Posts Tagged With: Gnosticism

1 John 2: True Enlightenment

Knowledge is a bit intoxicating.  It is a powerful elixir that quickly convinces us we have it together much more than we really do.  Those drunk of the power of the mind are every bit as dangerous as those drunk on booze.

Knowledge was especially important to the early Gnostics that had been influencing the churches John was addressing.  As was pointed out yesterday, the name “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word for “knowledge.”  This would appear to be your typical head-knowledge, the kind that satisfies if one simply knows the facts.  A good Gnostic “knew” the truth about reality: physical flesh is evil, and true enlightenment comes by developing a spirit that is impervious to the effects of physical sin.  The most “knowledgeable” one can wallow around in sin and come out unscathed.

However, John has a very different view:

This is how we are sure that we have known him, if we keep his commandments.  Anyone who says, “I know him,” but doesn’t keep his commandments, is a liar.  People like that have no truth in them. . . . Anyone who says, “I am in the light,” while hating another family member, is still in darkness up to this very moment. (2:3-4, 9)

The kind of truth that John thinks is important is not simply head-knowledge.  It is not enough to know facts and believe things to be true or not true.  For John, truth is a lived reality.  Knowledge is first and foremost lived out in the nitty-gritty of life.  One shows their enlightenment by how they live, not how they think.  One can claim to have spiritual enlightenment, but if actions do not exist that support that claim, one is still living in immense spiritual darkness.  In particular, the selfless love of Christian community is the greatest testament to true enlightenment.  Honoring God with a life that keeps his righteous decrees for life shows true knowledge.  Knowledge teaches one to stay in the light with Jesus, not roll around in the darkness in sin.

When have you seen Christians today confused on what knowledge truly is?         

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Categories: 1 John | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

BONUS: An Introduction to John’s Letters

Though never identified in the letters, the author of the Johannine letters is almost certainly the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, and author of the Gospel of John.  Based on writing style, there is good reason to think the writer of Revelation is a different John.  The John who wrote 1, 2, and 3 John was one of the inner circle of apostles and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23).  Though he started his adult life a fisherman, he ends it as one of the pillars of the new, growing Christian church, a highly respected leader in the Ephesus area in particular.

“The Apostle John” by Rembrandt

The Johannine letters are likely some of the latest parts of the New Testament.  Some date John’s letters to the late 80s.  If this is correct, the first generation of those who had actually seen Jesus were dying and John was pure royalty.  Given that no specific recipients are mentioned in 1 John, the first epistle was likely a circular letter distributed among a diverse group of Christians, especially in Asia Minor around Ephesus.  Given the general nature of the teachings of the letter, that makes perfect sense.  Second and Third John are equally as general and universal.

Most scholars situate the Johannine letters in the context of Gnosticism.  This false version of Christianity really blossomed in the second century AD but it was likely an early version John was addressing.  Gnosticism taught that the physical was evil and the spiritual was good.  The fleshly body was wasting away and either an impediment to holiness or a temporary object of no consequence to be used and abused because only the soul really mattered.  Gnosticism derives its name from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “knowledge,” because the truly spiritually enlightened ones have a special knowledge that sets them apart from their more earthbound peers.  With these beliefs, a good Gnostic could not believe Jesus was fully human and flesh.  One version of Gnosticism called “doceticism” taught that Jesus only seemed to be flesh and another version called “Cerinthianism” taught that the man named Jesus gained his spiritual nature at baptism and lost it before he died.  We will hear John attacking this sort of thinking in his letters, 1 John especially.  As the flesh was evil, one was supposed to either deny his fleshly desires through asceticism (seen earlier in Colossians) or indulge the flesh in licentiousness.  This latter version seems to be the one John addresses.

John wrote 1 John to expose false teaching and counter any wrong thinking about Jesus that had cropped up.  As one of the last eyewitnesses of Jesus, John could testify that Jesus was indeed flesh.  John also believed that the libertine worldliness of pre-Gnostic Christianity was eroding the true Christian witness.  In 2 and 3 John, John encourages faithful Christians to extend hospitality to evangelists he would have sent out even if powerful, possibly-Gnostic leaders in his church opposed him.

Categories: 1 John, 2 John, 3 John | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

1 Timothy 1: Beware of False Teachers!

Lurking in the background of most Pauline letters is some person, group, or philosophy that threatens the orthodox beliefs and practices of the Christianity that Paul was spreading.  This is very much true in the letters to Timothy.

As we start our two weeks with these letters, let’s look at a profile of these “false teachers.”

  • They teach “false doctrines” (1:3; 6:3)
  • They want to be “teachers of the law” (1:7)
  • They base their teachings on myths not facts and genealogies not stories (1:4; 4:7)
  • They come off as conceited (1:7; 6:4)
  • They are argumentative, produce controversy, and disrupt the peace in the church (1:4; 6:4; 2 Tim 2:23)
  • They were full of meaningless and foolish talk, showing that they don’t really know what he are talking about (1:6-7; 6:4; 2 Tim 2:23)
  • They encouraged asceticism (4:3)
  • They used their authority for financial gain (6:5)

When you put this all together, this sketch does not produce a definitive identity.  Clearly, like many of Paul’s opponents, they were tying the Jewish law to the way of Christ.  The asceticism and emphasis on myth and genealogy could come from Judaism or from an early version of Gnosticism that was becoming popular in Asia Minor especially.

Maybe the most important point about these false teachers is what Paul says today:

That sort of thing breeds disputes rather than the instruction in faith that comes from God.  The goal of such instruction is love — the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. (1:4-5)

This was a false teaching that emphasized the obscure and ineffectual while neglecting the most important elements of the way of Christ: faith, love, and purity.

What does a Christian leader look like today who is similar to these false teachers?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Colossians

If one thinks that Paul wrote the other Prison Epistles, most agree that Colossians was authored by the Apostle Paul while in prison likely in Rome sometime before AD 61 when Colossae and the Colossian church were ravaged by an earthquake.  Interestingly, Paul had never been to Colossae when he wrote this letter.  Epaphras, who likely started the church in Colossae, had just come to Paul in Rome and reported on the progress of the church and its challenges (1:8).  Paul writes this letter in response as a form of encouragement.

Much of the background of Colossians revolves around a false teaching in the church or some to come their way that is often called the Colossian Heresy.  The Colossian Christians are or will be tempted to leave the simple gospel of grace through Christ alone for a set of teachings that emphasize asceticism (2:16, 21), everyday wisdom (2:8, 23), veneration of angels (2:18), and the insufficiency of Christ to fulfill the fundamental needs of life (1:15-20; 2:9).  Over 45 different theories have been given for who exactly these false teachers were in Colossae.  These theories usually include bits of Judaism, Gnosticism, Greco-Roman philosophy, and pagan religions from that area mixed together with Christianity.

This is the first time we have come this year to Gnosticism so an explanation is in order, especially as many who study Colossians believe the heresy was an early version of Gnosticism mixed with Judaism.  We know that by the second century AD there was a Christian philosophy in place in many churches that accepted a dualistic worldview.  A Gnostic thought the world was composed of two parts: the evil and degrading physical layer of life, and the pure and edifying spiritual aspects of life.  A human, for instance, was a good spiritual being trapped in an evil prison of flesh.  Sin comes as we follow our physical desires, and redemption can be found by listening and developing our spiritual self.  (You may be thinking to yourself at this point, “Hey, I know Christians who believe that today!”  Yes, there is a dualistic Christian worldview that still exists today, but I would question whether it is biblical.  Is God not the Creator and Redeemer of all we are?)  Consider how Gnosticism would affect beliefs and ethics.  They did not believe that Jesus was physical.  Jesus did not die a physical death on a cross, it only seemed that way.  Our greatest mission is to escape this physical world, not redeem it.  There were also two opposing views on how to deal with this physical body we live in: 1) deny your flesh and beat it into submission to your superior spiritual willpower, and 2) indulge your flesh and satisfy your physical desires wantonly showing that you have the spiritual strength within your pure soul to wallow in the mire of life and not be affected adversely by your physical behaviors. If an early form of Gnosticism was present in Colossae, the details of the letter suggest it was of the ascetic variety.

Personally, I don’t think we can downplay the fact that the main threat to the early Christians in Asia Minor at this time were Christian and non-Christian versions of Judaism.  Note that circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, holy days, and food laws — all hallmarks of Judaism — are mentioned often in Colossians.  In my opinion, the likeliest explanation for the Colossian Heresy is that the young Gentile Christians of Colossae were being be swayed away from the gospel of grace alone in Christ by a legalistic version of Jewish Gnosticism that emphasized law observance, physical asceticism, and the belief that the work of Jesus was not enough to save people.

In this letter, we will see Paul warn the Colossian Christians that there is nothing fulfilling or lasting in this “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8) because true fullness, power, wisdom and life are found in Christ (2:3, 9-10; 3:4).  His desire is that “you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (4:12).

Categories: Colossians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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