1 John 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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The Character of God

In many ways the statement that God is light is the thesis of the epistle. It includes a definition of God's character as well as implications for the life of Christian discipleship. In fact, to lay bare the relationship between the character of God as light and Christian life as "walking in the light" is the whole point of the first part of the epistle.

God is light is not a particularly startling statement. Indeed, this asser tion would be at home in many of the world's religions, including those within the orbit of John's first-century world (compare Grayston 1984:46-47). Who would quarrel with depicting the Deity, the greatest power and greatest good in the world, with the symbol of light? In fact, John may have used the word deliberately, aware of both the simple power of the statement and its broad appeal.

But we should also remember the Old Testament imagery to which John appeals. We can summarize the references to light in the Old Testament under three main headings. First, light attends and character izes God's self-manifestation (Ex 3:1-6; 13:21-22; Ps 104:4). The psalmist pictures God clothed in garments of light (Ps 104:2; compare 1 Tim 6:16), an appropriate symbol for the One who is pure, righteous and holy. Second, God's revelation through the spoken and written word gives light. That word offers moral guidance and direction for living in accordance with God's will. Often quoted in this connection are verses from the Psalms: "Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Ps 119:105, 130; 43:3; 56:13; Prov 6:23; Job 24:13; 29:3; Is 2:5; Dan 5:11, 14). Just as light shows people where to walk when it is dark, so God shows the way in which human beings are to walk: "in your light we see light" (Ps 36:9). Third, light symbolizes God's salvation. The psalmist celebrates God who is "my light and my salvation" (27:1; 18:28), and light is a favorite image of the prophet Isaiah to depict God's saving activity on behalf of the people of God (9:1; 58:8, 10; 60:1, 19-20).

These images are of course related: as light shows the way in darkness, so also by virtue of God's revelation are we able to know God and the path in which we are to walk, a path that leads to God. To have knowledge of God and to walk in the way that God requires constitutes sal vation. And this is the message, the word of eternal life (1:1), which the author of the epistle has heard and declares (v. 5). The Elder takes particular pains to note that it comes ultimately from Jesus (from him; compare 1:1, "that which was from the beginning"), even if the exact form of these words cannot be found recorded in any one Gospel (compare Jn 8:12; 9:5; 17:3). But the work and words of Jesus were testimo nies to the God who is light.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, John emphatically restates the point: in him there is no darkness at all. God is pure light, not diluted or mixed in any way with evil, hatred, untruth, ignorance or hostility. God is light is not a theoretical assertion about the nature of God, but a statement that drives us to the heart of what God is like. God is pure light, and for John this statement rings with implications for the Christian life. Thus it is crucial that we correctly grasp this basic truth.

Now, if we agree that God is pure light, how does it help us answer the question, What does God want of us? John's answer comes here in absolute terms: light and darkness are as incompatible in the Christian as they are in God (see the discussion of dualism in the introduction). We can picture this with two circles. One contains in it truth (1:6, 8; 2:21), love (3:1; 4:7-12), righteousness (1:9; 2:1, 29; 3:7), eternal life (1:2; 2:17, 25), hope (3:3), purity (1:7, 9; 3:3) and confidence (2:28; 3:21; 4:17). This is God's sphere of light, and the children of light walk in it. In biblical thought walking (1:6-7) is a synonym for living (Prov 6:23; Ps 1). Thus to say that Christians walk in the light is another way of saying that Christian life is lived within the circle of God's light. In it we catch a vision of God, and we are able to discern and follow the way of righteousness and truth that is salvation and life. C. S. Lewis put it this way: "We believe that the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because we can see everything else" (Lewis 1947:133). We cannot see the light; but by and in the light we see everything else.

Alongside this circle lies another that circumscribes all that is antithet ical to the goodness of light. In this circle are falsehood (1:6, 8), hatred (1:9; 3:13, 15; 4:20), impurity (1:7, 9), fear (4:18) and sinfulness (2:16). This is the sphere of evil, what is called the "world" (2:15-17; 3:3) and "darkness" (1:6; 2:6, 8). It consists of all that God is not and is inimical to God and the circle of light.

These two circles share nothing in common. They do not overlap at all. God has no fellowship with darkness, for God is pure light. God is wholly righteous. And the children of God are to walk in the light and not in darkness. To walk in the light means to shape one's whole being, all one's actions, decisions, thoughts and beliefs by the standard of the God who is light, even as a circle gives shape to empty space. It does not mean to be perfect, as God is perfect, for the author's statements about human sinfulness (1:8, 10) do not allow such an interpretation. Rather, to walk in the light means to live continually guided by and committed to the God who is light. What God wants of us is that we shape our lives not by an external norm or by some arbitrary standard, but in conformity with the very character and heart of God.

And here is where the image of the circle is helpful. Prior to drawing a circle on paper, there is only blank space. But a circle includes and excludes space, just as the circle of God's light includes and excludes certain actions and behaviors. The circle gives shape to space, and so serves as a boundary. And, indeed, the most obvious feature of a circle is this outer boundary. But circles themselves are not defined or con structed from their edges, but from a fixed and known center. So to understand the boundary of the circle of God's light, we do well to focus on the center, not on the edges. The commitment that John seeks, that we walk in the light, consists of focusing ever more closely on the center of the circle of light, which is God, and learning to live in conformity with that center. Where there is no center, the edges blur and fade away. Where there is a living center, the boundaries need not be a matter of constant worry and concern.

Here is where we might be tempted to quit, to give up or to say, "If that's what God wants, that leaves me out. I can't ever be like God." But the Elder is not yet through with his discussion about what it means to follow the God who is light. In the next section, he has to deal with the problem of human sinfulness. If Christians can become light, as God is light, then they need to know how to do so. But John seems to assume that this is not the ideal or goal. We are to walk in the light; we are never told to be light. And yet some people in John's church may have made just this assumption: If God is light, then aren't we also light as well? The next section explains how not to understand the assertion God is light. It also offers encouragement to those who might feel that just as God's ways are not our ways, so in this life God's character can never be completely ours.

Previous commentary:
Walking in the Light: The Fundamental Pattern

Next commentary:
The Atonement of Christ

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