John's third letter is one of those pint-size epistles whose brevity belies its importance. We so easily fall into the trap of equating size with significance. In Milton's Paradise Lost the newly created Adam is told – and it is a lesson worth repeating – to
Consider first, that great
Or bright infers not excellence: the Earth
Though, in comparison of Heaven, so small,
Nor glistering, may of solid good contain
More plenty than the sun that barren shines.
In other words, big is not necessarily beautiful. John, we know, could write a hefty tome when needed – witness his Gospel or the Revelation. No, if he penned what seems a mere scrap it was because he was inspired by God's Spirit to express what was required in just a few words. All teachers would benefit from the reminder that much can be said in little. This crisp letter certainly contains "solid good", offering a striking snapshot of a man who, though suffering from chronic ill health, was going on well spiritually: "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" (3 Jn vv.2-4). It is a tribute to the power of Christ that sickbed saints may enjoy His abundant life in greater fullness than many in the peak of physical condition.
John's first few verses concentrate on three matters: Gaius's prosperity (v.2), the brethren's testimony to him (v.3), and John's felicity because of him (v.4).
Let's pause a moment to consider the way this world measures prosperity. Not surprisingly, it focusses on externals. It weighs up the bank balance, possessions, educational qualifications, fame, and physical health. But when John writes about success his benchmark is not the material and temporal but the spiritual and eternal. He doesn't congratulate Gaius on his lucrative and prestigious career, his university degree, his expensive home, his luxury holidays, or his social prominence; rather, he takes delight in his evident spiritual well-being. That's what really matters. The brethren had brought back a glowing testimony that Gaius had a firm grasp of divine truth, and was living in the good of what he knew. It's one thing to have the Scriptures stashed away in our minds, quite another to have their teachings worked out practically in daily conduct. Gaius was a model of genuine godliness. And it says much about John's priorities that it caused him such joyful felicity to hear about his friend's spiritual fervour. But here's the key point: John's initial words are a desire or, rather, a prayer (the word "wish" is translated "pray" in James 5.16) that Gaius's feeble body might be brought into line with his state of soul. Just think! This man's devotedness to the things of God was so outstanding that the apostle longs that he might be equally robust physically. Many a faithful child of God suffers in a disease-ridden body, looking eagerly for the coming of the One "who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory" (Phil 3.20-21, RV). Sickness and age take their inevitable toll on our physical frame. According to the online World Health Organization definition, health is "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity". Only when Christ returns to transform His people into His likeness will that become an instantaneous and glorious reality for all the saints. But John couldn't help wishing that Gaius might enjoy a foretaste in the here and now by having his bodily condition match his spiritual excellence. Had John's prayer been granted, doubtless Gaius would have looked like an Olympic athlete!
But there's another side to this, which ought to prompt serious self-examination. With disarming frankness, F B Meyer warns us not "to express [John's desire] to all our friends, because if their bodies were to correspond to the condition of their souls, they would suddenly fall into ill-health". And there are occasions when that is exactly what happened. To teach us the essential hideousness of sin, the Bible includes examples of people whose outward condition was suddenly impaired so as to reflect the grim reality of their inner spiritual state. At Sunday School we used to sing a chorus which, using horticultural imagery, taught the distinction between the beauty of holiness and the ugliness of sin:
My heart may be like a garden fair,
Loving thoughts and words and deeds a-blossoming there;
Or it may be a place of poison weeds,
Growing into ugly thoughts and words and deeds.
Generally speaking, of course, a sinful heart with all its "poison weeds" remains invisible; indeed, it is often concealed beneath a dazzling exterior, just as "Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light" (2 Cor 11.14). But on occasion God pulled off the wraps to expose its real nature. Miriam's envy of her younger brother was illustrated in the shocking disease which marred her features, leaving her "as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed" (Num 12.12). Similarly, when he shouldered his way into the temple to offer incense, King Uzziah's angry refusal to accept correction exploded into the leprosy which flared up in his forehead so that, in dismay, he "hasted also to go out, because the Lord had smitten him" (2 Chr 26.20). Gehazi's greed and dissimulation, reflected in his ironic contraction of Naaman's disease, meant that "he went out from [Elisha's] presence a leper as white as snow" (2 Kings 5.27). Nebuchadnezzar's mental affliction penalized his pride: "he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers, and his nails like birds' claws" (Dan 4.33). Herod's painful bowel disease mirrored a blasphemous vanity which accepted the worship that belongs to God alone: "immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost" (Acts 12.23). Elymas's virulent opposition to the gospel was expressed in blindness: "immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand" (Acts 13.11). And many of the Corinthian saints had fallen ill – some had even died – because they failed to appreciate the solemn privilege of participation at the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11.30). It is uncomfortable to note that many of these examples were professing believers. Envy, incorrigibility, avarice, pride, and thoughtlessness in spiritual exercises – how much we need to be on guard against such ugly thoughts (and the words and deeds they foster) which are so displeasing to the Lord!
Mercifully, we can rejoice that every believer has, by grace alone, a perfect, unchangeable standing in Christ, which means we are eternally "accepted in the beloved" (Eph 1.6), sheltered behind His unfading beauty. Nevertheless, we all know that our day to day spiritual condition can vary greatly. How would I look were the Lord suddenly to make my body reflect my current state of soul? Let us go for gold in spiritual health!
To be continued.