WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER ONE (Lesson LXXI) 03/15/21

Alfred E. Plummer (1841-1926) sees a different way to translate what John says here: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”  I would change one word in line with the Greek and Thayer’s Lexicon by saying, “we declare Him to be a liar,” because it is impossible to make God anything other than what He already is. Plummer goes on to say that this is not the same as “that we have no sin” in verse eight, and, therefore, we have not repeated what John said earlier but expanded and strengthened what precedes. “Have no sin” refers to a sinless state; “have not sinned” denotes the actual commission of particular acts of lawbreaking: the one is the inward principle, the other is its outward result. But the whole context shows that neither expression refers to sins committed before baptism: no Christian will continue to deny these since they are forgiven and washed away. Moreover, John does not write to the recently converted but to those who have grown lukewarm and indifferent. Both expressions refer to sin after baptism, which is a result of past action; we are in the condition of not having to sin.[1]

Alonzo R. Cocke (1858-1901) makes the point that God’s Word represents us as being sinners, seeks to awaken a consciousness of sin, and at infinite cost, sends Jesus to save His people from their sins. Hence, any denial of this doctrine gives the lie to God and reveals that His word cannot be the spring of our inner life; the Anointed One is not in us. Our failure is a fact. We sin, and its roots are still deep in our being, but for all that, the apostle calls us, “My little children.” How sweet it sounds after the confession of sin. God does not cease to love us even when we grieve his heart. John persists in calling believers by this tender term, “little children.” God is our Father, and  we are infants, strong men, or tottering gray-haired saints, we are still, despite our sins, His “little children.” In this phrase, God’s heartthrobs for us.[2]

D. Edmond Hiebert (1928-1995) now takes up the denial of practicing sin.  He says the claim that if we say we haven’t sinned, it is a blatant rejection of any sinful acts in one’s conduct. In contrast to denying a sinful nature in verse eight, this is a disowning of sinfulness in deeds. If John was setting forth the false teachers’ claim as professed Christians, then their claim can be understood to mean “since conversion.” Hiebert notes that John Coleman Bennett (1902-1995)[3] insists that “this interpretation is required by verse eight and the general context.” But the statement is not so limited.

Hiebert points out that this verb in the perfect tense refers to the past. And by being said in the negative sense, it includes the past up to the last minute. It claims that one is now in the state of never having sinned. It is, therefore, a denial that one has ever sinned. Such an individual might acknowledge the reality of sinful human conduct but claim that they never committed such evil deeds.[4]

Current Bible scholar Douglas Sean O’Donnell focuses on the phrase “God is light” and concludes that this is the real message of verses five through ten. If we are to walk in the light, as God called us to do, our first step is to recognize the darkness within. In a proper assessment of self and sin, we can never say, “we have no sin,” nor can we claim “we have not sinned.” Instead, we confess, “we have sinned” and “we still sin.” It should lead to a life of consistent contrite confessions whereby the Father’s forgiveness and our fellowship with God and others, through the blood of the Anointed One, is renewed. It should also lead to a life that reflects the light of God – a theme that we will see mentioned again in this epistle.[5]

Messianic Bible scholar David Stern gives us a lesson from the Jewish perspective on how we must acknowledge and respond to charges of sin in our lives. As John uses the term “sin,” it is not merely a verbal transaction but, in every respect, the full equivalent of repentance. John correctly outlines the relationship between repentance and blood sacrifice in these verses. Repentance is the sine qua non[6]of forgiveness; with this, non-Messianic Judaism agrees, as is clear from the Mishnah: A sin-offering and a trespass-offering atone for sins committed wittingly. Death, or Yom-Kippur, satisfies God, provided a person repents. Repentance is sufficient for minor transgressions against the Torah’s positive commands and any sin against its negative commands; for more severe violations, repentance suspends punishment until Yom-Kippur arrives and covers them all.

