June / July 2017 - Vol. 92

1 John 1:3 text image 
The Word of Life
A Commentary on 1 John 1:1–4

by Dr. Daniel A. Keating
The following brief commentary from the First Letter of John, Chapter 1 is lightly edited with the consent of the author, Dr. Daniel Keating, from the book, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: James, First, Second, and Third John, published by Baker Academic, 2017. While it was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. – ed.

Prologue: The Word of Life (1 John 1:1–4)

The prologue to 1 John is both beautiful and challenging. We know implicitly that the Word it is speaking about is Jesus, but at the same time the sentence structure is awkward and the main verb (“proclaim”) does not show up until verse 3! This probably is not accidental; John may have wanted his opening words to cause us to pause and reflect. As readers we simply cannot skim over these profound lines. We have to go back over them several times before we can begin to make sense of their meaning. As we do, we slowly begin to grasp John’s subject—the Word of life—and our eyes are opened to see the deep truths unveiled.

1What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life— 2for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us— 3what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4We are writing this so that our joy may be complete. [1 John 1:1-4]

NT reference: NT: John 1:1–18; Phil 2:16; 2 John 1:12

[1:1] The opening verse presents us with four parallel clauses, each beginning with “what.” Shortly we will learn that the subject of these four clauses is the “Word of life,” but to start with, we are given four descriptions of a subject without knowing what the subject is.1

First, we are told that this subject was from the beginning. What “beginning” is John referring to here? The Gospel of John (1:1) opens with the words “In the beginning . . .” In that context “beginning” refers to the creation of the world in Gen 1. Here, however, “beginning” most likely points to the eternal origin of Jesus, the “eternal life that was with the Father” (v. 2) and was then made visible.

Second, John says that this subject is what we have heard. What group is represented by “we” here? These are the first disciples of Jesus who accompanied him in person and who heard him preach and teach. John then adds a third description: what we have seen with our eyes. Not only did they hear this subject, but also they were eyewitnesses to it. Fourth and finally, John adds, what we have looked upon / and touched with our hands. Is “looked upon” just a repetition of “seen”? Possibly, but many commentators believe that John is pointing to a deeper kind of seeing here, such that they not only saw with their physical eyes but also “beheld” with a deeper insight.2 The sense of touch is now added: those who were “earwitnesses” and eyewitnesses also touched this subject with their very hands. There is something inescapably physical about this subject that was heard, seen, and touched.

Only now at the end of the verse does John reveal the identity of his subject, telling us that this concerns the Word of life.3 This sheds some light but also keeps us to a degree in the dark. A word can be heard, but how can a word be seen or touched? Our subject is clearly much more than simply a message that conveys life. As John will disclose in verse 3, this “Word of life” is the person of Jesus Christ.

 [1:2] Verse 2 is an interjection, marked off from the main sentence by dashes, that gives us a further description of the “Word of life.” John declares that the life was made visible, and then he more fully explains what he means by adding we have seen it and testify to it / and proclaim to you the eternal life / that was with the Father and was made visible to us. John has now identified his subject by three parallel titles: “the Word of life,” “the life,” and “the eternal life.” As F. F. Bruce observes, “If the Gospel speaks of the incarnation of the Eternal Word, the Epistle speaks of the manifestation of the Eternal Life.”4

What does John tell us about this “eternal life”? First, this life was “with the Father,” a phrase that echoes John 1:1, which states that the Word “was with God.” Second, this life was then “made visible” such that John and the other eyewitnesses “have seen it.” This closely parallels the Gospel prologue: “And the Word became flesh . . . and we have beheld his glory” (John 1:14 RSV). Third, John says that he is testifying to and proclaiming what he has seen—he is truly fulfilling the role of an evangelist.

[1:3] John now completes his opening sentence and sums up in shorthand what he has said thus far in verses 1–2: what we have seen and heard / we proclaim now to you. But then he adds the intended result of this proclamation: so that you too may have fellowship with us; / for our fellowship is with the Father / and with his Son, Jesus Christ. The logic here is not at all obvious. What exactly is John saying?

John often compresses a great deal of material in a few words—we can call this “Johannine shorthand.” We have to decompress and expand those words to get at his meaning. In this case, John is assuming that he and the other apostles, who were eyewitnesses of Jesus, have already come into living fellowship with Jesus through hearing and believing his word. Is the “Word of life” a message or a person? It is both at the same time. The Word of life is Jesus Christ himself, but it is also the message about him that John is proclaiming in this letter. The gospel is a message about a person who himself imparts eternal life.

And so John says that he is now proclaiming that same word to his hearers, so that they too may come into that living fellowship that John already shares “with the Father / and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” The key word here, “fellowship” (koinōnia), can also be translated as “communion.” The intended result of John’s testimony, then, is nothing less than genuine communion with the Father and the Son, shared with all those who have already entered into this communion (see sidebar, “Koinōnia,” p. 140).

Only now does John give the proper name of his subject, “Jesus Christ,” the Father’s Son. Now we know the personal identity of “the Word of life” and “the eternal life.” Why does John delay in naming his subject? Because he wants his readers to peer more deeply into what he is saying about that subject. By referring to what was heard and seen and touched, and by speaking of “the eternal life / that was with the Father,” John reveals a great deal about Jesus even before he names him,5 and he anticipates one of the principal themes of the letter, the incarnation of the Son.



