To help us get into the occasion of John’s Second Epistle imagine you were raised in a culture whose worldview was shaped by Plato’s pure forms, and your whole life you were taught that the body is evil and escaping the body is the only way to freedom. One day, some Christians came to town and started preaching the resurrection of the body. You found the message contrary to your worldview but compelling, so you believed.
Now imagine if several of your pastors and a few members whom you hold in high regard began to teach and initiate conversations that indicated, You don’t have all you need in Jesus. Yes, of course, Jesus helps us know God. He was Christ in His earthly life, but now that the Spirit has come, we can move on to a deeper life much closer to the divine than Jesus. They introduce a new hymn called, I’ll Fly Away. It goes like this:
When the shadows of this life have gone
I'll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls has flown
I'll fly awayi
Would you be shaken in your faith?
Against this background, Second and Third John give instructions about extending hospitality to traveling missionaries. Such hospitality was being used by false teachers, who had once been part of the community of faith, as a platform to infiltrate the church.
John writes to a beleaguered church to give them the foundational understanding of the nature of love and truth in the local church they needed to remain faithful. If the epistles of John were currency, on one side the inscription would read truth and on the other side love.
Anytime we try and separate the two, we get into trouble. There is no such thing as a truth-less love or a love-less truth. They are so intertwined that to separate them, you lose the essence of both. Love without truth is a mere, slippery, mutable sentimentality. It lacks objectivity. It is undependable. It is moody, like when you’re in an argument with you’re your spouse, and she asks you, Do you love me? Not right now, is the answer. Neither of you are operating out of love at that moment.
Truth without love is noise. It is an example of the ends justifying the means. It is a preacher unmoved by what he is saying. Ho hum, Jesus died for our sins. Its motive is never to help, heal, and restore but to hurt, wound, and demolish, so that it is no longer even true truth. It is abuse.
Truth and love is the currency of the local church. It is the spiritual adhesive that holds us together; it is the double-sided tape that makes us stick. It is how we live together and persevere to the end. It is gospel facts and gospel motive.
John writes to help us navigate a world that is antagonistic to the Christian faith, a world that accuses church of being bigoted and unloving because of the discriminating nature of truth and love.
True church fellowship is built on truth and love (1-3, 12-13).
2 John begins with a normal introduction according to the style of letter writing of the day—identity of the writer and recipients followed by a greeting. As expected, John took the contemporary form of a letter and Christianized it.
John identified himself as the elderii and the recipients as the elect lady and her children. You can imagine the discussion around the identity of the elect lady. Some have said Elect Lady (Eklekte Kyria) is her name. It’s really unlikely that John would write a letter confessing his undying love for a woman, and it get canonized. If this is the case, then she had a sister named Elect Sister (Eklekte Adelphes). It seems unlikely that sisters would both share the same given name. This is my sister Eklekte and my other sister Eklekte. If you’re George Foreman you are free to name all 5 of your sons George, but other than that, you might need to exercise a bit more creativity.
The most natural reading is John is writing with a pastoral tone to a church and its members (1) from a sister church (13). John’s letter is brief because he wants to come to them and talk face to face in pursuit of their joy and his (12).
John frames his greeting with love in truth (1) and truth and love (3). He mentions love twice at the outer limits of the frame and truth four times in between. John appeals to both their hearts and minds. Truth is the framework, guiding and giving meaning to love.iii Truth is the trellis upon which the vine of love grows. To love in truth refers to love based on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.iv You cannot separate truth and love from John’s Christology.
John is not alone in loving the church, but all who know the truth, love the church because the truth remains in us forever. All who know the truth, love the church. Truth is the ground for Christian love. It has nothing to do with our temperamental compatibility or our being naturally drawn to each other—that is the way the world community organizes itself. Defectors may leave the faith and abandon the church, but those who know the truth will remain. Love will endure only so long as truth endures. We will not increase love by diminishing truth.v
Rather than a simple greeting, John gave a confident affirmation: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us…in truth and love. These words are loaded. Grace, mercy, and peace are from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son. The double use of the preposition from affirms the co-equal, co-eternal status of the Father and Son, striking a blow to the defectors who view Jesus as a lesser emanation of God. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, mercy His willingness to pardon our sin, and peace his abiding blessing on our lives. In truth and love, grace, mercy, and peace will be with us.vi
In the introduction (1-3) and the closing (12-13), the interconnectedness and interdependence of the churches are put on display. Here we have one church concerned for another church, one church encouraging another church, one church exhorting another church to stand firm on the gospel.
