1 John chapter 2 – Part 2
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
Walking in the light: Test – refusal to love the world, 2. 15-17
John’s warnings are often abrupt and thus all the more effective, 5. 21. This section focuses on an urgent warning that applies to all the children of God. But what exactly is meant by the ‘world’, and how does this relate to the truth that ‘God so loved the world’, John 3. 16? The answer to the latter question is that although the same Greek word kosmos is used in both passages, the meaning is different. In John chapter 3 verse 16 the ‘world’ denotes all of humanity, and points to the universal scope of God’s sacrificial love. Here in chapter 2 verses 15 to 17, the ‘world’ is the evil world system (‘godless world’, NEB) in its alienation from God and in the grip of the devil, 5. 19. Also, unlike John chapter 3 verse 16, ‘love’ is here the selfish acquisitive love of fallen human beings.
How has such a seductive world system come about? In Eden, Satan, with diabolical cunning, sold Adam and Eve the idea that the good things of creation could be enjoyed independently of God, and, indeed, in rebellion against Him. Thus began a whole system of godless human organisation engineered and presided over by Satan; the good things of creation could now be enjoyed as an end in themselves, without reference to God. For fallen mankind, the material things of creation had supplanted the Creator!
‘Do not love the world or the things in the world’, v. 15. The key to understanding ‘worldliness’ is to note the verb ‘love’. Worldliness is a matter of the heart’s affections, not merely an external checklist issue. It is no part of Christianity to deny the believer the proper enjoyment of God’s good gifts, 1 Tim. 6. 17. The things of the world can be used, but are not to be misused, 1 Cor. 7. 31. At the same time, the believer must be vigilant, knowing the potential of even God’s good gifts (such as home, family, and business) to become all-consuming pursuits enticing the soul away from God. John’s prohibition is both root and branch, ‘the world or the things in the world’, that is, its myriad component attractions. James and John speak with one voice on this vital matter, James 4. 4. Loving the world and loving God are irreconcilable opposites. As the Master taught, one cannot serve God and mammon, Matt. 6. 24.
Verse 16 spells out three aspects of a worldly mind-set: ‘the lust of the flesh’ – that which appeals to the appetites of our sinful nature (flesh); ‘the lust of the eyes’ – that which is beautiful, carries aesthetic appeal, ‘and the pride (vainglory RV) of life’ – pursuit of success in this world, and seen as the measure of how we evaluate people. From earliest times expositors have illustrated these desires from the story of the fall, ‘So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food (lust of the flesh), that it was pleasant to the eyes (lust of the eyes), and a tree desirable to make one wise (pride of life), she took of its fruit and ate’, Gen. 3. 6.
Verse 17 highlights a key consideration to help us overcome the world, ‘the world is passing away, and the lust of it’. How tragic, therefore, to squander one’s precious time, energy, and other resources on a system that is doomed, transient, and guaranteed to fade away along with those who are occupied with it! In pointed contrast with debased desire, there is the wholesome pursuit of the will of God: ‘but he who does the will of God abides forever’. The believer who focuses on the will of God will reap an ever more bountiful harvest; for him eternal blessings have already begun!
Walking in the light: Test – the Person of Christ, 2. 18-28
In the paragraph comprising verses 18 to 28, John focuses explicitly on false teachers, their unsettling departure, and their teaching. It is a sign of the times that they are active, for they embody the spirit of the coming Antichrist. Yet there is a safe path for believers. Such have an indwelling ‘Anointing’ from the Holy One, and they must shun novel and speculative doctrines, adhering steadfastly to the truth they have received during their early Christian instruction. Thus, to abide faithful to Christ will bring confidence in the light of His coming.
‘Little children, it is the last hour’, v. 18, alerts us to the fact that the consummation of God’s purposes is imminent. Since more than nineteen centuries have elapsed since this declaration, modern readers may feel this needs some explanation. It is clear from the New Testament that the Christian era marks the culmination of the previous, preparatory ages.1 All preceding ages led up to the advent of Christ, who pointed out the peculiar privileges of those who live in the era of fulfilment, Luke 10. 23, 24. The only factors that delay the arrival of the end-time events are, on the one hand, the filling up of the full measure of human wickedness, Gen. 15. 16, and, on the other hand, the vast scale of God’s programme of salvation, 2 Pet. 3. 9. Therefore, it was as true then, as it is now, that ‘it is the last hour’.2
‘As you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come’. A marked feature of biblical prophecy is that ultimate fulfilments usually have foreshadowings.3 In a closely parallel passage Paul writes, ‘For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work . . . then the lawless one will be revealed’, 2 Thess. 2. 7, 8. ‘Antichrist’ denotes one who usurps the place of Christ and thus opposes God and Christ.4 The Antichrist will be the monster of iniquity of the Great Tribulation period, 2 Thess. 2. 1-12. Note carefully that Satan deliberately mimics God’s programme; just as the Messiah in Jewish thought is designated as ‘the Coming One’, Matt. 11. 3, so here Satan’s man ‘is coming’. As with our Lord and John the Baptist, Antichrist has many forerunners. The hearts of unregenerate men are being groomed thereby for the ultimate deception – man taking the place of God and receiving divine honours.
