The key to unlocking the dynamic of the letter of 2 John is to understand the context and situation that the author, the apostle John, was facing as the pastoral overseer of the mother church in Ephesus, and why v7 is so crucial as the determining litmus test for ALL Christian doctrines of christology and theology.
Click on the link above for an audio version of 2 John.
Listen to Nick’s Podcasts of sections of 2 John in the Starter Course.
Download a Bible app for your smart phone and listen when you’re at the gym, travelling in the car, etc…
Read it all at one sitting – and do this on several occasions, each time writing down the things that strike you.
A film about sacrificing something in order to maintain the integrity of a work.
Stuart Little (1999) is a story about a family offering radical hospitality.
Study the Bible for Life material and answer the ‘meal course’ questions relating 2 John to the 21st Century.
Suggested verses for meditation …
Verses 4-6: Truth and love
Verse 7: One could argue that this is the central verse for all orthodox doctrine.
Verse 6: ‘And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.’
The short letter titled ‘2 John’ is an exceptionally well-crafted pastoral letter exhorting churches and Christians not to tolerate false teachers who promote heresy. John writes this letter to the satellite churches under the metaphorical recipient ‘the chosen lady and her children’ (v1), which, along with the final sentence and the absence of any personal names, indicates that this letter is written for general release among the churches. We should view 2 John and 3 John as case studies of the more substantial general letter of 1 John.
As always, in order to understand the meaning and main points it is essential to understand the context and situation into which the letter was written. The author is a senior pastoral leader in the ‘mother’ (cathedral) church of Ephesus, and as such is most likely to be the very elderly apostle John. He is writing a general circular letter to warn faithful believers of the danger of supporting heretical teachers who, in the words of 1 John 2:19, had ‘gone out from us’ (see also 1 John 4:1-3). The letter can be dated around 80CE. It appears that John confronted the issue in the mother church of Ephesus and the teachers left, but they continued their false teaching among the satellite churches and quite possibly set up their own churches.
The central issue is stated in v7, that ‘Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh’. The heretical teachers understood Jesus to be divine, but not fully human. Christological issues like this are of primary importance: they define our faith and are therefore non-negotiable. So, beyond the gracious and genuine love of the author, this letter is a strong and emphatic warning against heresy. First, John states that the truth lives in us (through the Spirit), we live in the truth, love each other in the truth and walk in the truth. His second point is that to depart from the truth about Christ is to become evil, demonic and anti-Christ. Third, we must therefore never support anyone who propagates false teaching about Christ.
Nevertheless all of this is framed within the truly genuine loving exhortation that ‘I ask that we love one another’ (v5). Love is walking in our Father’s commands, and his command is that we love one another. John’s pastoral skills are impressive: his letter is full of loving affirmation and the deep kindness and mercy of a senior pastor for those he loves. His letter builds on the foundation of a discipleship that is committed to the truth and lived out in love. He then addresses the heresy directly and states strongly that anyone propagating this ministry is ‘a deceiver and an anti-Christ’ (v7). He states that those who assist this heresy by offering them hospitality and welcome are joining in this wicked work and risk losing their reward in Christ.
Question 1 -
Think of an occasion where someone has offered you overwhelming hospitality. Why is hospitality so significant for relationships in a church community?
Question 2 -
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have adopted six children from different troubled spots around the world. Should we follow their example?
Question 3 -
Should Christians, in the interests of friendship between faith-groups, offer hospitality to those who propagate non-Christian beliefs?
Nick reads 2 John
2 John: 'The root of all heresy'
2 John: 'Truth and love'
Author: We should view 2 John and 3 John as case studies of the longer general letter 1 John. So, although John’s name is not mentioned specifically, we should view the author as a senior leader in the wider church who had responsibility for overseeing those who travelled from the mother church to minister among the satellite churches. The fact is that viewing the author as John the apostle at Ephesus does make excellent sense of the context.
Date: This letter was written about 50 years after the resurrection, and 30 years after Paul established the church in Ephesus, the leading city in the province of Asia in western Turkey. This church had become the mother church (the “cathedral church”), servicing many other (satellite) churches within a radius of some two hundred miles.
