Dr. Thomas L. Constable
Third John is probably the most personal letter in the New Testament. Most of the epistles originally went, of course, to churches or groups of Christians. First and Second John are both of this type. The Pastoral Epistles, while sent to specific individuals, namely Timothy and Titus, were obviously written with a wide circulation in mind as well. The Epistle to Philemon, too, gives evidence that Paul intended its recipient to share it with the church that met in his house. Third John likewise has universal value, and the early Christians recognized that it would benefit the whole Christian church. However, the content of this letter is most personal.
". . . 3 John shows independence from epistolary conventions found elsewhere in the NT (including 2 John), and conforms most closely to the secular pattern of letter-writing in the first century A.D. . . . In 3 John this includes a greeting with a health-wish; and expression of joy at news of the addressee's welfare; the body of the letter, containing the promise of another epistle; and, at the close, greetings to and from mutual friends (cf. the papyri)."
The author was evidently the Apostle John, who identified himself as "the elder" here (v. 1), as he also did in 2 John. The striking similarity in content, style, and terminology in these two epistles confirms the ancient tradition that John wrote both of them.
Since there is no internal evidence concerning where the "Gaius" of 3 John lived, most interpreters have placed him in the Roman province of Asia, the most probable destination of 1 and 2 John. His name was a common one in the Greek world. Other "Gaiuses" mentioned in the New Testament include the man Paul baptized in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14; perhaps the same as Paul's host in Corinth, Rom. 16:23), Paul's Macedonian companion on his third missionary journey (Acts 19:29), and Gaius of Derbe (Acts 20:4). None of these Gaiuses lived in the province of Asia, however, nor when John wrote, as far as we know.
The process of establishing a date for the writing of 3 John has been deductive as well. Probably John wrote this epistle about the same time he wrote 1 and 2 John, A.D. 90-95, and from Ephesus.
I. Introduction v. 1
II. Upholding the truth with love vv. 2-12
A. Commendation of Gaius' love vv. 2-4
B. Encouragement to support those who proclaim the truth vv. 5-10
C. Exhortation to continue this support in Demetrius' case vv. 11-12
III. Conclusion vv. 13-14
Third John and Second John deal with two sides of the same issue, namely: the relationship between the truth and Christian love. In 2 John, the writer stressed the importance of the truth. In 3 John, he stressed the importance of love. Second John is more general, in that it deals with ideas. Third John is more personal, and deals with examples, or specific cases.
"In the Second Epistle He [sic he, John] condemns heresy because of departure from the truth and from the love of the truth. In the Third Epistle the apostle condems [sic] divisions and schisms among God's people."
I would summarize the message of this epistle as follows: "Brotherly love is the product of abiding in the truth." John gave two concrete examples to clarify how Christian love, which is the product of abiding in the truth ("walking in the light"), behaves.
The first example is positive, and involves Gaius' commendable behavior. Gaius put the needs of others before his own needs and desires. This is how Christian love should behave. It is how Jesus Christ behaved, and it is how He instructed us to behave (Phil. 2:7). Gaius provided hospitality and financial support for the gospel preachers who visited his town (v. 5).
John approved this practice for three reasons: First, such behavior is worthy of God (v. 6). That is, it is in harmony with God's behavior. God provides for those who put His interests before their own (Matt. 6:33). Second, such behavior is necessary, because these men would not get help from unbelievers (v. 7). We should not expect the unsaved to support God's work. If they do not believe the gospel, why would they want to support its propagation? Third, such behavior makes the supporter a partner with the preacher (v. 8). We really do have a share in the work that others do by supporting them materially. Missionaries make this point often.
The second example of brotherly love is negative, and involves Diotrephes' contemptible behavior. Diotrephes put his personal desires and needs before the needs of others. This is how Christian love should not behave. The root problem with Diotrephes' behavior was pride, self-centeredness (v. 9). This is the opposite of how Jesus Christ behaved and how He taught us to behave.
