The Third Epistle Of John
“The elder to the beloved Gaius [or, Caius] whom I love in truth. Beloved, I desire that in all things thou shouldest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. For I rejoiced exceedingly when brethren came and bore witness to thy truth, even as thou walkest in truth. I have no greater joy than these things, that I hear of my children walking in the truth. Beloved, thou doest a faithful thing whatsoever thou mayest do unto the brethren and this strangers who bore witness to thy love before the church [or, assembly] in setting forward whom on their journey worthily of God thou wilt do well for they went forth for the name’s sake, taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive [or, welcome] such, that we may be fellow-workers with the truth. I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes that loveth pre-eminence among them receiveth us not. For this reason if I come, I will bring to remembrance his works which he doeth, babbling against us with wicked words; and not content with these things, neither himself receiveth the brethren, and those who would he hindereth and casteth out of the church. Beloved, imitate not the evil but the good. The good-doer is of God; the evil-doer hath not seen God. Demetrius hath been witnessed to by all, and by the truth itself; and we also bear witness, and thou knowest that our witness is true.
“Many things I had to write to thee, but with ink and pen I will not write to thee; but I hope soon to see thee, and we will speak mouth unto mouth. Peace [be] to thee. The friends greet thee. Greet the friends by name.”
It is difficult to conceive an epistle which has stronger points of contrast with John’s Second one than that which now comes before us. Nevertheless they have one common root, and that fruit which it produces only takes so different a colour because of the different wants of Christians. In Christ is no real discordance but infinite adaptability to all our needs. Nevertheless their objects strikingly differ. The Second Epistle conveys the most solemn warning, and what gives it both special point and general application is the fact of being addressed not even to a bishop or overseer, nor to men like Timothy and Titus, who in a limited space and for a particular reason represented the apostle to an extent beyond those local charges, but to an unnamed Christian woman. An elect lady, and even her children, are all embraced and summoned to discharge the duty laid upon them. Nor was it of course a public or ecclesiastical act, but individual loyalty to Christ so stringent that they were forbidden to receive the false teacher into the house, or even to salute him in the ordinary way, being an antichrist.
The Third Epistle is the outgoing of the strongest Christian affection, being addressed to a Christian man already well known for his love, especially in caring for those engaged in the Lord’s work. His heart received and went with them in their service to further the work and themselves according to all that lay in his power. Therefore the keyword of the Third Epistle is “receive,” as the keyword of the Second is “receive not.” This may seem to the natural man arbitrary and inconsistent. But what of him? Natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him (1 Cor. 11:14). Here on the contrary the direction is wholly opposite: there is really, perfect harmony; and what makes harmony is Christ. Souls there were and are who identify themselves with the truth of Christ here below; and the word in the Third Epistle is “Receive them.” It is enough that they bring the doctrine of the Christ, always taking for granted that their ways are according to Christ. No question is raised of ministerial position. The church in those days had not yet assumed the title to interfere with the rights of its Head. The free action of the Holy Spirit which the apostles upheld in the earliest days was honoured still. The measure and character of gift in those days, when parochial limits had not yet been invented, might differ much. One preacher might be dull to see the bearing of Christ in every part of the Bible, another might be ready and bright. Others again might be disposed to sentimentality and feeling though not really Christian, any more than addiction to dialectics or erudition. Faith and love are very different things, and it was these that wrought in their self-denying and laborious service, which Gaius prized for the Lord’s sake.
The First Epistle rises by the Holy Spirit above personality, and binds together in faith and love all the saints in view of Christ’s person, and in fellowship with the Father and His Son, the Lord Jesus. No Epistle more thoroughly and comprehensively takes in the whole family of God; none has less to do with a particular time or place. But the Second is addressed to an elect lady and her children, as the Third is to the beloved Gaius: so far in pointed contrast with the First, yet both the Second and the Third are but special applications of the selfsame truth and love in Christ made known in the First.
