Work together for the truth (May 3, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 3 John 

This is the shortest and most narrowly focused of the three canonical epistles attributed to John by early Christian tradition. It is addressed to one person, Gaius, and it involves two other individuals, Demetrius and Diotrephes. The author’s concern is a very specific one — what to do about a fellow Christian whose activities are seen as a threat to the peace and unity of the congregation(s) overseen by John.

Although it is a very short letter — a brief memorandum comparable to an email today — it provides a very telling glimpse into mission struggles during the late first century. The writer identifies himself as “the elder” just as the author of 2 John did. He is worried about the activities of Diotrephes, evidently a powerful person who likes to put himself first. Furthermore, he refuses to acknowledge the authority of the elder. In short, we are listening in on a private conversation about power and control in the church. Does this sound familiar?

3 John 1-4: Walking in the truth
The recipient of this letter is a certain Gaius, who is probably not any of the other three individuals with that name mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. He may have been converted to Christianity by the elder — who is overjoyed by the news that his beloved friend Gaius, whom he calls one of “my children,” continues to walk in the truth. Here the truth is a generic term for the gospel as understood in the Johannine tradition. Gaius is a faithful follower of the elder. He walks in the truth.

3 John 5-8: Provide hospitality
Gaius is commended for providing hospitality for itinerant missionaries. We can infer from this letter and other writings, such as the first century document known as “The Didache,” that a network of supportive congregations provided hospitality (room, board and perhaps financial support) for visiting evangelists. Christians who provided for the needs of visiting missionaries thereby became “co-workers with the truth.”

3 John 9-10: Exposing a troublemaker
The elder resents the disruptive activities of someone named Diotrephes. All we know about him is what the elder alleges. According to the elder, Diotrephes is guilty of at least three things: spreading false charges, not offering hospitality to the elder’s friends and expelling from the church people who did offer them hospitality. The elder is especially upset because Diotrephes, who is probably the leader of a nearby congregation, does not acknowledge the elder’s authority.

Although some interpreters consider this dispute to be primarily about the common Hellenistic practice of providing hospitality to strangers, there is also only a hint that the elder may have theological concerns. 2 and 3 John are much more explicit about the theological issues that divided the congregations. In the opening verses, the elder repeatedly indicates his deep commitment to the truth and behavior that is in accord with the truth. Furthermore, acknowledging authority — in this case, ecclesiastical authority — impinges directly on the definition of the church and church leaders. The elder definitely has his own understanding of the church and the authority of its leaders.

3 John 11-12: Imitate the good
The elder’s strong dissatisfaction with the activities of Diotrephes comes to expression when he warns the readers to imitate what is good, not what is evil. A third individual, whose Greek name is Demetrios (about whom we know nothing beyond what is said here), evidently agrees with the elder and with Gaius. He also has the endorsement of many church members. Imitating Demetrios is what the elder wants Gaius to do.

3 John 13-15: Let’s talk privately
Fearful that written communication may not be the way to deal with this matter, the elder announces his intention to visit Gaius soon. Then they can have a private conversation about how to deal with Diotrephes. This type of closing is not unusual in Hellenistic letters, but here the pressing problem makes it more than a formality.

In the meantime, the elder wishes Gaius peace and conveys the greetings of his congregation, who are referred to as friends rather than brothers and sisters.

For discussion
What do you think the author means by saying in verse 2 “ … as it is well with your soul”? What do you think characterizes a healthy spiritual life? Offering hospitality to strangers was a major expectation in the early church, but there were limits, as 2 John 10-11 points out. Do our congregations do a good job of offering hospitality? How would your congregation deal with a person like Diotrephes?