THE HUMANITY OF CHRIST
1 John 1:1
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.”
This epistle bears no superscription as do all others (save Hebrews), including John’s own second and third ones, and makes no reference to any particular class of persons by which we may ascertain to whom it was first addressed. We know from Galatians 2:9, that John was one of the apostles who ministered to the circumcision, and such expressions as “from the beginning” in 2:7, “you have known Him” in 2:13, and “you have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists...they went out from us,” (2:18-19) intimate that it was primarily Jewish Christians to whom John wrote. Yet mention of “the world” in 4:14, and the “whole world” in 2:2, and the admonition “keep” in 5:21, are more than hints that it was designed for Gentile believers too. The epistle is remarkable for the absence of any local coloring or personal references. While enunciating vital truths and combating fundamental errors, the names of no places or persons are mentioned. Thus it contains nothing which is merely ephemeral or provincial, but that only which is suited to all God’s children till the end of time.
It is, then, a general epistle: not to any particular assembly, but for the whole family of God. In accordance with that fact we find no reference is here made to elders or deacons. The privileges described and the duties enjoined pertain alike to the entire Household of Faith. John deals with vital and basic principles, and does not (like the other apostles) point out how they are to be applied to the various relationships of life. Though he treats in some detail of both righteousness and love, he gives no specific instances of how they are to be exercised between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, subjects and kings. He even avoids the term “saints” preferring to address his readers by the more familiar “brethren,” (2:7) and “my brethren,” (3:13), though more frequently employing the endearing expression “little children” and “my little children” which no other apostle did (unless Galatians 4:19, be the sole exception). This has led the thoughtful to conclude that John must have been of a great age—certainly there would be no propriety in one of fewer years so addressing even the “fathers,” (2:12-13).
Since the apostle was about to write on fellowship, his design and scope in the opening verses appear to be twofold. First, he intimates that the initial requirement for communion with God is the possession of Divine life in the soul, and that this life is found in the incarnate Son, here designated “the Word of life” and “that Eternal Life.” Calvin came very near the mark when he opened his commentary on this epistle by saying, “He shows first that life has been exhibited to us in Christ; which, as it is an incomparable good, ought to rouse and inflame all our powers with a marvelous desire for it and with the love of it. It is said, indeed, in a few plain words, that life is manifested; but if we consider how miserable and horrible a condition death is, and what is the kingdom of glory and immortality, we shall perceive that there is something here more magnificent than can be expressed in any words.” It is ever the Spirit’s object to magnify that blessed One who is despised and rejected of men, and here He does so by presenting Him as the Source and Fount of life.
The second obvious aim of the apostle in his introductory sentence was to confirm the assurance of God’s children, and show what a firm foundation has been laid for their fellowship with the Father and with His Son. “These words ‘which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes,’ etc. serve to strengthen our faith in the Gospel. Nor does he, indeed, without reason, make so many asseverations; for since our salvation depends upon the Gospel, its certainty is in the highest degree necessary. And how difficult it is to believe, every one of us knows too well by his own experience. To believe is not lightly to form an opinion, or to assent only to what is said, but is a firm, undoubting conviction, so that we may dare to subscribe to the Truth as fully proved. It is for this reason that the apostle here heaps together so many things in confirmation of the Gospel,” (Calvin). The Gospel is no spurious invention of men, but is the annunciation of reliable witnesses who personally consorted with Christ Himself (Luke 1:1-4). The absence of John’s name from the opening verses of this epistle is in full harmony with the fact that in his Gospel he never referred unto himself except when the occasion required him to do so, and then only by such a circumlocution as “that other disciple,” (John 20:3-4), or “that disciple whom Jesus loved,” (21:7 & 20)—not, it is observed, the boastful “that disciple who loved Jesus”! As there, so here, the writer retires into the background, unwilling to speak of himself, resembling in this his namesake, who, when asked, “What do you say of yourself?” answered, “I am the voice of One crying in the wilderness,” (John 1:22-23)—heard, but not seen. It may also be noted that John’s silence about himself is in beautiful accord with his theme, for real fellowship so engages the heart with its Object as to lose sight of self. Yet, because his task required it, he gives plain indication that he stood in the nearest possible relation to the One he adored, just as in his Gospel he was wont to do so under similar circumstances.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard... of the Word of life.” A superficial reading of this verse has led many to conclude that John begins his epistle in the same way as he had his Gospel—by affirming that eternality of the Son—but a more careful examination of its language should correct that impression. There are indeed several resemblances between the two verses, yet there are notable differences. Each opens at once by presenting the person of Christ: without any preliminaries, the Lord Jesus is immediately set before the reader. Both Gospel and epistle commence by referring to Him under the title of “the Logos.” In each mention is made of “the beginning.” The contrasts are equally marked. In John 1:1, Christ is viewed absolutely, in His Godhead; here, relatively, as incarnate: in the former, His deity is contemplated; in the latter, His humanity. There it is “in the beginning,” here “from the beginning,” which express entirely distinct concepts. Quite another “beginning” is treated of: in the former, before time and creation began; in the latter, the opening of this Christian era.
