[Note: The following is the prepared text for a split sermon given at the annual campout for the United Church of God congregation in Portland, Oregon on August 26, 2017.]
Some of you here have met my mother. I grew up in a single parent household as a child after my parents separated when I was three, and among my mother’s many distinctive habits when I was a child was her reaction to frustrating or bothersome situations: “I feel a letter coming on,” she would say, and so it happened. With small but very neat writing, usually in blue ink from a pen not unlike my own [raises pen], she would write letters about matters that she viewed as unfair and unjust in the hope of spurring someone to some sort of action. For her, letter writing was not an activity of leisure of amusement, but was a serious attempt to resolve a problem. Perhaps it is little surprise that I should view the task of writing a hand-written letter the same way . When I sit down with pen and paper in hand and write out a letter, I almost always approach the letter from the same perspective, as someone under a considerable amount of compulsion to write a letter to deal with an awkward or unpleasant situation where I want some sort of action to be taken by the recipient of the letter. Undoubtedly you all have your own approaches and your own context for letter writing.
When we open our Bibles and look at the pages of scripture, especially in the New Testament, we find many examples of letters. We call them epistles, for example, and they make up a substantial portion of the New Testament. Just as is the case with my mother and I, so too in the Bible, we find that the letters of the Bible are frequently written because there is some sort of problem that needs to be addressed or some sort of awkward situation that needs to be resolved. 1 Corinthians is full of awkward and unpleasant situations that Paul wishes to resolve, Philemon makes an awkward request about a Christian master freeing a runaway slave who had converted because of Paul’s ministry, and letters like Galatians and Colossians and Jude and 2 Peter warn the reader about doctrinal heresies that the readers need to be aware of and resist. Just as the task of physically writing a letter is often painful for me because of my cramped and arthritic hands, making it a task I do not relish doing, so to in the ancient world writing a letter was not an easy task, and so it was saved for important issues that could not be dealt with any other way.
2 and 3 John
Today I would like to examine two letters in scripture that we seldom read with any depth and place these two letters in parallel to see what they might say to their original audience, what they say about the author, and what they say to us today. When we look at these two short letters in parallel, they provide a context that adds a depth that might seem to be lacking when we look at these letters in isolation. Without any further ado, then, let us turn in our Bibles towards the very back and read our two texts for today. We will begin with 2 John, a book that has only thirteen verses. 2 John, in its entirety, reads: “The Elder, to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all those who have known the truth, because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. I rejoiced greatly that I have found some of your children walking in truth, as we received commandment from the Father. And now I plead with you, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another. This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full. The children of your elect sister greet you. Amen.”
Let us now turn the page and read 3 John, which is only fourteen verses. 3 John reads: “The Elder, to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth: Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers. For I rejoiced greatly when brethren came and testified of the truth that is in you, just as you walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name’s sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth. I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself. And we also bear witness, and you know that our testimony is true. I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. Peace to you. Our friends greet you. Greet the friends by name.”
What These Books Say To Their Audience
Given that we are dealing with two short and relatively straightforward letters here, let us ask the first overarching question we have about these texts: what would they have said to their original audience? Who was the original audience of these letters? This is a more interesting question than might seem to be the case. 2 John 1:1 tells us, for example, that this letter is written to the elect lady and her children. What is her name? The Bible does not say. There are two predominant opinions about the original audience to this book. According to one school of thought, the elect lady was an anonymous woman who John wrote a letter to, and that the closing greetings from the children of her sister were messages added at the end as was customary given the rarity of letter writing. According to another school of thought, the elect lady was a symbol of the congregation whose children were then the members of that congregation. In this view the children of her sister were the members of the congregation where John wrote the letter from. At least in the case of 3 John, 3 John 1:1 tells us that the letter is addressed to Gaius, but we do not have more details as to this person like where he lived or anything else about him besides the few and general comments made in the book itself. We might note, therefore, that these letters are relatively private letters, without the sort of details that would have drawn a great deal of attention to their audience.
What is the genre and structure of these letters? There are many types of letters. These are not love letters, they are not apology letters, they are not condolence letters nor are they congratulating someone on graduating high school or college or on having a baby. Rather, they are instructional letters and each of them also wishes to make a request of the reader. We may say, therefore, that these letters are both of the same mix of genres with the aim of informing the reader as well as requesting something from them. Having dealt with the genre of 2 and 3 John, let us now ask: What is their structure? Both 2 and 3 John have the same tripartite structure. The letters begin with a note as to their author and recipient along with the well wishes of the writer to the recipient. After this introduction section, the author then relays his news and/or makes his request of the recipient. The letter then closes with miscellaneous comments and messages passed on from others or to pass on from others.
Because most of us are only familiar with ancient letters because of the Bible, we might not realize that both 2 and 3 John are fairly typical examples of the letters of their times in being short and in having this very simple three-part structure of introduction, body, and conclusion. I will read for you an example of an ancient letter from a Roman soldier to his family in remote rural Egypt : “Apion to his father and lord Epimachos: Many good wishes! First of all I hope you are in good health and that things are going well for you and my sister and her daughter and my brother. I thank the Lord Serapis [an Egyptian god] for saving me right off when I was in danger at sea. When I arrived at Misenum [the Roman war harbor, near Naples], I received three gold pieces from the Emperor [Trajan?] as road money, and I’m doing just fine. Please write me a line, my lord father, about your own well-being, second about that of my brother and sister, and third so that I may devotedly greet your hand, because you brought me up well and I may therefore hope for rapid promotion, the gods willing. Give my regards to Capiton [some friend] and my brother and sister and Serenilla [a family slave?] and my friends. I’m sending you my little portrait through Euktemon. My [new]Roman name is Antonius Maximus. All my best!” We see that this too is a short letter and it too has the same three-part structure we see in 2 and 3 John. The author introduces himself and the recipient of the letter along with his well wishes for the recipient. He then recounts his information and makes a request. He also has messages to pass on to other people and he then closes the letter. The content of the letters is certainly different, as are the religious beliefs of the people writing the letters, but the form and structure of the letters is very similar. We might say, therefore, that 2 and 3 John were written in a way that would have been very familiar to the letter’s recipients.
When examining the genre of 2 and 3 John we noted that John is making a request of his readers. What request did he make? Here we see a contrast that is deeply instructive. In 2 John, as we see, after warning his audience about transgressors and deceivers and antichrists, he forbids the recipient of the letter–and presumably later readers as well–from treating such people as friends and fellowshipping with them and showing hospitality to them, telling his readers that those who do so share the judgment and punishment that is given to evildoers. In contrast, Gaius is commanded to show hospitality to the traveling minister Demetrius, about whom nothing more is known, despite the hostility of Diotrophes, a power-hungry leader in Gaius’ local congregation who has been throwing his weight around and disfellowshipping those who show favor to John and people sent by him. We have two principles to keep in mind, therefore. On the one hand, we are commanded to show friendliness and hospitality to godly travelers even when doing so makes our lives more troublesome, but we are absolutely forbidden to show that friendliness and hospitality to those who corrupt and pervert biblical doctrines and teachings. The two letters, therefore, place their readers in a context where the understanding of truth and doctrine places upon them an obligation to act in such a way that makes our own loyalties and positions plain to see, come what may.
What These Books Say About Their Author
Having briefly examined what 2 and 3 John are saying to their audience, let us know turn to address the question of what they say about their author. First of all, who was their author? The books themselves are ascribed to the Elder, and nearly universally this has been understood to refer to the Apostle John, who was the last surviving apostle. Given that these letters were probably written in the period after 85AD, when John would have been an elderly fellow, calling himself “the Elder” makes reasonable sense as it was unambiguous. Clearly, as the author writes with considerable authority, sending traveling ministers around and expecting a member to disobey a local authority in his congregation, as in 3 John, the author was someone of considerable power within the Church, even if he feels it unnecessary to refer to himself by name.
We should note that this is a characteristic habit of the apostle John. Repeatedly in the Gospel of John, for example, the author refers to himself as the beloved disciple or the disciple that Jesus loved rather than by his name, so his reticence to call himself by name is not unusual or surprising. Nor is this the only characteristic habit of John that we see from these two letters. The writing of these two letters matches very closely with both the Gospel of John and especially with 1 John. 2 John tells us that to love God is to do His commandments, a message that 1 John also tells us. 3 John tells us that those who do good know God but those who do evil have not seen God, and this too is a familiar message. Like many writers, John had characteristic concerns–for truth and love, for example–and these concerns show up repeatedly in his writing.
Let us also note one more distinct quality of John that is of particular importance for us and that serves as part of his closing frequently in his writings. 2 John tells us in its closing: “Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.” 3 John has a strikingly similar closing: “I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face.” This caution about the limitation of writing is something shared by the same author at the very end of the Gospel of John in John 21:25. John 21:25 reads: “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Writing letters has its place, but it also has its limits. Writing allows us to communicate across distance–the emotional distance between two people that may make face-to-face communication awkward and unpleasant, the distance of space that made it impossible before contemporary technology for people far apart to communicate using tone and nonverbal body language, and the distance of time that allows John’s letters to speak to us two thousand years after he lived. Yet when we can, it is far to be preferred for us to talk face to face rather than writer to reader. It is both easier to understand and also more pleasant to communicate directly with others whenever possible.
We learn a lot about writers by what they write. This may seem obvious, but it is not always so. All too often, unfortunately, people read not to understand what the author is trying to say, but to confirm their own view of the author. For example, I have in my library a book by an author whose claims of how the Gospel of John “really happened” correspond only to the author’s imagination and not to John at all. Likewise, one can read dozens of commentaries of Revelation that only seem to confirm the ideas of the authors of these books and do not necessarily resemble other books about Revelation or the book of Revelation itself particularly closely. When we read a text, we must be very careful to separate what we read out of a text–what is the author really saying–from what we are reading into a text–what we think about the author, what prejudices and preconceived notions we bring to the text. Whether we receive handwritten letters in cramped left-handed writing or we read letters from the Bible, it is of the utmost importance that to the best of our ability we read the letters seeking to understand, not to confirm our existing perspective. Often in life we are reading letters or receiving letters because something is wrong, and under those circumstances our perspective is likely part of the problem.
What These Books Say To Us
Having briefly examined the short letters of 2 and 3 John and seen what they said to their audience as well as what they say about their author, let us turn to what these books have to say to us today. We should first note something that ought to be obvious, but is not always, and that is that our own concerns and perspectives will be far different from those of the original recipients of these letters. The recipients of these letters knew the Apostle John personally and could expect to speak to him face to face about questions they had about the letter and what it meant, as well as what other matters the author chose not to discuss for whatever reason. We do not have that luxury at present, and so all we have is the text to understand what John was saying. For John’s audience, the text could be supplemented by their own personal understanding of the author and what he meant and from their own face to face conversations with him. For us, the text is all we have except our own imagination.
Even so, although John was not writing directly to us, and even though we have very different concerns and perspectives and contexts from John and from the people he wrote to, these books do speak to us and to our own experiences. Therefore let us seek to gain what insight we can from these books, remembering of course that much of what the author wished to communicate is unknown because we lack the context to fully understand what he was saying. Let us note that John begins and ends his letters in love. In 2 John he wishes his readers grace, mercy, and peace, and in 3 John he wishes Gaius to prosper in all things and to be in good health, and closes the letter with a wish for peace. Throughout the letters he speaks of love, and of knowing God personally face to face through obedience and walking with God, even as the people John was writing to had the opportunity to know him face to face by walking and talking with him. We could reasonably hope that if John were around today he would have the same fond wishes for us and the same desire for face to face communication.
John sends contemporary readers a complicated message when it comes to fellowship with apostates and heretics and those under church discipline. 2 John tells us that those who greet or approve of someone’s message share in that judgment. If we sit down at a table and eat with someone, what sort of approval of them and of their life are we giving? Is that a message we want to send? What about if we like a post of theirs, or share a video they make? Are we endorsing what we say about that subject or every other subject that they write or speak or sing about? If so, is that an endorsement we would wish to make about very many people? 3 John, on the other hand, tells us that we have an obligation to provide hospitality to godly people even when such acts bring trouble and difficulty into our lives. John commands Gaius to show hospitality to an unpopular but godly messenger and tells Gaius that he will deal with the repercussions when he sets affairs aright. It is not difficult for us to imagine that we may be called upon to stand up and show our support for unpopular people who the world and its authorities may consider obnoxious but who are godly, and that we may have to face difficulties and repercussions for standing with unpopular but righteous people. Will we have the moral courage to stand beside godly people at their least likable and popular?
Nor do these lessons exhaust what 3 John can tell us. Just as John had to wrestle with the complexities of communication in writing the letters that we have examined today, so too we are people whose lives are often filled with frustrations and problems involving communication. Our written communications may be different than those of the apostle John, but we too communicate with others through text–through written letters, text messages, e-mails, social media, blog posts, and articles for magazines and newspapers. Just as John encouraged his readers to communicate not only through writing but also face to face, so too we face the issue of how we resolve our own concerns about the writings of others. Are we the sort of people who others would wish to speak with face to face if they had questions or concerns about what we wrote? We too may have much to say but may also need to realize that not everything that we have to say is ideal for paper and ink, or keyboard and monitor. Ultimately, like John, what we are seeking is not literary immortality for our letters, but rather relationships with God and others to be conducted in person. Our writing must serve those ends.
I may have spoken more deeply about my own approach to writing and, more to the point, the epistles of 2 and 3 John than you perhaps imagined possible. The two letters of 2 and 3 John take up a couple of pages with plenty of blank space beneath them in many Bibles, and are only twenty-seven verses long. Much about the context of the letters as well as the recipients of the letters remains unknown and for us, unknowable at present. Even so, these letters both instructed their recipients, made requests of them concerning the issue of fellowship and hospitality, and encouraged their readers with the promise of face to face communication. These letters spoke eloquently enough about love, truth, and peace to be preserved, and these letters still encourage and inspire us today. Let us strive to show the same concern and graciousness towards any recipients of our letters that John wrote for the recipients of his letters. If we are particularly lucky–or particularly unlucky–people may be reading the mail we send hundreds or even thousands of years from now. Let us hope they appreciate what they read from our letters.
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 This letter was written about at greater length here: