Setting and Purpose of the Letters of John

1 John

1 John was written to address a situation brought about by a schism in a Christian community (1 Jn 2:19). The sense of the verb exerchesthai in 1 Jn 2:19 is usually taken to mean that a group separated itself from the author’s group by its own will (as opposed to being expelled). The author addresses the false teaching of the separatists (1 Jn 2:18-28; 4:1-6) and says they were never genuine Christians (1 Jn 2:19).

In my opinion, many commentators go too far in acscribing every negative statement in 1 John to the separatists. We must allow for the possibility that the author often addresses dangers that his readers will face from other sources.

The primary conflict with the separatists appears to be over Christology. The separatists deny Jesus is the Christ (1 Jn 2:22-23), deny the humanity of Jesus Christ (1 Jn 4:2-3; cf. 2 Jn 1:7), and deny Jesus is the Son of God (1 Jn 2:22-23; 5:5-6). This leads the author to identify the separatists as antichrists (1 Jn 2:18-23; 4:3) and false prophets (1 Jn 4:1). The separatists are said to be aligned with forces opposed to the faith, i.e., “the world” (1 Jn 2:15-25; 4:5-6). The author believes they are attempting to deceive his readers (1 Jn 2:26; 4:6).

It is tempting to identify these separatists with docetists or gnostics known to us from the second century but the fact is that we are not provided with enough information in 1 John to reach such a conclusion. Nonetheless, we may note some similarities between the separatists and such groups without identifying them with the later groups.

Docetism is the view that Jesus was not really a man but only appeared to be one. In the Old Testament, God (or the angel of the Lord) would sometimes appear in the form of a man without, of course, literally being a man. Docetists viewed Jesus’s appearance as something analogous to that. The separatists may have a view like this in mind since they deny the humanity of Jesus Christ (1 Jn 4:2-3).

Gnosticism is a broad term embracing many pagan, semi-Jewish, and semi-Christian systems. Gnostics viewed matter negatively and the body as the soul’s prison. They thought salvation was found through knowledge or enlightenment. Such views may have led the separatists to deny the humanity of Jesus Christ (1 Jn 4:2-3). “They did not deny that the man Jesus had a body, but that the Christ was to be personally identified with the bodily man Jesus. They could not conceive how the ‘Christ’ could have become incarnate, still less have assumed a body subject to suffering and pain.”1

A certain Cerinthus was said to be a contemporary and opponent of John (Iren. Her. 3.3.4; Euseb. H.E. 3.28.6; 4.14.6). Irenaeus (Her. 1.26.1) tells us that Cerinthus believed Jesus was conceived normally, not miraculously. He made a distinction between Jesus and Christ. Cerinthus thought Christ descended upon Jesus at Jesus’s baptism and that he proclaimed the unknown Father. He believed Christ departed from Jesus before Jesus was crucified. The separatists may fit such a description to the extant that they deny Jesus is the Christ (1 Jn 2:22), they deny the humanity of Jesus Christ (1 Jn 4:2-3), and they deny Jesus is the Son of God (1 Jn 2:22; 5:5-6). Irenaeus also says John proclaimed the gospel to remove the error disseminated by Cerinthus (Her. 3.11.1). But this does not mean the separatists were followers of Cerinthus.

Irenaeus also connects the beliefs of Cerinthus with those of the Nicolaitans (Her. 3.11.1). According to Rev 2:6, 14-15 the Nicolaitans were guilty of immorality. Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria also say they were licentious.2 Eusebius criticized Cerinthus for the thoroughly sensual millennium he anticipated (Euseb. H.E. 3.28.1-2; 7.25.2-3).

The general purpose of 1 John, then, was to preserve a Christian community from dissolution, to protect the identity and composition of that community, and to arrest a movement which threatened the very heart of what the author understood to be a genuine faith and life.

The specific purposes of 1 John were twofold: First, it sought to show convincingly that the Christian commitment of the separatists was doubtful and that their views did violence to a proper understanding of the faith. Second, it sought to assure the remaining community that they stood within the fold of the true faith and to reinforce their position in order to prevent further disintegration.3

The author may provide criteria by which his readers can reassure themselves that they are in the truth (1 Jn 1:5-2:2; 2:3-11; 3:7-10, 14-15; 4:4-8, 13-15; 5:13, 18-20).

