Having completed our sermons on 1 John, it seemed sensible to continue with John’s letters and devote a sermon to 2nd and 3rd John as well. These two little letters, of all the letters in the New Testament, bear the greatest resemblance to the conventional form of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world of the first century. They are typically brief, less than 300 words, and would have fit on a single piece of papyrus. Indeed, 2 John is the shortest book of the New Testament save one; only 3 John is shorter.
Now the question inevitably arises: why these two short letters. No one can deny that they play a very minor role in the New Testament. Not only are they short, they seem largely to repeat the sentiments that John has already expressed at greater length in his first letter. There is no NT doctrine that hinges on anything said in either of these two letters. There isn’t even anything eminently quotable from either of the letters, except perhaps the first half of verse 4, which is probably the phrase from 2 John most familiar to Christians, the same phrase that is repeated in v. 4 of 3 John. Well, let’s read the letter and then address ourselves to that question.
John doesn’t necessarily mean that the other of this elect lady’s children were not walking in the truth; he is only referring to those whom he has happened to meet. They are walking in the truth and that pleases John very much not least because he knew their mother and loved and admired this Christian lady.
It is important that you know the background of this remark that can seem harsh to the modern ear. Where would traveling Christians stay when night fell? If they were on a business trip, or, more to the point, if they were itinerant missionaries or teachers where would they stay when night fell? It was expected that they would be lodged with other Christians in their homes. The comforts of a modern hotel or even the village inn were largely unknown in the Greco-Roman world in the first century. Hostels were, by and large, virtually always brothels and were notoriously dirty and flea-infested. The profession of an innkeeper, accordingly, was a dishonorable one in the Roman culture of the time. Christian ethics emphasized hospitality so it was natural for Christians to open their homes to strangers. Paul was entertained in many Christian homes on his travels as we know from Acts and from his letters.
Such hospitality was, however, open to abuse. What of the teacher who posed as a Christian but who brought heresy instead of the truth? What of the con-artist who brought the truth but was more interested in the church’s money than in her soul? That such travelers posed a standing problem is demonstrated by the fact that similar instructions may be found in the Didache, an early manual of church order from the very earliest days of the apostolic church. It is assumed that Christians will have visitors. It is also assumed that some of them will be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Christians must be discerning and not allow themselves to be duped or to contribute unwittingly to a false teacher or a con-artist’s work. [Stott, 199-200]
So why 2 John? Why does this little letter belong to the canon of Holy Scripture? To be sure, there is no way for us to know the answer to that question in any definitive and final way. Paul wrote a letter to the church in Laodicea, of which there is mention in Colossians 4, and he wrote at least one other letter to the Corinthians beside the two that are preserved in the New Testament, as Paul himself says in 1 Cor. 5:9. Why were those letters not included in Holy writ? We cannot say. It was not God’s will and somehow that was made plain to everyone. Probably there were a great many letters written by apostles during their ministries that did not survive and were not taken up into Holy Scripture. As thoughtful, busy, and interested men of affairs with a great number of friends and associates, as men who were travelling constantly they must have written many letters. Only a few of them have survived. No doubt John wrote many more letters than the three that are found in the New Testament. He was obviously a writer of letters! But if not they, why 2 John?
The question is complicated and, I think, made the more interesting by another question. Is this letter, as it appears at first to be, a letter to an individual, an unnamed Christian woman whom John had met and come to admire or was it in fact a letter to a church, a community of Christians? Is John talking to and about a Christian woman and her children or, under the image of a mother – remember Paul talking about the church as our mother in Galatians 4? – is John speaking to a church, the children being the members of that church, and “the children of your elect sister” in the last verse being a reference to the members of the church where John was when he wrote the letter? If 2 John were written to a woman friend of John, why was she not named, as she typically would be in the address of that letter?
