Apostle John’s Three Letters . . . 3 John: Intro and vv. 1–2
Introduction to Third John
If you wonder how the teaching in First and Second John played out in real life, you'll love exploring Third John. This very short letter applies First John's teachings of truth, love, and obedience to specific, local house-church situations. Before we discover key elements of our Third John Bible study, we ought to re-introduce ourselves to the author while appreciating who his audience was and why he wrote this short epistle, letter, or book.
Third 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 was to be administered, even limited in certain cases. Both short epistles deal with matters of itinerant teachers and their treatment. In this introduction summary, we'll also cover this letter's greeting and salutation in vv. 1 and 2.
Resembling a personal letter, Third John was written to a Gaius, possibly the pastor of a house church, likely a member of John’s congregation. However, we don't know the church or geographic area to which it was sent. Similar to Second John, it addresses the culture of hospitality. In Second John, the elder warns against house-church members welcoming false teachers into their homes, however, in this epistle it appears that well-known, approved itinerant teachers had been refusing hospitality to legitimate teachers. John writes to encourage Gaius, who showed the proper reception of approved ministers while also instructing him about Diotrephes who was slandering the apostle John and excluding believers from the assembly of house churches that welcomed these ministers.
John's third and final epistle opens with Elder John's personal greeting to Gaius. He then commends him for his faithfulness in opening his home so that he'd be able to welcome the Lord's traveling teachers. John's letter should also remind us today to welcome such men and women into our homes, so as to partner with them in the truth. He then warns against the destructive behavior shown by Diotrephes, who was spreading lies about the apostle while refusing to welcome bona fide missionaries into his house church while also strong-arming those who welcomed them in. The elder closes his letter by expressing a desire to return to them and talk face to face.
Author Unlike what we saw in his first epistle, here in Third John (as well as Second John) he calls himself "the elder." True, John was well advanced in age. However, such a designation likely has three possible meanings: (1) "elder" can refer to an older man who deserves respect as a result of his years and experience; (2) an elder was a local official of New Testament house churches, however, Elder John's advisory authority extended over a very wide area; (3) an elder referred to either an apostle or a close disciple of an apostle. Note: John was one of the last direct links with Jesus Christ; many believe that he was the last apostle still alive. Therein lies his right to speak, write, and be called Elder John.
It's possible that John doesn't directly name himself for the same reason he doesn't in Second John: the threat of persecution may have prevented him from identifying himself directly. It wouldn't have been necessary; neither would it have been wise.
Audience John addresses this short letter to "beloved Gaius." Gaius was a very common Roman Empire name; it appears five times in the New Testament (Acts 19:29; 20:4; Romans 16:23; 1 Corinthians 1:14; and here in v. 1). It's not known if Luke or Paul mentioned this same Gaius in their writings. Nevertheless, it's clear that Gaius was a dear, beloved friend of John, known especially for his hospitality.
Date and Place The estimated date of writing varies widely; some suggest that the elder wrote it prior to Jerusalem's 70 AD destruction, although the majority of scholars place its writing between 90 and 95 AD. No matter, Third John would most likely have been written around the same time as John's two other letters: First and Second John. This is the shortest book of the Bible: only 219 words in its original Greek. It's also the only book in the New Testament that doesn't mention Christ Jesus by name.
Regarding location, Ephesus is the often-presumed venue, since he'd lived there during his later years, however, since his residence and base of operations was within Ephesus, he probably didn't write it from there. Most likely he wrote it elsewhere in Asia Minor.
Purpose John wrote this letter for at least three reasons, each related to an individual in his letter: (1) to confirm that Gaius had appropriately supported teachers of the truth about Jesus who'd come his way, and to encourage him to carry on with his hospitality (vv. 5–8); (2) to condemn a church man named Diotrephes for having rejected John and others whom he should have received cordially (vv. 9–10); and (3) to encourage Gaius to emulate the righteous, God-honoring acts of hospitality for the missionaries and to commend house-church member Demetrius for being a exceptional example of a hospitable believer of Jesus (vv. 11-12).
Theme Perhaps an appropriate theme for Third John can be found in v. 11: Keep from that which is evil while continuing to do what is good and righteous.
Practical Application Third John makes clear what our position should be regarding "walking in the truth." We're to thwart the enemies of the truth. Whereas First John focuses on our fellowship with God, [Second and] Third John concentrates on our prioritizing the truth about what is taught and preached about Jesus.
It's also necessary that we believers be careful to heed those whose words and actions are in line with the gospel, while effectively discerning people such as power-hungry Diotrephes, whose conduct falls short of what Jesus had taught then and teaches today.
Context To put this letter's purpose into perspective, realize that it was a first-century Christian custom for a widespread ministry of itinerant teachers and preachers to travel about preaching the gospel and teaching God's word by visiting many homes and house churches. A problem for that outreach ministry involved accommodations: Where would itinerants stay? At nightfall, after preaching from house to house, where would they lie down for a safe and comfortable night's sleep? Who'd tend to their bodily needs?
These evangelists and ministers of God's word would receive hospitality, food, and sometimes money, from those inside Christian homes. Imagine the likelihood of this custom being abused by false teachers, preachers, and prophets. It appears from the elder's account that that's exactly what took place. Some religious charlatans chose to exploit the charity of God's people for their own diabolical ends, whether to simply gain food, lodging, and money, or to spread their heretical doctrines such as Gnosticism and Docetism (which we covered thoroughly in our Week #2 summary of First John.
John had received a report about difficulties caused by a man in one of the Johannine churches in Asia; named Diotrephes, he'd been stirring up strife in Gaius' house church. Diotrephes had rejected what John had written in his earlier letter about false teachers; he'd not only been babbling accusations against Elder John, he'd even excommunicated church members who'd welcomed true Christians into their homes (vv. 9–10).
When the gospel's truth gets rejected, Christian fellowship becomes fractured. Because Jesus had previously commanded Christians to love one another (John 13:34), John wrote this letter to Gaius to advise him of at least three things: (1) Gaius was doing the right thing, even though Diotrephes was condemning the hospitality he'd shown to other believers; (2) Gaius should never emulate what is evil but what is good (v. 11); and (3) that John would plan to visit everyone very soon come to straighten things out. He then closed by sending his reciprocal greetings to all the chosen ones (vv. 12–13).
What the elder John did for his friend Gaius in the first century is a dying art in the twenty-first century. He wrote him a letter. In it he included (a) hopes for good health of body and soul, (b) an encouraging word about Gaius' faithfulness in the truth about Jesus, and (c) a note about his love for the church. John also wrote of a house-church problem that he promised he'd soon address in person. And he wrote of the value of doing good things for God's honor. All in all, it was an encouraging yet challenging letter written to his church friend. Let's start our study of the text.
The Salutation of John’s Letter (3 John, vv. 1–2)
Just as in Second John and the gospel of John, the author doesn't call himself "John," nor does he identify himself as one of Jesus' apostles. Here, in Third John (and Second John), he prefers to designate himself only as "The elder," writing this letter to a man named Gaius who knew the truth about Jesus very well. John wanted to reinforce in Gaius' eyes the proper way to deal with spiritual and cultural issues in his church.
To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. 2Dear 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 (Third John, vv. 1–2).
John wanted to ensure that house churches gave warm welcomes to those who traveled around preaching the gospel, offering them hospitality and a warm send-off "in a manner that honors God" (v. 6).
It's all Greek to me John opens his letter by greeting Gaius, a man who's grown in the faith through the apostle’s ministerial efforts. Referring to him as "my dear friend," John refers to him as one who's "beloved" (Greek agapeto means lovingkindness, charity). Gaius must have been truly beloved by John; we'll soon see that he's called this by John four times in this tiny letter. He wishes him good health for his body, in the same way that his soul already enjoys. The phrase "love in the truth" indicates strong affection. His wish or prayer for Gaius' health was simply a common, often-used greeting in ancient letters.
Make note of another Greek expression: hygiainein (meaning be sound, well, of Christians whose opinions are free from any mixture of error), for "enjoy good health." John was wishing prosperity and health, just as Gaius' soul (Gk. psuche, meaning soul; breath of life, life-stuff) was enjoying such things.
Notice that John addresses Gaius in the same manner that he greeted "the lady chosen by God" in Second John. By this opening salutation, we see that John was expressing "agape" love. Notice too that John is praying that Gaius will "get along well" or "prosper" and remain in good health. Such prosperity and good health come as a result of having a right relationship with Jesus Christ. Hopefully, God "prospers" the health of the soul before the body's health, which is ultimately God's priority.
For God to give us prosperity and health of the soul, it's essential that we walk in the truth. It was evident that Gaius walked in the truth about Jesus. John adds that others testified on Gaius' behalf that he was walking in the truth. Simply put, "walking in the truth" results when we uphold the teachings of Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the prophets, while living out such teachings, boldly professing them to those whom we meet on our walkway (read 2 Timothy 2:15).
As expressed in Second John and our continuing study of Third John (vv. 3–4), John’s greatest joy was to see his spiritual children walking in the truth of Jesus' words that they'd heard and read, as well as the truth of the apostles' gospel teachings they'd learned. His joy wasn't based upon their spiritual gifts or the size of their churches but in church congregants' dedicated commitment to the truths they'd been taught. Similarly, Father God also receives great joy today when we focus on and commit to obeying his Word.
Think of how encouraged Gaius was when he opened God's letter to him that John had written. Could you similarly shine God's love on a friend by sending an uplifting letter, card, note, e-message, or morale-boosting phone call? Who first comes to mind?
3 John, vv. 1–2