I suspect that most Christian people, even those who read and study the Scriptures with some regularity, may go even years between occasions of reading this third letter of John (as well as the other three one-chapter books we’ve re-examined). They are indeed like very old letters or past relics stuck away in the recesses of the attic, only to get pulled out on rare occasions, and while swiping away the dead stink bugs and dried-up wasp nests and flaking insulation, to be looked at once again. And in that these writings are as inspired at the famous third chapter of John’s gospel, we desire to be a church that “rightly divides” the Word of Truth, knowing that “all Scripture is valuable for equipping us.” Thus, we have spent this month in the biblical “nooks and crannies.”
The title chosen for this final study of the series – “Stranger Things” – of course comes from the science fiction horror web television series of that name. It delves into the paranormal realm of things. But, even while using the title, I would like for us to take away from this examination a renewed commitment to something that should rather be very normal for the believer in Christ.
To truly understand these little letters, we need to review and recall some background of the New Testament era that featured the wonderful new gospel message spreading around the Roman world and even beyond.
There is a most interesting phrase in the book of Galatians – in 4:4,5 that says of Christ’s coming: But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Those of us who grew up on the King James Version will remember the beginning of that as saying, “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son …”
So, what is the meaning of “the set time” or “the fullness of time?” Bible scholars over the years would summarize it in these five ways …
- The Roman Peace (Pax Romana) – This was a period of roughly about 200 years from the reign of Caesar Augustus in 29 BC to the year 180 AD with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of what were considered the “good emperors”. This did not mean that there were no uprisings within the Empire or conflicts on the fringes, but that it was a time of unparalleled peace as compared to the centuries before and after. This allowed for prosperity and the peaceful movements of peoples … like missionary travelers.
- A Common Language – Greek – Much of the culture of the Roman world came from the Greek empire before them, and this included the dominant language known as Koine (common) Greek. Though regional dialects and languages continued throughout the Roman world, the official language of business and interactions between diverse peoples and ethnicities was Greek. And this facilitated the communication and preaching of the gospel, as well as the original written language of the New Testament.
- The Roman Roads – You’ve likely heard the saying that “all roads lead to Rome.” This was because the Romans built a system of roads to particularly enable their movement of troops from one part of the Empire to another. And, like the interstate system developed in our country some decades ago, it facilitated trade and travel in an unprecedented fashion. And among those travelers were those of whom Paul wrote, while quoting from Isaiah in Romans 10… “And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” The gospel benefited by the system of travel made possible at this juncture of human history.
The first three of these five points were Roman world oriented, but these next two are related to the Jewish world …
- The Synagogue System in Judaism – Before the time of Christ, Jewish peoples were among those who were spreading across the Mediterranean world. And wherever there were 10 or more families, a synagogue (meaning “gathering place”) was established for worship. And when rabbis were travelling through these areas, they were very welcomed to teach and expound upon the Scriptures – the Old Testament as we know it. So of course, Paul and others of a Jewish background used this as a great opportunity to demonstrate how Jesus was the promised Messiah – but not just for Israel, but for the whole world.
- The Jewish Expectation of the Messiah – For so very long, the Jewish people expected the soon coming of the promised Messiah. This accounts for the numbers of people who originally ran out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist. And at that time there also were many who made false claims of messianic status. But this interest and fervor contributed to a heightened interest by many to consider the claims of Jesus (though many rejected him for being too spiritual, as they wanted a political and conquering figure to overthrow their oppressors).
So, when you put this all together, you have “the fullness of time” as spoken of in Galatians 4. It was the coming together of many divinely-orchestrated elements that made for the most ideal spread of the gospel worldwide.
Now, additionally, as we shared briefly last week, there is more background to understand when looking at these letters of 2nd and 3rd John. And this has to do with this spreading of the gospel worldwide and the common occurrence of itinerant teachers and evangelists travelling from place to place. How were these people to survive – to eat, sleep and have the means of personal sustenance on the road? They did not have anything like Trivago, Expedia or Bookings.com; and they did not have a Master Card upon which to earn bonus points for travel and lodging. They were dependent upon God’s people in these ancient cities to help them regularly upon their journeys by providing food, shelter and finance.
