Jesus is real. That matters.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 John 1:1-4
John, the author of a Gospel and the Revelation, has a unique vantage in his letters because he is not only facing persecution, he is combating heresy. Most of this has to do with the person of Jesus. John knew Jesus, and it is vital to John that he tells everybody the true story of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. Jesus was no imaginary hero.
that life was revealed, and we have seen it (1:2)
Getting Started: An Introduction to John's Letters
So, About This John Guy . . .
All conservative Bible scholars follow church tradition in saying John the Apostle wrote all 4 of these works (1/2/3 John, Revelation). He and his brother James were the sons of Zebedee and the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). With Peter, they were Jesus’ inner circle; Jesus even asked John to take care of Mary after His death (John 19:26). But what separates John from the others is not being martyred and living to extreme old age (this even created a kind of cult following for him, see John 21:20-24). You might have noticed that John’s Gospel is quite different from the other 3; that’s because he wrote it decades later while in exile on Patmos, about the same time that he received the Revelation. I believe there is sufficient linguistic evidence that the same person wrote the Gospel and all 4 of our letters in this quarter about the same time. This also explains why John seems so much more “theological” than the others; he’s had a lot longer to reflect on Jesus’ teachings. He’s also experienced quite a few more controversies, so he appreciates the importance of these matters. Several credible church leaders from the turn of the century (95-110) say they learned under John, which makes a date around 90 AD quite reasonable.
There are a few prominent themes throughout all of these letters:
correct doctrine is very important,
correct behavior and love for God is very important,
stand strong in persecution, and
don’t give in to the pressure to worship the Emperor.
Having lived through the first waves of major persecution, and being told by God that things would get even worse, John knew how important our beliefs and behaviors were. It’s very applicable today when we are being told to change our beliefs about Jesus or suffer some sort of punishment. John wants to make it clear that nothing is worth compromising our beliefs!
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Based on what you watch in "courtroom dramas", what makes for a credible witness?
Was He Real?
Here’s a game you can play with some famous characters. Ask if these guys were real: William Wallace (no), George Washington (yes), Paul Bunyan (no), King Arthur (no), Alexander the Great (yes), Robin Hood (no). Or pick any other characters. If an alien landed on our planet, they would find about the same “evidence” for each. But doesn’t it make a difference if the person really existed or was just a myth loosely based on actual events? Don’t you care that George Washington was real? That’s why it floors me to hear people not care if Jesus actually existed or not or what kind of a man He was. The “Jesus of faith” is what really matters to them. Amazing! If George Washington was really a lying, womanizing, violent murderer, don’t you think that should matter? Would it make any sense for someone to say, “Well, that’s not the way I choose to remember him.” Ludicrous! The truth of history matters! That’s why John wrote these letters, because the truth of who Jesus really is is so much better than any ridiculous myth we could make up about Him.
About 1 John
Whereas Paul had to deal with Judaizers, John had to deal with gnostics, people who had let Greek philosophy affect their understanding of Jesus. John dealt with this in his Gospel by calling Jesus the Word/Logos who was “made flesh” (see below). In his letters, he is very direct against the great errors of their beliefs, so dangerous that he called them antichrists. Apparently they were very persuasive because John was quite worried that entire churches might be drawn astray. It matters what we believe about Jesus, and it matters what we believe about sin.
This Week's Big Idea: Gnosticism
Gnosticism is making “a comeback” in America. The word means “knowledge” and refers to various cults who believed they had special, secret knowledge about reality. Gnosticism is rooted in a Greek philosophical concept called dualism, which means that the entire universe is either physical or spiritual; spiritual stuff is good and physical is bad.
With respect to behavior, gnostics took one of two approaches:
(1) “physical existence is bad” therefore I cannot enjoy anything, and I ought to punish myself any time I feel good (monks often drifted down this road; it’s called asceticism); or
(2) “physical existence is only temporary” therefore it doesn’t really matter what I do in this body, so I may as well live it up and not have to worry about the consequences.
Obviously, both ideas are incompatible with the idea that God made the world “good” and that He gave us rules for how to live this life. John writes a great deal against both.
Even more importantly, this means that gnostics have to deny that Jesus truly became human. Here’s the logic: spirit is good, flesh is bad, God is good, therefore God could not truly take on flesh because that would make Him bad. Either this means that Jesus only “seemed” to be human and was really just a ghost (Docetism), or Jesus was actually a spirit that possessed a human body of a man named Jesus and didn’t really become that person (adoptionism). There are huge theological consequences to either approach, and John addresses them rather harshly in his letters.
Part 1: Witnessed by Many (1 John 1:1)
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—
You could just talk about these verses for your entire time if you wanted to. They mean what they say; I don’t have very much to add about the Greek text or grammar. John has heard that people are coming into churches and teaching something different about Jesus (making stuff up about Jesus; see the sidebar on the next page for more about this prologue) and he needs to set the record straight. “I was with Jesus; listen to what I say about Him!”
That first “what was” might seem a little strange as a way to refer (clearly) to Jesus, but John is actually focusing on “the Word of life” which is more about Jesus’ message, work, and witness than Jesus Himself. That’s splitting grammatical hairs, but as I hope to show over the next few weeks, John was defending an entire theology, not just some stories about Jesus. These false teachers had gotten the message of Jesus completely wrong, and John needed to set them right.
Have you heard about “the quest for the historical Jesus” or seen an article about the difference between “the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith”? I hope to terrify you with this; it’s not just a story in a classroom but something people are doing around the world today. Two names in particular are “Albert Schweitzer” and “The Jesus Seminar”. Scholars associated with them have taken it upon themselves to determine what of the Gospels is actually “true” and what is “myth” made up by the early church. They go through the Gospels verse by verse and vote on if that verse is fact or fiction. What is more, they publish their findings in sources like Time and Newsweek as fact, creating a lot of confusion among church members. How do they determine fact from fiction? Well, they make up their own criteria. Sadly, they skip over that part in their articles.
In other words, people today are still making up stuff about Jesus and passing themselves off as experts about it. But who are the true human experts about Jesus? His disciples. As John said, they were eyewitnesses, and they worked tirelessly to write down accurate records of what Jesus, said, taught, and did. This is why at First Baptist Church we go to the Bible for our information about Jesus and not to some talking head. Anybody can make up whatever they want about Jesus; the Bible is the only record we believe to be reliable, because it was written by Jesus’ apostles (or scribes such as Luke and Mark who were associates of an apostle). John knows how important his testimony is!
Focus: The importance of credible testimony. How do we measure credibility? Think about all of the factors that go into credibility. First, we measure the accuracy of their knowledge. Have your class sort this list from most to least credible: the subject’s wife, the subject’s next-door neighbor, guy who watched a newscast about the subject, the subject’s first-grade teacher, professor who read all of the subject’s diaries, anthropologist, the subject himself. Then, we have to decide how credible we think that person is in the first place (do they have an ax to grind, do they have a good memory, are they trustworthy). Then, we have to decide what knowledge we think is reasonable to have! If it’s something that happened on the other side of the world where no one knows how to write, or if it’s something that happened in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, we might not think that we can know much for certain, in which case we relax our expectations.
The importance of the incarnation / Imaginary Chair. There are a number of people who say that it doesn’t really matter if Jesus really existed, if He was really a man or not. What matters is that we believe in Him. There’s a great word for that: baloney. If Jesus was an imaginary man, then we have an imaginary salvation. Try this “game”: have someone stand up with their eyes closed. Tell him/her you have placed a chair behind him and you want him to sit down. Then tell him that the chair might be imaginary, and it might not be. Ask him if it matters whether or not the chair is real. Of course it matters!
And there’s one more important thing about the incarnation: it’s proof that being a real human is okay. We’re not waiting to die so we can escape this miserable reality. This life isn’t just some sort of test that we hope to pass so we can move on. This life is part of God’s plan and part of God’s perfect creation. Having a real body is not bad; having real, physical sensations is not bad. In heaven, we’re going to have a real body! We’re not going to be floating around on clouds playing harps. Jesus came and took on our flesh so He could redeem it and show that it could be perfect. The physical world that we live in, once it has been purified from sin by the judgment we talked about last week, is going to be the perfect place God originally created for us.
Aside: John’s Prologue -- authorship issues
Here are a few of the verses that should show you why I believe John wrote both this letter and the Gospel of John.
