Read the Passage: 2 John
Author and Date: The book of 2 John is the second shortest book in the Bible, comprising only 13 verses and containing just 245 words. Only the book of 3 John is shorter. 2 John is technically anonymous, as the author merely refers to himself as “the Elder” (2 John 1). Yet, based upon the author’s writing style, the similarity of this book to John’s other writings, and the testimony of the early church, we can discern that this letter was written by the apostle John. This epistle was likely written around the year AD 90, at the same time as the writing of the books of 1 John and 3 John, while John was pastor of the strategic church of Ephesus. Note that John refers to himself as “the Elder,” for he was both a pastor in the early church, as well as the last living apostle (cf. John 21:20–24). We often think of Peter and Paul as being more prominent leaders in the early church. Yet, John wrote twenty percent of the New Testament, including five books (i.e., Gospel of John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation) that contain over twenty-eight thousand words. Only Paul wrote more books in the New Testament than John. One of the keys to John’s influence in the early church was his longevity.
Theme and Purpose: The main theme of this epistle is safeguarding the truth, with a secondary theme being love. John’s specific purpose in writing was to protect the church and to instruct believers about their interaction with false teachers. Evidently, some itinerant false teachers were exploiting Christian hospitality as they traveled around the Roman empire spreading their erroneous doctrine. These false teachers were likely the same early Gnostic teachers whom John had confronted in the book of 1 John (cf. 1 John 2:18–27; 4:1–3). Amidst other errors, the Gnostics taught that the material world is inherently evil, and that only the spiritual world is good. Among other heresies, this error led them to deny Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection (cf. 2 John 7). While John affirms that believers do have a duty to show hospitality (cf. Rom. 12:13, 20; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9); he also teaches that Christians must be discerning in doing so (cf. Gal. 1:8–9; 2 Thess. 3:6). Indeed, love and truth must be carefully balanced. Christians must not overlook truth under the guise of love, nor fail to love others as they uphold truth. The foundational tenets of truth and love are the basis of Christian unity.
Background: John: The apostle John, who was likely the youngest of Jesus’ disciples, is best known as the disciple whom Jesus loved (cf. John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20). Note that John was the son of Zebedee (cf. Matt. 10:2) and the younger brother of James (cf. Acts 12:2). Together James and John were known as “the sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), likely because of their extroverted personalities. Scripture records John’s concern for truth, even in his youth, as he was a disciple of John the Baptist prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus (cf. John 1:35–42). Yet, perhaps as a result of his concern for truth, the Gospels record that in his youth John was impetuous (cf. Mark 9:38), prideful (cf. Luke 9:49), self-seeking (cf. Mark 10:37), and even prejudiced (cf. Luke 9:54). In his old age, however, John became a pillar in the Jerusalem church (cf. Gal. 2:9), a preacher to Samaritans (cf. Acts 8:25), and pastor of the Gentile church in Ephesus. Moreover, John became known for his love. Interestingly, as John matured in his faith, his weaknesses became his strengths (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9–10).
Abiding in Truth (1–3)
John writes this letter to “the elect lady and her children” (2 John 1:1). The “elect lady” is likely a metaphor for the church in general, and the “children” whom John mentions is likely a reference to believers (cf. Mark 10:13–16). In the first verse John mentions both love and truth. Observe that he will mention “love” four times in this short letter, and “truth” five times. In the second verse John refers to “the truth which abides in us” (2 John 2). This is a reference to three spiritual blessings: (1) the gospel, which is truth (cf. John 17:17); (2) knowledge of Jesus, who is truth (cf. John 14:6); and (3) the Holy Spirit, who guides believers in truth about Christ and Scripture (cf. John 16:13). Note that John extends a standard Christian greeting in 2 John 3, consisting of grace, mercy, and peace. By way of definition, grace is unmerited favor, mercy is undeserved pardon, and peace is the result of receiving both.
Walking in Truth (4–6)
In 2 John 4–6 John defines love not as human sentiment, but as the embodiment of divine truth as believers obey God’s commands. In this passage, after referring to Christians as children for the second time, John writes that news of believers’ obedience brings him great joy (cf. 2 John 4). John then pleads with the church to love one another—not because it brought him joy, but because it has been commanded “from the beginning” (2 John 5). The beginning to which John refers could be the commencement of the Christian life. Recall that Jesus had earlier taught in John’s presence, “He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me” (John 14:21). Alternatively, the beginning in view may be the very start of God’s revelation of Himself to His people. Indeed, love of God and love of neighbor was commanded very early on in the Old Testament (cf. Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:5).
Guarding the Truth (7–13)
2 John 7–11 constitutes the center of this epistle. In 2 John 7–9 John warns his readers about false teachers, as he describes their character. John writes that these false teachers were deceivers (cf. 2 John 7a) who denied Jesus’ incarnation (cf. 2 John 7b) and he notes that they were transgressors (cf. 2 John 9). In 2 John 10–11 John writes that aiding in the ministry of false teachers by showing them hospitality may result in loss of spiritual rewards. While it is John’s intention here to be alarming, he does not say that those who lodge false teachers are guilty of the sins of the heretics (cf. Deut. 24:16; Ezek. 18:20). Rather, the teaching here is that if someone aids in the ministry of a false teacher by showing them hospitality, such unintentional enabling makes one a partner in the transgression. The sin committed by the one showing hospitality is not false teaching, but a failure to love others and to discern truth.
- Why does John mention truth five times in the first four verses of this letter?
- Are modern believers more likely to focus upon truth or love?
- What is your reaction when you see other believers walking in truth?
- Does genuine Christian fellowship bring you joy as it did for John?
- Have you ever displayed or benefited from Christian hospitality?