As we come to the end of John’s three letters, we face yet again his tremendous repeated emphasis on truth and love. ‘Truth’ comes seven times in this short letter, while ‘love’/’beloved’ comes six times.
“The whole purpose of life is to make money”, I heard recently. But how about the poor, the pensioner or the unemployed, none of whom are succeeding in making money? What is the real purpose of life? How can we know? And how can we discern what is right or wrong? Is making money or seeking our own pleasure the ultimate yard-stick by which we measure everything? If I live for money, how can I relate to you if you are only seeking your own welfare and pleasure?
The Bible sees things through totally different eyes. Truth is more important than money. Again and again in John’s writings we have noted his emphasis on Jesus as the truth. And therefore as his followers we too are called to walk in the truth – not money-grubbing. So in this lovely personal letter of 3 John he declares that he loves Gaius “in the truth” (1) and rejoices that Gaius is faithful to the truth and is walking in the truth (verses 3 and 4). In verse 12, also, the truth joins with everyone to speak well (literally ‘witness’) of Demetrius. John asserts that his own witness is also true.
In Jesus we have the genuine truth which forms a solid basis for everything in life. As we live, think and speak in accordance with that truth, our whole life increasingly reflects the nature and character of God himself. Like the apostle Paul we shall “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor.2.16), discerning right from wrong like him, becoming truly trustworthy like him, living lives of purity and holiness like him, serving God and other people like him etc.
How then can we come to know the truth? As we have observed, the truth is found in Jesus. The more closely we know and relate to Jesus, the more we shall learn and experience the truth. The truth of Jesus is revealed to us particularly in the biblical Scriptures which are God’s Word. In 2 Timothy 3.16 we learn that the Scriptures were ‘breathed out’ by God himself, so they reveal the truth in perfect form. It is therefore vitally important for us all to be steeped in study of the Bible. Through the work of God’s Spirit as we soak in the revelation of God in our Bible study, our lives and our whole thinking will be moulded into the image of Jesus. Through the truth of God’s Word we shall know his purposes for us; our lives will reflect his character; we shall become people of truth and therefore trustworthy; we shall be able to discern what is right and what is wrong. In our society today financial gain and personal freedom and pleasure have become the plumb-line by which people judge what is good or bad, but this can only lead to socially and personally destructive consequences. Our society desperately needs the entirely reliable and morally upright truth of Jesus and the Bible.
John doesn’t speak just of ‘truth’, but of ‘the truth’ – there is only one truth. In all our moral controversies and our multi-faith context it is important that we maintain a deep assurance of Jesus and God’s Word in the Bible as the unique truth. Of course we are still to love our neighbour and strongly support religious tolerance in society, but we also long for everyone to find the truth, the life, the salvation through faith in Jesus.
In this letter John consistently addresses Gaius as “beloved” (NIV ‘dear friend’ loses John’s emphasis on love) and it is to his love that others witness (6-8). This love leads to practical outworking in hospitality and supporting other Christians as they move on, in ways that are worthy of God. Presumably these Christians were travelling evangelists and so unknown to John previously. Were they now leaving because they had been called by God to serve him elsewhere? So is this an early example of God’s call to support Christians who are called to serve in other countries?
Love goes together not only with hospitality (8), but also with loving cooperation in serving the truth together (8). Such team ministry stands in direct contrast with the evil example of Diotrephes who “loves to be first”. In Greek this very human desire for prominence (‘loves to be first’) is actually just one word ‘first-loving’ – such pride was and is so common that it merits a special word! Sadly this is often the case even in the Christian church. Because of this sin, Diotrephes would not accept John – was he threatened by him and so feared for his position? He evidently was trying to pull John’s reputation down by false gossip. He was also refusing to welcome other Christians to the church – perhaps because the advent of other faithful Christians might threaten his prominence? In fact, he was even throwing good Christians out of the church (NIV softens the violence of the Greek ‘throws out’ with its translation ‘ puts out’). Happily in this letter John doesn’t only give us the bad example of Diotrephes, but then goes on to commend Demetrius who “is well spoken of by everyone” (12). And John concludes with the word that his witness concerning Demetrius is true, as everyone knows.
The Name (7)
God is so glorious, all-holy and splendid in majesty that Jews have felt that they should never allow his name to pass their sinful lips. So it has been customary to use the expression “the Name” for God. Still today Jews will normally refer to God as HaShem, the Name. John also follows this pattern of deeply honouring the absolute glory of God: “It was for the sake of the Name that they went out” (7). We today may prefer to speak of ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’, but let us do so with reverent worship in our hearts. It is easy as Christians to speak so casually of the Lord! And sadly non-Christians commonly blaspheme with the expression “God knows” or the ejaculation “God Almighty!”. Some times it may be good to respond with “Yes, I guess He does indeed know . . . ” or “Yes, God’s power is indeed fantastic”.
In verse 7 is John meaning ‘pagans’ (as in NIV) or non-Jewish Gentiles? The Greek word stems from a word which generally refers to the Gentiles, as in the incarnate Jesus’ closing command to his disciples (Matthew 28.19). Of course it was true that in those days the Gentiles were almost all ‘pagans’ who did not yet believe in the God of Israel. So John in verse 7 almost certainly meant non-Jews, but he will have assumed that as Gentiles they will still be unbelieving.
Even in much later centuries it became customary to use the word ‘Gentile’ as meaning ‘pagan’. Thus in Aquinas’ “Contra Gentiles” (Against the Gentiles) he assumes that the word ‘Gentile’ means non-Christian, while the term ‘Israel’ referred to the church – and the church then was almost entirely non-Jewish. So the term ‘Israel’ came to mean non-Jews, while the term ‘Gentile’ meant non-Christian Jews ! So Jews became Gentiles and Gentiles became Israel! The same muddled error afflicted the Reformers too. Thus Luther used the term ‘the heathen’ (German: die Heiden) when translating ‘Gentiles’ and Calvin used ‘les paiens’/the pagans. After that the early pietistic missionaries to North America called the North American Indians ‘the Gentiles’, while the white Christians were ‘Israel’. Some times as a Jew myself I am asked whether Elizabeth is also Jewish. I used to answer, “No, she is Gentile”, but now I have learned to answer differently. People used to be shocked at my words and wonder how I could be so rude about my wife! They too still had the misunderstanding that ‘Gentile’ was a negative word for people without faith.
The Bible underlines God’s concern not only for his own Jewish people, but also for the Gentiles. Evidently the Christians referred to in verse 7 must have been living and working for the Lord in a Gentile milieu, but they got no help from their Gentile neighbours. As Christians today we too are called to mission with people of all ethnic backgrounds, Jews and Gentiles.
In our next blog we shall move on to Jude’s letter.