A couple of decades ago I taught and wrote a commentary on 1 John. I think it is a key book of the bible around the topic of spiritual growth and maturity. I find the teaching here on how to grow beyond the new birth to maturity some of the most significant in the New Testament, all in a little 5 chapter book that can easily be read in one sitting, about 5 pages in most bibles. To that end I have decided to revisit and revise what I did because I think I have grown spiritually in those two decades and I know some of my understanding of 1 John has grown as well.
Background and Issues
How do we understand what John wrote? We know he wrote in the 1st Century AD, the first decades of the birth and growth of Christianity. We also know that we are reading one side of a dialogue. John was addressing an issue his readers were familiar with, we need to infer what that was from what we know of the context and history of the time in which John wrote. In a sense we are trying to listen in on the other side of the conversation.
We do not know for certain what false teaching John was refuting when he wrote this letter but it is clear that it was some form of Gnosticism. If you read 1 John and the information below on Gnosticism it is evident that John was responding to issues the Gnostics were creating within the church. The Gnostics were a false sect within the church whose name came from the Greek word for knowledge or knowing, and it is used frequently in the New Testament. Below is a Greek dictionary meaning of the word and its connection to Gnosticism. Bear in mind while reading this that Gnosticism was not a codified set of beliefs that had a statement of faith like the Baptists, Methodists or Pentecostals. There were generally held beliefs and practices.
γνῶσις gnōsis noun – Knowledge, science, doctrine, wisdom.
The most important term for “knowledge” in the New Testament is the noun gnōsis, “knowledge, insight, learning, recognition, familiarity.” Closely linked to the noun is the verb ginōskō (1091), “to know, learn, experience.” The noun compound epignōsis (1907) and the verb epiginōskō (1906) may often have the same definition; however, they often stand for a more specific kind of knowledge. Also closely resembling ginōskō/gnōsis is the verb oida (3471), “to know, learn, understand, experience.”
While it is not necessary to present an exhaustive treatment of the teachings and philosophy of gnosticism, a few main concepts are quite important—in particular, the Gnostic concept referred to as “the soul’s tragic history.” According to this myth, each soul is of divine origin. However, as a result of a pre-cosmic fall in the spirit world, the soul was deported to the material world where it is chained to the body. “Material” is seen as hostile toward God and is viewed as a plague and an intolerable burden for the soul of man. Closely connected to this concept is Greek philosophy’s contempt for the physical or material nature of man.
According to Gnostic thought, salvation of the soul consists of being freed from the physical in order to return to its divine source. The cosmos in gnosticism was not created by God but by inferior deities or demons. Only with the help of gnōsis, a mysterious, higher knowledge, can the soul possibly find its way back to God and to a purely spiritual existence.
These concepts were so carefully worked out that Gnostics could speak of a direct spiritual transformation of the individual. Gnōsis was seen as a divine power which flowed into a person and resulted in immortality. The one who obtained gnosis was in a sense given a part in the divine nature: through mystical visions the person was changed into “God.”
With an understanding of these beliefs it is easy to see why Gnostics became so arrogant. They felt themselves to be the only ones who knew God, and they alone would not go the way of the corrupted, sinful cosmos which was doomed for destruction. Nevertheless, regardless of the nature of the gnōsis, the Gnostic system represented a system of self-saving and self-exaltation – a salvation by works program.
The Gnostics considered the physical body as inferior to the spiritual dimension of man. This attitude formed the rationale for those espousing an immoral life-style. Morality was not designed by God but by the cosmic powers; these powers controlled mankind, holding men hostage to their desires. Two opposite strains of teaching developed from this basic anti-material stance: with some it led to a strict asceticism; others followed its path to unbridled license. Both expressions were merely outgrowths of the same anti-materialistic attitude of Gnostic systems in general.
Complete Biblical Library Greek-English Dictionary, The – The Complete Biblical Library Greek-English Dictionary – Alpha-Gamma.
I will begin going through 1 John in my next post but urge you to read 1 John in light of what I have shared about Gnostic teaching, it will lay a foundation to apply the truth John has left for us. As we go through this I pray what Paul prayed, “17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you (us) the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, Ephesians 1:17 (NKJV)