Towards the end of his life the Apostle John was writing to Christians and churches because he had heard of problems they were facing with divisions and splits and false teaching.
We have seen before how some Christians were breaking fellowship by claiming that they were sinless and had not committed sin. Others were failing to love their brothers and sisters, and were in fact hating other Christians. Others were failing to obey God’s commands, walking in darkness instead of walking in the light. Still others were falling into worldliness – loving the world instead of loving God, being led astray by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.
But there was another way that some of John’s readers were breaking fellowship with God and with each other. They had embraced false teachings. They no longer believed that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God.
Will you notice first of all the strength of condemnation for those who had departed from the truth of the gospel? People who were teaching wrong things about Jesus were not just mistaken. They were not just misguided. They were not just ignorant. They were dangerous.
2 18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come.
2 22 Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son.
4 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
The anti-Christ – the opposite of the Christ – the enemies of Christ
So John doesn’t mince his words about how dangerous these false teachers are. He is not talking about shades of opinion or things Christians could disagree about. These are matters of right or wrong, truth or lies.
So these false teachers are called Antichrists and Deceivers! More than that – they are described as false prophets.
4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
These false teachers are false prophets. In the Old Testament false prophets were to be put to death.
Remember what Jesus said about false prophets.
Matt 7 15 ‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
1 John 2 18 Dear children, this is the last hour;
Talking about the Last Days, Jesus said this.
Matt 24 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.
Matt 24 24 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible.
See also elsewhere, in Paul’s letters and here in 2 Peter
2 Peter 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
False teaching has been a threat to the existence of the church from the earliest days. In the New Testament false teachers were not viewed as simply misguided or mistaken or ignorant. They were dangerous. Antichrists and deceivers and false prophets.
I think this is particularly significant because we are living in the days of postmodernism – where people will tell you that there is no such thing as absolute truth. The only thing we can be certain of is that we aren’t allowed to be certain about anything any more. We are living in the era of post-truth, where people are influenced by subjective opinions and ignore objective facts. The perfect playing field for antichrists and deceivers and false prophets.
There are corners of the church today where preachers like me, who insist that the Bible is the Word of God, completely true and reliable, are considered to be dinosaurs. We have seen the rise of celebrity preachers with huge churches built on sermons which are so engaging and entertaining that people don’t stop to ask whether the teaching is actually true or not. The coronavirus lockdowns have simply accelerated the move towards virtual church so many Christians today are choosing their diet of services on the basis of the slickness of the presentation. Many don’t stop to ask, is this teaching actually true? Is it faithful to the Bible.
I was in a discussion with some ministers who were questioning why preaching is an important element of how churches call their next minister. Preach with a peep. Preach with a view. I was really feeling old when some were rejecting the idea that it is important that every minister knows the truths of scripture and is able to proclaim them faithfully and clearly. I would like to hope that any church I have served would still think that it matters what the minister preaches and what the church believes. Truth matters. If we neglect the truth we open the door for the antichrists and deceivers and false prophets and welcome them in.
John does not hold back at all in his condemnation of these false teachers. He is talks plainly about right and wrong, truth and lies. And why does what we believe matter so much.
2 24 As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is what he promised us—eternal life.
Our eternal life depends on holding on to the truth of the gospel. Our eternal salvation is in jeopardy if we are taken in by the lies of the devil. Believing what is true really is that important. Not being deceived by lies really is a matter of eternal life and eternal death.
So, here in 1 John, what specifically are the false ideas which John is wanting to challenge? What wrong teaching is so heretical that John calls those who were teaching it antichrists and deceivers and false prophets?
2 22 Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
4 2 This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.
The false teaching John is challenging is the wrong idea that Jesus did not come “in the flesh”, in other words as truly a human being. That error proved to be so persistent that John had to write a second letter to challenge it again.
2 John verse 7 Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.
Historians find lots of evidence from the second century about heresies which developed these wrong ideas, known as Gnosticism and Docetism. We must be careful not to read back into the New Testament ideas which we can’t be certain were around until the second centuries, but we probably can say that we see the seeds of Gnosticism and Docetism here in 1 John. From the days when the Early church began to spread among the Gentiles we can see signs of pagan religions creeping into Christianity, what historians and theologians call syncretism. And that is what was happening here in this wrong idea that Jesus did not come “in the flesh”.
In their legends, the false gods of the Greeks and the Romans would sometimes walk around the world disguised as human beings. These Greek and Roman gods did not become human beings. They just took on the appearance of being human. So in John’s time, probably late in the first century, the false idea began to circulate that Jesus had not really been a human being at all. The idea of the incarnation was too incredible. In particular, Greek and Roman gods were impassible – they were incapable of experiencing suffering and pain. So some people were thinking that the Son of God did not become properly human, but just took on the appearance of being human.
Of course this is a denial of the historical truth of the incarnation.
John 1 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
It was essential for God’s masterplan of salvation that Jesus did become truly human – that the Son of God, the Word, did in every sense, “become flesh”.
Hebrews 2 explains it this way.
Hebrews 2 14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
If Jesus had not become completely human, he could not have saved us.
In the Fourth Century Athanasius of Alexandra put it like this.
“What has not been assumed has not been redeemed”
. If Jesus was not completely God, he could not have SAVED us. If Jesus was not completely human, he could not have saved US humans. It is an essential element of the gospel that the son of God “came in the flesh” and was completely human.
You will remember how John begins his letter with his personal testimony. John knows from his own personal experience that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ and the Lord and the Son of God, had become completely human. John had lived alongside Jesus for three years. He was an eyewitness to the humanity of Jesus.
1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.
And John had not only witnessed Jesus’s life on a day to day basis. He had witnessed Jesus’s death. John 19 tells us that among the apostles John alone was at the foot of the cross at the hour of crucifixion. John witnessed Jesus dying – close up. He knew more about the suffering and dying of Jesus than anybody else. John knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Son of God had come “in the flesh.”
Over the centuries this heresy that Jesus was not really fully human has continued to raise its head in different forms. It can lead people to think that Jesus does not fully understand our situation, or our suffering, because in some way life was “easier for him” than it is for. If we think that dying on the cross was easier for Jesus than it would be for us, because he was the Son of God and so he knew he was going to rise from the dead again, then we are falling into that trap.
So we should be on our guard for false teachers. Always asking ourselves, is this what the Bible really teaches? There are so many other lies to watch out for. But make no mistake. The antichrists and deceivers and false prophets are having a field day in our generations.