This morning we're going to look together at one of the shortest books in the Bible—2 John. This is a text that has always fascinated me. Its message is focused and emphatic. It's also a very simple message—even though lots of Christians seem to miss it. Here's the central message of this epistle: We who love Christ, love His truth, and love His people are not to lend aid and comfort to people who are avowed enemies of truth—especially false prophets, deceitful teachers, phony apostles, or missionaries for some religious cause other than the true gospel of Christ. They often use the name of Christ but preach a different gospel or a different Christ.
Christian charity and the duties of unity and brotherhood do not demand that we show honor or hospitality indiscriminately to everyone who claims fidelity to Christ. In fact, there are many deceivers in the world who call themselves Christians while promoting the agenda of antiChrist. We need to learn to discern who they are, and authentic love—not the sentimental modern notion of love, but true, biblical love—forbids us to take part with them in their wicked works. That's the whole point of 2 John.
The importance of this epistle is huge, especially compared to its small size. It's only 13 verses total. Third John has 14 verses but slightly fewer words. So going by the Greek text, 3 John is the shortest book in the Bible. Second John is only a few words longer. The second and third epistles of John are similar in both length and style. Both of them are personal epistles, addressed, evidently, to specific individuals rather than whole congregations of believers. Like Paul's epistle to Philemon—these are short, personal, one-page, single-chapter letters, acutely focused and straight to the point.
I myself prefer to write one-page letters—mainly because I have the printer pre-loaded with letterhead for page 1, and if there's a page 2, you have to change the paper in the printer. So I try to keep my letters brief and to the point. Sometimes more complex issues necessitate longer letters. But sometimes, when a large issue seems complex and confusing, the best way to deal with it is to be direct, concise, and straight to the point. That's what John does here.
In fact, I think that's what intrigues me most about 2 John. The apostle takes a complex but critical issue and deals with it in a concise, compact, yet definitive way. It's a profound piece of writing, giving us a very important epistle that is sadly sometimes neglected because it is so brief.
In just a minute, I'm going to read the epistle. But before I do, I want to point out several things to watch for while I read. First, two key words stand out in the opening verses of this text: love and truth. He mentions love four times in the first six verses, and he mentions truth five times in the first four verses. Recognizing those key expressions is the key to understanding what the epistle is about.
Second, pay attention to one other word that stands out because of repeated use at the start of this epistle. It's the verb walk. John uses various forms of the verb "to walk" three times in verses 4-6, and he links it with both love and truth. You have the expression "walking in the truth" in the middle of verse 4; and then verse 6 talks about how "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." What's the commandment? verse 5: "that we love one another." So walk in that commandment: walk in love. And walk in the truth. Those aren't two different paths, but two sets of parallel boundaries that mark the one narrow way every believer is supposed to stay on.
The stress on obeying commandments is a third thing I want to you to see.
"His Commandments" is a reference to the commandments of Christ—or to borrow John's full expression from verse 4, "Jesus Christ the Father's Son." To walk in love and walk in truth is to walk in obedience to Christ and His commandments. And all Jesus' commandments are summarized and embodied in the one New Commandment Jesus gave in John 13:34. The New Commandment is a running theme in John's writings. He mentions it, for example, in 1 John 2:7-8, and now he reiterates it here in 2 John 5: "not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another." That's the overarching commandment he wants this woman to walk in. All the other commandments of Christ are simply specific applications of the principle of love.
Remember that Jesus Himself said the first and second great commandments are both about love: love for God and love for one's neighbor. In other words, to walk in love is to walk in the commandments, and vice versa. And to walk in the commandments is o walk in the truth. These are complementary, not contradictory, ideas. Love and truth go hand in hand; they do not oppose one another. That fact alone debunks one of the greatest falsehoods of the current postmodern generation: far from being incompatible, truth and love are essential partners in righteousness.
