Truth and Love: Good to Imitate in the Local Church
Have you ever received a word of encouragement from someone when you really needed it? I have had such an experience. When I finished high school, I went to work as a lineman. Then God called me to preach. That story is a whole other story. Tammy and I along with some others, planted a church where I pastored for two years. At that point, I thought, Good grief, I need some education. Some we loaded up the truck and moved the family. I started in college and quickly became absolutely overwhelmed. I told Tammy, I’m sorry, I’ve made a mistake. I’m not smart enough to do this. I think I need to quit. I left our apartment on my way to class and was talking to the Lord about my mistake. One of my professors, Juanita Williams, came up to me on the sidewalk and said, Tom, I feel like the Lord wants me to tell you not to quit. Things will get easier for you after 8 weeks. So just give it 8 weeks before you do anything.
That brief conversation changed my life and gave me courage to continue. I’m so thankful. God cared enough for me to give a word to one of His servants to speak to me.
Like Second John, Third John is a brief letter, the shortest in the NT. Both letters are concerned with Christian truth and love and their relation to caring for missionaries.i What was at stake was the gospel-centered, Christ-centered mission of the churches.
John’s community of churches was in crisis. There was a gospel crisis. Some denied the incarnation of the God the Son and were targeting churches to lead them away from Christ. Second, there was a leadership crisis. The epistles of John came near the close of the first century and the end of the apostolic age. John is the last Apostle and is getting on up in years.ii Diotrephes rejected John’s Apostolic authority, asserting of his own authority.
Third John is built around the Christian virtues of love and truth, and the second half gives us an application of love and truth in a particular situation in the community of churches. Among the first 11 words of the Epistle (in the Greek text), three refer to love (1-2a). He calls Gaius Beloved (2,5,11) 3 times and identifies him as one whose love is testified to before the church. Gaius’s love for others is set over against Diotrephes’s self-infatuation. Truth is mentioned 6 times (1,3x2,4,8,12), 7 if you count the word true (12). Truth, in John’s Epistles, is always shorthand for the gospel—Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who lived a perfect life, died as the atonement for our sins, and rose again the third day, so that all who repent and believe have the blessing of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Three times in Third John he uses the word church (ekklesia, 6,9,10), which are John’s only uses of the word in all of his writings, except for the Revelation.iii So John shows us the practical outworking of love and truth in the local church, and what love of self, absent of truth, looks like being worked out in the local church.
From this letter we can learn how to be a loving gospel-centered community.
1. We must make it our aim to pray for and encourage individual members of the church who are walking in truth (2-4).
This is a monumental and necessary task that should occupy the whole church. Gaius was obviously receiving a lot of discouragement in his service in the church, namely from Diotrephes. Discouragement is not a spiritual gift. No one is to be a discourager. John wants to let Gaius know that his faithful walk in the truth is being talked about in the church and this report is causing rejoicing, especially in the Apostle John.
This word of salutation had to be a great encouragement to Gaius. I don’t think John’s prayer that Gaius would prosper and be in good health is unrelated to the criticism that he was likely receiving for his service to missionaries, the stress that such pressure put on his health, and his personal financial cost of caring for missionaries. Gaius’s walk in truth, as we will see, revealed the health of his soul, but it was taking a toll on him physically and financially.
How would you like for someone to pray that your prosperity and health be commiserate with your spiritual health, with your walk with Jesus? We often want the church to pray for our individual prosperity and well-being but have no intention of using our wealth and health in service to the work of the church in the world.
3 John 2 was the verse that launched Oral Roberts’ ministry, the father of the prosperity gospel. He was a young Pentecostal preacher in Enid, OK, bemoaning financial hardship and discouragement. He randomly opened the Bible to 3 Jn 2 and became convinced that God has promised physical, financial, and spiritual prosperity to all believers. He denounced the sin and salvation preaching of the likes of Billy Graham and began preaching health and wealth. Soon he moved from Enid to Tulsa and launched Oral Roberts Ministries.iv
I do think God’s desire to bless us is much greater than our ability to receive. I do think that some need to come face to face with self-destructive tendencies that have them bound, unwilling, and unable to receive God’s blessing. But to be healthy and wealthy for the sake of being healthy and wealthy is of no prayer concern for the church.
The reality is those who walk in the truth will for the sake of serving the truth spend and be spent to the point that it is right and good to pray for their physical and financial health. This is the context of John’s prayer—the selfless service of Gaius.
There is no greater joy, pastorally, than to see the members of the church walk in truth to the place of costliness (4). Gaius’s life so lived was leading the brothers to testify that Gaius believes the gospel and lives it out in costliness to himself. There is simply something dangerous about calling on people to pray for you to have a better job, prosper, advance, etc., when you have no intention of employing your prosperity in the mission of the church. That is like asking people to pray for you to sin.
