Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Gnosticism: The “Deep Things of Satan”

Gnosticism: The Deep Things of Satan

Our church recently finished a series on the seven letters to the seven churches found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3.  I presented two messages on the letter to the church at Thyatira.  The following are my notes on a section from one of these messages.  These notes briefly look at what the “deep things of Satan” and the “synagogue of Satan” might refer to.

There are several mentions of “Satan” in the seven letters in Revelation which are addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The “synagogue of Satan” is mentioned in the letter to the church at Smyrna (Rev. 2:9), and again in the letter to the church at Philadelphia (Rev. 3:9). “Satan’s throne” and “where Satan lives” are mentioned in the letter to the church at Pergamum (Rev 2:13), and the knowledge of the “deep things of Satan” is mentioned in the letter to the church at Thyatira (Rev. 2:24).

Elsewhere in the book of the Revelation, Satan is identified as the dragon, the ancient serpent, the devil (Rev. 12:9; 20:2).  

We know what the ancient serpent did in the garden of Eden. He deceived Eve by questioning and contradicting God’s words, which led to both Adam and Eve sinning. Many early church theologians and writers plainly attributed heretical teaching to Satan’s (or the devil’s) deceptive, corrupting, and malevolent influence (e.g., Eusebius, Church History 4.23.12). It is disturbing to see how quickly Jesus’ teaching, and that of his disciples, was being corrupted in the very early church.

Who was part of “Satan’s Synagogue”? (Revelation 2:9, 3:9)

The knowledge of the “deep things of Satan” in the church at Thyatira involved unsound teaching and ungodly practices. Similar things were happening in, what the writer of Revelation refers to as “synagogues of Satan”.

We know from literary sources and from inscriptions that Jews, Samaritans, and Gnostics met in groups or buildings called “synagogues” (sunagogai), whereas Christians met in groups or communities consistently called “churches” (ekklesiai). There were many Jewish communities in Asia Minor. There was a particularly large and influential community of Jews in Sardis. But I don’t think the Synagogue of Satan refers to ordinary Jewish people.

Some speculate that the Synagogue of Satan was a Samaritan synagogue. The Samaritans had a shared heritage with the Jews, and when it was convenient they identified themselves as Jewish, but Samaritans were not genuine Jews. (Josephus, Antiquities 9.14.3 and 11.8.6.) Note that in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 the adherents of the Synagogue of Satan had been calling themselves Jews, but were not really Jews.[1]

A synagogue of Samaritans fits somewhat with the description we have in Revelation of the synagogue of Satan, but it doesn’t fit entirely with the scenario of the churches in Asia Minor. Irenaeus is one writer who plainly states that Gnostics met in synagogues (Against Heresies, 4.18.4). Thus I suggest that the Synagogue of Satan refers to gatherings of the adherents to an early form of Gnosticism, or proto-Gnosticism, and that “the deep things of Satan” refers to a Gnostic-like heresy.

Simon Magus

The various forms of Gnosticism were a hybrid of Christian, Jewish and pagan beliefs. One form may have originated with Simon the Sorcerer, also known as Simon Magus. Simon Magus was a Samaritan and a sorcerer or magician who seemingly accepted the Christian gospel when Philip was ministering in Samaria. The writer of Acts devotes many verses to him in Acts chapter 8 (Acts 8:9-24).[2]

We don’t hear any more about Simon in the Bible but he was notorious in the early church. Justin Martyr wrote about him in his First Apology, dated around 150-160 AD.

Simon was in the royal city Rome in the reign of Claudius Caesar [41-54], and so greatly astonished the sacred senate and people of the Romans, that he was considered a god, and honoured, like the others whom you honour as gods, with a statue.
First Apology, chapter 56

And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him, and acknowledge him as the first god; and a woman, Helena, who went about with him at that time, and had formerly been a prostitute, they say is the first idea generated by him.
First Apology, chapter 26

I think it is unlikely that Justin Martyr and other ancient writers were correct in their identification of Simon Magnus as the first person to create a syncretistic heresy that would later develop into a form of Gnosticism. Nevertheless, church historian Philip Schaff writes:

The author, or first representative of this baptized [i.e. “Christianized”] heathenism, according to the uniform testimony of Christian antiquity, is Simon Magus, who unquestionably adulterated Christianity with pagan ideas and practices, and gave himself out, in pantheistic style, for an emanation of God. Plain traces of this error appear in the later epistles of Paul (to the Colossians, to Timothy, and to Titus), the second epistle of Peter, the first two epistles of John, the epistle of Jude, and the messages of the Apocalypse to the seven churches.
§ 73 Heretical Perversions of the Apostolic Teaching” in History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity A.D. 1-100 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1997)

It is important for Christians to have some understanding of this syncretistic, pre-Gnostic heresy because, as Schaff points out, several New Testament letters, as well as the letters of the seven churches in Revelation, were written, at least in part, as a response to the problems created by emerging Gnostic heresies.


