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Walking in the Light - a study of 1 John 1:5-2:6

If you say you love Jesus, do you walk with Him?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 John 1:5-2:6

One heresy John fought was the idea that sin didn't matter. That's simply not true. God cares about sin so much that He sent Jesus to pay the price for it. In this letter, John gently challenges us to take seriously the goal to cut back on the sin in our lives and live as Jesus did. The carrot: God will always forgive every sin we confess.

If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves (1:8)


Getting Started: Getting Our Bearings

Just a reminder—in our first lesson, we established that John cares a great deal about what we believe and how we behave. That’s because Jesus really did exist, and He really did teach about ethics and morals. If we claim to know or love Jesus, we must care about the truth. You can break John’s entire letter into an outline following that pattern:

  1. Do you claim to have fellowship with God? Check your behavior, check your beliefs;

  2. Do you claim to be a child of God? Check your behavior, check your beliefs;

  3. Do you claim to be a Christian? Check your behavior, check your beliefs.

In this lesson, we cover that first little chunk. There were lots of people who claimed to have fellowship with God, but their behavior did not back up their claim. It’s a pretty simple approach, really: if you claim to be a Christian, you’d better walk the walk. We only have 4 more lessons in 1 John, so we’re going to skip/combine quite a bit.


Getting Started: The Icebreaker

Ivory Soap. One of the leader supplements recommends showing a bar of soap along with the old Ivory slogan, “99.44% Pure; It Floats!” Their point is that the more pure the soap, the cleaner it will make you. I think that’s kinda fun, and of course it sent my brain down quite the tangent. I have a teenage boy in my house, so this comic strip still tickles me.

Obviously the implication is ridiculous, but indulge me. What about us makes our towels dirty when we use them? What spiritual insight can you come up with from that? (And what would 50% pure soap even be, let alone do to you?) Ultimately, the point must be that there’s no way to get anything 100% clean around here. We can use perfume, antibacterials, deodorants, but those can only mask. Jesus, on the other hand, can get us 100% clean spiritually. I think that could be a fun icebreaker.


Car Debris and Other “It’s Not My Fault” Defenses. We’ll briefly touch on this in my commentary, but part of the problem John was facing had to do with the idea we talked about last week that our “spirit” is good and our “flesh” is bad and the two are always at war (Gnosticism). One of the weird ethics that came out of that was the idea that it didn’t matter how we behaved because our body was going to be destroyed no matter what and our spirit was going to be saved. Some of them then had the idea that their body might sin, but their soul could remain sinless. Catch that? Their body’s sin was not their soul’s fault. Sound crazy? It made me think of some comparable situations that might end up in court. Let’s say something falls off of your car and damages another. Who’s fault is that? A “gnostic” would say, “Don’t blame me! My car’s the one that broke, not me.” How well does that defense work? Or how about if your dog bites somebody - is that your fault? Morally? Legally? Or how about your children? Interesting question, isn’t it? But I’m sure no judge has accepted the defense, “My body did that, but my soul is innocent. And right now my soul is on trial, so you have to acquit me.” Right.

 

Part 1: Demonstrate Holiness (1:5-7)

Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

John has put a lot of effort into establishing his credibility as an eyewitness to Jesus (as opposed to the people teaching other, weird stuff). Now, he tells us his message. Ironically, it’s not a direct quote from anything we have in the gospels, but we know it is true. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). When talking about the man born blind, He said, “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him. We must do the works of Him who sent Me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:3-5). That rather sums up the whole message here. But it is more than good vs. evil. *Nerd Alert | Star Wars Reference* It’s not just the “dark side of the force” versus the “light”. That imagery has been around for a long time; Greeks used it centuries before the New Testament. But John has a much deeper meaning in mind.


Consider Jesus and Nicodemus:

“This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.” (John 3:19-21).

Light does not merely represent good. Darkness does not represent evil. The people were already evil; that evil drew them to the darkness. Light represents the presence of God. Darkness represents the absence of God. Those who do evil run to the darkness because they are running from God. God is light. There is nothing evil in Him that would enable any dark corners or back alleys. Jesus, in full fellowship with God, always walked in the light. And if we are close to Jesus, then we too necessarily walk in the light.

Another approach we could take to this image is that “light” represents our fellowship with Jesus who is the image of the invisible God. Jesus shines God’s light in the world, so those who have a relationship with Jesus enjoy that light. The main purpose of making this distinction is to prevent people from thinking they can enjoy God’s light apart from Jesus.


