The Second Epistle of John

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

Read or listen the Second Epistle of John online (ESV, Bible Gateway)

Great lessons from two short epistles

The shortest epistles in the New Testament are often quite needlessly ignored. Many things are expressed briefly and to the point in them. We shall now study the two epistles of John consecutively. The Second Epistle of John and the Third Epistle of John both take up only a page in our Bibles. Yet they include lessons that we do well to contemplate.

It is uncertain when exactly the two epistles were written (around the year 100). Neither do we know for sure their author. However, the writer is apparently the same who also wrote the First Epistle of John. Both 2 John and 3 John deal with the church and heresies, but both from completely different perspectives. Which of them was written first is difficult to determine, as is also their connection to the Gospel of John.

A letter to the elect lady – who is the elect lady? 2 John 1-3

The Second Epistle of John is addressed to the ‘elect lady’. This expression and the ‘elect sister’ in verse 13 refer to a local church. ‘The children’ of ‘the elect sister’ are members of that church, i.e. Christians.

Behind the expression ‘the elect lady’, there is a great deal of biblical imagery which is worth analysing. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem is often called ‘the daughter of Zion’, and the relationship between God and Israel is often likened to a relationship between husband and wife. Owing to the chosen people, this relationship is often unhappy, and the prophets accuse the people of ‘adultery’. So, God is the loving husband and the people are like an unfaithful wife who does not care about her beloved but serves idols. In addition to the Book of Hosea, this image is found in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 3) and in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 16 and 23). On the other hand, there is the beautiful, loving relationship in the Book of Song of Solomon: even though these poems are originally about a relationship between a woman and a man, even early on they have been interpreted as speaking about the relationship between God and Israel.

In the New Testament, that image blossoms anew. Jesus’ parables often take us to a Middle Eastern wedding feast. John the Baptist rejoices that he could act as a spokesman, a friend of the bridegroom, between Christ and his beloved (John 3:22-36). Paul says that he betrothed the Christians to Christ as a pure virgin (2 Corinthians 11:2), and he uses the image of Christ and his bride also in Ephesians (Ephesians 5:21-23). The Book of Revelation, in chapter 12, likens the church to a woman who has children (=Christians), but in the last chapters it opens the gates of heaven and paints for us a magnificent picture of the marriage of the Lamb.

The words about the elect lady, i.e. the local church, and her sisters, i.e. another local church, are now linked to this rich imagery. As God is our Father, the church is our mother. This time, the beautiful image is extended also to the local church. A Christian is never all alone but always part of God’s family. From way back it has been said that you cannot have God as your Father if you do not have the church as your mother. This little epistle emphasises the importance of the local church and, at the same time, imposes obligations on it.

Let us love one another 2 John 4-6

Like repeatedly in the First Epistle of John, the writer stresses love of neighbour. Love is now talked about in further detail: Love is not just any action, even if it might be called that. “And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments”. So, the writer is for some reason defining more closely what love is. We do not know the exact reason, but in our time, these words hit hard. In our country, love is often set against biblical commandments. When love demands, the Bible must give way. This thinking is not compatible with the Second Epistle of John. Maybe we should cite the sharp saying, “God is love, but love is not God.” If our understanding of love deviates from biblical instructions, it is not the Bible that is wrong but our understanding.

Close the doors on false teachers! 2 John 7-11

False teachers were the reason for the sending of the epistle. They went from church to church and spread a message that was contrary to the apostolic faith. We do not know exactly what they taught. It is enough for us that they did not confess that Jesus was born as the Christ into the world. Apparently, these teachers denied that Jesus was born as true man and that he was crucified and rose from the dead.

The instruction given to the church is unambiguous. No one should welcome a false preacher. The whole congregation must turn them down. The ones who open their home to such teachers share in their sins. Their heresy is dangerous. It must therefore be strictly kept off from the church. This instruction becomes understandable when viewed from a very practical perspective.

The first Christians knew well that establishing a new church in the city was a challenging task for a non-local. It became much easier if the itinerant preacher could find even one home that would open their door for him. A false teacher was now to be barred from finding even that one home but instead he had to start his efforts at the market square and alone.

This little epistle gives us much to think about. In our church, there are lines of thought going in many directions. On one hand, the pastors in our churches can teach nearly anything and also deviate from biblical teaching without the fear of losing their job. On the other hand, the teachers who are committed to the written word of the Bible have at times been extremely hard-pressed. The solution that is increasingly often offered to keep the church united is the old principle that we must let a thousand flowers bloom. It may be possible as a temporary solution but, at the same time, it must be stressed that it is not what the Bible advises us to do. Rather, the Second Epistle of John observes Jesus’s words, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.” (Matthew 15:13).

Final greetings 2 John 12-13

The writer ends his letter in a short greeting and expresses his wish to soon come and join them in the church and be in direct contact with the ‘elect lady’. In the epistle, the one speaking is an undisputed authority who several ‘sisters’ of the elect lady must have been listening to. The ‘elder’ does not have to introduce himself. Apostolic authority speaks for itself.