By David Timms
Of all the New Testament documents—27 total—John’s third letter is the shortest. Comprising 219 words in the original Greek, it fills just one page. It doesn’t mention Christ, faith, salvation, sin, or the second coming. It’s not a sermon, nor a doctrinal defense against heresy. It contains no intricate theology. Instead, it’s a short, focused letter with an uncomplicated purpose: ”Please show hospitality to the bearer of this letter.”
A Letter of Introduction
Demetrius, a respected brother in Christ (v. 12), needed hospitality. In a time when you could not make an advance hotel booking through Expedia, this document served as a letter of introduction. So the apostle John wrote to his dear friend Gaius to request assistance for the traveling Demetrius.
Evidently John had written earlier to someone else—Diotrephes (a person of considerable influence in the same church)—seeking hospitality. But Diotrephes said no. He would welcome neither John nor any of John’s friends. More than that, he spoke harshly about John (v. 10) and wouldn’t welcome any outsiders. Indeed, “he also stops those who want to [show hospitality] and puts them out of the church” (v. 10). Perhaps not the kind of church you’d want to visit if you were a stranger!
Gaius would be showing great courage if he welcomed Demetrius into his home. He, like others, could get put out of the church—excommunicated for opening his home.
We might summarize this short letter with three statements:
• “Gaius, thanks for your friendship and kindness in showing hospitality.”
• “Diotrephes has actively opposed us and will not welcome us.”
• “Demetrius is a good man, and deserves your courageous kindness.”
We don’t know the outcome of this letter. Did Gaius put up Demetrius for a night or two, and get booted out of the church by Diotrephes? Did John, who wanted to visit later, ever get there and have a showdown with Diotrephes, “who loves to be first”? That would have produced some serious fireworks.
But tucked into this shortest of letters are several key terms that frame both the friendship and the conflict. These terms deserve a moment of con-sideration because they still relate to us in an Expedia and Hotels.com world.
Boundaries for Friendship and Conflict
Most friendships depend on mutual interests, compatible personalities, and common life exper-iences. When we find people who meet these criteria, we hang out with them. Sometimes, we marry them!
On the other hand, conflict often arises because we have different preferences, selfish desires, or wounded egos. Someone says something hurtful and we distance ourselves. We want to defend ourselves. John reflects some of this, too. Diotrephes has been “spreading malicious nonsense” (v. 10) and John feels deeply aggrieved.
Three terms rise to the surface in this short letter, and they provide a meaningful context for both friendships and conflict. John speaks about goodness (v. 11), truth (vv. 1, 3, 4, 8, 12), and love (vv. 1, 6, 9).
Philosophers, dating all the way back to Plato in the 4th century BC, have discussed the good, the true, and the beautiful. These timeless qualities define God and (according to Plato) serve as worthy guides to a meaningful life. They also serve us far better in relationships than the fickle sentiments we usually embrace.
The term goodness (agathos) that John uses pops up all over the New Testament and, when applied to people, usually refers to what is “morally honorable.” Christians are to cleave to it (Romans 12:9) and follow after it (1 Thessalonians 5:15). Our commitment to moral honor lays the foundation for our relationships. And we ought not reserve it simply for our friends, customers, or clients but also for those who call themselves our enemies.
In Romans 12:19-21, Paul urges us to resist taking our own revenge. Instead, we should feed our enemy and care for him, “for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” And the evil others want to perpetrate will be defeated by our “good” (agathos).
It can be tough to hold to the high moral ground (the good) when the marriage fails and “Diotrephes” is spreading malicious nonsense. It can be challenging to embrace goodness when our neighbors pour out disrespect. It can stretch us to the limits of goodness when we believe the leaders in our church have lost their way. But friendship and conflict both call forth goodness from the people of God.
John also uses the word truth (aletheia). He delights to hear that Gaius (the good guy) “walks in the truth” (3 John 4) and is “at work for the truth” (v. 8).
As Jesus told his disciples, the truth really does set us free (John 8:32). Truth provides the foundation for trust. When we sacrifice the truth we undermine not just our credibility but our relationships. Without the cornerstone of truth, the building collapses and lies in ruins.
We might ask ourselves whether we walk in the truth and work for the truth. How much does the truth matter to us? How devoted are we to truthfulness?
As has often been said, “A half-truth is no truth at all.” Similarly, “A partial-lie is a full lie in its impact.” Yet, our culture barely blinks at deception and has turned misdirection into an art form. In the midst of this morass, the people of God must stand tall for truth; not as a set of propositions or principles, but as a foundation for friendship and reconciliation.
Gaius loved the church (3 John 6) while Diotrephes loved “to be first” (v. 9). We all love something. Is it ourselves, or others?
Tragically, for Diotrephes, the church was about him, not Jesus. We’ll forever know him for his selfish, self-centered, self-serving leadership. What will others say about us?
The quality of love—for friends and for enemies—often graced the lips of Jesus. “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). “Love one another” (John 15:12). To what extent have we grasped this and instilled it into our lives?
Application for Today
John didn’t set out to write a how-to manual for friendships and conflict. His letter had a simple purpose—to secure lodging for a friend who needed hospitality. But in the midst of this short, raw letter John leans on three words that stir us to live differently.
Is my life marked by goodness, truth, and love? Am I consistently pursuing what is morally honorable, what is honest and right, and what selflessly benefits others? When we pursue self-interest, we stray from the apostolic way. Goodness, truth, and love. Simple. Sublime.
David Timms teaches at William Jessup University, in Rocklin, California.
Coping With Conflict
Third John shows us the consequences of unresolved conflict. Here’s more of what Scripture says about how to mend relationships and why it’s important not to let hurts fester.
Ephesians 4:31, 32
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Colossians 3:12, 13
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Matthew 5:23, 24
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
James 1:19, 20
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”