This is the final study in this Series focusing on the Letters of John. In exploring these writings, I have approached the studies variously from the standpoint of the different areas of Biblical Criticism. One particularly important aspect is that of historical criticism, since a proper understanding of the Johannine Letters requires that, as far as possible, the historical setting and background is analyzed carefully. The theological (and Christological) arguments in 1 and 2 John, as we have seen, are closely tied to the views of a specific group of Christians (whom the author regards as false believers), who have, in some sense, separated from the Johannine Community, espousing a view of Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God), which, according to the author, contradicts the truth of the Johannine Gospel and the witness of the Spirit. It is possible to reconstruct this historical scenario, at least to some extent. This was part of the previous study, on 2 John, where the Christological dispute in vv. 7-11 was compared with similar statements made in 1 John. Clearly we are dealing with the same situation in both letters.
2 and 3 John: Historical Criticism
Is it possible to bring the matter into more precise detail? Let us here consider the nature of 2 and 3 John, letters written to different parts of the Johannine Community. When speaking of this “Community”, it is best to understand it in terms of a group of congregations (house-churches) located throughout a relatively wide region. Tradition has identified this as the region of Asia Minor, centered around the site of Ephesus; it is as good a surmise as any, though there is no direct evidence for a specific geographic location in the letters themselves. Scholars recognize at least a general relationship between the book of Revelation and the Johannine Letters (and Gospel); and, if these writings stem from the same “Community”, then it certainly would be located in Asia Minor, as 1:4 and the letters to the Churches in chapters 2-3 demonstrate.
The Setting of 2 John
The Address: Verse 1 (also vv. 4-5, 13)
“The Elder, to the (noble) Lady gathered out [eklektós, i.e. chosen] (by God), and to her offspring [i.e. children], whom I love in (the) truth—and not only I, but also all the (one)s having known [i.e. who have known] (the) truth…”
1. The Author of 2 (and 3) John: “the Elder”
New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous in the opinion that 2 and 3 John were written by the same person. The author does not identify himself by name, but instead refers to himself as “the Elder” (ho presbýteros, v. 1). Opinion is divided as to whether this same person wrote 1 John as well. This would seem to be the best (and simplest) explanation; certainly, all three letters stem from the same Community, Tradition, and religious-theological outlook, and utilize a common style and vocabulary. According to tradition, the author of all three Letters (and the Gospel) was John the Apostle; however, there is no evidence for this in the Letters, nor there any real indication that the author was an apostle (let alone one of the Twelve).
The title presbýteros (“elder”), based on comparable evidence elsewhere in the New Testament (in the period c. 60 A.D. and later), signifies a minister with a leading role and authoritative position in a congregation (or group of congregations)—Acts 20:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5; 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 17-19; Titus 1:5. Certain “elders” (presbýteroi), especially those with close ties to the founding missionaries (apostles) in a region, could be expected to oversee multiple congregations (see the role of Timothy and Titus in the Pauline Pastoral Letters). The information in 2 and 3 John suggests that the author functions as a regional overseer. Certainly, 1 John (if written by the same author) appears to have been intended for believers (i.e. groups of congregations) over a relatively wide area.
2. The Addressee of 2 John: “the chosen Lady”
2 John is addressed “to the gathered out [i.e. chosen] Lady” (eklekt¢¡ kyría). Commentators have debated how this title should be understood, with two main options for interpreting it:
- It refers to an individual, well-known to the author, but otherwise unnamed (presumably), given the honorific title (“[noble] Lady”). She clearly would have been a prominent person in the Community—a minister and/or host of a house-church, such as Prisc(ill)a, Phoebe, and Chloe in Paul’s circle (Rom 6:1-3; 1 Cor 1:11; 16:19).
- It is figurative, referring to a particular group of believers (congregation), to a house-church or group of churches (community).
