In August last year, American author and radio host Wayne Allyn Root expressed his opinion that
President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America. He is the best President for Israel in the history of the world and the Jewish people in Israel love him like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God…. He’s good for all Jews.
President Trump, of course, tweeted these complimentary thoughts, which naturally invited a flurry of commentary. Sarah Jones, a contributor to New York magazine, responded with an article titled, “Here’s How We’d Really Know that Trump is the Antichrist.” “Satan is devious,” she wrote, “and his works can be found anywhere. Trump could indeed be his agent, and that would make him an antichrist, if not the Antichrist.”
As it turns out, Ms. Jones is hesitant to declare that President Trump is the Antichrist. She posits four tests that President Trump must pass before he can be confirmed as the Antichrist. On the balance, he does not meet these four criteria. “The bulk of the evidence seems to suggest that Trump is not the Antichrist.” It should be said that many have disagreed with her.
Predictions about the appearance of the Antichrist are nothing new. There has probably never been a generation in which someone has not predicted the end of the world. So far, doomsday predictions have not fared very well but that has not stopped people from continuing to promote them.
John’s readers were no exception to this trend. They anticipated the imminent arrival of an Antichrist figure. Rather than fuelling their speculation, John wrote to warn them of a far greater threat: an antichrist spirit. Even as they looked for the Antichrist to come, they missed the fact that many antichrists had already come, and those antichrists were a far greater immediate threat to them than the Antichrist they were expecting.
While these verses were written in a specific context to a specific church, there are important lessons that we can draw from them. We will consider these lessons under three broad headings.
The Anticipation of Antichrist
First, we must consider this church’s anticipation of the Antichrist: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour” (v. 18).
The believers to whom John wrote had heard that a particular Antichrist figure would come in “the last hour.” There is a great deal of discussion among interpreters as to how to understand the term “the last hour.” Most consider it to be the entire period between the first and second coming of Jesus Christ. I am not convinced. I am persuaded that it refers to a very particular period of time.
Like much of the New Testament, this book was written in the shadow of the promised destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This was a hugely significant event for first-century Christianity because Jesus had predicted that it would signal the end of much Christian persecution and usher in a time of great gospel expansion. It would, in fact, definitively signal the end of the Jewish era and the beginning of a new era. It is this particular period, I am persuaded, leading up to 70 AD that is referred to in the New Testament as “the last days” or, here, “the last hour.”
Jesus had given many signs pointing to this event in the Olivet Discourse. He was not the only one. Paul added that “that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:1–4). It appears that Paul’s “man of lawlessness” came to be known as the Antichrist and these believers were actively anticipating the arrival of that figure.
Sadly, like so many today, they were so obsessed with the coming of the Antichrist that they missed far more pressing matters that were affecting their church. John writes here to divert their attention from an unhealthy focus on the Antichrist and to instead warn them of the more pressing dangers on which they should be focused: namely, the presence of antichrists in their own assembly.
There is, immediately, a lesson for us to learn here. We live in an era in which there is inordinately unhealthy focus on the Antichrist. Far too many Christians are so focused on the Antichrist that they miss out on far more important matters. Conspiracy theories abound today, suggesting that everything from the COVID-19 vaccine to 5G technology is a sign of the Antichrist’s imminent appearing. Meanwhile, many of these same people seem to be completely oblivious to the antichrist spirit that infiltrates many Christian churches. We do well to learn from this text that speculation about a future Antichrist must not distract us from far more important things.
As is the case today, it seems that too many in the church to which John wrote were obsessed with figuring out the identity of Antichrist so that they could figure out their end times chart. If they could but figure out the identity of this particular individual, they would know how close they were to the end. John tells them that there is an even more sure way to know that the end was approaching: the appearance of antichrists in the church. Jesus taught the same.
In the Olivet Discourse, shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus warned that “false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Sadly, it appears that the false christs that had infiltrated this particular church were doing just that. As if to remind them of Jesus’ words, John tells them that the presence of these antichrists was the real sign that they were in “the last hour.”
The Identification of Antichrist
Second, we must notice what John says about the identification of Antichrist.
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 it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
(1 John 2:19–23)
Even as these church members were obsessed with discovering the identity of the Antichrist, John wanted them to focus on the antichrists in their own midst. The antichrist spirit was a far greater danger than the Antichrist figure. Rather than helping them identify the Antichrist, John writes to help them uncover the antichrists in their midst. He offers two particular ways to identify an antichrist spirit in the church.
The first way to identify an antichrist is that antichrists defect: “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 it might become plain that they all are not of us” (v. 19).
You will remember from recent studies that John was writing to a church that was being deceived by the Gnostic heresy. Apparently, the Gnostic heretics had once been part of the church and had sought to spread their false teaching within. They were unsuccessful, however, and had left the church. John argues that this is evidence that they were never really Christ’s people to begin with.
In the first century, things were not as they are today. Today, there are frequently multiple gospel-preaching churches in a single city. In the first century, there was a church in, for example, Ephesus or Colossae. You were either a part of the church or you were not. There was no option to “resign” membership in one church to join the church down the road. If there was conflict in the church, you sorted it out or your apostatised. The Gnostics had done the latter.
