In the passage before us John he tells of the antichrist and his wiles and gives an exhortation for keeping on the straight and narrow.
v18. John begins by speaking about the enemy in our midst, v18-23. This is the "last hour", the time between the ascension of Christ and his return. This interim period is a time of trouble and persecution for the followers of Christ, culminating in the great tribulation and the revealing of the antichrist, "the man of lawlessness". The antichrist is a person, power or ideology opposed to Christ, who usurps his authority and status. The "coming" of the antichrist is preceded by imitators, who, although not as persuasive, pervading and powerful, constantly do great damage to the children of God.
v19. These imitation antichrists tend often to be pseudo-Christians. They involve themselves in church, cause trouble, undermining the life of the congregation, and then move away. They go elsewhere, move back into secular life and attack the church from without, or they form schismatic Christian groups. Their act of abandoning their Christian fellowship is the evidence of their pseudo-Christian stance.
v20-21. Unlike the pseudo-Christian, the true believer understands the truth and is happy to bathe in its light. The depth of their understanding will vary, but their desire for it will be the same. The reason for this is that all believers are anointed by the Spirit whose ministry is to lead us into truth.
v22-23. The pseudo-Christian somehow deny Jesus, the Son of God. John doesn't tell us specifically how they deny him, but the point is, they do not know God. They are liars in that they claim to proclaim the truth, but only proclaim a lie. Such a person can rightly be called an antichrist, a precursor of the antichrist.
v24-25. John now sets out to encourage his readers to stand firm, v24-29. He encourages them to make sure that what they "heard from the beginning remains" in them. Clearly John is speaking of the gospel message which they heard from the first - the gospel of God's grace in Christ which is appropriated through faith. He encourages them to make sure that the truth of God's grace has a settled home in their lives, for then they possess the assurance of eternal life.
v26-27. John reminds his readers that they do not need an extra Biblical curricula. They have been washed by the Spirit, and the Spirit's ministry is to lead the believer into all truth. The Spirit's ministry is exercised through the teaching of Apostolic truth by the Spirit filled prophets, pastors and teachers of the church. So, they do not need anything extra. All they need to do is continue to place their faith firmly in Jesus - "abide in Christ."
v28-29. Against the temptation to be drawn away from the truth, John encourages his readers to keep on keeping on. Keep holding onto Jesus, trust him, believe in him, "continue (abide) in him". The person who continues in Jesus begins to live a Christ-like life; the person who abides in Christ becomes like Christ. The fruit of righteousness evidences that a person abides in Christ, an evidence obviously missing in the life of the pseudo-Christians, "the antichrists".
Paul the Apostle encouraged the Roman believers not to be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of their minds. Jesus knew well that he was involved in a battle for truth. John knew he too was involved in that battle and we are just as involved today. In the face of the contemporary management and marketing of productivity, truth is but relative to the idea of programmed progress.
Conservative Biblical Christianity finds itself in the business of the preservation and proclamation of truth. Such a church can be identified by its concern to nurture, to disciple believers in the teachings of the scriptures, and to make known the gospel to broken humanity. This is our strength, but in recent times we have taken our eye off the ball and truth has suffered.
Conservative Bible Christians have not handled the massive sociological changes which have engulfed Western society. I was cleaning out my papers last week and came across a Bible story book published by an Australian Department of Education for general religious education in Public Schools. The date was 1972. Today, it is hard to imagine that the Bible was taught in Public Schools as part of the general education of children. Our society's move from nominal Christian to nominal pagan is startling, but very real. Along with this move is a decreasing association of the population with institutional religion. We have suffered declining numbers, and it is how we have tried to overcome that trend which has undermined truth.
Church after church has adopted secular notions of programmed productivity toward the ideal of progress, and this to maintain attendance numbers. Although our secular notions of progress via productivity strategies is hidden underneath Biblical phrases such as "gospel ministry", it is little more than conformed, rather than transformed thinking. In the face of growth strategies, conservative Biblical churches which emphasize the preservation of truth have inevitably suffered. It is to such churches that John writes his words of encouragement. His message is simple, the child of God, anointed by the Spirit, will always stand up for the truth against the others who may inevitably "go out from us".
The Devil seeks the destruction of the church, for the church is the very presence of Christ on earth. The evil one's methodology is deception, for he is the great deceiver, a liar. In the final day of tribulation his Christ-like angel of light, the antichrist, will deceive God's people, lead them astray in the glory of a pseudo-church. For the present the Devil has his precursor antichrists - little imitators. These work the same fraud that will one day "deceive even the elect."
John says we will know them by the damage they inflict upon Christ's church:
i] Schismatic, v18-19. They hurt the fellowship, divide, leave, abandon. A study was done of the American growth church Willow Creek to see where their thousands of members had come from. The majority had transferred from other churches attracted by the entertainment extras.
ii] Anti-catholic, v20-23. They provide extra "truth", information and methodologies to supplement the gospel. They "lead you astray" with a secular theology, v26.
John's main concern is not that these "antichrists" go "out from us", but that in the process of going they "lead... astray". He therefore encourages us to stand firm against their attack.
i] Affirm the gospel, v24-25. The notion of God's free grace in Christ, its simplicity and clarity, is always prone to addition. In the nurture department, sanctification is shifted from grace to law - obedience rather than faith is seen as the proper mechanism for Godly living. In the evangelism department the business of a straightforward communication of the gospel is buried beneath selling techniques, marketing manipulation or group dynamics.... So, says John, hold onto the grace of God in Christ, for in this is life eternal.
ii] Uphold the apostolic faith, v26-27. Against the constant temptation to add secular ideology to the teachings of Christ and his apostles, we must constantly affirm that we do not need any other truth.
iii] Bear the fruit of the gospel, v28-29. To live a life which is fruitful for Christ we must continue in Christ - live by faith.
So, although conservative Bible based churches struggle to survive in the clutter of institutional Christianity, we are again reminded that survival rests, not with reliance upon secular ideologies, but with the truth of the gospel. God's people will always gather around God's word.
1. Note the two particular attacks upon the church in v19-23. Discuss these as they relate to any particular incident in your Christian fellowship.
2. Standing firm in the faith. What advice has John got for us? Assess the Biblical ministry in your church.