We must make the tenor of our lives together in community to pray for and encourage one another in costly faithfulness in serving the truth in this world.
2. We must pursue a sense of personal responsibility to care for those sent out by the church on mission (5-8).
Again John addressed Gaius as Beloved. The brothers who testified to his truth (3, i.e. his understanding and living out the gospel) are the very brothers who testified to his love for them before the church (6) and testified of Diotrephes rejection (10). Love guided by truth moved Gaius to care for the brothers who were sent out by the church on mission, even though they were strangers to him (5).
You will do well is a 1st century idiom meaning Please. John is saying please send them on their journey. This begs the question, if they have already testified about Gaius’s love and truth before the church, how will Gaius do well to send them on their way? He has already sent them. John seems to be saying that when people come who have been sent out on mission by the church such as these, You will do well (Please) to send them on their journey.
To send (propempas) became a formal word in the NT for sending people out on mission. To send people out was to care for them in every way. We pray for and give to missionaries. How we send our missionaries reflects our view of God. Send them in a manner worthy of God. How would you send Jesus out if He stopped by on His mission? That is exactly what we are doing when we send missionaries. We are going to give an account for how we send them out.
Verses 7-8 expand on this thought showing the unique nature of Christian missions and why we should send missionaries with such distinction. They have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Their mission is like no other mission.
In John’s day, people of differing philosophical ideologies would itinerate, living off of donations. Those who were really articulate and clever would earn a good living. They would even brag about fleecing the population. Christian missionaries would not take money from unbelievers because they did not want their message and unique ministry to be thought of as just another interesting philosophy being peddled on the street.
Paul took nothing from the Gentiles in order to protect the reputation of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:15-18). John says, they have gone out for the sake of the Name, not for the sake of fleecing the population. Their message was distinctive. It was the only message that was able to break the power of sin and deliver sinners from the wrath of God. It was the only message that was able redeem a life thrown away and give hope and meaning and purpose.
God has no expectation that the world pay for his mission and no expectation that the church fund the world’s mission. He has every expectation that His people will, however, fund His mission because He funds them. If fact, He gives us everything we need to do everything he calls us to do. God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work (2 Cor. 9:8).
We see why John was praying for Gaius’s prosperity and health. What is at stake is the Name, the reputation of the Lord Jesus Christ and the God of Heaven. The Gospel is not for sale, and it cannot be bought.
Herein is the uniqueness of the church’s mission in the world. This should help the church stay focused on the mission God has given to it. There are 10,000 good things we can do that the world is willing and able to do.
The one thing that the world will not do is preach the Gospel. If we take as our mission what the world is more than willing to do, the one thing that will not get done is the preaching of the gospel. I am all for feeding the hungry, educating the ignorant, healing the sick, and giving shelter to the homeless, but the worse thing that can happen to someone is not to be hungry, homeless, and hurting. I’m all in.
Yet, we cannot, must not, forget the worse thing that can happen to anyone is to die and go to hell. In hell there is eternal hunger, homelessness, illness and ignorance without the possibility of relief. Outside of Christ people are under the wrath of God. We cannot lose the distinctiveness of the church’s mission. If we do as mission what the world applauds, one of us is redundant. The church becomes irrelevant in society and loses voice. If you think injustice is bad, silence the gospel proclaimed in the churches and you won’t be able to live in the world!
John said these distinctive, gospel-saturated missionaries are the people that we ought to support (8). The ought-ness of supporting them extends even further. In supporting them, we become fellow workers (sunergoi) with them. In Second John to support the defectors, to support those spreading a message other than the gospel, was to share in their wicked works. The principle is this: those who send and those who are sent share in the same work. We become coworkers in falsehood or truth.
As a church seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, we must have a growing, healthy, overseeing, discipling base, that develops and sends out members to gather churches that are growing, healthy, overseeing, discipling bases, that develop and send out members, and on it goes. We are Great Commission Christians, making up a Great Commission Church. We have the high privilege of participating in the apostolic mission that will extend to every people and language, to all the families of the earth.v
We ought to be about the mission of discipling, developing, and sending.
3. We must not be influenced, frightened or intimidated by evil but imitate what is good (9-12).
It is so easy for the church to get off task. There is pressure to conform. There is societal pressure to let the evening news or Facebook and Twitter trends dictate the sermon. Perhaps in the congregation there may be a tendency in some think, That preacher is so out of touch. He either does not know what is going on or he does not care.
The problem with falling to societal pressure is the thing that gets sacrificed is the distinctive message of the church—the gospel. If we think we can transform society by removing the centrality of the gospel from the church, we do not understand the nature of the problem nor the power of the Gospel.
Here John shows us an application of love guided by truth by telling Gaius not to imitate evil but what is good (11). This is the only imperative in the body of the letter.vi John desires to fortify Gaius in keeping the gospel mission of the church central. John holds up Diotrephes as an example of what is evil because he moved the church off gospel mission and Demetrius as an example of what is good and fully in line with the church’s mission.
First, there is the negative example that Gaius is not to imitate. John had sent a delegation of missionaries with a letter of recommendation. When those sent on mission by the church arrived at Diotrephes’s church, he refused to acknowledge John’s authority, refusing to welcome them.
When John uses the first person plural pronouns our (9) and us (10), he is referring to his apostolic authority. Does not acknowledge (9) and refuses to welcome (10) is the same word in the Greek text (epidechatai). Diotrephes rejection of John’s letter and the missionary delegation were a rejection of apostolic authority and a corresponding assertion of his own authority in the church. John identifies Diotrephes’s problem as a power grab when he says he likes to put himself first (9).
Perhaps the take charge and strong leadership approach of Diotrephes looked like something to emulate. Diotrephes was the big pastor. What he said went. Perhaps he masked his real motive by spinning the missionary crisis to promote his own position in the church. To make a good case for his behavior, he could have argued, John is weak and washed up. He has heretics coming out of his churches spreading false teaching. It’s time to distance ourselves from him. So looking at him from one side, an up and coming church leader might think, I want to be like him. But when you look at Diotrephes’s behavior for what it is, a pathetic attempt to promote himself, it becomes very ugly.
John lays out what he plans to do about Diotrephes in verse 10. When John comes, he plans to bring up what Diotrephes is doing: speaking evil, maligning words against apostolic authority; and not content with that, he refused to welcome those John sent on mission, and stopped those who wanted to welcome them by putting them out of the church. John says, When I come I will bring up what he is doing. Bring up what he is doing to whom? John plans to bring it up to the church. John will tell it to the church. This is what Paul told the Corinthians to do about the sinning brother in 1 Cor 5:4-5.
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Jesus in Matthew 18:17,20 said, Tell it to the church…For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
In the corporate wisdom of the gathered church, there is the power of Christ to bind and loose. When John comes, He will tell it to the church, and if Diotrephes refuses to hear the church, he will be giving every evidence of being an unbeliever. This is what John means in verse 11, when he says, Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. The reality with Diotrephes is he may be going to hell.
You no doubt have heard of the sex abuse scandal in the SBC. Yes, and amen, let’s root it out from among us. It is time for Southern Baptists to move away from the Diotrephes leadership syndrome and put in place pluralities of pastors so that there is accountability on all levels. It’s time for churches to have meaningful membership, exercising church discipline where necessary instead of having bloated membership lists of people who have long abandoned the church and godly living. It’s time for members to feel responsibility to guard, protect, and care for each other, and for those who will not harm little ones to give themselves in service to caring for and protecting the vulnerable among us, so that they may grow up in a wholesome, healthy, and safe environment of godly examples where they are encouraged to be all that God desires them to be.
This, my Friend, is not the core of the Gospel, but it will create a context where the gospel is preserved, proclaimed, and does its transformative work in us and among us.vii
Second, there is the positive that Gaius is to imitate. In Demetrius, John provides an example of one who does good and is from God. While Demetrius was probably the courier of 3 John and the letter serves as a recommendation for him, he is one whose life can be imitated. The church agrees and Demetrius’s own understanding of and teaching of the gospel testify good things about him. John adds to that his apostolic, authoritative endorsement of him. Our ministries must be validated by the church, our lives and teaching, and the apostolic testimony preserved in the NT.
In pursuing in love the advance of the gospel among us and in the world, we must pray for and encourage those immersed in costly faithfulness; we must own a sense of personal and corporate responsibility to create a healthy, focused, growing, discipling homebase of believers, developing and sending out missionaries; we must not be distracted from our mission or discouraged in the work no matter how difficult it becomes or who opposes it. We cannot let the world or power grabbers set the agenda for the church. We must remain gospel-centered.
i Stott, TNTC, 223.
ii Perhaps this is, at least, part of the reason he continually asserts Apostolic authority and eyewitness testimony (1 Jn. 1:1-5; 4:6,14; 2 Jn. 5,9; 3 Jn. 9-10).
iii Akin, NAC, 243.
iv Accessed on 6/13/19. https://www.thebereancall.org/content/how-oral-roberts-changed-religion
v Yarbrough, BECNT, 374.
vi Greet the friends is an imperative but functions as a request not a command. Not to imitate evil but good in verse 11 is a command.
vii Recently the current president of the SBC said, "At its core, the gospel that you and I preach is about God's commitment to protect the vulnerable. "Accessed on 6/13/19. The core of the Gospel is the incarnate Son of God lived a perfect life, died on the place of sinners to atone for their sin thus turning away God wrath toward all who repent and believe the good news. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/religion/2019/06/11/j-d-greear-southern-baptist-convention-president-says-sexual-abuse-crisis-gospel-issue/1419384001/