1 John 2:1-6

1 John 2

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

Let me show you an interesting image.


To understand what is depicted in this image, we need a little bit of background information.

In the second century there was a great Christian leader named Irenaeus. He was born in the year 130 and died in the year 202. He wrote some amazing works, his most famous being a work entitled Against Heresies that was about the gnostic heresies of a man named Valentinus. In this book, Irenaeus considers a number of false teachers. One he mentions was a man named Cerinthus. Here is Irenaeus’ description of Certinthus’ teachings:

Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.

We might summarize Cerinthus’ views in these terms:

  • God did not create the earth. Another power did.
  • Jesus was not born of a virgin.
  • Jesus was wiser than any other man.
  • After the baptism of the man Jesus, the spirit, Christ, came upon Him in the form of a dove.
  • Just before the crucifixion, Christ left the man Jesus who was crucified and resurrected while Christ Himself was away from Him in the form of pure spirit.

In this summary you can see some of the tenets of what would come to be known as gnosticism: material nature is evil, there is a distinction between the man, Jesus, and the spirit, Christ, and Jesus was only Christ from His baptism to just before His crucifixion.

What does that summary have to do with the scene depicted in that image? Irenaeus tells us that Cerinthus was alive during the time of John and that John was aware of Cerinthus’ heretical and false views about Jesus. Irenaeus passed on the story of this image in these terms:

There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”[1]

Historians debate whether or not this story is true. What cannot be debated, however, is that John came up against individuals and groups of people who held views that were at least somewhat like Cerinthus’ views (though they were likely different in some areas as well) and that John did indeed find such views abhorrent. This is why John wrote 1 John. 1 John was written to combat the false teachings of certain people who were advocated false views of Christ.

New Testament scholar Frank Thielman, in evaluating John’s words against the false teachers, deduces the following marks of their movement:

  • They had “stopped identifying the human person Jesus with the divine being described in John’s gospel, the one whom John calls ‘God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side’ (John 1:18, aut.).”
  • They claimed to be “without sin” (1:8,10).
  • “Paradoxically, however, they continue to sin (3:6,9; 5:18)…”
  • They “walk in darkness” (1:6; cf. 2:11)…”
  • They “hate others” (2:9,11; 3:15-18; 4:20)…”
  • They “love the world” (2:15).”
  • John’s “enigmatic statements” in 1 John 5:6 likely reveal that these heretics had placed an overemphasis “on the baptism of Jesus” and held a “corresponding unwillingness to admit the significance of Jesus’ death.”

Thielman points to the late second-century gnostic Gospel of Mary as evidence of the heretics’ deficient views on sin.

There is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called “sin.” That is why the Good came into your midst, to the essence of every nature, in order to restore it to its root.[2]

Here we see a picture emerging: the false teachers devalued physical creation, including the body, and thereby removed sin as a possibility. In so doing, they also devalued the body of Jesus and, with it, the cross and the resurrection. Because of this, there are certain heavy emphases in John’s letter, namely, the reality and brutality of sin and the significance and power of the death of Christ on the cross. Put another way, John is saying (a) sin matters and (b) the crucifixion of Jesus matters.

Without prolonging the point, I will note that these two doctrines tend to be the two that modern liberalism discards: the reality of sin and the necessity and power of the cross of Christ. John stresses both in 1 John 1 and he continues His emphasis on into 1 John 2.

Jesus is the advocate.

The beginning of 1 John 2 contains some very interesting images of Jesus. The first of these appears in verse 1.

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.

Notice the twofold emphasis in John regarding the believer and sin: we are not to sin but, if we do, there is forgiveness. This forgiveness hinges upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. Specifically, John tells us that Jesus is our “advocate.”

The word “advocate” is the Greek word parakletos. It “is found in the New Testament only in the Johannine literature” and refers to “an advocate, representative or friend at court who could intercede on one’s behalf with the judge…Jesus, the righteous one, intercedes with the righteous Father for unrighteous sinners.”[3] In other words, what we have here is courtroom language.

The image is clear enough: we offend the righteousness of God through our rebellion and sin. We violate His standards of holiness and break the eternal laws. As a result, we are worthy of judgment, sin, and death. But Christ Jesus is our advocate. He stands beside us when we trust in Him. We are covered in His blood and are also covered in His righteousness. He is our friend. He pleads our case. Through His advocacy, we are saved.

The lyrics of the popular praise song, “How Can It Be?” capture this image of the advocacy of Christ nicely.

I am guilty

Ashamed of what I’ve done, what I’ve become

These hands are dirty

I dare not lift them up to the Holy one

You plead my cause

You right my wrongs

You break my chains

You overcome

You gave Your life

To give me mine

You say that I am free

How can it be

How can it be[4]

That is well said and a great reminder of this beautiful depiction of Christ. He truly is our advocate before the Father. Even as we say this, however, we are aware of a potential problem in the way we envision this in our own minds. For instance, as we think about this we might be tempted to envision it in terms of God the Father as a furious judge desiring and bent on our destruction and Jesus, kind and gracious, keeping the Father at bay. In its crudest form we might be tempted to see Christ Jesus as holding back a ferocious and deadly grizzly bear on a leash, keeping the bear from killing us.

However we view the advocacy of Christ, we must not view it in these terms. We must not see the Son as loving us and the Father as hating us. We must not view it as the sensitive Son talking the ill-tempered Father out of destroying us. We must not view it as the frustrated Father being talked out of hurling His lightning bolts in disappointment after being coaxed by His Son.

Let us always remember that John 3:16 begins like this: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” The advocacy of Christ was itself commissioned by the love of the Father. Christ pleading the blood before the Father is in line with the will and desires of the Father! What is more, in John 5:19, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” This is an amazing statement. Whatever else it means, it certainly means that the actions of the Son reflect perfectly the actions of the Father. That means that when Christ forgives He forgives because the heart of the Father is forgiving. That means that when Christ advocates for repentant sinners He advocates because the Father desires this advocacy.

