One of the remarkable things about the writings of the Apostle John is the way he combined great simplicity in his style and vocabulary with immense depth and significance of thought. Those features appear prominently in 1 John 1:5 (ESV): This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.
There are three primary questions to be tackled in expounding this verse. First, who, exactly, is the “him” from whom this message was received? Second, to what does the figurative description of God as “light” refer? Third, what end was served by adding the negation that there is no darkness in God? On the basis of the answers to those questions a pair of concluding observations will be drawn.
The Source of the Message
The first question—regarding the source of this message—should be answered from the immediate context. In 1 John 1:1–4 the Apostle relates the source of the proclamation about eternal life to his own experience. It was what he had heard and seen and touched, that life which had been made manifest. These descriptors point to Christ. John had heard, seen, and touched Christ, who was the ultimate revelation of life.
This means, then, that John heard the message from Christ that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Yet this is not something that we read either in John’s own Gospel, or in any of the Gospels. It may be possible that 1 John 1:5 is similar to Acts 20:35, in that both record one of the Lord’s sayings that were not included in the Gospels. However, in light of John’s introductory emphasis on his experience with Christ, it is more likely that this is John’s own summary of what he learned from his interactions with Christ.
In other words, God is light and in him is no darkness at all are not necessarily words that the Lord Jesus uttered while on earth. But it was nonetheless the message that he delivered. Because as John recollected what he had heard, and seen, and handled that message was the overall effect. The person, life, and character of Jesus were a revelation of God; they revealed precisely God’s existence as pure light with no fleck of shadow.
At this point, it may be well to pause for a practical implication. If John could summarize observed events in a proposition about God, then it shows that the narratives of Scripture are legitimate sources of declarations about God. To put it another way, because John here engages in theological reflection, this text joins other passages in Scripture to push us in the direction of developing a system of dogmatics.
It is true, as Geerhardus Vos famously observed, that “[t]he Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest” (Biblical Theology, 17). Without in any way detracting the truth of that remark, it must be admitted also that the Bible itself contains the impetus for coherent, rationally ordered theological reflection on its history. Vos already perceived that both Biblical and Systematic Theology transform the Biblical material, although they do so according to different principles (Ibid., 15–16). But neither transformation is illegitimate, something alien imposed on Scripture. The transformations of Biblical material wrought by theology are the results of lines of development set down in Scripture itself.
Therefore to pit narrative against proposition, the history of special revelation against dogmatics, story against summary, is contrary to the moves the Bible itself makes. John, who had not only heard the story, but actively lived as part of it, could summarize the message of Christ’s earthly ministry in the proposition: God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
The Content of the Message
And this brings us to the second question. In speaking of God as light, what does John have in mind? The first point to keep in mind is that this is a figurative description. John is not saying that God is the material light, as though God came streaming out of the lightbulb every time we flipped the switch. That’s clear enough from Paul’s description of God as dwelling “in unapproachable light” and the praise of the Psalmist that God covers himself “with light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:2). As Hugh Binning beautifully put it:
The light is, as it were, a visible appearance of the invisible God. He hath covered his invisible nature with this glorious garment to make himself in a manner visible to man. It is true, that light is but, as it were, a shadow of that inaccessible light, umbra Dei. It is the dark shadow of God, who is himself infinitely more beautiful and glorious. (Works, 301)
Given that “light” is a figure, to what does it point? There are several possibilities.
In the Old Testament “light” can speak of knowledge or wisdom (Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 6:23), of glory or beauty (Ecclesiastes 11:7; Isaiah 60:1), of joy or good fortune (Job 30:26; Psalm 97:11), of life itself (Job 18:5; 33:30), and also of holiness or moral uprightness (Job 24:13; Isaiah 2:5).
Each of these would be an understandable usage. Because we need physical light to see, it is a short step to using “light” for the conditions necessary for understanding. Again, light is the precondition for beholding anything beautiful: it is thus in some sort the original beautiful thing. It is natural to humans to use light as a symbol of joy and hope, because happiness feels like radiance and makes us glow, whereas grief and bitterness feel like a darkness of soul. The association of death with absence, finality, and gloom also makes light a natural way to speak figuratively about life. Finally, the concealment of darkness suggests deeds that need to be concealed, whereas light has nothing to be ashamed of (cf. Ephesians 5:7–14; 1 Thessalonians 5:4–10).
Because John uses such a polyvalent and fruitful term, we should not seek to reduce his meaning too narrowly. Ultimately these various points are connected in Scripture. The God in whose light we see light (Psalm 36:9) is the God of knowledge, glory, life, joy, and holiness. Those things cannot ultimately and finally be separated; they are united in God, and will eventually be united and perfected in the experience of God’s people.
Thus in the surrounding context John implicitly references knowledge by speaking of a message and proclamation, and explicitly mentions life and joy. Yet if there is one point on which particular emphasis falls, it is the question of holiness—practical purity in the moral sphere. For John goes on to say, If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth (1 John 1:6).
The behavior of those summoned into the apostolic fellowship with Father and Son must be in keeping with the nature of God. God is light, and therefore those who have fellowship with him must practice the truth and walk in the light.
