For the past 20 centuries, Christians have been preoccupied with identifying the Antichrist. Most of the time, their efforts have led them to the field of politics, economics, or religion – and their conclusions usually reflect their opposition to someone’s party affiliation, economic policy, or beliefs.

Back in the early 1970s, a lot of people insisted it was Henry Kissinger – or his boss, Richard Nixon. Or Jimmy Carter. Or Ronald Reagan. Probably every president in American history has been tagged as the Antichrist.

In fact, most world leaders have also been I-D’d as the Antichrist at one time or another: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Saddam Hussein, and so on. Along with the Federal Reserve, attendees at the Bilderberg Conference, the European Union (especially when it was known as the Common Market), and the United Nations.

Big business is often labeled as the Antichrist, although it’s usually said tongue-in-cheek: Wal-Mart is a favorite target, along with banks that are “too big to fail”, and your particular cable company. Even I have referred to Clear Channel Communications – now known as I-Heart-Radio – as the Antichrist for the way it has brought what I believe to be ruination to local radio.

The original Westminster Confession of Faith – the most extensive statement of what Presbyterians believe – declared that the Pope is the Antichrist. Thankfully that was edited out of our version – but not until 1903.

Of course, none of these people or entities is the Antichrist. But human beings are more comfortable with one clearly-identified bogeyman to fear than with uncertainty, so they will latch onto anything that makes any sense.

Remember Charlie Brown and Lucy at her psychiatric help booth in A Charlie Brown Christmas?
She tries to help Charlie Brown figure out what he is afraid of, because then they can label it. Being able to point out what you fear, name it, and keep an eye on it seems more manageable than something you cannot identify.

We do the same with this mysterious something that John calls Antichrist – not only in his first pastoral letter, but also in the Revelation.

But before we get to identifying Antichrist – we have to address John’s sense of timing: In v.18 he writes “this is the last hour.” Literally, he wrote “this is a last hour.”

We could do an entire sermon just on that, but the brief explanation is that John uses the word “hour” in his account of the Gospel to represent the time of redemption and salvation.

In other words, we are in the time between the first and second comings of Jesus – the time when faith in Jesus matters to our salvation. Before He came the first time, people could only believe in the hope of a Messiah to come, but not in Jesus specifically. After He returns, it will be too late to believe in Him. So we are in the time when faith in Jesus makes a difference in our salvation – and this will help us to understand Antichrist.

Or should I say, antichrists? v.18 tells us that “many antichrists have come.” So the first thing we learn is that it is clearly not one person – so yoy can take Henry Kissinger off the list of suspects.

And John tells us that they were already present when he wrote his letter, so “This is how we know it is a last hour” – this is how we know we are in the time of salvation, the time between the comings of Jesus.

v.19 adds a new twist: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us.” So the antichrists of which John writes were with the early Church, but left it. And he concludes that they never really did belong to the Church.

John goes on to write in v.20 “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.” So the Holy Spirit had anointed the believers, giving them the ability to understand the truth. So the ones who left – the antichrists – did not have the truth because they were not anointed by the Spirit. They were never really believers.

But Antichrist is such a strong word – couldn’t John have just called them something nicer, like heretics? Why would he call them antichrists?

The answer is in v.22: “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.
Such a man is the antichrist …”

It’s right there. “The man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.” That person is anti-Christ, as the title of this message was typed in your bulletins.

John is very specific here. He does not say that these people or this movement are anti-Jesus –
they are anti-Christ.

The early church had many people in it who were attracted to the message of Jesus – His preaching about love and charity and justice for the poor. But they never bought into the idea that He was the Christ.

“Christ” comes from the Greek word for “anointed one” – and it corresponds to the Hebrew word “Messiah” – a word absolutely loaded with meaning.

The Messiah was the Redeemer, promised by God to Adam and Eve the same day they broke covenant with God. The promise of the Messiah was developed all through the Hebrew Bible, in the giving of the Law with its sacrificial system, and later through the Psalms and the Prophets.

So Jesus is His name – but Christ is who He is as the Son of God and what He does as the promised Redeemer. And belief in Jesus as the Christ is the issue here in I John. As John put it in v.23: “No one who denies the Son has the Father …”

That is antichrist: a belief system that accepts the Jesus as an historical figure, a moral and ethical exemplar – maybe even a prophet or a miracle-worker – but not as the Son of God and Redeemer.

Apparently, people who believed in Jesus but not as the Christ had left the Church and were preaching this competing message. Their message was the polar opposite of Peter’s confession of Jesus in Matthew 16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter is also quoted in John 6: “We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

So you can relax and breathe easier and can stop looking for the Antichrist under every rock. It is obviously not one person, or even one institution.

And it is most certainly not the Pope. I know of no pope – certainly not in my lifetime – who denied that Jesus is the Christ. The Popes claim to be successors to Peter – who was the first person to declare that Jesus is the Christ – so they would be denying the rock upon which their throne rests.

However, the spirit of antichrist is alive and well and gaining influence in the world. It is found in every person who declares, “I am spiritual, but not religious.” Christianity does not ask people to buy into the Church as an institution, or to embrace a particular brand of Christianity and all that it believes. But to be a follower of Jesus Christ, a person much believe in Jesus as the Christ – and all that that means. The spiritual-but-not-religious want a relationship with God, but don’t want to be limited to Jesus as the One who makes that relationship possible.

And I can assure you that this will continue to advance until Jesus returns and proves it all wrong.

So what do we do about it? John has the answers for us. Let’s look at v.24: “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you.”

The basic message of Jesus as the Son of God in the flesh, who died as the perfect sacrifice for our sin.

We must examine our belief system and see whether that is part of it –
or whether we have started to adopt a more mushy view of who Jesus is.

And then in v.28 John encourages us to “continue in Him.” This echoes the letters that John wrote down in the Revelation, which end with the words,
“to him who overcomes …” – to him who perseveres, who remains faithful to the faith once delivered.

There is one other element that is not specifically in this passage, but it’s all through John’s first letter. And it has everything to do with continuing in Him: remaining in fellowship with other Christians.

I saw a bumper sticker on the SUV in front of me the other day: “My church is a forest.” It’s a nice thought – if you worship on your own in nature once in a while. But it’s a dangerous thought if you think you can follow Jesus alone.

Lone-Ranger Christians can wander off into bad belief systems far easier than those who meet together regularly, learn together, and share their questions together. There is accountability in the Body of Christ.

We have differences with all kinds of Christians over all kinds of beliefs: Infant or adult baptism, what’s really happening in Communion, women in leadership, forms of church government, same-gender marriage, election or free will, how the Trinity works – or even if there is a Trinity. But we share this: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

And we as the Church with a capital C – not individual congregations or denominations – must pull together because we need to show that we are united in Jesus Christ. And we must stand up together to this “spiritual but not religious” view that teaches that we do not have to have any specific belief to have a relationship with God.

John doesn’t make it complicated – he makes it clear: “… the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist.”

So we must recommit to the heart of our faith and to our fellow Christians as we join in declaring the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.