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Many years ago as a Christian, I remember feeling spooked when the minister of our church warned his congregation to beware of the antichrist.
Being an adolescent at the time, I wondered perhaps naively whether some church members might brand religionists of other Christian persuasions as antichrist for not accepting their interpretation of Scripture? Or whether the Jews would be antichrist for crucifying their Messiah, or Moslems for promulgating another religion?
Many years later, I discovered that New Testament references to the antichrist can only be found in the first and second Epistles of John. In one of these familiar references, John warns:
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. – I John 4:1-2.
In this passage, John the Evangelist—thought to be the author of this first of the three Johannine epistles—warns of false prophets, of the antichrist and of its existence in the world.
Because the New Testament asserts that Christ is the Word made flesh, opposition to his coming and consequently his teachings would be seen as anti-Christian or irreligious. As the purpose of religion is to improve the morals and foster the spirit of love and fellowship among peoples, a false prophet, being irreligious, would therefore contribute to a decline in morals and a rise in enmity and conflict. Little wonder John should have drawn attention to the spirit of antichrist as the very antithesis of the religion of God for his time, and for all time.
Since John mentions false prophets as embodiments of the antichrist or irreligious behavior, an understanding of the term prophet can help us understand the context. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a prophet is either someone who utters a divinely inspired revelation or else a leading spokesman for a doctrine. These definitions imply that a prophet may be as major as Moses or Christ, as minor as Isaiah or Daniel, as shamanistic as a village seer, as evangelistic as a religious leader, or even as secular as a resolute advocate for social change.
Some consider a true prophet to be false, or a false one to be true—so in secular terms, how do we distinguish between true and false ideologies? Given such a wide spectrum of definitions and controversy, how, as John exhorts, can we test the veracity of such prophets? Especially since, in Moses’ day, a prophet was someone who might claim the gift of prophecy or divine inspiration but whose intention might conceal evil purposes? The Old Testament comes to the rescue:
How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him. – Deut 18: 21-22.
Centuries later, with the evolution of humanity moving forward, Christ expanded the meaning of prophets to include influence when he said:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit: but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. … Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. – Mathew 7:15-20.
Christ was a divine Center of unity and love. Whenever discord prevails instead of unity, wherever hatred and antagonism take the place of love and spiritual fellowship, Antichrist reigns instead of Christ. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 6.
The Baha’i teachings say that major prophets, such as Moses and Christ, arise in successive ages to improve morals and advance civilization. Minor prophets appear under the shadow of the major ones, to admonish the people and promote the law of God. Shamans have historically played important roles for village peoples, practicing divination and healing. Religious leaders act as guides to their congregations by interpreting scripture and encouraging moral development. A resolute advocate may be any charismatic figure promoting an ideology. Whatever fruits these “prophets” bequeath to humanity are the surest testimony to their veracity or mendacity.
Although the real meaning of Christ coming in the flesh is the revelation of the Word of God, Baha’u’llah profoundly testifies to Christ’s manifestation:
Know thou that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath to God, the whole creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things. Its evidences, as witnessed in all the peoples of the earth, are now manifest before thee. The deepest wisdom which the sages have uttered, the profoundest learning which any mind hath unfolded, the arts which the ablest hands have produced, the influence exerted by the most potent of rulers, are but manifestations of the quickening power released by His transcendent, His all-pervasive, and resplendent Spirit.
We testify that when He came into the world, He shed the splendor of His glory upon all created things. Through Him the leper recovered from the leprosy of perversity and ignorance. Through Him, the unchaste and wayward were healed. Through His power, born of Almighty God, the eyes of the blind were opened, and the soul of the sinner sanctified.
… We bear witness that through the power of the Word of God every leper was cleansed, every sickness was healed, every human infirmity was banished. He it is Who purified the world. Blessed is the man who, with a face beaming with light, hath turned towards Him. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 85.