In our last essay we completed our study of 1 John In this essay we are going to study 2 John. The letter begins in 1:1-3 with a rather typical salutation for a Christian letter in the first-century culture. But the author doesn’t give his name. Rather he identifies himself as “the Elder.” It is as if a Bishop or minister, today, wrote a letter to a congregation and signed it “Your Bishop,” or “Your Pastor.”
The term “elder” had four possible meanings when the letter was written. One, it could mean an old man generally. Two, it could refer to an old man who exercised leadership in a given community. Three, it could refer to a person who held a local church office. Or four, it could refer to a traveling minister who had authority over a group of churches much in the sense of an apostle. In light of the content of the letter, the fourth possibility is by far the most likely.
There is some scholarly debate about authorship; but we are not going to go into that, other than to say that evangelical scholars generally believe that John the Apostle, the Son of Zebedee, and a member of the Twelve, wrote all three of these epistles and the Gospel of John. So I will refer to John as the author.
Next, John addresses “the elect lady and her children.” Now there are two basic possibilities as to who the elect lady was. John could have been addressing an actual woman and her children; or he could have been using the woman and children as a metaphor for a church and its members.
It is impossible to know with absolute certainty which of these John had in mind. But there are a couple of clues that tip the scales for me towards the latter view. First, notice that in verse 13 John sends a greeting from the lady’s “elect sister.”
Then 1 Peter 5:13 provides some help. It reads: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings” (RSV). That greeting is very similar to the one in John. And since the reference in 1 Peter almost certainly is a reference to the church at Rome, rather than to an actual woman in Babylon, for me that tips the scales towards the metaphorical interpretation, because it proves that at least one other early Christian apostle used that metaphor. And so I believe that John wrote this letter to a church and its members. But I cannot guarantee that.
Next, we see that the lady is elect, that is, chosen. This adjective often is applied to all Christians. It means that God chose, that is called, them to be his people. The term “elect” always signifies those who have responded to God’s call and thus have become God’s people. Therefore we have the so-called doctrine of election.
However there are two major views of election in Protestantism. Classic Reformed theology says that God arbitrarily chooses a limited number of persons to be saved, that is, he elects particular individuals for salvation; and they are the ones who respond to his call.
Wesleyan-Arminian theology on the other hand says that God elects all persons to be saved. That is, the election is corporate, rather than individual. And God gives each individual the freedom to say, “No.”
All right, as we move on, notice that the elder loves the lady and her children “in the truth.” The word “truth” here means not simply “really” or “truly,” but refers to “reality.” And “reality” for John is Christ. This becomes clear in verse two, where he goes on to say why he loves them in the truth. It is, quote, “because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever.”
For those of us who are familiar with John’s Gospel, or with the first epistle, this idea is neither strange nor new. Truth is an important concept to John; and in his Gospel he quotes Jesus as saying, “I am…the truth” (14:15-17). And in both the Gospel and first epistle John stresses the idea that we are to abide in Christ and allow Christ (or the Spirit of Christ) to abide in us. It is this basic concept to which John is making reference. Of course this is closely related to the doctrine of sanctification.
We now are ready for the body of the letter, that is, for its central focus, found in verses 4-11. But we will take it in two parts. In verse 4-6 John begins by describing the great joy he feels upon learning that some of the “children,” i.e., the church members, have been “following the truth.” The word, “some,” implies that there are other church members who are not living as they should. And thus the series of exhortations that follow would seem to be aimed primarily at those who are not. However, since they are addressed to the lady, there has to be a sense in which they are addressed to the entire congregation.
At any rate, there follows a series of exhortations that are intended to inspire some folks to do better in certain areas. The first exhortation is that Christians are to love one another, verse 5. This is essential in John’s view, and he comes back to this theme time and time again in his writings. We are to love one another.
The second exhortation is closely related in John’s mind with the first, though it is not the same. He says that Christian love involves keeping the Father’s commands, that is, doing God’s will, verse 6. This is very important. It means that doing the will of God is not primarily a negative thing. That is, it is not a matter of don’t do this, and don’t do that, simply because God says so. Rather, doing the will of God is a positive thing. It is an aspect of love. That is, it is tied into our relationship with God. We do his will; we keep his commandments, because he loves us, and because we love him.
Before John gives us his third exhortation, he turns in verse seven, to a specific problem that faces the congregation to which he is writing. There are certain “deceivers,” or we might call them false teachers, who “have gone out into the world,” and who are teaching that Christ did not come in the flesh. John terms such a person an antichrist.
