As human beings, we have an almost infinite capacity to take things for granted. And to do so very quickly. For many of us, to be deprived of Internet access is a form of human rights abuse, despite the fact that functional wireless access really only began about 15 years ago. To go without our phone for a day is a highly dislocating experience, despite the fact that only 62% people in the world even have a mobile phone, let alone a smart phone. And that means it’s very easy for us to forget what life is like for most people on our planet, and what it has been like for most people in history.
In the same way that my kids find it very strange that my generation listened to music on coils of brown magnetic tape spooled on a mechanism encased in plastic, which had a strange propensity to uncoil itself inside the playback machine, it takes considerable mental effort for us to appreciate that in the world of the 1st century, communicating with other people was a very arduous business.
It involved neither posting your business to a globally accessible network, nor even typing a few characters and hitting send, but procuring an actual pen and actual paper and writing a letter. And that was only the beginning. As there was no postal service, it took real effort to arrange to get the letter to the recipient. And when this scrappy piece of paper arrived, you had to do what you could to make sure it was accepted as authentic. And getting a reply, of course, was just as complex! But there is a plus in all this – it accounts for the fact that our Bibles contain not just one but three letters from the apostle John.
1st, 2nd and 3rd John are almost certainly a bundle of letters that were written and delivered together to a group of churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor, (including the 7 churches of Revelation). 1st John, which we looked at last term, contains the main things that the apostle wants to say to the group of churches. 2nd John is like the cover page, summarising the main letter and containing a short note for the church to which the bundle is initially delivered (and who would have the responsibility of circulating the main letter round the group). 3rd John is the brief commendation of Demetrius, the postman, assuring the elders of the receiving church that both the letters and Demetrius the postman come with John’s authority. Taken together, these letters then mutually reinforce the key messages that the apostle John has for these churches. This morning, we’re going to look at 2nd John, as a summary and refresher of all that God has been teaching us over these past few months.
I should warn you that reading 2nd John has its challenges. It’s the second shortest letter in the New Testament (3rd John is the shortest) and because of that, there isn’t a whole lot of context. One writer says ‘Reading 2 John us not simply like having one side of a phone conversation; it’s like hearing one side of a conversation that’s bleeding in and out of your mobile from someone else’s phone.’ But that’s probably overstating it, for the bullet points that John wants us to get come across so clearly: in the introduction (verses 1-3), John insists that we are joined by the truth (for truth is the only meaningful basis for unity, and the only real source of love).
Then, in verses 4-7, he urges the church to walk in the truth , and in verses 8-11, to beware deceivers, because this is the only way to real joy now and in the future. And that’s it. No particular surprises this morning – but then as 2nd John basically summarises 1st John, that was never going to be the case! But we do have the chance to make sure that all that God has been saying to us has bedded down and taken root in our hearts and minds, as well as listening to his word to us today. So come with me to 2nd John 1-3, where John reminds us that…
WE ARE JOINED BY THE TRUTH (1-3)
It’s not hard to spot John’s emphasis in these verses:
2 John 1 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, 2 because of the truth which lives in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, will be with us, in truth and love. John’s point is simple. It’s the truth of the message of Jesus – the gospel itself – the announcement of all that God has done, is doing and will do for us in Christ – that draws us together and shapes our life. We are joined together by the truth. That much is clear. The detail, however, is a bit trickier. John introduces himself as ‘the πρεσβύτερος’ – ‘The Elder’.
This word had been in use in the churches which were springing up across the Mediterranean for at least 30 years. Like its synonym ‘bishop’ (επισκοπος), it described those local church leaders who were responsible for pastoring and teaching, and caring for the people. And it’s how John, formerly known as the apostle’ is known.
It’s hard to be completely certain, but it seems that as the gospel spreads and new churches are planted, the leadership of the ‘movement’ passes from the apostles, the eyewitnesses of the resurrection, to those who are elders. Even those who are apostles, and who are responsible for articulating and passing on the foundational message of Christ, stop trading on their role, and happily self-identify as elders. By the time these letters are written, local churches weren’t the little kingdoms of individual apostles, but are led by groups of elders – so Peter could write in 1st Peter 5:1 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… John, it seems, is similar. He is an elder in the church at Ephesus . However, given the fact that he has been associated with the church for many, many years, and may even be the last surviving member of the 12 – as mark of esteem and respect, he became known as John the Elder, or even simply The Elder,
When Fiona and I were students in Aberdeen, our pastor, William Still, who had been at the church for 42 years when we arrived, was often referrers to simply as ‘The Minister’. It was affectionate and respectful, and somehow fitted the unique authority that a long ministry brings. I think it’s like that with John. Not that there weren’t other elders in his church, or in other churches. But John was… well he was John. John the Elder.
