The Second Epistle Of John

Introductory Lectures

William Kelly


There is this peculiarity about the second Epistle of John, that it alone of all the inspired communications is directly addressed to a woman, and not this only but also to her children. There are certainly good but special reasons for a course so exceptional. We know how much the word of God, not to speak of every spiritual instinct, would lead a Christian woman however gifted to seek a place of retirement and of unobtrusive service.

We feel how all that is blessed of God's grace, and I may add of God's gift, is only so much the more set off when woman, while thoroughly using whatever the grace of the Lord entrusts to her, understands nevertheless the place in which it has pleased Him to put her here below. Yet here we have one of the most stringent epistles the Holy Ghost ever wrote addressed to a woman — the elect lady — and to her children, as the immediate objects of it, — not to an extraordinary apostolic commissioner, nor an elder, nor an assembly, still less an assembly with bishops and deacons. Why so? Because there was a question before the Holy Ghost of such unspeakable urgency and magnitude that all considerations must give way to it. God so ordered things that the Epistle should be sent to a woman originally, for the very purpose of showing that, whatever may be the ordinary ways of God in His church, there are occasions and seasons in which the very foundation of His grace and of His moral glory must be maintained at all cost. Wherever this ' is the case, no excuse can be tolerated on the score of sex or youth. Do not tell me that it is only a child or a woman. If Christ is in the question, all else must give way. Nor is this a sacrifice but real gain.

What has been remarked may serve to show us the all‑absorbing consequence of what the Holy Ghost here takes in hand. Christ was undermined by those who held His name. It was a question of a true or of a false Christ. Sex was nothing now, youth not more to be considered — all very important when things flow on regularly and in their ordinary channels. We all know how unbecoming it would be for either the one or the other to be put forward, still more to put themselves there; but the Holy Ghost addresses Himself to them here. And we shall see, as is always the case, that what might seem an anomaly in the word of God, when properly looked into, will prove to be full of grave instruction for all our souls. No other conceivable address would have been so appropriate for the second Epistle of John.

Had the present been written in general terms, like the first Epistle, much would have been lost; just as, on the other hand, I could scarcely, for my own part, imagine the first Epistle written to the elect lady and her children. All is precisely as it should be. There we find points of universal interest to the children of God, and it is a question of addressing all this family, fathers, young men, and babes. But here, where the tide of evil was now setting in strongly, where searching enquiries must be on foot, where not the ordinary evils only were increasing in an ever and rapidly accumulating volume, but the deepest peril for the basis of all our hopes, the warning is addressed fittingly both to the family and to individuals. Where the first Epistle noticed these things in a general way to all, here we come to greater precision in the evil, and here too we have to do with particular persons.

How often one has heard it urged that it is not for a woman to take upon herself to judge, and that no wise man can mean to say that these are questions for children — that they are points of delicacy which most of all require deep theological knowledge and mature judgment; and would you expect the assembly of God to judge such matters? But the Holy Ghost here appeals to a woman and her children, and they are bound to judge; if they do not, Christ is set at nought for their own ease. It was now a question of Christ — the Christ of God. We shall see all this more clearly as we proceed. I am only now endeavouring to show the beautiful appropriateness of that which to a superficial eye might. seem somewhat out of order in the address of this Epistle. "The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth."

This is another very characteristic point in the second Epistle of John. Indeed it runs all through John. In the Gospel, as we know, Christ Himself is set forth expressly as the truth; and then his Epistles, as we have seen and may yet see, abound in the same tenacity to what was revealed by and in Christ. Here we find it still. It is interwoven into the very salutation of the epistle — "The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth." At once the issue is understood. What was at stake is here before the mind of those who read so remarkable an address. If Mary, about to become the mother of Jesus, might wonder at the singularity of the angel's salutation, assuredly this was meant to search the conscience and stir the souls of the elect lady and her children, when an inspired apostle addresses to them a communication of unwonted solemnity. How great the grace of Christ, and infinite the condescension, that shows how precious is every believer to Him! We find nothing like this in any of the preceding epistles, as to the Galatians or the Romans, the Corinthians or the Ephesians, yet I do affirm that this is precisely what was wanted here. It was a more fundamental question, and the error more fatal. It was no defence or assertion of justification by faith. John is not setting forth the proper order of the assembly of God; nor is he leading the saint into the heavenly privileges of the individual or the body. Christ was in question or nothing. Nothing, did I say? Worse than nothing. It was either the Christ of God in all His divine glory, or the greatest evil into which a man can possibly be plunged by the enemy. It was, in short, war to the knife — the great controversy between Christ and antichrist. Solemn to think and say, the self‑same crisis affects every soul now present!

I remember years ago reading a book by a celebrated character, who has now passed away from the scene, in which he dared to raise the question whether there was any particular sign in 2 or 3 John,* why they should be accepted as divinely inspired, more than such compositions as the pastoral letters of Ignatius. It was not that the writer took the place of being an infidel: in fact he was Rector of the English College at Rome, and since a Cardinal in this country. This dreadful feature of ecclesiasticism is not so uncommon to find; namely, an infidel argument under the cowl of a monk or in the lips of their most learned professors. Therefore one must not be surprised if one ever so eminent ecclesiastically gave the plainest evidence that he had no faith in the word of God, that he did not participate in its power. Thus the strongest form of the assertion of church authority may really betray under its robes no better than vulgar infidelity. He asked† how you would demonstrate from internal facts the inspiration of the second and third Epistles of St. John, finding in them neither a prophecy nor anything else which could not have been written by a very holy and pious magi, without any aid whatsoever from inspiration! The same poisonous argument taints in a still baser and more audacious form Dr. Milner's "End of Controversy:" indeed it pervades Romanism as a whole, and proves its essentially infidel character.

*"I would ask you, for instance, how you would demonstrate (I will not speak now of the books of the Old Testament; I will take that for granted, from the historical evidence, that our Saviour and His apostles received them as sufficient to satisfy you with regard to them; but Christians are more particularly interested in the New Testament) how you would demonstrate from internal facts the inspiration of the second and third Epistles of St. John, finding in them neither a prophecy nor any thing else that could not have been written by a very holy and pious man, without any aid from inspiration. In some, indeed, of the Epistles of St. Paul you will find it exceedingly difficult to discover passages so decidedly proving a divine assistance in him who wrote them as to satisfy you that they were inspired." — Lectures (p. 28) on the Doctrines and Practices of the Roman Catholic Church, etc. By the Rev. Nicholas Wiseman, D.D., etc. London: Hodson, Fleet Street. 1836.

†In the corrected edition of this lecture I find, "What internal mark of inspiration can we discover in the third epistle of St. John to show that the inspiration sometimes must have been granted here? Is there anything in that epistle which a good and pious pastor of the primitive ages might not have written? anything superior (!) in sentiment or doctrine (!!) to what an Ignatius or a Polycarp might have indited?" (Lect. ii. p. 38, ed. 1836.) Truly "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God . . . neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."

I think, my brethren, that our experience might supply ample ground for an answer, though probably not of such a character as would satisfy one who could make such an objection. There is a day coming when judgment will decide; but conscience, acted upon by the Holy Ghost, can form a conviction now — not of course infallibly, for God alone is or can be infallible — but adequately for the need of the soul. I do say, that the loss would have been immense if we had not had even these two Epistles, putting the matter on no higher ground than this. I need not say that I refuse to treat a question of scripture on a mere ground of utility. Still, we are certain that God has written nothing in vain; and if in a grave crisis of late any one scripture was needed and must have been missed, without which we might have found ourselves at a loss how to act firmly under as trying circumstances as ever befell any soul in this room, or any other, it would have been precisely the second Epistle of John.

The apostle then lets them know that he loved them all in the truth; for a believer, young or old, man, woman, or child, is best loved, just for the sake of the truth. He that departs from the truth, what is he? A rebel. But they that walk in the truth, even were they children or ever so lowly, are precious to God; and His Spirit waits on such, and writes to them, and lays on them to decide before God, in their own sphere of duty, this most grave question: "Is my soul in communion with God about His own Son? Whatever may be the reputation of others, whatever my own weakness and call to walk humbly, do I feel that the one thine, which is to determine all others for me is the truth, the truth of Christ Himself?" If it be so, all else will in the main be right. Hence John writes to this effect to the elect lady, whom he loved in truth, and to her children. Nor was this affection of a personal or circumstantial character: "Whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth." The revelation of God in Christ does, by the Holy Spirit, bind together in love all who know the truth. It was on account of the truth that he now wrote — as it is said, "for the truth's sake."

How unweariedly he puts forward that which was now to test them severally! (verse 2.) "For the truth's sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us for ever. Grace be with you, mercy and peace." As has been often and truly remarked, where individuals are thus before the mind of the Spirit of God, the need of "mercy" is supposed and shown. "From God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love" — an expression found, as far as I remember, nowhere else. It was just in its right place here. Satan was undermining the glory of "the Son of the Father." But if He be not this, how can I go to Him? How rest my soul, my all, on Him? How can God look to Him and His work for every soul that is brought to Himself?

Hence the apostle's source of joy. "I rejoiced greatly that I found of thy children walking in truth, as we have received a commandment from the Father." Walking in truth is the result of having the truth. The truth produces truthfulness. The man who has not got the truth cannot possibly walk in truth, and will not long wear the semblance of it. To walk thus was the effect of the truth itself known: they walked in truth, "according as we received commandment from the Father."

              "And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another." It was the old, but ever new word: old, because it was manifested in Christ Himself; new, because it is true in us as in Him. Divine love flows from love, and reproduces itself in all who know Christ the truth. But what is love? "And this is love:" not independency of each other, not agreeing to differ, or any of those inventions of men which are not only a departure from the truth, but in point of fact morally evil and injurious. "This is love, that we walk after his commandments." You cannot separate it from Christ; you cannot separate it from obedience. It is love in exercise, and it is also love that is communicated by faith in Jesus. "This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it."

Now he gives the reason why he writes thus solemnly to this lady and her children. "For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not Jesus Christ coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist." "Many deceivers are entered into the world;" and therefore it is needful, yea imperative, to press the claims of the truth of God. "Who confess not Jesus Christ coming in the flesh." It is put here rather differently from its shape in the first Epistle. There the allusion was to the fact, but this as stamping a permanent character on Christ — the Christ that came. Here it is not so much a question of His having come, but, as it seems to me, indicating if possible a deeper shade of infidelity. No doubt the same persons are referred to, but it would seem as having developed their infidelity rather more. For there is the rejection not only of the fact, but even of its possibility. They conceived the thought that in some way or another it was derogatory to Him. They denied, some His deity, some His humanity.

In commenting on 1 John 4, I have already remarked that "Jesus Christ come in the flesh" supposes neither His deity alone, nor His humanity only, but both, There is no propriety in the expression, it appears to me, unless it means both united in the same person. In point of fact it is the veering to one side or the other — choosing a part of the truth of Christ so as to set aside the rest' that is so fruitful a source of error here and everywhere, though here most fatally. "This is the deceiver and the antichrist." It is far worse than bringing in division and offence, bad as these are; nay, it is far more serious than even the undermining of morality, ruinous as this must be. To sap or corrupt morality is no doubt to destroy oneself, and perhaps often others; but this is to defame and degrade Christ, the Son of the Father. This, then, is a bolder effort of Satan, and therefore John calls one guilty of it not only "the deceiver" (every false teacher is more or less a deceiver), but in this case also "the antichrist."

Hence he calls them to look at home diligently lest they should stray. For God alone keeps the soul, and this by and in the truth. "Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought," (of which the apostles had been the instrument,) "but that we receive a full reward."

Then he lays down the great principle in verse 9: — Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son." It is a larger principle than simply denying Christ coming in the flesh. No matter where it is, or how it is, if you overthrow the person of Christ, you transgress the doctrine of Christ. In the seventh verse we had a particular case; but from it the Spirit of God rises up to this statement of truth which meets every such cue. "Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ" (that is, in the teaching which the Holy Ghost has given in His word about Christ, not about His work, but about His person), "hath not God" in any sense or measure, now that Christ is preached.

