The three letters attributed to John the Evangelist, son of Zebedee and disciple of Jesus, emerge from a context of conflict. Although it seems possible to determine the nature of this conflict there are several challenges. Scholarly knowledge of a “Johannine” church and community is limited meaning that it is impossible to assign the three letters to precise moments in that church’s history.
At best scholars can find traces of internal development within the community, which largely depends on reading between the lines of the texts themselves. Further, the community might not be the same in all three letters. The letters could have been written at intervals and addressed to different communities.
Although many scholars think that it is likely that these three texts have common authorship (language, terminology, and contents of all three letters suggest a common author), one cannot be entirely certain. According to New Testament Luke Timothy Johnson, “indeed, a common style and symbolic structure would be expected from both sides of a divided community” (1).
One cannot be fully certain that the letters were written in the sequence in which they are now found, making reconstruction of stages of conflict difficult. If the letters were all sent at once to a community then it would make it impossible to trace any development of conflict in the community, since the letters would describe only a single point in its history.
A Packet of Letters
Johnson thinks it is likely that the three letters were sent at the same time to the same destination. It would be difficult to account for the preservation of letters as unassuming as Second and Third John were they not the companions of a more significant writing. It is most likely that Third John was a letter of recommendation from the elder to Gaius, certifying that the carrier of the other two letters, Demetrius, was to be received with open arms. Second John was expected to be read to the entire assembly as an introduction and cover letter for First John. It is largely an exhortation, closer in nature to a homily. Johnson believes that the Johannine letters make the most sense when they are viewed as parts of the same “epistolary package.”
The Setting: Conflict and Division
All three letters indicate conflict among the readers. In First John, there are doctrinal and moral disagreements whereas Second John’s conflict is connected to the issue of proper teaching. In Third John, there seems to be a political dispute in the form of a conflict between rival leaders. Johnson writes that,
“First and Second John clearly indicate that convictions concerning Jesus have become—if not the cause of the divisions—at the very least the banners of the respective parties. In the most explicit fashion, the content of belief, rather than simply the assent of faith, becomes here a criterion for membership. The terms “orthodoxy,” “heterodoxy,” and “heresy” are appropriate ones in these letters. Thus, we find the use of the verb “to confess” (homologeō, exhomologeō; 1 John 2:23; 4:2, 3, 15; 2 John 7) and “to deny” (arneomai; 1 John 2:22–23). In a shift from the Fourth Gospel, the opponents are thus not unbelievers but fellow Christians; they are not purely outsiders but ones who had at first belonged to the author’s own group: those “who went out from us” (1 John 2:19). Now, they are given traditional titles of disdain: they are “false prophets” (1 John 4:1) and “antichrists” (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3). In the description of 2 John 7, they are above all “deceivers who have gone out into the world” (2).
These designations do not help to establish what doctrinal points separate the groups within the Johannine community. One might question how literally the writer understands the term “antichrist”. Does he mean by this that an individual completely denies Christ or simply holds to a different view of Jesus as Christ? There are some creedal statements in First and Second John that are of significance. In First John, there are phrases such as “he who denies that Jesus is the Christ” and “he who denies the Father and the Son” that seem to designate a liar and an antichrist (2:22).
In contrast, the readers are to “believe in the name of the Son Jesus Christ” (3:23). A similar opposition appears later between “every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” and “every spirit that does not confess Jesus” (4:2-3). In the same chapter, the orthodox group testifies “that the Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world,” and this is placed next to “whoever confesses that Jesus is Son of God” (4:14-15). A series of confessional phrases follow in chapter 5: “whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ” (5:1); “whoever believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (5:5); “whoever believes in the Son of God” (5:10); “believe in the name of the Son of God” (5:13); and “we know that the Son of God has come” (5:20). Finally, Second John 7 has, “who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.”
These phrases are insightful concerning the orthodox group beliefs although it is far less clear what the content of the “heterodox” belief is. We cannot be certain that everything the writer’s orthodox group affirms is being denied by their opponents. According to the author, the antichrist denies that “Jesus is the Christ,” denying the Father and the Son (1 John 2:22). But it is difficult to determine whether the denials of Jesus (1 John 4:3) and “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (2 John 7) represent refinements, equivalents, or expansions to the rejection of Jesus as the Christ.
One cannot have certainty whether the opponents challenged the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, or that he is truly human. Perhaps they denied that Jesus “came” as God’s son, believing instead that he was “adopted” as God’s son in the resurrection. We also need to be careful about the author’s motivations and whether or not these colored his view of his opponents.
In light of the ancient practice of vilifying opponents by depicting them as having doctrinal and moral failures, one needs to question the author’s portrayal. It is certainly clear that the author is convinced that the opponents are deficient in their understanding and appreciation of Christ. One might guess that the author’s insistence on love and the practical expression of love shows a lack of care among his opposition, although it might not. Johnson views these disputes and divisions as being in sharp contrast to the Gospel of John,
“Whatever the precise nature of the disputes, any sort of division would be a severe crisis for a church that lived within the symbolic framework we have seen in the Fourth Gospel. The farewell discourse of Jesus (John 15:1–17:26) portrays a community of friends. They share in one Spirit; being joined to Jesus as Jesus is to the Father, in a fellowship of unity and love. For a community with such a self-understanding, any dissension and deviance would be difficult to understand or assimilate. But a clash over the right understanding of Jesus, and a division leading to mutual excommunication, would challenge this community’s very identity and existence” (3).
