The Perennial Problem


3 John

Text Comment



v.1

Gaius was perhaps the most common name in use in the Roman Empire in the first century. He is here a man who occupies an important position of responsibility and leadership in a local church – either in a particular house church or in the church of a particular town or city that might have been composed of many smaller congregations meeting in larger homes as was usually the case early on. Church buildings enabling individual congregations to be much larger were not possible for some years after this time. We know he was a leader both because visiting evangelists would stay with him and because John would not have been so outspoken in his criticism of Diotrephes (vv. 9-10) to any but a leader of the church.


v.2

These are conventional expressions in the letter-writing of that period, but enriched with Christian meaning.


v.5

The church in which Gaius was a leader, if not the pastor, was a generous church with a heart for the gospel and the spread of the kingdom of God. Christian workers passing through the town always found ready hospitality there and spiritual encouragement.


v.7

Just as ‘God” is not mentioned by name in the book of Esther, so Jesus Christ is not mentioned by name in 3 John. One does not always have to say everything to say something! Many things must be assumed so that one can devote himself to the actual point needing to be made and why not assume it with a man like Gaius who shared the same faith. These wandering teachers, of whom there were many in early Christianity, filling in for the lack of an educated ministry in the earliest period, were not like the wandering non-Christian teachers of those days nor were they like the begging friars of the Middle Ages who gained their living by asking for the support of those they met. These men were not in it for the money! They were in it for the gospel and for the kingdom of God.


v.8

“We ought to support…” These words meant the same thing in John’s day that they mean today. We ought to support faithful Christian workers. We still talk about missionaries raising “support.” That is what Lian Tombing was doing last Lord’s Day here among us: raising “support” for the orphanage in Manipur. We become “fellow workers for the truth” by supporting others who are working on its behalf!


v.9

There has been much discussion about what John meant by the words “I wrote to the church…” Is this another letter that he had written earlier that Diotrephes destroyed or refused to read publicly? The words seem to suggest that Gaius may not have been familiar with the contents of that letter.


v.12

Demetrius is very likely the one who carried this letter to Gaius and, as we said last time, perhaps 1 and 2 John as well.


In this short letter — again, like 2 John, short enough to fit on a single piece of papyrus — we are given a window on daily church life in the first century. And what we see when we peer through that window is church life just as we have encountered it in our own time; not only missionaries passing through and raising support, something we are very familiar with, but the typical sort of problems.


There was a rift in this particular church. But, in this case, apparently, it had nothing to do with theological drift such as John addressed in his first and second letters. Had Diotrephes been preaching the heresy John warned against in those other letters, John would certainly have said so and dealt with the man differently than he did. No, the problem was simpler and, at the same time, more complicated than the penetration of orthodox churches by sinister teaching that denied that Christ, the Son of God, was God come in the flesh.


What was driving the Christians apart in this church was pride and envy and, in particular, the pride and envy of one Diotrephes, one of the church’s leaders. Under the influence of these private jealousies, Diotrephes had thrown off the apostolic authority of John, had refused to heed his counsel, had wielded his authority in the church in pursuit of his own agenda, had ostracized members who did not agree with him or were unwilling to submit to his program, and had refused to receive brethren, especially other teachers, who came from elsewhere whom he feared would not support him either. Diotrephes, like so many others who have bedeviled the peace and unity of the church through the years, not only had his own opinions, he did his best to spread them to others, creating parties in the church. Gaius may have been the chief threat to Diotrephes’ program of self-aggrandizement and clearly those two men were deeply at odds. The Apostle John unmistakably took Gaius’ side in the dispute.


We don’t know what the substance of the dispute was – there are always differences of opinion – and apparently it doesn’t matter. John obviously didn’t think the argument was really about whatever issue was in dispute. The problem was of another kind: Diotrephes liked to put himself first.


Now, what is essential to appreciate is that Diotrephes would never have admitted that the dispute had anything to do with his wanting to be first. That is John’s interpretation of the situation and because this is Holy Scripture, it happens to be what in fact was the case. But Diotrephes would have indignantly denied John’s interpretation. According to Diotrephes, the dispute had to do with the good of the church, the progress of the gospel, the raising and maintaining of standards in God’s church, obedience to the Lord’s commandments, choosing the most far-seeing leader to execute the vision that the church ought to have to take the gospel into the second century, or some such high-minded and high-sounding interest as that. It was about such things; it had nothing whatever to do with pride or envy. Why, Diotrephes, I am sure, would have said that he would have probably been much happier to take a position behind the scenes, but he was thrust into the limelight by his loyalty to the church and the gospel. That is what Diotrephes thought. But John knew better: Diotrephes wanted to be first.


