RPM, Volume 18, Number 38, September 11 to September 17, 2016

Introduction to the New Testament

By Louis Berkhof

Table of Contents:

The Gospels in General
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The Acts of the Apostles
The Epistles in General
The Epistles of Paul
The Epistle to the Romans
The First Epistle to the Corinthians
The Second Epistle to the Corinthians
The Epistle to the Galatians
The Epistle to the Ephesians
The Epistle to the Philippians
The Epistle to the Colossians
The First Epistle to the Thessalonians
The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians
The Pastoral Epistles
The First Epistle to Timothy
The Second Epistle to Timothy
The Epistle to Titus
The Epistle to Philemon
The Epistle to the Hebrews
The General Epistle of James
The First General Epistle of Peter
The Second General Epistle of Peter
The First General Epistle of John
The Second and Third General Epistles of John
The General Epistle of Jude
The Revelation of John

The Second and Third

General Epistles of John


The Second Epistle. After the address and the apostolic blessing, 1-3, the writer expresses his joy at finding that some of the children of the addressee walk in the truth, and reiterates the great commandment of brotherly love, 4-6. He urges the readers to exercise this love and informs them that there are many errorists, who deny that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, admonishing them not to receive these, lest they should become partakers of their evil deeds, 7-11. Expressing his intention to come to them, he ends his Epistle with a greeting, 12, 13.

The Third Epistle. The writer, addressing Gajus, sincerely wishes that he may prosper, as his soul prospereth, 1-3. He commends him for receiving the itinerant preachers, though they were strangers to him, 5-8. He also informs the brother that he has written to the church, but that Diotrephes resists his authority, not receiving the brethren himself and seeking to prevent others from doing it, 9, 10. Warning Gajus against that evil example, he commends Demetrius, mentions an intended visit, and closes the Epistle with greetings, 11-14.


1. These two Epistles have rightly been called twin epistles, since they reveal several points of similarity. The author in both styles himself the elder; they are of about equal length; each one of them, as distinguished from the first Epistle, begins with an address and ends with greetings; both contain an expression of joy; and both refer to itinerant preachers and to an intended visit of the writer.

2. The letters show close affinity to I John. What little they contain of doctrinal matter is closely related to the contents of the first Epistle, where we can easily find statements corresponding to those in II John 4-9 and III John 11. Several concepts and expressions clearly remind us of I John, as f. i. "love," "truth," "commandments," "a new commandment," one "which you had from the beginning," "loving truth," "walking in the truth," "abiding in" one, "a joy that may be fulfilled," etc. Moreover the aim of these letters is in general the same as that of the first Epistle, viz. to strengthen the readers in the truth and in love; and to warn them against an incipient Gnosticism.


Considering the brevity of these Epistles, their authorship is very well attested. Clement of Alexandria speaks of the second Epistle and, according to Eusebius, also commented on the third. Irenaeus quotes the second Epistle by name, ascribing it to "John the Lord's disciple." Tertullian and Cyprian contain no quotations from them, but Dionysius of Alexandria, Athanasius and Didymus received them as the work of the apostle. The Muratorian Canon in a rather obscure passage mentions two Epistles of John besides the first one. The Peshito does not contain them; and Eusebius, without clearly giving his own opinion, reckons them with the Antilegomena. After his time they were generally received and as such recognized by the, councils of Laodicea (363), Hippo (393) and Carthage (397).

Internal evidence may be said to favor the authorship of John. One can scarcely read these letters without feeling that they proceeded from the same hand that composed I John. The second Epistle especially is very similar to the first, a similarity that can hardly be explained, as Baljon suggests, from an acquaintance of the author with I John, ml. p. 237, 239. And the third Epistle is inseparably linked to the second. The use of a few Pauline terms, propemtein, eudousthai and hugiainein, and of a few peculiar words, as phluarein, philoprōteuein hupolambanein, prove nothing to the contrary.

