These two epistles are quite distinct, but being from the same author, and being so short, we will consider them together. As it happens, some of the issues raised are intertwined in some interesting ways.
“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” (2 John 10–11).
“I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not” (3 John 9).
Summary of the Text:
The letter of 2 John is written to “the elect lady and her children,” which either means that John is addressing a particular church under the image of a woman, or he is addressing a particular woman who hosts a church in her home. 3 John is a personal and private letter written to Gaius.
Occasion of the Letters:
2 John is basically a miniaturized version of 1 John. The same emphases are there (love and the truth of the Incarnation), and the occasion is likely the result of what happened when the false teachers banished in 1 John made their way to another town, seeking to spread their heresy. Do not receive them, John says. The occasion for 3 John is that John (“the elder”) had sent someone to that church, along with a letter of commendation (which was customary). Diotrephes, a man “who loved to have the preeminence” refused hospitality to this apostolic emissary, and threatened church discipline for anyone who did receive that emissary. John writes another letter (this one), urging Gaius to receive Demetrius, the new emissary.
A Level Playing Field?
We should begin by noting the problem. John requires exactly the same thing that Diotrephes requires. In 2 John, God’s people are required to show no hospitality to false teachers (vv. 10-11). In 3 John, Diotrephes uses the same tactic, insisting that hospitality not be shown to an emissary from John. What’s the difference? The difference is the distance between truth and falsehood.
We are too accustomed to thinking that there is such a thing as a neutral playing field, which has to be “level,” and that in the battle between good and evil, both sides should be bound by the same rules. If one side has to get ten yards for a first down, then it should be the same for the other side. If one side cannot clip, then neither can the other side. Carrying our bad analogy across, we say that if the Pharisees cannot call Jesus names (drunkard, glutton, demon-possessed) then that means that Jesus cannot call them names (white-washed tombs, children of the devil). But this is false because the contest between ultimate truth and falsehood is not that kind of contest. The field is not neutral. It belongs to God.
It is therefore right that John prohibit hospitality to false teachers, and it is therefore wrong for Diotrephes to prohibit hospitality to true teachers. Right? Wrong? These are strange words. Tell me more about this religion of yours.
Emphasis in a Tight Spot:
The size of both these letters was a standard size for that era. These letters would fit on a single sheet of papyrus, and given the space constraints, it is significant to note what sorts of things are repeated. Fee and Stuart point out that in the first six verses of 2 John, the word truth is used 5 times, walk 3 times, and love 5 times.
Truth draws a hard line. Love is the reason why truth must draw a hard line. Truth without love will not remain truth for long, and love without truth has no reason not to devolve into sentimentality. Love becomes ugly without the truth, and truth becomes ugly without love.
The Christ is the love of God incarnate, and so every antichrist is anti-love. The Christ is the truth of God, given to men in the darkness of lies, and so every antichrist is anti-truth. Believe in love, and love the truth. Walk in both of them.
Think of truth as the skeleton and love as the flesh. We are to speak the truth in love, Paul says (Eph. 4:15). If we opt for love without truth, we have bodies like giant amoebae or bean bag chairs. If we opt for truth without love, we want to be a skeleton hanging from a rack in somebody’s science room.
Face to Face:
“Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full” (2 John 12).
“but I trust I shall shortly see thee, and we shall speak face to face. Peace be to thee. Our friends salute thee. Greet the friends by name” (3 John 14).
In both letters, John is constrained by the size of the paper. The letters are brief—3 John is the shortest book in the Bible. But even here John gives us an important principle. Communication (which includes teaching) is a matter of relationship and love, and so it is not an “all or nothing” affair. Person-to-person, face-to-face, is better for John and the lady, for John and Gaius. But their face-to-face meetings, when they occurred, are not better for us. The fact that John wrote it down means that we get something that is far better than nothing. Scripture is God’s idea, and when all things are considered, it is not a “second-best” option.
This applies to other things as well, including issues like “distance learning.” The principle is always “compared to what?” Scripture is distance learning, as are books and web pages, and letters and Skype calls. They are not examples of things that drive us apart (unless we want them to). Rather they are additional tools for a loving heart, a heart that never sacrifices the good on the altar of a hypothetical best.
We will see Christ face-to-face in the resurrection. Is that any reason to ignore the letters He has given to us now? “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12). We should know how to compare them, certainly. But we also need to receive them both.