Apostle John’s Three Letters . . . Introduction
Before delving into the text of Apostle John’s three letters or epistles, we’ll answer a few preliminary questions to help familiarize ourselves with the accounts therein.
Who wrote First, Second, and Third John?
First John’s author never identified himself by name, but Christian witnesses since the church’s beginning, have considered this letter authoritative, believing it to have been written by Apostle John, son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ chosen Twelve, one of the inner circle of three intimate disciples who had special fellowship with Jesus, and, in John’s gospel, he's “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” That group of witnesses includes Polycarp, an early second-century bishop who knew John personally and was instructed by him. In addition, the author clearly places himself as one in a group of apostolic eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, noting that “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also” (1 John 1:3). All three of these letters were written by John the Elder to various house churches.
While First John is anonymous, the second and third letters are written by someone who’s called "The Elder." Earliest church tradition had testified in unison that Second and Third John were written by Apostle John, not some mysterious, unknown elder. Further, the language and style of all three epistles are identical to each other and to John’s gospel, which confirms his authorship! John wrote these letters at an old age while overseeing a network of fledgling house-church communities that are presumed to be in and around the ancient city of Ephesus in Asia Minor (Western Turkey today). It seems that these communities were made up of Jewish followers of Jesus and that they’d recently gone through a crisis that motivated John to write all three letters.
When, where, to whom, and why did John write his three letters?
John didn’t specify the recipients of his first much-longer letter, but given the addresses that he wrote in Revelation 2–3 to seven house churches in the immediate vicinity of Ephesus — the city where John ministered late in his life — he likely had those same churches in mind for First John. In it there’s little in the way of specifics, so pinpointing its composition date is impossible. However, its similarities of linguistic structure, special vocabulary, and gospel style suggest that it was probably written about the same time. It’s a good proposition that John had written First John from his exile on Patmos, about AD 90, fifty to sixty years after Christ died; he wrote it subsequent to his gospel but prior to writing Revelation in AD 95. Second and Third John were probably written about the same time as First John (AD 90–95), probably also from Patmos, given both letters’ similarity to First John.
Each of Apostle John’s three epistles echoes John’s gospel account. They emphasize that “God is light and love” and that “every true believer will demonstrate God’s light and love.” The three address deceivers — teachers who failed to acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah or the Son of God. They spread fear and division among believers. Legitimate Christian teachers, then and now, enlighten their students about the truth of Jesus and the cross; they also love others sacrificially and spread love and light, instead of fear. In all three letters, John reminds believers to welcome true missionaries who rightly teach the message of the cross and the commandment to love one another. Believers shouldn’t welcome and accept deceivers; neither should they make idols of anything that exalts itself above God.
John’s first letter was apparently addressed to a group of churches in which “false prophets,” denounced as antichrists (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7), denied the incarnation of Jesus and caused a secession from many house churches. Those who left the church asserted that they possessed perfection, were “born of God,” and were without sin. Having ranked themselves as being above the Ten Commandments, they wound up authorizing a laxity in virtue and good behavior. John’s first letter, therefore, was meant to exhort the Christian house-church community to reject such heretical teachings while holding fast to what they’d been taught.
How did John emphasize key points?
John didn’t hesitate to use key words repeatedly in all three letters to drive home essential themes. For instance, in his three letters, he uses: "sin/sinned/sinning/sinful" twenty-five times [in the NIV]; "live/lives/life" thirty times; "true/truth" thirty-two times; "know/knowledge" forty-four times; and "love/loves/loved" fifty-two times!
First John has a few core ideas that John wanted to communicate, such as "life," "truth," "fellowship," and "love," effectively using repetition, hyperbole, and stark contrast throughout. It had been written as a response to all the tension and conflict that he faced in these churches; it was a form of damage control for house churches. The Elder assured those who still believed in Jesus, the Messiah, that God was with them while they adhered to his truth.
Second and Third John are the two shortest books in English Bibles, depending on which translation (version) you use. The language of both epistles is remarkably similar. Second John was perhaps addressed to an anonymous lady whom John loved in the truth and was likely well-known in her church community. It’s also possible that he was instead referring to a house church, fancifully calling it “the elect lady and her children,” exhorting it to boycott heretics who denied the reality of the incarnation. No matter the titled recipient, his second letter was written to warn the community about "deceivers" who denied Jesus. Third John was written to Gaius, a member of one of these house churches. John asked him to welcome legitimate missionaries who’d soon arrive there. He also complained to them about “Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority,” which alludes to the extent that Gnostic teachings were severely disrupting the house-church community there in Ephesus.
What was the occasion and purpose of each epistle?
First John was written to readers of his day who were confronted with the teaching and practice of Gnosticism, a belief or opinion contrary to orthodox Christian doctrine. Gnostics believed that, although Jesus was God, he wasn’t actually a physical man but something of a pseudo-physical phantom. They threw off all moral constraints, as shown here. The two basic purposes of First John were: (1) to expose false teachers (2:26) and (2) to give believers assurance of salvation (5:13).
Second John was written to urge discernment in how to support traveling teachers. During the first two centuries, the gospel of Jesus was taken from place to place by traveling evangelists and teachers. Local believers customarily took these missionaries into their homes and gave them provisions for their upcoming travels. Since Gnostic teachers also relied on such care and support, John needed to warn his readers about the Gnostics and their doctrine. Otherwise, someone might unintentionally contribute to the promotion and advancement of heresy rather than truth.
