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Bible Commentaries
3 John

The Expositor's Greek TestamentExpositor's Greek Testament

- 3 John

by William Robertson Nicoll






THE first Epistle differs from all the other N.T. Epistles save the Epistle to the Hebrews in this, that it is anonymous. The author, however, claims to have been an eye-witness of the Word of Life (1:1 3) and speaks throughout in a tone of apostolic authority, and there is abundance of primitive and credible testimony that he was St. John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and the last survivor of the Apostle-company.

1. The MSS. Titles . [377] [378] Ἰωάνου (- άννου ) α : [379] Ἰωάννου ἐπιστολὴ α : [380] ἐπιστολὴ καθολικὴ τοῦ ἁγίου ἀποστόλου Ἰωάννου : [381] Ἰωάννου τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ καὶ ἀποσ ( τόλου ἐπιστολὴ ) α . Two later MSS. have interesting titles 13 ἐπιστολὴ α Ἰωάννου · εὐαγγελικὴ θεολογία περὶ χῡ : f βροντῆς υἱὸς Ἰωάννης τάδε χριστιανοῖσιν . [382]

[377] Codex Alexandrinus (sæc. v.), at the British Museum, published in photographic facsimile by Sir E. M. Thompson (1879).

[378] Codex Vaticanus (sæc. iv.), published in photographic facsimile in 1889 under the care of the Abbate Cozza-Luzi.

[379] Codex Sinaiticus (sæc. iv.), now at St. Petersburg, published in facsimile type by its discoverer, Tischendorf, in 1862.

[380] Codex Angelicus (sæc. ix.), at Rome, collated by Tischendorf and others.

[381] Codex Porphyrianus (sæc. ix.), at St. Petersburg, collated by Tischendorf. Its text is deficient for chap. 2:13 16.

[382] St. Augustine’s discourses on the First Epistle are entitled “Ten Treatises on the Epistle of John to the Parthians ( In Epistolam Joannis ad Parthos Tractatus Decem ),” and he elsewhere quotes from the Epistle under this strange title ( Quæst. Ev . ii. 39). Probably the Epistle was entitled in some MS. Ἰωάννου τοῦ παρθένου , as the Apocalypse is entitled in 30 αποκαλυψ . του αγιου ενδοξοτατου αποστολου και ευαγγελιστου παρθενου ηγαπημενου επιστηθιου ιωαννου θεολογου , and ΤΟΥΠΑΡΘΕΝΟΥ was mistaken for ΠΡΟΣΠΑΡΘΟΥΣ . The Latin frag. of Clem. Alex.’s exposition of the Second Epistle begins: “Secunda Joannis epistola qnæ ad virgines scripta,” where “Joannis ad virgines” probably represents Ἰωάννου τοῦ παρθένου .

2. Patristic Evidence . Polycarp. ad Philipp. viii.: πᾶς γὰρ ὃς ἂν μὴ ὁμολογῇ Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθέναι , ἀντίχριστός ἐστιν a manifest echo of 1 John 4:2-3 . This proves the early date of our Epistle and the esteem in which it was held, and if it does not attest the Johannine authorship, it at least suggests it. Polycarp had known several of the Apostles and of those who had seen the Lord; he had been a disciple of St. John and had been ordained by him bishop of Smyrna; and he was the leading ecclesiastic in the whole of Asia. Ccf. Jer. Script. Eccles. ; Iren. III. iii. 4.

Eusebius ( H. E. iii. 39) says that Papias, whom Irenæus had called “a hearer of John and a comrade of Polycarp, an ancient man ( Ἰωάννου μὲν ἀκουστὴς Πολυκάρπου δὲ ἑταῖρος γεγονὼς , ἀρχαῖος ἀνήρ ), “used testimonies from the first (former) epistle of John ( κέχρηται δʼ ὁ αὐτὸς μαρτυρίαις ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰωάννου προτέρας ἐπιστολῆς )”. προτέρας is merely a grammatical inaccuracy, as conversely πρῶτος for πρότερος in Matthew 21:36 ; Act 1:1 ; 1 Corinthians 14:30 ; Hebrews 10:9 ; Revelation 21:1 . Cf. Eus. H. E. iii. 24; ἡ προτέρα τῶν ἐπιστολῶν … αἱ λοιπαὶ δύο .

lrenæus, a disciple of Polycarp [383] and bishop of Lyons, quotes 1 John 2:18-19 ; 1Jn 2:21-22 ; 1 John 4:1 ; 1Jn 4:3 ; 1 John 5:1 , and says expressly that he is quoting from the Epistle of St. John. [384] [383] Jer. Script. Eccles .

[384] lren. III. xvi. 5, 8.

The Muratorian Canon (about A.D. 170) includes our epistle and ascribes it to St. John: “Quid ergo mirum si Johannes tam constanter singula etiam in epistulis suis proferat, dicens in semetipso: Quæ vidimus oculis nostris, et auribus audivimus, et manus nortræ palpaverunt, hæc scripsimus ?” cf. 1 John 1:1 . [385]

[385] The Mur. Can. is given in Routh’s Reliq. Sacr ., i. pp. 394 seq.

These testimonies are primitive, and there is no need to adduce in addition the later and abundant testimonies of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Athanasius.

With no less unanimity and emphasis does ancient tradition ascribe the Fourth Gospel to St. John, and it hardly admits of reasonable doubt that the Gospel and the Epistle are from the one pen. They agree in style, language, and thought. They have the same Hebraistic style, abounding in parallelism ( e.g. cf. 1 John 2:10-11 with John 3:18 ; John 3:20-21 ) and parataxis (the co-ordinating καί is the favourite conjunction). Their style is identical, and it is unique in the N.T. They have, moreover, common phrases and expressions Cf. 1 John 1:1-2 with Gosp. 1:1, 2, 4, 14; Ephesians 1:4 with Gosp. 15:11, 16:24; Ephesians 2:1 with Gosp. 14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:7; Ephesians 2:8 with Gosp. 13:34, 15:10, 12; Ephesians 2:11 with Gosp. 12:35; Ephesians 3:8 ; Ephesians 3:15 with Gosp. 8:44; Ephesians 3:11 ; Ephesians 3:16 with Gosp. 15:12, 13; Ephesians 3:12 with Gosp. 7:7; Ephesians 3:13 with Gosp. 15:18, 19; Ephesians 3:14 with Gosp. 5:24; Ephesians 4:6 with Gosp. 8:47; Ephesians 4:12 with Gosp. 1:14; Ephesians 4:14 with Gosp. 3:17; Ephesians 5:3 with Gosp. 14:15, 21; Ephesians 5:6-8 with Gosp. 19:34, 35; Ephesians 5:9 with Gosp. 5:32, 34, 36, 8:17, 18; Ephesians 5:10 with Gosp. 1:33; Ephesians 5:12 with Gosp. 3:15, 36; Ephesians 5:13 with Gosp. 20:31; Ephesians 5:14 with Gosp. 14:13, 14, 16:23; Ephesians 5:20 with Gosp. 17:3. Then they have in common certain fundamental conceptions which are thus defined and enumerated by Dr. H. J. Holtzmann: “the Son of God in the Flesh, the Life, which has its source in Him and is identical with Him, the Being in Him, the Abiding in God, the Love of God actualised in the Sending of the Son, the resultant Commandment of Brotherly Love, the Walking in the Light, the Begetting of God, the Overcoming of the World, etc.; the antitheses of Life and Death, Light and Darkness, Love and Hate, Truth and Lying, Father and World, God and Devil, Children of God and Children of the Devil.” Thus inextricably are the two works intertwined. “Our Epistle,” says Rothe, “has throughout as its presupposition the peculiar conception of the person and history of the Redeemer, in general the peculiar conception of Christianity, which prevails in the Gospel. Consequently, if the Fourth Gospel is a work of the Apostle John, our Epistle also belongs as indubitably to him; as in the contrary case our Epistle could be no composition of the Apostle John.”

The common authorship has nevertheless been called in question on the ground of certain alleged divergences which, says Schmiedel, “are explained much more easily on the assumption that the two writings come from different writers though belonging to one and the same school of thought.” The divergences are (1) linguistic, and (2) doctrinal. [386]

[386] See Holtzmann’s Einl. in das N.T ., and his elaborate discussion: Das Probl. des erst. johann. Br. in sein. Verhält. zum Ev. in Jahrb. f. prot. Theol. (1881 82); Martineau’s Seat of Auth ., p. 509; Schmiedel in Encycl. Bibl ., vol. ii., cols. 2556 7.

(1) The words ἀγγελία , ἐπαγγελία , διάνοια , παρουσία , ἐλπίς , ἀνομία and others occur in the Epistle and not in the Gospel. But what then? A writer need not exhaust his entire vocabulary in a single writing: that would argue extreme barrenness of mind. Does it follow that the Third Gospel and the Book of Acts are by different authors because ἐλπίς never occurs in the former and eight times in the latter, or that the Epistle to the Romans is not St. Paul’s because ἱλαστήριον occurs in it and in no other of his Epistles? The only reasonable inference from the occurrence of words in the Epistle which are absent from the Gospel is that the former is not an imitation of the latter.

(2) The following instances of doctrinal divergence are adduced: ( a ) ἱλασμός in Ephesians 2:2 ; Ephesians 4:10 and nowhere else in the N.T.; whereas, says Martineau, “the gospel knows nothing of an atoning or propitiatory efficacy in the blood of Christ”. It is true that the word is not found in the Gospel, but the idea is. Cf. 1:29, 10:11, 15, 11:49, 52. ( b ) χρῖσμα (Ephesians 2:20 , 27) is another ἅπαξ λεγόμενον . The very idea, however, is found in the Gospel (14:26, 16:13). ( c ) The Gospel is more spiritual in its eschatology, representing the Judgment not as future but as present (3:18) and the Coming of Christ as happening in the experience of each believer (14:3); whereas the Epistle represents the παρουσία (2:28) as “a visible individual occurrence” on a particular day (4:17). This is simply erroneous. The Gospel also speaks of a final and universal Judgment (5:29), “the last day” (6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24), and a personal Coming of Christ (21:22, 23). [387] ( d ) The Παράκλητος is the Holy Spirit in the Gospel, Jesus in the Epistle. Here, however, there is no divergence. The doctrine of the Epistle explains the Gospel’s ἄλλον Παράκλητον (14:16). See commentary on 2:1.

[387] John 21:0 is an addition to the Gospel. but it is by the same hand, “a postscript from the same pen as the rest” (Renan).

It is beyond reasonable doubt that the Epistle and the Gospel are from the same pen. “The identity of authorship in the two books,” says Lightfoot, [388] “though not undisputed, is accepted with such a degree of unanimity that it may be placed in the category of acknowledged facts.” And they have a very intimate connection. This is abundantly apparent from internal evidence. The Epistle opens with a reference to the Gospel-narrative, and there is an unmistakable relation between 1 John 5:13 and John 20:31 (see commentary). Indeed the Epistle throughout has the Gospel as its background and is hardly intelligible without it. It is, in the language of Lightfoot, [389] “a devotional and moral application of the main ideas which are evolved historically in the sayings and doings of Christ recorded in the Gospel”. And it is significant that the Muratorian Canon mentions the First Epistle in connection with the Gospel, and the Second and Third Epistles after an interval in their natural place among the other Epistles of the N.T.

