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Clarke's Commentary on the Bible
Preface to the First Epistle of John
As the author of this epistle is the same who wrote the gospel, I need not detain the reader with any particulars of his life, having taken up the subject pretty much at large in my preface to his gospel, to which I must refer for that species of information.
Two questions have been urged relative to this epistle, which are very difficult to be solved:
1. When was it written?
2. To whom was it sent?
The precise year it is impossible to determine; but it was probably written before the destruction of Jerusalem; and perhaps about the year 68 or 69, though some think not before 80. The second question Michaelis answers thus: -
"This question is still more difficult to decide than the preceding. In the Latin version it was formerly called The Epistle of St. John to the Parthians; and this title was adopted by some of the ancient fathers, and in modern times has been defended by Grotius. But if St. John had intended this epistle for the use of the Parthians, he would hardly have written it in Greek, but would have used either the language of the country, or, if he was unacquainted with it, would have written at least in Syriac, which was the language of the learned in the Parthian empire, and especially of the Christians. We know, from the history of Manes, that even the learned in that country were for the most part unacquainted with the Greek language; for to Manes, though he united literature with genius, his adversaries objected that he understood only the barbarous Syriac. That a Grecian book would not have been understood in the Parthian empire, appears from what Josephus says in the preface to his History of the Jewish War, where he declares that a work intended for Parthian Jews must be written, not in Greek, but Hebrew. However, it is worth while to examine whence the superscription 'ad Parthos' took its rise. Whiston conjectures that an ancient Greek superscription of this epistle was προς παρθενους, (to virgins), because this epistle is chiefly addressed to uncorrupted Christians, and that this title was falsely copied προς Παρθαυς, whence was derived the Latin superscription, 'ad Parthos.' But this conjecture is without foundation; for since the faithful are not called in a single instance throughout the whole epistle by the name of παρθενους, it is very improbable that the title προς παρθενους was ever affixed to it. I would rather suppose, therefore, that the frequent use in this epistle of the words 'light' and 'darkness,' which occur in the Persian philosophy, and on the same occasions as those on which St. John has used them, gave rise to the opinion that St. John wrote it with a view of correcting the abuses of the Persian philosophy; whence it was inferred that he designed it for the use of the Christians in the Parthian empire. That St. John really designed his epistle as a warning to those Christians who were in danger of being infected with Zoroastrian principles, is very probable, though the language of the epistle will not permit us to place St. John's readers in a country to the east of the Euphrates.
"Lampe, who appeals to Theodoret, contends that it, was not designed for any particular community, but that it was written for the use of Christians of every denomination; and this is really the most probable opinions since the epistle contains no reference to any individual Church. The only difficulty attending this opinion lies in the name 'epistle,' because the frequent use in an epistle of the terms 'light and darkness,' taken in the Persian sense of these words, seems to imply that it was written to persons of a particular description. But if we call it a treatise, this difficulty will cease; and in fact, the name 'epistle' is improperly applied to it, since it has nothing which entitles it to this appellation. It does not begin with the salutation which is used in Greek epistles, and with which St. John himself begins his two last epistles; nor does it contain any salutations, though they are found in almost all the epistles of the apostles. It is true that St. John addresses his readers in the second person; but this mode of writing is frequently adopted in books, and especially in prefaces: for instance, in Wolfe's Elements of Mathematics, the reader is addressed throughout in the second person, I therefore consider that which is commonly called the First Epistle of St. John as a book or treatise, in which the apostle declared to the whole world his disapprobation of the doctrines maintained by Cerinthus and the Gnostics. However, as I do not think it worth while to dispute about words, I have retained the usual title, and have called it the First Epistle of St. John.
"That the design of this epistle was to combat the doctrine delivered by certain false teachers, appears from 1 John 2:18-26; 1 John 3:7; 1 John 4:1-3 : and what this false doctrine was may be inferred from the counter doctrine delivered by St. John, 1 John 5:1-6. The apostle here asserts that Jesus is the Christ,' and that he was the Christ, 'not by water only, but by water and blood.' Now these words, which are not in themselves very intelligible, become perfectly clear if we consider them as opposed to the doctrine of Cerinthus, who asserted that Jesus was by birth a mere man; but that the Aeon, Christ, descended on him at his baptism, and left him before his death. But if what St. John says, 1 John 5:1-6, was opposed to Cerinthus, the Antichrists of whom he speaks, 1 John 2:18, 1 John 2:19, and who, according to 1 John 2:22, denied that Jesus was the Christ, as also the false prophets, mentioned 1 John 4:1, 1 John 4:3, must be Cerinthians, or at least Gnostics. That they were neither Jews nor heathens may be inferred from 1 John 2:19, where St. John says, 'They went out from us.' Farther, he describes them, 1 John 2:18, as persons who had lately appeared in the world. But this description suits neither Jews nor heathens, who, when this epistle was written, had not lately begun to deny that Jesus was the Christ. Lastly, in the same verse, he describes them as tokens of the last time, saying, 'As ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now there are many Antichrists, whereby we know that it is the last time.' But this inference could not be drawn from the refusal of the Jews to acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah. Now, as soon as we perceive that the position, 'Jesus is the Christ,' is a counter position against Cerinthus, we may infer, as I have already observed, that the Antichrists who denied that Jesus was the Christ, or who denied that Christ had appeared in the flesh, were Cerinthians; or perhaps the latter were Docetes. It is, therefore, highly probable that the whole epistle, which in various places discovers an opposition to false teachers, was written against Cerinthians, or at least against Gnostics and Magi. A proposition can never be completely understood, unless we know the author's design in delivering it. For instance, 'God is light, and in him is no darkness,' appears to contain a tautology, if we consider it as a detached dogma; and if it be considered as an admonitory proposition, it may be thought to contain a severe reproof; but if we regard it in a polemical view, it will present itself under a very different form. This epistle abounds with exhortations; but no man who wishes to understand it will be satisfied without asking the following questions: Why did St. John give these admonitions? Why has he so frequently repeated them? Why has he admonished, if he thought admonition necessary, merely in general terms, to holiness and brotherly love? And why has he not sometimes descended to particulars, as other apostles have done? An answer to these questions will throw great light on the epistle; and this light I will endeavor to procure for the reader, by pointing out the several propositions which, in my opinion, are laid down in opposition to Gnostic errors.
"1. In the first chapter the four first verses are opposed to the following assertion of the Gnostics: 'That the apostles did not deliver the doctrine of Jesus as they had received it, but made additions to it, especially in the commandments which were termed legal; whereof they themselves (the Gnostics) retained the genuine and uncorrupted mystery.' St. John therefore says: 'That he declared that which was from the beginning, which he himself had seen and heard;' that is, that he taught the doctrine of Christ as it was originally delivered, as he had heard it from Christ's own mouth, whose person he had seen and felt; and that he made no additions of his own, but only reported as a faithful witness. In like manner he appeals, 1 John 2:13, 1 John 2:14, to the elder Christians, whom he calls fathers, 'because they knew him who was from the beginning;' that is, because they knew how Christ had taught from the beginning; and 1 John 2:24, he says: 'Let that abide in you which ye have heard from the beginning.' Farther he says, 1 John 2:7 : 'Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment, which ye had from the beginning.' In the next verse he adds: 'Again a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you, because the darkness is past, and the light now shineth.' Now Christ himself had given his disciples a commandment which he called a new commandment, and this was, 'that they should love one another.' The term 'new commandment,' therefore, St. John borrowed from Christ; but in the present instance he appears to have applied it to a different subject, because the special command which Christ gave to his disciples, that they should love one another, and which he called a new commandment, could not well be called an old commandment, being very different from the general commandment, that we should love our neighbor. St. John, therefore, very probably meant that the commandment of love and sanctification was no new commandment, as the Gnostics contended, but the old commandment which the Christians had heard from the beginning. It was, indeed, become a new commandment, in consequence of the false doctrines which then prevailed; or rather, it appeared to be so, because the Gnostics had endeavored to banish it from their system of theology. But whether a new or an old commandment, St. John thought proper to enforce it.
"2. The Gnostics, who contended that those commandments which were legal were not given by Christ, but were added by the apostles without his authority, counteracted, by so doing, the whole doctrine of sanctification. St. John, therefore, devotes the greatest part of his epistle to the confirmation and enforcement of this doctrine. In 1 John 1:5, 1 John 1:7, he asserts, as a principal part of the message which he had heard from Christ, that no one who does not walk in the light has fellowship with God. In the three following verses he limits this proposition in such a manner as was necessary in arguing with an adversary; and 1 John 2:1, 1 John 2:2, he removes the objection, that, according to his doctrine, a Christian who was guilty of wilful sins lost thereby all hopes of salvation. He then maintains, 1 John 2:3-5, and apparently in allusion to the word γνωσις, knowledge, the favourite term of the Gnostics, that he who boasted of profound knowledge, and at the same time rejected the commandments of Christ, had not a real but only a pretended knowledge; and that in him only the love of God is perfected, τετελειωται, who keeps God's word. The expression τετελειωται is a term which was used in the schools of the philosophers, and applied to the scholars called esoterici, who had made a considerable progress in the inner school. Now the Gnostics were, in their own opinion, scholars of this description; but since they, whose imaginary system of theology annuls the commands of God, are so far from being perfect that they are not even beginners in the science, St. John very properly refuses to admit their pretensions, and opposes to them others who were perfect in a different way, and who were more justly entitled to the appellation. With respect to the expressions, 'keeping the commandments of God,' or 'not keeping his commandments,' it must be observed that, when used in a polemical work, they denote, not merely the observance or violation of God's commands in our own practice, but the teaching of others that they are to be observed or rejected. What St. John says, 1 John 2:7, 1 John 2:8, has been already explained in the preceding paragraph.
"The whole of the third chapter, and part of the fourth, is devoted to the doctrine of sanctification, on which I have to make the following remarks. When St. John says, 1 John 3:7, 'Let no man deceive you; he who doeth righteousness is righteous,' he probably intends, not merely to deliver a precept, but to oppose the doctrine of those who asserted that a man, though he sinned, might be righteous in respect to his spiritual soul, because sin proceeded only from the material body. A similar observation may be applied to 1 John 3:4 : 'Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law;' which, considered by itself, appears to be an identical proposition; but when considered as an assertion opposed to the Gnostics, it is far from being superfluous, because, evident as it appears to be, they virtually denied it. From the passage above quoted from the works of Irenaeus, we have seen that they rejected the legal commandments as parts of the Christian religion which were not warranted by the authority of Christ; consequently, they denied that sin was a transgression of the law. Farther, it was consistent with their principles to regard sins as diseases; for they believed in a metempsychosis, and imagined that the souls of men were confined in their present bodies as in a prison, and as a punishment for having offended in the region above. According to this system, the violent and irregular passions of anger, hatred, etc., were tortures for the soul; they were diseases, but not punishable transgressions of the law. I will not assert that all who believed in a transmigration of souls argued in this manner, but some of them certainly did so; and against these it was not superfluous to write, 'Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law.'
"The love of the brethren, which St. John enforced as a chief commandment, is generally understood of that special love which Christ commanded his disciples to have towards each other. But I rather think that St. John means the love of our neighbor in general, which Christ commanded, as comprehending the half of the law; for this general love St. John might very properly call the love of our brother, since God has created us all, and is our common Father. Besides, as St. John calls Cain, Abel's brother, he could not intend to signify by this term a person of the same religious sentiments. Nor would it have been consistent with candour to have censured the Gnostics for not having Christian brotherly love towards St. John and other true believers, for in this particular sense they were not brethren; and St. John himself, in his second epistle, 2 John 1:10, forbids the exercise of Christian brotherly love towards those who teach false doctrines. I believe, therefore, that the brotherly love of which St. John speaks in the third chapter of this epistle, is not confined to that special love which we owe to those who are allied to us by religion, but denotes the love of our neighbor in general. Nor do I except even 1 John 3:16, where some think that St. John would require too much, if he meant brotherly love in general, or charity toward all men. But are there not certain cases in which it is our duty to hazard and even sacrifice our lives, in order to rescue our neighbor! Is not this duty performed by the soldier? And is it not performed by him who visits those who are infected with contagious diseases? It is true that this is not a duty which every man owes in all cases to his neighbor; but then, on the other hand, is it not a duty which every man owes to his spiritual brother? Nor was it St. John's design so much to enforce this duty, and to recommend the exercise of it, as to argue from the acknowledgment of this duty in certain cases, to the necessity of performing the less painful duty of supporting our brethren in distress, by a participation of our temporal possessions. But though I believe that in the third chapter St. John speaks of the love of our neighbor in general, I do not mean to affirm that he nowhere understands that special love which Christians owe one to another, of which we meet with an instance in 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:2.
"3. With respect to the moral conduct of the Gnostics, against whom St. John wrote, we may infer, therefore, that the apostle found more reason to censure them for their want of charity toward their neighbors, than for dissoluteness or debauchery. This want of charity they probably displayed by a hatred of the true believers.
"What St. John says, 1 John 5:3, that 'God's commandments are not grievous,' appears in the clearest light when we consider it as opposed to the Gnostics, to whom the Divine commandments, as delivered by the apostles, appeared to be too legal.
