'My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: 2. And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.3. And hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.4. He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.5. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in Him.6. He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked.' -- 1 John i.5-ii.6.
John is the mystic among the New Testament writers. He dwells much on the immediate union of the soul with God, and he has little to say about institutions and rites. His method is not to argue, but to utter deep, simple propositions which convince by their own light. But he is also intensely eager for plain, practical morality, and in that respect sets the example which, unfortunately, too many of the more mystical types of Christian teaching have failed to follow. To him the outcome and test of all deep hidden union with God is righteousness in life.
The blending of these two elements, which is the very keynote of this letter, is wonderfully set forth in this passage. They would require much more space than we command for their treatment, for every clause is weighty as gold. We can but skim the surface, and try to bring out the salient points.
I. We have, first, a wonderful gathering up of the whole gospel message into one utterance as to the essential nature of God. Light is in all languages the symbol of knowledge, of joy, of purity. It is the source of life. Its very nature is to ray itself out into and conquer darkness. Its splendor dazzles every eye; all things rejoice in its beams. Darkness is the type of ignorance, of sorrow, of sin. But, whilst the symbol is thus rich in manifold revelations, probably purity and self-communication are the predominating ideas here.
John has been honoured to give the world the three great revelations that God is spirit, is light, is love. And this profound saying in some sense includes both the others, inasmuch as light, which to the popular mind is most widely apart from matter, may well stand for the emblem of spirit, and, since to radiate is its inseparable quality, does represent in symbol the delight in imparting Himself, which is the very heart of the declaration that God is love. If, then, we grasp these two thoughts of absolute purity and of self-impartation as the very nature and property of God, John tells us that we grasp the kernel of the Gospel.
And he thinks that men never will grasp them certainly unless a 'message' from God, a definite revelation in historical fact, certifies them. We may hope or doubt, or desire, but we cannot be sure that God is light unless he tells us so by unmistakable act. John knew what act that was -- the sending of His only-begotten Son. To the positive statement John, in his usual manner, appends an emphatic negative one: 'Darkness is not in him, no, not in any way.' He is light, all light, only light.
II. With characteristic moral earnestness, John passes at once to the practical effects which the message is meant to have. We are not told what God is simply that we may know, but that, knowing, we may do and be. If He is light, two things will follow in those who are in union with Him -- they will walk in light, and they will in His light see their own evil. John deals with these two consequences in verses 6-10 -- the former in verses 6 and 7; the latter in verses 8-10. The parallelism in the construction of these two sets of verses is striking:
VERSES 6, 7. VERSES 8, 9.
If we say If we say
that we have fellowship with that we have no sin Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth. we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
But if we walk in the light, If we confess our sins, as He is in the light,
we have fellowship one with He is faithful and righteous to another. forgive us our sins,
and the blood of Jesus His Son and to cleanse us from all cleanseth us from all sin. unrighteousness.
As to the former of these two paragraphs, the underlying thought is that fellowship with God necessarily involves moral likeness to Him. Worship is always aspiration after, and conformity to, the character of the god worshipped, and there can be no true communion with a God who is light unless the worshipper walks in light. In plain language, all high-flying pretensions to communion with God must verify themselves by practical righteousness. That cuts deep into an emotional religion, which has much to say about raptures and the like, but produces little purifying effect on the humble details of daily life.
There are always professing Christians who talk of their blessed experiences, and woefully fail in prosaic virtues. It is a pity that a man should hold his head so high that he does not look to keep his feet out of the mud. Such a profession is for the most part tainted with more or less conscious falsehood, and is always a proof that the truth -- the sum of God's revelation -- is not operative in the man; that he is not turning his belief into act, as all belief should be. On the other hand, the true relation resulting from the message is that we should walk in the light, as He is in it.
Verse 10 seems to be simply a reiteration of the preceding idea, with some intensifying, and that chiefly in the description of the true character of the denial of sin. To make God a liar is worse than to lie or to deceive ourselves; and all ignoring of sin does that, because not only has God declared its universality by the words of revelation, but all His dealings with men are based upon the fact that they are all sinners, and we fly in the face of all His words and works if we deny that which we ourselves are. Therefore the Apostle further varies his expression, and says 'His word' instead of 'the truth,' thus bringing into prominence the thought that 'the truth' is made accessible to us because God has spoken.
III. Chapter ii.1-6 is in structure analogous to the preceding section. As there, so here, the 'message' is summed up in one great fact, -- Christ's work as advocate for believers and as propitiation for the world. As there, so here, two practical consequences follow, which are drawn out on corresponding lines. Observe the repetition in verses 3 and 5 b, of 'hereby know we,' and in verses 4 and 6 of 'He that saith.'
Note, too, the reappearance of 'is a liar' and of 'the truth is not in him' in verse 4. The drift of the section may be briefly put as follows. John's heart melts as he thinks of the possibilities of holiness open to believers, and of the sad actualities of their imperfect lives, and he addresses them by the tender name, 'my little children.' The impelling and guiding motive of his letter is that they may not sin. Practical righteousness is the end of revelation, and its complete attainment should be the aim of every believer.
But the sad experience of 'saints' is that they are not yet wholly delivered from its power. Therefore 'the message' is not only 'God is light without blending of darkness,' but, 'we Christians have an Advocate with the Father.' Jesus is to-day carrying on His mighty work of prevalent intercession for all His servants, and that intercession secures forgiveness for their inconsistencies and lapses, because it rests upon Christ's finished work of 'propitiation,' which is for the whole world, even though it actually avails only for believers.
Such being the power of Christ's work in its twofold aspect of propitiation and of intercession, the same practical issues as in the preceding section were shown to flow from the revealed nature of God are here, in somewhat different form, linked with that work. First, keeping his commandments (which is equivalent to 'walking in the light') is the test to ourselves, as well as to others, of our really knowing Him with a knowledge which is not mere head work, but the acquaintance of sympathy and friendship, or, in the words of the previous paragraph, having fellowship with Him.
Clearly, the scope of this section requires that 'His commandments' should here mean Christ's, not the Father's. All professions of knowing Jesus which are not verified by obedience to Him are false. If we do keep His word -- not merely the individual 'commandments,' but the word as one great whole -- our love to God reaches its perfection, for it is no mere emotion of the heart, but the force which is to mould and actuate all our acts.
Verse 5 b should be separated from the preceding words, for it is really the beginning of the second issue from the work of Christ, and is parallel with 'hereby know we,' etc., in verse 3. Observe the progress in thought from the assurance that we know (ver.3) to the assurance that we are in Him. The Christian's relation to Jesus is not only that of acquaintance, however intimate, loving, and transforming, but that of actual dwelling in Him. That great truth shines on every page of the New Testament, and is not to be weakened down into metaphor or rhetoric. It is the very heart of the Christian life, and the test that we have attained to it, and that not merely as an occasional, but as a permanent, condition (note that 'are in Him' is strengthened to 'abideth in Him') is that our outward life, in its manifold activities, shall be conformed to the pattern of all holiness in the life of Jesus. To walk as He walked is to walk in the light. Profession is nothing, conduct is everything, and we shall only be clear of sin in the measure in which we have Him who is the light of men for the very life of our lives.