3 John is certainly a letter to an individual. He is named in the address: Gaius. And the conclusion of the letter sounds more like a letter to a personal friend. Perhaps more important, all the “you’s” in 3 John, all the second person pronouns are singular. John is writing to an individual throughout. “I pray that all may go well with you…” The “you” is singular. But in 2 John while John starts in the singular, he goes on in the plural. The “your” in v. 4 and the “you” in v. 5 and again in v. 13 are all singular. But the “you” in v. 6, “yourselves” in v. 8, the “you” in v. 10 and again in v. 12 are all plural. John is writing to more than one person. I suppose that could mean that John is including other members of the household in his letter to this unnamed woman, but he named the man in 3 John; why didn’t he name the woman in 2 John?
In fact, I find quite plausible this proposal. The three letters were sent together in the hand of Demetrius, the brother mentioned in 3 John 12. Gaius was the church leader to whom the three were sent. 2 John was to be read to Gaius’ own church and 1 John was to be circulated among a number of churches.
It is easy to see that the issue addressed in 2 John is that addressed at greater length in 1 John. A certain form of false teaching has surfaced in the church, brought by men who represented themselves as Christian teachers. The particular form of this false teaching was a denial of the true incarnation of God the Son, what John calls, a denial that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Comparing 2 John 7 to 1 John 2:18-22 and 4:2 it is clear that in both letters the concern is with the same teaching: a teaching that distinguished itself by a denial of the incarnation, of the Son of God becoming a true, an authentic human being in the full integrity of human life, body and soul together. They didn’t deny, apparently, that men needed to believe in Jesus, but they denied that the Son of God had died as a man on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. They also denied, as invariably they do who deny the incarnation of the Son of God, that it was necessary to live a life of love to God and man in obedience to God’s commandments. Those teachers would never have said and did not say what John says here, “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.” They were relatively indifferent or altogether indifferent to the necessity of holy living, obedience and godliness. So the warning against this teaching and the teachers who brought it is plainly the same that we found in 1 John. Perhaps it’s put so briefly in 2 John because John assumes they would also receive his first letter that went into the matter in greater detail.
The Apostle John is concerned to reassert the truth and to make sure that the Christians he knows and loves are as concerned to protect and defend the truth as they must since deceivers and antichrists are abroad to undermine the truth and replace it with killing error.
Five times in the first few verses of 2 John we find the word “truth.” The same word or a variant of it occurs seven more times in 3 John. “Truth,” which also occurs a number of times in 1 John, is to 2 John what “know” is to 1 John: the leitwort or key term, the term that identifies the author’s theme, subject, and purpose. All the more when that term is contrasted with “deceiver” as in v. 7. What John says in unmistakable terms in v. 8 is that our very salvation hangs in the balance and that only by maintaining the truth and walking in the truth are we and the church and every Christian kept safe. It is in regard to the high stakes involved in an assault on the truth and the defense of the truth in the Christian church that in v. 10 John makes that remark, a remark that sounds so intolerant and uncharitable to our modern ears.
“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.”
Apparently John practiced what he preached. The later second century church father Irenaeus, recalls a story that Polycarp, an early, mid-second century Christian bishop and martyr, told of John. Polycarp knew John personally so it a story likely to be true. It seems that John was once at the baths in Ephesus when he heard that Cerinthus, the man who was associated with the teaching that John is so concerned about in these letters, was bathing there. John left the baths immediately so as not to be in the same place with the heretic who denied the incarnation of the Son of God, that is to say somebody who professed to be a Christian but who denied the incarnation of the Son of God. He explained to those with him that he would not be where an enemy of the truth was to be found. [Adv. Haer. III, iii, 4]
In other words, John was in deadly earnest about the necessity of protecting the truth and keeping out of the church those who would subvert it. The stakes are too high to trifle with heresy. John would not give an inch and he is teaching us not to give an inch to those who undermine the truth of the gospel of God.
