No shortage of speculation exist, and has existed, concerning the identity of the antichrist. Some have pointed to government leaders, such as Peter the Great, Napoleon, Hitler, Reagan, Gorbachev, and Obama. Others have pointed to religious leaders, such as the Pope, Muhammad, and Martin Luther.
What does the Bible actually say? The word “antichrist” only appears in four Bible verses (1 John 2:18; 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7). Let us notice:
1. “Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).
The context warns about two things. First, it warns about worldly lusts (1 John 2:15-17). Second, it warns about false religion (1 John 2:18-23).
The words “the last hour” (NKJV) or “the last time” (KJV), eschate hora, is left undefined. Some believe that it refers to the last hour of the Jewish state (cf. Matthew 24:11-12; 24:23-27). Others believe that it refers to the last dispensation, the Christian dispensation. Still others believe that it refers to the period of time during the Christian dispensation, between the appearance of antichrist(s) and Christ’s second coming.
The prefix “anti” is attached to the word “Christ.” The word “anti” can mean “over against, opposite to, before… instead of, in place of… As a prefix… opposite, over against, …hostile opposition, official substitution, instead of” (Thayer). Therefore, “antichrist” is either speaking of someone or something in opposition to Christ, or someone or something instead of Christ, in place of Christ. Roy Lanier Jr., comments “‘Anti’… can be used for two meanings: either it can mean something ‘opposed to,’ or it can mean something ‘instead of.’ It cannot mean both in the same single usage or passage. It must mean only one or the other” (Lanier, Epistles of John: Notes on 1, 2, 3 John, p.56). I believe that additional passages will show that this is referring to those who opposed the idea of God coming in flesh.
They had heard that the Antichrist would come. It should be pointed out that the definite article “the” (ho) does not appear in some manuscripts. However, it does appear in other places (cf. 1 John 2:22; 2 John 7). Does the definite article prove that one antichrist is in view? No (cf. 1 John 2:22; 2 John 7). If one ultimate antichrist is in view, this is not clear. Furthermore, the use of the upper case “the Antichrist” (in the NKJV) is misleading for it is not so rendered in the original language.
John indicates that even then “many antichrists” existed. Wayne Jackson comments, “The Bible does not suggest that a mysterious antichrist was some sinister personage who would appear many centuries removed from that day. There were many antichrists in the first century” (Jackson, A New Testament Commentary, p. 559).
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19).
They went out from us. These people and this error originated from within the church. Error can spring from within the church (cf. Acts 20:28-30; Titus 1:10-11; 2 Peter 2:15, 18-20).
They were not of us. View one: They were not true converts. [Some use this passage to support their “perseverance of the saints” (aka “once saved, always saved) doctrine. It claimed that if they were truly converted they would have continued faithfully. However, such a view conflicts with many other passages (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9:27; 10:1-12; Galatians 6:8-9; Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26-31)]. View two: The statement is elliptical. They were not of us (in their thinking). If they had been, they would have continued with us.
2. “Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:22-23).
He is antichrist. The definite article is present in the original language. This is identifying the antichrist.
Anyone who denies Jesus is the Christ is the antichrist. Some believe that specifically in view is those who tried to make themselves Christ (cf. Matthew 24:11-12; 24:23-27). However, notice that those in view are not claiming to be the returned Christ. They are denying that Jesus is the Christ. It seems to me that specifically in view is Gnosticism. Irenaeus said, in his Against Heresies (175-185 A.D.), that John wrote his Gospel account “to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans” (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 11). Moreover, the language of the book of John and the books of 1 John and 2 John are very similar.
Cerinthus made a distinction between “Jesus” and “the Christ.” Roy Lanier Jr. comments, “Cerinthus taught the concept that ‘Christ’ was an aeon, an emanation from Deity. This emanation came upon the man Jesus at His baptism but left Him sometime prior to the crucifixion, probably in the Garden of Gethsemane” (Lanier, p. 64). This doctrine denies the incarnation. It denies that God became flesh and died for man. Guy Woods comments, “The Gnostics alleged that Jesus and Christ were two different persons; that Christ merely appeared to have flesh, but in reality did not; and that the one designated as Jesus was without divine origin. The effect of this heresy was, in the case of Christ to deny his humanity; and in the case of Jesus to deny his deity” (Woods, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles of Peter, John and Jude, p. 247).
