I’m still adjusting to the whole parenting thing. Let me share one of my frustrations with you: toys. I remember watching the commercials that came on during cartoons as a kid, longing to own every single trinket that was marketed towards my age bracket. Now, I feel differently. I’ve turned my back on that childhood infatuation with all things shiny and plastic.
I don’t think I can count the number of times I’ve stepped on one of Ryan’s toys. The biggest problem comes in the evening. Our living room light fixture is remote controlled. Since we need to keep everything breakable above Ryan’s reach, we’ve found a place for the remote control on top of our entertainment centre. This creates an interesting evening routine. When it’s time to go to bed, I make my way to the entertainment centre, deftly stepping around the plastic Tupperware shapes, and the Fisher-Price Little People. Then, I turn and scan the floor, memorizing the placement of the various toys. After I’ve got a good grasp of the layout, I turn off the light, walk through the toys in the dark, and (usually) make it to the bedroom without stepping on something too painful.
I share this to make a simple point: it’s easy to stumble over things when the lights are off. John made the same point in his letter. You’ve likely heard the familiar saying, “love is blind”. John used the image of light and darkness to teach the opposite of “love is blind”. It’s only when we love that we are in the light and can truly see.
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Let’s put this teaching in context. Three times in chapter two, John started a sentence with ho legōn, which the NRSV translates as “whoever says”. Let’s look at those claims:
- Whoever says they know God but don’t obey him is a liar (v. 4)
- Whoever says they abide in God should walk like Christ (v. 6)
- Whoever says they’re in the light while hating a brother is in darkness (v. 11)
Here John continues his rhetorical attacks against the false teachers. We can assume that they were claiming to live an enlightened life. This would be common, especially if the false teachers were of the gnostic influence (which is quite likely). John is direct: your actions indicate the truth. It doesn’t matter what your lips claim if you don’t love. This passage reminded me of Paul:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NRSV)
John and Paul agree wholeheartedly on this fundamental Christian idea: nothing in life matters if you don’t love each other.
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Notice also the vivid contrast between light and darkness. John never mentioned a twilight—you either love or you hate. We would like to add a third category—indifference—to the mix, but scripture just doesn’t permit it. For John, love is thoroughly practical (we’ll see more about that later), and you either demonstrate your love by helping a person in need, or show your hatred by not helping.
Bengel’s words are concise and full of wisdom (in Bultmann’s commentary):
Where there is no love, there is hate; the heart is not empty.
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When we love each other, we exist (by default) in the light, and there’s no cause for stumbling. The word John used is skandalon. Try to pronounce the Greek transliteration, and you’ll quickly realize that our English word “scandal” is derived from it. The word is used 15 times in the New Testament (if you want to study further, here is a list of all the NT occurrences).
If you’ve been around church life for very long, you will know someone who has been offended. That offense can take root in a person’s life and consume their thoughts (like a certain ring consumed Frodo). John offers a solution to this problem: when we love each other, we walk in the light, and no stumbling block can take root.
Conversely, when we don’t love each other, we quickly become blind. Like cavedwelling creatures who lose the ability to see due to extended generations of life in the darkness, hatred blinds our eyes to the truth—the very light of heaven himself.