One of the cardinal rules in writing is not to make sentences too long. A good sentence should be concise, containing no unnecessary words. It is easy to make a sentence too wordy, and in the process lose the reader. When we come to First John 1:1-4, the Apostle introduces his epistle with a sentence that covers four verses. In the Greek it is one majestic sentence of 87 words (in KJV 108 words)! Leon Morris writes that, while profound in its content, the entire four verses of the prologue being “but one highly compressed and complicated sentence in the Greek.”  It is as if John doesn’t know where to begin and where to end. What a profound sentence it is! It is a sentence which contains so many sparkling diamonds of truth it would take a lifetime to unpack all the treasures contained within.
While the majority of English translations put a period after verse 3 for the sake of readability, 1:1-4 is a sentence bursting with heaven’s illuminating brilliance whereby John with each inspired word seeks to pierce the darkness with the radiance of the Light of Christ. (The ASV translates it as one sentence). The four verses read: “1That 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; 2 (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) 3 That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” (KJV)
The aged disciple of Christ writes what reads more like a sermon than a letter, to churches in Asia Minor about 95 AD. The content of his eighty-seven-word opening sentence is like a musical filled with soaring crescendos. It is so rich in truth a whole commentary could be written on just those four verses, so just the hem of the sentence’s garment will be touched. Seeking to unpack some the golden nuggets found within 1:1-4, it is hoped it will whet the appetite of the reader to dig deeper into the text. O, what a sentence.
I. The Eternality of the Word
First, we discover The Eternality of the Word in verses 1-2. John refers to Jesus Christ in his epistle as he did in his gospel, as the Word, the Logos – more specifically the “Word of Life.” In Greek Philosophy “Logos” was that one abiding principle in all the universe that never changed and was the force by which all existed; the Logos was the Ultimate Reason which controlled all things. John informs the Logos was more than an impersonal force, but a Person in whom was life, eternal life. That person was Jesus Christ. Two truths John reveals about the Word of Life, Jesus Christ.
(1) The Eternal Existence of the Word. John says, “That which was from the beginning” (v. 1). The Greek word translated “was” (ἦν) is in the imperfect tense, it speaks of continuous action in past time. “Was” emphasizes the preexistence and divine character of Christ. Christ, the Word did not come into being at some point in time. Christ has eternally existed from “the beginning” (v. 1), thus He is not a created being.
(2) The Eternal Equality of the Word. The Word was not lesser than God, but was God. John writes that the Word was “with the Father” (v. 2). The Greek phrase “with the Father” (πρὸς τὸν πατέρα) indicates one who is facing the Father, one who is on an equal plane with the Father. The Word, who is eternal, is eternal life Himself. John is clearly teaching the Trinity, that one God exists as three Persons. “With the Father” reveals that Christ and the Father are equal and one, yet distinct in their person. While there will always be a mystery about the Triune Godhead, the majestic words “with the Father” cause us to bow in worshipful awe.
II. The Entrance of the Word into the World
Second, we discover from John’s opening sentence The Entrance of the Word into the World (v. 1-2). Two truths stand out about the Logos, Christ’s entrance into the world.
(1) The Word came to Earth as a Man. John says twice in verse 2 Jesus was “manifested.” He who was eternal, He who was equal with God, He who was God, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The word “manifest” (phaneroo) means to make visible or known what has been hidden or unknown. The word was used to speak of a bright light appearing, like the sun. It is in the passive voice, meaning that God coming to earth robed in flesh was totally separate from any action of man, but it was God who took the initiative. Man is a recipient of God’s action in His revealing Himself. While creation teaches us there is a Supreme Being, we could not know God personally apart from Him taking the initiative to revel Himself in Jesus Christ. In Christ the invisible God became visible. John is clearly affirming the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
(2) The Word was Examined by Man. John is not writing about hearsay information, but as an eyewitness. He says he actually heard Jesus speak, looked upon Him, and handled Him with his hands (v. 1). When John says he handled Christ, the word he uses (ἐψηλάφησαν) means “to examine closely, to handle with a view of investigation.” John in describing his examination and encounter with Jesus uses the perfect tense, which means that which happened in the past still has lasting results in the present. He is saying, “What I heard Jesus say is still ringing in my ears and what I saw him do is still in my mind’s eye 60 years later. What I heard, I can’t unhear; what I saw, I can’t unsee.” To all the naysayers who contend Jesus was not a historical person, John knew for a fact He walked on earth, because he saw, heard, and touched Him, and He was more than a mere man. John affirms Christ was God become flesh. He is the revelation of God seen in human form. Upon careful examination and investigation of Christ, John was convinced beyond all doubt that He who was called the Word was the transcendent God invading time.
