Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Watch Out!

Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully.

                        2 John 8

A Quick Note

What a lovely, intriguing epistle 2 John is. Only 13 verses long, it’s less a letter than a quick note between intimate acquaintances. The writer—presumed to be John the Apostle—explains its brevity in verse 12: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face.” Its salutation startles us with unexpected charm: “The elder [i.e., John], to the chosen lady and her children whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth.” These two statements along with the final verse (“The children of your chosen sister send their greetings.”) have whetted the curiosity of scholars and readers for centuries. Two possibilities exist. John may be writing to a believer he and others admire for her steadfastness in the faith or a beloved congregation. Either way, the note’s concision and focus point to urgent concern compelling John to dash off these few lines to shield “the lady” from potential danger. He’s clearly uncomfortable with waiting to warn her in person. A toxic doctrine is making the rounds and he dispatches his cautionary note as a preemptive strike.

Nothing New Here

After commending the lady for “walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us” (v4), John reinforces the importance of continuing down that path. There’s nothing new here. “I ask that we love one another,” he says, adding, “As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” (v5-6) The equation of walking obediently in the truth with walking in love for one another is so basic it's puzzling why John feels the need to stress it at all, particularly to a seasoned Christian. The answer comes immediately in the next paragraph.

“Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world,” John writes, flagging a freshly minted, illegitimate concept of Christianity. Mainly advanced by Gnostics—a cult that professed Christ yet distorted His message with strange ideas about spiritual planes and the duality of good and evil—this “new revelation” held that Jesus never physically existed. Instead, He came to Earth in spirit only, because divine perfection and human imperfection couldn’t coexist in the same body. Early Christians were highly susceptible to this mumbo-jumbo due to their passionate embrace of Christianity’s most radical belief: Jesus’s sinless life made Him the perfect sacrifice for sin. The Gnostics’ ideas proved so seductively “deep,” many believers bought into them, never catching the internal contradiction. How could Jesus pay redemption’s price if He never existed in human flesh? How do you crucify a spirit? Well, you can’t. Thus, accepting the Gnostic nonsense meant rejecting Christ’s atonement. “Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully,” John writes.

Many Jesuses

The Gnostics didn’t remain prominent very long, thanks to the apostles’ and succeeding Church leaders’ swift efforts to thwart their heresy. Yet their influence, as well as that of other “new” concepts, can be felt even now. There are many Jesuses in the world today—the teacher, the philosopher, the humanist, the activist, the shaman, the cult leader, and the mythic figure. In our scientific age, when theory trumps truth and facts override faith, many comfortably accept Jesus as a concept, not a living Savior. (Thomas Jefferson—one of the “Christian” Founding Fathers we hear so much about—reedited the Gospels, excising all mention of Christ’s divinity, miracles, and resurrection. The concept put forth in The Jefferson Bible varied little from works published by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, who respected Jesus as a “great thinker” but disavowed Him as God Incarnate.)

It’s imperative to heed John’s warning to watch out. There’s nothing new here. The message hasn’t changed. We walk in truth by walking in love and we live by faith, not by sight. We believe Jesus is God, the Word made flesh to dwell among us, the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (as John eloquently establishes in his Gospel’s preface). We believe He lived like us, struggling with weaknesses and conflicts like us. In His life we find the power of unwavering love and humility to overcome hatred and injury. In His death we see total submission to God’s will and selfless sacrifice for others. In His resurrection we claim victory over death and the gift of eternal life.

Your relationship with Christ is uniquely personal, as is mine. But these discrepancies reflect differences in us, not variances in Him. There are no “personal Jesuses.” There’s only one Person. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” Hebrews 13.8 tells us. If we don’t watch out for alternative concepts and theories trying to creep into our faith, we jeopardize everything we’ve worked for and risk faith’s reward.

As these archival clippings show, Jefferson literally cut all Scriptural references to Christ's divinity, miracles, and resurrection to put forth a concept of Jesus as a human philosopher. John warns us to avoid "new" ideas about Christ and stick to His path of truth and love.  

(Tomorrow: Waiting for Renewal) 

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