Introduction to John's Letters

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (19:49)

Francesco Furini, St John the Evangelist (1630s)
Detail from Francesco Furini, "St. John the Evangelist" (1630s), oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. Full image.
For this study, I've decided to look at all the Epistles or Letters of John -- First, Second, and Third John. Of course, when you try to tackle more than one Bible book at a time, you have to look at the authorship, purpose, and situation for each of them separately. Fortunately, in the case of John's Letters, these elements seem to coincide, so we'll consider these issues together.


The first question we'll tackle is who wrote these letters? The First Letter of John is anonymous. Second and Third John are written by an author who identifies himself as "the Elder."

External Evidence for John the Apostle as the author of these letters is quite strong. While there may be allusions to 1 John in 1 Clement and the Didache, the earliest clear reference comes from Polycarp of Smyrna (died c. 155 AD) who quoted directly from 1 John 4:2-3 and 2:24 (written perhaps 115 AD), though without reference to the author.

But there are specific references to the Apostle John's authorship by Papias of Hierapolis (mid-second century),1 Irenaeus (lived about 130-200 AD),2 Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 AD),3 Tertullian (died about 220 AD),4 and Origen of Alexandria (died about 255 AD).5 In the Muratorian Canon (Rome, between 170 and 215 AD) letters are attributed to John, while by the time of Eusebius (about 325 AD), First John is listed among the "acknowledged books," while Second and Third John are listed among the "disputed books," but as "well-known and acknowledged by most."6

Internal Evidence for John the Apostle as the author of these letters is also strong. While I must refer you to the commentaries, which cover the arguments in detail, I believe that a very good case can be made that:

  • A common author penned these letters.
  • The same author wrote the Gospel of John.
  • The author claims to be an eyewitness of the events of Jesus'life.
  • The author writes with a self-conscious authority as might an apostle.

While 1 John is anonymous and not in letter format, it is clear that this is not just a theological treatise penned for a general audience, but is very personal. The author knows his readers, for he refers to them as "dear children" or "little children," as well as "beloved" or "dear friends."

I believe it is rather clear: These letters are written by the Apostle John.

The Ministry of the Apostle John

We first get to know John the Apostle when he was called with his brother James, both of whom Jesus nicknamed the "Sons of Thunder" (Mark 3:17). Their father was Zebedee. Their mother was probably Salome, who may have been Jesus'mother's sister (Matthew 27:56 with Mark 15:40; John 19:25). Thus John may have been Jesus'cousin. He and his brother James were fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, working with their father. He was an "unschooled, ordinary" man (Acts 4:13). When Jesus called them, they followed immediately (Mark 1:19-20).

During Jesus'ministry, John isn't usually mentioned alone by name, but usually along with his brother James or with Peter. He was one of Jesus'inner circle -- Peter, James, and John -- and thus was present at the transfiguration, at the raising of Jairus'daughter, and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Early in his discipleship, John seems to have struggled with pride, for Jesus rebukes him and his brother for seeking to sit on his right and left in the Kingdom (Mark 10:35-40), for trying to stop a man who is casting out demons in Jesus'name (Luke 9:49-50), and for wanting to call down fire upon a Samaritan village that didn't welcome Jesus (Luke 9:51-56). John's brother James was the first martyr among the apostles (Acts 12:2).

If John the Apostle is the author of the Gospel of John (as I believe he is), then he is "the disciple whom Jesus loved," a disciple particularly close to Jesus. He leaned on Jesus'breast at the Last Supper (John 13:23), was appointed to care for Jesus'mother at the cross (John 19:26-27), and recognized Jesus in the miraculous catch of fish (John 21:7). He may also have been the "other disciple" who knew the high priest (John 18:15-16) and also the one who ran with Peter to the empty tomb (John 20:3-9).

In the life of the early church he is associated with Peter in healing the lame man at the temple (Acts 3:1-10), and appearing before the Sanhedrin for their bold teaching about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 4:1-31). He was arrested, released by an angel, and later flogged with the other apostles (Acts 5:18-41).  In Galatians 2:9 he is mentioned as a "pillar" of the Jerusalem church. But that's the last Bible reference to him.

However, early church history is pretty much agreed that John the Apostle lived and ministered in Asia Minor toward the end of his life. He was exiled to the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9) during the persecution of Domitian (reigned 81 to 96 AD), specifically in Domitian's fourteenth year,7 that is, about 95 AD. Eusebius records a strong persecution by Domitian against Christians. Domitian was assassinated on September 18, 96 AD.8 St. Jerome (c. 347-420) writes that after this:

"[John] returned to Ephesus under [Emperor] Pertinax and continuing there until the time of the Emperor Trajan [reigned 98-117 AD], founded and built churches throughout all Asia, and, worn out by old age, died in the sixty-eighth year after our Lord's passion and was buried near the same city."9

Eusebius (c. 263 - c. 339 AD), citing the writings of Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, says:

"At that time, the apostle and evangelist John, the one whom Jesus loved, was still living in Asia, and governing the churches of that region, having returned after the death of Domitian from his exile on the island."10

This would put his death after 98 AD. His tomb is thought to be located at Selçuk, a small town about two miles northeast of Ephesus. He was apparently the only disciple of the original twelve who died of natural causes, as alluded to at the end of John's Gospel (21:23-23).

Stories from the Early Fathers that illustrate his character can be found in an Appendix.

Provenance and Date

To whom was First John written? As we'll see in the letters themselves, John's recipients are probably not Palestinian Jews, but either converted Diaspora Jews living in Ephesus, and, more likely, gentiles who had been converted from the polytheism that was rampant in Asia Minor.

Churches of Revelation

If you believe that the book of Revelation was written by John the Apostle, as I do, then you may find it interesting to map the churches that are addressed in Revelation chapters 2 and 3: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. They constitute a sequential listing of towns and cities grouped around Ephesus, capital of the Roman province of Asia. I think it is likely that they constituted a circuit of churches to which John travelled and which he taught.

We know that the Christian population in Ephesus in the first century was significant -- so large in Paul's time that the silversmiths tried to run him out of town for hurting their idol-making business. In the first century there were no buildings large enough for regular church meetings. Paul had secured use of a lecture hall in Ephesus for teaching purposes for a couple of years (Acts 19:9), but that was only temporary.

Rather, the church met in homes, a whole network of house-churches in the city and surrounding area that, together, constituted the Church in Ephesus. These house-churches were probably led or supervised by elders. Scholars sometimes refer to these churches as the Johannine churches or the Johannine community -- that is, the churches that recognized John's authority and adhered to his apostolic teaching.

I think it is likely that First John was written to guide these house-churches in and around Ephesus perhaps 70 to 90 AD.11 Third John was written to Gaius and Second John to a nearby church, probably about the same period.

The Situation to Which the Letters Were Written

Though First John was clearly written to "dear friends" in Christ, it is not just a feel-good letter. It is written with the clear intent to both stop heretical teaching and strengthen his readers towards a faithful and fruitful discipleship of Jesus Christ.

Scholars have argued extensively about exactly who were the false teachers in the Johannine churches. An earlier generation saw them as Gnostics. But since full-blown Gnosticism didn't take hold until perhaps a century later (from about 150 to 300 AD), it is more accurate to see this as incipient- or proto-Gnosticism.12

The problems in the Johannine churches appear to be two-fold: theological errors about Christology and problems of an ethical and practical nature.

Theological Errors Concerning Who Jesus Is

The chief problem of John's opponents is with Christology, that is, concerning the nature of Jesus Christ. In John's Letters we see this from two sides: John's criticisms of his opponent's Christology and John's positive affirmations about who Jesus is.

John's opponents:

  • Deny "that Jesus is the Christ" (2:22)
  • "Do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh" (2 John 7)

To counter this error, John affirms that:

  • "Jesus is the Christ" (5:1; 2:22)
  • We are to "believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ" (3:23)
  • "Eternal life ... is in [God's] Son." (5:11)
  • "The blood of Jesus, his Son...." (1:7)
  • "The Son of God" (3:8)
  • "His Son, Jesus Christ" (3:23)
  • "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (4:2)
  • "His one and only Son" (4:9)
  • "Jesus is the Son of God" (4:15)
  • "This is the one who came by water and blood -- Jesus Christ" (5:6)

As Bunge summarizes the opponents'view:

"They affirm the idea of Christ, but doubt if Christ became flesh and if the man Jesus was indeed the incarnation of God."13