The local church is not an Island. We receive so much essential to our health from partnerships with likeminded churches. First, it is strengthening to our faith to know that there are other churches out there who believe like we do. We are not alone. Second, we are encouraged to remain faithful to the truth. Our partners love us enough to exhort us if we move away from truth. Third, we as a local church cannot fulfill the Great Commission alone. Yet, our inability to fulfill the Church’s mission on our own is not meant to give us an excuse but is God’s kindness to us to move us to seek out partnerships and networks of churches with whom to partner that are faithful to the Word of God. The Gospel Project is big. We can’t do it alone.
True church fellowship is built on truth and love.
Therefore, on the foundation of truth, we are exhorted to love one another (4-6).
In these verses John exhorts the church to love one another (5b). John reveals in verse 4 what prompted him to write to the church. He apparently had encountered some of the members of the church and rejoiced to find them walking in truth. Verse 5 is connected to the thought of verse 4 by and now. It seems that John’s encounter with some of the faithful members of the church led him to reach out to the church. Perhaps, a situation in the church was discussed that needed Apostolic attention. In verses 7-11, we will see exactly what that situation was. So we see what occasioned the letter.
The tone of verses 4-6 is very positive. But what exactly is John exhorting the church to do in these verses? How are these verses structured? First, look at the words: to walk is used 3 times (4,6a,6b); command is used 4 times with one of the four being plural (4,5,6x2); love is used twice, once as verb and once as a noun (5b,6a); 2 times the phrase from the beginning is used (5,6). Second, taking a larger view of the structure, the passage begins and ends in a similar fashion. Verse 4 reads, walking in truth, just as we were commanded. Verse 6 reads, this is the commandment just as you were commanded from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. So we can read the outer edges of the text like this: walking in truth just as we were commanded (4) and the reverse of it, just as you were commanded, walking in it (6). This is the same structure as verses 1-3: love in truth and truth and love. If this forms an inclusion marking the outer edges of the text, then the indefinite it in verse 6 is truth, so that the passage begins and ends with truth supporting and guiding the main exhortation, love one another. This reading hinges on what is the antecedent of it is: commandment, love, or truth.
Whatever the structure of the text, we can see that John is taking the love and truth themes of his introduction and expanding them and applying them to the life of the local church. He is calling on them to live out the implications of truth and love in the life of the local congregation. John is saying live out what you believe.
The truth is the truth about Christ, and love is the motivation that obeys the truth. Truth and love go hand in hand. The absence of one will insure the absence of the other.vii There is a truth to believe and a love that obeys it.
As opposed to the new teaching of the false teachers, John is reminding them that his exhortation is the same that they first heard. From the beginning (5,6), they were commanded to believe in Christ and love one another.
That truth and love are inseparable has implications for living life in the community of faith:
First, the early Christians had known from the first days of their Christian life that they should love the church. I am not sure we have known from the beginning that we should love the church. The individual and personal aspects of faith have been communicated to the neglect of the corporate realities of faith. God, however, redeems us from our self-centeredness and directs our affections to him and the church (1 Jn. 4:9-12).
Second, modern culture has borrowed the Christian language of love twisted its meaning into something different from Jesus’s intent and then has accused Christians of being unloving. Love has become a moralistic excuse for immorality. Love according to the culture trumps God’s truthviii (on all things sexual, with church leadership as the next target). Christian love, however, is not an involuntary, uncontrollable passion,ix like Woody Allen confessed when asked about his affair with his stepdaughter, The heart wants what the heart wants. x Christian love is the settled, deliberate affection of the heart stirred and sustained by truth. Authentic love arises from God’s revealed truth.xi
On the foundation of truth, we are exhorted to love one another.
Truth and love applied in the life of the church serve as means to our perseverance in the faith (7-11).
I could state this third point a bit negatively: Truth and love applied in the life of the church serve as a defense against deception.
John ties verse 7 to verses 4-6 with the purpose clause for…. We are to walk in truth and love one another becasue many deceivers have gone out into the world (7a). He identifies them: Those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Truth and love at work in the church serves to preserve our souls.
The defectors have gone out in the world (cf. 1 Jn. 2:19), the organized system of opposition to God. They have gone out on a mission to deceive and lead astray. They are Satan’s anti-mission to Christ’s Great Commission.
Their plan of attack is to counter the foundational Christian claim, the incarnation. John says, they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. The present tense coming is altogether timeless. Jesus did not become the Christ or the Son at his baptism or cease to be the Christ before his death. Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh: two distinct natures, human and divine, united in one person, never to be divided, not even in death. John could not be clearer—Jesus was, is, and will always be the God-man.
He came to be the propitiation for our sins: God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:9-10). “None but God could make satisfaction, but none but man ought to make satisfaction. If none but God can make it, and none but man ought to make it, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.”xii “The sole purpose of Christ’s incarnation was our redemption.”xiii God sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins!
The deceiver and the antichrist attack the incarnation because Jesus is the epicenter of Christian faith. Remove Christ and everything collapses—beliefs about the Bible, God, humanity, creation, sin, and salvation. These traveling false teachers were a threat to the church.
John addresses this threat with two imperatives that apply love and truth in the life of the church.
Watch Yourselves (8-9)
This is not a call for everyone to look out for himself but a call to fight error corporately. John is concerned for their eternal happiness. So much work and hope and prayer and teaching had been poured into the church that to forfeit eternal blessing was unthinkable. John was in the thick of the battle for faith with them. He said, Don’t lose what we have worked for (8). John’s joy was, in part, wrapped up in their perseverance (cf. 12; 1 Jn. 1:4). It was not that they were justified by works, but that the propagation of the gospel, the establishing of the church, the expansion of the church, and fighting for and defending the faith are labor intensive. Together they had persevered in truth and love to this point.
For John perseverance is proof of possession. To stay with Christ gives the clearest evidence that we belong to Christ. To walk away from Christ proves you never received him in the first place.xiv
We are reading this text wrong and not letting it do in us what needs to be done if we read not winning a full reward as simply receiving a lesser reward than you otherwise would have. You cannot walk away from Christ and be saved. Christ-less Christianity will not save.
So that there is no mistake, John clarifies what he means in verse 9. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching (didache) of Christ, does not have God. The teaching is the apostolic teaching regarding Christ that came to be a body of teaching in the possession of the churches. To go on ahead is to represent Christ in ways that are inconsistent and irreconcilable with the established apostolic teaching. What a gift this letter is to the Church! John the Apostle is uniquely qualified to uphold the truth. The innovators were presenting something different and novel, undermining established truth. They had run ahead and in doing so left God behind them!
Christian faith is rooted in the historical events of the incarnation and the atonement. To move beyond Christ is not progress but apostasy. Growth in Christian maturity is not progress beyond Christ’s teaching but a progressive understanding of it.xv
Those however who abide in the teaching have both the Father and Son. We receive both together or neither.
Do not receive and greet false prophets (10-11)
The second imperative instructs the church in how to treat those who have gone out into the world and are now coming to the church to propagate their novel teaching. The church must not support and aid anyone who is spreading false teaching. This is not a contradiction to the exhortation to truth and love but is in keeping with it.
John says, If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching—the apostolic Christ—do not receive them or greet them (10). John is not talking about relationships with lost people, foreign exchange students, or lost family members. In John’s house-church setting to receive opponents of Christian belief into your home was to grant them access to the church. You can’t invite people who are antagonistic to the Christian gospel to teach in the church. You can’t give them shelter and support them on their mission. You cannot greet them as John greeted the church with grace, mercy, and peace. Part of the church’s testimony to them is unmistakably establishing that they are not part of the church. To receive them is to rob discipline of its redemptive effect. It is unloving both to them and to the church. It opens both to condemnation.
To do these things would be to endorse their doctrine and fellowship in their wicked works (11).
i Accessed 5/3/19. https://www.google.com/search?q=lyrics+to+i%27ll+fly+away&rlz=1C1LENN_enUS615US615&oq=lyrics+to+I%27ll+f&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j0l5.7134j0j8&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
ii For an apostle to identify himself as an elder is not without precedent in the NT. Peter wrote, So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you… (1 Peter 5:1,2a). While not denying Apostleship, the term simply affirms a pastoral self-understanding and public identity. James, the Lord’s brother, is referred to as Elder (Acts 21:18; cf. Acts 15) and apostle (Gal. 1:19). Paul refers to himself as diakonos, a term he applies to Timothy as well (1 Tim. 4:6; cf. 1 Thess 3:2) (see Burge, 330).
iii Akin, NAC, 221.
iv Yarbrough, BECNT, 335.
v Stott, 205.
vi Yarbrough, 337.
vii Akin, 226.
viii O’Donnell, REC, 178.
ix Stott, 209-210.
x O’Donnell, 178.
xii Akin, 229n25 quoting Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo.
xiii Ibid, quoting Calvin’s, “The Knowledge of God the Redeemer” in Institutes of the Christian Religion.
xiv Ibid., 231.
xv Stott, 214.