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False Christs and the True
One of the fiercer debates among early adherents of Christianity centered on the person of Jesus Christ Himself. Various groups held widely divergent views on just who He was. In ignorance or in stubborn refusal to accept the testimony of the apostles, first-century groups from Alexandria to Antioch began to teach a slew of different Christs. In Galatians 1:6-7, only two decades removed from Jesus' death on Golgotha, Paul warns the church against false gospels, perversions of the message preached by Jesus and His apostles. Many of these false Christianities became apostate in large part because they changed the teaching about Jesus Christ Himself.
These different Jesuses came in various forms. Some denied His pre-existence, teaching that He was simply a righteous man whom God accepted and glorified as the Messiah. Others advocated a Jesus who was the first creation of God. Early Gnostics of the Docetist persuasion conceived of Jesus as a normal man whom a spirit, Christ, inhabited upon His baptism—and who left Him to return to a pure spirit form before His suffering on the cross. Similarly, others thought of Him as only coming in the appearance of a man of flesh and blood, while in actuality He was of pure spirit essence, not even making footprints when He walked! An element among the Jews, eager to dissociate themselves from Him, even spread the rumor that they had it on good authority that He was really the bastard son of a Roman soldier, so how could He be the Messiah, much less divine?
This proliferation of false Christs became so widespread that by the end of the first century, the aged John son of Zebedee was forced to lay down an unambiguous rule to help the church recognize true from false: "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" (I John 4:2-3). He then proceeds to say that this perversion of Jesus' true nature "is the spirit of the Antichrist." In other words, changing the revealed truth about Christ changes Christianity, turning it against (anti-) Christ. By teaching falsehood about the Savior, no matter how sincerely, a group becomes His enemy.
Over the centuries since, Christian theologians and scholars have tried to figure out—even in some cases, to quantify—Jesus and His nature, and it has led to little more than continuing confusion about Him. The real cause of the confusion is that these very intelligent and devoted people have not truly accepted the revelation of Jesus in Scripture. Instead, they have trusted more in scholarship and their own abilities to reason out an answer.
During one of His encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus tells them, "Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word" (John 8:43, emphasis ours). These Jews could not understand or believe the truth Jesus taught because they were not spiritually equipped to handle it. Even Jesus' own disciples could not really understand Him until "He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). As Paul explains in I Corinthians 2:10-11, 14:
Human conceptions of Christ are not enough; the real Jesus Christ of Nazareth must be revealed by God's Spirit through the Scriptures.
The New Testament, of course, presents Jesus Christ primarily in the four gospels, giving us four slightly different perspectives—eyewitness accounts—of Him and His ministry. Each author presents Him in a different manner, with a different intention, and to a different audience. In aggregate, they display a complete, rounded portrait of His personality, message, and purpose.
Matthew writes to a predominantly Jewish audience with the aim of persuading them that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, the true heir of David and King of Israel. He tends to emphasize Jesus' authority and fulfillment of prophecy.
Mark, a protégé of Peter, produces perhaps the simplest gospel, a fairly straightforward account of Christ's ministry. He highlights Jesus as the Servant of God, working steadily and diligently on behalf of mankind—all the way to His suffering and death and beyond.
Luke, the longtime companion of Paul, addresses a mostly Gentile audience. Downplaying Jesus' Jewish origins, he presents Jesus as the model Man, the greatest Son of Adam—in fact, the Second Adam—who came to save the whole world from its sins and to found a new, better world, the Kingdom of God.
Finally, John, writing last of all during a time of increasing apostasy, pens his gospel directly to the mature Christian, remembering scenes from Jesus' ministry that the other gospel writers left out. His shows Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, a Teacher of deep spiritual truth and the Way to eternal life.
These thumbnail sketches are hardly sufficient to explain God's revelation of His Son in Scripture, but they provide a starting point for understanding the approaches of the four gospels. Only in them, and in the rest of the Bible, with the help of God's Spirit, do we see the true Jesus Christ: Savior-King, Suffering Servant, Ideal Man, and Almighty God.
Next: The Pre-Incarnate Christ (4/17)