1 John 2:18-27
In these articles, dealing with the spiritualism in the Johannine Writings, we now turn to the Letters of John, with special attention to the First Letter, the work known as 1 John. As virtually all commentators recognize, there is a close relationship between the Johannine Gospel and the Letters. The Gospel writer and the author of 1 John, if not the same person, share a similar literary style, mode of expression, thought-world, and theological vocabulary. The precise relationship between the Gospel and First Letter, in terms of the sequence and when each was composed, continues to be debated, with no consensus having yet been achieved. However, in my view, there is relatively strong evidence that at least a first edition of the Gospel had been completed and distributed (within the Johannine churches) prior to the writing of 1 John.
The closeness of thought and expression, between the Gospel and First Letter, means that there is methodological validity in turning to the Gospel for elucidation of passages in 1 John, and vice versa. Throughout these upcoming articles, I will be making frequent mention of the prior notes and studies on the Johannine Gospel. The discussion of spiritualism, and the role of the Spirit, in the Gospel is, in my view, entirely applicable to our study on 1 John.
The recent daily notes, covering significant portions of 1 John 1:1-2:17, are, in many ways, preliminary and supplemental to these articles. I will be referencing them at numerous points below. Our initial article here is focused upon 2:18-27, the first of the two “antichrist” passages. It is worth summarizing the structure of the Letter leading up to this passage:
- Prologue (1:1-4)
- First Section: Contrast of the Light of God vs. the Darkness of the World (1:5-2:17)
- “Walking about” in light or in darkness: Sin and the Believer (1:5-2:2)
- “Walking” in light/darkness defined in terms of the (two-fold) duty (e)ntolh/) believers are required to complete (2:3-11)
- Believers have overcome the darkness of evil, and should not be drawn to the world (in its darkness) (2:12-17)
The dualistic light/darkness theme developed in 1:5-2:17 is used by the author as a way of contrasting the true believer with the false believer. The ‘opponents’ of 1 John are specifically characterized as false believers (cf. below).
It is generally considered by commentators that the author is referring to his opponents, alluding to their beliefs and positions, throughout 1:5-2:17. However, in the “antichrist” section of 2:18-27, he begins to discuss them more directly. He does so by placing the crisis, posed by these opponents, in an eschatological context:
“Little children, the last hour is (here), and, just as you (have) heard that (one) ‘against-the-Anointed’ [a)nti/xristo$] comes, (so) even now there have come to be many ‘against-the-Anointed’ [a)nti/xristoi], from which we know that the last hour is (here).” (v. 18)
The author clearly believes that he and his readers are living in the “last hour”, and that the end of the current Age is very near; cf. my earlier article on the imminent eschatology of first-century Christians. A basic premise of Jewish and early Christian eschatology was that, just before the end, things would get much worse in the world, with sin and evil becoming more prevalent and pervasive, including an intensive (and increasing) persecution of the righteous. This worldview is clearly reflected, for example, in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13 par). The presence of false prophets and false Messiahs was one feature of this end-time period of distress (cf. Mk 13:5-6, 21-22 par); the false Messiahs (i.e., false Christs), in particular, could properly be referred to as “anti-Christ” (cp. 2 Thess 2:7-12).
The specific word a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos) occurs only in the Letters of John (here, and also v. 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). It likely was coined by early Christians, patterned after the comparable a)nti/qeo$ (antítheos), when used in the (admittedly rare) sense of a rival God (qeo/$) or something imitating the Deity. The fundamental meaning of the preposition a)nti/ is “against”, but it can also mean “in place of”, and both of these aspects apply to the Antichrist Tradition as it was developed. And, indeed, the author does appear to be drawing upon an established eschatological tradition involving the use of a)nti/xristo$. He refers to an expectation that (one) “against the Anointed” (anti/xristo$, singular) will come in the “last hour”; whether this refers to an evil human leader or a spirit-being is not entirely clear, but probably the author has the latter in mind (cf. 4:3). For more on the background and development of the Antichrist Tradition, cf. my earlier three-part article (Part 1, 2, 3) on the subject.
Whatever tradition the author is referencing, he clearly interprets it in a new way, applying it specifically to the presence and activity of the ‘opponents’, considering them to be “many (who are) against the Anointed” (a)nti/xristoi polloi/). He continues in verse 19:
“Out of us they went out, but they were not out of us; for, if they were out of us, they would have remained with us; but (this happened so) that it might be made to shine forth [i.e. be made apparent] that they were not all out of us.”
The author plays with a dual-meaning of the preposition e)k (“out of”). In the opening phrase, it is used in the spatial sense of leaving, of going away from a group of people. However, in the remainder of the verse, it used in the sense of belonging to a group, being “of” a group of people. Thus, at one and the same time, the opponents are “out of” the Community, and also not “out of” it. Moreover, that they went “out of” it shows that they were never really “part of” it.
The author identifies himself (and his readers) with this Community, characterized as the Community of true believers. The opponents, having left the Community, show themselves to have been false believers. In all likelihood we are dealing with a genuine separatist movement, and a factional split within the Johannine churches. In this regard, the use of the preposition e)k and the verb e)ce/rxomai (“go/come out”) refers to a concrete division, and not simply a conceptual departure in terms of the opponents’ beliefs.
In verses 20-27, the author applies this crisis-situation to his readers, continuing the true-vs-false believer contrast established in 1:5-2:17. These verses may be divided into three subsections, each of which begins with an emphatic use of the pronoun u(mei=$ (“you [plur.]”)
In each unit, the author addresses his readers as true believers, to be distinguished from the opponents (false believers and “antichrists”), and fully able to recognize the truth of the matter. This is expressed thematically through a chiastic structure:
- The anointing (xri=sma) which believers hold within them (vv. 20-23)
- That which is “from the beginning” (a)p’ a)rxh=$) remains in them (vv. 24-26)
- The anointing (xri=sma) remains in them (v. 27)
The discussion is thus framed by a pair of references to the “anointing” (xri=sma) which is present in believers; in between, we find the expression o^ a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“that which [is]…from [the] beginning”), with which the author began his work (in the prologue, 1:1; cf. also 2:7, 13-14). A clear sense of the author’s use of these keywords is vital for an understanding of his entire line of argument.
For my part, I have no real doubt that the noun xri=sma here refers to the presence of the Spirit. It is worth noting, however, that these three instances (in vv. 20, 27) are the only occurrences of xri=sma in the New Testament. It occurs 10 times in the LXX, primarily in the Pentateuch (Exod 29:7; 30:25; 35:12, 19, etc), where it refers to the oil used for the consecrated anointing of people and objects. Quite possibly, its use here in 1 John alludes to the practice of anointing with oil as part of the baptism ritual. However, we cannot be entirely certain of this practice in the first-century; the earliest attestation is found in Tertullian, On Baptism 7, cf. also Cyprian Epistle 70.2, and the Apostolic Constitutions 7:27.
Even so, it is likely that the oil/anointing symbolism was part of the ritual from very early times. Its association with the Spirit would follow naturally from the common idea that it was in connection with baptism that a believer first received the Spirit (cf. Acts 2:38; 8:12-13ff; 9:17-18; 10:45-48; 19:5-6, etc). The association goes back to early Gospel tradition, in both the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:10 par) and the saying by the Baptist about Jesus (Mk 1:8 par). In Luke-Acts, this coming of the Spirit upon Jesus (at his baptism) is clearly understood as an anointing (Lk 4:18ff; Acts 10:38; cf. also the quotation of Ps 2:7 in Lk 3:22 v.l.). This is no mere Lukan invention, since the idea relates to the early application of Isa 61:1ff to Jesus as the Anointed One [Messiah] of God; on the similar idea of God placing his Spirit upon Jesus (as His chosen Servant), cf. Isa 11:2 and 42:1 (and the use of the latter in the Gospel tradition).
This Messianic concept of being anointed by the Spirit is part of a wider Prophetic tradition describing the activity of God’s Spirit in the New Age of Israel’s restoration. Of special significance is the motif of the Spirit being poured out, as liquid (water, oil, etc) upon God’s people—cf. Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 39:29; Joel 2:28-29 [cited in Acts 2:17-18].
For all of these reasons, we may safely assume that xri=sma in 1 John 2:20, 27 is a more or less direct allusion to the presence of the Spirit in believers. Believers hold (vb e&xw) this anointing in them (v. 20), and it remains (vb me/nw) in them. Both of these verbs have special theological meaning in the Johannine writings, and refer here to the abiding presence of Jesus (the Son), along with God (the Father), through the Spirit.
What are the consequences of this abiding presence of the Spirit (the xri=sma) in believers? The author explains this, to some extent, in each portion of his discussion:
- “…and you know all (thing)s. I did not write to you (in) that [i.e. because] you have not seen [i.e. known] the truth, but (in) that you have seen it, and (also) that every false (thing) is not out of [i.e. does come from] the truth.” (vv. 20b-21)
- “…and you do not have need that any(one) should teach you, but, as His anointing teaches you about all (thing)s, and is true and not (something) false, and, just as it (has) taught you, you must remain in him.” (v. 27)
The anointing (i.e., the Spirit) teaches believers “all things”, and so there is no need for anyone (else) to teach them. This touches to the heart of the Johannine spiritualism. It reflects the promised role of the Spirit in the Paraclete-sayings of Jesus in the Last Discourse (14:26; 16:13ff; cf. also 15:26). Through the Spirit, Jesus will continue to be present with believers, and to teach them. It is this emphasis on the spiritual presence of Jesus which may have led to the opponents devaluing the earthly life and ministry of Jesus (including his death).
This is particularly important, it seems, for the author’s rhetorical strategy here. On the one hand, he fully accepts and affirms the Johannine spiritualistic principle of the primacy of the Spirit—it is, indeed, the Spirit who teaches believers “all things,” and the true believer has no need to rely on any other human teacher. This apparently radical concept is actually inspired by the Prophetic tradition (cf. above) regarding the role of God’s Spirit among His people in the New Age. In this time of a New Covenant, the Spirit will lead all people to serve as prophets (Joel 2:28f), effectively fulfilling the wish expressed by Moses in Num 11:29; moreover, because God will write his Law upon the heart of each person, they will all know Him, without the need for anyone else to teach them (Jer 31:34). In this regard, the Johannine emphasis simply reflects an early Christian version of this Prophetic ideal, an eschatological hope for God’s people that is realized among believers in Christ.
The Spirit, being the Spirit of Truth (4:6; 5:6; Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), will always teach believers what is true, and will never say anything that is false. As a result, with the Spirit’s guidance, the true believer will be able to recognize any false teaching, including the false teaching of the opponents (v. 22, cf. below). If the Spirit teaches believers “all things,” with no need for anyone else to teach them, then why is the author bothering to give the instruction that he does? Even though the Spirit may be primary, there is still value in human instruction and exhortation. The guidance of the Spirit does not happen automatically, but requires a measure of faithfulness and cooperation by the believer. There is thus a place for human teaching and exhortation within the congregation, such as the kind that the author gives here. He expresses the contingency in two ways:
- “I have written these (thing)s to you (warning you) about the (one)s leading you astray.” (v. 26)
- “…just as he/it has taught you, you must remain in him” (v. 27)
The first point indicates the real danger, in the mind of the author, that the false teaching of the opponents could lead some believers astray (vb plana/w). How could this possibly happen to a believer? The concluding words in v. 27 make this clear: the believer must consciously and willingly remain in the Spirit, in order for the Spirit to continue guiding him/her in the truth.
