The Johannine "We" Chapter
The Purpose of the 1st Person Plural in
the 1st Chapter of John's 1st Epistle

It is very likely that most of you are somewhat familiar with the fascinating and informative "we" sections that are found within the New Covenant book --- Acts of the Apostles (16:10-17; 20:5 - 21:18; 27:1 - 28:16). In these sections the author (Luke) switches from the use of the 3rd person to the 1st person, thus indicating (in the minds of most scholars) his personal presence as an eye-witness to the events being described in this inspired historical document. Because his ears heard and his eyes saw the events that were recorded, there is added credibility bestowed upon the facts and circumstances related to his readers. His was not second-hand knowledge, which might perhaps be somewhat compromised with each subsequent retelling, but rather was the recollection of one who was actually there. Greater weight is almost always given to such testimony over mere hearsay.

Such eye-witness testimony is especially crucial when that which is being witnessed is of extreme importance to the lives and destinies of a great many people. The resurrection of Jesus, for example! This was something people needed to see --- to witness, behold, and experience for themselves --- so that they would be able to confirm the truth of this mighty resurrection to those around them. "He was raised on the third day ... and He appeared to Cephas, then unto the Twelve, and after that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now ... then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared unto me as well" (1 Cor. 15:4-8). In the upper room in the city of Jerusalem, following the ascension and prior to Pentecost, one was chosen to take the place of Judas Iscariot among the Twelve. One of the qualifications of this individual, as was expressly stated by the apostle Peter, was: "It is therefore necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us --- beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us --- one of these should become a witness with us of His resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22). This basic fact of Jesus Christ's resurrection was so central to the Good News that it simply could not be initially entrusted into the hands of those who had not personally beheld it with their own eyes. Such a vital testimony was too important to be solely second-hand in nature.

One of the reasons it was so necessary for there to be witnesses who were all personally knowledgeable of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is because there would soon arise within the early church a number of heretical views known collectively as Gnosticism. Although this philosophy was not as fully developed in the latter part of the first century as it would be in the second century, nevertheless it was spreading to such a degree that Paul felt compelled to address aspects of it in his epistle to the Colossians, and then John dealt with it even more fully (several decades later) in his writings. There were several distinct sects of Gnostics (a term based on the Greek word gnosis meaning "knowledge") each claiming "special knowledge" of eternal realities that went well beyond the revelation of God through His OT prophets and writings, and also through the revelation of His Son. The two primary sects were the Cerinthians (who believed Jesus was a good man that the Spirit filled at His baptism, thus causing this man to be the God-man, but who departed from Jesus just prior to the cross, as it was unthinkable to them that God could actually die. Thus, God abandoned Jesus to die as a man on the cross) and the Docetists (who accepted Jesus as a deity [or as an emanation from deity; a lesser deity], but believed that deity could not actually manifest itself in a human, physical body, since they regarded the flesh as evil. Therefore, Jesus was not really flesh and blood, but rather an apparition, a phantom-like being). "For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh" (2 John 7). The above is certainly an extremely brief, and a woefully incomplete and over-simplified, depiction of Gnosticism, which was quite a complex compilation of sects and philosophies, yet it nevertheless shows the seriousness of this increasing threat to the faith in the early developmental years of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To deny the incarnation, that deity took on flesh -- "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14), and then to further deny that deity, in the form of Jesus, actually died on the cross for our sins (the atonement), was to deny the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Thus, these false teachings could not be allowed to go unchallenged. They had to be exposed!! Such exposure and refutation of this heretical teaching was one of the key purposes of the apostle John in this first epistle, which certainly helps explain his statements at the very beginning of this work: "What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled ... what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you" (1 John 1:1,3). Jesus Christ was no mere apparition. He wasn't a phantom being. John had not only seen and heard Jesus, but his "hands handled" His flesh. Yes, Jesus was flesh and blood, and John was eye-witness to this fact. He had been there; he had seen Him; he had touched Him. However, such evidence was not to be left to one witness alone. Instead, "on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed" (Deut. 19:15). Therefore, John included himself among those other eye-witnesses to the incarnation, atonement and resurrection of Jesus. "What WE have heard, what WE have seen with our eyes, what WE beheld and OUR hands handled ... what WE have seen and heard WE proclaim to you."

The question, of course, immediately arises -- Just who exactly were these other witnesses?! John doesn't specify, which has led biblical scholars down through the ages to speculate. A few suggest that this should be considered the editorial "we," and that John really doesn't have any other witnesses in mind. One person wrote me recently and suggested that this epistle was possibly a collection of John's teachings that had been lovingly compiled by the leaders in Ephesus, and thus the "we" statements of the first chapter should be understood as introductory statements made by these leaders in Ephesus. There is little evidence for such a view, however, and one will find few, if any, scholars who embrace it. The idea of this being a case of John using the editorial "we" for some reason is also rejected by most. A few believe that John might be including the leaders at Ephesus in these "we" statements as those who may have personally witnessed some of these events or who, by their testimony, "certified the authorship and authenticity of" his writings, which some scholars feel may also have been done in John 21:24 by these leaders/elders in Ephesus [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 5, p. 169].

The far more likely explanation, however, is that the aged apostle John is simply placing himself within that special company of believers (which would have included his fellow original apostles [the Twelve], all of whom at this point in time would have been deceased, as well as the hundreds of others mentioned in the NT writings) who had been given the great privilege of actually seeing, hearing, beholding and handling the person of Jesus in the flesh. In effect, John is declaring how eminently qualified he is to testify about these things, being among the few individuals who could claim a personal knowledge of the Lord. In the "we" chapter, therefore, "we understand John to mean the apostles and others, who had been eye-witnesses along with him of Jesus Christ" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22, p. 9]. "The 'we' includes all the eye-witnesses" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 474]. "The plurals 'we' refer to the apostles; they are not editorial plurals that refer to John alone. The witness of one man is not accepted in court; there must be at least two, preferably three witnesses. John here appeals to at least twelve witnesses" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. John, p. 373].

Dr. Nicoll, after listing several possible interpretations of the "we" statements, concludes that the apostle John is essentially suggesting "'I and the rest of the apostles' -- not hearsay, but the testimony of eye-witnesses" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 5, p. 169]. Thus, "the use of the pronoun 'we' assures the reader that the message is being proclaimed by those who had heard the gospel with their own ears and who had touched Him with their own hands (perhaps a reference to the Resurrection appearances). Already the writer is mounting his polemic against the heretics who denied that Christ came in a human body" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 307]. "The author is building his case on the fact that he is one who bears the tradition precisely because the manifestation of the truth of the gospel included him" [ibid, p. 308]. Therefore, I have to conclude that John's use of the first person plural in the first chapter of his first epistle was done for the express purpose of establishing (for all to see -- especially those being influenced by the false teaching about Jesus) his credentials, and thus credibility, to speak out with authority against those teachers who were proclaiming that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh. Since truth must be established by more than a single witness, John called forth a host of eye-witnesses to substantiate his own personal experience. Against such a "great cloud of witnesses" this harmful teaching of the Gnostics would not prevail.

By Al Maxey

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