his temporal manifestation is by John referred back to the Eternal Word, in which the hidden being of God originally imaged and revealed itself, became objective to itself,—in which the whole creation 25had its archetype. As the spirit of man, before it reveals itself outwardly in the spoken word, expresses itself to itself, unfolds and becomes objective to itself, in an inner word, the word of self-consciousness; so in God, this Word of his eternal self-revelation is to be distinguished from his hidden, unfathomable being. It was this Word which was from the beginning. It is this Word which John calls “the Word of Life.” By life here he understands the divine life originating in God, proceeding from him alone as the only true life. Since now all communication of life from God is through the medium of this Word, it is itself the fountain of true life, and John calls it absolutely the Word of Life. He then proceeds, under this form of conception, to express what he had in mind at his opening words, what he wished to testify to his readers as something made certain to him by personal observation and experience. Having designated Christ as himself the Word of Life, he adds, under the same form of thought, the declaration that the Life absolutely, He whose nature is life, the divine life-fountain, has revealed itself in a human manifestation. He claims to have been an eye-witness of this self-revelation of the Life. 26The eternal Life itself, which as the Word was hidden with the Father, has appeared in a self-revelation in humanity;—such, and no other than this, was the appearing of Christ. John testifies of that eternal Life, which appeared in Christ in order to impart itself to men; to impart to them this life which constitutes His whole being, and whose fountain he himself is. This it was the object of John’s testimony to make known.
Having, therefore, been himself an eye and ear-witness of the self-revelation of that eternal Life which seeks to impart itself to man, John declares what he has seen and heard, that those who hear may be led by it into that divine fellowship of life in which all are to become one. By the “fellowship with us,” which he represents as the object for which he declares this, he means fellowship with those who testified, as original eye-witnesses, of the eternal Life which had made its appearance in humanity; a fellowship therefore derived from 27that original fellowship with the divine life-fountain so revealed, a fellowship with the Apostles grounded in fellowship with Christ. All fellowship of believers with one another, in the Apostle’s view, springs from that original fact of fellowship with Christ. Thus is formed his conception of the Church.
This is of special importance as a guard against the tendency, which is ever reappearing, to externalize the idea of the church, to attach an undue value to a certain visible organization; while it is forgotten that fellowship with Christ is the main point, the essential element of the whole true church,—which, issuing from this source, grounded in this fellowship, may appear in a variety of outward forms. We must ever bear in mind that where this fellowship exists, there, whatever defects may still cleave to it, is a true church; as indeed there is no form of divine manifestation in sinful human nature wholly free from defect.
In explanation of what he understands by this fellowship, the Apostle immediately adds; “And truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
Ch. i. 4.] Fellowship with the Father, who can be truly 28known as Father only in this self-revelation through the Son, is here represented as effected through the medium of fellowship with the Son. And since in this fellowship is grounded that eternal divine life, in which alone true blessedness and joy can be found; John represents it as the object of his whole preaching, as likewise of this Letter (intended to revive in their hearts the contents of that preaching, in opposition to all the corruptions and impurities of which we have spoken) to promote that joy: “And these things write we unto you that your joy may be full.” All impurities and corruptions of the christian’s inward and outward life, must also introduce disturbance into the joy or blessedness grounded in the divine fellowship of life with Christ. In this pastoral Letter, designed to avert such a danger, what he seeks is this: that their joy may be full, that in fellowship with Christ they may find their full joy.
Ch. i. 5.] In this Epistle, promises and the stipulated condition of their fulfilment, that which is to be performed on the part of those to whom the promises are addressed, are presented in constant interchange. With religious truth there is 29always connected a practical application to the moral conduct and course of life; and nothing is said in reference to the latter which is not deducible from the former. As in his opening words, where he speaks as an eye-witness of the appearing of Christ, John plainly has reference to that erroneous sublimation of the Idea of Christ; so here when he is speaking of the practical, we cannot fail to perceive an implied reprehension of that secularized Christianity of custom and habit. “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you: That God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
First of all, he represents God under an image which they had doubtless often heard from his own m1outh, as he too had received it from the lips of Christ: “God is light, and in him is no darkness.” His nature is light; from Him all darkness is excluded. He is the opposite of all darkness. Light, in the Holy Scriptures, and especially in the writings of John, is often used as the image of the Divine; darkness, on the other hand as the image of the Undivine. Truth, holiness, bliss, all these may be designated as light, since they all belong to the nature of the Divine; 30as falsehood, wickedness, and misery form the characteristics of the Undivine. What is particularly represented by the image of light in this passage, will appear from the exhortation which is founded on it. It enjoins a course of life contrary to all that is unholy, and the ground-thought must therefore be, that the nature of God is holiness; all that is unholy is alien to him.
