By Arno C. Gaebelein
We treat these small documents—2 John and 3 John—together. No intelligent person can doubt that both Epistles were written by the same person. All objections are answered by the ancient authorities who ascribe both books to the writer of the first Epistle—that is, the apostle John. They seem to have been accepted from the very beginning as his inspired testimony.
The internal evidence is also conclusive. Both 2 John and 3 John are in tone, style, and vocabulary like the Gospel of John and 1 John. The characteristic words of the Gospel and 1 John—
love, truth, world, and so forth—are found in 2 John and 3 John. These two Epistles are indeed complementary to 1 John and present some of the truths contained in the first Epistle in a practical way. The warning contained in 2 John 10 connects closely with the instructions of 1 John 4. There is no question that both 2 John and 3 John are appendixes to 1 John.
The second Epistle was addressed by “the elder unto the elect lady and her children.” The word “elder” has the same meaning here that it has in 1 Peter 5. Some take it that “the elect lady” means an assembly, and “her children,” the members of the assembly, but this is a very strained application. The word
kyria (“lady”) excludes this meaning and there are other reasons for rejecting it, but we will not discuss them here.
“The elect lady” was a Christian woman of note, generally known and beloved. She had a sister with children, who seems to have been where the apostle was, probably in Ephesus. This is indicated by the last verse: “The children of thy elect sister greet thee.”
The keynote of this message to “the elect lady,” unknown by name, is the word “truth.” The apostle let her and her children know that he loved them and all other believers in the truth. That is the basis of real love. Every child of God—man, woman, or child—is best beloved for the sake of the truth, the blessed truth so beautifully expounded in 1 John, the truth that is Christ Himself. That truth “dwelleth in us, and shall be with us for ever” (2 John 2). It binds together in closest fellowship all who know Him.
A greeting follows in 2 John 3: “Grace be with you, mercy, and peace, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.” The expression “the Son of the Father,” which is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, is in full keeping with the object of this little Epistle, for a warning against those who deny “that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” is the chief message of the Epistle.
The great joy of the apostle was that he found the lady’s children walking in the truth, according to the commandment received from the Father. Having the truth necessitates walking in the truth. One who claims to have the truth and does not walk in it, shows that he does not know the truth in his heart. Walking in the truth is the result of having and knowing the truth.
The view stated before that 2 John and 3 John are appendixes of 1 John is supported by the comment in 2 John 5 (compare 1 John 3:23). To “love one another” is the old and the new commandment. It is old because it was demonstrated in Christ Himself; it is new because it is just as true in us as in Him. Divine love reproduces itself in all who know the truth—that is, who know Christ. “And this is love, that we walk after his commandments” (2 John 6). Walking “after his commandments” means obedience to Him, and what else is obedience but love in action?
But why did the apostle write all this? In verse 7 he gave the reason and it is a very solemn one indeed: “Many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” This was true in the beginning of the age, and all through the present dispensation the old serpent has made repeated attempts to attack Christ and foster lies concerning His person and glory, but such attacks have never been as evident as they are today. The reason is that the age is about to end.
In these closing days people are denying Christ’s essential deity, His true humanity, His virgin birth, His infallibility, His holy character, His physical resurrection, and His bodily presence in glory. Many such antichrists are around. John branded them in plain speech as “deceivers.” No matter what names they have, what scholarship and honors they claim, what beautiful characters they have assumed as natural men, if they deny anything about Christ, they are deceivers.
In his second letter John was calling for “the elect lady and her children” to look diligently about to see whether some of this awful leaven was affecting them. If they were contaminated with it in any way, he and his fellow teachers might lose the “full reward” (2 John 8; also see 1 John 2:28). Even the smallest error about the person of Christ is a transgression of the doctrine of Christ and can lead to a complete rejection of the truth, as has so often been seen in the cases of apostates.
The apostle continued in 2 John 9, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.” A denier of the doctrine “hath not God,” while he who remains true “hath both the Father and the Son.” After this declaration comes a divine command that is just as binding as any other command in the Word of God: “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.”
This is strong language and yet not too strong when we remember what is at stake. Anyone who denies “the doctrine of Christ”—the doctrine unfolded in 1 John concerning Christ the Son of God coming in the flesh and dying for sinners—is an antichrist. Furthermore such a person makes God a liar, and robs God of His glory and man of his salvation. Every man who denies the virgin birth or teaches the peccability of Christ or denies His physical resurrection must be shunned. Fellowship with him is an impossibility. He is not to be welcomed to any Christian home, nor is he to be given the common greeting. If met anywhere, there is to be no acknowledgment whatever, not even a “Good morning” or “Good night,” for this is the meaning of the expression “God speed.”
