John is trying to rebuke his audience for harboring hatred towards one another, approaching it in the same way as unrepentant sin in the last chapter. According to what he knows about God’s will and Jesus’ actions for our sake, he believes that they should love one another to the fullest extent instead of hating one another. He uses the contrast of light and dark to draw a distinction between actions that serve God and actions that serve sin.
John bases his thoughts in the “old commandments that [they] had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that [they] have heard” (1 John 2:7, ESV). “The word” is the gospel which they began to see in the Old Testament and which they received from the Apostles and early missionaries. The “old commandment” is to love one another and its first appearance is in Leviticus 19:17-18:
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
The “old commandment” reappears when Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees. When asked “which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus replies with loving the Lord our God as the great and first commandment, and then “a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36, 37-38, 39-40).
What makes this “old commandment” into a “new commandment” in John’s eyes? In the statement “love your neighbor as yourself,” who is the neighbor? What does love mean? What does loving your neighbor look like?
Christ’s life, teachings, death, and resurrection gave the Hebrews a new understanding of the Old Testament. Christ demonstrated love and community in a way that the Pharisees and Jewish culture had forgotten or become blind to. Jesus even expanded the definition of “neighbor” to include non-Jewish peoples—something that was better understood during Paul’s ministry to Greeks, Romans, and many others.
Simply, love changed from being a moral obligation of giving care to fellow countrymen into an earnest compassion for others; and neighbor changed from meaning other cultural Jews to anyone who has faith in Jesus Christ.
Once John has established this foundation, he gets to the crux of the issue of hatred and introduces his light and dark metaphor again. He writes, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” (1 John 2:9). Why is that person still in darkness? They are in violation of the second great commandment; that’s why John took the time to remind them of it. In faith we cannot pursue God and sin at the same time—it is impossible.
I like to think of this dilemma as a fork in the path: the first option is hatred and the second option is love. While standing at the fork, I can see a tiny bit of both paths and have no idea what is around the bend for either. They might look like opposites and they might look identical. Starting down the path of hatred or love is easy at first. Being on either path does not change who I am, but it does reflect my obedience to God’s will or my understanding of his will.
Following the path of hate or love for any meaningful distance takes dedication and skill; backtracking from either path is painful.
Have you experienced anything like this in your relationships? How often are you standing at this fork in the road? When does this choice tend to appear for you?
Some of you may find John’s light and dark metaphor to be too black and white; you believe he over simplifies the hate and love issue into two extremes. But please remember that John is not questioning his audience’s salvation; rather, it is because they are saved that he introduces this contrast.
John sees two avenues before us. Down one path we will lovingly serve our brothers, sisters, strangers, and enemies to the point of personal sacrifice. Down the other we will seek their downfall for our gain. One path is in the light, the other is in darkness, and we cannot be on both paths at the same time.
Which path/s are you on? Why?
Remember what John says only a few verses earlier:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2).
Naturally, we will find ourselves in darkness from time to time, whether we discover a seed of enmity towards a fellow believer in Christ or a pet-sin that we like to keep around. When we find them, we should reject them; let us leave the dark slavery of sin and enter His marvelous light.
If you find yourself on the path of darkness, as John writes of it, I urge you to ask forgiveness and repent. Do not linger there for it may find a way to entice you once more. Turn back to God, for he will receive you as a precious daughter or son.
Praise be to God for giving us so much more than we deserve: an advocate, who paid for our sinful rebellion at the cross and now stands at God’s right hand speaking on our behalf.
Praise be to Christ that his sacrifice is more than sufficient for my sins and yours, and that he continually seeks to build unity between us and God.
May the Holy Spirit be with you, renewing your heart and mind to reveal and reject seeds of darkness, so that you might be free to enjoy God’s grace and spread it lovingly.