August 10, 2008
The apostle John condemned the unacceptable behavior of a man named Diotrophes, who exemplified the idea that a bad attitude plus a bad ego, left unchecked, equals chaos. Alistair Begg explains that the problem was not necessarily one of belief but one of behavior—a lifestyle that reflected an absence of relationship with Christ and His commands. Although counter to the modern culture of self-promotion, the Bible asks us to consider ourselves with sober judgment, especially when in positions of leadership.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Father, we thank you for the hope that is ours in Christ. We thank you that through the encouragement and endurance of the Scriptures we might have hope. And as we turn now to the Bible, we remind ourselves that what you have to say to us is far more significant than anything that we have to say to you. And so we pray that you will come and speak to us. Some of us are on the fringes of faith. Some of us are actually opposed to what faith really means in Jesus. Others of us are faltering and wondering. But wherever we are, meet us, Lord, today, we pray. Beyond the voice of a mere man may we hear from you, the living God. For we pray in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
Please be seated, and I invite you to turn to 3 John. Verse 9 is where we start to read:
“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he[’s] doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
“Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has[n’t] seen God. Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.
“I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.
“Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by [their] name[s].”
I want to begin by reading again the brief paragraph from Gresham Machen as an encouragement to us in turning again to what is one of the most neglected parts of the New Testament—one of the shortest and most neglected. And this is what Machen, who died some time ago, had to say concerning this: “Despite its individual address and private character, the Third [Letter] of John is not an ordinary private letter. Like all the books of the New Testament, it has a message for the entire Church. The devout reader rises from the perusal of it with a more steadfast devotion to the truth and a warmer glow of Christian love.” I think that Gresham Machen is accurate, and therefore, we have every legitimate right to anticipate that in Christ, we will increase in our devotion to the truth, and we will glow in a warmer way with expressions of genuine Christian love.
This little study, Walking in the Truth, in 2 and 3 John is about the juxtaposition between truth and love. And we remind ourselves of the fact that when the Bible is addressing this issue of truth, it does so in the understanding that truth is revealed, ultimately, in Jesus; that it is objective, it is outside of us, something that we are responding to and encountering; that it is defined, that it is not woolly and vague; and that it is absolute. The truth that we are tackling: revealed, objective, defined, and absolute, and therefore vastly different from contemporary ideas of truth.
Just this morning, some of you, in the earlier hours, may have heard, as I did just as I was driving, part of a program that was about one of the folk revivals in the ’60s here in America. And the interviewer was addressing the work of Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger and others and at one point suggested that the religion of Pete Seeger was a religion that had to do with people coming together and singing songs. Seeger’s idea was that if we could sing together, then perhaps we could talk together; and then, in talking together, perhaps we could live together; and then, perhaps the whole world would join in song. “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” or, as Jackson put it—that is, Michael—“We are the world, we are the [people].” It all sounds fantastic. It’s horribly naive, but you understand the expectation that is represented in it.
And strikingly, Arlo Guthrie said, “The fantastic thing about it is this: that while we all gathered to sing the same songs as we stood next to one another, we all had different ideas about what the songs meant. And so we were able to sing the same words while meaning different things.” That was in the ’60s—a perfect forerunner to where we are now in the first decade of the twenty-first century, where not only outside of the framework of Christianity but within the form of Christianity, many are affirming that Arlo Guthrie theology, if you like.
Well, we need always to pour our ideas through the sieve of the Bible. And when we come to the Bible, we discover that that notion will not stick. The truth is not what we conceive it to be. The truth is what we have been given ultimately, finally, and savingly in Jesus. And so when John says, “I’m so happy when I hear that members of your congregation are walking in the truth,” he knows exactly what he means by that, and so do those of us who are studying the Bible.
