July 20, 2008
The book of 3 John is constructed as a private letter to a dear friend, but the message of the content is as beneficial to the twenty-first-century reader as it was in its initial context. Alistair Begg asks us to consider the ideas of hospitality and prosperity as means and opportunities to express Christian love and fellowship. When we study God’s promises and walk in faith, our lives can be a testimony to the work Christ has done on our behalf.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Returning to 3 John. If you go to your Bible, or one of the church Bibles, and turn to the very end and then come back a couple of books: Revelation, Jude, and then you’re right there in 3 John. We’re going to read the first eight verses and then pray and then look at them together.
Three John 1:
“To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.
“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
“Dear friend, you[’re] faithful in what you[’re] doing for the brothers, even though they[’re] strangers to you. They[’ve] told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.”
And now, Father, we humbly pray that the Spirit of God will enable both our speaking and our hearing, our understanding and our obeying, so that our hearts may be open to receive your truth, our ears to listen to your voice, and our feet to be put firmly into the pathway of your appointing. We are entirely dependent upon you for all of this, and we pray humbly in your Son’s name. Amen.
Well, we’re in 3 John, having completed 2 John, the two shortest and arguably most neglected letters in the New Testament. In coming to them, you may find yourself, as I have done, saying, “Well, how do we identify the immediate points of application, given that we’re distanced by some two thousand years or so from the events that John is addressing in the historic context?” And as I was mulling that over, I was helped by a brief observation on the part of someone—Gresham Machen, who was a professor at Princeton many, many years ago, and then at Westminster Seminary. And in some brief comments on 3 John, he says this:
Despite its individual address and private character,  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.
So here, then, according to Machen, will be two identifiable features in the life of the individual who has given an honest perusal to the text and who has been impacted by the text. Someone seeing you during the week will say to you, “You know, you seem to be steadfastly devoted to the truth.” And you will then say, “That must be because we’ve been thinking about what it means to walk in the truth. We’ve been studying 2 and 3 John.” Or someone might say, “You know, you seem to have a glow about you. It is almost a glow of Christian love.” And you’ll say, “Well, perhaps Machen is right: that one of the evidences of the Word of God making an impact in the life of the student is that we will glow with Christian love.” It’s a great test, isn’t it? Truth and love. This past week I spent on jury duty—downtown Cleveland—and it was a great test of truth and love, and sometimes a little more of whether I really did love, not so much in terms of whether I was committed to the truth. But anyway, the obvious and immediate challenge and impact of it is absolutely unavoidable.
Now, you will notice here that in this third letter, it is addressed to an individual. The second letter is addressed to a company of people, to a church. The concern is the same: “walking in the truth,” truth and love, and as you would have noticed in the eighth verse, which was our final verse in reading, hospitality is once again a matter of concern. In other words, one of the ways in which these expressions of love and commitments to the truth is going to be worked out in this first-century context will be seen in the use of the homes of people, in the use of the resources of people. And in 2 John, there has been a warning issued to the readers about extending hospitality and therefore encouragement to those who are false teachers. “Don’t,” he says, “welcome these people into your home, because to do so would be to give at least tacit approval to their message, if not to actually encourage them in their deceitful endeavors”—therefore the warning in the second letter to the church and then the commendation now, in the third letter, to Gaius, this individual. He is commended for the hospitality that he is showing to those who are even strangers to him but nevertheless teaching the truth.
I think there’s a sense in which when you take both of the letters together, then you get a pretty balanced understanding of both the duties and limits of hospitality. Are we to show hospitality in an unlimited way to anyone for any length of time? Two John says, “No, you ought to be cautious in relationship to that.” Are we then to avoid the opportunity to share our resources even with those who are strangers to us? No. Three John says, “No, you ought to be alert for those kinds of opportunity.” And the accompanying material in the early centuries… Because when you think about the letters being written, these epistles that we have, there were all kinds of materials being written at the same time that were not part of the Bible but were compendiums of helpful material. For example, The Didache, which is a kind of first-century church manual: it makes quite a point concerning the expression of love as it relates to hospitality. And indeed, it contains the observation within it that a guest in one’s home is like a fish: after three days, he stinks. And so it is that you must beware, The Didache says, of extending hospitality beyond three days, because you will find if somebody wants to stay beyond three days, they are probably a false prophet. Because a true prophet would understand the importance of accepting hospitality but yet not trying to milk the cow, as it were.
