7 Lessons from 3rd John [Sermon]

Pontius-Pilate[Today I preached from 3rd John. The following is the sermon in its entirety. If you don’t like reading, here is a link to the mp3 ;).]

The Truth

In the span of fifteen verses, the apostle John mentions truth seven times. The first six times he speaks of the truth, while he speaks of his apostolic testimony as true in the seventh. Seven is a relatively large number given the brevity of this epistle. John could have chosen to address these ecclesial matters without mentioning the truth seven times. But this is what the Holy Spirit through John has written for us: A fifteen verse epistle with seven references to the truth.

This demands our attention.

John, as we know, speaks frequently of the truth in his Gospel. The prologue to the Gospel of John, for instance, reveals that Christ is “the true light”[1] who was “full of grace and truth[2] and through whom we have received “grace and truth.”[3] While speaking to Nicodemus, our Lord states that “he who does what is true comes to the light.”[4] Later in that same chapter, John the Baptist reveals that whoever receives the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ affirms that God is true.[5] Our Lord much later proclaims that he is “the truth.”[6] And at the climax of the Gospel, just prior to our Lord God purchasing us with his own blood on the cross of Golgotha, when he proclaims yet again that he has come to bear witness to the truth and that whoever is of the truth listens to him, at this moment the unbelieving Pilate responds by asking: “What is truth?”[7] 

In his Gospel, John is concerned with proclaiming the truth that Christ is the truth. He is also clearly teachings us that there are persons who belong to the truth, and there are those, like Pilate, who scorn the truth itself as it stands in front of their very face. And keeping these things in mind will help us understand that the seven references to the truth in this epistle are not accidental, superfluous, or empty filler-words. Through John’s epistle, our Lord God shows us the importance of the truth as it is revealed in Jesus Christ.[8] By looking at the seven references to the truth in this epistle, we learn the following seven lessons. 

  1. Love and Truth are Inseparable (v.1): The love John has for Gaius is not detached from a very specific form of doctrine, which is here referred to as “the truth.” The truth in which John loves Gaius is the Gospel, the fact that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose three days later from the dead, in accordance with the Scriptures. Christian brotherly love, then, is not an uncontrollable sentimentalism that has no regard for truth. It is also not a bond built upon false doctrines. Rather, Christian brotherly love is found only in the truth. This is the foundation of our unity and fellowship as people of the truth. We call one another brother and sister not because of our emotional attachment to one another, nor because of our shared ethnic roots or even our biological relationship to one another as siblings, but because we believe the truth, seek to walk in the truth, and proclaim and testify to the truth. This does not mean that we are not to love those who have exchanged the truth for a lie (Rom 1:25). This does not mean that we are not to love those to whom God has judicially sent a delusion “so that they may believe what is false” (2nd Thess 2:11). We have been created and redeemed for this purpose, after all. What is does mean is that our love for our neighbor is only love if it is founded upon, grounded in the truth. Moreover, we are founded upon and grounded in the truth and are also called to speak truth to and with all persons, and specifically our brothers and sisters in Christ. As the Holy Spirit tells us in Col 3:9: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.” Our love for one another, our love for our neighbor is only truly love if it is founded upon the truth – both the revealed truth of Scripture and our own personal truthfulness in communicating with our Christian brethren and non-Christian neighbors. There is a kind of false love that is rampant in our world, which we are prone to practice as well. It is a false love which operates upon double standards, excusing sin in the lives of people we favor while holding those whom we do not favor in judgmental contempt. It is a false love that revels in exposing the sins of one’s enemies but concealing equally sins in the lives of one’s acquaintances and loved ones. Love, however, is the fulfillment of the Law. And the law commands to not slander our enemies. The Law commands us to not bear false witness against our neighbor. If our supposed love for others is derived not from the truth but the world’s sentimentalism, then it is not love. If our supposed love for others helps us justify slandering our neighbors, or bearing false witness against our neighbors, it is no love at all. Equally sinful, moreover, is the false love that lies to one’s neighbor in order to appease him, or to lessen his pain. We hear this all the time when we say things like: “If so and so really knew what was going on, then he would be devastated. So I told that….” [insert a comforting lie here]. This is not love, brethren; this is is sin, and we must repent of it, if we are engaging in it. As the Holy Spirit tells us in 1st Cor 13:6: Love rejoices in the truth. Truth and love are inseparable. And this ties into our second lesson from John’s little epistle:
  1. Testimony to Brethren Walking in the Truth is a Source of Joy for True Believers(v.3a): It is a source of joy because it demonstrates that our Lord is at work in the hearts of his people. It is a source of joy because we face the devil, the flesh, and the world on a daily basis and we are prone to forget that despite all appearances to the contrary, that God is Sovereignly ruling over his creation, carefully bringing to pass all of his Holy will. As we have been learning from our time studying the life of David, we will face many hardships. There will be times in which all we can see is the vitriol and rage of God’s, and our, enemies. There will be times, moreover, where we erroneously think that we are the only believers left. This latter scenario is one that is recorded for us in 1st Kings 19, where our brother Elijah the prophet says: 

    I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away. 