[388] Ess. on Sup. Rel ., pp. 186 f.

[389] Ibid. , p. 188.

The precise connection between them is nowhere indicated, but it appears from a consideration of the historical situation. The fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 dispersed the Church, and a colony of disciples found a home in Asia Minor. It was a considerable and increasingly influential community, including, in the phrase of Polycrates of Ephesus, “great luminaries ( μεγάλα στοιχεῖα )” not only the Apostles Philip [390] and Andrew [391] but, according to abundant and trustworthy tradition, St. John. [392] The latter fixed his residence at Ephesus, where there was a church founded by St. Paul. [393] It was the proudest boast of Ephesus that she was “the Temple-sweeper ( νεωκόρος ) of Artemis” (Acts 19:35 ), and the Temple which she had reared for her goddess was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world; and in that historic and brilliant city St. John exercised his ministry to the end of his long life, which lasted until the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98 117). [394]

[390] Eus. H. E. iii. 31, ver 24.

[391] Mur. Can.

[392] On the credibility of this tradition see Drummond, The Char. and Auth. of the Fourth Gospel , pp. 814 ff.

[393] Iren. III. iii. 4.

[394] Iren. III. iii. 4.

It was an active and gracious ministry. It had Ephesus for its headquarters, but it comprehended a wide area. St. John took oversight of all the Christian communities in the surrounding country such as the churches of Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea ( cf. Revelation 2-3), counselling and strengthening them by letters and visitations. “He would go away when invited,” says Clement of Alexandria, [395] “to the neighbouring districts of the Gentiles, here to appoint bishops, there to form new churches, and there to put into the office of the ministry some one of those that were indicated by the Spirit.” And Clement proceeds to relate an interesting story, μῦθον οὐ μῦθον . The Apostle once visited a neighbouring city Smyrna, according to the Alexandrian Chronicle and saw there a lad of stalwart form, charming face, and ardent spirit. “I deposit this lad in thy keeping,” he said to the bishop, “with all earnestness, taking the Church and Christ to witness.” The bishop accepted the trust and, when St. John returned to Ephesus, took the lad home, nurtured him, and finally baptised him. Then, thinking he had done enough, he let him alone, and the lad fell into evil company, committed a crime, and, fleeing to the mountains, became the captain of a band of brigands. By and by St. John revisited that city, and after settling the business which had brought him, he said: “Now then, bishop, restore us the deposit which the Saviour and I entrusted to thee”. The bishop was thunderstruck, supposing that he was being accused of some pecuniary intromission. “It is the lad that I am requiring,” explained St. John, “and the soul of the brother.” The bishop groaned and wept: “He is dead!” “How? When? And what death?” “He is dead to God,” said the bishop, and told the story. The Apostle rent his robe and with a loud cry smote his head. “A fine guardian of the brother’s soul did I leave in thee I Let me have a horse forthwith and some one to show me the way.” And he rode off and found the lost youth, and by tender entreaties won him to penitence and brought him back to the Church.

[395] De Div. Serv . 42.

Such was the ministry of St. John at Ephesus, and it was far on in the course of it that he wrote his Gospel, “having employed all the time an unwritten message”. [396] He wrote it, says the Muratorian Canon, “at the exhortation of his fellow-disciples and bishops,” i.e. , his own congregation at Ephesus and his colleagues in the neighbouring churches within the circuit of his supervision. It was intended for the instruction and edification of the Christians all over that extensive area. And the Epistle is, in the phrase of Lightfoot, a “commendatory postscript” to the Gospel. This explains the circumstance of its having neither address nor signature. It was not sent to a particular community, and since it was an appendix to the Gospel, it had no need to be inscribed with the author’s name.

[396] Eus. H. E. iii. 24.

The aim of the Epistle is twofold polemical and religious. Irenæus says [397] that “John the disciple of the Lord desired by the declaration of his Gospel to remove the error which had been sown among men by Cerinthus and, much earlier, by those who are called Nicolaitans”. And this is borne out by the companion Epistle. It is against these two heresies that the polemic of the latter is directed.

[397] III. xi. 7.

1. It is said that the Nicolaitans were the followers of Nicolas, one of the seven deacons (Acts 6:5 ), [398] and this strange story is told of him by Clement of Alexandria [399] : “He had, they say, a beautiful wife, and after the Ascension of the Saviour, being taunted by the Apostles with jealousy, he brought the woman forward and gave who would permission to marry her. This, they say, is in accordance with that expression of his: ‘We must abuse the flesh’. And indeed the adherents of his sect follow up the incident and the saying absolutely and unquestioningly and commit fornication without restraint”. Clement proceeds to attest the moral purity of Nicolas and explain his action as an inculcation of ascetic self-restraint, but certainly the sect which bore his name was given over to licentiousness. Clement says elsewhere [400] that they were “dissolute as he-goats,” and others bear like testimony. [401] They were Antinomians, disowning moral obligation, nullam differentiam esse docentes in mæchando et idolothyton edere ; [402] herein being forerunners of the Gnostics and justifying Tertullian’s classification of them with the Cainites. [403] This heresy was rampant among the churches of Asia Minor in St. John’s day ( cf. Revelation 2:6 ; Revelation 2:14-15 ), and he deals with it in our Epistle. See 1:5 2:6, 15 17, 3:3 10.

[398] Iren. I. xxiii.

