2 and 3 John

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This 3 part expository study of 2 and 3 John was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2006. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.

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Lesson 1: Rx for a Healthy Church, Part 1 (2 John 1-6)

If you have a desire to see God’s kingdom come, then at times you probably nostalgically think about the New Testament church and imagine, “It must have been wonderful to be a part of the church in that time!” If only we could duplicate that now!

Imagine being a part of a church that had been founded about 30 years previously by the apostle Paul. Timothy had served as a pastor there. After he moved on, none other than the venerable apostle John had shepherded the flock. Wouldn’t it be great to be a part of a church like that!

I’ve just described the church at Ephesus. Most scholars agree that John wrote his first letter to that church (and other churches in that area), sometime around 85-90 A.D. But as we saw in our study of that letter, that church had some difficult problems. False teachers had arisen in the church, who claimed to have deeper knowledge of the things of God. They claimed to have the secret to knowing Christ, but in reality, they denied His bodily incarnation and His deity. They taught many other heretical concepts. Their motive may have been to take some elements of pagan religion and blend them with Christianity, in order to make it more acceptable to the pagan culture (Glenn Barker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 12:296).

When the godly church leaders confronted their errors, these men left the church to form their own churches, taking people with them, resulting in major conflict (1 John 2:19). As in any church split, relationships were strained or severed. People were confused and hurt. Rumors and false allegations circulated. So there was a need for godly leaders to bring the church back to the basics of the faith. Every church needs to be strong in the knowledge of the truth so that the members can avoid destructive heresies. They need to be strong in loving relationships. They need to be holy in their conduct. Without these things, the church will be unhealthy and thus more susceptible to the subtle deception of the enemy.

John probably wrote the short letter of 2 John to a local church as a brief follow-up to his first letter. He repeats many of the same ideas and addresses some of the same problems. Apparently, the false teachers were traveling around, trying to come into the churches under the guise of godly teachers who could take you farther in your Christian faith (2 John 9). But they denied essential truth about Jesus Christ. So John writes this short letter before he could make a personal visit, to warn the church about not receiving these men into their midst. In doing so, he gives us a prescription for a healthy church.

There are two parts: First, for the church to be healthy, she must be sensitive to the life within (1-6). Second, she must be on guard to the dangers without (7-13). We will look at the first part today and the second part in our next study.

For the church to be healthy, she must be sensitive to the life within.

There are two major interpretive problems in 2 John. First, who is “the elder” who writes this letter (and 3 John)? Second, who is “the chosen lady and her children” to whom it is written?

Without going into the scholarly debates, I believe that “the elder” was the apostle John. He was so well known to this local church that he didn’t need to mention his given name. The terms “elder,” “overseer” (or, “bishop”), and “pastor” (“shepherd”) are used interchangeably in the New Testament to refer to local church leaders (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 3:1; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Pet. 5:1-2). John was an apostle, who had authority from Christ over all of the churches. But, he was also a part of a local congregation, where he served as elder. The apostle Peter referred to himself as an elder in this same sense (1 Pet. 5:1). Due to John’s age and the fact that he was the last surviving apostle, perhaps the churches nicknamed him “the elder,” par excellence. It is a title both of respect and authority.

With regard to the question of “the chosen lady and her children,” there are two views. Some think that it refers to a specific woman and her offspring (John MacArthur adopts this view, The MacArthur Study Bible [Thomas Nelson], p. 1946). With this view, the “children of your chosen sister” (v. 13) would be the nieces and nephews of this woman. But most commentators lean toward the view that it is a cryptic reference to a local church and its members. “The children of your chosen sister” would then be the members of another local church. If the church was going through any persecution, referring to it in this cryptic manner would provide some protection if this letter fell into the wrong hands.

We cannot be dogmatic but I think that John wrote 2 John to a local church. The language, especially John’s affirmation of love and exhortation to love (1, 5), seems more appropriate to a church than to an individual woman. If it was written to an individual, verse 4 would require that she had several children, some of whom were following the truth. Also, in verses 6, 8, 10, and 12, John addresses his readers in the second person plural, which would point to the members of a local church. The imagery of a church as a chosen lady fits with the church as the bride of Christ. In a similar way, Peter calls the church in Rome, “she who is in Babylon, chosen together with you” (1 Pet. 5:13).

The immediate problem John is addressing in both 2 and 3 John is that of traveling teachers that were circulating among the churches. They were generally received into the church and given hospitality in various homes. But what if the teacher claimed to be a Christian, but taught false doctrine? Should he be received or not? Second John warns against receiving and encouraging such false teachers, whereas 3 John encourages genuine hospitality towards true teachers.

John had recently had contact with some of the members of this church. He commends the church that these members were walking in the truth (v. 4). He is not necessarily implying that others were not walking in the truth, but rather, he was glad that those whom he had met were walking in the truth. In verses 1-6, he gives a fourfold prescription for the life within the church if we want the church to be healthy:

1. The life within the church centers on a personal relationship with the Father through the Son, based on His sovereign grace.

This idea underlies the entire letter, but it is especially obvious in the salutation (1-3). Both in verse 1 and in verse 13, John uses the adjective chosen to refer to these two churches. This does not refer to our choosing God, but rather to His choosing us to be His people. The initiative in salvation lies with God’s sovereign choice. When you choose to believe in Jesus Christ, it is because God has first chosen you for salvation. God did not choose us because He saw that we would choose Him or because He saw great potential in us. Rather, He chose us through grace alone. This robs us of any source of pride.

Why does John emphasize God’s choice both at the start and close of this short letter? I believe that it is because the reality that God chose us to be His children gives comfort when we are under attack or going through trials. These churches had gone through turmoil when the false teachers caused confusion and division. It would be a comfort to be reminded that God had initiated their salvation and He would complete what He started (Phil. 1:6). The false teachers would not and could not undermine what God sovereignly purposes to do in His church.

