The Son of Zebedee

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).

- 1 John 1:1–4

Today we shall consider the authorship of the Johannine epistles (1, 2, and 3 John) in preparation for our study of 1 John. All commentators, except the most radical of scholars, agree that all three letters come from the same author. However, the question remains, who was this author?

Unlike the other General Epistles, none of these letters gives us the name of the author. Tradition holds that the author of these letters also wrote the Gospel of John. Indeed, there are many discernible syntactical and thematic similarities between the Gospel and the letters that bear John’s name. Some have denied common authorship based on what they call subtle doctrinal differences between the Gospel and the letters. However, a closer investigation reveals no substantial differences exist, although the letters sometimes apply the teachings of Jesus a little differently than John’s Gospel does. But that should be no surprise since the needs addressed by John’s Gospel are different than those addressed in his epistles.

We do not have time to consider the evidence for the authorship of the fourth Gospel, but the traditional position that it was the disciple whom Jesus loved — John, the son of Zebedee — should be maintained. As such, he is also the author of the Johannine epistles. In addition, the epistles themselves imply an apostolic author because of the many passages alluding to an eyewitness account of Jesus’ ministry (for example, 1 John 1:1–4).

This John, the son of Zebedee, was one of the most important leaders in the early church. Paul, for instance, recognizes him as one of the three pillars of the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:9). He is known to have planted several churches in and around the city of Ephesus. It is likely that his letters are addressed to these churches and were written sometime in the late first century, shortly before he was exiled to Patmos where he received a special revelation from Jesus Christ. Tradition has John eventually being freed from Patmos and returning to Ephesus, overseeing the churches there until his death during the time of the Emperor Trajan.

Coram Deo

There is a tradition about John that says near the end of his life, when it was difficult for him to walk, he was carried into church meetings repeating the exhortation “love one another” over and over again. Basic Christian truths, such as our need to love one another, are emphasized again and again in 1 John, and we do well to understand that all of us need to be reminded to love one another. Ask God to give you love for other Christians and do what you can to show this love.

Passages for Further Study

Matt. 4:18–22
Mark 3:13–19
John 20:1–10; 21:20–25

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