3 John 1:12: Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone--and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.
Was it a person? A document? What was it?
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The ESV translation of 3 John 12 is:
Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true.
After consulting 3 commentaries, "the truth itself" is truth personified as the 2nd witness in addition to a letter of recommendation ("received a good testimony from everyone") and John's own testimony ("We also add our testimony"). The referent of the 2nd witness is debatable, but 2 commentaries suggest Demetrius's own truthful conduct / upright character (which God witnesses) to be a possibility.
Bob Utley's commentary says this:
v. 12 “Demetrius has received good testimony” This is a PERFECT PASSIVE INDICATIVE. This really seems to be a letter of recommendation from John to Gaius about the missionary Demetrius, who may have delivered III John to Gaius. For other letters of recommendations in the NT, see Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 3:1; 8:16–24; Col. 4:10.
“and from truth itself” Truth is personified as another witness to Demetrius’ good testimony.
“you know that our testimony is true” John is asserting his own trustworthy witness to Christ (cf. John 19:35; 21:24).
Evangelical Exegetical Commentary describes varying interpretation (emphasis and formatting mine):
Demetrius has not only received the testimony of people who have known him, but from “truth itself.” With the article and adjective intensive αὐτῆς, truth is personified as another of the witnesses on Demetrius’ behalf (Bultmann, 102; Marshall, 93; Moody, 133; Plummer, 193; Strecker, 265). Here again interpreters understand John’s use of “truth” here widely. They identify it as
- the body of truth affirmed by all orthodox believers (Kruse, 233; Moody, 133),
- God’s Word (Kistemaker, 400; Lenski, 591),
- God Who is true (Burdick, 459; Yarbrough, 383),
- Jesus (Bruce, 155),
- the Spirit (Brooke, 192–93; Williamson, 218), or
- truthful conduct which is “in accordance with God’s will” (Haas, de Jonge, and Swellengrebel, 186).
Painter (379) sees the testimony of “the truth” as meaning “truth is self-evident in the life of Demetrius” (so too Dodd, 167 and Smalley, 361). The use of the article with “truth,” along with the repeated preposition ὑπὸ, indicates that “the truth” and those who know Demetrius agree concerning him and so their testimonies can be trusted. Thus this serves as a very strong endorsement of Demetrius in that he has three “witnesses” that verify his character.
New International Commentary says this:
Without any warning the elder introduces the figure of Demetrius. He is doubtless meant as an example of the good which Gaius is to imitate, but the real reason for mentioning him here at the end of the main part of the letter is to write a note of commendation for him to Gaius.⁵ It can be taken as virtually certain that he was the bearer of the letter (cf. Rom. 16:1f.) and as highly probable that he was a traveling missionary, possibly one of the group which had been made unwelcome by Diotrephes. He was, however, a stranger to Gaius, and in the present situation the elder judged that he needed to commend him to Gaius, even though Gaius was known to welcome strangers. In the situation of tension created by Diotrephes’ action a letter of commendation was necessary, and refusal to heed it would indicate a flouting of the elder’s authority.
The elder could speak in the warmest terms of Demetrius and produces a threefold testimony to his character. He had a good testimony from “everyone,” i.e. from every Christian who knew him but perhaps especially from those in the elder’s immediate circle. He could also receive a testimonial from “the truth itself.” This can be taken to mean that if the truth could speak, it too would testify that Demetrius’s life was in accord with its own standards. It is possible for a person to miss obtaining human favor and yet to enjoy God’s favor. Even if Diotrephes and his group might disapprove of Demetrius, yet he would be upheld at God’s bar (cf. 1 Cor. 4:3f.). On this view “truth” is virtually personified.⁶ But it is also possible that the elder simply means that the behavior of Demetrius, which was in accord with the truth, bore testimony to his uprightness of character.⁷ Finally, the elder adds his own testimony,⁸ and reminds Gaius that he knows him to be a truthful witness.⁹ The elder’s word can be trusted over against any possible insinuations from Diotrephes. Thus the full complement of three witnesses (Deut. 19:15; 1 Jn. 5:8) is provided to uphold Demetrius.
I believe this is a reference to the Holy Spirit/Spirit of Christ.
To understand this requires some familiarity with John's language and theology, in which aletheias - "truth" - is anthropomorphized and has a much broader semantic range than in common english usage and is especially significant. Note that of the 109 appearances of this lemma in the New Testamant, 45 are in the Johannine literature.
Let's go through them
Truth is something that is practiced (John 3.21)
The Holy Spirit is referred to as "the Spirit of Truth" (John 14.17, John 15.26, John 16.13). In the other gospels, the reference is the "holy spirit". Only in John does "Spirit of Truth" appear.
John 17.7 We can be "sancitified in truth"
The famous "truth will set you free" occurs only in John's gospel (John 8.32)
The famous "I am the way, the truth and the life" occurs only in John's gospel (John 14.16)
The story of the Samaritan woman at well where Christ proclaims that "God is spirit, and the ones who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” appears only in the gospel of John (John 4.24)
Pilates famous question "What is truth?" appears only in John's gospel.
Note the article "ho" is almost always used in conjunction with truth, giving it definiteness -- in fact in most situations you can substitute "Spirit" for truth or even "Christ" for truth and the meaning of the passages remains the same and is often made clearer.
We again see If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. (1 John 1.6)
Truth is either "in" some people or "not in" others (1 John 1.8, 1 John 2.4) If we say that we do not have sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. This could just as well be "Christ is not in us" or "The Holy Spirit" is not in us. The one who says “I have come to know him,” and does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in this person. You can read this also as "Christ"/"Spirit of Christ"/"Holy Spirit"
Lies are things that are "not of the truth" (1 John 2.21) -- can read this as "of Christ", "Of the Spirit"
We are to love "in deed and truth" (1 John 3.18) -- can be read as "in deed and in spirit" (c.f. John 4.24)
to "know the truth" is to "know Christ" or his spirit. See I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because every lie is not of the truth.. (1 John 2.21)
to be "of the truth" is to be "of Christ" or "of Christ's Spirit" -- e.g. it is to belong to him, be one of his, etc. By this we know that we are of the truth and will convince our heart before him,. (1 John 3.18)
Whereas others talk of "Walk with God", or "Walk in the Spirit", John says "walk in the truth": For I rejoiced exceedingly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, just as you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than this: that I hear my children are walking in the truth. 3 John 3-4
Whereas Paul might say "fellow workers with Christ", John refers to "workers with the truth". Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we become fellow workers with the truth. 3 John 8.
From the preceeding, we see that John's reference to "Spirit of Truth" is a reference to the holy spirit, not a compulsion to tell the truth that might come on someone:
We are from God. The one who knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit. (1 John 4.6)
Then combine this with 1 John 5.6-8, where the Holy Spirit is identified with the "the truth"
This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ, not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify, the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are in agreement.
Thus we know who is "the truth" that testifies. It is the Spirit who testifies or bears witness.
"Testify" - martyreo -- is another important word in the Johannine literature, of the 76 times it appears in the new testament, 47 times are in John's work. Jesus bears witness to what the father reveals. The one who testifies about these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly!” and the Spirit bears witness (martyreo) of Christ: This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ, not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. The Spirit is the one who testifies (martyreo), because the Spirit is the truth* and we also testify.
Now we have enough background understanding of John's idioms to give a proper exegesis/interpretation of the verse:
Demetrius has been testified to by all, but he does not only have humans who confirm his position, but even the Holy Spirit confirms it in our hearts. Thus we also confirm it, and you know that our discernment of the Spirit can be trusted.
Note the comments of the Cambridge commentary on 3 John 12 -
and of the truth itself A great deal has been written about this clause; and it is certainly a puzzling statement. Of the various explanations suggested these two seem to be best.
- ‘The Truth’ means “the divine rule of the walk of all believers:” Demetrius walked according to this rule and his conformity was manifest to all who knew the rule: thus the rule bore witness to his Christian life. This is intelligible, but it is a little far-fetched.
- ‘The Truth’ is the Spirit of truth (1 John 5:6) which speaks in the disciples. The witness which ‘all men’ bear to the Christian conduct of Demetrius is not mere human testimony which may be the result of prejudice or of deceit: it is given under the direction of the Holy Spirit. This explanation is preferable.
I do not believe that "Spirit of Truth" (John 16:13, 1 John 5:6) is necessary at it interpolates the text. Of the two options above, the one consistent with the meaning of the words elsewhere is preferable. Note the comments from BDAG about the word ἀλήθεια (= "truth") meaning 2(b) -
The content of what is true, truth, especially of the content of Christianity as the ultimate truth, eg, Eph 4:21, 1:13, 2 Tim 2:15, James 1:18, Col 1:15, 2 Peter 1:12, etc. (The proselyte is a witness in the truth)
Thus, John appears to be saying that the faithful witness of the truth of the Gospel by Demetrius speaks for itself; that is, he has done a good job as an evangelist for the truth.
Barnes reaches the same conclusion:
And of the truth itself - Not only by men, who might possibly be deceived in the estimate of character, but by fact. It was not merely a reputation founded on what "appeared" in his conduct, but in truth and reality. His deportment, his life, his deeds of benevolence, all concurred with the testimony which was borne by men to the excellency of his character. There is, perhaps, particular reference here to his kind and hospitable treatment of those brethren.
See also, Ellicott, Maclaren's Expositions, Denson, Gill, etc.