The term ‘docetism’ (from the Greek dokeo, meaning ‘to seem’) covers a range of speculations concerning the person of Christ. The common feature of the Docetists was an insistence that God could not become man.
At the time of the early church, its main representatives were Cerinthus, Ebion, Marcion and Valentinus. Their teachings were examined and rebutted by men such as Irenaeus (Against Heresies) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ; Against Marcion).
Two principles underlay docetism: matter is evil and God cannot change or suffer. From these flow a series of other denials: ‘the Son of God could not be born of a human mother, and certainly not linked to her by an umbilical cord; nor could he suffer and die; nor take an ordinary flesh-and blood body’ (Macleod, The Person of Christ, p157).
In the version of docetism taught by Cerinthus, a sharp distinction was drawn between Jesus and Christ. Jesus was an ordinary man, born in the usual way to Mary, possessed an ordinary human body and died on the cross. Christ was a heavenly being who came upon Jesus at his baptism and left him before the crucifixion. Christ, in this theory, had no connection with the physical world and did not suffer or die.
Marcion regarded the humanity of Christ as a mere phantom. He only seemed to be a man; but his flesh had no substance. He was not what he appeared to be. But, once again, such a speculation strikes at the heart of Christian faith, because it denies both the cross and the resurrection.
In A Faith to Live By Macleod notes that is is remarkable that this first heresy concerning the person of Christ was not a denial of his deity, but of his humanity. The apostle John, in particular, faced up to this heresy (see 1 Jn 4:3; 2 Jn 7). Macleod adds the pertinent comment that whereas John is thought be many to be only interested in Christ’s deity, he takes, in fact, a strong interest in the physical details of Jesus’ life: he is fascinated by physical, geographical, and topographical details. It is he who comments on the blood and water that came from Jesus’ side when the spear pierced him (Jn 19:34) – something that could not have happened to a spirit or a phantom. We can rightly call John’s ‘the most earthed of all Gospels’. See also Heb 2:14; Col
Jesus’ body, insists Macleod, had the same biochemical composition as our own: the same anatomy and physiology, the same nervous system, the same circulatory system, the same endocrine system.
As Luther put it: ‘He had eyes, ears, mouth, nose, chest, stomach, hands, and feet, just as you and I do. He took the breast. His mother nursed him as any other child is nursed’.
‘Jesus was born in the usual way. He grew up (Lk 2:52). He hungered and thirsted. He slept and wept. He sweated and bled. He felt exhausted. he was beaten and flogged and wounded and nailed to a cross. He died, was wrapped in grave-clothes and buried. He rose, but even of that resurrection-body he could say, “a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Lk 24:39).’ (The Person of Christ, p161)
Bu Jesus was not merely a man: he was a particular man. He was a first-century Jew, well-connected but born in humble circumstances. Although remaining unmarried, there is no reason to suppose that he was born with no interest in the opposite sex (as he seems to have said some are, cf. Mt 19:12). Having been ‘tempted in every way, just as we are’ (Heb 4:14), we must assume that this included sexual temptation – yet, in his case, without sinning (cf. Mt 5:28). Although Scripture generally (and the teaching of Jesus in particular) holds marriage in the highest esteem, the example of Jesus refutes every argument that says that singleness is a truncated form of human existence. Marriage is honourable; but so is singleness.
Jesus had, and continues to have, a human body. He is thus linked to the whole of the physical creation and in particular to suffering, decaying humanity. ‘He remembers that we are dust’ Psa 103:14. In the words of John Duncan: ‘the dust of the earth is on the throne of the Majesty on High’. His body, though truly human, is not what our bodies are now, but what they will be. His is an exalted, glorious, body, Phil 2:9; 3:21. Exactly what this body is like we cannot tell, for his post-resurrection, pre-ascension body was variable and transitional (cf. Mk 16:12). What we can say is that his appearance to Paul as a blinding light was a far cry from his appearance to Mary, when she supposed him to be the gardener, Jn 20:15. Note also the description of the resurrection body of believers in 1 Cor 15:42-44, and the suggestion in Rev 5:6 that the body of Jesus still bears the marks of suffering.
Whatever we might say about the physical properties of Jesus’ glorified body, we can say that it is not subject to disease or decay. It is in some sense ‘beside God’, Jn 17:5; of the Spirit, 1 Cor 15:44; and ideally suited to his role as ‘head over everything’, Eph 1:22. It is the model for our own future bodies. It is the goal to which all creation has been heading, ‘into which God the Father, in adoring and wondering gratitude for the service rendered by his Son, has poured all his wisdom, power and creativity, striving to create something as beautiful in its own way as the obedience offered on Calvary.’ (The Person of Christ, 164)