2 John 1 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

2 John 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The Epistles of St. John.



Archdeacon of London.









I. Who wrote them?—It is difficult to imagine why any should suppose these two Epistles to be by different hands. Was this author the Apostle?

(1) External Evidence.—This is not nearly so strong as for the First. It is natural that it should be so, for the two Epistles seem to have been regarded as of far less general interest; and, therefore, there was less obvious propriety in placing them in a collection of important Apostolical literature, and little reason why they should be quoted at all. The main argument for them is, indeed, their unaffected, inartificial kinship to the First. The oldest authority for the Second is the Muratorian Canon, composed before A.D. 170. Origen speaks of St. John’s Epistles in the plural, and his disciple, Dionysius, cites the Third by name. The Muratorian Canon speaks of two Epistles of John, apparently distinct from the First. The Muratorian writer explains the principle of his arrangement of the Canon distinctly: saying that the Epistles of Paul to Philemon and Timothy, although addressed only to individuals, were placed in the Canon on account of their character. And even if the two Epistles of John mentioned were the First and Second, the fact that the Epistle to Philemon has precedence of those to Timothy (and Titus), probably because it is addressed also to Apphia and Archippus and the church in Philemon’s house, makes it very easy to understand that the Second Epistle of John (early supposed to be addressed to a church under the symbolic form of a lady) would be received into a canon, while the Third, addressed to an unknown individual, and dealing with special circumstances, might not be considered sufficiently general for such a position. In early days there must have been many fugitive writings of the Apostles; and the discretion of the churches in selecting from them for an authorised collection would be guided probably more by usage than by deliberate valuation. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 190-220), says, “The Second Epistle of John, written to the Virgins, is of the simplest character; it is written to a certain Babylonian, called Electa, but that means the election of the holy Church” (Opera, p. 1011, ed. Potter). Origen, in addition to what has been quoted from him above, is alleged by Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. vi. 25) to have said, “Not all consider these Epistles to be genuine,” without endorsing the doubt himself. Dionysius of Alexandria, pupil and successor of Origen, makes use of the Second and Third Epistle to illustrate St. John’s diction; he says that they were generally received as St. John’s by tradition. Irenæus, disciple of Polycarp and of Papias, (he died A.D. 202) quotes 2 John 1:7, by a mistake of memory, as belonging to the First Epistle; the words of 2 John 1:11, he cites as by John the disciple of the Lord. Ephrem the Syrian knew both Epistles, but it is easy to understand why two small fragments of such a private character were not translated in early days, and therefore did not appear in the Peschito version; for that contains only three general Epistles (James, 1 Peter, 1 John). Cyprian shows that the Second Epistle was received as Apostolical and Canonical in the North African Church, by the fact that he mentions a quotation of the tenth verse by Aurelius, Bishop of Chullabis. Eusebius by speaking of St. John’s Epistles in the plural number (Demonstratio Evangelica, iii. 5) shows that he himself recognised some other Epistles as well as the First; but, as from their shortness and small range there had been very slight occasion to quote them, he put them among the highest class of those writings which were not placed by absolutely universal consent in the authoritative Canon, and were therefore called Antilegomena. Jerome gives the “opinion of several writers,” not as his own, that they were by the traditional John the Presbyter; a view rejected by Oecumenius and Bede. In the Middle Ages they were received without question as the Apostle’s; then Erasmus took up the opinion mentioned by Jerome, and was followed by Grotius. Most modern commentators recognise them as Apostolic. The Tübingen writers are, of course, obliged to consider them as later, referring them to Montanistic, or at any rate, sub-apostolic times.

(2) Internal Evidence.—The term “elder”: The fact that St. John does not give his name is in favour of authenticity. As in the Gospel and the First Epistle, he prefers to retain a dignified incognito, intelligible to all whom it concerned. Even if the messengers did not know whose letters they were carrying, even if the correspondents did not know the handwriting, they would be perfectly aware from the style and matter, and the promise of a visit. It is doubtful whether by “elder” he meant “aged,” or an official position. In classical Greek these words would have a different form, but St. John’s Greek is that of a man who had become accustomed to a provincial form of the language late in life, and quite admits of slight irregularities. If he means an office, there is nothing to show that all the Apostles always used the apostolic title. St. Peter called himself “fellow-presbyter” (1 Peter 5:1), and Eusebius called the Apostles Presbyters (Eccl. Hist. iii. 39). The Apostles and “Overseers” were, in fact, only a specially responsible and important branch of the Presbyterate. As the last remaining Apostle, St. John might prefer not to insist on a designation now unique; or, as the name “elder” was originally adopted with reference to mature age, he may have used it as a hint of his own advanced years; or the dangers of the times may have made it advisable for him, for his messenger, and for his correspondents, to drop the higher title.

The only authority for the existence of another John at Ephesus, at the same time as the Apostle, called “the elder,” and “the disciple of the Lord,” is Papias, quoted by Eusebius. Is it not possible, that, as Eusebius says that he was “very small in mind,” there may be some confusion in some of these details? May not even the confusion itself have arisen from these anonymous Epistles being misunderstood by the unintelligent? But, even admitting the existence of such a second John, it is too much to ask us to believe that he resembled the Apostle not only in name and history, but also in style, character, and thought. And where it was extremely reasonable that the Apostle should leave out his name, it becomes most improbable that this alternative John should have left it out.

The Second and Third Epistles are full of peculiar forms, common also to the First. Notice 2 John 1:1, “knowing the truth”; 2 John 1:2, “abide in”; 2 John 1:3, “in truth and love”; 2 John 1:4, “walking in”; 2 John 1:5, “the commandment which we had from the beginning” (1 John 2:7); 2 John 1:6, “this is love, that”; “as ye heard from the beginning” (1 John 3:11; 1 John 3:23); 2 John 1:7, “deceivers are gone forth” (1 John 2:18); “confessing not Jesus Christ coming in the flesh” (1 John 4:1-2); “the antichrist”; 2 John 1:9, “abideth not in the doctrine, hath not God” (1 John 2:23); “hath the Son and the Father”; 2 John 1:12, “that our joy may be full” (1 John 1:4); 3 John 1:1, “in truth”; 3 John 1:3-4, “walkest in truth”; 3 John 1:11, “is of God, hath not seen God” (1 John 3:6; 1 John 3:10; 1 John 4:8). There are five or six expressions in the two Epistles which do not occur elsewhere in St. John’s writings, but it would be in the highest degree absurd to confine any writer exclusively to the language used in a former production. Additional reason for variety here would be found in the simple colloquial character of the writings.

Accordingly, while there is every reason to hold that the Second and Third Epistles are by the author of the First, and the First by the Author of the Gospel, it is difficult to find any valid reason to the contrary.

II. Date.—In the absence of all evidence to the contrary it seems probable that the circumstances and time were not very dissimilar in all three Epistles.

III. Character and Scope.—In the Second, the Apostle, who is probably staying at the same place as some of his correspondent’s children, writes to a mother and her other children to express his sympathy and delight at the faith of the family, and to warn them against admitting false teachers to their circle. It contains noticeable definitions of love, antichrist, and of true and false believers. It also has a general lesson on the treatment of wilful depravers of divine truth.

In the Third, he recounts how some missionaries had been badly received by Diotrephes, who had ambitiously obtained for himself the chief influence in a certain church, but notwithstanding Gaius had been courageous and kind enough to entertain them hospitably. Gaius is exhorted to help them still further. The Letter gives us an idea of the high importance of hospitality at the time as a Christian virtue; and brings out the fact that St. John’s authority was no less disputed in certain cases than St. Paul’s. It is probable that the church of Diotrephes had not been founded by St. John; that St. John had special claim to be obeyed; and that ecclesiastical influence seems to have by this time become vested in a single head.

IV. Where were they written?—Probably at Ephesus, before a tour of inspection. Had they been written in Patmos, some notice of the captivity might be expected.

V. Literature.—To the authorities mentioned in the First Epistle, add the Articles in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, and a paper by Professor Salmon on the Third Epistle in the Christian Observer, April, 1877. I should mention again my obligations to Dr. Karl Braune.