Two different interpretations have been given to the clause “that which was from the beginning.” First, that it refers to Christ’s pre-incarnate and eternal existence, declaring what He was before He appeared on earth. Second, that it described what characterized Christ from the time of His incarnation, after He became “manifest” on earth. That all things were created by our Lord we firmly believe; of His eternal preexistence we have not a shadow of doubt; but we do not think that is in view here. Before anyone assumes that “in the beginning” and “from the beginning” are identical expressions, he should go to the trouble of very carefully examining every instance in the New Testament where the latter is found and ascertain how it is used. As he does so, he will discover it occurs in widely different connections and is employed in various senses. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 (and probably there alone) it certainly has the force of eternity. In Matthew 19:8, “from the beginning” signifies the commencement of human history. But in John 8:25; 15:27; 16:4, it clearly means from the start of our Lord’s public ministry.
The words “from the beginning” in our opening verse are found six times more in this epistle, and in none of them do they import eternity! “Brothers, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you have heard from the beginning,” (2:7)—from the lips of Christ. “You have known Him from the beginning,” (2:13)—when He was first made manifest to you. The same is meant in 2:24, and 3:11. “The Devil sins from the beginning,” (3:8)—of human history, for “murderer” in John 8:44 is literally “manslayer” In the opening verse of John’s Gospel Christ is depicted in His eternal relation to the Godhead, but here in a time state, as incarnate, as the clauses which follow make clearly evident, for their obvious design is to demonstrate the reality of His manhood. The Son’s assumption of flesh and blood opened a new era, changing as it did the world’s calendar from A.M. [NOTE: A.M. —Before A.D. (Latin Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord”) was generally adopted in the dating of documents, various other systems were employed at different periods and in different countries. The reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian is usually called the “Era of the Martyrs,” and its abbreviation is A.M. (for Latin anno-martyrdum). This “Era of the Martyrs” is also called the “Diocletianic Era” because it is dated from 284, the year this bitterly anti-Christian emperor began to reign. This is in recognition of the severe persecution of Christian churches under his reign.], to A.D. Christ’s descent to this earth inaugurated a fresh “beginning,” when there was to be a “new covenant.” Now began to be brought in the substance of all the Levitical shadows; now began the Messianic prophecies to receive their fulfillment.
Quotations from several orthodox expositors of the highest repute could be given to show that in what we have said above no “strange doctrine” has been advanced. Let the following one suffice. The translator and annotator upon Calvin’s commentary on this epistle said in his footnote to verse one, “It is more consistent with the passage to take ‘from the beginning’ here as from the beginning of the Gospel, from the beginning of the ministry of our Saviour, because what had been from the beginning was what the apostles had heard and seen. That another view has been taken of those words has been owing to an over-anxiety on the part of many, especially of the fathers, to establish the deity of our Saviour; but that is what is sufficiently evident from the second verse.” It is the human nature of our Lord that verse one treats of, and most assuredly that had an historical “beginning.”
Most of the commentators have had considerable difficulty with the prefatory “That which was from the beginning” and varied have been the speculations as to why the neuter gender was used rather than “He who was.” Obviously, the words are to be explained by the clauses which immediately follow: yet some deem even them to be too indefinite to enable us to arrive at any certainty. On the face of it, it appears incongruous to refer to a Divine Person as “that which:” on the other side, one can scarcely speak of seeing and handling with our hands a “Message.” But no difficulty remains if we take the whole verse to be treated of our Lord’s manhood. The humanity of Christ was not a person, but a thing which He condescended to assume and take into union with His person. Proof of this is found in the words of the Angel to Mary, “that holy thing which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God,” (Luke 1:35)—just as a woman is given the name of her husband as soon as she is wed to him. The Word’s becoming flesh and tabernacling among men marked a new beginning in the world’s history.
“That which was from the beginning.” Those words, when taken by themselves, are admittedly indefinite and mysterious; yet men have greatly added to their difficulty by making “from the beginning” synonymous with “in the beginning,” i.e. without beginning. If “from the beginning” has the force of from eternity, then no satisfactory explanation can be given of the neuter and abstract “that which,” for the allusion could not be to anything created, since matter is not from everlasting; and so far as we have observed, none who take that view have made any real attempt to grapple with the difficulty. If “from the beginning” signifies from eternity, then it must be a Divine person that is in view, and in such case “He who was” would be required. On the other hand, if the reference is to the Divine incarnation, and more specifically still to the human nature which the Son of God took unto Himself, all difficulty vanishes.
In our introductory remarks, reference was made to the fact that those whom John immediately addressed were being assailed by heretical teachers (2:26). Many conjectures have been made as to the precise nature of their errors, and the names of those who propagated them. Most probably they were a branch of the Gnostics, Ebion and Cerentheus being the leaders; but this cannot be determined for sure. What we may be certain about them is, (1) that those who were then seeking to seduce John’s converts had themselves once been professing Christians, but later apostatized (2:19); and (2) that they denied the reality of our Lord’s humanity, (4:3). It is, then, with the design of counteracting that error that John here lays so much emphasis upon the evidences which the incarnate Word had presented to the very senses of His apostles. The “Christian (?) Gnostics” taught that Christ’s body was but a phantasm, a mere temporary appearance assumed for the benefit of the world.
“That which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life”—the “that which was from the beginning” is repeated (identically in the Greek) in each of the three clauses, in this way explaining it! In those words, John intimates (as the following verse more explicitly states) his intention of describing an experience and knowledge of Christ with which he and his fellow apostles have been favored. It was far more than a message about life which had been delivered by word of mouth, more than a perfect but abstract ideal of life, which he would treat of, namely that Life which had appeared in personal and human form in Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son, who had exhibited a life which was eternal and indestructible, even the very life of God. John’s adding of one clause to another, in progressive and climacteric order, was designed not simply to show that he was speaking about Jesus Christ and none other, but rather to declare that that which was to be announced concerning Him was an absolute certainty and exhibited truth—not only the truth about Him, but what John himself had actually heard, seen, and handled of Him.
Immediately after his opening clause, John proceeded to give proofs that Christ was really and verily man, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh: that “in all things it behoved Him to be made like unto His brothers,” (Heb. 2:17). His body was a palpable one—visible, audible, tangible. By it the Saviour made full demonstration to each sense of their bodies that His was as real as were those of His apostles. The genuineness of Christ’s humanity—denied by the Gnostics and by those now calling themselves “Christian Scientists”—is a cardinal doctrine of the faith once delivered to the saints, and for which we are bidden to “contend earnestly.” In that body which God prepared Him (Heb. 10:5)—which the Holy Spirit supernaturally produced from the substance of His mother—He lived, died, rose again, ascended to heaven, where He is now beheld in its glorified state; and in which He will yet come again (Acts 1:11). At the Divine incarnation the Son of God became what He was not before—“being found in fashion as a man,” (Phil. 2:8). Our nature was taken into union with His divine person. Thus, the first verse of our epistle is parallel with John 1:14, rather than with the opening verse of his Gospel.
