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The Ministry of False Pretense: A Commentary on 3 John 9-10

April 9, 2016

liar3 John 9-10 recorded the belief and behavior of a certain church congregant named Diotrephes. Diotrephes could have been a leader of the church that occasioned the letter of 3 John or merely a layman who held a majority support of his fellow congregants in exercising mutiny against the author of 3 John – that is, the Apostle John. The main debate among scholars concerning 3 John 9-10 is whether the occasion of the author’s intentions to summon Diotrephes was due to Diotrophes’ position on church government (polity), or a doctrinal heterodox problem of Diotrophes.[1] The following commentary will expound upon who Diotrephes was, what activities Diotrephes was responsible for, why Diotrephes was specifically mentioned by name and why he deserved a public rebuke, where Diotrephes carried out these actions, and how Diotrephes accomplished his activities. The Scripture of 3 John 9-10 reads as follows:

I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.

To start, the author of the 3 John addressed himself in the first person when he wrote, “I wrote something to the church.” Kostenberger claimed that the major purpose of 3 John was to recommend godly leaders and incoming missionaries sent by the author when he wrote, “It is safe to conclude, then, that one of the major purposes of 3 John is to provide a letter of recommendation for the elder’s emissaries in general and for Demetrius in particular, as well as to put Diotrephes in his place prior to John’s anticipated visit.”[2]

There is not much known about the prior letter mentioned in 3 John described as “something to the church.” It could be that the conduct of Diotrephes, namely rejecting this first letter, occasioned this second letter of 3 John. Or it is likely that this letter referred to in 3 John is none-other than 1 John or 2 John. The equivalent personal nature of 2 John and 3 John, was that the author identified himself the same way in both (“the elder”) and that both are explicitly addressed to individual persons, could represent 2 John as the identity of the missing letter referred to as “something to the church.”[3] Albeit, one can deduce that the nature of the letter was intended for the entire congregation “to the church” whereas 3 John has a personal address to Gaius (see v.1). This local church is the scene where Diotrephes carried out his actions. To end, whatever was written at first to the original recipients of 3 John was clearly rejected by Diotrephes[4] because of how the rest of verse 9 reads, specifically, “but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say” (3 John 9 b-c).

The name Diotrephes was a Greek name which meant “nourished by Zeus” (the supreme deity of the Greeks; among the Romans – “nourished by ‘Jupiter’”).[5] The Apostle John, to all intents and purposes, labeled the root problem of Diotrephes when he identified Diotrephes as one “who loves to be first among them” (v 9c).  Richard Lenski described the construction of Greek grammar, at this point, to describe what drove Diotrephes. Lenski wrote, “We make the attributive adjective with its genitive a relative clause. The sense is: ‘the ambitious Diotrephes.’ The Adjective means that Diotrephes loves to be first, to be considered the leader. He wants to be a boss, a dictator, a lord of all the rest.”[6] Diotrophes’ motivation for leadership is what Jesus Christ described and commanded His disciples not to exhibit when He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20:25-27). Diotrephes did not display true Christian leadership by lording it over others. For one to lord it over others in Christian leadership is to deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ because one thinks one is Lord. Not only did Diotrephes reject the leadership of Jesus Christ over His Church by loving to be first, he also by consequence rejected apostolic authority because the following clause reads, “does not accept what we say.” Lenski claimed that the present tense indicated the entire attitude of Diotrephes.[7] This is who Diotrophes was, namely, a man with an ongoing practice of an ambitious insubordinate manner.

Verse 10 began with the occasion of why Diotrephes was specifically mentioned by name and deserved a public rebuke. For example, the text reads, “For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does,” The Holman Christian Standard Bible rendered verse 10a, “This is why.” One will notice in verse 10b that the Apostle John was completely resting in the providence of God concerning his arrival to Gaius’ church because the text reads, “if I come.” Commentator Canon Brooke suggested a different view when he wrote, “The writer perhaps speaks somewhat less confidently (ἐάν) of his coming than he does of the arrival of false teachers in the Church to which 2 Jn. is addressed (εἴ τις ἒρχεται). But the difference between the two constructions cannot be pressed.”[8]

The next clause of the verse is “I will call attention to his deeds which he does.” The first half of the clause referred to a public address before the congregation[9] and was the heart of the sentence. The second half of the clause referred to the content of the public address before the congregation. Here, the Revised Standard Version rendered verse 10c, “I will bring up what he is doing.” Upon his arrival, the Apostle John determined to publically address Diotrephes by name and rebuke him for his actions. “His deeds which he does” answered what activities for which Diotrephes was responsible.

