In the last post we noted that John the Apostle is the only biblical author that uses the term “antichrist.” My conclusion was that the singular form of that term in 1 John 2:18 was synonymous with the “spirit of antichrist” mentioned in 1 John 4:3, which is also defined as the “spirit of error” in 1 John 4:6. And I also concluded that the plural form of the term used in 1 John 2:18 refers to the false teachers/false Christians.
But after writing that post brother Roger commented and forced me to rethink another interpretation I had already decided against. I saw two things being referred to by John, namely false teachers and the spirit of error. It is also possible to see three things being referenced, namely false teachers, the spirit of error (i.e. spirit of antichrist) and an anticipated personification of that spirit of error.
Everyone Uses Tradition to Interpret the Bible
My conclusion was based on my best effort to understand John’s words in its context alone. In other words I was using the Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) principle of the Reformation. But my post was a great example of the weakness of that principle. I believe I could argue for my interpretation from John’s epistles. But I am sure that brother Roger feels he can he can defend his interpretation on the same grounds (and I think he can). So that leaves us at an impasse. This is the weakness of the Sola Scriptura principle. But in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 we find a principle that can help us.
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
Here we see that the Apostles didn’t just record their teaching on paper, but also on the hearts of “faithful men who were able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). So in cases such as this it is wise to see what the teaching of the early church (100 A.D. – 300 A.D.) was on such issues. When we look at their writings we find that they had a consensus that the Antichrist referred to a future personification of the spirit of error. In light of the fact that our biblical interpretation could go either way, it is wise to consult our elders who were closest to the Apostles, and some of whom were themselves disciples of the Apostles.
So though it is off topic, I thought I would throw out this important principle for you to chew on. Some might shout “Scripture Alone!” in defiance to my suggestion. But even the highly respected Martin Luther himself wrote a preface for every book of the Bible explaining how to read it properly. Actually, everyone reads the Bible with the help of tradition, whether it be by applying their denominations core principles or by appealing to the Reformed Tradition’s Sola Scriptura principle. So, please don’t bother leaving any comments saying that you and your group go by Scripture alone; we are all influenced by some tradition. If we feel we go by the Bible alone, then we must recognize that many other groups say they do the same and yet come to different conclusions. Only when we are aware of the influence of tradition on our reading of Scripture can we be careful about what traditions we allow to influence us. When we deny any influence, we are most open to deception.
I personally trust the early Church fathers (100 A.D. – 300 A.D. / Pre-Nicene Fathers) more than anyone else to have a good grasp of what the Apostles taught. They were closest in culture and language to the Apostles. And as I mentioned, many of them were direct disciples of the Apostles or disciples of men who were. This does not mean that they have the authority of Scripture anymore than one would say Calvin’s Institutes or Matthew Henry’s Commentary are on equal footing with Scripture; no way. It just means that I trust Irenaeus, Clement, Ignatius, Tertullian, etc. to understand the meaning of Scripture more than either of those commentaries. So we start with Scripture, and when we get stuck we refer to our commentaries, not blindly, but in order to see if they can help bring clarity to things that are unclear. My primary source of commentary just happen to be the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
Anyway, that is not what this post is about at all! Just consider it a bonus 😉
The Annoying End Times Trend
There are various ways people respond to the subject of the Antichrist. Some people’s eyes light up like a kid at Christmas. We can tell that we have touched on one of their favorite topics. They could spend hours talking about events in Israel, the European Union and the various earthquakes and famines in today’s news. An asteroid impacted Russia last week and I’m sure End Times enthusiasts have taken note of that 😉 I am not saying that these are not useful topics, or that we needn’t know about these topics. I believe it is important that we have clear biblical teaching on these subjects. I am also not saying they are unrelated to the coming of Antichrist, I believe they are intimately related. But I do believe these topics are often approached with the sensationalism of a supermarket tabloid, instead a sober study of God’s word.
Other people hear the word antichrist and roll their eyes. “Here we go again, baseless speculation that has nothing to do with my daily walk with Christ.” Many have been completely turned off by the enthusiasm of the enthusiasts. They conclude, and reasonably so in my opinion, that if the Antichrist is merely some guy who is going to take over the earth after all the Christians are all taken away in the rapture, then why should they spend their precious time trying to figure out his identity. This mindset leads them to completely ignore the biblical teaching about antichrist(s) and other end times related issues. This can’t be right. After all God wrote about these things in his word. If all “all Scripture” is indeed “useful” we can’t write off eschatology, but we must seek out what the Bible has to say about it. We can be sure that whatever the Lord has to say about this matter will not be useless, but divinely useful for our salvation.