And the apostle John clearly sees it as the duty of every Christian to walk in truth and to walk in love. Throughout this epistle it is as if he is emphatically refusing to portray those as conflicting duties. You can't fulfill one without the other. You cannot genuinely walk in love unless you are also walking in truth; and you cannot walk in truth unless you are also walking in love. Love and truth, though distinct virtues, are inextricably linked with such a symbiotic relationship that you cannot neglect one without destroying the other. How that works out in practical terms is the whole theme of this short epistle.
Now watch for those themes as I read it. Here's the whole epistle, thirteen verses, start to finish:
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 that abides in us and will be with us forever:
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.
4 I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father.
5 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.
6 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. [That's his address and introduction. Now we have the meat of his message:]
7 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.
8 Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.
9 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.
10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting,
11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
12 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.
13 The children of your elect sister greet you.
Several questions immediately come to mind: Who is this elect lady? What does John mean when he calls himself "the elder"? What prompts him to deal with this topic—a question that is important to every church in every age—and yet he writes about it in a very short personal letter addressed to a singular individual, and a woman, no less?
Let's consider those questions, because it will help us better understand the context in which the apostle is writing. And by the way, there's no real question about the author of this epistle, even though he never gives his name. John never named himself in his gospel account, either. When the flow of the narrative in the gospel of John made it necessary for John to mention himself, he always referred to himself as "another disciple"—or (as he does four times in John 20 and once in John 18) "the other disciple." And, of course, the name we best remember John for, used four times in John 19-21, "the disciple whom Jesus loved." So enthralled was John with the idea that Jesus loved him—that's how he liked to refer to himself in order to keep his own name out of the narrative while keeping Jesus in the center of it: "the disciple whom Jesus loved."
Here, writing many years after he wrote his gospel, he calls himself "the elder." We know this is John because the style, vocabulary, and subject matter are exactly the same as 1 John. The style and phrasing as well as the content and logic of this epistle likewise contain strong echoes of the gospel of John. The fourth gospel and the three epistles starting with 1 John were clearly penned by the same mind, and the internal evidence proves it was John.
The gospel of John practically begins with John's eyewitness testimony harkening back to the transfiguration (John 1:14): "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." First John begins with similar eyewitness testimony, harkening back (this time) to the post-resurrection appearances of Christ (verse 1 of 1 John 1): "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life."
Just as the gospel of John and 1 John bear those marks of commonality, in a similar way 1 John and 2 John clearly came from the same mind and the same pen. In fact, everything in 2 John is an echo of the larger themes of 1 John, until you get down to verses 10-11. Those two verses are the only new ideas in 2 John that have not already been covered by 1 John.
And it seems to me that the unique content of verses 10-11 reveal John's primary motive in writing. This is the main point he wants to convey to this woman—verses 10-11. And we'll look closely at those two verses before the end of the hour. But the point here is that the internal evidence suggests not only that the apostle John was the author, but also that he wrote it after his first epistle—perhaps to clarify a point left unspoken in that epistle, or (most likely) to answer a question that had been prompted by the first epistle.
And here in typical Johannine fashion, rather than writing his name, John calls himself "the elder." The Greek word is presbuteros, and it functions exactly like the English word "elder." It can refer to an office in the church, of course. It was also often used in the Jewish culture as a title of respect and veneration for men in high positions of spiritual leadership. Members of the Sanhedrin, for example, are called "elders" several times in the gospel accounts. But the word's primary and fundamental meaning, of course, is "one who is advanced in age." At the time this epistle was written, the word "elder" in any or all of those senses would apply to the apostle John. He was well advanced in age by the time he wrote the epistles. He was the last of the twelve original apostles to die. although he was hounded and persecuted and imprisoned and sent into exile, the record of early eyewitness testimony records that he alone of the Twelve Apostles was not martyred. He lived well into his 90s and died of old age, most likely around 98 BC—after a long lifetime of faithful ministry, giving pastoral oversight to the church at Ephesus, then living in exile on the island of Patmos. I've been to Patmos, and it's about 13 square miles, less than a quarter-mile wide at its narrowest point in the middle. It's far enough off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean sea that you couldn't get to the mainland by swimming. It's barren—not the kind of place you would want to be exiled without an Internet connection. But in his old age John was sent there by Rome. He was apparently consigned to a remote cave on a mountainside at the edge of this tiny island. He was by then the last surviving apostle, universally well known and highly respected in the church, to the extent that the Roman government considered him a serious threat. So he was exiled to this out-of-the-way place.
