The last eighteen months have unveiled a great deal of ugly divisiveness within the church of Jesus Christ. Divisions and name-calling have raged in the broader Christian community over trivialities like wearing masks, approaches to gatherings, and the efficacy of vaccines and medications. The pandemic has revealed, in some ways, a dark side to Christianity.
To be sure, some conversations have been held in a gracious, God-honouring way, but far too many have not. It has been sad to witness this division for a few reasons, not the least of which is that petty divisions have distracted us from the real basis of our unity. We have divided over so many things that we have forgotten what constitutes real cause for division. Sometimes division is necessary within Christianity, but we must know what is and is not worth dividing over. Second John was written to help us in this regard.
John was concerned about a plague that was ravishing the churches that he so dearly cared for. But it was not a biological plague caused by a virus or bacteria; it was a spiritual plague caused by teaching that was opposed to Christ. It was not a plague that threatened loss of life in this world but a plague that threatened the loss of eternal life in the world to come. There was no debate over the treatment for the plague and no discussion about the effectiveness of vaccines. The cure was clear: truth. Joel Beeke is correct: “The central theme of this little epistle can be summarized in two words that are repeated throughout: the truth…. All of Christianity is grounded in the truth of the Word of God.”
John’s words are truth-filled. The content of the letter can be divided into four truth-filled sections. We will consider each of those sections in turn.
A Truth-filled Greeting
John establishes the burden of his letter immediately in the greeting. We find the word “truth” four times in the opening three verses:
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.
(2 John 1–3)
There is some debate surrounding the identity of the letter’s recipients. Some interpreters think that the word translated “lady” (kyria) is a proper name and identify the recipients as a Christian woman named Kyria and her children. Others think that the word translated “elect” (eklektos) is the woman’s name, although her sister would then have the same name (v. 13).
The Greek word kyria, however, is unusual and is used only in 2 John. It’s a feminine form of the Greek word kyrios, which is usually translated “Lord.” It might be interpreted as “the Lord’s lady.” I think it is more likely that John is addressing this letter to the Lord’s lady—that is, the Lord’s bride, a particular local church. If that is the case, then “her children” would be the members of the church, and her “elect sister” and her “children” would be a sister church and its members. I think John was therefore writing this letter to a particular local church and sending greetings from his own local church in the process.
John expresses great affection for this church because of his and its common interest in “the truth.” He knows that “all who know the truth” will similarly share affection for this church and its members.
Immediately, then, John establishes the basis of Christian love and fellowship: the truth. He highlights the reality that Christian fellowship and affection transcend commonalities. There are no doubt people in your church with whom you share a great of commonality. Perhaps you work in similar fields, or enjoy similar leisure activities, or play on similar socio-economic turf. Your personalities may be compatible and your ambitions aligned. You may find it easier to engage with those with whom you share such commonalities. But commonality is not the basis of Christian fellowship. Christian fellowship transcends such commonalities and roots itself in “the truth.” Since “the truth” in John’s letters has specific reference to the person and work of Christ, we conclude that Christians enjoy fellowship and experience affection because we share Christ in common. Christ enables our fellowship in a way that nothing else can.
It is an indictment on a church when it divides over things that are of lesser significance than the truth in Christ. Some time ago, a regular visitor to our church asked me if we were prepared to denounce 9Marks because one of its staff members had marched in a Black Lives Matter protest. I have seen division caused by different opinions on the vaccine, the effectiveness of Ivermectin, and the seriousness of COVID-19 as a disease. These are questions with which we have all wrestled to one degree or another, but it is a shameful thing for truth-embracing Christians to divide from other truth-embracing Christians over such matters. I did not abandon the faith when I went for my COVID-19 vaccine. My brother in Christ did not forsake the gospel by choosing Ivermectin over Pfizer. We can (and, in a right way, should) debate our views of science, medicine, education, and politics, but we can remain united in Christ despite these differences. As Steve Green sang a long time ago, “If in Christ we agree, let us seek unity: Let the walls come down!”
The point is simple: It is the truth about Christ that binds Christians to one another. We can disagree on all sorts of things but remain in loving fellowship if we agree in Christ. Secondary matters may give reason to prevent partnerships in certain ministries but there is often a difference between divided fellowship and divided ministry.
For example, a Presbyterian and a Baptist may be unable to work together in church planting because of very different views of church polity and the sacraments, but they can still enjoy fellowship with one another as Christians. As a Calvinist, I need not divide fellowship with an Arminian, though it might be difficult to co-pastor a church together. I have strongly-held eschatological views, but I need not divide fellowship with Christians who disagree.
But not every disagreement allows for such latitude. Regardless of their profession to be Christian, I cannot, for example, enjoy meaningful fellowship with a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon. The truth about Christ fundamentally divides us. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do not serve Jesus Christ as Christians do. The distinction in our understandings of Christ is sharp enough to warrant a clear divide. Those who preach another Christ are spreading the plague and we must avoid them.
A Truth-filled Exhortation
Second, we consider the truth-filled exhortation that John delivers to this church:
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.
