Text: 1 John 2:18-23
Today we come to one of those passages which all respectable pastors try their best to avoid. The biblical teachings on matters relating to the end times are tricky enough on their own, but these days bible teachers have to overcome the sensationalism of Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, and, believe it or not, Nicholas Cage. It would be so much easier (and better for my ego) to just not talk about this kind of thing.
But alas, if one commits to preaching through the Bible and not simply skipping the verses he doesn’t like, then he is going to have to talk about these sorts of things from time to time. Now, contrary to many folks’ assumptions today, the Bible does not say all that much about “the antichrist.” The word itself only appears 4 times, always in John’s writings, and while the concept is a little broader, it only occurs a handful of times. It is certainly not a major theme. Still, it does appear, and our sermon text happens to bring us to one such instance. John says that he is writing in “the last hour,” and just as his audience has heard that the Antichrist will come, he is telling them that many antichrists have already come.
Who or What is Antichrist?
John writes, “Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour.” This sort of expression is at odds with most popular conceptions of “the last days” and “the Antichrist.” John is clearly stating that “the last hour” began in his own day. It was not a term primarily aimed at our future, but rather at his present. Still, to what is he referring?
Since this is such a debated topic, we’ll give a brief summary of the various points of view before examining 1 John in particular. Most conceptions of the antichrist come from a combination of several passages of Scripture. Typically they draw from Daniel, 2 Thessalonians, 1 John, and Revelation. Whether all of these passages are speaking of the same thing is itself debatable and debated. Still, the prominent views are the following.
The Futurist view is held by the most commentators, both traditionally and at present, though they vary widely among themselves. The Futurist believes that there is a singular antichrist who is yet to come. This antichrist will be some sort of “end times” figure. The more sensational proponents of this view are all around us today, and they can make some rather outrageous claims. They tend to see the antichrist as a world-political leader. Biblically speaking, however, if the Antichrist is a future figure, he must be a church-leader, someone promoting false doctrine, as we shall see in our discussion today. We should note, however, that a variation of this viewpoint was held by pre-Christian Jews, early Christians, medieval Christians, and is held by the majority of contemporary Christians of all backgrounds.
The second most widely held view is the Historicist view. This view believes that the singular antichrist came at some point in the New Testament’s future, but in our history, typically in the Middle Ages. This view usually identifies the antichrist with an abiding office or institution, the papacy was the favorite choice for most the Reformers. The original Westminster Confession of Faith identified the Pope as the antichrist, and a great many Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans held this quite sincerely. They argued that the papacy established its throne in the church, claimed divine honors for itself, distorted the Biblical teaching of Christ and salvation, and enjoyed the greatest imaginable worldly power within the institutional church. This view made good sense in its day, though with each passing century it becomes less persuasive. Still, this view shouldn’t be dismissed as silly or superstitious, and there were many pre-Reformation thinkers who also described the antichrist as a distorted ecclesiastical office which claimed for itself universal jurisdiction over all believers.
The Preterist view has become very popular as of late, and is one of the most favored views among our own ecclesiastical community. This view agrees with the historicist that the Antichrist was a future figure from the point of view of the New Testament, but it believes that he came shortly thereafter, in the first century. Early Roman emperors are often held forth as candidates for the Antichrist, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 is seen as the culmination of the predicted tribulation. This view is very attractive in that it takes the urgency of the New Testament seriously, though its greatest weakness is in attempting to find a first-century candidate for the Antichrist. The Caesars do not really meet the qualification because they were not ecclesiastical figures. They did destroy the Jewish temple, but it is hard to see how they led any sort of wide-scale apostasy within Christianity.
Finally, there is the Idealist view. The Idealist believes that the antichrist is not a single person at all but rather anyone preaching a certain theological error. This position can take in various elements of the other positions, all the while declining to commit to any specific predictions. Its strength is thus its weakness. This view will never embarrass its proponents, but it also seems to lack the eschatological edge of certain New Testament instances.
John’s own view is actually not obvious. It comes closest to the idealist view, though it is not necessary to read him as denying a singular Antichrist. In fact, he seems to be assuming some common understanding about the Antichrist which he then modifies by introducing the multiple antichrists who are already present. “As you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come.” They “have come.” What is clear in John is the mark of these many antichrists. They are false teachers who deny that Jesus is the Christ. This means at least two things. It means that they deny that Jesus fulfilled the work of the messiah, as the Judaizers effectively did by holding on to the Mosaic Covenant. But John also means that they deny that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God. We can see that he uses the expression “Jesus is the Christ” synonymously with the doctrine of the godman. In 1 John 4:2-3, we read, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” He immediately adds that the spirit which does not confess that Jesus Christ has “come in the flesh” is the spirit of the Antichrist. This is repeated exactly in 2 John, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” (vs. 7). And so for John, the primary mark of the antichrist is the denial of the incarnation. This makes the opening verses of 1 John especially relevant:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— that which we have seen and heard we declare to you.
John’s gospel is the true gospel. The gospel of the antichrists is at odds with this.
The Antichrists of John’s Day
As we continue on, the picture of John’s antichrists becomes even more clear. “Even now many antichrists have come… They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.” These are false teachers, men claiming to be Christian preachers but who are actually preaching a false gospel. In fact, the antichrists are John’s primary opponents in this letter. He has been correcting their errors already, and now he explicitly states that they are driven by evil. Notice what he says in vs. 22-23. They are liars (1 John 2:22). In denying the son, they also deny the Father (1 John 2:23). And this means that their god is an idol. These are the strongest of condemnations. John has no tolerance for these false teachers, and he wants his audience to reject them out of hand.
Verse 19 is a well-known passage of Scripture. “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). John is distinguishing appearance from reality. But this passage is not about any and all Christians who may fall away from the church. That would be a different discussion altogether. This verse specifically refers to the false teachers. It does not simply mean that these teachers “fell away” from the church, but rather that they departed from the company of the true apostles. They were once associated with the true church and thought of as true teachers within it, but they broke fellowship with the true apostles in order to teach a false doctrine.
This teaches us something about leaders in the church. True apostles do not break away and create opposing groups as relates to the basics. In fact, there are no “new” churches. Our gospel is the same today, yesterday, and forever because Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday, and forever (Heb. 13:8). This means that we reject theological innovation. We do not believe in a constant flow of new doctrines, and we reject the notion of new revelation. This passage also warns us to be suspicious of the cult of personality. We should not follow a pastor or teacher simply because of who they are. They may be smart, charismatic, and effective, but ultimately, it is their message that we are concerned with. We must judge the content of their preaching and see if it is the true gospel that is preached.
We must be clear on this point. Christians should reject any preacher who denies that Jesus is God. Christians must reject any preacher who denies that Jesus is God come in the flesh. Christians must reject any preacher who denies that Jesus is the Christ, the propitiation of our sins. There is no virtue in “unity” with such men, because those men have already broken away from the gospel.
Indeed, we are living at time when this is acutely relevant. You see, many churches in our day refuse to take this kind of stand in the face of theological error. Many churches refuse to discriminate between orthodoxy and heresy because they claim to prioritize “love.” Yet 1 John is a book focused on love, and here we are, giving false teachers no quarter. John does not believe that true love can exist when its foundation is denied. And so all forms of liberal ecumenism are condemned by this passage. We cannot agree to set aside fundamental doctrines. We cannot have joint worship services with other religions. John even says that those who deny the Son deny the Father, and so we cannot agree to say that “we all worship the same God.” Biblical Christianity makes an exclusive claim in this regards. No man can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ, and thus no religion worships the Father unless they worship His Son.
The Antichrist can be a frightening concept, and defending the gospel in the face of false religions can be intimidating, but John gives us comfort. We do not need to be afraid. We do not even need to doubt ourselves. “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth” (1 John 2:20-21). Because we have this “anointing” we can discern truth from error, and we can be confident that we will stand firm in the faith.
What is this anointing? The word ordinarily refers to a literal anointing with oil, having it poured upon you. Here it is being used figuratively to describe a spiritual reality, something which all true Christians are said to possess. This anointing is also a natural contrast to the antichrist. You see, the word “christ” means “anointed one.” To have an anointing is to be a christ. Through our union with Christ, we are all anointed. We are true christs as we are in the true Christ.
And so this anointing is some sort of spiritual quality which all believers have. It is from “the Holy One.” John continues to explain it, saying that it came from Jesus (1 John 2:27). It is “in” all believers (1 John 3:9). It is a person: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). It is a witness (1 John 5:9-13).
Elsewhere in the New Testament, we read that the Holy Spirit “anoints” people. Jesus claimed to have been “anointed” and that this meant that the Holy Spirit was “upon him” in Luke 4:18. Peter also preached that Jesus had been anointed buy the Holy Spirit in Acts 10:38. When we compare this with what John has said about the anointing, we can see that this anointing from the Holy One— that which dwells in all believers and unites us with God, being a sure witness and confirmation in our hearts— this anointing is the Holy Spirit which dwells in our hearts.
John goes on to explain the effects of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It gives sure knowledge. This anointing teaches us all that we need to know (1 John 2:20-21, 27). This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t study more and pursue further learning. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t receive special teachers with authority. But it does mean that the deepest convictions of the believer are not purely rational but spiritual, held immovably in their hearts.
And this sure knowledge and promise ultimately enables us to “abide” in Christ, something of which John will have much more to say (1 John 2:27, 3:9). The Holy Spirit in our lives enables our perseverance and effectively secures it, preserving us until the last day. And this means that the anointing allows us to discern between the true Christ and false christs (1 John 5:20). We know the gospel that has been preached. We have not simply acknowledged its truth, but we have felt it. And we can compare all other teachings to that gospel, seeing the clear difference.
As always, this means that way of true Christianity is the way of faith. It is remembering the one gospel which has been preached, the only true gospel, and it means hanging on to that gospel in the face of all competition, criticism, and innovation. We can be assured that false teachers will come. We know that the spirit of antichrist moves all false teachers to deny the gospel of Jesus Christ, rejecting his deity, his humanity, and his grace. But we also know that we can overcome all antichrists through the Holy Spirit which dwells within us.
Martin Luther wrote these words nearly five hundred years ago, and they are just as appropriate and effective today. “Though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.”
Let us pray.