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. . . . 6 There was a man named John [the Baptist, not the Apostle] who was sent from God. 7 He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that all might believe through him. . . . 14 The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . 16 Indeed, we have all received grace after grace from His fullness, 17 for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son—the One who is at the Father’s side—He has revealed Him.
Note the common emphasis on beginning (eternity) and revelation (truth from God, not invented by some person). John wanted to make it very clear that he wasn’t making this stuff up; he was a witness to Jesus, just like the other apostles. The difference? He was the last living apostle, and that gave him a great sense of urgency about his message. Think about it: John had actually lived with Jesus, and now there were people making up things about Jesus and teaching them as fact. Put yourself in his shoes; wouldn’t that give you a bit of anger and indignation and desire to set the record straight?
Part 2: Revealed as Life (1 John 1:2)
“that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—”
This verse is a short aside on what exactly John meant by “the Word of life.” To make a long story short, John had been around so long that he was combating heresy (and not just Jewish opposition as did Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Greeks who had become Christians had brought in with them some of their Greek philosophy, dominated by Plato and Aristotle. Plato in particular believed in a “heaven” of perfect ideas that waited to be enjoyed by anyone who would seek them. The idea of “The Word” was to Plato that perfect knowledge that transcended all existence and put to shame the petty Greek gods and their many failings. Smart Greeks loved and worshipped this “Word”. Well, John told them who the Word was: Jesus. But he also told them something very important: “the Word” was not a concept or an idea or a force of existence; the Word was a Person, life itself. That went completely against what the average Greek thinker thought.
Note the emphasis on testimony, revelation, and declaration. We can trust John because he is simply telling us what he has seen and heard. He hasn’t deduced anything, interpreted anything, or finagled anything; he is just an eyewitness. Note also the emphasis on life. We are going to see this word over and over again in John’s letters. Yes, on the one hand he means it in contrast to physical death. But more than that, he refers to spiritual life and eternal life. If you want to be amazed, look up the word “life” in the Gospel of John. You will find verses such as,
“Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:4),
“The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who refuses to believe in the Son will not see life” (3:36),
“For just as the Father has life in Himself, so also He has granted to the Son to have life in Himself” (5:26),
“For the bread of God is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33), and on and on.
It culminates in John 17:3: “This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the One You have sent—Jesus Christ.”
Chew on that for a while. There are a lot of people out there; they might be alive, but they do not have life. There is only true life in Jesus. In His mercy, He sustains this world and allows its inhabitants to live, but He only give life to those who follow Him. We don’t follow an idea. We don’t follow a commander. We follow the God who came to Earth to share life with us. And Jesus gave His own life to make that possible. Take a look at the sidebar for more about “eternal life”.
Exercise: Start a Running Tally of “Life” in 1 John. If you have a board that can remain undisturbed for the next few weeks, start a list of all the ways John uses the word “life” in this letter. If you don’t, then do a little homework and take in a list of some of the ways John uses “life” in both this letter and his Gospel (use the above verses as a starting point). What I hope you can point out is that there is more to life than being alive.
Describing an Exotic Food. Bring is a food that you don’t think many of your group will have had. Ask someone to taste it and then try to describe it to the rest of the class. Then ask someone else in the class to taste it and critique the first person’s description. Then let everyone give it a try and see if they were at all expecting what they tasted. The point is that we can try to describe life in Jesus all we want—it has to be experienced in order to truly make sense.
This lines up with what we talked about in part 1. When it comes to sharing Jesus, don’t worry about what you can’t do, worry about what you can do. You can share your testimony and experience, just as John did. What have you seen? What have you heard? What have you experienced in Jesus Christ? That’s what you can testify, and no one can take that from you.
Aside: What Is Eternal Life?
Eternal life is actually a tricky concept. People think of “eternal life” as that which only exists in heaven, but as we saw in those verses in John’s Gospel, Jesus thought of eternal life as something He gives now. You see, “eternal” life is not just about duration. All human souls will endure for eternity. But some will dwell in the presence of God and some will not, and that seems to be the key distinction for Jesus and John.
Eternal life is something that can be experienced in the present. The one who believes Christ’s message has eternal life. In that sense, he has passed from a state of spiritual death to spiritual life—how? because true life comes only from Christ and the believer in Christ lives through Christ. There is a kind of healing that takes place in Jesus that cannot happen anywhere else, something Jesus calls abundant life. His followers will never perish. They might pass through an experience of physical death, but that will only be a blip.
Eternal life is also something that can only be experienced in the future (on the other side of physical death). We talked about this in the minor prophets: humans have to be purified of our sin before we can enjoy a God-given sinless eternity. At our death, sin no longer has a connection to us, our bodies and souls are purified, and we finally become who God created us to be: a perfect creature in perfect fellowship with Him. We can have a taste of that in this life (see part 3) but we can only know it fully (and not “through a glass dimly”) in the next life when we are fully purified.
Part 3: Provided True Fellowship (1 John 1:3-4)
what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Now we find out why John wrote this letter. (1) So the reader may have fellowship with John and God and Jesus, and (2) so John’s joy may be complete. Sound strange? It’s not when you know what John means. Follow this logic: What is eternal life? To know Jesus (John 17:3). To know Jesus is to follow Jesus (John 10:14, 27). To know Jesus is to obey Jesus (1 John 2:3-6). We’ll hit this again next week, but let’s get started with this: to know Jesus is to walk with Jesus (1 John 1:7), and that is the basis of salvation / eternal life.
Salvation = a relationship with Jesus = fellowship with Jesus.
Therefore, when John says he wants us to have fellowship with him and Jesus, he means he wants us to be saved.
Let’s dive into that word: “fellowship” or koinonia. In other places, the word is also translated “communion” or “participation” or “partnership” or “sharing”. It means a whole lot more than a fellowship meal in the fellowship hall. It means participating in one another’s lives. Paul uses this word in 1 Cor 10 to say that when we share (fellowship) in the Lord’s Supper, we are sharing (fellowshipping) in the body and blood of Jesus. That’s a lot more than just being friendly to one another! That’s something very deep. According to Acts 2 (which David just preached on), that was the experience of the early church after Pentecost. They had “fellowship” with one another.
You’ve heard it said that a church is supposed to be a family. That’s the literal truth. A family lives together, grows together, supports one another. Church members may not live in the same house, but we’re supposed to have that same kind of experience of life together. Why is that? John explains -- If we all have fellowship with the same Jesus, He then draws us into the same circle; as we grow closer to Him, we grow closer to one another. If we have the same kind of fellowship John has, that means we have fellowship with God the Father and Christ the Son. And that’s a good thing.
In fact, it’s such a good thing that John says it would make his joy complete (see John 15:11). Later manuscripts have “your joy” instead of “our joy” which is fine, but the reading here is more likely correct. John, being an elderly man, has seen a lot of changes in the churches, and he has developed a true love for Christians. Later, he will write (and I believe with all truth), “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4). That’s the attitude we should have as Sunday School teachers! Our joy is in those moments when our class members “get it” and decide to act on what they have learned.
Illustration: “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” or “The Ravagers” or “Fiddler on the Roof” or any movie in which a group of people give a big hurrah when a new person is brought into their “family”. That should always be our joy as a church!
Closing Thoughts: Wrapping Up
Your leader guide gives the illustration of the difference between someone you know personally and someone you know about as a celebrity. I think that’s great—use it. If you save it for the end, it might work like this:
Can you truly love someone you don’t have a personal relationship with? Of course not. You can have a creepy obsession, you can have a strong physical attraction, or you can have a sense of fierce agreement with someone, but you cannot truly love that person in a biblical sense. I joke about feeling like I “know” certain people on television shows I watch, but the truth is I’m not sure I want to meet them and ruin the “image” I have of them! But Jesus isn’t like the sinful people around us—the more we get to know Him, the more we love Him. And that’s what John wants to accomplish in his letters. He wants to people to know who Jesus really is, not what people make up about Him. We can’t be saved by a fictional character!! We can’t be saved by a figment of our imagination!! We can’t be saved by a god of our own making!!
Then, the kicker: how would you describe Jesus to someone? Would you just use words you’ve read in the Bible, or would you talk from your personal experience? I pray that everyone in your classes has a vibrant, personal relationship with Jesus, but I know that can’t be true. Maybe this will be the time (and I remember this crisis in my own life when I was 22) that someone realizes they can’t describe Jesus in their own words because they don’t know Him themselves. Maybe today will be the day of salvation!