In the last section, John addressed the spiritual state of the church he was writing to and encouraged them on in continued growth. He had already talked about the importance of loving one another. Now he turns his attention on what they were not to love and the dangers of this world.
v15. While Christians are required to “love their brother and sister,” on the other hand they are forbidden to “love the world or anything in the world.” This is a blanket statement that will be clarified shortly, but its force should not be diminished. Taken seriously, this command is as hard to keep as the positive command to love each other (and maybe for the same reason!). It’s easier, though, when we realize how important it is. John tells his readers that if they do love the world, “then the love of the Father is not in him.” How can we be in fellowship with God if “the love of the Father” is not in us? To put it in simple, stark terms, we either love each other and so are in fellowship with God and one another, or we love the world and are not in fellowship with God (and so not with one another, either).
The phrase “the love of the Father” is worth looking at a bit more closely. It could be read in one of two ways. First, it could mean God’s love [for us]. That seems to be the way Paul is using the phrase, for instance, in Romans 8:39, which he says that “nothing . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I don’t think this makes much sense here, though, because that would seem to mean that if we love the world, then God doesn’t love us. More likely, the phrase “the love of the Father” means our love for Him. For example, take a look at 1 Timothy 6:10. There Paul says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Obviously, it isn’t the money here that’s doing the loving. So on this reading, John is saying that if we love the world, then we cannot say that we love God. And as startling as that may be, it also is consistent with what he has already said. All throughout this book, John has been setting things in very black and white terms: if we say we don’t sin, we’re liars. If love each other, we walk in the light. If we confess our sins, then all of them are forgiven. If we don’t, we have no fellowship with God. And so it is here. If we love this world, then we simply do not love God.
v16. “For everything in the world . . .” The word “for” means that this verse explains the previous one. The reason it is true that if we love this world then we do not love God is that “everything in the world . . . comes not from the Father but from the world.” If something is not from God, then it is not of God. But to love what is not from and of God is to say that God’s gifts are not sufficient, that He Himself is not sufficient. And this, in turn, amounts to the claim that God is not good. If He were good, He would be enough. Since He is not enough, then H either is not good enough (and so we need something else to make up what He lacks) or else He has simply not chosen to give us what we need (and so we need something else to make up what He has made us lack).
I think the story of Genesis 3 was in John’s mind as he wrote these words. Already the claim that God is not sufficient reminds us of Satan’s charge: “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, NIV). Satan wanted Eve to believe that God was withholding something good from her that would make her happy. It was a challenge to God’s goodness and His trustworthiness. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve believed the lie and sin entered the world. But the parallels do not stop there. John says explicitly what all is in the world: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Compare those three things with Eve’s take on the forbidden fruit:
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food [“the lust of the flesh”] and pleasing to the eye [“the lust of the eyes”], and also desirable for gaining wisdom [“the pride of life”], she took some and ate it. (Genesis 3:6, NIV)
I don’t know that we need to read very deeply into distinctions between the flesh, the eyes, and life. The general point is clear enough: we ought not to look at the things in this world to bring us fulfillment. It is less about wanting things that are intrinsically sinful than it is about wanting things rather than or more than we want God. Had Eve placed God above all things, then she would not have felt the need to look beyond Him (to look to what was not from Him) for her happiness. In fact, while some may argue that Eve’s sin was eating the forbidden fruit, it actually seems like it was her belief that God was not enough, that she needed something else for her fulfillment. It was that attitude–or if you prefer, that lack of faith–that ultimately manifested itself in her disobedience to God’s commands (cf. our comments on 2:3).
v17. John drives home this idea of seeking something other than God for our fulfillment by pointing out that “the world and its desires pass away.” Everything in this world is temporary. Therefore, any fulfillment we do find from things in this world is, at best, also temporary. In the same way, everything in this world is limited and finite. So any fulfillment must also be limited and finite. Nothing in this world can satisfy our true longings, and that is because what truly fulfills us–what “makes our joy complete” (cf 1:4)–is fellowship with an eternal, unlimited, and infinite God. Thus, “whoever does the will of God remains forever.” When we do the will of God–when we place our faith in Christ and abide in fellowship with Him–then we remain or abide forever, which stands in strong contrast to the passing nature of this world.
v18. Here John picks up on the idea of the world “passing away” by noting that it “is the last hour.” It could be tempting to jump from here into the deep subject of what “the last hour” and related phrases means throughout the Bible. The word understandably suggests “the end times” and all that might imply. In fact, that idea is only reinforced by the next clause. John’s readers “have heard that the antichrist is coming.” But before we give in to the temptation to launch into a study on the Revelation, I would point out that nothing in this book has given us any reason to make such a big leap. On the other hand, as we just noted, whatever end-times implications “the last hour” has, it’s probably more important to notice the connection with the fact that the world is “passing away.” It is into this dying world (and from this dying world) that the antichrist–the ultimate expression of this world’s opposition to God–will come.