In this epistle John makes no mention of Patmos or its hardships, so it was most likely written from Ephesus, near the end of John's ministry there, just before he was sent into exile. He was a very old man already, as the name he gives himself implies. "Elder," of course, is also an office in the church. Presbuteros. If John is using it as a title rather than a reference to his advanced age—or even if he has both ideas in mind—this likewise would suggest that he is writing from Ephesus, where he is still serving, in effect, as senior pastor.
It's not clear whom he is writing to or where he is sending this letter. Some think "the elect lady and her children" is a cryptic reference to a congregation—not an individual woman, but an entire church collectively. Others think it was a specific woman whose actual name was Electa.
But the most natural and least problematic view is that it's a prominent woman who was well-known throughout the early church. Perhaps she was a woman who cared for orphans, and that would explain the dual reference to her "children." He addresses the epistle "to the elect lady and her children"—as if her children were home with her. Then in verse 4 he says, "I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth"—as if he had encountered some of them in his travels, no longer living under her roof. She might have had a large family of her own, or she may have taken in orphans. There's no way to know for sure, but these references—and the theme of the whole epistle—makes perfect sense if we assume this was a prominent woman with the gift of hospitality and with access to sufficient resources that she used her home as a kind of hospitality center for the church in some populated crossroads or key city somewhere in the Roman Empire. He doesn't identify the woman by name or city, not only (perhaps) because she was sufficiently well-known in the church, but also because naming her might subject her to Roman scrutiny or extra persecution from those who were so eager to get the apostle himself out of the way.
But it doesn't matter because his ultimate audience is not this singular individual. He has more than her in mind as he writes, because the second-person pronouns are plural. You see it even in English in verse 8: "Watch yourselves." Plural. He obviously wants her to share this epistle with others, possibly even circulate it to multiple churches. That's certainly what happened with the epistle, and what the Holy Spirit intended, because it found its way into our canon. And that means the message of this short epistle applies to you and me as well.
And at the end of the day, the identity of this woman and other background details are not what's important about this epistle. The message is. It's a clear message with just two points: First (verses 1-5) he encourages her to walk in truth by manifesting the love of Christ. Then (verses 6-13) he urges her to manifest the love of Christ by safeguarding truth. His central point is that love and truth are perfectly symbiotic and inseparable. My former pastor, Warren Wiersbe, used to say, "Love without truth is hypocrisy; truth without love is brutality." I've often said that either virtue without its mate is merely a pretense. Truth without love has no power; love without truth has no character. Try to separate truth from love or vice versa, and you destroy both virtues.
So let's look at the Apostle's two points in the order he makes them. First, (verses 1-5):
Walk in truth by manifesting the love of Christ
I'm sure you are aware that there are people who claim to be defending the truth by spewing hate. You see them on the news from time to time—people who plaster hate-filled messages on placards and picket funerals or otherwise target people in distress in a purposely hostile way—and who think they are doing God a favor by acting that way. They are usually religious fanatics who are so enthralled with the themes of human guilt and divine wrath and the curse of the law and eternal punishment that they never talk about anything else.
I went to the Rose parade a few years ago and there was a noisy group of religious miscreants who were marching along the parade route with signs that said "God Kills"; "God is Angry"; and "Jesus Caused [September 11]." I've challenged some of these people and spoken with them directly. They despise any mention of God's love, and they hold their neighbors in high contempt. The attitude they embody is the polar opposite of loving your neighbor as yourself.
What they are doing has absolutely nothing to do with truth, except that it makes a mockery of truth and brings a reproach in the eyes of the world against anyone who genuinely loves the truth. At best, these people with their protest-signs are proclaiming half-truths, and Satan himself—the father of lies—is a master at doing that.