Other purposes explicitly stated by the author include:

  • Promote fellowship among believers and joy in the children of God (1 Jn 1:3-4).
  • Prevent the audience from sinning, while letting them know Jesus is an advocate with the Father if they do sin (1 Jn 2:1).
  • Remind the recipients of the command to love each other (1 Jn 2:7-8).
  • Prevent the audience from being led astray (1 Jn 2:26).
  • Provide assurance of salvation (1 Jn 5:13; cf. Jn 20:31).

In sum, there may be a need to rethink the consensus that there is no historical setting for John’s Letters, that all we can do is infer a community of internecine strife from words in the letters themselves. Of course strife is reflected in the letters; but there is a known world around the Christian community of John’s place and time, attested by sources of some historical credibility [Revelation], and it is not a world on all counts friendly to Christian presence and witness. Seen in this light, John’s Letters are not obscure brittle condemnations of personal enemies; Rusam’s conclusion (1993: 232) seems overstated that the Johannine congregations “fought for their convictions and their entire existence in polemical demarcation against their hostile surroundings.” These letters are not defensive expedients to salvage a few followers in the wake of John’s previous failed leadership; in fact, “the remarkable thing about 1 John is that it does not consist of a bitter polemic against those who departed or a sustained refutation of their claims. The focus . . . is not on the outsiders but on those who remain” (L. Johnson 1999: 566). The same could be said of the other two letters. All three are frank, realistic, but positive pastoral missives (not congregational creations) seeking to affirm and reinvigorate doctrinal direction, ethical urgency, relational integrity, and a forward-looking faith in God, generally in a geographical setting and temporal era in which relatively young churches were facing the challenges of longer term existence.4

2 John

2 John is addressed to the “elect lady and her children” (2 Jn 1:1), referring either figuratively to a church community or literally to a lady and her children.

Arguments for the figurative interpretation include:

  1. The universal respect for the lady by “all those who know the truth” (2 Jn 1:1) better fits a community than an individual and her children.
  2. In contrast to 3 John, nothing personal, including personal names, is included in 2 John. The Greek syntax is incorrect for kyria (“lady”) to be a proper name.
  3. The church is personified as a woman in other NT passages (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22-23; 25-32; Rev 21:2, 9; 22:17). Cities and countries were also personified as a woman in Jewish and Greek culture.
  4. The word kyria (“lady”) was used in Koine Greek to refer to a unit of civic organization comprised of multiple assemblies.
  5. The issues addressed better reflect problems faced by a church community than by an individual. But perhaps an important lady in the church community could be addressed in a similar manner.
  6. The command to love one another is more likely to be stressed when writing to a church than to a literal family (2 Jn 1:5).
  7. The second person plural pronouns (2 Jn 1:6, 8, 10, 12) imply a group of recipients instead of an individual. But a lady and her children are also a group.
  8. The greeting, “The children of your elect sister greet you” (2 Jn 1:13), is most naturally understood as one church greeting another.

Arguments for the literal interpretation include:

  1. The literal meaning makes sense and should be preferred over the figurative meaning unless we have a strong reason to believe otherwise.
  2. It is unnatural for such a simple letter to contain such a lengthy and involved figure of speech.
  3. “Elect lady” could refer to a well-known and respected woman.
  4. Kyria (“lady”) is a well attested epithet in letters.
  5. Some scholars suggest the Greek word translated “elect” can be a proper name, Electa, with “lady” being a title of respect. Donald Guthrie counters that there is no parallel use of Electa as a lady’s name. Moreover, “elect” is used as an adjective in v. 13 which suggests it’s an adjective in v. 1 as well. In Rom 16:13 Paul uses the definite article in speaking of Rufus, but the definite article is missing in 2 Jn 1:13. Verse 13 seems to suggest that the recipient had a sister named Electa too!
  6. Children walking in truth (2 Jn 1:4) can reasonably apply to literal children who have reached adulthood. Likewise, a literal greeting from the lady’s nephews (2 Jn 1:13) is also intelligible literally.
  7. Passing on greetings between individuals was common (e.g., Rom 16:21, 23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phlm 1:23-25) and so would not be unusual in v. 13.

I favor the view that a church community is being addressed.

2 John addresses a situation similar to that addressed by 1 John. The author urges his readers to stay faithful to the teachings they know (2 Jn 1:5-7; cf. 1 Jn 2:7-11). He stresses the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh (2 Jn 1:7-8; cf. 1 Jn 4:2) and he says the false teachers are not to be given hospitality (2 Jn 1:10-11).

