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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
John, Letters of
Towards the end of the first century, the churches in and around Ephesus suffered much tension and conflict because of false teaching (e.g. Revelation 2:2-6; cf. Acts 20:17; Acts 20:29-30). Early records indicate that the apostle John lived in Ephesus at this time, and that he wrote his Gospel and three letters partly to counter some of the false views.
Background to 1 John
The chief trouble-maker in Ephesus was a man named Cerinthus. He had been influenced by Gnostic ideas concerning the relation between spirit and matter, and as a result developed wrong beliefs concerning Jesus Christ. Believing God to be pure and matter to be evil, he denied that Jesus Christ could be heavenly and earthly at the same time. This led to a variety of wrong teachings. Some of these denied the full deity of Jesus, and others denied his true humanity (1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:2-3).
Many Christians became uncertain of their salvation; for if the Jesus who lived and died in this world was not at all times fully divine and fully human, how could his death benefit people or satisfy God? To reassure Christians in their understanding of Jesus and the salvation he brought them, John wrote firstly his Gospel (John 20:31), and then the letter known as 1 John (1 John 5:13).
Gnostic ideas concerning spirit and matter, besides leading to wrong teaching about Jesus, led to wrong behaviour among believers. Cerinthus taught that the behaviour of the body could not affect the purity of the soul, and therefore believers could sin as they wished. John condemned such teaching (1 John 3:6). He emphasized that Christians must be obedient to God, must love others and must be disciplined within themselves.
Contents of 1 John
From the beginning of his letter, John emphasizes the two areas of Christian truth that were under attack – the eternal godhead yet full manhood of Jesus Christ (1:1-4) and the obligation on Christians to live pure, disciplined, obedient lives (1:5-2:6). All Christians are to follow Christ’s commandment to be loving, and are to resist the pressures upon them from an evil world (2:7-17).
God’s people must recognize that those with wrong teaching about Jesus Christ are of the devil (2:18-29), and so too are those who encourage Christians to sin (3:1-10). Behaviour is the test of the genuineness of a person’s Christianity (3:11-24). Though steadfastly resisting error (4:1-6), Christians must consistently develop love, and in so doing they will become more assured in their salvation (4:7-21). Right belief is also necessary for assurance (5:1-5), and this belief centres on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his work (5:6-12). The practical results of assurance will be effectual prayer and victory over sin (5:13-21).
Background and contents of 2 John
The false teaching that John fought against in his first letter was being spread around the churches by travelling preachers. The letter that we know as 2 John was written to counter such teaching.
No names are mentioned in the letter, but it seems that ‘the elder’ who wrote it was John the aged apostle, and ‘the elect lady’ who received it was a church whose ‘children’ (members) had so far kept the true Christian teaching (v. 1-4). John wanted them to maintain right belief and right behaviour, and warned that false teaching, if allowed into the church, would ruin it (v. 5-13).
Background and contents of 3 John
In spite of his warnings about travelling preachers who had wrong teaching (2 John 1:10-11), John knew that many other travelling preachers were genuine Christians whose teaching was true and wholesome. But there was a problem in one church because a dictatorial person named Diotrephes refused to accept the travelling preachers into the church. He considered them representatives of John, whom he opposed.
John therefore wrote a letter (3 John) to one of the better leaders in the church, a friend named Gaius, to encourage and help him. In the letter John encouraged Gaius to keep helping the true preachers of the gospel (v. 1-8). He assured Gaius that if Diotrephes persisted in his present attitudes, then he himself would deal with him when he visited the church in the near future (v. 9-15).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'John, Letters of'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/j/john-letters-of.html. 2004.