Read the Passage: 3 John
Author and Date: The epistle of 3 John is the shortest book in the Bible, consisting of only 14 verses and containing just 219 words. Note that some people mistake 2 John for being shorter than 3 John, since 2 John has only 13 verses; yet, 3 John is significantly shorter in actual word count. 3 John has 219 words and 2 John has 245 words, which means 3 John is 11% shorter than 2 John. As with the book of 2 John, so the authorship of 3 John is technically anonymous. However, based upon the author’s writing style, the similarity of this book to John’s other writings, and the unanimous testimony of the early church, we can conclude that the epistle of 3 John was written by the apostle John. As with 1 John and 2 John, so the letter of 3 John was likely written around the year AD 90, while John was pastor of the strategic church at Ephesus. John refers to himself as “the Elder” (3 John 1) in this text, likely because he was pastor of the church and he was of an unusually advanced age—perhaps being over 90 years old at the time of writing. Observe that John wrote twenty percent of the New Testament, including five books that contain over twenty-eight thousand words.
Theme and Purpose: As was the case in the book of 2 John, the general theme of 3 John is truth, with specific application to Christian hospitality. In fact, a form of the word “truth” occurs seven times in this brief letter. It seems that John’s main reason for writing this letter was to confront a sinful man in the church named Diotrephes who was prideful, refused to show hospitality to traveling brethren, condemned those who did so, and even slandered the apostle John himself. Note that like the modern church, the early church had challenges. Given his impact, it is possible that Diotrephes held a position of authority within the church. Observe that while 2 John warns the church about the error of showing hospitality to false teachers, 3 John confronts the church about the error of not showing hospitality to true brethren. The epistle of 3 John is the most personal of John’s letters, and one of the few biblical books written to an individual. Whereas 2 John contains no personal names, the letter of 3 John contains three personal names: Gaius, Diotrephes, and Demetrius.
Background: Hospitality: In the context of the early church, hospitality was indispensable for traveling Christians and missionaries. The few inns that did exist functioned as brothels or were otherwise unsafe; thus, for missions work to be carried out, hospitality was needed. Indeed, in the Bible we read the following mandates concerning hospitality: church leaders are to be characterized by hospitality (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8); widows to whom the church ministers must be known for showing hospitality (cf. 1 Tim. 5:9-10); Christians are to show hospitality to strangers in need (cf. Heb. 13:2); God’s people are to show hospitality to the poor and needy (cf. Isa. 58:7; Luke 14:13); believers are to show hospitality even to their enemies (cf. 2 Kings 6:22–23; Rom. 12:20); and Christians are to show hospitality to one another (cf. 1 Pet. 4:9). Furthermore, we see hospitality practiced by many individuals in Scripture, including: Melchizedek, Lot, Laban, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Jethro, Elisha, Samuel, Nehemiah, Job, David, Zacchaeus, and Lydia, among many others.
Gaius Greeted (1–8)
John writes this letter “to the beloved Gaius” (3 John 1). While nothing is known about this man Gaius, clearly he was a cherished personal friend of John, as he is called “beloved” four times in this short letter. Indeed, John’s commendation of Gaius is one of the greatest greetings in all of Scripture, as in 3 John 3 Gaius is praised for both his doctrine and his ethics. As he had written in 2 John 4, so here in the fourth verse of this letter John writes that news of Christian obedience brought him great personal joy. In 3 John 5–8 John commends Gaius for his hospitality and identifies three reasons why Christians are to show hospitality to traveling missionaries: first, because such workers desired to glorify God (cf. 3 John 7a); second, because they do not desire or receive money from the world (cf. 3 John 7b); and third, because showing hospitality makes one a fellow worker for the truth (cf. 3 John 8). All of these reasons were relevant in the first century and are still applicable today.
Diotrephes Condemned (9–11)
As was noted above, John’s main reason in writing this letter was to confront a man named Diotrephes. In contrast to the humble Gaius, Diotrephes was a prideful man in the church. It is unclear if Diotrephes was an ordained leader in the church, or if he was just a man who’d somehow gained power in the local church context. What is clear, however, is that the terms John uses to describe Diotrephes are not flattering. Indeed, John describes Diotrephes as one who seeks preeminence, talks non-sense, speaks malice, excommunicates brethren, and refuses to show Christian hospitality. While John does not explicitly say whether this man was a sinning brother or an unredeemed pagan, given John’s admonition in 3 John 11, we can conclude that Diotrephes was most likely not a believer, for in this verse, in reference to Diotrephes, John warns, “Do not imitate what is evil . . . . He who does evil has not seen God” (3 John 11).
Demetrius Commended (12–14)
Of course, despite Diotrephes’ slanderous words, John still was an apostle and had the authority of an apostle. Therefore, John writes that he would deal with Diotrephes on a planned future visit (cf. 3 John 10, 14). John concludes this brief letter by commending a spiritually mature man in the church named Demetrius. As is the case with both Gaius and Diotrephes, nothing else is known about Demetrius apart from the content of this letter. However, believers in John’s context were surely familiar with this man, as Demetrius had “a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself” (3 John 12). Given the mention of this man near the end of this epistle, it is likely that Demetrius was the one who delivered the letter of 3 John to the church. Demetrius may have even been the one who penned this letter as John’s assistant. As he had done in 2 John 12–13, so here as he concludes this letter, John writes that he plans to visit the church shortly in order to give further teachings.
- Is showing hospitality to false teachers a problem in today’s church?
- Is failing to show hospitality to true brethren a problem among modern believers?
- Have you ever known someone like Diotrephes in the context of a local church?
- What is the best way to confront false teaching within the church?
- How important is our Christian testimony before the watching world?