1 John 2:20-23 – Who is the Antichrist?

In contrast to the ones who have left John’s circle, the readers have been anointed by the Holy One and know the truth (2:20-21). Although John does not specifically say this is the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the word anointing found here is used in the NT only with God as the subject and the Holy Spirit as the object. God is the Holy one, but in John’s gospel Jesus is the holy one, “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). In addition Jesus will send the Holy Spirit who “will teach them the truth (John 15:26; 16:7, 12–15)” (Kruse, 103).

By way of contrast, the antichrists who have already gone out from John’s apostolic circle are the ones who are not anointed by God and do not know the truth about Jesus (2:22-23)

  • They deny Jesus is the Christ, the messiah.
  • They deny the Father and the Son.
  • They do not confess the Son or the Father.
  • They try to deceive the true believers (v. 26).

Who are these antichrists? Are they even Christians? For John, they are not believers. Either they have rejected their faith or were never really believed in the first place. it is possible they are Jewish Christians who have rejected the idea that Jesus is the Messiah, or they could be Gentiles who have rejected the Jewish-ness of the Christian faith. We just do not know enough to be sure since we do not have anything reporting their side of this conflict with John and the apostolic churches in Ephesus.

Who Is the Antichrist?But do they think are Christians? As Kruse says, “In their own minds they had not ceased to be Christians, but the author believed they had, for no one could hold their Christology and still remain a Christian” (Kruse, 105). They are Christians who deny something fundamental about Jesus that he is messiah or the son of God, or (as John says later) that Jesus came in the flesh.

Why have they denied Jesus as the messiah? We cannot know for sure since we do not have the writings of the opponents. But if they were Jewish Christians, it is possible the idea of a crucified messiah was offensive to them. If they were Gentiles, converts from the Greco-Roman paganism of Ephesus, perhaps they had no idea what the Jewish Messiah was or why that concept was necessary for being a believer in Christ.

Because the readers have the Holy Spirit, they do not need anyone to tell them the truth. Whether that is the author of the letter, verse 21, or those who have gone out from John’s church.

For John, the ultimate test is one’s confession of Jesus. John will develop what a person must confess about Jesus in the following verses, but for now his point is the ones who have eternal life have confessed the Son and the Father has anointed them with the Holy Spirit.

This is the challenge for me as I read this passage. I find it very easy to look at another Christian denomination, one with a different theological approach than mine, or maybe one that is more legalistic (or more liberal) than me, and think of them as “not really Christians.” But if their Christology is biblical and they demonstrate the love of God, then I cannot really dismiss them even if I don’t like something about their doctrine or practice. This ought to lead to a more broad view of Christianity.

On the other hand, there are groups with claim to be Christian that have denied a biblical Christology (so theologically liberal) or do not practice love towards others. It is possible someone might have proper doctrine and practice hate towards people (common in extremely conservative Christian groups). Someone might demonstrate the love of God to all people in amazing ways, but really have no clue what the Bible actually says about Jesus. For John, both of these extremes are dangerous and obscure the truth of the Gospel. Real Christianity is not just proper beliefs, nor is it just proper behavior. Real Christianity is a balance of both doctrine and practice.

1 John 2:18-19 – The Coming of the Antichrist

John declares it is the “last hour” and the antichrist is coming (2:18). What does he mean by last hour? Most pop-evangelicals have a sense of antichrist from the Left Behind books and there are plenty of conspiracy theories out there proving your most hated political leader is The Antichrist. But every generation has had a group convinced they were living in the end times and every generation has named more than one enemy the antichrist.

Hillary Clinton AntichristAlthough this exact phrase doesn’t appear elsewhere in the New Testament, the idea of the last days is common. One characteristic of the last days is that false teachers will come (2 Tim 3:1; 2 Pet 3:3; Jude 18). Jesus taught many false christs (pseudochrist) would appear in the last days (Matt 24:24; Mark 13:22). There are other warnings against false messiahs in Jewish literature (see this post for examples).

Here John uses the title antichrist an expected way. Most think of antichrist as the leader of the rebellion against God in the future, but that is not how the word is used in the New Testament. The word does not appear in Daniel or Revelation to describe any leader coming in the future, and Paul calls the leader of the end times rebellion the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2, see this post). This alone ought to caution us against throwing around the term antichrist to condemn political enemies. That is NOT how the term was used in the Bible. In fact, the use here in 1 John is theological, a teacher who denies certain things about Jesus is an antichrist.

