Keys to Reading 1 John

Today, as in times past, biblical Christians face an onslaught of false teachings from those who claim to teach the Word of God.  There are numerous gospels within mainline denominations and cults.  Many whole denominations have followed the way of the world and adopted beliefs, lifestyles, and behaviors contrary to biblical faith.  They have followed the siren sound of worldly philosophies brought forward from centuries and millenniums before.  For this reason, Christians must keep their ears and eyes open for distinguishing between falsehood and truth.  The Apostle John gives bold warning in his letter of 1 John concerning those who seek to bring their false teachings within churches,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1, ESV).

An insidious philosophy had taken hold in the time of Jesus and the Apostles brought in from Greek philosophy (Plato) that proposed a dualistic way of viewing existence.  Jews and Christians alike were not immune to its lure.  It espoused philosophical beliefs foreign to Judaism and biblical faith.  This dualism identified a spiritual side and a material side, hence dualism.  The spiritual was perfect and pure while the material was corrupt and evil.  False teaches came into Christian fellowships and disrupted them with this dualism.

Exposing False Teachings

The Apostles John and Paul wrote letters warning their congregations of the deception of this sinister Greek false teaching.  John devoted the entire letter of 1 John tearing down the walls of its deception and exposing its philosophical errors.  He leaves us with some very important keys for alerting us of modern day religious philosophies that operate under the cloak of deceptions.  These keys enable us to gain greater understanding of 1 John.  This letter shows us how John engages in corrective teachings that preserve the gospel’s message.  He brings these corrective teachings to application in our relationship with God and other Christians.  These keys for understanding John’s letter consist of the following:

  1. Knowledge/knowing
  2. Spirit/physical dualism
  3. Light/darkness
  4. Truth/lie
  5. Love/hate
  6. Christ followers/anti-Christ
  7. Jesus the Christ vs. Jesus and the Christ
  8. Righteousness/unrighteousness
  9. Fellowship/separation

This Greek philosophy was the early stages of Gnosticism.  This Gnosticism held to a secret knowledge (Sophia) meant only for the initiates whom its teachers guided into a process of self-knowledge.  This secret knowledge was associated with an inward divine spark that led to one understanding one’s spiritual origins.  Light constituted this divine spark, and darkness was simply intellectual error and not really sin.  John fought back against six major errors Gnosticism brought into the early Church related to this secret knowledge.  All of them related to a subjective way of truth as opposed to objective truth found in Jesus.  They consisted of the following:

  1. False Christ – False teachers denied that Jesus came in the flesh, because to them the material was evil. They denied the Incarnation and Jesus’ physical resurrection.  Jesus was an illusion.  They divided Jesus from Christ.  According to these teachers, this Christ came upon Jesus when John (Jesus’ cousin) baptized Him and left Him when Jesus went to the cross.  The Christ remained a pure Spirit untouched by evil.
  2. False knowledge – Secret knowledge based on self or the subjective rather than true knowledge; that is, knowledge of the one true God (objective) and His Son, Jesus Christ.
  3. False spirituality – These false teachers believed in an ethereal spiritual existence based on secret knowledge that gave them an awareness of their heavenly origins and blissful destiny through an internal (subjective) divine spark. They simply had to be in touch (i.e., get in touch with your inner child) with it to gain true spirituality through secret knowledge.
  4. False light – There exist a divine spark (light) in each of us we must come to understand (secret knowledge). This opposed the true Light (Jesus, objective).
  5. False righteousness – People came into righteousness through self-knowledge and a movement away from material evil. Since evil dwelled in sinful matter, one becomes righteous by attaining a higher consciousness of the spiritual as an initiate, perfection of self-knowledge, and escape from intellectual error and ignorance.  It is not a matter of sin but knowledge and escape from ignorance.
  6. False morality – Self-knowledge informed initiates of their spiritual pure state. The physical body held them in slavery.  Once they come to self-knowledge of their perfect and pure spirituality untouched by the material world, they can then think on a higher plane and ignore the restraint of the material world.  That is, they can live as libertines (amoral), because their spirits are untouched by the material existence.

John’s Counterarguments to False Teachings

John not only wants believers to recognize the false claims from false teachers but also desires us to counter and refute them through acknowledgement, practice, and defense of the truth in our own community of faith.  That is the reason he begins this letter as he does.  Therefore, from the beginning words of his letter to the conclusion John’s defense of the truth about Jesus is of the highest importance because of its consequence on relationships with God and others.  Who and what these first century believers believed influenced the way they lived their lives.  His counterarguments to the six false doctrines of Gnosticism consisted of the following:

JESUS – John stressed that the real Jesus dwelled among humanity in flesh and blood (Incarnate) (1 John 1:1-2.  Jesus was not an illusion but a real person.  No cosmic spiritual “Christ” existed.  Jesus came as Christ (Messiah).  To believe otherwise denied the Incarnation, resurrection, the eternal life, redemption and mediation, and fellowship with the Father, five foundational truths of faith.

