22 January 2016

1 John and the gnostics.

Much of the reason this letter was composed, was to oppose heretics.

1 John 1.1-4

On to 1 John. Which, same as John’s other works, doesn’t have much of an introduction. (The introduction to Revelation was tacked on later by someone else.) 1 John just dives right into it—

1 John 1.1-4 KWL
1 He was in the beginning. We heard him, our eyes saw him, we examined and our hands touched—
It’s about the living word, 2 and the life was revealed.
We saw, witness, and proclaim to you the life of the age to come,
who’s from the Father and revealed to us.
3 We’d seen and heard; we proclaim this to you so you could also have a relationship with us.
Our relationship is with the Father and with his son, Christ Jesus.
4 We write you this so our joy would be fulfilled.

—and there ya go. The apostles had seen “the living word,” who’d be Jesus. And this was who they declared to the Christians who read this letter.

True, starting with revelation about Jesus gets our attention. It’s more interesting; more thought-provoking. But it’s not the way people usually began a letter in Roman Empire days. (Yes it is a letter; it was written down and given to others. 1Jn 2.1) Usually they’d begin with the author and recipients, and maybe 1 John originally had those things but it was trimmed off. Problem is, now we have no solid proof John wrote it. I mean, it reads like John’s gospel (which doesn’t have John’s name on it either), and covers a lot of the same topics. But still.

For convenience I’ll just call the author “John.” And if he wrote it, it was written to a first-century church so they’d realize they had life in God’s Son. 1Jn 5.13 Might’ve been John’s home church in Ephesus, which makes sense: 1 John counters a lot of gnostic ideas, and Ephesus had a lot of gnostic religions in it. But gnostic religions were everywhere, so it could’ve been addressed to any church in the Roman Empire. And gnostics are still everywhere, so 1 John comes in handy nowadays.


Better stop throwing around that word “gnostic” and define it. You know how we regularly see some magazine, website, or motivational speaker announce they’re gonna reveal secrets?

  • Secrets to a better marriage!
  • Learn the five secrets to a better career!
  • The secret to a happier life—revealed!
  • Ten things they don’t want you to know about nutrition!

People love the idea of having exclusive information, of knowing stuff the general public doesn’t. And we’ll get really irritated “they” don’t want us to know such things. “How dare ‘they’ not want me to know about nutrition!” Plays right into all our paranoid fears about class warfare.

From time to time we’ll see Christians do it too:

  • God’s secret plan for your life!
  • God’s hidden plans for the End!
  • Mysteries of Ezekiel—revealed!
  • Seventy-six promises of God they don’t want you to know!

How dare “they” not want me to know God’s promises! Those [less-than-Christian expletive]s!

But usually they’re just pulling the same stunt as people who write clickbait headlines: They’re just trying to grab our attention with the word “secret.” These things aren’t really secret. They’re just not widely known. Or they are widely known—but if you wanna make sure you know them all, you’re just gonna have to buy the book or listen to the sermon.

Problem is, sometimes Christians do teach these things are secrets. And that’s where we have a problem. It’s not how Christianity is meant to work. God is about revelation, not secrets. He’s about revealing the mysteries of salvation and his kingdom to everyone with ears to hear. Of course, if your ears are closed, that’s on you.

God wants everyone to know Jesus is Lord, who Jesus is, what he teaches, and how to follow him and be saved. Jesus told us to tell everyone: “Go make disciples of all the nations” and all that. Mt 28.19 All nations means all.

But throughout human history, both in the Roman Empire and today, there have been “mystery religions.” They specialized in secret knowledge. And the Greek word for knowledge, gnósis, is where we get our own word “know,” plust the word gnostikós/“gnostic.” Which I’d better define:

Gnostic /'nɑs.tɪk/ adj. Dealing with secret religious knowledge.
2. n. One who believes in, teaches, or follows secret religious knowledge.
[Gnosticism /'nɑs.tə.sɪz.əm/]

Mystery religions, or gnostic religions, claimed they knew the secrets of the universe. And if you wanted to get your hands on their secrets, they’d totally give them to you: Join their sect. Go through their initiations. Which cost money.

