A Few Lessons from 3 John
By Paul Robison


A preacher got caught in a conflict between a family who had a basement to refinish and a building contractor.  As the conflict became more heated, this preacher got calls from both parties using all kinds of negative expressions. Eventually, the preacher himself shared some negative information with one of the parties about the other party.  Pretty soon, the preacher was confronted, and he had to get both parties together so that he could explain himself better.  He ended up by saying all three of us learned much about how negative expressions did little to find a solution to the conflict. 

In the book of 3 John, we quickly discover a conflict.  The apostle John’s reaction to this conflict is very interesting.  This letter has been called one of “the postcards” of the New Testament since it is so brief.  After the salutation, we see how John compliments Gaius for his obedience and generous behavior in verses 3-4.  Then John encourages him to continue in his exemplary behavior towards traveling evangelists in verses 5-8.  In verses 9-10, John gives a warning not to be misled by the misconduct of Diotrephes, and then states that he will take care of the conflict.  This letter closes with an exhortation in verse 11, a recommendation of Demetrius in verse 12, and an explanation as to why the letter is so brief along with brotherly greetings (verses 13-14).  There are seven actions in this letter that are worthy of our imitation.

First of all, we should walk in the truth and compliment others when they do too.  Gaius was loyal to the Christian faith and demonstrated with his obedient life a splendid example of discipleship and service.  Why was this important?  Through his example, Gaius was providing healthy instruction for other brethren in the congregation.  This was especially needed since Diotrophes had been setting a bad example.  Let's also walk in truth and set good examples before our brothers here.  Although our mass media and public schools often claim that everyone has their own truth and that no truth is absolute, the apostle John tells us that God is the source and standard for a universal truth which should affect our conduct.  Why should we walk in truth?  First of all, we should walk in truth because the strength of the body here depends on the strength of each part.  Ephesians 4:15-16 says: “But, speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up in all things into Him who is the head –Christ—whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth to the body for the edifying of itself in love.” 

Secondly, we should also walk in truth because those who do not do so are severely condemned in the Scriptures.  2 Peter 2:20-22 states: “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning.  For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.  But it has happened to them according to the proverb: ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,’ and ‘a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.’”  Thirdly, we should walk in truth because it will bring joy—joy to those who taught us and joy to our own lives.  John tells Gaius that he has no greater joy than to hear his children are walking in truth (verse 4)!  Everyone who has had an active role in teaching and preaching to others can understand John’s joy when they know that those they have taught are remaining faithful to God and living by His truth!  What joy Brothers Cloer, Horton, and Hamilton must feel when they continue to hear of your faithfulness!  Jesus also told His disciples in John 15:10-11: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.  These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.”  Keep my commandment to abide in My love, and the result will be that My joy, a full joy, will remain in you!  Lucia was an Italian Christian whose service was exemplary, Sergio’s strength was his patience, and Roberto's forte was his perseverance.  Bro. Henry of Gainesville, TX, manifested great leadership, Bro. Moore of Searcy, AR, displayed great kindness, and Bro. Richardson of West Memphis, TN, showed a marvelous love in his work with others.  When we see others who are setting good examples in some way, let’s follow John’s lead and compliment them for following truth and for living out their faith in such a splendid way!  Someone has observed: “Nobody has ever been bored by someone paying them a compliment.”  Someone else noted: “People often work like a zipper—better after a little ‘soft soap.’”  Someone else gave this new twist: “A compliment a day helps keep divisions far away.”  We should walk in the truth and commend others when they do too. 

Secondly, we should open up our homes and help brethren. Gaius was a hospitable person, and others had testified of his hospitality.  It seems as though the missionaries in this passage had received little financial help.

Gaius seems to have welcomed those brethren, to have given them food and lodging, and to have sent them on their way with “a little extra gas money”.

By rendering such service, John calls Gaius a fellow worker for the truth.  He had followed the words of 1 Pt. 4:9, “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling” and Hebrews 13:2, “Do not forget to entertain strangers.”  We should also be willing to open up our homes and help other brethren.  One of my fondest childhood memories is the numerous guests we often had at Mom’s Sunday lunch of roast and potatoes: elders in Brownwood, sailors in Hong Kong, families in Coleman and Gainesville, soldiers in Mineral Wells, preachers and missionaries who often shared the pulpit with my father, and college students in Searcy, AR.  All were welcomed, and we learned that the world was much bigger than just the U. S.  A survey was made about this time four years ago, and the question was: “How often do you have guests over for dinner?  Here were the responses: once a week—6%, more than once a month—12%, once a month—21%, a few times a year—37%, rarely or never—24%.  Are we letting the world set our standards?  Are we just too busy to share some time and food with others?  Romans 12:13 says that we are to be ready to distribute to the needs of the saints and to be given to hospitality.  God has blessed many of us with homes; let us continue to use them to His glory in hosting young people, missionaries, evangelists, other brethren, and one another!  Gaius’ hospitality was known in other churches.  Wouldn’t that be a wonderful reputation for us to have as well?  We should open up our homes and help brethren. 

