2 & 3 John

A verse-by-verse exegetical commentary on the New Testament Greek text

 
Introduction

These little letters reflect the language and ideas of the first epistle of John. They come from the hand of "the elder", one addressed to "the lady chosen by God", and the other to Guaius. In his second epistle, like the first, John writes to encourage his readers to adhere "to traditional truths of the Christian community in the face of the threat posed by the secessionists' doctrine and ethics", Kruse. In the third epistle John writes to thank Guaius for welcoming his delegates and to denounce the actions of the church leader Diotrephes for baring John's delegates and expelling those who dared question him.

 
The structure of 2 & 3 John

2 John:

Salutation, commendation, exhortation and warning, 1:1-13.

 

3 John

Salutation, commendation and exhortation, 1:1-15

 
Authorship

The language used in these two short letters is very similar to the first epistle of John and so it is not unreasonable to argue that whoever wrote the first epistle is the author of the second and third epistles. He may not actually be the apostle John, but a member of a Johannine School, possibly John of Ephesus, possibly even the very editor of John's gospel, the person who assembled John's teachings into a single book. Whereas the first epistle of John was widely accepted as canonical, both the second and third letters of John were not universally accepted. Some churches accepted the second epistle, others the third. Many modern scholars have argued that second John is nothing more than a rehash of first John. Linguistic similarities count against this argument and so common authorship of these three epistles is likely, namely "the Elder" John, and given that the writer claims to be an eye witness "in line with the majority view among Christian students during the past two thousand years (though out of step with today's majority), I think it highly probable that John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel and the three letters that traditionally bear his name", Carson.

 
The Recipients

On the surface, both letters look like private letters to an individual. Certainly the third epistle is addressed to an individual, Gaius, but it is likely that the second letter is addressed to a church in the Elder's Asian diocese. The designated words eklekth/ kuria/, can be both proper names, Electa or Kyria, giving us something like "the lady Electa" or "the elect Kyria." Then we have v13 with a reference to her sister who is also Electa. Commentators today are inclined to the view that these references are personalized descriptors for two Christian congregations, "the elect lady" and her sister (church) "the elect", v13. Female personification of a community is certainly not uncommon, eg., The Daughters of Zion as a designation for Israel. So, second John is likely to be a pastoral letter to a Christian congregation, probably in Asia somewhere, along with her associate church, possibly a branch church nearby.

 
Situation - The problem addressed in 1 and 2 John

Most commentators agree that 1 John is a general epistle addressed to a loose association of congregations under John's pastoral oversight who are facing a test of faith. It is likely that these congregations are being seduced by a sectarian group that claims to possess a higher knowledge that strikes at the heart of the divine nature of Christ and his redemptive work. Clearly doctrinal / ethical problems had developed in the churches addressed by this letter resulting in some members breaking fellowship, but continuing to influence those who remain. The particular issue prompting this secession is unclear, but it seems to be related to law-obedience in the Christian life, 1Jn.2:4, how that is related to the person and work of Christ, 1Jn.4:1-3, and realized in faith and love, 1Jn.3:23. Defining this higher knowledge is fraught given that John is focused on shoring up the faith of his readers, assuring them of their standing in Christ, rather than exposing the heresy they face.

Wahlde argues that the heresy is perfectionism. The opponents have focused on the gift of the Spirit, of the present-day eschatological manifestation of the Spirit upon all who believe, a gift paralleled with Jesus' reception of the Spirit - ie., like him they are Sons of God. This gifting supersedes the need to address the received tradition since knowledge is inherent in the gifting; it supersedes the need to wrestle with the problem of sin and the need for applied ethics / love, since the gifting washes them clean of sin; it supersedes the need for church authority, or organization / ritual since the gifting makes church polity unnecessary.

Yet, a more likely scenario was proposed by Terry Griffith in his article A Non-Polemical Reading of 1 John , Tyndale Bulletin 49, 1998. He argued that the issue is simply a drift of some Jewish Christians back to Judaism, which situation the author seeks to address pastorally. This view seems to be on the right track, although not necessarily limited to Jewish Christians. What we have here is the old problem faced square on by the apostle Paul, the heresy of nomism, where full-standing in Christ, and thus the appropriation of God's promised blessings, is attained by a faithful attention to the law. For John, as with Paul, a person who believes in Christ already possesses the fullness of God's promised blessings. Nothing can be added to what a believer already possesses in Christ through faith. And as for the law, it is wholly encapsulated in the fruit of love, of brotherly love. What then is God's command? Is it to obey the law? No! "This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us", 1Jn.3:23.

Of course, nomism by it's very nature tends to promote perfectionism; "they devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers", Mk.12:40. Anyway, the issue is that the secessionists are drawing members from John's congregations to their new way of thinking, and John, an aged pastor, is trying to warn those under his charge of the heresy, assuring the members of his churches that they are indeed already fully Christian, 1Jn.5:13.

 
The purpose 2 John

Arguments abound as to the relationship between the first and second epistles of John. Some argue that the first epistle is a development of the second, but it seems more likely that the second is a summary reminder of the first. The first epistle serves as a general pastoral letter to John's churches warning them of a secessionist movement presently infiltrating the churches under his care. So, in his first epistle John addresses the problem. In his second epistle he doesn't go into the details of the problem, assuming that the recipients are aware of the first epistle. So, the second epistle is more like a personal followup on the first epistle, and unlike the first epistle, it is addressed to a particular church. In fact, the tone of 2 John seems to indicate that the problem hasn't as yet affected the church, although the danger is ever present, thus the stern warning in v10-11. The relationship between the two epistles is a bit like a politician who gives a major national address on an issue and then moves around local communities giving shorter followup speeches.

 
The purpose of 3 John

A church leader named Diotrephes has taken control of one of John's churches and has refused to receive delegates sent by John to the church, and has also driven out any members who have challenged him over this action. John has written to Diotrephes, but there is no guarantee that his letter will be acted on, so he writes to Guaius, a trusted friend and member of the church, or of a neighboring church. John thanks Guaius for welcoming the delegates and seeks to expose Ddiotrephes' bullying and slander directed at John. John commends Demetrius to Gaius, possibly the bearer of the letter.

 
Date

As already indicated, John the apostle may not have been the author of John's gospel, but it is very likely that he was the source of the material that was woven together to form the gospel. The final editorial product is usually dated to around AD85-90 and so most commentators place the Elder's letters in the early 90's, most likely at the hand of the author / editor of the gospel itself, or someone influenced by the gospel, so Smalley, Kruse, Bruce, Schnackenburg (turn of the century). Yet, there is much to commend the view that the three epistles come from the hand of John himself and therefore likely to have been written well before the appearance of his gospel, possibly in the 60's + cf. Marshall (Dodd contends that the author of John's letters is not the author of the gospel).

 
Bibliography: Commentaries - John's letters

Akin, NAC, 2001. Alexander, Torch. Barker, Lutterworth Press. Brooke, ICC, 1912. Brown, Anchor. Bruce, Fleming Revell, New Jersey, 1970. Clark, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. Cruse, Pillar. Culy, (Gk. text), HGT. Dodd, MNTC. Grayston, NCB. Houlden, Blacks. Jackman, BST. Lieu, NTL, 2008. Loader, Epworth, 1992. Love, Layman's, 1961. Marshall, NICNT. Schnackenburg, Crossroad Publishing Co. Smalley, Word. Smith, John Knox, 1991. Stott, Tyndale, 2nd. ed. 1988. Strecker, Hermeneia, 1996. Strelan, ChiRho. Wahlde, ECC, 2010. Westcott, Macmillan, 1883. Williams, CBC. Yarbrough, BECNT, 2008.

 

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