But notice what John says about the antichrist: “even now many antichrists have come.” In fact, “this is how we know it is the last hour.” This ought to confirm our suspicion that John does not want us to think about the end of days. Rather, he is interested in the here and now and those things that might threaten our relationship with Christ. Chief among those threats are these “antichrists.” The fact that these people are here, in the present, denying that Jesus is the Christ does remind us of the final antichrist to come. But more than that, it demonstrates that same power behind him is present in the world even today.
v19. These antichrists were not faceless, abstract enemies “out there” somewhere. Rather, they were those who had “gone out from us.” The “us” here may refer either to the apostolic community or to the local church. Either way, these were men who had once been a part of the believing community (either having actually been believers or having unfortunately believed a false gospel) but had left over doctrinal differences over Jesus (see 2:22). Therefore, John says that “they were not of us” (following the KJV).*
“For”–again, this word tells us to expect an explanation as to why the previous statement is true–“if they had been of us, they would have . . . continued with us.” That is, if they’d had the right view of Jesus, either from the beginning or if they had continued in their original (true) faith, they would have continued, remained, abided with the believing community. In fact, the reason they left was so that it would be “shown” (NIV) or “made manifest” (KJV) that they were never really of the believing community. Their fellowship, if it appeared, was only on the surface. They did, the could not, abide, a truth that should be self-evident given all that John has already said about those who walk in darkness and their relationship (or lack thereof) with Jesus and His church. Ultimately, their physical separation from the body demonstrated their spiritual separation from the body.
v20. In strong contrast to these ex-members and antichrists, John says that the church “has an anointing from the Holy One.” It is likely that the “anointing” refers to the Holy Spirit. “The Holy One” would be God the Father. The purpose of anointing was to mark something off for sacred or special use. So the idea seems to be that the church, unlike the antichrists, has the Holy Spirit, and through His ministry she is set apart to God. It is due to this anointing and separation that she “knows all things.” This doesn’t mean that the church (much less individual church members) is omniscient. It simply means that the Holy Spirit enables the believer to discern truth from error, specifically here with reference to the mistakes the antichrists teach (that Jesus is not the Christ). John can say that believers know “all things”** for two reasons. First, since the Holy Spirit is God, He is literally omniscient, and therefore there is no truth He cannot teach us. Second, just as the best way to spot a counterfeit dollar is to know the real thing, so Christians who know Christ–who is the ultimate Truth–should be able to know anything whatsoever that is opposed to Him.
v21. Now John clarifies (perhaps in a veiled swipe at the antichrists he is writing against) that he is not writing “because you do not know the truth.” He is not trying to impart some secret knowledge or set himself up as a teacher. Rather, he points them to what they already know and to the True Teacher, saying, “you do know it, and no lie comes from the truth.” You can’t get a lie out of the truth, and therefore the church is in no danger of falling into the lies of the antichrist if they continue in what they already know.
v22. John identifies “the liar” as “whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ.” The question, then, is what that phrase means. Considering all that John has said so far, “the Christ” is the One who saves us from our sins. He is our propitiation (our “atoning sacrifice”) based on what He did on the cross. He is righteous and so our advocate before the Father. In short, for Jesus to be the Christ is to be our Savior.
Certainly, then, anyone or any faith that denies that Jesus is the Savior is antichrist. If someone says that Jesus is merely a great prophet or a good teacher is antichrist. But John is saying more than that. To claim that we are without sin, that we can walk in darkness and still be in fellowship with the Father is to reject that Jesus is the Savior. After all, if Jesus is to save us, there must be something He has saved us from! In fact, it even seems that any theology that suggests any degree of sinlessness is to that degree antichrist. Anyone who would say that “real Christians” can’t sin (or can’t sin in this way or in this amount) are basically saying that “real Christians” are more or less perfect. Such “real Christians” don’t actually need forgiveness, because they haven’t sinned in that way! But, again, such a view is to deny that Jesus is our Savior, because it implicitly argues that we don’t need to be saved. All such views are nothing less than the doctrine of the antichrist. Those who hold it reject both “the Father and the Son.”
v23. John begins to close out this section by pointing out that these antichrists, in denying the Son can have no fellowship with God, for “no one who denies the Son has the Father.” To be in a deep, intimate relationship with God, one must “have” the Son, which means one must believe and abide in Him as the Christ, their Savior. And on reflection, I think you’ll see that makes perfect sense. It is by resting in Jesus as our Savior that we are brought closest to God. That isn’t just something we believe once to be saved and then be done with it. It is something we live in every day. Jesus wasn’t just our Savior the first time He cleansed us from sin. He’s our Savior each and every day, and in saving us, He is drawing us closer to Himself and so then to the Father. Therefore, John is able to say that “whoever confesses the Son also has the Father” (see our comments on 1:9 for a discussion on the word “confess”).
v24. Now John shifts his focus back to his readers. “As for you,” he says, their job is to “see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you.” This language echos the 1:1,2, “That which was from the beginning . . . which we proclaim to you.” If, then, that truth remains in them, then they “also will remain in the Son and in the Father.” Once again, the language of fellowship with God through Christ is impossible to miss.
v25. In this verse, John adds some something to the idea of fellowship with God: the promise of eternal life. There are several things worth noting about this brief statement. First, the word for “promise” here is the same word we get “evangelize” from. We could understand John to say here, “And this is the Good News we have proclaimed: eternal life.” That is, he has been talking all along about nothing less than the gospel itself. Second, this “promise” or “gospel” is “eternal life.” Given all we have said, this should not be surprising. Once again, this echos the first few verses of the book, where John had said he was proclaiming “the Word of Life” (1:1) and “eternal life” (1:2). Taken with the rest of the book, we see that to abide in Christ is to abide in eternal life, in light, and in love. To deny the gospel is to deny Christ, the Father, and to walk in death and darkness. In Him there is fellowship and joy, and such fellowship and joy are found exclusively in Him. Finally, all of this suggests that “eternal life” is as much about the here and now as it is about the hereafter. John isn’t just interested in getting his readers saved so that they can go to heaven. Rather, he is speaking to born-again believers who he hopes will walk in the light and in love and thereby have their joy made complete (1:4).
v26. Again, John tells us why he wrote “these things,” that is, the verses we have just been looking at. If there was any question as to who these antichrists are, John definitively settles it. He is talking about “those trying to lead you astray.” You may not have noticed, though, that the wording here ties these antichrists to the final antichrist more strongly. The word “lead you astray” is the same word Jesus used in Matthew 24:4-5, where He says,
Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.” (NIV)
So even if you hold to a view of the end-times that says the Church will not be here during the last tribulation (that is, if you believe in a pretribulational rapture), the fact remains that the teachings of the antichrist are with us even today. Christians cannot be complacent in the face of this threat. It is serious enough that God inspired John to write about it, so it is serious enough for us to give it our full attention.
v27. John closes this section with another appeal for the church to “remain in Him.” Rather than following the deceivers and being, in a sense, in them, they should remember the anointing they already received in Christ (cf 2:20). He would be their true teacher if the remain in the truth rather than the lie.
*Geeky Greeky note: The KJV has a good literal translation: “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” The word here for “but” though is especially interesting. John uses a word (αλλα, pronounced “ah-LA”) that marks a strong change in direction. The purpose is to correct a potential misunderstanding or expectation the reader might have. Here, the reader might think that since these antichrists were originally part of either the apostolic community or the church and that they went out from them that their message must have been consistent with the message of the apostolic community (and so the church). But John is saying that nothing could be further from the truth. “But actually,” we might read this to say, “they weren’t of us at all!” They were wrong then, and they’re still wrong now.
** Some translations (like the NIV) say, “you know the truth.” Such a view may seem to make more sense, but the difference has nothing to do with translation and everything to do with what manuscripts we are translating from. In other words, there are some texts that actually say, in Greek, “you know the truth.” But other manuscripts say, “you know all things.” The question is not which translation is right but rather which manuscript is right. For reasons we won’t get into here, “all things” is almost certainly part of the original text.