John uses two conditional statements (if) to explain his point. On the one hand, anyone who claims to have a relationship with Jesus, i.e. walks in light, cannot do things that are otherwise done in the darkness. That would be a lie. Think of it this way: God cannot lie or be unfaithful (Titus 1:2, 2 Tim 2:13). If we claim to be close to God, and we believe that God is light (which means He chases away darkness), then we should act as God acts. In a human family, we know that a child has an independent will, and despite the best parenting might still go down the wrong path. But in general, a child will learn behavior from parents, and a child’s behavior reflects on those parents. Now imagine our relationship with God in those terms . . . If we claim to be a child of God, should not our behavior reflect that?


Illustration: Walking without Light. Below, I mention a few of Jesus’ quotes about light. In particular, He says to walk while you have light. One of our lesson writers told a story about a cave tour that included a moment where they turned all of the lights out (I’ve taken a few such tours). When the lights go out, there is NO CHANCE of walking. You’re too afraid! You’re afraid you’ll run into a rock, fall down a chasm, slip and break your leg. If anyone in your group has been in complete dark, he or she will be able to back you up on this.


The “Keep the Lights On” Coed Rule. When I worked with teenagers, I had a rule that we never went anywhere the lights were off. At least one light was always on. That meant no pitch-black hide-and-seek. That meant no total-darkness movie nights. When there were guys and gals present, that meant the running lights even stayed on in the bus. Why was that? Because it’s a lot easier to hide your actions in the dark. To prove it, all you need to do is show a few pictures taken in the dark. (Don’t demonstrate it; that would break my “keep the lights on” rule.) When all of the lights are on, you can keep an eye on everyone; kids/teens are less likely to try to do something foolish (yes, that can mean guy/gal stuff, but it can also mean pranks). Think about that. Just by having the lights on, you can influence behavior. Now step back and think about living in the light of Jesus. If you are totally out in the light, you’re so much less likely to fall into a sin! It’s a double whammy: fear of being caught (a negative) and encouragement to do things you want people to see (a positive). God knows what He’s doing.


Fellowship.” Remember what we said about “fellowship” last week? It’s a big theme in this letter and it means so much more than a superficial relationship. Now think of it in literal terms. Some people go to dimly lit bars and restaurants to “meet” people. How well can you know someone when you can hardly see him? It’s easy to keep secrets in the dark. But when you meet someone outside on a sunny day, it’s quite literally easier to get to know that person. That has a spiritual basis (and it’s a big part of David’s sermon that we’re all about to hear): “darkness”, meaning sin, secrets, gossip, betrayal, coveting, lying, etc., can absolutely destroy a relationship and can destroy a church. Darkness / sin ruins true fellowship. But when we are all in the light, meaning living as Jesus would have us live, we can have true and meaningful relationships with one another. And when our sins do creep in and threaten our fellowship, the grace that we have experienced in forgiveness from God allows us to forgive one another and keep our fellowship strong. The blood of Jesus overcomes all such sin.

 

Aside: “Walking” with Jesus

Most of the time when we see the word “walk”, we think of walking, as in what Jesus regularly told lame men to do (“Get up and walk”). Matthew, Mark and Luke (remember what I said last week about John being different) all use “walk” in that sense. But John remembered Jesus using the word in another sense: “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12), “The light will be with you only a little longer. Walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you. The one who walks in darkness doesn’t know where he’s going” (12:35). That’s definitely more of a metaphorical use of the word. Paul picks up on that when he says things like “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) and “I urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph 4:1). See also Rom 6:4, 8:4, 13:13; 2 Cor 4:2, 6:16, 12:18; Gal 5:16, etc.


But John exclusively uses that sense of the word in all three of his letters, as in, “The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6). You see, in that culture, everybody walked everywhere. Your “walking” represented your destinations, your journeys, your methods, your manners, your companions, and pretty much everything else. In other words, “how you walk” is the equivalent of describing “how you live”. We all more or less know that, but it is helpful to realize that John traced the idea back to Jesus, and he used it as often as anyone, in keeping with his priority that how we live/behave matters.

 

Part 2: Confess Sin (1:8-2:2)

If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.