Situation: At the time, some Christian teachers were propagating a heresy in the mother church of Ephesus and her satellite churches that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh (v7). Although possible, it is unlikely that they taught that the incarnation never happened – that Jesus never existed at all. Howard Marshall argues that “more likely is the idea that the heresy focused on some sort of denial of the continuing humanity of Jesus; ‘that the word had become flesh and remained flesh’”. So, a question of christology is at issue here, and crucially, John is defining this as a matter of primary axiomatic importance for the Church. This issue of the nature of Christ was finally clarified by the church at Chalcedon in CE451, that Jesus in one nature is fully divine and fully human.
This short letter follows the format and pattern of a private letter in the Greco-Roman society of the first century CE.
John’s argument in 2 John:
The argument and development of the letter is as follows:
|1.||General greeting to churches in which John appeals to the foundation of truth.|
|2.||An exhortation to love one another.|
|3.||The problem is defined: a heresy that denies the humanity of Christ.|
|4.||A strong warning that this teaching is evil.|
|5.||A clear instruction not to do anything to support this heresy.|
|6.||The letter ends on a pastoral note.|
Question 1 -
It is never loving to encourage or even allow someone to wander from the truth and fall into the deception of sin. Have you ever tried to warn someone to turn from the dangers of heresy?
Question 2 -
A church leader in Aberdeen recently opened his church (with his congregation’s agreement) to the overspill of the Muslims from the next door mosque who were kneeling on the street to pray in the rain and wind. If you were the pastor would you have done this? If not, what would you do?
Question 3 -
Romans 14 tells us not to pass judgement on each other over disputable issues. What issues are indisputable (non-negotiable)?
Question 4 -
Why is Jesus the truth? What actually makes him different from just being ‘another prophet’?
Question 5 -
When a female friend asks "do I look good in these clothes?" it can be almost impossible to say "no", regardless of how awful she may look in them. How can an apprentice of Jesus speak the truth with love in this sort of situation?
Verse by Verse
V1 – 2 The author greets the recipient within the unity of shared truth
V3 A blessing from the Father and Jesus
The language, style and themes of this brief letter leave little room for doubt that it stands with, should be read and understood alongside, and possibly even understood as an introduction to the general letter of ‘1 John’. It also stands alongside ‘3 John’. ‘2 John’ and ‘3 John’ could be considered case studies of ‘1 John’. These two ancillary letters apply the general teachings of 1 John: in the first instance (in this letter of 2 John) in respect of heresy among church leaders, and in the second instance (in 3 John), about bullying leadership. Although both letters were circulated widely, the first, ‘2 John’, is more consciously general in tone, with a more deliberately ambiguous title which thereby addresses all churches, while the second, ‘3 John’, addresses a specific context mentioning at least three known individuals. Nevertheless, it is possible that 2 John was written first, and the general letter of 1 John written afterwards, since 1 John speaks of the heretics having left us, while 2 John refers to their current influence. Perhaps the explanation is that the false teachers have left, or been sent away from, the mother church, but are still at large propagating their influence among the satellite churches.
The author begins each case study in the same way, by calling himself‘ the elder‘ (v1).This communicates authority, maturity and experience, but not necessarily age. However, the fact that the author can write with such authority without mentioning his name indicates that he is a person of widespread authority in the region. The apostle Peter used exactly this simple self-description in 1 Peter 5:1, and the apostle John adopts the same status here. The context of John the apostle writing in the (mid?) CE80s as a senior elder from the mother church in Ephesus to the outlying satellite churches makes satisfying and convincing sense of the evidence and historical perspective. The letter is the shortest document in the New Testament. Although less personal than the letter to Gaius (‘3 John’), it is close enough to the style and pattern of culturally contemporary personal letters of the time, and should be understood as such. It would have been written on a single sheet of papyrus.
