In this new year, we have begun a study of the first epistle of John. In the first week, we took a look at the prologue (vv. 1-4) and last week, we looked at the first few verses of the body (1:5 – 2:2). I mentioned briefly that there are various opinions about the best way to think about the structure of 1 John, pointing out one in particular. I don’t want to get caught up in that discussion (mostly because I don’t have a well-enough informed one) but I do want us to pay attention to how themes and motifs are repeated through the letter.
Having said that, John talks about the importance of walking in the light, that is walking in Christ. And one of the points that we took from last week’s passage was the importance of recognizing our sinfulness and depending on Christ’s grace – that it is only in Christ that we can become righteous before God. The other point, which may seem contradictory but is actually complementary, is that we must pursue righteousness. The verses that we are looking at today can be seen as springboarding from that.
3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.
9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sisteris still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sisterlives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.1 John 2:3-11
So what I thought we’d do today is work through the passage a little bit at a time. We will go through it quite quickly – that is, we won’t spend as much time on each verse as we should – but hopefully it will be helpful.
To begin with, let’s begin with verses 3 and 4:
3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.1 John 2:3-4
Now right at the start, we should probably recognize a thematic connection between verse 3, “we know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands,” and the previous passage which talks about the importance of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness through Jesus Christ. When we think of commands, this is the sort of thing we usually think of. That is, to keep his commands is precisely to avoid sinning. So, we read in 2:1,
2:1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.1 John 2:1
And this seems to lead directly into the “…if we keep his commands” statement. But John goes on: “Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. I would like to pay attention to how John continues to set things up as a duality – to keep God’s commands is to know Him; to not keep his commands is to not know Him. Now if we remember last week’s passage, this sounds an awful lot like something we’ve already heard. In 1:6,7 John says:
6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.1 John 1:6-7
Now does “keeping God’s commands” mean the same thing as “walking in the light?” Well, I don’t think they are exactly equivalent – that is, I don’t think it’s an precise one-to-one relationship – though there’s clearly a strong connection. But I think what John is doing is essentially using two images to point at the same thing – what it means to take hold of the Christ life. Now of course, I may be over-thinking this, and what John means by “walking in the light” and “knowing Him” are indeed the same thing – and this works just as well. At any rate, and what’s more, what John seems to be doing is continuing to lay out dualisms.
And as a bit of an excursus here, I think it’s really important to keep these dualisms that John uses in mind, especially in the midst of a relativistic culture. In a world that tends to treat religion, and especially tends to treat God, as an accessory to our chosen lifestyle, we truly have to ask ourselves whether it’s God’s command, God’s word, God’s life that we want to take hold of?
Now there’s more to be said here, but let’s carry on.
Verse 5 begins with the statement:
5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them.1 John 2:5a
Now this is a really interesting and challenging claim and once that, again, deserves more attention. But what it seems to mean to me is related to the notion that the word of God, the commands of God (and I’m being a little reductionistic here), the law of God flows out of the character of God. As such, obeying his word is not a matter of following arbitrary rules, but rather of honouring and embracing the very nature of the person of God. Conversely, ignoring or rejecting God’s word is akin to ignoring or belittling the character of God, the nature of God.
So John goes on to say,
5b This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.1 John 5b-6
Which begs the question, “how did Jesus live?” Now for the sake of time, I’m not going to unpack that thought. But it would seem obvious that we should pay attention to the gospels – in this context, especially, but not exclusively the gospel of John. And we might want to pay attention to the things that were important to Jesus during His ministry.
So, again with my apologies, let’s carry on. Taking a look at the next couple of verses, we read:
7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.1 John 2:7-8
I feel like this is a little bit of a convoluted or veiled passage (but maybe it’s not for you). John says that he is writing, not a new command but an old one, and that this command is one that the community has had/known since the beginning.
So to unpack this a little bit, but at the same time to simplify, I want to say just a few things. Firstly, the beginning that John speaks of is likely the beginning of the Christian community, the New Testament community (as opposed to, for example, the Israelite people). Therefore, the “beginning” is distinctly gospel originated.
Secondly, I want to relate this discussion of a “new command” with the verse immediately prior to it, which said: “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
Thirdly, I want to point us to the gospel of John chapter 13, which takes place after the washing of the disciples feet (which, by the way should say something to us about the “live as Jesus did” that we mentioned earlier):
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”The Gospel According to John 13:34-35
And at this point, I should acknowledge what might be obvious in that I am borrowing or depending on the work of commentators here. And at the same time, for the sake of brevity and simplicity, I’m passing over the bulk of the interpretive steps and reasoning.
But if it isn’t clear by now, what I’m suggesting is that “the new command” that John is talking about here is the command to love one another. Now it’s important to note that loving one another must be properly placed in the context of the new kingdom community, the new kingdom reality that is established by the work of Jesus Christ. But it’s the loving one another that John is talking about. This is the old command that is a new command that is constitutive of this people of God.
So when John goes on to say, “its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining,” I think he’s saying something about the significance and impact that this action has in a world filled with darkness. In other words, and aonce gain borrowing from Lesslie Newbigin, the church is a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of the kingdom of God when we love one another.
Now at this point, we can probably see how the last verses in our passage today sum up what John has been talking about:
9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.1 John 2:9-11
Here, John brings together some of the main themes and images that we’ve seen so far. I might sum up by saying something like this: Anyone who claims to be in the light – that is, anyone who claims to know God – but hates a brother or sister (and therefore ignores the command of God to be like Christ) is still in the darkness (that is, that person does not have fellowship with God, does not know God, does not walk in the light).
He goes on to reiterate: “10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness.” Now that’s a pretty extreme statement – for how many of us loves each of our brothers and sisters. How many of us can say that there is no brother and sister we do not dislike (or “hate”). But John, in a pretty typical Johannine way, sets this up as a very much either or proposition.
The final verse is helpful for me. “They do not know where they are going [and especially helpful] because the darkness has blinded them.”
Now the first thing I want to say about this is that we remember that John is speaking into a particular context. That is, there are those in or around the community that is causing division because of false teaching. John seems to be making a pretty pointed statement about what these false teachers are doing or what they have done – that is, about the results of their actions. In short, their actions and behaviour have caused division.
But John may also be making a pretty pointed statement about their specific wrong teaching (or at least an element of it) – that is, they are causing division because of their false teaching.
What I mean by that is simply that I believe (and I believe that this is what scripture tells us) that God created human beings to be in perfect relationship with one another (among other things). That is, God created human beings to be in loving relationship with one another. Sin marred that; sin destroyed that. From the first sin where Adam and Eve chose to make himself and herself the center of their existence instead of God. And ever since then, we each seek from our sinful nature to make ourselves the center of all existence. And so other people become obstacles, tools, or accessories to our own self-gratification. Inasmuch as we continue to do that, inasmuch as we continue to treat others that way, we continue to live in darkness. In other words, John is saying that fellowship with, or love for, one another is not just a consequence of walking in the light, it’s an essential element of it.
However, the teaching of the false teachers either minimizes or ignores the significance of this creation order. Because these false teachers fail to understand this essential theology, they are fomenting division and thus, “they do not know where they are going because the darkness has blinded them.
Now, as may be obvious, the way I’m approaching this passage has largely to do with the question that I’ve posed before: that is, what kind of community do we want to be? To put it another way, this passage (among others) should give us serious food for thought when we ask the question, what kind of church do we want to be? If we take seriously John’s claim that to know God, to walk in the light, we must love one another, what would this mean about how we spend our energy, our resources, our time?
And of course we know that getting along is important. Of course we all want to spend time with, fellowship with, and worship with people we like and enjoy. But John is not merely talking about congeniality here. And he’s certainly not talking about merely getting along so that we can get on with the “real business” of church or the project of church. What I’m suggesting is that loving one another is the real business of the church. Or to put it another way, by loving one another, we reflect or live out the kingdom into which we have been called. Loving one another is something we were created to do. Loving one another is recovering and recognizing the image of God in one another.
Now there are probably a lot of things we could be doing, as individuals and as a community, to love one another better. But I want to encourage us and challenge us with one simple thing – that is to pray for one another. I want to encourage each of us to spend time each week (each day, ideally) to pray for someone or some folks in the congregation. And I want to challenge you to pray for someone that you maybe have a hard time loving – whether that’s because of some difficulties or simply because it’s someone you don’t think about that often. Pray that you will see the image of God in that person. Pray that you will see the grace of God working in that person. And pray that you will be able to demonstrate that love, live out that love for one another.
Beloved, let us love one another. For everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.