The Introduction of Antichrists
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. (2:18)
Again John addressed his readers as children (paidia; cf. 2:13), identifying them as those who belonged to the family of God, and those whom their Father desired to warn that there was impending danger. It is essential that Christians, especially those who are less spiritually mature and hence most vulnerable, understand the serious threat that antichrists pose.
Further underscoring the urgency of the subject, John reminded his readers that it is the last hour. The phrase literally reads, “last hour it is,” the word order making it an emphatic expression. The last hour refers to the present evil age, one of only two ages—along with the age to come—that the New Testament outlines (cf. Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Eph. 1:21; Heb. 6:5). The last hour began at the first coming of Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 1:1–2; 9:26; 1 Peter 1:20), and will end when He returns. (The age to come encompasses all of the future, including the millennial kingdom, the thousand-year earthly reign of Christ when righteousness will prevail in the world [Isa. 9:6–7; 11:2, 6–9; 30:23–26; 35:2–6; 45:22–24; 65:18–23; 66:13; Ezek. 34:25; 47:12; Joel 2:28–32; Amos 9:13; Zech. 14:16–21; 1 Cor. 15:24–28; Rev. 20:4; cf. 2 Sam. 7:16; Matt. 19:28; Rev. 3:21; 5:10].)
Christ’s arrival aroused Satan’s opposition to an intensity not seen before or since, resulting in the rise of many antichrists. After three years of relentless hostility toward Him (cf. Acts 4:26–28), His enemies finally had Him nailed to the cross. That same malignant antichrist spirit has continued to flourish to this day (1 John 4:3).
This verse is the first New Testament use of the term antichrist, yet it is certainly not the first biblical introduction to the concept. As John himself pointed out, his readers had already heard that antichrist is coming. Since they knew about the coming of the Christ from the Old Testament prophecies, some may have known about antichrist from the same sources. The prophet Daniel foresaw a human leader, satanically energized, who will come to Jerusalem, enforce his will, exalt himself above all other people and gods, and wreak havoc and slaughter (Dan. 7–8; 9:26–27; 11). The final Antichrist will be an imposing, intimidating figure of superior intellect and oratorical skills, possessing advanced military and economic expertise, who becomes the leader of the world. He will be so convincing as an ally and deliverer that Israel will sign a pact with him to be her protector. Then he will turn against the nation and will occupy the throne in the sanctuary of the rebuilt temple, which for Israel will still symbolize the presence of God, and blasphemously present himself to the world as if he were God. (For additional details of Antichrist’s actions, see Revelation 13, 17 and my commentary on those passages in Revelation 12–22, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 2000], 35–65, 155–72; see also Rev. 6:2; 16:13; 19:20.)
The prophet Zechariah also foresaw the future Antichrist:
“For behold, I [God] am going to raise up a shepherd in the land who will not care for the perishing, seek the scattered, heal the broken, or sustain the one standing, but will devour the flesh of the fat sheep and tear off their hoofs. Woe to the worthless shepherd who leaves the flock! A sword will be on his arm and on his right eye! His arm will be totally withered and his right eye will be blind.” (Zech. 11:16–17)
At the end of the age God will permit an evil shepherd (Antichrist) to arise, who will be the antithesis of the Good Shepherd. This man will be a false shepherd who does not love sheep but slaughters them to fill his insatiable hunger. Zechariah portrays Him as a son of destruction devoted to violence and devastation. Though his arm represents his great strength and his eye his intelligence, he is doomed. God will destroy that Antichrist when His sword of vengeance falls on him.
