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Bible Commentaries
3 John

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

- 3 John

by William Barclay



The very shortness of these two letters is the best guarantee of their genuineness. They are so brief and so comparatively unimportant that no one would have gone to the trouble of inventing them and of attaching them to the name of John. A standard papyrus sheet measured ten by eight inches and the length of these letters is to be explained by the fact that they would each take up almost exactly one sheet.

The Elder

Each of them is said to come from "The elder." Second John begins: "The elder to the elect lady and her children." Third John begins: "The elder to the beloved Gaius." It is in the last degree unlikely that The elder is an official or ecclesiastical title. Elders were officials attached to one congregation whose jurisdiction did not extend outside that congregation, whereas the writer of these letters certainly assumes that he has the right to speak and that his word will carry weight in congregations where he is not actually present. He speaks as one whose authority goes out to the Church at large. The word is presbuteros ( G4245) , which originally meant an elder, not in the official but in the natural sense of the term. We would be better to translate it "The ancient", or "The aged", for it is not from an ecclesiastical position but from his age and personal qualities that the writer of these letters draws his authority.

In fact we know that in Ephesus there was an aged John who held a very special position. In the days of the early church there was a churchman called Papias who lived from A.D. 70 to 146. He had a passion for collecting all the information he could lay hands on about the early days of the church. He was not a great scholar, Eusebius dismisses him as "a man of very limited intelligence"; but he does transmit to us some most interesting information. He became Bishop of Hierapolis but he had a close connection with Ephesus, and he tells us of his own methods of acquiring information. He frequently uses elder in the sense of one of the fathers of the Church, and he mentions a particularly distinguished elder whose name was John. "I shall not hesitate," he writes, "to put down for you, along with my own interpretations, whatsoever things I have at any time learned carefully from the elders, and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those that speak much, but in those that teach the truth; not in those who relate strange commandments, but in those who deliver the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and springing from the truth itself. If, then, anyone came who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders--what Andrew, or what Peter, had said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord; and what things Aristion, or the Elder John say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice." Clearly the Elder John, John the aged, was a notable figure in Ephesus, although he is clearly distinguished from John the apostle.

It must be this John who wrote these two little letters. By this time he was an old man, one of the last surviving links with Jesus and his disciples. He was a man who had the authority of a bishop in Ephesus and in the places around it; and when he saw that a church was threatened with trouble and heresy, he wrote with gracious and loving correction to his people. Here are the letters of an aged saint, one of the last of the first generation of Christians, a man whom all loved and respected.

Common Authorship

That the two letters are from the one hand there is no doubt. Short as they are, they have much in common. Second John begins: "The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth." Third John begins: "The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth." Second John goes on: "I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children following the truth" ( 2 John 1:4); and Third John goes on: "No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth." Second John comes to an end: "Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete" ( 2 John 1:12). Third John comes to an end: "I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face" ( 3 John 1:13-14). There is the closest possible similarity between the two letters.

There is further the closest possible connection between the situation of these letters and that in First John. In 1 John 4:3 we read: "Every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of Antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already." In 2 John 1:7 we read: "Many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is a deceiver and the Antichrist."

It is clear that Second and Third John are closely connected with each other; and that both are closely connected with First John. They are dealing with the same situation, the same dangers and the same people.

The Problem Of The Second Letter

These two little letters confront us with few serious problems. The only real one is to decide whether the Second Letter was sent to an individual or to a church. It begins: "The elder to the elect lady and her children." The problem centres on this phrase the elect lady. The Greek is eklekte ( G1588) kuria ( G2959) and there are three possible ways of taking it.

(i) It is just barely possible, though not really likely, that Eklekte is a proper name and that kuria ( G2959) is a quite usual affectionate address. Kurios ( G2962) (the masculine form) has many meanings. It very commonly means sir; it means master of slaves and owner of possessions; on a much higher level it means lord and is the word so often used as a title for Jesus. In letters kurios ( G2962) has a special use. It is practically the equivalent of the English phrase My Dear. So a soldier writes home saying, Kurie ( G2962) mou ( G3450) pater ( G3962) , My Dear Father. In letters kurios is an address combining affection and respect. So it is just possible that this letter is addressed to My Dear Eklekte. Rendel Harris, indeed, went the length of saying that Second John is nothing other than a Christian love letter. This is unlikely, as we shall see, for more than one reason. But one thing is decisive against it. Second John ends: "The children of your elect sister greet you." The Greek is again eklekte ( G1588) ; and, if it is a proper name at the beginning of the letter, it must also be a proper name at the end. This would mean that there were two sisters both called by the very unusual name of Eklekte--which is simply unbelievable.

(ii) It is possible to take Kuria ( G2959) as a proper name, for there are examples of this usage. We would then take eklekte ( G1588) in its normal New Testament sense; and the letter would be written to the elect Kuria ( G2959) . The objections are threefold. (a) It seems unlikely that any single individual could be spoken of as loved by all those who have known the truth ( 2 John 1:1). (b) 2 John 1:4 says that John rejoiced when he found some of her children walking in the truth; the implication is that others did not so walk. This would seem to imply a number greater than one woman's family could contain. (c) The decisive objection is that throughout the letter the eklekte ( G1588) kuria ( G2959) is addressed sometimes in the singular and sometimes in the plural. The singular occurs in verses 2 John 1:4-5 and 2 John 1:13; and the plural occurs in 2 John 1:6; 2 John 1:8; 2 John 1:10; 2 John 1:12. It would be almost impossible that an individual would be so addressed.

(iii) So, then, we must come to the conclusion that the elect lady means a church. There is, in fact, good evidence that the expression was so used. First Peter, in the King James Version, ends with greetings from "the church that is at Babylon elected together with you" ( 1 Peter 5:13). In the King James Version the words church that is are in italics; that, of course, means that they are not in the Greek and have been supplied in translation to fill out the sense. The Greek literally reads: "The Elect One at Babylon" and The Elect One is feminine. Few have ever doubted that the phrase means The church which is at Babylon, and that is how we must take it in John's letter also. No doubt The Elect Lady goes back to the idea of the church as the Bride of Christ. We can be certain that Second John is written, not to an individual but to a church.

The Problem In The Early Church

Second and Third John throw vivid light on a problem which sooner or later had to arise within the organization of the early church. Let us see if we can reconstruct the situation which lies behind them. It is clear that John the aged regards himself as having a right to act as guide and counsellor and to administer warning and rebuke in the churches whose members are his children. In Second John he writes of those who are doing well ( 2 John 1:4), and by implication infers that there are others who are not so satisfactory. He further makes it clear that there are itinerant teachers in the district, some of whom are preaching false and dangerous doctrine, and he gives orders that such teachers are not to be accepted and not to be given hospitality ( 2 John 1:7-11). Here, then, John is exercising what is to him an unquestioned right to issue orders to his churches and is seeking to guard against a situation in which itinerant teachers of falsehood may arrive at any moment.

The situation behind Third John is somewhat more complicated. The letter is written to one called Gaius, whose character and actions John most thoroughly approves ( 3 John 1:3-5). Wandering missionaries have come to the church, men who are fellow-helpers of the truth, and Gaius has given them true Christian hospitality ( 3 John 1:6-8). In the same church is another man called Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence ( 3 John 1:9). Diotrephes is depicted as a dictatorial character who will brook no rival to his authority. Diotrephes has refused to receive the wandering teachers of the truth and has actually tried to drive out of the church those who did receive them. He will have nothing to do with wandering teachers even when they are true preachers of the word ( 3 John 1:10).Then into the picture comes a man called Demetrius, to whom John gives a personal testimonial as a good man and one to be hospitably welcomed ( 3 John 1:12). The simplest explanation of Demetrius is that he must be the leader of a wandering band of teachers who are on their way to the church to which John is writing. Diotrephes will certainly refuse to have anything to do with them and will try to eject those who do receive them; and John is writing to urge Gaius to receive the wandering teachers and not to be intimidated by the domineering Diotrephes, whom he (John) will deal with when he visits the church in question ( 3 John 1:10). The whole situation turns on the reception of the wandering teachers. Gaius has received such teachers before, and John urges him to receive them and their leader Demetrius again. Diotrephes has shut the door on them and defied the authority of John the aged.

The Threefold Ministry

All this looks like a very unhappy situation, and indeed it was. None the less, it was one which was bound to arise. In the nature of things a problem of ministry was bound to emerge within the church. In its earliest days the church had three different kinds of ministries.

(i) Unique, and above all others, stood the apostles, those who had companied with Jesus and been witnesses of the resurrection. They were the undisputed leaders of the church. Their writ ran throughout the whole church; in any country and in any congregation their ministry was supreme.

(ii) There were the prophets. They were not attached to any one congregation. They were wandering preachers, going where the Spirit moved them and giving to men the message which the Spirit of God gave to them. They had given up home and occupation and the comfort and security of settled life to be the wandering messengers of God. They, too, had a very special place in the church. The Didache, or, to give it its English name, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is the earliest book of church order. In it the unique position of the prophets is made clear. The order of service for the Eucharist is laid down and the prayers are given; the service ends with the prayer of thanksgiving which is given in full; and then comes the sentence: "But suffer the prophets to give thanks as much as they will" (Didache 10:7). The prophets were not to be brought under the rules and regulations which governed ordinary people. So, then, the church had two sets of people whose authority was not confined to any one congregation and who had right of entry to every congregation.

