The apostate teachers not only invaded the churches, but they also tried to influence Christian homes. Titus faced this problem in Crete (Titus 1:10-11) and Timothy faced it in Ephesus (2 Tim. 3:6). As goes the home, so goes the church and the nation; thus the family is an important target in Satan's war against truth. This brief letter was written to a godly mother and her children. Some Bible students have concluded that "the elect lady" refers to a local church and that "her children" are the believers fellowshipping in the church. "Thy elect sister" (2 John 13) would then refer to a sister church that was sending Christian greetings.
While it is true that John does address a group in this letter (note the plural in 2 John 6, 8, 10, 12), it is also true that he addresses an individual (2 John 1, 4-5, 13). Perhaps the solution is that a Christian assembly was meeting in this home, along with the family of the "elect lady," so that John had both the family and the congregation in mind (see Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phile. 2). He was concerned that this godly woman not permit anything false to come into her house (2 John 10) or into the assembly.
The dominant feelings in this little epistle are those of friendship and joy, even though these are mixed with concern and warning. If you and I are to keep our homes true to Christ, then we must have the same characteristics as this family to which John wrote.
John used the word truth four times in this salutation, so it is an important word. Basically, it means "reality" as opposed to mere appearance, the ultimate that is the basis for all that we see around us. Jesus Christ is "the truth" (John 14:6) and God's Word is "truth" (John 17:17). God has revealed truth in the person of His Son and in the pages of His Word. He has given us "the Spirit of Truth" to teach us and to enable us to know truth (John 14:16-17; 16:13).
But the truth is not only an objective revelation from the Father, but also a subjective experience in our personal lives. We cannot only know the truth, but we can "love in the truth" and live "for the truth's sake." The truth "lives in us, and shall be with us forever." This means that "knowing the truth" is much more than giving assent to a body of doctrines, though that is important. It means that the believer's life is controlled by a love for the truth and a desire to magnify the truth.
John opened his letter on this note of "truth" because there were false teachers abroad who were spreading error. He called them deceivers and antichrists (2 John 7). John was not one to say that all religious teachings are true in one way or another, and that we should not be critical just as long as people are sincere. To John, there was a great difference, in fact, a deadly difference, between truth and error; and he would not tolerate error.
Since the truth will be with us forever, we certainly ought to get acquainted with it now and learn to love it. Of course, all truth centers in Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, with whom we shall live forever (John 14:1-6). It is wonderful to contemplate the fact that we shall spend eternity surrounded by truth, growing in our knowledge of truth, and serving the God of truth.
How did this elect lady and her children come to know the truth and become children of God? Through the grace and mercy of God (2 John 3). God is rich in mercy and grace (Eph. 2:4, 7), and He has channeled His mercy and grace to us in Jesus Christ. We are not saved by God's love, but by God's grace, which is "love that paid a price" (Eph. 2:8-9). God loves the whole world, yet the whole world is not saved. Only those who receive His abundant grace experience salvation from sin.
When you receive grace and mercy from God, you experience His peace. "Therefore, being justified [declared righteous] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). God is not at war with lost sinners; it is sinners who are at war with God (Rom. 5:10; 8:7). God has been reconciled to sinners because of Christ's work on the cross. Now sinners must repent and be reconciled to God by faith in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:14-21).
It is significant that at the very outset of his second letter John affirmed the deity of Jesus Christ. He did so by joining "the Lord Jesus Christ" with "God the Father." Suppose 2 John 3 read "from God the Father, and from the Prophet Amos." You would immediately respond, "Amos must not be joined with the Father's name in that fashion! It makes it appear that Amos is equal with God!"
But that is exactly why John joined the Father and the Son together: they are equally God! And then, to make certain that his readers did not miss the emphasis, John added "the Son of the Father." It is impossible to separate the two. If God is the Father, then He must have a Son; Jesus Christ is that Son. "Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father" (1 John 2:23).
Many false teachers argue, "But Jesus is the 'son of God' in the same way all of us are God's sons, made in the image of God! When Jesus claimed to be God's Son, He was not really claiming to be God." But when Jesus said to the Jews, "I and My Father are One," they threatened to stone Him! Why? Because He had blasphemed! "Because that Thou, being a man, makest Thyself God" (John 10:30-33). They knew what He meant when He called Himself the "Son of God" and claimed equality with God.
The Christian faith stands or falls on the doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ. If He is only man, then He cannot save us, no matter how gifted or unique He might be. If He is not God come in human flesh, then the Christian faith is lies—not truth—and John opened this letter with the wrong emphasis.
