In this essay we begin a new series of studies on the letters of John by looking at several introductory matters. Although I already have referred to these writings as letters, or epistles, there is considerable doubt about whether or not 1 John is actually a letter. We shall come back to that question in a moment; but 2 and 3 John certainly are personal letters. Each of them is the appropriate length to be written on a standard-sized piece of papyrus paper, and each is written in a fairly typical Christian Hellenistic letterform.
Returning to the question about the form of 1 John, we see that it does not have letterform. There is no salutation of any kind, which should make one immediately ask if this is really a letter. On the other hand the document is short enough to be a letter. And it has a very personal quality that typically is found in letters.
It is possible that 1 John was a written sermon or tract, rather than a letter. The apostle could have written it for the various congregations under his care much in the same way that a loving pastor might preach a personal sermon to his or her congregation. Or John could have written the document as a teaching tract. Whatever the actual case, we shall follow the tradition of calling 1 John a letter.
Now then, let’s look at the relationship of the three epistles to one another. There is very strong agreement among Johannine scholars that all three were written by the same author. They have enough similarity of style, vocabulary and thought patterns to convince nearly all New Testament scholars that this is true.
There is much less unanimity, particularly in liberal circles, concerning the relationship of the Johannine epistles to John’s Gospel. We shall not rehearse the arguments pro and con at this point. But when one does study the matter carefully, one discovers that the traditional view that the same author wrote the Gospel and epistles is a very strong one. And most scholars take that position. We shall discuss the question of who that author was in a few moments.
The author of the Revelation also is named John; and so there has been a long-standing tradition that the author of the Gospel and Epistles also wrote the Revelation. If that is true, then one person wrote all five books: the three letters, the Gospel, and the Revelation.
The possibility that the Revelation was written by the same author as the Gospel and Epistles never has been disproven. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the arguments against the view that the Revelation was written by the same author as the letters and Gospel are strong.
For one thing, the Greek of the Gospel and Epistles is quite different from, and better than, the Greek of the Revelation. In my opinion, if the same author wrote all five books, the only possible satisfactory explanation in respect to the differences in the Greek is that the author wrote the Revelation himself; and then he used a secretary, called an amanuensis by scholars, for the Gospel and Epistles. This is not impossible, though it seems unlikely to me in view of all other considerations.
Turning now specifically to the question of authorship of the epistles, in none of them is the author actually named. In the salutations of 2 and 3 John he identifies himself as “the elder,” but that does not tell us who he was.
The word “elder” originally meant simply an old man. The term eventually came to be used for a person who exercised leadership in a particular community. This was true in Jewish communities, and it became true for Christian communities as well. Thus one possible interpretation for “the elder” is simply an elderly person who was held in high regard, because of leadership in the community.
A second possibility is that he held the local church office of elder. You will recall that Silas and Paul, during their first missionary journey, appointed elders in the churches they founded (Acts 14:23). So elder was a local church office. However it is unlikely that the use of elder in 2 and 3 John was as a local church officer, because the elder of 2 and 3 John exercises an authority that goes far beyond that of a local church elder. And a local church elder had authority only in his local church.
The most likely possibility is that the elder held a position of authority and oversight over a group of churches. Some have suggested that this means the author was a Bishop. However that could not have been the case, because the office of Bishop developed later in the history of the Church. Rather, this elder held an office already in existence, which had that kind of authority. Of course the only office in existence at that time, which held that kind of authority, was the office of apostle.
This whole issue is complicated by what some early Church fathers, especially one named Papias, had to say; but we are not going into all of that. Let me just summarize by saying that there is strong external evidence (information coming from church fathers) for authorship of the epistles (especially I John) by John of Zebedee. John of Zebedee was, of course, one of Jesus’ original twelve apostles. In addition there is solid internal evidence (information coming from the documents themselves) to support this view, the most noteworthy being the author’s claim to be an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus (I John 1:1-4). Therefore I conclude that the author of the three letters was John of Zebedee.
Turning now to the questions of destination and date, we find little that is certain. First, in relation to the question of destination, some evidence points to Asia Minor as the place where John wrote the Gospel. And because of the apparent close relationship between the Gospel and Epistles, it is quite possible that the letters were written to Christians in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). But we cannot be certain.
The matter of dating is even more obscure. Because of the many similarities of ideas and language between the Epistles and the Gospel, they usually are dated near the end of the first century, which is the traditional date for the Gospel.
All right, let’s begin our study of 1 John. The first four verses are what I would call an introductory statement. In this introductory statement John speaks about three matters: his message, which is Jesus Christ, his credentials as an eyewitness, and his purpose in writing.
First, notice John’s message. Intriguingly, John speaks quite vaguely at the beginning. Christian insiders know that he is speaking about Jesus from the outset. But a non-Christian reading the book for the first time would not know that. This is characteristic of John’s style, as we will see.
Jesus is the subject of John’s letter. But instead of identifying Jesus as the subject, John speaks of “what was from the beginning.” And at the end of the first verse, he identifies that person or thing as “the word of life.”
Then in verse 2 he tells us that this “word of life” “was revealed to us.” The NIV translates, “appeared to us.” And it was revealed in such a way that one could hear it, see it, and touch it.
For those of us who know John’s Gospel, this technique is familiar, because he used this same indirect approach there. I suggest you turn to John, chapter 1, and take a quick look at it.
In the very first line, John begins talking not about Jesus, but about the “Word.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And then in verse four, John says of that Word: “In him was life.” That is exactly the same idea we saw in I John, the “word of life.”
As John continues in the first chapter of his Gospel, in verse 14, he explains how the Word of Life became manifest in the flesh. Again we see the similarity. Something in existence from the beginning (in this case the “Word” of God, identified in verse 14 as the “Son” of God) is manifested in the flesh, which means in a way that can be seen, touched and heard. And finally in verse 17 John identifies that Word become flesh as Jesus.
Returning now to 1 John, chapter 1, Jesus again is the subject, though unnamed until verse four. That which “was from the beginning,” “the word of life,” was manifested in such a way that it became visible to the eye, audible to the ear, and touchable with the hand. That was Jesus who finally is named near the end. Thus we see the apostle’s message.
We see here, second, John’s credentials as an eyewitness. John personally heard Jesus; he saw him, looked upon him, and touched him. Therefore he wrote not from hearsay, but from personal experience. He himself was an eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus.
And then, third, comes the apostle’s purpose. Notice that his purpose is two-fold. John is sharing the “good news” about Jesus so that first there will be fellowship between the readers and John, and thereby between the readers and God; and second, so that our joy may be complete. What could be greater than that? On the one hand, fellowship with God and fellow-Christians; and on the other hand, complete, full joy. Praise the Lord!