Now, it is with that in mind that we keep coming back to these studies, and we come now to the juxtaposition between two particular characters: one by the name of Diotrephes and the other one by the name of Demetrius. The fulcrum of this final little section, I suggest to you, is verse 11, where John says, “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.” Elsewhere in the Bible, we have the statement “Bad company corrupts good [morals].” Every parent knows that. That’s why they try and guide their children—especially their adolescent children—into the right kind of company: because relationships are seldom neutral. They’re usually positive or negative—positive in the sense that there are people in whose company it is easy to go forward and be good, and there are other people in whose company it’s easy to be bad and to slip back. Here in this section of 3 John, we have an example of each.
And what makes it so incredibly significant in the life of the man that we now consider is not simply the fact that behavior has an effect on other people—so that the behavior of Diotrephes could run throughout this church community; therefore, it has to be addressed. But it is not simply that his behavior has an effect on other people, but it is that his behavior gives evidence of his spiritual condition, so that how he behaves either reinforces what he says he believes or calls in question what he says he believes. And if Christianity is to make progress in our generation, it has to keep before its gaze the fact that Christianity is about truth, and Christianity is about truth worked out in the integrity of loving relationships. So when we consider that in relationship to Diotrephes, then we realize what a challenge is represented. Role models are important. We all copy people to one degree or another. It is therefore vitally important that we choose good individuals to imitate.
Now, this may seem theoretical, but it isn’t. The emergence of characters like Diotrephes is not an unusual phenomenon in the history of the church, and he, sadly, is an illustration of the kind of individual that none of us want to become. The history of the church, both biblical and beyond the framework of the Bible, is a history that makes us aware of how easy it is for bad attitudes combined with big egos left unchecked to be a catalyst for chaos amongst God’s people. That is almost an equation, isn’t it? Not that I know very much about equations—a plus b equals whatever you thought it was last Tuesday. But bad attitude plus big ego, left unchecked, equals chaos. Any knowledge of a local church will confirm it, and any reading of the Bible will make it impossible for us to deny it.
And just when I was thinking to myself this week, “You know, here I have to do 3 John again. I know the people will be thinking, ‘Why are we doing 3 John? It’s so remote from everything we know,’” I spent time with somebody who doesn’t even come from this country. And in the course of our conversation, he told me of a circumstance that had emerged in his local church, a church of about two hundred people—a circumstance that ended up with he and his wife and his children being asked to leave the church and never come back. His crime? In trying to initiate a father-and-son sports ministry, he left out of his investigative planning stage one prominent gentleman in the church. The prominent gentleman in the church apparently did not like not being asked for his advice. That would have been fine if he simply wanted to go to the fellow and say, “Hey, why did you go on without me?” But it became much worse than that. And today, my friend and his wife and children find themselves scurrying around some other congregation, despite the fact that they’ve been there for virtually all of their Christian lives. And so I said to myself, “Well, maybe 3 John is actually a little more relevant than I myself had been thinking.”
There are two points, but they’ll become, now, two sermons. Point number one is the condemnation of Diotrephes; point number two is the commendation of Demetrius. Condemnation, commendation. Okay? But we’ll only get as far as the first.
This is not easy material. It’s a reminder to us, isn’t it, that the Scriptures are given to us; they’re “profitable for [exhortation], for reproof,” rebuke, “for correction, for [training] in righteousness.” And the only way you get to passages like this is if you work your way through passages. Otherwise, never in a million years will you find yourself sitting under the instruction of the condemnation of Diotrephes—unless, of course, you happen to be in a church where everything has gone completely skew-whiff, and the pastor has found this obscure passage and decided that this is the way to handle it.
Now, we’re not doing this… If you’re visiting this morning, just know that last week it was all really encouraging, about Gaius. Last week it was peculiarly encouraging, ’cause I wasn’t preaching. But the Sunday before that was the encouragement of Gaius. So it all balances out, and next time it will be the encouragement of Demetrius. But for now, this is pretty tough.
