Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son (2 John 1:9).
Whereas the essential human condition and challenges remain consistent throughout time, many things have changed over the past two thousand years. Empires have come and gone; the Gospel message has spread throughout the world; people who believe in Jesus today often come from very different places and cultures than that of first century Jewish Palestine. Different people with different societal and cultural norms have looked at Jesus for the past two thousand years, and unsurprisingly, we now have all sorts of different views about who Jesus really is and for what Jesus stood.
Yet this is not a new challenge. Within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, many of the Greco-Roman world, profoundly influenced by Greek philosophy, also looked into the claims and life of Jesus of Nazareth. They found Him compelling, but there were certain things that the Christians were saying about Jesus unacceptable to them. The Christians claimed that Jesus was the Son of God and God the Son (Acts 8:37, John 1:1); well and good, but they also claimed that He was God the Son in the flesh (Colossians 2:9, 2 John 1:7). Surely God would never humiliate Himself to the point of becoming flesh. No; it was not truly flesh; He only seemed to be flesh, these Greeks would say.
These Greeks influenced by Jesus but still holding onto many Greek philosophical principles were forming the various groups called the Gnostics; many of the “gospels” that are promoted with great fanfare today, like the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Judas,” were written by these Gnostics. They viewed Jesus as a most superior teacher of philosophy, a divine being who only seemed to be human, advocating (depending on the group) either complete asceticism or license to satisfy the desires of the flesh in the name of superior understanding and a complete division between the flesh and the spirit, among other things. Sure, there were a couple of similarities between the picture of Jesus promoted by the Gnostics with the picture of Jesus promoted by the Apostles and the early Christians, yet the differences remained stark.
What did all of this mean? A lot of people today think that different views of Jesus can be maintained acceptably before God, but such was unthinkable in the first century. John perceives the threat Gnosticism poses to the work and identity of Jesus of Nazareth: the power of the Incarnation is denied, the ability of Jesus to identify with humans and their suffering is rejected (cf. Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8), and the Biblical presentation of man as body and soul combined is being thoroughly undermined (cf. Genesis 1:26-27, 2:5-9). The differences between the Apostolic presentation of Jesus of Nazareth and the Gnostic presentation are real, and critical aspects of the faith are rejected by even tolerating the Gnostic view. John will have none of it: those who do not abide in the teaching, or doctrine, of Christ, do not have God; those who abide in that teaching have the Father and the Son, since the Son is the exact imprint of the nature of the Father (John 10:30, Hebrews 1:3). Those who have left the teaching of Christ engage in evil works, and they are not even to be greeted (2 John 1:10-11).
These are very sharp words, and to many modern ears, it sounds intolerant. His words are designed to be intolerant to a significant degree, mostly because of his desire to maintain the integrity of the teachings regarding Jesus. It is one thing to believe the principles of Greek philosophy; it is quite another to attempt to re-imagine Jesus as a Greek philosopher and in the process distort His message and His identity. None of us were given the right to make a Jesus of our own image according to our own desire; therefore, it is right to defend the teaching of the Christ who actually lived, died, and was raised (1 Peter 3:15).
To understand the true nature of the Christ is always a challenge. We are all creatures of our time and age; we are programmed by our environment, family, friends, culture, and society to think in certain ways and to accept certain propositions as true. None of us can completely transcend those ways of thinking; in various ways, we will all see Jesus somehow in ways more like us than like a first century Palestinian Jew. Since Jesus is for all men, this is acceptable up to a point; Jesus is compelling precisely because He speaks regarding the human condition in general, and not merely to first century Jewish concerns (e.g. Matthew 5-7). That is likely why John emphasizes the need to abide in the teachings of Christ: we did not walk with Him and talk with Him, but we all can learn the things He taught and the things taught regarding who He was and is and ever will be (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2).
The challenge is for us as much as it was for those in the first century: we must abide in the teachings of Jesus. Some of the things Jesus said and did are easily acceptable; those should be a given. Yet in every society and in every age there are aspects to Jesus’ existence, nature, life, death, resurrection, and instruction which stand completely against the commonly accepted wisdom of the day. It is hard to fight against cultural norms; little wonder, then, how so many have not abode in the teachings of Christ, but have instead invented a Jesus better suited to their own desires and more consistent with their own expectations. That tendency has not changed; nevertheless, we must stand against it. We must accept all of the teachings from Jesus and regarding Jesus in Scripture, no matter how consistent they are with what we already believe or how popular they are with our fellow man. Let us strive to abide in the doctrine of Christ and not deviate from Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry