The Third Epistle Of John
THE THIRD EPISTLE OF JOHN again calls us to weigh the Lord's admirable wisdom in its address, - "The elder unto the well‑beloved Gaius," - as we have, I trust, been satisfied of the same in the second Epistle's address to "the elect lady and her children."
Without the third Epistle we should have an immense loss; for here too we may meet the unbelieving slight already noticed in a scribe of this age by a direct assertion of its living value. A precious and needed supplement is supplied especially for these evil days. If we had only the second without the third Epistle of John, we should have the negative side without the positive - the evil warned against rather than the good enforced. Both are most needful. What would have been the effect of the second Epistle of John, if that alone of the two had been ours at the present moment? I have sought to show how admirable it is - matchless for its own purpose - and impossible to supply its place from any other part of scripture, yet in thorough accordance with it all. It is admitted that the principle of the Epistle is found all through the New Testament; but the strength of the application, the incisive edge of its holy jealousy for Christ, is only to be found there. Yet, supposing we had not the third of John, what would be the too sure effect? I am persuaded we should be in danger of becoming painfully narrow; we should be in constant dread of an antichrist in those that surrounded us; we should do little but search with suspicion, lest each new comer to the house should not bring the doctrine of Christ.
Now we are not called to be thus on the watch for another's evil. We ought never to be suspicious. It is not faith, but flesh that expects iniquity. On the other hand, if a man comes and does not bring the doctrine of Christ, it is not to be branded as suspicion or want of love if one regard him as antichrist. It is according to the truth we love, and is the wisdom that comes from above; nay, it is real obedience and loyalty to Christ. But to allow doubts and questions of one who neither in himself nor in his associations makes light of Christ's glory is inexcusable. Here comes one bearing the Lord's name, not without a Barnabas who knows and can commend him: to indulge in surmises, if without the least evidence of this or that about him, is clearly not according to Christ. It is here, I think, that we may learn more of the value and special function of this third Epistle of John, which is as decided in the cherishing of warm affections towards the faithful servants of the Lord, as the second Epistle was peremptory in its warning against the allowance of the profession of Christ's name, to shut our eyes to the fact that there are men who abuse that name to overthrow His person and truth.
The third Epistle accordingly is not addressed to a lady and her children. This would not suit its object. Too often, as we know, ladies and their children want no exhortation to go forth with sufficiently warm affection after preachers. This is notorious. There are few more common snares in the church of God than the undue influence which some exercise, if they do not seek, over females and young people. I do not speak of such as seek the conversion of souls, but of those whose zeal goes forth in unedifying questions which form parties, chiefly through the medium of women and children. Undoubtedly this has always been the case. If you search through the history of the church, you will invariably find that where men have wrong purposes in view, they do not seek intelligent men, - those who can take and keep their ground, still less those to whom God has given grace as faithful servants of independent judgment: they shrink from these, and avoid a conference which might be profitable, getting into holes and corners, where they can at leisure indoctrinate their little coteries with the doctrines that they bring in privily.
Of all this and more we have had sorrowful experience. It is not a thing we have merely read about others in bygone days. We have seen and known it ourselves: its grief we have bitterly felt; and we ought to mention this snare, and could not refrain, if indeed we have love for the children of God and jealousy for the glory of Christ. Undoubtedly then it remains true that there is the solemn fact of Satan's enmity, and of his using those who bear the name of Christ to overthrow His glory, as far as he can. It is the Holy Ghost who warns of this, though the word and experience prove how mighty He is in behalf of the love and glory of Christ. For indeed there are men faithful and true to that name; and we are as much bound to go forth with loving desire and succour, to cheer and help them in every way, showing honour to them, as again we are responsible that no circumstances, no past reputation, no present amiability, no ties of flesh and blood, no consideration of any human sort, shall weaken our solemn separation from and abhorrence of that which overthrows Jesus.
This third Epistle then is addressed to Gaius - no doubt a truly hospitable and gracious man. We all know too well that men are apt to be somewhat selfish. Women, as we must be aware, are even by nature characterised by affection. Men, if they have what one looks for from them, ought to have a little judgment; but then their judgment may be warped by selfishness, though no doubt this may be often concealed, perhaps from themselves, by pleas of prudence and so forth. Women, as a class, have warmer and quicker affections,
Here then the wisdom of God is very observable. The kindest of men require to be stirred up, and need to be exhorted strongly as to what they owe to those who go forth in the name of the Lord Jesus. With women this is hardly to be pressed. On the contrary, as a general rule, they rather call for a little cooling down. But as for men, I have rarely seen the man that was not in want of an occasional admonition or encouragement in this kind of love. Do we not recognize in a new form the wisdom of our God? "The elder unto the well-beloved Gains, whom I love in the truth." He was already a large‑hearted man, but he was none the worse for being somewhat cheered on. There is a danger of being disheartened in these labours of love. There are many difficulties and many disappointments, and there is no man who may not sometimes need a word from God to keep his courage up, and his confidence in the Lord, that the springs of his love may flow fresh and strong.
Here we have the fact that to the "well‑beloved Gains" the apostle writes with this intent. He loved him also in the truth. Whether it was the elect lady and her children, or the well‑beloved Gaius, it is all the same thing. It was not because of his hospitality, but "whom I love in the truth." No doubt the apostle did much value his generosity and care; but even in matters wholly different from those of his second Epistle, the distinguishing feature which presses on his soul was this: - "whom I love in the truth." "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth." He was not indifferent even as to the bodily well‑being of Gains. The Holy Ghost thus inspires him to write it. It is not a private letter, nor was it an uninspired codicil added to what was inspired; but here it stands in a genuine apostolic epistle, written by John the elder to his brother. He wished that he might prosper and be in health, even as his soul prospered. "For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth." It was sweet to the apostle to hear such a testimony to the steadfastness of Gaius in the truth, as it was to hear of all he loved.
"Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and this* strangers." The common text and our English version seem a little peculiar in the phraseology here, conveying the idea that these strangers were not brethren. This clearly was not the intention. He has before his mind brethren that were strangers. It was not merely brethren that lived in the place where Gains was: this might be a manifest token of happy friendship. But there was a greater proof of love and hospitality in the kindness he practised to stranger brethren, to Christians whom he did not know. "Which have borne witness of thy love before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey worthily of God, thou shalt do well: for on account of the name they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to take up such, that we might be fellow‑helpers to the truth."
* The reading of the most ancient and best MSS. and Versions is touto (and not as in Text. Rec. eis tou).
This was a special claim on brethren. They did not throw themselves on man, on the world, on nature, but on Christ only. It was for His name's sake they went forth. They looked nowhere else; and the apostle says, "We therefore ought to take up such" - not ye but "we." How beautifully he who lay on Jesus' bosom puts himself along with Gaius! Had the apostle been placed in the same circumstances as Gains, no doubt he would have done so; but his place as apostle did not absolve him from the practical manifestation of love to servants of the Lord who might be in a position altogether different from his own. That this is the case is most evident, because in the verse but, one before he says "thou;" in the verse after he says "I." Unquestionably then, when he changes the "thou" either to "we" or to "I," he means what he says.
Thus we find that if there was sorrow expressed in the second Epistle at finding the deceivers and the antichrist seeking an entrance among the simple, in the third Epistle there is the joy of welcoming these faithful brethren who went forth for Christ, and his loving hospitable heart who is thus praised by the Holy Ghost, and his name indelibly recorded in the scriptures of truth with theirs as fellow‑labourers.
But the bright picture has its shade. "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre‑eminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church."
We have another evil designated very clearly here. Diotrephes is the scriptural example of the clerical tribe, as contra‑distinguished from the ministry of Christ There is no service, because there is no love. He is the representative of the spirit which opposes the free action of the Holy Ghost, setting itself even against apostolic authority in order to gain or maintain his own individual pre‑eminence. Self‑importance, jealousy of those over us, impatience of others equally called to serve, scorn of the assembly, yet sometimes humouring the least worthy for its own ends - such are the characteristics of clericalism. I do not mean in clergymen only; for there are men of God incomparably better than their position tends to make them; as on the other hand this evil thing is nowhere so offensive as where the truth that is owned wholly condemns it.
If Diotrephes had been called to serve the Lord, of which there is little appearance, were there not hundreds and thousands not less truly called to the same work as servants of Christ by a title from Christ not less real than what he held himself? Was he not bound to respect the title of others? You cannot plead the title of Christ for yourself without maintaining the authority of Christ for another. He who does so honestly and truly could not possibly claim an exclusive title. This was precisely what Diotrephes did, and it is the distinctive point of the clerical system. It is not a question of ministry, nor even of what people call "stated ministry." Who doubts stated ministry? At the same time who can deny that God uses servants of His who are not stated? I believe that He maintains His own title in the church of God to raise a man up to say a word, and it may be an important word, who might not be called on to speak again, - only used for a particular purpose. God of old reserved such a right, and certainly He has not given it up now.. no doubt there is a variety of ways in which He employs those who may not have any well defined place in the church of God. To abolish all these to a dead level for himself to lead and govern was the unchecked desire of Diotrephes. It is nothing more, if not less, than we often see now. Supposing persons have large gifts, the more can they afford to give the fullest scope to the lesser gifts; nor is there any surer sign of weakness in one's work than any unwillingness to accredit the work of others. He that values his own call on the Lord's part to serve Him is bound by all means to hold in His name the door open for every one that is called to labour. But so Diotrephes did not. Did he profess to desire only what edified most, and so set himself against lesser gifts? He dared to rise up against the apostle himself. The truth is, he cared for himself, and loved to have the pre‑eminence. We have no reason to gather that he loved anything or anybody else. Such was the man who had ventured to oppose John; and, as we see, the apostle says he would remember him. The Lord did not forget it.
But he could not close the Epistle with anything so painful. Turning to a happier theme, he says, "Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God."
How the key‑note of the first Epistle is heard right through the last! If there were self‑exalting men with and without gift, office, or influence, others there are of a different mind. "Demetrius hath good report of all men, and of the truth itself: yea, and we also bear record; and ye know that our record is true."
Then with the salutation he closes. "I had many things to write to thee, but I wish not with ink and pen to write to thee: but I hope to see thee, and we will speak mouth to mouth soon. Peace be to thee. The friends salute thee. Greet the friends by name." There are minute differences of interest between this conclusion and that of the second Epistle, but I avoid details and pass on.