Question: What did the Apostle John mean when he warned that "many antichrists have come"? What is an antichrist?
Answer: To understand the term "antichrist"—which is found only in 1 John and 2 John, it is helpful to examine the scriptures that use the term. The phrase "many antichrists" occurs in 1 John 2:18: "Little children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour."
The word antichrist in this verse means "against Christ" or "instead of Christ," or refers to a false Christ who "opposes" the true Christ (Vine's Expository Dictionary). The Apostle John warned that many opponents of the true Christ and His message had already come. Some had infiltrated God’s true Church. John continued, "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 they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (v. 19). John goes on to confirm this, providing more details.
Notice what John wrote in the very next epistle: "For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist" (2 John 7). Here, John describes an antichrist as a deceiver. During the apostles' ministry, a proliferation of false teaching arose. One such deception included the Gnostic denial that Jesus Christ came in the flesh as the only begotten Son of God. The Gnostic heresy concluded that Christ only seemed to take human form (New Testament Introduction, by Donald Guthrie, p. 870). Gnostic teachers, therefore, were among the many antichrists who rejected Christ's coming in the flesh as the incarnate Son of God. The consequences of such doctrines water down Christ's sacrifice, and inadequately define sin—turning grace into license to sin (Jude 4). John wrote his letter to combat these false ideas and to strengthen God's people in the truth. Notice how John wrote that these deceivers denied Christ "as coming in the flesh." The casual reader may understand this in the sense of Christ's first coming in the flesh, but there is an additional meaning.
Williams New Testament Translation clarifies this verse by rendering it "continues to come." In other words, Jesus Christ not only had come in the flesh to become the perfect sacrifice for sin, but He is continuing to come in the flesh of Christians by living His life in us. We read: "Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us" (1 John 3:24). Jesus Christ abides or lives in us through His Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20). He stated, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word: and My Father will love him. And We will come to him and make Our home with him" (John 14:23).
In stark contrast, the spirit of antichrist "does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (1 John 4:2-3). This lying spirit denies the reality of Christ's first coming, and the wonderful truth that through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ can live His life in us—the very same life He lived when He was on earth—a life of obedience to the law of God! Therefore, an antichrist is one who is against Christ—against His law, and against His way of life. This spirit of antichrist or lawlessness, so common today, was already widespread in the Apostle Paul's day: "For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work" (2 Thessalonians 2:7). For more information, please send for our free booklet, Who or What Is the Antichrist?