The Epistles of John

by Ed Gallagher

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.

1 John 3:2
Vladimir Borovikovsky, St John the Evangelist, early nineteenth century, Wikimedia Commons

This lessons considers the three letters of John.

  • 1 John, anonymous, written by John the apostle (traditionally), written to Asia Minor
  • 2 John, written by “the elder” (= John the apostle, traditionally), written to “the chosen lady”
  • 3 John, written by “the elder” (= John the apostle, traditionally), written to Gaius

All three letters were written probably in the late first century; this is a guess based on (1) the tradition that John the apostle wrote his works as an old man in Ephesus, and (2) the appearance of gnostic-like opponents (denying that Jesus came in the flesh), a heresy usually thought to have developed in the late-first or second century. We cannot be sure about the order of the letters; some scholars surmise that all three were sent together to a single community. 

Read 3 John. Who is “the elder” who wrote the letter? Early tradition relates this “elder” with the name John, usually identified as John the apostle. The same “elder” (apparently) also wrote 2 John. The three letters identified as 1–3 John contain no mention of John’s name, but are closely linked together in church tradition and by their style (they sound like they come from the same author). They are also closely linked with the Fourth Gospel—again, both in tradition and in their common language—and all of these writings (along with Revelation) are traditionally associated with John the apostle. (Revelation contains the name John; 1:1). What are the traits for which “the elder” praises Gaius in this letter? We know Gaius only from this letter. John praises Gaius for walking in the truth (v. 3) and for hospitality (v. 5). It appears that John has recently sent out emissaries (“brothers,” v. 3) and that Gaius received them while Diotrephes did not (vv. 9–10). In this letter, hospitality is the mark of the the true Christian, which is the “good” that we are to imitate, as opposed to the “evil” of inhospitality (v. 11). The letter commends Demetrius (v. 12, otherwise unknown), who is probably carrying this letter. 

Read 2 John. What are the key words in this letter? The early part of the letter emphasizes truth (vv. 1, 2, 3, 4) and love (vv. 1, 3, 5, 6), which establishes the foundation for the warning about the antichrist. Who is the antichrist? (v. 7) According to this letter, the antichrist denies that Jesus came in the flesh, that is, that he was an actual human. Apparently, this form of gnostic teaching was already becoming a problem in early Christianity. The teaching of the “antichrist” emphasized the divinity of Christ to the diminishment or exclusion of his humanity, a result unacceptable to John. The recipients of this letter are counseled not to show hospitality to such people (v. 10). Who is John writing this letter to? Scholars debate whether the “chosen lady” is literally a particular Christian woman or figuratively a church community. 

Read 1 John 1:1–4. First, notice that, like Hebrews, 1 John begins without any greeting or address. Unlike Hebrews, 1 John ends without any greetings. (It ends rather abruptly.) Probably it is a written sermon. What point is the author trying to make in this opening section? He is stressing that he is an eyewitness of Jesus (= the Word of Life), that he touched him and saw him and heard him. Belief in Jesus creates joy and fellowship with God and other believers. The purpose of 1 John is to bring the readers into fellowship with God (1:3) and to assure them that they have eternal life (5:13). 

What point does the author want to make about sin in 1:5–2:2? John wants his readers not to sin (not to “walk in the darkness,” 1:6; cf. 2:1) but also to acknowledge and confess their sins (1:8–10). We need not fear on account of our sins because Jesus Christ, the righteous one, is our advocate with the Father (2:1). Jesus uses the same word translated ‘advocate’ here (Greek paraklētos) in reference to the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7), where it is often translated ‘helper’ or ‘comforter’. Jesus is called in 1 John 2:2 also a propitiation (Greek hilasmos). What does this mean? The same word appears in 4:10, and nowhere else in the NT, though a closely related word (hilastērion) appears in Rom 3:25; Heb 9:5. This latter word often appears in the Old Testament, usually where English translations have “mercy seat”, where sacrificial blood was sprinkled to make atonement (cf. Lev 16:14–15). The English word “propitiation” has to do with appeasing someone’s anger and creating reconciliation. Whether this meaning applies to Jesus is debated, but he does rescue us from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1:10).

John also addresses the Christian’s relationship to sin in 3:4–10; 5:18. What does he say about sin here? Here he stresses that Christians should not—or rather, do not—sin. He cannot mean that Christians never sin, because of what he had already said in 1:7–10. But he does imply in ch. 3 that a Christian is less bound to sin than is the non-Christian (much like Paul; cf. Rom 6). Christians ought to grow in their spirituality, grow in their resistance to temptation, grow in their closeness to the example of Christ. They should not “practice sin” as their lifestyle.

One of the themes 1 John shares with the Gospel of John is the emphasis on love, a word appearing 46x in this little document. Love is the sign that someone does not abide in darkness or in death or is a child of the devil (1:9–11; 3:10, 14), or that someone knows God and abides in him (4:7–8, 16). Love is the message that these Christians had heard from the beginning (3:11), the message Jesus himself proclaimed (John 13:34–35). John speaks about love in the strongest possible terms; the absence of love implies hate and murder (1 John 3:14–15). Who should be the object of our love? The emphasis of 1 John is that our love should be directed to Christians (2:10; 3:11, 16–17, 23; 4:7, 11; etc.). Why would John stress love among Christians particularly? Note that Jesus stressed the same thing (John 13:34–35). The love Christians have for one another marks them as a part of a new kind of community, defined by its relationship to God and recognition that they are all brothers and sisters. How are Christians supposed to display this love? According to 3:16–18, Christians ought to lay down their lives for one another, and they ought to share their goods with one another. 


The epistles of John stress the importance of having a proper understanding of Jesus—specifically, that he came in the flesh—which will have the practical consequence of encouraging believers to avoid sin and to love one another. This is a message the modern church needs to hear. 

Additional Questions for Discussion

What does it mean for Jesus to be our propitiation? See 1 John 2:2; 4:10; see also Romans 3:25. 

After reading 1 John 2 and 2 John, how would you describe the antichrist? 

What does John mean when he talks about “the sin leading to death” and “the sin not leading to death” in 1 John 5:16–17? 

What problem is John addressing in 2 John? 

What problem is John addressing in 3 John?

Additional Resources

%d bloggers like this: