For the first time, John confronts the heresy within the churches directly. Up to this point he has mostly defended the faith and discussed tests of the faith that the heretics fail. He now directly addresses the teaching and actions of the ones who have attacked the gospel and disrupted his churches. We get to see the ramifications of what they have done.
He begins the section by again addressing his spiritual offspring as children. He tells them it is the last hour because antichrists have arisen. The effect of the heretics on the churches is so devastating and evil that John calls them antichrists. He does not mince words regarding what they teach or their actions. They are so ungodly and so against Christ’s teachings that they are actually ANTI-Christ.
What John means by last hour is up for debate. Some take him literally and think he believes Jesus’ return is imminent. The problem with this view is that John knows certain things must happen before Christ’s appearance and knows Jesus said that anyone who tries to guess the time of His coming will be wrong. What is more likely is that he refers to the time between Christ’s first and second coming and calls it the last days because of the new age Jesus ushered in. The Messianic age is the last age of the current world and in that sense his readers are in the last days.
However, his point also could be that since his children are in a particularly intense time of trial and false teaching – the very characteristics of the end times – they are in their own version of the last days. This goes along with his reference to the antichrists. In the last days antichrist (singular) is coming, but for now many antichrists – people who oppose Jesus and attempt to lead His followers astray – have appeared. So while they do not live in the last days when the man of lawlessness will appear (II Thess 2), John’s readers live with some of the same circumstances the last days will have.
This seems to be the point of labeling the heretics antichrists. The spirit of antichrist is already here through the actions of the ones who have left the churches. The heretics divided the churches and led astray – and continue to try to lead astray – those who at one point claimed to believe John’s gospel message. In this regard they are the current day’s antichrists. They are just like the false Christs and false teachers that Jesus warned will come in the last days (Matt 24).
He makes it clear in verse 19 that the people trying to tear the churches apart were once in the community of believers. These people did not attack the church from the outside; they came from within the group. When it was clear their beliefs no longer lined up with the original teaching, they went out from the church.
John says their going proves they were not truly of the community to begin with. The heresy they preached and the resulting split of the community are evidence that the secessionists were not truly believers. They may claim to embrace the gospel and to be children of the Father, but their actions prove their claims to be false. They do not nor did they ever abide in Christ. Those who are truly children of the Father remain in the community. That John says their going out was meant to show they were not of the community implies that God took them out. More than them deciding to rebel against the original gospel message and so leave the community, God actually removed them so that it would be obvious that they were not His (The Lord knows those who are His – II Tim 2:19).
This dovetails with John’s assertion earlier – 2:7-11 – that those who walk in the light love their brother. If they love their brother they remain in the community regardless of disagreements or strife. Those who leave the community do not love their brothers – and thus do not (and never did) walk in the light. We cannot claim to abide in the light if we cannot abide with our brothers.
The reason for the fidelity of the ones who have stayed is the anointing from the Holy One. The secessionists are likely claiming some special spiritual experience that separates them from the others. John reminds the believers that they were anointed with the Spirit when they believed in Christ – the anointed One. They are set apart for God through the Spirit in the same way as a priest or king is set apart through anointing with oil. Christ’s Spirit indwells them and enables them to know the truth. Jesus told the disciples the Spirit of truth will abide with them and dwell in them, bear witness of Him and guide them into all the truth (Jn 14:13, 15:26, 16:13).
The Spirit is the reason they know the truth and know no lie is of the truth. John is not writing new information to them – the secessionists are the ones who claim to have new information. He writes to remind them that they already have the truth – the gospel – and know the truth. They have the Spirit and thus know the truth and remain in the community. Those who do not have the Spirit are the ones who have left – the ones who lie. It is because of the Spirit that believers recognize the gospel as truth – and recognize what contradicts the gospel as a lie. The world cannot receive the Spirit (Jn 14:17, I Cor 2:12-16) and thus does not know the truth. Those who have the Spirit have the mind of Christ (I Cor 2:16).
The ones who lie are the ones who deny Jesus as Messiah. The antichrist is the one who denies the physical appearance of the Son of God in this world. John says in 4:2-3 and II John 7 that the Spirit of God confesses that Jesus came in the flesh; the spirit of antichrist does not confess Jesus came in the flesh. The ones who claim to be in the community of faith but who deny Jesus was who He said He was are liars (they lie about what John himself witnessed – 1:1-4), and no lie is of the truth. They cannot lie about this and claim to believe the gospel. To deny the person and work of Christ is to deny the gospel itself.
Thought: Note that even in the midst of a letter that stresses loving one another John does not hesitate to call the heretics liars. His (and Jesus’) teaching on love concerns our personal interactions with others. We are to love others as God loves us. But that does not mean we do not defend the truth. We do not worry about defending our own honor – we have none apart from Christ – but that does not mean we do not defend the gospel. We accept others and seek to be at peace with all men, but we do not accept lies regarding the gospel for the sake of tolerance (even in a society that worships tolerance above all else).
Since they deny the Son, the secessionists cannot claim to believe and follow God. Jesus said I and the Father are one (Jn 10:30); thus to deny one is to deny the other. Those who claim to believe God but deny Jesus are not in the community of faith – it is that simple. The one who denies the Son is lost.
In their fight against deceit John tells his readers to let the gospel abide in them. The gospel is the message they heard from the beginning. What John and the other apostles taught them about Christ before the current heresy appeared is what they must hold on to. If the gospel abides in them – lives in them, is ongoing and current and continual – then they will abide in the Son and in the Father. The gospel is alive and must be alive in the believer – it is not simply a one-time belief or a one-time change. It is a living message that must affect the believer continually.
God did not give us His gospel just so we could embrace it and be converted. Actually, He offers it to us every day as a gift that keeps on giving to us everything we need for life and godliness. The wise believer learns this truth early and becomes proficient in extracting available benefits from the gospel each day. We extract these benefits by being absorbed in the gospel, speaking it to ourselves when necessary, and by daring to reckon it true in all we do. (Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians; 25.)
What is the outcome for those who abide in the Son and in the Father? Eternal life. What is the outcome for those who deny the Son? No promise of eternal life. Without the person and work of Christ there is no redemption. If Christ did not come in the flesh or if it was just a man who died on the cross, then the death was meaningless and salvation is non-existent. We have eternal life because of the Son. John says in 5:11-12 that the Son is the means of eternal life and without the Son there is no life. Those who abide in the Son have the Father and have eternal life.
John tells them he writes so they understand the ones trying to deceive them. The secessionists are not just liars but deceivers also – they seek to seduce others to follow their heresy. John wants his readers to face them with their eyes open.
In verse 27 he returns to the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Because they are set apart by God for His work through His Spirit, they have no need for anyone to come along with new teaching seeking to instruct them. There is nothing lacking in the gospel. They simply need to abide in Christ through His Spirit and ignore any teaching that comes from a false spiritual anointing (note that John says Christ’s anointing is not a lie – apparently there are false “annointings”). This verse is not a statement that the Christian does not need instruction – if that were the case there would be no need for any of the epistles (including this one). He merely says the anointing of the Spirit allows the believer to understand the truth and therefore have no need for additional “truth.”
John’s conclusion in verse 28 is this – those who abide in Christ have eternal life and will have confidence when He appears. Those who deny Christ will not have eternal life and will shrink away from Him in shame. The choice is clear and the difference in outcomes stark. There WILL be a day of reckoning when the heretics will come face to face with the One they deny. That that day is coming must motivate those who hold to the truth.
Thoughts and Applications
- We must expect spiritual adversity and warfare. Note that John is dealing with a church split and damaging heresy while Christianity is only decades old. The Enemy has been working to undermine believers since the Day of Pentecost. Jesus told us to expect adversity and Peter told us Satan prowls about looking for someone to devour. Both individually and corporately we must never forget that we are in a fight and the enemy is powerful and clever (Eph 6:12). Christians should never be surprised when we see the Enemy active in our midst.
- We must remember the Spirit indwells us. We live with the power of Christ teaching us and praying for us. We live at all times in the presence of God. This is both encouraging and sobering.
- We must know the word. The gospel itself is a weapon in the battle. John repeatedly references truth and the gospel in this passage. Our Spirit-enabled knowledge of the gospel is what allows us to discern between truth and lies. If we do not rehearse the gospel to ourselves and if we do not know the word overall we cannot expect to be victorious in the fight. Remember that Paul called the word of God the sword of the Spirit – the Spirit works through our knowledge of the word to give us victory over evil and deceit.
- We must look ahead. In the midst of the battle we can never forget who wins. Those who war against us are ultimately doomed. We who seem so outnumbered will ultimately have confidence at His appearing. We all will come face to face with Him and give an account – let that motivate us to keep fighting and hold to the truth.