I know this is a little different in terms of a book overview, but that is for two reasons – the letter is only one chapter, and the second is 13 verses long. According to sources I could dig up (internet and other places), all of John’s letters were written between AD 85 and 100. They were probably all written around the same time, one to the Church, one to a family, and one to an individual. This second letter is likely written to a lady with whom John was acquainted, and he was also acquainted with her sister. We’ll say more about that momentarily because other theories also make some sense.
One of the very first things I like to address is the authorship of any letter in the New Testament. We have already seen on our trips through the letters of Paul and particularly Peter that liberal scholars seeking to dilute the power of the Word of God in the minds of people will use the authorship of a letter to attack the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture. I once heard a church minister tell me that Paul did not write the letter to the Ephesians, and I cannot agree with that. Apart from Paul giving his own credentials as an Apostle at the beginning of the letter, Ephesians 3:1 actually says, “…I, Paul…” You can argue the mechanics, because it is known that Paul often dictated his correspondence, many of the writers did, like Peter, or Jeremiah if you want an Old Testament example, but you cannot say that it was not Paul’s letter. That’s like writing click-bait headlines, and I hate those.
So did John write these letters? You bet he did. That is more difficult to say, because like the epistle to the Hebrews, the book of 1 John never names its’ author. This argument comes really from church history, in that from the second century on, no one actually disputed that the Apostle John wrote everything with his name on it, and the general epistles in particular. There are references from Clement of Rome, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas (not that Barnabas), and others from early in the second century (or even very late first century) that attribute this work to the Apostle John himself. That lasted until that so-called “higher criticism” of the late 18th century and early 19th century began to try to take apart the Scriptures with vain reasonings. Perhaps the strongest of these, was Polycarp’s letter to Philippi. You will recall that Polycarp was a direct disciple of the Apostle John, and would have been VERY familiar with John’s writings. Interestingly, the very first author to quote from this letter directly in His own writings and identify it as the first epistle of John was Irenaeus of Lyon, a direct disciple of Polycarp! Irenaeus also would have been very familiar with John’s writings without doubt. I could go one and give the names of others like Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius, and Cyprian, from the second and third centuries among other names that all attribute authorship of 1 John to the Apostle John. The church’s internal evidence strongly supports 1 John as being written by John the Apostle, at the same time linking it to the Gospel of John. An interesting note here is that john also does not name himself in the Gospel he wrote, preferring terms like “the disciple whom Jesus loved” instead.
However, we are not speaking about 1 John, we are speaking about 2 John. Our task is only half over, in that we have just shown that the church fathers say John wrote 1 John. Now we must connect 1 John and 2 John (and maybe even 3 John if we’re blessed). This is pretty easy to demonstrate, especially with 2 John. Let’s look for a moment at v.5: “Now I ask you, lady, not as though I were writing to you a new commandment, but the one which we have had from the beginning, that we love one another.” Now compare 1 John 2:7: “Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard.” Not only are they speaking of the same thing, but the word usage and style are the same. Also see 3:11: “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another…” We could even connect that to the Gospel of John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Again, the styles are similar, the word choices and uses are nearly identical. Happily, this is not the only example.
Look for a moment at verse 6. “And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it.” Now compare 1 John 5:3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” The word usage and style of delivery are again extremely similar between the letters.
Also, look at v.7: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.” Compare this with 1 John 2:18-26: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. This is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you.” Where 1 John was the explanation, 2 John is a brief reminder to another believer of something of which both were familiar.
How about this? Verse 9 compared with 1 John 2:23. 9: “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.” Now look at 1 John 2:23: “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.” Same subject, similar language.
Last one: Verse 12: “Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made full.” Now compare 1 John 1:4: “These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.” I know it looks different, but the Greek words are the same, a form of plee-ro’o. The word itself means carry out to the full, according to Vine in his Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. My point in showing these things all side by side is that the same guy that wrote 1 John and the Gospel of John also wrote 2 John. I will leave 3 John for when we get there in what should be a couple weeks. I will add that Dr. John MacArthur takes AD 90-95 as the approximate date range for the writing of the letters, and that matches what I have come to see as the range, probably from his influence on this topic.
Now, as promised earlier, we will look at the target audience of the letter, and there is some controversy over it. I know, I also find it difficult to argue over something miniscule, but there is reasoning, and should you ever encounter it as a roadblock to the gospel, it is good to hear these things so you can have an answer for the hope that is within us, right? So here we go.
Some have suggested that this is a letter to a woman with children with whom John was acquainted. Others have argued that the “elect lady” is persecution-proofing, a code for a church at some other location. Both arguments have some merit and are worth examining. If this was indeed a letter addressed to a local church, John would have been disguising location and identities in symbolic language for the safety of the saints on the receiving end, and maybe for himself as well. It has been suggested by opponents of this view that it would be unnatural to maintain this kind of analogy throughout the whole letter. I have two thoughts about that. First, the letter is 13 verses long, so it isn’t really that hard. Second, tell the believers that had died in the various arenas or on crosses around the Roman world what it was like to be found out as a practitioner of an illegal religion considered by the government to be subversive. For 13 verses, I could maintain that imagery and form easily. You will note that John simply calls himself “the elder” here. That is possibly indicative of a position of authority in church government. And the chosen sister is likely another gathering of God’s people.
The other position here is that this is a believing woman with children with whom John was acquainted. The fact that John uses no names could be seen as that security for everyone concerned, and it requires no maintenance of imagery, it just is what it is. John may have been an elder at Ephesus, he may have been considered a sort of “super-elder” as the last living Apostle. He might also have been referring to his own age in jest and calling himself “the old man.” He calls her “chosen,” [Gk., ekklektos] meaning she was a believer, and that she had a sister who was also a believer, and nieces and nephews. How can we know for sure?
There are some textual clues that are not always conveyed in English. Look at v.5: “Now I ask you, lady, not as though I were writing to you a new commandment, but the one which we have had from the beginning, that we love one another.” The “you” here is singular. That by itself means nothing, but when compared with v.12, becomes a kind of indicator: “Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made full.” The “you” here is plural. This would more naturally occur if this were a woman that John knew who had children. The first reference would be to the woman, the second would be to her family in general. If this were referring to a church, both would be either singular or plural, probably singular if security was being considered.
That in itself isn’t the definitive proof we all like to have these days, but it is an indicator this was a letter written to a family. Also, it may have been to a lady with children who had a sister with children that had a church meeting in her house, which is where Christians met. Remember, Christianity then was illegal and considered subversive by Rome. In that sense, like so many other things in Scripture, it may have multiple levels of meaning. Either way, it was preserved for us and included in the canon of Scripture, and that fact alone makes it worth reading and heeding.
The main thrust of this letter is Truth, a theme that John concerns himself with in everything he writes. His first letter, as we have seen, was about knowing and walking in love and truth, and this one is a specific address to live in truth. The Greek word for “truth” [alee’thee-a] is mentioned in the book 5 times in the first 4 verses. The rest of the book has a serious thrust at walking in that truth, and what to do with those who do not live by the truth. We will see that as we study the text itself. The really interesting thing to me is that this comes out in what many of us would consider mundane: that of hospitality.
The practice in those days was that Christians would move around a lot (persecution), and that teachers of that sound teaching the church always needs as her lifeblood would necessarily move around to teach them. It was common that these preachers would be welcomed into the homes of believers as a safe place to study and stay instead of the inns, which offered no security, and men could be discovered as believers by soldiers or hostile civilians. Try studying in a public place sometime. Then add those dangers and you will see why the home hospitality was a great solution to the problem. However, it had a BIG downside. False teachers could at first glance be indistinguishable from real teachers, because people would not always be known by face like they can be today. False teachers could sow their poison through this kind of route all too easily, and John in this letter is describing the best necessary defense against false teachers and teaching to a house of hospitality. (You can see where this letter may have been to the lady who had a sister and both had kids, but that the whole church would have heard it also!) The main theme then of the letter is how to love in truth, and not just any truth, but THE truth as it is in Jesus.