‘They went out from us, but they were not of us’, v. 19. It is startling to reflect on the fact that these ‘antichrists’ were once among the believers; Paul’s insight when addressing the Ephesian elders a generation earlier was truly prophetic, Acts 20. 30. Having failed to win over a majority of the church, they ‘went out from us’. Doctrinally they moved away from apostolic teaching, and physically they departed from the fellowship of the believers.
‘If they had been of us, they would have continued with us’. John introduces the test of continuance or perseverance, which is a hallmark of genuineness. In our Lord’s parable of the sower there was seed which showed initial promise, but faded away; by contrast, the seed in the good soil bore fruit with perseverance, Luke 8. 15 NASB. ‘In the present situation the fact that the dissenters had left the apostolic fellowship simply showed that in heart they had never really belonged to it’, Bruce. This is much more than ‘a move to another church’; by their action they are showing that they have abandoned the fundamental ground of Christianity itself.
‘They went out’ in order ‘that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us’. Unsettling for the godly as their behaviour must have been, John detects an element of divine sovereignty over-arching the departure of those who withdrew. Their exit exposed their true character. Mere membership in a local church is no guarantee that one is a true believer! On the other hand this passage affords no excuse for lack of pastoral effort to recover erring believers, cp. Matt. 18. 12, 13.
‘But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things’, v. 20. John now turns to the resources at the believers’ disposal. They are not dependent on dangerous teachers, because they have an anointing (Gk. chrisma) from the Holy One. Every genuine believer has the indwelling Holy Spirit as Christ’s permanent gift. We are thus instinctively able to sense what is false. The ‘Holy One’, who was Himself anointed with the Spirit, Acts 10. 38, is Christ.5 Just as He was anointed for His public ministry, He gives the Spirit to instruct and equip His people in their service for Him, John 15. 26; 16. 7. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given us by God’, 1 Cor. 2. 12, 16.6
‘I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it’, v. 21. The Spirit is pre-eminently the Spirit of truth, John 14. 17; 15. 26. He will guide into all the truth – in the context particularly the truth about the person and work of Christ, 16. 13. For John, there can be no room for doubt regarding error on this subject: ‘no lie is of the truth’.
‘Who is a (the) liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?’ v. 22. The definite article the liar should be read, ESV. This is the lie par excellence. ‘To deny that Jesus is the Christ is to deny that He is the Son of God, 5. 5, or that He has come in the flesh, 4. 2. This denial is deadly, because only in the Christ, the Son of God, who came in the flesh is eternal life to be had’, 5. 11, Bruce. Most errors, ancient and modern, relative to the Person of Christ can be traced back to a denial of the incarnation – that inscrutable union of deity and genuine, yet holy, humanity.
‘He is (the) antichrist who denies the Father and the Son’.7 Again (as ESV) the definite article should be read; John is identifying a specific opponent of the gospel; the fundamentals are being attacked. Such an individual is a forerunner of the ultimate end-time enemy of God and Christ.
‘Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges (confesses ESV) the Son has the Father also’, v. 23. The false teachers probably did not set out to denigrate the Father, but this is the implication of their teaching about Christ. The knowledge of the Father cannot be divorced from the knowledge of the Son, John 5. 23; 8. 19; 14. 7, for ‘the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him’, John 1. 18. To ‘have the Father’ is not simply to hold God’s fatherhood as a doctrine, rather it means to have Him as one’s own Father. To deny the Son is to forfeit the possibility of membership in God’s family.
In verses 24 to 27 the apostle comforts and reassures the believers based on the resources they have from God. Whilst the false teachers might claim a spurious progress, 2 John 9, the emphasis in these verses on ‘abiding’ in Christ and in the teaching ‘once for all delivered’ is inescapable, cp. Jude 3.
‘Therefore let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning’, v. 24. The ‘you’ at the beginning of the sentence is emphatic, hence the RV rendering, ‘As for you, let that abide in you’. John’s readers are to stand in complete separation from these seducers. The key is to keep to the word of God, and the gospel truths they were instructed in from the ‘beginning’ of their Christian experience; no innovative doctrines are to be entertained. How vital then, as now, that young Christians should be comprehensively established in sound biblical teaching!
‘If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father’. On the other hand, maintaining doctrinal correctness is not an end in itself; the greater objective is thereby to enjoy the eternally enriching fellowship of the Father and the Son, John 15. 7, 9.
