I John 2:20, 27
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge . . . the anointing that you received from him ABIDES IN YOU, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie – just as it taught you, ABIDE IN HIM. I John 2:20, 27
In this deeply pastoral letter, John writes to the church to strengthen and reaffirm their faith which has been shaken by the false claims of certain “antichrist” teachers. It seems from the content of his letter that these false teachers were undermining the divinity and the incarnational truths regarding Jesus’ person and work. John seeks to lovingly encourage the faith of this flock by restating the core essentials of Christ’s divine-human personhood and the resultant life of love and righteousness which true believers exhibit when they abide in these Gospel indicatives. In his pastoral warnings concerning the false teachers John looks to reassure the hearts of his recipients by reminding them of their anointing which they have received from the Holy One.
The focus of this brief study will explore what John had in mind when he spoke of the believers’ anointing in chapter two. To do this I will seek to demonstrate that John was writing about this anointing from the backdrop of a thoroughly Jewish worldview which was steeped in the rich messianic themes of the OT Scriptures. I will contend that John’s letter contains strong eschatological imagery that demonstrates he was referencing the fulfillment of the long-awaited new covenant age as foretold by the prophets. However, I must be careful to point out up front that John’s treatment of these themes is pastoral and not explicitly theological. It appears that the subtle themes of his embedded new covenant theology are already assumed and understood by the audience which he addresses, which is why he does not develop them at any great length. John was writing primarily to edify and encourage the saints in their faith, not so much to re-teach them explicit new covenant fulfillments. By exploring these rich theological themes which underlie his pastoral exhortations, we can find sweet morsels of spiritual delight to ravish our souls concerning our anointing which abides in us.
JOHN’S JEWISH MINDSET
To tease out John’s OT Jewish understanding as it relates to the believers’ anointing let us begin by first considering another key Johanine term which is intimately connected to it in this passage – abiding. Occurring 13 times in his Gospel and another 21 times throughout this letter, John pastorally addresses God’s abiding presence in the saints and their necessity to abide in Him. This mutual indwelling relationship that John describes (God abiding in us, and we abiding in Him) is the fulfillment of several key OT passages whereby Yahweh promised to restore his exiled people to Himself and savingly dwell in their midst forever[i]. These promises to once again abide in/with His people were made in the same prophetic contexts regarding a future new exodus salvation and re-gathering of the people[ii], the building of an eschatological temple[iii], and the establishment of a new covenant relationship between Himself and his redeemed people[iv]. Therefore, John’s frequent reference to God’s abiding presence in us, and we in Him, is bound together with the full array of OT promises concerning the new covenant age now realized in Christ. Even though John does not flesh out the explicit theological details of this abiding in his epistle as the apostle Paul does in 2 Corinthians 6:16[v], his pastoral treatment of this theme gives abundant evidence that he had the new covenant fulfillment of OT promises clearly in view.
When we consider that John’s point of reference for the believer’s anointing is inseparably linked to the OT laden fullness of God’s promised abiding among his restored people, we begin to savour the rich Jewishness of his biblical perspective and sense that there is real depth of meaning and significance to be found in the anointing of which he speaks.
But before we go there just yet let us touch briefly on another important OT theme – the theme of Light – which John addresses in chapters one and two. This will help us to further appreciate the thoroughly Jewish worldview which shaped John’s understanding of the eschatological fulfillment of the OT Scriptures. In chapter one he declares that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all”[vi]. He then makes reference to believers walking in the light[vii]. Later, in chapter two he declares that the “true light is already shining”[viii] and that “whoever loves his brother abides in the light”[ix]. This reference to the Light is no passing sentiment for John, especially since the Light which he describes is a personification of the Divine Person – “God is light”. Although he doesn’t unpack his thoughts for us here we can find sufficient clues from his Gospel and other NT authors about the OT origins of this imagery.
