I John: Introduction and Chapter 1
An Exegetical Commentary by Nate Wilson
Introduction to the original 1998 commentary
This commentary was written over the course of approximately 300 hours for a Greek Exegesis course, so it will have a significant focus on analyzing the Greek text of the first Epistle of John.
The author of the book is indisputably the Apostle John, brother of James, and the youngest of Jesus' disciples. He wrote the book late in life, after a long time of leadership of the Church at Jerusalem. It was probably written from the vicinity of Ephesus between 80 and 90 A.D.
John states that he is writing TO "the ones who believe in the Name of the Son of God" (5:13), and that WHAT he is writing is a fresh reminder of an old commandment, namely that Christians should believe that Jesus is God and should love one another (2:7-8). He is writing CONCERNING "those who are trying to deceive you" (2:26), whom he also calls "antichrists." These people are probably Gnostics who came along behind Paul in Macedonia, teaching that Jesus was merely a being in a divine hierarchy--not God--and that there was such a dichotomy between flesh and spirit that one could know God in a mystical, spiritual sense and let his fleshly body do anything it wants. These antichrists had apparently really shaken the faith of the believers, and John is writing to assure them of the basic tenets of the faith to counteract those Gnostics.
John states that what CAUSED him to write is the knowledge that his audience has been forgiven of sin, knows God, and has overcome the evil one (2:12-14), or in other words, they "know the truth" (2:21). John's stated purpose in writing, therefore, is that "joy may be made complete" (1:4) and "that you may know that you have eternal life" (5:13).
John's style of writing is that of a loving father who is reassuring his upset children. He touches upon various aspects of what it means to be a Christian, then cycles back to offer more detail and proofs on those subjects. He focuses particularly on righteousness, faith (in Jesus Christ as the son of God), and love for others as the hallmarks of a true believer.
Concerning my commentary, I begin with a translation I made from the Greek text, then provide commentary. I used Robert Hanna's Grammatical Aid, Wesley Pershbacher's Analytical Lexicon, and Brook Westcott's commentary on The Epistles of St. John throughout my whole commentary because of their classic reputation and helpfulness with the Greek text. To supplement these, I cycled through 6 other commentaries, finally settling on those of Gordon Clark and John Cotton, the former because he was thought-provoking and fun to read, the latter not only because of its antiquity, but also because it contained the best applications of the text to real-life situations. I reference the notes of these commentators by their last name and page number in my commentary.
Also, as part of my study, I did a syntactical-logical flow diagram of the whole book and I compared the accuracy of seven English translations to the Greek text. While I have not included these components of my study here, I have tried to incorporate some of the information from them into my commentary. To further comment on my comparison of English translations, I generally found the accuracy to the Greek text to go in this order, from most accurate to least accurate: New American Standard, New King James, King James Version, Greene's Interlinear Translation, New International Version, New Century Version (which was essentially a paraphrase of the NIV), and Living Bible. Please understand that this is my subjective evaluation, based upon a belief in the accuracy of the earliest manuscripts and upon the translation philosophy of Sangre de Cristo Seminary professors. I did not, however, find any of these English translations to be significantly unfaithful to the meaning of the original Greek text. Thus, to get the best sense of what the Greek text technically says, I recommend that you read the NASV or the KJV (or that you take Greek!), but I believe that the technical liberties taken in the more recent translations, such as the NIV and even the Living Bible, may serve to communicate the accurate meaning of the Greek text in a clear way in our English language.
Lastly, you may notice that I often state that John says something. In doing so, I do not mean to de-emphasize the fact that this is God's word--I could just as truthfully say, "God says...," but I use this convention because it is such a personal letter.
