The Second and Third Epistles of John
[James Burnham, author of Suicide of the West, once wrote: "As a rule it is not the several values to which a man adheres that reveal most about his character and conduct, but rather the order of priority in which the values are arranged" (159). Christians are often faced with a tension between commitment to the truth and commitment to love. It sometimes seems as if we cannot pursue one without sacrificing the other. Is that true? If so, which has priority?]
A. Opening Salutation - vv. 1-3
1. the writer: "the Elder" - v. 1a
An affectionate, but respectful nickname for John the Apostle
2. the recipients: "the elect lady and her children" - vv. 1b-2
Who or what is the "elect lady"? There are several options, the most commonly noted are as follows:
a "lady" (kuria) whose name was "Electa"
an "elect" lady whose name was "Kyria"
an anonymous elect lady (hence this is simply a courteous address)
perhaps this was Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Martha
"elect lady and her children" is simply a metaphorical way of saying "the church and its members" (cf. v. 13; see also 2 Cor. 11:2 and Eph. 5:22-32 where the church is portrayed as a “bride” betrothed to Christ; note also how Peter refers to the church in 1 Peter 5:13 – “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son”).
This last option appears to be the most probable one.
a. they are loved in truth by John
To say John loves them "in truth" may mean:
(1) sincerely, really, genuinely (as over against a counterfeit love such as seen in the false teachers whose love is feigned); or,
(2) in a way that is consistent with and demanded by the revelation of God in Christ; i.e., it is a love that never violates any aspect of revealed truth.
The latter seems more likely. As Burge says, "for him [John], the truth is not mere sincerity, but a reality belonging to God (1 John 2:4)" (232).
b. they are loved by all who know the truth
If one really knows the truth he/she will be drawn to and united in love with all others who do so.
c. the truth is the reason they are loved
I.e., it is "for the sake of the truth" that they are loved, or "on account of the truth." Why did John and other Christians love these people? It isn't because they were loveable or because of some unique compatibility between them or shared goals among them or common programs to which they were all committed. They loved each other because they shared a common experience of and commitment to and love for the truth of Jesus and the gospel of his death and resurrection. Says Stott:
"So long as the truth endures, in us and with us, so long shall our reciprocal love also endure. If this is so, and Christian love is founded upon Christian truth, we shall never increase the love which exists between us by diminishing the truth which we hold in common" (203).
1) this truth is an abiding, present power in us
2) this truth will be with us in the future as well
Here we see why John makes the "truth" so crucial in their relationship. It is because it not only lives ("abides") in them (i.e., as an inner, dynamic power), it is eternal, it "will be with us forever." Truth is not temporary. What we know and believe to be true today we will always know and believe, even into eternity. Christians love one another not simply because the truth commands us to do so, but because the truth in us impels us to do so.
3. the greeting - v. 3
a. the substance - v. 3a
Note: "will be"! Not a wish ("may it be") but a promise.
b. the source - v. 3b
c. the spirit - v. 3c
B. The Message - vv. 4-11
1. pursuing love - vv. 4-6
a. he rejoices that they walk in truth - v. 4
By "walk" he is referring to a habitual, heart-felt, commitment to the truth. The word "some" should not be taken as a reference to only a minority who so walk, as if to suggest that the majority do not. Rather, John is referring to visitors from among their number whom he has personally met and now sends back bearing this letter. John no doubt assumed that if these were walking in truth, so too would the majority. This is what brought such joy to his heart. See 3 John 3. Indeed, if the majority had been walking in error rather than the truth, surely this would be reflected in the letter through some form of correction or rebuke.
b. he requests that they live in love - vv. 5-6
1) the need for love - v. 5
2) the nature of love - v. 6
The "commandment" (singular) is to love. To love is to keep the "commandments" (plural). See 1 John 2:3-6; John 14:15.
[Note the relation between vv. 4-6 and vv. 7-11. Observe the connecting word "for" in v. 7a. In some sense, Christian love is a preventative to the destructive effects of heresy. Inner unity and brotherly affection present an immovable front against all heretical assaults.]
2. protecting truth - vv. 7-11
a. the error - v. 7
The occasion for this instruction: missionaries of deceit and the subject of hospitality. The NT generally encourages hospitality (Rom. 12:13; Hebrews 13:2). Is John contradicting that teaching? If not, why not?
1) what does he say about the deceivers?
First, there are many of them
Second, they have gone out (cf. 1 John 2:19)
Third, they are forerunners of antichrist and embody his spirit of deception (1 Jn. 2:18,22; 4:3)
2) what does he say about their deception?
