1 John 1:5-10.
The Light of the World

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2015, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


John wrote these first of the three canonical epistles[1] in response to heresies that were being taught among the churches.  Rather than take on the heretics in a debate over their divergent views, John simply exposes the counterfeit by describing the true God.  Yet, in John’s typical writing style, he uses metaphors and symbols to express theological truths.  However, unlike the metaphors and symbols that he uses in the Apocalypse that draw from other apocalyptic literary sources, he uses symbols and metaphors that are simply common to the understanding of his readers.

Though the concept of scientific investigation would not enter the culture of mankind until the thirteenth century, the ancients did understand a few things about the property of light simply by observing it.  There were a few sources of light including the sun, the moon, stars, and fire.  They were able to observe the interaction between light and darkness and easily understand that darkness is the absence of light, and though there are sources that produce the power of light, there is no source of darkness.

This understanding made the light/darkness metaphor a common and useful tool to understand the nature of God, and did so for virtually all of recorded history.  It is God who has the power, and where darkness is the absence of light, spiritual darkness is simply the absence of the presence of the expressed power of God.  The conflict between the power of God and the “power” of evil is often expressed in the interaction of light and darkness.  Darkness has no power over the light, likewise sin and evil have no power over God.  Some would hold that the battle between good and evil is a line that moves back and forth depending who is winning at any given time.[2]  However, when it comes to the power of God over the power of evil, like the power of light it is God who has all the power.  Satan is impotent against the power of evil. 

As John continues in his letter to describe the nature of God, he turns to this metaphor.

GOD IS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD

1 John 1:5.  This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

We find the metaphor of light used throughout scripture, with its first reference in Genesis 1:3 and its last in Revelation 22:5.  Let’s go back to the reference in Genesis:

Genesis 1:1-4.  In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  4And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness

When we look at light, as God created it and as recorded in the book of Genesis, what function does it serve?  Without light, the earth was without form and void.  That is, there was no life.  If the sun were to exhaust all of its fuel and burn out everything would die as it becomes incredibly cold and dark.  Weather would cease.  There would be no rain, no wind.  The rivers would drain to the lakes and oceans where all would fall into a deep and permanent freeze.

This scenario gives us a little glimpse into the power of light to sustain life.  With light, there is life.  With darkness, there is death.  Just as light provides the resource for physical life, God provides the means for both physical and spiritual life.  Just as it is hard to imagine an earth without light, it is equally hard to imagine a world without the influence of God.  Separated from God, there would be no limit to the wickedness of man, and apart from the blessings of God, this world would be unbearable.  Most likely, man would have long ago annihilated himself as a species without the influence of God.

We see here incredible similarities between the presence and absence of light, and the presence and absence of God.  Consequently, we find repeated use of the scripture of light as both a metaphor and an actual visual indication of the presence of God.

We encounter God’s presence as the light of the world in Exodus.  Moses had spent 40 years as a stepson of the Pharaoh of Egypt and 40 years as a shepherd in the desert near Mount Horeb when he observed a fire on the mountain:

Exodus 3:2.  And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 

This incident marked the beginning of an 800-year period when God’s presence with man was marked by light.  Often referred to as the Glory of God, or the Shekinah Glory, God repeatedly and consistently made His presence known through the presence of His Holy Fire.  God called Moses to negotiate the release of Israel from bondage under the Pharaoh, and with His Holy intervention, their freedom was obtained.  When the nation was ready to leave the country, God made His presence to them clearly known.

Exodus 13:21-22.  And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a Pillar of Fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: 22He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the Pillar of Fire by night, from before the people. 

Most Christians are quite aware of the Pillar of Fire and its function in the wilderness.  As a demonstration of God’s presence, the nation constructed the tent of the tabernacle under it.  On occasions God spoke out of it, and each year on the Day of Atonement, the fire would descend into the temple itself and consume the sacrifice in a very dramatic and graphic proof of God’s presence with man.

If the Pillar of Fire were to come back today, what would happen?  Certainly, it would serve as front-page news for a day or so.  People would respond in a huge flow of emotion with numerous testimonies of prophesies.  Some people would be saved.  After a week it would be relegated to the second page of our newspapers.  After a month there would be occasional articles on the religion page.  After a year it would be old news, and most of the world would be disinterested.

A similar circumstance took place in ancient Israel.  Historical record of the Pillar of Fire becomes sparse through the years, but still, the record exists.  There are several references to the Pillar of Fire and its presence over the tent of the tabernacle in Exodus, Numbers, 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles.  It is clear that the Pillar of Fire was present for the entire period of 400 years while Israel worshipped God in the tent.

Then, King Solomon built the permanent Temple in Jerusalem.  While the building was taking place, worship still took place in the tent.  God showed his approval of the temple by moving the Pillar of Fire over it.

2 Chronicles 7:1.  When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple

Just as the Pillar of Fire, the presence of God in His Tabernacle had been evident for 400 years in the Tent of Meeting; it was also present at Solomon’s Temple for a period of 400 years.  It had been 800 years now that God’s presence was found in the tabernacle, and that presence was in the form of light.  Light had become synonymous with God’s presence.  However, this latter period of 400 years was characterized by the apostasy of the nation.  The kings who followed Solomon took the nation away from God and embraced the gods of the world culture.  First Israel and then Judah, who separated after Solomon’s reign, were taken into captivity in Assyria and Babylon, respectively.  Ezekiel and Ezekiel alone was then witness to one of the most profound events in the history of Israel:

Ezekiel 10:18; 11:23.  Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim.  The glory of the LORD went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it.

After 400 years in the tent, and 400 years in the temple, the Pillar of Fire, the Shekinah Glory of God departed.  The Prophesy of 1 Samuel had been fulfilled.  The name of Ichabod was written across the face of the land:  The Glory of the Lord had left Israel.

This event was the beginning of 400 years of darkness.  This is the period of time between the writings of Malachi and Matthew, between the Old and the New Testaments.  Unlike the 800 years before, when the priests would bring the sacrifice to the altar, the Pillar of Fire no longer came down to consume it.  They had to clean up the bloody mess themselves, fully knowing that God was not there.  Israel continued to exist as a nation, but not as children in relationship with God.  There was only darkness.

JESUS IS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD

This 400-year darkness was insidious.  During that time there were no prophets, and so, no word from God.  Where was He?  Israel turned completely away from God and instead of embracing relationship with Him, turned fully to their traditions to sustain their self-definition.  Faith had been replaced by cold and meaningless religious ritual.  The commandments of God had been replaced by a system of legalistic written and oral laws.  God was gone.  Religion was now in the hands of men.

However, after 400 years of darkness, the Glory of the Lord came back. 

Luke 2:9-11.  And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord

The Glory of the Lord returned.  His light lit up the field where the shepherds were keeping their sheep, and unlike the fire of 800 years ago that came and went without interest, this time, the shepherd were quite scared by this apparition.  Israel’s hope in the return of God’s Glory was entirely wrapped up in the coming of the Messiah.  As the glory returned, the message of the Angels was exactly that:  today is born the Savior, the Christ.

In the ensuing years, we see references to that Star of Bethlehem, the light that lit the shepherd’s field served to lead the wise men to the Christ child, leading them in the same manner that it led Israel through the wilderness.

Through the return of the Shekinah Glory, and the announcement of the Angels, it is clear that God’s presence has returned.  This time, He has returned through the life of a baby born to the most humble of people.  Jesus is now the light of the world.  Not only did God testify through His Glory that Jesus is the light of the world, Jesus Himself agreed …

John 8:12.  When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

What darkness does Jesus refer to?  It is not the darkness of night that comes from the shadow of the earth that blocks the sunlight.  Rather, that darkness is the ever-pervasive shadow of sin and death, the absence of God’s Holy presence.

Consider for a moment the battle between light and darkness.  If we were to close all of the doors and cover all of the windows of our room, and then turn out the lights we would be able to observe the room in absolute darkness.  Many people have never experience such absolute darkness.

What happens when a light is turned on in the room?  The darkness is literally chased away by the light whose power fills the room.  Light proceeds from its source at 300 million meters per second, or 186,000 miles per second, encountering no resistance from the darkness.  Darkness has absolutely no power.  It is the light that has power.

Likewise, what happens when the power of the Holy Spirit enters?  Just as darkness is impotent to the power of light, the absence of the Spirit is impotent to His presence.  Satan is entirely impotent when confronted by the Holy Spirit.

For example, when Jesus confronted the demon possessed man of Gadara[3] the demons could not challenge Jesus in battle: they pleaded for his mercy.  They were absolutely powerless against Him.

During Jesus’ ministry, He served as the Light of the World.  He was the tabernacle of the Lord, the presence of God among men.  However, Jesus, after His resurrection, had fulfilled His mission of salvation of mankind.

YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.

There is one distinctive in the Christian life that differentiates it from any and all other religions:  the true Christian life involves a relationship with the One true God, the God of all creation.  To have fellowship with the LORD is to have fellowship with the same light that is the light of the world.  Truly one of the greatest gifts of the LORD is the presence of the illuminating Holy Spirit that provides the unique, illuminating, power of God to all who place their faith and trust in Him.  It is God’s plan and purpose that, as He is the light of the world, and the person of faith serves as the Temple of the Holy Spirit,[4] that they would be the light of the world.

Matt.  5:14.  Ye are the light of the world.