However, as we said last week, while a good system, it was also a system that could be abused by false teachers. And indeed, it was abused on some occasions as we know from extra-biblical sources.
And whereas 2nd John especially had the big idea of contending for the truth and being aware of the teaching of those who purported to be God’s servants, this 3rd letter returns to an emphasis upon love and the propriety of supporting those who were God’s genuine laborers and messengers – of hospitality even to those who were strangers… and hence, again, our title of “Stranger Things”. But putting together these two short letters, as always, there needs to be a balance of truth and love.
As we turn to the text of 3rd John, we see that, unlike the letter last week that was addressed to a church congregation, this letter is addressed to an individual leader of a church. It has a message for him, as well as a message for two others. As we lay it out, this is what we have: messages to Gaius primarily (1-8), and briefly to two guys named Diotrephes (9-10) and Demetrius (11-12).
Message to Gaius (1-8)
1 – The elder, To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. 2 Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.
So, who is Gaius? Others with this name in the NT include a Gaius in Corinth, Macedonia and Derbe. Some believe it is the last of these, though it is good to note that this was probably the most common name in the Roman Empire. In any event, he was a leader in a church community that was connected in association with the Apostle John. And obviously, by the greeting, he was dearly loved by the writer.
You may have heard verse 2 – about enjoying good health and prosperity – connected in some way as a sort of “prosperity gospel” proof text. And it sounds even more that way in the KJV – the favored text for the prosperity crowd… “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” But the Greek word for “prosperity” literally means “to have a good and successful journey” and it is used in a salutatory way of wishing someone the best. John is saying that even as he was sure of Gaius’ spiritual well-being, he prayed that his physical well-being was as stellar.
John goes on to speak of his reason for such confidence …
3 It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
Reports had come to John from some who had visited where Gaius served about his life, ministry and character. He knew the truth, and the truth informed the way that he lived his life. He had the appropriate balance of profession and practice. He rang true to the core.
And then verse 4 is one that I’ve come to experience in life – namely, the joy of seeing those who were in some way beginning in the faith under one’s labors to move on in that belief and become significantly used of God in other places and to reach others. This is a component as to why I like having Peter Frey with us, and why I so enjoyed Chris Wiles’ years in this church. And we could name many others, and I get an extra blessing whenever I hear of the work of these men and women who formerly sojourned with us here.
And John now gets to the heart of his communication …
5 Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. 6 They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. 7 It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. 8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.
Now again, recall the backgrounds we spoke of today about travelling teachers and evangelists. Beyond this also would be journeying Christians from other parts of the Empire – including churches associated with John personally. He tells Gaius that his hospitality extended to these total strangers was completely appropriate and commendable.
Why should Gaius and other Christians do this and have this attitude? …
- These servants had given up much in the way of personal security and safety. This was a practice totally unheard of in the world, and it was even new to the early Christian church.
- The cause for which they gave up everything was a most worthy endeavor – the worldwide expansion of the gospel that disparate people groups may be united together into one new body – the church of Jesus Christ.
- There was no way (nor should there be) that there would be any support for them from the pagan, unbelieving world. In fact, just the opposite could be expected.
- Hospitality and support demonstrated an understanding that they – John, Gaius, the different churches, the travelling missionaries – were all in it together as members of the same cause and on the same team.
So John says, “Good job Gaius, you are to be highly commended for the ‘STRANGER THINGS thing’ that you are doing!”
But, maybe you are wondering why John is making this the theme of his letter. Well, yes, it’s a nice sentiment, but does it rise to the level of a major teaching that makes it even into the inspired Word of God? Well, maybe the answer for that is revealed in this next section …
Message Concerning Diotrephes (9-10) … a totally different character than Gaius …
9 – I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
So here’s the story: there’s this other guy named Diotrephes in the church where Gaius is (or in another nearby house church in close proximity) who does not have any sort of hospitality interest such as Gaius was commended for exhibiting. Quite the opposite in fact – even wanting John himself to stay away. He has communicated that John is not welcome, and he has spoken ill of John and his close associates with malicious rumors that were nonsense. Forgive me, but I had to research the Greek for such a juicy concept, and, “spreading malicious nonsense” is a perfect translation of a one-time word in the NT. And it means just as it is translated – the idea of condemning someone by the use of ridiculously nonsensical aspersions.
