Discover more from Grace Upon Grace
Look to yourselves.
The seminal significance of the short letter of 2 John.
There are some portions of God’s Word that seem to get all the attention. Books such as Genesis, Romans, and the Psalms are prime examples of Scriptures that are most often selected for preaching and teaching and studying, and for good reason. Such books constitute cavernous depths of fathomless truth waiting to be explored by Christ’s disciples. But, even still, I find it interesting that for those who would affirm that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), there yet remain somewhat unvisited and unstudied corners of the Bible. Even as I write such things, I start to get a little sheepish, because, I confess, it’s true for me, too. If you were to look through the archive of sermons I’ve been privileged to deliver through the years, you’d find a similar pattern of proclaiming God’s truth from “familiar” texts. I couldn’t begin to count the number of sermons I’ve heard out of the Gospel of John, for example. But I can account for every sermon I’ve ever heard on Paul’s letter to Philemon, because there’s only one (and it’s this one, and it’s amazing!). I don’t mean to come across as glib or disingenuous. There’s certainly nothing wrong with letting specific parts of God’s Word affect you in specific ways. However, I only wish to call attention to the fact that preaching “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) necessarily means preaching the whole of God’s Holy Scriptures. And I don’t say that as one who has perfected such an aim, but as one who knows that such is the endeavor by which my ministry is driven.
I say all that because in all my years of going to church and listening to sermons — which is, basically, my entire life (seeing as I’m a third generation pastor) — I have never listened to a sermon from the book of 2 John (at least, not that I can recall). That I find to be quite odd, considering not only the foregoing affirmation of Scripture’s profitability (2 Tim. 3:16) but also because 2 John is very short (only thirteen verses). Indeed, despite being the second shortest book in the entire Bible (by word count), only trailing 3 John, 2 John’s brevity hasn’t translated to familiarity, especially when compared to other Scriptures. Which, again, is more than a little regrettable — it’s downright inexcusable, seeing as the second letter of St. John consists of some of the most cogent and resonant truths which you and I are compelled to take to heart.
This little epistle is, of course, the second of three letters included in the New Testament which are attributed to the apostle John, the writer of the magnificent Fourth Gospel and the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). While some have given themselves to re-identifying the author of the second and third letters as a different “John,” primarily because of the writer’s use of the epithet, “The elder” (2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1), there is little to no genuine reason to deny Johannine authorship. In fact, the textual similarities between the words of his Gospel and his epistles is such that I find it frivolous to debate such things. All of John’s scriptural writings are uniquely authoritative and thematically christological. And 2 John is no different.
Perhaps what makes this letter so troublesome, though, is the abiding mystery of its audience. While the body of the letter, though concise, is very much in keeping with other apostolic writings, the salutation is particularly tricky. “The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth,” the apostle begins (2 John 1:1). The pervading question, of course, being the identity of this “elect lady.” Was this a real, historical person? Was this an actual lady who had risen to such standing in the early church that the apostle felt it necessary to address her directly? Or is the apostle employing this affectionate and poetic title in a figurative way to refer to a beloved local church? To be honest, there is ample evidence for either interpretation. There is a compelling case to be made that the term “lady” is, in fact, a proper name, which would re-render this opening verse, “To the elect Cyria,” and so forth. Even so, if you take into consideration the preceding epistle, which came from John’s own pen, no less, you will find the term “children” used some twelve times (1 John 2:1, 12–13, 18, 28; 3:7, 10, 18; 4:4; 5:2, 21), and in each instance it is used in a corporate sense, that is, in reference to a congregation of the Lord’s disciples. Frankly, I don’t think it ultimately matters much whether or not the “elect lady” is, in fact, a specific person or a local body of baptized believers. The importance, the resonance, and the significance of 2 John does not change with either hermeneutic.
