11 February 2009

The Johannine Letters: 3 John

The Temple of Trajan on the Acropolis of of Pergamon, in Bergama, Turkey … Gaius appears to have been a lay member of the Church, although a later tradition in the Church held that the Gaius addressed in III John became Bishop of Pergamon.

Patrick Comerford

The Third Letter of John

1 Ὁ πρεσβύτερος Γαΐῳ τῷ ἀγαπητῷ, ὃν ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ.

2 Ἀγαπητέ, περὶ πάντων εὔχομαί σε εὐοδοῦσθαι καὶ ὑγιαίνειν, καθὼς εὐοδοῦταί σου ἡ ψυχή. 3 ἐχάρην γὰρ λίαν ἐρχομένων ἀδελφῶν καὶ μαρτυρούντων σου τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, καθὼς σὺ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ περιπατεῖς. 4 μειζοτέραν τούτων οὐκ ἔχω χαράν, ἵνα ἀκούω τὰ ἐμὰ τέκνα ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ περιπατοῦντα.

5 Ἀγαπητέ, πιστὸν ποιεῖς ὃ ἐὰν ἐργάσῃ εἰς τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς καὶ τοῦτο ξένους, 6 οἳ ἐμαρτύρησάν σου τῇ ἀγάπῃ ἐνώπιον ἐκκλησίας, οὓς καλῶς ποιήσεις προπέμψας ἀξίως τοῦ θεοῦ: 7 ὑπὲρ γὰρ τοῦ ὀνόματος ἐξῆλθον μηδὲν λαμβάνοντες ἀπὸ τῶν ἐθνικῶν. 8 ἡμεῖς οὖν ὀφείλομεν ὑπολαμβάνειν τοὺς τοιούτους, ἵνα συνεργοὶ γινώμεθα τῇ ἀληθείᾳ.

9 Ἔγραψά τι τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ: ἀλλ' ὁ φιλοπρωτεύων αὐτῶν Διοτρέφης οὐκ ἐπιδέχεται ἡμᾶς. 10 διὰ τοῦτο, ἐὰν ἔλθω, ὑπομνήσω αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα ἃ ποιεῖ, λόγοις πονηροῖς φλυαρῶν ἡμᾶς: καὶ μὴ ἀρκούμενος ἐπὶ τούτοις οὔτε αὐτὸς ἐπιδέχεται τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς καὶ τοὺς βουλομένους κωλύει καὶ ἐκ τῆς ἐκκλησίας ἐκβάλλει.

11 Ἀγαπητέ, μὴ μιμοῦ τὸ κακὸν ἀλλὰ τὸ ἀγαθόν. ὁ ἀγαθοποιῶν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν: ὁ κακοποιῶν οὐχ ἑώρακεν τὸν θεόν. 12 Δημητρίῳ μεμαρτύρηται ὑπὸ πάντων καὶ ὑπὸ αὐτῆς τῆς ἀληθείας: καὶ ἡμεῖς δὲ μαρτυροῦμεν, καὶ οἶδας ὅτι ἡ μαρτυρία ἡμῶν ἀληθής ἐστιν.

13 Πολλὰ εἶχον γράψαι σοι, ἀλλ' οὐ θέλω διὰ μέλανος καὶ καλάμου σοι γράφειν: 14 ἐλπίζω δὲ εὐθέως σε ἰδεῖν, καὶ στόμα πρὸς στόμα λαλήσομεν.

15 εἰρήνη σοι. ἀσπάζονταί σε οἱ φίλοι. ἀσπάζου τοὺς φίλους κατ' ὄνομα.

1 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

2 Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul. 3 I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely, how you walk in the truth. 4 I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

5 Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you; 6 they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; 7 for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers. 8 Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth.

9 I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.

11 Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. 12 Everyone has testified favourably about Demetrius, and so has the truth itself. We also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true.

13 I have much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; 14 instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.

15 Peace to you. The friends send you their greetings. Greet the friends there, each by name.


The Third Epistle or Letter of John (III John), written in the form of an Epistle, is the 64th book of the Bible. It is the second-shortest book in the Bible when we count the number of verses, and it is the shortest book if we count the number of words in the Authorised or King James Version.

The four principal characters in this half-page letter – just enough to fit on one side of one small piece of parchment or papyrus – are:

1, The author, who identified himself only as “The Presbyter.”