"St. John declares, 1 John 1:5, as the message which he had heard from Christ, that 'God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.' Now if this proposition had been then as generally admitted as it is at present, there could have been no necessity for declaring it at the very beginning of the epistle, with so much energy, to be the grand message of Christ. We may reasonably infer, therefore, that it was opposed to certain persons who delivered a contrary doctrine. Farther, the words 'light' and 'darkness,' which are here applied to the Deity in a manner which is not usual in the Bible, remind us of the technical terms used by the Persian Magi, and afterwards by the Manicheans. It is true that in the Bible we meet with the expressions 'works of the light,' 'children of the light,' 'to walk in the light,' and others of the same kind; but in these instances the term 'light' is not synonymous with 'holiness;' works of the light denoting nothing more than works which no man need be ashamed to perform openly, and in the face of the whole world. This explanation of the word 'light' is inapplicable in the proposition 'God is light;' because there would be an impropriety in representing God either as fearing or not fearing to act in the face of the whole world. St. John, therefore, uses the term 'light' as equivalent to holiness.
"Now, the Gnostics admitted that the supreme Being was perfectly holy and pure light; but they denied that the supreme Being was the God whom the Jews and the Christians worshipped. For the Jews and the Christians worshipped the Creator of the world; and the Gnostics asserted that the Creator of the world was either a spirit of darkness, or, if he was a spirit of light, that he was not free from darkness.
"From 1 John 2:23, where St. John says, that 'he who denies the Son, rejects also the Father,' it appears that his adversaries did not deny the Father in positive terms, since the apostle argues only that they virtually did so by denying the Son. Now, the Gnostics did not positively deny the Father of Christ, whom they allowed to be the supreme Being, but then they did not allow that he was the Creator. The terms, therefore, 'God' and the 'Father of Christ,' though they denote in reality the same person, must not be considered as having precisely the same import; since the adversaries of St. John admitted that the Father of Christ was the supreme Being, and pure light; but denied that the Creator, who is in fact God, was light without darkness.
"4. In some places, especially 1 John 4:2, 1 John 4:3, St. John opposes false teachers of another description, namely, those who denied that Christ was come in the flesh. Now they who denied this were not Cerinthians, but another kind of Gnostics, called Docetes. For as, on the one hand, Cerinthus maintained that Jesus was a mere and therefore real man, the Docetes on the other hand contended that he was an incorporeal phantom, in which the Aeon, Christ, or Divine nature, presented itself to mankind. 1 John 1:1 : 'Our hands have handled,' appears likewise to be opposed to this error of the Docetes.
"The doctrines which St. John has delivered in this epistle he has not supported, either by arguments drawn from reason, or by quotations from the Old Testament; for neither of them are necessary, since the bare assertion of an apostle of Christ is sufficient authority. It is true that, in one respect, this epistle has less energy than St. John's gospel, because in his gospel he warrants his doctrines by the speeches of Christ. But then, on the other hand, St. John declares in this epistle, 1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:4; 1 John 5:14, 1 John 5:16, that God sent his Spirit to the apostolic Church, and heard their prayers. And it is evident that St. John alludes to the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost, and to the miraculous powers obtained by prayer.
"The close of this epistle, 'Keep yourselves from idols,' has no immediate connection with the preceding discourse. I am therefore in doubt whether St; John meant to warn his readers against taking part in heathen sacrifices, which was allowed by these Gnostics, who are called Nicolaitans in the Apocalypse; or whether he meant to describe the system of the Gnostics in general as a system of idolatry, which in fact it was."
Dr. Macknight has some judicious observations on the authenticity of this epistle, from the similarity of the style to that of the gospel of John.
"The authenticity of any ancient writing is established, first, by the testimony of contemporary and succeeding authors, whose works have come down to us, and who speak of that writing as known to be the work of the person whose name it bears. Secondly, by the suitableness of the things contained in such writing to the character and circumstances of its supposed author, and by the similarity of its style to the style of the other acknowledged writings of that author. The former of these proofs is called the external evidence of the authenticity of a writing; The latter, its internal evidence. When these two kinds of evidence are found accompanying any writing, they render its genuineness indubitable.
"The external evidence of the authenticity of John's first epistle has been amply detailed by Dr. Lardner, who shows that the earliest and best Christian writers have all, with one consent, and without any hesitation, ascribed the first epistle to him. And their testimony is confirmed by this circumstance, that the Syriac translator, who omitted the Second Epistle of Peter, the Second and Third Epistles of John, and the Epistle of Jude, because some doubts were entertained concerning them in the first age, or perhaps because they had not come to his knowledge, has translated John's first epistle, as an apostolical writing of which there never was any doubt in that or in any other Christian Church.
