In his third letter, the apostle John instructs his friend Gaius about the importance of supporting itinerate missionary evangelists. In the process, he gives us a number of biblical principles that should shape the way we think about our own missionary sending and support.
Calling himself “the elder,” John writes,
The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul. For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth (3 John 1–8).
There are several direct implications for missions in this short passage. Let’s consider five.
1. Concern for missions and missionaries is normal (3 John 3, 5, 8).
John asserts that his friend Gaius is “walking in the truth,” and that it is “a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers.” He concludes that “we ought to support people like these [missionaries].”
Scripture is clear that a desire to support the spread of the gospel to those who haven’t heard is a normal part of basic Christian health.
2. Cooperation among local churches is encouraged (3 John 3, 7).
Likewise, cooperation in missions among multiple local congregations is taken for granted as a good thing. These gospel workers went out from another church, likely John’s. They were “strangers” to Gaius (v. 5), so clearly not from his congregation.
And yet John says Gaius “ought” to support these people so that together John’s church and Gaius’s church may partner together for the truth. Mutual support of missionaries is a real gospel partnership that brings honor to Christ.
3. Knowing whom we ought to support is crucial (3 John 6–8).
But how can we know whom to support? The apostle John narrows it down for us considerably. Certainly we hope Christians share the gospel as they scatter because of persecution (Acts 8:4) or travel in pursuit of business (James 4:13). But John describes a special moral obligation to support those who’ve been sent out “for the sake of the name.” These are the ones to whom we “ought” to give material support.
“Missionaries aren’t just self-styled free agents. They should be accountable to a specific local church.”
Despite globalization and mobility, until Christ returns there will always be a need for churches to train, send, and financially support intentional missionaries. What’s more, when John notes that these missionaries were “accepting nothing from the Gentiles,” he seems to mean they weren’t earning money from the gospel; so the church should supply their needs. Lots of people share the gospel. Praise God! But only some have a moral claim on the local church’s financial support. These are the men and women we call missionaries.
Missionaries aren’t just self-styled free agents. They should be accountable to a specific local church. The missionaries mentioned in 3 John are probably accountable to John’s church in Ephesus.
Did you notice the church connection in verse six? John tells Gaius these missionaries “testified to your love before the church.” After having been supported by Gaius, they returned and reported back to the church that sent them. John’s letter, among other things, seems to be his church’s commendation of these missionaries as their own approved workers.
Biblical missionaries are connected to a local church. It’s always been that way.
4. Support should be abundant (3 John 6).
John doesn’t leave us to wonder what our support for missionaries should look like. It should be lavish, abundant, and provided “in a manner worthy of God.”
“Our support for missionaries should aim to see that they lack nothing, as if we were supplying Jesus himself for a journey. It’s a high bar.”
This concern that Christian workers be amply supplied is echoed elsewhere in the Bible. As Paul instructs Titus, “Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing” (Titus 3:13).
Our support for missionaries should aim to see that they lack nothing, as if we were supplying Jesus himself for a journey. It’s a high bar.
5. The motivation is love for the glory of Christ (3 John 7–8).
Finally, we see the motivation that should drive all this going and sending and supporting: love for the glory of King Jesus. This is the engine of the missionary enterprise—for the sake of Christ’s name. The needs of those yet unreached by the gospel are great, but John presses us to send for the sake of Christ’s fame and the glory of his truth.
“Love for the glory of King Jesus. This is the engine of the missionary enterprise—for the sake of Christ’s name.”
These five principles from 3 John are clear. Obedience to them should revolutionize how some of us think about supporting missions from our churches.
Andy Johnson earned a PhD from Texas A&M and now serves as an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Andy Johnson’s new book Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global (Crossway, 2017).