John's Second Epistle was written to “the elect lady and her children” – perhaps an individual and her family or perhaps more likely a church and its members.
The Third Epistle was written to someone named Gaius - possibly one of the men mentioned in Acts and in Paul’s epistles (Acts 19:29, 20:4, etc.), although Gaius was a common Roman name, and the man John calls his “dear friend” may have been someone else. But the identity of the recipients of John’s two epistles is not important, compared to their message.
John, the “Apostle of Love,” might well be expected to speak about love – but in both these letters he provides an insight into a broader picture in which love and truth are combined. The apostle sets the tone of the letters by stating that the elect lady and Gaius are both someone “I love in truth,” showing from the outset the connection between the two qualities that he is about to expand. Notice what John writes to the elect lady:
“The elder, To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth — because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love. It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands...I say this because many deceivers … have gone out into the world” (2 John 1:3-7, emphases added).
In this epistle, John continually mentions and combines love and truth, but we should see that he is making a specific point. Although he reminds us that both qualities are important, the emphasis of what he says in these verses is on walking in truth and God’s commands (which he shows are directly related). The end of the passage shows why he is writing these things – because “many deceivers” are turning the people to whom he writes from the truth. The problem is already evident in verse 4 where he states that only “some” of them were walking in the truth. John shows that although these people had love, they were accepting others into their fellowship who were not walking in truth but accepting gross heresies instead of the true Gospel. John tells them, therefore: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them” (2 John 1:10).
When we turn to 3 John we see a related but somewhat different problem. Notice what John wrote to Gaius:
“The elder, To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.… It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love… We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth. I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us ... he even refuses to welcome other believers” (3 John 1:1, 3-10, emphases added).
Once again we see that John juxtaposes love and truth, but the emphasis here is different. Gaius’ love is commended both generally and in the specific area of acceptance and hospitality. But in this case, we see, at the end of the passage, the problem in this area is that some – notably Diotrephes – would not show true love, would not welcome and include others of the faith. There is no suggestion that the people in Gaius’ area did not know the truth, but that they were not informing the truth they knew with love.
In both John’s second and third epistles, then, we see truth and love expressed as cardinal qualities of Christianity – on virtually equal footing. But John shows us that when love is not informed by truth, it allows error to enter in, as he stresses in 2 John. In 3 John the apostle shows that in a similar way, when truth is not informed by love, it allows selfishness, arrogance and exclusivity to thrive. The message to those associated with the elect lady is that we can walk in love but not have truth. The message to those in Gaius’s area is that we can walk in truth and not have love.
These simply worded, yet profound, epistles teach us that love or truth alone can lead us astray. Love can be dangerous if it leads us away from the truth, and truth can be dangerous if we allow it to lead us away from love. As John insists, we need to be walking in love with truth, and to be walking in truth with love.