"In this preface, therefore, we shall state the internal evidence of the authenticity of John's first epistle, by showing, first, that, in respect of its matter, and, secondly, in respect of its style, it is perfectly suitable to the character and circumstances of its supposed author. In respect of the matter or subject of the epistle under consideration, the writer of it has discovered himself to be John the apostle, by introducing a number of sentiments and expressions found in the gospel, which all Christians from the beginning have acknowledged to be the work of John the apostle.
Epistle Gospel 1 John 1:1. That which was from the beginning - ὁ εθεασαμεθα, which we have contemplated, concerning the living Word. John 1:1. In the beginning was the Word:
John 1:14; And εθεασαμεθα, we beheld his glory:
John 1:4; In him was light:
John 1:14; The Word was made flesh. 1 John 2:5. Whosoever keepeth his word truly, in that man the love of God is perfected. John 14:23. If a man love me he will keep my words, and my Father will love him. 1 John 2:6. He who saith he abideth in him, ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked. See 1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:13-16. John 15:4. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bring forth fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. 1 John 2:8. I write to you a new commandment.
1 John 3:11. This is the message which ye heard from the beginning, that ye should love one another. John 13:34. A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. 1 John 2:8. The darkness passeth away, and the light which is true now shineth. John 1:5. The light shineth in darkness.
John 1:9. That was the true light. 1 John 2:10. Abideth in the light, and there is no stumbling block to him. John 11:10. If a man walk in the night he stumbleth, because there is no light in him. 1 John 2:13. Young children, I write to you, because ye have known the Father.
1 John 2:14. Because ye have known him from the beginning. John 17:3. This is the eternal life, that they might know thee, the only true God, And Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. 1 John 3:7-9. Every one who worketh righteousness is begotten of God. See also 1 John 5:1. John 3:3. Except a man be begotten again,
John 3:5; Except a man be begotten of water and of the Spirit. 1 John 3:1. Behold how great love the Father hath bestowed on us, that we should be called the sons of God! John 1:12. To them he gave power to become the sons of God, even to them who believe on his name. 1 John 3:2. We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Joh 17:24. Be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory. 1 John 3:8. He who worketh sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. John 8:44. Ye are of your father the devil; he was a murderer from the beginning. 1 John 3:13. Do not wonder, my brethren, that the world hateth you. John 15:20. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. 1 John 4:9. By this the love of God was manifested, that God sent his Son, the only begotten, into the world, that we might live through him. John 3:16. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him might not perish, but have eternal life. 1 John 4:12. No man hath seen God at any time. John 1:18. No man hath seen God at any time. 1 John 5:13. These things I have written to you, who believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life; and that ye may believe in the name of the Son of God. John 20:31. These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name. 1 John 5:14. If we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us. John 14:14. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it. 1 John 5:20. The Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. John 17:2. Thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he might give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.
John 17:3 : And this is the eternal life, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.
"From the above comparison of the first epistle of John with his gospel, there appears such an exact agreement of sentiment in the two writings, that no reader who is capable of discerning what is peculiar in an author's turn of thinking, can entertain the least doubt of their being the productions of one and the same writer. Farther, since John has not mentioned his own name in his gospel, the want of his name in the epistle is no proof that it was not written by him; but rather a presumption that it is his; especially as he has sufficiently discovered himself to be an apostle, by affirming, in the beginning of the epistle, that he was an eye and an ear witness of the things he has written concerning the living word.
"The style of this epistle being the same with the style of the gospel of John, it is, by that internal mark likewise, denoted to be his writing. In his gospel, John does not content himself with simply affirming or denying a thing; but, to strengthen his affirmation, he denies the contrary. In like manner, to strengthen his denial of a thing, he affirms its contrary. See John 1:20; John 3:36; John 5:22. The same manner of expressing things strongly, is found in this epistle; for example, 1 John 2:4 : 'He who saith, I have known him, and doth not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.' 1 John 2:27 : 'The same unction teacheth you concerning all things, and is truth, and is no lie.' 1 John 4:2 : 'Every spirit which confesseth that Jesus Christ hath come in the flesh, is from God.' 1 John 4:3 : 'And every spirit which doth not confess that Jesus Christ hath come in the flesh, is not from God.'
