Pastor Scott Andrews | July 18, 2021
III John 9-15
We all have some authority over us, and that chaffs us. And so, we live in a society that wants to throw off any authority – parental authority, police authority, governing authority, (those two together comprising law and order), employment authority, as if social anarchy is the answer to societal ills. Even the authority inherent in truth – if your truth infringes on my freedoms, rights, beliefs, my behaviors, your truth must go. There’s no such thing as absolute truth – don’t miss that – even truth is nebulous and malleable, so as an authority it must go. One of the last institutions on the list is religious authority – whether the Bible or the Church – being controlling and therefore oppressive, they must go. They infringe on my rights, freedoms, desires.
I want you to think of that – the church is considered an authoritarian oppressor. And so, there is a growing number of people who deny the existence of God at all – because, as the ultimate authority, God too must go. And by the way, this is not a particularly new view. Percy Bysshe Shelley, considered one of the greatest English Romantic poets was an avowed atheist. He was a proponent of free love, and had to go into exile because of his views. You see, he thought the Christian religion suppressed free love. He wrote, “A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage.” No such thing as marital bliss. He laid this marital unhappiness at the feet of church authority. Oh, by the way, Shelley was not born in the 50s, he was born in 1792.
You see, all authority is seen as the oppressor, and those under authority are seen as the oppressed. Because, one of the challenges is when authority turns to unchecked control, and control turns to abuse. It does happen – I’m not suggesting we then get rid of all authority, but authoritarian abuse does happen. We can all cite examples of parental abuse, spousal abuse or violence, physical or sexual abuse, police brutality, employer abuse or overreach, etc. Is the answer to get rid of all parents, spouses, police, employers, etc.? Some would say so. Unfortunately, we can also cite examples of religious abuse. Is the answer to get rid of all religious or spiritual authority – like the church? Some would say so.
Most are aware of the atrocity of sexual abuse perpetrated by religious authorities upon those under their care. I recently cited the example of Ravi Zacharias. But I’m not talking about that specifically. I’m talking about arrogant, self-serving, controlling abuse of those under authority, under supposed care. You see, some of you are aware of big name pastors recently dismissed from their churches because of staff or elder or congregational abuse. It looks like this: if the staff person or the elder or other leadership doesn’t agree with the man in charge, that staff is belittled, marginalized, mistreated, terminated; the elder or other lower leader is ignored or removed or berated into submission.
So, we have this conundrum. Proper authority vs. abusive authority. I guess the questions are, what to do with authority – any authority? Should all authority be dismantled since abuse exists? Some obviously think so. Perhaps a better question would be, what to do with abuse within authority structures? Particularly in the church. What to do with abusive, pastoral leadership, dictatorial authority? I believe the Apostle John tells us in our concluding study of III John – of John’s letters. And we’ll find the answer is not to dismantle all church authority. Jesus said I will build My church, and the very gates of hell will not overcome it – even from within. So the answer is not to dismantle what the Scripture designs, but it is certainly to faithfully and biblically deal with abuses of authority, even within the church. And by the way, we will begin Titus shortly – so-called pastoral epistle, to understand some of that faithful, biblical authority.
We started III John last Sunday, and incredibly, we finish today. Because, last week, we saw this is the shortest book in the NT. It comes, appropriately, as the third of three letters dealing with false teaching and our response. In I John, we saw there were false teachers who had left the church, in some way denying Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh. So John writes to a troubled church to say, they went out from us, because they were not of us. If they had been of us, they would have no doubt remained with us. But, for those who remain, if you believe Jesus is the Christ, if you seek to obey His commands, if you love the church – you don’t leave the church even though everyone else is – you’re in a good place. You believe in Jesus and His gospel, and you have eternal life.
But, in II John, we found out those false teachers who had left the church had become themselves itinerant teachers – spreading their heresy. So John writes to say, don’t receive them. Don’t listen to them, don’t have them in your homes, don’t give them a platform at the church – don’t even give them a greeting. We saw such hospitality would be seen as an endorsement – we would actually be participating in their evil deeds. So don’t do that.
Which brought us to III John. Now, along the way, we have found, in the early church, faithful teachers made their way from church to church, sharing biblical, doctrinal truth. We still do that today – speakers go from church to church or venue to venue, and we go to conferences or the Cove to listen to them. That’s great. But then, at a time when there were few inns – and those that existed were seedy, dirty and often immoral – hospitality was a way of life. So it was expected that the people of the church take in these traveling teachers – provide housing and food for their present and even future ministry – send them off in a manner worthy of God. Further, in the early church, these traveling teachers often carried letters of endorsement from someone known by the church.
