Eyewitness Testimony

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'Eyewitness Testimony' is my title this evening, as we make a start on this new series on the First Letter of John. We're looking at 1.1-4. My outline is there on the back of the service sheet.

Eyewitness testimony. There is of course something uniquely powerful about that. If you can say of some significant event, "I was there; I saw it with my own eyes; I was involved," then what you have to say about what happened carries great weight.

Some years ago Vivienne, my wife, was driving home and right in front of her a car failed to stop at red lights and slammed into the side of a lorry at high speed. The driver of the car was killed. Only a few people saw it happen. Vivienne was called to the coroner's court to give evidence at the inquest. What she had to say was a unique, credible and valuable source of information and carried great weight.

What we have here in this letter is eyewitness testimony of immense weight and significance both for the whole world, and for you and for me. It's just three and a bit pages in the Bibles. The language is simple enough. And yet it's a surprisingly complex letter.

Just before last Christmas, we went to the Sage to hear Handel's Messiah. It ends with a chorus which is just one word, 'Amen'. And yet it's extremely and wonderfully complex, because that 'Amen' is repeated I don't know how many times, and there are many interweaving musical themes and phrases coming and going. 1 John is a bit like that. So we need to try and pick out some the themes and phrases if we're going to get to grips with it. I want to do that by asking three main questions. They're there on the outline. First, what is this letter? Secondly, what does the apostle want to say to us? And thirdly, what does it mean to have fellowship with the apostle? So:

First, What Is This Letter?

Because this is not your standard letter. There's no 'Dear So and So' at the start, or 'Yours faithfully So and So' at the end – nor is there the first century equivalent of those. But it is a letter of sorts. So 2.1, for instance, says:

"My little children, I am writing these things to you …"

We quite often get parcels arrive at our door. And when I open the door to the delivery man, I immediately want to know who it's from and who it's for. My least favourite parcels have either been to delivered to the wrong street – Lily Avenue when it should have been Lily Crescent – or we're being asked to take in a parcel for someone else down the street. My favourite parcels are the ones for me, that I've been waiting to arrive. So who is this from and who is it for?

Who is writing? Because it doesn't actually say directly. But from the earliest days of the church, this has been understood to be a letter from the apostle John – hence the title! And there are good reasons for that. For instance, it is clearly from an authoritative eye witness to Jesus of high standing in the church; and there are obvious links to the gospel of John. Just take the first verse:

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen …"

That echoes the start of John's Gospel:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Then the end of John's Gospel says of the one called 'the disciple whom Jesus loved', who is clearly John – this is 21.24:

"This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things …"

So we can take it that the apostle John wrote 1 John as well as John's Gospel.

Who is he writing to? Again, we're not told directly. John was particularly associated with the church in what is now Turkey, so it's likely to have been to them. But the apostles knew that their letters would be circulated, so no doubt he had a wider readership in mind. He might not have heard of Newcastle, but he wouldn't be surprised it's reached here. But we are told something in the Letter itself. John says in 5.13:

"I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God …"

So this is written to believers. If you're here this evening and you're not yet convinced about the Christian faith, it's great to have you here – and this is still extremely relevant to you, because this gives you a window on to what is most fundamental about being a Christian. It's also a profound challenge to you not to dismiss the Christian faith out of hand, but to take a close look at the hard evidence – the hard facts – about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – and to listen to one who saw it all. If you're here as a believer, then this is a word directly to your mind and heart.

That, then, is the document we're dealing with. On to my next main question.

Secondly, What Does the Apostle Want To Say To Us?

As I mentioned, there are interwoven and repeated themes. But I'll pick out some of the key things John wants us to get. There are four on the outline.

First, he wants to say to us, I am an eyewitness. Listen again to these first three verses, and listen out for the eyewitness claims:

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you …"

It's unmistakable, isn't it? It would be unremarkable if what John had seen was not so astounding. But there's no getting away from the down to earth reality of what he's saying. This is so important, because John is struggling against false teaching in the church that is denying that God truly became a man in the person of Jesus. More on that later in the letter, but John is crystal clear. He heard. This is a man who spent three years talking with Jesus and listening to his teaching. He saw with his own eyes. He was there at the crucifixion. He met the risen Jesus. He shared breakfast with him. He touched him. One incident seems to have stuck in his mind – from the supper that the disciples shared with Jesus just before he went to the cross, when Jesus stunned them all into silence by saying that one of them would betray him. His memory is embedded in John 13.23-25:

"One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved [that's John himself], was reclining at table at Jesus' side. Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, 'Lord, who is it?'"

Clearly that was a vivid memory of physical contact, seared into John's mind. This is a close-up, in-your-face eyewitness speaking.

Dan and Becky McBride, as many of you know, are on our staff here at JPC. They've recently had a baby. After the event, they sent round a text to say so. That's one thing. But then they brought young Jacob to a wedding I took the other week. I saw him. I know he's real. I'm an eyewitness. What's more, I touched him. I stroked his cheek. I know baby Jacob is a real living baby as certainly as I know I'm alive myself. John was an eyewitness.

