Knowledge that Produces Life

During and after the apostolic era, Gnosticism and its followers caused a great deal of damage in the Church. Given such a situation, the apostle John wrote his letters that have a special validity today.

Rodrigo Abarca

By the end of the first century, the general situation of the churches had changed. We are saddened and astonished to see that the believer's experience had fallen below the high standard of life that the first brothers had reached from Pentecost on. In His message to the seven churches of Asia, the Lord revealed the wrongs that these churches had committed. These churches and their situations in some way represent the general situation of the church in the present world. Five of them receive rebuke and two receive praise without reservation from the Lord. Therefore, the situation is closer to that of decadence and apostasy.

In fact, Paul and Peter had already experienced the first symptoms of this widespread decadence, as can be seen from reading their last letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and 2 Peter). Both apostles alert the saints to the arrival of false teachers that would surreptitiously introduce destructive heresies amongst them.

John's Hour

Since Peter and Paul were probably martyred during Nero's persecution in 67 AD, these things would have happened during the decade from AD 60 to 70. After this, 30 more years passed, during which, a dark curtain fell on the history of the Church. As the curtain rose again at the end of the century, John alone remained alive of the original 12 apostles. He was by then an old man who had witnessed the entire history of the First Century church. He was there when Jesus gathered the twelve and entrusted them with the mission of establishing his church on the earth. He was also there when the first church, bold, brave, pure, and simple, arose in Jerusalem. Then he saw it grow, develop, mature and multiply throughout the Roman Empire.

However, he also witnessed the beginning of its decline and falling away from its first love. In consequence he rose up to remind the churches of what they had lost, and to warn them that they were still in danger of losing their places. It was the last hour that Peter and Paul had announced before their deaths. That hour's main characteristic was the manifestation of the spirit of the Antichrist.

This is the central issue of John's letters, and especially the first, which is longer and more complete than the other ones. This first letter clearly shows us the main characteristics of this spirit whose end is to destroy Christ's testimony on the earth. John tells us of him who denied two fundamental truths: that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, and that Jesus is the Son of God. Both facts are essential to the faith of Christ's church and are not open to theological or doctrinal speculation. Therefore both have terrible practical consequences that will decisively affect the life and testimony of believers in the world. These consequences can be summarized in the emergence of a purely intellectual, conceptual and theoretical "faith," completely divorced from the life and behavior of the believers.


John defined this tendency toward the conceptualization of the faith and the rising degeneration of life and practical experience by the expression, "Whoever..." We encounter it more than ten times in the letter. The apostle showed us that the Gnostic deception consisted of the alleged possession of a superior knowledge about God and his mysteries that has, by contrast, a null impact in the life of those who claim to possess it. However, to understand this better, we should review some history.

As a consequence of its expansion toward the gentiles, by the end of the First Century the church entered into contact with Greek philosophy, which would have fatal consequences for its later development. Indeed, the Hellenic world was characterized by an exorbitant interest in philosophical speculations of all kinds, and, on the other hand, a wild tendency toward the passions and pleasures of the flesh. Greek philosophy valued mind and reason (considered superior organs) above spirit. The Gnostics regarded the physical body as inferior and a source of all kinds of evil. This philosophical dualism developed within the church as a movement that came to be known as Gnosticism, which, in order to accommodate Hellenic philosophy, reinterpreted the faith revealed to the saints.

The Gnostics (whose name derives from the Greek term "gnosis," or "knowledge"), caused inconceivable damage to the first church. Their teachings would cause the churches to abandon the simple, practical and real faith in Jesus Christ, whose source was the living revelation of His person through the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers. Instead they substituted a conceptual and analytic theology, the fruit of the human mind and reason.

To oppose their disastrous influence, the teachers of Christianity took hold of the same Greek philosophy that the Gnostics used. As a result, the living and revealed faith became theological speculation. That is to say, it became rational, speculative, analytic and extraordinarily complex. The faith became inaccessible to the common believer. This act contributed, in turn, to the emergence of priestly clericalism. For this reason, John referred the Gnostics as those "many antichrists."

