NOTE: This is a portion of my sermon on 1 John 1:5-10 in my commentary 1-3 John: Fellowship in the Family, published by Crossway. The focus is on 1 John 1:5.
This statement, “God is light,” has been interpreted in different ways. First, it could be a description of the visible manifestation of God’s glory. Second, some have seen in this statement a reference to God’s self-revelation to man. Light enables us to see. Though these first two options are true, contextually this does not seem to be what John has in mind.
Most likely, this is a phrase that refers to the moral perfection of God. There is not one blemish, stain, mark, or sin on the character of God. God is absolute perfection. Even the sun has its spots of darkness, but not God. He is absolute holiness and purity. This interpretation is further supported by two things. First, there is no article before “light” in the Greek text, which stresses character and nature. God is, as to his character and nature, morally pure and holy. Second, the following negative restatement, “in him there is no darkness at all,” supports this meaning.
An interesting feature of John’s style of writing is to state something positively, then turn around and put it in the negative. Notice that is exactly what he does here: “and in him there is no darkness at all.” Literally in Greek, this statement reads “there is no darkness in him, none.” John employs a double negative; poor grammar in English, but both good grammar and good theology in Greek! Grammatically, this is the strongest way to express emphatic negation.
Not only is God light, but there is absolutely no darkness, not one scintilla of darkness (moral imperfection) in him. In him is no shade, speck or stain of moral imperfection. In him is no fault, failure or falsehood. In him is no deceit, deviation or dishonesty.
Physical darkness is a terrible thing. “There is no distance in darkness. Darkness is limitation, darkness is imprisonment; there is no jail with walls so thick and impenetrable than darkness.”[i] Darkness is an apt metaphor to describe sin. Unlike my heart and your heart where the light of the gospel shines, but where sometimes there may be pockets of sin that we allow to go unchecked, God in his character and nature possesses no moral imperfection whatsoever.
John’s statement seems to us to be the plainest truth that hardly needs mentioning! But it was not so plain when John wrote it! His world was full of idols and gods who were sometimes no less evil than the men who worshipped them. The moral perfection of God was a new message in those days.
It is a new message for many today still! Think of what kind of God most sinners desire: a God who is – indulgent to his sin; who will shut his eyes to disobedience; who will always reward and never punish; who will always receive whether we come in truth or pretense; who is blind and willing to be taken in and imposed upon; who will put up with all excuses and bear all hypocrisy.
But nonbelievers are not the only ones who need to be reminded that “God is light.” How often do we as Christians sin, hoping yet that God will not think so severely of our sin as the Bible says he does? How often do we flatter ourselves with excuses for our sin such as “God is merciful, he won’t be that hard on me! Surely he does not expect me to always be holy and self-denying?”
I’m afraid we sometimes rationalize and delude ourselves into thinking that God can be bargained with, bribed and otherwise bought off concerning our sin. John’s forthright statement, “God is light,” is a clear and needed reminder that God is who and what he is, however and whatever we may think or act.[ii]
[i] Joseph Parker, Ephesians-Revelation, The Peoples Bible, vol. 27 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), 350. Parker was pastor of the People’s Temple in London and a contemporary (and sometimes rival!) of Spurgeon.
[ii] Paraphrased from the excellent sermon on 1 John 1:5 by R. W. Church, Village Sermons, first series (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1899), 299–302.