The First Letter of John
Despite its simpler use of Greek, First John, written around 90 CE, is similar to the Gospel of John in its style. The letter is “something written for the church” that Demetrius carried to the household of Gaius. Although a written composition (see 2:1, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 21, 26, 5:13), it has no epistolary character but is a homiletic style of exhortation. The elder “announces” or “proclaims” (1:2, 3, 5) to his audience a message (1:5) that functions as a reminder and exhortation to live by that commandment which was “from the beginning”: to love one another (1:1, 2:7, 13, 14, 24, 3:11).
The most striking stylistic element in this letter is the apparent self-contradiction regarding the believer and sin: one sentence affirms something that another seems to deny. For example, the author claims that anyone who says they are without sin is a liar and makes a liar of God (1:8-10), yet later on says that anyone who sins is a “child of the Devil” and does not abide in Christ (3:4-10). For scholars, this style and phraseology are important to deciphering the elder’s meaning: what is granted by way of proposition (“everyone sins”) in one place is taken away by way of exhortation (“do not sin”) in another. This deliberate internal tension gels with the author’s task of encouraging faithfulness to God in a context where many of the community have left to “walk in the darkness.”
There are many similarities between First John’s symbolic world and the Gospel of John. In the Gospel of John, one finds major themes such as the distinctions between truth and falsehood (1:6, 2:4, 21, 27, 3:19, 4:6, 20, 5:7), light and darkness (1:5, 2:8-9, 10), life and death (1:2; 3:14-15; 5:11, 13), and the community and “the world” (2:15; 3:1, 13; 4:3, 4, 5; 5:19). In First John, there is the same conviction of being in touch with the “beginning.” They have received truth from the traditions passed on to them “from the beginning” (1:1, 2:24, 3:11), they “know”/“abide in” Christ who is himself “from the beginning” (2:13-14, cf. Gospel of John 1:1), and they are in direct communion with the Holy Spirit (2:20, 27, 3:24, 4:2, 6, 13, 5:7). The believers are those who are “born of God” (3:1, 2, 10; 4:4, 7; 5:1, 4, 18, 19). They “bear testimony” (4:14, 5:7, 10) to what they “see and hear” (1:3, 2:24, 3:2, 6), even as they “abide” (2:6, 10, 17, 24–25; 3:6, 24, 4:12, 13, 15) both in the commandment (2:3, 3:22, 5:2) and in the love (3:11, 14, 18, 4:7, 11-12, 21) revealed to them in the Son of God (4:7-10).
First John affirms that it is a community divided: some have “gone out from us” (2:19) and although the elder claims that if they “had really been of us” they would not have left, the community’s identity defines itself in terms of its share in the Spirit’s unity and love. It is clear that at least different two groups were claiming to be the community of the beloved disciple but their claims appear to be mutually exclusive. Thus the task of the elder is to assert the traditional claims for his readers, but at the same time to take into account the new circumstance of division and dispute. Despite this, First John’s author does not engage in a bitter polemic against those who have departed as the focus of this writing is not on the outsiders but on those who remain.
The author not only congratulates those who have remained for holding on to the truth, but he also challenges them to a renewed affirmation of their identity while also exhorting them on a practical level. The letter starts with the phrase “I am writing to you so that you may not sin” (2:1) and ends with: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21). The letter is dealing with the community’s sectarian challenges not by blaming those who walked away but by renewing community identity through a recollection of the fundamentals of community belief. The letter seeks to cultivate stronger borders of community identity, solidification, and group cohesion. Thus, the exhortation to the community to “test every spirit to see whether they are of God” (4:1) and to acknowledge its own sinfulness (1:8, 10). To deny sin would not only be a severe self-deception (1:8) but may also be the “sin unto death” (5:16–17), for it places confidence in one’s own perfection, not in God’s mercy. The community is also to have confidence that Christ will be its advocate with God the Father (1:7, 9; 2:2, 4:10), with whom they are to walk with in complete obedience.
To further his emphasis on community cohesion, the elder moves to a second major premise, which is appropriate behavior. He says that the community cannot simply hold to an abstract confession of Christ as Son of God come in the flesh, which is no doubt important (2:22-23, 3:23, 4:2-3, 5:1, 10-11, 20), but that this conviction must also be translated into appropriate behavior. As such, genuine love, which stands in contrast to the hatred of the world (2:15; 3:1, 13; 4:3, 4, 5; 5:13, 19), is of crucial importance to this community. They are therefore to “perfect” their love and open their hearts to each other in care (4:12, 17-18). The author states that,
“If anyone says, “I know Him,” but does not keep His commandments, he is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone keeps His word, the love of God has been truly perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him” (1 John 2:4-5).
