by: Denise Robinson
Small But Mighty: 3 John
This morning ends our sermon series, Small But Mighty, where we’ve been looking at the five shortest books of the Bible. Today our focus is on #1, the shortest book, 3 John, checking in with only 219 words in the Greek text. Last week, with 2 John, we looked at a letter, a postcard really, written to an unnamed head of a house church on the issue of false preaching and teaching in the church. In 3 John, we have another short letter or postcard, written under similar circumstances as 2 John, but addressing a different church issue.
The letter we know as 3 John centers around four men. The first is author of the letter who, as in 2 John, is identified only by the words, “The elder.” For the same reasons as discussed last week, we accept the author to be John, the last living disciple of Christ. The second is the named recipient of the letter, identified by name as Gaius; the letter is to him and those in his church. The two other men in the letter are identified as Diotrephes and Demetrius, and they provide us with the context for the letter and the issue existing in the church. While 2 John’s focus was on those who preach in the pulpit or teach in the church, 3 John focuses on Christian living and hospitality – or the lack thereof – in the church. To borrow the words of a New Testament scholar: “Third John is all about the Elder, who wrote it; Gaius, who received it; Diotrephes, who provoked it; and Demetrius, who carried it and was the reason for it.” And, I would add, the life and teaching of Christ, who brought them all together.
In the opening verses of 3 John, John speaks of his love for Gaius and gives thanks for his faithfulness to the truth, that is, to the message of Jesus Christ. He has heard, through friends who have traveled between Gaius and John, of Gaius’ faithfulness to the two pillars of faith in Christ: walking in truth and loving others. These friends of John were strangers to Gaius and yet, as fellow believers, were received with love and were given support to assist them in their ministry. John commends Gaius for his loyalty to God and affirms that by supporting these fellow believers Gaius and his congregation are co-supporters of their ministry.
But now, in v. 9, we meet Diotrephes. Diotrephes is an interesting name. Many Gentile children were given names in honor of Roman or Greek gods. For those who converted to Christianity, it was common practice, as adults, to adopt new Christian names in rejection of the false god for whom they had been named. Diotrephes means “nourished by Jupiter.” Jupiter was the god of the sky and of thunder, and king of the gods in Roman religion. The Greek equivalent of Jupiter was Zeus. It says something about Diotrephes that he kept a name affiliated with a false god. That, however, is not John’s problem with Diotrephes. It seems that Diotrephes is, like Gaius, a leader in the church, but his relationship with John has been rocky; he has, at some time in the past, not only challenged John’s authority, but has even spread lies about John. But in this letter, that’s not the real problem either. The problem is that Gaius refuses to welcome friends, fellow believers from outside his church, in his church. He not only refuses to welcome them, but he prevents others from welcoming them; and, he even expels them from the church (tells them to get lost).
John words to Gaius highlight two problems with Diotrephes. First, he’s not showing Christian hospitality. In Mark 6, Jesus sends his disciples out to share the Gospel, from town to town. In Mark 6:11, he says to them, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” In other words, if they turn you away, then turn from them in such a way that their rejection of the Gospel will be remembered as testimony against them. The obligation of Christian hospitality is a strong one throughout both the Old and New Testaments. 1 Peter 4:9: “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” Romans 12:13: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; be hospitable to strangers.” Hebrews 13:1-2: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
The second problem with Diotrephes is that he is rejecting these other believers, not because there is anything wrong with their message, but because he sees them as detracting from himself. In other words, Diotrephes wants to be the center of attention, wants to put himself first or above others. He is ambitious and wants to be the head of the church, forgetting that there is only one head of the church and that is Christ. Diotrephes wanted Christ’s place.
To keep Gaius and other Christians from the “Diotrephes’ Disease” of pride and self-centeredness, John says in v. 11: “Don’t imitate what is evil, imitate what is good.” The Apostle Paul was known for advising new converts to imitate him. His rationale was that he imitated Christ – so, naturally, if they imitated him, they would be imitating Christ. John is saying the same thing. Christ’s teachings tell us what is good – how a follower of Christ should love, talk, and act – so do that. We can also look around and find older, more mature Christians and see Christ in them – so, hang around them and imitate them. The goal is, at some point, that newer Christians will watch and listen, and imitate you. We become what we imitate; we take into our hearts and minds what we listen to, what we watch, who we admire. So, make sure it’s good and not bad is John’s simple advice.
