(1Jo 2:18-19 ESV) 18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
This is a passage filled with difficulties. Who is the antichrist? What does John mean by “it is the last hour”? Let’s start with the second question.
The “last hour”
In The New Testament and the People of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God), N. T. Wright says (pp. 462-3),
This means, of course, that the old scholarly warhorse of the ‘delay of the parousia [second coming]’ has had its day at last, and can be put out to grass once and for all. … The usual scholarly construct, in which the early church waited for Jesus’ return, lived only for that future and without thought of anything past (such as memories of Jesus himself), only to be grievously disappointed and to take up history-writing as a displacement activity, a failure of nerve — this picture is without historical basis. The church expected certain things to happen within a generation, and happen they did, though there must have been moments between AD 30 and 70 when some wondered if they would, and in consequence took up the Jewish language of delay. Jerusalem fell; the good news of Jesus, and the kingdom of Israel’s god, was announced in Rome, as well as in Jerusalem and in Athens. But there is no sign of dismay, in any of the literature that has come down to us from the period after AD 70, at the fact that Jesus himself had still not yet returned. Clement looks forward to the return of Jesus without any comment on its timing. Ignatius is worried about many things, but not that. Justin Martyr, in the middle of the second century, is as emphatic as anyone that the event will happen. He does not know when; but then, the key passages in the New Testament always said it would be a surprise.
I can’t count the times I’ve had a student in class or commenter on the blog refer to the theory that the early church expected an early return of Jesus (other than by means of the destruction of Jerusalem). But Wright points out, the early Christians give no evidence of being surprised at the “delay” — despite the popular notion that they were surprised. It’s just not true.
“Hour” is a Hebrew metaphor that means “time.” And the Messianic age is the last age before the end of time. John had just written —
(1Jo 2:17 ESV) 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
We are in the not yet/already phase between Jesus and the Eschaton, the last hour, the time when the old world will wither away as the Kingdom spreads and prepares for the return of its King.
The Antichrist is great fun for those of the Left Behind school of thought, but such theories are quite foreign to John’s thinking. Rather, this is what John says —
(1Jo 2:18 ESV) 8 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.
(1Jo 2:22 ESV) 22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.
(1Jo 4:2-3 ESV) 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
(2Jo 1:7 ESV) 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.
John’s reference to antichrist in the singular in 2:18 makes want to imagine a future bogeyman, but John says plainly that the antichrist “is in the world already” and “those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh … is the deceiver and the antichrist.” John’s concerns in this passage aren’t eschatological (concerned with end times) but pastoral. He’s worried that the church he is writing to may be convinced by the proto-Gnostics to deny that Jesus came in the flesh. And if Jesus wasn’t human, he didn’t die and wasn’t resurrected, and that destroys Christianity. It’s a false gospel that damns.
So what’s John’s real point?
The false teachers had been part of the Christian community, but because of their heresy, they withdrew — further demonstrating their error and worldliness. They couldn’t remain where the true gospel is taught, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed any influence. (John will have more to say about them throughout the book.)