Walking in Truth and Love
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
The Apostle John is probably best known for his love for the LORD and for the early church that grew around the region of Ephesus. Following his 18-month exile on the island of Patmos, ordered by the Roman emperor Domitian, he returned to Ephesus with the experience of the revelation that is recorded in the Revelation of John. It is from here that John also wrote the Gospel of John and the three epistles, 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John. These latter epistles were open letters that were written to the churches to encourage them and to better equip them to resist the destructive efforts of many heretics who worked to distract them and direct them away from the truth of the Gospel.
The chronology of the letters is largely unknown. There is little, if anything, that can be derived from the order of the letters. This second letter is the second shortest book in the New Testament with less than 250 words in the Greek text. Despite its brevity, its message is both important and clear: walk in truth, love one another, and reject heresy.
2 John 1a. The elder unto the elect lady and her children, …
John opens the letter with the typical Roman/Greek formula that includes the identity of the sender, the identity of the receiver, and an opening greeting, or blessing, that sets the context for the remainder of the text.
The Elder is the Apostle John. The authorship of this letter was undisputed in the early church. Since John wrote late in the period of the Apostles, he was a contemporary of a few of the early historians who affirm the source of the Johannine epistles from first-hand testimony.
John was known in the early church as “The elder,” a title given to one who is both aged in years and respected for wisdom. As the last of the Apostles, John was highly respected by the early church, and they tended to take his teaching, much of which was in writing, quite seriously. Though we have three personal letters from John’s hand, his prolific writing that is evident in both the gospel and the Revelation may lead us to speculate that John wrote many letters.
The letter is addressed to the “elect lady” or “chosen lady.” The Greek word that is rendered lady is not gyne, meaning woman. It is the word kuria, referring to a highly repected woman who has the primary influence over a region. The masculine form of this word is often rendered, lord. The thought of “the LORD and His Lady” is an appropriate way of understanding this language usage. Though there have been several opinions expressed as to the identity of this woman, with some attempting to affix the identity to a single individual, when a few contextual arguments are considered, her identity is no longer a mystery.
As we continue reading the letter, we will find that her children are the individual members of the Christian church. John makes considerable use of this feminine metaphor in his Apocalypse when he refers to the church as the Bride of Christ.
This would lead us to hold that the Lady is the universal church of Jesus Christ, and her children are her spiritual offspring. This is the position held by most writers today, and was also held by the early historians.
Consequently, this is a letter from John to the church, making it as relevant today as it was when John wrote it to the family of fellowships in and around ancient Ephesus.
2 John 1b. … whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth;
There is no question that John’s agape love for the church overflowed from his heart. He gave himself to the LORD, serving Him by serving the church. He loved the church as he loved the LORD. John notes that the foundation for his love for them is the truth of the gospel. His love for them is not expressed as an effort to get something from them as the heretics do. He is not bringing to them a new gospel to consider. His love for them is pure and brings with it all of the prayers, the hopes, and the desires that would motivate him to do anything in his power to encourage, strengthen, and build the fellowships.
If some in the congregation think that they are on their own as they struggle against the worldly culture within which they are immersed, John reminds them that there is a faithful body of believers that join him in their love for the church. There are many others who are facing the same challenges and are overcoming them.
2 John 2. For the truth's sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us forever.
Part of the purpose of John’s letter is to defend the truth of God’s Word in a world that continually works to destroy it. John reminds his readers that the truth of God’s Word is written in the heart of every believer. The words he uses could be rendered “lives within us.” The truth of God’s Word is not some dead poem, but a live and powerful work of God. As God is eternal, His Word is eternal, a truth that defends the LORD’s promise of eternal salvation: His Spirit will remain in the heart of the faithful forever. When the elect find themselves before the final judgment before God, they will not be alone. The Holy Spirit will still be living in them, and will serve as a testimony to the voracity of their faith.
2 John 3. Grace be with you, mercy, and peace, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.
The blessing that John uses to start this letter is similar to that used by Paul in several of his letters. This formula uses words that are very similar to the traditional words in secular Greek and Roman letters, but uses subtly different forms of those words to present an encouraging Christian message.
The Greek word that is rendered grace is charis. Where the similar word that would be used by a Roman would refer to the “favor of the gods,” this word specifically refers to the unmerited favor that one receives from the LORD. God’s grace encompasses every holy act that the LORD does on the behalf of those he loves.
God’s mercy is a fruit of His grace. The Greek word is elos, and refers to works of compassion, including His plan of the forgiveness and reconciliation of a rebellious people.
The word for peace, eirene, is the Greek transliteration of a Hebrew term which emphasizes a complete well-being. By drawing from both the Greek and Hebrew lexicon, John’s opening serves to bridge the gap between the two quite diverse cultures.
Finally, John’s salutation makes the foundation of his message clear: the blessings that John pronounces are not from him, but rather from God the Father, and the LORD Jesus Christ. His presentation of Jesus as the Messiah (Christ) and the Son of God is made immediately without compromise as he is writing to a fellowship that has been attacked by heretics who deny the person and purpose of Jesus, Christ.
