This sermon is number 22 in a series of 23
1, 2 and 3 John - Part 22
"Diotrephes - The Man Who Hindered God's Work"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2006 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
We'll read through all of this epistle once more to get the flow of John's thought. So, 3 John verse 1: "The elder unto the wellbeloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth. Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well: Because that for his name's sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellowhelpers to the truth".
Now verses 9 to 11 are the verses that we'll be concentrating on this evening, so take special note of them: "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God. Demetrius hath good report of all men, and of the truth itself: yea, and we also bear record; and ye know that our record is true. I had many things to write, but I will not with ink and pen write unto thee: But I trust I shall shortly see thee, and we shall speak face to face. Peace be to thee. Our friends salute thee. Greet the friends by name".
Now if you were with us last Monday evening you'll remember that in verses 1 to 8 we concentrated on the first character that we encounter within this little epistle, that is Gaius - and we gave him the title 'The Man Who Helped God's Work'. We saw within him the characteristics of a man who is walking in truth. We've heard a lot in 1st and 2nd John about how the truth was not only incarnate in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ literally in an objective form, but the truth of the Gospel is to be incarnate within us in the subjective sense that we are to personify, to manifest, witness the truth of Jesus Christ in how we walk as He walked. John, and of course the Holy Spirit through John, gives us Gaius as such an example. Next week, in the will of the Lord, we'll be looking at Demetrius in the remainder of the verses, verses 12 through 14, and I've entitled him 'The Man Who Was Honoured In God's Work' - and he is set forth here by John as a commendable example to which all of us, any of us in Christendom, could follow.
But this evening we're going to look at the second character, that is Diotrephes, and I've entitled him: 'The Man Who Hindered God's Work'. Now though we will embark on somewhat of a negative critique of this man Diotrephes this evening, let me start off on a positive note - that is, that there's an element of comfort that we should know when we consider that the early church, way back in the days when John, the only surviving apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ, though he was in old age, was still alive, they struggled with many of the problem issues, and indeed many of the same type of problem people that we struggle with in the church today. Now, you might say: 'Well, that's some comfort!' - well, it is in a sense, because sometimes we have some kind of an idyllic view of the early Christian church, as if they had this Utopian existence without any sort of problems at all. But that was far from the case, as we see from many of the corrective epistles in the New Testament. But it gives us great insight into how we can face some of these problem issues and problem people within the church of Jesus Christ today. We get a real 'fly on the wall' experience of the early church, their problems and their people, from this third epistle.
Diotrephes and Gaius are poles apart as we shall see tonight. They are, if you like, at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum - yet it's interesting to note that they probably dwelt under the same church roof. We may go as far as to say that perhaps they were even on the same oversight. Let me just say before I go on any further that sometimes, when you do certain character studies and outline certain features in biblical characters, people can read between the lines in your preaching and think that you're singling out individuals within the church - your local church, your specific church. That's an occupational hazard for a preacher, and let me just say certainly: 'If the hat fits, wear it', that's what God's word is all about - but I always seek when I'm exegeting God's word not to try and be personal, but yet we have to apply God's word as it is found within the Scriptures. But please be assured that I'm not trying to single out any one or two individuals in particular, though you might feel God's hand pointing at you. Indeed Dr A. T. Robinson wrote an article for a Southern Baptist State magazine, and he described the conduct of Diotrephes within that article - but I think he omitted to mention the man's name, and 25 Baptist deacons from various Baptist churches wrote to the editor and cancelled their subscription, contending that he was writing about them!
Now maybe that's you tonight, I don't know, that's between you and the Lord - but follow with me, and let us see the characteristics of this man Diotrephes, the man who hindered the work of God. First of all what I want us to do is look at Diotrephes' attitude, and that's going to take up most of our evening. Then I want us to look secondly at John the apostle's approach, how he handled this man. Then thirdly, the admonition that he gives to all of us that we find in verse 11, the type of example that we ought to follow as individual believers.