Now, last week, we found that John had written a personal letter to a man named Gaius, whom John clearly knew and dearly loved. He calls Gaius beloved four times in this short letter. And he commends him for walking in the truth – namely, for his hospitality – doing what I just talked about – having teachers sent out by John into his own home and providing for them. Remember, we saw these teachers went out for the sake of the Name. (The name by which we must be saved, to which every knee will bow, and by which every nation will be judged.) I’ve been mulling that phrase in my mind over and over – for the sake of the Name. May I do that, may we do that in everything that we do – for the sake of the Name.
Well, John had some great things to say to his beloved Gaius. I love you in the truth (parallel tracks – love and truth – there is such a thing as truth); I pray for you – for your prosperity and health for the sake of the gospel (II Corinthians 9); I was glad when I heard you’re walking in or living the truth. I have no greater joy than that – to hear of my children walking in the truth. Beloved Gaius, you’re acting faithfully in showing hospitality to these strangers. They’ve testified of your love and care – you sent them on their way in a manner worthy of God. We ought to support such men – because when we do, we become fellow workers in the truth. That was a significant distinction from II John. Don’t support false teachers – when you do, you participate in their evil deeds. But support faithful and true teachers – when you do, you participate in the work of the gospel. I suggested that as givers, when we support missionaries, we participate in their work.
But stop right there and please notice something. There is a sense in which the Apostle John was exercising authority. Certainly, he did so by commending Gaius – you’re walking in the truth, you’re showing hospitality to those I’ve commended to you, you’ve sent them out faithfully with support, you should do that. It wasn’t a command – there are only two imperatives in this short letter. But he was exercising faithful oversight – dare I call it authority – when he commended Gaius. And actually, it will become clearer – more strong – in our text today. He will be exercising strong, leadership authority over a man who was abusing his authority in the church. So, in this short letter, we have the strength of godly leadership, and the abuse of ungodly leadership. Who do you imitate? Who do you follow? Read the text with me, III John 9-15.
What a strong, yet kind letter. III John is actually organized around three people – Gaius, Diotrephes, and Demetrius. Obviously, the letter is written to Gaius, whom John commends. He also commends Demetrius, who by the way, was likely the carrier of the letter. Which means, the letter also served as an endorsement for Demetrius. But John also takes Diotrephes to task for his disobedience to authority and abuse of authority. We’ll learn about what spiritual abuse among leadership is, and what to do about it. And we’ll learn what qualities to emulate, as John holds out Demetrius as an example. That forms our outline:
- The Ungodly Diotrephes – Do Not Imitate Him (9-10)
- The Godly Demetrius – Imitate Him (11-12)
- The Letter Closing (13-15)
So John has just commended Gaius, and the commendation becomes even more pronounced when we realize the environment in which Gaius acted, and further, when Gaius is compared to the ungodly Diotrephes. Diotrephes is not mentioned in the rest of the NT – all we know about him is here. There are a couple of things we surmise about him. First, it appears he exercised some leadership in the church. Whether that was an official position – as an elder, for example – or because the church met in his home, we don’t know. But he appears to at least be a man of some power and influence. (Noble name)
A second thing we note is he was in conflict with the Apostle John for some reason. It was fascinating to read the various guesses as to the nature of their conflict – actually down through the centuries. Everyone wants to know, what was the beef? Some have suggested Diotrephes was one of the false teachers, and he was irritated that John was prohibiting his cronies from access to the church. That’s possible, I guess, but given the nature of I and II John, it seems John would have said that. Seems like he would have called Diotrephes out for his heresy.
Others have suggested that the real problem was John – he was overstepping his bounds – he was becoming the authoritarian, and Diotrephes was opposing his heavy handedness. The only problem with that is…III John. John wrote this canonical letter under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and John clearly wasn’t the problem. Did John exercise authority? Yes. Was it abusive, unkind, controlling? No.