John again repeats the formula, truth and love. The heresy that he is confronting demonstrates neither truth nor love. This will be the major theme of this short letter.
2 John 4. I rejoiced greatly that I found of thy children walking in truth, as we have received a commandment from the Father.
Though John may not be able to visit every faith fellowship and get to know them personally, he does listen to reports from the various groups and is pleased to know that there is a significant remnant who are faithful to the LORD, striving to live godly lives, and holding to the truth of God’s Word in their beliefs, in their attitudes, and in their actions. Though not necessarily perfect people, they strive to be obedient to the LORD, trying to keep the primacy of the gospel in all they do.
A church fellowship is truly blessed when it is this faithful core group who lead the church body. The early church was under attack by those who hold different cultural and religious beliefs, and often those who profess such false teachings were influential in the fellowships, leading them away from the truth. Consequently, John’s words were meant to encourage the faithful remnant, particularly those who felt that they were unable to overcome the influence of the heretics.
The church has always been under attack as it is immersed in a world that is a puppet of the lord of darkness. This conflict produces much harm in the fellowship when spiritual and/or social battles break out. Relationships between members of the church are strained and broken, people who are of marginal faith, or who do not understand the conflict can become disillusioned with the church altogether and walk away from the only true source of peace and joy in this world. When the faithful start using the same tactics in the conflict that are used by the lost world, everyone loses as love and forgiveness is replaced by anger, frustration, and division.
This was happening in the early church, and John simply sends a message to those who are trying to hold to godliness that their efforts are known and appreciated.
2 John 5. And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.
This statement is a recurring theme in John’s letters. The work of the world and the heretics it creates can easily lead the church away from the truth that they already know. John is not trying to teach them any new method of godliness, as is often the practice of heretical leadership. He does not offer them a “new gospel” that is better than the old one. He does not give them additional tools with which to resist the influence of heresy. John’s belief in the voracity of God’s Word is unshakable. All that is needed to turn away from the influence of heresy is to turn back to the original gospel that they were taught at the beginning, a gospel of love, forgiveness, and restoration.
The people do not need a “new gospel.” There is no need to create a new gospel in order to meet the needs of a changing culture. “Worship is no longer worship when it reflects the culture around us more than Christ within us.” The pressure on the early church to assimilate its surrounding pagan culture was tremendous, as it still is today.
John reminds the church that the commandment that forms the basis of all godly behavior is that they are to love each other with the pure, unconditional, agape love of God.
2 John 6. And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.
The word that is rendered, “walk,” is instructive. A person’s walk is demonstrated by the product of those beliefs, attitudes, and actions that reflect the nature of their true heart. It is a consistent behavioral pattern that demonstrates no hypocrisy.
Note that this definition is independent of the nature or context of one’s world-view. One can be sincerely ungodly in their walk, and do so by consistently demonstrating the true nature of their heart, and doing so with no mixture of hypocrisy.
Since every person is unique, every person’s “walk” is unique. Though people do share similar world-views, no two people share an identical world-view. Given such variety, how is one to “walk” in obedience to the LORD? John simply states that people of faith are to “walk” after His commandments.
When we think of walking, we think of taking the journey one step at a time. Every step in the journey involves a deliberate choice. We choose the direction of our walk. We choose the rapidity of our steps. We choose the way we circumvent obstacles or take advantage of assistance. The godly life is one where each step in our walk is positively informed by the Word of God. Again, as John makes this point, he is quick to remind his readers that this is not a new teaching, but is the same that was taught by Jesus from the beginning of the formation of the Christian church.
The phrase “should walk” forms one of the few imperatives in John’s epistles. If one is to overcome the influences of the evil one in this world, in the church, and in their own lives, it is imperative that that their beliefs, attitudes, and actions are continually submitted to the Word of God without compromise.
2 John 7. For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.
It can be very difficult to remain focused on the mark of the high calling of Christ when one is immersed in worldly conflict. The first step in finding peace in such a conflict is to first recognize heresy and ungodly behavior, and refuse to give it authority. John reminds the church fellowship that they are surrounded by many who work to deceive others, people who do not teach the truths of the gospel, and can be very convincing in their arguments. There were some influential heretics in the church that were denying the true nature of Jesus Christ. An influential system of heresy taught that since God is Holy and the world is sinful. Because of this Jesus could not have been human, for to take on the nature of humanity, the Christ would be taking on the nature of sin. Though this might sound like reasonable human logic, the LORD is not subject to human logic. Those who deny that Jesus was both the Messiah and a human, fully God, yet fully man, were presenting a false gospel.
John describes those who would lead the church away from the truth as an “antichrist.” This is simply one who stands against Christ, one who would lead people away from Christ instead of leading them to Him. John is literally imploring the people to recognize these who are leading them away from the truth and to reject their authority and their teaching.
2 John 8. Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward.
There is a significant consequence to wandering away from the truth. The first is a broken relationship with the LORD as we give authority that He deserves to other individuals, groups, or ideologies. The commission of sin introduces yet another wide range of negative consequences that impact our relationships with the LORD, with others, and can serve to compromise our own health, safety, and welfare as well as that of others.
