Friday, July 20, 2007

Fellowship with Boundaries (from 2nd John)

Two weeks ago, I was again blessed with the opportunity and privilege to preach at our evening worship service. My initial thought was to preach out of the book of Jude, but I resisted that urge and, instead, went on to preach from 2nd John. The main reason for my choosing a text other than Jude was that I wanted to see how my preaching would fair if I was preaching from a text that I hadn’t studied before (in order to teach it, anyway) and that hadn’t been percolating in my head for quite some time. And the main reason for my choice of 2nd John was due to the fact that the only real thing that I knew about that book was that there was some uncertainty and discussion about who the initial recipient was.

This epistle opens up with the following greeting from the apostle John, “The elder to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth; and not only I, but also all who know the truth,” (2 John 1). The debate over who the original recipient has had three primary answers that various scholars and theologians have held.

  1. The “chosen lady” is a metaphor for the church that was used because of the intense persecution.
  2. The “chosen lady” refers to some specific but unnamed woman, possibly of some high class and monetary standing, whose home was used by the church or traveling evangelists, teachers, and apostles.
  3. The “chosen lady” is actually a wrong translation of the Greek word, and it should be addressed to the “chosen Kyria”, because Kyria is her proper name.

Historically speaking, I have been under the persuasion that the recipient listed on this letter is a metaphor for the church. This is the only interpretation that I was presented with until about six months ago when I heard another preacher refer to this book and espouse the second position above. This was the one issue that I wanted to settle in my mind before I tackled the rest of the book, but when I got into studying it, I was exposed to yet a third position.

On the outset, I found myself initially drawn to the third option and away from the first because the metaphoric idea seemed to be a bit too imposed on the text. The trouble with translating this part of the text is due to the fact that the Greek word used here, kuria (kyria), is only used one time in the entire New Testament and only one other time in the Greek Septuagint (although different forms of the same word are used a total of seven times in the Greek Septuagint). And in all of the passages where a form of this word appears (Genesis 16:4,8-9; 1 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 5:3; Psalms 122:2; Proverbs 30:23) the word is translated into English as “mistress”, and not as a proper name even once. Having done some of this legwork, I began to be more convinced that the word kuria as it is used in 2 John 1 is not to be read as a proper name.

Now the question was to determine if the word is a metaphor for the church or if it is referring to an unnamed individual. I ended up coming to the conclusion that John seems to be addressing an individual woman. I arrived at this conclusion primarily from comparing this text to the opening text of 3rd John.

2nd John 1 – “The elder to the chosen lady…whom I love in truth”
3rd John 1 – “The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.”

…and now, in Greek…

The letter of 3rd John has historically been understood (without a large disagreement) to have been from the apostle John to a man named Gaius and written at about the same time as 2nd John. Now, if John wrote both of these letters in a very short time and both make clear references to Christian activity or doctrine, why would he make one a metaphor out of a fear of persecution, both for himself and the recipient, and yet address Gaius by name and, by doing so, hang him out to dry? My conclusion (not dogmatically held, but I am personally convinced) then is that this letter is addressed to a woman who had children (v.4), a sister, and possibly nieces and nephews (v.13) who were believers. She also played some role in the congregationalism of the local church in her area, because John warns her not to “receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting” (v.10).

When reading through this letter, there are a few themes that seem to be emphasized. These themes relate to the issues of truth (vs. 1-4), love (vs. 5,6), and false teachers (vs. 7-11). But when we see this whole book inside of the “book ends” of the first few verses and the last book (v.13), I believe that get a glimpse at the warmth and fellowship that must have been the standard of the first century church. And when we see the ecclesiological overtones of this book, I believe that it makes the admonitions to love others and to separate from false teachers all the more powerful. Because if the overall context is one of a community and loving fellowship, it is an important thing to note what causes those inside of this fellowship to cut off fellowship and not to even associated with someone.

But before we can get to what seems to be the main thrust of John’s second letter, the first thing that needs to be dealt with is this issue of truth. Pilate, in his famous question, asked our Lord, “What is truth?” (John 10:38) The word for “truth” used here is the same as the word that is used throughout the New Testament, and that is the word alhqeia (alay-thee-ya). So what does it mean? One helpful thing in trying to figure this out is that out of all of the occurrences of this word in the New Testament (108), John’s uses of it account for about 42% (46) of them. Here are just a few examples of John’s use of this word:

"19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God." (John 3:19-21)
"6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth ; 7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:6-9)
"31 If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:31b-32)

What could possibly exist, or what reality could encounter someone, that has the power to free the individual from sin and death? The only reality that has the power to do that is the gospel of Jesus Christ working in the sinner.
"Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)

When John uses the word “truth” in 2nd John, he seems to be making a combined and complete reference to the message of the gospel, of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the universally evident (i.e. all believers will display this) and visible signs of each individual’s own personal salvation which are repentance, faith and the other fruit of the Spirit.

The truth has always been under assault by from Satan. From the Garden of Eden where Satan questioned and distorted, “Indeed, has God said…’ (Genesis 3:1) to the present demonic philosophy known as postmodernism, Satan has been attacking the truth, and specifically the revealed truth about God. Postmodernism is this dopey modern drivel that only creedal statement is that there is no creedal statement that is universally binding. Of course, the logical person would ask if that postmodern statement of truth is universally binding. It is the truth of the true nature of Jesus Christ and His divine redemptive accomplishment that are the basis for all Christian truth, love, and unity.

Next, John moves on to the natural, and inevitable, consequence of those who have encountered the truth; love.
5 Now I ask you, lady, not as though I were writing to you a new commandment, but the one which we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. 6 And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it.” (2 John 5,6)

One of the more confounding things about this command to love is that the New Testament, and Jesus specifically, refer to the command to love others as both a new commandment and an old commandment.

"34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)
34 But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. 35 One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ 37 And He said to him, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.” 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.’" (Matthew 22:34-40)

So the theological question is how can a law, or commandment, be both new and old? Well, it is an old commandment because it was stated in the first books ever written containing inspired, inerrant, and infallible word of God. So, the Jews and all people before Christ had the mandate to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18). However, the commandment was also a new commandment because with the advent of Christ and His incarnational ministry, we have been given the supreme example of this commandment being fulfilled. But even more than that, once the Spirit was given to the church at Pentecost, the believers were then empowered by the Spirit to follow the commandment that was modeled by Christ Himself.

But the bigger question seems to be, how does this work? How does one fulfill this commandment to love one another? The Bible is clear that all believers will be marked by this attribute of love, so much so that if love is not present, any claim to know God or be a Christian is a lie (cf. 1 John 4:7,8). There is the general understanding that if I am to love others as I love myself, since I wouldn’t steel from myself, kill myself, or intentionally deceive myself, I won’t do those things to my neighbor if I love him in the same way.

But the Bible goes farther than that, and once again sets up Christ as the example for how we are to fulfill this command to love.
“and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” (Ephesians 5:2)
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. 28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself;” (Ephesians 5:25-28)
”And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it.” (2 John 6)

And even John’s answer to his own question in the context of 2nd John needs some necessary background understanding so that we do not misinterpret or misunderstand what he meant. And I would sum up my understanding of this in one statement; We do not obey the commandments of Christ to attain salvation, but Christians obey the commands of Christ in their sanctification. In other words, obeying the command to love is not something that assists in our attaining or maintaining salvation, but they are the external evidence of the internal and real process of being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Finally, we’re able to move into what seems to be John’s main point in writing this shortest of epistles; the presence of false teachers. Jesus (Matthew 7:15-20), Paul (2 Corinthians 11:13-15), Luke (Acts 20:29-31), and Peter (2 Peter 2:1-3) clearly stated that false teachers would be inside of the church. If that weren’t bad enough, Paul (Galatians 2:4; 2 Timothy 3:8), Jude (Jude 4), and John (2 John 7) all record the fact that false teachers have already come into the church and are reeking havoc with the brethren.

In the past, the problem with a lot of heresy was that the masses didn’t have access to the word of God in order to test what their teachers were telling them to see if it was true, and so many were caught up in the pomp and pageantry of false teachers. However, many people may be worse today because the bible is available (in much of the world, anyway) and people can search the scriptures to see if what they are being taught is true but there is a tragically popular mentality inside of Christendom that doesn’t want to debate theology. Many Christians don’t want to debate theology or doctrine (doctrine and dogma are words that are often demonized and seen as negative) and just encourage people to “believe in Jesus” for eternal life and the forgiveness of sins. One of the problems with this mentality is that as soon as you ask this same person what he or she believes about Jesus, they will be articulating their own doctrine. It is a foolish childish fancy to think that you can spread the gospel without worrying about the doctrines that are built upon the truths of the Scriptures.

The heresy that was apparently on the mind of John was one where the incarnation and humanity of Christ was being denied or distorted in some way. The Bible is absolutely clear that Christ was fully God and was perfect humanity all in one.1 Christ is and was as fully God as the Father and as human as Adam was before the fall of man. And without getting into an extended defense of the person of Christ here, it should suffice to say that He showed the traits of humanity while He was on the earth. 2 He was hungry (Matthew 4:2), He was thirsty (John 18:28), He became weary (John 4:6), He experienced love and compassion (Matthew 9:36), He wept (John 11:55), and He was tested (Hebrews 4:15).

We don’t live in the first century, and many of the specific heresies that were gaining momentum then have been dealt with over the past two-thousand years. However heresies are as alive and well today as they have ever been. Whether these heresies deny the deity or humanity of Christ, we must be very wary. One of the more scary heresies around today, in my opinion, is the modalistic heresy. This theological disposition is also known as the “oneness” of God and has its primary manifestation in groups known as Oneness Pentecostals. The name is descriptive in nature because they believe in the absolute and total oneness of God, and they also are more Pentecostal or charismatic in their understanding of Spiritual gifts. Not all, or even most, Pentecostals or Charismatics confess, profess, or preach this heresy, so my comments here are not a blanket condemnation of all of my Christian brethren who disagree with me on the issue of Spiritual gifts.

The modalistic heresy, in short, firmly and ardently affirms the Hebrew Sh’ma found in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy.
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

This passage is not only affirmed and ardently defended by these heretics, but it is also defended, cherished, and loved by those of us who hold on to traditional and orthodox Christian doctrine. The error that the modalists make (which gives them their designated title) is that this passage is the trump card for all things concerning God’s nature. In other words, since “the LORD is one”, there can be no Trinity. On the surface, this disagreement may seem to have more to do with semantics rather than actual theology, but let me assure you that that is not a correct conclusion.

Here’s an example of what Scott Phillips, a pastor who holds this heretical doctrine, has said (to me) concerning this issue:
“I am affirming the scriptural precedent of One God, manifested in three forms. This idea/heresy of three distinct persons is not Biblical... not can it be determined. It took 500 years AFTER the last scripture was written to "agree" on the Trinity. The Scripture plainly states, one God.

Bottom Line, the Scripture plainly states a Oneness of God and not a Unity. The theology around the trinity is inferred meaning from statements and scenarios. However, every time the scripture states a point, it is emphatic, God is One, indivisible” 3

I appreciate the candor and honesty that Mr. Phillips used when he referred to Trinitarianism as a heresy. That is consistent with his understanding of Scripture. He’s wrong, tragically wrong, but at least he is being consistent and honest. The bottom line when it comes to how this false theology regards Jesus Christ is that it denies Scripture and how it describes the Person of Christ. I’ll give two Scriptures (there are many more) to illustrate the problems that come with a modalistic understanding of God. But first, the reason that the word “modalistic” is used is that these heretics affirm the work of the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Christ Jesus. But when the Bible refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, these are “titles” of God, but not names. In other words, before the Incarnation, God was in the “mode” of the Father, and during the earthly ministry of Jesus, He was in the “mode” or “manifestation” of Jesus Christ, and now He is in the “mode” of the Holy Spirit. Picture one person putting on three different hats – that is how they view God.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

This text is one of the best places in the New Testament to go in order to see both the Deity and distinctness of Christ. And by distinct, I mean that He is not the Father. In the beginning (i.e. before creation, when only God was) Jesus Christ existed and He was with God and He was God. The “with” and “was” are very important words to note. The word “with” shows us that He was not God the Father, but the word “was” shows that He was God. This passage by itself doesn’t scream the doctrine of the Trinity, but it does show us that the Word, Jesus Christ, is somehow distinct from the God while still being God.

“When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28)

Without a proper understanding of the Trinity, this text (along with other texts describing the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is nonsense! What could it possibly mean that Jesus subjects Himself to the Father (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:24) if there is no distinction?

As Trinitarians, we affirm that it is possible for Christ to be fully God and yet be distinct in His person because God is one in essence and three in person. As Hank Hanegraaff has said on many occasions, “God is one ‘what’ and three ‘who’s’”. Believing in the Trinity is not believing in three “whats” (i.e. three gods), but we confess that there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4) and three Persons.
“If you try and define the trinity and you’ll lose your mind. Deny it and you’ll lose your soul.” – Dr. Adrian Rogers

In the spirit of Dr. Rogers, I must claim human limits on my understanding of God and His nature. I cannot fully comprehend or define God so that my finite mind can put Him into an understandable box that has four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. Praise God for that! How feeble a God would that be if, in my fallen state, I could exhaustively comprehend His nature.

As if the heresy about the nature of Christ and of God weren’t enough, it doesn’t stop there. Following the reasoning and understandings and conclusions that must be made to maintain the oneness heresy, these same men have come up with other heretical theological conclusions. The biggest other one that I am aware of is that this theology is also a very blatant works righteous system. In order to be saved, they preach that one must have faith, repentance, water baptism, and speak in tongues.
“Yes, I am saying that you MUST believe, be baptized (In the name of Jesus), and receive the gift Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking with other tongues as the Spirit give the utterance. This is just as Peter preach[ed] on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:38.”

I agree that all believers will have faith, repent, receive the Holy Ghost, and that all believers should be baptized. 4 However, the inability to be baptized does not stop someone from being granted a remission of sins and eternal life. From Lazarus (the beggar) to the tax collector in Luke 18 (v.10-14) and the thief on the cross next to Christ, they all were forgiven of their sins based on their faith alone, not on external works of righteousness.

The Epistles make it clear that we are saved by faith (Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5) and not by any work. The book of Galatians was written to combat the heresy of teaching that one needed to be circumcised in order to be truly saved – Paul doesn’t refute this by saying that they need to believe and be baptized, he states (twice) that their salvation came by “hearing with faith” (Galatians 2:2-5).

Baptism is not something that is to be neglected or disregarded, but it is also not something that is to be elevated to the level of an act to obey in order that you might be saved. The gospel that adds any human work of obedience (circumcision, baptism, or whatever) to the plan of salvation is due to receive the anathema from Paul in Galatians 1.

Soli Deo Gloria.

1 The Council at Chalcedon used this phrase, “perfect humanity”, and specifically the word “perfect” as opposed to “full” or “total” in order to emphasize His sinlessness.

2 By no means am I stating that we should not be willing or able to make an extended defense of the humanity and divinity of Christ Jesus, but for the sake of this writing, I felt compelled to summarize the issues in a few short statements.

3 Scott Phillips,

4 Equating “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” from Acts 2:38 with the fact that the gift of tongues normative inside of every Christian is a wildly careless interpretation of Scripture. Saying that one believes that the gift tongues, healing, and other gifts that we see in the book of acts are for today divides some denominations inside of orthodox Christianity, but saying that all true Christians “MUST receive the gift Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking with other tongues as the Spirit give the utterance” as a sign that you are saved, and if you don’t experience this then it means that you are not saved, is a completely different issue.

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