The threefold opening greeting (v. 3), “Grace, mercy and peace,” occurs elsewhere only in 1 & 2 Timothy. B. F. Westcott (The Epistles of St. John [Eerdmans], p. 225) observes, “The succession ‘grace, mercy, peace’ marks the order from the first motion of God to the final satisfaction of man.” Any relationship with God begins not with our seeking God, but rather with His sovereign grace reaching down to us. As Paul puts it (Rom. 5:6), “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (not, “for pretty good folks who were making an effort to seek God”). Grace is God’s unmerited favor to the ungodly who deserve His wrath.

“Mercy” points to God’s compassion towards us in our misery that is due to our sin. The focus of God’s grace is more towards our guilt and need for forgiveness of sins, whereas mercy is directed towards relieving the devastating consequences of our sins.

“Peace” points to the result of salvation, both to the peace of God in our hearts and to the peace that we enjoy with God because of the cross of Christ. We are reconciled to God because Christ bore the penalty in our place. The cross removed the barrier to fellowship with God, so that now we can enter His presence as His children and know that we are accepted.

John’s salutation varies from the usual form of a prayer, “Grace, mercy, and peace be with you.” Rather, John emphatically (in the Greek text) states, “Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us.” Then, after “from God the Father and from Jesus Christ,” he adds, “the Son of the Father, in truth and love.”

Each of these variations from the norm reflects something of John’s concern in writing this brief letter (Colin Kruse, The Letters of John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 206; the following observations are from him). The emphatic will be with us reassures his readers that God will not abandon them, in spite of what the secessionists might say. He uses “us” rather than “you” to “reinforce the sense of their community of love.” The truth that these blessings come not only from the Father, but also “from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father,” brings out the truth of the deity of Jesus, in opposition to the teaching of the heretics. “In truth and love” probably means that these blessings are experienced by those who continue to hold to the truth and practice love for one another, which the heretics failed to do.

The application of John’s opening greeting is that being a part of a local church is not primarily a matter of attending services or joining the church, as important as those things are. Rather, it is a matter of coming into a personal relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. To be a part of His church means that you have personally experienced His grace, mercy, and peace through His salvation. And it means that you hold firmly to the truth about Jesus Christ, as we will examine more in a moment.

At times I have encountered people who believe in Christ as Savior and Lord, but they join or remain in a liberal church that denies the need for the new birth and the atoning work of Christ. They do this “to have a ministry” there. Such churches may be a mission field, but they are not really churches at all, in the biblical sense of the word. But the point of missions is to get people out of their pagan religion and into healthy local churches where they can grow and serve. To evangelize people in a liberal church and then leave them there goes against the New Testament teaching on the nature and purpose of the local church. The church is a body of people who have a saving relationship with the Father through His Son because of His sovereign grace.

2. The life within the church is founded on the truth about Jesus Christ.

John is obviously concerned about the truth. He uses that word five times in the first four verses. For John, the concept of truth centers on the person of Jesus Christ. The heretics were deceiving people about the person of Christ (v. 7), saying either that He did not have a real human body, or that “the Christ” came upon the man Jesus at His baptism and left just prior to His crucifixion. These errors went against the person of Jesus that John had seen, heard, and touched (1 John 1:1-4). Wrong views of the person of Christ invariably spill over into wrong views on His work on the cross. If you deny Jesus’ true humanity, then He could not be the substitute for the sins of humans. So it is essential to hold to sound doctrine on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Christianity is not based on the religious speculations of philosophers, but rather upon the revelation of God in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. The apostles spent three years with Jesus and they bear witness in the New Testament to His life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. They make it clear that He is God in human flesh. The church of Jesus Christ is, therefore, a community of those who (literally, v. 1) “have come to know the truth.” In verse 2 John personifies truth with reference to Jesus Himself, who claimed to be the truth (John 14:6). John says the truth “abides in us and will be with us forever.”

Contrary to the current prevalent postmodern philosophy, the New Testament affirms that truth is both absolute and knowable. The truth centers in all that the Old and New Testaments affirm about Jesus Christ. To know Him personally is to be in the truth. This does not mean that you must become a theologian or be able to explain all of the biblical teaching about Christ and salvation in order to get saved. To be saved, you simply must recognize that you are a sinner in need of a Savior and that Jesus is that Savior. Trust in Him and He will save you.

But it does mean that as a believer, you should grow in your understanding of the truth about Jesus Christ and salvation. Sound doctrine on these matters is crucial. The main difference between the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are not saved, and those who are truly saved, centers on the doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ. When John talks about “some of your children walking in truth,” the word walk implies that truth is something that every believer must continually grow in over time.

So the first mark of a healthy church is that the members know God personally through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The second mark is that they walk in the truth about Christ.

3. The life within the church expresses itself in love.

John is concerned about both truth and love. He uses love four times in these six verses. Truth and love cannot be separated. Liberals set aside truth and make love for everyone the basis of unity, no matter what they believe. On the other hand, some fighting Fundamentalists exalt the truth on even minor issues over love, and thus cause divisions among those who truly know and follow Jesus Christ.

Truth on the essentials of the gospel must be the basis for fellowship and unity. If someone denies the essentials of the gospel, he is not a Christian and we have no basis for true fellowship. As we will see in verse 10, if someone is promoting false teaching, the loving thing to do is not to welcome him as a brother, but to separate from him as someone promoting evil. So our love for others must be discerning (Phil. 1:9).

If someone came to your door who was infected with a highly contagious disease, such as tuberculosis, you would not be acting in love to your family to welcome him to come in and stay with you. Since false doctrine about the person and work of Christ is a deadly, infectious disease, it is not loving to welcome those who are infected with this disease into our church or homes. We will look more at this next week. But, among those who truly know and love Jesus Christ in truth, we must be loving, especially when we disagree over minor issues.

4. The life within the church is maintained through obedience.

John has emphasized truth (5 times) and love (4 times). He also emphasizes obedience. The word commandment occurs 4 times in verses 4-6. As you know, these are the three tests of 1 John: authentic Christianity consists of believing the truth about Jesus Christ, loving one another, and obeying God’s commandments.

John says (v. 6) that we are to “walk according to His commandments.” These commandments involve the truth (v. 4) and love (vv. 5, 6). When John emphasizes that his readers had these commandments “from the beginning” (5, 6), he means that Jesus Christ gave us these commandments and that obeying them should be basic, first-level Christian teaching. The first thing a new believer should learn is that being a Christian means obeying Jesus as Lord. And, a key commandment of Jesus is that we love one another. As we’ve seen, biblical love is not primarily a feeling, but rather a matter of the will that can be commanded. It is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that seeks the highest good of the one loved.

It is a tragedy that many evangelical churches are wracked with dissension because self-centered, power-driven people who profess to know Christ force their way on the church. We will see this illustrated in the case of Diotrephes, “who loves to be first among them” (3 John 9). This is usually done under some “pious” cause: “I’m defending the truth!” But invariably, it is not truth that is essential to the gospel. Power-driven people are motivated by pride or self-will. They need to be confronted with their disobedience to Christ’s commandment of love.


When I was seeking a place of ministry after seminary, I talked to the pulpit committee of a church in the Southern California mountains. They did not call me, but I ended up accepting the pastorate of another church in the neighboring community. A year or two later, the first church asked me to arbitrate a conflict that had developed. The chairman of the deacon board had sent a letter to the congregation criticizing their new pastor on three counts: he wasn’t feeding the flock; he was quoting liberals in the pulpit; and, he wasn’t visiting the flock. He urged the church to withhold their giving and force the pastor out.

At the meeting, I asked whether the deacon had first gone privately to the pastor to discuss these matters. He had not done so. Then I asked for clarification. I asked the pastor if he worked each week to study the Word to prepare biblical sermons. He did. I asked who the liberals were. It was C. S. Lewis! I asked if his job description had any requirement of how many hours a week he was expected to visit the congregation. It said nothing about this.

After I heard what was going on, I confronted the deacon with violating Scripture in a self-centered attempt to grab power for himself. I warned him of the verse that says that if anyone destroys God’s temple, the church, God will destroy him (1 Cor. 3:17). In front of all, I called on him to repent of his sinful behavior. When we closed in prayer, he piously prayed, “Lord, I forgive my brother for all of the wrong things he has said about me.” But, thankfully, the church disciplined the man by removing him from office, and the pastor was able to serve there for a few more years.

If we wistfully think that the early church did not have these sorts of problems, we’re not reading our Bibles carefully. Both 2 and 3 John show that even a church founded by Paul and later pastored by Timothy and John had serious problems. This means that we will have problems, too, if we stand for God’s truth. Everyone who takes a stand for God’s truth will be slandered for being unloving. The solution is not to compromise the truth or to become unloving in defending the truth. Neither is the solution to abandon the church because of the problems.

Rather, we must maintain a close personal relationship with the Father through the Son, based on His sovereign grace. We must hold tenaciously to the truth about Jesus Christ and the gospel. We must love one another. And, we must obey Jesus Christ. That is part one of John’s prescription for a healthy church.

Application Questions

  1. Why should a genuine profession of faith in Christ be the primary requirement for church membership?
  2. How do we decide which truths must never be compromised, versus where we should be tolerant for the sake of unity?
  3. Should we love those who deny essential truth about Christ and the gospel? If so, how? See Jude 22-23.
  4. Some contend that if you advocate obedience, you are legalistic. How would you respond?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation


Lesson 2: Rx for a Healthy Church, Part 2 (2 John 7-13)

The word heresy sounds outdated nowadays. It smacks of arrogance, because to accuse someone of heresy implies that I am right and he is seriously wrong. It also assumes that there is such a thing as definable truth and error in the spiritual realm. But in our day, spiritual “truth” is subjective and relative. If it’s true for you, that’s cool. But I have my own spiritual “truths” that work for me. So who are you to accuse me of heresy?

But before we put heresy in the museum as a relic from the past, we need to think carefully. There is one huge factor that renders heresy a valid concept, namely, the fact that God is and that He has revealed Himself to us through His written Word. If God exists, not as a projection of men’s minds, but as the eternal Sovereign Creator of the universe, then He is the ultimate and final standard of truth. And if He has spoken to us in His Word, then as Jesus said, His Word is truth (John 17:17). Either Jesus was mistaken or lying, or God’s Word is truth. Any deviation from His Word on core matters, such as the person and work of Jesus Christ or the way of salvation, is heresy.

Several years ago, I read an interesting book by an Episcopalian bishop, Fitzsimons Allison, titled The Cruelty of Heresy [Morehouse Publishing, 1994]. He wrote,

We are susceptible to heretical teachings because in one form or another, they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather than the way God has provided, which is infinitely better for us. As they lead us into the blind alleys of self-indulgence and escape from life, heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart. It is astonishing how little attention has been given to these two aspects of heresy: its cruelty and its pandering to sin. (Italics his.)

As we saw last week, the apostle John was very concerned about the truth. He uses the word five times in 2 John 1-4. I believe that John wrote this short letter to a church under the cryptic salutation “the chosen lady and her children.” His main concern was false teachers who were traveling around, posing as Christians, but denying core truth about the person of Christ. John calls them deceivers and antichrists (v. 7). The danger was that the churches might welcome these men into their midst and provide hospitality for them. John intended to visit this church in person, but before he came he wrote this short letter to warn them against welcoming these dangerous men.

His letter gives us a prescription for a healthy church. Last week we saw (2 John 1-6) that for the church to be healthy, she must be sensitive to the life within. This involves making sure that all in the church have come to a personal saving relationship with the Father through the Son. It also involves walking in the truth, in love, and in obedience to Christ’s commandments. In 2 John 7-13, John goes on to show that…

For the church to be healthy, she must be on guard to the dangers without.

These false teachers originally arose from within the churches, but they had left, showing their true colors (1 John 2:19). Now, they were coming back to recruit followers. Invariably, every false cult that goes under the banner of “Christian” veers from the truth on the person and work of Jesus Christ. They may deny His humanity or His deity or His substitutionary death on the cross for sinners. Every cult denies that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. So false teachings lure us in by appealing to our pride, telling us that we can save ourselves. Since pride is our prevailing sin, we are especially vulnerable. John gives us four ways to be on guard against these dangers without:

1. To be on guard to the danger of heresy, we must be realistic about the deceptive nature of it (v. 7).

Twice John calls these false teachers deceivers (v. 7). They didn’t come into the church with nametags identifying them as “John Doe, False Teacher.” They didn’t have an evil glint in their eyes that warned you, “This guy is evil!” They were subtle and they probably used the Bible to back up everything they said. Their explanation of things seemed to “make more sense” of doctrines that were difficult to understand.

They said, “Doesn’t the Bible say that the flesh is bad? Then how could Jesus Christ have come in the flesh? That would make Him evil! So He really didn’t come in the flesh. It just seemed that way. What actually happened is, He was just a man who was especially close to God. At His baptism, “the Christ” came upon Him. It departed from Him just prior to His crucifixion. Doesn’t that make more sense than this teaching that nobody can adequately explain or understand, that Jesus is God in human flesh?”

If you deny that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, then you also have denied His atoning death on the cross. In order for His death to pay for human sins, Jesus had to be fully human, but apart from sin. For His death to pay for the sins of the human race, Jesus had to be the eternal Son of God. As Bishop Moule once said, “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.”

John here refers to these false teachers as “deceivers” and antichrists (see also, 1 John 2:18, 22). Four main New Testament texts refer to the antichrist, although not all the texts use the term (summarized in Colin Kruse, The Letters of John [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 99-100): Matthew 24/Mark 13; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; 1 & 2 John; and, Revelation 12-13. From these passages, we can conclude that there will be an end times, world-dominating figure called “the Antichrist.” In Revelation he is called “the beast” and he is given frightening power over all the earth. But before he is revealed, there will be many lesser antichrists. These religious figures deceive people so that they will not believe the truth about Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 2:9-12).

We need to be careful before we label someone as a false teacher, deceiver, or antichrist. It is a difficult call sometimes, because there are various levels of deception, related to the level of the consequences for those deceived. To be deceived about something related to eternal salvation is most serious, because those who fall for this deception will spend eternity in hell!

Other levels of deception may have serious consequences that fall short of eternal judgment. For example, false teaching may lead couples to divorce when sound teaching could have prevented it. False teaching about child rearing can lead to rigid, legalistic practices that damage children emotionally and spiritually. These are serious matters, because the enemy uses all levels of false teaching to damage people. But the most serious false teaching involves the person and work of Jesus Christ and the way of salvation. We must be on guard to the danger of such deceptive teaching.

2. To be on guard to the danger of heresy, we must watch ourselves, to abide in the teaching of Christ (vv. 8-9).

There are a couple of minor textual variants with the pronouns in verse 8, but the reading of the NASB is probably correct. John urges his readers to watch themselves, “that you do not lose what we [the apostles] have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward.” When John refers to “anyone who goes too far” (v. 9), he is probably alluding to the heretics. They claimed to have superior knowledge that could take you farther in your Christian life than the teaching of the apostles could do. John is sarcastically saying, “Yes, in fact the false teachers have gone so far ahead that they have left God behind them!”

“The teaching of Christ” could refer to the teaching that Jesus Himself gave us, or to the teaching of the apostles regarding Christ. But these two are really the same thing. Jesus promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things and bring to their minds the things that Jesus had taught them (John 14:26). Jesus Christ is the focus of both the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament we have the essential apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through Him. If someone comes along and claims to have some “new” teaching that cannot be supported by the New Testament, he is not holding to the teaching of Christ. We need to be on guard against any so-called “new” teaching, including the recent “new perspective on Paul.”

People who do not abide in the teaching of Christ, John says, do not have God at all. By way of contrast, “the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.” Since “the teaching” refers to the truth that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine, John is saying that those who deny these essential truths about Jesus, but claim to know God, are either lying or deceived. You cannot deny the deity of Jesus and have the Father also (1 John 2:23).

John also may have had in mind Jesus’ words (John 14:23), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” When you embrace heresy, you necessarily abandon close fellowship with the Father and the Son. Orthodoxy is not just a matter of holding to biblical truth, but also of walking in fellowship and obedience. Since false teaching appeals to our pride, especially the pride of superior “knowledge,” embracing it invariably means falling into sin. Often false teachers embrace their erroneous views to justify their sinful habits. Embracing the truth would require repentance, which they don’t want to do.