Third John had a similar purpose. Itinerant teachers, whom John had sent out, were rejected in one of the house churches in the province of Asia by a dictatorial leader, Diotrephes, who even excommunicated members who showed hospitality to John’s messengers. The Elder wrote this short letter to commend Gaius for supporting the teachers and, indirectly, to warn Diotrephes.
How familiar are you with these passages?
Do you recall key verses from your previous readings and studies of John’s three epistles? Here are a few:
1 John 1:1–3; 1 John 1:7 1 John 2:1–2; 1 John 2:9–11 1 John 2:15–17 1 John 3:1; 1 John 3:4–6; 1 John 3:16; 1 John 4:7–10; 1 John 5:1–5; 1 John 5:11–12; 1 John 5:13–15; . . . 2 John 4; 2 John 6; . . . 3 John 4; 3 John 11.
What’s important about First John?
According to Chuck Swindoll’s overview of this first epistle of John the Elder, "the parallelisms in it are striking for their simplicity: Christ vs. antichrists, light vs. darkness, truth vs. falsehood, righteousness vs. sin, love of the Father vs. love of the world, and the Spirit of God vs. the spirit of the Antichrist. While this is not a complete list, it reveals a letter that presents the world in an uncomplicated way — there is right and there is wrong, period. This emphasis by John, while striking, is not without love. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. John recognized that love comes from God, and he encouraged the believers to love one another (1 John 4:7). John’s first epistle teaches that while it's important to recognize the lines between truth and error, it must always be done in a spirit of love."
These key elements incorporate the embodiment of First John.
John made clear the purpose of First John by pronouncing to his letter's readers the importance of the gospel — the good news message of Christ Jesus. He encouraged and invited his readers to experience a true and personal relationship with God, with Jesus, and with God's children. He clearly knew that for that to happen, Christians who belonged to house churches in Ephesus and surrounding towns and nations would have to change their focus; instead of attempting to satisfy their selfish pursuits, they were told to seek and follow the Lord's well-laid plans for them.
The Elder wrote to church people who'd become discouraged; perhaps their sinfulness was the cause; perhaps the false teachers contributed to their hopelessness. He wanted to trigger the believers' fervor, hoping that they'd be devoted to the Lord and successfully resist those who meant to plant conflict in the churches. Assuming they'd be successful in those efforts, they'd develop and cement personal relationships with God, enabling them to appreciate the work he was doing in their lives and be confident in him going forward.
What's important about Second John?
The applicability of John's second epistle ought to be evident. The brief letter sheds light on what our position should be regarding those opposing the truth about Jesus. While First John concentrates on our personal relationship with God, Second John revolves around protecting ourselves and our church from false teachers. The Elder even warned his readers [and us] not to invite false teachers into the house or acknowledge and greet them (2 John 1:10–11). Such practices align the believer with the evildoer, and John was keen on keeping the believers pure from the stain of falsehood and heresy.
Second John begins with a pronouncement of his love for "the lady chosen by God and to her children." Such love he shared with "all who know the truth" (v. 1). He'd heard and believed that believers in this specific house church had been devotedly following Christ's teachings. So he summarized his proposed Christian way of living by encouraging his readers to “love one another” (v. 5), which is one of Lord Jesus' essential commandments to his people. Therefore, as vv. 4–6 make evident, for us to successfully "walk in the truth" we must love others!
How are we to "love others"? John provides his recommendation in v. 6a: "And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands." So, to succeed at loving others, we must obey the Lord's commands; if we fall short of his commands, we become unable to truly love others. May we follow John's recommendations herein, thereby preventing us from falling away from Jesus' truth while enabling us to prioritize our obedience to God and his words.
What's the essence of Third John?
John's three epistles deal with three unique components of fellowship: fellowship with God, fellowship with false teachers, deceivers, opponents of the gospel of Jesus, and, as highlighted in Third John, fellowship with those who proclaimed the truth. It was John's intent for house churches to warmly welcome itinerant travelers who taught and preached the gospel, offering them requisite love, care, and godly hospitality (3 John 6).
In a house church in the province of Asia, problems arose that John sought to remedy. A church leader named Diotrephes forcefully used his authority to prevent traveling Christ-centered evangelists from entering his church. He prevented some of those gospel ministers from preaching and being fed and provided for in his church. Despite John's previous correction of Diotrephes' self-centered approaches, that church ruler never repented (v. 9).
John used words such as "love" and "truth" to describe how we're to be hospitable to other Christians, no matter their church. He also forewarns us by bringing to our attention Diotrephes, so we could realize the risk and harm we'll encounter by choosing to disassociate with, even expel other Christians. With such warning, we Christians must be "faithful to the truth," "walk in the the truth, and "work together for the truth." Doing so we'll be able and equipped to carry on Jesus' teaching, day after day.
Below, the first video highlights how all three of John's letters break down literary design and flow of thought. John calls and encourages those of us who are hearty followers of Jesus to share in God's life and love by devoting ourselves to loving one another in agape love.
Come along with us as we begin our study of First, Second, and Third John. As you read, study, and discuss it, may you never be the same. When you're ready to dig in, start here with our Bible study of these three epistles about life, truth, love, and so much more.