In many ways, this section repeats what John just said, but he uses a different emphasis: confession and forgiveness. First, note the point about making God a liar. This is actually a big deal. You see, God thought sin was so serious that He had to sacrifice His own Son’s life in order to deal with it. To take sin any less seriously than that is to accuse God of foolishness—really, of throwing away Jesus’ life! It is to make God a senseless, irresponsible, foolish Father. When we act like sin is not a big deal, that’s essentially what we’re saying.


The other approach is to agree with God that He had to take such a drastic measure. That’s what “confess” means: to agree with someone or to say the same thing as someone. In other words, when we “confess our sins” we are acknowledging that our behavior / attitude / thought is not in character with “light” but rather “darkness”. And that’s the other conditional statement: if we confess our sin . . .


Some Americans seem to take a criminal justice approach to sin. If we commit a crime, get caught, and confess to that crime, we have to “do the time”. But God does not take that approach. Yes, we may have consequences to face for our sin, but God forgives us. Why does God forgive? Because that is His nature; He is a forgiving God. And He is faithful to that nature. His desire to forgive led Him to send Jesus, and His faithfulness to Jesus means He will always forgive those whom He gave to Jesus for salvation. That’s us.


And then this section takes a serious turn! God cleanses us of unrighteousness and then (like John) desires that we not sin! He softens that by calling us his little children (a term of endearment), but we cannot shrink away from what he’s saying. The goal of John’s letter, and in parallel the goal of the Christian life, is for us not to sin. God does not want us to sin. Paul more or less says the same thing in Romans. Any Christian who is comfortable with sin is either extremely backslidden or not actually a Christian. This is a big deal! (More on this in the next section.)


Of course, we know that we do continue to sin. All is not lost when we do—we have an advocate. This is actually the word “paraclete” which John uses exclusively of the Holy Spirit in his Gospel. The word literally means “one who is called to walk beside” and is also translated “helper” and “counselor” and “comforter”. Some skeptics have wondered if John “got his gods mixed up” here, but that is not the case. Jesus and the Holy Spirit serve different roles in the process of our salvation. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, convicts us of our need for salvation, and softens our heart to enable us to respond favorably to God. Jesus provided the means of that salvation and stands before the Father on our behalf, declaring our punishment paid. The Holy Spirit is our “counselor” in walking our path in life. Jesus Christ is our “advocate” before God when we sin (and when our life ends and we stand in judgment). Both roles can have the same title attached.


Illustration: FIFA. You might know that some high-level arrests have been made in the soccer association for bribery and racketeering. The president, Sepp Blatter, was recently reelected and thumbed his nose at the authorities. He claimed to be on the path of cleaning up the organization and getting rid of the cheaters. He said he was enacting all of these reforms to make the game right. And then, a couple of days later, he resigned. No one knows for sure, but the speculation is that the FBI told him they had proof he was lying. The lesson is very simple, and we all see it in many different places: if you say one thing and do another, you’re a liar.


Just a sinner saved by grace.” Leonard Dupree has on multiple occasions told us that he does not like that phrase, and based on this verse I understand why. I know Christians who use that phrase to excuse their bad behavior or to excuse their undisciplined spirituality or to excuse their laziness when it comes to growing in Christ-likeness. “I know I shouldn’t have done that, but I am just a sinner saved by grace.” Yes, that was once true, but God has much more for us than that! Once we’ve been saved, we’ve become saints! We are someone new! God is making us into more than what we were, and He wants us to take that seriously. The gift of God of a new life is precious; He doesn’t want us to wait until we get to heaven to enjoy it and exercise it. Again, this verse reminds us that we don’t “get there” in this life, but John wants us to take the idea of walking in the light and now in the darkness very seriously. What sins do you want to work out this week?

 

“Propitiation”?

Here’s a scary word! (Rhymes with "initiation".) When Jesus died on the cross, a lot happened. We read words such as “ransom” and “atonement” and “sacrifice” to describe it, and all of them mean something different. That’s because we cannot capture everything Jesus accomplished in one word. Propitiation is another such word. English translators chose to keep the Latin word used here (propitiare) instead of trying to translate the Greek word (hilasmos) because it’s a difficult word. In other religions, the word was used to describe how a god’s anger was appeased by a sacrifice or a bribe. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint), this word was used to describe the lid of the Ark of the Covenant where the blood sacrifice was poured on the Day of Atonement. Basically, in common usage, it meant “to appease wrath and soothe anger”. Some scholars don’t like the connotation that God’s wrath had to be appeased, as if He could not control it, but that’s not the definition we have to be dealing with here. The Bible is very clear that God is extremely angry with sin. He’s not a computer but a living Being, so His anger with sin must have a direction. That was part of the purpose of the cross. In addition to being our substitute, in additional to paying the price of sin, in addition to demonstrating God’s love for us, the cross also served as a “lightning rod” for God’s wrath against sin. His holiness was satisfied in that He could demonstrate both His love for us and also His hatred for sin. That is why “propitiation” is a perfectly good word.

 

Part 3: Seek to Obey (2:3-6)

This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn't keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked.

These are equally hard-hitting verses that explain why church leaders are so worried about individual behavior. We can’t know a person’s heart. But we can observe a person’s behavior. According to John, the “proof” of our salvation is our willingness to follow Jesus and do what He says. As they say, if we’re going to “talk the talk” we had better “walk the walk” or we’re just fooling ourselves.


The word for “remains in Him” is also translated “abides”. It’s a heavy concept because we don’t have any parallels for it, but it literally means to live within Christ as a location. Christians are in (inside) Christ. This is more of a spiritual idea than a physical one, but the Bible is very clear that we live and move and have our being in Christ. Those who claim to be in Christ must remain in Christ.


Exercise: Taking Stock. Let’s rate ourselves on a scale of 1 to 10—what is our maturity in terms of (1) being holy, (2) acknowledging and confessing our sins, and (3) trying to obey the Bible?


Starting Over / ServPro. Let’s say we’ve realized that we are not doing well. John just told us to confess our sins and God will cleanse us. Think of examples of buildings that were total losses due to fire or flood, then talk about the extreme methods people used to clean, repair, or rebuild those structures. If ServPro can clean out water damage, is it hard for us to believe that God can clean us of anything in our past, no matter how rough?

Wrapping Up

Make sure to recap the main purpose of this lesson: true fellowship with God means that God’s holiness “rubs off” on us. If we truly understand and appreciate what Jesus sacrificed for us, we will want to live life God’s way. The three areas this lesson focuses on are (1) holiness / walking together in the light; (2) confession when we do sin; (3) genuine attempt to obey God’s commands.


I don’t want us to miss out on an opportunity to talk about real tough spiritual growth. John tells us that the purpose of him writing this letter is to encourage us to stop sinning. Sin is the #1 thing that keeps us away from God. So here’s a crazy application: ask your group members to think about some of the sinful habits they have the biggest problem with, and then tell them that this week their job is to cut out one of them. We’re not going to become perfect overnight, so let’s just start with one. What’s a sin that really bugs you? (By the way, if no sins come to their mind, you need to have your group reread this passage very quickly and then repent or come to Jesus!!) Then, what’s a physical act you can take to cut that sin down this week? Do you need to shut your mouth? Turn off the tv at a certain time? Pick up the Bible at a certain time? Not talk to a certain person? Deliberately slow down? Not pick up the phone? What is it that you need to do to stop that sin? Remember, God is here to help us. Confess the sin, ask God’s help, and make the commitment to do whatever it is that God tells you!

 

Closing Thoughts: “Limited Atonement”?

If you’ve ever heard of the so-called 5 points of Calvinism (TULIP), you might know that the L stands for “limited atonement” or the belief that Jesus only died for the sins of “the elect”. They don’t have a Bible verse to back up that belief, but they have a logical reason: if Christ died for every sin, then every person should end up in heaven. The fact that some people go to hell implies that Christ’s sacrifice didn’t totally work, and they rightfully want to protect Jesus from such an accusation.


I wonder if our leader guide author might be protecting this idea when he explains this verse to mean “Christ’s death is sufficient for all kinds of people”. But that’s not what the verse says. The verse clearly says, “Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” Every sin, not merely every kind of sinner. There’s a big difference, and I believe this verse is the foundation for the long-standing Baptist position that Christ’s death was great enough to pay the penalty for every sin ever committed.


So how does it work out that not every person goes to heaven? Because salvation requires cooperation on the part of the person. We have to accept Christ’s gift. Think about it this way: you can win the lottery, but if you don’t go and collect your winnings, it hasn’t really done anything for you, has it? Christ paid the price for every sin, but until we confess our sins, repent of them, and acknowledge Christ as our Savior and Lord, that payment does us no good as an individual.

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