John commences his epistle by setting before us God manifest in flesh, because He is the grand Subject of the Gospel, the Object of our faith, the Foundation of our hope, the One who brings us to and unites us in fellowship with the Father. The Gospel is no mere abstraction, but is inseparably connected with the Lord Jesus. As Levi Palmer so beautifully expressed it, “As the ray of light depends upon the sun, and a wave of sea upon the ocean, so Gospel truth is but the acts, and words, and glory of Christ.” As it is impossible to know and receive Christ apart from the Gospel, so we cannot receive the Gospel except from Him. It was John’s design to make known what sure and firm ground our faith in the Gospel rests upon. He relates not that which he had received second-hand, nor even what he had beheld in a vision, but rather that of which he had first-hand and ocular acquaintance. What he was advancing was real and true, in contrast with all that is merely imaginary, speculative, or dreamed about. His four verbs in verse one not only mark a progress from the more general to the more particular, but breathe a greater intensity as he proceeds.
“That which we have heard.” John was with Christ throughout the whole of His ministry, and chronicled more of what He said than did any of his fellows. This is given the first place because the utterances of Christ are of more importance than His miracles; so in his Gospel John recorded a greater number of His discourses than did the other evangelists. This indicates the reverential esteem in which he held the Lord’s teaching, as well as supplies guarantee of the accuracy of his report. “Heard” includes more than the actual sound of His voice, namely all the gracious words which issued from His mouth, and also possibly having a special allusion to John 13-16. “We have heard” goes deeper than the words of Christ falling upon their ears: it signifies that their souls had felt the power of what He said—“did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us by the way?” (Luke 24:32). If the enemies of Christ acknowledged, “Never man spake like this man,” what must the regenerated apostles have felt? The Lord Jesus wrote nothing, but He spoke much, and we have great cause for thankfulness that God moved the apostles to record so much of what He said, that we too may hear Him (via the printed page) for ourselves.
“That which we have seen.” This is by no means to be restricted to His miracles of healing and other supernatural works, but understood as including the perfections displayed by His character and conduct as He, untiringly, “went about doing good.” Seen, “with our eyes” is added for the purpose of emphasis, to show the verity and corporeality of Christ, that it is an historical entity which is here in view. Here too the reference is not limited to the mere sight of their bodily eyes, but implies also their spiritual perception of His peerless excellency. “That which we have looked upon.” This is no tautology, but expresses a closer and more deliberate inspection, for which John (as one of the three in the innermost circle) had peculiar opportunities. “Looked upon” is the same Greek word as “we beheld His glory” in John 1:14, and means to gaze at with desire and delight. “And our hands have handled” probably has both a special reference to His resurrection body and a more general one to the closeness of their contact with Him during the days of His flesh; such precluding all possibility of any optical illusion.
The physical experience of the favored apostles, as set forth by the four verbs in verse 1, is duplicated in the spiritual history of each Christian, and in the same progressive order. At first, his knowledge of Christ is limited to what he hears of Him in the Gospel. Then, when the miracle of grace has been wrought within him, he sees Christ with the eyes of faith—loving and giving Himself for him. Later, as he grows in grace, and becomes more and more enamored of Him, he looks upon Him more steadfastly and closely with the eyes of love and adoration; the result of all being that, in a spiritual way, he handles Christ. He has become a bright, living, experiential reality to him. The matchless charms and superlative glories of the Saviour make everything else appear mean and contemptible to him. The soul now has before it a heavenly Object, infinitely excelling all the perishing things of earth. It is an inestimable privilege if reader and writer are among those who can say “we see Jesus,” (Heb. 2:9). Happy day, blessed hour, when our eyes were first opened to behold Him as the Redeemer of our souls. Oh, to behold Him more distinctly and devotedly. The more we contemplate His peerless person, amazing love, and perfect work, the sooner will sin lose its hold over us, the world its charms, and death be robbed of all terror.
For the young preacher we would suggest the following outline, “The Divine Incarnation:” (1) The new era which it inaugurated—(Gal, 4:4). (2) Proofs of the reality of His humanity, (John 20:30-31). (3) The witnesses of it—the apostles—(Luke 1:2 & 4). (4) The title here accorded Christ: “The Word of life”— (Act 3:15). (5) The bearing of this verse on the theme of the epistle. Under these heads may be arranged most of the material in this article.