The Third Epistle of John

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

Read or listen the Third Epistle of John online (ESV, Bible Gateway)

A letter to Gaius

The Third Epistle of John speaks about the same issues as the Second Epistle of John, but the setting is totally different. This epistle is also about itinerants and the local church. But now it is the leadership of the local church that is in wrong hands. This time the itinerants, trying to improve the situation, are right and not wrong.

Gaius, a member of a congregation doing the right thing 3 John 1-4

Unlike the Second Epistle of John, the third epistle is not addressed to a local church. The recipient of the letter is ‘Gaius’ to whom the ‘elder’ is writing. The elder does not have to introduce himself in this epistle, nor in the second epistle. He is a known figure in his own neighbourhood, and his authority should be indisputable.

Gaius is a Roman first name. There was a very limited amount of these names, and most of them were quite common. For this reason, it is no use trying to find some connection to the Gaius of Corinth, whose whole name was probably Gaius Titius Justus. Wherever there were Roman citizens, there were plenty of Gaiuses. Therefore, we cannot say anything else about this man than what we read in this letter. And there is a fair amount of information there, like we will see. The elder loves this man who, in a difficult church situation, has stood fast in the ‘truth’, i.e. on the right side of the dividing line.

Right teachers on the move 3 John 5-8

The few words of the elder provide invaluable historical information about the early churches. There was a group of itinerant teachers who had the elder’s strong support. Apparently, Gaius would welcome these itinerants, take care of them, and send them along. This is what the elder had learned, and he was extremely pleased with it. It was not their own agendas that the itinerants were pursuing, nor had they asked anything for themselves from anybody. They are travelling for the sake of the ‘Name’, the name of Christ (the word ‘Christ’ was added by the translator) and do not take their living from the Gentiles. Thus, they are doing the same as Paul did who, as 1 Corinthians 9 says, did not want to live off other people in his work of the gospel.

Diotrephes and Demetrius 3 John 10-11

The elder now brings up the actual reason for writing the letter. The problem is a man called Diotrephes, who literally is said to be ‘pleased to lead the church’. Yet this is not a man who is only just striving to be a leader in the church, but someone who already is in that position and who is exercising strong authority. The elder has written to the church a letter of recommendation concerning the itinerants known to him, but Diotrephes has completely ignored it. He has openly disputed the authority of the elder and turned down the itinerants. In addition, he has expelled from the church those who have taken them in. So, he has done exactly like 2 John instructs but applied the instruction to wrong people. That is why there will come a day when the elder will return to the church and the issue will be brought up publicly.

We can also quite easily outline the role of Demetrius. He is just the kind of itinerant teacher whom Diotrephes has either already turned down or who will be at risk of being turned down. Yet Demetrius is doing the very right thing and he has a good testimony not only from other Christians but also from the elder – and as is said rather mysteriously, from the Truth itself. It remains unclear how the Lord has given this testimony of his.

Final greetings 3 John 13-15

The final greetings resemble in part the ending of the Second Epistle of John. Here, too, the instructions written are very brief and clear, but soon it will be possible for them to talk face to face and at leisure. Until then, the instructions now given will be enough. In the difficult situation, the elder asks that his friends will be greeted one by one. Even though Diotrephes would not recognize his authority, many others did, and they need to be aware of the situation. What was all this about?

For the most part, it is easy to understand what was going on, even if Gaius, Diotrephes, and Demetrius are otherwise not at all known to us. Even so, it is relatively easy to see them in their roles. Diotrephes is the shepherd of the church, Gaius is a congregant, and Demetrius is apparently an itinerant preacher who comes to Gaius with a letter of recommendation from the elder. Diotrephes will not take in itinerant teachers and openly attacks the authority of the elder. That being the case, the elder ignores Diotrephes and turns to Gaius, a member of the church, urging him to welcome the itinerants regardless of the church leader.

The main outline can be seen quite clearly, but then the questions begin. Does Diotrephes turn down the itinerants because of doctrinal reasons or is he a church shepherd who as such is on the right track but is just self-important? It is hard to believe that it would only be a question of different personalities or thirst for power. What is even harder to believe is the idea that the issue would be about two different and colliding church systems. Clearly the most likely scenario is that Diotrephes turned down the itinerant teachers because of doctrinal reasons. He did wrong in this, and therefore no one had to obey him.

We do not know how it all finally ended. Maybe Diotrephes triumphed after all and Gaius, too, was excluded from the church. However, it is as well possible that Gaius’ home could work as a base for the elder and his friends to take back the church from Diotrephes. At least somebody cared to keep the letter and copy it for future generations. Who did it, if not Gaius or the elder and his group? At least we learned that nobody must obey a church shepherd who is in the wrong.

What can we learn from it?

The Second and Third Epistles of John describe two different situations for us. In the first one, the church is on the right track, but the itinerants are on the wrong. In the second one, the church is on the wrong track and the itinerants on the right. How do we apply this to our own time and our own situation?

Our church has wanted to preserve pure doctrine by means of every shepherd committing in the ordination vow to the Lutheran creed. It is the task of the bishops to keep watch over the purity of doctrine. This is intended to protect the congregation so that those teaching heresies would not get anyone to damnation with them. Over the last decades, this has turned into mere theory in our church. Almost anyone can teach nearly anything in church. Maybe just for this reason those Epistles have a timely message for us.

Firstly, we learned that we really must not favour false teachers. This is easy to see in flagrant situations. We will not take in Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or offer our home as a base for them. It is still the bishop’s responsibility to make sure that neither are other teachers who deviate from the word of God invited to preach ats church services. We will not buy their books or subscribe to their magazines but renounce them once and for all. Heresy is not a trifling matter. It is, in Luther’s view, the very thing that renders the name of God to be mocked in our midst.

Secondly, we learned that official rank does not make anyone invincible. The shepherd and the bishop of the church have an important task to guard the apostolic doctrine. If they deviate from this, they lose their authorization. Then the bans set by them should be ignored. Right teachers who come from outside the church must be favoured even at the risk of ending up being labelled as sectarian and heretic. So, a person’s position in church is not important but commitment to the apostolic faith is. No matter what anyone might say, a vicar who is wrong is still wrong, and an ordinary congregant professing true faith is still right. And in this, there is plenty to think about for us in these confusing times.