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Light vs. Darkness

Commentary on 1 John 1:5

The declaration that God is light and in him there is no darkness there¬fore leads directly to a statement as to how humans are to act. Human be¬havior is described metaphorically in terms of walking—just as today we are told that it is not enough to “talk the talk,” and that we have to “walk the walk.” And here we come to one of those polarities or radical alternatives that characterize the entire Johannine corpus. There are two alternatives, and no other: one must either walk in light or walk in darkness. Just as earlier verses in First John showed a series of parallelisms with the prologue to the Gospel of John, so does this image of the contrast between light and darkness. Thus we read in John 1:5 that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

This image of life as walking is probably quite old, and must have been common in John’s time. In two ancient and apparently not interdependent Christian writings, the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas (the first probably written at about the same time as First John, and the latter a few decades later) we are told that there are two paths: the path of life and the path of death. Here John tells us that there are two ways of walking: in light and in darkness. Significantly, however, while both the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas speak primarily of the place to which the two alternative paths lead—life and death—John speaks of the reason why believers are to choose a particular way of walking—in light.

There is no reference here to rewards or punishment, or to living or dying depending on which way one walks. This is not denied; but such consequences are not the reason for choosing to walk in light. The ultimate reason for walking in light is that God is light. Walking in darkness must be avoided simply because there is no darkness in God—not because it leads to death or to punishment, as in the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas, or even in Matthew 7:13-14.


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