Sunday, July 29, 2012

Working Together for the Truth-- or Not?

 Texts:    Acts 4:1-31; 3 John 5-10
    HAVE YOU EVER DAYDREAMED ABOUT the glories of the ancient church?  Oh, if we could've lived back then, when everyone faithfully drank up the apostles' teaching and the Spirit had His way in every heart and all believers worked together in love and unity to spread the gospel of Christ!

    But you and I all know that's nonsense.  Only people who haven't actually read the New Testament can get all dreamy and romantic about the early church.  They had troubles and conflicts just like we do.  Which works out well for us.  Really.  Because if they'd had no problems, we wouldn't have the Apostles' words written down for us to help us work out our difficulties. Because like our 1st century brethren, we too are called to keep on working together for the truth.

    As we continue our study of the Third Letter from John, today we'll be looking at verses 5-10. As we noted last week, this is a personal pastoral letter to a Christian named Gaius.  So John the writer, elder, and apostle, doesn't go into a lot of detail.  I'll try to flesh out the situation from what I've gleaned from the commentaries, and if the Holy Spirit commends my explanation to your mind and soul, good.  Take the best and leave what isn't accurate or helpful behind.  But this letter is in the Bible for God's good reasons, and when it comes to what is plain and open in the text, let's accept it gratefully so we may work together for the truth, as Christ's own church.

    In verse 5 John writes to Gaius, "Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you."  Who are these brothers?  We see from later in the passage that they were sent from John.  As I mentioned last week, John acted as a kind of presbytery executive, or, as Pittsburgh Presbytery is arranged, he was like the Pastor to Presbytery.  These days, it's only in times of trouble or transition that a congregation has much to do with representatives coming from presbytery.  But in Gaius' day the New Testament was not yet concluded.  The apostles-- who were eyewitnesses of Jesus and His works-- were still speaking to the church in the authority of Christ, and still teaching men (and yes, possibly, women) to carry on after them.   The brothers John sent would be his personal students in Ephesus, where he lived before he was arrested and exiled to Patmos.  They'd go out to the local churches as missionaries and evangelists, to build up the believers in the faith and help them settle disputes in the peace of Christ.  These brothers from John were not personally known to Gaius; they were strangers to him, as John says.  But Gaius was faithful in serving them, because they came with the Apostle's authority.

    What might Gaius have done for the brothers?  First and foremost, he probably provided them room in his home, or made sure someone else in the church took them in.  He made sure they were fed, that their worn-out sandals were mended or replaced.  He might arrange a time and place for them to speak to the members of the church-- not necessarily an easy matter, as we'll see pretty soon.  Whatever he did, we know he did it lovingly and graciously, because as we see in verse 6,  the missionary brothers had come back from previous trips and told the church in Ephesus all about his love.  Now John writes that Gaius will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.  This tells us that a fresh team of missionaries is presently staying with Gaius, and brought this very letter to him.  When they finished their work in Gaius' town, with his help they'd go on to the next town or village on their itinerary, to preach the Word and strengthen the church.

    As Christians we should always do what we do for the church and its ministers in a manner worthy of God.  Remember that our God and Savior Jesus bought the church with His own precious blood, she is His, and when we serve the church, we serve Christ.  And keep in mind always the service God deserves in Himself.  His name is to be honored and feared, and, as John writes in verse 7, it is for the sake of the Name that these evangelist brothers went out.

    In our reading from Acts 4 we see how weighty it is to invoke the name of God in Christ, in the church and in the world.  Peter and John healed a crippled beggar and consequently preached  Jesus as the only Christ and Saviour.  For this the Jewish authorities threw them into prison and are now trying them before the Council.

    Peter and John aren't daunted.  They declare that it is by the name of Jesus that the man was healed.  Friends, the name of Jesus has power.  Peter maintains that there is no other name under heaven besides that of Jesus by which anyone can be saved.  The name of Jesus brings salvation.  The Council consult together and decide to order the apostles never again to speak to anyone in this name.   But Peter and John assert that to preach the name of Jesus is to declare the truth of what they had seen and heard of Christ and to obey what God has commanded them to do.  To speak in the name of Jesus is to declare what He has done.

    The Sanhedrin don't know what to do, and release the apostles.  When Peter and John return to the church, do they say, "Oh, guys, please tone it down about Jesus, you're going to get us all into trouble!"  No!  They recognise that the persecution the apostles have faced is just one more example of the unbelieving world's resistance to God and His Messiah, Jesus Christ.  And they pray that the Lord God will "Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."

    The name of Jesus carries His power and authority in this world, whether the world likes it or not.  For the brothers to go out from John for the sake of the Name is for them to speak the healing and salvation of Christ. It's to command obedience to His Word.  So it's only right for the church in each town to house and feed and worthily send on evangelists and missionaries who come in Jesus' name.

