What the Bible says about
(From Forerunner Commentary)
When the apostle John wrote his first epistle near the end of the first century, the Gnostic philosophy had swept through the Roman world and had already made serious inroads into the church. Paul fights it in some of his letters, particularly I Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians. John attempts to counter it in all of his writings.
A primary belief of Gnosticism was dualism. This idea purports that a cosmological conflict of antithetic forces exists and will always be polar opposites. In plain English, this means that throughout time and space certain contrary forces have and will struggle against each other. These forces are matter and spirit, evil and good, darkness and light, much like the Oriental yin and yang. In such a dualistic system, no overlapping or gray area is allowed.
This belief, coupled with the Gnostic idea that believers had been initiated into the "knowledge" (gnosis) of salvation, led Gnostics to think one of two ways:
- That the only way to attain true spirituality is to deny their flesh (matter) of anything that might tempt them to sin. Those who thought this way became ascetics.
- The opposite extreme, that the things done in the body are inconsequential because only the spirit counts. These Gnostics often fell into licentiousness.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Sin Is Spiritual!
Toward the end of the first century, the true gospel of Jesus Christ and His true church were being suppressed and slowly engulfed by a religious movement called Gnosticism. One of its condemning features is that it combined certain elements of Christianity with the "mystery religions" extant at the time. These "mysteries" involved secret societies, rituals, levels of understanding, and strange practices like "a gripping religious ecstasy" and being "possessed by the god."
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Touched by the 'Spirit'?
The church at Colossae was under intense pressure from the society around it. Heresy was making inroads into the church. Forms of gnosticism, asceticism, and sophistry were popular in the city.
- Gnosticism combined ideas from Greek philosophy, oriental mysticism, and Christianity - a classic example of syncretism, combining elements of different religions. Some of the "new" doctrines in the church have followed this philosophy.
- Asceticism taught a person to lead a life of contemplation and rigorous self-denial and abstinence. As the church taught a proper enjoyment of life, the Christians at Colossae stood out as being different. Some members still desired to be accepted by the world around them. Elements of an attitude of wanting outside acceptance have been evident recently in the church.
- Sophistry concluded that there is no such thing as objective truth and the highest act of man was "civic excellence." Both of these ideas, moral relativity and civic duty, have been present in certain churches of God today, as well as in Paul's time.
So what is Paul's advice?
For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you might be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. (Colossians 1:9)
He tells them to "continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast" (verse 23). To them has been revealed a mystery hidden from the ages - and from the philosophers (verses 26-28). This is precious truth, and Paul worries for the Colossians (and interestingly, the Laodiceans; Colossians 2:1; 4:16) that their minds might turn away to worthless ideas. In God the Father and Jesus Christ are contained "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," and Paul warns them not to be taken in by any man speaking enticing words (verses 2-4). In effect, he is saying, "When others are saying, 'Wow!' beware! We have a way to check it out. If we compare it to what Christ teaches us, we can judge its worth."
In verse 18, he speaks of men "vainly puffed up by [their] fleshly mind," or as the Lamsa translation reads, "intellectual powers." Lying among the members was a problem in the church at that time (Colossians 3:9). It seems that bending the truth or telling outright falsehoods to convince others to accept one's philosophy was normal in Colossae. Such a one gained a reputation for "wisdom" and became proud.
Beware of Philosophy
The following quotations are from Ancient Judaism by Irving M. Zeitlin, whose purpose in writing the book was to prove that Judaism gave birth to Western rationalism. To do so, the author thought it necessary to show some differences between Judaism and other Oriental religions, which he does in his preface about Gnosis:
The general character of Asian religion, Weber concluded, was a form of Gnosis, that is, knowledge in the spiritual mystically acquired [not from God, but "mystically acquired"]. Gnosis was the single path to the highest holiness and the highest practice. This knowledge, writes Weber, is not a rational implement of empirical science such as made possible the rational domination of nature and man, as in the Occident [the West]. Rather, it is a means of mystical and magical domination of the self and the world. It is attained by an intensive training of the body and spirit, either through asceticism, or as a rule, through strict methodological meditation. (p. 10)
Consider that in terms of New Age religion.
The Gnostic doctrine gave rise to a redemption aristocracy where such mystical knowledge was necessarily esoteric and charismatic [like Pentecostalism], hence not accessible or communicable to everyone.
The holy and the god-like were attained by an emptying of the experience of this world. Psychic peace, not restlessness, was god-like. Asiatic religion, placing more emphasis on this life, lead to a pronounced other-worldliness. That this magical anti-rational view of the world had a profound impact on every aspect of an individual's conduct could not be doubted. Magic was employed to achieve every conceivable object.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 26)
Gnosticism is difficult to define because it comes in so many flavors and interpretations. By itself, it is not a separate denomination or religion but a religious philosophy. It is a framework from which to explain the nature of God, creation, good and evil, man, and the purpose of life. Gnostics tended to focus exclusively on the inner life of the spirit, which they clearly differentiated from material life.
Author R.V. Young, in his book Harold Bloom: the Critic as Gnostic, summarizes Gnostic teachings this way:
The Gnostics' teaching places the origin of evil, of pain and suffering, in the conditions of the material creation; salvation involves overcoming ignorance and escaping these external conditions by finding divinity within. . . . The Gnostic finds the beginning of the path to salvation in the realization that the world is a great imposture, a prison of pain and frustration. His escape lies in recovering the intrinsic good within himself, the principle of illumination that he shares with other enlightened spirits. . . . What makes it possible for the self and God to commune so freely is that the self already is of God. (Emphasis ours throughout)
Gnosticism contained only a few core beliefs, but as long as they were adhered to, they could be infused into any number of religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and even Islam (the Gnostic form of which is known as Sufism). The Gnostic concepts are typically traced back to the religions of Persia and India (Zoroastrianism and Hinduism), but they have been added to and modified over time, especially as they became entrenched in Greek culture. As Plato's writings are full of Gnostic concepts, he furthered the cause of the Gnostics tremendously.
Today, Jewish mystics practice a religion known as Kabbalah, a Gnostic version of Judaism. Its most famous spokesperson right now is none other than Madonna, but other celebrated practitioners include Demi Moore, Britney Spears, and Mick Jagger. Kabbalah - a Hebrew term that literally means "receiving" - holds that it is the "soul" of the Torah, and that the secrets of life are hidden within its text. It also uses and tries to give the true meaning of the Jewish "Oral Law." Thus, it takes elements of Judaism and arranges them according to secret knowledge about the nature of God, good and evil, and the origin and destiny of man. Its adherents believe that they have found enlightenment, even as they live notoriously debased lives.
