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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

3 John 1

Verse 1

Chapter 21

3 John

THE QUIETNESS OF TRUE RELIGION

3 John 1:11

THE mere analysis of this note must necessarily present a meagre outline. There is a brief expression of pleasure at the tidings of the sweet and gracious hospitality of Gaius which was brought by certain missionary brethren to Ephesus, coupled with the assurance of the truth and consistency of his whole walk. The haughty rejection of Apostolic letters of communion by Diotrephes is mentioned with a burst of indignation. A contrast to Diotrephes is found in Demetrius, with the threefold witness to a life so worthy of imitation. A brief greeting-and we have done with the last written words of St. John which the Church possesses.

I Let us first see whether, without passing over the bounds of historical probability, we can fill up this bare outline with some colouring of circumstance.

To two of the three individuals named in this Epistle we seem to have some clue.

The Gaius addressed is, of course, Caius in Latin, a very common praenomen, no doubt.

Three persons of the name appear in the New Testament-unless we suppose St. John’s Caius to be a fourth. But the generous and beautiful hospitality adverted to in this note is entirely of a piece with the character of him of whom St. Paul had written, "Gaius, mine host, and of the whole Church." We know further, from one of the most ancient and authentic documents of Christian literature, that the Church of Corinth (to which this Caius belonged) was, just at the period when St. John wrote, in a lamentable state of schismatic confusion. Diotrephes may, at such a period, have been aspiring to put forward his claim at Corinth; and may, in his ambitious proceedings, have rejected from communion the brethren whom St. John had sent to Caius. A yet more interesting reflection is suggested by a writing of considerable authority. The writer of the "Synopsis of Holy Scripture," which stands amongst the Works of Athanasius, says-"the Gospel according to John was both dictated by John the Apostle and beloved when in exile at Patmos, and by him was published in Ephesus, through Caius the beloved and friend of the Apostles, of whom Paul also writing to the Romans saith, Caius mine host, and of the whole Church." This would give a very marked significance to one touch in this Third Epistle of St. John. The phrase here "and we bear witness also, and ye know that our witness is true"- clearly points back to the closing attestation of the Gospel-"and we know that his witness is true." He counts upon a quick recognition of a common memory. Demetrius is, of course, a name redolent of the worship of Demeter the Earth-Mother, and of Ephesian surroundings. No reader of the New Testament needs to be reminded of the riot at Ephesus, which is told at such length in the history of St. Paul’s voyages by St. Luke. The conjecture that the agitator of the turbulent guild of silversmiths who made silver shrines of Diana may have become the Demetrius, the object of St. John’s lofty commendation, is by no means improbable. There is a peculiar fulness, in the narrative of the Acts, and an amplitude and exactness in the reports of the speeches of Demetrius and of the town clerk which betray both unusually detailed information, and a feeling on the part of the writer that the subject was one of much interest for many readers, The very words of Demetrius about Paul evince that uneasy sense of the powers of fascination possessed by the Apostle which is often the first timid witness of reluctant conviction. The whole story would be of thrilling interest to those who, knowing well what Demetrius had become, were here told what he once had been. In a very ancient document (the so called "Apostolic Constitutions") (7:46) we read that "Demetrius was appointed Bishop of Philadelphia by me," i.e., by the Apostle John. To the Bishop of that city, so often shaken by the earthquakes of that volcanic city, came the commendation-"I know thy works that thou didst keep My word"; and the assuring promise that he should, when the victory was won, have the solidity and permanence of "a pillar" in a "temple" {Revelation 3:7-8; Revelation 3:12} that no convulsion could shake down. The witness, then, which stands on record for the Bishop of Philadelphia, is threefold; the threefold witness of the First Epistle on a reduced scale-the witness of the world; the witness of the Truth itself, even of Jesus; the witness of the Church-including John.

II We may now advert to the contents and general style of this letter.

1. As to its contents: It supplies us with a valuable test of Christian life, in what may be called the Christian instinct of missionary affection, possessed in such full measure by Caius. {3 John 1:5-7}

This, indeed, is an ingredient of Christian character. Do we admire and feel attracted by missionaries? They are knight errants of the Faith; leaders of the "forlorn hope" of Christ’s cause; bearers of the flag of the cross through the storms of battle. Do we wish to honour and to help them, and feel ennobled by doing so? He who has no almost enthusiastic regard for missionaries has not the spirit of primitive Christianity within his breast.

The Church is beset with different dangers from very different quarters. The Second Epistle of St. John has its bold unmistakable warning of danger from the philosophical atmosphere which is not only round the Church, but necessarily finds its way within. Those who assume to be leaders of intellectual and even of spiritual progress sometimes lead away from Christ. The test of scientific truth is accordance with the proposition which embodies the last discovery; the test of religious truth is accordance with the proposition which embodies the first discovery, i.e., " the doctrine of Christ." Progress outside this is regress; it is desertion first of Christ, ultimately of God. {2 John 1:9} As the Second Epistle warns the Church of peril from speculative ambition, so the third Epistle marks a danger from personal ambition, {3 John 1:9-10} arrogating to itself undue authority within the Church. Diotrephes in all probability was a bishop. At Rome there has been a permanent Diotrephes in the office of the Papacy; how much this has had to say to the dislocation of Christendom, God knows. But there are other smaller and more vulgar continuators of Diotrephes, who occupy no Vatican. Priests! But there are priests in different senses. The priest who stands to minister in holy things, the true Leitourgos, is rightly so called. But there is an arrogant priestship which would do violence to conscience, and interpose rudely between God and the soul. Priests in this sense are called by different names. They are clad in different dresses-some in chasubles, some in frock coats, some in petticoats. "Down with priestcraft," is even the cry of many of them. The priest who stands to offer sacrifice may or may not be a priest in the evil sense; the priest (who abjures the name) who is a master of religious small talk of the popular kind, and winds people to his own ends round his little finger by using them deftly, is often the modern edition of Diotrephes.