Now, you will notice that the actions of this individual as they’re described for us here are a stark contrast to the generosity of spirit that marked Gaius. Gaius is the recipient of the letter. And in verse 5 and 6, we discover the practical expressions of Christian love represented in Gaius’s life. Now we discover that John had written to the church, but Diotrephes—we’re in verse 9—had decided that he didn’t want to hear from the apostle John anything that he’d written to the church, any of the instruction that he had sent. And because he was disinterested in it, he sought to intercept it and, in turn, have nothing to do with it.
It’s very, very important for us to notice at the outset that the problem that is posed by this individual is not, ostensibly, a theological problem. It is not a problem of error as it relates to the belief system of Diotrephes. At least, it is not presented to us in that way. There may be those underlying problems, but they’re not addressed by John. The problem is not a problem of belief; it is a problem of behavior—behavior which admittedly calls in question the belief. But John is simply challenging the bad attitude and bad conduct of this person. The problem, then, is not theological; it is moral. Diotrephes has failed miserably when it comes to bowing beneath the mandate of the Bible—classically, in Romans chapter 12, where Paul says, “Let no one among you think of himself more highly than he ought, but each of you should think with sober judgment, according to the grace that God has given you.”
It’s a very countercultural notion after twenty-five years of egotism in the Western world—twenty-five years of the little emperors of our children having positions of prominence and so on, twenty-five years of just ego, ego, ego. You then bring that influence that is represented in the culture and in the community, and you bring it into the framework of God’s people, you have a lot of significant ego to deal with. Because everything in the culture says, “You should think of yourself as highly as you possibly can. And when you write your resume, you should make yourself sound as good as you possibly can. And when you tell people about your children, you should make them sound as if they’re all going to be, you know, national merit scholars and great physicists in the best of our Ivy League universities—even if they’re not. And you should tell them that they probably have the strongest left arm, and that they will be the next great baseball pitcher, and that only Phelps could possibly be better than them at swimming,” and so on. And then you read your Bible, and it says, “You know, it’d be a really good idea if you didn’t think of yourself more highly than you ought, but with sober judgment.”
You hear people describing how far they can hit a golf ball—telling their wives. At best, it’s exaggeration. At worst, it’s lunacy—that they’ve actually become disengaged from their minds. ’Cause I’ve seen me hit, and so have my friends.
Diotrephes got this wrong. He refused to view himself in the light of God. And John isn’t rebuking him—and I say it to you again, purposefully—he’s not rebuking him because his belief is warped but because his behavior is wrong. In other words, when he would come home of an evening, he would gladly have just said to his wife, “Put on Frank Sinatra again. I love that song.” And he would just sit out and look out on his garden and sing to himself, “I did it my way.” And that was the problem: he did it his way. And so John writes, “I wrote something earlier along this line to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves being in charge, denigrates my counsel.”
Now, just in case we get it wrong or we fail to see what he was doing, look at what we’re told. There are six things that characterize him. Relax; we’re not going to work our way through them one at a time. But let’s just notice them. Verse 9: he “loves to be first,” he “will have nothing to do with us,” he “gossip[s] maliciously,” he “refuses to welcome the brothers,” he “stops those who want to,” and then he “puts them out of the church.” What a nice guy!
And so, look at what John says: “So if I come”—verse 10—“I will call attention to what he is doing.” I don’t think we need to see this as a threat. I think we need to see this simply as a statement of fact. John is not writing in this way because his nose has been put out of joint. John is not writing in this way because this is a personal matter between himself and Diotrephes. Were it to have been a personal matter between the two of them, John would not have written a public letter, a letter that was going to become public knowledge, to Gaius, for that would be to have violated the very principle of interpersonal relationships as given to us in the Bible—a principle that is so easily overturned to the disruption of many a local church. So, instead of the individual who is offended going to the offender, the individual who is offended immediately decides to bring a third party into the equation, and the third party then brings another person into the equation, and before we know, there’s a kind of exponential growth that is both-sided, and you have more than a storm in a teacup.
