Letters of John

I. The First Letter of John is evidently written by the author of the Fourth Gospel. The author does not give his name in the letter or the gospel, but the early church attributed both works to the apostle John. This attribution is supported by internal evidence of both books. The writer of the letter speaks with authority, as an apostle would (1John.1.2; 1John.2.1; 1John.4.6, 1John.4.14). He claims to have firsthand knowledge of the facts that underlie the gospel message (1John.1.1-1John.1.3; 1John.4.14). The tone and teaching of the letter are such as we would expect from the aged apostle, writing to his disciples a last message regarding the truths he had taught throughout his life. When the Gospel and the letter are compared, the conclusion is well-nigh irresistible that the two books are by the same person. There are striking resemblances in style, language, and thought. Among these resemblances are characteristic words used in a peculiar sense (e.g., life, light, darkness, and world), characteristic expressions (e.g., eternal life, a new commandment, and abide in Christ), and identical phrases (e.g., walks in darkness and that your joy may be full). The few divergencies are easily explainable on the basis of differences of purpose and of subject.

We cannot be sure whether the letter was written before or after the Gospel. Tradition says that the Gospel was written late in the life of John, toward the end of the first century. Evidences of a late date for the letter are that Christianity has been so long in existence that its precepts may be spoken of as an “old commandment” (1John.2.7) and signs that the Gnostic movement had begun, though it had not yet grown to its developed form.


Although 1 John does not have the usual characteristics of the ancient Graeco-Roman letters—salutation, final greetings, messages to individuals, etc.—there is no doubt that it is a genuine letter. Most likely it is a pastoral or circular letter addressed to the churches in the province of Asia, where the church was in danger of the errors that are warned against.

The plan of the letter is difficult to follow and has been differently understood. Some fail to recognize any regular plan at all. Thoughts that are repeated again and again throughout 1 John are the necessity of doing righteousness as an evidence of divine sonship, the necessity of love for the brethren by those who claim to love God, and believing that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh.

II. The Second Letter of John. Both 2 and 3 John are similar in words, style, ideas, and character to 1 John, and must have been written by the same author, who refers to himself simply as “the elder” (2John.1.1-2John.1.13; 3John.1.1-3John.1.15). Both are very brief, containing just the number of words that could conveniently be written on one sheet of papyrus. Although written to different people and for different purposes, there are striking resemblances of wording in them. The opening address is almost identical, and in both letters the writer expresses joy in the spiritual progress of those to whom he writes, and does so in almost the same words. The conclusion of the letters is the same in both thought and words.

Second John is addressed to “the chosen lady and her children” (2John.1.1-2John.1.13). Many suppose that the reference is to a church and its spiritual children, while others hold that a particular individual named Kyria (Gr. for lady) is meant. The introductory greeting is followed by an exhortation to hold fast to the commandments they had received, especially brotherly love, a warning against false teachers who deny that Christ is come in the flesh, and a prohibition against receiving them. The author concludes with a promise to visit them soon.

III. The Third Letter of John. This is addressed to Gaius, “my dear friend” (3John.1.1-3John.1.15), who is eulogized for walking in the truth and being hospitable to evangelists sent, apparently by John, to the church of which Gaius is a member. The author then censures another member of the church, the talkative, overbearing Diotrephes, who for some unexplained reason, probably jealously, not only refused to receive the itinerant preachers but did all he could to get the whole church to follow his course, even to the length of threatening excommunication for those who took a different view of their duty. The elder adds that he had written a letter to the church also, but apparently he has little hope that it will overcome the headstrong opposition of Diotrephes. He threatens a speedy visit to the church, when he will call Diotrephes to account for his bad conduct. There is in this letter no suggestion of heretical tendency in the church.

Bibliography: F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John, 1970; J. L. Houlden, The Johannine Epistles (HNTC), 1973; I. H. Marshall, The Epistles of John (NIC), 1978; R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John (AB), 1982; S. S. Smalley, 1, 2, and 3 John (WBC), 1984.——SB