We hear the accusation, “hypocrite!” thrown around often today. Since this is an election year in the United States, all the political news pundits have the term at the ready. We all know that nothing takes the wind out of a successful campaign like a good exposure of hypocrisy.
Oddly enough, the word hypocrisy didn’t always have such pejorative connotations. In classical Greek, a hypocrites was simply a stage actor. In time, that neutral title started taking on its negative value. The root meaning of hypocrisy, though, can still be understood as someone acting out a part.
In 1 John 1:6, hypocrisy is just the first of three errors John points out for his congregations to avoid. The structure of the remainder of chapter one is quite easy to discern. John begins verses 6, 8, and 10 with the same words: “If we say” (NRSV). Each of these three units of text contain a deception that the false-teachers were spreading around John’s churches. John notes the deception, the effect it has on the believer, and the solution. This week we’ll look at the first problem: hypocrisy.
. . .
If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, (v. 6, NRSV)
The false-teachers that afflicted John’s churches claimed to have a good relationship with God, while living morally impure lives. John wrote to set things straight. After claiming in v. 5 that “God is light” (NRSV), the thought of relating to the light from a position of darkness is simply absurd. Where light is, darkness vanishes.
There’s a subtle point I need to bring out here. John used the metaphor of “walking” to describe these people’s relationship to darkness. Let’s be honest: we all sin. You know it. I know it. John knew it too! He’s not talking here about people who sin, but about people who walk in that sin—those who make a practice of sinning. There’s grace, forgiveness, and cleansing provided for us sinners, but to think that we can make a habit of walking around in the dark while claiming fellowship with Light Incarnate is nonsensical.
“Religion without morality is an illusion.” (Stott 79)
. . .
we lie and do not do what is true; (v. 6b, NRSV)
Living in that sort of hypocrisy leads to two offenses:
- We lie about our relationship with God.
This effect is self-explanatory. To walk in darkness while claiming fellowship with God (or other Christians, for that matter) is a lie.
- We do not do the truth.
What a curious expression: “do what is true” (NRSV). We assume that truth is something we know. For John, truth is something you do. The simple and direct prophecy from Micah 6:8 comes to mind:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(NRSV, emphasis mine)
The truth is something we do.
. . .
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. (v. 7, NRSV)
In order for the hypocrisy John described to be resolved, either God’s light has to coexist with darkness, or we learn to live in God’s light. Since the former will never happen, we should get on with the latter. To encourage his congregation in that direction, John offers two benefits of living life “in the light” (NRSV).
- Fellowship with each other.
Here again John surprises us with his logic. You would expect that walking in the light would lead to fellowship with God. Instead, John brings out the point that walking in the light allows us to have genuine fellowship with each other. To be sure, we have fellowship with God—but that divine-human fellowship is made concrete in our human-human life together.
- Purification by Jesus’ blood.
John is very direct here. It’s not Jesus’ life or his resurrection (although those are both very important). When we walk in the light, we are made pure because of Jesus’ brutal death. He was (and is) our sacrifice. The logic of this benefit is a bit difficult—if we walk in the light, doesn’t that mean that we have left our sins behind? Yes and no. Yes, we’re no longer walking in darkness, but we still do dark things. The difference is, when you’re walking in the light, those dark deeds are quickly exposed. Kruse explains it well:
“Walking in the light does not mean that those who do so never sin, but that they do not seek to hide that fact from God” (Kruse 65).
. . .
The call to us is to walk in the light, and to not be deceived by those who walk in darkness yet claim Christian fellowship. Darkness vanishes in the presence of the smallest candle, let alone the consuming fire of God’s presence.