1 John 2:18-29

1 John 2:18-29

Truth or Consequences

Introduction:  When I was attending Southern Methodist University one of my philosophy professors, Dr. Robert Jung, an existentialist agnostic, spoke with great conviction one day in class and said, “There are no absolutes.”  I knew him pretty well and felt sufficiently secure to raise my hand and ask, “Dr. Jung, are you absolutely sure?”  He responded with a rambling treatise on epistemology and a lot of doubletalk which merely clouded the issue.  It was evident that the only absolute he was willing to allow is that there are no other absolutes.  

We live in an intellectual climate in which it is unacceptable to believe in absolute truth, i.e., truth that is true now and always.  Instead, we hear all around us, “Times change and truth is relevant to the times, so truth changes.”  People assume that because there is rapid development in the sciences and technology the same must be expected in the world of values and religion.  The result is a lot of ordinary people are being deluded into thinking that it makes little difference what you believe, just so long as you’re sincere and it doesn’t matter what values you hold as long as they are yours. 

G. K. Chesterton recognized the tragedy of this trend when he wrote of H.G. Wells, who was a rank humanist and relativist:  “I think he thought that the object of opening the mind was simply opening the mind.  Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”[i]  

The Apostle John was facing truth challenges in his day too.  As the church grew and expanded, doctrinal lines were becoming fuzzy.  A group with strange views had left the church and were trying to persuade other Christians to do the same, and ordinary believers were confused.  He wrote this letter to show those who consider themselves Christians how they can be sure they really are Christians, and he offered three tests for this purpose.

So far we have examined two of these tests—the moral test (are we obedient?) and the social test (do we love one another?).  Today the Apostle confronts us with the third great test, the doctrinal test:  do we believe the truth?  This test is every bit as important as the other two, for a person can live by very high standards and can be very loving to his fellow man and still not be a Christian.  Those of the Mormon faith strike me as prime examples.  Their behavioral standards, at least on the surface, are high and they take a back seat to no one in taking care of their own.  But they fail miserably at this third test—the test of truth.

Let’s divide our text into two parts today—recognizing false teachers and then counteracting them. First, how do we recognize them?  There are at least three telltale signs.

Recognizing false teachers—three telltale signs. 

False teachers will proliferate as the Second Coming nears.  Don’t be unprepared!  (18,26).  Our passage begins, “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come.  This is how we know it is the last hour.”  There are two terms here that need to be defined.  The first is “antichrist.”  The first time this concept is found in the Bible is in the book of Daniel 7, where we are told of an evil world ruler with great oratorical ability, who will persecute the people of God and profane the temple of God.  That prophecy was partially fulfilled by the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B.C., but not completely, for in Rev. 13 Daniel’s vision reappears, suggesting that there will yet be a future world ruler who will outdo Antiochus in his opposition to God and God’s people.  

In 2 Thes. 2:3-4 Paul calls this antichrist “the man of lawlessness who opposes and exalts himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, and even sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.”  This ruler will make his appearance just prior to a time of Great Tribulation, the Battle of Armageddon, and the Second Coming.

Now nothing that John says here contradicts the notion of a personal antichrist, but he adds the fact that there will be forerunners of the antichrist who share his spirit.  In other words, the attitudes and beliefs that will characterize the antichrist were seen in microcosm in the false teachers of John’s day, and they are also seen in ours.

The second term that bears some explanation is “the last hour.”  John apparently expected the Second Coming to occur very soon.  Of course, 1900 years have passed since he wrote these words and still Jesus hasn’t come.  Should we conclude that John was wrong in thinking he was living in the last hour?  I think not, for God doesn’t keep time the way we do.  It was the last hour in John’s day in the sense that God had done all he was going to do for the salvation of man.  God had become incarnate in Jesus, lived a perfect life, died, was resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.  The next major event in human history, from the divine perspective would be the Second Coming.  That is still true.  

