A rationale for 1 John
Writing a letter, email, book or blog entry is an uncomplicated process in our era. For most of the world’s history, however, this has not been the case. Whole guilds dedicated themselves to the copying of written texts. So, letters written by apostles were not off-the-cuff. This letter which we call “First John” was written like many of the New Testament letters to counter an errant philosophy, one that ran askance from the truth.
The apostles of Jesus taught that he was fully man and fully God. John wrote this letter to address the false philosophy of docetism. Adherents of docetism did not deny witnessed events. Instead, they gave an alternate explanation: Jesus was not human as we are human.
In the First Century, antagonists could not merely dismiss the life of Jesus Christ. Too many people had witnessed his love, authority, and miracles the latter of which begged for an explanation. Additionally, there were those who saw him after the Roman’s crucified him. While people of our era may debate the efficacy of a Roman crucifixion, those familiar with the Romans had no such uncertainties. They would not have questioned whether Jesus survived this execution but needed to explain his reappearance afterward.
So while Graham Greene uses words to blanch the vibrancy of life people in the apostles day sought to blanch the humanity of Jesus. They were not miracle deniers but rather put Jesus into a paranormal spectrum. A ghost? No. An apparition? More likely. Similarly, this group did not deny Jesus was alive after the cross but evacuated the real death from the Jesus-being who was on the cross. By categorizing Jesus as spirit and not man the whole package became more palpable.
That – To hint at truth
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4–ESV)
When I first read this passage, John planted the word “that” right in my mind just like Graham Greene did the priest in chapter 1 or James Wardwell this author. The word slid in and moved on.
I think John uses the approach from fear of saying too much too quickly and sending his readers down mental rabbit trails before he gets any points across. Think about loaded words in our day: creation, abortion, Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Hitler. As you read those words, I bet your mind clinked together little idea sculptures. I hope that by popping up those five subjects, I have not lost you1.
John’s “risk word” was a “risk person” Jesus Christ. What John wished to do is set the tone on the canvas of the reader’s mind before sliding Jesus into the picture. When you come to supper, the aroma sets the tone. Then comes the set table, the lids are lifted from the pots, (hopefully you pause and thank God for the food), and then comes the meal. Your mind, stomach, palate being all set you begin.
When John uses the word “That” he is hinting at the truth. “That” in this context is actually a person: Jesus Christ. He will come to him, but not till the end of what we know as verse 3. John will massage more and more message until finally identifying Jesus. The gradual reveal is why I say John is artistic; why I say he uses literary skill.