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The Epistles of John

JOHN, THE EPISTLES OF. Three anonymous books from among the general epistles in the NT that traditionally have been ascribed to John, the son of Zebedee.


Nature of the epistles

Many distinctives set these three epistles apart from the other letters of the NT, and at the same time draw them together.

Historical setting

Earliest Gnostic tendencies.

Many writers have concluded that incipient Gnosticism (not identifiable historically until the 2nd cent. a.d.) was in the background of several NT books, such as Colossians, Ephesians, the pastoral epistles, the Petrine epistles and Jude, but esp. 1 John. The most advanced stage of Gnosticism that appeared in the background of the NT was reflected in the writing of 1 John. Gnosticism, a popular form of Graeco-Roman philosophy, had no doubt pervaded the thought world of the Rom. empire by a.d. 150 and, confronting Christianity in the latter decades of the 1st cent., had produced serious conflict and confusion within the churches.

Gnosticism was the philosophical result of the blending of the cosmogony of Gr. thought with the theology of oriental religions, esp. Judaism. First John revealed rather sharply three characteristics of Gnosticism that had serious implications for Christianity: (1) dualism, (2) illumination, (3) rejection of the Incarnation. Dualistically, Gnosticism held that matter was essentially evil and spirit was essentially good. Thus the human body and spirit had no effective contact with each other. Gnostics held that a redeemed soul in a sinful body was therefore not responsible for the deeds of that body. Such dualism led to antinomianism—the breakdown of morals and spiritual compromise on the part of some who professed Christ. The name “Gnostic” came from the Greek word that meant “knowledge.” Salvation according to the Gnostics came from knowing theories rather than from faith in a Savior. Only the initiated who knew the Gnostic secrets were in the light. Christ’s earthly life, the fact of the Incarnation, posed a major problem for the Gnostics. God’s spirit and human flesh could not have had any essential unity of personality in Jesus. A separation was made between Christ’s deity and Jesus’ humanity in one of two ways. Docetic Gnosticism taught that Christ was not really a divine person in human flesh; He was only a phantom playing the human role. Christ’s humanity only appeared to be real. Cerinthian Gnosticism (Cerinthus of Alexandria was linked by ancient tradition with John at Ephesus) taught that the human Jesus was an ordinary man upon whom the Logos of God came at His baptism, departing from Him before the Crucifixion. Only the human Jesus died upon the cross. The Logos was a kind of cape that the human Jesus wore during the period of the public ministry. John wrote against all of these heresies in his first epistle.

The pastoral scene.

The homiletical tone of 1 John is prob. due to the author’s consciousness that his message was to be read to an assembled congregation (or congregations). It seems obvious from all three of these documents that the writer was a Christian leader of wide and prominent influence. An unmistakable air of authority and a noticeable desire to build up the readers in their faith are at the heart of the writer’s effort. The danger of false teachers and teaching provoked the distinctive emphases on faith and love in 1 John (the clearest combination of faith and love in the NT). The conduct of the readers had become a concern of the writer, who urged them not to love the world in words suggesting a condition of worldliness among them.

First John may have been intended for a circle of churches. The term “elder” that was used in the other two letters has been thought to indicate the author’s pastoral relationship to a community of faith. Because 2 John seems to be a miniature of 1 John, having scarcely a single phrase that had not already been employed in the longer letter, it has been thought that the “elder” of 2 John was a venerable church leader (perhaps bishop) who had previously written 1 John as a pastoral letter to deal with the danger of a spreading, false doctrine. B. H. Streeter advanced the idea that the “elder” was in fact a bishop with a responsibility for a circle of smaller churches, making him almost an archbishop. All three letters dealt with real life and not with abstractions. The intense personal feelings of the author are everywhere evident. He was bound to his readers as they were to him. He made an appeal to them that reveals an acquaintance with both their needs and history.

Absence of persecution.

In a.d. 81, Domitian was crowned emperor of Rome. From that time it was obvious that persecution was the inevitable lot of Christianity. The three Johannine letters have been called “catholic,” or “general,” epistles because they reflect the needs of Christianity at large. It also has been thought that these letters came near the close of the 1st Christian cent. It is surprising, therefore, that they do not reflect the threat of persecution that hung over the new religion at that time, esp. in the Rom. province of Asia where these letters may have originated.

Literary characteristics.

First John did not conform to the general characteristics of contemporary personal letters. It has no introduction, identification of author, thanksgiving, or author’s greetings. Neither does it have a concluding salutation. There is a complete absence of any personal name. On the other hand, this may show the distinctive form of an encyclical that was intended for more than one congregation, being sent by messengers from church to church, and being read in the general assembly by a leading elder.

The two shorter Johannine letters (the shortest books in the NT) were written in the more typical epistolary character of 1st-cent. correspondence. They are so brief that they prob. were written on one sheet of papyrus each. The Gr. text of 2 John contains 1126 letters whereas 3 John has 1133 letters. They were written for local and personal situations in each instance.


R. Bultmann has attacked the unity of 1 John. He believes that the original letter ended at 5:13 and that vv. 14-21 of that ch. were added by a later ecclesiastical editor. He suggests also that the author of 1 John worked over a previously existing document. He contends that 1:6-10 is stylistically different from 2:1f. The latter section was believed to have been the author’s own commentary upon the former passage. Generally, however, modern scholarship has insisted upon the unity of 1 John, because the style and ideas of the suspected sections have been found to be those of the letter as a whole.


Many scholars have felt that 1 John was plan-less. The author did not present his themes one by one, developing his message and then drawing his conclusions—making it almost impossible to outline the letter. Perhaps the best internal evidence as to any organization of thought in the mind of the author is found in connection with the ideas about God that he advanced: (1) God is light (1:5); (2) God is life (2:25); (3) God is love (4:8). The subject discussed in connection with each idea is hortatory in nature: (1) walk in the light, (2) live God’s life, (3) dwell in love.

Without doubt there is justification for the frequent observation that 1 John is spiral in form. The ideas introduced return for additional treatment and application. For example, “light” and “darkness” are introduced and then reintroduced and applied. The forgiveness of sins is treated in the same fashion, returning several times to the discussion. “Liar” is a recurring theme, as also “commandment.” Perhaps the most important word of all is “love,” which is also treated in this fashion. The foundation of the developing thoughts is laid in 1:1-4—and from this foundation the message begins, ever broadening and expanding, each thought growing out of the other and ever circling to encompass and apply the previously introduced material.


First John often has been compared to the “wisdom” material in the NT, esp. James. The message is given in little pearls of wisdom. Simple words are used, and statements are brief and pithy. John did not argue as Paul did; therefore his style was intuitional rather than logical. He was primarily a witness, depending not so much on logical deduction as upon spiritual insight. Another stylistic characteristic is the use of contrast making opposites set against each other to underscore the teaching. Light is contrasted with darkness, truth with error, God with devil, righteousness with sin, love with hate, and life with death. Repetition also was important to John. John’s ideas are relatively few, but they are repeated over and over again. Twice in 1 John it is said that “God is love,” and several times love is offered as the evidence that a man has been born of God. Parallelism is another device used by this author. 1 John 1:8-10 contains three repetitions in parallel statements: “We deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (v. 8), “He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9), “we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (v. 10). The letter is characterized by a comparatively limited vocabulary that is nontechnical, having nothing of instruction about churches, their offerings, ordinances or activities. It has been judged a simple, non-technical document, generally lacking in literary polish but strangely powerful for perhaps those very reasons. The rhythmic quality of this work has been thought to have been due both to the catechetical method of teaching converts to Christianity, as well as to the method of teaching commonly employed in Judaism, which made much use of such repetitions and antithetical parallels.

Relation to John’s gospel.

The consensus of scholarly opinion through the centuries has held to a common authorship for the fourth gospel and the epistles of John. Tradition has connected the name of John the son of Zebedee with all of these documents from the earliest times. The acceptance of a common authorship was furthered by the obvious similarity of idioms and phrases, common themes, and a shared theological viewpoint that was distinctive in the NT. In the 20th cent. a challenge to this commonly held view was raised by H. J. Holtzmann and C. H. Dodd. Dodd concluded that a distinct theological divergence pointed in the direction of a disciple of John as the probable author of the epistle. He expressed in the Moffatt Commentary the view that the theological distinctives are three principally: (1) the eschatology is more primitive in the gospel, (2) so also is the interpretation of the death of Christ, and (3) the doctrine of the Spirit is not as elevated as in the gospel.

The question of priority.

The chronological order of the epistles of John and the gospel of John is so complicated that it has not been possible to determine their relationship with any degree of certainty. Some have believed that the epistles were written in the reverse order from their occurrence in the N.T. Third John would have been written first, 2 John next, and 1 John considerably later. In this scheme of writing the gospel has been put between 2 John and 1 John. It also has been conjectured that 1 John was written as a postscript to the gospel, the gospel having been written to explain how men might have eternal life (John 20:31), and the epistle to give assurance that they had it (1 John 5:13). Still other commentators have believed that the epistles were written prob. a year or two after the gospel, because it has been thought that such a passage as 1 John 2:3-8 assumes that the readers were familiar with the fuller exposition of the themes of the gospel. First John has, therefore, been termed the first commentary on the gospel of John. 1 John 1:3, 5, which deals with the theme that “God is light,” has been considered as a reference to the development of the same subject in the gospel. Furthermore, the three references to “I write to you” (see 1 John 2:14) instead of being epistolary aorists have rather been understood as historical aorists (“I have written you”) referring to the former communication contained in the gospel.

Similarities to John’s gospel.

The concensus of scholarly opinion is that 1 John and the gospel share the same theological approach and, generally speaking, treat the same subjects. Although narration is missing from the epistle, it does include the subjects of eternal life, believers as God’s children, love for God and brethren, and the indwelling of God in man that are prominent in the gospel. Beyond that there are interests shared by the two documents that relate them. “Witness” is a common emphasis in both (the term is used nine times in the epistle). The importance of the Incarnation overshadows every other consideration in both of them. Structurally it seems that there must have been a connection between the prologues of the epistle and gospel that caused them to unfold in a similar fashion. B. F. Westcott set out the following list of notable parallels in the texts: The Epistle—The Gospel

Differences from John’s gospel.

In spite of the striking similarities between 1 John and the fourth gospel, some differences are apparent. The doctrine of the Incarnation, though important to both, is centered in the epistle in the true humanity of Jesus, whereas in the gospel it centers in the divine glory of Jesus. C. H. Dodd professed to find an eschatological difference, in that the eschatology of the epistle was judged more primitive than that of the gospel, because of an absence of the reinterpretation of that doctrine, which Dodd called “realized eschatology.” The interpretation of the death of Christ in the epistle’s use of “expiation” (2:2; 4:10) and the absence of specific reference to the Spirit in the new birth discussion (as the gospel makes much of the Spirit in the same context) are examples of other acknowledged differences.

