Light and darkness, love and hate
1 John 2:1-14
Part Three of our walk through 1 John.
2:1 My children, I am writing these things to you so you don’t sin; and if someone sins, we have an advocate to the Father, Jesus Christ the Just, 2 and he himself is the propitiatory sacrifice for our sins; not only for ours, but also for the whole world!
3 And we know that we have come to know him1 by this – if we keep his commands.
4 The person who says “I know him”, and isn’t keeping his commandments, is a liar, and the truth isn’t in this person. 5 Whoever obeys his2 message, truly the love of God has been brought to completion in this person. In this we know that we are in him. 6 The one who says that they remain in him ought – just as he3 walked, so also they themself should walk.
7 My dearest friends, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment, which you have had from the beginning: The old commandment is the message you have heard. 8 Again, I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. 9 The person who says that they are in the light, and hates their Christian brother or sister, is in the darkness up to this present moment. 10 The person who loves their Christian brother or sister, remains in the light, and there is nothing in them that causes stumbling. 11 But, the person who hates their Christian brother or sister, is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where they are going, because the darkness blinded their eyes.
12 Little children – I write to you that your sins have been forgiven because of his name.
13 Fathers – I write to you that you have known him who is from the beginning.
Youth – I write to you that you have conquered the Evil one.
14 Children – I wrote to you that you have known the Father.
Fathers – I wrote to you that you have known him who is from the beginning.
Youth – I wrote to you that you are strong and the Logos of God remains in you and has conquered the Evil one.
The top and the tail (2:1-2, 12-14)
I think the first two verses of this chapter really round off the previous section. John’s primary purpose, his goal, isn’t at all to tie us up in fits of hypocritical guilt. It’s to help us recognise our sin and recognise the remedy. It’s Jesus! He is the just one, the righteous one, and he is the sacrifice for our sins. We have nothing to fear, but we must come to him.
The tail here is a little confusing - why these addressees, why these particular things? But all of them are affirmations of what is the case - they have known God, they have been forgiven, they have conquered, and all this because Jesus remains in them and has conquered the Evil One. After the main course below, these words resound with affirmation of their faith and its firm and sure foundation.
The main course
How do you know that you’ve come to know Jesus? How do you know that you’ve believed? What counts as evidence or a mark of genuine faith? John has an answer that ought to unsettle us. John says that you know that you know God if you keep/observe/do his commandments.
But wait, your good Protestant conscience says, doesn’t this violate Justification by Faith? Just hold on to your heresy bells for a moment, keep them in their padded case, and follow the logic of the text.
Just as in chapter one we have a series of if/then statements that contrast truth and hypocrisy, here we have a series of “a person who does X” statements that also compare and contrast. And the key element for John is love and hate.
I think it’s worth unpacking this section by focusing firstly on vv7-8. What’s the new commandment? Well, it’s actually not new, it’s quite old. The language of ‘new commandment’ should definitely trigger an association. That’s John 13:34, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The context of that statement is the foot-washing, which is itself pointing forward to the cross.
Love is the heart of the gospel, and the heart of Jesus’ teaching in John’s gospel. And, I dare say, it’s the key to understanding everything here. Like everything Johannine, it circles back and interweaves, and we need to see the connections.
The shape of love originates in God. God is Love (1 Jn 4.8) and God first loved us (1 Jn 4.9), and he shows and enacts that love by the sending of his Son (1 Jn 4.10, Jn 3.16). That love’s shape is cruciform, as Christ lays down his life for us (1 Jn 3.16, Jn 10.15; 15:13). Jesus’ love for us then elicits and calls us to love him, and yet the shape of that love is always obedience. To love Jesus is to obey his commands (Jn 14:15 “If you love me, keep my commands”; 14.21, 23; 15.10). Yet his primary command is to love one another as he has loved us (Jn 15:12, 17). And so our love for another is the result of God’s love for us expressed in Christ’s love for us, and is the outworking of our obedience to Jesus. Which is why John is about to insist for the next four chapters that you cannot claim to love God or to obey God, if you don’t love your brothers and sisters. That claim is a lie.
Let me address three things that arise. Firstly, what is love? I think I would offer a short-hand definition that it is the disposition of the will, orientation of the heart, and actions of the hands towards the real and ultimate good of the other.4 Secondly, forgiveness is a species of love; it’s what love looks like when there is harm. Which is why love is at the heart of the Johannine gospel not just forgiveness. Thirdly, John’s focus is on the loving community created by Jesus’ love, but we ought not read John in isolation from the rest of the canon, which simultaneously expands the limits of love by (a) calling for love of enemies, (b) redefining the category of ‘neighbour’. There is a primacy of love for fellow believers, but not a limit of love to only believers.
In this section of chapter two, bound up in the language of light and darkness, the test of whether someone has passed from darkness to light, of whether they are remaining in Jesus, of whether they have come to know God and trust in Jesus is simply this – are they obeying Jesus’ commandment and loving their fellow believers? If so, their confession is genuine. If not, then it undermines their claim to know God. What should we do? The answer lies in what the apostle has already written – we ought to admit our sins, knowing we have a just and faithful advocate who is already the propitiation for our sins, and we should seek his forgiveness through confession, and his transformation through the Spirit.
I told you earlier to hold on to the question of justification by faith, and here let me return to it. I think the New Testament is abundantly clear that it is repentance and faith (two sides of the same coin) in Jesus that saves, that begins the Christian life, that this is an entirely unmerited gift of grace. At the same time, every New Testament author believes that a person who has come to faith, has come to know God, will be transformed by this. Grace saves, and (then) grace transforms. By their fruit you will know them. Which means moral transformation in the life of the believer is an evidence of saving faith. And wherever that evidence is lacking, we have to ask ourselves why. John knows no world where someone can receive the love of God, and not love their brother and sister.
We should also talk about what John means by ‘hate’. But I am saving that for another post.