In both 2nd and 3rd John the beginning words are the same. John simply identifies himself as “The Elder.” One of these letters is written to a saintly lady who needed his encouragement and guidance, the other was written to a man named Gaius about whom we know very little outside what is revealed in this short letter to him. Just think about writing to anyone you know well today and simply saying it is from “The Elder.” If you received such a letter, what would you think? Who would you think it was from? Perhaps there is a dominant elder with whom you have been friends for a long time that you would immediately think of or realize the letter was from them. Generally, our thinking has been been that we mustn’t look at anyone as “The Elder.” When the Bible talks about elders in the church it is plural. For example, Paul ordained “Elders in every church.” (Acts 14:23). In Acts 15 when Paul and Barnabas went down to the church in Jerusalem they met with the elders and the apostles. Timothy and Titus were left in Ephesus and Crete to “Ordain elders.” When Paul wrote the church in Philippi he addressed it to “All God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” (Philippians 1:1)
How many times have you heard someone declare with fervor there is no such thing as “The Pastor of the church?” Certainly it is true that the New Testament teaches us that there are to be both elders and deacons in each congregation of the Lord’s people.
But it is still true that John started these two letters he wrote by the guidance of the Holy Spirit with the simple address, “The Elder.” Did John get it wrong? Certainly not! It could have been the case that John is simply referring to himself as the older man. The word “Elder” isn’t always used to refer to elders in the church or to the office of an elder. There are just as many times when the word is used simply of people who are older people. For example, Paul told Timothy how to treat older men and older women in I Timothy 5:1-2. He told Titus to push sound doctrine or teaching by having the older men live right and tell the younger men how to follow that example in Titus 2:1-2. So it could be that John starts the letters as “The Elder” simply as a way of referring to himself as the older man, the one who was mature and old enough to be able to offer both of them some advise on how to live in the church and in the world at the time.
Truthfully, though, that doesn’t seem to be how John meant it in these letters. “The Elder” seems to carry more weight with it than simply the idea that he was an old man now. He speaks with an authority about the challenges they were facing that don’t seem to fit with good advise from an older man. Perhaps, John had been a long time elder of the church in Ephesus and has outlived the other elders so he simply refers to himself as “The Elder.” While that is possible, it doesn’t seem to fit the fact Paul had left Timothy there to appoint additional elders and had given them the qualities they were to look for in adding others to the eldership.
Maybe John was the more dominant of the elders and thus spoke of himself as “The Elder.” It is certainly the case that James the brother of Jesus was the more dominant of the elders in Jerusalem. One only has to read Acts 15 and 21 to see the times when Paul came to meet with the elders and apostles in Jerusalem to notice that James seemed to speak with the authority of the whole group on his own.
Maybe it was just that John was the elder that both the elect lady and Gaius were close to and the one they would have been willing to listen to and follow his advise. I’m not certain which one of these possibilities are the one or if there may be another one I haven’t thought of at all. What is absolutely true is that John was an apostle of Jesus, yet in writing these letters he didn’t claim the authority of the apostle. Instead he pictured himself as “The Elder” and thus as one close to them and what was going on in their life. Often we would receive a better hearing from others if we spoke as one of the group instead of as one who is somehow over the others.
In both of these short letters John commended them for some things and then got down to the point for which he wrote. He told the elect lady he was glad to learn that some of her children were walking in the truth. Like so many others, some of her children had turned from the right way and headed out on their own course. With Gaius John pointed out his joy that some of his children, were walking in the truth. These weren’t his children in the physical sense but his spiritual children. He knew that some of those he had led to Christ had turned back into the world. That was and is heartbreaking. But we must never allow the hurt over some turning back to take away the joy for those who continue to walk in God’s way.
The problems the lady and Gaius faced were very different from each other. In the next article we will look more closely at the problem of the elect lady and look for ways we can learn from how they dealt with it.