2nd and 3rd John are like fraternal twins: similar, but different. They have similar language and concerns, but have their own uniqueness that makes them important for the church today.
Those who were here last week remember that 2nd John primarily focused on how we should be treating missionaries and Bible teachers – that we need to be careful to support those who teach and preach the truth, but condemn, remove and unfriend those who don’t preach the truth.
3rd John is a fascinating little book that follows up on that theme, but introduces some characters that provide a case study for how this works out practically in the church. It does what we all want a good teacher to do: give us examples so we can see what it looks like in real life. Let’s read it together and then we’ll talk about what’s going on:
“The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth. Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul. For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.
Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true.
I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, each by name.” (3 John ESV)
Both of these little letters are concerned about the same theme. The “elder”, John, is writing to people who “love the truth”. These faithful ones who are keeping the faith causes him “great rejoicing” and he’s pleased about the reports he’s getting about them all the way over from where he’s writing in Ephesus. However, the occasion of these letters isn’t just for praise, but also for warning. The warnings from both are similar: watch out for people who are having a very bad influence on the church.
The difference between the two comes in that in 2nd John he warned about what the bad-guys were teaching, and in this one, he speaks more about how they are living.
If I had to pick a key-verse for today’s sermon, I would pick verse 11:
“Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.”
I would choose that verse because it epitomizes what John is talking about in this letter: the contrast of good and evil, and the importance of seeing the good or evil in a person’s actions. He says “whoever does good is from God… whoever does evil [is not]”.
False teachers and destructive leaders aren’t merely known by their teaching and theology, but more by how they live their life and practice their faith. We don’t just discover a bad teacher by their words (though words are important), but by their reputation. Some bad-guys, false teachers, destructive leaders, may sound great… but scripture warns us to pay attention to their lives as well.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Why? Because people are natural imitators. You’ve heard the phrase, “monkey See, monkey do”, right? We say that to describe people who imitate others without thinking – especially children. But it’s not just children who do this – everyone does. People are natural imitators, so we need to be very careful whom we choose to imitate.
This concept is all over scripture.
- “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7)
- Peter tells the leaders of the church to be “examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:3)
- To the Thessalonians who were struggling with laziness Paul said, “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you…” (2 Thessalonians 3:7)
- He writes to the Corinthians: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Corinthians 5:11)
- Why? He says later, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33)
- “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (Proverbs 13:20)
- “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers…” (Psalm 1:1)
All through scripture, from the Garden of Eden to The Book of Revelation we are told to be very careful who we associate with and who we call our friends, mentors, leaders and teachers… because consciously or unconsciously we will become like them. This especially applies to our lives today because we have more access to more influences than any other time in history.
- Be careful where you get your news from, because they will colour your view of the world.
- Be careful of the types of TV shows and movies you watch, because their values will become your values, their language will become your language, their normal will become your normal.
- Be careful of the people you follow on your Facebook feed, because their attitude will affect your attitude – if they are complaining, argumentative, selfish, prideful, consumer minded – then you risk becoming like them. If they are positive, helpful, informed, kind, peaceable, and faithful – then you risk becoming like them!
- Be careful what sports figures you admire and what players and coaches you allow on your team.
- Be careful what men and women you elect into office.
- Be careful of the church you choose to worship
- Be careful in how you choose your Pastor, Elders and Deacons.
So John writes to the church and says, “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” and gives an example of both sides.
On one side we have Gaius and on the other we have Diotrephes. Both of these men have risen to become leaders in the church, both are men of great influence and authority. Gaius is the one that the letter was sent and is commended as a good friend, a man of truth, hospitality and a good example for the church to follow. He’s kind, loving, generous and stands up for the Gospel. The other is Diotrepehes, whom John sees as such a threat that he needed to send a letter warning the church about him.
I want to say again that both of these men were leaders, elders and perhaps even teachers in the church. They had both risen to prominent positions, and at some point, were chosen – perhaps even John himself – to be key leaders in that local body. Notice in verse 10 that Diotrephes has the authority to excommunicate people from the church!
This isn’t the same as 2nd John which spoke of travelling teachers who wander into town and need to be examined and scrutinized before being supported, but about local leaders in the church. One of whom is a good guy to be imitated and followed, and the other is corrupt and should be removed.
The Fruit of Reputation
I want to read a scripture that I read last week, and then keep reading the next verses. Jesus says in Matthew 7:15-20:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Do you remember reading that last week? We talked a lot about false teachers and prophets. The natural question is “Ok, how can we know the good ones from the bad ones?”
The answer last week was to get to know your Bible really well so that you can pick out the most obvious false teachers. But another answer, which comes this week, is to watch their life and their reputation.
“You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
What is the “fruit” Jesus speaks of? Their actions, their deeds, their reputation, their influence on others. The life of a Christian is seen in their fruits. Watching a person’s life is the best way we’ve got in order to discern whether a person truly believes what they claim. Is their life consistent with their beliefs? Is their walk consistent with their talk? If you don’t know if they are a “thornbush” or a “fig-tree”, check the fruit.
The Reputation of an Elder
That’s one of the most important things that we can do when we are choosing the people we want to have relationships with, whether that’s a friend, a future spouse, a teacher or a pastor. We need to look past their words and examine their life. A great example of this is when a church chooses an elder.
The qualifications of an elder are very well spelled out in 1st Timothy 3:1-7 and it might surprise you that they have very little to do with bible-knowledge and speaking ability, but are overwhelmingly based on reputation and lifestyle. Turn with me there and let’s take a look at what the Bible says about how we are to pick the elders of the church, because it is a great example of the importance of having someone’s walk line up with their talk:
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer [or bishop, or pastor, or elder – it’s all the same position], he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach…”
“Above reproach” literally means “not open to attack”, “blameless”. It describes a person who has a good reputation. Some scholars say that the Greek word comes from wrestling or boxing, describing a fighter who leaves no part of his body exposed to attack by an adversary. So before we give this person influence in our lives and our church, we must ask, do they have a clean reputation, or do they have a bunch of skeletons in their closet that are going to come out and bite him and the church?
“…the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable…”
Nothing in there about their bible-knowledge, charisma in the pulpit, or business and marketing skills. It’s all about character and reputation. Is he a one-woman-man, or does he have the reputation of being a flirt or a philanderer? Is he a man who is blessing his wife and they are growing together, or has he left a wake of pain and heartache in his relationships?
“…sober minded and self-controlled…”
Is he addicted to food, drink, or other substances that cloud his judgement and make him unstable? Does he fly off the handle or can he keep it together when the going gets rough? What’s he like when the pressure is on?
How do we judge that? Not by a bible-knowledge test. That comes after years of watching them. It is literally talking about their outward presentation and behaviour: how they speak, walk, dress, and treat people. Are they worthy of other people’s respect – worthy of imitating? Or are they someone you have to make excuses for because they lack respectability?
Do they open their home, take care of others, meet people’s needs, show love with their belongings? Or are they rude, unsociable, ungenerous, unkind, unwelcoming? That tells a great deal about a person’s character, doesn’t it? See how all of this is based on reputation and not merely knowledge.
“…able to teach [there’s the only knowledge based qualification], not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”
Elders, leaders, and teachers in the church are meant to be imitated in their beliefs and their lifestyle. We can’t say, “They teach well, but they’re kind of a jerk. They can really bring in a crowd, but they can’t keep their marriage together. They can really raise lots of money, but their children are a mess. They are amazing at business, but I’m not sure I like them or trust them.” We are warned in scripture to look beyond the surface. We must look at the whole package.
The Trouble With Diotrephes
The church John is writing to had made a mistake by keeping Diotrephes around because he didn’t qualify anymore. Maybe he did once, but he’d lost it. Turn back to 3rd John and look at what Diotrephes was up to, starting in verse 9:
“I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.”
There’s the first red flag. Diotrephes “likes to put himself first”. Other translations say, “Diotrephes, who loves to be the leader.” Or “who loveth to have the preemenence among them”. Or “who loves to be in charge.” That’s a problem. This guy isn’t humble, but proud. He is like the hypocritical Pharisees that Jesus describes in His Seven Woes:
“…they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matthew 23:6-7)
They exalt themselves instead of God, use others to climb the ladder, exploit their position so they look good. And yes, that can and does happen in the church. Far too much.
Verse 9 also says that Diotrephes “does not acknowledge our authority”. He looks at John the Apostle, Author of five books of the Bible and says, “that guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” There’s another red flag. Don’t trust someone that thinks they know better than scripture. Don’t trust someone that thinks that their knowledge is above that of God’s revealed word. We get that a lot these days as people talk about “new interpretations” of the Bible. These are the people that that argue that the Bible is an old, irrelevant book that needs to be changed and updated to be relevant for today. That’s a red flag for any friend, business partner, church or leader – that they are so proud that they think they know better than anyone else, even what God says in scripture.
In verse 10 John says, “So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us.” There’s another red flag that disqualifies him from leadership in the church. He “talks wicked nonsense”, or uses “malicious gossip”, to hurt and malign the people he doesn’t agree with. He spreads lies, makes false accusations and unjustified charges. He throws strong language around and can’t substantiate his claims – but it sure does get people stirred up. He’s a divisive influence (Titus 3:10). He doesn’t unite people as a Godly peacemaker (as he’s supposed to) but creates factions and arguments among the brothers and sisters in the church. He is literally doing the work of Satan.
It doesn’t matter how great a person is at their job, how many resources they have, or how long they’ve been there. If they are malicious gossipers, talking wicked nonsense about others, they are going to ruin whatever environment they are in. They are toxic. Sometimes they are very sneaky about it, phrasing it as a warning or cozying up to you as a friend – but bear in mind if they are talking smack to you about someone else, they are talking smack about you behind your back. They are a cancer that needs to be removed or it will spread. Be careful when choosing your friends and teachers that they aren’t malicious, wicked gossipers.
Keep going in verse 10: “And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.” In other words, when good teachers come to town, he not only badmouths them, but refuses to let them come into the church. Then he uses his authority to get rid of anyone that doesn’t agree with him. This guy is a real snake. Beware those who, instead of working with people and trying to lovingly unite them, he forces out anyone with a different opinion than theirs and won’t listen to anyone in authority. If you date, marry, befriend, work with or nominate these people for any kind of position, you are setting yourself up for trouble.
How Does This Happen?
You may wonder how this person ever got to be in influence in the church at all. Well, often these kinds of people are often very charismatic, very persuasive, and very opinionated. They may come across like a breath of fresh air to people who are tired of wishy-washy politics – but they won’t unite people in love, they’ll divide and destroy in order to build their own empire. They often look great on the outside and attract a nice crowd of followers. They know how to grease all the right palms and get the influencers on their side.
Anyone who has ever dated or befriended someone like this knows that they can hold it together long enough to fool some, but even then it requires people to look the other way when they start to see warning signs.
“Maybe it’s a one off. Maybe they’re just stressed out. Maybe they’re having a bad day. They’re usually so nice. They do such good work, I guess we’ll have to put up with their personality.” Overlooking their character and refusing to listen to the warning in their Spirits about what this person is really like is what allows people like this to grow in their influence.
We must be very, very careful to listen to their words, and to watch their lifestyle or we risk allowing them to destroy us, our relationships, our community and our church.
Application and Illustration
So, let’s talk application: why is this important to us today? Because, as I said last week and already today, we must be very careful who we allow to influence us. We must be very careful in how we pick our friends. We need to be very careful which church we choose, what place we choose to work, what organizations we support, what people we listen to.
- This applies to the people you work with and work for. Do they have a good reputation, or are you working with scoundrels? That will affect you, your faith, your family, and the rest of your relationships.
- This applies to how you choose what to read and watch.
- It applies to who you marry.
- It applies to where you go on a Friday night.
- The voices we let into our life will affect us.
The only exception I can think of is when we are going somewhere to be a missionary of the Gospel. Sometimes we befriend people and join organizations specifically so we can be a godly influence there. But even then, scripture tells us to be very careful that we go full of the Holy Spirit, keeping watch over ourselves, lets we fall into the same temptations as those we’re trying to minister to and save (Galatians 6:1)
I saw a great illustration from a mother whose daughter was just starting out in the dating world – but it applies to all of us too. This mother said that when her daughter had a crush on a boy, she asked her to place his name in 1 Corinthians 13:4-6. That’s the verses that say,
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
This mother told the girl to put the boy’s name in there: “Sean is patient and kind; Sean does not envy or boast; Sean is not arrogant or rude…” and the young girl frowned and said, “Yeah, I saw him picking on another boy in the hallway. He wasn’t very kind.” The girl started to rethink her interest in him.
The mother showed great wisdom and essentially separated infatuation by talking about with reputation. What’s he really like? Look past his appearance, his coolness, the things you find attractive, and go deeper – what’s he really like.
Another illustration is the country song “Voices” by Chris Young. I really like this song because it speaks of the importance of the influence of the closest people in our life. I’m going to read the whole thing since it’s so good:
“You could say I’m a little bit crazy, You could call me insane, Walkin’ ’round with all these whispers, Runnin’ ’round here in my brain. I just can’t help but hear ’em, Man, I can’t avoid it, I hear voices, I hear voices like:
My dad sayin’,’”Work that job But don’t work your life away’, And mama tellin’ me to drop some cash in the offerin’ plate on Sunday. And granddad sayin’, ‘You can have a few
But don’t ever cross that line’, Yeah, I hear voices all the time
Turns out I’m pretty dang lucky for all that good advice. Those hard-to-find words of wisdom hold up here in my mind. And just when I’ve lost my way or I’ve got too many choices, I hear voices, I hear voices like
My dad sayin’, ‘Quit that team And you’d be a quitter for the rest of your life’. And mama tellin’ me to say a prayer every time I lay down at night. And grandma sayin’, ‘If you find the one You better treat her right’. Yeah, I hear voices all the time.
Sometimes I try to ignore ’em but I thank God for ’em Cause they made me who I am.”
There’s a lot of wisdom in that country song. The voices in our head really do make us who we are – which is why we need to be so careful as to what voices we allow in our heads.
The lesson of 2nd John was to that we need to make sure that these voices are telling us the truth, but the lesson of 3rd John is that it’s more than just what they say – it’s about how they live their lives. We need to pay close attention to their reputation and lifestyle to see if they are worth imitating – because “monkey see, monkey do”, consciously or unconsciously, we will become like them.
That’s why the most important, most consistent voice in our life needs to be the voice of God from His Word and His Spirit.