Have you noticed over the last year or two how much NASTIER the world seems to have become?
The way people have become more verbally volatile, pouring out hostility and hatred?
Now this may be a feature of people’s frustrations at the COVID lockdown, or the pressure the pandemic has put on the economy, or the way newspapers have become much more vitriolic in the way they express themselves, or the increasingly polarised policies and statements that we find littering politics and public life.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that the immediacy of human communications through social media or email … where you type something expressing hasty frustration quickly and hit the button … and then it’s too late, has played a very significant part in fanning the flames of all of this.
And there’s no doubt in my own mind that the fear of death lurking beneath the surface in many people has come up for air and is both breathing in the oxygen of fear and blowing out the flames of animosity from tongues that have been kindled in the recent stresses and strains that our society has known.
Bottom line: the people of our land have not processed their stresses but passed them on and the world around us has got a lot nastier.
There’s just one more twist in the tail of this and it is very much on the point with what John is saying to those house churches spread around the rural areas surrounding Ephesus in our passage in 1 John 2:7-11 today.
The divisions of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-faith society they were living in there (and I’m suggesting that we are living in HERE) have permeated the church.
Not just the divisions, the divisiveness.
What we are now living here as they were there is the polluting effect of sin in society.
The Biblical understanding of sin from the Old Testament sacrificial system onwards sees evil as having at least two clear effects.
There is a DIRECT effect of our evil … as in the sort of situation where a person steals from another person they create an injustice for their victim.
But there’s another INDIRECT effect, because they haven’t just ruined the relationship by their action, they have also ruined the ENVIRONMENT of the relationship … creating a lack of trust, emotional damage, relational vandalism.
So Old Testament people needed to address not just the direct injustice they’ve done but the damage to the overall societal environment that they’ve caused as well … which was done through the symbolic provisions of the Old Testament sacrificial system.
In the Bible, the relational vandalism is described as polluting or defiling the land and making it ‘unclean’.
Tolerated sin makes and leaves the land polluted, defiled and ‘unclean’.
So, in the Temple the priest would ritually wash away this uncleanness on the whole people and land by sprinkling the sin offering’s blood in various places around the Temple.
The sprinkling of the blood is a visual representation of how God is cleansing away these indirect consequences of sin, purging away the evil in their community.
In our current cultural situation, people do deny the reality of the direct consequences of their sin because they don’t like the implications of having to turn from cherished sin to follow Christ.
But there is somehow still a dislike of and revulsion from the relational vandalism, the toxicity of the environment where sin is not renounced and atoned for.
People are generally more willing to confront the indirect consequences of sin than the direct ones.
I’m suggesting, then, that it is the indirect consequences of cherished sin that we see appearing in the culture’s vandalisation of human relationships.
It’s polluted our culture not to be dealing directly with sin, because neither the direct nor the indirect effects of sin are covered.
And I’m also suggesting that people genuinely don’t want to be living with the social media, print media and a cultural mess of hatred and evil which has come to defile our land …
Sin’s direct reality has not been getting dealt with.
It’s been getting denied and re-named out of sight in so many inventive and different ways amongst us.
‘Purification’, as the Old `testament described it, is what’s needed.
You can discover more about all of this in the short Bible Project video on Sacrifice and Atonement HERE
And so, John writes:
“Dear 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 word that you have already heard.
On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
9 The one who says he is in the light but still hates his fellow Christian is still in the darkness.
10 The one who loves his fellow Christian resides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him.
11 But the one who hates his fellow Christian is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
1 John 2:7-11
So in the first section of our passage (in vv. 7-8) John is writing about the point his readers have arrived at in the history of salvation …
1) The drawing together of the Old and the New, vv. 7-8
“Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard.
8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”
What’s going on?
a) The Old
I am not writing you a new command but an old one,
which you have had since the beginning.
This old command is the message you have heard.”
What John does here is starting to explain the continuity and discontinuity between Christian moral life and the previous, Old Testament-based situation.
