Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Antichrist in John's Epistles: Part III

Another line of argument for a future Antichrist is the phrase “is coming” in 2:18. The verb is in the present tense. Normally it would be translated as “you have heard that antichrist comes.” However, most translations take this as “futuristic present.” This is described by Daniel Wallace as when “the present tense may describe an event that is wholly subsequent to the time of speaking, although as if it were present.”[1] Wallace adds this use of the present tense is commonly found with the verb “erchomai,” which is the word “is coming” in our text. Whether or not this is futuristic is difficult to determine. Even if it is, the question still remains as to whether it is future to the time of John writing or was future when he told them about it in the past (you have heard).  Notice the parallel between 2:18 and 4:3:
2:18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.
4:3 This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

It is possible to read 2:18 as, “you have heard that Antichrist is coming in the future, but even now there are many antichrists who prefigure that coming antichrist.”  This is how Pastor MacArthur reads the passage.   
Or it could be read, “You heard in the past that antichrist would come and now he/they have arrived." The second reading fits better with the rest of John’s references to the antichrist, while the first reading does not.
Either way, this is not a slam-dunk argument for making the Antichrist an end times world leader.

One final argument is used to say antichrist refers to end times world leader.  John says in 2:18 and in 4:3 that the people “have heard” that the antichrist is coming.  Some pastors take this as a reference to II Thessalonians 2. They will say that Paul speaks of the Antichrist in II Thessalonians and that is where John’s readers heard about it. While this is possible, it is sheer speculation. There is nothing in I John that indicates he was writing to the same group that Paul wrote to or that his readers had access to Paul’s letters.  There is no direct connection in words or concepts between I John 2 and II Thessalonians 2.  It is just as likely that John has previously told them about the antichrist when he planted or visited the church he was writing to.

Everything in I and II John points to antichrists and the spirit of the antichrist being present during the time John was writing.  There are no verbal or conceptual parallels with other passages which speak of an end times leader, even in John’s book of Revelation. John’s epistles are pastoral in nature, discussing particular problems that were facing his readers. There is nothing in the text that demands we read antichrist as The Antichrist.

So what is the antichrist? The simple answer is that antichrist was a set of doctrines or beliefs that denied that Jesus was the Christ. This set of beliefs denied especially the Incarnation.  Any man who holds to these beliefs is a deceiver and the antichrist. So antichrist is both the set of beliefs and the men who hold those beliefs. By the way, Pastor MacArthur implies that all Christians are antichrists. This is overstating the case.  I think this was in his second sermon on this passage.  

            Readers may ask, “Why does this matter?”  First and foremost, all Christians should desire to be faithful to the biblical text. Before we move on to “practical” considerations, there must be a foundational desire to know exactly what the text says.  So our love for Christ demands that we properly understand what I and II John are teaching. Second, by showing that I and II John do not teach us about an end times leader called the Antichrist we are able to focus more clearly on what the text does say. Someone who believes that John is talking about a world leader who shows up during the Tribulation ends up spending a lot of time on passages that have nothing to do with I John. I think this can confuse the flock. Third, John is talking about religious leaders, false teachers who went out from the Apostles. The modern depiction of the Antichrist is that he is a political leader. Again this muddies the waters and causes a focus on nations and world leaders instead of teachers and pastors. Finally, too often when I and II John are preached they are couched in speculation. The flock does not get practical exhortations on how to fight the antichrist who shows up at their door, like the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, Unitarians, or the liberal Presbyterian. (In fairness to Pastor MacArthur he only spends half of one sermon on the world leader. Most of his three sermons are devoted to how to combat present day antichrists.)

[1]  Wallace, Daniel B., Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996),  p. 536.

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Let the saints be joyful in glory, let them sing aloud on their beds, let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishments on the peoples; to bind the kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron. Psalm 149:5-8