Volume 48 - Issue 1

The Eagle Has Landed: 3 John and Its Theological Vision for Pastoral Ministry

By David Shaw


This article argues that when 3 John is read in light of John’s Gospel, it can be seen to have rich theological foundations and to offer a vision for ministry which is the natural and fitting trajectory of the Gospel. These are especially evident in 3 John’s depiction of the ministry of individuals, the conflict their ministry provokes, their practice of hospitality, rejection of self-love, and the pattern of imitation in the life of the church.

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. The elder relates the report that Gaius walks in the truth (verse 3) and expresses his delight in those walk in the truth (verse 4). What has Gaius done to merit such acclaim? Verse 5: in what he has done for the brothers. He has received them, strangers though they were, and the elder has every expectation that he will send them on again (verse 6). Certainly there is more to walking in the truth than showing hospitality, but it is paramount. By contrast, Diotrophes is not hospitable. In verse 9–10 he will welcome neither the elder, nor other believers and puts them out of the church.

Once again, the Gospel anticipates this experience. The blind man is thrown out (9:34) and his parents and others live under the threat of being put out of the synagogue (9:22, 12:42), just as believers here are expelled. Moreover, John’s Gospel lays a path direct to 3 John by preparing Jesus’s disciples for a similar experience in the world. This is explicit in passages such as John 16:2–4, and implicit in the way in which the blind man functions as a paradigmatic disciple, sent to the world and holding firm to his testimony in the face of blind hostility. In Leithart’s generative reading, “the blind man is being healed by the Sent One in the pool of sending and thereby becomes one sent, a type of an apostle.”12

The sending language here also reveals a deeper pattern where the treatment of believers at the hands of Diotrophes has its roots in the cosmic drama of John’s Gospel. As early as the prologue, the world is characterized as inhospitable to the Word: “though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (1:10), indeed “even his own did not receive him” (1:11). In the course of the Gospel it is clear that rejection of the Sent Son is also rejection of the Sending Father and that this rejection is based on both ignorance—they do not know the Father—and self-love, since they refuse to glorify Father and Son and pursue their own glory. In John 5:44 comes the question “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” Subsequently, John will account for their rejection in light of that fact that “they loved human praise more than praise from God” (12:43).

This is the frame in which to interpret the conduct of Diotrophes. His love “to be first” (3 John 9) is of a piece with the desire for glory and praise revealed in the Gospel. Importantly, it does not render him inhospitable, but inhospitable to those who come in the name of Jesus. No doubt he is eminently hospitable to those who will praise his leadership, but it is a counterfeit hospitality that he might glorify and serve himself and not another.

Third John, therefore, provides a striking example of how Jesus’s followers will experience the same reception as he did and for the same reasons. It exemplifies John 15:20–21, and demonstrates how the dynamics observed in the sending of the Son can be recapitulated quite precisely in the life of the church. The elder is careful to endorse Demetrius as the bearer of his message because of the risk that Demetrius will be subjected to the same rejection as the Elder who sends him, just as the disciples were rejected because the Son sent them, and just as the Son was rejected because the Father sent him.

As we become attuned to these dynamics it is helpful to consider how we might navigate life and ministry as Gaius must. On the one hand, embracing the call to welcome those who come in the Name, simultaneously receiving the sent and the Sender. This is true hospitality, the love of the stranger—φιλόξενος—for the sake of Christ. On the other hand, we join Gaius in navigating the disputes of the church and seeking the wisdom to distinguish a Demetrius from a Diotrophes by the orientation of their love, either toward self, or towards Father, Son and those who come in their name.

4. The Call to Imitation

“Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.” (3 John 11)

3 John places this exhortation in a particular context, sandwiched as it is between negative and positive examples: Gaius is to imitate not Diotrophes but Demetrius. Though the elder refrains from stating it, there is also an implicit call to imitate the elder himself. For the reader, we can also reflect on Gaius as worthy of imitation, given the exemplary character of his conduct. Once more, this is a remarkable endorsement of the post-apostolic generation; they, as much as the apostles, become worthy of imitation as they walk in the light.

