The Nature of God
This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. (1:5)
The message, preached by John and the other apostles, was one they heard from Him [Jesus] and announce[d] to their audience. As God in human flesh (John 1:1–4, 18; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 1 John 5:20; cf. John 4:26; 8:24, 28, 58; 18:5), Jesus Christ is the perfect source of revelation regarding the nature and character of God. The apostle earlier recorded Jesus’ statement, “God is spirit” (John 4:24); here in his first letter he declared, God is Light and later would affirm, “God is love” (4:8).
The description of God as Light captures the essence of His nature and is foundational to the rest of the epistle. However, unlike the straightforward expressions “God is spirit” (meaning that God is immaterial in form; compare John 4:24 with Luke 24:39) and “God is love” (meaning that the persons of the Trinity love one another and mankind; cf. 3:17; 4:7, 16; Mic. 7:18; Zeph. 3:17; John 5:42; 15:10; Rom. 5:5, 8; 8:39; Eph. 2:4; Titus 3:4), the idea that God is Light (cf. Ps. 78:14; Isa. 60:19–20; John 1:9; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46; Acts 9:3; Rev. 21:23) is more complex.
Throughout the Scriptures, God and His glory are often described in terms of light. For example, during the exodus God appeared to the Israelites in the form of light:
The Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. (Ex. 13:21–22; cf. 40:34–38; 1 Kings 8:11)
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai after meeting with the Lord, his face glowed with a reflection of God’s light (Ex. 34:29–35; cf. 2 Cor. 3:7–8). In Psalm 104:1–2, the psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, You are very great; You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering Yourself with light as with a cloak, stretching out heaven like a tent curtain” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:14–16). Not only is God light in His essence, but He also is the source of the believer’s light (Ps. 27:1; John 1:9; 12:36).
At the transfiguration, when Jesus gave the three apostles a glimpse of His full glory, He manifested Himself as light: “He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt. 17:2). Second Corinthians 4:4–6 summarizes well the importance of God as light and its role in a Christian’s life:
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (cf. Matt. 5:14–16; Eph. 5:8–10; Phil. 2:15; Col. 1:12–13; 1 Peter 2:9)
Although the foregoing passages describe the significance of divine light, they do not define it. However, Psalm 36:9 does: “For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light” (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Here the psalmist employed a Hebrew parallelism, using two statements to say the same thing. He equates light and life—God is light in the sense that He is life, and He is the source and sustainer of both physical and spiritual life.
John expressed that truth in the prologue to his gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light. There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:1–13; cf. 2:23–3:21; Col. 1:15–17)
“I am the Light of the world,” Jesus declared; “he who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12; cf. 12:45–46). God, the source of true light, bestows it on believers in the form of eternal life through His Son, who was the light incarnate.
Scripture reveals two fundamental principles that flow from the foundational truth that God is light. First, light represents the truth of God, as embodied in His Word. The psalmist wrote these familiar words: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.… The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Ps. 119:105, 130; cf. Prov. 6:23; 2 Peter 1:19). The light and life of God are inherently connected to and characterized by truth.
Second, Scripture also links light with virtue and moral conduct. The apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians, “You were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth)” (Eph. 5:8–9; cf. Isa. 5:20; Rom. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:5–6).
Those two essential properties of divine light and life are crucial in distinguishing genuine faith from a counterfeit claim. If one professes to possess the Light and to dwell in it—to have received eternal life—he will show evidence of spiritual life by his devotion both to truth and to righteousness, as John writes later in this letter:
The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (2:9–11; cf. Matt. 5:16; 25:34–40; Luke 1:6; 11:28; Rom. 6:17; 16:19; Phil. 1:11; Titus 2:7; James 2:14–20)
If truth and righteousness are absent from one’s life, that person, no matter what he or she says, does not possess eternal life (Matt. 7:17–18, 21–23; 25:41–46). They cannot belong to God, because in Him there is no darkness at all. God is absolutely perfect in truth and holiness (Ex. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2:2; Pss. 22:3; 48:10; 71:19; 98:2; Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8; 15:4). Obviously, believers fall far short of that perfection, but they manifest a godlike desire for and continual striving toward heavenly truth and righteousness (cf. Phil. 3:7–16).