The letter is written ‘to the lady chosen by God and to her children‘ (v1). While the recipient could certainly be an individual woman, a more convincing perspective, and one that is almost universally accepted, is that ‘the chosen lady’ is a metaphorical description of one of the satellite churches – and possibly all the satellite churches – serviced by, and in relationship with the mother church at Ephesus where John was based. This view is strengthened by at least three references in the body of the letter. The comment that some of the children have stopped loving the truth, immediately refer us back to 1 John 2:19-20: ‘… They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us…’. Second, there is a gentle, almost hidden shift from the second person singular “you” in the first part of the letter to the second person plural in the second half. Third, the final sentence of this letter repeats the words ‘chosen’ and ‘children’ in a cryptic phrase with the clear meaning: “my church greets your church”. We should therefore understand that John is writing to a church, or possibly even to all the satellite churches.
The phrase ‘chosen by God’ (v1, 13) is striking. All believers are astonished at the growing realisation of all that it means to have been chosen by God, and what it will mean in the future. We are chosen in two senses: first at our entry into the Kingdom: ‘the knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven has been given to you’ (Matthew 13:11), and second on understanding the grace of God: ‘but you are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people that you may declare the … who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2:9). All of this is at the cost of the cross!
‘…whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth’ (v1).
The “I” is emphatic and contains a sideswipe at the false teachers who are perverting the gospel of truth and trying to win over those loyal to John, the gospel and the mother church. John uses the word ‘love’ “to express the particular kind of love shown by God to men which must be shown by men to God and to one another … it contains thoughts such as caring for people, showing loyalty to them and seeking their good” (Marshall). ‘In the truth’ emphasises the genuineness and sincerity of John’s love for them. John’s emphasis on truth alerts us to the problem which he will address in this letter: a departure from the truth. John will use this word five times in first four verses, before then addressing “deceivers”. From this very first sentence, John is highlighting the essential issue: how we should hold truth and love together? When does the truth cease being the truth because it is no longer exercised lovingly? When does love cease being love because it is no longer based on and strengthened by the backbone of truth? Or to root this practically: should a disciple show hospitality to heretical teachers? Jesus commanded that the leading feature of his disciples must be the love they have for one another: ‘by this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35). This love is defined within the parameters of the truth. It is not love for anyone and anything, it is love for those who hold to the truth, because ‘if you continue in my word you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32).
The issue underlying this letter is the extension of hospitality to false teachers. The profession of inn-keeping was dishonourable; inns were notoriously dirty, disease-ridden and unsanitary, and innkeepers were sometimes rough characters. So, it was natural that travelling Christian ministers should be given hospitality by members of local churches, where they would receive food, shelter, and a base to minister from at either low cost, or no cost. Jesus commanded this in Matthew 10:9-15. The Didache, a manual of church order dating from around the end of the first century CE, encouraged the testing of travelling Christian ministers: each must be examined “so that the genuine can be discerned from the false”. The tests involved matters of doctrine, motives especially towards money, board and lodging and moral conduct.
‘…because of the truth, which lives in us’ (v2).
There are three distinct ways in which ‘the truth … lives in’ us. First, when a disciple hears the truth of the gospel and believes it and builds their lives around it, then it can be claimed and understood that the truth lives in that person. Second, when this happens the Lord Jesus Christ, who is ‘the true and living way‘ (John 14:6), then lives in that disciple, and third, the Lord who is the Spirit lives in the disciple: ‘the Spirit of truth … who guides us into all truth’ (John 16:13). John is already starting to build his argument by basing it on the foundation of the nature of God. This is how Paul builds his arguments in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 regarding idolatrous worship, and later in 12:4-6 concerning the exercising of spiritual gifts.
‘…and will be with us forever’ (v2).
God does not change, and neither does the truth. Truth is not negotiable; it does not alter or develop and change over time, although it can become clearer over time. In his second clause John is rooting truth in the nature of God. The truth will last forever because God is eternal. But there is a deeper point here: truth is not a mathematical statement, or a piece of evidence submitted in court; it is a person. Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), and he will be with us forever. Truth is the essence, the genuine, perfect integrity, but it is active not passive, it is alive, it is essentially reality, the real nature of everything. Knowledge of the truth is not about learning a language, or learning an academic discipline that can be examined, it is knowing the person at the centre of Creation from whom everything in Creation has its meaning and purpose. Just as every word is defined in the dictionary by other words, so Jesus is the Word, the truth, that defines every creature in Creation. He is the Spirit, the gate, the friend, the lamb at the centre of the throne – God himself.
‘Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love’ (v3).
This blessing follows the “usual” greeting in a Christian letter, but the second clause develops the key point: this letter is about how to handle truth and heresy “in love”.
‘Grace‘ is God’s riches given to us at the expense of the death of Christ, ‘mercy‘ is his attitude of pity and generous help to those caught in the destruction of sin, and ‘peace‘ is the shalom of restored fellowship with God the Father based solely on the finished work of atonement completed by God himself through his Son Jesus on our behalf, appropriated to every person who chooses to believe in Jesus.
This is the only place in the New Testament where the phrase ‘the Father’s Son‘ is used. It emphasises the divinity of the Son as not only the messiah, Christ, but along with the Father as the source of all blessing. His incarnation into the world as the messiah (Christ) was for the purpose of working our redemption. We should not miss the implied Trinitarian reference, since the Spirit is ‘the truth that lives in us and will be with us forever’ (v2). John is deliberately using this phrase in order to prepare the ground for the very serious warning he will articulate in verse 7, which has to do with the nature of the divine engaging and entering into the human. At the heart of this letter is not only the incarnational truth of the Father’s Son living as a fully human man, but the overarching eternal purpose of the divine to enter into and participate fully in humanity. As Paul articulates in Ephesians 1:9-10, God’s plan is to unite all things, sum up all things and order all things around Christ. The divine is coming into the human, and the human is engaging and participating in the divine (2 Peter 1:4, John 17:21-23).
Stott writes: “The fellowship of the local church is created by truth and lived out in love. Each qualifies the other. Our love is not to be so blind as to ignore the views and conduct of others (and the exhortation not to support the ministries of the false teachers in v7-11 is an example). Our love for others is not to undermine our loyalty to the truth. On the other hand, we must never champion the truth in a harsh or bitter spirit.”
Ironically, it was the Ephesian church itself who came close to this very heresy and almost lost its “lampstand” – its identity as a genuine church. John brought such a rebuke to this church from the risen Lord in Revelation 2:1-7.
V4 Commendation for walking in the truth
V5 Exhortation to walk in love…
V6 … because to walk in love is to fulfil the Father’s commands
4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us.
Once again, John exhibits his exceptional pastoral skills by focusing on God the Father and commending the woman (the satellite church) because they (the disciples) are walking in the truth and they are faithful in following Christ. John is wonderfully positive and encouraging – and so should pastors be with their people, especially when correction is needed. “Some” is significant, because it shows that “some others” are not walking in the truth. This is the problem; some disciples have come under false teaching and are no longer walking ‘in the truth as the Father has commanded us‘. Command is a strong word, and indicates that the problem is more serious than the gentle and gracious tone of this letter might first suggest. Indeed, the very fact that a letter needs to be written and then followed up with a visit from a senior pastor shows the situation needs wise and firm handling. To ‘walk in the truth‘ involves not only believing the truth, but obeying it. “Revelation carries with it responsibility, and the clearer the revelation, the greater the responsibility to believe and to obey it” (Stott). Karen Jobes comments that walking in the truth means living in a way consistent with the revelation that Jesus Christ has brought.
In structure, tone and the development of the shape of the argument, 2 John exhibits a strong similarity with that in 3 John.
5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.
This sentence (which is almost identical to 1 John 2:7) is a wonderful summary verse describing the essence of Christianity. To be a disciple involves two things: to believe in Christ and to love one another (John 13:34-35, Galatians 5:6, 1 John 3:23, Colossians 1:4 etc.) To deny the Son and not to love is to demonstrate that we neither have nor know God (1 John 2:23). Faith and love are therefore the signs and evidence of new birth (1 John 5:1). This revelation has a moral content: if men hate the light, it is because their deeds are evil (John 3:19-21). They do not ‘believe’ in the Son because they are already resolved not to ‘obey’ him. This is why unbelief is sin, and the unbeliever condemned already (Stott).
