THIRD JOHN: PRACTICING CHRISTIAN HOSPITALITY
The Apostle John by Thomas de Keyser, 1630
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from: The Holy Bible: New International Version®, NIV®, Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011by the International Bible Society.
Copyright © Jim Gerrish 2015
When we come to Third John we come to a little book that has some distinctions. It is the shortest book in the New Testament and the only book in the New Testament that does not mention Christ. 1 However, it probably does refer to the Master.
This little book, even more than Second John, gives us a peek into the everyday workings of the early church. Like Second John, it gives us additional insight regarding the Christian virtue of hospitality and how that gift is to be administered and even limited in certain cases.
The London commentator, John Stott, suggests that the two letters should be read together if we are to gain a balanced understanding of this subject.2 Both of these short letters are dealing with the matter of itinerant teachers and their treatment.
Third John is probably the clearest example of how New Testament epistles closely followed the pattern of secular letters in the First Century. The Scottish biblical master, William Barclay, gives us a letter from the period. It is from a certain Irenaeus to his brother Apolinarius and it begins in much the pattern of this epistle. It reads, “Irenaeus to Apolinarius…my greetings. Continually I pray that you may be in health, even as I myself am in health…” 3 Barclay notes that most letters of this period followed this pattern— the greeting, a prayer for good health, and followed by the main body and then by the final greeting. The ancient pattern seems somewhat advanced over our plain old “Dear John” headings of today or of our sloppy email headings of “Hi” or worse. Unlike Second John, this short letter mentions actual people, Gaius, Diotrephes and Demetrius.
This tiny epistle was also written by the Elder, and most commentators feel that it is the Apostle John himself. This letter, like the others of John, was probably written from Ephesus around AD 90. Although we know the names of people, and the name of the person who actually received the letter, still we do not know the actual church or the geographic area to which it was sent.
The elder, To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. 3 John 1:1.
The letter begins with the writer simply referring to himself as the elder (presbuteros). This interesting manner of not naming himself is also seen with his other epistles. The NET Bible in its notes explains this saying, “The author’s self-designation, the elder, is in keeping with the reticence of the author of the Gospel of John to identify himself.” 1
The letter is addressed to Gaius, who is called a “dear friend” or one “beloved” (agapeto). Gaius must have been truly beloved, for he is called this by John four times in this small letter. By the repeated use of this term, some think Gaius was a convert of John.
We do not know much about this particular Gaius. We do know that the name was one of the most common ones in the Roman Empire at the time.2 To further complicate a positive identification here, we should note that there were at least three people mentioned in the New Testament with this same name (cf. Acts 19:29; 20:4; Rom. 16:23). Since it was such a common name, it is rather fruitless for us to try to identify it with any of the others mentioned. Certain of the church fathers claimed that this Gaius was later ordained as a Bishop of either Thessalonica or Pergamum, but these conflicting traditions are late and are not trustworthy. 3
We also do not know the name of the church where Gaius was a member. It is entirely possible that he was the pastor of this church.4 Obviously, Gaius was in some influential position. The commentators, Barker and Kohlenberger, state, “Although the letter is highly personal, it is also clearly official; the elder expresses thoughts that are meant to be shared with other members of the community…” 5
“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (1:2). As we have mentioned in the introduction, the wish or prayer for health was simply a part of the greeting in ancient letters. In the Greek, the first word used here is “to prosper,” (euodoo). The Greek scholar Kenneth Wuest informs us that it is made up of two words, “ue” which means “good” and “hodos” which means “road.” Taken together it has the meaning of having a good road or a good journey. 6
The second expression used here is “to be good health” (hygiainein). Unfortunately, some in the recent Prosperity Movement have latched onto this verse and these two expressions as a sure cure for poverty, want and poor health. However, the writer is not really making promises about such things. John is wishing prosperity and health just as the soul (psuche) of Gaius was enjoying these things. The web commentator David Guzik quips, “Many Christians would be desperately ill if their physical health was instantly in the same state as their spiritual health…” 7
The prolific author and preacher, James Burton Coffman, feels that there is nothing wrong about praying that our Christian friends have prosperity. However, he feels that the paramount thing is the prosperity of their souls.8 We should be aware of the fact that following the one who is called the Suffering Servant, will certainly expose us to suffering in many ways. There were times when the Apostle Paul abounded, but at other times he was actually suffering and in want (cf. Phil. 4:11-13; 2 Cor. 11:24-27).
JOY ON HEARING A GOOD REPORT
It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. 3 John 1:3
It seems that the basis of John’s joy was this: a group of believers, who were in fact Christian missionaries (v. 7), had returned to John with a good report. In their travels they had visited Gaius, John’s beloved friend, and they had been treated exceptionally well. Gaius, apparently at the risk of his own reputation, had received these guests and showered true Christian hospitality upon them. At the same time, at least one very influential person in the church had rejected them.
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (1:4). To “walk” is the Greek peripateo (1 Jn. 1:6-7; 2 Jn. 1:6). As we have mentioned in other writings of John, it signifies a manner of life or a lifestyle. It is very similar to the Hebrew concept of halakhah, or of walking out one’s faith in everyday life. The possessive adjective used here “my children” could well indicate that Gaius was one of John’s converts. 9
Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. 3 John 1:5-6
Ephesus was becoming a great center of Christianity in the ancient world. No doubt Christian workers regularly went back and forth from this center to many other places in the Roman Province of Asia and elsewhere. Wuest notes that the word “came” (Greek “coming”) in verse 3 is a present participle that speaks of continuous action. 10
In fact, this verse seems to verify that the group was about to be sent out once more by John and that they were planning to visit Gaius again. It was no doubt the proposed visit that made this letter necessary. Barnes says, “it would seem that they resolved to repeat their journey for the same purpose, and that the writer of the Epistle commended them now to the renewed hospitality of Gaius.” 11
In Second John and elsewhere we have mentioned the terrible state of hired lodging in the ancient world. Inns at this time were notoriously dirty and flea-infested and innkeepers had a universally bad reputation. Plato compared them to pirates, who almost held their guests at ransom.12 On the other hand, hospitality in the home was a sacred duty at that time. In the Christian world, hospitality was considered a blessing and a joy (cf. Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9; Heb. 13:2). Commentator and well-known Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe says, “Gaius not only opened his home, but he also opened his heart and his hand to give financial help to his guests.” 13
It appears that Gaius was getting quite a reputation for his hospitality. Apparently the group had testified to the church (probably at Ephesus) about his liberality. John with full faith now sends the workers to Gaius once again. He charges Gaius to “…send them on their way in a manner that honors God.” The Greek word for sending forth is propempsas, and it means, “Bring forward on their journey…to send forward, bring on the way, accompany or escort.” Apparently it was customary in earlier Greek times to accompany a parting guest for a distance and sometimes to even provide money and food.14
Stott, citing C.H. Dodd, feels that money may have been involved. He feels propempsas is a technical term for early Christian missions and that it likely implies assumption of financial responsibility for the journey of these departing missionaries (cf. Rom. 15:24; 1 Cor. 16:6; 2 Cor. 1:16). It was possible that this also included some provisions for the trip as they left (Tit. 3:13; Acts 15:3). 15
“It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans” (1:7). Jesus’ disciples and his later followers did not go out with their bag open to solicit from everyone like the later friars did. Jesus’ disciples were not allowed to even carry a bag (Mk. 6:8). Wiersbe thinks this reserve may have had roots all the way back to Abraham. Father Abraham turned down help from the pagan king of Sodom, though he did not force his associates to do so (Gen.14:17-24).16 There was another principle about sending folks out. It is found in 1 Samuel 30:21-25. In this passage David made the rule that those who stayed with the baggage were rewarded equally with those who went out to fight. 17 This principle certainly applies to those who stay home but support missionaries abroad today.