The fruit product of this attitude was threefold (v. 10): First, his words were lies. He was making false accusations against others to elevate himself. Second, his motives were selfish. He was withholding hospitality and support because these acts threatened his own security. Third, his actions toward others were oppressive. He used intimidation to force others to conform to his will, rather than submitting to them. He went so far as to exclude others from the fellowship of the church meetings, rather than fostering unity among the brethren.
John also gave an exhortation to behave in harmony with the truth (v. 11). He gave two reasons for obeying this exhortation: First, it is the nature of God's children to do good works ("not sin"; cf. 1 John 3:7, 9; 5:18). Second, the person who does evil gives evidence that he has "not seen God." He is "in darkness," either as an unbeliever, or as a believer (cf. 1 John 1:6).
Finally, John gave an opportunity to behave in harmony with the truth (v. 12). This verse underlines the importance of putting love into practice in concrete (real) situations, not just discussing it theoretically.
This brief letter has an important message for the church in our day.
First, we are not really abiding in the truth if we fail to demonstrate love for our brethren in physical, financial ways. We may know the truth intellectually without knowing it experientially. We must not only have the truth in our grip, but the truth must also have us in its grip.
Second, our activities reveal our true attitudes. We can see if our attitude is loving or selfish, not by examining our emotions, but by examining our activities. Do our actions demonstrate love or selfishness? This is a very practical and helpful test that we should use on ourselves regularly.
John identified himself, and greeted the recipient of this shortest New Testament epistle, in order to set the tone for what follows.
v. 1 As in 2 John, the Apostle identified himself as "the elder." We do not know exactly who this "Gaius" (Lat. "Caius") was. His was a common first name at that time. Early church tradition did not identify him with Paul's native Macedonian companion (Acts 19:29), Paul's companion from Derbe (Acts 20:4), or the Corinthian Paul baptized who hosted the church in Corinth (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14).
The reason for this is that "Gaius" was a very common name in Greek and Latin then, just like the name "John" is in English now. This Gaius probably lived somewhere in the province of Asia. He was obviously someone whom John loved as a brother Christian.
John's concern for both "love" and "truth" is again evident, in this epistle (cf. 2 John). "In truth" means truly and in accord with God's truth. Both John and Gaius held the truth as the apostles taught it.
The word "Beloved" introduces each of the three sections of the body of this brief epistle.
v. 2 Gaius was in good spiritual condition; he was walking in the light (cf. 1 John 1:7). John prayed that "all would (may) go well with" him (NIV), and that he might enjoy as "good" physical "health" as he did spiritual health ("just as your soul prospers").
The physical and general welfare of others should be of concern to us, as well as their spiritual vitality. Usually Christians give more attention to the former than the latter, however, as our prayers often reveal.
Some see, in this verse, support of the view that God wants all believers to prosper physically and financially, as well as spiritually. However, there is nothing else in the Johannine corpus to indicate that this is what John meant, and there is little support elsewhere in Scripture.
v. 3 John had heard from others ("brethren" who "testified") that Gaius was a man of the "truth." That is, his lifestyle was consistent with the truth—he was "walking in truth."
v. 4 We do not know if Gaius was John's child physically, spiritually (his convert), or metaphorically. The last usage of this word is the most common one in the New Testament. In this case, he could have been a disciple of John or simply a younger believer (cf. 2 John 4; 1 Tim. 1:2).
John commended Gaius for his love of the brethren (cf. 1 John 2:3-9; 3:14-18, 23; 4:7, 11, 20-21; 2 John 5), in order to encourage him to continue practicing this virtue.
v. 5 John loved ("Beloved") Gaius, just as Gaius loved "the brethren" to whom he had extended hospitality.
John's affection for Gaius is obvious in his repeated use of the word "beloved" (cf. v. 2). Gaius acted "faithfully" in the sense that his behavior was consistent with God's truth (cf. 2 John 1-2).