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Two: Defining Gnosticism
In this first message to mankind, Satan sows seeds of doubt as to whether God can be trusted. Satan's very first words were, "Has God indeed said. . . ?" Spoken or not, this sentiment that God is untrustworthy, and that His Word is suspect, has been a regular feature in mankind's relationship with God ever since.
The Gnostics were no exception—in fact, they are a prime example. In its most basic sense, Gnosticism is knowing, but its knowledge, while sometimes including the Word of God, does not have it as its foundation. Instead, more than what was contained in Scripture, Gnostics valued what they experienced, what elders told them, or what they learned from "angels," astrology, or chemistry (alchemy). Thus, we see elements of Gnosticism in Galatians: a mixture of "lucky days," to which they ascribed spiritual significance (part of their worship prior to conversion) and a belief, brought in by Judaizers or perhaps even an "angel" (Galatians 1:8), that justification could come by works of the law.
Judaism, though it has its roots in the Old Testament, sees God's Word through the lens of Hellenism (Greek thought) and the traditions of Jewish scholars and teachers through the centuries. The Galatian Christians gave God's Word lip service, but did not depend on it as the source of their beliefs and practices. If they had, they would not have returned to pagan "days, months, seasons, and years," nor believed that justification could ever result from good works—a concept that is read into the Old Testament, but not actually found there.
Similarly, the Colossian Christians were affected by an ascetic form of Gnosticism that included "ordinances" (KJV) or "regulations" (NKJV) that are not found in God's Word but were the commandments and doctrines of men (Colossians 2:20-23), as well as demons, the "basic principles of the world" (Colossians 2:8).
This same distrust of God's Word is readily seen in today's Catholicism and Protestantism. The Catholic Church holds that Scripture is only one of three sources from which its dogma is derived—the other two being divine revelation and the writings and traditions of previous Catholic saints. The Bible, while generally utilized as the source of doctrine, can be easily overridden by the words of a Pope or other theologian, living or dead. Once again, human words and traditions are considered more trustworthy than God's.
In some respects, Protestantism has a higher regard for Scripture. However, it, too, accepts the traditions of men in such beliefs as the Trinity, the immortality of the soul, going to heaven, observing Christmas and Easter, and venerating the first day of the week (which the Catholic Church rightly points out makes sense only if one accepts Rome's authority, for there is no scriptural authority for keeping any day holy but the Sabbaths).
Modern Gnostics who believe in "progressive revelation" have also succumbed to this first of Satan's ploys. While God does reveal things to us, the critical point is that what is revealed—if it truly comes from Him—will never contradict what He has already revealed in His Word. "God is not a man, that He should lie" (Numbers 23:19). Yet progressive revelation advocates believe that their revelations are more authoritative than the Bible, rather than complementing and harmonizing with it, making them ripe for satanic influence under the guise of God revealing something new to them. They may sincerely believe that God speaks to them, yet they simultaneously mistrust what He has already said in inspired Scripture. They tend to shy away from Bible study, concluding that they do not need it since God speaks directly to them, and if there is anything important, God will let them know.
Romans 10:17 tells us that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." But Satan knows this too and believes that, if he can undermine the trustworthiness of God and the validity of His Word, he can destroy the faith necessary for salvation. Currently, the Bible's legitimacy is undergoing an intense assault. Due to popular Gnostic writings like the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas, as well as The Da Vinci Code book and movie, many people are questioning why we have the Bible that we do and wondering if something in the ancient apocryphal writings, if it were known, would change Christianity as we know it. Rather than quibbling about this or that point of doctrine, Satan seems to be gunning for the whole package by asserting that the Word of God is subject to the whims of men and thus cannot be trusted. At every turn, faith founded in God's Word is being undermined.
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Three: Satan's Three Heresies
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent told Eve that she could disobey God, and she would not die. Even as that initial deception of mankind concerned death, modern conceptions about death and the afterlife commonly contradict the Bible.
Most professing Christians believe in an immortal soul that lives on beyond death. They believe that if one professed Christ then his soul goes to heaven, but if the dearly-departed did not “get saved” before dying, then his soul goes to an ever-burning hell to be tortured for eternity. This belief, rooted in Gnosticism and even further back in Egyptian and Babylonian mystery religions, proclaims that death really is not death but just part of a mystical journey.
What the Bible teaches is different. The Bible shows that man does not have a soul, but that man is a soul. Man has a spirit, and has a body, but only when God breathed life into Adam did he become a living soul (nephesh; Genesis 2:7, KJV).
Moreover, the Bible states clearly that the soul who sins will die (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). It says that God alone has immortality (I Timothy 6:16), unlike man who must seek it because he does not have it (Romans 2:7). Scripture asserts that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death is not a shedding of the body and a freeing of the soul, as is commonly held, but a complete cessation of existence.
David C. Grabbe
What Is the Second Death?
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
The Devil asserted that by taking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, human eyes would be opened—implying wisdom and enlightenment—to allow a person to know good and evil as God does. Immediately, Satan places the emphasis on knowing, but it is contrasted with living eternally. Satan proposes that mankind should be like God in taking to himself the knowledge—the definition—of what is right and wrong, asserting that this is a good thing! In contrast, the Tree of Life represents a way of living in which the meaning of good and evil already exists, and eternal life involves submitting through the Holy Spirit to that definition and the Sovereign who is its source.
Likewise, the Gnostics are those who know—who pursue mystical knowledge that they believe holds the key to eternal life through advancing beyond the physical and into the spiritual realm. Gnostics believed the key to eternal life was contained in right interpretation—knowledge—of those esoteric sayings.
The book of Revelation expounds on the Tree of Life in two places:
· To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)
· Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into [New Jerusalem]. (Revelation 22:14)
The Tree of Life, then, is associated with a way of life—one that requires overcoming (growth against a standard of righteousness) and keeping (doing) God's commandments. The only ones who are allowed to partake of the Tree of Life are those who have changed themselves (with God's help, by His Spirit) to begin living in the same manner as He does. To those who submit to His standard of righteousness, then, He grants life that is both endless and of the same quality that He enjoys.
Satan, though, in addition to casting doubt on what God plainly says, and implying that God is unfair by withholding good things, offers a shortcut. He says, "You do not need to follow God's way, for it is obviously unfair and far too stringent. You can follow your own way. You can take knowledge to yourself of what is good and what is evil. You can be just like God in determining what is right and wrong." Adam and Eve took the bait, and ever since, man has rejected God's standard of righteousness in favor of his own.
This heresy is easily seen in the antinomianism (literally, "against law") of the Gnostics, who may not have been against every law, but were certainly against any law that impinged upon their standard of conduct. Thus the ascetic Gnostics who grieved the Christians in Colossae held to manmade regulations of "do not touch, do not taste, do not handle" (Colossians 2:20-21), while rejecting the command to "rejoice" with food and drink during the God-ordained festivals. Similarly, mainstream Christianity will (rightly) use portions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy to point out God's abhorrence of abortion and homosexuality, but will claim that the same law is "done away" when it comes to the Sabbath and holy days. They have taken to themselves the knowledge of what is good and what is evil, establishing their own standard of righteousness.
A core issue of the Bible is whether we submit to God's governance or try to form a government based on our own perception of what is good or what works. God's way results in eternal life, but it comes with the obligation to submit ourselves to God. It requires keeping all of His commandments and overcoming our human weaknesses that do not rise to that standard. Satan, conversely, seeks to persuade us to do our own thing and to usurp God's prerogative in defining right living. He encourages us to be enlightened, to have our eyes opened, by doubting God and rejecting His way.
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Three: Satan's Three Heresies
The idea of inferiority seems to pass to the succeeding empires as well. But in what way was Medo-Persia inferior?
Medo-Persia controlled a larger territory than did Babylon, so it was certainly not inferior in political or military might. Even before the fall of Babylon, Cyrus had defeated the wealthy Croesus, king of Lydia in Asia Minor (546 BC). After victories in central Iran and in Phoenicia, he conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and his son Cambyses overthrew Egypt and Libya in 525 BC. At its height the Persian Empire was nearly double the size of Babylon.
It did, however, have a problem with internal unity. Cyrus, a Persian, initiated the growth of the empire by usurping the Median throne with the help of the Median nobility. The empire, from this point on, was dominated by Persians, or as the Bible says, the "bear . . . was raised up on one side" (Daniel 7:5). The two arms of the image symbolize this division.
Also, each time an emperor died, severe struggles erupted over succession to the throne. Fortunately, mostly strong and capable rulers won these struggles, especially during its first century, and kept the empire whole for over two hundred years. Only the superior might of Alexander's Macedonian army spelled its downfall.
Another factor of its inferiority was, oddly, its rulers. Cyrus, regaled in the Bible as God's "shepherd" and "His anointed" (Isaiah 44:28-45:13), was not the same caliber of man as Nebuchadnezzar. Though he was a humane and conciliatory ruler for his time, he neither lived long enough to stamp his character on his realm (d. 529 BC), nor did he acknowledge God's sovereignty as did his predecessor (Daniel 4:28-37).
In relation to this, the word inferior itself ('ara') means "earth, world, ground." Persia was literally more "earthly" or "worldly" than Babylon in God's eyes. The aims and drives of its kings were, as a whole, of a lower nature than Babylon's, though the latter's were certainly misguided as well. However, the trajectory of this factor in all these kingdoms is, according to the prophecy, downward, and it sinks further with each new empire.
On the other hand, it must be injected here that Cyrus was the instrument that God used to reestablish the Temple in Jerusalem (II Chronicles 36:22-23). The Persians had a general policy to honor the gods of all their defeated enemies by repairing or rebuilding temples and giving offerings to them. This was mainly done to appease the gods "just in case" they had been offended by the subjugation of their peoples, as well as to smooth relations between the Persians and their vassals. Scholars are still divided over whether Cyrus actually meant that the God of Israel was indeed the true God and thus his sovereign Lord. Most think he did not because decrees to other nations have been found in which similar language is used.
Unlike the Babylonians, the Persian Empire centered squarely on its military and political bases rather than its religious, cultural, or economic life. Historians consider the Persian imperial political structure and administrative forms to be the finest example of government before the Roman period. In fact, they think that the Romans borrowed Persian ideas in forming their own. This meant that the real basis of power in the empire was the army, even above that of the king, although the king supposedly controlled the army.
The religion of the Persians was Zoroastrianism, a dualistic belief in good and evil and man's struggle between them. Although it was less bloody, warlike, idolatrous, and superstitious than other polytheistic religions of the region, it retained vestiges of ancient beliefs that eventually supplanted it. The cults of Mithra, the sun god, and Anaita, the goddess of fertility—similar to Nimrod/Tammuz and Semiramis, the old Babylonian Mystery Religion—grew in popularity until Zoroastrianism faded into obscurity. But its principle of dualism lived on in Gnosticism and the mystery religions of the Roman Empire. Some of these beliefs and practices (such as Mithra's birthday, December 25; Sunday as a holy day; All Soul's Day; and heaven, hell and purgatory) were later embraced by Catholicism to counter the popularity of these cults.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Nebuchadnezzar's Image (Part Two): Chest and Arms of Silver
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)
A clue to the "Nicolaitanism" that Christ hates so vehemently (Revelation 2:6,15) is the lone occurrence of the name "Nicolas" here. It appears in the section describing the dispute between the Hebrews and the Hellenists over the neglect of the latter's widows. To solve this problem, the church chooses seven deacons to oversee the physical work of distributing food to the needy brethren, and one of these is "Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch."
Again, this description provides the most meager of hints about the man but enough to propose some conclusions. Nicolas is a Hellenist, meaning primarily that he spoke Greek, but probably also suggesting that he possessed a Greek education. As such, "they [the 'Hellenists'] maintained a more liberal outlook than the 'Hebrews,' including the apostles" (F.F. Bruce, New Testament History, p. 219), especially regarding keeping the law. This "liberal outlook" toward the law later formed the heart of the debate at the Council of Jerusalem in AD 49 (Acts 15).
That Luke calls him a proselyte tells us that he is a Gentile who converted to Judaism before his calling to Christianity. Becoming a proselyte required a Gentile to keep Jewish law in its entirety, undergo circumcision, be baptized, and make a special sacrifice at the Temple. This rigorous process indicates that Nicolas must also have been quite devout and dedicated in his beliefs. The church's choice of him as one of the first deacons reveals he likely possessed standout natural abilities and leadership qualities, as well as fulfilling the apostles' qualifications of being "of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" (Acts 6:3).
The last tidbit of information is that he is from Antioch, the largest city and capital of the Roman province of Syria. The city's residents—Greeks, Macedonians, Syrians, Jews, Romans, and others—brought to it their own languages, cultures, philosophies, and religions. F.F. Bruce writes, "Its cosmopolitan population and material wealth provided an apt setting for cultural exchange and religious syncretism" (ibid., p. 264). This urban, multicultural, religious mélange formed Nicolas' background.
Unfortunately, it is in the context of syncretism that Nicolas is last mentioned in the post-biblical, historical record. Both Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.26.3; 3.10.6) and Clement of Alexandria (Miscellanies, 3.4.25f) consider Nicolas of Antioch to be the founder of the Gnostic sect known as the Nicolaitans. Another early writer, Hippolytus, adds that Nicolas "departed from sound doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of both life and food" (Refutation of All Heresies, 7.24), meaning he taught the Gnostic belief of the irrelevance of physical things. This reinforces Clement's claim that Nicolas became an ascetic and that his followers later perverted his teachings to encompass idolatry and immorality (2.20.12), becoming what we know as Nicolaitans.
From this information, we can hypothesize the evolution of Nicolaitanism. Roman church historian Eusebius writes that Nicolas himself was a moral man (Ecclesiastical History, 3.29). Though sincere and devout, he came to believe that the only way to grow spiritually was to consider his body and its desires as unimportant. In this way, he could ignore them in favor of spiritual pursuits. His fundamental doctrine appears to have been "the flesh must be treated with contempt."
Over the years, however, this teaching took on a more Gnostic spin: Since the flesh is unimportant, even contemptible, what one does in the flesh is of no consequence. Spiritual life, growth, and ultimately salvation occur in the soul, and since God is spirit, He has no regard for the flesh. Therefore, Nicolaitans reasoned, what does it matter if one satisfies the flesh's desires? At some point in its early history, then, Nicolaitanism evolved from an ascetic philosophy to a licentious one—one that Christ says He hates.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Here is the earliest indication of Gnosticism as a religion—or at least a philosophy, a way of life that eventually became a religion—having an impact on the Christian church. Gnosticism was mystical and charismatic, not rational. Rational means "relating to, based upon, or agreeable to reason." Mystical means "having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence." Gnosticism was ascetic and exclusivist, and it relied heavily on magic.
When these elements are combined with Jewish zeal, a religion was created that undoubtedly appealed to a large segment of the Christian church. Paul goes on to show in the book of Galatians that the primary racial group in the foreground of the book of Galatians are not Gentiles. They were Jews who were practicing Halakah, but who had been heavily influenced by Gnosticism, having made it part of their worship routine, that is, a part of their lives.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 26)
Notice, the Gentile converts to the Christian church would attend services from time to time in the Jewish synagogues. Maybe they were the only places they could attend services, and they would hear the law of Moses preached there. The council at Jerusalem had no problem at all with that!
By the time of Galatians, the Gentiles there were being deceived into accepting a strange mixture of Gnosticism and Judaism as the religion of the New Covenant. These Gnostic Jews defined their relationship with God through the law—but law to them was not the same thing as law to a true, God-fearing Christian. When we think of "law," we immediately think of God's law, perhaps specifically the Ten Commandments or generally the Pentateuch. Maybe some of us would think of all the instruction of God, which is really what Torah includes. But "law" to the people deceiving the Galatian Christians was Halakha.
This should not seem strange to us because hundreds of millions of people today call themselves "Christian" yet believe that the law is done away. This happens as a result of hearing something said often enough until it is assumed to be true. In the same way, the Jews honestly and sincerely believed that Halakha was the law of Moses.
Just as important to them, however, is that law was their means of election with God—that is, they believed that the very fact that they possessed the law (Halakha), combined with the quality of their law-keeping, motivated God to choose them. This idea, of course, circumvents God's exercise of His sovereignty over His creation, and is thus false.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 25)
2 Corinthians 4:3
Paul claimed the gospel as his or the apostles'. In another place, he puts it more directly, "that if my gospel. . . ." He is saying that he preaches exactly the same message as Jesus Christ did. In other words, there was a clear transference, into Scripture, from the message of Christ to the original twelve and then to Paul (by Christ directly; see the inference in Galatians 1:16). Paul then claims it as his own because it was now in him. He was living it and delivering it—now it was his gospel. When he preached, people were truly converted to the true faith.
In other places, people like John say basically the same thing, for instance, in I John 1:1-5. He opens the epistle by saying, "This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you" (verse 5). He was speaking either in the royal "we" or including the other apostles as having and preaching the same message. At the time, Gnosticism was devastating the true church because it appealed to the carnality within people, and John was attempting to steer them back to the true gospel.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Wisdom of Men and Faith
Much of the controversy involved in this letter has to do with Gnostic Judaism, which was not the system that God gave to Moses. Judaism was the national religion of the Jews during Christ's and Paul's time, but it had only a very loose basis on the law of the Old Covenant.
Paul refers to the sacrifice of Christ here as a reminder that He fulfilled the sacrificial law—in living a sinless life and then willingly laying it down, He fulfilled the requirements of every sacrificial ordinance, such that the "blood of bulls and goats" was no longer required in a physical sense. Fulfillment does not equal absolution, however; James 2:8 shows that when we "fulfill" the royal law according to Scripture, we are doing what is right, and there is no way to stretch this into saying that we each individually do away with the law. In Matthew 5:17, Christ shows that fulfilling is the opposite of destroying. Christ's fulfilling of the Law and the Prophets is to be an example for us to follow (Galatians 6:2; Colossians 1:25; II Thessalonians 1:11; James 2:8).
The "world" being referred to here is the Greek aion and means "age"—a time period. The "present evil world" or "present evil age" which we need to be delivered from by God could be a reference to the strong influence the Jews had on the Galatians, as well as the Jews' wish to bind them (the Galatians) to the traditions and ordinances they had added to God's instruction, which He calls "burdens" elsewhere (Matthew 23:4; Acts 15:10).
David C. Grabbe
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
The word translated here "foolish" means unintelligent or unwise, and by implication sensual. This implication is very interesting when considered in light of what the letter to the Galatians is fundamentally about: The Galatians were trying to use the rites and ceremonies and physical requirements of Gnostic Judaism to "work" their way into God's Kingdom. Their emphasis was on what they were doing, rather than on God's work in them. Their focus was on things dealing with the senses; things that would be, by definition, sensual—not in terms of being sexual or provocative, but rather indicating the emphasis on the physical senses.
This word (anoeetoi—Strong's #453) is a derivative of a negative particle and noeo (Strong's #3539), which means to exercise the mind, observe, to comprehend, heed, consider, perceive, think, or understand. So the word foolish is the opposite (because of the negative an) of all these things. The Galatians, then, were not exercising their minds; they were unobservant, uncomprehending, unheeding, inconsiderate, imperceptive, non-thinking, and non-understanding. They were not thinking things all the way through, and not fully considering all of the aspects of the way they were living. They were unable to see that their ideas and views did not add up—that there were some obvious gaps in their understanding that had brought them to the condition they were in.
