The truth of the Gospel calls believers to separate from the sinful behaviors of the world and even sometimes from fellow believers who teach error or live in immorality (Matt. 10:34-36; 1 Cor. 5:1-7; Rom. 16:17). However, God’s people have always had a problem of separating themselves from those they should not (Mark 9:38-41; 1 Cor. 1:10-13).
Thankfully, John’s letters provide us with a rich resource on the limits and expression of Christian fellowship.
1 John clearly presents truth and love as the test of genuine fellowship in Christ. These grand characteristics do not work in contradiction to one another, but in concert. God’s truth writes the notes and love sings them out. John never sees “truth” as a sterile accumulation of doctrine, but the means by which love is expressed to others. The letters of 2 and 3 John apply these two principles to the practical life of the local church.
2 John deals with the truth being compromised. In a loving desire to support fellow believers an “elect lady” unwittingly helps those who corrupt the truth.
3 John deals with love being compromised. John tells us about a man named Diotrephes who is nowhere called a false teacher, but he is a false lover. His twisted love for power rejected fellow believers and threatened to hinder the truth.
3 John: The Purpose of the Letter
John writes his third letter to a dear friend named Gaius, and he carefully lays it out in five sections.
A greeting – (:1-4)
Gaius Receives Brethren – (:5-8)
Diotrephes Rejects Brethren – (:9-11)
Demetrius Needs Reception – (:12)
A farewell – (:12-13)
The central place Diotrephes occupies in the letter reveals that John is concerned about the influence this divisive, self-promoter might have on Gaius. John does not want Gaius to be intimidated by Diotrephes (:10), nor does he want Gaius to imitate Diotrephes (:11).
The central principle of the letter is in verse 11, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good.” This is an interpretive key for the letter. Gaius must be careful whom he imitates. Diotrephes is an “evil” man and must not be mimicked. The coming of Demetrius will give Gaius an opportunity to show that he will imitate what is good. Therefore, “Choosing good role models” is an important lesson of 3 John.
Contrasting the “two loves” of Gaius and Diotrephes provides a practical picture of fellowship in the local church.
Gaius is a man who loves truth. His fellow-believers testify about how “the truth is in him” and how he “walks in the truth” (:1-4). But, Gaius’ commitment to truth is proven to be authentic by the way he cares for his spiritual family, even those he does not know (:5).
Gaius’ love for the church was expressed through the practice of hospitality (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:8-9), especially toward gospel teachers. In the New Testament, the home was the launching pad for the spread of the gospel. It was where believers were cared for and fellowship was deepened. There is still no substitute for the home to strengthen the saints and spread the gospel. (see “Hospitality: The Forgotten Command.” Focus Online, December 9, 2015. Tim Jennings)
Gaius’ hospitality was motivated by faith. “It is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are” (:5). His commitment to God was the spring board to his service to others (see 2 Cor. 8:5). He cared for others “in a manner worthy of God” (:6), which just might be another way of saying, he treated fellow-believers in the same way he would treat God Himself! The way we think about God should affect the way we treat His children.
Gaius’ hospitality expressed his love. Those who were objects of Gaius’ compassionate care stood before the church and “testified of his love” (:6). They spread “Good gossip” about their friend. If others are not talking about our acts of love, then we might consider if we truly possess love.
At this point, John turns towards us and says, “Therefore we ought to support people like these” (:8). We should imitate Gaius’ personal and practical service, and when we do, not only will it express the love of Christ, but it will make us “fellow workers for the truth” (:8).
Gaius was committed to God first; Diotrephes was committed to himself first. Gaius’ love was for others; Diotrephes’ love was for himself. Gaius received believers; Diotrephes rejected them. The contrast between these men could not be stronger. Yet, John was concerned that Gaius could be intimidated by Diotrephes into rejecting faithful believers and imitate his terrible example.
Diotrephes’ love for power silenced the word of God within the local church. John sent a letter to the church, but Diotrephes would not receive John’s messengers (:9-10). God had a message for His people, but one man made it ineffective for all. This must not be allowed to continue. So, John plans a personal trip to expose the fleshly actions of this man (:10).
John’s description of Diotrephes is a revealing look at the ambition and actions of a religious bully!
Diotrephes’ ambition is self-glorification. He “likes to put himself first” (:9). Nothing is more repulsive than spiritual arrogance. Yet, God’s cause has often been afflicted with those who seek power and fame in the name of religion; and like Caiaphas before them they are willing to crucify Christ to maintain their position (John 18:14). Beneath every divided church lurks the ugly sin of arrogance that exalts “self” above the cause of Christ.
Diotrephes put himself first with a triad of foul actions.
- He used “malicious gossip” to speak harshly and critically of godly workers (:10). A divisive person gains “credibility” by tearing down others.
- He rejected fellowship with those who are in fellowship with God. “He himself does not receive the brethren” (:10). A divisive person will not allow any rivals. They will not listen to the teaching of others. The will not allow another to lead.
- He used intimidation to control people. Diotrephes put anyone who questioned him, “out of the church” (:10; see John 9:22; 12:42). Yet, the gospel is never forced upon a person. Godly teachers use careful and patient persuasion to the truth as their means of influence.
The church must not be inactive toward the divisive person. Churches act quickly to remove the drunk or the adulterer, but they let the divisive person go unchallenged and the churches slowly die. Those who love power, need to have power taken away! That is not how it works in the Kingdom of God, where only servants are meant to lead (Mark 10:35-45).
Whom Will You Imitate?
John tells us that believers like Diotrephes must not be our example! “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God” (:11). Our relationship with God depends on who we imitate! Do we look like Gaius or like Diotrephes?
Then John gives Gaius an opportunity to prove his commitment to love. He introduces a man named “Demetrius” who is most likely the believer John sent with this letter (:12). Diotrephes rejected anyone sent from John. How would Gaius act? As a man of truth, Gaius should receive him in love.
In every church there are dozens of people like Demetrius waiting to be served and loved. When we reject them in pursuit of our own glorification, we are sickly descendants of Diotrephes who do not have God. But, when we receive them and serve them, we are from the spiritual lineage of Gaius and know we are “of God” (:15, 11). For the sake of truth, whom will you serve in love today?
“Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14)
For Further Study! The above article is a brief look at 3 John and does not comment on every verse. For those who want to do further study into this wonderful letter please read my introduction and commentary on 2 and 3 John provided in the link below. (click on links below)
How the Divisive Person Works
Diotrephes’ lack of love brought division in the church. He was not the first, nor the last to do so. Below are a few tactics the “unloving” used against God’s people in Scripture.
- Slander – “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.” (Matt. 12:24, spread lies, 2 Cor. 10:10)
- Intimidation – “because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue” (John 12:42; also John 9:22)
- Manipulation – “the chief priests stirred up the crowd, so that he should rather release Barabbas to them.” (Mark 15:11, also Acts 21:27-30 – working up the crowds against Jesus)
- Personalities – “Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:12). Create division over personalities.