Saturday Series: 2 John 4-11

Beginning in May, and continuing through the Summer, the Saturday Series will focus on the role that cultural-religious conflict has played in shaping early Christian belief and practice, as expressed in the New Testament Scriptures. This involves historical criticism—examining the historical background of the texts—but also various aspects of literary criticism, including rhetorical criticism—analyzing the author’s purpose in writing, the central proposition(s), the arguments and literary-rhetorical devices used in support, and so forth.

We will begin with the conflict that is at the heart of the Letters of John (esp. 1-2 John). These writings attest to the existence and activity of a group of opponents, whom the author considers antíchristoi, people who are “against the Anointed”, i.e., “antichrists”. In recent notes and articles—including the Saturday Series studies on the subject of sin in the Johannine Writings—the views of these opponents have been discussed. It is my contention that the conflict involving these “antichrist” opponents is central to First John, and represents the principal reason and purpose for the author writing as he does.

The same is true of Second John, though, in some ways, the brevity and relative simplicity of the letter allows us to obtain a clearer glimpse of the situation. Second John also provides an excellent test case for a study on the influence of religious conflict on early Christian thought and practice. For this reason, our studies will begin with 2 John.

It is quite possible that the same author who penned 2 and 3 John (“the Elder”) also wrote 1 John. However, even if he did not, 1 and 2 John clearly derive from the same religious and theological setting—Christians with a shared culture, language, and belief system. It is generally assumed that this involved a number of congregations throughout a particular geographical region (usually identified with Asia Minor, and the area centered around Ephesus), and which is typically referred to by scholars as the Johannine Community—the Community within which the Johannine Writings (Gospel, Letters, and [probably] the book of Revelation) were first produced and distributed.

More than this, the authors of 1 and 2 John, if they are not the same person, also share a distinctive language, style, and manner of expression, utilizing a common vocabulary, syntax, and so forth. The two letters also clearly are addressing issues related to a common group of opponents. That is to say, the same basic historical, cultural, and religious conflict is at the heart of both writings.

The Conflict in 2 John

Because of how short 2 John is, it is very easy to outline its structure:

    • Epistolary Prescript (Introduction/Greeting), vv. 1-3
    • Body of the Letter, vv. 4-11
    • Epistolary Postscript (Conclusion), vv. 12-13

Two aspects of the Introduction are important to note, as they relate to the body of the letter and the author’s purpose (causa) in writing. The first of these is the addressee of the letter: “the chosen Lady and her offspring”. The adjective eklektós (lit. “gathered out”) identifies this “Lady” as a believer (or group of believers). The denotation (of being “selected out, elect, chosen”) reflects early Christian usage and the distinctive religious identity of believers in Christ—see Rom 16:13; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:4ff; Rev 17:14; cf. also Mark 13:20, 27 par.

It seems clear that the author is writing to a Christian congregation, though there remains uncertainty as to whether the “Lady” refers to a specific individual, or is figurative for the congregation itself. In the former instance, she would to be regarded as a prominent figure in congregation, perhaps the host of a house-church. Similarly, her “offspring” could refer to the actual children of a particular woman, but, more likely, the term “offspring” is a way of designating the members of the congregation/community. The same term (tékna, “offspring, children”) is used in such a figurative sense by the author of 1 John (3:1-2, 10; 5:2; cf. also 3 John 4).

The congregation of the “Lady” would seem to be some distance removed from the author and his circle, but still closely aligned with it in thought and practice. The idea of a “sister-church” may be appropriate. In any case, it suggests a network of relations between Johannine congregations, across a particular geographic area. In this regard, the “Elder” is functioning in the manner of an apostolic missionary, similar to Paul, for example. Like Paul, he seems to be concerned with establishing and maintaining a sense of unity among the congregations. First John likely reflects a similar purpose—that is, uniting the Johannine churches, exhorting them in their identity as believers in Christ, and warning them against the opponents.

Such a network of churches would have to be maintained through a combination of letters and personal visits (see v. 12). The letters themselves would be delivered by traveling missionaries (or other trusted believers). Paul’s letters reflect this dynamic in vivid detail, and we can see it clearly in 2 and 3 John as well. The opponents also would have written and traveled to many of the churches as well, something which the author regarded as representing a dangerous (and nefarious) influence on the Johannine churches. His own efforts are meant to counteract the opponents’ influence.

