What is God? One of the most common answers today is, “God is love,” evoking images of a grandfatherly, cuddly type. The problem here is not the phrase itself but the meaning we attach to the word love. According to at least one apostle, “love” cannot be understood apart from “light,” and given our culture’s warped view of love, this comes as a healthy corrective.
Every Christian knows that the character of God has implications for everyday life. That is to say, whoever God is and however God acts is for us the perfect picture of what we are supposed to be. It is no wonder, then, that a good many believers practice a spineless “tolerance” simply because love, to them, is equivalent to uncritical acceptance. Thus, God is love, or, put differently, God is He who uncritically accepts everyone and everything they believe.
The apostle John, however, had a different understanding of what it means to say, “God is love.” We can get at what he meant by that by looking at what he wrote about God four chapters before the love passage (1 John 4:7ff.).
“This is the message we have heard from [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1:5). This one verse sets up the central message of the entire epistle: God’s character demands that we live a certain way. If we want to develop our Christian character, then it would behoove us to look at this “God is light” a little closer.
While “light” is deeply rooted in the Old Testament (which we shall visit shortly), Saint John is writing to claim back, as it were, the pagan slogan that “god is light.”
The Roman pantheon has many examples of this slogan. Sol, the son of Jupiter and Latona, was the sun-god, while his twin, Diana, was the goddess of the moon. Both were hailed as gods of light. Not least, the emperor of Rome himself was deemed a god and worshiped as the presence of divine light on earth. Gnostics (early Christian heretics who denied the goodness of creation) got in on the fun too, constantly referring to the human soul as light, that it came from light, and that it must return to the light. All of these mistook the created — the light — for God, and so they worshiped it instead of Him. The apostle, however, asserted that the Person, God, is light, and he knew full well the challenge couched in that simple phrase, “[The God of Israel] is light.”
Even though many ancient religions long before Rome worshiped gods of light, the people of Israel had their own, distinct tradition with respect to the God who is light. At its core, Saint John’s thinking (in 1:5) is latent with Old Testament symbolism. Light was a common symbol for Jehovah, chosen by God Himself. On various occasions, God revealed Himself in fire and light. His clothes were light and glory (Ps. 104:2; see also Hab. 3:3–4 and 1 Tim. 6:16). Also, God is light in two ways: in revelation (Ps. 27:1; 36:9; Isa. 49:6) and in holiness. The light is transcendent glory; thus its antithesis, darkness, is sin and impurity (see Isa. 5:20). Light symbolizes the absolute perfection of God, as well as the revealed truth of God (Prov. 6:23; Ps. 119:30). Darkness, therefore, is the absence of revelation.
Lightness and dark- ness were frequently associated with good and evil in ancient times. During the inter-testamental period, a Jewish sect by the Dead Sea exhorted its members to love all the sons of light and hate all the sons of darkness. More importantly for us, however, are the writings of Saint Paul in this regard (Rom. 13:11–13; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 4:6; Eph. 5:8–14; 1 Thess. 5:4–8). One gets the impression that the Apostle to the Gentiles understood this imagery well. Notice, too, that in 1 John 1:5 the writer quickly adds for emphasis after the statement “God is light” that “in him there is no darkness.” In other words, God is revelation, salvation, and holiness, and in Him there is no befuddlement, cloudiness, impurity, or abandonment. The point is that living in the darkness is incompatible with claiming to be in fellowship with the God of light (1:6). As was typical, we see that lightness and darkness are given an ethical emphasis, which leads us to see that the apostle is unpacking a moral test that he expects every one of his readers to pass.
This test, this message, is not to be taken as the whole doctrine of salvation (as if our works saved us). Rather, the apostle John simply argues that if we desire to partake in the blessings of Christ and be in union with God, it is required of us to be conformed to God in a life of holiness. John Calvin quotes from the letter to Titus (2:11–12) at this point in his commentary on 1 John: “Appeared has the saving grace of God to all, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we may live soberly and righteously and holy in this world.” We need to understand that Saint John is saying the same thing as Saint Paul, just in metaphor: walk in the light, because God is light.
Learning about God, then, is to learn how to live. So if we are to love, because God is love, then we must first understand that He is a blazing glory. Far from being a huggable old fellow, our Lord is a glaring light, devouring flame, burning bush, pillar of fire.