The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth;
(1) A man so well-known to his correspondent that he only calls himself “the old man,” or, “the elder,” writes to a mother, whose name is possibly Kyria, and to her children. Her sister’s children are in the same place as the writer. The two mothers are both honoured with the religious title “elect.” The writer (we assume from the introduction that he is the Apostle John) loves the family with true Christian love. All who are in the way of truth have the same feelings for them, for the truth is a bond of union between all such. He wishes them grace, mercy, and peace from the Father and the Son, in all their thoughts and all their affections (2 John 1:1-3).

(1 a.) (1) The elder.—The word is used with reference to age in 1 Timothy 5:2; 1 Peter 5:5; with reference to office, Acts 11:30; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:4; Acts 15:6; Acts 15:23; Acts 16:4; Acts 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:1; 1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Timothy 5:19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1.

Unto the elect lady.—St. Paul uses “elect” in exactly the same way (Romans 16:13). (Comp. also 1 Peter 1:1-2.) The use of the epithet for the sister in 2 John 1:13 shows that it is impossible that the word should be the correspondent’s name. The Greek word, however, for “lady,” (Kuria, or Kyria) was a proper name; so that those who think that St. John addresses “the elect Kyria” are at liberty to do so. The absence of the article would not be more surprising in that case than it would be if we translate “lady,” for “elect” would evidently be in such familiar use that the article would be easily omitted.

If the name of the matron is not given, it is not absurd to suppose that the dangers of the times, or family persecution, may have made it advisable that both her name and that of the writer should be withheld. The messenger would supply both deficiencies.

The term “lady” would not imply anything about her social station. Epictetus says that all women above fourteen were addressed by men in this term.

And her children.—Those of them who were with their mother. St. John seems to have seen some of the family later.

Whom I love in the truth.—Rather, in truth; i.e., with true Christian love, with all the sincerity, purity, and respect, which the true love which springs from God requires. (See Notes on 1 John 3:18-19.)

And not I only . . .—St. John disclaims any special peculiarity in his affection for the family. All Christians who had been brought or should be brought into relation with them would have the same feeling; because the character of all of them was based on the truth as it is in Christ, and moulded on it.

(2) For the truth’s sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us for ever.—The personal form of this sentence irresistibly reminds us of John 15:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If Christ is once in our hearts, He will not leave us unless we deliberately leave Him. The expression is therefore equivalent to saying, “We will not let Him go.”

(1 b.) (3) Grace be with you, mercy, and peace.—(Comp. 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2.) “Grace” is the favour of God conveying fully every spiritual blessing (Romans 3:4; Ephesians 2:4-10); “mercy” is the pitifulness which sympathises with man, is longing to forgive his sins, and is more ready to hear than he to pray (Luke 10:30-37; Psalm 103:3-18): “peace” is the result of the reception of these two gifts in the heart, the untroubled calm of a conscience void of offence before God and men (John 14:27; Romans 5:1; Philippians 4:4; Colossians 3:15).

From God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father.—The perfect independence, parallel equality, and mutual connection of the two Persons is noticeable.

In truth and love.—To be joined with “grace mercy and peace.” Truth was to absorb and regulate all their intellectual faculties; love, all their emotional.

For the truth's sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us for ever.
Grace be with you, mercy, and peace, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.
I rejoiced greatly that I found of thy children walking in truth, as we have received a commandment from the Father.
(2) St. John had lately had opportunity of observing bow some of the matron’s children proved their adherence to the truth by their daily conduct. Having congratulated her about this, he states the chief thing which he desires of her: the pure Christian love which implies every other grace and virtue; in other words, walking after the divine commandments. That this love should be pure, that these commandments should be unimpaired, it was necessary to remember that nothing new could be added to the original message of Christ. This warning was timely, because many errors had already appeared, especially that greatest error which denied the Incarnation. The family must, therefore, be on its guard, lest it should be cheated of its reward. The test was very simple: any advance beyond the doctrine of Christ. It would be better for the family not to entertain in their house any who had committed themselves to these doctrines of development (2 John 1:4-11).

(2 a.) (4) I rejoiced . . .—Comp. Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3; Philippians 1:3; Colossians 1:3.

Of thy children.—Probably those met at home.

Walking in truth.—Comp. John 8:12; 1 John 1:6-7; 1 John 2:6; 3 John 1:3-4.

As we have received a commandment.—That is, walking according to the revelation of God’s will in Christ Jesus.

(2 b.) (5) Love is the Christian’s moral disposition of mind, which embraces all other virtues and graces. It implies faith, because it is founded on Christian principle, and can only be tested by a right belief. It implies purity, because it is modelled on the love of God, and has abjured the old man. It implies unselfishness, because it desires the good of the other for his own sake and God’s. It implies humility, because it distrusts itself, relies on God, and thinks more of the other than of itself. (Comp. John 13:14; John 15:12; 1 Corinthians 13; Ephesians 5:2; 1 Peter 4:8; 1 John 3:11; 1 John 3:23; 1 John 4:7; 1 John 4:21.)

Not as though.—See the Notes on 1 John 2:7-8; 1 John 3:11.

(2 100) (6) The attitude of love in general, whether towards God or man, is best defined and described as “walking after God’s commandments.” It might have been thought that love would be a vague immeasurable feeling, differing chiefly in intensity; but the Christian disposition which is described as love is that practical and enlightened result of faith which naturally acts and expresses itself by following God’s will in all things. (Comp. 1 John 4:7; 1 John 4:16.)

(2 d.) This is the commandment.—The sum of all God’s commandments for us is this: that we should be doers of the word which we have heard since first Christ began to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, and not of any other. All development from what He said, or from what we have repeated from Him is disobedience and error. (Comp. 1 John 2:24.)

(2 e.) The appearance of deceivers is the reason for this warning against false progress (2 John 1:7).

The ground of his love for the matron and her family was that they held to the truth. He is proportionately anxious that they should not go beyond it through evil influences.

(7) Deceivers.—“Those who cause others to wander.” (Comp. 1 John 2:26; 1 John 4:1-6; 1 Timothy 4:1.)

Entered into the world.—Comp. 1 John 2:19; 1 John 4:1.

Confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.—Rather, confess not Jesus Christ coming in flesh. The Greek implies the idea only, without reference to time. (Comp. 1 John 4:2-3.) The expression would include both those who denied that Jesus was the Messiah, and those who, for Gnostic theories, held Him to be only a phantom, declaring the Incarnation to be an impossibility.

This is . . .—Rather, the deceiver, and the antichristi.e., among all the human errors by which the influence of the Evil One is manifested, this is the most destructive. Those who adopt such errors are the most fatal deceivers and opponents of Christ and truth.

(2 f.) The warning (2 John 1:8).

(8) Look to yourselves.—For the triple “we” in this verse, read “ye.” The result of the error would be loss of the fellowship with the Father and the Son in truth and love. (Comp. Galatians 3:1-4; Galatians 4:11.)

Which we (or, ye) have wrought.—Their faith, hope, love, and the growth of the Christian graces.

A full reward.—The diminution of the reward would be in proportion to the gravity of the error. The reward would be the peace of God which passeth all understanding, the blessed stability, firmness, and joy which truth and love communicate. (Comp. Colossians 3:24; Galatians 4:2.)

(2 g.) The test (2 John 1:9).

Progression beyond Christ’s teaching, a sign of the absence of God; refusal to go beyond His lines a proof of the presence of Father and Son.

(9) Transgresseth.—Rather, goeth beyond. (Comp. Matthew 21:9; 1 Timothy 1:18; 1 Timothy 5:24; 2 Timothy 3:7; 2 Timothy 3:14; Titus 1:9.)

The doctrine of Christ.—That which Christ taught. (Comp. Matthew 7:28; Matthew 16:12; Matthew 22:33; Mark 1:22; Mark 4:2; Mark 12:38; John 8:31; Acts 2:42; Acts 5:28.)

Hath not God.—Comp. 1 John 2:23; 1 John 5:12.

(2 h.) Practical direction (2 John 1:10-11).

Although it would be possible to love unbelievers, in the sense of earnestly desiring that they might come to a knowledge of the truth, it would be wrong—for sincere Christians it would be impossible—to hold out to them the right hand of fellowship. Especially dangerous would it be for the matron and her family. (Comp. 2 Timothy 3:6.)

(10) If there come.—The construction implies that it was the case. St. John was dealing with facts. St. Paul held the same view (Romans 16:17; Galatians 1:8-9; Titus 3:10-11; and, in regard to morals, 1 Corinthians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 16:22).

This doctrine.—See 2 John 1:9. He is not speaking of those who had never heard or been instructed in the doctrine of Christ; they would be less dangerous. He means those who deliberately altered the Apostolic teaching. And his reason is evidently chiefly the religious welfare of the matron and her family. The case supplies an important instruction in the theory of Christian social conduct.

Receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed.—These are no terms of ordinary politeness, which the Apostle does not forbid, but terms of close Christian intimacy and spiritual communion, the deliberate cultivation of personal acquaintance, fraternal intercourse. The highest sort of Christian brotherly love—love, that is, in its fulness and truth—can only find reciprocity in the same atmosphere of Christ, on the same basis, and in the same characteristics. (Comp. 2 Corinthians 6:16.)

(11) Is partaker of his evil deeds.—Condones his false doctrine; puts himself in a position to accept it; shares the guilt of his disloyalty by sympathising with him; and in this way lowers his whole moral standard, doing an injury to “God, Christ, the Church, the truth, individual communities, and his own soul.” If any interpret the exhortations to love in the Epistles of St. John too liberally, or by too low a measure, this passage is a wholesome corrective. In applying this teaching to modern times we should remember (1) that St. John is only speaking of those who deliberately deprave the doctrine of Christ in its great outlines; (2) that there may be much in ourselves, in our systems, in our quarrels, in our incrustations of divine truth, in our want of the sense of proportion in dealing with divine things, which may have hindered others from receiving Christ.

And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.
And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.
For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.
Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward.
Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.
If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:
For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.
Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.
(3) Conclusion (2 John 1:12-13).

(12) Having many things to write unto you.—This verse shows that the Letter to the matron and her family was not a mere accompaniment of a copy of the First Epistle. His heart is full of things to write, but he hopes soon to have unlimited conversation.

Paper.—The Egyptian papyrus.

Ink.—A mixture of soot, water, and gum. The papyrus-tree grows in the swamps of the Nile to the height of ten feet and more. Paper was prepared from the thin coats that surround the plant. Pliny describes the method (xiii. 23). The different pieces were joined together by the turbid Nile water, as it has a kind of glutinous property. One layer of papyrus was laid flat on a board, and a cross layer put over it; these were pressed, and afterwards dried in the sun. The sheets were then fastened or pasted together. There were never more than twenty of these sheets fastened together in a roll; but of course the length could be increased to any extent. The writing was in columns, with a blank slip between them; it was only on one side. When the work was finished, it was rolled on a staff, and sometimes wrapped in a parchment case (Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, p. 567).

Of the ink used by the Romans, Pliny says that it was made of soot in various ways, with burnt resin or pitch. “For this purpose they have built furnaces which do not allow the smoke to escape. The kind most commended is made in this way from pine-wood: it is mixed with soot from the furnaces or baths; and this they use for writing on rolls. Some also make a kind of ink by boiling and straining the lees of wine.” The black matter of the cuttle-fish was also sometimes used for writing (Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, p. 110).

The pen was a reed, sharpened with a knife, and split like a quill-pen.

The Jews seem to have used lamp-black dissolved in gall-juice, or lamp-black and vitriol, for ink. The modern scribes “have an apparatus consisting of a metal or ebony tube for their reed-pens, with a cup or bulb of the same material attached to the upper end for ink. This they thrust through the girdle, and carry with them at all times” (Thomson, The Land and the Book, p. 131; Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, p. 1802).

Speak face to face.—Not that there was any oral tradition which he would not write down. His Gospel and First Epistle would contain the outline of all his teaching. But on this occasion there was no need for writing. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 13:12.)

That our joy may be full.—Comp. 1 John 1:4. It would be the deep satisfaction of the interchange of spiritual thoughts and aspirations without the limitations of a monologue or of writing materials.

(13) The children of thy elect sister.—He may have been staying at this second matron’s house; at any rate, the family knew he was writing. The simplicity of the great Apostle, the personal friend of the risen Lord, the last of the great pillars of the Church of Christ—in transmitting this familiar message, makes a most instructive finish to what is throughout a beautiful picture.

The children of thy elect sister greet thee. Amen.
Courtesy of Open Bible