Born of God: Foundation for Abiding in God

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you…If you know that He is righteous, you may be sure, that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him” (1 John 2:24, 29).

One of the major themes in 1 John consists of “abiding.”  John’s qualifies his use of the word “abiding” by its fruit, and that fruit rests in the new birth.   John wrote to the Church and individuals in it.  He addressed false teachers who disturbed the fellowship of community.  Along with their false teachings, they saw no use for remaining in fellowship. John set the stage for his discussion on abiding in God by showing the unrighteousness and unfaithfulness of these false teachers,

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

They left because they were false confessors.  Those who fail to confess Jesus do not remain in the fellowship of believers.  They stay as long as they get something out of it.  They have nothing to keep them committed, because their focus is on themselves and not on Jesus and His Father.  Therefore, once people rejected their false teachings, they had no use for the fellowship.

The following chart shows John’s teaching of abiding as opposed to what the  false teachers taught.

Contrast of Abiding and Leaving

ABIDING (2:24) LEAVING (2:19)
Believing truth (2:21) Believing a lie (2:22)
Objective witness of the Holy Spirit (2:20) Reliance on subjectivism, inner enlightenment
Believing Jesus’ incarnation (2:22-23) Rejecting Jesus – Jesus and the Christ
Confession (2:23) Denial
Abiding (2:24) Leaving
Eternal life (2:25) Eternal death
Christ’s appearance (2:28) No bodily appearance, an illusion, spiritual
Righteousness (2:29) Unrighteous
Following the new birth (2:29) Following the flesh

The expressions of faith in community could not exist if those in it did not abide together.  Abiding constituted both a community and an individual application given his focus on those who left (2:19).  Abiding together strengthened the bonds of fellowship in community.  They all held  to common faith and teaching.

For these reasons, John highlighted that these false brethren and teaches left because, as he declared,

“…they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.  But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (2:19).

They were unrighteous, not only denying Christ but also rejecting that they were sinners.  John gave an earlier counter argument to their dim view of sin (1:8-10).  The word “righteousness” carries a sense of both living right and being faithful (1 John 2:29).  Righteousness assumes its opposite of living unrighteously or in the presence of sin.  These false brethren were neither righteous or faithful.

Abiding in God was crucial for corporate fellowship.  Those who adopted a false view of God by denying the Son and the Father placed a dagger in the heart of fellowship.  They stirred up controversial teachings and presented a false God and spurious Jesus.  Abiding fellowship was not possible with such false teachings.

The Anchor of the New Birth

While John stresses personal abiding, that abiding hinged on God’s work in the person for producing a new birth from which life (2:25; 3:14; 5:11-13), righteousness (2:29; 3:7), and love (3:1, 10) emanate.  These three words thread their way through this letter.  They express the life of abiding in God.  That is, the weight of the abiding life begins with and rests with God.  He gives birth, and from birth arises the knowledge of the Father and the Son (2:23-24) with the assurance of eternal life (2:25).  Abiding, then, is a fruit of the new birth.

John introduces the theme of abiding prior to his phrase “born of God.”  This later introduction of the new birth is a conclusive statement that summarizes the nature and source of abiding in God.  Righteousness signifies abiding,

 Believers who act righteously in word and deed proclaim their righteous Lord and show the error of the false teachers” (Peter Toon, “Righteousness” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Books, 1996), p. 689).

He intersperses the word “born of God” throughout this letter and associates it with righteousness and love.  In doing so, he wants to conclude that the new birth is their source.

His first use of “abide” is in 1 John 2:24,

“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you” (2:24).

He associates it with his introduction of this letter, “That which was from the beginning” (1:1).  What did they hear from the beginning?  The message about the real presence of Jesus, the Word of life or the eternal life.  Notice how John uses “eternal life” in his introduction of Jesus (1:2) and in this passage (2:25).  Because Jesus is the eternal life, we have assurance of eternal life through Him.

