Stranger Things – 3 John

I suspect that most Christian people, even those who read and study the Scriptures with some regularity, may go even years between occasions of reading this third letter of John (as well as the other three one-chapter books we’ve re-examined).  They are indeed like very old letters or past relics stuck away in the recesses of the attic, only to get pulled out on rare occasions, and while swiping away the dead stink bugs and dried-up wasp nests and flaking insulation, to be looked at once again. And in that these writings are as inspired at the famous third chapter of John’s gospel, we desire to be a church that “rightly divides” the Word of Truth, knowing that “all Scripture is valuable for equipping us.”  Thus, we have spent this month in the biblical “nooks and crannies.”

The title chosen for this final study of the series – “Stranger Things” – of course comes from the science fiction horror web television series of that name. It delves into the paranormal realm of things. But, even while using the title, I would like for us to take away from this examination a renewed commitment to something that should rather be very normal for the believer in Christ.

To truly understand these little letters, we need to review and recall some background of the New Testament era that featured the wonderful new gospel message spreading around the Roman world and even beyond.

There is a most interesting phrase in the book of Galatians – in 4:4,5 that says of Christ’s coming: But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.  Those of us who grew up on the King James Version will remember the beginning of that as saying, “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son …”

So, what is the meaning of “the set time” or “the fullness of time?”  Bible scholars over the years would summarize it in these five ways …

  1. The Roman Peace (Pax Romana) – This was a period of roughly about 200 years from the reign of Caesar Augustus in 29 BC to the year 180 AD with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of what were considered the “good emperors”. This did not mean that there were no uprisings within the Empire or conflicts on the fringes, but that it was a time of unparalleled peace as compared to the centuries before and after. This allowed for prosperity and the peaceful movements of peoples … like missionary travelers.


  1. A Common Language – Greek – Much of the culture of the Roman world came from the Greek empire before them, and this included the dominant language known as Koine (common) Greek. Though regional dialects and languages continued throughout the Roman world, the official language of business and interactions between diverse peoples and ethnicities was Greek. And this facilitated the communication and preaching of the gospel, as well as the original written language of the New Testament.


  1. The Roman Roads – You’ve likely heard the saying that “all roads lead to Rome.” This was because the Romans built a system of roads to particularly enable their movement of troops from one part of the Empire to another. And, like the interstate system developed in our country some decades ago, it facilitated trade and travel in an unprecedented fashion. And among those travelers were those of whom Paul wrote, while quoting from Isaiah in Romans 10… “And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  The gospel benefited by the system of travel made possible at this juncture of human history.

The first three of these five points were Roman world oriented, but these next two are related to the Jewish world …

  1. The Synagogue System in Judaism – Before the time of Christ, Jewish peoples were among those who were spreading across the Mediterranean world. And wherever there were 10 or more families, a synagogue (meaning “gathering place”) was established for worship. And when rabbis were travelling through these areas, they were very welcomed to teach and expound upon the Scriptures – the Old Testament as we know it. So of course, Paul and others of a Jewish background used this as a great opportunity to demonstrate how Jesus was the promised Messiah – but not just for Israel, but for the whole world.


  1. The Jewish Expectation of the Messiah – For so very long, the Jewish people expected the soon coming of the promised Messiah. This accounts for the numbers of people who originally ran out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist. And at that time there also were many who made false claims of messianic status. But this interest and fervor contributed to a heightened interest by many to consider the claims of Jesus (though many rejected him for being too spiritual, as they wanted a political and conquering figure to overthrow their oppressors).

So, when you put this all together, you have “the fullness of time” as spoken of in Galatians 4.  It was the coming together of many divinely-orchestrated elements that made for the most ideal spread of the gospel worldwide.

Now, additionally, as we shared briefly last week, there is more background to understand when looking at these letters of 2nd and 3rd John. And this has to do with this spreading of the gospel worldwide and the common occurrence of itinerant teachers and evangelists travelling from place to place. How were these people to survive – to eat, sleep and have the means of personal sustenance on the road?  They did not have anything like Trivago, Expedia or; and they did not have a Master Card upon which to earn bonus points for travel and lodging. They were dependent upon God’s people in these ancient cities to help them regularly upon their journeys by providing food, shelter and finance.

However, as we said last week, while a good system, it was also a system that could be abused by false teachers. And indeed, it was abused on some occasions as we know from extra-biblical sources.

And whereas 2nd John especially had the big idea of contending for the truth and being aware of the teaching of those who purported to be God’s servants, this 3rd letter returns to an emphasis upon love and the propriety of supporting those who were God’s genuine laborers and messengers – of hospitality even to those who were strangers… and hence, again, our title of “Stranger Things”.  But putting together these two short letters, as always, there needs to be a balance of truth and love.

As we turn to the text of 3rd John, we see that, unlike the letter last week that was addressed to a church congregation, this letter is addressed to an individual leader of a church. It has a message for him, as well as a message for two others. As we lay it out, this is what we have: messages to Gaius primarily (1-8), and briefly to two guys named Diotrephes (9-10) and Demetrius (11-12).

Message to Gaius (1-8)

1 – The elder, To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. 2 Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.

So, who is Gaius?  Others with this name in the NT include a Gaius in Corinth, Macedonia and Derbe. Some believe it is the last of these, though it is good to note that this was probably the most common name in the Roman Empire. In any event, he was a leader in a church community that was connected in association with the Apostle John. And obviously, by the greeting, he was dearly loved by the writer.

You may have heard verse 2 – about enjoying good health and prosperity – connected in some way as a sort of “prosperity gospel” proof text. And it sounds even more that way in the KJV – the favored text for the prosperity crowd… “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”  But the Greek word for “prosperity” literally means “to have a good and successful journey” and it is used in a salutatory way of wishing someone the best. John is saying that even as he was sure of Gaius’ spiritual well-being, he prayed that his physical well-being was as stellar.

John goes on to speak of his reason for such confidence …

3 It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

Reports had come to John from some who had visited where Gaius served about his life, ministry and character. He knew the truth, and the truth informed the way that he lived his life. He had the appropriate balance of profession and practice. He rang true to the core.

And then verse 4 is one that I’ve come to experience in life – namely, the joy of seeing those who were in some way beginning in the faith under one’s labors to move on in that belief and become significantly used of God in other places and to reach others. This is a component as to why I like having Peter Frey with us, and why I so enjoyed Chris Wiles’ years in this church. And we could name many others, and I get an extra blessing whenever I hear of the work of these men and women who formerly sojourned with us here.

And John now gets to the heart of his communication …

5 Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. 6 They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. 7 It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. 8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

Now again, recall the backgrounds we spoke of today about travelling teachers and evangelists. Beyond this also would be journeying Christians from other parts of the Empire – including churches associated with John personally. He tells Gaius that his hospitality extended to these total strangers was completely appropriate and commendable.

Why should Gaius and other Christians do this and have this attitude?  …

  • These servants had given up much in the way of personal security and safety. This was a practice totally unheard of in the world, and it was even new to the early Christian church.
  • The cause for which they gave up everything was a most worthy endeavor – the worldwide expansion of the gospel that disparate people groups may be united together into one new body – the church of Jesus Christ.
  • There was no way (nor should there be) that there would be any support for them from the pagan, unbelieving world. In fact, just the opposite could be expected.
  • Hospitality and support demonstrated an understanding that they – John, Gaius, the different churches, the travelling missionaries – were all in it together as members of the same cause and on the same team.

So John says, “Good job Gaius, you are to be highly commended for the ‘STRANGER THINGS thing’ that you are doing!”

But, maybe you are wondering why John is making this the theme of his letter. Well, yes, it’s a nice sentiment, but does it rise to the level of a major teaching that makes it even into the inspired Word of God?  Well, maybe the answer for that is revealed in this next section …

Message Concerning Diotrephes (9-10)  … a totally different character than Gaius …

9 – I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

So here’s the story: there’s this other guy named Diotrephes in the church where Gaius is (or in another nearby house church in close proximity) who does not have any sort of hospitality interest such as Gaius was commended for exhibiting. Quite the opposite in fact – even wanting John himself to stay away. He has communicated that John is not welcome, and he has spoken ill of John and his close associates with malicious rumors that were nonsense. Forgive me, but I had to research the Greek for such a juicy concept, and, “spreading malicious nonsense” is a perfect translation of a one-time word in the NT.  And it means just as it is translated – the idea of condemning someone by the use of ridiculously nonsensical aspersions.

Not only that, but Diotrephes went so far as to not just refuse hospitality to John and associates, but any others travelling through … AND … upon learning that others in the church did house and welcome travelling Christians, he expelled those people from the congregation!

Why would he do this?  Well, it is summed up in another great Greek word – one that is also only used once in the NT, right here in 3 John 9.  It is the word Philoproteuo – an awesome word that literally means “loves being first.”  We could say that Diotrephes is the ultimate foam-finger #1 guy. You can see in that word “love/phileo” – as in Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love … and “proto/first” as in the word prototype – the first trial of something. Yep, he was full of himself!

Sadly, the church over the centuries has had more than a couple of Diotrephes running the show in local congregations. These are people who are easily intimidated by other teachers and authorities, and they want to be in control. Therefore, they do not want people exposed to any other teachings or people of gifting who will rival, diminish or threaten their self-exalted status.

And now a third character makes an appearance in the letter …

Message Concerning Demetrius (11-12)  

We all model our lives to some extent after others we see, which is fine, so long as the person we’re mimicking is of the truth …

11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.

So John tells Gaius to model life, not after such characters as Diotrephes, but rather after a man introduced here now who is named Demetrius. There is nothing we know about this man beyond the few words here. There are two speculations …

He was a target of Diotrephes’ wrongful actions and attitudes and needed to be bolstered by John as a genuine good guy. Or, more likely, he was the person bringing this letter to Gaius from John; and being unknown to Gaius, is being affirmed by John, which he does in three ways …

  • He has a good reputation as a godly man with all people in the Christian community. This is a great reference to have!
  • His character as a model of the truth would be self-evident … this was a man who in every way fleshed-out the great truths of the gospel and the faith.
  • John himself validates him personally from his own association with him.

And now finally a quick conclusion to the letter …

Conclusion (13-14)

13 – I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.

As always, we ask what are the timeless truths and applications that rise from the passages of Scripture that we study. And I believe that related to this third letter of John, we should look back at the communication in verses 5-8 to Gaius. And the big idea has to do with hospitality of Christians one to another, and especially about support in every practical way for those who have given up regular means of life and support to spread the gospel.

Yes, I suppose there is a first and unavoidable application toward those who do what we do here on the staff at the church. But honestly, this passage has a focal point that is bigger, wider and farther than merely that. We especially need to have a heart for the work of the gospel in far-flung corners of the world. We need to have a high value upon Jerusalem / Judea / Samaria / the uttermost parts of the world.

Why? … for the same reasons we listed above. People serving have given up everything to do this, the world ain’t gonna support them, the cause is the worthiest cause of all, and we are all in it together as teammates.

We need to not just be the church with one another, we need to consider how we are a part of the Church in the world – being the capital “C” church. And toward that end here at TSF we’ve done a number of intentional things, which I would submit account for the bulk of our unique blessing by God as a church.

  • When we built our church facility 23 years ago, we determined that we would use it for the blessing of the broader Christian community. And if you stop in during the week, it is not unusual for you to see it being used by an array of Christian groups and ministries.
  • From the beginning of this congregation about 36 years ago, it was a desire to have a focus upon worldwide evangelization. We even have 6 of our own church families serving right now around the world, along with varied partnerships in missions endeavors. Supporting this is a six-digit piece of our budget.
  • We need to always be looking beyond ourselves at what God is doing with people even different from ourselves. And so we partner with other churches in efforts like REACH, the HAPC, with the #ForOurCity campaigns, and with our varied outreaches and partnerships with minority churches.

In a sentence: We need to be world Christians. It is a rough world out there. Persecution is common in so many places. Just this past week, the African Rev. Lawan Andimi, who was seen in a ransom video earlier this month praising God, was executed by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. Also, the preeminent Christian persecution watchdog organization – Open Doors USA – released it’s 2020 World Watch List this week. This is an annual data report that this year highlights a drastic increase in attacks against Christian buildings and the imprisonment of Christians. Over 9,000 churches and Christian buildings were targeted, with about 3,000 believers in Jesus martyred.

Is this sort of thing on your radar at all?  Do you pray for those in places like this, or read about them?  Are you interested in hearing about the work of our missions family and thinking about how to support them in practical ways beyond merely the church budget?

Being interested in these sorts of “stranger things” is being a Christian with a heart for world.

Walk this Way (2 John)

Our title this week,“Walk This Way,” was the 1975 song by classic hard rock band Aerosmith and is probably their signature hit song. We had some fun again with the band playing the famous guitar intro and repeating the three words (because we wouldn’t want to share ALL of the words of the song). And we’re only interested in those three words that capture the big idea of 2 John … And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

The first thing we see is how very short is this chapter; it is the shortest book of the Bible with less than 300 words in the Greek text. And as with both Jude and 3 John, there are two big ideas popping out: holding firmly onto the truth and examining the veracity of teaching and the teachers doing it, while, on the other hand, living a godly life and walking in such a way that it exemplifies love. TRUTH and LOVE!  They go together … like peas and carrots! And those two words dominate the text – even at the very outset of John’s letter in the greeting …   

The elder, To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— 2 because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.

So this is a letter from “the elder” to “the chosen lady.”  What?  What does this mean?

We have every reason to believe this letter is from the Apostle John. If you read 1st John, it is clear that the style and phraseology are sourced in the same person.

The chosen lady – whereas this could be an individual, it is almost universally believed that this is a New Testament way of referring to a church family … sorta like the term “the bride of Christ.”  And it speaks of those “chosen” by God, which is clearly a NT way of speaking about the family of faith. And most of the rest of the letter switches to plural pronouns, being addressed to a group of people.

So why the cryptic way of writing?  Let me illustrate …

We have missionaries who are serving in some difficult places that are hostile to the Gospel. When I write to them, I copy the style they pen to me. I’ll not ever use the word “missionary” with them – saying simply “M’s” or “supported workers.”  I won’t use the word “church” but will say “the family.”  And these last three letters – Jude, 1+2 John – are written later than most NT books, at a time where the gospel has had several decades to go out into the world. And enemies of the truth are out there, both then and now.

And John speaks to this church receiving his letter of his love for them. It is emphasized in the Greek … I love you!  It was the truth, and their common commitment to the truth, that held them together as people who loved one another. It was not a mere feeling, but a knowledge that led to the feelings and commitments that would follow. The result was an experiential and cognitive sense of pervasive grace / mercy / peace – with God and one another mutually.

It’s like God’s people being together with one another as in a gathering of, say, Dallas Cowboys fans – you’re with the other elect ones, you’re away from the hostility from Redskins, Steelers and Eagles fans that comes from your association, and that unity together is a bigger thing than if you just feel like you like another person in the room or not.

John goes on … 4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us (having given us His truth). 5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. 6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

So, again, you see and hear the juxtaposition of truth and love. Apparently, John had some interactions with some members of the church away from the context of this church and its location, and he writes to speak of his joy to see how well they were fleshing out their lives.

None of this truth – these commands – were new. This is the same as it was in the beginning with God and especially in His written revelations, and even more especially in the “God in the flesh” exposition of truth in the person of Christ.

So how is it that being committed to walking in love is the same thing as walking in truth?  Again, perhaps an illustration is helpful, so here comes another famous running illustration …

Imagine you are on a running team, and one of the teammates has a lot of natural talent, along with being a very likeable person. But this teammate is not serious about practices – comes late, leaves early, takes shortcuts in training, all of it while the coach (he thinks) is not watching. And then the night before races, he pigs out on mac and cheese, eats ice cream before bed, wakes up to six fried eggs for breakfast, and grabs a big milkshake from McDonald’s on the way to the race. Naturally, he starts the race well, but is barfing by the midpoint and finishes poorly – hurting himself and the team. But he’s such a nice, likeable guy!  Is it best to just overlook it?  Or is it a better application of truth and love to speak to it in a winsome way?

There are correct, truth-related things to do. There is a right way to do them. And there is a proper attitude together with one another to do these things together.

And as John really now gets to the meat of his communication, let me give you some more background here that informs both this letter and 3rd John.

Again, this is a bit later in the New Testament as the gospel is spreading around the Roman world. And there were messengers of the gospel traveling and preaching. Where were they to stay as they went upon their journeys?  How would they be supported practically?  There were no automated teller machines and credit cards.  Yes, there were inns and boarding places, but they were very sketchy and had bad reputations. So these travelling missionary preachers stayed in the homes of people in the churches who supported them along the way. It was a necessary system, and even a good system (as we’ll see next week), but it was also a system that could be abused by false teachers. It was necessary for people to have an eye and an ear open for this – evaluating what they heard.

John says … 7 I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. The particular error of these false teachers was to wrongly teach about who Christ was – often teaching that he was short of being the Divine Son of God, but rather some sort of spirit or phantom. This was an antichrist (small “a”) communication; not THE Antichrist, but the doctrine of such that left the listener short of the truth and devoid of relationship with God and eternal life.

8 Watch out that you[we] do not lose what we[you] have worked for, but that you[we] may be rewarded fully.

Those pronouns … well, the Greek manuscripts were all over the place on how this should read. I believe the proper way is to have “we” throughout, not mixed with any “you”.  (Long explanation … will save it for our Greek class.)  Here is how I think it should read: Watch out that WE do not lose what WE have worked for, but that WE may be rewarded fully

The idea here is not of losing salvation, but of losing full rewards and fruits of labors. Likely a transcriber early on in the NT era changed the pronouns so as to not have it look like John was in danger of error and personal failure. But John was including himself in the mix – he was a teammate with them. He was communicating that “we all need to be diligent to not lose what we’ve labored for in Christ, that we may gain the fullest reward for these labors.”

And now John speaks specifically about these errant travelling teachers … 9 – Anyone who runs ahead (actually the wording means to stray from the path – like a dog that won’t walk down the path with you, staying close) and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring – the literal word here is “carry” … like baggage … so if he is not packing … this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.

So John is saying that to provide hospitality and support to people who are not packing the truth and teaching the truth, but who are running off to all other sorts of wrong doctrine, this kindness does not help the greater cause. Rather, it hinders it and helps the cause of the wicked one. There is a time to stand for what is correct.

And now John gives some final farewell words … 12 I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 13 The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.

John somewhat acknowledges the brief and cryptic nature of his writing, saying that it is his hope to visit them soon. And he sends greetings from another “chosen one”, another church with other Christians, living and serving in other places for Team Jesus.

So what do we take away from this little letter and our explorations of this piece from the biblical attic?  If we put together John’s three letters, the three big ideas are: hold on to sound teaching, obey God’s truth, and display love toward others – especially those in the church family.

It is the first of these that is especially emphasized here in 2nd John. And this is a practical teaching for us in this day and generation. All the foundations of truth are questioned, and even the idea of “foundations” is questioned!  Objective truth has fallen from favor. Subjectivity – whatever you want to believe – rules the day. And that leads to anarchy – both within a civil society, and in terms of relationship with God.

Think about how crazy this is: the only absolute truth that many in our day hold to is that there is no absolute truth!  They know that for sure!  And if you hold to an absolute truth, their non-absolute truth is that you are not only wrong, you cannot be tolerated and should be personally destroyed and eliminated!

I’ve lived to see things shaken and morphed that I never imagined would be – about topics like gender, marriage, sexuality, moral authority, and the way to truly know God. And I’m not THAT OLD!  It hasn’t been that many years that these things have changed. And while it is a certain truth that Christian people – God’s family – need to be the kindest of all peoples, there comes a time where truth must be affirmed and held onto for what it is. We need to walk this way.

“Hey Dude from Hey Jude”

I’ll be sharing here today some thoughts that came from our friend Peter Frey’s guest sermon, as well as some of my own content. As always, it is great to have Peter with us and to benefit from his incredibly clear instruction and application. As part of this four-week series on the Nooks and Crannies books, I gave him the choice between 2 John or Jude for his week, and he took Jude. It is an interesting read in many ways.

When speaking of nooks and crannies, my mind goes to those attics under the slopping rooflines of our homes, but Peter had another great illustration. It is like when you drop your phone in the car and it slips between the seat and the console. You have to squeeze your hand into that narrow space and somehow grip the phone to pull it up out of that nook. And just maybe, maybe, when doing that, you find something else there … like a $20-dollar bill you lost sometime in the past!

And that is what it is like when, after a long, long time, you open one of these little one-chapter books and find something of great value and interest.

Jude: he’s the brother of James – the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and the half-brother of Jesus. His letter is to a particular New Testament church of an apparently predominantly Jewish background to combat an immediate situation regarding false and heretical teaching. We see in the letter not only the use of Old Testament Scripture, but also some quotes from extra-biblical Jewish literature.

When the gospel message of Christ’s provision came upon the scene, being then mixed wrongly with Judaism and sprinkled with Greek philosophy (teaching that matter is evil and spirit is good), there were quite a number of perversions that were alien to the essential truth of the gospel. Many of these wrestled with understanding exactly who Jesus was. A phantom? A grand angelic being? A merely exemplary human?  Other errors involved legalism on one hand, or total lawless licentiousness on the other.

This final category may be most in view in Jude’s writing. And it does not take us long to find ourselves seeing that we live in such a time, where up is down and left is right … if there is such a thing as right – like right and wrong!  How do we live as Bible-oriented, truth-centered Christians in such a time?  Do we muscle up and fight hard for truth?  Or should we be driven by love and kindness with a gentle spirit winning the day?

The interesting component of Jude’s instruction includes both of these aspects as tools for living well through murky times.

On the one hand, Jude says that we are to contend for the truths of the gospel. This verb “contend” is a very strong word – used only here in the New Testament. It is “epagonizomai” … perhaps you can see a bit of the word “agonize” in there. This means to put every possible and extreme effort into something … like being a football lineman who is the lead blocker with a fourth-down-and-goal situation at the one-yard line. That guy is going to make every effort to clear a path into the endzone.

There is a time and an ongoing necessity to “contend for the truth” of the gospel. It is worth it. God loves truth and judges error and sin. Jude lists (verses 5-16) a variety of well-known occasions where people (and angels, vs. 6) chose to ignore truth and righteousness and live in their own way, resulting in destruction.

There is nothing surprising about this. It has always been this way, and it will be especially this way toward the end of the ages. So how do you live in a world such as this?  How do you (Hey Jude) take a sad song and make it better?

Three things:

  1. Build yourselves up in the faith – This speaks of living in biblical community and following God’s ways for successful experiences both within the family of faith and in the world beyond.
  2. Praying in the spirit – At the heart of this is living with a posture of dependence upon God.
  3. Waiting for the mercy of God – This involves having a cognizance of the big picture and living in a non-complacent, intentional way.

But we are not to have a disposition of living continuously with our boxing gloves on, combating every evil we see. Jude encourages us to be balanced by finding our mission in the mercy of God, being a part of God’s compassion for a lost world.

We don’t need to feel insecure about the wonderful message of the gospel. It is a fantastic truth. It acknowledges the evil that is so obviously prevalent in this sinful sphere, yet it also offers an alternative truth that is of value not just for now, but especially for eternity. So smile, and present the gospel to those who are lost.

1 – Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: 2 May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.

3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

5 Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. 6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— 7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

8 Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. 9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” 10 But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. 11 Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. 12 These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

14 It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” 16 These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.

17 But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” 19 It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Don’t Mess with Onesimus (Philemon)

Today is the first of four devotionals I will put online on the first four Mondays of January in this new year. Apart from next week’s study (where I’ll do a write-up on my own after Peter Frey’s guest sermon on Jude), these will be largely some edited versions of the morning sermon.

This series is called “Nooks and Crannies: One Chapter Wonders” and will cover the four single-chapter books of the NT – Philemon, Jude, 2 John, 3 John. Today, we begin by looking at the letter of Paul to Philemon, with the very cool title of Don’t Mess with Onesimus! 

The primary character featured in the letter is a fellow named Onesimus. Did you remember Onesimus? Is that a new name to you?  Or perhaps you’ve had to dust it off a bit in your mind.  And that is the way it is with these short writings. It is like when you get into the attic in your house to find something you haven’t looked at in a while. And indeed, winter is a good time to check out the nooks and crannies in our attics and see what treasures might be hidden there and forgotten. And we likewise tend to forget the shorter writings of Scripture and the gems of truth they present. So we will spend January of this new year pulling out the four shortest books of the New Testament and mentally dusting them off to see again the great teachings they possess.

Something that I believe many Christians either do not know, or at least do not think about, is that the chapter and verse divisions are not a part of the original writings of Scripture. For example, David in writing his Psalms and Paul in writing his letters did not divide their text in any way. They wrote straight-ahead, in a through-composed sort of way, just like we would write a letter. Some chapter divisions were added in the Middle Ages, with verse divisions not truly being codified until the 1600s.

When we think of the Bible scholars who first brought the Word of God into the English language, the name we first recall is William Tyndale – a man martyred for his faith and work. It was in the late 1630s that his labors contributed to something called the “Great Bible.”  It was “great” in the sense that it was huge!  It was truly a church Bible – for use by clergy on lecterns. And people could come into the church and see and (if they were literate) actually read the Bible in their English language. These Bibles were chained in place so that they could not be stolen… being deemed that valuable!  Clergy would often be heard in those days complaining that the people seemed to come to church more to read the Bible than to hear their sermons!

Does any of this history give you a new sense of thanks for the compact Word of God printed for us, or that we have on our phones and computers?  Christians just 400 years ago – not really that long ago – would have been totally blown away by such resources which simply did not exist in their time, but that they would have so exceedingly valued. We live in a wonderful age.

So why pick out these four books if there are no God-ordained or inspired chapter divisions?  Well, even so, they are probably the four most non-read and overlooked – dare I say “nooks and crannies” – books of the New Testament … and of the entire Bible. Indeed, 3 John is the shortest, followed by 2 John and Philemon. And only Obadiah of the Old Testament is about 20 words shorter than Jude. But especially, we do this, because we want to be a church that does indeed cover the whole Word of God, recognizing as Paul said that “all Scripture is profitable.”

Have you ever needed to implore someone to do something, all the while realizing that it is indeed going to cost them something to make it happen?  Perhaps it is a scenario where you know something is good for them, or perhaps it is simply the right thing to do – though you are not sure they will quite see it the same way as you do?  You hope so, you think so; but you’re not quite sure how they will react when you present it to them. In that you have a high view of them, you expect that it will be well-received, but you can’t quite be positive. So, to make sure that the proper deed will be accomplished, while asking and challenging the person to be responsible and take the high ground position, even with its costs, you finish off your request by saying, “If you won’t pay for it, I will.”

That is what is happening in this personal letter from the Apostle Paul to a fellow named Philemon. This recipient of the letter – an apparently wealthy individual who lived in Colossae and was a part of the church of the Colossians – had a slave named Onesimus who had run away. In the course of God’s sovereignly directed events, Onesimus comes into contact with Paul, is converted to the faith, and is now being sent back to his owner Philemon.

There is not time now to talk about the issue of slavery in the Roman Empire. Understand that it was not exactly like slavery in American history; and in fact, more than half of the ancient population were slaves. Owners and slaves were in the same church together, and Paul did not write to upset these conventions. Though we might picture it more like indentured servitude, it was a crime to run away as Onesimus had done.

So Paul writes to implore Philemon to accept him back. Paul speaks of the great benefit he has received during his imprisonment from Onesimus, and he tells the owner that he will now not only have a better worker, he will be welcoming back a brother in Christ.

Paul’s Greeting to Philemon, 1-3 … and you see immediately that it is written to a wider audience than merely Philemon …   

1 – Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is one little thing I like about a snow day where I’m stuck at home, and it’s certainly not the snow! I don’t ever need to see snow again; I’ve had quite enough for one lifetime. But while at home with no place to go or schedule to meet, I am able to sit for hours at a time and accomplish things through writing that I don’t generally have the opportunity to get done.

That is a bit what Paul’s life was like as he spent two years in Rome, under guard. We read about it in Acts 28:30 – For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

During this time, we know that Paul wrote several of his letters to churches and individuals.

And also at this time, Timothy is with him … as he was for the writing of Colossians and 2 Corinthians.

Philemon – the specific recipient of the letter – is probably a wealthy fellow, in that he owned slaves and in that the church met in his home.

Apphia – this is believed to be Philemon’s wife, with Archippus his son … mentioned again in Colossians.

Notice the terms that Paul uses of the folks …

  • Timothy – brother
  • Philemon – dear friend, fellow-worker
  • Apphia – sister
  • Archippus – fellow soldier

In these terms we see relationships on the levels of: family / co-workers, on-the-job pals, teammates / soldiers and fellow warriors  …. And so it is in the church of Christ. And that is how it is, and should be, at places … say … like TSF in Hagerstown!

And then there is the standard greeting of: grace – Greek, Christian word / peace, shalom – Hebrew background.

And this greeting, “to you” is plural … to y’all.  But then it shifts specifically to Philemon …

Paul’s Praise and Thanksgiving for Philemon, 4-7 … There is much for Paul to applaud about the character and life of this wealthy leader within the Colossian church.

4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Paul is thankful for Philemon’s displays of love for the people of the church family … he had opened his home (vs. 2), which may not have been the most popular thing to do in that culture of the Roman world. And he “refreshed them” … a statement suggesting his generosity toward others.

And Paul is thankful for his faith – for his growth in it and partnering with such as Paul himself. How was Paul aware of this?  Because Epaphrus, who was instrumental in founding the church in Colossae, is mentioned later in verse 23 as with Paul when he is writing this letter.

A summary of what Paul is communicating here is something like this: “Philemon – you’ve got a good track record of faithfulness and generosity, so I’ve got great confidence in you as I encourage you to continue life in this way.”  Paul is setting him up … but not “buttering him up” for what is coming next.

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus, 8-16 … You can feel it coming. Now Paul gets to the main purpose for writing this letter …

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

Paul, as an Apostle, had the authority to order Philemon to do the right thing. But Paul desired him to want to do it, not to do it because he had to. So Paul appeals to him on three grounds …

  • Love – as a Christian principle that underlies everything … continuing in what was Philemon’s life pattern.
  • Old Age – Paul here is probably about age 60 (which of course is not very old at all these days, right?). Paul was probably an old 60 … from a time of shorter lifespans; and consider all the sufferings he had endured.
  • Imprisonment – How do you refuse such a request from someone suffering in such a situation?