2, the recipient of the letter, who is named simply as Gaius, an ordinary, common name in the Eastern Mediterranean at that time.

3, Diotrephes, the self-serving and controlling Church leader.

4, Demetrius or Dimitrios, who is commended as a disciple.

1, The author: The Presbyter

III John is written by a man identified only as “the Presbyteros.” The language of this epistle is remarkably similar to II John, and scholarly consensus holds that the same person wrote both II John and III John.

However, there is a debate over whether or not the same author also wrote Saint John’s Gospel, I John or the Book of Revelation. Modern scholars tend to agree that the Johannine literature is the work of a number of people, all known as John, rather than one single person.

I John does not give direct information about its author, but it was considered apostolic, alongside Saint John’s Gospel. II and III John, in comparison, are written by the mysterious “elder” or “Presbyter.” This difference was responsible for the belief that II and III John were written by someone other than John the Divine. Paradoxically their acceptance in the canon was due to the change in belief that they were in fact of apostolic origin.

The late attestation for III John in the third century, and doubts about its authority that continued even until later, are probably due to the lack of certainty about who was the author of the epistles.

Even in the Early Church, there were those who argued that John the Presbyter who wrote II John and III John was a separate person from the John who wrote I John.

Although Eusebius believed that the Disciple John, John the Divine, wrote Saint John’s Gospel and the three Johannine epistles, doubt about who was the real author of II and III John was probably a factor in their being disputed.

By the end of the fourth century, the Presbyter or the author of II and III John was thought to be a different person to the Apostle John. Although Jerome attributed the epistles to John the Apostle, his opinion was not shared by all.

In an official Church ruling at the Council of Rome, it was declared that the author of I John should be known as John the Evangelist, while the author of II John and III John should be known as John the Presbyter.

Some scholars have suggested that both II John and III John are cover letters for I John, and that this explains how they have survived with the Biblical literature.

2, The recipient: Gaius

III John is addressed to Gaius (Caius). However, we have little reliable information about the identity of this person. The name Gaius was very common in the Roman Empire.

We know little or nothing about the Gaius addressed in III John, although some writers have tried to identify him with one of the other men of the same name associated with Paul:

● Gaius of Macedonia, who was the Apostle Paul’s “companion in travel” (see Acts 19: 29) – he was among those seized by Demetrius and the other silversmiths in the riot in Ephesus during Saint Paul’s third missionary journey;
● Gaius of Derbe, who was among those who accompanied Paul from Greece “as far as Asia,” during his third missionary journey (see Acts 20: 4);
● Gaius, who was baptised by Paul in Corinth (I Corinthians 1: 14), who may be the same person as the next Gaius;
● Gaius of Corinth, who was Paul’s host while he was in Corinth and writing his Letter to the Romans, and who joined him in his greetings (see Romans 16: 23).

The Gaius who is address in III John appears to have been a lay member of the Church, although a later tradition developed within the Church that he was Bishop of Pergamum, the predecessor of Antipas, who is referred to in the Book of Revelation as “Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives” (Revelation 2: 13), i.e., in the Mysian capital city of Pergamum, 60 km north of Smyrna (Izmir).

Pergamum or Pegamon (Πέργαμος, modern Bergama), whose name means “citadel,” stood on 1,000-ft high hill, commanding the surrounding valley of the Caicus. Pergamon was an important kingdom in the Hellenistic period. For their support of the Romans in the Macedonian wars, the Attalid dynasty of Pergamum were rewarded with the Seleucied domains. The Attalids remodelled the Acropolis of Pergamon, and built the Great Altar of Zeus and the Library of Pergamon, which was the second largest library in the Greek-speaking world. The manufacture of parchment (pergaminus) was perfected in Pergamum when there was shortage of period of papyrus.

Pergamon, which was described by Pliny as “by far the most distinguished [city] of Asia,” is one of the Seven Churches of the Asia Minor named by John (Revelation 1: 11). But it was also a centre for the worship of Zeus, Athene, Dionysius and Askeplios, and of the imperial festal cults. John says the people of Pergamon lived in the darkness of idolatry and in extreme impurity, they were slaves to passions, they were slanderers and tyrants, and they were incestuous – in other words, as John says, they were the servants of Satan.

