(1Jo 2:20-21 ESV) 20 But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. 21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.
Before we discern the meaning of “anointing” as metaphor, we need to understand what the word meant to John and his readers as Jews. David was the anointed. “Messiah” means “anointed one.” “Christ” is the Greek for “anointed one” and is the exactly same thing as “Messiah.” To be anointed to be made a king.
But priests are also anointed —
(Exo 28:41 ESV) 41 And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests.
In fact, Moses had the Israelites maintain anointing oil for that special purpose —
(Exo 30:30-33 ESV) 30 You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 31 And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be poured on the body of an ordinary person, and you shall make no other like it in composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33 Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an outsider shall be cut off from his people.'”
Indeed, only an anointed priest could participate in the Day of Atonement —
(Lev 16:29-34 ESV) 29 “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. 30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. 31 It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. 32 And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. 33 He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Moses did as the LORD commanded him.
Later, though, when God gave Israel a king, the king was called “the Lord’s anointed.” The phrase is nearly synonymous with “king” but refers more particularly to the king chosen by God. Thus, David refused to kill Saul, even in self-defense, not just because Saul was king, but because he was “the Lord’s anointed.” His fate is thus governed by God, not David.
(1Sa 26:10-11 ESV) 10 And David said, “As the LORD lives, the LORD will strike him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish. 11 The LORD forbid that I should put out my hand against the LORD’s anointed. But take now the spear that is at his head and the jar of water, and let us go.”
Later, the prophets referred to the Messiah as anointed by God —
(Isa 61:1 ESV) The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
(Dan 9:25 ESV) 25 Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time.
The language of anointing is thus used in the New Testament every time we read the word “Christ” as well as in such passages as —
(Act 10:36-38 ESV) 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit — a reference both to Isaiah 61:1 as well as to the fact that David received the Spirit when he was anointed king. The coming of the Spirit is a truer sign of God’s favor than oil! But, of course, Jesus was also a priest after the order of Melchizedek — indeed, a high priest capable of offering the atoning sacrifice — another result of his anointing (Psa 110:4; Hebrews).
Thus, when John says to his readers that they have received an “anointing,” he is speaking of the sort of anointing that makes someone like the Anointed One, a king and a priest. And that can only be the Holy Spirit.
(2Co 1:21-22 ESV) 21 And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, 22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
(1Pe 2:4-5 ESV) 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
(1Pe 2:9 ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
We are priests! And we are kings! “Royal priesthood” means that we are both — a nation of priests who are also kings.
(Exo 19:5-6 ESV) 5 “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
(Rev 5:9-10 ESV) 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
(Rev 22:5 ESV) 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
We are priests, because like the priests of old, we minister before God for the sake of those who come to worship. We stand between the lost and God, teaching and bringing them into the true temple, his church. Our work as worshipers and missionaries and teachers is the work of priests. We aren’t the high priest. We don’t offer the atoning sacrifice. Rather, we serve him and with him, ministering to those who come to the temple for forgiveness, bringing them to the One has the sacrifice.
We are kings, not only because we’ll reign at the end of time, but because we’ve been given the task of ruling the earth today — but ruling as servants of the earth. We rule as Jesus rules, by offering ourselves to those we serve. Christ has real authority, but his authority derives from his death. And as the church dies to the world and lives for Jesus, the authority of its words will be recognized.
Our authority is derivative. It comes from Jesus and may only be used in his service. And like the life Jesus lived, it’s the authority to defeat the rulers of the world through service and submission. It’s a very strange kind of authority.
(2Co 12:9 ESV) But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Jesus isn’t like most kings — and neither are we. We find power in weakness.
Now, John says two astonishing things about what this Anointing does: “you all have knowledge” and “not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it.” These declarations remind us of these promises —
(John 14:26 ESV) 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
(John 16:13 ESV) 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
Of course, John isn’t saying that the Spirit gives us an entire Wikipedia of information or instant ability to solve differential equations. We know that’s not true! Rather, “the truth” is the truth about and that is Jesus. “Truth” is gospel. “Truth” is what all converts are taught and confessed. All Christians have the truth.
Just so, “knowledge” is not academic knowledge, but the knowledge John had just mentioned earlier in the chapter: knowledge of Jesus and God. Again, even the children — new converts — have this knowledge.