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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

1 John 1



Other Authors
Verses 1-10

Chapter 1

THE PASTOR'S AIM (1 John 1:1-4)

1:1-4 What we are telling you about is that which was from the beginning, that which we heard, that which we saw with our eyes, that which we gazed upon, and which our hands touched. It is about the word of life that we are telling you. (And the life appeared to us, and we saw it, and testify to it; and we are now bringing you the message of this eternal life, which was with the Father and which appeared to us). It is about what we saw and heard that we are bringing the message to you, that you too may have fellowship with us, for our fellowship is with the Father and with Jesus Christ, the Son. And we are writing these things to you that your joy may be completed.

Every man, when he sits down to write a letter or rises to preach a sermon, has some object in view. He wishes to produce some effect in the minds and hearts and lives of those to whom his message is addressed. And here at the very beginning of his letter John sets down his objects in writing to his people.

(i) It is his wish to produce fellowship with men and fellowship with God (1 John 1:3). The pastor's aim must always be to bring men closer to one another and closer to God. Any message which is productive of division is a false message. The Christian message can be summed up as having two great aims--love for men and love for God.

(ii) It is his wish to bring his people joy (1 John 1:4), Joy is the essence of Christianity. A message whose only effect is to depress and to discourage those who hear it has stopped halfway. It is quite true that often the aim of the preacher and the teacher must be to awaken a godly sorrow which will lead to a true repentance. But after the sense of sin has been produced, men must be led to the Saviour in whom sins are all forgiven. The ultimate note of the Christian message is joy.

(iii) To that end his aim is to set Jesus Christ before them. A great teacher always used to tell his students that their one aim as preachers must be "to speak a good word for Jesus Christ"; and it was said of another great saint that wherever his conversation began it cut straight across country to Jesus Christ.

The simple fact is that if men are ever to find fellowship with one another and fellowship with God, and if they are ever to find true joy, they must find them in Jesus Christ.

THE PASTOR'S RIGHT TO SPEAK (1 John 1:1-4 continued)

Here at the very beginning of his letter John sets down his right to speak; and it consists in one thing--in personal experience of Christ (1 John 1:2-3).

(i) He says that he has heard Christ. Long ago Zedekiah had said to Jeremiah: "Is there any word from the Lord?" (Jeremiah 37:17). What men are interested in is not someone's opinions and guesses but a word from the Lord. It was said of one great preacher that first he listened to God and then he spoke to men; and it was said of John Brown of Haddington that, when he preached, he paused ever and again, as if listening for a voice. The true teacher is the man who has a message from Jesus Christ because he has heard his voice.

(ii) He says that he has seen Christ. It is told of Alexander Whyte, the great Scottish preacher, that someone once said to him, "You preached today as if you had come straight from the presence." And Whyte answered, "Perhaps I did." We cannot see Christ in the flesh as John did; but we can still see him with the eye of faith.

"And, warm, sweet, tender, even yet

A present help is he;

And faith has still its Olivet,

And love its Galilee."

(iii) He says that he has gazed on Christ. What, then, is the difference between seeing Christ and gazing upon him? In the Greek the verb for to see is horan (Greek #3708) and it means simply to see with physical sight. The verb for to gaze is theasthai (Greek #2300) and it means to gaze at someone or something until something has been grasped of the significance of that person or thing. So Jesus, speaking to the crowds of John the Baptist, asked: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see (theasthai, Greek #2300)?" (Luke 7:24); and in that word he describes how the crowds flocked out to gaze at John and wonder who and what this man might be. Speaking of Jesus in the prologue to his gospel, John says, "We beheld his glory" (John 1:14). The verb is again theasthai (Greek #2300) and the idea is not that of a passing glance but of a steadfast searching gaze which seeks to discover something of the mystery of Christ.

(iv) He says that his hands actually touched Christ. Luke tells of how Jesus came back to his disciples, when he had risen from the dead, and said, "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39). Here John is thinking of those people called the Docetists who were so spiritually-minded that they insisted that Jesus never at any time had a flesh and blood body but was only a phantom in human form. They refused to believe that God could ever soil himself by taking human flesh and blood upon himself. John here insists that the Jesus he had known was, in truth, a man amongst men; he felt there was nothing in all the world more dangerous--as we shall see than to doubt that Jesus was fully man.

THE PASTOR'S MESSAGE (1 John 1:1-4 continued)

John's message is of Jesus Christ; and of Jesus he has three great things to say. First, he says that Jesus was from the beginning. That is to say, in him eternity entered time; in him the eternal God personally entered the world of men. Second, that entry into the world of men was a real entry, it was real manhood that God took upon himself. Third, through that action there came to men the word of life, the word which can change death into life and mere existence into real living. Again and again in the New Testament the gospel is called a word; and it is of the greatest interest to see the various connections in which this term is used.

(i) Oftener than anything else the gospel message is called the word of God (Acts 4:31; Acts 6:2; Acts 6:7; Acts 11:1; Acts 13:5; Acts 13:7; Acts 13:44; Acts 16:32; Philippians 1:14; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 13:7; Revelation 1:2; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 6:9; Revelation 20:4). It is not a human discovery; it comes from God. It is news of God which man could not have discovered for himself.

(ii) Frequently the gospel message is called the word of the Lord (Acts 8:25; Acts 12:24; Acts 13:49; Acts 15:35; 1 Thessalonians 1:8; 2 Thessalonians 3:1). It is not always certain whether the Lord is God or Jesus, but more often than not it is Jesus who is meant. The gospel is, therefore, the message which God could have sent to men in no other way than through his son.

(iii) Twice the gospel message is called the word of hearing (logos (Greek #3056) akoes Greek #189) (1 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 4:2). That is to say, it depends on two things, on a voice ready to speak it and an ear ready to hear it.

(iv) The gospel message is the word of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:19). It is the announcement of the kingship of God and the summons to render to God the obedience which will make a man a citizen of that kingdom.

(v) The gospel message is the word of the gospel (Acts 15:7; Colossians 1:5). Gospel means good news; and the gospel is essentially good news to man about God.

(vi) The gospel is the word of grace (Acts 14:3; Acts 20:32). It is the good news of God's generous and undeserved love for man; it is the news that man is not saddled with the impossible task of earning God's love but is freely offered it.

(vii) The gospel is the word of salvation (Acts 13:26). It is the offer of forgiveness for past sin and of power to overcome sin in the future.

(viii) The gospel is the word of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is the message that the lost relationship between man and God is restored in Jesus Christ who has broken down the barrier between man and God which sin had erected.

(ix) The gospel is the word of the Cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). At the heart of the gospel is the Cross on which is shown to man the final proof of the forgiving, sacrificing, seeking love of God.

(x) The gospel is the word of truth (2 Corinthians 6:7; Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15). With the coming of the gospel it is no longer necessary to guess and grope for Jesus Christ has brought to us the truth about God.

(xi) The gospel is the word of righteousness (Hebrews 5:13). It is by the power of the gospel that a man is enabled to break from the power of evil and to rise to the righteousness which is pleasing in the sight of God.

(xii) The gospel is the health-giving word (2 Timothy 1:13; 2 Timothy 2:8). It is the antidote which cures the poison of sin and the medicine which defeats the disease of evil.

(xiii) The gospel is the word of life (Philippians 2:16). It is through its power that a man is delivered from death and enabled to enter into life at its best.

GOD IS LIGHT (1 John 1:5)

1:5 And this is the message which we have heard from him, and which we pass on to you, that God is light, and there is no darkness in him.

A man's own character will necessarily be determined by the character of the god whom he worships; and, therefore, John begins by laying down the nature of the God and Father of Jesus Christ whom Christians worship. God, he says, is light, and there is no darkness in him. What does this statement tell us about God?

