Studies in 3 John: The Fellowship of the Truth

Preface

To be clear, this is not really a commentary on 3 John. It is a study which at times ranges from the devotional to an exploration of a few technical details. In fact, the present material originally appeared in a serialized format and has been sown together here in the hopes that it be helpful to anyone studying through “3 John.” This little letter, along with 2 John, is a perfect specimen of what many recovered 1st Century letters look like in form. But it is always astonishing to me how God employed 1st Century communications technology (i.e., the letter) to be the vehicle of His prophets. Today in our ethereal world, I hope we have learned how to employ our communication technology as a vehicle to share the words of His holy prophets.

I hope the following exploration into 3 John will be of use and of illumination to all those who wish to ruminate over Johannine literature. I wish to thank the Livingston church of Christ for their indulgence as I shared these studies with them first. They are a fellowship of God’s children whom I “love in truth” because they  “walk in the truth.”

Introduction

The New Testament letter of 3 John is arguably the smallest document in the canon associated with the apostle’s letters (1 John, 2 John), his Gospel account (John), and the final document of the New Testament, the Revelation.

We offer a study of this brief note to Gaius, a church leader under fire for his commitment to evangelism. The major theme has been admirably summarized as follows:

The basic message of the epistle is that a congregation of the Lord’s people is to support faithful missionaries in their proclamation of the gospel, and that anyone who prevents such support and who otherwise disrupts the orderly and faithful conduct of the congregation’s work by attempting to exercise tyrannical control is a troublemaker who should be rebuked and set down.[1]

Aside from this explicit controversy, not much else is known about the key personalities involved (e.g. Gaius, Demetrius, and Diotrephes) outside of 3 John.[2]

Yet the letter showcases the power of faithful saints supporting full time evangelism:

The same sort of Christians are needed in the church today. Such disciples are not necessarily those who are going out to teach and preach the Word or to establish churches in difficult areas of the world. Instead, they include the people who are supporting such workers—supporting them financially, supporting them emotionally, and supporting them personally.[3]

The Greeting (v.1):

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

First, it is important to observe, “letters in the ancient world had their appropriate form, just as they do today.”[4] Though there were considerable alterations in the format, the following is a basic form of an ancient letter:

A [Sender] to B [Receiver]

Greetings

Thanksgiving and wishes for good health

Body of Letter

Farewell

Second, notice that a letter was sent by “the elder”; hence, 3 John is explicitly anonymous. Yet, Gaius knew who “the elder” was, and ancient testimony attributes this letter to the Apostle John. In fact, it has been suggested that John’s use of the term “the elder” is a reference to his unique situation as being both an elder and the last surviving apostle; hence, he is “‘the elder’ par excellence.”[5]

Third, what may be surmised from the context of the letter about Gaius is that he is definitely a leader in the church, and perhaps is a house-church leader. That he is loved “in truth” and “walks in truth” may either hint at doctrinal discord in his church setting, or may refer to the spiritual division on receiving the emissaries of “the elder.”[6]

But what we do know is that Gaius is regarded in high esteem for his appropriate conduct during this controversial time. Furthermore, the use of an emphatic form for “I” in Greek (ego), suggests an inference that someone, or some “ones”, did not appreciate Gaius in the same way.[7]

The Prayer and Blessing (vv.2-4):

[2] Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul. [3] For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. [4] I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

First, part of the greeting naturally flows into a blessing to fall upon the reader; much like, in modern times we find a parallel in: “How are you? I hope well.” But here we find a wonderful Christian thought, “I pray […] that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” This was a well-known conventional prayer for wellbeing, but John adapts it to stress his desire for Gaius’ health to match his well-developed spiritual fortitude.[8]

Second, John rejoices “greatly” as a result of the testimony made in behalf of Gaius’ “truth.” The term “for” makes a clear connection between verses 2 and 3,[9] transitioning from a hint to a clear example of Gaius’ spiritual fortitude. In other words, it is a fact that he is “walking in truth.”

This is clearly a heartfelt expression for the “stand for truth” which Gaius is currently making. It implies of course that some in the church context of Gaius are not “walking in truth.” This is a practice that began in the past and is extended to the time of the writing of this letter.[10]

This is quite a commentary on the quality of character evidenced in Gaius – a church leader of strength and fidelity to truth. Quite clearly, then, we see why John rejoiced so greatly.

Third, we must observe that the apostle describes Gaius as his child (Grk. to ema tekna). John calls Gaius “my child” (literally, pl. children) employing an emphatic form of the possessive case of ego, which means “I,”[11] which supposes that Gaius is not the spiritual child of another. This is a statement of a spiritual union bound in truth.

Edmond Hiebert observes that “my children” may be understood in two senses: (a) his specific converts; or, (b) those under his spiritual care. We agree with his remarks however that “in either view… [John] regarded and treasured them as his own.[12]

In Praise of Hospitality (vv.5-6):

[5] Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, [6] who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God.

First, Gaius evidently works with Christian strangers, and some who had been blessed by their association with Gaius had reported back to John (cf. vs. 3). As will be shown below, these are missionaries that have been blessed by Gaius’ faithful efforts (cf. vv. 7-8).

As a result, recipients of his generosity have given reports of his love before John’s congregation – and perhaps beyond. The term “church” could suggest the variety of congregations, including John’s, where testimony on behalf of Gaius has been made.

Second, Gaius had established a reputation for being hospitable to missionaries (v. 6). As Everett Ferguson writes:

The traveling teachers had reported to the church what he had done. The Elder [John] assures him he has been doing the right thing (v. 5) and wants him to continue on a regular basis.[13]

As will be seen later in the letter, activity like this was the focus of censorship by Diotrephes – the “missions” killer (vs. 10). F. F. Bruce observes, “the ministry of traveling teachers […], was a well-known feature of church life in Western Asia at the end of the first and beginning of the second century.”[14]

Third, when John encourages Gaius to “send them [the missionaries] on their journey,” he employs a term of unique significance in the New Testament. The Greek term for “send them on their way” is propempsas, meaning:

[T]o assist someone [here, the itinerant preachers] in making a journey, send on one’s way with food, money, by arranging for companions, by means of travel, etc.[15]

There is no shortage of evidence to suggest that it is a technical term in the New Testament, meaning to provide missionaries with the appropriate means of support for their work and travels (cf. Acts 15:3; Rom 15:24; 1 Cor 16:6, 11; 2 Cor 1:16; Tit 3:13).

The Obligation to Missions (vv. 7-8):

[7] For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. [8] Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.

First, it is important to stress that these individuals are already on the road “for the sake of the name.” There is a deliberate decision that is in view for they have “gone out” for the sake of the only name that can be exalted (Phil 2:9) –that of Jesus.[16] This is their motivation for missions; especially, since “the name” would summarize “the saving message which the missionaries proclaimed.”[17]

One of their policies, says the Elder, is that “these itinerant evangelists would not (as a matter of policy) seek their support from unbelievers and did not (as a matter of fact) receive their support from them.”[18]

John Stott demonstrates the distinction this truly was for the early church:

Christian missionaries were not like many wandering non-Christian teachers of those days […], who made a living out of their vagrancy … a Christian congregation supporting its minister is one thing; missionaries begging money from unbelievers is another.[19]

There is an example of how the early church had become so abused by would-be missionaries, that an early catechetical document, known as the Didache, made excessive rules for hosting traveling teachers:

Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he says three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet. (Did 11:4-6)[20]

As will be seen below, John has already sent a document to “the church” but it has been rejected, as have his apostolic authority, the traveling missionaries, and those who would – like Gaius – assist these honorable individuals (9-10).

Second, the church was under obligation to support these individuals in order to be a part of their work. The longevity and amount is not the issue, what is at stake is the responsibility for a congregation to provide care for the missionaries and assist them on their way.

As Everett Ferguson observes:

For a household to receive missionaries, provide for them, and then to send them forward with provisions for the next stage of their journey was the regular method in early Christianity for supporting missionary work.[21]

And as mentioned above, this hospitality had received considerable abuse.

One of the safeguards against abuse was a letter of recommendation (cf. 2 Cor. 3.1-3). “In order to assist travelers in securing aid while exercising some control,” explains Abraham Malherbe:

[A] special type of letter, in which the writer recommended the bearer to friends or associates, had been developed. Some Christians also wrote such letters (e.g., Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1-2), and some churches evidently demanded them of travelers.[22]

The letter was to authenticate that these were honorable missionaries (including Demetrius cf. v.12), needing assistance as they traveled the world preaching the gospel.

Third, the obligation, as Hiebert observes, “involves more than giving them a personal welcome by lodging them; it also involves supplying their needs so they can continue their ministry.”[23]

Because of their lack of resources (cf. “taking nothing”), “believers therefore have the moral obligation to ‘undertake’ for them.”[24] The term opheilomen (cf. opheilo) carries the meaning of an obligation – whether financial, social, or moral;[25] particularly here, there are strong spiritual and moral responsibilities in view (evangelistic efforts of destitute missionaries).