Paul here is continuing with a theme from Galatians 1:4-9—namely, that the Galatians were falling away ("so soon removed") from the original teaching that had been given to them by God through His human servants. The very foundation of the New Covenant with God is that we can build a relationship with God directly—because of the sacrifice of Christ. For them even to make the covenant with God properly, it was a requirement that they understand that justification by means of a sinless sacrifice was the only way it is possible for us to come into God's presence! Our own righteousness is as "filthy rags" in comparison to God's; our works simply do not amount to enough to even out the scales. But this does not negate the necessity of working! The Galatians' problem was that they thought their personal righteousness was sufficient—and if that was the case, then truly there was no need for Christ to die.
Paul refers to the Galatians being "bewitched." This word means "to malign," or "to fascinate by false representation." The Galatians were drawn in—their fascination was piqued by these Jewish and Gnostic ideas. It did not take long for them to begin slipping spiritually, and a large part of this was because of their misplaced faith. They had more faith in themselves, in their own works, to save them than they had in Christ's crucifixion, resurrection, and intercession! They did not see or know God clearly enough, and the absence of Him in their lives created a void that was quickly and easily filled by these false ideas.
This is the only place in the New Testament where this word ("bewitched") is used (Strong's #940), but numerous other verses speak of this principle. Paul is speaking of this principle when he says in Galatians 1:7-9 not to deviate from this gospel message even if an "angel" from heaven gave them different instructions! The Galatians were weak enough in the faith that they could be easily deceived and drawn away if one of Satan's angels were to appear before them.
Matthew 24:24 speaks of false Christs—false ideas, pictures, impressions about Christ—arising, as well as false prophets, who will be able to manifest terrific signs and wonders to the extent that even the elect of God could be deceived. This is why we have to have such a concrete picture in our minds of what "Christ" is comprised of so that when we begin to hear about or see miraculous things, our faith will not be shaken as the Galatians' was.
David C. Grabbe
The "days and months and seasons and years" of verse 10 do not refer to God's holy days, but rather to pagan, Gentile holidays that the Galatians observed before conversion in service to "those which by nature are not gods," as verse 8 says.
This, in turn, reinforces our understanding of "the elements of the world" in verse 3. It clearly does not say "the elements of God." Just like in Colossians 2, the "elements of the world" are clearly identified as being demons—personal powers that are capable of being worshipped. We are not dealing with something from God. However, they are elements, foundations, of the world.
A second important facet is that verse 3 mentions being "in bondage," that is, we were enslaved to the elements of the world. Bondage suggests something difficult to be borne, of oppression, of captivity, of withholding liberty. Notice James 2:11-12:
For He [God] who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.
Consider this in relation to the bondage of Galatians 4:3. It puts these two concepts into direct opposition. There is a great difference between bondage and liberty; they are, in this sense, mutually exclusive. Galatians 4 is not talking about the law of God being a means of bondage.
Similarly, I John 5:3 says, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome." Bondage is grievous, but keeping of God's law is not. Bondage gives a person difficulty, but keeping the commandments do not, for they are a law of liberty. Keeping God's commandments is freeing, liberating. It is not a burden. Love is never a burden but always supports, frees, and liberates.
It becomes very clear that the "elements of the world" and "bondage" of Galatians 4:3 do not refer to the law of God, nor does verse 10.
Judaism, though it was a very poor interpretation of God's Word, did at least have some basis in the Old Testament. When people read the book of Galatians and see all these references to "law" and "bondage," they immediately assume that Paul is speaking about Judaism. Indeed, Judaism is part of the picture, but not all of it. We can prove this from verse 9: "How is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements. . . ?" It would be about as close to blasphemy as one could get if a person—in this case, God's apostle—were to call something that God gave, intended to be good and liberating, "weak and beggarly" and tending to "bondage"!
Thus, the "days and months and seasons and years" is not something Paul wrote in reference to the law of God or even to Judaism. Instead, they are something apart from both of them.
Though Judaism is clearly within the context of Galatians, so also is pagan Gnosticism—which wormed its way into the church primarily through people in the area becoming members of the church, and through church members' contacts with friends outside of the church. We can tell from books like I, II, and III John that Gnosticism eventually grew to dominate the church of God in Asia Minor.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 24)
The common, traditional explanation of Galatians 4:9-10 is that Paul is reprimanding the Galatians for returning to Old Testament observances that were a form of "bondage." Insisting that Paul taught that the Old Testament law was "done away" (Colossians 2:14), they conclude that Christians should not keep the days that God had commanded Israel to keep. In verse 10, Paul mentions observances of "days and months and seasons and years." Some contend that these observances refer to God's Sabbath and holy days commanded in the Old Testament. But this interpretation overlooks many foundational points.
Galatia was not a city but a province in Asia Minor. The church membership was undoubtedly composed mainly of Gentiles, and the males were physically uncircumcised (Galatians 5:2; 6:12-13). In looking at Paul's initial dealings with these people, we find that they had a history of worshiping pagan deities. In Lystra, a city in Galatia, God healed a crippled man through Paul (Acts 14:8-18). The people of the area were so astonished at this miracle that they supposed Barnabas and Paul, whom they called Zeus and Hermes (verse 12), to be pagan gods! They wanted to sacrifice to them, and would have, if the apostles had not stopped them (verses 13-18). This shows that the people in Galatia were generally superstitious and worshiped pagan deities.
The major theme of the Galatian epistle is to put them "back on the track" because someone had been teaching "a different gospel," a perversion of the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:6-7). The Galatians had derailed on their understanding of how sinners are justified. False teachers in Galatia taught that one was justified by doing physical works of some kind. The majority of evidence indicates that the false teachers were teaching a blend of Judaism and Gnosticism. The philosophy of Gnosticism taught that everything physical was evil, and that people could attain a higher spiritual understanding through effort. It was the type of philosophy that its adherents thought could be used to enhance or improve anyone's religion. In Paul's letter to the Colossians, we read of this same philosophy having an influence on the church there. It was characterized by strict legalism, a "taste not, touch not" attitude, neglect of the body, worship of angels, and a false humility (Colossians 2:18-23).
What, then, were the "days, months, seasons and years" that Paul criticizes the Galatians for observing? First, Paul nowhere in the entire letter mentions God's holy days. Second, the apostle would never refer to holy days that God instituted as "weak and beggarly elements." He honored and revered God's law (Romans 7:12, 14, 16). Besides, he taught the Corinthians to observe Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread (I Corinthians 5:7-8), and he kept the Sabbath and holy days himself (Acts 16:13; 18:21; 20:6; I Corinthians 16:8).