Arguments can be made in favor of each, but it would seem that the second option is to be preferred. The context suggests that the author is writing to a congregation. He refers to adult believers as her “offspring/children” (tékna, vv. 1, 4, 13). Elsewhere in the New Testament, the adjective eklektós (“gathered out, chosen”) typically occurs in the plural, being used of believers generally (Rom 8:33; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; 1 Pet 1:1; Rev 17:14, etc), though occasionally a specific individual is in view (Rom 16:13). The noun used for a congregation, ekkl¢sía (a group “called out” to assemble together), is feminine, and so it is natural to personify it as a woman; in English, the feminine personification here might be translated loosely as “sister-Church”. I am inclined to view the “Lady” of 2 John as a separate presbyterial community (i.e. group of congregations), distinct from the author’s own, but part of the same wider Johannine Community. The author may still exert some influence over it, but it is not the congregation/community with which he most directly belongs. Note how in verse 4 he speaks of “your children”, while in 3 John 4, in a comparable statement, he says “my children”.
In this conclusion to the body of the letter, the author gives specific advice regarding the Christological error held by the ‘false’ believers (vv. 7ff, and throughout 1 John [see above]). The seriousness of this “antichrist” belief is emphasized again in verse 9:
“Every one leading (the way) forward [proágœn], and not remaining [ménœn] in the teaching of (the) Anointed, does not hold God; (while) the (one) remaining in the teaching, this (one) holds both the Father and the Son.”
To “lead (the way) forward” (verb proágœ) may sound like a good thing, but here the sense of the verb is decidedly negative—it means that these ‘false’ believers have left behind the true teaching of the Johannine Gospel (which ultimately derives from Jesus’ own words about himself, i.e. the Discourses). This is not simply a matter of affirming a particular doctrine—to “remain” (the key Johannine verb ménœ) fundamentally refers to the believer’s union with Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father) through the Spirit. In other words, those who espouse a false teaching about Jesus (as understood by the author and his Community) cannot be true believers, nor can they speak and teach from the Spirit.
What are the practical implications of this division within the Community? In verses 10-11 the author gives instruction for all who are true believers, who would remain rooted in the truth:
“If any (one would himself) come toward you and not bear this teaching, you must not take [i.e. receive] him into (the) house and you must not say to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’, for the (one) saying to him ‘(May there) be joy (to you)’ has a common (share) in his evil works.”
Much was said in 1 and 2 John regarding these false “antichrist” believers, but only here do we find any instruction as to what other Christians should do about them. The implication is that they should be avoided completely, along the lines of “excommunication” or “shunning” in later traditions (see Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:9ff). Most Christians who read this today understand the instruction in general terms, of providing hospitality in one’s own home; however, given the house-church setting of these early congregations, it is possible to understand “(the) house” (oikía) here as referring to house where the congregation met for worship. If the “Lady” of the letter is an individual, who hosted a house church (see above), then this is all the more likely in context. In other words, it is a special warning not to allow such persons to have a place within the congregational meeting.
Even so, the author undoubtedly would have extended this instruction to the private home as well (see below on the setting of 3 John), given his prohibition against even greeting one of these false “antichrist” believers. I have translated the verbal infinitive chaírein rather literally, as “(May there) be joy (to you)”; however, this essentially served as an ordinary greeting, without necessarily connoting anything deeper. Thus, even the simple conventions of polite society are to be avoided; the “antichrists” truly are to be shunned. The dangers and pitfalls in attempting to apply this instruction today are discussed below, at the end of this study.
The Setting of 3 John
In contrast with 2 John, the Third Letter is written to a person that, it would seem, is part of the author’s own presbyterial community (compare the wording of v. 4 with 2 John 4, as noted above). This would entail a number of individual congregations (house-churches), each with its own ministers and/or elders; presumably, the author, as an overseeing Elder, holds a position of influence and authority. There are two main characters in the letter, the first of which is Gaius, a common Latin name; he is the person the author is addressing in verse 1:
“The Elder, to the (be)loved Gaius, whom I love in (the) truth.”
This is essentially the same form of address as in 2 John; on the question of whether “the Lady” is an individual or represents a congregation/community (“sister-church”), see above. The wording the author uses in verses 3-4 suggests that, while Gaius may not belong to the same immediate congregation as the author, he is still part of the same ‘presbyterial community’, i.e. the congregations over which the author considered himself to have presbyterial oversight and influence:
“For I had great delight (in the) coming of brothers and (their) giving witness of you in the truth, even as you walk about in (the) truth. I do not hold (any) delight greater than this, that I should hear (of) my offspring [i.e. children] walking about in the truth.”
