That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—” (1 John 1:1, NKJV)
If Jesus appeared to the world today, would he be whom people imagined Him?
The Apostle John begins this letter of 1 John in a rather strange way that most people today do not do when writing to someone. However, he had a purpose for this beginning. Philosophers of his time began teaching a very different Jesus than He whom the disciples knew. A substantial amount of time had passed, substantial in terms of John’s life but seemingly short considering the brief amount of time it took for these philosophies about Jesus to take hold. Their underlying tenets survived for a couple of centuries since their formulation.
John gives insight into the basis for these philosophies. A battle ground existed that dates back the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato taught a metaphysical dualism that subscribed to the physical or seen and the intellectual or unseen. The physical dealt with the senses and material objects. The intellectual dealt with knowledge and the mind. Many variations of Platonism arose over the centuries up to the time of the Apostle John and beyond. These variations never really disappeared, but they lay dormant until another religious variation adopted them and brought them up to date in current religious practices. These variations exist today in a number of forms and practices, such as with different philosophies of the New Age movement.
One major practice that arose during the first century and continues today is Gnosticism. It integrated one of the major tenets of Platonism, dualism, and posed a major threat to the faith Jesus and His disciples taught. This dualism saw spirit and the material world as incompatible. Spirit is pure while the material world is corrupt. Jesus could not have come in the flesh without becoming tainted and corrupted. Therefore, He remain a spirit and never came in a human body.
John took up his apologetic arguments against this strain of Gnosticism. He exposed how it committed theft of Jesus and incorporated Him into its religious philosophy through splitting Him apart by denying His physical appearance and accepting Him only as a spirit. This threatened the gospel and its central truth of the incarnation. That is, Jesus came among humanity in human flesh, a body like ours. He knew and experienced suffering and pain. People saw and touched Him. He enjoyed a good meal with His friends and family. His own race of people condemned Him, and the Romans executed Him, hanging His tangible body on the cross to bleed and die. Men placed His body in the grave, but He physically rose from it to life once again. Gnosticism denied this Jesus.
The errors that crept into this infant church sought to undermine the gospel. These errors encompassed the following:
The dangers of these beliefs are the denial of the deity of Jesus, the incarnation, the resurrection of Jesus for victory over sin and death, and the practice of self-righteousness. This self-righteousness expresses itself in the pride of life (1 John 2:16), a condescension toward others that shows through a lack of love (1 John 3:1-10), and unrighteousness, leading to the denial of sin among the initiates or disciples of Gnosticism (1 John 1-10; 3:4-10). These insidious errors in theology and practice lead one away from God and his beloved children who know Him through faith (1 John 2:18-19). Those who deny Jesus is the Christ, without splitting Him into two parts, separate themselves from those whom these initiates consider uninformed and unenlightened.
Therefore, the initiates will have nothing to do with them (believers in the gospel John taught) because they remain in their evil of a lack of self-knowledge. Self-love becomes a substitute for divine love so that the commandment of love reduces love to the condition of enlightenment on a higher plane of knowledge that separates the spiritual from the material. This love is pure spiritual love based on separation from the material. Those who have not reached this higher plane have not arrived at this distinctive love with its basis in secret self-knowledge and self-righteousness. This kind of knowledge and righteousness reduces love to a feeling and mysticism that romanticizes it through the inner divine spark and an internal focus. It is not a love found in the rough and tumble of the physical world but on a higher plane of the spirit, the ideal, separate from evil material. This love (Akhana) is connected more to some sort of ethereal (other worldly) wisdom (Sophia) born out of eroticism rather than the biblical sacrificial love of agape or philos. It focuses on self rather than others and eventually becomes destruction and alienating. Those who follow this kind of love walk away from other Christians and subsequently biblical faith altogether. Because biblical Christians do not participate with the more enlightened, they deserve to be left.
The Apostle John’s warnings throughout this short letter of 1 John should give us pause concerning the errors that creep into our lives. They lead us away from Jesus Christ to another gospel and cause us to separate ourselves from other believers. Many in churches and Christian fellowships throughout history have adopted the errors of Gnosticism without realizing it. They believe in some sort of higher plane of secret knowledge that causes a separation of spirit from the physical world, relegating the entire physical world to evil and prizing a romantic type of secret knowledge. They attain this secret knowledge only through some sort of initiation of ecstatic feeling, higher wisdom, deeper knowledge or similar means. These who have not reached this higher plane have not attained a true spirituality that results in living apart from all known sin.
This describes a modern rendition of Gnosticism, one that also needs confronting with the same truths John used to refute and renounce the errors of his day. We do this through acknowledging our sinful condition and our confession of it while recognizing that Christ alone is our focus and source of forgiveness. We also do this by faith and fellowship, two central truths the Apostle John clearly teaches. This faith is in the clear teaching of Scripture and not in secret wisdom on some spiritual higher plane meant only for those who attain a higher level of spiritual knowledge (gnosis), abstinence, and separation based on self-love and self-righteousness.
This fellowship means commitment to love others, to participate in their lives, and to contribute to their spiritual growth. This fellowship is not “what I can get from the church or small group” but rather how can I give myself to others in an exchange of open and transparent knowledge of Jesus and His word. In this fellowship, there is no secret knowledge of dreams, vision, or other revelations meant only for a few initiates. There is not cliquishness that causes separation.
These philosophical strains of Gnosticism are dangerous to the Church and the fellowship and love we share with one another that raises some above others. Rather we follow the real Jesus and not some imaginary philosophical one that departs from what the Scriptures clearly teach of Him. This real Jesus leads to a true bond of fellowship around clearly communicated Scripture that reveals a transparent Savior who came in the flesh, participated in our humanity, was executed, rose from the dead, and remains our living Advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1-2). Through Him, we have genuine and transparent fellowship that leads to a life of joy (1 John 1:4).