John is doing this delicately and lovingly, because we all find change difficult to adapt to, and we all find living consistently in the light of changed ideas to be even more difficult to take on board.
So, for example, it is a lot easier (humanly speaking) to persuade someone from legalism to grace intellectually than it is to see their affections, response and instinctual responses moved across from legal ones to ones moulded and motivated by God’s grace to us in Christ.
So John writes, gently and lovingly:
Now, historically ἀγαπητός has been translated: beloved, esteemed, dear, favourite, person worthy of love.
Language changes and ‘beloved’ has become a confusing translation to choose now in our language, but ‘my great friends’ or ‘dear friends’ is now a better way to go.
And that’s right and proper, isn’t it?
Shouldn’t Christians who are adopted into the family of God by our Heavenly Father and therefore now brothers and sisters both aspire to be and be growing into being ‘dear friends’?!
It is not always so, and it has especially not been so as Christians have interacted online through the pandemic as differences have come rapidly to the fore about all manner of non-Kingdom of God issues have been questioned with Gospel and Biblical reasons being adduced at one another fairly freely and in public (social media) full view.
Or so it has appeared.
And in a situation where Christians around Ephesus are taking positions and falling out in this way, John takes them to this apparently niche area in Christian theology of the contrast between the old knowledge and the new.
So, in 1 John 2:3-6 John addressed how love for God was to be expressed and then in 2:7-11 John shows how love for ones’ brethren is to be expressed … in these verses we’re now looking at.
John reminds his readers that what John has just written about - the person who knows God must keep God’s commands and the person who ‘abides’ in God must live as Jesus did - is not a new idea but an old one.
This was essential even in the Old Covenant … John refers to these old commandments as the ‘message’ you heard in time past … ὁ λόγος ὃν ἠκούσατε … which looks like a reference to the ‘Ten Words’, or as we say in English ‘The Ten Commandments’ of Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 10:4.
There is a common Christian misunderstanding here that we ought to just touch on in that we can tend to think of the Law of Love as a purely New Testament idea, but the heart of the Old Covenant lay in love for God and love for others …
Deuteronomy 6:5 says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
Leviticus 19:18 says “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”
When challenged as to what the greatest commandment in the Law was, the Lord Jesus turned to these two pillars of the Old Covenant requirements … to love God with your entire heart and soul and to love your neighbour as yourself.
Now, recognising the centrality of the love command in the Old Testament (as well as in Jesus’ teaching) helps us understand what it means that John’s readers had this command ‘from the beginning’ …
Now, of course, there was the love command in the Old `testament, but it had developed quite a bit by the time the New Covenant came about.
So I’m reckoning that this ‘from the beginning’ is mainly about their first awareness of the Gospel at the beginning of their Christian life.
John’s point seems to be that the command they have had from the beginning goes back to Jesus … but then further back in a less well-worked form to the covenant God had with early Israel
To that extent, John wasn’t writing a TOTALLY new commandment to his readers.
And yet whilst this is all true, I’m not sure it exhausts the point John is making in this exact location, though.
It’s quite different in the Old Testament because in the OT the ten commandments have a setting in the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai; they were the stipulations that Israel had to observe if the nation were to be God’s chosen people.
You see, in John 13:34-35 Jesus says this:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
The idea that love is a commandment is interesting, of course, because we tend to see it as what happens when you give a lady a box of choclates … obviously it’s the brand the TV ads are telling us that makes all the difference!
Well, there was the love command in the Old Testament, but let’s look at what happened with the New …
b) The New
“Yet I am writing you a new command …”
In speaking of love as the new commandment for those whom Jesus had chosen as his own (John 13:1; 15:16) and as a mark by which they could be distinguished from others (13:35), John shows that he is thinking of this scene in covenant terminology.
But notice that the disciples are to love one another “Just as I have loved you” (13:34).
Now, the love Jesus has for his followers cannot be duplicated by them in one sense because it effects their salvation, since he lays down his life for them.