Not only that, but Diotrephes went so far as to not just refuse hospitality to John and associates, but any others travelling through … AND … upon learning that others in the church did house and welcome travelling Christians, he expelled those people from the congregation!
Why would he do this? Well, it is summed up in another great Greek word – one that is also only used once in the NT, right here in 3 John 9. It is the word Philoproteuo – an awesome word that literally means “loves being first.” We could say that Diotrephes is the ultimate foam-finger #1 guy. You can see in that word “love/phileo” – as in Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love … and “proto/first” as in the word prototype – the first trial of something. Yep, he was full of himself!
Sadly, the church over the centuries has had more than a couple of Diotrephes running the show in local congregations. These are people who are easily intimidated by other teachers and authorities, and they want to be in control. Therefore, they do not want people exposed to any other teachings or people of gifting who will rival, diminish or threaten their self-exalted status.
And now a third character makes an appearance in the letter …
Message Concerning Demetrius (11-12)
We all model our lives to some extent after others we see, which is fine, so long as the person we’re mimicking is of the truth …
11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.
So John tells Gaius to model life, not after such characters as Diotrephes, but rather after a man introduced here now who is named Demetrius. There is nothing we know about this man beyond the few words here. There are two speculations …
He was a target of Diotrephes’ wrongful actions and attitudes and needed to be bolstered by John as a genuine good guy. Or, more likely, he was the person bringing this letter to Gaius from John; and being unknown to Gaius, is being affirmed by John, which he does in three ways …
- He has a good reputation as a godly man with all people in the Christian community. This is a great reference to have!
- His character as a model of the truth would be self-evident … this was a man who in every way fleshed-out the great truths of the gospel and the faith.
- John himself validates him personally from his own association with him.
And now finally a quick conclusion to the letter …
13 – I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.
As always, we ask what are the timeless truths and applications that rise from the passages of Scripture that we study. And I believe that related to this third letter of John, we should look back at the communication in verses 5-8 to Gaius. And the big idea has to do with hospitality of Christians one to another, and especially about support in every practical way for those who have given up regular means of life and support to spread the gospel.
Yes, I suppose there is a first and unavoidable application toward those who do what we do here on the staff at the church. But honestly, this passage has a focal point that is bigger, wider and farther than merely that. We especially need to have a heart for the work of the gospel in far-flung corners of the world. We need to have a high value upon Jerusalem / Judea / Samaria / the uttermost parts of the world.
Why? … for the same reasons we listed above. People serving have given up everything to do this, the world ain’t gonna support them, the cause is the worthiest cause of all, and we are all in it together as teammates.
We need to not just be the church with one another, we need to consider how we are a part of the Church in the world – being the capital “C” church. And toward that end here at TSF we’ve done a number of intentional things, which I would submit account for the bulk of our unique blessing by God as a church.
- When we built our church facility 23 years ago, we determined that we would use it for the blessing of the broader Christian community. And if you stop in during the week, it is not unusual for you to see it being used by an array of Christian groups and ministries.
- From the beginning of this congregation about 36 years ago, it was a desire to have a focus upon worldwide evangelization. We even have 6 of our own church families serving right now around the world, along with varied partnerships in missions endeavors. Supporting this is a six-digit piece of our budget.
- We need to always be looking beyond ourselves at what God is doing with people even different from ourselves. And so we partner with other churches in efforts like REACH, the HAPC, with the #ForOurCity campaigns, and with our varied outreaches and partnerships with minority churches.
In a sentence: We need to be world Christians. It is a rough world out there. Persecution is common in so many places. Just this past week, the African Rev. Lawan Andimi, who was seen in a ransom video earlier this month praising God, was executed by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. Also, the preeminent Christian persecution watchdog organization – Open Doors USA – released it’s 2020 World Watch List this week. This is an annual data report that this year highlights a drastic increase in attacks against Christian buildings and the imprisonment of Christians. Over 9,000 churches and Christian buildings were targeted, with about 3,000 believers in Jesus martyred.
Is this sort of thing on your radar at all? Do you pray for those in places like this, or read about them? Are you interested in hearing about the work of our missions family and thinking about how to support them in practical ways beyond merely the church budget?
Being interested in these sorts of “stranger things” is being a Christian with a heart for world.