In the epistle of 1 John, the Apostle is writing to his beloved little children to address a heresy that has risen in the church. Scholars disagree on the exact heresy but it’s clear that it involved the denial of the humanity of the Lord Jesus. One version of this heretical view saw Jesus as a man whom the Christ descended upon for a season between his baptism and his crucifixion. In this view, the Christ was a spirit that came upon a man named Jesus who was the son of Mary and Joseph. In another variation the false teachers taught that the Christ was not really born a man but was a spirit without a physical body, like a ghost or phantom.
Regardless of which view was held by the false teachers, the impact on the church is clear from John’s letter. The dehumanizing of Jesus led to two sinful behaviors. First, the people became complacent with sin. Second, they became calloused to the needs of others. What was it about the rejection of the humanity of Christ that led to these behaviors?
By rejecting the humanity of Christ they devalued humanity in general. These false teachers thought that the physical was bad and evil. On the other hand, they elevated the spiritual as being the only thing of any value. For them the soul or spirit was all that mattered. Thus, if your spirit had been redeemed then it did not matter what you did with your body because after all the flesh is evil.
Their sinfulness did not only include sins of commission, but their heretical view likewise led to sins of omission. Since they had devalued the physical and elevated the spiritual they could now look at their brothers who struggled with physical needs and close their hearts to them. After all, the spirit or soul is what mattered; the physical was fleeting and evil.
While we may not rise to the level of heresy and deny the humanity of Christ, we do often elevate the spiritual over the physical. Do we justify our sin because the flesh is evil and weak? Do we look at the physical needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ and turn a blind eye because saving souls is more important than saving lives? John says that neither of these practices is compatible with Christianity! In Jesus Christ both deity and humanity are equally and fully present and thus the spiritual and the physical are forever unified.
In light of the heresies present in the church, it’s no wonder that John commits the prologue of the letter to firmly establishing the reality of the humanity of Christ. In the first two verses he makes it clear that Jesus is the Christ and that he had become a man. The reference to “That which was from the beginning…” in vs 1 certainly includes the understanding of the pre-existence of Christ as seen in John 1, but here he specifically deals with the incarnation and the beginning of Christ’s earthly life.
John, the Apostle, offers his eye witness account of the humanity of Christ. Contrary to the false teachers who espoused a special knowledge, John had heard, seen, and touched the Lord. John and the other Apostles had heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount. They had seen him touch and heal the blind and the sick. They had touched him and even placed their fingers in his wounds after the resurrection. It’s significant that the Apostles not only proclaimed what they heard Jesus teach, but also what they saw him do. What Christ did is as important as what he said.
In his Gospel, John referred to Christ as the pre-existent Word who was with the Father and stated that in him was life (John 1:1-4). As the creator and sustainer of all things Christ was the eternal life. Through the incarnation he dwelt among mankind and manifested this eternal life. John and the other Apostles had been eyewitnesses to the manifested life of Christ and they testified and proclaimed it to the church (vs. 2).
In these first two verses, John clearly and concisely refutes the false teachers’ distortions of who Jesus was. It was beyond debate that Jesus was both God and man unified in one person. His humanity was not subordinate to, nor did it detract from, his deity.
To be sure, the incarnation of Christ and the manifestation of eternal life had a purpose and John states it clearly in vs. 3. It was the restoration of fellowship between humanity and God. This is a very interesting way to describe the gospel. I suspect many of us would say the gospel is that Jesus died for my sin so that I can avoid hell. Or perhaps we would state it more positively, that Jesus died for my sin so that I can go to heaven. Yet this is not how John describes the gospel at all.
For John, the good news is not that I get out of hell or even that I get into heaven. For John the good news is that I get God! We were created for eternal fellowship with the Lord and with one another. Sin severed our fellowship with God and corrupted our fellowship with man, but in Christ this fellowship is restored. We can know God and love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and we can love our neighbor as ourselves. We can dwell in the presence of God. We can find our purpose in our role as image bearers glorifying God and participating in his kingdom. This is the gospel!
The ultimate result of restored fellowship is joy. John is proclaiming Christ in order that his hearers can enter into fellowship with the church and with the Father and the Son. He knows that the end result of this fellowship is complete joy. Certainly he is looking ahead to the consummation of history when all is made new; however, even now when we participate in the fellowship of the body with the Father and the Son we will experience great joy!