The Eagle has Landed: 3 John and Its Theological Vision for Pastoral Ministry
We must affirm the deeply theological character of ministry. We cannot properly understand or navigate the complexity and controversies of church life without reference to the Father, Son, and Spirit, the nature of their action in the world; nor can we understand the character of the world’s reaction without John’s anthropological and demonological insights. On the other, it means that theologically-educated ministers must not wistfully pine for a life soaring two hundred feet from the ground. The eagle must land.
Third John feels a long way from John’s Gospel, and not just because they are separated by Acts and the Epistles in our Bibles. The Fourth Gospel is rightly regarded as a soaring work of theology; John is known as “the Divine”—that is, the theologian—and his Gospel is a rich source of Trinitarian and Christological reflection; it is a “spiritual gospel” in the view of Clement,1 and he is symbolized by the eagle in Christian tradition, amongst other, more earth-bound evangelists.2 That distinctive ability to reach theological heights in the beguilingly simple language of Father and Son, life and light, truth and love, endures as far as 1 John and 2 John. But by contrast, 3 John is thin on theology (as the shortest NT document, with no mention of Jesus by name) and thick with the dirt and dust of everyday life. Its concern is with hospitality to travelers and it depicts church life mired in strife and conflict.
At first glance, therefore, 3 John makes a curious terminus for John’s letters in the New Testament.3 Indeed, as Fred Sanders has pointed out, one could have justifiably anticipated a trajectory towards evermore concentrated and compact statements of truth. John’s Gospel itself has distilled more material than the world could contain into twenty-one chapters (21:25); in 1 John 1:1–4 we can recognize something of a summary of those twenty-one chapters; and the distillation continues in 1 John 1:5 where “the message we have heard from him and declare to you” can be boiled down to a single sentence: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” Those compact summaries rely on the longer forms to fill out their meaning but they demonstrate the remarkable capacity of the Christian good news to be expressed in simple and sublime ways.4 And so one can imagine an alternate version of 3 John as the most distilled version of the Johannine material: perhaps a one verse summary of the 1 John 1:5 sort, or perhaps simply the fabled exhortation of John’s latter years “Little children, love one another.”5
Even without such hypotheticals, turning to the substance of 3 John can feel like a move from the sublime to the pedestrian. And yet the burden of this article is that 3 John is the fruition of so much that is anticipated in and resourced by John’s Gospel. Taken together, there emerges a strikingly theological vision for pastoral ministry. John remains the eagle, and here in 3 John we glimpse what happens when the eagle lands in the day-to-day trenches of life and ministry.
1. The Ordinary Ministry of Christian Believers
The first observation to make is that 3 John navigates the transition to the post-apostolic age. We move quite seamlessly into the world of Gaius and Demetrius, a new generation of believers and an extending cast of co-workers in the truth. John’s stance within that transition is noteworthy. He does not present himself as the landmark apostle, an eagle amongst pigeons. Rather he presents himself as the elder writing to one who shares in his ministry. Gaius is loved in the truth (v. 1), is walking in the truth (v. 3) and is a co-worker in the truth in acts of hospitality (v. 8). Likewise, the unnamed brothers in verse 3 who testify approvingly concerning the loving ministry of Gaius take their place alongside those who testify concerning Demetrius, and John himself as he testifies to the quality of Demetrius. The language here provides a strong link back to John’s Gospel, which is characterized as John’s testimony (John 18:35, 21:24) and in which testimony to the truth and the identity of various figures is so central.6 In one sense, John is the witness par excellence, and we receive in his testimony what he heard, saw, and touched, but 3 John also reflects the ways in which every believer is called to be a witness to the truth and to identify and affirm the ministry of those who walk in the truth.
Accordingly, John’s Gospel anticipates the ministry of many more than just the twelve. It is an exaggeration to say that John ignores ecclesiology or presents a radically egalitarian or individualistic vision of the church,7 but nevertheless, these are features of the Gospel: there is a call to acknowledge and love all fellow believers within the household of God,8 and the prominence of individual encounters with Jesus in John’s Gospel is noteworthy, especially relative to the other Gospels. The Samaritan woman and the man healed of blindness are especially vivid examples of those who go on to a life of testifying to what they have experienced. Both of these themes are fleshed out further in 3 John. The welcome and affirmation of brothers is emphasized in verses 5–8 as a hallmark of walking in love. And in 3 John, Gaius and Demetrius take their place alongside the Samaritan Woman and the man healed of blindness as models of ministry within their communities and within the Johannine writings.
2. The Contested and Ambiguous Nature of Ministry
John’s Gospel also previews and accounts for the contested nature of ministry and identity in 3 John. Life within those churches receiving and sending on the traveling workers is tense and ambiguous; the efforts of Diotrophes cast doubt on the ministries of the visiting brothers and of the elder himself. To be sure, many brothers, and the truth itself, commend Demetrius (v. 12) but in the present time the ambiguity of claim and counter-claim must be endured. In pastoral ministry this is a deeply painful and frustrating reality; in some cases the truth of the matter will be known to us but obscured and denied by others; in others, the truth will be less clear and we will have to live and act and persevere in the absence of clarity.
None of this is foreign to the Gospel of John, where contested identity is such a significant theme. The blind man’s identity as well as his healing is contested in John 9 and so is his character as a truthful witness. The way in which his experience echoes that of Jesus (both are dismissed as sinners [9:16, 34] and both affirm their identity with “I am” statements [Jesus, famously and frequently; the blind man in 9:9]) means that John’s Gospel has more to offer than sympathy. It offers a theological account of the claim and counterclaim, grounded in the darkness and its unwillingness to receive the truth, its recourse to lies, and its culpable blindness. With that account also comes a measure of comfort: the ambiguities that beset the church of Gaius and Demetrius or, for that matter, the contemporary church, are not signs that the church has fallen into crisis, but rather that crisis is always the atmosphere when light collides with darkness. In this regard, 3 John serves to highlight the reality that light and dark will commingle within the church.9
3. The Centrality of Hospitality
The third major way in which 3 John relies upon and grounds the theology of John’s Gospel is in its emphasis on hospitality for those who come in the Lord’s name. The theme is often observed in 3 John, which explains its popularity as a text by which to encourage churches in their support of mission.10 This use is entirely fitting, given John’s language in 3 John 7, where those who go out “on behalf the name” echoes the description of those who have suffered for Jesus’s sake in Acts 5:41, 9:16, 15:26, 21:13,11 and, perhaps more significantly, evokes John’s Upper Room where their identification with the name of Jesus is the cause of the disciples’ suffering (15:21) and the source of their safety (17:11–12). Likewise, John’s note about their lack of support from unbelievers in 3 John 7 calls to mind both Paul’s unwillingness to depend upon those he seeks to reach (1 Cor 9:15–18) and Jesus’s instructions to his disciples that they should entrust themselves to God’s provision amongst those who receive them.
3 John places a very high premium on such hospitality. Although 3 John 11 contains the only formal imperative in 3 John, verse 8 also has that force: “we ought therefore to show hospitality to such people.” And in the elder’s earlier remarks, hospitality of that kind is a defining mark of what it means to walk in the truth.