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Although John opens his Third Letter with praise for Gaius, the Apostle also has serious business to deal with. He writes:

[9] 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. (3 John 1:9-12)

The immediate problem in Gaius’s church is a man named Diotrephes. From what John writes, it does not appear to be the case that Diotrephes has any official standing in the church–in other words, he is probably neither a pastor, nor an elder, nor even a deacon. The reason for thinking this (as well as the problem itself) is the way John describes Diotrephes as someone who “likes to put himself first.” The word used suggests something more like a total usurpation of power rather than a misuse of lawfully given power.

We should not read this, however, as just one more power struggle within a church, with John and his cronies on one side, and Diotrephes and his cronies on the other. Diotrephes has been “talking wicked nonsense against” John, but the overall context of the other two epistles of John should lead us to believe that something bigger is at stake than a war of personalities.

Most likely (especially if we follow Lenski’s theory that 2 John and 3 John were written at the same time and sent to the same place), Diotrephes is trying to establish false teachers in the church. Diotrephes is not merely interested in power alone–he is also the deceiver and the antichrist who does not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh (2 John 1:7). For this reason, “he refuses to welcome the brothers [i.e., orthodox missionaries], and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.”

But beyond orthodoxy, another key difference separates John from Diotrephes. Namely, John’s authority (which Diotrephes “does not acknowledge”) is rooted in his being under authority; the mark of people such as Diotrephes, however, is that they insist on no one’s authority but their own. A red flag that helps identify false teachers is that they always insist upon their own way, no matter what. Someone with genuine authority within the church, however, recognizes himself first of all to be a man under someone else’s authority.

Even Jesus recognized this principle. When the Roman centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant, Jesus offered to go with him to heal the servant. But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me” (Matt. 8:8), and Jesus marveled at the man’s faith for saying such a thing.

How could the centurion compare himself with Jesus as being similarly under authority? Because Jesus’ authority was built upon his submission to the Father. In the Roman military system, all power was centered in the emperor; however, that power was represented by those under the authority of the emperor, so that the centurion had to do anything and everything that the emperor ordered. But it was also the case that the centurion’s giving a command to the soldiers under him would have the same authority as if the emperor himself had uttered the command. Similarly, when Jesus spoke, demons, diseases, stormy winds, and even death itself obeyed his commands–but they did so because Jesus was representing the absolute authority of his Father.

Similarly, John’s authority was built upon his submission to Jesus Christ, whose authority was built upon his submission to the Father. When necessary, John behaved as boldly as a lion concerning issues that struck at the heart of Christ’s glory; however, when the glory of Christ was not at stake, John behaved as meekly as a lamb. The difference between John and Diotrephes is that Diotrephes loved to put himself first, but John always wanted to put Christ first.

And so John reminds Gaius not to imitate evil, but to imitate the good. As Christ submitted to his own Father, even to the point of dying on the cross, we should submit to Christ rather than insisting upon putting ourselves first. Demetrius is here commended as an exemplar of imitating the good, as he has probably been the one carrying John’s letter(s) to Gaius’s church.

The issue is not secondary: “Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” If we are the children of God, Christ is first; if we put ourselves first, then we can have nothing to do with God.

Post Series on 3 John:

  1. No Greater Joy (3 John 1:1-4)
  2. Missions For the Sake of the Name (3 John 1:5-8)
  3. Do Not Imitate Evil, but Imitate Good (3 John 1:9-12)

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