The Second Epistle of John.

Posted on 01 July 2012

Students Study Notes

1. ‘The Elder’ introduces a major exegetic crux. Who is the Elder?

Most commentators note that the reference must be to someone well-known for such an unqualified title to be given. Tradition has identified the author as the apostle John. However, an ambiguous reference in Papias has led some to distinguish between two John’s; the apostle and the elder. The reference could, however, simply be to the apostle being designated both apostle and elder.

Scholars are divided over whether all the ‘Johannine’ writings were authored by the same person and (either way) by whom?

The similarities between the various writings are such that they must either have a common authorship or (if not) be careful and skilled attempts at copying another writing in the overall corpus. It is best to conclude there was a common author. In view of the difficulties with interpreting Papias, together with the witness of the early traditions and the apparent claims of the FG it seems best to assume the apostle John was the author of all the ‘Johannine’ writings.

Why, then, should John use the present title and why use anonymity? The latter part of the question may be explicable by convention (Dodd) or, perhaps more likely, from the setting. If the church was unpopular with the authorities it might be best (or necessary) to remain anonymous. John’s exile shows that the church was under threat from the authorities!

The former part of the question may be explained (in part) by the above reason and, perhaps, some of the following. He may have had a role within the churches of western Asia of ‘superintendent’ (the Elder, par excellence); he may have been seeking to respond to the crisis which this letter reflects by appealing direct to the authority of Jesus rather than interposing his own (however legitimate the claim might be!); he may have been seeking to emphasise his intimacy (Thompson) or unity with the readers etc..

‘to the elect lady’. This is another crux. Some assume the letter to be one to an individual (and have even speculated as to whether either are names). Most believe that the reference is to a ‘personified’ church on the basis that elsewhere Israel or the church are personified in this way and the content of the letter seems to be addressed to more than an individual. Some have seen the reference as to the church ‘catholic’ but, as Dodd rightly notes, the catholic Church has no ‘sister’!

It seems best to understand the letter as addressed by ‘superintendent’ John to a local church over which he had some influence or authority.

Taking this view, the following phrase ‘and her children’ must refer to the members of the church.

‘whom I love in the truth’. The pronoun may be emphatic (perhaps it wasn’t true of others, Stott) and, while the last part of the phrase could be adverbial, ‘truly’, it probably has the deeper meaning which the word occupies elsewhere in this letter.

‘and also all those who know the truth’. The verb here probably has a semitic sense; refering to the knowledge of experience. John is not speaking of cerebral orthodox assent but acceptance of the message expressed in commitment of active love (Smalley).

The latter part of verse 1 breaks away from the traditional epistolary formula (Marshall). It is, thus, important in indicating something of the burden which John had when he wrote the letter (as we shall see). There were those who ‘lived’ the truth and who manifested this in their mutual love; but there were others….

2. ‘because of the truth, which lives in us and will be in us for ever’. Commentators note that John emphasises that the truth is not simply an objective thing but a subjective power (Westcott, Stott and others). This is (emphatically, Stott) with us and will remain. It is this inner dynamic of the indwelt truth that exercises the believers to love (Marshall). Truth thus becomes a personal influence (op.cit.). Neither temperament nor any other factor is involved in the exercise of Christian love (Stott); it is the result of the indwelling truth. Such carries with it assurance (Smalley).

Under the influence of false teaching which emphasises ‘something extra’ it is easy to lose one’s own assurance. John’s words here may suggest that this was a problem within the fellowship to whom he wrote.

3. John resumes the more typical Christian epistolary practice here only to depart from it once again!

In view of the fact that John rarely uses the word ‘grace’ it is probable that his initial words in this verse reflect his usage of a familiar Christianised greeting (Marshall and others). However, he prefaces this with ‘will be with us’ which changes the customary prayer/wish into assurance (Westcott); perhaps, again, reflecting a need (Brooke).

The latter part of the verse is also distinctive; John emphatically repeats (and co-ordinates) ‘from…and from’ the reference to the Father and Jesus Christ but he also expands his reference to Jesus. The former feature emphasises the twofold personal relation of man to the Father and the Son (Westcott) and the equality of the two (Stott). Furthermore the anarthrous use of ‘Father’ rather than ‘our Father’) lays stress on the absolute revelation of God as such (Westcott). The latter feature closely connects the revelation with the son (op.cit.).

