Life in the Early Church

John gives us a view of the inner workings of a first-century church as he mediates a dispute among three men over the issue of hospitality and its role in the life of the early church.
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This is our final study on the epistles of the Apostle John. The first two of his three letters were mainly a defense of Christian doctrine against a type of Gnosticism that attempted to merge Greek philosophical ideas with the Christian gospel. This caused both discouragement and division in the church, and John wrote his first two epistles to address these false teachings warning the heretic teachers and reassuring the church as to the content, power and result of the true gospel in the life of every believer.

An interesting feature of this third letter is that aside from its teaching content, the epistle also provides a glimpse into the workings of the first century church. It seems that at that time much of the ministry was carried out by itinerant or traveling preachers who would go from one congregation to another preaching and teaching as they went. In each place they would preach publicly and hold meetings in the homes where they were staying as guests. There was always the danger of abuse in this system because false teachers and swindlers could easily take advantage of the kind and trusting people who were providing them with hospitality. In this environment, hospitality was a very important element in the life and growth of the church. It was risky, but necessary.

John's third letter mentions three men in the church, one who welcomed these traveling missionaries, one who did not and one who was in need of this hospitality. Gaius was a brother who supported and fed the traveling preachers, Diotrephes would not receive or allow them to preach, and Demetrius was one who needed the hospitality as possibly a missionary sent by John. In his letter John commends Gaius, and warns Diotriphes of a test of authority when he (John) would come to visit in person. He also commends Demetrius to the church. This situation was about power and its use in the assembly, and how one man was exerting his authority to maintain power and control.

With this in mind, here is a possible outline for this epistle that can help us follow John's thinking as we review his letter line by line.

Outline and Text — III John

Introduction - Verse 1

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
- III John 1:1

John does not name himself because the recipient knows him and is aware of his position and role. He also uses the same introduction as II John. His use of the term "elder" suggests that by this time he was known as the last surviving Apostle, advanced in years, filled with wisdom and the Spirit. It was a reference to him alone as the "elder." In other cases where church leaders were concerned the reference was always to the "elders."

John's connection to Gaius is the same as his bond with all the others, he loves him in connection with the truth. The truth is the gospel and all that the gospel produces in a person. His love for Gaius, therefore, has been produced by the truth in him and motivated by the fact that Gaius shares with John and others the knowledge and belief in this truth. The elder/Apostle loves Gaius in this manner (agape type love) because he is a faithful brother in the Lord.

Blessing - Verses 2-4

Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.
- III John 1:2

John says that his prayers are for Gaius' material and physical well-being as well as his spiritual progress. A complete blessing considers all facets of life: material, physical and spiritual. In essence, John prays for Gaius to have a balanced life enriched in every area.

For I was very glad when brethren came and testified to your truth, that is, how you are walking in truth.
- III John 1:3

John is happy to offer this prayer, and it is almost reflexive because the news on Gaius is that he continues to be faithful to the gospel/truth. Walking in truth means that one lives by the revelation of the gospel and its teachings. We think that responding to the gospel is a one time act (believe, repent, confess, baptize). But walking in truth means that this cycle of response is an ongoing exercise that becomes the substance of our daily life of faith.

For example, I continually grow in my knowledge of and belief in the word of God as well as its proper application in my life. I am constantly challenged by the Holy Spirit about my ways, and I renew my efforts at repenting and discarding worldly, sinful conduct for the true and right way to live and think shown to me in God's word. I grow bolder and more adept at confessing Jesus Christ with my life, my words, my service, my giving and my sacrifice. When I first did this (confess my faith in Jesus before being baptized), it was a cold November night in front of two people. Since then I have confessed Christ before millions of people through my effort to teach and preach using various media (newspapers, radio, TV, Internet, books, etc.). I constantly make the effort to bury my pride, my will, my "self" in the baptism of humility in order to be daily resurrected to a greater likeness of Christ.

John sees in Gaius a man who is walking or living in this ongoing truth and he loves to see this in him, it becomes an extension of his love for Christ.

I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.
- III John 1:4

As a matter of fact, to see this phenomenon take place in any member of the church causes John the greatest joy. Observing the transformation of another into a more Christ-like image is a very gratifying experience, especially if you have helped nurture that person's faith.

Encouraging Workers for Truth - Verses 5-8

5Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; 6and they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.
- III John 1:5-6

John commends the work that Gaius and others are doing in providing hospitality for the evangelists and missionaries that are coming their way. Hospitality comes from a Greek word which means "the love of strangers." To offer food and lodging to strangers was not only an act of faith, it was also a great help in spreading the gospel. John and the church in Ephesus heard reports that Gaius treated the missionaries sent his way in a generous manner. He commends and encourages him to not only continue offering this hospitality but also urges Gaius to provide supplies and resources for their journey after they leave his home.

7For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. 8Therefore we ought to support such men, so that we may be fellow workers with the truth.
- III John 1:7-8

Concerning these missionaries, John says that their sole motivation was their faith in Christ (the Name) and they did not solicit or accept any payment from those they preached to (the Gentiles). This dedication and integrity needed to be supported by the believers. After all, if the believers did not support the missionaries, who would? Even though Gaius was not the one teaching and preaching the word, his efforts at providing hospitality was his participation and contribution to the overall evangelistic effort which was acceptable to God.

We cannot all be in the mission field, we do not all have the ability to be effective personal workers, but to the extent that we support and assist this work, we share in both the ministry and the rewards that come from it.

