3 John 1 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

3 John 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The Epistles of St. John.



Archdeacon of London.









I. Who wrote them?—It is difficult to imagine why any should suppose these two Epistles to be by different hands. Was this author the Apostle?

(1) External Evidence.—This is not nearly so strong as for the First. It is natural that it should be so, for the two Epistles seem to have been regarded as of far less general interest; and, therefore, there was less obvious propriety in placing them in a collection of important Apostolical literature, and little reason why they should be quoted at all. The main argument for them is, indeed, their unaffected, inartificial kinship to the First. The oldest authority for the Second is the Muratorian Canon, composed before A.D. 170. Origen speaks of St. John’s Epistles in the plural, and his disciple, Dionysius, cites the Third by name. The Muratorian Canon speaks of two Epistles of John, apparently distinct from the First. The Muratorian writer explains the principle of his arrangement of the Canon distinctly: saying that the Epistles of Paul to Philemon and Timothy, although addressed only to individuals, were placed in the Canon on account of their character. And even if the two Epistles of John mentioned were the First and Second, the fact that the Epistle to Philemon has precedence of those to Timothy (and Titus), probably because it is addressed also to Apphia and Archippus and the church in Philemon’s house, makes it very easy to understand that the Second Epistle of John (early supposed to be addressed to a church under the symbolic form of a lady) would be received into a canon, while the Third, addressed to an unknown individual, and dealing with special circumstances, might not be considered sufficiently general for such a position. In early days there must have been many fugitive writings of the Apostles; and the discretion of the churches in selecting from them for an authorised collection would be guided probably more by usage than by deliberate valuation. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 190-220), says, “The Second Epistle of John, written to the Virgins, is of the simplest character; it is written to a certain Babylonian, called Electa, but that means the election of the holy Church” (Opera, p. 1011, ed. Potter). Origen, in addition to what has been quoted from him above, is alleged by Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. vi. 25) to have said, “Not all consider these Epistles to be genuine,” without endorsing the doubt himself. Dionysius of Alexandria, pupil and successor of Origen, makes use of the Second and Third Epistle to illustrate St. John’s diction; he says that they were generally received as St. John’s by tradition. Irenæus, disciple of Polycarp and of Papias, (he died A.D. 202) quotes 2 John 1:7, by a mistake of memory, as belonging to the First Epistle; the words of 2 John 1:11, he cites as by John the disciple of the Lord. Ephrem the Syrian knew both Epistles, but it is easy to understand why two small fragments of such a private character were not translated in early days, and therefore did not appear in the Peschito version; for that contains only three general Epistles (James, 1 Peter, 1 John). Cyprian shows that the Second Epistle was received as Apostolical and Canonical in the North African Church, by the fact that he mentions a quotation of the tenth verse by Aurelius, Bishop of Chullabis. Eusebius by speaking of St. John’s Epistles in the plural number (Demonstratio Evangelica, iii. 5) shows that he himself recognised some other Epistles as well as the First; but, as from their shortness and small range there had been very slight occasion to quote them, he put them among the highest class of those writings which were not placed by absolutely universal consent in the authoritative Canon, and were therefore called Antilegomena. Jerome gives the “opinion of several writers,” not as his own, that they were by the traditional John the Presbyter; a view rejected by Oecumenius and Bede. In the Middle Ages they were received without question as the Apostle’s; then Erasmus took up the opinion mentioned by Jerome, and was followed by Grotius. Most modern commentators recognise them as Apostolic. The Tübingen writers are, of course, obliged to consider them as later, referring them to Montanistic, or at any rate, sub-apostolic times.

(2) Internal Evidence.—The term “elder”: The fact that St. John does not give his name is in favour of authenticity. As in the Gospel and the First Epistle, he prefers to retain a dignified incognito, intelligible to all whom it concerned. Even if the messengers did not know whose letters they were carrying, even if the correspondents did not know the handwriting, they would be perfectly aware from the style and matter, and the promise of a visit. It is doubtful whether by “elder” he meant “aged,” or an official position. In classical Greek these words would have a different form, but St. John’s Greek is that of a man who had become accustomed to a provincial form of the language late in life, and quite admits of slight irregularities. If he means an office, there is nothing to show that all the Apostles always used the apostolic title. St. Peter called himself “fellow-presbyter” (1 Peter 5:1), and Eusebius called the Apostles Presbyters (Eccl. Hist. iii. 39). The Apostles and “Overseers” were, in fact, only a specially responsible and important branch of the Presbyterate. As the last remaining Apostle, St. John might prefer not to insist on a designation now unique; or, as the name “elder” was originally adopted with reference to mature age, he may have used it as a hint of his own advanced years; or the dangers of the times may have made it advisable for him, for his messenger, and for his correspondents, to drop the higher title.