It is a courtroom image. There is a holy Judge before whom we stand guilty and deserving of punishment. There is an advocate, Jesus, beside whom we stand redeemed and forgiven. But the advocate was sent by the Judge to be the advocate! The Son was sent to save!

Jesus is the propitiation.

The basis of the advocacy of Christ is the finished and complete work of Christ on the cross. It is the fact that Christ on the cross has paid the price for our sins and thereby satisfied the just demands of a holy God.

2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

The word “propitiation” is the Greek word hilasmos. “The context,” writes Marianne Meye Thompson, “suggests ‘expiation’ – that Jesus’ death serves to remove our sin, for all the other images in this passage that deal with the purpose of Jesus’ death depict the cleansing or removal of sin.”[5] The IVP Bible Background Commentary states that, in the ancient world, “‘propitiation’ was an atonement, a way to appease or satisfy the wrath of a God whose standard had been violated.”[6] This is basic image being employed by John.

The imagery is Old Testament in origin and comes from the Day of Atonement, the details of which are presented in Leviticus 16.

1 The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died, 2 and the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. 3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. 5 And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering 6 “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. 11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. 12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. 15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel. 20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. 23 “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. 24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. 26 And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. 27 And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire. 28 And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. 29 “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. 30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. 31 It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. 32 And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. 33 He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Propitiation refers to satisfaction, to the removal of offending sin. Christ has done precisely this on the cross. The image of propitiation shows up a few more times in the New Testament. For instance, in Romans 3 we read:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

In Hebrews 2, the author of Hebrews links the idea of propitiation with Christ’s priestly office.

17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

Here the connections between this idea and Leviticus 16 become explicit. Christ is the new and greater Aaron. He is the Great High Priest who offers propitiation, but, unlike Aaron, He offers it once and for all. There is no need to offer it time and again. Christ, the Priest and the sacrifice, has satisfied the just demands of the righteousness of God.

John will use the image again in 1 John 4.

9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

God sends the Son to be a propitiation. That is, God sends the Son to satisfy the righteous demands of God. It is an idea that is essential to our understanding of the cross. Outside of this propitiation, we receive the just wrath and judgment of God. In Christ, however, the offense is removed and our enmity with God is cast out. We are reconciled to God through Christ.

Perhaps some of you will recall the controversy from a few years ago surrounding Keith and Kristyn Getty’s song, “In Christ Alone.” Here is how Christianity Today reported it:

The “wrath of God” has kept one of today’s most-popular worship songs from being sung in many Presbyterian churches.

A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) committee desired to add “In Christ Alone” to the denomination’s new hymnal, Glory to God, set to be released this fall. But it first requested permission to avoid theological controversy by altering the modern hymn’s lyrics from “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”

However, authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townend rejected the proposal. So the committee voted six to nine to bar the hymn.

“The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness,” committee chair Mary Louise Bringle told The Christian Century. The “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would have a negative impact on worshippers’ education, according to Bringle.

Christianity Today later posted an update to the story that said this:

The word that got “In Christ Alone” booted from a Presbyterian hymnal was not wrath (which is “all over the hymnal”), but satisfied, according to a thorough update reported by The Tennessean. (The hymnal committee offers its own clarification.)

The satisfied language represents the theological view of Anselm, whose 11th-century “satisfaction theory” of the Atonement was refined into “penal substitution” during the 16th-century Reformation.[7]

This is most interesting. It reveals that there are those who find the ideas of wrath and satisfaction to be mistaken and, one assumes, unhealthy. It is an unfortunate turn of events. The terms advocate and propitiation draw on courtroom and sacrifice imagery in which wrath and satisfaction are germane components. Even then, however, the terminology we use to explain and unpack this is not as important as the terminology of the New Testament.

Christ is our advocate. Christ is the propitiation. God has sent Christ to be and to do precisely this.

Jesus is the way.

The end result of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice and intercessory advocacy is that we are now free to follow Him.

Christ is advocate.

Christ is propitiation.

Christ is the way.

3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

John is presenting two ideas here. First, if we are truly in Christ, then we will keep His commandments. He puts it in the most jarring of terms in verse 4: “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

Secondly, Christ desires to be in a relationship with us in which His ways and commandments can be known and kept. We are not called to an life that we cannot approach. God is not playing a cruel game with us. True, we are called to an life that is only reachable in and through Christ, but it is a life that we really can live. We will, as John himself says, stumble and fall, but this does not mean we are to embrace our stumbling and fallings as the normative expression of our walk.

We should “abide” in Christ and “walk in the same way in which he walked.” His life must become our life. His way must become our way. The world should look upon us and see the life of Christ.

This is possible only because Christ is our propitiation and our advocate. We are now freed to follow the steps of Jesus! It is an awesome thing to recall!

We can follow Jesus! He has made it possible for us actually to walk with Him.

What an amazing thing the cross is! What an amazing thing the empty tomb is!

We are forgiven, freed, and enabled to follow our King!


[1] The Church Fathers (2014-06-12). The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection: 3 Series, 37 Volumes, 65 Authors, 500 Books, 18,000 Chapters, 16.5 Million Words (Kindle Locations 12689-12695,14973-14975). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[2] Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), p.538-539,541..

[3] Marianne Meye Thompson, 1-3 John. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ), p.48-49.

[4] https://www.metrolyrics.com/how-can-it-be-lyrics-lauren-daigle.html

[5] Marianne Meye Thompson, p.50.

[6] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p.738.

[7] https://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2013/august/wrath-of-god-in-christ-alone-blocked-pcusa-hymnal.html

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