“I can love God and not go to church!” This is a statement I hear quite often. There are people who claim to love God and who claim to belong to God, but do not serve others, specifically in a local church context. We say often that we love God and love people, but we can be more concerned with getting what we want or doing what we want to do no matter how anyone else is affected.
There seem to be preachers and teachers who teach the love of God, but then refuse to serve: only being concerned with their own authority. There are people who are so attached to what they think church should be that they fail to think about what is best for the church and for the community. There are people who say that God is love, yet condemn the very people that Christ died to save.
As we continue to look at what the Christian faith actually is, and as we finish our current study of John’s letters, I want to ask if we are actually living according to the love that Christ has given us. What does it actually mean for us to live in love and to put a genuine Christian faith into practice?
3 John (HCSB)
To my dear friend Gaius: I love you in the truth.
Dear friend, I pray that you may prosper in every way and be in good health physically just as you are spiritually. For I was very glad when some brothers came and testified to your faithfulness to the truth — how you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
Dear friend, you are showing faithfulness by whatever you do for the brothers, especially when they are strangers. They have testified to your love in front of the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God, since they set out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from pagans. Therefore, we ought to support such men so that we can be coworkers with the truth.
I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have first place among them, does not receive us. This is why, if I come, I will remind him of the works he is doing, slandering us with malicious words. And he is not satisfied with that! He not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but he even stops those who want to do so and expels them from the church.
Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. And we also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true.
I have many things to write you, but I don’t want to write to you with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.
Peace be with you. The friends send you greetings. Greet the friends by name.
Christian love leads to service
This letter from John is much more personal than the others. He wrote to a friend and a fellow believer named Gaius to commend him for walking in love and truth. In this letter, just like in his other two, truth and love seem to be the central themes of a genuine Christian faith.
So, John commends Gaius because brothers in the faith told John about how he walked in the truth. Here is the very first thing that we can discover together: Truth is not only about knowledge. A genuine Christian faith, or a Biblical worldview, is about us first seeking truth and then living in that truth (or according to that truth). So, I have to ask: Do we live according to what God has revealed to us, or does our knowledge of God stay only in our minds?
For instance, we know that God is love. If we still try to find reasons to complain against our neighbors, look down on other generations, condemn those who believe differently than we do, or even fail to forgive; then we are not living according to the truth that God has allowed us to grasp. However, if we try to be more understanding of our neighbors, look for the good in other generations (young and old), reach out to those who believe differently than we do, and resolve to always forgive; then we do live according to this truth (that God is love).
Gaius was a man who walked in the truth. People testified, or spoke up, about the love that he had. Gaius showed the love that he had in what he did for others, even those who were strangers to him or people he did not know personally. If the love we have for others does not present itself in our actions, then we do not love others. If our love for one another does not present itself in our actions, then we do not love one another.
When the love that Gaius had manifested in his action, it propelled him to serve others by doing things for other people. Because Gaius had genuine love for others, he served them. This means that in our lives, if we are not serving one another, then we are not acting in love toward one another. If we are not actively serving God, then we are not acting in love toward God. This is true for every generation and every person, and it applies across generations. We show love to those younger than us well when we actually serve them. We show love to those older than we are by actually serving them. If we do not serve, we do not live according to the love that God has given us. If we are not serving our community, then we are not acting in love toward our community. When love works out in our actions, it causes us to put ourselves aside and to consider what is best for others. In our action, we strive to serve others.
When we make rules and policies, we do so to raise one another up. When we teach, it is for the benefit of those listening. When we visit, it is not so we can look good. When we serve, we don’t expect anything back. This is the example we must follow if we want to live according to the love that God has given to us.
Christian love leads to partnership, not to competition
After commending Gaius, John brings up another figure in the church: Diotrephes. For our purposes, I will refer to Diotrephes as Phez because Phez is easier to pronounce and simpler to write and comprehend. Phez acted contrary to the way that Gaius acted. He claimed to have Christ and to love God. He loved his prominent place in the church. In fact, he loved to be first among other believers. He loved to be first so much, that he would not receive other believers, especially strangers. When someone else in the church wanted to receive them, Phez would expel them from the church. He slandered others who wanted a voice (specifically John) and tried to paint a negative picture of them before the church. After this, he asks Gaius not to imitate what is evil. Instead, John asks Gaius to imitate what is good. The one who does good is of God and the one who does evil is not of God.
John is already drawing a dichotomy (that is a division or contrast of two things) between the way that Gaius works out the faith and the way that Phez uses the faith to accomplish his own ends. Then, he draws the same dichotomy between good and evil. In this text, good is love leading to service. Evil is anything else, particularly the selfish lifestyle that Phez portrays. There is no in between. We are to imitate what is good, and anything else is evil.
The specific examples of what is evil in this text include:
- Loving to be first.
- If we are on equal ground in Christ, then one of us is not more important or more entitled than the other.
- If love works out in such a way that we are serving one another, how can we ever consider ourselves to be in a greater, or more important place than someone else?
- Not listening to the advice and teaching of others.
- If I fail to learn from and take the advice of others, particularly those in my church family, then I show that I do not have genuine love.
- The same is true for all of us.
- Accusing with wicked words.
- There is a time and a place to address issues and to address sin.
- In this text, John says that he will have to talk with Phez when he visits.
- To raise public accusations and try to destroy someone’s reputation without addressing issues and sin properly is evil according to John.
- In genuine love, there is no place for gossip, malicious words, hateful speech or accusations with wicked words.
- Not receiving others, especially other believers.
- This means that if anyone is a believer and is called to a specific area of service or called to start a new ministry: we ought to do everything we can to make that possible.
- When there is a partnership that will advance God’s kingdom on this earth and in this community, we ought to do everything we can to make that possible.
- In this context, specifically, travelers included church-planters in need of hospitality.
- This can be a call for younger people to receive our elders and a call for elders to receive younger generations. We need the wisdom of the older generations and we need the energy and the strength of the younger. Any church that does not receive one generation or another does what is evil.
- Forbidding fellow believers to receive others, especially other believers.
- Excluding others from fellowship without a just reason.
- In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus gives us a proper method to practice church discipline.
- If we exclude others in an improper way, though, we practice what is evil and we do not see God, according to John.
Imitating what is good, in contrast to this, is actually having a servant’s heart toward everyone. If we do not have a servant’s heart, we actually imitate what is evil.
Christian love is complimentary
John finishes this letter by also commending Demetrius. The simple truth I take from this is that we ought to, as often as we can, look for what others are doing well and we should compliment them.
In every local body of believers, there are going to be things that can be improved. In other people’s lives, there are going to be areas where those people (indeed all of us) are imperfect. In homes there are going to be struggles. Employers are not always going to treat their employees well or decide on the best course of action. We are called to look for the good as often as we can. Criticism should not be a way of life for us, and when we do offer criticism, it should be offered in wisdom and without wickedness or malice: for the purpose of building others up.
Truth and love is not just about what we know, think or feel. It is about letting this truth, God is love, work out in our actions and in our relationships with one another. This cannot be done if we are not involved serving with other believers. We cannot love God well if we are not serving others and serving in a local church. This is true for all ages, all ethnicities, men and women. We cannot love others well if we do not live life with a servant’s heart. When we have a servant’s heart, we imitate what is good and we show that we actually know God. This is the way a genuine and Biblical Christian faith works out as we live for Christ on this earth.