When did you last read 2 John? The shortest document in our New Testament begins in the typical form of a Greco-Roman letter: the sender, the receiver and the greeting. However, the greeting is specifically Christian, and the entire salutation is saturated with two important terms from 1 John: “love” and “truth.”
Both sender and receiver are unnamed. Most commentators assume “the Elect Lady” symbolizes the house church as a whole, and the “children” are members of it. (The Greek word translated “lady” is kuria, the feminine form of kurios, or “lord.”) The Elder may be the head of the entire Johannine community at this time.
The Elder is not able to visit this assembly immediately, so he sends this short missive on ahead with a clear warning. Do not receive anyone into your house church unless they agree with our understanding of the teaching of Christ! Not willing to say more with paper and ink, he must be preparing quite an earful for this house church when he arrives!
Here we see the outlines of a church fight, so we must return to 1 John to figure out the problem. Amid all this talk from our two previous lessons about loving the brothers and sisters, a schism has opened up in the Johannine community, apparently over the humanity of Jesus. Some have interpreted John’s Gospel in a Docetic or proto-Gnostic way: the Son of God was divine and only appeared to be human.
In contrast, 1 John insists that people in their church have actually seen, heard and touched him (1:1-4). The Messiah (in Greek, Christos) is the human Jesus! Therefore, these wayward people have left the original fellowship of believers, proving that they are actually antichrists (2:18-19).
This Elder, fearing the entire Johannine community is splitting apart, writes the letter we call 2 John. Do not welcome those who do not teach that “Jesus has come in the flesh,” he says. Though the Elder sounds strict, the threat of heresy is real. Already only some of the Elect Lady’s children are “walking in the truth.”
Do you agree with the Elder? What are the implications if your church would accept the teaching that Jesus was only an angelic or divine being and not fully human?
The same Elder writes 3 John, but this time addresses his letter to Gaius, a fellow believer. Living in “the truth” is again a key theme. The presence of both 2 and 3 John helps us visualize the Johannine community as a group of house churches scattered over a wide enough area that letters are used to keep in touch, but close enough that the Elder, whom we might call a bishop, can visit.
There are no specific warnings here about the Docetic heresy, but the Elder complains about Diotrophes, who resists his authority and has apparently squelched the Elder’s previous letter. In contrast, the Elder praises Demetrius, who sticks up for the truth, whatever truth that may be.
The main issue in 3 John seems to be hospitality toward the traveling “brothers,” a male-generic term that may also include sisters (see 1 Cor. 9:5). These are probably itinerant preachers/healers in the tradition of the disciples whom Jesus sent out with nothing and who depend on sympathetic villagers to receive them with hospitality. Gaius has been a dependable host to these travelers, though some are strangers to him.
All three Johannine letters were written during a time of church growth as well as of dissension. Because the heresy mentioned in 1 John is a misinterpretation of the Gospel of John’s high christology, the letters must have been written later, probably by a different person or people. Yet they retain a similar writing style.
For example, “truth” is also emphasized in the Gospel. Already in John 17, Jesus prays fervently for unity among the disciples. This may suggest that by the time the Gospel of John was written, cracks were already appearing in the Johannine community.
In this time of tension within Mennonite Church USA, what wisdom can we draw from these letters? Are current disagreements as important as the ancient debate over the identity and nature of Jesus Christ? If not, should our emphasis instead be on hospitality and welcoming those with whom we don’t agree on everything?
Reta Halteman Finger is writing a Bible study blog on the Gospel of John at eewc.com/RetasReflections.