I will be preaching through the epistle of 1 John later this year and began studying through the book today. Immediately one is confronted with the expression in the first verse: “What was from the beginning.” The question calling for an answer in the phrase “What was from the beginning” (Ὃ ἦν ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς) is an obvious one; what beginning? Immediately one’s mind thinks back to the opening verse of the Gospel of John and to a lesser degree perhaps, the opening verse of the Bible.
Before we can answer that question, we must answer the question, to what is the relative pronoun “what” (ὅ) referring? What we see is that this relative clause is the first of four such clauses which in effect are descriptive of the final phrase in verse 1, “the Word of Life.” In other words, in verse 1 John is highlighting in the opening of his epistle, “the Word of Life” (τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς) and uses four relative clauses to do so. If we lay out the verse, we see a pattern emerging that highlights what John is doing:
Ὃ ἦν ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς,
ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν,
ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα καὶ αἱ χεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν
What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands
The 4 relative pronouns “what” (ὅ) all point to the final phrase in verse 1,
περὶ τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς
Concerning the Word of Life
The subsequent 3 relative clauses concerning the Word of Life point to the reality that the “beginning” John is referring to is the Incarnation. This is because the remaining 3 relative clauses are referring to the Word of Life as someone (the unfolding of the passage makes it clear this is Jesus Christ) who has been seen, heard and touched. In addition, verses 2 and 3 continue this same point. In this interpretation “the beginning” that the readers would have understood is the beginning of the gospel proclamation about Christ, the One of whom John was an eyewitness. And contextually, the good news of this Word of Life was proclaimed to them that they might come to have fellowship with other believers, being right with God (1:3).
The temptation here is to want to see this as a reference to the pre-incarnate Christ, stressing his deity and eternal nature, having always existed. However the deity of Christ is well established biblically and does not need the help of this passage for it to be found true. And yet we can’t help but hear an “echo.”
Colin Kruse notes,
The net result is that when the author describes the Word of life as ‘that which was from the beginning’, he is in fact speaking primarily of the Word of life incarnate in Jesus Christ, not the Word existing with God prior to the foundation of the world. Nevertheless, the echoes of the prologue of the Gospel found in this statement may imply an identity between the Word of life incarnate in Jesus Christ and the one whom the Fourth Gospel speaks of as being with God in the beginning before the foundation of the world (Letters of John, PNTC).
Kruse has a point here about such “echoes,” especially if as most scholars argue, the Gospel of John was written prior to 1 John.
But more to John’s point here. He is saying to his audience, “I am an eyewitness to Jesus Christ. I saw, heard and touched him. But more importantly, we proclaim him to you….that you too would come to know him and enjoy him forever.”