What We say
Our Christian profession must be tested. Some people claim to be Christians, but their claim is certainly not substantiated by their lives, in spite of their claims, we may have good ground to question whether they are in reality children of God.
John is of course speaking to us as members of God’s family, taking the question of our relationship as now settled, but even so he is asking us to test our conduct by what we say. We should not make pretence over this matter, nor can we be really satisfied if our words are not supported by our actions. By the use of the word ‘if‘ once, again in the last verse (2:3) of this section, it is clear that the apostle wants us to continue to examine ourselves, so as to be in no false position. If we profess to have divine life, then our life should match our profession. We should have a hollow testimony. So now John takes up our own words to test us, and three times he quotes us with the formula “He that saith…”, using what we say to help us to be true and not hypocritical. We will look at these quotations, and see from them what must accompany such professions.
Knowledge tested by obedience
“He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him: but whoso keepeth his word, in him verily hath the love of God been perfected” (2:4, 5).
“He that saith, I know him…”. John does not say ‘know about Him…‘, for he does not have in view here a merely theoretical knowledge, but that which is personal and experimental. Knowing Him in this personal way, John says, results in obeying Him, so that my obedience is the evidence that I know Him. “Hereby know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (2:3). Real knowledge of God always results in glad obedience.
We must realise that there is only one obedience known in Scripture, and that is the obedience of Christ. “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). “Who … humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). That is the obedience of Christ. It is something more than a child’s obedience to a parent, and can rather be likened to the mature obedience of a grown son who delights in devotion to all the pleasures of his father. A child, in its obedience, invariably thinks about itself, and weighs up the consequences of disobedience; but an adult is concerned with satisfying the one obeyed. Such an ‘adult-obedience‘ is much nearer to the obedience of Christ. It is by the utter obedience which He displayed that John would have us test ourselves.
It was His obedience that saved us, and it was that obedience that indicated how truly He was one with the Father in His love for sinners. “Whoso keepeth his word, in him verily hath the love of God been perfected” (2:5). divine love can only be satisfied by obedience. We cannot really know Him without loving Him, and we cannot love Him without desiring to obey Him. Such spontaneous obedience shows that divine love has found a home in the heart of man. Man is its object, and man’s response shows that the love of God has reached him. Then only can he say, “I know him”.
Position tested by behaviour
“Hereby know we that we are in Him: he that saith he abideth in Him ought also to walk even as He walked” (1:5, 6). “He abideth in Him.” This speaks of the believer’s place in Christ, and the idea has a large place in the New Testament. For example we are said to be established in Christ (2 Cor. 1:21), to be a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), to triumph in Christ (2 Cor. 2:14), to speak in Christ (2 Cor. 2:17) and to walk in Him (Col. 2:6). From these few scriptures (and there are many others wherein reference is made to our being created and established, to our speaking and walking and triumphing in Him.
If we are in Him, then we have what He has. But if that is so, then we will walk as He walked. How did Christ walk? He walked, as we have seen, in obedience to the Father; and not only in obedience to the Father, but in love also that was self-forgetting. “Walk in love, even as Christ also loved you” (Eph. 5:2). “And as many as shall walk by this rule, peace be upon them” (Gal. 6:5).
Throughout his letter the apostle repeatedly emphasizes the importance of Christian conduct, and here, with his twice-repeated “Hereby we know…” (2:3, 5), he lays the foundation with his demand for Christ-likeness. “This”, he says, “is to be expressed in obedience.” After all, how are others to know that we are God’s children if we are not, as the Son was, subject to Him in all things. There is nothing that brings such blessing at the outset of a Christian life as the attitude of heart that says “Yes” to God at every point.
Light tested by love
“He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in the darkness even until now” (2:9). With these words the apostle quotes us for the third time, and challenges the claim of professing Christians that they have the light and are walking in the light. Before enlarging on this he alludes to a commandment, and it will be as well to follow him step by step in this matter and see what he says in verses 7 and 8. Look first at these two verses. “Beloved, no new commandment write I unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning: the old commandment is the word which ye heard. Again, a new commandment write I unto you, which thing is true in him and in you; because the dark. ness is passing away, and the true light already shineth” (2:7, 8).
At first sight John may appear to contradict himself when he says in verse 7, “No new commandment write I unto you”, and then in verse 8, “A new commandment write I unto you.” Let us first consider the old commandment referred to in verse 7. What is it? He says it is a commandment we have had from the beginning, and the beginning referred to here is undoubtedly the beginning of the world as is made clear by the context of a similar statement in chapter 3, verse 11 : “For this is the message which ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” This verse tells us that the old commandment concerns brotherly love. Hence the third test is not a new one; it has been required from the beginning of creation. It was true of the Lord Jesus from an untimed beginning that He loved, and then the word tells us that “having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end” (John 13:1).
There is a saying which goes like this: “That which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.” Itsuggests that a thing may be something entirely new to us so far as our experience goes, but that if it is a true thing, it is not really new. The love of Christ is like that. We have known about it; we have heard much said about it for it is not new; it is as old as the world; it is eternal but to find that divine love new in our hearts, changing and regulating our lives and our relationships with one another, that is new to us. And because it is the spontaneous fruit of the life we now possess within, it will shine out with unprecedented brightness. “The true light already shineth” (2:8). That which is going to illuminate the eternal ages has already been shining since the beginning of the world, and now it is shining in our hearts. The life shining out in love means that “the darkness is passing away” (2:8).
We now come back to John’s challenge: “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in the darkness even until now” (2:9). There are no degrees with God. Anything that displaces divine love in favour of something less is hate. There is no middle position; it is either the one or the other. If we are in the light, it is because we have received the undeserved favour of God, and remember, this is true of our brother also. This being so, can we entertain in our hearts anything but the tenderest affection for others? If we are in the light, we are the children of God, and Paul tells us in Romans 5:5 that “the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us.” With such Divine provision, there should be in us no occasion for stumbling; and yet many people are stumbled by us. That which stumbles them is the discrepancy between our profession and our conduct. If we have anything less than divine love for others we are still in the dark, and are walking in the dark.
But the reverse is also gloriously true: “He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him” (2:10). As love is born in a child, so, in the youngest babe in Christ, divine affections are born; there is love for others which was not there before. This love will increase if we will let it, but even in the youngest it will be present from the beginning, because it is the fruit of divine life. All the resources are there; all we have to do is to draw upon them.
John’s conclusion is very searching: “He that hateth … knoweth not whither he goeth, because the darkness hath blinded his eyes” (2:11). It challenges us to see that our conduct is in keeping with our creed, our practice with our profession. Only if it is so are we proved to be possessors of that life of which obedience, a true Christian walk, and love are the unfailing fruits.