What was explicitly mentioned from the text were the following six vices which were characteristic of Diotrephes’ lifestyle and practice in the church. These six sins were: unjustly accusing the apostolic authority and those affirmed by apostolic authority, using wicked words to add to the unjust accusations, not being satisfied with this (unjust accusations and wicked words), not receiving brethren, forbidding others who want to receive the brethren from receiving the brethren, and excommunicating the brethren and their supporters from the church.

The first of the sins of Diotrephes was “unjustly accusing,” Instead of “unjustly accusing” the NIV renders verse 10d as “gossiping.” James Montogmery Boice explained the etymology of the verbal participle “gossiping” (φλυαρέω) when he wrote the following;

Second, John says that Diotrephes was “gossiping maliciously” (v. 10). That is, not content with a rejection of John’s authority, Diotrephes went on to justify his rebellion by explaining falsely why the counsels of John should not be followed. The Greek verb that is here translated “gossiping” comes from a root that was used of the action of water in boiling up and throwing off bubbles. Since bubbles are empty or useless, the verb eventually came to mean indulgence in empty or useless talk. This was the nature of Diotrephes’ slander, though, of course, the words were no less evil in that they were groundless.[10]

In other words, the best understanding of “unjustly accusing” is nonsense talk like babbling bubbles from a brook. But it was worse than mere nonsense talk because Diotrephes was adding to the nonsense “wicked words.” This was the second sin of Diotrephes. The Greek adjective used here to describe Diotrephes’ gossip was (πονηρός) and meant “bad, the negative moral quality of a person or action opposed to God and his goodness” and as a noun it is the title of Satan.[11] One could argue from the use of language that Diotrephes was being “nourished” (reference to the meaning of Diotrephes) by Satan in using Satan’s words to attack the Apostle John, apostolic authority, those affirmed by the apostle John (“us”), and ultimately God.

The third sin of Diotrephes was being “not satisfied with this.” The word used here was άρκέω and meant “to be content, enough”.[12] It was as if Diotrephes was not content with slandering the godly men but hungry to do them more harm. This lead to the fourth sin of Diotrephes – namely, “he himself does not receive the brethren, either” (v. 10g-h). An appropriate cross reference is John 13:20 which reads, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” The fact that Diotrephes was not receiving apostolic authority and true Christian brethren was directly correlated to not receiving the Lord Jesus Christ.

The fifth and sixth sins of Diotrephes were described as follows, “and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church” (v. 10i). “Diotrephes excommunicated loyal believers because they failed to side with him in his rejection of John’s authority.”[13] Here Brooke marked the present tense indicating not just a one-time incident of casting out brethren but an ongoing practice.[14]

The liberal view on the authorship of 3 John was that the epistle was not written by the Apostle John but rather it was written by a disciple of John whom liberal scholars identified to be the “the elder” (v. 1)[15]. The very nature of the dispute, according to those that hold a human authorship of 3 John as not the Apostle John, was that of a strong personality clash and distinction of whether the apostolic office with its authority should be carried over into the next generation[16] or whether there should have been a “new and emerging order of the monarchial episcopate.”[17] Diotrephes, according to this view, was in support of a non-continuation of the apostolic office in authorial institution of leadership as he wanted to be the lead bishop. This view makes Diotrephes a cessationist (regarding the office of apostle). It is very likely, that continuationists today could accuse those who believe the apostolic office has ceased (the cessationist) of being Diotrephes’. “The elder”, according to this view, wanted to keep the right to ordain elders in the local church so that there would not be an anarchical congregational rule.[18] However, this is not correct because the nature of Diotrephes’ actual conduct was defined objectively in the text of 3 John. The text explicitly read that Diotrophes “who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say.” Therefore one can argue as does Boice the following;

This is the original and greatest of all sins. It is the sin of Satan, who was unwilling to be what God had created him to be and who desired rather to be “like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14)… For Satan’s attempt to exalt himself, that one shall be made low (Isa. 14:15).[19]

Diotrephes’ conduct was not in accord with apostolic authority and therefore not in accord with the Bible. Consequently, the life and conduct of Diotrephes was more compatible with a charismatic redefinition of New Testament church authority – that is, more compatible with continuationism than cessationism. The criminal act called false pretense is the intentional misrepresentation of the facts in order to acquire someone else’s property or to protect one’s position or property which one has seized by manipulation. Diotrephes was an example of one who conducted the ministry of false pretense. It is a sin to lie (cf. Leviticus 19:11; Colossians 3:9). God hates lying and hypocrisy (cf. Proverbs 12:22). Proverbs 14:5 reads, “A trustworthy witness will not lie, But a false witness utters lies.” It is even more wicked to claim that lying is wrong, when you are living a lifestyle of lying because to live that way is hypocrisy.

In conclusion, it has been said what you believe affects your behavior. Diotrephes thought he should have been in charge of the church and therefore had a covetous desire to be the man in control. This belief of his to rule led to slander, leading to more and more wickedness. The final evil was his practice of excommunicating true brethren and therefore opposing the work of God and His gospel in the local church. Matthew Henry warned against those who in Christian leadership practice tactics like those of Diotrephes’ when he wrote,

The pastor is not at absolute liberty, nor lord over God’s heritage. It is bad to do no good ourselves; but it is worse to hinder those who would. Church-power and church-censures are often abused. Many are cast out of the church who should be received there with satisfaction and welcome.[20]

It is clear that Diotrephes was trying to be something that he was not. This was the root of his deeds. The deeds were the fruit of his deception. He was not the one affirmed by apostolic authority in 3 John. What is more, Diotrephes did not exhibit the characteristics of the godly Christ following example of servant leadership described in 1 Timothy 3:1-13. The emphasis of the word “truth” throughout the epistle of 3 John as the overall context of the epistle sheds light on orthodox belief being directly correlated to orthoprax behavior. This is evident by the contrast of two type of people described in 3 John 11 which reads, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.”

by Eric Vanver Powers

Works Cited

Boice, James M. The Epistles of John; An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000.

Brooke, Canon A. The International Critical Commentary; The Johannine Epistles. Edinburgh: Clark, 1976.

Burge, Gary M. The NIV Application Commentary; From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life: Letters of John. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Dodd, C.H. The Johannine Epistles. New York: Harper, 1946.

Goodrick, Edward W. and Kohlenberger III, John R. The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008.

Kostenberger, Andreas J. A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude. Minneapolis: Ausburg Pub., 1966.

Lieu, Judith M. The Theology of the Johannine Epistles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Stott, John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; The Letters of John. Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Strauss, Lehman. The Epistles of John. New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1962.

Strong, James. The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible; Expanded with the Best of Vine’s Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Jones, Russell B. The Epistles of James, John, and Jude. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961.

[1] Gary Burge (The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life; Letters of John. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 247), offers these two theories on the nature of the tension in 3 John in his commentary.

[2] Andreas J. Kostenberger. A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009),

[3] R.C.H. Lenski holds the view that the missing letter referred to in verse 9 of 3 John is the epistle of 2 John. R. C. H. Lenski. The Interpretation of The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude (Minneapolis: Ausburg Pub., 1966), 584.

[4] John Stott goes as far as to propose that Diotrephes destroyed this missing letter when he writes, “The letter in question must, therefore, have been lost, possibly because Diotrephes destroyed it,” (John Stott. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; The Letters of John. [Leicester: InterVarsity, 1988], 229).

[5] James Strong. The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible; Expanded with the Best of Vine’s Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 190.

[6] Lenski, 586.

[7] Ibid., 586.

[8] Canon Brooke. The International Critical Commentary; The Johannine Epistles (Edinburgh: Clark, 1976), 189.

[9] Lenski, 587.

[10] James M. Boice. The Epistles of John; An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 171.

[11] Edward W. Goodrick and John R. Kohlenberger III. The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 723.

[12] Ibid., 990.

[13] Boice, 171.

[14] Brooke marks the present tense indicating not just a one-time incident of casting out brethren but an ongoing practice when he writes, “(ἐπιδέχεται τοὺς ἀδεφούς)… But the present indicates a general practice rather than a particular incident… (ἐκ της ἐκκλησίας ἐκβάλλει)… Again a policy or practice is described rather than a single incident.” Ibid., Brooke. 190.

[15] This was the view of C.H. Dodd regarding the authorship of 3 John. Dodd wrote, “It is unlikely that he is to be identified with John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee.” (The Johannine Epistles. [New York: Harper, 1946], 1xix).

[16] C.H. Dodd connected his view of 3 John authorship (not being the Apostle John but an unidentified elder) with the author’s desire for the office of apostleship to continue in affirming who and who cannot be in leadership when he wrote, “The Presbyter (if we have rightly identified him as one of the group which perpetuated the element of apostolic tradition at one remove) naturally stood for the element of apostolic authority in the appointment of ministers” 163. Dodd is wrong concerning the authorship of 3 John. However, Dodd is right to point out that Diotrephes “shows himself to be no Christian” because of the nature of Diotrephes’ conduct. Ibid., 166.

[17] In his commentary, James Montgomery Boice referenced Dodd on the view of Presbyter conflict. 171.

[18] Ibid., Dodd 162.

[19] Ibid., Boice

[20] Matthew Henry. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 1976.

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