Some Observations on John’s Second Epistle

For many deceivers have come forth into the world, who do not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, so as not to lose what we have done but receive your full reward. Whoever breaks forward and does not abide by the teaching of the Christ does not have God; the one who abides by his teaching has the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not take him into your house, and do not give him any greeting; for anyone who gives him a greeting shares in his evil deeds (2 Jn. 1:7-11).

Recently a friend and I were discussing the second epistle of John. She had brought up the above passage and was specifically interested in the seventh verse:

For many deceivers have come forth into the world, who do not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such is the deceiver and the antichrist (7).

And within that verse, the phrase “the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” stood out for her. “Do you have an idea of what this means”? she asked.

Just a few days before, I’d read this epistle and had thought about the very verse she’d pointed out. I suggested that the words “in the flesh” did not refer to Jesus’s earthly life of a few decades. Rather, it seemed to me, the apostle was alluding to the presence of Christ Within; it was our flesh—the believers’ flesh—to which the Light of Christ is come. And “acknowledg[ment]” that Christ is come in the flesh is predicated upon that inward encounter with him, with his Presence.

A week or so later, my thought was confirmed when I read one of Fox’s tracts titled “A Word,” from which the following excerpt is taken:

Who loves the light that he hath given them, witness Jesus Christ come in the flesh. . . and you that hold up the figures, deny Christ come in the flesh (The Works of George Fox, IV: 33).

Loving the light Jesus Christ has given us (having first received it!) is inherent in any authentic witness that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. And conversely, to “hold up the figures” (“figures” being concepts provided by bygone prophets) is to “deny Christ come in the flesh.”

Those not having known this encounter-cum-revelation can only posture an attitude of faith, and thus deserve the designation the apostle gives them: deceivers. John sought to distinguish between those who’d experienced the arrival of Christ Within and those “deceivers” or “antichrists” (signifying enemies of Christ) who had not. In short, John was telling us that the essential defect of “the deceiver and the antichrist” is profession without possession.

Whoever breaks forward and does not abide by the teaching of the Christ does not have God; the one who abides by his teaching has the Father and the Son (9).

To “abide by the teaching of the Christ” is to learn from the one who “is come to teach his people himself,” Christ who inwardly reveals himself that we may learn the Father’s will and do it.  And “whoever breaks forward,” and distances him- or herself from this condition of hearing obedience, “does not have God” but are instead “presumptuous talkers of God, who see him not” (Works, IV:30).

“Do not take him [the deceiver] into your house”(10) is a warning to  readers to keep some distance between themselves and deceivers, but the warning can also be interpreted figuratively. One must not allow a  conceptual approach to faith to enter and occupy the living space where only an experience of faith should reside.

The apostle knows the danger of losing “what we have done”(8) and cautions rigorous care when dealing with conceptual faith and those who harbor it: to refuse to offer even a greeting. For to greet is to acknowledge, and thus, in a minor way, to sanction. And to sanction deceit even in a minor way is to participate in and promote it: “for anyone who gives him a greeting shares in his evil deeds”(11).

That mind, which doth speak of God, but lives not, dwells not, nor abides in the fear of God, that mind must suffer, and pass under the judgment of God, for the curse of God is upon that mind. . . . And that mind may talk of God, and speak of God, but not in union with God, nor from enjoyment of God in the spirit, nor from having purchased the knowledge of him through death and sufferings; but from hear-say of him, and from custom and tradition (Works, VII:32).

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Thus far this essay has considered the second half of John’s epistle, which, with its warning about deceivers and antichrists stands in contrast to the epistle’s first half, concerned as it is with truth and love. See how frequently the word “truth” appears in the epistle’s first sentence (italics mine):

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; For the truth’s sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us for ever (1-2).

Love is the outgoing expression of truth, which resides within, and thus not only does the apostle express his own love for the “elect lady” but is confident that “all they that have known the truth” will also love her: not because she elicits his or their affection but because the truth dwells within them, and is the living source and impetus of love.

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 (5). 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 (5-6).

In verse 5, we read that love for one another is commanded, and has been so “from the beginning”: “the beginning” referring to that glorious, singular event when one is “born. . . of God” (Jn. 1:13). And so to love is to bring forth, to express, the Life that began and is continuing in Christ, the Truth.

In verse six, a significant distinction is made between 1) the inward hearing of the Source and 2) its conveyance outward into the world. This distinction is made by the use of one letter: the letter “s” added to the word “commandment,” making the word either singular or plural. The Source is one, and to attend to that Source is the one commandment (no “s” added). The expression of that Source will vary according to whatever teaching or guidance He gives at particular times and places: that is, there will be various, specific commandments (and so an “s” is added). These commandments (with an “s”) are what we Quakers call “continuing revelation.” So verses 5 and 6 diagram the economy of parousaic revelation: the Source being God, the Father, and the various, particular expressions of His person being love brought into the world through His Son, His substance and body: the elect people of God.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God (1 Jn. 4:7).

 

 

 

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11 Responses to Some Observations on John’s Second Epistle

  1. Wow. Just . . . wow. First, this arresting reflection on 2 John came to me just as I needed it, so thanks to you and your friend, Patricia, for serving as angels of Providence. Second, I had previously believed, with “most scholars” (so reads The Harper Collins Study Bible, p. 2073), that the author of 2 John must have been doing battle with Docetists, a controversy that doesn’t particularly interest me — and so I’d never given the Lord a chance to *open* this scripture for me. But now you, George Fox, and the author of this epistle have impressed on me the *depth* of the divide between those believers who *agree* (ὁμολογέω, “confess” in AV) that Christ really indwells us and is entitled to reign over us, and those for whom the indwelling is at best a pretty metaphor for our behaving like good citizens. It happens that I’m in the process of editing Job Scott’s _On the Knowledge of the Lord, the One True God_ for online publication, and he’s making much the same point. I’m thinking that this confluence of messages may be meant to alert and mobilize me in some way.
    Am I the only reader who’s astounded by this post?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, John, for your comment. I, too, have never found the controversy over gnostic claims of much interest, and while putting the essay together, it didn’t occur to me that the epistle concerned itself with them, though your reference did jog a memory that long ago I had heard that claim. I checked the Apology’s index to see if there was an entry on gnosticism, and there wasn’t. But checking “Antichrist,” I found several references, and reading them found Barclay’s description to be in accord with the interpretation presented in this essay. In the Apology’s conclusion, Barclay goes through a list of differences between Quaker understanding and claims of the antichrist who bears the livery of “good citizen.” (Great analogy there, John!) Here’s just one example from Barclay’s conclusion: “Because we tell them that it is not their talking or believing of Christ’s outward life, sufferings, death, and resurrection. . . that will serve their turn, or justify them in the sight of God, but that they must know Christ in them, whom they have crucified, to be raised, and to justify them, and redeem them from their iniquities: hence they say, we deny the life, death, and sufferings of Christ, justification by his blood, and remission of sins through him” (479).

      Liked by 1 person

    • kwakersaur says:

      You are not alone. I also feel Patricia’s ministry was favoured.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Derek Bond says:

    Thanks for your insightful commentary on this passage. The words “whoever breaks forward” prompted me to look at a Greek transcription. The NRSV translation seems to stay close to a standard Greek text with “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ but goes beyond it…” As I read it, this reinforces George Fox’s interpretation of “Christ…come in the flesh”. Under the NRSV text in the New Oxford Annotated Bible is a note that “false teachers do not abide… because they reject the humanity of Jesus” (like the so-called Docetists). That note rather misses George Fox’s (and your) point and skims the surface of the text. The word “abide” has more depth to it.

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  3. Thank you for your comment, Derek. I agree with what you’ve said. The translation I used is Richard Lattimore’s _The New Testament_ and verse 9 reads: “Whoever breaks forward and does not abide by the teaching of the Christ does not have God; the one who abides by his teaching has the Father and the Son.” One difference I see between the NRSV and the Lattimore is the order of the phrases in the sentence: the NRSV putting the condition (does not abide in the teaching. . .) before the act itself (“but goes beyond it”), whereas the Lattimore and also the KJV reverse that order, putting the act (“breaks forward”) before the condition (“does not abide by the teaching. . .). If I’m going to be picky about the way rhetoric affects meaning (and I am real picky about that!) I prefer the act to precede the condition variation found in both the KJV and the Lattimore, because in reality the act does precede the condition! I also like Lattimore’s word choice (“breaks forward” rather than the KJV’s “transgresseth” or the NRSV’s “goes beyond,” as “breaks forward” conjures (for me anyway) an image of an animal bolting, which is to the point, whereas “transgresseth” seems lackluster, and “goes beyond” doesn’t have the negative connotation it should have for what it describes. I love to focus on words and their meanings, connotative and denotative, and the scriptures never disappoint in the material they provide for such perusal.

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  4. I’m not a Greek scholar, Patricia and Derek, but I do like to look at the original Greek of texts like this for nuances, word-choices, rhetorical sequencing of ideas, etc., with the help of a Greek lexicon. And Lattimore seems to have chosen well in choosing “break forward” to translate _pro-agō_. The basic meaning of _agō_ in both Greek and Latin is “to drive” or “to lead [a draft-animal].” Driving _forward_ (_pro-_) involves both will and effort, unlike passively drifting or being carried. In its uses in the NT, _pro-agō_ sometimes has positive connotations, but in this case negative: one who drives, or breaks, forward is here being contrasted to one who does not abide, remain, persevere, endure, or remain rooted (_menō_) in the teaching of Christ. So the Greek here is very vivid, suggestive (to me) of a malcontent who has pushed his or her way out of a crowded room in a fit of ill temper and now remains outside. And now _theon ouk echei_, “does not have God.”
    I’m excited by your finding this contrast between those who know and follow the indwelling Christ and those whose knowledge is only “notional” in Barclay! I’ll be looking at it today, as time permits.

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  5. Thanks for your research into the original Greek, John. Knowing the reality that’s described by the writer of scripture can often assist in parsing out the intent of his words, and seeing the original meaning in Greek move the interpretation forward to the same end is like finding a puzzle piece that fits right where you thought it might. Very satisfying!

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  6. Anonymous says:

    I shall carry this sentence with me. Thank you. “One must not allow a conceptual approach to faith to enter and occupy the living space where only an experience of faith should reside.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Anonymous says:

    I was sitting next to you and coughing all morning (I have no idea what the coughing was about). I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet at lunch. Elliott Robertson

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for finding the blog and getting in touch, Elliott. I don’t remember much coughing this morning; no doubt it was more noticeable to you than to others! Yes, sorry to have missed lunch, but I had to leave early. Hope to meet you at a future gathering.

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