About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

“The Goal of an Eternal Home” (Hebrews 11:1-16)

Financial planners advise us about prudent ways to live and invest our resources over the course of many years, with a goal toward these disciplines paying off in the climatic moments of later life.

It would be a foolish person who had more than enough resources to not only meet their needs comfortably, but to also have sufficient to wisely invest for the larger picture … yet who chose to lavishly spend their abundance upon silly pleasures and personal indulgences. Such a person might well come into their retirement years and lack sufficient resources for even their basic needs.

We would not respect these choices nor the person making them. We would regard this pattern as one that lacked a big-picture, long-term perspective. We would see it as a bit crazy to live a life that indulged the present while ignoring the future.

Yet that is what I fear I see too many Christian people – those who would name Christ as Savior – as essentially doing with their lives. Their values too often do not differ significantly from the people of the rest of the world who know not Christ. These Christians are comforted by having a “fire plan of faith” that they know will save them from eternal doom and separation from God, yet they do not choose to dramatically value their connection to God by living a life that is categorically different. And this will not yield success in the long run of life in this world. And this becomes particularly evident when there fails to be a passing on of faith values to the following generations.

We would say of such people that – like the unwise investor – they fail to have the big picture in mind. They fail to live with goals. And they fail to live seriously in light of their profession of faith and connection with Christ and the church.

The Scriptures – in more than just a couple of places, and by more writers than simply the Apostle Paul – talk about having goals in our lives.  And a final passage of this “Seriously?” series is that which is found in Hebrews 11:1-16. And the writer to the Hebrews wrote of those who in Israel’s history were commended for their faith and were commended for this attitude … they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

As we turn to Hebrews 11, and whenever we study anything in this wonderful epistle, we do well to be reminded of the background of the recipients of this letter. They …

… were Jewish believers – well-versed in OT ways and Jewish faith.

… had trusted Christ, and experienced the Christian life.

… were severely persecuted and felt isolated.

… were considering a return to Judaism.

… found the memory of a priest whom the eyes could see was especially appealing.

And so, the major theme of the writer is the encouragement of perseverance, because the reward is worth it. The writer is encouraging his readers to persevere in light of the examples of famous people from their own ancestry who persevered in faith in spite of their circumstances.

Here now is a quick 3-part outline of what we’re going to see …   

The statement of a principle (1-3)

Four illustrations of that principle from the lives of real people (4-12)

The application of the principle (13-16)

So the first thing we are going to see is the statement of a principle …

HEB 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

HEB 11:3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

Many of us who were raised on the KJV will remember the word “substance” used here about faith. Other translations since have used words like “reality” or “assurance.”  I’m good with any of these words; but I was especially interested in my research of the Greek term used here to see that in secular Greek, it was used of a “deed of title” to a property. It was not the property itself, but it was what gave assured confidence of the reality of ownership. And this reminds of us Paul’s writing about the Holy Spirit being the “earnest” or the “down payment” of our inheritance in Christ.

Putting this together, the first verse is saying the first of three things we’ll see in these opening verses: Faith is assured confidence.

And secondly, in verse 2 – This is what the ancients were commended for. The main thing that immortalized the great characters of the Old Testament was their faith in God and their confident willingness to follow His leading, no matter what. It made them “pleasing” to God. And is that not what we all would want to have as much as anything else?!?  So our second truth in these opening verses: Faith is the means of divine approval.

And then a third truth in verse 3 – Faith is the basis of all lifeBy faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

There was no one at creation to verify it. Mankind is confronted with a universe already existing. And in spite of all the theories that have come along and whatever fractions of truth that are in them, in the beginning, God spoke the universe into existence. Faith is at the basis of all life.

So, let’s take these three verses and state their content as a principle …        

The principle: Faith believes in the reality of the truth of things that cannot be seen, just as certainly as it believes in the reality of truth that can be seen!

So, just as any good sermon does not merely state facts, but also gives illustrations and applications in real life, the writer shares such with the readers by pointing to a variety of human illustrations who demonstrated these truths – both for their good and for God’s approval. We’ll look at four such illustrations in verses 4-12 …       

Four illustrations of that principle from the lives of real people (4-12)

HEB 11:4 By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.

The story of Cain and Abel is in Genesis chapter 4.  These first two sons of Adam were very different fellows: Abel raised livestock, whereas Cain raised crops. A time came when each brought an offering to the Lord – Abel an animal, Cain some crops. And Abel’s offering was accepted, though Cain’s was not pleasing to God. And in his anger, Cain later killed his brother Abel.

The question over time has been as to why it was that Abel’s offering was accepted, though Cain’s was not. Among those theories …

  • Abel’s was a blood sacrifice; Cain’s was of the ground. This is not generally accepted.
  • Abel brought a larger quantity… again, not an issue.
  • Abel brought the best of the flock, whereas Cain just brought something from the crops.
  • Abel had a proper attitude, whereas Cain did not.

It is probably a combination of the last two. Abel went out of his way to bring the best and did so in the right attitude. Cain merely did it to “get it over with.”

But the passage says that Abel, though he died, still speaks – the voice as being a person in whom God was pleased. He operated in faith, receiving ultimately His eternal reward.

The second illustration of the faith without sight principle is Enoch …

HEB 11:5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Go ahead, list all of the accomplishments of Enoch!  We really don’t know of any, specifically. He is mentioned in Genesis 5:21-24. He was the father of Methuselah and some other people. And it simply says of him: Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

And then in Jude it says of him that he was one who spoke truth about God to his generation, though most did not listen to him … so what’s new?  But he was a man who was commended by God above all his contemporaries, simply for knowing and trusting God in the midst of a dark time. Others “lived, begat, died.”  Enoch walked with God, and one day God said, “Come walk up here with me.”

We could say of Enoch that he was SERIOUS about his faith – God liked that.

The third illustration of the faith without sight principle is Noah …

HEB 11:7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

Again, this is a character from Genesis – one we know more about. He is mentioned and commended in various places in Scripture; and though not a perfect man, he was one who operated with incredible faith.

Imagine the life of Noah!  Apparently even his family did not necessarily believe at the time God called him to build that boat. It’s a long story and explanation of biblical texts, but rain and flooding were not a part of the experience of mankind at this time. Building a boat in the middle of nowhere – something that took years and years – demonstrated a tremendous faith in the unseen.

Understand also that Noah is regularly pictured as a preacher of righteousness to his generation around him. And there was no fruit for his faith beyond his own family. Yet he trusted God.

Living for God and believing in the message of the Gospel and the truths of Scripture will be mocked by the masses of others in civilization around us. But, like Noah, we must persevere, we must make it a priority to move toward the higher goal of God’s calling.

The fourth, and best, illustration of the faith without sight principle is Abraham …

HEB 11:8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

HEB 11:11 By faith Abraham, even though he was past age–and Sarah herself was barren–was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

Of course, we know Abraham even by the title: “father of faith.”  Again, he was not perfect; the Scriptures reveal certain flaws in his life, even some lapses of faith. But in the big picture, he trusted God in incredible ways. The text here reminds the reader of the two largest components of his faith: his journey to the promised land, and his belief that God would grow a nation from him – though he was childless and old.

  • His journey – He was in latter years and was successful in his homeland. Yet when God told him to pack it all up and go – along with his entire household, being sent to a place he did not know – he did it. This was crazy!

And then when he got there and wandered around for many years, living in tents as a nomad, never actually owning any land (other than a cave he bought to bury Sarah and his family), he remained faithful.

Why did he remain faithful, even in the absence of physically seeing and gaining his promises?  The text says it was because he had a bigger vision – a more permanent one than anything in this world. His eyes were on eternal goals. Seriously?  Seriously!

  • His childlessness – He had a problem. He was old. But the bigger problem was that Sarah was herself nearly as old, and definitely TOO old. Yet he believed God would do it somehow, someday. And even when he was called upon to sacrifice his son of promise, we see (actually later in this chapter) that Abraham was so sure of the promise of God, that even if Isaac was sacrificed, God would resurrect him. What a preview of God’s big plan!

So there are the four illustrations of the principle: Faith believes in the reality of the truth of things that cannot be seen, just as certainly as it believes in the reality of truth that can be seen!

The application of the principle (13-16)

Now we look at the application of the principle – as was written to the Hebrews receiving this letter, as it is to us by extension as God’s word for us …

HEB 11:13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Here are some quick facts about these people illustrations of faith …

  • They were faithful to the end.
  • They did not get in this material world everything that they were promised.
  • They never ceased to look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises, be it in this life or the next.
  • They never emotionally over-invested in the things of this life.
  • They understood that this world is a temporary thing where we live like aliens in a foreign country.
  • They never looked back; they always pressed forward only.
  • Their focus was on a goal, and that goal was not of this world – it was a heavenly one. And this served as the guide for all they did in their years in this life.

Because of all of this – faith in unseen realities – it says that God was not ashamed to be called their God. He was pleased with them and has an eternal city prepared for them.

So, to the Hebrews who got this letter, they should not go back to the old ways. In spite of the difficulties and persecutions, they should move forward toward heavenly goals. And this is true for us.

As a summary statement of today’s teaching we could state: To receive God’s pleasure in us, we must believe that promises made to us about things we cannot now see (contentment / relationships / security), are as certain to us as if we could reach out and touch them with our hands. And our lives should reflect this conviction by the things we do, the things we avoid, and the schedules we keep.

Think about it, how else are we going to live and find success?

Let’s turn around the words of the final paragraph and see what it will be like if we make the choice to trust this world for security, relationship and contentment. What would it be like to die, having made that our prioritized choice?

13 – All these people were living by sight and touch when they died.  They sought to receive, in the here and now, the things promised by God for heaven.  They saw them from a distance, but through impatience welcomed them into their earthly lives. 

14-15 – People who do such things show they are not looking for another country of an eternal home, for they were unwilling to leave the country of the pleasures of this world.

16 – They did not look toward a heavenly country, therefore God is ashamed to be called their God, for he has not prepared a city for people with such an attitude.