"In his gospel likewise, John, to express things emphatically, frequently uses the demonstrative pronoun this. John 1:19; Αὑτη· 'This is the testimony.' John 3:19; Αὑτη· 'This is the condemnation, that light,' etc. John 6:29 : Τουτο· 'This is the work of God.' John 6:40 : Τουτο· 'This is the will of him.' John 6:50 : Οὑτος· 'This is the bread which cometh down from heaven.' John 17:3 : Αὑτη· 'This is the eternal life.' In the epistle the same emphatical manner of expression is found, 1 John 1:5; 1 John 2:25 : 'This is the promise.' 1 John 3:23 : Αὑτη· 'This is the commandment.' 1 John 5:3 : Αὑτη· 'This is the love of God.' 1 John 5:4 : 'This is the victory.' 1 John 5:6 : Οὑτος· 'This is he who came by water.' 1 John 5:14 : Αὑτη· 'This is the boldness which we have with him.'
"Such is the internal evidence on which all Christians, from the beginning, have received the First Epistle of John as really written by him, and of Divine authority, although his name is not mentioned in the inscription, nor in any part of the epistle."
On the term epistle, as applied to this work of St. John, it may be necessary to make a few remarks. There is properly nothing of the epistolary style in this work: it is addressed neither to any particular person, nor to any Church.
The writer does not mention himself either in the beginning or ending; and, although this can be no objection against its authenticity, yet it is some proof that the work was never intended to be considered in the light of an epistle.
1. Is it a tract or dissertation upon the more sublime parts of Christianity.
2. Is it a polemical discourse against heretics, particularly the Gnostics, or some of their teachers, who were disturbing the Churches where John dwelt.
3. Is it a sermon, the subject of which is God's love to man in the mission of Jesus Christ; from which our obligations to love and serve him are particularly inferred.
4. Or is it a collection of Christian aphorisms, made by John himself; and put together as they occurred to his mind, without any intended order or method. Much might be said on all these heads of inquiry; and the issue would be, that the idea of its being an epistle of any kind must be relinquished; and yet epistle is its general denomination through all antiquity.
It is a matter, however, of little importance what its title may be, or to what species of literary composition it belongs; while we know that it is the genuine work of St. John; of the holiest man who ever breathed; of one who was most intimately acquainted with the doctrine and mind of his Lord; of one who was admitted to the closest fellowship with his Savior; and who has treated of the deepest things that can be experienced or comprehended in the Christian life.
As to distinct heads of discourse, it does not appear to me that any were intended by the apostle; he wrote just as the subjects occurred to his mind, or rather as the Holy Spirit gave him utterance; and, although technical order is not here to be expected, yet nothing like disorder or confusion can be found in the whole work.
As Professor Michaelis has considered it in the light of a polemical treatise, written against the Gnostics, and other false teachers of that time, I have thought it right to give his view of the work considered in this light; but as I, in general, pursue another plan of interpretation in the notes, I have inserted his elucidations in the preceding pages of this preface.
On the controverted text of the three heavenly Witnesses I have said what truth and a deep and thorough examination of the subject have obliged me to say. I am satisfied that it is not genuine, though the doctrine in behalf of which it has been originally introduced into the epistle is a doctrine of the highest importance, and most positively revealed in various parts both of the Old and New Testament. The stress which has been laid on the testimony of this text in behalf of the doctrine of the Trinity has done much evil; for when its own authenticity has come to be critically examined, and has been found to rest on no sure foundation, the adversaries of the doctrine itself have thought they had full cause for triumph, and have in effect said, "If this text be to the epistle, and to the doctrine in question, what the sun is in the world, what the heart is in man, and what the needle is in the mariner's compass, then the doctrine is spurious, for the text is a most manifest forgery." I would just observe, that incautious or feeble defences of any doctrine do not affect the doctrine itself but in the view of superficial minds. The proof that this text is an interpolation which, first existing as an illustrative marginal note, has afterwards been unfortunately introduced into the text, has "demolished no strong hold of the orthodox, has taken away no pillar from the Christian faith." The grand defences of the doctrine of the Trinity, brought down to us from the highest Christian antiquity, stand still in all their force; not one of them was built upon this text, because the text, as a supposed part of St. John's work, did not then exist; therefore neither evidence, prop, nor pillar of the grand doctrine is injured. We have what we ever had in this respect, and we may make the same illustrating use of the words in reference to this doctrine which many Latin writers, since the time of St. Cyprian, made; and which was proper enough in its own place, but became useless when incorporated with the sure sayings of God.
