We all know that it can take a while to get your feet underneath you when you first begin teaching or preaching the Bible. From wrestling with the structure, meaning, and interpretation of the text to engaging with the congregation and finding your voice, this is an intimidating and challenging experience. Even the most seasoned and experienced teacher and preacher of the Bible needs some help every now and then. That’s why a series like the Teaching the Bible Series is so helpful. This series not only helps you understand the Word of God, but it also assists you in the teaching and preaching of the Word of God. After grasping the structure and meaning of the passage, the commentary summarizes the theme and aim of the text and provides some examples of how to introduce and apply the passage to your congregation.

Here’s an example of what you can expect from the Teaching the Bible Series. We found this example in the 1–3 John volume by Mervyn Eloff.

Walking in the Light (1 John 1:5–2:11)


The use of the verb ‘walk’ as a metaphor for a life of fellowship with God, while familiar to readers of the Bible, is nevertheless very striking indeed. The metaphor has its roots in the Old Testament, where we read of Enoch, Noah and Abraham who are said to have ‘walked with God’ (Gen. 5:24; 6:9) or ‘before the LORD’ (Gen. 24:40). It is present in God’s call upon Israel to ‘…fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God’ (Deut. 10:12), a call which they chose to reject because of their stubborn hearts and under the influence of faithless leaders and false prophets.

Given this background, it comes as no surprise to find John using this metaphor of a ‘walk’ to describe the way of life of the authentic follower of Jesus. In 1 John, the metaphor is restricted to 1:5-2:11, where the authentic disciple is described as someone who ‘walks in the light’ (1:7) and thus ‘lives (lit. remains) in the light’ (2:10), in contrast to those who ‘walk in the darkness’ (1:6; 2:11) and who ‘are still in the darkness’ (2:9). The basis of this stark contrast, says John, is the fact that ‘God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all’ (1:5) with the result that those who have fellowship with God do and will continue to walk in the light, just as Jesus Himself walked (2:6).

The paragraph describes the authentic Christian life as ‘life in the light’ and is designed to expose the lie of those who claim to be in the light but in fact walk in the darkness and to affirm and encourage those who do indeed walk in the light.

Listening to the Text Before Teaching

Context and Structure

In 1 John 1:5, the focus shifts from proclamation about the Life to proclamation of the ‘message’ that John heard from Him (i.e. the Life). In the original, the word that John uses for ‘proclaim’ in 1:5 is slightly different to the word used in 1:2-3 and this change in vocabulary, together with the above-mentioned shift of focus, indicates that 1:5 begins a new section of the letter. This fact is further supported by noting that 1:5-6 and 2:10-11 form a literary inclusio using the image of light and darkness. The emphasis on authoritative proclamation as well as the reference to fellowship with God (1:6) does, however, underline the continuity of what is being said with what has gone before. The proclamation of the message and the proclamation of the Life are inseparable.

In 1:6-10, the message proclaimed by John and his associates stands in stark contrast to the ‘claims’ of the false prophets. At the heart of these claims there is a radical error about the nature of God and thus about the reality and seriousness of sin. John uses the phrase ‘if we say’ three times to set out these spurious claims (1:6, 8, 10), the first two followed by the adversative ‘but if we…’ (1:7, 9) setting out the appropriate counter to the error. The teaching about the reality and seriousness of sin as well as teaching about God’s provision for sinners (2:1–2) dominates this sub-section of the paragraph and ties 1:6–2:2 into a closely argued unit, with 1:5 acting as a link verse to the prologue and as a foundational statement for the argument which follows.

Working Through the Text Before Teaching

Fellowship with the God Who is Light (1:5–2:2)

Having established his credentials as a true witness to the Life which has appeared, John now turns his attention to the ‘message’ which he and his associates ‘heard from Him’ (i.e. from the Life who appeared) and ‘proclaimed’ (1:5). At the heart of this message, is the first of two great theological declarations made in the letter: ‘God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all’ (1:5). The message thus concerns the character of God.

The Truth of God Revealed

Two things are in view in this declaration about God. First, the declaration that God is light and totally devoid of darkness means that God is true and the one who has made ‘the truth’ known. This God has done, first in the Word of Life who appeared, then in the message which was heard from him and proclaimed. Those who know God will thus affirm God’s truth and walk in the light of that truth because the truth ‘is in’ them (1:7; cf. 2:10).

By contrast those who deny God’s truth, show that the truth in ‘not in’ them (1:10) and that rather than being in the light, they are in fact still ‘in the darkness’ (1:6). To claim to know the God who is truth and yet to walk in the darkness is thus to be ‘a liar’ and not to ‘live out the truth’ (1:6). Worse still, it is to make him, i.e. the Life who has appeared and who has revealed the truth, ‘out to be a liar’ (1:10). Whatever such a person may claim, he or she does not in reality have fellowship with the God who is light and truth.

The Holiness of God Revealed

Second, the declaration that God is light and devoid of darkness means that God is perfectly holy and righteous, Himself without sin and thus totally opposed to sin. ‘Sin’ (the word is used nine times in 1:6–2:2), by its very nature, belongs to the realm of darkness and not to the light. As we shall see below, those who are in the light will therefore acknowledge the truth about sin, stand opposed to sin and pursue purity and righteousness.

By contrast, those who are in the darkness deny the truth about sin, claiming ‘to be without sin’ (1:8) and ‘not to have sinned’ (1:10). Such claims, far from being evidence that one is truly enlightened, are in fact the very antithesis of the truth and of the light. To make such claims is in fact ‘to lie’ (1:6), ‘to deceive ourselves’ (1:8) and to make God out ‘to be a liar’ (1:10) – strong language indeed, but language which is quite understandable given John’s concern for his readers.

The Lies of the Secessionists

What precisely were the secessionists claiming when they claimed to be ‘without sin’ and ‘not to have sinned’? The phrase ‘to have sin’ while occurring only here in John’s letters, is used four times in John’s Gospel (John 9:41; 15:22, 24; 19:11), each time with the meaning ‘to be guilty of sins’. The claim ‘to be without sin’ (1:8) was thus not a denial of the reality of sin or a sinful nature, but rather a claim to freedom from the moral guilt which is associated with sin. The claim ‘not to have sinned’ (1:10) extended this freedom from guilt beyond present conduct to past behaviour.

What the secessionists were thus teaching was a gospel which had no place for sin as moral guilt and thus no need for forgiveness or for purification. Deliverance from ignorance rather than from the devastating consequences of sin seems to have been the spiritual salvation that the secessionists were advocating. Such a view of sin, of God and of the nature of fellowship with God left no room for a message which proclaimed the necessity of atonement and thus of the incarnation.

What is striking is that God’s provision, though personal, is not individualistic. Christ’s death for sinners means not only that forgiven sinners can know the joy of fellowship with God, but also that they can enjoy ‘fellowship with one another’ (1:7). When those who claim to be believers walk in the dark and have a lax attitude to sin, the entire community suffers. Those who persist in sin inevitably draw back from service and community. Worse still, their attitude to sin may well cause others to stumble in their relationship with the Lord. The people of God are a fellowship of forgiven sinners who together seek to walk in the light.

From Text to Teaching

Although 1 John 1:5–2:11 comprises a literary and thematic unit, the length and the theological richness of the passage mean that it is unlikely that the passage can be dealt with in a single talk. The overarching theme of light and darkness and the key theological truth that God is light do, however, make the passage ideal for a short series, keeping in mind, of course, that the main theme and the aim of the passage as a whole should be kept in mind during each individual exposition.

