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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

2 John 1

Verse 1

Chapter 20

2 John


Of old God addressed men in tones that were, so to speak, distant. Sometimes He spoke with the stern precision of law or ritual; sometimes in the dark and lofty utterances of prophets; sometimes through the subtle voices of history, which lend themselves to different interpretations. But in the New Testament He whom no man hath seen at any time, "interpreted" {John 1:18} Himself with a sweet familiarity. It is of a piece with the dispensation of condescendence, that the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven should come to us in such large measure through epistles. For a letter is just the result of taking up one’s pen to converse with one who is absent, a familiar talk with a friend.

Of the epistles in our New Testament, a few are addressed to individuals. The effect of three of these letters upon the Church, and even upon the world, has been great. The Epistles to Timothy and Titus, according to the most prevalent interpretation of them, have been felt in the outward organisation of the Church. The Epistle to Philemon, with its eager tenderness, its softness as of a woman’s heart, its chivalrous courtesy, has told in another direction. With all its freedom from the rashness of social revolution; its almost painful abstinence (as abolitionists have sometimes confessed to feeling) from actual invective against slavery in the abstract; that letter is yet pervaded by thoughts whose issue can only be worked out by the liberty of the slave. The word emancipation may not be pronounced, but it hovers upon the Apostle’s lips.

The second Epistle is, in our judgment, a letter to an individual. Certainly we are unable to find in its whole contents any probable allusion to a Church personified as a lady. It is, as we read it, addressed to Kyria, an Ephesian lady, or one who lived in the circle of Ephesian influence. It was sent by the Apostle during an absence from Ephesus. That absence might have been for the purpose of one of the visitations of the Churches of Asia Minor, which (as we are told by ancient Church writers) the Apostle was in the habit of holding. Possibly, however, in the case of a writer so brief and so reserved in the expression of personal sentiment as St. John, the gush and sunshine of anticipated joy at the close of this note might tempt us to think of a rift in some sky that had been long darkened; of the close of some protracted separation, soon to be forgotten in a happy meeting. "Having many things to write unto you, I would not do so by means of paper and ink; but I hope to come unto you, and to speak face to face that our joy may be fulfilled." (2 John 1:12) The expression might not seem unsuitable for a return from exile. Several touches of language and feeling in the letter point to the conclusion that Kyria was a widow. There is no mention of her husband, the father of her children. In the case of a writer who uses the names of God with such subtle and tender suitability, the association of Kyria’s "children walking in truth" with "even as we received commandment from the Father," may well point to Him who was for them the Father of the fatherless. We need not with some expositors draw the sad conclusion that St. John affectionately hints that there were others of the family who could not be included in this joyful message. But it would seem highly probable from the language used that there were several sons, and also that Kyria had no daughters. Over these sons who had lost one earthly parent, the Apostle rejoices with the heart of a father in God. He bursts out with his eureka, the eureka not of a philosopher, but of a saint. "I rejoiced exceedingly that I found (ευρηκα 2 John 1:4) certain of the number of thy children walking in truth."

While we may not trace in this little Epistle the same fountain of wide spreading influence as in others to which we have referred; while we feel that, like its author, its work is deep and silent rather than commanding, reflection will also lead us to the conclusion that it is worthy of the Apostle who was looked upon as one of the "pillars" of the faith.

1. Let us reflect that this letter is addressed by the aged Apostle to a widow, and concerns her family.

It is significant that Kyria was, in all probability, a widow of Ephesus.

Too many of us have more or less acquaintance with one department of French literature. A Parisian widow is too often the questionable heroine of some shameful romance, to have read which is enough to taint the virginity of the young imagination. Ephesus was the Paris of Ionia. Petronius was the Daudet or Zola of his day. An Ephesian widow is the heroine of one of the most cynically corrupt of his stories.

