Last week John praised Gaius for his hospitality. He made sure some traveling evangelists had what they needed to further the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Because of his hospitality and what he did for them, Gaius shared in their work. He may not have gone with them, but his care for their needs was instrumental in their work. This morning, instead of more praise, John offers a scathing indictment on the behavior of someone in the church.
In 3 John 9-10, Johns says, “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.”
What’s in a name? Normally if you’re mentioned by name in Scripture, that’s a pretty cool thing. Diotrephes is an exception. This is the only place in the entire Bible where this name occurs. What can we conclude about that? Is that so unusual? If the situation concerning Diotrephes was not occurring, it is unlikely this letter would have been written. This letter gives us some insight in how to handle a difficult situation. When you think of John, you can’t help but think of love and truth. But this is the same John with his brother James that Jesus gave the nickname Sons of Thunder. There was a reason for that so let’s see why.
According to v. 9, John had written a letter to the church. What letter and what was in it we don’t know. It couldn’t be John’s second letter because we’ve looked at that. The major theme of that letter was to instruct the church to walk in truth and don’t take part in providing for false teachers. As we saw in vs. 5-8, Gaius was commended for hosting some evangelist/missionaries in his home. Now we come to Diotrephes and find a stark contrast in his behavior compared to Gaius. Somewhere between John’s pen and paper and the church, the letter was intercepted, or perhaps was read and then Diotrephes led the church to ignore what was said or reject it completely. We’re not sure, but John’s third letter is in response to Diotrephes’ actions.
There is little information about Diotrephes, so what do we know? The name Diotrephes was not a common one. His name means cherished by Zeus. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but Zeus was the head pagan god, a god of mythology. Diotrephes was in some position of leadership in the same city or area where Gaius was. Whether he was a pastor, or deacon, or elder we don’t know, but given how John describes him, we must assume that he wielded some power. So what does John say? The disciple whom Jesus loved described Diotrephes as someone, “Who loves to be first.” John is not talking about someone who wants to be first in line. He’s not talking about someone who likes to sit in the front. He’s not talking about Diotrephes’ competitive nature. John is not talking about how Diotrephes loves to be the best at what he does. This is not a good description. This is a condemning description of someone who has the appearance of being a Christian, professes to be a Christian, but is most assuredly a fraud.
Diotrephes, “loves to be first among them.” Another translations phrases it as, “likes to put himself first.” John was the last living Apostle and there was a shifting in the church as it grew. Authority and responsibility was shifting to local leadership. It was Paul that left Titus in Crete to appoint elders in every city. Was this a power struggle between him and John? Was Diotrephes a local bishop or pastor trying to gain independence for his congregation? We simply do not know enough about this situation. What we do know is that Diotrephes’ attitude was not consistent with what is expected of people in his position whatever that may have been.
Diotrephes, “loves to be first among them.”“Loves to be first” is an interesting phrase that occurs in the N.T. only here. It means he loves to have preeminence. Col. 1:17-18 tells us that, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” Diotrephes placed himself even before the Lord. He wants to be first; he wants to be in charge; he wants to make the decisions, and he is not looking for input. Perhaps he wanted the church to be autonomous, to get out from under the authority of John the elder and Apostle, but this autonomy wouldn’t be for the church’s good. It would serve only to glorify Diotrephes. We can only surmise what exactly was going on in the church. But this is for sure: all the wrong motives for leadership are wrapped up in this man named Diotrephes. So what’s the big deal? There have been power struggles in the church before, we see this in today’s church too. Is this just a case of exercising one’s will? Here’s the kicker. John tells Gaius that Diotrephes, “Does not accept what we say.” That’s a big problem. John wrote a letter that was either discarded or ignored. There is nothing in Scripture that we can choose to ignore. Given the context of 3 John, it seems likely the lost letter contained something about hospitality. John commended Gaius for his hospitality to the brethren, especially when they were strangers. There are no doctrinal issues that John addresses in this letter, so it is unlikely the controversy is due to some doctrinal differences. This is definitely a spiritual issue between John and Diotrephes.
How does Diotrephes attack? John says, “For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does.” The “if” here is not a word of condition. In this case it means when. John is not going to let these actions go unresolved. He’s not going to ignore it, the love Apostle is going to handle it when he gets there. Some will say we just need to get along. What about grace? You don’t want to be judgmental. What John says next gives us an indication of the seriousness of the matter. John tells Gaius that Diotrephes is, “Unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.”
John mentions four things that Diotrephes does. First, he unjustly accuses John and his colleagues with wicked words. What Diotrephes does has become a classic attack, perhaps even the standard for attacking. Diotrephes attacked their character, not their doctrine. He didn’t attack their doctrine because there was not Scriptural basis for it. He tried to discredit John. Diotrephes attacked without substance – exactly what this type of person does. Unjustly accuse means to talk nonsense. Other translations say, gossip maliciously, spread false charges, and my favorite, talking wicked nonsense. Over the years, I have been on the receiving end of this diotrephic [my new word] type of accusation. I have been accused of: cussing a blue streak, having no right to go on a mission trip because I wasn’t telling anyone here about Jesus, saying things I did not say, speaking things which are true, but with the wrong tone of voice, not praying for someone when I should, stealing, sinning by teaching a Bible study, and last, but not lease, using the wrong Bible!
Oddly enough, no one has ever accused me of teaching a different way to heaven besides Christ. No one has ever accused me believing the Bible wasn’t true. No one has ever accused me of not preaching about heaven, hell, money, or any other type of controversial topic. That’s what a Diotrephes type of person does – talk nonsense. He doesn’t receive the brethren. Diotrephes wants to sever all ties from the very people that John sends out – people with sound biblical doctrine. People that John endorses. It doesn’t matter what they say, Diotrephes separates himself from the truth. He forbids people who want to exercise hospitality from doing so. It’s just another way he exerts his power. He tells people what they can and cannot do. He puts them out of the church. Diotrephes didn’t want any outsiders coming to his church and finding out what was going on. He tried to ruin the reputation of anybody who might question his authority and his way of running the church. He liked things the way they were and he will do whatever it takes to prevent change. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Who would want to be part of this church anyway?” It must be extremely oppressive to be part of this fellowship. Back in the first century, there was not a church on every corner.
It’s not about doctrine or about who is right or wrong – it’s about control. It’s about winning. Anybody that disagrees with you, toss them out of the church. John 9 relates the account of a blind man that Jesus healed. There was much disagreement among the Pharisees. They didn’t believe the miracle that had occurred instead insisting that the man was not blind. The blind man was consistent in his story (because it was the truth) so what did the Pharisees do? Jo. 9:34 says, “They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you teaching us?” So they put him out.” The phrase “put him out” is the same as is used in 3 John. It carries the idea of using physical force. This is what Diotrephes is doing and it is not good. I encourage you to read to accounts of what a servant leader really is. The first is in Matt. 20:25-28 and the second is found in Matt. 23:1-12.
John is going to deal with the issue. 1 Tim. 5:20, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.” Diotrephes behavior cannot and will not be ignored. John Stott wrote, “Self-love vitiates all relationships. Diotrephes slandered John, cold-shouldered the missionaries and excommunicated the loyal believers – all because he loved himself and wanted to have the preeminence. Personal vanity still lies at the root of most dissensions in every local church today” (Letters of John, 231).
These two verses highlight the main issue John is dealing with. It will not be swept under the rug, it will not be ignored. John will deal with it the way he knows best – in truth and in love.