So let us look first of all at Diotrephes' attitude. The first and obvious thing that we find about him is in verse 9: 'I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not'. The first thing we see about his attitude is that he loved preeminence, he loves to be first and foremost within the assembly. Now, you get no prizes for guessing that this sin is neither ancient nor modern, it is something that is perennial within the church of Jesus Christ. For some people who love to be first and foremost within the local assembly, the church can take on the appearance of a stage on which they can strut and gain the applause and the prestige from other believers. I would have to say that from the little experience that I have, sometimes the types of people that love preeminence - whilst Diotrephes might be an exception to this rule - sometimes they are people who cannot achieve this outside the church, or have not achieved elsewhere. Because of that they see the church, if you like, as an easy opening to gain power and recognition because you don't have to have a certain education, or a certain societal or social prestige. The fact of the matter is: many see their opportunity to gain a power base in the church because we are meant to be a people that look on folk by grace, and look for the gifts of the Spirit, rather than those qualifications that we find outside the church.
Now I'm not sure, I don't think at least that Diotrephes was such an individual - but we need to beware if we are such individuals. There are several suggestions that have been given by scholars to the type of person and character that Diotrephes was. George G. Finley in his commentary suggested that the name 'Diotrephes' means 'Zeus reared', that is to put it in another term 'the nursling of Zeus', that is the king of the gods. Now, he's suggesting that that name and its definition would suggest that Diotrephes belonged to the Greek aristocracy. Now whether that is the case or not, we cannot prove it of course: whatever Diotrephes was, he certainly acted in the church like an aristocrat, whether or not he was of aristocratic blood. It is noteworthy that we see this trait even in the church of Jesus Christ today. If he had certain status outside of the church, he perhaps felt that he should have the same status inside the church. There are those today that believe the same. Now they mightn't articulate it, but you see it often when a new elder or a new deacon is appointed - because you have a certain professional capacity in a secular sense, they believe that you should be promoted within the assembly.
Now that might just be a personal desire for greater acknowledgement, or it might take the form, we believe that this was such with Diotrephes, of a desire for a higher position. Let me say this categorically, whatever has or has not happened in your particular assembly: professional achievement outside the church should never ever be a reason for promotion in the assembly - and if we operate on that level, let it be categorically said upon the foundation of Scripture that we are operating in a carnal way. It proves our carnality if that is how we discern those who are gifted in leadership within the assembly.
Then there are others, some scholars, very well recognised ones, who consider that Diotrephes was the first monarchical Bishop of Asia. Now a monarchical Bishop is simply one man who was an elder who gained precedence over what was a formerly equal leadership, and he rises to the fore. Now whether or not that is so, surely it is true that Diotrephes may illustrate the trend towards this monarchical episcopate that we see coming to the fore in the second century of church history and is with us today in the Roman Catholic system and in the Anglican system. It may not be the actual case that that's what Diotrephes was doing, but certainly this truth can be applied to this episcopate that we have in certain churches today, and even applied to the 'one man ministry' that in many senses is unscriptural.
Now, where does that leave us this evening? We don't know the specific circumstances of Diotrephes. It may have been that, like the elder lady in 2 John, the church met in his house, and because of that fact he desired a little more influence in it after all while, and he didn't like the extended authority that the apostle John had - and he thought to himself: 'Well, we should become an independent body, and we should go our own way, and I'll lead the way in that'. Whatever the plausibility of those views, it must be said that Diotrephes' sin was not so much the office that he held or the office that he aspired to, but it was the attitude that he held in his heart. That's Diotrephes' sin: his self-appointed position was only a symptom of his underlying pride. He wished to be first, he wished to have the preeminence - and that sin, and it is sin, is the original sin, it is the greatest of all sins. I've told you many times before that quote from C. S. Lewis that: 'Pride is the sin that made the devil the devil'. It made him who he is today. He was unwilling to be what God had created him to be, and because of that he fell. He desired rather to be, as Isaiah 14:14 says, like the Most High God. Now when he came in the form of a serpent to Eve in the Garden of Eden, he brought the same temptation of pride to humankind, and he said in Genesis 3 verse 5: 'Ye shall be as gods', another translation is valid in saying that he said to Eve, 'Ye shall be as God'. She aspired in her proud heart to be like the Most High - the original sin in Lucifer's heart and in Eve and Adam's heart.