His example of love is an act of love that gives life to people, and that is not for us.
But in another sense, the Lord’s followers can follow his example (remember John 13:1 speaks of the Lord having loved His disciples now at the final stages in His life loving them ‘to the end’?
Also relevant to this are 1 John 3:16; 4:16 and the interpretation of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13:15 has the Lord saying: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
So it is in this way Jesus’ disciples are to love one another: They are to follow his example of sacrificial service to one another, and that is going to mean serving one another all the way up to death if necessary.
On the one hand John highlights to these Christian believers the continuity of what he is saying with what they’ve already had revealed to them through the Old Testament and through the ministry of Jesus.
But on the other hand, he is showing that the circumstances in which that command must be applied (the hostility that has broken out amongst the believers around Ephesus with false brethren being very uncharitable from within the congregations) are new circumstances.
So as Karen Jobes puts it: “John’s apostolic teaching is nothing new and novel, but is the culmination of, and consistent with, what God has been saying all along.”
c) The Authority for the New
This new command is authentic and built on a quirky-sounding basis of authority …
(v. 8) “I am writing you a new command;
its truth is seen in him and in you,
because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”
So, the authority for this new command (which he still hasn’t told us yet) is in the life of the Lord Jesus and the new life of the readers which they have received in Him
And it is evidenced in that the life of Jesus and the new life in Christ of these believers in the Ephesus area shows that the darkness is passing, and the true light is already shining.
Now, we do sometime hear people talking about God ‘doing a new thing’.
That sounds great and we all want God to break out in power that is as yet unknown to us and therefore new to us.
But all too often there is no basis in God’s Word and in God’s previous promises and dealings with His people for what they are talking about.
And what we’re being told about as a new thing looks pretty much like a different thing.
I have no problem with God doing a new thing … bring it on!
But I think we do need to have a problem if we’re being asked to be enthusiastic when He’s claimed to be behind the doing of a different thing.
John has been at pains to show this is God doing a new but not different thing.
We need to move on …
What IS this new but not different thing, John, that you are telling us?
2) The New – the era of the Light Warriors,
The last verse just dealt with the evidence in the life and ministry of Christ and the new life in Christ these believers had received for accepting the authority of this new command John is about to give.
But the tangential truth to that is this huge point about both those things (Christ’s life and work and the salvation of these folks around Ephesus) is they evidence that the light has already come (rather than merely being something promised and hoped for in the eschatological future) v. 8 “because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”
It shone in Christ, is now shining in the believer and the importance of both those things is that the cosmic darkness that has shrouded and blinded humanity to God and to all that is good is ON THE RETREAT as they live their new life consistently in Christ …
But ARE these guys the light bearers and the darkness banishers?
Are the folks you are looking on as part of the same band of brothers and sisters?
Because believe it or not, there are fakes out there … and they can be more obvious to people outside than inside the visible church.
a) Fake Light Warriors, v. 9
Look here at v. 9:
“Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.
Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.
But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness.
They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.”
Oh - wow!
We didn’t see THAT one coming!
There was all this binary ‘either light or dark’ stuff.
That was simple, clear-cut and manageable.
Them versus us with us winning.
But it just got complicated.
And it got complicated because there are fake light warriors i amongst the real ones.
You CAN spot it … at least, there are tell-tale signs of the phenomenon, but you’ve got to stay sharp.
b) True Light Warriors, v. 10
“Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.”
The bottom line is that ‘to remain in the light’ means to remain in God because He is light.
Two particular sorts of statements (predicative nominative statements) are made about God in 1 John.
God is Light comes in 1 John 1:5, then
God is Love comes along in 1 John 4:8
What John does … watch this, it is very godly magic is this …
John brings the ethical and moral … the discipleship … impacts of those two theological statements to bear on the everyday lives of his readers here.
Quite simply, to remain in the light demands that a person loves their brother or sister in Christ.