Dualism and Docetism

This appears to be a form of Docetism (from the Greek verb dokein, "seem, appear"). Docetists were influenced by a strong Greek dualism: flesh was bad, spirit was good. By this logic, someone who was in the flesh could not be divine. Since Christ was considered divine, then he only "seemed" or "appeared" to be in a human body. This kind of false teaching and half-truth undermined the very foundations of the Christian faith:

  • Atonement. The divine Christ could not have died on the cross, John's opponents would assert. He only appeared to be in a physical body. The divine Christ couldn't have borne sins, either. So he only appeared to die for our sins.
  • Resurrection. The resurrection can't be a physical resurrection; it is only spiritual. Our physical bodies won't rise from the dead.
  • Holy Living. Jesus only "appeared" to live a holy life in a physical body, but this can't be the case since flesh is inherently sinful. Therefore, God doesn't expect us to live a holy life in our physical bodies and Jesus is not our exemplar of holy living.14

John's Opponent Cerinthus

One of John's contemporaries in Ephesus was a man named Cerinthus. As outlined in the writings of Irenaeus, Cerinthus apparently taught that:

  • Jesus was the earthly man of Nazareth, well-known for his piety and wisdom.
  • Christ was a heavenly deity who descended upon Jesus at his baptism and departed before the crucifixion.
  • Thus, the man Jesus, not the Son of God, died on the cross.15

Cerinthus was the earliest proponent of a heresy known as Adoptionism, which taught that Jesus was born merely human and became divine later in his life. This stands opposed to orthodox Trinitarian teaching that Jesus is eternally God.16

Irenaeus cites a story from Polycarp (ca. 69 - ca. 155 AD), Bishop of Smyrna, who was a contemporary of St. John. 

"John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, 'Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.'"17

The arguments in both the Letters of John and the Gospel of John make the most sense when seen as directed against Cerinthianism.18 John understood how dangerous this pernicious heresy was. He calls his opponents:

  1. False prophets (4:1)
  2. Deceivers (2 John 7)
  3. Antichrists (2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7)19

In our own day, I am seeing a troublesome tendency among some theologically liberal clergy to distinguish between the historical Jesus, whom they view as human, and the Christ figure, who has assumed almost mythical proportions, far divorced from the messiness of death on the cross to atone for sin and an unbelievable (in their mind) physical resurrection from the dead. More and more the term "Christ" is being substituted for the term "Jesus." Feminist aspects of this movement have deemphasized Jesus'title as Son of God. Though this may not be exactly the kind of heresy that John was fighting in Ephesus, in my mind it comes too close for comfort.

Ethical Errors among John's Opponents

But John's opponents did not differ merely on theological or Christological grounds. They also seem to have forsaken adherence to Christ's commands and teachings, and saw themselves as sinless. Ethical behavior was of no consequence for the Christian life, in their view. See these verses, most of which were probably directed squarely against John's opponents:

  • They "claim to be without sin" (1:8) or "have not sinned." (1:10)
  • They "claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness." (1:6)
  • They say, "'I know him,'but [do] not do what he commands." (2:4)

John asserts:

  • "No one who lives in him keeps on sinning." (3:6)
  • "He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil." (3:7-8)
  • "Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did." (2:6)
  • "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world -- the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does -- comes not from the Father but from the world." (2:15-16)

John is obviously combating a heresy that doesn't take obedience to Jesus seriously. They no longer view disobedience to Jesus'teaching in terms of sin.

Most telling of all, John's opponents have forsaken love as the hallmark of the Christian faith. Instead they hate the orthodox members of the church.

  • "Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness." (2:9)
  • "If anyone says, 'I love God,'yet hates his brother, he is a liar." (4:20)
  • "Anyone who does not love remains in death." (3:14)

John doesn't charge his opponents with gross immorality. However, the later fruit of their view of sin led to charges of profligacy and sexual excesses among them.20

Themes of First John

Of course, John's letters are not written just to refute heresy. They are written to encourage and strengthen the believers in a healthy spiritual life. Themes we'll see developed in these chapters include:

  • Fellowship with God (1:3, 7; 2:4, 13a, 13c-14a, 19; 3:1-2, 6; 4:7-8, 12-13; 5:19-20)
  • Righteousness (1:5-17; 2:1, 8-11, 29; 3:4-10; 5:16-18)
  • Forgiveness and cleansing (1:7, 9; 2:1-2, 12; 3:3-5; 4:10)
  • Obedience (2:3-6, 17b; 3:24; 5:2-3)
  • Love (2:7-11; 3:10b-23; 4:7-12, 19-21; 5:2)
  • Overcoming (2:13b, 14b; 5:4)
  • Relation to the world (2:15-17; 3:13; 4:5, 9, 17; 5:4)
  • Antichrist (2:18-20; 4:3)
  • Holy Spirit (2:20; 3:6, 24; 4:2, 4, 6, 13, 16b; 5:6-8; 10)
  • Denying/acknowledging Jesus'incarnation (2:22-23, 27; 3:23; 4:2-3, 15; 5:1, 5, 10)
  • The devil (3:8-10, 12; 4:4; 5:18)
  • Spiritual birth (3:9; 5:1)
  • Eternal life vs. eternal death (2:25; 3:14; 4:9; 5:11-13)
  • Fear vs. assurance (4:17-18; 5:13-14)
  • Remaining/abiding (2:24-28)
  • Prayer (5:14-16)

Structure of the Letters

A lot of study has been given to the structure of John's Letters. It's clear that 2 John and 3 John are in traditional epistle format, with an identification of the author, address, blessing, and conclusion with personal matters and greetings.

However, 1 John is clearly different. Rather than an epistle, it seems to be a sermon or tract designed to instruct believers in the Johannine churches and help them to discern and refute the teachings of the adversaries.

If you've ever outlined 1 John, however, you begin to see the difficulty. Instead of our Western approach of linear logic, one point following another, leading relentlessly to a conclusion, John style is markedly different. John tends to double back to themes he has introduced previously, either to reinforce them or to extend their teaching further. I liken it to a braid where strands weave in and out in a purposeful manner.

Discipleship Lessons from John's Letters, e-book or paperback book
The study is available as a free e-mail Bible study, or as an e-book or paperback book at a modest cost.

Some have sought to organize this in some way or another. Marshall summarizes various attempts to outline John's thought and observes that no approach is free from difficulties. He concludes:

"It seems preferable to regard the Epistle as being composed of a series of connected paragraphs whose relation to one another is governed by association of ideas rather than by a logical plan. This does not mean that John is illogical, but rather that his Epistle is not meant to be divided into large sections on a logical basis."21

We've looked at some of the issues behind the writing of John's Letters. Now let's begin to study them in detail to learn hat God will say to us through this old apostle of our Lord.

1 Eusebius, Church History, 3, 39, 17.

2 Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 3, 16, 18) identifies John as both the "disciple of the Lord" and the author of the Fourth Gospel. And he quotes from both First and Second John.

3 Clement of Alexandria is aware of more than one letter, since he refers to "the greater Epistle" and ascribes it to "the apostle John." He quotes first John extensively in Stromateis 2-5 and Quis Dives Salvetur? 37-38.

4 Tertullian quotes from First John about fifty times.

5 Origen also ascribes the First Epistle to John.

6 Eusebius, Church History, 3, 25, 2-3.

7 Jerome, De viris illustribus (On Illustrious Men), 9.

8 Eusebius, Church History III, 18-20.

9 Jerome, De viris illustribus (On Illustrious Men), 9.

10 Eusebius, Church History, III, 23, 1-4.

11 Gary M. Bunge, "John, Letters of," DLNT, p. 595.

12 David M. Scholer, “Gnosis, Gnosticism,” DLNT, pp. 400-412.

13 Bunge, p. 591.

14 David F. Wright, “Docetism,” DLNT, pp. 306-309.

15 Bunge, p. 591. See also Philip Schaff, “Cerinthus,” History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, chapter 11, §123. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I, 11, 1; I, 26, 1. Brown (Epistles of John, pp. 65-68 and Appendix II, pp. 766-771) argues that Cerinthus was not a contemporary of John after all, but later. I'm not convinced.

16 John 1:1; 1 John 1:1.

17 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 3, 4 (translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut from Ante-Nicene Fathers (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), vol. 1.

18 Stott, John, p. 47. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.11.1) asserts that John wrote his Gospel to oppose the errors propogated by Cerinthus.

19 Stott, John, pp. 41-42.

20 Eusebius, Church History, III, 28.

21 Marshall, John, pp. 22-26.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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