Dr. Thomas L. Constable
Adolph Deissmann distinguished letters from epistles. He placed 1 John in the category of an epistle (a formal literary work), and 2 and 3 John in the category of letters (non-literary correspondence).
The writer identified himself as "the elder" (v. 1). The writings of the early church fathers attribute authorship of this epistle to the Apostle John. The early Christians commonly recognized him as "the elder" in view. We might have expected John to describe himself as "the apostle," as Paul usually did, since this was an office of higher authority than elder. However, John's apostleship was not open to challenge as Paul's was. There is no evidence that the early Christians questioned John's apostleship, as they did Paul's. "Elder" was a more affectionate title, and it undoubtedly represented John's role among the churches, at least unofficially if not officially. He was probably an older man at this time too.
The identity of the recipient or recipients of this epistle is in question. Some scholars have concluded that John wrote to a specific "lady and her children" (v. 1). Of these interpreters, some believe her name was "Eklekta" (from the Greek word eklekte meaning "chosen", v. 1). This seems unlikely, however, because John also called this lady's sister eklekte in verse 13. Others who believe he wrote to a specific lady have suggested that her name was "Kyria" (the Greek form of the name "Martha," translated "mistress" or "lady," v. 1). However, this too seems unlikely, in view of the plural address John used in verses 6, 8, 10, and 12. A more probable explanation is that John personified a particular local church as a "lady," and the Christians in it as "her children" (cf. 1 Pet. 5:13). This view harmonizes with the personification of the church as Christ's bride (Eph. 5:22-23; 2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7).
There are several other examples of greetings from one church to another in the New Testament (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:19-20; Phil. 4:21). Since John's arena of ministry was Asia Minor, the probability of this being a church in that Roman province is good. Findlay argued for the church in Pergamum being the "chosen lady" (v. 1), and the church in Ephesus being her "chosen sister" (v. 13).
The conditions existing in the church that John addressed are very similar to those he referred to in his first epistle. Therefore, the time of composition seems to have been very close to that of 1 John: A.D. 90-95. Ephesus seems to be the most probable site from which John wrote both letters (1 and 2 John).
I. Introduction vv. 1-3
II. The importance of the truth vv. 4-11
A. Practicing the truth vv. 4-6
B. Protecting the truth vv. 7-11
III. Conclusion vv. 12-13
The truth generates an exclusive Christian community (vv. 1-3).
The truth demands a distinctive Christian ethic (vv. 4-6).
The truth involves propositional Christian doctrine (v. 7).
The truth requires unceasing Christian vigilance (vv. 8-11).
A summary statement of the message of this epistle could be as follows: "Abiding in the truth is essential to maintaining brotherly love." Let me try to clarify what John was saying in this epistle.
First, he wrote that revealed truth is foundational for the Christian. John emphasized the importance of revealed truth in five ways: (1) He based his own love on it (v. 1a). (2) He based the love of all Christians on it (v. 1b). (3) He based his writing of this epistle on it (v. 2). (4) He based the three great Christian graces on it (v. 3). And (5) he commended his readers for basing their lives on it (v. 4).
By "the truth," John meant the teachings of Christ (v. 9). This includes all that Jesus approved as God's revelation (the Old Testament), and all that He taught personally and through His apostles following His ascension (the New Testament; cf. Acts 1:1).
We must keep the importance of God's truth in balance. On the one hand, it is the only foundation that will adequately support a proper relationship with God and other people. It is the source of our knowledge of God's commandments. As such, it is the basis of our relationship with God and other people (v. 8). On the other hand, it is only the foundation for a proper relationship with God and other people. We must "abide" in that truth. Abiding involves not just intellectual assent to orthodoxy, but a vital relationship in which God controls us. Walking in "the light" of God's truth (1 John 1:7) makes this relationship possible.
Second, John wrote that "love" for others is the fruit of abiding in the truth. He regarded love for other people as very important for the Christian. His perspective harmonizes with the teachings of the Mosaic Law and Jesus Christ (v. 5). He also regarded love for others as essentially obedience to the will of God (v. 6). When we obey God, we do what is best for others. This is what it means to love others. When we abide in the truth, we will love.
Third, John warned against separating love from the truth. In John's day, some people were rejecting the truth but trying to hold on to love. They claimed to have progressed from elementary truth to advanced truth, but really they had abandoned the truth (vv. 7-9). John counseled his readers to give the false teachers no encouragement (vv. 10-11). He did not counsel them to withhold love from them.
In our day, some people are making the same appeal. We need to beware of appeals to follow teaching that deviates from Scripture. Watch out for appeals that claim a more advanced knowledge of spiritual truth than what the Bible reveals (e.g., the cults). We can learn from this letter how to relate to false teachers. We should not encourage them in their work, but we should reach out to them in love. I once heard a speaker at a conference say, "It doesn't matter too much what we believe as long as we love each other." John would not agree. John wrote that it matters very much what we believe, because what we believe will determine if we really "love each other." Abiding in the truth is essential to maintaining brotherly love. This is the essential message of this brief letter.
If we want to love other Christians consistently, we will find this easiest to do when we abide in the truth and abide in Christ. While unbelievers and non-abiding believers can and do love other people, it is hardest for them to love abiders in Christ. They have less in common with us, and they often feel convicted by us.
John introduced himself, identified the recipients of this letter, greeted them, and mentioned the major subjects of his concern to prepare his readers for what follows.
vv. 1-2 As explained in the introduction section of these notes, the "elder" was evidently the Apostle John, the "chosen lady" a local church, and her "children" the believers in that church.
"It may well be that the address is deliberately unidentifiable. The letter was written at a time when persecution was a real possibility. If the letter were to fall into the wrong hands, there might well be trouble. And it may well be that the letter is addressed in such a way that to the insider its destination is quite clear, while to the outsider it would look like a personal letter from one friend to another. The address may in fact be a skilful attempt to baffle any hostile person into whose hands the letter might come; and, if that is so, our difficulty in identifying the person or Church to whom the letter is addressed is nothing other than a tribute to the skill of John."
The church was "chosen" in that it consisted of elect individuals: Christians.
"We are hardly to think here of an elder in the sense which the word presbyteros usually bears in Christian contexts in the New Testament, that is, one who discharges the ministry of eldership in a local church. . . . The word appears in another specialized sense in second-century Christian literature, of church leaders in the generation after the apostles, particularly those who were disciples of apostles or of 'apostolic men,' and were therefore guarantors of the 'tradition' which they received from the apostles and delivered in turn to their own followers."
John loved this church, and so did other Christians who knew about it. The basis of this "love" was "the truth" the Christians there believed in common with one another. This "truth" refers to God's revelation in Scripture. The importance of this truth is clear from the fact that John referred to it three times in these two verses.
v. 3 John wanted his readers to appreciate the importance of guarding (keeping, preserving) God's "truth" and practicing "love" for one another. These two things are the basis for "grace, mercy, and peace" (cf. Eph. 2:4-5). "Grace" is God's unmerited favor, "mercy" is compassion, and "peace" is harmony and inner tranquility.
These qualities flourish where "truth and love" prevail.
John's description of "Jesus Christ" as "the Son of (God) the Father" is reminiscent of his emphasis on Jesus' full deity, both in his first epistle and in his Gospel.
"In the central section of 2 John [vv. 4-11] . . . we have a brief summary of the great contrasts between truth and error, love and hatred, the Church and the world, which are dealt with at greater length in 1 John."
John wrote this epistle to urge his readers: to continue to be obedient to God by responding positively to the truth of His revelation. He also wanted them to resist the inroads of false teachers who sought to distort this truth. He dealt with the first purpose in verses 4-6.
v. 4 John began by commending the church. He was "glad" to have met some of its members who were "walking in" obedience to God's "truth" (i.e., "walking in the light," 1 John 1:7).
v. 5 John's message for this church was "not" some "new" revelation ("commandment"). It was a reminder to keep on walking in obedience to God's truth by continuing to "love one another" (cf. 1 John 2:3-9; 3:14-18, 23; 4:7, 11, 20-21). This was an important thing to remember, since false teachers were encouraging the readers to depart from the truth they were hearing (v. 6).
"It is not that love precedes truth or belief but that love offers the clearest test of the truthfulness of the confession and the sincerity of the obedience given to God's commands. Belief may be feigned and confession only of the lips, but love is harder to counterfeit."
v. 6 If anyone had a question about what loving one another meant, John explained that it is essentially obeying God (cf. 1 John 5:2-3a). That is, we "love" each other best when we obey God's will that His Word reveals ("walk according to His commandments").