The great American statesman Daniel Webster was dining in Boston with a group of distinguished men, some of whom had Unitarian leanings. (The Unitarians deny the Trinity and the deity of both the Son and the Spirit.) When the subject of religion came up at the table, Webster boldly affirmed his belief in the deity of Jesus Christ and his confidence in His work of atonement.
"But Mr. Webster," said one man, "can you comprehend how Christ could be both God and man?"
"No, sir, I cannot comprehend it," Webster replied. "If I could comprehend Him, He would be no greater than myself. I feel that I need a superhuman Saviour!"
If our homes and churches are to be true to Christ and oppose the false teachers, we must know the truth. How do we learn the truth? By carefully studying God's Word and allowing the Spirit to teach us; by listening to others who are true to the faith; and then by practicing what we learn. We must not only learn the truth with our minds, but we must also love the truth in our hearts and live the truth by our wills. Our total persons must be yielded to the truth.
How important it is for parents to teach their children to love the truth! While we thank God for Sunday Schools and Christian day schools, in the final analysis, it is the home that must instill in children a love for truth and the knowledge of God's truth.
To "walk in the truth" means to obey it, to permit it to control every area of our lives. This paragraph opens and closes with an emphasis on obedience, walking in the truth. It is much easier to study the truth, or even argue about the truth, than it is to practice it! In fact, sometimes zealous Christians disobey the truth in the very way they try to defend it.
When I was pastoring in Chicago, a strange young man often stood on the sidewalk in front of the church, passing out leaflets that denounced many evangelical leaders who were my friends. Of course, we could not stop him from distributing literature, so I instructed our people to take as many copies as he would give them and then destroy them!
One of our men decided to "shadow" the young man one evening, and he saw him walk to the nearby park, sit down under a tree, and light up a cigarette! Yet just a few minutes before, the young man had been shouting in front of the church, "I'm a fighting fundamentalist, and I'm not ashamed of it!" My guess is that most of the fundamentalists I know would have been ashamed of him. He thought he was promoting truth and opposing error, yet he was not walking in the truth himself. By his actions and belligerent attitude, he was denying the truth he sought to defend.
The apostle's joy (v. 4a). John's joy was that the elect lady's children were walking in truth. John did not know all of them, however; the literal translation is "some of thy children." Somewhere in his travels, John had met some of her children and learned of their obedient walk with the Lord. "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" (3 John 4). We have no reason to believe that John was hinting that others of the children had gone astray after the false teachers. If by "children" John was including the members of the "house church," then it is possible that some of them had left the fellowship and joined with the deceivers.
It certainly brings great joy to the Father when He sees His children obeying His Word. I know personally what it means to the pastor when the church family is submissive to the Word and doing the will of God. Few things break the heart of a pastor like a disobedient and rebellious member who will not submit to the authority of God's Word.
When the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was a lad, he lived with his grandfather who pastored a church in Stambourne, England. A church member named Roads used to sit in the local pub and drink beer and smoke, and this practice grieved the pastor very much.
One day young Charles said to his grandfather, "I'll kill old Roads, that I will! I shall not do anything bad, but I'll kill him though, that I will!"
What did young Spurgeon do? He confronted Roads in the pub with these words: "What doest thou here, Elijah? Sitting with the ungodly, and you a member of a church and breaking your pastor's heart. I'm ashamed of you! I wouldn't break my pastor's heart, I'm sure!"
It was not long before Roads showed up at the pastor's home, confessing his sins and apologizing for his behavior. Young Spurgeon had "killed him" indeed!
The apostle's argument (v. 4b). He argued that God has commanded us to walk in truth and love. The word commandment is used five times in these few verses. God's commandments focus "the truth" on specific areas of life. "The truth" can be vague and general if we are not careful, but "the commandments" make that truth specific and binding.
Note that the commandments are given by "the Father." Each commandment is an expression of love and not simply law. The will of God is the revelation of God's heart (Ps. 33:11), not just His mind. Consequently, obedience to His Word should be a revelation of our love, not an expression of fear. "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous" (1 John 5:3).
The false teachers try to make God's commandments appear harsh and difficult and then they offer their converts "true" freedom (2 Peter 2:19). But the greatest freedom is in obedience to God's perfect will. No believer who loves God would ever consider His commandments to be harsh and unbearable.
The apostle's appeal (vv. 5-6). John wanted the elect lady and her family to love one another and this appeal applies to us as well. "A new commandment I give unto you, 'That ye love one another'" (John 13:34). But John wrote that it was not a new commandment (see 1 John 2:7-11). Is this a contradiction?
The commandment "Love one another" is certainly not new in time, because even Old Testament Jews were instructed to love their neighbors (Lev. 19:18, 34) and the strangers within their gates (Deut. 10:19). But with the coming of God's Son to earth, this commandment is new in emphasis and in example. Jesus Christ gave new emphasis to brotherly love, and He exemplified it in His own life. It is also new in experience, for we have the Holy Spirit of God living within, enabling us to obey. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love" (Gal. 5:22; cf. Rom. 5:5).
