Obviously, there’s Elephant in this message: if I’m talking about giving to teachers and preachers, that could include me. I don’t think that’s why I’m teaching about this. I think the reason I’m teaching this is because it is the central concern of our text today. But, perhaps I’m not able to really be objective. So, read third John. Read the other verses I share. Evaluate and check what I say. Pray about it. Don’t take only my word for it. You might still receive a blessing from God’s Word through this message.
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Download Overlooked Letters Part 5
Overlooked Letters #5: Third John
Let’s turn now to Third John. In Third John, John still has the same main concerns as in his second letter: love and truth. In this case, it is love and truth applied to a very specific circumstance: the hosting and helping of Christian ministers.
John writes to a specific person, Gaius. There are three different men of that name in the New Testament. Since it was the most common name in the ancient Roman world, it may not be any of those, but rather a fourth. I don’t think it makes a big difference to us today which particular “Gaius” this is.
John begins by saying, “Dear Friend, I pray that you may prosper in every way and be in good health physically.” I feel the need to forestall any possible use of these verses by teachers of “prosperity.” The wish of good health and “prosperity” was an extremely common formula in personal letters in ancient times. In fact, it was so common, that in Latin, the phrase “good health and prosperity” was often compressed into an acronym, so that it if it was in English, it would look like “GH&P.” We don’t say that in our letters these days, but a rough sort of equivalent would be XOXO, or RSVP, or, “Yours sincerely.” It is certainly not any sort of grounds to support the teaching of the prosperity gospel; it’s just an ordinary way to begin a letter.
John commends Gaius for his faithfulness “in whatever you do for the brothers, especially when they are strangers.” Unfortunately the Greek does not give us any clues as what, specifically, Gaius was doing, and who these “brothers” (who are also strangers) are.
Reading between the lines, and knowing something of the early church, I think the situation was as follows: During the first few centuries of Christianity, some Christians were called by God, and sent out by their churches, to travel around, teaching and preaching about Jesus Christ. In essence, these were missionaries. We have already seen that John warns in 2 John not to support or welcome such people unless they are in the truth; that is, unless they are true Christians, and teach accordingly (2 John 10). But here, he commends Gaius for welcoming those who are true Christian workers, and he rebukes someone named Diotrephes for not doing so.
It is clear that these are not just Christians, traveling from place to place on private business. John says they should be helped “since they set out for the sake of the Name.” So these are Christian ministers, who have forsaken any other means of supporting themselves, and devoted themselves to teaching about Jesus full-time.
Still reading between the lines, apparently, the normal practice was for such teachers to find other believers in a city (if there were any) and stay with them while they ministered. The local believers usually provided them with food, housing and other necessaries. Then, as the missionaries traveled on, the churches in that city would often give them material resources to support them during the next phase of their journey.
The Bible doesn’t record every single detail of such things, but we get some good glimpses of this sort of practice in action in the life of Paul. Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). I think it is probable that the church gave them enough food, supplies and money for a fair amount of traveling.
Later, on a different journey, we find Paul, Timothy and Silas traveling from place to place. In Thessalonica, they had to split up, and Paul went on alone (Act 17:14-15). Eventually Paul ended up in Corinth, where he worked as a tentmaker to support himself. Part of the reason he did this, was apparently to spend more time with two new converts, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:1-3). However, when Silas and Timothy finally rejoined him, Paul stopped working to support himself, and “devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:5). The implication is that Silas and Timothy had brought gifts from other churches to support Paul, so he didn’t have to work as a tentmaker anymore. We know that Philippian church supported Paul on several occasions (Philippians 4:10-17).
Many people do not understand this, and they misread 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul says he gave up his right ask for support as a teacher of the gospel. Paul voluntarily chose not to ask for support from the Corinthian church; but even while he was at Corinth, he was teaching full time (Acts 18:5, above), which means that someone else, (probably one or two other churches from other cities) was supporting him. The only record of his earning a living as a tentmaker is in Acts 18:1-3, and that was, quite clearly, a temporary situation. In fact, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9, tells the Corinthians quite clearly that teachers of God’s Word should be fully supported by churches:
8Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 9For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?
Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 13Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1Cor 9:8-14, ESV2011, I added the italic format, for emphasis)
That’s pretty darn clear. Paul reminds the Corinthians that he did not ask this from them (though, obviously, he was supported by others, besides the Corinthians) but the whole point of his argument is that he does have the right to be supported by them, since he taught them the gospel.
