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The Word of Life Appeared to Us

Series: 1 John

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 7, 2003

1 John 1:1-4

I invite you to turn with me to 1 John, verses 1-4. Today we are beginning a new sermon series on the little books of 1, 2, and 3 John. Our focus is going to be on the Christian life. We want to consider how true Christians are manifested by what they believe and how they relate to one another in the world, and by how they live. We want to show how the Christian life is the outworking of the Triune life of God in us and is the expression of our being adopted as children into the very household of God.

The letters of John not only give us a glimpse of what church life was like at the end of the first century. They not only give us an insight into some of the struggles that were experienced by local churches in Asia Minor, maybe right around Ephesus at the end of the first century. They deal with a very important contemporary issue, the issue of the Christian life. And in particular, they deal with Christian assurance and Christian identity. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does a Christian look like? How can you tell the real Christian from someone who is merely a professing Christian? How do you go about getting assurance that you are in Christ, that you are truly trusting in Christ, that you have a saving relationship with Christ? John addresses just those kinds of issue. Few books provide a more timely diagnostic for the Christian Church at the dawn of the 21st century than 1 John.

Many of you are getting ready to study Don Whitney's excellent book, Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health. Well, 1 John is sort of an apostolic Don Whitney. He's addressing just those kinds of things. He's supplying us with material for self-examination designed not to unsettle us in the faith, but to make us to be assured rightly–to be confident in our resting and trusting in Jesus Christ. And you get this explicitly from John.

Since you've already got your fingers at 1 John 1, turn forward just a couple of chapters and look at 1 John 5:13. John tells you why he's writing the book. “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God in order that you may know that you have eternal life.” It's clear that he's writing in order to bolster our assurance. Now compare that to the gospel of John. Turn to John 20:31. In the gospel of John, John is writing for an evangelistic purpose. He wants people to come to faith in Christ. He wants them to know that Jesus is the Christ, He is the Son of God, and he wants people to believe in Jesus. And he tells you this in the gospel of John 20:31. “These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God and that believing you may have life in His name.” In other words, his goal is conversion.

In 1 John 5:13, he tells you that his goal is assurance. “These things that I have written to you who believe…” So he's writing to those who already believe the things that he wanted them to believe based on the gospel of John. “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know you have eternal life.” The goal is assurance. The goal is confidence in salvation.

Now, 1 John explains how the Christian life is essentially fellowship with the triune God, and through that fellowship, fellowship with all true Christians. And John gives several tests. In fact, he gives three specific tests of whether one has fellowship with the living God. He gives a doctrinal test, a relational test, and a moral test. The doctrinal test is, “Do you believe what the gospel says about Jesus Christ? Do you believe what the apostles have taught about Jesus Christ?” The relational test is, “Do you love the brethren? Do you have a real love for your fellow Christians? Are you mutually committed to one another? Do you have a shared life?” Then there is a moral test. “Are you living in accordance with God's Word?” And John shows that true sonship, far from simply being a passive state in which we subjectively enjoy the glorious fact of our adoption in Jesus Christ, that true sonship mobilizes us for service, for love, for obedience, for belief. One of the hallmarks of John is that he shows how Christian life flows from the person and work of Jesus Christ. So if we are to live the Christian life, we are to appropriate the grace which flows from the person and work of Christ.

In these letters John is writing to Christians who have been troubled by false teachers. And in these letters he is addressing the teaching of these false prophets that was producing various kinds of effects in the church. The false teachers had produced the attitudes and the idea that doctrine wasn't that important. One of their mottos would have been, “Doctrine divides but experience unites.” And so their teaching, that derivated from that of the Apostles, would have produced the idea that it wasn't really that important what we believed about Jesus as long as we profess that name and we proclaim to be Christians. John writes to address that.

Many of these false teachers were suggesting that we need to rethink what the church was teaching about Jesus, and John writes to address that particular aspect. Many of these false teachers were suggesting that there were other ways to true knowledge of God other than through Jesus.

Many of these false teachers were introducing new teachings that were key to spiritual experience. They would say, “Unless you understand this secret, which even the Apostles didn't know, but which has been revealed to me by the Holy Spirit, you can't live the fullness of the Christian life. But once you understand my secret, then you can find true fullness and joy.” And John was writing to respond to them. Basically, these false teachers were discounting self-denying love; they were discounting world-denying godliness; and they were discounting Christ's exalting faith. And John wrote to address those problems; he responds in this little book. He writes to both refute the false teaching and to encourage maturity in the faith and in the certainty of hope. Before we hear God's Word, let's pray for His blessing, that His Spirit would illumine our minds as we hear it read and preached.