(For my purposes, and for the sake of clarity, I am going to stick to the poetic approach. Though, as a caveat, I’m not entirely beholden to that interpretation. Dr. Thomas Constable states quite matter-of-factly in his notes that “the elect lady” is a local church, noting how the New Testament personifies “the church as Christ’s bride” [Eph. 5:22–23; 2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7]. Scottish minister and professor William Barclay argues similarly in his own commentary that, “It is much more likely that [2 John] is written to a church . . . It may well be that the address is deliberately unidentifiable. The letter was written at a time when persecution was a real possibility. If it were to fall into the wrong hands, there might well be trouble. And it may be that the letter is addressed in cut a way that to the insider its destination is quite clear, while to the outside it would look like a personal letter from one friend to the another” . Barclay makes a compelling argument, no doubt. The renowned Southern Baptist pastor and theologian B. H. Carroll, however, rejects the corporate hermeneutic of 2 John, stating that it is “to him too far fetched for serious consideration,” even calling it “silly” [365–66]. H. A. Ironside argues similarly in his commentary . It is F. F. Bruce, though, who sums up the matter judiciously albeit provisionally, without offering a definitive answer: “The weighing up of the probabilities for the individual or corporate character of the ‘lady’ is part of the exegesis of the letter,” he writes. “If the following exegesis leads to the corporate interpretation, this does not suggest that finality is attainable on this question; so long as either interpretation claims the support of serious students of the document, the question must be treated as an open one” . But I digress.)
You might be wondering, though, why the apostle felt it necessary to put such things in writing. What is John so earnest in saying? And, furthermore, what does this fleeting letter have to say to the church today? Much, it seems, and in a short amount of time, to boot. There is a sense in which it appears as though this letter was written in haste. To be sure, I don’t mean to suggest that it was composed sloppily or without much forethought, but, rather, as John himself admits, there are so “many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink” (2 John 1:12). One gets the sense that he was compelled to write down these thoughts on parchment before he forgot them. From the outset, it is apparent that the apostle has noticed things which stir in him both joy (2 John 1:4) and concern (2 John 1:7). Accordingly, John, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, hastens to scribble down these words of exhortation. But why was he compelled to do so?
Verse 5 gives us the first clue, where John mentions casually albeit with adamantine certainty that his was no “new commandment.” “Now I beseech thee, lady,” he writes, “not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another” (2 John 1:5). By this he means to indicate that both his previous correspondence (1 John) as well as this present epistle were not to be received as some novel revelation for the church. These were not “new-fangled” articles of faith that he was, here, bringing to bear for these children of God. In fact, these words were not even his — neither were they really even the apostles’. These words, he says, are “from the beginning” (2 John 1:5–6), being received by them “from the Father” (2 John 1:4). And such is what made them authoritative and trustworthy. These beloved children could trust these words, enough to center their entire lives around them, precisely because they came from God, and not from John’s (or the other apostles’) own imagination. Which, to be sure, is a crucial point to consider in light of what follows.
In the next paragraph, John succinctly states the issue at hand which drew forth his “beseeching”:
For 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. Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward. 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. 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. (2 John 1:7–11)
In contrast to the words of the Father, which were “from the beginning,” are the words of these “deceivers,” which clearly have a starting point. They originated in the disingenuous hearts and minds of these who do not “abide in the doctrine of Christ” (2 John 1:9). John refers to these false teachers as misleading vagabonds and roving agents of corruption. They are imposters of truth. In a word, they are “antichrist.” Such denunciation is fitting for those who “confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (2 John 1:7). Indeed, such is what these emissaries of deception were hawking. They proposed that “Jesus” and “Christ” were representative of two distinct natures — the human and the divine — and that, furthermore, Jesus became divine at his baptism, with this divine nature leaving his body at the crucifixion. Therefore, when Jesus died, it was merely his humanity that suffered the torture of the cross, not his divinity. Such is how they endeavored to explain the notion of a suffering God.
When the apostles came tendering the message that the Jewish blasphemer and traitor who was lately crucified was, in fact, the Christ of God, they sent scandalous reverberations throughout the known world. The idea of God suffering, let alone suffering the agony and shame of crucifixion, was an entirely foreign concept. “That a man,” writer and historian Tom Holland notes, “who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque” (6). It was creeping on mad sacrilege to suggest such a thing. And yet, that rag-tag crew of Jesus’s followers preached that very message with almost reckless abandon. To make such teachings more palatable, perhaps, to their first century audience, these “deceivers” divided the nature of the Son of God, making him more of an apparition and less of an Advocate. The flesh and blood suffering of the crucified Lord was lost, meaning that the concrete hope of redemption was, too. “The very gospel,” writes G. M. Burge, “that had given birth to their faith was being jettisoned” (591). With Incarnate Christ all but explained away, so, too, had the elemental message of God’s eternal saving action been revoked.
