Second and Third John are the shortest “books” in the New Testament, even shorter than Philemon and Jude. Second John is less than three hundred words in Greek, and 3 John is less than two hundred. Likely recorded on a single sheet of papyrus, they truly deserve to be called “letters” rather than “treatises,” “essays,” or even “epistles” with that term’s connotations of lengthiness and wide audience.
The author is “the elder,” probably the Apostle John. His use of this title implies that he was well known to the recipient (Gaius) and that he had fatherly spiritual authority over him. While we cannot know for sure, it seems that “the elder” was an overseer of multiple churches (we might think of him as a “bishop” today), and that Gaius was the overseer of one particular house church.
Second and 3 John apply the principles of 1 John—the tests of true faith (see Theological Themes below)—to specific situations with specific congregations. In 2 John the situation involved traveling teachers who did not confess orthodox theology about Jesus. The “elect lady” was not to extend hospitality to them.
In 3 John the situation also involved hospitality, this time involving three figures: Gaius, Diotrephes, and Demetrius. The elder wrote to Gaius, his “dear friend” (the phrase is used four times), to exhort him to not imitate Diotrephes who was an authoritarian and rebellious leader, perhaps an overseer of another house church. He refused to extend hospitality to the envoys sent by the elder. Unlike Diotrephes, Gaius continued to support the traveling gospel-workers, and the elder wants to make sure he will also welcome Demetrius, the elder’s envoy. Third John is basically a letter of introduction on behalf of Demetrius, but issues of gospel truth and church authority lie under the surface.
Hospitality was crucial in the early church. Christianity was exploding in the Roman Empire and churches were forming everywhere. Many teacher-missionaries were on the road, but they found no Motel 6’s. Inns were often thinly veiled houses of ill-repute, “notoriously dirty and flea-infested and innkeepers were notoriously rapacious” (Barclay, quoted in Stott, The Letters of John, p. 201). Travel in the Roman Empire had reached a degree of safety and convenience unknown in the ancient world, and this aided missionaries. This is not to say that transportation possessed anything like modern safety and convenience, but excellent roads kept up by the Roman legions, a common language (Koine Greek), and the pax Romana did enable folks to journey.
Hospitality in New Testament times bore some resemblance to hospitality today, but not much. Today the word connotes inviting friends for a meal or perhaps hosting a fellowship group. In the world of 3 John, hospitality was deeper, more necessary, and more costly. It was the extending of one’s roof—shelter and acceptance—over a stranger. In collectivistic cultures, not individualistic like the modern West, an outsider would not be accepted into a community unless someone who lived in the community treated the outsider as a member of his/her own household. The host vouched for the character of the stranger. Thus, the act of supporting a messenger endorsed the message and the authority of the one who sent the envoy, and that is just what Diotrephes refused to do. (For an excellent discussion of hospitality, see the commentary by Jobes.)
Here are some ways you might outline a sermon or a series from 3 John.
Option One (a sermon from the whole book)
Exegetical Idea: The “elder” rejoiced that his dear friend, Gaius, continued to support traveling gospel workers like Demetrius who went out for the sake of “the name,” rather than imitating Diotrephes who did not acknowledge the elder’s authority and refused to welcome those gospel workers.
Some options for the Big Idea:
-Imitate good Gaius, not defiant Diotrephes.
-When we support God’s workers we share in God’s work.
-When God’s servants come to you, support them, don’t suppress them.
We rejoice when our friends walk in the truth. (1-4)
We remember God’s workers by offering hospitality. (5-8, 11-12)
We refuse to rebel against God’s authority. (9-11)
Option Two (a three week series)
Text: 3 John 1-4
Title: Partnership in the Truth
Big Idea: Walk in truth.
Text: 3 John 5-8, 11-12
Title: Partnership Through Hospitality
Big Idea: Walk in love.
Text: 3 John 9-11
Title: Schism Because of a Power Play
Big Idea: Refuse to refuse.
This short letter has surprising potential for application. It gives us the opportunity to talk about pastoral authority, the church, evangelism/missionary work, faithful service like that which Gaius and Demetrius tendered (in contrast to Diotrephes), and staying true to the truth about Jesus as in 2 John.
But let me suggest a primary application indigenous to the letter—hospitality. As I have studied 3 John, I have learned a lot about hospitality and look forward to sharing it with a congregation someday. We “ought to support” envoys from the Apostles (v. 8). Of course, today’s culture is different than the elder’s, but these principles can be contextualized for our world.
The one who aids a gospel worker shares in the gospel work (v. 8). Missionary endeavors can occur only when people like Gaius open their homes and wallets for workers like Demetrius. Today we have less need for first-century hospitality because we have organizations and mechanisms such as missionary agencies that collect and distribute funds, not to mention hotels and restaurants, but financial support is nevertheless indispensable for gospel work. And don’t forget the blessing that first-century hospitality can be even in the twenty-first century. That is, face-to-face hospitality is powerful in our day too. It changes us even as it blesses others. We should open our homes, not just our wallets, to missionaries. Short term teams need hospitality, hungry seminary students do too, as do missionaries on home assignment.
Hospitality is close to the heart of the gospel. To welcome strangers, shelter them, and make them part of our family sounds a lot like God’s grace extended through Jesus, doesn’t it? In 3 John the “strangers” were traveling teachers and envoys, but the principle can be extended to strangers of all kinds if it is first set in the context of 2 John.
Even though hospitality is beautiful and necessary, it still needs to be instructed. The fact that hospitality had to be encouraged, as with Gaius, and the fact that when hospitality did occur it was highly praised, suggest that the coals of this virtue need regular fanning. We should exhort our people (and ourselves!) to show hospitality to strangers, especially Christian workers.
Hospitality/love is compatible with confrontation. The elder shows us both and reminds us that truth and love are two sides of one coin. Affection for God and his church will demand that, at times, we speak the truth in love.
One final thought about application: The good old days weren’t all that good. They weren’t much different than today’s days. The first-century had its share of authoritarian church leaders who slandered the Apostles and resisted their teaching. The first-century had plenty of splinter groups and factions. But thankfully, the first-century and our century also have gospel workers like Demetrius who had a “good testimony from everyone” (v. 12). And thankfully, the Spirit that was poured out on the day of Pentecost and began to form diverse groups into one body, the Spirit that was given to guide us into all truth, is still overseeing the church today. The church had problems then and she has problems now, yet she stands, upheld by an invisible hand.
The “tests” of true faith expounded in 1 John infuse the shorter letters also. Those tests are love, obedience, and orthodox confession about Jesus. The third test is of special concern in 2 John, and it may form part of the theological backdrop of 3 John also. Diotrephes may have fallen into the distortions of the proto-Gnostic teachers that troubled the “elect lady” in 2 John. He may have been something like a cult leader, but such conclusions must remain speculative. What we do know is that the first two tests—love and obedience—were Diotrephes’ problem. He was on a power trip and did not acknowledge the elder’s authority (v. 9). He talked “wicked nonsense” about the elder, and he would not welcome the teachers the elder sent (v. 10).
“Truth” is mentioned four times in the first four verses, thus introducing one of the letter’s themes, and as is true throughout the Bible, truth is coupled with love (vv. 1, 6). The two should not be separated, yet today it is common to think of truth and love as two sides of a balance scale. Neither must “outweigh” the other. This dichotomous view results in conflict with either truth or love inevitably “winning” in a given situation. In contrast, the Bible presents truth and love as two sides of one coin. They should not and indeed cannot be separated because both are part of the indivisible character of God and his Son who was full of grace and truth. David Wells has it right with a phrase he coined: God is “holy-love” (God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World, Crossway, 2014.)
When the elder speaks about truth, he probably has in mind Christology, as in 2 John, but strikingly the words “Jesus” and “Christ” never appear. Every other book of the New Testament uses those words, but 3 John uses a different term—“the name”—to mean the same thing. The missionaries have “gone out for the sake of the name” (v. 7). The early church often used “the name” as a metonymy for Jesus: they “suffered dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41); “I must show him what he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). See also, Acts 4:12, 15:26, 21:13, Romans 1:5, and Philippians 2:10.
So, behind the primary issue of the letter—an introduction of Demetrius—is the theological backdrop of Christology. The elder, Gaius, and Demetrius loved and obeyed the name and the elder was deeply disturbed that Diotrephes had severed fellowship with them. This was tantamount to denying the name. Why would he do so? Diotrephes seems to have been more concerned with his own name than the name. It is possible that he no longer believed in the name.
Another theological theme in the wings is ecclesiology, specifically church authority. Churches were multiplying all over the Mediterranean world, but no one had personal experience with Jesus. The Apostles were their link to Jesus, and as Paul said, the church was built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles with Christ himself as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). But the Apostles had died or were declining in number. If the Apostle John is the “the elder,” it is likely that he was old when he wrote 3 John, the last surviving personal associate of Christ. Copies of what Justin Martyr called the “memoirs of the Apostles” (1 Apology) were few and few people could read, so a Christian’s connection to the teaching of Jesus came necessarily through their pastors, the elders of house churches. These pastors taught the fundamentals of the faith—what to believe and how to live according to Jesus. As long as the pastor/elder walked in the truth handed down by the Apostles, members were to “obey their leaders” (Heb. 13:17) and “be subject to the elders” (1 Pet. 5:5).
My Encounter with 3 John
That is what motivates me to study and preach 3 John—the opportunity to commend the beautiful service of hospitality which we extend to partners in gospel work; as well as an exhortation to not partner with the enemies of the gospel. We need both: hospitality and distancing; partnership and separation.
David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988).
Karen H. Jobes, 1, 2, 3 John: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).
John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, rev. ed.: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).
Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.