THE SECOND LETTER OF JOHN
Unlike the First Letter of John, which probably was not a letter at all, or at least a very different kind of letter, this document has all the features of a genuine first century letter. Its contents would have fit on one page of standard size papyrus. It is from one called “the elder,” as is the Third Letter of John.
Scholars disagree about the identity of this person and his relation to the author of the Gospel of John and the First Letter of John. Some argue that while this author is part of the Johannine stream of Christian faith, he should not be identified with either the writer of the Gospel or with the author of the First Letter. Others argue that one person authored all three letters, and a few argue that the same person is responsible for all three letters and the Gospel. While this is interesting scholarly debate it is not of great help as we consider this writing for our own lives. It seems clear that there is a relationship between the Johannine writings so that they share some similarity in theological perspective on the emerging Christian faith. Most date this letter in the late first century to early second century.
The letter is addressed to “the elect lady and her children,” which is probably a metaphor for a Christian congregation. The Message in fact renders the beginning, “My dear congregation.” The issue which concerns the elder is one familiar from the First Letter of John – a concern that this Jesus community continue to love and that they continue to adhere to the truth about Jesus – that he was a human, historic person, however else he might also be understood.
II John is important theologically because of its view of proper doctrine, which suggests “orthodoxy” had emerged as a standard by which to measure the authenticity of all who claim to be Christian. This may be a response to the influence of an early form of Gnostic and docetic Christology, which held that Christ only seemed (or appeared) to be human. (New Interpreters Study Bible). One wonders if the situation in which a stronger stress on “right belief” – that is, a situation in which a small community is emerging and establishing its identity, and is threatened by conflict and schism, translates very well into the situation of a large and powerful institutional church. Given the relative strength of the Christian church today, can we be a little more generous in our discussion about the meaning of Christian faith? More about that in a moment.
The elder greets the congregation, a congregation that might have been some distance away – a satellite Johannine Jesus community if you will. They are greeted by the elder and told that all who know the truth love them. He assures them of “grace, mercy and peace” in “truth and love.” Truth and love are the chief concerns of the Johannine epistles.
The relation of truth and love in this letter, as in the first one is interesting. We are to walk in the truth, which entails walking in love. Reference is made to commandments, but the central commandment is to love. While the Christian life is concerned with truth in a more abstract sense, its deepest concern seems to be with a truth that is lived out by walking in love.
A threat to the community is on its way. This community will encounter “deceivers” and “antichrist” - - - “those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” We have seen this issue before in I John and discussed its significance there. It is more than abstract doctrine – it has to do with how we value history and life in this world. Christian faith expects that we will live faith in the world as it is, not simply wait for another world. Given the likelihood of deceptive teachers confronting this community, they are encouraged to be on guard. They are to hold on to the teaching of Christ – probably better translated “the teaching about Christ” referring to the teaching about Jesus being a true human being. Christian teaching may be elastic, but it cannot be stretched beyond certain limits.
So concerned is the elder with this deceptive teaching that he tells his readers that they are not to receive or welcome persons who bring such teaching to town. We see where a strict interpretation of that could lead when with Latin logic Tertullian maintained that heretics have no right to appeal to the Scriptures, and later Christians concluded that the safest way to be certain that heretical ideas were not disseminated was to execute the heretics. True, when positive harm is being done to others, even charity has limits; yet fierce exclusiveness in the name of truth usually backfires on its practitioners. C.H. Dodd once asked, “Does truth prevail the more if we are not on speaking terms with those whose view of truth differs from ours – however disastrous their error may be?” (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament).
The letter ends with greetings from another congregation.
It has never been easy to be the church. There are always complex issues. How generous can we be in doctrinal discussion? Raymond Brown’s attitude seems wonderfully commendable, especially for a church that is millions strong.
THE THIRD LETTER OF JOHN
The author of this letter is probably the same person as the author of Second John. Both are referred to as the elder. It was probably written in about the same time period. Unlike Second John, this letter is directed to an individual, Gaius. However, the letter addresses a concern in the Jesus community in which Gaius is involved, or one nearby
Gaius is wished well, body and soul, and commended for his faithfulness – walking in the truth. One indication that he walks in the truth is the hospitality he shows to traveling Christian teachers. As in the other Johannine letters, truth and love are closely linked. Gaius has been showing hospitality, and is encouraged to continue doing so – to send the teachers on “in a manner worthy of God.” In showing these teachers love and hospitality, Gaius shares in their work.
In contrast to Gaius is Diotrephes. He has some authority within a Jesus community, either Gaius’ or one nearby. The latter seems to make more sense given the letter. Diotrephes has status and authority, but in the elder’s opinion is misusing it badly. He prevents correspondence from the elder from reaching the community, and, in fact, spreads false rumors about the elder. He refuses to extend Christian hospitality to the teachers associated with the elder, and prevents others in his Jesus community from doing the same – even to the point of expelling them from the church. The problem with Diotrephes is not doctrinal, but behavioral. He misuses his position and power.
In what is one of the more obvious lessons drawn in the Bible, Gaius is encouraged not to imitate evil (probably spelled “Diotrephes”). Instead he should imitate what is good. “Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” Again, truth and conduct, spirituality and life are interconnected. One Demetrius is held up as a positive example.
A wish for peace and warm, friendly greetings end the letter.
Oh that glorious New Testament Church – even within the pages of the New Testament we encounter misuse, even abuse of “spiritual” power and authority. Raymond Brown argues that Diotrephes is best seen not as one of the false teachers referred to in the first two letters of John, but as someone who defends the true faith. In the face of these antichrists Diotrephes would have decided that authoritative human teachers were needed, namely, those who had the background to know what was erroneous and the administrative authority to keep false teachers away. He took on that role for his local church, keeping all missionaries out, including those of the [elder]. (An Introduction to the New Testament, 404). For Johannine Christianity, getting it right doctrinally was not enough. One needed to get it right in love. There is a lesson here for all of us.