The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©


The author.

Who was the writer of these letters? Was he John the apostle? Was he John the elder? Are these two the same person? Did the same person write all three letters and the Gospel as well? The following are some of the main things to be taken into account in trying to answer these questions:

a. There are many similarities between the Gospel and the Epistles, in the words used and in the way in which the great central truths of Christianity are expressed. At the same time there are differences of style and of emphasis, between the Gospel and the Epistles. The Gospel refers to the Old Testament a great deal, the Epistles refer to it little. It has been said by some that there are differences in the way that Jesus Christ and His work are spoken of in the Gospel, and the Epistles. Some are satisfied that the differences of purpose of Gospel and Epistle can well account for the differences that we find in the different writings. Others think that there must have been different writers, though they must have come from a similar background so that they expressed their Christian faith in similar ways, and in similar words.

b. We recognized the similarities between 1 John on the one hand and 2 and 3 John on the other. But the writer of 2 and 3 John calls himself 'the elder'. Would the apostle John have spoken of himself like this? We may answer this partly by saying that in 1 Peter 5:1 the apostle Peter is called 'a fellow elder'. However, the 2nd Century writer, Papias, speaks of an 'elder John' whom many people have thought to have been a different person from the apostle John. Some think that he was the writer of the Epistles and perhaps the Gospel, too - or, others would say either the Gospel or the Epistles.

c. From the opening words of 1 John it seems that the writer was with Jesus Himself in the days of his earthly ministry: 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands...' Some have suggested that this might be intended to mean only that there were Christians who had heard and seen and touched the Lord. It is much more natural to take it that the writer himself was a person who had been with the Master, when He lived on earth. (See notes on 1:1-4.) There is a great sense of authority behind this writing. There is the constant 'we know' that we could well understand as the certainty and the authority of an apostle.

d. 1 John was used extensively in the writings of the early Church and from the end of the 2nd Century down to recent times it was accepted without question as being the work of the apostle John. In contrast, for example, with the book of Revelation, no other view of the authorship of 1 John was suggested in the early centuries of the Church's life.

First readers of 1 John.

Although there was clearly a special body of people in mind when 1 John was written, the letter nowhere tells us exactly who they were and where they lived. In early Christian writings there was a strong tradition that linked the apostle John with Ephesus and there are some good reasons for thinking that it was for Christians in that area that 1 John was written. Similarly there are good reasons for thinking that 'the elect lady and her children' of 2 John and 'Gaius' of 3 John were in that same area.

Time of writing of the Epistles.

Here again we cannot give a definite answer to the question that we would like to ask. When were these letters written? We have seen reason to link 1 John closely with John's Gospel, especially because of the way that the purposes of the two writings are expressed (in John 20:31 and in 1 John 5:13). If this is right, we still may ask, which came first, the Gospel or the Epistle? Some think that the two were written almost at the same time. Some feel that the Epistle came first and that the Gospel, with its wonderful depth of presentation of the meaning of the life and ministry death and resurrection of Jesus, came later. Others take the view that the Gospel was written first, and then its great truths about the person of Christ were applied to meet the particular difficulties that had to be answered by the writing of the Epistle. As far as actual dates are concerned, some would put 1 John (and similarly the other two little letters) as early as the period 60 to 70 B.C. Many think that they may have been written as much as 20-30 years later. It does not matter very much. The one thing that matters (if our understanding of 1:1- 4 is right) is that 1 John was written while there were those still alive who had seen and heard and touched the person of the Son of God in the days when He shared our human life on earth.