The verb me/nw is a fundamental Johannine keyword, as I have noted above. The form used here, me/nete, could be read as an indicative or an imperative; in my view, the author intends an imperative, even as he does in the following v. 28. The Spirit teaching believers the truth depends upon the believer remaining in the Spirit. The actual phrase is “you must remain in him [e)n au)tw=|]”, and it is not entirely clear whether the pronoun (“him”) refers specifically to God the Father, Jesus, or the Spirit. In terms of the Johannine theology, the latter two—Jesus and the Spirit—would be principally in view, since a person remains in the Father through the Son (Jesus), and, in turn, remains in the Son through the Spirit. Much the same is expressed in the Last Discourse, cf. especially the illustration of the Vine (15:4-9).
The author tells us something about the false belief of the opponents in verse 22; I have discussed this at length in a set of three supplemental notes (1, 2, 3). The title o( xristo/$, as used in the Gospel of John, indicates that it refers specifically to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. Another possibility, however, is that it functions here as a shorthand for the fuller Christological statement in 4:2—viz., regarding Jesus Christ as having “come in the flesh,” usually understood specifically in terms of his earthly life. Either way, it seems likely that the opponents of 1 John, in some fashion, denied or devalued the importance of Jesus’ earthly life (and death). This may have extended to a denial of Jesus’ identity as the Jewish Messiah.
A devaluation of Jesus’ earthly life could be explained on the basis of both the Johannine Christology and its spiritualism. The high Christology of the Gospel, emphasizing Jesus’ identity as the eternal (and pre-existent) Son of God, could easily have led some Johannine Christians to question the importance of his earthly life and ministry. Moreover, if Jesus continues to be present with believers in the Spirit, continuing to teach “all things”, then of what value are the traditions of the things that Jesus said and did in the past?
In the prologue (1:1-4), the author clearly establishes the importance of the historical Gospel tradition—of the things Jesus said and did, preserved and transmitted to future generations by the first disciples (functioning as eye/ear-witnesses). It is no coincidence that the author essentially repeats the opening phrase—o^ h@n a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“that which was from [the] beginning”)—here in the central unit of his exposition (vv. 24-26). In between the two references to the teaching of the Spirit, he includes this reference to the Gospel tradition: “that which you heard from (the) beginning”.
In an earlier note on 1:1ff, I discussed how there are two aspects to the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ in 1 John: (1) Christological, referring to Jesus as the one who was with God “from the beginning” (Jn 1:1, etc); and (2) Evangelistic, referring to the message about Jesus, which believers have heard “from the beginning”, i.e., from the time of the first disciples. The Christological aspect is primary, but it cannot be separated from the Gospel witness. This is essentially the message of the author of 1 John, and he states it again here in vv. 24ff:
“(As for) you, that which you (have) heard from (the) beginning, it must remain in you. If that which you heard from (the) beginning should remain in you, (then) indeed you will remain in the Son and in the Father.”
According to the Johannine mode of expression, the person of Jesus (“the one from the beginning”) must remain in the believer; but this is not possible if the truth of the message about Jesus does not also remain in the believer. Here is a key sign distinguishing the true and false believer, in the context of the crisis caused by the opponents. The true believer remains faithful to the authoritative Gospel tradition(s) about Jesus, preserved from the first disciples, while the false believer has forsaken or has distorted those traditions. Put another way, the internal teaching of the Spirit will (and must) conform to the Gospel tradition; and any such teaching which contradicts that tradition, and is thus false, cannot come from the Spirit.
This will be discussed further, along with a further examination of the nature and beliefs of the opponents of 1-2 John, in the upcoming study on the second “antichrist” section (4:1-6). However, first I will consider the spiritualism of 1 John as expressed in the central section (2:28-3:24), where the marks of the true believer are most clearly enunciated.