We would also reflect upon the way this divides the labor of worldwide evangelism. As David Smith observes, “If we cannot preach the Gospel ourselves, we may help others to do it.”[26]

Fourth, the end result of assisting those who have dedicated themselves to being traveling teachers is that we may become “fellow workers for the truth.” There may be a generic flavor to this phrase, addressing the overall effects of involvement with supporting worldwide evangelism. Much like Adam Clarke observes, the assistance was designed to “encourage the persecuted, and contribute to the spread and maintenance of the Gospel.”[27]

Several students believe there is a difficulty to understand definitively the meaning of how we are “fellow-workers” in relation to the truth;[28] however, we believe the overall judgment on how to understand this partnership is expressed in the following words:

The Christian missionaries co-operate with the truth by proclaiming it; we co-operate with it by entertaining them. The Christian missionary enterprise is, therefore, not undertaken by evangelists only, but also by those who entertain and support them.[29]

The activity of hosting and providing needed supplies for future travels “was a concrete expression of fellowship”.[30] “As those who welcome and support those who preach false doctrines become partakers with them (2 John 9), so those who receive and maintain those who preach the truth become fellow-workers for the truth.”[31]

This concrete expression of Christian solidarity demonstrated by Gaius prepares the reader for the adverse behavior demonstrated by Diotrephes in the next few verses (vv. 9-10).

Interference of Sin (vv.9-10):

[9] I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. [10] So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.

First, though some students find that John regards his previous letter (not 2 John) of little importance, we find the reasoning upon which this perception is based to be quite weak. It is argued that since John wrote, “I have written something” (egrapsa ti), he did not view his letter as relatively important.[32]

However, there are serious problems with this interpretation, specifically because Diotrephes rejected John’s authority inherent in the letter he wrote. Such an audacious rejection of apostolic communication would hardly be something to rebuke Diotrephes about if the letter was of little importance.

We believe, along with other students, that egrapsa ti describes as “a brief letter of commendation” such that would have accompanied the traveling preachers mentioned earlier (v. 3):[33]

It apparently was a brief letter, now lost, requesting assistance for the missionaries being sent out by John. If so, it is not improbable that Diotrephes suppressed the letter.[34]

Stott does not stop at suppression, and suggests that Diotrephes destroyed the letter and poses this as the reason why John’s brief letter is now lost (cf. Jer 36).[35]

Finally, the letter can hardly be regarded as unimportant since what John desired to occur is set at odds against the strong contrasting “but” (Grk. alla), which emphasizes the rejection by Diotrephes.[36]

Diotrephes did not just suppress a mere letter; it was an apostolic request for the support of traveling missionaries who had not other means of gaining resources (“accepting nothing from the Gentiles” v.7) for the work they set out to do “for the sake of the name.” Consequently, Diotrephes “did not acknowledge” John’s authority.

Second, there has been tremendous ink spilt to discuss the troublesome New Testament nuisance known as Diotrephes. We will consider a few lines of thought regarding this gentleman we view as an excommunicating missions-killer.

(a) It is rather obvious that he, as a gentile, had a religiously pagan upbringing. This is understood from the meaning of his name (dio + trephes), “nourished by Zeus.”[37] Perhaps this hints at the pagan background where much of his character was probably formed.

Zeus was the god-of-gods, and he was regarded as the provider who nourished both family and community life (rain, dew, good gifts, etc.), being himself the patron of the home.

As one classical scholar describes, Zeus was:

[T]he avenger of perjury, the keeper of boundaries and of property, the defender of the laws of hospitality and the rights of the suppliant.[38]

Besides the obvious possessor of the lightning bolts and the gatherer of the clouds, it was thought that all meteorological phenomenons were the work of Zeus.

I find a hint of irony in this correspondence, due to the fact that during the early ministry of Jesus, the sons of Zebedee (James and John) were given the “nickname” of the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17; Matt 4:21). During an episode in the Lord’s ministry, they wished to avenge mistreatment by raining fire from heaven (Luke 9:51-56).

Now, the aged John –known more for love than vengeance (cf. 1 John) – must address a man who acts more like the thunder god, than the son of God.

(b) Diotrephes “likes to put himself first” (RSV, NRSV, ESV). Other translations render this one word in Greek (philoproteuon) more to the point: “who loveth to have the preeminence” (KJV, ASV); “who loves to be first” (NASBU, NET); “who loves to be in charge” (ISV); “He always wants to be number one” (Plain English NT); “who loves to have first place” (FHV); “who wants to be first in everything” (Phillips).

What these translations suggest about Diotrephes, along with his spiritually criminal behavior also recorded in verse 10, is that “it was not just an ambition on his part but liking of the power he had.”[39]

And with his power he made a unilateral decision to reject the apostle John’s authoritative request for support to be given to the traveling missionaries (vs. 5).[40]

One could investigate deeply and speculate why Diotrephes was so antiauthoritarian when it came to the apostle’s letter; however, we must not assume another position for which John – the inspired author – sets forth for us:

To John the motives governing the conduct of Diotrephes were neither theological, nor social, nor ecclesiastical, but moral. The root of the problem was sin.[41]

This sin was his craving for prominence and dominance (philoproteuon) – a word carrying both desires: “to be first” and “to order others.”[42] The range of this disposition is seen in four ways:[43]

1. Ambition to hold prominence.

2. Refusal to submit to those of greater authority (e.g. apostle John).

3. Slanders and oppresses those undermining his “perceived” right to prominence.

4. Removes those of decenting opinions from positions of influence.

(c) Everett Ferguson calls attention to three clauses that describe Diotrephes actions toward the missionaries: he refuses, hinders, and expels.[44] He kills evangelistic fervor at every level.

Third, “the elder” forewarns Gaius regarding his own arrival to the area and promises to bring Diotrephes to justice. As Wayne Jackson observes, “The apostle is unwilling simply to ‘let bygones be bygones.’”[45]

In an era where rebukes for sinful behavior are looked down upon, the church would do well to soak up the apostolic backbone demonstrated here. Indeed, “the past actions of Diotrephes could not be explained away.”[46]

In Diotrephes, we see a person in leadership with such degenerative respect for apostolic leadership and authority. He is characterized by such a vile personality that can be only viewed as a person who “was nourished by a very poisonous, aggressive passion to be in charge.”[47]

Imitate Good Behavior (v.11):

[11] Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.

This is the last of four times that the apostle calls Gaius “beloved” (agapete, cf. v. 1, 2, and 5). It is no small matter that John appeals to Gaius in this fashion; the term refers to one of compelling worth and one who is dearly loved.[48]

While there is no hint that John and Gaius know each other personally (and we not excluding the possibility), at the very least Gaius has gained such high esteem with the apostle due to his longstanding history of helping traveling missionaries (v. 3, 4, 5-6).

Although the letter is brief Gaius is described in at least eight other ways emphasizing his faithfulness and support of the truth, by the financial and material support of those who preach and teach the gospel.

(1) John loves Gaius “in truth” (v. 1). Combining a few ideas and passages in this letter, “in truth” is an idiom for a framework of thinking centered on the Gospel truth and its proclamation.

This is the Christian worldview in mind; in other words, the “fundamental way of looking at things” as a Christian (cf. Col. 3.1-3).[49] Christianity for Gaius – as it ought to be for us – is not for mere “social fraternity” but for “redemptive” outreach.[50]

(2) John prays that Gaius’s health resembles his robust spiritual health (v. 2). One is immediate compelled to wonder, what would our physical health appear should it be replaced by our true spiritual status.

Indeed, God knows our failures; yet, it is also true that God knows our heart despite our failures.

For Gaius, such a benediction was a mark of faithfulness to God in the face of certain church politics applying negative pressure upon those who desire to support evangelists.

(3) A report had been given to John regarding Gaius having the truth, and living a life consistent with that truth (v. 3). This is emphasized again in verse 4.

Consistently, Gaius is the living embodiment of faithfulness to the gospel in that he was involved with sending evangelists, seeking those who would hear the gospel, and saving lost souls with this message of redemption.

The fact that “walks” in truth is a statement of that this is a lifestyle, not a “past time.” Christianity did not exist solely within the confines of worship and times of fellowship; instead, evangelism was the air that he breathed, and his conduct reflected it.[51]

(4) Because Gaius lives within the framework of Gospel truth evidenced by his support of evangelists, John calls him his “child” (v. 4). This is certainly a mark of solidarity.

Despite their distance, this statement reflects their united fellowship seen in the comforting knowledge of faithful Christians “continuing steadfastly in faith and good works.”[52]

(5) Gaius is one who does faithful deeds which is supporting traveling evangelists by providing hospitality out of his home and through his material blessings which he sacrifices in order to send these heralds with the appropriate things needed to get to the next stage of their evangelistic labors (vv. 5-6).

(6) The “beloved” (agapete) is also one who expresses “love” (agape, v. 6) through these evangelistic and hospitable deeds (v 5). Because of his love shown to others (here, the evangelists), John has made a special place for Gaius in his heart.

(7) For the above reasons, Gaius implicitly is qualified as “a fellow worker for the truth” (v. 8). Gaius understands the moral imperative to support the gospel (= the truth) by “sending” the traveling evangelists.

This should elevate the relationship of “giving” with its connection to supporting evangelism in the church. We must understand that without “supporters” and “givers,” evangelism would die. “Without missions there would be no church, for the church is the result of missions.”[53]

It is not enough for us to know that supporting evangelism is important and essential, there must be follow-through to actually “put aside something” proportionate to our prosperity (1 Cor 16:2).

(8) Finally, Gaius is even dearer to John because he has not done these deeds in isolation; instead, Gaius has done this in the face of a local dominating church leader named Diotrephes.

Understanding that John knows all of these things as he wrote this letter, one can only imagine the kind of trust, love, admiration, and appreciation for Gaius which had budded within John’s heart.

Mimic Good Behavior, Not Evil

It is an important transition to which we find the words, “do not imitate evil, but imitate good.” The reality is that Gaius is already doing good, for he is living in “truth”.

Perhaps John is cautioning Gaius to be mindful of responding to Diotrephes’s tactics with the same measure of carnality.

The force of the verb is that of an earnest plea, or that of a command (imperative). In either case, John is imposing his apostolic presence to compel Gaius to stop mimicking (“do not imitate”) evil (kakos),[54] which suggests that perhaps he had given in to the carnality of the combat instigated by Diotrephes.

Consequently, John had to impose on Gaius to repent (though the word is not there) and to continue his honorable work of supporting evangelists. Here we learn the lesson that when “church problems” affect evangelism we have must repent so that peace may return to the congregation. A wise leadership will shield its congregation from needless battles of words with ungodly individuals, for peace is better than a war of words.

We must imitate good, and that means we must submit our passions to God (cf. Jas 1:19-20; Rom 12:9-21; 1 Cor 11:1). In this light, the apostle desires to pull Gaius away from the distractions which come from in-fighting to refocus himself so that he may support Demetrius, who was probably the letter courier (v. 12). And it like Demetrius, Gaius must reflect the truth through commendable behavior.

In order to hammer this point down, an important contrast is struck. It is in many ways, “a moral test.”[55] The test is a simple one: is your lifestyle described as continuing and practicing good or evil?[56]

If your life is consistently soured by evil, worthless, base, even criminal behavior – like Diotrephes – then you have not seen God; essentially saying, you are not in fellowship with God for you do not know him (1 John 3:4-6).

A Christian cannot be consistently immoral and think they are well pleasing to the Lord. Consequently, Gaius is called upon to be found behaving as he ought to, as a faithful benefactor in the kingdom of God. Only then can it be said that he is “from God”.

It has been well observed:

Gaius was a man of influence and he had shown a Christian spirit in all things; yet John knew that Satan is no respector of persons and it would be a great blow to the church if Satan could cause this loyal church member to behave in a n unchristian manner.[57]

Could this be the apostle’s loving way to bring Gaius back from the cliff of carnality, a moment where the heat of battle was changing Gaius into the very thing he had sworn to defend the church from? Possibly. Never the less, the lesson is ours.

A Recommendation (v.12):

It has been said that without influence one cannot lead. John wrote his letter 3 John – briefest document in the New Testament – to encourage Gaius in his own time of need. To influence him to do the right thing.

There is evidence within the letter suggesting that there was a concern that Gaius needed the advice of verse 11, calling upon him to imitate (Grk. mimeomai) good, civil, non-detrimental behavior.

Such strong appeals reflect that Gaius may have come to the edge in his own crisis. Missions killer, Diotrephes, and his own evil, criminal, and detrimental methods may levied their toll upon Gaius, and now he may feel compelled to enter the fray of church politics with a war of words.

John implores Gaius to maintain; despite the conflict, be a child of God – be a “doer of good” (= supporter of evangelism). In this connection the apostle introduces Demetrius, who most likely bore the letter to Gaius, and places a stamp of approval upon him.

[12] Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true.

It is not all together clear who Demetrius is, and what exactly is his relationship to John, Gaius, and Diotrephes. In the light of any concrete evidence, there are a number of reasonable connections to consider.

In the New Testament, the proper name Demetrius is found in this letter (12) and in Acts with reference to an Ephesian silversmith (19:24, 38). The two are most likely different individuals.[58]

Some have observed that Demas is a shortened form of Demetrius, and may very well be a repentant detractor from among Paul’s co-laborers (2 Tim 4:10). The latter case is not probable (see below). The name, however, is quite common in the inscriptions.[59]

Demetrius in this sense is a mystery to us; however, he is a Christian known to John and Gaius, but we are blessed by his notice in this letter due to his example of faithfulness.

John sets forth Demetrius’ faithfulness by appealing to three witnesses. (1) The church bears witness of his faithfulness, (2) the “truth” as understood in this letter as that of good Christian conduct expressed in the support of evangelistic pursuits, and (3) John and his group go on record on behalf of Demetrius.

“The threefold witness to Demetrius should stir our desire to emulate his character”: the universal testimony, a good testimony from the truth itself, and a good testimony from John and his circle.[60]

(1) Universal testimony

The text begins, “Regarding Demetrius, it has been witnessed by all …”[61]; or, “Demetrius has witness borne to him by all.”[62] Unlike Diotrephes, and much like Gaius, Demetrius’ good reputation precedes him.

Demetrius has well known, geographically dispersed reputation within the church of faithfulness. Furthermore, this is not a new development for John uses the Greek perfect indicative which denotes a present state of affairs resulting from a past action.[63] In other words, Demetrius’ character was of good report in the past and continues to be in the present (hence, not Demas).

Consistent character is a wonderful blessing to the church! Too many times there are those who are more like shooting stars, bright shining spectacles which fade away as quickly as they emerged. The church needs steady hands, devoted hearts, and ready feet.

Demetrius was of great influence in the work of the church, and it can be seen why he would pose such a great contrast to Diotrephes (11).

(2) Good testimony from the truth itself

The second testimony which John appeals too is that which comes from truth. In fact, he compounds it with the testimony which “everyone” else makes regarding Demetrius.

Gaius lived in truth, walked in truth and testimony of his support of evangelists had reached John (vv. 3, 6). In the same vein, then, it seems that Demetrius is so commended. Here we may learn something about Demetrius’ role in the church.

Some suggest that Demetrius is a traveling evangelist bearing this letter from John, which sets forth the principle that support for such noble men ought to be provided (7-8). Demetrius is one such noble men who have left for the sake of name, needing support; in this way the truth of Christian thinking commends him.

Others observe that Demetrius may in fact be a member and leader of the local congregation (house church?), who is known to John, Gaius and Diotrephes. He may very well have reported to John what had been going on at “home.”

Now on return, John sends a brief note designed to commend Demetrius for his faithfulness to the church there, acknowledging Gaius’ faithfulness as well, and to denounce Diotrephes from afar with a hope to address him in person.

In either case, Gaius and Demetrius have everything in common spiritually. They share the same “Christian way” of thinking which places the Gospel and missionary imperative as the backdrop for all of their actions. Would that we could capture the spirit of evangelism demonstrated by these first century Christians.

(3) Good testimony from John and his circle

This third commendation comes more specifically from the apostolic circle. The apostle makes it abundantly clear that Demetrius is known and commended by an authoritative source.

John anticipates that Gaius knows the value of his apostolic testimony. Here we find why John appeals to Gaius to imitate good (11), instead of imitating evil behavior as expressed by mission killers.

Verse 12 suggest three criteria of commendable church leadership. Leaders in the church must reflect Christian character and behavior, perspective governed by a Christian worldview which is evangelistic at its core, and behave consistent with apostolic authority.

Missions and Prudence

As a footnote to the last point above, we must add that those who have left for the sake of the name are commendable for the reasons listed above. These traits are the result of training and development.

Can we imagine that John would send just “anyone”? Hardly. The most important work in the world to go into all the world should not be carried out by novices (Matt. 28.19-20). They were prepared before they left and well-supplied to do the work.

A Face to Face Visit (vv.13-14):

[13] I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. [14] I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

In John’s closing remarks, he makes it abundantly clear that this brief letter is only the beginning. The letter is to encourage Gaius to continue his support of evangelism, to denounce Diotrephes’ hostile church leadership, and to commend to the local church the conduct of Demetrius.

As John sums up his letter, he reemphasizes to Gaius that there is much which cannot be solved with “pen and ink” (cf. 2 John 12).

In fact, John points to a wealth of matters to which he had a desire to write about when he began to write,[64] but under the present circumstances wisdom pressed him to refrain from a “war of words”.

This is a personal point to which John makes abundantly clear of his “present unwillingness to go on writing the other things ‘with pen and ink.’”[65] The apostle shows that church problems are not solved with ongoing writing, particularly when it can be solved with a personal visit (v. 10).

The phrase “ink and pen” (melanos and kalamos), similar to another phrase the apostle uses in 2 John 12 “paper and ink” (kartos and melanos), reflect the common tools for written communications. John literally says, with “black” and “reed-pen.”[66] Calling attention to these tools of communications – writing technologies – acknowledges the limitations of such to do the work to which leaders must avail themselves.

Church leadership is not for cowards who can hide behind the defenses of ink and pen leveling charges at a distance. The need to confront sin, or deal with matters of a more delicate and personal nature are better resolved “face to face” (v. 14).

Consequently, the many things which “the elder” had the initial impulse to write to Gaius will not be developed in text form. Perhaps this is one of the greatest lessons gleaned from this letter – when to silence the pen.

One can only ponder over the kind of treatise the document would have been; it doubtless would have called into question Diotrephes’ conduct and the crisis he instigated. Nevertheless, John wanted quality time with Gaius so we should not assume all the matters at hand were negative in nature.

After all, John held “hope” in his heart to be with his “fellow worker” (v. 8) very soon. There was a planned visit in John’s itinerary to arrive on scene with Gaius, Diotrephes, the church, and perhaps even Demetrius. His words are not threats, but promises to rectify the situation.

