While John’s Revelation seems to pinpoint a specific antichrist, 1 John speaks about a category of people whom John calls antichrists. And identifying this latter group becomes vital for us today because distinguishing the spirit of the antichrist from the spirit of God marks the difference between truth and error.
To help mark that difference, consider these three characteristics of antichrists.
First, antichrists are leavers
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. … 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. (1 John 2:18–19, 22)
Antichrists do not stick around for long. They arise from within the church, but they eventually make themselves known. Then they leave. They are leavers. John explains, “they went out from” and “they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
We make the mistake of thinking that antichrists sit our pews without ever making themselves known. For a time, this may be true. But eventually, their confession of Christ and schismatic spirit (the spirit of antichrist) bursts through. They leave.
Church history often bears out this observation. One of the most famous heretics in history is Marcion (c. 85–160 AD). Now, Marcion did not sheepishly stay in a church, slowly arguing for his position. Instead, he confronted the council of elders for the city of Rome and demanded they accept his views about God and the Old Testament.
They did not. So he left. He scorned them and started his own “church.” And his schismatic church lasted for centuries. Yet he and his followers “left.” They were not remainers but leavers.
Second, antichrists make salvation impossible
The leavers not only broke away from the church, but they taught something that made salvation impossible. John writes:
4 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 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. (1 John 4:1–3)
In John’s particular context, the schismatic antichrists denied “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” Whatever their exact belief, they somehow denied the humanity of Jesus. They saw him perhaps as a spirit inhabiting a body–one who only seemed like a human but not a real one.
Such doctrine shows us not the “spirits” who are “from God” but “the spirit of the antichrist.” Central to our hope is that the Word became flesh (John 1:14). He did so to offer us his life-giving flesh through his life, death, and resurrection.
Without Christ being truly human, he could not dwell among us to make God known to us (John 1:18). He could not suffer and die in our place to finish the work of God (John 19:30). He could not rise from the dead and bestow his Spirit (John 19:30, 34; 20:22). Without Christ assuming human flesh, we could not be saved by and in his flesh. Salvation would be impossible.
Antichrists not only leave, but they make their shame clear: they deny the heart of the economy of salvation. They deny, in this case, that Christ assumed human flesh to redeem every human that believes in him. He heals “the whole human being” (John 7:23) because he became fully human (John 1:14; Heb 2:14–15).
As Paul says, “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3). Apart from Christ’s flesh, we cannot be saved (cf. 1 Cor 15:1–4). We cannot even know Christ directly (John 1:9), and we cannot know God fully (John 1:18).
Third, antichrists deal in half-truths
6 This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree (1 John 5:6–8).
It impossible to know the exact beliefs of the “leavers,” yet it sounds like they affirmed that Jesus came in water but not blood (see Karen Jobes’ commentary). Consider the following reasons for this. First, John asserts, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2). So not coming in the flesh must highlight the leavers’ doctrine to some degree. Second, John does not add “in the water” with the flesh in 1 John 4. Yet he does specify it here: “not by the water only but by the water and the blood.”
If blood parallels flesh, then water would be the common element that both the leavers and the remainers (those born of God) confess. Consequently, those who have the spirit of the antichrist can confess true beliefs—in this case, that Christ came in the Spirit since water in John’s idiom often means the Holy Spirit (e.g., John 7:38–39).
One wonders if coming in water meant something like coming in the Spirit apart from flesh, as in, Christ only seemed human but was a spiritual being. In this sense, the leavers believed in a modicum of truth that may have given their position plausibility. After all, Jesus was divine and so spiritual (John 4:24). How could he become a real human?
Yet that is precisely the scandal of the cross. As John explains, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). And he could be our propitiation because he had flesh and blood (1 John 1:1). He could truly die as a human being for the sake of all human beings—”for the sins of the whole world.”
Still, it is striking how obvious the antichrists half-truths were. They denied the flesh of Christ. Then, when they could not convince the children of God of their shame, they left. They did not stick around.
Leavers, antichrists, do not value Christian unity. Just the opposite. They are schismatics who shamefully boast in clear error. They leave us so that it may be made clear that they are not of us. These are the antichrists.