The greatest error about His work is not so directly fatal to the soul, because it does not so immediately assail the personal glory of the Lord Jesus. Here it is the doctrine of Christ Himself; and as one must beware of straying at first, let him also beware of not continuing in the doctrine of Christ. A man might have professed His name, and gone on some time with the assembly of God, accepted as a believer, or even a teacher; but if he does not abide in the truth of Christ, it does not signify what he may have been, it matters not in the least how much he may seemingly have been blessed, it is all over with him if he does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, and it becomes a necessity, not merely for the safety of oneself and others, but for God's glory, which is concerned here more sensitively than anywhere else. "Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God."

It might be said that at any rate a man might have the truth of the Old Testament, as there were such before Christ was manifested in the world; and if the person fails to enter into all the truth that Christianity has told out, can he be worse off than those who lived and died before Jesus came? The answer is that such special pleading is all in vain; he is incomparably guiltier and worse off, because now the standard is not what God once gave, but what He is giving now in a Christ fully revealed. Therefore it will not do to talk of what others knew not. This is an important practical criterion; because, although not to the same extent, it does meet the difficulty which people constantly allege founded on what their forefathers did — possibly excellent men — two or three hundred years ago. What is that to the present moment? If God by His Spirit causes His truth to reach us in a form and power suited to this day, if God brings it home more clearly on this point or that, these are the things which put the soul under a fresh responsibility; and this seems indicated in the form in which the Spirit of God deals with the error here. "Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God." It is not only that he lacks the blessedness of the Christian revelation, but he has not God — he has no part nor lot with God at all. The Old Testament saints had God variously revealed. They received His word and rejoiced, according to the measure of their faith, in the truth as God then made it known to them. But now that Christ is come, now that the Holy Ghost has been sent down, now that the unfolding of Christ's personal glory, of His exaltation, and of the infinite grace of His work, has been proclaimed, it is altogether hopeless to seek a cover of present unbelief under the ignorance of past years. It is the present unfolding of God's mind that puts every soul to the test. Therefore not to accept it, and not to abide in it when it is received, to go back from it or to transgress, swerving to one side or the other, or abandoning it, comes to the same substantial sin and ruin.

On the other hand, here. is the comfort for the elect lady and her children, and for any one else who cleaves to the truth. "He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son." There is great blessedness in thus abiding, brethren; it is a grand thing not to be easily shaken, not to be moved to and fro by every wind of doctrine, more particularly in anything about Christ. Beware of this. Weigh seriously every thought, no matter from whom it may come — any word that even seems to turn you away from what you have, and to weaken the assurance you have from God. Never allow yourself to be shaken from old truth, if indeed you have it and know it. At the same time always hold your soul open for more; and take care that you do not confound notions you have gathered (perhaps from tradition, possibly from your own mind) with the truth of Christ, lest, when the tradition is touched, you may begin to yield to the spirit of unbelief, and either give up truth you used (or seemed at least) to hold, or burst out against the truth of God in others who know it better than yourself.

In these things assuredly we need to have the promised guidance of the Holy Ghost. We cannot start or go on without it, nor would we do so even if we could. It is the very blessedness of our souls to be kept by so holy a guide and in safe companionship. But then, just as in our ordinary walk, if we live in the Spirit, we must walk in the Spirit; so also, if we have been taught of the Spirit, we must go forward and persevere in the Spirit. This does not in the smallest degree clash with "abiding." The only way to be kept is holding fast what God has really taught us, yet using this as the groundwork for making progress. Such is the true way to "abide." "He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son."

Now that the doctrine of Christ is fully brought out in the word of God, the more sure it is that there is nothing to add. Impossible to discover a truth of God that is not already in the Bible. But there is not a little to learn which, I am persuaded, is there already. We must not confound these two things. Who would assume that you and I know all that is in the Bible? If then a line of truth be pointed out anywhere in scripture, do not calumniously pretend that it is some further development, because you have been so dull as not to see it. It is the very point of faith to know that as God Himself is infinite, so His word contains boundless riches for us. There is that which may by the Holy Ghost be always apprehended more and more fully; and yet after all it is the same holy deposit as was given to the Christian from the beginning.

