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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

2 John 1



Verses 1-13

Chapter 1

THE ELECT LADY (2 John 1:1-3)

1:1-3 The Elder to the Elect Lady and to her children, whom I love in truth (it is not only I who love you and them, but so do all who love the truth) because of the truth which abides in us and which will be with us for ever. Grace, mercy and peace will be with you from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Son of the Father, in truth and love.

The writer designates himself simply by the title of The Elder. Elder can have three different meanings.

(i) It can mean simply an older man, one who by reason of his years and experience is deserving of affection and of respect. There will be something of that meaning here. The letter is from an aged servant of Christ and the church.

(ii) In the New Testament the elders are the officials of the local churches. They were the first of all the church officials, and Paul ordained elders in his churches on his missionary journeys, as soon as it was possible to do so (Acts 4:21-23). The word cannot be used in that sense here, because these elders were local officials, whose authority and duties were confined to their own congregation, whereas The Elder of this letter clearly has an authority which extends over a much wider area. He claims the right to advise congregations in places where he himself is not a resident.

(iii) Almost certainly this letter was written in Ephesus in the province of Asia. In the church there Elder was used in a special sense. The elders were men who had been direct disciples of the apostles; it is from these men that both Papias and Irenaeus, who lived and worked and wrote in Asia, tell us that they got their information. The elders were the direct links between the second generation of Christians and the followers of Christ in the flesh. It is undoubtedly in that sense that the word is used here. The writer of the letter is one of the last direct links with Jesus Christ; and therein lies his right to speak.

As we have already said in the introduction, The Elect Lady is something of a problem. There are two suggestions.

(i) There are those who hold that the letter is written to an individual person. In Greek the phrase is Eklekte (Greek #1588) Kuria (Greek #2959). Kurios (Greek #2962) (the masculine form of the adjective) is a common form of respectful address and Eklekte (Greek #1588) could just possibly--though not probably--be a proper name, in which case the letter would be written to My Dear Eklekte. Kuria (Greek #2959), besides being a title of respectful address, can be a proper name, in which case eklekte (Greek #1588) would be an adjective and the letter would be to The Elect Kuria. Just possibly both words are proper names, in which case the letter would be to a lady called Eklekte Kuria.

But, if this letter is written to an individual, it is much more likely that neither word is a proper name and that the Revised Standard Version is correct in translating the phrase The elect lady. There has been much speculation as to who The Elect Lady might be. We mention only two of the suggestions. (a) It has been suggested that The Elect Lady is Mary, the mother of our Lord. She was to be a mother to John and he was to be a son to her (John 19:26-27), and a personal letter from John might well be a letter to her. (b) Kurios (Greek #2962) means Master; and Kuria (Greek #2959) as a proper name would mean Mistress. In Latin, Domina is the same name and in Aramaic, Martha; both meaning Mistress or Lady. It has, therefore, been suggested that the letter was written to Martha of Bethany.

(ii) It is much more likely that the letter is written to a church. It is far more likely that it is a church which all men love who know the truth (2 John 1:1 ). 2 John 1:4 says that some of the children are walking in the truth. In 2 John 1:4; 2 John 1:8; 2 John 1:10; 2 John 1:12 the word you is in the plural, which suggests a church. Peter uses almost exactly the same phrase when he sends greetings from The Elect One (the form is feminine) which is at Babylon (1 Peter 5:13).

It may well be that the address is deliberately unidentifiable. The letter was written at a time when persecution was a real possibility. If it were to fall into the wrong hands, there might well be trouble. And it may be that the letter is addressed in such a way that to the insider its destination is quite clear, while to the outsider it would look like a personal letter from one friend to another.

LOVE AND TRUTH (2 John 1:1-3 continued)

It is of great interest to note how in this passage love and truth are inseparably connected. It is in the truth that the elder loves the elect lady. It is because of the truth that he loves and writes to the church. In Christianity we learn two things about love.

(i) Christian truth tells us the way in which we ought to love. Agape (Greek #26) is the word for Christian love. Agape (Greek #26) is not passion with its ebb and flow, its flicker and its flame; nor is it an easy-going and indulgent sentimentalism. And it is not an easy thing to acquire or a light thing to exercise. Agape (Greek #26) is undefeatable goodwill; it is the attitude towards others which, no matter what they do, will never feel bitterness and will always seek their highest good. There is a love which seeks to possess; there is a love which softens and enervates; there is a love which withdraws a man from the battle; there is a love which shuts its eyes to faults and to ways which end in ruin. But Christian love will always seek the highest good of others and will accept all the difficulties, all the problems and all the toil which that search involves. It is of significance that John writes in love to warn.