See 1 John 2:18,22; 4:1-6 (denial of the Incarnation). Note a slight variation from what he earlier said in 1 John about this heresy. "Rather than use a perfect tense (as in 1 John 4:2), John now says that orthodox confession affirms 'Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh' (v. 7). Why the present tense? This is likely not a reference to the Second Coming; rather, it is John's way of saying that Jesus Christ came and still exists in the flesh. In other words, through his incarnation Jesus swept up our humanity and carried it with him eternally. . . . John demands a 'confession' that embraces the ongoing reality of the Incarnation even in the present" (234).
b. the exhortation - vv. 8-11
1) be watchful for yourselves - vv. 8-9
He exhorts them (all three verbs are plural) to watch lest they lose their reward. It is the reward for their Christian labors (cf. 1 Cor. 3: 2 Cor. 5), not their salvation, that they stand to lose if they entertain these heretics.
A few Greek manuscripts read “what we have accomplished” instead of “what you have accomplished.” If we were to adopt this reading, John would be telling his readers to take care lest they lose something the Elder and his associates had worked to provide them. What might that be?
John here borrows from the heretics' language when he speaks of "going too far." They claimed to have advanced or superior knowledge, to which John here sarcastically alludes. Indeed, they had "gone ahead" so far that they have left God behind! The point is this: people who reject Christ do not have God. One can know and have God only through the revelation of himself in Jesus.
Many today want God without Christ. They claim belief in "God" but refuse to bow in obedience to the Lordship of Jesus. This is seen in the attempt to make all world religions equally legitimate avenues to God. On this point the Christian must be conservative, not progressive. Progress and development per se are not condemned; but only such "progress" that does not permit the individual to "abide" in the teaching of Scripture concerning the Son. The Christian faith is rooted and grounded in the incarnation of Jesus. To advance beyond Jesus, denying his incarnation and redemptive work, is not progress but regress.
2) don't welcome the deceivers - vv. 10-11
a) dedicated missionaries of error
John has in mind not simply those who embrace error; i.e., not merely false believers; not merely a casual visitor or acquaintance, but a professional purveyor of falsehood who "comes to you."
b) official welcome by the church
The "you" to whom these heretics come is plural. "John is not referring here to a personal visit of one person with another. Rather, this is an audience with the gathered church" (236). The "house" in this text is most likely a reference to the place where the local church gathered (cf. Col. 4:15; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Philemon 2). Thus "it is not private hospitality which John is forbidding so much as an official welcome into the congregation, with the opportunity this would afford to the false teacher to propagate his errors" (Stott, 214).
The reason why John warns against giving a "greeting" is that such a farewell salutation ("God be with you . . . May the Lord bless you . . . etc.") might be interpreted by others as your approval of and agreement with their heresy. The heretic himself may well take it as an encouragement or endorsement of his beliefs. As Kruse says, “Christian greetings generally carried a recognition of the Christian standing of those being greeted – a standing the elder believed the secessionist did not have any longer” (214).
First, does this passage have any application to how we receive and respond to "cultists" who come knocking at our door?
Second, does John's warning and instruction seem harsh and inflexible? Is there a conflict between his exhortation to "love" in vv. 1-6 and his denunciation of the false teachers in vv. 7-11? Says Stott:
"If John's instruction still seems harsh, it is perhaps because his concern for the glory of the Son and the good of men's souls is greater than ours, and because 'the tolerance on which we pride ourselves' is in reality an indifference to truth" (214).
C. Concluding Salutation - vv. 12-13
A. Opening Salutation - v. 1
1. author - v. 1a
2. addressee - v. 1b
Gaius: of Corinth (Rom. 16)? of Macedonia (Acts 19)? of Derbe (Acts 20)?
B. Gaius - vv. 2-8
1. John's concern for him - vv. 2-4
a. for his welfare - v. 2
Hugh Jeter argues on the basis of this verse that "God wants His children to be physically healthy. He wants us to 'prosper and be in health' (3 John 2), as long as our souls also prosper." There is certainly an element of truth in that statement, but it is doubtful if one can prove it from this text.
What we have in this text is a standard form of greeting found in most letters of the ancient world. Gordon Fee reminds us that "just as there is a standard form to our letters (date, salutation, body, close, and signature), so there was for theirs [i.e., the ancients]. Thousands of ancient letters have been found, and most of them have a form exactly like those in the New Testament." One of the standard elements in such letters is the health-wish, such as we find in 3 John 2. To argue that this typical salutation should be used to establish a theology of healing is highly suspect.
This does not mean, of course, that praying and hoping for the good health and financial prosperity of our fellow believers is wrong. We do not know if Gaius was suffering from bad health. This was a standard greeting and would be perfectly legitimate in a letter to somebody with good health, that he/she may continue to enjoy it. If Gaius was ill, we would have another case in which a believer who is prospering spiritually was at the same time suffering physically. For John's prayer is that Gaius would prosper physically "just as" his soul is prospering. Gaius was undoubtedly a godly man, as vv. 3-8 make clear. John's desire for his friend is that his body would make as much progress as his soul. And that should be our prayer for our brethren as well.
b. for his walk - vv. 3-4
2. John's commendation of him - vv. 5-8
According to Kruse,
“when one reads 3 John alongside 2 John, it becomes apparent that two groups of missionaries were moving around among the churches. There were those who were spreading heretical teaching, about whom the elder warns his readers lest they aid and abet their ‘wicked work’ by providing hospitality for them (2 John 7-11). There were also those who had gone out ‘for the sake of the Name’ and who deserved to be given hospitality (3 John 5-8)” (222).
In vv. 3-4 he commends him in general. Now, in vv. 5-8 he singles out one virtue in particular: hospitality.
a. he commends him for his faithfulness - v. 5
Gaius' generosity was evidently proof of his fidelity to the truth of the gospel. Note: not just hospitable for the "brethren" (whom he knew) but also for those who were "strangers" (whom he did not know).
b. he commends him for his love - v. 6a
c. he requests that he continue to practice hospitality - vv. 6b-8
1) the request - v. 6b
To "send them on their way" was actually a technical term for supporting someone financially (see Acts 15:3; 20:38; 21:5; Rom. 15:24; 1 Cor. 16:6,11; 2 Cor. 1:16; Titus 3:13). But what does it mean to send them on their way "in a manner worthy of God"?
(1) the way God himself should be treated?
(2) the way God has treated us?
(3) the kind of treatment that will bring praise to God?
(4) in a manner that God himself would approve? If the latter, then God is watching Gaius and us! How we treat missionaries and evangelists in need is under divine scrutiny!
2) the reason - vv. 7-8
a) because they preach Christ - v. 7a
It was not for themselves, either for personal fortune or fame, but on behalf of Jesus that they went out
b) because they have no other means of support - v. 7b
What does this say, if anything, about soliciting support for Christian ministry from non-believers? Says Stott:
"The phrase 'taking nothing' need not be pressed into meaning that these Christian missionaries would refuse to accept gifts voluntarily offered to them by the unconverted. There is no prohibition here of taking money from non-Christians who may be well disposed to the Christian cause. . . . What is here said is that these itinerant evangelists would not (as a matter of policy) seek their support from the heathen and did not (as a matter of fact) receive their support from them" (222).
c) because we thereby become fellow-workers with them - v. 8
What are the practical implications of the "ought" in v. 8? Is this a universally binding moral obligation in the church?
C. Diotrephes - vv. 9-10
1. his hostility - v. 9a and c
Literally, he does not accept "us", by which John no doubt means he does not accept "what we wrote in the letter." It is doubtful that the "letter" was either 1 or 2 John. What happened to this "letter"? Might Diotrephes have destroyed it?
2. his motive - v. 9b
There is no indication that Diotrephes was a theological heretic. His problem wasn't doctrine, it was ego and personal ambition. As Marshall notes, "Diotrephes is a standing warning against the danger of confusing personal ambition with zeal for the cause of the gospel" (90).
3. his deeds - v. 10
a. he slanders the apostle
b. he refuses to show hospitality
c. he forbids others to be hospitable
d. he expels from the church those who try
D. Exhortation - v. 11
1. do not imitate what is evil (as seen in Diotrephes) - v. 11a
2. do imitate what is good (as seen in Demetrius) - v. 11b
E. Demetrius - v. 12
He was probably the bearer of 3 John to these people.
1. he has received a good testimony from everyone - v. 12a
2. he has received a good testimony from (lit., "by") the truth - v. 12b
"Does this reference to 'the truth' mean Jesus, the truth (cf. John 14:6)? Or does it mean that Demetrius's discipleship is in such harmony with the truth that his reputation is well known? We cannot know for sure" (Burge, 246).
3. he has received a good testimony from John and his associates - v. 12c
F. Concluding Comments - vv. 13-14