STUDY 21 - THE EPISTLES OF 1, 2
& 3 JOHN
For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.374-380; R.H.Gundry,
pp.448-453. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the
New Testament, pp.445-458.
Authorship, date and place of
M.C.Tenney argues that the three epistles are by the same author,
namely the author of the Fourth Gospel: "All four of these writings
were probably produced about the same time and at the same place". 
The letters are seen to be written by the apostle John to the Asian
churches at the end of the first century. Against this, some scholars
take the Gospel and 1 John to be written by the apostle, but take 'the
elder' to be another writer (see 2 Jn.v.1; 3 Jn.v.1).
Background to the epistles
Heresy - which touched the person and work of Christ - is behind the
writing of these epistles. Christology concerned the church from
this time to the fifth century. The error faced by John is that
of gnosticism, which had a reductionist view of Christ. Gnosticism was
influence by Greek dualism, which separated the mind (which was spirit
or pure) from the body (which by nature was material or evil).
M.C.Tenney explains how this presented intellectual difficulties when
it came to the doctrine of the Incarnation:
"How, asked the Gnostics, could the infinite, pure spirit called God
have anything to do with a material body? The complete union would, on
their premises, be unthinkable. They proposed two solutions: either
Christ was not really human but only apparently so, or else the
Christ-spirit did not actually inhabit the human Jesus until the
baptism, and left him before his death on the cross. The former
theory was called Docetism; the latter was called Cerinthianism. "
The First Epistle of John is more of a homily or sermon than a letter
(it has no personal, historical or geographical details). The
authority of the 'I-you' sayings (1:5; 2:1-2), and the fact the writer
is an eyewitness of Christ (1:1-4; 4:14), and one of the apostolic
Twelve (note the 'we'), supports Johannine authorship.
The Gospel and 1 John
The opening subject of both works is the Word or Logos (1:1-5; cf.,
Jn.1:1-2). The theme of the Gospel is 'Jesus is the Christ'; the
theme of the epistle is 'the Christ is Jesus'. The Gospel is
christocentric; the epistle is theocentric (note that God is light,
love and life, e.g., 1:5; 4:16; 5:11). There is a pastoral
concern in both works. John Stott says, "He wrote the Gospel for
unbelievers in order to arouse their faith (20:30-31), and the Epistle
for believers in order to deepen their assurance (5:13)".  There are
common words in both works, e.g., light, life, love, world, darkness,
sin, commandments, joy, abide, truth, believe, know. These may be
added to. The dualism of the Gospel is found in the epistle,
e.g., "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all" (1:5).
The false teachers
John is concerned about those who would seduce and deceive (2:26; 3:7)
and what they taught. They are 'false prophets' (4:1), 'antichrists'
(2:18; 4:3) and 'deceivers' (2 Jn.7). They were numerous, and they had
left the community of the church (2:19).
The false teaching
The error of the false teachers was doctrinal and ethical (2:26;
3:7). Note these points:
The doctrinal error concerned the person of Jesus. They
Jesus was the Christ (2:22), and that "Jesus Christ had come in the
flesh" (4:2). So John states that whoever denies the Father and
Son is antichrist (2:22), and "every spirit that does not acknowledge
Jesus is not from God" (4:3).
The ethical error may be indicated by "if we claim..."
2:6.). Walking in the light brings confession and cleansing; abiding in
Christ a holy life (1:7; 2:4,6). These false teachers said they loved
God but hated their brothers (2:9).
Against the false gnosis John confidently says "we know" (see
2:3,5,29; 3:14,16,19,24; 4:13,16; 5:15,18,19,20). Assurance, as
confidence or boldness (Gk. parrēsia, boldness, confidence, assurance)
features in 2:28; 3:21; 4:17; 5:14.
The three tests of a true
Three tests are applied to those who claim to be 'born of God'. They
The theological test asks whether one believes Jesus to be
the Son of
God (3:23: 5:5,10,13). This involves belief in the incarnation
The moral test asks if one is practising righteousness and
Lord's commandments (2:4-6). The believer does not practice sin
The social test looks for the evidence of loving others
The three tests are applied three times. Faith, love and
holiness are all the work of the Holy Spirit. The Christian has
victory over the 'world' (5:4-5).
An outline of the epistle
M.C.Tenney's outline is aware of key words in the epistle:
1 John: The Certainty of
Introduction: Life's historical manifestation (1:1-4)
Certainty through walking in the light (1:5-2:29)
Certainty through abiding in love (3:1-4:21)
Certainty through exercise of faith (5:1-12)
Conclusion: the resultant certainties of life (5:13-21).
The epistle is the Christian's challenge to live as Jesus did
(2:6). This is a possible goal because of the new birth (3:9) and
the provision made through the atoning work of Christ and his work as
our Paraclete (2:1-2). The way of constant communion is that of
confession and cleansing (1:5:10). 'Love' (Gk. agape) is the mark of
Christlikeness. The Lord's commandment of love is enforced
(2:7:8: cf., Jn.13:34). Verses worth underlining include: 3:1-3;
3:8; 4:16-18; 5:12-13.
"To the chosen lady (Gk. eklektē kuria) and her children" (v.1).
The salutation is ambiguous. No-one is certain whether John is
addressing a Christian lady named Electra (or Kyria), and her family
(or church), or simply a church and its members (cf., v.13). The
personal nature of the letter may support the view that a mother and
her family is addressed (v.12).
An outline of the epistle
M.C.Tenney's outline is given here in full:
Note the keyword 'truth in: Love in the truth (v.1); The
truth in us (vv.2-3); Walking in the truth (v.4).
Like 1 John, this epistle has much to say about love and obedience
(vv.4-6). The Lord's commandment is underlined again (v.5-6; cf.,
Jn.13:34; 15:10-12). The warning against 'deceivers' (v.7) and
doctrinal and ethical error is strong (vv.7-9). Again the person
of Christ is undermined. False teachers are not to be entertained
M.C.Tenney correctly states the Johannine epistles present a
solid front against heresy.
An outline of the epistle
M.C.Tenney's outline of the epistle:
3 John: The Practice of
Encouraging workers of truth (vv.5-8)
Reproving opponents of truth (vv.9-11)
Gaius is recommended for his faithfulness, love and
appreciation of the truth. Hospitality is encouraged (cf.,
"Practise hospitality": Rom.12:13). Diotrephes is singled out as
a self-opinionated leader (the NT church was not perfect!). In
comparison Demetrius is commended as one recognised by fellowship and
the truth (or doctrine).
So, John warmly recommends Gaius and warns him against the domineering
Diotrephes. He shows the importance of giving hospitality to Christian
workers (many ministers were itinerant at this time - such as
evangelists and prophets). The prayerful wish of v.2 is the
'shalom' (peace) of v.14. Fellowship (Gk. koinōnia, fellowship,
participation) is spelt out in terms of friendship, brotherhood and
truth (cf., 1 Jn.1:3). Note: The formal good wishes of v.2 cannot be
claimed as a promise of prosperity!
1. M.C.Tenney, p.374.
2. M.C.Tenney, p.375f.
3. J.R.W.Stott, The Epistles of John, TNTC, Leicester,
Tyndale, 1964, p.23.