It should not be surprising that 3 John has little external attestation in light of its brevity and lack of quotable material. “It is not certain that any evidence for it can be cited before the third century…”2 Yet, since the author identifies himself as “the elder” and since its opening, closing, style, and outlook are so similar to 2 John, there can be little doubt that the same author wrote both letters. If this same author wrote 1 John and the Gospel of John, as we have argued, then there is a strong probability that it is none other than John the apostle.
It is probable that both 2 John and 3 John were written and sent out at the same time, due in large measure to the remarkable stylistic similarities. The date of this epistle cannot be treated in isolation—for, if it were, virtually any date could conceivably be posited! Once common authorship for all three epistles is assumed, as well as for the Fourth Gospel, then we can see that a date for 3 John “piggy-backs” on other considerations. As we have argued at some length in our discussion of the Gospel and first epistle, these documents were written in the 60s. We would tentatively say that 3 John, if written at the same time as 2 John, was written c. 66-67 CE.
The letter is addressed to one Gaius. The Greek name—as well as the Greek names of Diotrephes and Demetrius mentioned in the letter—suggest that this letter was addressed to a Gentile Christian. He would have been a member in one of the churches of Asia Minor which John had adopted as his own after the death of Paul.3
Gaius had shown hospitality to itinerant preachers of the gospel, even though such men were strangers to him (vv. 5-7). A certain Diotrephes had apparently stopped the brothers from showing hospitality to these preachers and in fact had booted them out of the church (vv. 9-10). John had written to the church about Diotrephes, but he either did not allow the letter to get read publicly or repudiated John’s authority. John is therefore sending Demetrius to the church (v. 12). He is apparently to stay with Gaius. 3 John functions as a cover letter for him.
In understanding this occasion, two negative statements must be made: (1) The occasion for 3 John does not at all seem to be an issue of heresy, but one of pride. There is no real evidence that Diotrephes was a heretic. (2) Although some have suggested that Gaius belonged to another church,5 the simple statement in v. 9, “I wrote to the church,” seems to indicate that the same church is in view.6
One of the issues rarely raised is why Diotrephes would dispute John’s authority. One possibility is that he recognized the authority of no apostle. But another possibility is that he disputed John’s authority. Perhaps—and this is only a suggestion—he had recognized Paul’s authority, but no other apostle’s. Thus, the problem would crop up after Paul’s death.7 Too much could be made of this, of course, but in the least one ought to recognize that the apostles were not universally recognized and respected in their lifetimes.
Show hospitality to the messengers of the truth.
The “old man” greets Gaius, a man who has grown in the faith through the apostle’s ministry. He wishes him good health for his body just as his soul already enjoys (1-2).
The body of the letter begins as 2 John did: with a commendation and encouragement of the recipient (3-4) for his faithfulness to the truth. Specifically, Gaius is commended for showing hospitality to itinerant preachers of the gospel, even though such men were strangers to him (5-7). The necessity of Gaius’ action is seen in these preachers’ commitment not to seek aid from unbelievers (7).
Gaius’ positive response is contrasted with Diotrephes’ reaction. John is writing to Gaius to warn him about Diotrephes, for Diotrephes had apparently stopped other church members from showing hospitality to these preachers and in fact had booted them out of the church (9-10). John, in fact, had written once before to the church, but Diotrephes either did not allow the letter to get read publicly or else he repudiated John’s authority. His own pride and arrogance was the motivation for such actions (9-10).
Because of Diotrephes’ actions, John is sending Demetrius to the church by way of Gaius. In hopes that Gaius has not fallen prey to Diotrephes’ influence, John once again reminds him of what is right, expecting him to receive Demetrius and the letter he bears (12).
The apostle concludes his letter as he had 2 John, viz., with an implicit recognition of the inadequacy of letters (as opposed to a personal visit). He apologizes for the brevity of the letter, noting that what he needs to add will be said in person. The letter is concluded with a greeting from the believers with John, probably the church at Ephesus (13-14).
I. Salutation (1-2)
II. Body of the Letter (3-12)
A. Commendation of Gaius (3-8)
1. Gaius’ Faithfulness (3-4)
2. Gaius’ Hospitality (5-8)
B. Condemnation of Diotrephes (9-10)
C. Recommendation of Demetrius (11-12)
III. Final Greetings (13-14)
1 For a more general introduction, see the introductions to 1 John and 2 John (which should be posted soon!). Much of the discussion of this epistle presupposes that material and will not, therefore, be repeated in great detail.
2 Guthrie, 891.
3 One problem with this view is that John refers to Gaius as one of his children, for he connects the report of Gaius’ faithfulness (v. 3) with the commendation of his children: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children [taV ejmaV tevkna] are walking in the truth” (v. 4). It could be that John viewed all believers under his care as his children, whether or not he fathered them in the faith (John, after all, does not have to follow Paul’s terminology), or perhaps Gaius himself was indeed a convert of John (that Diotrephes is not called one of John’s children may imply that he was not converted as a result of John’s ministry).
4 Marshall suggests that part of the occasion of the letter was that Gaius had been in poor health: “John expresses his good wishes for his health, and it may be that Gaius had been ill and was unable to attend the church some miles away” (I. H. Marshall, The Epistles of John, 3). However, in light of the almost monotonous convention, found in the papyri, of wishing good health for the recipient of the letter, this seems to be reading too much into the salutation. Rather, the wish for good health suggests that author and addressee are some distance apart (hence, the present state of one’s physical well-being would not have been known).
5 See Guthrie, 893.
6 The article th'/ (ejkklhsiva/) is most naturally taken as well-known.
7 This kind of schism had already taken place at Corinth and so it is not altogether unlikely. That John did not refer to “Paul’s party,” or “Peter’s party,” would perhaps be due to the fact that Paul and Peter had died. Cf. our discussion of the occasion for 1-2 Peter for how Peter handled the problem of addressing the churches of Paul.