It is possible that Gaius had shown love "for the brethren and for strangers," as some Greek texts read. On the other hand, perhaps the NASB translation is correct: he showed love to ("whatever you accomplish for") "the brethren"—and even ("especially") to those brethren who were "strangers" to him. Probably Gaius had demonstrated love to all these varieties of people (cf. Heb. 13:2).
v. 6 "The church" in view was John's church, probably in Ephesus. "You will do well to" is an idiom that we could translate "Please." John urged Gaius to continue his commendable treatment of his visitors. He could do so not only during their stay with him, but later when they departed, by "sending them on their way in a manner worthy of God," i.e., with adequate provisions (cf. Acts 15:3; 20:38; 21:5; Rom. 15:24; 1 Cor. 16:6; Titus 3:13).
"The point is still relevant. Christian ministers and missionaries live in the faith that God will encourage his people to provide for their needs; it is better that such provision err on the side of generosity than stinginess."
v. 7 The brethren in view in this whole situation were traveling preachers ("they went out"). To go out in the name of Christ ("for the sake of the Name") was a great honor because of that "Name." (This is the only New Testament book that does not mention Jesus Christ by name.)
I think it is unlikely that John used "the Name" as an atbash (code word) for "Jesus Christ" to prevent this letter from being destroyed by any potential enemy of Christianity who might intercept it. John would have made sure this letter reached Gaius by way of a secure messenger.
Early Christian preachers normally received material support from other believers (cf. Acts 20:35; 1 Cor. 9:14; 2 Thess. 3:7-9), or else they supported themselves (cf. Acts 18:3). They did not solicit or accept funds from unbelievers (cf. Ezra 8:22; Matt. 10:8; 2 Cor. 12:14; 1 Thess. 2:9). "Gentiles" was a general term for unbelievers. Most of the Gentiles were pagans.
"As the ark went through the wilderness, it was carried on the shoulders of the Israelites priests. They could not even put it on a cart. God said that the priests were to carry it. And God's priests today are His believers. Every believer is a priest, and you and I are to carry the Lord Jesus Christ into this world today."
"This does not mean that God's servants should refuse a voluntary gift from an unconverted person, as long as the person understands that the gift will not purchase salvation. Even then, we must be very cautious. The king of Sodom's offer was voluntary, but Abraham rejected it! (Gen. 14:17-24)"
Sometimes gifts from unbelievers, and some believers, have strings attached; returned favors are expected.
v. 8 Giving financial and hospitable aid makes the giver a partner ("fellow worker") with the receiver in his work (cf. 2 John 10-11), and with "the truth" (the gospel).
Since pagans did not support Christian preachers and teachers, the duty of Christians to support them was even greater ("we ought to support such men").
"As a deacon expressed it to me in the first church I pastored, 'You pay your board where you get your food!' It is unbiblical for church members to send their tithes and offerings all over the world and neglect to support the ministry of their own local church."
Note John's emphasis on "the truth" again. Preaching the gospel is proclaiming the truth.
v. 9 Gaius' good example stands out more sharply beside Diotrephes' bad example. "Diotrephes" is a rare name, and means "nourished by Zeus." John brought Diotrephes into the picture to clarify the responsibility of Gaius—and all other readers of this epistle—and to give instructions concerning this erring brother.
The letter "to the church" that both Gaius and Diotrephes were a part of is not extant, as far as we know, unless it is 1 or 2 John. (Findlay believed that it was 2 John.) "Them" refers to the believers in that church. John exposed Diotrephes' motivation as pride ("who loves to be first . . . does not accept what we say"). Diotrephes had put John down in order to exalt himself. John did not say or imply that Diotrephes held false doctrine. He only blamed his improper hubris and ambition (cf. Matt. 20:27). John never directly raised the subject of heresy in 3 John.
