The apostle Paul uses the metaphor a number of times, for example describing his own running (“Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly…” – 1 Corinthians 9:26) and urging others to run with care (“You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” – Galatians 5:7). Likewise the Book of Hebrews urges believers: “… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Countless articles have been written and sermons preached on this concept of “running the race marked out for us,” but one scripture that is rarely quoted in this context is found in the second epistle of John:
“Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9, emphasis added).
This verse is not often quoted, as it is not as easy to understand as most scriptures that use the analogy of running. What does John mean in saying that we must not “run ahead"? Even some modern versions of the Bible seem to have had difficulty understanding the verse, as they translate the expression “whoever sins” rather than “whoever runs ahead.” But it is clear that John wrote “runs ahead,” and we need to understand what he meant by this if we are to understand what the sin is.
While it is possible that John meant that everyone who sets himself forward as a leader – putting himself “ahead” of others – is doing wrong, this does not fit the context of the verse very well. It is far more likely, considering the overall message of John’s letter, that the apostle was warning his readers against going ahead of or beyond the truth of the Gospel that had been delivered to them. This meaning seems to be clear, in fact, in the second half of 2 John 1:9 which says: “… whoever continues in the teaching.…” This does not directly apply to those who advance their own positions, but it does apply to those who somehow distort the teaching of Christianity.
If this is John’s meaning, his admonition that we should not “run ahead” is clear, because his letters continually argue against those who were adding to the original gospel message. False Christians who were forerunners of the Gnostic philosophers of that age considered themselves to be advanced in their thinking and to be in possession of “higher” knowledge. John shows that these individuals lured many Christians away from the original truth that they had been given (1 John 2:24, 26).
John counsels us not to “run ahead of” or add to the truth we have been given in any way. It is a message he repeats elsewhere in his writings: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll …” (Revelation 22:18). Taking away from the teaching God gives us is an equally serious problem (Revelation 22:18), but John makes it clear that adding to what God instructs us is not only an error but also a sign that we “… do not have God” (2 John 1:9).
We need not be openly mixing pagan philosophy with the teachings of Christianity – as the ancient Gnostics did – to “add to” the word of God. We can add to the truth God gives us more subtly by basing what we believe and do on human traditions rather than on what the Bible actually teaches (Matthew 15:9), for example, or we can break the principle of not adding to the word of God by accepting the pronouncements of astrology as a guide in our lives.
We can even “add to” the word of God by excusing things in our behavior through carefully selected “proof scriptures” that do not give the whole biblical picture and therefore create a meaning different from what the Bible intends overall. The principle that John stresses can apply to us in many ways, and it is one we might think about to ensure that it does not. John’s words remind us that we are called to run, but we are also cautioned not to “run ahead.”