The Subtle Snare of Self-Glorification

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. – 3 John 1:9-10 ESV

After praising Gaius for his generosity and the hospitality he extended to the visiting evangelists, John points out the actions of another individual within the local fellowship. In this case, John has nothing good to say about this man, whose name is Diotrephes. In fact, John describes Diotrephes as someone “who likes to put himself first” and “does not acknowledge our authority” (3 John 1:9 ESV). This member of the church was resisting John’s authority as an elder and apostle. He saw himself as a leader within the local congregation and had stood opposed to the ministry of the visiting evangelists. John accused him of refusing to “welcome the brothers” (3 John 1:10 ESV). Not only that, but Diotrephes had also tried to prevent anyone in the church from meeting the needs of these men, even punishing those who did by throwing them out of the church.

This man was the antithesis of Gaius. We have no other details regarding his life other than what John describes here, but it is not difficult to assess that this man was selfish and self-centered, motivated by a need for control, and unwilling to love others in the same way that God had shown love to him. Diotrephes saw John and these visiting evangelists as a threat to his authority.

Notice that John does not accuse Diotrephes of propagating false doctrine. This man was not preaching another Gospel or denying the deity of Jesus. He was simply refusing to acknowledge the authority of John as an apostle of Christ and rejecting the ministry of those who had been divinely gifted to minister to the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11).

Diotrephes was not teaching falsehood, but he was modeling an attitude of pride and arrogance that had no place in the church. And his actions were just as dangerous and destructive as those of the false teachers and prophets who were wreaking havoc on congregations throughout Asia Minor.

In a way, Diotrephes was preaching a different Jesus because his actions were in direct violation of the teachings of Jesus. During His earthly ministry, Jesus had used the Pharisees and religious leaders of the Jews as examples to be avoided, not followed. According to Jesus, these men, who had set themselves up as religious and civic authorities over the Jews, were actually deceptive and destructive. They were looked up to as leaders, but Jesus had warned His disciples, “don’t follow their example” (Matthew 23:3 NLT). And He provided ample evidence for emulating their behavior.

“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’” – Matthew 23:5-7 NLT

For these men, leadership was all about authority and power. They flaunted their positions and gloried in their prominence. But Jesus went on to warn his followers:

“The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12 NLT

And with that statement, we see the difference between Gaius and Diotrephes. One was humble and willing to serve, while the other was marked by pride and an overwhelming need to be the center of attention.

This kind of attitude was particularly repulsive to John because he knew from first-hand experience how it stood in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus. He would have well-remembered the occasion when Jesus had confronted him and the other disciples over a conversation they had one day while walking along the road. When they had arrived at their destination in Capernaum, Jesus had asked them, “What were you discussing out on the road?” (Mark 9:33 NLT). But they were too embarrassed to answer Jesus “because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34 NLT).

So, Jesus had sat the disciples down and delivered them the sobering news that “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else” (Mark 9:35 NLT).

Now, you would think that this message from Jesus would have left the disciples not only embarrassed but reticent to ever bring up this topic again. Yet, in the very next chapter, Mark records another moment when Jesus had to confront the worldly outlook of His own followers, and this time it involved John and his brother James. These two men approached Jesus and asked Him if He would do them a favor.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

The audacity of these two brothers shocks us. How in the world could they make such a request after having heard Jesus say, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place?” Yet, here they were requesting that Jesus award them with the two most prominent positions available in a royal administration: The two seats on either side of the king. Make no mistake about it, they were asking for the right to rule and reign alongside Jesus when He set up His earthly kingdom.

And the answer Jesus gave these two brash brothers echoed what He had told the disciples earlier.

“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:43-45 NLT

Their request had been completely off-base and uncalled for. First of all, Jesus informed them that kind of decision was up to God alone.

“I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. God has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.” – Mark 10:40 NLT

And the right to rule alongside Jesus would have to be preceded by a willingness to suffer as He would.

“You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” – Mark 10:38 NLT

John and James had no clue what they were asking. They didn’t understand that the authority for which they longed was only available to those who were willing to suffer and serve. And Jesus used Himself as the model for godly leadership, stating, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT).

John and James were in it for what they could get out of it. So was Diotrephes. But Jesus had come to earth, not to gain, but to give His life away. He had willingly taken on the nature of a man so that He could die on behalf of sinful humanity. And yet, His humiliation was followed by His glorification.

When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. – Hebrews 3:3 NLT

John was appalled by the actions of Diotrephes. Watching this arrogant man revel in his self-exalted state of authority must have reminded John of his own moment of shame when he and his brother had asked Jesus for the right to reign at His side. John had come a long way. He had learned a great deal since watching His friend and teacher die on the cross. His encounters with the resurrected Messiah had left him a changed man. And his understanding of what it means to be a true leader had been radically altered by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.

For Diotrephes, glory was all about power and position in this life. But the apostle Paul would beg to differ. His words to the church in Colossae would provide a powerful reminder to the tendency within all of us to follow the example of Diotrephes. We are not to seek glory in this life. Instead, we are to keep our eyes fixed on heaven, where the hope of true glorification can be found.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossians 3:1-4 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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