One of my favorite things on the Internet is Google Earth which is now tied into Google Maps. I love being able to zoom in, via satellite from outer space, on a country, then a particular city, and even further, down to a single street, and finally focus on a single house. I have enjoyed looking at satellite images of places where I have lived, and other places I have visited, during my 57+ years on planet earth.
The three letters of John have this same “zooming in” effect. The First Letter of John, which we finished studying in January, could, in many ways, have been addressed to any church in the first century. Perhaps that is why the Church at large has found, out of the three letters of John, the greatest relevance in this first letter, not only in the first century, but down to the twenty-first century.
However, in his second letter, John is clearly writing to a particular church, “the elect lady”. We don’t know for certain where that particular church was, presumably in Asia Minor, but there are a number of personal references in John’s second letter that do not appear in his first letter.
Then, in his third letter, John is writing to one particular church leader, someone called Gaius. We do not know which church Gaius belonged to, nonetheless we can learn a few valuable lessons from this letter which John wrote to him.
Listen for God’s word to you from 3 John 1-8…
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. It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.
3 John gives us a really good example of what a typical letter in the first century was like. It had four parts:
1. The Greeting
2. The Prayer for Good Health
3. The Body of the Letter
4. The Final Greetings
So, let’s look at each of these in turn. First, there is the greeting.
“The elder to Gaius the beloved, whom I love in truth.”
As with 2 John, the author of this letter identifies himself simply as “the elder”. There is both internal evidence and external evidence that leads scholars to associate this letter with 1 John and 2 John as well as with the Gospel of John and Revelation. The internal evidence consists of a common language. As we saw in 1 John and 2 John, love and truth were dominant topics. So also, here in 3 John, those topics are introduced from the get-go.
Pastor David Jackman summarizes the external evidence for the authorship of this letter…
From the earliest times the letter has been attributed to John the apostle, but not without debate. The early evidence is sparse, though the Muratorian Canon, a fragmentary list of New Testament books known at Rome about AD 200, certainly includes the first two letters. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 175—c. 195), quotes from 2 John, but Eusebius (c. 265—c.339), in his Ecclesiastical History, mentions 2 and 3 John as books which were disputed by some but generally accepted in the church (a view expressed also by Origen and Jerome). Following a passage in Papias (c. 60-130), bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, who was said to have heard the apostle John, several scholars have attributed the two short letters to ‘John the presbyter (elder)’—a different person entirely.
Much depends on whether John the apostle might not also be known as ‘the elder’, and the scholarly debate continues on this issue.
So, the author of this letter appears to be the same as the author of 2 John, may be the same as the author of 1 John, and may in turn be the same as the author of 1 John, the Gospel of John and Revelation. Or it may be that all of these books are the product of a community that gathered around the Apostle John as his disciples in the first century.
The recipient of this letter is named Gaius. There were three other men with this name mentioned in the New Testament. William Barclay explains…
There is Gaius, the Macedonian who, along with Aristarchus, was with Paul at the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:29). There is Gaius of Derbe, who was the delegate of his church to convey the collection for the poor to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4). There is the Gaius of Corinth who had been Paul’s host, and who was such a hospitable soul that he could be called the host of the whole church (Romans 16:23), and who was one of the very few people whom Paul had personally baptized (1 Corinthians 1:14), and who, according to tradition, became the first Bishop of Thessalonica. Gaius was the commonest of all names; and there is no reason to identify our Gaius with any of these three. According to tradition he was made the Bishop of Pergamum by John himself. Here he stands before us as a man with an open house and an open heart.
The author of this letter calls Gaius the ἀγαπητῷ, the beloved. In the three letters of John, the author uses this word no less than ten times.
There is no reason why we should not also see ourselves as the recipients of this letter. Furthermore, we too are “the beloved”. You are beloved by God. I am beloved by God through his Son Jesus Christ.
The author of this letter says that he loves Gaius in truth. This letter could hardly be more personal. And the love that is expressed here is the same love we ought to have for one another in the church.
Now, let’s look at the next part of the letter: the prayer for good health.
“Beloved, concerning all things I pray thee to prosper and to be in health, as prospers the soul of thee.”
This prayer reveals that the author is interested in the health of the recipient’s body, but also his soul.
And this prayer is unique. The author is praying that his friend’s body will be as healthy as his soul.
I wonder, would we want someone to pray like this for us? How healthy are our souls? Would we want the health of our bodies to match that of our souls?
Finally, we come to the body of this brief letter, a letter that would have occupied only one sheet of papyrus.
First, John says that he has heard from other believers of Gaius’ faithfulness to the truth.
It would be difficult to think of a higher compliment given to a Christian than this: that they are faithful to the truth. I think that in relationships God cares more about love and faithfulness than he does about anything else. Faithfulness to a spouse, faithfulness to one’s children, faithfulness to one’s church—all of these are important. But what should come first in our lives is faithfulness to the truth. And as Christians we believe that truth is embodied in a person, Jesus Christ. For he himself has said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Along with this, John says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” Gaius was not John’s physical son, but he was, obviously, his spiritual son. And John was thrilled to hear the report from others that this spiritual son was walking in the truth.
The truth that is found in Jesus Christ is not simply something we believe intellectually. It is something we must give our whole selves to. We must entrust our lives to Jesus, put our lives in his hands. We must immerse ourselves in the truth, bathe in it, walk in it, live in it.
I think every parent, especially every Christian parent, can relate to this statement. What greater joy is there than to hear that your children are walking in the truth?
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
When our children are young, and we are working hard to train them in a Christian way of living, we hope that this Proverb will prove true. And yet, we all know of Christian parents whose children have wandered from the truth.
As many of you know, my father was like that for a time. He was raised by Christian parents. In fact, both of his parents were involved in ministry. They taught at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and were founders of the Los Angeles Hebrew Mission. They hoped their son would follow their footsteps into the ministry. But then my father was caught stealing the class funds when he was a student at BIOLA. And things went from bad to worse. He was just 19 years old when he was arrested and convicted for armed robbery.
I am sure that when my father got out of jail the first time his parents hoped he would return to a straight and narrow path. But he didn’t. He entered the army and was later court-martialed for misappropriation of government property. In short, he was caught stealing once again.
He served two more years, this time in a federal penitentiary. Upon his leaving prison, I am sure his parents hoped, once again, that my father would return to a walk with Christ. But he didn’t.
Through a series of circumstances, he found himself once again on the wrong side of the law, this time working for notorious gangster Mickey Cohen.
But through all those years, my grandparents continued to pray for my father. They prayed that he would return to following Jesus. And eventually, he did, one night in a tent at the corner of Washington and Hill in downtown Los Angeles, my father heard Billy Graham preach the Gospel. Dad knelt in the tent that night and prayed, “God, if you’ll mean business with me, I’ll mean business with you.”
How thrilled my grandparents must have been to finally hear and see that their son was walking in the truth. There is no greater joy for a parent than that.
Now, we must ask, what evidence was there that Gaius was walking in the truth?
James says that faith without works is dead. Indeed, true faith in Jesus Christ will always show itself in action. When my father truly came back to faith in Jesus Christ, he set about making everything right in his life, not only with God, but with other people. He repaid everyone he had stolen from, going all the way back to his time at BIOLA. When he was finished with his plan of restitution, he and my mother did not have anything left. They sold their car and their house in order to make complete restitution. But God, from that point on, provided for all of my parents’ needs, all the way throughout their lives. There was evidence that my father and my mother were walking in the truth.
What was the evidence that Gaius was walking in the truth?
John tells us that Gaius was faithful in what he was doing for the brothers and sisters even though they were strangers to him. What is John talking about?
Well, in those days, when Christian missionaries travelled from place to place, they needed places to stay, just as missionaries do to this day. But in the first century, inns were notorious as unsafe places. So, when a Christian missionary would travel from his or her hometown to another place, they were dependent on other Christians opening their homes in hospitality. In fact, Christianity never would have grown to become the worldwide faith that it is today without Christians opening their homes to missionaries, and Christians opening their homes for worship, because of course, the early church did not even have church buildings as we do today. They had to worship in homes.
So, apparently, Gaius had opened his home for various missionaries to stay with him while they were carrying out their ministry. That is one way that Gaius’ faith, his walking in the truth, was demonstrated in action.
I wonder, how might we demonstrate our faith in action, even this week? How might we show to a watching world that we are walking in the truth?
It is hard in the time of Covid-19 to be opening our homes for ministry. I am sure we all look forward to the time when we can open our homes to one another again. But in the meantime, it seems to me very important to recognize that it is the open heart that leads to the open home.
Let me put it this way… There is a difference between entertaining and hospitality. Entertaining says, “Look at my fine home. Look at the delicious food I am able to prepare. Admire what I am able to do.” Hospitality says, “Look at you! You are in need. You are someone I want to befriend. You are someone I want to share my life and my home with. Come on over and let’s hang out. I may not have much food in my refrigerator. My house may not be as clean as I would like. But what I have I will share with you.”
So, the key to unlock Christian hospitality is having an open heart that cares for others. I wonder, in this time of Covid-19, how might we open our hearts to others? Is there someone in the church with whom we might connect by a Zoom call, or a phone call, or an encouraging note sent in the mail?
And how about intellectual hospitality?
“What is that?” you say.
I have a friend, Diana Glyer, who teaches English at Azusa Pacific University in California. She often talks about intellectual hospitality. By this she means opening our minds to new ideas, especially new ideas from people who think and believe differently than we do. We do not actually have to accept those new ideas or believe them. But if we have open minds, we will want to learn from others, regardless of their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, their political philosophy, their religion, or their ethnic origin. I wonder how we each might be using this time of isolation during Covid-19 to learn something new, or to connect with someone very different from ourselves.
For many years Becky worked for an organization called Future Generations. They did educational and conservation work around the world with people of many different races, religions and backgrounds. One time we had an Indian couple over for dinner and I told the gentleman I wanted to learn everything I could about Hinduism during our dinner together. I think he was shocked that a Christian minister was interested in learning about the religion in which he had been raised. Yet, we had a fascinating discussion together that night and I hope that by my openness I may even have helped him to see Christianity and Christians in a new light.
Gaius was a first century Christian who walked in the truth, and as such, he opened his heart, his mind, and his home to others. May we as twenty-first century Christians do the same.