Some people really love to be first. Whether you are thinking about middle school boys racing to be first in line for lunch or news reporters scrambling to be first to report on the breaking news of the day, examples are all around us of people who want to be first.
Jesus said the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Does this all mean that it is wrong for Christians to be first in line for dinner? Is it wrong to be the leader of an organization or to know information before others know it? Is it wrong to want your team to come in first place or wrong to have a new phone? Not necessarily.
The Bible warns us against seeking to be first at the expense of bringing others down. One example of this is in the third letter of John.
John the apostle had sent out a traveling team of missionaries to instruct the early churches in the ways of following Christ. A man named Gaius was a friend of John, and he warmly welcomed these people into his home and into his church. He submitted to their authority as teachers and submitted to John’s authority as an apostle who had been sent out by Jesus himself. Gaius was not a man who had to be first. He was a blessing to John, and God’s blessings flowed upon him.
John says to Gaius:
3 John 1:1-8
1 The elder: To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. 2 Dear friend, I pray that you are prospering in every way and are in good health, just as your whole life is going well. 3 For I was very glad when fellow believers came and testified to your fidelity to the truth — how you are walking in truth. 4 I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in truth.
5 Dear friend, you are acting faithfully in whatever you do for the brothers and sisters, especially when they are strangers. 6 They have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God, 7 since they set out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from pagans. 8 Therefore, we ought to support such people so that we can be coworkers with the truth.
However, John had stern words to say about Diotrephes, a man who wanted to be in charge. Diotrephes wanted to be first. As a matter of fact, he rejected John’s authority, slandered John and others, did not welcome the traveling teachers, refused to let others in his church show them hospitality, and threatened to kick people out of the church if they did so. This man was off the rails because of his egocentricity.
3 John 1:9-10
9 I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have first place among them, does not receive our authority. 10 This is why, if I come, I will remind him of the works he is doing, slandering us with malicious words. And he is not satisfied with that! He not only refuses to welcome fellow believers, but he even stops those who want to do so and expels them from the church.
A third man mentioned in this letter, Demetrius, followed the example of John and Gaius and Jesus in rejecting the idea that he had to be first. John told Gaius that the people spoke well of Demetrius, and even better than that, the truth of the Word of God spoke well of him, indicating that the pattern of Demetrius’s life was consistent with the teaching of the Bible and the life of Jesus himself.
Let’s think back to our questions above. Is it wrong to be a leader, to win a game, to come in first place? Certainly not. God expects us to do our very best with our time, talents, words and everything he’s entrusted to us. If he wants to exalt us to a position of first place, then by all means we should be grateful and use that platform as an opportunity to bless others and glorify him (think: Joseph as the second-in-command in Egypt).
What we must avoid is the obsession with being first. Here’s a simple principle to live by: do your best and leave the results up to God.
Had Diotrephes simply done this, he would have been a gracious host, learned from the traveling teachers, and supported their ministry (like Gaius did) so they could continue traveling and proclaiming the gospel. Instead, he robbed himself of the blessing because he wanted to be first.
John embeds four practical applications for us today in this short letter of 3 John. If we apply these principles to our life, we will follow in the way of Christ, realizing we don’t have to position ourself as first.
Principle #1 — Imitate that which is good. Walk in truth and love because God is your heavenly Father.
11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.
Principle #2 — Pray for people. Pray that God will bless them in every way, and pray that they will accept his will and grace no matter what the circumstances of life may be.
2 Dear friend, I pray that you are prospering in every way and are in good health, just as your whole life is going well.
Principle #3 — Stay humble. Gaius and Demetrius stayed humble, but Diotrephes did not.
9 I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have first place among them, does not receive our authority.
Principle #4 — Show hospitality. Be welcoming everywhere you go. Welcome people into your home. Show genuine Christian hospitality.
5 Dear friend, you are acting faithfully in whatever you do for the brothers and sisters, especially when they are strangers.
3 John 1:13-15
13 I have many things to write you, but I don’t want to write to you with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. 15 Peace to you. The friends send you greetings. Greet the friends by name.