Study Guide

The Elder (Author) in Johannine Epsitles (1-3 John)

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The Elder (Author)

Our author refers to himself at the beginning of his second and third letter as "the elder." Kind of sounds like an awesome superhero name ("powers of letter writing, activate!"). This is the guy who would go on to coin crowd-pleasing phrases like "God is love" and "the antichrist." So just who is he, and why are we talking about him two thousand years later?

What Do We Know About Him?

Let's start with the text. What do the Epistles of John tell us about the elder?

Um…not much.

No name. No location. No age. No personal information. We don't even get a hint about his favorite ice cream flavor. Shmoop prefers mint chocolate chip, but that's beside the point.

Christian tradition has always said that the author of these three letters was named John—and yes, that's the same John who wrote the Gospel of John (and some people would say Revelation). For hundreds of years, people thought he was a real overachiever.

But in this case, tradition is probably…wrong. The elder most likely didn't write John's Gospel (and he definitely didn't write Revelation), but he also clearly digs the fourth gospel a ton. His letters have lots of similarities to the themes in the Gospel of John: a focus on God's love, Jesus' elevated divine status, and the general lack of Jewish shout-outs.

What's an Elder Anyway?

So the elder is a Christian. He's part of a community that uses John's Gospel to understand Jesus (sometimes called the Johannine community by biblical scholars—it just sounds fancier). Oh, and he's…an elder.

When talking about an "elder," the New Testament uses the Greek word presbyteros, which just means "older." (In retrospect…duh.) Elders were leaders in the community (because wisdom comes with age); they were part of the Jewish tradition and became a fixture in the growing church. In Acts, Paul consults with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to settle some dogmatic scores (Acts 15:2), and in Revelation, John of Patmos sees twenty-four elders sitting on thrones in his vision of Heaven (Revelation 4:4). Clearly, elders were super important dudes.

Respect His Authority

So how does the elder use his position in the church? To crack a few skulls.

See, the elder is the leader of a community with problems. Back in the day, everyone used to be one big happy family; then some of the folks in the community got ideas—ideas the elder didn't like. He believed they were going outside the bounds of good Christian behavior and saying things they shouldn't be (2 John 1:9).

But the elder would prefer it if everyone would just stick to tradition. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

He has some bones to pick with his opponents, so he makes some statements about what right-thinking Christians should believe:

  • Jesus has come "in the flesh" (1 John 4:2). The flesh part is important, so make note.
  • If you love God, you'll obey his commandment to love (1 John 4:11). Love begets love.
  • In order to be in good with God, you've got to be part of the elder's community (1 John 4:6). Sorry, outsiders.

Portraits in Biblical Leadership

But at the time these letters were written, the elder was a leader in crisis. And his leadership style is pretty interesting.

You probably noticed throughout the three letters that the elder isn't using his precious pen and ink to convince the naysayers that they're wrong. Nope. He's not trying to bring everyone in the community back together. Instead, he's trying to keep the folks that have stuck around from leaving. Either the elder has already tried to mend fences and it hasn't panned out, or he was never one for arguing with people he thinks are big fat liars.

And really, why should he bother to argue? The elder clearly believes he's right. He has tradition on his side (and God, of course). The elder offers some arguments for his line of thinking, but a lot of his message boils down to a big ol' "because I said so." He claims that he's following he oldest and most correct teachings about Jesus:

  • "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands." (1 John 1:1)
  • "Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning." (1 John 2:7)
  • "For this is the message you have heard from the beginning." (1 John 3:11)
  • "If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater." (1 John 5:9)

According to the elders, these other guys are just blowing smoke up people's butts.

Because he seems to have lost his patience with the naysayers, the elder takes a pretty hardline stance with these outsiders. He speaks disdainfully of "the world" and the people in it (i.e., non-Johannine Christians); he tells his fellow Christians not to love or even pray for folks who aren't members of the community; and he calls his opponents antichrists. Very subtle, Mr. Elder.

For a guy who tells everyone to "love one another, because love is from God" (1 John 4:7), he's not feeling a lot of love for people who don't agree with him, that's for sure.

The Elder vs. Paul: An Epistolary Showdown

To get an idea of how different the elder is from other biblical leaders, compare him to Paul. Paul had enemies, too—lots of 'em. He could also be uncompromising and stubborn and arrogant and…okay, we'll stop.

But for all his faults, Paul is also the founding member of the Get Along Gang. Every perfectly crafted theological argument he makes is with the purpose of bringing Christians together. He hates to see people arguing about kosher food and circumcision, He loves a good compromise and is willing to let things slide (like Jewish law) in order to make Christianity into a really big tent.

The elder seems to be a downright jerk by comparison—he makes it sound like he and his community are the only ones who hold the truth. He's writing to keep everyone in check and to basically stop thought crimes (Big Brother, anyone?). And though the guy can spin poetic lines with the best of them, all his musings on love kind of lose their flavor when you realize that they only apply to a handful of Christians.

What Gives?

So is the elder an old curmudgeon stuck in the past or a biblical hero guarding the truth and honor of Christ?

Probably a little of both.

From the elder's point of view, his opponents are dead wrong about Jesus. Because of this, their relationship with God is in danger. The elder can't have that spreading around to the rest of his "little children." People's lives are on the line here, and the blood would be on the elder's hands if he does nothing.

When you consider that the reward for being out of step with God is an eternity spent weeping and gnashing teeth, then the elder's hardline stance becomes a little more understandable. Polite people usually agree to disagree when presented with someone with different (and clearly, stupid) opinions. But if you knew that someone who opened their mouth to spout one of their wrong-headed thoughts would choke and die, you might do more to try to talk them out of saying stuff like that.

So next time you meet a know-it-all who refuses to compromise, just think of the elder. And then roll your eyes.

It's okay, Shmoop won't judge.

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