Among my favorite books of the Bible (largely because they are so obscure) are the two books of 2 and 3 John. Between them they take up a page (or two) in most Bibles, and are among the “Western 5” or “Deuterocanonical” books whose status was long disputed, in part because of the limited distribution and late date of writing of these books of the Bible (which include 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation, the last of which is the only famous member of this collection of works). 2 and 3 John together form a pair that speaks to relevant present concerns of the Church of God, and therefore it would be worthwhile to examine them a little bit today.
What quirks and common threads do 2 and 3 John possess? That is the point of this note, to mention these issues briefly so that those who are curious can consult other commentaries to go into greater depth if they so desire. Let us look at the quirks of 2 and 3 John, the complementary warnings they give, and what those warnings give to us. First, though, let us give a brief summary of these books for those who are not aware of them to any great degree. 2 John is a short letter written to an “elect lady” some of whose children are faithful in following God’s commandments. It is a letter which speaks harshly against supporting unrighteous or heretical ministry, something about which much can be said. 3 John is an equally short letter written to one Gaius, a local member of some means who was commanded by John to resist a tyrannical local minister who refused to be hospitable to a traveling missionary because he was concerned about his own power base in the local congregation, a matter John promised to deal with personally. Both of these books are extremely relevant to our present times.
The books are, not surprisingly, a bit quirky. In 2 John, there are a lot of questions one would like to know about the books that we do not know. For example, who is the elect lady? Is she a woman with literal children? Is she a congregation? Is she both: a woman who hosted a congregation in her home? We do not know. Who are her children? Are they literal children of a mother, or metaphorical children of brethren of a given congregation? Or both? We do not know. Who is her “elect sister” spoken of at the end of the letter? Is she a literal sister, a sister in Christ, or a fellow congregation of believers, or some combination of them? Again, we do not know. The fact that John calls himself “the elder,” rather than bragging about his titles, suggests that he was not interested in bragging about or even drawing attention to his position and rank, itself a very rare trait among leaders. But there is much about the short letter of 2 John that we do not know, as much as we would wish to know.
Besides the similar thematic concerns, and the small size of both letters, there is another striking similarity between 2 and 3 John, and that is the commentary made about the fact that John has a lot to say but does not wish to write it down but rather talk about it face to face. It would appear that John wrote that which was needful for us to understand on pen and paper, that we could apply to our own times and our own situations, while discussing that which was private face to face, both to avoid gossiping as well as to deal with it in such a manner as it could not be easily misunderstood. We must also take into account that John probably wrote the letters by hand when he was a somewhat old man, possibly arthritic, and not at all predisposed to write lengthy letters as he may have been in his youth. Perhaps he, unlike Paul, did not (or could not) hire secretaries like Tertius, the scribe of Romans, to write for him.
Let us now turn to the complementary warnings that John gives us in 2 and 3 John so that we may be able to take heed to that warning for ourselves. The warning of 2 John is a chilling one. Let us first examine 2 John :7-11: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourself, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.”
In context John is dealing with a specific heresy that denied that Christ came (and died) in the flesh, but instead believed that only the man died, and not the “god” that was in the man. This heresy, called Docetism, was a prominent doctrine in certain Gnostic circles. Additionally, John is refusing fellowship with those who do not hold to biblical standards of morality. While John is dealing with a specific heresy in mind here in 2 John, there are lessons that can be drawn out in a larger context. If a preacher is either corrupt or heretical, one is not to show hospitality to them, not to even greet them (by saying “Shalom,” or peace be to you, since one cannot wish the peace of those who are in rebellion against God without sharing in their sins). In a larger sense, this means that those who support wicked or corrupt leaders themselves share in the sins of those leaders. We will be judged by the leaders we support with our fellowship, our friendship, and our tithes and offerings. If they are evil, we will be judged as evil along with them.
We see a complementary lesson from 3 John, when we look at 3 John :5-12: “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you do well, because they went forth for His name sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth. I wrote to the church, but Diotrophes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself. And we also bear witness, and you know our witness is true.”
Here we see a complementary point to 2 John. Just as 2 John shows us that if we support wicked leaders we share in their evil, 3 John tells us that if we support godly leaders, we share in their work too. Whomever we support with our hospitality, our fellowship, and our tithes and offerings, we support their work, whether it is good or bad, and we will be held accountable by God as if we were doing those deeds ourselves that are done by those leaders we follow. Additionally, 3 John gives us clues on what kind of leaders are likely to be wicked by their refusal to accept the authority of others outside of themselves or their ‘party’, as well as by their willingness to reject those who come on behalf of those over them, and their use of disfellowshipping brethren as a political weapon against others. Those who practice such behaviors show themselves, like Diotrophes, to be tyrannical and wicked leaders, who will receive divine condemnation for their actions if they do not repent of their abusive behaviors.
What relevance does this have for us? A lot. For one, we must remember that God holds us accountable for the leaders we support. If we maintain close friendships with those who are heretical or wicked leaders, if we support their wickedness with our financial support, our hospitality, or our patronage, we will be judged as following in the deeds done by those wicked leaders. Likewise, if we support godly leaders, we will be blessed for sharing in the work that they do. We cannot escape the responsibility for our support of what our leaders do–we will be judged not only by the company that we keep, but by whose authority we accept and which leaders we follow, support, or endorse. That puts a heavy responsibility on all of us to make sure we choose wisely, and not follow wicked shepherds into destruction and judgment. Additionally, we are given the sound warning that abusive leaders will typically abuse those under them and rebel against any authority above them–when we see such leaders we are given the divine mandate by 3 John to openly oppose their actions and expose their evil character.
In light of the warnings that 2 and 3 John give us about the need to support godly leaders even when there is opposition from corrupt local ministry and to refuse any connection with false and heretical leaders, we ought to take seriously the message of 2 and 3 John. We ought to thoroughly desire all of those in error to repent (just as others ought to desire our repentance when we are in error, rather than desiring our destruction), but we must keep our hands clean from supporting wicked leaders, for we will be judged by those whom we follow and accept as our leadership, and those whom we grant hospitality to, or even extend the hand of friendship. Let us therefore be very careful about the company we keep and the organizations we support, so that we may avoid judgment for the wickedness their leaders engage in.