These men taught that Christ could not have been truly incarnated, because the physical body (in accordance with Greek philosophy) was completely evil. They argued that the man Jesus was the habitation of "the Christ" for a brief period. It descended upon him at the moment of his baptism and left him moments before his death. They made a distinction between the human Jesus, who really died on the cross, and the divine "Christ" that only temporarily inhabited his physical body. Thus they denied that Jesus is the Christ. On the other hand, others taught that Jesus Christ didn't possess a true physical body while he was on the earth. They claimed that he had only the appearance of a body, created to communicate with his disciples, but not material reality. They denied that Christ came in the flesh.

Now, all these speculations and deceits arose from men that justified their sinful lives, alleging to be in possession of a superior knowledge (gnosis) or revelation that made a life or conduct without sin unnecessary. They claimed that as long as they lived in an essentially evil physical body, sin was unavoidable. They asserted that the most important thing was to purify the mind by means of this special knowledge. The Gnostics claimed that truth existed outside the flesh and was based upon a purely intellectual and theoretical knowledge. John wrote against such men and their teachings.

The Origin of Decadence

The apostle tells us that the cause of all these evils is the forgetfulness or abandonment of the truth that was given to us at the beginning. John shows us that the truth is not intellectual knowledge but a living person: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom we have heard, seen, contemplated and touched with our hands (1 John 1:1). Faith in the truth, that is Jesus Christ is vitally bound to the experience of the children of God. To express this fact, John uses the expression "we know." In opposition to the lies and the errors of the antichrist's spirit, the apostle warns us that the knowledge of the truth always translates into a life of righteousness and love: "Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and truth. This then is how we know we belong to the truth." (1John3:18-19a).

The real danger of Gnostic teaching was in making the truth a merely intellectual and rational concept. However, our knowledge about Jesus is not intellectual or rational. On the contrary, ours is a knowledge revealed by the Holy Spirit who teaches us all things, and gives us the testimony that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God ("And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us.") And this knowledge or certainty is a practical experience: "we Know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers"; and also, "and in this we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments."

For this reason, the first step along the path of decadence and apostasy is to walk in darkness (i.e., outside of the light) (1John 1:5-7). The original message that the Lord Jesus Christ brought is centered in showing us that God is light. This speaks to us of His holy nature and infinite separation from sin. Therefore, all errors and lies have their origin in the sin that dominates fallen man's heart. Sin is, by definition, iniquity (the word "iniquity" is a better translation than the expression "lawlessness" in 1Jn. 3:4b). Paul speaks to us of a mystery of iniquity that is already active in the world. John shows us how this mystery is translated in the coming of numerous antichrists (Paul calls the antichrist the "lawless one").

Sin's goal is usurp God's place in the world. Its work began in this way in the angel of light and continued in the Garden of Eden ("you will be like God"). It continues inside the church among those who deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. However, if Jesus is not the Christ and the Son of God, then no possibility exists of being free from sin and its deceit. His death and resurrection would have neither power nor value, and we would still be in our sins. And worse still, we would still be under Satan's power.

This is the goal of the antichrist: to distort and to hide the work of God in Christ and render believers ineffective for God. Here the words of Revelation come to mind: "They overcame him by the blood of the lamb and by word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death." (Revelation 12:11) From there, the devil's zeal to destroy and to ruin Christ's testimony in the church began. If he achieves his objective, then believers will have been defeated and the church will have lost its testimony.

In this sense, the true knowledge of God results first in a move away from sin and its works. This knowledge is a spiritual experience and not mere mental consent to certain doctrines about God. If our knowledge of God is no more than emotion or theology, our life won't have that deep hatred of sin that is characteristic of all that truly know him.

