Knowledge, Commandments & Love
Commentary on 1 John 2:3-5
The next section underscores what has already been said about authen¬ticity, but now it introduces three new themes: knowledge (2:3), commandments (2:3), and love (2:5). The usage of the verb “to know” in this Epistle deserves particular attention. In Spanish—as in Latin and in many other Romance languages—there are two different verbs that are translated into English as “to know.” One—conocer—means to know in the sense of being acquainted with something or someone, while the other—saber—means to know as one knows a fact or a proposition. In English we make that distinction with the word “that.” One “knows” a person; one “knows that” a person is good, or that two times two makes four. In verse 3, John is referring to knowing in the first of these two senses: “we know him.”
This distinction is important, because quite possibly John is rejecting the view of some who held that salvation is by a secret knowledge or gnosis—for which reason they came to be known as “Gnostics.” Although we do not know to what stage Gnosticism had developed in John’s time, we do know that a few decades later most Christian teachers saw it as a serious threat to Christianity. Therefore, it is possible that in this section John is envisioning an earlier form of what would soon develop into Christian Gnosticism. The “knowledge” that the Gnostics claimed was propositional. It was not a matter of knowing God, but rather of knowing certain things about oneself—and in some cases of knowing the secret passwords that would allow the soul to pass through the celestial spheres and into the highest heaven. But John claims that knowing God is something altogether different. It is not a matter of knowing something about God, or about the heavenly spheres; it is a matter of knowing God.
There is a vast difference between these two, even though they are interrelated. When a child knows its mother, it obviously knows something about her. It knows, for instance, that her name is Susan, that she is a lawyer, that she is tall. All these points, and many others, may be true; but all of this pales in comparison with simply knowing her. It is much more important for a child to know its mother than to know something about her. And the place where knowing her and knowing about her meet is in knowing that she loves the child. But there is more. When a child truly knows its mother, it also knows its mother’s values, the way she would like and expect the child to be and to behave. Thus, knowing the mother, the child also knows that there are certain things it must do and certain others it must not do.
All of this helps us understand John’s words in verse 3: “we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.” As will be made clear in the rest of the Epistle, the commandments to which John refers are not some collection of capricious demands established by God; it is rather the commandment to be like God—and more specifically, to love as God loves. The Gnostics may claim all sorts of knowledge about God; but if they do not obey God—if they do not love as God loves—they do not know God. The most orthodox theologian may know all the right doctrines about God; but knowing God goes beyond doctrine, for it is a matter of obedience—and specifically, of obedience made manifest in love.