Historical Background to I John 4:1-3

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

Following the Rules or Not

Following the Rules or Not

by Roger Day

“My earliest firsthand experience with the frustrating behavior of human beings took place at school when I was in first grade. It had snowed, and it was time for recess. The teacher divided the class into two groups, and chose me to be one of the group leaders. My assignment was to lead my group in a single file through the snow to first make a circle, and then divide it into pie slices. It started out well.

I made a large circle, with the long line of my fellow students trudging behind me. This was great — they were all following me! So next, it was to be divided into pie slices. I turned and headed for the center of the circle. At this point, the group broke up. They started making their own pie slices. I was aghast — my leadership had been abandoned! My classmates were all out of order and clearly having great fun making their own pie slices. I yelled, but no one cared.

Because of my impressionable age, this experience had a lasting effect upon me. It was certainly like having a bucket of cold water thrown on one’s trust in the behavior of others. It wasn’t but a couple years later that I overheard talk of a policeman who had been arrested for a crime. This was staggering news to me at my young age. Policemen were supposed to catch criminals, not be criminals — another bucket of cold water! And as time went by, I learned very well that folks like to go their own way, not following any rules that would crimp their style. And I became guilty of this same behavior. Fancy that — just as human as everyone else!…”

(this article is an excerpt from the March–April 2013 edition of the Sabbath Sentinel)

To read the rest of this article, which starts on page 15, click this link: https://biblesabbath.org/media/TSS_2013_Mar-Apr–560.pdf

Sabbath Meditation #23 – The Eternal Rhythm

Sabbath Meditation #23 – The Eternal Rhythm

by Kelly McDonald, Jr.

“If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, and the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words, 14 then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

As discussed in the last meditation, the Sabbath guards us from self-slavery. Humans have constructed a kosmos that can easily control us if we allow it to. The Sabbath demarcates human dominion from God’s dominion.

One aspect of our world that is often overlooked is that it is ever-changing. The inventions, events, and entertainment we enjoy will change over time. One often overlooked unit of time in the Bible is a generation (see Gen 5, Matthew 1:17, Col. 1:26). Fads come and go. What was vogue for one generation can become obsolete in the next.

Take into account the progression from Cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s. Within 30-40 years we have seen this transition take place. Sometimes fads of the past even make a brief comeback!

If allowed to continue unchecked, the fads of each generation and time can also control us. We can be swept away with every new movement or cultural trend.

There are also societal constructs of how time should be defined. Multiple times in history, humans have tried to change the seven-day cycle to one of their own reckoning. Humans have tried to redefine the meaning of every day of the week or add meaning to the days of the week not ascribed by God (such as designating certain days of the week for specific activities or deities).

The Sabbath connects us to the rhythm of God – an Eternal being. He exists outside of our understanding of time, but chooses to work within it for our sake. Because an Eternal Being rested on this day, blessed it, made it holy, and established it then this day will satisfy us in a way that the material world cannot. There was no material creation on this day; it was about resting and refreshing.

Material beings cannot affect the purpose and existence of the Sabbath because it was established by the Eternal One. This means all arguments invented by humans against it are null and void. It also has implications to help us combat trends in this world.

No matter how this kosmos changes – with the things, events, and pursuits created by man – the human need for the Sabbath remains. Its eternal principles cannot be moved by the changeable world. The Sabbath connects us to the Eternal source who directs us towards the most meaningful practice and outlook of this life possible.

Moreover, God’s day keeps us in rhythm with God’s eternal purpose. This allows the Sabbath refreshing to loosen the connections in our minds, heart, and emotions to the world around us that might try to chain us to it.

The weekly demarcation between holy and common every week keeps us from the self-slavery discussed in the last Sabbath Meditation (CLICK HERE to read it). It keeps us in the Rhythm of the Eternal God and out of the rhythm of the man-made world.

While this world and its times changes, the word of the Lord endures forever.


Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org

“Don’t those Sabbatarians Know Better?”

“Don’t those Sabbatarians Know Better?”

