Main Themes of Third John

Third John is the shortest letter in the New Testament, at only thirteen verses and a little over three hundred words. By way of comparison, the letter to Thyatira in Revelation 2:18-28 is 297 words. This letter is also the last of the documents included in the New Testament canon.

Since the letter discusses how to treat traveling evangelists, it is difficult to find any real theology in the letter. It does not deal with the same theological problems and the first two Letters of John. Although Diotrephes may be one of “those who have gone out from us,” that is not the reason the Elder condemns him in verses 9-11. It appears Diotrephes refused to give hospitality to one of the elder’s traveling teachers (probably Demetrius) and has slandered the Elder. The elder therefore warns Gaius to not “be like Diotrephes” and continue to welcome the traveling teachers, starting with Demetrius (who may be carrying this letter).

Third JohnIn fact, this letter follows the style of a Hellenistic letter of recommendation (systatikai epistolai; Parsenios, First, Second and third John, 148). For example, Saul obtained letters of recommendation from the high priest to the synagogue leaders in Damascus (Acts 9:1-2) and Apollos carried a letter from Christians in Ephesus to the churches in Achaia (Acts 18:27).

It is not hard to imagine Demetrius arriving at Gaius’s home and presenting him this short note which praises him for his reputation for hospitality and encourages him avoid being like that rascal Diotrephes and accept Demetrius into his home, supply his needs and send him on his way with supplies for the road.

That is the “plot” of the letter. Although there is no great theological contribution to be found here, 2 John does give us an insight into the way early house churches functioned.

First, the Elder praises Gaius because he has offered hospitality to strangers (3 John 2-8).  Similar to Second John, the Elder opens the letter as most Greco-Roman letters open, with a prayer and a wish for good health (2-4). The elder prays for Gaius and reports that some brothers have given testimony both Gaius and his house church are “walking in the truth.”

In verse 8 Gaius is called a “co-worker in the truth.” This is an important hint that Gaius is in agreement with the theological perspective of 1-2 John, that Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah, and was truly God in the flesh.  Although 3 John has little theology, it assumes the same truth as the first two letters and the Gospel of John.

Gaius should send the travelling teachers on their way in a manner that honors God (6b-7). To “send them on their way” refers to providing a traveler “with food, money, by arranging for companions, means of travel, etc.” (BDAG). In Acts 15:1-3 the church at Antioch “sent Barnabas and Saul on their way.” This means the church gave them the supplies they needed to travel to Cyprus (food, money for passage on a ship, perhaps letters of introduction to the synagogues there, etc.)

Second, 3 John concerns showing hospitality honors traveling teachers (3 John 8). The verb translated “support” (ὑπολαμβάνω) refers to receiving someone as a guest, to care and feed them, or even protect them (BrillDAG). We tend to think of support as sending money off to an agency to support a missionary or ministry; in this case Gaius is providing what the traveling teachers need in order to do the ministry for which they have been appointed.

This kind of hospitality was expensive. The average free person in a larger city struggled to have enough food for themselves and their own family, so to share food with a stranger (even if they are a Christian brother) was difficult. Yet these traveling teachers are worthy of the honor Gaius has shown them. Just as Paul encouraged the churches in Ephesus to take care of full time minsters.

Gaius is a good example of a patron of a local house church caring for the needs of traveling teachers and missionaries sent out by the Elder’s community. The reason the Elder praises Gaius is because not all house church leaders are hospitable toward the missionaries the Elder has sent. By describing this negative example of “what not to do,” the Elder is encouraging Gaius to accept Demetrius, the bearer of this short letter.

Third, the letter condemns Diotrephes because he refused to help the Elder’s representatives (3 John 9-12).  Can we know anything about Ditrephes? Not really, other than the negative things the Elder says about him. Like Gaius, the name is a common Roman name and he too may be a wealthy patron of a local church. “The author of 3 John, however, never charged Diotrephes with heresy. The conflict was over authority in the church instead of theology.

  • He loves to be first. This word (φιλοπρωτεύω) only appears here in the New Testament. It is not necessary a vice since it means “to aspire to excellence, be ambitious” (BrillDAG). But this is the opposite of Jesus’s own example when he demonstrated his humility by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13). John 13:16 where Jesus says no servant is greater than his master, nor is the messenger greater than the one who sent him.
  • He does not acknowledge the authority of the Elder. The verb (ἐπιδέχομαι) simply means “receive, welcome” (BDAG) and does not necessarily mean he refused the authority of the Elder. There is significant variation in the English translations for this word in verse 9.
  • He was spreading malicious nonsense about the Elder. Talking nonsense (φλυαρέω) is a word only found here in the New Testament, “to utter foolishness, joke, gossip, to play the fool” (BrillDAG). Although the word can have the sense of “pulling someone’s leg” on rare occasions, it has the connotation of spreading lies and rumors in order to damage someone’s reputation.
  • Refuses the traveling teachers sent by the Elder and wants to put them out of the church. This is the main problem, although the Elder does not tell us why he refuses them. It may be the teachers are proclaiming John’s theology of Jesus as the messiah, son of God having come in the flesh and Diotrephes disagrees theologically and therefore refused to let the teach in the church he hosts. On the other hand, it might be the case Diotrephes just dislikes the elder and refuses to recognize his authority and therefore will not welcome the Elder’s representative.