Cerinthus was another Christian Gnostic or pre-Gnostic leader. This man lived in Asia Minor. Asia Minor was a particularly suitable place for the hybrid heresy of Gnosticism to thrive. Here Jews who had left Israel met with the influences of Greek and Asian culture, under Roman Imperial rule.[3]

Cerinthus had a school based in Galatia where he taught his heresy. He taught that Jesus was a mere man, not born of a virgin, and that when Jesus was baptised God sent “Christ” or the Holy Spirit to indwell him and teach him. Cerinthus also taught that salvation was achieved, not by faith, but by keeping the Jewish Law. His beliefs, preserved in existing works, indicate that a Christian Gnosticism may have originated with him rather than with Simon Magus.[4] Whatever the case, Cerinthus certainly founded an early sect of Christian Gnosticism—a Judaizing Gnosticism—in the late first century.[5]

Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyon in France at the end of the second century, wrote a five-volume work entitled Against Heresies which addresses the heresy of Gnosticism and critiques the beliefs of many prominent Gnostic leaders and writers. Irenaeus was acquainted with some of these Gnostics by personal experience as wells from reports. In his third volume, he relates an amusing anecdote concerning Cerinthus. The story goes that John the apostle detested Cerinthus so strongly that he once ran out of a public bathhouse in Ephesus when he found out that Cerinthus was inside, yelling “Let’s get out of here in case the building falls down; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!” (Against Heresies, 3.3.4)

Albert Wolters mentions Cerinthus in his paper about the noun authentēs. (This word is found only once in the New Testament: the infinitive form, authentein, occurs in 1 Timothy 2:12 and is typically translated into English as “authority”.)  Wolters writes,

“. . . the word authentēs played a prominent role in Gnosticism; for example it was the name of the supreme deity in the systems of the early Gnostics Cerinthus and Saturninus[6] (first and second centuries AD).”[7]

Authentēs is typically translated into English as “supreme power” in works by Early Church Fathers who addressed Christian Gnosticism. I suggest that authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 does not refer to a usual kind of authority, but may allude to some heretical practice of pre-Gnostics in the Ephesian church.

Christian Gnosticism

Christian Gnosticism was a serious threat to the church. It seemed to spring up and spread wherever the message of the Gospel went, particularly in the east. Gnostics combined Christian teaching with their own allegorical and mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and some had a particular interest in the creation accounts and in Adam and Eve. Along with their compromised interpretations of Christian doctrine and Old Testament Scriptures, they included elements of Greek philosophy, especially Platonic dualism, Stoicism, and the teachings of Heraclitus (who was from Ephesus). Thrown into this mix was a big helping of paganism.

Gnostics believed that only their special revelation of secret, esoteric knowledge, could, through some cosmic process, save a person, and the practice and belief in magic and astrology was prominent in many Gnostic sects.

A common belief held by Gnostics was that all matter was evil and that only the spirit or soul was good. (This belief is known as “dualism”.) Dualistic beliefs led to either asceticism or licentious behaviour. Sources outside the Bible mention that sexual licentiousness was a problem in some churches, but even in the New Testament we read that Jezebel, a female false prophet and teacher, was teaching (didaskei) and seducing (planâ) her followers in the church of Thyatira (Rev. 2:20 KJV cf. 1 Tim. 2:12).

Docetism, a belief that Jesus only seemed to be flesh, but was really only spirit, is another heretical belief that developed out of the belief that matter was evil (cf. 2 John 1:7), as is the Gnostic belief that the created world and its Creator are evil (cf. 1 Tim. 4:4a). A denial that there is a bodily resurrection from the dead is also a faulty belief derived from dualism.