No, John is actually dealing with something that is a matter of public concern, and it is Diotrephes who has made it a public concern. It is a pastoral matter. It is being addressed by the one who has pastoral care and control. And that takes great courage. It takes great skill, as some of us have discovered along the way.
Now, we said that there are six aspects to what Diotrephes is doing. Let me try and summarize them under three.
What is he doing? Well, first of all, he’s talking trash. He’s talking trash.
Now, I learned that when I was watching basketball—that phrase, that is, not how to do it, but… I already knew how to do it; I just didn’t know what it was called. But I heard that. Well, they said after the interview, “Yeah, he was talking trash all the time.” And I said, “Whoo! ‘Talking trash.’” Okay. Right. Good. So… So, then I read this; I said, “Diotrephes is talking trash.” That’s what he’s doing. It fits perfectly. His words aren’t only wicked; they’re senseless. They are malicious in their intent, and they’re bogus in their content. Do you get that? The intention is malicious; the content is untrue. It’s a bad combination: malicious intention, untrue content. It’s trash.
Leadership always brings challenges. There are always those who are unwilling to follow. Diotrephes, whoever he was, was not the bishop. There’s no indication that he was actually in an official position within this congregation. He may have been, but it would seem likely that John would have addressed that. Therefore, we must only assume that he was an aggressive member of the congregation who, by dint of the force of his personality, was able to sweep others before him. He was able to establish an opinion, gather people around him, and then turn it into a movement.
Now, I think it’s also important, when we say all of that, to recognize that anyone who exercises leadership runs foul of the possibility of being charged with all of the above, whether it is a legitimate or an illegitimate charge. Those of you who know that, whatever you are—if you’re a schoolteacher or whatever it is: “Well, why are we doing it this way? Why are we doing it that way?” If you’re in business or you’re in medicine or whatever you do—you’re the leader in the building or construction world—there’s always some bright spark there who thinks that if he was in your position, you know, he knows exactly how it should be done, and frankly, he’s resentful of your leadership.
And so, for example, Nehemiah: when Nehemiah went up and did in Jerusalem what no one else had been able to do, some of his friends who were his opponents sent him a letter. It was an unsealed letter—very clever, because an unsealed letter could be read by all the people who were bringing it along the road, so he could get the word out as widely as possible. And the accusation was that the only reason Nehemiah was doing what he was doing was because he was actually planning on making himself the king of Judah, and he was about to go around Judah and say, “Nehemiah is the king of Judah.”
What was he actually doing? He was obedient to God. He was leading the people. He didn’t take any nonsense out of them. He told them to get off their duffs, because they hadn’t been doing anything for, like, a hundred years, and he assigned their responsibilities, and he led. And as a result of leading, he was on the receiving end of all kinds of mitigating circumstance and accusations. That’s part of leadership. And he sent them this reply: “Nothing like what you [say] is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” That’s a clear conscience.
Well then, why doesn’t Diotrephes send such a letter back? Because what is happening is happening, and Diotrephes knows it’s happening, and so does the church community. His malicious words, his behavior, is such that he is unprepared even to give a space to those who are coming with the good news around the congregation.
Now, don’t let’s misunderstand this. Don’t think for a moment that I’m trying to set this up as an aggressive member of the congregation because it isn’t possible to be an aggressive leader of the congregation with an official position. Of course, it perfectly is. That’s what makes it so challenging. That’s why plurality is so vital in leadership. That’s why no one individual can be ultimately in control of what happens amongst God’s people. That’s why it has to be team; that’s why it has to be shared. And many a pastor is unprepared to share, unprepared to allow anyone else into their pulpit, unprepared to let his junior colleagues do certain things. Why? Often, I think, because many pastors—many of us as pastors—are some of the most insecure people you ever met in your entire life. And therefore, they’re afraid ever to step away, ever to go out, ever to be gone, because “Who knows what’ll happen if I’m not there to control everything?”
So I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is a lay problem per se and that it couldn’t ever bleed into the church. The Lord knows that there are a lot of popes around—a lot of popes—and not just in Rome. They’re poping up everywhere, all over the place—pope here, pope there, pope everything. And we all have the potential. The pope Alistair is an ugly, ugly creature. No, don’t think for a moment that I read 3 John and consider it as a wonderful book for everybody else I’ve ever met in my life. It first of all drives a stake into my heart.
Talking trash. Secondly, blocking the brethren. Blocking the brethren.
It’s a kind of—I got a basketball thing going now. No, no, that’s football! It’s more like football, isn’t it? Blocking. Basketball is “picking”—“upset a pick,” whatever that is. I don’t know what that is. But I think it’s similar to a block. Is it? Oh, you don’t even know yourselves. I can tell. Someone’s like, “Yeah…” Yeah.
If Gaius and Diotrephes were in the same congregation, as presumably they were, and if Gaius was so kind to these people who were coming around and letting them stay in his house, if he was as generous as is described here in the first eight verses, then it is no surprise that Diotrephes would absolutely have found it infuriating to have him do what he had done. But after all, in 2 John 10, hadn’t John given the instruction to the congregation that “if anyone comes to you … do[n’t] take him into your house or welcome him”? Isn’t that what he said? “If any[body] comes to you … do[n’t] take him into your house or welcome him.” Yes, he did say that. But what’s the missing phrase? “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not … welcome him.” The problem there, or the issue there, was an issue of protection. The issue in 3 John is an issue of pride. Diotrephes is not applying the tenth verse of the second letter; he’s making his own application out of his own stubborn will. And so he blocks them.
And thirdly, he casts out the caring.
Look at the third sentence, or the final sentence, of verse 10: “He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” You see, this guy, this is a bad character. This is not just somebody who, within the framework of the local church, goes home and badmouths the leadership to his wife, who sours the minds of his children against legitimate leadership as a result of his own irresponsible, disgruntled spirit. This isn’t just an individual who does that. This Diotrephes character takes it way beyond his kitchen table, takes it out into the community, invades, interferes in the lives of those who are seeking to express the genuine hospitality and kindness that is represented in the activities of Gaius, and he says to him, “I don’t want you giving a place in your home to these people who are coming in here bringing this teaching. This is our church. I don’t want you listening to John. I know he’s an apostle, but I don’t think it’s time for us to listen to him anymore. We are now in our own place, this is our own time, and frankly, I just want you to stop that.” And being unable to stop it, he then says, “Since I’ve been unable to prevent you from doing it, then I suggest that you just go and find yourself another congregation.” Who do you think you are, Diotrephes? Who do you think you are?
It’s a reminder, isn’t it, that we ought not just to be too quick to say, “Oh, I wish I lived in the first century, when it was all so wonderful. If only we could go back to the early church, you know, to where… The early church, that was—oh, it was great then!” Oh, it was great. Sure it was! The first flush of enthusiasm and excitement, the outpouring of the Spirit of God, the evangelism that was taking place, the establishing of God’s people. And within a relatively short period of time, Paul has to write letters to the Corinthians to tell people to cut out their incest, to stop clowning around before they come to the Communion table, and so on. It was absolute, manifold chaos, because “the heart [of man] is … desperately wicked”—first century or twenty-first century. If man was progressing the way liberal philosophy suggests, by this point in history, we really ought to have it down, don’t you think? Both without the church and within the church. We’d be able to say, “You know, two thousand years ago, they used to have this Diotrephes thing—you know, egomaniacs that had big mouths trying to control everything. Ah, we’re glad that that’s all in the past. I don’t know why we’re even reading 3 John. It just doesn’t relate at all to all that stuff—all that bad stuff they used to have.” No, it’s timeless, isn’t it?
