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).

In 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 letter of 3 John 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.

Who are the Elder and the Chosen Lady in 2 John?

The book was written by “The Elder” and addressed to the Elect Lady and her Children. Who is “the Elder”? The traditional answer understands the elder as the same person who wrote 1 John, the Apostle John, son of Zebedee. This traditional answer is often challenged based on the date of the letter. If it was written in the early 90s then John the son of Zebedee would be very old.

Eusebius reports a tradition from Papias that someone named John the Elder was active in Ephesus at the end of the first century and many scholars think the tradition John the Apostle settled in Ephesus has been confused with the activity of this John the Elder. By way of analogy, the Philip who was martyred in Hierapolis is called the apostle, but he also had four daughters who were prophets. This is a confusion of Philip the Apostle and Philip the Deacon.

The Chosen LadyThe word translated elder (πρεσβύτερος) refers to a man in his early to mid-50s, as opposed to an old or elderly man (γέρων). But the word was used for a position of authority in the early church. The leaders of a Jewish synagogue and the Sanhedrin were called elders (BDAG), as were the leaders of towns (BDAG, citing LXX Ruth 4:2 for example). In Revelation 4:4 there are twenty-four elders forming a “heavenly council” around the throne of God. There are a few examples in Acts of the word referring to early Christian leaders (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-6; 16:4), although with the exception of 14:23 these all Jewish congregations so they may have taken over the leadership structure of the synagogue; this may also be true for Paul’s congregations.

While it is always possible this Elder is not the elderly Apostle John, there is little in 1-3 John to suggest the Apostle is not the authority behind the letters. Eusebius cites Clement of Alexandria, John was based on Ephesus but traveled throughout the region appointing bishops and dealing with church issues. Assuming the writer is the same as 1 John 1:1-4, the claim to be an eyewitness of Jesus is more or less a claim to apostolic status.

Is the “chosen lady” an actual person? The word John uses in verse one (κυρία) refers to a woman of special status. Some suggest this is a woman named Eklete (Greek word for chosen) who led the church to which John is writing. The “mistress of the house” would refer to the woman in charge of assigning work to all the household slaves and managing household affairs but in the LXX the mistress (κυρία) is not a slave (BDAG). The woman may be like Lydia or Phoebe, a wealthy woman who hosted the church in her home and was the patroness of a local congregation. In support of this view, see this post by Marg Mowczko arguing the Lady is the leader of a house church.  Here are Paul Anderson’s comments on the Lady as a real church leader.

However, the consensus answer is the Chosen Lady is a metaphor for a house church rather than a literal woman who led a church. The Greek word translated church, gathering, or congregation (ἐκκλησία) is feminine. Using a metonym for the church like this is unusual in the New Testament, but in the ancient world cities were often described in female terms (Jerusalem as a woman in Isaiah), Paul used a similar metaphor in Ephesians 5:25 and 2 Corinthians 11:2. The children (and her sister’s children in v. 13) would then refer to the members of two separate congregations.

Although I agree with Marg that Phoebe was deacon or minister of her church (Rom. 16:1–2) and that Junia (Rom 16:7) and Nympha (Col 4:15) are examples of women in leadership in local churches, I find it simpler to understand this particular chosen Lady as a reference to the church.

It is not clear why John used these metaphors to hide his identity and that of the congregation. 1 Peter 5:13 uses Babylon as a metonym for Rome (both were arrogant world empires which had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple). It may be the case the writer was masking his identity and the location of the congregation to avoid drawing attention of the authorities.

Main Themes of Second John

Maybe an alternative title for this post could be “Second John: Why Bother?” The problem with 2 John is that it is nearly the same as 1 John, the same opponents have gone out from the church and the readers are encourage to recall what John has already taught them (love one another) and to not have anything to do with the false teachers. There is really nothing new in this letter aside from the standard features of Hellenistic letters, the salutation (1-3) and concluding farewell (12-13). Although we now have an author and recipient, they are veiled to hide their true identity. Nor do we know who the opponents are, other than they are the same antichrists mentioned in 1 John. What is even more frustrating, we cannot know if this letter was written before or after 1 John, to the same congregations as 1 John, or whether this short note was sent as a cover letter for 1 John (or the Gospel of John).