KNOWLEDGE – Knowledge was NOT some internal secret self-knowledge, self-actualization (Sophia), or enlightenment through an initiation (subjectivism).  It is not the means of getting in touch with the divine spark (light) within for discovering our spiritual origins and destiny.  Rather, true knowledge is the knowledge of the personal God (objective) with whom we have fellowship and whom Jesus came to reveal (1 John 1:3; 2:3-4, 13; 4:7; 5:20).

SPIRITUALITY – True spirituality is not something we strive to attain through escape from material evil and secret knowledge (subjective) but a result of the new birth from God (objective) leading to faith, obedience, and righteousness (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 5:4).

LIGHT – Light is not some internal divine spark of higher consciousness meant for select initiates through which we attain when we escape ignorance.  It is not some sense of the mysterious destiny of ultimate purity and perfection when we come into complete self-knowledge of pure mind once one escapes the material world.  John declares God is light; it is His very nature where no darkness at all dwells (1 John 1:5) in which He has called us to walk in obedience (1:7) in love of God and fellow believers (1 John 3:1).  There is nothing mysterious about walking in light, because it is summed up in the New Commandment of love toward God and others (1:7; 2:9-10).

RIGHTEOUSNESS – Righteousness is not reaching some higher consciousness and perfection through self-knowledge.  Rather, it is a practice of life resulting from the new birth (1 John 2:29; 3:7, 10).  This righteousness exhibits itself in love for fellow believers and being faithful to God (3:9-10).

MORALITY – Morality is not casting off the restraints of the material world and rising to a higher consciousness.  It is not being in touch with our spirit selves and denying sin as that which is associated with the material world.  Rather, morality is living righteously (faithfully) toward God.

Contemporary Elements of Gnosticism

As we can determine in our reading through 1 John, John’s response is hard hitting and specific against the treacherous and cryptic teachings of the false teachers.  These false teachers are attractive because they cloak their teachings in enigma.  Their teachings are all about the inward and subjective while they ignore objective truth and clarity.  Secrecy, the intellect, escapism from reality, and the higher consciousness are the essence of their philosophy.  The elements of Gnosticism have made their inroads into philosophy, religions, and psychology.

Cults as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and the New Age movement have adopted many of Gnosticism’s beliefs and teachings.  Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe Jesus was God, but rather view Him as a lesser god much like the demiurge of Gnosticism.  It also denies Jesus’ physical resurrection.  Rather, He rose spiritually, a Gnostic belief.  Mormons deify humans and make God human according to one of their prophets who claimed, “As man is now, God once was; as God is now, man may be.”[1]

The New Age movement harbors all sorts of cult and occult beliefs and doctrines.  One of the underpinnings of the New Age movement is Gnosticism’s strands of beliefs.[2]  Both the New Age and Gnosticism holds to mysteries, hidden knowledge, and “enlightened minds.”[3]  It encompasses the psychological philosophy of psychologist Carl Jung and the metaphysics of Theosophy, Scientology, and Christian Scientists.  It encompasses astrology and numerous pagan practices.  It has captured whole denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church USA and its Re-Imagining Conference in 1993 with its symbol of Sophia.  While the denomination rejected the Conference then, it continued to hold to the Sophia symbol as one of worship in its continuing “Voices of Sophia Breakfast” in the denomination’s General Assembly.[4]

Warnings!

Such inroads into mainstream denominations and Christian fellowships should alert us to the dangers of ancient religious philosophies posing as Christian and secretly coming into Christian congregations, disrupting and dividing believers.  We must read John’s letter carefully to become aware of these dangers and guard ourselves against them.  John informs us,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

Not much in philosophy has changed over the millenniums. The same false teachings continue to rear their ugly heads in different ways.  Beware of them!  Hold tightly to John’s warning, listen closely to similar sounding ideas that resemble Christian theology, search the Scriptures, and ask questions.  Many who come in the name of Christ raise false imitations and counterfeits, which sound like Christian teaching.  They offer things like higher consciousness, the higher life, deeper spirituality, inner enlightenment, secret knowledge, divine spark, entry into mysteries, self-actualization, and inward-focus.  They imitate, impersonate, mimic, and copy biblical faith.  In the end, these false prophets give a foreign Jesus and lead astray into false teachings of demons (1 Timothy 4:1).

[1] (Chapter 5: The Grand Destiny of the Faithful: Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, 2011, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, http://bit.ly/1kH4fIU).

[2] Phil Johnson, “What’s New with the New Age?  Why Christians Need to Remain on Guard Against the Threats of New Age Spirituality,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 10:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 76-78.

[3] Ibid, 76.

[4] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2012/7/7/voices-sophia-breakfast-thorson-smith-reflects-bac.

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