6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
A disciple is not saved because we keep the Law, but through faith in Christ. However, our love for Christ immediately leads us to love the things he loves, the main thing being obeying the commands of the Father so ‘that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit’ (Romans 8:4). Later in Romans 13, Paul states that all the commands are summed up in the rule of loving one’s neighbour: ‘therefore love is the fulfilment of the law’ (Romans 13:10).
In this verse, the author changes from ‘you’ singular, which he has used up to this point to affirm his unity with those he is addressing, to ‘you’ plural, as a means to exhort them to obedience.
Here John is addressing our motivation to love. Obedience to religious rules will almost always be a dreadful weight on people causing frustration, weariness, exasperation (in the young – Ephesians 6:4), and ultimately breaking individuals and enslaving them in all types of guilt, shame, aggression, pride, envy, fits of aggression, and even murder and hatred. When outsiders see this, they run from it. But the motivation for godliness is a heart in love with Jesus Christ. A man turns from sin because he has fallen in love with something far better than sin. Why drink dishwater, when the most beautiful water of life is freely available? When a man has seen Jesus Christ, he will want nothing but Jesus. A man in love with Jesus will do anything and everything to get more of Jesus (witness the multitudes – thousands – who stayed with him night and day without food simply because he was who he was). The way to get more of Jesus is to do, live and be everything that Jesus wants us to do, live and be. The way to see more of Jesus is to study the revelation of Jesus on the Cross, which is why the preaching of the Cross is the power of God for salvation, it is the wisdom of God. It is at the Cross that our hearts are captured and instead of a secret longing that religious Law would be gone (legalism), or that I could be free from all restraint (license), my heart is won over and I find myself both loving every word that comes from the mouth of the saviour, and also I myself hating my sin, shortcomings and failings and doing all I possibly can to obey him so much more completely. It is the Spirit that leads us into an understanding of the Cross (1 Corinthians 2:9-10), and who pours the love of God into our hearts (Romans 5:5). The community of Jesus is the community of those so completely in love with the Saviour that they hang on his words and run to obey his commands, motivated by nothing but love for the one who has so completely captured them. Why choose second best? The only people who choose second best are those who have not seen the very best.
V7 Warning about deceivers
V8 Warning about losing our reward
V9 Explanation: the precarious state of those who leave the teaching of Christ
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.
This is the leading sentence of the letter: it describes the false teachers and the specific false doctrine they were propagating. On the basis of 1 John 2:19 it is likely that these false teachers had left the mother church where John ministered and were now spreading their false doctrine among the satellite churches in the network throughout the region. John articulates a heretical dogma that Jesus did not come and live as a human being on earth. The Greek literally reads: ‘Jesus Christ cometh (is coming) in the flesh’. The verb is present continuous. John is giving the churches a test for orthodoxy, and the sense and intention seems to emphasise the timelessness of the incarnation, which is “an abiding truth” (Brooke). Jesus did not become the Christ or the Son at his baptism, or cease to be the Christ or the Son before his death; Jesus was ‘the Christ come in the flesh’. The two natures, manhood and Godhead, were united already at his birth, never to be divided (Stott). So, whereas it is possible that some of these heretics were teaching that Jesus never actually existed – a dogma taught by the Communists in Russia – this is actually unlikely to have been the heresy. It seems more likely that the false teaching focused on some sort of denial of the continuing humanity of Jesus. A question of Christology is at issue, and crucially John is defining this as a matter of primary axiomatic importance for the church. At root is the Christological issue of the nature of Christ that was finally clarified by the church at Chalcedon in CE451; that Jesus in one nature is fully divine and fully human.
John is therefore going beyond merely refuting a Docetic heresy that focuses on the spiritual and denies the human and incarnational. There are wider and fuller Christological issues at stake here.