To declare a truth (especially a partial truth) in an unloving way and with unloving motives is frankly to assault the truth. Hatred, arrogance, and contempt for one's neighbors are the fruits of falsehood and human pride. Those things have nothing whatsoever to do with truth.
Indeed, the singular, distinctive fruit of the truth is love—compassionate love; brotherly love; humble, warm-hearted, self-giving love; the kind of love embodied in the sacrifice of Christ (John 15:13): "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." And love is therefore the supreme test of whether we are really walking in truth. First John 2:10-11: "Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes"; 1 John 3:14-15: "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him"; 1 John 4:8: "Anyone who does not love does not know God." And 1 John 4:20: "If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar." The truth is not in you at all if there is no love in you.
So love is the fruit and the evidence that we are truly walking in the light. And John makes that very point in the opening verses of this second epistle. He writes "to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth." I read a few commentators who discussed whether this might have been a widow with whom the elder John actually had a romantic relationship. I think it's obvious that is not the case. There's nothing sensual about the love he expresses toward her. In fact, he makes a point of saying that this woman and her children are beloved by everyone who knows the truth. Verses 1-2: "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." So his and everyone else's love for this woman is a love rooted in and flowing from truth—specifically, "the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever."
That, I think, is a deliberately ambiguous expression that embodies both the truth of Scripture and the indwelling Spirit of Christ. Christ Himself is "the way, and the truth, and the life"—truth incarnate (John 14:6)—in us and with us forever. But that expression ("the truth that abides in us") surely also encompasses the truth of Scripture—God's Word in written form. It's all the "word of Christ [that dwells in us] richly" (to borrow an expression from Colossians 3:16).
If the truth genuinely indwells you, the primary fruit it produces will be love. And anyone who genuinely loves the truth of God will also love the people of God, because love itself is the very pinnacle of divine truth. "Anyone who does not love does not know God." And (1 John 4:11) "if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."
So, John says to this woman, I and all who love the truth love you because of the truth—for the truth's sake.
And repeatedly, deliberately in those opening verses, he keeps tying the words love and truth together. Far from seeing these as adversarial concepts, John steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the existence of one apart from the other. Love without truth is not true love at all; it's a sinful sentimentality—a mushy, mawkish, idolatrous form of self-exaltation. And as we've seen, truth divorced from love is half-truth, just a thinly-disguised, devilish lie. The very notion of truth without love is about as far from biblical truth as it's possible to get.
And John is encouraging this woman to keep the proper perspective. Esteem both virtues as absolutely essential. The elect lady is evidently someone given to hospitality, as we shall see. And John encourages the proper expression of that gift by reminding her that Jesus gave us this solemn new commandment: "that we love one another."
Now, you might ask, "How is that a new commandment?" It's really a restatement of the Second Great Commandment: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." It's a summary of the second table of the law, which spells out our duty with regard to our neighbors: "Honor your father and your mother . . . [don't] murder[; don't] commit adultery[; don't] steal[; don't] bear false witness against your neighbor[; and don't] covet your neighbor's house . . . wife . . . or anything that is your neighbor's." You can break it down into specifics like the Ten Commandments or the 613 specific commandments in Moses' Law, but if you take a simple birds-eye view of the law, in the words of Galatians 4:14, "The whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" Or Romans 13:8: "The one who loves another has fulfilled the law." Love was the whole point of the law in the first place. So how is this a "new commandment?"
Jesus himself referred to it as "a new commandment" in John 13:34-35: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
The commandment is "new" in the sense that Jesus is renewing it, restating it, releasing it in a new, fresh edition, and teaching us to give it a new place of prominence in our thinking. This is a New Covenant, and this time the commandment to love one another comes complete with a new and perfect example to follow. "Love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." Here's what authentic love looks like. That kind of stark clarity, embodied in a living example, is a new feature.
But it's also an old commandment, the same one we have heard from the beginning. John himself refers to the old/new paradox in 1 John 2. Verse 7, he writes, "Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning." Then in the very next verse, he adds, "At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you." So it's both an old commandment and a new one. And there in 1 John 2, after making that point, the apostle goes on to urge them to love the brethren, guard the truth, and walk in obedience.
He seems to pick up those very same threads of thought here in 2 John. This is why I think 2 John may have been prompted by questions this lady asked him after reading the first epistle. She seems confused about how to apply both love and truth in proper balance. Which takes priority: love for the brethren, or devotion to the truth?
Specifically, what is the loving thing to do when someone professing to love Christ comes proclaiming a doctrine that is at odds with the apostolic message? What does love demand when we're dealing with false teachers and heretics? What's the loving thing to do when an itinerant preacher seeks affirmation and hospitality but has a different version of the gospel?
John's answer to that question begins with an affirmation of the New Commandment. He has greeted her and her children (v. 1). He has pronounced a blessing on her (v. 3). He has encouraged her by reporting that when he met some of her children, they were walking in truth (v. 4). And in all of that, repeatedly, purposefully, he has kept the twin virtues of love and truth linked inseparably together. Now he addresses the main issue about which he is writing (most likely to answer a question she had posed to him), and his first point is a reminder that truth—God's truth, the unchanging, eternal truth—compels us to love.
He makes that point by reminding her of the New Commandment. In fact, he reminds her how old the New Commandment is (v. 5): "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."
To walk in truth is to demonstrate the love of Christ. Love and truth are not competing or contradictory virtues: they are necessarily bound together. Truth is he foundation of love; and love is the fulfillment of the truth. He makes both of those points in these first four verses. When he says in verses 1-2 that the church's love for this lady is "because of the truth that abides in us," he is saying that truth is the ground and the foundation of love. When he points out (as he does in verses 3-5) that love is what God's truth demands of us, he is saying that love is the fruit and fulfillment of truth.
Now, if truth is the ground and the foundation of love, and love is the fruit and fulfillment of truth, then there's no way to prioritize love over truth or vice versa, because they both define and comprise each other. To walk in truth is to love. To fail in the duties of love is to advance the agenda of truth's enemies. There is no truth in you if your heart is devoid of God's love.
Truth is the flame of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, giving light to our minds; love is the corresponding heat, giving warmth to our hearts. Where the warmth of love is missing, you can be certain the light of truth isn't functioning properly, either—and vice versa.
So that is the apostle's starting point. He affirms the essential duty of love by echoing the Lord's New Commandment, the same Old Commandment we have heard from the beginning: "That we love one another." Walk in truth by manifesting the love of Christ.
He moves quickly to his second point. And here he gets intensely practical. This, I believe, is the specific answer to a question she had raised. Here is the proper balance between truth and love. He has just urged her to walk in truth by manifesting the love of Christ. Now he says, we also have a duty to
Manifest the love of Christ by safeguarding truth
It turns out that the gist of this letter, the main point he wants to get across, is the duty that falls on our shoulders as believers who embody Christ's love to hold fast to the truth and defend it against every assault. Verse 6: "And this is love, [here is what love looks like:] 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 other words, what the world refers to as love isn't necessarily love. If it's true love, it comes with a built-in devotion to the truth. In the words of 1 John 4:7, "love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God." That presupposes a biblical definition of love, which always includes an unwavering love of the truth.
Now, this is a warm and affectionate letter. He has encouraged this woman, commended her, expressed his esteem for her, and blessed her. But he also has some stern words of caution. Not that he is expressing any disfavor or dissatisfaction to her personally. His attitude toward her is nothing but warm and amiable.
But he has these urgent words of caution about an imminent threat to the church, and starting in verse 7, he shifts gears, takes a more ominous tone, and he gives her a sharp warning about the danger.
False teachers were infiltrating the church. They came in the name of Christ, but they brought a totally different doctrine. Specifically, the movement John is concerned with here denied the incarnation. Verse 7: they "do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh." They were denying some aspect of the deity, preexistence, or incarnation of Christ. Church history suggests that these were early gnostics—people whose interest in Christianity was philosophical and mystical, not biblical. Their central doctrine is known as docetism, and it's rooted in a false, gnostic dualism—the belief that only spiritual reality can be truly good, and matter is inherently evil. Spirit versus matter. They believed that spirit and matter are so inherently hostile to one another that God could never actually take on human flesh. Some taught that Christ was a phantasm, others taught that His body was composed of some celestial substance—it wasn't real. All of them taught that Jesus only appeared to be human but He wasn't really, and therefore, His sufferings weren't even real.
That was a dastardly lie. It undermined the biblical doctrine of atonement and destroyed the gospel. Docetism was just beginning to gain popularity when John wrote this. From the second century on, various strains of docetism ravaged the church, thwarted the advance of the gospel, and left multitudes in confusion.
John saw the danger from the outset, and that explains the urgency of this warning. It's a great lesson in how to deal with false teachers who twist the truth about Christ and undermine the gospel. And let me just say from the start, it is the polar opposite of the Elephant-Room approach where you invite a heretic to your conference and try to find common ground, and then try to pass that sort of showy public-relations campaign off as true Christian unity.
John's counsel to this lady has two parts: hold fast the truth (verses 6-9), and reject those who don't love the truth (verses 10-12).
There are many false teachers out there, John says (verse 7). He said the same thing in his first epistle (1 John 4:1): "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world." The landscape is covered with phony religious leaders. Don't be fooled by them; don't naively accept them into your fellowship. And if that was already true before the end of the apostolic era, it is a thousand times more true today. He's talking about deceivers who profess faith in Christ, but they twist Christian doctrine into something completely different. This, John says, epitomizes the work of antichrist.
The apostle wants this woman and all who read the epistle to be on guard and hold fast to the truth they have been taught. Verse 8: "Watch yourselves [plural], so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward." A lot is at stake here, and God will hold us accountable for how we respond to false teachers. You will be rewarded accordingly.
I tire of hearing from people who think there's something noble about treating false teachers with honor and undue respect—or even with indifference. "I'm just going to preach what I believe and let God worry about the heretics." If that's really what you believe—that you have no duty to confront false teachers or expose and refute their error—then you are partly culpable for the damage they do. John says so in verse 11: "the one who [even] gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds."
You'll often hear people say, "It's not our business to make judgments about who is in and who is outside the kingdom of God. All who name the name of Christ are my brothers and sisters." And in recent years there has been a parade of supposedly evangelical and Emergent leaders who have tried to make the argument that practically anyone from almost any religion is a fellow believer, as long as they are sincere. They say we have a duty to embrace everyone as a brother who self-identifies as a Christian. To question whether a professing Christian is an authentic believer or not is the very height of arrogant incivility, they claim.
The apostle definitively says otherwise (v. 9): "Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son."
That expression "the teaching of Christ" refers specifically to gospel truth as it was received from Christ and declared by the apostle. In the words of John Gill, "['The teaching of Christ'] is the doctrine . . . that is appointed to guide us to God; it is that whereby God draws souls to salvation and to himself. Those who revolt [from this doctrine] revolt from God."
The boundaries of apostolic orthodoxy were clearly and finely drawn. In Galatians 1, the apostle Paul called down curses on the false teachers who made circumcision the instrument of justification, rather than faith alone—and on anyone else who came with a different gospel. Here, John is expressly writing off those who deny the deity, preexistence, or incarnation of Christ. And those two categories of doctrine—the principle of justification by faith and the incarnation—clearly don't constitute a complete and comprehensive list of Christian truths that are of first importance. Paul also lists the historical facts of Christ's death and resurrection in that category in 1 Corinthians 15. But those few examples give us a pretty clear rule of thumb: Any false doctrine that sets forth another gospel or a different Jesus is damnable heresy. Now, to be clear, not every error is damnable heresy, but any error that denies the true Christ or sets forth an alternative gospel is a diabolical lie of the worst stripe. And what John is saying in verse 9 is that anyone who teaches that kind of damnable heresy is not to be embraced as a fellow Christian. Such a person "does not have God."
