Walking in the Light
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
John 2:7a. Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning.
John’s letter to the churches is one of the more endearing passages in scripture. It is quite evident that the writer is gravely concerned about the heresies that are being impressed upon the congregations by those who seek their own agenda. Yet, rather than bringing up direct charges and taking the detractors of the gospel to a direct confrontation, John’s strategy is to simply express the truth in love.
This loving heart of John is indicated in the first word of this verse. Though often translated as “brothers,” or “dear friends,” such an interpretation is based upon the Greek phileo, an important form of love that people have for one another. This is the love that a mother has for a child, the love that comrades in battle develop for one another. People will give their lives for one another when inspired by phileo, or “brotherly” love. Great works of philanthropy have been accomplished through this form of love for others. Understanding this, we can come away from this verse impressed by the brotherly love that John has for the church.
However, the Greek word that is so translated is not phileo, but agapetoi. Phileo is the conditional love of the world, a love that is given conditionally to those whom we choose for reasons that we choose. Agape is the unconditional love of God that is given without any reservation to all in the name of the LORD. It is a love that is inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. It is an expression of a heart that both experiences and embraces the love of God and is a reflection of one’s deliberate choice to extend that love to all others in the Name of God. Where phileo, though powerful, is an expression of the natural power and wisdom of this world, agape is an expression of the infinite power and wisdom of God.
With this expression of love, John begins this passage with the assurance that the message that he brings is not a new one. Unlike the heretics who are promising new revelation and a new gospel, John assures his readers that the truths that he presents are the same, reliable, truths that his readers have already learned. It is in these foundational truths that his readers can continue to stand. In this way, John is encouraging his readers to turn from the new heresies, to reject the proclamations of a new truth, or a new gospel.
1 John 2:7b. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning.
This argument is as relevant today as it was when the early church was similarly under attack. Modern media technology has empowered anyone with a message to easily and efficiently proclaim it to the world, and those whose foundational beliefs in the gospel are not firmly establish can be quickly misled. Our need to return to the Word of God is as relevant today as it was in the early church. Where many today are seeking to make compromises to the Word of God to fit their social and political agenda, John publishes a reminder to return to that which was revealed by God in the beginning. It is God’s Word that has authority, not the word of some political or social pundit. It is God’s Word that proclaims truth, not the word of the heretics that are seeking to change the early church or the church today.
John’s is not some new idea that is contrary to that which they were taught in the beginning. “John uses these verses to illustrate that his command is not one more restriction that has been placed on those who have believed, and he shows that these commands are not contradictory to the apostolic message. This message is, in fact, imbedded in the apostolic witness they had received from the beginning of their Christian experience.”
1 John 2:8. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth.
This statement could appear contradictory since he just penned the words “I write no new commandment.” However, he is using a play on words that may be difficult to represent in English. Indeed, he is not writing a new commandment because the context of his presentation is surrounding the life and work of Jesus Christ, not his own. What is new precedes this writing: it is not his own message, but rather the message of the gospel, the New Testament, the New Covenant that God has with His people.
There was a profound change in the “spiritual landscape” that took place with the coming of Christ. Though God’s plan for salvation by faith never changed, He brought to us, through Jesus, the completion of His revelation of that purpose. Prior to the coming of Jesus there was a period of about 400 years when God had not presented himself to man through either prophets or through His Shekinah Glory. It was a period of spiritual darkness when Israel replaced faith in God with adherence to a set of man-made rules. However, with the coming of the Messiah, YAHWEH, this period of darkness ended. God had returned, and brought with Himself the clear message of the Gospel, graphically punctuated by the crucifixion of Jesus, Christ on the Cross of Calvary. Where the heretics would work to return the church to philosophies of darkness, John reminds us that it is the true light that now shines. A major change took place now that the light of the Holy Spirit shines brightly, exposing that which is in darkness. The power of that darkness has been taken away now that it is plainly seen. This exposure informs our understanding of the Truth of God’s Word:
1 John 2:9. He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.
How do we recognize one who is presenting a false gospel? What is the mark of a heretic? Though it may be more of an effort to ascertain whether an individual’s presentation is exact truth, there is one characteristic of a heretic that indicates that their presentation is false: their lives are not characterized by the unconditional agape love of God. John is describing one who is “faking it,” proclaiming that they are in the light, but that light does not shine in their spirit. Their verbal arguments can be charismatic and convincing. They may be able to present compelling oratory from the pulpit or street corner. However, John recommends that we look, not at their words, but at the character of their lives. When a person has a sincere faith in God, that faith shines in the form of spiritual fruit.
