John, the beloved disciple, lived an unusually long life. It was towards the end of the first century that, as the last surviving original apostle, he wrote several letters to churches he was concerned about. As we noted earlier, the general apostasy of the church was well under way by the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians and dealt with their many problems. By the time John wrote his letters things were much worse and it was getting more and more difficult to distinguish between true and false believers.
One of the principal reasons why John wrote his first epistle was to address this issue for the sake of true Christians. He wanted them to be able to tell the difference. He also wanted them to be able to know that they themselves were believers and to have the confidence to stand in the face of false doctrine and false ministries.
The book of I John begins with John recalling his own personal experience of having the very life of God revealed to him through his contact with Jesus Christ. He walked and talked with Jesus for some three-and-a-half years as God revealed Himself through His Son. John and the rest of the disciples saw in him a life that was unlike any they had ever known. It was “that which was from the beginning.”
Being human, the disciples were very familiar with human life. Although men may differ from one another in many outward ways they are still “made from the same stuff.” All men get their life from Adam, a life that has been irreparably corrupted by sin. It is a family relationship: we all are born into Adam’s family and share his life.
They knew what Adam’s family was like. But in Jesus, they saw something completely different. They knew his life didn’t come from Adam! This life came from above, from God Himself. They saw and felt the love, the compassion, the purity, and the power to change lives that flowed from Jesus.
They lived through the shock and sorrow of seeing their beloved Lord tortured and murdered on a Roman cross at the behest of the howling mob. Yet, in spite of the unspeakable suffering Jesus experienced, they saw that life never waver. They heard him offering hope to a dying thief and praying that his enemies would be forgiven.
They felt the despair and confusion as his broken body was laid in a tomb, sealed by a boulder and guarded by soldiers. John and the others waited through three agonizing days and nights before the glorious triumph of the resurrection. They had heard Jesus speak of “eternal life” and had seen great miracles but now they saw that life in all its glory, victorious over death itself.
They saw and touched the amazing new body that Jesus had. He appeared and disappeared and walked through walls yet he ate and drank with them. It was a real flesh and blood body, yet it was wonderful—totally different from anything they had ever known. They listened to his final instructions to wait in Jerusalem for the power they would need to be his witnesses and then saw him rise from the ground and ascend into heaven before their eyes!
A few days later they experienced the power Jesus had promised and the church was born as thousands were mightily convicted and brought to repentance and faith in Christ. A new fellowship was born. It was a fellowship of those who had been “born again.” They were literally born of God’s own life—the life they had witnessed in Jesus—and brought into His growing family.
And this was a family that “stuck together.” They continued in daily fellowship with each other and with the apostles. They were transformed from a wide assortment of ordinary human beings to an inseparable union based on the love of God. Among them were foreigners—Jews who had traveled from other countries to attend the feast of Pentecost—who simply didn’t go home! This was too wonderful, too real! Every day their numbers grew and God confirmed His Word with great miracles.
As time went along, John and the others saw the young church spread far and wide and stand up against persecution and even death. John’s own natural brother, James, was killed with the sword (Acts 12:2).
He knew what he was talking about. He had been there through it all. He knew what it meant to be a Christian. It was armed with this knowledge and experience that he wrote as he did in I John. He wrote of the new fellowship, a fellowship that began with the Father and His Son, and then was expanded to include the apostles and true Christian believers everywhere. He desired every reader to share in what he had come to know in Christ.
In I John 1:5, he set forth a foundational principle that is incredibly profound, yet so simple that a child can understand it: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” Virtually all spiritual truth flows from this simple declaration. Misunderstand here and everything will be wrong.
We’re talking about fellowship with God, a deep personal relationship. It is a family relationship in which this God becomes our Father and we are born of His life. What could be more central to that than a true understanding of Who He is and what He is like?
“God is light.” Three little words. Yet anyone with an honest heart and an enlightened conscience can readily understand. How simply they tell us that God is utterly pure, holy, good, right—in short, everything we are not! Lest anyone should misunderstand John goes on to add, “...in him there is no darkness at all.” It is like a great expanse of purest white in which even the tiniest spot or blemish is completely unthinkable.
