Wednesday, 15 July 2020
I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; 3 John -13
John now writes a thought that closely mirrors one found in the closing of his previous epistle –
“Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink.” 2 John -12
In this letter, however, it is written in the imperfect tense. It essentially means, “I was having many things to write you when I started…” John’s mind was full of thoughts about the situation, about the direction he hoped for the church, about how to handle Diotrephes, and etc. There was a lot to discuss. However, like his previous letter, he determined that he wouldn’t merely right it out. Instead, he says, “but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink.”
Like the translation from 2 John, the way it is translated here makes the thought appear confused – “I was having a bunch of stuff to write to you, but I don’t want to do so with paper and ink.” How else would he write it out then?
A more precise way of translating it would be, “I had many things to write, but I purposed not with paper and ink.” It shows that despite having the desire to write, he decided that putting his words to paper and ink was not the best means of conveying what he desired to say. John’s words are not confused. Instead, they show he carefully thought through the matter and made a determined purpose to hold off on writing.
There could be several reasons for this. Maybe his words would be taken wrong. People read notes and get easily offended by what is said. If John is too brief, he may be perceived as uncaring or dismissive. If he is too wordy, the content may be ignored because such a long response is too tedious to assimilate. And so on. For whatever reason, the many things that John had to convey would be better off not conveyed “with pen and ink.”
One can see the difference between 2 John and 3 John here –
with paper and ink – 2 John
with pen and ink – 3 John
Here, John replaces chartés, or “paper,” with kalamos, or “pen.” The word signifies a reed. It can be a small reed, such as is used for holding ink. In this, it is obvious that the reed is a pen. At other times, it can be inferred that it is a thin reed which is easily destroyed by even slight forces, such as a papyrus reed. This would be what is probably described by Jesus concerning John the Baptist –
“When the messengers of John had departed, He began to speak to the multitudes concerning John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?’” Luke 7:24
It can also describe a hardier reed used to make a rod used for whipping (Matthew 27:30), or for lifting something up (Mark 15:36), or even as a measuring rod (Revelation 11:1). John’s change from “paper” to “pen” demonstrates that 3 John is not simply a forged copy from the writing and style of 2 John. Any forger would have stuck with the original idea. However, John would naturally write about whatever was most directly in front of him to take up his notice.
In the previous letter, he may have had either a big piece of paper and decided it was too much to write all his thoughts down, or he may have only had a small piece and thought, “I don’t want to start on another piece of paper lest I inevitably fill that up with things that should be spoken in person.”
In this letter, John was probably looking at the pen in the ink well and thinking something like, “This arthritis is killing me. I have a lot to say, but the pen will be the end of me. And what I have to say is more properly conveyed in person.”
Obviously, we can’t know the thoughts in John’s head, but whatever they were, the change provides us with a note of authenticity which would otherwise be lacking.
Life application: This verse is very similar to that of 2 John -12 and is therefore probably something that he often did; start a letter and decide to end it early and wait to talk about what was on his mind in person. Maybe he wearied of the task mentally or from bad eyesight, or maybe he just needed to vent about Diotrephes a little. Whatever the reason, he started out with a lot on his mind and ended before it was all on the paper.
Fortunately for us, regardless of what else he had on his mind, the Lord found this letter exactly right to be included in His wonderful gift to us. The Bible contains the hopes and aspirations of psalm writers, the frustrations of the prophets, the joy of Solomon and a bride, the exacting details of the priests and chroniclers of Israel’s history, and so very much more for us to think on and study. It ultimately points to Jesus Christ and our relationship with Him. In turn, this leads to our relationships with others who are also called by His name as well as those opposed to His message.
This short little letter has given us a great deal of information to think about in this respect, and if it were lacking from the Bible, we would be less able to handle the important issues he brings up. God’s word is perfect in all it contains and teaches, and we should feel blessed that John took the time to pick up “pen and ink” and write his brief thoughts.
One other thing to note is that many times the apostles had scribes to write their words as they dictated, but in the case of 2 John and 3 John, it is more than likely that they were written by his own hand. If he had a scribe, the letter would probably have included all of his thoughts. But then, it wouldn’t have been exactly what the Lord planned for His word. As you can see, even the actions of John were somehow inspired by the wisdom of God.
Lord God, it is so very wonderful to peer into the thoughts of the writers of the Bible and see the issues which filled their lives and how they are not unlike ours today. It shows us the human condition remains unchanged. The personal touches we see in their letters remind us that they were people just like all the others who have come and gone over the ages – each fulfilling his time and then being called home to You. May we also be used by You to Your honor and glory. Amen.