John understood what many have forgotten in our day. Heresies are not as a rule, absurd ideas that any Christian can be trusted to see the folly of at first glance. They are, on the contrary, regularly insidious and powerful forms of falsehood that gain strength in the church precisely because they provide a way for Christians to remain Christians and at the same time be fashionably up-to-date. They provide a way for Christians to remain Christians without having to abandon the orthodoxies of their culture; the ways of thinking that seem so reasonable to people of that time and place.
Heresies are typically forms of thought that offer the promise to Christians that they can remain Christians without having to bear the reproach of having repudiated the culture’s familiar and fashionable ways of thought. Heresies typically are a form of Christianity congenial to the prevailing culture. They draw their strength from the cultural ethos. Heresies gather strength by sucking oxygen up into their fires from the very air of a time and place. That is what makes it so necessary for the church both to know the truth and recognize falsehood, on the one hand, and to be determined to give no quarter to deceivers in her midst, on the other. That is what explains John’s seemingly ferocious response to the very idea that a false teacher might be welcomed into the fellowship of the church. “Keep them out,” he cries.
Today, of course, our heresies are not the same as troubled the first century church precisely because our way of thought and our systems of belief are different from what they were in the Greco-Roman world of the first century. The shape of untruth as it threatens the church changes with the prevailing winds. As one Puritan put it: “the Devil does not allow the wind of error to blow long in the same direction.” He fits the temptation to the changing spirit of the age; he crafts new temptations to fit each new day and time.
Abraham Kuyper put it this way: “Heresies arise on Christian territory by a fixed law [like a mirage in the atmosphere]. They are a necessary deflection of the light of Christianity in the spiritual atmosphere of a given age.” [Cited in Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, 9-10] So Cerinthus’ disgust with the notion of God assuming a true human body, flesh, arose from the prevailing concepts of the culture that prized the life of the spirit and considered the material part, the bodily part of man his lower part and the source of all his weakness and wrong. Salvation in Greco-Roman culture was almost invariably escape from the material into the spiritual world. Well, in the same way, in a relativist age like ours, it is hardly surprising that the notions of sin and guilt and the necessity of atonement should come under direct attack even in the church; it is hardly surprising that in a sentimental age like ours the notion of divine judgment, of God’s holy wrath, should fall into disrepute even in the church; it is hardly surprising that in a pluralist age like ours the biblical assertion that there is no salvation apart from faith in Jesus Christ should prove increasingly controversial even in the church; and it is hardly surprising that in a feminist culture such as ours and a culture deeply influenced by the theory of evolution, the biblical notions of human life and of the callings of men and women should come under attack even in the church. These things were entirely predictable. We should have seen them coming from miles away and when they knocked on our door we should have known precisely who was standing on the threshold.
It is very possible that the language John uses in v. 9 – “Everyone who goes on ahead…” he took from the false teacher themselves. That is what they claimed, like most heretics claim. They had moved ahead, theirs were “go-ahead” views. Their views were advanced, modern, up-to-date, unlike the tired and old-fashioned views of the apostles and still believed by the common herd in the pews. What they meant, of course, was that their views were like the views of the elite culture. They change, of course, and for such people it is always necessary to change with them. And so again and again and again, age after age and all over the world the gospel has been adapted to the prevailing spirits of a particular culture.
The need for acceptance is very powerful; it operates at a level below the active consciousness of human beings. Nothing else can explain why, for example, so many clever people in the university or in media, people who can readily disagree and critique the ideas of others in their own fields of expertise, nevertheless think about virtually all other things – matters of social and public policy – in the same way. The need to conform, to be accepted by one’s peers is very powerful. And the fear of being thought foolish or old-fashioned or out-of-touch is likewise very powerful.
How else can we explain how a generation of Christian people who were brought up to love the cross of Christ and the gospel of God, who knew themselves sinners needing a Redeemer, could in a few years time give up those precious truths for pathetic substitutes, mere do-goodism, human optimism hanging in mid-air, an optimism countless times disproved by the bare facts of human history? And yet this is what has happened over and over again. The Devil knows how to insinuate error. Offer a popular substitute for the gospel and no matter how ridiculous it may be, if it sounds up to date, if it is the sort of idea modern people approve, it will find its supporters in the church. The Christian faith has always been eviscerated most effectively by those who accommodate it to the prevailing biases and forms of thought of any particular time or place.
My friend Joel Belz, well known to many of you for his long association with World, the Christian news magazine, once told me of his being present at Dr. Francis Schaeffer’s last public appearance before his death, May 15, 1984. It was a brief address to the Evangelical Press Association which was holding its meeting that year in Minneapolis. He was living in nearby Rochester, Minnesota, where he was being treated for his cancer at the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Schaeffer, you may remember, though the doyen of a generation of young evangelicals, lost some of his stature among those very people who had lionized him for two decades because near the end of his life he had become outspoken in warning against what he saw as a tendency for the evangelical American church to do just what John here warns against: to adjust the Christian faith to make it more compatible with the spirit of the age. He saw this beginning to happen long before many others did who would later admit that in this too he had been a prophet. He saw, before others, the beginnings of certain changes in evangelical belief and practice for what they were – accommodation to the philosophy of modern western culture – when others saw them simply as issues of biblical interpretation.
He had published shortly before his death his book The Great Evangelical Disaster, a book Dr. Schaeffer himself described as “the most important statement I have ever written.” In that book he had sounded an urgent warning to the evangelical, Bible-believing church of the incipient compromise with the culture’s thinking that he saw developing. He was, as you may remember, a student of philosophical causes and cultural effects, how cultures are shaped by the philosophical ideas that reign in, under and through that culture, and he could see certain things coming as the inevitable result of the accommodation of the American church’s thinking to that of the world around her. Ideas were beginning to penetrate the church and were being accepted uncritically by Christians because they had come to think like modern people think. He identified various points of such penetration: feminism, the modern view of sexuality, including homosexuality, a creeping relativism that refused to see the absolute antithesis between certain forms of liberal Christianity and the historic apostolic faith laid down in Holy Scripture, and political theories that increasingly found the origin of human misery in social structures rather than personal sin and estrangement from God. What would he say today, when every one of those tendencies has come to bloom in full flower in the evangelical, so called bible believing, church! It is a strong book. Even today when his prophesies have all come true, it reads like a very strong, even harsh warning. In other words, it reads like 2 John 10-11.
That day in Minneapolis, at the Evangelical Press Association meeting – remember, Dr. Schaeffer was a hero to the Press Association in those days because he had probably sold more books than any Christian writer in American history – this was again his warning. He repeated his concern about guarding the gospel against the prevailing philosophy of the culture. After years of public lectures, scores of books, hundreds if not thousands of sermons, his last three words spoken in public before his death were: “Accommodation, accommodation, accommodation.”
There were many things that John might have said in this short letter. He might have chosen to speak only of happier things, things about which everyone was in agreement, things that would not have required him to use condemnatory terms as “deceiver” and “antichrist.” And John of all men was a man who knew how to speak the language of love and unity. But John is telling us in no uncertain terms that if we are not on our guard, if we are not alert, if we do not stand ready at our post, if we are not ready to bear the reproach of our culture and of the modern and up-to-date people who inhabit our culture, if we not ready to bear the cross of the culture’s odium and contempt, there will be those who will find us ready to be convinced that there is another way, a better way than the gospel taught us by John and Peter and Paul and by Jesus Christ himself: the gospel that says that God so loved us that he sent his only Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
And that brings us back to our original question: why 2 John; why this little letter in the New Testament? And here at least is part of the answer to that question: a lethal danger, constant, subtle, relentless, is not to be warded off by a single warning. To toy with falsehood regarding the central affirmations of the gospel – remember we are not talking here about the details of theology, the details about which there may be constant disagreement among good and faithful Christians, but about the denial of the incarnation of the Son of God, the foundation of the good news, the presupposition of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the explanation for the place of Jesus Christ in the heart, thinking, faith and life of the church and the Christian people – I say, to toy with this falsehood is to play with hell-fire. That is John’s point. And it is so important, so imperative he makes it more than once. It is very likely that those to whom 2 John was sent also received 1 John. John was repeating himself. But he didn’t care. The point was important enough to be made again and again. It needed to be dinned into us.
