Recently I have had discussions with three different friends who are pastors about a verse in the shortest book in the New Testament (in terms of verses—3 John is slightly shorter in terms of words used). Many Christians have never heard a sermon or a lesson on Second John. Thus very few believers have heard an exposition of John’s words in v 8. That’s a shame. There John says some remarkable things about eternal rewards that we all need to hear. He writes:
Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we have worked for, but that we may receive a full reward.
The following article is an outgrowth of my interaction with my three friends.
Look to Yourselves
Verse 8 begins with the command, “Look to yourselves.” The preceding verses speak of deceivers who have gone out in the world who do not confess Jesus as coming in the flesh (v 7), and, who by implication, do not walk in love (compare vv 6 and 7). Thus the command to “Look to yourselves” is an injunction to the readers to stand fast against the false teachers—to walk according to Christ’s commandments (which is to walk in love) and to believe and confess the Person and work of Christ. Standing fast included a refusal to support the work of false teachers in any way because he who does so “shares in his evil deeds (v 11).”
John then goes on in v 8 to warn his readers about possible loss of rewards.
Losing What We Worked For
Who Is the “We”?
The first person plural here could refer to (1) John himself (an editorial we), (2) John and the apostolic circle, or (3) John and his readers (an inclusive we). In order to understand John’s point here, we must know the person or persons he was talking about.
First John begins with a clear use of the first person plural in reference to John and the apostolic circle. Second John begins with a first person singular which is repeated in vv 4 and 5. The first person plural only occurs in two places in Second John aside from v 8. In v 2 it most likely refers to John and his readers: “because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever.” In v 12 John says, “I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.” Here the first person plural could refer to John and his readers or it could refer to John himself or to John plus the fellow ministers who traveled with him. While this is skimpy evidence to go on, the evidence from v 2 suggests that the first person plural in v 8 probably refers to John and his readers.
What Was It That “We” Worked For?
Again, there are several options. This could refer to (1) some joint project the apostle and his readers had worked together on (like evangelizing their area), (2) the spiritual growth of the readers, or, (3) the ministry of the readers’ church. All three of these are things which John could say that he and his readers had worked for. The ongoing fruit in each of these cases would be destroyed if the readers departed from orthodoxy.
These three options need not be seen as exclusive. John could mean that all that he and his readers had worked for together would be lost if they fell away. There is nothing in context to restrict the sense of “those things we worked for.” Absent other evidence, it is probably best to see this a general reference that includes all three options suggested above.
That We May Receive a Full Reward
In order for John and his readers to receive the maximum (Greek: plere = full) reward for the work they had done together, the readers must remain faithful to Christ. If they became unfaithful, then there wouldn’t be a “full” reward for the readers, or for John for that matter. There would be reward for the work already accomplished; but not a full reward since the future impact of the ministry would be damaged.
This principle is applicable any time two or more Christians work together in service of Christ. If one part of the team falls away from the Lord, then their joint effort is undermined and full reward for that partnership is lost.
On the one hand, if you squander your Christian experience, then it is not just you who will lose out at the Judgment Seat of Christ. You will also be lessening the potential rewards of those who minister with you.
On the other hand, if you sense that your partners in ministry are in danger of falling, you need to do all you can to help them avoid falling (as John does in Second John). If they fall, then the rewards you both will receive for the work you’ve done together will fall short of what they could have been.
Some Questions About This Principle
The pastor friend I shared this with had some questions about this principle. I then shared this teaching with another pastor who also had some questions. I address their questions here.
My Bible Says You, Not We
Some versions of the Bible translate the second half of v 8 as follows: “that you might not lose those things we have worked for, but that you may receive a full reward.” If that is the correct reading, then John’s rewards are not specifically in question. Only the rewards of the readers would be clearly in question.
That is not, however, the reading of most Greek manuscripts. The vast majority of manuscripts in 2 John 8 read “that we do not lose those things we have worked for, but that we may receive a full reward.”
In addition to the manuscript evidence, the context favors the first person plural reading as well. Notice the middle phrase in the second half of v 8: “those things we have worked for.” All manuscripts read the first person plural there. Why would John refer to those things we have worked for and yet restrict the possible loss of reward to the readers only? The three-fold use of we in v 8 seems much more natural than an unnecessary switching back and forth from you to we to you.
Might Current Rewards Be in View?
The Greek word used here for reward is misthos. In some contexts it refers generally to wages received for work done (Luke 10:7; Rom 4:4; 1 Tim 5:18; Jas 5:4). However, it is normally used in the NT to refer specifically to eternal rewards which believers will receive for work done. For example, in Matt 5:12 Jesus used this word when He said, “Great is your reward in heaven.” See also, Matt 6:1-21; 10:41-42; John 4:36; 1 Cor 3:8-15; 9:17-27.
John himself only uses this word four times (John 4:36; 2 John 8; Rev 11:18; 22:12). It is extremely telling that all the other uses clearly refer to eternal rewards.
No, it is not likely that misthos here refers to current rewards.
Whenever you work together with other Christians, you have an ongoing two-way responsibility. In the first place, you need to remain faithful to the Lord so that you don’t ruin the work you all are doing together. In the second place, you are responsible to do what you can to warn and help the others you are working with to remain faithful. Whether you and they remain faithful to Christ will make a difference in whether or not you all receive a full reward for the work you are doing together.
How you live effects not only your own eternal rewards, but also those of others with whom you minister. Hang in there. We will all be glad you did.