The word “antichrist” that appears at the end of verse seven comes from a Greek preposition, anti, which literally means “against,” or “instead of,” and the noun christos, which of course means Christ, or Messiah. In 1 John 2:18-19, we saw John gave this term a two-fold technical meaning in Christian theology. He refers to an antichrist, singular, who is to come in the future. This is the end-time antichrist, the end-time opponent of Christ, whom Jesus will crush at his second coming.
But John also refers to antichrists, plural, who already were present in John’s day. John points out that these are false teachers, who have gone out from the Christian fellowship, away from apostolic authority. And they are teaching false doctrines about Christ, including the one he mentions here in 2 John; namely, denying that Jesus is Christ in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3). We know from both the Gospel and John’s first epistle that John was much concerned with this matter, called in theology the incarnation. The term incarnation literally means ”in-flesh-ment.” It refers to the becoming flesh of the pre-existent Word (or Son) of God. For John it was essential that believers understand and believe that there had been a true incarnation, that the creative Word of God had become flesh and remained flesh to the end.
Apparently, the basic idea underlying this heresy about which John is concerned is that promoted later by the Gnostics. The Gnostics believed that spirit is good and matter is evil. Therefore, the Christ could not possibly have become flesh, because that would be saying he became evil. Hence some of them suggested that Jesus did not have a real body, but only seemed or appeared to have one. In other words, the Christ did not really become a human being, but only pretended to do so. Other Gnostics suggested that Jesus was a genuine human being, but not the eternal Christ. In their view, the eternal Christ came upon Jesus at his baptism and left him prior to the crucifixion.
But as you can see, either type of teaching effectively destroys the idea of a real incarnation. And whatever the specific teachings of the “deceivers” in John’s day were, it was anti-incarnation; and thus in John’s view, it was antichristian. Thus the antichrists (plural) of the Johannine epistles are those false teachers who deny the real incarnation of Christ.
Coming back to John’s list of exhortations, the third exhortation is given in verse 8: “Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward.” We can boil down the message of verses 7-8 taken together to be this: be careful about false teachings. These verses constitute a sort of warning to the congregation that they stand to lose at least part of their reward as Christians if the false teachers take them in. But it is even more serious than that, because in the next verse John claims that any person who does not abide in the correct doctrine “does not have God.”
This warning still is valid today. There are teachers today who go far beyond what the Bible actually says. They say that they have a “key” or a new revelation that enables them to know more than the Bible plainly reveals. This is a sure sign of danger regardless of the doctrine involved, though John was concerned at the time about the doctrine of Christ.
The opposite, positive, side also is stated in verse 9; he who “abides in the teaching [meaning the teaching about the incarnation] has both the Father and the Son.” Now there is a caution that we should mention at this point. John is not saying that spiritual life comes from holding a correct doctrine. A person can believe all the right things and be “dead as a doornail” spiritually. When John speaks of abiding in the teaching, in his mind it includes abiding in Christ. That is, it involves the dynamic relationship with God in Christ by means of the Holy Spirit that we have learned about. Correct doctrines are important; but they certainly are not the whole matter.
John closes out the body of the letter in verses 10-11 with a fourth exhortation; namely to refuse to receive, or even greet, the false teachers. That’s rather clear isn’t it? He’s saying, you know the truth. So do not give any encouragement whatsoever to false teachers. This matter was much more significant in their situation than ours, though it certainly can apply to us. On the one hand, in those days the churches were considerably dependent upon traveling prophets and teachers for teaching and spiritual nurture. But on the other hand, fine motels did not exist in every city, as is the case now. Therefore it was essential that the members of the church provide hospitality to these people. And of course that meant receiving them into their homes and providing for their needs. And John is saying, do not provide hospitality to these false teachers.
Now there are at least two ways that this can apply to us. First, today there still are some false teachers who travel around and want hospitality from Christians. Where it is clear that they are false teachers, this principle should be applied. We must not encourage such people.
On the other hand, second, we must be careful not to go to the opposite extreme and be unkind to fellow Christians, who simply differ from us on minor theological points, or in debatable areas of biblical interpretation. John is dealing here with one of the essential doctrines, not a secondary doctrine.
The last two verses are closing remarks and greetings. In closing, let me summarize the four exhortations of the letter: Love one another (v.3). Follow God’s commandments (v.6). Be careful about false teachings (vv. 7-8). And Don’t encourage false teachers (v.10).