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Being First

Diotrophes - 3 John 9-11

(3 John 1:9-11 NIV) I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. {10} So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. {11} Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.

It is fascinating to note -- along the general lines of the first being last -- that Diotrephes is mentioned only here in the New Testament. For almost two thousand years the man who wanted to be first has been a bit player on the stage of the New Testament -- and in a villain’s role.


What motivates a man like this? At first glance, it’s hard to understand how a leader of this time could possibly resist the counsel of the last of the Apostles. Perhaps a comparison to our day would help:

You are Pastor Graydon Jessup. An ordinary looking envelope arrives for you; you open it in the privacy of your office. You are amazed at what you read:

“Dear Pastor Jessup,

..... so we had to cancel our meeting in Africa this August. That unfortunate fact leaves a hole in my schedule. I’ve always enjoyed preaching in a local church, and there is not nearly enough time to do anything elaborate, so all I could do is come and deliver a couple of weeks worth of sermons.

Naturally, I don’t want to upset things in your congregation. If this is at all inconvenient, please don’t hesitate to say no. But if you can arrange it, I’d love to preach the last two weeks in August at Eastside.

Yours in Christ,

Billy Graham”

Now how do you feel?

Most of us would like to answer that we would welcome Billy Graham with open arms. But would we really? Or would we react like Diotrephes? Envy is a powerful motivation. Diotrephes could always view this as an issue of “local control” (a practically sacred doctrine in the Restoration movement) standing in the way of someone from “outside.” It would be envy none the less. But there are other possible motives, and we need to examine ourselves to see if they are present.

The Big Frog Syndrome

Some years ago I worked for a major car import company. In that line, there was a major conflict in culture between the import company and its dealers. The import company always took the line that “more sales are better.” If you sold three hundred cars this year, you should aim to sell three hundred and thirty next year. The dealers didn’t see it this way. They would work hard to increase sales -- to a point. When they reached that point, usually when they considered themselves prominent in the community, they were content to stay at that level. Rather than spend the major effort on a 5% increase in sales, they spent it coaching in Little League, or sailing their boat.

They were big frogs in their small pond, and they liked it that way. That may not be a bad thing (workaholics do exist) in the world. In the church, however, the temptation is to remain a big frog -- by keeping the pond small. This is directly contradictory to the Great Commission.

The Numbers Game

Here is another possibility: the Sunday School teacher’s favorite game. I need to get my class to grow. One great way to get a class to grow is to water down the Gospel, but preach it in a pleasing way. You get an audience, not a church, when you do that -- but the numbers look good, at least for a while.

The proper corrective is that God desires fruit, not blossoms. Just because you can gather an audience to hear your brilliant reasoning does not mean that you are doing God’s work. You may be just pleasing yourself, and justifying it by thinking that the church is growing.

The Temptation of Power

We often make the mistake of assuming that the temptation of power is to get more of it. It is not. It is to get it more completely. You think not, O businessman? Which is more tempting to the ego: a hundred typists churning out the work, or one secretary who dances attendance on your every whim?

The church power temptation is to get others to do as you command. It is gratifying to the ego, and easy to do -- it is a simple perversion of God’s truth.

The uses of the word, “my”

We often speak of “my house”, “my kids” and “my church.” The word “my” in each of those phrases means something different. I can sell my house any time I can find a buyer. My kids might object to the same process being applied to them.

We can fall into the same confusion about “my church.” It can mean “the local fellowship of believers who, in the grace of God, accept my whims, foibles and faults as part of the body of Christ” or it can mean “the human stage on which I strut to show my greatness to God.” (I did mention that the best lessons are the ones found in the mirror?)