Verses 8 & 9 show that there are two categories of people in view. In verse 8, John refers to those who lose part of their reward, but the implication is that they are truly saved. In verse 9 he refers to those who do not have God at all, and thus are not saved. Salvation is God’s free, unmerited gift to all that will receive it. It is not a reward for anything (Rom. 4:4-5). As John wrote (1 John 5:11-12), “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”

If you have received God’s gift of eternal life in Christ, the Bible teaches that there are rewards for serving Him. Jesus talked about those who have used well what He entrusted to them. They will be rewarded with more at the judgment (Matt. 25:14-28). Paul talks about those who build with wood, hay, and straw, as opposed to those who build with gold, silver, and precious stones. The wood, hay, and straw will be burned and the person will suffer a loss of rewards, “but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).

In order to receive the full reward, John commands, “Watch yourselves….” This needs to take place on two levels. On the church-wide level, the elders are charged with guarding the flock from destructive teaching. Paul gives as a requirement for a local church elder that he hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).

He charged the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28), “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” He went on to warn them (20:30) that even “from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” He wrote this to the very church that John addressed his first epistle. Paul told Timothy (1 Tim. 4:16), “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; …” Again, there is a close relationship between sin and false teaching. If you don’t pay close attention to yourself, so that you fall into sin, you will be prone to fall into false teaching.

This means that if you have a desire to be an elder, you must also have a desire to study and know sound doctrine, so that you do not go astray and so that you can keep careful watch over the flock. This is one reason that I have taught the systematic theology course here, to help equip men who have a desire to be elders. If a man does not know the truth well, he will not be able to guard the flock from the many errors that Satan tries to introduce. Elders must be men who continually study God’s Word, so that they will not fall into false teaching. Elders must guard the flock.

On the personal level, you are responsible to be on guard for yourself against false teaching. Fathers (and mothers) must be on guard for their children. I am sometimes amazed at the way Christian parents allow their children to be exposed to all sorts of bad teaching, without any word of caution or any discussion about how this teaching contradicts the Bible. They let them watch movies with New Age or pantheistic concepts. Some Christian parents even send their kids to religious schools that teach a false gospel! While we cannot shelter our children from all errors, we must be diligent to teach them biblical discernment.

I’m also amazed at Christians who have no concern for sound doctrine. Some argue that since doctrine is controversial or divisive, we should not study theology. Some even think that studying theology could damage your devotion to Jesus! Years ago, I mentioned to an elder (no longer here) that another pastor and I were reading and discussing Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. He said, “Look out! That stuff can be dangerous!” I was dumbfounded! Needless to say, that elder should not have been an elder!

Thus John says that for the church to be healthy, we must be on guard to the deceptive nature of false teaching. We must be on guard for ourselves, to abide in the teaching of Christ.

3. To be on guard to the danger of heresy, we must be careful not to encourage false teachers (vv. 10-11).

Remember, John is the apostle of love, who has just re-emphasized the need for us to love one another (v. 5). But now he says that we should not receive a false teacher into our house or even give him a greeting, because if we greet him, we participate in his evil deeds (which refers especially to his false teaching). If this letter was written to a church, then “house” may refer to the gathering of the church. But it also may have reference to showing hospitality to these false teachers by giving them food and lodging in the homes of Christians.

We need to clarify several things here. First, in that day there were inns, but they were often places of ill-repute, not suitable for the average traveler. So the church would extend hospitality to these traveling teachers. According to the norms of hospitality, the host was not only giving the guest food and lodging, but also providing patronage, guaranteeing the rest of the community that the guest was a worthy person (Kruse, pp. 213, 215-216). If you provided hospitality, you were changing the stranger’s status from being under suspicion as an outsider to being a trusted guest.

Thus John says that we should not even give such teachers a greeting. To say, “God bless you,” or, “Have a good day,” or to call a false teacher, “brother,” imparts a blessing or word of encouragement that we should not give. John is talking about those who promote damnable heresies, not to fellow believers who disagree with us over some non-essential doctrines.

As we have seen, there is an inseparable connection between truth and love. Biblical love seeks the highest good of the one loved. If a false teacher is actively involved in deceiving people about the truth, so that they go to eternal condemnation, then we are not acting in love to do anything to encourage such scoundrels in their evil deeds. John Stott observes, “If John’s instruction still seems harsh, it is perhaps because his concern for the glory of the Son and the good of men’s souls is greater than ours, and because ‘the tolerance on which we pride ourselves’ is in reality an ‘indifference to truth’” (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 214; the quote within the quote comes from Neil Alexander, The Epistles of John, Torch bible commentaries [S.C.M. Press]). He adds (pp. 214-215), “False teaching … is not just an unfortunate error; it is a ‘wicked work’ …. It may send souls to eternal ruin.”

Christian leaders especially must be cautious about any behavior that would endorse or encourage false teachers. Sadly, Billy Graham has not been careful over the years about this. He has had those who deny essential doctrines sit on the platform with him at his crusades. No doubt his motive was to try to reach them, but the impression is that he endorses their ministries. I have heard him and other Christian leaders give glowing endorsements to Robert Schuller, who denies the gospel. This is the sort of thing that John is explicitly forbidding.

Should you invite Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons who knock on your door to come inside and talk? If you do, you had better be armed with the truth, because they are well-armed with error! Also, do not say or do anything to encourage them in what they are doing. They are actively recruiting souls for hell, and it would be wrong for you to give them any reason to think that you appreciate what they’re doing. I usually tell them, “I am a pastor and I know the Bible well. If you are seeking the truth, I’d be glad to talk with you. But if you’re trying to convert me, you’re wasting your time and mine.” Not many want to talk further!

John’s final word is his closing greeting, but it gives us a positive word on how to be on guard to the dangers without:

4. To be on guard to the danger of heresy, we must maintain fellowship with others who are God’s elect (vv. 12-13).

John mentions his desire to visit these brethren in person and he sends them greetings from “the children of your chosen sister” (the church from where he wrote). His aim in visiting and speaking with them face to face was “so that your [some manuscripts read “our”] joy may be made full.” There is great joy in genuine Christian fellowship, when we share in the things of God with those who have experienced His grace, mercy, and peace (v. 3).