[399] Strom . iii. 4; cf. Eus. H. E. iii. 29.

[400] Strom . ii. 20.

[401] Cf. Tert. Adv. Marc. i. 29; Hippol. Phil. vii. 36.

[402] Iren., l.c.

[403] De Præscript. Hær. 33.

2. Cerinthus also was an Antinomian, [404] but his distinctive heresy was a theory of the Person of Christ. He taught in Asia, but he had been trained in Egypt, [405] and the foundation of his system, as of Marcion’s, was that postulate of Greek philosophy the inherent and necessary evil of matter. “He said that the world had not been made by the First God, but by a power which is separate from the Authority which is over the Universe and ignorant of the God who is over all. And he supposed that Jesus had not been begotten of a virgin, but had been born of Joseph and Mary as a son in like manner to all the rest of men, and became more righteous and prudent and wise. And after the Baptism the Christ descended into him from the Sovereignty which is over the Universe, in the form of a dove; and then He proclaimed the unknown Father and accomplished mighty works, but at the end the Christ withdrew from the Jesus, and the Jesus had suffered and been raised, but the Christ had continued throughout impassible, being spiritual.” [406] The essence of this is the dissolution ( λύσις ) of the Person of our Lord, the distinction between the human Jesus and the divine Christ. St. John encountered Cerinthus at Ephesus, and strenuously controverted his error. Irenæus and Eusebius quote a story of Polycarp’s that the Apostle once visited the public baths, and, seeing Cerinthus within, sprang out of the building. “Let us flee,” he cried, “lest the building fall, since Cerinthus, the foe of the Truth, is within it!” [407] And all through our Epistle he has the heresy in view. See 2:18 23, 4:1 6, 13 15, 5:1 12.

[404] Dionysius of Alexandria in Eus. H. E. iii. 28.

[405] Theodoret. H. E. ii. 3.

[406] Iren. I. xxi.

[407] Iren. III. iii. 4; Eus. H. E. iv. 14.

The Epistle has also a religious purpose. Its key-note is Love. “Locutus est multa,” says St. Augustine, “et prope omnia de caritate.” Its doctrine of love is distinctive and profound. The love which it inculcates is love for God and love for the brotherhood of believers love for God manifesting itself in love for the brotherhood, and love for the brotherhood inspired by the love wherewith the Father has loved all His children. Special emphasis is laid on the latter. It is the whole of religion, it is all that God requires ( cf. 2:8 11, 3:10 18, 4:7 5:2); for it implies love for God, and love for God implies a right attitude of heart and mind toward Him. This is the dominant doctrine of the Epistle, and it was the constant message of the Apostle’s later ministry, so much so that, it is said, his people grew weary of its incessant reiteration. See St. Jerome’s story quoted in commentary on 4:7.

This had not always been his manner. He had not always been the Apostle of Love. He had once been the precise opposite self-seeking ( cf. Mark 10:35-45 = Matthew 20:20-28 ), fiery, passionate, and vindictive ( cf. Luke 9:51-56 ), meriting the title which Jesus gave him “the Son of Thunder” (Mark 3:17 ). His doctrine of the Supremacy of Love was a late discovery, and he proclaims it as such (see commentary on 2:7 11). It was not merely an article of his polemic, a protest against the loveless intellectualism wherewith St. Ignatius charges the heretical teachers ( τοὺς ἑτεροδοξοῦντας ), who had “no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the distressed, none for the bondman, none for the hungry or the thirsty.” [408] It was a personal confession. That was an aspect of the Gospel which St. John had himself too long failed to perceive; and it may be that it had been revealed to him by two life-transforming experiences. (1) His Exile in Patmos (Revelation 1:9 ). [409] During that season of retirement he could look back over his interrupted ministry and review his methods. Incidents like his encounter with Cerinthus would recur to him, and would appear to his chastened spirit ill accordant with “the meekness and sweet reasonableness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1 ). It was right that he should contend for the Truth, but had not his intemperate zeal too often caused needless offence and defeated its own end by hardening the hearts of his opponents? He would discover the truth of St. Paul’s precept that “the Lord’s servant must not strive, but be gentle towards all” (2 Timothy 2:24 ). (2) The writing of his Gospel. As he lived over again those three years of blessed fellowship and told “what he had heard and seen concerning the Word of Life,” he would realise the pity and patience of the gentle Jesus, and feel as though he had never until that hour understood the Gospel-story. And he would address himself to what remained of his ministry in a new spirit. “Little children, love one another.” “Master, why do you always say this?” “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if only it be done, it is enough.”

[408] Ad Smyrn. vi. Cf . Barn. Ep. 20:2: οὐκ ἐλεῶντες πτωχόν , οὐ πονοῦντες ἐπὶ καταπονουμένῳ … ἀποστεφόμενοι τὸν ἐνδεόμενον καὶ καταπονοῦντες τὸν θλιβόμενον .

[409] Put by Eus. H. E. iii. 23 in the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81 96), by Epiphan. Hær . li. 33 in that of Claudius (A.D. 41 54).


There is no doubt that the Second and Third Epistles are from the same hand. Cf. 2 John 1:1 with 3 John 1:1 ; 2 John 1:4 with 3 John 1:3-4 ; 2 John 1:10 with 3 John 1:8 ; 2 John 1:12 with 3 John 1:13-14 . Are they also the work of St. John?

This was a disputed question in the early Church. Eusebius in his chapter “On the Acknowledged Divine Scriptures and those that are not such ( περὶ τῶν ὁμολογουμένων θείων γραφῶν καὶ τῶν μὴ τοιούτων )” [410] includes the Second and Third Epistles of John ( ἡ ὀνομαζομένη δευτέρα καὶ τρίτη Ἰωάννου ) among “those that are controverted yet recognised by most ( τῶν ἀντιλεγομένων , γνωρίμων δʼ οὖν ὅμως τοῖς πολλοῖς )”. So Origen: [411] “He (John) has left an epistle of a very few lines; also, let it be granted, a second and a third, since not all allow that these are genuine. However, there are not a hundred lines in them both.” And in the fourth century an opinion was put forward, which still finds favour, that their author was indeed John, only not John the Apostle but another John denominated “the Presbyter”. [412]

[410] H. E. iii. 25.

[411] Comm. in Ev. Joan. 2 Peter 3:3 (ed. Lommatzsch, vol. i., p. 165).

[412] Eus. H. E. iii. 39; cf. Jer. Script. Eccles. under Joannes Apostolus; Papias .

There is, however, very strong evidence, both internal and external, on the other side. They exhibit coincidences of thought and language which link them with the First Epistle. Cf. 1 John 2:7 with 2 John 1:5 ; 1 John 2:18 ; 1 John 4:1-3 with 2 John 1:7 ; 1 John 2:23 with 2 John 1:9 ; 1 John 3:6 ; 1 John 3:9 with 3 John 1:11 . And the external testimony, though scanty, is weighty. The Muratorian Canon, despite the corruption of the passage, plainly attests the two epistles as works of the Apostle John and as accepted in the Catholic Church ( superscripti Johannis duas in catholica habentur ). Irenæus [413] quotes 2 John 1:11 with the preface Ἰωάννης δὲ ὁ τυο͂ Κυρίου μαθητὴς ἐπέτεινε τὴν καταδίκην αὐτῶν μηδὲ χαίρειν αὐτοῖς ὑφʼ ὑμῶν λέγεσθαι βουληθείς . And again, after a reference to the First Epistle, he quotes 2 John 1:7-8 as a saying of the Lord’s disciple John “in the aforesaid epistle”. [414] This slip of memory only makes the attestation more effective. Irenæus knew that it was a saying of St. John that he was quoting: the Second Epistle no less than the First was the Apostle’s. Clement of Alexandria too recognised more than one Epistle of St. John, for in one place he quotes 1 John 5:16 as occurring “in his larger Epistle ( ἐν τῇ μείζονι ἐπιστολῇ ),” [415] and elsewhere he speaks of “the Second Epistle of John”. [416]

[413] I. ix. 3.

[414] III. xvi. 9.

[415] Strom . ii. 15.

[416] Adumbrat. in Ep. Joan. ii.

The ground for the ascription of the two smaller epistles to John the Presbyter is the fact that their author styles himself ὁ πρεσβύτερος . But it can hardly be maintained in view of his self-revelation in the Third Epistle. He appears there as exercising authoritative supervision over a wide circle of churches, writing to them, visiting them, interfering in their dissensions and settling these by his personal and solitary arbitrament, sending deputies and receiving their reports. This is precisely the sort of ministry which, as we have seen, [417] St. John exercised in Asia Minor, and it would have been impossible for any lesser personage than an Apostle. [418] It may, moreover, be questioned whether such slight compositions as these two little letters would have won recognition had they not been recommended by the name of the Apostle John. And it was natural that the latter should style himself ὁ πρεσβύτερος . The term was not only an official designation ( cf. 1 Timothy 5:1 ; 1 Timothy 5:17 ; 1 Timothy 5:19 ). The second generation of Christians used it of their predecessors, “the men of early days,” Männer der Vorzeit , who had witnessed the great beginnings. Thus, Papias uses it of the Apostles, [419] and Irenæus in turn uses it of Papias and his contemporaries. [420] It was therefore natural that St. John, the last of the Apostles, the sole survivor of “the elder men,” should be known among the churches of Asia as ὁ πρεσβύτερος .

[417] See p. 155.

[418] Cf. Barth, Die Hauptprobl ., S. 26: “In der That nun ist diese ‘patriarchalischmonarchische’ Autorität unerklärlich bei einem einfachen Presbyter einer Localgemeinde; sie erklärt sich aber vollkommen, wenn der πρεσβύτερος wie Paulus ein Apostel gewesen ist.”

[419] Eus. H. E. iii. 39.

[420] V. xxxvi. et passim . Similarly in Hebrews 11:2 .

And indeed it is very questionable whether this John the Presbyter ever existed. He was discovered by Eusebius in the preface to Papias’ work Expositions of Dominical Oracles , but “it is well,” remarks Barth, “to distinguish between what Papias really says and what Eusebius has made of his words”. Here are the words of Papias: “I shall not hesitate to incorporate for you with my interpretations as many things as I once learned well from the elders ( τῶν πρεσβυτέρων ) and remembered well, guaranteeing their truth. For I did not, like so many, take pleasure in those that have so much to say but in those that teach the truth, nor in those that remember alien commandments but in those that remember the commandments that have been given by the Lord to the Faith and come from the Truth itself. Now if anywhere one came in my way who had been a follower of the elders ( τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις ), I would search [421] the words of the elders what Andrew or Peter had said ( εἶπεν ), or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord’s disciples; and (I would search) the things which Aristion and the elder John ( ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ἰωάννης ), the Lord’s disciples, say ( λέγουσιν )”. [422]

[421] ἀνέκρινον , not “enquire about”. Jerome ( Script. Eccles. under Papias ) rightly renders considerabam .

[422] Eus. H. E. iii. 39.

