Thoughts On 1 John 1:6-10
By Jonathan Mitchell
6. If we should up and say that we are continuously having fellowship (constantly enjoying common participation and partnership) with Him and yet may be habitually walking round about (= living our lives) within the Darkness and the dim realm of shadows [note: a figure of ignorance, or the obscure previous way of seeing reality; the existence before the Breath-effect vibrated over us], we are constantly lying (speaking falsely) and are not in the habit of doing the truth (or: are not constructing, practicing or producing reality).
I inserted an interpretive note when I translated this verse, instructing the reader as to the meaning of the figurative language about darkness and pointing back to Gen. 1:2. As discussed above, John is referencing the prior environments of those in the called-out communities, and whether their involvement had been in Judaism or paganism, prior to the coming of the Light to them, darkness was upon the faces of their lives.
In his commentary on 1 John, Rudolf Bultmann points out here that the dualistic language of "constantly lying (speaking falsely)" and "doing the truth" corresponds to the dualism in the metaphors of "Light" and "the Darkness" and instructs us about what John means by "constructing, practicing or producing reality." In this last clause I have painted in the semantic range of the verb normally just rendered "do," here used in its present tense form. Truth "designates the authentic reality" while lying and speaking falsely designates "the inauthentic, the unreal... basically death, just as he who does not love his brother but hates him is a liar (4:20) – one who, according to 2:11, remains in darkness, and according to 3:14, remains in death."
Observe, also, that John associates the idea of "fellowship (enjoying common participation and partnership)" with the living of our lives (seen in the common metaphor of "walking around"). The life of a covenant community is one of interactions and relationships between its members, not just coming together for a "meeting." Shining the Light to "the world" about them will also involve interaction and relationship – and sometimes partnership – with those with whom the group associates in daily living. It is the religious mindset that seeks to withdraw and not be involved with those outside one's own group. We see the contrast of this religious mindset (as demonstrated by the Pharisees) when considering the mindset of loving inclusion as demonstrated by the words and behavior of Jesus.
7. Yet if we keep on walking about (= continue living our life) within the midst of and in union with the Light, as He exists (or: is) within the Light, we constantly have fellowship (hold common participation and enjoy partnership) with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, keeps continually and repeatedly cleansing us (or: is progressively rendering us pure) from every sin (or: from all error, failure, deviation, mistake, and from every [successive] shot that is off target [when it occurs]).
"Verse 7a shows that doing the truth is a mode of life that is realized in conduct" (Bultmann). Now notice that the Light is a sphere of living our lives. It is the sphere within which God and Christ have their existence. Here God is not just Light, but resides "within" the light of authentic living; within the light of the reality of the new arrangement (or: covenant; cf Heb.8:6-13) of the new creation (cf 2 Cor. 5:17). The message – the Logos – of the Life (vs. 1) is in fact the very life in union with which, and in the midst of which, we are called to live and move and have our existence (Acts 17:28).
In proceeding to unpack the last half of this verse we must keep in mind the present tense of the verb "cleansing." Following Catholic theologians (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) justification is a doctrine that involves continued forgiveness of sins throughout the believer's life. The traditional Reformed view of this verse is that "the blood of Jesus" refers here to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross. When justification (dikaiosune) is rightly understood as "being turned in the right direction (or: being rightwised – Bultmann's term)" or "being placed in the Way (Christ) pointed out" which involves "right relationship" (William Barclay, and others) or "fairness and equity," the forensic notion of both Catholics and Protestants quickly disappears. Note that the clause that we are considering here is following a discussion about fellowship, partnership and common participation (koinonia). It is primarily a horizontal setting that is in view, although a setting that is located within the midst of God, as manifested in His Light. The message is about God bringing us into union with Him so that we can live "rightly" with other people, and treat them with love, fairness and equity. The good news never speaks of God having to be reconciled to us. The message is for US to be reconciled to Him (2 Cor. 5:18-20). God loves us (John 3:16).
Now I will agree that the shedding of Christ's blood was both a historical and an "eternal" act, since 2 Cor. 5:19 tells us that God was within the midst of, and in union with, Christ reconciling the aggregate of humanity to Himself. Our being cleansed by His blood reaches back to the Christ event that changed history and ended the age of the Law, bringing about a new creation. However, I would suggest that vs. 7b can have another application that is based upon our participation with one another, and with Him. The metaphor of a body has been used to describe the called-out community. The life of a body is within the blood (Lev. 17:14). Christ is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25) and we must drink in His life-blood (John 6:51-56) in order to have His life within us – it becomes our food. But "blood" is also a metaphor, a symbol, of giving one's life for one's friend – as John 6:51 indicates in speaking of "the bread of life" that Jesus gave "for the life of the aggregate of humanity (the world)."