Which leads to the more likely cause of the conflict – clearly inferred from the text. Diotrephes was a dictatorial leader who ruled arrogantly and jealously with an iron fist. And I suspect some of you have experienced just that in other churches – hopefully, not here. And John threatened his authority. We read here of four things Diotrephes did, from which we can learn – that is, what not to imitate. We should learn not to act this way toward authority, nor should we act this way in authority. Don’t miss that – we should not act the way he did toward authority, John, nor should we act this way in authority – toward his people.
First, verse 9, when John wrote to the church – apparently a letter of commendation for these traveling teachers that Gaius received, Diotrephes did not accept what John wrote. We don’t know what that letter was – some suggest it was II John – those who think Diotrephes was a false teacher. But more likely, given the context, it was a letter now lost to us. He either ignored it altogether, or perhaps destroyed it. The point is, Diotrephes did not accept the authority over him – namely, an apostle. That’s not to say that the letter he received from John was inspired, or we would have it in our Bibles. But, he clearly disregarded John’s apostolic authority.
We should be very careful about doing that. We have apostolic authority – it’s called the NT. But further, we should be very careful about disregarding our authority prescribed by the NT – especially if instruction given is biblical. John had written, encouraging the teachers to be received. Diotrephes ignored it, refused to obey. I suppose he could have given all kinds of reasons – I’m too busy, I don’t have the resources, I don’t have the time or space, etc. But to refuse an instruction from someone in authority was significant. By the way, to refuse to accept the teachers was the same as refusing the one who sent them – that is, John.
But why did Diotrephes not accept what John wrote? We’re not left to wonder – John tells us, he loves to be first among them – that is, the church. That’s an interesting word – it only appears here in the NT. Literally, he loves the first. He loves the position of being first. Interesting, the word was used outside of Scripture to speak of one who loves to lead by controlling others. A related word is used in Colossian 1:18, “He [Jesus] is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place [that’s the word] in everything.” Jesus is the head of the body, the church, and the first place is reserved for Him – not any church leader.
Which leads to an important principle. Any leader who wants the preeminence, who wants first place, who wants all the authority and all the recognition and all the power and all the accolades is a poor leader – dare I call him not a leader at all. John will suggest such evil ambition was an indication that Diotrephes was not a Christian at all.
The true leader is to put others first, but preeminently Jesus Christ. Remember, Jesus had to deal with this problem with the disciples many times – saying to them, the one who wants to be first will be last – the first will be the humble servant of all. John was there to hear that speech over and over – once, it was right after his mother asked if her sons – the Sons of Thunder – would be granted the privilege of sitting on Jesus’ left and right in the kingdom. The greatest will be the servant of all.
Diotrephes wanted to be first. Any leader who wants the limelight is a problem. The second thing he did is found in verse 10 – he unjustly accused John (and perhaps other leaders) with wicked words. Literally, he gossiped about John – with evil words. That’s what people do who want the spotlight – they tear down others, thinking to make themselves look good in the process. But the opposite happens. It makes the gossiper look petty and frankly, sinful. And by the way, I know from personal experience, no one is the subject of more gossip than leaders. Church leaders.
Can I encourage you to not engage in talking badly about your leaders? There is really no place for that. If there is a challenge, and there may well be – talk to the leader. Hebrew 13 says to obey your leaders and to submit to their authority, because, they care for your souls. Do this so their work may be a joy. I have been the subject of harmful, hurtful gossip – it’s painful. It doesn’t bring joy in trying – albeit imperfectly – to serve Christ by serving and leading you.
The third and fourth things Diotrephes did are also found in verse 10. Amazingly, not satisfied with just tearing John down, he himself did not receive the brothers John endorsed and sent to the church. This is related to the first problem – Diotrephes not only refused to listen to John’s letter – he refused to do what it said. Listen, leaders do not have ultimate authority which is to be obeyed with uncompromising, unbending submission. But refusing to obey a biblical command and encouragement simply because of wanting to disobey a specific leader is not helpful or healthy for the church or your spiritual life.
Finally, and rather incredibly, not only did Diotrephes refuse hospitality to those John sent, but he forbade anyone in the church from doing so – and if they did – he disciplined them – he put them out of the church. Talk about an abuse of authority.
There is a place for “putting someone out of the church.” It is the final step of church discipline, found in Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 5. The idea of putting them out is to shun any association with them outside of redemptive action. In other words, if someone is in unrepentant sin, and you go through the process of confronting them one on one, then two or three on one, then telling it to the church – if they continue to live in open rebellion, unrepentant sin, you put them out – you turn them over to Satan so that the body may be destroyed, but the soul saved. You remove them from the fellowship and protection of the church. All associations are redemptive – meaning, you don’t go to lunch like everything is okay. Paul said, with a professing believer in open sin, with such a one, do not even eat.