Second John is an excellent example of a Hellenistic “advice” letter. (The technical term is paraenetic letter (Parsenios, First, Second and Third John, 132-32; see page 137 for a reprint of a standard paraentic letter from the third or fourth century AD). These types of letters were short notes exhorting the reader to keep on doing what they have already been told to do (this is not a new command, love one another) and to avoid some negative action or behavior (stay away from the false teachers). Even the greetings and conclusion are the way letters were framed in the ancient world.

If the content is identical to 1 John, why was it included in the canon of Scripture? Although the letter is quoted occasionally, it is sometimes cited as if it were part of 1 John, supporting the suggestion it was originally a cover letter for 1 John. To complicate matters, sometimes 3 John is referred to as the second letter, implying 1-2 John circulated as a unit.

First, 2 John is a Reminder of the Commandment Heard from the Beginning (2 John 4-6). The Elder rejoices that some members of the church are walking in truth (4). At the beginning of an advice letter, the writer often would praise the readers in order to create good will. Does “some of your children” imply that some are not walking in the truth? It may be the case John has only heard of some of the children walking in the truth, or this soul be a subtle hint that there is some problem in the church.

This is not a new commandment: Love one another (5-6). This may refer back to 1 John 2:7-8 (the Gospel of John), but also the content of the Elder’s teaching and preaching (they have heard it from the beginning).

There is a subtle difference here, in 1 John 2:7-8 he wrote the “command you have had,” in 2 John 5 it is the command “we have had” from the beginning. John is including himself in this command; it is not as though the Father holds the apostle to a different standard than his readers. John is including himself because the deceptive teachers are claiming John has no authority, he is saying “we are in this together” even if the false teachers claim otherwise.

Second, the letter warns about the Deceivers (2 John 7-11). Like 1 John, these deceivers are those who deny Jesus came in the flesh (7-9). The one who denies Jesus came in the flesh is the deceiver and the antichrist (7, 1 John 2:18-23, 3:7, 4:3). The noun translated deceiver (πλάνος) refers to something which is misleading or intentionally deceitful. In classical Greek the word could be used for someone who cheats or is a trickster (BrillDAG).

Third, the Elder tells his readers to not even let the false teacher into your house (10-11). It is possible the Elder thinks the Lady’s church has been too living toward the false teachers by providing hospitality to their teachers. But his may be more than giving them a meal and a place to sleep as they passed through their town. If the church allowed the deceptive teachers to teach the congregation, then the “little children” would be at risk of falling under the influence of the deceivers and antichrists.

If someone welcomes one of the deceptive teachers, they are “sharing in the wicked work.” The verb (κοινωνέω) is the same semantic range as the noun John used in 1 John 1:3, holding to the things John has proclaimed means the reader has fellowship with him. “How to treat a false teacher” is the theme of 3 John (come back next week). The difference is in this letter the Elder tells his readers to refuse hospitality to anyone who does not confess Jesus properly, in 3 John one of the Elder’s representatives was refused hospitality by another house church.

Is the application of this command, do not engage Mormons or JWs when they knock on our door? Possibly, but a closer analogy would be allowing a Mormon who was visiting our church for a few weeks to teach a Sunday School class or preach a sermon. This is one of the functions of elders in 1 Timothy and Titus, guarding the deposit of the Faith against those who teach and behave in ways which are not consistent with biblical teaching. That Paul wrote to Ephesus with similar advice to John is significant, as is the letter to Ephesus in Revelation 2.

John draws a clear line between what his community believed and the other deceptive teachers because it was very easy for the false teachers to come to a small congregation, share table fellowship and appear to be a sheep, when in fact they are wolves seeking to devour the members of the congregation.

Developing Doctrine in Second John

The short letter of Second John is address to the “elect lady and her children.” This is likely a reference to a church. Since the Greek word for church is feminine, calling a church a “chosen lady” is a natural metaphor. Jobes points out that neither “chosen” nor “lady” were used as proper names in the first century, nor are there any personal names in this letter (Letters to the Churches, 441). John refers to the members of a congregation as “children” in 1 John several times, so it seems fairly certain that this address is to a congregation of believers.

