Introduction to the Third Epistle of John
This epistle is very similar to 2 John. Both letters were written around the same time and are of similar length. The purpose of both concerned traveling ministers. Finally, both letters have reoccurring themes of truth in love.
The two letters are like two sides of the same coin—in 2 John the lady was showing hospitality to the false teachers and in 3 John a man refused to demonstrate his love toward godly preachers. Thus, 2 John teaches us that we are to be firm in our love towards false teachers while this epistle explains that we are to tenderly express our love toward all godly Christians. “In 2 John, it was a matter of misplaced hospitality; in 3 John, it was a matter of missing hospitality. In 2 John, truth was needed to balance love; in 3 John, love was needed to balance truth” (Matlack 106).
Like 2 John, the external evidence is definitely weaker since we have no clear name given for the elder. While both epistles were widely disputed for their authorship, most of the early church fathers accepted the epistle as authored by the beloved John. Since then there has been very little dispute regarding its authorship since the church fathers decided the issue.
Unlike the historical evidence, the textual evidence is very strong. Based on the text the elder could have been referring to either the author’s age or his position in the church. Even though John does not openly disclose his name like in the Gospel or in his other Epistle, both the style of writing and the vocabulary leave very little room for dispute. Truth, love, joy and doctrine are just a few of things that are always found in his gospel and the epistles.
Like second John, there are possible reasons as to why the author omitted his name. Since this letter was written to his dear friend Gaius, there was no need to reveal his name since the letter would have been recognizable. Also, since there is a good chance that the letter was personally delivered by Demetrius, the messenger would have revealed to Gaius the author. Finally, since John had written previously to the church and it is probable that Diotrephes destroyed all previous letters, this epistle would have a better chance of surviving.
See the Gospel of John for a biography of the author.
Date and Destination
See Second John for a detailed discussion of the date.
This epistle was written directly to Gaius, whom John loves “in the truth” (v. 1). Like his second epistle, this one is written to a very dear friend. For a minister there is great satisfaction in knowing that members of the flock are walking in the truth (v. 3). Thus, John not only commends Gaius for his faithful service to the brethren, but also encourages him to continue to do good and not evil (v. 11).
Like his second epistle, John directs this letter toward specific people rather than a general congregation. He mentions three people in his letter: The first Christian is Gaius. As previously mentioned, this dear brother was very close to John. He is an excellent Christian example to follow. Since his conversion he continued growing and prospering in the faith (v. 2). Because he walked in the truth (v.3), everyone observed that his life was a witness for Christ. A person who walks in the truth is a person who manifests a discerning love to all people, especially to those that are of the household of faith (Gal 6:10). As a direct result of his walk with God, he demonstrated his love toward other Christians and even strangers (vv. 6-8). Harvey Blaney says that “such men are the salt of the earth, pillars of the church, whose lives are more eloquent testimonies to the gospel than ever mere words could be” (415).
The next person that John mentions is the strong lay leader Diotrephes. Unlike Gaius, John confronts Diotrephes in this epistle because he refused to accept these godly men that were traveling (v. 9). Lacking a respect toward ecclesiastical authority, Diotrophes tends to think of the church as his church rather than Christ’s church. His envy for power motivated him to refuse all messengers sent from the apostle John. Furthermore, he was criticized not only for his lack of hospitality, but also for his refusal to allow other believers to help them and he would even excommunicate them from the local assembly (v. 10).
Finally the author commends Demetrius. Very little is known in the Bible concerning Demetrius (different than the one mentioned in Acts 19). However, John states that “Demetrius hath good report of all men, and of the truth itself: yea, and we also bear record; and ye know that our record is true” (v. 12). Because of his godly character, his reputation was well known in the church (v. 12). May our lives be so godly and authentic that others would commend us in the faith.
In the letter John is warning all believers who emphasize truth to the point of excluding love and compassion. While walking in the truth is extremely important, we are also to love in the truth (v. 1). In spite of the different varieties of worship, church government and ministry for Jesus Christ, if a believer does not follow the law of love, then it is all for naught (1 Cor 13:1-3). Disciples of Christ should seek the truth; however, they also should love one another. The problem arises when a believer goes to the extreme of pursuing one to the exclusion of the other.
This epistle is a short treatise on personal relationships in the church. Like today, it is very difficult to maintain harmonious fellowship in the church. While some believers like Gaius and Demetrius love others in deed and in truth, there are many other believers like Diotrephes whose pride will stop at nothing to achieve selfish gain. Refusing all authority, they will destroy all relationships if necessary.
