Formations 03.19.2017: Light and Dark

1 John 1:5–2:6

A painting of John writing by Frans Hals.

I have a friend who cites learning to use the conjunction and more than or as the high point of his education. Conjunctions reflect the way we make sense of information. They allow us to show cause, to distinguish, to divide, to connect. These often over-looked pieces of language reveal our willingness to accept mystery, but they reflect our ability to refuse it too.

John believes in both light and darkness. He affirms, “God is light and there is no darkness in him at all” (1:5). It appears his gnostic opponents might agree on this point. But they likely disagree when John writes “these things … so that you don’t sin” and insists that “if we claim, ‘we don’t have any sin,’ we deceive ourselves” (2:1; 1:8).

While John recognizes that both light and the dark are present, his gnostic opponents cannot make a similar claim. They insist that these realities remain totally separate. For them, things are good or they are evil. They are light or dark. This distinction between the perfected spiritual world and the sinful material one often led to denying some part of God’s incarnation. God could not experience the sinfulness of physical existence, the shame of death.

Where we might separate good from evil, sinfulness from righteousness, John calls us to remember that Christ challenged these distinctions through the incarnation (4:2).

If we divide the world between light and dark, too often we identify ourselves as the enlightened. When we connect sin with poverty, God choses to be more present with the poor. When we see sickness as a sign of sin, God chooses to eat with the sick. When we mark oppression as a justified result for inherited sin, God chooses to be oppressed.

John asks us to see the sin we carry when we deny the presence of light in the lives of others.

Insisting that life is either light or dark fails because it makes us see the world for something it isn’t. Sin is in the world and God is too. Instead of simplifying one’s existence as either good or evil, John demands that we stop “deceiving ourselves” (1:8). Instead he calls us to unity in “fellowship with each other” (v. 7). For it is in this way, John promises, that God’s light might shine more brightly.


• In what places, people, and actions do we deny God’s presence? In what ways can the mystery of God’s incarnation challenge you to see more fully?
• How does our language about God create division? How can our language about God seek deeper community?
• What sin do you elevate in other people that allows you to ignore sin in your own life?
• What more positive parts of your identity allow you to deny the image of God in others?
• How might recognizing both sin and righteousness lead us away from deception toward fellowship with one another?

Reference Shelf

Light and Dark

It is imperative to read 1:5–2:11 at once. It should be seen as a unified section governed by the imagery of light and darkness and by two distinctive sets of boasts. In the first group (1:6, 8, 10) the message of 1:5 calls the tune, and in the second group (2:4, 6, 9) the commandments, of no little prominence in the Epistle, govern the spiritual assessment. Love and hate (2:9-11), as in the other movements as well, disclose a test likely not considered by those who separate from the group. Acrimony, as well as christological controversy, either contributed to the schism or characterized the exiting group afterwards. So far as the epistolary writer is concerned, loving one another and believing in the incarnate Son define the real Johannine believer.

The opponents boast of a privileged fellowship with God, especially in 2:3-11, and a complete absence of personal sin, presumably discounting their own hostility. They were apparently oblivious to the place of interpersonal relationships in true and genuine religion. The opponents and anyone else are exposed for their claim to be without sin and criticized by their absence of love. These six claims are tested negatively and positively. Light and darkness go back to a Palestinian background, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the attitudes of the opposition suggest definite influence from Docetic and Gnostic mindsets, not just a slightly different interpretation of the Johannine tradition. The terminology of sin, knowing God, abiding, and being in the light were held in common but with different nuances.

Peter Rhea Jones, 1,2 & 3 John, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009), 31–32.

Confessing and Seeing Clearly

The progressives who claim sinless perfection for themselves here do not have their roots in the Jewish tradition about sinless patriarchs because it assumes sinlessness means ethical, law-abiding behavior, something they clearly do not assume. The Johannine progressives have more affinities with the Christian stream that joins claims to perfection with libertine behavior. The unanswered question, at this point, is whether the roots of their position are in an overrealized eschatology due to a misunderstanding of Jewish visions of the endtimes (cf. Jubilees 1:23; T. Benjamin 8:2-3: “He has no pollution in his heart because upon him is resting the spirit of God”; 1 QS 3:6-9: “He shall be cleansed from all his sins by the spirit of holiness uniting him to His truth and his iniquity shall be expiated by the spirit of uprightness and humility”), in a dualistic anthropology as in Gnosticism, or in both as reflected in 1 Corinthians (C. H. Talbert, Reading Corinthians [New York: Crossroad, 1987], 36, 38).

The positive contrast runs, “If we regularly confess [present tense] our sins [Prov 28:13], he is faithful and just [Deut 32:4; 1 Clement 27:1; 60:1], and will go on forgiving [present tense] our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). Regular confession yields regular forgiveness of guilt and cleansing from the stain of sin. Given the practices of the milieu, the prescribed confession is probably public (cf. Lev 5:5-6, confession of sin is public and in a Jewish liturgical context; Mk 1:5//Matt 3:6, confession is public and in connection with John’s baptism; Acts 19:18, Christian confession is public; James 5:16, confession by Christians is before the church; Didache 4:14 and 14:1, confession is public and within the context of the church’s worship). The point of the second pair is that to claim sinlessness is self-deception that deprives one of the benefits of forgiveness and cleansing following upon confession.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 21–22.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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