How do we know that Diotrephes was afflicted with something like these? “By their fruits you will know them....”[1]

Fruits - character on display

There are four aspects of Diotrephes’ character here which are worth noting as the fruits of the inner man:


The word used for “gossip” in the Greek is an interesting word picture. It is used of boiling water - particularly water which is at a rolling boil, generating masses of useless bubbles. You get the picture of water boiling furiously which, at the end, leaves nothing but hot, sticky air.[2]

The love of being “first”

This is practically the definition of pride. Pride is the central point of ethical difference between Christ and the world. The world holds pride to be a virtue; we hold “Gay Pride Days,” etc. We use pride to put down lesser sins (aren’t you ashamed of yourself?) as Satan laughs. C.S. Lewis called it “the complete anti-God state of mind,” and said this:

“As long as you are proud you cannot know God.[3] A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”[4]

Refusal of hospitality

This is, in the context of the times, astonishing. The ancients had no system of hotels as we would know them today. The inn of that time was an extremely disreputable establishment, often little better than a brothel. To stay at an inn was a desperate act. Families would establish networks of friends around the Mediterranean to allow travel by staying as a guest. That a man would refuse hospitality, and eject others from the church for providing it, should have shocked the church of that time.

Indeed, such hospitality is directly commanded:

(Heb 13:2 NIV) Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

Dividing the Body

(John 17:20-23 NIV) "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, {21} that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. {22} I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: {23} I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

This is Christ’s prayer. It stresses the importance of the unity of the body of Christ. Even seemingly good things can become evil if they divide the body of Christ.

I once had a chance to offer Communion during Sunday School (at another church). The lesson was evidently very effective, for the next week the president of the class told me that the steering committee had met, and had decided to ask me to offer Communion in class every Sunday! (I was obliged to refuse, of course) Even the Lord’s Supper can be used as a dividing point, and when it is, it is better to say no.

One may take it a bit further than that; it is not just our duty to avoid dividing the body, but also to take positive steps to encourage the unity of the body. I was shocked when Graydon Jessup told me that 90% of the letters he receives are critical of his work. So I decided to write, as appropriate, letters of encouragement. Do we in fact encourage our leaders, or criticize them as a form of target practice?

John’s Reaction

Considering what Peter did with Ananias and Sapphira[5] one may wonder why John did not simply dispose of the man. But note what he plans to do:

·         He will “call attention” to what he is doing. Often, this is sufficient -- for the big frog may feel that the rest of us don’t need to know what he’s doing.

·         In accordance with his other writing, he will probably attempt to gently restore Diotrephes to true fellowship.[6] He does not use the weapons of the world as does his opponent; rather, the weapons of God.

One reason for this gentle restoration is the John has made the same mistake!

(Mark 10:35-40 NIV) Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." {36} "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. {37} They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." {38} "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" {39} "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, {40} but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."


It is not sufficient for John merely to “deal with” Diotrephes. He must also encourage righteous behavior. The principle which he outlines here is that of imitation. The Greek word used here is the one from which we get our word “mimic.” And who should we imitate?

(Eph 5:1 NIV) Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children

This, however, appears difficult -- for we are physical creatures, and God is spirit. Fortunately, there is a secondary method!

(1 Cor 11:1 NIV) Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

Note the point clearly: not just “follow my example” -- but follow it when I follow Christ. Be an imitator, not a lemming.

Imitation, you see, is how children grow in spirit. To imitate is to become like; to mimic, as the Greek would have it.

The Key to this Lesson

There is one key point to this lesson, and it comes from the point of pride. The reason Diotrephes has not been able to get out of his sinful situation -- and the reason he got into it in the first place -- is that he has not given primacy to Christ. He has not placed Jesus Christ first in his life. As Paul told us,

(Col 1:15-20 NIV) He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. {16} For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. {17} He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. {18} And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. {19} For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, {20} and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

We see the results of this in Diotrephes and John:

·         Diotrephes places himself first -- and the result is gossip, rudeness and division in the church.

·         John places Christ first, and the result is unity, achieved through restoration.

·         John does this in the imitation of Christ -- that highest of moral principles. He exemplifies what Paul told the Philippians:

(Phil 2:3-11 NIV) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. {4} Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. {5} Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: {6} Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, {7} but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. {8} And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! {9} Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, {10} that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, {11} and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The question then is, which mind is in us? Whom do we place first - ourselves or Jesus Christ?

[1] (Mat 7:15-16 NIV) "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. {16} By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

[2] (Prov 26:20 NIV) Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.

[3] (Mat 5:3 NIV) "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (My reference, not his)

[4] Note that humility is often misrepresented as false modesty. It is not. It is well described by Paul: (Rom 12:3 NIV) For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.

[5] Acts 5:1-11

[6] For example, (1 John 5:16 NIV) If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that.

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