Preface to the revised 2017 edition:
years after writing this commentary, I preached a sermon series on
First John, using this commentary as a research basis. In the
process, I discovered that my views on textual criticism and on word
usage had moderated somewhat and that my spelling had also improved,
so during the sermon series, I edited my original commentary with
these three things particularly in mind. The audio and PowerPoint
slides of that sermon series are publicly available at
I John Chapter One
1:1 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we stared at, what our hands handled, concerning the word of the life
John starts his first epistle as he did his Gospel, speaking of what was in "the beginning." In his Gospel, it is "the logos"--Jesus--and in his first epistle, it is also Jesus who was seen and touched personally by John, Jesus who was with the Father but was manifested to us. He is still the "logos"--the word of life. John was consumed with proclaiming to everybody what he knew about Jesus! "The word" is not speaking of a morpheme here, but of a much greater truth(Westcott 6), it is a truth that has been progressively revealed throughout history, from the beginning, to what was heard and seen in the past (perhaps God's work throughout the Old Testament) and progressing to Jesus, whom the apostles stared at and physically touched (Westcott 4). This emphasis on the sensory perception of Jesus does two things: first, it establishes John as a credible witness, and secondly, it combats the Gnostic heresy that Christ was not a physical person (Dana 20). John uses a perfect tense on the verbs "heard" and "saw" indicating that these were events in the past, but they have continuing impact into the present. The second set of verbs, "looked/beheld" and "handled/touched" are in the Aorist tense, describing intense historical action--the word for "looked at/beheld" is much more intense than the earlier verb "have seen"--it could even be interpreted "gawked" (Zeller).
1:2 --and the life was manifested and we have seen and are testifying and proclaiming to you the eternal life which was with the father and was manifested to us--
This is a chiastic parenthetical expression interrupting the purpose statement of the book about John's testimony to explain what he means by "the word of life." (The chiasm begins and ends with "was manifested.") The word "manifested/appeared" means more than just a showing or appearance, but is more that of a revelatory communication (Zeller). This is what John and the apostles saw in Jesus and were continuously testifying and proclaiming ever since. By the way, Philo interprets the word for "eternal" as "perpetual" indicating that the word did not have the connotation of a life in the future that it does now. The word for "show/proclaim" focuses on the source of the message (Westcott 15) and has to do with "bearing back a message from one to another." The life that they are proclaiming was with (or "to"--the word is even more relational than our word "with") the Father--God (and that "was" is in the Imperfect tense, meaning not a visit, but a continual abiding in the past with the Father -Westcott 10), and was manifested to "us."
1:3 What we have seen and heard, we are proclaiming also to you, that you also may be having fellowship with us. Moreover the fellowship which is ours is with the father and with his son, Jesus Christ.
John recaps the subject "what we have seen and heard," referring back to the testimony he has of Jesus on earth, and tells us what he's going to do with it: he's "proclaiming" it to us in this epistle. The "you also" seems redundant except that it tells us that the message was not given by God only for John's benefit, but for all believers (Westcott 11). John also states his purpose: that we may have fellowship with the apostles ("us") and with God Himself. This is a continuous fellowship--the verb is in the Greek present tense, and it is a deep, conscious, mutual fellowship. The word from the context of Gal. 6:6 implies what you share/put into that fellowship (Zeller). The construction of the verb and its genitive point to more than a simple club membership (Westcott 12). John then adds even more to this concept of our fellowship by using two conjunctions which may be rendered "yes, and" or "moreover" (Hanna 433), further emphasizing who is in the fellowship. The "ours" is emphatic, meaning the fellowship is REALLY ours, and that this fellowship we have is with God the Father and God the Son. It is interesting to note that the parallel construction "with the Father...with the Son" implies sameness of essence between these two persons. This is some fellowship!
1:4 And we ourselves are writing these things so that our joy may be completed.
Now John tags on another purpose for the book: "so that (y)our joy may be completed." Greek manuscripts and ancient versions seem to be split about half and half between "your" and "our" in both occurrences of the pronoun here. In Greek it is just the difference of one letter, as it is in English. Although both the Siniaticus and Vaticanus manuscripts say "our," the "your" (of the Alexandrinus and Ephraemi Rescriptus) would more fit the altruistic stance that John is taking. Paul, however, asks the Philippians to "make my joy complete" in 2:2, so the rendering "make our joy complete" here would still be in line with Scripture. The result in any case is "joy," and this joy should be "complete." The grammatical construction is called a perfect paraphrastic, indicating a possibility that we can have fullness of joy beginning at a certain point and continuing into the present (Zeller). Is it selfish to want joy? No! It is an inescapable result of great fellowship--a blessing God intends!
1:5 And this is the message which we have heard from Him and are announcing to you, that God is light, and darkness is not in Him at all.
John gives us the kernel of his message right here: "God is light." The message is simple--even the Greek word for "message" is simple here (Westcott 15). Light, by its very nature is self-communicating, shining to everyone around it, and so it is with God, that He has communicated with man (Westcott 14). John and the other apostles heard God's word in a special way from Jesus, and they dedicated their lives to announcing this message to the world--as we should also do ourselves. The verb for "declare/announce" focuses on the recipient "to bring tidings back to," whereas the earlier word for "proclaim" in v.2 was more focused on the sender of the message (Westcott 14). Here, "light is contrasted with "darkness" and the meaning is obviously spiritual in nature, using light to stand for all that is good, and darkness for all that is evil. John is emphatic about God being only light, giving the converse, "in Him is no darkness," then adding the emphatic "not at all/not one bit."
1:6 If we are saying that we are in fellowship with him, yet we walk in the darkness, we are deceiving ourselves and do not [practice] the truth.
John really shows his Jewish background through the parallelisms in the next few verses (Dana 22). We see 3 basic false views that break fellowship using lies (Westcott 14, 18, Dana 26):
(v.6-7) of moral action based on denial of what is known. In denying
the reality of sin, we tell a lie.
"if we say we have fellowship...yet walk in darkness, we lie..."
(v.8-9) of sin as permanent consequence of wrong action. If we deny
responsibility, it is self-deception.
"if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves..."
FREEDOM from sinful deeds (v.10) based on disregard of divine
revelation. Denying the fact of personal sins results in calling God
"If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar..."
Each phrase is an ambiguous conditional clause with a subjunctive verb, meaning that these are hypothetical situations which might or might not occur, but we are given the certain outcomes of each possibility in definite phrases with Present, Active, Indicative verbs, indicating no ambiguity of outcome. (The only possible exception is the word for "lie" in the middle of verse 6, which may actually be middle rather than active voice, meaning that we deceive ourselves rather than us telling a lie to someone else, but this does not in the least diminish the certainty of the results.) If we are walking in darkness and say we are in fellowship with God, we are kidding ourselves, and our actions are not congruous with the truth. The word "practice/live by" is not in the text, but makes the meaning more clear; the KJV rendering "do not the truth" is what the Greek text literally says.
This further combats the Gnostic heresy by asserting that our fellowship with God must rest upon mutual knowledge of what He is and who we are. If we are inconsistent by claiming to follow a perfect God while walking in darkness, our "knowledge" is self-contradictory (Dana 22, Westcott 14).
1:7 But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we are having fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus His Son is cleansing us from all sin.
f our actions match what we believe about God, we have fellowship! Our actions are only an imitation of the perfection of what we believe--we "walk" in the light compared to Him who "is" in the light completely already (Dana 25). As noted before, this fellowship is intense and is interactive, as the "with each other" indicates--it is not only giving or only taking, we must exercise both. This mark of fellowship with other believers is a proof of our fellowship with God and is something we must never forsake (Westcott 21).
And when we walk in the light, "the blood of Jesus...cleanses us from all sin." The verb for cleansing is in the Present tense, meaning that the cleansing is ongoing. Sanctification is not a one-time event, but is our lot for the rest of our lives. Likewise, the "from all sin" is not the form in Greek which would indicate "from every sin" but is rather a construction that signifies "from all kinds of sin." The emphasis is on the ability of the blood to remove any sin rather than teaching sinless perfection (Dana 25). Note that the word for "sin" is singular rather than plural, which underscores that we're looking at the general truth of sin rather than the removal of all future incidences (plural) of sin (Westcott 21). Interestingly enough, verse 9 follows the same construction as verse 7 (Westcott 18).