John the Elder writes to ‘the chosen lady and her children‘. John is writing to a local church. As in the phrase ‘the bride of Christ’, or, as in 1st Peter, ‘she who is in Babylon‘, he personifies the church as a woman; and he writes with deep affection for these church members. As he has done repeatedly in 1st John, he calls them ‘children’ and tells them he loves them in truth. It is the truth of the gospel which drives him – and us – to love. John makes that even clearer in verse 2 – this love arises in us because of the truth that lives in us and will be with us forever.
When God’s truth captures us, and takes a permanent hold of our lives, when God’s truth occupies our hearts and minds, it creates, stirs up and maintains a bond between us and our brothers and sisters in Christ. John’s vital insight is that it is the truth of the gospel which drives love.
Truth and love are intimately related. Truth gives birth to, and fuels, and defines love. The problem is, of course, that we often don’t think of it like that. If we’re not very careful, we slip into thinking that truth and love are opposites – or at least, if not opposites, at the very least, in tension. It’s as if we have a choice between being a truth person – doctrinally correct but hard-edged and spoiling for a fight; or a love person – relationally warm, personally compassionate but not particularly clear on the finer points of doctrine nor particularly willing to take a stand on anything, let alone call out anyone who has departed from the truth. But John comes at things from a completely different angle. For the apostle, truth and love aren’t in tension – it is truth which provides the reasons and the resources for loving each other. Truth and love go together – but they are related in a very precise way – it’s truth which gives birth to love.
The foundation of warm and loving relationships is a common commitment to the truth of the gospel. That’s why Confessional Christianity – a description of orthodox Christianity which attempts to state the gospel and its implications as clearly as possible – rather than being divisive makes deeply loving relationships possible. When we know, and believe and defend the same truth, this truth binds us together in love. When we are united in the truth of the gospel then then gospel itself pushes us and cajoles us and drives us to love one another as Christ as loved us. Real love can only flourish where we are agreed on the truth. There can only be an ‘us’ where we are agreed on the truth.
So what does that mean for us? In these verses, John calls us to be committed to a big-hearted commitment to the truth, which warmly welcomes – and loves – anyone who affirms the truth of the gospel as a brother or a sister. More than that, we need to be prepared to stand with anyone who affirms the truth of the gospel as a brother or sister, especially when they are under pressure. Because of the truth to which we are committed, the truth which is in us, we are committed to cheering each other on, encouraging each other and supporting each other. And the truth creates the deepest, richest, relationships imaginable. Gathering around the truth creates real, deep and lasting friendships which are so precious. So let’s not settle for anything less.
This passage is so important. It calls us to love one another with a love generated by the truth. Love without the truth is soft love that isn’t love at all. Truth without love is hard-edged and shows we haven’t grasped the truth. The importance of this is clear in verse 3:
Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love. His grace, the free provision of God’s kindness in Christ, his grace, and his mercy, his willingness to lavish on us what we desperately need but do not deserve, and his peace, the ultimate fruit of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, come to us as God reveals himself to us in the truth and love of the gospel.
From that starting point – the fact that we are joined by the truth – John then goes on to urge us to do two things – the first comes in verses 4-8:
SO WALK IN THE TRUTH (4-8)
Read with me from verse 4:
2 John 4 I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth, in keeping with a command we have received from the Father. 5 So now I ask you, dear lady-not as if I were writing you a new command, but one we have had from the beginning-that we love one another. 6 This is love: that we walk according to his commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: that you walk in it (not in ‘love’, which the NIV supplies).
John distils much of what he said in his first letter in these verses. He’s delighted that ‘some people’ in church have got this, but he wants to persuade everyone to walk in the truth by loving each other. But what does that actually look like? David Jackman in his Bible Speaks Today commentary writes ‘The mark of Christian authenticity is to make that conscious decision of the will to give ourselves away in caring for one another. There is never a day in our lives when it doesn’t need to be renewed and affirmed.’ Every day, we need to give ourselves away in caring for other people – in spending ourselves for their sake, for their good and growth in the gospel. Is that how you look at every day? Do I? For this is the one thing that God asks of us. And this is lit. [the] 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.
In Deuteronomy, Moses is quite happy to describe the whole law, all the laws and the statutes, as ‘the commandment’. Jesus sums up all the law and the prophets as ‘Love God and love your neighbour.’ Now John similarly speaks of all God asks of us in terms of loving other people, but reveals that the secret to loving other people by ‘walking in the truth’. The ‘it’ in the phrase ‘walk in it’ probably doesn’t refer to love but reaches all the way back to refer to the truth. But either way, his point is the same – walking in the truth by loving other people is what it’s all about.
If you want a phrase to carry in your head this week as we seek to live for Jesus, then try this one: this is love: walk in the truth. How are we to do this? The way to love like this is not simply to try to feel more loving, or even to act in more loving ways. The way to love is to feed ourselves with the truth of the gospel of God’s love. That’s why being here together today matters. That’s why getting out of bed in the morning and reading the Bible and prayng matters. Because time spent with the truth is designed to make us more loving. The more time we have with the truth, the more loving we should become and be. Basking in the truth leads naturally to walking in the truth, which means loving one another. I wonder if we asked our housemates, or wives or husbands, or children, or parents, if they thought that our involvement with church makes us more loving what they would say? Perhaps it would be too confronting to ask this question… but this is what it means to walk in the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ. And you know what? This should be our great goal.
A few months ago, my best friend send me a recently reprinted biography of a little known Scottish minister called W. H. Burns, who lived at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th century. Written in 1860, It is a marvellously counter-cultural little book, which contains this description of the Rev. Burns: ‘He was a particularly attractive representative of a type of Christian pastorate which is rapidly becoming obsolete – that of the quiet, steady, ongoing, conscientiously diligent and calmly earnest country minister… .If in these times we have more holy activity, have we not also less of godly quietness – if, more haste, less momentum and less breadth? At least, it is worth considering whether that patient continuance in well-doing at all times, and in the worst times, for which our fathers were distinguished, might not be well combined with the more aggressive zeal, in which many of us excel… ‘
What are we aiming for as a church? As we seek to live for Jesus? Yes, energy and creativity are great. But so is walking in the truth: quiet, steady, ongoing, conscientiously diligent and calmly earnest godly quietness, even patient continuance in well-doing at all times. We are joined by the truth, so let’s walk in the truth, and one more thing: We also need to:
BEWARE DECEIVERS (7-11)
John, perhaps above all of the NT writers, is concerned to make sure that the church is on guard against false teachers. In verse 7, he shows that he’s concerned that every church family be aware of the threat against orthodoxy:
7 I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. As in 1 John 2, I think this verse makes clear that John’s antichrist language isn’t supposed to send us out on a search for someone with 666 carved into the back of his head, but to be on our guard against a procession of people who whether deliberately or accidentally, will try to denigrate Christ, or woo us away from Christ by teaching any message other than the gospel – which by definition isn’t true and therefore doesn’t deliver.
Because ‘truth’ for John is the driver of everything, not least love, a failure in the truth department always has catastrophic consequences. This is not an academic question. Holding onto the truth is VITAL. That’s why John adds verse 8:
Watch yourselves, so that you do not lose what we have worked for, but you may be rewarded fully. As he do often does, John is just adding his voice to that of the Lord Jesus: In Mark 13, Jesus tells his disciples to ‘watch themselves’ in the face of opposition three times : 13:5: And Jesus began to say to them, “Watch yourselves that no one leads you astray; 13:9 “But watch yourselves. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them; 13:23 Watch yourselves ; I have told you all things beforehand. Now John urges his readers and us to make sure that we aren’t suckered by false teachers, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. The apostle is concerned that by departing from the truth, we may pay a terrible price.
There are two ways of reading this warning – one is that we’ll lose the reward of eschatological salvation, and that may be what John is talking about. But more often in the New Testament, the word used here refers to a reward received by believers for their faithfulness. Starting with Matthew 5:12 (‘12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’), and ending with Rev 22:12 ( “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” ) there are a dozen places where is implied or clearly stated that the way in which we live now will be reflected in gifts God will lavish on us in the new creation. In the NT, the way in which we live now carries the promise of eternal benefits. Which makes perfect sense – the way in which we live now really matters.
There is some correlation to the way in which we walk in the truth now, holding onto the truth now and living out the truth now, to the commendation we receive on the last day, and presumably our ensuing enjoyment in the new creation. We will be rewarded for the faithfulness which God enables us to exercise. But we must make sure that we don’t start to think that we have earned any of these future gifts or rewards. They remain gifts.
Herman Bavinck, in a marvellous little book for new communicants called ‘A Sacrifice of Praise’ writes this: ‘Holy Scripture does not encourage a passive but an active Christianity. It desires that believers continually become what they are; that they acquire what they have inherited; that they more and more make themselves possessors of what, in Christ, belongs to them. That is why, on the one hand, the same thing that can be an undeserved gift can be, on the other hand, represented as a reward. It may be called a reward because faith and perseverance in faith are the only way that believers can participate in the benefits that in Christ are given to them by grace alone.’
There is a mystery here. To some extent, our experience in the new creation rests on our faithfulness and discernment right now. There are some who will be rewarded, and others, as Paul says, who will escape through the fire by the skin of our teeth (that’s my paraphrase). But any reward we get cannot be the recognition of merit, but simply further evidence of the sublime grace of God himself. To depart from the truth then, is to miss out on knowing and delighting in God himself. But John goes further in verse 9.
Verse 9 reads Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. ‘Running on ahead’ here is about pushing the boundaries. It is a theological restlessness, which John contrasts with resting contentedly in the teaching of Christ. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus said ‘all authority in heaven and earth is given to me‘ – the apostle is describing a theological rejection of that – an unwillingness to allow God to set the framework, the boundaries beyond which we must not go. And this isn’t just about ticking theological boxes for the sake of neatness – this is a matter of life and death, because if we can’t submit to God’s truth, then we can’t actually have God. This is not a game – it’s deadly serious. And it is toxic for the church. Which is why John adds,
verse 10: If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.
In the ancient world, hospitality turned a stranger into a guest. If I invite you to stay, my friends are your friends. By default, then, to welcome someone into your home – which was often the only way someone could stay in a community – was to give him or her a base for their teaching. It was giving a free pass to heresy. John wants to maintain appropriate theological distance which stops the contagion of falsehood spreading. This was a real and persistent problem for the early church:
Ignatius of Antioch wrote around the end of the 1st Century to the church at Smyrna – which may very well have received a copy of John’s letters 20 years earlier:
‘Now I am advising you of these things dear friends, knowing that you are of the same mind. But I am guarding you in advance against wild beasts in human form – people whom you must not only not welcome, but if possible, not even meet. Nevertheless, do pray for them, that somehow they may repent, difficult though it may be. But Jesus Christ, our true life has power over this.’
So how do we apply this in our very different context? It isn’t about who we say hello to and who we shun – in our culture, ‘greeting’ someone isn’t giving them a platform for anything – it’s just being polite. But it is about who we endorse, implicitly or explicitly. It is about what we like on Facebook, or who we read online and recommend to others. It’s about being careful.
Many years ago, some Jehovah’s Witnesses came calling at our house, and Fiona answered the door. After 10 minutes of typically unfruitful conversation, in which Fiona had lovingly pointed them to Jesus, they gave up, and said to her ‘Is there anyone else on this street that you think would be interested in our message?‘ Fiona laughed and said ‘If you had listened to what I’ve been saying, you’d know that I am desperately sad for you because you don’t understand who Jesus is, and are missing out on the life he offers – do you really think I’m going to encourage you to go and mislead anyone else?’ The look on their faces made it clear that actually yes, that’s exactly what they had thought. For John in this passage, giving false teachers a platform, a base, in fact any encouragement at all is exactly the same as sending the JWs to someone else’s house. We just can’t do it. So be very careful how you handle deceivers.
And at this point, John quickly draws to a close, probably because he was reaching the end of his first sheet of parchment, and it was far too expensive to start a second sheet just to write his name! What he says as he signs off is not hard to relate to…
I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete, as together they walk in the truth and resist error.
For John, complete joy is connected to seeing each other face to face (presumably without masks). All John could do was send a letter with a courier. We can at least see each other and talk in real time, but for those of us who are starting to struggle a bit with the absence of fully-orbed, multi-sensory encounters with actual human beings, take comfort in this – John would have struggled too! There really is no substitute for in-the-flesh, in the room relationships – and it’s ok for us to feel a bit sad just now – and to look forward to the day when our joy is complete. And in the meantime, John sends this letter, which carries with it not just his greetings, but those of the church of which he’s a part: The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings..
2nd John then reminds us that we are joined by the truth, and so walking in the truth, loving each other and resisting deceivers is at the heart of what God asks of us as his people. This is what it means to be the church.
So let’s throw ourselves into living the truth, and loving each other, knowing that Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love.