Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 7/19/1998
1:1 The elder to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth; and not only I, but also all who know the truth, 2 for the sake of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever. 3 Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Son of the Father in truth and love.
Since I have never been known for rushing through an expository series, and since I did not want to start something major before the students in our congregation return from their summer vacation, I started looking for something short enough to finish before the Fall term begins. So naturally I turned to the shortest books in the New Testament: Second and Third John. They are short in length but not in significance. In the next five weeks we will not only have the opportunity to cover these often neglected epistles, but we will in the process gain an introduction to First John as well.
The indispensable background to Second and Third John is simply First John, for when you read the three together it is evident that the second two presuppose that you have read the first. Therefore I would suggest that the first thing you do during our studies of Second and Third John is to read First John. We won't take time to do it now, but to help you get started I will give you First John in a nutshell. It is 1 Jn. 5:13--"These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life." It's always helpful when a writer tells you what he is talking about. First John is preeminently the Epistle of Assurance. It deals with the question of how you can know that you have eternal life. If you believe in Christ, in other words, how can you be sure that you really belong to him, that you are truly a Christian? John answers that question by talking about four tests, which do not occur in linear outline order but are interwoven throughout the epistle. His point is that if you can honestly say that you pass these four "Tests of Life," as commentator Robert Law called them, you have a right to a warranted confidence in the reality of your faith and your relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and therefore a well grounded, warranted confidence in your own salvation.
First is The Doctrinal Test: Do you believe in Jesus?--specifically, that He is the eternal Son of God who came in the flesh. "Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? . . . Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also" (2:22-23). "By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God." Those which do not, are not (4:2-3). "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God" (5:1). This is a necessary but not a sufficient criterion of spiritual reality, for the demons also believe, and tremble. Second is The Ethical Test: Do you repent of sin? "If we say we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not practice the truth" (1:6). "The one who says, 'I have come to know Him,' and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him" (2:4-5). "No one who abides in Him [continually] sins; no one who [continually] sins has seen Him or knows Him" (3:6, with the word 'continually" added to bring out the nuance of the Greek verb.) The criterion is not whether we are perfect but whether we have repented. The one who has repented is not the person who never sins, but he is a person who does not yield himself up to sin. "By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God" (3:10). No one can become a Christian or be saved by forsaking sin, for by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. But we show that we have become children of God ("obvious") by repenting of our sins. Yet this is not all; there is not only the negative but also the positive. The third test is The Social Test: Do you love the brethren? "The one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now" (2:9). Not only the one who does not practice righteousness but also "the one who does not love his brother" is the child of the devil rather than of God (3:10). "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (4:7-8). Finally, we must ask whether our appearing to pass the first three tests continues in time. The fourth test is The Test of Endurance: Do you persevere in the faith until the end? There were some who had left the Church. "But they were not really of us, for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us. But they went out in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us" (2:19). It is not those who make a profession of faith but those who persevere in the faith unto the end that will be saved. "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life."
The purpose of Second and Third John is to follow up John's first epistle, to reinforce the truths he had taught there, and to apply them to the issue of hospitality. How is the Church to relate to traveling preachers who claim to represent Christ? Second John is concerned that we deny the support for ministry implied by hospitality to false Christians. Third John wants to be sure that we extend it to true ones. Which means that we must use the Four Tests of First John not only to evaluate our own Christian profession, but also apply it to others in discernment before we support them. The recipient is probably not an individual, but rather the "lady" is a local congregation, her "children" the members.
Turning to Second John, then, the key word that keeps ringing through the salutation and throughout the epistle is "truth." This is a truth that abides in us and will be with us forever. What does this mean? We can analyze the implications of John's statement under three headings.
For truth to abide in us, it must first exist. But today, the very existence of truth is not something we can take for granted. Cynicism about truth is not a new thing. Oliver Wendell Holmes once defined truth as "the majority opinion of that nation that can lick all the other nations." But that cynicism has risen to a fever pitch in the so-called "post-modern" world. We have accepted as a given and even tried to make a virtue of the conditions that George Orwell portrayed as a horrible defeat for our humanity in 1984. The inside of the main character Winston's head reads now as a chilling prophecy indeed.
"At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia. . . . But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. . . . The frightening thing, he reflected for the ten thousandth time, . . . was that it might all be true. If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened, that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death." Winston know that he knows the truth. "But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated."
I don't know if a more sobering line has ever been written. Winston's grasp on the truth is horribly insecure, because he has no other basis for it than the flickering neurons of his own brain. When his consciousness is annihilated, where will the truth be? How will the Party's lies be combated? They will reign supreme. If truth exists nowhere but in our own heads, then it is so fragile as to be doomed to extinction. Might as well accept this situation, says the Post-Modernist, and enjoy the freedom it gives you--for if there is no truth, there can also be no legitimate authority. But that way lies madness--and chaos.
