READ : 1 John 1:1-4
Have you ever wondered why the New Testament was written? Fellowship and joy, says John; these are the ultimate reasons he is writing his letter.
Have you ever wondered why the New Testament was written? Was it to record for posterity the story of Jesus? Was it to preserve the history of the Christian church in its earliest stages? Was it to make those who read it into Christian believers? Each of those ideas has some merit, but listen to what the apostle John says when he explains his purpose in writing in the opening verses of his first epistle.
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 – 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 – 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. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
1 John 1:1-4
Fellowship and joy. Did you catch it? Fellowship and joy, says John; these are the ultimate reasons he is writing his letter to the Christians of the first-century world. In fact, I don’t think it’s too much to say that the whole New Testament was actually written for this double purpose: so that those who first read it and all who follow will hear the message that will enable them to have fellowship with God and with each other, and ultimately to experience the eternal joy that only such fellowship brings.
One of the television stations in my city advertises its local news broadcast as “Eyewitness News.” That’s exactly the claim John makes for his testimony about Jesus. He wants to write, he tells us, “concerning the word of life,” the life “which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (v. 2). John is talking, of course, about the life-giving life of Jesus Christ, not only his words and actions, his miracles and message, but supremely his suffering, death, and resurrection. John takes great pains to emphasize the eyewitness aspect of his apostolic testimony.
Luke, in his Gospel, also draws special attention to the fact that the Christian faith is based upon the careful, almost courtroom-like testimony of eyewitnesses to the facts about Jesus. In this he is echoing the point that John makes even more strongly. But the difference is that John can speak in the first person. Unlike Luke, or even Paul for that matter, John isn’t passing on information about the life, words and deeds of Jesus that he has gleaned from talking to others. John was there. When he writes about Jesus he’s talking about what his own eyes have seen, his ears have heard, his hands have touched. “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 . . . we proclaim to you.”
Now this is an important point because many sceptics try to dismiss the New Testament – and the Gospels in particular – as unhistorical. Some of Christianity’s critics say that the story of Jesus’ miraculous ministry, and especially of his resurrection, was invented by the disciples in order to bolster their faith. In other words, it’s mostly fiction. You can’t really trust anything you read in the four Gospels because it was all made up much later.
According to this view, Jesus’ disciples were heartbroken and desolate after his crucifixion. But then something strange and wonderful happened. As the disciples sat and commiserated with one another, somehow the memory of Jesus rekindled their excitement. They began to talk and act as if he were still alive and the next thing you knew, they were writing that he was alive. And that’s how the story of the resurrection came into being. But it’s not real history. It didn’t actually happen. It’s merely an invention, the product of imaginative faith.
But the account the apostles give of their own testimony is exactly the opposite. The apostles’ own testimony is not that they invented the story of Jesus but that they themselves had to be convinced of it. They were filled with awe, over and over, as they witnessed his mighty acts of healing and power. What sort of man is this, they ask themselves. And when it came to the mightiest and most powerful act of all, they simply couldn’t believe at first that he really had been raised from the dead – even when their eyes saw him. Some of them literally did have to handle him before they could bring themselves to believe.
The point could be expressed this way: Faith in Jesus did not create the resurrection. Rather, the resurrection created faith in Jesus. As John himself wrote in one of the most memorable verses from the majestic prologue of his Gospel, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14.)
The reason this is so important, and why the New Testament writers devoted so much attention to stressing the eyewitness nature of their accounts, is because Christianity is a historical faith. The events that lie at its center are real history; they actually happened. If they didn’t, then we might as well close up shop and go home. You see, we don’t primarily believe in a philosophy or a theory about God. We believe that God became a man, died for human sin, and then rose from the dead to prove that he was really God.
We have nothing to offer the world except the good news about this man who came from God, as God; the Savior through whom forgiveness is possible and eternal life is sure because he rose from the dead. Our claim, our message to the world, is quite simple: Jesus is Lord. If he really isn’t, if he never really said and did all these things, then we are living, believing, and proclaiming a lie, and it would be much better for all concerned if the church simply disappeared.
But Jesus is Lord. He did die and rise again in order to save us. Our faith is based on the testimony of people who saw him do it. It is in this sense that we can understand the importance of tradition in the New Testament.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 Paul reminds his readers how he delivered the gospel to them. Paul didn’t invent this news about Jesus Christ either. He tells the believers in Corinth that he passed on to them the facts that he himself had received from those who witnessed them happen. The faith of every single believer traces back to that fundamental testimony.
That’s what Paul meant when he told the Ephesians that the church was built upon the foundation of the apostles, with Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the key to everything we believe and hope for, but we only know about these things from the testimony of those who were chosen by God to be eyewitness reporters.
Two further points, both involving our own faithfulness to the witness. The first is that we have a duty also to faithfully believe, preserve, and protect this apostolic testimony. We are not free to tamper with what they taught, or alter it if we don’t happen to find it congenial to our modern tastes.
That’s really the second point as well. We have a responsibility to faithfully pass on the apostles’ testimony in our own time. Christians do have a responsibility to witness, but there is often a difference between how contemporary Christians witness and the way Christians in the New Testament did. Today when Christians talk about witnessing, they usually end up by focusing on their own feelings or experiences. Now that’s not necessarily wrong, but it is different from New Testament practice.
In the New Testament, Christian witnesses appealed to facts, not feelings. They asked the non-Christians to whom they spoke to think, not just to believe blindly. They didn’t invite people to accept the gospel first of all because it could help them or make them feel better, but because it was true. We need that same conviction, and that same testimony, today.
Fellowship and Joy
Finally, think for just a moment about the purpose of all of this. We have very good reasons for believing that the gospel is true, that it all really happened, that Jesus is what the New Testament says he is. The apostles weren’t lying. But their eyewitness testimony to the gospel is not merely an intellectual fact that we reason our way into believing or an argument that we try to get other people to accept. There is a purpose for it all. Jesus came and died and rose again, and his apostles witnessed it all, and then told the story to others so that, to quote John once more, “you too may have fellowship with us; and . . . our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ . . . so that our joy may be complete.”
It’s all about fellowship – that is, communion, relationship, love – fellowship and joy. The story of Jesus is told as a sort of invitation, really. If you accept the story, if you believe the gospel, if you offer your life to the Lord, then you will belong – both to us, says John, and ultimately to him with us. And that will make us all so very happy. In fact, it will make our joy complete.
So, speaking as a Christian in the apostolic tradition, let me extend the offer to you. Why don’t you accept our invitation? Come join us. After all, heaven wouldn’t be the same without you.