3 John

In 3 John, a certain Diotrephes is charged by the author with the following offenses:

  • Asserting his own authority but refusing to acknowledge the authority of the author (3 Jn 1:9).
  • Refusing hospitality to brothers in Christ (3 Jn 1:10).
  • Expelling from the church those who show hospitality to brothers in Christ (3 Jn 1:10).

It is worth noting that no theological disagreements are apparent.

The recipient of the letter, Gaius, is urged to side with the author against Diotrephes and offer hospitality to other Christians (3 Jn 1:5-8). The purpose of the letter is to enlist Gaius to strengthen the author’s influence in a congregation threatened by Diotrephes. The name Gaius was so common that there is no need to identify this Gaius with another Gaius mentioned in the NT (Acts 19:29; 20:4; Rom 16:23; 1 Cor 1:14).

Though there are other Gaius’s in the New Testament (Acts 19:29; 20:4; Rom 16:23; 1 Cor 1:14), the name was so common that it is unlikely he was one of them (Akin, 239; Brooke, 181; Brown, 702; Burdick, 443; Harris, 257; Williams, 67). He was probably the member of one of the churches in Asia Minor to which John’s influence had spread during his Ephesian ministry. It is not clear that he was a member of Diotrephes’ church (Brooke, 187; Marshall, 88; Stott, 228) or a nearby church (Akin, 246; Brown, 702; Dodd, 161; Kistemaker, 396). His ability to support itinerate preachers indicates that he was a wealthy member of his church, and likely a prominent leader. He was certainly viewed as trustworthy by John to whom he entrusts the care of Demetrius.5

Kysar provides the following hypothesis for the setting of 3 John:

It is most likely that Gaius and Diotrephes are leaders in a single congregation, hence the Elder hopes to preserve his influence there by winning Gaius’ support. That Diotrephes was a separatist seems unlikely. While the charge that he challenges the authority of the Elder fits the image of the view of the separatists, the charge that he denies hospitality makes little sense unless he is a member of the same community over which the Elder has some authority. Care must be taken not to read the situation of 1 and 2 John into 3 John, but the common authorship of 2 and 3 John (“the Elder”) suggests the possibility that a similar situation is obtained for both. The likelihood of that possibility depends upon whether or not the evidence of 3 John can be reasonably fitted within the picture of the situation proposed above for 1 and 2 John.

What may have been the case is that Diotrephes is one who has tried to preserve his segment of the community (a satellite or house church) from the schism troubling other segments. He has done so by advocating that his congregation become independent of the influence of the parent body and simply refuse to receive representatives of either of the two positions in the schism. “The brethren” to whom Diotrephes refuses hospitality may well have been representatives of the Elder and of the parent body which was trying to hold firm against the action of the separatists. Hence, the congregation represented by Gaius and Diotrephes, in the Elder’s view, stands a chance of drifting away from the position of the parent body. The letter is written to try to protect such further disintegration of the total community.

But in trying to prevent the alienation of this segment of the community the author clashes with the authority of one of the leaders of the congregation in question.6

Gary Derickson may be too eager in linking the setting of 3 John to the setting of 1 and 2 John. He states:

The background of this epistle is basically the same as John’s first two epistles, though the nature of problems faced in that local church are made clearer from the things said to Gaius. The church had developed a practice of sending out itinerant representatives, possibly as messengers of the apostles or other church leaders. This is much like Titus’ ministry as Paul’s representative to the Corinthians (2 Cor 2:12–13; 7:6–15; and 8:6) and to the churches of Crete (Titus 1:5). These itinerate preachers would spend a period of time in a local church. They would know and teach apostolic doctrines while there, with those benefiting from their instruction, in turn, supporting them. Then, when the church’s instruction was complete, they would move on to the next church, being helped along by their church wherein they had just completed their ministry. These men would not only be supported by the churches to which they ministered, but also looked for hospitality and assistance from churches in the towns and villages through which they passed in route to their next ministry destination. This practice is reflected in Titus 3:13 with Paul’s command to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their travels. It is also described somewhat in the Didache. For example, one set of instructions says,