The explanation of the last 1900 years is simply that God is not willing that any should perish, so he tarries to give more people the opportunity of being saved.  That’s exactly what Peter says.  “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends:  With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

More than a century ago John Henry Newman offered an intriguing look at NT chronology by suggesting that until the cross, the course of human history ran straight toward the end, but then it changed its direction and now runs right along the brink.  In the Christian era it is always five minutes to midnight.

Whatever one may say about the prophetic chronology, this much is clear:  we are closer to the Second Coming than we’ve ever been before.  And the Scriptures indicate that as the time draws near there will be greater and greater defection from the truth.  Listen to I Tim. 4:1:  “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.  Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.  They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.”  

Jesus spoke of the time immediately preceding the Second Coming in Matt. 24:10 when he said:  “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.”  False teachers will proliferate as the Second Coming nears.  Don’t be unprepared!

False teachers will arise from within the Church.  Don’t be surprised!  (19)  Look at verse 19:  “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us.  For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”  The first thing I want you to notice here is that the false teachers were originally in the church.  We sometimes think of the term “antichrist” as referring only to one who is in open, active opposition to Christ, for the prefix “anti” can mean “against.”  But it can also mean “instead of.”  And I’m inclined to think that the latter is the primary view of Scripture.  Before Antichrist opposes Christ, he is pictured in Scripture as a very attractive, dynamic, charismatic leader; that is why he is able to deceive so many.  And the same is true of those who have the spirit of antichrist.  They present themselves as substitutes for Christ rather than as opponents of him.  In 2 Cor. 11 Paul speaks of false teachers in the Church:  “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.  It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness.  Their end will be what their actions deserve.”

I personally think that the greatest danger for the church has never been from its active opposition out in the world but always from compromisers and false teachers within.  The purest and healthiest church in the world today may be the church in China, where Communism has systematically tried to exterminate the Christian faith for the past 40 years. On the other hand, right here in the US, where the church has the luxury of complete religious freedom, cults have flourished.  

Yes, false teachers often arise from within the church and we shouldn’t be surprised.  But shouldn’t we ferret them out?  Shouldn’t we give lie detector tests to every teacher and leader in the church, kind of like random drug testing?  Shouldn’t we conduct periodic witch hunts?  Not really. Obviously we should prevent those who are false teachers or even novices from teaching in the first place. And if someone begins to teach heresy, he should be disciplined in accordance with biblical principles and his platform should be taken away. However, we are not to go on purification crusades.  Rather we are to let God take care of the matter.  

I believe this is taught in Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, wheat representing true believers and weeds representing false ones.  The servants asked, “Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?”  “No,” the master answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest.”  Some Christians are so much like non-Christians and some non-Christians so much like Christians that it is impossible to tell the difference between them in this life.  And God is more concerned about the welfare of the little wheat plants than He is in a pure church.  Even at the end of the age it is not we, but the angels, who will separate the wheat from the weeds.

Besides, John tells us, false teachers generally don’t remain in a church that is sound.  They eventually leave, which only proves that they didn’t belong there in the first place.  John isn’t implying, of course, that everyone who changes churches or denominations is thereby proving that to be a false believer.  There are good reasons, as well as bad ones, for leaving one church and going to another.  But he is hinting that when those with creative theological views leave, the rest of the church shouldn’t feel like failures; they didn’t belong in the first place.  Remember that not everyone who is a member of a local body of believers is necessarily a member of the family of God.  Only the Lord knows those that are really his.

False teachers always distort the truth about Jesus.  Don’t be deceived!  (22,23,26)  Look at verse 22:  “Who is the liar?  It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.  Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.”  We need to be very clear here.  The problem with these false teachers is not that they had a different view of baptism or disagreed on some details of prophecy or felt that women should have a greater or lesser role in the church.  Those are not life and death matters of doctrine.  The problem is that they denied a very basic truth about Jesus, namely that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God.  

Chapter 4, verses 2 & 3 give us more insight into the heresy being perpetrated here:  “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God:  Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not form God.  This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”  

Do you see the point?  The heresy was not just a denial that Jesus is the Messiah, but rather a denial of the deity of Christ and the incarnation.  Did the Son of God actually come in the flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as the Scripture clearly claim, and was this God-man the Messiah who was promised?  Or were the heretics right in claiming that the divine Christ came upon the man Jesus at the time of His baptism and left Him before His crucifixion?  The Christian faith has historically taught that Jesus was God come in the flesh. He was fully God and fully man united in one person forever.  On the other hand, every cult I have ever heard about denies this basic truth. They either teach that Jesus was not fully God or that he was not fully man.

You ask, is that really such a big deal?  It sure is.  We must not allow anyone to drive a wedge between the historical Jesus and the Messiah, the Son of God, for as John says the one who denies the Son denies the Father also.  All kinds of religious leaders are telling us today that the important thing is that we all worship the same God.  The Muslim, the Jew, the cultist—we all worship God. Verse 23 says it isn’t so.  Your eternal destiny depends upon your view of Jesus.

Now it’s one thing to recognize false teaching in the church; it’s another to know how to counteract it.  Our text offers us two essential safeguards—the Word of God and the Spirit of God.  

Counteracting false teaching—two essential safeguards

Let the Word of God abide in you.  (24-25)   Let’s read verse 24:  “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.  And this is what he promised us—even eternal life.”  I think that if John were writing this today, he would say, “See that the Scriptures remain in you.”  But the NT Scriptures were still in the process of being written and collected, so instead he refers to the truth as “what you have heard from the beginning.”  In other words, don’t always be looking for new viewpoints and creative theology.  In fact, Christians should be extremely skeptical of any interpretation that is entirely new.  I doubt seriously that anyone today is going to come up with a correct interpretation that has not been known for the last 1950 years.  It’s not impossible but highly unlikely.  

1.  The immediate result of letting the Word of God abide in us is that we will remain in the Son and in the Father.  And isn’t that our goal?  What good is theology or doctrine if it doesn’t lead us into a deeper knowledge of and experience with God?  

2.  The eternal result is even more significant—life.  Your eternal salvation depends upon your remaining in the truth.  Just think about the implications of that.  Playing around with New Age theology or with a cult or with liberal theology could actually be fatal!

The second great weapon we have to counteract false teaching is the Spirit of God.

Let the Spirit of God teach you.  (27,28)  Back up to verse 20:  “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.”  Now drop down to verse 27:  “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–just as it has taught you, remain in him.”  These verses imply that the Word of God is not enough in and of itself to keep Christians in the truth, however important and indispensable it may be.  Another safeguard is essential, and that is the Holy Spirit.  I think the best way to learn the essence of this passage is by looking at four elements in the Spirit’s ministry through the Word.  

1.  A unique privilege (20,27) is ours.  We have an anointing.  The term “anointing” reminds us of the OT practice of pouring oil on the head of a person being set apart for special service.  A priest was anointed, as was a king, and a prophet.  Anointing was the privilege of the chosen few.  But now it is the privilege of every Christian, as believers are anointed, not with literal oil, but with the Spirit of God.

This is not something we have to work for, pray for, study for, or behave in a certain way for. It doesn’t depend upon a second work of grace in our lives.  If you are a believer, the Holy Spirit lives within you and is your teacher.  By the way, the KJV misread the Greek in verse 20 and translated, “and ye know all things.”  It should read, “all of you know.”  In matters of faith the humblest Christian need have no feeling of inferiority to the most learned scholar.

2.  A unique result (20,21,27) comes from our unique privilege, namely we know the truth and we don’t need anyone to teach it to us.  Now here we must be careful, for it is easy to exaggerate this statement in an incautious and unbalanced fashion.  First, consider what John is not saying.  He is not saying that human teachers are useless.  He is, of course, teaching when he writes this.  Besides he is talking about the same Holy Spirit who gave gifts to the Church, one of which is the gift of teaching.  So his goal is not to disparage human teachers. 

Secondly, consider what he is saying.  He is suggesting that no priest or pastor serves as a Bible to the second power for the believer in Christ.  There is no human mediator through whom we must go in order to understand the basics of the Christian faith, and there is no human authority who serves as final arbiter of the truth.  As I have said many times before, the Bible was written by common men for common men and it can be understood by common men.  I continually urge caution toward any interpretation or theological viewpoint that demands knowledge of Greek or Hebrew to understand it or that is so complicated that only an exegetical nerd could appreciate it.  The reason I urge you to bring your Bibles to Church and to have them open while I speak is so that you can yourself check to see if what I’m saying is in accord with the Word.

3.  A unique reality (27) is mentioned also verse 27:  “his anointing teaches you about all things and that anointing is real, not counterfeit.”  The point of the reference to the Spirit teaching “about all things” is that He teaches the whole counsel of God.  One of the inevitable characteristics of false teachers in the church is that they are imbalanced.  They ride certain issues to death, even good issues like baptism or prophecy or predestination or grace, with the result that the truth takes on an heretical emphasis.  The Spirit does not ride hobby horses.  Furthermore, his anointing is real.  The implication is that the false teachers were also claiming a special anointing, but it was counterfeit.  Maybe they had divinity degrees; perhaps they were graduates of some special seminars; maybe they just had a spiritual aura around them.  Whatever it was, it was not real.  It’s the Holy Spirit’s anointing that is real.

4.  A unique responsibility (27-28) is laid upon us at the end of verse 27:  “remain in Him.”  This is the sixth time in six verses that the verb “to remain” or “abide” is used.  It means “to take up residence.”  He is saying, “Let the Holy Spirit be at home in your heart and life.  Let Him own you.  Let Him preoccupy your mind and your will and your emotions.  Let Him abide in you and you in Him.”  Practically, how do we do this?  One important way is to precede every time of Bible study with prayer.  Pray that you heart will be open and that prejudice will be left at the door.  

Friends, as believers, since we have God’s Word in our hands, and God’s Spirit in our hearts, we have everything we need to understand truth and grow in Christ.  The Word is an objective safeguard, while the anointing of the Spirit is a subjective experience.  Both are necessary.  As John Stott has expressed it, “Some honor the Word and neglect the Spirit who alone can interpret it.  Others honor the Spirit but neglect the Word out of which He teaches.  The only safeguard against lies and heresy is to have abiding with us both the Word that we heard from the beginning and the anointing that we received from Him.”[ii]

Conclusion:   We have seen that a denial of the truth constitutes a denial of the Father and the Son. But a continuance in the truth results in confidence and shamelessness when Jesus comes.  Look at verse 28:  “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears, we may be confident and unashamed before him at this coming.”  This warning wouldn’t make any sense at all if it were not possible for a believer to be ashamed when he stands before the Judgment Seat of Christ.  What might make us ashamed?  Well, failing the three tests of obedience, love and truth will certainly make us ashamed: having to face the fact that we lived much of our lives loving the world instead of obeying God; being confronted with the fact that we failed to give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name to those who were hurting; having to acknowledge that we neglected the Word of God and the Spirit of God in favor of human tradition and creative theology.

But there’s actually something worse than being ashamed at the Judgment Seat of Christ. That’s failing to be there at all.  The Bible makes it clear that there are two great judgments ahead, and one, the Great White Throne Judgment, is reserved for unbelievers.  There will be no acquittals at that Judgment; instead, everyone’s name will be checked against the Lamb’s book of life and if anyone’s name is not found he will be thrown into the lake of fire. It’s mind-boggling to think that one’s entire eternity depends upon one’s belief and attitude toward Jesus now, but that’s what the Bible says.  Won’t you surrender your heart and life to Him today?   

DATE: October 29, 1989



False teachers



[i] G. K. Chesterton, citation lost.

[ii] John Stott, The Epistles of John, 115.