The False Teachers and Antichrists of 1 John

Who’s Your Daddy?

In his first epistle John refutes the lies, heresies and life of the false teachers who have created a crisis in the churches in Asia Minor. For John, the apostle with the most intimate of relationships with our Lord and Savior, the denial of Jesus as God who became man evokes the harshest of labels – those who teach this are antichrists and children of the devil. Truth is a Person, message, and lifestyle.

Conduct is a Clue to Paternity

For John, conduct is an evidence or clue to paternity. MacDonald describes this reality for the born again Christian.

Just as children resemble their parents, so God’s children have God’s likeness too. This Letter describes the similarities. When a person becomes a child of God, he receives the life of God—eternal life. All who have this life show it in very definite ways. For instance, they acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they love God, they love the children of God, they obey His commandments, and they do not go on sinning. These, then, are some of the hallmarks of eternal life.[1]

John also gives a clue to the paternity of the false teachers and antichrists in addition to their heretical views of Christ. He contrasted these unbelievers, who have left the assembly, to believing members who remained.

By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.     1 John 3:10

Comfort and Counsel for a Church in Crisis

The Apostle John wrote this epistle to a group of churches in Asia Minor under his teaching. A major schism was underway with many (and maybe the majority) of the members leaving to come under the teaching of the secessionist opponents (1 John 2:19).[2] John writes to encourage, strengthen, and exhort those who have not left the fellowship of his apostolic teaching. This epistle is also a polemic attack and refutation of the doctrine and life of those who left. John states they are antichrists (1 John 4:12; 2 John 7) and false prophets who operate in the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:1).

John’s desire is to reassure the believers who remain that they are children of God in true fellowship with the Father, Son, and the testimony of the apostles. As a Pastor, he also seeks to help his brothers and sisters to discern and identify those who are false.

Identification of the False Teachers

False Teachers, Fellowship and Unbelief

John made it clear that the false teachers, regardless of what they might claim about a relationship with God (1 John 1:6, 8, 10; 2:4, 9; 4:20) had never actually belonged to the fellowship of believers at all. [This is demonstrated by their withdrawal from fellowship (1 John 2:18-19; 4:6), lack of love for the brethren (1 John 3:14, 17, 18, 23-24; 4:8, 20), deviation from apostolic teaching (2 John 9-11), and heretical views of the Person and work of Jesus Christ (1 John 2:22-23; 4:1-3).] For John, the Christological and moral issues are clear and there was no middle ground: one either sides with the opponents who declare that Jesus did not come in the flesh or the apostles and the view of Jesus presented by their testimony.[3]

Cultural Influences Upon the False Teachers

The First Century was a mix of eastern and western religions. The many gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons provided an array of idols from which to worship. Mystery religions offered a personal relation or experience with the gods, often fueled with (Gk. pharmakia) drugs. They also provided secret knowledge available only to the initiates of that sect which was necessary for entrance into the spirit world. Society was also dominated by the secular Greek philosophy of Platonic dualism and later writings of Philo. Matter was evil and only the spirit was good. This system mirrors the humanism of modern liberal thought that believes in the basic good of man due to the divine spark (“We are all gods”). Since we are gods we do not need a redeemer. As gods, we only need enlightenment or knowledge so that the divine spark within can grow into realization and self-awareness. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

The Christian faith has only one path to God and that is through Christ (John 14:6). Man is a depraved sinner who has fallen and in need of a redeemer from sin and death. The exclusiveness of Christianity does not fit into the cultural thinking of ancient Roman society (nor today’s post-modernism). The false teachers sought to make the narrow Christian path more amenable to society by adapting its truths to fit in with the traditions of popular culture and thought. [4]

For the false teachers, since the common belief in society is that matter is evil, then they have some major re-arranging to do in their theology regarding God becoming a man by taking on flesh. By changing a core doctrine of Christianity to become more popular or to attract a larger following is the height of the antichrist spirit.

Foundations for the Doctrinal Teachings of the Antichrists

Greek dualism expressed as Gnosticism viewed matter as evil and the spirit as good. Docetic Gnosticism (Gk. dokein, to seem) denies the true humanity of Jesus Christ, but accepted His deity. (It only “appeared” or “seemed” that He had a body like ours.) For them, Jesus was not God who incarnated into flesh as man.

Another group, the Cerinthians, denied the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ, human and divine, prior to His baptism or at the crucifixion. They theorized that the “Christ” descended upon the human Jesus at His baptism but left prior to the crucifixion.

  1. The false teachers claimed to know God, but separated salvation from their behavior, conduct or walk. They taught that light is knowledge and claimed fellowship based upon knowledge only. To them, truth is not something we live, but something we know.
  2. Since matter was evil, some of these early gnostics were ascetics while others were antinomian.
  3. They separated knowing God (theology) from following God (spirituality and ethics). They had an undue emphasis on knowledge.
  4. They denied that Jesus was God who became flesh.
  5. They denied centrality of Christ (His Person and work) for salvation.[5]

Answers to Combat the Heresy of False Teachers

  1. Is John’s fight with the Docetic or Cerinthian gnostics relevant to today? Is John 14:6 an acceptable statement to the post-modern mind-set?

For post-modernists, humanism is the force behind the brotherhood of man. Man is seen as a spark of the divine. Ignorance creates misery as men identify and follow the base desires inherent in their evil bodies. Knowledge allows men to become aware of their true divine nature and to overcome poverty, crime and the ills of society. This self-awareness that knowledge brings becomes a catalyst to join together to educate others that we are all gods and can create a future world of peace and harmony. This utopia requires all men to give up differences of culture and religion and join together in one brotherhood through which problems will be universally and internationally solved.

In such an idealistic vision, all religions are seen to possess some element of the truth. Yet, it is thought that all truth, including the truths of religion, is relative and related to culture and upbringing. There is no one absolute truth. All religious truths are partial at best. In such a society tolerance is the universal virtue above all others.

For Christianity to fit into this future scenario, the exclusive truths regarding the Person of Christ and His work in securing redemption from sin and death upon the cross must be adapted. The ongoing project of the world-wide ecumenical movements is to merge all religions into one. Claims of only one path to God must be removed. Attacking the validity of Scripture and the Person and work of Christ is the result of the “universal” desire for a brotherhood of man utopia. The cultural psychology and philosophy of a world dominated by Rome in the latter parts of the first century has contributed to a system of thought that continues today. The antichrists merged the dualism of Platonic philosophy with Christianity. Christianity, which stands upon revealed and absolute truth of the Bible, stands in opposition to the world’s desire to craft its own truth for its own purposes. John’s writings and refutation of the false teachers are prescient for our times. John presents the apostolic testimony of one who saw and experienced the eternal life that Christ manifested. This life was exhibited through God who became a man by taking on flesh.

  1. Is the body or matter itself evil?

The Bible associates evil with the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is the human heart (mind, emotions, will) that determines the life that will be lived through the body and into the world. In man, the heart is the seat of evil. The world and the devil seek to influence man through the choices of the heart. The body is the instrument of the heart and can be used for good or evil. It is out of the heart that evil proceeds.

The flesh is a theological term that can be used to indicate the meat of the body or the inclination in men to sin and fall short of the glory of God. The designation of the sin nature as flesh does not mean the physical body, but the thoughts, and conduct of one who acts according to his own soulish desire independent of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is a rebellion of the soul against the conviction and leading of the Spirit.

The body and all matter were cursed at the fall. Some of the elements of this cursing include physical death for the body, thorns from plant life/difficulty in work, and the savagery evident in the animal kingdom. Despite this, neither the body nor matter is evil, but neutral. The physical body will be raised as an eternal body of flesh and bone that relates to the spiritual world we will inhabit in the future. In that millennial future, the curse will be lifted off of the earth and all its inhabitants (including the animals) and Christ will reign for 1,000 years in righteousness and peace.

  1. Why is the incarnation of Christ crucial to the Christian faith?

The wages of sin is eternal death. All men are born depraved sinners completely unable to alter our eternal destiny. Man, unable to pay the price for his own sin, needs the help of Another. The Son of God, in obedience to the Father’s redemptive plan, willingly became man so that He could die. His death was in substitution for our death. He took our place and received the penalty for our sin. Once the price has been paid for all, it becomes efficacious in the life of those who accept the free grace gift. On the basis of faith and trust in the Person and work of Christ upon the cross and His victory over death and sin, men are transferred from death to life and from darkness into His light.

If Christ is not God who also became man there is not a solution to man’s sin problem. All who follow a Jesus who was a “good man” or a “good and moral teacher,” but not also God, are deceived and under the sway of the antichrists.

Jesus Christ is the second Adam. The first Adam, according to Psalm 8, was to be God’s administrator of His creation on earth and bring it into subjection to His rule. When Adam fell,failed, and was escorted out of the garden, it was with the promise of a Redeemer who was yet to come. During the millennial reign, Jesus Christ will perfectly fulfill the role of the Father’s administrator and bring all things under His rule. The spiritual second Adam will bring many sons to glory, and accomplish all that God intended in His creation of man.

All of this brings glory and honor to both the Father and the exalted Son. All who remain in the first, earthly Adam are doomed to darkness and misery in hell.

Today’s Heresies Based Upon the False Teachers of 1 John

Utley correctly discerns the impact of the teaching of the antichrists from the first century upon assemblies today:

  1. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people try to combine Christian truth with other systems of thought.
  2. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people emphasize “correct” doctrine to the exclusion of personal relationship and lifestyle faith.
  3. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people turn Christianity into an exclusive intellectual eliteness.
  4. The spirit of this heresy is present with us today when people turn to asceticism or antinomianism.[6]

Truth is a Person, Message, and a Lifestyle

John countered the claims of the antichrists and then began to equip his remaining believers against their heresy and false theology. Truth is something we live. The truth is a Person, a message, and a lifestyle.

  1. Salvation is by faith and not secret knowledge. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man.
  2. Demand for a Christian lifestyle that reflects the character of God.

God’s family should reflect His character. A changed and changing life of love, forgiveness, and purity is one of the evidences of the new birth.

  1. Assurance of Eternal Life of those who remained in fellowship to John’s apostolic teaching.
  2. How to recognize the false teachers [7]

Distinguishing Features of the Children of God vs Antichrists

One of the great objects of the epistle is to make clear to the readers the distinguishing features which characterize those who are born of God in contrast to those which mark the children of the evil one (the false teachers and the ones who separated from John’s apostolic testimony regarding Christ Jesus). The characteristics center around three great truths concerning God.[8]

God is Light (Chapter 1 & 3)

God is Love   (Chapter 3:3 to 5)

God is Life     (Chapter 5:6 to end)

The children of God have fellowship with Him in respect to each of these, in contrast to those who are not born of God.

  1. Light symbolically stands for righteousness and purity. (Light also reveals that which is in us that is not of God. A walk in light reflects honesty regarding who God is and who and what we are in relation.)
  2. Fellowship with God in regard to His nature as love produces love one toward another, in contrast to the spirit that was manifest in Cain and continues on in the world.
  3. The life that God imparts is in his Son. He who has the Son has the Life. Idolatry is incompatible with the appropriation of His life in knowledge and understanding. We are to guard ourselves from everything that would mar the spiritual life that Christ provides to us.[9]

John’s Portrayal of False Teachers

False Teaching of the Opponents in 1 John

  1. Departure from Apostolic Teaching – 1 John 2:18-19; 4:6; 5:10; 2 John 9-11

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. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. 1 John 2:18-19

We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 1 John 4:6

The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.  1 John 5:10-12

Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in Christ’s teaching, does not have God; the one who abides in His teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. 2 John 9-11

  1. Denial Christ Jesus is both God and man – 1 John 2:22-23; 4:1-3; 2 John 7

Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. 1 John 2:22-23

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. 1 John 4:1-3

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. 2 John 7

  1. Attitudes Toward World – 1 John 2:15; 4:1, 5; 2 John 7

If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 1 John 2:15

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. 1 John 4:1, 5

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. 2 John 7

  1. Attitudes Toward Sin – 1 John 1:6, 8, 10; 2:4-6; 3:6-9; 3 John 11

If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth…1 John 1:6

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8

If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.1 John 1:10

The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. 1 John 2:4-6

No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 1 John 3:6-9

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God. 3 John 11

  1. Attitudes Toward Brothers and Sisters – 1 John 2:9; 3:10-11, 14-15, 17- 18; 4:8, 20.

The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. 1 John 2:9

By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another… 1 John 3:10-11

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in  him. 1 John 3:14-15

But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. 1 John 3:17-18

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 1 John 4:8

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.  1 John 4:20

False Claims of the False Teachers and Antichrists

  1. To be in fellowship with God – 1 John 1:6
  2. Know God – 1 John 2:4
  3. Reside in God – 1 John 2:6
  4. To be born of God – 1 John 3:9-10
  5. Love God –1 John  4:20

The Effect of Errors in Theology Upon Practice

The Christology of the opponents appears to minimize the importance of the earthly career of Jesus (including His sacrificial death on the cross) in the plan of salvation… (This) has produced in the opponents a (morally indifferent attitude)… in which the ethical value of one’s deeds and behavior as a Christian is minimized and sins committed after conversion do not need to be confessed.[10]

  1. Walking in darkness – 1 John 1:6
  2. Not acknowledging sin – 1 John 1:8, 10
  3. Not keeping commandments – 1 John 2:4
  4. Not following the example of Christ – 1 John 2:6; 3:3-6
  5. “Habitual sin” – 1 John 3:3-10

The false teachers left the teaching of truth (especially regarding the Person and work of Christ), were oblivious to their own sin, hated the brethren, and loved the world more than the Father. John, as a good pastor, will protect the sheep from the deception and lifestyle of the antichrists.

Next: The Word of Life, 1 John 1:1-4

[1] MacDonald, William, (1995), Believer’s Bible Commentary, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1 John, Introduction.

[2] W. Hall Harris III, (2009), 1,2,3 John, Comfort and Counsel for a Church in Crisis, Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press, LLC, page 32.

[3] Zuck, Roy, editor, (1994), A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, Chicago, IL: Moody Press, Harris, “A Theology of John’s Writings,” page 172.

[4] Utley, Robert, (1999), The Beloved Disciple’s Memoirs and Letters: The Gospel of John, 1, 2, and 3 John, Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, Volume 4, pp. 191-192.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Vine, W.E., (1996), The Collected Writings of W.E. Vine, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1 John.

[9] Ibid.

[10] W. Hall Harris III, (2009), 1,2,3 John, Comfort and Counsel for a Church in Crisis, Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press, LLC, page 32.