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Bible Commentaries
3 John

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- 3 John

by John Dummelow


1. Authorship. The majority of the Epistles of the New Testament are catholic, that is, they are addressed not to individuals but to Churches of this and that locality. There are references to letters of this kind which are now lost. Thus St. Paul says, ’I wrote unto you in an epistle not to keep company with fornicators’ (1 Corinthians 5:9). And he directs the Colossian Church to exchange Epistles with the Church at Laodicea (Colossians 4:16); this being the only mention we have of a Laodicean Epistle. But there are several private letters in the New Testament, each bearing the vivid stamp of an occasion. And these must have constituted but a small part of the correspondence of the early Christian writers. St. Paul speaks of ’epistles of commendation’ (2 Corinthians 3:1), personal letters of introduction, as passing frequently among the Churches. Undoubtedly, then, many private letters by the authors of the New Testament have been lost.

This adds special interest to the Second and Third Epistles of St. John; for here we have two letters of unquestionably early date, revealing each a section of the Christian community in the colours of life. They are almost universally allowed to be by the same hand; by the hand, most commentators add, of John the Apostle. The direct external evidence for their authenticity is not extensive. This may be perhaps on account of their brevity and their private character, which would render them not likely to be mentioned frequently by the Fathers. Yet there are several references to them in the first four centuries. It is said in the Muratorian Canon (170 a.d.) that John wrote at least two Epistles. Irenæus (180 a.d.) twice ascribes the Second Epistle to St. John. The Old Italic Version (180 a.d.) has both Epistles. Clement of Alexandria (190 a.d.) refers to the First Epistle as ’the larger Epistle,’ implying that he knows another which is shorter; and again he speaks of a Second Epistle of John, addressed ’to a Babylonian lady by name Electa.’ Both Epistles, the Second and Third, are mentioned by Origen (230 a.d.), and by Dionysius of Alexandria (245 a.d.). Eusebius (325 a.d.) in speaking of them places them among the books whose right to a position in the Canon is disputed. The Second Epistle is referred to by Cyprian (248 a.d.); and both are acknowledged by the Councils of Laodicea (363 a.d.), of Hippo (393 a.d.), and the Third Council of Carthage (397 a.d.).

The internal evidence is stronger. According to the contents, the author is a person of apostolic, or at least authoritative, position. There is no ground for doubting that such was the case, for there is no motive conceivable for forgery. Moreover, if the attempt had been made to pass off the work of an obscure author for that of a prominent one, a more definite and authority-giving title than that which heads both Epistles—the Presbyter’—would have been assigned the writer. Their style, form, and contents are so alike that their unity of authorship can hardly be questioned. In each case the opening address (cp. 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1), the writer’s joy in the conduct of his friends (cp. 2 John 1:4; 3 John 1:4), and the conclusion (cp. 2 John 1:12; 3 John 1:13-14), is the same. Similarity in the words, ideas, style, character, binds them also to the First Epistle. ’Love’ and ’truth’ glow as fundamental conceptions in all three. (Among instances of similar treatment of the same themes, are the following: cp. 2 John 1:4, 2 John 1:6; 2 John 1:6, 2 John 1:11 cp. 2 John 1:5; 1 John 2:7 cp. 2 John 1:6; 1 John 5:8 cp. 2 John 1:7; 1 John 2:22 cp. 2 John 1:7; 1 John 4:1-3 cp. 2 John 1:9; 1 John 2:23 cp. 2 John 1:12; 1 John 1:4 cp. 3 John 1:11; 1 John 3:10. of the thirteen vv. of the Second Epistle eight are thus found in essentially the same form in the First.) In all of them the centre of Christianity is the recognition of Jesus as the Christ and the authoritative revealer of God, and walking in love and truth as the soul’s mode of union with Him. The prominence given to Christ leads to warnings against ’antichrist,’ an expression found in the New Testament in the First and Second Epistles of John only (1 John 2:18, 1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:3; 2 Jn V. 7). The First Epistle utters three clear and weighty warnings against the dangers of the time—the danger of denying the true Christ, of failing in love to the brethren, and of not observing Christ’s commandments. These same three warnings constitute the body of thought of the Second Epistle (2 John 1:7, 2 John 1:9, 2 John 1:5-6). The connexion between the First Epistle and the Second and Third is so close that the arguments for the Johannine authorship of the last two are in the main the same as for the First, and may be found at length in commentaries on that Epistle. Whether this connexion involves unity of authorship “with the Fourth Gospel and the Revelation, is a question too large to be entered upon here.

