Style of the Letters of John

1 John

The progression of thought in 1 John is not a simple linear development. Certain themes and expressions recur throughout the letter and are addressed in slightly different ways in different locations. These themes and expressions include:

  • from the beginning (1:1; 2:7, 13, 24)
  • life (1:1-2; 2:25; 3:14-16; 5:11-13, 16, 20)
  • fellowship (1:3, 7, 9)
  • light (1:5, 7; 2:8-10)
  • walk (1:6-7; 2:6, 11)
  • truth (1:6, 8; 2:4, 21; 3:18-19; 4:6; 5:6)
  • one another (1:7; 3:11, 23, 4:7, 11-12)
  • little or young children (2:1, 12, 14, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21)
  • love (2:5, 10, 15; 3:1, 10-11, 14, 16-18, 23; 4:7-12, 16-21; 5:1-3)
  • abide (2:6, 10, 14, 17, 24, 27-28; 3:6, 9, 14-15, 17, 24; 4:12-13, 15-16)
  • beloved (2:7; 3:2, 21; 4:1, 7, 11)
  • hate (2:9, 11; 3:13, 15; 4:20)
  • the world (2:15; 3:13; 4:5; 5:4)
  • the antichrist (2:18-23; 4:2-3)
  • born of God (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:4, 18)
  • the Spirit (3:24; 4:2, 6; 5:6, 8)

Related to this, some scholars find segments of the document to be related through the association of words or phrases.

The course of the argument within 3:4-18 exemplifies this practice. The author uses the word “deceive” in v 7 which seems to spark the idea of the “devil” in v 8. To “love his brother” in v 10 calls to mind the negation of brotherly love, namely Cain (v 12). “Murder” (v 15) brings to mind the free giving of life in the crucifixion (v 16), which in turns initiates the thought on the free surrender of worldly goods in v 17.1

Von Wahlde adds:

  • “Abide” in 1 John 2:27 connects with the theme of 1 John 2:28
  • The reference to “the one not loving his brother” at the end of 1 John 3:10 connects with the description of Cain in 1 John 3:12
  • The reference to “truth” at the end of 1 John 3:18 connects with the theme of 1 John 3:19
  • The reference to the Spirit in 1 John 3:24 connects with the major discussion in 1 John 4:1-6
  • The reference to the love of God in 1 John 4:19 connects with the test for loving God in 1 John 4:20-21
  • The reference to having life in 1 John 5:12 connects with assurance that the readers have eternal life in 1 John 5:132

The author also employs parallelism in which he states a proposition in one sentence or clause and then either repeats it in different words in the next sentence or clause (synonymous parallelism) or states the opposite of the proposition in the next sentence or clause (antithetical parallelism). The second part of the parallelism can draw out an implication from the first part of the parallelism. Synonymous parallelism occurs in 2:11, 27; 36; 5:2-3. Antithetical parallelism occurs in 1:5, 6-7, 8-9; 2:4-5, 9-10, 23; 3:6-7, 14; 4:6, 7. While not strictly poetry, the poetic quality of much of the parallelism suggests the document was meant to be heard.

The author exhibits a dualistic mode of thought. He contrasts being a child of God with being a child of the devil (1 Jn 3:10), light with darkness, and love with hatred/murder.

It is different from the Greek philosophical dualism. Whereas Greek dualism developed from a view that spirit is good and matter is evil, John’s dualism is moral in nature.3

He offers only opposite categories to his reader with no exceptions or mitigation. Usually the reader will find himself or herself unable to fit honestly into either category. Thus the “either-or” world created forces the reader into introspection and evaluation. That John does not see the world from this perspective is evident in his discussion of sin in the life of the believer. Thus, while he says in 3:6 that an abiding believer does not sin, he affirms the opposite in 1:8-10 and reminds his readers of Jesus’ work on their behalf when they do sin in 2:1-2 and commends prayer for certain sins in other believers in 5:16. As a result we should recognize that when he writes that a believer is either walking in the light or the darkness, loving or hating his brother, and loving or murdering his brother, he knows that every believer will ultimately fail the test, including himself. This can be seen in his reassurances for his readers of their relationship with God in 2:12-14, their confidence before God even when they feel they have failed the test of love in 3:20, as well as his purpose of their assurance of salvation in 5:13.4

The author uses variations of words to speak about the same concept. Some examples are:

  • Relationship with God
    • “have fellowship” with God (1:6)
    • “knowing” God (2:3)
    • being “in the light” (2:9)
    • “seeing” God (3:6)
    • being “of God” (3:10)
    • “abiding” in God (4:13)
  • Familial language:
    • “little children” (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21)
    • “fathers” (2:13-14)
    • “young men” (2:13-14)
    • “young children” (2:14, 18)
    • “born of God” (3:9)
    • “brothers” (3:13)
    • “children of God” (5:2)

The author is also known for his Semitic Greek, Conditional sentences, meaning sentences of the form if/then (1:6, 7, 8, 9, 10; 2:1, 3, 15, 19, 24, 28, 29; 3:2, 20, 21; 4:11, 12, 20; 5:9, 15, 16), and the use of the reciprocal pronoun (allelon, “one another”) (1:7; 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12).

2 and 3 John

The style of 2 and 3 John may be characterized as epistolary exhortation. The author wants to establish a cordial relationship with the readers and exhort them on how to handle their circumstances.

Bibliography

Akin, Daniel L. 1, 2, 3 John. The New American Commentary 38. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.

Berkhof, Louis. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1915.

Brown, Raymond E. The Epistles of John. New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Derickson, Gary W. First, Second, and Third John. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 4th Revised Edition. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996.

Kysar, R. “John, Epistles of”. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Stott, John. The Letters of John. Reprint Edition. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 19. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014.

Strecker, Georg. The Johannine Letters: A Commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John. Translated by Linda M Maloney. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Sweeney, J. P. “John, First Letter of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Sweeney, J. P. “John, Second Letter of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Sweeney, J. P. “John, Third Letter of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Wahlde, U. C. von. “John, Letters of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Yarbrough, Robert W. 1-3 John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008.


  1. Kysar 1992, 3.903 
  2. Von Wahlde 2016 
  3. Derickson 2012, 34 
  4. Derickson 2012, 34-35 
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