A Survey of the Johannine Epistles

Hywel R. Jones
Wednesday, January 1st 2020
Jan/Feb 2020

There are three letters by John in the New Testament. Their titles, which indicate common authorship and order of composition, are only traceable to early church tradition and are not part of the sacred text. Even so, a strong argument has been mounted for their apostolic authorship because of their similar words and truths.1 So evident is this stock of common material that attempts to break them up and distribute them to other imaginary writers have failed. In the estimate of many scholars, such features provide a basis for regarding the apostle John as the author of the Gospel and the Apocalypse (the book of Revelation) as well.2 That is the position adopted here.

The five writings of the apostle John span the largest tract of time in New Testament history, and taken together they form a rich theological and pastoral resource for the life of the Christian church. They can be associated as follows: the Gospel was intended to generate or strengthen belief that Jesus was the Christ of God, the Epistles to assure believers that eternal life was theirs, and the Apocalypse that such faith in Christ will conquer all. They are a mine of spiritual truth.

The Three Epistles

In this four-part series of expository articles, we will focus attention on the Epistles. Each of them contains some information about its own setting, but not one of them makes any reference to either of the other two.3 They interrelate in a most natural way, so that not one of them can be considered in complete isolation from the others. But as their order is an open question—unlike Peter’s two letters (see 2 Pet. 3:1)—we will consider the Second and Third Epistles of John before linking them with the First. Marshall does this in his most useful commentary, partly because they have not been given due attention, living as they do under the shadow of First John, so to speak; but also because they provide an easier entry to its thought world. We choose to do so because it will emphasize that the apostolic word is to regulate the life of the Christian church.

It has been customary to designate John’s Epistles as catholic, but this should not be understood as if he was putting things on record in the hope that they might be needed by some church, sometime and somewhere. Rather it should mean that they have something vital to say to every church, everywhere and all the time. Close inspection of all three will reveal that, although none of them uses a specific “address” as did Peter and Paul in their letters, each is directed to a current ecclesiastical circumstance. They therefore demonstrate that churches everywhere need the ministry of the word of God in order to be kept authentic and to mature. The book of Acts makes it clear that churches owe their existence to the proclamation of the gospel word, and all the Epistles make clear that they owe their continuance to it as well. Spurgeon aptly described the pulpit as “the Thermopylae of Christendom.”

Second and Third John Related

John’s two shorter Epistles—each of which probably filled one sheet of papyrus—certainly look like letters, unlike the much longer first one. Each of them opens with a reference to a sender and an addressee. The Second Epistle is to “an elect lady and her children,” which is a metaphor for churches of course, and conveys greetings from her “elect sister.” While the locations of these congregations are unspecified, Ephesus and its environs are suitable. The Third Epistle, which is highly personal, is sent to an individual named Gaius, but it too is church related. In fact, it refers to two churches: the one where Gaius was located and the other where Diotrephes was to be found. The one in which Gaius was received strangers (like Demetrius) as brothers; the other, where Diotrephes was, treated brothers as strangers and worse. As John mentions to Gaius that he has written to that other church, it can be assumed that Gaius knew of it and perhaps might have had some influence there or that he needed to be forewarned about it. A strong contrast is drawn in the two letters between Gaius and Diotrephes, while Demetrius is an example of a reputable teacher-preacher. It should also be remembered that the First Epistle contains an allusion to a similar matter (see 2:19). Some, who were not true brothers but deceivers, had left its fellowship after causing a disturbance.

A common situation therefore lies behind the shorter letters, in spite of their obvious differences. It relates to what kind of treatment should be accorded to itinerant teachers and preachers. In the latter half of the first century, it was not only apostles and their colleagues who took the gospel far and wide, but others itinerated as well. They needed hospitality, as inns were notorious as places of doubtful morality, and so Christians were called upon to open their homes to such “strangers.” But that of course raised the question of who should be received as authentic messengers of Christ and supported financially, so that onward travel and ministry might be possible (see 2 John 10 and 3 John 5–6). Dealing with such a matter had the potential for advancing the cause of the gospel by according its worthy messengers proper care (3:7) and promoting inter-church fellowship. But it also ran the danger of endorsing “deceivers” (2:7), corrupting the church, and providing a vacuum in which a power bid could be launched (3: 9–10).

Notice has been taken of the fact that John does not identify himself as an “apostle” but only as an “elder” in these letters. It is thought that this diminishes the authority of his counsel on the important questions addressed; but, against that, the following should be considered. First, John is not denying his apostolic status by describing himself as an elder, because elders could be apostles (1 Pet. 5:1); he also identifies himself as “the elder” not “an elder,” which points to something more than his being one of a number. Second, there was no need for him to identify himself as “an apostle” in writing to a church that did not contest his office or in writing to Gaius, his beloved friend. Although Diotrephes was being dismissive of the apostles, claiming great importance for himself, John declares that he hopes to visit that church—and in doing so to confront Diotrephes and to do so publicly. John is clearly conscious of the fact that he has some authority to exert (v. 9b) and intends to make his presence felt (v.10). In this case, we think that John did not mean to designate himself as an elder in the church but as someone venerable, much like Paul did when, using a slightly different word, he wrote of himself as “Paul the aged.” John is therefore adding a note of winning appeal to his address, combining kindness and firmness—which is the hallmark of authentic apostolicity.

Second and Third John Summarized

The matter of “truth” is often mentioned by John in these letters. He writes about “the truth” and “in the truth” or just “in truth,” as can be seen from their opening verses (see 2:2 and 3:1–4). By “the truth,” John means what has been made known; by “in truth” or something as “true” (3:11), he means what is produced by it. He is thinking, objectively and subjectively, of (divine) revelation and (human) response. “The truth in truth” is coherent theology and not contradictory tautology.

Those two aspects of “the truth in truth” supply the criterion for identifying the genuine messenger and exposing the false. Second John deals with who should not be received and why not, and Third John with who should be received and why. It exposes “deceivers” and identifies “brothers.”

Deceivers are marked out in two ways. They do not “confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” but present something that “goes beyond” that doctrine (2:7, 9). (This combination of Docetism and dualism is connected with a secret gnosis, which is given attention and repudiated in the First Epistle). It is the spirit of the antichrist (2:7). There may also be an inference that their motivation is for monetary gain in what is said by contrast about true brothers like Demetrius who “have gone out [into the world] for the sake of the Name, taking nothing of the Gentiles” (see 3:7). John does not identify the name, knowing full well that Gaius will not be at a loss as to whom he is referring. For the Christian, there is only one “Name” who is “the truth”—namely, Jesus who is “the Son of the Father” and “the Christ come in the flesh” (2:3, 7). This is the truth that is at stake. To know it is to know him, which results in “walking in / doing truth . . . in love . . . according to his commandments” (2:6; 3:3–5). Part of that includes receiving as brothers those who bring the message of God in Christ (2:10) and supporting them as “fellow-workers for the truth” (3:8), unlike Diotrephes who was (alarmingly) concerned for his own prominence.

All Three Epistles Related

“Truth” provides a focal point for the content and purpose of First John as well. Undergirded by the Old Testament idea of what is firm and sure as seen in the word Amen, John presents truth as ultimate reality (verbal) and unswerving integrity (moral), because God himself is “true” (1 John 5:20) and the Spirit is “the truth” in witnessing to Jesus Christ (1 John 5:6). The Triune God is total light without any kind of darkness—“no lie is of the truth”
(1 John 2:21). There is a fundamental difference between “the spirit of truth” and “the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6), and Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God is the line of demarcation. Such truth never needs a supplement to keep it updated, let alone a counter-term to give it balance or proportion, as is often advocated in our relativistic and pluralistic age.


“True truth” is a dominant theme of the Gospel and the Apocalypse, where it is often combined with the adjectives “holy, faithful [and] just” (Rev. 3:7, 14; 15:3) to describe God’s words and ways (21:5; 22:6). What is said there and in the three Epistles is, of course, the consequence of what is said about Jesus in the Gospel being “full of grace and truth” (1:14) and truth incarnate (14:6). To the unbelieving Jews he declared, “I am the light of the world” (8:12); to sceptical Pilate that he was “a witness to the truth” (18:19), which would establish such a kingdom in a fallen world. His believing followers (8:12) show themselves to be “of the truth” (John18:37) by hearing his voice and abiding in him (8:31–32), whereas those who do not are of the devil in whom there is no truth (8:44–45). God and the devil are therefore opposed on the basis of truth, which is that Jesus (the) Christ is the Son of God to whom the Spirit bears witness. There is no liaison between them. Jesus is the “true” light (John 1:9), and those who follow him do not walk in darkness but have the light of life. Christians are therefore to be watchful and maintain and practice the truth they have been taught so as to obtain a full reward.

Hywel R. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

The next study in this series will be on 1 John 1:1–4.

  1. There are two details in the actual text that appear to militate against this view. There is the author’s use of the first pronoun plural at the opening of the first letter and also his self-designation as an “elder” in the two following. They will be commented on in due course.
  2. See the discussions in commentaries by J. R. W. Stott (Tyndale Press, 1964); F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983); S. J. Kistemaker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986); I. H. Marshall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978); and the relevant chapters of An Introduction to the New Testament by D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
  3. The letter referred to in 3 John 8 is here regarded as no longer extant.
Wednesday, January 1st 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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