Something changes in a positive way when a person of faith enters a room. One can attempt to fake their faith, and may be convincing by the words they say and some of the things they do. However, a false faith cannot hide its hypocrisy. The light shines when a faithful Christian enters the room. However, when one professes a false faith the light of the Holy Spirit does not shine, and their true dark nature will emerge when we watch carefully and with the discerning wisdom that the Holy Spirit gives. John is still building on the theme of the light of God since he has taken us from knowing the light, to abiding in the light, to now living in the light.
One who truly knows God lives in the light and simply no longer owns the capacity to hate their brother since true agape love is unconditional and expressed towards all people. This can be a very convicting argument among those who profess faith in God but still harbor bitterness towards another or bigotry towards any group of people. If one professes faith but demonstrates bigotry, the light of God is not being expressed within them, and though they are worthy of all of the love and respect that God affords, they are not to be given spiritual authority.
1 John 2:10. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.
How do we recognize one who is presenting a true gospel? It is important that we understand the language and context of this verse so that we may not be misled. If we interpret the word love to refer to brotherly love, and the brother to be one’s biological brother, we can come away with a fully erroneous understanding. Even the most hardened sinner can hold a phileo love for his biological brother.
However, the word used for love is agape. The first indication of a sincere faith and sincere gospel is that it is expressed through God’s unconditional love for others. Furthermore, the word for brother refers to all of those with whom the individual is in relationship, going far beyond a biological brother to include those who are both within the fellowship of the body of believers and those who are not. It is this individual that is immersed in the light of the Holy Spirit, and it is this person who has the capacity to express the true gospel: a gospel of agape love for all people.
The Greek word that is rendered “stumble” is skandalon. This may remind us of the English word, scandal that refers to a fall from a position of stature or place. Consider John’s quote of Jesus’ statement in his gospel:
John 11:9b-10. If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. 10But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.
John’s statement does not mean that one who is abiding in the light will not make mistakes. Such a statement would be contradictory to the basic gospel message of grace. The idea is that one who is walking in the light will not fall. One who loves the LORD can have the confidence that, though they do stumble in their efforts to live a life that is obedient to the LORD, that they will not fall. The promise of eternal life that God offers to all believers is that: a promise.
The word, skandalon, is also frequently used in the New Testament to refer to one’s leading others to fall, and this interpretation is reasonable in this passage. One who loves the LORD will not intentionally lead others to follow a false gospel. Jesus also spoke of the grave consequences of one who leads others into falsehood:
Matthew 18:6. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Those who are attacking the early church with a false gospel are demonstrating the spirit and work of skandalon as they attempt to lead others away from the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. John calls upon his readers to look at the lives of those who are teaching spiritual doctrine and to discern from the nature of their lives the voracity of their message.
Likewise, people of faith are evaluated by others in a similar manner. When one lives in the light, the character of their lives is seen by others. These are people who live spiritually moral lives, lives that appear “righteous” to others without appearing self-righteous. Paul speaks of the necessity of this form of lifestyle when he speaks of the need for people of faith to put on the full armor of God. This armor includes the “breastplate of righteousness” which protects one from both frontal attack and attack from behind. The idea is that when one lives a life in the light, one that is characterized by spiritual maturity, there are few places in their lives where their conduct and behavior can be used against them.
1 John 2:11. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.
There is no room for hate in the life of one who walks in the light. A Christian should be careful of their use of the phrase, “I hate,” since the hateful spirit is overpowered by the agape love of God. One simply cannot hate another when they express agape love to all people. John notes how this seeming irony can work in the life of a person of faith: one who is in darkness is there because the darkness has “blinded his eyes.”
The faithful Christian is going to look on one who is walking in darkness with compassion, not hate. The most grievous sinner is one who is in desperate need of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is the mission of the faithful to work and pray for their salvation. Instead of directing our attack towards the sinner, we have the opportunity to join the LORD in standing against the true source of darkness: satan. When we realize that all people are in need of the saving knowledge and blessing of the salvation of God, and that those who are lost are blinded by the darkness that is satan’s lair, we can love the sinner, pray for them, and work to bring them to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
1 John 2:12. I write unto you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.
Verses 12 – 14 are written in a poetic form, almost as if they are verses to a song. Because of this, we will find instances of repetition of thoughts, much like the repetition of song lyrics, as that repetition serves to help us remember the important points of the message. In this poem, John addresses those across the spectrum of Christian spiritual maturity.