Finally, the letter recommends Demetrius, a teacher with a good reputation (12). What is the point of 3 John? Do not imitate what is evil (like Diotrephes) and receive my representative Demetrius.  The Elder vouches for Demetrius as having a good reputation and will speak the truth. Here is potentially another hint that there is a doctrinal rift between the Elder and Diotrephes, he is saying “my representative will teach your congregation the truth, as opposed to anyone going out from Diotrephes.

6 thoughts on “Main Themes of Third John

  1. I appreciated reading this post, because if I am being honest, I have wondered why this small letter was included in the Bible. As I was reading 3 John, I questioned what exactly was it about this one letter that “caught” the attention of someone enough to place it in the New Testament? This seems so much like a personal letter focused on a specific situation, not at all like the rest of the epistles which still have some theological teaching within. So, all that to say that this post helped to bring a little more clarity into the reason it is included in the Bible (not including it simply being the inspired Word of God of course!). I thought one of the more interesting points was that it gives us insight into how the early house churches functioned. In the grand scheme of things, this might seem like a small and insignificant detail, but we can always learn from history. Jobes (2011) emphasizes that this “small slice of life” (444) from the early church can bring awareness that even they dealt with tension within their congregation. Just like the author reminds Gaius to “not imitate evil but imitate good” (vs. 11), we can use this short letter as a reminder to not let dissension get in the way of spiritual truth and teaching. Additionally, I think this is a practical reminder to support and encourage those in church leadership, as verse 8 says, “Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.”

    Jobes, K.A. (2011). Letters to the Church. Zondervan.

  2. I agree with Jobes when she writes that the irony is this whole conversation is that Diotrephes may have been following the teaching of 3 John without even knowing that was written by the man that he was not showing hospitality to. I also think this may be why the author did not use heresy as the word to describe him, because he may not have been intentionally leading people astray. If Diotrephes thought that the elder was not teaching what he believed, then he thought he was right by not accepting the person delivering the message. It is unfortunate that we do not know more about what Diotrephes was saying about the elder. It may have been a logical argument. Unfortunately, we only get one side of this argument, and it does look like Diotrephes may have just been an arrogant person who was unwilling to help those spreading the gospel. This may have been why the elder felt that it was so important to praise Gaius. It appears the elder was concerned that Gaius may not accept Demetrius, following Diotrephes’ example. It seems more likely that Gaius might follow this example because there is a possibility that Diotrephes was a prominent member of the church. It appears those who were doing it correctly needed encouragement so that they were not swayed to follow others who were not.

  3. I think it is interesting that 2 and 3 John have main themes of hospitality. It really shows how they connect and I think furthers the point that they were written by the same person. I think it also shows how important hospitality was in the ancient world. Hospitality went a lot further than it would today, today it may be like a lunch or a bed to stay in. But back in the ancient world it would be much more than that as the host would be expected to send the guest on their way with enough food to last them until their next destination, boy do I wish people would send me with food when I left their house. I like the two contrasts of hosts in 3 John of good versus bad hosts. It is interesting that Gaius is praised in the first section of the book for being a good host. But then quickly after Diotrephes is absolutely slammed for being a bad host and not taking in the travelers sent by John. It is also interesting that you bring up as you did in class that this Diotrephes may have been refusing travelers because he disagreed with John and wanted to continue in his own teaching(most likely false teaching), it makes a clear separation from those who believe in the apostolic teachings and those who are against it and fall into heresy. It sends a clear warning to believers.

  4. Who thought John 2 was short? 3 John is the shortest letter in all of the New Testament. The word count to reach in these responses are almost as long as 3 John is. This letter is all about how we should treat our missionaries. There are a few missionaries that I have known from my home church that we would sometimes have over and take out to dinner for the things that they do for our faith by spreading it all over the world. Demetrius is very prominent in this letter. He is one of those teachers that we should be able to trust and have no question if he is spreading false teachings or not. We find that most of our traveling evangelists go to places that no one else would ever go. They throw their life into danger in order to spread the word of God to places that may never have known that there is such a faith that we have. They are the reason that most of those places have converted to Christianity. I believe that they are some of the most truthful teachers that we have.

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