KNOWING ALL THINGS.
"But you have an unction from the Holy One, and you know all things." --- 1 John ii. 20.
There is little of the form of logical argument to which Western readers are habituated in the writings of St. John, steeped as his mind was in Hebraic influences. The inferential "therefore" is not to be found in this Epistle. Yet the diligent reader[Pg 167] or expositor finds it more difficult to detach any single sentence, without loss to the general meaning, than in any other writing of the New Testament. The sentence may look almost as if its letters were graven brief and large upon a block of marble, and stood out in oracular isolation --- but upon reverent study it will be found that the seemingly lapidary inscription is one of a series with each of which it is indissolubly connected --- sometimes limited, sometimes enlarged, always coloured and influenced by that which precedes and follows.
It is peculiarly needful to bear this observation in mind in considering fully the almost startling principle stated in the verse which is prefixed to this discourse. A kind of spiritual omniscience appears to be attributed to believers. Catechisms, confessions, creeds, teachers, preachers, seem to be superseded by a stroke of the Apostle's pen, by what we are half tempted to consider as a magnificent exaggeration. The text sounds as if it outstripped even the fulfilment of the promise of the new covenant contained in Jeremiah's prophecy --- "they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them."
The passages just before and after St. John's splendid annunciation in our text are occupied with the subject of Antichrist, here first mentioned in Scripture. In this section of our Epistle Antichrist is (1) revealed, and (2) refuted.
(1) Antichrist is revealed by the very crisis which the Church was then traversing. From this especially, from the transitory character of a world drifting by[Pg 168] them in unceasing mutation, the Apostle is led to consider this as one of those crisis-hours of the Church's history, each of which may be the last hour, and which is assuredly --- in the language of primitive Christianity --- a last hour. The Apostle therefore exclaims with fatherly affection --- "Little children, it is a last hour."
Deep in the heart of the Apostolic Church, because it came from those who had received it from Christ, there was one awful anticipation. St. John in this passage gives it a name. He remembers Who had told the Jews that "if another shall come in his own name, him you will receive." He can announce to them that "as you have heard this Antichrist comes,, even so now" (precisely as you have heard) "many antichrists have come into existence and are around you, whereby we know that it is a last hour." The name Antichrist occurs only in these Epistles, and seems purposely intended to denote both one who occupies the place of Christ, and one who is against Christ. In "the Antichrist" the antichristian principle is personally concentrated. The conception of representative-men is one which has become familiar to modern students of the philosophy of history. Such representative-men, at once the products of the past, moulders of the present,[Pg 169] and creative of the future, sum up in themselves tendencies and principles good and evil, and project them in a form equally compacted and intensified into the coming generations. Shadows and anticipations of Antichrist the holiest of the Church's sons have sometimes seen, even in the high places of the Church. But it is evident that as yet the Antichrist has not come. For wherever St. John mentions this fearful impersonation of evil, he connects the manifestation of his influence with absolute denial of the true Manhood, of the Messiahship, of the everlasting sonship of Jesus, of the Father, Who is His and our Father. In negation of the Personality of God, in the substitution of a glittering but unreal idea of human goodness and active philanthropy for the historical Christ, we of this age may not improbably hear his advancing footsteps, and foresee the advent of a day when antichristianity shall find its great representative-man.
(2) Antichrist is also refuted by a principle common to the life of Christians and by its result.
The principle by which he is refuted is a gift of insight lodged in the Church at large, and partaken of by all faithful souls.
A hint of a solemn crisis had been conveyed to the Christians of Asia Minor by secessions from the great Christian community. "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us (which they did not, but went out) that they might be made manifest that not all are of us." Not only this. "Yea further, you yourselves have a holy oil from Him who is holy, a chrism from the Christ, an unction from the Holy One,[Pg 170] even from the Son of God." Chrism (as we are reminded by the most accurate of scholars) is always the material with which anointing is performed, never the act of anointing; it points to the unction of prophets, priests and kings under the Old Testament, in whose sacrifices and mystic language oil symbolises the Holy Spirit as the spirit of joy and freedom. Quite possibly there may be some allusion to a literal use of oil in Baptism and Confirmation, which began at a very early period; though it is equally possible that the material may have arisen from the spiritual, and not in the reverse order. But beyond all question the real predominant reference is to the Holy Ghost. In the chrism here mentioned there is a feature characteristic of St. John's style. For there is first a faint prelusive note which (as we find in several other important subjects) is faintly struck and seems to die away, but is afterwards taken up, and more fully brought out. The full distinct mention of the Holy Spirit comes like a burst of the music of the "Veni Creator," carrying on the fainter prelude when it might seem to have been almost lost. The first reverential, almost timid hint, is succeeded by another, brief but significant --- almost dogmatically expressive of the relation of the Holy Spirit to Christ as His Chrism, "the Chrism of Him." We shall presently have a direct mention of the Holy Ghost. "Hereby we know[Pg 171] that He abides in us, from the Spirit which He gave us."
Antichrist is refuted by a result of this great principle of the life of the Holy Spirit in the living Church. "You have" chrism from the Christ; Antichrist shall not lay his unhallowing disanointing hand upon you. As a result of this, "you know all things."
How are we to understand this startling expression?
If we receive any teachers as messengers commissioned by God, it is evident that their message must be communicated to us through the medium of human language. They come to us with minds that have been in contact with a Mind of infinite knowledge, and deliver utterances of universal import. They are therefore under an obligation to use language which is capable of being misunderstood by some persons. Our Lord and His Apostles so spoke at times. Two very different classes of men constantly misinterpret words like those of our text. The rationalist does so with a sinister smile; the fanatic with a cry of hysterical triumph. The first may point his epigram with effective reference to the exaggerated promise which is belied by the ignorance of so many ardent believers; the second may advance his absurd claim to personal infallibility in all things spiritual. Yet an Apostle calmly says --- "you have an unction from the Holy One, and you know all things." This, however, is but another[Pg 172] asterisk directing the eye to the Master's promise in the Gospel, which is at once the warrant and the explanation of the utterance here. "The Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said to you." The express limitation of the Saviour's promise is the implied limitation of St. John's statement. "The Holy Ghost has been sent, according to this unfailing pledge. He teaches you (and, if He teaches, you know) all things which Christ has said, as far as their substance is written down in a true record --- all things of the new creation spoken by our Lord, preserved by the help of the Spirit in the memories of chosen witnesses with unfading freshness, by the same Spirit unfolded and interpreted to you."
We should observe in what spirit and to whom St. John speaks.
He does not speak in the strain which would be adopted by a missionary in addressing men lately brought out of heathenism into the fold of Christ. He does not like a modern preacher or tract-writer at once divide his observations into two parts, one for the converted, one for the unconverted; all are his "dear ones" as beloved, his "sons" as brought into close spiritual relationship with himself. He classes them simply as young and old, with their respective graces of strength and knowledge. All are looked upon as "abiding"; almost the one exhortation is to abide to the end in a condition upon which all have already entered, and in which some have long continued. We feel throughout the calmness and assurance of a spiritual[Pg 173] teacher writing to Christian men who had either been born in the atmosphere of Christian tradition, or had lived in it for many years. They are again and again appealed to on the ground of a common Christian confidence --- "we know." They have all the articles of the Christian creed, the great inheritance of a faithful summary of the words and works of Christ. The Gospel which Paul at first preached in Asia Minor was the starting point of the truth which remained among them, illustrated, expanded, applied, but