So what are you trusting in?  What path are you on?  Do you say you are on one path, but an honest inspection reveals you are on another?  And again, we want to not just exist as someone who is a little bit better than the rest of the world – as someone whose main distinguishing feature of life, versus the rest of the world, is that you have a confidence for eternity. But rather, we need to make it our goal to have a life that really looks different, a life that rings with the joy and fullness that accompany a life with trust in Christ.

That is being serious; that is living a goal-oriented life.

“The Goal of Heavenly Affections” (Colossians 3)

The simplest and easiest illustration to draw our minds into and discussion about spiritual goals and disciplines is to talk about athletics – about personal disciplines for individual prowess, fleshing out how that affects an entire team in a joint endeavor. It’s not just me who defaults to that; actually, it is the metaphor that the Apostle Paul uses on several occasions.

But let me attempt something different to draw our minds together today.

Imagine you work for a company that supplies a particular product to the public that has become rather popular. Last year was the best year ever for the company, with the highest historical revenues, reflected as well with increased salaries and production capacity. The new year was entered with every expectation that this was going to be awesome – all things were in place to excel at the highest level in the marketplace, far beyond peer competition.

But as the new year began, some problems began to develop …

  • Several high-level managers began to quarrel with each other about ongoing priorities of production and distribution. Mid-level managers began to take sides. Verbal outbreaks were not unusual as hostilities mushroomed higher and higher. The office became an awkward place with a palatable tension in the air.
  • Production floor managers did not know what to make of these conflicts. They were not sure who to listen to and what perspectives to implement, and before long this created clashes in procedures that ruined previous efficiencies.
  • Beyond a slow-down in production, the company conflicts and procedural inconsistencies resulted in flaws in the product itself. This was obvious by an unprecedented number of customer complaints and returns. Everyone could feel a decline in market share.
  • Given the salary increases from the previous year, throughout the company on all levels, managers and workers were using their vacation times at the beginning of the year – particularly to get away from the pressures and tensions. This created shortages of personnel at critical moments. And more than a few lifestyle changes were noted at all levels as well, as people took on more of a pleasure-seeking purpose that became destructive patterns for them and their families.
  • Putting this all together, it was not long before a formerly great company – one that had every resource and reason as to why it should excel at the highest level – now was in a destructive slide. Something needed to be done. Clearly there needed to be newly-defined goals and purposes – both in the lives of individuals as well as in the corporate structure.

Christian people can be like this and have similar experiences. And a “company” of those Christians together – doing life in this community and endeavor called “the church” – can also experience such calamitous results. With a new life as a result of this thing called the Gospel, God’s adopted family should have every resource for personal success, corporate success, and impact in the broader marketplace of the surrounding culture.

But as with our imaginary company, conflicts can arise on all levels of the church – creating inefficiencies and losing market impacts. On a personal level, Christian people can lose sight of the larger picture and begin to live in such a way that personal pleasure attainments end up afflicting not only the corporate community, but their individual lives as well.

The time arrives when there needs to be a, dare we say, “come to Jesus moment” when individuals realize they need to take personal inventory, that along with others doing the same, results in a recommitment to grand visions and goals.

The Apostle Paul exhorted several of the New Testament era churches along these lines, including the one we turn to today – the Colossians. Good things had happened in this church community. As he writes to them, he immediately references them as faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, saying to them: We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you.

But they needed continual renewal of their commitment to this “hope stored up in heaven” – revitalizing their vision and relationships both with God and with each other.

And it is good, and appropriate that we regularly have such evaluations – personally and corporately. Seriously? Yes, seriously, we need to consider our goals for the Christian life, possessing also a renewed goal toward heavenly affections – our primary idea for today.

The Apostle Paul says, in one of our verses today … “set your hearts on things above / set your minds on things above …”  That is a challenge, isn’t it?  We are not NOW “above”.  We have to live here, and we have to deal with the things of this world; and having a prudent balance is a challenge.

The Colossians were struggling with such balance issues. A group of false teachers had set up camp amongst them – teaching that matter is evil and spirit is good. This was a common heresy in the early church era.

So Paul is giving them teaching on the balance of being already an eternal, spiritual being, living successfully in a material world. The key is to live even now with a focus upon things eternal, and the attitudes of such spiritual realities.

As we look at Col. 3:1-14… will see three simple paragraphs that fall out this way…

  1. The Goal – a heart and mind set on things above… (1-4)
  2. Attitudes and actions to lose in order to achieve the goal… (5-11)
  3. Attitudes and actions to increase in order to achieve the goal… (12-14)

So, to be where you need to be with the proper goal, there are some things you’ve got to get rid of, yet also some other things you need to increase.

  1. The Goal – a heart and mind set on things above. (1-4)

Yes, the natural proclivity will be to be continuously drawn to the things that one can see in the material world. But God’s people have to look higher …

COL 3:1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

“Since you have been raised with Christ” … This puts a new spin on everything, as we have been resurrected with Christ. We think of this as future, and it is. BUT, like many things of the spiritual realm, it is also a present reality.

For example, we often speak of three aspects of sanctification – positional / progressive / perfect. The point here is that your eternal life has begun. It is an accomplished fact. The proof is that Christ is now there, and you will be “there” one day. So, it is appropriate to see yourself in this light and begin to act like the eternal person you already are in Christ.