In the Third it is divinely formed largeness of heart. “Love in truth” is the governing note here as in all. Gaius refuses either to be cajoled or to be frightened out of what is due to Christ. Authority, actual or assumed, was at work to criticise truth and love. One of narrow heart lifted himself up, it would appear in the assembly where Gaius was, who sought rule not according to Scripture but in his own way. Many have followed; no lack of succession in this line. The apostles and prophets did their work and departed, leaving their incontestably inspired testimony. But self-willed men are never wanting in any age.
We are given therefore invaluable instruction, what we should think of such men, and how to bear ourselves toward them. It is one of the needed lessons of this Epistle not to mind them but pursue the path of Christ ourselves. The Lord does not fail in His own way to bring to remembrance unloving work and babbling words, and to make manifest in due censure the selfish emptiness which slights apostolic authority, opposes active testimony of the gospel, and casts out of the assembly on false pretences those who withstand such ways. We do well not to be overmuch occupied with impropriety, nor to be diverted from the true path of devotedness to Christ; nor ought we to fear the big words habitual with men who, instead of following Christ, seek to exalt themselves and their party. Cleaving to Christ is the only true way of deliverance from self. There is the proud way of despising a Diotrephes, without even pity for his soul; yet Christ is not with such a feeling, but warns him.
The great principle, whether for the church or the Christian, is obedience, especially when we can say little of power. Subjection to the word is of the Lord; and is there anything humbler and also firmer than that? It gives alike courage and lowliness, with entire dependence on Him in whom we believe, whose ears are attentive, and who will vindicate His own word. Principle is indispensable, but it is not all. Principle alone never made a believer lowly or loving. It is often taken up in a dry, hard, and legal may. But we can never dispense with a living Christ; and He is accessible and active to all who wait on Him, however valuable truth may be, and God entitles us to have all the resources of Christ in His love, as being in His hand and the Father’s.
“The elder to the beloved Gaius.” Here he lets out his heart as he does not to the lady. There is divine wisdom in the language of Scripture. Too often unctuous expressions have led to folly if not to sin. “An elect lady” reminds us of God, if to Gaius affection could safely flow out in the simplest way. He was thus led to the right word, “elect.” If God had chosen the lady, He chose her not to yield but to resist the devil, who would then flee. The way in which this lady was tried was very difficult for her. A lady instinctively shrinks from doing anything that seems unladylike. How shocking to refuse to receive, under her roof, a gentleman perhaps, and probably an old acquaintance. Not even to give him a common greeting! This to all who love not our Lord seems harsh indeed; yet it is exactly what the Spirit of God enjoins. How could it be otherwise when Christ, is fundamentally assailed, and we are called to be His good soldiers?
“An elect lady” is bound to Christ’s honour like all for whom He died and rose. No Christian can be absolved from this duty. At any rate, it is what seemed good to the Spirit of God in former days. The question is what is one doing and teaching now? He might have been the instrument of her conversion or that of her children, and it would go hard against her — a lady — not to notice this man. But circumstances were altered, now that he was an enemy of Christ instead of a true preacher of Christ. Perhaps the man secretly opposed. For we have to bear in mind that these deceivers are self-deceived, led too by Satan to think themselves better friends of Christ than real Christians, and their doctrine the right line of truth, supremely beautiful as well as new.
But in the Third it is quite another duty. Had we only the Second we might be in danger of becoming rigid, hard and suspicious. But the Third Epistle exhorts us whom we are to receive, and this with all our heart. If dangerous men go about and seek to enter, we must not forget true men earnest to spread the truth of Christ. The elect lady had to beware of wicked men however plausible; the brother is called to persevere in hearty love for the good and true. Sometimes such a brother is ruffled because of disappointment once or twice. He hates to be taken in; and such a case stumbles him, so that he is determined that it shall not occur again.
At any rate the apostle writes to encourage Gains in the path of love. It is not enough to begin well: the still greater aim is to grow in love, never weary in well-doing. Accordingly the apostle says of Gaius, “whom I love in truth.” This is the common ground of both Epistles; whatever be the difference in application and aim, loving in truth is an equally marked feature in each of them. “Beloved, I desire that in all things thou shouldest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth” (ver. 2). How simple, large, and cordial!