Stern goes on to point out that the Mishnah notes, “If a person says, ‘I will sin and repent,’ God will not allow him to repent! If he says, ‘I will sin, and Yom-Kippur will atone,’ then Yom-Kippur will not atone! Yom-Kippur atones for transgressions from man towards God, but for transgressions between a man and his fellowman, Yom-Kippur does not atone until he has forgiven a person. Yom-Kippur does not atone until he has reconciled with his fellowman. Rabbi Akiva said, ‘… Who cleanses you [from your transgressions]? Your Father in heaven, as it is said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.”[7]  And it also says, “Mikveh-Israel” [which can be translated either “the hope of Israel,” referring to God, or “the ritual-bath of Israel.”[8] Just as the ritual bath cleanses the unclean, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, cleanse Israel.”[9] But at the same time, repentance is proclaimed as essential before God can grant forgiveness; the justice of and necessity for a blood sacrifice is clear both from the Torah[10] and the Final Covenant.[11]

1:10b But as far as John was concerned, there was something more serious than that.  If we say we’ve never made a mistake, … we are calling God a liar and showing that His word has no place in our hearts.

EXPOSITION

Anyone with such an attitude that causes them to say I don’t need to change; everything I do is right, and so I really can’t see any mistakes in my lifestyle, is disputing what God calls sin. Later in the fifth chapter,[12] John explains what he means here about making God out to be a liar – which is impossible because God is not a human being who tends to lie.[13] But why try something so defeating and ridiculous when John has already told us in verse nine that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us.

Some scholars believe that John is repeating the Gnostic’s message and teachings in his day. They fancied themselves as being pure, spiritual, and perfect, despite the evidence of impurities as they lived out their aggressive lifestyles in an attempt to Judaize as many Christians as they could, and also endeavored to impress the Jews as being advocates of Torah who were perfect and without sin. No doubt, John knew about the teaching in the verbal traditions concerning those who give themselves to learning and teaching the Law as being declared pure and clean.[14] He may have also had it in mind to point this out to the believers lest they, too, feel they can achieve purity by reading the Bible or the service of God.

COMMENTARY

John Calvin says we should let those who dream of perfection – making pardon unnecessary, find their disciples among those with itching ears.[15] Help them understand that such followers have forsaken the Gospel of the Anointed One. It was He who instructed all to confess their guilt to God.[16] He accepts sinners, not to soothe them, so they are encouraged to keep on sinning but to keep them from sinning. He knows that no believer can ever strip themselves of all lawbreaking tendencies, so they need not fear punishment. Instead, desire to live and do their best so that one day they stand before God pure from every stain.[17] Yet, although God is pleased to renew His image in us gradually, there will always be a residue of corruption in our flesh.  We must by no means ever forget or neglect to accept the remedy.

But if the Anointed One, says Calvin, according to the authority given Him by His Father urges us, during the whole course of our lives, to implore pardon, who can tolerate those new teachers who endeavor to dazzle the simple, and make them believe that they can render themselves entirely free from guilt? As John declares here in verse ten, it is nothing else than calling God a liar. In like manner, those foolish men mutilate the covenant which contains our salvation. They do so by concealing one central truth, and so destroying it entirely; being guilty not only of profanity in that they separate things which ought to be inseparably connected; but also, of wickedness and cruelty in overwhelming wretched souls with despair – of treachery also to themselves and their followers, in that they encourage themselves in a carelessness opposition to God’s mercy.[18]

[1] Plummer, Alfred E. Cambridge University Press, Epistles of John, op. cit., pp. 83-84

[2] Cocke, A. R. (1895), Studies in the Epistles of John, op. cit., pp. 23–24

[3] Bennett, John Coleman, United Church of Christ (Congregational) minister, theologian, Christian ethicist, ecumenist, and Union Theological Seminary Professor of Social Ethics.

[4] Hiebert, David E: 1 John, Bibliotheca Sacra, op. cit., p. 336

[5] O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. 1–3 John, op. cit., (Kindle Location 681-685)

[6] Sine qua non means, “something absolutely indispensable or essential”

[7] Ezekiel 36:25

[8] Jeremiah 17:13

[9] Jewish Mishnah, Yoma, Ch. 8:8-9

[10] See Leviticus especially; also, Isaiah 1:16– 17, Malachi 3:2– 4

[11] Stern, David H. Jewish New Testament Commentary (Kindle Locations 21660-21676). Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc. Kindle Edition.

[12] 1 John 5:9-12

[13] See Numbers 23:19

[14] Babylonian Talmud, Seder Kodashim, Masekhet T’murah, folio 15b

[15] 2 Timothy 4:3

[16] Matthew 6:11

[17] Colossians 1:22

[18] John Calvin: Institutes, op. cit., Bk. 3, Ch. 20, pp. 938-939


About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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