In his Gospel, John opens with the declaration that Jesus is the revelation of Yahweh’s incarnated Word and Light[x], now enfleshed to dwell among men and reveal the Father’s glory. Jesus’ bodily personification of Yahweh’s Light is affirmed later in the Gospel by Jesus himself when he says, “”I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”[xi]. These significant statements about Christ as the embodied Light are developed further in other places within the apostolic record[xii]. One of the more significant of these is found in Matthew’s Gospel[xiii] where he explicitly identifies Jesus as Yahweh’s Light, quoting from Isaiah 9:1-2:
“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
Matthew’s use of Isaiah to identify Jesus as the fulfillment of the messianic Light now having dawned in human history is significant. It firmly grounds the context of the apostolic usage of this imagery solidly within the framework of the OT prophetic hope concerning a new exodus/new covenant salvation to be accomplished by Messiah. Isaiah in particular utilizes this imagery of messianic Light personification in several places of his prophecy[xiv]. Without delving into Isaiah’s usage of this imagery it can be shown that his vision of the incarnate Light finds its origins in the cultic language of the Aaronic blessing, “the LORD make his face to shine upon you”[xv], and the further development of this personification by the Psalmist[xvi]. This OT imagery was later interpreted and applied directly to the Lord Jesus in the NT in several places[xvii], thus giving clear confirmation that the OT references to Yahweh’s Light were pointing toward the hope of Messiah’s appearing. The imagery of Jesus’ shining face in the NT is a clear parallel to Moses’ shining face at the giving of the Law, thus showing us that Jesus’ high-priestly, mediatorial ministry of the new covenant has come to fulfill and transcend the old mediator and the old covenant (Law) altogether.
Having considered that the OT promised-coming of Yahweh’s abiding presence and messianic Light were understood Christologically by John and his fellow NT authors, we now have strong evidence that the remaining contours of John’s pastoral exhortations were saturated with the same embedded OT Jewish imagery and interpreted through the same lens of Messiah Jesus. Accepting this to be true, let us now turn to the main point of this study – the meaning and significance of the believers’ anointing that the apostle writes about in chapter 2.
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I John 2:20
John informs us that we have been anointed by the Holy One. But who exactly is this Holy One who anoints the saints? The OT clearly reveals the Holy One as Yahweh[xviii] and in other places as the Messiah-figure to come[xix]. But every reference to the Holy One in the NT canon without exception is a reference to Jesus Christ[xx]. The Lord Jesus is the Holy One of God who anoints his beloved saints. But what is the purpose and meaning of this anointing function?
In the OT, anointing was an act of holy consecration in which an individual was ritually set apart for ordained service to God as a priest[xxi] or king[xxii]. This anointing ritual was done by the pouring out of very costly and fragrant oil upon the head of the person being ordained.
So what exactly are we to understand when John says that we, the corporate believing community, have been anointed by the Holy One? To answer this let us consider once again the rich OT Jewish context that saturated John’s worldview. At the foot of Mount Sinai, just before the nation Israel was to receive the old covenant Law, God spoke to Moses telling him that obedience to the covenant would result in the people becoming a “treasured possession among the peoples” and a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”[xxiii]. Sadly, this promise was never to be fully realized. The Israelites broke the covenant no sooner than it had been ratified with blood[xxiv]. Their disobedience to the Law covenant continued down a long and painful history of repeated covenantal unfaithfulness[xxv], until after many severe judgments only a very dismal remnant of the once glorious nation remained, awaiting in desperate hope for the appearing of their Messiah. The old covenant had ended in abject failure for Israel. They were a ruined nation looking for the long-awaited promise of a messianic salvation that would see the establishment of a gloriously new and invincible covenant administration, a national restoration through the kingly Heir of David’s throne, a fully restored Temple and attending worship, forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Spirit, and true righteousness[xxvi].
It was against the backdrop of this great messianic hope that the apostle John recognized that the new covenant had finally come in the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. This meant that Messiah’s kingdom community had been established on the earth, now made up of citizens who were born of the Spirit[xxvii]. John recognized that the OT hope of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” had now been realized through the ascension of David’s Son to his royal-priestly throne at the Father’s right hand and the pouring out of his Spirit upon the Church. John understood with his fellow apostles that believers in Christ were now anointed as that long hoped-for “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession”[xxviii], thus fulfilling the eschatological reality of what fleshly Israel only foreshadowed and typified but never attained.
But John also knew that this new priestly anointing did not come by the pouring out of oil or by the will of man as in the old covenant administration. Rather, John tells us in verse 27 that the personified anointing we have received from Christ abides in us and teaches us everything. The divine anointing that John is referring to here is the blessed Spirit of Christ who indwells every true believer. We know this for certain because the apostle Paul explicitly makes this connection in 2 Corinthians, “And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”[xxix] The Great High Priest anoints the very hearts of his saints with his Spirit, ordaining them to joyfully live and serve as royal priests in his kingdom.
But John goes even further than this – radically further in fact. He speaks of the interiority of this Anointing as that divine Presence which now abides in us and teaches us, and through whom we all have knowledge. Why is this so eschatologically startling and paradigm-shifting for us as new covenant believers? Because under the old covenant administration the central “teacher” which instructed the priests and the people about everything was the codified Law, written with ink and engraved on stone tablets. The Levitical priests were the ordained-class that was specifically set apart by God to study and administer the Law, mediating its precepts and judgments to the people[xxx]. The sheer magnitude of the Law required scrupulous study by the priests. This placed an enormous burden on them to teach its precepts clearly and carefully to the nation, who at the best of times was a stubborn and stiff-necked people. But John, who grounds his language explicitly in the context of Jeremiah’s new covenant promise, declares to the sheer astonishment of his readers that, “you have no need that anyone should teach you.”[xxxi]
What utterly strange doctrine would this have been to Jewish ears?? No longer in need of the Law to teach the people?!?! Blasphemy!!! But we have studied and revered the Law for millennia and now are we just expected to set our beloved pedagogue aside? Pause for a moment and consider the massive overthrow that this new covenant teaching would have posed for first-century Judaism. It’s no wonder that the Jews mercilessly persecuted Paul and the early Christians. To insist that the Law was merely a shadow, and that its usefulness had been abolished and brought to an end through its transcendent fulfillment in an incarnate Messiah – a Messiah who had been hung on a cursed tree to die – would have been utterly reprehensible to the Jewish mindset. And yet this is exactly what John is asserting when he states that God’s people all have knowledge and they no longer require anyone to teach them. In this singular stroke of the pen John declares that the purpose of the Law and the mediating teaching function of the Levitical priests are now forever abolished[xxxii]. But John is not worried. He knows that these shadowy types have been replaced and transcended by something far better, a Great High Priest from an eternal priestly order[xxxiii] who pours out the abiding and anointing Spirit of the living God from heaven, now written “not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts[xxxiv].” This is exactly what he means when he says that Christ’s anointing now “teaches you about everything”. It is exactly what he quoted Jesus as saying in his Gospel, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you[xxxv].” The Holy Spirit is our divine priestly anointing of the new and better covenant who teaches us, sanctifies us, equips us for service, gifts us, enables us, strengthens us, leads us, comforts us, seals us, abides in us, and reveals to our hearts the full glory of Jesus our Lord. His indwelling ministry within us completely transcends the entire function and purpose of what the Law and its priestly ministry merely foreshadowed[xxxvi]. The writer to the Hebrews confirms this:
“Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well[xxxvii].”
And so, the imperfect earthly priesthood has been put away to make room for the ascendency of Christ’s heavenly Melchizedek priesthood. This changing of the guard has brought about a changing of the Law because there is no longer an earthly priesthood to administer it. It has been rendered utterly weak and useless since Christ has received his priesthood, not through the Law, but through the Father’s word of the oath[xxxviii]. As a result, we no longer look to an external inscription of covenant code, written either on tables of stone or within the pages of the NT, to teach us. Rather, we have a life-giving, internal inscription of Christ’s new covenant righteousness now engraved upon the very tables of our hearts[xxxix] – the abiding Spirit of God. It is by this Divine agent abiding and working in our hearts that we are being transformed into His glorious image. Christ’s covenant righteousness becomes our covenant righteousness through his indwelling presence. It is the very hope, and seal, and guarantee of our future glorification[xl].
