In this essay, we take up 1 John 2:18-29. In this passage John gives a warning about antichrists. He begins by making a theme shift. We saw earlier in the letter his first major theme, light versus darkness (1:5-10). Now we see him move to his second major theme, truth versus error.
In verse 18 John offers a general statement that introduces the main ideas that he wants to communicate to his readers. There are three key concepts here that we must understand if we are to understand John. First, we need to know what he means by “the last hour.” That phrase “the last hour” is John’s equivalent of the phrase that we find elsewhere in the Bible as “the last days,” or “the latter days” as the RSV translates it.
The following are Old Testament references that have to do with “the last hour” (Is. 2:2; Micah 4:1-2; Jer. 23:16-22; Jer. 30, esp. v. 24). In the New Testament, the imagery of the last days is associated with the “Day of the Lord,” which of course is a reference to the second coming of Christ. In 2 Peter 3:10, for example, the Day of the Lord is presented as a day of cosmic upheaval. In John 12:48 we are told that God will bring judgment upon persons who reject him. According to Rom. 2:5 it is a day of wrath, and Rev. 6:15-17 calls it a great day of “the wrath of the Lamb.” That is the first of the three key concepts in this introductory statement, “the last hour.”
The second key concept is that of “antichrist.” The word “antichrist” itself occurs in the New Testament only in John’s letters, though the idea is found elsewhere. The word in the Greek consists of a combination of two shorter Greek words: anti, a preposition meaning “against” or “in place of,” and christos, a word that means “anointed one” or “Christ.” It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah.” An “antichrist” therefore is a person who is an opponent of Christ, an adversary, one who is against him. Or he is one who puts himself in the place of Christ.
We find in the New Testament, two uses of the term. First, are the teachings about the antichrist, the one who will arise at the end-time as a specific opponent of Christ, whom Christ will crush at his second coming. Paul calls this person the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3-10). In the book of Revelation, this great opponent is presented in the image of a beast out of the earth that is given the authority and power of Satan (Rev. 13). But he is defeated, captured, and destroyed by Christ at the second coming (Rev. 19:20).
Now then, you will notice in 1 John 2:18, that John merely mentions this idea of the antichrist, the evil ruler who will oppose Christ at the end-time. He actually is concerned about something else, which is the third key concept in the verse, namely the antichrists (plural). He writes, “You have heard that antichrist [singular] is coming”–that is a reference to the prophecies of the coming of the end-time opponent; but then he continues, “so now many antichrists [plural] have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.” Those antichrists obviously are something different from the antichrist of the end-time. As we shall see, John was referring to certain false teachers who were present in John’s day, and who were creating a serious problem for his churches.
This did not happen unexpectedly. Jesus had forewarned the disciples that false messiahs and prophets would come on the scene. He sat on the Mount of Olives and told them: “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray” (Mt. 24:5). In the same sermon he taught, “If any one says to you, ‘Lo, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise showing great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (Mt. 24:23-24).
And Paul told the Ephesian elders, before he left them, “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 perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
And now, in the communities to which John is writing, this very thing has happened. False teachers have arisen who are “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
John goes on in verses 19-29 to begin to identify them and their teachings, and in doing so gives us the second major theme of the book, Truth versus Error. Of course the error side of the theme is represented by the antichrists, the false teachers. John tells us several things about them. First, he tells us who they were. These false teachers were persons who had been part of the church, but had separated themselves from it: “They went out from us,” he says. Then he goes on to say that their departure from the fellowship, which of course was under the oversight of apostles like John, itself marked them as no longer being genuine Christians.
Second, John tells us what they were teaching. We see in verse 22 that the false teachers were denying that Jesus is the Christ. Of course that denial strikes at the very heart of the Christian faith. Therefore it could not be more serious. And John treats it that way. To deny that Jesus is the Christ is the lie of all lies. It destroys the whole fabric of the Christian claim that Jesus is the Anointed One of God, the One whom the prophets had foretold would come, the one like David, the Messiah of God, his own Son.
You see it isn’t enough to believe in God. One must also believe in the Son. And as John makes clear in verse 23, “No one who denies the Son has the Father.” It is the consistent witness of the New Testament that no one can know God apart from Jesus (e.g. Mt. 11:29; Jn. 12:44-45; 14:6-9). To deny Jesus is to separate oneself from God, because it is only through Jesus that one can know God.
John tells us another thing that the false teachers were teaching in chapter 4, verses 2 and 3. So I want us to jump ahead for a moment to those verses. The false teachers, who had the spirit of antichrist, who for that reason were antichrists, not only denied that Jesus is the Christ; they also denied the reality of the incarnation. They denied that Christ had come in the flesh. Thus false teachers represent the error side of this theme.
Apparently, the false teachers of John’s day had adopted the gnostic idea that matter is evil, which excludes the possibility of any real incarnation. In the gnostic view, Christ only appeared to have a real body. In their view, God, who is spirit, cannot become flesh, because flesh is matter, and matter is evil. It would mean that God would become evil, which is unthinkable. Now, modern thinkers have more refined ways of denying the reality of the incarnation, but the result is the same. They go to the opposite extreme and reduce him to the status of a mere man. Perhaps they will allow that there was some divine power temporarily indwelling him, but they take the heart out of Christianity just as surely as the gnostic type thinkers of John’s day.
Coming back to chapter two, the opposite side of error, of course, is truth. The Christians to whom John wrote had “been anointed by the Holy One,” he tells us in verse 20. Because of that anointing, they know the truth; and thus they can recognize the false claims to be such (v. 21).
Moving on to verses 26-29, the false teachers probably had been claiming some sort of special anointing which gave them special knowledge about God and his will. But John is saying that every Christian has the only anointing that matters, the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And we need nothing more, because the Holy Spirit enables us to receive the witness of the written Word.
The key to receiving this anointing of the Holy Spirit is stated in a favorite image of John’s that is very prominent in his Gospel. It is the image of mutual abiding. He tells us to let the anointing of God abide in us (v. 27). And he tells us to abide in him (vv. 27-28). As long as we are abiding in Christ, and he is abiding in us, we will not go wrong.
Now then, there are several results to be seen in verses 27-29. First, we see that the teaching that comes because of the anointing is sufficient. It teaches us about “everything” (v.27). Second, the teaching is reliable; it is true and not a lie (also v.27). Third, the teaching gives us confidence as we look towards the day of the Lord’s appearing. We will not have to shrink back in shame when the glory of God’s penetrating revelation reveals all (v. 28). And fourth, we can do what is right, because we will know what is right (v.29).