No man, it is hoped, will be so obstinate, perverse, or disingenuous, as to say or insinuate that the man who gives up this text is unsound in the faith; it would be as reasonable to assert, on the other hand, that he who understands the mass of evidence that is against the authenticity of this verse, and who nevertheless will contend for its continuance in the sacred canon, is a Deist in his heart, and endeavors to discredit the truth by mixing it with error and falsehood. Those whose doubts are not removed by the dissertation at the end of his epistle had better read the late Professor Porson's Answer to Dean Travis, where it is presumed they will receive the fullest satisfaction.
The testimony of the apostle concerning the reality of the person and doctrine of Christ; and the end for which he bears this testimony, 1 John 1:1-4. God is light, and none can have fellowship with him who do not walk in the light; those who walk in the light are cleansed from all unrighteousness by the blood of Christ, 1 John 1:5-7. No man can say that he has not sinned; but God is faithful and just to cleanse from all unrighteousness them who confess their sins, 1 John 1:8-10.
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;
That which was from the beginning - That glorious personage, Jesus Christ the Lord, Who was from eternity; him, being manifested in the flesh, we have heard proclaim the doctrine of eternal life; with our own eyes have we seen him, not transiently, for we have looked upon him frequently; and our hands have handled - frequently touched, his person; and we have had every proof of the identity and reality of this glorious being that our senses of hearing, ὁ ακηκοαμεν, seeing, ὁ ἑωρακαμεν τοις οφθαλμοις ἡμων, and feeling, και αἱ χειρες ἡμων εψηλαφησαν could possibly require.
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;)
For the Life was manifested - The Lord Jesus, who is the creator of all things, and the fountain of life to all sentient and intellectual beings, and from whom eternal life and happiness come, was manifested in the flesh, and we have seen him, and in consequence bear witness to him as the fountain and author of eternal life; for he who was from eternity with the Father was manifested unto us his apostles, and to the whole of the Jewish nation, and preached that doctrine of eternal life which I have before delivered to the world in my gospel, and which I now farther confirm by this epistle.
3That 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.
That which we have seen and heard - We deliver nothing by hearsay, nothing by tradition, nothing from conjecture; we have had the fullest certainty of all that we write and preach.
That ye also may have fellowship with us - That ye may be preserved from all false doctrine, and have a real participation with us apostles of the grace, peace, love, and life of God, which communion we have with God the Father, who hath loved us, and given his Son Jesus Christ to redeem us; and with his Son Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for the life of the world and through whom, being God manifested in the flesh, we have union with God, are made partakers of the Divine nature and dwell in God, and God in us.
4And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.
That your joy may be full - Ye have already tasted that the Lord is good; but I am now going to show you the height of your Christian calling, that your happiness may be complete, being thoroughly cleansed from all sin, and filled with the fullness of God.
5This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
This then is the message - This is the grand principle on which all depends, which we have heard of απ' αυτου, From him; for neither Moses nor the prophets ever gave that full instruction concerning God and communion with him which Jesus Christ has given, for the only-begotten Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, has alone declared the fullness of the truth, and the extent of the blessings, which believers on him are to receive. See John 1:18.
God is light - The source of wisdom, knowledge, holiness, and happiness; and in him is no darkness at all - no ignorance, no imperfection, no sinfulness, no misery. And from him wisdom, knowledge, holiness, and happiness are received by every believing soul. This is the grand message of the Gospel, the great principle on which the happiness of man depends. Light implies every essential excellence, especially wisdom, holiness, and happiness. Darkness implies all imperfection, and principally ignorance, sinfulness, and misery. Light is the purest, the most subtile, the most useful, and the most diffusive of all God's creatures; it is, therefore, a very proper emblem of the purity, perfection, and goodness of the Divine nature. God is to human soul, what the light is to the world; without the latter all would be dismal and uncomfortable, and terror and death would universally prevail: and without an indwelling God what is religion? Without his all-penetrating and diffusive light, what is the soul of man? Religion would be an empty science, a dead letter, a system unauthoritated and uninfluencing, and the soul a trackless wilderness, a howling waste, full of evil, of terror and dismay, and ever racked with realizing anticipations of future, successive, permanent, substantial, and endless misery. No wonder the apostle lays this down as a first and grand principle, stating it to be the essential message which he had received from Christ to deliver to the world.
6If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
If we say that we have fellowship - Having fellowship, κοινωνια, communion, with God, necessarily implies a partaking of the Divine nature. Now if a man profess to have such communion, and walk in darkness - live an irreligious and sinful life, he lies, in the profession which he makes, and does not the truth - does not walk according to the directions of the Gospel, on the grace of which he holds his relation to God, and his communion with him.
The Gnostics, against whose errors it is supposed this epistle was written, were great pretenders to knowledge, to the highest degrees of the Divine illumination, and the nearest communion with the fountain of holiness, while their manners were excessively corrupt.
7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.
But if we walk in the light - If, having received the principle of holiness from him, we live a holy and righteous life, deriving continual light, power, and life from him, then we have fellowship one with another; that is, we have communion with God, and God condescends to hold communion with us. This appears to be the intention of the apostle; and so he was understood by some versions and MSS., which, instead of μετ' αλληλων, with each other, have μετ' αυτον, with him. Those who are deeply experienced in Divine things converse with God, and God with them. What John says is no figure; God and a holy heart are in continual correspondence.
The blood of Jesus Christ - The meritorious efficacy of his passion and death has purged our consciences from dead works, and cleanseth us, καθαριζει ἡμας, continues to cleanse us, i.e., to keep clean what it has made clean, (for it requires the same merit and energy to preserve holiness in the soul of man, as to produce it), or, as several MSS. and some versions read, καθαριει and καθαρισει, will cleanse; speaking of those who are already justified, and are expecting full redemption in his blood.
And being cleansed from all sin is what every believer should look for, what he has a right to expect, and what he must have in this life, in order to be prepared to meet his God. Christ is not a partial Savior, he saves to the uttermost, and he cleanses from All sin.
8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we say that we have no sin - This is tantamount to 1 John 1:10 : If we say that we have not sinned. All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; and therefore every man needs a Savior, such as Christ is. It is very likely that the heretics, against whose evil doctrines the apostle writes, denied that they had any sin, or needed any Savior. In deed, the Gnostics even denied that Christ suffered: the Aeon, or Divine Being that dwelt in the man Christ Jesus, according to them, left him when he was taken by the Jews; and he, being but a common man, his sufferings and death had neither merit nor efficacy.
We deceive ourselves - By supposing that we have no guilt, no sinfulness, and consequently have no need of the blood of Christ as an atoning sacrifice: this is the most dreadful of all deceptions, as it leaves the soul under all the guilt and pollution of sin, exposed to hell, and utterly unfit for heaven.
The truth is not in us - We have no knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus, the whole of which is founded on this most awful truth - all have sinned, all are guilty, all are unholy; and none can redeem himself. Hence it is as necessary that Jesus Christ should become incarnated, and suffer and die to bring men to God.
9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
If we confess our sins - If, from a deep sense of our guilt, impurity, and helplessness, we humble ourselves before God, acknowledging our iniquity, his holiness, and our own utter helplessness, and implore mercy for his sake who has died for us; he is faithful, because to such he has promised mercy, Psalm 32:5; Proverbs 28:13; and just, for Christ has died for us, and thus made an atonement to the Divine justice; so that God can now be just, and yet the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus.
And to cleanse us from all unrighteousness - Not only to forgive the sin, but to purify the heart.
1. Sin exists in the soul after two modes or forms:
(1.) In guilt, which requires forgiveness or pardon.
(2.) In pollution, which requires cleansing.
2. Guilt, to be forgiven, must be confessed; and pollution, to be cleansed, must be also confessed. In order to find mercy, a man must know and feel himself to be a sinner, that he may fervently apply to God for pardon; in order to get a clean heart, a man must know and feel its depravity, acknowledge and deplore it before God, in order to be fully sanctified.
3. Few are pardoned, because they do not feel and confess their sins; and few are sanctified or cleansed from all sin, because they do not feel and confess their own sore, and the plague of their hearts.
4. As the blood of Jesus Christ, the merit of his passion and death, applied by faith, purges the conscience from all dead works, so the same cleanses the heart from all unrighteousness.
5. As all unrighteousness is sin, so he that is cleansed from all unrighteousness is cleansed from all sin. To attempt to evade this, and plead for the continuance of sin in the heart through life, is ungrateful, wicked, and even blasphemous; for as he who says he has not sinned, 1 John 1:10, makes God a liar, who has declared the contrary through every part of his revelation; so he that says the blood of Christ either cannot or will not cleanse us from all sin in this life, gives also the lie to his Maker, who has declared the contrary, and thus shows that the word - the doctrine of God is not in him.
Reader, it is the birthright of every child of God to be cleansed from all sin, to keep himself unspotted from the world, and so to live as never more to offend his Maker. All things are possible to him that believeth; because all things are possible to the infinitely meritorious blood and energetic Spirit of the Lord Jesus. See the notes on the parallel passages in the margin; and particularly in St. John's gospel, John 1 note.
10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.