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219 inspired words

Lessons from 3 John: get to gospel work.

-Douglas O’Donnell-

Near the end of the first century, the apostle John faced opposition to apostolic authority and testimony. In a church in Asia Minor, a Christian leader named Diotrephes strayed off course. He was not teaching false doctrine. He was not denying the incarnation or the atonement of Christ. He was simply being egotistical and stubborn.

He refused to heed John’s teaching (the letter John wrote, “I have written something to the church,” 3 John 9). Then he refused to welcome John’s apostolic delegates (“the brothers”, vv. 3, 4, 10). More than that, he acted so wickedly (v. 11) that he sought to exclude or perhaps even excommunicate (put “out of the church”, v. 10) those who sought to be hospitable to the orthodox teachers who came to his church.

Faced with this crisis, John picks up his pen again and writes 3 John. The letter is personal, between two persons—John and Gaius. It is obscure because we do not know precisely where his audience is located. (Other than what we have in this letter, we do not know anything about its three major characters.) And it is short. It has only 219 words in the Greek text, which makes it the shortest book in the New Testament.

Given its nature, this private, obscure, and short letter seems at first as applicable to us as having read a stranger’s e-mail. What does this ancient situation, and this little letter in response to it, have to do with us or say to us? Trusting that all Scripture is inspired and applicable, I have found seven important lessons we can learn from these 219 inspired words. For this brief article, however, our focus will be on the three lessons we learn from the first two verses.

The first lesson comes from the first two words, “the elder” (v. 1). John’s greeting shows that the retirement age for Christian ministry is death. The term “the elder” connotes two truths. First, that John was an important authority figure in the early church. Second, that he was aged. We do not know how old John was when he wrote 1, 2, and 3 John, but we can surmise from the dating of the letter (c. A.D. 90-95) that he was at least an octogenarian.

And how did this old man spend his time? Gospel work! He wrote, traveled, prayed, tried to resolve church conflicts, and was exiled for the gospel. He did not view the years from 65 to 95 as the time of earthly bliss and rest. He would rather die in the pulpit than on the golf course. When I say that the retirement age for Christian ministry is death, I mean that the most aged can pray and give, some can even write, teach, counsel, and host. We never retire from gospel work.

The second lesson takes us beyond the first two words to the whole of the first verse, and in many ways the whole of the letter. The lesson is that without godly friends, our gospel witness weakens. If you cut out the conflict, 3 John is a warm and friendly letter from one gospel worker to another. As John ends the letter on the theme of Christian friendship (“I hope to see you soon… The friends greet you. Greet the friends,” vv. 14-15), so it begins with an expression of personal love from one friend to another: “The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth” (v. 1).

These two friends are joined by the truth and work of the gospel. Gaius is one of John’s “beloved” (vv. 2, 5, 11) spiritual “children” who have kept the faith (v. 4) and supported the spread of the gospel (vv. 5-6). As Bob Yarbrough notes, “Gaius has effectively embodied the teaching of his colleague or mentor John (1 John 3:17-18).” He possessed the  necessary doctrinal, ethical, and relational aspects of genuine Christian faith. He believed in the apostolic message, obeyed the apostolic teachings, and opened his heart and home and wallet to the apostolic ambassadors. He aced the three tests of 1 John! Grounded in the “truth” (mentioned six times), Gaius and John have grown into close friends.

When Paul wrote 2 Timothy under house arrest in Rome, he was tired, cold, and discouraged. He needed a few friends to pick up his spirits and pray with him. At the conclusion of 2 Timothy, Paul lists his friends—old friends such as Prisca and Aquila and new friends such as Linus and Carpus—because he wants them all to stand by him in the hour of his death. Paul also enlists Timothy, his good friend and “soul-son”, as Kent Hughes calls him, because he wants Timothy to stand literally by him at the hour of his death. He writes, “Do your best to come to me soon” (4:9), “Get Mark and bring him with you” (v. 11), and “Do your best to come before winter” (v. 21).

Do you need a friend to comfort you and pull you through? Embrace the ecclesia! As Paul leaned on his friends in his hour of death, and as John counted on Gaius in his hour of need, we must do the same. Fellowship is more than sharing morning tea; it is sharing life together—the joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats—so that together we might fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith, and long for the glory of God’s gospel to cover the earth.

The third lesson is that a healthy body without a healthy soul makes for an unhealthy person. Observe John’s prayer in 3 John 2: “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.” John knows Gaius has done well thus far. He needs him to keep it up. So he prays for Gaius to remain in good health both spiritually and physically.

Praying for our physical wellbeing is biblical. Christians are not Gnostics. We value the human body.

Nevertheless, we must emphasise that a healthy body without a healthy soul makes for an unhealthy person, as John so well knows. In 3 John 2, the apostle is doing more than following the typical pattern of Hellenistic epistles in offering a blessing or prayer-wish of health, he is getting to the heart of the issue. Diotrephes is in good physical health (as demonstrated by his strenuous opposition), but his soul is sick. And a Christian leader with a sick soul is sickening. His moral health is “evil” (v. 11). The spiritually well soul walks in the truth (v. 3) and imitates what is good (v. 11). That is the regimen Diotrephes needs to get on; and perhaps some of us as well.

So, let us pray for healthy bodies and souls. And let us also recognise those first two truths as well, namely, that without godly friends our gospel witness weakens, and that the retirement age for Christian ministry is death.

Get to gospel work, gospel workers!

Douglas O’Donnell lecturers at Queensland Theological College and is the author of a number of commentaries, including 1-3 John in the Reformed Expository Commentary series.

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