Once you were in, you’d find there were multiple levels. Which cost money. A first-level gnostic had only participated and paid for a few ceremonies, rituals, and secrets. A 33rd-level gnostic had participated and paid for a bunch. Of course, the leaders of this religion were on the top level, and offered to help you achieve the same level as they… but they were always climbing higher, always inventing new levels, and it was always costing money. It’s like a college you never, ever graduate from… and after you complete a course, you aren’t really all that sure about what you just learned.

Where’d all these secrets come from? Duh; they were making ’em up. But gnostics claimed they came from the gods.

Which gods? Usually they’d pick obscure ones. Greco-Romans had already heard all the myths about Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Dionysus. But they’d tried that religion, and like all humans, they wanted something new. So gnostics told ’em the secrets of gods they knew very little about. Like Osiris and Set and Isis, or Ahura Mazda, or Rama and Krishna and Vishnu, or some middle eastern deity called YHWH. Who, according to an obscure sect called the Nazarenes, is one God, yet mysteriously three. That paradox, they got an awful lot of mileage out of.

Every once in a while, the news media reports on some recently-discovered gospel. (Often they weren’t all that recently discovered. It’s just your average person—and your average reporter—had no idea there are any other gospels than the four in the New Testament. So when they find out, they react, “Why doesn’t everyone know this?” and report it like crazy. Anyway.) There’s the gospel of Thomas, of Judas, of Mary Magdalene, of Jesus’s wife, of Peter and Pilate and Nicodemus and whoever. Every last one of them were written by gnostics: They claim to have secret knowledge about Jesus which we Christians lack. And when you read them, most of the time they make no sense—because to decode them you need the writings of gnostic interpreters. Which cost money.

Gnostic teachings are a hodgepodge. Same as today, they borrowed a little of this, a little of that, from any and every religion, plus popular culture. A little Greek philosophy, a little Hinduism and Zoroastrianism and Egyptian religion and Greco-Roman religion and Judaism and Christianity. But once the gnostics were done with it, any “Christian” ideas are all corrupt. (In fact a lot of scholars wonder whether Mohammed encountered gnostics instead of real Christians, considering what’s in the Quran.)

I spent a lot of time on ’em because they’re gonna come up a bunch in 1 John. Starting now.

Christians, in contrast, see him.

Contrary to popular belief, Christianity isn’t a knowledge-based religion. It’s not about having the correct theology. Yeah, theology’s important, but we’re not saved by theology. We’re saved by God’s grace.

The old cliché goes that Christianity isn’t a religion, but a relationship. That’s partly true: It is a relationship. Of course, if we’re not religious about our relationship it’s gonna suck. If we’re really serious about God, it has to be somewhat religious—so it is a religion too. But relationship is at the center of this religion. It’s not what we know, but whom.

This is why John began the letter, not by appealing to beliefs and knowledge, but experience.

1 John 1.3-4 KWL
3 We’d seen and heard; we proclaim this to you so you could also have a relationship with us.
Our relationship is with the Father and with his son, Christ Jesus.
4 We write you this so our joy would be fulfilled.

Because Christianity is an experiential religion. We have a relationship with the Father. And John invited his readers to have a relationship with “us,” meaning the people who had an existing relationship with the Father. He wanted them to have a relationship with him too. He wanted them to see Jesus.

Yes, see Jesus. No, I’m not getting all mystic or Pentecostal on you. This was John’s point. He wrote this “so our joy would be fulfilled”: He wanted our experience to be the same as his experience. It’s not enough that the first apostles saw Jesus, and passed these Jesus-stories down to future generations. They expected us to see him too. Either at his second coming, which they assumed (as we do) could be any day now; or in one of Jesus’s many, many appearances in the meanwhile.

John didn’t tell us he saw Jesus to brag, “Look what I saw. Lemme tell you about him.” He told us so we can seek him ourselves. Experiencing Jesus isn’t just limited to the first century, to people who hung out with him in Judea. It’s for everyone.

Incidentally, if it wasn’t really John who wrote this letter, it makes this teaching all the more profound.