The apostle now comes to the practical consequence. He has laid down the principle in the ninth verse: now comes the practice. "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds." Mark how it is put. It is not — bring not the true humanity, or the proper Deity; because Satan might change the doctrine somewhat, so as to save appearances for the simple. Therefore it would not do merely to specify some one particular form of error, because then the devil would have only to evade that form, and there would be no resource. But here it stands firm yet comprehensive: if a man come to you, and does not bring this doctrine (that is, the doctrine of Christ do not you receive him. No matter what may be the particular manner in which the enemy has warped his soul, and through him dishonoured Christ; no matter what may be the peculiar nature of the false doctrine, — if a man come to you, and bring not the divinely revealed doctrine, the Holy Ghost's teaching of Christ in the written word, — "receive him not into your house, neither bid him greeting." That is to say, do not bid him a common salutation. There is nothing about "God speed" in the word (cairein), though "good speed" might be tolerable. The stronger terms are merely put in by the English translators. It was the ordinary form of courteous greeting every day.

This is to my mind a serious thought. Do you think, my brethren, that we all follow this out as we ought? Are we not conscious of shrinking from the cost, and of a fear if not anxiety lest we should be counted uncourteous? I can speak for one certainly; and I doubt much whether in general we are sufficiently alive to the solemnity of what Satan is always pursuing. More particularly let me add, that we stand in a position, failure in which tends to expose all God's children to the efforts of the enemy. There are none, I presume, whom he would so much desire to drag into the mire, and thus defile the name of Jesus.

If then such an one come, of course without the doctrine, yet taking the ground of truth, you are to receive him not. Where? To the Lord's table? No; this could not have been said to the elect lady and her children. The exhortation is quite independent of public fellowship. The question of the Lord's table is not even raised. They are not even to receive him into their private house, nor to accost him with common greeting. Why this most severe and peremptory exclusion? "For he that biddeth him greeting" (not so much as receiving him into the house, but interchanging words of courtesy with such a man, knowingly, of course, and deliberately) "is a partaker of his evil deeds." You, as a confessor of Christ, put your sanction on this denier of Christ. You could not do worse except deny Christ yourself; indeed, in a certain sense you are more guilty than even if you were drawn for a time into the abominable thing yourself, because then you would be honestly acting out what you had been deceived by Satan into believing; but the more you hold the true Christ, if you tamper with those who do not, the more shameless you are in unfaithfulness to Christ.

To some this may seem strong; but who has written it? who urges it? Is it a man without God? Is it not the Spirit of God who charges us in the name of the Lord Jesus thus sensitively to feel for the truth of Christ? Let us not be deaf to such a claim from such a person. Let us not reserve our warm feelings for our friends, and leave only indifference for the name of Jesus. He that greets kindly the man that brings not the doctrine of Christ is a traitor to Christ.

Let me here repeat that it is not "God speed," for this might give a false idea. It sounds as if we were wishing him well in his work. This would be commonly inferred by one unaccustomed to read the language of the Holy Ghost. But it conveys nothing of the sort — merely a Greek "good morning" — what would pass in the current language of the day among one's fellows.

He then who has anything to say to the defamer of Christ which could be fairly interpreted as a sanction, let it be ever so small, becomes a partaker of his evil deeds. It is not a question of being a partner in his evil doctrine. The elect lady and her children were of course believed to hold sound doctrine; but they are here peremptorily called to refuse any measure of countenance to one who did not bring the doctrine of Christ — not only not to receive him into the house, but not to salute him outside it. It was a part of the loyalty they owed to Christ.

John concludes thus: "Having many things to write to you, I would not with paper and ink: but I hope to come to you, and speak mouth to mouth, that your joy may be full. The children of thine elect sister greet thee." There was hearty love, but it was only in the truth, of which Christ alone is the test and obedience the effect.

W. Kelly