Linguistically there are differences also. Rhetorical questions characterized the epistle, but are entirely neglected in the gospel. There is a tendency toward conditional sentences in the epistle that is not a trait of the gospel. The vocabulary of the gospel is naturally larger than that of the shorter epistle, but even so, there are nearly forty words used by the writer of the epistle not found in the gospel, and there are also common words in the gospel that failed to make the epistle at all.

The gospel of John makes much use of the OT, but the epistles contain no quotation from the OT, and perhaps only one reference. There is in the gospel an interest in Judaism as a living religion that is absent from the epistle. It may have been that the gospel reflects a situation sixty years earlier than the epistle, when Judaism was a living issue.


Traditionally, John the son of Zebedee was considered the author of the epistles. When tradition is combined with reasonable possibilities, it seems that he went to Ephesus in Asia about a.d. 65-70. He remained there laboring among the churches until about a.d. 95, when he was exiled to the island of Patmos during the Domitianic persecution. Having returned to Ephesus about a.d. 97, this last of the apostles died there about the turn of the cent.

Arguments for John the apostle.

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (a.d. 185-202) quoted from both 1 John and 2 John, attributing both writings to John, the disciple of the Lord, to whom he also attributed the fourth gospel. The head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, Clement (c. a.d. 180-202) frequently quoted 1 John and attributed it to the Apostle John. The Muratorian Canon, the first known list of NT books, acknowledged two epistles of John, one of which was identified by quotation as 1 John. After the time of Eusebius (c. a.d. 305), general consent was attained to the apostolic authorship of these epistles.

Arguments against John the apostle.

Ignatius wrote to the church at Ephesus within twenty years of the time that John was supposed to have been there. He mentioned Paul’s ministry, but he was silent as far as John was concerned. Some have thought that an early martyrdom of John was prophesied by Jesus (Mark 10:39; Matt 20:23). George Hamartolos, a 9th-cent. writer, said that Papias wrote that John was murdered by the Jews along with his brother. The calendar of the Syriac church, which dated from the 4th cent., observed the martyrdom of James and John in Jerusalem on December 27.

The possible confusion of John the apostle with John the elder has been cited against apostolic authorship. A second John, known as John the elder, has been cited as the author of the epistles, both from the reference to “the Elder” in 2 and 3 John, and from a reference by Papias to a John the elder who perhaps was a different person from the Apostle John. The elder may have been a disciple of the apostle according to most of those who distinguish between the two.



Traditionally, the epistles of John have been associated with Ephesus and the Rom. province of Asia. It has been supposed that 1 John was written only for congregations in the Rom. province of Asia, but in 1 Peter the address included all those in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. If 1 John was written twenty-five or thirty years later than 1 Peter, it might well be that an even larger territory than Asia was addressed. Because tradition has pointed toward Ephesus as the residence of John, it is likely that all three epistles were written there. Unless 1 John 5:21 is taken literally, as it admonished abstinence from idol worship, there is no indication of whether these Christians were Jews or Gentiles.


About the 4th cent. it was believed that 1 John, and perhaps the other Johannine epistles, were addressed to Parthia, and the title “To the Parthians” actually occurs in a few MSS. Augustine supported this theory. An explanation has been found in a statement in the Clementine “Adumbriationes,” that 2 John was addressed to a Babylonian lady. Since Babylon was in the Parthian empire, the entire Parthian theory may have come from this single statement.

The entire question as to whether 2 John was addressed to an individual or a congregation awaits the discussion of the text, but 3 John undoubtedly was addressed to a trusted friend of the Elder. This trusted friend seems to have been a prosperous layman in a church within the radius of Ephesian influence.


The situation of the churches in the background of 1 John, esp. with reference to the anti-Gnostic material, would suggest a later date than Colossians or the pastoral epistles, where the same tendencies seem to have been met in a less developed form. In all likelihood, the epistles of John were written toward the close of the 1st cent. The absence of any reference to persecution prob. indicates a date before the time of the emperor Trajan (a.d. 98-117), and prob. even prior to the last years of Domitian, who reigned until a.d. 96.

The relationship of the epistles to the gospels also includes the establishing of a date. The gospel of John may have been as late as a.d. 95-100. Many scholars are now inclined to date the gospel about a.d. 85. If the epistles were written after the gospel and at least 1 John and 2 John at about the same time, a likely date would then be about a.d. 87 for the epistles. The Apostle John would at that time have been a man in his middle seventies, able still to travel and work (as suggested in 3 John). Christianity at that time was in difficulty in Asia but had not come under the intense persecution as occurred under Emperor Domitian. The Gnostic situation had the time to develop into a movement of some considerable importance and to spread over a wide area. In all likelihood, the epistles of John were written about the end of the eighties or the beginning of the nineties in the 1st cent.

Contents of the epistles of John

1 John

Dionysius of Alexandria may have been the first to note the parallel structure between the prologue of the epistle and that of the gospel of John. In each is: (1) the main subject described first, (2) then the historical manifestation of that subject, (3) last, the personal apprehension of it. The prologue of the epistle (also of the gospel) serves as the foundation upon which the remainder of the letter rests.

The main subject is declared to be the eternal Word, or better still “the living Logos.” In Gr. “logos” did not mean mere speech or utterance; it meant rational and articulate utterance of thought. It was the author’s declared intention to speak of Christ as the eternal Logos who is in Himself life, who is in union with God the Father before all time, and who became incarnate in time as the object of sensible experience among men. In a court of law in ancient times, the testimonies of two senses were required to make a witness authentic. Perhaps this is in the background of John’s emphasis that the proof of the humanity of Jesus had been attested by three senses: hearing, seeing, and touching. The neuter reference “that which” may be explained as a reference to the gospel, but in light of the declaration, “That which was from the beginning,” it is more likely that the author was thinking of Christ as a life—a fact of history. This stressed the truth that Jesus was not an optical illusion, as the Docetic Gnostics had claimed, but that He had an actual human body that was seen and heard.

The long and somewhat tangled sentence that makes up the Prologue is also an emphasis upon the personal and collective apprehension of the eternal, divine life in Christ. There had been a shared experience of the historical Jesus by His people. The repeated “we” indicates not only the apostolic witness and testimony but also the collective witness of the people of Christ, the “salvation” people who had come to find life in Jesus. Fellowship was the common tie of such a people; their fellowship was a fellowship of witness that rested upon the fellowship of a shared experience (see the discussion of “fellowship” in MNT by C. A. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, pp. 13-16, and The Epistles of St. John by B. F. Westcott, pp. 174f.). The textual problem in 1:4 as to whether “our joy” or “your joy” should be read is incapable of a hard and fast decision, but most likely it was “our joy,” in the apostolic sense.

The first expansion of thought based upon the basic statement of 1:1-4 is in terms of “fellowship with God.” The real meaning of all religious experience is caught up in this phrase for the writer. There were heretics in John’s day who claimed to have a vital experience with God, but they denied that Jesus was truly the Son of God—God in human flesh. John insisted in this opening statement that no man has fellowship with God who did not acknowledge Jesus, for it is His blood alone that places men into fellowship with God and maintains them in such fellowship. John stated the facts of Christian experience that were related to the establishment and maintenance of such fellowship with the intended purpose that his readers might know that they truly possessed this fellowship and that they might readily recognize those who did not.

The statement “God is light” has nothing to do with a mysterious or esoteric nature of God. John was merely emphasizing the fact that, in spite of what the Gnostics taught, God had no secret knowledge that was withheld from the entire body of believers, hidden just to give to a select few. The source of this information was Jesus Himself. It did not come from rabbinic instruction in the synagogue nor from the dialectical reasonings of Gr. philosophy. It was the message of revelation received directly through the historical Jesus. Beyond this fact light represents the perfect holiness of the unveiled nature of God as seen in Jesus Christ. Darkness is not simply a symbol of ignorance; it is also a symbol of moral evil. A man who rightly claims a personal knowledge of God in fellowship must measure his life against the character of God. It was B. F. Westcott who pointed out the trilogy: (1) God is light so men who fellowship with Him must walk in the light, (2) God is spirit so men who fellowship with Him must worship in the spirit, (3) God is love so men who fellowship with Him must manifest love.

The repeated statement, “if we say,” would indicate that the apostle was not tilting against men of straw but was combating the errors of his day. He had heard men say these things again and again. Entrance into fellowship with God did not come by denying sin, but by confessing it and being cleansed of it. The cross stands at the heart of any vital experience of a sinful man with the holy God. The blood of Jesus (real blood and not a phantom) is absolutely necessary to the establishment of fellowship between men and God. In the NT, the word “fellowship” is used only in a good and sacred sense. It is never used to describe those who walked in darkness and did not do the truth.

It is important in this passage to recognize the relation between the Gr. present tense and aorist tense. To understand properly 1:8 and relate it to 2:1 and 3:6, it is necessary to tr. the present tense in these vv. as “continue to sin,” i.e., “live a sinful life.” The aorist tense should be tr. “to commit a sin,” i.e., “do a sin.” In 1:8-10, John was saying that if men should say that they have not committed a sin, they make God a liar. In the present tense John was speaking of living a life of sin, so that he can say that whoever abides in God does not continue living a sinful life. The declaration added to the inability to confess the need for God’s forgiveness (to the effect that “the truth is not in us”) meant that such men were incapable of recognizing the truth when they saw it.

Two erroneous conclusions might have been drawn from 1:8-10 against which the author guarded in 2:1, 2. The acknowledgement of the persistent malady of sin might lead a Christian to accept sin as inevitable in life, causing him to ease his struggle against sin. Also, the readily available forgiveness of sin might lead a Christian to presume on God as the God of forgiveness. The author hastened to assure his readers that everything that he was writing was written that they might not sin. His readers were encouraged to remember the facts that are inseparable from fellowship with God.

The author began this section by a reference to knowledge, or assurance, of a personal relation to God. The word “know” is derived from the same root from which the Gnostics took their name. They claimed a monopoly on religious knowledge, which John denied with his bold assertion “we know him.” The basis of this assurance is the keeping of His commandments.

The author used the term “commandment” (or its pl.) six times in these verses. In fact, as is characteristic of 1 John (the repetition of previously introduced ideas) the term “commandment” is used in the following sections also (3:23, 24; 4:21; 5:2, 3). It is evidently a key thought in the author’s expanding discussion. The relationship of this new term “commandment” to the previously dominant term “fellowship” is that the Christian’s fellowship with God depends upon, and is assured by, keeping the commandments.

