Teaching series from 1 John

Discerning the Validity of Spirituality-Claims

1 John 2:3-11

Teaching t12637


John wrote this letter to Christians living in Ephesus (MAP) and nearby cities. They had had a recent battle with certain false teachers. These false teachers were Gnostics – who claimed to be “in the know” (gnosis) or spiritually enlightened. (New Age spirituality, which has deeply influenced American culture, is Gnostic.) Although the church had repelled these Gnostics, they were still in town, teaching, and gaining a following. The result was that the Christians were becoming confused about the nature of authentic Christian spirituality, and they were wondering if they really knew Jesus.

So John wrote this letter (as an eye-witness of Jesus’ teaching and ministry) to assure them that they did know Jesus, that they were on the right path to spiritual maturity (2:12,13). He also wrote this letter to expose the Gnostics’ claim to be spiritually enlightened (2:26). He does this by subjecting their claims of spirituality to three tests: doctrinal (do they agree with who Jesus says He is), ethical (do they agree with Jesus’ moral teaching), and social (do they agree with Jesus’ teaching about loving the brethren). In this passage (2:3-11), John applies the ethical and social tests. He begins with the ethical test in 2:3-6, and then he applies the social test in 2:7-11.

Before we look closely at this passage, I want to point out how John’s purpose should affect our understanding of what he says. Namely, John isn’t teaching how to become spiritual (like Paul in Gal.5,6; Rom.6-8). Rather, he is teaching how to discern the validity of people’s claims to be spiritual. If we read his instruction as how to become spiritual, it will sound legalistic. But if we read it as how to discern claims of spirituality, it will makes sense.

To illustrate: Suppose you are a cardiac specialist. Someone comes to you claiming that he has a healthy heart, but he also has very high blood pressure, chronic low energy, and can’t do aerobic exercise without passing out. You would reject his claim to cardiac health because these tests show that his heart isn’t healthy. But this is diagnosis, not treatment. You wouldn’t say to him: “Just will your blood pressure lower and do lots of aerobic exercise.” That wouldn’t help his heart condition. He would need a different treatment to improve his heart health.

In the same way, John is acting as a spiritual diagnostician in this passage. The Gnostics are claiming: “We are spiritually enlightened.” John subjects their claim to an ethical test, as we will see – and they fail this test. But John’s diagnosis is not treatment – instruction on how to become more spiritual. We need other biblical passages for this treatment. If you take John’s diagnosis as treatment, he will sound very legalistic. Keep this in mind meanas we look at His ethical test...

The ethical test

Read 2:3-6. Note the phrases “keep His (Jesus’) commandments” (2:3,4), “keeps His word” (2:5), and “walk in the same manner as He walked” (2:6). John is referring to Jesus’ ethical instruction and lifestyle. Jesus’ ethical His instruction is multifaceted, but it has three key foci – sexual ethics (e.g., heterosexual marriage as the only proper context vs. sexual immorality, unrighteous divorce, etc. [see Matt. 5,19]), economic ethics (e.g., trusting God to provide as we work and being generous vs. greed [see Matt.6; Lk.12]) and power ethics (e.g., use our positions of power to serve others vs. to bully and/or exploit others [see Mk. 10; Jn. 10]).

The Gnostics claimed to ‘have come to know Jesus” in some superior sense (2:4), and to “abide in Him” (2:6). They may also have claimed to have been perfected in God’s love (2:5; to have God’s love completely developed in them) and to be in (united with) Him (2:5). But they reject Jesus’ ethical teaching. Therefore, John says their claim to spiritual enlightenment and intimacy with Jesus is a lie, and John’s audience should not listen to them because of this. Conversely, authentically spiritual people and leaders demonstrate their authenticity (in part) by the fact that they agree with Jesus’ ethical teaching and actually follow it (not perfectly, by walking by the Spirit).

It seems to me that there is lots of application for us in this passage!

Negatively, we should reject current “Christian” forms of spiritually because they don’t affirm Jesus’ ethical teaching. Tragically, there are many examples of this:

Cult leaders who claim to be speaking for God, but who advocate and justify sexual immorality (e.g., MOSES DAVID/DAVID BERG: “FLIRTY FISHING COLONY”), financial greed (e.g., CREFLO DOLLAR: “GOD WANTS ME TO HAVE THIS JET”), and running people’s lives in the name of discipleship (e.g., SHEPHERDING MOVEMENT).

Family members and long-time friends who claim to be spiritual Christians, but who reject key biblical ethics (e.g., church-going family member who openly lives a sexually immoral lifestyle; church-going neighbor pastor who bullies his wife and children; church-going family member who openly lives a materialistic lifestyle ). They may be Christians, but their spirituality is not Christian.

“Christian” denominations or movements that claim to be devoted to Jesus, but who reject Jesus’ ethical teaching on key issues (e.g., churches that tacitly approve of pre-marital sex; Emergent movement & other denominations on homosexuality; “Amway” greed promotion in the name of Christianity).

Evangelical pastors and ministry leaders who, while not openly justifying unethical lifestyles, follow them in secret (e.g., pastors caught in long-term affairs, embezzling or misusing church money, etc.).

We cannot exclude people in our own church who rationalize and justify sexual immorality, substance abuse, materialism, etc. – and react to ethical correction with “You’re putting me under the Law. I’m under grace.” Rejecting Jesus’ ethical instruction (either openly to people, or hiding it) is arrogant, rejects Jesus’ authority, and will grieve/block the Holy Spirit’s transforming work.

