[In the month of April our church’s (Reconciliation Road Church) ‘s Bible Reading Plan we will be reading through the books of Philemon and Colossians. If you want to track with us you can download the BRP by following this link – RRC BRP for April]
Philemon is a very personal letter written by the Apostle Paul to someone called Philemon. Remarkably, the letter was read out to not just Philemon but also to the whole church that met in his house in Colossae!
In the next few days, we will uncover the vital issue the letter dealt with that needed to be challenged.
Today, however, we will concern ourselves with what can be gleaned from the introduction regarding a question that is so pertinent South African Christ-followers at present – what is a church?
We are on day 6 of a national lockdown (due to the COVID-19 pandemic). All public meetings have been banned, including church gatherings!
A unique situation indeed, one that strikes at the very core of what the church is. So in this unique time, it is worth considering what the church is?
Now, Philemon is not a treatise defining & describing the church – however, tucked away here in its introductory verses, are three answers to the question – ‘What is the church?’
What is the Church?
1. A Gathering/Community of Saints (vs1-2, 5&7)
The church is more than, but it can never be less than the gathering of those who have been rescued & redeemed by Jesus.
The church is a gathering, an assembly of believers in Jesus. People who have no righteousness of their own but through their common faith in Jesus are rightly referred to as ‘saints’ in Christ Jesus (vs5&7).
Meeting together as Christ-followers is integral to the church; it isn’t an optional extra that can be easily replaced by some online experience.
There are times when the church is scattered, but it is defined by its gathering together.
In our world so increasingly filled with isolated individuals, the church stands out as a community that gathers together physically in regular rhythms of meeting for worship, prayer, God’s word & fellowship – and those meetings shape and define us.
In this unique time, when we can’t meet physically all together as a church – we ought to feel like something is wrong. The present situation should rub us the wrong way; it should leave us feeling like something is not quite right. It should make us long for the day we can physically gather together in one place all together again – and not just in our homes tenuously connected by some online experience.
And yet from vs2 we can also be encouraged in this time of being apart, that there was a church that met in the house of Philemon!
So, may we remember at this unique time that Jesus promised that He would presence Himself anywhere where two or three people gathered together in His name are (Matthew 18:20).
And, so as you gather as the scattered church know this – Jesus is amongst you as you gather to worship, pray and listen to His word. So meet as the scattered church with faith and expectation for the presence of Jesus amongst you in your homes!
2. A Community of Faith, Love & Mission (vs5-6)
This church Paul wrote to, was known to him – it was a community and a family of faith. Philemon’s family are greeted in the letter, Apphia his wife & Archippus his son.
Paul knew the people in the church; he knew details about their lives. They were defined group whom this letter was addressed to(vs3), a community of faith working out their salvation and working out God’s purpose for their lives (vs6) alongside one another.
The Gospel always creates a community! Wherever the Gospel is preached and received a church, a community of faith is born. The Gospel had been preached in Colossae, and this community which had previously not existed was now a definable group.
In this church, there was faith and love (vs5). The church does not exist to meet our felt-needs. Rather, together, we as the church care for one another’s needs, loving each other as prompted by the Holy Spirit.
The church is not a building, a programme or a random group who all happen to Livestream at the same time!
The church is an identifiable community of people joined together by their common faith in Jesus, commitment to Jesus’ mission (vs6) and by their love, care and commitment to one another(vs5&7).
3. The church has defined leadership (vs2-7)
These people didn’t just meet in Philemon’s house; he led them. Philemon’s faith and love for Jesus overflowed into their lives so that they were encouraged and spurred on in their faith (vs5) and in sharing the Gospel (vs6). Leaders ought to inspire those they lead through their own devotion to Jesus, calling people to do what they are doing!
Philemon’s faith in Jesus and love for Jesus inspired the church he led (vs5) to follow. Similarly, at one point Paul as a leader wrote to the Corinthian church he helped lead, saying; “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
More than this, we read that their hearts were refreshed through his leadership (vs7). They were revived, encouraged, spurred on in their faith walk. Leaders have a crucial role in spurring on and encouraging believers in Jesus and urging them to urge one another as well!
In this time of church scattered, it is vital to remember the relationship God has established between a church and its leaders God has appointed.
It is not God’s will for people to float around leaderless, unaccountable and drinking from every stream of content. In God’s wisdom and love, God gives leaders, shepherds to His church for the good and the benefit of the church. Their role is to shepherd, guard, guide & govern the people God has entrusted to their care (1 Peter 5:1-5 & Hebrews 13:17).
At this time, may you know who it is you relate to as your leaders! God intends that you know your leaders and that they know who you are and that God has entrusted you into their care and that you are committed to them as your leaders.
In closing, these are not obviously all the answers to the question posed, however, they are some of what resides in today’s passage and are relevant to this present moment. God bless you and keep you!
I had to go to the mall the other day. I went to collect something and was amazed at how many people were there just carrying on with life as normal.
People everywhere acting as if nothing was happening – as if there wasn’t an unseen virus lurking which there is at present with COVID-19.
People were eating at restaurants, having a baby shower celebration, shopping. There were a few people taking precautions with masks and gloves, but they were in the minority. To see such precautions in a mall would normally have been strange; however, even this attire has become our new norm as we carry on with everyday things.
It occurred to me that this is what we are sometimes like concerning the spiritual battles taking place around us. We can’t see our enemy, and we don’t see the battles going on. So we carry on as if they aren’t happening.
It says in Ephesians 6:12 that our fight as Christians is not against flesh and blood enemies, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world.
Whether you believe the COVID-19 virus exists or not is irrelevant. Similarly, whether you believe the unseen spiritual world exists or not is irrelevant. Whether we believe or not, the spread of the virus continues. Whether we believe or not the battle continues.
However, we have been forced as a country to change our daily routines because of this real and unseen threat to our lives and those around us.
What will force us to be aware of the war happening in the spiritual realm? Perhaps when the Devil’s attacks get our attention, and we’re forced to bend our knee and come before our Father and ask for his help.
Our Father in his grace, love and kindness towards us has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). He has given us his Spirit that lives within us and is our Comforter, our Helper, our Counselor and our Encourager. He has given us weapons to fight in this war. We are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus because we have been saved from the enemies camp, we have the word of our Father that is truth, he fills our hearts with peace, and he even gives us faith to believe in him.
Living as though you’re not in a war does not mean it’s not happening!
So, read your Bible so that you can know the truth and fight off the enemy when he attacks you with lies. Meditate, think about and remind yourself of who you are because Jesus died in your place. Ask God to fill you with faith so that you can believe him and trust him with your life. And speak to him, ask him for help, look to Him as your source of comfort, encouragement and wisdom. Be alert and don’t listen to the enemy when he lies to you about no threat of war, he’s then got you exactly where he wants you, vulnerable and unprotected.
I wrote in my journal this morning that I have noticed a certain word has crept into my vocabulary in the last week or so… It’s the word ‘unprecedented’!
Last night my whole family sat together in our lounge watching the news together – unprecedented!
We then went on to listen to our South African President make some rather unprecedented announcements about our country being in a state of national lockdown from Friday due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We will remember this moment. Such a drastic announcement with such wide-reaching implications for personal freedom, for businesses large and small, has a way of eliciting a reaction.
Some citizens are compliant, some complaining while others are combative about the measures announced last night.
So, what does Scripture have to say to us at this time? How ought we to respond?
Scripture in Paul’s letter to the Roman believers says the following;
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the One who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Romans 13:1-5)
What is our biblically inspired response when the President has announced such dramatic limitations on human freedom and movement?
Essentially it ought to be; ‘Yes Mr President, you have my full cooperation!’
We respond in this way because we believe something – God is the One who ultimately appoints those in authority (vs1) and so to resist authority is to resist those which God has appointed (vs2). Therefore, we submit to authority ultimately out of reverence to God.
Government and authority structures can be understood as being part of the common grace of God. Without order, respect of authority and law, sinful human nature would quickly descend into terrible atrocities.
For example, at present, the military is about to be deployed in our country to maintain the rule of law and to ensure we as citizens comply with the restrictions introduced as part of the Governments efforts to curb the COVID-19 pandemic in our nation. Without police and the military presence of authority, sinful humanity will likely descend into sin and lawlessness.
Sadly, ‘authority’ is like a modern swearword! We hate the idea of authority rather loving freedom in its place.
However, authority, according to Romans 13, is good. It is part of the common grace of God (vs3), and those in authority over you are there as God’s; ‘servant for your good’ (vs4).
In this unique moment in our nation, may we as Christ-Followers be those who are fully compliant with the measures that have been introduced;
- May we support what our Government is trying to do for the benefit of the whole country by staying home and keeping our families at home too!
- May we be those who show remarkable selfless love at this time to others around us in a myriad of ways
- May we be grateful for the Government we have got
- May we be committed to praying for those in power during these difficult and challenging times
- May we stand in prayer with all those who will be called on in the coming weeks to work tirelessly to care medically for what is potentially hundreds of thousands of people.
- And may we be those who never let go of the certain hope that we have in Jesus!
[A little more for those asking; “But what about ungodly authorities?”]
God being sovereign over all authorities does not mean that all authorities are good or do good things all the time. Rather it means that God is the One who is in control always and that all authority is under God’s ultimate authority.
God’s good intention is that authority is for our common good (it is a form of God’s common grace), and so God can and does use the good that those in authority do.
However, God can use even the evil things sinful leaders do to fulfil His purposes in our lives and on the earth.
An example of this is 2 Chronicles 25:20 where it says; “But Amaziah would not listen, for it was of God, in order that he might give them into the hand of their enemies because they had sought the gods of Edom”. Amaziah would not listen to the advice given him so that God’s purpose would prevail.
Similarly, Scripture says of Pharaoh that God promised to harden his heart so that he would not let God’s people go (Exodus 4:21), but then Scripture makes it clear that Pharoah hardened his heart and would not let God’s people go (Exodus 8:15,32 & 9:34). This evil Pharoah was in authority under God’s control, and even the evil he did accomplished God’s good purposes in the end.
The challenge in Romans 3 is vs3-4. It is a challenge since authorities in their sinfulness do not always act for the good of those they are in authority over!
It’s helpful to remember that Paul is writing as a Jewish Roman citizen, he has experienced hostility from authorities towards Jewish people and towards Christians. Therefore, he is not naive concerning the experience of those who have lived under ungodly leaders. John Stott on this question from this passage writes;
“Paul means rather that all human authority is derived from God’s authority so that we can say to rulers what Jesus said to Pilate, ‘You would have no power [exousia, authority] over me if it were not given to you from above.’ Pilate misused his authority to condemn Jesus; nevertheless, the authority he used to do this had been delegated to him by God” – John Stott
So, in conclusion. The big idea of this passage is that governmental authorities are part of the common grace of God and are for our and societies good – that is God’s plan for humanity.
However, there are many moments in history when authorities in their sin have acted in ways that were not for the benefit of those under their authority.
And so there are times when to obey earthly authority would mean to disobey God. In those moments, I believe it is possibly justifiable to disobey earthly authority to obey God – but such situations are exceptional rather than the norm.
But in this time, with this COVID-19 pandemic let us give our ‘YES’ to our President and let us all play our part at this time of national threat.
John’s second letter is written to a local congregation (‘the elect lady and her children’ – the bride of Christ). The apostle has been encouraged to have come across some of the congregation who are ‘walking in truth’ as God wants of us (2 John 4).
The Christian life is often depicted as a journey – a path that is to be walked out. Although salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, this does not result in inactivity. Movement, even intentional effort is implied by the word picture John and other writers of Scripture used for the Christian life.
John uses ‘walk’ three times in this short section each time, indicating that progress and intentional effort in a certain direction are expected of believers.
