Understanding the Difference Between The Gospel of John and The Epistles of John
Did you know that there are four books in the Bible with the name 'John' in the title? Maybe it's caused you some confusion in the past. Perhaps a friend referred you to a passage in a book of the Bible, saying, “Read the section beginning at 1 John 4:7. It tells us about God's love for us and it calls us to love one another.” But when you turn to the fourth chapter in a book called 'John', what you find is something very different. You find a story about Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman as she comes to draw water from a well.
You are confused. And the reason you are confused is this: your friend was referring to the first epistle of John, but you opened up to and read from the gospel of John. Little did you know that the book you turned to is the first of four books in the Bible named after its author, the Apostle John. Allow me to explain the difference between “the four Johns.”
The first of the four 'Johns' is a book of the Holy Bible found near the beginning of the New Testament.1 It is known as 'The Gospel of John' and usually identified in references simply as 'John'. The other three 'Johns' form a three-volume set called 'The Epistles (or letters) of John.' They are located near the end of the New Testament and are always identified as either '1 John' (the first epistle of John), '2 John' (the second epistle of John), and '3 John' (the third epistle of John). Let's begin with The Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John is the fourth book in the New Testament and at the same time the fourth gospel. The word 'gospel' means 'good news,' and the good news these books speak about is the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, on the stage of world history. Four different men, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, each wrote their own gospels. The gospels are biographical accounts of Jesus' earthly life and ministry which recount key things Jesus said and did during His years on earth: miracles He performed to show His divine power and identity; parables He told to teach truths about the kingdom of God; acts of kindness and compassion He showed to reveal the kindness and love of God. However, of all the things the gospel writers make mention of, they devote the most time and attention to the last week of Jesus' earthly life—Passion Week. This was a time of intense suffering which climaxed in Jesus' death by crucifixion, but it was followed by His glorious resurrection. That's what the gospels are: stories (or narrations) about the life of Jesus. And the Gospel of John is one of four biographies of His life.
The epistles, on the other hand, are a very different type of literature. Epistles are not narratives, stories, or biographies. Rather, they are letters. The New Testament contains a total of twenty-one epistles or letters. Thirteen are written by the Apostle Paul; two by the Apostle Peter; one by James, the brother of Jesus; one by Jude; one to the Hebrews, the author remains unknown; and three by the Apostle John. Some of these letters are addressed to individual people (ex. 1&2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon). However, the majority of these letters are addressed to churches located in various cities, many of which are identified by name in the title (ex. the letters to the Corinthians were written to the church in the city of Corinth; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2).
Whereas the Gospels tell the story of Jesus' life, one of the main things these letters do is explain the significance of Jesus' life, specifically the meaning of His death, resurrection and ascension. For example, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus died on the cross and rose again (John 19:17-20:31). And the first epistle of John explains the significance of Jesus' death: “9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [or atoning sacrifice] for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). John uses the word 'propitiation' to tell us that when Jesus died on the cross, He was offering Himself up to God as a sacrifice for our sins. In doing so, He appeased (ie. satisfied or propitiated) the wrath of God against the sin of all who believe on Him. Because Jesus' sacrifice on the cross actually paid for our sin, John can end his letter with these words of immense comfort: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
To summarise: there are four books in the Bible that bear the name 'John.' The first is the Gospel of John which is essentially a biography of Jesus' life. The other three are letters written by John which tell us about the meaning and significance of Jesus' life. And John tells us that “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).