The point is, we don’t want to become so paranoid about the dangers without that we cut ourselves off from other churches or individual Christians that love Christ and the truth. If they have come to know Christ in a saving way, then we are members of the same body. We impoverish ourselves and bring dishonor to Christ when we draw the lines of separation too narrowly. We should accept all that Christ has chosen as His own (Rom. 15:7).

I should add that there is a difference between fellowship on an individual level and linking an entire church with other churches. For example, on the individual level, I may have fellowship with a godly Episcopalian. But it would be wrong to link our church with a denomination that endorses homosexual pastors or bishops. So we must pray for discernment in all of these situations.


I conclude by giving you two practical applications. First, familiarize yourself with the historic creeds and confessions of faith. Many of these arose out of the need to define sound doctrine in the face of serious errors. To our detriment, Baptists typically have not been oriented towards creeds or confessions. But you should read the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter and Longer Catechisms, and the London Baptist Confession of 1689 (a modern English version is on our book table, A Faith to Confess). Teach yourself and your children a good catechism (Spurgeon’s or John Piper’s:
http://www.desiringgod.org/library/what_we_ believe/catechism.html).

Second, read some books on sound doctrine. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology [Zondervan] is clearly written and very helpful. Or, read Calvin’s Institutes. Don’t let the length scare you. Make it a year-long project and chip away at it. You will help immunize yourself against the destructive heresies that Satan still uses against the church.

Application Questions

  1. What criteria should we use to determine if an error is heresy or not? Where do we draw the lines?
  2. How would you answer a Christian who said, “Doctrine is divisive; we should just focus on love”?
  3. When we know the truth, how can we avoid the sin of pride?
  4. How can we know where to draw the line of unity versus separation? How does this differ on individual and church levels?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation


Lesson 3: The Prosperous Soul (3 John 1-15)

In 1987, Marla and I had the privilege of traveling to Hong Kong, Macau, and China for ministry. In Macau, we were visiting with some missionaries and through their translation, talking with two courageous young Chinese women who slipped across the border into China each week. From there they mailed dozens of Bible correspondence courses. If they had been caught, they would have been imprisoned.

I asked these young women if they had ever heard of the “health and wealth” or “prosperity” teaching. They had not. When I explained to them that some in America were teaching that it is God’s will for all of His children to be healthy and wealthy, these young women shook their heads and laughed softly. They said, “I don’t think that Christians in China would fall for that!”

But many American Christians and now many in other countries have fallen for this unbiblical teaching. One of the main texts used to support it is 3 John 2, “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.” Ignoring the fact that the apostles and many Old Testament proph­ets, not to mention Jesus Himself, were poor and persecuted, the proponents of this false teaching brazenly appeal to the greed and selfishness of their spiritually naïve audiences.

They are those of whom Paul wrote (1 Tim. 6:5), “who suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (see also, 2 Pet. 2:14-15). If these false teachers would bother to read 3 John 2 carefully, they would see that it really pronounces a curse, not a blessing, on them!

John is praying for his friend, Gaius, that he would prosper and be in good physical health to the same degree as his soul actually was prospering. It’s worth pondering, if someone prayed that for you, would it be a blessing or would we need to call the paramedics? At the very least, it’s dangerous when a Christian’s material prosperity gets ahead of his spiritual prosperity. Paul warned (1 Tim. 6:9-10), “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

The apostle John said (v. 4), “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth” (not, “prospering financially”). He was talking about his spiritual children, of course. But, Christian parents should be able to say about their children, that their greatest joy is to hear that their children are walking in the truth. Sadly, I’ve known of Christian parents who are ecstatic when their children land top-paying jobs, but they don’t seem to be as happy if the kids decide to be missionaries. Our main prayer for our children and for every Christian should be that they have prosperous souls. John describes for us here the prosperous soul:

The prosperous soul walks in the truth and love, submits to apostolic authority, and imitates godly examples.

Like 2 John, this one-page letter was written from “the elder,” whom conservative scholars agree is the aged apostle John. Unlike 2 John, which I believe was written to a local church, 3 John is written to an individual, Gaius. We know nothing about this man (or the other two individuals mentioned in this letter) except what we learn here. He was a faithful Christian leader in a local church that was under the care of the apostle John.

In this church, a self-willed, power-hungry man, Diotrephes, had grabbed power. He openly attacked the authority of the apostle John, he denied hospitality to traveling Christian workers, and he even excommunicated those who defied him by offering hospitality to these workers.

Gaius, however, to this point had resisted the strong-armed tactics of Diotrephes. He had given hospitality and financial support to these traveling missionaries. John encourages Gaius to continue doing so, and he commends to him Demetrius, who was probably the bearer of this letter. John assures Gaius that he will deal publicly with Diotrephes when he visits the church in the near future. I’m sure that it would have been interesting to have a box seat to watch the fireworks when that happened!

The three characters named in the book provide us with three keys to pursuing a prosperous soul:

1. The prosperous soul walks in the truth and love (Gaius, the beloved example, 1-8).

As in all of John’s writings, truth is a central concept in 3 John. He mentions it in verses 1, 3 (twice), 4, 8, and 12, plus the world “true” in verse 12. As we’ve seen, John’s greatest joy was to hear of his spiritual children walking in the truth.

