Historical Background to I John 4:1-3
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world” (I John 4:1-3).
Recently I wrote an article about I Timothy 4:1-5. In these verses, Paul warned Timothy about heretical teachings (Click here to read the article). Gnosticism was one of the belief systems that promoted these teachings. We discussed it at length in a series on the Rise of Heresy in second century Christianity (to start with Part 1, click here).
Gnosticism was a belief system which blended Greek and Middle Eastern influences. Some of their common beliefs are as follows: matter is evil and spiritual things are good; an inferior god made the material world and a superior god made the spiritual realm; spirit and matter are opposed; and a strong emphasis on the gaining of knowledge as essential to the salvation of one’s immortal soul. They viewed this knowledge as the key to escape the material world and become one with the supreme spiritual creator.
Because these heretics viewed the material world as evil, they denied that the perfect Christ could have ever been born as a human. In their view – how could a being so perfect dwell in a material body? They denied the bodily birth, bodily ministry, suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. They claimed that an apparition or the mere appearance of the perfect Christ appeared on earth.
As a direct consequence, they viewed marriage and procreation as evil because they create more material beings. They tended to view Christ as a spiritual being only who came to earth to free men from the God who made the material world.
In I John 4:1-3, the Apostle mentions that the people who taught such a thing were coming and were already in the world. Irenaeus lived in the mid to late second century. He lived in the time prophesied by John (‘were coming’), but reflected on the first of these anti-Christ teachers. Apparently, Simon of Samaria was considered among the first of these anti-Christ teachers.
“Declaring at the same time the doctrine of Simon Magus of Samaria, their progenitor, and of all those who succeeded him. I mentioned, too, the multitude of those Gnostics who are sprung from him, and noticed the points of difference between them, their several doctrines, and the order of their succession, while I set forth all those heresies which have been originated by them. I showed, moreover, that all these heretics, taking their rise from Simon, have introduced impious and irreligious doctrines into this life...” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk 2, preface)
In Acts 8:9-26, Simon tried to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Apostle Peter. Peter sternly rebuked him and told him to repent. According to Irenaeus, Simon started his own following and became the fore runner of false teachers that promoted Gnosticism as a form of Christianity. This explains John’s statement that some anti-Christs were already in the world.
Some scholars believe John referred to a man named Cerinthus, who was a contemporary to him. He had the strange idea that Jesus was a separate person from Christ. Jesus was the fleshly son of Joseph and Mary while Christ was the spiritual being from the previously unknown Father. Irenaeus says this of his teachings:
“He 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, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being…” (idem, 1.26.1).
One story from ancient history is that John once fled a building simply because Cerinthus entered it. “There are also those who heard from him [Polycarp] that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus 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’” (ibid, 3.3.4).
The heretical idea that Jesus Christ did not actually come in the flesh existed during John’s day. Below we have quotes from various authors about other heretics who taught that Christ did not come in the flesh. They are among the ones John said would come after his time.
“But one Saturnilus, who flourished about the same period with Basilides, but spent his time in Antioch…And the Saviour he supposed to be unbegotten and incorporeal, and devoid of figure. [he] however, (maintained that Jesus) was manifested as a man in appearance only. And he affirms that marriage and procreation are from Satan…” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 7.16).
“3. Basilides again, that he may appear to have discovered something more sublime and plausible, gives an immense development to his doctrines….But the father without birth and without name, perceiving that they would be destroyed, sent his own first-begotten Nous (he it is who is called Christ) to bestow deliverance on those who believe in him, from the power of those who made the world. He appeared, then, on earth as a man, to the nations of these powers, and wrought miracles. Wherefore he did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead ; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them… so that it is not incumbent on us to confess him who was crucified, but him who came in the form of a man, and was thought to be crucified, and was called Jesus, and was sent by the father, that by this dispensation he might destroy the works of the makers of the world… 5. Salvation belongs to the soul alone, for the body is by nature subject to corruption” (Irenaes, Adv. Her., 1.24.3-5; emphasis mine throughout).
“102. If birth is something evil, let the blasphemers say that the Lord who shared in birth was born in evil, and that the virgin gave birth to him in evil. Woe to these wicked fellows! They blaspheme against the will of God and the mystery of creation in speaking evil of birth. This is the ground upon which Docetism is held by Cassian and by Marcion also, and on which even Valentine indeed teaches that Christ’s body was “psychic”… (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 3.102).
These false teachers had tremendous influence and tried to change Judeo-Christianity as it was originally taught by the first Apostles. This was part of satan’s attempt to stain the pure faith delivered to the saints. As reviewed in previous articles, God reserved a remnant, such as Polycarp to combat these heretics (CLICK HERE to read the article about Polycarp).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President www.biblesabbath.org