You see, it isn’t uncommon. It isn’t a pretty picture. And what an individual like Diotrephes has forgotten is the fact that God has exalted above all things his name and his word and that he will not share his glory with anybody else—that we need to take the topsail down, as it were, in order to go in the entryway into heaven. If you think in terms of sailing into heaven—like one of those bridges over A1A, or between A1A and the Intracoastal, down in the peninsula of Florida, and that experience of having to wait there while the drawbridge comes up so that the large sails and masts may be able to go through—there will be no drawbridge coming up at the entryway to heaven to let our large heads go through. No, we must first drop the topsail. Down with the topsail. Down with the topsail. Then we go through. Diotrephes, he had his topsail way up.
Well, we’re done, aren’t we? But listen to John Stott’s summary of his actions: “Diotrephes slandered John, cold-shouldered the missionaries … excommunicated the loyal believers … because he loved himself and [he] wanted to have the pre-eminence.” You will find, if you’ve encountered this, that the Diotrephes factor usually is able to flourish only where the congregation is very small. Once it gets beyond a certain level, even the dilution factor will take care of it in part. But in small congregations, large egos plus bad attitudes, left unchecked, almost inevitably reap havoc.
And the final observation is this: when such an attitude emerges in a local church and the response of the leadership of the church is diffident (d-i-f-f-i-d-e-n-t), is less than forceful, is less than it ought to be—when such an attitudes emerges and the local church leadership is diffident —when reproof and rebuke is called for, it isn’t Christian to refrain. It’s cowardice. It’s cowardice. And many a congregation has been absolutely stymied not because the individuals there do not recognize the absolute wrongness of the circumstances represented in the syndrome but because the leaders themselves are either in cahoots with the individual or married into the family of the individual or are tied up with the individual in some way that they’ve lost any position of being able to be objective and to do what needs to be done. And failure to act when action is called for is not an expression of Christian love. It’s an expression of cowardice.
You see, in all leadership, we need strength and gentleness. There has to be leading, and there has to be loving. And I said some time ago, when I had the privilege of being with the men in our church—they were asking me questions about life “back then.” “Back then”! I wasn’t born before the Second World War, but anyway, “back then.” One of the observations that I made—and I didn’t do it in any self-promotional way—but I said, “Along the road, grace teaches you in leadership that your aggressive desire as a young man to drive your congregation has to be set aside. You have to learn to lead them. Driving people comes by dint of our personality, comes by dint of our influence or whatever else it is. Leading people comes by way of our character, comes by way of grace.”
Now, it would be so much better if we could go on to Demetrius and not have to finish on this solemn note. But on this solemn note we finish.
Let us pray:
O God our Father, look upon us in your mercy, we pray. Forgive us the spirit of Diotrephes, which we so readily find engendered within us when things don’t go the way we desire. Help us, Lord, to be more like Demetrius, whom we’ll next find, and less like Diotrephes. Help us to be more like Jesus. And thank you that the route is paved with grace, that the springboard for every kind word rather than unkind word, every encouragement rather than discouragement, is all flavored in grace. And so we pray that your grace may fill our hearts, fuel our thinking, frame our relationships with one another, and follow us into the days of this coming week.
And now may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one who believes, now and forevermore. Amen.
 See Romans 15:4.
 J. Gresham Machen, The Literature and History of New Testament Times (1915), chap. 36.
 Roger Cook and Roger Greenway, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” (1971).
 Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, “We Are the World” (1985).
 3 John 3 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 15:33 (NIV 1984).
 2 Timothy 3:16 (KJV).
 Romans 12:3 (paraphrased).
 Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969).
 See Matthew 18:15–17.
 See Nehemiah 6:5–7.
 Nehemiah 6:8 (NIV 1984).
 Jeremiah 17:9 (KJV).
 See Psalm 138:2.
 John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, rev. ed., The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 231.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.