Say it was a second-century author who wrote 1 John to her church. Not one of the Twelve, not one of the 120 people at the first Pentecost; Ac 1.15, 2.1 say she hadn’t even been born yet. But she saw Jesus. Personally had an experience where she heard, saw, touched, and had Jesus revealed to her.

She’d hardly be the first. Paul experienced him too. 1Co 15.8 And Paul was hardly the last, for we have stories like this all throughout Christian history. Loads of us have seen Jesus. Because he wants that relationship with his current followers, same as that relationship with his first followers. God’s kingdom is coming into the world, so from time to time the kingdom’s people are gonna see our King.

But I’m gonna go back to calling the author “John” now. John, who had seen Jesus, recognized the Son of Man has been revealed to all. You, me, everyone. So get to know him and follow him, and the Spirit will direct us towards the truth and the light.

Relationship before knowledge.

Trouble is, we Christians regularly get this ass-backwards. We think our priority is to get the doctrine right. Then we’ll have an authentic relationship with Jesus. ’Cause once we know our bible really, really well, we’ll know how he works, and that’s just as good as knowing him. Worked for the Pharisees, right? Jn 5.39

Okay, apply this thinking to anyone else, and you’ll realize how dumb it is. George Washington, fr’instance. Let’s say I study the man like crazy. I read his diaries, all his letters, all his declarations and presidential statements. (True, Alexander Hamilton wrote a lot of them for him, but then again Jesus didn’t write his own gospels.) I read what others wrote about him; I check out his personal belongings in the Smithsonian and at Mount Vernon; I learn loads about him. Do I have a relationship with him? Well, a one-sided one; he doesn’t know me. And because I’m not interacting with the living man himself, I only know his public façade. Not the inner man so much.

And yet that’s how a lot of Christians claim to know Jesus. Okay yeah, we have the Holy Spirit in us. Still, Christians tend to go the route of learn about him, instead of actually following him. We study theology instead of praying and obeying—instead of actually interacting with our living Lord.

1 John 1.1-2 KWL
1 He was in the beginning. We heard him, our eyes saw him, we examined and our hands touched—
It’s about the living word, 2 and the life was revealed.
We saw, witness, and proclaim to you the life of the next age,
who’s from the Father and revealed to us.

John emphasized the interaction, the relationship, the experience, because this informs our beliefs. We don’t know Jesus by reading and studying; we know him by being with him, watching him do his thing, and imitating his example.

Without this relationship, it’s so easy to go wrong. Christians do it all the time. They haven’t experienced Jesus, so they don’t get why he does as he does. They guess. And guess wrong.

“What would I do if I were Messiah?” Way too many people use that as the basis of trying to understand Jesus. We put ourselves in his shoes. Not to follow his steps; this has nothing to do with following. We imagine ourselves as him, and try to understand his motives by thinking about our motives. Problem is, we don’t have God’s nature. We’re still self-centered and sinful. Our priority isn’t love. Most of the time it’s power. That’s why Christians prefer to emphasize God’s attributes—his omnipotence, omniscience, omni-whatever—instead of his love, joy, patience, and grace.

When you experience God, what do you see? Usually his love. His power too, but not on a constant basis; he doesn’t need to act in power all the time. But he does act in love all the time. He is love, y’know. 1Jn 4.8

When you don’t experience God, you’re gonna drift towards your own motives, not God’s. Yeah, your theology might be orthodox, but your interpretation and practices will be all askew because there’s no fruit of the Spirit in any of it. Both solid Christians and heretics read from the same bible, but they go to outrageous extremes while the rest of us don’t. Why’s that? Well, we have the experiences; we know what God’s love is like. Heretics haven’t, or have confused it with one of the many other definitions of love. They spin the bible to match their limited experience, and no surprise, go wayward. And when we talk about experience informing knowledge, they object: “We don’t interpret God based on our subjective experiences; we interpret him based on bible. Only bible.” As if that’s what they’re really doing.

Now if we have both knowledge and relationship, look at Paul. Or John. It can accomplish a lot. I’m not dismissing knowledge, folks; not at all. I did go to seminary after all. I’m all for it. But priorities, people. Knowledge is no substitute for relationship, and relationship comes first. Always.