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The Epistles of John

Updated on December 24, 2009

The Epistles of John are three catholic Epistles or letters of the New Testament traditionally ascribed to the Apostle John, author of the Gospel of John. The Johannine authorship is vouched for by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and the Muratorian Fragment. They were widely used by the Christian Church in the early period of the 2nd century.

I John

The First Epistle does not bear the name of its author, and it contains no definite reference to personalities or places. It has been called the most general of all the seven catholic Epistles for that reason. However, the opening words of this Epistle and the prologue of the Gospel of John bear such a resemblance to each other in content and structure as to indicate identical authorship. The author writes as one of the original disciples who "handled and saw the Word of Life" (I John 1:1-4). His use of the words "little children," coupled with his leisurely and fatherly way of writing, indicates that John was along in years and that he was regarded with respect and affection by those he addressed. This Epistle and the Gospel of John were written about the same time. The Epistle addresses itself to an apparent danger threatening the true nature of the Christian faith. A rising type of popular Christianity threatened to make Christian experience only a mystical union with a Christ who had no historical incarnation. These promoters of a kind of "new thought" became a cancerous cell within the church. They prided themselves on a superior interpretation of Christianity. They also championed a "true knowledge of God" and a "true fellowship" among their advocates which not only denied the historical nature of revelation but made the Christian life something "spiritual" and the Christian fellowship into a select community of the elect. By enhancing the spiritual nature of Christ, they changed Christianity into an esoteric philosophy and cut it loose from its unique historical nature.

John declares in this First Epistle that true Christian faith is faith in the Incarnation, and that true Christian life is one of brotherly love, and this love expresses itself in righteousness. John insists that true fellowship does not offer a "flight of the individual soul to the great Alone." It is rather a personal relation to the Father in whom there is no sin and with the brethren of the same household. He who says he has mystical relationship with the Father and hates his brother does not know what real fellowship is. In short, Christian experience which does not result in ethical living is self-deceiving. (I John 1:5-10.)

II John

The Second Epistle is addressed by "the elder" to a church (here named "lady," in Greek, kuria). II and III John are closely connected, for they are quite alike in structure and in phraseology. To compare II John 12 and III John 14 indicates that "the elder" who wrote the Epistles was about to visit the community. Perhaps the Epistles were written about the same time. II and III John may be dated from the latter part of John's life and ministry at Ephesus.

II John raises a warning about the false teachers mentioned in I John who were guilty of denying the real humanity of Jesus. While much is said in both II and III John about hospitality among Christians, II John cautions against showing hospitality to enemies of the church. Christians, like all people in that time, did much traveling. Hospices were not reputable and hotels were unknown; therefore, poor Christians were entertained in the homes of fellow believers.

This hospitality was a witness which impressed non-Christians. Yet some, as always, abused this friendliness and used this entree into the church to teach doctrine not in harmony with the Christian faith. While John speaks of love in his Second Epistle, he makes it clear that while we love one another, we must also abide in the teachings (truth) of Christ (II John, 9). Love is not a sentimental tolerance of error which would disintegrate the very integrity of Christian life. The dangerous lie which these "antichrists" and "deceivers" promoted was that Jesus Christ had not become truly man. In short, they did not openly deny the Christian faith, but they professed faith in Christ the heavenly Redeemer, but interpreted salvation to be only a liberation from all earthly ties through a Redeemer who was not really one with humanity. This kind of "spiritual" Christianity was plaguing the church, particularly in Asia. It has in one form or an other agitated the church through the centuries.

It is a type of Gnosticism which appeals especially to intellectuals and those who hanker after a Christianity which is more philosophical than incarnational or historical. John does not forbid hospitality on the part of Christians toward those who may differ on interpretations of minor matters, but he is cautioning against the practice of a sentimental love toward those who would change the Christian faith into something less or other than it is.

III John

This Third Epistle is scarcely more than a fragment centering in three individuals. The first is Gaius, who seems to be one of those wealthy patrons of Christianity who opened his house hospitably to Christian friends.

In spite of occasional opposition, Gaius had entertained Christian brethren who were strangers, and thus sent them on their way into missionary and evangelistic service. The second individual mentioned, Diotrephes (III John, 9), seems to have been a church leader whose position made him proud. He even opposed the writer, John; indeed, he criticized him "with malicious words" and closed the door of his house to John's messengers. This man is a type of churchman whose pride of position and perhaps personal envy of John's position made him most un-Christian. The third character is that of the bearer of this letter, Demetrius, who is a brother beloved; his profession and practice of the Christian life are commended by John. Behind these three, one senses the master teacher, John, carrying on his wide pastoral ministry in old age, after a long pilgrimage, to the end. One also receives an impression of the early church as a fellowship whose members are given to hospitality and bound by ties of love, yet whose community is not free from the evil which subtly inhabits even the household of Christ.


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    • Timothy Donnelly profile image

      Timothy Donnelly 7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Ahh, an erudite who speaks of the Gospel. Thank you for joining HubPages.