MANual Lessons: John’s Letters of Love

My year-long journey through my NIV Bible for Men now brings us to letters titled 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John, which are the 23rd, 24th, and 25th books of the Christian New Testament. The MANual, the basis for all of my posts this year, calls these letters “love notes” since the writer is knowing Jesus is knowing the God of love. 

Who is the Author?

While the author never identifies himself by name, many believed these three epistles were written by John, the Apostle, son of Zebedee who became a disciple of Jesus.  The author clearly places himself as part of a group of eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus in 1 John, noting that “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also” (1 John 1:3). In the second and third letters, the author simply calls himself “presbyter” (elder).

The three “Johannian” (meaning related to John) epistles are among what is called the “universal letters” (along with the epistles of Peter, James, and Jude), so named after the person many believe authored the letters rather than the recipients of the letters (as is the case with the letters of Paul who wrote to the people of the early churches). According to Polycarp, an early second-century bishop who knew John personally, a large group of witnesses named the apostle as the writer of these letters.

Additionally, the language and contents of the three letters suggest a common author. Two of the three letters of John are the shortest of the 66 books of the Bible, according to word counts in the original languages (Third John only has 219 words and Second John 245 words, while First John is the 25th shortest book with 2,145 words, presumably since it sets the stage for Second and Third John. Conversely, Jeremiah and Genesis are the longest books at 33,002 and 32,046 words respectively). The apostle John also wrote the Gospel of John (19,482 words) and the book of Revelation (9,851).

Written in John’s Last Days

John likely wrote 1 John from Ephesus, a wealthy and highly influential port city in the Roman province of Asia (present-day western Turkey) around A.D. 85-90. He probably settled in Ephesus around the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70 and likely spent his final years at the end of his life among the Christians there, ministering to the new generation of Jesus’s disciples. 

The Setting of 1 John

As the last surviving member of the twelve apostles who had been with Jesus, John’s teaching was eagerly attended by the Ephesian believers. According to one early church memory preserved by the Catholic Saint Jerome (born 347 C.E.; died 419/420), John’s attendants would carry him to church when he became too frail to walk by himself. There, the people gathered earnestly to hear the aging apostle speak about his experiences with Jesus. As John’s strength diminished and his ability even to speak declined, Jerome tells us that “He usually said nothing but, ‘Little children, love one another.’” The listeners reportedly grew weary of hearing the old man repeat the same line over and over. “Teacher,” they asked, “why do you always say this?” According to Jerome, the aged apostle replied, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if it alone is kept, it is sufficient.”.

John’s Love Letters

Though short, John provides a clear vision of God’s love. First John alone mentions the word “love” more than any other book except Psalms. The writer urges us to guard and nurture the message of love taught by Jesus. At the time of his first letter, false teachers had entered the church to deny the incarnation of Christ. The writer wanted to dispel doubts and to build assurance by presenting a clear picture of Jesus Who was God in the flesh (meaning incarnated). John had walked and talked with Jesus. Saw Him heal, heard Him teach, watched Him die, and met Him risen again. As an elder statesman of the church, John wrote these to his “dear children.”

Summary of 1 John

First John calls readers back to the three basics of Christian life: true doctrine, obedient living, and faithful devotion.  The author opens the 5 chapters by presenting his credentials as an eyewitness of the incarnation and by stating his reason for writing (1:1-4). He then presents God as “light” by symbolizing absolute purity and holiness (1:5-7) by emphasizing believers can walk in the light and have fellowship with God (1:8-10). 

Forgiveness

Have you ever refused to forgive someone even after they’ve asked for your forgiveness? Have you carried a grudge or had the urge to punish someone who hurt you even after they tried to make amends? Well, God hasn’t, which is great news for all of us who have offended Him by our disobedience. God is faithful. His forgiveness does not depend on His mood, or whether He can let go of a grudge. 

  • Name a person in your past who you have difficulty forgiving? What causes you to maintain that grudge?
  • How can you release that person from your chains, and subsequently release yourself? 