And so what you really have in these little letters is something of a behind-the-scenes look at the functioning of a first-century congregation—not in terms of its structure, in the way that you have in the Pastoral Epistles, but more in terms of their relationships with one another. How do these things operate? How do they fit together? And indeed, it is therefore very helpful to us if there is to be within this church fellowship, Parkside Church—which is our first point of application—if there is to be that warm, Christian glow, if there is to be that devotion to the truth.
Now, I’ve gathered my thoughts under four words, which I’ll give to you in course. First word is prosperity, looking at verses 1 and 2. Prosperity, looking at verses 1 and 2.
Now, you will notice that he’s addressing Gaius. Gaius, apparently, was a very common name in the Roman Empire. It was the equivalent of Jimmy in Scotland, of John or of Fred or of Bill. There is nothing uncommon about Gaius’s name, but there is something that is distinctly uncommon about John’s affection for Gaius. And you will notice how he refers to him as “my dear friend Gaius.” In Greek, it’s actually just two words: it is “beloved Gaius.” “Beloved Gaius.”
There’s something, I think, that it is easy for us to miss when we are reading too quickly through the Bible. For example, we may miss this personal pronoun here, “my”: “To my dear friend Gaius.” “To Gaius”—okay. “To dear Gaius”—better. “To dear friend Gaius”—better still. “To my dear friend Gaius”—whoa! That’s pretty personal.
Do you ever write, “My dear Someone”? I hope you don’t do it unwittingly or flippantly, because the use of that personal pronoun is only distinctive when it is distinctively and purposefully employed. I remember, actually, the first time I ever received a letter, other than from my wife, that had the personal pronoun in it. And I could tell you who it came from without any embarrassment, and that is it came from Eric Alexander, who’s been here and preached for us at our pastors’ conference and on other occasions as well. He as a senior minister in the city of Glasgow and me as a young fledgling fellow out in the sticks, and I remember I received a letter from him, and the letter read, “My dear friend Alistair.” And I thought, “Whoa! I’m going to keep that one.” And I have. I could produce it for you, because it meant so much to me.
And what we’re discovering here in 2 John and 3 John—and I’m sure that this is part of God’s purpose in our delving into these little, neglected books—is that John’s affection for the congregation is more than matched by his affection for this individual. And indeed, there is a sense in which it is the affection for the individual which is simply multiplied which makes affection for a congregation. You know, the old adage, you know, “To love the world is no chore; my big problem is the guy next door.” In other words, it’s relatively easy to say, “Oh yeah, I love the whole of Parkside.” Yeah, but what about the people at Parkside that really tick you off? What about the people, you see them coming, you’re going, “Excuse me, got to go, got to get a drink of water”—all of that stuff? How do we deal there? “To my dear friend.”
And notice, the basis of the relationship is not some kind of sentimental surge but, again, as we saw in the second letter, is on account of the truth. Look at verse 1: “To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.” “In the truth.” Agapē in alētheia. It is “love in the truth.” The nature of their relationship is because of the truth that they have discovered in the Lord Jesus. In other words, it is because they have found out, by God’s amazing goodness, that Jesus is actually the person that he claimed to be, that he is none other than “the way and the truth and the life.” And they have been brought into Christ, and they’ve been brought into the realm of truth. And it is in that realm of truth that they find their companionship and their partnership with one another, bound together by a common adoption, bound together in a family that lasts forever, and bound together in a shared loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
It is very, very important that we recognize this, because there is so much nonsense spread abroad concerning what it really means to love somebody in the truth, and so easy for us to simply adapt—from a perspective that has, really, little to do with the Bible or an understanding of truth—a conception which we then seek to press upon ourselves, and often to great discouragement. Christian fellowship transcends, you see, all the usual barriers of race and gender and old school tie and finance and status and so on. These things are not inconsequential, nor are they to be ignored, but they’re not the issue. He doesn’t write to Gaius because Gaius is on the same level as himself in terms of intellectual capacity. He doesn’t say, “I’m so delighted to refer to you as ‘my dear friend,’ because, Gaius, you know, I love spending the week I always have with you in your lovely guest house.” That may have been the case. No, “You are my dear friend, Gaius, whom I love in the truth.” And this is the thing that gives us a relationship with one another: not that I like your face, not that I’ve grown accustomed to your smile, not that there are superficial stirrings in my heart that may accompany the normal expressions of affection, but that we have been brought into a relationship with one another.
