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. 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. 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. (1 John 2:18-25)
Who is the antichrist?
My advice to anyone studying the Bible is to begin and end by reading every passage as though you are a young child. The adult mind has a tendency to overcomplicate things. We miss the forest for the trees. We’re prone to read the Bible not with the simplicity of a child, but more like a character from a Dan Brown novel searching for answers to unsolved mysteries.
When studying this particular chapter of the Bible, many of us find it challenging to move past the eighteenth verse. The mere mention of the antichrist captures our fascination and intrigue (1Jn 2:18). Who will this man be? Will he even be a man? When will he come? What will he do? How will we recognize him? Will we recognize him?
Hours or maybe days later, we will have read a hundred different interpretations from a hundred different commentaries and be no closer to answering our questions. We will have studied 1 John 2, Daniel 7, Revelation 13, 2 Thessalonians 2, and perhaps a few other places in the Bible, yet we discover we’re more confused than ever. Is “the beast” of Revelation 13 the same as John’s antichrist? What about “the son of destruction” whom Paul mentions?
It’s enlightening that no specific theories about the antichrist have prevailed throughout church history. Several ideas have become popular at various times, but none of them last.
For example, the Reformers almost unanimously agreed the antichrist must be none other than the Roman Catholic pope. Given the historical context in which they lived, we shouldn’t be surprised. Martin Luther emphatically declared, “We are convinced that the papacy is the seat of the true and real Antichrist.” John Calvin wrote, “Daniel and Paul had predicted that [the] Antichrist would sit in the temple of God. The head of that cursed and abominable kingdom … we affirm to be the Pope.” Even the Baptist Confession of 1689 says, “The Pope of Rome [cannot] in any sense be [the head of the church], but is that Antichrist, that Man of sin, and Son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ.”
Today, most theologians and Bible commentators aren’t satisfied to think of the antichrist as a position which changes hands from one man to the next. They prefer to think of him as a single person rising to tremendous power and influence, sparking the world’s worst years of tribulation. If you’ve ever read the Left Behind novels or seen the movies, you’re vaguely familiar this most popular brand of eschatology, that is, the study of end times.
Paul seems to agree. When writing to the Thessalonians, he says:
Let no one deceive you in any way. For [the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ] 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. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. (2 Thessalonians 2:3; 1; 4-6).
Before we fall down any rabbit holes, I want you to notice the vagueness of Paul’s description. While he does tell us more than John, he doesn’t tell us, for instance, whether we’re capable of identifying this man when he finally arrives on the scene. He doesn’t specifically describe what this man will do once he’s here other than take his seat in the temple of God, which may or may not be literal, and proclaim himself to be God (2Th 2:4). Evidently, Paul wants us to be aware of the potential threat he poses—”Let no one deceive you,” he writes (2Th 2:3)—but he also seems to be intentionally obscure.
In fact, Paul quickly transitions from this mysterious man to come at some undefined point in the future to the church’s present realities. He reminds us, “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2Th 2:7). John employs the same approach, writing, “As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (1Jn 2:18).
Whatever the future may hold, the apostles believe it will be fundamentally the same as what we are experiencing now. Even if it were to get much worse, neither Paul nor John wants tomorrow to be our focus. They both implore us to recognize what’s happening right now.
If you read this passage like a child, you’ll see that John is not writing about the threat of a singular antichrist in the distant future. “Though I know you’ve heard about an antichrist to come,” he says, “you desperately need to know that many antichrists have already come” (1Jn 2:18). Never mind the future. The threat is here. In his second epistle, he adds:
For 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. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. (2 John 7)
If John is not altogether denying the future existence of one supreme antichrist, he is at the very least arguing against an inordinate obsession with the idea. Perhaps he fears we may distract ourselves. While we’re busy studying newspaper headlines, watching events in the Middle East unfold with keen interest, and trying our best to understand spiritual mysteries which God likely intended to remain mysteries, we’re paying no attention to the fact that many antichrists have already infiltrated the church (1Jn 2:18). At this very moment, deceivers who deny the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh may be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with us on the pews or standing in the pulpit, speaking twisted things, hoping to draw away the disciples after them (2Jn 7; Ac 20:30).