Does this sound intolerant? Yes, but it is the intolerance of divine love. If such deceivers are welcomed and fellowship is had with them even in the slightest degree, the believer puts his sanction on a denier of Christ. God will hold all responsible who fellowship with any man, any set of men, any institution, or anything else that denies His Son and His glory. This is unpalatable to many. Nowadays it is considered a sign of Christian charity and broadmindedness to mingle with Unitarians, critics, and baptized infidels of various descriptions and to push His honor and glory into the background. Happy are we if we stand firm and refuse such fellowship by practicing the divine injunction given by the apostle of love. God will be our rewarder.
The third Epistle was addressed by “the elder,” the aged apostle John, to a brother in Christ by the name of Gaius. A Gaius is mentioned in Acts 19:29; 20:4; Romans 16:23; and 1 Corinthians 1:14. However, it is impossible to say whether this is the same man. John called him “wellbeloved” and referred to him as one “whom I love in the truth.” Thus the apostle emphasized the truth once more. He wished that Gaius might prosper in his body, even as his soul prospered.
John had heard testimony from other believers that Gaius was walking “in the truth.” The apostle rejoiced in this and declared, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” And this is not only the aged apostle’s joy, but it is the joy of the Lord. How He must rejoice when His beloved children in whom He dwells walk in truth!
Gaius had been very gracious and perhaps those who spoke well of him had been the recipients of his kindness. He had been hospitable not only to the brothers in his assembly, but also to strangers who were ministering servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. They told the church how faithful Gaius had been in entertaining them, helping them on their journey in every way possible.
“For his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles,” because they depended on the Lord. The practice, even among those who preach the truth, of demanding so much money for so much service was unknown in the early church. Nowhere do we read in the New Testament of a salaried ministry. The evils of going to the world for support of the Lord’s work and using the methods of the world are widespread today and detrimental to true faith and to true testimony. The work of the Lord and the servants of Christ are to be supported only by the Lord’s people and not by the unsaved.
Those who go forth “taking nothing of the Gentiles” are to be received; and those who do as Gaius did, receiving them and helping them on their journey, are “fellowhelpers to the truth” and in that coming day will share in the fruit of their labors. This is true fellowship in the truth. As Paul expressed it in Galatians 6:6, “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.” There is to be identification with those who know the truth and teach the truth. What a contrast to the withdrawal, the complete separation, that there is to be from those who deny the doctrine of Christ!
A bright picture is presented in Gaius, but 3 John is not all good news. There was a man called Diotrephes—his name means “nourished of God”—of whom John said: “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.”
Diotrephes wanted to be the leader of the assembly, a kind of pope in embryo. He loved the pre-eminence and his self-love and his seeking to maintain his position led him to act so outrageously that he excommunicated some and dared to rise up against the apostle himself. What harm such jealousies, self-seeking, self-glorification, and ecclesiastical bossism have worked and are working in the body of Christ! But why did Diotrephes love to have the pre-eminence? Because, unlike the apostle and the beloved Gaius, he did not give the Lord Jesus Christ the pre-eminence in all things; he did not walk in the truth. When the Lord comes, all such things will be brought to light and dealt with by Him at His judgment seat.
John did not leave us with the sad picture of Diotrephes. The apostle went on to say, “Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God.” Doing good is the active service of love. God does not do evil; He does good. Therefore if we do good as believers in truth, we are of God. That is the test.
Then John mentioned Demetrius. Perhaps he was one of God’s servants who went about doing good and preaching the truth; perhaps he was one whom Diotrephes would not receive. How blessed that the Holy Spirit through John’s letter endorsed and recommended Demetrius! The apostle wrote, “Demetrius hath good report of all men, and of the truth itself: yea, and we also bear record; and ye know that our record is true.” Such is the comfort of all true servants who walk in the truth.
Both 2 John and 3 John end with the prospect of a “face to face” meeting. Let us remember that some blessed day there is going to be another “face to face” meeting when the saints of God will gather for eternal fellowship and, above all else, we will be face to face with Him. It may be soon, but while we wait for that day, may we “walk in the light” and in the fullest enjoyment of our fellowship “with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:7,3). “To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:6).