When the scriptures in question are put into context, the explanation of what these days were becomes clear. In Galatians 4:1-5, Paul draws an analogy in which he likens the Jew to a child who is waiting to come into an inheritance and the Gentile to a slave in the same household. He explains how, before the coming of Christ, the spiritual state of the Jew was no different from the Gentile because neither had had their sins forgiven nor had they received God's Spirit. Prior to the coming of Christ, both Jews and Gentiles were "in bondage under the elements of the world" (verse 3).
The word "elements" is the Greek stoicheion, which means any first thing or principle. "In bondage under the elements of the world" refers to the fact that the unconverted mind is subject to the influence of Satan and his demons, the rulers of this world and the authors of all idolatrous worship. Satan and his demons are the origin, the underlying cause, of the evil ways of this world, and all unconverted humans are under their sway. "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Romans 8:7). Paul is saying that both Jews and Gentiles had been in bondage to sin.
In Galatians 4:8, Paul brings up the subject of the idolatry and paganism that they had participated in before their conversion. "But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods." This obviously refers to the worship of pagan deities (Acts 14:8-18). He is making it clear that God had called them out of that way of life. Paul continues this thought in verse 9, where his obvious concern was that the Galatians were returning to the way of life from which God had called them. The "weak and beggarly elements" were demon-inspired, idolatrous practices, NOT something God had commanded. "Elements" here is the same word, stoicheion, translated "elements" in verse 3. An extension of stoicheion can refer to the heavenly bodies that regulate the calendar and are associated with pagan festivals. The apostle condemns the practices and way of life that had been inspired by Satan and his demons, the principal cause of all the world's evil. Paul recognized that the Galatians had begun to return to their former slavish, sinful practices.
It is evident that the "days, months, seasons and years" Paul refers to in verse 10 were the pagan, idolatrous festivals and observances that the Galatian Gentiles had observed before their conversion. They could not possibly be God's holy days because these Gentiles had never observed them before being called, nor would Paul ever call them "weak and beggarly." Rather, they were turning back to their old, heathen way of life that included keeping various superstitious holidays connected to the worship of pagan deities.
Far from doing away with God's holy days, these scriptures show that we should not be observing "days, months, seasons and years" that have their roots in paganism, such as Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, Halloween, and any other days that originated from the worship of pagan gods.
Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
Does Paul Condemn Observing God's Holy Days?
Abraham actually had more sons through Keturah, but for the purposes of Paul's allegory, he focuses on Ishmael, the son through Hagar, and Isaac, the son of promise through Sarah.
Given that the false teachers were trying to convince the Galatians to turn to a Gnostic form of Judaism, Abraham would have been a character who would have been highly respected in their eyes (the Jews in Jesus' time trusted in descent from Abraham for salvation). Paul uses the example of Abraham throughout this epistle because he (Abraham) simultaneously served as someone that they would have looked up to, as well as a testament that they (the Galatians) were approaching this the wrong way—different from the way Abraham did.
Physical descent does not matter as far as the spiritual promises are concerned; Christ castigated the Jews for thinking that they could rely on being physical descendants of Abraham as a means of gaining favor with God. Christ showed that where it really counted was in behaving like Abraham—which the Jews did not.
Paul, in an attempt to help the Galatians to understand the covenants, is likening the Old Covenant to being born to a "bondmaid" (a female slave or servant) while the New Covenant is compared to being born of a "freewoman" (someone who is a citizen; unrestrained; not a slave; exempt from liability; at liberty). The carnal mind, as described by Romans 8:7, leaps to the conclusion that the New Covenant gives freedom from the confines of law, while the Old Covenant keeps one in bondage to a set of archaic rules. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The apostle James twice refers to the law as the "law of liberty" (James 1:25; 2:12). He could do this because when God was giving the Ten Commandments to Israel, He prefaced them with the declaration, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). This—bringing Israel out of bondage—set the context, the foundation, for the giving of the law. Clearly, it is not God's definition of right and wrong that keeps us in bondage; the law was given as a guide to the right way to live. The "bondage" that we are subject to derives from Satan (Ephesians 2:1-3; 6:12; II Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9), this world (Exodus 6:5-8; Deuteronomy 5:6), sin (John 8:33-36), and our own human nature—our carnal mind and heart. Our bondage is to sin (John 8:33-34)—not to God's definition of it.
The Old Covenant did not provide a way to overcome these things. Even though the Old Covenant included God's royal law of liberty, it had no provision for ever truly escaping the clutches of sin. God's law, which is also a part of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:7-12; Jeremiah 31:31-34), merely defines what sin is, so that one may avoid it (Romans 3:20; 4:14-15; 5:13; 7:7, 12, 14). It neither enslaves, nor frees. The Old Covenant—the agreement, rather than the law that was its core—provided no means for overcoming the evil heart of unbelief (Hebrews 3:12, 19; 8:7-8), and so Paul compares it to a bondwoman. In verse 24 he says that it "engenders"—gives birth to—bondage. He does not mean that the agreement between God and Israel was bondage, nor that God's definition of right and wrong keeps people in slavery, but rather that the temporary covenant made no provision for true spiritual freedom. It "gave birth to" bondage because, without addressing the incurable sickness of the heart, the only possible outcome was human degeneration back into the bondage from which they had been freed.
The New Covenant addresses these problems:
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them [the weakness was with the people, not the agreement or the law], He says: "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more." (Hebrews 8:7-12; see Jeremiah 31:31-34)
The New Covenant allows God's way of life (law) to be internalized (put into the mind and heart). It allows for a personal relationship with God, rather than going through an intermediary. It allows for complete forgiveness of sins through repentance and accepting the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
In another place, God promises,
Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
Through the justification and forgiveness of sins available under the New Covenant, it is possible for the heart to be changed, and for human nature, which drives us to sin, to be overcome. Thus, true spiritual freedom is offered under the New Covenant, while absent under the Old.
David C. Grabbe
This verse appears in the middle of a longish introductory sentence by which the apostle Paul lays the groundwork for his appeal to the members of the church at Colossae, an appeal that he does not voice until chapter 2. The problem facing this young church in Phrygia was that they were in danger of being "cheat[ed] . . . through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8). In other words, conditions were such that they were showing signs of believing ungodly ideas promoted by outsiders. As a careful study of the phrase "the basic principles of the world" reveals, these ideas or philosophies had their origins in demons.
As he begins his letter, the apostle wishes to assure the Colossians that word had reached his ears that, despite their vulnerabilities to deception, they were faithful to their calling in Christ and that it was demonstrated in acts of love that they performed to benefit their fellow church members. Thus he lets them know in verse 3 that he always prays for them and thanks God for them. This should have the effect of building their confidence that their election by God was genuine and that they could rely on divine help and strength to face the spiritual battles that they would soon have to wage against these counterfeit doctrines.
