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The Fly Over Books: 2 John – Truth and Love


Truth and Love

2 John


In 1879 Lieutenant George De Long set out with a crew on the USS Jeannette in hopes of claiming the North Pole for the United States. His plans were based on maps developed by mapmakers at the time. One of those mapmakers, Dr. August Heinrich Petermann believed there was an open polar ice-free sea, teeming with marine life “whose waters could be smoothly sailed, much as one might sail across the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.” Actually most mapmakers at the time believed there was an open polar ice-free sea.


Unfortunately, every previous expedition that had sailed north in search of the sea had run into a problem – ice. Now, you might think that running into ice every time would lead scientists like Petermann to abandon the theory of an Open Polar Sea. No. He just modified the original theory by adding the idea of a “thermometric gateway.” He believed if an explorer could just bust through this icy circle, preferably in a ship with a reinforced hull, he would eventually find open water and enjoy smooth sailing to the North Pole. The trick, then, was to find a gap in the ice… a natural portal of some kind.”


So based on Petermann’s theory, George De Long and his crew of 28 men wanted to find that portal. It didn’t take long for De Long to realize that all the cartographers, scientists, and geographers had been wrong. He wrote, “I pronounce a thermometric gateway to the North Pole a delusion and a snare.” Eventually, He began to doubt the existence of the Open Polar Sea. He and his men encountered ice that seemed to stretch out forever.


Eventually they came to grips with the fact that they had been duped. The team had to “replace [their wrongheaded ideas] with a reckoning of the way the Arctic truly is.” They were running up against the rocks or hardened ice of reality. In September 1879, the USS Jeannette got trapped in the ice pack and his crew escaped and tried to go toward Siberia. The crew got separated. Some made it to Siberia and survived; others continued their lonely trek through the ice. As for George De Long, he died in late October 1881 of starvation. He was covered up by snow, except for one of his arms, which was raised as if to signal toward the sky.[i]


Now, to be fair, at that time people still had to guess at what lay beyond the horizon. There were no planes that could fly over and photograph or record what was down there. There were no satellites in orbit sending information about the earth back to scientists. Until someone actually went and looked, they had no way of knowing what was really there. But even today, we struggle sometimes to find our way, don’t we? Even GPS sometimes gets it wrong. As we move into June I’ll be driving all over northern Michigan shearing llamas and alpacas for small farms once again. I usually start in May, but pushed it back as far as I could this year because of Covid-19. Most of the farms where I shear are located off the beaten path. Way off the beaten path. But most of the time, Google maps GPS on my phone gets me right where I need to be. Most of the time.


When I get down in the Mesick area, things get sketchy. Clients will tell me to ignore Google and follow their instructions carefully, because Google will try to take me a way that isn’t usually passable, or is a much more roundabout way of getting to their farm. But sometimes I’ve found that Google is just plain wrong. I once typed in an address and Google happily directed me to the location. When it said “You’ve arrived!” I looked right, and all I could see was woods. I looked left, and all I could see was woods. I looked back, and all I could see was woods. And ahead of me? You guessed it … woods. No driveways. No paths. No two-tracks. Nothing but trees. When I called the person to ask where in the world her farm was, she informed me, based on what I told her, that I was about 30 miles away from her farm. The Google had led me astray. When the instruction we’re following is wrong, we wind up in the wrong place. Sometimes, it’s just annoying. But other times it’s a serious issue. In the letter we know as 2 John, the writer deals with just that kind of problem in one of the churches he was responsible for. While some of the people were still faithful to the sound teaching about Christ handed down from the apostles, others were in danger of being led astray. Turn with me to 2 John, one of the tiny books of the Bible just before Revelation. Unless the type in your Bible is really large, the whole book fits on one page.


This summer we’re doing a sermon series called “The Fly-Over Books.” You know how people call the middle states in America the fly-over states? You fly over them on your way to wherever you’re going, but you don’t stop there. States like Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. I mean who says “I’m going to Nebraska on vacation?” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say those words. If I have, they probably have kids living there. The problem is that those who have driven through those fly over states will tell you that they possess just as much beauty as destination states like California, Oregon, the New England states, and the southern states. We spend our vacation money going to more popular destinations – America’s nursing home, Florida and Alabama. The Carolinas. A color tour through New England. A Broadway trip to New York. A trip to Chicago. The beaches of California. The ski slopes of Colorado and Utah.


We do the same thing when we read and study the Bible. We spend all of our time in a select few books – the Gospels, Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 John if we’re super spiritual, Psalms and Proverbs. Maybe Genesis. Prophetic books like Isaiah. But beyond that … But the truth is that ALL of the books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, are “… breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the messenger of God (that’s how it reads in the original Greek text) may be complete, equipped for every good work.” All Scripture. But just like those fly-over states have just as much beauty and worth as the more popular destinations, so to do the fly over books of the Bible. The books that we don’t read or study very often, if at all. So this summer we’re going to get an overview of SOME of those books. We’ll be looking at 2 and 3 John and Jude in the New Testament, and several of the minor prophets at the end of the Old Testament. 2 John.


Now, it would appear that this letter is written to a family, maybe a widow and her kids, but the truth is John is writing this brief letter to a church. It is quite common in Scripture to refer to the church using feminine nouns and pronouns, the church as the “Bride of Christ” being the most common example. But John also ends the letter with the phrase “The children of your elect sister greet you,” so either he is some kind of weird go-between between two families, or he’s using the words “elect lady” and “elect sister” to refer to two different churches, with the children of each being the members of those churches.


In this very brief letter, John outlines three traits common in healthy churches, churches in which the people are really following Christ. The first is … you guessed it. Love. The writer of these three letters, 1, 2, and 3 John speaks often of love. In fact, it’s his central topic – the LOVE that every follower of Christ has for Christ that shows up also as love for other people, both inside the body of Christ and outside it. Love is one of the primary markers of a disciple of Christ. We are commanded and implored to love Christ, and to love others. Which, when you think about it, is a little bit weird. Sure, it makes sense that Christ produces his love in us, and he does. But how can we be commanded to love? Look at V. 5.


Can you love someone on command? I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at that. I cannot make myself produce the emotion we know as love, as affection. It just kind of happens, doesn’t it. And we all love some people more, and differently, than we love others. If love is an emotion related to a sense of connection and affection, how can I be commanded to love? I can’t, necessarily. The heart wants what it wants, right? And love CAN have an emotional component to it. But that isn’t all that love is.


The love that John calls us to is a self-giving love. It is love as a decision to defer to the needs and wants of the other, to do what is best for the other. In Philippians 2 St. Paul says “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” That is love. To love is to humbly consider someone else as more significant than yourself. That isn’t to say that we don’t think of ourselves as significant at all. It is to say, as loved and as loveable and as important as I may be, as loved by God as I am, this person is more significant than me. That is love. Humble love. And that kind of love marks our interactions with those outside the church. Jesus made it very clear that we are to love our neighbors, which he defines as anyone, and that we are to love our enemies.


Now, if I’m supposed to have positive feelings about my enemies, I’m going to fail here, aren’t I? But if I am to show that person a self-giving, sacrificial, humble love, considering them a significant person too, I can do that. But there is also a special kind of love that those who are fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God have for one another. We love all. But there is a special connection between those who follow Christ together. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, says “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for ONE ANOTHER.” (13:35). When dissention and division and conflict set in among fellow members of the body of Christ, our witness for Christ before our community is hampered.


Hopefully, in a few short weeks, on June 21, we’ll be back together again as a church. Granted, with some modifications, but we’ll be back together again. And I’m quite sure that some of us will choose to continue to stay home and watch online and that’s fine. And some are going to come, but wear masks, and leave quickly. Others will come, and not wear a mask, and stay for a while afterward. And if you’re on social media, you may have seen, maybe even been a part of, and argument or two … or twenty … online about what they right response to the COVID-19 virus is. You may be a hugger and dying to hug someone. Someone else who attends may not want any physical contact just yet. And we’re going to coexist in the same space and we’re going to worship God together and no one is going to get punched. Some of us have been very upset and frightened because we’ve been forced to shut our businesses down, while others have been very upset and frightened because others seem to not care who gets sick or whether someone dies or not.


Regardless of how that fear has shown up in your life, we aren’t going to respond in fear. We’re going to respond in love. And what casts out fear? John himself said it in 1 John. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (4:18). Love doesn’t punish. Sometimes it disciplines, but it doesn’t punish. Discipline instructs. Punishment just reacts to poor past behavior. Love is associated with discipline and instruction, but not punishment. And perfect love casts out fear. When we are back together we are going to respond in love, not in fear.


Pastor Ray Ortlund writes, “The kind of God we really believe in is revealed in how we treat one another. The lovely gospel of Jesus positions us to treat one another like royalty, and every non-gospel positions us to treat one another like dirt. But we will follow through horizontally on whatever we believe vertically.”


He then goes on to identify the “One Another’s” he could not find in the N.T.:


Sanctify one another, humble one another, scrutinize one another, pressure one another, embarrass one another, corner one another, interrupt one another, defeat one another, sacrifice one another, shame one another, judge one another, run one another’s lives, confess one another’s sins, intensify one another’s sufferings, point out one another’s failings …[ii]


Now, we are to love. But love isn’t always soft. You’ve heard the phrase “tough love,” right? Love isn’t always hard either, and it is never harsh, but it isn’t ALWAYS soft. You see, the second trait of a healthy church is truth. In Ephesians 4:15, St Paul instructs us to speak “the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Without truth, love is nothing but sentiment. It is wishy washy. It fears, because it fears offending anyone. Without love, truth is harsh. It is right, but doesn’t care about anything other than being right. Paul makes it clear that maturing followers of Christ are EQUALLY committed to TRUTH and to LOVE. Most of us are a little more naturally bent toward one or the other. So maturing in Christ requires us to become aware of which one is our weakness and seek, in partnership with the Holy Spirit, to intentionally strengthen it.


Truth is that which is in alignment with reality. Truth and reality are one and the same. And when Jesus said of himself, “I AM the Truth,” he was saying, “I am ultimate reality.” All that is really real, all that is true, finds its fulfillment in Christ. Now, look at 2 John 6-8. It would appear that this church, this “Elect lady,” is doing well in the love department, but there is a danger in the truth department. There are teachers going around questioning the foundation of faith, Jesus, the Christ. Specifically, they’re calling into question the incarnation, the reality of God becoming, not becoming like or appearing as, but becoming human in Jesus, the Christ. In this case, the loving thing to do is to NOT tolerate this falsehood in their midst, but to love God and one another by grasping on to truth together.


Love gets at the unity of a church, doesn’t it? And we as human beings try to find unity in a lot of ways that don’t lead to unity. Sometimes we look for unity in race, and so we have black churches and white churches. Sometimes we look for unity in status, and so we have middle class churches and poorer churches. We look for unity in things that are really important, but not central, and so we have churches of different denominations. But unity, true unity, true love, is found in our comment trust in and commitment to Christ alone. Love is expressed in our common commitment to the one who is THE TRUTH.

Sometimes, we make the mistake of focusing on things that are important, maybe really important, but not central. You sprinkle and we dunk. You celebrate communion weekly and we celebrate it monthly. You take this view of how God created the earth and I take this other one. You take one view of Revelation and the end times and I take another one. But the Truth, the foundation upon which our love and our unity is built, isn’t any of those things. The foundation upon which our love and unity is built is Jesus Christ.


The reality, the truth, of the incarnation, the life and death of Jesus for our sin and his resurrection from the dead …


The reality, the truth, that Jesus Christ was at the same time both fully God and fully human …


The reality, the truth, that God exists as three distinct persons but one essence, The Eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity …


It is there, in Christ, that we find our unity and are driven to love, regardless of any of these other things. But what do we do when someone moves away from that foundation? Look at Vv. 8-11. It seems like John is contradicting himself here. He’s just told us to love, and now he’s telling us to ignore someone. Well, not quite. Remember, he’s writing this letter to a church, not to a person. And the people he’s speaking against aren’t regular followers of Christ. They’re teachers. Preachers. They’re in a position of authority. He isn’t saying to literally cross the street if you know anyone who doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And he isn’t talking about one church disregarding another if they disagree about baptism or the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. He’s talking about churches extending a formal recognition of teaching to someone who teaches falsely ABOUT CHRIST, calling into question his humanity or his divinity or the nature of the trinity or his work on the cross. He’s talking about officially sanctioning a teacher who does this. He isn’t talking about interpersonal hospitality. We are to love and be hospitable and genuinely concerned about even our enemies. But we are not to compromise on the truth of Christ as a church. Do we allow non-believers to come in and worship with us? Of course we do! Do they agree with us about who Jesus is and what he has done? I really doubt it. John is talking specifically about the orientation of the body of Christ toward a specific teaching and teacher, when the doctrine of Christ, at its core, our foundation, is called into question.


Let me tell you something about earthquakes. When the Coalinga quake occurred back in 1983, a lot of things were discovered. Houses that were built and were bolted to their foundation withstood that 8.2-on-the-Richter-Scale quake. The structure would go like this, but if it was bolted to the foundation, it withstood.


On the other hand, the houses that were built in a period when they did not bolt them to the foundation – again, a perfectly good house – when the horizontal earth movement occurred, the house moved maybe six or seven inches off its foundation. And that’s what caused the house to collapse.


And so that was a great discovery made at Coalinga: Houses should be bolted to their foundation. It’s not only on the foundation, but if you’re going to add horizontal earth movement to this terrifying portrayal that we all face, then you need to have the house bolted into its foundation. Sort of a living relationship with the foundation – into it as well as on it.[iii] Our foundation is love expressing itself in our common pursuit of truth and our common trust in Christ, who is the truth. Let us pray.

[i] Adapted from Trevin Wax, This Is Our Time (B&H Books, 2017).

[ii] Ray Ortlund, “’One Another’s’ I Can’t Find in the New Testament,” The Gospel Coalition blog (5-24-14)

[iii] Earl Palmer, “The Foolish and the Wise,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 54.