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 at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
The opening verse of 1 John accomplishes two tasks: 1) It specifies the subject matter of the epistle (i.e., the “topic”); and 2) It establishes a proper ordering by which it is appropriate to speak of this subject matter. This post will deal with #1. The next post will deal with #2.
The Subject Matter
“That which was from the beginning” – (Ὃ ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς). In my introductory comments on 1 John in canonical context, I spoke about two other canonical instances in which “the beginning” is highlighted: Gen 1:1 and John 1:1. The Gen 1 “beginning” refers, I think, to our beginning –the beginning of the world in which we find ourselves. The very first verse of the Bible is revelatory, not just because it tells us that the world in which we find ourselves is not self-existent (this is what T. F. Torrance means when he speaks of the “contingency” of Creation), but also because it tell us who the world is contingently dependent upon: God [Elohim]. This first “beginning” passage tells us to whom the world is related and to whom the world owes its existence, God the Creator.
In John 1:1, the second “beginning” passage, there is an expansion of the Gen 1 revelation such that we are told that before our beginning, there already was something (someone) alongside the God who created, namely, his Word–a Word which becomes flesh and dwells with us (cf. John 1:14). While Gen 1 speaks of the contingency of our world relative to the Creator God who made it, John 1 fills out and clarifies the nature of that God/world relationship by introducing us to the Incarnation of the Word by which there is a “real” connection between God and the world. In other words, taken together, Gen 1 and John 1 enable us to confess that the God and his Word are (is) the Creator of heaven and earth, and the Word of God become flesh is the one through whom creation is made, and in whom we have a relationship to God. Thus, this second “beginning” passage tells us through whom we are related to God.
When we come to the third canonical “beginning” found in 1 John 1:1, the original two beginnings are expanded with an additional third clarifcation: that which (or “the one whom”) is from the beginning has come alongside us does not simply appear and wait to be discovered, as it were. Rather, he has given of himself to be examined by the apostolic witnesses: they hear, see, and handle him, but not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the world. This is why this one, who is from the beginning, is now proclaimed in the world. It as if God “completes” (cf 1 John 1:4) the revelation of his relationship to the world by extending it not only to those first-hand witnesses who heard and saw and handled the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, but also to the rest of creation in and through the act of proclaiming this Word become flesh. It is in the preaching of this enfleshed Word that the revelation of the God/creation relationship located in Christ carries on through creation. And of course, the efficacy of such witness and proclamation is not something that we ourselves can accomplish, but which relies upon the work of the Holy Spirit, breathed out and sent by the Word of God himself (John 15:26, 20:22).
So notice the canonical progression of the three beginnings: Gen 1:1 speaks of the original relationship between God and the world, a relationship of dependence and contingency. The world is not self-existing, but exists by virtue of God’s creative activity. John 1 expands our understanding of that relationship by noting the concrete location at which God relates to the world–through his Word become flesh. “In him was life,” John says (John 1:4) and it is in the Word become flesh that we are who we are as God’s living creatures (cf. Gen 2:7 “living beings”). But a problem remains unresolved in John 1, and that is that even though the God/world relationship through the Word of God is that which is “really real,” it is a real relationship that the world does not see, understand or recognize. (“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” John 1:10). Consequently,1 John 1 comes in to “resolve” the problem of the unknownness of this God/world relationship in Christ by suggesting that those who have witnessed to the one who is from the beginning are incumbent to proclaim that relationship to the world–a proclamation enabled by the Spirit of God himself.
So given this canonically shaped reading of the opening phrase of 1 John 1:1, what should be concluded about how this might inform our reading of 1 John? While in many respects, it would be possible simply to say that the subject matter of 1 John should be understood to be “Jesus Christ, the one who is from the beginning,” that would be only partially correct. For if theme of the Gospel of John is the Word become flesh (John 1:14), Jesus the Christ, the Son of God (cf. John 20:31), then the theme of 1 John is “Jesus Christ proclaimed”, or more fully, “Jesus Christ, the one who is proclaimed in the world for the sake of fellowship with God the Father, and with one another.” Unlike Genesis, which is only hints a christology ( “proto-christology”) and unlike the Gospel of John which is all about “christology proper” (“incarnate christology”), 1 John has as its theme “proclaimed christology” (“kergymatic” or “ascension” or even “pneumatic christology” since the “proclaimed Christ” is as such only through the Holy Spirit). And yet, to use the scheme of Hebrews, all three “beginnings,” though sounding separate christological notes, speak in complete harmony of the same Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8).