Imitate Good and not Bad

A Commentary on Third John

Children Walking in the Truth

A Christian parent is always concerned that their children continue walking in the Truth. There are those occasions when one’s child may belong to a congregation or ecclesia that is not the best example in the world. Indeed, there may be dangerous forces at work in such a congregation. [1 Corinthians 11:17] One only has to read the seven apocalyptic letters of Jesus Christ to the seven churches in Revelation to learn of these dangers. [Revelation chapters 2 and 3]

Suppose there was a congregation with two elders: one was an evil and bad example possessed of some authority; the other was an elderly brother who was a good example. Suppose the bad elder used his power and authority to control the congregation with threats of excommunication. What advice would you give? Who will have the courage to stand up and speak out against such a bad elder?

We find this exact situation when we come to read what is called in the Biblical canon as Third John. It is a brief letter of 384 words and yet has a powerful impact on Christian churches near the year 2,000. This letter reveals a real challenge even in the modern Church: political ambition and religious control. John writes to another old Christian, Gaius. In the congregation there are two forces: one hateful and one loving, both manifest regarding hospitality. What is a member of the Church to do when two elders represent two different poles: one spiritual and one fleshly?

John the Presbyter begins with kind words to Gaius, evidently an elder within the ecclesia. The beloved apostle expresses his joy that his “children continue walking in the Truth.” [3 John 1-4] He then continues to praise their hospitality and charity toward fellow workers in the Truth of the Evangel.

The Faithful Work of Hospitality

3 John 5-8 Beloved, you are doing a faithful thing whenever you work in behalf of the brothers, and this to strangers. [These visiting brothers] testified about your loving concern in sight of [the] ecclesia. Please send these [visitors] forward worthily of The God. For it was in behalf of [God’s] Name they went forth, receiving nothing from the non-Jews. Therefore, we are obligated to receive such so that we may become co-workers to the Truth.

John will identify this “work” as hospitality and charity. [Compare Matthew 25:40 and Hebrews 13:12. See notes in Nazarene Commentary on Romans 12:13.] Hospitality and sharing is high on the list of Jesus, Paul, James and John when it comes to “works.” Both Paul and Jesus accepted aid from non-Jews. However, there were circumstances in which Paul did not take advantage of their hospitality. [1 Corinthians 9:12, 15] John says it is our duty to entertain - that is, to show hospitality - and so play our part in spreading the truth. [Romans 12:13; Hebrews 10:34; 1 Peter 4:9] Despite good-heartedness on the part of Gaius and others, there was a dangerous, ravenous wolf in the church. [Acts 20:29, 30]

Ambition, Disrespect and Tyranny

3 John 9, 10 I wrote something to the ecclesia, however, Diotrephes -- who likes to be first among them -- does not accept us. Because of this, if I should ever visit, I will remember his works -- chattering about us in wicked words. And not being satisfied with that, neither does he receive the [visiting] brothers. Also, those [in the ecclesia] wishing [to receive the visiting brothers] he wishes to hinder and expel from the ecclesia.

How we would rejoice to read this unknown letter. There is a possibility it was the epistle of First John but was rejected by this elder named Diotrephes. His name means “Fed by Zeus” which turns out to be somewhat cryptic. Though here he is an individual, there are elders who as a group turn out to be a “corporate Diotrephes” Such congregations, organizations or religious societies are dominated by a controlling tyranny where threats and fear reign.

Diotrephes was ambitious and “liked to have the first place” in the congregation. [Or, eager to be a leader.] There is a difference between the Christian man who “desires the office of overseer” [1 Timothy 3:1] and the man who desires “first place.” The very nature of a political body involved with government will produce those men who crave absolute control. No matter the political structure of this body it will manifest itself in one way or another. Even the Lord’s apostles argued who was the greatest among them. [Matthew 18:1; 23:11; Mark 9:46] When such a man attains power it can make life in the church a great test of faith. The correct attitude is reflected in Matthew 20:27 and Philippians 2:4, 5.

A man who is ambitious for political control or prestige will do what Diotrephes did. He will not respect another’s authority. John says that Diotrephes, “Does not accept us.” [Or, not acknowledge our authority, declines to recognize us.] A man so obsessed with power resents any other authority. He will do what he can to belittle and undermine any other leadership. [Compare Hebrews 13:7, 17] There is a good Biblical example of such jealous ambition in David’s son, Absalom.

Diotrephes does not realize the man he will confront if John should ever visit. We would long to have been there to see such an element disposed of by the remaining restraint in the Church. [Compare 1 Corinthians 4:19; 2 Corinthians 13:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-9]

Jealousy and ambition are always revealed by speech and just so John knew that Diotrephes was, “Chattering about us in wicked words.” [Or, KJV: pratting against us with malicious words; TCNT: ridiculing us with his wicked tongue; GDSP: maliciously accusing me; WEY: mischievous talk; NEB: baseless and spiteful charges; KNX: maligns us with his foolish gossip.] Some how the blasphemous talk by Diotrephes has gotten back to John, which is the way of things. [Psalm 101:5; Proverbs 6:19; Ecclesiastes 10:20] Diotrephes was “blaspheming Glorious Ones.” [2 Peter 2:10; Jude 8]

Not only did Diotrephes speak abusively of John but he used his position to put pressure on the congregation, trying to control them. He refuses to accept any of these apostolic representatives or in any way show them charity and hospitality. The man has virtually sealed his fate as one of the “goats.” [Matthew 25:40-46] These members of the church would have included the hospitable Gaius. These Christians are truly among the “sheep.” [Matthew 25:40]

The extremes of control Diotrephes would sink to is shown in what must have been his threat of excommunicating anyone who was charitable to these visiting brothers. Possibly he had the authority to excommunicate and used this as a threat. Diotrephes is an example of the “evil slave.” [Matthew 24:49] Paul had similar struggles. [2 Timothy 4:15] This is religious control at its worst, and the atmosphere of fear in the congregation must have been considerable. Only the brave dare challenge such a man. What is one to do? John leaves no doubt.

Imitate the Good and Not the Bad

3 John 11 Beloved, do not imitate the bad but rather, the good. The person doing good is from The God. The person doing harm has not seen The God.

John’s counsel is as we would expect - simple, “Do not imitate the bad but rather, the good.” [Compare Romans 12:9; 1 Peter 3:11; Hebrews 13:7] There are bad examples in the Church. Sometimes these are in the majority. 85% of the seven churches to whom Jesus wrote in Revelation were riddled with problems. One does well not to look at these bad examples, but rather imitate those excellent examples of true followers of Christ. [1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21]

Only persons who habitually practice goodness can claim a relationship with The God. Jesus taught that there was only One who was absolutely Good as the source of all goodness. Those desiring to be genuine disciples of Jesus do well to keep their eye on good examples and avoid the bad. [2 Timothy 2:20-22] Those who do really “see” or experience their relationship with God. They are called “friends” by John as he concludes his epistle: “The Friends greet you. Greet the Friends by name.” In time, certainly no later that the parousia-judgment [1 John 2:28; 4:17], wicked men like Diotrephes will receive that reward they deserve. [2 Corinthians 5:10] Those who imitate goodness will rejoice at the Marriage of the Lamb!

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Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller

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