How difficult it is for us to conceive of such purity! We know He must be great to create the universe yet we imagine that He is a sort of higher version of ourselves. In our sin-darkened minds we create Him after our image and likeness! What nonsense! He is holy; we are sinful. He is good; we are evil. He is right; we are wrong. His every thought and motive are pure; ours are hopelessly polluted by love of sin and self.
Here and there in the scriptures we see an account of a man who actually had a special encounter with God that opened his eyes to God’s true nature and character. We referred earlier to the vision of Isaiah in chapter 6 of his book. We all tend to compare ourselves with other men and I’m sure that Isaiah was no different from us in that respect prior to his vision. By that measure he would have been reasonably regarded as a righteous godly man.
But what a difference a little reality makes! Recall his words upon encountering even this limited view of God’s glory: “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’” Isaiah 6:5. All illusions about himself were completely shattered in the pure light he saw that day. In seeing God, he saw himself as he truly was.
Those who have read the book of Job know what struggles he went through trying to understand what had happened to him. Here he’d been trying with all his heart to serve God faithfully and suddenly all of his children were killed, everything he had was gone and his body was covered with painful boils. His wife counselled him to curse God and die. On top of that he had some “religious” friends who insisted that God must be punishing him for something he had done. He came perilously close to believing that God had done wrong, so sure was he that he had done nothing to deserve what he was getting.
In the end of his trial, however, he experienced a deep revelation of God and ultimately was blessed with family and possessions in a measure greater than before. Listen to what Job tells God in Job 42:5: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Once again, we see the effect of a true vision of God upon a man’s self-image.
Light is the great revealer—and the great divider of men. Remember the words of Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:19-21: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
In John’s gospel, chapter 1, verses 4-5, we read, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” The “him” referred to by John was, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus gave out the truth in the form of words, yet light is more than mere words. It was the divine life that was in Jesus impregnating those words that exposed the darkness in men.
That is what is lacking in so much religion. There are many words yet there is little or no life. Jesus spoke not only true words but he also uttered them by the Spirit’s power. The divine life that was in him flowed out in every word. Such words are able to pierce to the very center of our beings. Most men run from such light out of fear. They see it as a threat to their love of self and sin. A few run to the light and are saved from their sins.
Everyone who has ever had a true revelation of God has had a corresponding revelation of their own sinfulness. Every such revelation drives home the truth Paul gave us in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one can in any measure see His glory without becoming aware of just how short of that standard they come.
What we’re talking about is a personal family relationship between us and an unimaginably pure and holy God. Do you think that He will lower His standard to accommodate our sinfulness? Of course not! We are the ones who need changing—radical changing. When God finishes the work He is doing in those who are being saved they will be as holy and pure as He is!
Words like “salvation” and the “new birth” have all but lost their meaning in the maze of modern religion but real biblical salvation is an amazing thing! There is no greater miracle. Raising someone from the dead is nothing beside the miracle of the new birth! Raising a man from the dead is only postponing the inevitable. Sooner or later he will just die again. But for a helpless, hopeless sinner to be cleansed from their sins and born of God’s own life, now that’s really something! That lasts forever.
It is only as we begin to understand about God that we also begin to understand about ourselves and our real state before Him. Without a true knowledge of our own sinfulness salvation has no meaning. As long as there is the least shred of self-righteousness and self-confidence in us with respect to God then we are nothing but hell-bound deluded sinners. The light of His life that exposes our sin is our only hope.
It is in the light of John’s declaration in verse 5 that he begins to set forth its implications in verses 6-10. In them he describes two very different kinds of people, both of whom claim to know God and be Christians. Yet at heart, down deep where it matters, they are as opposite as they can be. One is on the road to heaven and the other, the road to hell.
The difference lies in their consciousness of sin and the resulting way they live. In verse 6 he says, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” Clearly, John is describing people whose walk does not match their talk. They claim to know God yet live just like people of the world.
Certainly we know that Christians are not perfect but the type of person John describes in verse 6 goes beyond weakness and imperfection. Their life betrays a condition of the heart, an insensitivity to sin.
This is a condition of spiritual blindness, of delusion. Such a one claims fellowship with God but has no real idea what He is like. This person may be a fornicator, an adulterer, a liar, dishonest in business, proud, self-righteous, vindictive, selfish, and the like with no real inward consciousness of his sinfulness before a holy God. He may even conform in some ways to a religious standard but his conscience isn’t bothered by the way he lives. Any alteration in his behavior and lifestyle is merely a response to some external pressure and not the result of a work of God in his heart.
It may be that such a man is simply part of a religious environment that is devoid of any real life and that he has embraced religion without ever having his inner man confronted and brought to conviction and repentance. It may be that he has had some real light but has chosen to resist it and cling instead to an empty religious profession that allows self to continue to reign within. Either way he knows nothing of God’s holiness, and therefore his own sinfulness. This allows him to rationalize his lifestyle and delude himself into thinking he is a Christian.
Verse 7 introduces the other kind of person: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Notice first of all that this is not describing a sinless person. In fact there is an ongoing need for cleansing from sin. What it is describing, however, is a person who has not only been exposed to the light of God’s life and therefore has some knowledge of what He is like, but who also is seeking to conform his life to that light. He lives to please and serve God rather than self. When God speaks, he listens.
Such a response is not natural. We are not born like that. All have sinned. No one seeks God naturally. How, then does the person in verse 7 come to be that way? Clearly, something supernatural has taken place and the characteristics described are evidence of what has happened on the inside.
2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” That is the difference! Through the natural birth we became a part of the first creation, a creation that is destined to be destroyed by fire. Real salvation is a miracle of God’s grace that takes place deep on the inside. It is a literally a miracle of creation, the impartation of that eternal life of which John wrote. It starts the process that will ultimately make us fit to be a part of a new creation that will last forever, untainted by sin and death.
Becoming a Christian is not from the outside in: that is, we do not change what we are on the inside by what we do on the outside. Rather it is from the inside out. It begins with the miracle that gives us a new heart and a new spirit. God begins to write His laws in our hearts, to teach us His ways. That new heart and life within loves and responds to the light of God. Instead of running and hiding, it comes to it, desiring to be changed, delivered from sin.
Such a walk, a way of life, leads to two things: it leads to fellowship with others of the same Spirit, and it also leads to the continual cleansing we need as we learn and grow. It is not a path of unrealistic perfectionism but it does lead away from sin and the world and towards Christ-likeness.
In verse 8 we read, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Verse 10 is similar: “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” Now we’re back to the other type of person who lacks a consciousness of sin before God.
At first glance these verses sound as though they don’t apply to very many people. After all, how many people are so foolish as to claim sinlessness? Actually, I’ve met a few that did, but I believe there is more to these verses than first meets the eye.
A man who is religious without a true revelation of his own sinfulness is particularly prone to the condition described by John. Religion without Christ in the heart is nothing more than one form or another of self-righteousness. Self-righteousness and a penitent consciousness of sin and need do not go together! Religious self has a strong inclination to denial, defensiveness, and self-justification when it comes to sin.
The fellow in verse 7 knows he is a sinner, but he also knows that the remedy is to be found in openness and honesty. He knows the glorious truth of verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Notice the contrast: denial in the one and confession in the other. Confession is much more than mere acknowledgement of sin. Real confession is when God convicts us of sin and we give up any opinions we might have and humbly agree with His assessment. And that agreement takes place in the heart and is not merely external. Both the denier and the confessor are sinners but one is forgiven and on the road to heaven while the other remains on the road to hell.
This differing response to sinfulness before God is set forth by John as an indicator of the true condition of the heart. Yet how often is it difficult for someone looking on to tell the difference. It is when something is wrong and it needs to be dealt with that it becomes evident. How many times have we seen someone react with a very defensive spirit to the suggestion that they have done wrong? Their first instinct is to deny, deny, deny. They didn’t do it. They can’t believe you think they did. They get upset and accuse someone else. I’ve had people look me in the eye and swear up and down they’re not guilty. And on and on.
Finally, after a pitched battle in which they finally are forced to admit that, well, yes, they actually did do it, their tune changes. Their motive wasn’t what you thought it was. It was someone else’s fault. They were even justified because of this or that. Someone else did the same thing or worse. Or else, they’ll resort to self-pity and cry and try to make you feel sorry for them. I’ll tell you, self is an incorrigible adversary who will defend himself come hell or high water. As long as he remains on the throne of the heart you’ve got a major problem. And self will never willingly surrender that throne. It takes One stronger and greater to depose him and gain the rule.
It is fundamentally against its nature for self to be humble, take responsibility, and truly repent of sin and wrong-doing. Self hates God’s light. It runs, it hides, it resists, it denies, it blames, it points the finger at someone else. And especially is this so when it takes on religion. Humble contrition just doesn’t fit the picture.
Peter failed miserably when he denied the Lord—but when he realized what he had done he went out and wept bitterly. In his heart he wanted to do right but failed through weakness. That’s why Jesus died! He died because we need a Savior. Peter found a place of forgiveness and cleansing and went on to a powerful place of service in the kingdom of God.
David was a man after God’s own heart. Still, he sinned grievously when he committed adultery and then murder to cover it up. He was in such a condition that he wasn’t even conscious of what he had done. But when the prophet put the finger on his sin, that was when his heart was revealed. As king he could have had the prophet immediately killed. There were other kings who did just that. But David repented with all his heart. Read Psalm 51 for the kind of heart that God gives His children.
Read Luke 18:9-14 for an example of the two kinds of people John is describing: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The sad truth is that the Pharisees, in spite of their religious pretentions, were wicked sinners before God in many ways. It was just that their religion blinded them to their condition and gave them a publicly recognized way to appear righteous before men. They knew nothing of God’s holiness and therefore nothing of their own sinfulness and need.
But, like the tax collector of whom Jesus spoke, God’s children know they are sinners and that their only hope is God’s mercy. They trust, not in themselves but in God’s promise and in what Jesus did on the cross. When they fail and the light comes searching, there is a capacity on the inside for genuine repentance.
The self-righteous have no real conscience regarding sin and if they face it at all it is with great resistance and reluctance and only because someone else pretty much forces them to face it! Oftentimes, the Lord’s children will find that their conscience so pricks them about needs in their lives that they will humble themselves and repent about things no one else even knows about! It’s all about who occupies the throne of the heart.
When someone has truly been made a new creation in Christ, there ought to be some evidence of that in their life. This matter of one’s response to his own sinfulness is a very telling indicator. It goes to the very heart of whether one has been convicted and broken and brought to genuine repentance or not.
I should point out that it is possible for someone to profess a form of religion where it is “fashionable” to confess to being an unworthy sinner and so forth. But there is a great difference between such a profession and the real thing. And where there is light and life God knows how to make that difference manifest.
Sinners, religious and otherwise, are just not comfortable with the idea that they ARE sinners and they especially don’t like to be confronted with that fact by someone anointed of God to do so. It all goes back to Who God is and what He is like. But those who embrace the truth find hope and mercy and learn to love the light and the One Who gives it, even when it shows them their need.
Where do you stand on this? Do you know in your heart that you are an unworthy sinner, having absolutely nothing in yourself to commend you to a holy God? That fact is the very foundation of salvation. Only the light of God shining into the dark recesses of our hearts can show us our hopeless condition and need of a Savior. As we bow to that truth and embrace Jesus from our hearts something changes on the inside forever.
Think of the amazing transformation that took place in the Apostle Paul. He grew up a Pharisee. His religion brought him to a place of great pride and self confidence before God based on his observance of the law. It took a special revelation to shatter that self-confident delusion and cause Saul, as he was known then, to see himself as God saw him. From that point on he had no hesitation at all in confessing himself to be a sinner, confident only in the grace of God.
Listen to his words in I Timothy 1:15-16: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” What a wonderful testimony—and promise! Could a self-righteous Pharisee ever have made such a statement? Paul could, after God transformed his heart.
I was recently blessed by the testimony of a brother in one of our assemblies. He grew up in a religious environment but didn’t know the Lord. After he had come awhile one of the brethren ministered on an unusual subject: the man in the Old Testament who was stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. The man’s inward reaction upon hearing this was to become very angry. How could God authorize such a thing?
But then the Lord began to speak to him and convict him. He said, “If that was my standard back then, what about you?” Instantly he saw his need as a helpless, hopeless sinner and, without any invitation being given, came forward professing his need of God.
What about you? What does the mirror show? Has the light of God ever brought you face to face with your own lost sinful condition and caused you to surrender and repent, turning your back forever on your own life and the world, and trusting completely in Jesus Christ for time and eternity?