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The three letters of St John were written by the Lord’s beloved apostle who also wrote the fourth gospel. They were written at the close of the first century and have as their general theme a fervent polemic against the heretical “antichrists” who were changing the doctrines of Christ and denying His genuine appearance “in the flesh” for the salvation of the world, denying thereby both “the Father and the Son” (l Jn 2:22, 4:3, 2 Jn 7).
The first letter of St John is the simplest and deepest exposition of the Christian faith that exists. Its clarity concerning the Holy Trinity and the Christian life of truth and of love in communion with God makes it understandable without difficulty to anyone who reads it. It is the best place to begin a study of the Christian faith generally, and the Bible in particular.
The first letter begins in the same way as St John’s gospel to which it is most similar in its entire content and style.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life… we proclaim also to you, so that you may have communion with us; and our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.
The first letter of St John proclaims that Jesus is truly “the Christ,” the Messiah and Son of God who has come “in the flesh” to the world as “the expiation of our sins, and not ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (2:2). Those who believe in Christ and are in communion with Him and His Father have the forgiveness of sins and the possibility not to sin any more (1:5–2:12). They “walk in the same way in which He walked” (2:6) being the “children of God” (3:1, 5:1). They know the truth by the direct inspiration of God through the anointment [chrisma] of the Holy Spirit (2:20–26; 6:7). They keep the commandments of God, the first and greatest of which is love, and so they are already recipients of eternal life, already possessing the indwelling of God the Father and Christ the Son “by the Spirit which He has given us” (2:24–3:24).
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God has sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.
In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation of our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (14:7–16).
The hatred of others is the sure sign that one does not love God (4:20) and is “in the darkness still” (2:9–11). The one who hates his brother is “a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (3:15). Those who love God are hated by the world which is in the power of the evil one” (5:19, 2:15–17).
The first letter of St John is part of the Church’s lectionary, with special selections from it being read at the feast of the apostle John.
The second letter of St John is addressed to the “elect lady and her children” which is obviously the Church of God and its members. Again the truth of Christ is stressed and the commandment of love is emphasized.
And this is love, that we follow His commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward. Anyone who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son (6–9).
The third letter of St John is addressed to a certain Gaius praising him for the “truth of his life” (3) and urging him not to Imitate evil but imitate good” (11). “No greater joy can I have than this”, writes the beloved apostle, “to hear that my children follow the truth” (4).