1 John 2:18-23
Little children, it is the last time: and as you have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists…
The Apostle John is an old man; he has lived through a long day. The way of the Lord that he teaches is by this time a well-marked path, trodden by the feet already of two generations. Time has vindicated the bold inference that the aged apostle drew from his experience. The disciples of Jesus "have known the truth, which abideth in us and shall be with us forever." St. John has but one thing to say to his successors: "Abide in Him." As for the recent seceders from the apostolic communion, their departure is a gain and not a loss; for that is manifest in them which was before concealed (vers. 18, 19). They bore the name of Christ falsely: antichrist is their proper title; and that there are "many" such, who stand threateningly arrayed against His servants, only proves that His word is doing its sifting and judicial work, that the Divine life within the body of Christ is casting off dead limbs and foreign elements, that the truth is accomplishing its destined result, that the age has come to its ripeness and its crisis: "whence we perceive that it is the last hour." We may best expound the paragraph under review by considering in order the crisis to which the apostle refers, the danger which he denounces, and the safeguards on which he relies — in other words, the last hour, the many antichrists, and the chrism from the Holy One.
I. "My children, it is THE LAST HOUR — We perceive that it is the last hour." Bishop Westcott, in his rich and learned Commentary on this Epistle, calls our attention to the absence of the Greek article: "A last hour it is (ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν)" — so the apostle literally puts it; and the anarthrous combination is peculiar here. (St. Paul's, "A day of the Lord is coming," in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, resembles the expression.) The phrase "seems to mark the general character of the period, and not its specific relation to 'the end.' It was a period of critical change." "The hour" is a term repeatedly used in the Gospel of St. John for the crisis of the earthly course of Jesus, the supreme epoch of His death and return to the Father. This guides us to St. John's meaning here. He is looking backward, not forward. The venerable apostle stands upon the border of the first Christian age. He is nearing the horizon, the rim and outmost verge of that great "day of the Lord" which began with the birth of the first John, the forerunner, and would terminate with his own departure: himself the solitary survivor of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb. The shadows were closing upon John; everything was altered about him. The world he knew had passed or was passing quite away. Jerusalem had fallen: he had seen in vision the overthrow of mighty Rome, and the empire was shaken with rumours and fears of change. The work of revelation, he felt, was all but complete. The finished truth of the revelation of the Father in the Son was now confronted by the consummate lie of heresy which denied them both (ver. 22). He presided over the completion of the grand creative age, and he saw that its end was come. Clearly it was his last hour; and for aught he knew it might be the world's last, the sun of time setting to rise no more, the crash of doom breaking upon his dying ears. The world passes through great cycles, each of which has its last hour anticipating the absolute conclusion. The year, with its course from spring to winter, from winter to autumn, the day from dawn to dark, image the total course of time. The great epochs and "days" of human history have a finality. Each of these periods in turn sensibly anticipates the end of all things. Many great and notable days of the Lord there have been, and perhaps will be, many last hours before the last of all. The earth is a mausoleum of dead worlds; in its grave mounds, tier above tier, extinct civilisations lie orderly interred. Each "day" of history, with its last hour, is a moment in that "age of the ages" which includes the measureless circumference of time.