John’s readers surely would also have known about Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, in which He made reference to the same Antichrist-related events as those already prophesied in the Old Testament:
Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house. Whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath. For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, “Behold, here is the Christ,” or “There He is,” do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. (Matt. 24:15–25)
The recipients of John’s letter most likely also would have been familiar with Paul’s words, written four decades earlier, that clearly predicted the coming Antichrist. He instructed the Thessalonian believers as follows:
Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (2 Thess. 2:1–12)
Paul declared that those climactic events would not occur until “the apostasy comes first.” “Apostasy” is the transliteration of apostasia (“a falling away,” “a forsaking,” “a defection”). Theologically, it is the deliberate abandonment of a formerly professed position. But in this context the word denotes more than a mere general abandonment of God and Christ. Throughout redemptive history a certain general apostasy will always be occurring in the churches, in keeping with the ever-present Laodicean spirit (Rev. 3:14–16; cf. Heb. 10:25–31; 2 Peter 2:20–22). In fact, as time passes there will be an escalating defection from the truth:
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. (1 Tim. 4:1–3; cf. Matt. 24:12; 2 Tim. 3:1–9; 2 Peter 2:1–3; Jude 4, 17–19)
However, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about a unique, identifiable, historical event—the apostasy. Before the day of the Lord comes, there will be a climactic act of apostasy led by the man of lawlessness, or son of destruction. That man—the Antichrist—will openly defy God’s rule and live without regard for His law (cf. 1 John 3:4). The only thing that “restrains him [the final Antichrist] now, so that in his time he will be revealed” (2 Thess. 2:6) is the Holy Spirit, whom God, in His perfect timing, will take out of the way. Thus Satan’s man of sin and destruction cannot arrive apart from the divine timetable. (For a fuller discussion of 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12, see 1 & 2 Thessalonians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 2002], 263–85.)
18. It is the last time, or hour. He confirms the faithful against offences by which they might have been disturbed. Already many sects had risen up, which rent the unity of faith and caused disorder in the churches. But the Apostle not only fortifies the faithful, lest they should falter, but turns the whole to a contrary purpose; for he reminds them that the last time had already come, and therefore he exhorts them to a greater vigilance, as though he had said, “Whilst various errors arise, it behoves you to be awakened rather than to be overwhelmed; for we ought hence to conclude that Christ is not far distant; let us then attentively look for him, lest he should come upon us suddenly.” In the same way it behoves us to comfort ourselves at this day, and to see by faith the near advent of Christ, while Satan is causing confusion for the sake of disturbing the Church, for these are the signs of the last time.
But so many ages having passed away since the death of John, seem to prove that this prophecy is not true: to this I answer, that the Apostle, according to the common mode adopted in the Scripture, declares to the faithful, that nothing more now remained but that Christ should appear for the redemption of the world. But as he fixes no time, he did not allure the men of that age by a vain hope, nor did he intend to cut short in future the course of the Church and the many successions of years during which the Church has hitherto remained in the world. And doubtless, if the eternity of God’s kingdom be borne in mind, so long a time will appear to us as a moment. We must understand the design of the Apostle, that he calls that the last time, during which all things shall be so completed, that nothing will remain except the last revelation of Christ.
As ye have heard that antichrist will come. He speaks as of a thing well known. We may hence conclude that the faithful had been taught and warned from the beginning respecting the future disorder of the Church, in order that they might carefully keep themselves in the faith they professed, and also instruct posterity in the duty of watchfulness. For it was God’s will that his Church should be thus tried, lest any one knowingly and willingly should be deceived, and that there might be no excuse for ignorance. But we see that almost the whole world has been miserably deceived, as though not a word had been said about Antichrist.
Moreover, under the Papacy there is nothing more notorious and common than the future coming of Antichrist; and yet they are so stupid, that they perceive not that his tyranny is exercised over them. Indeed, the same thing happens altogether to them as to the Jews; for though they hold the promises respecting the Messiah, they are yet further away from Christ than if they had never heard his name; for the imaginary Messiah, whom they have invented for themselves, turns them wholly aside from the Son of God; and were any one to shew Christ to them from the Law and the Prophets, he would only spend his labour in vain. The Popes have imagined an Antichrist, who for three years and a half is to harass the Church. All the marks by which the Spirit of God has pointed out Antichrist, clearly appear in the Pope; but the triennial Antichrist lays fast hold on the foolish Papists, so that seeing they do not see. Let us then remember, that Antichrist has not only been announced by the Spirit of God, but that also the marks by which he may be distinguished have been mentioned.