It would help us to stop thinking of eschatology as the study of future things. As I said, eschatology is the study of end times. According to John, not to mention Paul, Peter, the author of Hebrews, and some Old Testament prophets, the last days or the last hour began at the resurrection and ascension of Christ (Ac 2:17; 1Jn 2:18). Writing two-thousand years ago, John tells his readers, “Children, it is the last hour … We know that it is the last hour because many antichrists have come.” In other words, we are currently living in that future which many Christians are still naively waiting to come.
What does the Bible say about false believers?
Notice how John describes the situation of those early churches as a matter of fact: “They, that is, the antichrists, went out from us, but they were not of us” (1Jn 2:19; 18). Everyone already knew something was amiss. Even if they had overlooked every other warning sign, the fact that people were leaving the church made the existence of a problem obvious.
Chances are, the presence and subsequent departure of these antichrists form the basis for this entire letter. John is writing to confused and discouraged believers. His original audience was confused because they heard conflicting ideas about Christ and the faith. They were discouraged because people they assumed to be their brethren were disappearing, turning their backs on the church and possibly leaving to form a new group.
By the way, denominationalism is a relatively new phenomenon in Christian culture. For most of church history, a Christian would have been appalled to see two church buildings on the same street corner. In their minds, it represented division among God’s people. According to the book of Ephesians as well as other parts of Scripture, the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel is that God supernaturally unifies his people (Eph 3:6). Division stands in blatant opposition to the gospel itself.
The situation in John’s day, however, was much worse than Christians arguing over the proper subjects of baptism or the color of the carpet. People weren’t leaving the churches because they wanted to worship on Saturday rather than Sunday. “Who is the liar,” John writes, “but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1Jn 2:22).
To be clear, John is not describing wayward Christians who make a mere short-lived mistake. He’s not talking about someone like Peter who denied Jesus in a panicked moment of peer pressure. As soon as Peter remembered the Lord’s prediction of his denial, he went out and wept bitterly (Lk 22:61-62). He did not, as John says of the antichrists, abandon the faith (1Jn 2:18). He immediately repented of his sin and soon became one of the most prominent church leaders of the first century.
Instead, John places the dividing line between the children of God and the children of the devil (1Jn 3:10). The comparison here is not between Christians who succumb to temptations of the flesh and those who don’t. The contrast is between the saved and unsaved, genuine believers and those who only appear to be believers for a short time.
John argues, “These people who left 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). The difference between us and them is substantial. We’re not talking about superficial disparities. This situation is not one where we can say, “We are Baptists. They are Methodists. But we’re all Christians.”
They who are not of us are those who do not abide in the Son and in the Father (1Jn 2:24). They who are not of us are those who are trying to deceive genuine Christians (1Jn 2:26). They who are not of us are not born of God as John will say in the next chapter (1Jn 3:9). Though they appeared to be of us, their departure proves—”that it might become plain,” John writes—they never were, in fact, of us (1Jn 2:19). They are of an altogether different nature.
Writing to the Colossians, Paul says:
And you, who once were alienated from God and hostile in mind toward him, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. (Colossians 1:21-23)
Christians undergo a substantial transformation in the new birth. Not only do we become eternally reconciled to God, Christ launches us on a trajectory of holiness where we become stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel, not permanently anyhow (Col 1:22-23). Paul is confident of this fact. He has no doubts about it. The verb he uses, translated, continue in, conveys absolute certainty.
In other words, he’s not imploring believers to secure their own salvation by continuing in the faith as though they could potentially lose their salvation (Col 1:23). He’s essentially telling the Colossians what he told the Philippians: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Php 1:6). If someone who once professed the faith becomes a denier of the faith, he has not lost his salvation. According to John, that person has simply proven he never was of us, that is, those whom Christ reconciled in his body of flesh by his death (1Jn 2:19; Col 1:22).