In 1 and 2 John, there are already many antichrists in the world. He is referring to those opponents who have left his congregation and are deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. According to John, they “went out” from his church, but they were never part of that church because they did not remain (2:19). Since they deny Jesus is the Christ, they are the antichrist, the false prophets and teachers Jesus warned his disciples were coming into the world.

John says the presence of many antichrists is proof this is the last hour. There is a fair amount of application to be drawn from this passage. Certainly we live in a time when there are any number of people who have bad ideas and theology concerning who Jesus is. Although there are no more heretics today than in any other time in church history, the heretics have more access to public media than any other time in history. Just as Paul would say in the last days scoffers will come scoffing, John is saying that in these last days people who oppose Jesus as the Messiah and the son of God are common and they are extremely dangerous.

For John, any teaching that does not understand Jesus correctly is dangerous. If one does not understand who Jesus was and what Jesus did on the cross correctly, then they are in danger of misunderstanding salvation and not having eternal life. If one were to ask John “how do I define Jesus correctly?” he probably would responds, “read my book, the Gospel of John.” Obviously John did not have copies of his book on sale in the lobby, but 1 John assumes the theology of the Gospel of John, which was written to explain that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing one can have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

The Name of the Beast (Part 2) – Revelation 13:17-18

Leopard King?

In my last post I argued that the number of the beast was a hint at the name of the beast, but the clues to determining the meaning of the name are more or less lost to us. I said that it was best to conclude that John and his readers knew what the number meant and to whom it referred, but it is futile to try and determine who the future Anti-Christ might be.

But this does not really stop people from trying to “calculate the number” of political figures in order to determine if they are the beast or the Anti-Christ. Norman Cohn’s classic study Pursuit of the Millennium and Bernard McGinn’s AntiChrist provide ample evidence that Christians have been naming antichrists since the book of Revelation was first written. While the Pope (or the Roman Church in general) have been the most common targets, history has no lack of potential antichrists. Mohammed and Napoleon have been common picks, although Martin Luther and any number of Tsars have made the list as well.

A few year ago I read the fascinating book, Naming the Antichrist, by Robert Fuller. This is a history of what he calls “an American obsession” with determining who the Anti-Christ is (or will be). This is far from a recent phenomenon, no-budget YouTube videos are only the latest in a long string of conspiracy theories and failed predictions. During the American Revolution the Maryland Journal reported that the soldiers celebrated the declaration of independence from Britain by decapitating a statue of George the Third, labeling it “the image of the beast.” A tract appeared about the same time declaring that the Greek and Hebrew words “Royal Supremacy in Great Britain” could be calculated as 666. Fuller quotes Elijah Fish, a clergyman from Massachusetts, urging his fellow patriots to see the revolution through to the end. He said “although men or devils, earth or hell, Antichrist or the dragon rages, the people of God may still triumph in Christ, the captain of their salvation” (Fuller, 71-2).  The rhetoric sounds amazingly contemporary to me, swap the theater of war and it would go well on AM radio.

I suspect that the establishment of Israel in 1948 gave rise to a great deal of modern prophetic speculation. Hal Lindsey famously predicted the rapture for 1981 (or later, 1988) based on a generation from the return of Israel to the Land. If the Rapture / Tribulation is set to begin in 1981, then someone living in the 1970s has to be the antichrist. Some candidates were obvious: Ronald Wilson Reagan had three names of six letters and survived an assassination attempt. Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel and was assassinated (maybe he will be resurrected?) Jimmy Carter was a Christian world leader who forged peace in the Middle East, perhaps he will break that covenant in the future and demand worship. Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the “bear to the north” and had a rather mysterious mark on his own head. In fact, if you were any sort of a political leader in the 70s, you were probably named as an antichrist by someone.

I suppose there is a psychological explanation for this over-fascination with the “end times” and the hope that we can name the leader of the great end-times rebellion before he appears. Since most of these calculations and predictions are the response of an oppressed minority (or at least they think of themselves that way), the tendency is to imagine that the world as rushing headlong to an explosion of evil of apocalyptic proportions. I do not see much difference between the Roman church and Luther vilifying each other in their Revelation commentaries and the sort of politically motivated preaching which declares the other party as led by the Anti-Christ himself.

In conclusion, despite John’s suggestion that we try and calculate the number of the name, “naming the antichrist”  does not seem to be possible nor is it particularly profitable.  Rather than draw people to the real Christ, the over-emphasis on declaring someone the personal agent of Satan drives people away from the gospel.