II. The Apostle John saw the proof of the end of the age in the appearance of MANY ANTICHRISTS. The word "antichrist" has, by etymology, a double meaning. The antichrist of whose coming St. John's readers had "heard," if identical, as one presumes, with the awful figure of 2 Thessalonians 2, is a rival or mock-Christ, a Satanic caricature of the Lord Jesus; the "many antichrists" were not that, but deniers, indeed destroyers of Christ; and this the epithet may equally well signify. So there is no real disagreement in the matter between St. Paul and St. John. The heretic oppugners of Christ, starting up before John's eyes in the Asian Churches, were forerunners, whether at a greater or less distance, of the supreme antagonist, messengers who prepared his way. They were of the same breed and likeness, and set forth principles that find in him their full impersonation. These antichrists of St. John's last hour, the opponents then most to be dreaded by the Church, were teachers of false doctrine. They "deny that Jesus is the Christ" (ver. 22). This denial is other than that which the same words had denoted fifty years before. It is not the denial of Jewish unbelief, a refusal to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah; it is the denial of Gnostic error, the refusal to admit the Divine Sonship of Jesus and the revelation of the Godhead in manhood through His person. Such a refusal makes the knowledge of both impossible; neither is God understood as Father, nor Jesus Christ as Son, by these misbelievers. The nature of the person of Christ, in St. John's view, is not a question of transcendental dogma or theological speculation; in it lies the vital point of an experimental and working Christian belief. "Who is he," the apostle cries, "that overcometh the world, except he that believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:5); and again, "Everyone that believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is begotten of God" (1 John 5:1). In passing from St. Paul's chief Epistles to this of St. John, the doctrinal conflict is carried back from the atonement to the incarnation, from the work to the nature of Christ, from Calvary to Bethlehem. There it culminates. Truth could reach no higher than the affirmation, error could proceed no further than the contradiction, of the completed doctrine of the Person of Christ as it was taught by St. John. The final teaching of Divine revelation is daringly denied. "What think ye of the Christ? — what do you make of Me?" is His crucial question to every age. The two answers — that of the world with its false prophets and seducers (1 John 2:19; 1 John 4:5), and that of the Christian brotherhood, one with its Divine Head — are now delivered in categorical assertion and negation. Faith and unfaith have each said their last word.
III. While the Apostle John insists on the radical nature of the assaults made in his last days upon the Church's Christological belief, HE POINTS WITH ENTIRE CONFIDENCE TO THE SAFEGUARDS BY WHICH THAT BELIEF IS GUARANTEED.
1. In the first place, "you, — in contrast with the antichrists, none of whom were really 'of us' (ver. 19) — you have a chrism from the Holy One (i.e., Christ); all of you know." the truth and can discern its "verity' (vers. 20, 21). Again, in ver. 27, "The chrism that you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone be teaching you. But as His chrism teaches you about all things, and is true, and is no lie, and as it did teach you, abide in Him." Chrism is Greek for anointing, as Christ for anointed; St. John's argument lies in this verbal connection. The chrism makes Christians, and is wanting to antichrists. It is the constitutive vital element common to Christ and His people, pervading members and Head alike. We soon perceive wherein this chrism consists. What the apostle says of the chrism here he says of the Spirit afterwards in 1 John 5:7: "It is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth." And in 1 John 4:6 he contrasts the influences working in apostolic and heretical circles respectively as "the spirit of truth" and "of error." The bestowal of the Spirit on Jesus of Nazareth is described under the figure of unction by St. Peter in Acts 10:38, who tells "How God anointed (christened) Him — made Him officially the Christ — with the Holy Spirit and power." It was the possession, without limit, of "the Spirit of truth" which gave to the words of Christ their unlimited authority (John 3:34, 35). Now out of that Holy Spirit which He possessed infinitely in His Divine fashion, and which His presence and teaching continually breathed, the Holy One gave to His disciples; and all members of His body receive, according to their capacity, "the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot receive," but "whom" He "sends" unto His own "from the Father" (John 14:17; John 15:26, etc.). The Spirit of the Head is the vital principle of the Church, resident in every limb, and by its universal inhabitation and operation constituting the Body of Christ. "The communion of the Holy Ghost" is the inner side of all that is outwardly visible in Church activity and fellowship. It is the life of God in the society of men. This Divine principle of life in Christ has at the same time an antiseptic power. It affords the real security for the Church's preservation from corruption and decay. For this gift St. Paul had prayed long ago on behalf of these same Asian Christians (Ephesians 1:17-23). This prayer had been answered. Paul's and John's children in the faith were endowed with a Christian discernment that enabled them to detect the sophistries and resist the blandishments of subtle Gnostic error. This Spirit of wisdom and revelation has never deserted the Church. "You know, all of you" (ver. 20) — this is what the apostle really says. It is the most remarkable thing in the passage. "I have not written unto you," he continues, "because you know not the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth." He appeals to the judgment of the enlightened lay commonalty of the Church, just as St. Paul when he writes, "I speak as to men of sense; judge ye what I say." St. John's "chrism" certainly did not guarantee a precise agreement in all points of doctrine and of practice; but it covers essential truth, such as that of the Godhead of the Redeemer here in question. Much less does the witness of the Spirit warrant individual men, whose hearts are touched with His grace, in setting up to be oracles of God and mouthpieces of the Holy Ghost. In that case the Holy Spirit must contradict Himself endlessly, and God becomes the author of confusion and not of peace. But there is in matters of collective faith a spiritual common sense, a Christian public opinion in the communion of saints, behind the extravagances of individuals and the party cries of the hour, which acts informally by a silent and impalpable pressure, but all the more effectually, after the manner of the Spirit.