He looks forward to a time when they can speak intimately “face to face” (lit. “mouth to mouth”). Unimpeded by the limitations of ink, pen, and paper, the “vividness” of thought and timbre would set the tone for the work to be done at the local level for which John traveled to help resolve.[67]

The Farewell (v.15):

[15] Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, every one of them.

Thus ends the briefest letter in the entire New Testament, and the entire Bible. A common benediction is offered towards Gaius to the intent that “all felicity attend you. Those that are good and happy themselves wish others so too.”[68]

Even in the face of church dysfunction, John shows how much we must keep our perspective cool and collective; instead of taken by the heat which pervades those so entangled in bitter words of disagreement. Instead he wishes peace.

And why not, they are mutual “friends” after all. The idea of “friendship” appears to be the equivalent phrase of “brethren,”[69] which is the more commonplace term for fellow Christians.

Still, it is quite possible and likely that since this is a personal letter in every aspect – from John to Gaius – the idea of “friendship” here is that which reflects the bonds of their fellowship.[70] They may haven brethren in faith, but they were fraternal at heart.

Faith was the environment their relationships developed into friendships. It is true that not all Christians form tight bonds with every other Christian; however, those relationships which materialize into tender overtures of mutual affection as friends find a unique bond this side of heaven.

Zane C. Hodges writes:

The use of the term ‘friends’ twice in these closing statements is perhaps one final reminder to Gaius that Christians in every place are or should be a network of friends who are ready to help one another whenever a need arises.[71]

The readiness with which Christians must arm themselves to be a ready help to their fellow brethren is a tremendous theme within this letter.

While trouble is the main cause of need for brotherhood reliance in 3 John, trouble should not be the only reason we rely upon each other. We must realize that we are an extension to each other.

One of the critical problems in this letter is the abuse of leadership, Diotrephes assumed a place of prominence and imposed his will on others and gave no respect to true authority in the form of the apostle.

We must absorb what Jesus says, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matt 20:26).

Endnotes

  1. John H. Parker, “The Living Message of Third John,” in The Living Messages of the Books of the New Testament, eds. Garland Elkins and Thomas B. Warren (Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press, 1976), 315.
  2. Coy Roper, 2010, “3 John – Encore #2: Are You a Help or a Hindrance?”, BibleCourses.com (Searcy, AR: Truth for Today), 3.
  3. Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, rev. ed., rev. Todd C. Penner (Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 1999), 562.
  4. Roy B. Ward, “How to Study the New Testament” in The World of the New Testament, ed. Abraham J. Malherbe (1967; repr. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 1984), 170.
  5. John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John (1988; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 44.
  6. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 362-63.
  7. J. Gresham Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners (1923; repr. Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2000), 48-49.
  8. Frederick F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 147.
  9. D. Edmond Hiebert, “Studies in 3 John Part 1: An Exposition of 3 John 1-4,” BSac 144 (1987): 62.
  10. Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 222-23.
  11. Machen, New Testament Greek, 46.
  12. Hiebert, “Studies in 3 John Part 1,” 65; emphasis added.
  13. Everett Ferguson, The Letters of John (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research, 1984), 99.
  14. Bruce, The Letters of John, 149.
  15. Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), BDAG 873.
  16. Stott, The Letters of John, 226.
  17. D. Edmond Hiebert, “Studies in 3 John Part 2 (of 3 Parts): An Exposition of 3 John 5-10,” BSac 144 (1987): 199.
  18. Stott, The Letters of John, 226.
  19. Stott, The Letters of John, 226-27.
  20. Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999).
  21. Ferguson, The Letters of John, 99.
  22. Abraham J. Malherbe, “The Cultural Context of the New Testament: The Greco-Roman World,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1995), NIB 8:13.
  23. Hiebert, “An Exposition of 3 John 5-10,″ 200.
  24. Hiebert, “An Exposition of 3 John 5-10,″ 200.
  25. BDAG 743.
  26. David Smith, “The Epistles of John,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (New York, NY: Doran, 1901), 5:207.
  27. Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, n.d.), 6:942.
  28. Hiebert,“An Exposition of 3 John 5-10,″ 201-02; Stott, The Letters of John, 227-28; Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, n.d.), 2:402-03.
  29. Stott, The Letters of John, 228.
  30. Ferguson, The Letters of John, 99.
  31. Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles of Peter, John, and Jude (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1973), 362.
  32. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2:403; Charles C. Ryrie, “I, II, III John,” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, eds. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1962), 1484.
  33. Smith, “The Epistles of John,” 5:207; R. W. Orr, “The Letters of John” in The International Bible Commentary, rev. ed., ed. Frederick F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 1588; Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2:403; Albert Barnes, 1949, James, Peter, John, and Jude, Notes on the New Testament, rev. ed., ed. Robert Frew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1949), 374.
  34. Hiebert, “Studies in 3 John Part 2,” 203.
  35. Stott, The Letters of John, 228-29.
  36. Hiebert, “Studies in 3 John Part 2,” 203.
  37. “Diotrephes,” in Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary, ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1964), ZPBD 217; Hiebert,“Studies in 3 John Part 2,” 203.
  38. Oskar Seyffert, 1966, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, rev. ed., rev. and eds. Henry Nettleship and J.E. Sandys (N.p.: World Publishing, 1966), 704.
  39. Ferguson, The Letters of John, 100.
  40. cf. Jason Jackson, “Fellow Workers for the Truth,” ChristianCourier.com, where Jackson asks the following series of questions: “Why would Diotrephes reject a legitimate request by known brothers for the spreading of the gospel? Maybe the more appropriate question is this: Why was Diotrephes making unilateral decisions?” (par. 7). Could it be that Diotrephes did not have a heart of evangelism, local or abroad? It may very well be, but the issue is most likely that of heart and self-interest of Diotrephes manifesting in the rejection of apostolic authority.
  41. Stott, The Letters of John, 230.
  42. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2d ed. (New York, NY: United Bible Society, 1989), L&N 25.110.
  43. William E. Vine, The Collected Writings of W.E. Vine (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1996), 3:412.
  44. Ferguson, The Letters of John, 100.
  45. Wayne Jackson, Notes From the Margin of My Bible (Stockton, CA.: Courier Publications, 1993), 2:172
  46. J. Jackson, “Fellow Workers for the Truth,” par. 15.
  47. Lloyd J. Ogilvie qtd. in Hiebert, “Studies in 3 John Part 2,” 204.
  48. BDAG 7.
  49. Paul G. Hiebert, 1985, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (1985; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 21.
  50. Gailyn Van Rheenen and Bob Waldron, The Status of Missions: A Nationwide Survey of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2002), 1-2.
  51. BDAG 803.
  52. Woods, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles of Peter, John, and Jude, 360.
  53. Van Rheenen and Waldron, The Status of Missions, 13. In fact, they go on to say, “Wherever churches exist, missionaries have overcome immense obstacles to teach unbelievers the Gospel, edify new Christians to live Christ-like lives, work together as a body of Christ, and train preachers and elders for Christian ministry” (13).
  54. J. Gresham Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners , 180. Machen writes, “the present imperative refers to it [i.e the action] as continuing or as being repeated.” The text literally reads, “stop mimicking the evil, instead [mimic] the good” (my translation), which would be a reference to the two opposites of Diotrephes and Demetrius – hence, the warning would suggest, “Do not imitate Diotrephes, but imitate Demetrius” (Smith, “The Epistles of John,” 208). If the rebuke and command are to make sense, it appears then we must see the good Gaius as one who has allowed the carnality of Diotrephe to get the better of him, and John is trying to bring peace back into the church setting.
  55. Stott, The Letters of John, 232.
  56. The words “do good” (agathopoieo) and “do evil” (kakopoieo) are common antitheses regarding causing harm (being criminal/evil doer) v. not causing harm (being good citizen/benign) in the New Testament, that they appear together four times across four different authors: 1 Peter 3:17, Mark 3:4 = Luke 6:9, and here 3 John 11 (BDAG 3, 501).
  57. Oliver B. Greene, The Epistles of John (Greenville, SC: The Gospel Hour, 1966), 256-57.
  58. Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1989), 346.
  59. James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914-1929), MM 144.
  60. F. B. Meyer, Through the Bible by Day: A Devotional Commentary (1914; repr. Franklin, TN: e-Sword, 2000-2012), comments on 3 John 1:1-14.
  61. My translation.
  62. John Nelson Darby, New Testament Translation (1884; repr. Franklin, Tenn.; e-Sword, 2000-2012).
  63. Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners, 187.
  64. D. Edmond Hiebert, “Studies in 3 John Part 3 (of 3 Parts): An Exposition of 3 John 11-14,” Bibliotheca Sacra 144 (July-Sept. 1987): 300.
  65. Hiebert, 1987, “Studies in 3 John Part 3,” 301.
  66. Barclay M. Newman, Jr., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1993), 112, 91.
  67. Hiebert, “Studies in 3 John Part 3,” 302.
  68. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (n.d.; repr. Franklin, TN: e-Sword, 2000-2012), comments on 3 John 12-14.
  69. Craig S. Keener, “Friendship” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), DNTB 387.
  70. Hiebert, “Studies in 3 John Part 3,” 303.
  71. Zane C. Hodges, “3 John,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983), 914-15.
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