A fourth century tradition recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions (7.46.9, ca AD 370) says that John the Apostle ordained this Gaius as the first Bishop of Pergamon, and that he was succeeded by Antipas the Dentist. Tradition says that in the year 92 AD the aged Antipas was dragged to the temple of Artemis before which stood an ox cast in bronze. There his opponents heated the bronzed ox and hurled Antipas into the red-hot molten ox. From within the molten ox, it is said Antipas glorified God with thanksgiving, and prayed for his flock and for the entire world until he died his martyr’s death.

However, the tradition that Gaius was Bishop of Pergamon is questionable because of the relatively late date of this tradition. The only definite information we have about this Gaius is in III John, where he is spoken of as “the beloved” (verses 1, 2, 5, 11), as “walking in the truth” (verses 3, 4), and as doing things “faithfully” and with love (verses 5-6). It is obvious that he is well known to the author, but it is not so certain that they have met personally, because the report of the conduct Gaius towards the brothers has been received second-hand by the author (verse 3).

Nor can we determine with certainty whether Gaius belonged to the same local Church as Diotrephes (verse 9), or whether he was the leader of another local Church.

It is clear that the author of III John regarded Gaius as blessed because of his kindness to travelling missionaries, and regarded him as orthodox in his faith (verse 3). He saw him as a valuable ally in the controversy with the secessionist opponents and their false Christology, which is discussed at length in I John.

3, Diotrephes

Diotrephes appears to be an influential person, perhaps the leader of a local Church known to Gaius, but of which Gaius himself is not a member. Diotrephes is introduced as someone who loves to be first, someone who is arrogant, and someone whose behaviour reflects this.

We know little about Diotrophes apart from what we read in III John 9-11. Although the letter is addressed to Gaius, Diotrophes is a figure of authority in the Church, whatever his position was. Was he a priest (presbyter or elder), deacon or teacher? Whatever he was, whatever his motives may have been, Diortophes had taken complete control of his church and does who are part of his church to have full communion with the wider, universal church, represented by John the Presbyter.

Diotrophes so loves having pre-eminence that he even refuses to even allow the letter from John to be read in the church. Why would Diotrophes not allow a letter from an apostle or disciple to be read in his Church? We are not told. But we can learn seven things about Diotrophes which John tells us to be aware of and not to follow (see verses 9-11):

1, Ambition: he loves pre-eminence. This runs the danger of trying to be equal with Christ, for Colossians 1: 18 teaches us that Christ has pre-eminence in the Church and in all things.

2, Self-exaltation: he has lifted himself over the other members of the Church in his search for pre-eminence (verse 9).

3, Slanderous: he is talking about his fellow Christians with malice, and is talking nonsense about others to bring up unjustified changes.

4, Inhospitable: he refuses to welcome the other brothers or sisters.

5, Hypocrite: he desires his own will but is an still active leader in the church.

6, Bigoted: he judges or disciplines without cause (verse 10), casting those out who accept other brethren.

7, Controlling: he is using his will as he is lording it over the Church.

How can one man gain such complete control in the Church? Christ warns us (Matthew 7: 15) to beware of false prophets in sheep’s clothing – they look like Christians, they preach like Christians, they act like Christian, but their motives are to prey like wolves on the true sheep.)

It has been suggested that the description “loves to be first” only indicates that Diotrephes sought prominence or position in this Church, and had not yet attained any real authority. But his actions described in these verses suggest otherwise. He is able to refuse or to ignore the author’s previous written instructions (verse 9) and he is able to have other people put out of the Church for showing hospitality to the travelling missionaries (verse 10).

Diotrephes refuses to acknowledge the written communication mentioned by the Presbyter at the beginning of verse 9, and so does not recognise the author’s apostolic authority.

It seems probable that Gaius belongs to one local Church, perhaps he is even in charge of it, while Diotrephes is in another church that is known to Gaius but to which Gaius does not belong.

It has been suggested that the author, the Presbyter, has attempted to make an earlier visit to the Church of Diotrephes, but that he was turned away. However, there is nothing in the context to suggest an unsuccessful prior visit by the author. But in verse 9 he explicitly indicates an earlier letter written to Diotrephes, which Diotrephes apparently ignored or suppressed.

Diotrephes refuses to show any hospitality to the travelling visitors (verse 10) or to welcome the brothers already mentioned by the author. Because Diotrephes did not recognise the authority of the Presbyter, then if the author comes to visit the Church he will expose the behaviour of Diotrephes for what it is and call attention to the deeds he is doing.

The genuine nature of the faith of Diotrephes is called into question, because he has obviously done what is bad (verse 11b; compare this with verses 9-10). In John’s terminology, it is clear that the phrase “has not seen God” is equivalent to “is not a genuine Christian” (see John 3: 17-21; I John 3: 6, 10; and I John 4: 7, 20).

The exhortation to not imitate what is bad but to imitate what is good is clearly a reference to the evil behaviour of Diotrephes. The Presbyter wishes that Gaius would continue to assist the missionaries. He exhorts him not to follow the negative example of Diotrephes, but to do what is right.

4, Demetrius (Dimitrios):

Dimitrios (Greek, Δημήτριος, male form of Demeter), meaning son of Demeter, is a common name in the classical world and the name of several notable people in classical antiquity and in later eras in the Greek-speaking world. The name is also commonly spelled as Dimitrios and Dimitri by Byzantine scholars and Greek people to this day.

However, the name Dimitrios occurs in only two places in the Bible, both in the New Testament: there is Dimitrios, a worshipper of Diana and a silversmith in Ephesus who incites a riot against the Apostle Paul (see Acts 19: 24-41); and there is Dimitrios, the disciple who is commended in III John 12.

In III John, there is an implicit contrast between the bad behaviour of Diotrephes and the good reputation of Dimitrios. But it seems more likely that this Dimitrios may be one of the travelling missionaries – perhaps even their leader – rather than the leader of a local Church. Unlike Diotrephes, Dimitrios appears to have supported the missionaries himself.

Later tradition in the Orthodox Church says that this Dimitrios became Bishop of Philadelphia (Φιλαδέλφεια), the sixth of the seven churches of Revelation.

Date of writing

Traditionally, the Johannine letters have been dated to the late first century, in part to match the dating of Saint John’s Gospel. I and II John are both concerned with the same issue, making it safe to assume that they were written about the same time. III John is not connected to the situation found in the previous two letters, which means it may have been written at another time.

Although II and III John follow a similar format, this only implies that they are written by the same author, and not necessarily that they were written at the same time. The ideas about the church and about mission expressed in III John are less Johannine that those found in the other Johannine literature, and may imply that the ideas are more developed and that III John was the last of the epistles to written, although it is hard to be certain about this.

When it comes to dating III John, scholarly opinions range from a date between the 60s and 90s to a date as late as 100 to 110 AD. Raymond Brown, for example, suggests a date of between 100 and 110, with all three epistles being written in close proximity. Any later date is thought to be unlikely as parts of the first two Epistles were quoted by Polycarp and Papia.

Location of writing

Church tradition has placed all the Johannine letters in Ephesus, although the letters themselves do not implicitly support or contradict this opinion. Internal and external evidence suggests Saint John’s Gospel was written in Ephesus.

The first knowledge of the Johannine letters comes from Asia Minor, which supports the theories linking them with Ephesus. Both II and III John refer to travelling, implying that the communities may not have been in the same location, although that would have had to be in the same general vicinity.

Additionally, the teaching opposed in I John may link that letter with Cerinthus, and therefore along with the other Johannine letters with Ephesus.

Early citations

The earliest possible citations of III John come from Tertullian and Origen of Alexandria. Tertullian quotes a brief phrase – “follow the better things,” from III John, although the phrase might equally have been adapted from the Septuagint version of Psalm 37: 27. Origen’s Commentary on Saint Matthew’s Gospel also refers to the use of the concept of the logos in III John 7. Irenaeus, writing in Aversus Hareses (3.16.7) around the year AD 175, quotes I John 4: 1-2 and II John 7-8 as from “the Letter of John,” but he does not quote from III John.

And so, it is not surprising to find that the Muratorian Canon accepts I and II John, but not III John. The first reference to III John is in the middle of the third century. Eusebius says that Origen knew of both II John and III John. However, Origen is reported as saying “all do not consider them genuine.” Similarly, Origen’s pupil, Dionysius of Alexandria, was aware of a “reputed Second or Third Epistle of John.” Around this time, III John is thought to have been known in North Africa and it was referred to in Sententiae Episcoporum, produced by the Seventh Council of Carthage.

There was also doubt about the authority of III John, with Eusebius listing III John along with II John as “disputed books,” despite describing them as “well-known and acknowledged by most.” All three Johannine epistles were recognised by the 39th festal letter of Athanasius, the Synod of Hippo and the Council of Carthage. Additionally, Didymus the Blind wrote a commentary on all three Johannine letters, showing that by the early fifth century they were considered as a single unit.


III John is preserved in many of the old manuscripts of the New Testament. Between the different copies there are no major difficulties or differences, meaning that there is very little doubt over determining the original text.


III John appears to be a private letter, written to commend to Gaius a party of Christians led by Dimitrios. They are strangers in the place where he lives, and they have gone on a mission to preach the Gospel (see verse 7).

The purpose of the letter is to encourage and strengthen Gaius, and to warn him against the secessionist party led by Diotrephes, who refuses to co-operate with the Presbyter who is writing the letter.

In this letter, we return once again to typical Johannine emphases and themes, including the emphasis on truth (verses 1, 3, 8), “walking in truth” (verse 4), “the Name” (verse 7, RSV), and brotherly love (verses 5 and 6).

Verse 1:

This opening greeting identifies both the sender and the recipient. It is the shortest opening greeting for a New Testament epistle, but is characteristic of secular letters of the time.

The opening word “from” found in some translations is not in the Greek text, but is used with licence to indicate the sender of the letter.

The author does not identify himself by name, but simply as the Presbyter (ho presbyteros, Ὁ πρεσβύτερος), the priest or the elder. The author’s self-designation is similar to the reticence of the author of the Gospel of John when it comes to identifying himself, and this is the same self-designation used by the author of II John.

On the other hand, Gaius is named, and is also commended for the truth that is in him. It is clear that the Presbyter regards Gaius as orthodox in his faith and teaching and a valuable ally in the controversy with the secessionist opponents and their false Christology (see I John).

The prepositional phrase ἐν ἀληθείᾳ (en aletheia) is similar to the phrase used in II John 1, although it is not qualified here as it is there. This is not merely the equivalent of an adverb (“truly”), but is a theological statement affirming the orthodoxy of Gaius. “Truth” is the author’s way of alluding to theological orthodoxy in the face of the challenge by the opponents (see I John 3: 19).

Verse 2:

In any opening conversation in the Greek-speaking world, it would be rude not to ask about someone personally, about their health, and about their family. In the opening verses of III John, the writer makes the usual, courteous, polite inquiries about the physical and spiritual health of Gaius. But he then goes beyond those polite inquiries. The noun ψυχή (psyche) is used ten times in Saint John’s Gospel and twice in I John. Of these, six of the ten uses in John and both uses in I John refer to a person’s “life” (as something that can be laid down). In John 10: 24 and 12: 27, the ψυχή is that part of a person where emotions are experienced; one’s ψυχή is held in suspense or deeply troubled. This is, in other words, the immaterial part of a person as opposed to the physical existence.

“Just as it is well with your soul” – the equivalent contemporary idiom would be to ask about someone’s “spiritual” health as well as their physical health. The author affirms that Gaius is indeed well-off spiritually, and he prays that his physical health would match his spiritual health, that Gaius would be as well off physically as he is spiritually. It is spiritual health that should be the standard by which my physical health is measured, not the other way round.

Verse 3:

Being faithful in the truth, living in the truth or walking in the truth, are good translations of what the Greek describes here as “walking in truth.” The Greek verb here, περιπατέω (peripateo), which refers to conduct or lifestyle, is common in the New Testament (see I John 1: 6, II John 4, and the numerous references in the Pauline literature).

Here the phrase refers to conduct that comes about when a person has “truth” residing within them, and it may refer to the indwelling of the Spirit of Truth (see II John 2). In the specific context of III John, the phrase refers to true Christians who are holding fast to an apostolic Christology in the face of the secessionists who are their opponents and who challenge to orthodox teaching.

Verse 4:

The Greek clause “that I hear” (ἵνα, ina) indicates content. This is more smoothly expressed as an English infinitive. This ἵνα clause indicates the result of such support for the travelling missionaries. The Christian who helps to support them becomes a co-worker in the truth. Although the dative τῇ ἀληθείᾳ (ti aletheia) is somewhat difficult to specify, it would appear to indicate a sense of co-operation with “the truth” which is at work through the missionaries.