I’ve been in the church my entire life and I have, as many of you have, witnessed a number of disputes in the church and heard of many others. And throughout church history and still today there are fights and disputes in churches that seem to be about all manner of other things –  principles, theological convictions, views of ministry – but which, at last, are the fruit of one or sometimes many people who want to be first. Disagreements about doctrine and church music and fights about the character of the worship service and about pastors and building programs and mission budgets and the discipline of members and many other things – and over and over again, in my experience and I suspect in yours, someone has said when looking back and surveying the wreckage, well, those things were involved, but mainly it was a clash of personalities. That is, strip away all the rhetoric and the impassioned defense of principle and what you will find is a clash of wills; which is simply a more genteel and not so accurate way of saying what John says more bluntly: the trouble stemmed from people wanting to be first.


Now John speaks so bluntly, the Holy Spirit speaks so bluntly through John about this because you and I must see this for what it is and must fear such disputes for what so often lies behind them. So long as we imagine that we are really talking about issues of great magnitude we will be blind to the pride and envy that are really inflaming our disputes and our divisions. It is only when we fear that it might be true of us what was true of Diotrephes, that we place ourselves on guard to watch and pray against pride.


God’s people, in ages past, used to think a great deal more about pride than we do today. Their writers and their preachers warned them against pride and went to great lengths to teach them how to recognize it in themselves and to fear its consequences in their hearts. Augustine, in The City of God (xiv, 13) wrote that pride is “the great political enemy in the City of God” because it is “the usurper that wants to unseat God and enthrone itself.” [Plantinga, Not the Way…, p. 81] Pride, Augustine wrote, is “the beginning of sin.” It is the sin that led to the Devil’s fall, and then the sin that led to the fall of man. So that, finally, he said, you can distinguish the City of God from the City of Man by this one thing, the former is populated by lovers of God and the latter by lovers of themselves. But even in the City of God those lovers of God are always still struggling with the temptation to love themselves!


In the medieval church pride was regarded as the first of the seven deadly sins. And the poets of that time and later waxed eloquent about the consequences of pride: what hatred and envy, what selfish and small-minded desire for the diminishment of others pride always produces in human hearts. In what are perhaps the most famous lines in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1, iv, 30), we read,


And next to him malicious Envy rode,
Upon a ravenous wolf, and still did chaw
Between his canker’d teeth a venomous toad,
That all the poison ran about his jaw.
But inwardly he chewed his own maw,
And neighbor’s wealth, that made him ever sad;
For death it was when any good he saw,
And wept that no cause of weeping more he had,
But when he heard of harm, he waxed wondrous glad.


Why? Because when others are brought low, you seem to rise higher in comparison. In fact it is the easiest way for human beings to rise—for others to be lowered around them. That is the ugliness of pride! People used to see that pretty clearly. This is the point that C.S. Lewis made so powerfully in his discussion of pride in Mere Christianity.


“What you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive – is competitive by its very nature – while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. [And, of course, for that reason] power is what pride really enjoys… [B 27]


That was what Diotrephes was angling for! That is why he threw off the authority of John. He didn’t want to think himself below an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, as I said, until the Enlightenment, the triumph of man-centered thinking in the 18th century, our civilization, whatever its success or failure in regard to controlling pride, was at least on guard against the evil of it. But in the modern era that concern has withered and now, in our day, even an aggressive self-regard is not viewed with alarm and distaste the way it was in days gone by. Ours is a culture, so various surveys report, [cf. Newsweek (Feb. 17, 1992) 48)] in which our schoolchildren outrank Asian schoolchildren not in math ability but in self-confidence about their math ability, in which students are being taught to think that what they bring to a text of Shakespeare or Milton is more important than what the text brings to them. We are an ego-centered culture with a vengeance.


Listen to this ad from the “Strictly Personals” section of New York Magazine [June 8, 1992, p. 1 U; cited in Plantinga, Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be, 84], the kind of thing one reads nowadays all the time on internet dating sites and social networking media:


“Strikingly Beautiful – Ivy League graduate. Playful, passionate, perceptive, elegant, bright, articulate, original in mind, unique in spirit. I possess a rare balance of beauty and depth, sophistication and earthiness, seriousness and a love of fun. Professionally successful, perfectly capable of being self-sufficient and independent, but I won’t be truly content until we find each other…. Please reply with a substantial letter describing your background and who you are. [And I love the finish.] Photo essential.”


Vain to the end: this woman would not be seen in public with an unattractive man! Diotrephes would never have said such things about himself. He would have known that such an admission would have given himself away. But in our culture such an astonishing and more than faintly pathetic egoism is no longer regarded as either childish or vulgar. But that means that we have only to be more on guard against the powerful tendencies of our hearts toward pride and wanting to be first. It is hard enough when a culture at least officially despises pride, but true humility becomes still more difficult when pride and self-admiration are actually regarded, at least theoretically, as virtues and when it has become perfectly normal practice to go on the internet and pontificate, as if the world were breathlessly waiting to hear your opinions.


The Bible speaks so much about humility and argues for it in so many different ways both because it is a foundation grace – the other graces depend upon it, without humility all the other graces are in fact vices – and because it is so contrary to our natural tendency to worship ourselves. Humility is the most difficult virtue for proud lovers of selves such as we are to put on.


Richard Baxter, the great Puritan, wrote of himself that he supposed he had as many reasons for being humble as any other man: for example, he could point to his years of living under a mental and spiritual cloud, we would call it today chronic depression, and then afterward, years of being sickly and often near death. What is more, in his pastoral work he was given so much opportunity to see killing pride in others and the ugliness of it. But, he admitted, if he heard some word of applause and compliment spoken of another or some word of criticism spoken about himself, even at the end of his life, even as a mature Christian, he saw in himself the tendency to react in raging pride – either secretly to rejoice in someone else’s trouble as, by comparison, reflecting better on himself, or to resent any implication of criticism of himself as certainly unfounded in regard to a man as good as he. [Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, 282-283n.]


William Cowper, the poet and hymn-writer, acknowledged in verse that he couldn’t even praise God without pride lurking behind and beneath the wonderfully pure sentiments that he was uttering.


When I would speak what thou hast done
   To save me from my sin,
I cannot make thy mercies known,
   But self-applause creeps in.


No wonder then that we should struggle in the church in exactly the way the church was struggling even in the day when apostles still walked the earth. No wonder then that we would find Diotrephes in our own churches and, still worse, in our own hearts, wanting to be first. And what is the solution for that? Humility like all the virtues is put on in two ways; always these two ways.


First, there must be the active recognition that pride lurks in our hearts and that it stands ready to spring into action whenever we begin to think or to speak or to act, especially in the presence of others or in reference to others. In other words, there must be the honest admission of our pride and plain dealing with the power of it in our hearts. This the Bible calls conviction and repentance. Only if there is this recognition, this honesty about ourselves, will we ever really and vigorously watch and guard against our pride and take steps to keep it down, if not to stamp it out.


Diotrephes did not accept that his problem was wanting to be first. That was John’s accurate diagnosis of the problem; it was, unfortunately, not the view that Diotrephes had of the situation at all. It was the furthest thing from Diotrephes’ mind that the dispute resulted from his craving to be above and before others. And, therefore, we are to learn that it is very easy for us to be blind to our own motives and not to see how eaten up with self-love we actually are and how that poisons and corrupts everything we think and say and do. Before you enter the fray on one side or another of any discussion or dispute, before you offer criticism of another believer in this or some other body, before you say things about another behind someone’s back, before you presume to stand up for one principle or another, one program or another, first search your heart in the active recognition that perhaps most Christians, most of the time, who have done what you are about to do and have spoken as you are about to speak, have done so out of a desire of wanting to be first; nothing more. Advancing a program, taking a stand, issuing a judgment, offering an opinion that, in one way or another, advances our interest and our cause, is simply a way of placing us in a favorable light, or, as in the case of Diotrephes’ gossip and criticism of others, simply a way of lowering others so as to raise ourselves in comparison. Do you really want to do that?


If you take an honest turn through your heart with this in mind, you will find, I guarantee you, that you have much less to offer, at least much less to offer with the confidence that it is offered for Christ’s sake and not your own. You imagine that it is an easy thing to see your pride, but it is not. You have to work at it. You have to look for it. And because you are not the Roman emperor as Caesar was or the head of an order of monks as Francis of Assisi was, you cannot appoint a servant to accompany you everywhere you go so that whenever anyone should say something nice or complimentary to you the servant could whisper in your ear the real truth about your laziness and your selfishness and your lack of commitment to God and man, and the weakness of your faith, and the poverty of your prayer, and the lukewarmness of your love for Christ. It would help, no doubt, if we had someone always reminding us how mortified we would be if people could hear our thoughts or take the measure of our attitudes.


I’ve been reading a fascinating biography of the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan. He had a mind that soared far above almost everyone else. He inhabited intellectual realms in which, in some cases, there was no one there but himself, and in other cases, there were just a few others in the entire world that could understand what he was talking about. To be that far above somebody else and beyond everybody else is amazing and yet, this same man was absolutely undone by any suggestion that he wasn’t as smart as someone else or that people didn’t appreciate how smart he actually was! That is the human heart. That’s your heart and mine. Without a servant, you have to tell yourself this and remind yourself of it and refuse to allow yourself to forget it. If you do not, your pride will be the only voice you hear!


Second, the antidote to any and every Diotrephes is a Gaius, that is to say, as with the mortification of every other sin in life, so here, the most powerful way to put the axe to the root of that evil in your heart and life is to practice the contrary virtue.


Paul makes this point in v. 11 where he tells Gaius not to imitate evil but good. This is, of course, a great law of Christian holiness to be observed at every point in your sanctification. It is not enough to hate stinginess and to stand against it; you must practice generosity until you fall in love with that instead. It is not enough to practice self-denial sexually, you must also learn to love, really love your wife until she crowds out all the other thoughts about and interests in other women you might find in your heart. It is not enough to seek to put gossip to death in your behavior you must cultivate the grace of speaking so as to build others up. It is the sure way of killing a gossiping spirit. It is not enough to fight the impulse to depend upon yourself; you must live the life of prayer, of earnest and familiar talking with and depending upon God. And so on.


And so, it is not enough to watch and pray against pride and envy, important as that is, essential as that is. It must be matched by the cultivation of those graces and virtues that will finally crowd pride and envy right out of your heart. This is the value of the contrast John gives us in this short letter between these two men. Just as in the church the answer to Diotrephes was Gaius, so in your own heart the answer to pride is Gaius’ life of generous involvement in and support of the life and work of other Christians. Scholars think the phrase “send them on their way” in v. 6 may well be a kind of technical term already in use in early Christianity; in any case it is very likely to suggest more than merely a cheerful ‘bon voyage’ but financial support and support of prayer as well. Gaius had a ready and practical interest in every good and holy cause. He was quite ready to let other teachers take the limelight and receive the praise if people in his church would receive the blessing of God in their teaching.


Gaius was like that Scottish minister that other ministers talk about with undisguised reverence: Mr. Castlelaw of Stewarton. Mr. Castlelaw knew that he was not much of a preacher, but he loved his people and the Word of God and so he would often encourage them to attend David Dickson’s preaching in the nearby parish because it was always better than his, no matter how hard and faithfully as he worked on his sermons. He would also often bring Robert Blair, another much better and celebrated preacher, to Stewarton to preach, and, in gratitude, would accompany him there and back home singing psalms all the way. [Whyte, Samuel Rutherford, 61] You have to be a minister like me, with lots of Diotrephes in him, to appreciate how astonishing and how beautiful a man like that truly is, and how rare and how Christlike!


So for every word you speak that, if there is any pride or spirit of envy at all in your heart, might be motivated by such low and ugly things, speak five words or ten words that can have no other motive than love for God, love for Christ and his church, and love for the salvation and blessing of others precisely because they are words that do not serve you at all. They don’t run another person down and they don’t build you up. You will find it is far and away the best way to live, to kill Diotrephes within yourself and live as Gaius. It is the holiest and the happiest way to live, and it is the life of least regret.


There is a story told of a young assistant of Alexander Whyte. It came time for him to preach and in some pride and with great confidence he prepared what he felt was an impressive sermon and rose to deliver it from the pulpit of Free St. George Church to the large congregation below him. He started well but then lost his place and forgot where he was going in his argument and the entire thing turned into a disaster. He finished as best he could and came down from the pulpit abjectly humiliated. In the vestry he asked Dr. Whyte what went wrong and the reply was: “Well, laddie, if ye had gone up like ye came doon, you might have come doon, like ye went up!” No one has ever been humiliated by humility. No one has ever been humiliated by being generous or by living for others! That is after all the Bible’s simplest definition of humility—living for others.


I don’t know what became of Diotrephes. No one does. But we may hope that, by the grace and the Spirit of God, and perhaps in part by the example set for him by Gaius, in some way he discovered his raging self-love for what it was and came to hate it and confess it to God and was forgiven his pride and envy and all that came from them and all the harm they had done did in that church. We may hope that God’s grace reached this man and he repented of his pride before it was too late; before he found himself straining to be first in a world where everyone else is straining to be first and each one hates the other with perfect hatred for standing in his way.