In this new series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
Humanly speaking, the perfect union of God and man in Christ Jesus is an unbelievable truth, because it defies our limited reason and normal expectations. Yet, this truth is fully revealed in Scripture. For example, Paul wrote, “in Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Colossians 2:9)
The Ebionite error was foremost a denial of Jesus’ divinity, but also a clinging to Old Testament Law.
Ebionite is derived from a Hebrew word which means “needy, poor.” There are several explanations for this name, but the Ebionites were, in fact, often poor.
Ebionism arose uniquely within Jewish Christianity, included very few Gentiles, and was largely found in Palestine and the surrounding regions, but did extend even as far as Rome.
Its earliest beginnings were among the Judaizers, whose deceptive work began to pull the Galatian Christians back to the Law for salvation. This prompted Paul to write, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel . . . . If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 1:6, 2:21)
The Judaizers’ error of Paul’s time (1st century) blossomed into full Ebionism by the early 2nd century. At that time Justin Martyr (100-165) wrote that there were those among the Jewish Christians who confessed that Jesus was Christ, but maintained that He had two human parents. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235) explained that the Ebionites believed that Jesus became Christ by practicing the Law. Ebionism continued into the fourth century but then disappeared.
The Ebionites believed that the Law of Moses was universal, forever valid, and therefore binding on all Christians. This is true of God’s moral law (the Ten Commandments), but the ceremonial law was no longer binding once Jesus fulfilled it. The Ebionites denounced the Apostle Paul as a heretic whose epistles should be discarded because he proclaimed the liberty that is ours through Christ (Colossians 2:16).
Ebionites believed that Jesus was the Messiah—a human, Law-oriented, and earthly messiah—not the incarnate Son of God and Deliverer from sin Whom God had promised. They further believed that Christ would return to begin a glorious messianic millennial reign in Jerusalem.
Ebionism is gone, but its false teachings remain and are just as deadly to souls today. Naturally, non-Christians deny the divinity of Jesus, but the Ebionite voices of error also echo within Christendom.
Many Christian churches—even Lutheran churches—have succumbed to the temptation of raising human reason above God’s truth and now deny the virgin birth just as the Ebionites did. If there is no virgin birth, Jesus is a son of two sinful human beings, only man, not the Son of God, and completely unable to save sinners. If this is true, the Gospel is gone, and there is no good news for sinners.
The Ebionites’ practice of mixing Mosaic Law into the Gospel created a false view of the Messiah. Their messiah was merely a wise prophet, an excellent teacher, and a perfect example of how to live according to the Law. Sadly, Christianity today is frequently made into a similar message, and messianic hopes are diluted to make Jesus only a super-example of love, community kindness, and good works.
We sinners need a Savior, not merely an example. We need the God-Man Who could be placed under God’s Law and keep it perfectly, Who could lay down a life so perfect that it would atone for the sins of all sinners. We need to stand in His righteousness on the Last Day so that we hear, “‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)
We need the true Jesus. We need Him Whose Word drowns out the echoes of false teaching and gives genuine hope and eternal life. “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Wayne Eichstadt is pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley, Washington.