Christ is the subject of the sentence which could more literally be rendered: ‘And the promise that He promised us is this – the life eternal’, v. 25.8 To abide in the fellowship of the Father and the Son, v. 24, is the very essence and glory of eternal life, 1. 2, 3. Christ Himself promises the believer the gift of eternal life, John 3.15; 4. 14; 6. 40.
‘These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you’, v. 26. ‘These things’ most likely refer to the immediate warnings about false teachers, rather than the entire letter. Darby renders literally ‘concerning those who lead you astray’, which refers to the persistent ambition, but happily not the success, of those propagating error; NJKV paraphrases slightly but gives the correct sense.
‘But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you’, v. 27; again John points to the indwelling Spirit, who is a permanent sanctifying and illuminating resident in every true believer, Rom. 8. 9. ‘And you do not need that anyone teach you’. John’s meaning is that the Christians have no need of these antichristian teachers. The verse is not to be misapplied to those godly teachers who may from time to time bring us uncomfortable messages! The gift of pastor-teacher remains essential until the Lord comes, Eph. 4. 13, and, indeed, in verse 24 John has already emphasized the great value of early instruction in Christian doctrine.
‘But as the same Anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him’. This sentence serves to summarize the essential teaching of this important section. The lines are clearly drawn between all true believers enjoying the anointing of the Holy Spirit and those propagating error. The Spirit of truth guides us into all the truth, especially truths concerning the person of Christ, John 16. 13. The path of preservation is steadfast continuance (‘the same anointing teaches . . . abide’, present tense) in what was taught by the apostles under the Spirit’s guidance.
‘And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming’, v. 28. This verse is taken by some as the start of a new section, but is better understood as rounding off that begun at verse 18. ‘And now’ introduces an emphatic summarizing statement, cp. John 17. 5, gathering up the implications of the section. Verse 18 alluded to the coming of Antichrist, but here we are reminded of the implications of the coming (Gk. parousia) of the true Christ. This is the only place where John uses the term ‘coming’, but here and elsewhere he refers to Christ being ‘manifested’, 3. 2. ‘Abiding in the Anointing’, v. 27, is not materially different from abiding ‘in Him’ (Christ). The believer who thus abides in communion with the Lord can have confidence in respect of His appearing, more literally RV, ‘if He shall be manifested’. ‘If’ does not imply doubt either here or in chapter 3 verse 2 RV; it is simply a case of when. ‘Manifestation’, as noted earlier, is a favourite word of John’s, John 21. 1, 14, and indicates that the One whom the heavens now conceal will be revealed to His waiting people.9 ‘Confidence’ (Gk. parrhesia), 3.21; 4. 17; 5. 14, is literally ‘freedom of speech’, the opposite of shrinking in shame before Him. That coming will be followed by the judgement seat of Christ, 2 Cor. 5. 10, and the Master’s searching eye will scrutinize every believer and their work, 1 Cor. 3. 13. All will be exposed. With this great prospect in view, faithful perseverance in the doctrine of the apostles, righteousness of life, and love for one’s fellow believers generates confidence, but not complacency. That John uses the term ‘we’ suggests that he, too, hopes to be able to give account with joy as his ‘little children’ have remained loyal and true and enter into their ‘full reward’, 2 John 8 ESV, Heb. 13. 17.
- 1 Cor. 10. 11; Heb. 1. 2; 9. 26.
- Other similar references suggest this means the closing phase of the last days, see ‘the last time’, 1 Pet. 1. 5; scoffers arise ‘in the last time’, Jude 18.
- For example, Daniel chapter 11 presents a prophecy which, in the early verses, had its fulfilment in Antiochus Epiphanes, who reigned 175-164 BC. Yet, from verse 36 it refers to the future Antichrist, who displays the same blasphemous and sacrilegious character as Antiochus, but far transcends his forerunner. Similarly, the Olivet discourse links the tribulation experienced at the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 with the future great tribulation, see Mark 13.
- The term is to be distinguished from ‘false Christ’, Matt. 24. 24 (Gk. pseudochristos).
- See Ps. 16. 10; Mark 1. 24; John 6. 69; Acts 3. 14; Rev. 3. 7.
- ESV, NKJV margin reflect a possible variant reading, ‘But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge’. If this is adopted, John’s telling point is that unlike the false teachers and their claims of esoteric knowledge, all God’s people enjoy the illumination of the Spirit’s teaching.
- It is important to realize that to deny the Son is by implication to deny the Father also. Some have held that ‘Sonship’ was merely an office undertaken by our Lord at His incarnation, i.e., while confessing His eternal existence, they deny His eternal Sonship. However, if there were no Son, there could be no Father; it is inconceivable that God became Father only at the incarnation!
- See 3. 23; 5. 11 for similar constructions.
- The verb is passive (Rienecker) reminding us that that great event will be brought about by God the Father, cp. 1 Tim. 6. 14, 15.