Love is a good thing, right? Love can fix problems, build bridges and have a positive impact. But there are certain kinds of love that are destructive. We can think of the “three biggies”, the love of money, sex, and power, for example. But there is another kind of love which can be quite destructive and insidious. We find an example of it in the letter we know as 3rd John. The apostle John sent this letter to Gaius to ensure hospitality toward missionaries he sent out. Given that travel could be dangerous in that day and place, hospitality was very important. While John shows some trust in Gaius to do the right thing for the travellers, he speaks of someone who lost his trust:
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 call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church. 3 John 1:9-10 (NRSV)
Diotrephes has four marks against him:
- He spreads rumours against John and his connections.
- He refuses to welcome anyone from John.
- He discourages everyone else from welcoming John’s missionaries.
- He throws out of his own church anyone who opposes him.
Diotrephes is a problem because he has a problem. We are told what the problem is in verse 9. Here there are two words, translated above as “who likes to put himself first”. They can be stated more literally as ‘the love of being first among them’. This is a love which is destructive.
The love of being first was destructive in John’s day. Think of what it did to others, to the reputation of John and his connections. Think of what it did to hinder the growth of people as evangelism and discipleship were hindered. Think of what ‘the love of being first’ did to to the unity of the church when people were thrown out, and throughout the region as rejection left a bitter taste among Christians elsewhere.
The love of being first continues to be destructive in our day. It is destructive within marriage, within and between families, and among friends. If we love to always be first our only friends will be those who don’t mind always being second, or third. It is destructive within all organizations we might belong to, including the church. The love of being first is also destructive to our relationship with God.
The love of being first can be destructive even if you are considered righteous in every other way. There is no evidence that there was a disagreement over theology or church polity with Diotrephes. We would have expected John to have said something more specific if so. What John says is simply ‘Diotrephes loves to be first among them’. This is a kind of sin that is insidious. Church leaders and pastors can get away with it for a time. It can hide behind a clean life, solid theology, good preaching and everything else expected of a pastor. When there is a love of being first, it can unnoticed until the damage is done.
This leads to two questions. First, do you love being first? Second, is there a cure for the love of being first? The fist question is for each of us to answer for ourselves. Let us go on to answer the second.
John the baptizer is a great example to us of a better way:
Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John 3:25-26 (NRSV)
You can imagine the possibility of jealousy on the part of John since “all are going to” Jesus. What does John say?
John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. . . 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:27,30 (NRSV)
John has a humility which allows him to fade into the background when it is no longer appropriate for him to be in the foreground. Are you able to fade into the background when it is time for someone else to be in the foreground?
Jesus teaches humility. Speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, he says that they do
all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, . . . . The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Matthew 23:5,6,11,12 (NRSV)
Jesus points to himself as an example of the kind of humility expected from his followers:
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28 (NRSV)
Paul points to Jesus as the great example of humility:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. Philippians 2:3-8 (NRSV)
God set the ultimate example of putting others first through the incarnation. Humility here is thinking of what is best for others. Jesus did not deny his capacity to do great things, indeed he did great things for others and for us! But he did put our need for a rescue from sin above his own need for rescue from a cruel cross. Jesus did not love being first, though in fact he is first.
Love is always a good thing, right? Love for God and for people is always a good thing. But our love can become destructive when we love certain things. The love of being first is a destructive love. Let us follow Jesus in loving God and others first.