In this introduction, John counters the counterfeit doctrine of an illusion of Jesus or at best a simple man and not God.  At the beginning of this section (2:18-19), John again raises the folly of the false teachers.  They left the community of faith to show that their temporary presence did not reflect abiding in God.  Since they did not believe that Jesus actually came in the flesh, they undercut the foundation for the life of faith.  Abiding needed something of more substance – the new birth.  He concludes this section with the necessity of the new birth,

“If you know that He is righteous, you may be sure, that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him” (2:29).

The new birth is the staying power of faith.  Upon first glance, it seems that the practice of righteous gives way to the new birth.  Nothing could be further from John’s thoughts.  The verb John uses means just the opposite.  John uses the perfect tense to express “born of Him.”  The perfect tense indicates the continuation and present state of a completed past action.  What this means is that this past action was the new birth.  This new birth results in continuing to practice righteousness.  Practice suggests progress and not perfection.  John countered the false teaching of being without sin in the beginning of his letter (1:8-10).  In the same way, abiding has its strength in the new birth God gives to us.

Those who deny Jesus is the Christ and came in the flesh lie and do not know or practice the truth (2:21-23).  Because they rejected Jesus, they left the fellowship of believers (2:19).  They did not know His righteousness, because they did not know Him.  They were antichrist (2:18-22), because they held a different view of Him, one contrary to what the Apostles taught, especially John.  They did not know birth from God but speculated about the divine spark within.  These false teachers focused inward for self- knowledge rather than upward for the knowledge of God found in Christ.  Getting in touch with their spiritual origins and destiny through self-knowledge and escape from intellectual error and ignorance was their spiritual birth in a new spiritual body.

Such a philosophy led to the rejection of the true meaning of righteousness, Christ as its source, and the need for abiding in God.  John refuted these teachers and claimed they sought to deceive (2:26).  He affirmed that those who believed the Son had the anointing, the Holy Spirit, the source of true knowledge.  The Spirit will be with them until the final appearance of Jesus (2:28).  Abiding in Christ gives assurance and confidence when believers see Him.  By stressing Jesus’ physical return (appearance), John jabs at the false spirituality of one’s ultimate destiny in a spiritual divine body.  Abiding in God is a vastly different process than these false teachers taught.  Theirs focused inward in search of enlightenment through self-knowledge.  John taught a focus upward toward the knowledge of God and the practice of God’s righteousness.

The New Birth, Abiding, and Their Expressions

As we see from John, his conclusion really gives the anchor for abiding in God,

“…everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him” (2:29).

That is, righteousness comes to fruition through the new birth.  In discussing this first instance of the new birth, the first thought that comes to his mind is the knowledge of Jesus.  His righteousness stands as the source of the new birth.  We understand God’s righteousness through the revelation of Christ.  The new birth God brings about in us bears witness to Christ’s righteousness, the faithful Son over the house of God, whose house we are as the author of Hebrews claims (Hebrews 3:2).  We would not know righteousness apart from Christ.  We would not know Christ apart from the new birth.  We could not practice righteousness without being born again.  The new birth brings us to its fruit: faith, knowing and practicing righteousness, and love.

These outcomes are impossible within knowing God through the new birth.  We express them in community as we show goodness, faithfulness, and love to one another.  When we do, we express our commitment to build one another up in faith.  The false teachers left, showing their lack of commitment to sound teaching that promoted commitment to loving those in fellowship.  Those whom God gives spiritual birth engage in this practice of righteousness, a practice that strengthens fellowship and those in it.

