Bible reading: 3 John.
Have you ever heard a sermon about 3 John? In theological books you will find very few references to this letter. We may question why this very personal letter found a place in the canon (the list of books that make the Bible)? It seems to relate to very specific persons and situations. The letter is addressed to a beloved person Gajus, a common Roman name at that time. In Acts 19:29 and 20:4 you find a Gajus who travels with the apostle Paul. He is one of the few people whom Paul has baptized (1 Cor. 1: 14), but we are not sure it is the same person. We also hear about Diotrephes (vs. 9) who is opposing the apostle and about Demetrius (vs. 12). The way John mentions him seems to indicate that he is the messenger, who took the letter to Gajus. Anyhow, the content of the letter is all related to the situation in Asia around the year 70 AD. Why this letter is important for us today? Two main reasons:
(I) 3 John gives an instructive insight in the growth of the early church
All kinds of people…
We should realize that around the year 70 there were many scattered congregations founded by the apostles and their coworkers. We have an extensive report of how they were established in the book of Acts, concentrating on the work of Paul. Nearly all the apostles went to different places to bring the good news. Peter and John worked in Asia (Turkey) and Macedonia, Thomas went to India. Marc the evangelist went to Egypt and Timothy and Titus traveled to the area what we now call the Balkan and the south of Russia. Also ‘lay preachers’ traveled around: people who were converted and were very eager to tell the Gospel to others. Cf. Priscilla and Aquila who lived in Rome and came to Corinth later where they met another itinerant preacher: Apollos. M. Green (‘Evangelism in the early church’) demonstrates that the early church grew rapidly because of the contagious faith of soldiers, craftsman, merchants, refugees, say: ordinary people whose life was changed greatly by the Gospel. Not only their convictions changed (about religion, gods, the emperor). Also their life style became completely different from their fellow people, who in many cases showed a consumer’s lifestyle, used to drink a lot, gave themselves to immoral life patterns and loved to go to the stadium to watch the games. With the words of the apostle John: the Christians walked in the truth. In the ‘Letter to Diognetus’ (± 150) Christian faith is defended against all kinds of accusations. A quotation from this letter: ‘They live in their own land, but as strangers. They share everything as citizens, but they suffer everything as strangers. Every foreign country is their homeland and their home country is foreign to them. They get children, but they don’t abandon them. They share their table, but not their bed… They are on earth, but heaven is their home. They are poor, but make many people rich. They are short of everything, still they are rich in everything. They are denigrated and they bless. They are offended and they honor their offenders…’
Work together for the Gospel!
One of the important factors for the spreading of the gospel was hospitality. Early Christians were notable by their hospitality. There were several reasons for that. Indeed, God had commended his people to be welcoming to guests, refugees and travelers. Hospitality is a pillar in Torah. ‘You should care for the stranger, because you have been strangers in Egypt yourselves’ (Ex. 22, 20; 23, 9; Lev. 19, 34; Deut. 10, 19). But they were also reminded to the words of Jesus: ‘If you have done well to one of my least brothers, you have done it to me’ (Matth. 25, 35v). So in welcoming brothers and sisters – in particular the inconsiderable ones- they welcomed Jesus Himself. ‘Show hospitality’ is what we read at many places in the NT (Rom. 12, 13; 1 Tim. 3, 2, 1 Petr. 4, 9, Hebr. 13, 2).
Three ways of evangelization
I believe that the situation in the 2nd half of the 1st century is not very different from ours. The consumers mentality, the over-sexualized society, the individualistic life pattern, the self-justifying types of religion, the emphasis on the ‘self’ (self-realization, self-development), and the pattern of scattered churches…is recognizable for us. So what is the appeal of the apostle to us today? How can we work together for the truth (vs. 9)?
