5 observations on the Prologue in 1 John

The Apostle JohnJohn opens his writing with what Raymond Brown calls a “grammatical obstacle course”. Here are 5 observations that will help you navigate this challenging passage without breaking too much of a sweat.

1. The main verb – we proclaim to you – occurs in the third verse. It is buried beneath numerous relative clauses (that which …). These clauses expand on the idea communicated by the main verb. They (along with the prepositional phrase) will tell us what is being proclaimed.

2. What is being proclaimed is – about the word of life. The ‘word of life’ is none other than Jesus who was seen, heard, touched, and made manifest to John. The ‘word of life’ is also inclusive of not just the person Jesus but the message he taught (1:5). This message centers on eternal life which is both the person Jesus (1:2; 5:20) and what He promises to those who receive Him (2:25;5:11-13 also John 1:11-12;6:68). John is writing so that people in the community who have heard this message before (2:24-25) can have assurance (strong confidence) that they possess eternal life (5:13) or for those that have false professions recognize that they do not have it.

3. What does the phrase – in the beginning – refer to? That is debated throughout the commentaries. Some see this as referring to Jesus prior to the incarnation and His coming to earth. Others see it as referring to the start of His earthly ministry (at the baptism). Both have good arguments. The pre-incarnate view focuses on the similarities with the Prologue in the Gospel of John (1:1-14), while the earthly ministry view focuses on John’s emphasis that Jesus was made manifest (also John 15:27). While John likely had one meaning in mind when he penned the phrase both ideas are captured in the prologue. With the repetition of words like see, hear, touch, and manifest, the earthly ministry is clearly on John’s mind. However, the pre-incarnate Jesus can be seen in the relative clause – that which was with the Father. 

Looking ahead we can see the outline of John’s Christology which also captures Jesus’ death (blood that cleanses (1:7)), resurrection (advocate that is with the Father (2:1-2)), and His future return (2:28;3:2).

4. The pronoun “we” in the prologue is plural and thus refers to a group of individuals. It does not refer to the Johaninne Community since they are clearly referenced by the “you”. Furthermore it is unlikely that the community has seen and heard Jesus directly. However, if early church testimony that this writing is authored by John and the late dating theories are both correct (meaning John is likely the only surviving apostle) then who or what does the “we” refer to? I think it is meant to remind the readers that there are (or were as most have likely died) several witnesses to Jesus and his ministry. I think it also refers to the Rule of Faith which would encompass the body of teaching that the apostles proclaim.

5. What is being proclaimed has a purpose. Two are identified in the prologue. The first is so that those who read this book would have fellowship with “us”. The second is so that “our” joy may be complete. Here the “us” and “our” refer back to the group identified by the “we” that is doing the proclaiming. One thing worth noting is that the writer did not say that he proclaimed this message so that they might have fellowship with the Father and Son (more on that in a future post).

On what basis does the author seek to have his joy completed? If we accept that 2 and 3 John are written by the same author as 1 John then the joy that the writer hopes for is likely rooted in knowing that the Community is walking in truth (2 John 1:4; 3 John 1:4). Walking in truth and light are certainly themes in this book as well (1 John 1:6-7; 2:6). The joy rooted in our walk is also strongly tied to the overall purpose of the entire writing (5:13) since it is our walk that allows us to have assurance and to know that we truly possess eternal life by faith (5:1,13).

13 thoughts on “5 observations on the Prologue in 1 John

  1. I would like more clarification here – the “grammatical obstacle course” seems to remain. “About the Word of Life” seems NOT to relate to the person of Jesus – but to the actual message of Jesus – which may or may not be personalized IN HIM but is not specifically the person of Jesus – that seems to stretch John’s usage/intent.

    If we read the text with no antecedent information, I suspect it becomes much more challenging to lightly skip over it by just eisegeting traditional concepts irregardless of the structure.

    • Welcome to DHDS.

      Various commentaries see the term “Word of Life” here differently. Some as the person of Christ, while others understand it as the message He proclaimed.

      I see John’s intent, at the outset of his letter, as reasserting his testimony as a first hand witness to the Messiah who he saw, heard, and touched. Given the emphasis on seeing and touching (in addition to hearing), the term WoL could thus refer to a person – especially when Jesus was called the Word (John 1:1) and the Life (John 1:4, 14:6). There is also an emphasis on being in fellowship with the Father & Son (1 John 1:5) here as well, which call upon John’s relationship to the person Jesus, which he invites the readers into.

      Not sure what else you would be looking for.

      • Hi Mike

        Thanks for the follow-up.

        I am sure you are familiar with the text –

        Ὃ ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς, ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν, ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν, ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα καὶ αἱ χεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν, περὶ τοῦ Λόγου τῆς ζωῆς

        You captured my issue in your first paragraph – I do NOT think that Word of Life can be the person of Jesus per se – but rather is manifested in and through Him (hence all the sensate language). The text – esp. the περὶ – simply does not read right – or make any sense – otherwise.

        Likewise,the rel prns are all NEUTER – that is a challenge as to the referent being to a person.

        BTW – for some reason Biblehub declined them as accusative (other than nominative for the first one). I cannot fathom why they did they – certainly not based on morphology. Any ideas?

