These three epistles are all associated with the apostle John, brother of James, and son of Zebedee, who was in Jesus’ inner circle of friends. Though he is not named specifically in the books, there are internal evidences which would logically lead to John being the writer. The writer of 1 John was an eyewitness of the Christ (1 John 1:1-2). Not only that, but 1 John 4:6 (…he who knows God hears us…) sets him in an exclusive group who have authority in spiritual matters—the apostles. He refers to his audience as “little children” and to himself as “the elder” speak to his age. Both history and Scripture (John 21:18-23; Revelation 1:9) reveal John was the lone apostle to live into his old age.
Much of the language we find in 1 John matches the gospel account. For instance, chapter 1 in both books speaks of “the beginning” and identify Jesus as “the Word.” Despite the brevity of 2 & 3 John, they share several words in common with 1 John (love, truth, abide, walk, commandment, antichrist), which help to establish their common authorship. External evidence include several of the “early church fathers quoting the books and citing John as the source (Polycarp, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, etc.).
Near the end of the first century AD, an apostate movement arose among the disciples known as Gnosticism (Gr. gnosis, “knowledge”). The leaders of this movement claimed special knowledge for themselves, distinct from and in their view, greater than the revelation received by the apostles. John mentions one gnostic leader by name in 3 John, Diotrephes, who rejected the apostle and put those who would receive him out of the church. In response to the gnostic movement and their special knowledge, John focused in 1 John on what we can “know.” The word “know” appears 32x in 1 John!
John is the only Bible writer to mention the antichrist (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). His teachings about the antichrist are nothing like the modern fantastical view of the antichrist. The word simply means “against Christ,” and John said many antichrists had already come. Several things might make one an antichrist—the particular thing John focused on was those who rejected Jesus coming in the flesh (as the Gnostics did).
Here is a summary of the content in each book:
- 1 John 1—we must walk in the light if we are to have fellowship with the Lord;
- 1 John 2—Jesus is our Advocate with the Father; He commands us to love Him, not the world;
- 1 John 3—as the children of God, we should seek to be pure, as He is pure, and to love, for God is love;
- 1 John 4—don’t believe every teaching, but test the spirits; God is love; we need to perfect His love in us;
- 1 John 5—the victory of faith; we can have assurance of salvation
- 2 John—walk in truth and love
- 3 John—commendation of Gaius and Demetrius, condemnation of Diotrephes
Next time, we’ll look at Jude.