The other apostles were dead, but John remained-the last living intimate friend of Jesus. The aged apostle was living in Ephesus, a port city Paul first evangelized four decades earlier. John regarded the Christians in every town within a hundred miles as his personal responsibility, and now a clique of pseudo-Christian teachers was wreaking confusion in John’s flock. His response was a letter sent to each church in the province of Asia, the letter we call 1 John.
If persecution was only a minor irritant for the churches of Asia in 90 AD, heresy was a major threat. The Roman province of Asia, part of what is now called Asia Minor or Turkey, was a cultural melting pot. Greek conquerors had brought their language, philosophy, art, and religion from the west, while immigrants from Egypt, Persia, and Syria were carrying their customs from the east and mixing them with whatever ancient ways still lingered in Asia. Few people judged it necessary to hold one school of thought rigorously. There were many roads to truth, and a man took what he liked from each-a pinch of Plato, a dash of Persian dualism, and one’s ancestral cult for tradition’s sake. Modem scholars call this mixing of Greek and Oriental culture syncretism; it was pluralism taken to extremes. What are some examples of this happening in society today?
In this environment, Jews and Christians were considered narrow minded and disrespectful for paying homage to just one God. Does this sound familiar in today’s society? Most people acknowledged hundreds and favored several deities. Some hedged their bets by joining one or more “mystery” cults-groups with secret rites of initiation that promised encounters with the divine and bliss in the afterlife. There were sects that mixed Judaism with Plato or astrology or secret revelation. Thus, it was inevitable that someone would try to add Christianity to a Greek-Persian-occult casserole and challenge the apostles’ gospel.
Fifty years after John’s death these semi-Christian hybrids were as common and various as roses, but the seeds were planted in John’s lifetime.
Many of the full-blown systems of the second century AD are grouped under the label Gnosticism (from the Greek gnosis, meaning “knowledge”) because they all offered some secret knowledge by which a person could be saved.
This knowledge was not available through study, but only through “revelation from a higher plane.” Gnosticism “is a religion of saving knowledge, and the knowledge is essentially self-knowledge, recognition of the divine element which constitutes the true self.”
Gnostics believe that matter is evil and spirit is good. Therefore, the world and the human body are also evil. They were created not by the Absolute (who is perfect), but by a lesser, malevolent spirit. We humans were all originally sublime spirit beings, but through no fault of our own we became imprisoned in physical bodies in this material world, ignorant of our lost bliss. Our only hope is for someone to redeem us by bringing that forgotten knowledge of our true natures. When a person learns what he was, what he is, and what he can be, “that knowledge in itself becomes his redemption.”
Many variations on this theme were promoted in the second century AD.
Some Gnostics identified the redeemer with Jesus. Others did not. Those that did talk of “Christ” were not thinking of the Jewish Messiah (Christ and Messiah both mean “Anointed One”-a Jewish king). They thought the Christ was an aeon (a sort of spirit) who had “emanated” from “the divine Absolute.” Also, they differed over the relation between the Christ and Jesus. One group, called Docetists (from the Greek dokein, “to seem”), believed that Jesus was the Christ but only seemed to have a flesh-and-blood body. He was really a pure spirit being appearing visibly, as the angel of the Lord did in the Old Testament. To the Docetists, it was unthinkable for the divine Christ to be defiled by a material body.
We know of one teacher with Gnostic-like views who was busy in Ephesus while John lived there. He was Cerinthus, an Egyptian Jew. One of John’s disciples told the story that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerin thus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within!’?
Why did the apostle so abhor Cerinthus? Because, wrote Irenaeus of Lyons (around 185 AD), Cerinthus represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ, descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible [not liable to pain or injury] inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.
Thus, Cerinthus said Jesus was a man, but the Christ was never incarnate- He only briefly occupied Jesus’ body. This is just the kind of teaching John wrote his first epistle to deny (2:22, 4:2-3).
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