Heard From the Beginning

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 They participated in Christian assemblies for some time, seemingly a part of the group, but departed and no longer maintained that association (1 John 2:19).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

A God of Peace, Not Confusion

For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33a).

Satan likes to insert a question mark where God has made a period.

From the beginning, God has sought a peaceful relationship and harmony with His creation (Genesis 1:31, 2:25). Ever since, Satan has attempted to challenge what God has established, spreading confusion among mankind (cf. Genesis 3:1-6).

By all accounts, the Evil One has been quite successful. Even if we just investigate into the various groups claiming to follow Christ we find a dizzying array of differing attitudes, doctrines, and practices. Everything from the nature of God to the nature of the relationship between Christians is disputed in some way or another. In such an environment, many despair of ever coming to the knowledge of the truth. It is easy to get discouraged; it is easy to see why many believe that we will always remain in a state of confusion.

But we do well to remember what Paul told the Corinthians. It appears that the Corinthian assemblies were quite the spectacle: different people prophesying at the same time, others speaking in different languages, often with no one to interpret. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking them all quite mad (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23)! This was not what God intended with the spiritual gifts He provided through the Holy Spirit at this time; the Corinthians needed reminding that God was not a God of confusion, or instability, tumult, or commotion, but a God of peace. He remains the God of the “still, small voice,” and not of “the wind, earthquake, or fire” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Even though the gifts all came from God, it was up to His servants the Corinthian Christians to use them properly and toward the right ends (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, 14:26). His good gifts could be misdirected toward a confusing commotion that was not of the truth but of worldliness and immaturity. They could use what God had given them to strengthen and build up or to weaken and tear down.

While we do well to keep these things in mind when it comes to our assemblies today, Paul’s reasoning holds true in every aspect of our lives as Christians. God is not a God of instability, confusion, or commotion, but a God of peace, and that remains true outside of the assembly as much as within it.

God is not the author of the confusion of the modern mind, religious or secular, despite what many might claim. God made known His truth through Jesus and His Apostles (Matthew 18:18, John 8:31-32, 14:6). Part of that truth was the confession that many would sow confusion among Christians, promoting the teaching of demons, leading people astray from the truth (1 Timothy 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 4:3-5). This has never been the Lord’s intent, and it never will be. Nevertheless, He does not compel or coerce. He has given us the revelation of His message through Jesus and the Scriptures; it is up to us as to whether we will abide by His message for good or whether we will misdirect His message for selfish, immature, and improper ends.

God communicated His message so that it could be understood and followed (John 8:31-32, Romans 8:29). It is lamentable to see how effective Satan has been at getting people to question and challenge the revelation of God, vaunting their own methods and idols above the ways of the Most High. But God remains a God of peace, not confusion. His message allows us to be reconciled back to Him in sincerity, truth, and love (Romans 5:6-11). Love rejoices with the truth but cannot do so at unrighteousness (1 Corinthians 13:6), and God is love (1 John 4:8). Therefore, let us entrust ourselves to the God of love and peace, finding rest in Him, and not be tossed to and fro by the challenges, questions, and disputations which come from the author of confusion, Satan and his minions. Let us pattern our lives after the God of peace, not the author of confusion and commotion!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not to the Right or to the Left

“Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:7).

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Such a line will not deviate toward any other direction. But such is really true only in ideal terms; in our reality, there is no such thing as a completely straight line. It is possible to make a line seem very straight indeed, but we cannot make a perfectly straight line. This nicely illustrates the human predicament.

God has provided a standard for living; in the old covenant, it was the Law of Moses. Ideally, Israel would hold firm to the Law, observing everything in it, not deviating at all, or, as God encouraged Joshua, and in turn Joshua the people, “to not turn from it to the right hand or to the left” (Joshua 1:7, 23:6). In the new covenant in Christ, we are to love and know God and keep His commandments, walking as Jesus walked (1 John 2:1-6). This remains the ideal.