        Please note – Jesus was never “called” the Logos – rather He is the Logos become flesh. Quite a difference. As such, His NAME is the Word of God. Also a big difference.

        As one consideration, I think people get confused as a result of the whole “in” thing John is big into – the Word being IN Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh – God being IN Christ – He is, thus, our God (though I think of another approach – the Ps45, 89, Ex4, 7 approach as well – that I have tended towards). I strongly suspect Peter is referring to the EXACT same reality in Acts 10:36 with the Word of the good news of peace THROUGH Jesus Christ.

        36As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all),

        Peter is simply not nearly as esoteric as John is – esoteric for a modern western reader that is…:-).

      • Greg

        Hope you had a great Easter.

        Found this article and thought you would enjoy it (link). It explores the Greek in detail found in the prologue of 1 John.

        The neuter pronouns, which are also accusative in Bible Works as they are objects of the main verb (proclaim), do present challenges – particularly since Word is masculine and Life is feminine. I don’t think there is a clear antecedent present in the text inviting the interpretive challenges.

        The article concludes:

        The best solution, in keeping with the emphasis later made clear in v. 3 with the introduction of the main verb, is to understand the antecedent of the relative pronouns in vv. 1 and 3 to be a comprehensive reference to Jesus, the incarnate Word, including the apostolic testimony or witness about the earthly career of Jesus.

      • Mike

        Thanks so much for the follow-up. I will take a look at the link – though, admittedly, I find the conclusion a bit self-serving (not sure what the technical term is for when the “derived” conclusion was the originally target conclusion – do you ?).

        Oddly, the very first rel prn given in BibleHub at least was Nominative – that is what was throwing me.

        BTW – this sort of scenario tells me what I always knew of grammar – grammar is a general set of rules which any particular author might or might not fully employ or adjust at any given point to suit his whim (I am certain both of us do this). I am thinking of 1Jn5:20 as an issue that while exegetically a failure the traditional view (albeit not all…) has much much of the grammar to foist thier view into the text.

        Thanks again

        Greg Lgan

      • Mike

        Any idea why BibleHub shows the first rel prn as nominative? I understand the point of the remainder as accusative if indeed they are the object of the main vb – apparently in v3… Could this be a simple typo?

      • Mike – A key vs in exegeting Ch 1 may be 5:11 – “and that LIFE is IN His Son”. Jesus IS the Life – insofar as that LIFE is IN His Son.


  2. Greg

    Not sure why some tools show the first pronoun (that which was from beginning) as nominative. I can tell you that in Bible Works the Nestle Aland (BGT) is parsed as a nominative neuter singular relative pronoun but in the Byzantine (BYZ) it is parsed as a accusative neuter singular relative pronoun.

    Ὃ ἦν ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς,

    Ὃ ἦν ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς,

    I assume on-line tools like Bible Hub are following the parsing associated with the NA text.

    Not sure what you mean re: grammar being “employed or adjusted to suit whims”. But it is expected that the pronoun would match the gender and number of the noun it aligns with.

    • re pronoun matching gender and number
      So what noun is the O – as a neuter – matching???

      re Grammar and whims
      We do not necessarily always speak in perfect grammatical rules. Much is made in Jn5:20 re the the antecedent to the only true God being Jesus – which is generally a good grammatical rule – HOWEVER – there are exceptions even in 1Jn re this rule. The point is that the author’s intent is more important than the author’s grammar – which requires context, sense as well as grammar to understand. The clear sense of this text is that the only true God is exactly who Jesus told us – the Father.

      • Greg,

        So what noun is the O – as a neuter – matching???

        Great question.

        You might want to look at this article regarding Ephesians 2:8-9 which has a similar construct (link). The neuter pronoun in this verse does not match another noun, similar to our passage in 1 John.

        The author Mounce offers this suggestion

        When Greek wants to refer back to a general though[t], perhaps a phrase, the pronoun can be in the neuter.

      • Nice observation – so we are left with a distinct ambiguity here.

        What does not seem ambiguous is that John is NOT specifically and directly referring to the person of Jesus despite the sensate words he employs. This conforms to my understanding of John seeing “eternal life” as IN Christ – rather than simply Christ Himself – though we may ALSO see Christ as life if we correctly understand that is based the intimate relationship He has with eternal life because of the nature of the “in-ness”.

        Again, I point to Acts10:36 as a reflection of the same concept in Jn1:1-14 but without the John’s imagery attached. We see that Jesus is NOT the Logos – but that God is preaching the Logos THROUGH Jesus Christ.

        36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all),

      • BTW – thanks for the link to Mounce’s site – I appreciate short, concise, clear discussions re technical issues (you may have guessed…:-) ).

      • Mike
        Unfortunately we cannot edit our comments – unless I am missing something – so I end up with a list of comments…. sorry.

        My point in all this is that Item 2 in the OP is not correct. The Word of Life is the Word of Life – NOT Jesus – though John sees the Life IN Jesus – and thus uses the sensate imagery. His focus is his proclamation about a MESSAGE – the message is about eternal life – that message was fully manifested in the person of Jesus – but it is the LIFE that is the Room – Jesus is the lock – and the message is the key.

        Make sense?

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