(Think pandemic, the press, our politics and … the stuff that happens on your laptop).
The second part of this verse (after the first bit about loving your brother or sister as a professing Christian shows you are actually walking in the light) goes on to say “… and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.”
This is a really important thing to take note of.
And a stumbling block
In him (in whom? In the individual who walk in the Light, i.e. with God in Love like Jesus …)
There is none of.
John is saying that Christ’s sort of love shown towards one another in the visible church puts no ‘rock of offence that causes them to trip up and stumble’ in another person’s path.
There is a whole world of back-sliding pain here in this period of the Pandemic, as warm, loving light warrior type Christian people haven’t been able to meet and express the love of Christ to one another as the hunger for fellowship between light warriors has waned … the warmth has gone, and love has waned.
But secondly the LACK of love, disappointment in the lack of love has grown and more people have faced living with a declining awareness of the Light overcoming the darkness for them and of the reality of the perception that the discipleship there is real because as the Lord Jesus Himself taught His first disciples:
““A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
You can have as many clever Christian apologetics lectures and evangelism courses and whatever in your church as you like.
But if you don’t have this New Covenant love for one another as professing disciples of Christ the light is not going to be winning out and the darkness is not going to be pushed back as souls are saved because (in spite of every available clever argument) it is by your love that all men will see and grasp what a genuine discipleship to Christ looks like.
The hard reality of sleep-walkers amongst groups of apparent believers is the hard reality that John is trying to get these early Christians to lay hold of … early Christians who lived, remember, in times of harsh comments, and times with clear parallels to ours.
So, John puts it on the line …
c) Sleep-walkers, v. 11
“But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.”
1 John 2:11
Let’s boil this down.
“Hate for others is moral darkness that is inconsistent with a God Who is light”, says Karen Jobes at this point.
John has already highlighted that hating a brother or sister constitutes walking in darkness, and thinking otherwise doesn’t change that fact (see v. 9).
John has also said that it is love for a fellow believer which demonstrates that one is remaining in the light (tat’s v. 10)
And if God is Light (1:5) and God is Love (4:8, 16) then walking in the light cannot be separated from love for one another.
The person who does not replicate Christ’s love for fellow believers is a person who is walking around in the darkness making noises like they can see where they are going but they can’t.
And the behaviour of those sleep-walkers … claiming to be able to see (sometimes able to see what we CAN’T see) is causing people to stumble and fall spiritually because it is the opposite of what models Christ’s magnetic love in this world.
Darkness is not neutral … just another point of view.
On the contrary, it causes moral and spiritual blindness and takes people away from the Lord Who is Light.
It is NOT OK.
And darkness is the evidence and reality of the absence of God in a person’s life.
And a lack of love … let alone hostility to a brother … is what evidences it.
What’s more, from the Old Testament picture of sacrifice and atonement we know about the reality not just of sin but of the relational vandalism it causes.
So, in a society where sin is tolerated as ‘another point of view’ (it certainly is another point of view) and therefore LEFT ALONE (that is, unchallenged by exposure to the light) then you do get the sort of relational vandalism that we have begun to see sprouting across the pages of our newspapers, the digital news media and across our online social media sites too.
And what DO we see?
We see those who shine light being silenced, ostracised, mocked … of course if we seek to shine light in a way that is not (as it were) ‘lit up’ with ad by the God Who is both LOVE and Light, then to some extent we might deserve what we get.
I think that really needs to be said.
However, what I have sought to do today is to account Biblically for the rising tide of verbal and relational vandalism … the hate … that we have witnessed throughout our recent political and pandemic era, and also alongside that to deal with the tendency to want to point a very bright light at brethren when 1 John says Light and Love are the character of God that we must reflect, because HE is the One that His genuine people follow and they will therefore model light and love in their human interactions (particularly with their brethren) in a proactive and fellowship-building way.
In fact, our passage today is saying, THAT is the hall-mark of genuine Biblical faith.