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. (1 John 2:26-27)
Antichrists are not always easy to recognize
John has shown us three characteristics of the many antichrists living in the last hour, that is, the time since Christ’s departure from this earth (1Jn 2:18).
First of all, they join themselves to the church. He implied that much by saying, “They went out from us” (1Jn 2:19). They couldn’t have left the church without first being a part of the church.
When writing to Timothy, Paul describes the situation we face in the last days (2Ti 3:1). He says:
There will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
While it may seem as though he is describing the unbelieving world as a whole, he adds the phrase, “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2Ti 3:5). He seems to have a specific kind of people in mind. We can examine the society in which we live and readily see every sin Paul lists, but there is a sub-sect of people whose appearance is deceiving. As godly as they seem, they lack the essence of true godliness. Paul recommends we avoid such people.
But that’s easier said than done. Paul adds, “For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women” (2Ti 3:6). It isn’t difficult for them to sneak into our homes and churches because they have the appearance of godliness (2Ti 3:5). Their costumes are quite convincing. If we are not firmly grounded in the truth—weak as Paul describes—these people will have no trouble leading us astray.
Does that mean we should be in the regular habit of examining one another under a microscope, trying to determine who truly belongs in the church and who doesn’t? Absolutely not.
Jesus told the parable of a man who had sown wheat in his field only to have an enemy come along in the night and plant weeds among his crop. He said, “When the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also” (Mt 13:26). Not surprisingly, the man’s servants recommend they pull up all of the weeds, but he said, “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them” (Mt 13:29). He tells his servants to wait. The reapers at harvest time will separate the weeds from the wheat.
Jesus explained the parable this way:
“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13:37-43)
We learn two essential things from that parable: (1) We’re not always capable of distinguishing between God’s people and Satan’s counterfeits; (2) We don’t have to be capable because God will take care of it himself.
To be clear, I believe in church discipline. In 1858, John Dagg, a Baptist preacher, wrote, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” I think he’s right. Jesus himself promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt 18:20). While we love to cite that verse out of context, Jesus was specifically referring to those times when the church gathers to discipline someone for living in unrepentant sin.
Read 1 Corinthians 5. Paul was terribly upset with the church at Corinth not because sin existed among them—to some degree or another, that’s to be expected—but because no one was doing anything about it. He said, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you … And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1Co 5:1-2). Rather than strive to eliminate blatant sin in the church, the Corinthians chose to simply ignore it, and Paul was furious.
I’m not suggesting we avoid church discipline. When our brethren in the church are actively engaged in immorality or causing divisions and creating obstacles contrary to the doctrine that we have been taught, we must do something about it (Ro 16:17). First, we should strive to restore them in a spirit of gentleness (Gal 6:1). Our priority in church discipline is not separation but restoration. If restoration fails, we have no choice but to avoid them. Quoting the book of Deuteronomy, Paul says, “Purge the evil person from among you” (1Co 5:13).
But again, antichrists are called deceivers for a reason (1Jn 2:18). They can have the appearance of godliness (2Ti 3:5). The weeds can look identical to the wheat, so identifying them isn’t always possible. If we can’t identify them, we can’t discipline, remove, or avoid them, which leads us to the second characteristic of these people.
Antichrists won’t stay in the church for long
John says, “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” (1Jn 2:19). First, they came in among us. Second, they went out from us. According to Jesus, the ultimate test of a genuine Christian is perseverance—“The one who endures to the end will be saved,” he taught (Mk 13:13)—but these people abandon the church instead.
It’s hard to pretend to be someone you’re not. How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Mt 12:34). Think of Judas Iscariot who managed to fool almost everyone into believing he was a genuine disciple of Christ. Even after Jesus identified him as a betrayer, the other apostles looked around the room at one another as though any one of them could be the betrayer. They could hardly conceive of Judas being that man who would turn Christ over to the authorities to be crucified, yet Judas eventually revealed himself.
There are several potential reasons why a deceiver might come out of hiding. In the first-century church, much like Judas, they seem to have grown impatient.
As for Judas, he began to realize that Jesus was not the kind of Savior he anticipated. He wanted a revolutionary. He wanted someone to lead the charge against the Roman Empire, bring sovereignty back to Israel, and perhaps award him a prominent position in the new kingdom. Believing it may not happen, at least not in the way he thought, he gave up and turned against the Christian cause for personal profit.
Similarly, the deceivers in John’s day probably got tired of God’s people. As they tried their best to persuade the church of philosophy … empty deceit … human tradition and other forms of false doctrine, a portion of the church kept resisting (Col 2:8). Some of the believers remained stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel (Col 1:23). The antichrists were running into immovable walls, so what choice did they have but to leave? (1Jn 2:18).
As long as the church holds fast to the truth, our struggle with those who are trying to deceive us will be temporary (1Jn 2:26). They may come in and attempt to lead us astray, but they won’t be successful. “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you,” John says. “I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it” (1Jn 2:24; 21). The deceivers eventually give up and move on once they realize we will not budge one inch from the truth revealed in Scripture.
The church doesn’t have to find and weed out the nominal Christians and false teachers among us because the truth of Christ does that for us. Do two walk together, unless they are agreed? (Am 3:3). Or what fellowship has light with darkness? (2Co 6:14). There will always be tension between the believer and unbeliever which cannot be resolved without one or the other changing his mind. If the church knows the foundational truths of Scripture and refuses to compromise one iota, deceivers will find the environment too inhospitable to stay for very long.
During his ministry on this earth, Jesus made a lot of surprising and confusing statements, confusing to his first disciples especially. On one occasion as he prepared them to be his apostles, he said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). He claimed he did not come to bring peace, yet the prophecies referred to him as the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6). Which is it?
On the one hand, Jesus did bring peace. We now have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Ro 5:1). Furthermore, he brought peace among God’s people. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
You were … separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. (Ephesians 2:12-14)
Those whom Christ has given peace with God also have peace with one another. He had made all of his redeemed people, no matter where they came from or who they were, members of one unified body.
On the other hand, Jesus brought a sword (Mt 10:34). He said:
“I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:35-39)
According to Christ, what is the dividing line that causes a split, separating some people from others? In a word, it’s him. “I have come to set a man against his father,” and so on (Mt 10:35). Whoever does not take his cross and follow him is divided from the one who does (Mt 10:38). Tension is created between them because light and darkness cannot have fellowship. As long as the light remains light, that is, believers remain steadfast in the truth, the darkness will have no place.
In short, unbelievers, no matter how well they disguise themselves, will eventually flee when they realize they cannot overcome the light of Christ among us.
Antichrists deny Christian orthodoxy
The third characteristic of antichrists is a denial of Christian orthodoxy (1Jn 2:18). John says, “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 (1Jn 2:22). The very title John gives these people, antichrist, means—you guessed it—one who opposes Christ. In his second epistle, he says of them, “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2Jn 7).
They deny that Jesus is the Christ (1Jn 2:22). They deny both the Father and the Son. Of course, denying one is denying the other. As Jesus himself said, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). Also, they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh (2Jn 7).
In John’s day, some people were beguiled by philosophical dualism. Proto-Gnosticism said, “Jesus the man can’t be the Christ. Maybe he possessed the Spirit of Christ for a time, but no human flesh can be anything but evil. God could not have come in the flesh.” In turn, we see John, Paul, and others frequently reminding us that God did, in fact, come in the flesh.
John says, “Only deceivers … do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2Jn 7). Later in this epistle, he writes, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1Jn 4:2). Paul writes, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He, that is, God, was manifested in the flesh” (1Ti 3:16). Isaiah prophesied, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given … and his name shall be called … Mighty God” (Isa 9:6).
No one can read and interpret Scripture honestly without coming to the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ, and the Christ is God in the flesh. Paul even makes the case that our salvation could not have been accomplished unless the Christ was a human being. In his letter to the Galatians, he writes, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5). It was necessary that the Messiah be human because he needed to be born under the law in order to fulfill the law and, consequently, redeem those who were under the law.
Denying the humanity of Christ, however, is not the only way to assault the person of Christ. People may deny or diminish his divinity as well. They will often do so by denying or redefining the Trinity. They may also undermine his work, namely, his atoning sacrifice and resurrection. They may dispute or simply amend the non-negotiable doctrine of justification by faith alone. In the last two-hundred years or so, it has become increasingly vogue to challenge the inspiration and authority of Scripture, but if we lose the Bible, we lose everything. Truth ceases to be objective.
There is absolutely no room for compromise in these areas of doctrine.
When Jude says, “Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” I believe he means defend the true person of Jesus Christ, his work, faith as the only means of our justification, and the authority of God’s word at the very least (Jude 3). “For certain people,” he says, “have crept in unnoticed … ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).
Perhaps we should add antinomianism to the list. Anyone who claims God’s grace is a license to sin perverts the grace of our God into sensuality and denies the faith that was … delivered to the saints (Jude 4).
I don’t have to tell you that we live in a world of severe doctrinal confusion, but John doesn’t have every little nuanced teaching in mind here. He’s addressing the fundamentals of the faith. Whatever the antichrists believe or deny is a matter of utmost importance (1Jn 2:18). It the difference between life or death, heaven or hell, and children of God or children of the devil (1Jn 3:10).
