I’m teaching two informal classes this semester, and since they meet on different nights with different participants I decided to give myself a bit of a break and teach the same subject matter to both: lessons from the writings of John the Apostle. Recently I was drawn to the subject of how John addressed heretical teachings about Jesus in his writings.

The Apostle John as imagined by the painter El Greco in a painting from the 1600s.

During the days when John wrote his Gospel, the letters we know as I, II and III John, and the Revelation, there were already false teachers about, making a name and profit for themselves by speaking about Jesus to crowds. One way these false teachers attempted to grow their audiences was to make changes to the story of Christ, hoping to make Jesus more embraceable and palatable for their listeners.

In John’s day, a lecturer named Cerinthus was teaching that “the Christ” had never actually been a man, but rather that a normal man named Jesus had the “spirit of the Christ” come upon him at his baptism. This same spirit, as Cerinthus’ false teaching goes, left the man Jesus just before the crucifixion. This heresy had a willing audience among those who could not accept that a human being could also be divine, or that anything divine would be able to suffer pain in the physical world.

Cerinthus also taught that as a “reward” for his suffering the pain of the cross, this normal man Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day. It may seem strange to us today, but people embraced this false teaching because many in that day thought anything in the physical world was, by that same nature, corrupted. They thought anything of the spiritual world was pure and incapable of being harmed in the physical sphere. The idea of one wholly man and wholly divine simultaneously offended their preconceived notions of how the universe functioned.

Docetism was another heretical concept in John’s day which taught the falsehood that the divine Jesus only seemed or “pretended” to suffer during his passion, in a “playing to the crowd’s expectations” sort of way.

When we read John’s writings, we should not be surprised that he tackles these types of false teachings head-on, stressing both Jesus’ divinity and His humanity repeatedly throughout his Gospel. Whereas two other Gospel writers had already provided Jesus’ human ancestral family tree in their accounts (Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38) John cut straight to the point and immediately proclaimed Jesus’ divine “ancestry” by declaring “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1); and that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Early in his Gospel, John shows us Jesus’ humanity, providing us examples that He became zealous for His Father’s house (John 2:17), and that He tired from long journeys as any other man would (John 4:6).

To those who embraced the lectures of Cerinthus and ideas of docetism, John’s Gospel was tremendously challenging. It was already well-known in Christian circles that John knew Jesus personally and was one of the trusted “inner circle” apostles along with Simon Peter and John’s own brother, James. This same John now assaulted these false teachings and made it unmistakably clear: Jesus is both human and divine. One cannot claim Jesus only suffered in His humanity; one must accept that He also suffered in His divine nature. One cannot say Jesus did not really feel temptation because of His divine nature; one must accept that because of His humanity He felt tempted, but was able to endure and overcome all temptation.

Today we still see people trying to manipulate definitions of the person of Jesus Christ for their own means and purposes. Attempting to appeal to human greed, many false teachers proclaim that Jesus is obligated to repair all financial difficulties if called upon in a certain way. Trying to find an audience with the sick and infirm, many false teachers guarantee the Lord’s power can be manipulated into performing miraculous feats of healing. Still others attempt to link the Lord’s will with affiliation to political parties, ignoring the fact that Christ had little or nothing to say about the very Roman Empire government which carried out His crucifixion. Attempting to justify a religion of their own design, some apply the name of Jesus to any power they acknowledge outside themselves, whether it be new age superstition or “enlightened self-actualization.”

John makes it clear that Jesus is not concerned with being redefined to be “more acceptable” to the people of this world, nor does He want His followers to be more like this world. “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:16).

When we read John’s writing and see his declarations of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, we are seeing the Apostle waging war with the all-too prevalent heresies of his day. May we likewise never back down from defending the truth about our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in this world which continually seeks to redefine Him for its own advantage, comfort, and temporary ease of mind.

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