Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Flyover Country: 3 John

The most enthusiastic reception I’ve ever gotten at a local church was the day I set foot in a small congregation of Christians whose nominal affiliation with (reputed) sectarian purists turned out to be no predictor of the warm welcome they uniformly showed to visitors from the “other side” of the theological divide.

I broke bread with them after an introductory conversation that took approximately thirty seconds, just long enough to discover what I thought of Jesus Christ. I think very well of him indeed. That was sufficient cause for a hearty introduction, several good conversations and multiple invitations home for a bite of lunch.

Good for them, I say.

A Decent Reception

Not that a reasonable reception from Christians is all that hard to come by; walk into any evangelical megachurch on a Sunday morning and you’ll shortly be braced by smiling members of the greeting committee looking to make you feel at home. In smaller churches, the fellow assigned to lead the singing may ask visitors to put their hands up so they can be identified and welcomed. Back in the day, they would even do it with a song.

All that procedural stuff is very nice, but it’s not the same as really being received into the fellowship of the saints, which is kind of what the shortest letter in the New Testament is all about.

One Sentence Summary: The apostle John writes a fellow believer about the importance of Christian hospitality.

That would be 3 John, for anyone who doesn’t know. It’s 200 words in the original Greek. I have already surpassed that in this post without saying anywhere near as much.

Background

The apostle John’s third letter is thought to be one of the last few books of the New Testament, written somewhere between A.D. 65 and 90. It is addressed to a believer named Gaius, a member of an unidentified congregation of what appear to be mostly-Gentile Christians. That could be the same Gaius who hosted Paul while he was writing his letter to the Romans, most probably in Corinth, or it could be the Macedonian Gaius who accompanied Paul to Ephesus, or someone else entirely. Gaius was a very common first century name.

Content

John’s purpose is writing is not singular, but Christian hospitality is the letter’s most obvious theme. Gaius is commended for his efforts on behalf of traveling brothers in Christ, and strikingly contrasted with a church leader named Diotrephes, who not only refused to receive these men, but actually put out of the church anyone who did, perhaps Gaius included. In case his commendation of Gaius and his critique of Diotrephes are insufficient, the apostle makes it crystal clear: all Christians ought to behave like Gaius and not like Diotrephes.

Here it is not simply a matter of allowing visitors to sit in on a few church meetings. The brothers who commended Gaius to John testified of his love, which seems to have been expressed to them tangibly. Perhaps he fed or clothed them. Likely he brought them into his home. More importantly, perhaps, Gaius was willing to identify himself with these men on the basis of their common faith in Christ in a church environment where such practice was being actively discouraged.

Value to Modern Readers

The reason for Diotrephes’ hostility to visitors is spelled out: he liked to put himself first. It was his way or the highway. That is generally the problem with most inhospitable Christians, whether the source of their reluctance to fellowship with travelers is a massive ego or something much more pedestrian, such as family responsibilities, a full schedule, an obsession with football or some perceived deficiency in the quality of church visitors. Hospitality is taught repeatedly throughout the New Testament, and there are very few valid reasons given us to withhold it. It should be the default, not the exception.

At the most basic level, 3 John reinforces for modern Christians the importance of putting very few restrictions on our generosity and willingness to welcome others who know Christ. It also reminds us that apostolic authority was resisted and countermanded from time to time even while the apostles were still alive.

If those who serve Christ today ever find themselves unwelcome and unappreciated among God’s people, they may rest assured they are in excellent company.

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