The second letter of John is one of the shortest letters in the New Testament. It has only one focus – how to deal with those who are engaged in "false teachings." These are individuals, possibly former church members, who have gone out on their own, preaching a message at variance with established apostolic tradition. The main issue seems to be that they deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, leading some scholars to identify the secessionists as Docetists. They were known to preach that Christ was not fully human and they were not very loving towards those who held positions that differed from their own. Eventually they withdrew from the community, but not before they made their positions very clear. The Elder took their challenge very seriously and called them "deceivers and antichrists." Much of this has already been covered in 1 John, and in fact, nothing new is really added in 2 John. It quickly begs the question as to the purpose of this letter. Some scholars have imaginatively guessed that this could have been the cover letter for 1 John. Others think they addressed two separate audiences.
While the setting cannot be accurately determined, it is evident that 2 John calls believers to live in a community based on love and truth. Yet, the admonition to love one another is not distinct from the truth they share. It is based on having the right Christological belief. It is essential that believers accept the teaching that God sent His Son as savior of the world. God's love for us was made manifest in the revelation of His Son. Because of the Son, we have come to know God better. As we hold to the teachings of the Son, God abides in us and we in Him.
But questions arise as to the proper protocol involving those who do not agree with this, with those who have a false Christology. Here, the Elder does not equivocate. Believers are to refuse them hospitality of any sort, lest they unwittingly help them get their message out to others. It is the sort of statement that jars the sensibilities of some modern scholars who are advocates of diversity and dialogue with others of differing faiths. There is no easy response, except to note that the Elder did not want the false teachers to gain an audience. Hospitality was less about expressing love towards one another than it was about putting together a mission strategy. The underlying issue, as always, was to hold on to the whole truth.
There are roughly three divisions to this letter: 1:1-3 – Salutation; 1:4-11-- Exhortations; 1:12-13 – Conclusion.
I -- 1:1-3 – Salutation
- The author begins with his title and not his name
- "The elder" is the word presbyteros, which literally means "the old man"
- He was probably not an apostle, but was an esteemed teacher and leader
- No doubt, he was so well known, he did not have to use his name
- (Some scholars think he might have been a "presbyter" – someone who held an administrative office, but this is not well accepted.)
- The letter is addressed to "the chosen lady and her children"
- This is thought to be a reference to a particular church and its members
- (Some think this veiled reference to a church indicates a time of persecution. If the letter had fallen into the wrong hands, it would have appeared to be nothing more than a letter between friends. This is also not well accepted because the church was frequently referred to as a woman throughout Scripture.)
- The author expresses his greeting using the themes of love and truth
- Truth refers to matters of faith as well as practice
- Because this truth is God-given, it also has power to help us know what is true
- It abides within each believer
- It is also eternal
- Love emanates from those who know the truth
- Love is extended to the whole community of believers
- Both these qualities have God as their source
- The author ends his greeting with "grace, mercy, and peace"
- This is not a prayer for grace, etc.
- It is, rather, an affirmation that these qualities will be ours if we remain in truth and love
II – 1:4-11 – Exhortations
- Occasion for the letter
- Some of the "children" are walking in the truth
- That gives the author great joy
- Obviously some other members had been swayed by the opponents mentioned in 1 John; these "children" had remained faithful
- "Walking in the truth" means holding to the truth about Jesus Christ
- Those who have left have essentially denied this truth
- Nonetheless, the Father had given the command to obey
- Those who leave, therefore, are not only disobeying the Elder but also God
- The Elder issues a new command for those who are walking in the truth – to love one another
- This is not really new, of course; it's been there "from the beginning"
- The Elder is calling for a renewed commitment to love
- Love is the glue that will keep them together and help them withstand the temptations and the controversy
- An example of this love is to work for another's good
- Yet this love does not exist in a vacuum
- This love finds its expression in obeying God's commands
- It needs to be "love in action"
- It's a bit of a circular argument: Love is expressed by following
- God's commands; God's commands are for us to love
- This is a command that they have had "from the beginning"
- A warning against deceivers
- Those who have left the community have a false sense of Jesus Christ
- The faithful should not be deceived by these false teachings
- Descriptions of false teachers
- They are many in number – posing a serious threat to the remaining faithful
- They are deceivers – leading themselves as well as others astray
- They do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh
- Therefore, they deny the full humanity of Jesus
- They have gone out into the world – "leaving the community" meant returning to the world of darkness
- They are the "antichrist" – the false Christs who reject the salvation that Jesus brings
- The Elder warns against following these deceivers
- Those who follow "lose all that they have accomplished so far"
- They will also lose their "reward"
- This could refer to eschatological salvation or to the loss of the relationship God has with those who are faithful
- The stakes are high
- This is not a benign decision
- They stand to lose all that God has been doing for and through them in their lives
- Those who do not continue in the teachings of Christ do not have God either
- "Running ahead" means "going too far"
- The opponents (secessionists) think they are the progressives
- In reality, they have lost their core teachings and jeopardized their salvation
- One who continues in the commands of Christ, however, has both Christ and God
- Adhering to correct teachings of the Christ ensures having a vital relationship with both the Son and the Father
- What should Christians do if a deceiver comes to them?
- If anyone comes to their doorstep, they are not to "welcome them"
- Nor should they take them "into your house"
- This stands over against traditional practices of hospitality that require giving food and shelter
- The test, of course, is whether or not they bring the teaching that Jesus Christ was fully human (come in the flesh)
- Refusing to house and feed the deceivers will greatly curtail their work
- Those who relent and welcome the deceivers share in their "wicked work"
- Their work is to destroy the faith of the community
- By helping them, churches were unwittingly contributing to their own demise
- These early churches were ill equipped to deal with such deviations
- Its members were not to have fellowship with those who deviate from the truth
- The Elder was trying to protect the immature churches from being destroyed
- (The Elder does not advocate retaliation or hatred of them, just separation)
III – 1:12-13 – Conclusion
- The Elder has more to say, but refrains from doing so
- Rather than writing more, he will wait until he is able to visit in person
- When he visits, his "joy will be complete"
- (This repetition of "joy" from the opening verses is also a witness that joy is a major characteristic of living as a Christian)
- The Elder sends greetings from "the children of your sister"
- No doubt, these are members of the Elder's community
- This, again, stresses the intimate nature of the Christian family
The Elder ends his letter by expressing his joy, once again, over their faithfulness. His "completed" joy does not stem from an eschatological assurance of salvation but rather from the human fellowship rooted in his relationship with them and with God. Though they are to love one another in accordance with God's command, it is not a libertine sense of "anything goes." This love must be based on a right Christology.
Barclay, William. "The Letters of John." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975.
Johnson, Thomas. "1, 2, and 3 John." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 1993.
Gaebelein, Frank. "2 John." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.
Keck, Leander, ed. "2 John." The New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1998.
Rensberger, David. "1 John, 2 John, 3 John." Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1997.
Thompson, Marianne Meye. "1-3 John." The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1992.