What Is Docetism?

Docetism is the false belief that Christ only appeared to be human, but is not truly and fully human as we are. The term comes from the Greek verb dokeō which means “to think, to seem, or to appear.” A dokēsis is a phantom or apparition which is not human. But why would anyone believe that Jesus is not truly human? The motivation for docetism is rooted in a gnostic worldview which views the material world as intrinsically evil and impure. Hence, the argument goes, if Jesus is human as we are now, then he would be impure and not a true teacher from God. If matter is evil, then God could not become incarnate. It was also believed by gnostics that Jesus was an aeon who emanated from God and therefore could not be human.

After the Judaizers in Galatians and the hyper-preterism of Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17-18), docetism was the third major heresy that the early church had to deal with. This is why John warns his readers against false teachers who denied the incarnation and humanity of Christ: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1:7). He also wrote, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2). While there are not many full-blooded docetists around today, a form of docetism is found in the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. Instead, they believe the resurrection of Christ was his reverting back to being the archangel Michael and that Jesus’ physical body no longer exists since it has dissolved into gas. But the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is fully human now after his resurrection and not just before (Luke 24:39; John 2:19-21; 20:27; Acts 17:31; 1 Tim 2:5).

A common misconception many Christians have is that Jesus’ resurrection body is no longer a fleshly body of skin, bones, and blood (Luke 24:39). This is due in part to a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:44-45: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” But “spiritual” does not mean non-physical, but incorruptible. It is a metaphor expressing incorruptibility and that which does not perish as seen by the use of synonymous terms in verses 50-54. Christ became a “spirit” in the sense that he became an incorruptible person as a result of his resurrection. The Greek word for “natural” here is psuchikos which is related to the word psuche or “soul” while “spiritual” is the word pneumatikos which is related to the word pneuma or “spirit.” Therefore, if “spirit” here means non-physical because it is derived from pneuma, then “natural” would also be non-physical because it is derived from psuche. As the “soulish” or “natural” body is physical, the “spiritual” one is as well. Two other related errors are monophysitism and monotheletism (the beliefs that Christ only possesses one nature and one will respectively) which are in danger of falling into docetism by denying that Christ has a human nature and a human will distinct from his divine nature and divine will.

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Sunday Meditation – God’s Rod and Love

“Whatever affliction we bear shall be for our soul’s gain. God’s rod and love go together. This is a sweet and blessed lesson indeed; it quietens the heart and supports the soul under its burdens ( 2 Cor. 4:16). What we lose in our bodies we gain in our souls. What we lose in our estates we receive back in grace. Thus we can bear up and comfort ourselves in our deepest sorrows. When God takes away creature comforts, by secret impressions of love upon the heart he strengthens the soul. We become ‘more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Rom. 8:37). God teaches us in affliction that one thing is necessary. Affliction reveals how mistaken we are about our ‘must-bes’ and necessities. In our health and liberty we think this thing must be done. We think riches and honours are necessary and we must have our estates and lay up large portions for our children. But in the day of adversity, when death looks us in the face and God causes the horror of the grave, the dread of the last judgment, and the terrors of eternity to pass before us, then we put our mouths in the dust and sigh; ‘O how I have been mistaken!  I have fed upon ashes, and my deceived heart has turned me aside.’ We can now see how the pardon of sin, an interest in Christ, a sense of God’s love, and the assurance of glory, are the only indispensables. Christ alone is the one thing necessary, and all others are but ‘maybes’ at best. All the world has is but loss and dung in comparison with the excellence of the knowledge of Jesus Christ our Lord. Without him the soul is undone to all eternity. They that do not learn this lesson in the school of the Word shall learn it in the school of affliction, if they belong to God.”

Thomas Case

What Is Gnosticism?

Gnosticism is a syncretistic cult which attempts to combine the beliefs of Greek religion and philosophy with Christianity. The term is derived from the Greek word gnosis which means knowledge. The gnostics taught that salvation comes through believing in secret knowledge which only they had access to rather than faith in Christ and repentance from sin. As a syncretistic cult, it is parasitic of Christianity and borrows from it much of its teaching while twisting the key doctrines of the Christian faith. There are many misconceptions about gnosticism which is understandable given that there are many different forms of gnosticism in existence. The gnostics produced many alternative gospels and writings which claimed that they had the true teachings of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas is the most well-known gnostic writing which completely perverts the Christian message.

The gnostics believed that all things were created ex deo (out of God) as opposed to the Christian belief of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). The world that now exists was created by a demiurge who is the lowest aeon on the chain of gradation of divine beings. That means gnosticism is polytheistic believing in many gods as opposed to Christian monotheism. The aeons of gnosticism flow out of or emanate from the being of higher aeons who in turn come from even higher aeons leading back to an original divine being who is too pure to interact with the material world which is viewed as intrinsically evil.