Why did the aged apostle hammer on the truth so often? One reason was that he was the last living apostle, and he saw numerous errors creeping into the churches. Also, the Lord Jesus had repeatedly emphasized the truth in His earthly ministry. In John 1:14 (see also, 1:17), John testified that Jesus was “full of grace and truth.” In John 3:21, “he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” In John 4:23 & 24, Jesus explained that the Father seeks those who “worship in spirit and truth.” In John 8:32, Jesus said, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” In John 14:6, Jesus claimed, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). He prayed (John 17:17), “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” Jesus told the skeptical Pilate (John 18:37), “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

So truth was a huge emphasis in Jesus’ ministry, and therefore, too, in the life and ministry of the apostle John. Contrary to the current postmodern philosophy that denies absolute truth in the spiritual realm, the Bible clearly affirms that there is theological and moral truth and error. This truth centers in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is the God of truth in human flesh. Since God is the author of truth, whereas Satan is the author of spiritual lies (John 8:44), God’s people must know and obey the truth as revealed in God’s Word.

Gaius prospered in his soul because he walked in the truth (v. 3). Also, those who had visited Gaius reported back to John of Gaius’ love before the church (v. 6). As we’ve seen, truth and love must always go together. Gaius’ good example teaches us four things about these essential virtues, truth and love:

A. To walk in the truth implies knowing the truth.

Gaius didn’t accidentally stumble onto the path called “truth” and just as accidentally stay on it. No one in this world under the dominion of the father of lies and deceit, walks in the truth accidentally. It requires deliberate purpose and effort, both to understand the truth and to walk in it.

The huge emphasis on truth in John’s writings teaches us that truth matters! How a person thinks about God, man, salvation, and life determines how that person lives. A person with false concepts in these areas will live differently than the person with a biblical view in these important matters. Since Jesus Himself is the truth and since God’s Word is truth, Satan works overtime to undermine the truth about the person and work of Christ and the truth of God’s inerrant Word.

But there is an inherent danger as we grow in our knowledge of the truth. Paul said (1 Cor. 8:1), “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (my translation). If Satan can’t prevent us from knowing the truth, then he tries to get us puffed up with pride over how much we know that others don’t know. We would be wrong to conclude that we should remain ignorant so that we can stay humble! But, we should always remember that anything we know of the truth is only because of God’s grace. If He had not been gracious, we would still be in spiritual darkness.

B. To walk in the truth implies growth in the truth.

Twice (vv. 3, 4) John mentions “walking in the truth.” He does not say that we should sit and rest in the truth, but rather that we should walk in it. Walking implies steady movement in a purposeful direction. It requires discipline and effort. Walking is not as quick as running, but if you keep at it, walking will get you where you’re going. After warning about the danger of being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, Peter commands us (2 Pet. 3:18), “but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” You will not grow in the knowledge of Christ by accident! You must purpose to walk in the truth, studying to learn and then apply God’s truth to your daily life.

C. Growth in the truth should always result in love.

As we’ve seen, truth and love are not opposed to one another. John affirms (v. 1) that he loves Gaius in truth, which means, in the sphere of the truth about Jesus Christ. In verse 6 he affirms that Gaius, who is walking in the truth (v. 4), is also known for his love. So often, people who are big on the truth use it as a club to wail on those who don’t agree with them. Or, those who emphasize love are soft on the truth; they end up being nice when they need to stand up for the truth. But since God is the God of truth and love, godly people will be characterized by both truth and love.

Sometimes, love requires confronting a person who is in theo­logical or moral error. Presumably, Diotrephes did not teach the errors of the heretics, or John would have said something about that. But, Diotrephes was a self-serving, unloving man, and John hits him very hard for these sins. We must assume that the apostle of love was acting in love towards this sinning man. Of course, love not only confronts sin. Also…

D. Love manifests itself in practical good deeds.

A delegation that returned from visiting Gaius had testified of his love. Gaius had welcomed them into his home, even though they had been strangers to him before their visit. He had treated them “in a manner worthy of God.” When they left, he loaded them with supplies for their journey and with money for their mission work. His love was not just talk. It showed itself in treating others as he himself would wish to be treated. Being hospitable is one qualification for being an elder (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8). But all believers are commanded to “pursue hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). We are to be a people “zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). Biblical love isn’t just feeling the warm fuzzies; it is practical good deeds.

John writes of these missionaries (v. 7), “For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles.” These missionaries were not “peddling the word of God” (2 Cor. 2:17), receiving donations from the unbelievers that they were seeking to reach. John says (v. 8) that God’s people should support such workers, and in doing so, we become fellow workers with the truth of the gospel that they proclaim. One practical way for you to show Christ’s love by good deeds is to help support missionaries who go out for the sake of His name. The prosperous soul walks in the truth and in love.

2. The prosperous soul submits to apostolic authority (Diotrephes, the bad example, 9-10).

Diotrephes did not submit to apostolic authority (he did not accept what John said, v. 9). Rather than being a prosperous soul, Diotrephes was a destitute soul. His negative example gives us four characteristics of the destitute soul that we need to avoid if we want to have prosperous souls:

A. The destitute soul loves to be first.

Diotrephes “loves to be first among them” (v. 9). Therein lies the explanation for the majority of church problems down through history! People want to be first.

As I said, Diotrephes’ theology was orthodox. If it had not been, John would have condemned him as a heretic. His problem was not his theology, but rather his personal ambition and pride that led him to oppose even the apostle John. He probably had reasons for his opposition. He may have said to the church, “John doesn’t understand the danger of welcoming these traveling teachers into this church. We need to maintain pure doctrine here. We don’t know what kinds of errors these men may bring in. John is just a senile old man who means well, but he’s gone soft in his old age. Follow me! Don’t receive these teachers into your homes. If you do, we’ll have to put you out of the church.” Diotrephes may have had the truth, but the only person he loved was himself!