Positively, we should adopt a humble, teachable attitude about Jesus’ ethical instruction. If we love Him, we will embrace His ethical teaching (Jn.14:21,23). We should mistrust our own ethical instincts (because we are fallen), and trust His ethical instruction. This is genuine spirituality – and it will unleash the Holy Spirit to transform you in this direction. We should also look for and follow leaders who teach and live this way. This is why Paul requires elders to have an ethical lifestyle sexually (1Tim.3:2 – “one-woman man”), economically (1Tim.3:3 – “free from the love of money”), and in their use of power (1Tim.3:3 – “not pugnacious, but gentle”).

The social test

Read 2:7,8. Notice that John is no longer talking about Jesus’ commandments (plural), but rather His commandment (singular). This commandment is to love the brethren (see 2:9). John says that this commandment is both old and new. Scholars suggest two different interpretations of this:

One interpretation is that the “old” refers to the Old Testament commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev.19:17,18), and that the “new” refers to Jesus’ command to “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn.13:34,35).

Another interpretation is that the “old” refers to Jesus’ command to “Love one another as I have loved you,” and that the “new” refers to the ongoing personal instruction from the Holy Spirit to love one another (cf.1Thess.4:9).

Either way, John is stressing that Jesus’ command that Christians love one another has been around a long time and is always relevant.

Why is John reminding them of this? Evidently, because the Gnostics also rejected this aspect of spirituality. They claimed to be spiritually enlightened, yet they regarded Christians outside their clique as worthy of contempt (2:9). John is saying that this is another proof of the Gnostics are not genuinely spiritual, and he is warning his audience not to emulate this false spirituality (read 2:9-11).

Those who justify hating their brethren are in spiritual darkness, not spiritually enlightened (2:9). Further, their hatred blinds them so that their spiritual perception/discernment about other matters is faulty and cannot be trusted (2:11).

By contrast, those who are committed to loving their brethren prove that they are walking in God’s light, and they have clearer spiritual perception that leads them forward (2:10).

Just as with John’s ethical test, there is plenty of application of his social test:

Christians who harbor bitterness toward individuals (fellow-Christians, parents, abusers/offenders, etc.) because of past offences (real or perceived). BITTERNESS SYMPTOMS; ME TO A HOME CHURCH MEMBER: “I CAN’T TRUST YOUR DISCERNMENT OF THIS PERSON BECAUSE YOU HATE HIM/HER.”

Christians who harbor bigotry toward groups of people because of differences (race, ethnic difference, sexual orientation, political position, etc.). BIGOTRY SYMPTOMS; ME TO A HOME CHURCH MEMBER: “YOU ARE POISONING YOUR WHOLE SPIRITUAL LIFE BY WATCHING & LISTENING TO THESE POLITICAL PROGRAMS.”

Do you have hatred/bitterness/resentment in your heart for individual offenders? Do you have bigotry in your heart toward whole groups of people? This is not a sign of spiritual superiority – it is a sign of spiritual blindness. You are paying a high price to hold on to this! It is blocking you from receiving additional light from God’s Word. It is poisoning your relationship with God and others. It is leading you to make other choices that are wrong and injurious. It is ruining your witness for Christ. Don’t deny this or rationalize it – admit it to God, and agree with God that it is sin, and ask God to kill it and teach you how to forgive and love these very people!


As we conclude, I want to emphasize that Jesus’ ethical instruction and His command to love go together in authentic spirituality. Christian spirituality both embraces Jesus’ ethical teaching and affirms His call to love others. These two go together because God is both ethical (morally righteous) and loving. This is important because our (Gnosticism-influenced) culture and churches no longer have a basis for holding these two together. What does this look like?

Jesus’ ethical instruction is motivated by His love. He doesn’t correct our unethical thinking and behavior because He has contempt for us; He does this because he has redemptive concern for us. When we lose sight of this, what is the result? Many Christians correct groups that disagree with Jesus’ ethical teaching with hate-filled contempt (e.g., GAY-BASHERS). Our culture commits the same error in this opposite direction: “If you love someone, you must affirm their behavior and never call it wrong. If you call it wrong, you hate them and are assaulting their identity.”

Jesus hates the sin, but loves the sinner. He makes a distinction between the way a person lives and who that person is. He may judge my way of life as unethical, sinful, etc – yet still love me and provide a way for me to be forgiven and transformed. This is what He communicated to the woman at the well (Jn.4). He exposed her sexually immoral lifestyle, but He still loved her as a person and offered her the Holy Spirit so she could experience His love as a sexual sinner, and so that He could transform her life in this area. That is how Jesus speaks to each and every one of us (GOSPEL). But our culture increasingly rejects this distinction. It increasingly says: “If you judge my behavior as unethical, you are rejecting me as a person.”

NEXT WEEK: 1John2:12-14 – “Stages of Christian Spiritual Development”

“Claiming to be a spiritual aristocracy of the enlightened, who alone had come to know ‘the depths’, they despised the ordinary run of Christians...

This is what theologians call the “noetic effects of sin.” When we reject God’s truth in one area, this affects our intellectual perception in other areas. See Rom.1:18-22 and Eph.4:17-19 for the classic biblical texts on this.

“Today, many evangelicals are branded as arrogant and unkind because of their convictions. Though people may reject the truth and feel enmity toward what we believe, we must not forget the teaching of Jesus about our enemies: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt.5:43,44). I am convinced that servanthood is one of the best ways to answer the objections people have to our unique beliefs. They may dislike what we believe, but they cannot help but be impressed by the way we live.” Ajith Fernando, Reclaiming Love (Zondervan, 2012), p.81.