In his book Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth Alister McGrath opens with the following words: “Never has there been such interest in the idea of heresy. Ancient heresies, seen by earlier generations as obscure and dangerous ideas, have now been sprinkled with stardust. The lure of the religious forbidden never seems to have been so strong…For many religiously alienated individuals, heresies are now to be seen as bold and brave statements of spiritual freedom, to be valued rather than avoided…The rehabilitation of heretical ideas is now seen as a necessary correction of past injustices, allowing the rebirth of suppressed versions of Christianity more attuned to contemporary culture than traditional orthodoxy. Heresy has become fashionable.”
So far throughout 2 John we have received instruction from John about how to do life in the elect lady of God, the Church. This life we’re called to live is a life of discerning love, a love informed and fueled by something John cares very much about: the truth. Because this love is a discerning love inseparably connected to God’s truth it automatically makes it a love seeking to move one another toward a deeper and truer obedience to God’s commands. Being united into one body in Christ by the Spirit, this is how we’re to give love to another. So to depart from the truth results in a failure to love, this is what we learn in v1-6.
But, as John continues into v7 he tells us there are a particular people who should not receive this kind of love from us. Who are these people? Heretics. Why should they not receive such love from us? Heresy. I know, I know, to speak of such things today feels extremely unsettling and deeply troubling. To disagree with another or to call someone’s lifestyle, actions, or opinions wrong is now seen as the height of arrogance. More so to use the word heresy and apply that label to someone’s teaching or beliefs is often met with the angry response “Heresy? Says who?” Our age is now summarized by three sentences: what we once celebrated we now condemn, what we once condemned we now celebrate, and more so, all who refuse to celebrate are condemned as well. There is no place for Truth today. Or as Isaiah 59:14 says, “Truth has fallen in the street.”
For John’s community in view here, for this elect lady, this hits very close to home. John has come and preached the gospel, he’s preached the truth to them, they believed and we’re saved from death to life, a church was born, he instructed them for a time, and then he left to go back home to Ephesus. When he left a group of other folks came in. They had another message that taught a different gospel about a different Jesus. In other words, they were teaching heresy and by so doing outed themselves as heretics. So having spiritual authority and a deep care and concern for this church, when John heard about this he addressed it head on. Our passage today, v7-13 is where he does this. And in v7 he gives his main point:
The Nature of Heresy (v7)
v7, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”
In v7 John transitions from what gave him great joy to what now gives him deep grief. Earlier he rejoiced that some of them were walking in the truth, he now tells us what the rest were doing. Rather than walking in the truth, the others we’re being deceived themselves and busy deceiving others. “Many deceivers have gone out into the world…” They defected from this elect lady under John’s care and have gone out into the community at large, no doubt to win more people to their false teaching. What is their false teaching? Notice John describes their teaching not in terms of what they say, but what they fail to say. Sure this group was speaking a lot of Jesus, using familiar language that would’ve been common to many Christians in that day (much like many false teachers today). But even though they were talking a lot about Jesus they failed to say what the rest of the Christian community was saying then and still says today. They “…do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.”
This absent confession concerns the incarnation of God, it concerns who Jesus really was when He came at His birth, and this view was growing in popularity in John’s day. Most who held this view called themselves Gnostics, others were more specific calling themselves Docetists, but what they believed was very similar. They believed in a dualism that said the spiritual was good and the physical matter evil. So when God became man in Christ at the incarnation they said ‘God can’t really become true man, flesh is evil, He must have just appeared to be a man.” Others were going around teaching that the divine nature of Jesus came on Jesus at His baptism and left Him before the crucifixion. Either way they believed Jesus was truly God but could never and would never become truly man. This is a massive problem. Do not think John is engaging in some kind of theological nit-picking, or creating an unneeded division over a small point of doctrine that doesn’t matter. If this doctrinal departure didn’t matter we wouldn’t have the letter of 1, 2, or 3 John. Ask yourself: if Jesus didn’t become truly man in the incarnation, could He have truly born our penalty and our curse, in our place, as our substitute? Could He have truly taken on Himself our filthy rags? Could He truly have lived a righteous life as a man and then be able to give sinful men His pure righteous robe? No! The answer is no! If He wasn’t true man, all mankind has no hope, and we are in still in the first Adam because Jesus never truly became the Last Adam.
In our day John would likely be labeled a Pharisee because today the only heresy is saying that there’s heresy. But boldly and bravely John drops some much needed clarity on the nature gravity of this heresy. He calls this teaching and these teachers what they are. Not only are they false teachers, John refers to them using a specific title reserved for the radical and quintessential opponent of Christ, the antichrist. He isn’t using the title here to describe them as the one antichrist of history, but the collective spirit of unbelief he mentioned back in his first letter. In 1 John 2 he says, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that is it the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us…who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (2:18-19, 22). They really did believe in Jesus, they spoke very similar language to the rest of the Christian community, but the Jesus they believed and spoke of was not in line with who Jesus truly is. John’s conclusion? False teachers aren’t brothers or sisters in Christ, they’re against Christ. They are antichrist’s. Is this your conclusion too? It ought to be.
After describing the nature of this heresy among them he goes straight to application. In v8 he gives them a warning, in v9 he gives them a test, and in v10-11 he tells them of the inhospitality of heresy.
The Warning of Heresy (v8)
v8, “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.”
What are they to do in light of the heresy among them and around them? First, notice they’re not commanded to burn heretics but rather commanded not to be burned by them. They’re to watch themselves. Meaning they watch their doctrine, that it’s in accord with God’s truth rather than simply pleasing to their own personal preferences. They’re to watch their lives, that they’re obedient and pleasing to God, walking in step with the Spirit and bearing His fruit, ensuring their conduct matches their creed, and their behavior matches their belief. And specifically in the context of v1-6 here in 2 John, they’re to watch one another, walking in love toward one another without departing from the truth. Then comes the warning. John puts it negatively then positively. Negatively: if they give in to this heresy they will lose what they have worked for. Positively: if they remain firm and resist this heresy they will have their full reward. Taken together we see what this warning is. God has done a work in them personally, saving them and as God has changed many hearts in this town it began to be seen that God was doing a work among them in their community. A church has been born, and she as the elect lady herself is to be the pillar and buttress of the truth. They’ve made a certain amount of progress there, and if they give in to these heretics and do not stand firm they’ll lose all they’ve labored for. They’ll lose gospel momentum and they’ll lose the faithful gospel witness in their own congregation and in the community at large. Like a rock thrown into a pond eventually causes ripples throughout the whole pond, heresy, allowed to linger, will eventually cause ripples throughout the whole community of faith. If they give in now, their end will be disaster and loss. But, if they stand firm in the truth, as John calls them to, their end will be one of full reward. This is John’s warning.
The Test of Heresy (v9)
v9, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”
Progress is in view in v9, and progress is something we usually commend. Progress in the Christian life, progress in holiness and purity and fighting sin, progress in maturity in our knowledge of God, these kinds of progress are all good things. But the progress in v9 is not progress toward any kind of health but progress away from health. “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ…” shows that the heretics are progressives who aren’t progressing in the faith but progressing beyond the faith. Apparently they heard the teaching of Christ, didn’t think it adequate for their own agenda, and added to it. In other words, they didn’t think Christ’s teaching as well as the teaching of Christ given through the Spirit inspired apostles was sufficient. So they went beyond to it, and by going beyond it John says they lost it.
v9, as v8, is put negatively and positively. Negatively, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God.” Positively, “Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” The contrast is clear. On one hand those who give themselves to theological innovation and doctrinal invention are not to be praised but rebuked and called back. On the other hand those who give themselves to the truth, as it is…as it came from the mouth of Christ…and as it came from the mouths of His Spirit inspired apostles, has both the Father and the Son. Or we could say it like this. When you denies the full humanity of Christ you lose God altogether. The Father and the Son are so united that to have One is to have the Other. No one believes wrong things about the One without believing wrong things about the Other…and no one believes right things about the One without believing right things about the Other.
It has often been said that yesterday’s liberals are today’s evangelicals. History has shown this to be true, and if we’re honest, our own hearts have proven this as well. Because of this reality we have a need for examination. Have you gone beyond Christ and His teaching thinking that it isn’t enough for you or that it doesn’t suit your purposes? If so, you’re a heretic and by sharing what you believe about Christ you’re spreading poison among the elect lady of God. Or, have you not gone beyond Christ and His teaching, do you trust what He says and find it life giving ever since you’ve repented of your sin and turned to Him, even though at times you find it hard or difficult to understand? If so, you’re not a heretic. This is John’s test. And he gives them this litmus test to know if someone among them or around them is a false teacher or a faithful teacher of God’s Word.
The Inhospitality of Heresy (v10-13)
Now we come to John’s last application concerning what to do about heresy. v10-11, “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.”
If anyone comes teaching, and doesn’t bring this teaching, the teaching of Christ, do not welcome them into your home, do not even greet him. Why? “…for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” At first glance you may think this runs against the call to a generous and loving hospitality we find so often throughout Scripture. But remember, John’s term the elect lady and her children symbolizes a church and her members, so the house in view in v10-11 isn’t a private home but a symbol for the church itself. Therefore, John isn’t forbidding private hospitality but an official welcome into the congregation, where the false teacher would find multiple opportunities to promote their cause. To bring them in with welcome and greeting would make us guilty by association in the eyes of the church and of God. Such extreme measures show the immense menace heresy can be when those who deny truth are not only tolerated but invited into the fellowship of God’s people. This is the point where John perhaps felt that so much care was needed that he concluded the letter in v12-13 saying, “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. The children of your elect sister greet you.”
John yearns for their mutual joy in Jesus above all things, and because that is at stake because of the false teachers, he will come to them soon and instruct them further.
When we were in Vietnam this last year we got the chance to visit the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, the cruel prison where the Vietnamese kept Americans during the war. We walked through it, saw the cells, looked at and heard explanations of torture devices, watched a video of the real thing, and as we left and went back out into Hanoi it was a bit surreal that such an artifact of war was now a tourist spot. I think something of the same thing happens when we read 2 John these days. Heresy is no small matter. When it comes near the elect lady of God, life and death are at stake. Yet, we read 2 John as if it were something of an artifact of some earlier war that has little practical advice for us today.
-As John encouraged them, we too need to understand that heresy is more than mere disagreement, that it is awful, and brings eternal consequences.
-As John encouraged them, we too need to know sound doctrine well enough to be able to recognize heresy when it springs up.
-As John encouraged them, we too need to be warned of the ripple effect heresy has in a church and stand firm in the truth.
-As John encouraged them, we too need to employ the test of heresy to make sure we’re remaining faithful to God’s truth.
-As John encouraged them, we too need to be cautioned of the inhospitality of heresy, and see that we are called to much more than mere ‘agreeing to disagree.’
Heresy is one the reasons why we make so much of the pulpit here and why it drives everything we do. It’s why we have such a long membership process. It’s also why elder training takes at least a year. We want to guard the truth and the ministry the Lord has given to us. We want to stay sound, we don’t want to lose what we have worked for, and we want to be found faithful in the end.
But I cannot finish without making one more comment. We care about heresy so much because we care about the truth…and because ultimately truth is not a thing, truth is a Person. Jesus Christ, Son of God who being truly God became truly man to enable men to become sons of God. He is the way, He is the truth, and He is the life. When we get Him wrong what do we lose? The gospel. But when we get Him right, and when we commit to being a people who know right doctrine, spending year after year after year in the Scriptures individually and under the Scriptures corporately, what do we grow in our love for? The gospel………that glorious life transforming message where God in His wisdom, made a way for His love and His Grace and His mercy, to save us from His wrath, without compromising His justice, by crushing His Son, so that through faith, sinners would become His children: free, forgiven, adopted, secure, and safe forevermore.
“Praise the Lord, the price is paid, the curse defeated by the Lamb…we who once were slaves by birth, sons and daughters now we stand!……Hallelujah, Christ is King, alive and reigning on the throne! Our tongues employed with hymns of praise, glory to be God alone!”
 Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, page 1.
 Stephen Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John – Word Biblical Commentary, page 13.
 David Wells, No Place for Truth, published in 1993 it seems it is more applicable now than back then.
 Gary Derickson, First, Second, and Third John – Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, page 20.
 The false teacher Cerinthus believed this, see Smalley, page 15.
 From Shai Linne, False Teachers.
 Gary Burge, The Letters of John – The NIV Application Commentary, page 4.
 Douglas Sean O’Donnell, 1-3 John – Reformed Expository Commentary, page 181.
 Original quote from John Stott, quoted in Smalley (page 17), Derickson (page 24), and Burge (page 5).
 Burge, page 5.
 Derickson, page 26.
 John Tweeddale said this in a conference message called The Theological Life at Reformation Bible College in January 2018.
 Derickson, page 27. See also Smalley page 18, and Burge page 5.