(iii) There were the elders. During their first missionary journey part of the work of Paul and Barnabas was to ordain elders in all the local churches which they founded ( Acts 14:23). The elders were the officials of the settled community; their work was within their congregation and they did not move outside it. It is clear that they were the backbone of the organization of the early church; on them the routine work and the solidity of the individual congregations depended.

The Problem Of The Wandering Preachers

The position of the apostles presented no real problem; they were unique and their position could never really be disputed. But the wandering prophets did present a problem. Their position was one which was singularly liable to abuse. They had an enormous prestige; and it was possible for the most undesirable characters to enter into a way of life in which they moved from place to place, living in very considerable comfort at the expense of the local congregations. A clever rogue could make a very comfortable living as an itinerant prophet. Even the pagan satirists saw this. Lucian, the Greek writer, in his work called the Peregrinus, draws the picture of a man who had found the easiest possible way of making a living without working. He was an itinerant charlatan who lived on the fat of the land by travelling round the various communities of the Christians, settling down wherever he liked and living luxuriously at their expense. The Didache clearly saw this danger and laid down definite regulations to meet it. The regulations are long but so vivid a light do they throw on the life of the early church that they are worth quoting in full (Didache 11 and 12).

Whosoever, therefore, shall come and teach you all these things

aforesaid, receive him. But if the teacher himself turn and teach

another doctrine to pervert, hear him not. But unto the increase

of righteousness and knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the

Lord. And as touching the apostles and prophets, according to the

decree of the gospel, so do ye. But let every apostle that cometh

unto you be received as the Lord. And he shall stay one day, and,

if need be, the next also, but, if he stay three, he is a false

prophet. And, when the apostle goeth forth, let him take nothing

save bread, till he reach his lodging, but, if he ask money, he is

a false prophet. And every prophet that speaketh in the Spirit ye

shall not try nor judge: for every sin shall be forgiven, but this

sin shall not be forgiven. But not everyone that speaketh in the

Spirit is a prophet, but if he has the manners of the Lord. By

their manners, therefore, shall the prophet and the false prophet

be known. And no prophet who ordereth a table in the Spirit shall

eat of it, else he is a false prophet. And every prophet that

teacheth the truth, if he doeth not what he teacheth, is a false

prophet.... Whosoever shall say in the Spirit: Give me money, or

any other thing, ye shall not hearken to him: but, if he bid you

give for others who are in need, let no man judge him.

Let everyone that cometh in the name of the Lord be received,

and then, when ye have proved him, ye shall know, for ye shall

have understanding to distinguish between the right hand and the

left. If he that cometh is a passer-by, succour him as far as ye

can; but he shall not stay with you longer than two or three days,

unless there be necessity. But, if he be minded to settle among

you, and be a craftsman, let him work and eat. But, if he hath no

trade, according to your understanding, provide that he shall not

live idle among you, being a Christian. But, if he will not do

this, he is a Christmonger: of such men beware.

The Didache even invents the word Christmonger, trafficker in Christ, Christemporos, to describe this kind of person.

John was entirely justified in warning his people that the wrong kind of wandering prophets might come claiming hospitality and in saying that they must on no account be received. There is no doubt that in the early church these wandering prophets became a problem. Some of them were heretical teachers, even if they were sincerely convinced of their own teaching. Some were nothing better than plausible rogues who had found an easy way to make a comfortable living. That is the picture which lies behind Second John.

The Clash Of Ministries

But the situation behind Third John is in some ways even more serious. The problem figure is Diotrephes. He is the man who will have nothing to do with wandering teachers and who seeks to eject anyone who dares to give them a welcome. He is the man who will not accept the authority of John and whom John brands as a domineering character. There is much more behind this than meets the eye. This was no storm in a tea-cup; it was a fundamental cleavage between the local and the itinerant ministry.

Obviously the whole structure of the church depended on a strong settled ministry. That is to say, its very existence depended on a strong and authoritative eldership. As time went on the settled ministry was bound to chafe under the remote control of even one so famous as John the aged; and to resent the possibly upsetting invasions of wandering prophets and evangelists. It was by no means impossible that, however well-intentioned they were, these itinerants could do far more harm than good.

Here is the situation behind Third John. John represents the old apostolic remote control; Demetrius and his band of missionaries represent the wandering prophets and preachers; Diotrephes represents the settled ministry of the local elders, who wish to run their own congregation and regard the wandering preachers as dangerous intruders; Gaius represents the good, well-meaning man who is torn in two and cannot make up his mind.

What happened in this case, we do not know. But the end of the matter in the church was that the wandering preachers faded from the scene and the apostles in the nature of things passed from this earth, and the settled ministry became the ministry of the church. In a sense even in the modern church the problem of the itinerant evangelist and the settled ministry is not fully solved; but these two little letters are of the most fascinating interest because they show the organization of the church in a transition stage, when the clash between the itinerant and the settled ministry was beginning to emerge and--who knows?--Diotrephes may not have been as bad as he is painted nor altogether wrong.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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