The antecedent of the last word in this verse—"it"—is not clear in the English text or the Greek text. "It" could refer either to "love" or "commandment." The latter alternative seems somewhat more likely, in view of John's argument. In this case, John's point was that his readers should obey God's commands, as they had "heard" these "from the beginning" of the apostles' preaching (cf. 1 John 1:1). They should not obey the false "gospel" that the false teachers were proclaiming.
All the specific "commandments" of God are really one "commandment" or obligation for the Christian (cf. 1 John 3:22-23).
Next John moved on to his second purpose. He wrote to encourage his readers to resist the false teachers, who were distorting the truth and deceiving some of the believers.
"The presbyter's attention now moves from the existence of true belief inside the Johannine community, which gives him great joy (v 4), to the dangers presented to it through the espousal of false belief by deceivers who have 'defected into the world.' Earlier, the writer has spoken of Christian truth and love; in the remainder of 2 John the emphasis inevitably falls on the need for truth in contrast to error. But the two sections interlock. Departure from the truth results in a failure of love. Thus the dark description of heretical secession and its consequences (vv 7-11) forms the basis of John's warm appeal for love and unity (vv 4-6)."
v. 7 This verse gives the reason for the exhortation in verse 6, and the reason for this letter, and it links what follows with verses 4-6.
". . . the wandering prophets and preachers did present a problem. Their position was one which was singularly liable to abuse. They had an enormous prestige; and it was possible for the most undesirable characters to enter into a way of life in which they moved from place to place, living in very considerable comfort at the expense of the local congregations. A clever rogue could make a very comfortable living as an itinerant prophet. Even the pagan satirists saw this. Lucian, the Greek writer, in his work called the Peregrinus, draws the picture of a man who had found the easiest possible way of making a living without working. He was an itinerant charlatan who lived on the fat of the land by travelling round the various communities of the Christians, and settling down wherever he liked, and living luxuriously at their expense."
Erroneous teaching had already begun to proliferate in the early church (e.g., Gnosticism, Docetism, Cerinthianism, etc.; cf. 1 John 2:18, 22-23, 27; 4:1-3). The common error was Christological. The false teachers ("deceivers") regarded "Jesus" as something other than God's Anointed One ("Christ") who had come "in the flesh" (cf. 1 John 5:1). "Coming" in the flesh means having come—and continuing [on]—in the flesh. This is the true view of the Incarnation. Jesus was, and continues to be, fully God AND fully man.
"The incarnation was more than a mere incident, and more than a temporary and partial connection between the Logos and human nature. It was the permanent guarantee of the possibility of fellowship, and the chief means by which it is brought about."
This type of false teacher is a "deceiver" as well as opposed to Christ (an "antichrist"). John did not mean that such a person was the end-time "Antichrist." The use of the definite article in Greek, translated "the," used with an unnamed individual as here, sometimes translates better with the English indefinite article "a" or "an." That understanding of this statement is preferable here, in view of other Scriptures that indicate the end-time Antichrist has yet to appear (e.g., Dan. 11; 2 Thess. 2; 1 John 2:18).
v. 8 Compromise with the false teachers could lead to some loss of "reward" (cf. the warning passages in Hebrews). Moreover, loss for John's readers would involve loss for him as well ("that you do not lose what we have accomplished"), since he had a share in their lives.
"The things we have worked for probably refers to the pastoral and missionary efforts undertaken by the recipients of the letter in their own community and surrounding communities. This work would be 'lost' if the opponents with their false teaching are allowed to proselytize unopposed."
Some ancient manuscripts (and the NIV) read: "do not lose what you have worked for." This could refer to the good deeds that the readers had done, which will be the basis of rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ. This loss would only be partial, however. They would still receive some reward (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11-15; 1 Pet. 1:3-5).
I think John meant that his readers should beware that they did not lose part of the reward that the Lord could give them (if they continued to be faithful) based on the work that the recipients and the apostles had already done in propagating the truth.
Loss of salvation is not in view at all. Salvation is a gift of God, not a reward for good deeds done.
v. 9 The picture in John's mind seems to have been that of a Christian who, the false teachers said, did not have the whole truth, but needed to be further taught by them. It is common even today for false teachers to claim that those who do not agree with them are still intellectual infants—or at least uninstructed. However, John regarded that "immature" position as proper for the Christian (cf. Matt. 10:16). If his readers advanced beyond it ("any one who goes too far"), they would really step out of the truth into error. John warned his readers of the danger of apostasy, namely, forsaking truth to embrace error (cf. 1 John 2:23-24).