The best comprehensive definition of gnosticism that I have found is by Stephan A. Hoeller in his article on the subject:

“The Gnostics posited an original spiritual unity that came to be split into a plurality. As a result of the precosmic division the universe was created. This was done by a leader possessing inferior spiritual powers and who often resembled the Old Testament Jehovah. A female emanation of God was involved in the cosmic creation (albeit in a much more positive role than the leader). In the cosmos, space and time have a malevolent character and may be personified as demonic beings separating man from God. For man, the universe is a vast prison. He is enslaved both by the physical laws of nature and by such moral laws as the Mosaic code. Mankind may be personified as Adam, who lies in the deep sleep of ignorance, his powers of spiritual self awareness stupefied by materiality. Within each natural man is an ‘inner man,’ a fallen spark of the divine substance. Since this exists in each man, we have the possibility of awakening from our stupefaction. What effects the awakening is not obedience, faith, or good works, but knowledge. Before the awakening, men undergo troubled dreams. Man does not attain the knowledge that awakens him from these dreams by cognition but through revelatory experience, and this knowledge is not information but a modification of the sensate being. The awakening (i.e., the salvation) of any individual is a cosmic event. Since the effort is to restore the wholeness and unity of the Godhead, active rebellion against the moral law of the Old Testament is enjoined upon every man.”

This rebellion against the moral law of God is the essence of Satanism. Gnosticism in many ways is the forerunner of the new age movement and there are many parallels between gnosticism and eastern religions. In these religions, our primary problem is not sin or rebellion against God, but a lack of knowledge. Through this knowledge, they believe we can become our own saviors. The heretic Marcion advocated a form of this gnosticism by teaching that the God of the Old Testament is evil while the God of the New Testament is good. As a result, he rejected the Old Testament and its teachings together with the four Gospels except an edited version of Luke.

The worldview of gnosticism and the beliefs of Christianity are diametrically opposed to each other. This is apparent to anyone who reads the writings of gnosticism for himself. An example of this is seen in the gnostic Gospel of Judas which claims that Jesus requested that Judas betray him. In one of the more interesting lines from the document, Judas says to Jesus:

“I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.”

Barbelo in some forms of gnosticism is the first emanation from God and highest of the aeons. The unique terminology of these gnostic forgeries betrays their pagan origin and demonstrates that their authors were not Jewish monotheists living in the first century as the authors of the New Testament were, but polytheistic Gentiles living in the second century.

Sunday Meditation – Covenant with God

“The end of Christ’s coming was to free us from all such groundless fears. There is still in some such ignorance of that comfortable condition we are in under the covenant of grace as to discourage them greatly. Therefore we must understand that:

1. Weaknesses do not break covenant with God. They do not break the covenant between husband and wife, and shall we make ourselves more pitiful than Christ who makes himself a pattern of love to all other husbands?

2. Weaknesses do not debar us from mercy; rather they incline God to us the more. Mercy is a part of the church’s marriage inheritance. Christ betroths her to him ‘in mercy.’ The husband is bound to bear with the wife, as being the ‘weaker vessel,’ and shall we think Christ will exempt himself from his own rule, and not bear with his weak spouse?

3. If Christ should not be merciful to our weaknesses, he should not have a people to serve him. Suppose therefore we are very weak, yet so long as we are not found amongst malicious opposers and underminers of God’s truth, let us not give way to despairing thoughts; we have a merciful Savior.”

Richard Sibbes

The Sadducees on the Old Testament Canon

A popular misconception that is commonly taught in the church today is that the Sadducees only believed that the first five books of the Bible are canonical while the Pharisees accepted all 39 books of the Old Testament. But the truth is that both groups believed that all of the Old Testament is canonical. This misunderstanding comes from the early church father Origen who taught that the Sadducees only accepted the Pentateuch. This belief is also claimed to be supported by the Jewish historian Josephus who says concerning the Sadducees:

“What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers” (Antiquities 13.10.6).

This testimony, their denial the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:8) even though Daniel 12:2 clearly teaches this, and the fact that Jesus only cited from the Pentateuch in his debate with them over the resurrection in Matthew 22:31-32 has led many historians to conclude that the Sadducees only believed that the first five books of the Bible are canonical.

But this reasoning is incorrect for several reasons. Concerning the testimony of Josephus, he does not say that they rejected the rest of the Old Testament, but simply that they did not follow the Pharisees’ traditions concerning the law because they were not taught in Scripture. The traditions of the Pharisees are not taught in the other Old Testament Scriptures either. With regard to their denial of the resurrection of the dead, it must also be kept in mind that they denied the existence of angels and spirits as well according to Acts 23:8. But the Pentateuch teaches the existence of angels in several places (Gen 32:1). If they rejected the Book of Daniel because it teaches the resurrection of the dead, then by the same logic they must have rejected the Pentateuch as well because it teaches the existence of angels. The Sadducees denied these things because they were the theological liberals of the first century. And in response to the last argument, Jesus cites from the Pentateuch rather than Daniel because, for the Jews, the first five books of the Bible were considered to be the most important for establishing doctrine because they were written first and came from Moses. The argument of the Sadducees was also drawn from the Pentateuch so Jesus chooses a verse from Moses as well in response.