    There were seven thousand, however, who had not bowed the knee to Baal. And God gives this knowledge to his servant Elijah as a rebuke and source of comfort. Is Elijah alone? No. Are we alone? No. When we turn to the Scriptures, we are shown that God’s elect are being called, justified, sanctified and will, with us, be glorified when our Lord Jesus returns. And in God’s mercy, he also gives us testimony of his elect all over the world coming to faith, serving him faithfully in preaching the Gospel, and fulfilling their vocations in humility and devotion. Let this be a source of joy, as it was a source of joy for John. For, as our third lesson teaches us:

  1. Belief in the Truth and Walking in the Truth are Inseparable (v.3): John explains that others have testified to the truth that is in Gaius, going on to explain further that Gaius is known to be one who walks in the truth, i.e. the truth of the Gospel. This is to say: Gaius’ known profession of faith is testified to as true by his deeds. Contrary to those who teach one can be truly justified by faith alone and yet never walk in the truth, which is to say under the continual transformational process of sanctification, the Scriptures tells us that we can have “conduct [that is] not in line with the truth of the Gospel” (Gal 2:14). Scripture also tells us that the behavior of the unredeemed is contrary to what we have been taught by Christ, as the truth is in Jesus (Eph 4:17-24). If we have been granted understanding of the truth, faith to believe the truth, and have trusted in him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then we will necessarily bear the fruit of walking in the truth. Belief in the Truth is distinct from Walking in the Truth, but these two distinct realities will always be found in the life of thetruly converted. We are called to testify to the truth by our conduct, and this is what Gaius did. Which leads us to our fourth lesson:
  1. Our Greatest Joy is to Be Found in God’s Person and Work (v.4): John goes on to declare that his greatest joy is hearing that his children are walking in the truth. What does this mean? It means that John has no greater joy than hearing of the work of God as it is being performed by God through his Word. John rejoices in hearing that those whom he has evangelized and pastored/taught (i.e. his “children”) are walking in the truth (i.e. bearing the fruit of saving faith in the truth he taught them). John’s greatest joy is not found in hearing of the material prosperity of the church to which he was writing. John’ greatest joy is not found in hearing of their financial well-being. John prays that these Christians would prosper physically, yes. However, contrary to the wicked teachings of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” John clearly states that his greatest joy is knowing that God’s Word is bearing fruit in the people of God. It does us well to remember that these are not simply the words of John but of the Holy Spirit. The sentiment expressed by John, in other words, cannot be treated as some offhand remark, an opinion that has no revelatory value. Not at all. These are the words of God. While we are to rejoice over the one sheep who turns in repentance and faith back to the living God, we are also to rejoice over the already saved sinner who is walking in the truth. A person who has been converted and is walking in the truth is a testimony to the goodness of God, the grace of God, and the promise that God will complete the work not only in our Christian brother or sister, but in us as well. In our fifth lesson, in fact, we learn that:
  1. All Christians are Called to Be Workers for the Truth (v.8): The truth is not a human fabrication. The truth is not a subjective feeling. The truth is an objective reality for which or against which we may work. In verse 8 of John’s epistle, we read that we are workers for the truth when we serve our brethren. Our behavior in such instances stands in stark contrast to that of the world. Those who have forsaken all to follow Christ, or who have been forsaken by family and friends because of their conversion to Christianity are to be brought into fellowship, served, loved in the truth. In our doing so, we are being workers for the truth, not against it. In this epistle, we are given an example of what it means to be a worker against the truth. This example is Diotrephes, who puts himself first, does not recognize the authority of the apostles, speaks against the apostles, refuses to welcome the brethren, and even puts true brethren outside of the church. Note that Diotrephes’ sin is not merely lacking compassion for the saints; it is, rather, a refusal to submit to the truth. Diotrophes’ sin of not recognizing the authority of the apostles is one that is committed by all who do not recognize the authority of the Scriptures. His sin of speaking against the apostles is committed by all who oppose the teachings of the Scriptures. His sin of refusing brethren and casting them out is committed by all who abuse and excommunicate the Lord’s sheep for no other reason than to exert their self-importance, and to pretend that they are actually exercising true authority. We are called be workers for the truth; we are not called to create, modify, or nullify – either by our teaching or our behavior – the truth. If we are behaving like Diotrephes and exalting ourselves over one another, we must repent, brothers and sisters. If we are behaving like Diotrephes and taking it upon ourselves to excommunicate faithful brothers and sisters from the body of Christ in order to demonstrate our wicked sense of self-importance, then we must repent. If we are thinking, speaking, or behaving as Diotrephes did, we must repent. Christians are employed by the truth. We are all called to be workers for the truth. And this leads us into our sixth lesson which is this:
  1.  A Good Testimony Must Come From the Truth (v.12): While we may have a high opinion of someone, while we may want others to share that view with us, the question we must ask ourselves is this: Does the truth testify to this person’s character? That is to say: Does God’s Word have a good report of this person? Or is it our personal opinion rooted in our unbiblical assumptions about what it means for a person to be “good” – in a civil, or horizontal person-to-person sense? This is not to say that we should have a checklist and measure others against it before we testify of their uprightness before men, but it does mean that our values, our understanding of what is morally good and what is not morally good are to be derived from the Word of God, the truth, and nowhere else. In our lives, we are tempted to do either of two erroneous extremes. The first of these extremes is: We judge those of whom we are fond upon the basis of our own personal standards. The second of these extremes is: We judge those of whom we are not fond upon the basis of our own personal standards. This is not what we are to do, as we noted already. Demitrius received a good testimony not from John only but from the truth. Note that John mentions the truth’s testimony before he mentions his own. This is a small but profound point that we must not overlook. The truth takes precedence in our assessment of others’ behavior. The truth judges our judgment of others, does it not? It does. And it is to the truth, as servants of the truth, of Christ Jesus who is the Truth – it is to the truth that all of us are subjected. Which leads us to our seventh and final lesson, which is:
  1. God Continually Testifies to the Truth (v.12): John says that he adds his testimony, and his testimony is true. John has already stated that the truth itself gives a good testimony to the character of Demitrius. And we’ve noted that the truth is the truth of God’s Word. So why does John add his testimony to that which the truth has already given? Because God continually testifies to the truth. God cannot lie. Therefore, his Word is always truth-telling, truth-preserving, and exposing lies. Enemies of our Lord of every stripe – atheists, Muslims, Cultists, and Romanists – will often claim that there is some other external source that must show us that the Scriptures are God’s Word, that the Scriptures are true. Yet in our text today we see God testifying to his own Word. The truth has given a good testimony regarding Demitrius’ character; and John, speaking the Word of God by the Holy Spirit, testifies to the truth yet again. As it is written: “Every word of God is true.” (Prov 30:5) God demonstrates his mercy toward us in this seemingly insignificant detail. In a time when our brethren were being persecuted, infiltrated with false brethren like Diotrephes, and faced with false teachers trying to make men turn away from Christ and follow them and their false teachings – in this time, our Lord continues to testify to the truth. And this is what he has done for us in giving us John’s epistle, is it not? Demitrius’ character was testified to by the truth. The truth was testified to by the words of John, which is to say the Holy Spirit testifying to his own word. And we, over a millenium later, are having this Word testified to as true yet again by the Spirit of God who is leading us into all truth. What John’s last mention of the truth teaches us, then, is that God continually testifies to the truth. He continually reminds us that he is not a man that he should lie. He continually reminds us that his Word is true. Nothing will contradict his Word. Ever.