There is no haste in broaching the matter; as indeed this is a beautiful feature in Scripture. There is gracious consideration of one another in general, unless grave danger claimed an immediate appeal, as we see in the Epistle to the Galatian saints. But as no such peril here existed, Gaius is assured of the personal interest that the apostle took in him. He wishes that in all things he may prosper. “Above all things” goes too far. Perhaps some have adopted the extravagant idea that no matter how ill our affairs go, or how bad the health, the only concern is that the soul should prosper. The inspired apostle does not favour such fanaticism. A brother may prosper or not in what he undertakes. His was true brotherly feeling; but he carefully gives the first place as a matter of course to the soul’s welfare. If this be safeguarded and real, we can as a general rule count on the Lord’s interest both in our undertakings or business, and in our bodily health. Our gracious God, if the soul prosper, has pleasure both in ourselves and in all our matters. The very hairs of our head are all numbered. If a sparrow does not fall to the ground without Him, if He thinks of the ravens and the lilies of the field, what a Father we have to do with for every day and in all things!
We know that if our earthly house be destroyed, we have a more glorious building from God, and if our outer man is consumed, yet the inward is renewed day by day. This is the highest and should be the nearest consideration. Still here was this good brother who had proved his kindness in caring for others, and especially those who gave up all to serve the Lord Jesus; and the apostle wished him, prospering in soul, to prosper in all things, and to be in health, so as to be cheered and free and unimpeded.
Sometimes, that the soul may prosper, God withers up what we are too engrossed with; and if this suffice not, He disciplines with bodily sickness. And the Lord takes away the idol and smashes it to pieces. This is gracious of Him. Of course it may be painful, but our hearts go with what the Lord does to remove a snare and win back the soul to honour and enjoy Himself. Sometimes a zealous man is set aside in order that he may learn that God can carry on His work without him. He has been absorbed in reaching and preaching to others, and slipped into less vigilance as to his own soul’s communion. The Lord in His goodness and love corrects, and a little sickness is turned to much good. But here, as Gaius was prospering in soul, the apostle wishes his prosperity in all things else and in his body too.
“For I rejoiced exceedingly when brethren came and bore witness to thy truth, even as thou walkest in truth” (ver. 3). Truth delighted the apostle’s heart. Gaius was walking in truth. This indicated his soul’s prospering. Kindness to the brethren, thoughtfulness about others, prospering in his affairs and in bodily health: what were they all to holding fast the truth — “thy truth,” and his own walking in truth? And such was the witness that brethren bore to him; so that it was exceeding joy to the apostle. Gaius sought first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all else was added. His heart was not. set on his own things. There was no compromise of Christ, no making truth a secondary consideration, but he kept walking truthfully. It was a matter of plain testimony on the part of others. “Brethren came and bore witness to thy truth [or, that is in thee].” Had it been Gaius talking about it, it might have been questionable; for who has ever found men whose love for the truth was unwavering and unstinted loud about their own fidelity or service? The more a man loves and values truth, the more he judges his own shortcoming in his service and his daily life.
“I have no greater joy than these things that I hear of my children walking in the truth” (ver. 4).
It is no longer the lady’s children or “the children of the elect sister.” Of “my children” we read here, those who were spiritually related to the apostle of whom Gaius was one, and on this account dear to the apostle. Gaius had not only begun well, but was going on well in face of evil. Still there was the need of cheering him on; and this comes out in a delicate form. “Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatever work thou mayest do toward the brethren and this strangers who witnessed to thy love before the church, in setting forward whom on their journey worthily of God thou wilt do well” (vers. 5, 6).
Benevolently or thoughtfully, generously or lovingly, would have been the words most Christian men might have used. With Gaius it was primarily a matter of faith before God. Faith always brings in God in one way, as love does in another. Faith bringing in the word of truth, as love is the energy of the divine nature in gracious affection.
In the last clause of ver. 5 the common text as presented by the A.V. is not only defective but contrary to sense. For it conveys the notion of two objects given, “to the brethren and to strangers.” The true text, as attested by the best MSS., is “and this strangers.” Hence the point is that the love was shown in faith to the brethren, not as old friends but where they were strangers. And Scripture is express on the value that God attaches to love toward strangers, though here with the added tie of being brethren. God’s children are nearer to God than angels could be; and we may thus say that it ought to be more to us to entertain our brethren, and this strangers, than to entertain angels. Oh how far has superstition reversed the truth, and nature darkened the sense of our relationship to God!
