This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship [koinonia] with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 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 cleanses us from all sin (1:5-7).
The idea that God is light; to us who live in a culture of deceit, spin, and subterfuge; can be difficult to grasp while certainly being even more difficult to live; it’s an idea much easier to pay lip-service to than to practice. Yet, we are called not simply to entertain the idea that God is light but we are called to walk in the light as He is in the light; now there is something to ponder.
Whatever it means to walk in the light as He is in the light, one thing it does not mean is that we live perfect lives, sinless perfection on our part is not the prerequisite for having fellowship with one another and with God – thank God for that! In the midst of the admonition to walk in the light as He is in the light we have the promise of cleansing from all sin, and later in this passage (2:1-2) we have the promise of forgiveness of sin restated. The reality of sin in this pilgrimage is also dealt with in 1:10: if we say we have not sinned we make Him a liar; and yet in 2:4 we read: Whoever says “I know Him” but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. This interplay of point and counterpoint invites our pondering and meditation and it unveils the childishness of not looking at our fallenness in the light of the Gospel with all of its complexities – the Gospel acknowledges our fallen human condition and miracle of miracles the grace of God in Christ enables us to have fellowship with God and with one another in the midst of our imperfections and our sin – for Christ is the propitiation for our sin.
A facet of walking in the light is acknowledging sin. We may ask, “If I walk in the light as He is in the light then I won’t sin, will I?” The speculative answer may be “Yes” but the Biblical answer as shown in this passage is “No”. If I ignore the Biblical answer then I am apt to impose unrealistic expectations on myself and others, and when sin does occur rather than look to the Cross for forgiveness I am more likely to look to the Law or religious tradition for condemnation – and I am also more likely to respond to my sin by greater self-effort. Well-meaning people can be authors of condemnation and perpetual guilt when they naively ignore the reality of our fallenness; they also minimize or ignore the mystery and tension of Biblical passages such as the one before us. Those who believe their salvation must be secured by perpetual effort live in perpetual insecurity.
This passage has hope, it has challenge, and it has warning. The hope is that in daily life with all of its imperfections, sins, and missed opportunities that I can still walk in the light as He is in the light because of Jesus Christ. The challenge is that God is light, in Him is no darkness at all, and that as I follow Christ I am to learn from Him (and from others) how to walk in the light. The warning is that if I think that I can walk in darkness and call myself His disciple, if I think that I can know Him and disobey His commandments – then I am a liar and I don’t know the truth, I don’t know the light.
As John’s letter unfolds he writes about walking in the light, he will not leave us to wonder what living in the light looks like in the life of a Christian. In the meantime, how aware are we that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all; John says that this is the message they heard and the message they are proclaiming – but is this the message we live? I think that when we read passages like this and think about light and darkness that we are prone to think in terms of egregious sins, sins that other people do and not our own selective and rational sins. We like to excuse our “end justifies the means” sins, whether at work or in family or in other relationships or in church (yes, I wrote “in church”). It isn’t the ugly sins that bother me so much when I read this passage, it’s the accepted sins of church and society that bother me – those are the ones that seduce me and that I am more likely to adopt – thinking I can do so with impunity. I need John’s stark statement, “Look, if you think and live this way you are a liar and you’re deceiving yourself.”
Light and darkness, love and hate, truth and lying, Christ and antichrist; these are the juxtapositions of John; whether in his Gospel, his letters, or in the Apocalypse; in an amoral society we need the clear lines of John’s writing.