A Rider on a White Horse – Revelation 6:1

The opening of the first seal is a chance to test the method described in the previous series of posts. I suggested that reading Revelation is like reading a political cartoon from another culture and time (see also this post on the seals  in general). There are several key images in the description of the first horse and rider: they are white, the rider has a crown and a bow, and he is “bent on conquest.” How would a reader in the first century have understood the image of a white rider? Of the four horsemen, the identity of this rider is the most frequently debated. (In fact, there is not really any discussion of the meaning of the sword, famine and pestilence!)  If we read the metaphors in the context of a first century Jewish Christianity, we may be able to read the imagery as John intended them in the first place.

The color of the rider is important, but it could support any of the following views. White is often associated with victory. Roman emperors, for example, dressed in white when they celebrated a victory (Charles, Revelation, 1:1620). But white is often associated with holiness, for example when the Lord returns in chapter 19 he is wearing a white robe, the martyrs under the altar of God are wearing white robes (chapter 5).

First, it is possible that the rider is the Roman Empire / emperor, or more generally, the triumphant warfare in the Roman period. This view is less popular than it once was, although a consistent preterist like Ken Gentry sees the white horse as the Roman empire as victorious over Jerusalem (Four Views on the Book of Revelation, 53).

A second possibility is that the rider is Christ and the image is the conquest of the gospel in the present age. Those who read Revelation as from an idealist perspective understand this as preaching of the gospel which continues throughout the present age. They note that in 19:11-16 Christ is the rider of a white horse at the time of his second coming, also wearing a crown. The white rider is the progress of the gospel going out to the nations throughout the present age. This is parallel to the Olivet Discourse. Matthew 24:14 implies the gospel will be heard throughout the world prior to the return of the Messiah.

But there is some trouble with this view, primarily in explaining the meaning of the crown and bow. Matthew 24:14 only says that the gospel will be preached to the end of the age, not that it will be victorious. It is a testimony to the nations, but not specified as being successful. The crown is a victor’s crown promised to the one who overcomes in Revelation 2:10 and 3:11. In 4:4 the elders surrounding the throne are dressed in white and wear στέφανος (stefoanos), but the locust from the abyss have them as well. The “son of man” in 14:14 has a στέφανος (stefoanos) as does the woman in 12:1. The use of νικάω in this context may not necessarily be “positive,” since the same word is used in 11:7 and 13:7 with reference to demonic forces.

A third possibility is that the rider on the white horse is a parody of Christ in 19:10-16.  The rider is a  “false messiah” or “anti-Christ.” The rider is the Anti-Christ, going out “bent on conquest” from the beginning of the tribulation. Several contrasts with the white rider in chapter 19 can be noted, for example, in 19:10-16 the name of the rider is “Faithful and True,” here the rider is given the power to judge and make war. The crowns are different, the weapons are different.

There is a different word used for crown in chapter 6 than in chapter 19. In 6:2 the rider has a bow rather than a sword and he is wearing a στέφανος (stefoanos); in 19:12 he has a sword (coming out of his mouth, describing the power of his word) and a διάδημα (diadema). In addition, the crown “as given” to him, an example of a “Divine passive.”  In addition, it was the Lamb who opened the seals in the first place, it seems unlikely that he would also be the rider. A bow is more naturally a symbol of an enemy, connected to the enemies of God rather than the presentation of the gospel. Ezekiel 39:3, for example, associates the bow with one of the ultimate enemies of God lead by Gog.

The first horseman as an anti-messiah parody fits well with the Olivet discourse since military conquests are associated with the nearness of the end, as are the presence of false-Christs. The word in Matthew, however, is pseudeo-christ not anti-christ.  Yet John himself saw the work of anti-christs even in his own time (1 John 2:18).

If the second through the sixth seal parallel the Olivet discourse, then perhaps it is best to see the first seal as a parallel as well. This leaves two options, the victory of the gospel and the progression of the Anti-Christ. Since the context of the second through fourth seal is not the verse about the gospel, but rather the appearance of false messiahs, it is best to conclude the white horse is a parody of the Messiah.

This conclusion would have been understood by a Jewish Christian readership which knew of the idea of a great persecution at the end of the age, and perhaps even the typology of Antichious Epiphanes from Daniel.  In addition, a Christian congregation may very well have known the teaching of Jesus about false-messiahs.  What is more, it is certain that a person living in the Roman empire would have understood the image as referring to Rome as the empire which is “bent on conquest.”

But there is nothing in this metaphor which invites the reader to identify the white rider with any political or religious figure in history, ancient or recent.  John is painting a picture in the mind of the reader of a conquering ruler who will make war against the people of God in the future with imagery drawn from the first-century Roman empire.