1902 Encyclopedia > Epistles of John

Epistles of John




EPISTLES OF JOHN. Of the three Epistles which are ascribed to the apostle John, the First is by far the most important, both from the space which it occupies in the canon and from the weightiness of its teaching,

FIRST EPISTLE.—Title.—Some exception has been taken to the title " epistle " as applied to this document, seeing that it bears the name neither of sender nor of recipient, and carries with it no definiteness of message to a special correspondent. But, though it may be admitted that with regard to its literary form it would more properly be described as a homily or discourse, the frequently recurring terms " I wrote," " I have written," imply that the message was written, not orally delivered.

Genuineness.—The external evidence for the genuineness of this epistle is weighty. Polycarp, a disciple of John, writes with evident reference to 1 John iv. 3 : iras yap os av jxrj o/xoAoyij 'Irjtrovv ~&.purrbv iv (TO.pKi iX-qXv&ivai avTiyjua-TOS io-riv (Ad Phil., vii.). Eusebius, writing of Papias (H. E., iii. 39), says : Kc^p^rou 8' 6 avros /xapTvplais airb rrjs Iwdvvov Trporepas e7rioToAf)s KCU ATTO TTJI Tlerpov o/uot'cos. The epistle was frequently cited by Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, as we learn both from the statement of Eusebius (H. E., v. 8) and from his extant work against heretics (Adv. Hxret, iii. 16, v. and viii.). The two epistles of St John mentioned in the canon of Muratori are probably the Second and Third, but the absence of reference to the First in that particular connexion implies its acknowledged canonicity ; moreover, the same canon contains a citation of 1 John i. 1, 4. The early fragment called the letter to Diognetus has unmistakable allusions to the Johannine epistles. The Peshito contains the epistle, and there is an undoubted reference to it in the letter from the churches of Vienne and Lyons. All those authorities belong to the first two centuries. In the succeeding centuries the volume of evidence grows. Eusebius reckons the epistle among the Homologoumena or writings of acknowledged authority, and the testimony of Tertullian, Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, and Cyprian, in addition to the evidence already adduced, indicates its reception in all the churches.

To those who accept the Fourth Gospel as John's, the strength of the internal evidence for the Johannine author-ship of the epistle lies in the similarity of words, of teaching, and of style between the two writings. This similarity is so marked that it requires no argumentative proof. It is a similarity not only of diction, or of parallel expressions and peculiarities of style, but one which is penetrated by the more subtle correspondence of under-currents of thought and of implied knowledge. See on this part of the subject Westcott, Introduction to the Gospel of St John, p. lxi. sq., in the Speaker's Commentary; and Davidson's Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, ii. 293 sq. On the other hand, the very closeness of the connexion between the epistles and the gospel has necessarily involved the former in the assaults of recent criticism upon the genuine-ness of the latter. Some critics, however, while admitting the similarity of style, contend that there are differences of doctrine between the gospel and epistle which preclude identity of authorship. The main points advanced in behalf of this statement are—the supposed differences in eschatological views, the application of the term " Para-clete " to the work of the Holy Spirit in the gospel and to the office of Christ alone in the epistle, the introduction into the epistle of such terms as lAaoyio's and ^¿07x0., which are not found in the gospel, and, lastly, the polemical and strongly anti-Docetic tone which is said to distinguish the epistle from the gospel. Such differences, however, are in part more apparent than real (they are certainly not contradictions), and in part may be naturally explained by the changed circumstances in which the two writings were composed and the different aims proposed in them. On this point see Westcott, p. Ixxxviii., and Reuss, Intro-duction, p. 358 sq.

Date.—The date of the epistle must remain in uncer-tainty; but it is generally viewed as later in composition than the gospel. " The phrases in the gospel," writes Professor Westcott, " have a definite historic connexion; they belong to circumstances which explain them. The phrases in the epistle are in part generalizations and in part interpretations of the earlier language in view of Christ's completed work, and of the experience of the Christian church." The same writer assigns on good grounds to the gospel as well as to the epistle a date subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem. In this view c^va-nr/ &pa, ch. ii. 18, must be understood of the approach of the second advent of Christ.

Occasion and Contents.—Mr Browning has in his Beath in the Besert caught the true occasion of the apostle's letter : it was written in view of the time when
" There is left on earth No one alive who knew (consider this),— Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands That which was from the first, the Word of Life; How will it be when none more saith ' I saw'? "





It is the testimony of the last surviving eyewitness of the Lord, far removed from the scenes and words which he attests, giving, in view of rising error,—Gnostic and Docetic, —the apostolic judgment on questions of the day, and founding the truth of Christian doctrine on a recognition of the historical Christ.

The subject and character of the epistle answer these conditions. The direct testimony to the real existence of Jesus Christ in the flesh, the declaration of spiritual tests (as in ch. i. 6, ii. 29, iii. 19, and in many other passages) which gives an introspective element to the epistle, and, lastly, the impressive re-delivery of familiar truths not freshly defined but exhibited in different mutual relations, are characteristic of an address given by an aged teacher to a generation of men who had not seen the Lord,'—from whom therefore objective proof had been withdrawn, and who in consequence would desire some clear testimony of the facts about Jesus, and some definite tests of communion with God and of the reality of their spiritual condition. It is an address to the instructed. Much therefore is taken for granted ; many elementary principles and truths of the Christian life are left unnoticed; and religious terms fre-quent in other parts of the New Testament are absent from this epistle. The apostle writes " because they have known Him that was from the beginning" (ii. 13), and his aim is a deepening of the spiritual life and a confirmation of faith.

After an introduction, giving his credentials as a witness and stating his aim, the apostle delivers his message to the church, " God is light" (i. 5). This thought is the subject of the epistle ; it is illustrated by the opposite of light—darkness, and by analogous pairs of opposites, in which the principal theme is exhibited in different aspects : these are—righteousness and sin, truth and falsehood, love and hate, God and the world, life and death. To those ideas, which are in truth varied expressions of one and the same idea, the apostle turns and returns, not repeating himself, but on each reiteration of the truth adding some fresh thought and deeper truth. Through these opposites runs another thought—judgment or deci-sion,—which is viewed not as a future but as an ever-present fact in the Christian life.

After the delivery of his message (ayyeXia) the apostle proceeds to set forth some effects of the " light,"—fellow-ship with one another, confession of sin, forgiveness of sin (i. 5-10). This suggests one aspect of the object of the " message," freedom from sin, the test of which, i.e., in other words, the test of knowing God, is observance of His commandments, which are summed up in love (dydVr/) (ii. 1-11). Here the apostle reminds his readers why he sends the message; it is because (oVt) they to whom it comes are Christians, whose sins have been forgiven, who have known Christ, who have conquered Satan; it comes to all,—to little children, to young men, to the aged (ii. 12-14). Therefore let them not love the world nor the things of the world (ii. 15-17). Hence the thought of the end of the world and the signs thereof. Of these one is the Antichrist. There are now many Antichrists even in the nominal church. But there is a test of the true Chris-tian,—to have the Father, the Son, the unction (xpioyxa) of the Holy Spirit, and the truth (ii. 18-28).

A new section begins with the thought of sonship of God. The test of sonship is doing righteousness because God is righteous. Sonship is a proof of the Father's love, and the condition of it is likeness to the Father (ii. 28-iii. 9). The connexion is then traced between righteousness and love (10-13), between love and life, and hate and death (14, 15). This suggests the range of love,—self-sacrifice even to death (16-18). Truth (suggested by reality of love) is shown to be tested by keeping the com-mandments, the first of which is love (19-23), the result is the indwelling of Christ which the Spirit testifies (24). The mention of the Spirit leads the apostle's thoughts once more, as in ch. ii. 18 sq., to the distinction between true spirits and false. The test is the same, the acknow-ledgment that Christ has come in the flesh (iv. 1-6). The thought of the true Christian as distinguished from the false again suggests mutual love, which springs from God's love to us manifested by the mission of Christ. Mutual love is a proof of the indwelling Christ (7-13). Here the apostle pauses to bear impressive witness to the mission of Christ and the love of God (14-16), and then resumes the subject of love. A result of perfect love is confidence in the day of judgment. But absence of brotherly love means want of love to God (17-21). For the test of brotherly love is love to God, which consists in keeping His commandments through the faith in Jesus Christ that overcomes the world (v. 1-5). Jesus Christ then is the object of faith. Faith brings its own evidence, and its evidence is that God gave eternal life (6-12). To effect the knowledge of this (the possession of eternal life), and the belief in the Son of God, were the apostle's objects in writing. Such knowledge and belief bring assurance, from which results certainty of answer to prayer. The instance given is intercessory prayer (13-17). In con-clusion the apostle recapitulates some of the leading truths dwelt upon in the epistle.
From this brief summary it will be seen that the sections are sometimes linked together by a manifest chain of reasoning, and that sometimes the concluding word in one paragraph suggests the fresh train of thought in the next. Some expositors detect a more logical sequence in the epistle. But the varying results of their expositions go to prove the improbability that the apostle had in view any such sys-tematic arrangement. See, however, Diisterdieck, whose scheme is mainly followed by Alford, and Davidson, Intro-duction to the Study of the New Testament.

