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When John wrote his letter, he did not divide it into chapters and verses. That task was done many centuries later. Hence, the second chapter continues seamlessly from the first, and John continues his thought process. 1 John 2:1, 2 says,
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation [hilasmos, “expiation; atonement”] for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
Hilasmos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word kaphar, “covering, atonement.” (See Leviticus 25:9, about the “Day of Atonement” and Numbers 5:8 about “the ram of atonement.”) Propitiation is to appease, expressing the idea of convincing someone not to be angry. To expiate is to make atonement for sin, expressing the idea of satisfying the law’s requirements. Jesus, our hilasmos, did not suppress the anger of God, but rather was the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29) by His death on the cross.
So if we connect this passage to the previous thought, we see that John was telling us that we, as believers, must walk in the light of truth and not deny when we have sinned. Yet the purpose of John’s letter, he says in 2:1, is to prevent sin. He would not have any man transgress the law or have an attitude of lawlessness (anomia), thinking that they were now free to sin that grace may abound (Romans 6:1).
At the same time, John recognized that even believers will sin, for they are yet “children” who are learning righteousness under tutors and disciplinarians (Galatians 4:2). John comforts us by telling us that “if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In other words, we need not be so fearful of getting caught that we lie to ourselves and to others about the human condition. Instead, we look to our Advocate who has provided the solution to all sin, not only ours, but even the sin of the whole world.
He has provided the atoning Sacrifice as our hilasmos, picturing a high priest offering a ram or lamb on the altar (Numbers 5:8). But more than that, He has made the way to declare the Jubilee, which coincides with the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 25:9), and this Jubilee ultimately applies to “the whole world.”
1 John 2:3 continues,
3 And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.
John says that we know Him if we keep His commandments. Conversely, if we put away the law, we do not really know Him, because His law is the expression of who He is. If we do not understand the law, inevitably we will disagree with it, and (by extension) we will not have the mind of Christ.
There are some who interpret John’s statement in a way that puts away the law. They say Jesus changed everything by giving us “a new commandment,” as if it contradicts or is superior to the “old” commandment. For example, they may cite John 13:34, where Jesus says,
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
The implication is that the law of Moses is not based upon love but mere justice, so Jesus had to come and either put away justice or add love to it. Jesus Himself told us that He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it—that is, to fulfill its every requirement (Matthew 5:17). I thank God that He did, for this is the only way in which He could have become our hilasmos, so that He could be our Advocate when we sin.
So did Jesus add love to justice? The law was always about love, for the greatest commandment was to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. Love was always the foundation of the law, and each individual law should have been applied within its context. However, the common thinking of the day was based on the traditions of men, rather than a true understanding of the law. Hence, love was often absent when “justice” was administered. Jesus came to RESTORE love to the outworking of the law, so that the people could truly know the mind of God and know the true standard of righteousness. John himself tells us a few verses later in 1 John 2:7,
7 Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard.
Love was not really a new commandment, nor should we think that Jesus’ commandments were different from those God gave to Moses. God is love, and so His commandments have always been based upon love. Man’s perception of God, however, has always fallen short of reality, and so their perception of His laws too have been faulty. If anyone thinks that love was a new commandment from Jesus that had been unknown in previous ages, then it is likely that that person has not understood the law as he or she ought to have known it.
But let us go back to verses 4-6 to get the flow of John’s thought process. 1 John 2:4-6 says,
4 The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in Him; 5 but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him; 6 the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.
This is just a longer explanation of Jesus’ own words in John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” In other words, if we love Jesus, we will hear His words and do as He has commanded. We will love others as He has loved us. We will not steal from them, we will not seek to kill them, we will not covet their possessions, and so on. The law is the outworking of love. The law teaches us how to love others in specific ways.
Jesus was the spotless Lamb (1 Peter 1:19). He was “without sin” (Hebrews 9:28 KJV). Therefore, he never violated the law, even though His critics tried hard to find fault with Him. He often violated their understanding of the law, especially the Sabbath law, but He had every legal right to heal and to do good on the Sabbath. Those who say that He violated the law are saying, in effect, that He was an imperfect, spotted lamb that was unfit for sacrifice.
But He did not violate the law. John then tells us in verse 6 that we ought “to walk in the same manner as He walked.” In other words, like Jesus, we are not to violate the law, for we are to be like Him in every way and to follow His example in all things.
All of this goes toward John’s first purpose in writing this letter—“that you may not sin.” Later, he defines sin as anomia, “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4), from the Greek word nomos, “law.” In the flow of John’s letter, he tells his readers that they should not sin, but should walk according to Jesus’ example of love as defined and expressed by every law of God. Then John says in verse 7 that this is not a new commandment, but “an old commandment,” as old as God Himself.
Then 1 John 2:8 says,
8 On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining.
The commandment is “new,” insofar as its effect in “you,” because as the light shines in our lives and out into the world, “the darkness is passing away.” In other words, the effect of this old commandment is new. All who walk in the light are carriers of that light, and as these light-bearers walk among those in darkness, their light is passed from one to another until the whole world is full of light. A new earthly condition is in process here, bringing creation back to its original purpose, reflecting the spiritual glory of heaven in the material dimensions.
But if we fail to walk in love, and yet claim to be light-bearers, we do not truly know God. The apostle tells us in 1 John 2:9-11,
9 The one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother abides in the light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 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.
John’s letter is largely a study of origins, and it appears that the apostle is setting forth a commentary on the first few chapters of Genesis. Here he seems to have Cain in mind, for later we find him mentioning Cain by name (1 John 3:12) as an example of one who hated his brother. So we must relate John’s admonition to the story of Cain and Abel. Cain walked in darkness; Abel walked in the light. The darkness had blinded the eyes of Cain, even though he had given an offering to God (Genesis 4:3).
He had a religious spirit, which gave an appearance of righteousness, but that same spirit was rooted in hatred and selfish concerns. The religious spirit has no true light, for its light is counterfeit. It ultimately leads to hatred, causing people to kill others instead of bringing them light. Abel was thus the first martyr, and he set the pattern for all martyrs thereafter. This is clearly set forth in our study of the psalms. See The Genesis Book of Psalms.