Three epistles traditionally attributed to the apostle John, belonging to the 7 "general" or "catholic" epistles. 1 Jn is properly called a "general" epistle in view of the fact that it is not addressed to a specific church or individual. Strictly speaking, 2 Jn and 3 Jn are not "general" epistles, but private letters to individual members of the churches which John had served as pastor. In the earliest extant Greek manuscripts the titles of the 3 epistles are simply Ioannou A, "of John 1," Ioannou B, "of John 2," and Ioannou G, "of John 3." The author does not identify himself in any of these epistles, but Johannine authorship is attested from earliest times, and the epistles are quoted by many of the Church Fathers. Polycarp, reputed to have been an associate of John the apostle, seems to quote from 1 Jn 4:3 in ch 7 of his epistle to the Philippians, which was written c. a.d. 115. According to the church historian Eusebius, Papias (d. c. a.d. 163) "used testimonies from the first [former] epistle of John" (Hist. Eccl. iii. 24). Writing between a.d. 182 and a.d. 188, Irenaeus quoted various passages from the first 2 epistles (Against Heresies iii. 16. 5, 8). The Muratorian Fragment (written c. a.d. 170) attributes both 1 Jn and 2 Jn to the apostle John. Thus from earliest times the authenticity and right of these epistles to a place in the canon is firmly fixed. The ancient tradition of Johannine authorship is still further strengthened by the resemblance between 1 Jn and the Gospel of Jn in style, vocabulary, word order, grammatical construction, and the pairing of opposite ideas. For instance, both begin with John's unique designation of Christ as the "Word" that came forth from the Father (1 Jn 1:1 3; cf. Jn 1:1 3, 14). Both express the wish that the recipients' "joy may be full" (1 Jn 1:4; cf. Jn 16:24). Both speak of "a new commandment" (1 Jn 2:8; cf. Jn 13:34) and refer to Jesus Christ as "the true light" (1 Jn 2:8; cf. Jn 1:9). Both encourage believers to "love one another" (1 Jn 3:11; cf. Jn 15:12). Both speak of the Christian as passing "from death unto life" (1 Jn 3:14; cf. Jn 5:24). Both refer to the Holy Spirit as the "Spirit of truth" (1 Jn 4:6; cf. Jn 14:17). Both speak of God as sending "his only begotten Son" into the world (1 Jn 4:9; cf. Jn 3:16), and declare that "life" is to be found in Him (1 Jn 5:11; cf. Jn 1:4). For other close verbal similarities between the Epistles and the Gospel compare 1 Jn 2:1 with Jn 14:16; 1 Jn 2:3 with Jn 14:15; 1 Jn 2:11 with Jn 12:35; 1 Jn 2:17 with Jn 8:35; 1 Jn 2:23 with Jn 15:23; 1 Jn 2:27 with Jn 14:26; 1 Jn 3:22 with Jn 8:29. For a characteristic pairing of opposite ideas compare 1 Jn 3:14 with Jn 1:5; 1 Jn 2:9, 10 with Jn 12:25; 1 Jn 2:8 with Jn 5:24. The few differences that exist between the Gospel and the Epistles can easily be attributed to difference in subject matter and degree of organisation. The similarities far outweigh the dissimilarities, a fact that bears silent but impressive witness to identity of authorship between the Epistles and the Gospel. The author identifies himself as one of the apostles who personally saw and heard Christ during His earthly ministry (1 Jn 1:1; 2; 4:14; cf. Jn 1:14), and affectionately addresses his converts as "little children" (1 Jn 2:1, 12, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21), implying that he was advanced in age at the time of writing. For a discussion of John as the author of the Gospel that bears his name see John, Gospel of. The Gospel and the Epistles give evidence of having been written at approximately the same time. Whereas some 19th-cent. critics formerly assigned both to the latter part of the 2nd cent., it is now generally agreed that manuscript evidence points conclusively to the close of the 1st cent. as the time of writing. See John, Gospel of.
I. The First Epistle of John. Despite the fact that 1 Jn makes no specific identification of its author, its intended readers, the place of writing, its destination, or the time of writing--and thus lacks the usual characteristics of a Greek Letter--it is obviously an epistle. Apparently it was addressed to believers with whom the writer had been closely associated (see chs 2:1, 12, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). The apostle John is known to have spent the closing years of his ministry at Ephesus, as pastor of the Christian churches in the Roman province of Asia. Presumably, this epistle was addressed to these believers.