Many saints are drawn out in love for labourers whom they know and admire, but they are reserved as to stranger brethren of whom they have not heard. The love of Gaius for the stranger brethren had the marked approval of the apostle. Before the church they “bore witness of thy love.” “Charity” has another meaning quite unknown to Scripture, wholly alien from the case before us, and beneath the divine affection here contemplated. No doubt its use in the English Version of 1. Cor. 13 elevates it not a little above conventionalism, but “love” is unequivocal save to the base. It is a good word of our mother tongue, whereas “charity” came in through the Latin. The Spirit of God uses a word which in a heathen’s mouth had a sensual force, gave it a blessed and holy direction, christened it and thus hallowed it for ever.
But the apostle would add rather than diminish the draught on love when he writes, “Whom if thou set forward on their journey worthily of God thou wilt do well.” Even if the love of Gaius had been abused, the apostle would not anticipate any halt. These brethren were going elsewhere, and the word is, “Whom if thou set forward on their journey worthily of God.” Its force is melted down by the enfeebled expression, “after a godly sort.” Undeniably “after a godly sort” is much and excellent in itself; but it is always safer and more reverent to cleave to the actual words used by the Spirit of God. And nothing can be more intelligible than setting them forward, not after a man’s thought of godliness, but “worthily of God.” For God is love, and love is of God. It may be about a little thing here below; but it connects one’s soul in faith and love with what is unseen and external, with God who blesses for all eternity.
Yet the apostle in suggesting it says no more than “thou wilt do well.” It is simplicity as to Christ, this guarded language of the Holy Spirit, which avoids all approach to pressure or exaggeration, though the thing was near the heart of the apostle. One is reminded of something like it in Hebrews 13, where the apostle speaks of two sorts of sacrifices: “sacrifice of praise continually to God, that is, fruit of lips confessing His name”; “but to do good and communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” The first is of incomparable moment and value; but the lower form is of doing good and communicating here below, yet flowing from the same faith and love, “for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” The spiritual ones are the delight of God; those on the human side are well-pleasing to Him.
“For they went forth for the Name’s sake, taking nothing of the Gentiles.” Here is what especially endeared these labourers to the apostle. They kept themselves totally free from profiting by the resources of the world. Needy as they might be, they maintained the heavenly dignity of the gospel, and proved that they sought the best good of the Gentiles, not their own things. What more degrades the gospel than to let its ministers or the church become beggars from the world? What so openly denies faith in the Lord’s care for His work? And how refreshing to see a man above anxiety for himself in devotedness to the Lord! What knit the heart of Gaius to them was “that for the Name they went forth.” They were not sent by man. The church has no authority for choosing, ordaining, or sending out the servants of the Lord. It is an unworthy and presumptuous mistake for the church, or for the servants, thus to usurp the place of Christ. Christ is the Head and the source and the sender of His gifts for ministry, and He only. Local charges were quite distinct.
The church however ought to take delight in acknowledging those whom the Lord sends. We find it so at Antioch (Acts 14:27), when Paul and Barnabas came back from an errand on which the Spirit of God had sent them. Thus, brethren “let them go” (
ἀπέλυσαν); but they were “sent forth” (
ἐκπεμφθέντες) by the Holy Ghost (Acts 13:3,4). The Lord Himself “sent” the Twelve and the Seventy (Luke 9:2, Luke 10:1) when He was here: and now that He is above He, by the Spirit of God, gives and sends forth those alive again for evermore whom He has qualified for His work whatever it be. He has not abnegated His rights or bequeathed them to the church, or to any individuals in it. Nevertheless we read in Acts 13:3, that their fellow-servants had communion with the envoys of the Holy Spirit, and marked it by laying their hands on them as its sign, as they appear to have repeated it later, not for Barnabas, but for Paul when he went forth another time (Acts 15:40). It has nothing whatever to do with what they call ordination. It was simply a solemn sign of commendation to the grace of God, which has been done of late on befitting occasions, and without the least pretension. But there is no such thought as the authority of the church in these matters. Mission like gift belongs to the Lord; and He is the same still, which Christendom has forgotten; and the Spirit of God is down here to give effect to it in us as then. There may not be the same manifested power as we find over and over again in the Acts of the Apostles. Yet God knows how to make good the same divine principle by ways suited to the present state of the church, which calls for humiliation on our part. But it is faithless to give up God’s way for an unauthorised invention of man.
“We therefore ought to receive such.” How gracious and how wise! It not merely calls on Gaius and other saints to receive or welcome such. We, says the apostle, ought to receive such. What more than moral beauty is this! It might have seemed enough to urge, “Ye receive such”; how much more to include all in the “we!” The apostle was not above joining himself to the rest. He thus sanctions and encourages those humbly going forth on the work, even though none else had a position comparable to his own in the church, which so impressively bespoke the grace of Christ, and reproved the nascent clericalism which despised these zealous labourers, and demonstrated to all how thoroughly they enjoyed the apostle’s countenance and love.
Not content with so much, he goes so far is to say That we may be fellow-workers with the truth.” May I warmly commend these words to all of you, my dear brethren What an honour! The truth is here personified as hated by the devil and the world, through which he works in a thousand ways to thwart Christ and all identified with witnessing Him. Diotrephes was doing this, though we are not told that he sympathised with the antichrist or the heterodox in any respect. It is quite a different form of evil. His state was wretchedly bad, so that we do not well to say more. But it is open and right for all Christians to be fellow-workers with the truth. Some cannot preach; but we may and ought truly and practically to sympathise with those that do the work. Do we pray for them habitually? Do we watch to serve them in any way we can? If so, “we are fellow-helpers,” not merely to them but “with the truth.” One cannot suppose it a real difficulty for any saint to be a fellow-helper with the truth. The love of Gaius was marked; but for any in earnest before God it is the same call of love. “If the readiness be there, one is accepted according to what he may have, not according to what he hath not.” All can help acceptably to the Lord in some way, which makes them in His grace fellow-helpers with the truth.
“I wrote something to the church.” Hence we learn that it is a mistake to suppose that the apostles never wrote other epistles than those we have. God took care that those meant for the permanent blessing of the believer should not be lost; as He inspired them for continual service, He watched over them accordingly. We need not imagine such a thing as that the apostles never wrote anything else. Why not? But without pressing overmuch the allusion here, the fact cannot be doubted that communications by inspired men were written not necessarily inspired to form part of the Scriptures. We find a similar fact in the Old Testament, as for instance books by Solomon and others. If God has not preserved the whole amount, He has secured what was inspired for abiding use, of which His prophets were made competent to judge. When such inspiration ceased for Old or New Testament, the prophets also ceased.
This divine selection is a thing to admire instead of causing difficulty. Had all the books been written that might have been written, the world could not contain them, as our apostle declares. The words and works of our Lord alone, if written out as they deserved, would overfill the world. How precious is that all-wise selection which is a characteristic of inspiration! God was the only judge of what is to most profit. Even the Bible, as it is, how little it is really known by those to whom it is dearer than life! Would that every child of God knew it all more thoroughly. Were you to read the Bible often every day of your life, not only in a way both pious and studious, any real Christian will tell you how far you would be from fathoming its depths. It is always beyond the greatest teacher. If there were only as many books as there are verses or even chapters of equal length, it is evident that the difficulty for the serious reader would be increased enormously.
Let us admire God’s wisdom in selecting by inspiration what was for perpetual use within the short compass of the Bible as He has given it to us. It is not a bad adage that one may have too much of a good thing as well as too little. In the Bible we have neither, but what the only wise God saw best to His glory and for our blessing. It was of prime importance that His word should be as brief as could be consistent with the fulness of revealed truth. “I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes that loveth pre-eminence among them receiveth us not” (ver. 9). There is no difficulty then in understanding why we have not the letter that John wrote. It would seem that Diotrephes showed his bad spirit by having this letter to the church kept back, and that in this way the apostle was not received by him.