(i) It tells us that he is splendour and glory. There is nothing so glorious as a blaze of light piercing the darkness. To say that God is light tells us of his sheer splendour.

(ii) It tells us that God is self-revealing. Above all things light is seen; and it illumines the darkness round about it. To say that God is light is to say that there is nothing secretive or furtive about him. He wishes to be seen and to be known by men.

(iii) It tells us of God's purity and holiness. There is none of the darkness which cloaks hidden evil in God. That he is light speaks to us of his white purity and stainless holiness.

(iv) It tells us of the guidance of God. It is one of the great functions of light to show the way. The road that is lit is the road that is plain. To say that God is light is to say that he offers his guidance for the footsteps of men.

(v) It tells us of the revealing quality in the presence of God. Light is the great revealer. Flaws and stains which are hidden in the shade are obvious in the light. Light reveals the imperfections in any piece of workmanship or material. So the imperfections of life are seen in the presence of God. Whittier wrote:

"Our thoughts lie open to thy sight;

And naked to thy glance;

Our secret sins are in the light

Of thy pure countenance."

We can never know either the depth to which life has fallen or the height to which it may rise until we see it in the revealing light of God.

THE HOSTILE DARK (1 John 1:5 continued)

In God, says John, there is no darkness at all. Throughout the New Testament darkness stands for the very opposite of the Christian life.

(i) Darkness stands for the Christless life. It represents the life that a man lived before he met Christ or the life that he lives if he strays away from him. John writes to his people that, now that Christ has come, the darkness is past and the true light shines (1 John 2:8). Paul writes to his Christian friends that once they were darkness but now they are light in the Lord (Ephesians 5:8). God has delivered us from the power of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of his dear Son (Colossians 1:13). Christians are not in darkness, for they are children of the day (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5). Those who follow Christ shall not walk in darkness, as others must, but they will have the light of life (John 8:12). God has called the Christians out of darkness into his marvellous light (1 Peter 2:9).

(ii) The dark is hostile to the light. In the prologue to his gospel John writes that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5). It is a picture of the darkness seeking to obliterate the light--but unable to overpower it. The dark and the light are natural enemies.

(iii) The darkness stands for the ignorance of life apart from Christ. Jesus summons his friends to walk in the light lest the darkness come upon them, for the man who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going (John 12:35). Jesus is the light, and he has come that those who believe in him should not walk in darkness (John 12:46). The dark stands for the essential lostness of life without Christ.

(iv) The darkness stands for the chaos of life without God. God, says Paul, thinking of the first act of creation, commanded his light to shine out of the darkness (2 Corinthians 4:6). Without God's light the world is a chaos, in which life has neither order nor sense.

(v) The darkness stands for the immorality of the Christless life. It is Paul's appeal to men that they should cast off the works of darkness (Romans 13:12). Men, because their deeds were evil, loved the darkness rather than the light (John 3:19). The darkness stands for the way that the Christless life is filled with things which seek the shadows because they cannot stand the light.

(vi) The darkness is characteristically unfruitful. Paul speaks of the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). If growing things are despoiled of the light, their growth is arrested. The darkness is the Christless atmosphere in which no fruit of the Spirit will ever grow.

(vii) The darkness is connected with lovelessness and hate. If a man hates his brother, it is a sign that he walks in darkness (1 John 2:9-11). Love is sunshine and hatred is the dark.

(viii) The dark is the abode of the enemies of Christ and the final goal of those who will not accept him. The struggle of the Christian and of Christ is against the hostile rulers of the darkness of this world (Ephesians 6:12). Consistent and rebellious sinners are those for whom the mist of darkness is reserved (2 Peter 2:9; Jd 13 ). The darkness is the life which is separated from God.


1:6-7 If we say that we have fellowship with him and at the same time walk in darkness, we lie and are not doing the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other and the blood of Jesus Christ is steadily cleansing us from all sin.

Here John is writing to counteract one heretical way of thought. There were those who claimed to be specially intellectually and spiritually advanced, but whose lives showed no sign of it. They claimed to have advanced so far along the road of knowledge and of spirituality that for them sin had ceased to matter and the laws had ceased to exist. Napoleon once said that laws were made for ordinary people, but were never meant for the like of him. So these heretics claimed to be so far on that, even if they did sin, it was of no importance whatsoever. In later days Clement of Alexandria tells us that there were heretics who said that it made no difference how a man lived. Irenaeus tells us that they declared that a truly spiritual man was quite incapable of ever incurring any pollution, no matter what kind of deeds he did.

In answer John insists on certain things.

(i) He insists that to have fellowship with the God who is light a man must walk in the light and that, if he is still walking in the moral and ethical darkness of the Christless life, he can not have that fellowship. This is precisely what the Old Testament had said centuries before. God said, "You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am Holy" (Leviticus 19:2; compare Leviticus 20:7; Leviticus 20:26). He who would find fellowship with God is committed to a life of goodness which reflects God's goodness. C. H. Dodd writes: "The Church is a society of people who, believing in a God of pure goodness, accept the obligation to be good like him." This does not mean that a man must be perfect before he can have fellowship with God; if that were the case, all of us would be shut out. But it does mean that he will spend his whole life in the awareness of his obligations, in the effort to fulfil them and in penitence when he fails. It will mean that he will never think that sin does not matter; it will mean that the nearer he comes to God, the more terrible sin will be to him.

(ii) He insists that these mistaken thinkers have the wrong idea of truth. He says that, if people who claim to be specially advanced still walk in darkness, they are not doing the truth. Exactly the same phrase is used in the Fourth Gospel, when it speaks of him, who does the truth (John 3:21). This means that for the Christian truth is never only intellectual; it is always moral. It is not something which exercises only the mind; it is something which exercises the whole personality. Truth is not only the discovery of abstract things; it is concrete living. It is not only thinking; it is also acting. The words which the New Testament uses along with truth are significant. It speaks of obeying the truth (Romans 2:8; Galatians 3:7); following the truth (Galatians 2:14; 3 John 1:4 ); of opposing the truth (2 Timothy 3:8); of wandering from the truth (James 5:19). There is such a thing as might be called "discussion circle Christianity." It is possible to look on Christianity as a series of intellectual problems to be solved and on the Bible as a book about which illuminating information is to be amassed. But Christianity is something to be followed and the Bible a book to be obeyed. It is possible for intellectual eminence and moral failure to go hand in hand. For the Christian the truth is something first to be discovered and then to be obeyed.

THE TESTS OF TRUTH (1 John 1:6-7 continued)

As John sees it, there are two great tests of truth.

(i) Truth is the creator of fellowship. If men are really walking in the light, they have fellowship one with another. No belief can be fully Christian if it separates a man from his fellow-men. No Church can be exclusive and still be the Church of Christ. That which destroys fellowship cannot be true.

(ii) He who really knows the truth is daily more and more cleansed from sin by the blood of Jesus. The Revised Standard Version is correct enough here but it can very easily be misunderstood. It runs: "The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." That can be read as a statement of a general principle. But it is a statement of what ought to be happening in the individual life. The meaning is that all the time, day by day, constantly and consistently, the blood of Jesus Christ ought to be carrying out a cleansing process in the life of the individual Christian.

The Greek for to cleanse is katharizein (Greek #2511) which was originally a ritual word, describing the ceremonies and washings and so on which qualified a man to approach his gods. But the word, as religion developed, came to have a moral sense; and it describes the goodness which enables a man to enter into the presence of God. So what John is saying is, "If you really know what the sacrifice of Christ has done and are really experiencing its power, day by day you will be adding holiness to your life and becoming more fit to enter the presence of God."

Here indeed is a great conception. It looks on the sacrifice of Christ as something which not only atones for past sin but equips a man in holiness day by day.

True religion is that by which every day a man comes closer to his fellow-men and closer to God. It produces fellowship with God and fellowship with men--and we can never have the one without the other.

THE THREEFOLD LIE (1 John 1:6-7 continued)

Four times in his letter John bluntly accuses the false teachers of being liars; and the first of these occasions is in this present passage.

(i) Those who claim to have fellowship with the God who is altogether light and who yet walk in the dark are lying (1 John 1:6). A little later he repeats this charge in a slightly different way. The man who says that he knows God and yet does not keep God's commandments is a liar (1 John 2:4). John is laying down the blunt truth that the man who says one thing with his lips and another thing with his life is a liar. He is not thinking of the man who tries his hardest and yet often fails. "A man," said H. G. Wells, "may be a very bad musician, and may yet be passionately in love with music"; and a man may be very conscious of his failures and yet be passionately in love with Christ and the way of Christ. John is thinking of the man who makes the highest possible claims to knowledge, to intellectual eminence and to spirituality, and who yet allows himself things which he well knows are forbidden. The man who professes to love Christ and deliberately disobeys him, is guilty of a lie.

(ii) The man who denies that Jesus is the Christ is a liar (1 John 2:22). Here is something which runs through the whole New Testament. The ultimate test of any man is his reaction to Jesus. The ultimate question which Jesus asks every man is: "Who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:13). A man confronted with Christ cannot but see the greatness that is there; and, if he denies it, he is a liar.

(iii) The man who says that he loves God and at the same time hates his brother is a liar (1 John 4:20). Love of God and hatred of man cannot exist in the same person. If there is bitterness in a man's heart towards any other, that is proof that he does not really love God. All our protestations of love to God are useless if there is hatred in our hearts towards any man.


1:8-10 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, we can rely on him in his righteousness to forgive us our sins and to make us clean from all unrighteousness.

If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.

In this passage John describes and condemns two further mistaken ways of thought.

(i) There is the man who says that he has no sin. That may mean either of two things.

It may describe the man who says that he has no responsibility for his sin. It is easy enough to find defences behind which to seek to hide. We may blame our sins on our heredity, on our environment, on our temperament, on our physical condition. We may claim that someone misled us and that we were led astray. It is characteristic of us all that we seek to shuffle out of the responsibility for sin. Or it may describe the man who claims that he can sin and take no harm.

It is John's insistence that, when a man has sinned, excuses and self-justifications are irrelevant. The only thing which will meet the situation is humble and penitent confession to God and, if need be, to men.

Then John says a surprising thing. He says that we can depend on God in his righteousness to forgive us if we confess our sins. On the face of it, we might well have thought that God in his righteousness would have been much more likely to condemn than to forgive. But the point is that God, because he is righteous, never breaks his word; and Scripture is full of the promise of mercy to the man who comes to him with penitent heart. God has promised that he will never despise the contrite heart and he will not break his word. If we humbly and sorrowfully confess our sins, he will forgive. The very fact of making excuses and seeking for self-justification debars us from forgiveness, because it debars us from penitence; the very fact of humble confession opens the door to forgiveness, for the man with the penitent heart can claim the promises of God.

(ii) There is the man who says that he has not in fact sinned. That attitude is not nearly so uncommon as we might think. Any number of people do not really believe that they have sinned and rather resent being called sinners. Their mistake is that they think of sin as the kind of thing which gets into the newspapers. They forget that sin is hamartia (Greek #266) which literally means a missing of the target. To fail to be as good a father, mother, wife, husband, son, daughter, workman, person as we might be is to sin; and that includes us all.

In any event the man who says that he has not sinned is in effect doing nothing less than calling God a liar, for God has said that all have sinned.

So John condemns the man who claims that he is so far advanced in knowledge and in the spiritual life that sin for him has ceased to matter; he condemns the man who evades the responsibility for his sin or who holds that sin has no effect upon him; he condemns the man who has never even realized that he is a sinner. The essence of the Christian life is first to realize our sin; and then to go to God for that forgiveness which can wipe out the past and for that cleansing which can make the future new.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 John 1:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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