But "where sin abounded, grace did more than abound." Strange that first in an epistle to a Bishop of the Church of Ephesus, St. Paul should have presented us with that picture of a Christian widow-"she that is a widow, indeed, and desolate, who hath her hope set on God, and continueth in prayer night and day"-yet who, if she has the devotion, the almost entire absorption in God, of Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, leaves upon the track of her daily road to heaven the trophies of Dorcas -"having brought up children well, used hospitality to strangers, washed the saints’ feet, relieved the afflicted, diligently followed every good work." Such widows are the leaders of the long procession of women, veiled or unveiled, with vows or, without them, who have ministered to Jesus through the ages. Christ has a beautiful art of turning the affliction of His daughters into the consolation of suffering. When life’s fairest hopes are disappointed by falsehood, by cruel circumstances, by death; the broken heart is soothed by the love of Christ, the only love which is proof against death and change. The consolation thus received is the most unselfish of gifts. It overflows, and is lavishly poured out upon the sick and weary. With St. Paul’s picture of a widow of this kind, contrast another by the same hand which hangs close beside it. The younger Ephesian widow, such as Petronius described, was known by St. Paul also. If any count the Apostle as a fanatic, destitute of all knowledge of the world because he lived above it, let them look at those lines, which are full of such caustic power, as they hit off the characteristics of certain idle and wanton affecters of a sorrow which they never felt. {1 Timothy 5:6-13} What a distance between such widows and Kyria, "beloved for the truth’s sake which abideth in us!" {2 John 1:2}

But the short letter of St. John is addressed to Kyria’s family, as well as to herself.

"The elder to the excellent Kyria and her children." {3 John 1:1}

There is one question which we naturally ask about every school and form of religion. It is the question which a great English Professor of Divinity used to ask his pupils to put in a homely form about every religious scheme and mode of utterance -"will it wash well?" Is it an influence which seems to be productive and lasting? Does it abide through time and trials? Is it capable of being passed on to another generation? Are plans, services, organisations, preachings, classes, vital or showy? Are they fads to meet fancies, or works to supply wants? Is that which we hold such sober, solid truth, that wise piety can say of it, half in benediction, half in prophecy -"the truth which abideth in us; yea, and with us it shall be forever"?

2. We turn to the contents of the Epistle.

We shall be better able to appreciate the value of these, if we consider the state of Christian literature at that tithe.

What had Christians to read and carry about with them? The excellent work of the Bible Society was physically impossible for long. centuries to come. No doubt the LXX version of the Old Testament was widely spread. In every great city of the Roman Empire there was a vast population of Jews. Many of these were baptised into the Church, and carried into it with them their passionate belief in the Old Testament. The Christians of the time and place to which we refer could, probably, with little trouble, if not read, yet hear the Old Covenant and able expositions of it. But they had not copies of the entire New Testament. Indeed, if all the New Testament was then written, it certainly was not collected into one volume, nor constituted one supreme authority. "Many barbarous nations," says a very ancient Father, "believe in Christ without written record, having salvation impressed through the Spirit in their hearts, and diligently preserving the old tradition." Possibly a Church or single believer had one synoptical Gospel. At Ephesus Christians had doubtless been catechised in, and were deeply imbued with, St. John’s view of the Person, work, and teaching of our Lord. This had now been moulded into shape, and definitely committed to writing in that glorious Gospel, the Church’s Holy of Holies, St. John’s Gospel. For them and for their contemporaries there was a living realisation of the Gospel. They had heard it from eyewitnesses. They had passed into the wonderland of God. The earth on which Jesus trod had blossomed into miracle. The air was haunted by the echoes of His voice. They had, probably, also a certain number of the Epistles of St. Paul. The Christians of Ephesus would have a special interest in their own Epistle to the Ephesians, and in the two which were written to their first Bishop, Timothy. They had also (whether written or not) impressed upon their memories by their weekly Eucharist, the liturgical Canon of consecration according to the Ephesian usage-from which, and not the Roman, the Spanish and Gallican seem to be derived. The Ephesian Christians had also the first Epistle of St. John, which in some form accompanied the Gospel, and is, indeed, a picture of spiritual life drawn from it. But let us remember that the Epistle is not of a character to be very quickly or readily learned by heart. Its subtle, latent links of connection do not present many grappling hooks for the memory to fasten itself to. Copies also must have been comparatively few.