It is important to observe, however, that these heretics were once part of the church. At some point, they had professed faith in Christ, confessed him publicly in baptism, and been affirmed by the church as members of Christ’s people. Now, however, they had abandoned the church and it had become obvious that they were never really a part of Christ’s church to begin with.
It is important to recognise this dynamic because it still happens today. There are still people today who profess Christ, are baptised, and join the church, only to later abandon the church completely. John’s assessment is not that these are “backslidden” Christians but that “they were not of us.” In his assessment, those who abandon allegiance to the church are not Christian, regardless of their profession.
When we, as church members, affirm a professing Christian as a member of the church, we are stating that, as far as we can assess, the person is a believer in Christ. We make that assessment on the basis of their profession and their understanding of the gospel. When someone is removed from membership under church discipline, we as church members are saying that we can no longer confidently affirm that person’s profession of faith. We are not making an infallible statement regarding their faith, but we are saying that such a person gives no credible reason for us as a church to affirm them as a believer.
A person might, for example, be removed from membership for unrepentant sin. While we cannot know for sure the state of that person’s heart, we do know that Christians are characterised by repentance. If a person professes Christ but refuses to repent, their life does not match their profession and the church therefore must remove its affirmation by removing them from membership.
In other instances, a person might profess Christ but, in their doctrine, reject the gospel. A person might, for example, reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ even while professing to be Christian. If they do, regardless of their profession, the church must remove them from membership as those who are not, in fact, members of Christ’s church. That is the category before us in 1 John, which brings us to the next evidence of an antichrist spirit.
Not only do antichrists defect from the church of God, but they also deny essential doctrine about the person and work of Christ.
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
(1 John 2:20–23)
As we have seen in recent studies, the Gnostics claimed that they had special knowledge that ordinary Christians lacked. That is how they could know the things they knew. They had received this secret knowledge by special anointing. John outright rejects this teaching by reminding his readers that they, in fact, “have been anointed by the Holy One” and therefore “have all knowledge.” There was no hidden knowledge that the Gnostics possessed that the church members to whom he wrote lacked.
John did not want his readers to think that he was writing to them as another brand of Gnostic. He did not possess supernatural insight that they lacked. Unlike the Gnostics, he did not possess special claim to the truth so that others must simply listen to him. He was confident that his readers knew “the truth” of the gospel—and it was, in fact, because they knew the truth that he was confident they would heed him. We will speak below about how he knew they knew the truth.
But, first, he addresses the lie of the Gnostics. Their heresy was straightforward: They “denie[d] that Jesus is the Christ.” Their rejection of basic truth about Jesus Christ was so essential that John could say, without hesitation, that they were not Christian. “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” Their doctrine was an outright rejection of Christianity.
We do well to exercise some caution here. John could only make the assessment that he made on the basis of gravely severe false teaching. This was not a disagreement over matters of secondary or tertiary importance. It’s not as if John was a postmillennialist while the Gnostics were premillennialists. It’s not as though he was a Calvinist while they were Arminian. It’s not that he was a cessationist while they were continuationists. The Gnostics denied, as we will see, essential doctrine about the person and work of Christ.
Far too often, Christians are guilty of writing off brothers and sisters as “heretics” over secondary disagreements. Someone’s slightly different interpretation of Scripture does not automatically make them a heretic. There is a difference between a mildly different interpretation of Scripture and an outright rejection of what Scripture clearly teaches.
We must recognise also that the list of doctrines whose denial can properly be considered heresy is pretty short. This is not to say that every belief is equally valid. Where opposing interpretations of Scripture meet, one is wrong and one is right. But unless the disagreement is over essential doctrine about the person and work of Jesus Christ, we must be careful of labelling a teaching “heresy.”
Make no mistake, however: There are professing Christians who reject essential doctrine about the person and work of Jesus Christ and who can therefore rightly be labelled heretics. I recently read a two-views book, which centred on the question of whether or not Jesus is God. Both writers claim to be Christian. Both, in fact, claimed to be evangelical Christians. By his rejection of Jesus Christ as divine, however, one of the authors negated his claim to being Christian. Christians do not reject the divinity of Jesus Christ. But that is exactly the error into which the Gnostics fell.
The Gnostics “denie[d] that Jesus is the Christ.” John and his fellow apostles preached Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. The Gnostics rejected this teaching and, as such, minimised the biblical teaching on the person and work of Christ. And their teaching invalidated their claims that they were Christian.
Importantly, John did not believe that these false teachers were once Christians but were no longer Christian. He argues that their rejection of Christian truth is evidence that they were never Christian to begin with. They did not lose their salvation; they never had salvation in the first place.
The Ammunition against Antichrist
John did not leave his readers reeling. He did not want them to think that they were defenceless against heresy. He had already told them that they “have all knowledge” and that they “know the truth.” In the face of Gnostic claims of superior knowledge, however, he must remind them of the basis of their knowledge. He did not want his readers to always be dependent on him to point out false teaching. He closes this section, therefore, by showing them how they can combat the false teaching of the Gnostics—and, by extension, any other false teaching they might face. In short, he gives them two forms of ammunition against an antichrist spirit.
The first defence against antichrist teaching is apostolic teaching: “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life” (vv. 24–25).
John cautions his readers to cling to “what [they had] heard from the beginning.” This is a reference to the apostolic teaching that they had received from him, which was the standard by which they should test all other truth claims. Only apostolic teaching would allow them to “abide in the Son and in the Father” and give them “eternal life.” To forfeit apostolic teaching was to forfeit “eternal life.”
John reminds us here that the Scriptures are our final authority for all matters pertaining to faith and practice. We are thankful for faithful Bible teachers and orthodox statements of faith that help us to understand Scripture but ultimate authority lies with Scripture itself.
Toward the later years of his ministry, the late John Stott came to embrace a particular theological position that stood at odds with much of mainstream evangelicalism. In explaining his position, and defending himself against the charge that he was emotionally moved to embrace change, he wrote, “Our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority…. My question must be—and is—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?” John would wholeheartedly agree.
As Christians, we have the responsibility of evaluating the teaching we receive and we must do so against the authority of Scripture. Our question must always be, does the teaching I am receiving line up with Scripture? Scripture must be our guide, regardless of how unpopular it makes us.
This, by the way, is not only the case with intramural theological debates. It is also crucial when it comes to interacting with culture. The question is not, what does the culture say about marriage? The question is, what does the Bible say about marriage? The question is not, what does the culture say about gender identity and roles? The question is, what does the Bible say about gender identity and roles? Our view of the world mut be shaped primarily and finally by the teachings of Scripture.
But a second means of defence against the spirit of antichrist is spiritual anointing: “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him” (vv. 26–27).
John reminds his readers that they have the same anointing that Jesus himself had: that is, the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Because they had the Spirit, they could be confident that they could identify and avoid false teaching. The Gnostics claimed that John’s little children needed their special insight to really understand the truth of God. John reminds them that they had “no need that anyone should teach you.” He was not denying the fact that the church needs teachers (see Ephesians 4:11–14) but that they did not need the ministry of the Gnostics to give them real insight into gospel truth. The Spirit, working through the instrument of the Scriptures, was sufficient to do that.
Church member, do you recognise that, as a Christian, you have all you need in order to know and guard the truth of God? The Spirit, working through the instrument of the Scriptures, gives you what you need to guard the truth of the gospel against false teaching.
This categorically does not mean that you can live your Christian life apart from the church. John’s focus is singular: the ability for Christians to determine the true gospel from aberrant gospels. John’s teaching here does not negate the many New Testament exhortations for Christians to submit to a local church. It does offer a warning that, should you encounter someone who claims that you cannot know the true gospel apart from their specific leadership, you should reject that. The Spirit reveals the gospel to us through the Scriptures.
Of course, there is some responsibility upon us. The promise is not that the Spirit teaches us truth by osmosis. As you walk into a world in which you are assaulted by all manner of untruth, and as supposed Christian teachings assault you with untruth, your responsibility is summed up in one word: “Abide.” Abide in the truth. Abide in the Spirit.
Abiding, of course, requires consistency and time. It is helpful at this point to pause and ask, what is consistently shaping your view of the world? What are you giving your time to that is shaping your discipleship? Are you giving yourself frequently to the truth of Scripture? If your only exposure to Scriptural truth is an hour-long sermon on Sunday morning, you are ill-equipped to face a world in which your faith will be assaulted. What are you reading? What are you watching? What voices are you listening to? Are you exposing yourself to those who point you to the truth of Scripture or those who undermine the truth of Scripture with their worldview?
How do you know that you are abiding in the word and in the Spirit? Ask yourself one simple question: Are the voices to whom you are listening pointing you to Jesus Christ? Are you growing in your appreciation of the person and work and ongoing ministry of Christ? That is the litmus test of your discipleship.
Those who are giving themselves to Scripture will be growing in their appreciation of Christ because the Scriptures show us Christ. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). If the voices we are listening to are not pointing us to Jesus Christ, they are not properly using the Scriptures. Do you come away from the sermons and podcasts you listen to, and the books you read, and the videos you watch, appreciative of seeing Jesus Christ? If not, the Scriptures have not been properly wielded.
The Spirit, with whom we have been anointed, likewise exalts Christ. He was sent to point us to Christ. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13–14).
John will exhort his readers a little later to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” And how would they know that the spirits are from God? “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” The spirit that does not confess Jesus Christ “is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (4:1–6). If you are submitting to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in your life, you will be growing in your love for Christ.
Here is the truth about antichrist: The antichrist spirit is the spirit that draws our attention from Christ to focus on other things. John’s readers were so obsessed with identifying the Antichrist that they were missing the beauty of Jesus Christ. And there is always something, or someone, who wants to take our focus off of Christ. Beware.
As you begin thinking about the year ahead, and what you want to change and learn in it, make foremost in your list of priorities a commitment to learning about Jesus Christ through his word and his Spirit. And make it your commitment to help his people grow in this appreciation through your ministry to them.