III. The Enduring Witness for the Word
Third, we discover from John’s opening sentence The Enduring Witness for the Word (v. 2-3). John makes it clear that which he heard, saw and touched, he bore “witness” to (v. 2) and “declared” to others (v. 3). The word “witness” (martureo) means to testify of and was used to speak of someone who was a witness in court. It is in the present tense which means he was an ongoing witness for Christ. The word translated “show” (v. 2) and “declare” (v. 3) (anaggello) means to proclaim, report unto, to bring tidings from. It was used to speak of one who heralded news to the town. It is in the present tense, meaning he kept on proclaiming what he saw and heard. As to John’s certainty that Jesus was the Word, two truths present themselves in his enduring witness and declaration of Jesus Christ.
(1) John Declares Christ as Fact. Once again, the Apostle says he is declaring what he had seen and heard (v. 3). It is a fact. John is saying, “We deliver nothing by hearsay, nothing by tradition, nothing from conjecture; we have had the fullest certainty of all that we write and preach.” Again, John uses the perfect tense, meaning what he saw and heard had so impacted him that the voice of Christ is still ringing in his ears and what he saw he can’t unsee. Because John had a personal encounter with the Living Christ, he can’t help but declare Him, and continue to declare Him. The Good News that is worth proclaiming is that God in Christ has visited earth to restore the brokenness of humanity.
(2) John Declares we are Called into Fellowship. John declares Christ is the God-Man, therefore, we have been called into fellowship with one another and with the Father and the Son (v. 3). Fellowship with one another in Jesus Christ, issues from a real, practical, fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ. The word translated “fellowship” (koinonia) means “belonging in common to, participation in/partnership in.” It carries with it the meaning of communion, participation, share a common life, and partnership. In Hellenistic literature it was used to describe partners in business, joint owners of a piece of property, or shareholders in a common enterprise. The idea is that of one person having a joint-participation with another in something possessed in common by both. The word koinonia indicates the setting aside of private interest and desires and the joining in with another or others for common purposes. John says for the Christian that common interest and purpose is Jesus Christ, the Living Word. Fellowship with Christ and with one another is the bond that ties believers together.
The kind of relationship John describes is only possible because Jesus is who John says He is in 1 John 1:1-2, the Word of Life. If someone invited you to have a “personal relationship” with a past historical person you would think them foolish. One cannot have a genuine “spiritual” relationship with a dead man. But with the eternal God who became man and who arose from the dead we can have a relationship with Him and one another.
IV. The Explanation for Writing
Fourth, we discover from John’s opening sentence The Explanation for Writing (v. 4). He writes, “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” “These things” of which John is writing refers to the entire contents of the letter. As the reader digests the contents of what John penned, his prayer is that the reader will be filled with the joy of all that the Living Christ accomplished. The word translated “be full” means complete overflowing joy. It is in the perfect tense, meaning joy that continues and persists throughout the believer’s life. John desires his readers possess the assurance of knowing that they are in fellowship with the one in whom eternal life is found, for there is where true joy is found. Throughout the letter John hammers home the truth that our joy comes from knowing that in Christ we have eternal life (5:13), knowing God is love (4:16), loving our fellowman (2:9-10), not living in habitual sin (3:6-7), knowing that greater is he that lives in us than he that is the world (4:4), knowing we have an “Advocate” when we do sin who cleanses us from all unrighteousness (2:1-2), living in such a way that we will not be ashamed before Him at His coming (2:28), and in this world we can live as “overcomers” (5:4). When the Christian is cognizant of those truths, there is created a joy within that the world can’t give.
John wants his readers to realize that Christ is the source, object and center of the Christian’s joy. It is a joy that can only be found in an abiding relationship with the Living Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. It is entering into abiding fellowship with Christ and fellow Christians that John desired for his readers and desires for you and I. Expressing that desire, John brings his lengthy sentence to an end.
As one can see, trying to plumb the depths of John’s opening sentence is like trying to dive into the deepest depths of the ocean or ascending to the highest mountain peak. One would have a better chance of counting the sands on the seashores of the world than to ever fully grasp the wonder of John’s thoughts as he searches for words to describe the magnificence of Christ and how He affected his life.
O, what a sentence. O, what a Savor!
Leon Morris, “I John,” The New Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1970), 1260.