James Patrick’s Blog

March 22, 2010

Permanent Apostasy? (Winds of Doctrine #12)

When a person who has accepted God’s testimony about His Son as the source of eternal life then turns back to his own wisdom, either for understanding other Christian doctrines or for his ‘secular’ intellectual pursuits, he will inevitably ‘fall away’ from the ‘faith’-based wisdom of God and allow his thinking to be shaped by the deception of the father of lies.  This is the source of heresy and ‘doctrines of demons’, and it is only by humbly submitting to the word of truth that someone can escape the trap of the devil and the immoral lifestyle that will follow.  Paul’s approach to heresy or immorality in church leaders was to excommunicate them from the fellowship of believers, in order that they might come to their senses out in the pigsty of life without grace, and repent.  However, for church members living in sin or believing lies, he recognised that by remaining part of their local congregation they were choosing to submit themselves to their leaders, and were therefore in the best place to come to accept also the truth that they were being taught.  In both cases, however, those who ‘fall away’ can potentially be brought back to repentance.

John’s first epistle, written some years later with the benefit of being able to observe the ongoing unrepentance of those Paul and Timothy had excommunicated, deals with the question of those who had permanently left the church (contrast 1 Cor 5:1-5 & 2Cor 2:5-11):  ‘They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.’ (1John 2:19)  As long as the teaching of a church is truly biblical, those who reject its message and leave the church for good are demonstrating that they did not truly belong in the first place.  This is difficult to accept, though, when it is those who have participated thoroughly in the life of the local church, apparently understood the biblical truth, and personally experienced the power of the Holy Spirit, who then fall away.  The writer to the Hebrews considers this scenario in chapter 6, and concludes that for such a person there would be no possibility of repentance because this was the equivalent of the unbelief of Jesus’ opponents who wilfully attributed His anointing to Satan and were therefore condemned as having committed an unforgivable sin (Matt 12).  Jude would describe such fake believers as ‘hidden reefs in your love feasts’ (Jude 1:12-13).  However, the writer to the Hebrews immediately reassures his listeners that he is convinced of better things for them, because God could not be unjust and forget the genuine love they had borne towards Him.  It is a genuine warning to those considering ‘falling away’, and yet he has confidence that God’s grace that established the church will also preserve it, as Paul regularly affirmed (1Cor 1:7‑9; Php 1:6; 2Tim 1:12).

We must treat the warnings in the book of Hebrews in a similar way to Paul’s stern instruction to ‘Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognise this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you fail the test?’ (2Cor 13:5).  Those who would fail the test, or those turning back to the sacrificial system, would be those who did not actually have the life of Jesus in them.  There will likewise be members of churches today who, when challenged to consider carefully if they have ever truly received Jesus as Lord, will discover that they have never actually trusted in His grace.  The warnings must not be quickly dismissed or explained away as ‘hypothetical’; they are meant to provoke soul-searching on the part of those who read them, driving one back to a complete dependency and trust in God’s ability to save, both at conversion and throughout one’s life.  Anxiety is not evidence of trust, but rather of concern that one’s own efforts will not be enough.  That is completely true, but instead of anxiety we must turn our eyes onto Jesus again and trust Him alone for His all-sufficient grace (cf. Php 4:6‑7).  As Jesus Himself assured us in John 6:37‑40, the task appointed to Him by His Father is to welcome any who are given to Him, and then to make sure that they are not lost but rather raised to life on the last day.  He is the Good Shepherd, the one who goes after the lost sheep and brings them home, and if the Father has graciously enabled us to receive the good news of grace by faith, Jesus is fully able to preserve us and bring us back to repentance and faith.

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Ephesus According to 1 John (Winds of Doctrine #10)

As explained in two posts above, Ephesus had gone through a very turbulent time in the mid-60’s AD, with Paul and Timothy expelling elders from the church who were teaching heresy or living immorally or both, followed by a period of intense persecution when Paul himself was taken from them and executed.  Paul’s primary instruction to the church in his second letter to Timothy had been to cleanse themselves from wickedness and become sanctified for good works (2Tim 2:19‑21); a repentance that was even more of a priority than doctrinal correction, which could only follow repentance (2Tim 2:24‑26).  Partly from fear of a repeat situation, therefore (1John 4:17‑18), the Ephesian church had become very strict against sin, to the point of equating it with heresy (1John 3:10; 5:16‑17), and making it a justification for excluding immature Christian brethren from fellowship (1John 2:19; 3:23; 4:20–5:1) or denying them the benefit of material support from the church (1John 3:16‑18).  It is likely that the primary issue of sin in the church was the issue of ongoing participation in the idolatrous secular culture of Ephesus by recent converts (1John 5:21), whether just in terms of appreciating the aesthetics and achievements of that culture (1John 2:15‑17), or perhaps the issue of dining in idol temples with colleagues at official work functions (cf. 1Cor 8:10; 10:19‑22; contrast 10:25).  It is quite possible that the false teachers had been teaching that ‘righteousness’ is just a matter of the heart, and not a matter of outward actions (1John 3:7‑10).

