The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©


'Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may he complete. The children of your elect sister greet you' (2 John 12-13).

With these simple words this little letter comes to a close. Simple words they are, but they speak of three things that have been of tremendous value in the life of the Christian Church: writing with 'paper and ink', fellowship 'face to face' and Christian friendliness that is expressed in greetings.

a. Paper and ink.

We have a precious little treasure in this letter that we call 2 John because 'the elder' took 'paper and ink' and wrote as he did. In this way all the New Testament Scriptures have come to us, written one by one by those who were among the first followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. By this means new writings were added to those of the Old Testament. All were written by ordinary people in the situation and circumstances in which they lived and served then Lord. Thankfully, they are more than human writings because in them, as 2 Peter 1:21 says, 'men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God'. So we have a great gift from God, 'inspired by God ... useful for teaching the truth rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the man who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good work' (2 Timothy 3:16-17, Today's English Version).

Writing with 'paper and ink' in the days when this letter was written was no easy work. The 'paper' would have been a sheet made by pressing together strips from the papyrus plant, longer writings were on a scroll of such papyrus many feet in length. The 'ink' was made from soot from a lamp. Since the invention of printing and all our modern machinery, Bibles and Bible portions come from our printing presses each year by the million and in more than 1600 languages. As we, in this way, use paper and ink to making the Scriptures and other Christian literature available to many, many people, those who are not Christian can come to know the gospel and Christians can read what will help and strengthen them in their faith. We, too, can take up 'paper and ink', even if it is simply to write a letter that can help someone in need or lead some friend on in the ways of God. Thank God for 'paper and ink' and for all that can be done through them.

b. Talking 'face to face'.

The printed word can do great things, but we could never manage with the written word alone. We need the personal contact of one person with another. The gospel is spread today by printed Bible, by Christian literature, by radio, by tapes and by television. Yet the Christian Church could not do its work entirely by these means. The gospel must be believed and lived out in people's individual lives and in the way that Christians live together. What men and women read of Christian truth in a book, hear on a tape, or see on television, they need to see lived out in the practical things of daily life. As the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:1-3, the most important letters are Christians themselves, letters 'written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts'.

'The elder' was glad to write with 'paper and ink' to 'the elect lady and her children' and we also are glad that he wrote. There were things, however, that he wanted to say that he could not write. He needed to see his friends and talk with them 'face to face'. Sometimes there are things that we cannot and should not write but that we have to say to people as we meet 'face to face'. 'Spoken words are less easily misunderstood than written words, because it is not only by language that the speaker conveys his meaning, but by the tone of his voice and the expression on his face' (Stott). If we are wise we, too, will know the difference between the things we can write about and the things we must wait to say to a person face to face.

c. Greetings.

As we thought of what verse 3 says, we thought of the importance of greetings in the letters written in New Testament days. In many countries and cultures greetings are very important today. We saw also (see page 100) that Christian greetings, as we read them in the New Testament are really prayers and they are the expression of the fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ. We should never neglect the words that show love for our fellow Christians and that express our unity in Christ, especially with those who are of a different race or tribe or country or background from our own.


God Almighty, we praise You for all Your good gifts to us. We thank You for the world-wide fellowship of Christian people. We thank You for the gift of the Scriptures. We pray that today, by your Holy Spirit, You will use the printed word in our land and in every country, to bring to many people the saving knowledge of Yourself, through Your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

For further thought and study.

1. What can we learn from the way that greetings are expressed in the New Testament, in such passages as Romans 1:7, 2 Corinthians 13:14, Ephesians 6:23, 24 and 2 Peter 1:2? Read also Romans 16 and think what it would have meant to all the people mentioned there to send on or to receive greetings.

2. Meeting 'face to face' involves the giving and receiving of Christian hospitality. Note the importance that this has in the New Testament, in such passages as Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2 and 5:10, Hebrews 13:2 and 1 Peter 4:8-11. What should this mean for us today?