Bible Overview is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Bible study. Each month we feature a book of the Bible (in order) by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot.
This month we will explore the letter known as 3 John. It follows the traditional format of an ancient letter. This one is actually addressed to an individual, one of only two such letters in the New Testament (the other is Philemon). It begins with the address, followed by a wish for good health, the main body, and final greetings. If you want to read some of the history previous to this selection, you can find the earlier books in our archives.
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The third letter of John is the shortest book in the New Testament. It has 219 words and would easily have fit on one papyrus sheet. Scholars feel there is a close connection between 2 and 3 John, but they are less certain about its connection to the Gospel of John or 1 John. Still, most scholars think all three epistles could have been written by the same author. Obviously, there is considerable overlap between the letters. In fact, 2 John suggested that Christians refrain from providing hospitality to the opponents. Now in 3 John, the Elder exhorts his “dear friend” Gaius to provide hospitality to the “brothers” and condemns Diotrephes for refusing to do so. This has caused a considerable rift between Diotrephes and the Elder, but the exact details are unknown. Some speculate that Diotrephes might have taken an extreme position and refused hospitality to all itinerant preachers – believers and opponents alike. There is no reason to assume he was favoring the opponents over true believers. In fact, it is noteworthy that the Elder never accuses him of being an opponent or the “antichrist.” There does not seem to be a theological position at stake in their disagreement. Indeed, the worst thing the Elder states about Diotrephes is that he “liked to be first of them.”
This is probably an indication that Diotrephes was an authoritative figure, but it is not known what position Diotrephes held in that church. One possibility is that the church met in his house. As host, he would have had the prerogative of excluding those whom he chose not to receive. Others think he held a position of bishop and might have even excommunicated the Elder for some heresy. In this he probably would have had the support of the majority of his congregation. The bottom line, however, is that these options are speculative. What is known is that Diotrephes rejected a letter sent by the Elder, a letter of recommendation for the “brothers.” He refused the letter and refused to receive the emissaries carrying it. He refused to provide any hospitality to them. Such a refusal was considered to be a rejection of the Elder as well.
However, the letter, known as 3 John, was not written to Diotrephes. It is addressed to Gaius, a man of substance, who was in the same locality as Diotrephes, but not in the same house church. This is probably a different Gaius from the one Paul writes about. Gaius was a common name in the first century, and this letter would have been written a generation later. After his warm greeting, the Elder writes “in truth and love” – typical Johannine themes. He has heard that Gaius is “walking in the truth.” Since “truth” is somewhat of a catchword for the Christ, it means that Gaius is following Christ’s commands or living like Christ lived. This amounts to a complete endorsement of Gaius – a marshalling of the troops, so to speak.
The letter of 3 John continues by commending Gaius for receiving the “brothers,” emissaries sent by the Elder. No doubt it was these Christian missionaries who have reported back to the Elder about Gaius’ hospitality. Since these missionaries refused to receive help from pagans, their options were limited. One must remember that the Christian community was still small, so it was essential that believers were mutually supportive. Gaius had done so in the past, and it was the Elder’s fervent hope that he would continue to do so in the future.
Even though this is a very personal letter, it also bears some measure of authority. What he writes is meant to be shared with others. Clearly, Gaius (the addressee) was a man of influence and the Elder hopes that Gaius can use his influence to deal with that particular situation in his church community.
There are roughly five divisions to this letter: 1:1-4 – Salutation; 1:5-8 – A Commendation for Hospitality; 1:9-10 – Complaints against Diotrephes; 1:11-12 – Letter of recommendation of Demetrius; 1:13-15 – Farewell Remarks.