> Everyone “who comes in the name of the Lord” is to be welcomed. But then examine him, and you will find out–for you will have insight–what is true and what is false. (2) If the one who comes is merely passing through, assist him as much as you can. But he must not stay with you for more than two or, if necessary, three days. (3) However, if he wishes to settle among you and is a craftsman, let him work for his living. (4) But if he is not a craftsman, decide according to your own judgment how he shall live among you as a Christian, yet without being idle. (5) But if he does not wish to cooperate in this way, then he is trading on Christ. Beware of such people. (12.1-5)

Some men, in this case one named Diotrephes, were attempting to assert their leadership over and against that of the apostles. This was Paul’s experience with leaders in the church at Corinth. In the case of Gaius’ church, Diotrephes had begun to assert his influence and drive out legitimate representatives of the apostles in order to maintain his personal control, and so had to be corrected.7

Donald Guthrie sees the situation as follows:

John has apparently sent out some itinerant representatives, who have returned and reported to him their experiences (verse 3). They speak highly of Gaius who entertained the strangers (verses 3, 5), who were probably acting for the apostle because, due to old age, he was no longer able to move among his churches. But one man, Diotrephes, has not been prepared to receive these brethren and has even banned the members of his church who were prepared to do so. In addition Diotrephes had been making none too complimentary remarks about the apostle himself (‘gossiping maliciously about us’, verse 10). From the manner in which Diotrephes has exerted authority, it is reasonable to suppose that he occupied the position of leader of this church, although he may even have assumed this position himself. At least, he did not acknowledge John’s authority (verse 9), and there appears to exist something of a personal feud between them.

Thus the apostle writes to Gaius to acquaint him with the present position. There are various possibilities here. If Gaius belongs to the same church, it would seem that the apostle wrote two letters: one to the church, which he feels certain will not be received because of Diotrephes’ personal antipathy towards him, and the other to the only faithful member of the same church whose loyalty he could trust. But it is possible that Gaius belonged to a neighbouring church and was being forewarned about the high-handed activity of Diotrephes. A third possibility is that Gaius and Diotrephes are heads of different house groups which belonged to the same church, and yet a modification of this is the idea that Gaius is not head of a church group but is a wealthy individual Christian. The first suggestion on the whole seems preferable.

If we assume the correctness of this interpretation of the occasion, the writer must be commending Gaius for his stand against Diotrephes and assuring him that he will deal with him as soon as he visits the church. But the position of Demetrius must also be taken into account. John holds him in great regard (verse 12) and appears to be commending him to Gaius. The epistle, therefore, partakes of the character of a letter of commendation for Demetrius. Some have supposed him to have been a member, if not even the leader, of the band of itinerant missionaries. But this seems ruled out because Gaius has already received these and so would not need the apostle’s commendation-unless, of course, even Gaius had not sufficiently respected him, which seems quite out of character with what we know of him from the opening portion of the epistle. The most natural assumption is that Demetrius has no connection with John’s representatives whom Diotrephes has already rejected, but that because of his commission from John it is anticipated that Diotrephes will treat him similarly. John therefore commends him to Gaius’ private hospitality rather than to the church. He was in all probability the bearer of the letter.8

Gary Derickson argues we should not view 3 John as indicating the existence of the monarchical bishopric.

Does this indicate a beginning of the monarchical bishopric that developed in the early church? Grayston says no. He argues that this could not have been “a successful bishops’ revolt” because (1) the Gospel was written after the epistles (his view) and evidences no interest in the issue of monarchical bishopric, (2) the inclusion of 2 John and 3 John in the cannon indicates that the elder was successful against Diotrephes. “Therefore either Diotrephes was not a prototype monarchical bishop, or the experiment failed” (Grayston, 62). Painter (363) notes that “Diotrephes was not a bishop excommunicating anyone, but a person who could refuse hospitality to those he did not wish to receive into his own household.” Edwards (25) is in agreement and says, “The dispute, then, seems to be about church hospitality rather than doctrine or authority. We are dealing with a pastoral and moral, rather than ecclesiastical, issue.” It seems the best answer to this question is that we cannot know what the issues were other than what is contained in the epistle. Moreover, the failure of John to identify theological issues of any kind points to a personality issue over against false teachings of any kind.9

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. Stott 2014, 48 
  2. Stott 2014, 50 
  3. Kysar 1992, 3.906 
  4. Yarbrough 2008, Kindle Locations 900-911 
  5. Derickson 2012, 646 
  6. Kysar 1992, 3.906 
  7. Derickson 2012, 647–648 
  8. Guthrie 1996, 892–894 
  9. Derickson 2012, 648–649 
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