Verse 5: God is Light
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in him.
John’s first epistle is all about “life”: “the word of Life” (v.1), “the life” (v.2), and “the eternal life” (v.2).
Therefore, John begins by describing the character and nature of God, from whom and in whom all life exists:
John 1:4 (CSB) — 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
John 8:12 (CSB) — 12 Jesus spoke to them again: “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.”
The human soul comes alive when it is illuminated by the light of God.
God is light, and Jesus Christ is the light of God that descended from heaven, took on flesh, and made God known to the world.
Symbol: The Light
John introduces us to one of the key paradigms of his first epistle: the contrast between “the light” and “darkness”.
The symbol of light represents the union of “truth” (1:6, 8; 2:4, 8, 20, 21; 3:18-19; 4:6; 5:6) and “righteousness” (cf. 1:7, 9; 2:1, 29; 3:7, 10, 12) that compose the true and eternal life that John is writing about (1:1, 2; 5:16).
The symbol of darkness represents the union of “deception” (1:6; 2:21, 27; 4:6; 5;19) and “sin” (1:6, 8, 10; 3:4-9) that compose the spiritual death that we suffer as fallen mortals (1:6; 2:8-9, 11).
God is the light of life from whom all living creatures draw their breath.
This is why in John’s prologue (v. 1-4), he uses focused repetition to emphasize life and then moves directly into God’s nature as the condition of our restored fellowship with the Father through Jesus Christ.
Key Point: Condition of Restored Fellowship
John introduces God’s holy nature in order to define the qualifications necessary for restored fellowship with him; those who wish to know God and participate in the joy of Christian fellowship with the Father and his Son must do so according to God’s nature.
Knowing God in the light is the true essence of eternal life (John 17:3).
John 1:4-5, 9-10, 14, 18 (CSB) 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it… 9 The true light that gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was created through him, and yet the world did not recognize him… 14 The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… 18 No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.
When humanity rebelled against God and went our own way into the darkness, we separated ourselves from God and our souls were filled with darkness, through which death entered the world. In Jesus, God came to seek and save the lost by restoring the light to our souls!
Verse 6: The Lie
6 If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” and yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth.
This verse is the first set of three antithetical statements (v.6; v.8; v.10) that explain verse five’s claim that “God is light”.
Plainly stated, the idea that anyone can experience the joyful unity of life and fellowship with God while still walking in darkness is a lie that runs contrary to the fundamental nature of God.
The phrase “not practicing the truth” explains the condition of darkness that veils their life to the blessed fellowship of Christ because Christ is the truth and God has caused the light of Christ to shine in our hearts:
2nd Corinthians 4:3-6 (CSB) But if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case, the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake. 6 For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
It is their satanic unbelief in the gospel that arrests the saving power of the resurrection in their lives; they are blind to the knowledge of God’s glory in Christ Jesus because of the hardness of their heart:
Ephesians 4:18-19 (CSB) They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. 19 They became callous and gave themselves over to promiscuity for the practice of every kind of impurity with a desire for more and more.
One of the key indicators that someone does not comprehend the light of God is the foolish notion that you can walk in the darkness and still have fellowship with God.
The gospel’s incredible promise to restore our fellowship with God necessitates that those who call on Jesus for salvation cease to walk in the darkness and begin walking in the light through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Key Application: Ignorance
This is the terrible reality that haunts this verse: those who walk in darkness do not usually know that they are walking in darkness! As it is written, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25) and darkness became their light, even as Jesus warned, “So if the light within you is darkness, how deep is that darkness!” (Mt. 6:23)
However, this verse does not immediately assume this level of self-deception from the start. Rather, this kind of self-deception haunts this verse from the distant echoes of 1st John 1:8. Not everyone who claims to have fellowship with God while walking in darkness has exchanged the truth of God for a lie and made the darkness their light; not everyone like this is self deceived about their sin. But many are. Many cannot see their sin and are internally convinced that they are walking in the light, although the Word of Life does not dwell in them and they have no true fellowship with the Holy One.
Walking in Darkness
John will continue to develop what it means to walk in the darkness throughout the course of his epistle, especially in chapters 2 and 3, but it is necessary for us to ask what it means to walk in the darkness so that we can begin to feel the impact of what John is talking about here.
“Not practicing the truth”: the first layer of meaning comes in John’s conclusion about claiming fellowship with God while walking in darkness. At its most basic level, “walking in darkness” means walking contrary to the truth.
Walking contrary to the truth certainly includes things like living your life based on lies:
But walking contrary to the truth also includes denying the claims that truth makes on us:
Suppressing the truth
Hiding from the truth
“Waling in hate”: however, John will continue to develop what it means to walk in the darkness throughout this epistle, and one of the central meanings that “walking in the darkness” takes on is the meaning of “walking in hate”.
