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Introduction to the 3rd Epistle of John

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General Info

The Apostle John’s Gospel and Epistles move from the universal to the particulars.  In his Gospel, John introduced us to Jesus as the Word or Logos, the promised Messiah, the Son of Man, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, and equal to the Father as the great "I Am".  It was written that we, by believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, we have eternal life in his Name (Jn 20:31).  In his first epistle, John hammered away at the basics of the faith, explaining how to have further assurance of this eternal life and fellowship with the Father through Jesus the Son.  He also encouraged believers to walk in the light (truth) and watch out for false teachers.  In second epistle, he reinforces these teachings with application to a tangible situation in a particular local church.  Now, in his third epistle, he gives us explicit examples of early church leadership issues involving specific persons.

The epistle has been referred to as “3 John” or “3rd John” since the early days of the church.  It receives the name from being the final letter in a series of three epistles written by the Apostle.  Like 2 John, the original manuscript would have fit on a single sheet of papyrus.  These two letters also represent the closest representation of the typical letter address to individuals in the Greco-Roman era that we have in the NT.

Some have suggested that these two smaller letters survived and were preserved by the early church because they were delivered to Gaius, along with 1 John, as a single package.  In this theory, 1 John would have been for general distribution to the area churches, 2 John addressed to be read by Gaius’ church, and 3 John a personal letter for Gaius.  This conjecture can’t be verified by existing evidence, but is a possiblity, given the harmony between the three letters.

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Brief Survey

John’s third letter opens with his usual greetings and well wishes.  He identifies himself as “the elder” and the recipient as “Gaius”.

Moving to the main body (v5-12), John commends Gaius for living in the truth and for his hospitality to travelling Christian teachers.  He then moves to the issue of a conflict in the community by censuring a church leader named Diotrephes.  Diotrephes, in his hunger for power, had rejected the apostles’ authority and teaching, and was expelling those from the church who would not do likewise.  John then encourages Gaius to cling to the truth, and commends Demetrius as an worthy example to follow.

Like 2 John, he then closes his letter with additional greetings and a promise to visit soon to provide more instruction “face to face”.

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Key Verses

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (v4)

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth. (v5-8)

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (v9-10)

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. (v11)

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Author and Date

Just as in 2 John, the author of the letter identifies himself simply as “the Elder” (Gk presbuteros, English transliteration “Presbyter”, which can refer either to a person advanced in years, or a person who holds a leadership role within a local church – see Ac 15, 20:17, 21:18; 1 Pe 5:1).  Solid internal and external evidence points to the Apostle John, the Son of Zebedee.  John’s notable reserve to identify himself explicitly is probably out of humility and a desire not to be overly exalted by the Christian community.  His self-identification as “the elder” probably stems from either his official title (a position of authority) or the designation by which he was well known to his readers.

The strongest internal evidence for John’s authorship is the obvious similarities of phrases, structure, expressions, and vocabulary with the fourth Gospel and the other epistles which bear his name.  A few theories have arisen that another elder named John may have wrote the letter, but this position lacks both convincing evidence and support.

The letter is addressed to his “dear friend Gaius”.  Not much is known of Gaius outside of the letter, but we can surmise that he was faithful to the truth, and was well known and respected within the Christian community.
The similar parallels, circumstances and topics within the letter strongly suggest that John’s three epistles were written about the same time during his ministry at Ephesus near the end of his life.  Based on factors noted in 1 John – Author, we can propose a writing date of 85-95 AD.

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Historical Background

The same basic historical setting provides a backdrop for all three of John’s epistles (see Historical Background to 1 John).  A primary difference is that, in his third letter, John addresses a certain situation in a local church while his first letter was written to the Christian community at large.

One particular church leader, Diotrephes, had broken off from the apostolic authority and fellowship of the true church, and was teaching a a different doctrine about Christ.  He even attempted to usurp authority for himself, taking over a local church and excommunicating those in the church who received John's emmisaries.  In response, John instructs Gaius to continue to welcome and support John’s messengers (who were ultimately agents of Christ), to remain faithful to John’s teachings (the truth), and to reject the false teaching of Diotrephes.

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Timeline

John's 3rd Epistle was written in the latter part of the first century AD.

27 or 30 (1) John called to be a Disciple of Jesus
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
30 or 33 (1) Pentecost (birth of the Church in Jerusalem)
~ 67 The Jerusalem Church flees to Pella
~ 70 John settles in Asia Minor (modern day western Turkey)
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem
~ 80 - 90 Gospel of John Written
81 - 96 The Reign of Roman Emperor Domitian
~ 85 - 90 John writes his 3 Epistles (probably from Ephesus)
~ 95 John writes Revelation while in exile on Patmos
~ 100 John dies peacefully in Ephesus

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

John’s purpose in writing is similar to that of his other epistles.  In this case however, he addresses a particular situation.  He writes to instruct Gaius regarding leadership issues within the church.  He exhorts Gaius to continue to walk in the truth of the faith and to reject the false teaching of Diotrephes.  He encourages Gaius to imitate what is good, giving Demetrius as an example.

Just as in his other epistles, John’s main themes are faithfulness and obedience to true doctrine, showing love to each other, and providing hospitality to traveling Christian workers.  These workers were travelling “for the sake of the Name” (v7) and would take nothing from unbelievers, but fully relied on the churches for their support.  Likewise, when we support missionaries in our modern times, we become partners in their ministries (Mt 10:41-42).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

We continue to be confronted with many of the same interpretation challenges that we faced in John’s other two epistles.  John doesn’t elaborate on the exact nature of the false doctrine that Diothrephes was teaching to the church.  See Interpretation Hints for 1 John for a description of the various heresies threatening the early church in John’s era.

See Interpretation Hints for 2 John for John’s concept of love and some comments regarding hospitality.  We could reiterate that this hospitality included not only lodging, but food, security and provisions for their journey upon departure.  In the phrase “send them on their way” (v6), the Greek word propempō (to send forth) includes the sense of sending one off with the necessary support (including financial).  We find this precedent early and often in the OT.  Indeed, with regard to the Israelites themselves, we find them frequently portrayed as being dependent upon God’s hospitality for all their needs, such as food and clothing in the wilderness.  In the NT, Paul uses the word propempō in Rom 15:24, 1Cor 16:6,11, 2Cor 1:16, and Titus 3:13, carrying the same sense each time as John’s implication.  In modern times, we usually put up a travelling evangelist in a member’s home or a hotel, and take up a collection from the congregation for financial support.

Finally, we can mention that various questions often arise regarding the relationship between John’s three epistles.  For example, “Was 2 and 3 John (and maybe even 1 John) originally delivered to the same church?” or “Was Diotrephes one of the false teachers condemned in 2 John?”  We speculate on one theory of the letter's delivery in the “General Info” chapter above, but once again, we simply lack sufficient evidence to reach a definite conclusion.  This, of course, does not detract from the themes and doctrine of the epistles.

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Outline

John’s Third Epistle can be divided into two short sections, the commendation of Gaius (v 1-8) and the condemnation of Diotrephes (v 9-14).

1 - 4 Greeting; Faithfulness of Gaius
5 - 8 Gaius’ Support of Christian Workers
9 - 11 Condemnation of Diotrephes
12 Commendation of Demetrius
13 - 15* Concluding Remarks and Benediction

*Note: In some translations, v15 is combined into v14, so the total number of verses in 3 John can vary by translation.  For example, the NASB, ESV and NLT contain 15 verses, while the KJV, NIV and NRSV contain only 14.  Chapters and verses were not added to the bible until the mid-fifteenth century (OT) and the mid-sixteen (NT).

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