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Evidences for Knowing God

1 John Study Notes“And by this we know we have come to know Him…”  (1 John 2:3)

False teachers during John’s time placed knowledge as a high priority in their philosophical worldview.  Today, knowledge also rates very high in our contemporary world.  In both of these cases, knowledge is superficial with a focus on self-advancement.  In John’s time, knowledge emphasized self, mystery, secrets, and initiations into a special group.  It placed theory and speculation above the truth of God.  Today, knowledge assumes similar qualities.  God takes a back seat to secular philosophy, theory, speculation, and self-knowledge.Dead Sea Scroll

False teachers then and those of today turn knowledge upside down, placing the knowledge of God lower than alleged knowledge of ourselves.  Consequently, a large gap exists between the knowledge of our world (and ourselves in it) and God.  This gap has led to the rejection of God and His relationship with the world.  The speculations of atheism and evolution express this divide.  Both reject God as the source of the world and its moral structures.  Therefore, knowledge according to the world has little if anything to do with God and relating to Him.  For this reason, John writes,

And by this we know we have come to know Him…”  (1 John 2:3)

Knowledge According to False Teachers

John saw through the false teachers’ erroneous view of knowledge and sought to correct it.  His corrections also apply to the present time.  John’s correction of knowledge took a 180-degree turn from the false teachers.  The Gnostic philosophy began with self and self-knowledge.  John said that there is a great divide between the claim of knowledge of false teachers and the knowledge of God.  John turned from the inward (subjective) to God (outward/objective).  He declared the knowledge of God has greater importance.

Gnosticism, on the other hand, focused on experience and the spiritual.  However, the spirit had a very different meaning than the biblical one.  It referred to the deeper level of an individual: the intuitive and unconscious.  It was highly subjective, non-specific, and vague.  It was within this subjective deeper level one connected with the incomprehensible and undefinable God.  Gnostics believed one cannot make the journey toward knowing God until one became an initiate or those spiritually ready to listen to the masters who knew the mysteries or secret traditions.  Knowledge consisted of coming to terms with the divine spark within and the escape from ignorance and intellectual error.  Knowledge is coming to terms with our origins (true spiritual nature) and destiny.  However, we cannot know God and ourselves completely while we dwell in the present material world.  He is inaccessible to us in our present material state.  According to one view of Gnosticism (Valentinian),

“…God is incomprehensible and cannot be known directly.  Therefore he defies accurate description.  He is infinite, without beginning or end and is the ultimate origin of all things. He encompasses all things without being encompassed.  Everything including the world lies within the deity and continues to be part of it.  The Godhead manifests itself through a process of self-unfolding in the subsequent multiplicity of being while maintaining its unity” (“A Brief Summary of Valentinian Theology,” The Gnostic Society Library, http://bit.ly/22jEBk5).

One can see the vagueness of knowledge, because it dwells in the mysterious and in secrecy.

Evidence of True Biblical Knowledge

John says NO to this type of knowledge.  He claims that knowledge is not vague or secret at all.  Rather, God is accessible and knowable while we live in the world.  Knowledge does not consist of an inward journey but faith in specific and clear evidences.  There is no divine spark within.  Knowledge does not begin with the subjective self but it beings with God’s objective revelation and His work in us through the new birth (1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).

John associates knowledge with several other key truths.  These key truths act as John’s rebuttal toward false teachers.  The table below shows these truths and the assertions they refute:

John’s Key Truths

Claims of False Teachers (Gnostics)

Keeping God’s Commands Seeking the divine inner spark
Love God Self-love; self-awareness; self-knowledge
Abiding in Christ Becoming an initiate into secret knowledge
Truth Intuition and consciousness
Light Enlightenment from inward divine spark
External objective knowledge Internal subjective knowledge
God is accessible and knowable God is inaccessible and unknowable
Knowledge is concrete, specific, and clear Knowledge is vague, non-specific, and secretive

These key truths give evidence of knowledge.  When we think of evidence, we associate it with specific observable data, such as evidence in a court of law or for scientific theory.  We view it as that which supports a claim or argument for events.  For example, the evidence for gravity is the event of dropping a heavy object, and it drops to the ground (unless it is a helium balloon).

Although John does not use evidence in exactly the same way, it is analogous.  The evidence for knowing God is keeping His commandments.  When people see that we live by what God says in the Bible, they say, “That person must know God.  He gives evidence by following God.”  The same holds true with evidence of love, truth, and light.  Enlightenment comes from following the light, which is the nature of God.  When we walk into the light, it shines all around us, and we are walking in it.  That light makes our way clear, and we do not want to go off the path into the darkness.  We know what is true when we follow it.  Truth, light, and love are objective qualities found in God.  Those who keep God’s commandments show they know the truth and that it dwells in them.  Those who love God and others give evidence that they know God’s love:

“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” (1 John 4:10).

God’s love shines from them.  We do not fall in love.  God’s love is no romantic notion that makes us swoon.  Love is not a feeling we learn, simply words on a Valentine card, ecstasy, an inspiration, or a poem as Plato claimed.  There is no vagueness or mystery about love.  John makes clear about love and brings it out of the realm of some mystery into the light where we can know it.  Since God is love, the new birth grants us knowledge of His love so that we may share it with others (1 John 4:7).

True Knowledge Promotes Growth

After correcting the teaching of false teachers, John turns to its dimensions in the lives of those to whom he writes.  He recognized that those in his audience were at different stages of their Christian lives.  He wanted to address all of them in a way that highlighted what they knew, what was important in their knowledge, and that knowledge leads to spiritual progress.  He also wanted them to understand the primary reason for him writing them: their progress rested on clear knowledge at all stages of their lives.  According to John, knowledge and it practice were inseparable.  It found its source in God’s commandment of loving one’s brother (1 John 2:7-11).  Such love is true enlightenment as opposed to the elusive and mysterious false enlightenment of seeking the divine spark within.  Self-seeking rather than loving another motivated this false enlightenment.  It was an “all about me” philosophy.  John claimed emphatically that love was all about God and others.  It did not begin from within.  Rather, it began with God loving us, showing that love committed oneself to God and others.

Those he wrote were real people at various stages of spiritual growth.  He wanted to address how knowledge of God expressed itself in various stages of their lives.  Within his audience were fathers, young men, and children.  The fathers were those who had known God for a number of years and they had well established faith.  These young men knew the Scriptures well and applied them in becoming strong in faith.  These children had come to know God as their Father and His loving forgiveness.  He wrote to them as one congregation with one message: Knowing and loving God is the highest pursuit for believers for all ages and stages of spiritual maturity.  To both the fathers and children John points to God the Father.  To the young men, he stresses the practice of biblical faith and its results: strength in God’s Word and overcoming “the evil one” (2:13-14).

What do we learn from John’s teaching?  The knowledge of God depends on truth.  This means rejecting false teachers, and embracing and growing in the knowledge of God.  This growth involves focusing on God the Father and the word of God.  A sixteenth theologian wrote the following:

“…no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God…it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating Him to scrutinize himself” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, McNeill Edition, pp. 35, 37).

Copyright (c) 2016 Action Faith Books Press

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.

The Real Jesus in Today’s World

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:

  1.  A split or separation between spirit and matter resulting in a variety of entities in both forms
  2. Complete separation between the material and spiritual so that God or the Demiurge could not inhabit the material world – total transcendence.
  3. The existence of a divine spark within man for making him aware of the divine
  4. The deliverance from evil and the material world through this divine spark by increased self-awareness and increasing knowledge and the insight it brings through masters and spiritual guides.  These masters bring such knowledge to the initiates, who are among the few, chosen, or elites to receive enlightenment
  5. The Christ was the source of the divine spark and delivered it to Jesus, the man – the spiritual enlightening the material Jesus, the two being distinct and separate rather than the same person.  Jesus, in turn, became the Master or source of secret knowledge from God for His disciples and those after them.
  6. All those who learn of this divine spark or secret knowledge become enlightened about themselves and salvation (www.bibleone.net/print_tbs61.html).

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).