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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Anointing of "the Holy One" (2:20-21)
The Anointing of "the Holy One" (2:20-21)

Having made it clear to his readers that those who left the community have revealed that they never really belonged there, the Elder now turns to assure his readers of their firm standing in God's care and in the Christian community. However, the statement with which he offers such assurance remains ambiguous to us. You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth raises several questions for the modern reader. What is the nature of this anointing? Who is the Holy One? And what is the truth that is known by all? What is clear is that John appeals to a teaching or power that comes from beyond the believer. By this anointing believ ers may discern the truth.

But what does the Elder have in mind when he speaks of such an anointing? In light of the parallels to statements about the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, in the Gospel of John, it may be that the anointing spoken of here is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth guides believers into the knowledge of the truth and teaches them "all things" (Jn 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13). The Spirit remains or abides (menein) in believers. The Spirit testifies about Jesus (15:26; 16:13-15), even as believers now also do. In short, the anointing of which believers may be confident is the presence and guidance of the Spirit of Truth.

The identification of the anointing as the Spirit who enables the dis cernment of truth does not tell us how the Spirit enables such discern ment. Is the Elder speaking of an internal, private, subjective experience of the Spirit's leading? In view of his regular appeals to what has been taught and heard and believed "from the beginning," sudden appeal to an inner guiding light seems unlikely. It would, after all, open the doors for the Elder's opponents to enter the same claim. More likely, it is the teaching itself, the content or message, and its continuity with the word of earliest times that John takes as evidence of the Spirit's continued abiding with and anointing of the community. The guiding work of the Spirit cannot be separated from the content and shape of the message itself. When claims to have the Spirit's inspiration result in teachings or practices that either contradict or seem far more informed on certain points than Scripture itself, it is a clear sign that it is not the inspiration of God's Spirit that is at work.

There is some ambiguity about the identity of the Holy One, for it is unclear whether the reference is to the Father, Son or Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Peter confesses that Jesus is the "Holy One of God," and Jesus is the one who sends the Paraclete from the Father (15:26). And yet the Gospel also states that God sends the Spirit (14:16, 26), and in 1 John this is more clearly the case (3:24; 4:1, 13; compare 5:8-9). Finally, the Gospel does speak of the Spirit as "the Holy Spirit" (14:26). In short, one could argue that the Holy One refers to Father, Son or Spirit and find support for that decision in the Johannine literature.

We get some help by noticing the play on words in the present pas sage: the words antichrist, anointing and Christ all have the same root (christos, chrisma). A true anointing (chrisma) enables a true confession of Christ (Christos); but those who are not anointed by the Spirit of God are, in fact, antichrists (antichristoi). "Christians"—"anointed ones"—are to test the "spirits," that they may know which Spirit is "from God" (4:2-3). God the Father gives the Spirit who inspires true understanding and confession of Jesus the Son. Thus God is the final court of appeal. It would be crucial for the Johannine Christians to be able to claim the ultimate source of the Spirit with which they had been anointed and which continues to guard the truth of their confession. Their Spirit does not come from the evil one and is not a source of error; the Spirit they know comes from God and guards the truth. It is also worth noting in passing the trinitarian tendencies of John's statements about the way in which the work of God, the Son and the Spirit are in reality one insep arable work of salvation.

The anointing, the guiding of the Spirit, insures that all of you know the truth. That anointing is not limited to a few or to the elite: it belongs to all. By all, of course, the author means all within the sphere of his church and readership. What they know the elder calls the truth. He is not saying that all believers know all the truth there is to know, but rather that his community is acquainted with the truth that their opponents deny. They know the truth about the disputed issues, and they do not need further teaching or some additional insight into the person of Jesus Christ, such as the false teachers may have claimed to possess and to offer (compare 2:27). What the false teachers espouse is in reality a great lie.

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