The Second and Third Letters of John
False teachers went about among the churches, denying the bodily existence of the Lord Jesus; one Christian was filled with pride and an unhealthy view of himself and proved overly ambitious and divisive. John would write to faithful Christians to encourage them to stand firm; the results are the second and third letters of John.
The second and third letters of John are the twenty-third and twenty-fourth books in modern editions of the New Testament; they often categorized among one of the “catholic” or universal letters or epistles. The same author is behind both 2 John and 3 John; he identified himself as “the elder” in each (2 John 1:1, 3 John 1:1). They share commonalities in theme and literary style with 1 John and the Gospel of John; this, along with early Christian testimony, provides sufficient justification for considering the Apostle John to be “the elder” and the author of these letters, although some have posited the existence of a separate “John the Elder.” 2 John is written to “the elect lady and her children” (2 John 1:1); some believed it to be a letter to Mary the mother of Jesus and Jesus’ living brothers and sisters, since John the Apostle was made Mary’s caretaker in John 19:26-27. Yet John concluded the letter with greetings from the “children of your elect sister” (2 John 1:13), and encouraged the “dear lady” to “love one another” (2 John 1:5), straining any credible claim that individual family members are involved. The “elect lady and her children” are most likely referring to a local church, as is the “children of your elect sister”. 3 John is written to Gaius, a Christian who was likely a disciple of John but regarding whom we know nothing beyond what is recorded in the letter; he is most likely not the same Gaius whom Paul knew in Romans 16:23 and 1 Corinthians 1:14. John most likely wrote 2 John and 3 John from Ephesus, John’s center of ministry (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1); it would thus be the “elect sister” of 2 John 1:13. Neither 2 John nor 3 John provide any definitive evidence to establish dating; some suggest it was written in the 60s, but the prevalence and concern regarding docetism and perhaps even proto-Gnosticism is better placed later on, around 80-95. John wrote 2 John and 3 John to encourage Christians and churches to uphold the truth, support those faithfully promoting the truth, and standing firm against docetism and presumptuous Christians.
John began 2 John with an epistolary greeting emphasizing not only his love of the “elect lady,” most likely a local church and her children, the members of that church, in truth, but also the love of all who know the truth, and how the truth abides in us forever (2 John 1:1-3). John happily reported how he found some of its Christians faithfully walking in the truth as the Father commanded us to do (2 John 1:4). John then encouraged the church an old but new commandment to love one another, walking in the commandments as originally received (2 John 1:5-6; cf. 1 John 2:3-8, 3:11, 23-24).
John turned to warn the church regarding the deceivers who had gone out into the world: they do not confess Jesus as having come in the flesh (2 John 1:7; cf. 1 John 4:1-4). Christians must be on guard against them lest they lose their reward, for those who do not maintain the truth about the teaching of Christ do not have God, but those who uphold that teaching have the Father and the Son (2 John 1:8-9). Christians must not even greet or show any form of hospitality to people bringing such teachings, for to do so would participate in their wicked works (2 John 1:10-11). This denial of Jesus’ bodily existence is docetism (from Greek dokeo, “to seem”; they taught Jesus only seemed to be human); by denying Jesus’ bodily existence, they by necessity deny His birth, death, and resurrection, and thus the core of the faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-20). Some suggest the “teaching of Christ” involves anything involving the truth God has made known in Jesus, but such is a wider interpretation than the context can support; in 2 John 1:8-9 John’s focus is on the teachings regarding Jesus the Christ, His bodily existence as the Son of God.
John had other things to say but wished to do so in person and not with pen and ink (2 John 1:12). John concluded 2 John with greetings from the “children of your elect sister,” most likely the Christians of Ephesus (2 John 1:13).
John wrote 3 John to the “beloved” Gaius, whom John loved in the truth (3 John 1:1). John prayed for Gaius’ health and prosperity, thankful to hear of his stand in the truth from fellow Christians, for John enjoyed no greater joy than to hear of “his children,” likely Christians whom he taught and mentored, as walking in the truth (3 John 1:2-4).
John then encouraged Gaius to provide for those who stood before him as faithful Christians: he may not have known them, but they had testified regarding his love for God and His purposes before the church, and they had gone out to proclaim the Name of Jesus, taking no provision from unbelievers (3 John 1:5-7). John’s letter is most likely a way of attesting to the legitimacy of these men and a not so subtle hint for Gaius to provide them with food, shelter, and provisions for their journey; to help them is to participate in their work (3 John 1:8).
John had written to the church of which Gaius was a member; nevertheless, Diotrephes, whom John said loved to have pre-eminence, influenced the church so as to dismiss whatever John had said (3 John 1:9). John planned on coming there to expose the wickedness of his words and deeds, speaking against John, not receiving visiting Christians, and casts out any Christians who would receive them (3 John 1:10). Christians must not imitate evil but imitate good, for those who do good are from God, but those who o evil have not seen God (3 John 1:11). John commended Demetrius and spoke of his commendation from the others and from the truth (3 John 1:12). John has more to say but intended to come and see Gaius and speak face to face (3 John 1:13-14a). John concluded 3 John by sending greetings to, and asking Gaius to greet, the “friends,” another way of speaking of fellow Christians (although some manuscripts read “brethren”; 3 John 3:14bc; cf. John 15:15).
We can only imagine the encouraging conversations John would have enjoyed with his fellow Christians. Nevertheless we can gain strong encouragement from these short letters which he wrote. May we stand in the truth, do good, keep the commandments of Jesus, and abide in the Father and the Son!
Ethan R. Longhenry