Finally, we get to the fourth person of our letter and the reason for it: a man named Demetrius is on his way, likely carrying this letter as an introduction. John has every reason to believe Diotrephes will reject Demetrius, but wants to be sure Gaius will welcome and support him. Why might Gaius not accept Demetrius? I don’t have time to go through it this morning, but it is likely the two have a history. If you want to know more, read Acts 19:21-41. Despite their past, John wants Gaius to accept Demetrius because not only does Demetrius now have a reputation for truth, but John personally knows his message is true and is of God.
What message is there for us in the words of 3 John? This postcard gives us three traits of a healthy Christian, a lifelong process that John Wesley referred to as going on to perfection or sanctification.
The first trait is to walk in truth to Christ in such a way that our commitment to our faith is obvious to others. This means being committed to learning and growing in faith. How many of you remember report card day growing up? You don’t have to raise your hand if you don’t want to, but how many of you were excited about that day because you knew you’d be rewarded for your A’s and B’s? At the other end of the grade scale, how many of you were just hoping not to get into trouble? In Christ, our lives should be such that the report about us is good. John Maxwell is an author in the area of Christian leadership. In his book Today Matters he says: “The truth is, if we don’t take responsibility for our growth, it won’t happen. Growth is not automatic. If you believe it simply comes with age, you might turn out like the subject of singer and comedian Tennessee Ernie Ford’s comment, ‘He started at the bottom, and sort of liked it there.’” We are called to grow spiritually: to grow in our understanding of Christ’s truth, to share our faith with others, and to live our lives as evidence of our faith. In the Greek, John writes that Gaius is literally “walking around” in the truth of Jesus Christ. Is that true of your walk? The first trait of a healthy Christian life is a growing Christian life.
The second trait of a healthy Christian life is to assist others in their walk of faith. We don’t grow just for ourselves. John writes in vs 4: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” John is not talking about biological children or grandchildren here, although they would be included in his definition. He is speaking of our obligation to, as we Methodists say, “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We can’t transform the world unless we first make disciples and we can’t make disciples unless we first introduce people to Christ. Too often I hear it said, “Well, I just live my life so others will know I’m a Christian.” I’m not saying that how we live isn’t important, but Jesus commands us to “proclaim” the Gospel, which means to speak of our faith. Our lives should point to something different, but it is our words that build relationships, lead others to Christ, and then guide them into becoming disciples. In the Gospels, we read that thousands of people believed in Christ, but few committed themselves to becoming disciples. Where are you on the discipleship spectrum? As you look around our church, who have you talked to about your faith? Who have you asked about their faith? Do you know if the person sitting in the next pew or two pews over has given their life to Christ? Do you know if they’re growing in their faith? Who here have you prayed with, encouraged, or supported in faith? If the answer is no one, John says there’s a problem. The second trait of a healthy Christian life is a Gospel-centered Christian life.
The third, and final, trait of a healthy Christian is to imitate good and not evil. In other words, imitate Christ, Paul, John, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and others of faith. Diotrephes is our negative example: proud, self-centered, ambitious, putting himself first, refusing to welcome others and preventing other believers from helping others. Left to our own devices, we are all Diotrephes because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking our answers are right, that the world would be a better place if only everyone acted and thought like me. But John offers the positive example: “Little children, let us love one another.” And that’s just hard. It means serving instead of being served, following instead of leading, looking out for the interests of others over your own, welcoming and supporting the stranger, encouraging those who are hurting even when you are hurting yourself, loving those who offend you or disagree with you or are just plain disagreeable – in short, to choose to give up your life for others as Christ gave his life for you. The third trait of a healthy Christian life is a giving Christian life.
Whatever you may think about the presidency of Jimmy Carter, whether you lived through it, studied it in a history book, or know little to nothing of him, after leaving the presidency following his 1981 defeat to Ronald Reagan, Carter returned to his home in Georgia and to his home church where he has remained an active church member. He served as a deacon for decades, and taught a Sunday School class until as recently as two years ago. At age 96, Carter is still active in working with others in building homes with Habitat for Humanity. Just after turning 95, Carter fell at his home while getting for church; he was taken to the hospital with a black eye a gash across his forehead that required fourteen stitches to close. Hours later he was on his way to Nashville, Tennessee where, the following week, he was at work, drill in hand, building porches for Habitat homes. Paraphrasing John Wesley, Carter said: “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. My faith demands that I do whatever I can, whenever I can, wherever I can, for as long as I can, with whatever I can to try and make a difference.” That is the message of 3 John.