I’ve never met a legalist who thought that they were one. Just goes to show you how powerful the influence of self-referencing can be. As the theory goes, there will always be someone else requiring a stricter adherence to a longer list of expected behaviors and enumerated misdeeds — so clearly such a person is far more likely to be a legalist than we are. But isn’t that just how a legalist would think – comparatively measuring themselves with those who aren’t doing it quite right? Ouch!
The Pharisees were expert in the art of comparative judgement. They were so devout in their observation of the law, that they went well above and beyond what was required . . . and they made darn sure everyone knew it. For them the value of righteousness and transgression were in how they were external expressions of conformity or defiance, and as such, the only indicator needed for determining a person’s worth and significance. And because the Pharisees kept the law so impeccably, their religious authority went unquestioned.
So when this carpenter, turned itinerate rabbi, comes to town, hanging out with the riff raff of the city, with a message that exposed their hollow conformity for the empty self-serving arrogance that it was (Matthew 6:1-7) – the Pharisees knew that their authority was being questioned, and their manipulative control over people was losing its grip. So they laid rhetorical traps for Jesus, only to be ensnared by their own deceitful intent. Until Jesus finally calls them out into the full light of day, speaking woe upon their self-serving hypocrisy (Matthew 23) – a scathing repudiation of the religious fiefdom they had been building for themselves in the name of God.
They say light is a great disinfectant, exposing every hidden agenda, leaving no place to hide. For those who have spent their life in the dark this is a humbling undoing, stripping away the layers of bondage. But for those who have been pretending to live in the light, the true light is experienced as a far more searing rebuke – as it lays bare all of the hidden dark pretense of pride. So there’s no wonder, the common sinner felt invited to be healed and set free, while the self-righteous felt exposed, by Jesus’ words of life.
So when we come to 1 John 1:5-10, the invitation to “walk in the light” (vs 7) is best understood, not as a burden we were never intended to carry, but as a freedom that only the honest and humble can know. This is because this invitation to walk in the light has a conditional clause, we are to do so “as he is in the light”. The way of Christ is a humble path, so only the humble can walk freely in his light. But here’s the tricky bit – if you make being humble a task to be accomplished . . . you will have completely missed the point. Humility will never work from the outside in, it must come from the inside out. Now, here’s the great thing – it is the light of God within us working its way out that allows us to walk in light . . . so let’s join him in the light.
. . . and let him take your hand