O Lord, this is Your Word. It is Your eternal Word. It is truth unchanged and unchanging. Help us to receive it as Your Word, to believe it as Your revelation and truth, to understand it by Your Spirit as it is both read and explained, and to embrace it by faith. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear God's word.

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have beheld and our hands handled concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us–what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired, inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Picture this setting. A world where people don't believe in absolute truth, where even Christians are relativists, where theologians are uncertain about Jesus, where new spiritualities are proliferating, where the idea that there is only one way of salvation is considered outmoded, backwards, narrow, ignorant. What world are we describing? Today, of course–right? True, but I really had in mind John's day. You may be asking yourself, “Can the gospel work in that kind of environment where no one believes, or few believe in absolute truth, where Christians are relativists, where even Christian theologians are uncertain about Jesus, where new spiritualities are proliferating, where the idea of one way of salvation is viewed as outmoded. Can the Christian proclamation work in that kind of environment?

We feel ourselves to be in that environment today. Christian pollsters tell us that something like 60% of self-identified evangelical Christians don't believe in absolute truth. Can the gospel proclamation work in that kind of environment? The answer is an emphatic, “Yes, it already has.” Because what I've just described to you is not just a description of today, it's the description of the Greco-Romans world in the time of John. Pluralism, relativism–they were the dominant ways of the day and the gospel conquered that world.

John is writing to Christians in Asia Minor that were living in just as uncertain and just as changing a time as you and I are living in. And he was saying to them, “Look, I know that you are unsettled in your confidence in the gospel because of this ever-changing world and the plethora of truth claims that it's making, or the plethora of truth denials that it's making. I know that you are unsettled when you come and hear people say things different about Jesus than I taught you. I know that you are unsettled when they say that there are other ways to a true knowledge of God other than through a faith relationship with Jesus Christ. I know that you are unsettled when they make different kinds of claims about Jesus Christ, and therefore, I'm writing to you.”

And look what he says here. He basically says, “Look, I knew Jesus.” I touched Him. I saw Him. I heard Him. I knew who He was; I know who He is; I know what He taught; and I'm reinforcing that with you today. I want you to be confident in what we have said is the message of Jesus in His person and His work because I saw Him. I touched Him, I handled Him, and I laid my head on His chest. He spoke to me; He called me His ‘beloved disciple’–you can be confident.

I’ll never forget the time, somewhere in the bowels of the New College Library in Edinburgh, Scotland, coming across Irenaeus’ work, Against All Heresies, written perhaps about 180 AD. I came across a passage where Irenaeus was recounting the story of sitting in a classroom in the city of Smyrna in Asia Minor, being taught by a man that he identified only as an elder. This elder was teaching them Christian theology, and in the course of teaching them Christian theology, at one point the elder had paused and said that in that very room John had taught him Christian theology. And I remember the feeling of being close to the New Testament as a man spoke about learning the gospel from a man who had learned the gospel from a man who had written the gospel.

Well, what John is saying here is even dearer and more glorious than that. He is saying that when you hear the gospel from me, you’re hearing the gospel from a man who knew Jesus, who saw Jesus, who heard Jesus, who touched Jesus, who knows who Jesus is and who knows what Jesus taught. And so, he's speaking to you so that you might be confident about the gospel and about Christ and about what it means to be a Christian.

You know, it's interesting for us to begin in 1 John following on Ecclesiastes, because 1 John supplies the fuller answer to the blessed life that has been pointed to by the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. If Ecclesiastes is the question, then 1 John is the answer to the question. If Ecclesiastes says you can't find the blessed life apart from God, but you can find it in God and in faith in Him, John supplies a fuller answer and description as to what the blessed life is with God.

There are several things that I want you to see as we look at this prologue together today. In these opening words, John sets forth themes that he's going to return to again and again in order to strengthen the Christian life and Christian assurance. Let's look at four or five of them together.

I. The pre-existence of the Word — the Messenger and the message.
First of all in verse 1: “What was from the beginning.” Let's just stop right there. When he says, “What was from the beginning,” you think initially that he is going to talk about only a message. Notice how he uses “what” over and over. What was from the beginning; what we have heard; what we have seen; what we have looked at concerning the Word of Life. It could sound as if initially that he's only talking about a message, but it's also clear that when he begins to speak about hearing, seeing, looking, touching, a life being manifested (verse 2), seeing, testifying, and proclaiming to you the eternal life which was with the Father and which was manifested to us, it is clear that he is speaking both about Jesus, the messenger of eternal life; and the message of eternal life, the gospel of Jesus, the gospel about Jesus, the gospel proclaimed by the disciples. And when he says, “What was from the beginning,” he is pointing to you both to the pre-existence of Jesus, the Word. Before Jesus was proclaimed in the world, he is saying, Jesus already existed. And he's also drawing your attention to the permanence of the message of Jesus. The apostles didn't make up that Word; it was from the beginning.

