Studies in 3 John, Part 1 (vv. 1-6)

Posted on April 29, 2012 by


The New Testament letter of 3 John is arguably the smallest document in the canon associated with the apostle’s letters (1 John, 2 John), his Gospel account (John), and the final document of the New Testament, the Revelation.

We begin here a series of studies in this brief note to Gaius, a church leader under fire for his commitment to evangelism. The major theme has been admirably summarized as follows:

The basic message of the epistle is that a congregation of the Lord’s people is to support faithful missionaries in their proclamation of the gospel, and that anyone who prevents such support and who otherwise disrupts the orderly and faithful conduct of the congregation’s work by attempting to exercise tyrannical control is a troublemaker who should be rebuked and set down.[1]

Aside from this explicit controversy, not much else is known about the key personalities involved (e.g. Gaius, Demetrius, and Diotrephes) outside of 3 John.[2]

The Greeting:

[1] The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

First, it is important to observe, “letters in the ancient world had their appropriate form, just as they do today”.[3] Though there were considerable alterations in the format, the following is a basic form of an ancient letter:

A [Sender] to B [Receiver]


Thanksgiving and wishes for good health

Body of Letter


Second, notice that a letter was sent by “the elder”; hence, 3 John is explicitly anonymous. Yet, Gaius knew who “the elder” was, and ancient testimony attributes this letter to the Apostle John. In fact, it has been suggested that John’s use of the term “the elder” is a reference to his unique situation as being both an elder and the last surviving apostle; hence, he is “‘the elder’ par excellence”.[4]

Third, what may be surmised from the context of the letter about Gaius is that he is definitely a leader in the church, and perhaps is a house-church leader. That he is loved “in truth” and “walks in truth” may either hint at doctrinal discord in his church setting, or may refer to the spiritual division on receiving the emissaries of “the elder”.[5]

But what we do know is that Gaius is regarded in high esteem for his appropriate conduct during this controversial time. Furthermore, the use of an emphatic form for “I” in Greek (ego), suggests an inference that someone, or some “ones”, did not appreciate Gaius in the same way.[6]

The Blessing:

[2] Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul. [3] For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. [4] I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

First, part of the greeting naturally flows into a blessing to fall upon the reader; much like, in modern times we find a parallel in: “How are you? I hope well.” But here we find a wonderful Christian thought, “I pray […] that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” This was a well-known conventional prayer for wellbeing, but John adapts it to stress his desire for Gaius’ health to match his well-developed spiritual fortitude.[7]

Second, John rejoices “greatly” as a result of the testimony made in behalf of Gaius’ “truth.” The term “for” makes a clear connection between verses 2 and 3,[8] transitioning from a hint to a clear example of Gaius’ spiritual fortitude. In other words, it is a fact that he is “walking in truth.”

This is clearly a heart-felt expression for the “stand for truth” which Gaius is currently making. It implies of course that some in the church context of Gaius are not “walking in truth.” This is a practice that began in the past and is extended to the time of the writing of this letter.[9]

This is quite a commentary on the quality of character evidenced in Gaius – a church leader of strength and fidelity to truth. Quite clearly, then, we see why John rejoiced so greatly.

Third, we must observe that the apostle describes Gaius as his child (Grk. to ema tekna). John calls Gaius “my child” (literally, pl. children) employing an emphatic form of the possessive case of ego, which means “I”,[10] which supposes that Gaius is not the spiritual child of another.

Edmond Hiebert observes that “my children” may be understood in two senses: (a)his specific converts; or (b) those under his spiritual care. We agree with his remarks however that, “in either view […] [John] regarded and treasured them as his own”.[11]

In Praise of Hospitality:

[5] Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, [6] who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God.

First, Gaius evidently works with Christian strangers, and some who had been blessed by their association with Gaius had reported back to John (cf. vs. 3). As will be shown below, these are missionaries that have been blessed by Gaius’ faithful efforts (cf. vv. 7-8).

As a result, recipients of his generosity have given reports of his love before John’s congregation – and perhaps beyond. The term “church” could suggest the variety of congregations, including John’s, where testimony on behalf of Gaius has been made.

Second, Gaius had established a reputation for being hospitable to missionaries (v. 6). As Everett Ferguson writes:

The traveling teachers had reported to the church what he had done. The Elder [John] assures him he has been doing the right thing (v. 5) and wants him to continue on a regular basis.[12]

As will be seen later in the letter, activity like this was the focus of censorship by Diotrephes – the “missions” killer (vs. 10). F.F. Bruce observes, “the ministry of traveling teachers […], was a well-known feature of church life in Western Asia at the end of the first and beginning of the second century”.[13]

Third, when John encourages Gaius to “send them [the missionaries] on their journey,” he employs a term of unique significance in the New Testament. The Greek term for “send them on their way” is propempsas, meaning:

[T]o assist someone [here, the itinerant preachers] in making a journey, send on one’s way with food, money, by arranging for companions, by means of travel, etc.[14]

There is no shortage of evidence to suggest that it is a technical term in the New Testament, meaning to provide missionaries with the appropriate means of support for their work and travels (cf. Acts 15.3; Rom. 15.24; 1 Cor. 16.6, 11; 2 Cor. 1.16; Tit. 3.13).

To be continued…


  1. John H. Parker, 1976, “The Living Message of Third John” pages 314-21 in The Living Messages of the Books of the New Testament edited by Garland Elkins and Thomas B. Warren (Jonesboro, Ark.: National Christian), 315.
  2. Luke T. Johnson, 1999, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, Revised ed., revised by Todd C. Penner (Minneapolis: Fortress), 562.
  3. Roy B. Ward, 1967, “How to Study the New Testament” pages 161-82 in The World of the New Testament edited by Abraham J. Malherbe (Repr. Abilene, Tex.: Abilene Christian University Press, 1984), 170.
  4. John R.W. Stott, 1988, The Letters of John, TNTC edited by C. Leon Morris (Repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002), 44.
  5. Johnson, 1999, The Writings of the New Testament, 362-63
  6. J. Gresham Machen, 1923, New Testament Greek for Beginners (Repr. Unicoi, Tenn.: Trinity Foundation, 2000), 48-49.
  7. Frederick F. Bruce, 1979, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans), 147.
  8. D. Edmond Hiebert, 1987, “Studies in 3 John Part 1: An Exposition of 3 John 1-4.” Bibliotheca Sacra 144: 62.
  9. Daniel B. Wallace, 2000, The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan), 222-23.
  10. Machen, 1923, New Testament Greek, 46.
  11. Hiebert, 1987, “Studies in 3 John Part 1”, 65; italics added.
  12. Everett Ferguson, 1984, The Letters of John, The Way of Life Series edited by J. D. Thomas (Abilene, Tex.: Biblical Research), 99.
  13. Bruce, 1979, The Letters of John, 149.
  14. Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2000, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d edition (Chicago, Ill.: U of Chicago Press), 873.