“For this reason if I come, I will bring to remembrance his works which he doeth, babbling against us with wicked words and not content with these things, neither himself receiveth the brethren and those who would he hindereth, and casteth them out of the church.” Whatever his doctrine might be, his works were evil. “Wherefore if I come, I will remember his deeds.” The same spirit which Diotrephes showed in rejecting what the apostle wrote — if that be the meaning of not receiving the apostle — displayed itself in his contempt for the brethren who went about preaching. His feeling seemed to be this: What business have they to come here? “I am here. It is for me to look after the truth; and I never thought of asking their help, especially as they are strangers who come without being sent for or in any way sent. They are intruders.” This is not an uncommon sentiment, and although some may not express it, how often is it not felt! It ran through the spirit and the conduct of this man, so high up in his own esteem as to evince a total want of respect toward the apostle. Who can wonder at his hostility toward the lowly brethren who addicted themselves to preaching far and wide? Doubtless he thought it a better thing if they had stuck to earning an honest living instead of going where he at least did not want them.
“Beloved,” as the solemn reference is, “imitate not what is evil but what is good.” Diotrephes was clearly doing that which was evil; Gaius must steer clear of imitating the evil, for evil is infectious. Let him adhere to the good. “He that doeth good is of God; he that doeth evil hath not seen God” (ver. 11). We may not affirm that Diotrephes was absolutely involved in this tremendous character; but he gave serious ground for fearing it. The language is general but guarded. The apostle simply lays down the certain principle — doing evil is not of God. He who does it as the habit of his life has not seen God. How comforting is the other side! He is of God. To see God leaves its impress on your soul for ever. One cannot have seen God and be a doer of evil. Evil was true of Diotrephes to a certain and serious point. Whether it characterised him we may leave.
“Demetrius hath witness borne to him by all, and by the truth itself, and we also bear witness, and thou knowest that our witness is true” (ver. 12): Here is a fine character not heard of before. The truth itself, as well is all, bore witness to Demetrius; and we also bear witness, which Gaius consciously knew to be true. “We also bear witness.” Gaius could have the fullest fellowship with Demetrius. One reason as it seems why the Spirit of God thus notices Demetrius is that, even in our evil day, we may look for others who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. So here, if we are told of one Diotrephes, there were two to praise, Gaius and Demetrius, to say nothing of the faithful brethren though strangers, of whom Diotrephes had nothing good to say. The apostle would have us not to be overmuch oppressed by the sense of evil or by evil-speakers, but to have our hearts encouraged in the truth and in love.
Many things I had to write to thee, but with ink and pen I will not write to thee: but I hope soon to see thee, and we will speak mouth to mouth. Peace to thee. The friends greet thee. Greet the friends by name” (vers. 13, 14). We are not to fall under the cloud of evil. There is always a danger of throwing up one’s hands, exclaiming that all is gone. Never could I sympathise with so unbelieving a thought. The prevalence of the worst evil, the breaking down of not a few who have seemed faithful, is the more reason to distrust ourselves, yet to abide in the Lord with purpose of heart. Let us never forget that the Holy Spirit abides in and with us for ever, to gather to His name yet more than to convert sinners, though He does both.
How simple and true are the concluding words in the Third Epistle as in the Second! Great artists used to represent not only the Lord but the apostles and the saints with a halo over the head. Scripture speaks of all with unpretending simplicity: the Lord the meekest and lowliest of men; and the apostles differing from other brethren in deeper self-abnegation and a more vivid sense of abiding in God, the privilege of His grace. And here who can fail to discern the heavenly-minded dignity of being but “a bondman of Jesus,” as the greatest of them loved to designate himself?
The Holy Spirit gave energy to work signs and wonders and powers, and yet to work as if oneself nothing. The inspired man had many things to write with ink and pen, but he hoped to see his beloved Gaius when “we shall speak mouth to mouth.” He preferred living fellowship, and wished him peace meanwhile. Here we have the friends saluting mutually, and in no vague way but “by name;” as in the Second Epistle it is family greeting: “the children of thine elect sister greet thee.”