Introduction: The Johannine Epistles: The Faith In The Crucible

By Daniel H. Ding

The three letters of John are among the shooter books in the New Testament. In fact, 2nd and 3rd John are the shortest books in the New Testament. This point quite often leads us to gauge them as being of lesser importance and results in neglect on our part. They are deceptive in other ways as well. The Greek of these little letters is the easiest to read in the whole of the New Testament. Someone has reckoned that the total vocabulary of the New Testament is 5.437 words: the number of different words used in 1-3 John is merely 303 and the majority of these are common. Many Greek teachers cause their beginning pupils to undertake the reading of these letters as their first jaunt into the Greek New Testament. The general style and syntax (sentence structure) is also simple and straightforward.

Yet for all of this, one must not be fooled into thinking them simple. They combine profound thoughts with simplicity of expression, as does the gospel of John. Too, they are both practical and reflective, everyday experience being commingled with the deepest metaphysical and theological concepts. Writers have expended boundless energies searching the meanings of John’s simple statements. Christians have spent, and will spend, the greatest moments of their lives meditating upon and attempting to live up to the high standard of ethics vouchsafed by Jesus to John and expressed by him in such matchless style.

The Author of the Letters

External attestation of authorship of the epistles by the apostle John is singularly strong, despite the attack launched in recent years by many liberal scholars. Early church writers used the letters and ascribed them to him. No dispute took place among the first Christians as to whether John wrote them. This by itself is sufficient to establish apostolic integrity, since there existed in the early centuries a mood of sincere suspicion about many works, even in some cases with reference to inspired books which for one reason or another had not come to be generally known and used in the churches. But these letters seem not to have experienced difficulty in gaining recognition. The explanation is most likely the unique and unmistakable features of John’s writing style.

1 John and the Epistle to the Hebrews are the only letters in the New Testament in which no author’s name is given. But in 1 John, unlike Hebrews, the introduction is clearly intended to tell us something about the author. He writes about what he and others, obviously eyewitnesses, had heard, seen, looked upon and touched (1 Jn. 1:1). Other internal features also fit John with undeniable force. There is an air of confident authority about the whole that gives his’ pronouncements an absolute sense of expectation of acceptance by all who hear. The much repeated address to “little children” could have been written only by someone of considerable authority to those who would at once acknowledge his right to address them in this manner; it would seem also to suggest an elderly man who could use more familiar terms without fear of being misunderstood. In 2 and 3 John, he calls himself “the elder,” which is also in full agreement with the traditional picture of the venerable apostle John during his later years of ministry in Ephesus. Irenaeus of Lyons remarked that “John the disciple of the Lord, who leaned on His breast, himself also published the Gospel while he stayed at Ephesus in Asia” (Against Heresies iii. 1. 1,). It appears that he resorted there after the fall of. Jerusalem in 70 A.D., perhaps both before and after his stay on the Isle of Patmos in the Aegian (Rev. 1:9). And though Irenaeus does not refer to his penning of these letters in his curt sentence regarding John’s Gospel, all factors fit perfectly the position which assumes that he did so.

General Situation

The mentality of the people whom Paul and his fellowworkers addressed in the cities of Asia Minor was surcharged with ideas and opinions of the most diverse kind. Ancestral beliefs and practices had fused already with features of more recent mystery cults and philosophical trends. There was an ominous note in Paul’s Miletus address to the elders of the Ephesian church, when they are warned that from their own ranks “will arise men speaking perverse things,’ to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). At Colossae a few years later, Epaphras had to call upon the apostle to ` take his side against errorists who were subverting the faith in the Lycus river valley (Col. 1:7, 8), a combination of Judaizing tendencies and esoteric doctrines. Later still things grew more difficult in that region: Paul laments, “You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me” (2 Tim. 1:15).

John’s Revelation offers seven individual letters to churches in Asia Minor, many of which show the strong incursions made by false doctrine there. In all probability, the three letters of John represent missives intended for churches located there also. We cannot with any certainty determine their dates, but know that John was very old when he penned them and that they represent a more advanced stage in the growth and complexity of doctrinal error than is reflected in Paul’s epistles. John is said to have lived to a great age, until the time came when he was the sole survivor of those who had been in close contact with Jesus before His death and resurrection. If this is indeed true, then it is easy to see how eagerly he would be sought out and listened to by people who valued first-hand information about the deeds and words of the Master.

Great difficulty attaches to the topic of the precise form of false teaching which was being combated in the letters. It is sure, however, that it bore no resemblance to the earlier Judaizing element that had wrought such havoc in the Gentile churches largely started by Paul (Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus as reflected in 1 Timothy, Rome, etc.). Although the data from the letters themselves is very limited, there are just enough indications to enable a comparison to be made with the earliest of the Gnostic tendencies, usually referred to as Docetism. The term Gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis which means “knowledge.” The Gnostic claims special esoteric or secret knowledge. This knowledge was intuitive rather than given through the apostles and prophets by divine revelation for all to share. Their knowledge could be possessed only by that section of humanity which was “spiritual.” This heresy came like a flood into the church of the second century. By the third century, nearly all of the more intellectual congregations in the Roman Empire were markedly affected by it and many had been completely swept away by its deceptions. The aim of Gnostic thinkers was to reduce Christianity to a philosophy and relate it to various pagan teachings as well as to the Old Testament which they distorted to fit their theories. One of the earliest Gnostics was Cerinthus, who was said to have been a contemporary of John at Ephesus. Some have related the specific doctrines treated in John’s letters to this man, but several facts seem to argue against this idea. First, John does not mention him by name. If he were intending to deal only with the views of Cerinthus we would expect for him to do so. Also, Cerinthus was given to Ebionite views similar in many ways to the Judaizing element. The letters do not specifically deal with such matters and, thus, seem to be combating Gnostic learnings wherever and in whomever they could be found.

“Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (I Jn. 2:22); “And every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already” (1 Jn. 4:3). The main feature in the form of this heresy was, therefore, a denial of the incarnation or enfleshment of the Son of God. This was true of all Gnostics and so establishes the point that Gnosticism, at least in its earliest stages of doctrinal development, is the error under consideration in the letters. Another easy test for the reader to make for himself is the simple matter of reading 1 John especially and noting the great number of times that the word “know” appears. It will become evident at once that the apostle is attempting a clarification of what “knowledge” truly is and what it is not.

Docetism, from the Greek word dokeo meaning “to seem,” evolved a means of getting over the intellectual difficulty of an incarnate deity by making a distinction between the human Jesus and the heavenly Christ. The heavenly Christ was said to have descended upon Jesus who was the fleshly son of Joseph and Mary (yes, they denied the virgin birth too!) at the time of His baptism in the Jordan. Through the denial of this important component of the gospel, they were able to avoid what to them was the problem of God coming into contact with flesh. Gnostics believed all matter to be evil and God incapable of such contact. The result was an attempt by them to preserve Christ’s deity at the expense of His humanity, and all in the interests of what they considered a higher intellectualism.

The assertion in 1 Jn. 5:5 that Jesus is the Son of God is certainly intended to counter the views of such people, for they would on principle refuse to equate the two. Likewise, the declaration that Jesus Christ came not only by water (His baptism) but by blood (His cross) is likely a thrust at these heretics’ failure to accept Christ’s sacrifice. They claimed that Christ only “seemed” to suffer (hence, the title Docetism), but in reality had departed the body of the man Jesus before He suffered. So, according to their view, it was the man Jesus who suffered and not the heavenly Christ. Rejection of His blood atonement was, therefore, a logical necessity for those who had made bold assumptions of this kind. Too, on account of their belief that matter is evil, they gave up the idea of a bodily resurrection, for if the body was merely the prison-house of the enlightened soul it would not be the desire of the soul to be imprisoned again at some future time.

John simply, yet forcefully, offers opposite these speculative theories his own testimony to the humanity of the Christ: “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 . . .” (1 Jn. 1:1-3). In the place of their intuition and speculation John provides empirical proof, real knowledge. With their own eyes they had seen that He was fully human; with their own ears they had heard Him speak and knew that He was completely man; with their own hands they had touched Him and knew that He was at the same time utterly divine and yet one with all of mankind by reason of His flesh. As the last representative of the eyewitnesses (as we suppose John to be at the time of writing), he speaks for them all. With one voice they put to rest these outrageous views of the nature of the Lord. He was truly a man, notwithstanding all these smug “intellectuals” may say. They may know, but we (the apostles as eyewitnesses) really know.

It appears that another result of their absurd metaphysical speculations was in the area of practical Christianity. They seem to have succumbed to an unbelievable pride; apparently the, claim of absolute sinlessness was being made (1 Jn. 1:6, 8, 10). However, they must have preferred a radically different definition for the word sin, since they had an attachment to this world (2:15-17) which John condemns in general rather than specific language. They lacked brotherly love; in fact, it could be said that they hated their brethren (1 Jn. 2:7-11; etc.). Evidently they treated Christians who did not share their false doctrines with malice, withheld compassion and benevolence from those in need, and generally manifested a malevolent, scornful, and insolent attitude indicative of a wicked breed, children of the devil and not of God (1 Jn. 3:10-18). They considered themselves more advanced than others and for that reason despised them and their unenlightened ignorance (1 Jn. 2:20, 27). Yet their advancement was clearly beyond the original teaching of the Savior in all areas (2 Jn. 9). They claimed direct divine guidance where they did not possess it and clearly negated what had been delivered by the apostles (1 Jn. 4:lff).

John’s refutation clarifies their error by impressing the audience of his letters with the two-sided essence of true Christianity: metaphysical and practical. By the term metaphysical we denote what or where Christians are: they are, for example, “in God,” or “in the light”; they have communion with God and one another; they “abide in him”; they are “of God,” or “of the truth”; they are “children of God,” or “born of god”; they “know God” and “have eternal life.” The term practical refers to what Christians do: they love God and one another; they “keep the commandments”; they “walk in the light”; they confess specific beliefs about Jesus Christ; they do not go beyond the teaching of Christ. A remarkably high percentage of the sentences in First John in particular can be bisected into precisely these two divisions. They are both metaphysical and practical, put together in such a way as to show that the two aspects of the Christian life are inseparable. Clear examples appear in the following passages: 2:10; 3:7; 3:8; 3:14; 3:24; 4:15.

Summary of Contents

The situation of 2 and 3 John are somewhat different from 1 John. In a very real sense they represent an earlier stage than 1 John. It appears that John was unable to visit the various congregations within his sphere of influence with any great regularity, whether because of pressing matters elsewhere or through advancing age. In order to keep in touch, he had to rely on his pen and entrust His messages to other men who could make the journeys. Therefore, although John could occasionally visit these churches (2 Jn. 12; 3 Jn. 14), there were times when he felt that he must send them personal letters. Second and Third John fit into this picture.

The writing of 2 John was occasioned by the fact that some traveling teachers of Gnostic persuasion were denying that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh (vs. 7-8). They evidently boasted that theirs was an “advanced” system and they were eminently “progressive” in setting it forth, the “doctrine of tomorrow set forth today,” so to speak. John warned that it was “advanced” alright, but that its advancement was beyond the bounds of truth or the limits of orthodox teaching. The members of this unnamed congregation of saints are ordered by the apostle not to greet them as though they were brethren in good standing, nor to harbor them in their homes. This would afford them a base from which to work and give them opportunity to infect those who were standing fast in the sound doctrine. Moreover it would make those who gave them lodging and encouragement sharers in the destructive and soul destroying business to which they dedicated their time and efforts (vs. 9-11). As he closes he assures them that these are his very own words by a promise to speak them in their presence at some future date (vs. 12-13).

3 John, on the other hand, is addressed to a particular individual called Gaius. He has been ill of late and John expresses his good wishes for his health. Gaius is commended for his faithfulness to the truth and for his love, shown in the way he had opened his home to traveling evangelists (vs. 1-8). But there is trouble in the church: in the person of one Diotrophes, a tyrant who sought to “rule it or ruin it, boss it or bust it.” Diotrophes had somehow suppressed a letter to the congregation, so John sought to influence them through Gaius who apparently had some influence with the people, but whose illness had likely restricted his ability to lay the matter to rest. When John had previously sent preachers to work with them, Diotrophes had refused to receive them and thrown out of the congregation those who did (v. 10). The Apostle commends Demetrius, either the courier of the letter and John’s emissary to oppose Diotrophes or a strong member of the congregation who was already working to unseat the rabid dictator (vs. 11-12). Once more he assures the one to whom his words are directed at the close of the missive that the letter is not spurious but genuine; he will hope to come and both face Diotrophes and rebuke him (v. 10) and repeat the thoughts he has articulated in the letter (vs. 13-14).

1 John was likely written later than 2 John since in the latter he only deals with the problem in a superficial way, whereas in the former it appears that the heresy has grown to such proportions as to deserve a circular letter addressed to all Christians treating it in the strongest possible terms. Several characteristics of the letter may be noted: (1) Repetition. The writer keeps coming back to certain leading ideas and terms, such as light, truth, belief, love, and righteousness. (2) Simplicity. For the most part the sentences are not involved, the vocabulary is easy, and the statements are not complex. (3) Profundity. The simplicity of language and style conceal beneath them a depth of conceptual expression that would challenge the most adept and sophisticated scholar. (4) Bluntness and Severity. It is no time for compromise nor is there room for giving quarter in this letter. The writer puts his propositions in sharp contrast with error. He allows no middle ground between darkness and light, error and truth, righteousness and sin. If one loves the world, he cannot be a lover of God. The man who makes a profession but fails to manifest true Christian character is a liar. (5) Old Testament Quotations Are Completely Absent. The message is grounded in the apostolic witness rather than the prior revelation.

To accomplish the obvious purpose of strengthening Christians everywhere against this complicated heresy, John discusses three criteria for identifying the genuine Christian and thus distinguishing him from the errorist: (1) Righteous Living. And one important facet thereof is the simple admission of sin and dependence upon our sinless Advocate. (2) Love for Brethren and (3) Belief in Jesus as the Incarnated Christ.

Robert Gundry (A Survey of the New Testament, p. 360 has offered an excellent outline of 1 John based upon the theme of criteria of true Christian belief and practice over against Gnosticism:

Prologue: the eye witnessed incarnation of Christ, the word of life, as the basis for fellowship (1:1-4)

I. The Criterion Of Righteous Conduct (1:5-2:6)

II. The Criterion Of Mutual Love (2:7-17)

III. The Criterion Of Belief In Christ’s Incarnation (2:18-29)

IV. The Criterion Of Righteous Conduct (2:29-3:10a)

V. The Criterion Of Mutual Love (3:l0b-24a)

VI. The Criterion Of Belief In Christ’s Incarnation (3:24b-4:6)

VII. The Criterion Of Mutual Love (4:7-5:3)

VIII. The Criterion Of Righteous Conduct (5:4-21)


Though extremely brief and patently simple in form and language, these three letters are of great importance to the church, especially in the present age. John faced a system of teaching which, in many ways, resembles the errors propounded and propagated in our own day. Sophistication marked the claims of those who held them. In a world that then had immense respect for philosophy and secret knowledge, Gnosticism offered both. Some of its teachers provided their followers with occasion to indulge the desires of the flesh while sounding and appearing exceedingly pious. The salve of conscience was the confidential and private knowledge vouchsafed to the few. Obnoxious pride manifested itself as the consequences of feeling so specially blessed, so profoundly different from “the common lot” of men and women. The reader would be blind who could not see the parallels to the deification of science, secret orders, modern cults, esoteric philosophies, and even modernistic religionists, as spiritual children of Gnostic and Docetic heterodoxy. The clock has moved forwards, the scene changed, the names are different, but sin and error do not really have that many faces. Most of them look pretty much alike.

If there is one important lesson that we can learn from John in his treatment of error it is this: treat it gently but firmly; give it no quarter; and make no compromises with it. Let God’s true children know in simple language that they can and will understand that there is a plain difference between it and the truth. Fight it with pen and spoken word, but be not so foolish as to think that by ignoring it you will make it go away.


  1. Contrast the brevity of these little letters with what you consider their importance. Is the simplicity of style and vocabulary an indicator that the subject and content are simple?
  2. Who wrote these books? What makes you think that the author of the first letter is the author of the other two?
  3. Discuss the repeated use of the expression “little children” by the author? Why does he refer to himself as “the elder” in 2 and 3 John?
  4. Does the false doctrine being fought by John differ from that which Paul opposed in Galatians and elsewhere? If so, in what ways?
  5. Point out the meanings of the words “Gnostic” and “Docetism” and show how they relate to the system John is refuting in 1 and 2 John. Discuss 1 Jn. 2:22 and 4:3 in relation to the errors of the Gnostics.
  6. What were the results of the Gnostic assumption that all matter is evil? Do false assumptions made by false teachers today lead to false teachings today? Can you think of examples among modern cultists?
  7. How did John’s own experience and testimony to the humanity of the Christ show that the teachings of the Gnostics were false?
  8. Did the metaphysical errors of the Gnostics lead to problems with practical Christianity? in what way does John connect the two? Cite examples.
  9. In a few words, summarize the contents of each of John’s letters. Relate 2 Jn. 9-11 to some modern problems. Describe Diotrophes and point to factors in his life that we should avoid.
  10. Give some characteristics of 1 John and try to relate John’s manner of handling false doctrine to the way in which we ought to fight it today. Is it fair to make such a comparison in light of the passage of so many years?

Guardian of Truth XXV: 13, pp. 194-198
March 26, 1981