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Tension in the Church

Series: 3 John

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 2, 2004

3 John 1:9-15 Tension in the Church

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to 3 John. We come today to the last of our studies of the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John. We said the last time when we were together in this book that it's a letter short enough to be written on a single sheet of papyrus, but it packs a big punch for a short letter. It's a letter addressed from John. John calls himself “the elder.” He could have called himself “the apostle” but he refers to himself as an elder just like he does in 2 John, and he speaks to a man named Gaius.

We don't know much about Gaius. We just know that he was a beloved leader in this congregation. He was known for his support of missionaries and evangelists and, in fact, it is precisely that support of missionaries and evangelists that provides the backdrop for understanding 2 and 3 John. In John's day, Christians, faithful Christians, were leaving their homes and their vocations and they were willing to go to the frontiers to tell about the name of the Lord Jesus who had saved them from their sins. There were no mission boards in those days. There were no elaborate systems whereby Christians supported the work of missionaries, and so the way that it was done was through local congregations giving hospitality and support to those missionaries so that they could spread the word of truth. And John is very concerned that Christians support those missionaries and those evangelists as they go out to tell the gospel. That's really the backdrop of 3 John.

But the backdrop of 3 John has to be coordinated with the backdrop of 2 John which also tells us that false teachers were using this pattern that Christians were engaging in to spread the gospel–false teachers were using that very same pattern to spread their own false teaching. They were going from church to church, staying for a period of time, taking in the hospitality of local churches and then confusing those churches with false teaching. So in 2 John, John is concerned that the congregation not take in false teachers who are spreading false teaching. And in 3 John he is concerned that the congregation should take in true, faithful evangelists and missionaries, show them hospitality and blessing, and give them support as they go about spreading the word of truth. That's the background to these two little letters. Let's turn then to hear God's word in 3 John beginning in verse 9. Before we hear it, let's look to God in prayer and ask for His blessing on both the reading and the preaching of His word. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, in Your word You reveal Yourself and You reveal our sins, and You reveal the Savior and You reveal to us the way of life. And so we pray, O God, that by Your Spirit we would see these things in Your word and that we would believe the truth and that we would embrace the Savior and that we would know eternal life. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen. This is God's word. Hear it.

3 John 1:9-15: 9I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. 10For 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. 11Beloved, 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. 12Demetrius 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. 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.

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Real life in the early church, that's what we have depicted for us. Have you ever thought about it? What would it be like to be in a congregation pastored by John? Everybody would love one another. There’d never be a squabble. Everybody would always agree. They’d all be zealous for the gospel of Christ, spreading witness to Jesus, living as Christians ought to live. That's how life would be like in a church pastored by John, planted by John, right?

Well, real life in the early church right is here in 3 John, and it aint pretty. This is a congregation literally torn apart by a leader with a huge ego. And John is writing to Gaius, this beloved believer whom he has encouraged with his own words and who has been such an encouragement to the missionaries and evangelists who have passed through this local congregation. And he's saying to Gaius, ‘Gaius, don't follow the example of this man.’ In fact, there are three things in the section that we're going to study today that I want to draw your attention to. First of all, the bad example, and you see that bad example in verses 9 and 10. And then, secondly, an exhortation and a good example, which you see in verses 11 and 12. And then in verse 13 to the end of the passage, a needed blessing. So we see a bad example, a good example, and a needed blessing.

I. A Bad Example (9-10) [Tension in the church: rejection of apostolic authority and abuse of authority]
The bad example is a bad example of Christian character and John is describing this bad example to Gaius for a reason. Remember, John is writing this letter in the context of Christian missionaries faithfully traveling from church to church, receiving hospitality, some support, some food and then going out to preach the gospel. Because, after all, Christians ought to pay for the preaching of the gospel and not expect pagans to pay to the preachers of the gospel for bringing the gospel to them. And so John's calling for basic support for this kind of evangelistic and missionary endeavor.

But in this local congregation, this man Diotrephes has made a rule contrary to John's direct exhortation which John mentions in this letter. He has declared that this congregation is not going to receive evangelists and missionaries. We might imagine him saying something like this, ‘Look, there's no way that we can make a clear distinction between the false prophets that are out there and the faithful missionaries, so here's what we're going to do: We’re not going to receive any of them.’ And he forbids the rest of the congregation to receive missionaries, and he even goes so far as kicking people out of the church who have received these faithful evangelists and missionaries. That's the setting in which John is writing to Gaius.

But John tells us, ‘Look, I don't care what Diotrephes is saying about his reasons for why he's doing this. He may have some very exalted reasons. He may have some powerful rhetoric that he gives you about why he's doing what he's doing. But I want to tell you this: You need to know these six things about Diotrephes.’ And notice in verses 9 and 10 the six things that John tells Gaius about Diotrephes.

First of all he says, ‘Let me tell you why Diotrephes is doing this. He's doing this because he loves preeminence.’ You see the phrase that he uses to describe Diotrephes, “He loves to be first among them.” Wouldn't you hate that to be on your tombstone? “He loved to be first among them.” OUCH! But you see John is saying to Gaius, ‘I don't care what Diotrephes says. Let me tell you why he's doing what he's doing. Let me tell you why he's rejecting my authority, why he's doing all these other things. He wants to be first and he wants to be in control. This has nothing to do with his spiritual concern for the well-being of the church; it has everything to do with his wanting to be first.’

Secondly, notice that he says that Diotrephes does not accept apostolic authority. ‘Not only does he love to be first among them, he does not accept what we say.’ Can you imagine someone rejecting John's authority, the apostle John? Saying, ‘Ok, John's written to you to do this; we're not going to do it that way here’? But you know people did that to Paul, and you know what? People did that to Jesus too. Didn't Jesus tell His disciples that if He Himself were rejected that they needed to be ready to be rejected too? Well, here is a man who is a leader in a local congregation–maybe an elder, maybe even the pastor–rejecting the authority of the apostle John. Can I just pull back and draw the parallel there to Jesus, Jesus who of all the beings in the universe deserves preeminence for who He is and what He has done? When He is incarnated, He comes into the world, and what does the preeminent One do? He takes upon the form of a slave and He serves the church. And yet Diotrephes, who is supposedly a spiritual leader and who ought to bear the marks in his life and character of the Savior, wants to be first. He has rejected Jesus’ own example and His direct teaching, because what did Jesus say? “The last shall be first but the first last.” And notice also that whereas Jesus delighted in submitting Himself to His Father's authority, “I love to do my Father's will”… He says over and over in the gospel of John, “It is my meat to do the will of Him who sent Me.” ‘It's like eating delectable food to Me to do the will of my heavenly Father.’ Whereas that's the example of the preeminent One, Jesus the Christ, what does Diotrephes say? ‘I'm not going to accept apostolic authority. I'm the authority here. John could just keep his authority to himself.’ Notice the contrast between this spiritual leader Diotrephes and the great Savior and Mediator in His own life and witness.

But, thirdly, John goes on if you look at verse 10, and he says, ‘Diotrephes is gossiping unjust accusations against me, against spiritual authority. He is unjustly accusing us with wicked words,’ John says in verse 10. So he loves preeminence; he doesn't accept apostolic authority; and he is lying about John in the congregation. He is spreading malicious gossip about John. He is saying things that are untrue about John. He is undermining John's authority by assaulting his character through gossip in the church.

Fourthly, he says Diotrephes refuses to receive faithful missionaries.He does not receive the brethren either,” John says in verse 10. In other words, these missionary evangelists that come to the congregation looking for a little basic hospitality and support, he refuses to have them there. Gaius is commended because he receives and shows hospitality to these faithful brothers, but not Diotrephes–he refuses to have them. He refuses to receive faithful missionaries…but more than that, fifthly, he forbids others in the church…Not only will he not accept them if you try and have them in your home, he says, ‘No you can't do that.’ He forbids others in the church to receive them.

And sixth and finally and worst, he has apparently excommunicated some people from this congregation because they received faithful missionaries. And John is saying to Gaius, ‘Look, this lack of love, this immoral behavior, this rejection of apostolic authority calls Diotrephes’ faith into question, because conduct reflects spiritual standing and it belies all claims to the contrary. Diotrephes can say all the exalted things he wants about his faith; his conduct says otherwise about him. His conduct contradicts his claim to be a spiritual leader.’ Robert Lewis Dabney once said that “second only to Adam the most representative man is Diotrephes who wants to be first among them.” There are so many Christian leaders who want to be first. They want to be preeminent. That's what they desire. They want to be. It's about them. And John is saying to Gaius and to this whole congregation and to us today, that is not what a Christ-wrought Christian leader looks like. A true Christian leader is here to serve the truth not his own self-interest. And John is saying to Gaius, ‘Don't follow that bad example.’

Now you may be saying, “Well, how in the world would Gaius have been tempted to follow the example of a creep like Diotrephes? Surely everybody would have seen that he was transparent.” My friends, Diotrephes may well have talked a great game. He may well have said, ‘Look, the reason we're rejecting these people from the outside is look, these…we don't know whether they may bring Gnostic teaching into this church.’ He may have said, ‘Look we've got to have pure doctrine here.’ He may have said, ‘Look I've got a pastoral concern for the spiritual well being of the people in this congregation. I grew up here. I knew these people. I was with these people when they were pagans. I was with these people when they became Christians. I really love and care about them. We can't have John just sending all these people that we don't know into this local congregation.’ He may well have been able to talk a great game and so John is saying to Gaius, ‘Gaius, don't let Diotrephes talk you into following his example. You’re doing what's right, Gaius. Don't follow his example.’

II. A Good Example (11-12) [An example to the church: an apostolic exhortation and a Christly example]
In fact, John goes further. And the second thing he does is he gives an exhortation and shows a good example, and you see that in verses 11 and 12. We saw the tension in the church in verses 9 and 10 and this bad example of Diotrephes, his rejection of apostolic authority and his abuse of his authority; but then John give us an exhortation in verse 11 and a concrete example of a faithful man in verse 12. He gives us an apostolic exhortation and a Christly example to follow. ‘Gaius,’ he says, ‘You must not imitate Diotrephes’ behavior because an important Christian ethical dictum is at stake, “By your fruits you shall know them.”’

Notice what he says, “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 is just applying the moral test that he has been applying ever since the first letter that he wrote, 1 John, that the gospel when embraced by faith always means a transformation of character. It always shows itself forth in a morally transformed life. And John's juxtaposition of verse 11 with the example of Diotrephes in verses 9 and 10 is simply John's indication that despite Diotrephes’ claim to the contrary, John does not see the marks of a Christian in him and he plans to deal with him when he comes to the church. He's a professing Christian. He's a baptized Christian. He may be an elder. He is certainly a spiritual leader in this local congregation. But John is saying, ‘His conduct tells me he doesn't know grace, he doesn't know Christ.’

And so John then turns to Gaius and he says, ‘But I do have a good example for you and it's Demetrius.’ He commends Demetrius to Gaius; he says, ‘Gaius, you should consider Demetrius. Let me tell you three things about Demetrius.’ He says, ‘First of all, he has a good testimony with everyone.’ He says, ‘Here is man whom all the brothers and sisters, all the members of this congregation will say, “Yes, that man lives the gospel. He lives like a Christian ought to live. His conduct is in accordance with the gospel. He loves the brethren.” That's what Demetrius is like. He has a good testimony to his character from the whole congregation.

But then John goes on to say something else very interesting and he says, ‘And Demetrius has received a good testimony from the truth itself.’ What in the world does that mean? It probably means that Demetrius’ words and Demetrius’ life go together in such a way that his life corroborates the truth of his words. His good testimony is self-evident from the coordination between the faith that he professes to believe and the life that he actually lives.

Derek and I had the privilege of interviewing David Wells, David F. Wells, the great theologian from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, this last Friday. It’ll air on First Things over the next couple of Sunday mornings. And David Wells was converted in part through the ministry of John Stott, just like our own dear Derek Thomas. And Derek asked him some questions about John Stott. He said, “Now you knew John Stott, didn't you? You know John Stott?” (Stott is still living.) And David Wells said, “I lived with him.” He lived with him while he was in London for a number of years and he went on to say, “John Stott is what he is in public what he is in private. He is in public what he is in private. He is the same man.” I thought, What greater testimony to Christian character and integrity than could be said about a person that he is in public what he is in private? When he's out in public being a minister of the gospel, that's not an act that he's putting on; it's what he is. And that's what John is saying about Demetrius: He is in public what he is in private. The truth itself testifies to his character.

And thirdly John says, ‘And I testify to his character.’ He has a good testimony from John. John is saying, ‘Demetrius’ conduct squares with the gospel so that the truth of the gospel is declared in his life. And for all these reasons, Gaius…’ John says, ‘Gaius, you should reject Diotrephes’ example. You should reject his authority and you should follow the example of Demetrius.’ You see Christian faith always has moral evidence, and ministers and elders are in their lives to give evidence of the truth which they claim to believe and preach with their mouths. And so John is calling on Gaius as a godly leader in this church to follow that kind of an example as a leader, not the very bad example that's being set by Diotrephes. And so we have a bad example, and we have a good example, but then we also have a needed blessing.

III. A Needed Blessing (13-15) [A blessing on the church: an apostolic benediction and a view of Christian fellowship]
Do you see it there in verses 13 and following? John says in verse 13 that he's going to wrap this letter up. He's not going to say anything else. He's not going to continue to write to them with pen and ink. He said something similar at the end of 2 John. He has hopes, we're told in verse 14, to see them shortly. He wants to see them face-to-face. John is obviously so pastorally concerned, he's going to get to this congregation–not only so that he can deal with Diotrephes but also that he can help bring some sort of unity to this congregation. But meanwhile John has a word of blessing to Gaius. He's given Gaius a tremendous task. John is saying, ‘Gaius, until I get there, you need to be about the work of uniting this congregation again. You need to bring them together in the truth. You need to make them to be welcoming and hospitable toward faithful Christian evangelists and missionaries. You need to help them to, as a people, receive apostolic authority and to care for one another.’ It's a tremendous task that's he's left to Gaius; but though he's not going to write anymore, he's still going to give a blessing to Gaius.

And isn't the blessing that he gives appropriate? ‘Peace to you,’ “Peace be to you.” What an appropriate blessing for a church being torn apart. It's an Old Testament blessing. In the Old Testament the greeting shalom, the blessing shalom, the blessing peace meant not simply the cessation of hostility between two parties but it meant all of the blessings which accrue to believers. Because they are not longer at enmity with God but have been made His friend by His own grace and mercy and therefore have become heirs of all of His inheritance.

And when John says, “Peace be to you,” he is pronouncing that Old Testament benediction with all of its glorious New Testament realities lumped in with it because Jesus Christ has on the cross purchased this peace for all who trust in Him. We were at enmity with God and we deserved His curse and abandonment, but Jesus cries the cry of abandonment so that we might receive the blessing of God. He says, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” so that we might never say, ‘Lord! Lord!’ at the end of time in God's judgment. And so John says to Gaius and to this whole congregation, “Peace be to you.” There is one whose ego…who is disrupting the fellowship of the brethren, but “Peace be to you.

Do you remember Mark Ross's sermon on benedictions that he preached at the end of January? If you didn't hear it you need to go back and get that tape or CD from the church library and listen to it. You know we ought to be longing to come to the Lord's house–not only to hear His word, not only to sing His praises, not only to lift up prayers, not only to hear His word read and proclaimed…but also to receive His blessing. It ought to be something we're thinking, ‘Lord if you can just get me to that benediction…I need that blessing. I need that refreshment of Your word. I need that promise of blessing pronounced to You from Your word on Your people.’ And here's John saying, ‘I don't have time to write anymore to you, Gaius, but I do have time to say this, “Peace be to you.”’ Gaius needed that blessing of God because he was in a place where there was precious little peace or experience of it. And so John pronounces that blessing.

But he doesn't end there. He says almost in parallelism, “ ‘the friends greet you, you greet the friends by name.’ Isn't that an interesting way to end a letter from an apostle? After this climactic benediction, still this exhortation, “The friends greet you. Greet the friends by name.” This is a unique designation in John's letter. John usually calls members of the Christian congregation brothers and sisters. This is the only time that he uses the term ‘friends’. Isn't it appropriate that he would do so in this congregation where perhaps friendships had been fractured? “The friends greet you. [You] Greet the friends by name.” The great Puritan commentator, John Trapp, “As iron whets iron so doth the face of a man his friend.” In other words, just as iron sharpens iron so does our friendship sharpen us and it blesses us. And John is reminding us of that blessing. When we are made to be part of God's family, gospel friendships are formed. And that is an exceedingly precious blessing. It's one of the benefits of union with Christ that we have communion with the saints and gospel friendships are formed. And we ought to come to the Lord's house on the Lord's Day waiting for His blessing, longing for His blessing, but also longing to be the blessing of being a gospel friend to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And I say it that way deliberately because it's not simply that we ought to want to come to a church that is friendly to us; we ought to long to go to a church and be a friend to others.

You see it's not about us. We ought to go longing for God's blessing and at the same time longing to be the blessing of being a gospel friend. Is that your desire today? Do you long for God's blessing on you? And then do you long to be a gospel friend, to know this people by name?

Notice that John isn't satisfied that you be a friend but that you greet them by name. Could you greet all your friends in this congregation by name? Maybe that's something we all ought to start aspiring to, to be able to greet on another by name. John gives us a bad example, and a good example, and he gives us a needed blessing. And, oh, his words are just as applicable to us today as they were to this pressured congregation 2000 years ago. May God bless His word to our hearts. Let's pray. Lord God, hear our prayers and give us the mind of Christ. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Peace be to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

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A Guide to the Morning Service

The Sermon
Matthew Henry's Commentary says this about the passage we are studying today: “Vs. 9-12: Both the heart and mouth must be watched. The temper and spirit of Diotrephes was full of pride and ambition. It is bad not to do good ourselves; but it is worse to hinder those who would do good. Those cautions and counsels are most likely to be accepted, which are seasoned with love. Follow that which is good, for he that doeth good, as delighting therein, is born of God. Evil-workers vainly pretend or boast acquaintance with God. Let us not follow that which is proud, selfish, and of bad design, though the example may be given by persons of rank and power; but let us be followers of God, and walk in love, after the example of our Lord. Vs. 13, 14: Here is the character of Demetrius. A name in the gospel, or a good report in the churches, is better than worldly honor. Few are well spoken of by all; and sometimes it is ill to be so. Happy those whose spirit and conduct commend them before God and men. We must be ready to bear our testimony to them; and it is well when those who commend, can appeal to the consciences of such as know most of those who are commended. A personal conversation together often spares time and trouble, and mistakes which rise from letters; and good Christians may well be glad to see one another. The blessing is, Peace be to you; all happiness attend you. Those may well salute and greet one another on earth, who hope to live together in heaven. By associating with and copying the example of such Christians, we shall have peace within, and live at peace with the brethren; our communications with the Lord's people on earth will be pleasing, and we shall be numbered with them in glory everlasting.”

The Psalm and Hymns
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (Psalm 103)
A favorite of our congregation. The song's author was Joachim Neander, the grandson of a musician and the son of a teacher. He studied theology at Bremen, Heidelburg, and then Frankfurt, where (at the age of 23) he met the great German Pietistic scholars Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) and Johann Jakob Schьtz (1640-1690). Neander died at the young age of 30, perhaps of the plague, having served in his short life as a school principal and as a minister. He wrote this hymn when he was 20.

O Word of God Incarnate A great hymn of faith, thanking Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, for the wisdom of God revealed in the Bible. This is yet another of Bishop How's fine hymn texts. How served as curate at Kidderminster (Richard Baxter's old stomping grounds), then at Shrewsbury. He later served as rector at Whittington, Shropshire, near the Welsh border (Matthew Henry country!); suffragen Bishop of London and bishop of Wakefield, West Yorkshire. He was known for his work with the poor and with industrial workers. He also found time to write over 50 hymns.

God, in the Gospel of His Son The author, Benjamin Beddome, (1717-1795) was the son of Baptist minister John Beddome. He was apprenticed to a surgeon in Bristol, but moved to London in 1739 and joined the Baptist church on Prescott Street. At the call of his church, he devoted himself to the work of Christian ministry, and in 1740 began to preach at Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucerstershire. For many years he was one of the most respected Baptist ministers in western England. This hymn thanks God for the glorious qualities of the Bible. It is most appropriate for our response to the reading of Scriptures.

Father of Mercies, in Your Word
This hymn text was composed by Anne Steele, the daughter of William Steele, a timber merchant who was also a lay preacher at the Baptist church in Broughton. She lost her mother at age 3. At age 19, a severe hip injury made her a lifelong invalid. At age 21, her fiancй drowned the day before they were to be married. From this series of tragedies rose 144 hymns and 34 versified Psalms, which were enormously popular. Her main work was Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional (1760). When Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts (where Phillips Brooks later became rector) published its hymnal in 1808, 59 of its 144 hymns were from the pen of Anne Steele. She preferred to remain anonymous, though, writing under a pen name.

Now I Belong to Jesus
This congregational favorite is a mid-twentieth century hymn, introduced to this church in Dr. Miller's day. In it we glory in the fact that Jesus has bought us and owns us, and all the assuring consequences of that great redemptive reality.

May the Mind of Christ My SaviorThe song, as a whole, asks the Lord to give us the mind of Christ. What better way to fulfill the call to sound doctrine, holiness of life, and love of the brethren that we've heard over and over in 1, 2, and 3 John, than to gain the mind of Christ? Let's make the whole text of this hymn a deliberate petition for ourselves and an intercession for our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This guide to worship is written by the minister and provided to the congregation and our visitors in order (1) to assist them in their worship by explaining why we do what we do in worship and (2) to provide them background on the various elements of the service.

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