The first epistle of John was written around AD90 to provide guidance and comfort to those brothers and sisters that had just experienced an ecclesial split following the Gnostic heresy. As John wrote: “They went out from us” (2:19).

The Gnostics taught that they had a superior experiential knowledge of God which they claimed was more important for salvation than having faith or living a godly life.

The table below shows the structure of the epistle, and the orange highlight shows what is to be considered in this article. This segment of the epistle (2:3-17) is a continuation of the section on “God is Light”, so there is a repeated reference to “Light” and “Darkness”. As John progresses, however, he merges these themes into the subject of “Love” and “Hate.”

God is Light (1:5) Born of God (2:29)
(God is Life)
God is Love (4:8)
Righteousness and Sin 1:5-2:2 2:29-3:10 5:16-17
Love and Hate 2:3-17 3:10-24 4:7-5:3
Truth and Error 2:18-28 4:1-6 5:4-13

What might be John’s purpose in discussing love and hatred in relation to the Gnostics? Well, the Gnostics had withdrawn from the rest of the ecclesia (2:19 “they went out from us, but they were not of us”). In doing this they had demonstrated a hatred for the teachings of truth and an animosity against those professing truth. Such action was contrary to Christ’s command to “love one another”.

How do we know that we know God?

The Gnostics claimed to have a superior experiential knowledge (Gk gnosis) of God and so John now gives a test which can be applied to this claim.

“And hereby we do know (Gk ginosko) that we know (Gk ginosko) him, if we keep his commandments.” (1 John 2:3)

The verb “know” (ginosko) is the verbal equivalent of the noun “gnosis” and means to “know by experience”, or to know in the sense of having a relationship with a person that one knows. The Gnostics claimed to have a superior knowledge (gnosis) or relationship with God. John now gives a test whereby this claim can be proved or not. If we know God (ie: have a relationship with Him) then (reasoning deductively) we will do what He commands. What sort of relationship or friendship would we have with someone if we never did what they asked of us? It just wouldn’t work. The relationship would fall apart. The Gnostics claimed a special relationship with God but did many things contrary to God’s commands. In particular, John is going to target their lack of love (ie: their hatred) towards their brethren.

As an aside, this test that John presents is very helpful for us too. We can perhaps feel unsure whether we have a relationship with Christ or not. We don’t pray to Christ because Christ tells us not to do that (John 16:23-24; Col 3:17). So, if we are not communicating with Christ directly, we can perhaps feel that we don’t have a relationship with him. These words of John give great re-assurance. If we are doing Christ’s commands, he knows us and will acknowledge our relationship with him, before the Father (Matt 10:32-33).

There will be some at the judgment seat whom Christ will banish from his presence. They are, in fact, workers of iniquity, whom he never knew (Matt 7:23). For our Lord to say to us at the judgment seat that he never knew us, would be devastating. What if we think we know him during our life, but we really don’t and only discover this at the judgment seat? Wouldn’t we want to find this out before we get to the judgment seat so that we have opportunity to change and really know him? Hence, this test John gives us is invaluable. It’s such a simple test. We can test whether we know him—by whether we are keeping his commandments. If we are keeping the commandments of Christ, John tells us, we have nothing to fear.

How can we know God?

In chapter 2:4-11, John expands on how we can know God and how the Gnostic claim of knowing God is false. He does this with a set of contrasts between Error and Truth, arranged in the same way as 1:6 to 2:2 (refer to previous article). These contrasts are set out in the table below. Each statement of error is introduced with “He that saith”. This is now targeting the Gnostic brother more definitively. In the previous chapter the statements of error were introduced with the words “If we say”; a less direct reference to the errorists.

Again the structure is based on sets of three. There are three sets of contrasts and in each contrast there are three clauses. Each statement of error is introduced with “He that saith” and there are two consequences for each statement.

Error Truth
v4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, v5 But whoso keepeth his word,
is a liar, in him verily is the love of God perfected:
and the truth is not in him. hereby know we that we are in him.
v6 He that saith he abideth in him (God) v7-8 Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning.
ought himself also so to walk, The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning.
even as he (Christ) walked. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth.
v9 He that saith he is in the light, v10-11 He that loveth his brother abideth in the light,
and hateth his brother, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.
is in darkness even until now. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.

There is a significant amount of deep spiritual insight to be gained from the way John writes these contrasts. Consideration will be given to just a few.

In the first set of contrasts (v4 and v5), we might expect the contrast to “keepeth not his commandments” would be “keepeth his commandments”. However, in giving the contrast, John extends the contrasting thought to be “keepeth his word” (Gk logos). What might be the significance of that? The Word contains much more than commandments. The Word (Logos) represents the wisdom of God (eg: John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”). To keep God’s Word is to manifest His wisdom and character. We term it ‘God Manifestation’. It is a human tendency to narrow the obligations of spiritual life to literal observances of commandments. However, our daily reading and study of the Word should lift our minds to strive to not only do His commandments but also show forth the principles and teachings of the Word of God and so manifest His character.

Similarly, we might expect the contrast to “is a liar” (v4) would be “speaks the truth” (or something like that). But again, John extends the thought to be “in him verily is the love of God perfected (better completed)”. How does that work? Because a person that “keeps the Word” should ultimately be a complete manifestation of God’s love.

In the next contrast, John also extends the thought. We might expect the contrast to “and the truth is not in him” would be “the truth is in him”. However, John expands the thought to “hereby know we that we are in him (God)”. How does this work? Well, if we “keep the Word”, that is, if we manifest God’s character, He will give us the kingdom and furthermore He will then make us a part of Him in the kingdom—we become “in him”.

It is interesting to note that as John exposes the error of the Gnostics, he doesn’t just shatter their arguments and leave the reader’s mind focusing on the negative aspects of their falsehoods. Instead, what he has written about the Truth in contrast to the Error causes our minds to be lifted up to lofty spiritual places that gives us encouragement in our walk in Christ.

Is it a new commandment or an old commandment?

In 2:7 John writes, “Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning”. But then in verse 8 he writes, “Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you”. This seems confusing. Is he writing about an old commandment or a new commandment?

By looking at similar verses John has written, it becomes clearer:

“And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.” (2 John 5)

“For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (1 John 3:11)

So, the old commandment, which is from the beginning is the command to “love one another” or put another way “to love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev 19:18), which is from the Law of Moses. What then is the new commandment? The words of the Lord give the answer. John 13:34 says, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another”. In what sense is this “new”? The word used for “new” here is the Greek word kainos, which carries the idea of “recently made, fresh, of a new kind” (Thayer). So what John is saying is that we have the old commandment to “love one another”, but it has become a commandment with fresh meaning supplied by the example of Christ—loving one another as he has loved us.

Now when did Christ give this new commandment? It was at the last supper just after Judas had left them (John 13:30).The timing is significant. Christ had shown Judas great love. He had washed his feet, even though he knew that he would betray him to a cruel and agonising death. He had told all the disciples that one of them would betray him, which gave Judas the opportunity to examine his heart and to turn back from his evil plans. In short, Christ demonstrated how we should love one another, even loving our enemies.

This is a challenge to us too. In the ecclesia there are many brothers and sisters that are not too difficult to love, because we get on well with them. However, sometimes we encounter brothers and sisters that we don’t get on with. They may become hostile towards us or say and do hurtful things to us. They may spread false accusations about us to other brothers and sisters. We may even end up avoiding them in the ecclesial hall because we feel slighted by them. Is this behaviour right? When we look at the example of the way Christ treated Judas, it should surely make us think about how we treat those who have mistreated us. Do we show them love by appealing to them? Do we pray for them?

Why might John be introducing the subject of the new commandment to his readers at this point in the epistle? Well, like Christ gave the new commandment just after Judas left, John is drawing attention to the same commandment in this epistle following the departure of the Gnostics from the ecclesia. The Gnostics taught a false and evil doctrine that betrayed Christ anew, but the brothers and sisters should still show them love even though they had become enemies of the Truth and the ecclesia. Though they had become brethren with serious error, they were still brethren. How do we feel about brethren that have embraced wrong doctrines and caused havoc in the ecclesia? We may be in conflict with them because they advocate error, but we should not hate them as a result. We should still show them love by appealing to them and seeking their repentance through our prayers for them.

John makes this point strongly in verse 11: “But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes”.

Darkness hath blinded his eyes

How can darkness blind the eyes? We might think excessive light would blind the eyes more than darkness. Research has established that living in darkness continually can cause blindness.1 In the 19th and early 20th centuries, ponies (called pit ponies) were used to pull the carts of coal through the tunnels in underground coal mines. There is anecdotal evidence that if the ponies were kept underground in darkness for an extended period of time, they went blind.

The Gnostics had claimed to have a special light or knowledge of God, but because in their lives they had embraced all manner of sins, they were actually walking in darkness. John’s point is that if you spend long enough in a life of spiritual darkness, you end up spiritually blind. Many of us have seen this happen in the ecclesia. Sometimes young people or brothers and sisters leave the ecclesia to sample the life the world has to offer—a life of darkness. In the writer’s experience, when you encounter some of these people some years later, many of them seem not only unwilling to discuss Scripture but are also incapable of comprehending scriptural teaching—darkness has made them blind to God’s light.

Rebuke and encouragement

Once again John has shown that he will not stand for the wrong doctrine of the Gnostics and has shown that their claim of a special experiential knowledge and relationship with God is false. But he has counterbalanced this with encouragement for the remnant of the ecclesia in his days, and for us in the 21st century, to demonstrate love one to another as Christ has loved us.

References:

  1. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4345447/ about kittens going blind after being in darkness for 10 days. Also Royal Society article https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2014.2756