It was necessary for the author to hear reports from other messengers in order for him to be aware of how Gaius was conducting himself; and yet, he still considers Gaius to be one of his “children” (compare 2 John 4). This reference to the “coming of brothers and (their) giving witness” is vitally important to any proper understanding of the historical background and setting of the Johannine letters. In a Community built up of small house-churches, over a relatively large territory, it could be quite difficult to maintain communication and, with it, the community organization essential to the life and function of the Church. Nearly all such work required personal visits from messengers and other traveling Christians; even communication through written letters entailed a personal visit, sometimes over fairly long distances. As a result, it was a common and frequent occurrence for a local congregation to receive traveling ministers and other Christians into the “house” (see above on 2 John 10-11).
Central to the message of 3 John is the praise and exhortation the author gives to Gaius, in regard to his showing hospitality and support to believers in their travels:
“(My be)loved, you do (the) trust(worthy thing in) whatever you would (do as) work unto the brothers, and this (even for) strangers—(and) the(se persons) gave witness of your love in the sight of the congregation [ekkl¢sía]—(for) whom you will do well, (hav)ing sent them forward (as) brought up (according to the way) of God; for (it was) over the name (that) they went out, taking not one (thing) from the nations. Therefore, we ought to take these (sorts of people) under (our care), (so) that we might come to be workers together with (them) in the truth.” (vv. 5-8)
I have translated these verses quite literally, and there are some syntactical difficulties in rendering from the Greek; however, the basic idea is clear enough. The author has heard from certain traveling Christians (publicly, in the congregation) how they had received hospitality and support from Gaius. Along with this, Gaius is encouraged to continue such support in the future. It is clear that these persons Gaius took in were traveling ministers or missionaries, as it is said that they “went out over the name“, that is, on behalf of the name of Jesus Christ.
Here we have one of the only examples in the Johannine letters of how believers demonstrate the love that is required by the great command, the one true duty of the Christian (1 John 3:23-24, etc). In practical terms, this is done by showing care, support, and hospitality to other believers, even to those who are strangers, especially when they are traveling (and thus in a vulnerable position). We may rightly say that the Johannine Community, with its network of house-churches, was bound together (or, should be) through this sort of love, reflecting the very unity we share in Christ (John 13:20, 34-35; 17:20-25, etc). These traveling ministers/missionaries depended entirely on support from other believers, since they took “not one thing from the nations” (i.e. from non-believers).
The opposite—a failure to provide hospitality to traveling ministers, etc—is demonstrated by the example of Diotrephes in verse 9:
“I wrote some(thing of this) to the congregation [ekkl¢sía], but the (one who is) fond of being first (among) them, Diotrephes, will not receive us upon (himself).”
Unfortunately, this notice is brief and enigmatic enough (from our vantage point today) as to leave us almost entirely in the dark about the exact situation. It has also produced no end of speculation. What was the position of Diotrephes? Did he belong to the same congregation/community as Gaius? as the author? A plausible reconstruction, based on a careful analysis of the wording in verses 9-10, may be offered here as follows:
Diotrephes is in a position of some prominence in a local congregation, presumably as a minister/elder, and/or as the host of a house-church. The author’s disparaging characterization of him as one who “is fond of being first” (verb philoprœteúœ) should perhaps be understood in light of the New Testament evidence that first-century congregations, in their ideal form, would have been relatively egalitarian. By this is meant that the leading/gifted ministers served more or less as equals, and that the elders of particular congregations were all on an equal footing with each other. Diotrephes may have violated such principles in seeking to exercise greater (individual) control over his congregation. A bit more is said regarding Diotrephes’ conduct in verse 10:
“Through this [i.e. for this reason], if I should come, I will keep under memory (all) his works that he does—babbling evil accounts (about) us, and, not containing himself about these (thing)s, he does not receive the brothers upon himself, and the (one)s being willing (to do so) he cuts off and throws (them) out of the congregation.”
One senses here, not merely a partisan divide, but a measure of personal animosity between the author and Diotrephes. Does this relate to the situation involving the false “antichrist” believers who had ‘separated’ from the Community? Many commentators believe so; however, the author is so vocal about the matter in 2 John (and throughout 1 John), it is hard to imagine that he would not mention it again here if the Christological issue were at the root of the division. In all likelihood, the situation has more to do with general considerations regarding how to handle traveling ministers and missionaries, especially those who may not be particularly well-known by a local congregation.