The body of Christ has life within it because His blood (within which is His life) circulates through every member, bring life to each cell and carrying off the waste. As the members of the body come together in fellowship and inter-participation with one another, His life, via His Spirit and His Word (both of which are life) flows from member to member, both feeding and repeatedly, continuously cleansing each member from mistakes and failures. Keep in mind that John has been speaking about living our lives in the Light (another bringer of life). Our koinonia is a source of life and cleansing, as His life-blood is drunk-down through fellowship. He came that we might have Life. The shedding of the blood of animals, so that we can eat their flesh, is a means of providing life to us. And so was the cross (at Passover) a sign and a figure to us: it proclaimed our deliverance and fed us for our journey out of bondage and into His promises.
Another thought on the two parts of this one verse: the first part speaks in corporate terms of a way of life, using the metaphor of Light to describe the character and quality of the covenant community. Perhaps we should see the second part, about His blood, as being the blood that created the covenant community – that it is this new arrangement (Matt. 26:26-29), this new covenant, which is being referenced as the vehicle for carrying away from the community the error and wrong direction of thought, cleansing it from the infection of the false teachings.
Here John may have in mind the thoughts that Paul had shared with the Corinthians about when the community came together for covenant meals, that some were behaving poorly towards others, not discerning that they were all coming together as Christ's body (1 Cor. 11:17-34). It was within that context that Paul was addressing "tearing splits (= separations into cliques; divisions) continually inherent among [them]" (vs. 18). And it was within their fellowship that they were partnering with the life (figured by the blood) of Christ, figuratively drinking it with Him in a new way, within the kingdom (Matt. 26:29).
8. If we should up and say that we have no error (or: do not periodically possess deviation or hold sin and mistake), we are continuously leading ourselves astray (or: deceiving ourselves and driving ourselves off the Path), and the Truth is not (or: reality does not exist) within us.
9. If it would be our habit to confess (admit; avow; say the same thing as; speak in accordance with; or: would continue in agreement [about]) our error (our failure; our mistake; our sin), He is constantly faithful and just (fair; in accord with the Way pointed out and in right relationship; rightwised), to the end that He would at once send away for us (or: dismiss or pardon and cause to flow away in us) the errors ([some MSS add: our] failures, mistakes and deviations) and then would cleanse [other MSS: He will cleanse] us from all injustice (all that is contrary to the Way pointed out; every nrighteousness; all unfairness, inequity and unrighteous relationships; every behavior that is turned in the wrong direction).
10. If we would say that we have not failed to hit the target (or: sinned; made a mistake; erred; deviated), and exist thus, we habitually make Him a liar (one who utters falsehood), and His Word (Thought; Idea; message; Logos) does not exist (or: is not) within us.
Now as we approach John's thought in vss. 8-10, let us keep in mind the context of what has just been said, before: corporate fellowship, participation and partnership (koinonia), vs. 6-7, which is either within the Light (the truth, reality and proper conduct of the new covenant) or within darkness (vss. 5-6 – which is a metaphor for ignorance, wrong behavior and false teachings).
These verses have traditionally been read as applying to individuals – and a secondary reading can apply in this way. But the context instructs us that up to this point John is speaking corporately, and that these verses are addressing corporate issues of error and deviation.
The Greek word "hamartia" (sin) is an archery term that refers to endeavoring to hit a target, but making some mistake in our aim or release of the arrow and thus deviating and missing the goal of our endeavor. By seeing this term through traditional eyes (via a limited translation which does not instruct us as to the core idea of the term) and the concepts of individual piety, I suggest that we have strayed from the point that John was making as he addressed covenant communities. Consider that the messages that were sent to the seven congregations in the Book of Revelation were primarily spoken to the corporate bodies; to the entire community of each city (see my translation and the careful rendering of the personal pronouns, which were mostly singular, addressing the issues not to individuals but to the entire group as a unit).
The communities addressed in this letter had errors introduced into them by false teachers (folks who were in darkness and spoke lies and falsehoods), and they were being led astray into Gnosticism. The confession of error and deviation (vs. 9) is a corporate issue. He is not talking about making personal confessions to a priest or even to the group. This would not have been appropriate in a society that had honor versus shame as a core value. Folks would have been embarrassed to do this – just as they are today, and so continue to carry a sense of guilt.
Note in 9b that their admitting the error of these false teaching would cleanse the group of all injustice: all that is contrary to the Way pointed out; every unrighteousness; all unfairness, inequity and unrighteous relationships; every behavior that is turned in the wrong direction. The false elitism and divisive individualism, characteristic of Gnosticism, was resulting in behavior that was contrary to the Way of Christ – which is a life of love, in covenant community. The "sin" was a corporate problem, just as was the improper table conduct in Corinth, cited above.
By claiming that they had no errors or deviations (had not failed to hit the target) they were making Christ and God a liar, for their behaviors were contradicting His Word, message and idea. If we do this (notice the corporate "we"), we show that His Word is not in existence within our group.
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