Apostolic Versus Gnostic Views Regarding Jesus Christ
1 John 4:2-3
Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already (1 John 4:2-3).
The Apostles of Jesus of Nazareth and their associates presented a nuanced picture of who Jesus was and is as manifest in His life, death, and resurrection by affirming both Jesus’ humanity and divinity. The Apostle Matthew told the story of Jesus’ birth, affirming both that He was born as a human being and that His mother was found with child of the Holy Spirit and He was Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:18-23). The Apostle John described Jesus as the Word of God, both with God and God, yet also affirmed that God the Word became flesh and dwelt among mankind (John 1:1-18, 1 John 1:1-3). Thirty years after Jesus’ ascension, the Apostle Paul called Him “the man Christ Jesus” in 1 Timothy 2:5, yet also declared how in Him the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily (Colossians 2:9). They never sought to describe how God the Word could become Incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth; it did not matter whether it made sense or not to them, only that it was true.
For many Jewish people, the claims regarding Jesus’ divinity proved a stumbling block; they could not conceive of YHWH the God of Israel as one not in person but in relational unity, and that a member of the Godhead would become flesh and dwell among them, and considered it blasphemous (John 10:33). Yet, for many people influenced by aspects of Greek culture and philosophy, the claims regarding Jesus’ humanity seemed foolish: in their view, the physical world and the flesh were inadequate and imperfect, falling far short of their ideal forms, and pure spiritual existence and bliss seemed ideal. Therefore, they found the idea of God taking on flesh, dwelling among us, dying, and then being raised again bodily unto eternal life laughable (cf. Acts 17:32).
Toward the end of the first century, as the Gospel continued to spread throughout the Mediterranean world strongly influenced by Greek philosophy and culture, many people found a lot to like about Christianity yet maintained many of these Greek ideas. The various doctrines and practices these people would establish are known today as “Gnosticism,” from the Greek word gnosis meaning “knowledge,” so called since many such people claimed to have special knowledge reserved for those who were more spiritually enlightened (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20-21).
Most of these Gnostics believed Jesus, or more specifically, “Christ,” to be divine, one of the more highly elevated “aeons” (a term for divine spiritual beings). To them “Christ” only seemed to be human; we call this view Docetism, from the Greek word dokeo, meaning “to seem.” Therefore, “Christ” was never really born as Jesus of Nazareth, He was not really crucified (many suggested that someone else was actually on the cross), and therefore, He never arose from the dead. The Gnostic “Christ” revealed himself only to provide special knowledge that would allow humans to understand how the physical universe was really a mistake and to cultivate “pure spirituality” for their souls to gain an “eternal life” of disembodied spiritual bliss.
While we do not know how fully developed these views were by the end of the first century, John’s first letter proves that many were at least heading in this direction and denied the human, bodily existence of Jesus of Nazareth. To the Apostle John this could not be a matter of agreement to disagree: the fundamentals of the faith were at stake! To deny Jesus’ bodily existence is to deny His Incarnation, His death, and His resurrection; therefore, John called these Docetics and/or incipient Gnostics the antichrists, since they worked against Jesus and everything for which He stood (1 John 2:18-29, 4:2-4, 2 John 1:7-11).
While the Greek version of Gnosticism died out during the Middle Ages, the temptation toward Gnostic views of Jesus of Nazareth remain to this day whenever more is made of Jesus’ divinity than His humanity. Jesus is the Son of God, God the Word, but He is also the Son of Man, the son of Mary (Matthew 16:18, 27, John 1:1). This creation is not a mistake but the consciously decided work of our Creator God who called it good (Genesis 1:1-2:4). God the Word became flesh, was born as Jesus of Nazareth to Mary, lived as a human being, died on the cross as a human being, was raised from the dead as a human being, ascended to the Father in the resurrection as a transformed human being, but a human being nonetheless, and remains Jesus Christ the Lord, the Son of God, but also human, the Son of Man, in heaven (Matthew 1:18-25, Acts 7:56, Romans 8:3, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 1 Timothy 2:5). We cannot describe how God the Word became the Incarnate Son of God or how He can remain both God and man not only in the resurrection but also in the ascension and in His continued Lordship as the Son of Man; likewise, it does not matter whether we can make sense of it or not since it is revealed by the Apostles as true and an essential matter of our faith.
Toward the end of the first century it became clear that the Apostolic and Gnostic views of Jesus of Nazareth were divergent and irreconcilable; these two views remain irreconcilable to this day. Let us affirm the Apostolic view regarding Jesus of Nazareth, not just as the eternal Son of God but also as the eternal Son of Man, and maintain the apostolic faith!
Ethan R. Longhenry
From Expository Files 21.4; April 2014