By K.C. Walker

“The essence of the above caption is the basis of much literature received by the writer and circulated to untold numbers of people belittling those who feel they should keep the same seventh day Sabbath that God included in the Ten Commandments. These are the same commandments He spoke from Mt. Sinai, later giving them to Moses in written form, written by His finger.

Have you ever given serious consideration as to why people speak of the seventh day Sabbath as “the Jewish Sabbath”?

Have you ever heard the expression that those who keep the seventh day Sabbath are “Sabbatarians”?

Do you ever read in the Bible where the seventh day Sabbath is called the “Jewish Sabbath”? See if you can find such an expression in the Bible. However, there are such expressions  as: “But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God…” (Exodus 20:10).

Jesus said of the seventh day Sabbath…”

(this article is an excerpt from the Nov 1972 edition of the Sabbath Sentinel)

To read the rest of this article, which starts on page 3, click this link: https://biblesabbath.org/media/tss_191Nov1972.pdf

How keeping the Sabbath Has Changed My Life

How keeping the Sabbath Has Changed My Life

by John Lemley

I am blessed to have grown up in a Sabbath observing family. So, there was never a time when the Sabbath was not a weekly event. For the first eighteen years of my life my parents were searching for a church which believed and practiced the teachings of the Bible, including the teaching to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. My mother wrote to the headquarters of numerous denominations asking for a list of their doctrinal beliefs. My father took multiple Bible correspondence courses

The Sabbath has been precious in different way at various stages of my life. As a child it was a special time of closeness to my parents and brothers without interruption by the unending chores that filled the other days of the week. It was a day without school work, sports and clubs. It was a restful day to focus on the things of God together as a family.

During my teen years the Sabbath was a welcomed change from a busy routine. It also served as a common bond with other young people who shared a conviction about the Sabbath.

As a parent, and now a grandparent, I am much different than I would have been if I had not known about and practiced this gift that God blesses humanity with on the seventh day of each week

I close with two quotes that I have adapted to the subject of the Sabbath. These words are adapted from Thom Rainer’s book Why I Attend Church and applied to the Sabbath. Mr. Rainer is a former

president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and author of a number of books on the church.

“In a culture that minimizes commitment and maximizes self-indulgence, I have learned the precious gift of the seventh-day Sabbath. I do not see resting on the Sabbath as a burden or legalistic commitment. I view it as joy—a time when I can give and serve, a time when I can focus more on others rather than myself. I observe the Sabbath to help others, to encourage others, to focus on priorities that are eternal in nature and to participate in worship. I remember the Sabbath to keep it holy because I love the Sabbath. I truly love the day God sanctified and made holy – His Sabbath. A big part of our union with Christ is following His example of obedience to His Father The Sabbath provides precious time for serving and ministering to others and glorifying our Lord Jesus Christ. The idea of not following Jesus’ custom of faithful Sabbath observance is quite foreign to my family and me. ”

“Growth is not more knowledge or increase of years; it is simply more of Him and less of me. He increases as I decrease.”

The precious Sabbath hours provide the ideal environment for such spiritual growth.

Accepting Christ

Accepting Christ

By Terrell Perkins

“All that is necessary to be a Christian is to accept Christ as one’s Savior. Nothing else is called for. That’s the message that evangelical Christians all over the world preach. Is that really what the Bible teaches? And just what does it mean to accept Christ as one’s Savior? The fact is, most Christians don’t understand what it means to accept Christ. To come to a correct understanding of it, one must understand it in the context of the entire Bible.

Even those who believe that the only thing necessary to being a Christian is accepting Christ as one’s savior will admit that the message of the scriptures points to Christ. It is therefore no great leap to assert that accepting Christ means to accept the message of the Bible as a whole. Though some would have us discard the “Old Testament” (OT) and read only the “New,” it is a fact that the Hebrew scriptures are the foundation for the Greek scriptures (New Testament — NT).

First, in explaining what the Bible is to someone who has never heard of it one could say: It is God’s revelation to mankind. He lets us know who He is, why we are here and what He expects of us. It is His instruction manual for the care and maintenance of mankind. It’s also a historical record of God’s dealing with mankind and, more specifically, Israel. It recorded what happened when mankind obeyed His instructions and what happened when mankind disobeyed His instructions. It records God’s grace in that it shows us a path for His forgiveness for our failures in obeying Him. And, it contains prophetic writings warning of the choices we will make. In short, it is a statement of God’s love for His children. God reveals Himself to us in the scriptures….”

(this article is an excerpt from the March–April 2014 edition of the Sabbath Sentinel)

To read the rest of this article, which starts on page 7, click this link: https://biblesabbath.org/media/Tss_03-04-14_LoRes_566.pdf

Biblical Rest in a Weary World

Biblical Rest in a Weary World
by Rev. Nicholas J. Kersten

In his recent book, “You Found Me,” evangelism researcher Rick Richardson, with the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, charts and interprets recent evidence about those people around us who do not believe in Jesus Christ. Contrary to some studies well‐publicized, Richardson believes that the standard, sloppy, defeatist narrative around Christian witness with those who don’t believe in our times is overplayed and overgeneralized, and in a way that discourages from living out what our faith teaches.

The remedy for this inertia in our witness, according to Richardson? Authentic faith which reaches out to our neighbors. According to Richardson, “…We belong out there [in the world] as individuals and the church; bless people where we live, work, study, and play; and then bring them into the community of our congregation. People then go through a cycle of becoming the beloved in community. They connect to Christians, contribute their gifts and abilities to the congregation, commit to Christ, and communicate what God has done in their lives, inviting others into the same journey.”1

I will comment further on some of Richardson’s findings in future columns, but for now I want to focus on one aspect of Richardson’s work: blessing people “out there.” As Seventh Day Baptists, we are missing one very important opportunity we have because of our Biblical convictions to bless the people around us in the underpromotion of our distinctive belief in the seventh day Sabbath of the Bible. Elsewhere in this issue of the SR, other articles have addressed our Biblical belief about Sabbath and how we can be led by the Scriptures and Spirit to keep it and believe rightly about it.

We need to carefully study the Scriptures on these matters for ourselves and to live from how we are led under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we study, but that guidance is not only for us. Our genuinely lived‐out convictions regarding the Sabbath can be a powerful testimony to a world that is obsessed with never switching off. Real rest, even for our brothers and sisters in Christ who do not share our conviction, is difficult to find.

It has become so difficult to find that there is a proliferation of Christian books about finding “a Sabbath rest,” or “holding to the Sabbath principle.” We have important things to contribute to this conversation, both experientially and theologically, but our witness in these things is only as good as our lives can demonstrate. Ironically, one of the best things we may have to offer our world is our testimony as SDBs about what we refuse to do, or more correctly, when we refuse to do it. To a frantic world, an opportunity for real rest and fellowship with the God of the universe that can refresh us is very, very good news, both for believers and unbelievers alike.

As Seventh Day Baptists, we have long held that the seventh day of the week is sacred time, set apart and sanctified by God for rest—cessation from our weekly labors in a way that is totally different from the other six days of the week. We have affirmed this belief repeatedly, but a belief we don’t hold convictionally or won’t follow through on in our own lives has very little benefit to anyone, including ourselves. If it has been a while since you have gone back through Scripture and considered what God has done in providing the Sabbath for His people, it is high time for you to prayerfully return. This is not only for you, but for the good of our world and your neighborhood. God’s Spirit can work powerfully in your own life and in the lives that touch yours—but for that doorway to be open, you need to be in God’s Word, you need to be living out your conviction, and you need to be in contact with people who need God’s rest.

This article was first published in the February 2020 edition of The Sabbath Recorder, which is the official publication of the Seventh Day Baptist Church. We encourage you to follow them and read more of their material at: https://www.sabbathrecorder.com/

1 Rick Richardson, You Found Me: New Research on How Unchurched Nones, Millenials, and Irreligious are Surprisingly Open to Christian Faith. IVP Books, Downers Grove, IL. 2019, p230

When Is the Sabbath? How Can We Know?

When Is the Sabbath? How Can We Know?

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

An important question many people have is as follows: When is the Sabbath?

In Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we learn about the creation of the heavens and the earth. In six days, God formed the face of the earth and fashioned it with animals and other living creatures. During these six days He created. On the seventh day, He rested.

“2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:2-3, NIV).

This seven-day cycle was established and later spread throughout the whole world. Noah understood the seven-day cycle established at creation.  “He waited yet another seven days; and again he sent the dove out of the ship.  The dove came back to him at evening and, behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters were abated from the earth. He waited yet another seven days, and sent out the dove; and she didn’t return to him any more” (Gen. 8:10-12).

Later in Genesis we learn that the children of Jacob or Israel went down to Egypt. While there, any knowledge of the seven-day week they might have had was lost. The Egyptians had a ten-day work week (Fagan, 476). After God brought them out of Egypt in Exodus chapters 12-14, one of His first acts was to reveal to them the true Sabbath.

In Exodus chapter 16, the Bible records the miraculous giving of the manna from Heaven. God told the Israelites to gather manna for five days and on the sixth day to gather twice as much. On the seventh day, they were not to gather any.

Many people have heard the story of the manna in the desert. Very few know that the lesson of the manna was to show them which day of the week was the Sabbath! He even said in Exodus 16:29, “Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days.”

From the time that the manna was given in Exodus chapter 16, the Jewish people have kept track of this day. In the Bible and the Jewish culture, the Sabbath is the only day of the week that is named. The other days of the week are named “first day”, “second day”, “third day”, etc. This is why no day of the week except Sabbath is named in the Bible.

This is one detail that made the day easy to preserve. It is the same day kept in Jesus’ time and the same day observed by Jewish people today.

In the first few centuries AD, several Roman historians noted which day of the week that the Jewish people rested. We have some of them listed below:

Frontinus (30-103 AD) wrote: “The deified Vespasian Augustus attacked the Jews on the day of Saturn, a day on which it is sinful for them to do any business, and so defeated them” (Strategems, book 2).

The Roman Historian Cassius Dio tells us that the Jewish people rested on the day that the Romans called the day of Saturn. “As it was, they made an excavation of what are called the days of Saturn and by doing no work at all on those days afforded the Romans an opportunity in this interval to batter down the wall…They build to him a temple that was extremely large and beautiful, except in so far as it was open and roofless, and likewise dedicated to him the day called the day of Saturn, on which, among many other most peculiar observances, they undertake no serious occupation” (Roman History, 37.16.2; 37.16.3).

At least fourteen Roman writers attest that the Jewish people honored the Sabbath; most of them wrote that they rested on the day. Frontinus, Cassius Dio, and others link it to the day of Saturn.

Saturn is the name the Romans gave to the day of the week we presently call Saturday. The Sabbath was so widespread in the Roman world that they developed a word in their language (Latin) for that day (sabbatis).

The Hebrew word for Sabbath is Shabbat. In many current and ancient languages, the word for Saturday is a variation of the phonetic sounds relating to Shabbat or sabbat. I have included a short list below. Some of these languages are over one thousand years old!

Indonesian – Sabtu

Tagalog (Philippines) – Sabado

Latin – Sabbatum

Greece – Sabato or Savatoh

Spanish – Sabado

Portuguese – Sabado

Russian – Subota

Arabic – Al Sabt

Somali (East Africa) – Sabti

Mandingo also called Mandinka (West Africa) – Sibiti

Ormo or Galla (East Africa) – Sanbata tenna

Kisii, also called Gusii or Ekegusii (Africa) – Esabato

In Greece, Friday is called paraskevi or Preparation day. It comes from the ancient Jewish and Christian custom of preparing on Friday to keep the Sabbath. One reason why this happened is because the Sabbath begins Friday at sunset. In fact, this is when all Biblical days occur.

Genesis 1:5b “…And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”

Deut. 24:15 – “…Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.”

Ephesians 4:26 – “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…”

We can see from these examples that a day in the Bible begins and ends at sunset. Night time is the beginning portion of a day and day time is the concluding portion. This helps us define a Biblical day.

It is very clear that the Sabbath is from Friday sunset through Saturday sunset. This set apart day is mentioned over 140 times in the Bible. He has left us a witness through history, language, and the example of the Jewish people. He made provision for us; He made sure that we would know when the Sabbath is today. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). It was set apart for all mankind.

Kelly McDonald, Jr

BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org


Dio Cassius. Roman History. 37.16.2; 37.16.3.

Fagan, Brian M. ed. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. New York, 1996. Page 202. p 476.

Frontius. Strategems. book 2.

All verses, unless otherwise noted, come from the New International Version (NIV).

What does John 5:18 really teach about Sabbath Keeping?

What does John 5:18 really teach about Sabbath Keeping?

By Wilbur C. Dornberger

“In John 5:18 the issue is really whether Jesus Christ kept the Sabbath or not, and whether or not Christians are obligated to keep a day that (as some teach) their Lord Himself defiled or profaned.

In regard to this question several scriptures come so forcefully to mind; they are 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For he hath made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” “We have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God . . .[who] was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:14, 15). “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). “Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: everyone that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people” (Exodus 31:14). “The letter (of the law) killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

We must conclude from the above that Jesus never transgressed, defiled, or departed from the will of God…”

(this article is an excerpt from the Oct 1980 edition of the Sabbath Sentinel)

To read the rest of this article, which starts on page 6, click this link: https://biblesabbath.org/media/tss_282Oct1980.pdf

Constantine’s Vision in 312 AD

Constantine’s Vision in 312 AD

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

There are a significant number of Christians who believe that Constantine was the first Christian Emperor. Those who hold this view often point to one major event either as his moment of conversion or the beginning of that process: his vision before the battle of Milvan Bridge. In this article, we will the review historical evidence to examine what really happened. This evidence will have a major impact upon one’s view of his possible conversion.

In 312 AD, Constantine fought Maxentius for control of the Western Roman Empire at a battle commonly called the Battle of Milvan Bridge. Just before his victorious battle, contemporary witnesses claim that he had an experience that changed his life and the course of history. We will briefly review the two known accounts of it.

The first account was written by Lactantius, who was the personal tutor of Constantine’s son, Crispus. He wrote just a few years after the victory. He claimed that Constantine had a dream with a heavenly sign where he was instructed to put the Greek letters chi and rho on the shields of his soldiers. Lactantius said that these letters were short hand for Christ. He attributed Constantine’s victory in part to the use of these letters.

He wrote: “Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ. Having this sign (ΧΡ), his troops stood to arms…” (Of the Manner In Which the Persecutors Died, Chapter 44).

The second account comes from Eusebius, an early Christian historian. The events leading up to the vision and just after it are recorded in his work The Life of Constantine (book 1, sections 27-31). He composed it about 330 AD. It is a rather lengthy account, so I will summarize it for space’s sake.

Before the battle with Maxentius, Eusebius claimed that Constantine pondered the failure of past emperors. He then chose to dedicate himself to the deity of his father. Sometime before the battle, Eusebius wrote that Constantine saw a cross of light appear above the sun (about noon that day). It had an inscription attached to it: “Conquer by this.” He then wrote that Christ came to Constantine at night and instructed him to make a cross with a vertical spear, a gold bar horizontally across it and precious stones adorning the cross. The Greek letters chi-rho were also placed on it. He claimed that Constantine used this symbol in his armies (Life of Constantine, 1.27-31).

When we compare and contrast these accounts of the same event, we find significant differences and some similarities.

The first problem is that the accounts do not completely agree. Lactantius said that Constantine had a dream with the chi-rho alone, whereas Eusebius wrote that he had a daytime vision with an elaborate cross above the sun. He was then informed in a dream about the meaning.

The second problem with both stories is the use of the chi-rho. The use of this symbol cannot be the definite confirmation of any conversion experience. These letters were used together as a symbol many centuries before Christianity. The Emperor Ptolemy III, who ruled Egypt from 246-225 BC, minted the Chi-Rho with the likeness of Zeus on some of his coins (picture of this coin below). The chi-rho was used by the ancients to denote something excellent and was even used as a marker for important passages in manuscripts (Mitchell, pp 34-35).

Picture #1: Ptolemy III with picture of Zeus on one side and on the other an eagle with chi-rho between its legs.

ptolemy iii coin chi rho

The third problem is found in Eusebius’ version. He initially wrote about Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in the 320s AD in a work titled Church History. In this account, he never mentioned a vision, dream, or any similar experience. If it was such an important part of Constantine’s life and the battle, then why did he leave it out of that work?

The fourth problem is similar. When Eusebius finally recorded Constantine’s vision almost 20 years after the event, he said that Constantine only told him about the vision. He further confessed that the Emperor conveyed it long after the events occurred. “But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history…” (Life, 1.28). If Constantine only told him long afterwards, then why would Lactantius have written a version of the events two decades before?

The fifth problem, also found in Eusebius’ version, is the mention that Constantine chose the deity that his father worshiped: “…therefore felt it incumbent on him to honor his father’s God alone” (ibid, 1.28). What deity did his father adore?

Constantine’s father, Constantine Chlorus, was not known to worship or honor any one deity. The coins he minted just before his death depicted the god Jupiter, the deified Hercules, and the god Genius (Sear, pp 233-264). These were all common coin issues. More evidence of his religious allegiance is found in a panegyric from the time period. A panegyric is formal speech given to honor the virtue of a person and exalt praises for him/her. In one of these speeches, Jupiter and Hercules were proclaimed as patron deities for the government; he was described as being divine (Nixon and Rodgers, pp 113-114). Right after his death, a panegyric was delivered that praised Chlorus for being “divine” and described him as being taken to heaven by the chariot of Sol, the sun god (ibid, 209). These details strongly conflict with the notion that Chlorus worshiped the God of the Bible.

The sixth problem, found in Eusebius’ version, is the use of the cross. The cross was not a symbol used by the earliest church; it pre-dates Christianity for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It is originally derived from pagan worship in Assyria and Babylon (for general information see: Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition article “Cross”; for Assyrian reference, see: Layard’s Nineveh Inscriptions plate 59; for cross usage with the god Tammuz, see the alabaster relief in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany). This was controversial in the early church. Tertullian defended cross usage among Christians from the accusation of pagan worship (see his work To the Nations, 1.12).

Also consider the opulence with which the cross was adorned in Eusebius’ version. The cross (or possibly stake) was a symbol of Christ’s suffering. It was made of wood. It is neither suggested to be replicated nor adorned in the New Testament.

Lastly, we must consider another contemporary account of Constantine’s life. Did you know that Constantine had a similar vision about two years before the battle of Milvan Bridge? In the year 310, an orator delivered a panegyric before Constantine. This speech alleged that he had a vision of himself as Apollo with the goddess Victory holding a wreath in her hand. He then inferred that, like Apollo, Constantine would one day rule the whole world. Constantine then gave gifts and riches to the temple of Apollo (Nixon and Rodgers, pp 249-250).

As we consider the three accounts, Lactantius, Eusebius, and the panegyric, it seems that Constantine had a reputation for having visions (whether he had them or not). Which vision did Constantine really see before the battle with Maxentius? Did Lactantius and Eusebius edit his real experience? Did Constantine even have a vision? It is entirely possible that Constantine could have seen a cross and chi-rho, but attributed the vision to the sun god (Apollo or Sol Invictus).

While we cannot know the heart of someone else, Jesus instructed us to look at his/her fruit (Matthew 7:16). If Constantine had an experience with Jesus that changed his life and these symbols were part of it, then his behavior would bear witness to it. Let’s review the events that followed the battle.

Constantine won the battle with Maxentius; he became ruler over the Western Empire. An inscription dating to the year after this vision is dedicated to Mithras, which involved sun worship (Vermaseren, p 508; CIMRM no. 523). Within a few years of this event, he dedicated a special commemorative Arch to honor the victory over Maxentius. We find no symbols of the cross or chirho carved anywhere on the arch. No honor is given to Jesus Christ or the God of the Bible. The inscription on top of it does not honor God or Jesus for the triumph. However, there are carved medallions on each end. One end depicts Apollo (or Sol Invictus), the sun god. The other end depicts Diana, in honor of the moon (Frothingham, pp 368-389; Planter, pp 36-38).

Following the example of other Emperors, he minted coins of Sol Invictus early in his political career (as early as about 307 AD). These continued far beyond the date of 312, perhaps being made as late as 325/326 AD. Over 100 coin issues with Sol Invictus were minted or struck during his reign. Other gods were also depicted on his coins during this same time period. The god Mars was inscribed on coins from 307-317; Jupiter was depicted on coins from 306-324; and the goddess Victory was depicted on coins throughout his reign (information on coins in this paragraph taken from Sear, pp 363-491).

Two types of Sol Invictus coinage issued between 320 and 325 are very instructive. One depicted Sol giving Constantine the world (with the goddess victory standing on top of the world). The second depicted Sol crowning Constantine Emperor. In the 320s, he defeated his brother-in-law Licinius to become sole ruler of the Roman world. Could these coins depict what Constantine viewed as the fulfillment of the panegyric from years before? Possibly.

He did eventually mint coins and medallions with the chi-rho symbol – but there is no indication that he clearly intended or understood this to be a Christian symbol.

Consider the evidence. He made an inscription to Mithras. The Arch of Constantine honored the sun and moon gods. On many coins, Sol was depicted as his Comitii or companion. When Constantine dedicated Constantinople in 330/331, he brought images of other gods, especially those that honor the sun, into the city (Sozomen, Church History, 2.5; Zosimus, History, 2.31). Even later in life, coins were made which depicted him as the sun god.

The evidence points to Constantine interpreting the vision to mean that the sun god gave him the vision and the victory.

Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org

Works Cited
Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition. Article: Cross

Eusebius of Caesarea. Life of Constantine, 1.27-31. McGiffert, Rev. Arthur Cushman. Schaff and Wace, ed. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1: Eusebius. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904. pp 489-491.

Frothingham, A.L. American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 16. No. 3. Pp 368-386. “Who Built the Arch of Constantine? Its History from Domitian to Constantine” (Jul-Sept 1912).

Lactanius. Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 44. Fletcher, William (trans). Ante-Nicene Fathers. Roberts and Donaldson ed. Vol 7. New York: 1890. p 318.

Layard, Austen Henry. The Monuments of Nineveh. Illustrated in One Hundred Plates. London: 1853.

Mitchell, JB. Chrestos: A Religious Epithet; Its Import and Influence. London. 1880. pp 34-35.

Nixon, C.E.V and Rodgers, Barbara Saylor, trans. In Praise of Later Roman Emperors. The Panegyrici Latini. University of California Press, Los Angeles. 1994. pp 113-114, 209, 249-250.

Platner, Samuel Ball. A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. London: Oxford University Press, 1929. pp 36-38.

Sear, David. Roman Coins and their Values, Volume IV. Spink, London, 2011. Pp 233-264,  363-491.

Sozomen. Church History, 2.5. Hartranft, Chester D. trans. Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, ed. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second series. Vol. 2. The Christian Literature Company: New York: 1890.  p 262.

Tertullian. Against the Nations, 1:12. Roberts, Rev. Alexander and Donaldson, James, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 3. New York, 1918. 121-122.

Vermaseren, MJ. Corpus Inscriptionum Et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae. Martinus Nijhoff. 1956. No. 523, p 208.

Zosimus. History. 2.31. Vossius, G.J. trans. The History of Count Zosimus. London: 1814. pp 52-53.