John speaks of losing some of the reward that the LORD intends for the faithful. This can easily be understood as a loss of many of the blessings that the LORD has provided for those who live in submission to Him, blessings that include peace and joy, love-based relationships with others, and even protection from the consequences of those sins that we would otherwise commit.
John calls upon the members of the conflicted church to look deeply into their own hearts where the Holy Spirit is there to guide, direct, comfort, and instruct. It is there that they will find the truth that they were taught in the beginning, and it is there that they will find the illumination that will expose the heretics for who they are.
2 John 9. Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.
Those who are seeking to undermine the work of the gospel in the body of believers are clearly exposed by the illumination of the Holy Spirit when one looks closely at their lives, their behavior, and their teachings through the filter of His Word. Certainly, all believers fall into transgression, and the love of the LORD serves to promote forgiveness and reconciliation when this happens. However, the word for transgression that is used here refers to a lifestyle of transgression, not the simple missing of the mark that is common to people of faith. When one lives a lifestyle of transgression, rejecting the teaching of the Word of God in order to defend their behavior, they are not reflecting God in their lives, and their authority should be rejected. These are not abiding, or “living” in the doctrine of Christ since they choose to live a life that is not positively informed by it. These do not have the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit in their hearts. They lack the salvation that God offers, and do not have a relationship with the LORD.
In a dramatic contrast to the character of the heretics, John encourages the faithful by pointing out that those who do live in submission and agreement with the doctrine (or teachings) of the LORD do have the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and their relationship with God is secure.
2 John 10-11. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: 11For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.
Much of the conflict and error that took place in the early church, an error that is replicated today, comes from the failure of the church to reject the influence of those who fail to demonstrate the true love of Christ and fail to follow in obedience to God’s word. Many Christians will avoid the conflict that is necessary to remove such people from influence in the body, citing the desire to demonstrate patience and love. However, we might be reminded of Jesus’ dramatic cleansing of the Temple when He chased the merchants out of the court of the Temple.
When we fail to address heresy and ungodliness in the church, its influence only grows. The phrase “bid him God speed” is a statement that implies that one’s journey, or walk, is in agreement with the LORD. It is a statement that implies that the behavior and teaching of the heretic is acceptable to the body. The truth of the gospel was being infiltrated, compromised, and replaced by the worldly doctrines that were entering the body. We can easily see the same pattern today as behaviors and ideas that are clearly contrary to God’s Word are becoming increasingly accepted by the church in the name of tolerance, peace, acceptance, and any other litany of nice words that are used as euphemisms to hide the black sin that is heresy.
John clearly warns the church: DO NOT RECEIVE THIS PERSON OR HIS/HER DOCTRINE INTO YOUR HOUSE. If the church is entirely dependent upon the LORD this is not a big issue. However, when the church becomes dependent upon any other source, whether it be the work of an individual, a few people, or even the larger government, it may find itself accepting of those that it is called to reject. The wholesale blessing of homosexuality by the church is a prime, and certainly controversial example of bringing this form of heretical doctrine into the fellowship.
John states that to partake of such heresies in the church is to become a part of them. When a person of faith blesses that which is ungodly, they share in the consequences of that ungodliness. Stated more clearly, when a person of faith blesses that which is sin, they share in the consequences of that sin.
2 John 12-13. Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full. 13The children of thy elect sister greet thee. Amen.
We do not have any indication of any reason for the brevity of this letter, but despite its diminutive length, its message is clear and important. John clearly intends say much more, and hopes to do so in person as he visits the churches in the area. We may speculate that such visits were made, and took place frequently.
John wrote this letter to address a very specific need in the early church: the erosion of the belief in and the practice of the Word of God in the fellowships due to their gradually increasing acceptance of heretical teaching. John intended to provide correction by reminding the fellowships of the truth of God’s Word that was taught to them in the beginning, and providing words of correction that would empower them to reject the false teachers and their doctrine, and return to the truth.
John’s message is as relevant today as it was almost 2000 years ago. Like the early church, the church today is under attack by the same three worldly sources: the hedonistic, humanistic, and ungodly pagan culture within which it is immersed; the ungodliness that is often present in organized religion; and the ungodliness that is found in the local church.
John calls upon every believer to recognize heresy, reject it, and work to return the body of Christ back to the truth of God’s Word that it has known from the beginning. There is no “new gospel.” There is no new or better way to find reconciliation with God. There is no new method of worship or religious practice. The gospel is simple: place your faith and trust in God and sincerely seek to follow Him in obedience as your LORD and Savior. He is to be the only LORD of your heart, and the Holy Spirit is to be the only authoritative interpreter of God’s Word.
As we go about the practice of “church” let us always discern the experience through the filter of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Let us have the wisdom and courage to reject heresy and ungodliness and take a stand when its influence enters the body, doing so in a manner that will remove the influence from the body while seeking restoration with those who are caught in its power. Then, as we cleanse the body of this form of unrighteousness, we can all find ourselves closer to experiencing all of the blessings that God intends for us, both as a body of believers and as individuals. When this happens we can look with expectation to the promise of the LORD to shower us with His blessings.