In Greek times it was customary for many folks to go forth begging. Some of the philosophers begged for a living and became quite abusive if people were not forthwith in their donations. Christian workers were not to follow such a disgraceful pattern. Stott clarifies things saying, “There is no prohibition here of taking money from non-Christians who may be well disposed to the Christian cause…itinerant evangelists would not (as a matter of policy) seek their support form unbelievers and did not (as a matter of fact) receive their support from them.” 18
We observe that these workers went out for the sake of the Name. The noted Scottish scholar F.F. Bruce thinks that the Name can be a synonym for Christ. He notes that it is also a surrogate for YHWH. 19 Others disagree and think it is only a reference to God the Father.
It is certainly true that the Jewish people have often used the Hebrew expression “the Name” (ha Shem) in referring to God. This is due to the fact that Jewish people feel the name of God is too holy to be pronounced. They commonly substitute ha Shem in many of their conversations. Since the name of God was for centuries regarded as too holy to be spoken, as a result, the Jewish people have now forgotten how to pronounce it.
“We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth” (1:8). The word for “ought” here is opheilo. It means to have a moral obligation. The next word for showing hospitality is hupolambano, and it is very descriptive. It means “to take,” or “to catch hold from underneath and lift up” thus “to underwrite.” The Greek scholar Kenneth Wuest translates it, “to underwrite such as these, in order that we may become fellow-workers with the truth.” 20 Long ago Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) said: “Whoever gives practical assistance to those who have spiritual gifts becomes a coworker with those people in their spiritual work.” 21
DEALING WITH DIOTREPHES
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 3 John 1:9.
Where there are people, there are usually problems, and people problems are often some of the most serious ones we face. John had a problem with Diotrephes and Diotrephes certainly had a problem with John. That at first seems shocking since John was the last of the original disciples of Jesus. He was the one closest to Jesus and probably knew more about Jesus than any of the others. Yet, this proud leader would have nothing to do with the beloved disciple. That would sound strange if it were not for our selfish and proud human natures. We note that the Apostle Paul often had his authority challenged. We see this particularly in 2 Corinthians 11:1-6 and Galatians chapters 1 and 2.
We do not know exactly what kind of authority Diotrephes had. More than likely, he was the pastor or elder of a significant church. We do know that he liked to be first, as the Greek philoprōteuōn indicates. This is the only time the word is used in the New Testament.22 Jesus had gone to great pains in teaching his disciples humility. Yet, even as Jesus was facing the cross his disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest (Matt. 18:1ff.).
Jesus taught us all to seek the lowest chair. If God wants us higher, then it is up to him to elevate us (Lk. 14:8-11).
Diotrephes may have had a problem with his upbringing. According to Stott, his name when literally translated meant “Zeus-reared, nursling of Zeus.” Stott notes that this name was only found in ancient and noble families. He conjectures that Diotrephes may have originally belonged to the Greek aristocracy. 23 Maybe he was just somewhat “stuck up” because of his background.
Scholars have expressed that the disagreement between Diotrephes and John probably had nothing to do with theology or Christology. Barclay suggests that the tension was due to a clash over two kinds of ministry, that the apostolic and itinerant ministries were having to give way to the local pastoral ministry. 24 Plummer suggests that Diotrephes may have wanted to make his church independent and that it had hitherto been governed by the Apostle John. 25 Perhaps the best idea comes from Stott. He notes that by AD 115, the “Monarchial Episcopacy” was beginning to be seen in the writings of Bishop Ignatius of Antioch. This was the practice of a single bishop exercising authority over a group of presbyters. 26 With the passing of the apostolic era, this practice began to be widespread. The dissension between Diotrephes and John could have marked a beginning of this transition.
However, nothing can really justify the actions of Diotrephes. He did not reflect the spirit of Christ or his apostles. He almost reflected the spirit of some ogre. It is too bad that similar spirits have prevailed up to modern and postmodern times. Wiersbe comments on this trend saying: “…It appears that the ‘successful minister’ today is more like a Madison Avenue tycoon than a submissive servant. In his hand he holds a wireless telephone, not a towel…He is most unlike John the Baptist who said, ‘He [Jesus Christ] must increase, but I must decrease (Jn. 3:30).’” 27
How tragic it is when ministers of the gospel and other workers begin to reflect the spirit of Satan who also wanted to be first and to actually become like God (Isa. 14:14). Boice calls this the “original and greatest of all sins.” 28 The scholar A.T. Robertson tells of once writing an article critical of Diotrephes for a denominational paper. Later the editor relayed that twenty-five deacons from various churches had requested that their issues to the paper be stopped. They did this to show their resentment for being personally attacked. 29
This situation no doubt put a lot of pressure on the noble Gaius. He was also likely a leader of a congregation in the city or area where Diotrephes was located. It would have been especially problematic if Gaius and his congregation were located in the same city with Diotrephes. We remember that the churches of this early time were all house churches, and that in larger cities there were many house churches all cooperating together.
“So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church” (1:10). We get the sense from this verse that Brother Diotephes will soon be in for a rather serious apostolic rebuke. Not only is he guilty of insubordination to an apostle but he is guilty of “spreading malicious nonsense.” The Greek word used is phluareō. It means to talk nonsense about another person. Wuest traces the root meaning of the word to picture a person bubbling up or boiling over. 30
Not only did Diotrephes withhold blessing from the traveling ministers but he forbade others to help them. This so aptly describes the leaven of evil and how it can infect a whole church or group of believers. Apparently, this evil man had authority to discipline other members and perhaps perform their excommunication, as the practice came to be known in later times. 31
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.” 3 John 1:11
In reverse order, we have seen the bad and the ugly. Now we will see the good. John concludes his brief letter by warning believers not to imitate Diotrephes. Rather he soon turns their attention to good and faithful Demetrius, who is well thought of. John seems to be instructing people to imitate Demetrius rather than Diotrephes. The word for imitate is mimeomai, from which we get our word “mimic.” 32
“Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone— and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true” (1:12). Good and faithful Demetrius may have been the leader of the group of wandering evangelists and likely he was the carrier of this letter from John. 33
In mentioning that Demetrius was commended by the truth itself, John may have been making reference to the Lord. Bruce points how similar language was used a generation later by Papias of Hierapolis, who was a member of the same school. 34
“I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name” (1:13-14). We cannot help but notice that this ending is almost the same as the one in Second John. Commentators Pfeiffer and Harrison claim, “The similarity to the conclusion of Second John supports the view that they were written about the same time.” 35 As in Second John, the apostle does not wish to write with pen (kalamos) and ink (melanos). He is speaking of the normal reed pen and of the ink made of soot, water and gum. Rather, he wants to speak face to face, or in the Hebrew understanding, “mouth to mouth.”
The designation of fellow Christians as “friends” (philoi) is unique in the New Testament. 36 Generally the designation is “brothers” (adelphoi). According to the NET Bible notes on these verses, this may have been an early self-designation in the Johannine community, and it may have been based on the teaching of Christ in John 15:13-15, where the Master says: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
It should be noted that the latter part of this verse “Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name,” is stated as verse 15 in several other versions (NET, NRSV, ESV, NJB). Here it is attached to verse 14. Thus, verse 15 may not show up on some Bible searches.
At the end of this letter the early Presbyterian commentator, Albert Barnes, charges us: “Let us learn from the examples commended in this brief epistle, to do good. Let us follow the example of Gaius— the hospitable Christian; the large-hearted philanthropist; the friend of the stranger; the helper of those who were engaged in the cause of the Lord— a man who opened his heart and his house to welcome them when driven out and disowned by others.” 37
Several sources I have cited here are from the electronic media, either from websites or from electronic research libraries. Thus in some of these sources it is not possible to cite page numbers. Instead, I have cited the verse or verses in 3 John (e.g. verse v.1 or verses vs. 5-6) about which the commentators speak.
1 R. Allen Culpepper, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John (Colorado Springs: Cook Communications Ministries, 2005), p. 195.
“Because of its similarities to 2 John (compare 2 Jn. 4 and 3 Jn. 3), scholars have generally assumed that the two letters were written by the same person.”
2 John R. Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964, 1988), pp. 213-14.
3 Quoted in William Barclay, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Commentary on 3 John, Introduction. 1956-1959. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/view.cgi?bk=63&ch=1.
1 The Net Bible (New English Translation), Biblical Studies Press, 1996-2005. https://bible.org/netbible/
2 Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, p. 216.
3 Ibid., p. 215.
Culpepper adds: “The Apostolic constitutions (ca. AD 370) records the tradition that John ordained Gaius as bishop of Pergamum (7:46; ANF 7:478), but the tradition is late and dubious (Culpepper, p. 195).”
5 Kenneth L. Barker & John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Vol. 2: New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), p. 1114.
6 Kenneth S. Wuest, In These Last Days, II Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), p. 218.
Bruce adds here: “So regular was this sort of thing in Latin letters that it was customarily expressed by the use of initials, SVBEEV…(‘if you are well, that is good; I am well’). (Bruce, p. 147).
7 David Guzik, David Guzik Commentaries on the Bible, Commentary on 3 John, 1997-2003, vs. 2-4. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/guz/view.cgi?bk=63&ch=1.
8 James Burton Coffman, Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament, Commentary on 3 John (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 1983-1999), v. 2. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/view.cgi?bk=63&ch=1.
9 Wuest, In These Last Days, II Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude in the Greek New Testament, p.219.
11 Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Commentary on 3 John, 1870,
v. 5. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb/view.cgi?bk=63&ch=1.
12 Barclay, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Commentary on 3 John, v. 5.
13 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary, NT (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2007), p. 1017.
14 Wuest, In These Last Days, II Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude in the Greek New Testament, p. 220.
15 Cited in Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, p. 229.
16 Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary, NT, p. 1017.
17 Guzik, David Guzik Commentaries on the Bible, Commentary on 3 John, vs. 5-8.
18 Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, p. 230.
19 F.F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1970), p. 150.
20 Wuest, In These Last Days, II Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude in the Greek New Testament, p. 221.
21 Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Vol. XI, New Testament (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009), p. 241.
22 Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Commentary on 3 John, v. 9.
23 Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, p. 233.
24 Barclay, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Commentary on 3 John, vs. 9-14.
“In the early days this presented no problem, for the local congregations were still very much infants who had not yet learned to walk by themselves and to handle their own affairs. But as time went on there came a tension between the two kinds of ministry. As the local churches became stronger and more conscious of their identity, they inevitably became less and less willing to submit to remote control or to the invasion of itinerant strangers.”
25 Cited in Charles F. Pfeiffer & Everett F. Harrison, eds., The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), p. 1484.
26 Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, p. 234.
27 Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary, NT, p. 1017.
28 Quoted in Guzik, David Guzik Commentaries on the Bible, Commentary on 3 John, vs. 9-11.
29 Cited in Wuest, In These Last Days, II Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude in the Greek New Testament, p. 222.
30 Wuest, In These Last Days, II Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude in the Greek New Testament, p. 223.
31 Pfeiffer & Harrison, eds., The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p.1484.
32 Wuest, In These Last Days, II Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude in the Greek New Testament, p. 223.
33 Barclay, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Commentary on 3 John, v. 12.
34 Bruce, The Epistles of John, p. 155.
35 Pfeiffer & Harrison, eds., The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 1484.
36 Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, p. 240.
37 Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Commentary on 3 John, v. 14.