It is a great encouragement to know that all believers in Jesus are on the same road/journey. We might be at different points along the way, but we share the same road!
Roads have borders that define the road’s edge; in this instance, it is the commandments of God define the roadway that God has laid out for us to journey along. We are to be those who ‘walk according to His commandments’ (2 John 6), commandments which have not changed since the beginning but commandments which we ‘should walk in’ (2 John 6).
It is safe to summarise the two borders of the Christian road as love for God (1 John 5:2-3 & Matthew 22:37) and love for people (2 John 5 & 1 John 3:11).
In 2 John 8, the apostle shares wisdom for the journey with these believers and with ourselves;
“Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.” (2 John 8)
This one verse is richly dense with meaning! In it, we find assurance and warning and encouragement.
1. Warning! ‘We are to watch ourselves.’
Don’t go off the path; don’t get distracted or diverted by the schemes of the enemy. Obeying God’s commandments & listening to the Holy Spirit will keep you on the road. We have a responsibility to do this ourselves, but we are helped greatly if we have others around us who can spot if we are veering towards the edge of the path. It’s your responsibility to watch yourself, but it is wise to enlist the help of some brothers or sisters who will love you enough to keep watch too.
2. Warning! ‘So that we do not lose what we have worked for.’
There are serious consequences if one does not adhere to the first warning. You can lose something; you can have regret even as a believer. But what can you lose?
The apostle says that we can loose ‘what we have worked for’. And what have we worked for? Well, we know that we haven’t worked for our salvation! Jesus did the heavy lifting, not us; Jesus did what could not do. So what is in focus here is not us losing salvation which was given to us not by works but by grace alone so that no person can boast (Ephesians 2:4-8)!
In what way have we ‘worked’? Well, we have worked out the impact of our salvation (Philippians 2:12-13), we have worked harder than anyone in response to the grace of God in us (2 Corinthians 15:10). We worked in that we have responded to God’s free gift in giving us salvation. We have worked in that we should ‘work for’ our reward…
3. Encouragement: ‘But may win a full reward.’
This is what God’s desire for us, to give us our full reward that He always intended to give us. God is so good; He saves us not on the basis or our work/merit but purely by grace. Then God inspires us, works in us by the Spirit (Philippians 2:12-13) changing us at the level of our desires so that we now want to do His will and obey His commandments. And then God plans to reward us for walking the road He has laid out for us – incredible!
If you have believed in Jesus, your salvation is secure, guaranteed! But whether or not you will ‘walk God’s road’ obeying the Holy Spirit’s promptings and God’s commands is not guaranteed. And so, the possibility exists that some of your reward that God wanted to give you may be lost, that we by our lack of response, our lack of working and walking God’s ways may lose some of what He had always intended to give to us – rewards.
John doesn’t want this for the believers he is writing to, and God doesn’t want it for you either. So take heed of the warning, watch yourselves and ask others to watch you too. Invite people into your life who can speak with a loving honesty and who in turn will be blessed if you do the same for them.
The apostle John’s longing has been that those who have believed in Jesus would KNOW that they have eternal life through faith in Jesus (1 John 5:13).
Now he goes on to write of three additional things that Christ Followers know also;
1.We know that we are from God.
So many personal problems begin when this truth is not firmly grasped and held on to by the believer in Jesus. The devil repeatedly tries to undermine the truth that we have been adopted as God’s beloved children through faith in Jesus (see John 1:12, 1 John 3:1).
Assurance, security, peace, acceptance, love, protection, hope for answered prayer…are all rooted in this truth. God being our Father changes everything – it’s a classic case of; ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’! Even better it’s not about who you are but who’s you are!
If you are battling with feelings of fear, anxiety, rejection, or loneliness or feeling under-valued or over-looked or unseen, you need to tap into this truth, again and again, the sons and daughters of God most high need never struggle with questions of this nature.
If God the Father loved you enough to send Jesus to the cross to die in your place for your sin while you were still His enemy, then having already done that, how much more will He not also along with Jesus give you all things? (Romans 8:32). Know these things.
2.the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
Know also, however, that in this present age post-Christ’s resurrection but before His return the world around us is under the control and influence of the evil one – the devil.
Although the devil has been triumphed over by Jesus on the cross (Colossians 2:14-15), although his days are numbered, and his final destiny is the final judgement of God in the lake of fire (Revelation 19:20) – he still has power in this present age. And so the world is full of traps and temptations as the devil tries to derail people from faith, worship and trust in God.
Knowing that you have an ultimately defeated, but real enemy who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8) will help you to be sober-minded and alert. Remember that ‘He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world’ (1 John 4:4) – so do not live in fear but be alert to his cunning schemes and traps.
3. And know that Jesus is the one true God (vs20)
The knowledge that we have a real enemy is sandwiched between knowing we are God the Father’s beloved children (vs19) and that we have believed in Jesus Christ the one true God and we ‘know him’ and so we can know we have eternal life with Him.
Don’t give in to doubts and lies from the enemy about who Jesus is – what you have believed is true, and you will be richly rewarded into eternity for holding on to that truth. There is no god besides our God, Jesus Christ!
Armed with the knowledge of these three things, John concludes with something we ought to DO.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (vs21)
Don’t give your trust, your worship or devotion to anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ. But what is an idol? Is it just a statue of sorts?
An idol is anything that we seek to get significance, meaning, identity, belonging, purpose, security, peace or happiness from – someone or something that occupies the place of God in our lives. Mark Dever said; “Idolatry is sin in its purest form: it is trusting something other than God.”
The apostle closes his letter with a warm warning – keep yourselves from idolatry. Worship, serve and love God only!
What do you know? Not just what do you know about, but what can you be utterly sure about?
In South Africa, we are at the start of the academic year. We have thousands of people clamouring to get enrolled in schools and tertiary education facilities so that they can know more, get educated.
Some people know a whole lot about things that are pretty trivial to most. Like how to make perfectly square watermelons! Or what the weather will be in 6-7 days time in Outer Mongolia…
The apostle John wants those he is writing to, and by extension wants you and I to know something of significance. John wants us to know, to be assured that we have eternal life in Jesus Christ if we have believed in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.
And so he has written this whole letter of 1 John with this express purpose in mind;
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13)
‘These things’ refers to the whole letter, not just the sentences preceding it. John is saying in effect that the entire letter has for this purpose, that these believers might know not some obscure trivial thing, but that they might know that they have eternal life.
This is knowledge worth knowing! To be assured that you have been forgiven and released from your moral debt before God forever is a pretty big deal.
When a child or a person in my care is feeling the gripping hold of fear in some situation or another, my desire as a Father is to alleviate the fear, to neutralise it and to bring peace.
However, it is not always loving to assure someone. After all, to assure the drunken person that they can drive if they are careful is unloving in the extreme. And to falsely assure someone of their eternal destiny in heaven who does not have eternal life because they haven’t as yet trusted in Jesus – is the epitome of an absence of love.
On the other hand, to see someone wilting under the weight of anxiety because they are not assured that they have been forgiven of their sin is equally bad.
The apostle John is passionate about believers knowing that they have been forgiven, accepted and loved by King Jesus. Knowing that they have believed in Jesus and put their trust in Jesus, and knowing that Jesus is entirely trustworthy – he doesn’t want them to doubt for another minute or ever doubt again. He wants them to know that they have eternal life because of their faith in Jesus.
Have you believed in Jesus for the forgiveness of all of your sins? Because if you know that you have believed, Scripture wants you to know that you have eternal life. It’s secure, unchangeable, impossible to overturn – it’s yours, you can rest assured!
Why does this matter?
- God, your Father, wants you to live in the good of what Jesus bought for you with His precious life, death & resurrection.
- God, your Father, wants your life to be characterised by hope, joy and peace not robbed by anxious worry!
