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The Bible does not record many of the problems that beset the early church, but toward the end of the life of John (the last living disciple of the twelve that followed Jesus) a situation is recorded that reflects attitudes that crept into the church when people began to forget the truly important teachings of Jesus. As time passes, our minds seem to begin looking for some justification to promote ourselves above others. There seems to be a strong drive in all of us, to be admired and respected and to have the pre-eminence though we will not admit it easily. Often, attitudes are very good at the beginning of some phase of history, but as time passes, those attitudes often change. If we are not constantly on guard we can do things that are highly displeasing to God and to our fellow men as well. This attitude problem has always appeared, it seems, but Paul noted that near the end time, it would be much stronger (2 Tim. 3:2). Men would be lovers of themselves and material things, and they would be proud and boastful.
The incident John recorded was the rebuff he received when he wrote ahead to a church to say he would be coming. One would think that every converted person and minister in that church would gladly receive someone who was an eye-witness to the life and death of Jesus Christ as well as the following forty days of teaching that followed His resurrection. That seems to be so obvious that to think anything else appears incredible, yet, John records that the minister in charge of the church he wanted to visit did not receive him (3 John 9,10). Diotrephes loved to have the pre-eminence among church members, John records. He was guilty of slandering or prating against John with malicious words. Not only that, but Diotrephes wielded a lot of authority and put those who withstood his dictates out of the church. John indicates that these actions were evil and were not to be imitated. John said that "if" he came, he would act on these actions. No more is said than that, but it is astonishing to find such an attitude only about 60 years after the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. John still refers to the congregation as a church and the brethren as those he loves. John simply states that a person acting like Diotrephes loved the pre-eminence. This direction seems to be a seed in the human mind that just waits for the right conditions to blossom and grow.
Diotrephes loved the best seats and the greetings as though he were someone special. That attitude is what Jesus condemned among the scribes and Pharisees who Jesus labeled as hypocrites who would not enter the Kingdom and who were preventing others from entering. Jesus said they loved the best places in the synagogues but they would not be entering the kingdom of heaven. The words of Jesus were accurately recorded in the twenty-third chapter of the book of Matthew (Matt. 23:6,7). How sad that one who is in charge of a part of the Body of Christ (the church) can allow himself to slip back into the mire of attitudes that plagued those in charge of the temple earlier and caused its ruin.
The problem of wanting to be recognized and to be emulated does not remain in the background very long. Even the disciples of Jesus Christ were often found arguing about who would be the greatest in the future. They visualized the future that was in the "here and now" for them (Luke 22:24-26). Worse yet, this account is about the very moment in time when Jesus was preparing to be the "Passover Lamb" and give His life to pay the penalty of sin for all who repented. How discouraging this could have been at a time when Jesus needed human comfort and support. After all the wonders Jesus showed them and the many admonitions He gave to be humble and love one another fervently, the disciples did not seem to understand this inner problem men and women have until after Jesus died and rose from the dead. The mother of James and John asked for the "best seats" for her two sons in the Kingdom (Matt. 20:19-25). Did they understand all about the Kingdom? It seems they did not. It did not seem out of order to the mother of Zebedees's sons to ask, because somehow that is in the back of everyone's mind. It is obvious that someone would be sitting on the right and left hand of Christ. Jesus indicated that the two positions would be occupied by the ones who God the Father chose (verse 23). Pre-eminence and the drive for it for oneself is something that needs constant attention so that it is controlled and understood.
Within the book of Acts in the recording of the death of Stephen, there is also an account of a man who appeared to be able to "astonish" people with his practice of sorcery and claiming to be someone great (Acts 8:9-13,18-24). Amazing as it seems, this man began to believe in Christ and was baptized (verse 13). He was so impressed with the deeds done by God's servants that he offered to buy this power. Simon Magus' ability got a lot of attention and people even said: "This man is the great power of God." Obviously there was an attitude problem within Simon that did not go away at baptism. He seems to have been consumed with the desire to be great and Peter said it was a great wickedness in Simon that needed repentance (verse 22). Simon did not make the change - he loved being thought of as special, a spiritual giant and being looked up to with fear and respect. That was part of his nature and character before he was baptized and it seems it never fully left him. He could not imagine taking the "lower seat."
Jesus had used various times and ways to teach a very important lesson to His disciples and thus to all His followers right up until today. On one occasion, Jesus told them to take the lowest seat if they were invited to a wedding - and being invited higher would be an honour, while taking the higher seat and being asked to move down would be a disgrace (Luke 14:8-11). The lesson was that the person who exalts himself is in a wrong attitude. We are to allow God to exalt us or put us into a position of authority as He determines and wishes. Humans do need leadership and those in authority. Jesus also showed the example of how we were to consider one another by washing the feet of each disciple on the Passover evening (John 13:12,15). Jesus knew the inner drive of humans - when that silent but persistent need to be recognized whispered in their minds. Jesus gave many examples and taught wonderful truths - but one truth that we all know is that no matter how wonderful the teacher - success is greatly dependent upon the attitude and effort of the student. God encourages the best in attitudes, but allows us to choose.
A child of God is expected to want the gifts of God that look forward to eternity. Pre-eminence here on earth is fleeting, even in the Body of Christ. Attitudes still needed to be those of humility and thankfulness for the ability and opportunity God has given anyone to serve. Jesus taught that we humans are to seek treasures in heaven where they cannot be corrupted or lost (Matt. 6:19-21). God had given Paul a thorn in his side to help him not think too highly of himself (2 Cor. 12:7). Paul understood the principle well and commented to the church that there are many servant positions in the church, but we are not to think of ourselves more highly that we ought to, but to act as God gives ability (Rom. 12:3). He said not to set our minds on high things (Rom. 12:16). We are to serve God with all our heart, mind and strength, and let Him reward us if we are to have a reward - here and in the future. Paul knew this life was looking forward to eternal life, and our hopes needed to focus on the future. It is God who gives great glory and lasting, permanent positions (I Cor. 15:19,38-43).