But here, because there were those obeying the principles of hospitality – showing care for faithful teachers sent by John – because of his jealousy and conflict with John – Diotrephes was putting them outside the church. Again, perhaps because he was an elder, or perhaps because the church met in his home. The point is, there wasn’t sin – there was no reason to put them out. Diotrephes was acting in his own self-interest – his own arrogance, and desire to be first. If there was anyone who deserved discipline, it was he.
Which, by the way, tells us that church leaders are not beyond correction (I Timothy 5). But, like all believers, there is a way to confront and correct. Gossiping behind their backs about non-sin issues, non-abuse issues, is improper, and itself, sinful. Gently, faithfully, biblically confront.
Well, John then gives the first command in the letter – notice, exercising proper authority. In verse 11, he says do not imitate what is evil – namely, the actions of Diotrephes – that is, disobeying proper authority, gossiping about authority, forbidding godly actions, and falsely abusing others – but imitate what is good – namely, obeying godly instruction, specifically in the context, showing hospitality.
You see, the one who does good is of God – knows Jesus and His gospel – but the one who does evil has not seen God. He doesn’t know God, he is not a true believer. This is shot across Diotrephes’ bow. You cannot be a believer and act like him.
Which brings us to the positive example of Demetrius. As I said earlier, while he comes out of nowhere, it’s likely Demetrius was the carrier of this letter. And he is to be contrasted with Diotrephes – he is the good example to imitate. Further, this letter serves as an endorsement of Demetrius. Notice verse 12 – he has received a good testimony from three different sources:
First, from everyone. That’s interesting, don’t blow by that. He didn’t just have a good testimony with John and others in leadership – everyone who knew him, knew him to be a faithful follower of Jesus – a life to emulate, to imitate.
Second, he received a good testimony from the truth itself. Remember, when John uses the word truth, it usually refers to the truth of Christ and His gospel. So very simply, John means Demetrius had received the truth of the gospel, and it changed his life – he was living according to the truth. John could have said of him, I have greater joy than this – to know that my children are walking in the truth. So, we see that Demetrius was a faithful follower – not just before those he wanted to impress, but before everyone.
Which leads to the third endorsement – from John himself. I’m in a position to see his faithful service – I commend him to you. And you know our testimony is true – so you can faithfully show him hospitality as you have done others.
What a great example. What would those who know you best – what would the gospel say about your life? Would those in authority over you, would those who live with you – would everyone give you a good testimony – that you are faithfully living the life of the gospel? Let me say it this way – is your life worthy of imitation?
Well, that brings us the closing of the letter in verses 13-15. It’s quite similar to the closing of II John, which coupled with the writer being the elder is evidence that II and III John were written by the same guy. Again, church history says, the Apostle John.
I had many things to write to you, but I don’t want to do it with pen and ink. I want to do it face to face. Both encouragement and confrontation are done best face to face. Face to face Gaius, I want you to be encouraged. And veiled in that statement is the confrontation he expects to give Diotrephes. Back in verse 10, he said, if I come, I will deal with him. He implies it again here.
Which is also a good word to us. It’s easy to hide behind a text or an email. Much better to confront face to face. To demonstrate faithfulness, truth, love and strength.
He finishes with, Peace be to you. I know it’s been tough, Gaius. I know you have perhaps faced Diotrephes wrath. Yes, church division, abusive leadership, is challenging. So I wish you peace. The friends here (this is the only place in NT letters where fellow believers are called friends – but we need that, don’t we? Faithful, godly friendship.) The friends here greet you. Remember, greeting was considered an endorsement – the believers here are with you. Then he gives the second command of the letter, greet the friends by name. That’s interesting – don’t just give a general greeting from me – let them know they are individually important.
So what do we do with this text today? We submit to proper biblical authority. What a great example both John and Demetrius set for us. Yes, we deal with, we confront, abusive authority – to include abusive, ungodly, unbiblical leaders in the church – those who want to make it about them instead of Christ. But to those who are faithful and biblical – not perfect – but faithful and biblical – we faithfully support, we joyfully submit, and graciously love.