That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:1-3)
A study of early church history reveals that the earliest controversies and errors the church faced had to do with the incarnation. Did God really appear in human flesh? Indeed, could He really appear in human flesh? The Apostles and church leaders fiercely defended the literal record of Jesus' incarnation, His coming in real human flesh.
Gnosticism, a precursor to modern New Age philosophy, attempted to deny this truth. Modern New Age philosophy, aside from the incredible variety of ideas propagated from one advocate to the other, accepts that Jesus came in the flesh. Some will even acknowledge His deity, but not in the sense you and I would expect. According to them, Jesus was nothing more than a mere man who worked and learned until he "realized his own deity." In the same way, according to this teaching, you and I can work and study until we also realize our own deity. This concept does not present the Biblical concept of God or of Christ.
Included under the general heading of gnosticism is an equally perverted view of the origin of the physical universe. This idea relates directly to the incarnation. Much like ripples that form when you throw a stone into a still body of water, gnosticism taught the existence of one ultimate deity, unknown, unknowable and unapproachable. But emanating from this supreme deity are countless lesser god-like beings, like the ripples in the water's surface or like rays emitting from the sun. According to the gnostic view, one of these "demiurges" wholly misunderstood the intent of the supreme deity and created the material universe. He was actually a rather undesirable kind of lesser god, mean-spirited and inclined to hold grudges. Supposedly he is the Jehovah of the Old Testament! The supreme deity had no desire to create a material universe. In fact, he viewed anything tangible and material as inferior and despicable.
Given this low view of the material universe, what do you think ancient gnostic philosophers thought of Jesus as the direct personification of God in human flesh? They abhorred the idea! How could a god who hated the material universe enter it? In fact, according to them he couldn't even come into contact with it. It would contaminate him and make him something less of the god-force than he was before that contact.
How did the gnostics deal with the multitude of witnesses and evidences for the incarnation? They were quite creative. According to one sect of gnostic teachers, the Docetists, Jesus never possessed a true material body. They claimed that what people saw was merely a phantom, a spirit appearance of a human body similar to angels who are immaterial but may at times appear as material.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia identifies eight characteristics of ancient gnosticism. (Volume 4, pages 548-9)
The following may be regarded as the chief points in the characteristics of the Gnostic systems: (1) A claim on the part of the initiated to a special knowledge of the truth, a tendency to regard knowledge as superior to faith, and as the special possession of the more enlightened, for ordinary Christians did not possess this secret and higher doctrine. (2) The essential separation of matter and spirit, the former of these being essentially evil, and the source from which all evil has arisen. (3) An attempt at the solution of the problems of creation and of the origin of evil by the conception of a Demiurge, i.e. a Creator or Artificer of the world as distinct from the Supreme Deity, and also by means of emanations extending between God and the visible universe. It should be observed that this conception merely concealed the difficulties of the problem, and did not solve them. (4) A denial of the true humanity of Christ, a docetic Christology, (which looked upon the earthly life of Christ and especially on His sufferings on the cross as unreal. (5) The denial of the personality of the Supreme God, and the denial also of the free will of man. (6) The teaching, on the one hand, of asceticism as the means of attaining to spiritual communion with God, and, on the other hand, of an indifference which led directly to licentiousness. (7) A syncretistic tendency which combined certain more or less misunderstood Christian doctrines, various elements from oriental and Jewish and other sources. (8) The Scriptures of the Old Testament were ascribed to the Demiurge or inferior Creator of the world, who was the God of the Jews, but not the true God. Some of these characteristic ideas are more obvious in one, and some of them in others of the Gnostic systems. The relation of these ideas to Christian facts and doctrines is dealt with more particularly below.
John's writings emphasize the incarnation as a literal event in time and space, very much an event that involved God becoming man and living in a human body. That body in every way except its vulnerability to sin was human. For example, notice 1Jo 4:2-3 -- Anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has "come in the flesh" is not of God. For John, belief in the incarnation was not an optional, non-essential theological technicality; it was the core, the central truth, of all Christian teaching. You couldn't deny this truth and be a Christian. Deny this truth and John says you are in fact "anti-Christ."
Even in the opening verses of his letter, John establishes the central truth of a literal coming of God in human flesh. Notice our study verses. The letter begins, "That which was from the beginning...." Only God exists "from the beginning." Only God is eternal, personally and self-sufficiently. Thus John introduces us to the very person of God. But notice how he integrates the deity of Jesus Christ with His literal humanity. John says, "We heard him speak, we saw him with our eyes, and we touched him with our hands." This was no phantom, no spirit body, of which John wrote. He was writing about an altogether real person who lived among men in human flesh.
If we view this epistle as a nice appeal for more love among the brotherhood of the faith, we miss its major point. Love is one of several strategies by which faithful Christians are to counter this heresy. Gnosticism inherently was a cold, intellectual philosophy. John's idea of love differs widely from the common Western idea of sentimental, emotional attachment. Like Paul's definition of love in 1Co 13:1-13, true Christian love is defined, not by how one feels, but by what one does. In fact, First John may be the most fiercely polemical of the New Testament letters in its focused opposition to this specific error. In the same ISBE article cited above the authors note that gnosticism was not an error that arose from within the church, but that it was an external error that found its way into the church from the outside. In every essential trait this error was alien to New Testament Christianity. John was fully justified in his pointed rejection of its teachings. Deny the truths it attacked and you deny every major premise of Christian fact and doctrine. Christianity no longer exists. Indeed John fought for the life of the reality he had so personally experienced and witnessed.
Interestingly, in these first verses of John's epistle, New Testament Greek scholars are nearly universal in viewing the verbs in the perfect tense. "That which we have heard, and our ears still hear his voice; that which we have seen, and our eyes still see him...." Christian truth did not originate generations after the fact, the result of mythical hyperbole. Most of the men who wrote the New Testament were eyewitnesses of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Even Paul, whose conversion likely occurred less than five years after the resurrection, defended his apostleship on the basis that he had actually seen Jesus Christ (1Co 9:1; 2Co 5:16). Thus they viewed any claim that Jesus was nothing more than a mythical fantasy or only an apparent "spirit body" as heretical error to be rejected emphatically.
While New Testament writers frame our model apologetic strategy in factual evidence and documented reality, they also include a touch of personal witness. Not only did John witness Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, the reality of the experience still rang in his ears and flooded his eyes and mind with memories. May we learn this model well. This ancient error has surfaced in our time through New Age teaching and many of its insidious tenets corrupt Christian thought. It is altogether relevant to our time.
1Jo:3-7 - What is Fellowship
1Jo 1:8-10 - Honest Confession - Faithful Forgiveness
1Jo 2:1-2 - Sanctification and Propitiation
1Jo 2:3-6 - Walking the Walk
1Jo 2:7-11 - Old or New, What is it?
1Jo 2:12-14 - Grand Repetition, Effective Teaching
1Jo 2:15-17 - Love Identifies the Person
1Jo 2:18-19 - Who Went Out...Who is Antichrist
1Jo 2:20-23 - What do you Know...How do you Know it?
1Jo 2:24-29 - Abiding Truth
1Jo 3:1-2- Sons of God, Not Gods
1Jo 3:3-5 - Purifying Hope
1Jo 3:6-10 - Who Sin? Who does not sin?
1Jo 3:11-12 - How do we Love? How do we Show it?
1Jo 3:13-18 - Assurance and Love of Others
1Jo 3:19-24 - Heart Condition...Condemned or Assured?
1Jo 4:1-3 - The Test of Truth and Error
1Jo 4:4-6 - Of God, Not Becoming Gods
1Jo 4:7-11 - What is Love? How do you show it?
1Jo 4:11-13 - How Do You Know You Know God?
1Jo 4:14-16 - Which World? How do We Know?
1Jo 4:17-18 - Perfect Love - No Fear
1Jo 4:19-21 - First Love and its Implications
1Jo 5:1-3 - Faith, Assurance and the New Birth
1Jo 5:4-5 - Victorious Faith
1Jo 5:6-8 - Faith's Object
1Jo 5:9-12 - God's Witness
1Jo 5:13-15 - Knowing Faith
1Jo 5:16-17 - Deadly Sin
1Jo 5:18-21 - We know
1Jo 5:21 - Informed Faithfulness