John has a difficult job on his hands, therefore.  He has to be very clear in his instruction to the ‘little children’, the immature believers who were still engaging in sin, that they must not continue to sin.  But on the other hand, he has to appeal to the ‘young men’ who had stood firm under persecution and held to the truth (1John 2:13-14), and help them to see that they too could not claim to be without sin, and in fact by failing to love their weak brethren they too were committing a sin, as wicked as the sin of Cain (3:10‑18).  The ‘fathers’ of the church would certainly remember the ‘old commandment which you have had from the beginning’ (1:7; 2:13-14, 24; 3:11).   John has to affirm their rejection of the heretical teaching of those who had left the church (2:18‑26), while also urging them to continue to receive teachers from outside, like himself, who did speak truth (4:1‑6, 14‑15; 5:5‑13, 20).  As a result, his letter, which is more of an extended essay than a letter as such, moves back and forth between appeals to the little children to keep themselves from sin and idolatry, and appeals to the more mature members of the church to love and pray for their immature brethren like Jesus did (2:5‑6) rather than ‘hating’ them by excluding them (5:14‑17).

As for the specific form of doctrinal heresy that John and the Ephesian church were facing, it is clear from the first paragraph of 1 John that it has to do with the identity of Jesus as both having been with the Father from the beginning and yet also having been a real tangible man (1John 1:1‑3).  The false teachers who had left the Ephesian church were those who denied that Jesus was the Messiah (2:22; 5:1), that Jesus is ‘Messiah come in the flesh’ (4:2), and that Jesus is ‘the Son of God’ (4:15; 5:5).  When John defines the ‘false-Messiah’ [i.e. ‘anti-christ’] teaching as the denial that Jesus is the Messiah, he is probably not referring to Jews outside the church who did not believe Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah (though that would also apply).  Rather, he is focusing on heresy within the church that redefines what sort of ‘Messiah’ Jesus actually is, which is just as much an ‘anti-christ’ teaching.  John clarifies further in 1 John 2:22‑23 that what he means by those who deny Jesus’ Messiah-ship is the denial of Jesus as Son and therefore of God as Father, something that the writer to the Hebrews emphasises also in his first two chapters about Jesus being superior to the angels.  The theme of Jesus’ divine sonship appears throughout 1 John (1:3, 7; 2:22‑24; 3:8, 23; 4:10, 14‑15; 5:1, 4‑5, 9‑13, 18, 20), but John deliberately mixes this with a concentration on Jesus’ very real humanity, whether that is His tangibility (1:1‑3) or His flesh (4:2), or His very real blood (1:7; 5:6‑8).  The ‘water’ refers to Jesus’ baptism at which God testified that Jesus is His Son (5:6, 9‑11), but this does not contradict the testimony of the ‘blood’ of Jesus poured out at death showing that Jesus is also human (5:6, 8), nor are either of these contradicted by the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers (4:13‑15; 5:6, 10), as the false teachers had evidently been claiming (2:20‑27; 3:24‑4:6).  The Spirit of Truth confirms to us both Jesus’ divine sonship shown at His baptism, and Jesus’ real humanity shown at His death.  The claims of the false teachers, that Jesus was one of the powerful angelic mediators spoken about in popular Jewish religious literature of the day, were inadequate both in their denial of Jesus’ superior divine sonship and unique mediatorial role (cf. 2:1) and in their denial of Jesus’ genuine humanity, and were thus presenting a ‘false Messiah’, an ‘anti-christ’.

Context of 1-3 John (Winds of Doctrine #9)

Tradition records that Paul was executed in Rome by Nero, just as he anticipated in his second letter to Timothy, and we can assume that Timothy did travel to Rome to see Paul, leaving Tychicus with Prisca and Aquila in Ephesus to teach the church.  Timothy would have raised up new elders to replace those who had left, ‘faithful men able to teach others’ (1Tim 3:1‑7; 2Tim 2:2).  A church that had been through such an upheaval, though, might be expected to be particularly alert to both false teaching and immorality, being experienced in enduring persecution and persevering with a siege-like mentality (Rev 2:1‑7).  In 1 Timothy 2:7, Paul seems to be contrasting his own true call as a herald and apostle with the ‘lying’ of others who called themselves apostles.  After his death, then, the Ephesian church would have been very wary of receiving anyone else who called himself an ‘apostle’ (Rev 2:2), and would therefore have found it almost impossible to accept genuine apostolic oversight from anyone apart from a co-worker of Paul.  We do not know whether Tychicus stayed for long in Ephesus, or whether Timothy or Titus were able to return to support Prisca and Aquila.

It is into just this situation that the three epistles of John seem to have been written.  According to tradition, John son of Zebedee ended up in Ephesus at some point after Paul’s death and Timothy’s departure, apparently working hard to re-establish this church in their ‘first love’ that they had lost through the experience of apostasy in the mid-60’s AD (cf. Rev 2:4).  Who better than the ‘beloved disciple’ to teach this large and influential church about love and unity?  The book of Revelation begins with letters to the seven churches, which in one sense function as John’s divine ‘letter of commendation’ to the churches in Asia Minor.  The false teachers addressed in these letters are also Jewish (Rev 2:9; 3:9), known as the ‘Nicolaitans’ (Rev 2:6, 15), and the book anticipates a time of renewed persecution coming on the whole world (Rev 1:9; 2:10, 13; 3:10; 6:9‑11; 7:14; 12:11).  The description of the nation of Israel being taken into exile in ‘the wilderness’ (Rev 12:1‑2, 5‑6, 13‑16) probably describes the consequences of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, although the description of the nations trampling the temple in Jerusalem for three-and-a-half years (Rev 11:2‑3, 8 ) may suggest that the book was written very shortly after that destruction.  There is still the very clear understanding that the gospel must be preached to every nation before Jesus’ return (Rev 1:7; 7:9‑10; 10:7; 14:6), but this is seen as imminent (cf. John 21:20‑23).

If Revelation was written in the early 70’s AD, shortly after John was released from imprisonment on Patmos (Rev 1:9), this would explain why the letters to the seven Asian churches do not give the impression that John was very familiar to them.  2 John, which is put after 1 John presumably because of its brevity, makes most sense if it was actually the first letter he sent to the church in Ephesus after writing Revelation.  He writes as ‘the elder’, which makes sense in light of the Ephesians’ wariness of the title ‘apostle’ (Rev 2:2), and is writing from another congregation known to those in Ephesus (2John 1:1, 13), though he doesn’t appear to have a personal connection with his recipients.  He has evidently heard of the faithfulness of some in the congregation who have resisted false teaching (1:4), and he mentions the love that both he and all the churches have for them (1:1), and urges them to remain on their guard against false teachers (1:7‑11).  However, his main reason for writing is to urge them to love each other (1:5‑6), which was the primary accusation against them in Revelation 2:4‑5, and is the only specific detail that John seems to know about the Ephesians apart from their survival through heresy (1:4; cf. Rev 2:2-3, 6).  It is understandable why John would feel it important to try to establish a personal connection with this bruised church after Jesus’ stern warning to them, and so rather than writing a long letter, he tells the church that he has many things to write to them but he would rather come soon and speak with them face to face (2John 1:12).  Unlike the book of Revelation, which he wrote out himself and which therefore is fairly poor Hebraic Greek, he would have used the help of an amanuensis, or professional scribe, to help him craft a letter in good (but simple) Greek for the educated church of Ephesus.