"Some forty years ago I wrote an article on Diotrephes for a denominational paper. The editor told me that twenty-five deacons stopped the paper to show their resentment against being personally attacked in the paper."
v. 10 The Apostle John promised and warned that whenever he might visit that congregation, he would point out Diotrephes' sinful behavior, assuming it persisted. Specifically, Diotrephes was charging ("accusing") John "falsely," in order to elevate himself. Worse than that, he was not giving hospitality to ("does not receive") the visiting "brethren," as Gaius was—perhaps because he saw them as a threat to himself. Third, he intimidated others in the church, and forced them to stop welcoming these men ("he forbids those who desire to [show hospitality]")—and even expelled "them from (out of) the church." It is not surprising that some writers have imagined that Diotrephes was a member of his town's aristocracy.
"The verb ekballei, in the present tense again (literally, 'he throws out'), need not imply formal excommunication from the Church, as this became known later. Cf. Matt 18:17; Luke 6:22; John 9:34-35; 1 Cor 5:2. On the other hand, it seems as if Diotrephes had already arrogated to himself the task of 'expulsion,' and was actually driving people out of the congregation (as he had refused to welcome the brothers) rather than merely desiring to do so . . ."
Obviously Gaius did not bow to Diotrephes' wishes, showing that he had strength of character, and probably influence in the church. With this epistle, John threw his support behind Gaius—and against Diotrephes.
v. 11 John's encouragement doubtless strengthened Gaius' resolve to resist Diotrephes. "Of God" and "seen God" are terms John used in his first epistle (cf. 1 John 3:6, 10; 4:1-4, 6-7).
"The lifestyle that we exhibit is a direct reflection of the extent to which we have seen God. If we were to see God perfectly, we would never sin. Our sin is a result of a faulty vision of God. Therefore, the Scriptures encourage us to look at Christ (see 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:16-18; Heb. 12:2, 3), for the day when we see Him perfectly will be the day that we will be like Him (see 1 John 3:2, 3)."
God's children do "good" works because God is their Father and they share His nature (1 John 3:9). The person who "does evil" may be a Christian, but he "has not seen (not been in close fellowship with) God," and is behaving like Satan when he does evil. John was not accusing Diotrephes of being unsaved, but of behaving like an unsaved person. The person who knows God intimately (abides in Him) does "what is good," not evil (1 John 3:6; 5:18).
v. 12 John urged Gaius to show hospitable love to "Demetrius," in order to give Gaius an opportunity to practice love and thereby reprove Diotrephes' lack of love. Demetrius may have carried this letter from John to Gaius. Or he may have visited Gaius later. He may have been one of the controversial itinerant preachers. His name, like that of Gaius, was a common one at this time.
John gave three recommendations ("we add our testimony [recommendation]") of this brother's worth: He had "a good reputation (testimony)" among all who knew him, his character and conduct were in harmony with "the truth," and John personally knew him and vouched for him ("we add our testimony [recommendation]").
It will be interesting to get to heaven and see if this "Demetrius" is the same man who gave Paul so much trouble in Ephesus (Acts 19:24). Several commentators have concluded that he was. The odds are against this possibility, however, since there were undoubtedly many men named "Demetrius" (lit. "belonging to Demeter" [the goddess of agriculture]) living in that area then. Furthermore, Paul ministered in Ephesus in the early 50s, whereas John probably wrote this epistle in the 90s.
John concluded perhaps somewhat shortly, as he did, in order to explain the brevity of this epistle, and his hope to visit Gaius soon. This conclusion is very similar to the one in 2 John (vv. 12-13; cf. John 20:30).
The use of "friends" to describe believers is unusual. John evidently wished to draw attention to the basic quality of friendship that exists among believers. As "friends," Christians should show hospitality to, and should support one another, the specific expressions of love that John urged in this letter.
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Barbara Leonhard, "Hospitality in Third John," The Bible Today 25:1 (January 1987):11. See G. G. Findlay, Fellowship in the Life Eternal, pp. 13-20, for clarification of hospitality in the early church.