A Saving Knowledge of Christ
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of Life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ."
1 John 1:1-3
The substance of a sermon by Henry Sant preached at Salem Strict Baptist Chapel, Portsmouth, on Lord's Day evening 24th August 1997.
With regard to this Book, by which I mean the Bible in its entirety, we believe that in all its parts it is God's holy Word. We thus acknowledge the doctrine of plenary inspiration, and allied to that the doctrine of verbal inspiration. The word plenarv refers to the fact that the Bible is inspired in all its parts. Likewise the word verbal declares that the Bible is inspired in all its words in the original Hebrew and Greek. It is all God's words, but in giving us his Word, God was pleased to make use of men, he did not however use them as mere automaton. He did not simply dictate words to them which they then spoke or wrote down. No, God by the sovereign operations of his Spirit upon their spirits, so dealt with them that they came into various experiences, and the fruit of those experiences was that they were brought to write the very words which God intended them to write. The interesting thing with regard to this way of inspiration is that when we compare various parts of Scripture, we discover that there are different styles as certain authors have their own way of saying things, or their own particular vocabulary which they like to use. It is therefore interesting to observe the similarity between these words with which the Apostle John opens his 1st Epistle and the words with which he commences the Gospel that bears his name. Here we have mention of "That which was from the beginning ... the Word of life" and in the 1st verse of the Gospel according to John we have that striking declaration "In the beginning was the Word." Observe the similarity. "In the beginning was the Word" says John, there at the beginning of the Gospel and here in the Epistle "That which was from the beginning ... the Word of life." In both cases the Apostle is speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ and this is the theme that I want to take up as we consider the opening words of this 1st Epistle.
In every true sermon the theme is Christ. Is that not what the preacher is charged with, to be Christ's ambassador, to speak not his own words, but to seek to speak the words of the Lord and to hold forth Christ on the Gospel pole? As we look at these words at the beginning of this Epistle, and as we consider Christ, I want to divide the subject matter into two parts: Firstly to say something with regard to the nature of the Lord Jesus Christ (we will observe that in his blessed Person there are two natures); Secondly to go on to speak of how John here sets before us what is involved in a true knowledge of Christ.
1. The Lord's nature or natures. We have looked at this on previous occasions but I make no apology for bringing this blessed subject before you again.
It is right and proper that we understand the significance of the work of Christ. He came into the world on a mission, charged by the Father to accomplish a work. He clearly had a specific commission from the Father. "....My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work" (Jno. 4:34). He was, in his life and by his death, to answer for his people; those whom the Father had given to him, those who were in debt to the holy and righteous law of God. Christ was to stand in their law-place and for them to answer all the charges of the law. "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law" (Gal. 4:4,5). He did this, in his death. We see him as the One who honours and magnifies God's law in all the breaches of it, because his people were the breakers of it and upon them there was that terrible sentence of death, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezek. 18:4). "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). So Christ dies and he dies "the just for the unjust" (1 Pet. 3:18), his people's substitute, to bring them to God. Besides that which he does in his passive obedience there upon the cross; there is also the significance of the active obedience of his life. Even in his life he is the One who honours and magnifies the law of God in all its precepts, as the Surety of his people. He comes and he accomplishes the law, he fulfils it by his obedience. Holy, harmless, undefiled was he, and separate from all sinners (Heb. 7:26), the only righteous man that has ever lived upon the earth. Although the first man, Adam was created upright, yet he sought out many inventions, he fell (Eccl. 7:29). But the last Adam does not fall, he accomplishes all the holy law of God. We make much of this great work of Christ, all that was wrought in order to the saving of his people, the precious blood that he shed for the purging and cleansing away of all their sins, the righteousness that was wrought in his life that he might have a robe wherewith to clothe them. And so in him they stand before God as a people who are justified, even as his righteousness is imputed to them. He finished the transgression, made an end of sin, made reconciliation for iniquity, and brought in everlasting righteousness (Dan. 9:24). We rightly make much of this.
However, we also need to remind ourselves time and again of the Person of the Saviour. It is who he is, that gives such virtue to all that he does. Christ is of course one Person, yet in that Person there are two distinct natures. He is human, he is a real man; but he is also divine, he is never anything less than truly God. And these two natures are so wonderfully and mysteriously united, that although they are always distinct yet Christ is always one undivided Person. This is a mystery.