(ii) Christian truth tells us the reason for the obligation of love. In his first letter, John clearly lays it down. He has talked of the suffering, sacrificing, incredibly generous love of God; and then he says, "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another" (1 John 4:11). The Christian must love because he iv loved. He cannot accept the love of God without showing love to the men God loves. Because God loves us, we must love others with the same generous and sacrificial love.

Before we leave this passage we must note one other thing. John begins this letter with a greeting, but it is a very unusual greeting. He says, "Grace, mercy and peace will be with us." In every other New Testament letter the greeting is in the form of a wish or a prayer. Paul usually says, "Grace be to you and peace." Peter says, "May grace and peace be multiplied to you" (1 Peter 1:2). Jude says, "May mercy, peace and love, be multiplied to you" (Jd 2 ). But here the greeting is a statement: "Grace, mercy and peace will be with us." John is so sure of the gifts of the grace of God in Jesus Christ that he does not pray that his friends should receive them; he assures them that they will receive them. Here is the faith which never doubts the promises of God in Jesus Christ.

TROUBLE AND CURE (2 John 1:4-6)

1:4-6 It gave me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, as we have received commandment from the Father. And now, Lady, not as if I were writing a new commandment to you, but a commandment which we have had from the beginning, I beg you that we should love one another. And this is love, that we should walk according to his commandments; and this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that we should walk in it.

In the church to which he is writing there are things to make John's heart glad and things to make it sad. It brings him joy to know that some of its members are walking in the truth; but that very statement implies that some are not. That is to say, within the church there is division, for there are those who have chosen to walk different roads. For all things John has one remedy and that is love. It is no new remedy and no new commandment; it is the word of Jesus himself: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). Only love can mend a situation in which personal relationships are broken. Rebuke and criticism are liable to awaken only resentment and hostility; argument and controversy are liable only to widen the breach; love is the one thing to heal the breach and restore the lost relationship.

But it is possible that those who, as John sees it, have gone the wrong way might say, "We do indeed love God." Immediately John's thoughts go to another saying of Jesus: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Jesus' actual commandment was to love one another and, therefore, anyone who does not keep this commandment does not really love God, however much he may claim to do so. The only proof of our love for God is our love for the brethren. This is the commandment, says John, which we have heard from the beginning and in which we must walk.

As we go on we shall see that there is another side to this and that there is no soft sentimentality in John's attitude towards those who were seducing men from the truth; but it is significant that his first cure for all the troubles of the church is love.


1:7-9 There is all the more reason to speak like this because there have gone out into the world many deceivers, men who do not confess that Jesus is Christ, and his coming in the flesh. Such a man is the deceiver and the Antichrist. Look to yourselves that you do not ruin that which we have wrought, but see to it that you receive a full reward. Everyone who advances too far and who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not possess God; it is he who abides in that teaching who has both the Father and the Son.

Already, in John 4:2, John has dealt with the heretics who deny the reality of the incarnation. There is one difficulty. In 1 John 4:2 the Greek is that Jesus has come in the flesh. The idea is expressed in a participle and the participle is in the past tense. It is the fact that the incarnation has happened which is stressed. Here there is a change and the participle is in the present tense: the literal translation would be that Jesus comes or is coming in the flesh. As far as the language goes this could mean either of two things.

(i) It could mean that Jesus is always coming in the flesh, that there is a kind of permanence about the incarnation, that it was not one act which finished in the thirty years during which Jesus was in Palestine but is timeless. That would be a great thought and would mean that now and always Jesus Christ, and God through him, is entering into the human situation and into human life.

(ii) It could be a reference to the Second Coming; and it could mean that Jesus is coming again in the flesh. It may well be that there was a belief in the early church that there was to be a second coming of Jesus in the flesh, a kind of incarnation in glory to follow the incarnation of humiliation. That, too, would be a great thought.

But it may well be that C. H. Dodd is right when he says that in a late Greek writer like John, who did not know Greek as the great classical writers knew it, we cannot lay all this stress on tenses; and that we are better to take it that he means the same as he meant in 1 John 4:2. That is, these deceivers are denying the reality of the incarnation and therefore denying that God can fully enter into the life of man.

It is intensely significant to note how the great thinkers held on with both hands to the reality of the incarnation. In the second century, again and again Ignatius insists that Jesus was truly born, that he truly became man, that he truly suffered and that he truly died. Vincent Taylor, in his book on The Person of Christ, reminds us of two great statements of the incarnation. Martin Luther said of Jesus: "He ate, drank, slept, waked; was weary, sorrowful, rejoicing; he wept and he laughed; he knew hunger and thirst and sweat; he talked, he toiled, he that there was no difference between him and other men, save only this, that he was God, and had no sin." Emil Brunner cites that passage, and then goes on to say, "The Son of God in whom we are able to believe must be such a One that it is possible to mistake him for an ordinary man."

If God could enter into life only as a disembodied phantom, the body stands for ever despised; then there can be no real communion between the divine and the human; then there can be no real salvation. He had to become what we are to make us what he is.

In 2 John 1:8-9 we hear beneath the words of John the claims of the false teachers.

It is their claim that they are developing Christianity discovering more truly what it means. John insists that they are destroying Christianity and wrecking the foundation which has been laid and on which everything must be built.

2 John 1:9 is interesting and significant. We have translated the first phrase everyone who goes too far. The Greek is proagon (Greek #4254). The verb means to go on ahead. The false teachers claimed that they were the progressives, the advanced thinkers, the men of the open and adventurous mind. John himself was one of the most adventurous thinkers of the New Testament. But he insists that, however far a man may advance, he must abide in the teaching of Jesus Christ or he loses touch with God. Here, then, is the great truth. John is not condemning advanced thinking; but he is saying that Jesus Christ must be the touchstone of all thinking and that whatever is out of touch with him can never be right. John would say, "Think--but take your thinking to the touchstone of Jesus Christ and the New Testament picture of him." Christianity is not a nebulous, uncontrolled theosophy; it is anchored to the historical figure of Jesus Christ.

NO COMPROMISE (2 John 1:10-13)

1:10-13 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house and do not greet him on the street; for he who greets him becomes a partner in his evil deeds.

Although I have many things to write to you, I do not wish to do so with paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and to speak to you face to face, that our joy may be completed.

The children of your Elect Sister send their greetings to you.

Here we see very clearly the danger which John saw in these false teachers. They are to be no hospitality; and the refusal of hospitality would be the most effective way of stopping their work. John goes further; they are not even to be given a greeting on the street. This would be to indicate that to some extent you had sympathy with them. It must be made quite clear to the world that the church has no tolerance for those whose teaching destroys the faith. This passage may seem on the face of it to run counter to Christian love; but C. H. Dodd has certain very wise things to say about it.

It is by no means without parallel. When the saintly Polycarp met the heretic Marcion, Marcion said: "Do you recognize me?" "I recognize Satan's first-born," answered Polycarp. It was John himself who fled from the public baths when Cerinthus, the heretic, entered them. "Let us hurry away lest the building collapse on us," he said, "because Cerinthus, the enemy of truth, is here."

We have to remember the situation. There was a time when it was touch and go whether the Christian faith would be destroyed by the speculations of pseudo-philosophic heretics. Its very existence was in peril. The church dared not even seem to compromise with this destructive corrosion of the faith.

This, as C. H. Dodd points out, is an emergency regulation and "emergency regulations make bad law." We may recognize the necessity of this way of action in the situation in which John and his people found themselves, without in the least holding that we must treat mistaken thinkers in the same way. And yet, to return to C. H. Dodd, a good-humoured tolerance can never be enough. "The problem is to find a way of living with those whose convictions differ from our own upon the most fundamental matters, without either breaking charity or being disloyal to the truth." It is there that love must find a way. The best way to destroy our enemies, as Abraham Lincoln said, is to make them our friends. We can never compromise with mistaken teachers but we are never free from the obligation of seeking to lead them into the truth.

So John comes to an end. He will not write any more for he hopes to come to see his friends and to speak to them face to face. Both Greek and Hebrew say, not face to face, but mouth to mouth. In the Old Testament God says of Moses: "With him I speak mouth to mouth" (Numbers 12:8). John was wise and he knew that letters can often only bedevil a situation and that five minutes heart to heart talk can do what a whole file of letters is powerless to achieve. In many a church and in many a personal relationship, letters have merely succeeded in exacerbating a situation; for the most carefully written letter can be misinterpreted, when a little speech together might have mended matters. Cromwell never understood John Fox, the Quaker, and much disliked him. Then he met him, and after he had spoken to him, he said, "If you and I had but an hour together, we would be better friends than we are." Church courts and Christian people would do well to make a resolution never to write when they could speak.

The letter closes with greetings from John's church to the friends to whom he writes, greetings, as it were, from one sister's children to another's, for all Christians are members of one family in the faith.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)



J. N. S. Alexander, The Epistles of John (Tch; E)

A. E. Brooke, The Johannine Epistles (ICC G)

C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (MC E)


ICC: International Critical Commentary

MC: Moffatt Commentary

Tch: Torch Commentary

E: English Text

G: Greek Text

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 2 John 1:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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