As for you, let that abide in you which ye heard from the beginning. If that which ye heard from the beginning abide in you, ye also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father (1 John 2:24).
Even the early Christians of the first century had to contend with false teachers and divergent teachings regarding the faith. Their presence and tactics upset the faith of some. Part of John’s purpose in writing his letter is to assure, comfort, and confirm them in their faith in the Son of God.
John provides some clues as to the nature of these opponents. He calls them “antichrists,” those teaching and working in opposition to Christ (1 John 2:18). They participated in Christian assemblies for some time, seemingly a part of the group, but departed and no longer maintained that association (1 John 2:19). They denied that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; in doing so, they denied the true nature of the Father as well (1 John 2:22-23). They are actively working to lead Christians astray and follow their doctrines (1 John 2:26). They likely do not practice righteousness as defined by God in Christ (1 John 2:29, 3:3-10). Since John uses similar ways of speaking of the opponents in 2 John 1:7-11, they may well be the same or closely related groups; in 2 John the opponents deny that Jesus came in the flesh (2 John 1:7).
These opponents, at the least, are docetists: docetists taught that Jesus was not really flesh and blood human, but only seemed to be human (from Greek dokeo, “to seem”). They perhaps saw Jesus something akin to our idea of a hologram or some spiritual being that seemed to have physicality but did not. These opponents may also have been developing the ideas that would become manifest in many Gnostic groups in the second century and beyond; Gnostics (from Greek gnosis, knowledge) were as internally divided as they were opposed to “orthodox” Christianity, but most Gnostic groups believed they had a superior knowledge to that of Christians and understood the “real” spiritual story behind what is found in the Bible. They often infiltrated Christian assemblies, seeming to go along with everything being said and done while privately attempting to influence individual believers to consider their extra level of knowledge. Gnostic versions of the Jesus story proved to be some of the most dangerous and pernicious heresies to challenge the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ in the first few centuries following the death of the Apostles. Even in its nascent forms John perceives the danger in these teachings: they deny the physicality of Jesus, and therefore undermine the Apostolic proclamation of Jesus’ Incarnation, death, and resurrection, for if Jesus were never truly human, He was never truly born, did not really die, and therefore could not have been raised from the dead. If Docetism and Gnosticism were accurate, the Christian faith was a lie, since Jesus was not raised from the dead, and we all remain in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-20)!
John must assure and confirm his beloved fellow Christians in their faith, reminding them of the truth of the Gospel, persuading any who might be falling prey to these false teachers. He reminds them of the anointing they received from God, their knowledge of the truth, their confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and their persistence in the Lord’s commands and walking as He walked (1 John 2:3-6, 2:20-23, 3:3-10). One can have confidence in faith when one follows after the Spirit and accomplishes righteousness (Matthew 7:15-20, 1 John 2:1-3:10), and this fruit is clearly not evident in the opposition. Yet one of the lynchpins of John’s argument is found in 1 John 2:24: early Christians should abide in what they heard from the beginning, for if they preserve themselves in the message they heard from the beginning, they will abide with the Father and the Son. “From the beginning” is the Word of Life, manifest as the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1-5, 14-18, 1 John 1:1-4). The beginning of Christianity is Christ, the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, His life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and promised return, and the original Apostolic proclamation of Jesus as the Christ over the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:14-41, 1 Corinthians 15:1-10, Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 7:12-9:28). This was the truth of the Gospel proclaimed from the beginning; these docetic and gnostic ideas came later. John affirms the truth of God was lived and proclaimed before it was perverted and distorted by later false teachers (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16). John’s beloved fellow Christians should not be troubled or disturbed in their faith because of these Docetists and/or Gnostics; they had come to know and believe in the faith in Christ as originally proclaimed by the Apostles, the true, “orthodox” (from Greek ortho doxos, right belief) faith. They had learned the authentic faith; they had no need to follow after later, poorer imitations.
John’s exhortation has resonated throughout Christianity ever since. Early Christian apologists appealed to the principle of the existence of orthodox teachings before heresy, and sought to demonstrate continuity between the churches of their day and the churches founded by the Apostles (this has, in part, led to the idea of apostolic succession in Roman Catholicism, but the entire argument falls apart if a given church’s teachings today vary greatly from its teachings in the past). John’s exhortation should resonate with Christians today as well.
Over the past 1900 years many more divergent teachings have been introduced in Christianity; many are hopelessly confused about how to truly follow Jesus on account of all of these competing voices. In such a confused religious environment we do well to reclaim John’s message in 1 John 2:24: let us abide in what was heard, and therefore, proclaimed, from the beginning, the original and apostolic Gospel of Christ. This Gospel is still preserved for us in the pages of the New Testament, and can be proclaimed, believed, and acted upon in its original, primitive purity. Such is why the call for restoration of New Testament Christianity ought to remain relevant in the twenty-first century: not because Christians should live in the Mediterranean basin, speak Koine Greek, and wear tunics, but because the original, apostolic, primitive Gospel is the only message which has received God’s seal of approval in Christ (Romans 1:16). It remains the faith delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 1:3). It is the only Gospel by which people can come to the full truth and understanding of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of Life made flesh, who lived, died, was raised again in power, and now reigns as the Risen Lord in heaven, and who will come again on the final day, and of the Kingdom of that Christ, in which God calls all men to participate in Him to this day. When we abide in the original, pure Gospel of Christ, we abide in the Father and the Son. If we pursue a divergent message which came later, shaped by the philosophies of the world or in reaction to the errors of others, we are left with no confidence, from Scripture, that we would continue to abide in the Father and the Son.
John is absolutely right: the truth comes first; error comes later. Let us prove willing to uphold the pure, primitive, apostolic Gospel of Christ as proclaimed from the beginning, restoring New Testament Christianity in the twenty-first century, and abide in the Father and the Son!
Ethan R. Longhenry