Peter counters such teaching in 2 Peter 1:16-18: ‘We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty’ (and then continues describing the Transfiguration). This false teaching probably explains the very beginning of John’s general letter: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim to you concerning the word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it …’ (1 John 1:1-3).
In stating that ‘the deceivers … have gone out into the world‘, John is not describing individuals who have left the church, but an entire movement promulgating a heretical theology. The heresy opposes Christ and deceives men. The word for deceiver is used of the “seducing” spirits in 1 Timothy 4:1; it signifies imposter, or corruptor (2 Corinthians 6:8).
8 Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully.
Some manuscripts have ‘what you worked for’; both readings are thoroughly Johannine because of the interplay of identities in his writings as he associates with his pastorate. The issues is not of their winning or losing their salvation (which is a free gift), but their reward for faithful service (Stott). ‘Watch out’ is a strong warning; Paul warned the Galatians in the same words about their allowing the destructiveness of the sinful nature in their community as a result of the ministry of false teachers (Galatians 5:15), and Jesus was equally clear that disciples should watch out for deceivers and false Christs (Matthew 24:24,42). The New Testament is not afraid of speaking boldly and freely about the reward we will receive at the judgement (Matthew 24:47, 25:21), and neither should we be. John tells us in this sentence that we can lose our reward. It is possible to serve Christ faithfully for many years and then lose our reward as did the corrupted leaders (Matthew 24:48), the foolish bridesmaids who started well and finished badly (Matthew 25:12), those who follow through a definite decision to live independently of Christ (John 15:6), and those who commit apostasy, who “fall away, and deliberately keep on sinning” (Hebrews 6:4-8, 10:26-31). Verses that teach about reward are Matthew 5:12, 10:41, 1 Corinthians 3:8, 3:14, 2 Corinthians 5:10, 1 Corinthians 3:15, Colossians 3:24-25 and Revelation 11:18. Nevertheless, John’s instruction is serious: he clearly sees the possibility of spiritual ruin and is writing in strong terms to prevent it happening to those he loves in the unity of truth in Christ. Perhaps he has in mind the warning of Paul: ‘(he) will be saved – though only as one escaping through the flames’ (1 Corinthians 3:15).
The admonition ‘watch out’ is the first clear imperative of the letter; the commands to ‘love in the truth’ in verses 4-6 are stated for the foundational purpose of reminding and unifying John and the believers in preparation for the three specific imperatives in this verse and verse 10.
9 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. (See also 1 John 2:22-24, John 18:19, Rev 2:14-15.)
‘Runs ahead‘ has the sense of claiming “advanced” understanding. The sense here is of being uncoupled from Christ, to stop remaining in Christ and to begin innovating one’s own doctrine and practice without proper reference to the truths taught by the apostles. To let go of this axiomatic doctrine is to be severed from Christ, to be out of step with Christ. Perhaps we should use the illustration of two rail carriages travelling at speed. If the carriage is uncoupled from the engine it may still be travelling fast and close to it, but it has become separated from it. In this sense, this person does not continue in the teaching of Christ and does not have God. In time, the gap will widen so all can see it. Mormons claim to teach deep truths to their mature believers; doctrines about beings from space coming to the earth. This verse repeats 1 John 2:22-23. The Son is the revelation of the Father (John 1:18) and the way to the Father (1 Timothy 2:5). To confess the Son is to possess the Father; to deny the Son is to forfeit the Father.
V10-11 A clear prohibition not to support false teachers
10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them.
To provide hospitality in the Greco-Roman society was to provide a platform for the guest in one’s community. In the Christian context it therefore communicated not only acceptance of the person and their ministry, but also promotion of that ministry. Since many churches met in houses, to offer hospitality was to officially invite into the pulpit. John is clear; there is no grey area on this issue. Romans 14 addresses “secondary issues” and is clear that we should ‘not pass judgement on others over disputable matters’ (14:1). Paul cites the examples of food sacrificed to idols, worship on specific days of the week etc. Perhaps today we would say: baptism policy, our theology of the end times “pre-” or “a-” millennialism, policies on church government, the understanding and practice of the sacraments, or the place of divorcees in church. The significance of this statement in 2 John is that John is stating that the issue of the nature of Christ is a primary issue. To deny the human existence and human nature of Christ is to deny a truth at the very heart of the gospel, and to do so would irrevocably compromise the faith. The truth that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine is therefore axiomatic to the faith – to being “in the truth”.
