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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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2 John

Luke Timothy Johnson

Before Beginning…

A Cover Letter to the Church

Unless 2 and 3 John are connected to the same moment of crisis that generated 1 John, it is hard to explain their preservation by a local church, their exchange between churches, and their eventual inclusion in the New Testament canon. In the Reading Guide to 1 John ( RG 513 ), the suggestion is made that all three letters were sent in a single packet by the emissary Demetrius to the local leader Gaius (see 3 Jn) who was still loyal to “the Elder” in the dispute dividing Johannine Christianity into hostile factions.

Whereas 1 John lacks all epistolary character and appears as a sermon to be delivered aloud to an assembly (or even a number of assemblies), 2 John bears the marks of a genuine letter. It has the formal elements of greeting (1–3), body (4–12) and farewell (13). It mentions the desire of the writer to visit the addressees (12). Unlike 3 John, however, which is addressed to an individual, 2 John is written to the “chosen Lady” and her children (1). The designation is almost certainly an honorary title for the church itself. The argument that it refers to a specific woman leader is doubtful, if the rest of the reconstruction here being suggested makes sense. The “children,” of course, are the ones really being addressed; the second‐person verbs are predominantly in the plural.

The symbols of Johannine Christianity are very much in evidence. Notice the emphasis on “truth” (1–3) and on “walking in the truth” (4); on “keeping the commandment,” which is not new but from the beginning (5); on love for one another as the fulfillment of that commandment (6); on the creation of mutual joy as the mark of fellowship (12). Surely, such a cluster of distinctive themes makes best sense when read together with 1 John.

What distinguishes 2 John is its function. In 3 John 9, the Elder says that he “is writing” (or “wrote”) something to the church. In all likelihood, this refers to 1 John, the exhortation to a remnant community. Second John, then, is undoubtedly a letter of introduction to the community as such, to be read before the sermon is delivered, to identify its author, to emphasize its main teaching, and to suggest some practical actions to be taken by the community. These may or may not be fully in accord with the spirit of 1 John, but they are certainly recognizable as a response to the crisis signaled by 3 John.

Strategies for Survival

Again we meet the split between those who “walk in truth” and the “many deceivers who have gone out into the world” (7). As in 1 John, these are designated antichrists because they “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh.” In the Reading Guide to 1 John, we suggest how difficult it is to determine precisely what this denial implies. For the Elder, however, the opponents appear as “progressives” who have gone too far in their interpretation and no longer “remain in the teaching of the Christ” (or “about” the Christ). The Elder's community is therefore portrayed as defending the traditional understanding of Jesus. The importance of right doctrine is underscored by the equation: having Christ is having God (see 1 Jn 4, 3 ). For Johannine Christianity, the unique mediation of salvation by Jesus is axiomatic. He alone is the “way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14, 6 ). The lesson is clear: misconstruing the mediator means missing the good news entirely. If the Elder's readers do not hold to the proper understanding, they will “lose what they worked for.”

The community crisis is so severe that the Elder calls for the extraordinary practice of excommunication. They are neither to offer heretics hospitality nor even to greet them as brothers (10). Notice the connection, everywhere assumed in the New Testament, between message and messenger. Physical fellowship implies spiritual unanimity. Thus, “whoever greets him shares in his evil works” (11). Only those who deliver the proper doctrine (10) are to be welcomed. Here the Elder advocates the same practice of shunning and exclusion of which he accuses Diotrephes in 3 John. The battle is a bitter one.

It is difficult to know what positive instruction one should draw from these ancient fragments of hostile conflicts. Perhaps it is important for the church to remember in every age that it has never been easy to establish or to secure its identity; deviance and dispute are part of community life. Perhaps also, however, it is important for the church in every age to reflect whether proper doctrine is more important than the fellowship of love. Even in an age of ecumenism that issue remains unresolved.

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