An Apostle’s Stand Against Apostasy
To derive the maximum benefit from this article, we recommend that you read the Bible book known as The First of John. It is just a few pages.
TOWARD the close of the first century of our Common Era, a grave and insidious danger threatened the early Christian congregation. Was it persecution from those outside the Christian community? No, the principal danger came from within. The lurking enemy was apostasy.
By the year 98 C.E. one apostle remained to act as a final bulwark against what would later prove to be a tidal flood of false teachings and religious and political compromise. He was the elderly apostle John, son of Zebedee and brother of the apostle James, martyred some 54 years earlier. As a young man, John had served alongside Jesus during that one’s brief earthly ministry. Perhaps due to John’s dynamic personality Jesus called him a ‘Son of Thunder.’ Now a very old man, he put himself to writing a vigorous letter of warning and counsel to the Christian congregations. What he says is still vital for us today.—Mark 3:17; Luke 9:51-56.
John was well aware that apostasy was creeping in among his fellow believers. The apostle Paul had previously foretold such a falling away. (Acts 20:29, 30) In no uncertain terms John unmasked the deceivers, saying: “Even now there have come to be many antichrists; from which fact we gain the knowledge that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of our sort; for if they had been of our sort, they would have remained with us.” The fact that John speaks of “antichrists” in the plural shows that the apostasy was not limited to one person, but it involved many who denied the view of Christ that is presented in Scripture.—1 John 2:18, 19.
Who were those antichrists? And how were they trying to deceive their fellow believers? John minces no words in exposing the antichrist apostates. He attacks them on three scores: (1) denying that Christ came in the flesh, (2) denying that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God and (3) denying that they themselves were sinners.
Did Christ Come in the Flesh?
But you might ask, ‘How could some believers deny that Jesus had come in the flesh?’ Evidently by the end of the first century some Christians had been affected by Greek philosophy, including early Gnosticism. These apostates held the view that all material things were evil, including the fleshly body. Thus, to the apostate antichrists, Jesus had not come in evil flesh but, rather, as a spirit. John clearly shows that he is no party to such theological reasonings that denied the efficacy of Christ’s ransom sacrifice. Thus he writes of “Jesus Christ, a righteous one” who was “a propitiatory sacrifice for our sins, yet not for ours only but also for the whole world’s.”—1 John 2:1, 2.
Later, with a simple and categorical definition, John clarifies the issue even further, saying: “Every inspired expression that confesses Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh originates with God, but every inspired expression that does not confess Jesus does not originate with God.”—1 John 4:2, 3.
Jesus Not the Christ?
It appears that some other professing Christians of Jewish origin had begun to deny that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God. John decries such lack of faith, saying: “Who is the liar if it is not the one that denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one that denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:22) John’s forthright expressions leave no room for doubters.
John later raises another question to buttress his reasoning: “Who is the one that conquers the world but he who has faith that Jesus is the Son of God? . . . I write you these things that you may know that you have life everlasting, you who put your faith in the name of the Son of God.”—1 John 5:5, 13.
Are We Sinners?
Incredible as it may seem, some of the antichrists were saying that they were without sin or perhaps (since they considered themselves saved) thought they were incapable of sinning. Therefore John hammers away at this fallacy throughout his letter. For instance, he says: “If we make the statement: ‘We have no sin,’ we are misleading ourselves and the truth is not in us. . . . If we make the statement: ‘We have not sinned,’ we are making him [God] a liar, and his word is not in us.”—1 John 1:8-10.
‘But what is sin?’ you might ask. The Greek word ha.martiʹ a literally means a “missing of the target.” But under inspiration John gives a broader definition: “Everyone who practices sin is also practicing lawlessness, and so sin is lawlessness [Greek, anomia, denoting contempt for and violation of the law, iniquity, wickedness] . . . He who carries on sin originates with the Devil . . . Everyone who has been born from God does not carry on sin.”—1 John 3:4, 8, 9.
True, we are all sinners. But John is interested in denouncing the deliberate sinner or violator of law, the one “who carries on sin,” who practices it. Later, he exposes the gravity of the situation for the practicer of sin by stating: “The children of God and the children of the Devil are evident by this fact: Everyone who does not carry on righteousness does not originate with God, neither does he who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:10; 5:18) May we, therefore, avoid the unchristian practicing of sin.
What Motivated the Apostasy?
What was perhaps the underlying motivation behind these different apostate teachings? One possibility is supplied by William Barclay, a 20th-century Greek scholar, who writes that the trouble John seeks to combat came from men “whose aim was to make Christianity intellectually respectable . . . , who knew the intellectual tendencies and currents of the day, and who wished to express Christianity in terms of these current philosophical ideas. It came from men who felt that the time had come for Christianity to come to terms with secular philosophy and with contemporary thought.”
A similar viewpoint, attacking the true faith at its foundations, has been sustained by some in modern times. These disputers want to dilute Christian teaching and make it more acceptable to the respected and intellectual elements of this system. If such views held by some in recent years had been implemented, Jehovah’s Witnesses would certainly have lost their unique “primitive Christian” qualities and vitality.
Therefore, John’s counsel is so timely even today: “For this is what the love of God means, that we observe his commandments; and yet his commandments are not burdensome.” Those commandments include preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom and keeping separate from the world and neutral in its conflicts, while doing our utmost to sanctify Jehovah’s name and practice true love.—1 John 5:3; Mark 13:10; John 17:16; Matthew 6:9; 1 John 3:23.
Antidotes for Sin and Apostasy
Is there a restraining brake against practicing sin? John’s answer is: “He that does not love has not come to know God, BECAUSE GOD IS LOVE.” Thus, with striking simplicity, John drives home his point. Love is the key. And God’s love expressed through his Son is the antidote for sin’s effects. “By this the love of God was made manifest in our case, because God sent forth his only-begotten Son into the world that we might gain life through him.” How should this knowledge affect us? John answers: “Beloved ones, if this is how God loved us, then we are ourselves under obligation to love one another.”—1 John 4:8-11.
If we truly love God and neighbor, then we will resist the inroads of sin and apostasy. Love does not willfully go against God’s laws and principles. Nevertheless, John warns: “There is a sin that does incur death.” Unrepentant apostates would certainly be in the category of those who merit destruction.—1 John 5:16, 17; Matthew 12:31; Luke 12:10; Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:23-27.
If sin and apostasy are the dark thread running through John’s letter, genuine love is a string of pearls that covers it. Even though his letter carries a somber warning, it is nevertheless clearly illuminated by three recurring themes—love, light and life. John is saying, ‘Avoid the liars, the antichrists, the apostates. Cast off darkness, walk in the light. Reject hatred and practice love. Resist sin, knowing that if you do commit a sin you have a helper or advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ.’ Yes, “this is the witness given, that God gave us everlasting life, and this life is in his Son.”—1 John 5:11; 2:1, 2.
In his final counsel John warns: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21) In the world of ancient Rome such counsel was very apt. And to those today who wish to practice true Christianity and avoid apostasy it is still as vital. May we, therefore, heed John’s inspired counsel. It will help us to resist sin, practice genuine Christian love, walk in the path of truth and maintain an unflinching stand against apostasy.
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Greek philosophy led to apostasy