Is it possible to command love? Yes, when you understand what Christian love really is. Many people have the mistaken idea that Christian love is a feeling, a special kind of "religious emotion" that makes us reach out and accept others. Certainly emotion is involved, but basically, Christian love is an act of the will. It simply means treating other people the same way God treats you! In fact, it is possible to love people that we really do not "like."
We may not be able to will our affections at all times, but we can will our attitudes and actions. When people are rude to us, we can be kind in return. When people persecute us, we can pray for them and, when the opportunity comes, do good to them. If we followed our feelings, we would probably retaliate! But if we ask the Spirit to control our wills, then we can act toward them as Jesus would have acted, in Christian love.
John went on to explain that love and obedience must go together (2 John 6). It is impossible to divorce our relationship with God from our relationship with people. If we say that we love God, but we hate our brother, then we can be sure that we do not really love God (1 John 4:20). If we obey God, then His love is perfected in us, and we have no problem loving our brother (1 John 2:3-5).
As you review this paragraph, you note three themes that blend: truth, love, and obedience. It is by believing the truth—in Christ and in the Word—that we are saved. The evidence of that salvation is love and obedience, but love and obedience are strengthened as we grow in our knowledge of truth. We speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) and we obey God's commandments because we love Him. Obedience enables us to learn more truth (John 7:17), and the more truth we learn, the more we love Jesus Christ who is truth!
Instead of living in a "vicious circle," we live in a "victorious circle" of love, truth, and obedience!
From encouraging truth, John turned to opposing error. He joined his voice with Peter's to warn that there are deceivers in the world. The word deceiver implies much more than teaching false doctrine. It also includes leading people into wrong living. John has already made it clear that truth and life go together. What we believe determines how we behave. Wrong doctrine and wrong living always go together.
Where did these false teachers come from originally? "For many deceivers have gone out into the world" (literal translation). They went out from the church! At one time, they professed to believe "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3), but they turned from that faith and abandoned the truth and the church. "They went out from us, but they were not of us" (1 John 2:19). "Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30).
It takes constant spiritual vigilance to protect a family or a local church from the insidious attacks of false teachers. One very successful pastor told me, "If I took my eyes off this work for twenty-four hours and stopped praying, it would be invaded before we knew it." He was not emphasizing his own importance (though godly pastors are essential to spiritual churches) but the importance of diligence and vigilance.
Note that there are many deceivers! Why? Second Peter 2:2 gives the answer: "And many shall follow their pernicious ways." I think it was Mark Twain who said that a lie runs around the world while truth is putting on her shoes. Fallen human nature wants to believe lies and resist God's truth. We have already learned from 2 Peter 2 the devious methods the apostates use to seduce unwary and unstable people. No wonder they are successful!
These deceivers are also "antichrists" (see 1 John 2:18-29). The Greek prefix anti means both "instead of and "against." These teachers are against Christ because they deny that He is indeed God come in the flesh (see 1 John 4:1-6). They not only deny the truth about Christ, but they give their converts a "substitute Christ" who is not the Christ of the Christian faith. The first question you want to ask any teacher, preacher, or author is, "What do you think about Christ? Is He God come in the flesh?" If he hesitates, or if he denies that Jesus is God come in the flesh, then you can be sure you have a false teacher.
I was preaching at Carrubers Close Mission in Edinburgh, Scotland, and before the meeting started, a young man came up to me. Without even introducing himself, he said, "Do you believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ?" I replied emphatically that I did, and that I preached that Jesus Christ was the Son of God come in the flesh. While I did not appreciate his arrogant manner, I did appreciate his concern that the man in the pulpit was "abiding in the truth."
To abide in the truth means to remain true to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. The false teachers had departed from the truth and from the church fellowship and, therefore, they were dangerous. John pointed out three dangers the church and its members face because of deceivers in the world.
The danger of going back (v. 8). This is the danger of losing what has already been gained. Look to yourselves means "Beware! Take heed!" The false teachers offer something you do not have, when in reality they take away what you already have!
Satan is a thief and so are his helpers. John wanted his readers to receive "a full reward," which is his equivalent of 2 Peter 1:11, an abundant entrance into the eternal kingdom. What a tragedy it is when God's servants labor faithfully to build up a church, and then the work is destroyed by false teaching. No wonder Paul wrote to the Galatian assemblies, "I am afraid of [for] you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain" (Gal. 4:11).
"Do not lose the things we accomplished" is the way Kenneth Wuest translates 2 John 8. Church members need to respect the work of faithful pastors and teachers and do everything to protect it and extend it. God's servants must one day give an account of their ministries, and they want to do it "with joy and not with grief (Heb. 13:17). When the church goes backward, losing what it has gained, then it also will lose part of the reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ. It is essential that we hold fast to the truth of the Word of God!
The danger of going ahead (v. 9). The danger here is that of going beyond the limits of the Word of God and adding to it. The word translated "transgress" means "to run ahead too far, to pass beyond the assigned limits." It is false progress! The apostates like to make us believe that they are "progressive" while the church is "in a rut." They invite us to join them because they have something "new and exciting" to share. But their "progress" is such that they abandon the doctrine that Jesus Christ is the Son of God come in the flesh.
Fifty years ago, the American press was filled with news about "the fundamentalist-modernist controversy." Those who were true to the faith were opposing "modernism" in the mainline denominations and seeking to bring the schools and the leadership of these denominations back to historic Christianity. The "progressive" group called themselves "modernists," when actually there was nothing "modern" about their denials of Christian doctrine. These denials are as old as the church itself! One of their leaders, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, said in one of his sermons, "Fundamentalism is still with us but mostly in the backwaters." If he were alive today, he would not make that statement; today the largest Sunday Schools, churches, seminaries, and missionary agencies are fundamental in doctrine.
If a person does not abide in the true doctrine, then he does not have either the Father or the Son. It is impossible to honor the Father and ignore the Son (or call Him a mere man) at the same time. "That all men should honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He that honoreth not the Son honoreth not the Father which hath sent Him" (John 5:23). "Progressive theology" that denies Christ is not progressive at all; it is regressive—all the way back to Genesis 3:1, "Yea, hath God said?"
In giving this warning, however, John was not condemning "progress" as such. "The Lord has yet more light to shine forth from His Word." God gave us the Holy Spirit to teach us and to lead us into new understanding and application of the truth (John 16:12-16), and we must constantly grow (2 Peter 3:18).
But if our "learning" leads us away from the fundamental doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ, then we are on dangerous ground.
The danger of going with (vv. 10-13). John warned the family (and the church in their house) not to accept false teachers who visited them, wanting to fellowship with them or perhaps enjoy hospitality. Hospitality was a very important Christian ministry in that day, because there were very few inns where travelers could safely stay, especially Christians who wanted to keep away from the evil influences of the world. Christians were admonished to open their homes to visitors (Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 3:2; 5:3-10; Heb. 13:2; 1 Peter 4:8-10).
It was also true that traveling pastors and teachers needed homes to stay in (3 John 5-8). Believers who showed hospitality to these servants of God were "fellowhelpers to the truth," but believers who assisted false teachers were only sharing in their evil works. The doctrine of Jesus Christ is a test of truth, a basis for fellowship, and a bond for mutual cooperation.
Certainly this principle applies today. Often professed Christians come to our doors, wanting to play cassettes for us or offering us magazines or books. We must exercise discernment If they do not agree with the true doctrine of Christ, not only must we not let them in, but we must not even say "goodbye," which means "God be with you."
Why was John so adamant about this? Because he did not want any of God's children to: (1) give a false teacher the impression that his heretical doctrine was acceptable; (2) become infected because of association and possible friendship; and (3) give the false teacher ammunition to use at the next place he stopped. If I entertain a cultist, for example, he will only say to the neighbors, "There's no reason why you shouldn't let me in. After all, Pastor Wiersbe let me in and we had a wonderful talk!" My disobedience could very well lead to somebody else's destruction.
Let me make it clear that John was not saying only born-again people should enter our houses! "Friendship evangelism" around the table is a wonderful way to win people to Christ. Christians need to be neighborly and hospitable. The apostle is admonishing us not to receive or encourage false teachers who represent antichristian groups, people who have left the church and are now trying to seduce others away from the truth. You can be sure that apostates use every opportunity they can to secure the endorsement of true Christians.
There is a tradition about the Apostle John that illustrates his position concerning false doctrine. When he was living in Ephesus, one day he went to the public baths, and there he saw Cerinthus, the leader of a heretical sect. John ran from the buildings lest they should fall down as a judgment from God! Cerinthus taught that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, not God come in the flesh.
John's closing words (2 John 12-13) are almost identical to the farewell in 3 John, and they require no explanation. They do, however, express the importance of Christian fellowship and the joy that it should bring to our hearts (see 1 John 1:4). It is wonderful to receive letters, but even more wonderful to receive God's people into our homes and hearts.
This little epistle, written to a Christian mother and her family (and perhaps the church in their house), is a perfect gem of sacred correspondence. But we must not forget the major thrust of the letter: be alert! There are many deceivers in the world!