Having taken a break to post some special Christmas season notes and articles, I return to complete our Saturday Series studies focused on the Letters of John. The studies thus far have been on First John, being by far the longest and richest of the letters; but now it is time to turn our attention to the second and third letters. By general consensus, these two short works (which truly are letters) were written by the same person, who refers to himself only as ho presbýteros (“the Elder”). It is less certain that the same author wrote 1 John, though this would probably be the best (and simplest) explanation. The three letters share the same fundamental concerns, as well as the same religious and theological outlook; also phrases are repeated almost verbatim. If not all written by the same author, they certainly come from a common setting and Christian Community.
Our discussion on 2 John will shift between literary and historical criticism; the subsequent study on 3 John will be devoted almost entirely to historical criticism. From a literary standpoint, we will be considering how the central Johannine themes, which provided the structure and rhetorical framework for 1 John, also serve to organize the epistolary form of 2 John. The historical analysis will similarly build on our earlier studies of 1 John, as we examine the setting of 2 and 3 John as it relates to the ‘false believers’, those Johannine Christians who had (according to the author) separated from the Community, and who hold a false/erroneous view of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.
The structure of 2 John is relatively simple and may be outlined as follows:
- Opening and Greeting (Epistolary Prescript), vv. 1-3
- Body of the Letter, vv. 4-12:
- Introduction with Thanksgiving (Exordium), v. 4
- Primary Statement (Propositio), vv. 5-6
- Central Argument and Exposition (Probatio), vv. 7-11
- Closing with Exhortation (Exhortatio), v. 12
- Final Greeting (Epistolary Postscript), v. 13
If we consider the body of the letter in terms of its thematic structure, which, in turn, serves the rhetorical purpose of the author, we may note an outer and inner structure:
- Those whom he is addressing are aligned (with him) as true believers, v. 4
- The bond with those whom he is addressing (as believers) is re-affirmed, v. 12
Proper trust in Jesus and love for one’s fellow believers–these are the components of the great two-fold command (entol¢¡, 1 Jn 3:23-24), which is the command, and the only command which believers in Christ are bound to observe. The word entol¢¡ is perhaps better translated as “duty”, especially in the Johannine context, literally referring to something God the Father has placed on us to complete. All ethical and religious behavior stems naturally from this one entol¢¡.
In the prior studies, we saw how 1 John—the second half of the letter, in particular (3:11-5:21)—is structured on these two themes of trust and love, alternating between the two (love, 3:11-24 / 4:7-5:4, and trust, 4:1-6 / 5:5-21). They serve as identifying marks of the true believer, while the false believer, on the other hand, exhibits neither true trust in Jesus nor proper love for others. The same dual-structure is found in 2 John, but with differing points of emphasis:
To see how this thematic framework functions, within the context of the letter, let us briefly examine the theme of love in verses 5-6:
“And now I (would) request of you, (my) Lady—not as writing to you a new (duty put) on (you) to complete, but (only) that which we held from the beginning—that we would love each other. And this is love—that we would walk about according to (all the thing)s (put) on (us) by Him to complete; (and) this is the (thing put) on (us) to complete—(that) even as you heard (it) from the beginning, (so it is) that you should walk about in it.”
Verse 6 is wonderfully elliptical. The main difficulty for interpretation is the final pronoun aut¢¡ (“in it“)—what exactly does “it” refer to? The gender of the pronoun is feminine, which would correspond to two different nouns in vv. 5-6:
(1) entol¢¡, which I have translated with extreme literalness above, as something “put on a person to complete”, i.e. a duty; it is typically translated “command(ment)”, but this can be quite misleading, especially in the Johannine context. There is just one such duty (or command) for believers, as noted above—it is the two-fold duty of trust and love (1 Jn 3:23-24).
(2) agáp¢ (“love”), one component of the two-fold duty/command (entol¢¡)
The two nouns are thus interchangeable, as the syntax of verse 6 itself would indicate. Probably the pronoun is meant to emphasize believers walking in the entol¢¡—that is, walking in our duty, which is also a duty to love one another.
When we turn to verses 7-11, it is historical criticism that becomes our focus–that is, to establish the historical background and setting of the passage, and of the letter as a whole. As noted above, the theme in these verses is trust in Jesus, corresponding to the theme of love in vv. 5-6—trust and love being the two sides of the great command, the duty believers are required to fulfill. The issue is stated rather clearly in verse 7:
“(For it is) that many (who are) leading (people) astray (have) gone out into the world, the (one)s not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed coming in (the) flesh—this is the (one) leading (people) astray and the (one who is) against the Anointed.”
