An Exposition of the Second Letter of John – Part 1
During the annual Christian party for a group of inner city Cub Scouts, one young lad reached into the large grab bag sack. He pulled out a small square shaped gift no larger than his nine year old hand. The tiny present had none of the familiar Christmas ribbon and bow. It was simply wrapped in plain brown paper. Noticing the look of disappointment on the young boy’s face, one of the scout masters called out, “Don’t fret son. Good things come in little packages.” The newly encouraged scout opened the not so impressive looking present. His eyes widened as he beheld a lovely 14 karat gold cross and chain.
Turning to the second letter of John, we have the shortest writing in the New Testament. Sometimes it is overlooked because of its slight size in light of the larger New Testament writings. However, this letter’s brevity does not take anything away from its importance to instruct the people of God in matters of faith and practice. The thirteen verses that make up Second John is a “good thing that comes in a little package.”
Lets us look briefly at the historic setting of John’s three letters. This will help us get a handle on the content of the shorter letters which GC Finley called, “notes snatched from the everyday correspondence of an apostle.”
The three letters of John were written in the last quarter of the first century. The much larger and detailed first letter was circulated among a wide number of churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) where the apostle ministered (probably from Ephesus) in his later years. The two smaller and more personal letters were written to address a church situation in all its local color.
As the first century was coming to a close, the seeds of earlier errors planted by false teachers were beginning to push their unsightly heads through the soil of the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). There was a group of false teachers who came on the scene promoting an erroneous view of the Person of Christ and of living the Christian life. They were the forerunners of a dangerous movement which later (mid second century) greatly plagued the church. This false teaching became known as Gnosticism. It is derived from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. We will address the errors of these proto-Gnostics in greater detail as we dig into the letter.
It is important to note that the false teachers of this pre-Gnostic bent had infiltrated the churches (see 1 John 2:18-19). They were not only drawing members away, but their teaching was causing confusion and casting doubt about the Christian faith. John, with a true pastor’s heart for the people of God, wrote his letters to expose the errors of the so called ‘new thinkers.’ In doing so John wrote to assure Christians about the truth of the gospel and to encourage them to stand firm on it.
The apostle revolved his instruction around three checks or tests. These three God sanctioned bench marks set apart genuine historic apostolic Christianity from the claims of the bold “new” theology and daring “new” morality on the scene. There is the doctrinal check or test of truth. What does the person believe about Jesus Christ? There is the social check or test of love. Does the person love God and others? Thirdly, there is the moral check or test of righteousness. Does the person obey the commandments of God?
All three measurements are exacting in their demands and are interrelated to one another. There cannot be the one without the other. All three, namely truth, love, and obedience will make up the spiritual fabric of a genuine Christian. There must be Biblical views of who Jesus Christ is as to His Person. This Christological test lays the firm foundation for Christ’s work as the Great high Priest of His church. There must be Biblical views as to how a person is to live the Christian life. These two ethical tests lay the firm foundation concerning the Christian’s walk in love and obedience.
When we read John’s letters of instruction, we cannot fail to see that the apostle is very pointed in applying these three bench marks over against the false teaching he is exposing. Why? The great danger was that these proto-Gnostic errors took on just enough Christianity to make it an attractive alternative. Let us mark it that the three tests of truth, love, and obedience are essential characteristics of the person who lays claim to being a Christian.
John’s day is no different than our day as far as false teaching goes. Many of the same Christological and ethical errors about the Christian faith resurface in every century. The only difference is that come to us wearing a new suit of clothes to fit the times. Both then and now false teachers continue to deny the true Person (and work) of Jesus Christ. Mistaken views of Jesus Christ lead to wrong views about the doctrine of salvation. This in turn leads into erroneous views of the doctrine of sanctification (the work of the Holy Spirit in making us Christ like). Flawed views of sanctification further leads to alternative lifestyles which are far removed from the way of holiness required by the Lord (see Hebrews 12:14).
The apostle John under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit draws a deep and definitive line in the sand. John with absolute clarity marks out the characteristics of genuine Christianity from all that lays claim to be.
Second John focuses upon two arrivals, namely the first arrival of Christ and the arrival of false teachers. Both arrivals are set in the context of exhortations and warnings for Christians to be watchful. God’s people are to be vigilant concerning what is presented to them as truth. It is vital that we take this seriously because the absolute truth of God’s Holy Word, the Bible, is under all out attack by opponents but within and without the church. We are being told that there is no absolute truth. Truth is relative. Truth is whatever you think it is or want it to be. God forbid! For the apostle, absolute truth stands at the crossroads linking love and obedience. We underscore the fact that truth, love, and obedience are the tests which John presents as the marks of genuine Christianity.
Our gracious Heavenly Farther: We are thankful that you have given us Your sure Word to be the illuminating light to guide our ways of thinking and acting in this increasingly dark and evil world. A world in which there are many Siren like voices seeking to steal our minds and hearts away from the truth as it is in Jesus. May you be pleased to give us in these studies of Second John ears to hear, minds to understand, and hearts to respond to the absolute truth of Your unchanging, infallible and inerrant Word, to the end that You be honored and we by Your wondrous grace, brought closer to You and one another in the bonds of faith, love, obedience, and service. We humbly ask this in the name of Him who loved us and gave Himself up for us, even our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Read more articles by Frank Parrino or search for articles on the same topic or others.