A Series of "If"s
Commentary on 1 John 1:6
Now follow a series of six sentences beginning with “if.” These can be paired into three sets of which the first “if” presents an alternative to be rejected, and the second “if” offers the positive alternative. The first element of each of these pairs—the negative “if”—has to do with what we claim about ourselves: “if we say that we … ” (1:6, 8, 10), and all have to do with claiming that we are what we are not. The second part of each set—the second, fourth, and sixth “ifs”—presents the positive alternative to each of the “ifs” preceding it: “if we walk in the light” (1:7), “if we confess” (1:9), and “we have an advocate (2:1). While each pair of “ifs” has its own emphasis, they are quite repetitive, and can best be understood as musical composition in which the same theme appears repeatedly, but each time more sharply defined and in crescendo.
The first negative “if” connects with the prologue by returning to the theme of fellowship (koinonia). In this new section, however, the order is reversed. In 1:3 John moved from “fellowship with us” to fellowship with God. Now he begins with fellowship with God, and “fellowship with one another” will be left for the second set of “ifs.” In this first set, what one may say is that one has fellowship with God: “If we say, we have fellowship with God … ” There is nothing wrong with that! This should be the goal of every believer. The problem is in not being consequent with such a claim. What is wrong is to claim that one has fellowship with God, and then to walk “in darkness.”
John does not tell us exactly what he means by such “walking in darkness.” The image appears repeatedly in ancient literature, and its meaning is twofold. First, walking in darkness is what people do when they do not wish to have their actions known. It often refers to actions such as murder, thieving, and adultery, which become easier under cover of darkness. In this usage, the image has a moral emphasis: walking in darkness is doing what one should not do. But then walking in darkness also means to be lost and in danger. Most of us have seldom really walked in darkness. Our streets have at least minimal illumination. In our homes we have night lights. Therefore, we seldom stumble because it is dark. But things were very different in ancient times. Only a few small areas were illumined by torches. When the night was dark, without stars or moonlight, one practically had to grope along the way. There was always danger of stepping into a hole or losing one’s way. And there was also the danger of ambush and violence. If one carried a light, that did not help much. While it might keep you from stumbling or losing your way, it also made it easier for robbers and other evildoers to see you, and more difficult for you to see them. This is why those who could afford it had others—usually slaves—carrying torches ahead of them. Many of those reading First John would have firsthand experience of the terrors of walking in darkness. Since most of them were not masters of their own lives, they would most likely come to the congregational meeting long before sunrise, in the small hours of the morning, precisely the time when the darkness is deepest and danger most threatening. They would know what John was talking about when he spoke of walking in darkness!
But the very fact that they were in church, listening to the reading of this Epistle, would mean that at least they claimed to have fellowship with God. This would be particularly true at that time, when there was no prestige nor social advantage in church participation. Since “fellowship” (koinonia) means partnership, sharing, having things in common, to have fellowship with God meant more than praying or being a friend of God. It meant also sharing in the nature and the truth of God. If, as John has just said, “God is light,” one cannot have fellowship with God without sharing in the divine light. In this context, walking in light is not just a matter of something one should or ought to do. It is being what one claims to be: someone who shares in the divine light.