Establishing the reliability—pedigree and qualifications, etc—of traveling ministers was a serious matter in early Christianity and created many challenges for local congregations. Especially within a charismatic, egalitarian setting, which seem to have characterized both the Pauline and Johannine congregations, the giftedness of the minister was of great importance. However, it could be difficult to know for certain if such talented and influential ministers were genuinely inspired by God’s Spirit. Almost certainly, many of the ‘false’ believers—those who espoused the view of Jesus attacked so severely by the author of these letters—claimed to speak as prophets. Yet the author unequivocally calls them false prophets, who speak from an evil spirit that is opposed to Christ (“antichrist”). He offers his readers tests and instruction on how to recognize such false teaching, but it would not be easy to put them into practice to any extent.
Diotrephes appears to be doing precisely what the author himself advocates in 2 John 10-11—refusing welcome and support to traveling ministers he deems false or unreliable. The difference is that, from the author’s standpoint, his refusal is based on opposition to teaching that contradicts the Gospel message of Christ, while Diotrephes acts out of personal ambition and animosity. Almost certainly Diotrephes would describe the situation quite differently, if we had his own testimony preserved for us. Perhaps he felt threatened by the presence of traveling ministers, over whom he and his congregation did not have any direct control. His actions could even have been reasonable, in terms of the goal of protecting his congregation. Given the strong emphasis on the role of the Spirit as the primary guide and authority in the Johannine Community, with the egalitarianism suggested at many points in the letters (and the Gospel), perhaps the best explanation is that Diotrephes was violating these fundamental principles by attempting to exert more personal control over the congregation, to the point of excluding outsiders and traveling ministers/missionaries.
It would seem that Gaius and Diotrephes were in relatively close proximity, either part of the same congregation, or belonging to neighboring congregations. It is possible that Gaius is one of those who has been “thrown out” by Diotrephes, and that he continues to provide support to ministers aligned with the author. In any case, the context strongly indicates that the author is appealing to Gaius (vv. 6, 8, 11) as a local avenue for support to his ministers/missionaries since they have been excluded from Diotrephes’ congregation. Demetrius, mentioned in verse 12, is presumably one of these missionaries; the author is writing to introduce him to Gaius, in hopes that he will be received in a similar manner.
While it may be possible to reconstruct the historical situation and context of the 2 and 3 John, at least in part, applying the instruction in the letters to the life-setting of individual Christians and congregations today is more problematic. Certainly the exhortation associated with the two-fold command—trust in Jesus and love for our fellow believers—is just as relevant (and applicable) for us today. In particular, to demonstrate love through showing care, and offering hospitality and support, to other believers—including ministers and missionaries who need our assistance—remains central to Christianity, and can be expressed today many different ways. Also the emphasis on a careful (and correct) understanding of the Gospel Tradition regarding the person and work of Jesus continues to be of the greatest importance, and, sadly, is rather lacking in much of modern Christianity. Special care in regard to Christological statements and definitions is much needed, especially when so many of the traditional statements from the past are now so poorly understood.
How, then, should we respond when we encounter or experience differences in understanding on key theological or Christological questions? Should we adopt the advice given in 2 John—and, if so, how is this to be done? Doubtless, many believers today would continue to uphold the famous maxim: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty…”; but therein lies the difficulty—how do we determine what the “essentials” are, and how should they be treated in comparison with “non-essentials”. Are Christological differences enough to bar communication and association between believers? Certainly, this has proven to be so at times in the past, often with unfortunate and even tragic results. And yet, to act as though such differences do not matter is equally perilous, and can quickly lead to the negation of any meaningful sense of Christian identity.
I would maintain that, for believers in Christ, it is not any Christological definition or understanding as such, but the abiding presence of the Spirit, that must serve as the unifying force. Yet, to judge from the Gospel and the Letters, this was clearly a central point and fundamental emphasis for the Johannine Community as well, and it did not prevent painful and disruptive divisions, with the author’s community banning believers considered to be false, and finding themselves being banned by others in turn. Is it possible to maintain the spirit of the instruction in 2 and 3 John while finding new ways and methods for achieving the author’s goals? I leave that to the consideration of each believer and community. Bridging the divide between ancient and modern times, between the thought-world of first-century Christianity and of the Church today, remains of the most challenging and thought-provoking aspects of Biblical interpretation.