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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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).