Ch. i. 6, 7.] From this view of the divine nature, the Apostle now deduces what is required as the condition of standing in fellowship with God; the signs by which this fellowship will manifest itself in the life; and on the other hand, by what signs it is to be known that no such fellowship exists. “If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
The thought here lying at the basis is this: that since all spiritual fellowship presupposes an affinity of nature, and this inward fellowship of nature must also have an outward manifestation in the life; so no fellowship with God can exist without a life 31conformed to God. Since then God is light, fellowship with him must manifest itself through a life which is full of light; fellowship with the God whose nature is holiness, through a holy course of life. John does not here mean a quality of the life-walk required for the first attainment of fellowship with God; but assuming this divine fellowship of life, received through faith in the Redeemer, as already existing, his object is to point out the tests, whether the claim to such a fellowship be true or false,—whether the Christianity which is professed be a true, or merely a seeming and pretended one. This thought is expressed, in John’s peculiar manner, both in the negative and affirmative form. Ile first says, in opposition to that mere seeming Christianity, that he who leads an ungodly life, and yet claims to be in fellowship with God, thereby makes himself guilty of a lie. Full of significance is the expression, “We do not the truth”; an expression belonging to the depth of conception peculiar to John. With him truth is not limited in its application to speech merely; it embraces the entire life. The entire life has its root either in falsehood or in truth. Truthfulness in speech is but 32one index of that truth which embraces, fills, vitalizes the whole inner and outer life. Hence, of one who makes claim to something which is contradicted by his course of life it is said, that his whole life is alien from the truth, that he does not practice the truth, that his life is chargeable with falsehood. Speech appears also as an action;—“We do not the truth.”
In contrast with this, John designates “Walking in the Light,” in holiness, as a mark of fellowship with God who is in the light, who reveals himself in holiness. “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, then have we fellowship one with another.” He does not speak here directly of fellowship with God, but of the fellowship of believers with one another; but in this is necessarily presupposed fellowship with God through Christ, as that from which the fellowship of believers with one another first proceeds. John thus distinguishes between those who belong, as true members, to the fellowship of Christians (in other words to the church, a designation never used by John) and those who belong to it only in appearance and not in truth, those whose pretensions are contradicted by their ungodly life. 33Fellowship with God, as effected through Christ, and the fellowship of believers with each other, is here one and the same thing.
If now the life of believers while here on earth were already a perfect fellowship with God, if their course of life were a walking in the light free from darkness of every kind, and unstained by any farther act of sin, then John would have had no occasion to add anything more. But he was well aware that even in believers, although their life is in its determining tendency a walking in the light, yet the dark, the sinful, still mingle with it their disturbing influence; the former stand-point of darkness and sin, from which redemption has set them free, still remains in its effects. Hence, this “walking in the light” must be developed in a continuous conflict with the former darkness; from the light already received, the whole life must be gradually transformed into light. And hence, in reference to that sinfulness which still cleaves to the believer and opposes itself to the light, he says, that where that walking in the light exists as the determining tendency, the mark of fellowship with God, there the blood of 34Jesus Christ will make known its purifying efficacy, its power to cleanse from all still inhering sin.
