Have you ever heard Death Cab For Cutie’s “Marching Bands of Manhattan”? It’s a fantastic song that breaks typical songwriting convention. Most pop songs start with a verse, then build to a chorus. The musicians pull back for a second verse, only to build back up for another chorus before going all out on a bridge and guitar solo.
Death Cab’s song puts the two verses at the front and then repeats the chorus until the song ends. Essentially, the entire song is a lengthy crescendo. Every four or eight measures a new instrumental line is added and the intensity of the song increases. After four minutes of accelerating tension, you’re left expecting some major climax. Instead, you get a cut-off lyric and a single note on the piano. “Your love is going to [bing].” (Incidentally, “bing” is my self-appointed technical term for a single note on the piano during a pop song.)
In a way, verse 5 of first John functions like a similar anti-climax. John just spent four verses stressing his status as an eye-witness to Jesus. Then in verse five we get even more build-up:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you,
Are you ready for it? We’re all expecting something big. What is this secret that John the eye-witness has to share with us? What message did Jesus tell him that he’s finally getting around to sharing with us?
that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. (NRSV)
Huh? Jesus never said that. Check out the gospels—it’s not there.
. . .
Every writer is distinct. In fact, biblical scholars can run a statistical analysis on the vocabulary of different letters to help determine whether or not they were written by the same person. We too have our favourite words and expressions, whether we realize it or not. One of John’s favourite concepts was the contrast of light and darkness.
After reflecting on verse 5 a bit more, the simple message—God is light and has no darkness in him—makes a little more sense. Listen to what John’s Gospel has to say about God and light:
In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (1:4 NRSV)
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (1:5 NRSV)
I am the light of the world. (8:12 NRSV)
As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. (9:5 NRSV)
While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light. (13:36 NRSV)
I have come as light into the world. (12:46 NRSV)
What’s common to all these references? Jesus is always the referent—not God the Father, as John shares with his church in 1 John 1:5. John is making a powerful statement in this fifth verse. In reality, it’s not an anti-climax—a mere piano tone at the end of a long song—it’s a definitive statement: Jesus is God. To put it in Jesus’ own words, according to John: “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30 NRSV).
. . .
What does it mean that Jesus and his Father are light? While it’s easy to find a whole range of ideas for the metaphor of light and darkness, two meanings predominate in John’s thought:
- Light means truth and darkness means ignorance. This is the more benign of the two meanings. John had a bunch of people touring his churches claiming things about Jesus that were false. “If you want to be like Christ,” said John, “Don’t walk in such ignorance: let me remind you of the truth I witnessed.”
- Light means purity and darkness means evil. Here it gets more serious. It’s one thing to be ignorant but quite another to be evil. God is absolute purity, with no evil in him at all. “If you want to be like Christ,” says John, “don’t continue to walk in sin: be pure.”
Where does this teaching leave us? God has chosen show us just what his purity and truth looks like in action: Jesus Christ. If we claim to be Christians, we need to allow the Spirit of God through John to remind us what Jesus’ life of purity and truth looked like in action, and then to then follow suit.