- Knowing that you already have eternal life frees you from striving – you are a recipient of God’s grace, and so rest and worship and thanks are the only appropriate response.
- God, your Father, wants you to look ahead to death and life after death with utter confidence knowing whom you have believed and knowing that He will never disappoint you just like God never let down our fathers in the faith (Psalm 22:4-5)
The apostle John was the last surviving eye-witness of Jesus. He knew the ONE whom he had believed in; he had first-hand experience; he was certain.
And John wants the same for you and I. What do you know? Know this, that He who has trusted their lives to Jesus will be saved and will live with God forever and ever.
Go back through the letter for all the indicators John has mentioned (1 John 2:3, 3:10, 3:19, 3:24, 4:7, 4:13, 4:15, 5:13) that help us to know we are truly saved, truly God’s children. Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to help you to know your eternal state before God!
Gullibility is a liability! Not everything that ‘sounds’ spiritual or deep is Godly or helpful. We live in an age of information overload, the access to options or alternate thought positions has never been easier.
Therefore being able to discern right from wrong, good from evil is an important life skill. The apostle John writes warning believers affectionately; “Beloved, do not believe every spirit” (1 John 4:1) or as the NLT puts it; “Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit.”
In our day in the name of God, church leaders are sadly often in the news for telling those who follow them to perform all manner of crazy acts, claiming this is what God wants or torturing Scripture to say that what they are teaching is what Scripture commands!
Discernment, therefore, is a vital aspect of faith for all Christ-followers. But how does one discern orthodoxy from heresy?
1. Listen to God’s Holy Spirit!
God’s Holy Spirit will always make much of Jesus, who He is and what He has done for us. So listen to the content and the focus of someone’s teaching and if Jesus is not the BIG IDEA, if anyone, anything is, then tune out! Remember that;
- The Holy Spirit will teach us and will remind us of everything Jesus said. (John 14:26)
- The Holy Spirit will testify about Jesus (John 15:26)
- The Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth (John 16:13)
- The Holy Spirit will bring glory to Jesus (John 16:14)
Hearing from the Holy Spirit is not for some elite group of Christians. Adam and Eve used to walk and talk with God in the Garden. Now that you have been reconciled to God through Jesus, you too can walk and talk every day with God. This is your joy and your privilege as a believer!
Try this: As you read, or listen to anything/anyone – ask the Holy Spirit to confirm in your Spirit whether this is helpful or unhelpful in your spiritual walk.
2. Use the Weapon of Scripture
One of the primary ways God has put on display His will for our lives is in Holy Scripture. The more you read and internalise Scripture, the better equipped you will be to discern spiritual nonsense from the good stuff.
So, if some teaching doesn’t line up with Scripture – toss it out! Our LORD did this when He was tested in the desert by the devil, and yet Jesus resisted him, Jesus exposed the falsehood through quoting Scripture to the enemy.
So read your Bible daily, commit to that discipline, and it will protect you in ways you cannot begin to imagine. Internalise Scripture, memorise Scripture – doing so is that arming yourself with the sword of the Spirit, taking the sword out of its sheath to protect yourself from enemy attacks (Ephesians 6:17).
3. Be in intentional Christian Community
Being on your own, isolated with your thoughts, leaves one vulnerable to false teaching and potentially being persuaded or lead astray. The people John was writing to had a relationship with the apostle John, and that relationship helped them to remain strong in the face of false teaching as they could ask John for his opinion.
Who are you in intentional Christian Community with? Is the Bible and listening to the Holy Spirit a key aspect of that friendship? In Reconciliation Road Church we urge every believer to be in a TRIO or a COMMUNITY GROUP or to be in both if possible. Why? Because Community protects one, keeps us from the pain of being diverted from the path God has for us.
Do you have an intentional Christian Community? If not, take a step and reach out to some other people.
May we, may you be fortified against gullibility. May you obey the Holy Spirit daily, devote yourself to Scripture daily and may you have an authentic and intentional Christian Community around you to protect you from dangerous spiritual gullibility.