Commentary on 3 John 2-5
As we turn to the first verses of the letter itself, there is much in it that will be familiar from our study of the other two Epistles. Besides the emphasis on love, there is the phrase “love in truth.” As already indicated, this may mean simply “love sincerely,” or it may mean love in Christ, for in the Epistles “the truth” frequently stands for Christ. Then there is the reference to walking in the truth, which we have encountered repeatedly. And, finally, John refers to those who follow him—or who have come to the faith through him—as “my children.”
Using these various images and phrases, verses 2-4 express the writer’s concern for Gaius, and his joy at knowing of Gaius’ faithfulness. This section of the letter represents the normal epistolary style of the time, in which the information about the writer and the addressee was usually followed by words of appreciation and concern for the latter.
It is in verse 5 that we get to the issue at hand. Apparently some people have been well received by Gaius, and John is commending him for that, and encouraging him to continue along the same path. Who these people were is not exactly clear—again, we are coming in in the middle of an ongoing conversation. John calls them “brothers”—or “brothers and sisters,” which the NRSV translates as “friends.”
But they were “strangers” to Gaius. What Gaius had done for these strangers is not clear. It certainly has something to do with hospitality; but this may mean either providing them shelter and food or receiving them into the congregation as legitimate preachers.
Although some commentators call them “emissaries,” there is nothing in the letter to suggest that John had sent them. We are told that “they began their journey for the sake of Christ, [literally, ‘for the sake of the name’] accepting no support from non-believers.” This would seem to imply that they were itinerant preachers.
As we have seen, one of the issues the early church had to face was the proliferation of itinerant preachers, and how to determine whose preaching was legitimate and whose was not. In the Didache, a document from approximately the same date as the Epistles of John, one of the ways to make this determination is how much support such itinerant preachers expect or request: those who appear to be taking advantage of their ministry are not legitimate, and should not be received as such.
Here, John suggests that “accepting no support from non-believers” is a sign of the legitimacy of these preachers. Gaius is encouraged by the affirmation that “we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth.”
We are not told how John came to know of what was happening—or had happened—in Gaius’ church. Apparently it is through some communication with the itinerant preachers themselves: “They have testified to your love before the church.” If the church before which they have testified is where John is, then presumably the preachers are no longer in Gaius’ church. In that case, John is not telling Gaius to receive these particular preachers. They have already come and gone, and John is writing after the event.
His purpose, rather than to have Gaius receive the preachers, is to commend him for having done so, to condemn Diotrephes for whatever he has done, and to encourage Gaius and strengthen his hand in the continuing conflict within his church.