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Bible verses about Docetism
(From Forerunner Commentary)

When the Word became a man, He entered into a new state of being. He was a fleshly person with two natures. The word likeness in the Greek text (Philippians 2:7; Romans 8:3) refers to "that which is made like something else." His humanity was a real likeness. He was not a phantom, as some of the Docetists believed, but His human likeness did not and could not express the whole of His being. Jesus was also God, but His human form could never express the fullness of God, even though He was God.

"Fully man and fully God" is a cliché that has an appealing simplicity to it. At the least, however, it obscures a reality that should be more accurately articulated and understood. At the worst, it is a confusing and misleading statement that defies accurate biblical explanation.

It would be far better to use the expressions already inspired in the text of our Bibles. John, as mentioned above, writes, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). He gives no percentages of fullness of either humanity or divinity. Paul says something similar in Hebrews 2:14: "Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same."

Jesus Christ was Immanuel, God with us. Jesus of Nazareth had as much of God's nature in Him as could be expressed in a human being.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Fully Man and Fully God?


 

Genesis 3:4

Satan's heresy that "You shall not surely die," when expanded, claims that we are already immortal, so death has no real hold over us. This idea, proposed at the very beginning, has thrived throughout history. Mainstream Christianity calls it the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, while various Eastern religions contain it in beliefs such as reincarnation. Whatever its moniker, the belief that human beings possess a spiritual, eternally conscious, imperishable component is a major tenet of nearly every religion throughout man's history. In our modern culture, books and movies abound with examples of the spirits of the dead hovering around the living characters, giving them comfort, aid, and encouragement. It is taken as given that death is not the end; somehow, one's conscious spirit will live on when the physical body perishes.

The Gnostic belief in the dualism of flesh and spirit—with the flesh being evil and something to be freed from, while the eternal spirit was good—also originated in the lie Satan told Eve. Gnostics, in general, believed that the purpose of human existence was to return to the spiritual realm from whence all originated. Death, then, was seen as liberation of the spirit.

First, consider how this belief affects a person's attitude and way of life. When Satan undermined the death penalty for disobedience, in addition to sowing further distrust in what God says, he also blunted one of the keenest elements of human motivation, continued self-preservation. If life beyond the grave is assured, how this life is lived makes little difference. It is like guaranteeing a college freshman that he will receive a doctorate degree, regardless of whether anything is learned, any work is done, any classes are attended, or any tuition is paid. While the student may indeed expend some effort, the motivation to apply himself wholeheartedly to his education will be substantially weakened. It would be so easy to slack off and postpone catching up to some time next week. After all, if the goal is certain, why worry about the details in the meantime?

Spiritually, the result is the same. If one already has immortality, and is eternally saved, there is no pressing reason to resist the pulls of carnality. Resisting Satan matters little. Devoting one's life to growing and overcoming has no urgency. Sin is no big deal. Why should one study to come to know God and His truth? Believing that one already possesses eternal life removes the urgency to live according to the desires and requirements of the Creator. At best, all that remains is the vague guidance of "just be a good person."

The Bible teaches that there can be life after death through the resurrection from the dead. Eternal life is ours only if God supplies it, and not because we possess an immortal soul:

» God tells us, "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul who sins shall die." (Ezekiel 18:4; emphasis ours throughout). God repeats this in Ezekiel 18:20. Clearly, it is possible for a "soul" to die.

» Paul instructs in Romans 6:23 that "the wages of sin is death," not eternal life—not even eternal life in ever-burning hell. As with Ezekiel 18, sin incurs the death penalty. Satan, though, would have us believe that since death is not a real threat, sin is no big deal. It is only because of God's grace that we are not struck down immediately—not because of any inherent immortality within us—as the rest of Romans 6:23 explains: "but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Eternal life is a gift, not an inborn quality.

» I Timothy 6:16 says that God "alone has immortality"—not any member of the human race, Christians included!

» Romans 2:7 promises "eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality," again proving that eternal life is a gift, not a right, and that immortality must be sought (by "doing good") rather than assumed to have it already.

» Finally, in the "Resurrection Chapter," I Corinthians 15, Paul explains when Christians receive immortality:

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." (I Corinthians 15:50-54)

It is not until "the last trumpet," when Jesus Christ returns, that the dead will be resurrected and given immortality (I Thessalonians 4:16). At this time, the saints will be changed and given new spiritual bodies (I Corinthians 15:49; I John 3:2). Clearly, immortality is not given until the resurrection from the dead, which does not take place until Jesus Christ returns.

That God must resurrect a person for him to continue living means that He retains sovereignty. He is not obliged to grant eternal life to anyone who demonstrates, once he has the opportunity to know God, that he is not willing to be subject to His way of life. However, by belittling the truth about the resurrection from the dead, and telling people that they already have immortality, Satan can distract them from a basic reason why they need to listen to God—so that they may be resurrected and continue living!

David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Three: Satan's Three Heresies


 

John 2:19

Some have interpreted this verse to mean that Jesus Christ raised himself from the dead, which is based in Gnosticism—particularly Docetism, the belief that Jesus was a human, but Christ was a separate, spiritual being. This false belief manifests itself in the notion of Jesus being "fully man and fully God." This interpretation overlooks the plain meaning of "temple" in the Greek. The word "temple" also appears in verse 14, but it derives from a different Greek word, hieron, meaning a "shrine" or "holy building." In verses 19-21, John uses the word naos, signifying the "dwelling place" of deity.

In the New Testament, naos is used metaphorically of the bodies of believers (I Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19). Whereas the Jews of John 2:19 were thinking in terms of a building, the Temple, Jesus was referring to His body, the church.

During Jesus' trial, the Jews brought up what He said in John 2:19 as an accusation against him. However, Mark 14:58 adds two significant phrases that clarify what Jesus said beyond a shadow of doubt: "We heard Him say, 'I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.'"

To understand what He meant, we must consider what occurred as a result of His death and resurrection. The instant God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, the church—the "body" in which God dwells—became an accomplished fact. Jesus Christ is its first member and Head. This is also one of the senses of Matthew 16:18: "On this rock [Jesus Himself] I will build My church, and the gates of Hades [the grave] shall not prevail against it."

The true meaning, then, of John 2:19 is that Jesus makes a parable-like statement about His nature then and in the future. His physical body at that time represented the extent of His church; He was the only believer, its only member. But once the Father resurrected Him and He became Mediator and High Priest, He indeed raised up a body of believers, the Temple of God, of which we are part.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Fully Man and Fully God? (2001)


 

John 17:5

Whatever this glory is that He asks to be restored, it is something He did not have as a human, but He did have when He truly was fully God. He had it before He was born of Mary, did not have it during His physical life, and had it returned to Him upon His resurrection and ascension.

In the New Testament, glory is used in the sense of anything that brings honor and praise upon a person. It can be one's works, attitude, manner of living, skill, strength, wisdom, power, appearance, or status. Some or all of these could be included within the framework of Christ's request. The Bible does not clarify or expand on what He specifically meant, but whatever it was, it was lacking in Him while He was human. Therefore He could not have been "fully man and fully God."

John W. Ritenbaugh
Fully Man and Fully God?


 

Galatians 1:6-8

Paul penned the book of Galatians because church members in Galatia were turning away from the true gospel and had embraced a false one (Galatians 1:6-7). Early on, Paul had to establish his credentials - that the gospel he preached did not have its source in any man, as Gnostic ideas do, but had come directly from Jesus Christ (verses 11-12). The Galatians were returning to the "weak and beggarly elements" (Galatians 4:9), referring to the demonism they had been involved in prior to their conversion (verse 8). The Gentile Galatians were observing certain days, months, seasons, and years that had nothing to do with God's holy days (verse 10), but were part of a system that elevated rites and ceremonies above the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, even while paying lip service to Christianity.

Paul addresses a philosophy that venerated the Torah - and went so far as to teach that one could be justified by works of the law - but also involved astrology and receiving revelations from angels (Galatians 1:8). Because of the belief that the spirit of a person was trying to get back to heaven, worship of angels and astrology was a common tenet of Gnosticism, since angels and the patterns of stars and planets were believed to hold keys to this spiritual journey. Contrary to popular assumption, Paul does not condemn God's law in Galatians but a corrupt system that was severely affecting the church. That Gnostic system happened to include an emphasis on the Old Covenant at the expense of Jesus Christ's life, death, and teachings.

Gnostic Christians borrowed the idea of redemption through Christ, but rather than believing that He redeemed them from sin, they believed that He would redeem them from matter - that is, from the flesh, which they considered to be inherently evil. At the core of Gnosticism is the belief that knowledge, typically secret knowledge - knowledge from angels, from the stars and planets, from the ancients - was the path to holiness and salvation. They believed that the path of redemption was through knowledge, and that the worst evil was ignorance.

