It’s Christmas time and many of us are busy with last minute gifts, family get-togethers, and for Christians, remembering the reason we celebrate this holiday: God coming down and dwelling among us. As I was thinking about this truth, I wondered if most of us could really defend the Incarnation of Jesus. That brought me David Levy’s Israel My Glory magazine article on 1 John 1:1-4. I hope you’re encouraged and will learn as I did from reading this timeless piece.
Before the apostle John wrote the book of 1 John, he had already lived through the inception, expansion, and persecution of the first-century church and had dealt with many doctrinal errors. He was on the Jerusalem council that addressed issues unique to the early church on whether Gentiles could be saved if they did not follow the “custom of Moses” (circumcision, Acts 15:1). He also confronted some of the seven churches of Asia Minor that had allowed false teachers to gain a strong foothold within the church, calling on them to repent.
When John began this letter, he did not take time to write a formal salutation but launched immediately into a theological statement concerning the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation is the cornerstone of the Christian faith and the standard by which all doctrines concerning Christ must be judged. To deny Christ’s Incarnation exposes false teachers as unbelievers.
John and the other apostles were eyewitnesses to Christ’s humanity. They ministered with Him for more than three years and knew for certain He had come in the flesh. They saw His suffering, death, and resurrection.
With this epistle, John again picked up his pen to address doctrinal error, this time within a new generation of Christians who were being inundated with false teachers. And he focused on Christ’s Incarnation.
John proved three truths about the incarnate Christ: (1) Christ is God, coequal with and of the same substance and essence as God the Father; (2) Christ possesses the attributes of omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, immutability, and eternality that belong only to God; and (3) Christ is the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh and now exists as the God-Man.
From its inception, the gospel message of mankind’s redemption and reconciliation to God began with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. It is central to the faith, belief, and life of all true Christians.
In two short sentences (one long sentence in the Greek text), John explained Jesus is the incarnate Word of life. The first four verses reveal that (1) John personally experienced Christ in the flesh, (2) Jesus came from God the Father to declare eternal life, and (3) all Christians can have the same fellowship with Jesus that he and the other apostles possessed.
The first verse contains four relative clauses relating to Jesus Christ that begin with the word which:
“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, concerning the Word of life.” The clauses do not refer to Christ personally but, rather, to things that are true about Him from the beginning. The word was is a verb of being, not of coming into existence; and it shows Jesus always existed—a claim for Christ’s eternality.
Commentators interpret the first clause, “that which was from the beginning,” to mean one of the following: the initial creation of all things (Gen. 1:1), Christ’s preexistence (Jn. 1:1), Christ’s Incarnation (v. 14), the beginning of Christ’s proclamation of the gospel, or the beginning of the apostles’ teaching about Christ’s ministry (words and works). The key is what the word from refers to.
It would seem, from the other three relative clauses, that the emphasis is not on tracing Christ back to His preexistence but, rather, looking from His Incarnation forward. That is, John was not proving Christ’s deity, as he did in his Gospel (Jn. 1:1); he was assuming Christ’s deity and proving the divine Christ is totally human. He wanted to refute the heresies of Docetism and Gnosticism (that Christ’s humanity was not real and that He was merely an emanation from God and only seemed human).
John and the other apostles were eyewitnesses to Christ’s humanity. They ministered with Him for more than three years and knew for certain He had come in the flesh (1 Jn. 4:2–3). They saw His suffering, death, and resurrection. Since John spoke of hearing, seeing, and touching the Lord, he likely was referring to the Incarnation as “the beginning.”
The second clause, “which we have heard,” indicates John and the apostles received a revelation from Christ that they understood in human terms. Their personal, intimate fellowship with Him produced an undeniable, unshakable assurance that He was the Messiah, the Son of God, who had come in the flesh.
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The third clause, “which we have seen with our eyes,” indicates John and the others visually encountered the incarnate Christ and understood His significance. The words with our eyes reinforce the fact that Jesus was not a spiritual emanation from God, a phantom-like figure, or a vision; He was God in the flesh. The words have seen (Greek perfect tense) indicate what John saw of Christ during His earthly ministry was still visible in his mind’s eye.
The fourth clause, “which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled,” provides further evidence of the Incarnation. John and the apostles examined Christ so intently and completely they had no doubt about His literal, physical humanity. They did more than simply look at Him; they actually “handled” His body, which gave them conclusive evidence of His Incarnation.
John closed verse 1 with a summary: “concerning the Word of [the] life.” The Greek text has the definite article the before life. In other words, Jesus Christ is the “Word” (Greek, logos ) of God (cf. Jn. 1:1), the One who sets forth the truth of and about God; and eternal life resides in Him. He is the source of life and the light of man’s salvation (cf. Jn. 1:4). Thus Christ is both the Preacher of God’s message and the Message of life (i.e., gospel) itself. Both reside in Him.
We will continue part two next week.