Now that I’ve been going through 1 John for a while, I believe it is necessary to pause and consider the historical context of his readers and the logical relationship between indicatives and imperatives in the bible. Both influence John’s argument towards his audience; thus, they influence how we should interpret 1 John.
John is probably writing to the dispersed churches of Asia Minor in his older age, near 90 A.D. The church, the body of Christ, is growing swiftly in many directions and all the new groupings of Christians face false teachings, bad habits, and persecution of various kinds—growing pains. None of them have a New Testament like we do; rather, some of them have letters from apostles. Also, most of them do not have an Old Testament either, especially if it is a non-Jewish group of people.
The Christianity that these new churches know comes primarily from verbal teachings of missionaries of the early church and also through letters sent by the apostles and their disciples. As the new churches received the true and complete gospel, various influences and persecutions threaten their faith. So when John learns of concerning behaviors in these churches, he tries to reveal those issues in contrast to the gospel.
The light that John uses to reveal problematic behaviors are the imperatives of the gospel, which rely on the solid foundation of indicatives of Jesus. In other words, John uses the facts of Jesus’ ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection to create a standard of behavior for these new churches—for all believers. If you are completely unfamiliar with these terms, please follow the links for indicative and imperative to the Merriam-Webster website for a basic definition.
John’s standard does not determine whether a person has received salvation, nor does he intend it to. It is like a ruler: we can use a ruler to measure the length of an object, such as my left index finger which is three inches in length. Is that long or short? Compared to what?
The ruler does not determine what the object is, just as John’s standard does not determine who I am. The ruler and John’s standard provide a point of reference for comparison.
John knows that we cannot live life perfectly—completely in the light. He knows that we will struggle with many sins, distractions, and deceptions throughout life—walking in darkness. Hence, he gives us a simple ruler so we can easily check our heart condition. Knowing the indicatives of Jesus, he reminds us of the imperatives of the Christian life so that we might know if we are living for Christ or for something else.
At all times we must remember that “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 2:1b-2, ESV). “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This new and merciful relationship with God changes our behaviors over time. Do we desire and pursue that change—the light—however quickly or slowly it happens?
We are more similar to the early church than we think, for our hearts are just as wild and corruptible as theirs were. And though most of us have many bibles in our homes and unlimited access to bibles online—while they were lucky to have a copied letter from one of the apostles—we often forget what we read and go astray just as the early churches did. We are all human after all.
Knowing this, seeing this, John gives us a point of reference. He desires for us to trust in God, to joyfully experience his grace and mercy, so he provides a tool that can show us if we are pursuing God or pursuing idols. And this standard is not for us only, for as we leave the darkness for God’s glorious light, others may see His light in our life as well; and thus seeing, choose to follow after God, so that others might see His light, so that others might see His light.