It is also fruitful, however, to locate John’s exhortation in a wider context. Although this is the only place in John’s writings where imitation is commended explicitly with the verb μιμέομαι,13 we have already seen how John’s characters are presented as models for imitation. Cor Bennema has championed this theme most helpfully:

The Johannine characters are representative figures in that they have a symbolic or illustrative value beyond the narrative…. The reader is invited to identify with (aspects of) one or more of the characters, learn from them and then make his or her own response to Jesus.14

This is true of the healed man in John 9, and the Samaritan woman in John 4. John the Baptist can be added to their number, as Bruner notes:

John the Baptist knows and confesses who he is not (a) I am not the Messiah (b) I am not Elijah; and (c) I am not the Prophet. John knows and confesses who he is: (a) I am a voice; (b) I am a baptizer in water; and (c) I am unworthy of the One Coming after Me. Christian witnesses and ministers ever since—all of us who believe and read this text— are invited to assess and affirm our own “I am not’s” and “I am’s” so that with a more healthy and clearly defined understanding of our limits and gifts, we too can move out into the world in faithful vocation and witness.15

Once again, though, this dynamic is rooted in the narrative of the Father sending the Son and the Son’s ministry in John’s Gospel. Bennema’s study of imitation within Johannine ethics focuses on the “just as … so also” framing of the Father/Son relationship as a key indicator of the concept.16 Thus “just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” (5:21), and Jesus offers this is an example of wider pattern wherein “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does” (5:19–20).17 In similar fashion, Jesus says to his disciples that “as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (15:9) and “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (20:21).

Unsurprisingly, the movement does not culminate there. Jesus speaks of his imitation of the Father’s love, and he establishes a similar dynamic for his followers: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (13:34). As that verse makes clear, the process is not one of detached observation and imitation, but rather it is the experience of love (Father for Son, or Son for his friends) that is transformative. For the disciples this is part of what they are to understand from the footwashing in John 13; “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (13:15).

In sum there is a mimetic chain of love: the starting point is the Father’s love which is directed towards his Son; the Son imitates the Father and directs his love towards the disciples; and the disciples are to imitate Jesus and express this love towards one another.18

3 John may not directly allude to this “mimetic chain,” but we must read its exhortation to imitate the good in its light. It will direct our quest for the good that we might imitate to the life of God himself and the overflowing and life-transforming love which cascades from Father to Son to his people to their concern for one another. And it will ensure that our imitation of the good is fueled by our experience of a Lord who loved us to the end, taking the place of a servant and laying down his life for his friends.

In light of that concrete and Christological example of love, what should we make of 3 John’s somewhat abstract exhortation to imitate “the good”? Although it might seem a bland expression in light of the love of God on display at the cross, I suspect it is because that love is now on display in dispersed form in the lives of those who walk in accordance with the truth. Just as Jesus intended, the love of his disciples for one another is now a revelation one can find in many places, and is itself worthy of imitation. Taking John’s Gospel and third letter together, we can say that the “mimetic chain” must always look back up towards Father and Son, but by design it lengthens with every generation.

5. Closing Reflections

Robert Yarbrough is not wrong to observe that “most churches could function a whole lifetime without 2 John or 3 John in their Bibles and never miss their absence.”19 In defense of 3 John, where perhaps the absence would register least, we have sought to trace the links from the Gospel through to this brief letter. The benefits are several.

First, it teaches us not to be surprised by the contested and ambiguous nature of ministry, where conflict and uncertainty are a sad staple of church life. If Jesus’s prayer in John 17 teaches us to pursue unity and peace, 3 John leaves us in no doubt that this age will nonetheless be characterized by the conflict between light and dark, and between those who reflect the love of God and those who pursue the love of self. It offers the starkest reminder that one can be theological orthodox (there is no hint that Diotrophes is anything other) and yet pursue one’s own glory in the life of the church. Alongside that, however, and taking the rest of what we known of John’s life, it also holds out hope that one can be taught by the love of Christ to set aside personal ambition and learn the way of Christ. John himself once loved to be first (Mark 10:35–45), but now draws alongside a fellow brother in Gaius to encourage and strengthen him.

Second, it indicates that the natural trajectory of the highest and richest theology is its application in the life of the church. John’s Gospel already prepares the way for that, in its celebration of individuals testifying to the work of Jesus in their lives and in its preparation of the disciples for their trials in the world. But 3 John makes it inescapably clear that the drama of the Son sent into the world is recapitulated in the ways in which fellowship is experienced and hospitality extended in the local church.

On the one hand, this means 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. Or, in more Johannine language, the watershed moment is when the Word becomes flesh. It is abundantly clear from the experience of the first followers of Jesus in the Gospel and the first generations of the Christian church as reflected in 3 John, that the challenge is precisely to bring theological truth to bear in everyday life and its conflicts. Theological reflection thus becomes not a means of escape, but the source of a true apprehension of pastoral realities, and the means by which to sustain believers in their resistance to self-love, their cultivation of hospitable practices, and their persevering walk in the light.

[1] As reported in Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 6.14.7.

[2] It has been common to connect the four gospel writers with the four living creatures in Revelation 4 (cf. the four faces of the living creatures in Ezekiel 1), in part as a rationale for why there are four Gospels. There is some variation, but most commonly, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are said to correspond to the Man, the Lion, the Calf and the Eagle respectively. For the earliest reference (which has John as the lion and Mark as the eagle) see Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.11.8.