And yet none of us can live up to that standard perfectly. Peter and Paul declared as much in regards to Israel and the Law (Acts 13:38-39, 15:10, Romans 3:20). John understands that Christians do not live up to the ideal either (1 John 1:8-2:6). If we cannot perfectly go straight, why would God provide such exhortation to Israel and to Christians today?

The ideal is not worthless or irrelevant simply because no one save Jesus has ever lived up to it perfectly. God has always understood our deficiencies as humans; such is why He established the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, and continues to grant grace and mercy through Jesus in the New Testament (cf. Leviticus, Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-39). And yet we must not become complacent or content by acknowledging our imperfection; it is easy for us to think that since we cannot live up to the ideal perfectly, we should not try! Therefore, we do well to confess that the ideal is ideal: we should be following what God says perfectly. We should walk in God’s ways without any deviation; we should go “straight” and should not go “to the right hand or to the left.” When we do deviate from God’s command, we ought to admit as much, change our minds and ways, and return to the good path (1 John 1:9). In all things we must place our trust in God and His ideal way for mankind (Hebrews 11:6)!

The image of going “straight” and not turning “to the right hand or to the left” also underscores the necessity of balance. While it remains true that many people have deviated from God’s path and purposes on account of rebellion and a desire to sin, many others have deviated from God’s path because they overemphasized certain aspects of God’s truth to the detriment of other aspects.

This proves quite easy to do; we humans easily go to extremes. We rightly see a problem with one side; it is tempting to run far to the other side in response. We see certain groups associated with certain practices; it is tempting to want to go to the other extreme so that no one would confuse “us” with “them.”

This is why it is important for us to remember that God wants us to not deviate to the right hand or to the left; truth is rarely, if ever, found in the extremes. Furthermore, there remain many aspects of the faith that are held in a sort of tension: God’s sovereignty and grace with human freedom, for instance, or the imperative to holiness with the imperative to love, mercy, and grace. The Scriptures are filled with examples of people who have gone to one extreme or another: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the “Judaizers,” the Gnostics, and so on.

God is far greater than ourselves, and His truth remains sublime (Isaiah 55:8-9, Romans 11:33-36). God has set forth His standard for the creation and all mankind; it is up to us to confess its value and make it our goal in life. Whenever we deviate from that standard, either by stumbling into some sin, or by overemphasizing certain aspects of truth to the detriment of other aspects of it, we must change our ways and seek to re-align our will to God’s. God’s ways and God’s truth remain ideally straight, firm, and balanced; we, in our sin and corruption, have turned to the right or to the left. Let us turn away from all deviations and seek to glorify God in spirit and truth in all we think, say, do, and teach!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Willful Blindness

“Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And unto them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith,
‘By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, And I should heal them'” (Matthew 13:13-16).

Jesus’ teaching style is not exactly what one might expect out of the Messiah, the Son of God. As the Word, active in the creation, He through whom all things subsist, He understands the greatest mysteries of the universe (John 1:1-3, Hebrews 1:3). He has come to proclaim the coming of the eternal Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23). One might expect some kind of lofty discourse or some compelling argument. Instead, Jesus talks about farmers, crops, merchants, merchandise, women’s work, and similar things.

While it may seem strange to us, Jesus knows precisely what He is doing. While He speaks of farming, house work, matters of trade, and the like, He is really not addressing those matters. He’s providing marching orders in code: suffer loss of everything for the Kingdom. Not all will hear; not all who hear will endure. Do not be surprised when some doing the Devil’s work are in the midst of the saints. God is more interested in humble repentance than sanctimonious professions of righteousness.

So why does Jesus seem to “beat around the bush” and provide these messages in a figure? Yes, it was predicted that He would do so (Matthew 13:35; cf. Psalm 78:2). But there was even a reason why it was predicted that it would be so, and it involves the sad history of the Jews.