The verse concludes with ‘in truth and love’. The precise connection of this phrase to the preceding statement is not easy to determine. The thought would seem to be either that grace, mercy and peace will be the experience of those who abide in truth and love or that grace, mercy and peace will outwork themselves in truth and love (Stott). Probably John was not unhappy with the ambiguity because his point embraced both! The Christian life is one in which each of these things interact with one another to produce/characterise the marks of a true spiritual life and the sphere in which the fullness of God’s blessing is experienced (Marshall).

4. ‘It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth’. In accordance with the typical form of a C1 letter the body of the epistle begins at this point (and extends to verse 11). The practical purpose of the letter is now revealed in two parts (4-6, 7-11) the former of which deals with a threat to the inner life of the fellowship; the latter with doctrinal danger from without (Stott).

Ancient letters began with an expression of joy concerning good news about the readers. John adopts this convention.

The initial verb ‘It has given me great joy’ is aorist. Most assume that the this is not epistolary and points to a past encounter which has revealed something the author assumes is still true (Smalley and others).

The significance of the next phrase is debated. ‘to find some of your children walking in the truth’ is understood by some to simply refer to an occasion when John had encountered a group of faithful members of the church to whch he was writing (Marshall). Others assume that it implies that he knows that not all are living consistently (Stott and others) and some contrast the some with the ‘many’ in verse 7 (q.v.) and suggest that the errorists may have been in the majority (Brooke, Houlden). This might suggest the letter is written to a church experiencing schism (Smalley, Dodd). 

The phrase ‘walking in the truth’ indicates, again, that John is no mere ecclesiastic. For ‘walking’ carries the idea of habitual commitment arising from a person’s total attitude of mind (Smalley). For John it is clear that this involves conformity to the standards contained in it (Marshall).

The authority for John’s view is (as we noted above) taken back behind what might have been a legitimate appeal to apostleship to the ultimate source; the Father. This would appear to be a veiled charge against the errorists.

5. The first of two exhortations to the whole church follows. In substance it is that the entire church ‘dear lady’ live in accordance with the example of those John has already referred to (Marshall).

Just as in the previous verse John has appealed directly to the Father so now he argues on the basis of the teaching of Jesus himself (and with which the readers would have already been familiar).

The formulaic, ‘I ask’ is epistolary and indicates that John is coming to the heart of his subject (Smalley), but it is also urgent (Marshall). John is, however, not merely concerned to remind them of what they know but to ensure they do it (Jackman). As such he sees such love as the mark of Christian authenticity (op.cit.).

6. The command is that we love, the mark of love is obedience to all the revealed will of God. There is, therefore, a reciprocal relation between the two (Stott). Such love clearly involves both love for others and our love for God (Thompson).

Marshall is, however, probably correct to say that the essential point here is that love to others will be seen by detailed types of action in accordance with God’s commandments. Thus true love means obedience from the heart and true concern for the good of others in conformity with the detailed will of God (see also Brooke).

7. The second section of the main body of the letter begins here and extends to verse 11. John has encouraged authentic belief in verses 4-6. The reason he has been so impassioned to do so is now revealed (though the NIV obscures this by failing to translate the ‘because’. Thus, this passage provides the immediate purpose for writing (Dodd).

The initial clause, ‘because many deceivers have gone out’, is variously interpreted as a reference to schism or to others who have ‘gone out’ like the early Christian missionaries but with an anti-Christian message (so Stott). If the former is the case it may indicate that the schismatics are gaining the upper hand (Smalley). Most adopt some form of this view and Westcott says that that tense suggests that a particular crisis is in view. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that John was making an allusion to the early ‘missionaries’. Here were people who had gone forth on a mission, but…

A further crux in this verse is the word ‘world’. It can have a neutral sense but in John it frequently means the non-Christian world in opposition to God and under the power of the arch-deceiver. This would make the most sense here since John uses both the word ‘deceiver’ twice and also introduces the appelation ‘antichrist’. Either, therefore, the emissaries have gone out into the sphere of Satan or (if they had never been within the church) have gone out as part of his ‘missionary movement’ (even though, as Dodd notes, they would have thought of themselves as Christians, even ‘advanced’ ones [see verse 9]).

The errorists failure was an error in theology. But what was the error? Resolution of this question depends upon the interpretation of the present participle ‘coming’. Some see this as of no significance (Dodd); a simple denial of the incarnation is in view. Others, however, believe the present tense is significant; a timeless truth (Brooke). Marshall and others go further; the reference is to the continuing unity of the two natures of Christ. The incarnation had happened and the Word remained flesh. This view is also adapted by Westcott and though doubted by some because of its sophistication (Dodd) would scarcely be so if this was the precise debate (which it might well have been in relation to the C1 Gnostic/Docetic heresies).