Even now are there many antichrists. This may seem to have been added by way of correction, as they falsely thought that it would be some one kingdom; but it is not so. They who suppose that he would be only one man, are indeed greatly mistaken. For Paul, referring to a future defection, plainly shows that it would be a certain body or kingdom. (2 Thess. 2:3.) He first predicts a defection that would prevail through the whole Church, as a universal evil; he then makes the head of the apostasy the adversary of Christ, who would sit in the temple of God, claiming for himself divinity and divine honours. Except we desire wilfully to err, we may learn from Paul’s description to know Antichrist. That passage I have already explained; it is enough now to touch on it by the way.
But how can that passage agree with the words of John, who says that there were already many antichrists? To this I reply, that John meant no other thing than to say, that some particular sects had already risen, which were forerunners of a future Antichrist; for Cerinthus, Basilides, Marcion, Valentinus, Ebion, Arrius, and others, were members of that kingdom which the Devil afterwards raised up in opposition to Christ. Properly speaking, Antichrist was not yet in existence; but the mystery of iniquity was working secretly. But John uses the name, that he might effectually stimulate the care and solicitude of the godly to repel frauds.
But if the Spirit of God even then commanded the faithful to stand on their watch, when they saw at a distance only signs of the coming enemy, much less is it now a time for sleeping, when he holds the Church under his cruel and oppressive tyranny, and openly dishonours Christ.
18 John immediately stresses the urgency of the situation by bringing the doctrinal conflict to an eschatological arena. He labels his opponents Antichrists and says that their appearance coincides with “the last hour.” Both terms seem to be drawn from a community slogan, which John has split in order to create a chiasm. The two halves of the slogan are indicated by the repetition of hoti, which again introduces direct discourse: “you have heard, ‘Antichrist is coming’ ”; “we know ‘it is the last hour.’ ”
|In the last hour
|Antichrist is coming
|[now] many Antichrists
|it is the last hour.
The original form of the slogan epitomized what must have been a more extensive eschatological doctrine: “In the last hour Antichrist is coming.” John applies it to the present situation to demonize his opponents.
While the terms “last hour” and “Antichrists” seem to be drawn from a community slogan, their precise meaning is unclear. Neither term appears outside 1 and 2 John, and despite the tendency for eschatological labels to intermingle in popular Christian thought (i.e., “last hour” = “last days” = end times; “Antichrist” = “Man of Sin” [1 Th 2] = “the Beast/666” [Rev 13]), it is not clear whether any real synonyms may be found. Barker, 323–24, draws a parallel between “the last hour” and the more frequent “the last days/times.” The NT authors sometimes use “last days” to refer to “the new age that they associated with the advent of Jesus,” says Barker, and so he concludes that “the last hour” is a general reference to “the fulfillment of time, the time of redemption and salvation,” inaugurated by Jesus’ death and continuing to the present. The motives for this conclusion are, however, clearly apologetic. Barker admits that “last days” is also commonly used “to designate the last days before Christ’s return,” but he refuses to see this meaning in 1 John 2 because it leads to the conclusion “that the author was mistaken,” since Jesus did not return in the wake of the Antichrists’ activity (cf. Stott, 107–9). Most commentators, however, agree that “the last hour” “must be taken in its obvious sense: the end of time is at hand” (so Rensberger, 77; cf. Dodd, 48–49; Brown, 330–32, 364–65; Culpepper, 44).
