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Sermon preached on 3 John by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/16/2017 in Novato, CA.
“For the Brethren and For Strangers”
Hospitality. That’s a topic I covered somewhat recently when we were in 1 Timothy talking about how elders need to be hospitable. At that time, I pointed out how the word used there for hospitality was a compound word literally meaning to love a stranger. Well, the other word used in the Greek New Testament is similar. It is a compound word literally meaning to receive a stranger. Well, this is an important topic for any church that is trying to reach out to its community with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to be prepared to welcome and show the love of Christ to visitors to the church. And so, I wanted to revisit this important topic again today. However, this time as we read 3 John we are reminded that many of the visitors that we need to welcome and receive will actually be our fellow Christians. They may be strangers to us in terms of having just met them, but as fellow Christians we have an instant connection and relationship with them. If we are to welcome and receive non-Christians visitors to whom we hope to share the gospel with, how much more are we obliged to welcome and receive our fellow Christians who may be visiting here for the first time. So today we’ll think about showing hospitality to the visiting brethren who are also strangers to us. To accomplish that, we’ll spend some time looking at the three main people mentioned in this letter: Gaius, Diotrephes, and Demetrius and thinking about how they relate to this topic today of welcoming the brethren.
Let’s begin then with Gaius. This is the recipient of this letter. The Apostle John, referred to here as the elder in verse 1, is writing to Gaius. Other than this letter, we don’t know anything with certainty about this Gaius. There are other referenced in the Bible to people named Gaius, but that was a very common name at that time, and so there is nothing in the Bible that would tell us if this Gaius was the same as any mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. But for the purposes of today’s message, it’s not something we need to know. Rather, I want us to see from this letter what we know about Gaius.
And so, in terms of our topic for today, Gaius has done a commendable job. He has shown hospitality to visiting brothers. We see this first in verse 5. Verse 5, “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church.” Evidently, in the past some visiting brothers had come to the church and city where Gaius was at. Gaius had shown them proper hospitality, and those brothers ended up telling this to the Apostle John. Likely, these visiting brothers had been sent on a mission in the first place by John and when they returned to John, they surely reported on everything that happened. We see here that their report included how Gaius had shown them commendable hospitality.
What I want you to really recognize today is that verse 5 uses both the word brothers and strangers. In case it is unclear, the text is equating these. It’s not that Gaius has shown kindness to both brothers and separately strangers. No, it’s that he’s shown hospitality to these visiting brothers who also happened to be strangers to Gaius. And for this Gaius is commended. John says this is a faithful thing for him to do whatever he has done for these visiting brethren. And don’t miss how this hospitality is described in verse 6. The brothers who receive it describe it as love. And so, Gaius has exercised this hospitality in the most literal way; he has loved strangers. Strangers who happened to be his brothers in Christ. Brothers he hadn’t yet met, but brothers nonetheless. Well, when given the opportunity to meet them he welcomed them in love and cared for them.
John then in verse 6 explains how Gaius can further bless such visiting brothers.
Verse 6, “If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name’s sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles.” To clarify, this is surely a reference now to a new trip to Gaius. In other words, the letter at first reflects back on a previous trip where visiting brothers came through and Gaius showed them hospitality. Now, as we’ll see in a moment with the Demetrius reference, surely this letter is being brought by a new round of visiting brothers. So, John’s language in verse 6 is basically a polite way at that time to ask Gaius to consider financially helping these visiting brothers on their way. As John informs him, these visiting brothers are on some missionary trip. Presumably, John himself sent them on this missions trip. As these brothers stop by for a time where Gaius is at, John hopes that Gaius will help them along in their mission. This could have included both financial support and various food and supplies needed for their journey. And so, when we think about such hospitality, we realize it can come in very specific forms. From the welcome and fellowship you show visiting brothers, to inviting them into your homes or maybe giving them a place to sleep, to even financial support in the case of missionaries traveling through. Hospitality can be shown in various ways and we’ll need to use wisdom in any situation to determine what is appropriate given the circumstances.
So that’s a little bit about Gaius. Let’s look next about Diotrephes. In this letter, clearly Diotrephes is the opposite of Gaius. Gaius showed great welcome and love to the visiting brethren. Diotrephes would not. In fact, not only would he not welcome these visiting brethren who were presumably strangers to him as well, but he wouldn’t welcome even John who surely he did know. We see this in verse 9. Verse 9, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us.” Now, it is unclear if the church where Diotrephes is at, is the same one where Gaius attends. Some think yes, that John now is writing to Gaius after his previous letter to Diotrephes was rejected. Others think Gaius was from a neighboring church and John hopes Gaius can exercise some influence at Diotrephes’ church. Given that verse 9 says “the church” I suspect Gaius was at the same church, but we can’t be certain. But what is clear is that evidently Diotrephes exercises some leadership position at that church. What it seems like is last time these visiting brothers came through, John sent them with a letter from him to commend them to the church’s care, but Diotrephes rejected them. He didn’t show them welcome and love. He didn’t extend hospitality. That might sound strange, but John tells us the reason why. Sadly, Diotrephes loves to be first. Evidently, Diotrephes saw these visiting brethren as a threat to his own prestige and authority. His pride and lust for power was his motivation. And so, Diotrephes didn’t welcome them.
Interestingly, many commentators are quick to point out that John doesn’t criticize Diotrephes’s doctrine, just his practice. Though I would say that at best his actions are in contradiction to Christian doctrine. So, whether he truly believes the Christian doctrine or not, his actions are a betrayal to such doctrine. Just look at the full extent of his actions in this regard. Verse 10 speaks of how he won’t receive these visiting brethren; again that word of “receive” is at the heart of the literal word for hospitality. But he doesn’t stop there. He won’t even let anyone else in the church show such hospitality. Verse 10 says that he forbids the church from showing such hospitality. He even puts people out of the church who do – in other words he excommunicates them. This is an example, by the way, of an abuse of church authority. Church leaders only have authority to demand of you what Scripture demands of you. Diotrephes has no authority to forbid hospitality to the visiting saints. In that case, he would actually be commanding sin, because it would be a sin of omission to not welcome and love visiting saints. This is an abuse of church authority.
And so, it’s clear then when you see verses 10 and 11 that John is implying that Diotrephes’ actions here are evil. Instead, John calls us to do good. In verse 11, John even uses the language of imitating. Imitate the good not the evil. By application, we see here two examples in terms of hospitality toward visiting Christians. Gaius’ example is one to imitate. Diotrephes’ is not! We regularly have opportunity to greet and welcome and receive visiting Christians. Let us be reminded today of the good we ought to do towards them.
The third person to consider today is this Demetrius mentioned in verse 12. Verse 12, “Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself. And we also bear witness, and you know that our testimony is true.” Suddenly, we realize the most specific purpose of this letter. Surely, Demetrius is being sent by John to Gaius with this letter. Demetrius is surely a missionary sent by John, and probably the leader of several missionaries that are there along with Demetrius. And so, this letter to Gaius is a letter of commendation. John commends Demetrius to Gaius. John speaks of Demetrius’ universally good report from all Christians. John adds his own personal testimony of him too. When John says that even the truth itself commends Demetrius he probably means that Demetrius’ life very evidently matches his Christian confession (unlike Diotrephes). This is like what he said in the previous verse – he who does good is of God. John seems to be saying that Demetrius is known to be a true Christian by the fruit of his life.
This idea of a letter of commendation was a normal thing back then. For example, we see it happening in Acts 18:27 with Apollos. The church of Ephesus wrote to the saints in Achaia to receive Apollos when he comes. Some denominations are still very good about doing this. For example, the Canadian Reformed Churches are very good about sending ahead letters of commendation when their members travel. This officially lets us know they are members in good standing and requests they can have fellowship with us including participate in the Lord’s Supper. The OPC less commonly sends those for just routine travel, but it is always followed in the case of membership transfers. We would send a letter that the brother is a member in good standing, and commending them to the care of the new church. It certainly would not be a bad practice to do even for the case of routine travel. Of course, nowadays such formal church membership practices can be seen as strange by many evangelical churches. But it is the historic practice of the church and I don’t believe we are well served by neglecting this practice or formal church membership in general.
Here’s a reason why this practice of letters of commendation is especially helpful and also a point of application. These visiting brethren that we are especially talking about are ones that are strangers to our church. That’s the kind of brothers this passage is talking about. They are Christians, they are members in the visible church, but we don’t particularly know them. They are strangers to us but not to the Lord or his church in general. And so, by the church sending such letters of commendation it gives some official confirmation of what the stranger is telling us. It should encourage us then to be all the more liberal in our welcome and reception and support. Otherwise, prudence and wisdom will need to be exercised and necessarily a greater degree of caution.
For example, if I get a random call out of the phone book that supposedly some Christian is coming through town and wants a place to say, for the wisdom of safety reasons I’m not typically going to try to find a place for him to stay with our members. But if I get a phone call or email from a pastor or session of one our sister churches letting me know that one of their members is coming through and needing a place to stay that Sunday, then that changes everything. I would tend to try to accommodate that request in that case.
Let me clarify further. My point is to say that there is a wisdom component needed here. We get visiting Christians coming through all the time, many whom we don’t know. We should welcome them and love them. But how that welcome and love is expressed will need some wisdom. I think it is a really great thing when an unknown brother or sister in Christ visits us on a Sunday and one of our members invites them over to their home for lunch. But wisdom would say we would need to exercise some discretion in that regard for the purposes at least of safety. I don’t mean to hinder your hospitality to visiting Christians. But I do want us to make sure we use wisdom at the same time. The fact that John wrote this letter of commendation actually implies that a level of discernment must be needed when working with strangers.
In bringing today’s message together, I want to again point us to the gospel that is found in this passage. To be sure, it’s not stated in explicit terms, per se. But it is certainly referenced. We see this with the usage of the word “truth”. That word appears six times in this letter. It is clearly a reference to the Christian gospel and hope. For example, in verse 8, John describes the missionaries as workers for the truth. And as Christians, John reminds Gaius that we want to be walking in the truth (verses 3-4). Gaius himself is described as being in the truth (verse 3). It’s that truth that also testifies of Demetrius. What is this truth? Remember, how in John’s gospel, he records Jesus declaring that he himself is the truth. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” That’s at the heart of the gospel. How is it that we who have imitated evil in various ways throughout our life; how is it that we can come to know God and be in relationship with him? It’s through Jesus. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. So, we come into the truth through Jesus who is the truth. Speaking of Jesus, John says in John 1:12, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Salvation is a great gift of God, and that gift is referenced repeatedly in this letter with the language of the “truth.”
And this is at the heart of the whole topic for today. Why should we especially extend such welcome and love to such strangers? Yes, the Bible talks in general how hospitality to strangers is a righteous thing, but this passage takes it further. We have an even greater demand to care and love such strangers who are also believers. Why? Because of what we are together “in the truth”. Notice how verse 1 starts off. John’s love for Gaius is “in the truth.” That’s the basis for their relationship. And in this letter John goes on to call Gaius four times “beloved” or sometimes translated as “friend.” He also refers to Gaius as his child, clearly a reference to a spiritual offspring – maybe Gaius became a Christian through John’s ministry. And that children language is family language. Don’t forget the language of “brethren” in verses 5 and 10 as well; more family language. And then look down in verse 14. Our friends greet you, and then John asks to greet the friends there with Gaius by name. Do you see the picture being painted here? Our connection even with certain strangers is “in the truth”; it’s in the Lord and in the gospel. There are people throughout the world we haven’t even met yet that are our friends and spiritual family members. If they are in the truth, if they are in Christ like us, then we have a bond and connection already! Let us then welcome them and receive them when they visit us here in Novato.
As a final exhortation, I point us to how John mentions the value of face to face time in verses 13-14. Verse 13, “I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face.” John wants to have time in person with Gaius. See the value in this! Letters, phone calls, emails, text messages, Facebook posts, etc, can’t replace the value of in-person fellowship. Yet, they can serve a good purpose, just like this letter of 3 John does. We are glad John wrote this, and it did help his relationship with Gaius. But John also knew there was especially a value to spending time in person with the saints.
So, there is a balance here. Make good use of our time when we are here on Sundays. Realize that this is a time to develop relationships with your church friends in person. Realize that it is also a time to show hospitality to visitors, especially our visiting fellow saints. But then you can also use other means to keep in touch via letters, emails, phone calls, etc. I encourage you to keep in touch those ways with former members too who have moved away. I’m sure they’d love to hear from you! Also, you can use such means to reach out to the fellow Christians who visit us to follow up with them afterwards. But especially today our passage is encouraging us to welcome and love and receive Christians who are visiting us; they may be strangers in one sense, but let’s show them the welcome that is fitting to one who is a brother or sister in the truth. We know how much God has received us and loved us in Christ. Let us show a fitting welcome to all the strangers who visit our church, especially those who are of the household of faith. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.