In popular views of the end times, the antichrist is identified as a ruler who will rise and govern the entire world. This will take place in the years leading up to Christ’s return. For most most people who hold to this interpretation, this antichrist is associated with the beast of Revelation.
Personally, I’m not convinced that this is what John meant. Instead, I’m persuaded that he used the term antichrist in reference to people who lived at his time. For John, this was a generic term that he applied to a couple of different groups. One group denied that Jesus was the messiah. Another was a group of false teachers going into the local churches and teaching that Jesus did not actually have a physical body. In today’s blog, we will look at evidence that will help us understand John’s writings in its historical context. Not only will it explain who the antichrists were and what they taught, it will also help us understand how John’s words apply to us today.
We need to be on guard and vigilant. Antichrists walk among us today.
In order to understand John’s letters, we have to lay a little groundwork about them. I will operate from the the position that these letters were written:
- by the apostle John, son of Zebedee.
- near the end of the first century, in the 80’s or 90’s.
- to churches in the Roman province of Asia, probably from the city of Ephesus or nearby.
There is substantial scholarly debate on each of these issues. Nevertheless, there is a sizeable portion of the scholarly community that affirms these points. The witness of the early church is that John spent the later part of his life in the city of Ephesus and died in that city near the end of the first century. Establishing these preliminaries is critical for the next step of our investigation.
Definition of Antichrist
First, we need to define the term antichrist. This word is a transliteration of the Greek antichristos. In English, the prefix *anti indicates opposition. If someone is anti-something, he or she is opposed to it. However, in Greek, the preposition anti means “in place of.” Thus, an antichrist is not someone opposed to Christ. Rather it is someone or something that is held out in place of Christ. This is essential for understanding how John used the term.
What John Says About the Antichrists
Next, we need to look at what John specifically says about the antichrists. Note that the term only occurs in John’s letters, not in Revelation. From John’s letters we may conclude that the antichrists:
- were a problem in John’s time (1 John 2:18).
- rejected Jesus as the Messiah/Christ (1 John 2:22).
- denied that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3, 2 John 7).
The last point has corroboration from the second century Christian writer Polycarp, a Christian leader in the city of Smyrna. In his letter to the church at Philippi he writes, “Each one who does not confess Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist,” (7:1).
Based on this evidence, it looks like John references two distinct groups, both of which he designates antichrists. Next let’s look at each of these groups individually.
Those Who Reject Jesus as the Messiah
This group is probably the easier of the two to identify. We know from the New Testament that some Jews accepted Jesus as their long awaited messiah and some didn’t. We also see in the New Testament that early Christians, particularly Jewish Christians, participated in synagogue gatherings as well as other religious and social functions.
These interactions were no doubt times of discussion, debate, and even arguments about the identity of the messiah. Those who rejected Jesus as messiah would have advocated for someone else, someone different. Since Jesus didn’t align with their popular expectations, they argued that another messiah must be coming. For John, anyone who denied Jesus was the messiah and advocated for a different one was an antichrist. It was a Christ/Messiah in place of the one he proclaimed. This is the likely identity of the first group of antichrists.
Those Who Deny that Jesus Came in the FleshThe second group of antichrists requires a little more work to identify. There is little biblical evidence outside of John’s letters suggesting that there was a problem with people denying that Jesus came in the flesh. For this we have to turn to writings outside of the New Testament.
The most important writings for our discussion are a group of letters written by a Christian leader named Ignatius. Around A.D. 117, Ignatius was arrested in the city of Antioch. He was taken to Rome where he suffered a martyr’s death. On the way, he passed through the province of Asia, the same place that John lived. Ignatius wrote letters to some churches in Asia, the same churches that received letters from John.
In these letters, Ignatius warns the churches to watch out for false teachers. These false teachers are called Docetists. They taught that Jesus only appeared to have a body and only appeared to suffer. Note what Ignatius says about them.
- There is one physician, both fleshly and spiritual, born and unborn, God come in the flesh, true life in death, both from Mary and God, first subject to suffering, and then beyond suffering, Jesus Christ our Lord. To The Ephesians 7:2.
- Be deaf when someone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was from the race of David and from Mary, who was truly born, both ate and drank, was truly persecuted at the time of Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died… He was truly raised from the dead. To The Trallians 9:1-2.
- But if, as some who are atheists, that is unbelievers, say, that he only appeared to suffer (it is they who are the appearance), why am I in bondage? To The Trallians 10:1.
- He suffered all these things for our sake, that we might be saved; and he truly suffered, just as he also truly raised himself, not as some unbelievers say, the he suffered only in appearance. They are the ones who are only an appearance. To The Smyrneans 2:1.
- For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection. To The Smyrneans 3:1.
Ignatius is a key source of information about these false teachers. According to Ignatius, false teachers were a problem in the area (To The Ephesians 9:1, 16:1-2). No doubt these Docetists were a part of the problem.
Ignatius wrote several decades after John wrote his letters. While there is no evidence that full-blown Docetism was a problem in John’s time, his letters suggest that an early version was beginning to form. We can refer to this early version as proto-Docetism.
The Gospel and Proto-Docetism
This proto-Docetism and its later form attempted to reimage Jesus in a way that would make him more acceptable to a contemporary audience. Some people, particularly those steeped in certain Greek philosophy, would have struggled with the idea of the divine taking on human flesh. The Docetists tried to overcome this problem by arguing that Jesus did not actually come in the flesh. He only appeared to. This approach would have been particularly difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus, they would have to deny that Jesus actually suffered and died on the cross.
You can see were this kind of teaching would have run afoul of the apostolic proclamation. For John, denial of Jesus’ fleshly existence is a denial of his death and resurrection. This would obviously not do. People who deny Jesus’ fleshly existence were preaching a Jesus Christ in place of the Jesus Christ that John proclaimed. Thus, they were antichrists. They were to be confronted and rejected.
Modern Day Antichrists
So how does this apply to us? Just like there were in John’s time, there are people today who can’t accept the Jesus handed down to us by the first witnesses, the apostles. These people will try to re-image Jesus in a way that is more acceptable to their expectations or to the sensibilities of a modern audience. In such instances, this Jesus will look very different than the Jesus we encounter in the Bible. Take a walk through the Christian section of your local bookstore and you are sure to find examples of this kind of work.
How can we be on guard against these efforts? I have heard that bank workers learn to identify counterfeit money by handling the real thing all day long. Their intimate familiarity with the genuine article gives them the ability to immediately spot a counterfeit. Even if they don’t know exactly what’s different, they know something is not right. In the same way, get to know Jesus intimately through the teaching of those who were the first witness. This is found in the pages of the Bible. In so doing, you will be able to quickly spot an imposter, a modern day antichrist.