It may be a generic letter, however, circulated to several churches in a region. 1 John seems to be intended as a circular letter, so it is possible that this short note from “the elder” was passed around to several house churches. Since this letter is written on a single scrap of paper (verse 12), it may have been intended as a personal note from John, carried by a traveling preacher visiting congregations under John’s oversight. Obviously 1 and 2 John are related, but there is no way to know which letter came first or if they were addressed to different congregations.

The theological content of the letter is similar to that of 1 John. The writer warns the congregation about “deceivers” who have gone out into the world and deny that Jesus came in the flesh (v. 7). In verse 9 John implies that these deceivers have “gone ahead” rather than remained in the truth as it was first taught. Perhaps some teachers had tried to find a way to explain who Jesus was which “went beyond” what the apostles originally taught.

This is a problem for modern theology. The main issue in Second John is that the false teachers had developed doctrine in a way which was unacceptable. I think they had good intentions – they were genuinely trying to explain a very difficult concept (God became flesh) and they did so in a way which they thought was consistent with their Jewish world view. But from the perspective of John, they have gone too far and need to “remain” in the original teaching he delivered to them.

WWJDriveI think that it is necessary to develop doctrine “beyond the Bible,” since the Bible simply does not specifically address every situation which may arise in a modern context. Some years ago there was an attempt to encourage Christians to be environmentally  conscious when choosing a car; the media campaign used “What would Jesus drive?” as a slogan. I really do not think it is relevant to apply Jesus to choosing a gas-guzzling SUV or Prius. There may be good biblical reasons for choosing one over the other, but “what would Jesus drive” is not the way to develop theology.

I am frequently asked what the Bible has to say about birth control or in vitro fertilization. Since it is very hard to “quote a verse” as a proof-text either for or against these practices, Christians have to infer ethical practice from the general teaching of the Bible. The difficult part is knowing when we have “run ahead” and developed a doctrine beyond what the intent of the Bible was in the first place.

How do we guard against “going too far” when we try to apply the Bible to contemporary issues?

Second John – Going Beyond the Bible

The short letter of Second John is address to the “elect lady and her children.” This is likely a reference to a church. Since the Greek word for church is feminine, calling a church a “chosen lady” is a natural metaphor. Jobes points out that neither “chosen” nor “lady” were used as proper names in the first century, nor are there any personal names in this letter (Letters to the Churches, 441). John refers to the members of a congregation as “children” in 1 John several times, so it seems fairly certain that this address is to a congregation of believers.

It may be a generic letter, however, circulated to several churches in a region. 1 John seems to be intended as a circular letter, so it is possible that this short note from “the elder” was passed around to several house churches. Since this letter is written on a single scrap of paper (verse 12), it may have been intended as a personal note from John, carried by a traveling preacher visiting congregations under John’s oversight. Obviously 1 and 2 John are related, but there is no way to know which letter came first or if they were addressed to different congregations.

The theological content of the letter is similar to that of 1 John. The writer warns the congregation about “deceivers” who have gone out into the world and deny that Jesus came in the flesh (v. 7). In verse 9 John implies that these deceivers have “gone ahead” rather than remained in the truth as it was first taught. Perhaps some teachers had tried to find a way to explain who Jesus was which “went beyond” what the apostles originally taught.

This is a problem for modern theology. The main issue in Second John is that the false teachers had developed doctrine in a way which was unacceptable. I think they had good intentions – they were genuinely trying to explain a very difficult concept (God became flesh) and they did so in a way which they thought was consistent with their Jewish world view. But from the perspective of John, they have gone too far and need to “remain” in the original teaching he delivered to them.

I think that it is necessary to develop doctrine “beyond the Bible,” since the Bible simply does not specifically address every situation which may arise in a modern context. I am frequently asked what the Bible has to say about birth control or in vitro fertilization. Since it is very hard to “quote a verse” as a proof-text either for or against these practices, Christians have to infer ethical practice from the general teaching of the Bible. The difficult part is knowing when we have “run ahead” and developed a doctrine beyond what the intent of the Bible was in the first place.