2. To this inward and cumulative witness there corresponds an outward witness, defined once for all. "You know the truth...that no lie is of the truth That which you heard from the beginning, let it abide in you" (vers. 21, 24). Here is an objective criterion, given in the truth about Christ and the Father as John's readers heard it from the apostles at the first, and as we find it written in their books. Believing that to be true, the Church rejected promptly what did not square with it. In the most downright and peremptory fashion St. John asserts the apostolic witness to be a test of religious truth: "We are of God: he that knows God hears us; he that is not of God hears us not. By this we recognise the spirit of truth and the spirit of error" (1 John 4:6), Here is the exterior test of the inner light. The witness of the Spirit in the living Church, and in the abiding apostolic word, authenticate and guard each other. This must be so, if one and the self-same Spirit testifies in both. Experience and Scripture coincide. Neither will suffice us separated from the other. Without experience, Scripture becomes a dead letter; without the norm of Scripture, experience becomes a speculation, a fanaticism, or a conceit.
3. The third guarantee cited by St. John lies outside ourselves and the Church: it is neither the chrism that rests upon all Christians, nor the apostolic message deposited with the Church in the beginning; it is the faithfulness of our promise giving Lord. His fidelity is our ultimate dependence; and it is involved in the two safeguards previously described. Accordingly, when the apostle has said, in verse 24, "If that abide in you which ye heard from the beginning, ye too shall abide in the Son and the Father," he adds, to make all sure, in the next verse: "And this is the promise which He promised us — the eternal life!" It is our Lord's own assurance over again (John 8:51; John 15:4). The life of fellowship with the Father in the Son, which the antichrist would destroy at its root by denying the Son, the Son of God pledges Himself to maintain amongst those who are loyal to His word, and the word of His apostles, which is virtually His own. He has promised us this (αὐτὸς ἐπηγγείλατο) — He who says, "I am the resurrection and the life." No brief or transient existence is that secured to His people, but "the eternal life." Now eternal life means with St. John, not as with St. Paul a prize to be won, but a foundation on which to rest, a fountain from which to draw; not a future attainment so much as a present divine, and therefore abiding, possession. It is the life which came into the world from God with Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1, 2), and in which every soul has its part that is grafted into Him. Understanding this, we see that the promise of life eternal, in verse 25, is not brought in as an incitement to hope, but as a reassurance to our troubled faith. "These things have I written unto you," the apostle says, "concerning those that mislead you" (ver. 26). Christ's word is set against theirs. Error cannot prevail against the truth as it is in Jesus. "Our little systems have their day"; but the fellowship of souls which rests upon the foundation of the apostles has within it the power of an indissoluble life. Such are the three guarantees of the permanence of Christian doctrine and the Christian life, as they were conceived by St. John and are asserted by him here at his last hour, when the tempests of persecution and sceptical error were on all sides let loose against the Church.
(George G. Findlay, B. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.