And it is on account of that relationship that he is then able to go on and say—verse 2—“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.” Or, to quote the King James Version, the New King James: “Beloved”—which is “dear friend,” agapētos—“Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” “Prospers.”
Now, this, when I began to study it, set me down for a little while. Because as you know, we are at pains, I think on the strength of the biblical warrant, to rebut every notion of what we might refer to as a prosperity gospel—that which seeks to suggest to folks that the reason that Jesus exists, if you like, is in order that they might simply be having a wonderful time and be healthy, wealthy, and wise. No, we’ve read the Bible, and we realize that “How could you possibly get there from the instructions of Jesus?” “If anyone wants to be my disciple,” said Jesus, “let him take up his cross every day and follow me. Let him deny himself every day.” So it’s not a call to some discovery of prosperity as a result of becoming the follower of Jesus. And we’ve, I think, endeavored to distance ourself from that kind of nonsense.
However, we must be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And we must allow the Scriptures to say what the Scriptures say. And it is absolutely undeniable that John here is very concerned, very interested in, the prosperity of his dear friend Gaius. Now, it may well be that he’s recognizing that the more prosperity Gaius enjoys, the more benefit others accrue. And, of course, that makes sense! “If Gaius is a generous person with what he has, Lord, give him a little more! Because if you give him a little more, then that overflow will be out into those who are in need.”
Now, don’t get tangled up in this. This word is a word that is translated “succeed” in Romans 1:10, where Paul, using it in another way, says “I hope that, in the goodness of God, I may succeed in coming to you.” In other words, it is a success word. In 1 Corinthians 16, he uses it in terms of the giving of financial gifts, and he says, “I hope that you’re going to be able to give these gifts and that you will set them aside as God has prospered you.” Okay? “So, I am praying,” he says, “Gaius, that you may prosper—indeed, that physically and so on, you may be as prosperous as you are spiritually.”
“Well,” I said to myself, “I wonder: Can I think of hymns along these lines?” And then I said, “Yes, I think I can immediately: ‘Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.’” You remember how that goes. And then the verse… No, it’s not “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”; it’s “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” And you have that line in there, don’t you? “Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper your work and defend you”—that God is a God who prospers the hands of some, who brings poverty into the experience of others, but who is sovereign in his dealings in relationship to the bits and pieces of our well-being in life.
John recognizes this. And it is clear that he knows none of the ambivalence which so readily, if we’re honest, characterizes relationships within the body of Christ. What I mean by that is this: Many of us, I have little doubt, will be very, very contented and happy to pray that all may be well with the souls of our brothers and sisters. “May it all go well with your soul, my brother or my sister!” But we may not be just as happy to pray, “May it all go phenomenally well with your business, dear brother. May it all go exceptionally well with your children, my sister. May you enjoy the prosperity of God crowning all of your endeavors, my dear friend.” In fact, we may even have decided that it is legitimate for us to categorize our prayers in such a way that somehow or another, to pray for that which is spiritual in terms of the benefit of our brother or sister is more legitimate than in actually making requests of God for their prosperity on another level. When I examine my own heart in this, I am challenged by the fact that selfless love—selfless love—always desires the best for others. Selfless love always desires the best for others.
Barnes, the American commentator of an earlier era, speaking of this principle, says, “It would apply here to any plan or purpose entertained. It would include success in business, happiness in domestic relations, or prosperity in any of the engagements and transactions in which a Christian [may] lawfully engage.” But let’s be honest: envy is one of the acceptable sins of contemporary Christianity. Jealousy is winked at. News of a marriage that is crumbling receives more attention and more advance than news of a marriage that is prospering. Stories of the demise of a business register quicker through a congregation than a sense of approbation and affirmation and affection for those who are enjoying divine afflatus and a peculiar sense of encouragement. Why? Well, the answer is because we’re rotten sinners. If you’re seventh in line waiting for a bus, and there are fifteen people waiting for the bus, and the bus stops, and the driver says, “I can take the first eight,” and you get on, then you find out how much you care about the other seven. And if you’re honest, all you’re thinking about is that you got on.
When Titus writes of this, you remember he says, “At one time we lived in malice and in envy. But that was before the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,” he says. “We used to be those who hated that kind of success. We used to be those who were envious of those encouragements. We used to be those who were suspicious of marriages that did well. We used to be those who were resentful of the fact when other people’s children excelled in an area that ours didn’t. We used to be like that. But we’re not like that anymore,” he says.
The challenge of it is clear, at least to me: instead of viewing my brother’s success with suspicion, growing jealous of the good health of my sister, I can learn from John to pray that my friends and family may have success—and success and prosperity peri pantōn, “in all things.” Let God take care of the rest. He’s in charge. He’s the one who gives the ability to get wealth. He’s the one who wakes us up in the morning. He’s the one in charge of our DNA. He’s sovereign over all the affairs. Therefore, we can rejoice with those who rejoice and pray that it may go well in body and in mind and in marriage and in spirit if we really love one another “in the truth.”
In fact, you know, I can give it to you in just two words in Glaswegian. Glaswegian is what they speak in Glasgow. It approximates to the English language, but most of you who’ve been there and tried to get directions from somebody said, “I’m not sure they’re even speaking English in this particular city.” And that’s because when you ask a question, it comes out like “….” And the person says, “Okay, I will try somebody else.” But in Glasgow, you can hear a friend parting from his friend with two words in Glaswegian. The first word is spelled a-w-r-r-r-a, and the second word is best, b-e-s-t. The English translation is “all the best.” In Glasgow: “Awrrra best!” “Awrrra best!” You hear drunk men on Saturday nights saying goodbye to their friends: “Awrrra best! Awrrra best! Eh, go on now! Awrrra best!”
Well, that’s what John is actually saying: “All the best! I’m not going to be jealous of you. I’m going to be… I couldn’t be happier for you.” There is something about selfless love. Selfless love. But if we gauge every advancement in our brothers and sisters, in whatever realm of life—if we gauge it all against how it affects us and makes us feel, then we will be at pains ever to enter into this dimension that John displays.
Well, we spent a long time on that—probably too much. Let’s go to the second word in verses 3 and 4: from prosperity to testimony. Testimony. Verse 3: “It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness.” Or, in the New King James, “I rejoiced greatly when [brothers] came and testified [to] the truth that is in you.” In other words, they came and gave their testimony—hence the word. At least it’s helpful to me. I hope it is to you.
Now, the reason that John knows of this is because “some brothers…” That’s how they’re identified. Verse 3 doesn’t identify them by name. “I was greatly encouraged to have some brothers…” Maybe these folks are the ones who had gone with the letter that is referred to in verse 9, to which we’ll come later: “I wrote to the church.” And they may well have been the carriers of that letter, in turn rejected, as we will see, by Diotrephes, welcomed by Gaius, and as a result then bringing John a report that filled him with joy. “This good news is great, isn’t it? It gave me great joy to have some brothers come. I was so glad when they came.”
It’s nice, as well, how he refers to them, isn’t it? He doesn’t say, “And I was glad that some folks showed up,” or “I was glad that some people came by.” No, he says, “I was so glad when the brothers came.” When I studied between ’72 and ’75 in London, a significant cluster of my colleagues were Anglicans from Nigeria—wonderful, big, handsome Black men. And I’ve told you this before—some of you, at least—but you could be walking along a corridor in college by yourself and, all of a sudden, feel a hand come and take your hand as you were walking. And as you looked up, you realized that it was attached to a large arm, which was attached to a large body, which had at the top of it the lovely face of one of your Nigerian brothers. And they always used to say the same thing—said, “Lovely brother. Lovely brother. You’re my lovely brother.” And you were glad that you weren’t walking out in the street at that time, even in the early ’70s, but the fact of the matter was it was for them an expression of affection.
It’s possible for us to bandy words around and for them to lose their meaning, isn’t it? We can overuse a word, and it becomes virtually irrelevant. But a sort of custodial use of “brother” and “sister” is important, especially as it relates to what it means to be adopted into God’s family. We’re not just a cluster of individuals that got thrown together in Parkside Church. If God has come and opened our eyes to see our need of Jesus, if we’ve come to trust in Jesus, if the Spirit of God has made us a new creation and he’s come and lived in our lives, we’ve been adopted into a family that lasts forever. And when we look around on one another, we look around on, literally, our brothers and our sisters—indeed, at a level that is, for eternity’s sake, even more significant than the natural, physical affection that we enjoy with those who are our brothers and sisters, siblings, within the physical family and frame.
This is not insignificant. In fact, it struck me quite forcibly some weeks ago now, when I had occasion to talk with somebody by phone at the end of the day. We had been talking with one another about concerns—mutual concerns in our lives and concerns for the well-being of those that we have responsibility for in family and so on. And as our conversation ended, I happened just to say, I think, something along the lines of “Well, I’ll continue to pray for you, brother.” And the person said to me on the other end of the phone, he said, “Just before you go,” he said, “you know, I haven’t spoken to you on the phone for quite some time, but the last time we spoke on the phone, I remember you referred to me as brother then. And it meant a great deal to me then, and it means a great deal to me now.” I just said, “Hey!” But then, when I walked away from my car, I said, “You know, that’s right. That’s absolutely right.”
