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Home > Dictionaries > Holman Bible Dictionary > JOHN, THE LETTERS OF

Holman Bible Dictionary

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Three New Testament books attributed to the apostle John. Knowledge and use of 1 John is attested from an early date in the writings of Papias (according to Eusebius), Polycarp, and Justin. It was regarded as the work of the apostle John by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and the Muratorian Canon.

Second and Third John were accepted as Scripture more slowly. Origen reported that their authenticity was questioned, and Eusebius placed them in the list of writings that were disputed, although “well-known and acknowledged by most.”

The Johannine character of the three letters is universally recognized, but debate over their authorship continues. Some scholars regard the apostle John as the author of all three letters. Others, citing stylistic and theological differences between the Gospel and the Letters, contend that they were written by an elder in the Johannine community, who was not the evangelist. It is possible that the author of the letters was the final editor of the Gospel, the “I” who speaks in John 21:25. The author never identifies himself by name. Twice he claims the title “the elder” (2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1), but he never calls himself an apostle.

Most scholars agree that the three letters were written by the same author and that they were written after the Gospel. A date of about A.D. 100 seems to be indicated, but both earlier and later dates have been proposed. Several factors support a date following the composition of the Gospel. 1 John 1:1-5 seems to imitate John 1:1-18. The polemic against “the Jews” that pervades much of the Gospel does not appear in the letters. Their concern was with difficulties within the Christian community. Whereas the Gospel was written “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31), 1 John insists that one must confess that Jesus Christ has come in flesh (1 John 4:2). 2 John 1:7 likewise identifies as deceivers those who do not confess “Jesus Christ come [having come or coming] in flesh.” The letters are therefore concerned with correcting a false belief about Christ that was spreading in the churches.

From this emphasis on the incarnation, we may assume that the opponents held to the divinity of Christ but either denied or diminished the significance of His humanity. Their view may be an early form of Docetism, the heresy that emerged in the second century which claimed that Jesus only seemed to be human.

This false belief had already led to schism. 1 John 2:19 explains that those who had left the community never really belonged to it, or else they would have remained with it. 1 John 4:1 warns the church to test the spirits because “many false prophets are gone out into the world.” These “opponents” of the elder's group are charged with not following the command to love one's fellow Christians. They apparently also claimed that they were free from sin (1 John 1:8, 1 John 1:10). Both groups held that believers have “passed from death unto life” (1 John 3:14), but the elder recognized the potential danger in this teaching and contended that the future coming of the Lord (1 John 3:2) requires that believers purify themselves and be righteous (1 John 3:3-7).

The Johannine letters, therefore, provide us with a window on an early Christian church, its problems, and its developing doctrine. First John seems to be a treatise written to the Johannine community. In contrast, 2 and 3 John are much briefer, about the length of a single sheet of papyrus, and they follow the conventional form of a personal letter.

First John is difficult to outline because its themes recur throughout the letter and because transitional verses may be placed either with the preceding or the following sections (1 John 2:28; 1 John 4:1-6). Outlines with varying numbers of divisions have been suggested for 1 John. The structure followed here is based on the repetition of the statement “God is” three times in the Epistle: “God is light” (1 John 1:5), “He is righteous” (1 John 2:29), and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). First John demands that these qualities must dominate the lives of believers.

As a way of refuting the false teaching that threatened the community, the elder quoted tenets of the opponents in 1 John 1:6,1 John 1:8,1 John 1:10; 1 John 2:4,1 John 2:6, and 1 John 2:9, and answered each point. He called those who remained to practice the command of love (1 John 2:3-11). The elder gave assurance to the community and warned the believers that they cannot practice love for one another and love for the world at the same time (1 John 2:15-17). “The world” here means all that is opposed to Christ. Dissension had already split the community, and the elder warned those who remained about the dangers of the false teaching (1 John 2:18-27).

One of the tests of faithfulness is righteousness (1 John 2:29). The opponents may have emphasized the present realization of the church's hope for the future, saying that the judgment was already past and Christians had already passed from death into life. The elder reasserted a more traditional eschatology (see 1 John 3:2). Hope for the future, however, carries with it the imperative of righteous, pure living. Christians cannot make sin a way of life (compare 1 John 3:6,1 John 3:9 with 1 John 1:8-10).

Another test of faithfulness is living by the command to love one another, which means sharing with those in need (1 John 3:11-24, especially 1 John 3:17). The false prophets, who had gone out from the community, denied the incarnation (1 John 4:1-6). The incarnation is crucial for Christian doctrine, however, because in Christ we find the love of God revealed (1 John 4:7-21). Love of God, however, requires that we love one another.

Those who have faith in Christ and love God keep His commands, and to them God gives eternal life (1 John 5:1-12). The water, the blood, and the Spirit all bear witness to Christ, His incarnation, and His death. Christians are to pray for one another, but there is sin that is “mortal” (1 John 5:16). By this the elder probably meant denying Christ, the one through whom sin is forgiven. Christ also keeps those who are “born of God.” He is the only source of eternal life.


I. The Prologue: The Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4)

II. Light Among God's Children (1 John 1:5-2:27)

A. The incompatibility of light and sin (1 John 1:5-2:2)

B. Love as a test of knowledge (1 John 2:3-11)

C. Conflict with the world (1 John 2:12-17)

D. Conflict within the community (1 John 2:18-27)

III. Righteousness Among God's Children (1 John 2:28-4:6)

A. The hope of the righteous (1 John 2:28-3:10)

B. The love of the righteous (1 John 3:11-24)

C. The two spirits (1 John 4:1-6)

IV. Love Among God's Children (1 John 4:7-5:12)

A. The true nature of love (1 John 4:7-21)

B. The true nature of faith (1 John 5:1-12)

V. The Epilogue (1 John 5:13-21)

Second John was written by the elder to a sister community to warn the church about the dangers of the false teaching that had already threatened the elder's church. The sequence of the writing of 1 and 2 John is conjectural, but they were probably written by the same author at about the same time. They share similar concerns, and in many places the same phrases appear in both letters.

The elder praised the sister church for following the truth and appealed for her to continue to show love. The elder apparently wanted to be sure that the sister church would continue in fellowship with his church. His real concern, however, was to warn “the elect lady” (2 John 1:1) about those “who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (2 John 1:7). Such deceivers and antichrists are not to be received by the church. These were apparently members of the same group referred to in 1 John 2:19 and 1 John 4:1-2.


I. The Salutation of Love for Those Who Know the Truth (1-2)

II. The Blessings of Grace, Mercy, and Peace (3)

III. Love Is the Identifying Mark for Christians (4-6).

IV. Believers Face Deceivers (7-11).

V. Personal Conclusion (12-13)

Third John is a personal letter from the elder to Gaius, who had been providing hospitality to fellow Christians and messengers from the elder's community. Diotrephes, however, refused to receive those sent by the elder. The elder charged that Diotrephes “loveth to have the preeminence among them” (3 John 1:9), but Diotrephes' position is unclear. Some interpreters suggest that Diotrephes was an appointed leader or bishop of the church. Others conclude that Diotrephes had rejected the authority of the church's leaders, ambitiously asserting his own leadership. It may be that in an effort to prevent outsiders from spreading false teachings and dissension in the church he refused to receive any traveling prophets or teachers.

Gaius may or may not be a member of Diotrephes' church. The elder praised Gaius and commended Demetrius (who may have carried the letter) as a faithful witness. The letter closes with greetings from fellow Christians, who are called “the friends” (3 John 1:14; see John 3:29; John 11:11; John 15:13-15). See John the Apostle; John, the Gospel of.


I. The Address (1)

II. The Blessing of Good Health and Welfare for a Faithful Spiritual Leader (2-4)

III. Believers Should show Hospitality and Support for Visiting Believers (5-8).

IV. Pride, Gossiping, and Lack of Hospitality Bring Condemnation (9-10).

V. Imitate Good Leaders but Not Wicked Ones (11-12).

VI. Concluding Remarks (13-14).

R. Alan Culpepper

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'JOHN, THE LETTERS OF'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.


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