It is an exciting thing to realize that the Christian is not left in this precarious position. For even when his own mind is asleep, even if his own mind is dead, even if his own mind is deceived, truth cannot be lost. For God sees and God remembers--perfectly, accurately, relieably, and forever. And therefore we can believe that truth is more than just the passing opinion of the powerful, more than just the lie that is being told most loudly and insistently. And that leads us to the next point.
If truth exists, what is it? It is a rich concept. John gives us a number of complementary statements which together constitute the biblical idea of truth.
First, truth is what is so; its opposite is that which is a lie. We see this usage in 1 Jn. 1: 6 and 8. If we lie, we do not practice the truth. If we say we have no sin, we lie, and the truth is not in us. Why? Because in fact we do have sin. Likewise in 2:4, the one who claims to know him but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. In these passages truth is a statement or a claim that corresponds to a state of affairs that actually exists; the lie is one that does not.
Second, the truth is that which is real. In this sense, its opposite is the false, the counterfeit, the fake. In 1 Jn. 2:8, the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining--that is, the light which is really light, not a false or counterfeit imitation of the light. In 5:20 the Son Jesus Christ is the true God, i.e., the real God, not a false God. In this sense, truth is an attribute not so much of a statement as of a thing. it is a thing which is really what it claims to be, not an imitation.
Third, truth is that which is correct or straight. The opposite of truth in this sense would be the slanted or the erroneous. In 1 Jn. 4:6, John distinguishes the spirit of truth from the spirit of error. Those who are faithful to correct doctrine are true; those who deviate from it are false. You have the truth when you are right; you are in error when you are wrong. But this is more than simply making accurate versus inaccurate statements, as in sense one. There is a moral quality which causes one to adhere to the straight line or to veer off from it: the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Fourth, truth is always something that is practical. You walk in the truth. In this sense, the opposite of truth would be sin, evil, or hypocrisy. John is constantly talking about walking in the truth, doing the truth, practicing the truth (1:6, 3:18, 2 Jn. 1:4, etc.). Truth is Scripture is never something that can remain abstract. It has to be incarnated, it has to be lived, or it is something less than the truth. And if we do not practice the truth, the alternative is not simply to ignore it. If we do not live it, we will live the lie instead, and our deeds will be evil.
Finally, and most profoundly, truth in Scripture is personal, in fact, a Person: it is Jesus Christ. In this sense, the opposite of truth is AntiChrist. All these other aspects of truth flow from the powerful dynamic of Christ's person, the divine Reality that dwells in Him and caused John in his Gospel to call Him the LOGOS, the Word. Truth as statement, truth as quality, truth as character, truth as action: all flow from Christ, all are expressions of the Reality which is Christ reaching into the created world. All are defined by their conformity to His dynamic character. That is why truth can never remain abstract. A mere abstraction is something less than an expression of harmony with this One whom C. S. Lewis called the ultimate Fact and the Father of all Facthood. And that is why truth can "abide" in us (2 Jn. 1:3). It is also why when it does abide in us, it transforms our lives. Life eternal is simply life continually renewed and transformed by the abiding and indwelling Person who is the living Truth.
Finally we are ready to read 2 Jn. 1:3 with understanding. If truth is ultimately Personal, then for persons to be in relationship with that Person is for them to partake of truth, which manifests itself in every aspect of their lives. That is why the Four Tests of First John are valid tests. The Doctrinal Test, the Moral Test, and the Social Test: right teaching, right living, and right loving are all the effects of indwelling truth. And because it is the eternal Truth which is God's Son, not the flickering and ephemeral epiphenomena of our transient minds (or Wilson's), so therefore the effect is a life that is eternal; and therefore also the validity of the Test of Endurance. But of all these effects, the one John focuses on most is love. Because of the truth which indwells both John and the Lady, he loves her. We could paraphrase his statement this way: "For the sake of (on account of, because of) the fact that Truth abides in you and me, I truly love you--and so must anyone else in whom the same Truth abides."
Do you see what John is saying? For Christianity to be concerned with truth does not mean that its theology should be constituted of dry and dusty facts and boring arguments. Of course there are a number of rather earth-shaking facts that are connected by some rather scintillating and mind-blowing arguments, and to master them requires a certain amount of intellectual effort. But when we expend that effort, we must never forget that it is in pursuit of the abiding Truth which is expressed in God's love for us and is the basis for our love of the brethren. Theology must get its facts right, but that is only the beginning. Any theology that does not lead us to repent of our sins and lay down our lives for the brethren is false theology. It is not true, even if it is factually correct. For its job is simply to make explicit in all its implications the living and indwelling Truth that laid down its life for us and was raised from the dead to abide in us forever through faith.
There is then an intimate and unbreakable connection between Truth and Love, because the God of Truth is also the God who is Love. Where there is no truth, there can be no true love. Where there is no love, there can be no abiding truth. It all comes together in the Person of Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Therefore, he who has the Son has life, and he who has not the Son has not life--because there is no truth in him. Let us therefore examine ourselves, whether we be in the Faith. And if we are, let us express our unity in truth and love by walking in the truth together.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 4/25/2004 10:21 PM