Is there significance to the order in which the actions of 1 John 1:1 are listed? “Which we have heard [perfect tense], which we have seen [perfect] with our eyes, which we have looked at [aorist] and our hands have touched [aorist]–this we proclaim [present].” (I distinguish here four actions, not five based on the relative pronoun “that which” ( ὃ ) which introduces each action. “Looked and our hands have touched” describes a single action–somewhat akin to what might think about as a “careful examination of an object held in the hands.” It is 1) hearing, 2) seeing, 3) handling, and finally 4) proclaiming.)
1) Hearing – I think, yet again, there is an important parallel here to the creation account of Genesis which I will expound upon briefly in what follows.
After the “topic sentence” of Gen 1:1, which informs us that it was God who created heaven and earth in the beginning, we are immediately informed in v. 2 that the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of the yet formless and void creation. I want to suggest that the statement of the presence of the Spirit in 1:2 is vitally important for what happens in1:3, mainly, that when God begins to speak into creation, he does not speak into a “receptorless” void; on the contrary, the Spirit of God is already “there” in creation to hear and to receive the spoken creative Word of God. In other words, when God begins to speak, we should understand that there is already “someone” in creation to hear God’s speaking, namely God’s own Spirit, God’s own “hearing” of the Word. When God speaks, he does not speak merely into the formless and void emptiness, but ensures that he is heard by his own Spirit. As Isaiah 55:11 puts it, “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” So much for the priority of “hearing” the Word which is already there in the beginning. So, too, in 1 John 1, there is an implied assurance that that which is spoken is heard because there is a guarantee that in the Spirit, the Word is never spoken in vain, but is received by the Holy Spirit. It is a guarantee that ensures for us (especially when we get to thinking about proclamation) that the preaching of the Word will be surely heard, even if outwardly all evidence appears to the contrary.
2) Seeing – God not only speaks creation into existence, but he consistently pauses to see it as well: “God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:9, 12, 17, 21, 25, 31). Note, though, the contrast in Gen 3: The woman “sees” the fruit, that it is good for food and gaining wisdom, even though her “seeing” is in explicit contradiction to the Word which God had spoken concerning the tree (2:17). In contradistinction to the “invisible realities” of the Platonic cosmology, the author of 1 John unashamedly announces that this eternal reality of which he speaks has been seen with his own eyes. This is an implicit rejection of the then common Platonic hierarchy of being, which places the invisible as higher and more real than the visible. John, on the other hand, locates the “arche” (beginning principle) as that which seen, and to be sure, even heard and handled as well.
3) Handling– The Gen 2 account of the creation, somewhat in contrast to Gen 1, portrays the Lord God as having more of a “hands on” approach to creation. He “forms” the man and the beasts and the birds from the ground (2:7-8, 19). He also “takes and puts” the man in the Garden (2:8, 15), and “takes” a rib out of the man, “makes” a woman, and “brings” the woman to the man (2:21-22). The picture is, of course, an intimate one, with the Lord God “handling” his creation and, in a sense, “re-creating” out of that which had previously been spoken into existence. Genesis 2 pictures God as not only the transcendent God who speaks creation in existence by divine fiat, but as a God who immanently comes close to hand. So, too, in 1 John 1:1, the author makes it clear that this “which has been from the beginning” has come so close that it has been allowed to be handled and examined.
[Excursus: If in fact, John is the author of the epistle and the Gospel, it is interesting to note that only the Gospel of John has the story about Thomas putting his finger in Jesus’ wounds (John 20:26-29). Though we often read the story with a degree of judgmentalism upon Thomas for his disbelief, it may be possible to read it more sympathetically such that Jesus is saying, “Unlike the rest who saw me before, I now give myself to you to be handled and examined. Now stop doubting and believe.” I think, in other words, that Thomas’ request, as an apostle called to be an eyewitness to the risen Lord, was entirely appropriate, and Jesus ensured that he, too, saw him in his resurrected state, such that he could fufill, along with the other remaining 10, the task of being an firsthand eyewitness.]
