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.
Here is John’s second reason for writing his epistle: “that you may not sin.” John did not want believers to be lawless. He wanted them to manifest the character of Christ, “who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). However, John recognized that even believers sin. Hence, believers need a good lawyer, an Advocate to represent them in the divine court.
That Advocate is said to be a hilasmos. Hilasmos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word kaphar, “covering, atonement.” (See Lev. 25:9, about the “Day of Atonement” and Num. 5:8 about “the ram of atonement.”)
Jesus did not propitiate an angry God. To propitiate is to appease or convince someone not to be angry. To expiate is to make atonement for sin, paying the penalty for sin and satisfying the law’s requirements to restore peace and fellowship. Jesus, our hilasmos, did not suppress the anger of God but 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 claim innocence 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).
Paul agrees with this, saying in Rom. 6:1 that no believer is free to sin that grace may abound.
At the same time, John recognized that even believers will sin, for they are yet “children” who are learning righteousness under tutors and disciplinarians (as Paul said in Gal. 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.
God has provided the atoning Sacrifice as our hilasmos, picturing a high priest offering a ram or lamb on the altar (Num. 5:8). But more than that, He has made the way to declare the Jubilee, which declares limited liability for all sin. It coincides with the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9), and this Jubilee ultimately applies to “the whole world.”
The Law of Love
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.
The New Commandment
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 and was devoid of mercy and grace. So Jesus had to replace it with a new law of love. Yet Jesus Himself told us that He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it—that is, to fulfill its every requirement (Matt. 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 replace justice with love? No, for the law was always about love. In fact, 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 the context of love. All of the judgments of the law should have been viewed as expressions of love.
However, the common understanding of the law in John’s day was based on the traditions of men, rather than a true understanding of the law. Hence, when the priests administered “justice,” it was warped in some way. Most of them had come to think that obtaining justice was a godly duty rather than a right.
It was the duty of the judges to determine the right of the victim to receive restitution to compensate for his losses at the hands of a sinner. The judge did not have the right to forgive sin. Yet once he determined the judgment, the victim had every right to obtain full compensation or to forgive any portion of the debt owed to him. Justice was the duty of the judge; forgiveness was the right of the victim. The law upheld the right of the victim to forgive. Hence, grace, mercy, and forgiveness were built into the law—the law of victim’s rights.
By this law Joseph forgave his brothers who had kidnapped him and sold him as a slave (Gen. 50:18-21). By this law Hosea forgave his adulterous wife (Hosea 3:1-3). By this law Joseph refrained from having Mary stoned to death while he believed she had committed adultery (Matt. 1:19). By this law Jesus forgave the world on the cross (Luke 23:34). By this law Stephen forgave Saul, who was later to become the Apostle Paul (Acts 7:60; 8:1).
The law itself does not focus its attention on the law of victim’s rights, but it is everywhere in the biblical precedents. The law primarily establishes rights, showing us how to love our neighbors as ourselves. It establishes penalties for violating another man’s rights and judges all sinners according to the precise measure of the crime.
Even the sinner himself was afforded the right not to be punished beyond measure. For misdemeanors, the sinner could not be given more than forty lashes (Deut. 25:3). For felonies, the sinner could not be enslaved beyond the year of Jubilee, for in that year every man’s debt was cancelled, and everyone returned to his inheritance.
Such is the embedded principle of love even in the judgments of the law. While Jesus restored love to its place of prominence, the law itself was never devoid of love. That is why the law never commanded eternal punishment—which, indeed, is devoid of love. The judgments of the law were said to be olam, “indefinite, unknown period of time.” The New Testament equivalent of olam is the Greek word aionian, “pertaining to an age,” an indefinite period of time.
The Old Commandment
Jesus came to RESTORE love to men’s understanding 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. Every law proceeds from God’s heart of love. Man’s perception of God, however, has always fallen short of reality, and so their perceptions 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” (Heb. 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 of the Sabbath 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. We are also to learn from His example of forgiveness on the cross.
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 4:4), 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.” As the light shines through our lives and 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—all who are begotten by God—are carriers of that light. As these light-bearers walk among those in darkness, their light is passed from one to another until the whole world becomes 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 (Gen. 4:3). Cain probably thought that he had faith in God, but in reality, his lack of faith was manifested by his hatred for his brother.
Cain had a religious spirit, an illusion of righteousness. The religious spirit has no true light, for its origin is not in the word of God that created light at the beginning. Such “dark light” ultimately leads to hatred, causing people to kill others instead of bringing them light and life.
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.