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Joy Through Fellowship: The Message and Purpose of 1 John

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1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

If you were preaching the sermon for the first worship gathering of a new church, what would you want to say in that message? You would probably want to say something about what is most important in the life of the church. What is the central message that the Church has? What is the most important thing she has to say?

I would say the answer to that question is the gospel. But how much do we understand the gospel? Most of us tend to think we understand it pretty well because we would say we believe it and because we are trusting in it for our salvation. But what I want to say here at the very first is that the entire Bible is God’s story that we call the gospel, the good news, and every page of Scripture has something to do with the gospel. God help us never get away from that.

So as we begin our study today through the book of 1 John, I hope you will find the gospel in every passage and in every sermon. I want us to study this book because of its themes of community found in words like love and fellowship. I want us to learn something about the kind of community Christians are supposed to have. It is not the kind of fellowship most American Christians are used to. It is not some sort of social gathering where we find new friends in safe environments. The Church is not ultimately about you finding a place to belong. But make no mistake: 1 John is about real, radical fellowship. I’m just saying it is a kind of fellowship that will also make us uncomfortable at times.

Today we will look at John’s introduction to his letter. It is not a typical introduction to a letter written in John’s days. There is no greeting, no specific audience to whom he refers. The book of 1 John reads as much like a sermon as it does a letter. It was probably intended to be read by several churches with which the apostle John had contact.

So I think we can sum up this introduction—these these first four verses of 1 John—by noting that John’s goal in this letter is that he and his readers will experience full joy in the community of believers through an on-going fellowship with Jesus. Joy and fellowship, or better, full joy through fellowship. That is the goal of John’s letter. And here from the very beginning he tells us first of all about the One with whom we need fellowship in order to have joy. And then he tells us something about the nature of the joy that is realized when this fellowship is in place. I want us to look at these two matters in this passage today. We might call them the subject of John’s letter and the purpose of John’s letter.

THE SUBJECT OF JOHN’S LETTER: THE “WORD OF LIFE”

The grammar of the first three verses is somewhat awkward. We do not get our main verb (“proclaim”) of this sentence (it is one sentence in Greek) until verse 3. Accordingly, the NIV has supplied us with the verb in verse 1. But there is a reason why John writes this way. “The result [of this grammatical structure] is that the opening emphasis falls on the nature of the object which is proclaimed rather than on the activity of proclaiming it.”[1] What is it that John is proclaiming?

The message is the “Word”

This epistle begins in very similar fashion to the way John’s Gospel begins. Both books speak of the “Word” that is said to be “from the beginning.” John’s Gospel makes it clear that the “Word” is not some impersonal message. This “Word” is Jesus Christ, who became “flesh” and lived among them. This is the subject of this book as well though here this “Word” is further qualified as the “word of life.” (The ESV should have capitalized “word” in verse 1 as most English versions do and as they did in John 1:1). It is clear that the “word” in first John is also Jesus, as we shall see. But is John’s subject Jesus or something about Jesus? Verse one seems to suggest that John wants to proclaim a message about Jesus (the neuter relative pronouns and the phrase “concerning the word of life” both suggest this); but verses two and three say that John wants to proclaim what he has seen and heard. So which is it? The answer is both. John uses this ambiguous language because he has written to proclaim the Christian message preached by Jesus himself. But Jesus—who is also called “the Word”—is the content of that message; the message is embodied by Jesus himself. In other words, the message is the Person. The Christian message is Jesus, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:23 “We preach Christ.” The Christian has nothing more and nothing less to offer but Jesus. And Jesus is worth proclaiming because of who he is.

The “Word” is God in the flesh

The message is Jesus. He is described as being “from the beginning.” These words call attention to the fact that Jesus has his origins in eternity past. It means no temporal statement can be made about Jesus. “He who was from all ages can only be He who is included in the being of God. This gives us pre-existence in the strict sense.”[2] In verse two, we read that Jesus “was with the Father” before he was manifested in the flesh. The phrase means that Jesus was in the company of God before he became a man. So the story of redemption begins with a God already there in the Persons of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

But the verse goes on to make much of the Incarnation of Jesus, probably because this was something that was being denied by many in that day. A heresy was forming that would later be known as Gnosticism. One of their beliefs was that while the spiritual was good, matter was evil; thus, a good spirit-God could have nothing to do with the material world. Some of them taught that Jesus merely appeared to take on human flesh. Others taught that the historical person Jesus is not to be equated with the immaterial, divine Christ-spirit that came upon him at his baptism and then left him prior to his crucifixion. But John leaves us with no doubt as to whom this Jesus was. He is the embodiment of the Christian message, he is God since he shares eternity with the Father, and he became the God-Man at the Incarnation. John mentions three of the human senses that verify that Jesus was truly human: he was heard, seen, and even touched (the same word as used in Luke 24:39 of the resurrected Christ.)

The “Word” is the Gospel

If this “Word” is the Christian message and the Word is also God in the flesh, then this Word is the good news. The Word is the Gospel. Jesus is the Gospel, and this Gospel is central for the Christian in every way.

John says it this way: “the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life” (verse 2). Notice the verbs. First, the life was made manifest. The Gospel has always been about Jesus. But it was in John’s day that this Gospel was revealed and exposed publicly for all to see and to hear. So John says second, “we have seen it.” In the first verse he used two different verbs for seeing, stating that he not only saw Jesus with his eyes, but he also “looked upon” him. This second word means to look intently at something, with implication that one is especially impressed. In fact the Greek word, theaomai, from which we get our English word theater, means to “see and to take notice.” Jesus had captivated the attention of the disciples. Third, he says they “testify to it.” Their personal encounter with the Word led to their testimony about the Word. And he goes further in saying that now they are “proclaiming it.” This again is the main verb of the first three verses. So John is writing to “proclaim Jesus.”

But why would he need to do this? Don’t his readers already believe the gospel? Certainly they do. He calls them “beloved” and is sure that their sins have been forgiven (2:12) and they know the Father (2:13). But in light of the fact that many are falling away from the Christian faith, John has no other message to share than this gospel message.

We never outgrow our need for the gospel. We should never be tempted to think that we are ready to “get past” it. I fear that for many of us our problem is not that we know the gospel too well. Our problem is that we do not know it nearly well enough. Those who know it well are captivated by it. They give testimony to it. And they proclaim it, even at the risk of their own lives. The Gospel is our treasure because Jesus—who is the gospel—is our Treasure. And all of our Christian pursuits should be centered in the message of the gospel.

THE PURPOSE OF JOHN’S LETTER: FELLOWSHIP THAT LEADS TO FULL JOY

So what is John’s purpose for proclaiming the Gospel? What is he hoping to accomplish with this letter?

that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

You probably noticed two purpose clauses in these verses. I think that the first one is a secondary purpose that has to be accomplished in order for the second and more ultimate purpose to be fulfilled. In other words, John’s ultimate purpose for writing has to do with the completion of joy. But in order for that joy to be realized there is something that must precede it. Fellowship precedes joy. Your joy will not be complete until you have the kind of fellowship John is talking about.

Our fellowship with the Father and the Son

The aim of John’s proclamation is that his readers will “have fellowship with us.” That is, John wants his readers to experience the kind of fellowship he himself has experienced—fellowship with the Father and with the Son. “We proclaim the gospel,” he says, “so that you might find the kind of fellowship with the Father that we have also found.”

Fellowship has become Christian jargon, and most of us think little about the depth of relationship this word signifies in the New Testament. Next week, Lord willing, we will look more in-depth at this concept of fellowship. But for now note how important it is to John. It is the purpose of his proclamation. The answer to this question: “Why preach the gospel” is not “to save the lost from hell.” It is “so that you [yes, even you Christians] may have fellowship.” Hear this message clearly. The immediate aim of the gospel is not sparing you from hell. So many of us have thought that way for too long. The immediate aim of the gospel, at least on a personal level, is reconciliation. The goal is to bring you and I back into a right relationship with God. It is to restore fellowship with the Father and the Son. Don’t say to yourself, “I know I have fellowship with God because I’ve prayed the sinners prayer and so I’m not going to hell.” That is the wrong way to think about it. Instead ask yourself, “Do I know I belong to him because I have fellowship with Him?” That is the immediate goal of the gospel.

Joy, Complete Joy!

But the ultimate goal of this letter is found in verse 4. John has written this short letter “so that our joy may be complete.” This may sound like a somewhat selfish thing for him to say. This may be why some manuscripts have “your joy” instead of “our joy.” But in saying “our joy” I think John means both yours and mine, “ours.” He has his own joy in mind as he writes, but he also has the joy of his readers in mind. He wants all to experience joy. And the kind of joy he is talking about is “complete” joy.

Remember, though, that this ultimate goal is dependent upon the goal of fellowship. So if the fellowship in view is about one coming into right relationship with God, then what does this have to do with John’s joy? It is true that the predominant stress here is on fellowship with God. But when one finds himself in fellowship with God he also finds himself in the company of others. There is only one affinity group in Christianity; the affinity of believers. What brings us together is our communion with Jesus. All other affinity-based groupings miss this crucial point. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:

What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.... That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood.[3]

The only way the Bible offers us this kind of joy, full and everlasting, is in fellowship with God wherein we find ourselves in the presence of others as well. So Christianity is private, and it is very much public. We want everyone touched by this church to find fellowship with God. And if they do, they will also find themselves in community with others. The two go together. And together they bring complete joy.


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[1] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1978), 100.

[2] Gerhard Delling, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964–74), 1:481.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 25-26.

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