Watch out for deceivers
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 26, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: 2 John
Many of us today have trouble with the subject of “false teaching.” We shy away from implying that some beliefs are so dangerous that they deprive people of salvation. To us, that attitude smacks of intolerance, narrow-mindedness and judgmentalism. Besides, we are aware of the damage that has been done to people who were condemned for what they believe. People have been driven from the church by those who claim to uphold the truth. Consequently, we sometimes think of those who speak of false teaching as people who care more about details or doctrine than they do about people.
John, however, has a different view. He is insistent that there are some things that people must believe to be members of the church. In 1 John 5:6-12, John argues for the physical nature of the presence of Christ in the world. John’s message is very explicit in 2 John 7 when he states: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”
It helps us here to recall that the struggle of John 1, 2 and 3 is related to Docetism. The church had split over false teaching (Docetism). As you remember, Docetism is the belief that Jesus did not have a physical body. Those who held this view acknowledged that Jesus was divine, not human. Docetism comes from a Greek word which means “to seem.”
So, the false teaching of Docetism is the issue at stake – those who deny that Jesus came in the flesh. And, according to John, this belief is so dangerous that it will take away their salvation. It is so dangerous that they must not do anything to support the ministry of those who teach it. John even labels anyone who advocates this teaching as “the antichrist” (v.7).
Scholars remind us that in this passage the antichrist is not some figure whose appearance will signal the end of the world. Rather, an antichrist here is one who advocates false teaching in the church. The one who is antichrist does the opposite of the presence of Jesus. Jesus brings salvation, antichrist deprives people of salvation.
Beliefs matter! Sometimes in their excitement to “follow” moderns overlook the importance of “belief.” But for John, beliefs matter. What we think about God determines how we think we should relate to one another.
In 1 and 2 John, the belief worth debating about and even excluding people from the church had to do with the nature of Christ. At this point, scholars tell us that John rejects the live-and-let-live approach because what we say about the appearance of Christ has implications for how we think about ourselves and the importance of life in the world. To John, it is initially important to affirm the bodily nature of Christ because that affirms the goodness of creation. We are told that a real bodily Jesus means that God cares about our lives here and now, not just our souls in some other reality. In essence, a bodily Jesus affirms God’s desire to be related to us and this world.
Beliefs matter! Even when it seems that some teaching is far removed from life as we live it, beliefs matter.
Now, the evidence that John gives for the reality of the bodily nature of Jesus is “water and the blood” (1 John 5:6). The reference here is to the baptism and death of Jesus, as John sees in them the full humanity of Jesus.
But John also adds the testimony of the Spirit. According to scholars, the mention of the Spirit may refer to multiple moments of the Spirit’s work. It may point to the story of Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit descends and bears witness to the identity of Jesus. It may also point to the Spirit’s presence in worship or the Eucharist where the Spirit confirms the proper understanding of Christ. And finally, it may also point to the testimony of the Spirit in the hearts of believers. From any or all of these possibilities, John sees the Spirit as a powerful witness from God that proves his teaching about Jesus is correct. John states, “And this is the testimony, God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11, 12).
Love and the Commandments
Like “false teaching,” somehow we associate commandments with legalism and would rather avoid such talk. In addition, we like to think of ourselves as mature enough not to need rules. We will just reason our way to what is right.
But again, John is not so confident in us. For him, the command to love is the most important command. It is at the center of the core of the faith itself. John says that it has been that way from the beginning. Refer to John’s Gospel 13:31-35. Love is the inescapable part of what it means to be Christian.
On our own, however, we cannot love sufficiently. Deep down, we know that our own motives can often block our reasoning to the point that we are not doing for others but actually doing what we want. Consequently, that is why John says that the way to show love is to keep the commandments. John wants his church to keep the commandments because they chart a path that helps to honor God. And since the commandments reflect the character of God they give us a pattern of life that pleases God, keeping them identifies us as children of God.
One example, by understanding that love is a command or requirement, it may help us to realize that love goes beyond feelings. For John, and the rest of the New Testament, love is the set of the will for the welfare of another. Love is always about behavior. Actually, love is a strategy for changing the world. The world does not have to be like it is now. As Paul put it, there is a “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).
Love and Right Teaching
In a spirit of tolerance, we usually think of the loving person as the one who is not insistent on agreement, but open to see all views. But John sees love as something that looks for the deeper good for others. And that deeper good for others is not always simple acceptance.
As scholars observe, in the situation before us, John sees vehement arguments about right teaching and even refusal to recognize others as Christians as the loving thing. Such actions show love because they keep others from becoming victims to beliefs and practices that damage the life and faith of those who hold them. Even to those who are rejected, John sees this action as loving because it points out how damaging he thinks this false teaching is.
Scholars attest, however, that we should see John’s actions here as extreme. We should recall that the early church accepted a great deal of diversity in many things. But, at the same time, there were issues that were seen to violate the faith, and those could not be permitted without hurting the church and its members.
And we are told that John is not alone in his thinking. Scholars tell us that his view is the consistent view in the New Testament. For example, 2 Timothy 3:14 reads, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it...” Thus, believers are to remain and abide in the teaching that faithfully reflects who God is and what God wants for God’s people. And, above all, they will do this in a loving spirit. So, it is only by connecting both right teaching and a loving spirit that we can be what God desires of us and for us.
Summary Notes of 2 John
In summary, this short letter of 2 John has one purpose: to tell the recipients not to accept the teaching of those (deceivers and antichrists) who say that Jesus did not have a physical body.
The “Elder” referred to is a recognized leader in the church. Elders were officials who were attached to one congregation. The Elder is someone of importance to which the congregation should listen.
The letter is addressed to the “elect lady” (v.1). Most interpreters recognize that this designation does not refer to a specific individual, but to the church. Her children are the members of the church. Calling her “elect” means that she has been chosen by God. Now, this “elect” does not imply a doctrine of some people being foreordained to salvation and others for damnation. Her being chosen by God is seen in her faithfulness to God.
The other day I heard Dr. Tom Long, Professor of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology, begin his sermon with this prayer: “Oh God, help us to hear what you want us to hear, to do what you want us to do, and to be what you want us to be.” In the light of today's lesson, that is John’s prayer and also mine as well.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.