Our text for this lesson is 3 John 1-11. It is a succinct letter written to a man named Gaius, but its brevity is not indicative of the richness of its content. In words that could have easily fit onto one piece of papyrus, we are given a unique and authoritative look into the motivation of two very different men; Gaius and Diotrophes. It is beneficial to study these two men because we may, at times, find ourselves acting like either of them – fitting the negative mold of the one, or surpassing spiritual expectations like the other.
Gaius was a righteous man, who seems to abound in good works, and whose reputation for kindness and righteousness has spread far and wide, even to the ears of the great apostle John. Gaius superbly exemplifies the rich life of one who seeks God and loves his brethren. As we go through the text, I hope it will become clear that the life of Gaius is filled with love; love of the truth, love of his brethren, love for all mankind; while the life of Diotrophes is filled only with his love for himself. And not only that, but his ambition and his desire for preeminence among the brethren. “In character and behavior he is entirely different from Gaius. Gaius is portrayed as walking in truth, loving the brothers, entertaining strangers. Diotrophes, on the other hand, is seen as loving himself more than others and refusing to welcome the traveling evangelists, or to let others do so” (The Letters of John, John R.W. Stott, 228). Diotrophes is the epitome of deceit – a man who claims to be a believer, who advertises his goodness, yet is only full of lies, schemes, and selfish ambition. It is made very clear by the writer in 3 John 11 that we must “not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.” Thus, this short letter is given to us by God to help us see both how we ought to live, and how we should not live.
First, we will spend some time looking at the kind of man Gaius was, and why John rejoiced so much at his activities. After that, we will look at the text dealing with Diotrophes, an almost polar opposite to his good-natured, truth-loving counterpart.
3 John 1-2 – “The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth. Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”
Let us understand a few things about the introduction before we begin a study of the character of Gaius. First of all, Gaius was one of the most common names among the Romans. “As this name was just about as common in the Roman world as the name John Smith is in the British Isles today, it would be rather rash without any further data to infer that the Gaius whom John here addresses is the same as others of that name who are mentioned elsewhere” (Explore The Book, Baxter, 331). Other men named Gaius are mentioned in Acts 19:29, Romans 16:23, and 1 Corinthians 1:14. Roman families were given eighteen names from which they could choose a praenoman, or a surname, for one of their sons, and Gaius was one of the most prolific. As for the “elder” in the first verse, it is clear that this is the apostle John, as this is the title he uses of himself in 2 John. The title was used, perhaps, as a sign of his apostolic authority and his age.
From the very opening words of this epistle, we are given a glimpse of the kind of person Gaius was – John himself tells him that he “loves him in truth.” Not only is this a love between two friends, but it is a deep love between two men who are both striving and working in the same faith, both fighting to spread the same Gospel, and struggling against the same foes.
A second indicator of Gaius’ character is found in the second verse, in which the elder expresses that he has been praying for the recipient’s health and welfare. Apparently, Gaius has been working so hard in refuting false teachers and spreading the truth that John is concerned about his friend’s physical stability (Baxter, 332). In any case, it is encouraging to read about the concern for Gaius that John shows. Not only was he concerned about his spiritual welfare, but also for his success in this world, and his comfort and health. We, too, should express that kind of care and devotion to our brethren who might be suffering under a weight of physical or financial problems (Colossians 4:12-13, 2 Corinthians 11:28). “Just as your soul prospers.” Even though John is greatly concerned about the physical well-being of Gaius, he is confident in his spiritual resilience. He has no need to pray for more prosperity in that department. It is amazing that the human spirit is so capable of enduring such great tribulation – though the body may decay, the soul cannot be ruined if it takes it hope in God. This is very much like the situation in which Paul found himself in Acts 16:24-25.
3 John 3-4 – “For I was very glad when brethren came and bore witness to your truth, that is, how you are walking in truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.”
It is, first of all, very noteworthy that John does not see the truth as some kind of flexible, elastic concept. Rather, it is “the truth” with no compromises, short cuts, or handicaps. Like in all of John’s other works, the truth is a central theme, a key to his message, and is considered as equal to love in every way. Consider 1 John 2:3-6, or the oft-quoted John 14:6. Gaius was of such a disposition that he made no excuse for himself when it came to obedience to the clear and simple will of God, and he made himself an example of the very thing Jesus Christ was trying to teach when He wrote the Gospel through the hands of His servant John.