There is precedent in the Johannine literature for understanding “truth” as personified (John 8: 32, “the truth will make you free”; possibly also I John 3: 19). More explicitly, the Holy Spirit is identified in I John 4: 6 as “the Spirit of Truth” (see also I John 5: 6). And so the “truth” at work in the missionaries is the Holy Spirit, who works through their efforts. The Christian who supports them becomes a co-worker with the Spirit of God himself.

Verse 5:

The author has already described Gaius as “dear friend” or “beloved” (τῷ ἀγαπητῷ, to agapeto) in verse 1. He addresses Gaius in the same way in verses 5 and 11 (᾿Αγαπητέ, agapete). This is a term of endearment and personal warmth, much as it is used in I John 2: 7.

When the author commends Gaius for demonstrating his faithfulness in what he has done, he could be commending him for his faith as in the shared Christian faith, as well as praising him for his faithful service to the travelling friends (brothers), the missionaries. Gaius has assisted them, and they have now returned with a report of this to the author (III John 3).

Verse 6:
The “Church” is mentioned here, but not in either I or II John, or in Saint John’s Gospel. So which Church is the Presbyter referring to here?

The Church where Gaius is a leader?

The Church where the author is a leader?

A different local Church where the “brothers” are?

Or, perhaps, the universal or catholic Church, the Church at large?

Since the suggestion in III John 3 is that the “brothers” have come and testified in the author’s Church about the things that Gaius has done for them, the “Church” mentioned here is probably the author’s Church, where he is living at the time of writing … which I have suggested is Ephesus.

Other possibilities cannot be ruled out, but they seem unnecessarily complicated.

Verse 7:

“For they began their journey… ” “For they have set out …,” or “they have gone forth.” The verb gone forth (ἐξέρχομαι, exerchomai) evidently refers to some form of missionary activity; it is used of Paul’s travels (Acts 14: 20), and when he sets out on his second missionary journey (Acts 15: 40).

The NRSV translation, in speaking of the “for the sake of Christ,” misses the more accurate and vital rendering, “in the Name,” which is found in most other translations, including the RSV.

Many writers, when they comment on “the Name,” point to one of three possibilities:

1, The name of God is suggested by the unqualified noun with the Greek article. In Rabbinic literature, “the Name” is a frequent substitute for the Tetragrammaton, YHWH (יהוה), the name of God, which is too sacred to be pronounced. This may make sense in III John, because in the previous verse the writer tells Gaius to send the missionaries on their way “in a manner worthy of God.”

2, Some commentators understand “the Name” as the self-designation of the Johannine community, or as a reference to the Christian Church at large, or as a way of designating Christians before the title “Christian” came into common usage.

3, Other commentators suggest that this is a reference to the name of Jesus. The Apostle Paul uses a similar phrase in Romans 1: 5. In I John 2: 12, the author says “your sins are forgiven on account of his (Christ’s) name.” Saint John’s Gospel also refers to believing “in the name of Jesus” (John 1: 12; 3: 18). This interpretation is forced on the reader in the NRSV translation.

In this verse, we are also presented with an image of the early Christian preachers in the Church, who are careful to reject assistance and hospitality from those who are not Christians.

The word ἐθνικός (ethnikos) occurs only four times in the New Testament (see also Matthew 5: 47; 6: 7 and 18: 17). Here it is virtually synonymous with the far more common ἔθνος (ethnos), which is used on 162 occasions in the New Testament. Both refer to the nations or the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people of the world.

Since the issue here is support for the travelling missionaries, and there is no indication that the author would want to forbid receiving support from Gentile converts to Christianity, the word nations must refer to Gentile unbelievers, or idolatrous pagans. The travelling missionaries sent out to combat the false teaching of the secessionist opponents accept nothing by way of support from non-Christians.

Verse 8:

If they cannot accept hospitality and assistance from non-Christians who are not monotheists, then hospitality and generosity from fellow Christians become more vital, and so they are commended here (verse 8). Having commended Gaius for his faithful service to the travelling missionaries in the past (see III John 5), the Presbyter now asks him for additional assistance at this time, asking him to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.

Apparently the missionaries are on their way to visit the area where Gaius’ church is located a second time. They had been there once before and had returned with a good report of how Gaius had assisted them. It is entirely possible that they themselves carry with them the present letter (III John) as a letter of introduction.

Along these lines it has been suggested that Dimitrios (see verse 12) is one of these travelling missionaries, perhaps the leader of the delegation, and that the Presbyter is formally introducing Dimitrios to Gaius, because when he was there the last time he was a stranger (verse 5) but Gaius still assisted him.

Clearly the author does not refer to himself alone by using the first person plural pronoun “we” here, since the issue is support for the travelling missionaries. It stands in contrast to the pagans mentioned in the previous verse, and is thus to be understood as inclusive of all true Christians: the author, Gaius, and all true Christians. All true Christians ought to support the endeavours of these travelling missionaries in their efforts to counteract the heretical teaching of the opponents.

Verses 9:

Diotrephes appears to be an influential person, perhaps the leader of a local Church known to Gaius, but to which Gaius himself does not belong. He has rejected a previous letter from the Presbyter, which we do not know. Diotrephes reviles the Presbyter, and blocks his missionaries.

The description of Diotrephes as one who loves to be first suggests he is arrogant, and his behaviour displays this. He refuses to acknowledge the written communication mentioned by the Presbyter at the beginning of verse 9, and so did not recognise the author’s apostolic authority.

The church mentioned here, which the author says he may visit (verse 10) is not the same as the one mentioned in verse 6, to which the author apparently belongs (or of which he is in charge). But what is the relationship of this church in verse 9 to Gaius, to whom the letter is addressed? It is sometimes suggested that Gaius belongs to this church, but that seems unlikely, because the author uses a third-person pronoun to refer to the other members of the church (among them). If Gaius were one of these it would have been much more natural to use a second-person pronoun: “Diotrephes, who loves to be first among you.” Thus it seems probable that Gaius belongs to (or is in charge of) one local church while Diotrephes is in another, a church known to Gaius but to which he does not belong.

Since the verb ἐπιδέχομαι (epidechomai) can mean “receive into one’s presence” it has been suggested that the author himself attempted a previous visit to Diotrephes’ Church but was turned away. There is nothing in the context to suggest an unsuccessful prior visit by the author, however; in verse 9, he explicitly indicates a prior written communication which Diotrephes apparently ignored or suppressed. The verb ἐπιδέχομαι can also mean “accept” in the sense of “acknowledge someone’s authority” and such a meaning better fits the context here: Diotrephes has not accepted but instead rejected the authority of the author to intervene in the situation of the travelling missionaries (perhaps because Diotrephes believed the author had no local jurisdiction in the matter).

Verse 10:

Verse 10 tells us that Diotrephes refuses to show any hospitality to the travelling missionaries, to welcome the brothers already mentioned by the author.

It has been suggested that the description “loves to be first” only indicates that Diotrephes sought prominence or position in this Church, and had not yet attained any real authority. But his actions described in these verses suggest otherwise. He is able to refuse or to ignore the author’s previous written instructions (verse 9) and he is able to have other people put out of the Church for showing hospitality to the travelling missionaries (verse 10).

The third-class condition (ἐὰν ἔλθω, ean eltho) seems to be used by the author to indicate real uncertainty on his part as to whether he will visit Diotrephes’ church or not.

Because Diotrephes did not recognise the authority of the Presbyter, then if the author comes to visit the Church he will expose the behaviour of Diotrephes for what it is and call attention to the deeds he is doing.

Diotrephes is not accused of any heresy or wrong doctrine. But the Presbyter lays serious charges against Diotrephes before the Church:

1, He is engaged in spreading unjustified charges against the author with evil words;
2, He refuses to welcome the brothers (the travelling missionaries) himself;
3, He hinders the others in the church who wish to help the missionaries; and
4, He expels people from the church or throws them out if they aid the missionaries. While Brown suggests that Diotrephes may have been a bishop in his Church, he may not have had the ultimate authority in the Church to expel these people, yet he was responsible for instigating the action taken against them.

Verse 11:

The statement “whoever does evil has not seen God” is asyndetic, and its abrupt introduction adds emphasis. The statement reiterates the common Johannine theme of behaviour as a sign of real faith, also found in I John in 3: 6; 4: 7; and 4: 20; and in Saint John’s Gospel (3: 17-21).