1st John 2:9-11 (CSB) The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother or sister is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother or sister remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
John is unfolding another point from his prologue that is vital to catch: he wrote, “what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”. Anyone who claims to have fellowship with God and yet walks in the darkness of separation from his brothers and sisters in Christ does not walk in the light of truth.
This is why we made the claim in our Christian love in the fellowship and unity of our faith.
Verse 7: The Blood of Jesus
7 If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
This verse develops the idea of “life” and “fellowship” by completing John’s paradigm of “light and darkness”: the one who walks in Christ’s light has fellowship with his body and is made clean by his blood.
Waling in the Light
We must ask what it means to walk in the light.
“Walking in the truth”: Walking in the light means walking in agreement with the truth (2nd John 1:4). This living according to the truth is what Scripture means when it refers to “the washing of the water of the word” (Ephesians 5:26).
“Walking in love”: Central to the meaning of “walking in the light” is the idea of “walking in love towards one another”.
1st John 2:10-11 (CSB) The one who loves his brother or sister remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
Darkness equates to hate induced disunity and sin.
Light equates to love induced fellowship and righteousness.
Simply stated, if we walk in love-induced fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. We will progressively grow in sanctification as we display the love of Christ in his body by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
This is Jesus’ command:
John 13:34-35 (CSB) I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 15:9-12 (CSB) As the Father has loved me, I have also loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you.
Just as John’s aim in writing is so that our joy may be complete (1:4), so also Jesus gave this command so that our joy may be complete; lovelessness within the body is why so many Christians do not experience joy in Christ! You cannot love Christ – whom you do not see – if you do not love his blood-bought body that you do see.
Selfless, sacrificial, and familial love within the body is the greatest expression of Christian discipleship in the Church.
The maturity and health of every church body should be measured by the degree of joy they have in their fellowship with God and with one another. The unity of the Spirit that they experience with one another demonstrates the unity in spirit that they share with the Father!
Here is John’s argument:
1st John 1:3-4 (CSB) what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Walking according to God’s truth with love for one another is the key to experiencing true spiritual joy in fellowship with God our Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
Verse 8: The Inward Deception
8 If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
This verse unfolds the second antithetical statement that runs contrary to verse five; the claim to “have no sin” is in direct and unequivocal opposition to the claim that “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all”. In view of God’s nature it is impossible for fallen mortals to claim to be without sin. To make this claim requires deceiving ourselves about both our own nature and the divine nature of God’s love.
“ἐὰν εἴπωμεν ὅτι ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ ἔχομεν”: “We have no sin” specifically indicates the state or condition of sin, not simply the act of committing sin.
Unfortunately, a little grammar is necessary to dispel the inevitable objections that this verse refers to past sin:
The verb “ἔχομεν” (to have) is present, active, indicative, first person, plural. This means that the action this verb describes (“ἁμαρτίαν” – i.e. “sin”) is presently true and not a statement about past action; it is an active condition and not something that has ceased; indicative means that this action is provable; it is personally true of each person; and in this case, it refers to a condition or state of being and not to a singular act (the reason this verb is “plural” is because the noun it refers to is a non-count noun, which indicates a condition or state of being rather than specific occurrences).
The point is not saying that denying individual cases of sin is self-deception, but that denying your condition as sinner is provable self-deception.
John uses this grammatical construction 10x in his first epistle, and they illustrate the point:
1st John 1:3 (CSB) so that you may also have fellowship with us
1st John 1:6 (CSB) If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” and yet we walk in darkness…
1st John 1:7 (CSB) If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another
1st John 2:28 (CSB) remain in him so that when he appears we may have confidence
1st John 3:3 (CSB) everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself
1st John 3:15 (CSB) you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
1st John 3:21 (CSB) if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence before God
1st John 4:16 (CSB) And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us
1st John 4:17 (CSB) love is made complete with us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment
1st John 5:12-13 (CSB) The one who has the Son has life. The one who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
The construction “to have” + “abstract noun” is unique to John in the New Testament, and he uses it to describe human conditions of “fellowship”, “sin”, “confidence”, “eternal life”, “knowledge”, and “having the Son of God”. If John is not describe our state as sinners here, then elsewhere he is not describing our state of being in fellowship with God, of having confidence towards him, of having eternal life, of knowing God’s love, and of having the Son of God abiding in us either. We do terrible violence to the hope and joy of the gospel just to escape the truth that we are accountable to God as sinners and utterly and wholly dependent on his loving grace to stand before God in the Day of Judgment.
Another point that must be clarified is John’s target audience: there is no indication that John has changed target audience since the prologue:
1st John 1:3 (CSB) so that you may also have fellowship with us
His audience stays consistent throughout the epistle:
1st John 2:1 (CSB) My little children, I am writing you these things
1st John 2:12-13 (CSB) I am writing to you, little children… I am writing to you, fathers… I am writing to you, young men…
1st John 2:18 (CSB) Children, it is the last hour.
1st John 2:20 (CSB) But you have an anointing from the Holy One
“We are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us”: the final and most poignant point John makes here is that this claim is made and believed by those who are deceiving themselves and who do not have the truth in them. What a spectacularly terrifying condemnation!
Verse 9: Justification and Sanctification
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
This verse unfolds a positive reinforcement of verse five’s “God is Light” statement by emphasizing the point that there is no shadow of unforgiveness in God because he is light; the amazing light of his love shines unapologetically in his willingness to forgive and sanctify those who acknowledge and confess their sins.
“If we confess our sins” is talking about confessing one’s guilt as the result of deep inward personal conviction:
Luke 18:10-14 (CSB) 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth, of everything I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me,, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This kind of confession does not come from rote religious duty, but the deep, personal, piercing conviction of the Holy Spirit that comes from the word of God. To be pierced with sorrow by God’s double-edged sword produces godly sorrow and confession in the confidence that the God who dwells in unapproachable light will forgive.
“God is faithful and righteous to forgive” because he is pleased to reconcile us in Christ:
Romans 5:6-10 (CSB) For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. 8 But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 How much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by his blood, will we be saved through him from wrath. 10 For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
It is this marvelous love that has been shown to us by Christ that transforms us into the same image of love that Christ was. By following Christ in this love, we learn to forgive others as he has forgiven us.
Verse 10: Devoid of the Word
10 If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
This verse unfolds the final antithetical statement that opposes the phrase “God is light”; if we have never sinned, God’s actions towards us are not love. If we have not sinned, there is no light in God when he forgives our sins and punishes the sins of the unrepentant.
God mercifully forgives the broken hearted:
Romans 2:4 (CSB) Or do you despise the riches of his kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
Psalm 51:17 (CSB) The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. You will not despise a broken and humbled heart, God.
God punishes unrepentant sinners:
Romans 2:5 (CSB) Because of your hardened and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed.
“We have not sinned” makes both God’s mercy and justice a lie because God cannot mercifully forgive those who have never sinned, and he cannot be just if he punishes the sinless.
This phrase actively denies both dimensions of human sin.
Romans 5:12, 18-19 (CSB) Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin… 18 So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone. 19 For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
This dimension of human sin refers to our unholy natures that were defiled when the separation of the human race from God occurred because of Adam’s sin. Death reigns over humanity because we are fundamentally separated from God by our defiled natures.
Ephesians 2:1-2 (CSB) And you were dead in your trespasses and sins 2 in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient.
This dimension of human sin refers to our spiritual deadness that is the result of our conscious rebellion against God. Whereas our physical deadness came from our defiled natures that we inherited from our human parents, our spiritual deadness comes from our active and conscious transgression of God’s character.
This denial rejects both our sin-nature and our spiritual deadness.
“And his word is not in us” renders the terrifying indictment that the word of life does not indwell those whose hearts are still hard to the severity of their sin. “The word” is not a reference to intellectual retention of Scripture – John is not simply saying these people have never heard the word – but refers to the life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit living in us:
John 6:63 (CSB) The Spirit is the one who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.
The person who says “I have not sinned” can only make this claim because they do not have the light of life dwelling in them. They can only make this claim because they are still hiding in darkness and have not come into the light; only in the darkness can we deny both our unholy natures and our personal guilt.
Theological Reflections on 1st John 1:5-10
As the apostle John unfolds the good news about the eternal life and fellowship that we have in God, he begins with the nature of God himself: “God is light”. God himself is the light of all life (John 1:4) and all his deeds consist of goodness, righteousness, and truth (Ephesians 5:9); his light drives darkness out of the lives of all who follow him (John 8:12). God sheds the brightness of life into all creation. The life that he gives is wholly good, righteous, and true. His light delivers those who follow him from the grasp of darkness.
The very essence of God’s nature is opposed by three fundamental deceptions:
1. When we claim to have his life while living in and practicing darkness.
2. When we deny the existence of sin in us.
3. When we deny the dimensions of sin in us.
These are the lies of darkness that oppose and confront the true nature of God himself. Their outworkings assault the holiness, love, mercy, and justice of God’s very nature while artificially exalting the depraved and unholy fallen nature of humanity to the place of divine dignity.
The very essence of God’s nature is manifest in us by two fundamental truths:
1. When we walk in the light of his fellowship by the justification of his blood.
2. When we confess our sins by the light of his sanctifying grace.
John’s first apostolic epistle unfolds itself from the glorious nature of God with clear affirmations of truth and concise denunciations of deception. The one who reclined with the Lord exalts him as the light of life and magnifies the justification of his blood and the sanctification of his grace as the means of true Christian fellowship.