Theme and Literary Context
Although some see the book as repeated themes organized in several spirals, here we treat the book in five sections:
The first section (1:1-4) addresses the very foundation of Christian faith: first, Christ is both totally God and totally a man (1:1); second, such a truth is now revealed to all human (1:2); third, it provides and is the only ground for all believers to have fellowship with Christ and with each other (1:3); and fourth, this is the key to fulfill God’s commandments and the purpose of a Christian life in complete joy (1:4). The first section serves as a kernel for the entire book. According to MacArthur2, the overall theme of the book can be termed as “back to the basics of Christianity”
The second (1:5-29) and third (3:1-4:21) sections are both considered as development of the kernel in similar logic pattern: first, addressing a clear boundary defining the basics, which practically tests the life and faith of believers; second, reassuring/strengthening the true believers and guarding them from worldly influence and false teachings; and third, wrapping by returning to the basics. Overall, the second section is mainly focused on basic aspects of the themes, whereas in the third section the arguments are enriched and expended in broader perspective.
The fourth section (5:1-12) emphasizes two key elements for the believers to hold firmly to the foundation of faith addressed, i.e., faith and testimony. The fifth section (5:13-21) gives concluding remarks.
The passage (1:5-2:11) studied here is located in the first part of the second section, immediately after the first section (1:1-4) that addresses the kernel point via general statements. The function of this passage is to develop the kernel in details and pave the road to reassuring message immediately after it (2:12-14). To do this, the author starts with a definition of the basic point “having fellowship with God” (1:5-10), then gives its practical test in terms of obeying God’s command or loving God (2:1-6) and loving the fellow believers (2:7-11).
To give a definition with absolute certainty, the author uses the contrasted paradigms “light” and “darkness” (1:5-6), in which light refers to the basic truth of Christian faith and the darkness to the heretical teaching. “Walking in the light” means holding to the basic truth in faith; whereas, “walking in darkness” should refer to perverting the truth with false teachings. These first paradigms (equivalent to “truth” and “lie”) define the basics with respect to God’s nature. The author then turns to define it in terms of consequences, with paradigms “righteousness” and “sin” repeated twice (1:7-8; 1:9-10). That is, those walking in light is cleansed and justified (1:7,9), but those “walking in darkness” are condemned (1:8,10). The author seems to attribute all behaviors intentionally to the totality of human being of both spirit and flesh, in opposition to the Gnostic dualism. That explains why in John’s terminology, “flesh” means the totality of human, slightly different from its intended meaning of sinful nature in Paul’s letters.
Turning to the practical aspects, the author arranges his message in two parallel sub-sections (2:1-6 and 2:7-11) with nearly identical structures, each containing an introductory part (2:1-2 / 2:7-8) and a thematic part (2:3-6 / 2:9-11). The sub-themes are, respectively, to love God manifested by obeying the commandments (2:3-6) and to love one’s fellow believers (2:9-11). This, of course, is attacking effectively the featured wrongdoings of those who follow the false teachers. However, from a more fundamental point of view, these are exactly the Greatest Commandments, on which “all the Law and the Prophets hangs” (Mt. 22:37-40). Therefore, these are still “basic”---it is the spirit of the Law, not “the old way of written code” (Rom. 7:6). It should be pointed out that, the introductory parts are not just for connections or transition, but play such an important role as to place the fulfillment of the Law on the very foundation of Jesus Christ Himself. One would appreciate their crucial importance, bearing in mind that John was fully aware of Paul’s earlier battle against the legalism, which undermines Christ with fleshy effort to obey the rules in “the written code” such as circumcision (Phil. 3:1-11). Only on the foundation of Christ, is the fulfillment of the Commandments a true, complete, and absolute fulfillment. By putting these introductory parts before the thematic parts, the author seems to convey a vision that remaining in Christ is the power engine and assurance for fulfillment. In terms of dealing with sin, John shows God’s amazing grace (2:1-2), which provides all sinners, including even the false teachers if they repent, with the right to come back to God through Jesus Christ. Once this point is reached, an absolute fulfillment of God’s command becomes certain (2:3-6). In terms of obeying the Law, John said in v. 2:7: “I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning”, because all the Law and the Prophets hang on it. Yet, it is a new command in a sense that the true light, i.e., Jesus Christ, (Jn. 1:9) is now revealed for fulfillment of God’s command.