And then in verse 10, Paul goes to the heart of the matter – that unlike before, Onesimus is now a Christian believer. We don’t know the circumstances of Onesimus in his fugitive status coming upon Paul and finding Christ. But it had happened, and now Paul calls him a “son.”

And verse 11 is really interesting!  It is lost in English. A part of the name Onesimus means “useful.”  So his name was “Useful!”  Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. So Paul is saying that ole Useful is no longer Useless, he really is … USEFUL!

Paul goes on to speak of how Onesimus had become dear to him, and sending him back was like sending away a part of his heart. If Paul were only to be thinking of himself, he would certainly have liked for Onesimus to stay. And Paul wants to yield that prerogative to Philemon, not simply assume it.

And then in verses 15 and 16, Paul reflects upon the overall sovereign plan of God. As with many things that go awry, we find out later that what appeared to be a sad loss was actually, in God’s plan, a way for great gain. Now, Philemon could have Onesimus back, not merely as a useful worker, but so much better than that – as a brother in Christ!!  One in the flesh, and one in the Lord!

In essence, what Paul says to Philemon is, “Don’t mess with Onesimus!”

Paul’s Promise to Philemon, 17-21 … And we see right away here that Paul viewed Onesimus as a partner in ministry, just as he presumed Philemon would see Paul …  

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  So, all three of them were partners! 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

This is my favorite part of this letter, as it presents a beautiful picture that is so much more than just the material stuff and currency of this world. Paul says he’ll pay any debts owed by Onesimus, and Philemon could see by Paul’s unique handwriting that it was certainly he who was penning these words.

And a couple other zingers are thrown in here:  a) Philemon owed his own spiritual life and eternal salvation to the ministry of Paul, and … b) Philemon wasn’t there to help Paul, but a way he could help that would mean so much is if he would take these matters to heart and to receive Onesimus back openly and warmly.

And Paul expresses his confidence in Philemon to exceed these hopes and requests.

But here is the great picture we should see in these verses. This is an example of the theological doctrine of imputation – the placing of a debt to another’s account, and the consequent transfer of credit that frees the person from the pending execution if the debt is not paid.

The death debt of our sin had been transferred previously from our account to that of Christ, who paid that debt with the shedding of blood on the cross. Therefore, we have a new identity by being “in Christ”. And we have Christ’s righteousness transferred back to our account which gives us a standing as God’s children.

Again, we call this “imputation.”  It is the credit that we need that we cannot get by our deeds. It is what the gospel is all about. And I think it is one of the best and clearest illustrations of what constitutes salvation.

Paul’s Personal Words to Philemon and the Colossians, 22-25 … As is typical in Paul’s letters, or anyone’s letters, there are some final words …

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Paul rightly anticipated that he was soon going to be released from his home arrest situation and would be able to see them again.

So what are the takeaway points of this little letter from the New Testament nooks and crannies?  Two main things …

1 – The pervasive nature of mutual caring and support for one another in the body of Christ.

This letter is filled, from beginning to end, with admonitions and thanks for the mutual support that is to be found in “Team Jesus / Team Church.”  This is the way it should be, both within the walls of the immediate family gathered, to concern for those who serve and who suffer far from us.

So it is our calling to …

… pray for and practically support others in the church family as they go through times of struggle, physically or otherwise.

… pray for and practically support those who take the gospel message to the corners of the earth – as we have relationships with people and churches who are literally 11-12 time zones away!

… care for a new, Christian, refugee immigrant family now a part of our church, coming to us from Ethiopia and having profound needs of getting established in a foreign culture and context.

… make space in our lives and schedules for ministries like REACH, Hagerstown Area Pregnancy Center, FCA, Young Life, Cedar Ridge, CEF Good News Club … we want to see people’s needs met both practically and spiritually.

The second takeaway …

2 – The reason we care for each other and give to each other is because we have been cared for and have received incredible grace in our account.

Yes, what we have is “imputed righteousness” … the greatest, most necessary gift ever – and one that could never be earned.

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” – 2 Corinthians 8:9

And because of our imputed righteousness and our new standing as children of God, Satan is not able to accuse us; and is not ultimately able to mess with us!