The apostle John writes to the Church in Ephesus and surrounding churches in 1 John 2:18-25, because he’s encouraging her members to remain steadfast in the faith they had once received. He says that they are in the last days, which is proven by the fact that there are many antichrists out and about spreading false teaching about Christ. He writes,
1 John 2:18 Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.
It is the last time. Ever since the Lord Jesus Christ died and rose again, ascended, and sat down at the Father’s right hand, his reign as Christ was inaugurated. He sent his Spirit to his disciples gathered at Pentecost, giving them their marching orders. His finished work on the cross, having been openly declared at the resurrection, was the last door to open in the hallway of God’s great plan of redemption. Ever since, and until this day, we’ve been in the last time, in the latter days. Do not let anyone fool you into thinking that there is any more revelation that is necessary. After Christ’s finished work of salvation was proclaimed by the apostles and written down in the New Testament, there is nothing left but to proclaim and obey this complete message until the Lord returns. We are indeed in the last time, and have been since Acts chapter 2.
There is one particular culminating office of Antichrist that will appear in the future, of which the Christians in Asia minor had already been taught by the apostles, certainly, and also from the prophecies of Daniel, which John refers to by the singular “antichrist.” This seems to me to be fulfilled by the pope of Rome, whose office seems to replace the power and Spirit of Christ in the Church, and who teaches another doctrine. (The Greek prefix anti- indicates something instead of or in place of, not simply opposed to.) The doctrine of Rome is characterized by the marks that Paul writes to Timothy in 4:1-5.
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
It is the papacy that to this day prescribes rules for Lenten fasting, and forbids priests to marry. By these marks the Holy Spirit has taught us to watch out for the culminating Antichrist, whose reign of terror was already being set up in the apostle’s day in the form of many false teachers who had gone out of the Church. This spirit of antichrist, this Christ-denying, gospel-darkening activity which sets itself up in place of Christ and his true teaching was already making rounds even while the New Testament was still being written, particularly in the form of those who denied that Christ was fully human, but merely a divine spirit and apparition. This is a fatal error because without full humanity Christ could not be our Savior, since it was required for him to be fully man in order to represent us in God’s covenant and die in our place.
19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.
20 But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.
21 I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth.
22 Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.
23 Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also.
The apostle is assured of the abiding and eternal salvation, and the true hope of the promise of eternal life, that those to whom he is writing possess. He is writing not out of worry, but in order that these words might be an instrument of God, through the Holy Spirit, to keep them in the faith, by allowing them to continue to distinguish truth from error. God keeps his own without fail, and he also uses the means of the reading and the preaching of the Scriptures to do it. It is one of the tools in his pocket that he makes use of to keep his own faithful to him, especially by warning them of the dangers of falling away. In this way the warnings in Scripture against falling away are in perfect harmony with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which says that no one who is born again can ever fall away, because God keeps him.
The Lord uses John’s words to encourage the Christians in Asia Minor to continue to distinguish truth from error. Those antichrists who were going about peddling lies about Christ, as they do to this day, who had gone out of the Church, were to be viewed as not having ever been true Christians. When people depart from the true doctrine of Christ and from the true Church, we can be sure that they never truly belonged to Christ, because God keeps all his own.
24 Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father.
25 And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life.
Those to whom John is writing are to hold on to eternal life by holding on to the doctrine of Christ, that is, to Christ. And holding on to him requires them to distinguish truth from error, contrasting that which the Holy Spirit had taught them from the beginning with the false doctrine of the antichrists. John’s message to them is:
Retain that which you have heard from the beginning, which the Holy Spirit has taught you, because the Antichrist will come, and many antichrists are in the world.
The prophecies of Scripture indicate that one pivotal figure or office would emerge to personify the spirit of Antichrist, noted by John’s singular use of the term “antichrist” while alluding, probably, to the prophet Daniel. The descriptions we find in 1 Timothy and elsewhere point to the pope of Rome as being the culminating Antichrist, and this has been the overwhelming majority opinion throughout the history of the Church. This application has fallen out of favor since the 19th century, when the papacy seemed to be waning in influence. But today we see that the papacy is gaining more power and influence than ever before over the minds of billions of people, and deceiving them with duplicitous doctrine that denies the finished work of Christ. And what influence it may yet have in turning more and more people away from the truth of God remains to be seen. The papacy is on the ascendancy.
Yet, ever since the New Testament was written, there have been antichrists: from Marcion, who took scissors to the Scriptures and cut out mostly anything that he thought was overly Jewish and not in keeping with his idea of the gospel, to Arius, who taught that “in the beginning, the Son was not”, denying the full divinity of Christ. This teaching is represented today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the 4th century Pelagius taught that man was born as a “blank slate”, able to save himself without needed any other “grace” than that which he had from creation, but just a firm resolve not to sin. This was in effect to deny the whole purpose for which Christ came to save sinners, and to make his office irrelevant, denying that it is Christ who saves us and not we ourselves. While not formally arguing against the personal nature of Christ, Pelagius denied his work and office in what he taught. Like Pelagius, the papacy wants to give man some part or credit for earning his salvation. It is according to Rome’s teaching that man is able to merit the merits of Christ by doing works of penance and attending to the sacraments. This is to deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross, and take a bit of credit for themselves. This teaching denies the true way of salvation, which is in Christ by faith alone, because he is the only one who merits salvation, and Christians are united to him by faith. At every point in history, the Lord has not left the earth without a Church.
Those who stalwartly defended the person and work of Christ against such errors have been raised up time and time again, from Athanasius to Augustine to Luther and Zwingli. The true teaching has been codified in the historic creeds and confessions of the Church, from the Nicene Creed, to the Definition of Chalcedon, to the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is a means that God has given for combating errors about who Christ is and what he came to do. It is by distinguishing between truth and error, as these creeds and confessions exemplify and help, that the people of God keep themselves in the faith and lay hold on the promise of eternal life.
Those to whom the apostle is writing have been reborn of the Holy Spirit and illuminated to receive the word. God works through the word preached ordinarily. When the gospel is preached faithfully, the Holy Spirit impresses its imprint on the soul and persuades the hearer of its truth and benefits for him. In this way he enables and draws the sinner to believe the good news of Jesus Christ which is preached. Those who have heard this teaching of the Spirit, with their physical ears as well as with the heart, do not need to receive a new doctrine. They already have believed that doctrine which is their salvation. What they need is to abide in what they have received. They can abide in the doctrine they have received by being diligent to guard the true doctrine of Christ, and contrast it with false doctrine.
It is not popular in today’s culture to point out errors in religious teaching. It is considered rude or offensive to “denigrate someones beliefs.” But this is just the thing that God has told us to do to keep ourselves faithful to him. This does not mean that we go around telling people how wrong they are about Christ in the most rude, offensive, and inappropriate way possible. (Although we should not be silent, this is a topic for another time.) The intention of this passage is to teach us to distinguish truth from error for ourselves, in order to keep hold on that promise of eternal life in Christ. Giving in or calling a truce with false teaching, lies about who Christ is and what he came to do, is gravely dangerous to the soul. It is a sure road to eternal perdition.
Retain that which you have heard from the beginning, which the Holy Spirit has taught you, because the Antichrist is come, and many antichrists are in the world.
The world would prefer to pretend that there is no truth at all than to think it might be important to know which it is, given conflicting teaching on a subject. As Pilate said, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) This is the attitude we most commonly run into today. But as Christians we know that it is absolutely vital for our own perseverance in the faith of Jesus Christ, that we learn to distinguish truth from error, and error from the truth. This is one of the reasons why church history is so important. Next to the Scriptures, and subordinate to it, church history is the best teacher to keep us from error in the important doctrines of the faith. Just as it is wrong to blindly follow tradition, it’s equally wrong to pretend as if the Christian faith were born yesterday, and we’re the first people to ever understand the Bible correctly. We must sift and interpret history by the Scriptures, and we must learn lessons from it to inform us in our Christian walk today, not blindly following the fathers of the past, but following Christ as they did. We benefit from the distinctions they made between truth and error, and validate them by the teaching of Scripture. In this way we keep ourselves in the true faith, and maintain the true doctrine of who Christ is and what he came to do.
“Bad company corrupts good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33) It is a known principle of psychology that behavior tends to impact attitudes, more than vice-versa. Let us take care that we stay in the true doctrine of Christ by continuing to gather together with like-minded brothers and sisters, at least weekly, and by avoiding company with those who deny Christ in his person or work. By having personal ties of fellowship with people who deny Christ, we may soon begin to doubt whether it is at all important to distinguish truth from error, and become susceptible to the lie and the doom that follows. Avoid those who claim to be Christians but deny the true and biblical doctrine of his person and the way of salvation that he accomplished. So we lay hold on the way of salvation, and look forward to the promised eternal life to come, when we will enjoy fellowship with Christ forever.
Retain that which you have heard from the beginning, which the Holy Spirit has taught you, because the Antichrist is come, and many antichrists are in the world. Amen.