1 JOHN 1
John, son of Zebedee, was the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, one of the inner circle of Jesus’ three best friends, and possibly Jesus’ first cousin. He almost certainly wrote John’s Gospel in about 85AD, the Book of Revelation in 95 AD, and the three anonymous letters 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John, in the period between these two dates. John was based at the church in Ephesus for about 30 years from 70-100 AD and was the main leader of the churches in that region. There were two main reasons for writing the letters, which were probably sent as circulars around all the local churches in the region of Asia Minor – now modern-day Turkey: firstly, to assure believers of the certainly of their faith, and secondly, to refute prevalent heretical teachings, specifically Gnosticism.
Gnosticism was the nastiest and most dangerous of the heresies infecting the true church in its first two hundred years of life. It predated Christianity but sought to become assimilated into it as the gospel became widespread and the church grew. Its central teaching was that ‘spirit is good, and matter is evil’ – totally unbiblical, and more in keeping with Greek philosophy than the Scriptures. Gnostics achieved their version of ‘salvation’ by a process of their spirit gaining knowledge or ‘illumination’. This exclusive knowledge made them feel superior to the average Christian.
Five major errors grew from this teaching:
1 – The human body is therefore evil, whereas God’s Spirit is good
2 – Salvation is an ‘escape’ from the body, and is achieved by special knowledge (not faith)
3 – Christ couldn’t possibly have had a body – that was just an illusion – or perhaps the divine Christ joined up with the man Jesus at his baptism and then left him before he died on the cross
4 – Since the body was evil it was to be treated harshly (see Colossians); i.e. asceticism; OR
5 – Since the body was evil it did not matter if it was allowed to engage in licentious behaviour
Paul’s earlier letters had also addressed the early precursors of ‘Christian’ Gnosticism – including in Galatians, Colossians and in letters to Timothy and Titus. But by now, in around 80AD, John was encountering the ‘full-blown’ version that threatened to destroy the church if it ever got a firm hold in it. It was the spiritual equivalent of cancer in the body and needed drastic surgery to remove it as soon as possible.
John gave eyewitness testimony that Jesus was and is the Messiah, that he was truly human too, and that full obedience to the commands of Christ and love for Christian brothers and sisters are evidence of true salvation: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of Life… We proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us… so that you might have fellowship with us…” (1 John 1:1-3). John’s first main point combines the pre-existent eternal spiritual Christ with the tangible, physical, visible Jesus and emphasises that they are one and the same person. The beginning of 1 John reads so much like the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus was truly human and fully God.
Secondly, to claim fellowship with God – as the Gnostics did – whilst living a life of sinfulness is simply a blatant lie and impossible (vv5-7). You cannot live with God in his radiance and yet inhabit a lifestyle of darkness at the same time – it is inconsistent and incoherent.
Thirdly: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9). The Gnostics denied that their immoral bodily actions were in any way sinful; John says that such denials meant that they did not have salvation – since the Spirit will regenerate the conscience to be aware of sinful behaviour. Paradoxically, to admit your sin is the key to being forgiven and purified inwardly.