"Theology is to God's revelation in Grace as Science is to His revelation in Nature; and just as Science is always discovering more of the wonders of the First Creation, so Theology is always entering more deeply into the glory of the New Creation and appropriating more of the treasures which are hidden in Christ. . . . St. John does not condemn theological progress; he defines its limits: 'abide in the teaching of the Christ'."
"The word transgresseth is a very interesting word. In the Greek it is proago. Ago means 'to go'; pro means 'before.' Proago means 'to go before or to go ahead.' Therefore, the meaning here is not so much to transgress as to go farther than is right."
John's use of "abide" indicates that he spoke of a vital personal relationship with God that comes with adherence to the truth, not just a dead doctrinal orthodoxy (cf. John 8:31; 14:21-23; 15:1-7).
"The teaching of Christ" could be "the teaching that Christ gave" (subjective genitive), "the standard of Christian teaching," or "the teaching about Christ" (objective genitive). Perhaps John meant both things.
vv. 10-11 In the culture of John's day, philosophers and teachers relied on the people to whom they spoke for lodging and financial assistance (e.g., Acts 18:2-3; 21:7). John instructed his readers to refuse to help the false teachers in these ways ("do not receive him into your house"). Beyond this, they were not even to give verbal encouragement to these apostates (cf. Acts 15:24; 23:2-6; 1 Cor. 10:20; 1 Tim. 5:22; James 1:21; 1 Pet. 3:13). John did not advocate the persecution of heretics here, but he strongly counseled his readers to give them no aid or encouragement in their destructive ministry.
"This command has been by some laid to the fiery and zealous spirit of St. John, and it has been said that a true Christian spirit of love teaches us otherwise. But as rightly understood, we see that this is not so. Nor are we at liberty to set aside direct ethical injunctions of the Lord's Apostles in this manner. Varieties of individual character may play on the surface of their writings: but in these solemn commands which come up from the depths, we must recognize the power of that One Spirit of Truth which moved them all as one. It would have been infinitely better for the Church now, if this command had been observed in all ages by her faithful sons."
I believe John would have approved of his readers' efforts to correct the false teachers in private, and to lead them into a true appreciation of the person and work of Christ (cf. Acts 18:26). In dealing with such persons ourselves, we too must relate to their ministry in one way, and to themselves in another. We must not approve or encourage their work, but we should show concern for their personal relationship with Christ.
"There is a superficial sentimentalism today which recoils from John's words as uncharitable. But do we castigate the doctor for being intolerant with disease? Ask any of his patients! Would any of us knowingly welcome deadly virus into our bodies? We all have to mix up with people of different views and beliefs, and as Christian believers we are truly to love their souls; but to fellowship co-operatively with them in Christ-dishonouring propaganda of any kind is a betrayal of our love to the Lord who bought us."
"Admittedly great care should be exercised before applying such a radical withholding of hospitality from anyone. For the elder it was applied only to antichristians who were committed to destroying the faith of the community. The issue involved more than disagreements in interpretation or personal misunderstandings among members of the body of Christ. It was radical and clearly defined unbelief, and it involved active and aggressive promotion of perversions of truth and practice that struck at the heart of Christianity.
"The responsibility of parents may furnish an analogy. Parents must discriminate as to whom even among their relatives they entertain in their home. Some relatives might be of such questionable character as to menace the moral, spiritual, and physical welfare of the children. Such relatives must be excluded. Parents must balance their concern for their relatives with their responsibility for their children. Notice that John does not suggest that the elect lady and her children deal with the false teachers in hatred or retaliate against them. Instead, he counsels that the false teachers be kept at a distance lest their heresy destroy the young church."
John expressed his desire to visit his readers personally to explain the reason for the brevity of this epistle.
v. 12 John had more to say on this subject ("many things to write"), that God did not lead him to record in this letter ("I do not want to do so with paper and ink"). He could have written this epistle on one standard size sheet of papyrus. We do not know if John was able to follow through with his desire to visit his readers soon.
His readers' "joy" would be "full" when they understood the issue presented here more fully, as well as when John visited them (cf. 1 John 1:4).
v. 13 John evidently meant that the Christians ("children") in the sister church ("or your chosen sister"), of which he was a member, sent their greetings (along with his own) to his readers.
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