(2 John 4–6)
John was deeply troubled by the false teaching that he saw running rampant in the churches he so dearly loved. At the same time, he found cause for great joy. Nothing brought him greater joy than to see churches and their members “walking in the truth.”
This is the heartbeat of any pastor worth his salt. Joy in pastoral ministry is found in seeing people walking in the truth. Christ’s undershepherds do not find their joy primarily in growing numbers, expansive buildings, or generous budgets. Pastors rejoice when they see Christians confronted with and walking in obedience to the truth. Pastors find great joy in seeing sinners submit to the gospel, young believers submit to baptism, and arguing Christians reconciled. They do not find joy in the “success” of their ministry but in the submission of Christ’s people to his commands.
Christians should learn to find joy in the same. It should give you greater joy to see your children following Christ than to see them excelling in their schoolwork or on the sport field. It should give you greater joy to see evidence of Christlikeness in your life than to realise the fulfilment of your career goals. It should give you greater joy to see your church imitate Christ than to see it beautify its building.
Conversely, we should look to give others joy by walking in the truth. Children, are you more concerned to impress your parents with exemplary schoolwork or ball skills than with Christlikeness? Your parents would probably far rather see you follow Christ than earn straight As (though no parent would object to both!). Church member, do you seek to bring joy to your leaders and your fellow church members by walking in the truth?
Lest we think that “the truth” means nothing more than theological orthodoxy, John goes on to explain exactly what “the truth” looks like. He employs a degree of circular reasoning to show the intimate relationship between the truth and love. Christ’s commandment, he says, is to love one another. Conversely, the evidence of love is obedience to Christ’s commandments. He shows here that obedience to Christ cannot be divorced from an affectionate relationship with his people. Love and truth are intimately connected.
In 2017, the Barna Group released the results of a study of the relationship between faith and church. One tenth of self-identifying Christians surveyed claimed that their faith was “very important” to them but that they had not attended church in the previous six months. These people claimed to love Jesus—to walk in the truth of who he is—but not his church. According to John, there is something deeply wrong there. To walk in Christ’s commandment is to love his people, and to love his people is to obey his commandment. His commands cannot be separated from his church.
When a church member reaches out to you to find out where you’ve been, you should be grateful. We are not interested in seeing people tick boxes. We are not promoting a legalistic faith in which church attendance guarantees favour with God. But we are recognising that love for God cannot be separated from love for God’s people. If you claim to love God but show complete disdain for his church, you are not walking in the truth. And faithful Christians are grieved when fellow church members do not walk in the truth.
Are you walking in the truth? One way to answer that question is to examine your relationship with the church. Are you eager to gather with the body on the Lord’s Day? Are you a faithful member of a Grace Group? Are you looking for opportunities for Christian fellowship outside of formal church ministries? With John, let me say, “I ask you … love one another.”
A Truth-filled Warning
The third thing we note in this text is a truth-filled warning.
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.
(2 John 7–11)
John issues a warning against embracing false teaching. To continue with the plague metaphor, embracing false teaching is like rejecting the medical counsel of your doctor in favour of unproven home remedies. It does nothing to arrest the plague and, in point of fact, only makes it worse. The counsel we need to combat deceivers is laid out in the apostolic writings and if we reject the apostolic testimony, we reject God’s cure for the plague.
John warns of “deceivers” who promote their teaching as truth but ultimately “do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.” These deceivers claimed to have the cure for the plague of sin but, because they rejected the truth, were in fact guilty of promoting rather than preventing the plague.
It is evident from these words that John was writing about the same false teachers as those he countered in 1 John. These deceivers preached a different Christ and the consequences of believing their lies were dire.
These deceivers had “gone out into the world.” Ordinarily, John uses the word “world” to describe the unbelieving world, as distinct from the truth-embracing church. These deceivers, in other words, had left the church because their teaching was incompatible with what was taught in the church. This is always a warning to heed. If those to whose teaching you are listening are forced to leave the church because their teaching is incompatible with the church’s doctrine, be careful. This is not to suggest that any one church has perfect doctrine, but someone who must depart from the church in order to further his or her teaching is someone of whom you should be careful. It is often helpful to know that a teacher has a church connection before giving them your ear.
I recently listened to a podcast episode in which former Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) star Alisa Childers interviewed some of her CCM contemporaries who had remained faithful to historic Christianity in the face of many who have abandoned the faith. Specifically, she interviewed Skillet’s John and Korey Cooper and Jeremy and Adrienne Camp and asked them the question, “Why do you still believe?”
As they talked about why they had not deconstructed from historic Christianity, while so many CCM artists around them seem to be doing so, a common thread emerged. In the experience of all five people on the podcast, they recalled being thrust into the world of CCM, where they were promoted as public figures and, to a degree, authorities within the Christian community but where the question of connection to a local church was never raised. Far too many of the CCM artists who have abandoned the faith, they said, had no meaningful connection to a church and therefore no spiritual authority speaking into their lives. For them, membership in a community of faith kept them rooted to historic Christianity.
One of the things I have learned from my pastor is to always tie your identity as a Christian to your identity as a church member. When he is invited to speak somewhere, he asks to be introduced as a member of Brackenhurst Baptist Church who is privileged to serve as its pastor. As Christians, who are concerned to walk in the truth, we should always keep the need for church membership in the forefront of our minds, because it is in the context of church membership that our love for and commitment to the truth is lived out.
John’s warning in these verses includes a warning against embracing false teachers and thereby lending credit to their teaching. “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” (vv. 10–11).
In the early centuries of the new covenant church, travelling Christian teachers relied on the hospitality of church members. In the ancient Roman world, inns were frequently known to be places of ill repute, which faithful Christian teachers would rather avoid. It was essential, then, that church members be willing to open their homes in a display of Christian hospitality to travelling preachers. John commended this practice (as is evident from 3 John) but warned that hospitable church members must be cautious as to how and to whom they showed hospitality.
Christian hospitality is good and commendable, but if someone came preaching another Christ, the church members should not show hospitality. John does not mean that it is wrong to enter into discussion with a Jehovah’s Witness or invite a Mormon to your house to reason with them about the faith. His warning is closer to cautioning against inviting a false teacher to stay overnight, preach at your church the next day, and inviting the church to support his ministry. To offer wholehearted support to a false teacher is to “take part in his wicked works.” To wholeheartedly endorse the teaching of a heretic is to participate in spreading his heresy.
It must again be stressed that John offers a rather narrow definition of what a false teacher is: those who “do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.” Anyone who undermines apostolic teaching on the person and work of Christ is a deceiver who is to be avoided. The Didache, a second-century manual on Christian living a church practice, expanded a little to help its readers identify false teachers:
Now, you should welcome anyone who comes your way and teaches you all we have been saying. But if the teacher proves himself a renegade and by teaching otherwise contradicts all this, pay no attention to him…. Now about the apostles and prophets: Act in line with the Gospel precept. Welcome every apostle on arriving, as if he were the Lord. But he must not stay beyond one day. In case of necessity, however, the next day too. If he stays three days, he is a false prophet…. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.
The Didache here presents a fourfold test by which to gauge whether someone is a false prophet: (1) if he is a “renegade” (i.e. not sent under the authority of a local church); (2) if he contradicts apostolic teaching; (3) if he stays too long; and (4) if he demands money. However you think about these specific tests, it is clear that we should be on our guard against false teaching and false teachers. We should not embrace every claim to Christian truth without discernment.
At the same time, it is important to note that discernment, according to John, looks like testing what a person teaches about Christ. We are not called to discernment ministries in which every miniscule element of a person’s doctrine is brought under fire and exposed as false teaching. We call out false teaching when it clearly undermines apostolic authority and promotes a false christ.
A Truth-filled Longing
Finally, John concludes with a truth-filled longing: “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” (vv. 12–13).
While the word “truth” is not found in these verses, we can clearly identify the link to truth. John had earlier tied truth to loving God’s people (vv. 5–6). Now, he expresses his love once again for God’s people. He desperately wanted to see them. The technology of his day (pen and parchment) was useful but a poor excuse for face-to-face fellowship. He could write to them, and they could write back, but he knew that it wasn’t the same. There was no substitute for face-to-face fellowship.
We live in a day in which this is a real challenge for us. It is far too easy to get comfortable behind our screens, from which we can log on, listen to a sermon, and log off again. Live-streaming is helpful and, at this stage, necessary, but it is no substitute for face-to-face fellowship. The Reformers held that a true church is marked by three things: (1) the word of God rightly taught; (2) the ordinances rightly administered; and (3) discipline rightly enacted. You might argue that the word can be taught via live-streaming, but the ordinances cannot be rightly administered or discipline rightly enacted in the absence of face-to-face gathering.
Do you share John’s longing for face-to-face fellowship? If you do, it is a good sign that you are walking in the truth. If not, ask God to reignite in your heart a desire for gathered worship.
During the London outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1665–66, nearly twenty percent of the city’s inhabitants were casualties of the disease. This was, in large measure, due to an incorrect diagnosis of the disease and therefore a faulty application of the cure. The disease was carried by rats (or, specifically, rat fleas), but authorities then believed that the disease was airborne. Prevailing medical opinion was that the disease must be combatted in the air, which led to all-day fires, scented substances, and even encouragement to smoke tobacco. Thousands of people died, particularly in rat-infested slums. It was eventually the Great Fire of London in 1666 that eradicated the disease by destroying the infected rat population.
In a biological pandemic, a wrong diagnosis and therefore wrongly-applied treatment can be disastrous. This is even truer spiritually. Second John helps us to diagnose the dangerous plague of false teaching and offers the God-approved cure of truth. We can debate the efficacy of vaccines and the benefits of Ivermectin all we want to combat COVID-19. But let us never compromise on the truth about Jesus Christ and thereby fall prey to a far more deadly plague, which threatens life for all eternity.