The last decade of the first century A.D. was critical for the infant Church. Its doctrinal foundations were being under-mined by heretical teachers with pagan ideas. As Paul had foretold, the wolf from without and the false teachers from within were doing their nefarious work. Chief among these were the Gnostics. Their name means “knowledge,” and they professed to have specialized information that the ordinary believers did not possess. Of these there were two parties. The leader of one was Cerinthus, who taught that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, and that the Divine Spirit took hold of Him only after His baptism, but forsook Him on the cross. Another party, the Docetists, denied the reality of His manhood and of His human body. They linked evil with the flesh; therefore, they claimed His body was merely a phantom.
The Apostle John, last survivor of the Apostolic Band, lived at Ephesus where Cerinthus also lived and taught. In these adverse circumstances, toward the end of his life, John wrote two books to combat these teachings and to restate for all time the truth concerning the person of Christ.
History frequently repeats itself and today the same ideas are being taught by heretical cults. The vital centre of Christianity is Christ, and as Carlyle has said, “If this doctrine of the divinity of Christ had been lost, Christianity would have vanished like a dream.”
The key to John’s doctrinal books hangs by the door. His Gospel defends the essential Deity of the Son of God, and in the first paragraph four pregnant sentences clearly state this fact. In a similar arrangement, his First Epistle has in the opening paragraph four verbs which specifically describe His perfect humanity. The two passages are parallel and should be studied together.
The Deity Of Christ
In the four clauses of John 1:1-2, are four walls guarding the person of Christ from external attack. Throughout this chapter John uses four titles of Christ, “The Word,” “The Lamb of God,” “The Son of God,” and “The King of Israel.” These give four phases of His character and work. For the present we are concerned with “The Word.” The term reveals our Lord Jesus Christ as the Spokesman of the Godhead. He is the visible interpreter in time of the mind and purposes of God. Critics would like to tell us that John copied this word from Philo the Alexandrian, but it is more likely that John is using an Old Testament term and is thinking of how God spoke to men in the past, and of how these revelations are now concentrated and consummated in His Son. Let us look at John’s four opening clauses.
“IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD:” This takes us back to creation. The statement runs parallel to the first sentence in the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” These simple words have survived all the attacks of evolutionists, pantheists, and atheists. Astronomers quote fantastic figures in terms of light years for the birth of the suns, planets, and island universes. Their theories change with years, but we can put complete confidence in the inspired statement of the Word of God. At the origin of all things “The Word” was already there. John’s first proposition is the Eternal Pre-existence of The Word.
“AND THE WORD WAS WITH GOD”: This implies, first, a distinct personality, and in second place, fellowship between at least two persons.
The doctrine of the Trinity is denied today, but while Scripture does not use the word, the doctrine is woven into its warp and woof. God, the Father, purposes; God, the Son, redeems; God, the Spirit, proceeds from and executes the purposes of the Godhead. St. Patrick’s object lesson of the shamrock, the three leaves on the one stem, plainly illustrates this truth.
“AND THE WORD WAS GOD”: Here is the great essential statement. John Trapp the Puritan divine said, “This whole Gospel is a continuate demonstration of Christ’s Deity, which began to be denied, while the Evangelist lived, by Ebion, Cerinthus, and other antichrists.” We may also add, by many in our day. John goes on to demonstrate that while here on earth, Christ possessed all the Divine attributes, yet at the same time He was in complete subjection to the Father’s will.
“THE SAME WAS IN THE BEGINNING WITH GOD.” Here the three previous statements are summarized and emphasized. The four expressions give us the length, breadth, depth, and height of the essential Deity of Christ. They set forth “The Word” as being Eternal, as being a Person holding communion with God, and as being in Himself Divine. “John does not stop to define his terms, but at the end of his prologue identifies this Eternal, Personal, and Divine Word as his own Lord and Master.” (A. Maclaren). The remainder of his Gospel is the marshalling of the witnesses to His Deity, climaxed by the confession of the erstwhile skeptical Thomas as he saw Christ in resurrection, “My Lord and my God.”
The Humanity Of Christ
John’s first epistle was written at the close of his life. In it there is a change of emphasis from his Gospel. While the Gospel was written to prove that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God (John ), the epistle was written to show that Jesus Christ came in flesh, (1 John 4:1-4).
His introduction (1 John 1:1-3) gives us four verbs which clearly describe the historic Christ and His manifestation among men. This first paragraph refutes the Gnostic Docetic teachings prevalent in John’s latter years which denied the true corporeal humanity of Christ. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon (contemplated), which our hands have handled of the Word of Life.” The four words, “heard,” “seen,” “contemplated,” “handled,” show that He was audible, visible, intelligible, and tangible. They give a progression in the intimacy with, and in the revelation of the Perfect Man, Christ Jesus, in the same bodily senses of other men. He was manifested to the ears, eyes, minds, and hands, of the people. Note how he begins.
“THAT WHICH WAS FROM THE BEGINNING”: The beginning here is different from that in the Gospel. There it was the beginning of all things, the creation of the Universe; here it is the beginning of Christianity, i.e. from Bethlehem. The prepositions in the two passages are different and make clear this distinction. As far as Deity is concerned He was in (en) the beginning, but as touching His humanity He was from (apo) the beginning, i.e. from His manifestation among men. Then again the tenses of the verbs are different. The first two, “heard” and “seen” are perfect tenses and describe a series of experiences retained as a permanent possession; the latter two, “contemplated” and “handled” are aorist point tenses and indicate a definite incident in the writers mind. Let us look at them.
“THAT WHICH WE HAVE HEARD”: First at the Jordan, and then for about three years under His incomparable teaching. After 60 years the words were still a part of John himself. In this Epistle he quotes many expressions from the teaching of the Lord in the upper-room, “Abide,” “Love one another,” “Eternal life,” “The Word,” etc. This truly is the manifestation of Christ to ears and hearts. “Faith cometh by hearing.” The testimony of those sent to arrest Him was, “Never man spake like this Man.”
“THAT WHICH WE HAVE SEEN WITH OUR EYES”: Here the Lord is manifested visibly to sight. John’s Gospel begins with, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” (John ), and ends with Pilate’s statements, “Behold the Man,” “Behold your King,” (John 19:5 and 14). John is careful to assert that he himself was an eyewitness. He says, “We beheld His glory, glory as of an only begotten from a Father, full of grace and truth,” (John R.V.) He saw the scenes in Pilate’s Judgment Hall, (chap. ), at the cross of the piercing of His side from which flowed blood and water, (chap. ). Repeatedly he refers to the evidence of his eyes. It was no optical illusion but something which a sensible fisherman, a reliable witness, saw and understood.
“WHICH HAVE LOOKED UPON (Contemplated)”: The Greek word, “etheasametha”, indicates a spectacle which broke upon John’s vision, says David Smith. It is a point tense looking back to a specific incident in his life. This might be invertly illustrated by the occasion when John and Peter stood in the tomb. As the two men looked at the disposition of the grave clothes, and the head-cloth lying wound around (entulisso) in the place where the head had lain, it evinced to them that a miracle had taken place. The body had passed from the clothes leaving them collapsed in the shape and position of how and where the body had been, “And they saw and believed,” (John 20:3:8).
“AND OUR HANDS HAVE HANDLED”: The physical body of the Lord had been made real to their sense of touch. John here employs the very word used by the Lord on Easter Day, “Handle Me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see Me have,” (Luke 24:39). This was the tangible evidence that Thomas wanted. Thank God! Even skeptical Thomas was completely satisfied, and he reached the highest point of adoration in this Gospel when he cried, “My Lord, and my God.”
Thus the prefaces to John’s Gospel and to his First Epistle are complimentary, and give us the complete truth as to the glorious Person of our Lord. Another has expressed it: “The Eternal Son, equal in power, majesty, and glory with the Eternal Father, possessing all the attributes of essential Deity, in incarnation became what He never was before. He took into unity with His Deity, perfect, sinless, holy, humanity, never more to be divided or separated. In Manhood He still possessed the full plenitude of the attributes, the outward manifestation of glory being veiled or covered. While on earth He emptied not Himself of these Divine attributes but of their independent use. He was voluntary subject to the Father’s will.”
As we think of these tremendous truths, let us bow the knee and acknowledge Him as Lord of all.