God is Light (v. 5)
None of the other biblical writers tells us so much about what God really is as does the apostle John. All of them tell what he does. Some describe the glory that surrounds him. But John tells what God is in his true nature. He does this in three striking definitions: God is spirit (John 4:24), God is light (1 John 1:5), and God is love (1 John 4:8). It is a characteristic of these three definitions that the predicates occur without the definite article. We are told, then, not that God is the Spirit, the light, and the love or even, in all probability, a spirit, a light, and a love, but rather spirit, light, and love themselves. In this we have the broadest and most comprehensive definition of God that can probably be devised in human language.
The Positive Statement
John’s definition of God is stated both positively and negatively, but he offers the positive statement first: God is light. This statement carries the reader into a world of imagery that is as old as religion and that would have been quite familiar and agreeable both to John’s readers and to his opponents.
It is found in the Old Testament, for instance. David writes in one psalm, “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps. 27:1). Another psalm declares, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9). In Psalm 104 we read, “You are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment” (vv. 1–2). Isaiah wrote concerning God’s plan for the Messiah, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). In each of these verses light seems strikingly appropriate as an image of God, for it points to God as the true source of revelation, intelligence, stability, ubiquity, excellence, vision, and growth. It is the nature of light that it is visible and that it makes other things visible. So also is it God’s nature to make himself known.
In biblical thought two special ideas are associated with light, however. First, the image generally has ethical overtones. That is, it is a symbol of holiness or purity as well as of intelligence, vision, growth, and other realities. This is apparent several times in John’s Gospel, as when John declares Jesus to be “the light of men” (John 1:4), or later, when he says, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Clearly this use of the imagery would not be so agreeable to John’s opponents, particularly when he challenges Christians to “walk” or “abide” in the light, as he does later.
These ethical or moral overtones are of great importance. Is God righteous? Then the lives of Christians should be known for being righteous. If he is holy, we should be holy. Indeed, says John, if anyone claims to know God while yet living a sinful life, he is either deceiving himself or lying.
The second unique characteristic of the biblical use of light is in applying it to Jesus; that is, in applying it to the historical Jesus in exactly the same way that it is applied to God. In a much lesser sense, those who follow Christ are said to be “children of light” or even “light” itself (John 12:36; Matt. 5:14), but this is not true for them in the same sense that it is true for Jesus. They are kindled lights, as Jesus said John the Baptist was (John 5:35). But Jesus is light in the same sense that God is light. He is holy and the source of all good. In his Gospel John tells us that Jesus is the one who reveals the world’s darkness and is victorious over it (John 1:4–5).
How is it that John received the message that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all”? Is it not in this: namely, that Jesus is also the light and that he revealed himself to John? Commentators have pointed out that we do not have any explicit teaching of Jesus in the New Testament to the effect that God is light. But we have very little direct teaching of Jesus about the Father at all. Why? Clearly because he is himself the revelation of the Father. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” he told Philip. In this as in the other Johannine literature, it is therefore not simply the revelation of God expressed in propositional statements but the revelation of God in Christ that is presented to us. Nothing, then, must detract from Christ. Rather, it is he who was seen and heard and touched who must be fully proclaimed.
The Negative Statement
It is a characteristic of this letter that John frequently accompanies a positive statement of some truth with a negative statement designed to reinforce it, here reinforcing the claim that God is light by the longer phrase “in him there is no darkness at all.” This is an important principle in the biblical concept of truth, indeed of any truth properly understood. A statement that does not imply corresponding negations is not a true statement. Rather, it is a meaningless one. If “A” is true, then something else must be false; or else, “A” is meaningless. John knew this, of course. Consequently, when he says that God is light, he immediately denies that God is darkness. God is good; hence, God is not bad. God is holy; so he is not sinful. Men may mix the two, as in many of the Eastern religions, in which all things, good and bad, unite in the One. But this is not John’s teaching, nor that of the Bible as a whole. In this outlook God emerges as that which is totally holy and therefore as that which is totally opposed to all that is sinful and false. It follows from this that men must be holy if they are to have fellowship with him, as John now shows.
5. This then is the message, or promise. I do not disapprove of the rendering of the old interpreter, “This is the annunciation,” or message; for though ἐπαγγελία means for the most part a promise, yet, as John speaks here generally of the testimony before mentioned, the context seems to require the other meaning, except you were to give this explanation, “The promise which we bring to you, includes this, or has this condition annexed to it.” Thus, the meaning of the Apostle would become evident to us. For his object here was not to include the whole doctrine of the Gospel, but to shew that if we desire to enjoy Christ and his blessings, it is required of us to be conformed to God in righteousness and holiness. Paul says the same thing in the second chapter of the Epistle to Titus, “Appeared has the saving grace of God to all, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we may live soberly and righteously and holily in this world;” except that here he says metaphorically, that we are to walk in the light, because God is light.
But he calls God light, and says that he is in the light; such expressions are not to be too strictly taken. Why Satan is called the prince of darkness is sufficiently evident. When, therefore, God on the other hand is called the Father of light, and also light, we first understand that there is nothing in him but what is bright, pure, and unalloyed; and, secondly, that he makes all things so manifest by his brightness, that he suffers nothing vicious or perverted, no spots or filth, no hypocrisy or fraud, to lie hid. Then the sum of what is said is, that since there is no union between light and darkness, there is a separation between us and God as long as we walk in darkness; and that the fellowship which he mentions, cannot exist except we also become pure and holy.
In him is no darkness at all. This mode of speaking is commonly used by John, to amplify what he has affirmed by a contrary negation. Then, the meaning is, that God is such a light, that no darkness belongs to him. It hence follows, that he hates an evil conscience, pollution, and wickedness, and everything that pertains to darkness.
5 John opens the first series of tests with a foundational principle: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” This being the case, those whose lives are filled with darkness cannot be in fellowship with God. The means by which one identifies a life full of darkness are indicated in vv. 6–10.
John assumes that this theological principle (“God is light”) cannot be denied because it comes “from him,” apparently the living Jesus of whom John is a witness. The statement “God is light” is introduced in the Greek text by hoti, which would seem to indicate that John is directly quoting something Jesus said (“God is light”). But no such statement appears in the fourth gospel, and although the Johannine Jesus refers to himself as “light” on several occasions (Jn 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35, 46; see also 1:4–5), he never speaks of God in this way. This apparent discrepancy has led many scholars to suggest that the hoti introducing “God is light” indicates indirect discourse (“we declare to you that God is light”), meaning that the statement in some way summarizes Jesus’ teaching about God’s moral nature (so NIV, NAB, NEB, NRSV, NKJV). Some scholars who take this view, noting the above references to Jesus as “the light” in John’s gospel, suggest that John is not referring to Jesus’ verbal teaching, but to the actions of Jesus that revealed God as light to the world. From this perspective, “God is light” summarizes “what they learned [about God] from Jesus from observation of his life” (Johnson, 29). This would be consistent with John’s insistence that he proclaims what he has “seen” Jesus do (1 Jn 1:1–3). Other scholars who take this view suggest that John has combined a number of traditional statements and concepts into a composite saying (so Brown, 227–29; Rensberger, 51). This is a reasonable proposition, especially since the Johannine tradition seems to have been preserved primarily in the form of the oral testimony of teachers in the community at this time. In such a setting, it would be easy for John to summarize several ideas from the accepted Jesus tradition into one creedal statement supporting his argument.
While the above solutions are reasonable, the formula that introduces “God is light” suggests that John thinks of the statement as a saying of Jesus. He refers to it as the “message” (angelia, GK 32) that “we heard from him,” and he uses anangellō (GK 334; “we declare”) to describe his current proclamation of the same message “to you.” While John has previously insisted that he saw and touched the Life (1:1–3), the terms in 1:5 all refer to hearing and speaking, even though it would be more logical to refer to “seeing” that “God is light.” In this context it seems most likely that the hoti at 1:5 indicates direct discourse (“And this is the message we heard from him and declare to you: ‘God is Light.’ ”). In support of this conclusion it should be noted that, while the fourth gospel gives no evidence that Jesus spoke of God as “light,” the underlying structure of the argument at 1 John 1:5–10 is formally similar to passages in the fourth gospel where Jesus is attempting to prove a point. In any case, even if John has combined several traditional sayings or motifs into one creed, he seems to be presenting the statement here from the platform of his authoritative witness to Jesus.
1:5 / God is light. This is both a theological and a moral statement, i.e., it describes the essential nature of God, as well as God’s character in relation to humanity. Later (4:8, 16) the Elder will affirm that God is love. Here, though, the emphasis is first upon the character of God as good, pure, and holy. Light implies integrity, truthfulness, and authenticity. It is also the nature of light to shine, to manifest itself, to reveal, and this God has done in him who is the light of the world (John 3:19; 8:12; 9:5).
The author claims that this understanding of God is what Jesus taught; it is the message (angelia) which the first generation heard from him and now declares (anangellō; the same verb is translated as proclaim in vv. 2–3) to those who follow. It is also what they learned from observation of his life (John 14:9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”).
The last part of the verse strongly affirms, as if in bold contrast to an unspoken claim to the contrary, that there is absolutely no darkness in God. Light and darkness are favorite antithetical concepts in the Johannine writings (John 1:4–5; 3:19–21; 8:12; 12:35–36, 46; 1 John 2:8–11; cf. Rev. 21:24 and 22:5). Darkness stands for evil, sin, and impurity. It implies deceit, falseness, and inauthenticity. Light and darkness are ultimately incompatible, and, while in all human character and behavior there is gray, in God there is nothing unworthy, undependable, or morally ambiguous. God is light.
The content of the message (verse 5)
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. The positive is characteristically reinforced by an equally strong negative which might be translated absolutely literally ‘and darkness, in him, no, not any at all!’ The two are utterly incompatible. What does light suggest to us? Minds taught by Scripture go back to Genesis 1:3: ‘And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.’ Here is the earliest expression of the nature and will of the Creator. His words execute his purposes; both words and actions together reveal his character. The God who creates begins with light, as the primary expression of his own eternal being. And from this everything else grows. Without that light there would be no plant or animal life; no growth, no activity, no beauty would be possible. All creation owes not only its existence, but its sustenance, to the God who is light, and the Christ who declared himself to be the light of the world (Jn. 8:12; Col. 1:16–17). Not surprisingly, light became a frequent symbol of God’s presence in the Old Testament, finding one of its clearest expressions in the exodus, when Israel experienced that ‘the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night’ (Ex. 13:21). This function, as a source of illumination and guidance, probably lies behind John’s emphasis here on walking in the light as an essential of Christian discipleship.
The other major significance of God as light in Scripture is as a picture of his perfect moral righteousness, his flawless holiness. John’s thought here is paralleled by Paul’s assertion in 1 Timothy 6:16 that God ‘lives in unapproachable light’. His ‘otherness’ is demonstrated by the prophet Habakkuk’s conviction, ‘Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong’ (Hab. 1:13). A foundation stone of right Christian believing and living, then, is that intellectually, morally and spiritually God is light, unsullied and undiluted. It speaks of holiness and purity, of truth and integrity; but also of illumination and guidance, warmth and comfort. As Faber has so beautifully expressed it:
My God, how wonderful thou art,
Thy majesty how bright,
How beautiful thy mercy-seat,
In depths of burning light!
How wonderful, how beautiful
The sight of thee must be,
Thine endless wisdom, boundless power,
And aweful purity!
Such light scatters all our darkness. It is the truth against which all other claims must be tested. For it is the nature of light to penetrate everywhere unless it is deliberately shut out. The light reveals the reality, and while it dispels darkness, it also exposes what the darkness would hide. The point is well made in one of C. S. Lewis’s insights when he comments that we believe the sun has risen not because we see it, but because by it we see everything else. There are no twilight zones in God. If we interpret this verse theologically, John is saying, ‘God is truth and error can have no place with him’; if ethically, he is saying, ‘God is good and evil can have no place beside him.’
We are now in a position to see the personal implications of claiming to be in relationship with such a God. Clearly there can be no higher human privilege than to have fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. That is why John is writing the letter and that is why we are given life, for ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.’ But it makes a nonsense of this possibility to imagine that we can live some sort of compromise existence, with one foot as it were walking in the light with God, and the other remaining in the darkness of the world. One of the first lessons of messing about in boats is that it is impossible to exist for long with one foot in the boat and the other on the river bank. The spiritual ‘splits’ are equally impossible! To illustrate this, John now proceeds to examine and demolish three false claims which were current in his day and which are still prevalent in our own. The first of these will occupy our attention for the rest of this section.
God Is Light
John has introduced his letter by proclaiming the message that Jesus Christ, who is the Word of life, has appeared and that the readers may have fellowship with the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ. John continues to expand the content of that message and explains that fellowship includes light and truth.
5. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.
- “This is the message.” John skillfully uses the order of words in the Greek to emphasize his point. Although we are able to convey the emphasis in English only with the translation this is the message, John puts the stress on the verb is to convey the sense exists: “There exists this message.” He discloses not only the importance of the message but also its timeless significance. This message, therefore, has not been subject to change and modification, because it did not originate with John or with any other apostle or writer.
- “The message we have heard from him.” John implies that God originated the message delivered by Jesus Christ. John writes, “We have heard [it] from him.” This is the third time John uses the construction we have heard (see also vv. 1, 3). The apostles heard the message from the lips of Jesus; they also knew it from the pages of the Old Testament. Hence David writes, “In your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9). God revealed himself to his people through the prophets (compare Isa. 49:6; 2 Peter 1:19).
- “We … declare to you.” What did Jesus teach the apostles during his earthly ministry? John sums it up in one sentence. “We … declare to you: God is light; in him is no darkness at all.” John and the other apostles received this declaration from Jesus with the command to make it known. The message is not merely for information; it is a command. That is, God speaks and man must listen obediently.
- “God is light.” John formulates short statements that describe God’s nature. In other places he says, “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Here, in verse 5, he reveals God’s essence in a short statement of three words: “God is light.” God is not a light among many other lights; he is not a light-bearer; God does not have light as one of his characteristics, but he is light; and although he created light (Gen. 1:3), he himself is uncreated light. Moreover, the light of God is visible in Jesus, who said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). In the Nicene Creed, the church confesses Jesus Christ as
God of God, Light of Light.
In Jesus we see God’s eternal light. From the moment of his birth to the time of his resurrection, the life of Jesus was filled with God’s light. “Jesus was completely and absolutely transparent with the Light of God.” And whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father (John 14:9).
- “In him there is no darkness at all.” Light is positive, darkness is negative. In his writings, John habitually contrasts opposites, including light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate, right and wrong, life and death, faith and unbelief. He writes, “In [God] there is no darkness at all.” Using the emphatic negative, John stresses the positive. God and darkness are diametrically opposed. Anyone who has fellowship with God cannot be in darkness. He is in the light, glory, truth, holiness, and purity of God.
 MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 22–25). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Boice, J. M. (2004). The Epistles of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 28–30). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (pp. 162–163). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 429–430). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Johnson, T. F. (2011). 1, 2, and 3 John (pp. 28–29). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Jackman, D. (1988). The message of John’s letters: living in the love of God (pp. 27–29). Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 241–242). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.