15 October 2008

Introducing the Johannine Letters

The Basilica of Saint John on the hill of Ayasoluk, overlooking Ephesus and the site of the Temple of Artemis. Saint John is said to have lived here after his exile on Patmos ended, and tradition says it was here that he wrote his Gospel and Epistles. (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford


In our Bible studies in our tutorial group this year we are looking first at the Johannine Epistles and then at the Book of Revelation.

I have shared with many of you how my first adult experience of God pouring out his love into my life was at the age of 19 happened for me when I walked into the church attached to Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield. It was an experience of being filled with the Light and the Love of God, and so the Johannine writings have had a special meaning for me ever since: “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all … if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another” (I John 1: 5, 7).

In recent years I have been privileged too to visit Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written, to pay a number of visits to Ephesus, which appears to have been the centre of the Johannine Community addressed in the Johannine Letters, where John is said to have moved after his exile on Patmos ended and where he is said to be buried, and to have visited many of the places associated with the Seven Churches of Revelation.

The grave of Saint John in the Basilica of Saint John on the hill of Ayasoluk, overlooking Ephesus and the site of the Temple of Artemis (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

These are short Epistles, but it is surprising how familiar they are to so many parishioners in the Church of Ireland. Think of how familiar they are with those words from I John 1: 8-9 used as sentences to introduce Morning Prayer I and Evening Prayer I:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (The Book of Common Prayer, 2004, The Church of Ireland, p. 84).

Or these words from I John 2: 1, 2 after the absolution in Holy Communion 1:

“Hear also what Saint John saith, If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation of our sins” (The Book of Common Prayer, 2004, The Church of Ireland, p. 186).

For the first few weeks we will look at the Johannine Letters, and then we will look at the Book of revelation, which is one of the more difficult yet one of the most intriguing and fascinating books in the New Testament.

The ‘Catholic Epistles’ or ‘General Letters’

The last seven letters of the New Testament, as well as the brief letter cited in Acts 15, are usually called the “General Letters” or “Catholic Epistles” – not because they were written to or by the Roman Catholic Church, but because the word “catholic” means “universal.”

Alone among the ‘catholic epistles’, II John and III John are addressed to a specific individual or community, but the others are addressed to a more “general” readership. Unlike Paul’s letters, these epistles are not named after the recipients or recipients of the letters but after the apostle who wrote them, or to whom they are attributed, since the authorship of some is disputed today.

The Johannine Letters

The three Johannine Letters reflect a common community setting that is quite different from that implied by the Gospel according to Saint John.

In Saint John’s Gospel, the Johannine community is a minority that has been excluded from the Jewish synagogue and still faces hostility from people with ties to the synagogue (see John 9: 22; 12: 42-43; 16: 1-4a).

When we come to Epistles, we find a community that has been divided in its interpretation of the thoughts and concepts found in the Fourth Gospel.

Raymond Brown argues strongly that the Johannine community was centred on Ephesus, south of Smyrna in Asia Minor.

While the Fourth Gospel is concerned with the relationship between Christian faith and Jewish tradition, I John is now concerned with the proper testimony about Jesus embodied in the Christian tradition itself (see I John 1: 1-4).

The author does not oppose Jewish claims to interpret the tradition of Moses, as Saint John’s Gospel does, but opposes the teaching of former members of the Johannine community who have broken away (I John 2: 19; I John 4: 1; II John 7). The emphasis of this Epistle is on the physical reality of the coming in the flesh of Jesus (I John 1: 1-3; 4: 2).

A division has arisen within the community, and both the author of the Epistles and the secessionist leaders he is challenging appeal to a common Johannine tradition. The “elder” or presbyter who writes the letters knows that people could easily be misled by false teachers. The dissident teachers apparently emphasise the Divine Jesus of the Gospel but deny the significance of Jesus’ human reality and death on the cross as sacrifice for sin (1: 7; 2: 2; 3: 16; 4: 10; 5: 6).

The author of the three epistles challenges the dissidents’ claims to sinlessness by insisting that this a gift that we receive from God through Christ (I John 2: 1-2).The Holy Spirit, which members of the community have received, will confirm that the writer’s teaching reflects the true Gospel (2: 20, 27; 4: 13).

Those who have violated the fundamental commandments of the Johannine tradition, the mutual love between Christians (John 13: 35; 15: 12), are not sinless (I John 2: 3-9; 3: 22-23; 4: 21; 5: 2-3). Their apostasy and false teaching is a deadly sin, idolatry, which separates them from the communal prayer for forgiveness (5: 15-17, 21) and makes them agents of the demonic attack on the faithful, which apocalyptic traditions had prophesied for the end-time (2: 18, 22; 3: 4-5; 4: 1-5).