The great stumbling block, that prevents several scholars from accepting the apostolic authorship of these Epistles, is found in in the fact that the author simply styles himself ho presbuteros. This appelation led some, as Erasmus, Grotius, Beck, Bretschneider, Hase, Renan, Reuss, Wieseler e. a., to ascribe them to a certain well-known presbyter John, distinct from the apostle. This opinion is based on a passage of Papias, as it is interpreted by Eusebius, The passage runs thus: "If I met anywhere with anyone who had been a follower of the elders, I used to inquire what were the declarations of the elders; what was said by Andrew, by Peter, by Philip, what by Thomas or James, what by John or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of our Lord; and the things which Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord say; for I did not expect to derive so much benefit from the contents of books as from the utterances of a living and abiding voice." From this statement Eusebius infers that among the informants of Papias there was besides the apostle John also a John the presbyter, Church Hist. III 39. But the correctness of this inference is subject to doubt. Notice (1) that Papias first names those whose words he received through others and then mentions two of whom he had also received personal instruction, cf. the difference in tense, eipen and legousin; (2) that it seems very strange that for Papias, who was himself a disciple of the apostle John, anyone but the apostle would be ho presbuteros; (3) that Eusebius was the first to discover this second John in the passage of Papias: (4) that history knows nothing of such a John the presbyter; he is a shadowy person indeed; and (5) that the Church historian was not unbiased in his opinion; being averse to the supposed Chiliasm of the Apocalypse, he was only too glad to find another John to whom he could ascribe it.

But even if the inference of Eusebius were correct, it would not prove that this presbyter was the author of our Epistles. The same passage of Papias clearly establishes the fact that the apostles were also called elders in the early Church. And does not the appellation, ho presbuteros, admirably fit the last of the apostles, who for many years was the overseer of the churches in Asia Minor? He stood preeminent above all others; and by using this name designated at once his official position and his venerable age.


The second Epistle is addressed to eklektÄ" kuriÄ… and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but all those that know the truth," 1:1. There is a great deal of uncertain{y about the interpretation of this address. On the assumption that the letter was addressed to an individual, the following renderings have been proposed: (1) to an elect lady; (2) to the elect lady; (3) to the elect Kuria; (4) to the Lady Electa; (5) to Electa Kuria.

The first of these is certainly the simplest and the most natural one, but considered as the address of an Epistle, it is too indefinite. To our mind the second, which seems to be grammatically permissible, is the best of all the suggested interpretations. As to the third, it is true that the word kuria does occur as a proper name, cf. Zahn, Einl. II p. 584; but on the supposition that this is the case here also, it would be predicated of a single individual, which in Scripture is elsewhere done only in Rom. 16:13, a case that is not altogether parallel; and the more natural construction would be kuriÄ… tÄ" eklektÄ". Cf. III John 1 :1; the case in I Pet. 1 :1 does not offer a parallel, because parepidÄ"mois is not a proper noun. The fourth must be ruled out, since eklekta is not known to occur as a nomen proprium; and if this were the name of the addressee, her sister, vs. 13, would strangely bear the same name. The last rendering is the least likely, burdening the lady, as it does, with two strange names. If the letter was addressed to an individual, which is favored by the analogy of the third Epistle, and also by the fact that the sisters children are spoken of in vs. 13, while she herself is not mentioned, then in all probability the addressee was a lady well known and highly esteemed in the early church, but not named in the letter. Thus Salmond (Hastings D. B.), while Alford and D. Smith regard Kuria as the name of the lady.