Now we say in converse to this that this desire that was in Diotrephes to have the preeminence, that we find in Lucifer, we find in Eve - it is the antithesis, the exact opposite of what we find in the nature of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 2:6-8 is a case in point: 'Who, being in the form of God', by very nature God, 'thought it not robbery', or something to be grasped at, 'to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross'. Satan's way is to exalt himself, and because he sought to be as the Most High, Isaiah 14 and 15 tells us that God said to him: 'Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit'. But God's way is in Christ, and because of Christ's humility, Christ's obedience, Christ's submission to the will of God, we read in Philippians 2:9: 'Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name'.
Diotrephes, perhaps unconsciously, was following a Satanic example - all Diotrephes do it. They may not be aware of it, but the fact of the matter is: as Christians, Christ's-ones, we should always follow His example - and His example is never to seek the preeminence. His example can be mirrored in John the Baptist: 'He must increase, and I must decrease'. We must be willing, and indeed operative to eclipse ourselves in the shadow of Christ. The question is: do we? Or do we love to have the preeminence? Of course, we all have an old nature that does love that. We need to admit it, if we're in denial then we probably have a greater problem. Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us that the kind of men that He sees fit to lead and oversee His church are not Diotrephes, they are men who know what it is to serve in the truest sense.
Now if you want to know what that is, turn with me to Matthew's gospel chapter 20 and beginning to read at verse 25. Now mark these words very carefully, especially if you are in leadership, verse 25 of Matthew 20: 'But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister', not to be served, but to serve, 'and to give his life a ransom for many'.
The path to greatness within the church is servitude. It's different than the secular realm, and if you bring the standards and the values of the world into the church you're going to fail as a man of God or as an assembly of God's people. Just to prove that this is not an isolated record within Matthew's gospel, Peter, an apostle himself, equal with John and Paul and all the rest, warned his fellow elders - if you turn with me to 1 Peter chapter 5. Please do note, just as an aside, that Peter wasn't speaking as a pope to his cardinals, he was speaking as one among equals - not just as an apostle, but as a fellow elder to those who he is addressing in chapter 5 verses 2 and 3. He says: 'Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock'.
Because we are so carnal at times and we have a fleshly, fallen, Adamic nature, it's so easy to equate power in the assembly with rulership - and there is a difference. Authority is not equal in the assembly to lording it over the brethren. The prime mark of leadership is not seeking to be preeminent, but seeking to be a servant - that is greatness in the kingdom of God. I heard a lovely story about D. L. Moody, that famed Bible teacher and Gospel evangelist. Late one night in the Moody Bible Institute after a convention, Moody was wandering around the halls to see that everything was in order. He turned a corner and came upon the guest room where some visiting preachers from England were sleeping, and he noted that outside their door they had left their pairs of shoes. Spotting some students who were walking by at the same time, he said: 'Do you know what these ministers are doing? They're just following the custom of their country, where they always put their shoes out to be cleaned at night' - maybe your wife does that, that's great for you! But nevertheless he asked the students if they would take a piece of chalk, and write the number of the minister's door on the sole of the shoe, and go and take them to their room and clean them. One of the young men stuck out his chest, and said: 'Mr Moody, I did not come to Bible School to clean people's shoes, I came to study the word of God for the ministry'. The others agreed with him and said the same. 'Very well' said D. L. Moody, 'You may go back to your rooms'. Then Moody himself collected all the shoes, took them to his room, polished them nicely, and put them back into place.
