The reality and names of the two women John mentions in his brief epistle—“The elect lady” (verse 1), and “thy elect sister” (verse 13), have given rise to endless discussion. Did he write to a particular, prominent woman in the local church or was his precious letter addressed to the church itself that John represented as a lady? As the Bible was written by plain men for plain people, that they might understand it in the most common-sense way, the explicit language John uses implies that the woman he addressed was prominent in the vicinity of Ephesus, and being of a most worthy Christian character, she was worthy to receive an exhortatory epistle from him. We concur with the statement of Dean Farrar in his commentary—
I take the letter in its natural sense, as having been addressed to a Christian lady and her children. Some of the children the Apostle seems to have met in one of his visits of supervision of the churches of Asia. They may have been on a visit to some of their cousins in a neighbouring city.
There are several features of this Christian woman, who was well known, and well-loved in the local church.
This is by no means an unscriptural term. It occurs four times (Isaiah 47:5, 7; 2 John 1, 5), and the plural, “ladies” appears twice (Judges 5:29; Esther 1:18); and is a word implying a higher grade of a woman—one possessing more dignity than others. Ladies means “princesses.” A bad woman is one having proprietary rights, rule or authority—the feminine correlative of “lord.” This is why the Roman Catholic Church refers to the Virgin Mary as “Our Lady.” In Britain, a lady is the wife of one who has received a title or honor from the Crown, or a woman of social distinction or position—the correlative of gentleman. The word John uses for “lady” is kuria, and as Bengel the commentator expresses it, “A title so lofty as kuria was rarely used even to queens.” The margin of the RV turns Kuria into a proper name, “Kyria” or “Cyria,” in use in John’s day.
As to the explicit absence of the matron’s real name, Ellicott observes that “it is not absurd to suppose that the dangers of the times, or family persecutions, may have made it advisable that both her name and that of the writer should be withheld.”
Paul uses “elect” in the same way when he speaks of Rufus, “chosen in the Lord” (Romans 16:13. See 1 Peter 1:1, 2). Not only was the lady elect in the sense of being of excellent character, but also as being with her children and her sister elect or chosen of God according to His eternal purpose, to the inheritance, incorruptible and undefiled that fadeth not away. Probably this elect lady was a convert of John’s ministry and through him had come to know what it was to repose by faith in the bosom of the Father, and in this epistle standing “as a tall, white, graceful monument, erected to her memory, John extols her for her devotion to the One in whom she was safe and secure.”
It is evident that she was well-known to the Apostle John, who most likely had been graciously entertained in her spacious home. As no husband is mentioned she was probably a rich widow with ample means to care for the saints of God who came her way. All around her, those who knew the truth (verse 1) shared John’s expressed hope that he might have the joy of visiting the lady’s home again to share with her the glorious truths he had discovered. It was because she was given to hospitality that John forewarned her about welcoming false teachers.
Milton wrote of “Ladies whose bright eyes rain influence.” The elect lady, bearing her divine commission in her looks, not only had a countenance radiating an inner peace as one in Christ, but also a sweet influence upon those around. Her children, following her faith, walked in the truth, and because of pious witness and their godly conversation, were praised by John for their walk in love, walk circumspectly and worthily of their vocation. The Apostle knew that the correct Christian walk and witness came as the result of early training in truth and in love. No wonder John warmly congratulated the godly mother for having children proving their adherence to the Word of God by their daily conduct. They not only believed the truth but also walked in it.
Further, this elect lady was highly privileged to have the veteran apostle, who called himself, “the elder” or “aged man” as her guide in spiritual matters, not only instructing her in the many facets of truth but also warning her against the nature and evil work of false prophets in sheep’s clothing. Safeguarding her against the peril of these deceivers who were guilty of deception, both of heart and life, John did not mince his words. These commissaries of an anti-christ were not only guilty of intellectual errors, but also of leading people astray in conduct. Their wrong thinking resulted in wrong living, and thus their whole influence was anti-christian (1 John 2:26).
Their manifest error was related to the fact and reality of Christ’s Incarnation. They denied that Christ had come as God manifest in flesh—which truth is the heart of Christianity. Of all errors Satan is responsible for, this is the most destructive. The crucial test of the orthodoxy of any person is the place he or she gives to Jesus Christ in the economy of God. So John urged the lady and her children not to be led away but, to guard themselves in a twofold way. First, by taking care not to lose what they already possessed; second, by the shunning of error have the satisfaction of a full reward. Because of their stability and firmness in the truth there was the present reward of an inner peace passing all understanding, and beyond the witness on earth, the overcomer’s reward (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17).
In somewhat harsh language for John, the Apostle of Love, to use, he told the lady that as a sincere Christian she must not stretch out the hand of fellowship to deceivers, or entertain them in her home. Their presence would be dangerous in the family circle (2 Timothy 3:6). The Roman Church, regarding herself as the “lady,” seized upon this passage about the exclusion of those notable for their evil doctrine and deeds, to pronounce their anathemas, excommunications, and cruel inquisitions. “Receive him not into your house” may sound unchristian, but as Ellicott puts it—
These are no terms of ordinary politeness, which the Apostle does not forbid, but terms of close Christian intimacy and spiritual communion, the deliberate cultivation of personal acquaintance, fraternal intercourse. The highest sort of Christian brotherly love—love, that is, in its fulness and truth—can only find reciprocity in the same atmosphere of Christ, on the same basis, and in the same characteristics (2 Corinthians 6:16).
To accommodate those who deprave the doctrine of Christ injures our own orthodox witness. To bid them Godspeed is to be a partaker of their corrupt deeds. Thus, John warns the matron that the only safeguard against terror is the ever-expanding knowledge of the truth, and obedience to it. The ground of the Apostle’s love for the lady and her family was that they cleave to the truth. “Truth” occurs 5 times; “Commandment,” 4 times; and “Doctrine,” three, and so making the whole truth of God as our home (2 John 1:9) “abideth in the doctrine” is the adequate provision against all error.
We have every confidence that the elect lady valued the spiritual advice of her aged friend and teacher and followed his practical counsel of keeping close to Christ by keeping close to His truth. How appropriate and necessary is the apostolic exhortation for the saints in our own apostate age! Alone on the Patmos isle, John, the old man, thinks of his dear friend at Ephesus, and thinks of all the blessed seasons of fellowship he had had in her lovely Christian home, and taking his pen sent the elect lady an expression so full of tenderness: “I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.” John’s heart was full of things to write about, but he hopes for a time of unlimited conversation, and to experience the deep satisfaction of the interchange of spiritual thoughts and aspirations and experiences, writing materials were not able to supply. Living near the elect lady’s sister, John would tell her of his letter, and so includes her family’s best wishes, just as we express our love and greetings when we send a letter to a loved one away from us. Thus, “in transmitting this familiar message, John had a most instructive finish to what is throughout a beautiful picture.”