One of the inevitable consequences of living in a fallen world is that those who would do right – who would live as men are supposed to live according to the will of our Creator – are continually exposed to the danger of being influenced by the world around us. There is certainly tremendous pressure for the Christian to conform to today’s lowered, degraded standard of morality. But there is also the ever-present pressure to compromise the doctrine of Christ with the ever changing “winds of doctrine” which blow first from one direction and then from another.
This has been going on from the very early days of the church. We have been looking at some of the evidence of just that sort of thing in the writings of the apostles in the New Testament as they warned against those influences and prepared believers to resist them. People converted from the worship of pagan idols would bring a certain amount of their beliefs and superstitions with them. The social system formed under the influence of paganism would have been a constant source of such conflict.
Then there was the threat of philosophy or religious teaching, an attack of a different sort. This sort of problem did not involve temples or statues or immoral priestesses. This threat was more abstract, more in the form of ideas and philosophies and teachings. Gnosticism didn’t create images and engage in orgies in the worship of such a “god.” It was idolatry nonetheless.
This danger was more subtle than that of carved images. It was the threat of mixing the doctrine of Christ’s coming as the atonement for man’s sins with a dualistic philosophy and turning it into a “mystery” religion that sought after an elusive “knowledge” of the divine. A surprising amount of the New Testament writings address this attempt to move away from the apostles’ teaching by incorporating it with the mystical suppositions of human philosophy. The thinking of such philosophy went something like this …
“Humanity, like the universe as a whole, had a dual nature: an evil side, grounded in the physical body, and a good side, anchored in the soul. These two natures warred with one another, in the heart of each and every person. Moreover, because people tended to fall back on their physicality, the evil side tended to “win out,” which explains the sorry state of the human condition” (Early Christian History).
This is a very much simplified description of the beliefs of the gnostics, but it gives us some insight into what was being fought against in the New Testament. John’s polemic against this belief centered on their concept of the evil nature of the physical body. They believed that Jesus couldn’t have come in a body of flesh since that would have meant that God would have been imprisoned in evil matter.
If Jesus did not come in the flesh, then he could not have really died for our forgiveness. He could not have satisfied or met our need for atonement. And yet John says that is exactly what he did …
“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
In verse 3 John takes another swipe at gnosticism and their emphasis on a secret, superior knowledge of God. John explains that the kind of knowledge God wants us to have him is an openly declared knowledge made evident in the obedience of the believer.
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3).
As he goes on to elaborate on how one demonstrates his knowledge of God he tells us what the commandments of God are. After commenting about the old commandment which is a new commandment, he first tells what it is not. It is not anything that causes or allows one to hate his brother. Anything of that nature is not of God. The commandment of God is that we love one another.
“Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling” (1 John 2:10).
Jesus had said that by this the world would know his disciples. This is radically different from all the secret mumbo jumbo of esoteric religion. When one loves like Jesus loved he shows that he really knows God and has fellowship (shares) with him.
Everywhere one turns in 1 John there is more of John’s argument against gnosticism. In the 3rd chapter his comments about seeing Jesus as he is and being like him refers one back to what is said about the resurrection and the body with which he came forth from the grave.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).
When Jesus was resurrected he had a body that bore the marks of his crucifixion. It could be seen with the human eye. That body could be touched with human hands. He invited his disciples to touch him and see that he had a body of flesh and bones – that he was not an apparition. He could eat broiled fish with the disciples. Yet he was different in other ways. He could withhold his identity from them even though they had known and been with him continually for three years. He could enter into a room even though the door was closed.
All this says that although there were obviously differences there was a continuity between the fleshly body he possessed before his death and the body that had come out of the grave. In both instances there was a materiality about him. He was not an ethereal, non-physical being as the gnostics would have contended.
John’s reasoning was that because this future lies ahead for the Christian – that we will be like him and with him – we should live pure lives in anticipation of the life we will then enjoy. The gnostics argued that the kind of life a person lived really didn’t matter. The spirit was the only thing that was important and it was going to be liberated and this body was going to perish with all else in the material realm. Some even argued that the best thing to do with the body was to indulge it in sinful activities since it was going to be destroyed anyway. John’s answer to them was that the child of God does not practice sin …
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:9-10).
Jesus had lived in a body of flesh and did not practice sin. He was morally pure and to be like him we must be morally pure. Sin is morally repugnant to the Christian. He knows God is his father and he lives and acts like a child of God.
Then in the 4th chapter, John tells his readers how to identify the false teachers …
“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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 John 4:1-3).
Here he gets once again to the heart of their dualistic philosophy of flesh/matter being evil. He says that to identify the false teachers they must be put to the test. If they deny that Jesus had a body of flesh they were not from God and were, in fact, of the spirit of antichrist. If one confessed that Jesus was from God in the manner in which he is presented as having come in a physical body he was from God. This teaching was that serious.
The ultimate proof of the doctrine was to be seen in its application. Did it promote love of the kind God had toward a sinful, wayward mankind? If it did not, it was not of God.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 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. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:7-12).
In the next post we will see what became of gnosticism in the centuries following the apostolic age. You may be surprised.