Studies in the
First Epistle of John
1 John 2. 18-19
"Little children it is the last time; and as you have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists, whereby we know that it is the last time" (1 John 2.18).
This consciousness, that the last day is at hand, seems to overshadow all John's thoughts in his epistle and colour his words. But it is not a dark shadow, a gloomy foreshadowing of doom such as is so often indulged in by fanatics who want to see all things on Earth destroyed by fire. It is, rather, a bright cloud of promise illumining the strong words with the sunlight of the Divine Presence. John sees Heaven coming to the rescue of Earth. It is not God rising up in storm, earthquake and fire, advancing in terror and wrath across the face of the land bringing tumult and destruction in his train. Rather it is the rising of the Sun of Righteousness, a beneficent and radiant effulgence that sweeps over the sky and embraces all the Earth, with healing in its wings. John knows full well, of course, that the day of the Lord is to bring trouble and distress and that the evil institutions of man will not go down without a struggle. However, in the sight of his brethren the Last Day is to be a day of rejoicing rather than of terror, of assured peace rather than anxious apprehension, a day when the oncoming King shall be welcomed rather than shunned. "When you see these things begin to come to pass, look up, lift up your heads, for your deliverance draws nigh" (Luke 21.28). That is the spirit in which John uses this expression "the last time".
It would come as a very familiar thought to his readers. They, for at least one complete generation, had been accustomed to the thought that the day spoken of by Isaiah and Joel and other prophets, when God should set His hand to make an end of iniquity and bring in everlasting righteousness, had dawned. The early Christians did not make the rigid distinction between this Age and the Age to come, with a time of trouble between. How could they? In their day the vision of the future was still very vague and shadowy. They had only just come to realise, by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, that God was not going to complete this marvellous work in their own generation. The old idea had been that Messiah would come but once, and would, at that coming, set up His Kingdom on Earth and fulfil the entire Divine purpose. They now knew that there was more to it than that. They knew that a period of time, perhaps short, perhaps long, was to elapse and that only at its end would their Lord return and commence His reign. Dimly they perceived an epoch characterised by wars, famines, pestilences and persecutions, ending in another Time of Trouble such as they were then experiencing, only more intense. Nevertheless they looked upon it all as one Age, the Age which, beginning at Pentecost, marked the turning of God to reconcile men to Himself through Jesus Christ. Peter saw God's purpose more clearly and did differentiate between the time before the Second Advent and the "times of restitution of all things" (Acts 3.21) which must wait for that Advent. Even so Peter, like John, insisted that he and his were even then living in the "last time". They looked back over the ages of Old Testament history, telling one long story of the continued descent of men into hopelessness. They looked forward into one grand age of Jesus Christ. First the Church, the devoted and dedicated disciples of Jesus, would be selected and trained for their future work. Only after that would the world as a whole be brought into the purposes of God and receive a full opportunity of everlasting life.
Now John turns to the darker subject of antichrist. His readers already know something about it. "You have heard that antichrist shall come." One wonders where or how they heard. Perhaps something of Paul's teaching (2 Thess.2) had reached them, and they already had some idea of the part yet to be played by the "mystery of iniquity" when it should come into the world. Behind any such knowledge, including Paul's own words, probably lay the older belief, derived from the book of Daniel. It was that before the Kingdom could come there would be an "abomination of desolation" that would defile all that is sacred and holy upon earth, and relentlessly persecute God's true people. The Jews looked upon that as having been fulfilled when the heathen king Antiochus Epiphanes, nearly two centuries before Christ, profaned the Temple and inflicted savage atrocities upon the faithful of Jewry. Paul and John now knew that the real fulfilment still lay in the future, and they never ceased to warn their brethren night and day that they might be strong to stand when the day of trial should come.
"Even now is it in the world" said Paul. "Even now there are many antichrists" says John. The great persecuting power which was to emerge and be consumed by the spirit of the Lord's mouth and destroyed by the radiance of His presence was not in their day in existence but the forces which were to give rise to it were already in operation. "The mystery of iniquity doth already work." It is necessary for us as for Christians in the First Century, to be very clear in our minds as to the form that this Antichrist will appear to us, so shall we not be taken unawares and ensnared, and so be unable to play our part in the great battle between right and wrong, truth and error, good and evil, with which this age is to close.
