Like 2 John, this letter was directed to a specific person, Gaius. It appears that this name was common in the first century, so pinpointing the man is impossible. There are several men even in the New Testament who had this name, and we cannot be sure if one of them was the intended recipient.
John referred to Gaius with great affection in 3 John 1-2. It seems from 3 John 3-4 that he was either a new believer or possibly someone who had returned to living faithfully. In this short letter, John wanted to point out that godly living extends to how believers treat one another, “even though they are strangers” (3 John 5). It seems that Gaius needed a little prodding to support some traveling missionaries John had sent his way.
The second issue John needed to deal with was concerning a man named Diotrephes. He was apparently a narcissistic, arrogant man in the church who was bold enough to slander John and would not welcome the traveling missionaries. He even went so far as to unilaterally excommunicate those who tried to help them! This may be the reason John had to encourage Gaius to do this.
The statement about Demetrius, that he “has been testified to by all” (3 John 12), may have been John’s way to refute some of Diotrephes’ slander. This is similar to when Paul put his reputation on the line to Philemon for Onesimus (Philemon 17). This letter ends in a similar way as 2 John, with a reference to “pen and ink” and the desire to “speak face to face” with Gaius (3 John 14).
Unlike 1 John, which had no clear recipient, 2 John was addressed to “an elect lady and her children” (2 John 1). There are three common interpretations of this greeting. First, John could have been writing to all believers. However, this does not explain the difference between the lady, her children, and her sister (2 John 13). Second, the “lady” could be a specific local church or group of churches. In this case, the “children” would be Christians from that church or region, and the “sister” would be a different church or region. Third, the recipient could have been a literal “lady” with “children.” She may have been wealthy, even hosting a local church in her home. This could explain how “all those who know the truth” (2 John 1) may have known and loved her. Some proponents of this view believe “elect” could even be a proper name, Kuria, or even Lady Kuria. This option may best explain the sister mentioned at the end.
Following his opening greeting, John clarified something that he seemed to leave open in 1 John. His first letter frequently commanded that believers love one another. In this letter he defined what that means: “Now this is love: that we walk according to his commandments” (2 John 6). When we obey God, not only are we showing our love for him but for other Christians as well.
The middle section is a warning regarding false teachers, similar to 1 John 4:1-3. The spirit of antichrist drives those who deny who Jesus really is. Because these teachers were on the loose, moving from city to city and church to church, John warned that this lady not welcome them into her home (probably where the church met) or give them a platform to spew their demonic message. Christian hospitality does not extend to wolves who are looking to devour the sheep. Rather, she would be complicit in their error if she knowingly allowed them access to that congregation (2 John 10-11).
The closing is a wonderful reminder that this is a letter from a person to a person. More than just an ancient, faceless apostle, John was a man who loved God and loved the Church enough both to pick up “paper and ink” to warn from a distance and to “come visit…and speak face to face” (2 John 12). From our perspective, what an honor that must have been!
Chapter five continues the themes of obeying God’s commandments and loving one another on the basis of God’s love for us (1 John 5:1-4). Adding to this, John introduced the concept of the opposing world system. This system, he declared, wholly “lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). This is not cause for alarm, however, because our faith “is the conquering power that has conquered the world” (1 John 5:4). John had written earlier that Jesus came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), so we have no need to fear him or his world, “because everyone who has been fathered by God conquers the world” (1 John 5:4), and “the evil one cannot touch him” (1 John 5:18). Instead, we can rely completely on Christ’s promise, namely that “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11). In fact, this was John’s final major reason for writing: “that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
The final section includes three parts. First, John quoted Jesus’ words from John 15:7. When we are remaining in him, we can ask anything in his will, and it will be granted (1 John 5:14-15). These requests and answers are proof that we are remaining close to him. Second, there will be some who leave the fellowship because of unrepentance. Rather than bearing fruit (John 15:1-8), their sin brings them down, even to death (1 John 5:16-17). Third, once we acknowledge the only true God, anything that takes his place in our value system in an idol. “Little children guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:20-21).
Chapter four picks up on John’s mention of the Holy Spirit in 1 John 3:24. Paul wrote that the Spirit is God’s seal of salvation (Ephesians 1:13-14) and assurance of our relationship with God (Romans 8:16); John agreed. The Spirit is the internal evidence of knowing God, while our obedience is the external (3:24). One of the primary ways the Spirit works is that he changes our understanding and beliefs. In 1 John 4:1-3, John gave the test of “who Jesus is” as proof of the Spirit’s indwelling. Only a believer can fully agree with Jesus’ full deity and full humanity, and John wrote that anyone who fails that test comes from a spirit of antichrist, not the Holy Spirit. Our basic beliefs reveal our spiritual state (1 John 4:6).
Coming back to the theme of loving one another, John gave another proof of genuine salvation. Only those who are God’s children can exhibit God’s love (1 John 4:8). The reason is that, because a person cannot give what he does not have, and only a believer has experienced God’s love and grace (1 John 4:10), only a believer can share it. Thus, because we are recipients of God’s love, we are obligated to share that with fellow recipients (1 John 4:11). Not only is hating a fellow believer likened to murder (3:15), this ungodly action proves to be a lie, because we cannot love God while hating his family (1 John 4:20). Again, this is the standard that God calls us to, even though we do not always fulfill it faithfully. So, following the stark ideal, John couched it in language of obligation: “the one who loves God should love his fellow Christian too” (1 John 4:21).
Chapter three is the most troublesome part of the letter for many people, especially the first half. John’s declarations are bold, even harsh, and leave no room for mistakes. “Everyone who sins has neither seen him nor known him” (1 John 3:6). “Everyone who does not practice righteousness…is not of God” (1 John 3:10). However, as chapter two proved, the ideal is not always the real. John knew that his readers would continue to sin, but he did not want them to think that was to be shrugged off as “human nature.” No, those fathered by God are not bound by “human nature;” we have a divine nature that is at work in us. John insisted that God’s goal be our goal, even though we continue to fail miserably. Another consideration is the truth that, when we are remaining in Christ (see John 15:1-8), we will not sin, because the Holy Spirit never leads us to sin. Thus, John could legitimately write, “Everyone who remains in him does not sin” (1 John 3:6).
If the first half of the chapter is the negative side – what the Christian life should not include – the second half is the positive – what it should include, namely, love for our fellow Christians. Using Cain as his example, John wrote that hating a fellow believer (“brother”) is akin to murder. Again, this makes sense. Murder is wrong because people are made in God’s image (Genesis 9:6). Hate separates people, essentially throwing a believer – someone in Christ’s image – back to the world which hates him (1 John 3:13); it is spiritual homicide, something that cannot be done by someone who is actively living out God’s love. This includes shutting off help in time of need (1 John 3:17). Christian love must necessarily be more than a kind word, something already evident in John’s day.