The Christian name means nothing if the so-called Christian denies either the humanity or divinity of Jesus Christ. It means nothing if he denies or distorts the Trinity. It means nothing if he claims faith in the death and resurrection of Christ for salvation is insufficient to save us. He may call himself a Christian and join himself to the church, but he is not a Christian. He is the liar and the antichrist (1Jn 2:22).
Antichrists want to deceive the church
John mentions one more characteristic of these people. “I write these things to you,” he says, “about those who are trying to deceive you” (1Jn 2:26). In other words, they are not content to believe their false doctrines. They want everyone else to believe them as well.
I don’t know what you think of when you try to imagine a false teacher, but we should always remember that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2Co 11:14). Paul says, “So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2Co 11:15). Arthur Pink once wrote:
The apostles of Satan are not saloon-keepers and white-slave traffickers, but are for the most part ordained ministers. Thousands of those who occupy our modern pulpits are no longer engaged in presenting the fundamentals of the Christian Faith, but have turned aside from the Truth and have given heed unto fables. Instead of magnifying the enormity of sin and setting forth its eternal consequences, they minimize it by declaring that sin is merely ignorance or the absence of good. Instead of warning their hearers to “flee from the wrath to come” they make God a liar by declaring that He is too loving and merciful to send any of His own creatures to eternal torment. Instead of declaring that “without shedding of blood is no remission,” they merely hold up Christ as the great Exemplar and exhort their hearers to “follow in His steps.”
The kind of antichrist John warns us about doesn’t look like Marilyn Manson. He wears a nice suit, speaks with an encouraging voice, frequently mentions the name of Jesus, delivers his sermons in front of a cross, quotes Scripture, and if we pay close attention, almost always flatters his audience. But as one preacher said, “Whatever is only almost true is quite false, and among the most dangerous of errors, because being so near truth, it is the more likely to lead astray.” Or, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
We have somehow got hold of the idea that error is only that which is outrageously wrong; and we do not seem to understand that the most dangerous person of all is the one who does not emphasize the right things.
Deceivers don’t work out in the open. They lurk in the shadows, disguised as servants of righteousness” (2Co 11:15). Their errors are subtle. Sometimes their doctrines are so close to the truth that we may not see the errors at first. These people may not even be forthcoming about what they believe or deny. Instead, they simply avoid those topics altogether, for awhile anyhow. Perhaps they pull a bait-and-switch by redefining the words and expressions we commonly use. Ask a Muslim, for instance, and he’ll tell you he believes in Jesus. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover he’s not the Jesus of the Bible.
The believer’s best defense against antichrists
If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who adamantly denies the basic tenets of the Christian faith, you may have wondered how two people can think so differently, yet both be utterly convinced. Why can’t this person see what I see?
According to Paul in 2 Timothy 3, “Evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2Ti 3:13). Elsewhere, he writes, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2Co 4:4). They can’t see the truth because they’re spiritually blind. They are deceivers because they themselves are deceived.
Meanwhile, the anointing that the genuine Christian receives from God abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you because his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie (1Jn 2:27). The deceiver is convinced because he’s blind, and you’re equally convinced of the truth because the Spirit of God abides in you.
To be clear, this supernatural anointing it not a means by which God reveals new things to his people. Even if it were, no revelation which God sends will contradict what he previously inspired to be written in the Bible. I believe John is referring to divine illumination, not revelation. When Jesus promised to send his Spirit, he said, “The Holy Spirit … will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). The Spirit doesn’t offer something new. He illuminates what was already revealed.
Practically speaking, God’s anointing causes your heart to resonate with the words of Scripture. You know the real Jesus when you hear him because the anointing that you received from him abides in you (1Jn 2:27). You know we are justified by faith in the atoning work of Christ alone because his anointing teaches you about everything that is true. You remain stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard because you have been anointed by the Holy One (Col 1:23; 1Jn 2:20).
“Now,” John writes, “just as the Spirit has taught you, abide in him” (1Jn 2:27). Similarly, Jesus told his disciples, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you” (Jn 15:3-4). Put another way, continue to trust the Spirit’s guidance by continuing to trust the inerrant, infallible word which the Spirit inspired to be written. Be like the noble Bereans who received the word of Paul with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Ac 17:11).
The good news is that the deceivers can accomplish very little when we know the Bible well. As subtle as their attacks on the faith may be, we’ll know error when we hear it. The even better news is that we don’t have to rely on ourselves. As Paul writes:
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:12-13)