1:8 If we say that we have no sin, we lead ourselves astray and the truth is not in us.
Dana (22) maintains that the object of this passage is to set right those who had been deceived by the Gnostics into believing that flesh is inherently sinful and spirit is inherently good. With such twisted thinking, people claimed that they were not sinners or that they were not responsible for their sin since their spiritual essence was supposedly good, distinct from the evil flesh. This thinking, however, gives license for the body to sin profusely while the individual piously thinks he is righteous. John shows the absurdity of this line of thinking, exposing this supposed deeper knowledge for what it is: a lie which excludes one from fellowship with God. (Dana 25). It is a fellowship with darkness.
1:9 If we are confessing our sins, He is faithful and righteous in order to send away from us the sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
But it we walk in the light, confessing our sins, we have fellowship with God and His people. Both v.7 and v.9 immediately follow our righteous action with a phrase focusing on God, "as He is in the light/He is faithful and righteous" whereas the unrighteous focus on themselves: "we say we have" (V. 6, 8, 10). Our focus should be on God, not ourselves! This act of confessing is our means of focusing on His faithfulness and righteousness and remaining in fellowship (Westcott. 25). The confession is not a one-time act, nor is it a general act. Being in the Present tense, the verb means that our confession must be continual, and since the direct object of that verb has both a definite article and is in the plural, "the sins of us," we should be specifically confessing each and every sin we are aware of, rather than glossing over them with a, "Lord forgive all the sin I did today and please heal my sore throat" (Dana 26, Westcott. 24).
What is the relationship between God being faithful and righteous and Him forgiving our sins? In technical terms, it is called a "result" clause--the forgiveness is a result of our confession and of the character of God. There is also a futuristic sense: "if we shall confess our sins, [he WILL forgive us, for] He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins..." (Hanna 433). The verb I translated "send away" is more commonly translated "forgive," but it is followed by a dative, indicating direction "from us" followed by the phrase "the sins." Once forgiven, the sins are not connected with us as "our sins" anymore, they are just "the sins." As the KJV indicates by italics, the word "our" is not in the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, although the NAS & NIV found its presence in 11 manuscripts – including the Siniaticus and Ephraemi Rescriptus (two of the oldest, although not necessarily the most reliable manuscripts) to be reason to translate the definite article as a possessive, which is a possible interpretation, but since John included the possessive pronoun earlier in the sentence but not here, I think our English translations should reflect that difference.
And not only are specific sins dismissed, but there is an accompanying change in our character to "cleanse/wash/purify us from all unrighteousness" (Westcott 25). The Lord's Prayer also follows this pattern of asking forgiveness of sin, then seeking to pre-empt future sin: "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." The word "unrighteousness" is constructed just like the English word, sticking a negative prefix on the word for "righteousness." Because of this construction, it is not so much emphasizing acts of evil as much as a lack of doing good. God is faithful not only to forgive our acts of wrongdoing, but also to proactively change our character to that of actively being righteous!
1:10 If we say that we have not sinned, we are making Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
The converse of confessing our sins is to say that we have not sinned. The verb here is a perfect tense of completed action, meaning that in the past, the action of a sin was done, and its guilt is still with you (Hanna 433). What is the difference between v.8 "we have no sin" and v. 10 "we have not sinned?" Westcott (25, 22) suggests that the former refers to the influence of sin ("sin" is singular in v.8), while the latter refers to specific acts of sin. It is the difference between denying that sin is even operative in your body and admitting that you are tempted to sin, yet that you've never given into that temptation. In the latter case, if we deny that we have ever committed a sin, we are directly contradicting God who says, for instance in Psalm 53:3, "There is none that does good; not even one." Dare we call God a liar? If we do, then His word is not in us! Let God be true and all men liars; I want God's word to abide in me!
To proceed to Chapter Two, click here.