However, if we say that we don't have sin, we call God a liar, because he sent His Son to die for our sins. Without a life in the light of His presence and holiness that exposes and judges our sins, the precious blood of Christ cannot operate in our heart for forgiveness and justification. For this reason, we are doubly deceived because we boast of knowledge of God and divine mysteries, yet we have no conscious knowledge of sin. These sins therefore remain hidden without being confessed or judged before the light of God. This is the first step towards decadence and apostasy.

However, John tells us that limitless grace exists for the forgiveness of sins by Christ's blood and there is no unrestricted license to sin. Here we find the second step toward decadence. In Paul's days, many had already misinterpreted the grace of forgiveness as a kind of a passport to live sinful lives. John continues by adding: "The man who says: 'I know him', but does not do what he commands is a liar and the truth is not in him." (1 John2:4)

This is fundamental. God not only granted us the forgiveness of all our sins in Christ, but also the power a life free of sin ("No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him" 1 John 3:9). In this way, the faith that a believer professes must necessarily be evident by keeping God's commandments. God has given us His Son's righteous life that lives in us by means of His Spirit. Therefore, keeping the commandments of the Lord should be the normal behavior of any believer. Yet John doesn't refer here to the Law of Moses, but to the Lord Jesus Christ's commandments and his words, gathered, for example, in the Sermon of the Mount, and whose complete expression is in the commandment "Love one another, as I have loved you" (John 15:13).

Faith that Brings Fruit

In accordance with the beloved disciple, we cannot deceive ourselves on this issue. A purely intellectual or nominal faith is incapable of producing real fruit. Only a living faith, engendered in the heart by the Spirit and developed in an intimate communion of love with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, is able to produce it. John is not a legalist, but rather a man who knows the difference between truth and error. This difference is not in what we profess to believe and hold, but in the life that we manifest with our behavior and actions. This makes all the difference.

John has a message that is directed just as much to the church in general as to each individual believer. The spiritual condition of both is not measured by what they know or claim to know, but by the life that they live and manifest with their actions. If believers love the world, its values and its form of life; if they hate their brothers and sisters (or they are merely indifferent towards them); if they live lives characterized by sinful behavior (they practice sin), then they are lying and don't possess the truth. They deceive themselves and others, and they are in danger of falling under the influence of the antichrist's spirit. The truth is neither a mental nor intellectual knowledge, but a living person who is holy, righteous, and separate from sin and whose essential characteristic is love. This person is the true God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, who truly died on the cross for our sins, resurrected on the third day and now by means of the Holy Spirit lives in the hearts of those that believe. He produces within each believer a life that produces righteousness and love.

John reacts strongly against those that distort Jesus Christ's revelation and His person. He spiritually discerns that behind them, a wicked and hostile spiritual power operates, whose end is to destroy the church, separating it from its vital relationship with the resurrected Lord, who is its center and everything.

Faith in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God is much more than a theological confession or nominal creed, as it later came to be. In the beginning it was represented by the life and experience of the saints. For them it was all about (it is necessary to emphasize this) a living person with whom they lived in permanent communion, through whom they had constant access to the Father and whose Spirit lived inside them. He qualified them to live consistently righteous and holy lives, free from sin. In sum, Jesus was the center of their lives.

The end of the revelation of Jesus Christ is to produce a class of radically different men, as much in behavior as in values or interests. These are men and women that separate from the world and its sinful lifestyle to immerse themselves in a way of life governed by the light and the love of God. This form of life is spontaneously embraced by all those that treat eternal life as their most beautiful and permanent possession. It is worth saying that from this life of discipleship comes the impulse and power to reproduce, as much individually as collectively, each one of Jesus Christ's characteristics: his character and his actions. These characteristics are essentially expressed in Jesus' words and commandments. They are not an external law but the expression of his own holy and sinless nature.

Therefore, those that claim to know him and to possess his life are not able to do anything less than to keep each and every one of his commandments. This is the real test of whether they are truly children of God.

"This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." (Jn.15:8). "Filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God" (Phil.1:11).

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