By most Bible scholars today, the books of I, II, and III John are thought to be among the last books written of the New Testament, followed only perhaps by the gospel of John, which they think may have been written even later. This is what is generally believed, yet little evidence is ever brought forward as to why they think this is so. This idea is based mainly on the fact that it is widely believed that the John of Ephesus, who lived and worked there in the 90s AD, was actually John the apostle, the brother of James and one of the twelve. In our examination of the book of John, we looked at this idea, and I demonstrated from the stories of the John of Ephesus that he does not appear to fit with how we would expect the apostle John to be. Moreover, this John of Ephesus is reported to have died in his bed, whereas the Lord predicted in Matthew 20:23 and Mark 10:39 that both James and John would die the death of martyrs. We know that James died a martyr first of all the apostles in Acts 12, yet John’s death is not recorded. But from the Lord’s words, however he died, it was not in his bed. Thus, the John of Ephesus, if he did indeed claim to be the apostle John in his lifetime, was nothing but a liar and a false apostle. See my article on “John Introduction” for more about this.

However, where does this leave the books of I, II, and III John? If the John of Ephesus did not write them in the 90s AD, then when were they written, and under what circumstances? And most importantly for our consideration of the dispensational dividing line of Acts 28:28, which side of this line do these books fall upon? Do they express the character of the dispensation in which we live, or were they written earlier and so take on the character of the Acts period? By this we can learn the truth of when they were written, and whether or not they really might have been some of the last books written.

First of all, I wish to appeal to the fact that these books could not possibly have been the last books of the Bible written. The fact is that that privilege was reserved for Paul. He declares this in Colossians 1:24-26.

24. I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, 25. of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, 26. the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints.

Paul declares that the stewardship of the mystery (that is, the secret) which was given to him was “to fulfill the word of God.” Yet this word “fulfill” means to “fill full” or to complete. Thus Paul’s message of the secret as we have it revealed in the post-Acts books like Ephesians and Colossians was given to him to complete the word of God. For this reason we can be sure that, when Paul laid down his pen having completed his last letter, that that was the completion of the word of God, and that no further books were written after that point. This would mean that the books of John could not possibly have been written twenty or more years after Paul completed his ministry. These books must have been completed when Paul completed II Timothy. They cannot be among the last books written, and they could not have been written long after Paul.

Now that said, let us examine the internal character of these books, and see if they fit with what we know was going on in the Acts period, or if they fit with the situation as it existed post Acts 28:28. First we examine I John. In verse 9, we read this statement.

9. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

How often has this verse been appealed to as proving that we must confess our sins in order for them to be forgiven! And yet, this flies totally in the face of what we know is God’s policy and work in the dispensation of grace. According to Ephesians 1:7:

7. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace

So we who are in Christ already have forgiveness of sins as a possession. This is not something that is granted to us upon confessing. Ephesians 2:4-7 makes this clear as well.

4. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5. even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6. and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7. that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

We are already seated with Christ Jesus in the heavenly seats, and so our forgiveness is already a done deal. Ephesians 4:32 sums it up.

32. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.

So we are already forgiven, and our forgiveness is not dependent upon confession. This is not to say that confessing our sins before God is not a good thing, but it is not a necessary thing for forgiveness in the dispensation of grace. So John’s statement here does not fit with the time period we live in post Acts 28:28. What it does fit with is the Acts period. Let us compare it to James, a book which most scholars believe was the first written of the books of the New Testament. In James 5:14-16, we read:

14. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

So James encourages them to confess their sins so that they can be forgiven. If they are not forgiven, sickness may be the result, or even death. This was the order of things in the Acts period, and the statement in I John 1:9 fits right in with it. It does not fit at all, however, with the way things are in this dispensation of grace.

I John 2:19 is also significant for determining when the book of I John was written.

19. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.

John declares here that a method for determining whether or not someone is truly a believer is if he continues with the group of other believers. If he goes out from them, it is clear he was not of them. Now this was completely true during the Acts period. God had created the system and the order into which men were brought when they came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This system was arranged by God, its leaders were God-appointed, and its commands were the commands of God. To abandon this group was to abandon God. Yet there is no such group on earth today. No one who leaves any group proves that he was not actually a believer. In fact, often true believers must leave a group that has gone astray from following after the Lord! So this is not at all what is true today.