absolutely unaltered. What the Christians whom St. John has in view really want is the revival of familiar truths, not the impartation of new. No spiritual voyage or discovery is needed; they have only to explore well-known regions. The memory and the affections must be stimulated. The truths which have become "cramped and bed-ridden" in the dormitory of the soul must acquire elasticity from exercise. The accumulation of ashes must be blown away, and the spark of fire beneath fanned into flame. This capacity of revival, of expansion, of quickened life, of developed truth, is in the unction common to the faithful, in the latent possibilities of the new birth. The same verse to which we have before referred as the best interpreter of this should be consulted again. There is an instructive distinction between the tenses --- "as His unction is teaching" --- "as it taught you." The teaching[Pg 174] was once for all, the creed definite and fixed, the body of truth a sum-total looked upon as one. "The unction taught." Once for all the Holy Spirit made known the Incarnation and stamped the recorded words of Christ with His seal. But there are depths of thought about His person which need to be reverently explored. There is an energy in His work which was not exhausted in the few years of its doing, and which is not imprisoned within the brief chronicle in which it is written. There is a spirit and a life in His words. In one aspect they have the strength of the tornado, which advances in a narrow line; but every foot of the column, as if armed with a tooth of steel, grinds and cuts into pieces all which resists it. Those words have also depths of tenderness, depths of wisdom, into which eighteen centuries have looked down and never yet seen the last of their meaning. Advancing time does but broaden the interpretation of the wisdom and the sympathy of those words. Applications of their significance are being discovered by Christian souls in forms as new and manifold as the claims of human need. The Church collectively is like one sanctified mind meditating incessantly upon the Incarnation; attaining more and more to an understanding of that character as it widens in a circle of glory round the form of its historical manifestation --- considering how those words may be applied not only to self but to humanity. The new wants of each successive generation bring new help out of that inexhaustible store. The Church may have "decided opinions"; but she has not the "deep slumber" which is said to accompany them. How can she be fast asleep who is ever learning from a teacher Who is always supplying her with fresh and varied lessons? The Church must be ever learning,[Pg 175] because the anointing which "taught" once for all is also ever "teaching."
This profound saying is therefore chiefly true of Christians as a whole. Yet each individual believer may surely have a part in it. "There is a teacher in the heart who has also a chair in heaven." "The Holy Spirit who dwells in the justified soul," says a pious writer, "is a great director." May we not add that He is a great catechist? In difficulties, whether worldly, intellectual, or spiritual, thousands for a time helpless and ignorant, in presence of difficulties through which they could not make their way, have found with surprise how true in the sequel our text has become to them.
For we all know how different things, persons, truths, ideas may become, as they are seen at different times and in different lights, as they are seen in relation to God and truth or outside that relation. The bread in Holy Communion is unchanged in substance; but some new and glorious relation is superadded to it. It is devoted by its consecration to the noblest use manward and Godward, so that St. Paul speaks of it with hushed reverence as "The Body." It seems to be a part of the same law that some one --- once perhaps frivolous, common-place, sinful --- is taken into the hand of the great High Priest, broken with sorrow and penitence, and blessed; and thereafter he is at once personally the same, and yet another higher and better by that awful consecration to another use. So again with some truth of creed or catechism which we have fallen into the fallacy of supposing that we know because it is familiar. It may be a truth that is sweet[Pg 176] or one that is tremendous. It awaits its consecration, its blessing, its transformation into a something which in itself is the same yet which is other to us. That is to say, the familiar truth is old, in itself, in substance and expression. It needs no other, and can have no better formula. To change the formula would be to alter the truth; but to us it is taught newly with a fuller and nobler exposition by the unction which is "ever teaching," whereby we "know all things."
Ch. ii. 18-28.
Ver. 18. A last hour,] εσχατη ὡρα. "Hour" is used in all St. John's writings of a definite point of time, which is also providentially fixed. (Cf. John xvii. 1; Apoc. iii. 3.) In something of this elevated signification Shakespeare appears to employ the word in The Tempest in relation to his own life:
Prospero. "How's the day?"
Ariel. "On the sixth hour; at which time, my lord, You said our work should cease."
Each decade of years is here looked upon as a providentially fixed duration of time. The poet intended to retire from the work of imaginative poetry when his life should draw on towards sixty years of age.
Ver. 19. "It does not appear, nor is it probable, that these antichrists, when gone out from the Apostles, did still pretend to the orthodox faith; and therefore no need for the Apostle to make any provision against it. No, it is plainly intimated by the following discourse, that these antichrists being gone forth, did set themselves expressly, directly, against the orthodox, denying that Jesus, whom they did profess, to be the Christ; and therefore the design of this clause is most rationally conceived to be the prevention of that scandal which their horrid apostasy might give to weak Christians; nor could anything more effectually prevent or remove it, than to let them know that these antichristian apostates were never[Pg 177] true stars in the firmament of the Church, but only blazing comets, as their falling away did evidently demonstrate." --- Dean Hardy, 309.
Ver. 19. To use the words of a once famous controversial divine, they may be said to be "of the Church presumptively in their own, and others' opinion, but not really." (Spalat., lib. vii., 10, cf. on the whole subject, St. Aug. Lib. de Bono. Persev., viii.)
"Let no one count that the good can go forth from the Church; the wind cannot carry away the wheat, nor the storm overthrow the solidly rooted tree. The light chaff is tossed by the wind, the weak trees go down before the blast. 'They went out from us, but they were not of us.'" --- S. Cyp., B. de Simplic.
Ver. 24. You shall abide in the Son, and in the Father.] "If it be asked why the Son is put before the Father, the answer is well returned. Because the Apostle had just before inveighed against those who, though they pretended to acknowledge the Father, yet deny the Son. Though besides there may besides be a double reason assigned: the one to insinuate that the Son is not less than the Father, but that they are equal in essence and dignity. Upon this account most probable it is that the apostolical benediction begins, with 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,' and then follows 'the love of God the Father.' The other, because, as Beda well glosses,, No man comes, in, or continues in, the Father but by the Son, who says of Himself, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life.'
"To draw it up, lo, here Eximia laus doctrinæ, an high commendation of evangelical doctrine, that it leads up to Christ, and by Him to the Father. The water rises, as high as the spring from where it flows. No wonder if the gospel, which comes, from God through Christ, lead us back again through Christ to God; and as by hearing and believing this doctrine we are united to, so by adhering to, and persevering in it, we continue in, the Son and the Father. Suitable to this is that promise of our blessed Saviour, John xiv. 23, 'If any man love Me he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.'" --- Dean Hardy, 350.
Ver. 27. The connection of the whole section is well traced by the old divine, whose commentary closes a little below.
"If you compare these three with the eight foregoing verses, you shall find them to be a summary repetition of what is there more largely delivered. There are three hinges upon which the precedent discourse turns, namely, the peril of antichristian doctrine, the benefit of the Spirit's unction, the duty of perseverance in the Christian faith; and these three are inculcated in these verses. Indeed, where the danger is very great, the admonition cannot be too frequent. When the benefit is of singular advantage, it would be often considered, and a duty which must be performed cannot be too much pressed. No wonder if St. John proposed them in this gemination to our second thoughts. And yet it is not a naked repetition neither, but such as has a variation and amplification in every particular. The duty is reinforced at the eight-and-twentieth verse, but in another phrase, of 'abiding in Christ,' and with a new motive, drawn from the second coming of Christ. The benefit is reiterated, and much amplified, in the seven-and-twentieth verse, as to its excellency and energy. Finally, the danger is repeated, but with another description of those by whom they were in danger; whilst as before he had called them antichrists for their enmity against Christ, so here, for their malignity against Christians, he calls them seducers: 'These things have I written to you concerning them that seduce you,' etc." --- Dean Hardy, 357.
From The Epistles Of St. John by WILLIAM ALEXANDER, D.D., D.C.L. Oxon., Hon. LL.D. Dublin, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 27, Paternoster Row, MDCCCXCVI Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Epistles of John 2/2 - W. Alexander
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.