Before the Bible student can effectively understand the contextual interpretation of several passages in the Gospel of John, Colossians, Acts, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 & 2 & 3 John; he must understand something of the heresy of Gnosticism (nos´ti-siz-em) against which was partially the purpose for the writing of these epistles. The books of Colossians and 1 John are particularly strong in their refutation of the errors of the Gnostic heresy. A couple of illustrations of the need to understand this heresy to interpret scripture will be dealt with later in this study.
This will not be an exhaustive handling of the subject, but it will cover the salient provisions of the aberrant theology of Gnosticism so that the Bible student may arrive at the intended meaning of various scriptural passages within the above listed books of the Bible.
This writer confers credit to the following commentaries, bibles and books, from which, he has drawn much of the material in this presentation:
Gnosticism was (and is) a religious movement that employed the concepts of (1) dualism (consisting of two parts), the material and the spiritual and (2) syncretism (singÆkri tizÅÃm—the attempted reconciliation or union of opposing principles or elements) that spread throughout the ancient Near East immediately before and after the time of Christ.
Efforts have been made to trace Gnosticism to Iranian, Greek or Egyptian sources, but most historians hold that the movement arose in a Judeo-Christian environment. This view is widely accepted because of the large number of Semitic names, idioms, and ideas appearing in early Gnostic works. Various sects, from the extreme ascetic to the extreme libertine, have existed down through the ages—Valentinians, Sethites (who worshiped Seth), Ophites or Naasenes (who worshiped the serpent), Barbelo-Gnostics, Marcionites, Simonians, Carpocratians, Paulicians, Phibionites and Perataes.
Prior to 1955 the Gnostics were known mainly through (1) the descriptions of their doctrines and practices in the works of the early Church Fathers, chiefly Irenaeus, Hippolytus and Epiphanius; and (2) the surviving Gnostic literature in Codex Brucianus (two books of Jeu and an untitled work), and in Codex Askewianus (Pistis Sophia). Eventually, several other documents were discovered and/or made available—the Gospel of Mary, the Apocryphon of John, the Wisdom of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Truth, the Epistle of Rheginos, the Gospel of James, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Hypostasis of the Archons.
Several of these works purport to contain additional revelations and teachings of Christ and the apostles, none of which have stood the test of divine authorship and have never been confirmed as such.
Rituals and Traditional Practices
Little is known about the ritual or cultic practices of the Gnostics. The Gospel of Philip seems to indicate that its readers practiced five sacraments: baptism, sealing, eucharist, chrism (anointing with olive oil), and bridal chamber (all except the last are found in orthodox Christianity). Gnostics ran the gamut regarding behavior, from extreme asceticism (austere life of self-denial) to extreme libertine (morally unrestrained), both extremes based upon the belief that the body was essentially evil.
Although a variety of beliefs may be traced to the different sects under the umbrella of Gnosticism, the prominent doctrines of the “Great Gnostic” sects, in variant forms, presented the following basic ideas:
In brief, unlike the Judaizers (another heretical sect) who taught that Christianity was a synthesis (combining) between the legalistic keeping of the law and faith in Christ, the Gnostics taught that Christ was a pantheistic (of nature) emanation, lower than God, who only seemed to appear in the flesh. To the Gnostic all matter or material was essentially evil, and since Christ was an emanation and not evil, He could not have taken on human flesh. Gnostics firmly denied the Incarnation of Christ, stating that He was only an apparition (immaterial appearance) who left no footprints.
The Gnostic Cerinthus was more subtle in his teaching. He declared that there was both a human Jesus and a divine Christ, that divinity came upon Him at His baptism and left Him at the cross. In fact, the Gospel of Peter, a spurious book, translates the words of Jesus on the cross like this: “My power, my power, why hast thou forsaken me?”
The Believer’s Bible Commentary by William MacDonald, in its introduction to 1 John, expresses Gnosticism quite well, as follows:
At the time John was writing, a false sect had arisen which became known as Gnosticism (Gk. “gnosis” = knowledge). These Gnostics professed to be Christians but claimed to have “additional knowledge,” superior to what the apostles taught. They claimed that a person could not be completely fulfilled until he had been initiated into their deeper “truths.” Some taught that matter was evil, and that therefore the Man Jesus could not be God. They made a distinction between Jesus and the Christ. “The Christ” was divine emanation which came upon Jesus at His baptism and left before His death, perhaps in the Garden of Gethsemane. According to them, Jesus “did” die, but the Christ did “not” die. They insisted, as Michael Green put it, that “the heavenly Christ was too holy and spiritual to be soiled by permanent contact with human flesh.” In short, they denied the Incarnation, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Jesus Christ is both God and Man.
Coupled with the denial of the Incarnation and deity of Christ, the Gnostics denied the vicarious (substitutional) death of Christ on the cross of Calvary. To the Gnostics, not only could Christ not have taken on evil human flesh, but as a divine being, He could not have taken on sin for any purpose. Therefore the Gnostic denied that God through Christ paid the penalty-price for the sin of man by means of His spiritual death on the cross of Calvary; rather, they held Christ up as a divine teacher and it was through His teachings and revelations that man was to evolve intellectually into a higher state of self-awareness, which was man’s salvation.
With this understanding of the heresy of Gnosticism, and realizing that much of the purpose of John’s writings were intended to correct such false beliefs, several passages that have been difficult for Christians to interpret, become clear. For instance, consider the following passages in the book of 1 John:
1 John 4:1-3 (“Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.
Why is John in this epistle stressing that the admission that Christ has come in the flesh is evident that a spirit (and in this case one may interpret spirit as a person’s spirit) is either of (representing) or not of God? It is because of the Gnostics and their incessant teaching that God could not have come in the flesh, which is a key element of Christian doctrine.
1 John 5: 6-8 (“by water and blood”)
This is He who came by water and blood--Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.
Here again, it is appropriate to include the commentary on these verses by William MacDonald of the Believer’s Bible Commentary, whose comments say it about as well as this writer can find and indeed express this writer’s position:
He says, “This is He who came by water and blood.” A great deal of discussion has arisen over the meaning of these words. Some feel that the “water and blood” refer to that which flowed from the Savior’s side (John 19:34). Others feel that the “water” refers to the Spirit of God and that the “blood” refers to the blood shed on Calvary. Still others believe it is a reference to natural birth, where “water and blood” are present. We would like to suggest a fourth interpretation that takes particular account of the Gnostic heresy which the apostle is seeking to combat in this Epistle.
As mentioned earlier, the Gnostics believed that Christ came upon Jesus at His baptism and left Him before His passion, namely in the Garden of Gethsemane. In other words, they would say, “The Christ did not die on the cross, but Jesus the man died.” This, of course, robs His work of any atoning value for the sins of others. We suggest that John is using “water” as an emblem of Jesus’ baptism and “blood” as a symbol of His atoning death. These were the two terminals of His public ministry.
John is saying that Jesus was just as much the Christ when He died on the cross as when He was baptized in the Jordan. “This is He who came by water and by blood—not only by water” (which the Gnostics would concede), “but by water and by blood.” It seems that the human heart is perpetually trying to rid itself of the doctrine of the atonement. Men would like to have the Lord Jesus as a perfect Man, the ideal Example, who has given us a marvelous code of morals. But John here insists that the Lord Jesus is not only Perfect Man, but Perfect God also, and that the same One who was baptized in the Jordan River gave His life as a sacrifice for sinners. Men say to Christ, “Come down from the cross and we will believe on You.” If they can just eliminate the cross from their thinking, they will be happy. But John says, “No. You cannot have the Lord Jesus Christ apart from His perfect redemptive work at Calvary.”
“It is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth.” This means that the Holy Spirit of God always testifies to the truth concerning the Lord Jesus which John has been unfolding. He bears witness that Christ came not with water only, but with “water” and with “blood,” because this is the truth of God.
It always disturbs some devout Christians to learn that parts of verses 7, 8, as found in the KJV and NKJV, are actually found in only a handful of Greek manuscripts of the NT. But this does not at all affect the truth of the inspiration of the Scriptures. Some people think it is important to retain the words because they mention the three Persons of the Trinity. However, the truth of the Trinity does not depend on this passage alone, but is found in many other portions of the Scriptures.
Having stated in the previous verses the Person and work of Christ, John now goes on to state the trustworthiness of our belief in Him. He says that “there are three that bear witness (the words “in earth” should not be included), the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.” Although the word of God should be sufficient for us, as a basis of faith, He condescends to give us a threefold witness concerning the truth. First of all, “the Spirit” of God bears witness to the truth that Jesus Christ is God and that He is the only Savior of the world. The witness of the Spirit is found in the written Word of God.
Then there is the witness of “the water.” We believe that this refers to what happened at the baptism of the Lord Jesus. At that event, God opened the heavens and publicly proclaimed, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Thus God the Father added His own witness to God the Spirit concerning the Person of Christ.
Finally, there is the witness of “the blood.” On the cross, the Lord Jesus bore witness concerning Himself that He was the Son of God. No one took His life from Him; He laid it down by Himself. If He were a mere man, He could not have done this. The “blood” of the Lord Jesus Christ witnesses that the sin question has been settled once and for all to the satisfaction of God. All “these three” witnesses “agree as one.” That is, they are united in the testimony concerning the perfection of the Person and work of Christ.
The Bible student can see that it is only by knowing what John is attempting to correct, the heresy of Gnosticism, is it then possible to derive the correct interpretation of these two passages in 1 John. But aside from these, the student of the Bible can be certain there are other passages in the Bible which become much clearer by understanding the doctrine of and struggle against Gnosticism in the early Church.