Now let us see how the second Epistle may well have been related to the first.

Supremely, and above all else, the first Epistle contained three warnings, very necessary for those times.

(1) There was a danger of losing the true Christ, the Word made Flesh, Who for the forgiveness of our sins did shed out of His most precious side both water and blood -in a false, because shadowy and ideal Christ.

(2) There was danger of losing true love, and therefore spiritual life, with truth.

(3) With the true Christ and true love there was a danger of losing the true commandment-love of God and of the brethren.

Now in the second Epistle these very three warnings were written on a leaflet in a form more calculated for circulation and for remembrance.

(1) Against the peril of faith, of losing the true Christ. "Many deceivers are gone out into the world-they who confess not Jesus Christ coming in flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist." With the true Christ, the true doctrine of Christ would also vanish, and with it all living hold upon God. Progress was the watchword; but it was in reality regress. "Everyone who abideth not in the doctrine of Christ hath not God."

(2) Against the peril of losing love. "I beseech thee, Kyria that we love one another."

(3) Against the peril of losing the true commandment (the great spiritual principle of charity), or the true commandments (that principle in the details of life). "And this is love, that we walk after His commandments. This is the commandment, that even as ye heard from the beginning ye should walk in it."

Here then were the chief practical elements of the first Epistle contracted into a brief and easily remembered shape.

Easily remembered, too, was the stern, practical prohibition of the intimacies of hospitality with those who came to the home of the Christian, in the capacity of emissaries of the antichrist above indicated. "Receive him not into your house, and good speed salute him not with."

Many are offended with this. No doubt Christianity is the religion of love-"the epiphany of the sweet naturedness and philanthropy of God." We very often look upon heresy or unbelief with the tolerance of curiosity rather than of love. At all events, the Gospel has its intolerance as well as tolerance. St. John certainly had this. It is not a true conception of art which invests him with the mawkish sweetness of perpetual youth. There is a sense in which he was a son of Thunder to the last. He who believes and knows must formulate a dogma. A dogma frozen by formality, or soured by hate, or narrowed by stupidity, makes a bigot. In reading the Church History of the first four centuries we are often tempted to ask, why all this subtlety, this theology spinning, this dogma hammering? The answer stands out clear above the mists of controversy. Without all this the Church would have lost the conception of Christ, and thus finally Christ Himself. St. John’s denunciations have had a function in Christendom as well as his love.

3. There are two most precious indications of the highest Christian truth with which we may conclude.

We have prefixed to this Epistle that beautiful Apostolic salutation which is found in two only among the Epistles of St. Paul. After that simple, but exquisite expression of blessing merged in prophecy-"the truth which abideth in us-yes! and with us it shall be forever"-there comes another verse in the same key. "There shall be with us grace, mercy, peace, from God the Father, and from Jesus Christ the Son of the Father, in truth" of thought, "and love" of life.

This rush and reduplication of words is not very like the usual reserve and absence of emotional excitement in St. John’s style. Can it be that something (possibly the glorious death of martyrdom by which Timothy died) led St. John to use words which were probably familiar to Ephesian Christians?

However this may be, let us live by, and learn from, those lovely words. Our poverty wants grace, our guilt wants mercy, our misery wants peace: Let us ever keep the Apostle’s order. Do not let us put peace, our feeling of peace, first. The emotionalists’ is a topsy turvy theology. Apostles do not say "peace and grace," but "grace and peace."

Once more-in an age which substitutes an ideal something called the spirit of Christianity for Christ, let us hold fast to that which is the essence of the Gospel and the kernel of our three creeds. "To confess Jesus Christ coming in flesh." Couple with this a canon of the First Epistle-"confesseth Jesus Christ come in flesh." The second is the Incarnation fact with its abiding consequences; the first, the Incarnation principle ever living in a Person, Who will also be personally manifested. This is the substance of the Gospels; this the life of prayers, and sacraments; this the expectation of the saints.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 John 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".