Reproving the Opponents of Truth - Verses 9-11

I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say.
- III John 1:9

John focuses on the issue that prompted the writing of this letter. He has sent a previous letter in which, some scholars think, he gave the church instructions to receive certain missionaries and which Diotrephes refused to make public or honor. Others believe that he is referring to his second epistle. Whichever case it was, Diotrephes was blocking communication between John and the church in an attempt to challenge John's authority as an Apostle and teacher.

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, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.
- III John 1:10

John now reviews the unacceptable and sinful behavior of Diotrephes. These include:

  • Unjust accusations against John and other leaders.
  • Unwillingness to receive teachers and missionaries sent there.
  • Interference with those who tried to offer hospitality.
  • Creating division by putting out of the church those who opposed him.

This man wanted the power of leadership and tried to undermine John's authority as an Apostle and those who responded to John in order to get it. This is an old pattern used even to this day. Some desire power and authority in the church or refuse to follow the leadership in place, so they begin a quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) campaign of criticism, negative commentary and slander against those who have leadership roles.

John says that he will deal with this person by exposing the light of truth on his sins and misdeeds. There will be no fistfight, no political intrigue, no debate or contest to see who is better, stronger or smarter. John will demonstrate the other man's weaknesses by comparing his actions and attitudes to the Word of truth. Let the gospel be the judge, then the truth will come out and everyone will be able to see clearly and thus decide.

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.
- III John 1:11

John reminds Gaius and the church to not be influenced by what this person is doing. It is tempting to fight fire with fire, evil with evil, power with greater power. However, this is the kingdom of God, not the world. Things operate differently here. John encourages them to imitate the things that have been taught which are good in order to counter the creeping evil that is making its way into the church. It is not good to succumb to pride and selfish ambition. However, it is good to offer hospitality to the missionaries, and good to face evil men by revealing their sins and not sharing in them.

John tells them that those who act in this way prove that they have seen (recognized) Jesus as God, and those who do not act in this way neither know the truth nor have seen (recognized) that Jesus truly is God, and not just another teacher.

Commending the Witness of Truth - Verse 12

Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself; and we add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true.
- III John 1:12

John gives a commendation concerning Demetrius, the teacher/missionary being sent who may be at the center of this conflict. The Apostle gives three references:

  1. The church commends him.
  2. The truth commends him (meaning that he preaches the truth and lives in accordance to his preaching).
  3. The elder, John himself, vouches for his character and works.

This should be enough to recommend someone and overcome any doubts or questions anyone has, including Diotrephes.

Conclusion - Verses 13-15

13I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write them to you with pen and ink; 14but I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face. 15Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends by name.
- III John 1:13-15

John finishes the letter with some personal notes on various points. He has formulated many things to say to Gaius but decides not to write them, preferring to speak with him face to face. He is sending the letter ahead of his visit to prepare the way. He plans to go there in person shortly after the letter arrives. This he will do without warning in order to deal with Diotriphes and not give him a chance to stir up trouble in advance.

He offers the blessing that these brothers need: peace. He greets the many mutual acquaintances that he and Gaius share. He ends on this positive, personal and forward-looking note.

Summary / Lessons

There are several lessons that we can draw from this very brief, very personal letter from John to his Christian friend Gaius concerning the problem of powerful men trying to dominate the church.

1. Teaching the Truth is Important

John commends them for knowing and living according to the truth. What they say, do, think, how they worship, what they preach and teach, are all done according to what is true. This is another way of saying, "according to God's word," because Jesus says that it is God's word that is true (John 17:7). This is only possible because they have learned the truth from someone who taught them (in this case it may have been John himself).

My point here is that in order to live according to the truth one must be taught that truth. The task of knowing, teaching and passing that truth along from generation to generation belongs to the church (I Timothy 3:15), and within the church that task falls to every teacher, preacher and ultimately every elder. From the nursery class to adult Bible classes, it is important that we are very careful to always teach the truth from God's word and not substitute this for human ideas (no matter how noble). We cannot live according to the truth and thus be pleasing to God unless we are constantly being taught the truth by those responsible for this ministry.

2. Those Who Teach the Truth Deserve our Support

There are usually dozens of people involved in a church's education program. Those include elders, ministers, deacons, teachers, coordinators and assistants. All of these saints deserve our support. Some make a living at it and deserve what they receive, others volunteer and deserve our gratitude. All of these, however, deserve the church's cooperation in getting kids to class, maintaining their own presence and encouraging these people's efforts to teach the truth. We will buy an overpriced souvenir to support our sports hero and film stars but often neglect to say thank you to those who are leading our souls to heaven.

3. Those Who Teach the Truth Must Also Live by the Truth

Diotrephes may have denied hospitality and caused problems in the church out of a warped sense of duty to protect or defend a truth that only he saw. His actions, however, were contrary to the truth given by the Apostles and received by the church. Demetrius, on the other hand, received affirmation because his actions coincided with the truth he had received from the Apostles. It is not difficult to spot the fakes, either their words do not match the words of Jesus, or their actions do not match their words. Remember that those who aspire to teach have the dual responsibility of teaching only what is true and living according to that truth.

4. Hospitality is Still an Important and Necessary Ministry

We don't rely on hospitality today to take care of our missionaries and evangelists, however, hospitality is still crucial in the development of a New Testament church. If we are not sharing our homes, not making strangers feel welcome, not helping new families feel part of our church family, we are neglecting a primary mission and ministry of the church: hospitality. Hospitality is inconvenient, expensive and time consuming, but this is what makes it so pleasing to God. When we offer hospitality we are truly giving of ourselves and that is what makes it special and worthy of being offered to the Lord.