The only authority for the existence of another John at Ephesus, at the same time as the Apostle, called “the elder,” and “the disciple of the Lord,” is Papias, quoted by Eusebius. Is it not possible, that, as Eusebius says that he was “very small in mind,” there may be some confusion in some of these details? May not even the confusion itself have arisen from these anonymous Epistles being misunderstood by the unintelligent? But, even admitting the existence of such a second John, it is too much to ask us to believe that he resembled the Apostle not only in name and history, but also in style, character, and thought. And where it was extremely reasonable that the Apostle should leave out his name, it becomes most improbable that this alternative John should have left it out.

The Second and Third Epistles are full of peculiar forms, common also to the First. Notice 2 John 1:1, “knowing the truth”; 2 John 1:2, “abide in”; 2 John 1:3, “in truth and love”; 2 John 1:4, “walking in”; 2 John 1:5, “the commandment which we had from the beginning” (1 John 2:7); 2 John 1:6, “this is love, that”; “as ye heard from the beginning” (1 John 3:11; 1 John 3:23); 2 John 1:7, “deceivers are gone forth” (1 John 2:18); “confessing not Jesus Christ coming in the flesh” (1 John 4:1-2); “the antichrist”; 2 John 1:9, “abideth not in the doctrine, hath not God” (1 John 2:23); “hath the Son and the Father”; 2 John 1:12, “that our joy may be full” (1 John 1:4); 3 John 1:1, “in truth”; 3 John 1:3-4, “walkest in truth”; 3 John 1:11, “is of God, hath not seen God” (1 John 3:6; 1 John 3:10; 1 John 4:8). There are five or six expressions in the two Epistles which do not occur elsewhere in St. John’s writings, but it would be in the highest degree absurd to confine any writer exclusively to the language used in a former production. Additional reason for variety here would be found in the simple colloquial character of the writings.

Accordingly, while there is every reason to hold that the Second and Third Epistles are by the author of the First, and the First by the Author of the Gospel, it is difficult to find any valid reason to the contrary.

II. Date.—In the absence of all evidence to the contrary it seems probable that the circumstances and time were not very dissimilar in all three Epistles.

III. Character and Scope.—In the Second, the Apostle, who is probably staying at the same place as some of his correspondent’s children, writes to a mother and her other children to express his sympathy and delight at the faith of the family, and to warn them against admitting false teachers to their circle. It contains noticeable definitions of love, antichrist, and of true and false believers. It also has a general lesson on the treatment of wilful depravers of divine truth.

In the Third, he recounts how some missionaries had been badly received by Diotrephes, who had ambitiously obtained for himself the chief influence in a certain church, but notwithstanding Gaius had been courageous and kind enough to entertain them hospitably. Gaius is exhorted to help them still further. The Letter gives us an idea of the high importance of hospitality at the time as a Christian virtue; and brings out the fact that St. John’s authority was no less disputed in certain cases than St. Paul’s. It is probable that the church of Diotrephes had not been founded by St. John; that St. John had special claim to be obeyed; and that ecclesiastical influence seems to have by this time become vested in a single head.

IV. Where were they written?—Probably at Ephesus, before a tour of inspection. Had they been written in Patmos, some notice of the captivity might be expected.

V. Literature.—To the authorities mentioned in the First Epistle, add the Articles in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, and a paper by Professor Salmon on the Third Epistle in the Christian Observer, April, 1877. I should mention again my obligations to Dr. Karl Braune.

The elder unto the wellbeloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.
(1) The elder.—See the Introduction, and 2 John 1:1.

Gaius.—The common Roman name Caius. A Caius is mentioned in Acts 19:29; Acts 20:4; Romans 16:23; 1 Corinthians 1:14. The difference in date between these and St. John’s correspondent would alone be sufficient reason against any attempt at identification. There is nothing to show whether he was a presbyter or not.

Whom I love in the truth.—Or, in truth. (See 2 John 1:1.)

Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.
(2 a.) (2) Beloved.—St. John’s affection is founded on the high merits of Caius as a Christian.

Above all things.—This may mean “in all things.”

Be in health.—An ascetic would be surprised that one of the greatest of the Apostles should be so earnest on such a point. But the better a man’s health, the more thoroughly he can do the work of God. Sickness may be allowed to chasten the erring or rebellious heart, but a Christian whose faith is firm and character established, can ill afford to despise the inestimable blessing of a sound body. Functional and organic disorder or enervation proportionately lessen the capacity for thought, resolution, and activity.