Simon Magus, who was called “the father of all heretics” by Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 3, preface), and “the father and author of all wickedness” by Eusebius (Church History, 2.14), represented himself as the messiah. He taught that he was a god, and he closes his only surviving work “The Great Declaration” by saying that he ransomed humanity and that all those believing in him would be redeemed. Simon definitely qualifies as being an antichrist; as does Cerinthus, who may have been the person John especially had in mind when he warned his readers about antichrists (1 John 2:18, 22, 4:3; 2 John 1:7). Besides Simon Magus and Cerinthus, there were still other false teachers who combined Christian teaching with Jewish doctrine, Greek philosophy, and paganism, and created their own Gnostic-like heresies, a few even as early as the late first century.[8]

Gnosticism Today

In our society today a new type of Gnosticism is thriving.[9]  Many people today like to mix and match, or pick and choose, their own religious beliefs, their own philosophies, and their own morals to live by. Many people claim to have some sort of faith in a “Jesus” or “Christ”, but they don’t follow the Jesus of the New Testament.

In our tolerant, multi-cultural society, and with the internet, there are so many religious and spiritual ideas swirling around. We need to be sure to stick with what the Bible says about Jesus.

Salvation is not achieved by following the Jewish Law as Cerinthus taught, and it is not found through secret, esoteric knowledge as other Gnostics taught. We are saved when we put our complete faith and trust and loyalty in Jesus as the only Christ and only Saviour.

The Gnosticism that was already a problem in New Testament times – and has some similarities with New Age Gnosticism today – may seem appealing to some, but, as it says in First Timothy, it is a doctrine of demons.

Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons,” 1 Timothy 4:1. 


[1] Samaritans were originally Israelites who were left behind when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 724 BC. Most of the people who survived the attack were deported, and only a small, sad group of Israelites remained. The Assyrians then sent five eastern tribes to live in Northern Israel. These five tribes brought with them their own foreign religions and customs. They were sent with the purpose of corrupting the Israeli identity and culture. The eastern foreigners intermarried with the remaining, much depleted Israeli population.  This mixed people group was the beginning of the Samaritans. To this day, the Samaritans hold to a compromised form of Judaism with a compromised Scripture.

[2] Irenaeus devotes a chapter to Simon Magus in Against Heresies (Book 1, chapter 23) written about 175-185. (See also 3.12.12.) Eusebius devotes two chapters to him in his Church History (Book 2, chapters 13 & 14; see also 2.1.10-12). Despite a strong consensus among ancient Christian writers, there is some uncertainty among modern scholars that Simon Magus is the same person written about in Acts 8:9-24.

[3] Henry Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies, 154-156(Source)
Wace notes that Cerinthus believed in “baptism for the dead”. He “held that if a man died unbaptized, another was to be baptized in his stead and in his name, that at the day of resurrection he might not suffer punishment and be made subject to the ἐξουσία [authority] κοσμοποίος [maker of the cosmos] (cf. 1 Cor. 15:29).”

[4] Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Eerdmans 1986) 2.

[5] Ernast Renan explains the teaching of Cerinthus:

. . . there appeared at Ephesus, coming from Alexandria like another Apollos, a man who appears, after a generation, to have had many points of likeness with this last. . . . Like Apollos, Cerinthus was born a Jew, and before becoming acquainted with Christianity had been imbued with the Judeo-Alexandrine philosophy. He embraced the faith of Jesus in a manner altogether different from that of the good Israelites who believed the kingdom of God realised in the Idyll of Nazareth, and of the pious Pagans, whom a secret attraction drew towards that mitigated form of Judaism. His mind, besides, appears to have had little fixity, and to have been willingly carried from one extreme to the other. Sometimes his conceptions approached those of the Ebionites; sometimes they inclined to millenarianism; sometimes they floated in pure gnosticism, or presented an analogy with those of Philo. The creator of the world and the author of the Jewish law—the God of Israel, in short—was not the Eternal Father; he was an angel, a sort of demigod, subordinated to the great and Almighty God. The spirit of this great God, long unknown to the world, has been revealed only in Jesus. The Gospel of Cerinthus was the Gospel of the Hebrews, without doubt translated into Greek. One of the characteristic features of the Gospel was the account of the baptism of Jesus, after which a divine spirit, the spirit of prophecy, at that solemn moment descended upon Jesus, and raised him to a dignity which he had not previously had. Cerinthus thought that even until his baptism Jesus was simply a man, the most just and the most wise of men it is true; by his baptism, the spirit of the omnipotent God came to dwell in him. The mission of Jesus thus become the Christ, was to reveal the Supreme God by his preaching and his miracles; but it was not true in that way of seeing him that the Christ had suffered upon the Cross; before the Passion, the Christ, impassible by nature, separated himself from the man Jesus; he alone was crucified, died and rose again. At other times Cerinthus denied even the Resurrection, and pretended that Jesus would rise again with all the world at the Day of Judgment. That doctrine, which we have already found at least in germ amongst many of the families of the Ebionim, whose propaganda was carried on beyond the Jordan in Asia, and which in fifty years Marcion and the Gnostics would take up with greater vigour, appeared a frightful scandal to the Christian conscience.
“Ephesus—The Old Age of John—Cerinthus—Docetism” in History of the Origins of Christianity. Book V. The Gospels, 215-6. (Source)

