The false Gnostic prophets had rattled believers with their esoterica, their claims that to be truly “saved” from the grip of an evil demiurge, and the muck and mire of this fatally flawed, three-dimensional universe, they would need to come into possession of secret knowledge, vital, critical knowledge (called “gnosis’” in koine Greek) that would free them. John addressed the anxiousness of the assemblies over whether they were indeed right with God.
John gave them nine proofs of their salvation, and of the permanence of their rightness with God, their new birth from above. The first proof is seen in love for God, and the brethren, and a willingness to live by faith in God’s word and power by the indwelling Spirit.
Now, John would introduce the second proof.
Evidence of Salvation: Exhibit 2
Living by faith in holding onto the teaching of the apostles.
Children, [it] is [the] final hour, and even as you heard that antichrist is coming—and now antichrist has appeared to many—from this we know that [it] is [the] final hour.
They went out [from] us—but they were not [from] us, for if they were [from] us, they [would] have stayed with us—but in order that it [be] made visible that all [of] them are not from us.
And –you- have anointing from the Holy [one] and -you- all have knowledge; I did not write to you because you did not know the truth, but rather because you do know it, and [perceived] that [no] lie is from the truth.1 John 2:18-21 (my translation)
The truth the first century believers had, had come from the apostles themselves, and for many of them, even from the lips of Jesus. For you and me today, this testimony has become what we call the Christian Testament, Holy Spirit-inspired words of God as taught through the Lord Jesus, Messiah, and through the apostles of Christ—
- the twelve (not Judas Iscariot, but Matthias, and later Paul, who most likely replaced James when James was beheaded),
- the brothers of Jesus,
- Paul’s coworker Luke, Peter’s coworker Mark, and
- the writer of Hebrews.
Yes, John acknowledged, there were those who had been exposed to biblical teaching, but then they went off, did they not? on their own tangent.
Many must have asked, but what about them? What about my sister, who seemed so enthralled with Jesus, but then went away, out of our fellowship?
Persecution, the Great Centrifuge
John wrote these letters toward the close of the first century, perhaps fifty years or so into the formation of the church. Many assemblies had formed throughout the known world. There is evidence some of the apostles went as far as India, Japan, China, and other locations in the far east, spreading the gospel. The church had gained real traction in the Diaspora to the east, as well as new assemblies established in the west. There is some evidence that perhaps Paul (or his close coworkers) had brought the gospel to the farthest reaches of western Europe.
Yet, alongside the movement of Christ were other movements; yes, the Gnostics, but also the blood cults such as
- Emperor worship, with claims of deity for several of the Caesars—“Son of (a) god”
- The cult of Cybele, whose consort Attis was said to have died and was “reborn” each year, involving ecstatic worship and self-mutilation.
- The cult of Isis, which promised initiates the knowledge of secret truths, eternal salvation, and a personal union with the divine in the afterlife.
- The cult of Mithras, which involved baptism in a bull’s blood.
- Astrology, promising secret knowledge of the present, and foreknowledge of the future through the movement of celestial orbs.
- Fatalism, claiming full abrogation of personal responsibility.
- Gnosticism, both Jewish and non-Jewish, eschewed the three-dimensional, physical realm as the corrupted invention of an evil demiurge posing as God.
Seemingly, there were elements of the Christian message in each of these other spiritual schemas, and whatever Rome interpreted as subversive to the empire (which also meant worship of Rome’s own pantheon of gods, as well as the emperor) warranted their punitive action.
Christianity greatly disturbed the temple authorities, the Sanhedrin, and particularly the Pharisee sect.
Together, both first century Judaism’s religious leaders and the ruling authority in Rome (namely the emperor Nero) launched a concerted effort to disband the nascent Christian movement.
The pressure of persecution drove away those who had not yet truly put their faith in Jesus. They were like the seeds in Jesus’ parable about the four soils. Having been sown among the weeds and thorns, or among the rocks, they never developed the deep roots of faith. Though they responded to the gospel with initial warmth and joy, they eventually returned to their old lives because they had never actually been born anew, from above, by the divine action of God.
Spirit of the AntiChrist
John also acknowledged that the beginning of the false teaching had started inside the circle of Christian truth and right teaching.
In fact, all false teaching started out that way.
That is what the word antichrist means. Antichrist sounds like someone who is against Christ, and it is true that the eventual outcome of any antichrist is to be against Christ.
The word really means “instead of Christ.” It is someone who comes in Christ’s name, someone who declares they are a Christian and are declaring the truth of Christianity. But when you take a closer look at the teaching, you see that it is contrary to what the apostles taught.
John used the word antichrist a bit differently than Paul, for instance, when Paul described the man of lawlessness.
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.
-He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship,
-so that he takes his seat in the temple of God,
-declaring himself to be God.
Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes.
For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming.
The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (NRSV)
Compare what John wrote and what Paul wrote about the spirit and hour of this antichrist.
John: Children, [it] is [the] final hour, and even as you heard that antichrist is coming—and now antichrist has appeared to many—from this we know that [it] is [the] final hour.
Paul: For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.
John meant primarily the spirit of the antichrist even now already at work, whereas Paul spoke of both the spirit (Satan) now at work and a specific individual who will one day appear, in fulfillment of prophecy.
[Liber Floridus explains how the world will end. When a descendant of the Emperor Charlemagne climbs Mt. Zion, the antichrist will appear and do battle, triggering the Second Coming. | By Lambert of St. Omer – http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_zMsg9U8UoyM/SDmj_oc-kvI/AAAAAAAABsE/U3hgOXoCuEk/s1600-h/liber_floridus1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6875512%5D