Are you too big for service? If any of us are too big for that type of service, we're too big for God. Diotrephes, in contrast, sought to exalt himself. Now there's nothing in the Bible to suggest - and this is a salient point - that in any way Diotrephes had invited false teachers into his home. There's no indication that Diotrephes was subscribing to some false doctrine that they were teaching. He was not a heretic as far as we know, he was probably as orthodox as John the apostle himself - but the problem with Diotrephes was his attitude of heart. Oh, if there's a lesson for us today in our particular breed of Christianity and evangelicalism, it is this: that such narcissism that we find in a character like Diotrephes is still present with us today in the Christian church! Churches that are in the pocket of one man! Churches that are ruled by one family dynasty down through the years! Churches that are swayed by vocal personalities and by threats of power! This was Diotrephes' sin, and it's still sin to love preeminence.
Then the second attitude he had was that he did not recognise John. We see this in verse 9, if you turn back to 3 John, he says: 'He receiveth us not'. Other translations translate it validly: 'He does not accept us'. Now John was the great apostle, as I've said so many times, and the only one still alive who knew the Lord Jesus Christ in His earthly ministry - so why on earth would a Christian reject one of the apostles? This is why: because John was a threat to Diotrephes' monopoly of power in his local assembly. Here it is evidenced, we've got an allusion to the fact that John had already written to this little church - and the likelihood, reading between the lines, is that the letter was destroyed by Diotrephes himself. Perhaps that's why this time he writes to Gaius, because that's the only way he could be sure that the letter would get eventually to the church. Then we find that after the letter is probably destroyed, John sends emissaries, evangelists, missionaries to go and speak to Diotrephes in the assembly face-to-face. But we read then that Diotrephes rejects them, he sends them away.
What this is in effect, and this is what you need to note, is a rejection by Diotrephes of the apostolic authority. Now, I know you're sitting there tonight saying: 'Tut, tut, that's terrible, isn't it? Imagine doing such a thing!' - but friends, the equivalent sin today of rejecting apostolic authority is to reject the apostles' doctrine that we have in the New Testament, and there are myriads of churches in the West presently, even in Ulster, that are rejecting the apostolic authority of the New Testament in favour of the latest fad or fashion, or the latest philosophy of the current evangelical guru. It could just be, even in our particular circles, rejecting the word of God for the tradition and the wisdom of men - and that is the same sin as rejecting apostolic authority! Are we doing that?
He loved the preeminence, he did not recognise John, thirdly: he slandered the apostle. He writes in verse 10: 'Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words'. He spread malicious gossip. That word 'prating', it's the only time you find it in the New Testament, and that's what it means: to babble incoherently, to gossip. It means literally 'bringing false and empty charges against us'. It's true that an empty receptacle will make a lot of noise, and it is those who are empty, those who are devoid of real, true, deep spirituality who make the most noise - particularly in gossip. The Greek verb translated 'gossiping' or 'prating' comes from a root that is used of the action of water when it boils up. You imagine it on the stove, and a pot of water boiling over, it throws off a lot of bubbles - that's the word used here. Since bubbles are empty and useless, the verb is communicating that this is an indulgence of empty people who engage in useless talk - it's the nature of Diotrephes' slander, of all slander, when it is sheer nonsense.
Someone has said: 'A loose tongue that is incredibly well oiled, that's what Diotrephes had'. In all likelihood it was at one of the church meetings where Diotrephes stood to his feet, perhaps after the letter from John and the emissaries who visited, and it became known in the assembly that John had made embassage to them, that there in the meeting he slanders the great apostle - he openly rebukes him in front of the church when he's not there present to defend himself! Now we don't know what he said, maybe he said: 'John's awful tight, isn't he?', or 'John's a bit weird', or 'John's that old that he's losing touch, senile dementia has set in' - it doesn't really matter what Diotrephes was saying about John. In fact, I believe that he's so power hungry, like many people in his possession, that for him he has an operative pragmatism that the end justifies the means. It doesn't matter what is said or claimed, or what rumour is spun, as long as the authority of the apostle John is undermined - that's all he seeks, and he doesn't care how he gets it.
The point is this, and I want you to note it: Diotrephes desired to slant people's thinking against the great apostle - that is always the goal of slander. One night before a church service at which hundreds of people were present, a man called Jim Voss, who was a security electronics expert, decided he would be a bit mischievous and wire the whole building in several spots in the church with microphones. At the end of the service he told the congregation he had recorded several conversations from all the parts of the church, and he was going to play them back the next evening at church again. When the service ended several men approached Voss and offered him big amounts of money to buy the tapes off him! Then he found out that he actually hadn't pressed the record button, but nevertheless the lesson was learned! But the fact of the matter is: God records everything that we say, He knows. What difference does it make if what we say in private is declared public? I know it does make a difference to us, but it should not - we should regulate what we say in private as if it were public.
Now let me say this: in conservative evangelicalism, often there is a censorious spirit, a highly critical attitude that at times imagines that things are worse with other Christians than they really are. Sometimes it creates problems with Christians individually, or with organisations in the Christian church, problems that really don't exist - but we create them, why do we do it? Because we love to have the preeminence, and we love to slander others - and sometimes the simpleminded among us gullibly believe these slanderings. Warren Weirsbe mentioned a certain publication to one of his friends, and his friend replied: 'Yes, I know the editor quite well, he's like a blotter; he takes everything in and gets it backward'. That's often what we are like: we don't filter what we hear - I hope you don't believe everything you hear! I hope you don't believe everything that Christians tell you! I hope we all - and I'm as guilty as anyone of not doing this - I hope we all filter everything we hear through Philippians 4:8: 'Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things'.
But do you do what our pride seeks to do? Just what Diotrephes did: it seeks to pull other's reputations down - why? Because it makes us look all the taller, that's why you talk about people - that's why I do it too, to my shame - but it's sin. Here's a lesson that's hard to learn: if you want a better pastor, and if you want better elders, better leaders, pray for the ones you have. I think of that hymn by Cowper:
'Were half the breath thus vainly spent
To heaven in supplication sent,
Your cheerful song would oftener be,
'Hear what the Lord has done for me''.
He slandered the apostle. Not only did he love the preeminence, and not recognise John, and slander him to the church; but he refused to receive even brethren who were John's associates. He went a little bit further! Now Gaius received the emissaries, the evangelists from John, we see that in verse 5 and he is commended for doing such - but it was Diotrephes that refused them entrance into the church. Now what this was in effect was guilt by association - you've heard of that, haven't you? Let me say this: it is impossible to practise this kind of separation - that is, guilt by association - with any degree of consistency. Let me say clearly that the scripture makes it obvious that we are to have no fellowship with apostates - sure 1 John makes that quite clear, as does Peter and Jude, and many other epistles in the New Testament. We are to refrain from him entangling alliances with unbelievers, as 2 Corinthians 6 tells us not to be unequally yoked with them. We are to avoid those whose doctrinal position is clearly contrary to Scripture - but that does not mean that we do not cooperate with others who don't agree with us on fine, intricate doctrines and details of Scripture. Those who do not particularly interpret Scripture exactly as we do, we do not have authority to write them off! If any Scripture teaches this, it is this little book. There are good and there are godly people who disagree on some matters - you say: 'What matters?'. Well, for instance, some take different views on church government. 'Oh', you're saying, 'You're not going to tell us the Presbyterians are okay, are you?' - well, many of them are your brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever you think about them! But I wasn't so much thinking of that - you know the brethren don't have deacons, but you never hear much said about that, but it's scriptural, isn't it?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, that's what matters, as long as the fundamentals are not transgressed. Here's another one: prophecy - yes, prophecy. I don't find anywhere within the Scripture that you're to refuse fellowship because of a person's particular view on prophecy. I have my view, you have yours, we teach one view in the assembly, and I think we ought, and I think all assemblies should do such - because only then can you have consistency within your Bible exposition - but we have no right to write others off if they disagree with us. According to this epistle: Christ, His Gospel, is the grounds of fellowship. You see the problem with guilt by association is this, now listen carefully: you can never know everything about everybody. I know some people think they know everything about everything, but they don't. If I can be personal for a moment, not so long ago we had a preacher who was recommended to us who was exactly correct according to the dispensational scheme of prophetic truth, yet we found out from somebody reading his book a couple of weeks later that he didn't believe in hell. Now it's impossible to find out those things, everything about everybody, but that shows us that though a man may be orthodox on one secondary issue, he could be fundamentally erroneous and heretical in an important essential issue.
Warren Wiersbe says a Christian person would need a computer and a full-time staff if he ever hoped to do a good job of keeping his associations pure. All of us must agree on the fundamentals, that is the grounds of fellowship. However, to do what Diotrephes did is sin! What was that? He broke personal fellowship with a brother because he didn't agree with his circles of friends - now that's going beyond Scripture! Ironside defined Diotrephes in this manner, and his actions here: 'He was of a narrow sectarian spirit, one of those men who despised these freelancers. He desired to recognise only those who were of their particular stripe'. He goes on: 'To him, church order meant more than love to Christ's sheep. They may be found not only in the great denominations', Diotrephes that is, 'but in the humblest Christian assemblies, self-seeking, self-important, self-elected bishops and overseers lording it over their brethren, and abrogating to themselves the right to say who may or may not be recognised as true, authentic children of God'.
Diotrephes rejected John, then he rejected those who associated with John, but he went further: he forbade others receiving John and his emissaries. He not only refused the missionaries, but he refused any of the congregation to take them in, and he was taking his authority beyond biblical limits. Now listen to this: we are to obey those that have the rule over us, and an overseer has every right to tell the sheep what God tells them, but no overseer has a right to impose upon a believer what God's word does not impose upon them - that's going beyond the limits of their God-given authority.
Then sixthly, that didn't suffice, he actually excommunicated those that did flirt and fraternise with these 'false disciples', as he saw them. Now let me say that there is such a thing as right use of excommunication. Excommunication is in God's word, though it is not practised today in most churches. Paul called upon the Corinthians on one occasion to expel a member who was guilty of sexual relations with his father's wife, that is his stepmother. In 1 Corinthians 5 the church was to put them out. The idea of it was designed in order to bring that person to repentance again, 1 Corinthians 5 verse 5, that's the whole purpose of it: that they will come to their senses, the offender, and repent and return to fellowship. It was also to protect the fellowship from moral and spiritual pollution. But it wasn't just on moral grounds that excommunication was exercised, but also on doctrinal grounds. There were those in the church who Paul was writing through Timothy to, who maintained that the resurrection of the body had already taken place, and Paul said that he was handing them over to Satan, that they might learn not to blaspheme - 1 Timothy 1:20, 2 Timothy 2:16-18. Even our Lord Jesus Christ, in His letter to the seven churches, and His letter specifically to Thyatira - through, incidentally, the apostle John, the same man who is writing 3 John - told that church in Thyatira to expel the false prophetess Jezebel, who was leading some into immorality and idolatry - Revelation 2:20.
So we see that excommunication is Biblical, it should be exercised on moral and doctrinal grounds - but Diotrephes did not exercise proper biblical excommunication, rather he was using this as an engagement in a powerplay. He was throwing his weight around. You see, the Bible does not just advocate discipline, it advocates loving and holy discipline. Warren Wiersbe cites examples, he says: 'It could be a pastor throwing his weight around, or a church board acting like a police court'. It is the Lord - that is what it is meant to be - exercising spiritual authority through a local church in order to rescue and restore an erring child of God. Augustine of Hippo said: 'One thing I say deliberately as unquestionable truth, that if any believer has been wrongfully excommunicated the sentence will do harm rather to him who pronounces it, than to him who suffers the wrong'. There's a great responsibility with the power that is given to overseers in the assembly. There's a danger - and let me say that I believe that elders should have the rule of the assembly, don't misunderstand what I'm saying this evening. I don't believe the tail should wag the dog. But when you believe in a scriptural eldership, you must always be careful to guard against the Diotrephes spirit - because the eldership can very easily deteriorate into an unscriptural dictatorship. There must be some form of accountability, accountability to God, accountability to fellow overseers, accountability to the church, and there must be some mechanism whereby people can be fairly heard, objectively.
