Gnostics.

1 John 1.1-4.

Y’ever noticed somebody on the internet who claimed they knew stuff? Secret stuff? Stuff where, if you click on this link and read their blog, or buy this book, or watch this video, or attend this seminary, or buy any their other products, you too can learn these secrets?

  • Better career, bigger income, more money, more leisure time?
  • Better health? Conquering disease, especially without Big Pharma or the healthcare industry enriching themselves at your expense, or even maliciously keeping you sick?
  • Better nutrition? All the stuff the food industry’s replaced with chemicals, or is manufacturing in substandard ways for a quick buck?
  • More freedom?—’cause the government’s not telling you stuff, or big business doesn’t want you to know what rights they’re exploiting?
  • Better sex?—which you don’t know about ’cause of various cultural taboos?
  • Other secrets “they” don’t want you to know?

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.

But hey, we frequently see Christians doing 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 those [LESS-THAN-CHRISTIAN EXPLETIVE]s not want me to know God’s promises!

Okay, calm down there little buckaroo. Again, it’s about playing into people’s fears and the things we covet. It’s about trying to grab our attention with the word “secret,” or suggesting there’s forbidden knowledge which we really oughta have access to. You know, same as the serpent tempted Eve. It’s all clickbait.

And many of these things aren’t really secret. They’re just not widely known. Or they are widely known, but either you’ve never heard ’em before, or didn’t believe them (and still kinda don’t).

Problem is, often Christians will claim to have access to secret knowledge. And if you want those secrets, it’ll cost you.

Well, God’s about revelation, not secrets. He’s about sharing the mysteries of salvation and his kingdom to everyone with ears to hear. God wants everyone to know Jesus is Lord: Who he 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. (Of course if your ears are closed, that’s on you.)

Yet throughout human history, even predating the bible, there have been folks who specialize in secret knowledge. The Greek word for knowledge, γνῶσις/gnósis, is where we get our own word “know.” And if you’re someone who knows things, it means you’re a γνωστικός/gnostikós, a gnostic. (The opposite of agnostic, someone who’s entirely sure they don’t know things.) Today’s gnostics don’t always call themselves that, ’cause the word tends to only be used with religion (and agnostic with non-religion). Still, it’s the same idea.

Ancient gnostics.

In the Persian Empire, Greek Empire, and of course Roman Empire, there were mystery religions, founded by gnostics. They claimed they had all the secrets of the universe. They knew how it was created, how it works, and how it could work for you. So if you wanna get your hands on these secrets, they’ll totally give ’em to you: Join their group. Take their seminars. Do their rituals. Unlock your potential!

Once you were in, you’d find there were multiple levels. And they all cost money.

A brand-new member was on the bottom level. Might’ve paid for and participated in a few ceremonies, rituals, and secrets. Whereas a 33rd-level member had participated and paid for a bunch. Of course the sect’s leaders were on the top level, and claimed you might reach their level some day… but they were always inventing new levels, and claimed they were always attaining new levels themselves. It’s like a college you can never, ever graduate from, so you never stop paying tuition and buying books. (And after you complete a course, you aren’t entirely sure about what you just learned.)

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

Which gods? They usually liked to pick obscure ones. Greco-Romans had already heard all the myths about Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Dionysus. 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 obscure middle eastern deity called YHWH—who, according to their sect of the Nazarenes, is one God, yet mysteriously three. That paradox, gnostics got an awful lot of mileage out of.

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 got done with it, all the “Christian” ideas were corrupt. (In fact a lot of historians wonder whether Mohammed ibn Abdullah encountered gnostics instead of real Christians, considering what he taught about Christian beliefs.)

Every so often 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—has 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 there are other gospels?” 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, people need the writings of their sect’s interpreters. Which cost money.

Yes they were all about making money. Not truth. Not a greater relationship with God. They could give a rip about these things. But they’ll sure pretend to.

And yeah, you can likely think of religions today which are likewise all about making money. Including individual Christian churches—if not entire denominations. They promote the fact they’ll teach you stuff none of the other Christians will; that other Christians are even hiding from you, ’cause they’re the ones who are greedy or corrupt. But y’notice every single one of their “unlocked secrets” have price tags: Gotta buy this book, attend that seminar, get tickets for the big conference, pay admission fees… because it’s “truth.” Think of it as your investment in heaven. You gotta give a little, but you gain a lot. Right?

Still, if these “secrets” came from the Holy Spirit, and he gives them to people for free, where’s the “freely ye have received, freely give” Mt 10.8/vs> principle Jesus teaches?

Anyway. Gnosticism, and all the ridiculous untruths and half-truths gnostics peddle, are the primary reason John had to write his first letter.

It doesn’t start the usual way a letter in Roman Empire days was written. Usually they’d begin, as Paul’s letters did, with the author and recipients. And maybe 1 John originally had those things too, but they got trimmed off. Problem is, now we’ve no solid proof John bar Zebedee 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, so people figure the two pieces have the same author. Anyway for convenience I’ll call the author “John.”

And if John wrote it, it was written to a first-century church to teach ’em some really basic stuff about Christianity, as opposed to the junk gnostics were peddling. This way the people could accurately identify themselves as Christian, who share a relationship with God and the apostles, 1Jn 1.3 and have life in God’s son. 1Jn 5.13 This church might’ve been John bar Zebedee’s church in Ephesus; and that kinda makes sense, considering all the gnostic groups in Ephesus. But gnostics were all over the Roman Empire… and they’re still around, which means 1 John comes in handy to just about every church.

Revelation isn’t for the select few. It’s for all.

Contrary to popular belief, Christianity isn’t a knowledge-based religion. It’s not about having correct theology. Yeah, theology’s important, ’cause we’re wrong and need Jesus to set us right. But we’re not saved by theology. We’re not saved by having secret knowledge which no one else does. We’re only saved by God’s grace.

The old cliché goes that Christianity isn’t a religion, but a relationship. That’s partly true. It’s definitely a relationship. But if we’re not religious about our relationship it’s gonna suck. If we’re truly serious about God, we gotta be somewhat religious. So Christianity is a religion too. But relationship’s 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 personal experience. He had it. We should have it too.

1 John 1.1-4 KWL
1 About the living word: He’s in the beginning.
We saw him with our eyes. We saw him up close and our hands touched him.
2 He revealed life. We saw it, witnessed it, and report it to you:
The life of the age to come which is with the Father, revealed to us.
3 We saw it, heard it, and report it to you all, so you can also have a relationship with us—
and our relationship is with the Father and with his son, Christ Jesus.
4 We write these things so our joy might be full.

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 apostles who had an existing relationship with the Father. He wanted them to have a relationship with him too. He wanted all of us to collectively see Jesus.

Yes, see Jesus. No, I’m not getting all mystic or Pentecostal on you. This is John’s point. He wrote this “so our joy might be full”: He wanted our experience to be as full, as rich, as thorough, the same, as his experience. It’s not enough for the first apostles to see Jesus and tell Jesus-stories to future generations: They fully expected for us to see Jesus, to have our own Jesus-stories, and share those stories too. (Not to make ’em bible, but as testimonies.) They expected us to see Jesus too—either at his second coming, (which they assumed 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. And now I have secrets I can impart to you.” He told us so we can seek him ourselves. Experiencing Jesus isn’t limited to the first century, to the few people who hung out with him in Judea, who are all dead now. It’s for everyone.

And by the way: If John bar Zebedee didn’t actually write this letter, it makes this teaching all the more profound. Because it means a whole other guy had a personal experience with Jesus. Not one of the Twelve, not one of the 120 people at the first Pentecost; Ac 1.15, 2.1 this author might not even have been born yet. But he saw Jesus, and had stuff to share with his church.

He’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 a relationship with his current followers, same as his 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. Say 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.) Say I read everything others wrote about him; checked out his personal belongings in the Smithsonian and at Mount Vernon; learned loads about him. Do I have a relationship with him? A very 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 so much the inner man.

And yet that’s how a lot of Christians claim to know Jesus. True, we have the Holy Spirit in us, but how many of these Christians actually talk with the Spirit, instead of unidirectional prayer? So they study him without speaking to him, learn of him instead of truly following him, learn theology instead of obedience, and don’t actually interact with their living Lord.

John emphasized interaction, relationship, 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. Or be misled by gnostics.

And Christians do this all the time. They haven’t experienced Jesus, so they don’t get why he does as he does. They guess. And guess wrong. Way too many people use as the basis of their understanding, “What would I do if I were Messiah?” and project our motives upon him. That’s not following Jesus; that’s putting on a Jesus hand-puppet and following an imaginary friend. We’re not Jesus. We don’t yet have his nature. We’re still self-centered and sinful. Our priority isn’t love; most of the time it’s power. It’s why Christians prefer to emphasize God’s might instead of his love, joy, patience, and grace.

When you experience God, what do you see? Usually his love. His power too, but 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 we don’t experience God, we’re gonna drift towards our own motives, not God’s. Yeah, our theology might be orthodox, but our 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 very same bible, but heretics 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 looks like. Heretics haven’t, or confuse it with one of the many other definitions of love. They spin the bible to match their limited experience—and no surprise, go wrong. And when we talk about experience informing knowledge, they object: “We don’t interpret God based on subjective experiences! We only interpret him based on bible.” As if that’s what they’re truly doing.

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. It really informs how we read the apostles. And knowing God means we’re far less likely to fall for gnostic bushwa.