Part 120 - 3 John
More steps in the truth.
3 John is the shortest writing in the New Testament, which doesn’t help when trying to pick out a ‘gem’. In fact in many ways there aren’t any so I will just list verse 1 as a gem because there are some important lessons to be learnt from the situation which clearly lies behind the letter, so it would be a pity to miss it out. 4 characters appear in the story behind the writing: the elder who wrote it, Gaius who received it, a good guy, Demetrius and a bad guy, Diotrephes.
It is impossible to be sure what the argument that the elder refers to was about but there is a good chance it was the old problem which is still around: should we keep the church tightly restricted to those whose loyalty to the faith we feel we can totally rely on; and those who think the church needs to be rather freer in its approach, even including those of whom it is not possible to be totally sure of their stickability in the faith. That is as much, or more, a twenty-first century problem as a first century one.
Dotrephes was entirely for the pure church. He may not have had Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians beside him but he would thoroughly have approved of Paul’s advice to the church in 5:4-8: “when you are assembled … hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,[ so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. … Get rid of the old yeast … keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
Demetrius on the other hand would have been anxious to obey the words of Jesus in Matthew 13:24-30: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
There is no clear way of resolving that dilemma. Each situation must be resolved ‘face to face’ as the elder clearly wants to do when he meets Gaius who would seem to have had some authority over the whole situation, though that authority may have been informal since there is no indication of any formal authority structure of bishops or deacons existing.
That is the first thing to be learnt from this short letter. The second is this: human nature being what it is it is all too likely that, particularly in an informal structure, those who gain power can all too easily become too conscious of it, too fond of it and too overbearing in their attempts to direct other people. And there are always people willing to be led for want of the strength of mind to understand what is happening and take appropriate action. They will often do that from a misguided feeling that it is Christian to accept the direction (or misdirection) of others.
It is a pity that we have to end these ‘gems’ on such a pair of negative notes, but that is the way it is. Note that besides these warning notes in this short letter there is much that the elder is prepared to rejoice in. He says many nice and gracious things to Gaius.
Take care. If you have been with me all, or most of the way, through this exploration of some of the lovely and encouraging things John has said - thank you. May the Lord bless you on your further journey of faith. He will be with you and bless you through thick and thin - and there will probably be both experiences on your onward journey.
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