by: Denise Robinson
Small But Mighty: 2 John
In our countdown of the shortest books in the Bible, we’ve made it to #2, the epistle or letter referred to as 2nd John, in the New Testament near the end of the Bible. With only 245 words in the Greek text, 2nd John is more of a “postcard” than a letter, but as we might suspect it had an important message for the church to which it was written and it has a message for us as well. As with the other letters we’ve reviewed in this series, we begin with who wrote the book, when it was written, who it was written to, and the why, the context for the writing. Then we ask ourselves what, if any, application it has for us today.
We begin with the fact that the author of the letter is anonymous. We call the letter “2 John”, but the name John appears nowhere in the letter. The only clue to the author of the letter, besides the content, is in the greeting where the author calls himself “the elder” which, in the Greek, is written in the masculine gender; so, it can refer to a man of advanced years or a man of power and authority. The early church certainly believed the author to be the Gospel writer John for several reasons – likely because he would have met both criteria. First, this letter was written after the formation of house churches which would place it near the end of the first century – likely around AD 90. By that time, the only disciple still living would have been John. We know a few facts about John: he was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee from Capernaum of Galilee; he was one of the fishermen called by Jesus; he was likely the youngest of the disciples; he was the last surviving apostle, reportedly well into his 80’s when he died at Ephesus; and he was the only disciple to die of natural causes. For obvious reasons, he would have been considered an elder authority of the church; notice in v. 1 that the author does not identify himself as “an” elder in the church, but as “the” elder, and John, more than anyone, would qualify. Second, there are definite similarities in writing style, vocabulary, and subject matter between this letter, John’s Gospel and 1 and 3 John. Finally, the letter was clearly written by one whose voice carried authority over churches. It’s not unanimous, but many are convinced that this letter was written by John, the beloved disciple of Christ, after the Gospel of John was written and likely while he is living out his remaining years in the city of Ephesus.
We come to our next question, which concerns the recipient of the letter. Again, we are not given a name or a location. What is said is found in v. 1-2: “The elder to the elect lady and her children whom I love.” The word for “lady” that is used here is “kyria,” which is the feminine of “kyrios” or Lord. Together with v. 10, the term implies that John is writing to a woman of position and authority, a prominent Christian woman with authority over the church meeting in her home. Remember, for the first few hundred years of the church, early Christians did not gather in large buildings for worship. They met most often in private homes and the term “children” was often used to describe the person who met for worship. Although addressed to the “elect lady,” this letter is intended to be read to a church or number of churches and is not, therefore, a private letter as was Philemon, the letter we looked at last week.
Now we begin to get to the heart of the matter. Why was this letter written? It appears to have a connection with 1 John in that the subject matter and tone are similar. 1 John, also a letter, lacks any salutation or greeting. The common thought is that this was likely a cover letter for 1st John. In the opening greeting, John greets this lady and extends to her the grace, mercy, and peace of the Lord Jesus Christ. He then encourages her with good news about at least some of her children, but warns her of a danger creeping into the church. As we read the letter, it becomes obvious that in referring to her children, John is not referring to biological children, but to the members of her congregation.
So, what is the problem? There are two key words used in the book: love and truth, and they are linked. John’s first reminder is to walk in love. It’s a common theme in John’s Gospel and his letters: the command of Jesus to love one another. But this time the reminder to love one another comes with a warning. As John writes in vv. 10-11: “Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching (the truthful teaching about Christ); for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person.” When we first read these words, they seem a bit harsh and perhaps even a bit contradictory. Love one another, but … don’t receive or welcome certain people in your home (which in this case also means your church). Aren’t we supposed to welcome everyone in the church? How can be love and also exclude? Jesus’ command to love others means we respect those with whom we disagree, we help them in times of need, and we welcome them to a point. What John is saying here is loving and welcoming doesn’t mean offering everyone – or anyone – a platform or pulpit. There is certainly room in the church for questions, doubts, and disagreements – if there weren’t I suspect none of us would be here, myself included. But John is talking about false teachers, deceivers he calls them, who have caused some of the children, the believers in the church, to stop walking in the truth. There is an emergency in the church, and John’s message is to close the door if necessary to avoid followers of Christ from being led away from Christ.
What was the deceitful, even evil, message being spread? For those first Christian living in the later years of the 1st Century, their young churches faced a lot of pressure both from the outside and the inside. From the outside, they faced increasing persecution from the Roman empire, alienation from family and friends, and discrimination in society and business. There was a real cost to being a follower of Christ. From the inside, false teachers were turning people away from the message of Jesus by adding conditions to his teachings, offering their own ideas as to his divinity and humanity, and questioning his promise to come again. Paul, Peter, and John all wrote letters to churches within their sphere of influence to warn of the dangers of these false teachings and to give advice on what actions should be taken. The key word of 2nd John is “truth.” John’s advice is basic: followers of Jesus have three responsibilities to the truth. Know the truth, walk in the truth, and guard the truth.
First, followers of Jesus must know the truth. Do we know truth? There’s a building on the campus of The Ohio State University called the Wexner Art Center, or “Wex” for short. It’s hard to describe, but it looks like a building that has yet to be completed. It’s described as being deconstructionist modern (whatever that means). It has no apparent pattern. Staircases go nowhere. Pillars support nothing. The architect, Peter Eisenman, designed the building to reflect on and be critical of life, to illustrate how life goes nowhere and is mindless and senseless. But even in the chaos of the structure itself, it’s architecturally traditional in at least one sense: the foundation is secure. It has to be. Architects can design buildings that vary widely in their outward appearance, but when it comes to the foundation principles come into play that cannot be challenged and must be accepted, because if you start tampering with a foundation there are serious side effects. The same is true, John is saying, of our faith. We can disagree about certain things, but not when it comes to our foundation, that is, Christ.
What were the falsehoods being spread? The first is in v. 7: there are those who are saying Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh. The church, from the very first, taught that Jesus was divine, equal with God, but also human, born of Mary. Before long, false teachers began to question whether Jesus could be both really God and really human. On one hand, they taught that Jesus was not in any real sense divine; that he was a kind of lesser being between God and the world. On the other hand, they taught that Jesus was not human, but was a kind of spirit or phantom without real flesh and blood. That’s why John, in both his Gospel and his letters, insists that Jesus existed in the beginning with God and was God and insists that Jesus also was born in the flesh to suffer and experience death as one of us. This view of Jesus is foundational to the Christian faith because to deny Jesus in his divinity and humanity is to deny the person of Christ in his life, deny the sufficiency of Christ in his death on the cross, and deny the availability of Christ for us in our present and future.
The second falsehood being spread is set out in v. 9: these are people who are not remaining faithful to the teaching of Christ are adding to it in some way. They were teaching that Jesus was all fine and good, but he wasn’t enough; that we need something else or that there is more to come. Some taught that the laws of Moses couldn’t be ignored and so Jewish rules and traditions had to still be followed. But for others, it was that Jesus hadn’t said enough or that his words were for his time but required a new, even then more modern, interpretation. Today we see this kind of teaching in churches wanting to improve upon Scripture or re-interpret it in light of today’s culture. Scripture certainly has a context and has to be carefully read, but John’s words are a reminder that we don’t get to change the words to suit our own personal wants or preferences.
John’s warning comes with teeth: be on guard and do not receive false teachers into the church for to welcome them in is to participate in their evil deeds. Why is John so adamant that we need to guard the faith? Because the very witness and future of the church is at stake. If we stray from the truth, from the foundation of our faith, we run the risk, as John says in v. 8, of losing what we’ve worked for. If we lose Christ, we’ve lost it all – and no longer walk in the truth and, since the two are related, we’ve also lost the love of Christ. The church can’t move forward if we don’t know where we come from, who we are, whose we are, and where we are going.
There is truth to the Christian faith. Some of you will remember the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men” starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. Cruise is a rookie military lawyer who is assigned to defend a squad of marines accused of murder who claim they were acting on orders. Jack Nicholson plays an older, seasoned, tough Marine officer. At one point in the movie, Nicholson is on the witness stand being interrogated by the Cruise. Cruise is getting nowhere and finally in frustration yells, “I want the truth!” The Jack Nicholson character shouts back. “You can’t handle the truth!"
2 John reminds of the two important pillars to the Christian faith: love and truth. We walk in love and we walk in truth, staying always true to the teaching of Christ. In our case, the truth may make us uncomfortable at times, but we have to handle it. These pillars are not optional. Christ is only true Son of God and was, and is, divine. Christ was born of Mary as a human child and lived, suffered, and died as a human. Through his death, Christ offers us forgiveness of sin and a path to reconciliation with God. Christ rose from the dead, is with God at this very moment, and will come again. That is the truth of the Christian faith and our first pillar. Then, walking in truth, we uphold the second pillar as we walk in love, by showing our love for Christ in our love of God and of others.
You may have heard me mention the final words of John Wesley, but the historian Jerome tells the story of the last words of John. When he was dying, his disciples asked him if he had any last message to leave them. "Little children," he said to them again and again, "love one another." Finally, they asked him if that was all he had to say. "It is enough," he said, "for it is the Lord’s command." In those words John showed his commitment to truth and to love and it is enough.