New Testament Backgrounds: The Epistles of John
July 1976

“New Testament Backgrounds: The Epistles of John,” Ensign, July 1976, 58

New Testament Backgrounds:

The Epistles of John

First John

Written to:

The letter contains no formal greeting, though it is addressed to a group (or groups) whom John refers to as “brethren,” “children,” and “beloved.” The letter may have been written to a group of saints somewhere in Asia, likely mainly priesthood brethren with whom John was personally acquainted.


The apostle John, an eyewitness of the Savior. (See 1 Jn. 1:1.) Where written:

May have been written from Ephesus, where John is reputed to have lived after his banishment to Patmos (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.20.8–3.23.6), though no place is mentioned in the letter.

When written:

The letter was probably written about A.D. 100.

Purpose of the letter:

The letter was written apparently to combat certain false teachings, especially concerning Christ, associated with an emerging philosophy known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism maintained that the spirit is good, the body evil; and therefore it rejected the teaching that Jesus actually experienced mortality in a physical body. Essentially, this heresy had the effect of denying the physical suffering and the very atonement of the Savior. John denounced such heretical teachings, labeling those who so taught as “antichrists.” He reaffirmed in a positive way both the humanity (1 Jn. 4:1–3) and the divinity of the Savior, and the vital importance of coming to know Christ.

Major Themes:

As a commentary on the gospel of John and an antidote for false teachings of the day, First John declares positively the divinity of Christ, and shows how we can have fellowship with him and his Father.

1. John bears a profound and eyewitness testimony of Christ as (a) the Word of life (1 Jn. 1:1), (b) the Only Begotten Son of God (1 Jn. 4:9; 1 Jn. 1:3, 7; 1 Jn. 3:23; 1 Jn. 4:14), (c) one who lived in the flesh upon the earth (1 Jn. 4:1–3), (d) the Holy One (1 Jn. 2:20), (e) our advocate with the Father (1 Jn. 2:1), (f) the Savior (1 Jn. 1:7; 1 Jn. 2:2; 1 Jn. 3:5; 1 Jn. 4:10, 14), (g) the revelation of the Father (1 Jn. 1:2; 1 Jn. 5:20).

2. Above all else we are to seek fellowship with Christ (and the Father).—Jesus was sent by the Father into the world to make the atonement and to show us what the Father is like. By obtaining fellowship with Christ we also come to know the Father. As we center our lives in Christ—the true light—and continue in righteousness, we shall become the sons and daughters of God, and shall in time know him and be like him. (1 Jn. 3:1–2.)

3. Overcome the world.—John declares that we must not walk in darkness or sin, nor love the things of the world. (1 Jn. 2:15–16.) Those who do are strangers to God. Rather, we are to follow the light and do righteousness, for by so doing we are “born of God.” (1 Jn. 2:29). Those who are born of God have greater power in them than is in the world (1 Jn. 4:4), and they can thus overcome the world (1 Jn. 5:4).

4. God is love.—The love of God is the foundation of all personal righteousness. We are enjoined to love God “because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19) by sending his Only Begotten Son (1 Jn. 4:9). Love is of God; thus, if we would know him, we must love him and love what he loves. (1 Jn. 4:7–8.) Our love for God is to be expressed by keeping his commandments (1 Jn. 2:3–6; 1 Jn. 3:23–24) and by loving one another (1 Jn. 4:7–21). John makes very clear that if one loves God he will love his brother; and inversely, that if one says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar. (1 Jn. 4:20–21.) As we personify the love of God and our fellow beings in our lives, we become like the Lord himself and have eternal life with him.

5. To know God is to have eternal life.—To John, eternal life is a quality of life. It is God’s life. It is synonymous with becoming the sons and daughters of God in the fullest spiritual sense (1 Jn. 3:1–3); it is to be born of God and to have his light and love within oneself; it is equated with overcoming the world; it is to know and to be like our Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 5:20).

Second and Third John

Written to:

Second John is addressed to “the elect lady and her children.” (2 Jn. 1:1.) Who is the elect lady? The answer cannot be given conclusively. She may be an actual person—a female member of the Church, perhaps even the wife of John, who has qualified through her faithfulness to receive the fulness of gospel blessings. The children may be John’s own family. (See Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Bookcraft, 1973, 3:410.) Or, “the elect lady and her children” may be a salutation intended spiritually to refer to an individual branch of the church, possibly in Asia. Frequently the term “woman” is intended as a symbol of the people of God, Israel, or the church. (Rev. 12:1.) And John earlier referred to faithful saints as “my beloved children.” (1 Jn. 2:1, 1 Jn. 3:18.)Thus, he may be writing to a faithful branch of the church.

Third John is addressed simply to “the well beloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.” (3 Jn. 1:1.) Was Gaius a faithful saint, a presiding elder of a local branch? Perhaps so. Or was Gaius possibly a female member or even John’s wife? (See Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:413.) There is insufficient evidence to draw final conclusions.


Neither of the two letters gives the author’s name, but refers to him simply as “the elder.” (2 Jn. 1:1; 3 Jn. 1:1.) Tradition ascribes both letters to John, who is apparently at this time the only living apostle and the presiding authority in the church.

Where written:

The most likely place is Ephesus, though no place is mentioned in the letter.

When written:

About the same time as First John, possibly A.D. 100.

Purpose of the letter:

Second and Third John, although more personal and much briefer than First John, were apparently written with a similar purpose in mind, namely, to warn against false Gnostic teachings of the day. Second John warns especially against false teachers (“deceivers,” “antichrist”) who denied Christ’s physical nature; whereas Third John warns against a false leader.

Major Themes:

1. Walk in love and keep the commandments.—John urges the saints, as in First John, to love one another. (2 Jn. 1:5.) He then reiterates the fact that we show love for God when we keep his commandments. (2 Jn. 1:6.) One aspect of expressing love for God is to abide in the true doctrine of Christ and avoid false teachings. (2 Jn. 1:9.)

2. John warns the saints against the growing threat of “deceivers” and antichrists. (2 Jn. 1:7.)—He warns specifically against those who would deny the divinity of Christ’s mission by declaring that he did not come in the flesh. (2 Jn 1:7.) The saints are admonished not to receive any such deceivers. (2 Jn 1:10–11.)

3. John warns against the sin of insubordination to Church leaders.—Specifically, John denounced a false leader in the church named Diotrephes, who has (1) rejected church leadership and instruction even by “prating against us with malicious words,” (2) refused Church representatives sent to him, (3) refused to let others in the congregation care for or give heed to church authorities, and (4) cast out faithful members of the church. (3 Jn 1:9–10.)

  • J. Lewis Taylor, an institute teacher at the University of Utah, serves as chairman of the Melchizedek Priesthood Writing Committee of the Church.

Illustrated by Michael Clane Graves