They Were Not of Us (1 John 2:18-27)
by Shane Scott
With all of the emphasis on love we have seen so far in First John, it is easy to forget that its writer was one-half of the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). Perhaps the story in Luke 9:51-54 (in which James and John suggested they should call fire down upon an unreceptive Samaritan village) explains the origin of this nickname! John’s impassioned commitment to Jesus was refined by love as he matured, but the disciple whom Jesus loved never wavered in his uncompromising stand for the gospel. And it is a direct threat to that gospel that John addresses in First John 2:18-27 as he warns about the deceptive teaching of the “antichrists”.
“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” (1 John 2:18). Just exactly who are these antichrists? John tells us three things about them in his letters.
First, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19a). By “us,” John may mean the apostles, or he may mean the broader fellowship of Christians. The key thing to understand is that these were people who were once part of the community of faith but have departed from it. This is why many commentators refer to them as “secessionists.” And John wants his readers to see a bright red line between themselves and those who have deserted the gospel. “But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19b).
Second, they deny that Jesus is the Messiah. “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist” (1 John 2:22a). How is it that some could have once been in fellowship but then come to deny that Jesus is God’s anointed one? Perhaps the scenario in John 8:31-59 can help us understand. In John 8:31 Jesus tells those who believed in him that the mark of true discipleship is abiding in his word. By the end of this discourse, these same people pick up stones to kill him! This is not the first time in the Gospel of John that professed believers turn from following Jesus (see John 6:66), and this tragic departure from the faith still happens today. But to lose Jesus is to lose the Son, and thus to lose the Father. “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).
Third, John says that the antichrists deny that Jesus has come “in the flesh.” “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2-3a; cf. 2 John 7). Just exactly what does John mean by the expression “in the flesh”? Some commentators have proposed that the antichrists were early proponents of Gnosticism, the philosophy that viewed the material world and anything embodied as inherently corrupt. When combined with Christianity, this philosophy led to the denial of the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection (in other words, the heart of the gospel!).
More recently commentators have suggested that “in the flesh” does not refer to some sort of hybrid of Christianity and philosophy but to something much more basic. They define this expression as equivalent to “appeared,” just as we might greet the arrival of a friend by saying, “Why, if it isn’t Tim Jennings in the flesh!” This seems to be exactly how Paul uses a similar expression in 1 Timothy 3:16, when he says of Christ: “He was manifested in the flesh.” In other words, Christ came in the flesh – he appeared. And similarly, what John would be saying regarding the antichrists is that they denied that the Messiah actually appeared – “in the flesh” – in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This expression would then be closely related to the previous phrase, “he who denies that Jesus is the Christ,” in verse 22. This is the view I prefer.
Whichever view is correct, the practical impact is the same. These false teachers denied the fundamental truth about the identity of Jesus, and they sought to draw away disciples with them. Their defection from the faith marks what John calls “the last hour” (1 John 2:18). John may mean that this apostasy is the final event on the prophetic checklist before the return of Christ, whenever that may happen. Or he may be referring to the teaching of Jesus in John 16:4 regarding the opponents of the gospel – “when their hour comes you may remember that I told [these things] to you.” What is certain is that John believes a pivotal moment in time has come, and his readers need to be on the alert.
Now let’s look at what John tells his dear readers to do to protect themselves against these deceivers.
The Anointing of Truth
Throughout this section, John reminds his audience of spiritual resources they have at their disposal. First, he says, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge” (1 John 2:20). Later, he says that this anointing “teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie” (1 John 2:27). Second, he exhorts them to “let what you heard from the beginning abide in you” (1 John 2:24a).
It is possible that by the “anointing” John is referring to the Holy Spirit. If so, his point would be that they received the Spirit by their confession of Jesus as Messiah, which proves that this confession is true. And in the apostolic age, the Spirit gave Christians supernatural insight, such as “the ability to distinguish between spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10).
Or, it is possible that when John speaks of the “anointing” he is speaking metaphorically about the truth itself, the gospel message. After all, if the anointing was the private reception of the Spirit, false teachers could easily claim the same thing based on subjective experience. But if the anointing is the apostolic gospel, it would provide an objective standard of teaching by which all claims could be measured.
John wants his readers to know that they have every spiritual resource they need to resist the appeal of these deceivers. And so do we. It is crucial today for us to keep the apostolic teaching close to our heart. Just as John pointed his readers to the teaching they “heard from the beginning” to evaluate the claims of the secessionists, we need to measure our faith and practice by that same ancient standard. It is not enough to rely on pet slogans or shorthand lists. There is no substitute for the message of the gospel itself, and it must “abide” in us if we hope to “abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24). And by adhering to the doctrine of Christ we can someday realize the promise of God, “eternal life” (1 John 2:25).