The phrase “his word” in v. 5 is a synonym for “commandment.” The idea of keeping the commandments is previously suggested in 1:6 by the emphasis upon the truth as something that the Christian lives. John prob. took this term from Jesus Himself (see the gospel of John 14:15, 21, 23, 24; 15:10). It was Jesus Himself who identified these commandments with His word. There is an objective basis behind all Christian experience that made it impossible for men to brand it a sham or an illusion. That objective basis is keeping the commandments.

The importance and meaning of keeping the commandments is developed by two illustrations: (1) love for the believing brother (1 John 2:9-11), (2) avoiding love for the world (1 John 2:12-17). It is prob. better to treat the second of these as a separate subject because 1 John 2:12-17 is most difficult to connect. Some have judged it a parenthesis in which the writer definitely turned aside for a word of personal appeal.

The commandment of love is as old as God’s revelation. In the Christian context, the readers may have heard it preached by Paul and John. Perhaps they read it in John’s gospel also. Some who had professed the light had given the lie to that profession by the darkness of their hatred for their brethren. John was saying that the new commandment is to put the old commandment into practice; in that sense it is not a new commandment at all but the old one applied.

As previously noted, this passage is a personal appeal in the first instance. These tender words of personal exhortation are in sharp contrast with the rather severe words that follow. Here is primarily a warning against that which would destroy the believer’s fellowship with God, and also His fellowship with His brethren—the love of the world. The basis upon which John wrote to them was that their sins had been forgiven them. Since this was true, he was able to write these things to them because they were in the fellowship.

John divided his readers into the young and the old, for apparently his common way of referring to all of his readers was with the word “children.” In all probability, these words refer to natural age and are not spiritualizations of mature and immature Christians. The Gnostics claimed an exclusive knowledge of God and condemned John’s readers as having no knowledge of God. He reassured his readers of their real knowledge of the Father. Their abiding knowledge of God was attested by their fellowship with Him.

In John’s writings, “to love the world” always means to replace love for God in one’s life with love for wrong objects. The “world” here means the realm of evil that excludes God. The word John chose for love (ἀγαπάω, G26) denotes direction of the will and purposeful choice. There are two reasons that arise from the essential nature of the world that labels love of the world as unspiritual: (1) such love is fixed upon that which is in essential opposition to God, (2) such love is fixed upon that which is unable to stand the test of time.

In early Christianity the belief that an antichrist would come who would be the direct opponent of Christ was widespread and significant. Usually the thought centered on one antichrist, but here John considered anyone as an antichrist who taught the false doctrines that he had thus far considered. They have withdrawn from the fellowship, and this itself branded them as those who had never shared in the real life and fellowship of the brethren. They had not loved the brethren because they had not loved God. In a sense, their departure from the fellowship provided a key word to John at this point, the term “remained.” Six times in these vv. John wrote some form of this word “remain,” or “continue” just as he previously emphasized “commandment.” Their withdrawal was beneficial. The cause of Christ had been in much greater danger before these false teachers had been revealed for what they really were, i.e., unbelievers.

The special heresy against which John warned his readers was related to the person of Christ. To deny that Jesus was at one and the same time the perfect man and the true God, was the supreme lie. Such a liar was antichrist. A denial such as this is also a denial of the Father, for it is only through the Son that the Father had been manifested in the flesh. Whereas previously it was affirmed that love of the world was proof that one did not love God, in this passage it is affirmed that the denial of the truth concerning Christ is evidence that there is no fellowship with God. Faith in Christ tests fellowship with God.

Loyalty to the truth of God in Christ is declared to have its rewards. The two advantages that result from such loyalty conclude the section. They are an eternal relationship with God through Christ and a secure knowledge of spiritual realities. It is the Holy Spirit’s function to bring both of these to the knowledge of the believer. The Holy Spirit was John’s answer to the Gnostic. It was not the proud human “knower” who brought secret, mystic knowledge that men needed, but the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

The Gnostics taught that restraint of sin was unnecessary. John confidently asserted that the real proof of a man having been born of God was that he did that which was right in God’s sight. John esp. considered two matters in connection with the new faith: first, the privileges of God’s children and, second, the character of God’s children. Though years of Christian experience had accumulated for John, he was still amazed that sinners should be accorded the privilege of being God’s children; but perhaps fearing that someone would pick up the word “called” and imply only called, he added more amazingly that his readers were actually God’s children. The reason why the world did not recognize these Christians as children of God was because that world did not know God. Beyond all this there awaits these believers a wonderful destiny more marvelous than anything yet experienced. This glorious destiny is not known in detail, but in essence it is that the Lord’s people will be like Him. John declared that to be like Christ is the Christian’s destiny.

In vv. 4-8, John placed the Christian’s life of righteousness against a life of sin, by way of contrast. These two lives come from two personal sources—Christ and the devil. A new life principle has been imparted to the Christian, a life principle that could not possibly be the seed of sin because it comes from God. The children of God may be expected to resemble their Father, God, in righteousness. Conversely, the same thing is true of the devil’s offspring, for he was from the beginning a sinner. The expression “from the beginning” as here related to the devil has been subject to interpretation in three ways: (1) that “the beginning” refers to eternity, thus the devil is associated with sin from all eternity; (2) that “the beginning” refers to the beginning of the human race, thus in all of human experience the devil is the source of sin; (3) that “the beginning” means “from the beginning of sin,” thus the devil is the original sinner.

The most difficult v. in 1 John is v. 9 of this passage, no doubt because of the absolute and unqualified terms employed by John. It is to be understood, however, that the tenses of the verbs in Gr. is the important matter. The first verb is in the intensive perfect; “everyone who is begotten of God” is the idea. The second verb is the present of continued action; “does not keep on practicing sin” is the idea. The truly regenerated man cannot continue his former sinful disposition, but his desires change, and with the Holy Spirit’s help he grows in godliness.

A family member in the divine circle, one of God’s children, is expected to love the other family members of the divine circle. Proud Gnosticism, boasting its intellectual superiority, produced a spirit of arrogance and self-assertiveness on the part of its followers. There was no place in it for the uninitiated who did not accept the Gnostic interpretation. Jealousy, contempt, and hatred characterized this heretical movement. John declared that love is fundamental to the Christian message, being “from the beginning.” In contrast with Cain, the first murderer and embodiment of hatred, stands Christ, the very revelation of love. Christ’s death was offered as the supreme proof of His love and the ultimate requirement of love from His people. Love is thus declared to be the manifestation of this new life from God in men. It is not enough to profess this love; it is required that Christ’s people practice this transforming love in their daily lives.

When Christians judge themselves by the high standard of Christian love, it is easy to become discouraged. The first vv. of this paragraph are difficult to interpret (for the difficulties of the Gr. constructions see Westcott, The Epistles of St. John). John apparently meant by “heart” the entire conscious, moral nature of man. The declaration is that the refuge from a guilty conscience is the greatness of God’s forgiveness. God’s greatness is not to be found in His justice that brings condemnation upon men, but in His mercy that brings salvation from sin. Prayer would have no foundation if it were not for the greatness of God. By keeping God’s commandments, prayer becomes effective, which means that because His people are one with God’s purpose, they can expect His help. The keeping of God’s commandments is summarized by John as a true belief in Jesus and a real love for the brethren. This keeping of God’s commandments is both the condition and result of true fellowship with God. The Spirit’s presence in the Christian’s life is adduced as the proof of such vital fellowship with God.

John wrote (3:24) that a Christian can know that God is abiding in him because of the Holy Spirit’s presence in his heart. Before he continued with his message, the author paused to warn his readers about the false doctrine of the spirit as held by the Gnostics. The Gnostics talked much about spirit. Matter, they said, was evil, but the spirit was the divine part of man because it was non-material. They claimed that their knowledge of God was a spiritual knowledge. John urged his readers to be rigidly discriminating concerning the “spirit” that moved a teacher in the church. The fundamental test to apply to a teacher was his attitude toward Christ. If such a teacher denied the reality of the Incarnation, he then based his message upon the wisdom of human reason rather than on revelation from God.

Twice already John affirmed that love is the test of the Christian life. In this passage, the letter reaches its climax, for it was intended not only to give tests by which the readers could measure their lives, but more importantly, to secure for them a deeper experience with God. Love is the supreme test both of the new life and the abiding fellowship of God. Love is the natural fruit of the saved life. John related this love to the reality of the incarnation of Jesus Christ in the flesh. If Jesus was not truly the Son of God, then the love of God for a lost world was a figment of the imagination. A true Incarnation was necessary for God’s love to be revealed in the world. When love is associated with faith and devotion toward Jesus Christ, it then becomes a valid evidence of life everlasting. God, because He is love, is the one source of love. This means that men have no love for God until they discover God’s love for them. Love that is genuine, according to John, has to have its source in God.

Throughout 1 John is a constant interplay of love, righteousness, and belief. The author insisted upon the relation of belief and love. The readers must remember to identify love with keeping the commandments. Because they are children of God, it should not be burdensome for them. Also, those born of God will gain the victory over the world through faith. John commonly used the verb “believe,” and 5:4 is the only place where he used the noun “faith.” Faith is the victory. It was not the Gnostic victory of spirit over matter, but the Christian victory of righteousness over evil. Faith brings victory. Faith comes from love. Love results from being born again. These are the familiar Johannine themes brought again into combination and new emphasis.

Verse 6 may have been a direct thrust at the Gnostic leader, Cerinthus, who taught that the divinity of Christ came upon the human Jesus at His baptism in the form of the dove that descended from heaven, but left Him in Gethsemane. The author acknowledged that the messianic ministry of Jesus began at His baptism, but the fulfillment of that ministry was in the sacrifice of the cross “in the blood.” In the Jewish legal system a testimony was regarded as conclusive when supported by two or three witnesses. It was, therefore, important to John that he discerned three witnesses to the real incarnation of God in the historical Jesus: “the Spirit, the water, and the blood.” These witnesses combined to support the declaration that it was Jesus, God’s Son, who died on the cross and thereby worked redemption for humanity. There is the record of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the fact of His atoning death, and the subsequent witness of the Spirit in the life of the believer (as well as the witness of the Spirit to Jesus in the days of His flesh). So intense is the rejection of the Gnostic heresies that taught that salvation was secured through a speculative “gnosis,” that John made the strong declaration that men who taught such heresy made God a liar. The true witness of Christian experience, given through the Spirit, is that salvation is accepted by faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

The word “ask” is interrelated with the word “know” throughout this passage. Knowledge not only brought the certainty of salvation but also boldness and confidence in prayer. There are, however, three important qualifications introduced in connection with effective prayer: (1) the Christian must ask in accordance with God’s will (v. 14), (2) the Christian must ask with faith (v. 15), (3) the Christian must consign some things to the wisdom of God alone (vv. 16, 17). The reference to mortal sin and the fact that John did not encourage prayer for such, has created much bewilderment for Christian interpreters through the centuries. It must be remembered that confidence is expressed in the effectiveness of prayer for “a brother.” The point of contrast is that the “mortal sin” raises the crucial question of salvation. A Christian cannot pray with complete confidence where the genuine experience of grace is questionable. No doubt, in John’s mind, the Gnostic heresy of denying the redemptive work of God’s Son was such a situation, perhaps the primary indication of it to Him. He could not encourage hopeful prayer that such a one because he was a brother would be dealt with by God as He deals with His children. Rather, such men as the Gnostics who professed God but were infidels with reference to Jesus had put themselves beyond the pale of prayer that intercedes for a brother. They were not brethren.