Even as thy soul prospereth.—The word “prospereth” is literally makes good way, and so links on to the idea of walking, in 3 John 1:3-4. The health of the soul came first in the Apostle’s mind: when there is that, he can wish for bodily health to support it.

(2 b.) (3) I rejoiced greatly.—Compare 2 John 1:4. “For” introduces the reason of the high praise in 3 John 1:2.

The truth that is in thee.—The inward presence of Christ, manifested by the Christian life and consistency of Caius.

Even as thou walkest in the truth.—This is an additional evidence from the brethren to show that the presence of the truth in Caius had been practically tested.

Thou is emphatic in the Greek, showing that there were others, like Diotrephes, of whom this could not be said.

(4) I have no greater joy.—This is a general statement arising out of the particular instance. The comparative is double—a comparative formed on a comparative; it may be only irregular, an evidence that the writer was not a classical Greek scholar, or it may be for intensity. There is a similar comparative in Ephesians 3:8, where the force is evidently intensive.

My children means the members of the churches specially under the care of St. John.

(5) Thou doest faithfullyi.e., worthily of a faithful man, consistently with the Christian character. It may be translated, “Thou doest a faithful work in whatsoever. . . .”

Whatsoever thou doest.—Done from right motives, as unto Christ. Whatever form (it is hinted that the form would be various) the activity of Caius might take, so high was the Apostle’s opinion of his character, that he was sure it would be done wisely and well.

And to strangers.—According to another reading it is, “And that, strangers,” as in 1 Corinthians 6:6, Ephesians 2:8, Philippians 1:28. Either way, the strangers would be Christians; but, according to the reading in the text, the brethren would be more or less acquaintances of their host. The duty of entertaining Christians on their travels was of peculiar importance in early times, (1) from the length of time which travelling required, (2) from the poverty of the Christians, (3) from the kind of society they would meet at public inns. The duty is enforced in Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9.

(6) Charity might be translated “love.”

Before the church.—That where the Apostle then was, and from which they had probably been sent forth as missionaries, or, at any rate, with some definite religious object.

Whom if thou bring forward.—Perhaps while they were still staying with Caius, the emissaries sent back a report to the church whence they came. St. John seems to imply that there was still something which Caius could do for them. “If thou bring forward” is in the Greek in the past; “when thou hast sent them on, it will be a good work.”

After a godly sort.—Rather, worthily of God. (Comp. Titus 3:13, 1 Corinthians 16:11.) It would imply journey money, provisions, love, care, encouragement, prayer, a humble and reasonable imitation of God’s providence to Caius, proportional to his means, the occasion, and the recipients.

(7) Because that for his name’s sake they went forth.—Their object was the highest possible—the glory of God’s name. Hence there must have been some kind of missionary character in their journey. (Comp. Acts 5:41; Acts 15:40; Romans 1:6; James 2:7.)

Of the Gentiles.—Probably the heathens among whom they were preaching. From settled churches, or wealthy Christians of long standing, there would be nothing inimical to the interests of the message in receiving material support. Among those who were hearing for the first time, it would be highly prejudicial if there were any appearance of selling the truth. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 9:18; 2 Corinthians 11:7; 2 Corinthians 12:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:9.)

(2 c.) (8) We therefore.—In contrast to the heathens.

To receive.—In the original there is a play with the word “receiving” in 3 John 1:8. (Comp. Matthew 10:40.)

That we might be fellowhelpers to the truth.—Fellow-helpers with them. The principle of co-operation was one of the earliest and leading ideas of the kingdom of Christ. Those who try to work alone lose the mighty force of sympathy, are sure to make mistakes, cannot help arousing opposition, and run the risk of nursing in their own souls an unsuspected spirit of self-will, self-confidence, and spiritual pride. Those who do not care to help the good works of others are at best cold Christians, feeble believers; they fail in the great critical testing virtue of Christian love; they limit the operation of God, who has chosen to work by human means; they hinder the spread of the gospel, and delay the second coming of Christ. (Comp. 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 1:27; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 3:2.) (2 d.)

(9) I wrote unto the church.—“I wrote somewhat unto the Church.” This may either have been a copy of his Gospel or his First Epistle, or a lost letter of no special importance. The Church was that of the place where Caius and Diotrephes lived. Nothing whatever can be said of Diotrephes, except that his personal ambition led him into the grievous sin of rejecting the authority of the bosom friend of the Saviour; that he talked malignantly against St. John and his friends; that he refused to entertain the emissaries of the Church in which St. John was residing; and that he actually went so far as to eject from the local congregation those who were willing to entertain them. We may conjecture that, on account of the loyalty of Caius to St. John, there was so little intercourse between him and Diotrephes, that he would not even hear that St. John had written; that the greater part of the people of the place adhered for the present to Diotrephes, so that in addressing Caius St. John calls them “the church,” and “them;” and, from 3 John 1:11, that even now St. John did not think it superfluous to urge Caius not to follow the example of Diotrephes or submit to his influence.

Loveth to have the preeminence.—Makes it his evil aim to have the whole influence of the community in his own hands.

(10) If I come.—Comp. 1 John 2:28. St. John was evidently expecting in both Letters to set out on the same journey.

Prating.—Idle slander; the moths that are always attracted to “the fierce light that beats about a throne.” The intense spiritual affectionateness of the Apostle of love might be easily misunderstood by an unconverted pretender; but it is needless to imagine the groundless babble of a tyrannical upstart.

Casteth them out.—Not necessarily formal excommunication; but Diotrephes had so far succeeded in his object that he was able to exclude these better disposed persons from the Christian society of the place.

(2 e.) (11) Follow not that which is evil.—One of those simple exhortations so characteristic of St. John, which derive an intense meaning from the circumstances and the context. There was probably every reason why Caius should follow Diotrephes: peace, good-fellowship, the dislike of singularity, popular example, and the indolent indifference which ordinary men feel for truth and right. But the difference between right and wrong is eternal and irreconcilable. The conduct of Diotrephes was of the devil; and mighty moral consequences might follow if Caius gave way from good-natured pliability. (Comp. John 5:29; John 18:23; Ephesians 5:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:7; 2 Thessalonians 3:9; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 3:10-11; 1 John 3:12.)

(2 f.) He that doeth good is of God.—Comp. 1 John 3:10. “Doeth good” includes all practical virtue. (Comp. 1 Peter 2:14-15; 1 Peter 2:20; 1 Peter 3:6; 1 Peter 3:17.)

He that doeth evil hath not seen God.—Comp. 1 John 2:3; 1 John 3:6; 1 John 3:10; 1 John 4:2-4; 1 John 4:6; 1 John 4:8; 1 John 5:19.

(2 g.) (12) Demetrius may very likely be the bearer of the Epistle.

Good report.—Rather, the witness.

Of all men.—All Christians who knew him.

Of the truth itself.—Christ dwelling in him manifested His presence as the Way, the Truth, and the Life in new virtues for every circumstance that arose in the career of Demetrius. His walk, agreeing with the revealed truth of God, showed that God was with him. (Comp. Acts 4:13.)

And we also.—St. John adds his own independent testimony as a third, in the most emphatic manner possible.

And ye know that our record is true.—There is no arrogance or egotism in this: it is solely the appeal to the loyal fidelity of Caius—to the simplicity of Christ’s gospel as set forth by John in accordance with the other Apostles. The personal experience of believers would convince them of the truth of the last of the Apostles. (Comp. John 19:25; John 21:24.)

For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth.
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.
Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers;
Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well:
Because that for his name's sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles.
We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellowhelpers to the truth.
I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not.
Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.
Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God.
Demetrius hath good report of all men, and of the truth itself: yea, and we also bear record; and ye know that our record is true.
I had many things to write, but I will not with ink and pen write unto thee:
(3) (13) I had many things to write.—Rather, There were many things which I wished to write.

But I will not.—Comp. 2 John 1:12.

(14) Peace be to thee.—The best wish which the Apostle can form, instead of the usual Greek ending, “Be strong,” or “Farewell!” It was our Lord’s resurrection greeting; the internal peace of a good conscience, the external peace of universal friendship, the heavenly peace of future glory begun even in this life. (Comp. John 20:19; John 20:26; Rom. 5:33; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 6:23; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; 1 Peter 5:14.)

Our friends salute thee.—Rather, The friends. By this appellation, uncommon in the New Testament, St. John recalls our Lord’s words in John 15:13-15.

Greet the friends by name.—Each friend was to receive a personal message from the Apostle, and Caius would know who they were as well as if St. John wrote them down. In a short private Letter it would be unsuitable to have a long list of special messages as in a Pauline Epistle, especially as the Apostle hoped shortly to see them. John perhaps thinks of his Master’s ideal in John 10:3.

But I trust I shall shortly see thee, and we shall speak face to face. Peace be to thee. Our friends salute thee. Greet the friends by name.
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