The essence of Antichrist is that it is a denial of Christ, and that it supports that denial by means of brute force. It is not content to deny the truth of Christ and the power of His life and message, but it also denies the right to honour and serve Christ, and restrains Christians in the exercise of their faith. In John's day this was only the beginning, as he says here. There were Judaising brethren who sought to bring Christians into bondage to the Mosaic Law, and Gnostics who sought to impose upon them the mysticism and philosophies of the East. There were others who brought in specious heresies pandering to the vices and desires of the flesh under plea that Christians enjoyed a law of liberty and could do as they pleased, provided they retained purity of mind. Behind them all the ever present Roman pagan power insisting on the worship of Caesar as a god. All these were the "many antichrists" of whom John spoke and all these became snares and tests to the infant Church, against which they had to strive with might and main if they were to be accounted faithful. Later in the Age, although the "many antichrists" still persisted in a local sense, the mystery of iniquity became consolidated in the form of a mighty ecclesiastical, pseudo-religious system. It arrogated to itself all the rights and privileges belonging to the Christian church and the Christian ministry and claimed to be the only channel of salvation. It is a mistake to suppose that the Antichrist was a purely ecclesiastical institution. It was a temporal power as well. Men were ruled, in secular affairs as well as in religious matters, by an iron hand that demanded absolute and unconditional obedience. Only those who were absolute in their loyalty to God and faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ resisted the demand, and many such suffered persecution or martyrdom in consequence of the stand they took. Here was a power that did indeed "wear out the saints of the Most High", a combination of rulers, temporal and spiritual alike, who both denied the name and power of Christ for themselves and endeavoured by all means within their reach to destroy the true worship of God from the earth.
The power of that system has waned, but the spirit of Antichrist lives still. The rulers of the earth are still of a mind to "take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed, saying 'Let us break their bands asunder and cast away their cords from us'." The people of the world are, in the main unbelievers and no longer amenable to religious authority. The progress of education and general diffusion of knowledge leave few terrified by ecclesiastical threats of judgment to come. The modern manifestation of Antichrist is, and will be, of a much more secular nature than it has been in the past, but it will still be determined deny Christ and all for which He stands, as it was in past days. That is shown in the visions of Revelation. There the last of all the anti-Christian powers to rise in the world, the "two-horned beast", leads men back to a worship and obedience identical with that which they previously accorded the "seven-headed beast". This causes all men to receive a mark in the right hand or in the forehead and only those who are determined in their faithfulness to Christ fail to receive the mark. We must conclude therefore that in the end of the Age there will be a more potent manifestation of the Antichrist than ever there has been before. This will be an alliance of great civil ruling powers into a world system based fully and frankly on materialism. It will have no place or use for religion except as an aid and adjunct to its own plans and schemes, and demanding all independent thinking Christians something very much akin to the Caesar worship of the First Century. If we in our day should see such a thing come to maturity, we may take courage from the reflection that it is just such a power that is to be consumed by the Lord Jesus when He is revealed in the flaming fire of His judgment. Then the Rider on the white horse and his attendant armies, descend to do battle with the beasts of the earth and their armies and the forces of evil are overthrown forever.
Now for a while John restricts his thoughts and his words to the brethren and the church affairs of his own day. Thinking still of those local antichrists, the Judaisers, the Gnostics and the false teachers of one kind and another, who had joined the church and attempted to lead away disciples after them rather than enter into a true and fruitful ministry for Christ, he writes "they went out from us but they were not of us; for had they been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us; but they went out, that they might be manifest that they were not of us".
Christians at all periods in the history of the Church have been familiar with this sad feature of Church life, the coming into their midst of men whose motive is not the building up of the flock and the giving of honour and glory to Jesus Christ. On the contrary, their motive is their own aggrandisement and self-glory, the receiving honour and power in the Church that they might be counted great in their own eyes.
As if the Lord of all the
heavens could be deceived for a moment by such paltry hypocrisy ‑ for these men
are not, for the most part, unbelievers. They believe in God, but conceive of
Him in their own image and likeness, and even while they deceive the flock about
their true standing, they deceive themselves. "deceiving and being deceived".
What an apt expression it is! Knowing nothing of the true principles of
Christianity, they ply their miserable policies and devise their contemptible
schemes that they may win a few followers whom they may call their own. Sooner
or later they are shown up before the Church in their true light, and they "go
out". But what sorrow and heartache might have been avoided had the members of
the "flock"' been more adept in spiritual discernment and more uncompromising
with all that gives evidence of not being of the spirit of Christ. We do well to
apply these words to ourselves and realise that "even now there are many
antichrists" and that everyone who by his actions and teaching is denying
the true spirit of the message of Christ is, even if the sentence seems a harsh,
(To be continued)