Verse 19a: The Antichrists Within
They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
To wrap our heads around this verse requires us to see the Church from a pre-denominational viewpoint: the early Church obviously had severe debates with significant differences of opinion being expressed (i.e. Gnosticism, Arianism, Docetism), yet as far as we know, no one thought that division in fellowship or doctrine was an option because departure pointed to betrayal, denial of faith, and separation from God’s grace; division was considered an unacceptable catastrophe – a sentiment I wish we could restore in our day – and it was not taken lightly.
“They went out from us”: from the founding of the Church the Holy Spirit warned that opposition to Christ would rise from within our own ranks.
Acts 20:28-31 (CSB) Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I never stopped warning each one of you with tears.
These savage wolves are defined as those who rise up from within our fellowships – and especially our elderships – and manipulate the truth in order to persuade others to follow their apostate teachings.
What’s most important to understand is that these antichrists are not merely unbelievers who persecute the Church, they are identified as those who come out from among our number, having heard the word of truth and once believed, but now having departed down the path of apostasy; John readily acknowledges that these false teachers were once regular members of their fellowship of believers whose departure into apostasy demonstrated that they were not truly from us.
“In what way did the depart?”
Andreas, a seventh century monk who was known for collecting commentary from earlier writers to form a catena on various biblical books, aptly answers this question:
John says this because there were some people who had become teachers but had subsequently departed from the truth in order to follow the blasphemies of their own minds. But even if they were once among us, John adds, they were never really part of us, since if they had been, they would have stayed with us.
Their departure is first and foremost a departure from the gospel integrity of truth that resulted in their departure from ecclesial fellowship. Meaning that because they did not receive the love of truth, but chose to follow a lie, they forsook the community of God and joined themselves to an apostate body that was unfaithful to the apostolic gospel of Christ that was once and for all delivered to us by the apostles themselves.
This is similar to the coming of the eschatological Antichrist:
2nd Thessalonians 2:9-12 (NIV) The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, 10 and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
The key trait marking those who belong to the Antichrist is their rejection of gospel truth and pursuit of unrighteous deception.
This verse puts Christian fellowship in context of its agreement with revealed truth rather than its proximity with ecclesial organization; genuine Christian fellowship occurs within a shared body of believers who are centered on the truth of God’s word.
“But they did not really belong to us”: this clause is not meant to deny our culpability or excuse the church – especially our elderships – from our responsibility to look out for wolves and protect the Church from them; when the Church appoints unqualified men in her elderships to pastor Christ’s flock we are directly responsible for the damage that will follow. Likewise, when elderships refuse to examine themselves and remove ungodly men from their ranks, we are likewise responsible for the damage that will follow.
But this clause reassures our confidence in fellowship with one another in two ways, despite the reality that wolves will rise up from within our own fellowships:
- These antichrists never belonged to us because the truth of God’s word never settled in their souls.
- These antichrists will eventually leave any church that refuses to compromise the truth of the gospel.
Christians are born of the word:
1st Peter 1:22-23 (CSB) Since you have purified yourselves by your obedience to the truth, so that you show sincere brotherly love for each other, from a pure heart love one another constantly, 23 because you have been born again—not of perishable seed but of imperishable—through the living and enduring word of God.
Christian fellowship is born out of obedience to the truth. This is where it will become evident who belongs to Christ and who does not; those whose life does not follow the direction and path of truth do not really belong to Christ. Likewise, those who do not live in the truth will eventually come out from among those who do.
My favorite early-church writer adds this:
Bede: John says that the antichrists have gone out from us but then adds the comforting words that they were never really with us beforehand. In fact, he is saying that no one except an antichrist would even leave us, for those who are not against Christ will cling to his body. In the body of Christ there are those who are still being healed and who will not be fully well again until the resurrection of the dead. But there are also others who are malignant tumors, and when they are removed the body is spared. Thus it is that the departure of such people is of great benefit to the church.