The apostles as eyewitnesses
John begins very strongly. It is evident he has something important to say, and he arrests our attention from the outset. He is not an isolated witness of that to which he is about to testify, for he repeatedly strengthens his statements by the word ‘we’. By this he identifies himself with the other apostles of whom Peter could say, “We did not follow cunningly devised fables … we were eyewitnesses” (2 Pet. 1:16). To them were entrusted the “many infallible proofs” relating to the Lord’s presence on earth, not only before His death, but also during the forty days after He arose from the dead, and with their combined authority John now writes: “That which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life” (1:1). This statement is John’s starting-point. Let us examine its terms.
“We have heard.” It is in John’s gospel that we find recorded more actual sayings of the Lord Jesus Christ than in any of the other three. The others record in the main what the Lord did and where He went, but John records much more of what He actually said. John is putting on record what he heard. That is good, but not everyone will accept the evidence of hearing alone; they want some thing more. So to this which was heard is added further evidence.
“We have seen.” What had the apostles seen of Him? In the first place they had seen Him with the features of an ordinary man. They had seen Him wearied when He sat by the well of Sychar (John 4:6) and when He was asleep in the boat (Matt. 8:24). They had seen Him hungry when He looked for fruit on the fig tree, and had heard Him speak of thirst at the well and on the cross. It is not, however, these elements in the human life of our Lord that John wants to assure us they had seen; it is rather the presence of something else in the midst of the human.
The apostle had also seen Him raise the dead in the house of Jairus, and outside the village of Nain. They had seen a woman with twelve years’ sickness made immediately whole by just touching His garments. They had seen five loaves and two fishes in His hands become more than enough to feed five thousand people. These were but a few of the things they had seen which had convinced them that He possessed something as yet unknown to them. He was divine as well as human; He possessed more than human life; they were seeing Him who came from above, the Only begotten of the Father.
“We beheld.” To behold is not quite the same as to see. It implies that we contemplate, gaze upon, look steadily at something. This refers no doubt to the transfiguration, where the apostles on the mount beheld the unveiling of Christ, and saw His glory (Mark 9:5-8). John describes this afterwards in the words, “We beheld His glory” (John 1:14).
The eternal Word of life, who was veiled for thirty years in human flesh, was then for a moment unveiled. Those with Him on the mount beheld; they stood there gazing on His glory. Peter asserts “we were eye-witnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16) and now John, by his use here of the word beheld, tells us it was a displaying of Him that enabled them to be sure they were seeing aright.
“Our hands handled.” That surely is convincing. If we doubt the evidence of our ears and eyes—and men may perhaps be mistaken in what they hear and see—we can certainly trust the evidence of our hands. So now John brings the further evidence of handling (which is more than just touching) to confirm the authority with which he speaks about the Lord Jesus: Our hands handled Him. You cannot handle a phantom. “Handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye behold me having” (Luke 24:39). “Reach hither thy hand, and put it into my side, and be not faithless, but believing.” (John 20:27-29).
The life is for us
What is John seeking to prove? It is that “the life was manifested” (1:2) and was recognizable, not as something far off and remote, but as something within our reach. Nor is it reserved to the Lord Jesus only; it is for us also. This life has been “from the beginning” in Him, but it is manifested to us, to be seen and appropriated by us and to be recognised in us. This life has been displayed, and it is real and true. It has not passed and gone, but is eternal and incorruptible. This divine life has been manifested in the Lord Jesus Christ, and this life is for us. “The life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us” (1:2).
When the Lord said, “Handle me and see” (Luke 24:39), He wanted His disciples to understand that here was something for them. Not only were they being given evidence that it was He Himself risen from the dead. They were to know too that that which was manifested in Him was now available to them also. The life is for us.
How can we claim to be in the family of God? How can we know that we are born from above? Is it because we repeat the creed or the Lord’s prayer, or have observed certain ordinances? No. It is by the possession of eternal life, and by the evidences which that life produces. Eternal life was in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, but now it is offered to us. His family must all partake of the same life. What is it that conforms us to Christ? What is it that reproduces His likeness in us? It is this life, this eternal life in Christ that John so constantly speaks about. Because it is the same life that He possessed it therefore produces the same likeness in us. By it the children of God are manifest. By it we can be recognised by others, and by it we can recognise them too, and can say of this one or of that one, “He is in the family of God.” What is the great characteristic of this dispensation of the beginning to which reference is so often made in this epistle? (2:7; 3:11). It is the glorious fact that that same life which was once in Christ Jesus alone is now found to be present in every believer in Him.
The means of fellowship
John goes on to describe what results from the possession of that life. He writes of fellowship: “That ye also may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1:3). Fellowship means sharing together; partaking of something together in which those concerned have mutual pleasure. This was not always our experience. We do not naturally love the things that God loves, or find pleasure in thinking of the things He thinks of. But when we are born of God, and become partakers of His life, we share His feelings, His affections, His desires. This is the fellowship spoken of here. It is fellowship in His thoughts and feelings; fellowship in His regard for others.
The Son repeatedly speaks of such a fellowship as existing between Himself and the Father: “All things have been delivered unto me of my Father and no one knoweth the Son save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27). “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father doing; for what things soever he doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner. For the Father loveth the Son, and showeth him all things that himself doeth” (John 5:19,20). “I know him and keep his word” (John 8:55). “I am in the Father, and the Father in me; the words that I say unto you, I speak not from myself; but the Father abiding in me doeth his works” (John 14: 10). But now John goes further when he writes of a fellowship with the Father which is for us as we share with Him, both in His pleasure in the Son, and in His thoughts and feelings for others also.
What did our Lord mean when He said repeatedly regarding Himself while on earth, “I and my Father are one”? He meant not only that they were united as one Person, but that His life and sacrifice demonstrated that they were one in mind: that as Father and Son they loved together, they saw together, they felt together, they thought together, they gave together. All was mutual, the Father with the Son and the Son with the Father; and not only ‘with’ but ‘in‘: the Son in the Father and the Father in the Son; the Son delighting in, and being satisfied with the Father, and the Father finding His delight and satisfaction in the Son. Now, John says, all this is for us. This life, the eternal life of which the children of God partake, brings us into just such a fellowship with God, and John writes about it because he wants us to know an about it and to enjoy it to the full.
Then he goes further and speaks of “fellowship with us” (3:3), reminding us that we cannot fully enjoy these things by ourselves alone. What we may have in the secret place alone with the Lord should be shared—indeed it must be shared—with others. A single individual man or woman, aloof and shut away from others, can never be a happy person. Our happiness comes in sharing. It comes in our having something we can enjoy in company with others. Sharing with others the good things we delight in and possess is what makes our joy full. Those who possess the divine life which has been manifested in the Son, know the Father and the Son—and one another—in quite a new way. The Lord Jesus said, “This is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). This statement makes it clear that life is knowledge, or, in the words of our present passage, that by this life we have fellowship, we have mutual knowledge of one another’s thoughts, feelings and desires. It is a family feature; something common to the Father, the Son and all the other children. By it again “the children of God are manifest”.