Bible reading: 2 John 1 with focus on verses 8 and 9 – Niek Tramper
Do we need to reconsider our life priorities?
There are several examples of fraud in science in the last 4 years in the Netherlands and Europe. One of the most known examples regards Diederik Stapel, professor in Tilburg university till 2010, who was a brilliant researcher, bit because of the seduction to produce more articles in order to make his career more brilliant, he introduced non existent data, making his results fascinating. Till the moment after a number of years that some of his assistants raised questions and the university started a research. The fall of this man was hot news in the society. There was proven fraud in not less than 55 articles that he produced. How could it be possible that he reached this phase? Why was he so stupid to loose what he already had gained? Later he explained his unlimited greed for more success, for more status and acknowledgment, and he was not afraid to do it in public. He even wrote a book about it. It was like an addiction, he said, an idol that he couldn’t escape any longer. Actually his priority to search for truth changed gradually into the search for his own status and power. I have been told that it is a serious struggle for nearly every researcher in university: the competition between the ‘truth’ and the ‘self’.
The apostle John describes this kind of process in his second letter with a word in verse 9 ‘anyone who runs ahead’. This word means ‘going beyond the given limits’. You don’t respect the given limits and replace them by your own limits. John is very keen to warn the church for such a transgression: ‘watch out that you don’t lose what you have worked for’ (vs. 8). Priorities in life can change gradually and you shift the boundaries, and finally you lose what you gained before. It is possible that a disciple of Christ looses what is entrusted to him/her. If this happens it is a great damage for himself, because we don’t speak about a personal career but about eternal life or eternal death. The word ‘lose’ here is the same as in Luke 9:25 ‘If you want to save your life, you will lose it.’ Speaking about a priorities that are decisive in our life!
Don’t lose what you have worked for.
Dear brothers and sisters: ‘watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for…look forward to the full reward that is given in Christ’ (vs. 8). Some years ago I was invited for a lecture in an interdenominational youth group. Seemingly these young people got bored with the church. Some said: now I am Christian, but I am not sure that I am still a Christian within five years. I will not be astonished to have another life view then. Why should I stay a Christian simply because I have been born in a Christian environment?’ If I was born in Turkey I had been a Muslim, or in China I had been an atheist or communist. And I said: ‘I love my wife, but I am not sure that I will love her within five years, because I just happened to meet her’. Their reaction: ‘If you say that now, you may ask yourself whether you really love her now.’ Yes, you are right! The same is true for loving Jesus. If you really love Him, you want to stay with Him, you want to continue in the teaching of Him and you always want to have the Father and the Son (vs. 9b).
Stay with your Redeemer, John says, watch yourself, in order that you will not give up half way, because then you will loose it all. Many people have started with faith in Christ with enthusiasm, but after some time the allowed other priorities to themselves. For what reasons? Maybe a crisis in their personal life or career, a new experience abroad, friends who had other convictions, the loss of Christian fellowship, attractive teachers who soaked them off the body of the church (John is very critical about such kind of deceivers, vs. 7). The changed priorities in their life and they began to lose what was precious to them before
How can we continue to stick to the right priorities? Let us look at the context of this whole letter to see where the priorities of the apostle are.
The letter as an expression of fellowship in Christ
This short letter seems to have the size of one papyrus page in our terms: an A-4. Opposite to the first letter (which is actually more a sermon) this is really a letter with a heading and an addressee. You sense a warm relationship between the writer and his readers. Maybe because of a mutual sympathy, but more important: because the same truth is in them, which is the truth of Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son (vs. 3).
The writer is ‘the elder’. Seemingly he was a known elder, he doesn’t need to mention his name. ‘Elder’ (prebyteros) means that he is an elderly person indeed, who gained experience and wisdom of age. But also that he is accepted as a leader, a shepherd, to overlook the congregation. This elder without any doubt must be the apostle John, because the theme and even the words are very close to his first letter and they are very close to the Gospel of John.
The chosen lady and her children is without doubt a congregation in Asia. And her sister (vs. 13) is a fellow church where the apostle resides at that moment. The church is called a lady and that is not unusual in the Bible. Already in the Old Testament God calls his people a woman or a girl that He wants to marry. He longs to be with her in an unbreakable covenant. And in the New Testament the church is called God’s bride. God is preparing his bride for the great marriage when they will be together in eternity. It is good to realize that, to think about that. How we, as a church should prepare ourselves as the bride of Christ. I think one of the means is to celebrate Holy Communion that we also do in this service. It expresses the community with Christ and also with one another. It is an anticipation of the wedding feast of the Lamb of God (Rev. 19:6v).
As nearly all letters in the New Testament this letter starts with a blessing (vs. 3). This was a custom at that time, as it still is today. I wrote a lot of letters to people in the Middle East when I was working for the mission there, often starting with ‘Peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Among Christians it has a special meaning because Jesus addresses his disciples with peace and grace after his resurrection. And in many Presbyterian church services the greeting ‘grace and peace to you’ is an important part of the beginning of the service.
The crucial thing: walking in truth and love
Now, if you read on in this letter, you find two words that are really key words and that we have noticed in the first letter already: truth and love (vs. 1-6). For John these two are twins. You see how they are connected in verse 1 and, also if you compare vs 4 (‘walking in truth’) and vs. 6 (’walking in love’). Truth without love becomes a system, a power that even can be destructive. But love without truth is blind, it doesn’t make sense. Truth is not a matter of our brains simply. Truth is very practical, you should walk in it. In vs 2 it is nearly a person. (Compare Proverbs 1: 20, 4 and 8, where ‘wisdom’ is a lady that invites people to follow her). Behind all truth is Jesus, the true light that came into this world illuminating every man (John 1: 9). John clarifies this both in his Gospel and in his letters.
The two stairs
Talking about this point that we shouldn’t lose what we gained and considering our priorities for life we come to the heart of the matter. For John it is very clear: if we want to serve the truth and to walk in love whether we should never go beyond the confession of Jesus as the Son of the living God, who Himself is the way, the truth and the life. Why is that so important? Let me try to explain this with two types of stairs (ladders, the picture is borrowed from rev. Wim Rietkerk). The one (1) is used to climb (as we use stairs normally). The other (2) is used to descend, like a rope ladder that is provided to descend from a ship or a wall.
(1) At the bottom is man and an arrow points at the top (God). This is the basic structure of what we call religion: man is required to do certain steps to come higher up. For Jewish teachers in the church of Galatians it was: observing the Mosaic law. They said: ‘yes, you have heard the Gospel from the apostle Paul, wonderful, but he forgot to speak about the law. You also need to follow the instructions of the law of Moses to find life.’ (They added a so called ‘moral answer’: faith + good works). It was appealing to the Christians there. I think it is a serious temptation for young Christians seeking more hold for their faith, easily turning to a more legalistic way of life. But Paul is furious about it, because the fundament of the gospel is at stake. We can call this the ‘legalistic’ way, which is still a threat for Christians when they focus on their doctrinal convictions, church rules and tradition. But in our (Western) society the ‘anti-legalistic approach’ is more dominant: ‘Everybody should discern for himself what is true and make his own choices.’ Follow your heart, forget religion, respect others and be happy…’ This is the ‘humanistic approach’ that Richard Dawkins uses in his London bus advertisements. At the top of the stair ‘god’ is replaced by ‘self’. In this case ‘self’ is ‘Self’.
There are many other ways to climb on the stairs. The Buddhist way mentions the eightfold path to illumination. Of course a Muslim is very clear about the five duties to make himself acceptable for God. In John’s time the ‘staircase of mysticism’ was dominant. Itinerant teachers changed the message about Jesus in adding that He was the heavenly spark and that through purification from the ordinary world they could increase that spark and live more holy and realize God’s presence in them more and more. They made God exclusive and they made themselves exclusive in ‘holy clubs’. They adored a heavenly Christ, but: no true birth from a virgin, no suffering and pain, no tears, no death, no humanity at all. So: no real Saviour who shared our flesh and blood, our pain and sorrow and carried our sins… And you see how indignant and angry the apostle is about it (vs. 7, 10, 11).
The ‘Jesus-plus’ approach can easily creep in the church. Faith in Jesus and forgiveness of sins…plus a couple of good acts to be surer about our salvation. Saved by grace…plus: let us try to be better people, before God can accept us. If we ask this from Him…we promise that to Him. If he helps us out…we promise that we will pray more and visit church more often etc. That is negotiation and it is common in all religions. Actually we fail to understand the radical love of God and we fail to understand the hopeless condition of man. We have a shallow idea of mercy (we didn’t get what we deserved, namely eternal condemnation) and of grace (we got what we did not deserve, namely a new life and eternal hope). The ‘Lost Son’ in the parable that Jesus tells, who sinned greatly against his father was forgiven upon his return – mercy- and not only that, he was restored as a son of his father –grace-.
Now we begin to understand why John is so sharp about the false teachers, and the ‘Jesus +’ approach. They take the opposite way of the Gospel. They shatter the church. They put themselves in the place of Christ. He calls them deceivers and even ‘anti-christs’ (vs. 7). And the church shouldn’t receive them (vs. 10 and 11). This seems against all rules of hospitality that God has given to his people. Yes, but when they knock at the door, it is not the Eternal One who knocks; it is his enemy. And he just doesn’t come to be a guest, he comes to teach, to divide, to disperse. We cannot allow wolves among the flock.
The top-down stair
(2) The other staircase is used top-down. That is the stair that stands for the Gospel. The heart of it is: You don’t need to add anything and you are not able to add anything. It is God who has descended to us in the fullness of our human flesh. It was a long way through history, but in Jesus He came so deep, deeper than any man can fall. God so loved the world… He entered our deepest need and our deepest pain. Only by this way of reconciliation, of forgiveness and restoration that He has provided we ‘have God’ (vs.9) and if we have God we have life, eternal and full. God’s ‘life buoy’. If you don’t hold that and you try to swim with your own force, you will loose it. Admit that there is nothing that deserves God’s love. ‘God, just as I am I come to you. Thank you that you accept me only for reasons in yourself, by what Jesus has done’. In Holy Communion God shows his unconditional love and we confess that we are sinners and that there is life in Him, everlasting and endless rich.
If Diederik Stapel had known this reality of Christ, he had admitted that it was not necessary to work for more acknowledgment and prestige and that he was good enough as he was. He should have loved truth not only as a theory, but also in practice and he should had loved God and others and science more than himself. Maybe he is on the way to acknowledge en to accept that.
Last week I came across the story of a couple from non-Christian background (Marije, 35 and Coenraad, 38 – see ND 16.8.14) that changed their life priorities. She was and still is an expert in medieval philosophy and because of her research she had to study theological text in Italy. There she came across a tract of two theologians about the question ‘whether one necessarily should love God rather than loving yourself’. The text rose her interest and all of a sudden she found herself praying: ‘Lord, if you are real, please show something of yourself’. Soon she was touched by God’s love in an unthought-of way. She met Christians and started to discuss about many questions of faith. But her life priorities were changed. She acknowledged that Jesus came to life in her, and that she discovered a new love for God and for the people around her. Actually she continued her research even with a greater interest and joy. Her husband saw the changes in her and came to faith in Christ a bit later.
How to persevere?
How can we persevere? John summarizes it: ‘His command is that you walk in love (vs. 6). Everyone who goes beyond the limits and doesn’t stay in the teaching of Christ, doesn’t have God (vs. 9). And if somebody comes under your roof and insists another way, don’t welcome him or her. How can we persevere? By loving one another, staying in the Word of Christ and by avoiding deceivers!
And today Christ wants to assure about that. He wants to feed us with his body an blood to give us life. In Holy Communion He assures us about His unconditional love. In Him is all the truth and the wisdom from God. He rescues us from the eternal judgment. In Him we find all that we need to live the life that will not perish. To Him be the honour and glory. Amen.