In my lifetime, one of the greatest excuses of the modern Christian church in the United States has been the feigning of persecution. I have heard Christians claim that they are being persecuted by the government, in sports, in business…you name the social arena, and there has likely been some well-known Christian publicly whining that they’ve been done wrong, that they’ve lost their rights, when in truth? Usually, all they’ve lost is their privilege.
And the irony of these situations is that, typically, the loss of the privilege in question has usually occurred because the Christian group that is complaining has behaved excessively, poorly, or they have simply failed to properly pivot to modern circumstances.
It isn’t that the outside world has persecuted the church so much as it is that the church has poisoned itself. When we see conflict and strife in our midst, it is usually self-inflicted. And when this happens in churches, the people of God, in our sinfulness, tend to create our own downward spiral.
What is interesting to me is that we “moderns” often tend to think that self-destructive behavior in the church is a new phenomenon. But it isn’t. Such behavior is nothing new in the life of the church. That means that when we observe self-destructive behaviors happening, we need to take a moment to pause—look in the mirror and determine how it is that we are contributing to whatever problem we believe we find ourselves in.
Usually, if we look closely and we are honest with ourselves, it is in that moment of self-reflection that we see how we can improve and draw closer to God.
When we look back in history through the Scriptures, we see that even in the early church—where genuine persecution of people was a true possibility, where people endured torture and were even willing to lose their lives to publicly affirm their faith—many times, the identified danger was not persecution from the outside, but instead (like today) the peril from within.
1 John is a great example that articulates such concerns. Written in Ephesus, the letter shows no sign of persecution of the church from outside the community. Instead, the turmoil that John addresses is coming from within the church.
The letter, which reads more like sermon, was written two or three generations after Christ, when the initial thrill of the faith had faded from the community. Many modern converts to Christianity, or even folks who have grown up in the church but have had a type of conversion experience, can relate to this situation. For a season, when faith is new and exciting, you might feel like you are growing in your faith in exponential ways. But over time, that newness and initial excitement fades.
For many people, faith is like a new hobby: it’s fun and novel for a while, but after the initial rush, folks move on to the next thing. Jesus himself even identifies this phenomenon in Matthew 24:12: “the love of many will grow cold.”
The Apostle John saw this happen in in own lifetime as well. He had known Jesus personally. He had walked with him, talked with him, touched him, seen him do remarkable and miraculous things. He had prayed with him, ate with him, learned from him. He had sacrificed to be with him, and for John, it was worth it.
John didn’t believe in Jesus blindly or for no reason. John didn’t believe because he was privy to some special knowledge that no one else had. John believed because he had experienced Jesus. He had witnessed observable facts, and he had come to faith based on that relational evidence.
This is different understanding than how a lot of people think about faith today. Many people think that faith is simply about blindly following something. But Jesus never condemns anyone for asking for evidence. In fact, he notes in John 20:29 that people who have come to believe without evidence are blessed. In other words, they are fortunate that this belief has occurred within them, because this isn’t how a lot people come to faith.
Actually, contrary to popular opinion, I believe that the Apostle Thomas—who has been historically called “doubting Thomas” in a somewhat derogatory fashion—is actually more like most of us. We want evidence.
What is interesting is that when Thomas asks for proof of Jesus’ physical resurrection, Jesus doesn’t condemn him for that request. Instead, in John 20:27, he obliges the request. And why wouldn’t he? Surely Jesus knows that to the average person, resurrection sounds like a nearly impossible feat.
So John, too—writing from Ephesus—is now experiencing a new generation of Christians who haven’t met Jesus in person. And they are living in a city where there are a lot of opportunities to pursue their own ambitions. So for many of these believers, they may have enjoyed the initial thrill of joining the church, but now that excitement has passed. And because they haven’t actively sought a relationship with Jesus, they are now finding the standards of Christianity to be something of a burden.
That is because it is one thing to say that we have faith, but it is another thing altogether to live into it. Even in our present day, it is easy to be hyped up about Jesus on, say, Easter, when stores are selling Easter lilies and kids are getting baskets of candy. It is far more difficult to live into the standard of moral purity—the new kindness, the new service, the new forgiveness—that Christ commands on a day-to-day basis.