In the purification through the blood of Christ, we are obviously not to understand the blood of. Christ literally, nor an outward literal purification by it, anymore than the sprinkling of the conscience with the blood of Christ, spoken of in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is to be so understood. Only a spiritual cleansing can here be meant, and consequently only a spiritual means of cleansing. It is necessary to refer back the sensible imagery to the thought imaged therein. It is the language of the Holy Scriptures, the language of life; according to which one characteristic of the whole is put for the whole itself; and especially is that which appears as the crowning point put for the whole with all its characteristics, so that the single characteristic must be conceived of in that connection, in union with the sum of all the others, in order to be rightly understood. The blood of Christ, then, must be conceived of in its full significance, as it was present to the view of the Apostle, viz. as both a Doing and a Suffering; it being on the one hand a suffering for the guilt of humanity, and presenting on the other, in the perfect holiness of 35the life of Christ, an offset to the sin of humanity, a thought which we shall hereafter find still further developed in other expressions of John. Since now this suffering of Christ, once for all, possesses this redeeming and purifying significance, it continues to perform its work in all those who through faith enter into fellowship with Christ, till all in them that is sinful shall be cleansed away, and all be transformed into light. In this idea of purification two distinct things are included; namely, first, that the sin which yet remains shall no longer form a hindrance to fellowship with God, it shall be as if already done away,—the forgiveness of sins; and secondly, that the still operating sinful element shall actually be more and more cleansed away,—the progressive purification of the whole life. All this is an ever progressing appropriation of the once perfected redemption.
So in what John here says, we find two different things expressed. It is assumed that there is sin yet cleaving to those who are walking in light; though in fellowship with Christ, they are still in constant need of redemption through him, in constant need of him as the Redeemer; that we who are walking in the light with Christ in us, have 36also still need of Christ for us. To those who, while walking uprightly in the light, are yet daily conscious to themselves of the still remaining influence of sin; who cannot but perceive in their own life much whereby the light which is in them is darkened, and who might be disquieted in conscience, when told that only those who walk in the light can stand in fellowship with God who is Light; to them is offered the consoling assurance of entire purification from their yet inhering sin. But the Apostle guards also against the self-deception of those, who trust to purification through the blood of Christ without a course of life corresponding to such an expectation, without the outward signs of an inward divine fellowship of life through Christ. Only those are to expect this purification, who, through the determining tendency of their lives, make it manifest that they stand in that divine fellowship and are sanctified thereby. Thus the close connection between the Christ in us and the Christ for us, is here indicated.
Ch. i. 8.] But it is the Apostle’s aim to meet the mistake on both sides; on the one hand, as held by who suppose they may trust to Christ those who suppose they may trust to Christ 37for us, without the Christ in us; and on the other, by those who think that with the Christ in us, there is no longer need of the Christ for us, and who look upon themselves as already free from sin. He therefore continues to urge, in opposition to the latter view, the still remaining need of redemption on the part of the sanctified: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” If then those who are walking in the light, suppose themselves to be already entirely free from sin, feel not the perpetual consciousness of its still indwelling power; this to John is an indication of self-deception, a token that the truth has not yet become the ruling element in the inner and outer life. It is clear that he here makes no exception, that he includes himself also among those who are still defiled with sin.
Ch. i. 9, 10.] The two succeeding verses have reference also to the believer’s ever-continued need of redemption and purification. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”38
The ground for the believer’s confidence, under this consciousness of still inhering sin, is thus presented by the Apostle in the faithfulness and righteousness of God. For the faithfulness of God includes in itself his truthful fulfilment of the promises which he has given. It necessarily implies, that what he has promised he will certainly bestow, provided only that believers on their part meet the condition affixed to the fulfilment of the promise. By the faithfulness of God is meant, the harmony of his action with itself and with his own nature. It is implied therein, that Ile will certainly perform what his word, his promises, the wants implanted in the soul and waked into conscious life by his providence, have taught men to expect from Him; that his dealings with men will certainly be in accordance with the wants and expectations thus excited; that in his dealings all parts will correspond, beginning middle and end will be in harmony; no contradiction, no discord in any part. Since then God is truth, it must follow as a necessary consequence that, having through his word, through the sending of the Redeemer and his sufferings for humanity, through the influence of his spirit upon their 39hearts, promised forgiveness of sin to those who believe; he will assuredly suffer nothing of this to fail, he will fulfil the promise which he has given, if they will but conform to the conditions with which the promise is connected. But righteousness is here conjoined with faithfulness. This might at first seem strange. We should rather expect that forgiveness of sins would be represented as an act of divine love and mercy. But we must here seek for a relation, according to which forgiveness of sin can properly be ascribed to the divine righteousness. The true index to the Apostle’s meaning is found in the union here of faithfulness with righteousness. Righteousness, then, must here be understood in a sense akin to faithfulness. Now we call him righteous who gives to each one his own, to each his due, what his position, the relation in which he stands to the other, give the right to expect. God’s righteousness is manifested in the observance of the laws which he has himself established in the moral world. Its office is the administration of these laws. Redemption, the forgiveness of sin, is indeed primarily the work of divine love; yet, that provision being once brought about through his 40love and mercy, the divine righteousness now reveals itself in the observance of the laws, according to which redemption and forgiveness are to be bestowed on man,—in the administration of the order established in the work of redemption. God, the Righteous, gives to each what belongs to him; he truly performs what the redeemed, as such, have reason to expect of him under the given conditions. The original provision is the fruit of divine love; the administration of its established laws, the work of divine righteousness. Hence, in this view, the divine righteousness stands in close relation to the divine faithfulness; and is the pledge that if the redeemed fulfil the laws, the conditions, according to which and under which forgiveness is to be imparted, God will truly bestow on them the forgiveness promised, will complete what he has begun, that he will do his part if the redeemed do theirs.
The condition to be fulfilled on the part of the believer, is expressed in the words: “If we confess our sins.” Of course it is not an outward confession of sin which is here spoken of, but an inward act, grounded in the whole inward direction of the spirit; as that which is thereby to be appropriated 41and received, that for which man is thereby to be made meet, is also something purely inward. It is therefore that inward confession of sin before God,—the consciousness of sin both in, general, and in its manifestation in particular sinful acts,—whereby, in a spiritual sense, man draws near to God. In this it is necessarily implied, that he is deeply penetrated with the sense of still inhering sin; recognizes the sinful as such in all its single forms; and with a deep feeling of sorrow on account of it, begs of God forgiveness of sin and purification from all remaining sinful tendency. All communications of God to man,—man, to whom God imparts himself not after a law of natural necessity, not by a process of constraint, but as to a being gifted with freedom,—are conditioned on his own voluntary acceptance, the free surrender of himself to the divine communication. As in the words of our Lord, God is represented as giving only to those who pray (and prayer is nothing else than this direction of the spirit towards God in the feeling of personal want) so here, confession of sin is made the necessary condition of that gift of God, which consists in the forgiveness of sin, as evidence of the free appropriating acceptance 42of the blessing. With forgiveness of sin is here conjoined the cleansing from all unrighteousness. This would not have been added, unless something new, something additional, were to be designated by it; as indicated by the emphatic expression: “from all unrighteousness.” We cannot but perceive that a distinction is here made between forgiveness of sin, and the progressive work of purification from all remaining sin. With the forgiveness of past sin, is necessarily connected purification from all the sin which still remains, as a security against relapse into like sins.
To that affirmative proposition, the negative is now added. With the confession of sin is contrasted the boastful declaration, and of course the inward view and feeling which dictates it: “We have no sin.” This implies first, that he who says it is wholly unconscious of still inhering sin, that he regards himself as sinless. In this again two things are included, viz. first, that he has no understanding of what is implied in a sinless state, of the true nature of that holiness for which man was created, and for which lie is to be new created, to be born again; and that he has not rightly compared himself with that standard which he is required 43to reach, has not examined and tested himself by the model of the divine word, in the mirror of the divine law, in the divine light. And secondly, it is implied that he does not recognize the sinful as such in its particular acts, but has learnt to palliate it to himself, to deceive his conscience in regard to it. The guilt and the perverseness of such a position is now represented by the Apostle as consisting in this, viz. that it makes God a liar; that is, by such a position we show that we regard God as a liar, we deny him as the God of truth. First, inasmuch as the word of God uniformly represents us as sinners, and seeks to awaken in us a consciousness of our sins; we, by declaring that we have no sin, accuse the word of God, and God himself speaking through it, of falsehood. Secondly, since God in sending to us Jesus as the Redeemer from sin, has thereby declared that we are ever in need of continued redemption; we make him guilty of a lie,—asserting by this position of ours, that although it is through Christ we have attained to our present state of religious development, yet as being now sinless, we are no longer in need of him as Redeemer. Hence the Apostle charges upon such, 44that the word of God is not in them; an expression equivalent to the former declaration, that the truth is not in them. By it is meant, that the word of God does not dwell in such as the animating principle of their inner life, or that they do not dwell in it; which is one with saying that the truth dwells not in them as their life-element, that their life is alienated from the truth. Though in their external profession they acknowledge the word of God, they have not given it an abode in their inner life and consciousness. Their judgment of themselves is in contradiction to it. The word of God is to them a merely external thing.45
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