Let’s say you have just read a book about the Pantanal – a region along the border of Paraguay and Brazil. The Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland – about the size of Colorado. In your reading you have learned about some of the natives who live there – the Ipicas and others. The Ipicas are people so untouched by civilization that it can be said that they are living just like their ancestors did at the time of Christ. They speak in little more than grunts and gestures; they eat what they can catch and kill. They are ignorant of a great many things like electricity, space travel and skyscrapers. They wear no clothes; they are immoral. They are as simple and as wicked as little children can be. And speaking about Christ, they know nothing about the One who created them – absolutely nothing. They are living and dying in their sins without any idea of their utter lostness and their eternal damnation.
Imagine that in some mysterious way the Holy Spirit has moved you with grief towards the Ipicas. Your soul cries out for their salvation, and you begin to pray for a missionary to be sent by God to them. Then one day, you realize that you are the missionary whom the Lord has chosen to evangelize them.
Let’s say that after some time you have prepared yourself, and your church has sent you to Brazil. You are now living on the banks of the Paraguay River among those Indians of whom you once read. They are far worse than what you read or what you dreamed. Under those conditions, what is the message you want to share with them? Imagine the Lord has given you the miraculous gift of glossolalia – the New Testament gift of tongues. You have the ability to converse with these Ipica people. What do you want to tell them? How about I John chapter 1?
These four verses may be taken as simply or as complicatedly as the preacher and the student might allow. Take for example, verse 4 – “These things write we unto you, that your JOY may be full.” Those Ipicas may experience a dozen emotions related to joy – things like happiness and pleasure. Can they be taught there is something better than satisfaction of killing a swamp deer for supper? Can they be taught joy; can they be shown there is even something higher – “fullness of joy?” And what about “fellowship”? “That ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Certainly there is a tribal comradery and a mutual happiness in the birth of a baby or grief in a death. But can they be taught to yearn for fellowship with a Christian missionary, or fellowship with God? Actually, by the grace of God they are as reachable as our Americanized English-speaking neighbors. In truth, there is very little real difference between the Ipicas and Idahoans.
John begins by referring to something which was from the beginning; something eternally pre-existent.
“That which was from the beginning” we have heard, seen, studied and touched. Like almost everything else in these verses, this can be considered superficially or deeply. But before we get there, we must ask ourselves about “the beginning” – which beginning? This sermon had a beginning – I initially said, “Let’s say you have read a book about the Pantanal.” Each of our days had a beginning – as did each of our lives? To which beginning is John making reference? This beginning was not the beginning of the Christian era, or the beginning of the first century. It was not the beginning of the life of Christ; it was not the beginning of the gospel. Even though there is reason to respect that interpretation. Some might say that it was the beginning of creation. They wouldn’t be wrong, but they might not be completely correct either. I think that was even be before that.
“That“– that which was from the beginning” is neuter in Greek – not either masculine or feminine. And for those who would rather not refer to Greek, restricting themselves to English – it is still neuter. The verse does not say, “HE who was from the beginning,” but “THAT which was from the beginning.” In other words, it is a little difficult to declare that John was speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ, even though Christ is the conclusion which we will inevitably reach.
What is it that gives sinners like the Ipicas and un-native Americans like us fellowship with God the Father? What is the source of joy, real joy, wonderful and everlasting joy? Doesn’t John tell us in the last words of verse 1 – “the Word of Life”? What is this Word of Life? (I know what some of you are thinking, but bear with me for a little while, then you can try to hang me with all the rope I’m providing.)
I am not smart enough, or spiritual enough, to understand the mind of God – especially in eternity past. But I am smart enough to understand some of what the Lord has revealed in His Word. The Bible teaches that even before Jehovah created the world and put mankind in it, He made plans for the salvation of a few of us fallen creatures. Before creation – before the Garden of Eden – before Adam and Eve – God ordained the fall of man. And before creation or the fall of man – a covenant was made within the Trinity – God the Son agreed to go to the cross as Jehovah’s sacrificial Lamb. Ie., God planned to save a multitude of sinners, even before there were sinners to save. “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold … But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.”
In Ephesians 3, Paul says he had been called of God to minister the Lord’s gift of grace. “To make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What is “THAT which was from the beginning”? It appears to be “the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But obviously it was carried out “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The same man who wrote the Epistle of First John also wrote the Gospel of John. And his gospel begins with the same frame of mind as his epistle. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John refers to the same “beginning” in both first verses. “The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John (the Baptist) bare witness of him.”
There can be no doubt – John believed that Jesus Christ is “the Word” – “the Word of life.” But I believe he was thinking of much more than Jesus of Nazareth when he wrote verse 1. I believe he was thinking of more than that “Jesus is the Christ the Son of God.” I think he was reaching back into eternity past when the Word was first spoken regarding the salvation of God’s elect through the sacrifice of His Son.