“Set your hearts on things above” … The word means “to seek.” In the original language it is in the present imperative form, which denotes a continuous action … “to keep on seeking.”

“Set your minds on things above” … This literally means “to think on.”  We cannot act without thinking, as everything begins in the mind. There is a radical change in a person’s status when one comes to know Christ that changes everything.

For example, when a person is engaged to be married, they are not yet fully realizing their new relationship, but the knowledge of what is someday going to happen affects how they act now. So, it is therefore not appropriate to live as if that new relationship does not exist. It changes your other relationships and values, along with the things you give time to…

… you don’t date others like you used to, that’s for sure.

… you don’t spend money on worthless things unrelated to your future – you begin to invest in a way that anticipates the future.

… it would be strange to not highly value the other person and not spend time growing to know that person more and more.

So therefore, the reality of the future relationship would affect everything about how you function. Though you yet live amongst other people as a single person, you also live in constant circumspection, because a larger, future reality governs your entire life. And so it is in regard to relationship with Christ.

In verse 3 – “For you died, and your life is now hidden in Christ” … That is the engagement. You are SO connected to Christ, who guarantees your place eternally, as he now exists eternally with God.

And then in verse 4 – “when Christ appears … This anticipates the coming of Christ. The idea here is the “unveiling” of Christ – the light of all that shines from Him at his appearing. We are a part of that because of our close connection with Him.

So Paul says that the believer has a goal – to set our minds and hearts above.

  1. Attitudes and actions to lose in order to achieve the goal… (5-11)

Here we will see a list of things to get rid of in order to accomplish the stated goal of heavenly affections…

COL 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

We have to put to death the things that belong to the natural, earthly nature we all still possess; and this is painful to do. A commentator said, “The old life is dead; we must let it die.”  But that is not what we always do. We too often tend rather to sort of let the old life hang around in the closet, or in the trunk of the car, so that we may go get it out once in a while. The verb used here “put to death” is a very vigorous word – “to slay utterly,” or to completely extinguish.

I believe there needs to be a one-time action where this is done – not that it renders a person free from sin. But is a time of declaration and determined decision. Have you done that?  It may have happened at salvation for some folks, but for many others – especially those who trust Christ early in life – there needs to be a time of commitment. As in Romans 12…

ROM 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

It is like restoring and painting an old car. You must get rid of the rust, or it will eat its way through. You can’t just cover it up, which is the way too many Christians are in their attitudes toward sinful patterns.

And then we see a list in verse 5 of various sexual sins, which become greedily coveted and even an idol to those who do not expunge these natural desires sourced in this fallen world. These can function within in soul like computer defaults of the human condition. Therefore we must take action to change them, not just to avoid them a little bit more than the rest of the world.

In verses 6 and 7, Paul adds two more reasons to get rid of this stuff, beyond the gangrenous reasons of how these things eat away at us and are inconsistent with our position in Christ…

  1. This is the reason why judgment is coming on the world. And we don’t want to be associated with that!
  2. This is the way people lived before they knew Christ. So it is crazy to continue to act that way as if there has not been a significant change.

And then in verses 8 and following, there begins another list of attitudes and speech that must be deleted. The verb has the idea of getting rid of filthy clothes, and not by just throwing them in the hamper, but rather in the trash. Dispositions mentioned include anger and rage, malice and slander, filthy language, and telling falsehoods. The last of these gets singled out particularly, as it is the most likely and easiest wrong to do; and this relates back to the original sin.

Rather, the text says: put on the new self – again, this has the idea of an entire clothing change.

The thought of verse 11 (Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.) as compared to the preceding: whereas relationships are inevitably marred by various sins, when living in Christ, all relationships are wholesome, even those you would think make for great divides…

  • Greek / Jew – very different
  • Those with a background in the law / are now totally without that divisive issue
  • Those from a totally different “caste” or ethnicity, or culture
  • Those from differing social strata

But Christ is the great uniting agent in all these circumstances.

  1. Attitudes and actions to increase in order to achieve the goal… (12-14)

Having spoken of what must be eliminated in order to achieve the goal of heavenly-mindedness, Paul now states the positive dispositions to add to one’s attitudes and actions …

COL 3:12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Here now is the positive “clothing” to put on…

  • Three reasons why believers should apply these guidelines …
    • They/we were are chosen by God – is a special thing for sure
    • They/we are holy – set apart by God – as examples of His grace
    • They/we are dearly loved – like Israel of the OT – special to God – with privileges and responsibilities.

And then, five virtues are given. These may seem to demonstrate weakness, but actually are great strengths, as these traits are admired even by the world.

Back in my high school coaching days I had a boy on my team who was not an especially good runner – He was rather small for his age and would never make the varsity squad. But he never missed a practice or meet. He was the most likeable fellow who spent all his time exhibiting the items in this list, as he encouraged others and just loved everyone around him. The school had a “teammate” award that was given at the end of the school year to a peer-voted-upon athlete in each sport. And this boy every year won it for cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track. … People like it when you act like Jesus.

