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.