Do we rejoice in the truth the way John does? It is such a shame to see people rejoicing in such evil today – we often rejoice in events or concepts that mean nothing when compared to the spreading of the truth! Many people will rejoice more at a football team winning the Super Bowl than they will at a baptism, or they will rejoice when a political candidate gets elected more than when a congregation hires its first full-time evangelist, or they will rejoice more because of a huge inheritance from a deceased relative than they will at the inheritance that we all have in heaven as a result of the cruel death of Jesus Christ! Of course, there is nothing wrong with rejoicing over such worldly events, but not when we have become so calloused and indifferent to the infinitely greater spiritual events occurring around us day after day (Philippians 1:3-5). John had every reason to rejoice at the obedience and faithfulness of Gaius, just as we have every reason to rejoice at the marvelous events happening throughout the world. Every day, somebody out there is hearing the Gospel and obeying it. We can read letters from evangelists all over the world, listen to lectures from them, and even go there ourselves and witness the success of the Lord’s church in even the darkest places. But we need not go that far, as we can see the power of the Gospel right here among us. John even encouraged Gaius to consider another member of his church as an example of this (3 John 12). Truly, we have so many reasons to rejoice in the truth!
Also notice the phrase “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.” Whether we realize it or not, our righteousness can have a great impact on our brethren. It makes a Christian feel good knowing that his work in the Kingdom is paying off in somebody else’s life – seeing a friend obey the Gospel, watching our children mature and grow in the knowledge and grace of God, receiving letters of gratitude from brethren who we support in faraway lands. Paul expressed the same idea in 1 Thessalonians 3:6-8, “But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.” Like Paul, the apostle John was greatly comforted by the fact that Gaius was a pious, truth-teaching Christian. Perhaps John had a hand in converting him, which would add special meaning to the phrase “my children.”
3 John 5-6 – “Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; and they bear witness to your love before the church; and you will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.”
Not only was Gaius a strong teacher and supporter of the truth, but he was one who practiced great hospitality to his brethren (1 Peter 4:9), even to complete strangers. Because of his indiscriminatory kindness, he was gaining a reputation, probably without his knowledge, throughout the churches as one who practiced what he preached. Few things are more discouraging than a person who goes around telling everybody else what to do and how to live, but does not follow his own advice. Consider the account of Peter’s hypocrisy in Galatians 2:11-14. For the Gentile Christians in Antioch, it would have been nothing but disparaging to see Peter eat with them and share the hand of fellowship one day, and despise them once other Jewish Christians arrived the next day! Gaius, however, is of a different nature.
There are a few important points that we can make with this section of the text. First of all, we need to realize that it is good to receive positive affirmation every now and then. John applauds Gaius and proudly proclaims, “You are acting faithfully.” Essentially, he is telling the recipient of this letter, “Beloved, keep doing what you are doing, because you are doing it right.” It feels good when a teacher encourages his students in such a way, just as we could place it in any context; a professional musician lauding a young student’s efforts, a coach praising his little league players, an elder complimenting a young man from the church who goes beyond expectations. Positive affirmation simply cements in our minds what the right thing is – we see that doing good is beneficial to everybody around us, including ourselves, and desire to continue doing good!
Second, the benefits of helping strangers cannot be emphasized enough. Like Gaius, we sometimes do not know what the effects of our good deeds might be. We do not know who we might be helping – some have even helped angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:1-2). Perhaps Gaius did not know how important these strangers might have been, and this, I believe, is telling of his good will: he did not need to know that somebody was important before he chose to help him (The Gospel And Epistles Of John, F.F. Bruce, 150). Some people only help others who are wealthy, or influential, or physically attractive, because there is an extrinsic profit in it. Others like Gaius, though, help indiscriminately, not for advantage but because it is the right thing to do. Can we ever forget the lesson behind the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-36?
3 John 9 – “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrophes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say.”
We now have the picture of a man who is practically the opposite of Gaius, in nature and in action. Gaius is characterized by a love of what is good; love of the truth, love of his brethren, love for showing hospitality – indeed, he even loves complete strangers. Diotrophes, on the other, shows only love for himself and for his own twisted interpretation of the truth.
Apparently, John had written a letter to the church previous to the occasion of Gaius’ letter. That message, however, had been disregarded by Diotrophes, who seems to have placed himself as the leader of the congregation. “Diotrophes is described as ‘ho philoproteuon auton,’ which [can be rendered] ‘who likes to put himself first’ [or] ‘their would-be leader.’ The language suggests a self-promoted demagogue rather than a constitutional [elder]. It is conceivable, of course, that even a constitutional leader might have been regarded by the elder as no better than a trumped-up dictator if he behaved in the way described here” (Bruce, 152). The primary problem behind Diotrophes is that he “loves to be first,” which is in direct contrast to the words of our Lord in Matthew 19:30, “Many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” And also, we see this idea in Matthew 20:26-27, “It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” Also see Mark 10:31 and Luke 13:30. Diotrophes was under the delusion that preeminence means anything before God – and hopefully we can learn a lesson from him! We must always be careful to avoid that mentality, as it is easy, for many of us, to fall into the same trap. It is sad, but true, that there are men who were once our brethren who have become so hungry for power that they will do and say anything – men who abandoned the truth of the Gospel long ago to pursue worldly fame or prestige. When we consider most any televangelist (and consider the massive income that they produce for themselves, and the opulence in which they live) can we doubt that their “ministries” are motivated by greed? It is like the false teachers in 2 Timothy 3:1-7, who use their powerfully convincing speech to deceive weak women.
Unlike Diotrophes, church leaders are required to display humility, and other attitudes that reflect a meek and gentle spirit. Consider the requirements of an elder in 1 Peter 5:2-3. Also see Titus 1:7-8, especially in the words “not self-willed” (as Diotrophes was) and “not fond of sordid gain.” And finally think about 1 Timothy 3:2-3. Diotrophes seems to be anything but “temperate, prudent, hospitable. . . gentle, uncontentious, and free from the love of money.”
3 John 10 – “For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and he forbids those who desire to do so, and puts them out of the church.”
First of all, we must see that all of the evil deeds that we do will eventually come back at us – we cannot hide from the lies we weave, the inhospitality shown to fellow Christians, or the blatant disrespect of the truth of the Gospel! If we do not pay for our sins in this life, then we certainly will in the next one. In the case of Diotrophes, John the apostle was determined to take him to task and confront him once and for all about the injustices of his life. I like the phrase “I will call attention to his deeds.” If we ever must go before an erring brother, we should always have our facts straight, calling attention to specific deeds. On a even more grand scale, we need to remember that God will call attention to all of our deeds someday (Romans 14:12, Ecclesiastes 12:14).
The seriousness of Diotrophes’ actions is exposed in three ways by the Apostle John. First, he “unjustly accuses us with wicked words.” There are few things that hurt as much as one of our own brethren formulating gossip about us, or speaking nonsense for the purpose of staining our reputation. Naturally, such evil is expected of our enemies, but when it comes from a member of the church, it hurts much more! At this point, John makes it clear that if Diotrophes is going to say such things, he will bring this malefactor to task and confront him face to face. Second, “neither does he himself receive the brethren.” It is unclear why Diotrophes was so opposed to preachers and teachers traveling through his congregation. Perhaps he was unsatisfied with the truthfulness of their teaching and refused to allow them to stay. “For some reason Diotrophes resented the intrusion of itinerant teachers. He did not honor them for setting out ‘for the sake of the Name’” (Stott, 231). This is often the case with false teachers or power-hungry church leaders: they do not welcome more righteous men because of intimidation and the weakness of their arguments. So instead of trying to argue his logic, Diotrophes simply resorts to cruelty. Thirdly, “he forbids those who desire to do so, and puts them out of the church.” Diotrophes’ hatred of the traveling teachers lies in stark contrast to the friendliness and hospitality shown by Gaius. While Gaius was willing to take in anybody who needed help, even complete strangers, Diotrophes is so arrogant and evil that he not only drives away Gospel preachers, but his own brethren as well!
In the end, it all goes back to the phrase “he loves to be first.” The only person that Diotrophes really loved was Diotrophes – and self-love simply vitiates all relationships. This man was so consumed by his own greed and false teaching that he drove a wedge between himself and every other person in the world – he slandered the Apostle John, cold-shouldered good-willed, truth-preaching missionaries, and excommunicated the loyal believers – all because he loved himself and wanted to have the preeminence (Stott, 231).
3 John 11 – “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.”
John ends this section of his epistle with a reminder to Gaius not to do evil. For us, this letter still resonates loudly because we can all look at these men and see ourselves in them. In Gaius, we see the man that we ought to be – hopeful, peaceful, gentle, kind to all, a lover of the truth and those who preach it. In Diotrophes, we are given a glimpse of the kind of man that we sometimes are – arrogant, boastful, proud, and a lover of himself. At this time we have a choice; which of these men do we want to be? The glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that we can change, and that the opportunity for salvation is available to all. Diotrophes did not have to be who he was, and neither do we.
“He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).