What is it that the missionary should want the Ipicas to understand?
That which was from the beginning has been revealed.
“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).” As primitive as the Ipica tribesmen are, they believe in spirits, a creator god, a supreme deity. No matter where the missionary might go in this world, he finds people with these same core beliefs. It is only when foolish, pride-filled intellect comes into play that so-called “cultured” people begin to say “there is no god.” The “culture” in which we are growing is fermented with foolishness. What the Ipicas don’t realize– what the world doesn’t fully realize – is “that which was from the beginning” has been revealed. Salvation, deliverance from sin, fellowship with God has been revealed through Jesus Christ our Lord.
John had the privilege of personally serving the person of the Lord Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate Son of God – He whose existence has always been. If you like, Jesus Christ is the decree of God to save sinners – in the flesh – incarnate. At the end of his gospel account John testified: “This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” John was privileged to have said, “I have heard Him; I have seen him with my own eyes. I have looked upon Him intently; I have studied Him, and even my hands have touched Him.” But the Apostle John didn’t exactly say that. What he said was “we have heard… we have seen with our eyes … we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.” He seems to be speaking as a representative of all the apostles, missionaries, evangelists and pastors.
Picture a crowded courtroom with two powerful lawyers wrangling over some point of law which might determine the outcome of their case. After one of them makes his point before the judge, he sits down with a confident gleam in his eye. But his opponent then stands and quotes one or two historic cases – legal precedents. Those other cases, already recognized by other courts, perhaps even the supreme court, help the judge in this case to make up his mind. You and I are the missionary lawyers, pleading our case before the heathen Ipicas. The only way we can win our case is to make reference to a legal precedent – the written Word of God. “Sir, I rest my case by pointing you to the testimony of the Apostle John, who has said…” “we have heard… we have seen with our eyes … we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.” That which was from the beginning has been revealed, and now I declare Him unto you.
When you last returned from your trip to Canada, there were questions you had to answer at the border. In addition to where you live, where you had been and how long you had visited… You had to answer the question: “Do you have anything to declare” – in the sense of things you bought. A declaration is “a formal or explicit statement or announcement.” It is the next best thing to making a statement under oath. Whatever you say at that point could be brought against you in a court of law. But in Greek this word “declare” has an even higher nature. It is “apaggello” (ap-ang-el’-lo) a form of “angelos.” This is the work and word of an angel of God; it is the ministry of the evangelist. The missionary says, “That which we have seen and heard we authoritatively share with you.” I say to all the Ipicas here with us today, “Salvation from sin has been revealed. The Saviour has come.”
Why is this so important?
Because without the Word of life, there is no fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
Without that which was from the beginning, we will continue to walk in darkness and the judgment of our sins. When the missionary first travels into the interior of the Pantanal, he may not be murdered by the Indians, but he will not be received by them either. There is no fellowship with that white man, even though there may be no open hostility. In many cases, it will be two or three years before a single native will have anything more than brief contact with the missionary. The Ipicas have to believe that the missionary is willing to become one of them, before they will have any fellowship with him. They don’t fear the outsider; in their native pride they consider themselves to be above the outsider. They don’t WANT fellowship with the missionary. It is this sort of attitude which brought the Apostle Paul to say, “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”
Even though you and I, we and the missionary in the Pantanal, are not particularly important in ourselves – that which we represent – the Word of Life – is. “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.” Fellowship with God the Father and God the Son is another way of saying the problem between us is gone. What problem is that? Six verses further into this chapter we are told that it is sin – our transgression of God’s will. All Ipicas are sinners – as are all Idahoans – “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Ipicas have their superstitious methods of removing their transgressions and their god’s judgments. And Idahoans may have a completely different set of superstitious methods. But both need to be told the truth – both need the evangelical declaration of the Word of Life. And “If any of us say, that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us.”
“And these things write we unto you, that your JOY may be full.” What would you say is the antithesis of joy? My thesauruses says that the antonyms of “joy” include: “sorrow, misery, despair, unhappiness” and “grief.” That may be the antonym of human joy. What about spiritual joy, eternal joy, divine joy? Wouldn’t the antonym be “eternal damnation?“
John says, “I am writing to you about that which was from the beginning… I am writing to you about the Word of Life… that your joy may be full.” If I don’t declare Him unto you, and if you don’t hear what I am saying, humbly receiving Him by faith then you will never know joy. In fact you will learn instead condemnation and eternal judgment in the Lake of Fire.
What should the missionary to the Ipicas and the Idahoans want to share with those people? That Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that He became incarnate for the purpose of giving His life a sacrifice for sin. Not for His sin, because He had none. He gave his life a ransom for many – many sinners like you and me. Ultimately the missionary’s plea will be – Please, will you not humbly repent before God and trust Christ and His sacrifice?