The Early Church and Counterfeiting Jesus

Back when the color inkjet printer and image scanner were introduced to everyday consumers, many with nefarious intentions came up with the brilliant idea to print counterfeit money. Simply by laying a piece of currency on the scanner and printing the image onto a piece of paper, the money looked remarkably similar to the real thing. 

In those early days, I knew of a person who, along with a group of high school friends, came up with the brilliant plan to print $20 bills and drive to Mexico to purchase goods. The plan worked as they purchased a car full clothing and electronics until one shop owner recognized the counterfeit and alerted the authorities. Ultimately, the Secret Service became involved and the misfit high schoolers were extradited back to the US to face punishment. For the shop owner, as well as for the Secret Service, the key to recognizing counterfeit currency is knowing what the real currency looks like, down to the minutest details.

From its very beginning, the church has always had to address counterfeit teachings about Jesus. It is almost as if false teaching, in some form or fashion, is inherently a part of the nature of the church. Since the church is comprised of people, we have a remarkable penchant for entertaining all sorts of images about Jesus. 

Jesus Himself knew that this was the case as He warned his disciples, “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray” (Matt 24:5). Indeed, even the Apostle Paul warned the leaders of the church in Ephesus, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). 

And, of course, we see this counterfeiting among key figures in early church leadership: Judas, Nicholas, Demas, Phygelus, Hermongenes, Hymenaeus, Alexander, Philetus, and Diotrephes among some we read about in the New Testament.

In his commentary on Acts, NT Wright observes:

“The greatest heresies do not come about by straightforward denial; most of the church will see that for what it is. They happen when an element which may even be important, but isn’t central, looms so large that people can’t help talking about it, fixating on it, debating different views of it as though this were the only thing that mattered.” (Acts for Everyone, Part 2, 2008: 137– 8)

Through the centuries, those coming in the name of Jesus have had all sorts of interesting things to say about Him; things that people have fixated on and debated. In the first and second centuries, some taught that Jesus only appeared to be human but was actually a ghost. Others believed He was simply a moral person who God adopts as a son. In our day, there are those who believe that God and His wife had two sons: Jesus and Lucifer. Still others believe that Jesus has already returned as a woman this time. 

And way back in the 300s, there were those who taught that Jesus was an example for all of us to follow. We could, in fact, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps if we were more like Him: a theme that sits well in many cultures today.

To all these counterfeit teachings about Jesus, the early church had a simple solution not all that dissimilar from the Secret Service’s manner in recognizing counterfeit currency: know the subject well. So, for example, in the early second century, Ignatius of Antioch would tell the church in Magnesia, “Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the Apostles” (Magnesia 13). To the Trallians, he wrote that the solution to false teaching was to “Cover your ears, therefore, when anyone speaks to you at variance about Jesus Christ” (Trallians 9), and to the Ephesians, he simply affirmed, “Indeed, you do not listen to anyone unless they speak the truth about Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 6c). Ignatius and other early disciples of the apostles who continued to write to the churches had remarkable clarity about Jesus (click to enlarge image). 

Polycarp, confronting a counterfeit teaching about Jesus in his day, sums up the early Christian understanding of both our responsibility and the identity of Christ. Having already concluded that Jesus is resurrected, seated in glory on His divine throne where everything is subject to Him, and acts as judge of the living and the dead, he writes:

“For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;” and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil. And whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord for his own desires and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. For this reason, forsaking the foolishness of many and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning, watching in prayer, and persevering in fasting. Let us implore the all-seeing God in our prayers to “not lead us into temptation.” As the Lord has said, “The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (To the Philippians 3a)

We hear many things about Jesus in our day. Not much has changed in 2,000 years. Yet, I suspect that if we were to get our Christology sorted, many of the issues faced in the church today—declining membership, church closures, political infighting, sexual immorality, spiritual abuse—even the things we all face in society—anxiety and stress, financial struggles, broken relationships—might be resolved. After all, the Jesus we encounter in the New Testament is someone who relates to us in both His full divinity demonstrated by His remarkable life and ministry of healing, redeeming, and declaring good news (Luke 4:16-21), and His full humanity as He was tempted in every respect yet without sin (Heb 2:18, Heb 4:15).

A few years before Polycarp wrote to the church in Philippi, his friend and co-laborer, Ignatius of Antioch, encouraged him to remain steadfast in the midst of those propagating false teaching. His encouragement should be our encouragement also.

“Do not let those who seem worthy of recognition but teach strange doctrines fill you with apprehension. Stand firm just like an anvil which is beaten. It is the mark of an honorable athlete to be bruised and yet still conquers. We ought to especially bear all things for God’s sake so that He also will bear with us. Be ever more passionate than what you are. Carefully understand the times. Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes. He is indescribable and impassible, yet He became passible on our account and suffered in every way for our sakes.” (To Polycarp 3)

Be looking for Dr. Cooper’s latest book coming this spring, First Christian Voices: Practices of the Ancient Church  (Samuel Morris Publishing).

Interested in the history of the early church? Check out The Practices of the Ancient Church

Practices of the Ancient Church explores the beliefs about Jesus Christ that led to a deep appreciation for belonging to the body of Christ and resulted in a behavior that established Christianity’s good reputation in the community.

*Header photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash