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Introduction to the Second and Third Letters of John

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

Introduction to 1 John Introduction to 2 and 3 John
Introduction to John's Gospel Gnosticism

These two letters are the shortest in the New Testament. Each of them contains under 300 words in Greek, and would fit on a single sheet of papyrus.


The traditional view is that all five of what are called the Johanine books are by the Apostle John (John’s Gospel, three letters, and Revelation). Of these, only Revelation names the author. John was the last remaining apostle, the last surviving companion of Jesus.

Both 2 and 3 John are from someone who identifies himself as 'The elder'. Neither directly claim to be written by John. The question is whether the elder is John the apostle, or a different otherwise unknown writer.

Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis, wrote a now lost book called 'Expositions of the Lord's Oracles' in the early second century, where he names two different Johns. One, the member of the twelve disciples, and another he calls the 'elder or presbyter John'. These may be two different people, or he may be referring to the same person. “If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings, - what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say.” (Papias Fragments I, in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History)

There has been considerable debate over many centuries about this quotation from Papias, particularly whether he intended to describe two different Johns.

Evidence from the Church Fathers

Because the two letters are so short they obviously do not contain much material suitable to be quoted by the early church fathers, so there is not a lot of external evidence for authorship.

The Muratorian Fragment is rather vague about John’s letters, mentioning two letters by John, which probably refer to his first two letters, so no mention is made of the third. “The Epistle of Jude, indeed, and two belonging to the above-named John-or bearing the name of John are reckoned among the Catholic epistles"

In his argument against those who denied the deity of Jesus, Irenaeus used evidence from John’s Gospel and letters, describing John as 'the disciple of the Lord'. He uses a quotation from 2 John 7: “These are they against whom the Lord has cautioned us beforehand; and His disciple, in his Epistle already mentioned, commands us to avoid them, when he says: “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Take heed to them, that ye lose not what ye have wrought.” Irenaeus Against Heresies (III. 16.8)

Eusebius quotes the works of Dionysus of Alexandria who mentions a second and third letter by John the apostle. “But neither in the second or third epistle ascribed by John (the apostle), though they are very brief, is the name of John presented. But anonymously it is written, ‘the presbyter’ (elder).” Eusebius Ecclesiastical History (7.25)

Origen knew of the existence of 2 and 3 John, but does not quote them. In his description of Origen’s work, Eusebius says that Origen lists the writings of John, describing him as ‘the one who reclined upon the breast of Jesus’, indicating that he was referring to John the apostle. “He (John) has also left an epistle consisting of very few lines; suppose, also, that a second and third is from him, for not all agree that they are genuine, but both together do not contain a hundred lines” Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 6.25

In his list of canonical books, Eusebius includes 2 and 3 John among the disputed books. “Among the disputed books, although they are well known and approved by many, is reputed, that is called the Epistle of James and Jude. Also the ‘Second Epistle of Peter’, and those called ‘The Second and Third of John’, whether they are of the evangelist or of some other of the same name." Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3:25

In his Lives of Illustrious Men Jerome says that many believed that 2 and 3 John were by John the elder. “He wrote also one Epistle which begins as follows ‘That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes and our hands handled concerning the word of life which is esteemed of by all men who are interested in the church or in learning’. The other two of which the first is ‘The elder to the elect lady and her children’ and the other ‘The elder unto Gaius the beloved whom I love in truth’, are said to be the work of John the presbyter to the memory of whom another sepulchre is shown at Ephesus to the present day, though some think that there are two memorials of this same John the evangelist.” Jerome Lives of Illustrious Men 9.

When these letters are compared with other writings connected with the apostle John, it is clear that the language and theological content is remarkably similar.

Date and place of writing

It is known that John the Apostle lived in Ephesus towards the end of his life, and if it is accepted that he was the author of these books, they would have been written in the last decade of the first century.

Whether written by John, or John the elder, it is normally accepted that they were written from somewhere in the Roman Province of Asia, probably Ephesus.

Both books address the issue of the way travelling teachers should be treated. In 2 John, the church is warned not to give hospitality to teachers who deny the doctrine of the physical incarnation of Jesus, while in 3 John the approach is more positive, where the author commends Gaius for the hospitality he has been giving to teachers of the truth. The two books together give quite a balanced approach.

2 John

Written to

The second letter is addressed to “the elect lady and her children” (v1). Again there has been much debate over this, particularly over whether it refers to an individual woman known to the author, or to a local community of believers, or even to the universal body of believers.

If the letter was addressed to an individual woman, then her children would be her biological family. At the end of the letter, the writer sends greetings from “the children of the elect sister” (v13), who could be a member of John’s church. If addressed to a community of believers, then the children would be the members of the fellowship.

Purpose of the letter

The book is a warning to be aware of Gnostic deceivers who deny that Jesus came in the flesh. He describes these as the anti-Christ. “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.” (v7). He warns his readers not to offer hospitality to these people, “If any such one comes to you, and does not bring this doctrine (of Jesus coming in the flesh), do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting, for he who greets him shares his wicked work” (v10-11). These are probably the same false teachers as those referred to in 1 John.