The similarities in language and wording with 1 John 2:18-19, 22-23; 4:1, 3, show that we are dealing with the same situation addressed in the First Letter. By analyzing those sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:5-12) on the theme of trust in Jesus, in our previous studies on 1 John, it was possible to reconstruct, at least partially, the historical situation. This reconstruction, which is confirmed here by vv. 7-11, may be outlined as follows:
- Members of the Johannine congregations have, in some fashion, separated from the main Community; this may entail a physical separation, or simply a fundamental difference in outlook and belief
- They are said to have gone “out into the world”, which, in the Johannine context, has a dual meaning: (1) departure from the Community, and (2) demonstrating that they belong to the “world” (kósmos) of evil and darkness. Possibly this could also imply missionary activity beyond the bounds of the Johannine congregations
- They actively promoted a view of Jesus Christ which contradicted the Johannine Gospel, and which may be seen as a misinterpretation of it; the chief error involved an unwillingness to recognize the importance and significance of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being), especially his death (“blood”)—essentially denying that it was a real human death, and that it was Jesus’ death that effected salvation for those who believe
- This view of Christ was presented as prophetic truth, a “high” Christology at odds with the established Gospel message; it is likely that there were prominent ministers and teachers (prophets) who promulgated this Christology, along with an active group of missionaries who sought to convince others of its truth
The author(s) of 1 and 2 John regard such persons—those holding this view of Christ—as false believers (and “false prophets”) who represent a real and present danger to the Community. They are also considered to be inspired by evil and deceiving (i.e. Satanic/demonic) spirits and are called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Their presence and work in the world is a clear sign that it is the “last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), and that the end is near (along with the return of Christ, 2:28-3:3). 2 John echoes the same kind of warning, again with a strong sense of eschatological urgency, in verse 8:
“You must look to yourselves, (so) that you do not suffer loss (away) from the (thing)s we (have) worked for, but (instead that) you would receive (the) full wage from (God).”
In some manuscripts the pronoun/subject agrees throughout (“you”); however, almost certainly, the alternation “you-we-you” here is correct. The “we” represent the Community of true believers, while the author specifically addresses his readers (“you”), urging them to remain united with the Community and not go astray by following the message of the “antichrist” false believers. The use of the word misthós (“wage”) preserves the eschatological context of this exhortation, an aspect that is brought out more clearly by the translation “reward” (though “wage[s]” is the more appropriate rendering; see Matt 5:12, 46; 6:1ff; John 4:36; 1 Cor 3:8, 14; Rev 11:18; 22:12, etc).
Verse 9 again echoes 1 John 2:18-27 (esp. verses 20-25), making two vital points. First, these “antichrists” go beyond the accepted teaching of the Community. This is indicated by the verb proágœ, “lead (the way) forward”, in a negative sense, since it is paired with the negative concept of “not remaining in the teaching of the Anointed”. As we have seen, ménœ (“remain”) is a key Johannine verb, used repeatedly throughout the Gospel and Letters, and always with special theological (and Christological) significance. A true believer is one who “remains” in Christ, even as Christ (and the Spirit) “remains” in the believer. Secondly, this confirms that those who promote the ‘false’ view of Christ are, in fact, false believers—they violate the central command/duty of trust in Jesus, and so cannot possibly hold in them either the Son (Jesus) or God the Father (i.e. Christ and the Spirit do not “remain” in them). The true believer can be understood in relation to the false, and the positive aspect is emphasized in v. 9b:
“the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son”
It is not entirely clear whether the expression “the teaching of the Anointed” involves a subjective genitive (i.e. it is Christ’s teaching) or an objective genitive (i.e. it is teaching regarding Christ). Both would certainly be valid in context; however, probably the expression is mean to underscore the idea of the believer “remaining in Christ”, which means following a Gospel message that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, and is the natural continuation of it (1 John 1:1-3, etc). It remains among us internally, through the Spirit, but also externally, through the witness and tradition that has been passed down from the first disciples.
Verses 10-11 are important, especially from the standpoint of historical criticism, since the author, for the first time in the Letters, gives practical instruction on how those whom he addresses should respond to the “antichrists” promoting the false view of Jesus. It is also a point of some controversy, in terms of whether, or to what extent, we should attempt to apply the instruction today. This will be the subject of next week’s study, as we combine these verses together with the message of 3 John.