When we do these things, even though they are difficult, we quickly see evidence of Jesus working in the world. We quickly experience joy.
But because following Jesus can be difficult, it’s common for competing ideologies to arise in the world and in the local church. Such competing ideologies became prominent inside the church community in John’s day and age in Ephesus, as well. One of those competing claims came in the form of something of a spiritual aristocracy called Gnosticism.
Gnosticism claimed that only spirit is good, and conversely, that matter is essentially evil. As such, Gnostics despised the world and the body because the body is made up of matter, and therefore, from their perspective, it is evil. The aim of life for the Gnostic was to liberate the spirit from the prison of the body.
Combating this claim in the local church is one of the overarching themes of 1 John. The apostle says in the very first line of the letter: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” In other words, the goal of the Christian faith is not to free ourselves from matter—be it the matter of our bodies or the world—but to learn to live flourishing and redeemed lives together in relationship with one another and with God. We aren’t to escape our bodies or the world, but to make them better, through repentance and with God’s help.
Here, we are further reminded that faith in Christ is not a matter of naivety or mysticism or superstition; faith is belief founded upon evidence. That evidence is accrued in experiencing God. The disciples were men and women of reason. They had the witness of their senses, and they had abundant opportunity to investigate the facts. They had practiced what Jesus commanded and had experienced better lives because of it. As such, they were testifying to that which they had seen, heard, and experienced.
And what that evidence had shown the Apostle John is that true life—eternal life—consists in fellowship with God. Thus, to promote and perfect such fellowship is what makes one’s joy full and complete.
As far as John had experienced, such fellowship is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ, who is the manifestation of the life of God, i.e. the Word of life. So this means that fellowship in Christ is incarnational; it is put into action and is strengthened through repentance, which allows us to better that action through iteration.
The Gnostics saw the incarnation as impossible, because from their perspective, since matter is evil, it would be impossible that God would ever enflesh God’s self in matter. The Gnostics believed themselves to be primarily spiritual beings, which meant that they were completely released from the bondage of matter and were completely above sin. They believed—and taught in the church—that sin, for them, had ceased to exist because they had reached spiritual perfection. As you can imagine, this caused a lot of in church drama in John’s day.
Gnostics also believed that in order to release the spirit from the “prison-house” of the body, one needed to receive elaborate, secret, special knowledge that only a few could obtain through arduous study. And because only people who had the leisure of study could obtain this knowledge, this teaching created a kind of spiritual aristocracy of sorts within the church that looked down on others who did not have the affluence and privilege that they did.
So, the Gnostic aim was thus to eliminate any incarnational understanding of Jesus, which thereby eliminated the practical Christian ethic and action, making Christian fellowship within the church impossible and making fellowship with God impossible, thus eliminating the possibility of true life or eternal life.
But John, who had experienced Jesus firsthand, knew that this isn’t what Jesus espoused. Jesus calls everyone, especially the disenfranchised, to repentance and thus into fellowship with God.
John’s overarching point is, Yes, it is challenging to follow Jesus. And, Yes, in many ways following Jesus may not seem as attractive as worldly alternatives, but those alternatives will not ultimately bring us joy.
Avoiding what is right, blaming other people—either inside or outside the church—or concocting new ways to get out of our responsibilities in God won’t bring us happiness. Pretending that we are perfect or that we are something that we are not, and acting like we are superior to others—it won’t fix the thing that is broken in us.
Because the only thing that will truly bring us joy is being in right relationship to God.
Everything else is noise. And that noise isn’t new; it’s just packaged differently.
If you want to know God, seek an experience in Jesus Christ. Dare to follow what he taught, and observe the evidence that springs forth. It’s a new life that awaits you. A life in joy. A life with God.
Reality Changing Observations:
1. What observational evidence might bring someone to faith in God?
2. In what ways do you observe Gnosticism in society today?
3. In what ways has the Christian church feigned persecution when it should instead be taking responsibility?