The Third Epistle of John - The Characters of Four Men
Terry Dunn, Johannesburg
This little Epistle of only fourteen verses is full of lessons for us today. Comparing it with the Second Epistle, we notice a number of contrasts. In the Second Epistle, we are told not to receive into our homes those who do not stand the test as to doctrine concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. Our doors must be closed to those who deny that He came in the flesh. In the Third Epistle, we have the thought of keeping an open door for the Lord's people, both by way of example on the part of Gaius, and exhortation on the part of John.
In the Second Epistle, we have a condensed version of much that forms the subject matter of the First Epistle; love is mentioned four times, and truth five times. In the Third Epistle, truth is mentioned six times, whereas love is mentioned twice (translated "charity" in v.6, a.v.). But there is also "loveth the pre-eminence", v.9, and this is certainly not given to us as an example to follow.
Now in the Third Epistle, as in the Second, John introduces himself as "the elder". It is not certain whether he is referring to his great age, or to his work and character as an elder in a local assembly. If the latter, then he and Peter are the only two who refer to themselves by this title, 1 Peter 5. 1. How refreshing to notice this in contrast to some today, who have no hesitation in calling themselves by a title such as "the leading brother" ! Be this as it may, the content of the Epistle makes it evident that John was still characterized by that which marked out, and still marks out a true elder—concern for the truth of God, and for the people of God. So let us consider first of all the character of John.
In the Gospels we see something of his early life: a young man, called by Christ, and who followed the Lord, becoming known as the disciple whom Jesus loved. It is evident that he was much in the company of the Lord, and that, together with Peter and James, he experienced and saw much which the other disciples did not. Yet he appears to have been self-effacing, for after Acts 8. 14; 12. 2, and one reference in Galatians 2. 9, he is not referred to at all, until we come to the final books of the New Testament. That he was very active for the Lord is not doubted. That what he did was with a single eye for the glory of God, and for the help of His people cannot be doubted. Now, nearing the end of his life, he is marked out by his love and desire for the Lord's people, and for their spiritual well-being. Surely he is a pattern-pastor, a true elder, that is, one who is a pastor-teacher. John's prayer and commendation of Gaius manifests the true elder's heart—rejoicing in the spiritual well-being of Gaius, and praying for his prosperity and health. Dare we pray such a prayer today—that health and prosperity match spiritual well-being?
Again, in our Epistle, John writes that he has no greater joy than to hear that his children walk in truth, v.4. Surely this is the mark of a true elder— having led others to Christ, and then having a continuing care for them. Oh for elders who are marked out both by love and truth!
The second man of the Epistle is Gaius. John loved him in the truth. Love begets love, so it is clear that Gaius must have been a lovable character. About half of the Epistle has to do with Gaius, John's beloved friend. The second verse tells us that his soul was prospering. His soul, the centre of his being, his inward man, manifesting his new life as a believer —this was going on, prospering. In a day when many are prospering in a material sense, it is a tremendous challenge to us, that we should also prosper in our souls.
In the third verse we read of his testimony—not what he claimed for himself, but what others found him to be! The truth was in him, and he walked in truth. Gaius had taken hold of the truth of God, and the truth of God had taken hold of him ! This was not something theoretical—it was a living reality. He did not only talk the truth of God—he walked in that truth, as he saw it. Going on to the next verse, we discover that spiritual fatherhood and care for the saved are marks of a spiritual elder. How can a man who has no interest in bringing a soul to Christ, who does not care for the saved, be considered as an elder?
Again, walking in truth must surely apply to the whole of the Christian life—and should begin in regard to one's personal life. The fruit of the Spirit must not only be mentally acknowledged, but experimentally manifested. Orderliness of walk, honesty in all our dealings, and walking by faith are essential things in this connection.
We must also walk in truth in our responsibility to the Gospel. Many believers seem to think that if they go along to a Gospel Meeting on a Lord's Day, then they have fulfilled their obligation in this matter! Surely personal witness is one of the most neglected forms of evangelism today. There is also the need of declaring all the great truths connected with the Gospel message, such as the holiness of God, the universality of sin, the finished work of Christ, the need for repentance, and personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Walking in truth must be evidenced also in the fulfilment of ministry or service, and in my responsibility within the assembly. Fellowship within the assembly implies sharing together with fellow-believers. Not only was Gaius a walker in truth, he was also an hospitable helper! We are told he was a faithful man in whatsoever he did to the brethren and to strangers, particularly to the Christian workers, vv. 6, 7.
The third man to be considered is Diotrophes. Merrill C. Tenney, in his Handy Dictionary of the Bible, writes that his name means "Nurtured by Zeus, a domineering Christian leader condemned by John". What a terrible testimony! When we contrast Diotrophes with John, the pattern elder, pattern pastor, and Gaius the hospitable helper, and walker in truth, the label that springs to mind for Diotrophes is the despicable dictator His example here should be a warning to all believers, not to become like him.
Surely it is an honest assessment to say that Diotrophes pictures the type of man who hinders the spiritual work within an assembly, the one who desires the first place, forgetting that this belongs to the Lord Himself, and that it is His by right. "That in all things he might have the preeminence", Col. 1. 18.
The result of such an unscriptural position is seen in the context. Diotrophes would not receive a man like John—loving, honest, godly John ! Surelythis is the heart of all unscriptural exclusivism—allowing a man to have a place where he can dictate and force his will on others. Diotrophes was wrong in both words and works. How easy it is to allow a Diotrophes-type spirit to come into church meetings. In contrast the example of the late W. E. Vine is a good one. It is recorded of him, that "When a church meeting was called, he always imparted to it a warm atmosphere, and spoke of it as a family gathering, and seemed to overlook nothing which might contribute to its helpfulness and smooth working". Surely this is the spirit we ought to cultivate.
Last of all, we consider Demetrius. Here is another "good man". He was a living epistle-brother, with a good testimony, acknowledged by all! It was also said that this good report was of the truth itself. When held up to the truth of the Word of God. he measured up well. How would I fare in this connection ? With paper money, the watermark(the image of that which givesvaluetothe note) isclearly visible when the note is held up to the light. When I am held up to the light of the Word of God, is the image of Him who enriches me seen at all ? It ought to be. How we need believers who are marked out in this way in their walk, talk, teaching, humility, love and devotion to the Lord.
John closes this Epistle with the longing to see his wellbeloved brother. He wanted to speak mouth to mouth. He sent greetings from the friends who met with him, to those who met with Gaius. How precious is a fellowship like this ! May we ever follow that which is good !