When my brother was young, he formed a club with his friends, as young boys tend to do. Of course, such clubs must have rules. My brother’s club rules were very simple: (1) I am the boss of this club. (2) You don’t boss the boss! Our family often laughed about those rules.

But, when adult men and women bring those rules into a local church, it creates friction among the flock. I’ve seen many pastors and church leaders that play by those rules, seeking to lord it over the flock. During my first months here, I had lunch with the man who was then the state director of our association. He said, “Steve, you’ve got to build your power base in the church.” I didn’t say anything, but I was shocked. I thought to myself, “Sorry, but I’m not into building a power base in the church!” Paul specified that an elder must not be self-willed (Titus 1:7; see 1 Pet. 5:2-3).

B. The destitute soul uses gossip and slander to run down his opponents.

Diotrephes unjustly accused John and his delegates with wicked words. He barred these traveling teachers from the church because he wanted to be the sole authority and leader of the church. He wanted everyone to look up to him, not to Jesus Christ. It threatened him if people learned from others, and so he used gossip and slander to criticize even the apostle John.

Gossip is sharing information (which may be true) with those who have no business hearing it. The gossip uses it to bolster his status: He’s in the know! Or, he uses it to prejudice people against someone. Slander is using partial truths or flat-out lies to damage someone’s reputation. Often the slanderer will say something that is partly true, so that he can claim that he spoke the truth. But it was not the whole truth, and sharing it misled others to believe something false about the person. The name, devil, means slanderer, so it is a serious sin!

C. The destitute soul uses relationships for power.

Diotrephes did not receive the brethren and he forbade those who desired to do so, putting them out of the church. Why didn’t Diotrephes welcome these godly Christian workers? Because he did not value people and relationships. Rather, he used people to build or protect his power base. If you didn’t go along with him, he would force you out of the church, no doubt under the pretense of keeping the church pure.

That’s exactly how the world operates. The way to move up in the world is to build relationships with powerful people. You do favors for them so that they owe you in return. You play one person off of another, all in an attempt to put yourself in a powerful position. But it leads to poverty of soul, not to prosperity of soul.

D. The destitute soul bullies others through intimidation.

If people in the church didn’t agree with Diotrephes, he bullied them into compliance or he put them out of the church. He had the power to do it. It was church politics at the worst!

Again, how like the world! The world writes books on how to get what you want and how to win by intimidation. It runs TV shows with a supposedly successful, but ruthless boss, whose trademark line is, “You’re fired!” As Jesus said (Mark 10:42-44), the “rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.”

Positively, the prosperous soul walks in the truth and love. He submits to apostolic authority, which we now have in the New Testament, seeking to serve rather than to be served.

The prosperous soul imitates godly examples (Demetrius, the good testimony, 11-12).

In verse 11, John again addresses Gaius, exhorting him not to imitate what is evil (the bad example of Diotrephes), but rather what is good (the positive example of Demetrius). Whether Diotrephes was a genuine believer or not, we cannot tell, although John says, “the one who does evil has not seen God.” But Diotrephes was in the role of leader of a Christian church. He must have had some sort of following, or else John would not have written this warning. The point is, we all need godly examples to follow, but we must be careful in choosing those examples. Even those who are recognized Christian leaders may not be good examples to follow.

How do you discern whether a person is worth imitating or not? Look for the fruit of the Spirit in his or her character. Look at his deeds (v. 11). Are they in line with the fruit of the Spirit or the deeds of the flesh? Then, look at the person’s reputation. In the case of Demetrius, everyone testified that he was a godly man. “Everyone” obviously means, “everyone in general.” Diotrephes, I’m sure, would not have testified of Demetrius’ good character or deeds. But those who are walking with God will agree about the godly character of a godly man.

Also, John says, “the truth itself” bore witness to Demetrius’ good character. This means that his life was consistent with the character qualities and moral standards of God’s Word. Rather than being domineering, as Diotrephes was, Demetrius was a humble servant. Rather than being self-centered, he practiced biblical love. Further, John added his testimony to Demetrius’ godly character. If a man walks with God, other godly leaders will acknowledge that fact.

When you find such godly role models, imitate them! As I’ve said before, I have found more help spiritually by reading the biographies of godly men and women than from any other source outside of the Bible itself. None of them were perfect, of course, but all of them have shown me in practical ways what it means to walk in the truth of God’s Word. I highly recommend that you read the lives of these great saints from the past. (There is a bibliography of Christian biographies on the church web site.)


The story is told of a Texas millionaire who wanted to be buried in his Cadillac. So when he died, the undertakers dug an enormous grave and placed the Cadillac on a huge lowering device. They dressed the corpse in his sportiest clothes, put a cigar in his mouth, seated him behind the steering wheel, and set the speedometer at 80 miles per hour.

The mourners gathered around the grave. As the unusual coffin slowly sank into the ground to the appropriate words of committal, a millionaire friend of the deceased brushed a tear from his eye and sighed, “Man, that’s living!”

But, of course, it’s not living—it’s death! True prosperity is not to live as a millionaire and be buried in your Cadillac. True prosperity is to be rich toward God (Luke 12:21). True prosperity is to have a prosperous soul. The way to that eternal prosperity is to walk in the truth and in love, to submit to apostolic authority as revealed in the New Testament, and to imitate godly examples. Then it may be said of you, “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.” And your pastors will have great joy to hear that you are walking in the truth.

Application Questions

  1. Is there a danger in bequeathing a large inheritance to your children, especially if they’re not walking in the truth? Discuss.
  2. Why is the “health and wealth gospel” a serious error? How would you refute it biblically?
  3. Would you want your physical health to match your spiritual health? If not, how can you correct this situation?
  4. How can we grow in knowledge of the truth and yet avoid spiritual pride? What are the marks of such pride?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation