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Bible Study Guide: 1 John, 2 John, 3 John

What makes 1, 2, and 3 John unique?

Although 1 John is called a letter, it does not have many of the features of a typical Greek letter (e.g., it lacks the formal greetings usually found at the opening and conclusion). Hence, it might well be regarded as a short treatise or homily. Considering the overall length of the text, 1 John makes a surprising number of references to writing (e.g., 1:4; 2:1, 7,8, 12,13,14, 21, 26; 5:13). Another item to observe is the intimate pastoral language the author uses when referring to his audience. He repeatedly calls them "little children" (e.g., 2:1, 18, 28; 3:18; 5:21) and "beloved" (e.g., 2:7; 3:2, 21; 4:1, 7, 11). Because this "letter" refers to Jesus as the "Word of God" and emphasizes that Christians should love one another (e.g., 2:10; 3:14, 18, 23; 4:7-12, 16b-21), 1 John has always been linked with the Gospel of John. Moreover, 1 John shares a number of thematic expressions, such as light and darkness, truth, witness, and knowledge. Finally, 1 John offers a glimpse of how the early church settled disagreements between early followers of Jesus.

Both 2 and 3 John have the standard features of a letter (e.g., opening and closing greetings), although only the latter is addressed to a specific individual (viz., Gaius). Some scholars view 2 and 3 John as "supporting letters" sent along with 1 John. As such, they provide a summary of the contents of 1 John that focuses on the two primary points: the truth of Jesus' incarnation and humanity, and the inseparability of faith and mutual love among believers. The foremost concern of 2 John is that Christ's followers be encouraged to love each other and to obey the truth. However, the concern over hospitality in 3 John is not altogether unrelated to the aforementioned themes of 1 and 2 John.

Why were 1, 2, and 3 John written?

The letters of John were written in order to encourage followers of Jesus to remain faithful to the truth. All three texts were addressed to Christians, but there is also a strong polemic at work against those with whom the author disagrees. In other words, the author is simultaneously [supporting fellow believers] while sharply attacking his opponents and their positions. The foremost theological argument of these texts is that Jesus, the Son of God, was truly human and really shed his blood to take away sins (1:7). Some followers were falsely claiming that Jesus only appeared to be a human being, but he was really a purely spiritual being. These teachers also believed that spiritual life was greater than moral life, and spiritual knowledge was more important than moral rules. They taught that moral rules were only for those people who could not see beyond the physical level of life. For example, they believed that their spiritual rebirth made it impossible for them to sin, so they had no sins to confess (1:9,10). In rebuttal, the author of 1 John puts forth the argument that Jesus "had a truly human body" (4:2) and is truly God's Son (2:22; 3:23), and that God's true children ("the children of light") are those who also obey God and love one another (3:11-24). Only those who believe that Jesus Christ was truly human and who love one another really have eternal life.

Besides encouraging the Lord's followers, 2 John warns them about the liars and enemies of Christ who were claiming that Jesus Christ was not truly a human being and that he belonged only to the spirit world. It is possible that what the author has in view are ideas that later came to be associated with Gnosticism, which considered the entire physical and material universe as evil. They argued that if Jesus was God he could not have been human, since humans are part of the created universe. They also claimed that a superior spiritual understanding would separate them from the physical world. The writer of 2 John says that the Lord's followers should not welcome these liars into their homes because to do so would be like accepting their false message as well, and it would put believers at risk of straying from what they had been taught regarding Christ (verse 9).

The writer of 3 John offers prayers and thanks for his friend, Gaius, who has been welcoming the followers of the Lord who traveled to Gaius' area with the message about Jesus. One leader of Gaius' church group named Diotrephes has been refusing to welcome any of the Lord's followers and was urging others not to welcome them either. So, Gaius is encouraged to keep welcoming the Lord's followers even if Diotrephes does not.

Taken together, the themes and overall style and tone of these texts suggest that they were written in order to bolster and implicitly caution believers by sharply censuring the theology of the opponents so that the church community to which the letters were sent would not be tempted to stray away from their beliefs.

What's the story behind the scene?

First John was probably written late in the first century or very early in the second century A.D. At the time of its writing, the early church was trying to determine what made someone a true child of God, and it is clear from all three of these texts that the audience to which they are addressed was experiencing sharp division. Like many of Paul's letters, 2 and 3 John give glimpses into the kinds of problems local churches experienced at the end of the first century A.D. Because many of these problems-such as gossip, concerns over correct teaching, and leadership struggles-are not unique to the first century, these short letters can provide helpful insights to church leaders today. Moreover, this was a period in which many new religions were emerging. One trend among these new religions was toward Gnosticism, a movement which described the physical world as evil and the spiritual world as good. Gnostics believed that the goal of humans is to get special knowledge that would free them from the physical world. They claimed that this superior knowledge separated them from this corrupt world. But the writer of 1 John shows that God made the world and sent Jesus to free the world from evil and to unite the physical world with God.

It is interesting to note that Irenaeus was the first to mention 1 John (around 180 A.D.), and he did so in the context of attacking Gnostic Christians. The text was recognized as canonical by the 4th century, and authorship was attributed to the Apostle John, who was also understood to be the author of the Fourth Gospel as well. The issue of authorship is still not entirely settled, and the matter is further complicated when 2 and 3 John are brought into the equation. These two letters appear to have been written by the same individual. However, they differ significantly from 1 John and the Fourth Gospel in that the author refers to himself as "the elder." Given the thematic, linguistic, theological, and Christological similarities between the Fourth Gospel and each of the Johannine Epistles, it is quite likely that no matter how many authors are responsible for the various texts, they were all nonetheless members of the same community.

The "elect lady and her children" (verse 1, NRSV) and the "elect sister" (verse 13, NRSV) probably refer to groups of the Lord's followers (church communities) rather than to two individuals. Perhaps, it is even a reference to one or more nearby churches.

How are 1, 2, and 3 John constructed?

A number of biblical scholars have pointed out that 1 John lacks a clearly discernable structure making it difficult to arrive at a consensus on how it should be outlined. Following is just one possible way of sketching out the contents and message of the book:

  • Prologue (1:1-4)
  • Living in the light (1:1 - 2:17)
  • Light and darkness (1:5 - 2:11)
  • Believers and the world (2:12-17)
  • Truth and untruth (2:18 - 4:6)
  • Truth and life (2:18-29)
  • The children of God and the children of the devil (3:1-24)
  • Testing the spirits of truth and of error (4:1-6)
  • God's love and its results (4:7 - 5:12)
  • God's love and that of the Christian community (4:7 - 5:5)
  • The Son and the witness to the Son (5:6-12)
  • Epilogue: Right knowledge and right action (5:13-21)

Second John is written in the style of a letter and may be outlined in the following way:

  • Greetings (1-3)
  • Obeying the truth and living in love (4-13)
  • Loving one another (4-6)
  • Being aware of deceivers (7-9)
  • Guarding one's hospitality (10-11)
  • Final greetings (12-13)

Third John, which is also in the format of a letter, may be outlined in the following way:

  • Greetings and commendation (1-8)
  • Commendation for walking in truth (2-4)
  • Commendation for supporting missionaries (5-8)
  • Diotrephes and Demetrius (9-12)
  • Diotrephes criticized (9-10)
  • Demetrius praised (11-12)
  • Final greetings (13-15)