It’s all about “truth.” John is writing to those who have it, those who are walking in it, and his joy in hearing about it all. 3 John 1:3-4 says, “For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” John is really interested in the concept of “truth.” Nothing makes John happier than to see the people he loves living in accord with the truth. Truth is mentioned in these two verses three times. The main thing we must understand is what John means when he speaks of “walking in the truth.” What is the “truth?”

John had some major issues with the “Gnostics” during his ministry in Ephesus. They were complicating the simple message of the gospel by arguing that there was a special kind of “knowledge” that one could have which would elevate them in some way above the ordinary people. There are so many varieties of Gnosticism that it isn’t important to explain them all or to understand them all. The Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Consensus on a definition of gnosticism has proved difficult. The groups conventionally classified as gnostic did not constitute a single movement with relatively homogeneous organization, teachings, and rituals. Even the self-designation gnostic is problematic, since it is attested for only some of the traditions conventionally treated as gnostic, and its connotations are ambiguous.”[1] Let it be enough to understand that each brand carries a specific insight into truth that others don’t have. Each of these philosophies, regardless of the specifics, proved to be divisive. It wasn’t a movement that brought people together. It was rather ideas that separated them. The “truth” that John talks about in his Gospel, as well as his three letters, is a truth that brings people together and contributes to the mindset of love for each other.

It seems clear to me that the truth John is excited about is the simple truth of the Gospel that brings people together. That truth, as I’ve often argued, is the truth that each and every one of us is a sinner. We have nothing at all in our characters, behaviors, or knowledge that can elevate us above anyone else. This is the first part of the truth of the Gospel. Without this truth, there is no true fellowship. There is only competition. Recognizing and admitting our sins, as well as our sinfulness, qualifies as repentance. Without this admission, we end up in relationships where each of us has to be declared “right” to make it work. The truth we need to bow to is that we all need to grasp our personal culpability in all situations. In The Handbook for Bible Prayers, we read, “Not only does saying ‘sorry’ remind us who God is, but it also reminds us who we are. We can so easily lose a proper perspective of ourselves and become convinced of our own importance and indispensability. How fortunate the company is to have us working for them! How blessed the church is to have us as a member. But owning up to our sin and saying ‘sorry’ to God has a way of healthily putting things back into perspective again by reminding us who we really are—just sinners saved by grace.”[2] This is the first half of the “truth” that John is speaking of. The second half is the remedy of our sinfulness: Jesus Christ! Stephen Neil explains this well. He writes, “Much popular theology and Christian devotion is based on the idea, not clearly expressed but unmistakably revealed by careful analysis, that someday, perhaps not in this world and only after long purgation, we shall reach a condition in which God will be able to approve of us as we are in ourselves. This is a fatal theological error.… A time will never come when we shall be able to depend on our own righteousness as that which can commend us to God. To the end of all eternity, the highest situation to which we can aspire is that which already we have, that of sinners saved by grace.”[3] This opens the door to genuine Christian fellowship. The ground at the foot of the cross is perfectly level. No one stands taller than anyone else. Jesus, and only Jesus, is our source of righteousness.

[1] Gnosticism | Definition, Texts, Movements, & Influence | Britannica

[2] Manser, Martin, and Mike Beaumont. 2020. Handbook of Bible Prayers. Manser and Beaumont.

[3] Stott, John. 2018. The Preacher’s Notebook: The Collected Quotes, Illustrations, and Prayers of John Stott. Edited by Mark Meynell. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.