[6] Saturninus of Antioch was the founder of a Gnostic group in Syria in the early second century. He is reputed to have been either a student of Simon Magus or of Menander who was himself a student of Simon Magus.

[7] Albert Wolters, “A Semantic Study of Authentēs and its Derivatives” in the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 1/11 (Spring 2006) 50.  This paper can be viewed here.

[8] “Simon Magus, the Nicolaitans [mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15], and Cerinthus belong to the second half of the first century.” Philip Schaff,  “§ 123. Cerinthus“, in History of the Christian Church, Volume 2: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
In the second and third centuries, there were many, varying sects of Christian Gnosticism which developed their own highly complicated belief systems. In the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Gnostics were forbidden to meet and their numerous, apocryphal writings were banned. Only a few Gnostic sects survived beyond the fifth century.

[9] This quote about modern Gnosticism taken from an article entitled “What are the main principles of a Christian Gnostic?” seems apt.

Trying to explain Gnosticism is like trying to explain Jazz. Teaching all the history, tradition, and mechanics of Jazz only brings about a surface understanding. But to truly appreciate this art form, a person must fully immerse himself in the music with both mind and heart. And then one not only understands Jazz but begins to experience Jazz. Gnosticism is the Jazz of all religions. Both are individualistic yet communal with their surroundings, extroverted with their innermost passions, and seemingly wild yet contained in an almost surreal framework. Both are adaptive, prone to improvisation depending on the audience, and tend to borrow in order to improve their execution. Both have always thrived in the smoky, dark corners of society, as well as in places of artistic explosions. (Source)

Image credit: Map of the seven churches mentioned in Revelations chapter two and three. © Tyndale House Publishers. (Source: Visual Bible Alive)

Related Articles

1 Timothy 2:12 in Context (Part 3): The Heresy in the Ephesian Church
Jezebel of Thyatira: A Female False Prophet
Kephalē and “Proto-Gnosticism” in Paul’s Letters
Adam and Eve in Gnostic Literature
A Brief History of the Samaritans
The Wise Men (Magi) from the East

Posted January 2nd, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Church History, ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

16 comments on “Gnosticism: The “Deep Things of Satan”

  1. Thanks for this. You’ve given interesting evidence on Gnosticism being present in the first century. I’ve read a lot of scholars who claim it did not exist until the second century. Yet in reading 1 Timothy alone, as well as the mention of the Nicolatians in Revelation, it sure seemed to me to be gaining steam in the first century. I had not read about Simon or Cerinthus being the “fathers” of Gnosticism. Very helpful!

    • Marg says:

      I’ve also heard people say that Gnosticism didn’t start until the second century, but there is enough evidence which shows that it was a problem in the first century church.

      I wish we had more info about the Nicolaitans. They certainly seem to be a Gnostic sect.

  2. Cassandra Wright says:

    Something we often forget about when reading the Epistles is that Paul was writing to churches with problems. He gave them advice to fix the problems. What we have done is supposed that those fixes were eternal and universal, when it makes no sense to think that. It would be a bit like a mom putting antibiotic cream on a kid because he had scraped his knees, and then the rest of the family putting antibiotic cream on their knees thinking it would prevent scraped knees. The cream doesn’t address the real issue here. What made the kid fall in the first place? If it was a crack in the sidewalk, wouldn’t it be better for the rest of the family to fix that crack?

    Somehow, women have taken the brunt of the fall out from Paul’s “antibacterial lotion,” having it applied to them and them only, based on an assumption that they were teaching wrong things because they were women. It is interesting that this article deals more with the men who taught Gnosticism. Why should men be allowed to teach if they are this capable of heresy?

    Let’s stick to the real problem here. It’s about teaching orthodoxy, not heresy. No one has a right to teach – it’s a gift of the Spirit. To have shut so many doors in the faces of women over the centuries is surely vexing to the Holy Spirit. Let us use this greater understand of why Paul said what he did to allow everyone with Spirit-given gifts to use them.

    • Marg says:

      So well put, Cassandra.

      I agree that shutting women down who have leadership and teaching gifts must be very vexing for the Holy Spirit, and surely was not what Paul intended.

  3. Donald Johnson says:

    One way to address the concern about Gnosticism being 2nd century and therefore if 1 Tim mentions Gnosticism then it means Paul did not write it is to use the term “proto-Gnosticism”. We do know that Stoicism, Epicureanism, Idealism and Atomism (Materialism) existed as philosophies and Greek philosophy was a seedbed for Gnosticism.

    My take is there are some Gnostic/Greek ideas incorporated into the teachings of the institutional church.

  4. TL says:

    This is an excellent bit of research on early gnosticism, Marg. It is one of the best, clearest and most balanced I’ve read. I’m keeping this for my own personal research. Thank you!

    As I’ve been watching the men in my area involved in the Men’s Fraternity teachings, as well as some of the new moves for Christians to return to the Jewish Torah practices, I see a type of gnosticism that promises special knowledge, deep knowledge to men only. Interestingly, they don’t want teachers. What they claim is that any group of men can get together and be moved of the HS to teach each other or learn together the “deep things” of God. But in general it doesn’t seem to be motivating them to build Christian character, to practice actions of sincere love of the brethren (including women). I’ve noticed that some men who really want to be Christlike and love all the body of Christ (including women) find it confusing to exclude the women and to treat women who teach or lead in the churches harshly.

    • Marg says:

      Thanks TL.

      I guess a lot of Christians seek to make sense of the scriptures and Christian spirituality, and can go beyond what is ideal. I have concerns about some Christians who seek to introduce Jewish elements and rituals into Christianity, thinking that it is authentic and pleasing to God. The exclusive men’s fraternities don’t sound healthy.

      • Donald Johnson says:

        “introduce Jewish elements and rituals INTO Christianity”? The “Way” was considered a Jewish sect. The original 120 followers of Jesus/Yeshua were all Jewish and the majority of believers in the NT were Jewish. Paul and Peter continued to be Jewish after believing in Jesus.

        It is true that gentiles are not required to do the Jewish identity marker type things like being circumcised or eating kosher. Yes, all need to accept Jesus as savior to be saved.

        • Marg says:

          I’m talking about choosing to wear certain articles of clothing, or singing in a certain style, or preferring to use some Hebrew expressions, or having certain artifacts, artworks and symbolism on display, all of which come from a more modern expression of Judaism.

          There is nothing wrong with doing these things unless we think they are extra-spiritually significant.

          We know almost nothing about 1st century synagogue expressions of worship and ritual.

          • Donald Johnson says:

            Col 2:16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.
            Col 2:17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

            As I see it, in this case a shadow is a partial revealing of truth (that is, a good but incomplete thing) and those shadow things mentioned point to Christ. There is an area of math that formalizes this shadow idea conveying partial truth called projective geometry. Just as projective geometry is a tool, so do I see those shadow things in Scripture, if they help one better understand Christ, this is a good thing; if they are substituted for Christ, it becomes idolatry and all of us have that temptation.

          • Marg says:

            We have very little information about how Jesus and Paul and other first century Jews celebrated any of the feasts. What we do know is that the three major feasts centred on the Jerusalem Temple, which no longer exists.

            Moreover the celebration of Passover today, as one example, is quite different to how God ordained the festival in Exodus; and, from what little we know from early Rabbinic writings, it was celebrated quite differently in the second and third centuries to what God ordained. (More here.)

            I’m not saying that we shouldn’t keep the feast. I think we should, I really do, but we just don’t know how; and it seems to me that some observances are contrived. It is this contrivance, with the implication that it is authentic and extra-spiritual, which bothers me.

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