Early Christian Heresies

My Bible study group on Sundays has been going through Second Peter for the past several weeks. In chapter two we get a pretty good description of the false teachers that crept into the church (2 Peter 2:1). I believe that people are easily led astray by persuasive arguments when they fail to develop a first hand faith (Colossians 2:4, 5, Acts 18:4, 19:8, 26:28, 28:24, 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, Galatians 5:7-9). Faith that is built upon convictions will not be moved, whereas a second hand faith can be tossed around by the waves (James 1:6).

Second hand faith looks like this: I believe that Jesus is the Savior because my preacher says so. My parents taught me that the Bible is the Word of God. My Sunday School teacher told me to stay away from this sin or that belief.

First hand faith develops a conviction that will not be persuaded when we get a knock on the door and are told that there is another testament of Jesus Christ in North America. First hand faith will not fall when someone reads books from authors like Richard Dawkins, who teach that God is only a delusion.

So, let’s take a look at some of the heresies that threatened the early church:

Most of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry had died by the time John composed this letter. Some of the second- or third-generation Christians began to have doubts about what they had been taught about Jesus. Some Christians with a Greek background had a hard time believing that Jesus was human as well as divine, because in Platonic thought the spirit was all-important. The body was only a prison from which one desired to escape. Heresies developed from a uniting of this kind of Platonic thought and Christianity.

A particularly widespread false teaching, later called Docetism (from a Greek work meaning “to seem”) held that Jesus was actually a spirit who only appeared to have a body. In reality he cast no shadow and left no footprints; he was God, but not man.

Another heretical teaching, related to Gnosticism (from a Greek word meaning “knowledge”) held that all physical matter was evil, the spirit was good, and only the intellectually enlightened could enjoy the benefits of religion. Both groups found it hard to believe in a Savior who was fully human.

John answers these false teachers as an eyewitness to Jesus’ life on earth. He saw Jesus, talked with him, touched him, he knew that Jesus was more than a mere spirit (1 John 1:1, 2, 3). In the very first sentence of his gospel, John establishes that Jesus had been alive before the world began (John 1:1) and also that he lived as a man among men and women (John 1:14). In other words, he was both divine and human. That’s the incarnation; that’s what Christmas is all about.

Through the centuries, many heretics have denied that Jesus was both God and man. In John’s day people had trouble believing he was human; today more people have problems seeing him as God. But Jesus’ divine-human nature is the pivotal issue of Christianity; 100 percent God, 100 percent man, not half and half. Before you accept what religious teachers say about any topic listen carefully to what they believe about Jesus. To deny either his divinity or his humanity is to consider him less than Christ, the Savior (1 John 4:2, 2 John 1:7).

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Divide and Multiply

After the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:4, 5), Paul and Barnabas wanted to go back through the cities of the first missionary journey to strengthen the believers and see how they were doing (Acts 15:36). When the Spirit of God moves we need to be in a position to not only hear from Him but to act in obedience to His call. If we don’t, we will be miserable. One encouragement for me is that God does not use perfect people, but flawed ones like you and me.

On this second journey, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark (Acts 15:37) but Paul sharply disagreed (Acts 15:38) because of John Mark bailing on him back in Pamphylia (Acts 13:5, 13-14, 15:38). So Barnabas took Mark and Paul enlisted a young man named Silas (Acts 15:40); basically two teams going out rather than only one.

The story is deeper since Mark was more than just a fellow believer, he was Barnabas’ cousin (Colossians 4:10). Blood was thicker than water, they were a team, and Barnabas was still the “son of encouragement.” Strong emotions can bring on sharp disagreements, and both men were upset at this argument. Disagreements tend to cause people to take sides. I wonder if someone always has to be right or has to be wrong. Sometimes we just disagree.

Both men are assumed to be under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit cannot have two separate opinions, can He? Regarding John Mark, I suppose the Spirit could have said “yes” to Barnabas and “no” to Paul, both following the Spirit’s direction. As a result of this disagreement, these two preachers became four. While the Bible is clear that unity is a value that needs to be in the church, sometimes God wants to divide in order to multiply. People in churches today argue over worship styles and music, but does someone have to be right and the other have to be wrong? Why not both, not two services can reach even more people.

I discovered a four item checklist for resolving conflict:

  1. Identify the real source of the argument (Job 16:3): In Job’s case, the question is basically, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you keep arguing?” The Message puts it this way, “I’ve had all I can take of your talk. What a bunch of miserable comforters! Is there no end to your windbag speeches?” Ask the Holy Spirit to shed light on the true source of the disagreement. Sometimes God will reveal selfishness or an unwillingness to change. The Holy Spirit reveals our motives.
  2. Submit the issue to God (James 4:7): Submit to God, resist the devil and he will flee from you. Do not let sin or anger give the devil a foothold in your life. Ask God to remove all worldliness and selfishness and watch the issue come down to size.
  3. Resist the temptation to sin in your anger (Ephesians 4:26-27): While anger is not a sin, what we do in our anger is often quite sinful. Sin that comes out of anger will create regrets over what we said or what we did.
  4. Pray for the other person involved (and maybe pray with that person): Philippians 4:6 invites us to pray about everything. Imagine the enemy’s defeat by two quarreling believers down on their knees in prayer, praying for God’s glory.

Application: None of this is easy. Don’t let fear or difficulty keep you from doing what will bring God the most honor. Think about how you have handled disagreements over the past few months: at work, in your marriage, with your kids. What could have made the situation win-win rather than “I win” and “you lose?” Have you ever felt like John Mark, when someone perhaps did not want you on their team (on the playground or in the board room)? Have you treated others poorly just because they might disagree with your opinion or decision? Sometimes people just have to agree to disagree, and then let it go. Seek the Spirit’s guidance on the direction you need to take.

Have you ever took a John Mark under your wing to bring encouragement and restoration to them? Paul may not have wanted John Mark on the team for this second journey, but at the end of his life, Paul recognized how valuable John Mark was to him (2 Timothy 4:11). Mark even spent time in prison with Paul where they apparently bonded together during this difficult mission (Colossians 4:10). Thank God that our Father is a God of second chances. Let’s give others that same opportunity.

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A Sudden Change in Plans

Continuing this series in the life of Paul, after the stoning of Stephen, Paul began new threats against the followers of Christ (Acts 9:1-2) so he might jail them of kill them. This is the chapter where Jesus gets to Paul and reaches him with the life-changing message of the gospel.

If you’re like me, you probably have asked at some point in your Christian life, “Why in the world did you choose to save me?” Each of us knows our personal failures and vulnerabilities and have concluded that we are not really worth the price of our salvation. Then we look at Paul and decide that at least we are not like him! He was so anti-Christ (Acts 26:11). Paul was obsessed with destroying the church. The word really means “to act like a maniac” (the Greek term is mainomai).

Paul was a hot-headed rabbi determined to make a name for himself. One day on the road to the city of Damascus, Jesus Christ intervened in his life (Acts 9:3-4). This encounter left him blind and dependent on those around him (Acts 9:8). In a way, Paul is the perfect example of a guy who was totally sincere in his beliefs yet totally wrong. He thought he knew it all but actually knew nothing. In a world of black and white religious dogma, Paul comes face to face with shades of gray. Sincerity means nothing if it is misdirected.

Sometimes we feel that we should get our lives straightened out before we can come to Christ, but a great verse is Romans 5:8, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. No matter how dark or deep, we can begin a journey of faith in Christ. No one is perfect, but we all must press on toward the goal (Philippians 3:12). The phrase “take hold” means to seize with eagerness, like God snatched Paul by the hair. Paul never forget the depth of his sinfulness, out of which Jesus saved his soul (1 Timothy 1:15).

There is no room for pride and nothing can bring us back to reality and humble us like remembering how God saved us from ourselves. No one can teach forgiveness like the forgiven. Paul believed in his cause and it led him down a destructive path. That day on the Damascus Road, Paul not only was snatched from the devil but God snatched Paul from himself; from his misguided zeal and his obsessive behavior.

There is little doubt that Christ can save anybody. No one is too wicked or far from God (Isaiah 59:1). A gray question may be why God chose to save us, but a black and white answer is that “I once was lost but now I’m found.”

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Paul’s Concept of Faith

No one word comes so near the center of Paul’s belief as the word faith. Faith is always faith in a person, not intellectual acceptance of a body of doctrine. Paul uses the phrase four ways: belief in God, belief in Jesus, belief in the promises of God and belief in the promises of Jesus.

Paul uses faith to mean loyalty, fidelity, that which we would more naturally call faithfulness:

  1. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (Galatians 5:22)
  2. First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. (Romans 1:8)
  3. For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which [exists] among you, and your love for all the saints, (Ephesians 1:15)
  4. Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; (Colossians 1:4)
  5. For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ. (Colossians 2:5)
  6. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. (1 Thessalonians 1:8)
  7. For this reason, when I could endure [it] no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain. (1 Thessalonians 3:5)
  8. Therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. (2 Thessalonians 1:4)
  9. But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. (Philippians 2:17)

Paul contrasts faithlessness of Israel to the faithfulness of God:

  1. What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? (Romans 3:3)
  2. But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, (1 Thessalonians 3:6)
  3. The OT has a moving instance of this fidelity (2 Samuel 15:19-23)

There is also the unalterable conviction that certain things are true:

  1. That your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:5)
  2. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:17)

Sometimes Paul uses the word “to believe:” this unshakable belief and conviction with preaching. How can a man be moved to belief and conviction unless he hear the presented Christian message?

  1. For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not [come to] know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21)
  2. What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave [opportunity] to each one. (1 Corinthians 3:5)
  3. Whether then [it was] I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:11)
  4. So that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. (1 Thessalonians 1:7)
  5. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
  6. When He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed–for our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:10)

Here are two great Christian facts: conviction is an essential part of Christianity and preaching is the medium which produces conviction. Preaching is not designed to produce questions but to answer them, not to awaken doubts but to settle them. Raising question are for helping the hearer to see the need to find the answers in life.

The idea of faith in a creed does not come into the NT until as late as the Pastoral Epistles: the creed of the early church was simply, “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11)

Christianity is The Faith – allegiance to a person, not a creed:

  1. Now accept the one who is weak in faith, [but] not for [the purpose of] passing judgment on his opinions. (Romans 14:1)
  2. But only, they kept hearing, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.” (Galatians 1:23)
  3. If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister. (Colossians 1:23)
  4. Having been firmly rooted [and now] being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, [and] overflowing with gratitude. (Colossians 2:7)
  5. Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13)
  6. We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is [only] fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows [ever] greater; (2 Thessalonians 1:3)
  7. Test yourselves [to see] if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you–unless indeed you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5)

Faith as a confident hope is a conception which is more characteristic of the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:1) but the idea occurs at least once in Paul: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”– (2 Corinthians 5:7)

Things which come by faith:

  1. Justification comes by faith – –oun never means to make a person something, but to reckon, treat or count that person as something. So, God treats us as if we were righteous.
    1. For in it [the] righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS [man] SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Romans 1:17)
    2. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. (Romans 3:28)
    3. Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Romans 5:1)
    4. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, [saying], “ALL THE NATIONS SHALL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” (Galatians 3:8)
    5. Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
  2. Righteousness comes by faith – being in a right relationship with God, not moral excellence.
    1. Even [the] righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; (Romans 3:22)
    2. But the righteousness based on faith speaks thus, “DO NOT SAY IN YOUR HEART, ‘WHO WILL ASCEND INTO HEAVEN?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), (Romans 10:6)
    3. And may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from [the] Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which [comes] from God on the basis of faith, (Philippians 3:9)
    4. Paul’s faith defined – complete trust and complete surrender to Jesus Christ. It is the total acceptance of all that He said, all that He offered and all that He is.
  3. Propitiation comes by faith in His blood – the sacrifice to restore the lost relationship between God and man. “Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. [This was] to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” (Romans 3:25)
  4. Access and confidence come by faith – prosagoge means access to the presence of a king.
    1. Through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:2)
    2. In whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him. (Ephesians 3:12)
  5. Grace comes by faith – that which we do not deserve. The Jew would argue that God’s favor must be earned. But Paul teaches that it is freely given and must simply be accepted and trustingly taken. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, [it is] the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

But how?

  1. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)
  2. So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; [and] that you, being rooted and grounded in love, (Ephesians 3:17)
  3. Paul turns the word faith into flesh by way of examples in Romans 4 and Galatians 3.

The elements of faith:

  1. Receptivity – faith begins with a consent to listen – So faith [comes] from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
  2. Assent of the mind – belief that God exists, and Jesus is who He said He was and is.
    1. Evidence for the historical Jesus need not be sought in the annuls of history or the Gospels. It lies in the state of the world today. Simply compare the world before Jesus and the world after Jesus on earth.
    2. (1) Code of sexual purity
      (2) Social justice
      (3) Respect for women
      (4) Love of children
      (5) Care for the weak, sick, aged, poor and deformed
  3. Assent to the significance of the facts – the whole man to Jesus Christ. Intellectual assent is not enough (James 2:19). “That if you confess with your mouth Jesus [as] Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

The Christian faith in its fullest and best:

  1. Man confronted with the Christian message
  2. Man confronted with what it cost Jesus to bring the message
  3. Man must make a complete self-surrender and submission to this Jesus Christ – obedience

This material is from William Barclay, the Mind of St. Paul, 1975.

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