As Christians prepare to celebrate the Incarnation this Christmas, the book of 1 John offers concrete guidance for individuals navigating a dually Gnostic and Agnostic society. With a context long preceding the re-emergence of Modern Gnosticism through the New Age movement, John addresses the relational nature of knowing Christ as the path of true transformation.
Within our pluralistic society, the exceedingly bold declaration that Jesus is the Light is just as controversial as it would have been in John’s pluralistic first century context (5:1). Similarly, one can easily misquote John’s thesis that “God is love” (4:16-17) by making God an impersonal, de-centralized life force, similar to the Buddhist concept of vijñāna. Is light an abstract term, or is Light a person? How do we define love? According to John, we can know God relationally through the person of Jesus (4:17). John asserts that the only true enlightenment is by God’s Holy Spirit, that “testifies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2). Instead of an ephemeral, vaguely spiritual Savior, we have a Savior who did not come by water only (baptism), but by water and blood (birth) (5:6).
To his various audiences, John advocates complete transformation as the mark of our conversion: that “in this world we are like Jesus” (4:17). John use of language focuses on total internal change, as he asserts that “in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5), he will “purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9), and “everyone born of God overcomes the world” (5:4). John recognizes that the incarnation is physical and spiritual, but advocates for transformation that starts in the spirit and outworks itself into the physical (1:9, 3:17-18). In the same way that God initiated the immaculate conception by the Spirit and it was outworked in the flesh, so we must let our spiritual transformation affect our desires and physical experience of life.
1 John rebukes Gnosticism. Similar to the Gnostics, John agrees that transformation originates in the Spirit (1:9). John’s understanding of the incarnation conflicts with the Gnostic belief that the joining of the body and Spirit is corruption. While Gnostics believe that the abuse of the flesh can be a means of transforming the Spirit, John points to Gnostic’s lack of love and lack of Christian ethics as evidence of their lack of true transformation (3:4-10). 1 John rails against Christian Gnosticism, which breeds contempt for the material aspect of Christ’s body through its lack of stewardship of the physical needs of his Church (3:17-18).
1 John also rebukes Agnosticism, which denies the need for a spiritual origin for the outworking of faith, claiming that human initiated moral ethics are sufficient for personal transformation. In this way, Agnosticism shows contempt for the Holy Spirit (3:24). Some modern groups have gone so far to denounce Gnosticism that they have developed Christian Agnosticism, denying Christianity as a spiritual religion and rejecting manifestations of the Holy Spirit. To deny the spiritual root of Christianity would be to deny half the incarnation and rid the gospel of its power to reveal Christ. John focuses on complete transformation because Christians who are filled with the Holy Spirit will be transformed to powerfully love each other in a way that will convict others.
For my ministry context, 1 John leaves various questions. How are we rejecting the Third member of the Trinity and his power for transformation? How much is our definition of love rooted in our own cultural context instead of Christlikeness? And in what ways do we still despise the flesh in which Christ has deigned to dwell?