I can tell by the number of lethargic adults in the room this morning, and the bags under some of your eyes, that many of you are enjoying the Olympics as much as Megan and I am — even if we’re not enjoying getting behind on sleep.
But we stay up because this is a special two weeks. The Summer Games come only once every four years. And they do make for a remarkable couple weeks. As a gathering of nations, the Olympics awaken us to life and culture and people beyond the American bubble. Sure, the Games intensify our love for homeland in an importance sense, but one of the great effects of the Olympics is that they make us more globally aware and internationally minded.
As we see the determination and skill and humanity of Brazilians and Brits, Chinese and Japanese — and even Canadians — our hearts are warmed to other nations. We see on the screen before us that they are not as different from us as the fear-mongerers would have us to feel. Americans and non-Americans alike grimace and celebrate and cry — yes, even Russians cry!
Whether you’re a Christian or not, the Olympics will stretch and expand your perspective. And hopefully, as Christians, we’re impressed all the more that the same Lord Jesus is Lord of all nations, not just Americans. If our hearts are healthy, the Olympics will make us more globally minded Christians. Which is especially relevant today as we look at this short, but potent, little letter called Third John.
Basics for Life on Mission
This sermon is the sixth in our short series of short New Testament books, called Summer Letters. First we looked at Philemon, then 2 Peter, then 2 John, and today we turn to 3 John. As we saw a couple weeks ago, the apostle John wrote his second letter to an unidentified church. Third John is addressed to an identified person named Gaius. It’s a common first century name and the New Testament mentions several men named Gaius. We don’t know for sure if this is one of those or another. Essentially we know nothing about Gaius — he’s just a guy — which is a good point of connection for us average joes two millennia later. And we can figure out enough from reading the letter carefully to put the key pieces together.
Apparently some missionary friends of the apostle John were passing through the area where Gaius lived. Gaius was one of John’s children in the faith. Gaius welcomed the missionaries, showed them hospitality, and even gave them some kind of financial or material support for the road as they went on their way. When they returned to John, they gave him the report about how Gaius had cared for them, and about how another man in town, named Diotrephes, opposed John and them, and even pressured others not to welcome the missionaries. John sends along this letter to encourage Gaius, commend the letter carrier named Demetrius, and warn Gaius and the church about Diotrephes and any others who are like him.
Near to the heart of 3 John is the theme of being steadfast in the face of opposition. But the message is not “bunker down,” but resist evil and advance the mission. It’s a fitting text for these Olympic days because it gives us a glimpse into an apostle and first-century Christian and church who not only faced opposition but also were not deterred from engaging with God’s global cause.
This is a missive for life on mission, and in addition to the exhortation from verses 13–15, 3 John gives us three basics for life on mission, both as individual Christians and together as a church. Consider these three ways to get on board with God’s global cause — apart from the obvious one, which is to go.
1. Support the Missionaries. (verses 5–8)
Missionaries deserve our glad and generous support. I’ll read verses 5–8 again, and I want you to see that verse 5 says these missionaries were “strangers” to Gaius. He had not met them before, but they had their ultimate allegiance in common — to Christ. Essentially Gaius said, if you’re for the true Jesus (who the apostles told us about), then I’m for you. This is what hospitality is, literally — “love for strangers” (Hebrews 13:2).
Strictly speaking, hospitality is not the term for having friends and family over into our homes; that’s just normal human life — even those who don’t know God do that. Hospitality — love for strangers — is inviting people we don’t know into our homes for Jesus’s sake, whether they are Christians who are strangers to us, or nonbelievers who are strangers to Christ.
Now, look again at verses 5–8:
Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, 6 who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. 7 For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. 8 Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.
Three things to observe in these verses about supporting missionaries: a what, a how, and a why.
What. What John commends and encourages: “send them on their journey” (verse 6). This doesn’t mean pressure them to leave early, like “send them on their way as soon as possible.” Rather, “send them on their way” was a common way of talking in the first century, and we see it in several places in the New Testament (Romans 15:24; 1 Corinthians 16:6, 11; 2 Corinthians 1:16; Titus 3:13). It means to provide material or financial support. So this verse is an apostolic charge to support those who go out — from home and extended family and the comforts of familiar language and culture — for the sake of advancing God’s global mission.
Providing financial support, then, relates to the phrase in verse 7 “accepting nothing from the Gentiles.” Missionaries receive support from existing churches and people who are already Christians, as Paul did (1 Corinthians 9:14–15, 18; 2 Corinthians 11:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:9), so they can offer the gospel freely to unbelieving peoples and communicate that the gospel is God’s free gift, not for sale or in exchange for something we can produce.
How. How John says to support the missionaries is “in a manner worthy of God” (verse 6). What does it mean to support missionaries “in a manner worthy of God”? It means support the missionaries as if you were supporting God himself — because God himself is going in our missionaries! The global advance of the gospel is God’s mission. Which means healthy churches, even in a hostile society with increasing opposition, whole-heartedly engage in the global cause. They constantly take an Olympic look beyond their own kind of people, their own communities, their own city, their own nation, and they see the glory of God working among all the peoples, and they put their giving where their gaze is.
This is the kind of church we want to be. Call it a sending church. And “there is a world of difference between a church ‘having’ a missionary and a church ‘sending’ a missionary,” as Tom Steller has said. Third John is a call to us as a young church not just to have missionaries (which we already do) but to be engaged, glad, generous senders.
Why. Finally, here under the first point about supporting the missionaries we find the reason why. Why do we support them — with our prayers and our money, gladly and generously? Verse 7: Because “they have gone out for the sake of the name.” True missionaries are not in it for selfish reasons, but they make the sacrifices they do “for the sake of the name.”
What name? Acts 5:41 says the apostles “left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” The name of Jesus. And Philippians 2:9–10 says, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” So missionaries go out — from their families and comforts and homelands — for the name of Jesus. To make him known. To introduce the story about him, called the gospel, to people who have not yet heard it. Which gets right to the heart of what a missionary is. Tom Steller says about verse 7,
Here is perhaps the best definition of a missionary in the New Testament. A missionary is someone who goes out for the sake of the name . . . . Private material gain must not be the motive. Even genuine humanitarian concern, though crucial, must not be the driving motive. Rather, a missionary is propelled by a deep love for the name and glory of [Christ]” (Afterword in John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, 263)
Not all Christians are called to leave home, cross a culture, and learn a language, but all of us are called to get on board with God’s global cause. Verse 8 says this makes us “fellow workers for the truth” (“the truth” = the gospel, as in Colossians 1:5). Our missionaries offer us an amazing opportunity when they give us the privilege of praying for and supporting them: they invite us to be “fellow workers” in God’s global cause which will not be defeated. They offer us a partnership in an investment that will not fail. When they contact us, we should genuinely thank them for the opportunity.
So, our first way to be on board with God’s global mission is support the missionaries — with prayer and finances, with gladness and generosity, for the sake of the name of Jesus among every people.
2. Beware of Pride. (verse 9–12)
Being on mission means humbling ourselves by submitting to Jesus’s authority through his apostles, rather than living by our own authority, which is pride. Pride destroys the mission. Verses 9–12 give us a negative example in a man name Diotrephes, and a positive example in another Demetrius:
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 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. 11 Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. 12 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.
Note first what John says about Diotrephes:
- He likes to put himself first.
- He does not acknowledge the authority of Jesus’s apostles.
- He talks wicked nonsense against the apostles.
- He refuses to welcome friends of the apostles.
- And he stops others who want to welcome the apostles’ friends.
This is the opposite of Gaius who welcomed the missionaries because they were friends of the apostles. And Gaius speaks well of the apostles, and acknowledges their authority. At the root of it all for Gaius is humility. Instead of living his life by his own authority, he gladly submits himself to Jesus through Jesus’s inspired spokesman.
However, for Diotrephes, it all stems from the haunting statement in verse 9: he “likes to put himself first.” Which should cause us to ask ourselves, What does it mean to put ourselves first? Is this not at the heart of what it means to be sinners? Are we not all guilty of this in various measures? Indeed we are, but in particular, here in verse 9, John is referring to where your settled source of authority lies. Who do you put first? Whose opinion matters most? Your own, or is it the authority of Jesus through his appointed spokesmen? The claim in 3 John, and throughout the New Testament, is that to reject the apostles (and the Scripture they wrote) is to reject Jesus himself.
Demetrius, however — the foil to Diotrephes and who delivers this letter to Gaius — is commended by John in the highest of terms: he “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” (verse 12). Note the polarization here. John doesn’t see Diotrephes and Demetrius in shades of gray. There is good and evil. Diotrephes opposes the apostles, and thus opposes Jesus, and is evil. Demetrius does good, is from God, and so comes with commendation from the apostles.
What I don’t want us to miss here under our second point about beware of pride is the connection between Diotrephes putting himself first and not welcoming strangers — which is eerily similar to the spirit of some in our nation today. The Spirit of Christ opposes the spirit of those who say let’s put ourselves first and not welcome others. Whether it’s a wise strategy or not for a nation, I’ll leave that to other to comment, but as a minister of the gospel, this much is clear: it is emphatically not the spirit of Christ and his church. We are not a people who are bunkering down, putting ourselves first, and stiff-arming outsiders. Rather, we put Jesus first, acknowledge his authority, find our security in him, and seek to become a people who are increasingly welcoming to strangers and outsiders.
So, getting on board with God’s global mission means support the missionaries, beware of pride (which puts ourselves first and makes us unwelcoming to others), and lastly, pursue the joy of disciplemaking.
3. Pursue the Joy of Disciplemaking. (verses 2–4)
Verses 1–4 are the opening of the letter, and are not structurally central in the letter. So the point I’m ending on here is not the main point of the letter, but it is a revealing glimpse into the very heart that pumps to energize the whole. What undergirds our eagerness to support missionaries and oppose pride is that we know disciplemaking brings deep joy — with all its pains and hardships and awkwardnesses. Look again at verses 2–4:
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. 3 For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
At some point in the past, John has invested himself greatly in Gaius. He has been a discipler and spiritual father to him. And now, as John hears that it “goes well with [Gaius’] soul” (verse 2) and that he is “walking in the truth” (verse 3), the news floods John’s soul with joy. First, he says he “rejoiced greatly” to hear Gaius is well. Then he uncorks this remarkable statement in verse 4: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” No greater joy.
No greater joy? Can John say that? Is this allowed? No greater joy?
Imagine if you had been there as John began to write this letter. Perhaps he’s dictating it to Demetrius. He says, “I have no greater joy . . .” and pauses. Wouldn’t you say, “Jesus. Say Jesus. You have no greater joy than Jesus, right?”
But John turns and says, “I have no greater joy than Gaius — no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” Is this not an assault on the Lordship of Christ?
Clearly John doesn’t think it’s any threat to Jesus — nor did Paul. Listen to the way Paul talked about the joy he had in the spiritual children he had discipled:
First Thessalonians 2:19: “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?” If I would have been there with Paul, I would have probably said, “Jesus! Jesus is your hope and joy and crown of boasting at his coming.” But Paul says, “Is it not you [Thessalonians]? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20).
And we know this is no slip in referring to his disciples as his joy and crown, because he does the same thing in Philippians 4:1: “My brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”
So, what’s the answer, then? — and here’s where we end this morning. The joy of disciplemaking — of pouring out of lives and sacrificing our comforts and privacy, spending ourselves in the cause of God’s global mission beginning right where we are — the joy of disciplemaking doesn’t compete with joy in Jesus, but complements it. Joy in the spiritual wellbeing of those in whom we have invested is not an enemy of joy in Jesus, but an expression of it. The bottomless reservoir of joy in Jesus is so rich and thick and full that it overflows and collects into little pools, called the lives of others — and our joy in them is an extension of our joy in Jesus.
A shared joy is a doubled joy, and when we share our joy in Jesus through his Great Commission summons to invest our lives at depth in a few for Jesus’s sake, we enjoy a richness and wideness and depth of spiritual joy that we simply would not have tasted had we given our lives to other things and not been on board with God’s global cause.
Jesus Welcomed Us
This morning as we come to the table, we eat and drink with Jesus and his apostles and Gaius and Demetrius, and every person everywhere — one day from every tongue and tribe and nation — who gladly say, “I am not first. Jesus is first. I gladly bow my knee to him and submit to his authority, and I welcome others unlike me — except in our common submission to Christ — to this table with me, and into Jesus’s church with me. Why? Because Jesus himself has welcomed me.”
Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. Even Jesus didn’t put himself first, but humbled himself to make me the recipient of his amazing grace.