Thus, they did not endeavor to overcome sin but ignorance. If they could just become wise enough, they reasoned, sin would not be a problem because they would be more spiritual than physical. Obviously, they overlooked man's incurably sick heart (Jeremiah 17:9), and the struggle that a person must undertake to overcome it. The Gnostics believed that the solution was found in greater understanding, rather than in a Savior and High Priest who justifies and guides us through a process of sanctification. In essence, Gnostics would rather learn than submit.

What is more, the knowledge that the Gnostics sought always originated in something other than God and His Word. We know that knowledge itself is not the problem. In the Bible, knowledge is generally presented as a good thing. God goes so far as to say that Israel is "destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6). However, the knowledge He means is the knowledge of Himself and of His way of life, not knowledge as an end in itself.

In the New Testament, Paul tells the congregation at Rome that Israel has "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge" (Romans 10:2). Israelites like to think they are serving God, but the way they go about it is contrary to the instructions that God gave them. Jesus Himself says that eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3), by which He means the experience of an intimate relationship with the Father and the Son, something the Gnostics would never accept. They believed that a spiritual and thus pure God would have nothing to do with what they considered to be entirely evil matter and flesh. They did not care that God called His physical creation "good" - even "very good" - for they still saw it as corrupt, a prison from which to be liberated.

David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Two: Defining Gnosticism


 

Philippians 2:5-7

Can anything that has some part removed from it still be as much as it was before? In the Word's case, He surrendered a level of existence never experienced by any human being, since only God lives at such a level in terms of both quality and length. We should not forget that what He gave up included immortality. If this is the case, was He as fully God as a human as He was before?

Of course, the other side of this picture is His humanity. In Philippians 2:5-7, Paul is saying that God exchanged one form of expression for another. Therefore, He never ceased being what He originally was, just the expression of what He was changed. Therefore, He was not a man in the strictest sense of what a man is—as we are. He was the Word of God manifest in the flesh and nature of a man. Can we then say He was fully man?

John W. Ritenbaugh
Fully Man and Fully God?


 

Colossians 2:9-10

At every turn, it seems, the main object of Gnosticism was to twist the nature of Christ. Some Gnostics believed that Jesus was a man, but that Christ entered into Jesus when He was baptized and left Him right before He died. Other Gnostics believed that Jesus did not really die - because, after all, if He died, then He was not really God. Others believed that He could not have been perfect and sinless because He created matter, which Gnostics believed to be evil. And there were also those who believed that Jesus Christ was a created being - an idea that is still affecting the fringes of the church of God today.

So if we want to counter Gnosticism, we must begin with the truth of Jesus Christ. Paul emphasizes this in verses 9-10: Jesus was the fullness of the divine nature in bodily form, and He is the head, the leader, the sovereign, of every principality and power. Though the Gnostics in their various views always twisted or denied some aspect of the nature and role of Jesus Christ, these truths brought out by the apostle are bedrock beliefs for true Christians.

Also foundational to countering Gnosticism is the truth that Jesus brought. To combat the false knowledge that threatens to plunder our spiritual riches, we must take the Bible as the complete and inspired Word of God, against which we can test any concept, tradition, doctrine, or philosophy, no matter how good it sounds on the surface. Gnostics would not readily accept the Bible as God's inspired revelation, or if they did, they also held that other ancient, secret writings were on par with Scripture, and could be trusted to provide greater insight.

In addition, Gnostics were also avid proponents of "progressive revelation," the belief that God is continuing to reveal His will to mankind, but with the implication that Holy Scripture is not as important as hearing directly from the spirit world. Thus, some today, while not entirely rejecting the Bible, believe that "God" is personally revealing things to them - things which often contradict what He has already given to mankind in the His written Word.

David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Two: Defining Gnosticism


 

1 Timothy 6:20-21

The Amplified Bible makes these verses clearer:

O Timothy, guard and keep the deposit entrusted [to you]! Turn away from the irreverent babble and godless chatter, with the vain and empty and worldly phrases, and the subtleties and the contradictions in what is falsely called knowledge and spiritual illumination. [For] by making such profession some have erred (missed the mark) as regards the faith. . . .

Paul warns Timothy about "the subtleties and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge and spiritual illumination." The word translated "knowledge" in most translations ("science" in the King James Version) is the Greek gnosis. Literally meaning "to know," it forms the root of the word Gnosticism. It is possible, even probable, that Paul refers to Gnosticism here, since both of his letters to Timothy contain warnings against false teachers bringing in foreign concepts that were undermining the faith of church members.

Remember, however, that his warning is against a particular type of knowledge that induced some members to stray from the faith, knowledge that was subtle and yet contradictory. That it was contradictory is interesting because Gnosticism not only contradicts the truth, but within Gnostic beliefs there are also many contradictions.

Recently, the newly-discovered Gospel of Judas, an example of what is called a "Gnostic gospel," has made headlines worldwide. It was not written at the same time as the four canonical gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - but appeared a couple of centuries later. The Gospel of Judas contradicts the true gospel accounts by asserting that Judas Iscariot was actually the hero, who had been given secret knowledge that the other disciples did not possess.

The opening line of the Gospel of Judas demonstrates this secret knowledge: "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover." This so-called gospel gives a quite different view of the relationship between Jesus Christ and Judas, and its defenders say that it offers "new insights" into Jesus' betrayal, and the nature and character of Judas. "New insights" is another common theme of Gnosticism.

Several years ago, another Gnostic gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, was all the rage in the scholarly community. Its opening lines also emphasize this secret knowledge: "These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded. And [Jesus] said, 'Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.'" Notice that the emphasis is immediately on discovering an interpretation and on increasing knowledge as a way to eternal life. It contains nothing about salvation coming through one's relationship with God or even about living a godly life. In this Gnostic gospel, eternal life comes from the secret knowledge that will explain the obscure sayings.

Not only were the Gnostic gospels written long after the fact, but they are also full of statements that oppose the text of the Bible. For example, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus allegedly says, "If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits." Scholars say that Jesus is advocating "fitting in" and "being true to oneself," phrases often repeated these days.

In another place in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying, "[Blessed is] the one who came into being before coming into being." This makes absolutely no sense to us, but it does make a kind of sense to Gnostics, who believe in a dualism of flesh and spirit. Thus, they understand that "Jesus" implies that the spirit could come into being before the flesh. Many Gnostics were followers of docetism, the belief that Jesus and Christ were two separate beings in one body. Docetists believed that the man Jesus was born, and that the pre-existing god Christ entered into Him when He was baptized and left again before He was crucified. This, then, is an example of coming into being before coming into being.

Also in the Gospel of Thomas,

The disciples said to Jesus, "Tell us, how will our end come?" Jesus said, "Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is. [Blessed is] the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death.

Again, knowing something is shown as the antidote of death. In this case, another element of dualism is that every person has a little spark of God in him or her, and that we have an eternal spirit (or soul) that is trapped or imprisoned within a body of flesh.

Gnostics generally believed that all spirit was inherently stable and good (overlooking the fact that Satan and his demons are spirit and yet also unstable and evil), while all matter and flesh was inherently evil (contradicting God's statement in Genesis 1:31 that everything God had made was "very good"). Plato reinforced this belief, writing, "The soul is the very likeness of the divine - immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable." He also declared, viewing the body as a temporary house in which the soul is imprisoned, "The soul goes away to the pure, the eternal, the immortal and unchangeable to which she is kin."

The Gnostic goal was to learn the secret knowledge that would allow the inner spirit to be released from the confines of the flesh, enabling it to rejoin God in the spirit realm. Thus, the Gnostics linked the beginning and end (often depicted in the figure of a snake swallowing its tail), because if a person could figure out how the divine spark was infused into the flesh in the first place, he could then reverse it and release the spirit. We find the same basic tenet in the modern doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and the widespread belief that our "home" is in heaven, and that we go to this home when we die.

David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part One: False Knowledge


 

1 John 2:22-23

The denial "that Jesus is the Christ" does not imply that the Docetists thought Jesus was not the Messiah. Rather, the Docetists claimed that Jesus—the Man whom John had heard, seen and touched—was not truly God in the flesh and that the true Christ was an ethereal being in heaven. John argues that such a teaching denies the family relationship of the Father and the Son, obscuring the true nature of God.

Furthermore, John writes, anyone who denies that Jesus was God in the flesh, subject to temptation just like all human beings, "does not have the Father either." Such a person simply does not understand the gospel message that we have the opportunity to become members of the God Family (I John 3:1-2). Jesus says, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). If we distort the image of Jesus Christ and who He was, we end up altering our concept of the Father also.

Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
For the Perfecting of the Saints


 

 




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