It has been held that the title which the author of the Second and Third Epistles gives himself—’the Presbyter’ or ’Elder’—excludes Johannine authorship. For this, it is maintained, is the of official designation of the minister of a particular Church, and therefore cannot have been assumed by one having the apostolic position of St. John. This opinion is supported by a passage in Eusebius, in which Papias is quoted as mentioning a John the Presbyter. ’If I met with any one who had been a follower of the Presbyters, I made it a point to enquire what were the declarations of the Presbyters; what was said by Andrew or by Peter or by Philip or by Thomas or by James or by John or by Matthew or any of the Lord’s disciples; and what Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say.’ Of this statement of Papias, Eusebius says: ’It is proper to observe that the name of John occurs twice. The one John he mentions with Peter and James and Matthew and the other Apostles. But in a separate part of his discourse he ranks the other John with the rest not included in the number of the Apostles, placing Aristion before him. He distinguishes him plainly by the name of Presbyter.’ Eusebius therefore infers that there were two Johns—John the Apostle and John the Presbyter. Cp. Euseb. ’Hist. Eccles.,’ VII, 25. But apart from the fact that it is somewhat uncertain whether Papias in this passage refers to a different person from John the Apostle, this is the only place in Christian history down to the time of Eusebius in which such a person as John the Presbyter is mentioned. Moreover, it is an assumption that ’the Presbyter’ must necessarily be the technical and official title of the minister of a special Church; for in the very passage quoted, Papias calls seven of the Apostles Presbyters. It is more probable, therefore, that ’Presbyter,’ at the beginning of the Second and Third Epistles of John, is not an official title, but a descriptive appellation, as it is translated in both AV and RV—’ the Elder.’ The term therefore claims for the author a position of dignity and authority in the Christian community; not necessarily implying apostleship, but not excluding it.

2. Occasion. We have said that the background of thought of the Second and Third Epistles is the same as that of the First, and that this contained three warnings against the dangers of the time. These dangers resulted from the great main problem which lay at the foundation of all Oriental religions—the relation of finite man to the infinite God. How could that chasm be crossed? how had it been crossed in the work of creation? how were spirit and matter related? how did evil enter the world, and what was evil? Almost all early thinkers were driven by these questions into some form of Dualism. There were, they must believe, two Powers in conflict. Since spirit was the higher, matter was evil; it was the work of the inferior god. The material, the natural, was therefore to be fought against; the spiritual man could have nothing to do with it. Indeed, so far as he was truly spiritual, he was already freed from and above it. Hebrew religion, in its moments of clearest insight, set itself against this Dualism. The creation, it declared, was not the work of an inferior deity or deities, but both worlds, those of spirit and matter, were called into being by one and the same infinite God. ’In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ The Prophet of the Exile was so daring indeed in his proclamation of Monism, that he did not hesitate to declare Jehovah to be the author of evil itself. ’I form the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil. I, the Lord, do all these things’ (Isaiah 45:7).

Of course this problem laid its heaviest grasp upon the early Christians in relation to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Starting from the same ground—the essentially evil nature of matter—two opposite schools of thought arose. The one—that of Cerinthus—held that Jesus, as the true son of Joseph and Mary, was, like His fellow-men, tainted with sin, though more righteous than others. The divine Logos, however, was at His baptism joined with Him; and these two continued together in the human body of Jesus, until at His death He cast off His flesh and became pure spirit. Dualism was thus seated in the very person of Christ. The other school, that of the Docetists, denied altogether the fleshly, i.e. evil, nature of Jesus, and maintained that He was human in appearance only, having no real human nature, but a wholly spiritual one. This too established a dualism in Christ, through the failure of the different elements in Him to constitute a unity. Round this problem, thus insoluble—to keep Jesus in touch with humanity, to assert His freedom from the taint of sin, and to proclaim at the same time the essential distinction between human and divine, and the inherent evil of the human—over and about this the currents of thought flowed for centuries hopelessly. Ideas, speculations, fancies, from sources Christian, Jewish, Oriental, classical, magical, all combined in the many and strange systems which came to be known as Gnosticism. Dualism stamped itself deep even upon Christianity, and it came to be taken for granted that there was a necessary opposition between faith and reason, grace and nature, supernatural and natural, the priest and the man, the Church and the world.

Such opinions could not remain speculative only. They involved a denial of that which to St. John was life’s most precious possession—the conviction that Jesus was the authentic revelation of the infinite God; and this denial again gave birth to a disbelief in any ultimate standard, which resulted in antinomianism and immorality, and to a disregard of the corporate nature of religion, which then became gross selfishness. One who can see Jesus Christ, and yet not welcome in Him the ideal of God and man, can do so, in St. John’s view, only by denying his own moral perceptions. And so the Apostle bursts out into the exclamation which is the central thought of all his Epistles, ’Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ!’ (1 John 2:22).

3. Date. If we are correct in assigning these Epistles to St. John, they belong to the last quarter of the 1st cent. The Christian Church had not yet attained that definiteness of organisation which was the work of the 2nd cent. The Churches of different localities were connected by ties of friendship and spiritual communion rather than by the authoritative bonds of organised ecclesiasticism. Yet the tendency to centralisation had begun. A unified system not only of belief, but of conduct, organisation, and discipline was growing up. Importance began to be laid on doctrinal unity. The authority of some prominent man, one of the Twelve (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3 John 1:9), or of the other Apostles (1 Corinthians 7:17; Romans 16:7, would be recognised by a Church or group of Churches. He would often give letters of recommendation to the evangelists or messengers, or to the brethren travelling on private business from one community to another. To receive and entertain these was a duty for every Church. An interesting document of the next century, ’The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’ (circ. 120 a.d.), lays down rules for the prevention of the abuse of this hospitality. ’With regard to Apostles and prophets, do with them according to the ordinance of the gospel. Let every Apostle who cometh to you be received as the Lord. He shall not overstay one day, though, if need be, the next; but if he remain three days, he is a false prophet. And let not the Apostle, on departing, take aught save bread till he come to a stopping-place; and if he ask money, he is a false prophet. And the prophet that speaketh in the spirit you shall not question nor judge, for every offence shall be forgiven, but this offence shall not be forgiven. Not every one that speaketh in the spirit is a prophet, unless he have the ways of the Lord. By their ways, then, shall the false prophet and the prophet be known. And no prophet who in the spirit appointeth a feast eateth thereof, unless he be a false prophet; and any prophet who teacheth the truth, if what he teacheth he do not, is a false prophet... And whoso saith in the spirit, Give me moneys or other things, you shall not hearken to him; but if for others in straits he say. Give, let no one judge him,’ In the Second and Third Epistles we see these itinerant teachers and brethren on their way from Church to Church (2 John 1:7, 2 John 1:9-12; 3 John 1:5-6, 3 John 1:8-13). We find there are many ’deceivers’ among them; while there are in the Churches lordly officials inflated with power, refusing recognition to the Apostle’s messengers, and, on the other hand, warm-hearted and influential laymen, who delight to serve the Christian community by entertaining its representatives. We see the little congregation in this place and a congregation of strangers distant in that place finding themselves at one through loyalty to a common Master. We see the knitting of those ties which are soon to become the great fellowship of the Christian Church. Short as these two Epistles are, they furnish a glimpse, clear and vivid, of the life of the Christian community near the close of the 1st cent., and of the means for securing that unity of belief and organisation which in the course of the next century was to develop the great Catholic Church.

4. Contents of the Epistles. In the Second Epistle the author sends his greeting to ’the elect lady’ and her children, dwelling upon the ground of their mutual friendship—their fellowship in ’the truth.’ He has met with some of her children (or some members of the Church addressed), and has been glad to find them living as they ought, in the way of God’s commandment. This commandment is nothing new, but is as old as religion itself. It is simply love as the law of life. The writer gives some of his characteristic definitions. The commandment is to love, and love means to keep the commandments. Then comes a warning against false teachers. The test by which the true teacher may be known is his recognition of Jesus Christ as historic and authoritative, and his following of the teaching of Christ. ’Erroneous ideas’ on this subject are not to be tolerated, and kindness shown to any one who does not meet this test is mistaken charity and participation in evil. There is much more which the author has in mind to say; but he will write no more at present, for he hopes to visit his readers soon, to the fulfilment of their mutual satisfaction. A closing salutation is sent to the recipient of the letter by the children of her elect sister.

The Third Epistle opens with the same form of greeting as the Second. In this case it is to a certain Gaius; who is dear to the writer as a member of the Christian community—he is ’in the truth’—and for his own large, generous character. If his body is as vigorous as his soul, the writer will rejoice. For messengers have recently come from the Church to which Gaius belongs, and reported that he is conducting himself as a worthy member of the fellowship of Christ—’walking in the truth’—and especially that he is most hospitable to all, both friends and strangers, who are serving the Cause. Such praiseworthy conduct is in marked contrast with that of an official of the same Church, Diotrephes, who had recently refused to receive messengers with a letter from ’the Elder,’ and had threatened excommunication to those who wished to welcome them. The members of the Church are warned not to imitate such evil conduct; which suggests, by contrast, that of a certain Demetrius, whom the writer warmly commends to them. This man has the threefold witness—of general approval, of membership in ’the truth,’ and that of the Apostle himself. As in the preceding letter, further discourse is postponed to the personal meeting which he hopes will shortly take place. The Epistle closes with salutations from the Apostle and his friends to Gaius and his friends.

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