In this essay, we take up 1 John 2:3-14. In his introductory statement in chapter one, John spoke about the Christian’s relationship to God in terms of fellowship with him (1:4). In this section he speaks of that same relationship in terms of knowing him. Indeed verses 3-6 give us three marks of knowing God.
John’s earlier emphasis was on how we can recognize our sinfulness, which is a barrier to fellowship with God, and on how to be forgiven, so that it will be a barrier no longer. But here John shifts to the marks that characterize persons who already have been forgiven.
In these verses John gives three marks of knowing God. The first mark of a person who knows God is obedience. The person who knows God keeps God’s commandments, that is, they are going to obey God. And if the fruit of a person’s life is obvious disobedience to the will of God as revealed in the Bible, then such persons are liars if they claim to know God.
The second mark or characteristic of the person who knows God is seen at the beginning of verse 5. Not only is a person who knows God obedient to him, but John also says that such a person experiences perfect love. Now as you probably know, many folks do not want to hear about perfection in relation to Christianity. This is because their understanding of the concept of “perfection” is such that they cannot believe it’s possible for Christians to achieve. But as John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) well knew, this statement in verse 5, along with others in I John and others in other parts of the New Testament, clearly teach that Christians are to be perfect in love.
According to Wesley, it is this perfection in love that constitutes the perfection Jesus was talking about in Mt. 5:48: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Wesley was severely criticized for teaching that this perfection is normative for mature Christians; but he simply was teaching the same thing that Jesus and John had taught. Unfortunately, many people today do not believe that, even though it is a plain teaching of Scripture.
Alright, thus far we have seen two marks of those who truly know God. First, they keep his commandments (v.3), and second, the love of God is perfected in them (v.5). But there is a third mark to be seen here. Those of us who abide in him, that is, who know him, walk in the same way in which he walked. In other words, we imitate him.
If we think about it that is perfectly logical, because it is exactly what Jesus did. He obeyed the heavenly Father; the Father’s love was perfected in him; and he reflected the life of the Father in his daily walk. Those of us who know God will walk in the same way in which Christ walked, in imitation of him.
In the British Museum a Greek writing tablet, dating from pre-Christian times, is on exhibit. It is an example, from the classical Greek period, of a child’s copybook for learning how to write.
The headline was written by the master, and then the student wrote the second line by copying from the line written by the teacher. But when the student did the third line he copied with his eye on the second line, the one he had written, rather than the one the master had written. And the student kept doing that, copying the next line from his own prior line. Consequently, each succeeding line is less and less like the one originally written by the teacher.
Is this not one reason for the broken character of our holiness–that we imitate one another, or reproduce our familiar imperfections, instead of portraying the likeness of Jesus. John’s word is clear: “He who says he abides in him [in Christ] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
These are the marks of a person who knows God. Such a person obeys God’s commandments, allows God’s love to be perfected within, and lives a life that imitates Jesus in thought, word and deed.
Now then, we are ready to take up 2:7-11, which give us an old commandment and a new commandment. The commandment John was talking about was “love one another.” This was an old commandment, because it is found in the Old Testament. Leviticus 19:18 reads: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But the commandment also was new in a sense, because Jesus taught the disciples, as recorded in John’s Gospel, in chapter 13, verse 34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” The reason Jesus declared it a new commandment was because he raised it to a completely new and different level of understanding.
The Jews interpreted the old commandment to love their neighbors, to mean that they were to love their fellow Jews in good standing so to speak. That is, they interpreted “neighbor” to mean as good, fellow Jews.
They were quite comfortable hating lots of other people. For example, they enjoyed hating their enemies. In their opinion, enemies were not their neighbors! But Jesus taught differently. He proclaimed: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love you neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:43-44).
The Jews also were comfortable with hating non-Jews, that is Gentiles. Rabbinic teaching said: “The Gentiles were created by God to be fuel for the fires of Hell.” The average Jew of Jesus’ day despised Gentiles. But Jesus taught that God sent his Son to save all humanity (Jn. 3:16). He taught that union of his disciples with him would enable the world, including Gentiles, to believe that the Father sent him (Jn. 17:20-21).
The Jews were happy to hate not only their enemies and Gentiles; they also were pleased to hate sinners, even Jewish sinners. Again rabbinic teaching was clear and direct: “There is joy in heaven when one sinner is obliterated from the earth,” said the Rabbis.
But Jesus did not teach that! On the contrary, Jesus was the friend of sinners. He did not avoid them. He even ate with them. He forgave their sins; and thus his teaching was the opposite of the Rabbis: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk. 15:7).
So we see how that commandment was both old and new at the same time. Jesus, by his reinterpretation of what a neighbor is, transformed the old commandment into a new one.
Turning now to verse 8, notice that John says the new commandment is true both in Christ and in the recipients of the letter. That is high praise. John believed that at least some of the Christians to whom he was writing were succeeding in loving as Jesus loved. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone of John’s stature say that about us! He should be able to do it.
Notice also how John returns to the light and darkness theme to communicate this. They are fulfilling the commandment to love in the new way established by Jesus. And they are able to do it, “because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” As Howard Marshall puts it, the picture is that of a dark world in which the first rays of a dawning sun have begun to shine. And the light is getting brighter. There still are dark places, but there also are places where the light is bright; and it is in the bright places that Christians are to be found.
Now then, in verses 9-11, John comes back to the scary negative side of all of this. When we read these verses, we need to keep in mind the specific situation that John was addressing. John was dealing with a mixed situation. Some of the Christians to whom he is writing were loving one another, but others were not. Once again John condemns not loving. In addition, he indicates that hating one’s brother hurts oneself. It blinds the person who is doing the hating. Persons who hate don’t know where they are going. They stumble around in the dark. Having chosen darkness, they no longer can see the light. They sin, but frequently are not even aware of it.