And this is what Eusebius makes of the passage: “Here it is worthy of observation how he twice enumerates the name of John. The former of these he reckons along with Peter and James and Matthew and the rest of the Apostles, plainly indicating the Evangelist; and the other John after an interval he ranks with others outside the number of the Apostles, having put Aristion before him, and he plainly names him ‘an elder ( πρεσβύτερον )’; so that the truth of their story is hereby demonstrated who have said that two persons in Asia have had the same name, and there are two tombs in Ephesus and each is called John’s to this day.” [423] Eusebius had a theological interest in putting this construction on the passage. He disliked the Chiliasm of the Apocalypse, and he was glad to find a second John to whom he could ascribe its authorship. And he has certainly perverted the passage. Papias is here defining the plan of his work. His method was (1) to quote a logion of Jesus, (2) to interpret it, and (3) to illustrate it by any story which he had gleaned from oral tradition. Such stories he derived from two sources. One was their followers’ reports of what they had heard from the lips of “the elders,” i.e. , as Papias used the term, the Apostles. These reports he “searched” for suitable illustrations. But he was not wholly dependent on hearsay. Two of the men who had been with Jesus were still alive in the earlier years of Papias Aristion, not an Elder or Apostle but a disciple of the Lord, and the Elder John; and he enjoyed the advantage of hearing their living voices, and he “would search” their discourses for the material he required. The transition from “had said ( εἶπεν )” to “say ( λέγουσιν ),” though ignored by Eusebius, is significant and explains the double mention of St. John. Papias had derived his knowledge of St. John’s teaching from two sources: (1) from the reports of men who had companied with him and the other Apostles while they still tarried at Jerusalem, and (2) from his own lips after his settlement at Ephesus, where, Irenæus says, [424] Papias had been one of his “hearers”. ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ἰωάννης must mean “the Apostle John,” since the Apostles have just been called “the Elders” ( τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις ), and it is impossible that the term should bear different meanings within the compass of a single sentence. In his phrase “from the Truth itself ( ἀπʼ αὐτῆς τῆς ἀληθείας )” Papias echoes 3 John 1:12 , and this renders it more than likely that he called St. John ὁ πρεσβύτερος because the latter had so styled himself in each of the Epistles. [425]

[423] Eusebius probably had this story from Dionysius of Alexandria ( cf. H.E. vii. 25). It means simply that in the fourth century there were two rival sites for St. John’s burial-place.

[424] See p. 151.

[425] On the identity of John the Presbyter and John the Apostle see Barth, Hauptprobl ., S. 26 29; Farrar, Early Days , Exc. xiv.

The Second Epistle is addressed ἐκλεκτῇ κυρίᾳ καὶ τοῖς τέκνοις αὐτῆς , and the meaning of the address is a disputed question. [426] It was supposed by St. Jerome, [427] and the idea is approved by many moderns, that “the elect lady” [428] is a figurative appellation, signifying either the whole Church (Hilgenfeld, Mangold) or a particular community (Hofmann, Ewald, Huther, Wieseler). The main arguments are that the universal affection spoken of in 2 Peter 3:1 could hardly have been felt for an individual, and that it is “not improbable” that this is the Epistle referred to in 3 John 1:9 . [429] The metaphor is indeed paralleled by Ephesians 5:22-33 and Revelation 21:9 ; but it is the Church which is thus designated, not a particular community, and, on the ecclesiastical interpretation, it is a particular community that is here addressed, since St. John sends greetings to the “elect lady” from “the children of her elect sister” (2 Peter 3:13 ), i.e. , presumably, his own congregation. And, moreover, the simplicity of the little letter precludes the possibility of so elaborate an allegory, while the tenderness of its tone stamps it as a personal communication.

[426] Cf . scholium quoted by Euth. Zig.: ἢ πρὸς ἐκκλησίαν γράφει ἢ πρός τινα γυναῖκα διὰ τῶν εὐαγγελικῶν ἐντολῶν τὴν ἑαυτῆς οἰκίαν οἰκονομοῦσαν πνευματικῶς .

[427] Ep. ad Ageruchiam .

[428] The words, however, can hardly mean more than “ an elect lady”.

[429] Schmiedel in Encycl. Bibl. , vol. ii., col. 2560. Cf . B. Weiss, Einleit .

It is therefore not a church but a lady that is addressed, and there are authority and reason for regarding Κυρία as her name. [430] The name was common in those days, and it occurs, e.g. , in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 498: Ἀντωνίᾳ Ἀσκληπιάδι τῇ καὶ Κυρίᾳ . 914: Αὐρήλιος Ἀπφοῦτος υἱὸς Ἁρεοῦτος μητορὸς Κυρίας . It is the Greek form of Martha, which means “mistress ( domina )”. The objection has been urged that, if it be a proper name, St. John must have written not ἐκλεκτῇ Κυρίᾳ but Κυρίᾳ τῇ ἐκλεκτῇ on the analogy of Γαΐῷ τῷ ἀγαπητῷ in 3 John 1:1 ; but either construction is permissible. The former is paralleled by 1 Peter 1:1 : ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις , and if there be any irregularity, it is in the latter, where τῷ ἀγαπητῷ is a defining after-thought ( cf. 1 John 1:2 : τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον , “the life, the eternal life”). Carpzov would identify Kyria (Martha) with the sister of Lazarus and Mary. The family of Bethany disappear from the Gospel-story after the feast in Levi’s house at the beginning of the Passion-week. They probably fled to escape the fury of the rulers, and it is just possible that they had found a home in Asia Minor like so many other refugees from Palestine. [431] And now Martha is living in one of the cities of St. John’s diocese, a widow with a grown-up family; and it is natural that she should be dear to the Apostle and honoured by the whole Church. This is a pleasant fancy, but it is nothing more.