John seems to be addressing this doctrine. He asks, “Who is a liar but (ei me – literally, “if not”) he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” (1 John 2:22 cf. how Jesus and Christ are joined together – 1:3; 1:7; 2:1; 2:22; 3:23; 4:2-3; 5:1-3; 5:6; 5:20; 2 John 3, 7). He speaks of “the blood of Jesus Christ… cleansing us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). He outlines Jesus’ earthly ministry saying, “This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood” (1 John 5:6). Water refers to His baptism. Blood refers to the cross. Christ is not separated from blood.
3. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every Spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of god, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming and is now already in the world” (1 John 4:1-3).
The testing of prophets is the subject. They are called “spirits” because they claimed to be inspired by the Spirit (the source is put for the effect). In reality, some were speaking the message of God, and others the message of the antichrist. The test concerns the confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. The words “confesses” and “does not confess” are present tense. This does not refer to what one may have done in the past. This does not refer to having once confessed Christ. The question is: Does he keep on confessing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh? It was a test “by which certain false teachers the prevalent might be discerned and identified” (Woods, p. 288).
It would seem to me that specifically in view is Gnostics. (1) It would expose Cerinthian Gnostics. John does not speak of Christ coming into the flesh, but coming in flesh. Roy Lanier Jr. comments, “God descended, said Cerinthus, into a person already existent and left this person prior to His death” (Lanier, p. 126). (2) It would expose Docetic Gnostics. They taught that God only appeared to come in the flesh. He was an apparition or phantom, and not really flesh and blood. The implications are great. Roy Lanier Jr. comments, “If God the Son did not assume actual humanity and clothe Himself with flesh and blood, then every action in His life was only a sham. The temptations were not real; He was only acting out a deception. Hunger, sleep, rest, weeping, and all human activities were only the genius of the world’s greatest actor. There was no suffering, no pain, no grief, no humiliation. It was all an appearance, a fantasy, a sham. There was no shedding blood, no death, no resurrection; in short, it was the world’s worst deception” (Lanier, p. 128). John is affirming that Jesus Christ came in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 7). Jesus Christ has come (is come KJV) in the flesh. It is in the perfect tense. It refers to past action with abiding results. Guy Woods comments, “The incarnation was past as to its occurrence, but its effect – its benefits and blessings – yet remain, and will continue to do so throughout time and eternity” (Woods, p. 289).
Do not misunderstand. This is not saying that this is the only test of a prophet. It is not (cf. Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20-22; Acts 17:11; 1 Corinthians 14:37; Galatians 1:6-9). This is not saying that it is the only test of a preacher. It is not (cf. Acts 17:11; Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 14:37; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Peter 2:18-22; Jude 11). This is not saying that it is the only thing which matters. It is not (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-9; 13:1-3; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; 1 John 1:5-7; 2:3-4; 2:29; 3:11-15; 3:24; 4:7-8; 4:12; 4:15; 5:1-3, etc,). John is setting forth a test to expose the specific type of false teachers which were now troubling the church.
4. “For as many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus as Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” (2 John 7).
The literal language is – this is the deceiver and the antichrist (cf. ASV, NASB, ESV). The definite article is present.
John seems to defend the incarnation throughout his writings. He declares that God became flesh and dwelt among men (John 1:1-3 cf. 1:14). He says that the apostles had the opportunity to closely observe Jesus. He writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1). Guy Woods comments, “Each of the verbs heard, seen, beheld, and handled… sharpens the concept and vivifies the thought intended by the writer. The lowest in the scale which he presents is hearing. There is no personal contact in hearing; it may be done from a distance, without design or purpose, indeed unwillingly. Seeing is likewise involuntary, though the eyes may be averted from that which we do not desire to see. The word ‘beheld’… however, indicates conscious and willing participation… designed to hold the object in view until all its characteristics are noted… The verb handled suggests the most tangible, intimate evidence which John offered. In it there was physical contact” (Woods, p. 211). John leaned on Jesus’ bosom (John 13:23). Jesus washed the feet of the disciples (John 13:1-17) Thomas felt the wounds of Jesus’ hands and side (John 20:24-28). He was no phantom.
Keep these details in mind: (1) The language does not clearly teach one ultimate antichrist. (2) The antichrist movement was then at work. Nothing suggests that this refers to someone who would arise centuries later. (3) The antichrist movement came from within the church. This is not speaking of opposition which originates outside.
Who is the antichrist? I believe that specifically in view is the Gnostic heresy. However, it does not need to be limited to such. Wayne Jackson concludes, “A careful analysis of John’s references to ‘antichrist’ reveals that the term is a general designation employed to suggest a spirit of unbelief that can be manifested in a variety of ways, both in the past and present” (Article – 1 John 2:18 – Who Is The Antichrist?).