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 13:13-15; cf. Isaiah 6:9-10). God comissions Isaiah to proclaim the message of deliverance and healing to the people. Yet the preaching of that message will not lead to repentance; God knows that it will only serve to further harden their hearts. In the Hebrew in Isaiah 6:9-10, it is the message being delivered that “makes fat” their hearts, “makes heavy” their eyes, and “makes shut” their ears. And, indeed, the people close off their senses. They do not listen to Isaiah’s message of nonintervention in international affairs and repentance regarding injustice, oppression, immorality, and idolatry at home. And Isaiah– and the people– live to see the wrath of God manifest in the Assyrian juggernaut, devastating Aram and Israel while leaving Jerusalem alone unscathed in Judah (Isaiah 1-10). It was not a pretty picture.

Seven hundred years later things had not changed too much for the better. While the Jews may not have been committing the particular sins of their ancestors, their eyes seemed no more inclined to see God’s work, nor were their ears much more inclined to hear God’s message. Jesus quotes the Isaianic prophecy directly at the Jews of His day (Matthew 13:14-15/Mark 4:10-12/Luke 8:10); Paul will later do so to the Jews at Rome (Acts 28:24-30).

In the Greek now, the prediction involves the condition of the heart. Obviously the Jews can “see” and “hear” what Jesus says and does. But they do not draw the appropriate conclusions. They should understand who Jesus is and the value of the message He proclaims, but it would be foreign to them no matter how it would be presented.

Some think that Jesus’ methodology might be unfair. How can He know whether or not His message would be understood before proclaiming it? Is that not unfair to the Jews?

We must remember that many of the Jews not only have no interest in the type of Kingdom of which Jesus proclaims but are even actively working to destroy Him. Anything He says can and will be used against Him, no matter how much the message is misunderstood or misconstrued. An excellent example comes from John 2:19, where Jesus says, “destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews imagined that He was talking about the edifice in Jerusalem (John 2:20), although He really was referring to His body (John 2:21). Years later, at Jesus’ trial, what is the evidence for the charge against Him? “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands'” (Mark 14:58). Their testimony in this did not even agree (Mark 14:59), and for good reason: Jesus never said it. He never said He would destroy the “Temple made with hands.” The memory of the event was entirely confused– and the source of the confusion was not Jesus. The confusion came from the worldview and perspective of the Jews hearing Him and their expectations and what they wanted to hear versus what He actually said!

And this is why Jesus speaks in parables. Even if they had an inkling of what He was really talking about– possibly quite doubtful, for even His disciples, who were more sympathetic to Him, needed them all explained (Mark 4:34)– what could they do with it? What kind of case can be made against someone who talks about crops, bread, pearls, fish, and the like? It was the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ messages: innocuous and innocent on the surface, deeply subversive and powerful in application underneath.

It was all necessary because the Jews wanted their Messiah according to their image and following their ideas of who the Messiah would be. As the Israelites of Isaiah’s day had little use for the declarations of the prophet, so many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had little use for a Messiah of a spiritual Kingdom who left Rome’s control of Jerusalem intact. They did not want to hear because it did not meet their expectations.

This challenge is not limited to the Jews, and it is not limited to the ancient world. Far too often people to this day refuse to listen to God in Christ because the message is unwanted, it does not fit their view of the world and how it operates, and it poses unwelcome challenges. Believers can easily fall into this trap themselves, preferring a particular view or perspective on Jesus that is heavily distorted, and dispense the true message of Jesus Christ with trite sayings and misguided arguments. There is no lack of willful blindness and deafness in our world today!

It is better, then, for us to be disciples in the same mold as the disciples present when Jesus spoke these words. Everyone comes to Jesus with their own ideas and expectations; those who will be found to be true servants of God are the ones who are willing to radically change those views and expectations based on what Christ the Lord says (1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 2:1-9). Let us not reject His words; let us not create a God or a Christ in our own image, with our perspective to serve, but instead allow our image to be conformed to the true and Risen Christ (Romans 8:29)!

Ethan R. Longhenry