Claims to perfectionism, denial of the significance of Jesus’ coming in the flesh, rejection of the saving power of Jesus’ death, and schismatic preaching among established Christian communities are all features of second-century Gnostic teaching. Since I John does not provide evidence of the peculiar teaching of the secessionist opponents, one cannot identify them with any known gnostic group. The conflict may have arisen over the true meaning of the Johannine Gospel prior to the emergence of the well-defined gnostic groups.

As part of the canon of Scripture, I John rejects any gnosticising interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, and so assisted in the acceptance of the Fourth Gospel as part of canonical scripture.

How the Epistles relate to the Fourth Gospel

Initially, many in the Church resisted including the Fourth Gospel in the canon of Scripture, in reaction to its use by Gnostics and Docetists. However, the three Johannine Letters act as a corrective to the interpretations these groups placed on the Gospel, and so Saint John’s Gospel was eventually included in the canon.

The Fourth Gospel and three Johannine epistles have many similarities in their writing style and in their vocabulary.

However, there are some notable differences:

● The Prologue of I John does not emphasise the incarnation of the Word; instead, it emphasises the word (message) of life which was seen, heard and felt in the human career of Jesus.

● Features that are attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are attributed to God in I John. For example, God is light (1: 5; c.f. John 8: 12); Compared to John 13: 34, in I John 4: 21 and II John 4, it is God who gives the commandment to love one another

● The Epistles have a lower Christology than that of the Gospel.

● There is less emphasis in the Epistles on the Spirit as person. For example, the term Paraclete is used in the Gospel for the Spirit, but this is never the case in the Epistles. Instead, Christ is the Paraclete or Advocate in I John 2: 1. In addition, there is a warning in the Epistles that every spirit is not the Spirit of Truth or the Spirit of God, and so spirits must be tested (see I John 4: 1, 6).

● In the Fourth Gospel, we have a realised eschatology. And so, the final eschatology in I John is stronger, with more emphasis on the parousia as the moment of accountability for the Christian life (see I John 2: 28 – 3: 3).

● The parallels with the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially in the vocabulary, are closer in I John than in the Fourth Gospel.

Some of these differences give the Johannine epistles a feeling of being more primitive than the Fourth Gospel. However, these differences may also reflect the author’s claim to be presenting the Gospel as it was “from the beginning” (I John 1: 1; 3: 11). Some commentators argue that hese differences may suggest that the Gospel and the Epistles may not have had the same author.


Most scholars think that the three epistles were written after the Fourth Gospel. Raymond Brown places them in the decade after the body of the Gospel was written by the Evangelist (ca 90), but before the redaction of the Gospel, which may have been just after the year 100.

Brown says it is possible to distinguish at least four figures in the Johannine School who were responsible for the Fourth Gospel and the three epistles:

● The Beloved Disciple, who was the source of the tradition.

● The Evangelist.

● The Presbyter of the Epistles

● The Redactor of the Gospels.

I John


I John is the fourth of the “catholic” or “general” epistles. This epistle may have been written in Ephesus between AD 85 and 90. It is traditionally attributed to the same author or authors of the Gospel according to Saint John and the other two epistles of John, II John and III John.

But I John is not actually a letter or epistle in the traditional sense. Instead, it is a treatise or sermon written to counter heresies that taught that Jesus did not come “in the flesh,” but only as a spirit. It also defines how Christians are to discern true teachers: by their ethics, their proclamation of Jesus in the flesh, and by their love.


At times, I John appears to be repetitious and without a clear plan.

It is normally divided into three parts, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue, or five parts in all. But Raymond Brown prefers to divide it into the Prologue and two main parts, with each part set off by the statement “This is the message” or “the Gospel” (angelia, message):

1, The Prologue (I John 1: 1-4) comments on the hymn that is the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel (John 1: 1-18).

2, Part 1 (I John 1: 5 – 3: 10), in which the Gospel is defined as “God is Light” and which stresses the obligation to walk in the light.

3, Part 2 (I John 3: 11 – 5: 12), in which the Gospel is summarised as “We should love one another,” and in which Jesus in held up as the example of love for one’s brother and sister.


I John is traditionally held to have been written by Saint John the Evangelist (Saint John the Divine), and tradition also held that it was written in Ephesus, at a time when John was in advanced age.

The content, language and conceptual style indicate that I John, the two other letters attributed to Saint John (II John and III John), as well as the Fourth Gospel, had a common author.

I John is not written as a letter, but II John and III John are alike in letter format, especially in their Opening and Closing. In addition, I John and II John share many similarities in their content. These can be seen especially in II John 5-7, which emphasises the commandment to love one another (I John 2: 18-19), and condemns the deceivers (antichrist) who have gone out into the world (I John 2: 18-19).