It there is a Christ – and there is, God be praised; if there is a Redeemer for us and for our children; if there is a gospel in which wonderful news of eternal life is published – there are also deceivers and antichrists, the servants of the evil one, who stand ready to snatch that truth away from us and from our children, especially from our children.
You think: this would never happen to me; I would never desert the Lord. I have known the power of the gospel in my life, I have actually met the living God, the love of Christ constrains me. I would never give up the truth of God. And perhaps you wouldn’t. But let me assure you of something. There are those in this sanctuary this morning – I think I can say this with a moral certainty – there are some here this morning, I have no idea who they are, who, if the right teacher came along, if he put things in a convincing way, if he professed loyalty to the ancient faith, as almost all heretics do, if he couched his teaching in forms that made it sound faithful and, at the same time, up-to-date and modern and forward thinking, I say there are some here who would swallow it hook, line, and sinker.
I say that because John writes this very warning to this church of Christians here in v. 8. Real Christians! He knows how real the danger is. But even if there was not a single adult Christian here this morning who would be beguiled or deceived by false teaching regarding the fundamental truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is there anyone here who doubts that over time the next generation – our children – would be deceived in numbers and be utterly unaware that they were losing their grip on eternal life. Everything would sound to them so obvious, so convincing; and the old gospel would sound so harsh, so out-of-date, so needing a facelift. It sends a shiver down my spine; does it not yours? That such a thing is possible. It is, of course; it has happened a thousand times before and always to a generation of Christians that was sure it would never happen to them or to their children.
2 John is a letter. The other day I read for the first time, I believe, a letter written by a German Christian, an army officer, a trusted colonel in the army’s intelligence service, caught up in the fury of Nazi revenge in the aftermath of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler on the 20th of July, 1944. Alexis, Baron von Roenne, was not involved in the plot, as it happened, though he had secretly but actively worked against the interests of the German army during the war, but some of his close friends were and he was arrested and sentenced to death because of his association with the plotters. He was a devout Christian, having been brought up by a mother who loved the Lord Jesus and took care to instill such love in her son. He left behind a wife and two little children. The morning of the day of his execution, von Roenne wrote to his wife, Ursala:
“My dearest beloved: In a moment now I shall be going home to our Lord in complete calm and in the certainty of salvation. My thoughts are with you, with all of you, with the very greatest love and gratitude.
As my last wish, I entreat you only to cling to Him and to have full confidence in Him; He loves you.
I bless both of our beloved children, and include them in my last ardent prayer. May the Lord let his countenance shine upon them and lead them home.
To you, my very dearest of all, belong my ardent love and thanks to the last moment and until our blessed reunion.” God keep you. [cited in J. Watson, “Alexis, Baron von Roenne,” BOT 570 (March, 2011) 21-27]
Modern, up-to-date, with-it forms of Christianity don’t produce letters like that. Never have; never will. The knowledge of salvation as the truth of God, the confidence of the soul in the face of death, the love of a Christ filled heart: those are the blessings of the real gospel and the incarnate Christ, the God-Man. But you want that faith do you not; and you supremely want it for your children. Well, then, heed the warning John has so bluntly delivered not once, not twice, but three times. “Watch yourselves so that you may not lose what you have worked for but may win a full reward.” Watch for those deceivers, those antichrists. They are out there. They are around you and will take a mile if you give them an inch.
It is only to love the Lord Jesus and his free gift of eternal life, it is only to love our children and their salvation to refuse, absolutely to refuse to open the door even a crack to someone whose message is not the saving glory and power of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord.