William Kelly Major Works Commentary
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;2 John Chapter 1
2 John 1:1-13.
"The elder to in elect lady* and her children, whom I love in truth, and not I only but also all who have known the truth, for the truth's sake, which abideth in us, and it shall be with us for ever. Grace shall be with you, mercy, peace, from God [the] Father and from Jesus Christ the Son of the Father, in truth and love.
"I rejoiced exceedingly that I have found of thy children walking in truth even as we received commandment from the Father. And now I beseech thee, lady, not as writing to thee a new commandment but that which we had from [the] beginning that we should love one another. And this is love that we should walk according to his commandments. This is the commandment even as ye heard from [the] beginning that ye should walk in it. Because many misleaders went forth into the world, they that confess not Jesus Christ coming in flesh. This is the misleader and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we may not lose what we wrought but receive full reward. Every one that goeth onward and abideth not in the doctrine of the Christ hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine, he hath both the Father and the Son. If any one cometh to you and bringeth not this doctrine, receive him not at home and greet him not; for he that greeteth him partaketh in his wicked works.
"Having many things to write to you, I would not with paper and ink; but I hope to come unto you and to speak mouth unto mouth that our joy may be made full. The children of thine elect sister greet thee."
* There have existed from post-apostolic times till our day all sorts of differing views as to this address: Some for Eclecta as a proper name; others for Kyria; a third class for "the church" in more senses than one adumbrated thereby, to say nothing of the Virgin Mary. It appears to me that it was a living sister in Christ to whom the Holy Spirit would have the apostle write without giving her name; and that her "elect sister" in the last ver. (13) strongly confirms this, as it explodes the notion of "the church," which pleased Jerome (Ep. 123 ad Ageruchiam), the Schol. i., in Matthaei and Cassiodorus; and among moderns, Calovius, Hammond, Michaelis, etc. I am disposed even to think that the more literal rendering was really intended "to an elect lady," etc., though I shrank from acting on what seems not to have occurred to any one else.
It ought to strike any careful reader of Scripture as remarkable, that we have an apostolic epistle avowedly addressed to a lady and her children. Considering the reserve of the apostles and the unusual character of such an address, surely we ought to inquire why the Holy Spirit here departs from His ordinary way, and the more so as the first Epistle of John is so expressly general and large; for it is addressed, if to any, to the whole family of God. It has no local association, nothing personal in the usual sense of what is individual, that is to say, belonging to specified persons. 1 John is so open as to take in every member of God's family wherever they may be, more so than any other save perhaps the Epistle of Jude. Yet the same John, and it would seem at a subsequent time, was led by the Holy Spirit to address one individual, and this not a man but a woman and her children too. Later still he writes to a man in his Third Epistle, and we may readily see the propriety both of this and of the topic there handled for his good and ours. His name is given, but in the Second Epistle before us the lady is addressed as such without indicating her name, wherein we may perceive a delicate suitableness. Although no doubt the lady's need was met, nevertheless she was spared needless pain and publicity, whilst an Epistle inspired and of the utmost value was meant for saints then and at all times.
At any rate these are facts, and we are entitled to form a judgment which none need accept who are not convinced that the explanation fairly approves itself to their intelligence. We have a brief letter, but one of the most solemn Epistles in the New Testament, more fundamental than the very interesting and instructive one addressed to Gaius afterwards. Yet this was written to a lady and included her children. Reasons therefore of permanent and urgent importance must have outweighed ordinary considerations for the Holy Spirit through the apostle to send such a peculiarly serious Epistle to the elect lady and her children; and so we cannot but discern from its contents. For they entirely corroborate this fact, that the Holy Spirit went out of His ordinary path, and here for reasons of commanding moment addresses a lady and her children, making them immediately and in the highest degree responsible to act on the truth conveyed in this letter.
A true Christ or a false one was in question. In all the Bible what is more important than that, especially since the manifestation of the Christ? Before He appeared it was the enemy's aim to occupy the minds of believers with present and subordinate objects. But now the true Christ was presented according to promise, now the Son of God was attested with irrefragable testimony and in personal grace and truth, and has given understanding that we should know Him that is true, Himself too declared to be "the true God and life eternal." It was a bold step of Satan who knew this well, to engage professing Christians to falsify the truth about Christ, to make an idol against Christ, as of old he made idols against Jehovah, when He dealt with Israel after the flesh under law. For one so subtle it became, now that the Son of God had come in grace and truth, a congenial enterprise to decry the truth as but elementary, and to present a wholly false Christ, so as to pollute the source of all blessing, and destroy souls misled to the wrong Christ instead of the One not only true but the truth.
This is exactly what Satan was there and then attempting by the many antichrists, and it is what accounts for the extraordinary appeal of the Holy Spirit in this Epistle. "The elder," says the apostle. Thus does he descend from the first place in the church of God, which he was fully entitled to fill, but love instinctively takes the more excellent way, and here the Holy Spirit inspired it for the special need. So the apostle Paul did now and then; and so did our apostle in all his Epistles. It is thus we have God teaching us even by the smallest change in scripture, by everything said and by everything not said, something more perfectly than in any other way. Hence we may not doubt that there was a particular wise and worthy reason why the apostle John should introduce himself under the name of "elder," rather than apostle, both to the elect lady and to the beloved Gaius.
Yet observe another point. He does not say to the well-beloved lady. Some Christians are fond of warm expressions to individuals without any sufficient occasion for them. It is not a good habit, particularly where a lady is in the case. There is no indiscretion in so writing to a brother. When one thinks of what men and women are, one apprehends the wisdom of God that "the elder," old as he was, avoids these terms to the lady, and sets a good example to others in this respect. Had he ever so holily done otherwise, many would have imitated him. But, as it stands, all was wisely ordered; and it is well for us to profit by what we read here.
"The elder to an elect lady." He is careful to write with respect but without adulation. There is no commending of himself, no self-seeking. He might be considered cold rather than erring on the score of strong expressions. "The elder to an elect lady." Her position was not slighted, but what both valued was the title of divine grace, not what she owed to providence. She was elect of God, one chosen in Christ by and for God Himself. What consideration is nearer to the heart purified by faith? The apostle was led to use the term which owned the sovereign action of God. God hid chosen her out of all her natural associations, and the apostle delights to recognise that she was brought even on earth into new and divine ones. How blessed to know that so it is still for every true Christian! But even in these introductory words we may notice how true each Epistle is to God's object in it. The aim here is to guard the elect lady and her children from the seductive snares of an antichrist. The aim in the Epistle to Gaius is to encourage him in the face of obstacles to persevere in the path of grace as he had begun. "Elect" brought God before the lady, as "The beloved" cheered Gaius not to mind the frowns of Diotrephes. People often grow weary in well-doing when they find themselves deceived by those whom they might have lovingly served, and ruffled a little by the criticism of such as habitually oppose without any serious effort to help in difficulties. These enigmas Christ enables us to solve.
"The elder to an elect lady and her children." Who can doubt in ordinary circumstances that, when the apostle John saw these children, he accosted them affectionately, and that they knew his tenderness of feeling for them. But he was writing on a very solemn subject, in presence of which a lady and her children of themselves dwindle into insignificance, were it not for the Lord's name, and the title grace had given. Here the apostle puts before them in the most forcible manner their obligation to care and jealousy for the glory of Christ. It admitted of no compromise. Satan's undermining of the truth of Christ was a fact going on then. They were in danger; the apostle knew it, and writes to put them on their guard. Everything usual became subordinate to God's honour in the case. It is now a question of a real Christ, and John has before him their danger of unwittingly slighting Christ's glory. Therefore his words are comparatively few, plain and decided. He soon reaches the point, and he speaks in a manner that ought never to be misunderstood by any Christian. He does, however, assure them of his love in truth; for this failed wherever Christ was lost. "Whom I love in truth." Oh how weighty and searching! It was not because of personal qualities that he loved. He may have seen ever so much sweetness in them; but of this he says nothing, only of "love in truth." This goes beyond loving "in the truth"; he loved "in truth." No doubt they had the truth. While of course there never can be truth without the truth, in truth means truly.
The apostle felt it of importance, in the midst of hollowness through waning of the truth, to assure them of divine reality in his love. They were souls whom God had brought to Himself through the truth; "And not I only but also all who have known the truth." What a wonderful thing it is to count on the love that is of God in such a world of vain show as this! John can warrant every Christian's love without any modification. As having Christ their life, he can assuredly count that every Christian loved this elect lady and her children, as he himself did. His apostolic authority in no way hindered his loving these children with their mother - They were God's children, and not merely hers, whom he says "I love in truth;" and he could say further that not he only loved them but also all those who have known the truth. Are not these the links to rivet and value, dear brethren? The apostle then could count upon all those that knew the truth loving the lady and her children in truth. It could not be without life in Christ, and the Spirit given to us after redemption to carry it out in the face of all obstacles. Seen in the fullest perfection in Christ, it is reproduced in the Christian.
"For the truth's sake, which abideth in us, and it shall be with us for ever." This is a very striking way of speaking of the truth. The apostle here personifies the truth as Paul did the gospel in Phil. 1. The apostle was a minister of the church as well as of the gospel, and although he wrote of the church as none ever did, nevertheless he preached the gospel too as no other ever preached. He delighted in the glad tidings of God's grace and of Christ's glory. He never set either against the truth of the church. On the contrary, he ministered both in the depth of grace and in the height of glory. He felt as the apostle John here expresses it "for the truth's sake which abideth in us, and it shall be with us for ever." Neither would have said this for any Christian institution however significant. An institution has its place which none can despise or overlook but to their real loss; but what is it compared to "the truth"? The institution is only for a little, and might terminate for ever in a moment. But the truth! Why, it abideth in us, and it shall be with us for ever. It is meant to have growing power over the heart all the time we are here below; and we shall only have it perfectly to enjoy in heaven and through eternity.
Then follows his suited salutation, "Grace be with you, mercy, peace:" "Grace," the fountain of divine love toward sinners; "peace," the fruit of Christ's work for believers, both generally wished to the saints; "mercy" meeting individual need in weakness and trial. So here it is for the elect lady and her children. We can see its suitableness here, for the very writing to her and them implies it. Whenever we think of ourselves individually, the need of mercy from God is felt. When we speak about the church and her privileges and the height of glory to which she is destined in and with Christ, the need is swallowed up in the glory of God's grace. But the individual has wants still calling for "mercy" in evident ways.
Grace and peace are for the church as a whole while here below. "Grace shall be with you, mercy, peace from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ the Son of the Father," must have been all the more cheering to the lady and her children, as it took the form of an assurance rather than a wish or prayer. "The Son of the Father" is also said here only. Why? The denial of His glory by the enemy was answered by an unusual assertion of it. The Spirit of God waves the bright banner in Satan's face for the strengthening of this Christian family summoned to stand loyally. "The Son of the Father!" What a glorious title! Christians are often called sons and children: none but our Lord is called "the Son of the Father." All is assured to them in truth and love. He alone secures. Without Him we never could have been brought out of darkness into the light of God. To Him we are indebted for the knowledge of the Father and of Himself. He was the fulness of truth and love, and has by His grace and work made us to know, possess and enjoy it all in our souls.
"I rejoice greatly," he continues, "that I have found of thy children." He does not say thy children, and why? Because there may have been one or more of them who not yet had confessed the Saviour and Lord. Possibly one or more might have slipped under the evil influence of the misleaders. He, for some sufficient reason, only goes so far as to say "of thy children walking in truth." This is the grand point, because of a necessary limitation even then, not merely knowing the truth but "walking in truth," or as the same apostle says in the Gospel, "he that doeth the truth" (John 3:21). But he proceeds, "According (or, even) as we received a commandment from the Father." As some Christians are apt to think that a commandment must necessarily be legal, it is well they should be disabused of the mistake. No one speaks more of commandments than our Lord, and this too in the Gospel of John, who repeats the same word frequently in these Epistles, wherein the law is completely left behind and never alluded to. There the Son of God shines as nowhere else; yet the Son of God loved to speak of commandments both for Himself and for us on principles wholly distinct from the law, as in John 10:18, John 12:49, John 13:34, John 14:15; Joh 14:21; Joh 14:31, John 15:10.
And why so? Because He had taken the place of man, that is, of entire dependence and even obedience. Albeit the Son of the Father, He emptied Himself, taking a bondman's form as He took His place in the likeness of men; and being found in figure as a man He humbled Himself, "becoming obedient unto death, even death of the cross." It was not that He gave up or could give up Deity, but He renounced the glory proper to His personal dignity in order to vindicate God and bless man; and in order to accomplish this work, He as the perfect servant, He a dependent man, received everything from God His Father. Consequently, as is said of Him in Ps. 40 "Mine ears hast Thou opened" (or, dug) in becoming incarnate. More than this, His ear was open daily, morning by morning, as in Isa. 50, He listened to what His Father had to say. Finally, as the true Hebrew servant, Ex. 21, instead of going out free, He abides servant for ever, of which the ear bored before the judges was the sign, to the Lord the still deeper sign of death. Such was He alone. But we, once lost sinners, by faith have received the life of Christ, as well as the anointing of the Holy Spirit; we love His commandments, as He loved His Father's; and we are thus meant to show forth His excellencies. For what else are we left here? The Lord Jesus always hung upon the commandment of His Father. In Him the love and the obedience were absolutely perfect; and we follow Him, but Oh how unequal are our steps!
The Lord Jesus learnt obedience by the things that He suffered. We learn to obey, judging our reluctance; and the Holy Spirit makes it liberty through the grace of Christ. He learnt obedience because, as God, it was quite a new thing to Him. We have to learn it because we are naturally disobedient, which is quite another thing. By grace we love the word, and honour the God that loves us with all our hearts. Now we thankfully receive a commandment of the Father. Is there anything good that is not based upon divine authority? And the blotting out of divine authority would be an unutterable loss. No doubt there is more than authority, there is divine love; but while love was ever in God and manifested to us when godless and evil, we when converted always begin with divine authority and submissiveness of heart, horrified at our old rebellious spirit. In conversion a man truly submits to God for the first time in his life; and this, as God wills, in bowing to the Lord Jesus.
"And now I beseech thee, lady, not as writing to thee a new commandment, but that which we had from the beginning, that we should love one another" (ver. 5). On this, one may say the less because we have had it so much before us already. Still it is always good to remind ourselves, not only of its being a great characteristic of the new nature and of divine teaching, but of its inseparableness from obedience, an equal characteristic of being begotten of God, as we have it laid down in ver. 6: "And this is love that we should walk according to His commandments." It is only the wicked self-will of fallen man that he seeks to sever. Not only are both God's commandments, or Christ's as is true also, but they are identified in these striking words so far that they are inseparable from the life we have in Christ. And again in the rest of the verse all are bound together in what Christ enjoined on His disciples. "This is the commandment even as ye heard from [the] beginning that ye should walk in it." These words "heard from the beginning" are carefully annexed; and the reason is to remind all then, as now that the injunction was from the time that Christ was manifested here.
Adam was the beginning of the human race on earth. But Christ is the beginning for the Christian: with Christ came grace and truth, and the spring of Christian obedience and mutual love. Before Christ came and was manifested here below, how could anyone know the truth about Him? The faithful surely looked for His coming for blessing to man and the earth; but how little was definite to their faith? All distinctness was reserved for the future. Worldly minds thought of Him for their own earthly and human aspirations; but those born of God had more or less the prospect of faith only in the revelation of God. Still before Christ came even the saints could not but be more or less vague in their anticipations. But when the Son of God came manifested in flesh as foretold, grace and truth came in Him; and the light judged everything inconsistent with God's nature, and the truth manifested every one and thing as it really is. "This is the commandment, even as ye heard from [the] beginning, that ye should walk in it."
But the worst evils pressed now on all sides. Satan, not content with corrupting, was now denying the truth by those who once professed it. Hence the urgent call to assert it plainly and act faithfully more than ever. "Because many misleaders went forth" (not exactly "entered," as in the Rec. Text and the A.V.) "into the world." They had once been in the church, and they went forth to pursue their unhallowed work of defying God's word and denying the Son. "Entered the world" in no way expresses the fact, nor has it any just sense. They left the Christian confessors when duped by Satan to deny the truth of Christ. They bear the awful character of misleaders "that confess not Jesus Christ coming in flesh." "This is the misleader and the antichrist." In the Epistle of Jude the deadly evil was from such being within, though they set themselves up apart there; but the Epistles of John contemplate a later day, "a last hour," when they went out to resist as open antagonists. One that enters the church of God, and takes his part for a while in it as a Christian, goes out a great deal worse than when he, however bad, came in. He now hates the truth, and those who cleave to it. It becomes his active business to mislead the saints, defame the truth, and deny Christ.
Here, we learn, went out into the world "those that confess not Jesus Christ coming in flesh." Christ's coming is now expressed in the abstract present, rather than as the perfect of 1 John 4:2 (the present result of a past action). This makes no difference practically for the truth, which in both cases is the confession of His person thus qualified. Accordingly, as there so here, to leave out the words "that is" gives the force better than in the Authorised and the Revised Versions. The truth of His person these misleaders did not believe. They do not confess Him. Not that they denied necessarily the historical fact of His birth, but they did not confess Christ's person coming or come in flesh. For the deep and wondrous truth is that He who was the Son of God from all eternity should so come. Such is the confession of all who have life and are anointed by the Spirit of God. He might have come as an angel or in any other way possible, but for God's will and glory He was pleased to come in flesh. This the misleaders opposed. It is the confession of Him whose divine and human natures united in one person. It is not all that Christianity means, but it is its basis without which redemption is impossible. For one not to confess Jesus thus come is to be the misleader and the antichrist.
"Look to yourselves that we may not lose what we wrought, but may receive full reward," or wages (ver. 8). It is not only an earnest caution but an appeal to love thoroughly in our apostle's manner as in 1 John 2:28. Not seeing this, old copyists and modern editors and translators lost its point, and reduced it to a common-place. The Authorised Version, after the commonly received text, has excellent support, and yields an eminently touching reference. "Look to yourselves that we," not ye, "may not lose," etc. It is an affecting draught on their love. So 1 John 2:28 appealed to all God's family, as here the apostle to an elect lady and her children.
"Whosoever transgresseth" does not express the sense the law has nothing to do with it, therefore the word "transgress" is a bad one. It should be, "Everyone that goes onward," or "beyond" the truth of Christ. It is a further blow at those enamoured of progress, as if revealed truth could be like a human science susceptible of development. On the contrary, he who is not content with the truth which God has given in Christ, who. therefore goes beyond that truth, really abandons and loses the truth for phantoms of man's mind. "Everyone that goeth forward and abideth not in the doctrine of the Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine, he hath both the Father and the Son." Whatever may be the pretensions to higher light or truth, whatever may be his confidence in these new-fangled notions, he who goes forward out of the inspired word into ideas of his own head or imaginations of others "hath not God." He is out of all present relationship with God even of the most distant sort. Whereas "he that abideth in the doctrine [of the Christ] he hath both the Father and the Son" - the highest, deepest, and most intimate revelation of the Godhead.
"If any one cometh to you and bringeth not this doctrine, receive him not at home and greet him not; for he that greeteth him partaketh in his evil works." Now here is one of the most distressing duties that ever was or can be laid on a Christian; and it is laid on the lady and her children peremptorily. Take this illustration. Many years ago a dear friend of mine fell into trouble through being in a Christian assembly which evaded judging similar error. This sister came to live where the assembly did judge the evil thoroughly; but she was slow to allow her responsibility as to it, pleading that she was only a woman, and what could she say or do? Such excuses may sound fair and fine; women might thus act laudably in matters wherein they are not so reserved as they might be. Who expected or hoped to see the evil to be duly judged on that ground? I reminded this "elect lady" of 2 John. This silenced her, for she was intelligent and experienced as well as God-fearing. The issue was that she stood convinced of having shirked her bounden duty.
Where the doctrine of Christ is at stake, one must not hesitate: compromise is treason to the Lord; and if we are not true to Christ, we shall never be true to anything that God has revealed to us. The honour of God is centred in Him through whom grace and truth came to us. Therefore if one come, not bringing this doctrine, even had he been once the dearest Christian friend on earth, she and her children were under the most solemn obligation to ignore him for Christ's sake. Here lies the present call of God. If he does not bring the doctrine of Christ, close the door, have nothing to do with an antichrist. To those who do not value Christ's name and word it must seem outrageous, especially in these liberal days, where man is all and Christ is little or nothing; and even professing Christians are so ready to say nothing about it. "What a pity to disturb unity by these questions! Is it not their chief duty to hold together and avoid scattering which is the shocking evil? Besides, he is such a nice and dear brother, who may see fit to give up his little notion if you do not fan it into a flame." These are the neutrals, more dangerous than even the beguiled misleaders.
No, my brethren, we owe all through grace to the Son of God and the Father who sent and gave Him. If there be anything to which we are called as Christians to be resolute and unbending at all cost, it is where the glory and the truth of Christ is undermined and overthrown.
The closing verses (12 and 13) are a fine testimony to the holy but hearty love which bound the early saints together, as we see here between the aged apostle and this Christian household. "Having many things to write to you, I would not with paper and ink; for I hope to come unto you, and to speak mouth to mouth that our joy may be made full. The children of thine elect sister greet thee."
We can gather, alike from his hope of his coming and from his greeting, how fully the apostle counted that those addressed would lay to heart and carry out without fall his exclusion of one false to Christ and going about to ensnare others into his wicked works. There was no threat of consequences beyond the warning that compromise in such a case is to have fellowship with the evil-doer. Nor is there any effort to effect compliance with the injunction by appeals to his own place, or to their intimate friendship hitherto. It all depends on what grace has made us feel to be due to Christ. For even the youngest may be unwavering, when others who for the time ought to feel far more deeply have tampered with little evils, and thus grown insensible to the infinite worth of Christ, playing the amiable where the sternest decision is due to His name. For it is really a question between the Son and Satan. How he looked for fidelity to Christ is made very plain, in that when he comes unto them, he speaks of their joy being made full. This he could not hope for if he stood in doubt of their fidelity.
But it may be well to add here that nothing can be less of the Spirit of God than to apply to minor differences of a disciplinary sort the rigour which is an absolute duty where it is a question of the true Christ or a false. Such a mistake is turned by the great enemy to the scattering of those whom Christ died to gather together in one. Even doctrine in general, unless fundamental, is not a Scriptural ground for so extreme a course. Still less is it due to a difference about the institutions of Christianity, whether baptism or the Lord's Supper. But the doctrine of the Christ does claim the allegiance of every saint; and he who undermines His person is to be discarded not only publicly but from private recognition at all cost.
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.
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.
The children of thy elect sister greet thee. Amen.