The little letters we call 2 John and 3 John don’t get much respect or attention. In fact, in thirty years of listening to sermons, I’ve heard exactly one message from them both and the pastor who preached it took a line from 2 John and spoke of things John did not have in mind. Neither do these letters get much respect or attention in the scholarly literature. One prominent New Testament scholar even claims there is nothing novel or necessary in either letter and that it probably would have been better not to include them in the canon of Scripture.
While I do understand the sentiment of such scholars, I must admit that I think they’re wrong. It is true to say that John doesn’t share any new insights or teachings in 2 John, however, the power and purpose of a letter is not always owing to its originality but its relevancy. Sometimes the power and purpose of a letter come from the right word being spoken into the right moment by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the power and purpose of a letter are owing to its brevity, to the fact that the author clearly and succinctly delivers one punch with strength and accuracy.
With this in mind, my aims in this blog are to paint a picture of the situation which gave rise to 2 John, to explain the letter one section at a time, and to display the fact that it was breathed out by God and profitable for the church (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Background of 2 John
We don’t know much about what happened in the life of the Apostle John after the book of Acts but we do know from some clues he left in his writings and from church history that he essentially functioned as a pastor of pastors in the latter years of his life. We don’t know the details of his service to the church, but we do know that he became associated with the group of churches located in Asia Minor, that is, modern day Turkey. Whatever the particulars of his service, we know that John wrote 2 John to one of the churches he served, probably as their pastor, for some unknown period of time. They looked upon him as a father in the faith, he looked upon them as his children in the faith, and they loved each other with the love of Christ.
For some reason, John left that church and went to serve the Lord elsewhere. In the course of time, some people from the first church came to visit him, and while they brought a good report, they also related some difficulties in the church. Specifically, they said, some teachers had come along and were trying to influence the church with a different kind of message about Christ. They were preaching a different gospel and those who knew this to be true were troubled about it.
When John heard this report, he was deeply troubled, I’m sure, and he was compelled by the Spirit to write a brief letter to the church. His passion was to persuade the people of God to cling to Christ in truth and love and to reject the teachers who were seeking to lead them astray. He didn’t care about saying things that were new or impressing his readers with new insights. Rather, he cared about protecting the flock of God by reminding them, and pressing upon them, the things they already knew.
As one of my pastors has often told me, most of us are educated beyond our level of obedience and we don’t so much need to learn new things as we need to practice the things we already know. The power of truth is revealed through obedience, not a novelty, and thus, John’s purpose was not to say new things but to stir up old things in order to lead the people of God in the way they should go.
John begins his four-part letter with the following greeting: “The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love.”
The words “the elect lady” most likely refer to the church and the words “her children” most likely refer to the people who made up the church. There is some disagreement about this among pastors and scholars, but what I’ve said is the general consensus and will be my assumption in this blog post. Whatever the case may be, please notice how much John loved them and sought to express the same to them. He wrote not as a professional clergyman but as a father in the faith. He wrote with much affection, in fact, with the very affection of God.
In this spirit, John continues his address in verses 4-6. “I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning so that you should walk in it.”
As I said earlier, it seems that some of the beloved members of the church had come to visit John and that he was overjoyed to hear that, for the most part, the church was clinging to Christ, obeying the commandments of the Father, and loving one another. John thus wrote to encourage them to press on in these things, to fan into flame what he had taught them from the very beginning. And what he had them was that love for God is expressed by glad and willing submission to God and that God had commanded them to love him and one another.
Indeed, love is the foundation of all the commands of God. Love is the consummation of all the commands of God. To know and obey the truth without love is not enough. Adherence to truth without love is just as deadly as an outright rejection of the truth. Love is the necessary fulfillment of truth so that the absence of love displays a lack of love for the truth because, in the end, God himself is truth and love. Truth is relational and not merely intellectual and so we must have both of these things: truth and love.
This was not a new idea to John’s readers but it was important for them to remember at this time, for the situation facing them was serious. Therefore, John continues in verses 7-11 with this admonition. “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
The word “deceivers” in verse 7 literally means “those who lead astray” and the way they do so is by persuading people to believe in and live by false things. In light of such a serious threat, John issued two words of counsel to the church.
First, he said, watch yourselves. The word “watch” here simply means “to see” but it can also mean “to watch over or guard,” and I do think this is John’s meaning here. John wanted his beloved friends to keep a diligent watch over their souls. He did not want them to lose the infinitely valuable gift of eternal life, rather, he wanted them to win the full reward of knowing and being with Christ forever and ever.
Beloved, John wanted his readers to cling to Jesus Christ in truth and love because he loved them and the issues at hand were of eternal consequence. The means by which they were to hang on to Christ was by clinging to the true teaching about him. John believed to the depth of his soul in the persevering power of God but one thing he knew was that if we don’t remain faithful to the teaching of Jesus we display the fact that we never knew God at all.
On the other hand, if we remain faithful to the teaching of Jesus then we show that we know both God the Father and the Son. From time to time we may struggle with this or that doctrine, we may question this or that aspect of life in Christ, but in the end, we must cling to the truth about Christ and if we don’t do so, we prove that we never knew him.
Second, John urged his readers not to have any fellowship with those who were promoting false teachings. This may seem harsh, but please think through what John is saying. It’s one thing to struggle with certain teachings but to remain humble and teachable before God and others. It’s another thing to dedicate your life to advancing lies about Jesus. We can be sure that those who give their lives to advancing such lies are not from God but rather from the devil, and we cannot have fellowship with the devil. We are free to struggle and debate many things within the context of Christian community because we don’t have a perfect understanding our Father and his Word. However, we are not free to reject the central truths about our Father and then continue in fellowship with him and his family.
We who know Christ must love false teachers and pray for them and seek with all of our might to persuade them to come to Jesus, but we cannot have fellowship with them because John says that by so doing we partake in their wicked works. When we embrace those who are lying about Christ in the name of Christ, we put our seal of approval on their teaching and this is something we simply cannot do.
John concludes his brief letter with these words in verses 12-13. “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. The children of your elect sister greet you.” By the Holy Spirit, John knew that he had said enough for the moment. He had made his point. He had blown upon the coals of love and truth, and now he trusted in the electing power of God to preserve the church through this present crisis until he could see them again.
Second John is short, indeed, but don’t let its brevity blind you to its power. It is of the utmost importance that we remember to cling to Christ in truth and love, and that we understand the seriousness of maintaining fellowship wherever we can and breaking fellowship whenever we must.
Charles Handren is pastor for Adult Ministries at Cross of Glory Baptist Church and an author residing with his wife Kimberly in Wayzata MN. His wife Kimberly (1991) is a Spanish and English as a Second Language teacher, and his daughter, Rachel (1994), owns and operates a dance studio in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Charles enjoys reading, cycling, hiking, and traveling. He holds degrees from California Baptist University (Riverside, California) and the American Baptist Seminary of the West (Berkeley, California), and is currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.