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A man whom I knew years ago in the South had the best way to divide the three epistles of John that I have ever heard. He called them “one–eyed John,” “two–eyed John,” and “three–eyed John.” I do not think you will forget the three epistles of John if you remember them like this. That man, by the way, was one of the three conservative ministers in the community in which I served in Nashville, Tennessee, at that time. He was a real brother in Christ. Any Christian, regardless of his race, nationality, or station in life, if he is right on the inside, if he has been born again, is my brother. That is the great truth taught in First John which will be continued in Second and Third John with a different emphasis.
We are considering here, then, “two–eyed John.” Your first impression, I am sure, is the brevity of these two last epistles. It is something that is almost startling. You might wonder why just thirteen verses in the second epistle and fourteen verses in the third epistle should be included in the Scriptures. Both of the epistles are very brief indeed. Someone will say, “Doesn’t their brevity discount their message? Obviously, John didn’t have too much to say.” Not at all. Their brevity does not in any way take away from the importance of these epistles. In fact, it actually enhances them. Although they are very brief, these epistles are very important, and they are essential for getting a proper perspective of the first epistle and avoiding a perverted viewpoint. Let me illustrate it like this. My doctor at one time gave me two kinds of medication that I was to take whenever I suffered certain symptoms. One was a pill so small that I had trouble locating it in the bottle. The other was a capsule which looked like it was too big to swallow. I needed almost a gallon of water to get it down—I had to float it first! But I discovered in using both of them that the smaller one, the teeny–weeny one, was the more potent of the two. In fact, I found out it was the more important one: if the big one didn’t work, then I used the little one. So it is with Second and Third John. Their brevity does not make them less potent.
The writer of this epistle is the apostle John. We call him the apostle of love. The Lord Jesus called him a “son of thunder” (see Mark 3:17). I think you can add to the thunder a little lightning, for in his epistles he makes it very clear that you must exhibit love to the brethren or you are not a child of God. John wrote this epistle around A.D. 90–100.
This epistle is like the Book of Philemon in that it is a personal letter. It is written by John to “the elect lady.” The question is often asked whether the Greek word electa is a title or whether it refers to a Christian lady in the early church by the name of Electa. You must recall that John is the apostle who writes of the family of God. Paul writes of the church of God, while Peter writes of the government of God. If you will keep that in the background of your thinking as you come to these epistles written by these different men, it will help you understand many things they are saying. Regardless of whether it is addressed to an individual or to a church, John is thinking of it in the context of the family of God. Apparently, there was some Christian lady or a local church which was extending hospitality to all those who claimed to be Christian, although some were heretics who denied the deity of Christ and the other great truths of the Christian faith. John warns here in this epistle against entertaining such folk. This is actually the purpose of this little epistle.
The theme of this epistle is: “For truth’s sake.” When truth and love come into conflict, truth is the one that is to predominate; it is the one that has top priority. Have you noticed that in 1 Corinthians 13:13 Paul didn’t say, “Now abideth faith, hope, truth, and love”? He just said, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity [love], these three; but the greatest of these is charity [love].” But when truth is brought in, then truth comes first.
In other words, truth is worth contending for, and it is wrong to receive false teachers. This is the position that I take very definitely. I believe that the truth in the Word of God is worth contending for. When I say truth, I mean, first, that which is basic to the fact that the Bible is the Word of God—there is no question in my mind about it. The second thing of essential importance is the deity of Christ and His work upon the Cross for us. When I meet a man who is true on these essentials, then he and I can disagree on nonessentials. I have a very good friend who is a Pentecostal preacher. When we play golf, he and I naturally get into a friendly argument. I always end up by saying to him, “Brother, you and I agree on so many things. I love to hear you talk about the Lord Jesus and about His death on the Cross. You thrill my heart when I hear you talk about those things. But I want you to know that we disagree on a few points, and I’m going to pray for you because I think you are wrong.” Well, you know he turns around and says the same thing to me, and we leave each other laughing. As far as I know, that man has never said an unkind word to me or about me. He is my brother. I wish he could see some things as I do, but it will just have to be that way until he gets a little more light—and I want to be patient with him! But he stands true on the inspiration of the Scriptures, he stands true on the deity of Christ, and he stands true on the fact that Christ died for us. When a man does that, he’s my brother, and I cannot escape that fact.
The key word in John’s first epistle is love, but it is a love that is confined to the family of God. The little children are to love each other in the family of God. This is the mark of a child of God: he loves Christ, and he loves the brethren. How God’s little children are to love each other is the entire sum and substance of that epistle.
It would be helpful to go back to the first epistle and pick up this thought again: “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” (1 John 3:10). John purposely cast this truth in the negative so that there would be no way in the world that any individual who claims to be a Christian and does not measure up could wiggle out of it. You cannot wiggle out of this: if you do not practice righteousness in your life, you are not of God. This is the outward badge of a child of God. You are to know the Lord Jesus as your Savior, and the proof to others is that you practice righteousness in your life. And if you do not love your brother (your Christian brother—this is not the universal brotherhood of man, for the Bible does not teach that), then you are not a child of God. I didn’t say this—John said it. If you don’t like it, then you take it up with him. John said that you can tell if someone is a genuine believer by his righteous life and his love for other Christians.
But what about the lost sinner who is not in the family of God? Are we to love him? Well, we are told in the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Follow me carefully now. We are to love people to the extent of taking the gospel to them. We see in the Book of Jonah that Jonah did not love the Ninevites, but God sent him there because God loved them and God said, “Since I love them and they have turned to Me, Jonah, I want you to love them also.” This is the relationship the child of God is to have to the lost world. You cannot love the sinners and their sin—we are not asked to do that. We are asked to love them enough to take the gospel to them. That is the important thing. We are to love them in that sense because God loves them. And then, when they turn to Christ, we will love them also.
Now another question arises: What is to be our relationship to false teachers, to those who deny the deity of Christ? John is going to make it very clear in this second epistle that this is something we need to beware of. He says in verse 7, “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.” What should be our relationship to false teachers? Follow me very carefully because this is going to be the nub of this epistle, and if you and I don’t get this correctly, we are going to go haywire in our interpretation and come up with a pseudo–liberal viewpoint. All of this “love, love, love” stuff today actually is not biblical at all. We are told to love everybody, but there are some whom the Scriptures tell us not to love but to be very careful of. John writes, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world …” (1 John 2:15). The things that are in the world are identified with the people who are in the world and who have made it as it is. Our love is to take the gospel to them, to give them the Word of God.
John’s emphasis in his first epistle is upon love, but the key word in this second epistle is truth. Now when truth and love are in contrast and conflict, which one should prevail? If we get the answer to that, then that will determine our relationship to the false teacher, to the one who denies the deity of Christ. The so–called apostle of love is going to shock you and me out of our sentimental complacency and our sloppy notion of love. Which one should prevail—truth or love? His startling reply is that truth comes first. Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He didn’t say, “I am love,” but He said, “… I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). You have to come to the Father through Jesus Christ. There is no other way. Why? Because He’s not only the Way, but He is the Truth. It was John who wrote later on that “God is love.” After the Lord Jesus was here and had said that He was the Truth, then John said, “God is love” (see 1 John 4:16). My friend, love can be expressed only within the bounds and context of truth. Love can be expressed only within the limitation and boundary that Scripture sets. Therefore, what about the false teacher? May I say to you, you are not to love the false teacher. John is going to make that abundantly clear. In fact, he is going to say something quite amazing. He says, “You are not even to entertain him in your home. You are not in any way to receive him or to have fellowship with him.” That is just about as strong as it possibly can be.
We need to notice another important word in order to get a proper perspective of what John will be talking about in this second epistle as well as in the third epistle. In the first epistle John said that we are to “… walk in the light, as he is in the light …” (1 John 1:7). Truth and light are the same; they are the Word of God. As we have already seen, love and truth are inseparable. Christ is the epitome of both; He is the incarnation of both. He is the Truth, and He is love. God is love, and He is God. In addition to truth, there is a second word which is featured in this brief epistle—it is the word walk. In 2 John 4 you will notice that John says, “I rejoiced greatly that I found of thy children walking in truth, as we have received a commandment from the Father” (italics mine). And then in 2 John 6, we read, “And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it” (italics mine). Back in the first epistle, John wrote, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” (1 John 3:10). That righteousness is Christ, and to deny the deity of Christ is certainly not to do righteousness—the truth is essential. “Neither he that loveth not his brother”—this is the second thing that is very important, the walk. With this second word, we go to the opposite end of the spectrum of the Christian life. Not only is truth essential, but the walk is essential, and therefore we are told to love the brethren.
This epistle, therefore, will not give us a balanced viewpoint of the first epistle. Our contemporary idea of “love, love, love,” that we are to love everyone who comes along, I do not find in the Word of God. When John is speaking of love here, he makes it clear that it is love within the family of God. We need to be very careful about this because a great many are interpreting agape love as nothing in the world but sex. One morning I received a phone call from a lady who had come to know the Lord through our radio ministry. She said to me, “Dr. McGee, I just want you to know that I love you.” She sort of caught herself and then said, “I hope you understand that I’m not talking about man and woman love. I’m saying that I love you as a brother in the Lord who led me to Christ.” Well, I understand that, and I believe that is the kind of love which John is talking about here.
This love in the family of God needs to be exhibited today in the church. I think it is time for many of the churches that have built up a reputation for being fundamental in the faith to now exhibit love among the brethren. I would say that I need that in my own life; I am sure you need more love in your life also.
However, this love is not to slop over. We need to recognize that it has a boundary within the family of God. Along comes one of these heretics, as they did in John’s day. He is apostate; he is actually an antichrist; that is, he denies the deity of Christ. John says, “When one of these fellows comes along you are not to extend love to him. You are not even to entertain him.”
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 57: 2 & 3 John & Jude. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)