Thirdly, we should work for the benefit of the congregation, and not for our own ideas.  Diotrophes had forgotten this concept.  He forgot that the greatest of all was to be the servant of all, not the commander.  Diotrophes wanted to elevate himself rather than strengthening his brethren.  He was not practicing Peter’s advice to elders in 1 Peter 5:3, “Not being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”  Diotrophes doesn’t seem to be much of a team player.  He wanted the preeminence and would personally seek to have others disfellowshiped whenever they practiced hospitality.  Can we fall into the same trap?  Can we forget to consider others better than ourselves and fail to seek the good of the whole congregation above our own good (Philippians 2:1-4)?  Is there a team spirit in this congregation?  Jenny Thompson won ten Olympic medals in swimming; eight of them were gold.  None of her medals were for individual events; they were all won in team events with three other swimmers.  Someone made this interesting observation about this feat: “I find Jenny’s accomplishment in the ego-driven American culture refreshing.  She is a marvelous example of someone whose genuine success came in the context of team play.  This is how the church should work.  Our true ‘stardom’ occurs [only] when we participate as part of a winning team.  On God’s team, there is no room for superstars and mega-celebrities who do it on their own” (J. Mutchler in Larson and Elshof).

Let’s remember that we are a body (1 Corinthians 12), and EVERY member in that body is important, useful, and indispensable.  A church leader once told me, “Paul, if I could get members to work for the good of the whole, and not for their own pet peeves, a thousand problems would be solved, and outsiders would take notice of that congregation.”  We should work for the benefit of the congregation, and not for our own ideas.

Fourthly, we should speak things that will edify and build up the body.  We see that Diotrophes is one who gossips maliciously about other brethren.  What a sad commentary for a church leader!  He was like the man James wrote about in Jam. 3:9: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.”  James condemns such behavior; he says it ought not to be!  But is Diotraphes’ attitude often our attitude?  To look good ourselves, do we feel that we must put others down or must say things that leave their character in doubt?

Someone has noted: “The slanderer differs from the assassin only in that he murders the reputation of another instead of his body.”  Someone else once said: “The angry word is a blow struck at our brother, a stab at his heart: it seeks to hit, to hurt, and to destroy.  A deliberate insult is worse, for we openly disgrace our brother in the eyes of the world, causing others to despise him” (Bonhoeffer in Rowell).  The apostle Paul admonishes us with these words in Colossians 3:12-13, “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, long-suffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.”  Let’s work hard to always say things that will edify and encourage one another and build up our congregation!

Fifthly, we should imitate good, and not evil.  Verse 11 states again: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good.  He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God.”  “Beloved” is the expression that John uses in addressing Gaius.  Gaius is encouraged to continue imitating Christ in doing good, in being hospitable and serving others. “‘To be of God’ means to exhibit the way and manner of God as His offspring, and ‘to see God’ means to be in relationship with God, to become deeply conscious of Him through the experience of fellowship. … Action which is contrary to the spirit and manner of God endangers fellowship with God by destroying its basis.  A Christian who belongs to God’s family must not act as though he belongs [to the devil’s family]” (Roberts).  God’s divine nature of goodness is seen in His children’s good deeds.  1 John 3:6-8 states something similar: “Whoever abides in Him does not sin.  Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.  Little children, let no one deceive you.  He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.  He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning.  For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.”  Someone made this good observation: “Thanks be to God for a life full-packed with things that matter crying to be done—a life, thank God, of never ending strife against the odds. … Just enough time to do one’s best, and then pass on, leaving the rest to Him” (Oxenham in Rowell).  We should imitate good, and not evil.


Sixthly, we should have a good reputation as a congregation. Notice how Demetrius was very admired; he had a good reputation from other brethren, from the truth itself (he was living it), and from the apostle John also!

