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TEXT: I Timothy 6:20-21
SUBJECT: Heresies #2: Gnosticism
Today, with God's help, we'll move on in our study of Heresies. In preparing the series, I first planned to call it Ancient Heresies, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked it because heresies never get old. They are revived, re-named, and re-sold over and over again. If you study the history of the Church-or even read the New Testament-you'll find that today's latest fads are nothing but the same old same old.
Last time, we looked at the first heresy in the Church. Because the first Christians were all Jews, we're not surprised that the first heresy was Judaism, i.e., reading the Bible as though Christ has not come. Thankfully, Paul, Peter, James, and the writer of Hebrews powerfully refuted the heresy, thus keeping the Church from becoming another sect of Judaism.
If the Jews were the first heretics, it wasn't long until the Gentiles joined them in their folly. The second heresy in the Church didn't come from Bible-believing (but wrong-headed) Jews, but from former pagans who now professed faith in Christ.
The name of the heresy is Gnosticism.
Who was the first Gnostic? No one but God knows that. The Church Fathers, however, often blamed the heresy on Simon the Sorcerer. Does the name ring a bell with you? It ought to because he was the man who tried to buy the Holy Spirit in Acts 8. It seems unlikely that Simon founded the religion, but the Fathers were right in identifying his way of thinking with the spirit of gnosticism.
Simon was a Samaritan. The religion of that people was a combination of Judaism and paganism. In the days of the Assyrian Empire, Jews were expelled from Israel and replaced by various peoples from the East. When they got there, they continued worshiping their gods-until the Lord sent lions to gobble them up. Not wanting any more of this, they sent for a Jewish priest to teach them God's way. Which they accepted.sort of. II Kings 17:33 says of them,
"They feared the Lord and served their own gods".
Samaria, then, had a tradition of blending religions. And Simon lived up to his heritage. He was a witchdoctor who had everyone in town calling him, "The Great Power of God". But when he heard Philip preaching Christ, he too, "believed". Before long, Peter and John came up to Samaria, laid hands on the new converts, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. When Simon saw this, he was amazed, and took it to be a magic stronger than his own. He pulled Peter aside and offered to buy the magic, but Peter said,
"Your money perish with you!"
In short, Simon was trying to harmonize the religion of Samaria, witchcraft, and Christianity.
This is the spirit of Gnosticism. The first Gnostics tried to put a little bit of everything in their religion-two cups of Paganism, one cup of Greek philosophy, a dash of Judaism, with Christianity sprinkled on top.
The Roman Empire was ripe for Gnosticism. It was made up of many nations and more religions than you can count. Why not combine them all? It would make everyone happy and offend no one. Sound familiar?
I bet it does.
Hardly anyone today goes by the name, Gnostic. But if you watched TV last week, you saw the spirit of Gnosticism from coast-to-coast and cheered on by everyone from the President to Neil Young to Wendy Tokuda. The 9/11 memorials featured Christians, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, all praying the same god to bless America.
That's the spirit of Gnosticism-and its goal.
Because the Gnostics wanted to combine all faiths into one, they were a little fuzzy on doctrine. But through long and boring research, scholars have pieced together their big ideas. If they sound confusing and bizarre to you it's because they are.
The Gnostics believed in One God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. But this God-they said-did not create the material world and has nothing to do with it-not now and not ever. Thus, the God of the Old Testament is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gnostics believed the earth was created by an evil being called The Demiurge. Because it is wicked, so is every material thing, including the human body.
Because all material things are evil, the Gnostics said, Jesus Christ was never a true man. The body people saw was not really human, but only a receptacle for His Spirit.
Because the Lord was not a real man, the Crucifixion did nothing to save us. No, the Gnostics believed that man is saved by knowledge. Not the knowledge of the Gospel (which can be put down in a material book), but a mystical knowledge of some kind. They thought that through certain practices, and using occult names, and so on, they would come into God or God would come into them or something. This is not easy to explain, but think Star Wars-
"The Force be with you".
If the spirit of a man is good, but his body is bad, then holiness consists of ignoring the body as much as possible. On this point, the Gnostics went in two, very different directions: (1) Some practiced severe self-denial, but (2) others went to the opposite extreme of committing every fleshly sin in the world, because, after all, the body doesn't matter.
If spiritual is good and physical is bad, then there is no resurrection, but heaven is a paradise of Divine souls without bodies.
These are some of the main doctrines of Gnosticism. If you put them together, you find their root: a hatred of creation. If man is a physical creature, then he's not infinite, eternal, or unchangeable. In other words, he's not God. Looked at that way, it occurs to you who is behind Gnosticism-the one who once said,
"You shall be as gods".
In the 1920's J. Gresham Machen published a short book called Christianity and Liberalism. The book had two main points: (1) Liberalism is not a branch of Christianity, but a separate religion, and (2) the Presbyterian, Baptist, and other ministers who taught it were frauds. They swore and were paid to teach one religion, but in fact, they taught another.
Needless to say, this did not go over too well the Liberals of his day. Yet Machen proved that, though they used Christian words (e.g., Christ or salvation) they invested the words with a different meaning. Thus, they were preaching the word, "Christ" but not Christ Himself.
What the Liberals did 80 years ago, the Gnostics did in the First Century-and still do. If you know your Bible at all, you know every Gnostic teaching is diametrically opposed to it. Yet they weren't stupid men, so they used verses that sound Gnostic.
You can imagine the Gnostic preaching saying, "Spiritual things are good and material things are wicked" and then quoting Romans 8:1,
"There is, therefore, no condemnation to those who are
in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but
after the spirit".
Or, maybe he preached on Salvation through knowledge and cited John 17:3,
"This is life eternal, that they may know You,
the only God, and Jesus Christ whom You
The verses they use are inspired by God and true. But they don't mean what the Gnostic said they mean. "Flesh", for example, may mean "body", but that's not what it means in Romans 8:1. There, it is used as the opposite of "The Spirit". But the Spirit there is not man's spirit (or higher part), but the Holy Spirit. Flesh, therefore, stands for man's way of life untouched by the Spirit of God.
The same thing is true of John 17:3. Of course, "knowledge" has a variety of meanings. But here, it is interchangeable with "believing in God and Christ". Thus, it teaches exactly the same thing the rest of the Bible does: Eternal life is received through faith alone.
Every main point of Gnosticism is directly refuted in the New Testament.
It's big idea is all religions are the same. Yet the New Testament plainly and repeatedly says otherwise.
"There is no other name under heaven given among
men whereby we must be saved".
"There is one God and one Mediator between men
and God, the Man Christ Jesus".
"The things the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice
to devils and not to God".
"You turned from your idols to serve the Living
and True God".
They taught the God of the New Testament is different than the God of the Old Testament. Yet Paul never preached this way. Whenever he went into the synagogue, he started with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and worked his way up to that same God raising Christ from the dead!
They said Christ was not a real man. But John who says anyone who teaches that is a deceiver and an antichrist!
They said It doesn't matter what you do with your body. Yet Paul says it does-because
"Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit".
They said torture your body to achieve enlightenment. But Paul says these things have no saving effect, but are nothing but self-willed worship and false humility.
They say heaven is without the body, but the Lord said,
"Concerning the resurrection, the dead do rise".
Paul adds to deny that is to overthrow the faith-even if it's done in the name of Christ and to further man's spirit.
THE GNOSTICS TODAY
The Gnostics were condemned in the Early Church, defrocked from the ministry and excommunicated from the churches. The best known Gnostic was Marcion, whose own father excommunicated him for heresy-and good for him!
The name has mostly died out, but the ideas live on in various ways and in places you might not expect.
The most obvious example is The New Age Movement championed by people like Hillary Clinton, Shirley McLaine, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Carlos Santana. You might say they're all stupid-and they are--but they have a big influence on millions of people. You know you're listening to a New Age Gnostic when you hear things like:
But the New Age Gnostics are not the only kind-and for us, they're not the most dangerous either. I see traces of Gnosticism among many Calvinists. Two examples:
If the Jews first brought heresy into the Church, it wasn't long before the Gentiles did the same. They had their Judaism; we had our Gnosticism. Both were wicked and if they hadn't been stopped, either would have wrecked the Church.
The cure for either is very simple to state-though not so easy to implement. Just remember that Christianity is not made better by adding things to it, but worse. Thus, we have to take the faith as originally given and be satisfied with it. If adding the Mosaic Law to the Gospel made it worse, then adding pagan speculations to the Word has the same effect.
"Add not to His Word, lest He reprove you,
and you be found a liar".
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