THE OPENING PARAGRAPH OF 1 John 1 boasts many treasures. I want to focus on verse 3, with a sidelong glance at verse 4.
Assuming that the author is the apostle John, the “we” that is doing the proclaiming is most likely an editorial we, or a we that is self-consciously speaking from the circle of apostolic witnesses. Thus in this context it is distinguished from the “we” of all Christians; it is distinguished, in particular, from the “you” who constitute the readers: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard” (1 John 1:3). The previous two verses specify what John and the other witnesses have seen and heard. It is nothing less than the Incarnation: “That which was from the beginning” (1 John 1:1) one with God was nothing other than what appeared in real history and was repeatedly heard, seen, and touched. The eternal Word became a man (John 1:14); here, the “life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:2). So John reiterates, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard” (1 John 1:3).
There is no Christianity without the Incarnation. Moreover, the Incarnation is not some vague notion of the divine identifying with the human. It is relentlessly concrete: the Word that was with God and that was God became flesh (as John writes elsewhere, John 1:1, 14). That is fundamental in John’s day, when he is combating those who presuppose that what is truly spiritual might don human flesh but could not become a human being; it is fundamental today, when we might be combating a philosophical naturalist who insists that the only reality is what occupies the continuum of space and time.
John tells his readers that he proclaims this truth to them, “so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Fellowship in the New Testament is more than warm fuzzies. It is committed partnership, in which personal interests are subsumed under the common mission. The first witnesses entered into fellowship “with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” John’s readers may enter that fellowship by entering into the fellowship of the apostles. That is why John proclaims what he has seen and heard. The apostles mediate the Gospel to others. We cannot enter into fellowship with God and with his Son Jesus Christ without entering into fellowship with the apostles who were the first witnesses of the Incarnation.
None of this fosters stuffy religion. John writes to make “our” or “your” joy complete (1 John 1:4): whichever variant is original, it tells the truth on this point.