The second important feature in the Introduction is the author’s use of the words love (agáp¢, vb agapáœ) and truth (al¢¡theia). These are key Johannine terms, which occur extensively throughout the Gospel and First Letter. Though common terms, they take on a special theological (and Christological) significance within the Johannine writings. This vocabulary is fundamental for defining what it means to be true believer in Christ. The author’s use of the terminology in the Introduction effectively positions the “Lady” congregation, along with himself (and his own circle/congregation), as true believers:

“…to the gathered out [i.e. chosen/elect] Lady and her offspring, whom I love in (the) truth—and not only I, but also all th(ose) having known the truth—through the truth th(at) remains in us, and (which) shall be with us into the Age” (vv. 1-2)

He concludes with a blessing (v. 3) that ends, emphatically, with the expression “…in truth and love”.

This terminology is especially important since, in the author’s view, the opponents do not manifest either truth or love—indeed, they fundamentally violate the duty of the believer, that duty which defines a person as a genuine believer: viz., to remain in the truth (i.e., true faith) and in love.

The Johannine language used by the author existed prior to the conflict with the opponents, and is used to address that conflict; but, in the process, the theological meaning and significance of the language would develop and be further clarified. In the body of 2 John, we are able to see something of this interaction between the Johannine theology and the conflict that surrounded the Johannine opponents.

2 John 4-11

The author’s rhetoric is carefully crafted, built up through several short discourse-units, each of which reflect the Johannine language and style, especially as one sees it expressed in 1 John. He begins by praising the members of the “Lady” congregation, effectively identifying them as true believers:

“I was very glad that I have found your offspring walking about in (the) truth [peripatoúntas en al¢theía], just as we received the (charge) laid on (us) to fulfill, (from) alongside the Father.” (v. 4)

The phrase “offspring walking about in the truth” is Johannine language that clearly identifies people as true believers. The very expression “in the truth” (en al¢theía) serves this purpose—i.e., referring to believers as those who are, and who remain, “in the truth”. At the same time, the use of the verb peripatéœ (“walk about”) reflects a traditional ethical-religious idiom for the regular/habitual behavior of people. The one who “walks about” in the truth, fulfills the Christian identity throughout his/her daily life (see 1 John 1:6-7; 2:6, 11). The substantive use of a participle, to express the essential identity and character of a person—here, for example, one “walking about in the truth” —is typical of Johannine style.

The author of 1 John similarly treats his audience as if they are, effectively, true believers—as opposed to false believers, such as the opponents. This is an important aspect of the author’s rhetoric, both in 1 and 2 John.

Another important Johannine keyword is the noun entol¢¡, which is often translated flatly as “command(ment)”, but which properly refers to a duty placed on (en-) someone which they are obligated to complete (the component –tol¢¡ is related to the noun télos and the verb téllomai, “complete, fulfill”). The true believer fulfills the duty that God has placed on us. The characteristic conduct of “walking in the truth” is defined specifically in terms of fulfilling this duty (entol¢¡) that we have received from God.

In verse 5, the author’s tone shifts from praise to exhortation:

“And now, I would ask (of) you, (dear) Lady, not as a new entol¢¡ being written to you, but (as one) which we hold from (the) beginning: that we would love (each) other.”

The duty required of the (true) believer is to love one another. In the Johannine tradition, this duty (entol¢¡) goes back to the words of Jesus himself (Jn 13:34-35; 15:9-13, 17) and is emphasized extensively throughout 1 John. There are actually two components to the great duty (or ‘command’, entol¢¡) required of every believer: (i) trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (ii) love for fellow believers, following the example of Jesus. The author of 1 John expresses this quite clearly in 3:23-24, and the alternation of themes trust-love-trust-love-trust is an organizing principle for the main body of his treatise (2:18-5:12). Much the same is true, though on a smaller scale, for the author of 2 John. He divides the body of his letter between the themes of love (vv. 4-6) and trust (vv. 7-9ff). The theme of truth covers both components of the entol¢¡, but applies more directly, in 2 John, to the aspect of trust in Jesus.

Next week, as we continue this study, we shall see how the author of 2 John positions the conflict with the opponents in this love-truth / love-trust matrix. This will also allow us to glimpse ways in which such conflicts worked to shape and develop the early Christian theology.

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