[430] Others take Ἐκλεκτῇ as the name (“the lady Electa”). Clem. Alex.: “ad quandam Babyloniam (probably a confused reference, for which the translator is responsible, to 1 Peter 5:13 ) Electam nomine”. Clement apparently took Electa as the Church personified, for he proceeds: “significat electionem ecclesiæ sanctæ”. But then Ἐκλεκτῆς in 2 Peter 3:13 must also be a proper name, and two sisters can hardly have borne the same name.

[431] See p. 154.

The facts are sufficiently interesting. The epistle is addressed to a devout lady named Kyria, who resided in one of the cities near Ephesus with a grown-up family. It is remarkable how large a part was played by women in the life of the primitive Church, especially in Asia Minor, [432] and Kyria was an honourable and influential personage not only in her own community but all over that wide area (2 Peter 3:1 ). It is probable that, like that of Nympha at Colossæ, [433] her house was the meeting-place of the Church, according to the custom of those days when there were no ecclesiastical edifices; and it appears from 2 Peter 3:10 that she afforded hospitality to the itinerant evangelists of whom the Third Epistle speaks. A sister of Kyria, presumably deceased, had a family resident at Ephesus and connected with St. John’s congregation; and several of Kyria’s sons had visited their cousins. The Apostle had met with them and found them earnest Christians, and in the gladness of his heart he wrote to their mother, testifying his gratification, giving some kindly counsel very needful in those days of intellectual unrest, and expressing the hope that he might ere long visit her.

[432] Cf . Ramsay, The Church in the Rom. Emp. , p. 67.

[433] Colossians 4:15 : Νύμφαν καὶ τὴν κατʼ αὐτῆς ἐκκλησίαν (W Nest).

The Third Epistle is addressed to “Gaius the beloved”. Gaius (never Caius) was one of the commonest of names, and there are three who bear it in the N.T. (1) Gaius of Macedonia (Acts 19:29 ), (2) Gaius of Derbe (Acts 20:4 ), and (3) Gaius of Corinth (Romans 16:23 ; 2 Corinthians 1:14 ). The name being so common, our Gaius may very well have been different from all these, but it is affirmed in the interesting Sacræ Scripturæ Scripturœ ascribed to St. Athanasius that St. John composed his Gospel during his exile in Patmos and that Gaius of Corinth acted as his amanuensis and published it at Ephesus. [434] And it appears from the “Apostolic Constitutions” (7:46) that one Gaius was ordained by St. John first “bishop” of Pergamum.

[434] τὸ δὲ κατὰ Ἰωάννην εὐαγγέλιον ὑπηγορεύθη τε ὑπʼ αὐτοῦ τοῦ ἁγίου Ἰωάννου τοῦ ἀποστόλου καὶ ἠγαπημένου , ὄντος ἐξορίστου ἐν Πάτμῳ τῇ νήσῳ , καὶ ὑπὸ τοῦ αὐτοῦ ἐξεδόθη ἐν Ἐφέσῳ διὰ Γαΐου τοῦ ἀγαπητοῦ καὶ ξενοδόχου τῶν ἀποστόλων , περὶ οὗ καὶ Παῦλος Ῥωμαίοις γράφων φησί · ἀσπάζεται ὑμᾶς Γάϊος ὁ ξένος μου καὶ ὅλης τῆς ἐκκλησίας .

Whatever be the value of these traditions, it is evident that Gaius was a prominent personage, probably bishop or presbyter, in one of the churches of Asia Minor, and St. Paul’s description of Gaius of Corinth, “the host of me and of the whole Church,” might have been written of him. Trouble had arisen in his congregation, the ringleader being Diotrephes, probably a wealthy layman. The primitive Church was rent by factions, each swearing by one or other of the great teachers ( cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 ), and it may be that Diotrephes belonged to the Pauline faction and abjured St. John and disowned his authority. [435] The actual truth, however, is that he was an opinionative and domineering man who insisted on having his own way in everything. The occasion of the trouble was a visit which had been paid to the Church of Gaius by a company of itinerant evangelists ( wandernde Glaubensboten ). This order of “prophets” was a recognised institution. Their office was to travel about preaching to the Gentiles and seeking to win them to the Faith. There were sometimes unworthy men among them who traded on the Gospel and merited the stinging epithet of “Christ-traffickers ( χριστέμποροι ),” and very stringent regulations are laid down regarding them in the Didache ; [436] but their ministry was a needful and heroic one. They abandoned everything for Christ’s sake and, to obviate misrepresentation, took nothing from the Gentiles no food, no lodging. Thus they were dependent on the good offices of the believers wherever they went, and it was a debt of honour to see that they suffered no lack. Gaius had given a hospitable welcome to that company of “prophets”; but Diotrephes, disowning the Apostle’s authority, opposed the reception of his emissaries and would have denied them entertainment. On their return to Ephesus they reported the incident at a meeting of the Church; and St. John wrote this letter and sent it by Demetrius, commending the action of Gaius and intimating his intention of visiting his Church at an early date and reducing the recalcitrant Diotrephes to order.

[435] It has been thought incredible that the great Apostle should have been so cavalierly treated ( cf . 2 Peter 3:9-10 ), but great men are usually less honoured by their contemporaries than by after generations.

[436] xi xiii. Cf. 2 John 1:10-11 .


