For Teaching, Reproof, Correction, and Training in Righteousness, Issue 108

April 18, 2017 by Presbyterian Foundation

by Joe Small

The first letter of John is a well-loved New Testament book. Whether read devotionally, analyzed in a Bible study, or proclaimed from the pulpit, 1 John builds faith and faithfulness. It sets out the shape of Christian life in a bold, down-to-earth, hope-filled way that remains forever fresh.

We sometimes glance at John’s second letter, but letter three is almost always ignored. It appears to be even thinner devotionally than 2 John, an unworthy subject for Bible study, and an arid desert for preachers. Marianne Meye Thompson’s commentary on the Johannine epistles devotes only 7 of 164 pages to 3 John. However, 3 John is Scripture after all, and we are told that all Scripture is inspired by God and useful to us. Snubbing 3 John may say more about us than it does about the letter. Several features of 3 John merit our attention.

First, it is a personal letter. It is written to a beloved person, Gaius, delivered by a trustworthy person, Demetrius, criticizing a false and loveless person, Diotrephes. It also rejoices in friends who have brought word of Gaius’ fidelity to the gospel. John both assumes and encourages relationships that are caring and joyful. Congregations are not simply an amalgam of categories. The church is not defined by gender, racial, and generational cohorts. Personal relationships within congregations are seldom easy, however; they require constant attention.

Second, while caring and joyful, the relationships are shaped by fidelity to the truth of the gospel and by specific acts of love. Truth is what we “walk in,” not simply propositions we believe. The truth of the gospel can be expressed in propositions, but it must be lived in order to be true to the gospel. The welcome of travelling strangers is John’s specific instance of welcoming others as Christ has welcomed us.

Finally, the church should not put up with persons in its midst who “put themselves first,” who refuse to acknowledge ecclesial authority, and who do not love specifically and actively. Tolerance is not limitless, and it is loveless to wink at theological and moral error.

John’s third letter may be ignored because it is brief and mundane. It should be heeded because it is personal and mundane.

Ezekiel was surrounded by the ‘likeness’ of the glory of the LORD, and he heard ‘someone’ speaking: “eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 1:28, 3:1). Each week, pastors continue to eat what is offered to them, and continue to speak to the community of faith. From time to time, the Presbyterian Foundation offers brief studies of Scripture like this one that may be useful to pastors in teaching and preaching God’s word.