Put another way, God’s people will not abandon God because God will not abandon them.
The antichrists, on the other hand, are secretly ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing (1Jn 2:18; Mt 7:15). Evidently, they’re capable of disguising themselves as true Christians, but I suppose the costume is too itchy or warm to wear forever, or maybe their tail begins to poke out of the back. Regardless, circumstances eventually arise where they can’t hide their true identity any longer. At that point, schism in the church is inevitable.
Perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, division in the church is not always a bad thing. God forbid we ever go to war over secondary issues or something as trivial as the color of the carpet. But when the split is between those who know and believe the truth of Christ and those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, the split is positively necessary (1Jn 2:22).
Even so, watching people you love, people you believed were fellow Christians abandon the faith, leave the church, deny the gospel, and maybe try to take others down with them is never easy. It’s even harder when you understand the implications of their actions. They may very well reveal something horribly tragic about themselves, namely, they were never Christians in the first place.
The aftermath can be devastating. These deceivers may eventually leave, but typically not before they’ve had a chance to inject some heresy into the church. The people they leave behind, then, have to sort through the doctrinal confusion they created, not to mention cope with a looming fear that anyone could potentially be a false believer. Like the disciples upon learning one of them would betray Jesus, they suddenly find themselves very sorrowful, asking, “Is it I, Lord? Could I be a false Christian?” (Mk 26:22).
Hence, John’s motivation for writing this epistle. “People departed from the faith,” John says. “We all know that. Now, let me explain why. Furthermore, let me explain why you shouldn’t be worried. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know you have eternal life” (1Jn 5:13).
Anointed by the Holy One
In my experience, those who are most troubled by these Bible passages on apostasy have the fewest reasons to worry. Chances are, you find these passages unsettling because you know … the truth (1Jn 2:21).
You know the horrifying reality of hell, so the thought of you or someone you love heading to that place of eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels is terrifying (Mt 25:41). You know all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment, so you’re painfully aware that we’re all capable of the worst kinds of depravity (Isa 64:6). You know the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, so to imagine yourself turning your back and denying either the Father or the Son grieves your heart (Ro 8:39). You know how sweet it is to abide in the Son and in the Father, so you worry about what might happen should your faith prove vain (1Jn 2:24).
Your concerns, however, likely grow from divine knowledge (1Jn 2:20). You know the horrors of hell, the depths of your sinfulness, the love of God, and the peace of Christ because you have been anointed by the Holy One and given knowledge. John says, “I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it” (1Jn 2:21).
Christian, you are a living testimony to your own salvation. The fact that you haven’t followed the apostates out the door and have stayed behind to wrestle with these doubts, fears, and uncertainty is proof that God’s Spirit, the Holy One, has anointed you (1Jn 2:20).
Before he left this world, Jesus promised to give his disciples another Helper, to be with us forever (Jn 14:16). He said, “I will not leave you as orphans … The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:18; 26). Then, he said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 4:27).
As we’ve already seen, false teachers and false Christians can maintain their facade for only so long. Eventually, it crumbles. Maybe tribulation or persecution has caused them to abandon the faith (Mt 13:21). Maybe the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches have lured them away (Mt 13:22). Maybe vigilant believers have contended for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, not allowing these ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God … and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ to go unnoticed (Jude 3-4). Regardless of what prompted them to leave, you didn’t.
“But what if I do some day?” you ask. “That’s my fear. What if, like Judas Iscariot, I’m following Christ now for reasons that are less than pure?”
Charles Spurgeon once said, “Doubt Thee, my Lord? I could doubt all except Thee; and doubt myself most of all.”
Doubt is natural for us. Consider John the Baptist, a man whom God anointed and promised to fill with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb (Lk 1:15). Even he experienced doubts near the end of his life.
Henry Drummond, a Scottish preacher of the 19th century, made a helpful distinction between doubt and unbelief. He said, “Doubt is can’t believe. Unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty. Unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light. Unbelief is content with darkness.”
