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New Testament Survey

The Epistles of John


1, 2, & 3 John

Key Verse(s):

Key Chapter(s):

Key Word(s) or Concept(s)


How much are these epistles like John’s Gospel?

How are they different?

Why three separate letters?

How is Jesus presented?

1, 2, & 3 John

These epistles are grouped together because of their common authorship and general overall theme. The last two letters are very short and much more direct in their purpose than is 1 John.

1 John

From earliest times, the authorship and authority of 1 John have been recognized by the church. The Apostle John is recognized as the author. He writes to an unidentified audience with instructions on how to live the Christian life. His underlying theme is the risk associated with false teachings. These false doctrines are mostly likely those associated with what would become known in the second century as Gnosticism.

John, therefore, writes to urge the recipients to obedience and not to fall into the disobedience which arises from the false teachers. John leads the believers to a true understanding of their relationship with God. This understanding should then lead the believer to a correct application of doctrine, including the ability to distinguish false teachings and ignore them. The Apostle understands the Person and Work of Christ to be the basis for the confidence the believer needs to walk the true path of Christianity.

revisedfinalbook308.gif While it is not possible to identify with any degree of certainty the false doctrines with which John’s audience was involved, certain characteristics may be gleaned from the letter. These all lead to the conclusion that early Gnosticism, a mixture of Greek and Jewish thought, were involved. This mixture resulted in a dualism where material things were seen as bad and spiritual things were seen as good. As Gnosticism developed, there were two different paths. The Docetic Gnosticism viewed Christ as a phantom. Christ did not really take on human form, it only appeared that way. The other, Cerinthian Gnosticism, viewed Jesus as an ordinary person upon whom God “came,” like a piece of clothing, between the time of Christ’s baptism until a short while before the Cross. Under this approach, only the human was Crucified.

The letter should, then, be dated in line with these developments, somewhere around A.D. 85-95.


All of John’s writings express the same purpose:


But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

John 20:31



These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.

1 John 5:13



Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;

Revelation 1:19

Special Considerations of 1 John

As with the Gospel, the Apostle makes great use of contrasts in this letter, especially of light and darkness. For John there are only two choices of life. One is the choice for Satan and darkness. The other is a choice for God and light. To John’s mind the proper choice is based upon the concept that “God is love” (4:8, 16). This helps the believer to overcome the Devil by the power of the indwelling of God in the believer,


Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.

1 John 4:4

To walk in the light is to understand sin for what it is and God for Who He is. In this manner, one can then understand the desperate need man has to be found by his Savior. John sees sin as being:

revisedfinalbook308.gif In Scripture, sin is any separation from God (1 John 3:4). Adam’s sin was the sin of disbelief and disobedience. Just as Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to the person who believes on Him, Adam’s sin is imputed by God to the entire human race. But, Scripture makes it abundantly clear that man is sinful even without the imputation (Rom. 3:1-18; 5:12-21). In both the Greek and Hebrew, a variety of words are used to describe this separation. These include transgression (Ps 51:1; Rom 2:23), iniquity (Rom 1:21-23), error (Rom 1:18; 1 John 3:4), missing the mark (Rom 3:23), trespass (Eph 2:1), lawlessness (1 Tim 1:9), and unbelief (John 16:9). These are not all of the verses where these various terms are used, but the list will give you an idea of the breadth of sin.

For the Christian, 1 John becomes the manual of HOW TO LIVE, the Gospel application in a single book based upon love. Not only is it the manual of how to live, it is a treatise on our assurance in Christ. The phrase “we know” is used over thirty times in this short book.

revisedfinalbook308.gif Many people accept the concept of eternal security, but loose their Christian joy through a failure to understand the assurance of their salvation. Scripture teaches that he who has truly accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior has eternal life, an everlasting life that the believer will not lose (John 3:36; 10:28; Rom 5:8, 9; 8:38, 39; Phil 1:6; 1 John 2:17; 4:12; 5:11-13, 20). On the other hand, the assurance of salvation is the stated fact of Scripture that all of these things are true. It is, if you will, a one word statement of John’s purpose in writing. Other verses on this assurance would include Psalm 4:3; John 5:24; 17:3; Rom 5:1; 8:16; 8:38, 39; 2 Cor 5:17; 1 John 2:3-6; 4:7, 8; 5:13.

And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.

1 John 5:20

revisedfinalbook308.gif Many of the verses, of course, support both principles, since in the end, both eternal security and one’s assurance of salvation rest upon the truth of God’s Word. But, the two concepts may be separated by thinking of one’s security as a fact and one’s assurance as a deep feeling or emotion based upon the fact of security.

Outline of 1 John


There is a textual issue with the last chapter of 1 John that demands to be mentioned. John 5:7, 8 reads as follows, first in the King James, then in the NASB as an example of the modern texts.



7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. (KJV)

7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. (NASB)


revisedfinalbook308.gif Notice the bolded words do not appear in the modern text. Many critics use this passage as one of the keystones of arguing the more modern texts water down the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Two comments must be remembered. First, DO NOT reach any conclusions based upon a single verse. Second, the difference arises from a serious scholarly consideration and effort to reconstruct the original manuscript. Opinions will differ as to whether or not a scribe added these words to strengthen the argument for the Trinity, or if they were the original words of John. We will all know the answers when we get to heaven. And, then, it will not matter much! The key is not verses 6 and 7, but rather the passages in 5:11-15. This is the security and assurance of salvation, and it exists in all of the texts in essentially the same language!

11 And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. 13 These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.

1 John 5:11-15, NASB

In the end, John has set forth several tests of the believer’s walk with God. The tests all begin comparisons based upon “If we say” or “He that saith.” Stated as negatives, these tests are:

ole108.gif Where do you stack up on this list?

2 John

There is less support for this short letter as coming from the pen of John the Apostle, but in practical terms there are no other alternatives. Like the rest of John’s writings, this letter is to be dated in the A.D. 85-95 time frame.

The salutation to “the chosen lady and her children” has raised much speculation over whether the letter is written to an individual or if this is a “code name” for a local church. Either approach may be acceptable. In fact, it may be to a local church which met in the home of the chosen lady.

As with 1 John, the Apostle writes to combat the perils involved in dealing with false teachers. 2 John 7 suggests the false doctrine was a form of Docetic Gnosticism dealing with the dualism of Christ rather than the Christ of Scripture (compare 1 John 2:18-27; 4:1-6). This letter, thus, defends the truth of the Gospel (1-4), clarifies the concept of obedience to Christ and not being indiscriminate in the acceptance of the enemy (5-11). The epistle also carries a message of encouragement to the recipients of the letter (8, 9, 12). This encouragement comes in the form of a plea to doctrinal purity which will lead to the fulfilling of joy in Christ.


8 Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward. 9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.

2 John 8, 9

3 John

This letter, as well, has a disputed past as to authorship, but the similarities to 2 John make it reasonably certain that both have the same author, John the Apostle. Most, but not all, of the early church fathers agree with this authorship. Again, it would have been written in the A.D. 85-95 time frame.

The letter is written to Gaius, an individual, who appears to be a convert of John’s (4). If this is so, there is nothing known about him.

revisedfinalbook308.gif There is a Gaius who accompanies Paul on a portion of the last missionary journey (Acts 19:29). This Gaius may or may not be the same as a Corinthian whom Paul baptized (1 Cor 1:14).

There is some theoretical correlation between the two Gaius. It is possible that John’s reference in verse 4 is nothing more than the fatherly kindness of an elder to a leading member of the local church. Paul speaks of those who show hospitality to the whole church body (Rom 16:23). John commends Gaius for his love of strangers (5, 6). This may create a tie between the different remarks, making them all about the same person.

The purpose and issue involved seems to be the practice of supporting and entertaining traveling missionaries and evangelists. Gaius is praised for this type of service to the church (v5-8), as compared to Diotrephes, whom John chastises for failing to do so (9-11). John’s letter is written to assure Gaius he has acted correctly and that the Elder will deal with Diotrephes when John visits. The Apostle then recommends Demetrius to Gaius’ hospitality in light of the attitude of Diotrephes.


2 Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.

Hebrews 13:2,3

Hospitality was an important trait of Old Testament times. So strong was this duty, that the Jews considered it a sin not to be hospitable (cf Gen 19). John’s approach is slightly different. A combined reading of 2 and 3 John make it clear that Christians are to exercise discernment in their dealings with others. They are to reach out in hospitality, but if the would-be guests are clearly false teachers, one should conclude John would not invite them to dinner and the theater.



How should we show hospitality today?

Why do all the epistles written deal with a concern for false teachers?




ole108.gif Can you see why people call

Paul the Apostle of Faith

John the Apostle of Love

True Faith

As presented in the General Epistles

ole108.gif How True is your Faith?




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