- By walking in the truth (vs 3 and 4 ‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth’), also verse 11 ‘doing the truth’. Do you know that joy of walking in the truth? I don’t ask whether you have convictions about the Gospel, even maintain true and Biblical doctrines, but if you have a different mind and heart by God’s grace (Rom. 12:1). It means that -by the power of the Holy Spirit- we have discovered the idols of our life and of our time, and that we aren’t captivated by them any longer. It means that we long to serve the living God and to work for truth in all aspects of life. The first Christians did this although they were persecuted severely. Still they didn’t use the weapons of their adversaries. By Christ’s power they went on to bless their enemies and prayed for them like Jesus.
- By witnessing (vs 7). ‘They went out for the name of God. We don’t need to be missionaries abroad in a strange country. We are together as people for many nations and cultures. We are called to flourish where we are planted. Where is our mission field? Where does the Lord call you and me to go out for His Name? Where does He want us to seek His Name (His honour and glory)? Maybe it is in your family. Maybe it is in your field of study or research, or in your institute. Sooner or later you will have an opportunity to show that you are different (not better!). You may be granted a moment to tell your colleagues why. Seek the seekers! God prepares people to be receptive to the Word. You may be a little link in the chain that God makes in somebody’s life.
- By being hospitable. Christian hospitality is not just a matter of sympathy (character) or a custom rooted in a community culture. It is rooted in the love of Christ. Gajus was instrumental in welcoming people and helped them on their way (vs. 6). There are many forms of hospitality. Maybe you don’t have space, but you share your time. Maybe you help the church in welcoming the guests. Maybe you invite somebody for lunch to speak through the problems that he or she faces…
(II) 3 John gives a clear appeal to discern what differs from the apostolic teaching
In the second half of the 1st century there was a growing problem with self made preachers who travelled around, made use of their right to be welcomed, to be given shelter and food. There is a little book of the 1st century called ‘Didache’ (a sort of instruction for Christians and for church life) that gives an insight in how to deal with the itinerant preachers who stayed to long. ‘A Christian traveller shouldn’t make use of the hospitality in a home longer than 2 – 3 days. If he wants to stay longer, let him work for his costs of living.’ Many made a sort of career of it and claimed authority by their special insights. We know from the first letter how much problems they could cause to the young churches. Here it is indicated in verses 9 -11 related to a certain Diotrephes. The problem with Diotrephes was that he refused the authority of the apostle as an eyewitness of Christ, and he lacked humility, placing himself in the forefront (vs. 9). He spread bad rumours. Besides to that he showed a clear lack of hospitality and went that far that he excommunicate people from the church (vs. 10). So he wanted to establish his own group and separated them from the wider Christian community. Here we face the problem of so called sects that claim a special insight in the truth blaming the church that it leaves aside the teaching about these subjects. We have seen before how John deals with this problem (1 John 2: 18, 19; 1 John 4: 1v. ; 2 John vs. 10, 11. He doesn’t let it go (vs. 10) and he warns Gajus to be attentive to this evil practice and to follow the truth as he had heard it from the apostle (vs. 11).
Shallow understanding and distortion of the Gospel
If the church allows a shallow understanding of the gospel, either in a religious moralistic way or by adapting ourselves to relativism and scepticism – the irreligious way, she is in danger. You remember the furious words of the apostle Paul toward the Galatians. They welcomed teachers of the law, who said that the Gospel was fine but that you needed to show good works according to God’s law, adding a moral basis to salvation. And Paul says: no, no, no! It is the ‘gospel +’ approach. It is a distorted view of the gospel.
A couple of years ago the novel of Dan Brown ‘The Da Vinci Code’ draw a lot of attention. The book is a strange mixture of truth and fantasy, dealing with a quest to the so called holy grail. The book presupposes that the Vatican has kept secret a number of early Christian writings that told that Jesus was married with Mary Magdalena and that there might be a descendent from Him in one of the royal families in Europe. Many people read this book and found motives in it to leave the church. Because it describes the church as a dominant, man-dominated institute, withholding the reality about Jesus. The book implicitly accused the Roman Catholic church of persecuting heretics and maintaining a narrow view about Jesus and the Gospels. It says that just a number of powerful bishops decided what should be accepted in the Biblical canon and what not. At that time I gave a series of lectures (together with a friend) about ‘The Da Vinci Code’. We sometimes addressed groups of over 100 people and we wanted to listen to their questions and provide honest answers. I noticed when it came to the truth of the Gospel: that Jesus gave his life and that He resurrected from the death in order to save us from our selfish life, from the slavery of our idols, and how the gospel changed our life, giving us new hope and new joy, the hearers revealed themselves as opponents. Some became hostile even. They didn’t want to hear the truth about God and about themselves. They wanted to stay in their own safe life and maintain the criticism on the church.