This brief Epistle contains one of those apparently mere spiritual truisms, which make St. John the most powerful and comprehensive of all spiritual teachers. He had suggested a warning to Caius, which serves as the link to connect the example of Diotrephes which he has denounced, with that of Demetrius which he is about to commend. "Beloved!" he cries "imitate not that which is evil, but that which is good." A glorious little "Imitation of Christ," a compression of his own Gospel, the record of the Great Example in three words! Then follows this absolutely exhaustive division, which covers the whole moral and spiritual world. "He that doeth good" (the whole principle of whose moral life is this) "is of," has his origin from, "God"; "He that doeth evil hath not seen God," sees him not as a consequence of having spiritually looked upon Him. Here, at last, we have the flight of the eagle’s wing, the glance of the eagle’s eye. Especially valuable are these words, almost at the close of the Apostolic age and of the New Testament Scripture. They help us to keep the delicate balance of truth; they guard us against all abuse of the precious doctrines of grace. Several texts are mutilated; more are conveniently dropped out. How seldom does one see the whole context quoted, in tracts and sheets, of that most blessed passage-"if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, the blood of Jesus, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin?" How often do we see these words at all-"he that doeth good is of God, but he that doeth evil hath not seen God?" Perhaps it may be a lingering suspicion that a text which comes out of a very short Epistle is worth very little. Perhaps doctrinalism an outrance considers that the sentiment "savours of works." But, at all events, there is terrible decisiveness about these antithetic propositions. For each life is described in section and in plan by one or other of the two. The whole complicated series of thought, actions, habits, purposes, summed up in the words life and character, is a continuous stream issuing from the man who does every moment of his existence. The stream is either pure, bright, cleansing, gladdening, capable of being tracked by a thread of emerald wherever it flows; or it carries with it on its course, blackness, bitterness, and barrenness. Men must be plainly dealt with. They may hold any creed, or follow any round of religious practices. There are creeds which are nobly true, others which are false and feeble- practices which are beautiful and elevating, others which are petty and unprofitable. They may repeat the shibboleth ever so accurately; and follow the observances ever so closely. They may sing hymns until their throats are hoarse, and beat drums until their wrists are sore.

But St. John’s propositions ring out, loud and clear, and syllable themselves in questions, which one day or other the conscience will put to us with terrible distinctness. Are you one who is ever doing good; or one who is not doing good? "God be merciful to me a sinner!" may well rush to our lips. But that, when opportunity is given, must be followed by another prayer. Not only-"wash away my sins." Something more. "Fill and purify me with Thy Spirit, that, pardoned and renewed, I may become good, and be doing good." It is sometimes said that the Church is full of souls "dying of their morality." Is it not at least equally true to say that the Church is full of souls dying of their spirituality? That is-souls dying in one case of unreal morality; in the other of unreal spirituality, which juggles with spiritual words, making a sham out of them. Morality which is not spiritual is imperfect; spirituality which is not moralised through and through is of the spirit of evil.

It is a great thing in these last sentences, written with a trembling hand, which shrank from the labour of pen and ink, the Apostle should have lifted a word (probably current in the social atmosphere of Ephesus among spiritualists and astrologers) from the low associations with which it was undeservedly associated; and should have rung out high and clear the Gospel’s everlasting justification, the final harmony of the teaching of grace - "he that doeth good is of God."

2. The style of the Third Epistle of St. John is certainly that of an old man. It is reserved in language and in doctrine. God is thrice and thrice only mentioned. Jesus is not once expressly uttered. But

"They are not empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness."

In religion, as in everything else, we are earnest, not by aiming at earnestness, but by aiming at an object. Religious language should be deep and real, rather than demonstrative. It is not safe to play with sacred names. To pronounce them at random for the purpose of being effective and impressive is to take them in vain. What a wealth of reverential love there is in that-"for the sake of the Name!" Old copyists some times thought to improve upon the impressiveness of Apostles by cramming in sacred names. They only maimed what they touched with clumsy hand. A deeper sense of the Sacramental Presence is in the hushed, awful, reverence of "not discerning the Body," than in the interpolated "not discerning of the Lord’s Body." Even so "The Name," perhaps, speaks more to the heart, and implies more than "His Name." It is, indeed, the "beautiful Name," by the which we are called. And sometimes in sermons, or in Eucharistic "Gloria in Excelsis," or in hymns that have come from such as St. Bernard, or in sick rooms, it shall go up with our sweetest music, and waken our tenderest thoughts, and be "as ointment poured forth." But what an underlying Gospel, what an intense suppressed flame there is behind these quiet words! This letter says nothing of rapture, of prophecy, of miracle. It lives in the atmosphere of the Church, as we find it even now. It has a word for friendship. It seeks to individualise its benediction. A hush of evening rests upon the note. May such an evening close upon our old age!

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 3 John 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/3-john-1.html.