As each of us walks in the light of the power of the Holy Spirit, we do so at our own, unique, place in the spectrum of spiritual maturity. When we first hear the gospel we are like spiritual babies, in need of learning the basic gospel message much like a newborn baby is in need of milk. The most important message of the gospel for those who are new in the faith is the eternal consequence of their decision: the forgiveness of sin through the Name of the LORD and the eternal salvation that this forgiveness affords. “This forgiveness occurs because the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ made the mercy and grace of God available to those who repent of their sins and believe in the name of Jesus. This is the first reference to the ‘name’ in the epistles, and it has a close relationship to John 20:20-31.”
1 John 2:13. I write unto you, fathers,
because ye have known him that is from the beginning.
I write unto you, young men,
because ye have overcome the wicked one.
I write unto you, little children,
because ye have known the Father.
Addressing the more mature “fathers,” John reminds them, as they are working to discern false gospel from truth, to return to “Him” who they have known from the beginning. Though some have assigned “Him” to God, the Father, to know the promise of salvation is to know Christ. John is reminding them of the one true Christ, and His work of redemption. By doing so, the fathers, the more mature and influential members of the Christian community can recognize and reject false doctrine and work to teach the truth to others.
John also includes encouragement to those who are neither spiritual babes nor spiritual fathers: those who are more mature than a child, but not yet a spiritual leader. Referring to them as “youths” he reminds them that they have already overcome the wicked one. We might assign this group of believers to the largesse of the Christian community who are mature enough in their faith that they can move on from the simple milk of the gospel to the meat. The evil one is continually trying to discourage spiritual maturity, and draw people back under his power. However, just as the impetuosity of youth can lead them to express confidence in what they believe, spiritual youths can do the same. They can stand up to the powerless prince of darkness when empowered by the Holy Spirit.
John then returns to encouraging words for the spiritual children, reminding them that they know the true Father. As John has done in previous verses, he refers to knowledge as a form of relationship, an intimate knowledge. Even the spiritual children can be confident that they will not be fooled by the charlatans who would work to defeat them because they can recognize the Father and recognize he who is not.
1 John 2:14. I have written unto you, fathers,
ye have known him that is from the beginning.
I have written unto you, young men,
because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you,
and ye have overcome the wicked one.
The first clause of verse 14 is identical to verse 13, as John simply repeats these words of encouragement that are directed to the spiritually mature in the community. One might speculate that, because of their maturity, this message is sufficient: be reminded of that which you already know.
John does, however, offer additional encouragement for the spiritual youths, elaborating on his previous statement by adding two more points.
(1) The youth are “strong.” They are characterized by neither the immaturity of childhood, nor the frailties of advanced years. They exhibit the strength of youth to be able to stand firm against significant resistance. Like a warrior in battle, they have the vigor to take on the adversary.
(2) Their stand is empowered by the Word of God that resides in their hearts. It is primary the youth (and middle-aged, who this category includes) who are most actively engaged in the work of the gospel, and they can be assured that they can rely on the Word of God as their guide. Unlike the heretics who can stand only on their own word, these faithful Christians stand on the infallible and indefatigable Word of God.
The early church, like the church today, was immersed in a sinful and wicked world, and immersion denotes a very significant amount of contact. Members of the church were being subjected to worldly ideas, teachings, and philosophies that are contrary to the Word of God, and many were being turned away from the truth, entering areas of compromise that served to change what people thought was truth. We face the same problem today as worldly ideas, attitudes, and actions have invaded the church, compromising its message, and encouraging ungodly works and acts within the body of believers. Entire groups of Christians have come to embrace behaviors and lifestyles that are unbiblical at best, and rebellion against the LORD at worst.
John’s advice and encouragement is as valid today as it was when he wrote it, as he reminds the church to go back to its roots, to return to the truth that they knew, the truth that they learned from the beginning. John reminds us that people of faith are those who “walk in the light,” those who have submitted their lifestyle to the Holy Spirit.
Let each of us examine our own lives to determine if we are spiritual children, youth, or fathers, and from that position in the spiritual spectrum of maturity are we truly walking in the light. It is only when we are walking in the light that we can fully experience God’s working through us as He seeks to bring this lost world to Himself.