Introduction ot the Bible - 63 - 2nd and 3rd John

The Second and Third General Epistles of John

by Louis Berkhof


 The Second Epistle. After the address and the apostolic blessing, 1-3,  the writer expresses his joy at finding that some of the children of  the addressee walk in the truth, and reiterates the great commandment  of brotherly love, 4-6. He urges the readers to exercise this love and  informs them that there are many errorists, who deny that Jesus Christ  is come in the flesh, admonishing them not to receive these, lest they  should become partakers of their evil deeds, 7-11. Expressing his  intention to come to them, he ends his Epistle with a greeting, 12, 13.

 The Third Epistle. The writer, addressing Gajus, sincerely wishes that  he may prosper, as his soul prospereth, 1-3. He commends him for  receiving the itinerant preachers, though they were strangers to him,  5-8. He also informs the brother that he has written to the church, but  that Diotrephes resists his authority, not receiving the brethren  himself and seeking to prevent others from doing it, 9, 10. Warning  Gajus against that evil example, he commends Demetrius, mentions an  intended visit, and closes the Epistle with greetings, 11-14.


 1. These two Epistles have rightly been called twin epistles, since  they reveal several points of similarity. The author in both styles  himself the elder; they are of about equal length; each one of them, as  distinguished from the first Epistle, begins with an address and ends  with greetings; both contain an expression of joy; and both refer to  itinerant preachers and to an intended visit of the writer.

 2. The letters show close affinity to I John. What little they contain  of doctrinal matter is closely related to the contents of the first  Epistle, where we can easily find statements corresponding to those in  II John 4-9 and III John 11. Several concepts and expressions clearly  remind us of I John, as f. i. "love," "truth," "commandments," "a new  commandment," one "which you had from the beginning," "loving truth,"  "walking in the truth," "abiding in" one, "a joy that may be  fulfilled," etc. Moreover the aim of these letters is in general the  same as that of the first Epistle, viz. to strengthen the readers in  the truth and in love; and to warn them against an incipient  Gnosticism.


 Considering the brevity of these Epistles, their authorship is very  well attested. Clement of Alexandria speaks of the second Epistle and,  according to Eusebius, also commented on the third. Irenaeus quotes the  second Epistle by name, ascribing it to "John the Lord's disciple."  Tertullian and Cyprian contain no quotations from them, but Dionysius  of Alexandria, Athanasius and Didymus received them as the work of the  apostle. The Muratorian Canon in a rather obscure passage mentions two  Epistles of John besides the first one. The Peshito does not contain  them; and Eusebius, without clearly giving his own opinion, reckons  them with the Antilegomena. After his time they were generally received  and as such recognized by the, councils of Laodicea (363), Hippo (393)  and Carthage (397).

 Internal evidence may be said to favor the authorship of John. One can  scarcely read these letters without feeling that they proceeded from  the same hand that composed I John. The second Epistle especially is  very similar to the first, a similarity that can hardly be explained,  as Baljon suggests, from an acquaintance of the author with I John, ml.  p. 237, 239. And the third Epistle is inseparably linked to the second.  The use of a few Pauline terms, propemtein, eudousthai and hugiainein,  and of a few peculiar words, as phluarein, philoproteuein  hupolambanein, prove nothing to the contrary.

 The great stumbling block, that prevents several scholars from  accepting the apostolic authorship of these Epistles, is found in in  the fact that the author simply styles himself ho presbuteros. This  appelation led some, as Erasmus, Grotius, Beck, Bretschneider, Hase,  Renan, Reuss, Wieseler e. a., to ascribe them to a certain well-known  presbyter John, distinct from the apostle. This opinion is based on a  passage of Papias, as it is interpreted by Eusebius, The passage runs  thus: "If I met anywhere with anyone who had been a follower of the  elders, I used to inquire what were the declarations of the elders;  what was said by Andrew, by Peter, by Philip, what by Thomas or James,  what by John or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of our Lord; and  the things which Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the  Lord say; for I did not expect to derive so much benefit from the  contents of books as from the utterances of a living and abiding  voice." From this statement Eusebius infers that among the informants  of Papias there was besides the apostle John also a John the presbyter,  Church Hist. III 39. But the correctness of this inference is subject  to doubt. Notice (1) that Papias first names those whose words he  received through others and then mentions two of whom he had also  received personal instruction, cf. the difference in tense, eipen and  legousin; (2) that it seems very strange that for Papias, who was  himself a disciple of the apostle John, anyone but the apostle would be  ho presbuteros; (3) that Eusebius was the first to discover this second  John in the passage of Papias: (4) that history knows nothing of such a  John the presbyter; he is a shadowy person indeed; and (5) that the  Church historian was not unbiased in his opinion; being averse to the  supposed Chiliasm of the Apocalypse, he was only too glad to find  another John to whom he could ascribe it.

 But even if the inference of Eusebius were correct, it would not prove  that this presbyter was the author of our Epistles. The same passage of  Papias clearly establishes the fact that the apostles were also called  elders in the early Church. And does not the appellation, ho  presbuteros, admirably fit the last of the apostles, who for many years  was the overseer of the churches in Asia Minor? He stood preeminent  above all others; and by using this name designated at once his  official position and his venerable age.


 The second Epistle is addressed to eklekte kuria and her children, whom  I love in truth, and not only I, but all those that know the truth,"  1:1. There is a great deal of uncertain{y about the interpretation of  this address. On the assumption that the letter was addressed to an  individual, the following renderings have been proposed: (1) to an  elect lady; (2) to the elect lady; (3) to the elect Kuria; (4) to the  Lady Electa; (5) to Electa Kuria.

 The first of these is certainly the simplest and the most natural one,  but considered as the address of an Epistle, it is too indefinite. To  our mind the second, which seems to be grammatically permissible, is  the best of all the suggested interpretations. As to the third, it is  true that the word kuria does occur as a proper name, cf. Zahn, Einl.  II p. 584; but on the supposition that this is the case here also, it  would be predicated of a single individual, which in Scripture is  elsewhere done only in Rom. 16:13, a case that is not altogether  parallel; and the more natural construction would be kuria te eklekte.  Cf. III John 1 :1; the case in I Pet. 1 :1 does not offer a parallel,  because parepidemois is not a proper noun. The fourth must be ruled  out, since eklekta is not known to occur as a nomen proprium; and if  this were the name of the addressee, her sister, vs. 13, would  strangely bear the same name. The last rendering is the least likely,  burdening the lady, as it does, with two strange names. If the letter  was addressed to an individual, which is favored by the analogy of the  third Epistle, and also by the fact that the sisters children are  spoken of in vs. 13, while she herself is not mentioned, then in all  probability the addressee was a lady well known and highly esteemed in  the early church, but not named in the letter. Thus Salmond (Hastings  D. B.), while Alford and D. Smith regard Kuria as the name of the lady.

 In view of the contents of the Epistle, however, many from the time of  Jerome on have regarded the title as a designation of the Church in  general (Jerome, Hilgenfeld, Lunemann, Schmiedel), or of some  particular church (Huther, Holtzmann, Weiss, Westcott, Salmon, Zahn,  Baljon). The former of these two seems to be excluded by vs. 13, since  the Church in general can hardly be represented as having a sister. But  as over against the view that the Epistle was addressed to an  individual, the latter is favored by (1) the fact that everything of a  personal nature is absent from the Epistle; (2) the plurals which the  apostle constantly uses, cf. 6, 8, 10, 12; (3) the way in which he  speaks to the addressee in vss. 5, 8; (4) the expression, "and not I  only, but also all they that have known the truth," 1, which is more  applicable to a church than to a single individual; and (5) the  greeting, 13, which is most naturally understood as the greeting of one  church to another. If this view of the Epistle is correct, and we are  inclined to think it is, kuria is probably used as the feminine of  kurios, in harmony with the Biblical representation that the Church is  the bride of the Lamb. It is useless to guess, however, what particular  church is meant. Since the church of Ephesus is in all probability the  sister, it is likely that one of the other churches of Asia Minor is  addressed.

 The third Epistle is addressed to a certain Gajus, of whom we have no  knowledge beyond that gained from the Epistle, where he is spoken of as  a beloved friend of the apostle, and as a large-hearted hospitable man,  who with a willing heart served the cause of Christ. There have been  some attempts to identify him with a Gajus who is mentioned in the  Apostolic Constitutions as having been appointed bishop of Pergamum by  John, or with some of the other persons of the same name in Scripture,  Acts 19: 29; 20:4, especially with Pauls host at Corinth, Rom. 16:23; I  Cor. 1: 14; but these efforts have not been crowned with success.


 1. Occasion and Purpose: In all probability the false agitators to whom  the apostle refers in the Second Epistle, 7-12, gave him occasion to  write this letter. His aim is to express his joy on account of the  obedience of some of the members of the church, to exhort all that they  love one another, to warn them against deceivers who would pervert the  truth, and to announce his coming.

 The third Epistle seems to have been occasioned by the reports of  certain brethren who traveled about from place to place and were  probably engaged in preaching the Gospel. They reported to the apostle  that they had enjoyed the hospitality of Gajus, but had met with a  rebuff at the hands of Diotrephes, an ambitious fellow (probably, as  some have thought, an elder or a deacon in the church), who resisted  the authority of the apostle and refused to receive the brethren. The  authors purpose is to express his satisfaction with the course pursued  by Gajus, to condemn the attitude of Diotrephes, to command Demetrius  as a worthy brother, and to announce an intended visit.

 2. Time and Place. The assumption seems perfectly warranted that John  wrote these Epistles from Ephesus, where he spent perhaps the last  twenty-five years of his life. We have no means for determining the  time when they were composed. It may safely be said, however, that it  was after the composition of I John. And if the surmise of Zahn and  Salmon is correct, that the letter referred to in III John 9 is our  second Epistle, they were probably written at the same time. This idea  is favored somewhat by the fact that the expression, "I wrote somewhat  (epsrapsa ti) to the church," seems to refer to a short letter; and by  the mention of an intended visit at the end of each letter. But from  the context it would appear that this letter must have treated of the  reception or the support of the missionary brethren, which is not the  case with our second Epistle.


 There was some doubt at first as to the canonicity of these Epistles.  The Alexandrian church generally accepted them, Clement, Dionysius and  Alexander of Alexandria all recognizing them as canonical, though  Origen had doubts. Irenaeus cites a passage from the second Epistle as  John's. Since neither Tertullian nor Cyprian quote them, it is  uncertain, whether they were accepted by the North African church. The  Muratorian Fragment mentions two letters of John in a rather obscure  way. In the Syrian church they were not received, since they were not  in the Peshito, but in the fourth century Ephrem quotes both by name.  Eusebius classed them with the Antilegomena, but soon after his time  they were universally accepted as canonical.

 The ermanent significance of the second Epistle is that it emphasizes  the necessity of abiding in the truth and thus exhibiting one's love to  Christ. To abide in the doctrine of Christ and to obey his  commandments, is the test of sonship. Hence believers should not  receive those who deny the true doctrine, and especially the  incarnation of Christ, lest they become partakers of their evil deeds.

 The third Epistle also has it's permanent lesson in that it commends  the generous love that reveals itself in the hospitality of Gajus,  shown to those who labor in the cause of Christ, and denounce the  self-centered activity of Diotrephes; for these two classes of men are  always found in the Church.