In the New Testament the Greek word koinōnia is translated in a variety of ways: “sharing,” “partnership,” “contribution,” “participation,” “communion,” and “fellowship.” It can refer to the sharing of money and material resources within the Christian community (2 Cor 8:4; 9:13; Heb 13:16). It is used to designate the common life shared by the first Christians in Jerusalem after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life [koinōnia], to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Koinōnia also applies to our relationship with the persons of the Trinity: we are called into “fellowship” with Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9); we jointly share “fellowship” with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3, 6); and Paul prays for an increase in “communion” with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:13 NRSV). Paul also speaks of our koinōnia (“participation, communion”) in the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16). When we have koinōnia with God, we share in his life and power; when we have koinōnia with one another, we place our lives in common and share our resources as brothers and sisters. In 1 John, koinōnia describes both our fellowship with God and with one another—a rich communion of life and bonds of love that are meant to characterize the faithful.

[1:4] To complete the prologue, John adds, We are writing this so that our joy may be complete. By “we” John is referring to himself, but he writes here on behalf of all those who heard, saw, and touched the Word of life.6 The reference to “writing” shows that 1 John was not originally given orally and then later written down. John is intentionally composing a written message to his audience in order to testify about the Word of life.

Many early manuscripts have “so that your joy may be complete.”7 This well-attested reading would seem to make more sense: the joy of those who receive the testimony is brought to completion by coming into fellowship with God and with other Christians. But the reading “our joy,” adopted by most modern translations, also rings true. For those who have already been brought into the communion of the Father and Son, it is a source of great joy to announce this word and to welcome others into that fellowship. Perfect joy comes not from hoarding the gospel and its riches but from sharing it and enabling others to come into the same life-giving fellowship.


The Two Prologues

The Christian tradition and most modern scholars are in general agreement that the Gospel of John was written before 1 John and so supplies important background for this letter. It is also evident that the prologue to 1 John has close affinities with the prologue to the Gospel (John 1:1–18) and that they share many themes and words in common. For example, both describe a “Word” in relation to “the beginning” that was with God the Father and was then made manifest to us; both speak of this Word in relation to “life”; and both conclude by identifying this Word as the Son of God, Jesus Christ. But there are also differences in phrasing and in emphasis; the two prologues are by no means identical. How should we understand the relationship between them? Some commentators believe that 1 John is simply an expansion and further explanation of the Gospel prologue, giving special attention to the eyewitnesses and to the proclamation of the message. Others believe that by underlining the historical manifestation of the Word to the eyewitnesses who heard, saw, and touched him, 1 John was written specifically to correct flawed interpretations of the Gospel prologue that denied the fully human reality of Christ. Whether the prologue of 1 John was written as an expansion of the Gospel prologue or a clarification of it, the two prologues should be read together for the complementary yet distinctive witness that they give to the Word, who has appeared for our salvation.

Reflection and application (1:1–4)

The prologue to 1 John shows us something important about the work of evangelization. John is proclaiming a word, and that word happens to be a person. He is proclaiming “a word about the Word” that he has personally encountered—heard, seen, and touched. And this proclamation does not convey just information or even inspiration; it actually imparts life and communion. No merely human word can impart “eternal life” and “fellowship with God.” But the word of the gospel can and does. It is a word that imparts life because when this word is received in faith, it brings about communion with the Word who is life. And the result of this is deep joy—joy both for the one who proclaims the word and for the one who receives it, because both now share in the life-giving fellowship of the Triune God. There are many facets to the broad work of evangelization, but the prologue reveals its heart and center: to proclaim the One we have personally encountered so that we may all joyfully share in the eternal life of God. 


1 In the Greek text the pronoun “what” is in the neuter. This leaves the reader at this point unclear about the identity of the subject, which John will declare only in v. 3.

2 “Looked upon” translates the same Greek verb found in John 1:14: “We saw his glory.” This may point to a deeper kind of seeing that penetrates beyond the merely physical.

3 The NJB is more explicit: “The Word of life: this is our theme.”

4  F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1970), 37.

5 The prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1–18) adopts the same strategy: the proper name “Jesus Christ” is not revealed until v. 17.

6 In the remainder of the letter, John uses only the first person singular (“I”) when referring to himself as the writer of the letter (twelve times)

7 This exact wording is also found in John 16:24: “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.”

Dr. Daniel A. Keating (Doctor of Philosophy, University of Oxford) is professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, USA and an elder of The Servants of the Word, a lay missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.

Keating Commentary on Letters
                                    of John
"Any observer of contemporary culture will recognize that Anderson's and Keating's lucid commentaries arrive at just the right time, when Catholics at the parish level and in undergraduate and seminary coursework desperately need resources that acquaint them with the scriptural text, the broader scriptural context, and the ways in which scriptural passages have been understood and lived within the Church's rich tradition. Well instructed in contemporary scholarship, Anderson and Keating put us all in their debt by focusing firmly on the heart of the matter--namely, learning from the letters of James and John how to live and love as Christians in a fallen world."
Matthew Levering, James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology, Mundelein Seminary
Commentary on James, by Kelly Anderson, and Commentary on First, Second, and Third John by Daniel Keating, Baker House Publishing Group, 2017
 Return to Table of Contents or Archives  • (c) copyright 2017 The Sword of the Spirit