2nd John: Its World, Its Message


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2 John is the New Testament's shortest letter. In less than 225 Greek words it reveals how a church leader—absent due to travel—nurtured and protected a Christian congregation by employing and adapting the deep-rooted social conventions of family and hospitality to express the core of Christian identity, and to highlight some of its boundaries.

2 John opens with an intimate greeting, typical of a husband addressing his wife and children, and the language of family is sustained through most of the letter. Families across the multi-cultural Roman empire during the New Testament era achieved their core mission of providing multi-generational nurture and grounding under the dominant paradigm of the Roman family, which traditionally granted the paterfamilias, the male head of household extensive and life-long authority over spouse and children. Paul deliberately extended this convention to the Christian “family” when he described the runaway slave Onesimus as his “child” and appealed to Philemon on his behalf (Philemon 8-10). The author of 2 John, like Paul, drew on the paradigm of the authoritative Roman paterfamilias when directing his "wife" to refuse admission of some persons to their "home" (2 John 10).

Every part of the New Testament alludes to travel by Christian leaders. The rapid spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire was aided by extensive road networks, while the ubiquitous Roman military presence reduced travelers' risk at the hands of bandits and pirates. The apostles and their assistants crisscrossed the empire establishing congregations and nurturing them with follow-up visits, and with letters. Letter writing flourished once the improved travel increased the likelihood that most would reach their destinations. Hundreds of surviving Roman-era letters reveal that they helped people to keep in touch, to inform, and to make requests. 2 John contains each of these elements.

Travel called for hospitality, and while there was a rudimentary hospitality industry, Roman-era travelers preferred the more secure and predictable hospitality of private homes. Strict codes of conduct governed home-based hospitality, imposing privileges as well as obligations on host and guest. To ignore or violate these was a heinous crime in the ancient Near East, which on occasion brought serious retribution—up to and including pay-back destruction of entire cities. Sodom’s destruction was triggered in part by an attempted violation of the sanctity of hospitality (Genesis 19), while the Trojan War, leading to the destruction of Troy, was sparked by un-guest-like behavior of Paris in the home of his host (Homer, The Iliad, book 3). Jesus placed hospitality in the center of Christian life. Hospitality became a metaphor for core relational values in parables (Matthew 22:3-11; 25: 1-10). He prepared his disciples for their first mission journey with precise instruction regarding hospitality (Matthew 10:9-14), and He employed the offering or refusing of hospitality as a criterion in the last judgment (Matthew 25:35, 42-43). Elsewhere in the New Testament hospitality is commanded for family, friend and stranger alike (Rom 12:13; 1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:8; Heb 13:1-2; 1Pet 4:9). Hospitality's boundaries come into focus in several New Testament passages, including 2 John, where readers were admonished not to extend hospitality to would-be teachers not conforming to apostolic teaching. This counsel apparently led to a retributive response according to 3 John—not what the author expected or wished.

2 John has the hallmarks of a personal letter, including formal language, standard greeting, and typical conclusion, features shared with one other New Testament letter, Philemon. All other New Testament letters are considerably lengthier, and address groups. 2 John, in spite of its personal form and intensely private tone, is actually written to a group.

Historical setting 2 John lacks any reference to a dateable event, making precise dating impossible. There is no hint of the location in the letter. The early Church Father Irenaeus (Against Heresies, book 3 chapter 3, paragraph 4) reported that the disciple John lived “until the times” of emperor Trajan (ruled 98 to117 C.E.) and that he ministered in Ephesus, capital of the Roman province of Asia.

Message “Truth” is the golden theological cord, which runs through John’s Gospel and three letters. The word occurs twenty-five times in the Gospel, nine times in 1 John, five times in 2 John, and six times in 3 John. The “truth” intended by the author focuses on the person and nature of Jesus, and especially his relation to God and the world. At heart, “truth” is the good news that God has now shown his saving love for the world in a unique way through his son Jesus. Truth thus touches all aspects of a believer’s life, providing hope in the face of suffering and death, guidance in the issues of personal life, and a new basis for relating to others in the believing community. The author commends readers for "walking" in the truth; that is, living a life committed to the teaching of, and about, Jesus.

“Love” is another characteristic Johannine term, employed in 2 John verses 3 and 6 to explain that truth impacts life in the community—in John's words, believers "walk" according to the love command issued by Jesus.

2 John contains six major spiritual observations about spiritual reality: 1. Changed lives are the source of genuine exuberance (verse 4a) 2. Some "children" were still walking the true walk (verse 4b) 3. Deceivers are out there! (verse 7a) 4. They are Antichrist unmasked (verse 7b) 5. Remain within Christ's teaching to "possess" God (verse 9) 6. Even to so much as greet deceivers is to collaborate with them (verse 11).

The letter includes three major appeals to the first readers: 1. Let us love one another! (verse 5) 2. Watch yourselves! (verse 8) 3. Do not let unknown, untested visitors teach the congregation! (verse 10).

Deceivers exploited congregational hospitality to spread untruths about Jesus, denying that He came in the flesh. The Elder revealed deep concern about the damage caused by these people and their ideas. He called them “antichrist” in verse 7, then ordered a risky strategy—refusing them hospitality—in an all-out effort to protect the congregation from error and exploitation. The consequence of this risky strategy is disclosed in 3 John.

The epistle 2 John thus provides insights into how one early Christian leader nourished a congregation from a distance, how he defined boundaries of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and how he responded to a serious doctrinal and leadership challenge.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1839