One of the truths of Scripture that, perhaps, chiefly emboldens those in the church is the strange choice of God to use weak and insignificant people to expand his Kingdom. St. Paul says this explicitly when he writes to the Church at Corinth, “God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world — what is viewed as nothing — to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one may boast in his presence.” (1 Cor. 1:28–29) It is God’s deliberate prerogative to assign so great a mandate as the proclamation of his Name to so feeble and frail creatures such as us. In his divine wisdom and grace, the Lord made it so that in the very mission of championing his glory, no amount of residual glory remains in us or on us. “Let the one who boasts,” Paul continues, “boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:31)
Concerning this, there is found sublime truth and testimony to not only God’s gracious choice of us but also our function as his children in the often overlooked letter of 3rd John. A book of only fourteen verses, making it the shortest of the New Testament books, and yet within its sentiments lies a candid message about the local church body and its responsibility to not only be hearers of the truth but doers of the truth as well.
A touch of personality.
What’s immediately noticeable about this letter is its deeply practical and personal structure. No doubt, the New Testament epistles were rich theological treatises that not only served to benefit their original audiences but have persisted for millennia in God’s inspired Word. But these apostolic letters aren’t only remembered for their theological richness but for their personal engagement. These were normal letters written to normal people with normal lives. I think we sometimes detach the personality of the apostles and their audiences when reading their epistles. But it’s the very personal nature of these letters that adds such weight to the spiritual truths that they contain. Indeed, what makes 3rd John stand out — and what should be remembered about all the other epistles, too — is its familiar format.
In this third epistle of the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” we find an intimate letter of encouragement to one named Gaius, a friend of John’s and partner “in the truth.” It is unclear from Scripture exactly who Gaius was. Some have endeavored to identify this Gaius with the other mentions of the same name that appear throughout the New Testament. (Acts 19:29; 20:4; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14) But considering all attempts at linking the mentions of the names together in various places are based solely on conjecture, it’s best to approach the Gaius addressed in John’s letter as a separate individual from the others. What’s more, “Gaius” was a fairly common name during the first century, much like “John” or “Jack” is today.
Yet, despite his unknown and uncertain background, we remember this man Gaius for one particular reason: his testimony for the truth. It’s clear that John loved him and considered him a “dear friend,” a phrase that’s repeated twice in the first two verses. (3 John 1:1–2) In the King James translation, this is rendered “beloved” or “well-beloved.” This endearing term is indicative of St. John’s writing, appearing nine times in his three epistles and four times alone in just fourteen verses here. (3 John 1:1–2, 5, 11) Furthermore, John’s affection for Gaius is clear when he writes, “I pray that you are prospering in every way and are in good health, just as your whole life is going well.” (3 John 1:2) By this sentiment, the apostle displays a comprehensive care and concern for both the physical and spiritual well-being of his coworker in the faith.
This, too, is characteristic of Johannine writing. The “disciple whom Jesus loved,” in all his epistles, never speaks with an irritated tone. Rather, the whole tenor and atmosphere of his words is love. He writes as a loving parent disciplining and doting upon his children, desiring only that their faith would find further resolve in the truth of God’s Word. And such is John’s intent with this brief letter to Gaius. This dearly loved brother in the ministry was likely a convert and disciple of John himself. Such is how I read verse 4, where John writes, “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in truth.” And how the apostle remembers him is how we remember him, too.
A testimony of deference.
Gaius was a gospel-centered man, though as is clear from the text, he wasn’t a preacher. His ministry was of a different sort. Nevertheless, he is remembered forever for his testimony of graciousness in furthering God’s Kingdom. Gaius had a reputation that was not only recommended by St. John but was also consistent with the truth. His lifestyle was such as becomes the gospel. (3 John 1:3; Phil. 1:27) He is encouraged by the apostle for not only knowing the truth but “walking in truth.” Gaius was not satisfied to merely lend an ear to the preaching of the gospel, but put empirical action to what he heard.
Dear friend, you are acting faithfully in whatever you do for the brothers and sisters, especially when they are strangers. They have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God, since they set out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from pagans. Therefore, we ought to support such people so that we can be coworkers with the truth. (3 John 1:5–8)
As the church was in its infancy, the apostles would often disciple and employ compatriot ministers who would visit and strengthen the churches, traveling from congregation to congregation ministering to their needs. These itinerant preachers were stewards of the gospel entrusted to the apostles. Thus their mission was to reaffirm the apostles’ doctrine and teaching as counterfeit gospels crept in and wreaked havoc on the nascent Christian movement. These preachers relied solely on the charity of the church to support their campaign, “accepting nothing from pagans.” (3 John 1:7) And it is these same preachers who testified of Gaius’s graciousness and hospitality: “They have testified to your love before the church.” (3 John 1:6)
John, therefore, by this letter, gives apostolic affirmation to Gaius’s actions. In fact, he spends the close of his letter encouraging Gaius to welcome Demetrius into his home. (3 John 1:12) The apostle, thereby, encourages his disciple to continue his gracious ministry of hospitality so that the preachers of grace could continue spreading the message of grace. Gaius’s ministry of charity “to the brethren, and to strangers” (3 John 1:5 KJV) is no frivolous thing. It was of great consequence that the truth was allowed spread far and wide by the simple ministry of hospitality.