John says Christ is the believer’s advocate (2:1-2) when they sin. But he warns them of “antichrists” who will try to lead them away from the truth (2:18-19). 

He is Love

People parrot the phrase “God is love” often in a superficial way. But Divine affection is risky. It suffers. It is always marked by sacrifice. God so loved us that He sent His Only and Only Son to be sacrificed for our sins. Jesus is our advocate to God when it comes to forgive us for our sins. As an imperfect person, you don’t have such love in yourself. What you do have though, is Jesus living in you to impact your actions and attitudes toward loving others. 


In the next section, John presents God as “love” –giving, dying, forgiving, and blessing (3:1-4:21). He says God’s Son is greater than the spirit of the antichrist now in the world (4:3–4) so those who believe in the Son of God have the assurance of eternal life (5:13). As God’s children, we should not make a practice of sinning (5:18) but keep away from anything that might take God’s place in our hearts (5:21). 

Summary of 2 John

The focus of the lone chapter of thirteen verses in 2 John is living according to the truth of Jesus Christ. He speaks as “the elder” to the unknown chosen lady and her children, who may have been personal friends of John’s or a metaphor for a church John knew. 

Learning from Elders

Wisdom and discernment come from spending time reading God’s word. It also comes by learning from more experienced people in your church and in your life. 

  • Who do you know that is characterized by wisdom and discernment?
  • What are some ways you can tell if someone is a genuine servant of Chrst rather than a “deceiver”?

John writes that love means doing what God has commanded us. He says to live in the truth and obey God, watch out for deceivers (1:7), and most importantly, love God and one another, just as we heard from the beginning (1:6). By watching out for deceivers and being diligent in our faith, he says we can “win a full reward” (v. 8). 

John’s closing words in this short letter are a farewell until he would see the believers face-to-face.  

Summary of 3 John

The theme of the one chapter of just fourteen verses in 3 John is faithfulness despite opposition. The writer identifies himself as “John, the elder” who is writing to a dear friend, Gaius, who faces a troublemaker named Diotrephes. John was concerned for Gaius’ physical and spiritual well-being. He said some traveling teachers spoke that he was “walking in the truth” (v. 3, 4) and caring for them as they teach the truth. John expresses his concern about Diotrephes, who seemed to want to control the church (v. 9–10), presumably out of pride. 

Pride

From athletics to promotions at work, our society has little regard for those who finish second or worse. Hence the old Olympic ad that claimed “Silver medals aren’t won, gold medals are lost.”

God’s view of this mentality is evident in this description of Diotrephes. The fact that the church leader loved to be first was counted against him. Apparently, his pride kept him from having fellowship with other Christians. He was too good for them.

  • How about you? Are you too good to hang out with some fellow believers?
  • Where are you on the pride quotient?

John gives advice and commendation to Demetrius (v. 11–12) who carried the letter from John to Gaius, as a man of high character and truthful teaching.  John closes his third letter with a promise to visit (v. 13–14).

God Buddy Focus

In his three letters to early believers, John encourages Christians to honor God’s commands by avoiding destructive patterns and beliefs. His letters are a call to action for all of us—to embody Christ’s love and contribute to the flourishing of the Church. It is a warning about false teachers and the assurance our salvation is in Jesus Christ. 

As we grow in our knowledge of God, we should learn to extend the same love and forgiveness to a broken world that God first showed us. John writes these letters as a caring elder to warn his cherished youngsters to check their behavior and watch the teachings of those around them. 

This week:

  • Discuss how you are doing in these three phases of life as a Chrstian:  knowing God’s Word, obedient living to God’s standards, and faithful devotion to your spiritual growth. Which area needs to the most improvement and thus, most of your attention? 
  • Who are the folks in your life who you go to for advice? If you do not have any, pick out just one guy you admire and ask him out to coffee to explore what you might learn from him. 
  • What is the negative impact of pride in your life?  Who can help you recognize when you are becoming too prideful and need to keep it in check more often? 

The next post is a letter from Jude, the brother of Jesus and James. 

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