His attitude was that he loved the preeminence, he did not recognise John, he slandered the apostle, he refused to receive the brethren, John's associates - he forbid others receiving them, and he excommunicated those that did. Secondly, and we're nearly finished - these aren't as long by the way - John's approach. We've seen Diotrephes' attitude, what was John's approach? Now one might think that Diotrephes' conduct might well have deserved that John should say: 'See when I get to see you? You'll be out on your ear boy!'. When we think of the fact that this man was guilty of excommunicating people on wrong grounds, should it not have been the case that he should have been excommunicated? But significantly John does not allude to that fact - now I'm not saying he didn't do it, we don't know, but he doesn't threaten Diotrephes with it in this letter. He only says that he will come, and literally what he says is that he will call to attention what Diotrephes was doing. Verse 10: 'I will remember his deeds', literally 'I'll let it be known to the assembly what he's been up to'. He would expose Diotrephes!
Now no doubt he did exercise discipline, and may well have excommunicated him, but what I want you to see is that what John wanted to display was the character of the Lord Jesus Christ, who desires that sinners should not be condemned, but should come to repentance and be restored to fellowship with God through Him - that should be our goal will always. It's interesting to note that John was willing to talk to Diotrephes. You should always be willing to talk, sometimes others aren't so willing. Paul took the same risk when he went to Corinth on what he called in 2 Corinthians 2:1 his 'painful visit' - it's not always easy being in leadership and facing Diotrephes. In 2 Corinthians, there is evidence that Paul, the great apostle of the Gentiles, was asked to leave the church of Corinth against his own will! Those in charge decided that the apostle Paul was not welcome in Corinth! Imagine this in the early church: the apostle's not welcome!
Fortunately the efforts of mediators like Titus caused the church to repent, and Paul to return eventually - but I'm sure there's a great temptation in John's heart just to avoid Diotrephes, just to fall silent. John's approach was Christlike in leadership. Let me say that leaders get a hard time - but all the attributes of leadership ought to be found in the Christian, because they're Christlike attributes. Are we Christlike in our approach even to those who have offended?
Diotrephes' attitude, John's approach, and finally: our admonition in verse 11 - 'Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God'. Now we should never seek to be mimics of other people in one sense, we ought to have an authentic walk with God ourselves and try to hone our own character true to our nature and personality - but nevertheless, imitation is a part of natural life, isn't it? We look up to others who we esteem and respect, we all do it - but the important thing that John says is: make sure that you choose the right models to look up to. Choose a Gaius, later we see that he sets up Demetrius as a man who is held in honour within the church and the work of God - but Diotrephes is an evil example, Demetrius is a good example. Make sure, John says, that you follow that which is good, not that which is evil.
Sometimes strong personalities come to the fore within the church, often in the pulpit. It's very easy, without sounding patronising, for simple souls to look up to them so much that they make them their role model when there is very little of the grace of Christ in their lives. A man or woman may be strong, they may be vocal, they may be opinionated, they may have aptitude on a certain level - but make sure, John says, that you choose a spiritual example, a Christlike example. I haven't been in the Lord's work too long, but I've learned this much in the short time that I've been in it: much of the distress and the cause for division in churches has very little to do with doctrine. Sometimes that's the facade that is used to mask, in hypocrisy, personality clashes and problems with other people. Diotrephes and church dictators are dangerous people. Let me say that we should never ever underestimate how a resident dictator can damage a church - do you know why? Because such leadership grieves the Holy Spirit of God. Jesus Christ is the only Head of the church. Colossians 1:18 says: 'He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence' - He is to be Lord in the assembly, no one else!
Diotrephes had forgotten that, maybe he had never known it. The Holy Spirit is to be the only vicar or representative of Christ in the church, and no man or woman has the right to take charge, to make decisions, to receive brethren or reject brethren as Diotrephes did - that is Christ's role, the Holy Spirit's role, and if it's ever found in the hands of men apart from the Spirit's leading, do you know what that is? Popery. That's what it is. It could be red, white and blue popery, I don't care, that's what it is. Such conduct is what God hates. Do you know something? Jesus says that such conduct will be judged. John says these people don't even know God, they've never seen God - Diotrephes that is. Then in Mark 12 Jesus said: 'Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces, And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts: Which devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers' - now listen to this, this is scary stuff - 'these shall receive greater condemnation'.
Such will be punished severely, Jesus says. Loss of reward if they're child of God. If they've never seen God, like Diotrephes, but have a facade of Christianity but are really of fraud in leadership, they'll be in hell. I'm sure Diotrephes wasn't looking forward to meeting John. Friends, the time is coming very soon when we're going to meet the Lord. We're going to face Him, we're going to give an account not to an apostle, but to the Lord of the churches: 'So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God' - what kind of example have you been? A Gaius, a Demetrius, or a Diotrephes spirit?
Can I finish with this lovely story: some years ago a hospital official in Atlanta, Georgia in the States, after watching the lives of professing Christians in that large denominational hospital, concluded - as so many people in the world observing our witness do - I quote: 'They just don't live what they preach, and if they can't then I couldn't either'. That's what people are saying. Now someone was there, and raised their voice and mentioned the exemplary life of the pastor of the large nearby church. This hospital official who had made those remarks decided that he would see if this preacher's life measured up to this profession of him. Do you know what he did? He hired a plain clothed detective to follow the pastor everywhere for a whole week, and at the end of the week the detective declared: 'He lives it! There's no flaw there'. Now those words were inescapable evidence to that man, and they tortured him, they rang in his ears hour after hour, he was in great despair, he didn't know what to do. With the help of his godly wife he eventually accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as his Saviour and Lord. After that he spent his spare time labouring for the Lord in many ways, including the holding of Open Air meetings in his own particular town.
Now, his daughter eventually attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and this man's story that I have just recounted to you was recorded within their student newspaper. The article revealed the name of the preacher, his identity, and it was Dr Will H. Houghton, one-time pastor of the Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta who later became, by this time, the president of the Moody Bible Institute. At the end of this article this hospital worker's daughter asked the question rhetorically of every student, and I'm asking it of you tonight in the spirit of John's third epistle, listen: suppose Dr Houghton had not lived a sincere, true Christian life, one that would bear watching, where would my Daddy be today?
You know the Diotrephes spirit is something that is not unique to leadership, it can be in all our hearts - indeed, I think naturally it is - to want the preeminence. We all have a struggle with our tongues at times, and we can identify with Diotrephes in many ways. But the question tonight is not if it's there - we all confess, I confess it's there in me - it's whether or not we'll confess to Christ, and bow the knee and submit to His authority, and allow His Spirit to bring the fruit of Christ-likeness, and humility, and servitude into our lives.
Lord, help us, this is really strong stuff for all of us to take in. There's none of us that can say that we have apprehended that for which we've been apprehended in Christ. We're not there, we haven't reached it. Lord, help us to see our shortcomings, help us to see if we are a problem, or a spirit or an attitude we have is a problem rather than a solution to the problem. Lord, we pray that You'll help us to implement obedience to Your word. Lord, take a dealing with all our hearts, from the hierarchy at the top of every church right to the bottom, may we all seek to be Christlike spirits, with minds like Jesus, esteeming others better and before ourselves - for it's in His name we pray, Amen.
Don't miss part 23 of 1, 2 and 3 John: 'Demetrius - The Man Who Was Honoured In God's Work'
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This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the twenty second recording in his '1, 2 and 3 John' series, entitled "Diotrephes - The Man Who Hindered God's Work" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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