The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©



'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - the life was made manifest, and we saw 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 may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with this Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.' (1:1-4).

This is a letter, but it certainly has an unusual beginning. It does not start with the writer's name or with the names of the readers. It starts off with the most important thing a man could write or speak about: 'that which was from the beginning'. He who is God and Lord of all has come into our world for this great purpose that we might have eternal life in fellowship with Him. John writes about this first, because everything else is less important. Everything else is to be seen in the light of this. This is the heart of the gospel' the good news of God, good news for a needy world.

a. The facts of the gospel.

In the New Testament the story of the life of Jesus Christ begins with the message of the angel to the virgin Mary and with the conception of Jesus. But that was not His beginning. He was 'from the beginning.' Then He, the eternal, living Word of God 'became flesh and dwelt among us' as John 1:14 puts it. Often Jesus spoke, when He was on earth, of the way that He 'came' or that he was 'sent' from the Father (see references under 'For further thought and study' below). The first disciples of Jesus were ordinary men, but they spent time with Jesus from the beginning of His public work till His death and resurrection and ascension (see Acts 1:21). They came to realize that He was truly like them, but also truly God as well, the Son of God. By the way that He lived, by the things He did, by what He taught, by what He said about Himself, and finally by the fact that after the crucifixion He was raised from the dead, they knew that the Master whom they served was indeed the Lord of all (see Romans 1:2-4). So John could never lose the wonder and excitement of what he and those with him had experienced. 'We have heard ... we have seen with our eyes ... we have looked upon ... touched with our hands.' Truly God, but He had become truly man. Wonder of Wonders! God became man! Jesus is Immanuel, God with us! (Matthew 1:23).

b. The purpose of the gospel

Why did He come? He came to be God's word to us. He came to speak to us, to teach us that we might know God and God's ways. But it is the 'word of life'. He came to be our life. Jesus said 'I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly' (John 10:10). He could even say 'I am ... the life' (John 14:6 – and see John 11:25). So here John can say that 'the life was made manifest'. In other words, it was made clear. We might even say, the life was made available. 'The eternal life which was with the Father was made manifest to us.' We could have no true life, no eternal life otherwise. The gospel is summed up in those words which also put plainly the purpose of the coming of Christ, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life' (John 3:16). It is as simple and as wonderful as that.

c. The responsibility of the gospel

The apostles had seen and heard, looked on and touched One who had changed their lives. They could not be silent about Him. In the early days when they began to preach, they were threatened and told to be silent. They could only reply, 'We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20). 'We saw,' they said, 'with our eyes' – we must 'testify to it, and proclaim' the good news. They must be witnesses of what they had seen; they must be witnesses to the One whom they had come to know (Acts 1:8). They had heard; they must proclaim Him wherever in all the world there were people to tell. The apostles were in a special position as eye-witnesses. What these verses say are true in a particular way of them. But if we have come to know the truth of Jesus Christ, if we have come to know Him, then we have a message to proclaim and we have witness to give. We must not be silent, but help others to find that eternal life that we have in Him.

d. The result of the gospel

When we believe this amazing fact that the eternal Son of God came into our world to give us life, we are bound to­gether in 'fellowship' with all who share this belief. Even more wonderful, when we believe like that, when we turn from the sin and failure of our lives, back to God, we find our life in fellowship with Him. Life becomes a matter of walk­ing with Him, living with Him, hearing His word to us, speaking to Him. And that life is a life of 'joy'. John knew that it would be his great joy to know that his friends to whom he wrote were standing fast in their faith. It would be their joy, and it is our joy, to find every day our strength, our purpose in life, our guidance and all that we need, by living in fellowship with Jesus Christ. Such 'joy' is not the same as being happy in life. There can be joy even in times of sorrow and hardship and suffering (see Acts 5:40-42; Romans 5:2, 3; Philippians 1: 15-20 and 4:4). 'Joy' is a deep inner satis­faction which comes to us as we realize God's presence with us, whatever our outward circumstances may be.


O Lord, our eternal and unchanging God, we praise You for sending your own Son into our world, that we might know in Him the Word of Life, and find eternal life through Him. Help us to have that joy that is greater than all other joys, knowing Him, and bringing others to know Him. AMEN

For further thought and study.

  1. Consider the following passages for the way that they show that the beginning of the life of Jesus was not with His human birth: Matthew 20:28, Mark 2:17, Luke 19:10, John 12:46. Can you add other passages that speak of His coming into the world, or being sent from the Father?
  2. Compare with verse 4 what Jesus says in John 15:11, 16:20-24 and 17:13 about His purpose to bring us joy; consider also what Luke 10:17, John 3:29-30, Ephesians 3:7-8 and 3 John 4 say about the joy of serving Christ and bearing witness to Him. Do you think that joy is a strong mark of Christians' lives today?


  1. There are many ways in which these verses are very like John 1:1-18. Both speak of The same great fact that the eternal Son of God became man, and men saw and heard and knew Him. In John 1 Jesus is actually called 'the Word'. Here in this letter `that which was from the beginning' probably means something like 'the nature of God', and God's becoming man is said to be concerned with 'the word of Life', the message that brings us life.
  2. Great care is taken in expressing what is said in verse 1 by the verbs 'seen', 'heard', 'looked upon' and 'touched' and the tenses of the verbs. The one translated 'looked upon', is a word from which we have the English word `theatre'; it means more than just seeing. and gives the idea 'we gazed on Him and realized who He was'.
  3. Some translations in verse 4 have 'our joy' and some have `your joy', and this is because some of the old Greek manuscripts have one and some the other. We cannot be quite sure which was originally written. Both give a good sense. In fact both are true.