You remember how he begins his gospel? And by the way, I would encourage you to go home this afternoon and read the prologue to the gospel of John, especially down to verse 14, and then compare it with say the first eight verses of 1 John, because when you’re reading 1 John 1, John expects you to remember what he said to you in John 1. When he says, “In the beginning” or “from the beginning” he's wanting you to realize that the message of the gospel is an old, old story. He wants you to know that the messenger and the message are rooted in eternity. And pastorally, this serves to discount those who were in that congregation trying to sell a new and improved version of spirituality, a new and improved version of Christianity. He is saying that the gospel message is eternal in origin; it's rooted in the Word of Life Himself. It's thus fixed and unchanging, and therefore, it is not novel at all, though it is everlastingly fresh. He's saying, “If someone shows up in your sanctuary, telling you that they've got a new truth that no one has ever known for these last two thousand years, you know immediately that they are liars.” The story of the gospel is an old, old story and it doesn't change. It's the same because it's rooted in the eternal word of life.” In other words, he's saying that the Christian message wasn't invented yesterday. It's unchangeably rooted in eternity and therefore, there is a stability and fixity to the gospel message that is rooted in the pre existent word of life. So he immediately begins to address those who are bringing out new gospels and new spiritualities by saying, “Look, the truth is old as eternity, because it's the Word of Life that we speak and it was from the beginning.” That's the first thing he wants to say.

II. The blessed life was manifested, objectively, in the flesh of Jesus.
Then in verse 2, he wants to point to the truth that truth and life are found in Jesus. Actually in verse 2, John is pausing in his flow of thought. In many of your translations there will be an em dash right after the phrase “word of life” in verse 1. Because John has so many things to say it is just coming out spontaneously, and he wants to zero in on a particular truth in verse 2. Then he’ll go back to his train of thought and, in many of your translations, you’ll see another em dash starting out verse 3. Verse 2 is a very important pause though, because in it he says that the blessed life, the joyful life, the meaningful life, eternal life and fellowship with God was manifested objectively in Jesus Christ. Here's how he puts it. “The life was manifested and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us.” He pauses and he is telling you that the eternal word entered our space and time and was made manifest to men. In particular, he is stressing that we, that apostles, have seen and testify and proclaim the Jesus who was visibly manifested in the flesh.

Now, this is not the first time he said this. He said it in verse 1, he’ll say it again in verse 3. Notice his language. “What we have seen with our eyes, beheld and with our hands handled.” Look at verse 2. “What we have seen, bear witness and proclaim to you was manifested to us.” Verse 3. “What we have seen and heard and proclaim to you also.”

Over and over John is saying that we, the apostles, knew Him. We saw Him. We heard Him. We touched Him. We know Him and His message, and you can be confident in what we are saying. The great Christian theologian, Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa in the fourth century had three great wishes. One of those great wishes was that he could have seen Jesus when he was in the flesh on this earth. John is saying here, “I did. And this is who He was, and this is what He is like, and this is what He taught, and this is the way of salvation.” And that truth is especially poignant in light of 1 Peter 1:8, “…and though you have not seen Him, you love Him. And though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him.” You see, that's all of us. We love and believe in a Savior we've never seen.

But John is saying, “I saw Him in the flesh, and you can be confident that He is exactly who the Word says He is because He's the Word of Life and the Scriptures are his words of life about the Word of Life.” And John is saying here that Jesus is the objective truth and revelation of God in His space-time incarnation, we have seen the blessed life and he's testifying that truth and life are found in Jesus.

III. The proclamation of truth for the production of fellowship.
Thirdly, we see another thing. In verse 3, we see that the purpose of John's preaching and the purpose of the apostles’ proclamation was that we would have true fellowship, that is, shared life together in Christ. Notice what he says. “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also so that you may have fellowship with us.” And indeed, our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. The purpose of the apostles’ preaching is explained here. It was for the creation of a fellowship between brothers and sisters in Christ in which we share life, we are mutually committed, we are mutually accountable, we believe that same truth, we are committed to the same mission, we are in love with the same Lord, we are trusting the same God, we are proclaiming the same gospel. And he says, “We proclaim this so that you may have fellowship with us.”

Notice when he says that “you may fellowship with us,” the stress is not on having fellowship with one another, but it is having fellowship with the apostles, so that you may have fellowship with us. The only way that you can have fellowship in the Church is to believe what the apostles have taught about Jesus Christ. And he's saying that when you embrace these things, you have fellowship with us. When you believe what we have taught about Jesus Christ, then you have fellowship with us and you are part of the body of Christ, the people of God, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This proclamation creates an accountable fellowship, a church that expresses itself in commitment to the apostles’ teaching. John Stott says this, “This verse is a rebuke to much of our modern evangelism and church life. We cannot be content with an evangelism that does not lead to the drawing of converts into the church, nor with a church life whose principle of cohesion is a superficial, social comradery instead of a spiritual fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” So the goal of the proclamation was not merely that people would pray a prayer or make a decision, but that they would be united to the local body of believers to become a part of the body of Christ, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that they would have true shared life with one another.

IV. The nature of the fellowship is both human and divine, horizontal and vertical.
Fourthly, John goes on in verse 3 to explain the nature of this fellowship. You’ll see it right there at the end. “Our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ.” So the nature of the fellowship that we are brought into by the proclamation of the gospel is both human and divine. There's a horizontal dimension to it in the way that we relate to one another; there's a vertical dimension to it in the way that we relate to God. And he speaks of it as a paternal fellowship; we have fellowship with the Father. And he speaks of it as a Christological fellowship; we have a fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ. It's fellowship with the triune God. It's fellowship, participation, and shared life with the triune God. We partake of the life that He imparts, and that's part of the goal, the purpose of the preaching of the gospel–to bring people to know what true life is.

This is where 1 John is supplying more about the true, blessed, happy, joyful, and meaningful life than even the Book of Ecclesiastes explains, because it roots it in the life of God. He is life. Jesus is life manifest in the flesh. If you want life, you must know Jesus savingly. If you want life, the only way that you can have it is to have an interest in what God Himself provides, because all true life flows from Him.

V. The mutual accountability of shared life, brought into being by the gospel, envisions consummated joy.
And finally, notice verse 4. He not only points to the old, old story in verse 1; he not only insists that truth and life are found in Jesus in verse 2; he not only explains the purpose of proclamation in fellowship with one another, with the apostles, and with the triune God in verse 3; but he also makes it clear that the life of God is a life of shared joy, in verse 4. “These things we write so that our joy may be made complete.” The mutual accountability that comes from membership in the body of Christ; the mutual accountability that leads to shared life and fellowship brought into being by the gospel is a life of consummated joy.

Notice the order. Verse 1–message; verse 3–shared life; verse 4–joy. Gospel proclamation leads to true fellowship, leads to true joy. Gospel proclamation, true fellowship, true joy. True joy comes in shared life with Christians rooted in the shared life of God. This is the life that is the life of joy. This is how the proclamation issues forth in a life of joy. The life of faith is the life of joy, and is experienced only by those who respond to the proclamation of the Word. Do you remember what the psalmist says in Psalm 16:11?

“You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

Though there are false teachers in the church that are telling you that if you really want joy, you need to know this secret, or you need to attend this seminar, or you need to buy this product. John is saying that fullness of joy is found in mutual fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who share life with the triune God, by faith in Jesus Christ. If you are trusting in Him, fellowshipping with Him, and fellowshipping with His people, you are already a participant in the full life of joy and in His presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore.

Did John have a message that would hold up in a pluralistic, relativistic, spiritual, but anti-Christian world? Yes. In 300 years, though when he first penned this letter, Christians were an outcast minority, in 300 years Jesus had conquered the Roman Empire. The gospel can do it again, my friends. It's the power of God unto salvation.

How did these believers, who had no worldly power, make this kind of an impact on the Roman world? John taught them to speak truth to power. He taught them to live truth to power. He taught them to love one another and through the witness of their words, their lives, and their mutual love, the gospel won that world. You know, Jerome tells the story that when John got to the most elderly point of his life, his most feeble physical condition before his death, he would have the elders carry him into the congregation on a pallet, and he was only able to say one message to the Christian, “Little children, love one another.” And apparently he did this up until the very last days.

Well, John is beginning to give us that message and to explain it in the fullness of its context. And it is that message—weak though it may seem in the eyes of the world—to believe in Christ, to believe in His Word, to live in accordance with that word, and to love one another self-denyingly. It is that witness that will shake the world and take the world, because it is the manifestation of the gospel. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, a thousand tongues are not enough to sing the praises of our incarnate redeemer who is life itself. We pray that as we live and learn in this Book in the days to come, that our life indeed would be an expression of the saving life of Jesus Christ and of the fellowship of the triune God. We ask these prayers in Jesus' name, Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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