John proclaims that “God is light” in 1 John 1:5. Technically, the name “God” in this statement has the article “the” in the Greek, and “light” does not, indicating that God is metaphorically presented as light and not equated with it. Stated simply, God is light, but light is not God. We see, then, that John indicates that something about light is analogous to God, helping us to better understand His nature and character.
Physical light is a direct contrast to physical darkness (cf. Gen 1:3–5), and John uses this contrast to speak of spiritual light and spiritual darkness. The point of similarity between light and God seems to involve both who God is and what He does (light) in contrast to what He is not and does not do (darkness). To be more specific, the metaphor of light brings out the ideas of truth about God (who He is) and moral action (what He does) through a number of statements in 1 John 1:5–7.1
First, having identified God as light, John states that no darkness whatsoever is found in God (1 John 1:5). The primary idea of light and darkness in this instance is a truth about God. God is altogether holy, and no evil can be found in Him.
Second, John shows the impossibility of claiming fellowship with God while walking in darkness (1 John 1:6). The ideas here involve both truth and moral action. To walk in darkness is to not practice the truth (1 John 1:6), implying a disbelief in the truth (i.e., the message of salvation). If this saving truth about God had been believed and practiced, one would walk in the light and thus have fellowship with God (1 John 1:6). Being that God contains no darkness and therefore tolerates no actions associated with darkness, He has nothing in common with those who walk in darkness and reject the truth about Him.
Third, John speaks of walking in the light and having fellowship with one another, that is, believers with other believers (1:7). This fellowship of walking in the light together is made possible by the continual cleansing of one’s sin by the blood of Christ (1:7), something distinct from the once-for-all cleansing of our sin at the initial point of salvation (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). This cleansing assumes confessing ours sins to God (cf. 1:9) and has to do with whether or not we have defiled ourselves with sin as His children and not the absolute idea of whether we have fellowship with Him or not.
In short, God is light, which means He is holy and acts in accord with His holiness. Those who have fellowship with Him have believed the message of salvation that has placed them in His light, and they will reflect this holiness in how they live. May we walk in the light, as He is in the light!
- These two ideas are more or less identified by others as well. For instance, D. Edmond Hiebert claims the statement “God is light” to be “a metaphorical statement of His very nature,” something that “clearly involves the intellectual and moral—enlightenment and holiness.” See D. Edmond Hiebert, “Part 2: An Exposition of 1 John 1:5-2:6,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (July 1988): 331. Likewise, showing the background leading to John’s understanding of God as light, I. Howard Marshall explains that “two notions became associated with God as light….of revelation and salvation (Ps. 27:1; 36:9; Isa. 49:6)…. of holiness.” He then states, “the writer is thinking of light and darkness predominantly in ethical terms; it is his way of saying: ‘God is good, and evil can have no place beside him’.” See I. Howard. Marshall, The Epistles of John (NICNT: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 109. Finally, Stephen S. Smalley similarly states, “The declaration, ‘God is light’ (ὁ θεός φῶς ἐστιν), is a penetrating description of the being and nature of God: it means that he is absolute in his glory (the physical connotation of light), in his truth (the intellectual) and in his holiness (the moral).” See Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John (WBC 51; Dallas, TX: Word, 1989), 20. [↩]