The Apostle John, who referred to himself as the Elder, had written a cover letter to the chosen-of-God lady, that accompanied the circular he had written to all the assemblies in Asia, believers he had been teaching and shepherding for decades.
They were nearing the end of the first century, the Lord had risen sixty years previously, and the gospel had spread throughout the Roman empire—even farther! There were reports of apostles in India, in China, in southeast Asia. There were reports of those coming to faith in the farthest reaches of the west as well, south into Africa, and north to the coldest regions of ice and snow.
These were glorious tidings indeed!
But there was also conflict among the various assemblies, different ways of understanding the deeper things, some simply nuances, others more serious divisions, and some actually wrong teaching.
It was to this last John had set quill to papyrus, both to explain little-understood aspects of the gospel (including some timeline questions) as well as to protect the sacred truths Jesus had given them.
Walking in the Truth
The first thing John wanted to say to the lady was how pleased he was in finding those she taught and shepherded to be walking in the truth. For John, the word “truth” was a double entendre, for he meant walking in the light of Jesus, walking in the Spirit of Christ, and walking in the truth of Jesus’ teaching, the truest way of understanding Jesus’ teaching.
I was greatly rejoicing that I have found [some] of your children living in truth, just as [the] commandment we received from the father.Apostle John to the lady, 2 John 1:4 (my translation)
There are two notes:
- Some is in brackets because, though most translations interpret the Greek word ἐκ | ek out of, in this case, to indicate some out of all, I am not completely convinced it is to be read that way. I think it is equally possible John was saying those he knew of the people the lady was discipling, he was pleased with.
- Living is not an exact translation of the word περιπατοῦντας | peripatountas, which means to tread all around, i.e. walk at large (especially as proof of ability); figuratively, to live, deport oneself, follow. We have a similar word in English, peripatetic. John was saying he greatly rejoiced to learn of people following the truth, walking around in the truth wherever they went, keeping in step with the Spirit, in the assemblies within the lady’s shepherding care.
Live in Love
Based upon the heartening development in faith John had come to know, of people in the lady’s shepherding care, John encouraged her to lean into Jesus’ commandment to love one another—to agape one another—the signature of Jesus’ followers.
And now I ask you, lady, not as a new commandment [do] I write to you, but rather what we had from the beginning, that we may love [agape] one another.
And this is love [agape], so that we live according to His commandments—this is the commandment, just as you heard from the beginning, so that you may live in it.Apostle John to the lady, 2 John 1:5-6 (my translation)
When Jesus gave his disciples the commandment to love each other—not once, but several times throughout his discourse, after the Last Supper—he was referring to God’s commandment given to Moses, and found in the Torah.
you shall love [agape] your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.Leviticus 19:18 (NRSV)
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love [agape] the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.Leviticus 19:35 (NRSV)
When questioned during his ministry, Jesus affirmed this commandment as being a close second to the Shema itself.
“Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love [agape] the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
The second is this, ‘You shall love [agape] your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”Jesus, Mark 12:28:31 (NRSV)
Jesus brought this commandment home in the extended time of teaching he had with his disciples. Each time, Jesus used the word agape.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.Jesus to his disciples, John 13:34-35; 15:12 (NRSV)
Jesus also explained several times that to obey his command would be the fundamental expression of love for him.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.
Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.Jesus to his disciples, John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10
John reminded the lady of these two essential truths and how necessary they were to living by faith.
Because of the Deceivers
And now comes the intriguing part of this letter.
So far, so good, right?
It should not come as a great surprise that John was writing his letter to a woman leader in the church. Even a simple, cursory glance at the Christian testament reveals several prominent women among the evangelists and church leaders of the first century church. John’s gospel alone names five significant women in Jesus’ ministry (Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany, Martha of Bethany, and the woman at the well).
It should not come as a surprise that John would speak of love.
What does come as a surprise is what comes after the word because.
Because, many deceivers went into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ coming in flesh—this one is the deceiver and antichrist.Apostle John to the lady, 2 John 1:7 (my translation)
At first read, it feels a little random, does it not? Something of a non sequitur?
But, Jesus coming in the flesh was God’s ultimate expression of agape, of love.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in his own pastoral care, was battling the same spirit of antichrist, and the same false teachers, who were peddling Gnosticism.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love [agape], I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love [agape], I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love [agape], I gain nothing.Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NRSV)
Here are all the things the Apostle Paul said were absolutely nothing—gutted of all worth and value, categorically bereft of any kind of efficacy—without agape:
- Speaking in tongues
- Prophetic powers
- Understanding of all mysteries
- Understanding of all knowledge
- Having all faith, to the point of even being able to remove mountains (a reference to Jesus’ discourse on the power of faith)
- Giving away all possessions (a reference to Jesus’ instruction to the rich young ruler)
- Handing over the body to martyrdom
When I read that list, I feel a bit trembly, as though perhaps we were teetering on the edge of heresy.
And yet . . . that is what our scriptures avow. This is the Word of the Lord. This is what Paul wrote as he was swept up in the Spirit.
Apostle John, speaking as an elder to the lady, his coworker in Christ, reminded her of the paramount commandment they had received from Jesus: Agape one another, for this is our signature as those who walk in the light, who live in truth, who have put our faith in Christ, who have received the Spirit of God.