There is a very practical punch for today’s churches in the opening paragraph of the short Bible book of 1 John, which Nathan Buttery opened up to us this past Sunday. It is worth quoting the section in full:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (NIV 2011)
We were there — the reliable gospels
The Person John calls the life is, of course, Jesus, and John wants his readers to know that he had the great privilege of being an eye-witness of Him. The message he proclaims, therefore, is based on what he has seen, looked at, heard and touched. You can’t miss the repeated way John emphasises this. Nathan told us how he knew a man who’d been at D-Day in 1944, and how fascinating it had been to hear the man describe the sights, sounds and even smells of that awesome day. There is nothing to beat an eye-witness report.
John’s words are, in fact, just one of several explicit claims in the New Testament that what is written there is either direct eye-witness testimony (e.g. John 1:14, 21:24; 2 Peter 1:16) or directly derived from eye-witnesses (Luke 1:1-4). Moreover, in his fascinating book ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses‘, Professor of New Testament (and historian) Richard Bauckham has argued that there is a great deal of implicit evidence of eye-witness sources throughout the four gospels. Being an eye-witness was an essential item on the CV of an apostle: when, following the death of Judas, the early church had to find a replacement, Peter said it had to be someone who’d been with them for the whole of Jesus’ earthly ministry (Acts 1:22).
There is a popular view that the gospels were actually written a very long time after the events they describe, and that they cannot therefore be reliable accounts of Jesus. John blows a raspberry at all that. He says, “We were there!”
We were there — a message for today’s church
But why is John so eager to emphasise that he was there? The rest of his letter holds the clues. It seems there were teachers troubling the churches — as they have since the earliest days — with a different understanding of Jesus and Christianity. Hence he says, Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray (1 John 3:7). As we go through the Sunday evening series, we’ll discover more of what they were teaching. And John is worried that his hearers will be conned into believing them, and moving on from the original version of Christianity they’d heard from John and the other apostles. He knows these new teachers are persuasive and attractive, and he’s worried.
How, then, does he call his readers back? Simply by saying, “We were there!!!” Who is more likely to know the mind of Christ: the new teachers, or those who were actually there with Jesus? That is why he so strongly emphasises this fact at the start of his letter.
And it’s a message we need to hear. In God’s goodness there are many great churches today, but also very many who teach lifestyles and views of God which are quite different from the Bible’s — and yet who claim to have the Spirit’s mind on these things. They are often attractive and persuasive. But we need to challenge them: “How come you know better than the Apostles? They were the ones who were there!”
This is why, God willing, we must go on, here at St Andrew the Great, going back to the Bible, back to the eyewitnesses, if we are to know real Christianity.
Meanwhile, come on Sunday evenings and hear more of 1 John!