Toward the end of his life, the apostle John wrote a letter to a group of churches in the vicinity of Ephesus on the west coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The purpose of the letter was to combat a heresy that was being propagated by false teachers who had, at one time, been members of the church.
A mirror reading of John’s letter suggests that the false teachers were proclaiming a form of Gnosticism: the notion that God, who is a Spirit and is essentially good, cannot dwell in a human body that consists of matter and is essentially evil. This is, of course, a direct repudiation of the central tenet of the gospel: that God, in the person of His Son, was “manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim 3.16).
For this reason, John urges his readers not to believe every spirit or message but to test the spirits to see whether they are of God. He then recommends that his readers use the following litmus test to determine the authenticity of each message and messenger:
“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.” (1 John 4.2,3)
To confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to acknowledge that He is God in human form and that He has the power to save us from our sins (1 John 1.7-2.2). According to John, anyone who denies that Jesus is the Christ is antichrist (1 John 2.22). Interestingly, the term antichrist can mean either “against Christ” or “instead of Christ,” or as B. F. Westcott suggests, a combination of the two: “one who, assuming the guise of Christ, opposes Christ.”
Marvin Vincent comments that antichrist denotes one who is against Christ, “not pretending to be Christ, but proposing to do the work of Christ.” Antichrist thus denotes the subtle substitution of “another Jesus” and “another gospel” in place of the Faithful and True Messiah (2 Cor 11.3-4).
The Greek word gnosis means knowledge. Gnostics believed that humanity’s greatest problem was not sin but ignorance. Salvation was obtained through mental enlightenment, and enlightenment was only afforded to elite spiritual initiates.
This ancient teaching bears a striking resemblance to the philosophy of the New Age movement which denies the sinfulness of the human heart and rejects the need for a Saviour and instead promotes evolutionary development through self-discovery and the acquisition of metaphysical knowledge and the realisation of one’s divinity through a series of events and incarnations.
John also reminds his readers that they are living in “the last hour” — the epoch of human history that commenced with the incarnation of Christ and will culminate in his return. Whilst acknowledging that “many antichrists” have come, John points to a personal antichrist who is yet to be revealed:
“Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2.18).
Marvin Vincent notes that the absence of the article before the term antichrist shows its currency as a proper name. In other words, John is not just referring to a spirit, or a general attitude, or a wave of popular opinion but to an actual person who will be the last in a long line of Christ-displacers.
The rebel leader
John’s fellow apostle, Saul of Tarsus (Paul), also envisaged that the rebellion of humankind would ultimately be consummated in a specific individual whom he called “the lawless one.”
“Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first, and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God” (2 Thess 2.3-4)
In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul draws upon his knowledge of Jewish history in general, and the Tanakh in particular, to illustrate an important prophetic truth. Paul states that the lawless one will “oppose and exalt himself above every so-called god or object of worship,” a turn of phrase that echoes the prophecy of Daniel concerning the king of the North (Syria), the “vile person” who defiles the sanctuary, which many Jewish sages of the First Century believed to be a reference to the Seleucid king Antiochus IV:
“The king shall act as he pleases. He shall exalt himself and consider himself greater than any god and shall speak horrendous things against the God of gods …” (Dan 11.36)
Returning from a humiliating campaign in Egypt in 168 B.C.E., Antiochus IV savagely attacked Jerusalem, desecrating the temple and seizing its treasures. According to the Book of Second Maccabees, Antiochus’ soldiers massacred 40,000 people in the space of 3 days and captured another 40,000 as slaves. In order to consolidate his rule, Antiochus issued an edict prohibiting the Jews from practising circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, reading the Torah, and observing their distinctive dietary laws on pain of death.
In place of their ancestral customs, Antiochus imposed Hellenism (Greek philosophy and culture) on the local population as a means of unification. To add insult to injury, Antiochus then erected an altar to Olympian Zeus in the temple on the site of the altar of burnt offering and sacrificed pigs to the pagan deity.
In a sign of his megalomania, Antiochus called himself Epiphanēs, meaning “God manifest.” Antiochus apparently believed that he was the incarnation of the god Zeus. However, in a play on words, his enemies nicknamed him Epimanēs, meaning “madman,” in reference to his tyranny and cruelty.
Paul adopts the language Daniel used to describe Antiochus Epiphanēs and applies it to “the lawless one” of the last days, indicating that in his view, the Seleucid king is an archetype of the rebel leader, the antichrist, the one who usurps the glory that belongs to God alone.
In his commentary on the Book of Revelation, R. H. Mounce describes antichrist as “one in whom secular authority has assumed the mantle of deity.” It is not atheism — the denial of the existence of God. It is humanism — man purporting to be God. Richard Trench observes that “on the destruction of every religion, every acknowledgement that man is submitted to higher powers than his own, [antichrist] shall seek to establish his throne; and, for God’s great truth that in Christ God is man, to substitute his own lie, that in him man is God.”
The essence of the serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden was to become independent and gain the right to self-determination: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3.5). According to the apostle Paul, this primeval sin of man or “mystery of lawlessness” will be consummated at the end of days in “the man of sin” (2 Thess 2.3,7 KJV).
Antichrist thus epitomises man’s rebellion against God and the quest for self-rule: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us’” (Psalm 2.2-3).
Antichrist is Napoleon seizing the crown and placing it on his own head at the coronation ceremony in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, as if to say, “I am a self-made man; I have become Emperor through my own merits and not as a result of divine appointment or religious consecration.”
Antichrist is Henry VIII establishing a state church to accommodate his political ambitions and sexual proclivities and then appointing himself Supreme Head of the Church and absolute ruler in all matters political and spiritual.
Antichrist is Adolf Hitler asserting that “Providence has ordained that I should be the greatest liberator of humanity” and that “there will be no other revolution in Germany for the next one thousand years!”
Antichrist is the King of Tyre, Ithobaal III, boasting “I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas.” In response the Lord says, “Because you compare your mind with the mind of a god, therefore, I will bring strangers against you, the most terrible of the nations; they shall draw their swords against the beauty of your wisdom and defile your splendour. They shall thrust you down to the Pit, and you shall die a violent death in the heart of the seas” (Ezek 28.2,6-8).
The wisdom of the ages
Psalm Two is a remarkable synopsis of human history and in particular the age-old struggle between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of the Lord and his Messiah. In Charles Spurgeon’s words, “It sets forth as in a wondrous vision the tumult of the people against the Lord’s anointed, the determinate purpose of God to exalt his own Son, and the ultimate reign of that Son over all his enemies.”
It opens with the nations and their leaders raging against the Lord and plotting to overthrow his rule. The scene then switches to Heaven where God is pictured laughing derisively at their foolishness and rebuking them in his wrath.
Finally, the Psalmist offers some sage advice to the lawless ones, the antichrists, and the rebellious kings of the earth:
“Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 2.10-11).
To “kiss the Lord’s feet” is to bow in submission to his authority and do homage to his majesty. It is an acknowledgment that the Lord is God and there is no other.
For the wisdom of the ages teaches us that there is only one King and that His Kingdom will have no end!