Such thinking is clearly, undoubtedly, and, indeed, incredibly antichrist. It is opposed to the revelation of Scripture and to the revelation of Christ himself, who is the “Word made flesh.” It is entirely unfounded, bordering on absurd, to try and drive a wedge between the figures Jesus and Christ, as though one is different than the other. They are not. Jesus is the Christ, “the Lord’s Christ,” as St. Luke terms it (Luke 2:26). It is, without question, the ineradicable belief of all who claim the name of Jesus Christ that he was both God and man, fully, completely, simultaneously. And, as such, he is the God-man who suffered perfectly on behalf of those who are in bondage to sin and death (Heb. 2:9–16), shouldering both and leaving both behind in the grave, he being the consummate author and finisher of the faith of the church (Heb. 12:1–3). “The Man of Nazareth,” G. Campbell Morgan proclaims, “because of the suffering and victory of the Cross, has been crowned by God King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and is at the center of the whole universe of God, its glorious Master and King” (6:197).
Accordingly, St. John’s biblical oeuvre is seemingly dead set against those who would make such fraudulent confessions (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:2–3). Surveying not only his but the entire body of work of the New Testament reveals a kindred burden among the apostles to build up the church of Christ in the certitude of Christ’s identity. He is God’s Exalted One (Isa. 52:13; 53:12; Dan. 7:14; Acts 2:32–33; 5:30–31; Eph. 1:20–21; Phil. 2:9–10). “The Son of the Father” (2 John 1:3; Heb. 1:2). “Both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). He is “the Word of life” come in the flesh, manifested and handled and witnessed, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:1–4, 14; 1 John 1:1–4).
And so it is that, according to John, veering however slightly from the truth of this doctrine results in ruin. Even the smallest of deviations from the revelation of God in Christ isn’t just a gaffe, it’s an error akin to the “antichrist” (2 John 1:7–9). Such is the fallacy of those who would say, “Listen to my new doctrine.” John’s counsel is to bid such “deceivers” a stiff goodbye without any well-wishes. “If there come any unto you,” he admonishes, “and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that bidet him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 John 1:10–11). Some have questioned the idea that the beloved St. John would offer this sort of instruction to the church. The tone doesn’t seem to jive with the one who’s called “the apostle of love.” (There is, I think, a glimmer of thunder on display in these words from one half of the “Sons of Thunder” — only in this instance it is channeled. Whereas previously, John’s thunder was employed erroneously [Luke 9:34; Mark 3:17; 9:38], here it is employed for the impregnable defense of God’s indefatigable truth [2 John 1:10–11].) And while, at first, that might seem to hold water, the course of action here prescribed by the apostle is, in fact, the most loving thing we can do for our neighbor. Which is to say that to truly love them, we are obliged to resist evil and “walk in the truth.” “The love of goodness,” writes Rev. Augustus Strong, “that is not accompanied by a hatred of evil is love of a very suspicious sort” (361). “And this is love,” John writes, “that we walk after his commandments” (2 John 1:6).
This counsel sounds eerily like the psalmist’s words in Psalm 1, where those who are blessed are identified as those whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1:2). Those who are deceived by these cunning “deceivers” and “abideth not in the doctrine of Christ” (2 John 1:9), are not unlike the “chaff which the wind driveth away” (Ps. 1:4). They have opened truth’s door and invited “new truth” to sit down with them and stay a while. And, like the psalmist’s ungodly man, before you know it, you’re taking counsel from other ungodly voices and sitting at the “seat of the scornful” (Ps. 1:1). You’re not only entertaining distributors of corruption but encouraging them on their way. In so doing, you’ve become complicit in the ruin which follows in their wake. This, you see, is why the apostle felt such pressing necessity to compose this letter. The emergence and, perhaps, creeping acceptance of “other doctrines” drove his pen. He was concerned for these children whom he loved, and it was his sincerest desire that they, along with “all they that have known the truth,” cling ever tighter to the truth, and nothing but, which comes “from the Father.” His heart burned for these believers to “walk” in the commandment “heard from the beginning” and in the “doctrine of Christ” alone.
