Like the Apostle Paul and Jesus before him, the Apostle John was a trainer of church-planters or new church start-ups. He would train up his leaders and then disperse them throughout areas in the Greek world where the witness of a community of Jesus-followers was not yet present. Not much is known about this. This is apparent from some of the inferences that John makes in these two tiny letters. It was this Greek world that John seems intent on reaching; this becomes clear by the theological arguments in the letters. He is writing to ‘the Elect Lady’ and ‘Gaius’ respectively, whom we’ve never met before in the biblical narrative and little is known of them other than in 2 & 3 John. Nevertheless, it is to these little, vulnerable churches that meet in their houses that John seeks to address in his epistles.
In both 2 & 3 John there is the sense of preserving the life of these youthful churches from outside enemies and from those amidst their ranks. This enemy were known as – ‘the Gnostics’. These Greek thinkers believed strongly in a dualised world. This was a polarised way of thinking that saw opposition between the earth and heaven, God’s closeness (immanence) versus his loftiness (transcendence), humanity versus God, the material versus the spiritual, the body versus the soul, ethics and deeds versus internal knowledge. In other words, anything that was physical was clearly understood as evil. Anything that was ethereal and immaterial was considered good.
The Gnostics offered a secret knowledge of Jesus to the ignorant. This was their false gospel. Knowledge was key. But John stressed a lived life of faith which stemmed from right thinking, not solely an exclusive knowledge.
Thus, when the incarnation of God the Son was promoted Gnostic reason was undermined because surely God could not lower himself to take a physical, human body? Surely this could not be! For by becoming human, by becoming physical God must have become evil! 2 John 7 should be analysed in light of this erroneous thinking.
3 John should be read in light of the troublesome Diotrephes, someone who was in danger of losing ‘control’ of a small house church he’d gained influence over. If John’s letter was allowed to circulate among its members, he was sure to be found out and his authority undermined. Who are those who hold the truth? This was the key question that John put forth among those he had oversight over. The answer: (i) only those who confess Jesus as the Son of the Father, who came ‘in the flesh’ were to be trusted. (ii) Not only this, but those who lived out the values of this Jesus and thus compounded these doctrinal truths were those who were clearly ‘in the truth.’
Only by paying attention to these things will the spread of Gnosticism be curbed. By participating in their error one had joined their deception! John’s apostolic protection of small groups of true followers was therefore paramount!
I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John (New International Commentary), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1978
Stephen S. Smalley, 1,2,3 John (Word Bible Commentary), Dallas: Word Books 1984
H. L. Drumwright Jr., ‘The Epistles of John’ in Merril Tenney (Gen. ed.), The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible – Vol.3, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House 1978, 656-7