The Christian confesses that the first and the greatest of all mysteries is the Being of God, the doctrine of the Trinity. That our God is one, undivided and indivisible (Deut. 6:4), and yet the one God subsists in three distinct and separate Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the first mystery of the Christian religion; the being of God. And the second mystery is in many ways like unto it. It is the mystery of Jesus Christ, the God-Man, who is one undivided Person yet two distinct natures. "Without controversy" says the Apostle, "great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh" (1 Tim. 3:16). These precious doctrines, these great truths, were hammered out, in the first centuries of the Christian era. And we are not to be ignorant of those great credal statements that were made as a result of heresies that so quickly began to manifest themselves amongst those who professed to be Christians. I think of such creeds as the Apostles' Creed, the Nicean Creed, the Athanasian Creed. Let me just quote briefly from the latter. It puts things so succinctly with regards to the mystery of the Person of Jesus Christ: "Who although he be God and man, yet is he not two, but one Christ, one, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the manhood into God. One altogether not by confision of substance, but by unity of Person." If you are in possession of The Book of Common Prayer I recommend that you read those ancient creeds which you will find therein. The Athanasian Creed is identified with the life and the testimony of Athanasius, who was the great champion against the Arians, those heretics who repudiated the mystery of the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. They denied that Christ is God, and so also rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. And when their heresy was spreading so much in the early church, it was Athanasius who stood almost alone against it and so he is remembered by the saying, "Athanasius contra mundum" (Athanasius against the world). The creed bears his name, not because it was drawn up by him but in honour of the stand that he took. How carefully that statement of faith was worked out and worded with regard to the mystery of the two natures in the one Person of the Saviour, "one altogether not by confusion of substance, but by unity of Person." Oh friends, how important it is that we are clear in these matters.
What think ye of Christ? is the test,
To try both your state and your scheme,
You cannot be right in the rest,
Unless you think rightly of him.
With regards to what we learn of the Lord Jesus Christ in these opening words of this 1st Epistle of John, let us observe two things:
(i) Firstly, here at the beginning of the first verse John speaks quite specifically of Christ Jesus, "That which was from the beginning," and the expression "the beginning" is to be understood in an absolute sense. Christ existed from the beginning, before ever time was created. He is the everlasting Jehovah. He is the Eternal God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending, which is and which was and which is to come, the Lord Almighty, as we read in Revelation 1:8. He was from the beginning, observe the use of the definite article in relation to "the beginning." He is identified with the Eternal God. "In the beginning God" (Gen. 1:1). Christ is the great "I Am." This is God's name, he uses it as he declares himself, and so reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14: "I AM THAT I AM." It is the first person singular of the verb "to be," and the name "LORD" or "Jehovah" is the 3rd person singular of that same verb. God says, "I AM," and we say "He is." Remember how in the Gospel of John time and again Christ uses this very formula in reference to himself. "I am," says Christ, "the light of the world" (Jno. 7:12). "I am the bread of life" (Jno. 6:35). "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Jno. 14:6). "I am the resurrection, and the life" (Jno. 11:25) and so on. And Christ says to the Jews in John 8:58, "Before Abraham was, I am." "That which was from the beginning." What is the Apostle doing here in the opening words of this particular Epistle? Is he not asserting the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is one with God. He is as eternal as God himself, because he is God. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," says John in the opening words of his Gospel. And he is, I say, asserting the same when he speaks of Christ as that One who is "from the beginning."
(ii) As Christ was from the beginning so we also see that he is the source of all life. In the second verse we read, "For the life was manifested." He who is "the beginning" in verse 1 is spoken of as "the life" here in verse 2. And again we have the use of the definite article, "the life." Christ is the life in the sense that he is life itself. He does not derive his life from anyone else, but he possesses life in and of himself because he is truly God, "I am .... the life" (Jno. 11:25). He is the source of all life. John goes on in this second verse to say that Christ is eternal life, "the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father." He is speaking of Christ. Christ is the beginning and as he is the beginning, so he is the life. He is the source and the fountain of life, and he is also the author and the giver of life. "And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life" (Chap. 5:11,12).
Is it not his great business to communicate life to sinners? Observe the use of the word "manifested" in verse 2, "the life was manifested." What a precious statement is this? The life was not concealed, was not hidden from us but, says John, "the life was manifested." And again, we read "that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us." The emphasis in verse 2 is very much placed upon the idea of the manifestation of this life. This is what Christ undertook in the outworking of the covenant of grace. How was that life manifested, how is it to be communicated? It was done by the Son of God becoming a man. "When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Gal. 4:4,5). Christ thus comes as the One who is the revealer of God. He is spoken of as the image of the invisible God, the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his Person (Col. 1:15 and Heb. 1:3).
Therefore at the end of this first verse John speaks of handling the Word of life. Christ is not only "the life," and "that eternal life" but he is also "the Word of life." When we read of him as the Word, it serves to remind us of the great truth that he is the One who reveals God. Does not a word suggest communication and revelation? We use words in order to give expression to our thoughts, that there might be some communication between us. Words are so vital. And Christ is the Word of life. It is he who declares to us the mind of God: "....for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10). He has come to reveal to us the will of God. "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" (Jno. 1:18). Again, in Matthew 11:27 Christ says "All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him." The verb "to will" is the stronger of two verbs that could have been used in the original, it literally means "willeth." "Neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him." In his sovereignty he reveals himself to one and not to another. "Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me:" "...I will manifest myself to him" (Jno. 14:19,21).
