We continue our study in the apostle John’s “third” letter, a letter showcasing the power of faithful saints supporting full time evangelism:
The same sort of Christians are needed in the church today. Such disciples are not necessarily those who are going out to teach and preach the Word or to establish churches in difficult areas of the world. Instead, they include the people who are supporting such workers—supporting them financially, supporting them emotionally, and supporting them personally.
The Obligation to Missions:
 For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles.  Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.
First, it is important to stress that these individuals are already on the road “for the sake of the name.” There is a deliberate decision that is in view for they have “gone out” for the sake of the only name that can be exalted (Phil. 2.9) –that of Jesus. This is their motivation for missions; especially, since “the name” would summarize “the saving message which the missionaries proclaimed”.
One of their policies, says the Elder, is that “these itinerant evangelists would not (as a matter of policy) seek their support from unbelievers and did not (as a matter of fact) receive their support from them”.
John Stott demonstrates the distinction this truly was for the early church:
Christian missionaries were not like many wandering non-Christian teachers of those days […], who made a living out of their vagrancy […] a Christian congregation supporting its minister is one thing; missionaries begging money from unbelievers is another.
There is an example of how the early church had become so abused by would-be missionaries, that an early catechetical document, known as the Didache, made excessive rules for hosting traveling teachers:
Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he says three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet. (Did. 11.4-6)
As will be seen below, John has already sent a document to “the church” but it has been rejected, as have his apostolic authority, the traveling missionaries, and those who would – like Gaius – assist these honorable individuals (vv. 9-10).
Second, the church was under obligation to support these individuals in order to be a part of their work. The longevity and amount is not the issue, what is at stake is the responsibility for a congregation to provide care for the missionaries and assist them on their way.
As Ferguson observes:
For a household to receive missionaries, provide for them, and then to send them forward with provisions for the next stage of their journey was the regular method in early Christianity for supporting missionary work.
And as mentioned above, this hospitality had received considerable abuse.
One of the safeguards against abuse was a letter of recommendation (cf. 2 Cor. 3.1-3). “In order to assist travelers in securing aid while exercising some control,” explains Abraham Malherbe:
[A] special type of letter, in which the writer recommended the bearer to friends or associates, had been developed. Some Christians also wrote such letters (e.g., Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1-2), and some churches evidently demanded them of travelers.
The letter was to authenticate that these were honorable missionaries (including Demetrius cf. vs. 12), needing assistance as they traveled the world preaching the gospel.
Third, the obligation, as Hiebert observes, “involves more than giving them a personal welcome by lodging them; it also involves supplying their needs so they can continue their ministry”.
Because of their lack of resources (cf. “taking nothing”), “believers therefore have the moral obligation to ‘undertake’ for them”. The term opheilomen (cf. opheilo) carries the meaning of an obligation – whether financial, social, or moral; particularly here, there are strong spiritual and moral responsibilities in view (evangelistic efforts of destitute missionaries).
We would also reflect upon the way this divides the labor of worldwide evangelism. As David Smith observes, “If we cannot preach the Gospel ourselves, we may help others to do it”.
Fourth, the end result of assisting those who have dedicated themselves to being traveling teachers is that we may become “fellow workers for the truth.” There may be a generic flavor to this phrase, addressing the overall effects of involvement with supporting worldwide evangelism. Much like Adam Clarke observes, the assistance was designed to “encourage the persecuted, and contribute to the spread and maintenance of the Gospel”.
Several students believe there is a difficulty to understand definitively the meaning of how we are “fellow-workers” in relation to the truth; however, we believe the overall judgment on how to understand this partnership is expressed in the following words:
The Christian missionaries co-operate with the truth by proclaiming it; we co-operate with it by entertaining them. The Christian missionary enterprise is, therefore, not undertaken by evangelists only, but also by those who entertain and support them.
The activity of hosting and providing needed supplies for future travels “was a concrete expression of fellowship”. “As those who welcome and support those who preach false doctrines become partakers with them (2 John 9), so those who receive and maintain those who preach the truth become fellow-workers for the truth”.
This concrete expression of Christian solidarity demonstrated by Gaius prepares the reader for the adverse behavior demonstrated by Diotrephes in the next few verses (vv. 9-10).
To be continued…
- Coy Roper, 2010, “3 John – Encore #2: Are You a Help or a Hindrance?”, BibleCourses.com (Searcy, Ark.: Truth for Today), 3.
- John R. W. Stott, 1988, The Letters of John, TNTC edited by Leon Morris (Repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), 226.
- D. Edmond Hiebert, 1987, “Studies in 3 John Part 2 (of 3 Parts): An Exposition of 3 John 5-10”, Bibliotheca Sacra 144: 199.
- Stott, 1988, The Letters of John, 226.
- Stott, 226-27.
- Michael W. Holmes (ed.), 1999, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker).
- Everett Ferguson, 1984, The Letters of John, The Way of Life Series edited by J. D. Thomas (Abilene, Tex.: Biblical Research), 99.
- Abraham J. Malherbe, 1995, “The Cultural Context of the New Testament: The Greco-Roman World” in The New Interpreter’s Bible edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon), 8:13.
- Hiebert, 1987, “An Exposition of 3 John 5-10”, 200.
- Hiebert, 200.
- Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2000, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d edition (Chicago, Ill.: U of Chicago Press), 743.
- David Smith, 1901, “The Epistles of John” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament edited by W. Robertson Nicoll (New York, N.Y.: Doran), 5:207.
- Adam Clarke, n.d., Clarke’s Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon), 6:942.
- Hiebert, 201-02; Stott 227-28; Marvin R. Vincent, n.d., Word Studies in the New Testament (Repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson), 2:402-03.
- Stott, 228.
- Ferguson, 1984, The Letters of John, 99.
- Guy N. Woods, 1973, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles of Peter, John, and Jude (Nashville, Tenn.: Gospel Advocate), 362.