The living word. Whom the apostles have seen.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 December 2021

1 John 1.1-4.

Just as John introduced his gospel by pointing to the Word who became human, Jn 1.1-5 he also introduced his first letter by pointing to the living Word again. The Word who’s with God and is God, Jn 1.1 the Word who created everything in the cosmos, Jn 1.3 but specifically the Word who’s in the beginning. Jn 1.2 This is the person John proclaims, and writes about, to the recipients of his letter.

Some have argued John’s really writing about the Father. After all, the Father’s there in the beginning. But John wrote this person is with the Father, 1Jn 1.2 so he’s clearly not the Father. He’s a different person. So… which other person was with the Father in the beginning? Well there’s the Holy Spirit… but nah, John’s writing about Christ Jesus.

Yeah John doesn’t come right out and bluntly say he’s writing about Jesus. But did he really have to? Are we that dense? Well… maybe those of us who insist John’s writing about the Father. Everybody else, who isn’t trying to be contrary for contrariness’ sake, should have no trouble recognizing who John meant.

1 John 1.1-4 KWL
1 About the living word: He’s in the beginning.
We saw him with our eyes. We saw him up close and our hands touched him.
2 He revealed life. We saw it, witnessed it, and report it to you:
The life of the age to come which is with the Father, revealed to us.
3 We saw it, heard it, and report it to you all, so you can also have a relationship with us—
and our relationship is with the Father and with his son, Christ Jesus.
4 We write these things so our joy might be full.

Saw it for themselves.

Same as in the start of John’s gospel, the author began with a matter-of-fact statement. This isn’t theory, isn’t speculation, isn’t what present-day people mean by “spiritual” (’cause they mean imaginary, not “empowered by the Holy Spirit”). It’s concrete. John and the rest of the Twelve spent significant personal time with Jesus of Nazareth. Standing in synagogues as he taught, sitting in boats while he napped, listening to his innumerable sermons, getting confused by his analogies and parables, eating where he ate, peeing against the same boulders as he. They knew Jesus as a real, physical, corporeal being. ’Cause despite what gnostics claimed, that’s what he is.

And he’s our heavenly Father’s only-begotten Son.

But while John’s gospel focuses mostly on Jesus as God’s word, as God’s revelation of himself to humanity, 1 John focuses a bit more on Jesus as God’s life. In the Old Testament, one of God’s names is אֵל חַ֖י/El Khaý, “God the living one.” It’s a reminder of how the LORD isn’t just some ikon on the wall, nor Michelangelo’s painting of him creating Adam, nor a nice abstract idea about love or power represented by a human-shaped being, nor the sum total of the universe which we imagine as a person we can talk to. God’s alive. He has his own mind, and does as he wills. He’s not a formula we can figure out, or contractually obligate to give us what we want, or even save us. He’s alive. In many ways, more alive than we, and not just because he lives forever.

A lot of 1 John consists of statements refuting Docetists, heretics who believe Jesus isn’t really human, but a mighty spirit-being who only pretends to be human. I use present-tense verbs because plenty of Christians are still Docetist: They claim Jesus’s life is spiritual, not physical. He didn’t really live, breathe, eat, sweat, poop, bleed, and die. He feigned these things so we could better relate to God, but because he’s God, and above the human experience, he would never condescend that far. But John and the apostles knew better—from firsthand experience. They saw him. Touched him. He’s a real live human being, and that’s the Jesus they proclaimed.

Doesn’t matter if he has the supernatural power to cure all sorts of disease. Doesn’t matter if he can walk on water or get raptured into the clouds. Doesn’t matter if he can appear and disappear, as it looks like he did after he returned from death. Other scriptures make it clear any human, with the Holy Spirit’s power, can do these things too—like Simon Peter walking on water, Elijah getting raptured, or Enoch and Philip disappearing. Odd powers don’t mean you’re not human. They mean there’s a living God. Jesus did these things because so can we.

But Jesus is still in the beginning. Before he was ever human, he’s God. (And after.) He’s always been with the Father, and always will be; there was never a time they were apart. (The popular belief the Father abandoned him at the cross: More heresy. God is indivisible, so the trinity is indivisible.) And for a time, Jesus was also with us—when he was revealed to humanity, and the first apostles got to see him.

Now if you want a relationship with this Jesus, you can have one!

But it won’t do to reject his apostles’ teachings. He revealed himself to them first. And, arguably, most. Doesn’t matter if a hermit sits in a cell for 60 years praying his brains out, and the Holy Spirit gives him vision after vision, revelation after revelation: Jesus physically hung out with his Twelve and taught ’em personally. They knew him best. They were in an excellent position for Jesus to correct them about all the wrong ideas they had about God. And they correct us the same way—if we read our bibles and learn what they teach. The reason we kept the apostles’ writings in our New Testament is so we can refer and defer to them.

The rest of us Christians can, like that hermit, sorta know Jesus personally. But that’s more like two people who meet on Twitter, communicate with one another for years, yet never meet in person. Yes it’s a relationship; it can even be a very close one! But it has its limitations. Whereas the apostles had no such limitations with Jesus. He was right there.

And John wrote his letter so his readers could establish a relationship with Jesus… which is best facilitated by having a relationship with Jesus’s apostles. You wanna know Christ better? Study what his first followers wrote. Read the gospels. Read the apostles. Read your bible. Read them for what they have to say, not so you can proof-text all your existing assumptions. Learn from them.

They saw the living Christ. And once he returns, so will we. But in the meanwhile, apart from various Christ-experiences we might have here and there, we need the apostles to correct any misinterpretations and misconceptions we might have. They saw Jesus personally, so they’re a good resource to tap.