If, as noted in the previous lesson, the primary purpose of 1 John was to give instructions and encouragement in the wake of a painful schism over views that questioned the incarnation of Jesus Christ, then the Prologue of 1 John appropriately begins with witness to the tangible experience of seeing, touching, and fellowship with Christ on the part of the author. This tangible experience is presented as integral to understanding the revelation of Christ as the life-giving Word of God who “was with the Father and manifested to us.” It is this understanding that forms the basis of fellowship between the author and his addressees. The structure of the prologue is somewhat convoluted, but it is clear enough in its message:
1 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life —
Elaboration on the life:
2 the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and we testify, and we proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us —
3 what we have seen and we have heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
4 And we are writing these things that our joy may be complete.
A comparison with the prologue of the Gospel of John is interesting:
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God;
3 all things were made through him, and without him not anything was made that was made.
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Parallel expressions and concepts that stand out are from the beginning/in the beginning, the word, was with God/with the Father, the life was manifested/the life was the light of men. The Gospel of John adds the explicit references to Christ as creator which together with “In the beginning” suggest an inference to Genesis 1:1. In 1 John the writer”s concern is not so formally theological but remedial. The expression of his theology aims at shoring up fellowship. The expression “from the beginning” probably has a double-entendre, from eternity, i.e. “was with the Father” (1:2) and from the beginning of the gospel, both its manifestation and proclamation, e.g., “what you heard from the beginning” (2:24). Introductions are usually rich in such multiple resonances of meaning.
The expression “word” in the phrase “the word of life” has been given two different interpretations, i.e. that it refers to Christ, or that it simply expresses the proclamation or message (see 1:10) about “the life” the latter of which is elaborated on in 1:2. The former view ignores the fact that the “what” in 1:1 translates
a neuter relative pronoun in Greek, rather than a masculine one that would more naturally refer exclusively to Jesus. Neuter relative pronouns are used often to make a general reference to a message contained in a passage that is referred to, in this case possibly the parenthetical explanation in 1:2. As such one could say that it refers both to Jesus and the message about him. Thus it is not a case of either/or but of both/and.
Even though 1 John does not make explicit the connection with creation, in both Jewish and Greek literature, the word logos, i.e. “word,” has close religious/philosophical association with the creating , sustaining power of God. The Stoic hymn of Cleanthes to Zeus has the following to say in Zeno (336-263 BCE), Fragments 162, 152 which can be compared with Psalms 33:6 quoted beside it:
|Thou, O Zeus, art praised above all gods:
many are thy names and thine is all power for ever.
|6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
|The beginning of the world was from thee:
and with law thou rulest over all things….
|7 He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle;
he put the deeps in storehouses.
|Thus has thou fitted together all things in one:
the good with the evil:
|8 Let all the earth fear the LORD,
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
|That thy word (logos) should be one in all things:
abiding for ever.
|9 For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood forth.
What this means is that converts from both a Jewish and a Gentile background would easily associate the logos (Word) with Christ as both the creator and sustainer of the world. Thus that “the word of life” would have the idea of “the Word that gives life” would be natural for them to understand, even without the Gospel prologue.
The major themes of the prologue are revelation, incarnation, eternal life, and fellowship with Father and Son and with one another. From a theological perspective, what is the importance of the former three concepts to the latter one, i.e. fellowship? Why does fellowship with God and humankind need revelation, incarnation, and life that is eternal? What does this imply about God and us? What does the importance of fellowship imply about human nature and the human predicament?
In what sense is eternal used in this passage about life, quantitative, or qualitative, or both? Notice how “the eternal life” gets a double reference in its context, both to Christ and also obliquely to what he offers us.