John begins this letter with an allusion to the Gospel of John, “that which was from the beginning” (1 John 1:1a). If this letter was to be read in a congregation, then these first lines establish the authority of the author. In Paul’s letters, he usually begins with his name, perhaps a title (apostle, servant of Jesus). This letter is anonymous, but this paragraph would have been clear to the original audience: the author is an eyewitness to Jesus, the one who has apostolic authority to make the demands found in the letter.
The first words connect First John to the Gospel of John. John 1:1 started with the phrase “in the beginning,” this letter has nearly the same words (the relative pronoun is added, “that which”). The author’s authority is related to the fact he wrote the Gospel of John, and the opening paragraph has other allusions to the Gospel. To a certain extent, this is like an author of a book putting his other books on the cover of a new book in order to demonstrate his authority on the subject.
There is a problem in the first line of the letter, the Greek has a neuter relative pronoun (“that which”) but the author seems to be referring to Jesus, the Word of Life (“word” is a masculine noun in Greek). One option is John is referring to the Gospel (which is neuter in Greek), but he does not explicitly use the word in the letter. Jobes suggest this is a generic use of the pronoun, referring to Jesus and the well-known the story of the Gospels (1, 2, 3 John, 44).
The beginning of what? In John’s Gospel, the reference is to creation. The Word was present at creation because the Word is God. That may be what John has in mind here as well, but later he will use the phrase “from the beginning” to refer to the beginning of the Gospel, or the beginning of the reader’s relationship with Christ (the beginning of their Christian life).
John’s claim is he is an eyewitness of Jesus’s life and teaching. John’s pronouns are all first person plural. This is either an “editorial we” or he represents a community of eyewitnesses. Richard Bauckham calls this the “we of authoritative testimony” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 369-83). John claims to have seen with his eyes (ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν) and perceived (ἐθεασάμεθα). Are these two different things? The first refers to literal seeing something, this is John’s claim to be an eyewitness. The second verb can have the same sense, but is sometimes used for perception. You can see something with your eyes and not really understand what it is (“what am I looking at?”)
In John’s Gospel there are many examples of someone seeing one of Jesus’s signs but not really understanding what the sign meant. In John 6 Jesus feeds the crowds and the people seem to understand the “bread of life” on a physical level, manna in the wilderness. Jobes draws an analogy to John 20, Thomas sees and believes, but those who do not see yet believe are blessed (John 20:29; 1, 2, 3 John, 47). Another example might be the Beloved Disciple arriving to the empty tomb before Peter and believing. Peter needs to enter the tomb and see the grave clothes before he believes (John 20:3-10).
John’s claim in these first few verses is to have physically witnessed the revelation of the Word of Life and actually understood (accurately) what the Word of Life revealed about himself in the incarnation. As Jobes says, “the gospel consists not only of the historical facts about Jesus, but the divine interpretation of the meaning of this life, death, and resurrection.” (1, 2, 3 John, 51).
That John should open his letter is the claim of having seen Jesus underscores the importance of being an eyewitness in the ancient world. In a Jewish context, testimony was established by two or three witnesses. This is an important theme in the Book of Acts. Jesus tells his disciples they are going to receive the Holy Spirit so they can be witnesses of all that they have seen (Acts 1:7-8). Likewise, the Gospel of John ends with the testimony of the disciple who wrote down the contents of the book; he bears witness (from μαρτυρέω) these things are true. John may be the last living eyewitness to the life and teaching of Jesus. It is possible to think of the author “pulling rank” and saying something like, “you have to trust me on this because I am the last of the original eyewitnesses.”
Since John is responding to teachers who are teaching a different theology about Jesus, John is claiming to have a superior source of knowledge and understanding of who Jesus was because he was there. He saw and understood everything from the beginning. The opponents either reject this claim, or believe their teaching to be superior to John’s because they have received it through a spiritual gift or perhaps human reasoning.
This appeal to authority might annoy the modern reader, especially those in America. As a general rule we do not appreciate someone appealing to their own authority as a definitive source. We are naturally suspicious when someone claims “this is true because I said it is.” But the ancient world was less suspicious of personal testimony, so John’s claim to be a real witness of Jesus has weight, especially in contrast to the claims of his opponents.