As Christ is the revealer of God, so he is also the communicator of life. If we know Christ he must have communicated life to our souls, those souls which by nature were dead. "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (Jno. 17:3). Are we not those of the Gentiles, "having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them because of the blindness (margin: hardness) of their hearts" (Eph. 4:18)? When Christ comes to reveal himself and communicates life to the sinner, there is a quickening. And when life comes into the soul we are made both to see and to feel what we are by nature "... dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1). We thus learn experimentally the awful truth of total depravity. However the sinner's comfort is that Christ comes to save such, and to such he is pleased to reveal himself. "God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness" says Paul "hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6).
John thus sets before us the wonder of the Person of the Saviour. He is that One who is the beginning, who is the life, that eternal life, even the Word of life. How great and how glorious is this Saviour. None can be compared with him. He alone can communicate life to the soul, he only can manifest God to sinners.
2. Let us consider more especially this knowledge of God; what it means to be those who are taught of Christ. As John speaks of the Person and natures of the Lord Jesus Christ, he does not deal with these truths in some cold and abstract fashion. Although they are the most profound doctrines that he is handling, when he speaks of Christ he cannot but speak in personal terms. He speaks as one who knows Christ, who knows him by personal experience. John had an experimental knowledge of the Lord. He is no mere theorist. He is not just an academic who is coming to sublime doctrines in theology and wanting to look at them in a detached fashion. No, he speaks of those things that were so real in his own experience. And how important this is. Martin Luther said, "doctrine is Heaven." But doctrine is only Heaven friends, when we find that it is rooted and grounded in our soul's experience. It is not mere notional truth that we are to be contented with. We need to know that Christ has come to us, has revealed God to us, has revealed God in us. John mentions four aspects involved with regards to the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us look at each of these.
(i) He speaks of hearing Christ. "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard" (verse 1) and again, in verse 3, "That which we have heard." How important hearing is. During the Lord's earthly ministry, John heard his many discourses. We were reading just now in the 14th chapter of John's Gospel. John was present on that occasion; he heard that discourse of the Lord Jesus Christ, his farewell sermon, his valedictory discourse. He was one of that favoured band. He attended the public ministry of Christ Jesus.
None of us can hear Christ in that way. No more does the Lord tabernacle upon earth, no more do we see him in the body of his humiliation, as a man upon the earth. But that does not mean that we cannot hear him. In fact, we must hear him, if we are to know him. If you have never heard him, if Christ has never spoken to you, how can you say you know him? You might know of him; you can know of him by reading his words, by studying the Scriptures, by hearing sermons, but you can only know him if he has come and has spoken to you, and he does speak. He himself is the incarnate Word of God. That is how John sets Christ before us in the opening chapter of his Gospel, "the Word was made flesh." Christ is the Word incarnate. And what do we have in the Bible? The Word inscripturated. And there is a blessed relationship between these two. As Joseph Hart says:
The Scriptures and the Lord
Bear one tremendous name;
The written and the incarnate Word
In all things are the same.
Therefore if we would be those who are familiar with Christ, we must be such as are familiar with his Word. But have you ever heard his voice in his Word? Have you heard him as he has come and spoken to you in the ministry of the Word, the preaching of the Gospel? Remember what Paul says, Romans 10:14, "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" I have said on previous occasions that that middle clause is one in which we can quite legitimately omit the little word "of." The original literally says "how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?" Not just "of whom they have not heard?" but "whom they have not heard?" "And how shall they hear without a preacher?" Doesn't the Lord himself draw near, doesn't he come to us through preaching? So that one is not merely attending to the words of a man, but as that man is enabled to be faithful in seeking to open up the Scriptures, and as the Spirit applies the Word, it is the Lord's voice, it is Christ himself who is speaking. And so Paul, when he wrote to the Ephesians could say "ye have not so learned Christ; If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus" (chapter 4:21). Christ never went to Asia Minor where Ephesus was. He recognised that his ministry was very much to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24). His ministry was confined to Israel and yet, says the Apostle to these Ephesians, they must have heard Christ and they must have been taught by Christ. If we are to know the Lord Jesus, we also must hear him. How we need to examine ourselves; have we really heard his voice? Has he come to us, has he spoken to us, personally, specifically, and pointedly? Has he made us to smart under his Word? Have we felt anything of the terrors of the law as the ministration of death and condemnation (2 Cor. 3:7,9)? Have we then known anything of the tender ministry of Christ, as he speaks so gently his Gospel words to us? "A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory" (Matt. 12:20). There must be a hearing.
