The Johannine Epistles or Letters
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

Introduction | 2 John & 3 John | 1 John | Questions | Bibliography

Introduction to the Three "Letters" of "Epistles" of John:

The Three Johannine Letters, as a Group:

  1. Author: All three are probably by the same author; but who is he?
    1. 1 John: no author is named or referred to throughout the text.
    2. 2 John and 3 John: the author is self-identified as “the elder.”
    3. He is traditionally identified as “John the apostle, son of Zebedee” – but is this correct?
    4. He was probably a leader of the “Johannine community” (in Ephesus?) – i.e. the community(-ies) founded by the “beloved disciple” who value the Gospel of John!
  2. Relationship of the Letters to the Gospel according to John?
    1. Many similarities in vocabulary & theology; but some slight differences.
    2. Same author of Gospels and Letters?  If not, at least in/from the same community.
    3. Scholars debate whether the letters were written before, or probably after the Gospel.
    4. The lLetters continue the same teachings as the Gospel of John, but also correct some misinterpretations.
  3. Dates: The three letters were written at about the same time; maybe a few months/years apart.
    1. Probably late first century, written to communities near the Johannine “mother church.”
    2. Scholars debate whether 1 John was written before, after, or at the same time as 2 & 3 John.
  4. Different genres, to distinct but related recipients, with slightly different purposes:
    1. 1 John is not a letter, but a theological treatise, for the whole community.
    2. 2 John is an open letter of exhortation, to a particular church community.
    3. 3 John is a personal letter of commendation, to a named community leader.
    4. Let’s start with 2 & 3 John – shorter, easier to understand their context and messages.

2 JOHN & 3 JOHN: Historical Context and Literary Overviews:

  1. Attributed Author:
  2. Named Recipients:
  3. Similar Conclusions: Postscript & Greetings
  4. Outlines:

Conflict and Divisions within the Johannine Communities:

  1. Community ideals: Walking in love, remaining/abiding in truth, loving one another, living in joy, showing hospitality to the “friends”; testifying to the truth.
  2. Problems not with external “opponents,” but “schismatics” who left the community:
    1. 2 John 4: “I was overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth.”
    2. 2 John 7a: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world…”
  3. Divisions in 2 John are caused by doctrinal disagreements
    1. 2 John 7b: “those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!”
    2. 3 John gives us the name of a specific opponent: Diotrephes!
      • One side: the Elder & Gaius & Demetrius; other side: Diotrephes (and unknown followers)
  4. Divisions in 3 John, in contrast, sound more like a leadership struggle
    1. 3 John 9-10: “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.”
    2. Why are Diotrephes and the Elder opposed to each other? No doctrinal differences are mentioned, just inhospitality and excommunications (but these may also be due to doctrines).
  5. Recommendations for dealing with opponents:
    1. 2 John 10-11: “Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; / for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person.”
    2. Irony: Diotrephes (in 3 John 10) seems to be doing just what the elder (in 2 John 10) had recommended: not receiving those who disagree with your teaching!

Outline and Contents of 1 John:

  1. Overall Literary Structure:
    1. Prologue (1:1-4)
    2. Body (1:4—5:12)
    3. Epilogue (5:13-21)
  2. The Body is hard to subdivide, since its theological instructions and practical admonitions are very mixed; scholars debate whether the body has two or three main parts:
    1. Two-part division (R. Brown):
      1. Walk in the Light of God (1:5—3:10)
      2. Walk as Children of the God of Love (3:11—5:12)
    2. Two-part division (D.M. Smith):
      1. The true message of Jesus (1:5—3:24)
      2. Testing the claims of those who testify (4:1—5:12)
    3. Three-part division ():
      1. What is Christianity? (1:5—2:28)
      2. Life in the Family of God (2:29—4:12)
      3. The Certainty of Faith (4:13—5:13)
    4. Other three-part divisions:
      1. First part ends at 2:11 or 2:14 or 2:17 or 2:27
      2. Second part ends at 3:10 or 3:17 or 3:24 or 4:6
      3. Third part ends at 5:13
  3. For more detail, see the page of Outlines of the Johnannine Epistles

Literary Features of 1 John:

  1. Genre:
    1. 1 John is usually called "The First Letter of John," but it does not follow the standard conventions of ancient letters.
    2. Since it has no epistolary opening or closing, its form/genre is actually more like a "homily" or "sermon" or "theological treatise."
  2. No typical letter opening or closing (because it’s not a “letter”!):
    1. The writer starts with “we” (1:1), but later also says “I” (2:1).
    2. He is both a representative leader of the community and an individual eyewitness of Jesus.
  3. Similarities to the Gospel according to John:
    1. The openings or Prologues are very similar; compare John 1:1-18 and 1 John 1:1-4.
    2. The conclusions are very similar; compare John 20:30-31 and 1 John 5:13.
    3. The main commandment is that believers “love one another” (see John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17 and 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7-12).
    4. The result of believing/abiding in Jesus is for believers to become children of God and to receive eternal life.
    5. There are many other obvious similarities in vocabulary, concepts, and worldview:
      • Love, life, light, truth, the word, the world, joy, see, hear, believe, testify, remain, abide, born of God, Father & Son
      • It would be a good exercise to make your own long list of similar words and expressions.
  4. Differences from the Gospel according to John:
    1. There are some subtle differences in vocabulary and style:
  5. Use of 1 John in the Lectionary for Mass:
    1. Mostly on the Weekdays of the Christmas Season, beginning on Dec. 27, the Feast of St. John.
    2. Selections on some other days of the liturgical year. For details, see the Catholic Lectionary website.

Theological Issues in 1 John:

  1. Teachings about Jesus
    1. Prologue 1:1-4 – Word of Life, Christ, Son, Paraclete.
    2. Emphasis on Jesus’ relationship with the Father, and with believers.
  2. Teachings about God
    1. God is light (1 John 1:5)
    2. God is love (1 John 4:7-21)
  3. Opponents and Opposing Teachings
    1. Antichrist: indeed many antichrists have come (1 John 2:18-22).
    2. “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?
      This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22).
    3. This is very different from the “Antichrist” of popular imagination!

Reflection Questions:

  1. Which verses or passages most surprised you, disturbed you, or inspired you as you read the First, Second and Third Epistles of John? Why?
  2. Who were some of the early Christian leaders named John? What are some of the main arguments, both pro and con, as to who actually wrote these works?
  3. What is the literary genre of 1 John? Why is it not really in the form of a “letter”?
  4. What are some of the most striking and significant similarities between the First Epistle of John and the Gospel according to John.
  5. What are the main problems (both theological and social) addressed in 2 John and 3 John? What are the relationships between the individuals named in these letters?
  6. Why were there evidently such deep conflicts within the communities associated with John? What does that tell us about the early Christian churches?

For Further Reading and Study:  

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This page was last updated on April 11, 2018