How do you know when you are gaining these things?  Verse 13 …

  • You’ll be better able to bear with irritating people – remembering that you are probably an irritant to others.
  • You’ll be able to forgive others quickly – remembering that you have been very forgiven.

The summary thought of the paragraph is in verse 14 in that it is all wrapped up in love – like an outer, overcoat garment.

In fact, we can give a summary statement for this entire chapter: Our goal as believers is to be heavenly-minded in validation of our status in Christ, by ridding ourselves of natural vices, while adding to our attitudes and actions the virtues of Christ.

There used to be an old, derisive statement about some ostensibly Christian people that “they are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good!”  But Paul’s exhortation is rather:  “Be heavenly-minded in such a Christlike way that you can be so truly earthly good, because you’re living here like the godly citizen you are from over there.”

So, where has your focus been?  Do you have the correct goal of thinking upon the future – that future that actually is already happening today?  Do you realize that this active, applicational perspective has impacts not only for you, but for the entire “company” … the church family?

You might say, “Well, I think I’m doing pretty well with this most of the time. Maybe I’m about 75% of the way there.”  Well, that sounds pretty good. And imagine if 75% of the people in the church family could say that they are 75% of the way toward being serious about their faith and lifestyle values. Sounds decent!

But, think about this. How would you like it right now if only 75% of your bodily organs were working properly?  Hey, it’s only 25% that are asleep or on vacation.  Wow … and we’re worried about a coronavirus scare!  This is worse!  (And I remind you that I’m not the first person to talk about the church family as a body; this guy who wrote to the Colossians used this illustration particularly in another letter to the Corinthians!)

It is easy to put this off, but it is dangerous to do so. Yes, the time has come and passed to begin getting serious about faith and living well in the faith community.  Seriously?  Seriously!

“The Goal of Gaining the Prize” – Philippians 3

It is healthy for us as believers to be introspectively evaluative. This is especially true as we evaluate if we are attuned to walking through our lives with Godly goals.

By way of illustration, we had a rough week in the stock markets last week. And every stock portfolio has issues that are producing, yet those that are languishing. And you want to regularly evaluate what is producing, in order to increase that, while also eliminating and re-depositing your assets into those issues that will bring about gains. Most often, people are managing such portfolios with the goal of retirement resources in mind. This is wisdom at work. So, if you’d do that for the temporal goal of the end of life in this material world, why would you not also apply that diligence toward spiritual disciplines toward goals that are the prize of eternity?

The Apostle Paul said, in one of our verses today, “I press toward the goal to win the prize.”  Is that true of the way you are living?  Is that your goal?  Or are you running just enough to somehow make it to the finish line without any sweat or pain?  Spiritually speaking, are you like one of the athletes we’ll see in the next winter Olympics, or are you more like an occasional snowboarder at Whitetail??

As we go to Philippians 3 today, we get a context from Paul in the first 6 verses, and from that point on the passage leads toward the big idea conclusion at the end.

PHP 3:1 Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 

The Philippians were people who needed a lot of encouragement, so Paul tells them multiple times to “rejoice.”  Yes, times can be difficult; but even in the worst of circumstances – like writing a letter from prison – there is joy in knowing Christ. And Paul is reminding them over and over about perspectives to have, as well as goals to move forward toward.

3:2 – Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—

Some of the problems the Philippians were facing were related to a group of troublemakers that followed Paul everywhere he went, and three descriptors are used of these Judaizers

  • “dogs” – not talking Lassie or Benji here. Rather, these were wild animals that roamed freely and were menacing pests.
  • “evil workers” – The “workers” word is first in the Greek text – thus an emphasis on deeds. They were all about works over faith and belief.
  • “mutilators of the flesh” – Their insistence upon this singular Jewish rite – over and over – was something that had no significance, and took away from proper emphasis. The true circumcision was of the heart … of Christians, with a settled faith in the work of Jesus.

3 marks of true believers

  • “worship by the spirit of God” – A vital spiritual experience is going on within these folks, as the Holy Spirit within is informing their lives.
  • “glory in Christ Jesus” – They understand that any good stuff going on in their lives is due to the life of Christ in them. It is not really to their credit, but to the credit of the one who died for them and now lives in them.
  • “put no confidence in the flesh” – They know what they are made of – flesh, humanity; and it is not the kind of stuff that instills any confidence.

And Paul continues … 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

… If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

Paul wanted to make sure that they understood he was not criticizing the Judaizers because they possessed credentials beyond his own and that he was therefore jealous of them. To the contrary … his resume could match that of anyone else!

  • circumcised the 8th day – right on time like a good Jewish boy
  • 100% purebred all-Israeli – of Benjamin, the tribe that included Saul, first king. This was the one tribe to remain true with Judah in the southern kingdom. The Benjamites were a tough little group of people you didn’t want to mess with. And Moses, in his deathbed blessing of the tribes of Israel said of Benjamin … “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.”
  • “a Hebrew of Hebrews” – a guy with a wall full of awards!
  • “a Pharisee” – not a bad title like we way think of them, as they were highly respected by the general population in Israel.
  • “zealous” – more than anyone else – standing for the ancient faith and persecuting its enemies beyond any other’s efforts.
  • “legalistic righteousness” (perfection) – He scored an A+ and was faultless.