This should be clear enough, but just in case, there are several other places where the New Testament teaches that it is the responsibility churches to support teachers of God’s word:
17The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18For the Scripture says: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain, and, the worker is worthy of his wages. (1Tim 5:17-18, HCSB)
6The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. 7Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, 8because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. (Gal 6:6-8, HCSB)
There are a few more, but you get the picture. So, when we come to 3 John, we see that John is talking about a normal practice in the church. He is praising Gaius for leading his church in giving to missionaries, and he condemns Diotrephes for not supporting teachers of the Word, and for trying to prevent others from doing so.
Now, let’s admit that there is an elephant in the room. I am a teacher of the Bible, and so this concerns me directly. I could be using these verses in a self-serving way, to get you to send me money. I don’t think I’m doing that. In the first place, I haven’t really asked most of you readers for money. Sometimes I remind you to pray for me, and to pray about whether or not you should give to this ministry. But I don’t know for sure that God wants you to give to me particularly. If you gain spiritual benefit from God’s Word through my teaching, I do have the right, as Paul says, to ask for support from you. But let me be clear: like Paul, I am not insisting on that right. That’s not where I’m going with this message. If God does lead you to give to this ministry, by all means, apply what I’m about to say, and then go ahead. But He certainly may be calling you to support some other minister of the gospel. Again, read on, before giving to anyone, and then do as God leads.
I believe that I’m teaching about this subject because this is what is in our text for today, and Christians need to hear it, whether or not anyone happens to support me. However, I’m sure, like anybody, that I have a hard time being completely objective when something so closely concerns my livelihood.
In recognition of that, let me start by encouraging you: search the Bible yourself about this matter. Look at the verses I’ve shared above, and at the letter of Third John: how do you understand those? Decide for yourself what they mean. Check me, check my interpretations.
Second, before you give money to my ministry, or to the ministry of anyone else, consider how to give responsibly. I think two things are helpful in order to do that:
- Make sure that whoever you give to is walking in truth. 2 John makes a big deal of truth, and tells believers not to support or welcome those who run beyond God’s word, or distort it. So, don’t give to anyone unless you can be reasonably sure that they are walking in truth. The first two sermons in this series might help you with that.
I think it is also worthwhile, if it is possible, to check someone’s lifestyle. Are they really living as Christians?
Check their credentials. Are there groups of Christians elsewhere who would vouch for the minister, or affirm that the individual does indeed have a call to teach and preach? One indication of that is to see if the minister is ordained or certified by a denomination, church or reputable Christian organization. All these things are part of being in truth. This is what John is doing with his friend Gaius: in verse 12, he affirms that Demetrius, one of the Christian ministers that Gaius could help, “has a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself, and we also testify for him.”
- Please pray before you give to anyone’s ministry. Ask God to stop you, if you are not supposed to give. Ask Him how much and how often you should give. Also, please pray for the ministries you give to. Your money could be very helpful to many different ministries. But your prayers are even more helpful. For my own ministry, I would love it if you would both give and pray, but if you are going to pick only one of the two, I would rather you pray for me. So, you can give to this ministry if you like, if you pray about it first, and if you are sure I’m walking in truth. The details are on the Clear Bible website. On the other hand, I have no condemnation for you if you don’t give. I just want you to hear what the Bible says about this, in general.
OK, with that, now may I share some additional thoughts for application?
First, I think we should understand that a normal part of the Christian life should involve giving to support the ministry of those who teach God’s word. John says that to do so is to show faithfulness (verse 5) and love (verse 6).
Second, giving materially is a way to participate in the ministry of others. John says:
“Therefore we should support such men so that we can be coworkers with the truth” (3 John 8).
In some spiritual way, giving with a pure and prayerful heart allows us to be part of what God is doing in the ministry of others. Paul seems to affirm this in Philippians 4:10-17. That’s one reason it’s so important to check out if someone is walking in truth (as above) before you give, because by giving, you are participating in what they are doing. You want to make sure that you are comfortable “participating” in a particular ministry. Perhaps you aren’t called to be a missionary, or Bible teacher. You can still be part of such ministries through giving.
While Paul was writing about this to the Philippians, he said this:
15And you Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving except you alone. 16For even in Thessalonica you sent gifts for my need several times. 17Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that is increasing to your account. 18But I have received everything in full, and I have an abundance. I am fully supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you provided — a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Phil 4:15-20, HCSB)
So, their giving is a “profit that is increasing to your account,” and is a participation in Paul’s ministry. Verse 19, is so important because it suggests that when we give to others, we can trust God to supply our own needs through His grace. In other words, though we don’t give in order to be blessed, there is a blessing that we can receive when we give.
I pray that you too, can discover that blessing.