Diotrephes: Who loves to be first (3 John 9,10)

Read 3 John 9,10 on BibleGateway

An introductory warning: All of my posts so far on ‘The Sharpened Sword’ have focussed on easily unnoticed characters that appear in the pages of Scripture. Each person, though, has provided an example for us to imitate as we seek to live lives that honour God.

This post is different….

In my last post we looked at a character called Gaius who appears in the short letter of 3 John. He was an impressive man who walked in the truth and generously offered hospitality to others. In the same letter John goes on to write about a second character called Diotrephes (vv9,10) and describes him as follows:

– he loves to be first;

– he does not accept what John and his associates say or teach the church;

– he unjustly accuses John with wicked words;

– he does not receive the brothers who are the itinerant missionaries (note the contrast to Gaius);

– he forbids people from offering hospitality; and

– he puts out of the church any who welcome these itinerant missionaries.

This is quite a list and reveals Diotrephes to be a divisive and manipulative man who is happy to slander, bully and intimidate others.

I think the key to this list of negative behaviours is the first point above: Diotrephes ‘loves to be first’ (v9). Once someone desires to be at the top of the heap and makes this their aim, there is a real danger that they will go to any lengths to make sure this happens.

We see in these few verses that Diotrephes is willing to contradict the teaching of John, one of the apostles of Jesus, and slander his character as well. John was a man who was in Jesus’ closest circle of friends.  He was the man whom Jesus entrusted His mother to (see John 19:26,27). He had credibility across the Early Church as someone who had been with Jesus and was known as the ‘apostle of love’.

All of this is of no consequence to Diotrephes, the man who loves to be first.

To love to be first is toxic.

To love to be first means that you will promote yourself at the expense of others.

To love to be first is ungodly.

To love to be first shapes all our decisions because we begin to make decisions solely in our own interest. It means that anyone who does not promote us becomes a threat. It means that anyone who speaks against us needs to be shut down. It means that anyone who doesn’t do exactly what we think they should do must be controlled or removed.

We can see that in the list above. Diotrephes moves from believing that he should be the Number One to speaking against the existing authority. He then begins to isolate the church from godly input before controlling people and ultimately removing those who do not agree with him.

It shouldn’t need to be said but I will say it anyway: This is not the way the church, the pure spotless bride of Christ, is to look.

Ego and ambition are dangerous things to have to tame. The only way it can be done successfully is to bring them both into submission under the headship of Christ. Jesus alone is to be first. Christ is the head of the church and we must all take our direction and lead from Him and Him alone. He is the One who is ‘the firstborn of all creation’, ‘before all things, ‘the firstborn from the dead’ and ‘will come to have first place (pre-eminence) in everything’ (see Colossians 1:15-20).

Loving to be first is the exact opposite of true Christian character. The self-serving, self-promoting, arrogant example of Diotrephes does not sit well alongside the self-emptying, servant-hearted, humble example of Jesus.

Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven belonged to those who were like humble children (Matthew 19:14). He explained that if you wished to become great in the kingdom you needed to become a servant (Matthew 20:26,27). He ‘did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). At his final meal He took a towel, wrapped it around Himself and then knelt and washed the disciples feet, one of the lowliest tasks that could be carried out (see John 13:4-11).

Paul, in an incredibly powerful passage, uses the example of Jesus to undercut our self-centred approach to life:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:3-5)

Too often we fall into the trap of loving to be first. It may be subtle – a snipe here or a comment there. It may not lead to us ‘putting them out of the church’ (v10), but that is not the point. Our example is to be Jesus.

The question is: Do we have the same attitude in us as was in Jesus who, being the Son of God and Lord of all came as a servant to serve, suffer and save us?

Instead of loving to be first, He loved us first.

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