In what follows, however, there is a most remarkable juxtaposition. Fellowship with the God of light does not require sinless perfection. It requires, rather, honesty about our sin. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7–9).
While we attempt to conceal our sins, to deny even to ourselves that we have them, we are locked into darkness. But honest recognition opens the shutters to our heart, and lets the light of God flow in. God in no way compromises his nature as light by entering into fellowship with us. Through the blood of Christ, communion is accomplished and we are brought into the light—into all that the light represents.
The Clarification of the Message
John said more than just that God was light. He immediately strengthened the statement by adding that God was unmixed light, pure light, light with no darkness at all.
This negation that God has a dark side ought to be understood in the moral terms John accents. God does nothing wrong, desires nothing wrong, is not wrong in any way at all. He has no deficiencies, no shortcomings, no vulnerabilities that can exploited. He is the opposite of sin, untemptable and enticing no one (James 1:13).
This ethical understanding should not be separated from a more comprehensive idea. After all, in God there is no darkness at all also in the sense of ignorance, sorrow, death, or disgrace either.
In fact, it is possible to go a step further. The fact that God is light with no mixture at all points to the fact that God is unadulterated deity. He is nothing but himself, he is his own definition (Exodus 3:14). In other words, as the Belgic Confession says, “there is one only simple and spiritual being” (art. 1). Or as the Westminster Confession has it, God is “without body, parts, or passions.”
In other words, God has no ingredients. He is not made up of this and that, but only himself. We distinguish attributes, because they mean different things to us. But these are not detachable qualities that God might or might not have. Because God is what he is and nothing else, ultimately the qualities we distinguish are simply God himself considered from a different point of view. In our limited partiality, we have to do this; but the affirmation that God is light reminds us of the limitations of our point of view.
This doctrine of divine simplicity is also important in that it highlights for us the wonder of fellowship with God. Because the God of undiluted deity is a God of absolute holiness. What amazing virtue there is then in the blood of Christ, to allow us to fellowship with such a God in honesty, in spite of the reality of ongoing sin!
Moreover it highlights the sufficiency of God. Because God is what he is absolutely, he is not glorious or holy or wise or any of the other things that light can represent by participation. That is to say, God did not attain knowledge, or become holy, or achieve glory: no, that’s what he is. He is the origin of them all.
We have seen, then, that it was possible and appropriate to summarize the message of Christ’s life in the simple but inexhaustible statement that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. This statement teaches us about God’s simplicity, and thereby also presents him as the first truth, the highest good, the source of life, the fountain of joy, the wellspring of glory, the absolutely Holy One of Israel who also sanctifies his people.
The Value of the Message
Hopefully what has already been said gives some pointers to the value of the great message Christ brought us, that God is light. But two additional observations can be made from the fact that this message about God comes to us precisely through the life of Christ on earth.
The first has to do with the value of the Gospels for our theodicy. It is not uncommon to have people object to the Christian doctrine of God because of a perceived darkness in God’s character. Statements like, “I don’t see how a loving God could do or allow animal suffering” (or childhood cancer, or war, or many other downsides to life in a cursed world) reflect a sense that God does have a dark side. It may take an intellectual form, or it may appear more viscerally or existentially. It may come in the form of a challenge from unbelievers, or as doubt from one who confesses Christ. On multiple fronts, then, there is often a demand to justify God.
The question of theodicy is far too large to be addressed here. However without entering into the intricacies of the discussion, one point can be made. John learned that God is light and in him is no darkness at all by hearing and seeing the Lord Jesus. Exposing people to the Gospel narratives, then, provides an indirect way to teach them the same lesson. Particularly when accusations against God, or resentment of him, arise from a context of intense suffering, an explanation of the truth or a challenge to false thinking are not always received well, if at all. Of course Paul and Job will remain important tools in dealing with theodicy, the problem of evil, and so forth. But exposure to the Gospel accounts may well lay a solid foundation for resolving the questions. Christ is the revelation of God, and it is in Christ that we see that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.
The second observation, quite closely related, is that what people need to hear is Christ. This is true of non-believers and professing Christians alike. It is through Christ that we know God, have fellowship with him, are cleansed from sin, and walk in the light. Different aspects of Christ’s person, life, work, and words (both Old Testament and New) may be drawn upon in different circumstances; but what everyone constantly needs all of the time is nothing else but Christ. The complexity of ministry finds its unity and simplicity in the presentation of Christ.
For Further Study
With regard to the doctrine of simplicity check out this helpful episode of Christ the Center. There is also an outstanding recent study from Steven J. Duby, Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), which deserves far more widespread reading and recognition than its high cost seems designed to secure. Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, v.3: The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) contains an extremely valuable overview of the doctrine of simplicity from an historical standpoint. Heinrich Heppe’s summary drawn from the Protestant Scholastics in Reformed Dogmatics: A Compendium of Reformed Theology (London: Wakeman Trust, n.d.) is a valuable supplement to Muller. A fine older explanation with practical application can be found in John Preston’s, Life Eternall (London: R.E., 1631).
On 1 John 1:5, Hugh Binning’s “Fellowship with God” as found in The Works of Hugh Binning (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992) is both beautiful and edifying. Our need for The Whole Christ is well expressed in Sinclair Ferguson’s recent book by that name (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).