To that end, he says, “Look to yourselves” (2 John 1:8), which can also be rendered, “Watch out! Be on guard!” John cautions these brothers and sisters in the faith from humoring anyone who peddles doctrines that “transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ” (2 John 1:9). “Transgress” is a revealing word, meaning, “to violate” or “overstep.” It is suggestive of those who are determined to “progress beyond” the truth of God as revealed in his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. And so it is that while “Progressive Christianity” feels inherently modern, it didn’t take long for the New Testament church to become encumbered by all manner of “new commandments” which blossomed and broadsided the family of God. As long as the church has existed, there have been those within it who’ve died on the hills of their own hubris, who’ve sought to capture the church’s attention with new-fangled notions regarding God’s truth. Consequently, there have always been a gaggle of “progressives” within the church, wielding and manipulating the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3) to fit their own ends and fancies. This most often occurs through the prism of some novel dogma of enlightenment or “superior truth,” to which these progressives have arrived after much careful meditation or some moment of revelation. But, as is always the case, acceptance of these “new truths” constitutes nothing but the abandonment of truth of God, and God himself (2 John 1:9).
There are no shortage of “antichrists” in our day. Look around and you will, in due time, become overwhelmed by the marshaling of “truths” and “counter-truths,” confessions and philosophies around which the ungodly revolve their lives, all of which are contrary to the Word of the Father. These “new commandments” achieve nothing but the ruin of the children of God and the forfeiture of his “full reward.” The grand delusion of man’s anti-christian doctrines bamboozles believers into thinking that it’s agreeable and acceptable to embrace convictions that run counter to God’s eternal Word. “It’s okay to affirm other genders.” “It’s okay to be accepting of same-sex relationships.” “It’s okay to question the design of God in creation.” “It’s okay to doubt the sufficiency and authority of God’s Word.” And so it goes. We have become somewhat desensitized to just how atrocious mankind’s philosophies really are, mostly through the accumulation of small compromises over an extended amount of time. The lamentable result, of which, sees the words and commands of God being tossed in gutter. It’s a scene which evokes the oracles of Isaiah:
The way of peace they know not; and there is no judgment in their goings: they have made them crooked paths: whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace. Therefore is judgment far from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness. We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noon day as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men. We roar all like bears, and mourn sore like doves: we look for judgment, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far off from us. For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us: for our transgressions are with us; and as for our iniquities, we know them; in transgressing and lying against the Lord, and departing away from our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood. And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. (Isa. 59:8–14)
The beliefs of the ungodly rage and roar, catalyzing the engine of oblivion on which man finds himself. Their so-called “progression” of ideals is actually nothing but wretched retrogression, as man scurries further and further into the dark. And the tragedy of tragedies remains the success of these “deceivers,” who creep up unawares on unprepared believers, sweeping them up in their ruinous wake. Such is why John’s words remain so trenchant. To you and I, to the church in 2022, the apostle would write the same words: “Look to yourselves” (2 John 1:8). Be vigilant, church. Your Adversary has stationed “antichrists” along your way. Offer them no space in your heart, mind, and soul. Afford them no quarter. Instead, “abide in the doctrine of Christ.” Hold fast to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, for he is Truth Incarnate. “To ‘abide in the truth,’” notes Alexander Maclaren, “is to keep ourselves conscientiously and habitually under the influence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and of the Christ who is Himself the Truth” (17:1.53). Christ alone is the sum and substance of all that we are and do and have. Therefore, from now till the End of Days, look to yourselves, and, most of all, look unto Jesus, “the author and finisher of your faith.” Amen.
William Barclay, see his The Letters of John and Jude (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981).
G. M. Burge, “Letters of John,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).
B. H. Carroll, The Pastoral Epistles of Paul and I and II Peter, Jude, and I, II, III John, edited by J. B. Cranfill (New York: Revell, 1915).
Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the Epistles of John and an Exposition of the Epistle of Jude (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1979).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).
G. Campbell Morgan, The Westminster Pulpit: The Preaching of G. Campbell Morgan, Vols. 1–10 (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Co., 1954).
Augustus H. Strong, Popular Lectures on the Books of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Griffith & Rowland, 1914).