This epistle teaches that there are three necessary things that can enhance healthy relationships in the body of Christ: (1) encouragement, (2) confrontation, and (3) affirmation. In verses 1-8 John encourages Gaius in his love for him (in the truth). He also wishes that his physical health would prosper just as his spiritual health does. He also edifies Gaius by mentioning the joy that he had upon hearing that his fellow brother was continually walking in the truth (v. 3). He finally encourages the mature disciple to “follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God” (11). Every believer needs to be encouraged to continue to do good so that they do not grow weary.
While encouragement is a necessary component of Christian relationships, many times confrontation has to occur in order to deal with sin. This is precisely what John will do when he tells Gaius that, if he has the opportunity to visit, he “will call attention to what [Diotrephes] is doing…” (v. 10 NIV). Diotrephes was “destroying unity, flaunting authority, making up his own rules to safeguard his position, spreading lies about those whom he had designated his enemies, cutting off other Christians on suspicion of guilt and association” (Jackman 198). As a result, he needed to be confronted in order to restore unity and personal relationships in the church. Confrontation when appropriate not only is healthy for the church body, but also is necessary for growth.
A final component for healthy relationships is affirmation. John affirms Demetrius when he writes that “Demetrius hath good report of all men, and of the truth itself: yea, and we also bear record; and ye know that our record is true” (v. 12). Demetrius is a man full of character; his life and his actions are in accord with the truth. He has a good testimony from everyone, especially from the apostle John himself. Because John is sending Demetrius as a messenger to help keep open communications between the church and the apostle, he affirms this godly man so that Gaius would accept him. Affirmation is the acknowledgment that the person is walking in the truth. It is a barometer indicating that the relationship is healthy.
Unity not Uniformity
Variety will always be present in the church. We are called to be one—even as Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:21). God cares about unity. Personal preferences may be different than what the Bible teaches. The problem occurs when we allow our preferences to supersede what God’s word teaches.
All believers are to continue “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Therefore, disunity must never be tolerated in the church. No one member of the body should have absolute control. As long as Jesus Christ is given first place, the church can face any challenge. This would include exposing any church members that is actively causing disunity like Diotrephes. No person or group controls the church—only Christ is the head of the church. The head is only reserved for Him.
Structure of the Epistle
The structure of this epistle is much like a traditional piece of literature with an introduction, body and conclusion. In the introduction John is writing as “the elder unto the well beloved Gaius, whom [he] loves in the truth” (v. 1). He also commends Gaius on his spiritual health (v. 2). By His grace may our spiritual condition be as healthy as was Gaius’.
In the body of this letter John paints the perfect background for the reader to observe. There are three people. Gaius, who was hospitable and loved others in the truth; Diotrephes was self-seeking and an authoritarian. Finally there was the commendable Demetrius.
The primary thrust of this epistle can be seen through each of these followers. Like Gaius, we are to continue to love others in the truth. Hospitality is extremely important to the Christian faith. If we are hospitable toward others, we are being hospitable toward Christ (Matt 25:40). Likewise, if we are like Diotrephes, then refusing to demonstrate our love toward the brethren is failing to love the risen Lord himself (Matt 25:45). Diotrephes was one who had forgotten that Christ is the head of the church. With fear and intimidation, this man had refused all authority, both divine and apostolic. Finally there is Demetrius, who was not only commended by everyone, but even by the truth itself. May our lives be so godly and authentic that others will commend us.
Like his second epistle John mentions that he will try to visit Gaius in order to discuss many things. Since it is such a personal letter, John asks Gaius to greet the friends by name. As a result of the turmoil, John prays for peace in the church (v. 13-14).
1. Salutation (1-2)
2. The Message (3-12)
Encouragement of Gaius (1-8, 11)
Confrontation of Diotrephes (9-10)
Affirmation of Demetrius (12)
3. Benediction (13-14)
Blaney, Harvey S. The Third Epistle of John. Vol. 10 of Beacons Bible Commentary. 10 vols. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1964.
Gire, Ken and Bryce Klabunde. New Testament Postcards. Anaheim: Insight for Living, 1996.
MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary: New Testament. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, Inc., 1990.
Matlack, Gary and Bryce Klabunde. 2 Thessalonians through Revelation. Vol. 5 of God’s Masterwork: A concerto in Sixty-Six Movements. 5 vols. Anaheim: Sinclair Printing Company, 1997.
Swindoll, Charles R., ed. The Living Insights Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
Vine, W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers.
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