To deny this truth struck at the heart of Christian truth (Marshall); it was no mere matter of theological indifference! It opposes God and deceives men (Stott).

It is important to note that John closely relates doctrinal and moral failure (Houlden). Undisciplined minds and hearts are the seed bed for error. But this particular error is devastating because (as the early church repeatedly recognised) to postulate anything other than the indissoluble union between the two natures left man beyond redemption. In John we already see a clear awareness of the seriousness of the issue and a recognition of its moral and eternal consequences.

Smalley arrives at much the same conclusion by a different route. Doubting whether the notion of dividing the natures would have been clearly perceived as the character of the threat, he none the less sees that whatever error was in view it either meant Christ was less than God or less than man. 

8. ‘watch yourselves’. The action of false teachers imposes a duty on true believers to self-examination (Westcott). The reflexive pronoun implies personal effort (Brooke).

Such self-examination is required for two reasons;

‘that you do not lose what we have worked for’. The three verbs in this sentence (included the quoted two) are variously 1p or 2p in the mss. The commentators are divided and resolution seems virtually impossible. Most favour the 2nd person in the first and last verbs, but are more divided in the second.

The last phrase introduces the second reason; ‘but that you may be fully rewarded’. It is not impossible that John is making an allusion here (see the next verse) to the teaching of the errorists who were offering ‘full salvation’ (Smalley). If this is the case most of the discussion as to the meaning of this phrase is made redundant. John is simply saying, ‘the Gospel which I have taught and you have received brings with it everything. Hold onto this and don’t be lured by ‘progressive’ teaching which suggests there is more’. Wider issues as to whether believers can lose their salvation etc. seem, thereby outside of the scope of John’s thoughts here. Nevertheless, the danger of failing to heed the true Gospel is real enough, as the first part of the verse indicates. But, again, John is working at the practical not the theological level.

9. ‘Anyone who runs ahead’ etc reads like a slogan. It was what the errorists were offering (Smalley and most others). But to run ahead was to fail to ‘continue on the teaching of Christ’. Such people have advanced beyond the boundaries of Christian belief (Marshall). The same author notes that when a supplement or ‘key’ to the Bible is offered it is a sure sign of such ‘advanced’ doctrine.

Most assume that the translation given above is better than the ‘teaching about Jesus Christ’. This is equivalent to authoritative apostolic doctrine (Stott). The force here may include the notion of that which the historical person taught and embodied (Jackman).

‘does not have God’, very baldly emphasises the tragic consequence of ‘advanced teaching’ of the sort John opposes. The true revelation of God was given in Christ. He who rejects the truth he embodied and taught cannot enjoy the fellowship with God which Christ has made possible for men (Brooke).

The converse is equally true; ‘he who remains…‘. A living trust in the Gospel message brings union with God in Christ.

10. The consequence of this is spelt out in practical terms. A visiting missionary who does not hold fast to the apostolic gospel is not to be given an official welcome and opportunity to minister in the church. This seems the best rendering of the verse, understanding ‘house’ as a reference to the place where the church met and ‘do not receive’... as referring to an official welcome. So most commentators. John is not, therefore, dealing with general contact with the heterodox. Nor is he suggesting that separation is to adopted on the basis of trifling differences. Here the very Gospel is at stake! Error is not to be given a base to work from (Marshall)!

The language of this verse suggests no mere possibility but something which will probably occur (Brooke).

11. The above interpretation of verse 10 is apparently clinched by this verse. Where fellowship is offered in this way, the individual or (the main point here) church is uniting with ‘wicked work’. Indifference and tolerance does not meet this situation in an appropriate way (Dodd).

12. A Greek letter typically concluded with final greetings. So here. Several points are worthy, however, of note:

i) the emphatic position of ‘you’ may emphasise John is well acquainted with the situation and personnel (Brooke).

ii) ‘face to face’ is, as Jackman notes, invariably the best way!

iii) John, despite the sternness of the letter has a fundamental confidence in those he is writing to: ‘so that our joy may be complete’.  This would also, doubtless, help him nip the error in the bud (Marshall).

13. iv) this statement adds the Elder’s church6s authority to his own (Marshall). However, it is, above all, an instructive expression of genuine love and concern.