The Elder begins with the bold assertion that this is the last hour. In the New Testament only here do we find this formulation (eschate hora). Some similar phrases, however, are found elsewhere in the New Testament.
"The last days" refer to the days in which God's plan of salvation for the world is brought to fruition (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28; Mic 4:1). From this perspective it can be said that "the end" has come (compare 1 Cor 10:11). But the "end" is not a fleeting moment. It is rather a period that marks a new stage in God's dealings with the world.
Other passages (2 Tim 3:1; Jas 5:3; 2 Pet 3:3) take "the last days" as the final days of the interim period between Christ's coming and his return. These last days are distinguished from the day of the Lord (Acts 2:17, 20), the day of judgment (2 Pet 3:3, 7) or the Second Coming and final judgment (2 Tim 3:1; 4:1, 8).
The Gospel of John speaks of "the last day" (Jn 6:39-40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:28), which refers to a future day of resurrection and the final judg ment. Yet the Gospel of John also emphasizes that Jesus' mission has the effect of passing judgment in the present. Those who believe already have life, while those who do not already are judged. The "last day" seals the present verdict (3:17-21; 5:25-27).
John also speaks of the hour of Jesus' death and glorification on the cross as the "hour" (see Jn 2:4; 7:30; 8:20), a decisive time and turn of events in the unfolding drama of salvation.
Against the background of these various last hours and days, where do we fit the statement that this is the last hour? Many take it to mean that the Elder believed that his community was at the end of those "last days," at the final hour before the "last day" (Dodd 1946:51; Bruce 1970:64; Houlden 1973:77; Brown 1982:321). But two facts must be kept in mind here: First, in Johannine vocabulary, "hour" can refer to a decisive event or occurrence rather than to a unit of chronological time. It is instructive to note that the command that is linked with the statement this is the last hour is the command to abide, or to remain steadfast and faithful (com pare vv. 19, 24, 27). This suggests that hour is a decisive event, in light of which steadfastness is particularly necessary; chronological consider ations may not be primary. But something has happened that demands all the vigilance and faithfulness of believers.
Second, in Johannine eschatology, the judgment and blessings expect ed in the last days are already taking place through Jesus. What had been expected in the future, such as final judgment, the separation of the righteous and wicked, and the granting of eternal life to the righteous, was already effected through the ministry and death of Christ. The Elder sees the realities of separation and judgment being worked out in his own situation. They do not eliminate the last judgment. Rather, judgment is already being passed in the present.
Specifically, of course, the author has in mind the secession of certain members from the church, a separation that shows that those who have left the fellowship have passed judgment upon themselves (compare Jn 3:17-21). The New Testament regularly speaks of signs that will presage the end (such as Mk 13:4-5; 2 Thess 2:1-12; 2 Tim 3:1-5). Among these telling events are false teaching, behavior unworthy of a believer and divisions in the church and among friends and family. Exactly these things characterize the situation behind this epistle and are part of the landscape that the Elder sees. These signs signal that the decisive event by which God passes judgment and grants salvation has indeed occurred.
It is then the last hour, and the judgment of God, expected in Jewish eschatology at the end times, is indeed manifesting itself. Judgment entails separation of evil from good, right from wrong, truth from error. Such separation is taking place already in the historical situation of the Johannine church. They went out from us, the writer asserts (2:19). Here is the first explicit mention of the secessionists who departed from the fellowship of the church. Until this point, the readers have inferred their existence from various statements, and John's polemic against them has been indirect only. Now, however, it is clear that there are some who have left the church. When this epistle was written, the initial rupture in the community lay in the past, but it seems that the threat of further defection is still real. Perhaps some who are still faithful to the Elder are being pressured to abandon him and join the secessionists (see v. 26). But, on the whole, John is looking back and interpreting the split as evidence of the nearness of the last hour, and of the outworking of the judgment expected at that time.
In light of the reality of judgment and of the present possibility of receiving the great blessings of God promised to believers, the call to remain steadfast is always urgent. For John, the question of the time of the last judgment is of secondary importance. For regardless of when the final judgment is to come, God's judgment is now being put into effect when people acknowledge or deny Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. How much more important to recognize God's work in Christ as bringing eternal life and judgment now than to be able to decode timetables about when the last judgment will break! To date no apocalyptic speculation has proved itself correct. But the epistle's message that the great judgment, the "sifting" of the church (Barclay), occurs as one responds to Jesus, has eternal relevance. There is the heart of John's warning, this is the last hour.
John refers to these secessionists as antichrists. This term is found in the New Testament only in the Johannine epistles (1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7). It may well have been coined by the Johannine community or perhaps by the Elder himself. The antichrist opposes Christ, but not so much by open aggression and hostility as with deceit and falsehood. The antichrist usurps the rightful role of the Messiah, the Christ, and deceives his followers (Houlden 1973:77; Marshall 1978:150; Smalley 1984:99; Stott 1988:109). The antichrist is, in short, a counterfeit Christ. Apparently the community is familiar with the expectation that such a figure will appear and that this appearance will mark the "last days." What is dis tinctive here is that the term is used in the plural, and so in a way this differs from the expectation of the readers. Evidently not merely one figure embodying great evil, but many individuals who manifest that ultimate error have appeared on the scene (see Mk 13:22; Mt 24:3, 5, 11; compare Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10; 2 Thess 2:1-12).
The antichrists of 1 John are those who deceive others through false teaching about the person of Christ and the nature of the Christian life (2:22-23; 4:2). There are genuine theological disagreements between these false teachers and the author, and he will soon deal with the issues. But it is not only disagreement about formulations of doctrine that stim ulates John to write. It is impossible not to sense his distress and anger over the actual departure of these people as well. The breaking of fel lowship is in itself judged quite severely, and seems to have taken a greater toll on the church than have the actual reasons for it (Barker 1981:324). This sin is as bad as, if not worse than, the actual doctrinal error, because in leaving the fellowship these secessionists have disregarded the cardinal and foundational command of Jesus to "love each other." In fact, the author's ultimate judgment on the heretics is due as much to their secession as to their doctrinal aberrations (Houlden 1973:78). We see here the community's commitment to unity, as they believed Jesus taught, commanded and died for (Jn 10:16; 11:52; 17:21). We also sense their horror of professed disciples who fall away and deny the Lord, such as Judas (Jn 6:66-71; 13:18-30) and, very nearly, Peter (Jn 13:36-38).
It is probably difficult for Christians today who are accustomed to a church with a multitude of denominations to take seriously the problem of schism or defection. But too often new congregations and denomi nations are formed as the result of disagreements or disputes, with at least one faction convinced that it alone understands and correctly in terprets the will of God in matters of doctrine and polity. And the urge to reform the church thus becomes the practice of splitting the church. Although the sixteenth-century Reformers may be invoked as exemplars of the crusade for truth and the purity of the church, seldom is it remem bered that they strove also to preserve the unity of the church by working toward agreements with each other and with the Roman Catholic church. Although their efforts often failed, like John they cherished the unity of the church and deplored its divisions.
In this light, we do well to remember the words of the Gospel of John, where Jesus said, "I have other sheep that are not of this flock [sheep pen]. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd" (10:16). Because the work of Jesus unites us, we must take care lest our own work divides us from others who name the name of Christ. At the least, our efforts to live in fellowship and work side by side with other Christians will prevent us from thinking that we alone comprise the one true flock for which the Good Shepherd laid down his life.