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.
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.