Apostates aren’t praying, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24). No, they say, “I don’t believe, not in the Jesus of the Bible. I may believe in a Jesus, but it’s a Jesus I’ve molded into my own image and personal tastes. My Jesus accommodates all of my philosophical beliefs and scientific theories. My Jesus isn’t God. Or maybe my Jesus is God, but he’s not a man.” That’s more in line, by the way, with the Gnostics’ view of Christ.
Ultimately, the apostates say, “I’m more than willing to be a Christian, but only if Christianity can be what I want it to be.” Most of them will not outright deny Christ. They’ll merely distort his identity. They’ll tweak his teachings. They’ll alter his words. They probably won’t be satisfied with the claim that he is the way, and the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). Even if they never explicitly say it, you’ll hear it when you listen closely. They don’t rely on Christ alone for salvation.
There’s a significant difference between ordinary Christian doubts and the willing unbelief of an antichrist about whom John is writing (1Jn 2:22). The difference is this: As a believer, you aren’t necessarily doubting the promises and power of God; you have doubts about yourself. Frankly, you should have doubts about yourself, but doubting yourself is not the same as failing to believe God.
Is your hope in Christ? (Eph 1:12) Have you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Jesus for forgiveness of sins? (Eph 1:13). If so, Paul writes in the book of Ephesians, “You … were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph 1:14).
You don’t need to have confidence in yourself. You only need to trust that God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Php 1:6). You only need to believe the Lord when he said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn 10:27-28).
In his book, Chosen By God, R.C. Sproul aptly wrote:
We are able to persevere only because God works within us, within our free wills. And because God is at work in us, we are certain to persevere. The decrees of God concerning election are immutable. They do not change, because He does not change. All whom He justifies He glorifies. None of the elect has ever been lost.
The concern you may feel over your salvation is natural, but it isn’t necessary because your eternal life isn’t dependent on your ability to keep it. Your perseverance isn’t a condition for salvation. Rather, it’s the evidence. The heretics and apostates may do significant damage to the church and cause you tremendous fear, but no one will snatch you out of Christ’s hand (Jn 10:28). Nothing, and I mean nothing, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 8:39).
But you already knew that because you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge of these things (1Jn 2:20). God’s saving and preserving work is not new to you. You already believe it. You’ve committed your life to it, though you surely have room to grow. Unlike the apostates who have abandoned the faith, you have not denied the Father and the Son (1Jn 2:22). And if the emergence of these people trouble you, I won’t advise you to trust yourself or your faithfulness. I’ll tell you to believe the promise that God made to us, which is eternal life (1Jn 2:25).
Eternal, of course, means always and forever.
Maybe it’s a bit of a paradox, but John wants us to derive a sense of eternal security from the truth of Jesus Christ, his person and work. Yet we can’t have that confidence unless we remain loyal to the truth, which is evidenced by what we believe and do. “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you,” he writes (1Jn 2:24). “If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.”
The last-living apostle encourages us to look to Christ for hope. After all, he promised his people eternal life through him (1Jn 2:25). You shouldn’t fear losing something that can’t be lost. At the same time, John tells us to consider our own unyielding faith in the truth as proof of that truth. “Faith,” says the book of Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
In other words, your allegiance to the truth is not what keeps you secure in Christ. It is, however, compelling evidence of your security in Christ.
The antichrists who go out from us are troubling to say the least, but look around you (1Jn 2:18-19). As confused and fearful as you may be, you are still here, standing on the truth. Others are still here with you. Alienated and hostile sinners don’t continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel, apart from God’s irresistible grace (Col 1:21; 23).
Don’t be distraught by the defectors. Take comfort in the presence of those who refuse to deny that Jesus is the Christ (1Jn 2:22). They are proof of the Holy One‘s anointing (1Jn 2:20). Your continual faith, despite any doubts you have about yourself, is evidence of God’s preserving power.