Big Lessons from Small Books #3: 2nd John
(This series of articles is designed to reveal the beauty found within some of the smaller texts within our Bibles, and to whet our appetites for closer, more devoted study of every corner of our scriptures.)
2nd John is the smallest book in the New Testament, scarcely filling half the page in many translations. This short letter between the apostle John and “the elect lady” is not lacking in terms of value or lessons to be learned for Christians today. Among the many teachings that are drawn from this book three stand out, and hopefully after examining these more closely you will be further motivated to dig deeper into your scriptures and find more beautiful truths.
Truth Defines the Christian
In the opening four verses John shows that the initial common element between all Christians is the truth. John loves the elect lady “in truth”, all of those “who know the truth” also love her (v.1), and they do so “because of the truth”. (v.2) This truth that Christians have “abides in us and will be with us forever” (v.2). John goes on to say that the “grace, mercy, and peace” that comes from the Father and the Son will be with Christians, “in truth and love”. (v.3) Furthermore, John rejoices in v.4 at the knowledge that some of the elect lady’s children are Christians but note how he identifies them: “walking in the truth”. Clearly the importance of truth to the Christian cannot be overstated.
What truth does the Christian walk in? Rather than focusing in on individual truths that Christians believe, John simply says that we as Christians are defined by our efforts to walk “in the truth”. This search for the truth, if done faithfully, will inevitably result in finding the Source. The word of God is truth (Ps. 119.160), to walk in His way is truth (Ps. 86.11), and a search for truth will inevitably lead one to Jesus Christ, through whom truth came to us (John 1.17; 14.6). In contrast, Paul describes unrighteous and ungodly men as those “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1.18b) and have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1.25a).
Love is Walking in God’s commandments
The next section (v.5-6) focuses on the one essential commandment that Christians must learn to keep: to love one another. This commandment is certainly not a new one: “not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning – that we love one another.” (v.5) In fact, loving God and one another are commonly known as the greatest and 2nd greatest commandments (cf. Matthew 22.38-40). John here double-knots the concepts of love and walking in God’s commandments together; two ideas which in the minds of many people today are easily-separable. This is simply not so according to John: “And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments” (v.6a).
We see elsewhere in John’s writings the inseparable bond between our love (both of God and men) and our willingness to obey God’s commands. Examples include passages such as John 14.15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”, and 1 John 2.4-5a: “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”. John makes one fact abundantly clear: there is no love unless God’s commandments (toward both himself and one another) are followed.
No Love, No Truth, No Greeting
If you haven’t already, turn and look at the book of 2nd John, either in your Bible or on whatever device you are currently reading this on.
Now that you have it in front of you, notice the clear pivot between v.1-6 and v.7-11. In the first section, we are inundated with beautiful, godly terms: love (3x), truth (5x), walking in God’s commandments, etc. In the 2nd section, note the total absence of these things. Not once is truth, love, grace, mercy, peace, or any term like it found here. Look and see what the cause of this darkness is: “those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (v.7). John takes time in this part of the letter to instruct the elect lady and her children as to who these people are, and what they should do about them. They are the “deceiver and the antichrist” (v.7b), they can cause a Christian to lose their reward (v.8), they do not have God (v.9), and must not be greeted or received into your house (v.10), for fear that you will taking part in their “wicked works” (v.11b).
This sounds harsh and unreasonable to our ears tuned so often towards tolerance and acceptance, made so by a society that unashamedly demands both. However John makes another fact about our truth quite clear: there are those who walk in it (v.4) and those who do not (v.7). Christians must learn to be discerning in their associations with those who are outside the faith. We are called to be salt and light of this world (Matthew 5.13-16), which necessitates contact with those who are walking in darkness, but at the same time we must ensure that we are not actually aiding and enabling wickedness. John gives more clarity to the distinction between the Christian and the antichrist in 1 John 4.2-3: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
One is saddened by John’s brevity in this letter, which in v.12 is explained as a preference to “talk face to face” (v.12). If John was indeed able to visit the elect lady as he wished, what a conversation that must have been! But we must be thankful for what we have been given, for in this text we have been shown much that is crucial for being able to walk the Christian walk. Believe it or not, not everything has been mined from this text, and the golden nuggets of truth that lie just beneath the surface only expose themselves through careful and diligent study. My advice? Dig!