4) Proclaiming – The full sequence of hearing, seeing, handling and proclaiming is completed at the end of Gen 2 when “brings” the woman he had just made to the man. Interestingly, there is no record of Adam saying “thank you” to God but rather, one can imagine Adam waking up, seeing the woman, touching her and examining her, and then excitedly proclaiming his discovery: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman for he was taken out of man” (Gen 2:28). Again, the author of 1 John concludes his introductory sentence by declaring that all which has been heard, seen, and handled is not to be “hidden under a bushel,” but to be proclaimed as nothing less than “the Word of life.”
So what does this all mean? Three things are important, as I see it.
First, I think John is deliberately “mimicking” the creative ordering of God’s own creative work as seen in the Genesis creation accounts. His use of the word “beginning” seems unavoidably to point us in that direction.
Second, I think John wants us to understand that the creative word of God precedes all hearing, seeing, and handling, proclaiming, but it is precisely in the hearing, seeing, and handling of the “Word made flesh” that all proclamation of the Gospel is made possible. Proclamation, from the beginning, is not merely a testimony of something heard privately in the secret recesses of the heart or mind, but is publicly grounded in a bodily, physical manifestation made available not only to the ear, but also to the eye and the hand. [How that applies to us today I will deal with in a later post].
Third, I think we have here a solid hint that the work of proclaiming the incarnate Christ is the ongoing work of God’s creation of and sustenance of all life. Because “the life appeared” and because that life has been “seen,” it can be now proclaimed as “the eternal life which was with the Father and [which] has appeared” to the apostle (v. 2)
Before leaving this very important opening verse, I want to suggest that the pattern here not only aligns with the creative work of God in Genesis, but that we also see it at work in the Gospels as well. I think here especially (though not exclusively) of the infancy narratives of Jesus where one can observe the same order of hearing, seeing, handling and proclaiming.
Hearing – Of course, the birth of Jesus is preceded in a number of instances of “hearing” God’s word, long before there is any physical evidence to be seen or handled. A word from the angel of the Lord is spoken to Joseph. “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20). Mary, too, hears a word from the angel, that it would be the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gen 1:2?) by which the miracle of the birth would be accomplished (Lk 1:26-38). Other hearing includes the angelic announcement to the shepherds, and in other Gospel accounts where the infancy narrative is not highlighted, the ministry of John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the one which was to come (Mk 1:2-8; Jn 1:15; 19-28).
Seeing – Once Jesus is born, Luke informs of us that the shepherds, who had heard the angelic announcement, declaring, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Lk 2:15). Luke also tells us that Simeon (and Anna) are waiting for the coming Messiah. As Simeon says, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk 2: 23-30). Matthew immediately takes us to the story of the visit of the Magi, who come upon “seeing” the star in the east: “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship” (Matt 2:2) [Interestingly, the Magi apparently do not come in response to an angelic announcement, but an astronomical appearance. Yet, it seems difficult to imagine that their sight was not informed in some way by the holy writings of Scripture, perhaps Num 24:17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.] In contrast, notice that Herod “heard” the report that the child was to be born in Bethlehem, but his hearing is not a receptive one, but filled with fear, revulsion, and violence (Matt 2:3-4). Consequently, though Herod asks to see (Matt 2:8), his request is disingenuous and he is not given the opportunity (Matt 2:12).
Handling – And then, the fullest extent of the narrative moves forward by handling. Luke insists on reporting that the Baby was wrapped by Mary in strips of cloth and placed him in the manger (Lk 2:7) which would act as a physical sign to the shepherds (Lk 2:12). Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day (Lk 2:21), and Simeon is also given the opportunity to take the child in his arms (Lk 2:28).
Proclaiming – Finally, each of these acts of hearing, seeing, and handling are followed up by proclamation. The Magi worship (Matt 2:11); the shepherds glorify and praise God for “all the things they had heard and seen” (Lk 2:20); Simeon and Anna, too, glorifying God, though specifically we are told that Anna “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38).
So is the order of the actions mentioned in 1 John 1:1 significant? I certainly think so. The question that is yet unanswered, though, is what we do now that we no longer are able to see or handle the risen Lord ourselves. Does our proclamation have to “make do” in the absence of a tangible presence of the Word of Life? The verb tenses, at the very least, seem to indicate that proclamation is a “present” thing based upon past (aorist) events. But I think that’s something that will be best handled when I look at verses 2-4 in the next post.