John used a clear and simple illustration, light and darkness, to differentiate between believers and unbelievers. Like some Christians today, the early believers wanted to know how they could tell if someone was saved. In order to set the stage, John began his first epistle talking about Jesus as a manifestation of something that had already existed before his birth (1 John 1:2). The Greek word translated manifested, phaneroo (fan-er-o’-o) means to appear, but in a deeper sense “to be manifested is to be revealed in one’s true character” (G5319).
John declared, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). John’s statement that there is no darkness at all in God implies that he is the opposite of darkness or the negation of darkness. What I believe John was getting at was the idea that there can be an absence of evil or sin in a person. Jesus was sinless, but if you looked deeper, you would see that he never had an evil thought, there wasn’t even a tendency to think wrong thoughts in his true character.
John wanted believers to understand that Jesus’ perfection could be transferred to them. He explained, “But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his son, cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). In essence, John was saying that darkness could be removed and replaced with light. John identified the process whereby the removal takes place. “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).
After establishing that God is light and believers are to be like him, John said, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). The Greek word translated keep, tereo (tay-reh’-o) refers to a watch or someone that stands guard (G5083). John was not saying that believers were expected to be sinless. What he meant was that a believer should be aware of his sin and confessing it to God so that he could be forgiven.
Some of the first century believers thought that God’s commandments were no longer relevant to them. They thought forgiveness meant they were free to do as they pleased. John made it clear that the commandments were still in affect (1 John 2:7). As a way of letting the believers know that not only were God’s commandments still in affect, but they were going to be held to a higher standard, John stated, “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now” (1 John 2:9).
John’s stern warning may have shocked some of the early Christians who thought refraining from murder was a difficult challenge. The point John was trying to make was that even the smallest offense needed to be confessed. John explained, “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12). The only way a believer becomes free from sin is by confessing everything.