The very next verse of I John 2:20 also shows us the dispensational character of this book.

20. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things.

Of whom could such a statement honestly be spoken today? Of what group or organization? Of what leaders or what clergy could this be stated? None, if we were honest about it. No one today has an anointing from the Holy One to know all the truth. Yet in the Acts period, there were God-appointed leaders who had the gift of knowledge, and so did know all they needed to know by Divine revelation. This was a truth for the Acts period. It is not a truth for today.

Again John speaks to the leaders in I John 2:27, proving that they had advantages that no believer, leader or not, has today.

27. But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.

Who can truly say today that he has no need for anyone to teach him? None of us know as we might yet know. All of us need more teaching. Yet in the Acts period, those to whom God had chosen to reveal the truth were set apart by Him, and He taught them all things directly. They needed no human teacher, for they were being taught in all things by God. He is truly a superior Teacher, and one who has Him for a teacher needs no one else. Yet imagine the arrogance of anyone today claiming to be beyond needing any teacher! This is just not the way it is today.

Moving on to I John 3:9, we see another passage that points out the character of the book of I John as having been written in the Acts period.

9. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.

This verse reveals to us that whoever has been born of God does not sin. Oh, the confusion this verse has caused today! The idea that salvation is called “being born again” is so prevalent, that many have read this verse and concluded that all who are truly saved do not sin anymore! Then, by taking a very simplistic and low view of sin, they imagine that they have achieved this state, and are no longer sinning. Yet how much confusion could be removed if only we would recognize that I John was written during the Acts period, and that being “born of God” has to do with far more than just “being saved.”

The word for “born” is gennao, and means “to be generated.” What John is talking about here is something that was common during the period of the book of Acts. That is, men would be generated by God, what we would call “Divine inspiration.” This included not just their words, but also their actions. What they did was directly caused by God. Yet no one who was acting by the generating power of God could sin at the same time as he was acting by God’s generating power. That power would never produce sinful behavior. Because he was generated by God, that person could not sin and act for God at the same time. This did not mean he could not sin at other times when God was not acting directly through him. But as long as God was working through him, he could not sin at that time. Yet today in the dispensation of grace God directly inspires no one, either in words or in actions. Thus this is nothing that anyone can claim access to today. Any who claim to be acting directly for God are not telling the truth. This verse is characteristic of the Acts period, but does not fit in with God’s work today.

Another verse that shows the Acts period character of I John is 3:10.

10. In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.

This whole section from verse 10 to verse 15 should be read in light of this. In the Acts period, we know that one purpose of God was to make all the believers one, and to produce in their hearts a genuine love for each other. We see the Lord Jesus asking His Father for this in John 17:20-23.

20. “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21. that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23. I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

The Lord’s prayer was answered, and we see it working out this way in Acts 4:32.
32. Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.

This was what we call the “great unity” in Jerusalem, when all the believers were gathered together in one place. Yet even after this unity was broken up by the stoning of Stephen, it was expected that all true believers should love each other. John makes it clear that this is true to such an extent that they can just conclude that anyone who does not love his brother is not of God! Yet is this true today? How often do brothers in the Lord today fail to see eye to eye, and for this reason do not display love towards each other! We might wish that all true believers truly loved their brothers, and yet all too often our love falls short. Must we assume that none of us are truly of God, since we do not always love as we should? No! Much better to admit that John was writing in a day when the Lord was working to produce such love for all the brothers in the hearts of believers. Though He still would like to see all believers have such love for each other today, He is not putting forth the power to bring this about, as He did in the Acts period. This is again something that only fits in the past dispensation, but does not fit today.

Another verse that fits the dispensational character of the Acts period in I John is 3:22.

22. And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.

This fits right in with the promises Christ gave His disciples in the gospels, and it is what they experienced in the Acts period, receiving any gift of the Holy Spirit they needed merely by the asking. Yet we might ask and beg God for the gifts that were given so freely in the book of Acts, and yet we will never receive them. This verse fits with what God was doing then, but not with what God is doing now. Our basis for prayer is found instead in Philippians 4:6-7.

6. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; 7. and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

In I John 4:1, we read,

1. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

This again fits right in with the Acts period, wherein one of the gifts of the Spirit was the discerning of spirits. We read of this in I Corinthians 12:10, which is listing various gifts of the Spirit.

10. to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

Yet this does not fit in at all with the way God is working today. We have no miraculous gift of discerning spirits. We must test everything against the Word of God. We have no special gift for discernment.

I John 4:6 also is very characteristic of the Acts period.

6. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

This is a verse that is very true of the apostles. They were God’s representatives on earth, and to hear them was to hear God. Yet to apply this to anyone other than men like the apostles and prophets, and certainly to apply this to any man today, would be the greatest of presumptions. There is no one who can honestly make such a statement today. This was true of the apostles. It is true of no one in God’s secret administration.

I John 4 continues to have many statements along the same lines as those I have already pointed out. In I John 5:15, we again see a prayer promise that fits with the Acts period, but not with today.

15. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.

In verses 16-17, we again see manifested the character of the Acts period.

16. If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.

In the Acts period, there were sins that led to death. Ananias and Sapphira committed such a sin when they lied to the Holy Spirit in Acts 5:1-11. The Corinthians committed such a sin when they failed to discern the Lord’s body as they ate the bread of the Lord and drank the cup of the Lord in I Corinthians 11:29-30. Yet there is no such sin today. Some sins are very risky behavior that could lead to death, yet there is no sin which produces an act of capital punishment from God. God is dealing graciously with us, as Ephesians 4:32 proclaims. There is no sin unto death today. Yet there was in the Acts period, when I John was written.

I John 5:18 repeats the truth we saw in I John 3:9, that anyone whose actions are being generated by God will not sin while acting by inspiration of God. Again, this fits with the Acts period, but not with today.

18. We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him.

So we complete our examination of I John, and find that its dispensational character is completely that of the Acts period, and is not that of our dispensation today. What of II John, then? Does it show the same dispensational character as I John, or might it have been written much later?

II John is so brief that it does not have many statements to examine to make clear its dispensational character. However, like I John, it appears clear that part of the purpose for writing it is to expose false teachers who were coming in among the believers. John appears to be writing to his wife, and warning her about these people. He urges her to remember that believers are to love one another, and commands her to reject those who do not teach the truth about Christ. There is little here to guarantee its dispensational position, yet there is little reason to divorce it from I John, with which it shares much the same theme. It was probably written at about the same time, that is, early in the Acts period, about the same time James was written.

III John falls into much the same category as II John. That is, it appears to be written about the same issues as I John, and yet to be to a certain person in a specific situation, rather than more general like I John. This time the book is written to a man named Gaius. John is warning him that a man named Diotrephes has rejected the letter John sent to them, probably I John. John promises that when he comes he will deal with this man. Although John does not say so directly, this would seem to imply the kind of apostolic authority to punish that Paul warned the Corinthians about in I Corinthians 4:21. Again, we have no reason to divorce this book from the time of the writing of I John, which would place it earlier in the Acts period, long before the dispensational change at Acts 28:28.

So we conclude that the books of I, II, and III John were all written during the Acts period. This is demonstrated to us most clearly in the book of I John. John attaches forgiveness to confession, and speaks of sins that could bring the Divine punishment of death, which are things that do not happen in the dispensation of grace. John indicates that anyone who separates himself from the group never really belonged to Christ in the first place. Yet there is no such group on earth today, nor has there been since the dispensational change. John indicates that his readers have certain powerful workings of the Spirit in their lives, like a Divinely-generated love for each other, a God-given knowledge that removes from them the need of any human teaching, and the power to act by Divine inspiration so that while doing so they cannot commit sin. He speaks of their ability to ask God for any gift He gives, which was a promise to God’s representatives in the Acts period, but which clearly works for no one today. Moreover, he supports the power of the apostles, and proclaims that all who are of God will listen to them.

All these things lead us to the conclusion that these books by John were given to him by God during the Acts period. They were not written to our dispensation today, and do not manifest the character of God’s secret dispensation, the dispensation of grace, the time of the silence of God, or the time when there is only one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus. These books of John were written during the Acts period, and display the Acts period character. That is the dispensational place of I, II, and III John.