Learning by example - 3 John 0

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 27th August 2006.

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The temptation to read something personal which does not belong to me is almost irresistible. I don’t know if you feel the same way as I do but I suspect many of you suffer from the same degree of nosiness that afflicts me. It seems to start from an early age and then continues to accompany us for the rest of our lives. We may call it concerned curiosity but, if we’re honest, most of us simply want to know what is going on in someone’s private life. The discovery of a private diary is a perfect example. What should the teenage brother do if he finds his sister’s diary hidden in the drawer? Or what about mum and dad? You finally decide enough is enough and the room must be cleaned. So in you go to your teenage son’s room, with full breathing apparatus, to arrange the chaos. And then you find it. In your hand are your son’s private thoughts. What should you do? Do you open the book or keep it closed? The temptation can almost be irresistible, can’t it? We love to find out what is really going on in someone’s life. And yet would we read it? Well, I suspect, most of us would probably not read it. Most of us have been brought up to believe that what is personal is private and what is private is personal. So although we might be tempted to sneak a peak we would stop our investigations before we went too far. It’s a simple point. If a letter doesn’t have your name on it, put it back on the table and leave it alone. If it isn’t addressed to you then it wasn’t written for you. So leave it alone and stop poking your nose into someone else’s business. It sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? It sounds like a sensible way to live. But here’s my question: If we really believe that what is personal is private and what is private is personal then what are we to make of 3 John? Look at how the letter begins, “The elder, To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. Or verse 5, “Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you.”

And then verse 11, “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.” Do you see what type of letter this is? It’s not a mass circular to all and sundry. You know those irritating letters that come through the letter box which say things like, “Dear Mr McMunn, You have been specially selected to benefit from our new discounted credit card.” And then you look out of the window and discover everyone else in the neighbourhood is getting exactly the same offer. 3 John is not one of those letters. No, 3 John is deeply personal. It is from someone called the elder, most likely the aging apostle John and it is written to his dear friend Gaius, whom he loves in the truth, which is just another way of saying he loves him sincerely because he is a fellow member of the Christian family. 3 John is a deeply personal letter. So why do we have it open in front of us? If what is personal is private then what right do we have to examine what John wrote to Gaius? Well, quite simply, because God deliberately ensured this letter was included in the Bible. And we can be confident that anything we find in the Bible is important for Christians to read. So here’s the question: Why did God include 3 John in the New Testament? Why is it here? It only takes up 14 verses. It is one of the smallest books in the bible. It is very easy to miss. And yet we know God doesn’t make mistakes so it must be here for a purpose.

I know some of you will be heading off to university pretty soon or starting college in the next few weeks. And no doubt some of you may be nervous about sitting your future exams. But don’t worry because I think 3 John may have been included in the Bible just for you. Next time you find yourself with nothing to write then why not scribble down the words of verse 13: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink.” Although a word of warning. If you choose to use the words of verse 13 then be prepared for your tutor to use the words of verse 14: “I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.”

But seriously, why do we have 3 John in our bibles? The clue is in verse 11. I think it’s the key verse of the whole letter. John says, “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.” The purpose of 3 John is to help us learn by example. Successful businesses have known for years that if you want to develop someone’s potential it’s not good enough simply to teach them, you must also mentor them. Although it’s essential that a person knows the relevant facts to do their job – they must be taught information - it’s also important for someone to show them how to do it – they must be given an example to follow. The same is true for Christians. If we want to make progress in our Christian lives then yes it is vital we receive clear Bible teaching but it’s also important that we are shown examples to follow. And that’s the beauty of this short letter at the end of the New Testament. It contains four examples to challenge our current behaviour. Three examples for us to imitate and one example for us to avoid like the plague. We meet John, we meet Gaius, we meet Diotrephes and then, very briefly, we meet a man called Demetrius.

We begin with the example of John. I love what he says in verse 2. “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.” You can tell he really cares for Gaius, can’t you? Here is a man who is concerned for his friend. And not just about some small part of his life, John is interested in the whole person. So notice what he prays for. “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you.” It’s good to pray these things for other people. It’s not the only thing we should ask God to do in the lives of other Christians but at the same time we should never be afraid of asking our Sovereign God, the one who is completely in charge of everything, to prosper our health and to prosper our plans. He can do it and sometimes he does do it.

But did you notice the news that really brought a smile to John’s face? It wasn’t a note from Gaius’ doctor to say that he had passed his annual medical review with flying colours. That would have been great news but it wasn’t what made John smile. And it wasn’t even a letter from Gaius’ financial advisor to report the investments of his client were inspired beyond any doubt. No, it was the personal testimony from the Christians who told John about Gaius’ soul. Verse 3. “It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth.” And then how about verse 4? “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” Here is a man with gospel priorities. He knows what is of ultimate importance for a Christian. A good job? No. A good education? No. A new boyfriend? A new girlfriend? A more advanced TV? A lovely garden? Lots of money in the bank? No. When you have gospel priorities what matters most is that a Christian continues to believe the Bible and lives out what is says.

Have you ever had one of those awkward conversations with someone who used to be on fire for God? Do you know the ones I mean? You may not have seen the person for months or even years and then wonderfully you have an opportunity to talk about the past. And it’s great. You relive the old times. You tell your stories, you share your memories and then you start talking about life today. “How are you getting on these days?” “Oh, very well. Did you know I got married? Yeah. Very attractive girl. And can you believe it, I’ve got a son as well. He’s so adorable. And then 6 months ago we all moved to London because I got a promotion at work.” “Fantastic”, you say. “And then you ask the awkward question, “Oh by the way, which church have you settled into since you moved?” “Well, you know what’s its like, there are only 24 hours in the day and so much to pack in. We just don’t have the time any more. In fact, I don’t think we have been to church for months.” “And how is your prayer life and your reading of the Bible?” “Well, those appear to have stopped as well.”

By the world’s standards our fictional friend is a great success. He is accumulating everything our society labels as important, a good job, a loving family and a prosperous lifestyle. But, at his peril, he has forgotten the penetrating words of Jesus Christ: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Let’s just pause and let this sink in. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”  Without a personal commitment to Jesus we will lose our soul and if we lose our soul we will have wasted our life, no matter what else we have achieved.

So let’s ask the tough question: Do we believe this? And let’s test our answer by asking a supplementary question. In 12 months time, what is the most important thing that could happen to us? If we believe what Jesus says then it is either becoming a Christian if we are not one already or remaining as a Christian if we already are. Or let’s ask our supplementary question in a different way. In the next 12 months what would devastate us most of all? If we got the sack or if we had stopped reading our bibles regularly? If we failed to get a promotion or if we had stopped coming to church entirely?

Or think about the Christian students from this church who are about to leave for university. When we meet them in the holidays and ask them how they are getting on, what are we desperate for them to tell us? “You’ve managed to work the washing machine? Brilliant! Your parents will be pleased. But what else has happened? You’ve passed all your exams. Great! You’ve met new friends, you’ve joined the Crazy Trouser Appreciation Society. Well, I guess someone has to. But about the Christian Union? What’s that like? Have you joined it? And tell me about your own faith. Are you still walking in the truth?” If we have gospel priorities the answer to that question is the most important of all. Or think about your own family. Suppose you have children growing up in this church. What ambitions do you have for them? Is it more important they learn about Christ or play football for the local team?

We always make time for the things we value most. There is a relationship between our diary and our priorities. How we structure our time depends on what we think is important. So here is the challenge from the example of John. It is the challenge to live with gospel priorities. It is the challenge to make our decisions and structure our diaries based on the priority of remaining committed to Christ. Or to put it simply, it is the challenge to say verse 4 with conviction. “I have no greater joy than to hear my children are walking in the truth.”

Secondly, we move on to the example of Gaius. We’ve already discovered that Gaius is a faithful Christian. John has told us in verse 3 that his dear friend is faithful to the truth (that is, he believes the right things) and he is also walking in the truth (that is, he puts the right things into practice). I love that phrase “walking in the truth.” It’s such a great description of what it means to be a Christian. So, yes, a Christian is someone who believes certain facts about the person of Jesus. But an authentic Christian is not just someone who believes certain facts to be true but someone who allows Jesus the King to determine how they live day by day. They walk in his direction and they make sure his commands determine their every step. Now we don’t always get it right, we often make mistakes. But the genuine Christian always has a clear ambition to progress in their daily obedience to Christ.

So with that in mind let’s think about the example of Gaius. John has already told us he was a keen Christian. But, in verses 5 to 8, he reveals what that meant in practice. Have a look at what he writes in verse 5. “Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you.  6 They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.  7 It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans.  8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.”

At first sight it seems so ordinary, doesn’t it? What had Gaius actually done for the travelling Christian missionaries who are strangers to him? He had simply opened up his house. He had cleaned the spare room. He had offered them a bed. He had provided a meal. It all seems so ordinary.

And yet notice what John says in verse 8. “We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.” It may have seemed so ordinary but in the grand scheme of things Gaius was participating in gospel promotion.

He was working together with other Christians to get the gospel out. And there, I think, is the challenge from his example. To walk in the truth is to participate in gospel promotion. The New Testament makes it clear that everyone needs to hear the good news about Jesus. It teaches us that everyone is in great danger and only Jesus can save them from the judgement to come. And so, by implication, anyone who says people of other religions are okay as they are has not understood why Jesus died on the cross and the allegiance he currently demands. The healthy Christian has a passion for people to know about Jesus. But here is the extra challenge from the example of Gaius. Not only should we have a passion for the proclamation of the gospel, we should participate in gospel promotion. Now this does not mean we should all be up front preachers. It does not mean we should all be leading evangelistic bible studies with our friends. Remember Gaius. His participation in gospel promotion was practical. He opened his home. He gave someone a bed to sleep in. Or in other words, he allowed his resources to be used for the furtherance of missionary work. So can I encourage us to do the same. First of all, let’s allow the truth of the gospel message to remind us again of the urgency of the task. The gospel must go out. Now is the time for the salvation of everyone who believes. But, secondly, let’s make sure we are participating in gospel promotion. It is the greatest thing we can do with our resources.

Now one of the ways we can do this is through our giving. Money is crucial to pay for gospel workers. And so if you are a regular member of St Johns and you not a regular giver then please pick up one of these forms at the end, fill it in and then hand it back to one of the clergy.

Another practical way we can participate in gospel promotion is by helping to support our Christianity Explored courses. Now these are brilliant opportunities for anyone to explore what Christians really believe about Jesus and so if you are here this morning and would like to investigate Christianity in more detail then this is the course for you. Come and chat to me at the end and I’ll let you know when the next course is scheduled to begin. Now it is a great delight to have a number of Christians from the church family who help me answer peoples’ questions on Christianity Explored. And I do praise God for them. But for the next course I’m on the look out for some help. First of all I need people to pray. Could you pray regularly for the people who come along? Please see me at the end if you could. Secondly,  I need people to make cakes for me. You see, every week we offer nice tea, coffee and cakes to the people who come along. And I’m convinced home made cakes are the way to go. So here is my invitation this morning: Would you be prepared to provide cake for one of the weeks of Christianity Explored? I’m not asking for every week, just one. See me at the end if you can do it. It would be greatly appreciated and it would be a practical way to participate in gospel promotion.

Thirdly, we come to the example of Diotrephes. This is what John says about him in verse 9: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us.” You’ve probably guessed by now that Diotrephes is not a good example for us to follow. He is the one we are to avoid like the plague. Five words summarise his character: He loves to be first.

I don’t know if you have every thought what you would like to read in your obituary. If you were to die tonight what would they write about you tomorrow? Mark Twain, the American novelist, once had the unsettling experience of reading his own obituary in the New York Journal. Can you imagine that? Opening the newspaper to discover you are supposed to be dead. After pulling himself together, he wrote to the editor to assure him that the report of his death was an exaggeration. Apparently, Alfred Nobel, the famous Swedish industrialist who’d made millions out of dynamite, had a similar experience. He was sitting down one morning to eat his breakfast and when glancing through the paper, he was rather surprised to see his own name on the obituary page. But intrigued he decided to read how people had summarised his achievements. Surprise turned to shock as he read what people had said. Despite his huge financial successes, the article spoke of him as a mean and unpleasant man. He was horrified but he quickly recognised the truth of what he’d become. So he decided to change his ways. As a result of the article he established the Nobel Prizes, giving his huge wealth to benefit good causes in the world. The obituary was a mistake, but the truth it conveyed was completely life-changing.

If you were to die tonight what would they write about you tomorrow? This is what they wrote about Diotrephes: He loves to be first. It is such a depressing summary of human existence. Imagine everything you did being driven by the agenda of self-promotion. That’s how Diotrephes lived! It was so tragic. And it also had massive implications for the local church. Listen to what John writes in verse 10. “If I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers [that is, the missionaries who have been sent from John]. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” And why? Well, all because of his self-promotion. There is no mention here of any disagreements over doctrine. This was a personality issue. This was a problem fuelled by sinful pride.

And the effects were deadly. Gospel promotion was hindered and gospel fellowship was destroyed. The missionaries were not welcomed and the church was split apart. And all this took place because there was a Christian in the fellowship who loved to get his way. 

So let’s be challenged by the example of Diotrephes. Let’s deal with our sinful pride. If our obituary tomorrow would read “He loves to be first” then let’s make sure we learn the lesson from Albert Nobel. Let’s change our behaviour before it is too late. Let’s ask the Lord to deal with our pride. Let’s ask him to change our personality from the inside out.

And, secondly, let’s remind ourselves of the person of Christ. If we want to deal with pride then we need to focus on Jesus. I love what John the Baptist says to his disciples when they come to him very upset that everyone now seems to following Jesus instead of him. It is a motto we should memorise. It’s recorded in John’s Gospel chapter 3 and verse 30. John says this, “Jesus must become greater; I must become less.” The contrast is staggering, isn’t it? Diotrephes: He loves to be first. John the Baptist: He loves to be second. And all because he had a right view of Jesus. He knew that Jesus deserved the glory. He knew that Jesus was the King. He was simply a servant on his master’s business. And so, therefore, he was determined to promote the interests of Jesus rather than the interests of himself.

How can we deal with sinful pride? Only with God’s help! We need the power of the Holy Spirit to change our desires and to keep the Bible’s picture of Jesus constantly before our gaze.

We finish with the example of Demetrius. He only gets a brief mention in verse 12 but, nevertheless, it’s important we understand why he is mentioned in the letter. This is what John writes about him, “Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone — and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.”

The only other reference to a man called Demetrius in the Bible is found in Acts 19, when the apostle Paul is attempting to share the gospel in the city of Ephesus. And Demetrius is the name of the silver smith who was chiefly responsible for causing a riot in order to stop Paul’s preaching. Now it is very tempting to identify the two references to Demetrius with the same person, especially when we remember that 3 John was probably written from Ephesus. But it’s only a speculation, we cannot be absolutely certain.

But here is what we can be sure about. The godliness of the Demetrius mentioned in verse 12 was not in doubt. He was well spoken of by everyone, by his friends, by his family, by his home church, and even by the truth itself - which, I think, means that if we were to compare the way Demetrius lived with the standards of behaviour set out in the New Testament he would pass the test with flying colours. If he was compared to the yardstick of God’s truth he would not be found wanting. His godliness was never in question.

So who was he? First of all, he seems to have been the person responsible for bringing this personal letter to Gaius. I can just imagine him standing beside Gaius as he read through the details. Secondly, he also seems to have been the leader of the group of missionaries who had been sent from John’s church and who were currently seeking hospitality in the region. In the past, Gaius had helped similar people before and now Demetrius was expecting him to do the same again. So who was Gaius? He was a messenger boy, he was a missionary leader and, thirdly, he was also a model for Gaius to follow. He was a real life example for him to copy. Remember John has just commanded his dear friend to imitate what is good. And then what does Gaius see as he looks up from his letter? Someone he can watch. Someone whose godliness is open to inspection. Could we say the same about ours?

We should, of course, be concerned about our godliness because Christ told us to be. But the example of Demetrius reminds us that the quality of our Christian behaviour has massive implications for our fellow brothers and sisters in the family of God. Just think about it. If we all need to be in the business of imitation, where can we find the people to copy? In the bible? Yes, of course we can. The Bible is full of practical examples of how to live as a Christian. And so too is church history. There are plenty of godly Christians who have lived in the last 2000 years. But we also need real life examples in our local churches. We all need someone to watch and we all need to be watchable. Wouldn’t it be great if we could look around the church family and say, “You know, that person is a godly person. Why not watch them to see what it means to live as a Christian? And so is that person over there. And so is she. And so is he. In fact, when you come to mention it, we are blessed and overwhelmed with people we can imitate.” Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Well to see it happen let’s make sure we hear the challenge from the example of Demetrius. His godliness enabled him to be a model to others. So for the benefit of everyone else in the church family let’s be determined to behave as godly people. Let’s pray as we finish.

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