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Bible Commentaries
3 John

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- 3 John

by Charles John Ellicott

The Epistles of St. John.

Archdeacon of London.












I. Who wrote them?—It is difficult to imagine why any should suppose these two Epistles to be by different hands. Was this author the Apostle?

(1) External Evidence.—This is not nearly so strong as for the First. It is natural that it should be so, for the two Epistles seem to have been regarded as of far less general interest; and, therefore, there was less obvious propriety in placing them in a collection of important Apostolical literature, and little reason why they should be quoted at all. The main argument for them is, indeed, their unaffected, inartificial kinship to the First. The oldest authority for the Second is the Muratorian Canon, composed before A.D. 170. Origen speaks of St. John’s Epistles in the plural, and his disciple, Dionysius, cites the Third by name. The Muratorian Canon speaks of two Epistles of John, apparently distinct from the First. The Muratorian writer explains the principle of his arrangement of the Canon distinctly: saying that the Epistles of Paul to Philemon and Timothy, although addressed only to individuals, were placed in the Canon on account of their character. And even if the two Epistles of John mentioned were the First and Second, the fact that the Epistle to Philemon has precedence of those to Timothy (and Titus), probably because it is addressed also to Apphia and Archippus and the church in Philemon’s house, makes it very easy to understand that the Second Epistle of John (early supposed to be addressed to a church under the symbolic form of a lady) would be received into a canon, while the Third, addressed to an unknown individual, and dealing with special circumstances, might not be considered sufficiently general for such a position. In early days there must have been many fugitive writings of the Apostles; and the discretion of the churches in selecting from them for an authorised collection would be guided probably more by usage than by deliberate valuation. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 190-220), says, “The Second Epistle of John, written to the Virgins, is of the simplest character; it is written to a certain Babylonian, called Electa, but that means the election of the holy Church” (Opera, p. 1011, ed. Potter). Origen, in addition to what has been quoted from him above, is alleged by Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. vi. 25) to have said, “Not all consider these Epistles to be genuine,” without endorsing the doubt himself. Dionysius of Alexandria, pupil and successor of Origen, makes use of the Second and Third Epistle to illustrate St. John’s diction; he says that they were generally received as St. John’s by tradition. Irenæus, disciple of Polycarp and of Papias, (he died A.D. 202) quotes 2 John 1:7, by a mistake of memory, as belonging to the First Epistle; the words of 2 John 1:11, he cites as by John the disciple of the Lord. Ephrem the Syrian knew both Epistles, but it is easy to understand why two small fragments of such a private character were not translated in early days, and therefore did not appear in the Peschito version; for that contains only three general Epistles (James, 1 Peter, 1 John). Cyprian shows that the Second Epistle was received as Apostolical and Canonical in the North African Church, by the fact that he mentions a quotation of the tenth verse by Aurelius, Bishop of Chullabis. Eusebius by speaking of St. John’s Epistles in the plural number (Demonstratio Evangelica, iii. 5) shows that he himself recognised some other Epistles as well as the First; but, as from their shortness and small range there had been very slight occasion to quote them, he put them among the highest class of those writings which were not placed by absolutely universal consent in the authoritative Canon, and were therefore called Antilegomena. Jerome gives the “opinion of several writers,” not as his own, that they were by the traditional John the Presbyter; a view rejected by Oecumenius and Bede. In the Middle Ages they were received without question as the Apostle’s; then Erasmus took up the opinion mentioned by Jerome, and was followed by Grotius. Most modern commentators recognise them as Apostolic. The Tübingen writers are, of course, obliged to consider them as later, referring them to Montanistic, or at any rate, sub-apostolic times.

(2) Internal Evidence.—The term “elder”: The fact that St. John does not give his name is in favour of authenticity. As in the Gospel and the First Epistle, he prefers to retain a dignified incognito, intelligible to all whom it concerned. Even if the messengers did not know whose letters they were carrying, even if the correspondents did not know the handwriting, they would be perfectly aware from the style and matter, and the promise of a visit. It is doubtful whether by “elder” he meant “aged,” or an official position. In classical Greek these words would have a different form, but St. John’s Greek is that of a man who had become accustomed to a provincial form of the language late in life, and quite admits of slight irregularities. If he means an office, there is nothing to show that all the Apostles always used the apostolic title. St. Peter called himself “fellow-presbyter” (1 Peter 5:1), and Eusebius called the Apostles Presbyters (Eccl. Hist. iii. 39). The Apostles and “Overseers” were, in fact, only a specially responsible and important branch of the Presbyterate. As the last remaining Apostle, St. John might prefer not to insist on a designation now unique; or, as the name “elder” was originally adopted with reference to mature age, he may have used it as a hint of his own advanced years; or the dangers of the times may have made it advisable for him, for his messenger, and for his correspondents, to drop the higher title.

The only authority for the existence of another John at Ephesus, at the same time as the Apostle, called “the elder,” and “the disciple of the Lord,” is Papias, quoted by Eusebius. Is it not possible, that, as Eusebius says that he was “very small in mind,” there may be some confusion in some of these details? May not even the confusion itself have arisen from these anonymous Epistles being misunderstood by the unintelligent? But, even admitting the existence of such a second John, it is too much to ask us to believe that he resembled the Apostle not only in name and history, but also in style, character, and thought. And where it was extremely reasonable that the Apostle should leave out his name, it becomes most improbable that this alternative John should have left it out.

The Second and Third Epistles are full of peculiar forms, common also to the First. Notice 2 John 1:1, “knowing the truth”; 2 John 1:2, “abide in”; 2 John 1:3, “in truth and love”; 2 John 1:4, “walking in”; 2 John 1:5, “the commandment which we had from the beginning” (1 John 2:7); 2 John 1:6, “this is love, that”; “as ye heard from the beginning” (1 John 3:11; 1 John 3:23); 2 John 1:7, “deceivers are gone forth” (1 John 2:18); “confessing not Jesus Christ coming in the flesh” (1 John 4:1-2); “the antichrist”; 2 John 1:9, “abideth not in the doctrine, hath not God” (1 John 2:23); “hath the Son and the Father”; 2 John 1:12, “that our joy may be full” (1 John 1:4); 3 John 1:1, “in truth”; 3 John 1:3-4, “walkest in truth”; 3 John 1:11, “is of God, hath not seen God” (1 John 3:6; 1 John 3:10; 1 John 4:8). There are five or six expressions in the two Epistles which do not occur elsewhere in St. John’s writings, but it would be in the highest degree absurd to confine any writer exclusively to the language used in a former production. Additional reason for variety here would be found in the simple colloquial character of the writings.

Accordingly, while there is every reason to hold that the Second and Third Epistles are by the author of the First, and the First by the Author of the Gospel, it is difficult to find any valid reason to the contrary.

II. Date.—In the absence of all evidence to the contrary it seems probable that the circumstances and time were not very dissimilar in all three Epistles.

III. Character and Scope.—In the Second, the Apostle, who is probably staying at the same place as some of his correspondent’s children, writes to a mother and her other children to express his sympathy and delight at the faith of the family, and to warn them against admitting false teachers to their circle. It contains noticeable definitions of love, antichrist, and of true and false believers. It also has a general lesson on the treatment of wilful depravers of divine truth.

In the Third, he recounts how some missionaries had been badly received by Diotrephes, who had ambitiously obtained for himself the chief influence in a certain church, but notwithstanding Gaius had been courageous and kind enough to entertain them hospitably. Gaius is exhorted to help them still further. The Letter gives us an idea of the high importance of hospitality at the time as a Christian virtue; and brings out the fact that St. John’s authority was no less disputed in certain cases than St. Paul’s. It is probable that the church of Diotrephes had not been founded by St. John; that St. John had special claim to be obeyed; and that ecclesiastical influence seems to have by this time become vested in a single head.

IV. Where were they written?—Probably at Ephesus, before a tour of inspection. Had they been written in Patmos, some notice of the captivity might be expected.

V. Literature.—To the authorities mentioned in the First Epistle, add the Articles in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, and a paper by Professor Salmon on the Third Epistle in the Christian Observer, April, 1877. I should mention again my obligations to Dr. Karl Braune.

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