Short letter, long division?
This short letter highlights some painful tensions in church life. There are two names in today’s verses, who never surface elsewhere in the Bible. All that we know about them is here, in and (to some extent hypothetically) between the lines.
Diotrephes (9) appears to be a local church leader, who does not want John, or anyone else, telling him what to do. He has stopped his congregation giving hospitality to travelling preachers whom John sent out. This has upset John, and he means to challenge Diotrephes – when he can get there to do so (10).
Demetrius (12), by contrast, is clearly someone John trusts. He may be one of the missionaries mentioned above. He may even be the person carrying the letter.
And the point of the letter? To persuade its recipient, Gaius, to give Demetrius and his team a friendly welcome and strong support. If Diotrephes has blocked their coming, John wants to make sure that this attitude won’t spread. He feels he can depend on Gaius, and the letter is an attempt to make sure.
Behind the personalities are important issues. Mission is one: people who take the faith to new places do need support from the rest of us. Disagreement is another: conflict can be a growth point, but some church conflict damages people and blocks the spread of the faith; we need to be careful when we disagree. Tension between local congregation and wider church can be healthy too, if it helps us to listen to each other. But the attitude of Diotrephes, “who likes to put himself first” (9), will generally cause problems wherever it crops up.
Behind all of this is what the letter calls “the truth” (12). This is a theme in all three of John’s letters. It centres on ‘confessing Jesus’, believing that his human life embodied the personal involvement and love of God. This belief shapes and sustains Christian fellowship. It holds us together, and motivates us to believe that difficulties and misunderstandings in church life are worth trying to overcome.