The Johannine Jesus uses “the last day” on several occasions to refer to the end of time, when the dead will be resurrected to enjoy eternal life or suffer judgment (Jn 6:39–44, 54; 12:48; cf. 11:24; 5:24–30). Does this mean John was mistaken in his estimate of the divine plan? The NT writers make no pretense to special knowledge about the time of Christ’s return, consistently emphasizing that human beings are not privy to God’s eschatological timetable (cf. Mt 24:36; 1 Th 5:1–3; 2 Pe 3:8–10). Looking at his situation, it seemed to John that the world was going from bad to worse, with godless people and heretics gaining ground on all sides. In light of the general ancient view that the forces of evil would gather at the end of time to make a final stand against God’s people, John could reasonably conclude that “the last hour” was at hand. The focus is not on a timeline but on the urgency of a situation in which Christians must fight to preserve their identity.
John’s proof that “the last hour” has come is provided by the Antichrists. As noted in the introduction, in 1-2-3 John this title functions as a technical term for the Elder’s opponents. The plural “Antichrists” (antichristoi, GK 532) is an extension of the original community slogan, where the term apparently appeared in the singular (antichristos; hence the NIV, “the Antichrist”). While “Antichrist” literally means “against Christ” or “in place of Christ,” its precise nuance is difficult to determine; Rensberger, 78, notes that “the notion of Antichrist … is not found at all in Jewish literature, nor in Christian literature except where it is dependent on 1 and 2 John.” While the OT and other Jewish writings do occasionally anticipate the appearance of a leader of evil at the end of time, this figure is always set in opposition to God, not the Messiah (see Brown, 332–36, for a survey of possible backgrounds for the concept of Antichrist). In any case, John clearly expects his audience to be familiar with an eschatological figure who would oppose God and Christ, and he associates his opponents with this figure to highlight their treachery. The teachings of these people are, in fact, inspired by “the spirit of the Antichrist” (4:3), suggesting that they promote a substitute Savior distinct from the Jesus proclaimed by the community. Believers must therefore urgently resist such people and separate them from Christian fellowship.
18 The beginning of the new section is signalled by a fresh address to the readers as “dear children” (cf. 2:14). There is no particular force in the appellation; it merely illustrates the fatherly concern felt by a genuine teacher for those who are still like children in their understanding and need his instruction. He announces that it is the last hour. Although this word can mean a short period or point of time, it can refer to a period of some length (Jn. 4:23; 16:2). While the phrase “the last day” refers more specifically to the final point in world history, the day of the coming of Christ and the judgment, the last hour has a sense more like that of “the last days.”
But what precisely did John have in mind with this phrase? Early Christians certainly regarded the whole period between the first and second advents of Jesus as constituting the last days: in Peter’s Pentecost sermon the prophecy of Joel concerning the outpouring of the Spirit is deliberately linked with the last days (Acts 2:17; contrast Joel 2:28; cf. Heb. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:20). Now that the last period in world history had been inaugurated by the coming of Jesus, it could not be long before the end. It is also possible, however, that John was thinking of the final stage in the last days (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1; Jas. 5:3; 1 Pet. 1:5; Jude 18); time had hurried past since the beginning of the church and now it was the last hour before the end. Most commentators adopt this view. It fits in with the fact that John saw various events happening around him which had been prophesied by Jesus as being still future.
Commentators who adopt the former view do so in view of the fact that the end still has not come. If John felt that the minutes were rapidly ticking by, the slow rolling on of the centuries would suggest that he was mistaken. Hence the attractiveness of the first view, although even in this case it is passing strange that the last days inaugurated by the first coming of Jesus have dragged on for so long. It is not surprising that some scholars assure us that we cannot share the eschatological hopes of the New Testament writers. If we feel that we are living in the last days now, it is for different reasons. For us the history of the world stretches further back than John could ever have imagined, so that the age of man is but a tiny appendix to the long and remote ages of prehistory. The prophets of doom assure us of the imminent end of human civilization if we do not learn to curb the growth of population, to slow down our use of world resources, and to arrest the pollution of the environment. It is not difficult for us to share John’s point of view; the problem is whether we have a theological basis for doing so which will take into account the shift in time.
It must be noted, first, that John does not commit himself to any time-scale. Like the New Testament authors generally he does not delimit precisely the expected date of the parousia. He was content to stress the urgency of the time in which he lived. Second, we have good authority for not measuring God’s time by our clocks: “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years” (2 Pet. 3:8). Third, the New Testament teaching is that we should be ready for the coming of the Lord at any time; every hour is the hour of crisis, and the Lord will come when he is least expected. F. F. Bruce has drawn attention to a remarkable passage from J. H. Newman, who speaks of the course of things as having changed direction since the coming of Jesus. It “has (if I may so speak) altered its direction, as regards His second coming, and runs, not towards the end, but along it, and on the brink of it; and is at all times near that great event, which, did it run towards it, it would at once run into. Christ, then, is ever at our doors.”6 Till the coming of Christ the course of history ran direct toward the goal:
Now since the coming of Jesus it has taken a sharp bend:
This is a helpful analogy. It preserves the sense of urgency and imminence found in the New Testament on the basis of the principle that God is capable of extending the last hour (for the excellent reason in 2 Pet. 3:9) while retaining his own secret counsel on its duration.
But John’s main concern was with the evidence that would prove to his readers that they were living in the last hour. He rests his case on the fact that they had heard a prophecy of the coming of “antichrist.” We have already come across this term in 2 John 7 to describe people who deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, and verse 22 indicates that the same people are in mind. They are opposed to the true teaching about Christ. The word could also signify people who stand in the place of Christ and claim that they are Christ. Within the New Testament the term is used only in the Johannine letters. John’s use may be traced back to two possible roots. First, in the teaching of Jesus about the future there is a warning about the coming of “false Christs and false prophets” who “will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect—if that were possible” (Mk. 13:22 par. Mt. 24:24). Such persons are clearly opposed to Jesus as the Christ, but here they appear to be either prophets who declare untruths or persons who falsely claim that they themselves are Messiahs. We may compare the imagery of the beast and the false prophet in Revelation 13; 19:20, where the false prophet promotes the worship of the beast. But this passage in Revelation leads us to the second possible root of John’s language in the expectation of one particular arch-opponent of Christ, the Anti-Christ par excellence. This expectation is reflected in the coming of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12 and possibly also in “the abomination that causes desolation” in Mark 13:14. These figures stand in a succession of such pictures in Jewish and Christian writings which portray the final opponent of God. It is a striking fact that there is no pre-Christian evidence for the application of the title “Antichrist” to this figure. Nevertheless, many scholars hold that John has taken up the apocalyptic hope (or rather, fear) of the coming of this figure and has made it the basis of his language here. But (they claim), whereas the original prophecy spoke of the coming of the Antichrist, John has “demythologized” the idea by seeing the fulfilment of the prophecy in the coming of many antichrists who were already present in the church. It is probable that this is the wrong way of putting it. John talks about persons who deny that Jesus is the Christ and says that persons who talk in this way are possessed by the spirit of the antichrist (4:3). He also says here that his readers have heard that the antichrist is coming, and that even now many antichrists have come. It seems, therefore, that he regarded the false teachers of his day as being possessed by the spirit of the antichrist, whose own coming still lay in the future. The basis of his teaching is the prophecy of the coming of several opponents of Christ, and he relates this to the coming of the antichrist. He has not demythologized the figure of the antichrist, nor does he deny the future coming of the antichrist, but he is much more concerned with the present fact of false teachers in the church who have the spirit of the antichrist. The difference from Mark 13:22 is that here the antichrists do not appear to be claiming that they themselves are the true Christ: the thought is purely the negative one of their denial that Jesus is the Christ, as is apparent from verse 22.
 MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 95–98). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (pp. 189–191). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 448–449). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Epistles of John (pp. 148–151). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.