The first line of evidence in favor of the Sadducees believing that all 39 books of the Old Testament are canonical is the testimony of Josephus that all Jews esteem the books of the Hebrew canon after giving a full listing of the canonical books:

“But it is become natural to all Jews, immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain divine doctrines; and to persist in them: and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them” (Against Apion 1.8).

Since the Sadducees are Jews, they likewise “esteem these books to contain divine doctrines.” Second, one of the arguments of the Sadducees against the resurrection was drawn from Job 7:9 (Tanhuma C). Third, Micah 5:2 is cited by the chief priests and scribes in Matthew 2:4-6 and the priests would have been Sadducees. Fourth, Jesus applies Daniel 7:13 to himself in Matthew 26:64-65 in front of the high priest who was a Sadducee. Why would Caiaphas get so angry about a verse he does not believe is canonical? And why would Caiaphas ask Jesus if he was the Christ when the expectation for a future king from the line of David is not taught until after the time of Moses? And lastly, the Scriptures laid up in the temple over which the Sadducees had control included more than the Pentateuch (Antiquities 5.1.17).

Sunday Meditation – Infinite Satisfaction

“A hungry man finds his stomach craving. Give him music or honor and he is hungry still. These are not suitable to his appetite. Give him food and his craving is over. So it is with a man’s soul. Give it honour, profits, and pleasures of the world, and these cannot abate its desire; it craves still. These do not answer the soul’s nature, and therefore cannot meet its needs. Set God before it just once, and let it feed on him; it is satisfied, and its inordinate, dogged appetite after the world is cured. Tasting this manna tramples on the onions of Egypt. God is the true happiness of the soul because he is an eternal good. . . . This all-sufficient, suitable, and eternal God is the saint’s peculiar portion, and therefore causes infinite satisfaction.”

George Swinnock

The Subterranean Intermediate State in the Early Church

One of the unique beliefs of some of the early church fathers is that the intermediate state between death and the resurrection for believers is not in heaven where Christ is, but under the earth. According to them, only martyrs can go to heaven to be with Christ when they die (Rev 6:9). But this view is contradicted by the Bible’s teaching that all Christians at death go to be with the Lord rather than abiding in an underground abode (Luke 23:43; John 13:1; 2 Cor 5:1-10; Phil 1:21-24; 1 Thess 4:14; Heb 12:23; Rev 7:14-17). Tertullian was one of the first to teach this view when he says:

“Observe how he here also ascribes to the excellence of martyrdom a contempt for the body. For no one, on becoming absent from the body, is at once a dweller in the presence of the Lord, except by the prerogative of martyrdom, he gains a lodging in Paradise, not in the lower regions” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 43).

Tertullian believed that this was the place Christ went to upon his death and that only with our own life blood shed in martyrdom can we enter heaven instead of hades before the resurrection:

“Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth, that is, in the secret inner recess which is hidden in the earth, and enclosed by the earth, and superimposed on the abysmal depths which lie still lower down. Now although Christ is God, yet, being also man, ‘He died according to the Scriptures,’ and ‘according to the same Scriptures was buried.’ With the same law of His being He fully complied, by remaining in Hades in the form and condition of a dead man; nor did He ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth, that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself. . . . No, but in Paradise, you tell me, whither already the patriarchs and prophets have removed from Hades in the retinue of the Lord’s resurrection. How is it, then, that the region of Paradise, which as revealed to John in the Spirit lay under the altar, displays no other souls as in it besides the souls of the martyrs? How is it that the most heroic martyr Perpetua on the day of her passion saw only her fellow martyrs there, in the revelation which she received of Paradise, if it were not that the sword which guarded the entrance permitted none to go in thereat, except those who had died in Christ and not in Adam? A new death for God, even the extraordinary one for Christ, is admitted into the reception-room of mortality, specially altered and adapted to receive the new-comer. . . . The sole key to unlock Paradise is your own life’s blood. You have a treatise by us, (on Paradise), in which we have established the position that every soul is detained in safe keeping in Hades until the day of the Lord” (A Treatise on the Soul 55).

This same belief was continued by Victorinus in his commentary on Revelation:

“(As the golden altar is acknowledged to be heaven) so also by the brazen altar is understood the earth, under which is Hades (infernum) – a region withdrawn from punishments and fires, a place of repose for the saints, wherein indeed the just are seen and heard by the impious, but they cannot pass over to them” (Commentary on Revelation 6).

Charles E. Hill concludes that there is a link between this view of the intermediate state and millennialism:

“If souls are ushered into heaven, into the very presence of God and Christ, immediately after death and not detained in refreshing subearthly vaults, a future, earthly kingdom would seem at best an anticlimactic appendage to salvation history, at worst a serious and unconscionable retrogression. The millennium is then entirely redundant. . . . As introducing the redeemed into direct fellowship with their Savior and their God this heavenly postmortem existence takes the place of the millennium” (Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity, 20).

They believed that a subterranean intermediate state is necessary because going from the presence of Christ in heaven back down to a paradise earth without him would be a step backward in salvation history. They must therefore go from an underground paradise to an earthly millennial paradise and then to a heavenly paradise with Christ where they will join the martyrs and finally experience the beatific vision.