Indeed, hospitality in the first century was a special, sacred duty. There were few nobler callings in early church than to open one’s home to those specially called to speak the truth. It was considered a great honor and, in so doing, made you part of the same ministry. In housing the truth, you became allies of the truth. “Therefore,” writes John, “we ought to support such people so that we can be coworkers with the truth.” (3 John 1:8)
It is in this way that I believe Gaius’s testimony of deferential, gracious care for the messengers of the gospel conveys the reality of each of our roles in the Kingdom of God. Each of us has a part to play in the furtherance of God’s Word in the world. No task is too small. For Gaius, his charitable contributions to the ministers of the truth allowed him to do far more for the sake of the truth than he ever thought probable. His testimony of living “for the sake of the Name” stands as a vibrant reminder of what the truth does in our lives.
A testimony of dominance.
However, the apostle’s letter doesn’t end there. He continues by citing the vindictive character of one named Diotrophes. With the epistle being as brief as it is, John’s contrast between the two men feels severe and unembellished. Where Gaius is remembered for his deference, Diotrophes is remembered forever as one “who loves to have first place.” (3 John 1:9)
The precise details surrounding the life of Diotrophes and his consternation with this church are unknown, though many believe he was an authoritative elder or deacon in the church. Perhaps the first “demon deacon,” as his reputation betrays him. He refused apostolic authority, smearing and slandering the apostles “with malicious words.” What’s more, as if that weren’t enough blemishes to remember, John writes that Diotrophes was “not satisfied with that! He not only refuses to welcome fellow believers, but he even stops those who want to do so and expels them from the church.” (3 John 1:10)
For Diotrophes, control mattered most. Church order meant more to him than love for God’s servants or love for Christ’s sheep. His appetite for dominance overstepped the apostolic authority given to the church by God himself. Furthermore, his crusade to defame the ministers and diminish the work of the church is a testament to his ignorance of the truth. Diotrophes shows he doesn’t understand the truth of the gospel by not living in and for the sake of the gospel. His discrediting and dishonoring of the ministry and message of the God’s good news reveal his shear lack of awareness of what gospel living is supposed to look like.
A testament to a Person.
It is this very truth of the gospel, therefore, that ought to inform and inspire all our actions for the sake of the gospel. The truth that dying love draws out deferential love for others. The truth that grace incarnate galvanizes empirical acts of kindness and sacrifice. To be sure, our actions can’t save us nor do they attain for us more favor in the eyes of God, but our actions do matter. What we do for God matters. It evidences where our priorities are and where, and to whom, we’ve given our allegiance. In the case of Gaius and these preachers, it was for Jesus’s name alone.
They set out for the sake of the Name. (3 John 1:7)
There’s one name and one name only that serves to move and motivate us in acts of grace and deference and sacrifice, and that name is The Name, the Lord Jesus Christ. His name, here, is a stand-in not only for the entire creed of the Christian faith but also for all the marvelous words uttered and works done by him. The Name is representative of the heart, evoking the glorious Person of our Savior and his wondrous condescension to our ruinous frame. His name calls to mind the infinite depth of his love and the illimitable sovereignty of his power and the incomprehensible reach of his pardon. So writes Alexander Maclaren:
“The Name” means the whole Christ as we know Him, or as we may know Him, from the Book, in the dignity of His Messiahship, in the mystery of His Divinity, in the sweetness of His life, in the depth of His words, in the gentleness of His heart, in the patience and propitiation of His sacrifice, in the might of His resurrection, in the glory of His ascension, in the energy of His present life and reigning work for us at the right hand of God. All these, the central facts of the Gospel, are gathered together in that expression “the Name,” which is the summing up in one mighty word, so to speak, which it is not possible for man to utter except in fragments, of all that Jesus Christ is in Himself, and of all that He is and does for us. (63)
It is a knowledge of the truth of this Name that fills our hearts and minds with the truth, and clothes our lives in charity. To the degree that we are purposed to live for the truth, for the sake of Jesus’s name, is the degree to which our lives will be defined by the truth and all that’s implied by his name.
- Alexander Maclaren, The Epistles of John, Jude and the Book of Revelation (New York: Armstrong & Son, 1910).