Beyond the Lectionary Text: 2 John
by Randy Blacketer
“All you need is love…” John Lennon’s iconic refrain still resonates in our culture decades after it was a hit for The Beatles, and so does the sentiment. From the first epistle of John you might get the impression that John agrees, since love is the overriding theme of that letter, mentioned well over 40 times. He even says that God is love, and that a person cannot call oneself a follower of Jesus Christ if love is absent from one’s life. This is a theme that is not likely to cause offense to anyone today.
But here in his second epistle, John makes it quite clear that we need more than love, and more than just any kind of love. (This is evident in 1 John as well). Not only do we need love; we need love shaped by the truth. And in fact, love without truth is not authentic love at all. This message was crucial for John’s congregation, the believers in Ephesus who were distributed among various house-churches. Why? Because the church had become a battleground.
Some members of the church were advocating an alternative message about Jesus Christ. These teachers sharply divided the human Jesus from the divine Christ. They were teaching that only Jesus the man was crucified, while the spiritual, non-human, non-material Christ did not and could not suffer such an indignity. They denied that the divine Word became flesh (a shameful thought) and dwelt among the common rabble (what an insult to the divine!) These ideas derived from contemporary Greek philosophical thought, and would eventually develop into a heretical movement known as Gnosticism, from the Greek gnosis, “knowledge.” For these teachers, Christianity was for the intellectually elite, it imparted a secret knowledge only to a few. These teachers denied the incarnation, and exemplified what Paul meant when he said that the message about Jesus was foolishness to the Greeks (I Cor. 1:23; cf. 2 Cor. 11).
This is not a mere doctrinal dispute about which believers could agree to disagree. John refers to these teachers as deceivers and the antichrist (v. 7). Even if these teachers claimed to have love, they lack the essential truth about the good news, about Jesus Christ, about the faith. This is no abstract, trivial matter. John makes it quite clear that these teachers are not authentic followers of Jesus Christ, and their gospel is no good news at all.
So there is no authentic Christian love without authentic Christian truth; and authentic Christian truth will ring hollow if persons do not embody that truth in acts of love. Timothy Keller’s reflections on marriage apply equally to all our relationships: “Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us” (The Meaning of Marriage).
Just as 2 John was written in the context of pitched spiritual battle, so the preacher may have to navigate a minefield or two depending on one’s context. Perhaps some in your congregation think that doctrine is peripheral or unimportant, and the only important thing is to pursue social justice (see v. 9). Perhaps you have some in your congregation for whom maintaining the truth means insisting on a particular view of creation and science, and anything but a literalist approach constitutes apostasy from the truth and an abandonment of biblical authority. Preaching 2 John can be perilous; it’s not for the faint of heart.
For some, nothing is really essential but ethics, being a good person. Jesus is an admirable example, worthy of imitation, but not much more. That’s not the gospel. The good news is salvation for those who are not good people. Thus John would not be practicing love if he did not do everything in his power to root out the false gospel and the counterfeit Christ preached by these erring members. As CS Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.” And: “Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal.”
For others, every doctrinal nuance is essential, and every deviation from their own perspective is potential heresy. These pugnacious persons constantly do battle with fellow believers and create division in the church. In neither case is there much genuine charity. In our own congregations, where differences of opinion threaten to divide us, we must be reminded to fill our conversations with grace, “seasoned with salt,” as the Apostle Paul commends (Col. 4:6).
What we must say is that John makes it quite clear that the good news about Jesus Christ has a definite content, and that content is non-negotiable, particularly when it comes to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Pastors may never be timid about proclaiming God’s truth. As David Steinmetz writes, “It is humility for ministers to disavow that they have all the answers; but it is not humility to claim that they have no answers at all” (Taking the Long View).
But how does one discern and identify this truth? By referring back to what was taught from the beginning (vv. 5-6). In other words, the truth is defined by what would come to be called the apostolic tradition, made concrete in the writings of the apostles and evangelists, and eventually confessed in creeds shared in common by the Christian churches.
Nevertheless, figuring out how to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) can be a perilous business, and the preacher may want to emphasize that peril. Our personal understanding of the gospel is not necessarily the same thing as the gospel. During the religious turmoil of the seventeenth century, a little-known Lutheran pastor, Rupertus Meldenius, commended a principle that would become well-known (and falsely attributed to St. Augustine): “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” John Calvin, prefacing his Romans commentary, admitted that God gifts no one with a perfect understanding of the Bible in this life.
Some additional themes in 2 John are worth noting, particularly how the author describes the essential point at issue in verse 7: There are those who deny Jesus coming (present participle) in the flesh. Jesus not only was a real human being; he still is an embodied human being, a point crucial to the author of Hebrews, who emphasizes that the incarnate Christ intercedes for us before the Father (and cf. Col. 2:9: “in Christ all the fullness of the deity lives [present tense!] in bodily form”).
In addition, some might be confused or put off by John’s command to refuse hospitality to the false teachers. Aren’t we to be hospitable to all, without discrimination? But the context is the house church. To admit someone into the house was to acknowledge them as a member and to potentially expose new and vulnerable believers to a corruption of the authentic good news. John is highly concerned about vulnerable believers being led into a dangerous cult and held captive by a counterfeit gospel. These teachers added their own philosophical speculations to the gospel and tried to go above and beyond the teachings of the apostles (v. 9), thus creating a false gospel that was no good news at all. And they were apparently very persuasive. Thus simply to invite them into one’s home was asking for trouble. Moreover, in biblical times, table fellowship implies spiritual fellowship. Notice how the Apostle Paul also commands the Corinthian church not to show hospitality to someone who claims to be a follower of Christ and yet lives in a manner utterly repugnant to the way of Christ (2 Cor. 5:9-13).
Tragically, it seems that John’s church did not survive this battle. John was a faithful pastor and teacher, but his faithfulness alone was not enough, apparently, to save the Ephesian church from falling to heresy and eventually disappearing from history. Faithfulness does not guarantee success, by worldly standards of success. By the same token, success does not always imply faithfulness. But a church that strives to be faithful both in practicing love and proclaiming the truth cannot help but be a success in the eyes of our flesh-and-blood Savior Jesus Christ.