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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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3 John

Luke Timothy Johnson

Before Beginning…

A Letter of Recommendation

The New Testament contains two letters written explicitly to individuals—Paul's letter to Philemon, and the Elder's letter to Gaius, which we know as 3 John. Both Paul and John take up matters of community concern, while having the same specific function, that of recommending the bearer of the letter to the addressee. In the case of Philemon, Paul seeks to return a slave who had run away and to assure his welcome. In the case of 3 John, the Elder recommends to the local church leader his emissary Demetrius. He has a good reputation from all, and “we give our testimonial as well, and you know our testimony is true” (12).

The ancient world had conventions for these letters. They were widely used in early Christianity, as we learn elsewhere in Paul's correspondence (see 2 Cor 3, 1; Rom 16 ). It was natural for a missionary movement to certify its agents (apostles) with such letters, in order to ensure them a safe reception and the hospitality due such “co…workers in the truth” (8). Receiving such messengers, as we see also in 2 John, meant accepting their message as well, an understanding widespread in Judaism and reflected as well in the sayings of Jesus: “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Lk 10, 16 ). This principle became problematic when the movement itself divided into hostile parties. Paul complained of the Corinthians' preference for apostles other than himself (2 Cor 10, 12; 11, 4 ). 3 John points us directly to such a situation.

Third John is so tied to particular practical problems and so devoid of any real theology that it is doubtful that either it or 2 John would have been preserved or made part of the canon were it not associated with a writing that did transcend those circumstances by its religious message. This Reading Guide has proposed that the three letters of John were all part of the same packet delivered to Gaius from the Elder through Demetrius, and that the two smaller letters owe their preservation to the theological weightiness of 1 John.

But if its survival was accidental and its theology minimal, 3 John is all the more precious to readers today. It provides the key to the historical circumstances presupposed by 2 and 1 John. Without it, their religious emphasis would be less intelligible. And without 3 John, an appreciation for the travails of early Christianity would be appreciably diminished.

The Politics of Ecclesial Power

Third John reveals clearly that the struggle for the soul of Johannine Christianity involved structure as much as symbol, power as much as piety. Indeed, the two levels of conflict were intimately connected. On one side we see the Elder writing to his loyal colleague Gaius. On the other side is Diotrephes, who “loves to dominate.” Diotrephes not only asserts authority over Gaius at the local level, but he also refuses to acknowledge the authority of the Elder over the regional church. The author says that when he comes, he will “draw attention to what he is doing” (10), but this is a small threat to a rebellious local chieftain. The position of the Elder is threatened. He needs the personal loyalty of Gaius, and his financial assistance as well.

We are thereby brought to the political maneuvering at the heart of this battle. Diotrephes is not content to “spread evil nonsense” about the Elder. He takes positive action to suppress the Elder's authority. He refuses himself to receive the Elder's delegates, and, even more, Diotrephes expels from the church those who want to receive them (10). We can understand why the Elder appreciates Gaius's reception of Demetrius, and we can grasp the significance of verses 5–8. The Elder needs to provide an alternative source of hospitality and missionary outfitting, since Diotrephes has taken up a position among those who “went out from us” (1 Jn 2, 19 ) and no longer supports the Elder's teaching.

Gaius is being asked to receive Demetrius (and his companions) as well as equip them for their next stage of travel. Perhaps by implication the Elder's future emissaries are also included in the request. Since the Johannine missionaries accept nothing from the “pagans” (“the world”), the need for a network of hospitality and financial support is obvious (7). As in 2 John, financial sharing is tantamount to spiritual fellowship. Helping such missionaries is being “coȁworkers in the truth” (8). It is clear as well that both parties to the dispute are using the same tactics. Here, Diotrephes is the one shunning and excommunicating. But in 2 John we find the Elder advocating the same actions among his followers.

The internecine struggles of early Christianity are not terribly edifying, but they are instructive. Christians who long for a golden age of harmony should be reminded that there never was one. Among history's benefits is liberation from myth. And edifying or not, these letters testify to another truth. The struggle for identity is never simply a matter of ideas or even symbols. It involves inevitably the messy realities of money and political power.

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