Paul had heard of their situation from a reliable source. Verse 7 informs us that one of his proteges, Epaphras, who originally hailed from Colossae (Colossians 4:12), had been working with them and had given him a report of their progress. Evidently, he told the apostle that elements of the local religious milieu were beginning to become apparent in the ideas he was hearing among members of the congregation.
It is not easy to pin down what the exact problem was. Both Jewish and Greek philosophies can be seen in the language Paul uses to describe the problem. There may be some kind of Jewish mysticism, perhaps even radical apocalypticism, present (Colossians 2:18), and certainly, a form of asceticism is mentioned in Colossians 2:21-23. In areas far from the Temple, Jewish philosophers (like Philo in Alexandria) were mixing Judaism with Greek philosophy, creating a strange hybrid of revealed truth and humanistic "wisdom," syncretism of the worst kind since it contains enough truth to attract a believer and enough error to turn his feet off the path to God's Kingdom. These quasi-spiritual ideas later coalesced into formal Gnosticism in the next century, but at this time, the rudiments of such thought were just beginning to take root in various places—one of which was Colossae.
In any case, Paul opens his letter with positivity and encouragement, letting its recipients know that they already have what it takes to stand firm in the faith. If they keep their eyes on the hope set before them, they will endure even this severe trial.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Gnostics claimed to know more than anybody else; Gnostic means "to know." Gnosticism was the process, or system, of knowing more than anybody else, particularly the "mysteries." However, the word that Paul uses here, translated "knowledge," is epignosis, which means "complete knowledge."
The apostle is saying, then, "Brethren, you already have complete knowledge. These people cannot add anything to you." He is letting them know that they had gone backwards, giving up the riches of the knowledge of God for nothing more than bread crumbs by comparison. By writing in Colossians 2:8, "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy. . . ," he warns them not to allow themselves to be taken captive, like the spoils of war—spiritual war. He did not want them taken captive and enslaved to demon worship through a philosophy that might appear to be enhancing their relationship with God but was really a perversion of the truth.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 21)
Colossians 2:8-10 gives another general definition of Gnosticism, as well as how to combat it. Paul is writing about a philosophy like Stoicism, not a specific religion, such as Judaism. This is important to recognize, since in verse 16, Paul mentions the Sabbath and holy days, and it is commonly assumed that Paul condemns their observance. Yet, he does not - he warns against a philosophy that disparaged the feasting and joyous observance of the Sabbath and holy days. This is why Paul tells the Colossians to "let no one judge you" with regard to eating, drinking, or observing the weekly and annual Sabbaths - rather than what is commonly read into Colossians 2:16: "There is no reason to keep the Sabbath or holy days." Christians in Colossae were being pressured by the ascetic society around them, which would have looked down on their feasting.
This is confirmed in the rest of Colossians 2, which deals primarily with asceticism (see especially Colossians 2:21-23). Some branches of Gnosticism adhered to asceticism as a way to free the eternal spirit by living regimented, plain, and insular lives. (Conversely, some Gnostics went to the other extreme - practicing hedonism - believing that what they did with their bodies did not make any difference since only spirit mattered.)
Paul says that this philosophy and its associated doctrines were plausible, but they were not based on solid arguments. He calls them "vain deceit" (KJV) or "empty deceit" (NKJV). They may sound good, depending upon one's inclination, but they endanger church members. The apostle writes that they would be "spoiled" (KJV), which does not necessarily mean being "corrupted," but rather of being "plundered," hence the NKJV's use of "cheated." This empty philosophy would rob or cheat them of their faith, their hope, their understanding of God, their relationship with God, their vision, and the purpose that God is working out. Once introduced, it would begin to steal away all of their true, spiritual riches.
Paul also provides two possible sources of this unsteady philosophy: "the traditions of men" and the "rudiments of the world." Examining the "rudiments of the world" first will help to explain the traditions of men. Other translations call them the "elements of the world," the "basic principles of the world," or "the powers of the world." In using this term, Paul is referring to the demonic powers that make this world, this cosmos,what it is. The source of this philosophy of salvation through special knowledge is Satan and the demons.
This explains why, when we read the histories of various religions and their branches, the same patterns arise time and again. Man does not have it within himself to pass along accurately and dependably ideas that go back to the very beginning. With an incessant drumming, the powers of the world keep prompting men and women in the same vain deceits that directly contradict the truth about God and His purpose for mankind.
Humans certainly play a role in handing down these traditions. Sunday school teachers and theologians perpetuate the Gnostic myths of the immortality of the soul, of eternal consciousness, of progressive revelation, of each person having a spark of goodness within that just needs to be fanned into a flame, and of each soul or spirit existing before in heaven and returning there upon death. Men pass these traditions on to other men, but the powers of the spirit world keep these messengers on their track and blinded to the truth.
The last phrase in Colossians 2:8 - "not according to Christ" - is a simple one, but it encapsulates what this is all about. Not a single branch of Gnosticism had the truth about Jesus Christ. That knowledge can be found only in God's Word.
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Two: Defining Gnosticism
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 believedthat 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 2:12
At the end of the heretical Gospel of Thomas appears this bizarre statement:
Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven."
If we ever encounter someone who teaches that a woman must become a man to enter God's Kingdom, the source of his doctrine should be apparent!
Ironically, despite this incendiary verse, the modern feminist movement actually leans heavily on various Gnostic texts to substantiate their ideas. While they do not care much for this line in the Gospel of Thomas, they typically pass it off by saying that, as an allegory of the inner transformation every woman must go through in order to find herself, it should not be taken too literally.
However, feminists who try to find their roots in ancient "Christianity" draw heavily upon the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Eve, and the Pistis Sophia (variously translated Faith Wisdom, Wisdom in Faith, Faith in Wisdom or Faith of Sophia—the Gnostic "divine counterpart of Christ"). From these texts springs the idea of the "divine feminine" (or "feminine divine"), and many liberal Christian churches rely on them as historical "proof" of female apostles, supporting the argument that women can and should hold any church position. This is in direct contradiction to the apostle's words in I Timothy 2:12.
Philip Jenkins, in Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, notes: "Gnostic believers practiced 'equal access, equal participation and equal claims to knowledge,' to the extent of allocating clerical functions by lot at their ceremonies" (emphasis ours). This can be seen not only in the ordination of women, but also in the attitude of some Christians who argue that, since "we all have the Holy Spirit," we do not need any authoritative teacher or leader.
Satan convinces those with Gnostic leanings to disparage the God-ordained roles and hierarchy within the church of God (see Ephesians 4:11-16). While this egalitarian idea might appear on the surface to contain utopian goodness, the result is confusion, as doctrine becomes subjected to the lowest common denominator. Not surprisingly, such individuals typically believe that they know better—or more—than the rest of the church and particularly the ministry. God's pattern is to establish doctrine and leadership through those He chooses (see, for instance, I Corinthians 12:18 and I Timothy 2:7).
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part One: False Knowledge
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 andyet 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 1:1-4
Notice the wording carefully. What is it that John says was manifested, that they experienced with their own senses? Eternal life! Eternal life is something that in the biblical sense can be seen and heard. Indeed, the apostles fellowshipped with it in the flesh! In turn, they reported it to us so we can also fellowship with it - though not to the same extent and in the same manner as they did.
Of course, John is speaking of witnessing and fellowshipping with that kind of life as exemplified in Jesus Christ. Verse 3 is the specific purpose statement of this epistle of I John: to proclaim the reality of God's eternal life as revealed in Jesus Christ.
When John wrote this epistle, the Gnostic heresy was rising in the church. We should note that John's method of countering it is highly subjective, that is, the epistle has many references to the first-person pronouns "I" and "we." The apostle uses the weight of his personal experience witnessing this life to combat the heresies of the Gnostics.
He says the life we witnessed "was from the beginning"; it is the original manner of living. It is the ultimate reality of how to live. This kind of life is not subject to change, whether over time or from culture to culture. The ultimate reality is God - in this case Jesus Christ in the flesh, who is God - and He changes not.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Elements of Motivation (Part Six): Eternal Life
1 John 3:4
In this seemingly straightforward verse, God defines sin (hamartia) as anomia, rendered "lawlessness" (NKJV, RSV, NIV, REB, NAS) or "the transgression of the law" (KJV). Other translations use the words "evil" (Peshitta), "a breaking of God's law" (Phillips) and "iniquity" (Diaglott). The Greek word anomia literally means "being without law." To get a sense of what John writes, we can express it as, "Whoever does hamartian also does anomian, and hamartia is anomia."
The King James and Phillips versions imply that sin is strictly the breaking of God's law, whereas the other translations consider it more generally. However we may understand it, John certainly implies God's involvement as both Lawgiver and Judge. God will judge each person according to the standards expressed in His law.
In I John 3:4, John argues against the Gnostic idea that the things done in the body are inconsequential because only the spirit counts. Gnostics following this school of thought often fell into licentiousness. Some in John's area of ministry seem to have believed that they could not sin in their flesh. Since their flesh, matter, was ultimately evil anyway, it could not be redeemed and was worthless. Thus, they concluded, anything done in the flesh had no bearing on one's salvation.
They played a semantic game with the words hamartia (sin) and anomia (lawlessness). They considered hamartia to identify the transgressions of moral law, particularly sins of the flesh, such as sexual immorality, gluttony, drunkenness, and stealing. Anomia, however, categorized sins of the spirit, like rebellion, pride, vanity, and greed—the sins that Satan committed. They believed God, the eternal Spirit, would look the other way if one committed hamartia, but committing anomia put one under judgment.
They also made no connection between them; they did not recognize that one could affect the other. Gnostics would not admit that sins of the flesh had their origins in the mind (James 1:14-15) or that such sins could in turn cause their character, their spirit, to degenerate (Jeremiah 7:24). They saw a total and irreconcilable separation between flesh and spirit.
Thus, John tells them hamartia and anomia are the same; they are both sin! It does not matter to God whether the sin is committed in the flesh or in the spirit—to Him it is sin! If God says not to do something, and we do it, it is sin. He has said not to eat pork and shellfish; if we do, it is sin. He has said not to commit sexual immorality; if we do, it is sin. He has said not to hate our brother; if we do, it is sin. He has said to keep the Sabbath; if we do not, it is sin!
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Sin Is Spiritual!
1 John 4:2-3
The end of the first century witnessed many heretical teachings. One of these heresies, Gnosticism, taught that Jesus Christ was not really a flesh-and-blood human being but a spirit that was manifested as a human being. This was undoubtedly one of the things John was alluding to when he wrote these verses.
However, there is also a deeper meaning to these words that John was inspired to write. The Holy Spirit inspired John to use the Greek perfect participle for the words "has come" in the above verses. The perfect tense implies not only the historical fact of Jesus Christ having been born as a flesh-and-blood human being but also the present continuance of this fact. John is saying that Jesus Christ is still human in the sense that He is living His life over again in human beings who submit to Him through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The message of this scripture is simply this: A teacher is of God if he teaches that Jesus Christ is coming—living His life over again in the flesh of every true, regenerated Christian—and that a Christian must follow Him wherever He leads and emulate Him in every way. But a teacher who teaches that one does not have to follow Christ and that it is not necessary for Christ to live in the flesh of His disciples is not of God. John says that this false teaching stems from the spirit of antichrist (verse 3).
Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
Was Jesus Christ Born Under the Law?
Jude calls these false ministers "dreamers," but this really is a poor translation. It should properly be: "Likewise also these, as a result of dreaming, defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries." Their new beliefs that they teach to the church are based on dreams, on visions, on foolish imaginations of their hearts, and—who knows?—trips on LSD. The basis for their false teachings is from anywhere but from God.
The apostle is pinpointing specific Gnostic beliefs: debauchery, total freedom from authority, and even insulting angels (the literal understanding of "speaking evil of dignitaries." Dignitaries is literally "glorious ones").
Gnostics believed that a person was free to do whatever he wanted, debauch himself to any extent, and God would forgive it, for He is gracious.
They believed that no one had authority over them, that they were free from law, and that they were free from government because they were spiritual. No one, then, could tell them what to do. They had progressed beyond all need for physical law of any type of authority, court, or physical government.
Lastly, they were so self-willed that they would even reject the authority of angels, believing that they were higher than the angels, forgetting or ignoring that Psalm 8:5 and Hebrews 2:7 say that God has left man for a little while lower than the angels. The Gnostics had already exalted themselves above the angels, so they had no fear of speaking evil of them. This put them in an exalted position, and the ideas that lesser humans have to adhere to are below them and thus comtemptible. Being beyond all law and government, they can do whatever they want, and no one can stop them.
It's no coincidence that one of the hallmarks of apostasy today is a total rejection of government. It is the number one problem in the church. No one wants to be governed. Such modern Gnostics say such pious things as, "Only God governs me," which is a false teaching. They have placed themselves above their station, which is exactly what Korah did, as Jude goes on to mention. Since government tends to point out and punish evil doing, these apostates thing that, if they get rid of government and law, they will be free to do whatever they please without any oversight.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
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