These words were stated by Jesus to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.  If we understand the role played by the Light of the World up to this point in history, what does it mean that those who follow Jesus Christ are the “Light of the World”?  This light of which Jesus speaks is the very presence of God, a presence that has the power to defeat Satan.  Can people have such power?

It was God’s plan that people who live in a wicked and sinful world would turn to Him and appropriate this power.

Acts 1:8.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”

That power in the life of a Christian is provided by the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart and life of every true believer.  When the Holy Spirit draws one to faith in Christ, He serves as the promise and seal of the salvation that such a testimony engenders.  It is the Holy Spirit in the heart and life of the believer that is the source of power against Satan, sin, and death.  Just as Satan has no power when confronted by the Holy Spirit, he has no power when confronted with a Spirit-filled Christian. 

1 John 1:6.  If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:

You, as a faithful believer in Christ, are the light of the world.  God dwells in you, just as he dwelt in the tent, in the tabernacle, and in the Spirit of Christ.  John points out that, if the LORD dwells within you, you are walking in the light.  If one claims to be a Christian, but their works demonstrate a life of darkness, their profession of faith is called to question.  If we recall that his epistle is a response to the work of heretics in the congregation, we may note that all who claim to be people of faith may not be so.  Their testimony of faith is inconsistent with their life when the light of God is not seen in them.  This false testimony can be deliberate as one is working to impress his control over people fo faith.  It can also be ignorant as they think they are Christians by some other means than faith and trust in God.   John is reminding his faithful readers to recognize the truth of one’s testimony so that they can also recognize the work of those who hold to a false testimony.

Just as this was useful advice for the early church, it is also useful advice as we make choices in whom we ordain as Christian leaders.  Often we tend to “elect” leadership based upon their leadership skills or their swagger of self-confidence, and fail to look for the light.  It is the light of the Holy Spirit that should be first in the life of those whom we choose to grant Christian authority.  If that light is evident, all of the resources need for them to serve in humility are already a part of who they are.

1 John 1:7.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.

Another distinctive of the Christian faith is that we have not attain a state of righteousness or sinlessness as so many religions attempt to provide.  The LORD brings to himself people of faith from every background and experience and grants forgiveness, complete with all of their blemishes of sin.  It is the work of Christ that brings forgiveness, and only the work of Christ that provides forgiveness.  Yet, there are some who teach a heresy that faith in Christ provides a sinless life.  That if one comes to Christ, God takes away sin.  After all, how can a person be the light of the world and still struggle with the consequences of sin?

1 John 1:8-10.  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Life as a Christian does not bring with it a cessation of sin.  Some teach that if you sin as a Christian you lose your salvation.  However, the LORD provides the gift of salvation based upon your sincere profession of faith and trust in Him.  The Christian still struggles with sin, but there is a tremendous difference between that Christian and their relationship with sin than there is with one who lacks faith in God.  Those who have not made a sincere profession of faith are condemned by their sin.  That sin that now separates them from God will continue to separate them from Him in eternity. 

The Christian life is one of confession, a humble and honest admission to the LORD that we do, indeed, sin and fall short of His glory.  Note that John refers to the confession of “sins” not a specific sin.  Some teach that if one dies with an unconfessed sin, they are lost for eternity, so one must be vigilant to make sure that every sin is followed by confession.  However, by using the plural, John is referring to all sin, and it is all sin that God works to forgive.  Though the Christian sins, the light of the Holy Spirit also serves to expose the sin in the life of a Christian and takes away much of the old desire to sin.  Sin creates disappointment in the life of a Christian.  Yet, the Christian can praise God that His promise of grace never ebbs.  Since sin did not cease with a profession of faith, sin cannot take away God’s gift of salvation for one simple reason:

Romans 8:1.  There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

As Paul writes to the Romans he serves to resolve the seeming conflict between the nature of the light of the LORD in one’s life, and the presence of the struggle with sin.  Though sin still vexes the Christian it no longer serves to condemn.  However, it is important to note that our inability to life a perfect life should not lead us to despair, but rather to humility.  By recognizing that we continue to sin, we are continually reminded of our need for God’s grace, and when we can sincerely praise and thank God for His act of forgiveness we are in a place where the light of the LORD can truly shine through us.  Jesus completes this commission as he taught the disciples on the mountainside when He said,

Matthew 5:16.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.


 

[1] The order of the three epistles of John does not indicate a chronological order of their writing.  There is no convincing scholarship that provides such chronology.

[2] There is a well-known proverbial thought that is attributed to Native American Cherokee culture that states, “There is a battle of two wolves inside us all.  One is evil.  It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority, and ego.  The other is good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.  The wolf that wins is the one you feed.

[3] Mark 5:1-13.

[4] 1 Corinthians 6:19.