v5. Now John tells his readers just what it is that they heard, “the message” that they are passing on, that will fulfill the church’s joy: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” I encourage you to spend some time meditating on two aspects of that message. The first is the message itself. Just think about God as pure light with not a hint of shadow (which reminds me of Jas. 1:17). A philosopher named Etienne Gilson, thinking about God as light, wrote this:
- We do not know what God is, but only what He is not, so that we know Him the better as we more clearly see that He is infinitely different from everything else. This principle, however, can be used in two different ways. We can, with St. Thomas, posit it at the beginning and at the end of our theology; it will then act as both a general qualification applying to all theological statements, and as an invitation to transcend theology, once we are through with it, by entering the depth of the mystical life. Yet between his initial statement that God is, strictly speaking, unknowable, and his ultimate endeavor to experience by love that which surpasses human understanding, St. Thomas Aquinas never forgets, that if we do not know God, the reason is not that God is obscure, but rather that He is blinding light. The whole theology of St. Thomas points to the supreme intelligibility of what lies hidden in the mystery of God. Now, if God is intelligible in Himself, what little we know about Him may be almost nothing, but it is not nothing, and it is infinitely more important than all the rest. In short, even when St. Thomas Aquinas uses reason as a means to a mystical end, he does not use it in a mystical way. Reason is made to throw light everywhere it shines; where darkness becomes invincible, reason gives way to love, and there is the beginning of the mystical life. (Etienne Gilson,
The Unity of Philosophical Experience
- (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1964), 86)
The second aspect I’d like you to think about is the fact that John–indeed, the apostolic community–somehow saw this as the essential way to distill all of what Christ had said and done during His three years of public ministry. Remember that John 1:18 says that Jesus has “made [the Father] known.” In seeing Jesus, what the disciples saw was light. And why not? Jesus is the light of the world. It’s easy to ask the same things about ourselves. If we were to ask people what our lives said about God, would they be able to say anything like, “He is light”?
v6. John is not, however, just trying to make a theological or metaphysical point about God. “If we claim to have fellowship with Him”–that is, with God,–“and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” His point, then, is very practical. If God is light, and if we walk in darkness, then we cannot say that we are in fellowship with God. God as light, then, says something important about how we live.
But notice that “we” again. I know that it is tempting to make the immediate application to our own lives in terms of making sure that we are living in the light, but let’s try hard to keep this in context. John is still speaking on behalf of the apostolic community. If that community claims to have fellowship with God–and they do (look up three verses at the end of verse 3)–but they walk in darkness, then that community is lying. And if they are lying, then the church doesn’t have to listen to anything they say. Not only that, but they ought not listen to anything they have to say. Why would you want to be in fellowship with someone not in fellowship with God?
The implication seems to me that there were people teaching this church that their personal lives and holiness didn’t matter. Those people were apparently “walking in darkness,” and John is implicitly drawing a strong contrast between himself and these false teachers. We’ll see more from them as we go on, but for now, just keep “them” in your mind.
v7. John’s already covered what it would mean if he were walking in darkness. Now he points out what it means if he walks in the light: he has fellowship with others and is further cleansed from all sin. Again, let’s keep our attention on the “we” as referring to the apostolic community and I think we’ll a couple of important things.
First, you might have expected John to say that if he walks in the light then he would have fellowship with God through Christ. That would seem to follow naturally as a contrast with “if we claim to have fellowship with him” in verse six. But that isn’t what he says. Instead, he says that if the community walks in the light, then they “have fellowship with one another.”* Once again, we see John’s interest in fellowship and unity, and he says that just cannot happen if he is not walking “in the light.” In other words, to walk in the darkness is not only to cut yourself off from God but also to cut yourself off from others (and for those of you interested in some further theological reflection, go back and look at the consequences of the Fall in Genesis 3).
Second, notice that being cleansed from sin is conditioned on walking in the light. It’s worth noting that John doesn’t say that if we walk in the light we will be forgiven of all sin. He’ll talk about that in a couple of verses. For now, his point is that when we (or, more immediately, when they–the apostolic community) “walk in the light” then we are cleansed or purged from unrighteousness. This language might remind of you Jesus’ comparison of Himself to a vine and us to branches (John 15). There, Jesus says that if we abide in Him, then He will prune (or cleanse) us. Just so, if we walk in (or “abide in”) the light, Jesus cleanses or purges us from unrighteousness.
If that’s true, though, then we have to distinguish between “walking in the light” and “not sinning.” I’m concerned that many Christians assume that to walk in the light is to live right and avoid sin. But based on what we just said that can’t be right. After all, what sense does it make to say that if we don’t sin then Jesus will cleanse of sin?! Walking in the light, then, has much more to do with abiding in the Truth. That is, it has much more to do with faith than works.
v8. In this verse, John turns to sin more directly, saying that if we claim we don’t sin then once again we lie. Once again, notice the “we.” While this verse applies to you and me, when we keep it in context we see something deeper. If the apostolic community were to claim that they were without sin, then they would be deceived and ironically without truth. But because they walk in the light, they are able to see that they do, in fact, sin. Christ’s purging work is, therefore, ongoing. A related point is that John does not say, “if we claim we have never sinned . . .” He is not talking about admitting our need for a Savior. He is talking about something he deals with in the present: the apostolic community itself still sins.
This again seems to imply something about the false teachers John was warning the church about. Apparently, their basic error was to believe that they were now sinless. Because of that, they were not walking in the light but instead in darkness, and therefore they were not being cleansed or purged of their very sins they said they did not suffer from. Therefore, one of the marks of a real, godly teacher is one who knows the depth of his own sins. It is the godliest among us who are most aware of their own sins, and conversely, it is the most wicked among us who are most blind to their own sins.
v9. So what provision has God made for our sins? In verse nine, John tells us that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us.” Hopefully by now you immediately see the force of the “we.” Even the apostolic community needs regular confession and forgiveness. In fact, that seems to be the secret to their fellowship. For when they confess them–that is, when the acknowledge their sins for what they are–then God forgives and purifies them. There are a few details I would like to you see here:
First, as just mentioned, to “confess” doesn’t just mean “to admit.” The word literally means “to say the same thing as.” In other words, to confess our sins is to see them the way God does. But in order to see them, we must be able to, and more importantly be willing to, look at them in the light of truth. And that gets us back to walking in the light. We simply cannot see our sins the way God does until we abide by faith in Him.
Second, we have a promise that when we confess those sins, God is both faith and just to forgive us. Yes, He forgives, but the important this is not about us but about Him. He is faithful and He is just to forgive. We know He will forgive because He is faithful to keep His promises. But moreso, He is just in doing so. We’ll see how in the next verse.
Third, we are purified or cleansed or purged from all unrighteousness when we confess. That’s why I said that this seems to be the secret to the apostolic community’s fellowship. It wasn’t their sinlessness that lead to their love and unity. It was their confession and God’s subsequent and continual purging of their sins. At first that may seem counter-intuitive, but I think it quickly becomes obvious if not profound with only a few second’s reflection. Have you heard it said, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints”? I think that catches this idea perfectly. When we can share our brokenness together, when we can share our forgiveness, then we experience a deep unity that’s just unavailable otherwise. Whether I like it or not, I am a weak and broken creature. I can pretend like I’m strong, like I have everything together, and like all is well in my life. But in doing so, I’m at best only deceiving myself. I’m robbing myself of the opportunity to be supported and loved and find real strength in others. It’s nothing more than pride and fear that keep me from admitting my failures. I could also be robbing you both of the opportunity share my burdens with me, to minister with me (isn’t it better to give than to receive?). But more, when I pretend that all is well, I am implicitly insisting that you do the same. How can I refuse to show weakness and then ask you to do just that? The practical outworking of all of this is that Christians cannot have any fellowship. Everyone is their own island, a silo of pretend strength. Everyone is struggling with fear and sin and failure, but we are cutting ourselves off from true forgiveness and strength. Isn’t it amazing, then, that true fellowship is only found in confession!?
v10. In this last verse of chapter one, John sums up his point by saying that if we say that we have never sinned at all, then we make Jesus Himself out to be a liar. All throughout, he’s been talking about us being liars (or, again, in context, the apostolic community being liars if they claim to not sin). And the reason is that to deny one’s sin is to call Christ–and therefore God Himself–a liar. After all, the gospel is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead so that we may live with Him. But if we have no sin, then Jesus died for nothing! We must therefore be very careful to both acknowledge the reality of our own sin and not put up with the lies of others who say that they don’t sin. Just as importantly, we need to be very careful to make sure that our own beliefs do not imply that we don’t or can’t sin. Any version, then, of “true Christians don’t sin” has to be rejected on the grounds that it makes Christ a liar. Christ has promised us that we will be freed from sin in our own resurrection, for on that day, we will be like Him (which we will see later on in this book). But for now, God through Christ is simply cleansing us from and forgiving us for sin. He has not seen it fit to eradicate sin in this life. Amazingly, He has chosen to use sin itself–or more specifically, the opportunity sin affords in granting forgiveness and sharing in our brokenness in this life–to bring about fellowship both with Himself and with one another. And in the end, isn’t that just like God? The honest recognition and confession of the presence of sin (the very thing that drives us away from God and each other) in our lives has become the means by which we are restored to joyful and complete fellowship.
*Geeky Greeky note: this verse is related to verse six with the Greek word de, which is usually translated “but” or “yet.” Greek grammars tend to refer to this as a weak disjunctive, as if the word is intended to show a slight level of contrast. But more recent study has shown that is not the purpose of de. Actually, de was used between two ideas to show a progression of thought. It has through rough of idea of, “having said that, I now want to say this . . .” For more on this, see Stephen Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Hendrickson, 2010).