Hospitality yes, but not in all cases!
What is the conclusion? We should show Christian hospitality to all who seek refuge, and there are many today, Christians and non-Christians, refugees, asylum seekers, tourists. It is the Biblical command to welcome them in the name of Jesus as if we were welcoming Jesus Himself. But, if people come in order to build their own kingdom, if they come with certain truths, but if they don’t walk in the truth, we should be very clear in refusing them. It is a sensitive matter. For example we should be very hospitable toward Muslims, love them with the love of Christ and avoid stigmatization and cultural pride. Christians should refrain from attitudes that might lead to a culture clash. But we should refuse and oppose those who want to teach and influence others with their thinking and propagate violence with word and weapons in the name of God. Many wandering teachers (on the internet!) want to draw our attention with a Gospel + view. Some present themselves as Christians. How can we discern? Dear brothers and sisters, I am not just defending the church as if it is infallible. I don’t say that people cannot have good reasons to criticise the church or even leave the church because of its practice or its teaching. But we should be attentive to those who bring division in the church, because they:
- consider themselves very important, even place themselves next to Christ.
- adjust the apostolic word by adding their own insights. They claim a ‘higher knowledge’ and a ‘special spiritual insight’.
- separate from the wide family of the church by creating their own groups.
- concentrate on very specialist topics like Christ’s return, the final judgment, place of Israel…
Hold me accountable..
Having said this, I want to add: you may hold me accountable as a pastor and leader (as well as the other leaders):
- that I bring you the teaching that is in accordance with the whole Bible. I invite you to be like the Jews in Berea in Acts 17:11 – they examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true;
- that I underline my teaching with my attitude to walk in the truth (showing Christ’s way with honesty, love and hospitality);
- that I seek cooperation with all who confess Christ not because of a kind of sympathy or friendship that has a psychological basis, but because of a love in truth (verse 1);
- that I don’t seek power, or my own position, ambitions and glory (unlike Diotrephes), but that I go out for the sake if the precious Name of Christ.
Concluding: how can you further the Gospel? By being a witness and an example of the truth of the Gospel. And by discerning what is surrogate and differs from the apostolic teaching.
Example of CICCU
Cambridge Inter College Christian Union students at the beginning of 20th century. These students came to real knowledge of Christ because of the preaching of revival preachers like Moody. They were very eager to read the Bible and they developed a practice to read and pray in little groups in the early morning. But in the cold and grey Cambridge winter mornings it was not easy. To help the discipline some bought fishhooks and attached that to their blanket at one side and with threads to a big alarm clock at the other side. When the key of the alarm began to turn around at the alarm time, the threads were winded and the blanket was lifted from the bed…But they realized more. They saw many young people, children around in the streets where they had their students home without any knowledge of the Gospel. So they started to share the love of Christ with those children. Actually that led to start Sunday school classes in Cambridge that raised the attention of the Cambridge population. One of the lanes became famous and was called the ‘Jesus lane’. Many of these CICCU students became clear witnesses in their university context and some went out for missionary work in other countries after their study. CICCU was one of the leading student groups that maintained the truth of the Gospel in the first half of the 20th century while many other groups became more attracted to social issues and liberal thinking. These CICCU was one of the founding groups of IFES in 1946, and I am still very thankful for IFES because it was crucial in my life as a young student, bringing me from my own little idols to Christ and to a walk in the truth by God’s grace.