Chapter 22: The Johannine Epistles

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 22: The Johannine Epistles


The connection of the first epistle of John with the Fourth Gospel in thought and language is so close as to make it certain that they are by the same author or that the epistle was written, probably with a knowledge of the gospel, by a disciple of the author of the gospel. It is difficult to weigh the admitted similarities against the differences that also exist, e.g. the absence in the epistle of any Old Testament quotations and of a large number of words typical of the evangelists, and the more primitive tone of the teaching of the epistle on the nearness of the End, the Atonement, and the Spirit; yet the claim of the author of the epistle to pass on what he has seen and heard (1:3), with its similarity to Jn. 1:14, tells in favour of the identity of authorship, and is perhaps sufficient to tilt the balance in favour of this view.

Early in the second century Papias of Hierapolis is known to have used the first epistle, and Polycarp of Smyrna shows knowledge of the teaching of the first epistle and possibly of the second epistle as well, so that all three can be assumed to have been written in or near Ephesus before the end of the first century.

That II and III John are by the same hand as I John is generally admitted on grounds of style and language. From this it may be deduced that the author is ‘the Elder’ (II Jn.1, 3 Jn.1), though it will be seen from the discussion on the author of the Revelation, who was certainly not the same man, that there are obstacles to assuming that the Elder’s name was John. The reasons for the growth of this tradition are discussed in the treatment of the gospel (Chap. 10 above).

The Epistles in Detail

I John

Circumstances of Writing

There is nothing in the ‘epistle’to suggest that it was written as a letter, except for the ‘I write unto you’ of 2:1, 12, 13; it lacks both the name of its author and any greetings at the end, and may well have been written originally as a treatise or sermon. The purpose of the epistle, although the sequence of thought is often obscure, is clearly to build up the faith of a community well-known to the author in view of the activities of heretics (4:1-5) whose appearance is a sign that the last hour has come (2:18).

These heretics had separated themselves from the Church (2:19), and denied ‘that Jesus is the Christ’ (2:22). They spoke in the spirit, but the spirit of the antichrist, and did not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (4:1-3). From these references it is clear that the heresy which is attacked is the Docetic one, which denied the reality of the Incarnation by refusing to admit that the divine Christ could in any true sense ‘come in the flesh’, suffer, or die. The Docetic heretics conceived of Christ as appearing in human shape, but neither being born nor dying, and their doctrines, which fitted the Gnostic conception of redemption better than the historic facts of Jesus’ life on earth, had a wide vogue in the second century, especially in Asia Minor, where Ignatius denounced them c. A.D. 110.

The Teaching of The Epistle

Against such teaching the writer of the epistle sets forth the true Gnosis, or knowledge of divine things (2:3), which comes from keeping God’s commandments, in particular ‘that we should believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another’ (3:23).

While the language of the epistle is continually reminiscent of the Fourth Gospel, e.g. in the antithesis of light and darkness, life and death, the believers and the world, some aspects of the teaching in the epistle find little or no confirmation in the gospel. Thus Christ is twice spoken of as ‘the expiation for our sins’ (2:2, 4:10. This translation adopted in the American Standard Revised Version, is better than ‘the propitiation’ of the Revised and Authorised Versions), and there are references to the coming of antichrists as a sign that it is the last hour (2:18), as well as to the day of judgement (4: 17 cf Jm 5:28-29). These differences between the teaching of the epistle and that of the gospel have been taken by some critics to indicate difference of authorship (see above), but they may well represent concessions on the part of the Elder to the beliefs of the community. We know from Revelation and from other writings that were probably in circulation in Asia at the close of the first century that the eschatological beliefs of many Christians were still similar to those taught by Paul to the Thessalonians and the Fourth Gospel itself at times puts teaching of such a kind into the mouth of Jesus.

In writing to his ‘little children’ (5: 21), therefore, the Elder may have felt it necessary to make use of terms and ideas which he had himself outgrown, and which were sometimes inconsistent with the general ‘Johannine ‘tenor of his teaching as a whole.

The Second Epistle Of John

This short note is written to ‘the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth’ (1) to establish them in their faith and prepare them for a visit from the Elder (12). The ‘lady’ is almost certainly a church (cf. I Pet. 5:13), and the greetings from ‘the children of thine elect sister’ (13). It contains a warning against Docetists (7), and gives a strict warning against giving hospitality or even greeting to anyone who holds heretical views (9-11).

There are a number of striking parallels between the language of II John and that of the Fourth Gospel, e.g. in the references to truth in I and II, which add an appreciable argument in favour of the identity of authorship.

The Third Epistle of John

Although we do not know anything about Gaius, the individual to whom this letter is addressed, the letter as a whole is of great importance. The Elder complains that he has written a previous letter to the Church, but that ‘Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them, receiveth us not’ (9). The previous letter seems to have been brought by brethren of the Elder’s own community, who acted as missionaries and relied for their support and lodging on the hospitality of Christians (7), Diotrephes had refused to allow members of the Church over which he presided to entertain them, and had expelled Gaius from the community for receiving them (6, 10). The Elder now sends a letter by the same brethren, asking Gaius to ‘set them forward on their journey worthily of God ‘(5-6), and commending especially one of their number, Demetrius (12). He threatens himself to come and expose Diotrephes shortly (10, 14)

The significant feature of the epistle is that a churchleader, against whom the Elder makes no charge of heresy, could defy the authority of the Elder and reject his letter. While the reasons for this may have lain, as the Elder states, in the vanity of Diotrephes, the success of his repudiation of the Elder’s authority suggests that the Elder can hardly have been one of the original apostles, and that his authority was comparatively limited outside his own community. If the Elder was indeed the author of the fourth gospel (cf. Chap.10 above) the importance of this is clear.