Given the many and varied claims that are made for a genuine relationship with God, frequently, however, without any reference to the problem of sin, the centrality of the death of Jesus or the need for what, in an earlier generation, was called a ‘credible profession of faith’, a series on 1 John 1:5–2:11 will no doubt prove to be both an encouragement to true believers and a necessary corrective to those whose claims to know God are nothing more than a false and, in the end, a spiritually fatal presumption.

Getting the Teaching Clear: The Theme

Because God is light, those who walk in the light, and they alone, are the true ‘knowers of God’. To walk in the light means:

Living in the light of the truth of God, including the unpalatable truth about sin. To live in obedience to God’s commands. To live with love toward fellow believers.

Getting the Teaching Clear: The Aim

To counter false claims to a relationship with God and to encourage and assure true believers in their commitment to a gospel-shaped relationship with God.

A Way In

The idea of the Christian life as a ‘walk’ is a very rich and compelling idea, particularly for post-moderns. Use this idea to introduce the short series but remind the hearers that when John uses this image to describe the Christian life what is in view, of course, is not an aimless meander in the company of a friend, but a journey: a journey along a set path and with a definite destination; a journey which requires perseverance and proven character; a lifelong journey undertaken not in isolation but in the company of others, supremely in the company of One who leads and who not only knows the way but who is the Way. True believers are those who walk in the light, just as Jesus walked in the light. In practice this means that they walk in truth, in righteousness and in love.

A second way in for the introductory talk in the series is via John’s use of light and darkness. The idea of being an enlightened person has great appeal today. But what does it mean to be ‘enlightened’? Who gets to determine what is light and what is darkness? According to John, the only one who can define light and darkness is God himself, because he alone is light. And God’s definition of enlightenment is very different from ours for it goes beyond mere knowledge to life and it affirms rather than denies the reality of right and wrong. The truly enlightened person is thus the person who knows the God who is light and who walks in the light that God gives.

Ideas for Application

Although the world and the worldly church deny the reality and seriousness of sin, John makes it absolutely clear that sin is real and deadly. And yet it is also clear from John’s teaching that sin need not keep people away from God. This section of 1 John thus gives us great opportunities to talk about sin and how to deal with it. Closely related to the above is, of course, John’s teaching about the death of Jesus in 1:5–2:2. The passage thus provides an ideal opportunity to explain the atonement, both in relation to sin and in relation to the wrath of God, and to counter the teaching of those who deny the necessity and centrality of the atonement. The question of assurance remains central to the passage as a whole. In particular, it gives an opportunity to address the relationship between sin, obedience and assurance.

Suggestions for Teaching or Preaching

Sermon 1 | Walking with God (1:5-7)

1. The truth about God

  • God is light
  • There is no darkness in God

2. The Christian walk

  • A call to walk in the light
  • A call to walk in fellowship with God
  • Called to walk in fellowship with one another

Sermon 2 | The God of Light and the Sin of Man (1:5-10)

1. The truth about God

  • God is light
  • There is no darkness in God

2. The truth about sin

  • Sin separates
  • We must face all sin
  • All sin is forgivable

3. The truth about people

  • All have sinned
  • Deceived and deceivers
  • Forgiven sinners

Suggestions for Teaching

Questions to help understand the passage

1. What does this passage teach about God?

2. What does the statement ‘God is light’ mean with respect to Truth? Righteousness?

3. What did the secessionists claim?

4. How did John counter their claims on each occasion?

5. What does 1:5–2:11 teach us about the true Christian life?

Questions to help apply the passage

1. How should believers respond to the reality of sin?

2. How does sin affect assurance?

3. How does sin affect our relationship with our fellow-believers?

4. How do the death and intercession of Jesus enable us to be in fellowship with God?

5. How would you use this passage in a conversation with a nominal Christian? A Christian struggling with some besetting sin? A Christian who doubts their relationship with God?

Prepare Yourself with the Teaching the Bible Series

If you teach or preach the Bible, or even if you simply want to better understand and apply the Bible to your life, then the Teaching the Bible Series is perfect for you. Visit our website to learn more about the series and to see which volumes are available.

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