(ii) But this knowledge of Christ involves more than mere hearing. John goes on to speak of how he saw Christ, and repeatedly he speaks of seeing him, "which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon" (verse 1). Again in the second verse, "For the life was manifested, and we have seen it," and in the third verse, "that which we have seen." Throughout these verses, the emphasis very much fails upon "seeing," and it is so emphatic in that repetition that we find in the first verse, "which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon." Remember the doctrine of verbal inspiration. As every word in Scripture is inspired, so no word is redundant. Therefore how important and significant is the repetition.
John did see Christ with the visible eye. He saw the Lord as he was here upon the earth, tabernacling amongst men. And it is an important testimony that John is bearing. There was a heresy that was already manifesting itself, even in those days at the end of the Apostolic era, the error of docetism. This name is associated with a group of heretics who denied the reality of the Lord's humanity. They said that he was never a real man. He just seemed to be a man; (the Greek word "dokeo" means "to seem"). Christ was merely a phantom spirit is what they said. There were not only those who were deniers of his deity but there were also these others who denied his humanity. And John is answering such heretics. He does so again in his 2nd Epistle and the 7th verse, "many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist" (cf. 1 Jno. 4:1-3). This is why John places such emphasis upon what he had seen with his own eyes. And we are right to recognise this in our text.
If we have a knowledge of Christ, although we will not see him with our physical eyes as John did, we must see him with the spiritual eye. How vital that we have looked upon him by faith. Now the verb that John uses here in verse 1 "....we have looked upon," literally means "to gaze upon," to behold with much intensity. It is the same word that we have in John 1:14, where it is rendered "behold." "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father)." It is not so much the immediate object of the eye that is important, but it is the outcome of the sight. It is the consequence, the effect, that that sight has upon the mind and soul. To be persuaded concerning the reality of who this Person is, and a desire to know him; a longing, and a yearning after him. That is what it means to look upon him. "Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God and there is none else" (Isa. 45:22).
Again, see how Paul brings these things out in his Epistles. We turned earlier to the Ephesian Epistle, where he speaks of them having heard Christ and having been taught by him. And when he writes to the Galatians, what does he say in chapter 3? "O foolish Galatians who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?" Mark the expression: "Before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth." There is a setting forth of Christ before the eye of faith, and it is necessary to see him with the eye of faith, if we are to know him. We need to behold him, to fix our eye upon him, to look to him, and to have such a persuasion in our heart with regard to the reality of who he is, as the Saviour, truly God and really man.
(iii) John, speaking of the knowledge of Christ, makes mention of hearing him, and seeing him, and he goes further yet. He also speaks of handling Christ, "and our hands have handled, of the Word of life" (verse 1). John did touch him, of course. He was that favoured disciple who was at the last Supper and was leaning upon Christ's breast. We were thinking last Lord's Day evening of that verse in the Song of Solomon, "who is this that cometh from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?" (chapter 8:5). And remember those words that we then read in John 13:23, "Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved." Again in verse 25, "He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it?" enquiring who it was that would betray him. John did have that intimacy of knowledge with the Lord Jesus Christ. He was that real and tangible to John. John knew that he was a real man. He could answer those who were denying his humanity, those who were falling into the error of docetism. Christ was no phantom spirit.
He was not only real in his life to John, he was also real in his resurrection from the dead. John speaks of the resurrected Christ making himself known, in the 20th chapter of his Gospel, how on the evening of the first day of the week, when the disciples were shut in because of the fear of the Jews, Christ appeared and Thomas was absent. And when a week later, the Lord again appeared to them on the first day of the week in the evening, Thomas was then present, says John, and the Lord stretched forth his hands and invited Thomas to put his finger in the nail prints, and to thrust his hand into that wound in his side. John thus bears testimony to the reality of Christ's resurrection and that the body which was raised again from the dead was real.
Although we are not able to touch Christ with these physical hands do we desire that we might lay hold of him by the hand of faith? And not only to touch, but to draw him to us and to embrace him in the arms of faith? Oh to know what John saw and heard at Patmos, "And when I saw him I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not, I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore. Amen: and have the keys of hell and of death" (Rev. 1:17,18). Might Christ make himself so real to you that your experience of him is better known than expressed, and better felt than "telt."
(iv) Finally, John confesses Christ, "That which we have seen and handled declare we unto you" (verse 3). Likewise with Peter in Acts 4:20, he says, "For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard." And if we truly know Christ, if we really believe in him, we too must confess him, "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Rom. 10:9,10). The true disciple is as his Master who thus speaks in John 3:11, "Verity, verily, I say unto thee, we speak that we do know, and testity that we have seen."
That Christ is God I can avouch,
And for his people cares,
Since I have prayed to him as such,
And he has heard my prayers.