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False Teaching behind John's Epistles


False Teaching especially seems to show itself in two main areas:

  • Ethics – How we live; our morals

  • Doctrine of Christ

The false teachings John was confronting seem to be early forms of GNOSTICISM (from the Greek word gnosis – “knowledge”)

Scholars say full blown Gnosticism did not arrive on the scene until about 200 A.D.However, the ROOTS of Gnosticism go back further – seen in the influence of Plato (about 400 B.C.)

Paul apparently dealt with some forerunners of Gnosticism – I Tim. 6:20; Colossians 2:1 ff.

Forms of Gnosticism seen in the Essenes/Qumran community

Gnosticism is still very much alive and well in New Age thinking of today!

What does Gnosticism teach?

  1. The utter transcendence of God – God is a Being beyond the limits of normal human experience and knowledge – belonging to another realm of absolute purity/holiness

  2. All created matter is fallen or evil – including man’s physical body.

The material universe is tainted with evil. Therefore, what is physical or material can have NO real contact with God.

Thus, Gnostics deny and must explain away the incarnation of Christ. They adamantly rejected the idea that God could take on human flesh.

3. Salvation and spiritual progress through attaining ELITE or ESOTERIC KNOWLEDGE.

The Gnostics hold to a body of esoteric knowledge (that is, knowledge that is intended for only a chosen few). Gnostics expect to grow in salvation through acquiring this elitist knowledge, level by level.


A. Docetism (pronounced DOE say tism, from the Greek word dokeo – to seem, to think, have opinion). They believe Jesus Christ only appeared to be a man, but was, in fact, a phantom – a man in appearance only.

B. Adoptionism (also called Spirit Christology). They believe Jesus of Nazareth was merely a virtuous man chosen by God to embody the “Christ force” for a time.

The “Christ” supposedly “came upon” Jesus when He was baptized by John at the Jordan River (when the Holy Spirit descended as a dove upon the Lord Jesus); but then “the Christ” had to DEPART from Jesus when He died on the Cross, because God cannot die. To the Gnostics, then, Jesus of Nazareth was NOT the Christ. They denied such IDENTIFICATION of God with man; therefore, they negated the substitutionary death of Christ

Certain ETHICAL PRACTICES resulted from these false beliefs, because our practice flows from our doctrine – how we live our lives stems from what we believe. Those under Gnostic influence often exhibited one of two extreme forms of behavior:

  1. Extreme asceticism (strict self-denial and self-discipline; living without normal comforts and pleasures) – because they believed the body is evil and must be beaten down

  2. Licentiousness (immoral behavior; loose living) – they exempted selves from holy living, believing since the body is evil, anyway, it really doesn’t matter what we do in our bodies; only the spirit matters!

With this thinking, as far as they were concerned, the most spiritual man among them might have been the one who lived the most immoral life!

“There was an antinomian (lawless) ingredient to their teaching. They played down the reality of sin. They had no grasp of God’s holiness (‘The message we heard . . . that God is light’, 1:5), yet said they were having fellowship with God. However, John could see they were ‘walking in darkness’ (1:6). They claimed they had no sin (1:8); perhaps they said that sin was linked with the body and could not touch those who were focusing on the ‘spiritual’ and not on the ‘physical’ side of life. They could claim that they had not actually committed any sin at all (1:10). They were not bothered about ‘God’s commandments’ (2:3), and the love of the Christians for each other had suffered (2:5). The Christians were becoming unlike Jesus (2:6), and badly needed reminding about the ‘new commandment’ concerning love (2:7). There had been such breaches of love that John can call it ‘hate’ (2:9, 11).”

– Michael Eaton, 1, 2, 3 John, 1996, Christian Focus Publications, p. 17

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