3 John

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3 John has the feel of a much more personal letter than 2 John. It is written by someone simply called 'the elder' (whom we assume to be John the Elder) to his friend Gaius. In the letter, John begs for Gaius’ help in tackling Diotrephes, who was refusing to acknowledge John’s authority.

Reading time: Two minutes
Short of time? Read it all; it’s only 15 verses long
Epistle

I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (3 John 1.4)

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. (3 John 1.11)

Not so much tricky for us as for John. The question of authority in the early Church was a difficult one. In the days before the New Testament was written and accepted as authoritative, and before there were any creeds, how would you know whom to trust and whom not to trust? You can feel this issue lurking behind 3 John.

3 John states that it is a letter from ‘the elder’. We assume that this is John the Elder as in 2 John, but who he was is not very clear. In the first century, as now, the name John was very common.

Debates about the authorship of the Johannine material (i.e. John’s Gospel, 1, 2 and 3 John and Revelation) are extensive and marked by a lack of agreement

  • Some, though not many, think the same author wrote all 5 books
  • Others think that one author wrote the Gospel and Epistles but another wrote Revelation
  • Still others think that one author wrote the Gospel and 1 John, another wrote 2 and 3 John and yet another wrote Revelation

Read all five books together and see what you think!

What do we know about him?

John the apostle. If he is the author, he was the brother of James, called by Jesus to follow him early in his ministry. He is often thought to be the 'beloved disciple' of John’s Gospel; if he was, then Jesus handed over care for his mother to him on the cross. Christian tradition states that he took her to live in Ephesus, where he lived to a ripe old age (around 100).

John the elder. In other words a different John who was an elder and prophet in the early Church but not John the apostle. If it is this John we know very little about him other than this.

Given the uncertainty about dating it is hard to know when 2 John might have been written. Most scholars would argue that it dates from the late first century AD, probably in the AD 90s.

What were people feeling?

Behind this letter lies the question of authority. John was frustrated that Diotrephes refused to accept his authority; the challenge of the early Church was how to know whom to trust and whom not to trust.

An epistle. 3 John is a personal letter in every way. ‘The elder’ felt bruised by Diotrephes' refusal to accept his authority. 

1 Opening
2–8 Reflections on walking in the truth and on hospitality
9–12 The problem posed by Diotrephes
13–15 John’s travel plans     

Names you might want to check: 

The names of people and peoples

Demetrius, Gaius, John of Patmos, John the elder

As in 2 John, the theme of truth and living in the truth is important in 3 John. Look out for the theme and ask yourself what it means to John.

Hospitality is another key theme – keep an eye open for it.

Think about why Diotrephes might have have refused to accept John's authority and what the issues between them might have been. Have you experienced or observed similar conflicts in churches? 

From what John says about hospitality, is there anything for us to learn about how we should offer hospitality today?

  • Were there any parts of the book that you particularly liked or that inspired you?
  • Were there any parts of the book that you disliked or that troubled you?
  • What did you think the book was about?
  • Imagine you are a member of Gaius’ congregation and you see John and Diotrephes in conflict about who has authority in the community. How would you go about deciding whom to trust?
  • Hospitality was a crucial theme for the early Christians. How good are we at hospitality today, and what might we need to do to become better at it?
  • ‘Do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good’ (3 John 1.11). Talk about this – what do you think it might mean in practice?
  • Did you read anything in the book that touched you, expanded your faith or made you think more deeply about your life and how you live it?

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