In the last post we reviewed all the passages in the Bible that use the term antichrist. These were all found in the 1st and 2nd epistles of John. We found that John doesn’t speak about anything about the revived Roman Empire that is taught in Revelations chapter 13. Nor does he connect the Man of Sin found in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 with this particular term. This is not to say that in the course of our study of eschatology (i.e. study of end times) we will not see any correlation between what John is teaching and what these other passages teach. In fact, as I mentioned above, the early Church saw the correlation between these passages of Scripture. They called the Man of Sin in 2 Thessalonians the Antichrist. But we will not be able to see how they are related accurately until we look at each passage in its particular context. Only after looking at each piece of the eschatological puzzle can we hope to see the big picture.
So before jumping into those other passages and letting John’s teachings get swallowed up by Beasts ruling the world and a Man of Sin sitting in God’s temple claiming to be God, let’s sit at the Apostle’s feet and let God teach us through him what an antichrist is.
Who or What?
Most of the talk about Antichrist is related to who he is. Many U.S. presidents have been candidates as possible fulfillments of Antichrist, and most of the past United Nations’ chairmen have been nominated as well. Some probably even considered Steve Jobs as the Antichrist; some people out there probably still do! I’m sorry but this all seems silly to me. What use does such speculation have in our walk with the Lord? And if it doesn’t affect our walk with the Lord, who needs it?! I just don’t think that God warned us about Antichrist, the Beast and the Man of Sin so we could be involved in such speculation. I believe we were warned about such things so we could prepare, and beware.
John’s teaching on this matter is very practical. He doesn’t talk about who the Antichrist will be. In fact, as my difficulty in interpreting his writing illustrates, he doesn’t even clearly spell out that Antichrist is a person at all. But this is not to say John is unclear, by no means. He is very clear! But not about who the Antichrist is, but about what an antichrist is.
John shows us that antichrists are false Christians. They are those who claim to be followers of Christ but spread a false gospel. They are those that are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are those who are influenced by the spirit of error, which is none other than the spirit of Antichrist. This tells us that if we are going to apply the term antichrist to anything or anyone, we must be ready to show that it is a preacher of a false Christianity. If not, we should use a different term altogether. John gives us a clear picture of what antichrists look like. We mustn’t imagine that the personification of the spirit of error will be so radically different than the little antichrists that were already around in John’s day (1 John 2:18).
So how is this useful for us? Like the other Apostles, and the Lord himself, John is simply warning us to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing. We are to beware of false prophets preaching a false Christianity. We must know our faith. This doesn’t mean that we need to know all the ins and outs of theology. On the contrary, our faith is not centered in theology, but in a person, Jesus Christ. John calls us to obey Christ’s commands, walk in his Spirit, trust in him and love the brethren. He doesn’t tell us to get a master’s degree in theology so we can avoid being deceived! It is obvious that highly educated theologians are just as easily deceived as the common disciple. In fact, an over dependence on the intellect in spiritual matters is one of the great deceptions of the spirit of error. This is not to say people can’t avoid deception if they are intellectual, it is just to say that intellectual understanding of the Bible has never kept anyone walking in the Spirit and commands of our Lord.
In 1 John chapter 2 John tells the churches that they already “know the truth” and they need to make sure that they abide in what they have already heard. They don’t need anyone to teach them something new. As Jude would put it, they had already received the faith that was once and for all given to the saints. They didn’t need to learn the next new thing. They didn’t need to consider a new message. They needed merely to continue trusting in Christ and obeying his commandments (1 John 2). He was telling them not to be deceived by clever sounding philosophies and theologies. Instead they were to remain in childlike trust and obedience.
If we have trusted in Jesus Christ, and submitted to him as our Lord (with actions and not words only), we are called to continue in this path. When false gospel’s come along they always bring us to a crisis of faith. They call us to make a decision. They say, “You must follow this new philosophy and theology, if not, you are not faithful to Jesus Christ.” Even though we have been walking joyfully in the path of discipleship, this new teaching comes to shake our simple dependence on Christ. Such errors make us feel that unless we “know” what they know, and accept their “special divine knowledge” (“gnosis” – What the Gnostics claimed to have), we are not yet perfect in our walk with Christ. They cause us to question the simple childlike faith Christ called us to for a more intellectual and theoretical faith. John warns us about this.
1 John 2:24-27
Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us -eternal life. I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But he anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie -just as it has taught you, abide in him.
This is how we avoid antichrists, the spirit of antichrist and the Antichrist! If we avoid the what, we needn’t worry about avoiding the who.