As the previous section reveals an interplay of “know” and “ask,” here the word “know” dominates the scene. It becomes more than a declaration from the author; it is also an outreach to establish his readers. Including the larger section (beginning in v. 13), the word “know” occurs seven times. In the Gr. text, there is a significant variation of terms. Six times the word “know” refers to knowledge that comes from Christian instruction. The last use of the word (v. 20) signifies knowledge that is based upon experience. The entire sum of Christian teaching is imparted to the end that men may know in their own experience the reality of the Gospel. The Gnostics made great use of what they called “knowledge”; but the Christian has real knowledge. The Christian knows security in the provision of God; he knows the reality of an escape from the bondage of sin; he knows the truth and not error; he knows the reality of eternal life.

2 John.

This briefest of books may be analyzed as follows:

Greetings (vv. 1-3).

The concept of salvation in 2 John is similar to that of 3 John. The term “elder” may have referred to the office the author held in the Christian community, or it may have referred to his advanced age. In all probability, it referred to his office (though for John at this time it would have been equally true as a reference to his age). This title had wide use in the Asiatic churches, and apparently the author felt it was sufficient identification of himself.

The “elect lady” may have been a woman with a family, and her sister (v. 13) may have been the elder’s hostess at the time of writing. Some have even thought that “lady,” which in Gr. was sometimes the proper noun Cyria, should not be tr. “lady” but rather as Cyria, the personal name of a woman (even as Gaius’ name appeared in 3 John). It is more likely that the reference is a figure of speech referring to the church to which the letter was addressed, and the closing reference to “sister” would be understood as a sister congregation.

The familiar Johannine theme of “love in the truth” is quickly introduced. The author assured those to whom he wrote that he loved them in the truth. His love was not sweet sentimentality. It was a love that was rationally and morally conditioned by the Gospel. It was the spiritual knowledge of God in Christ that produced this love in his heart. The society of the faithful was established by and has its very existence from its relationship to this truth.

The typical blessing, as Westcott has noted, began with the activity of God in behalf of men, and continues to the final satisfaction of men: “Grace, mercy, and peace.”

Follow the truth (vv. 4-6).

The opening words of this passage have been held to indicate that only some of the people involved were following the truth; other of the “children” were not. This may have been true, but it seems better to understand this simply as a positive comment. He has had contact with some of the children, and he found those to be following the truth. “Following the truth” meant that the Gospel of Christ was manifested in their living.

John practiced love in his dealing with the recipients of the letter, as indicated by his tender appeal that they love one another. John appears to have reasoned in a circle. Love, he said, is to follow the truth, and to keep the commandments. On the other hand, he said the command is that they should love one another. It may be important to note that, in the first instance, “commandments” is pl., and in the second, “commandment” is sing. The life of love seeks to obey God in all that He commanded; at the same time all the commandments can be summarized in one—love!

Watch for deceivers (vv. 7-11).

The love of which John wrote never goes contrary to the interest of truth. It is not to be extended indiscriminately. Those who were perverters of the truth and enemies of Christ could not in the very nature of things be made the object of brotherly love. Of compassion and care they should be objects, but of Christian fellowship and service they could not be in the nature of the situation. There were roving teachers of Gnosticism that propagated heresy in denying the reality of the incarnation of God in Christ. These antichrists did not abide in “the doctrine of Christ,” which prob. meant the teaching of the apostles about Christ. They felt they knew God but took a small view of Jesus. The readers were warned against such men. To such men they were not to offer Christian hospitality. They were not to give aid to those teachers of heresy.

Future plans (vv. 12, 13).

John found writing to his reader in this instance to be less than satisfactory for the communication of his message. He anxiously awaited an opportunity when he could visit them and speak to them “face to face.” He anticipated such a meeting with joy. The reference to children of the sister may have been to nieces and nephews, or more likely was a greeting from the members of a sister church.

3 John

This letter was addressed by the “elder” to Gaius. The name “Gaius” was very common in the 1st cent., and the individual in this instance cannot be positively identified. Three men of this name have been suggested from the NT. Gaius of Corinth (Rom 16:23) was noted for his hospitality. Gaius of Macedonia (Acts 19:29) was a missionary companion of Paul. Gaius of Derbe (20:4) accompanied Paul on a missionary journey (possibly the same as the Gaius of Acts 19:29). The tie that bound the “elder” to this man, whoever he was, was the love of a Christian brother in the context of the Gospel.

Follow the truth (vv. 2-4).

The “elder” prayed that Gaius would prosper physically and materially in the same way that he had prospered. This interest in Gaius’ prosperity was related in the first instance to the generosity that he had shown to the visiting missionaries with whom he had shared his material possessions. These missionaries had reported Gaius’ devotion to the truth, his faithful stewardship that was manifested in his works. “Following the truth” is peculiarly Johannine terminology. It means that the man lived the life of the Gospel, was shaped in character by it, and was dominated and controlled by his instruction in Christ.

Render service (vv. 5-8).

The act that particularly drew the “elder’s” praise had been Gaius’ hospitality to the itinerant missionaries who ministered to the church of which he was a member. Apparently Gaius’ kindness subjected him to criticism from his fellow members. Gaius was commended by the “elder” for doing wisely that which the “elect lady” was warned against doing unwisely (2 John). The expression “send them on their journey (way),” as found in the NT, means to provide expenses for a missionary undertaking (Acts 15:3; 21:5, etc.). These missionaries deserved such help because they were representatives of Christ, for this was the meaning of “for they have set out for his sake.” These missionaries also refrained from accepting help from the heathen to whom they ministered so as not to open up their work to suspicion of unworthy motives. Gaius was reminded that as he supported these workers for Christ, he shared in their labor.

Warning against Diotrephes (vv. 9, 10).

Here is found the explanation of John’s writing to Gaius instead of the church. He had tried the method of writing to the church, but with no results. This letter to the church had been sent by a faithful Christian missionary named Demetrius, but among the elders of the church was an arrogant, domineering, and conceited man named Diotrephes, who had assumed the leadership of the church. Diotrephes had barred Demetrius from the church and had suppressed the elder’s letter. Apparently this selfish man was fearful that the church would acknowledge an authority other than his own, so he forbade the reading of the elder’s letter or the entertaining of any messenger from him. The elder promised to confront this man shortly if he was able to come himself.

Commendation of Demetrius (vv. 11, 12).

Demetrius was the bearer of 3 John. Gaius not only was warned against being like Diotrephes, but he also was encouraged to be like Demetrius. Demetrius was given a threefold commendation: (1) he was widely known in the church as a man of good character, (2) his life revealed his Christianity through his loyalty to the truth, (3) John himself testified to the kind of man he was.

Conclusion (vv. 13-15).

This conclusion is strikingly similar to that of 2 John, which may suggest that the two letters were written close to the same time. The elder stated his definite plan to visit Gaius shortly. The closing greeting, typically Christian, reveals the writer’s extensive personal acquaintance in the church of which Gaius was a part.


R. S. Candlish, The First Epistle of John (reprint of 1869 ed.); B. F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John (1883); C. H. Dodd, “The Johannine Epistles” in New Testament Commentary (Moffatt) (1946); H. E. Dana, The Epistles and Apocalypse of John (1947); G. H. King, The Fellowship (1954); W. T. Conner, The Epistles of John (1957); J. P. Love, “The First, Second and Third Letters of John”; “The Letter of Jude”; “The Revelation of John in The Layman’s Bible Commentary (1961); G. P. Lewis, “The Johannine Epistles” in Epworth Preacher’s Commentaries (1961); R. E. O. White, Open Letter to Evangelicals (1964); J. R. W. Stott, “The Epistles of John in Tyndale Bible Commentaries (1964).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. A True Letter

2. Subject-Matter

3. Characteristics of the Writer

4. Style and Diction


1. Gnosticism

2. Docetism

3. Antinomianism

4. Cerinthus


1. The Prologue, 1 John 1:1-4

2. First Cycle, 1 John 1:5-2:28

The Christian Life as Fellowship with God (Walking in the Light) Tested by Righteousness, Love and Belief

(a) Paragraph A, 1 John 1:8-2:6

(b) Paragraph B, 1 John 2:7-17

(i) Positively

(ii) Negatively

(c) Paragraph C, 1 John 2:18-28

3. Second Cycle, 1 John 2:29-4:6

Divine Sonship Tested by Righteousness, Love and Belief

(a) Paragraph A, 1 John 2:29-3:10a

(b) Paragraph B, 1 John 3:10b-24b

(c) Paragraph C, 1 John 3:24b through 4:6

4. Third Cycle, 1 John 4:7-5:21

Closer Correlation of Righteousness, Love and Belief

(a) Section I, 1 John 4:7-5:3a

(i) Paragraph A, 1 John 4:7-12

(ii) Paragraph B, 1 John 4:13-16

(iii) Paragraph C, 1 John 4:17-5:3a

(b) Section II, 1 John 5:3b-21

(i) Paragraph A, 1 John 5:3b-12

(ii) Paragraph B, 1 John 5:13-21


1. Traditional View

2. Critical Views

3. Internal Evidence


1. Common Characteristics

2. Coincidences of Vocabulary

3. Divergences of Vocabulary

4. Arguments against Unity of Authorship

5. Conclusion

6. Question of Priority


Among the 7 New Testament epistles which from ancient times have been called "catholic" (universal) there is a smaller group of three in which the style alike of thought and language points to a common authorship, and which are traditionally associated with the name of the apostle John. Of these, again, the first differs widely from the other two in respect not only of intrinsic importance, but of its early reception in the church and unquestioned canonicity.


I. General Character.

1. A True Letter:

2. Subject-Matter:

There is no New Testament writing which is throughout more vigorously controversial: for the satisfactory interpretation of the Epistle as a whole, recognition of the polemical aim that pervades it is indispensable. But it is true also that there is no such writing in which the presentation of the truth more widely overflows the limits of the immediate occasion. The writer so constantly lifts up against the error he combats, the simple, sublime and satisfying facts and principles of the Christian revelation, so lifts up every question at issue into the light of eternal truth, that the Epistle pursues its course through the ages, bringing to the church of God the vision and the inspiration of the Divine. The influence of the immediate polemical purpose, however, is manifest, not only in the contents of the Epistle, but in its limitations as well. In a sense it may be said that the field of thought is a narrow one. God is seen exclusively as the Father of Spirits, the Light and Life of the universe of souls. His creatorship and government of the world, the providential aspects and agencies of salvation, the joys and sorrows, hopes and fears that spring from the terrestrial conditions and changes of human life, their disciplinary purpose and effect--to all this the Epistle contains no reference. The themes are exclusively theological and ethical. The writer’s immediate interest is confined to that region in which the Divine and human vitally and directly meet--to that in God which is communicable to man, to that in man by which he is capax Dei. The Divine nature as life and light, and love and righteousness; the Incarnation of this Divine nature in Jesus, with its presuppositions and consequences, metaphysical and ethical; the imparting of this Divine nature to men by regeneration; the antithesis to it--sin--and its removal by propitiation; the work of the Holy Spirit; the Christian life, the mutual indwelling of God and man, as tested by its beliefs, its antagonism to sin, its inevitable debt of love--such are the fundamental themes to which every idea in the Epistle is directly related. The topics, if few, are supremely great; and the limitations of the field of vision are more than compensated by the profundity and intensity of spiritual perception.

3. Characteristics of the Writer:

The Epistle is in a sense impersonal to the last degree, offering a strange contrast to that frankness of self-revelation which gives such charm to Paul’s letters; yet few writings so clearly reveal the deepest characteristics of the writer. We feel in it the high serenity of a mind that lives in constant fellowship with the greatest thoughts and is nourished at the eternal fountain-head; but also the fervent indignation and vehement recoil of such a mind in contact with what is false and evil. It has been truly called "the most passionate" book in the New Testament. Popular instinct has not erred in giving to its author the title, "Apostle of Love." Of the various themes which are so wonderfully intertwined in it, that to which it most of all owes its unfading charm and imperishable value is love. It rises to its sublimest height, to the apex of all revelation, in those passages in which its author is so divinely inspired to write of the eternal life, in God and man, as love.

But it is an inveterate misconception which regards him solely as the exponent of love. Equally he reveals himself as one whose mind is dominated by the sense of truth. There are no words more characteristic of him than "true" (alethinos, denoting that which both ideally and really corresponds to the name it bears) and "the truth" (aletheia, the reality of things sub specie aeternitatis). To him Christianity is not only a principle of ethics, or even a way of salvation; it is both of them, because it is primarily the truth, the one true disclosure of the realities of the spiritual and eternal world. Thus it is that his thought so constantly develops itself by antithesis. Each conception has its fundamental opposite: light, darkness; life, death; love, hate; truth, falsehood; the Father, the world; God, the devil. There is no shading, no gradation in the picture. No sentence is more characteristic of the writer than this: "Ye know that no lie is of the truth" (1Joh 2:21 margin). But again, his sense of these radical antagonisms is essentially moral, rather than intellectual. It seems impossible that any writing could display a more impassioned sense, than this Epistle does, of the tremendous imperative of righteousness, a more rigorous intolerance of all sin (1Joh 2:4; 3:4,8,9,10). The absolute antagonism and incompatibility between the Christian life and sin of whatsoever kind or degree is maintained with a vehemence of utterance that verges at times upon the paradoxical (1Joh 3:9; 5:18). So long as the church lays up this Epistle in its heart, it can never lack a moral tonic of wholesome severity.

4. Style and Diction:

The style is closely, though perhaps unconsciously, molded upon the Hebrew model, and especially upon the parallelistic forms of the Wisdom literature. One has only to read the Epistle with an attentive ear to perceive that, though using another language, the writer had in his own car, all the time, the swing and cadences of Hebrew verse. The diction is inartificial and unadorned. Not a simile, not a metaphor (except the most fundamental, like "walking in the light") occurs. The limitations in the range of ideas are matched by those of vocabulary and by the unvarying simplicity of syntactical form. Yet limited and austere as the literary medium is, the writer handles its resources often with consummate skill. The crystalline simplicity of the style perfectly expresses the simple profundity of the thought. Great spiritual intuitions shine like stars in sentences of clear-cut gnomic terseness. Historical (1Joh 1:1) and theological (1Joh 1:2; 4:2) statements are made with exquisite precision. The frequent reiteration of nearly the same thoughts in nearly the same language, though always with variation and enrichment, gives a cumulative effect which is singularly impressive. Such passages as 1Joh 2:14-17, with its calm challenge to the arrogant materialism of the world--"And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever"--or the closing verses of the Epistle, with their thrice-repeated triumphant "we know" and their last word of tender, urgent admonition, have a solemn magnificence of effect which nothing but such simplicity of language, carrying such weight of thought, could produce. If it has been true of any writer that "le style est l’homme," it is true of the author of this Epistle.

II. Polemical Aim.

1. Gnosticism:

The pretensions of Gnosticism to a higher esoteric knowledge of Divine things seems to be clearly referred to in several passages. In 1Joh 2:4,6,9, e.g. one might suppose that they are almost verbally quoted ("He that saith"; "I know Him"; "I abide in Him"; "I am in the light"). When we observe, moreover, the prominence given throughout to the idea of knowledge and the special significance of some of these passages, the conviction grows that the writer’s purpose is not only to refute the false, but to exhibit apostolic Christianity, believed and lived, as the true Gnosis--the Divine reality of which Gnosticism was but a fantastic caricature. The confidence he has concerning his readers is that they "know him who is from the beginning," that they "know the Father" (2:13). "Every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God" (4:7); and the final note upon which the Epistle closes is: "We know him that is true, and we are in him that is true" (5:20). The knowledge of the ultimate Reality, the Being who is the eternal life, is for Christian and Gnostic alike the goal of aspiration.

But it is against two closely related developments of Gnostic tendency, a docetic view of the incarnation, and an antinomian view of morals, that the Epistle is specifically directed. Both of these sprang naturally from the dualism which was the fundamental and formative principle of Gnosticism in all its many forms. According to the dualistic conception of existence, the moral schism of which we are conscious in experience is original, eternal, inherent in the nature of beings. There are two independent and antagonistic principles of being from which severally come all the good and all the evil that exist. The source and the seat of evil were found in the material element, in the body with its senses and appetites, and in its sensuous earthly environment; and it was held inconceivable that the Divine nature should have immediate contact with the material side of existence, or influence upon it.

2. Docetism:

3. Antinomianism:

A further consequence of the dualistic interpretation of existence is that sin, in the Christian meaning of sin, disappears. It is no longer a moral opposition (anomia), in the human personality, to good; it is a physical principle inherent in all nonspiritual being. Not the soul, but the flesh is its organ; and redemption consists, not in the renewal of the moral nature, but in its emancipation from the flesh. Thus it is no mere general contingency, but a definite tendency that is contemplated in the repeated warning: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. .... If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (1Joh 1:8,10).

With the nobler and more earnest spirits the practical corollary of this irreconcilable dualism in human nature was the ascetic life; but to others the same principle readily suggested an opposite method of achieving the soul’s deliverance from the yoke of the material--an attitude of moral indifference toward the deeds of the body. Let the duality of nature be boldly reduced to practice. Let body and spirit be regarded as separate entities, each obeying its own laws and acting according to its own nature, without mutual interference; the spiritual nature could not be involved in, nor affected by, the deeds of the flesh. Vehement opposition to this deadly doctrine is prominent in the Epistle--in such utterances as "Sin is lawlessness" (1Joh 3:4) and its converse "All unrighteousness is sin" (1Joh 5:17), but especially in the stringent emphasis laid upon actual conduct, "doing" righteousness or "doing" sin. The false spiritualism which regards the contemplation of heavenly things as of far superior importance to the requirements of commonplace morality is sternly reprobated: "Little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous" (1Joh 3:7); and the converse application of the same doctrine, that the mere "doing" of sin is of little or no moment to the "spiritual" man, is met with the trenchant declaration, "He that doeth sin is of the devil" (1Joh 3:8). The whole passage (1Joh 2:29-3:10) presupposes, as familiar to its readers, a doctrine of moral indifferentism according to which the status of the spiritual man is not to be tested by the commonplace facts of moral conduct. It is only as a passionate contradiction of this hateful tenet that the paradoxical language of 1Joh 3:6,9 and 5:18 can be understood.

To the same polemical necessity is due the uniquely reiterated emphasis which the Epistle lays upon brotherly love, and the almost fierce tone in which the new commandment is promulgated. To the Gnostic, knowledge was the sum of attainment. "They give no heed to love," says Ignatius, "caring not for the widow, the orphan or the afflicted, neither for those who are in bonds nor for those who are released from bonds, neither for the hungry nor the thirsty." That a religion which banished or neglected love should call itself Christian or claim affinity with Christianity excites John’s hottest indignation; against it he lifts up his supreme truth, God is love, with its immediate consequence that to be without love is to be without capacity for knowing God (1Joh 4:7,8). The assumption of a lofty mystical piety apart from dutiful conduct in the ordinary relations of life is ruthlessly underlined as the vaunt of a self-deceiver (1Joh 4:20); and the crucial test by which we may assure our self-accusing hearts that we are "of the truth" is love "not in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth" (1Joh 3:18).

The question is raised whether the polemic of the Epistle is directed against the same persons throughout or whether in its two branches, the Christological and the ethical, it has different objects of attack. The latter view is maintained on the ground that no charge of libertine teaching or conduct is brought against the "antichrists," and there is no proof that docetism in Asia Minor lay open to such a charge. But the other view has greater probability. The Epistle suggests nothing else than that the same spirit of error which is assailing the faith of the church (1Joh 4:6) is also a peril to the moral integrity of its life (1Joh 3:7). And if there is no proof that docetism in Asia Minor was also antinomian, there is no proof that it was not. The probability is that it was. Docetism and the emancipation of the flesh were both natural fruits of the dualistic theory of life.

4. Cerinthus:

The name, which unvarying tradition associates with the Epistle, as John’s chief antagonist in Ephesus, is that of Cerinthus. Unfortunately the accounts which have come down to us of Cerinthus and his teaching are fragmentary and confused, and those of his character, though unambiguous, come only from his opponents. But it is certain that he held a docetic view of the incarnation, and, according to the only accounts we possess, his character was that of a voluptuary. So far as they go, the historical data harmonize with the internal evidence of the Epistle itself in giving the impression that the different tendencies it combats are such as would be naturally evolved in the thought and practice of those who held, as Cerinthus did, that the material creation, and even the moral law, had its origin, not in the Supreme God, but in an inferior power.

III. Structure and Summary.

In the judgment of many critics, the Epistle possesses nothing that can be called an articulate structure of thought, its aphoristic method admitting of no logical development; and this estimate has a large measure of support in the fact that there is no New Testament writing regarding the plan of which there has been greater variety of opinion. The present writer believes, nevertheless, that it is erroneous, and that, in its own unique way, the Epistle is a finely articulated composition. The word that best describes the author’s mode of thinking is "spiral." The course of thought does not move from point to point in a straight line. It is like a winding staircase--always revolving around the same center, always recurring to the same topics, but at a higher level.

Carefully following the topical order, one finds, e.g., a paragraph (1Joh 2:3-6) insisting upon practical righteousness as a guaranty of the Christian life; then one finds this treated a second time in 1Joh 2:29-3:10 a; and yet again in 5:3 and 5:18. Similarly, we find a paragraph on the necessity of love in 2:7-11, and again in 3:10b-20, and yet again in 4:7-13, and also in 4:17-5:2. So also, a paragraph concerning the necessity of holding the true belief in the incarnate Son of God in 2:18-28, in 4:1-6, and the same subject recurring in 4:13-16 and 5:4-12. And we shall observe that everywhere these indispensable characteristics of the Christian life are applied as tests; that in effect the Epistle is an apparatus of tests, its definite object being to furnish its readers with the necessary criteria by which they may sift the false from the true, and satisfy themselves of their being "begotten of God." "These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life" (5:13). These fundamental tests of the Christian life--doing righteousness, loving one another, believing that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh--are the connecting themes that bind together the whole structure of the Epistle. Thus, if we divide the Epistle into 3 main sections, the first ending at 2:28, the second at 4:6, the result is that in the first and second of these sections we find precisely the same topics coming in precisely the same order; while in the third section (4:7-5:21), though the sequence is somewhat different, the thought-material is exactly the same. The leading themes, the tests of righteousness, love, and belief, are all present; and they alone are present. There is, therefore, a natural division of the Epistle into these three main sections, or, as they might be descriptively called, "cycles," in each of which the same fundamental themes appear. On this basis we shall now give a brief analysis of its structure and summary of its contents.

1. The Prologue, 1 John 1:1-4:

The writer announces the source of the Christian revelation--the historical manifestation of the eternal Divine life in Jesus Christ--and declares himself a personal witness of the facts in which this manifestation has been given. Here, at the outset, he hoists the flag under which he fights. The incarnation is not seeming or temporary, but real. That which was from the beginning--"the eternal life, which was with the Father"--is identical with "that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled."

2. First Cycle, 1 John 1:5-2:28:

The Christian life, as fellowship with God (walking in the Light) tested by righteousness, love and belief.--The basis of the whole section is the announcement: "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1Joh 1:5). What God is at once determines the condition of fellowship with Him; and this, therefore, is set forth: first, negatively (1Joh 1:6): "if we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness"; then, positively (1Joh 1:7): "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light." What, then, is it to walk in the light, and what to walk in darkness? The answer is given in what follows.

(a) Paragraph A, 1 John 1:8-2:6:

First, in confession of sin (1Joh 1:8-2:2), then in actual obedience (1Joh 2:3-6). The first fact upon which the light of God impinges in human life is sin; and the first test of walking in the light is the recognition and confession of this fact. Such confession is the first step into fellowship with God, because it brings us under the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, His Son (1Joh 1:7), and makes His intercession available for us (1Joh 2:1). But the light not only reveals sin; its greater function is to reveal duty; and to walk in the light is to keep God’s commandments (1Joh 2:3), His word (1Joh 2:5), and to walk even as Christ walked (1Joh 2:6).

(b) Paragraph B, 1 John 2:7-17:

(Walking in the Light tested by love):

(i) Positively:

The old-new commandment (1Joh 2:7-11). Love is the commandment which is "old," because familiar to the readers of the Epistle from their first acquaintance with the rudiments of Christianity (1Joh 2:7); but also "new," because ever fresh and living to those who have fellowship with Christ in the true light which is now shining for them (1Joh 2:8). On the contrary, "He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in the darkness" (1Joh 2:9). The antithesis is then repeated with variation and enrichment of thought (1Joh 2:10,11). (Then follows a parenthetical address to the readers (1Joh 2:12-14). This being treated as a parenthesis, the unity of the paragraph at once becomes apparent.)

(ii) Negatively:

If walking in the light has its guaranty in loving one’s "brother," it is tested no less by not loving "the world." One cannot at the same time participate in the life of God and in a moral life which is governed by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the vain-glory of the world.

(c) Paragraph C, 1 John 2:18-28:

The light of God not only reveals sin and duty, the children of God (our "brother") and "the world" in their true character; it also reveals Jesus in His true character, as the Christ, the incarnate Son of God. And all that calls itself Christianity is to be tested by its reception or rejection of that truth. In this paragraph light and darkness are not expressly referred to; but the continuity of thought with the preceding paragraphs is unmistakable. Throughout this first division of the Epistle the point of view is that of fellowship with God, through receiving and acting according to the light which His self-revelation sheds upon all things in the spiritual realm. Unreal Christianity in every form is comprehensively a "lie." It may be the antinomian "lie" of him who says he has no sin (1Joh 1:8) yet is indifferent to keeping God’s commandments (1Joh 2:4), the lie of lovelessness (1Joh 2:9), or the lie of Antichrist, who, claiming spiritual enlightenment, yet denies that Jesus is the Christ (1Joh 2:22).

3. Second Cycle, 1 John 2:29-4:6:

Divine Sonship Tested by Righteousness, Love and Belief.

The first main division of the Epistle began with the assertion of what God is as self-revealing--light. He becomes to us the light in which we behold our sin, our duty, our brother, the world, Jesus the Christ; and only in acknowledging and loyally acting out the truth thus revealed can we have fellowship with God. This second division, on the other hand, begins with the assertion of what the Divine nature is in itself, and thence deduces the essential characteristics of those who are "begotten of God."

(a) Paragraph A, 1 John 2:29-3:10a:

(b) Paragraph B, 1 John 3:10b-24a:

(c) Paragraph C, 1 John 3:24b through 4:6:

This test is inevitable (1Joh 3:24). "We know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us"; and the Spirit "which he gave us" is the Spirit that "confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh" (1Joh 4:2). On the contrary, the Spirit that confesseth not Jesus is the spirit of Antichrist (1Joh 4:3) Then follows a characterization of those who receive the true and of those who receive the false teaching (1Joh 4:4-6).

4. Third Cycle, 1 John 4:7-5:21:

Closer Correlation of Righteousness, Love and Belief.

In this closing part, the Epistle rises to its loftiest heights; but the logical analysis of it is more difficult. It may be divided into two main sections dealing respectively with love and belief.

(a) SECTION I, 1 John 4:7-5:3a.

(i) Paragraph A, 1 John 4:7-12:

This paragraph grounds more deeply than before the test of love. Love is indispensable, because God is love (1Joh 4:7,8). The proof that God is love is the mission of Christ (1Joh 4:9); which is also the absolute revelation of what love, truly so called, is (1Joh 4:10). But this love of God imposes upon us an unescapable obligation to love one another (1Joh 4:11); and only from the fulfillment of this can we obtain the assurance that "God abideth in us" (1Joh 4:12).

(ii) Paragraph B, 1 John 4:13-16:

This paragraph strives to show the inner relation between Christian belief and Christian love. The true belief is indispensable as a guaranty of Christian life, because the Spirit of God is its author (1Joh 4:13). The true belief is that "Jesus is the Son of God" (1Joh 4:14,15). In this is found the vital ground of Christian love (1Joh 4:16).

(iii) Paragraph C, 1 John 4:17-5:3a:

Here the subject is the effect, motives and manifestations of brotherly love. The effect is confidence toward God (1Joh 4:17,18); the motives: (1) God’s love to us (1Joh 4:19); (2) that the only possible response to this is to love our brother (1Joh 4:20); (3) that this is Christ’s commandment (1Joh 4:21); (4) that it is the natural instinct of spiritual kinship (1Joh 5:1). But true love is inseparable from righteousness. We truly love the children of God only when we love God, and we love God only when we keep His commandments (1Joh 5:2,3 a).

(b) SECTION II, 1 John 5:3b-21.

(i) Paragraph A, 1 John 5:3b-12:

Righteousness is possible only through belief. It is our faith that makes the commandments "not grievous" because it overcomes the world (1Joh 5:3 b,4). Then follows a restatement of the contents of the true belief, specially directed against the Cerinthian heresy (1Joh 5:5,6); then an exposition of the "witness" upon which this belief rests (1Joh 5:7-10); then a reiterated declaration of its being the test and guaranty of possessing eternal life (1Joh 5:11,12).

(ii) Paragraph B, 1 John 5:13-21:

This closing paragraph sets forth the great triumphant certainties of Christian belief: its certainty of eternal life (1Joh 5:13), and of prevailing in prayer (1Joh 5:14,15). Then the writer guards himself by citing an instance in which such certainty is unattainable--prayer for those that sin unto death--and reminds his readers that all unrighteousness, though not sin unto death, is sin (1Joh 5:16,17). He then resumes the great certainties of Christian belief: the certainty that the Christian life stands always and everywhere for righteousness, absolute antagonism to all sin (1Joh 5:18); the certainty of the moral gulf between it and the life of the world (1Joh 5:19); its certainty of itself, of the facts on which it rests, and the supernatural power which has given perception of these facts (1Joh 5:20). With an abrupt, affectionate call to those who know the true God to beware of yielding their trust and dependence to "idols," the Epistle ends.

IV. Canonicity and Authorship.

1. Traditional View:

As to the reception of the Epistle in the church, it is needless to cite any later witness than Eusebius (circa 325), who classes it among the books (homologoumena) whose canonical rank was undisputed. It is quoted by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (247-265), by the Muratorian Canon, Cyprian, Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus. Papias (who is described by Irenaeus as a "hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp") is stated by Eusebius to have "used some testimonies from John’s former epistle"; and Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians (circa 115) contains an almost verbal reproduction of 1 Joh 4:3. Reminiscences of it are traced in Athenagoras (circa 180), the Epistle to Diognetus, the Epistle of Barnabas, more distinctly in Justin (Dial. 123) and in the Didache; but it is possible that the earliest of these indicate the currency of Johannine expressions in certain Christian circles rather than acquaintance with the Epistle itself. The evidence, however, is indisputable that this Epistle, one of the latest of the New Testament books, took immediately and permanently an unchallenged position as a writing of inspired authority. It is no material qualification of this statement to add that, in common with the other Johannine writings, it was rejected, for dogmatic reasons, by Marcion and the so-called Alogi; and that, like all the catholic epistles, it was unknown to the Canon of the ancient Syrian church, and is stated to have been "abrogated" by Theodore (Bishop of Mopsuestia, 393-428 AD).

2. Critical Views:

The verdict of tradition is equally unanimous that the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle are both the legacy of the apostle John in his old age to the church. All the Fathers already mentioned as quoting the Epistle (excepting Polycarp, but including Irenaeus) quote it as the work of John; and, until the end of the 16th century, this opinion was held as unquestionable. The first of modern scholars to challenge it was Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), who rejected the entire trio of Johannine Epistles as unapostolic; and in later times a dual authorship of the Gospel and the First Epistle has been maintained by Baur, H.J. Holtzmann, Pfleiderer, von Soden, and others; although on this particular point other adherents of the critical school like Julicher, Wrede and Wernle, accept the traditional view.

3. Internal Evidence:

Thus two questions are raised: first, what light does the Epistle shed upon the personality of its own author? And second, whether or not, the Gospel and the Epistle are from the same hand. Now, while the Epistle furnishes no clue by which we can identify the writer, it enables us very distinctly to class him. His relation to his readers, as we have seen, is intimate. The absence of explicit reference to either writer or readers only shows how intimate it was. For the writer to declare his identity was superfluous. Thought, language, tone--all were too familiar to be mistaken. The Epistle bore its author’s signature in every line. His position toward his readers was, moreover, authoritative. As has already been said, the natural interpretation of 1 Joh 1:2,3 is that the relation between them was that of teacher and taught. (By this fact we may account for the enigmatic brevity of such a passage as that on the "three witnesses." The writer intended only to recall fuller oral expositions formerly given of the same topics.) The writer is at any rate a person of so distinctive eminence and recognized authority that it is not necessary to remind the readers either who he is or by what circumstances he is compelled now to address them through the medium of writing; their knowledge of both facts is taken for granted. And all this agrees with the traditional account of John’s relation to the churches of Asia Minor in the last decades of the 1st century.

Further, the writer claims to be one of the original witnesses of the facts of the incarnate life: "That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us" (1 Joh 1:1-3). To understand the "Word of life" here as the gospel (Westcott, Rothe, Haupt) seems to the present writer frankly impossible; and not less so theories by which the words "what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes," etc., are regarded as utterances of the "faith-mysticism" or the "collective testimony" of the early church. It is difficult to imagine words more studiously adapted to convey the impression that the writer is one of the original, first-hand witnesses of Christ’s life and resurrection ("that what we beheld, and our hands handled"; compare Lu 24:39). At furthest, the use of such language is otherwise compatible with veracity only on the supposition that the writer was recognized by the church as so closely identified with the original witnesses that he could speak of their testimony as virtually his own. But, apart from the presumption that he cannot have been one of the actual disciples of Jesus, there is really nothing to be said for this supposition. So far as the internal evidence is concerned, the ancient and unbroken tradition which assigns it to the apostle John must be regarded as holding the field, unless, indeed, the traditional authorship is disproved by arguments of the most convincing kind. Whether the arguments brought against the apostolic authorship of the Johannine writings as a whole possess this character is too large a question to be investigated here. Yet the kernel of it lies in small compass. It is whether room can be found within the 1st century for so advanced a stage of theological development as is reached in the Johannine writings, and whether this development can be conceivably attributed to one of Our Lord’s original disciples. To neither of these questions, as it appears to the present writer, is a dogmatically negative answer warranted. If within a period comparatively so brief, Christian thought had already passed through the earlier and later Pauline developments, and through such a development as we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews, there is no obvious reason why it may not have attained to the Johannine, within the lifetime of the last survivor of the apostles. Nor, when we consider the nature of the intellectual influences, within and without the church, by which the apostle John was surrounded, if, as tradition says, he lived on to a green old age in Ephesus, is there any obvious reason why he may not have been the chief instrument of that development.

V. Relationship to the Fourth Gospel.

1. Common Characteristics:

The further question remains as to the internal evidence the Epistle supplies regarding its relation to the Fourth Gospel. Prima facie, the case for identity of authorship is overwhelmingly strong. The two writings are equally saturated with that spiritual and theological atmosphere; they are equally characterized by that type of thought which we call Johannine and which presents an interpretation of Christianity not less original and distinctive than Paulinism. Both exhibit the same mental and moral habit of viewing every subject with an eye that stedfastly beholds radical antagonisms and is blind to approximations. There is in both the same strongly Hebrew style of composition; the same development of ideas by parallelism or antithesis; the same repetition of keywords like "begotten of God," "abiding," "keeping his commandments"; the same monotonous simplicity in the construction of sentences, with avoidance of relative clauses and singular parsimony in the use of connecting particles; the same apparently tautological habit of resuming consideration of a subject from a slightly different point of view; the same restricted range of vocabulary, which, moreover, is identical to an extent unparalleled in two independent writings.

2. Coincidences of Vocabulary:

The evidence for these statements cannot be presented here in full; but the following are some of the words and phrases characteristic of both and not found elsewhere in the New Testament--the Word, joy fulfilled, to see (or behold) and bear witness, to do the truth, to have sin, Paraclete, to keep the word (of God or Christ), to abide (in God or in Christ), the true light, new commandment, little children (teknia), children (paidia), to abide for ever, begotten of God, to purify one’s self, to do sin, to take away sins, works of the devil, to pass from death into life, murderer, to lay down one’s life, to be of the truth, to give commandment, to hear (= to hear approvingly), no man hath beheld God at any time, knowing and believing, Saviour of the world, water and blood, to overcome the world, to receive witness, to give eternal life, to have eternal life (in present sense), to believe in the name. The following are some of the terms common to both, which are found very rarely elsewhere in the New Testament: Beginning (= past eternity), to be manifested (9 times in each), to bear witness (6 times in the Epistle, 33 times in the Gospel, once only in Matthew, once in Luke, not at all in Mark), light (metaphorical), walk (metaphorical), to lead astray, to know (God, Christ, or Spirit, 8 times in the Epistle, 10 times in the Gospel), true (alethinos), to confess Jesus (elsewhere only in Ro 10:9), children of God, to destroy (lauein, elsewhere only in 2 Pet), the spirit of truth, to send (apostellein, of mission of Christ), only begotten son, to have the witness (elsewhere only in Apocrypha), to hear (= to answer prayer).

3. Divergences of Vocabulary:

On the other hand, the divergences of vocabulary are not more numerous than might be expected in two writings by the same author but of different literary form. The rather notable difference in the choice and use of particles is accounted for by the fact that dialogue and narrative, of which the Gospel is largely composed, are foreign to the Epistle. The discrepancy, when closely examined, sometimes turns out to be a point of real similarity. Thus the particle oun occurs nearly 200 times in the Gospel, not at all in the Epistle. But in the Gospel it is used only in narrative, no occurrence of it being found, e.g. in John 14-16.

Of the words and phrases contained in the Epistle, but not in the Gospel, the great majority are accounted for by the fact that they are used in connection with topics which are not dealt with in the Gospel. Apart from these, the following may be noted, the most important being italicized: Word of life, fellowship, to confess sins (nowhere else in the New Testament), to cleanse from sin, propitiation (hilasmos, nowhere else in the New Testament), perfected or perfect love, last hour, Antichrist, anointing, to give of the spirit, to have (Father, Son) boldness (Godward), Parousia, lawlessness, seed (of God), come in the flesh, God is love, Day, of Judgment, belief (pistis), to make God a liar, understanding. As regards style and diction, therefore, it seems impossible to conceive of two independent literary productions having a more intimate affinity. The relation between them in this respect is far closer than that between the Ac of the Apostles and the Third Gospel, or even any two of Paul’s Epistles, except those to the Ephesians and the Colossians.

4. Arguments against Unity of Authorship:

5. Conclusion:

Other arguments of a similar kind which have been put forward need not be considered. On the whole, it seems clear that, while there are between the Gospel and the Epistle differences of emphasis, perspective and point of view, these cannot be held as at all counterbalancing, on the question of authorship, the unique similarity of the two writings in style and vocabulary and in the whole matter and manner of thought, together with the testimony of a tradition which is ancient, unanimous and unbroken.

6. Question of Priority:

Regarding the question of priority as between the two writings, the only certainty is that the Epistle presupposes its readers’ acquaintance with the substance of the Gospel (otherwise such expressions as "Word of life," "new commandment" would have been unintelligible); but that does not imply its subsequentness to the composition of the Gospel in literary form. By Lightfoot and others it is supposed to have been written simultaneously with the Gospel, and dispatched along with it as a covering letter to its original readers. In view, however, of the independence and first-rate importance of the Epistle, it is difficult to think of it as having originated in this way; and by the majority of scholars it is regarded as later than the Gospel and separated from it by an appreciable interval. That it was written with a "mediating" purpose (Pfleiderer), to "popularize" the ideas of the Gospel (Weizsacker), or to correct and tone down what in it was obnoxious to the feeling of the church, and at the same time to add certain links of connection (such as propitiation, Paraclete, Parousia) with the traditional type of doctrine, or to emphasize these where they existed (Holtzmann), is a theory which rests on an extremely slender basis; theory that it was written as a protest against Gnostic appropriation of the Fourth Gospel itself (Julicher) has no tangible basis at all.

That there was an appreciable interval between the two writings is probable enough. Gnostic tendencies have meanwhile hardened into more definite form. Many, false prophets have gone out into the world. The "antichrists" have declared themselves. The time has come for the evangelist to focus the rays of his Gospel upon the malignant growth which is acutely endangering the life of the church.


Commentaries are numerous and excellent. The most important are those by Calvin, Lucke, Ebrard, Haupt (of fine insight but grievous verbosity), Huther (specially valuable for its conspectus of all earlier exegesis), Westcott (a magazine of materials for the student of the Epistle), Alexander (in the Speaker’s Commentary), Rothe (original, beautiful, profound), B. Weiss, H.J. Holtzmann, Plummer (in Cambridge Greek New Testament--scholarly and very serviceable); Brooke (in International Critical Commentary, excellent). Among the numerous expositions of the Epistle are those by Neander, Candlish, Maurice, Alexander (Expositor’s Bible), Watson, J.M. Gibbon (Eternal Life), Findlay (Fellowship in the Life Eternal), Law (The Tests of Life--combined exposition and commentary); among books on Introduction, those by Weiss, Bleek, Hilgenfeld, Holtzmann, Julicher, Zahn, Salmon, Gloag, Peake; and, among books of other kinds, the relevant sections in Beyschlag, New Testament Theology; Pfleiderer, Urchristenthum; Harhack, Geschichte clef altchristl. Litteratur; Farrar, Early Days of Christianity; McGiffert, History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age; Stevens, Johannine Theology and Theology of the New Testament; articles by Salmond in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes); by Schmiedel in Encyclopedia Biblica, and by Haring in Theologische Abhandlungen, Carl von Weizsacker .... gewidmet. In German, the fullest investigation of the relationship of the Epistle to the Fourth Gospel will be found in a series of articles by H.J. Holtzmann in the Jahrbucher fur protestantische Theologie (1882-83); in English, in Brooke’s commentary in Law, Tests of Life, 339-63. See also Drummond, Character and Authorship of the Fourth Gospel, chapter iii.


1. Canonicity and Authorship:

It is not surprising that these brief and fugitive Epistles are among the New Testament writings which have had the hardest struggle for canonical recognition. One is probably, the other certainly, a private letter; and neither the same reason nor the same opportunity for their circulation existed, as in the case of church letters. The 2nd Epistle contains little that is distinctive; the 3rd Epistle is occupied with a vexatious episode in the internal history of a single congregation. Both are written by a person who designates himself simply as "the Presbyter"; and the names of the person (or church) to which the one is addressed and of the church with whose affairs the other is concerned are alike unknown. The fact, therefore, that, in spite of such obstacles, these letters did become widely known and eventually attained to canonical rank is proof of a general conviction of the soundness of the tradition which assigned them to the apostle John.

Like all the catholic epistles, they were unknown to the early Syrian church; when 1 John, 1 Peter and James were received into its Canon, they were still excluded, nor are they found even in printed editions of the Syriac New Testament till 1630. They were not acknowledged by the school of Antioch. Jerome distinguishes their authorship from that of the 1st Epistle. They are classed among the disputed books by Eusebius, who indicates that it was questioned whether they belonged to the evangelist or "possibly to another of the same name as he." Origen remarks that "not all affirm them to be genuine"; and, as late as the middle of the 4th century, the effort to introduce them in the Latin church met with opposition in Africa (Zahn).

On the other hand, we find recognition of their Johannine authorship at an early date, in Gaul (Irenaeus); Rome (Muratorian Canon, where, however, the reading is corrupt, and it is doubtful whether their authorship is ascribed or denied to the apostle John); Alexandria (Clement, who is reputed by Eusebius to have commented upon them, and who in his extant works speaks of John’s "larger epistle," implying the existence of one or more minor epistles); Africa (Cyprian reports that 2 John was appealed to at the Synod of Carthage, 256 AD). Dionysius, Origen’s disciple and successor, speaks of John’s calling himself in them "the Presbyter." Eusebius, though conscientiously placing them among the antilegomena, elsewhere writes in a way which indicates that he himself did not share the doubt of their authenticity.

The internal evidence confirms the ultimate decision of the early church regarding these letters. Quite evidently the 2nd Epistle must have been written by the author of the 1st, or was an arrant and apparently purposeless piece of plagiarism The 3rd Epistle is inevitably associated with the 2nd by the superscription, "’the Presbyter," and by other links of thought and phraseology.

2. The Presbyter:

The mention of this title opens up a wide question. The famous extract from Papias (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, III, 39) vouches for the existence, among those who were or had been his contemporaries, of a certain "Presbyter" John (see JOHN, GOSPEL OF, II, 5). Jerome, moreover, speaks of the two smaller Epistles as, in contrast with the 1st, ascribed to the Presbyter (De Vir. Illustr., ix); Eusebius inclines to ascribe to him the Book of Revelation; and modern critics, like Weizsacker and Harnack, have improved upon the hint by finding in this shadowy personage the author of the Fourth Gospel. Into this far-reaching controversy, we cannot here enter. It may be noted, however, that whether, in the confusedly written passage referred to, Papias really intends to distinguish between John the Apostle and John the Presbyter is a point still in debate; and that Eusebius (Evangelica Demonstratio, III, 5) does not regard the title "Presbyter" as inapplicable to John, but observes that in his Epistles he "either makes no mention of himself or calls himself presbyter, nowhere apostle or evangelist." Dionysius, too, remarks that "in the 2nd and 3rd Epistles ascribed to him, he writes anonymously, as the Presbyter." These Fathers, both exceptionally learned men and presumably well acquainted with primitive usage, saw nothing anomalous, although they did see something characteristic, in the fact, or supposed fact, that an apostle should designate himself by the lowlier and vaguer title. In the very sentence from Papias already referred to, the apostles are called "presbyters"; not to say that in the New Testament itself we have an instance of an apostle’s so styling himself (1Pe 5:1).

To sum up, it is evident that no one desiring falsely to secure apostolic prestige for his productions would have written under so indistinctive a title; also, that these brief and very occasional letters could never have won their way to general recognition and canonical rank unless through general conviction of their Johannine authorship--the very history of these Epistles proving that the early church did not arrive at a decision upon such matters without satisfying itself of the trustworthiness of the tradition upon which a claim to canonicity was rounded; finally, the internal evidence testifies to an authorship identical with that of the 1st Epistle, so that the evidence cited regarding this is available also for those. These letters, along with Paul’s to Philemon, are the only extant remains of a private apostolic correspondence which must have included many such, and for this reason, apart from their intrinsic worth, possess an interest, material and biographical, peculiar to themselves. We proceed to consider the two Epistles separately, and since an interesting question arises as to whether the 2nd is that referred to in 3 Joh 1:9, it will be convenient to reverse the canonical order in dealing with them.

The Third Epistle.

This brief note gives a uniquely authentic and intimate glimpse of some aspects of church life as it existed in Asia Minor (this may be taken as certain) somewhere about the end of the 1st century. It concerns a certain episode in the history of one of the churches under the writer’s supervision, and incidentally furnishes character-sketches of two of its members, the large-hearted and hospitable Gaius, to whom it is written (and whom it is merely fanciful to identify with any other Gaius mentioned in the New Testament), and the loquacious, overbearing Diotrephes; also of the faithful Demetrius, by whose hand probably the letter is sent. The story which may be gathered from the Epistle seems to be as follows. A band of itinerant teachers had been sent out, by the Presbyter’s authority, no doubt, and furnished by him with letters of commendation to the various churches, and among others to that of which Gaius and Diotrephes were members. Diotrephes, however, whether through jealousy for the rights of the local community or for some personal reason, not only declined to receive the itinerant teachers, but exerted his authority to impose the same course of action upon the church as a whole, even to the

of threatening with excommunication (3 Joh 1:10) those who took a different view of their duty. Gaius alone had not been intimidated, but had welcomed to his home the repulsed and disheartened teachers, who when they returned (to Ephesus, probably) had testified to the church of his courageous and large-hearted behavior (3 Joh 1:6). A 2nd time, apparently, the teachers are now sent forth (3 Joh 1:6), with Demetrius as their leader, who brings this letter to Gaius, commending his past conduct (3 Joh 1:5) and encouraging him to persevere in it (3 Joh 1:6). The Presbyter adds that he has dispatched a letter to the church also (3 Joh 1:9); but evidently he has little hope that it will be effectual in overcoming the headstrong opposition of Diotrephes; for he promises that he will speedily pay a personal visit to the church, when he will depose Diotrephes from his pride of place and bring him to account for his scornful "prating" and overbearing conduct (3 Joh 1:10). So far as appears, the cause of friction was purely personal or administrative. There is no hint of heretical tendency in Diotrephes and his party. Pride of place is his sin, an inflated sense of his own importance and a violent jealousy for what he regarded as his own prerogative, which no doubt he identified with the autonomy of the local congregation.

The Second Epistle.

On the other hand, the difficulties in the way of this attractive hypothesis are too substantial to be set aside. The two Epistles belong to entirely different situations. Both deal with the subject of hospitality; but the one forbids hospitality to the wrong kind of guests, and says nothing about the right kind, the other enjoins hospitality to the right kind and says nothing about the wrong kind. In the one the writer shows himself alarmed about the spread of heresy, in the other, about the insubordination of a self-important official. Is it conceivable that the Presbyter should send at the same time a letter to Gaius in which he promises that he will speedily come with a rod for Diotrephes (who had carried the church along with him), and another to the church in which that recalcitrant person was the leading spirit, in which he expresses the hope that when he comes and speaks face to face their "joy may be made full"--a letter, moreover, in which the real point at issue is not once touched upon? Such a procedure is scarcely imaginable.

We are still left, then, with the question What kind of entity, church or individual, is entitled "the lady Electa"? (See Elect Lady, where reasons are given for preferring this translation.) The address of the letter is certainly much more suggestive of an individual than of a church. After all that has been so persuasively argued, notably by Dr. Findlay (Fellowship in the Life Eternal, chapter iii), from the symbolizing of the church as the Bride of Christ, it remains very hard for the present writer to suppose that, in the superscription of a letter and without any hint of symbolism, anyone could address a particular Christian community as "the elect lady" or the "lady elect." On the other hand, the difficulties urged against the personal interpretation are not so grave as sometimes represented. The statement, "I have found certain of thy children walking in truth," does not imply that others of them were not doing so, but emphasizes what had come under the writer’s personal observation. Nor can we pronounce the elevated and didactic love of the letter more suitable to a church than to an individual without taking into account the character, position and mutual relations of the correspondents. The person (if it was a person) addressed was evidently a Christian matron of high social standing--one able in a special degree to dispense hospitality, and of wide influence, one beloved of "all them that know the truth," whose words would be listened to and whose example would be imitated. And, in view of the ominous spreading of the leaven of Antichrist, it is not difficult to suppose that the Presbyter should write to such a person in such a strain. Nor does there seem to be anything especially odd in the fact of the children of a private family sending their respects to their aunt through the apostle John (Findlay). If he was intimate with that family, and in their immediate vicinity at the time of writing, it appears a natural thing for them to have done. Possibly Dr. Harris’ "exploded" prehistoric countess of Huntington" is not so far astray as a modern equivalent of the lady Electa.


On the 2nd and 3rd Epistles see Commentaries: Lucke, Huther, Ebrard, Holtzmann, Baumgarten, Westcott, Plummer, Bennett, Brooke; Expositions: Findlay, Fellowship in the Life Eternal; S. Cox, The Private Letters of Paul and John; J.M. Gibbon, The Eternal Life.

R. Law