So, although the writer of I John does not identify himself, most commentators and scholars think that the presbyter composed all three Johannine epistles.

While the writer of I John does not identify himself, II John and III John indicate that the writer is an elder or presbyter (II John 1; III John 1) with authority in the Johannine community. It is possible that II John and III John are the work of the same “presbyter” and that they may have been written about the same time.

Whether the author was the Apostle John himself, someone who wrote under his name and spoke for him, or whether a body of authors contributed to the writing of all four Johannine texts could be debated.

However, the three Epistles and the Gospel of John are so closely allied in diction, style, and general outlook that it is difficult to deny their common authorship, although some modern scholars argue that the common author or authors did not include John himself.

By the end of the 2nd century, I John was thought by some to have been written by the author of the Fourth Gospel, while II John and III John were thought to have been written by another member of the Johannine circle. For example, Eusebius (History 3.39.4) makes a distinction between John the Disciple and John the Elder.

The recipients

Travelling emissaries from this elder or presbyter apparently maintained contact with a number of Christian communities in the same region (III John 10). This network of churches provides the context for the claim that I John represents the tradition that has been passed on by the official witnesses (the “we” named in I John: 1-4).

I John is addressed to members of the Johannine community (“my little children”, 2: 1; “beloved,” 2: 7).


I John is not a letter or epistle, but an exhortation interpreting the main themes of the Fourth Gospel in the light of secessionist propaganda which was attracting a number of followers away from the Johannine community.

The author wrote the Epistle so that the joy of his audience would “be complete” (1: 4), that they would “may not sin” (2: 1), and that those “who believe in the name of the Son of God … may know that you have eternal life” (5: 13).

Both I John and II John are distinguished from the Fourth Gospel by their change of focus.

In the Fourth Gospel, the “Jews” are the principal adversaries. However, they are absent from the Johannine epistles. Instead the attention is on those deceivers who have seceded from the community (I John 2: 19; II John 7). By doing this, they have shown a lack of love for their former brothers and sisters.

The author points out a number of grounds on which he condemns them:

1, Faith: The secessionists deny that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (I John 2: 22-23), and negated the importance of Jesus by not confessing him as the Christ come in the flesh (4: 3). They appear to have taught that salvation comes solely from the entrance of the Son of God into the world, so that the historic life of Jesus Christ has no salvific importance. In particular, they have neglected the atoning, bloody death of Christ, which the author of the epistle emphasises (I John 1: 7; 2: 2; 4: 10; 5: 6).

2, Morals: They boast of being in communion with God and knowing God, but at the same time they are walking in darkness and not keeping the commandments (I John 6; 2: 4). And they claim not to have sinned (I John 1: 8, 10; 3: 4-6). Having denied the importance of what Jesus did in the flesh, they now seek to deny the importance of what they have done in the flesh since becoming children of God. We are told that the true children of God do not sin (3: 9-10; 5: 18) and keep the commandments, especially the commandments to love other Christians (I John 3: 11, 23; see also II John 5). The children of God must walk in purity and love, following the example of Jesus, God’s Son (I John 2: 6; 3: 3, 7; 4: 10-11).

3, Spirit: The secessionist leaders appear to have claimed that they were teachers and prophets who were led by the Spirit. But the author disclaims the need for teachers (I John 2: 27) and warns against false prophets (see I John 4: 1). The Spirit of Deceit leads the antichrists, while the Spirit of Truth leads the author and his followers (I John 4: 5-6).

Who was the author condemning? It appears that I John might have also been rebuking a proto-gnostic named Cerinthus, who was described by Irenaeus as an opponent of John and who denied the humanity of Christ. Others suggest that I John is condemning a group of Docetists who are also condemned by Ignatius of Antioch ca 110

The purpose of the author (1: 1-4) is to declare the Word of Life to those to whom he writes, in order that they might be united in fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. He shows that the means of union with God are: (1) on the part of Christ, his atoning work (1: 7; 2: 2; 3: 5; 4: 10, 14; 5: 11, 12) and his advocacy (2: 1); and (2), on the part of humanity, holiness (1: 6), obedience (2: 3), purity (3: 3), faith (3: 23; 4: 3; 5: 5), and love (2: 7, 8; 3: 14; 4: 7; 5: 1).

The Prologue, I John 1: 1-4

The Prologue to I John resembles a primitive sketch of the prologue to the Fourth Gospel.

It refers to the author or authors in the plural form, “we.” Is this merely a literary device? Is it a reference to the author and his followers as distinct from their opponents? It certainly implies that the Johannine authors and those gathered around him are the traditional bearers and interpreters of the Johannine School, preserving and developing the eye-witness testimony and tradition of the Beloved Disciple.

Verse 1: “We” … is this the author appropriating special authority? A literary device? An indication of more than one author? Or a way of saying that what the writer is teaching is the teaching of the whole church?

“From the beginning” … note how the opening, as with the opening of the Fourth Gospel, parallels the opening of the Bible itself, and the first verse of Genesis. “The beginning” refers to the start of Jesus’ ministry, where the witness of the Beloved Disciple played a key role.

“The Word of Life” … “The Word of Life” is Christ himself, who is the word and source of life (John 1: 14; 11: 25; 14: 6).

“Heard … seen … looked at” … the emphasis on the sensory perceptions emphasises the claim that Christ was a physical, incarnational reality and refutes the claims that he was not really human.

Verse 2: “Was made visible” … In the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel, it is the Word who was made flesh and whose glory we saw. In the Prologue to I John, it is the Life that was made known. In I John, the Word of Life means more than the message about the divine life. It means too the proclamation of the Divine Life made visible in and through Jesus.

Verse 3: The “word” is the angelia or “message” of I John 1: 5 and 3: 11, which enables the reader to take part in this life and so to have fellowship with living God. Fellowship as koinonia involving associating and sharing goods and life is a Pauline concept that does not occur in the Fourth Gospel. This fellowship is the root of Christian joy and an essential constituent of the Johannine community (“with us”).

Part 1: I John 1: 5 to 3: 10

I John 1: 5-7, Walking in the Light

Verse 5: “God is light … “ absolute holiness without taint of evil. The author portrays a world divided into darkness and light. God is the light of the just who walk in paths brightened by this light, while darkness is evil.

Verse 6: “Walking in darkness” … a reference to habitual and intentional evil behaviour or lifestyle. We cannot say we are walking in the light and behave as if we were walking in the dark.

Verse 7: Walking in the light life guarantees Christian fellowship involves acting in truth.

I John 1: 8 to 2: 2, Opposition to sin

8-9: One of the really loved set of verses in Anglican liturgy, this verse is regularly used before the call to confession in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. They were also used by the Council of Trent in its discussion of confession. Denial of sin is self-deception, while confession brings forgiveness.

10: To claim sinlessness is to make a liar of god. The greatest weapon against sin is not to deny it, but to recognise it and our need to be dependent on Christ.

2: 1: “That you may not sin … this is the ultimate goal of Christian living (see Romans 6: 11).

“Advocate” (paraclete) ... one who pleads the cause of another. But compare the application of paraclete or Advocate here to Christ and its use in the Fourth Gospel for the Holy Spirit.

Next week: I John 2: 3-11.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes used for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 15 October 2008.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing out some of the many differences between the three letters that are attributed to John and the fourth gospel.

You wrote: Some commentators argue that these differences may suggest that the Gospel and the Epistles may not have had the same author.

This is quite telling since, as you no doubt know, it is fairly common for teachers to boldly proclaim that the 'letters are so similar to the fourth gospel that this shows they had the same author. So, obviously, this is like the situation of opposite 'expert' opinions in a courtroom (i.e., where one says "sane" and the other says "not sane"), which leaves one in the position of choosing which opinion they will side with - but this is certainly not the best way to go about seeking the truth on Biblical matters.

As for the authorship, you referred to the 'Beloved Disciple', who is clearly claims to be the author of the fourth gospel (though no such claim is found in any of the three letters). We see that the author of our fourth gospel used terms like the "other disciple whom Jesus loved" to refer to himself in order to conceal his identity. So, in the first instance, what one should believe about this person is what this God inspired author told us about himself. The question therefore becomes, since the facts in the plain text of scripture can prove that "other disciple, whom Jesus loved" could not possibly have been John, then why do so many still cling to the unbiblical John tradition?

The Bible says what it says. So no matter how many men one can find parroting the ideas of men found in NON-Bible sources the facts in scripture prove that John was not the "other disciple whom Jesus loved" (the anonymous author of the fourth gospel). The John idea comes from NON-Bible sources and the hand-me-down ideas of men but scripture says otherwise. [PS, If one has to change the subject because they cannot cite scripture, then the point is made by the very need to dodge the light of scripture.]

The truth is there is not a single verse in scripture that would justify teaching that John was the unnamed "other disciple, whom Jesus loved" and yet most simply assume that this tradition cannot be wrong and then reinterpret scripture to fit this idea. The facts recorded in the plain text of scripture prove that WHOEVER this anonymous author was he certainly was not John -- because this would require the Bible to contradict itself.

One should believe what this author wrote. In the third to the last verse in his gospel this author reports that he was the subject of the first false teaching that circulated among the brethren. So why in the world would anyone think that men who lived a hundred years later couldn't possibly teach a wrong idea about this unnamed author? Before Jesus even left the planet we see the beginning of a false teaching about the one whom "Jesus loved" being spread! And those who teach the John error are doing likewise.