An American Commentary on the New Testament

Edited by Hovey, Alvah

Introduction to the Second & Third Epistles of John


Who wrote these Epistles? No one doubts that they were written by one and the same person. Their form, style, thought, and spirit suggest one author. They have been called twin sisters. But who was the writer? The answers have been somewhat various. Of these, only two are worthy of note: one, that the writer was the person who wrote the First Epistle — namely, John, the apostle; the other, that the writer was John, the presbyter, a Christian disciple, who, it is alleged, lived in Ephesus near the close of the first century. Ebrard sustains the latter opinion; but the weight of critical judgment is for the other view, which is strongly sanctioned by Lücke, DeWette, Huther, Düsterdieck, Lange, Alford, and many others of scarcely less scholarship and acumen.

If in some of the early documents and testimonies these two Epistles are omitted, where the First is cited or named, the reason is to be found in their exceeding brevity, and their merely private destination, rather than in a doubt of their apostolic origin. Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Dionysius and Alexander of Alexandria, Cyprian, and Eusebius, all give direct or indirect testimony to the authorship by John, the apostle. Even the existence of such a person as John, the presbyter, as distinguished from the Apostle John, is deemed by Alford "very doubtful." The principal reason why the two Epistles have been attributed to any other than John, the apostle, is the writer's announcement of himself in each as the elder, or presbyter. It is the manner of John, as the Fourth Gospel and First Epistle show, to suppress his own name as far as possible. But, writing a personal letter to a personal acquaintance, it was necessary for him to designate himself in some way, which he does, as would be natural to him, with the most modest epithet which he could use, that would be sufficient to identify him. What other term could be so well selected, as that of the elder, or presbyter, to accomplish this, and at the same time satisfy the apostle's modest spirit? For he was an elder, or bishop, in one class with others at Ephesus; and he was the elder in being the first among equals in his official relation to the church in Ephesus. And this, therefore, (ὁ πρεβύτερος, official, not ὁ πρεσβύτης, an old man) would unmistakably designate him. Did not Peter, though an apostle, call himself an elder? (1 Peter 5:1.) Papias included apostles among those called elders. Another John at Ephesus could not be called the elder by way of eminence. The epithet makes for, rather than against, the apostle. The internal evidence of these Epistles, furnished by the style, sentiment, and manner, is strikingly in favor of the authorship of John, the apostle. It is not necessary to make the comparisons illustrating this point.


To whom were these Epistles written? It is admitted by all that the Third was addressed to a Christian brother bearing the name of Gains, a brother of prominence, active in behalf of missionaries, benevolent and beloved, but whether the Gains of Macedonia (Acts 19:29), or the Gains of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14; Rom. 16:23), or the Gains of Derbe (Acts 20:4), or neither of them, none can decide. One of this name is mentioned in "The Apostolic Constitution" as Bishop of Pergamos, and some have thought him to be the one addressed by John, but only on the basis of the purest conjecture.

It seems equally plain to us that the Second Epistle was addressed to a prominent and influential Christian sister, Cyria by name, and to her children. Is not this exactly what the letter says, as explicitly as the utterance of the address in the other letter? Yet there have been those, who, fond of remote meanings and fanciful inventions, have understood this Epistle to be addressed to a church, or to all the churches together, under the name and figure of a chosen lady. Some holding Cyria (κύρια) to be an epithet (lady, or mistress), with indeed a literal and not a figurative application, have made all sorts of conjectures as to who the lady was; it even being guessed that she was Martha of Bethany, or again, Mary the mother of Jesus! Those maintaining the figurative application of the term, have even gone so far as to conjecture the particular church addressed. That at Corinth has been named; also that at Philadelphia, and that at Jerusalem. We think we have given the most obvious distinction of the Epistle, and one with which its tenor, and natural interpretation, and the analogy of its twin companion, are most in harmony. Why we regard the term Cyria as a name, and not an epithet, and the term elect as an epithet, and not a name, will further appear in the commentary.


The place and time of writing these Epistles need not be discussed at any length. From a passage in the "History" of Eusebius (III. 23), it is inferred that they were written late in the apostle's long life, and their notable similarity suggests that they were written not far apart in matter of time. The journey spoken of in each may have been one and the same. From the suggestions connected with the First Epistle, and from the generally credited tradition respecting John's residence in the last part of his life, there can be little doubt that the place of writing was Ephesus.

The object and contents of these Epistles, together with other peculiarities belonging to them, may be best learned in our exegetical study of them. We only add that the Third Epistle may be fairly designated as pre-eminently the Missionary Epistle of the New Testament. As to missionary enterprise, and our duty to it, it supplies in little space a surprising measure of instruction.