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Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible
3 John

Chapter 1

Book Overview - 3 John

by Arthur Peake



"THE elder" who writes this short private letter must be identified with the author of 2 Jn., this conclusion being sustained by the marked resemblances in phrasing which they exhibit (cf. 2 John 1:1; 2 John 1:4; 2 John 1:12 with 3 John 1:1; 3 John 1:3 f, 3 John 1:13). These resemblances have led some scholars to conclude that the two epistles were written about the same time, and that in 3 John 1:9, which Westcott translates, "I have written a few words to the church," 2 Jn. is referred to. An interesting situation would then be disclosed. The "elder" is uncertain how his message will be received. The community has a loyal section, "the friends" of 3 John 1:14, but Diotrephes leads a party of opposition to John and his adherents. Diotrephes was ambitious (3 John 1:9), and for his own ends was seeking to subvert the elder's "authority over the churches in his sphere of influence. Harnack thinks 3 Jn. belongs to a time when local churches, previously submissive to some central authority like that constituted by apostles and outstanding leaders, were beginning to assert their independence. Diotrephes in his own church was the leader of the party of revolt. Not only did he speak disrespectfully of John, but he refused hospitality to any friends of "the elder" who, in the course of an evangelistic tour, visited the church. He also forbade any member of the church to entertain such visitors, and expelled any who disobeyed this prohibition, as Gaius appears to have done (3 John 1:5). Travelling evangelists—sometimes called "prophets"—seem to have been a familiar feature in the primitive Church, as we learn from an interesting document written c. A.D. 100, called The Teaching (Didaché) of the Twelve Apostles. There, since it was customary for these evangelists to receive hospitality from any church which they visited, definite regulations are laid down as to the treatment they were to receive. They were not to be given hospitality for more than two days, nor were they, when they left a particular church, to receive anything beyond sufficient food to sustain them till they reached their next destination. Any evangelist who asked for money, or sought more than these regulations accorded to him, is denounced as "a false prophet," "a Christ-trafficker," i.e. a man who uses religion as a cloke for personal gain. A group of travelling evangelists were, in this instance, going forth with John's approval, Demetrius (3 John 1:12) probably being their leader and the bearer of this epistle, the purpose of which was to commend them to Gaius so that he might entertain them in the event of the local church being persuaded by Diotrephes to refuse them an official welcome. This little letter sheds an interesting light upon the inner conditions of an early Christian church.

Literature.—See under 1 Jn. Add Rendel Harris, Exp., 1901, p. 194ff.; Harnack, Texte und Untersuchungen, vol. xv.; Bartlet, JThS, vol. vi.



THE exact significance of the epithet "catholic" or "general," as applied to the seven writings which bear the names of James , 1 and 2 Peter , 1, 2, and 3 Jn., and Jude, has been a matter of considerable debate. It has been surmised that they are so entitled because they are the work of the apostles generally as distinguished from the compact body of Pauline letters; or because they contain catholic in the sense of orthodox teaching, or general rather than particular instruction; or again because they were generally accepted in contrast to other writings which bore apostolic names but failed to make good their claim. A more likely reason than any of these is that they were addressed to Christians in general or to groups of churches instead of to individual communities like Corinth and Rome, to which Paul usually wrote. We say "usually," because Galatians was written to a group of churches, and there is reason to think that Ephesians was meant as a circular letter. Cf. also Colossians 4:16. Of the seven "catholic" epistles, two (2 and 3 Jn.) hardly satisfy our test, for they were written to a particular, though unnamed, church and to an individual respectively. Their inclusion in the group is thus a mere matter of convenience; they would naturally come to be associated with 1 Jn. Jas. is addressed to "the twelve tribes of the Dispersion," 1 P. to Christians in Asia Minor, 2 P. and Jude broadly to the writer's fellow-believers; 1 Jn. has no address, and is more like a homily than a letter.

The earliest record of the name appears to be about A.D). 197, in the anti-Montanist writer Apollonius (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., v. 18), who declares that the heretic Themiso wrote a "catholic" epistle in imitation of that of the apostle (? John). Clement of Alexandria (c. 200) refers to the letter of Acts 15:23-29 and to Jude as "catholic." Origen (c. 230) applies the epithet to the epistle of Barnabas, as to 1 Jn., 1 P., and Jude. Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 260) uses it of 1 Jn. in opposition to 2 and 3 Jn. Such usage, and that of Eusebius of Cæsarea (c. 310), who uses the adjective of the whole seven (Hist. Eccl., ii. 23), is sufficient to disprove the opinion that "catholic" means "recognised by the whole church." As a matter of fact, most of the seven were hotly contested, and only gradually secured their place in the NT canon. 1 Jn., which was the first to be so styled, evidently won the epithet because of the encyclical nature of its appeal—it was an exhortation to the church at large rather than to a narrow circle, a single church, or even a group of churches, like the Pauline letters and 1 P., to say nothing of individual persons—and because its contents were official in a sense in which even Paul's epistles were not. Most akin in this respect were Jude and 2 P., and perhaps Jas., if the twelve tribes can be taken as representing the new Israel of Christendom. The recipients of 1 P., too, included well-nigh half the Christian world. 2 and 3 Jn. secured their footing because of their name. The little canon of Pauline letters was usually designated "the Apostle," and it would only be a question of time for the group of non-Pauline epistles to be entitled "catholic." When the name of the group became known in the Western Church, it was misinterpreted and taken in a dogmatic sense as equivalent to "canonic," i.e. apostolic or genuine. As "the canonic epistles" they became known in the West, and the original idea of contrast with the Pauline letters disappeared. Junilius Africanus (c. 550) understands "canonic" as "containing the rule of faith."

The influence of Augustine has been mentioned. In De Fide et Operibus (xiv. 21) he points out that Paul pressed his doctrine of justification by faith so far as to be in peril of being misunderstood. Paul lays the foundations, the Catholic Epistles raise the superstructure; he is careful for the genuineness of the root, they for the good fruit; he feels himself a minister of the Gospel, they speak in the name of the (nascent Catholic) Church.

It may be granted that there are certain points of relationship between the seven epistles, despite their varied authorship. They lack in general the personal note, and seek to meet more widespread need by general counsel. Jlicher ranks them as a class in which the epistle is merely a literary form whereby the unknown writer holds intercourse with an unknown public. The transition from the Pauline letters to the Catholic Epistles is by way of Ephesians, Hebrews, and the Pastorals (cf. p. 603). None of them is lengthy, none starts a far-reaching train of thought, or contributes much to pure theology. They are concerned mainly with practical advice and edifying exhortation. Their modest dimensions gave them an advantage over such longer works as the Epistles of Clement and Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. in circulation, and therefore in recognition; apart from the fact that these works, favourites in the Early-Church, bore no apostolic names.

The epistles, though modern scholarship cannot unhesitatingly accept their apostolic authorship, at least represent what the Early Church regarded as apostolic teaching, and subsequent generations have confirmed their practical value. Some may feel that because there is no certainty about their apostolic authorship they should not be included in the KT but the Early Church was often guided by the intrinsic merits of a book, and accepted it as. apostolic because of its worth. We have to remember, too, that the ancient conception of authorship was widely different from our own—a book would be called John's because its teaching agreed with that of John. A writer might go so far as to assume the name of a great teacher in order to gain a reading for his book; and if he succeeded in presenting what might fairly be regarded as the views of the man whose name he assumed, no one felt aggrieved. The practice was especially common in apocalyptic literature. We do not argue in this way now; and similar literary devices when they are practised are tolerated only because we know that they are devices, and generally know also the name of the real author.

The order in which we have the seven epistles has come to us from the fourth century, but there were many earlier variations. The position of the group in early MSS. and versions is also far from fixed. Most Gr. MSS. arrange thus: Gospels, Acts, Cath. Epp., Paul, Rev. The Syrian order is Gospels, Paul, Acts, Cath. Epp., Rev. In Egypt: Gospels, Paul, Cath. Epp., Acts, Rev. In the Muratorian Canon, representing the early West, we have apparently Gospels, Acts, Paul, Cath. Epp., Rev., which is the order followed in the Vulgate and in the English versions.

(See also Supplement)

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 26th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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