The accompanying Greek text is the regia editio (1560) of Robert Stephanus (Etienne), commonly known in England as the Textus Receptus . [437] Constructed from a few late and inferior MSS. when the science of Textual Criticism was yet unborn, it is far from satisfactory; and the principal variants are presented in the critical notes, The long and patient labours of Mill, Bentley, Griesbach, Lachmann. Tregelles, Tischendorf, and Westcott and Hort have cleared away the rubbish of corruption and reduced uncertainty to a minimum; and Dr. Eberhard Nestle’s text (British and Foreign Bible Society) is probably a very close approximation to the sacred autographs. It is “the resultant of a collation” of the monumental recensions of Tischendorf (8th edition, 1869 72), Westcott and Hort (1881), and Bernhard Weiss (2nd edition, 1905). “The readings adopted in the text are those in which at least two of these editions agree.”

[437] See C. R. Gregory’s Prolegomena to Tischendorf’s Nov. Test. Gr. , pp. 212 sqq .

The materia critica is copious and excellent. 1. Greek MSS.:

א Codex Sinaiticus, 4th c. Discovered by Tischendorf in 1844 and 1859 in the monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. Now at St. Petersburg.

A Codex Alexandrinus, 5th c. Brought from Alexandria to Constantinople by Cyril Lucar, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 1638), and sent by him to King Charles I. in 1628 by the hand of Thomas Roe on the return of the latter from a Turkish embassy. Now in the British Museum.

B Codex Vaticanus, 4th c. In the Vatican Library at Rome.

C Codex Ephraemi, 5th c. A rescript or palimpsest, written over in 12th c. with a Greek version of thirty-eight treatises of Ephraemus Syrus. In the National Library at Paris. In 1834 35 the librarian Carl Hase had the original writing revived by a chemical process, the applica-of Giobertine tincture. The codex was written, probably in Egypt, in 5th c.; corrected first, probably in Palestine, in 6th c. ( [438] [439] ), then, probably at Constantinople, in 9th c. ( [440] [441] ).

[438] Codex Ephraemi (sæc. v.), the Paris palimpsest, edited by Tischendorf in 1843.

[439] Denotes correction by later hands

[440] Codex Ephraemi (sæc. v.), the Paris palimpsest, edited by Tischendorf in 1843.

[441] Denotes correction by later hands

K Codex Mosquensis, 9th c. Brought to Moscow from the monastery of St. Dionysius at Mount Athos.

L Codex Angelicus Romanus, 9th c. In the Angelic Library of the Augustinian monks at Rome.

P Codex Porfirianus, 9th c. A palimpsest found by Tischendorf in 1862 among the books of Bishop Porfirius Chiovensis.

D Codex Bezæ, 5th or 6th c. In the Library of the University of Cambridge, to which it was presented by Theodore Beza in 1581. The Greek text with a slavish Latin translation. Much mutilated, our Epistles being represented only by the Latin version of 3 John 1:11-14 . [442]

[442] Gregory, pp. 345 seq .

These manuscripts are uncials, [443] and there are besides upwards of two hundred minuscules or cursives, ranging in date from 9th c. to 16th c. [444]

[443] The signs * 2 3 a b c affixed to uncials denote corrections by later hands.

[444] Gregory, pp. 616 seq .

2. Ancient Versions: FN.166. [445]

[445] N.166.4 Ibid. , pp. 803 seq .


(1) Syr vg Peshitto or Vulgate, 3rd (?) c. Contains the First Epistle.

(2) Syr ph Philoxenian or Heraclean Version, 6th c. The three Epistles.

(3) Syr bo Pococke’s edition (1630) of 2 Peter , 2 and 3 John from codex in Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Vg Latin Vulgate, St. Jerome’s revision (A.D. 382 84). The three Epistles.


(1) Cop Memphitic Version, 3rd (?) c. The three Epistles.

(2) Sah Thebaic Version, 3rd (?) c. The three Epistles.

Aeth Ethiopic Version, from 4th to 6th c. The three Epistles.

Arm Armenian Version, 5th c. The three Epistles.

These versions have no small value for the determination of the original text. It is usually plain which of several disputed readings the translator had before him, and whether his MS. contained a word or passage of doubtful authenticity.


Clem. Alex. Adumbrationes in Epp. Joan. i., ii. (a rude Latin translation); Didymus, the blind teacher of St. Jerome in the Catechetical School of Alexandria (A.D. 308 95), commentary on the Cath. Epp., translated into Latin by Epiphanius Scholasticus; Aug., In Epistolam Joannis Tractatus Decem (1st Ep., stopping abruptly at 2 Peter 3:3 ); Bede, Expos. ; Euthymius Zigabenus (12th c.).

Erasmus, In N. T. Annotat. ; Luther; Calvin (1st Ep.); Beza; Carpzov, Commentatio in Ephesians 2:0 Joan.; in Joan. Ephesians 3:0 Brevis Enarratio ; Wetstein; Bengel; Lücke; Olshausen; Neander (1st Ep.); Düsterdieck; Huther in Meyer (translated by T. & T. Clark); Braune in Lange; Alford; Haupt (1st Ep., translated by T. & T. Clark); Rothe, Der erste Brief Johannis practisch erklärt (a beautiful work); Alexander in Speaker’s Commentary ; Plummer in Cambridge Bible ; Westcott, The Epistles of St. John ; H. J. Holtzmann in Hand-commentar zum Neuen Testament ; Bernhard Weiss, Die drei Briefe des Ap. Joh. ; Farrar, Early Days of Christianity , chaps. 31 7.; Cox, Private Letters of St. Paul and St. John ; Maurice, Epistles of St. John ; Findlay, Fellowship in the Life Eternal ; Law, Tests of Life (Lectures on 1st Ep.). [446]

[446] The two last appeared after this commentary was written.



[447] See Introd., p. 151.


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