Speaking the Truth in Love
by Phil Johnson
Sometimes the best way to love your neighbor is to challenge a false belief that is holding him in confusion, discouragement, or some worse state of spiritual bondage. The idea that it’s unloving to defend truth or confront lies is one of the arrogant opinions of this postmodern age that needs to be torn down (2 Cor. 10:5). Authentic love “rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6).
Love and truth are perfectly symbiotic. Love without truth has no character. Truth without love has no power. Nowhere in Scripture is the essential connection between these two cardinal virtues more clearly highlighted than in 2 John. Love and truth are the key words in that brief thirteen-verse epistle.
John is the perfect Apostle to write on this theme. Jesus had nicknamed John and his brother James “Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17)—doubtless because of their fiery zeal for the truth. At first, their passion was not always tempered with love, and we see a glimpse of that in Luke 9:54, when they wanted to call down fire from heaven upon a village of Samaritans who had rebued Christ.
In later years, however, John distinguished himself as the Apostle of Love, specially highlighting the theme of love in his gospel and in all three of his epistles.
And yet, as we see in all of his epistles, he never lost his zeal for the truth. He did, however, learn to keep it wedded to a proper, Christlike love. His second epistle is addressed to “the elect lady and her children”—most likely an esteemed Christian matriarch who had the means and the desire to make her home and hospitality available to itinerant missionaries, church planters, and teachers in the early church. Extending such hospitality was a tangible way she could fulfill the Lord’s new commandment (John 13:34).
She was probably familiar with John’s first epistle, where he warned “that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18; see v. 22; 4:3). Such men were “false prophets”—teachers who claimed to be believers but whose teaching undermined true faith. And many of them had already gone out all over the known world (4:1).
For someone whose ministry entailed showing kindness to strangers, those were unsettling words. Could she no longer show hospitality indiscriminately? What was the loving response to someone who claimed to be a brother in Christ but taught the doctrine of antichrist?
She had evidently written John personally to ask. The epistle is his reply. Verses 1–5 describe the symbiotic nature of love and truth, and John arms the primacy of love: “All who [genuinely] know the truth” do love (v. 1 is an echo of 1 John 3:14 and its cross-references). Love itself is at the heart of all truth because love is what the truth demands. Love is the perfect fulfillment of all our Lord’s commandments (Rom. 13:10; Gal. 5:14). So, in no way does John want this woman or any other reader of the epistle to think that what he is about to say denigrates the importance of love.
Then the epistle takes a dramatic turn. John reiterates the necessity of being on guard against deceivers and antichrists, for there are many (v. 7). He explains how to distinguish such people from authentic believers (v. 9).
All of this repeats in shorthand form things he had already said in 1 John. Verses 10–11 are the only completely new content in this epistle. This is therefore the main point John wants to address in this letter. It is John’s inspired answer to the question that seems to have prompted him to write in the first place:
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
He calls for a strict separation between the people of God and anyone who comes in Christ’s name but denies Christ’s essential teaching.
John isn’t talking about simple matters of disagreement between brothers and sisters in Christ. He is not giving a mandate for speaking rudely to people, being hateful to one’s theological adversaries, or anything else that would violate the principle of 2 Timothy 2:24–26: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrel-some but kind to everyone … correcting his opponents with gentleness.
“But there’s no mincing of words here. He instructs the woman to withhold both hospitality and honor from itinerant teachers who deny essential matters of the Christian faith. She is not to open her home to them; neither is she to bestow on them any favor or tribute that might encourage them in their evil mission.
Love—for the truth and for souls—demands such a response to dangerous falsehoods. To the postmodern mind that may seem like no love at all, but it embodies the best, deepest love for Christ. May we learn what it means to ground our love in the truth, and may we not succumb to the pressure of our age to spurn or subjugate Christ’s truth under a false and foggy notion of love.