In light of these precious new covenant truths expounded by the apostolic record, we need to allow our worldviews to be challenged and even reshaped. We need to welcome the Spirit of God to impress upon our hearts and minds the full weight of their heavenly implications so that we do not find ourselves in the place of the first-century Jews who tragically resisted and outraged the Spirit of grace[xli]. To that noble end, we must be careful to no longer return to the abolished Law covenant or lifeless legal codes in pursuing sanctification and spiritual growth. These fig-leaf coverings are useless in their futile attempts to mold the human will through the many fearful threats, judgments, external coercions, and synergistic disciplines which they espouse. We must put these aside and come to fully acquiesce in the heavenly Anointing that the beloved Apostle reminds us of. By virtue of the Spirit’s indwelling and teaching presence, we now possess the true embodiment of all that the Law merely foreshadowed, namely Jesus Christ. We have the firstfruits of His endless life abiding in us. His life is the perfection of our priestly sanctification, sealed upon our hearts by faith [xlii]. He alone is the resurrection power which transforms the barren wilderness of our dead natures into fountains of living water. He teaches us that true commandment-keeping is Spirit-wrought faith and love, “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another[xliii].”
In order to live in the power of these truths we need to be continually reminded that we have been crucified with Christ[xliv]. The cross must be central to all of our thinking and believing if we are to live apart from the Law. Christ’s triumphant death has brought about a complete severance of the covenant union we once had to our old taskmaster and husband (the Law)[xlv]. What beautiful and comforting Good News this is to the hearts of those who have known the Law’s cruel terrors. It was an administration which was not of faith[xlvi] and certainly not of grace, or love, or kind words, or any hint of reassuring hope. It could only administer strict justice and death[xlvii]. But praise be to God we are now as dead to the Law as Christ is to sin[xlviii]. There is therefore no shred of law condemnation left for those who are in Christ[xlix]! As priestly citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem we have been completely set at liberty from the Law’s curses and threatening demands in order that we would serve Christ in the new way of the Spirit[l]. So great is the Holy Spirit’s transcendence of the Mosaic Law that the apostle Paul called his indwelling presence the “law of the Spirit of life’ in contrast to the “law of sin and death[li].” Now, instead of adhering to lifeless lists of external regulations and commands for our “rule of life,” it is the Spirit’s purpose to teach us about Christ and plant us steadfastly in the transforming power of his Gospel. He teaches us that Jesus is the supreme disclosure of God’s self-revelation and the incarnate fulfillment of all God’s righteousness, now revealed completely apart from the Law[lii]. It is by our continual gazing upon the beauties of Christ as revealed to us in the Gospel that we are transformed from one degree of glory to another[liii] on our pilgrim journey to the heavenly city. We now live Gospel lives marked by righteousness, peace and inexpressible joy in the Holy Spirit[liv]. It is in this stunning reality that John’s final exhortation resonates so deeply and earnestly within us . . . abide in him. O then dear saints, let us abide richly in Christ . . . in His cross, in His burial, and in His glorious resurrection. Abide in Him as he abides in us by his life-giving Spirit, growing and abounding to ever-more heavenly fruitfulness, for the sake of his kingdom and for his supreme glory.
In this brief study we have had the pure joy of exploring a few of the grand OT messianic themes through the Jewish lens of John’s new covenant understanding. We have begun to see more clearly that John’s epistle is a pastoral message of incredible liberty and encouragement, exhorting the saints to remember the blessed privilege of their priestly calling which they have received through the grace of their heavenly Anointing – the Spirit of the living Christ who now abides in them and teaches them all things. It is my sincere prayer that we will all be thus filled with the Spirit of grace as we behold the wonder of the cross.
Jesus Christ the Lord!
Incarnate Word of the Father,
Sweetly embracing Him,
My soul desires no other.
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 2 Corinthians 6: 16 ESV