The Importance of Hospitality
The book of 3 John is both one of the shortest books in the Bible and one of the most unique. Being short, the letter is easy to read straight through, and one can easily grasp the basic themes. Being addressed directly to “the beloved Gaius,” the book is unique in that it is a personal letter (3 Jn 1). In the opening, the author, John, identifies himself as “the elder” (Gk. presbuteros). In the early church, elders provided spiritual oversight and guidance to a body of believers, much in the same way that a pastor or priest leads a congregation today. From the tone of the letter, it appears that Gaius holds a similar position in the church. From that vantage point, the book becomes a letter from one pastor to another, offering advice and direction for the work of the ministry. Taking the letter as a whole, one theme in particular emerges–the importance of hospitality in the Christian life.
Hospitality in the New Testament
After the opening salutation, John begins by commending Gaius for his hospitality toward the believers, even those who are “strangers” (3 Jn 5). Hospitality, an important virtue in many ancient middle eastern cultures going back to the time of Abraham (Gen 18:1-8), has special significance in the early church. In the Gospels, when Jesus sends out his ministers, he asks them to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals” (Lk 10:4). How, though, would they receive life’s basic necessities while on the mission trail? Jesus instructs them to look for a house where they find peace and hospitality. When they find a place where they are welcome, Jesus tells them, “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house” (Lk 10:7). In short, the first Christian ministers placed their faith in the hospitality of strangers for their basic needs. The kindness of a stranger, therefore, becomes the provision of God.
There are numerous other references in the New Testament that cite hospitality as essential to the Christian life. For example, hospitality is listed as a job requirement for anyone who desires to hold the office of bishop (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:8). Since the first churches met primarily in private homes, it is clear why hospitality is fundamental to spiritual leadership. Without hospitality, the church could not even gather to worship God!
Twice the New Testament specifically instructs Christians to show hospitality toward strangers (Rom 12:13; Heb 13:1-2). 3 John offers some context that helps explain why this is so important in the early church. The believers who came to Gaius’ church “began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers” (3 Jn 7). In the spirit of Jesus’ ministry, these believers live in the faith of hospitality, trusting that even a stranger might welcome them in. However, one extra dimension emerges here. Now that a family of believers has developed, believers trust in the kindness of fellow believers first and foremost. This pattern of faith goes back to Paul, who did not demand support from new believers or non-believers because he did not want the gospel to become a “pretext for greed” (1 Thess 2:5). Since believers leave their homes, trusting in the provision of God through strangers, John says “we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth” (3 Jn 8).
The Sin of Inhospitality
After commending Gaius for his hospitality, the letter takes a sharp turn in verse nine. By contrast, a believer named Diotrephes fails to show basic hospitality to fellow Christians. John says that Diotrephes “refuses to welcome the friends” (3 Jn 10). Along with a lack of hospitality, John rebukes Diotrephes because he “likes to put himself first” and “does not acknowledge our authority” (3 Jn 9). In these harsh lines, a nexus of social sins emerge–selfishness, egotism, disrespect, lack of kindness and compassion, and inhospitality.
By addressing the situation surrounding Diotrephes, John creates a sharp dichotomy for his readers. The conduct of Gaius shows a high regard for hospitality and the unity of the body of Christ. Diotrephes, on the other hand, fails to extend hospitality and even goes so far as to expel persons from the church who attempt to aid the strangers. Herein lies one of the deadliest sins of the New Testament–breach of Christian fellowship.
Showing Faith Through Hospitality
After setting forth the examples of both Gaius and Diotrephes, John implores his readers to “imitate what is good” (3 Jn 11). Good, in this case, is not an abstract ideal. John has clearly defined good in practical terms–showing hospitality to strangers, putting others first, acknowledging the spiritual authority of the apostles, and protecting the unity of the church.
This understanding of good in practical terms helps add clarity to John’s opening remarks in the letter. As an elder and pastor of a congregation of believers, he says, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn 4). From a modern vantage point, it is tempting to equate the phrase, “walking in the truth,” with theological purity and doctrinal faithfulness. In other words, faithfulness to the Christian faith is viewed in terms of fidelity to the historic confessions of faith. Yet, the New Testament consistently works with a different framework. Fidelity to the core tenets of the faith is inescapably linked with the practical living out of the faith.
Ultimately, Christian doctrine is not just a set of abstract theological speculations. The doctrine is a kind of life to be lived each day. Contending for the ancient truth of Christianity is to live as Christ lived. In this spirit, one can see that the practice of hospitality, especially hospitality toward strangers, is one of the primary ways to show one’s faith in Jesus Christ.