Paul makes a similar point more forcefully in the case of extreme immorality: ‘… I have written to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not all at meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy or swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave the world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.’ (1 Corinthians 5:9-12).
According to Stott: 1) John is referring to teachers of false doctrine, not merely believers in it. The person who should not be received and given hospitality is the one coming specifically with this false teaching. Jesus himself enjoyed the hospitality of some that he disagreed with (Luke 14:1), and he chose to run the risk of the misunderstandings that this created Matthew 9:11.
2) John is referring to false teachers about the incarnation, not to any and every false teacher. According to Dodd, ‘It is the entertainment of antichrist which is forbidden’. Plummer adds, ‘Charity has its limits: it must not be shown to one man in such a way as to do grievous harm to others.’
We should make our point simply and clearly by not giving hospitality to those who promote false teaching. Be polite and civilised, there is no need for aggression or abuse, or an ugly, public theological punch-up. The point is about support for their ministry, which in John’s time was focused on hospitality. Today it is more likely to be in terms of donations, or by publicising such a work, or by allowing access to a pulpit. It is especially sobering in today’s world to realise that John will not allow love to trump truth. Love has its limits and should never be allowed to override axiomatic (Christological) truth. Jobes writes: ‘One cannot have truth without love, nor can one truly love without truth. For it is not loving to encourage someone to wander from the truth or to allow them to persist in the deception of sin.’
Story: I remember hearing a delightful story some years ago on a tape by David Pawson. He described an occasion when a student came for Sunday lunch. Before the meal he boasted freely of his plans to carry on indefinitely moving from course to course at the university, all of which would be paid for by the government, and joked that he would never have to do a proper job. Having checked with the student that he was genuinely serious about following this route and being a perpetual student so that he didn’t have to work, David Pawson replied that he was very sorry but since it was his stated intention never to work but to live off other people, he could not give him Sunday lunch. David explained that Paul teaches clearly in 2 Thessalonians: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat‘ (2 Thessalonians 3:6 – this addresses those who intentionally don’t work, not those who suffer involuntary redundancy). So the student left without lunch. Six months later the student met David Pawson again and quickly told him that following his last exams he had got himself a job. So David Pawson congratulated him, and invited him to Sunday lunch. Although a different issue, something similar (concerning a more important issue) is going on here in 2 John.
11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.
In Johannine language, it is not just that these false teachers are no longer in the truth, but they are actively promoting heresy and are therefore anti-Christ. To give food and shelter to such false teachers is to join and support their evil ministry. John is emphatic, and the gracious loving tone of his letter must not beguile us: extending hospitality to false teachers is blatant sin and wickedness – it is effectively to join the religious leaders jeering Christ as he died on the Cross: ‘Let (God) rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God“‘ (Matthew 27:43)! To aid and help such false teachers is to support their wicked work which may have the effect of sending souls to eternal ruin! The main point of this short letter is that God has revealed the eternal truth in Jesus Christ and any departure from this brings spiritual ruin to those who receive and embrace such false teaching. It matters not how sincere these people are, or even how loving they are; they are fundamentally mistaken, they have departed from axiomatic truth about Christ and are heading towards spiritual bankruptcy. To assist them is to risk forfeiting your own reward in Christ.
12 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.
This sentence is almost identical to 3 John 13. If this letter is written to an individual woman, then we should read it as John’s specific intention to travel to her home and talk face to face with her and her children soon. But more likely it is for wider circulation alongside the general letter 1 John, and John is reminding disciples of Jesus’ teaching that the best and most effective way of solving conflicts – and resolving heresy – is by visiting the offender and sorting everything out in a loving context following the stages clearly outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-18 and by Paul in Titus 3:10. ‘…our joy may be complete‘ probably refers not to euphoric experience but to the joy of a completed work, such as the joy a mother experiences after the birth of her child (Lieu) (see John 15:11, 16:24 and 17:13).
13 The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.
In other words, “my congregation greets your congregation”. All churches are sisters of all other churches, and the ‘children of your sister’ are all the members of the church. But John is using this more cryptic description of the church to include us, the reader, and to finish on the glorious perspective of the Father whose family spans heaven and earth – all those who walk in the truth of Christ and who love one another (Ephesians 3:14-15). This is a great truth, and the greatest community of prayerful love which will stand forever and for all time worshipping the lamb who was slain – utterly and completely devoted to loving and obeying him and walking forever in the truth.
The overall message of 2 John:
The short letter titled ‘2 John’ is an exceptionally well-crafted pastoral letter exhorting churches and Christians not to tolerate false teachers who promote heresy. The central heresy is stated in v7, that “Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh”. The heretical teachers understood Jesus to be divine, but not fully human. Christological issues like this are of primary axiomatic importance – they define our faith and are therefore non-negotiable. So, beyond the gracious and genuine love of the author, this letter is a strong and emphatic warning against heresy.
First, John states that the truth lives in us (through the Spirit), we live in the truth, love each other in the truth and walk in the truth. His second point is that to depart from the truth about Christ is to become evil, demonic and anti-Christ. Third, we must therefore never support anyone who propagates false teaching about Christ. Nevertheless, all of this is framed within the truly genuine loving exhortation that ‘I ask that we love one another‘ (v5). John’s letter is full of loving affirmation and the deep kindness and mercy of a senior pastor for those he loves. His letter builds on the foundation of a discipleship that is committed to the truth and lived out in love. He then addresses the heresy directly and states strongly that anyone propagating this ministry is ‘a deceiver and an anti-Christ’. He states that those who assist this heresy by offering them hospitality and welcome are joining in this wicked work and risk losing their reward (in Christ).
The leading imperatives:
V8 Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully.
V10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them.
The implied imperatives:
V4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us.
V5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.
V6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
Holy Habits: (Holy Habits are patterns of living and lifestyle practices which we choose to do in our lives. These can be in order to either withdraw from the dominion of the world, such as silence, secrecy, submission, fasting, watching, simple living, or, practices that plunge us into the life of the Kingdom, such as prayer, worship, celebration, study, serving the poor and deprived, etc. They can be as simple as kneeling by your bed and thanking God at the end of the day, or as substantial as attending an annual Christian festival.)
The subject at the heart of 2 John is whether or not to extend loving hospitality (support) to a visiting travelling teacher. The issue is therefore one of discernment: is this teacher teaching heresy or orthodox doctrine? We ought therefore to work to find Holy Habits that accentuate our ability to discern – without falling into the error of “losing our first love” like the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:1-7. Probably the most helpful verse is Hebrews 5:14, which speaks of those who through long and thorough exposure to the truth have learned to distinguish between good and evil.
Question 1 -
The ‘Deconstructionalist’ Derrida taught that all meaning (truth) is created by the reader of the text, and the atheist Foucault wrote that truth claims are created to serve those in power. Compare these perspectives with verses 4-8 where John roots truth, faith, love and commands in the revelation of God through Jesus.
Question 2 -
What “Holy Habits” will strengthen our grasp of pure theology?
Question 3 -
John strictly warns Christians not to support these heretical teachers by providing hospitality for them. While for us today providing meals is still one form of support, there are other ways in which teachers look for support, such as financial giving and promotion on Facebook. What other ways do teachers look for support today? How do Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses and other Unitarian faiths seek support and prominence?
Question 4 -
2 John teaches us to address heresy, and not tolerate it because the integrity of the Christian faith is at stake. Have you ever seen a church exercise discipline over the issue of heresy?
Question 5 -
When appointing a leader, which is more important; godly character or orthodox belief?