“You must be a Strauss!” I’ve heard that said many times in my life. What usually follows is, “You look like your…” (father, mother, brother). You may have heard something similar, because families often resemble one another.
The letters of John are about family resemblance. False teachers had arisen in John’s churches, provoking doubts among some in the church. John seeks to dispel those doubts, pointing out that you can tell who the true people of God are because they resemble their heavenly Father. They love God and love one another; they hold to the true teaching of Jesus and the apostles; and they keep God’s commandments.The false teachers, by contrast, shared none of these family traits. Instead, they resembled their father the devil; they hated God’s people, rejected the truth, and disobeyed God’s commands. It’s these family resemblances, John says, that separate the lies of the false teachers from the true people of God: “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister” (1 John 3:10).
Who Was John? These letters have traditionally been ascribed to John the apostle, the disciple of Jesus. He was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee (and Salome), a prosperous fisherman in Galilee (Mark 1:19–20). Jesus nicknamed James and John “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), which may have been because of their fiery personalities (see Mark 10:35–39; Luke 9:49, 54). James and John, together with Peter, were part of the “inner circle” of disciples, who experienced such events as the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:37) and the transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:2).
John is also identified as the enigmatic figure referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 20:2; 21:7, 20), whose eyewitness testimony stands behind the Fourth Gospel (John 21:24). Church tradition tells us John spent his later years in and around Ephesus in Asia Minor and from there he wrote the Gospel and the three letters that bear his name. John was exiled at some point by the Emperor Domitian to the Island of Patmos, and from there he experienced the visions recorded in the book of Revelation.
The Occasion and Purpose of 1 John. At some point John became aware that false teachers were influencing the churches he oversaw, causing some believers to doubt their faith. The situation is described in 1 John 2:18-23:
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come… They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
It’s clear from these verses that these false teachers had once been part of the church but had now left and were teaching false doctrines. From the letter we can piece together some of their beliefs:
Since these secessionists had evidently once been leaders in the church, some of the remaining church members were confused and wondering about their own salvation. John views the situation as critical, and fires back, even calling these opponents “antichrists” (2:18). He responds in two ways: (1) Positively, he assures the church members of the authenticity of their faith. (2) Negatively, he refutes the false claims of the heretics.
The Tests of Faith. Throughout the letter John gives three key tests or evidences of authentic faith. They are:
1) Love for fellow believers: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other” (3:14). “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness” (2:9; cf. 2:10–12; 3:10–18; 4:7–5:3).
2) Obedience to God’s commands: “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him, but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.” (2:3–4; cf. 1:5–2:6; 2:29; –3:10; 3:22–24; 5:4–21)
3) Belief that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God” (4:15). “Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son” (2:22; cf. 2:18–28; 3:23–4:6; 4:14, 15; 5:1, 5)
While these are the external evidences of faith. Ultimately, we know we are in the truth because of the confirmation by the Holy Spirit. 1 John 2:20 reads, “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.” What is this anointing? The next chapter makes this clear: “And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us” (3:24).
Second and Third John are the two shortest letters in the New Testament. Second John is addressed to the “lady chosen by God and her children,” which is probably a symbolic way of referring to a church and its members. At the end the author sends greetings from “the children of your sister, who is chosen by God.” This likely refers to the members (“children”) of John’s church, the “sister” of the church he is writing to.
The central theme of this short letter is to call the readers to stay faithful to the message of salvation that was passed down from Jesus and the apostles. As in 1 John, the author encourages them to love one another and to obey his commandments.
He also warns them not to support itinerant teachers who do not hold to the truth. Evidently, some of the church members were supporting teaches who were spreading false doctrine and stirring up dissension in the church. As in 1 John, he refers to these false teachers as “antichrists” (2 John 7) because they deny the true person and work of Christ.
Third John deals with the issue of hospitality for traveling teachers, an issue touched on in 2 John 7–11. As they traveled from place to place, early Christian missionaries depended on the hospitality of Christians. When they entered a city, town or village, they would seek out Christians to stay with. Hospitality was (and is) a very high value in the Middle East, so it was normal and expected to welcome guests into your home. As far as the advance of the gospel was concerned, it was an essential ministry. While 2 John 7–11 warns against giving hospitality to false teachers, 3 John encourages hospitality for authentic preachers and evangelists.
The letter is written to a church leader named Gaius (v. 1), who evidently leads a house church. John writes to encourage and affirm Gaius for providing hospitality to traveling missionaries (vv. 5–8). He also criticizes and condemns a certain man named Diotrephes for his abuse and failure to provide such hospitality (vv. 9–10). Outside of this letter, we don’t know anything about Diotrephes, but he was likely an overbearing and controlling leader in one of the churches of Asia minor, who was abusive towards these itinerant teachers. John also commends to Gaius a man named Demetrius, who is likely the one carrying the letter (v. 12).
Like all the New Testament letters, the General Epistles are occasional, written to specific people to address specific issues, questions and needs. Their occasional nature means not every command or injunction is given directly to us.It’s not necessarily mandatory, for example, to “greet one another with a kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14), to forbid the wearing of gold jewelry (1 Pet. 3:30), or to anoint the sick with oil (James 5:14).
Yet as the Word of God, these letters provide timeless wisdom for believers of every generation. They reveal God’s will and purpose in the world and the heart and soul of the Christian message. They provide wise guidance for living lives of joy, peace, and righteousness. They teach us to face trials with joyful contentment and to persevere and grow through difficult circumstances to spiritual maturity. They teach us to discern truth from error and provide us with the strength and courage through the Holy Spirit to stand firm on the truth. May the Lord richly bless you as you open your heart and mind to God’s inspired Word!