This community is to re-establish the bonds of love between them so that it can stand firm in the face of adversity and crisis. If members hate their fellow believers they are still in the dark (2:9); rather they must pray and care for each other and correct each other (3:16-18, 5:14-17). It is believed that through the cultivation of love in the community, its identity and borders will be strengthened and assist in avoiding malicious behavior.
The Second Letter of John
The second letter, penned around 90 CE, is a note from the elder to Gaius’ community. It seems to suppose a collective audience (v. 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 12) and the community to whom the letter is written is referred to as the “elect lady with her children” (v. 1), which appears to be an honorific title. This is also suggested by the closing of the letter: “the children of your elect sister greet you” (v. 13).
The greeting places emphasis on the idea of truth: “all who have come to know the truth” love this community, based on “the truth dwelling within us” (vv. 1–2). The elder prays that his readers receive grace, mercy, and peace “in truth and love” (v. 3), and he rejoices to see them “walking in the truth” (v. 4). Truth is in contrast to the issue of false teaching that emerges explicitly in this letter. For example, the elder warns his readers of the “many deceivers who have gone out into the world” (v. 7).
The Johannine writings seem to have an ambivalence toward the “world.” In the Gospel of John, the world is an arena for the revelation of Jesus Christ and the object of God’s love and salvation (1:9, 3:16-17, 4:42, 6:14, 8:12, 9:5, 10:36, 11:27, 12:46-47, 17:21-24). However, it is also depicted as a place of hostility toward believers because of the world’s rejection of God in Jesus (1:10, 7:4-7, 8:23, 11:9, 12:25, 14:17-31, 15:18-19, 16:8, 17:6, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 25). The same tension is carried over into First John where the “the world” is the recipient of God’s love and salvation through Jesus (2:2, 4:9, 14, 17) but also a place dominated by a power other than God’s (5:19). Such, according to the author, is reflected in the world’s perverted values and hatred for the “children of God” (2:15-17; 3:1, 13, 4:1–5, 5:4–5). First John 2:15-17 instructs the reader to,
“not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
Returning to Second John, those who have left the elder’s community and “gone out into the world” now partake of its corrupted values and are referred to as “the deceiver and the antichrist” (v. 7). Such people deny Christ’s coming in the flesh. These people do not have God because they do not remain in the teaching of Christ (v. 9). There is ambiguity in what is meant by the “teaching of Christ.” It could include teaching “about Christ” (i.e. a proper understanding of Christ) or it may be speaking of teaching “from Christ” (i.e. the commandment that Christ himself taught them “from the beginning” which is to love one another).
The author goes on to instruct believers on hospitality concerning such people, such as not to receive them into their homes if they do not espouse the proper teaching. They are not even to greet such people (v. 10) and “Whoever greets them makes fellowship with their evil deeds” (v. 11). This appears to be a survival technique for the community in the form of shunning and excommunication when faced with deviance. The refusal of hospitality is not intended to be an act of hostility toward individual persons but a defensive measure against error and evil by a community fighting to maintain its own identity.
The Third Letter of John
Third John is a genuine personal letter written by the elder to Gaius. It is also the only Johannine letter to provide specific names in the dispute behind the Johannine correspondence: Gaius, Demetrius, and Diotrephes. These Greco-Roman names indicate the presence of a gentile component in the early Johannine communities.
The author calls Gaius “beloved” (v. 1, 2, 5, 11). We do not know anything about this individual other than him being the head of a household, since the elder praises him for his hospitality to traveling Christians (v. 5-6). The elder is pleased that Gaius is doing well and that he “walks in the truth” (v. 3).
Gaius’ hospitality is important for the elder as neither his letters nor his emissaries are being accepted by Diotrephes, another church leader. The elder reveals his grievance as follows,
“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church” (v. 9-10).
Diotrephes appears to be a rival to the elder and, on the elder’s testimony, is seeking primacy of place among the Johannine churches (v. 9). His zeal for power is exemplified by his refusal to accept those who are sent by the elder. What is more, he expels from the assembly those who do accept them: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us” (v. 10).
Third John seems to evidence a power struggle between two church leaders as on the one hand there is Gaius, who is a local leader willing to receive the elder’s delegates and teaching, and on the other Diotrephes, who is both ambitious and malicious. However, the elder says that support from fellow Christians is important because the church will find no support from “pagans” (v. 7) and that those who provide hospitality for the messengers and missionaries are “fellow workers for the truth” (v. 8).
Johnson says that Third John accompanied the other two letters (of First and Second John). He argues that the “epistolary aorist” (“written” in the verse “I have written something to the church” (v. 9)) does not seem to refer to a previous communication but to the exhortation that the elder now wants to be read in the assembly. Third John therefore serves as a letter of recommendation for the messenger who carries these letters, who is Demetrius, and who is well attested by everyone and “by the truth itself” (v. 12). Gaius can therefore safely accept him and his messages. The elder reminds Gaius not to follow the example of Diotrephes in refusing hospitality to the elder’s emissaries: “Do not imitate the evil but the good” (v. 11).
1. Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1999. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 559-569.
2. Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1999. Ibid.
3. Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1999. Ibid.