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.
I -- 1:1-4 – Salutation
- The Elder writes to an individual named Gaius
- He addresses him as "my dear friend," obviously an expression of warmth
- It may be that Gaius is one of the Elder's followers
- Whether or not he is the same Gaius of Romans and I Corinthians is speculative
- The Elder loves him "in the truth"
- "Truth" in this context probably means right belief and right conduct
- "Love" is the self-sacrificing love for others
- It is based on the model of God's love for Jesus and Jesus' love for others
- If the issue facing the church is false teachings, then those who hold to the "truth" are the true Johannine Christians
- Greetings to Gaius
- The Elder prays that "things are well with your soul"
- "Soul" is better translated "life" in this context
- This is a prayer for "good health" – a common greeting in ancient letters
- He prays for both his physical and spiritual health
- He prays that all will go well for him – his general well-being
- He follows this greeting with an expression of thanksgiving
- Some brothers have told the Elder about Gaius' faithfulness
- (This would be especially important if there are divisions in the community)
- He is not only faithful in his beliefs but also in his daily living
- Gaius is said to "walk in the truth" – to be true to the teachings of Jesus
- It would also include the command to love one another
- The Elder is filled with great joy over this news
- Nothing pleases him more than to know people are still "walking in the truth"
- There is no greater joy and no better news than this
- He calls his fellow believers "children"
- This could indicate he feels a sense of responsibility for them
- It stresses the intimacy of this group – dear friend, brothers, and children
II – 1:5-8 – A Commendation for Hospitality
- Gaius is again addressed as "dear friend"
- He is commended for showing hospitality to the "brothers"
- These are friends sent by the Elder but previously unknown to Gaius
- Though they were strangers, Gaius met their needs with food and shelter
- Because of his generosity, the "brothers" were able to deliver the message from the Elder
- No doubt the opponents were also sending out messengers
- Obviously, Gaius had made the right choice in supporting the Elder's friends
- The brothers had filled in the Elder's church about Gaius' love
- That love was both practical and "in truth"
- The standard is to act in "a manner worthy of God"
- This would include both devotion and sacrifice
- The justification for treating the "brothers" well is that they went out for the "Name"
- Their task was to advance the cause and to proclaim the truth
- (They did this presumably to oppose the false teachers)
- The "Name" is a reference to Jesus Christ
- In this, the brothers received no help from the pagans (i.e. non-Christians)
- Typically, itinerant preachers begged for money from their hearers
- The Elder exhorts Gaius to continue to support the "brothers"
- "We" ought to show them hospitality
- Gaius should do what he can to help them
- In so doing, Gaius shares in their work "for the truth"
- But this hospitality should not be extended to those who come with false teachings, for they do not "walk in the truth"
- Clearly, Gaius is a man of means who can offer this support
III -- 1:9-10 – Complaints against Diotrephes
- Unlike Gaius, Diotrephes receives no commendation from the Elder
- Diotrephes is most likely the host of another house church
- It is unlikely that Gaius is a member of this church, but they know of each other Diotrephes is described in six negative phrases
- As leader of the congregation (1) he rejected a letter written by the Elder
- Diotrephes wants (2) to "have nothing to do with us"
- "Us" in this context probably refers to those who "walk in the truth"
- By refusing the letter, Diotrephes indicated his opposition to apostolic authority Diotrephes, himself, wants to be the authority; he refuses to acknowledge anyone else
- The Elder is considering a visit to that community
- If he comes, he will confront Diotrephes face to face
- The community needs to know how Diotrephes (3) gossips maliciously about "us," (4) refuses to welcome the brothers, (5) stops those who do so, and (6) puts them out of the church
- To "gossip maliciously" means to talk nonsense about them; or to bring false charges
- In this case, it undermines the Elder's authority
- By "refusing to welcome the brothers" he is also rejecting the Elder who sent them
- This is another attempt to maintain authority of his own church
- (The Elder never accuses Diotrephes of being a "deceiver," but he has caused serious divisions within the Johannine community)
- Not only does Diotrephes refuse hospitality to the brothers, but he does not allow others to do so
- As the leader of this church, he apparently is able to do this
- If the church meets in his house, this would be easy to do
- Lastly, anyone showing loyalty to the Elder is "put out" of the church
- In this way, he is able to maintain control It is not clear why the Elder doesn't address him directly (Paul probably would have)
- His intent is to "call attention to what he is doing"
IV -- 1:11-12 – Letter of Recommendation of Demetrius
- Gaius should be able to distinguish between what is good and what is evil
- Those who do what is good are from God
- Those who do what is evil have not seen God
- One example of someone who does good is a person named Demetrius
- Perhaps he was even the bearer of this letter and might have been a "brother"
- Demetrius is introduced as a loyal friend and is well spoken of by everyone
- He is one of those who "walk in the truth"
- His beliefs and his actions work together
- He believes that Jesus has come in the flesh and expresses love to others
- If "truth" could testify, it would commend the life of Demetrius
- The Elder knows this individual and speaks well of him
- He simply adds his voice to what others have already said about him
- There can be no doubt about the truth of the Elder's testimony
V -- 1:13-15 – Farewell Remarks
- The Elder has much more that he would like to say regarding the divisions
- It is his hope, however, to come in person to say them – face to face
- Obviously, the schism was spreading
- There is a sense of urgency in this ending
- He wants to see Gaius soon
- He sends his greetings of peace – ironic in the face of divisions
- Surely, peace is what they all desire – both spiritually and outwardly with defectors
- The peace that comes from God signifies being in right relationships
Ultimately, the issue raised in 3 John is of considerable significance. In matters of authority, who is authorized to speak, who is to say what is permissible and what isn't? Diotrephes thought he had such authority and backed it up with the threat of excommunication. Yet his decision was in conflict with the authority of the Elder, who appeals to Gaius. (If there is an additional underlying theological conflict, it is not mentioned.) This letter, then, provides another glimpse of some of the issues that had to be addressed by the early church.
Barclay, William. "The Letters of John." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975.
Johnson, Thomas. "1, 2, and 3 John." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 1993.
Gaebelein, Frank. "2 John." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.
Keck, Leander, ed. "2 John." The New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1998.
Rensberger, David. "1 John, 2 John, 3 John." Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1997.
Smith, D. Moody. "First, Second, and Third John." Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press. 1991.
Thompson, Marianne Meye. "1-3 John." The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1992.