John’s brief introduction letter to the Ephesian church would have been delivered by one of his co-workers to Ephesus, but on his co-worker’s return he would have been made aware of the many problems in the church in much more detail.  It seems that some in Ephesus who had heard John’s brief letter were questioning what right John had to be writing to them, not even knowing them.  As a result, he composed a much more thorough elaboration of his original message to them (e.g. 1John 2:7‑8), which was also a defence of his own authority to give them instruction (1John 1:1‑4), and an explanation of why he was writing to them (1John 2:12‑14, 21, 26‑27; 5:13).  By the time he wrote his third letter perhaps a couple of years later, this time to the elder Gaius (presumably one of the elders of the Ephesian church), he was personally known to many in the church (3John 1:15), and could refer to them as ‘my children’ (3John 1:4).  Presumably he had therefore managed to travel to Ephesus himself in order to meet the church and reinforce the message of love he was writing about (2John 1:12), before returning to his ‘home’ congregation.  Unlike earlier letters, however, 3 John was not written to the whole church of Ephesus but rather to one of its elders, Gaius.  The reason for this is apparently that when John had written another letter to the church (one that has not been preserved), those who returned from delivering it reported to him that although Gaius had received them warmly, the lead elder of Ephesus, Diotrephes, had refused to allow John’s letter to be read out to the gathered church.  As a result, John sent a short letter to Gaius, delivered by Demetrius, in which he is basically warning Diotrephes that he will be returning shortly and will sort him out.  Apparently this did indeed happen, because tradition records that John ended up moving to Ephesus permanently, and lived there to the end of his life around the turn of the second century.

Background of 2 Timothy (Winds of Doctrine #8)

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By the time of writing his second letter to Timothy, it might have appeared that Paul’s authority over the church in Ephesus had been weakened through church leaders in the province abandoning him to his fate, even if they had not also abandoned his gospel (2Tim 1:15).  Their fear of suffering was probably quite justified, as Nero had started an intense persecution against Christians in AD64 and before his own death in AD68 had executed both Peter and Paul in Rome along with many other believers.  Paul’s denunciation of the heresy of Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander had apparently added to his suffering at the hands of the authorities (2Tim 2:8‑9, 17‑18; 4:14‑15), yet he stood firm in his fearless proclamation to strengthen those whose faith had been shaken by both heresy and persecution (2Tim 2:10, 18; 4:17).  Unlike other leaders, Timothy had been unashamed to be known as Paul’s co-worker, and having survived opposition in Ephesus, Paul was now urging him to go one step further and share in his suffering by joining him in Rome (2Tim 1:8, 12, 15‑16).  Had heresy still been a threat to the church, Paul would not have risked calling for Timothy, but clearly the foundation Paul had laid in the Ephesian church had managed to weather the storm of false teaching (2Tim 2:19).  This church itself was the precious treasure Paul had entrusted to Jesus to preserve blameless until His coming (2Tim 1:12; cf. 1Thes 2:19‑20; 3:13; 1Cor 1:7‑9; Php 1:6), and also entrusted to Timothy (2Tim 1:14), and his trust had not been disappointed (2Tim 2:19).

Even so, the clean-up operation was not over.  The false teachers had been routed, but remaining disputes within the church over words and speculations had to be corrected by Timothy without resorting to the quarrelling approach of the false teachers (2Tim 2:14, 16, 23‑24).  They were still in the area (cf. 1John 2:19; 4:5-6; 2John 1:10-11), and permitting ‘worldly, empty chatter’ might encourage their teaching to spread like gangrene, requiring further amputation (2Tim 2:17).  Just as in his first letter (1Tim 5:20, 24‑25), Paul views immoral living as evidence of doctrinal error, which is why leaders with such problems had to be removed from authority.  Church members, though, who remained in the congregation despite moral failure and doctrinal issues, were instead called upon to repent and so be cleansed and restored like polluted but precious vessels (2Tim 2:19‑22), which was ultimately Paul’s intention in excommunication also (1Tim 1:20; 1Cor 5:5; 2Cor 2:5‑11).  Timothy was told that loving admonition would hopefully bring church members who still opposed him to repentance and thence to knowledge of the truth (2Tim 2:25‑26).

At this point, Paul turns from the situation addressed in 1 Timothy, which was now on the mend, and warns Timothy that this would not be the last battle he or the church would have to face.  Paul was soon to ‘depart’, having ‘fought the good fight’, but corruption and apostasy would again be seen in the Church before Jesus’ return.  No specific heresy is identified prophetically, beyond ‘evil men and imposters… deceiving and being deceived’.  Instead, Paul focuses on the moral destitution and powerlessness that would clearly reveal the unbelief and folly of those deceiving the immature with clever words and apparent learning (2Tim 3:1‑7).  This is a well-established method of uncovering heresy, going all the way back to Moses who had in this way shamed the Egyptian magicians who opposed him (2Tim 3:7‑9).  There is no point seeking out heresy, however.  Churchgoers will often turn away from sound doctrine, preferring myths and finding teachers who will ‘tickle their ears’ (2Tim 3:13; 4:3‑4).  The only thing that can adequately equip the church leader for his task is what Paul ‘solemnly charges’ Timothy to do – knowing, obeying and preaching the inspired Scripture (2Tim 3:10‑12; 3:14–4:2; cf. 1:13; 2:1‑3).