That, incidentally, I think, is the significance, the genius, of last Sunday evening here at Parkside. For those of you who missed it, you missed an event—entirely unplanned, completely against the run of play. But when Oraletta Hawley stood up here and took us into her head and her heart in her battle with cancer (Oraletta Williams, that is—née Hawley; Hawley prior to Williams), she spoke to us as our sister. And when David Pugh, speaking concerning his circumstances in life and the benefits and so on, he spoke to us as our brother. And when little Johnie Cooke spoke concerning her responsibilities in the Cleveland Public School system and so on, she spoke as our sister. And I witnessed something then. It was a catalytic effect. And if you were here, you know it was. And I’ll tell you what happened to you: you said to yourself, “You know what? We are brothers and sisters.” Good, bad, and ugly, we’re brothers and sisters. We’re in this for the long haul. None of us is perfect. None of us is able to do all that we long to do under Christ, but nevertheless, we’re in it together. Outside of Jesus, there can be no testimony to this effect. There is nothing in the whole world that does this—no commitment to a zealous Islam, no commitment to the zen of Buddhism and the self-focused internalization of dreams and schemes. None of these things achieve what is achieved by Almighty God when he comes and adopts people into his family.
Are you a member of God’s family today? Have you noticed that he came and tapped you on the shoulder through a book you read, or a friend’s invitation, or a sermon that you heard, or a song that you listened to, and you realized, “I know that there is a God, somehow or another—a Maker,” but you never called him Father? In fact, you may never have called him Father. And he comes seeking us out.
That’s the testimony. That’s the testimony. It’s no surprise that it is a basis for unsurpassed joy, is it? “It gave me great joy”—verse 3—“to have some brothers come and give me this testimony, testifying to the fact that you were walking in the truth—not simply learning things but actually living what you learned.” Because it is the pastor’s supreme concern to help his flock know the truth and then live in the truth that they know.
That’s why it matters far more to me and my colleagues that you become students of this book, that you learn the Bible, that you understand what it means when we talk about being adopted into God’s family, that you are understanding what it means in the singing of our songs that on the cross, Christ bore all of God’s righteous indignation and wrath against our sins so that we, who are deserving of punishment, may become the recipients of his mercy. It matters far more to me that you know what that means than that you think that the sermons are good or exciting or whatever adjective you may want to choose. Because at the end of the day, my great concern is that you would know this truth, that you would be able to testify to it, and that together we would walk in it.
Now, our time is gone. Our third word is generosity, but to that we will come next time. We’ll pick it up there, right around verse 5 and 6.
Well, let’s just pray and ask for God to write this in our hearts:
Father, we thank you that the Bible is food for our souls; it’s a map for our journey; it’s a light on our pathway; that we’re not dependent upon the imaginations of any man to stir us up; that we want to be students of your Word, we want to bow beneath its dictates, we want to luxuriate in its promises, we want to heed its warnings, we want to come to a knowledge of who we are and of who you are, the living God, so that we might see ourselves as those who’ve been made in your image—an image that has been spoiled by our sin and our rebellion, an image that is remade as we are placed in Christ, and an image that is burnished to final and ultimate perfection when, on that day that we see you, we will be made like you.
In the meantime, Lord, we pray that these studies will work their way into our hearts and minds so that the prosperity that we pray for others may be an occasion of happiness and contentment rather than of aggravation and jealousy. And we pray, too, that we will be able to testify to the wonder of those who have encouraged us, our brothers and sisters, to walk in the truth and to display the love of Jesus in simple, practical, necessary ways.
For one another we bless you. And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each of us now, today and forevermore. Amen.
 J. Gresham Machen, The Literature and History of New Testament Times (1915), chap. 36.
 2 John 10–11 (paraphrased).
 Didache 11–12.
 John 14:6 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23 (paraphrased).
 Romans 1:10 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 16:2 (paraphrased).
 Joachim Neander, trans. Catherine Winkworth, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (1680, 1863).
 Albert Barnes, Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the General Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1848), 421–22.
 Titus 3:3–4 (paraphrased).
 See Psalm 119:105.
 See 1 John 3:2.
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.