Look at the good example we find in 1 Thess. 1:6-10: “And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe.  For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. 

Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything.  For they themselves declare concerning us  what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”  Here is a congregation with an excellent reputation!  Their faith, their devotion to God, and their longing for Christ’s return were known to other churches in other provinces.  If someone had to write an evaluation of this congregation, what kind of reputation would be described?  We need to have a good reputation for at least three reasons.  First of all, we are not in this battle alone, and other members are watching us (1 Peter 5:9 encourages us to resist Satan and realize that others are suffering for their faith along with us).

Secondly, others in our city are watching us (Colossians 4:3 encourages us to walk in wisdom towards those who are outsiders).  Thirdly, we will also be judged according to our reputation (Revelation chapters 1-3 teach that our Lord disciplines congregations if their reputations need to be changed).

A general once told his officers, “You can lose battles, but never lose your integrity!”  Maybe we will lose a few battles, but let’s never lose our good reputation!  We should have a good reputation as a congregation!


Lastly, we should work for peace.  Notice the apostle John’s work at peace-making.  Note in verse 9 that John had previously written to the church, and one wonders what he might have said about Diotrephes on that occasion.

Am I reading too much into the letter when I conjecture that Demetrius may have been sent by John to serve as an ambassador of good will to try to help this congregation get through a difficult moment?  It amazes me that John does not command Gaius and the congregation to disfellowship Diotrephes instantly.  John says that he will confront him in the near future and work out the conflict.  There is much in this letter that is left unsaid, but I think we can see fairly clearly that John wants the best for Gaius and the brethren in this troubled congregation.  And it seems that John has tried again and again in numerous ways to help strengthen them.  Maybe, like Paul, he will still have to make a painful visit to finally get everything running smoothly again, but I admire John for his perseverance in trying to bring about peace.  Someone made this interesting observation: “'The Fort Worth Star Telegram' reported that firefighters in Genoa, TX were accused of deliberately setting more than 40 destructive fires.  When caught, they stated, ‘We had nothing to do. We just wanted to get the red light flashing and the bells clanging.’  The job of firefighters is to put out fires, not start them.  The job of Christians is to help resolve conflicts, not start more of them” (G. Cornelius in Rowell).  Are we a peace-loving people?  Our Lord once said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God” (Matthew 5:9)!  Peace-making is not for the faint-hearted: it challenges our minds, it takes much time, it takes sustained effort, it takes humility, it takes listening skills, and it takes persistence.  Now that’s hard work!  But consider the alternative: How many people like to be part of a feuding, fussing, and fighting congregation?  Are we striving to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?  We should work at being peacemakers.

“Between two farms in Canada, there are two parallel fences two feet apart that run for about half a mile.  Why two fences when only one would do? 

Well, two farmers, Paul and Oscar, had a conflict that soon became a feud.  Paul wanted to build a fence and split the cost, but Oscar was unwilling to contribute.  Since he wanted to keep cattle on his land, Paul went ahead and had the fence built anyway.  After the fence was complete, Oscar said to Paul: 'I see we have a fence.'  What do you mean “we”?' Paul replied.  'I got the property line surveyed and built the fence two feet into my land.  That means some of my land is outside the fence.  And if any of your cows set foot on my land, I'll shoot them.'  Oscar knew that Paul wasn't joking, so when he eventually decided to use the land adjoining Paul's for pasture, he was forced to build another fence, two feet away.  Oscar and Paul are both gone now, but their double fence stands as a monument to the high price we pray for unresolved conflict” (Wride in Rowell).  Are there any double fences that we have here in this congregation?  No, you really can't see them, but most everybody knows the conflict that keeps them standing.  Such double fences are great for keeping in grudges, and for keeping out unbelievers!

Living by the truth (which includes being complimentary), opening up our homes, working for the benefit of the whole body, speaking only that which edifies, imitating the good, maintaining a good reputation, and striving to keep peace are all worthy actions for us from 3 John.  There’s an Italian proverb which says: “Fra il dire e fare, c’e’ in mezzo il mare.”  The translation is: “Between the saying and doing, there lies an ocean.”  We’ve done much talking, now may God help us to close the gap of the ocean and make these actions become realities!  Have you been hospitable like Gaius?  Have you guarded your reputation like Demetrius?  Have you been selfish and pushy like Diotrophes?  Have you been encouraging and peace-making during conflicts like John?  Do you need to come today to confess sins or to confess Christ as Lord and bury your old lifestyle in the waters of baptism?