Where Written and to Whom Addressed.-—The epistle was probably written at Ephesus, where the most ancient tradition places the closing scenes of St John's life, and addressed to the church of Ephesus, or as an encyclical letter to the churches of Asia. In some Latin MSS., however, and in St Augustine's Quxst. Evang., ii. 39, the address ad Parthos is found. Bede adds testimony to the same effect. But such a destination of the epistle is unlikely in itself, receives no support from the Greek Church, and is opposed to ecclesiastical tradition. Hence the best criticism rejects the superscription. It is variously accounted for. Whiston, in his Commentary on the Epistles (1719), suggests that the original address was irpb<; irap-6évov<¡, and that this abbreviated appeared in Latin as ad Parthos; according to others it is a corruption of ad Sparsos, "to the dispersed."

Before textual criticism was studied scientifically, much controversy turned upon the words contained in vers. 7 and 8 of ch. v. The disputed passage, iv T<3 ovpavw . . . iv rtj yfj, is now omitted by all the leading editors, on indis-putable authority.

SECOND AND THIRD EPISTLES.—These are interesting as the only examples of apostolic letters to private persons, except the epistle to Philemon, which have descended to as. Their genuineness is well attested, though with less decisive evidence than that of the First Epistle. Irenaeus quotes 2 John 10, 11. Clement of Alexandria (Strom., ii. 66) alludes to the First Epistle in a way which implies another, iv rfj ¡LÚtpvi i-n-LoroX-rj. Dionysius of Alexandria (248 A.D.) makes express mention of the Second and Third Epistles ; Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, cites a passage from the Second. The Muratorian canon, as already stated, probably contains a reference to the two minor epistles.





On the other hand, Eusebius mentions those epistles among the á.vTi\eyóp,eva,or disputed writings (H. .E'.jiii. 25); Jerome writes that they were ascribed to John the Presbyter; Cyprian appears never to cite from them in his own writings (though he records words of Bishop Aurelius, who, speaking in a synod, quotes 2 John 9); Tertullian is equally silent; the Peshito does not contain either epistle.

In answer to the doubts thus raised it has been urged that the brevity and unimportance of the two minor epistles sufficiently account for the comparative silence of the first two centuries respecting them; that the existence of John the Presbyter rests on the slender authority of an inference from a statement by Papias (Eus., H. E., iii. 39); that the style and expressions in the disputed epistles are so manifestly Johannine that, if they did not proceed from John the apostle, they must be the work of a conscious imitator, who, if honest, would have used his own name, if an intentional deceiver, that of the apostle; that the term ó Trpeo-BvTepo's (" the elder," or " the aged "), 2 John 1, 3 John 1, is either a title of dignity or descriptive of age (if the first it may be paralleled by the use of o-t7¿7rpccr/3v/j-epos, 1 Pet. v. 1; if the second, by that of _n-pí.<jBvTr¡<¡, Phil. 9, both applied by an apostle to himself).

The greeting in the Second Epistle ¿KACKTÍJ Kvpía is variously interpreted—either (a) of a person (to the elect lady, to the elect Kyria, or to the lady Eclecta), or (b) of a church mystically addressed under a personal appellation. The last hypothesis is unlikely, and is not supported either by New Testament usage or by the earlyapocryphal writings. If either IreXeKTr/ or Kvpía be a proper name, it is better to regard Kvpía as such, since ¿KACKT-ÓS is a term applied to all the saints, and in this very letter to the lady's sister, ver. 13. On the whole it is more probable that both ¿KAERTT) and Kvpía bear their ordinary meanings, and that the A. V. is correct.

The Third Epistle is addressed to Gaius or Caius, a name so common that all identifications must be regarded as purely conjectural. From the epistle we learn that he was a Christian of good report, probably a layman, whom the apostle commends for his hospitality to certain missionaries of the faith who seem to have visited his city. Two other names are mentioned—Diotrephes, a leading and ambitious presbyter, who had refused to obey the apostle's injunctions, and Demetrius, either the bearer of the epistle or a member of the same church to which Caius belonged.

The time when and the place where these epistles were written must remain unknown from the absence of any data by which to determine them.

The works consulted for this article have been the commentaries of Alford, Ebrard, Liicke, and Reuss on the Epistles, and that of "Westcott on the Gospel of St John [Speaker's Commentary); "West-cott, The Canon of the New Testament; Neander's Planting ofChris-tianity (Bonn's trans., vol. ii.); F. D. Maurice's Lectures on the Epistles of St John; and Davidson's Introduction to the New Testa-ment. There are also commentaries, among others, by Diisterdieck, 1852; Luthardt, 1860; Haupt, 1869; Baur, 1848; Hilgenfeld, 1854, the last two representing the Tubingen school of criticism. (A. C.*)


Footnotes

See, however, for exceptions that may be taken to these testi-monies, GOSPELS, vol. x. pp. 820, 822.
The epistle was not included in the Marcionite canon, and the Alogi, an obscure sect so named by Epiphanius (Hser., i. 1-3), seem to have rejected this, together with the other writings of St John.
See GOSPELS, vol. x. p. 828.




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