1:1 Ὃ ἦν ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς, “That which was from the beginning.” This initial series of relative clauses serves to describe the nature of John’s eyewitness understanding of Jesus, who is Eternal Life personified, described initially as “the Word of Life.” These clauses describe his understanding as the result of personal experience. Further, they are introduced with an initial relative clause that takes the reader back to the prologue of his Gospel.
John introduces his subject with the repetition of “that which” in a parenthetical statement describing his authority to speak as an eyewitness. The difficulty of determining John’s exact meaning results from his choice to use the neuter relative pronoun ὃ rather than the masculine which might seem more appropriate grammatically. Culy (2) sees this as “a topic (or ‘cleft’) construction” wherein John introduces his topic through a “series of appositional relative clauses” whose relative pronoun is in the case it would have within the clause that follows it. Whereas the masculine would clearly refer to Jesus, the neuter allows additional referents. Five possible meanings for the pronoun translated “that which” have been proposed: (1) John might be referring to revelation about Christ (Painter, 120). This would fit with some of the doctrinal issues raised in the epistle. (2) It could refer to the teachings of Christ, which would fit with some of the ethical issues raised in the epistle. (3) It refers to the eternal life manifested by Christ. (4) It could refer to Christ Himself. On one hand, this option may initially appear less likely because it would be much clearer with the masculine pronoun.
However, elsewhere John uses the neuter pronoun to refer to people (1 John 5:4) and Christ (John 3:6; 6:37, 39; 17:2 and 24). Finally, (5) it could refer to all of Jesus’ life, teachings, as well as His person (Burge, 53; Haas, de Jonge, and Swellengrebel, 11; Strecker, 10). This use of the neuter avoids the confusion of thinking he is referring exclusively to “life,” a feminine noun, or “word,” a masculine noun. The neuter pronoun focuses the reader on Jesus as both, the “Word” and “Life.” Thus it communicates John’s comprehensive view of Christ. Further, his use of “heard,” “saw with our eyes,” “beheld,” and “handled” points his readers to the person of Christ. His reference to “the Word of Life” clearly alludes to the prologue of the Gospel, wherein the Word of God is the incarnate Word, Jesus. Finally, it could be that John intended both Jesus as eternal life incarnate and His teachings about eternal life to be in view (Kistemaker, 8). As Akin notes, “The message and the person ultimately cannot be separated. Each explains the other” (Akin, 51).
“The beginning” is equally ambiguous. (1) It could refer to the beginning of time or creation (Brooke, 1; Burge 53; Haas, de Jonge, and Swellengrebel, 11; Smalley, 7; Strecker, 9). This would give it an identical meaning as the term in John 1:1. John would be consciously developing the prologue of his epistle along the lines of that of the Gospel. However, though John clearly intends to allude to the prologue of the Gospel, his focus on “life” over “word” in the parenthetical statement mitigates against having the same meaning (Harris, 50). (2) It might allude to the beginning of the reader’s faith in Christ (Westcott, 6–7). This could only work if “the Word of Life” had referred to the apostolic teachings. However, the context of the other descriptives makes it more likely a reference to Jesus’ earthly ministry since John is describing Jesus as eternal life itself, and so “Word of Life” refers to Him. (3) It could be the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, His incarnation (Kruse, 50–51; Mitchell, 22). (4) It could mean the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Brown, 158; Walls and Anders, 155). This would accord with his reference at the end of the epistle to Jesus coming “by water and blood” (1 John 5:6). John’s use of ἀπό rather than ἐν also strengthens this view (Culy, 2). (5) It could refer to the beginning of the church in Acts 2 (Williams, 17). In this context it would not be a reference to a commonly held tradition whose details were in dispute. Nor does it serve as an allusion to the apostles’ true claims about Jesus as opposed to the claims of the heretics (Brown, 71–72). It should, though, be seen as an initial indication of John’s continued emphasis on the deity of Christ and the christological focus of this epistle with Jesus’ incarnation in view, as will be evidenced in the phrases that follow.
John chooses first person plural verbs throughout this descriptive prologue to describe his experience of the incarnate Christ. His use of “we” is seen by some as a reference to (1) John himself, equivalent to “I,” as an “authorial plural” (Schnackenburg, 52; Strecker, 11), (2) including both John and his readers (Dodd, 9–10), (3) referring to the “Johannine school” (Brown, 160), (4) to “all Christians” (Williams, 17), or (5) referring to the apostolic band of eyewitnesses, which includes John (Hodges, 47; Kistemaker, 204–5). The last view seems most reasonable since, as Kistemaker says, “[o]nly Jesus’ original disciples can say and write that they touched him with their hands, as John states in the introductory verses of his first epistle” (Kistemaker, 205). Further, John uses the first person singular to refer to himself elsewhere in his epistles, and so should be seen as fully capable to doing so here in order to be clear (Harris, 51).
John’s use of “we” includes himself and, most likely, the other apostles as eyewitnesses (Haas, de Jonge, and Swellengrebel, 8). This places him within a larger group of eyewitnesses who are testifying to the church (in this case the recipients of this epistle) their experience of Christ. Culy (3) rightly notes that this emphasizes his “status as one of the limited group of eyewitnesses” and strengthens the epistle’s authority by his association with them. In this epistle it is very important to note the person of the verbs and pronouns. Both the verbs and pronouns often occupy emphatic positions in their sentences and are critical to understanding both his meaning and emphasis. Thus, his use of “we” is not as an authorial “we” equivalent to “I,” however as the spokesman for a group of eyewitnesses whose experience matches his own. Later this will become significant as he develops his “we” versus “them” distinctions between the apostles and false teachers.
ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν, ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν, “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes.” John describes his experience of Christ as eternal life incarnate through the perfect tense verbs ἀκηκόαμεν and ἑωράκαμεν. By these he indicates the continuing impact of his having heard and seen Jesus. The significance of his having seen Jesus is made through what would at first seem a redundant reference to having seen “with our eyes” (τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν). This would place him in contrast to the false teachers who might claim revelations, however could never claim eyewitness status. It also establishes a different level of authority from those who were merely eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection such as the five hundred who saw the living Jesus following His resurrection (1 Cor 15:6). Additionally, the perfect clarifies that though he saw Him in the past, Jesus’ impact on him continues to the present, and so his status as an eyewitness remains valid.
ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα καὶ αἱ χεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν, “which we beheld and our hands handled.” John’s deliberate movement from the perfect toaoristin the next two verbs ἐθεασάμεθα and ἐψηλάφησαν to describe his seeing and handling of Jesus clarifies that, though he and the other eyewitnesses had touched and seen Jesus during His earthly ministry, they no longer do at the time of writing. Jesus is no longer with them and John is not claiming any special appearances of Jesus beyond the corporate experience of the apostles. In contrast to the secret knowledge of Gnosticism, what John testifies to is common knowledge, experienced and known by a group that extends beyond him and his followers. Granted, Paul does meet Jesus on the road to Damascus and in subsequent revelations.
However, his experience is not being alluded to by John here. Furthermore, John will again experience a personal appearance of Jesus on the Isle of Patmos some years after the writing of this epistle. However, that is a story waiting its telling!
John’s use of ἐθεασάμεθα can simply mean looking intently at something, though it may also be used as a synonym of the more common ὁράω. Contra Hass et al., John’s choice seems to be more than to provide variation in the text, but to heighten the significance of his eyewitness status by the distinction created (Haas, de Jonge, and Swellengrebel, 12). He not only saw Jesus (ἑωράκαμεν), but he paid close attention to Jesus (ἐθεασάμεθα). Thus his understanding of Jesus from personal experience could be seen as both thorough and reliable.
Finally, John affirms further that he not only saw Jesus, but he was in personal, physical contact with Him during His earthly ministry. He uses ἐψηλάφησαν to emphasize the reality of Jesus’ corporeality, by noting that his experience of Jesus was physical as well as aural and visual (Haas, de Jonge, and Swellengrebel, 12). Thus, all of these verbs of perceiving serve to verify John’s status as an eyewitness with the right to relate His teachings with authority.
περὶ τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς, “concerning the Word of Life.” What John experienced was “the Word of Life.” This is best seen as a reference to Jesus, who is the living “Word” of God (John 1:1, 14) and the “Life” (John 14:6), not just the source of that life (Haas, de Jonge, and Swellengrebel, 19). Some see this referring to revelation: Jesus reveals truths about spiritual life.
Just as Jesus is not referred to as “the Word” in the Gospel after the prologue, John’s use here seems to follow the same pattern (Haas, de Jonge, and Swellengrebel, 12). However, although in his Gospel he has the preincarnate “Word” in view, here John has the incarnate “Word” in view. This is likely an allusion to the Gospel account, or at least reflects a conceptual connection. In this prologue, Jesus as eternal life incarnate is introduced with the movement from “Word of Life” to “Life,” and then to “Eternal Life.” Just as John’s use of “Word” in the Gospel prologue more likely expressed the Old Testament concept of God’s Word in creation, revelation, and salvation, here he appears to intend the same connection. Thus, rather than seeing this as an allusion to the gnostic concept of the logos, John is still speaking in terms of the Old Testament concept of divine revelation embodied in the person of Jesus. However, as he develops this concept in these three steps, he takes it further, moving from revelation to source.
Jesus is not simply the One who gives life. He is life itself. Yet, Scripture also speaks of eternal life as something we possess as a gift from God, freely given and never revoked. This reference may be taken as an objective genitive, referring to the word concerning life. This is supported by passages such as 1 John 1:10; 2:5, 7 and 14 where “word” does not refer to Jesus but to biblical revelation. Some take this as a reference to the gospel message rather than the person of Jesus (Brown, 182; Westcott, 6–7). Yet the subject of the prologue is not the message about Jesus and eternal life, but Jesus, who is eternal life. The subject is better seen as the person of Jesus rather than the topic of life.
Certainly this gives readers and potential readers a fair representation of what Derickson is about here. But is he right? In many respects he is. In others, however, there are problems. Primarily his seeming assumption of the existence of full blown gnosticism is problematic. However, on the whole, there is more here that is right than is not.
Exposition is followed by biblical theology and application. D. also includes, from time to time, additional and supplemental exegetical notes (footnotes, as it were with other more in depth observations on the Greek text).
Derickson has assembled an impressive amount of information which I believe readers will find exceedingly useful.