12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
13 The children of your elect sister greet you. – 2 John 1:12-13 ESV
Despite its abbreviated length, this letter packs a punch. John wasted no time or words in getting to the point he wanted to make. In fact, he indicated that, while there had been other topics he wanted to address with them, he had chosen to dedicate this letter to a single subject. And he let them know that it was his desire to come and visit them in person. It must have been difficult for John, Paul, and the other apostles to attempt to minister to so many churches spread over such a great distance.
These small and isolated congregations often lacked local leadership and were filled with people who had little knowledge of what it meant to live as a Christian. Beyond their initial exposure to the Gospel message and their acceptance of it, they had probably received scant details regarding their ongoing sanctification. That’s why these letters were so vital to the spiritual well-being of these local gatherings of new converts to Christianity. There was no completed canon of Scripture. There were no books available at the local Christian bookstore. They had no access to podcasts or online sermons and studies. Every day, they would find themselves bombarded by everything from false doctrine to the insults of their pagan friends and family members. The motivation to give in to temptation and to give up on the promises found in the Gospel would have been intense.
And the enemy knew that the compromise of their faith would be just as effective as their complete repudiation of it. A diminishment or diluting of their belief in the deity of Jesus would be just as damaging as if they denied Him altogether. That is why John wrote his letter. Finding himself physically separated from this fledgling congregation, he took advantage of the primary communications media of his day: The letter.
He penned a loving but stern warning to a group of people who he recognized as children in the faith. They were spiritual newborns who needed to be cared for and protected so they could reach full spiritual maturity. This was the same message that Peter expressed in one of his letters:
Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment… – 1 Peter 2:2 NLT
Both Peter and John recognized that everyone enters the faith as a spiritual infant, immature and ill-prepared for the journey ahead of them. Yes, they have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, but they require feeding and instruction. That is why Jesus commissioned His disciples to “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (Matthew 28:20 NLT). And beyond the initial group of men whom Jesus had sent, He had raised up other leaders to shepherd His flock. And the apostle Paul describes the job description of these individuals.
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT
But despite the efforts of these Christ-commissioned leaders, the spiritual maturity of the church is not automatic or guaranteed. Paul expressed his concern for the lack of spiritual growth among the believers in Corinth, describing them as infants in Christ, rather than healthy, mature adults.
Dear brothers and sisters, when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to spiritual people. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in Christ. I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your sinful nature. – 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 NLT
Spiritual growth is non-optional. Just as parents expect their child to grow into a fully functioning adult, so God expects His children to mature in their faith until, as Paul put it, “we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT).
But the sad reality is that some who claim to be followers of Christ fail to grow up. They remain spiritual infants, stunted in their growth and unable to contribute to the well-being of the body of Christ. The author of Hebrews had strong words for those who choose to remain in a state of spiritual infancy.
You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. – Hebrews 5:12 NLT
John cared deeply for those to whom he wrote. He knew that they were susceptible to false teaching and faulty doctrine. And the enemy was attacking the foundational elements of their faith: The deity of Jesus and the reality of the resurrection. If those pillars of the faith fell, there would be nothing to support their further growth in godliness. That is why John was so adamant that they have nothing to do with those who taught lies concerning Jesus. They needed to remain committed to the truth. It was the key to their future glorification, but also to their present sanctification.
The enemy continues to attack the church by disseminating falsehood. He cannot stop anyone from coming to faith in Christ, but he can hinder their efforts to grow up into Christ. He does so by turning Jesus into nothing more than a good man whose life is worth emulating. He presents Jesus as an icon of virtue and a model for righteousness. Idolizing Jesus is fully acceptable. But worshiping Him as God is not. Seeing Jesus as a saint-like figure who did good deeds is preferable to recognizing Him as the Savior who died for the sins of man.
But John wanted his readers to know that the lies of the enemy, while subtle, were sinister and deadly. They needed to wake up and grow up. They needed to be alert to the dangers all around them. The promises concerning the Gospel were true, but the enemy was going to do everything in his power to confuse truth with lies. But John started out his letter by reminding his audience that the truth “abides in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 1:2 ESV). And he ended his letter by stating his desire to see them face to face so “that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12 ESV).
These words echo what John wrote in his first letter. The fulness of joy John described and desired was available only through a persistent and unwavering trust in the truth about Jesus.
We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy. – 1 John 4:1-4 NLT
The believers to whom John wrote had never seen Jesus. They had never had the pleasure of hearing Him teach or watching Him perform miracles. They had not been there when He rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples. But John wanted them to know that everything they had heard about Jesus was true. And he wanted them to experience the same degree of joy that he and the other disciples had felt when they saw their Savior in His resurrected state.
John knew that fulness of joy was directly tied to faith in Jesus. He would have recalled the words of Jesus
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:4-5 NLT
And John’s emphasis on fulness of joy was borrowed from the lips of Jesus Himself.
“I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” – John 15:11 NLT
John knew that the key to joy was a commitment to the truth as proclaimed by Jesus. He was the vine and they were the branches. And as long as they remained in Him, they would produce much fruit. They would mature and grow, as the life-transforming power of God flowed through them and out from them to all those around them.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.