Paul’s Opponents in 1 Timothy and Titus (Winds of Doctrine #6)

In light of this wider context of ‘winds of doctrine’ in the 60’s AD, we can turn to 1 Timothy and consider the particular problems that were facing the church in Ephesus, just three or four years after Paul had written the letter of Ephesians to them.  As mentioned above, the church had problems with disrespect of authority (1Tim 1:9; 2:1‑15; 4:12; 6:1‑2; cf. 2Pet 2:10‑11; Jude 1:8‑10), perhaps particularly against the emperor (1:17; 2:2; 4:10; 6:13‑16), and also with having too many widows to support (5:3‑16).  However, their primary problem was that some of their elders and teachers had to be removed from office for false teaching and ungodly living, explaining why Timothy had to appoint new elders and deacons in Paul’s absence (3:1‑15; 5:17‑22).  Paul actually says a lot about the particular problems with these leaders:

To start with, it appears that they were Jewish (cf. ‘Alexander’ in 1:20 with Acts 19:33‑34) – they were particularly interested in ‘myths and endless genealogies’ and ‘worldly fables’, wanting to be teachers of the Mosaic Law, forbidding marriage (probably between Jews and non-Jews) and abstaining from certain foods (1:3‑7; 4:3, 7).  Their way of establishing doctrine was through ‘speculation’, ‘fruitless discussion’, ‘worldly empty chatter’, ‘the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge”’, ‘controversial questions and disputes about words’ (1:4, 6; 6:4, 20), all of which were characteristic of Jewish religious education.  Evidently they based their teaching on the Law, but in a way Paul described as ‘unlawful’ (1:7‑10), that is, failing to recognise its primary purpose to convict Israel of sin.  Judaism of the first century AD had a wide variety of popular religious writings, generally referred to as ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘pseudepigrapha’, for which ‘myths’, ‘fables’, ‘speculation’ and ‘endless genealogies’ would all be appropriate designations.  One of the most popular was the book of 1 Enoch, which Jude quotes in 1:14‑15 to convict his opponents who valued it, much as Paul quoted the Stoic poet Aratus and the Cretan poet Epimenides to the Athenians (Acts 17:28; also Tit 1:12).

The false teachers in Ephesus are also accused of maintaining their controversy-based teaching methods out of conceit (at being teachers?), and treating religion, or godliness, as a way of making money (1Tim 6:3‑5; cf. 1Pet 5:2).  This may connect with the greed of those condemned by Peter and Jude as ‘rushing headlong into the error of Balaam’ (2Pet 2:14‑15; Jude 1:11), apparently referring to those who like Balaam were prepared to speculate and teach on any popular subject of the day in order to accumulate wealth.  This was perhaps the first century equivalent of the ‘prosperity gospel’ in our day.  The letter of James to the Jewish believers throughout the Roman empire has a similar message about greed.  He calls on believers to endure the present persecution (Jas 1:2‑4, 12‑13; 5:7‑11), picked up and expanded upon in Peter’s first epistle (cf. 1Pet 1:6‑8; 4:2, 7‑8; 5:8‑9), but has to rebuke his hearers for worldly wisdom (Jas 1:19‑26; 3:1–4:1) which is evidently associated with riches and bringing disunity into the church (1:9‑11; 1:27–2:17; 4:1–5:6).  Some of the false teachers Paul attacks in Ephesus had also already fallen into the immorality of lifestyle condemned by Peter and Jude (1Tim 1:9‑10, 19; 4:2; 5:19‑20), although Paul reminded Timothy that the false doctrine of others would sooner or later manifest itself in sinful deeds (5:24‑25).

However, the primary problem, for which Hymenaeus and Alexander had been excluded from fellowship, was deliberate ‘blasphemy’ (1:20).  Blasphemy is slander or disrespectful speech about God, and in this case it is most likely that this refers to their teachings about Jesus, because Paul himself admits he too was formerly a blasphemer (1:13).  It is worth considering what Paul says about Jesus, therefore, to see whether we can discern behind his statements what the false teachers were saying.  In 2:5, Paul clearly states the central doctrine of Judaism – “there is one God” (cf. Deut 6:4; John 10:30‑33) – but then with the same breath states the equivalent about Jesus – “one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”.  Judaism of the first century AD gave a prominent mediatory role to angels (cf. Acts 7:38, 53; Gal 3:19; Heb 2:1‑4), but in this verse Paul not only reaffirms Jesus’ full humanity, but his exaltation comparable to God Himself, such that denial of Jesus’ unique status as mediator is equally blasphemy.  Paul later quotes a well-known early Christian creed about both the humanity and the exaltation of Jesus (3:16), just as he had done in the letter to the Philippians a few years earlier (Php 2:6‑11).  The false doctrine being taught was contrary to the sound words about [or ‘of’] the Lord Jesus Christ, and it would also lead its hearers away from godliness (6:3).  We will find below that John’s first epistle to the Ephesians, probably just a few years after Paul was arrested and taken back to Rome, would have to deal with the consequences of both the doctrinal and moral failure of false teachers on those who remained in the church after their departure.

The Situation in Crete (Titus)

The letter Paul wrote to Titus also appears to have been written around the same time as his first letter to Timothy, because here also he has not yet been arrested for the second time.  The ‘wind of doctrine’ Titus has to address in his teaching is almost exactly the same as Timothy is encountering in Ephesus.  Here it is explicit that the false teachers are mostly Jewish (1:10), characteristically rebellious (1:10; 2:5, 9, 15; 3:1‑3) and greedy for money (1:11), particularly interested in Jewish myths and commandments of the Law (1:14), and advocating doctrine that defiles the mind and leads to a defiled moral conscience as well (1:15‑16; 2:12‑14; 3:3, 8).  Their methods of education involve ‘empty talk’, ‘foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law’, and controversy-based teaching methods (1:10; 3:9, 10‑11).  The ‘testimony’ of God that was manifested ‘at the proper times’ in both Jesus’ first coming and His sure return in glory (1Tim 2:6; 6:14‑15; cf. 1:1), is once again central to Paul’s letter to Titus (1:2‑3; 2:11‑13; 3:4‑7), probably consciously in opposition to the ‘mocking’ teaching of those times that Peter and Jude speak against (2Pet 3:1‑13; Jude 1:14‑18, 21).

Winds of Doctrine in the 60’s AD (Winds of Doctrine #5)

We find evidence of these particular false teachings in Paul’s ‘prison epistles’, Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians (all evidently written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome around AD62), as well as in the epistle to the Hebrews (probably written to believers in Israel in the mid-60’s), the epistle of Jude and second epistle of Peter (written in the mid-60’s also), and here in 1 Timothy.  Philippi is the farthest of these churches from Israel, and unlike Ephesus, had very little Jewish influence (there was no synagogue building when Paul first arrived – Acts 16:13).  However Paul specifically warned the Philippians against Jewish false teachers, quite possibly claiming to be believers, who continued to boast in their Jewishness and obedience to the Law (Php 1:27-30; 3:2‑9) [though there is no evidence that they were still trying to argue that Gentiles needed to be circumcised, as in Galatia 15 years earlier].  Colossians also seems to reveal a pressure against the church from a Jewish direction, because Paul specifically highlights that he only has three fellow workers in his Gentile mission who have a Jewish background (Col 4:10-11), and also rebukes the church in Colossae for accepting Jewish teachings about festivals and Sabbaths, visions of angels, and commandments about abstaining (Col 2:16‑23).  The Colossian church was in danger of being ‘taken captive’ through philosophy and human traditions (2:8), being told they were ‘incomplete’, ‘indebted’ to obey the decrees of the Mosaic Law, and ‘inferior’ to the angelic authorities (2:9‑10; 2:13‑14; 1:16‑17 & 2:15, 18; 3:1‑4).  It seems similar issues are being addressed in Ephesians also (1:20‑23; 2:6, 14‑16; 3:10).

Similarly in 2 Peter, false teachers are introducing destructive heresies by unSpiritual interpretations of Scripture (2Pet 1:20–2:1).  They appear to be people from within the church who have adopted these winds of doctrine (2Pet 2:20‑22; Jude 1:4, 12, 22‑23; cf. Eph 4:14), and are unhealthily fixated on angelic beings (2Pet 2:4, 10‑12; Jude 1:6, 8‑10).  Unlike in Colossae, where the Law of Moses was being used to try to restrain fleshly indulgence (Col 2:23), in the epistles of Peter and Jude it seems that the apostasising believers were actually advocating immoral licentiousness in the name of ‘grace’, hence the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah (2Pet 1:4, 9; 2:2, 6‑10, 13‑14, 18‑19; 3:3; Jude 1:4, 7, 18).

There is evidently also a specific claim made by these false teachers that there will be no coming judgement on the Jewish nation, despite Jesus’ clear warnings about this (e.g. Luke 21:12‑24).  The common misunderstanding of the Early Church that Jesus’ coming would coincide with the destruction of Jerusalem in that generation (e.g. Matt 24:2‑3; see my post on Luke’s clarification of Matthew) would explain why Peter and Jude both emphasise imminent judgement as well as the soon return of Jesus (2Pet 2:4, 5, 6, 9; 3:2‑13; Jude 1:5, 6, 7, 14‑15, 21).  In the last decade of the Jewish nation before its destruction in AD70, nationalistic fervour was on the rise among Jews everywhere, believing that this was the time when they would throw off Roman oppression and regain their territory and independence.  Hebrews was written specifically to Jewish believers who seem to have forgotten their initial willingness to surrender their own lands trusting in an inheritance after Jesus’ return (Heb 3:7–4:11; 10:32–11:16; see my post on Hebrews).  The call to all Jews across the Roman empire, and particularly in Israel, was [as it is in our generation also] that if all Jews return to the Law of Moses and temple worship, Messiah will come and re-establish Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.  The pressure was clearly on Jewish believers in Jesus also, to return to the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system, and the writer to the Hebrews warns them not to turn away from the greater reality of Messiah’s priesthood and sacrifice (Heb 2:17–3:1; 4:14–5:10; 6:20–10:22; 13:10‑16), nor to ignore the coming ‘shaking’ (Heb 10:26‑27; 12:16‑29).  In Gentile areas, this fervour about an imminent coming age of peace and prosperity would probably have led certain groups of Jewish Christians, who knew the prophets’ words about all nations coming to worship the God of Israel, to twist the message of grace into a license for continued indulgence (Jude 1:4), because Gentiles had no need to obey the Jewish Law – what better way to ‘convert’ the Gentiles to follow the Jewish Messiah (2Pet 2:18‑20; Php 3:18‑20).  The prophets also spoke of Israel receiving the wealth of the nations, which may be reflected in the greedy motivation of Jewish Christian false teachers apparently teaching whatever people wanted to hear in order to be paid more (2Pet 2:14‑15; Jude 1:11; cf. 2Tim 4:3‑4).

Perhaps the biggest doctrinal problem of this decade, though, involved the identity and nature of Jesus.  Hebrews 1 and 2 give clear evidence that many Jewish believers had come to view Jesus not as simply a holy man, nor as the unique Son of God, but as a sort of hybrid or intermediate angelic being – most likely as the ‘Angel of the Lord’ who acts and speaks as God Himself in many passage of the Old Testament (see Jude 1:5 with the best reading ‘Jesus’, compared with Exod 13:18, 21; 14:19‑20, 24‑30; 23:20‑23; 24:9‑11; 32:34–33:3; Num 14:14‑15, 20‑23, 35).  Although it is probably correct that the ‘Angel of the Lord’ was indeed Jesus in His pre-incarnate form (cf. Acts 7:35‑40), the writer to the Hebrews has to address misconceptions that follow from this, particularly equating Jesus with other angelic powers, and failing to recognise that this ‘angel’ or ‘messenger’ is in fact the divine Son of God Himself.  Paul similarly had to emphasise the exaltation of Jesus over all angelic powers in his letters written around the same time (e.g. Eph 1:20‑22; 3:9‑12; 4:10; Col 1:15‑20; 2:2‑4, 9‑10, 15; Php 2:6‑11; 3:20‑21).  Peter emphasised Jesus’ divine humanity (2Pet 1:16‑19; 2:1), and Jude similarly accuses the Jewish Christian false teachers of ‘denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ (Jude 1:4‑6).  He chooses to quote from the book of 1 Enoch, a favourite (non-canonical) text of these false teachers, in order to turn it against them by making them the ‘ungodly’ who will be judged by Jesus Himself, ‘the Lord’ who is returning with His holy ten thousands.  [This explains why Jude would quote from 1 Enoch – he is not affirming its authority, but using it rhetorically against those who do.]

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