By implication, the genuineness of Diotrephes’ faith is called into question, because he has obviously done what is bad (verse 11b; compare this with verses 9-10). In John’s terminology, it is clear that the phrase has not seen God is equivalent to “is not a genuine Christian” (see John 3: 17-21; I John 3: 6, 10; and I John 4: 7, 20).

The exhortation to not imitate what is bad but to imitate what is good is clearly a reference to the evil behaviour of Diotrephes. The Presbyter wishes Gaius to continue assisting the missionaries, and exhorts him not to follow the negative example of Diotrephes, but to do what is right.

Implicitly there may be a contrast between the bad behaviour of Diotrephes and the good reputation of Demetrius, which is mentioned in the following verse. But it seems more likely that Demetrius himself is one of the travelling missionaries – perhaps even their leader – rather than the leader of a local Church who, unlike Diotrephes, has supported the missionaries himself.

Verse 12:

Demetrius is apparently someone Gaius would have heard about, but his character is not known to him. And so the Presbyter is writing to Gaius to attest to the good character of Dimitrios.

It appears that Dimitrios is coming to Gaius’ church and needs hospitality and assistance, so the author is writing to commend him to Gaius and to vouch for him. It is difficult to know more about Dimitrios with any certainty, but the author is willing to give him a powerful personal endorsement (we testify to him too).

Dimitrios may well have been the leader of a delegation of travelling missionaries, and may even have been the bearer of this letter to Gaius. The writing of letters of introduction to be carried along by representatives or missionaries in New Testament times is also found in the Pauline writings (see I Corinthians 16: 3).

Verse 13:

The farewell address in verses 13-15 is similar to that in II John, with the added salutation of peace and greetings in verse 15.

The Greek phrase used in verse 13 is “ink and pen,” which in modern English we would express in reverse order as “pen and ink.” The figurative phrase with pen and ink is parallel to II John 12, suggesting that both letters may well have been written at about the same time and in similar situations.

Verse 14:

The author tells Gaius that he has more to say, but does not wish to do so in writing. He would rather talk to him in person. It appears that the author anticipates a personal visit to Gaius and his Church in the very near future. This may be the same visit mentioned in connection with Diotrephes in verse 10. Gaius’ church and Diotrephes’ church may have been in the same city, or in neighbouring towns, perhaps Pergamon as tradition suggests, so that the author anticipates visiting both on the same journey.

The Greek says “speak mouth to mouth,” an idiom for the contemporary English equivalent, which is “speak face to face.”

Verse 15:

It is possible that the designation friends (φίλοι, philoi) indicates that these are personal friends of Gaius who send their greetings. But if this is the case it is somewhat surprising that their names are not mentioned, especially when the author instructs Gaius, Greet the friends there by name. More likely this is an alternative to “brothers” (ἀδελφοί, adelphoi) as an early Christian self-designation, especially within the Johannine community. It may have arisen in the Johannine community from the teaching of Jesus: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15: 14).


As David Hewlett reminded us at the Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan clergy conference in Sligo this week, for Richard Hooker, one of the great Anglican divines, the Church was identified not by the traditional marks of Word, Sacrament and Discipline, as the Reformers argued, nor by the notes of antiquity, unity and universality, as the Roman Catholics argued, but the outward profeession of faith taken at face value. Rome and Geneva defined the Church by non-essentials, rather than the fundamental profession of Christ. Only God can draw distinctions between the invisible and visible Curch; we can only draw distinctions between the sound and corrupt visible Church.

In III John, is the writer saying Diotrephes has placed himself on the corrupt side, as opposed to the sound, side of the Church? Or has his continuing failure to accept the missionaries and their apostolic message amounted to a denial of the faith professed by the Church?

Some questions for discussion:

● How important is hospitality in the Church?
● Would you welcome missionaries from another Church in your own Church?
● If John's missing Letter to Gaius was unearthed in an archaeological dig in Pergamon, should it be accepted as part of the canon of the New Testament?
● How do we balance respect for authority and the delegation of autonomy within the Church?
● Diotrephes is not accused of any heresy, but is indicted for schism. Do you agree with the patristic consensus that schism is worse than heresy?
● To what degree can the Church contain diversity, respect pluralism, and maintain unity?

Next: The Book of Revelation, an introduction.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 11 February 2009.

No comments: