(We continue our study in 3 John)
Interference of Sin:
 I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.  So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.
First, though some students find that John regards his previous letter (not 2 John) of little importance, we find the reasoning upon which this perception is based to be quite weak. It is argued that since John wrote, “I have written something” (egrapsa ti), he did not view his letter as relatively important.
However, there are serious problems with this interpretation, specifically because Diotrephes rejected John’s authority inherent in the letter he wrote. Such an audacious rejection of apostolic communication would hardly be something to rebuke Diotrephes about if the letter was of little importance.
We believe, along with other students, that egrapsa ti describes as “a brief letter of commendation” such that would have accompanied the traveling preachers mentioned earlier (v. 3):
It apparently was a brief letter, now lost, requesting assistance for the missionaries being sent out by John. If so, it is not improbable that Diotrephes suppressed the letter.
Stott does not stop at suppression, and suggests that Diotrephes destroyed the letter and poses this as the reason why John’s brief letter is now lost (cf. Jer. 36).
Finally, the letter can hardly be regarded as unimportant since what John desired to occur is set at odds against the strong contrasting “but” (Grk. alla), which emphasizes the rejection by Diotrephes.
Diotrephes did not just suppress a mere letter; it was an apostolic request for the support of traveling missionaries who had not other means of gaining resources (“accepting nothing from the Gentiles” v. 7) for the work they set out to do “for the sake of the name.” Consequently, Diotrephes “did not acknowledge” John’s authority.
Second, there has been tremendous ink spilt to discuss the troublesome New Testament nuisance known as Diotrephes. We will consider a few lines of thought regarding this gentleman we view as an excommunicating missions-killer.
(a) It is rather obvious that he, as a gentile, had a religiously pagan upbringing. This is understood from the meaning of his name (dio + trephes), “nourished by Zeus”. Perhaps this hints at the pagan background where much of his character was probably formed.
Zeus was the god-of-gods, and he was regarded as the provider who nourished both family and community life (rain, dew, good gifts, etc.), being himself the patron of the home.
As one classical scholar describes, Zeus was:
[T]he avenger of perjury, the keeper of boundaries and of property, the defender of the laws of hospitality and the rights of the suppliant.
Besides the obvious possessor of the lightning bolts and the gatherer of the clouds, it was thought that all meteorological phenomenons were the work of Zeus.
I find a hint of irony in this correspondence, due to the fact that during the early ministry of Jesus, the sons of Zebedee (James and John) were given the “nickname” of the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3.17; Matt. 4.21). During an episode in the Lord’s ministry, they wished to avenge mistreatment by raining fire from heaven (Luke 9.51-56).
Now, the aged John –known more for love than vengeance (cf. 1 John) – must address a man who acts more like the thunder god, than the son of God.
(b) Diotrephes “likes to put himself first” (RSV, NRSV, ESV). Other translations render this one word in Greek (philoproteuon) more to the point: “who loveth to have the preeminence” (KJV, ASV); “who loves to be first” (NASBU, NET); “who loves to be in charge” (ISV); “He always wants to be number one” (Plain English NT); “who loves to have first place” (FHV); “who wants to be first in everything” (Phillips).
What these translations suggest about Diotrephes, along with his spiritually criminal behavior also recorded in verse 10, is that “it was not just an ambition on his part but liking of the power he had”.
And with his power he made a unilateral decision to reject the apostle John’s authoritative request for support to be given to the traveling missionaries (vs. 5).
One could investigate deeply and speculate why Diotrephes was so antiauthoritarian when it came to the apostle’s letter; however, we must not assume another position for which John – the inspired author – sets forth for us:
To John the motives governing the conduct of Diotrephes were neither theological, nor social, nor ecclesiastical, but moral. The root of the problem was sin.
This sin was his craving for prominence and dominance (philoproteuon) – a word carrying both desires: “to be first” and “to order others”. The range of this disposition is seen in four ways:
- Ambition to hold prominence.
- Refusal to submit to those of greater authority (e.g. apostle John).
- Slanders and oppresses those undermining his “perceived” right to prominence.
- Removes those of decenting opinions from positions of influence.
(c) Everett Ferguson calls attention to three clauses that describe Diotrephes actions toward the missionaries: he refuses, hinders, and expels. He is kills evangelistic fervor at every level.
Third, “the elder” forewarns Gaius regarding his own arrival to the area and promises to bring Diotrephes to justice. As Wayne Jackson observes, “The apostle is unwilling simply to ‘let bygones be bygones’”.
In an era where rebukes for sinful behavior are looked down upon, the church would do well to soak up the apostolic backbone demonstrated here. Indeed, “the past actions of Diotrephes could not be explained away”.
In Diotrephes, we see a person in leadership with such degenerative respect for apostolic leadership and authority. He is characterized by such a vile personality that can be only viewed as a person who “was nourished by a very poisonous, aggressive passion to be in charge”.
To be continued…
- Marvin R. Vincent, n.d., Word Studies in the New Testament (Repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson), 2:403; Charles C. Ryrie, 1962, “I, II, III John” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press), 1484.
- David Smith, 1900, “The Epistles of John” in Expositor’s Greek Testament (New York, N.Y.: Doran), 5:207; R. W. Orr, , “The Letters of John” in The International Bible Commentary, revised ed., edited by Frederick F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan), 1588; Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament 2:403; Albert Barnes, 1949, James, Peter, John, and Jude, Notes on the New Testament edited by Robert Frew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker), 374.
- D. Edmond Hiebert, 1987, “Studies in 3 John Part 2 (of 3 Parts): An Exposition of 3 John 5-10”, Bibliotheca Sacra 144: 203.
- John R. W. Stott, 1988, The Letters of John, TNTC edited by Leon Morris (Repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), 228-29.
- Hiebert, 1987, “An Exposition of 3 John 5-10”, 203.
- “Diotrephes” in Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary edited by Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1964), 217; Hiebert, 203.
- Oskar Seyffert, 1966, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, revised ed., revised and edited by Henry Nettleship and J.E. Sandys (World Publishing), 704.
- Everett Ferguson, 1984, The Letters of John, The Way of Life Series edited by J. D. Thomas (Abilene, Tex.: Biblical Research), 100.
- cf. Jason Jackson, 1997-2012, “Fellow Workers for the Truth”, ChristianCourier.com, where Jackson asks the following series of questions: “Why would Diotrephes reject a legitimate request by known brothers for the spreading of the gospel? Maybe the more appropriate question is this: Why was Diotrephes making unilateral decisions?” (par. 7). Could it be that Diotrephes did not have a heart of evangelism, local or abroad? It may very well be, but the issue is most likely that of heart and self interest of Ditrephes manifesting in the rejection of apostolic authority.
- Stott, 1988, The Letters of John, 230.
- Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, 1989, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2d edition (New York, N.Y.: United Bible Society), 25.110.
- William E. Vine, 1996, The Collected Writings of W.E. Vine (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson), 3:412.
- Ferguson, 1984, The Letters of John, 100.
- Wayne Jackson, 1993, Notes From the Margin of My Bible (Stockton, Calif.: Courier Publications), 2:172.
- J. Jackson, 1997-2012, “Fellow Workers for the Truth”, par. 15.
- Lloyd J. Ogilvie qtd. in Hiebert, 204.