[3] For a careful discussion of the apostle John as likely author of the three letters, see Robert W. Yarbrough, 1–3 John, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). Karen Jobes helpfully tabulates the similarities in language across the three letters in 1, 2, and 3 John, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 25–27.

[4] See Fred Sanders’s sermon, “Theology of the Trinity,” Talbot Chapel, 10 September 2013,

[5] Jerome reports that in John’s “extreme old age … he could not muster the voice to speak many words,” and so “usually said nothing but, ‘Little children, love one another’” (Commentary on Galatians 6.10, trans. Andrew Cain, Fathers of the Church [Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010], 260).

[6] To take one of the major examples, John the Baptist is regularly and rightly re-characterized as John the Witness, given the prominence of testimony language in John 1:19–20, his concern to testify truly to the coming of Jesus, and to his own identity (being the first to answer questions about whether he is the Messiah and responding “I am not” some time before Jesus will answer with the affirmative “I am”). The classic studies are Andrew T. Lincoln, Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000); Alison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness, SNTSMS 31 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). Andreas Köstenberger persuasively highlights the trial motif as a unifying feature across the Johannine literature. See “The Cosmic Trial Motif in John’s Letters,” in A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 436–56.

[7] This view is put most strongly by John Meier: “Jesus and Jesus alone stands in the spotlight of the Fourth Gospel; there is no room for anyone or anything else, including the church. And so it is not surprising that ecclesiology hardly makes an appearance on the stage…. High Christology is the black hole in the Johannine universe that swallows up every other topic, including the church.” Quoted in Andrew J. Byers, Ecclesiology and Theosis in the Gospel of John, SNTSMS 166 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 13. More nuanced discussion can be found in Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist, 1978); R. Alan Culpepper, “The Quest for the Church in the Gospel of John,” Int 63 (2009): 341–54.

[8] This theme is helpfully developed by Mary L. Coloe, Dwelling in the Household of God: Johannine Ecclesiology and Spirituality (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2017).

[9] Stott’s mind turns from Diotrophes to Article 26 of the Thirty-Nine Articles: “in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good.” John Stott, The Letters of John, 2nd ed., TNTC 19 (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 228.

[10] See, for example, the Afterword in John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022), 267–70.

[11] These references are supplied by Jobes, 1, 2, and 3 John, 303.

[12] Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 102. We have already noted the ways in which his identity is contested in the same manner as that of Jesus. The servant is not greater than his master (John 15:20)

[13] Cf. also 2 Thess 3:7, 9; Heb 13:7, and the cognate noun “imitator” (μιμητής) in 1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; Eph 5:1; 1 Thess 1:6; 2:14; Heb 6:12.

[14] Cornelis Bennema, Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2009), 208. See also Christopher W. Skinner, Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John, LNTS 461 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013).

[15] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 70. The characterisation of the beloved disciple and Peter also invite reflection, as does that of more ambiguous characters such as Nicodemus and Pilate. There are a variety of plausible arguments for why the author chooses to identify himself as the beloved disciple. Perhaps one reason is to provide a template for every beloved disciple in his faithful response to Jesus and proclamation of what he has received.

[16] A variety of constructions are in view, including καθώς/καθώς…καί/καθώς… οὕτως/ὥσπερ… οὕτως καὶ.

[17] It is not the case, though, that every comparative clause implies imitation. Bennema distinguishes between existential and performative senses. Existential claims would include the proposition that “just as the Father has life in himself, so too he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26)

[18] Cornelis Bennema, Mimesis in the Johannine Literature: A Study in Johannine Ethics, Library of New Testament Studies 458 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 114. Bennema’s work is taken up and deployed further in Sookgoo Shin, Ethics in the Gospel of John: Discipleship as Moral Progress (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[19] Yarbrough, 1–3 John, 7.

David Shaw

David Shaw is vice-principal and lecturer in New Testament, Greek, and Biblical Theology at Oak Hill College in London, England.

Other Articles in this Issue

Studies on Genesis 3:15 often debate whether the seed of the woman refers to an individual or a collective group...

This article presents comparative textual analyses toward a basic grammar for understanding the interface between Reformed and Confucian sociologies of knowledge...

Various interpretations have been offered on how David sinned in taking the census of 2 Samuel 24, but too few have seriously grappled with the implications of Exodus 30:11–16 or the structure of 2 Samuel 21–24...

This essay considers the concept of the eternality of human memory and what the Christian may expect to remember after death...

Christian compatibilists believe that human freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with theological determinism, i...