The author writes, as a pastor, to his spiritual children, assuming that they are already familiar with the principles of salvation, and admonishes them to put these principles into practice. He stresses love--solicitous concern for the well-being and happiness of others--as the primary Christian virtue. Such love is the basic attribute of God (1 Jn 4:8), and comes from God (v 7). God sent His Son to reveal this love (v 10), and believers ought to love one another (v 11). In so doing they testify to the world that they know God (v 8) and are truly converted (vs. 16, 20). The love of the world and the love of the Father are mutually exclusive (ch 2:15 17). John bases his urgent appeal to make the principle of love effective on his earnest conviction that Christ's return is imminent (v 18). It is already "the last time" as evidenced by the appearance of many antichrists (v 18), who were once Christians (v 19). But now they deny that Jesus of Nazareth is "the Christ," that is, the Messiah foretold by the prophets of old. They deny that Jesus is the Son of God (v 22), and that true divinity and true humanity were united in the one Person, Jesus Christ (1 Jn 4:3; 5:5; cf. Jn 3:16). These heretical teachings are identical with those of the Docetists, who taught that Christ was merely a phantom, without a real body, and with those of the followers of Cerinthus, a Judaizing proto-Gnostic, who taught that Jesus was the natural-born son of Joseph and Mary, and that the spirit of the Christ entered His body at baptism and withdrew prior to His death on the cross. The Docetic heresy thus denied the true humanity of Christ, where that of Cerinthus denied His true divinity. It is generally accepted that John wrote his 1st epistle particularly with the Docetic heresy in mind.
Following the introduction (1 Jn 1:1 4) in which John affirms Christ's true divinity and humanity as the central truth of the gospel, he goes on (chs 1:5 to 2:6) to the supreme importance of walking in the light, by which he means making a practical application of the truths of the gospel to the daily life. When the Christian obeys Christ's commands he can know that he is "in him." In ch 2:7 14 John sets forth as evidence of obedience to Christ a selfless love for the brethren. Next (1 Jn 2:15 28), John warns against false teachers. A Christian's only safety is to hold fast the gospel as he has received it, in order to have confidence when Christ appears (v 28). Those who aspire to be sons of God will aim to be like Christ in word and deed, thus purifying their lives, even as Christ is pure (ch 2:28 to 3:24). Duty toward God, John says, is summed up in believing on Jesus Christ as the Son of God and in loving one another as He commanded (ch 3:23). In chs 4:1 to 5:12 John explains the principles by which Christian believers may tell the difference between teachers of truth and error. The first test to be applied is whether they acknowledge or deny that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh." The 2nd test is whether they adhere to the gospel as it was originally proclaimed by the apostles (ch 4:6). The 3rd test is whether they genuinely love the members of the household of God (vs. 7, 8, 13, 20). The eternal life God has promised is in His Son, and unless men accept Jesus Christ as His Son they do not have access to this priceless gift (ch 5:11, 12). In his conclusion (vs. 13 21) John reaffirms the importance of believing in Jesus as the Son of God who came to this world to impart eternal life to all who believe in Him.
II. The Second Epistle of John. This epistle is in the form of a private letter addressed to "the *elect lady" and her "children" (2 Jn 1). Similarity of language and expression makes evident that 2 Jn was written by the same author as 1 Jn. Note, for instance, the expressions: "antichrist" in v 7 (cf. 1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3); "walking in truth" (2 Jn 4; cf. 1 Jn 1:7); "a new commandment" (2 Jn 5; cf. 1 Jn 2:8); "love one another" (2 Jn 5; cf. 1 Jn 3:11); and "he hath both the Father and the Son" (2 Jn 9; cf. 1 Jn 5:12). 2 Jn 5 7, 9, 12 may be based on 1 Jn 1:4; 2:4, 5, 7, 18; 5:10 12, and if so would indicate the order in which the epistles were written. The writer identifies himself simply as "the elder," an appropriate title for the aged apostle John. As to length, the 2nd epistle is of the usual length for one sheet of papyrus then in common use. In this epistle John speaks of the fellowship that binds Christian believers together (2 Jn 2), praises the recipients of the letter for their faithfulness, and exhorts them to continue in the love of Christ (vs. 4 6). He warns against false teachers and suggests how to deal with these heretics (vs. 7 11). The letter closes with the hope that writer and recipients may soon meet again (2 Jn 12, 13).
III. The Third Epistle of John. A comparison of this epistle with the 2nd indicates a common authorship. This epistle is a personal letter addressed to a certain *Gaius, otherwise unknown, a faithful believer whom John commends for his hospitality toward the apostles and other travelling teachers. The letter deals with the Christian's duty to extend hospitality to true teachers, and to beware of false teachers. As one who has distinguished himself by extending hospitality to itinerant preachers, Gaius will appreciate the counsel John gives. The schismatic tendencies of Diotrephes are to be firmly rejected. He seems to have been an elder in the church or to have held some other prominent position in it that afforded him an opportunity to speak against John (vs. 9, 10). Furthermore, he had refused to entertain visiting preachers and had forbidden those under his charge to do so, and even had gone so far as to deprive them of membership in the church (v 10). Other instruction John has in mind must wait; he expects soon to visit the church of which Gaius is a member (vs. 13, 14).
Horn, Siegfried H., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association) 1979.