That which was from the beginning, 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 (and 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 John 1:1-2).
This is not your average introduction to a letter. John is also not your average writer.
John began his first letter, like he began the Gospel he wrote of Jesus’ life, with emphasis on Jesus as the Word of God (John 1:1-18, 1 John 1:1-4). In his Gospel John correlates the activity of Jesus as the Word with the creation, writing John 1:1-5 in parallel with Genesis 1:1-5. John wrote that Gospel so that people would believe that Jesus is the Christ, and through their faith in Him might have life in His name (John 20:31).
John writes his first letter to Christians, his “little children,” those whom he loves in the Lord Jesus (1 John 2:1, 5:21). They have already come to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Yet many false teachers seek to lead Christians astray (cf. 1 John 2:18-27, 4:1-3); John feels compelled to begin his letter by reminding his readers why they have good reason to have confidence in the truth of what he says. John can be trusted because he, along with the other Apostles, have experienced the Word of life: they heard Him, saw Him, touched Him, participated in His work, and now bear witness that He is the Lord, the Son of God, who died but was raised again in power, exactly as the Lord Jesus commissioned them (1 John 1:1-2; cf. Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:44-49). As they read what he has to say, the early Christians who received this letter could have every confidence in the truth of its message, since its author had personally experienced Jesus as the Word of life.
Over nineteen hundred years later we also can maintain confidence in what John is saying since he has experienced the Word of life manifest in the Lord Jesus. We do well to make sure that our faith and practice are consistent with Apostolic faith and practice, since the Twelve are the unique witnesses and emissaries of the Lord Jesus, having seen Him in life, death, and in the resurrection, a privilege none since have enjoyed. We have no right to add to what has already been revealed by the Apostles regarding the faith; it cannot be rooted in the actual, physical experience of the Lord Jesus (Jude 1:3).
There is much we can gain by seeing how John presents this testimony and witness. The tendency has existed, especially in the Western world, to put a lot of emphasis on doctrines, teachings, and instructions. The Greeks were enamored with philosophy; it would not take long for many to attempt to reduce Christianity down to a system of precepts, principles, and to put the priority on doctrine and the formulation of intellectual systems of thought. Religions around the world feature books of wisdom handed down from wise men or influential instructors of the past. Many times the examples of those instructors do not live up to what they taught. For so many, religion is akin to philosophy: a bunch of abstractions that may not have much to do with real life, an ideal attempting to come to grips with the real.
This is why John’s emphasis is so important. John does not begin by saying, “we heard Jesus’ instructions.” Instead, he speaks of how he and the other Apostles experienced the Word of life: sure, they heard Him, but they also saw Him, touched Him, and participated in Him (1 John 1:1-3). John does not yet speak of Him as Jesus or Christ; he speaks of Him as the “Word of life.” All of these other religions, philosophies, etc., have focused on a set of written down doctrines and teachings to consider and follow. Christianity is unique in insisting that the message of God was manifest and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth! He did not just say the Word; He was, and is, the Word (John 1:1-18, 1 John 1:1-3)! In Christianity we do not just have many true statements or accurate teachings; we see the teachings lived and practiced by Jesus of Nazareth. No one else–not Abraham, Moses, David, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, or anyone else–has claimed to be the way, the life, the truth, and/or the resurrection (John 11:25, 14:6). Therefore, John is right to make it clear that he did not just hear the correct teachings; he experienced the right teachings. He was not just told how he and others should live; he saw that life lived (John 13:34, 1 John 2:6). Christianity, therefore, is not just a set of abstract principles or doctrines; Christianity is the pursuit of the Life that was in Jesus of Nazareth and given to all who would follow after Him.
It is true that we do not encounter the Lord Jesus as John did, but encounter Him through the written down testimony of the Apostles in the New Testament and through the prophecies of His coming in the Old Testament. If Christianity only involved just another written down story with good ethical principles, it would have no more value than Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or philosophical works. Yet Christians make the radical claim that the Jesus of whom we read in the New Testament is still alive and reigns as Lord to this very day (Ephesians 3:10-11, Hebrews 13:8). Jesus remains the Word of life, and through His message as revealed in Scripture we can have joint participation with the Apostles who proclaimed that message and with Him in God the Father (1 John 1:3-4). We can share in the Word of Life today, and walk today as He walked, and do His commandments, all through the cleansing and strength which He provides, a claim which no other religion or philosophy can make (Philippians 4:13, Ephesians 6:10-18, 1 John 2:3, 6). The Word of life was with the Father, manifested to us, and returned to the Father, and all to provide all who would believe life, even to this day!
We may not be able to experience the Word of life as John did almost two thousand years ago, but we can still share in that life forever. Let us put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and take hold of that which is life indeed!
Ethan R. Longhenry