Concluding Remarks

Where, then, does this leave us? Today we have learned seven lessons from John’s third epistle. We learned that truth and love are inseparable. But we often pervert love by rejecting the truth in our dealings with our neighbors. We learned that the testimony of our brethren walking in the truth is to be a source of joy for true believers. Yet, like false brethren we are sometimes jealous of our brothers, sometimes accusatory, sometimes hateful when we hear of their walking in the truth. We learned that belief in the truth and walking in the truth are inseparable. But we often try our hardest to separate the truth and our walk, falsely believing that we can have one or the other in isolation. We learned that our greatest source of joy is to be found in the person and work of our Lord God as he saves men according to the truth and applies the truth to them in their sanctification. Yet how often do we value the things of this world, the shiny trinkets of creature comforts, the indulgence of our own flesh above our Lord’s own person and work? We learned that we are to be workers for the truth. But we often find ourselves at odds with the truth, working against it all the while claiming to love our Lord. We learned that a good testimony must come from the truth. But we often are found defending the defenseless, the sin in our own hearts and in the lives of others, contesting the truth while claiming that we are doing so in order to give a good testimony! We learned that God continually testifies to the truth. Yet we find ourselves walking in doubt, in unbelief, in worry and anxiety.

This is our true condition, brothers and sisters. We are sinners who still must be told to “not lie to one another” to not suppress the truth, and to tell the truth in all of our doings. But thankfully, we know that God, who will not lie about our sinful condition, will not lie to us about his mercy and grace. And here is what he tells us:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

What does it mean to confess our sins? It is to tell the truth about our sinful condition. It is to agree with God as he reveals our lack of truthfulness in thought, word, and deed. And this is what God trutfully teaches us.

 Soli Deo Gloria

[1] John 1:9.

[2] John 1:14.

[3] John 1:17.

[4] John 3:21.

[5] John 3:33.

[6] John 14:6.

[7] John 18:38.

[8] Eph 4:21.

4 thoughts on “7 Lessons from 3rd John [Sermon]

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