Beyond the Lectionary Text: 3 John
by Bill Sytsma
It’s not too difficult to think of influential Christians throughout the course of history.
The Apostle Paul traveled the world, established numerous churches, stood trial for advancing the gospel, and wrote numerous letters that have become part of the New Testament.
After his conversion in 387, Saint Augustine became one of the most influential Church Fathers in Western Christianity. He wrote The City of God and Confessions, which are still widely read over 1,500 after his death. He helped formulate the teaching on original sin, and both Protestants and Catholics consider him an authoritative leader within the church.
John Wycliffe was an influential leader in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th Century. He argued that people should be able to read the Bible in their own language and worked on the translation of the Latin Vulgate into common English, which was completed in 1382. His name is still utilized today by the Wycliffe Global Alliance (formerly Wycliffe Bible Translators).
Mother Theresa dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor, caring for people who had been afflicted with diseases such as AIDS. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her charitable work. Her efforts set an example for many others, as thousands of Catholics continue to carry out her work in freely caring for those who are in the greatest need.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pastor and Civil Rights leader who was catapulted into a position of notoriety in the United States in the1950’s during the Civil Rights Movement. He encouraged nonviolent protests to highlight the injustice of racial inequality. His “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in 1963 during a march on Washington, and still remains one of the most well known speeches in American history.
Billy Graham was a Christian evangelist who preached to (an estimated) over 2 billion people at his crusades, on television, and over the radio throughout decades of service in ministry. He met with several presidents of the United States during his ministry. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has been influential in founding numerous media ministries.
We could list countless other leaders who have preached, founded agencies, and donated generously to further God’s Kingdom. When we read the list of names above, and recognize what God has done through their lives, we might experience a mixture of awe and intimidation. On the one hand, we are amazed at what God has accomplished through his people. On the other hand, we wonder how we can make a contribution to God’s Kingdom. Is it possible to make significant contributions to God’s work without vast resources, intellectual superiority, or throngs of followers?
In 3 John, we get a glimpse of someone who served in a way to advance God’s Kingdom that John was compelled to encourage, even though it may not seem as impressive as the contributions of the people listed in the paragraphs above.
In John’s previous letter (2 John – which is directed to an entire community), John gives instruction about welcoming people into homes. In that letter, he warns that the church should not provide a place to stay for traveling teachers who is not true to Christ’s teaching.
Hospitality is the act of making space and welcoming others into that space. It is most often noticed in those who open their homes. A gifted hostess has a wonderful ability to make you feel like you are welcomed into her home. It doesn’t have to be extravagant to be hospitable. It can be a simple meal with warm and friendly conversation.
Hospitality does not require a home. Perhaps you have stood with a group of people in a public location, huddled in a loose circle while you talk. Hospitality can be demonstrated as you motion to someone who is standing outside of your group, invite her to come over, and introduce her to the rest of the members in your group. You have made space for them.
You can make space for a friend by canceling an appointment on your calendar to visit him in the hospital. You can give someone your undivided attention while you listen attentively. Hospitality is a gracious act of making someone know that he or she is welcomed.
Hospitality may seem like a small act, but it is a crucial part of imitating Christ. In John 14, Jesus comforted his disciples by telling them that he would be leaving them in order to perform an act of hospitality – to prepare a place for them.
3 John is a brief personal letter that revolves around the issue of hospitality. It is addressed to Gaius, who has been welcoming fellow Christians into his home as they traveled. John had heard of Gaius’ hospitality, and is effusive in his praise.
All is not well, however, in Gaius’ community. Diotrephes, a fellow believer, seems to have taken the warning from 2 John 7-11, too zealously. While Gaius is praised for his hospitality, Diotrephes is criticized because he refuses to welcome traveling fellow believers.
Unlike other letters in the New Testament, 3 John is a personal letter from John to Gaius. Paul’s letters to Philemon, Titus, and Timothy are all personal letters, but the contents of the letter make it fair to assume that those letters were intended to be read to the entire church. The letter of 3 John, seems much more personal, as though it is a personal letter of commendation to Gaius for his hospitality.
Gaius: One of the first things we notice about Gaius is that he is deeply loved by John. After John opens this personal letter with a term of affection (which he uses two other times in this letter – vss. 5, 11), he reiterates his love for Gaius.
Outside of the hospitality that he has demonstrated, there is nothing remarkable we can discover about Gaius from this letter. If not for John’s letter, his name would never be mentioned as one of the great leaders within the church. It seems likely that he showed kindness to travelers in spite of the objections of others within his church family. This had to be an awkward situation for Gaius. On the one hand, he wanted to show kindness to others, but on the other hand, he would not want to cause a problem with a strong personality such as Gaius. It is possible that Gaius had been accused of harboring people who did not agree with the truth. He may have been threatened with expulsion from the church family, as Diotrephes seemed to do to others who disagreed with him (v. 10). John had heard about this, and his letter to Gaius is an encouragement to keep up the good work of showing love in spite of the opposition.
Diotrephes: From what we read in 3 John is hard to believe that Diotrephes is part of the church family. John does not have kind things to say about him. It seems at the heart of the problem is his refusal to welcome fellow believers who are traveling.
The church has never been free from tensions. In an effort to protect the truth, we can become inhospitable and offensive. We often see a person most clearly once we run into disagreements, and disagreements seemed to reveal Diotrephes’ true nature.
Pride: Diotrephes loved to be first (v. 9), and tried to draw attention to his own efforts in the midst of this disagreement.
Gossip: It was not enough for Diotrephes to voice his disagreement, but in order to bolster his own position; he spoke ill of John and others (v. 10).
Uncooperative: Diotrephes would not acknowledge the authority of John. He would have nothing to do with people who disagreed with him (v. 9).
Controlling: Diotrephes was not satisfied with his own decision to refuse travelers, he also insisted that other keep their doors closed. If others, such as Gaius, would allow guests to stay in their homes, Diotrephes would object, and even try to cast the hosts out of the church (in an ironic display of in-hospitability).
It is understandable that believers would have disagreements. Diotrephes may have had reasons for refusing to allow travelers to stay with him. He may have believed that they were not faithful to the truth of the gospel, and sought to follow the warning from 2 John 7-11. However, the way he handled the disagreement displayed poor judgment, and left Diotrephes open to the charge of being a fraud.
John’s response to Diotrephes demonstrates that the church cannot capitulate to bad behavior for the sake of peace. Peace within the community cannot come at the cost of poor character dominating the community. John writes that Gaius should imitate evil, and if Diotrephes’ behavior was not identified as evil, it would set an example for the entire community that would result in a community that not only lacked hospitality, but also encouraged traits of pride, gossip, and uncooperativeness.
Instead, John encourages Gaius to imitate Demetrius, giving him an alternate example of what it means to live out the truth of the Gospel.