Secondly, he wants to say to us, I am testifying to the truth. Because being an eyewitness to a baby is one thing. What John was saying about who he had heard, seen and touched was quite another. He was saying that this Jesus, this real man he'd encountered, was none other than the eternal Son of God, and the Christ – God's chosen Messiah, the Saviour and King of the world. You can see that in those first three verses. "That which was from beginning" – that is, he was there before the start of time – "the word of life – the life was made manifest." And John goes on, "the eternal life, which was with the Father … was made manifest to us." And John says this life is "[God the Father's] Son, Jesus Christ". John comes back to those themes later in the letter. So for instance he says in 4.15:

"Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God."

And in 5.1:

"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God …"

Jesus is the eternal Son of God. Jesus is the Christ. That is the truth to which John was testifying. But he goes a step further.

Thirdly, he wants to say to us, I am proclaiming this to you. That is, this isn't just testimony for some distant court that doesn't involve us. This is a proclamation to us and for us that could not be more important to our own lives. Verse 2:

"… we … proclaim to you the eternal life …"

Verse 3:

"… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also …"

Then fourthly, the apostle wants to tell us why he's writing this letter that's so important to our lives. It's always good to look out for these purpose statements in a Bible book, and this letter's no exception. So when you read the whole letter through, you find four explicit reasons why he's writing.

One. I am writing so that you may have fellowship with us. 1.3:

"… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us ..."

How can we have fellowship with an apostle from two thousand years ago? Just hold that thought and we'll come back to it later.

Two. I am writing so that our joy will be complete. 1.4:

"And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete."

That's a remarkable statement, because John is saying that, for all the joy he has through his deep knowledge of Christ and his union with God through him, that joy needs all God's people, including us, to share in the blessings of knowing Jesus. Only when heaven has been fully populated will the joy of the apostles be complete. The more joy in Christ his readers find, the more joy he has.

Three. I am writing so that that you will not sin. You have to look on to 2.1 for this one:

"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin."

Sin separates us from God. If we're going to know a joyful and eternal fellowship with Christ, then sin has to be dealt with. Our guilt must be cleared. Our sinful natures must be changed. That's what Jesus does, as we'll see in more detail as we work our way through the letter.

Four. I am writing so that you will know you have eternal life. This is the eternal life that John says he's proclaiming to us in 1.2. And then as the letter is drawing to a close, John says (this is 5.13):

"I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life."

He wants them not only to have eternal life, but to know that they have it. That assurance of our eternal future brings peace in the present. It's possible to have eternal life – to be saved by grace and forgiven – without knowing for sure that you do, and therefore without the peace. The apostle wants us to have both. That's another reason he's writing.

He's writing, then, so that we will have fellowship with him; to complete his joy; so that we won't sin; and so that we'll have that assurance and know that we have eternal life. But – final question:

Thirdly, What Does It Mean To Have Fellowship With the Apostle?

1.3:

"… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ."

This fellowship we share as believers with the apostle John – and come to that with the other apostles too – has different dimensions to it.

One of those dimensions is illustrated by what we're doing right now with this letter. Through the New Testament, we have direct access to the apostle and to what he had to say. It is not overlaid and encrusted with centuries of history. It is not mediated by a priesthood or a scholarly elite. We can go straight to the eyewitnesses and hear what they have to say. If John were sitting with us in this church this evening, what would he want to say to us about his extraordinary and unique experience of Jesus? We know the answer to that. Here it is. In this letter. In the pages of the Bible we have direct access to those who had direct access to Jesus. That would be wonderful enough, but there is more.

Just as John has a share in eternal life, so do we. We have a share in eternal life. 1.2:

"… we … proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us."

This eternal life is to be found in a person – the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the Life. By faith, we can know him and share in the eternal life he gives. John, can – and does – too. We know Jesus. He knows Jesus. Through Jesus we share in fellowship with John. Jesus unites us with him, as with all believers throughout the world and throughout history. What a privilege.

And there cannot be any true fellowship without love for one another. What does fellowship mean? It means we love one another. That is implied in these first four verses, but John hammers it home through the rest of his letter. For instance, 3.23:

"And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us."

And again in 4.11-12:

"Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No-one has ever seen God [the Father, that is]; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us."

There can be no fellowship with the apostles, and no fellowship with God, without love. And that fellowship with God is the final dimension of our fellowship with the apostle John. We have fellowship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In 1.3 John says:

"… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ."

We have fellowship with John because, through our common faith in Christ, we are both united with Jesus, and through our union with Jesus we are united with God the Father. How does that union happen? By the gift of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God himself. So John says in 3.24:

"Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us."

And again in 4.13:

"By this we know that we abide in him and he is us, because he has given us of his Spirit."

When we know Jesus by faith, he draws us into all the life of the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is eternal life. And that is a privilege beyond our words and beyond our imagining.

Some of you will know bishop John Ellison, who has been helping us at JPC for some years by taking confirmations for us. He's not at all well at the moment, so please be praying for him. A while ago I went to see him in Hampshire. I shared fellowship with him. That meant I was invited into his home, and shared a summer lunch with him sitting out in his garden. But not only with him. Sharing fellowship with him meant sharing it with his family – so I got to know his lovely wife Judy as well.

When we know fellowship with Jesus, we are drawn into the life of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we find ourselves in loving fellowship with all those others who share in this eternal life – the apostles, and John himself, included. And that is a complete joy.

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