John is saying that by greeting one of these false teachers as a brother and providing him with hospitality, the readers would be identifying with them and therefore encouraging and assisting them in spreading their false teaching. The false teachers were evidently travelling from church to church, staying in people's houses. John had already referred to these false teachers in 1 Jn 2:18-29.

John is saying that it is not compromising Christian love to refuse to welcome these false teachers. Denying hospitality may appear to be harsh, but John is showing that these people are denying the true humanity of Jesus Christ, thus undermining the foundations of the Christian faith. To deny hospitality to travelling false teachers would make it more difficult for them to teach these dangerous errors.

The Didache contains very similar instructions: to welcome travelling teachers, but not to listen to or welcome false teachers. “So if anyone should come and teach you all these things that have been mentioned above, welcome him. But if the teacher goes astray and teaches a different teaching that undermines all this, do not listen to him. However, if his teaching contributes to righteousness and knowledge of the Lord, welcome him as you would the Lord”. Didache 11.


There is strong theme of truth and love running through the letter. The two are linked together, and neither may be sacrificed at the expense of the other. Truth is mentioned in these passages: Whom I love in the truth (v1), All who know the truth (v1), The truth which abides in us (v2), Grace, mercy and peace in truth (v3), and I rejoiced, that children are walking in the truth (v4). Love is found in these passages: The elect lady, whom I love in the truth (v1), Grace, mercy and peace in truth and love (v3), This is love, that you follow commandments (v6) and This is commandment, that you follow love (v6).

3 John

Written to

The letter is addressed to “the beloved Gaius” (v1). It appears that the letter was written to an individual, as all second person pronouns are singular.

Gaius was one of the most common Roman names, so making any identification becomes very difficult. There are three people called Gaius mentioned in the New Testament.

1. Gaius of Corinth
He was one of Paul’s converts in Corinth, who was baptised by Paul. The Corinth church met in his house. He was Paul’s host on his final visit to Corinth, where he wrote the letter to the Romans. According to Origen, he became the first bishop of Thessalonica. “I thank God that I baptised none of you except Crispus and Gaius” (1 Cor 1:14). “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you.” (Rom 16:23)

2. Gaius of Macedonia
He was caught up in the riot at Ephesus, together with Paul and Aristarchus. “The city (Ephesus) was filled with confusion; and people rushed together to the theatre, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travel companions.” (Acts 19:29)

3. Gaius of Derbe
He was one of the several co-workers who accompanied Paul to Jerusalem at the end of the third missionary journey, bringing the collection for the saints. They were waiting for Paul at Troas. “He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea, by Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, by Gaius from Derbe, and by Timothy, as well as by Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia. They went ahead and were waiting for us in Troas” (Acts 20:4-5)

It is possible that this Gaius came from Macedonia rather than Derbe, in which case he was the same person the Gaius of Macedonia. This letter may have been written to either of the first two, or to someone completely different.

In the fourth century document 'Apostolical Constitutions', John addressed his letter to Gaius from Derbe, and appointed him as bishop of Pergamum. (7:46)

This Gaius was evidently a leader in the church and is commended for his hospitality to travelling preachers. He may have been the leader of the church in Pergamum. He may have been one of John's converts, as he is described as on of “my children” (v4). He was clearly greatly loved by John, as he is called “beloved” four times (v1,2,5,11). John also says that he is hoping to visit him soon (v14).

Purpose of the letter

There are three main points:

1. John writes an encouragement to Gaius, commending him for his hospitality to strangers, especially travelling preachers (v5-8)

2. John rebukes Diotrephes (v9-10), who does not acknowledge John's authority and refuses to welcome John's representatives. He was a false teacher, unsubmissive and full of his own importance. He clearly dominated the church or was a leader of a different church in the same town as Gaius. The name Diotrephes is very rare, meaning 'reared by Zeus'. Apparently the name has only been found in noble and ancient families. It is not possible to identify who this person was, but he seems to be a rather arrogant rival leader to Gaius (v9).

3. John commends Demetrius as a positive example to follow. He as a triple positive testimony - from everyone, from the truth, and from John (12). It is likely that he was carrying this letter (v11-12).

There is another Demetrius in the NT, the silversmith who stirred up the riot against Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:24,38). It is possible that this is the same person, but Demetrius is a common Greek name. The name Demas is a short version of Demetrius, but there is no evidence for the Demas mentioned in Paul’s letters being the same person (Col 4:14, 2 Tim 4:10, Phm 24). According to the Apostolical Constitutions (7:46), John appointed Demetrius as bishop of Philadelphia.


The same theme of truth and love runs through the third letter, as in the second. Gaius, whom I love in the truth (v1), the brothers testified to truth of your life (v3), as indeed you do follow the truth (v3), to hear my children follow the truth (v4), fellow workers in the truth (v8), testimony from the truth itself (v12), my testimony is true (v12).

Related articles

Introduction to 1 John Introduction to 2 and 3 John
Introduction to John's Gospel Gnosticism