Now, let me speak frankly: visible Christianity in our generation—including the broad movement that would label itself evangelical—is chock full of people who have seriously transgressed the teaching of Christ. Some of them teach a completely different gospel—including many of the key figures in the Emergent movement of the past decade. Some of them denied the exclusivity of Christ, or repudiated the authority of Scripture, or questioned the deity and incarnation of Christ.
People who think the hope of redemption lies in some political, psychological, social, or moral remedy are preaching a different gospel. So are those who insist that the church should be consumed with issues of earthly justice or the redistribution of wealth rather than proclaiming to spiritual captives that Christ has satisfied heaven's justice on behalf of sinners who repent and trust Him. You are hearing a different gospel when people edit the themes of sin, righteousness, and judgment out of the gospel and replace it with a therapeutic method or the promise of self-fulfillment. Ditto when preachers tell you their own dreams and visions rather than the truth of God's word. And above all, those narcissists in the pulpit who continually preach themselves rather than Christ Jesus as Lord are guilty of damnable error. Again, the church is full of all those varieties of false prophets and deceivers.
What is the proper response? Here is a woman whose gift was apparently hospitality. Her home was evidently a guest-house for itinerant teachers, preachers, and evangelists. How should she respond when proclaimers of deviant doctrines sought hospitality in her home? How should any Christian respond when someone who breaches the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy is seeking our partnership, honor, recognition, or financial help in their work? What if it's a Mormon missionary, or a Jehovah's Witness, who just wants to sit down with you and show you what they believe?
John's answer is not ambiguous. Verses 10-11: "do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds." Now, let me say: this is predominantly about partnership and fellowship in ministry, and the "greeting" he is talking about was a formal way of showing honor. He's not telling her to be rude or ungracious. He's saying that the best way to show love to a false teacher is to make clear that his doctrine is deadly and you want no part of it.
Lots of people in these postmodern times claim that's inherently rude. But it's no more rude than if I offered you a heavy dose of strychnine instead of cream for your coffee. The loving thing would be not only to decline and recoil in horror, but also to urge me not to put it in my own coffee, either.
In other words, this is what love demands: careful discernment and a clear warning against false teaching—plus a firm refusal in any way to have fellowship with, be unequally yoked with, or enter into partnership with the purveyors of soul-destroying error. In the words of Ephesians 5:11: "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them." That's what love demands of us. If we love truth, we will oppose error. If we truly want to manifest the love of Christ in a Christlike way, we will safeguard the truth.
This argues powerfully against formal partnerships of any kind with peddlers of false doctrine. I know it has become very popular and politically correct in recent years for evangelicals to forge political ties and ecumenical partnerships across religious boundaries. Evangelical leaders have shown an unprecedented willingness to link arms and forge alliances in the public arena with their Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Mormon counterparts in an attempt to consolidate their collective clout in the voting booth.
They haven't seen a lot of success in terms of influencing public policy, but what evangelical leaders who forge these alliances have done is communicate to the world and even to the people under their leadership the idea that moral and political policy is a more pressing need and a more urgent issue than the gospel. These political coalitions have set aside the distinctives of gospel truth for the sake of moral and political values that aren't even distinctly Christian.
But let me remind you: False religion is infinitely worse than bad politics or bad public policy. Today's evangelicals have reversed the priorities, and the chief casualty has been discernment. To have joint prayer meetings and public demonstrations while standing arm in arm with Catholics, Jews, and Mormons is to violate the simple principle John sets forth here. But this is vital truth, and drawing the line clearly between truth and falsehoods is a necessary expression of authentic love for those who don't know the truth. Love and truth, as always, can only exist side by side.
Verse 12. He has more to say to her, but he'll wait until they meet face to face. That signifies that what he says in this epistle was urgent, and highly important. It's important for us as well.
That's the simple truth of this epistle. It's purposely short and to the point. Love and truth—genuine love and unadulterated truth—work together, not in opposition to one another. We are not walking in truth unless we are manifesting the love of Christ, and we are not manifesting the love of Christ unless we are safeguarding the truth.