     There was a time during our Lord's ministry, before He died and rose again, when it was appropriate for His disciples to find lodging for Him with friendly folk who didn't yet understand who He was.  But now wherever Christ's church has been planted, it's not up to the pagans to support our travelling preachers and teachers; in fact, they might well refuse to do so.  No, it's the church's privilege and duty to receive and entertain those who come to us in the name of the Lord, whether they drive over from Pittsburgh or arrive from the other side of the world.  As John writes in verse 8, "We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so we may work together for the truth."

    Think of that!  You don't have to be a missionary or evangelist to work together for the truth that is Jesus Christ.  Simply opening your home or helping at a church supper in support of a preacher or teacher is pleasing and profitable in God's sight!

    But even in the early church, not all hearts were willing to be hospitable.  John says, "I wrote to the church, but-- "

    Wait a minute.  In verse 6 John said the brothers had told the church about Gaius' love, but here he talks about writing to the church.  Which church, where?  From the context, the verse 6 church is the congregation in Ephesus, and here in verse 9, it's the congregation in Gaius's town.  But I think it's on purpose that John doesn't make the distinction.  For the Apostle, the church is everywhere that Christ is faithfully preached and believed, all one body united in His love. There are local manifestations of the body, but one church, one apostolate, one saving Word; one Spirit and one Christ, to the glory of God the Father.

    But too often there are brothers and sisters in the local church who want to make it their private kingdom.  Men like Diotrephes, who loved to be first.  We've all known some Diotrepheses, and Diotrephas, too, in our time.  Judging from the power he wielded, Diotrephes was one of the pastoral team or a ruling elder, but a Diotrephes doesn't have to be ordained.  He-- or she-- is distinguished by his attitude.  Your typical Diotrephes would never say, "Yes, I want to cause disruption and disunity in the church and destroy the faith of many, because it feeds my ego."  No.  He'd plead, "I'm only doing it for the sake of the church!  I work so hard around here, if I stepped back nothing would get done!"

    John says Diotrephes will have nothing to do with him and his apostolic circle.  Diotrephes would answer, "Apostles?  We don't need no stinkin' apostles!  We know everything about Jesus Christ right here, we're doing just fine!"  Jesus sent out His apostles in His authority to be heeded and obeyed, but Diotrephes refuses.  He doesn't merely ignore John and his emissaries, he says nasty things about him, not openly in the church as official charges, but as gossip behind the scenes.

    Friends, it's shocking the malicious stories people will spread about pastors and church leaders.  I'm sorry to say I had a Diotrephes once who falsely accused me of everything short of murder and child sexual abuse.  We can conclude that for John it's bad enough for himself to be slandered at a distance, but Diotrephes willfully extends that evil personally to the brothers John sends.  He refused to welcome them-- by which we know he prevented them from speaking to the church in the Lord's Day services--and he wouldn't even permit other church members to extend hospitality to them.  Members who did, he put out of the church.

    Which brings us back to Gaius.  It really appears that he himself has been excommunicated for welcoming the brothers from John.  Notice that John doesn't make a victim out of him.  There's no "Poor you, that mean Diotrephes has treated you so badly."  No.  He commends and supports Gaius as he does the right and godly thing for the brothers, as they and the other wrongly excommunicated members work together for the truth, despite the in-house persecution.  But because of Diotrephes' attitude, this indictment of his behaviour can't come to the church, it has to be addressed to faithful Gaius. 

    For surely Gaius knows from experience what this bull elder-- as my EP calls them-- has done!  John doesn't need to tell him!

    Yes.  Surely Gaius knows.  But unlike a lot of modern church authorities, John will not leave Diotrephes in the dark as to the charges to be levelled when the Apostle arrives to exercise church discipline.  No fake niceness.  None of this vague "Well, you're not a good fit for this church" or "oh, the dynamics here are just bad."  No, Diotrephes will know exactly what he has to answer for.  And if he will wake up out of his self-deluded blindness and humble himself to hear, he'll know what he needs to repent of.  For even Christians like Diotrephes are called to work together for the truth, who is Jesus Christ our Lord and the church's only Head.

    One thing more, then I'll close.  Don't be too quick to assume someone in the church is a Diotrephes.  Sometimes people genuinely believe what they're doing is for the best.  You do the church no good by gossiping about them or keeping your mouth shut as you drop your membership. If someone in the church is pursuing a policy that's unhelpful or even harmful, go to him openly and honorably and let him know.  Most of the time you'll come to a deeper understanding of one another and be able to work together better than ever.

    In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes that we are all

    . . . fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 

    To work together for the truth is to support and uphold and proclaim the message that John and the rest of the apostles preached, that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father, for there is no other Name under heaven by which every human being must or can be saved.  As we come to one another with this message, as we work to promote this true word, let us humble ourselves to serve and support one another.  May we welcome and be gracious to our brothers and sisters in the faith, whether they're sitting in the pew next to us or come from afar.  This is how we demonstrate the love of Christ that overcomes the world.  This is how we work together for the truth.

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