How Jesus is like Mary Poppins’ Handbag

I remember growing up as a kid and thinking that whatever special effects or wizardry lay behind Mary Poppins Handbag was impossible in real life, until I became a fully-fledged adult and met my wife Dani. What I thought was the work of trick cameras I found was common to all females, with the mystical working of the handbag design meaning that they can always fit more in there than would seem physically possible. Slightly more important than my wife’s cosmetics fitting into her clutch, is the question of whether the fullness of God could possibly dwell in human form. From a natural perspective, being an all-knowing, all-powerful, unchangeable deity simply cannot cohere with the limits of the flesh. But as we see in 1 John 4:1-6, the bible argues that this is indeed an essential element of Christianity.
If you haven’t already, take the chance to read it now. You will notice that John is keen not to take every professing Christian’s word for their good intentions. While verse 1 tells us that we are not to “believe every spirit”, it is clear by referencing the “false prophets who have gone out into the world”, that John has in mind people who claim to be led by the Spirit. Thankfully though, John outlines a test, a simple dogmatic requirement that differentiates those motivated by the Holy Spirit, and those that are diametrically opposed. The test comes down to, in verse 2, confessing that: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”, which is from God, or denying that truth, which is from the world.
You might be wondering about why there is such an obscure test to one’s authenticity as a Christian. Certainly today, the reality of the incarnation is not at the forefront of attacks on orthodox Christology (Study of Jesus). However, the denial of Christ’s humanity, or Docetism, as it later came to be called, is extremely toxic to faith. Docetism, which comes from the verb “to seem” in Greek, basically refers to any view that suggests Jesus’ real humanity or real suffering was simply illusionary. It had its heyday in the 2nd century, as a central part in many gnostic formulations of Christianity. It is unlikely that John had full-fledged Docetism in his sights here, however, his argument undermines that later heresy. Particularly sharp is his accusation in verse 3 that “This is the spirit of the antichrist”. Basically, Docetism is untenable with the theology set out in 1 John.

But what is it that is so toxic, that warrants the strong language that John uses here? Why is this something we should even be talking about in church today? Well Gregory of Nazianzus wrote an axiom against a different heresy, where he stated: “that which He has not assumed He has not healed (or redeemed)”. If Christ did not assume our flesh, if he was not fully human like you and I, what hope do we have of redemption? It’s a bit looking at the crisis in the United States around government shut downs and emergency declarations, and saying that the one thing that could fix the problem is our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison flying in to save the day. No, it will take an American to fix America,  just like it takes a very human Jesus to bring humanity to God. Salvation itself is at stake here, and John calls us to reject this heresy as coming directly from the enemy.

Americas saviour?

So hopefully you would be able to recognise a full scale docetist, and you might even be able to recognise why such a view is dangerous and puts questions around salvation itself. But what can you do in light of this passage? Well I think that John leaves us with both an imperative and an encouragement regarding this grievous error. The imperative is in how he begins his passage, telling us to test the spirits. This is not a descent into bigoted distrust of all those who are different. But it is a warning to be on the look out for those Christians who are spouting modern day iterations of Docetism. Particularly susceptible to this error are converts from Islam, which denies Jesus’ real suffering. Likewise, any syncretism with New Age philosophy runs the risk of valuing spiritual over the physical, and could also lead to a denial of Christ’s physical body.
However, while this error may be subtle, and is extremely dangerous, John provides the best encouragement of all for us in verse 4: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” Docetism, and the related heresy of Gnosticism may seem to be making a resurgence. There will always be a force in this world telling us that Christ did not come in the flesh. But we can have assurance that God has overcome the world, and he has done that through the God-man, the divine and yet human, Jesus Christ.
So let this passage send you out with a wind in your sails this week. Not everything nor everyone that claims to be from God truly is. But that which is not from God, and particularly the dangerous heresy of Docetism has and ultimately will be dealt with. It puts forth a saviour who cannot truly identify with us in our weakness, who is not fully human, nor has fully suffered. This is not a saviour worth worshipping, as this is a saviour who is unable to complete the task of redemption, and bring us to God for all eternity. Praise be to God, that Jesus became like us, and took what we deserve, that we might experience what only he deserves: Eternal Rest.