“The elder” writes to the “elect lady” about “truth and love.” The brief three-verse salutation of the letter (1-3)—a feature that 1 John did not have—uses the term “truth” four times and “love” twice. This signals the theme of the letter as the two major sections in the body of the letter exhort the church to love (4-6) and truth (7-11). The first section reminds the church that the fundamental “command” of the faith is to love each other. The second warns that “many deceivers” (that is, docetists) are seeking an opportunity to influence the church, and they have, in fact, denied the “Truth” (the reality of God in the flesh). The writer has a deep personal interest in the health of the “elect lady.” He is protective but also encouraging. He intends a future visit though he is uncertain when that might happen.
“The elder,” in effect, calls for a discerning love. Love is the command that shapes the church from the beginning and it is still central for communal life. But this love is neither blind nor pluralistic. The community must learn to “love in truth” as they “walk in love.” The community does not believe everything it hears or welcome everyone who comes. The church, because it loves in truth, must discern between “deceivers” and those in whom the truth abides.
Who is “the elder” and who is the “elect lady”? The letter’s language is most naturally associated with the author of 1 John. The style, vocabulary, and topics are clearly the same as 1 John. We may assume that elderly apostle John is “the elder.” The title is probably more a term of respect and honor than identification as the leader of a particular congregation. He is “the elder,” that is, he is a senior leader of the Christian movement in that region.
The “elect lady” may refer to a particular woman, perhaps the patroness (even leader?) of a house church, but it seems more likely that it refers to a particular congregation or house church. The letter refers to “your house” (11), which identifies the recipient of the letter with a specific community of believers. They are the “children” of the “lady,” that is, they are the members of that congregation. Consequently, “the elder” warns the congregation (house church) to be discerning about whom they welcome and whom they do not.
“Truth” is important for “the elder.” He “loves” in truth as does everyone who “knows” the truth. Those who “know” the truth love in truth because the truth lives (abides, remains) in them as this same truth is eternally with the community of believers (“us”). The Father and Son are present in grace, mercy and peace with those who live “in truth and love.”
But what is this “truth”? Generally, we should read this term against the background of 1 John itself, which gives a fuller exposition of the “truth” that is assumed in this brief letter. More specifically, we should probably understand “truth” here in contrast to the “deceivers” that carrying a different message to various “house” churches. In other words, the truth is the reality of God’s eternal life incarnated in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the truth, that is, he is the love of God enfleshed for our sakes. In this one God loved us and the truth of eternal life was revealed, embodied, and lived out in Jesus.
The great “truth” of the gospel is embodied in Jesus. The children of the elect lady (house church) walk in this truth when they love just as Jesus loved. This is the “command” which shapes “the elder’s” understanding of how to live the truth. When the truth abides in us we love each other, and this is the command that we obey.
The “command” is both “from the Father” and “from the beginning.” This language points us to the person of Jesus himself who is also “from the Father” and “from the beginning.” When Jesus came in the flesh, he not only embodied this life of love, but commanded his disciples to love just as he loved. The command from the beginning was to walk in love and live in loving community with each other. This language not only reflects the themes of 1 John, it is also a brief summary of John 13 where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. There he not only modeled this love but encouraged them to love each other as a sign of discipleship. This was no new command; it is as old as God’s own life since God is love.
The “truth,” then, is not a series of ideas or a list of subscribed teachings. The truth is the reality of God’s love demonstrated in Jesus that calls us to love just as Jesus loved. God demonstrated that love in the incarnation itself! In obedience to the model of Christ and living in fellowship with the Father and Son, we are called to participate in the love that characterizes the life of God. The “truth” is seen when we love each other.
This truth, however, has a definite referent. It is rooted in the reality of the incarnation, that is, that Jesus Christ truly came in the flesh. The Word of Life, as 1 John 1 describes Jesus, became flesh. The Son authentically and fully participated in the physical creation. The Son became fully human. This conviction is so central to the Christian faith that anyone who denies it is the “antichrist.” It is so important that no house church should welcome anyone who denies it.
What makes this so central? Why is the incarnation a crux for the Christian community? The incarnation is the claim that the eternal became particular in such a way that the particular revealed the eternal. The incarnation is the presence of God in the flesh; is eternal life enfleshed. God becomes one with us in the flesh so that we might become one with God in the fellowship of the divine community. Coming in the flesh, the Son united the creation with God so that we might participate in the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Without incarnation—or denying the incarnation—there is no authentic union between God and humanity, and consequently there is no authentic communion.
This union is rooted in love. Through it we experience the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. God is love. When the Son unites with humanity as a demonstrative act of love—both through incarnation, ministry, and death—humanity is enabled to participate in the oneness of the Father and Son. To deny this is to deny the very nature of salvation itself since salvation is fundamentally the mutual indwelling of humanity and God (John 17:20-26).
Consequently, the church must guard itself against the antichrists, the deceivers. They go beyond the boundaries of the truth, that is, they teach something that does not conform to the reality enfleshed in Jesus. The truth is the love of God incarnated in Jesus, but the deceivers deny the incarnation. As such, they transcend the boundaries of what is in fact the case. The “teaching of Christ” does not refer to a broad collection of teachings. Rather, is the “teaching about Christ.” The particular point at stake is whether Jesus came in the flesh or not. The deceivers say he did not but the truth is that he did. To deny this truth is to deny Christ and undermines one’s relationship with the Father and the Son.
In effect, the Christian community has boundaries. One cannot deny the reality of the incarnation and receive the sanction of faithful house churches. “The elder” forbids the house church (“elect lady”) to welcome them or give them status in the church. While some think this refers to hospitality in the home (supporting missionaries)—and it may include that, it seems preferable to think in terms of what welcoming or receiving an itinerant teacher meant in the late first century. The author seems concerned that the church might give this “deceiver” a hearing or give them a teaching role in the church. It is about more than hospitality; it also about leadership within the community of faith.
If the church is to walk in truth and to love in truth, it cannot sanction the teaching of these deceivers who deny the reality of the incarnation that is a definitive revelation of God’s love.
“The elder” wants to visit the church. He knows the value of a pastoral visit and personal encouragement. The brevity of the letter probably indicates that this was written hurriedly in light of an emergency situation. He quickly fires off a letter to encourage the perseverance of the church in the truth as he knows that “many deceivers” have “gone out into the world” to dissuade others. It seems he has received reports that this church rejected the deceivers—perhaps under criticism—and he wants to reassure them that they did the right thing. They do not stand alone. “The elder” supports them and a whole community of believers (perhaps in Ephesus?) supports them.
Questions for Discussion
- Imagine the scenario that this letter assumes? Given the contents of the letter, what has happened or is happening in this community? What are the dangers?
- What does “the elder” mean by “love” and “truth”? How might we define those terms contextually and against the backdrop of 1 John?
- Does the “teaching of Christ” refer to everything Jesus taught or does it refer to what is taught about Christ (specifically, the incarnation)? Why is one interpretation more preferable than the other? How might either be abused in application today?
- What does it mean to say that the Christian community has boundaries today? Is this exclusivistic and unloving? What does it mean for the church to be unwelcoming of another? What are the dangers latent in such a discussion? What are the truths that are nevertheless important in such a discussion?
- How would you define and illustrate the idea of “discerning love”?