John’s letters (first letter in particular) were written to counter adherents of gnosticism within the church and their “false teachers” who were confusing and undermining the apostles’ work in presenting the Gospel of Jesus and the lordship of Jesus.
This was a philosophical, religious and superstitious movement for which the Christian gospel was one strand in celebrating novel beliefs about God, sacred writings and the world. Gnostics circulated their own texts in which Mary Magdalene often featured prominently, and saw Jesus as a liberator from, in their perception, the evil and captive world. Many gnostics saw Jesus as spirit only; for them, the crucifixion was a hallucination, since Jesus did not have a physical body.
First-century gnosticism has changed shape over the centuries but its roots are seen in modern-day denials of the Trinity, and confusion about the lordship of Jesus. Gnosticism has resonances today with New Age beliefs. On the edges of orthodox Trinitarian Christian belief, there are those who today deny the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as well as extreme liberal positions which hold up to question the death and resurrection of Jesus and the present authority of Jesus. Gnosticism is seen in denying the cause-and-effect consequences of immoral decisions and behaviour among those professing to be Christians.
John addresses three particular false beliefs which gnostics held:
- Moral behaviour doesn’t affect one’s relationship with God
- Immoral conduct doesn’t constitute sin for those that know God
- The knowledge of God removes the possibility of sin in a ‘believer’
These attitudes are alive and well in many churches today. This is where theology has morphed into a philosophy that seeks to devalue Jesus as Lord of His church and His commanded requirement for a new spiritual birth and personal relationship with God through Him. On past form, that is probably not something He will be polite about when He returns.
John’s letters are as sharp and relevant today as they ever were.