In view of the contents of the Epistle, however, many from the time of Jerome on have regarded the title as a designation of the Church in general (Jerome, Hilgenfeld, Lunemann, Schmiedel), or of some particular church (Huther, Holtzmann, Weiss, Westcott, Salmon, Zahn, Baljon). The former of these two seems to be excluded by vs. 13, since the Church in general can hardly be represented as having a sister. But as over against the view that the Epistle was addressed to an individual, the latter is favored by (1) the fact that everything of a personal nature is absent from the Epistle; (2) the plurals which the apostle constantly uses, cf. 6, 8, 10, 12; (3) the way in which he speaks to the addressee in vss. 5, 8; (4) the expression, "and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth," 1, which is more applicable to a church than to a single individual; and (5) the greeting, 13, which is most naturally understood as the greeting of one church to another. If this view of the Epistle is correct, and we are inclined to think it is, kuria is probably used as the feminine of kurios, in harmony with the Biblical representation that the Church is the bride of the Lamb. It is useless to guess, however, what particular church is meant. Since the church of Ephesus is in all probability the sister, it is likely that one of the other churches of Asia Minor is addressed.

The third Epistle is addressed to a certain Gajus, of whom we have no knowledge beyond that gained from the Epistle, where he is spoken of as a beloved friend of the apostle, and as a large-hearted hospitable man, who with a willing heart served the cause of Christ. There have been some attempts to identify him with a Gajus who is mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions as having been appointed bishop of Pergamum by John, or with some of the other persons of the same name in Scripture, Acts 19: 29; 20:4, especially with Pauls host at Corinth, Rom. 16:23; I Cor. 1: 14; but these efforts have not been crowned with success.


1. Occasion and Purpose: In all probability the false agitators to whom the apostle refers in the Second Epistle, 7-12, gave him occasion to write this letter. His aim is to express his joy on account of the obedience of some of the members of the church, to exhort all that they love one another, to warn them against deceivers who would pervert the truth, and to announce his coming.

The third Epistle seems to have been occasioned by the reports of certain brethren who traveled about from place to place and were probably engaged in preaching the Gospel. They reported to the apostle that they had enjoyed the hospitality of Gajus, but had met with a rebuff at the hands of Diotrephes, an ambitious fellow (probably, as some have thought, an elder or a deacon in the church), who resisted the authority of the apostle and refused to receive the brethren. The authors purpose is to express his satisfaction with the course pursued by Gajus, to condemn the attitude of Diotrephes, to command Demetrius as a worthy brother, and to announce an intended visit.

2. Time and Place. The assumption seems perfectly warranted that John wrote these Epistles from Ephesus, where he spent perhaps the last twenty-five years of his life. We have no means for determining the time when they were composed. It may safely be said, however, that it was after the composition of I John. And if the surmise of Zahn and Salmon is correct, that the letter referred to in III John 9 is our second Epistle, they were probably written at the same time. This idea is favored somewhat by the fact that the expression, "I wrote somewhat (epsrapsa ti) to the church," seems to refer to a short letter; and by the mention of an intended visit at the end of each letter. But from the context it would appear that this letter must have treated of the reception or the support of the missionary brethren, which is not the case with our second Epistle.

Canonical Significance

There was some doubt at first as to the canonicity of these Epistles. The Alexandrian church generally accepted them, Clement, Dionysius and Alexander of Alexandria all recognizing them as canonical, though Origen had doubts. Irenaeus cites a passage from the second Epistle as John's. Since neither Tertullian nor Cyprian quote them, it is uncertain, whether they were accepted by the North African church. The Muratorian Fragment mentions two letters of John in a rather obscure way. In the Syrian church they were not received, since they were not in the Peshito, but in the fourth century Ephrem quotes both by name. Eusebius classed them with the Antilegomena, but soon after his time they were universally accepted as canonical.

The ermanent significance of the second Epistle is that it emphasizes the necessity of abiding in the truth and thus exhibiting one's love to Christ. To abide in the doctrine of Christ and to obey his commandments, is the test of sonship. Hence believers should not receive those who deny the true doctrine, and especially the incarnation of Christ, lest they become partakers of their evil deeds.

The third Epistle also has it's permanent lesson in that it commends the generous love that reveals itself in the hospitality of Gajus, shown to those who labor in the cause of Christ, and denounce the self-centered activity of Diotrephes; for these two classes of men are always found in the Church.

Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.