A summary of Paul’s background: Paul would have grown up with an early Synagogue education, topped off by Gamaliel and graduating magna cum laude. He would have known Hebrew, Greek, and the Septuagint as well (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). And he could speak the common language of Aramaic. Tarsus was in fact one of the three great “university towns” of that age, along with Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt.

Paul’s advanced education and his commitment to it would lead him to become a Pharisee and member surely of the Sanhedrin. He was on track to become one of the foremost Jewish leaders of his generation.

PHP 3:7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

So here now we get to our area of interest, seeing what Paul states to the Philippians as the goals of his life. We can see three things …

  1. to gain the righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith
  2. to know Christ and His power in life and sufferings
  3. to attain the eternal life of resurrection after death

These goals of the Apostle Paul deal with the past, present and future.

righteousness – Though a current possession with a future blessing, righteousness was accomplished in the past. This is probably my favorite word that I have shared in preaching the gospel over the years. This is the thing we need, but that we don’t have in ourselves. To understand imputed righteousness is to understand the gospel, to be daily blessed by its reality, and to know how to communicate this greatest truth to others.

power for positive living – There is a present, positive power in life that comes from, even now, possessing eternal life. And yes, sufferings are inevitable; we have them just as Jesus did … and Paul. But Paul even rejoiced in suffering, knowing he was connected to the greatest truth and the ultimate winning team. And he had found that even the treasures and accolades of this world – the stuff he had gained and lost – could in reality be only counted and valued as mere rubbish compared to knowing Christ.

resurrection in the future – somehow – At first glance it seems like Paul is doubting if it will happen. These words here are a bit difficult to translate easily. But the meaning is that Paul is expressing that whether he will be alive and translated at the coming of the Lord, or if his experience will be to meet the Lord at death … by one way or the other, he was looking forward ultimately to eternal life in its fullest sense.

 PHP 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul says, “I’m not there yet… not perfect yet… I’m experiencing some victories … and I’m pressing on.” And what is it that he wants to lay hold of, that Christ took hold of him?  It must be the life of a relationship with God. Be it past/present/future, it is what life is all about. Seriously? Seriously!

Paul next adds that he knows there is going to be a great prize at the end. And this has become the defining goal that he is moving toward. This is where his eyes were fixed.

It is like when my grandfather would tell me stories of what it was like when he was a boy and was out in the fields of their farm plowing with horses. He told me that you could not let yourself look down or look to the sides. Rather, it was necessary to fix you eyes on an object in the distance, or you would end up plowing a zig-zag.

We could also illustrate it by the woman who is in the Allstate Insurance commercial where “Mayhem” – the scruffy fellow who is pretending to be a 70-pound St. Bernard puppy – is licking her face and tearing apart her purse. But she refuses to take her eyes off the road!

That is the way we need to lead our lives, looking toward the final prize/goal in the distance, affecting the way we live now.

PHP 3:15 All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

The mature Christian will see things from the viewpoint Paul has articulated. And if he does not understand it all, God will make it clear as he goes along the way.

Following God is like having a perfect GPS that never fails. When we use these devices, we might sometimes doubt them. Our lives are often like the GPS sending us up a mountain on a twisting road through the trees. It sometimes seems like it cannot be correct, but we can trust it, and clarity will come in the end.

Paul next encourages the readers to follow his example, as many others have. But also warns, as many others have not.

PHP 3:17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.

This is a different group of people in view here, not the Judaizers. These folks were lawless people who indulged the flesh. The Judaizers were overly bound by the Law, a law which no longer applied in the age of grace. But this second group being spoken of here had fallen off the other side of the wagon into lawlessness and the pursuit of the flesh. The one group insisted upon doing right about something that was wrong, while the latter group insisted on doing wrong about what they should have known was right.

These were alleged believers who were living in such a way as the enemies of the cross. Though they wore the Christian “uniform,” they certainly seemed to be playing for the other side.

  • destiny is destruction – This was their eternal loss of reward.
  • god is their stomach – They satisfied all their appetites that called to them without regard for what might ultimately prove destructive;
  • they glory in things about which they should be ashamed

Paul concludes by returning to the big idea, the big goal, the big prize …

20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Do you see the contrast here in these final verses?  There is this one group of people who are ostensibly Christians, but of whom Paul says, “their mind is on earthly things.”  Rather, Paul says that our mind and our gaze (meaning the values of our lives) should be higher and toward another place – our citizenship is in heaven. That is our true home and native land.

So why not live like a citizen of your homeland, rather than like the crazed natives of a country that is doomed for destruction?  Indeed, life in a foreign land is difficult and filled with sorrows and problems, even at its best. Why wait for the weight of sorrows and foolishness to bring you to a point of raising your eyes toward the true reality of heaven? … toward the PRIZE?  Why not start early in life, or if it is not early in your life, why not start now – whatever your age – to look to heaven and look and move toward the prize?

Look to the PRIZE!  Move toward the call of Christ… of knowing Him … of walking with Him. Seriously?? It’s come to that?  Seriously, yes!

The Goal of Being a Champion – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

At this moment of time, I’ve preached 901 sermons in my years at Tri-State Fellowship. And everyone knows about my passions for running and coaching runners. And so, I was really surprised to look back and see that I have only ever once preached on this 1 Corinthians 9 passage. I did not include it in the “Life Race” series of 2017, nor did I feature it in our recent studies through selected passages of the two Corinthian letters.

The Apostle Paul says … “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”  Is that true of the way you are living?  Is that your goal?  Or are you running just enough to somehow make it to the finish line without any sweat or pain?

Back in my coaching years in Williamsport from 2000-2012, I had more than a couple kids on my high school teams that were like that. They were super nice kids and among the most likeable and fun to have around. Some even appeared to have plenty of natural talent and potential; but they didn’t like to sweat too much. But on the other hand, I had a huge number of champion kids – each one of whom achieved at a high level because of great effort and diligence in many different aspects of their lives.

The context of today’s passage in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 – chapters 8 and 9 – is about Paul’s discussion concerning the eating of meat that was offered first to idols before being sold in the markets. Paul calls them to a higher standard, while agreeing that, yes, there is freedom, and that that they possessed certain “rights” … but there is a higher calling that should balance those rights and freedoms. Paul himself had certain rights and freedoms he had given up due to his position, and these verses are an illustration of this concept.

1CO 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

Here are three main thoughts for these verses…

  1. Race like a champion. (24)
  2. Train like a champion with his eye on the prize. (25)
  3. Discipline yourself like a champion who refuses to lose. (26-27)

So, first – race like a champion.

“Do you not know…” is the same thing as saying, “Of course you are well acquainted with…”  And they were familiar with runners and races and athletic games. These athletic events were called the Isthmian Games. Begun about 581 BC, they were held at Corinth as complementary events to the Olympiad. While like the Olympics, they were held on a smaller scale. They were very popular and obviously well-known to Paul’s readers. At this time, the winner’s prize was a wreath of pine components, so not something very impressive.

There is one winner in a race. And the idea here is to run in such a way as the runner who wins.  Many people compete, but one wins.  There is a difference between the two.  The winner has a certain strength about all they do, while the mere competitor is just out there for survival. So Paul is saying to “make it the goal of your life to live like that the guy who is out there with plans to be a winner.”

Secondly, they should train like a champion with his eye on the prize.

Everyone who competes …  the Greek word is agonizomai,… from which we get the English “agonize.”  It takes effort to be good, there is no way around it.

And indeed, success in running takes a long-term plan – set out months ahead with goals, and intermediate goals, specific tasks of both running long miles, and running fast miles, along with plans for rest in between.  Certain diets are involved, especially close to races. And the whole focus is the final championship race of the year.

Paul, speaking of those in the Games, said that “they do it to get a crown that will not last” – essentially a wreath of leaves that probably dried up in a week or two.

The point is this: if an athlete can put so much effort into gaining a reward that will not last very long, surely the Christian should put much more effort into his life toward gaining a prize that will last forever. So, discipline/training in the Christian life is more than just avoiding the sinful things, but also denying lawful pleasures if they hinder spiritual progress.  And it is the addition of a specific plan of growth.  It certainly involves food – what one puts into one’s mind and life – God’s Word.  And it certainly involves an action plan, with intermediate goals.

Just as a runner has no shot at being a champion without a long-term, well thought-out plan of training and racing, you have no shot at being a champion in the Christian experience without a plan of growth and development.  We are talking about things that are eternal, and such things are worth a plan – worthy of your concentration and effort.

Thirdly, discipline yourself like a champion who refuses to lose.

Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

  • “aimlessly” – conveys the idea of being lost as to possessing a reason for doing something – or of where the end result is, or what is the purpose.
  • “beating the air” – one of two meanings – shadow boxing – or swinging and missing – either works.
  • “beat my body” – a boxing term – “to give a black eye.”
  • “make it my slave” – so as to lead it about like a slave.
  • “preached” – a word meaning the one who heralds… a. the guy who announced the rules of the contest… b. the preaching of the Gospel.
  • “disqualified” – a word that means “not passing the test.”

Paul is saying, “I have goals for my life that involve personal discipline, that involve on the negative side – the giving up of certain rights and pleasures, and on the positive side – involve certain goals and specific efforts.  I do not want to be one who has the name of being a herald for Christ, only to suffer the ignominy of not living up to what I claim to be.”

All of this was a huge challenge to the Corinthians – who were prone to go up to, and over, the edge of sin.  And therefore Paul gives a new standard.

We need to receive this as a challenge as well. We need to re-phrase some questions in our lives…

  • It is not, “How far can I go with the significant other in my life before I cross a moral boundary for unmarried people?” … but… “How can we together fashion a relationship that is disciplined for moving each other toward greater Christlikeness in ALL aspects of our lives!”
  • It is not, “How many Sundays in a year do I minimally have to attend church, and how can I do it in a way that the leaders there don’t know who I am and ask me to teach a children’s class?” … but … “How can I free up most of my Sundays to be at the place where God’s people gather, and how may I get to know them well, and serve together with them to be a functioning part of THE THING that God is doing in the world today – building the CHURCH (the body of Christ) – and investing my life and energies is training up generations of followers of Jesus in this community?”
  • It is not, “How do I work and work and work to gain a secure retirement so that I can relax away the many years of retired life?” … but … “How can I fashion my life plan so that, if God does bless me with a full life of years, I can become better and better in serving Him in my family, church and community?”
  • It is not, “How much time or money do I have to give to God to be close to the minimum expected of me?” … but … “How can I use the time I have left in my life, and the resources God has given me, so that one day, on the other side of this life I may hear Him say, ‘Well done’!”

So essentially, my question for you is what do you need to do to hear “Well done”?  What do you need to eliminate?  Or better stated, in terms of this series: “What goals do you need to add to your life that make you fit to finish your race well?  You finish well – you’ll hear your “well done” and be truly ETERNALLY thankful for the day you allowed a passage like this one to move you to LIFE CHANGE and to commitments toward conscious energy – “agonizomai” – to things that last for eternity.  Seriously?  Seriously!

The Goal of Pleasing God – 1 Corinthians 4:14-5:10

As each of us look at our lives, we realize we have a variety of chapters through which we move. For many of us, we could probably lay out four grand divisions:

  1. The childhood and adolescent family years … growing up through high school to adulthood.
  2. The higher educational and career preparation years … college, professional/trade schools, grad school, etc.
  3. The career years – the biggest chapter, probably divided by the growing family years and the empty nest years.
  4. The retirement years.

That second chapter – the educational years – was for me a longer chapter than most go through. This is common in ministry preparation, as churches – especially back then – just don’t hire many 22-year-olds for pastoral ministry, and the advanced instruction of the seminary years simply add up. And for me, having been a collegiate five-year double major, with Dallas Seminary’s four-year master’s program, it totaled nine years of full-time education. So, there you are at age 27-28 and you’re still hanging around the starting line.

As I reflect on that decade of life, it was indeed a mixed bag of really awesome experiences, along with some very awful, terribly protracted, and scary times as well.

Among the great experiences were …

… being out your own for the first time and living away from home and meeting lots of new people in your same stage of life.

… you find yourself learning so many new and interesting things, while at the same time learning that there is so much more that you don’t know than you ever imagined.

… the social environment is amazing, as you’re making life-long friends. And in my case, a couple of years into this time I met my best friend for life, and we were married four years into this decade.

… between Philadelphia and Dallas, I met a huge list of some of the most prominent people in the evangelical world – not just the teachers and guest lecturers and pastors, but sitting in classes next to Tony Evans, Andy Stanley, Chip Ingram and others.

But at the same time, there were some really annoying things about life in that decade …

… the pressures of high-level education – the endless papers and tests and academic demands.

… how to makes ends meet, and working jobs at odd hours of the day and night at UPS and cleaning swimming pools, while also trying to be a minister of music.

… moving halfway across the country and away from family, buying a small starter house for the huge price of $36,162.

… and just wondering when this preparatory and transitional time of life was going to end, while remembering that it had a goal up ahead – a multi-decades lifetime of serving God and the church community.

I share this story to say that this is kinda what the passage we’re going to look at today portrays when talking about the Christian life. It is a mixed bag of stuff as well. There is the knowledge of who you’re related to and the calling that you have, yet there is the pain of life for an extended time in a fallen and sinful world. How do you get through it?  Well, you keep your eyes on the ultimate goal of what it is about – pleasing God with your life, so that you may be pleased in the end by His reward to you for this lifetime of service and purposeful dedication. We could say that the goal is about not getting our eyes stuck in this world, but to keep our ultimate gaze out ahead – maximizing life in this world for eternal purposes.

Our second-week study in this series takes us to 2 Corinthians, especially in chapter 5, though we’ll start with the final verses of chapter 4.

Most of us do not live daily with fear of mortality. However, some who live with life-threatening medical conditions would differ from the majority. I think also of several of our missionaries in more remote and hostile conditions. They may not always know what dangers could be lurking nearby.

The Apostle Paul was a guy who had a profound sense of these dangers. He suffered greatly for his boldness for Christ, getting beaten up so significantly on one occasion that he appeared to have died. And we see from the overall flow of Paul’s writing that he pretty much expected it to not be a matter of “if” he would be put to death for his ministry work, but “when.”

Always remember that Scripture verse references and chapter divisions are not original but were added at a later time. We are sometimes left to scratch our heads as to why a division was made at a certain point … like this transition today from the end of chapter four to the beginning of chapter five. Let’s bring back those final three verses from the previous chapter to set the stage today …

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 – Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Paul is speaking of the wasting away of the human body. If you haven’t had this experience yet, trust me, believe me, it’s coming!  It is a startling thing to realize that you simply can no longer do something that was a regular activity of your earlier life. And Paul says that these momentary troubles cause us to have a perspective that helps us to let go of this visible, physical world and to rather cast our vision above to the permanent world that is yet to come.

He continues to flesh out these thoughts as we turn to the next chapter. And as we look at this passage, I think we may develop it by pointing out three major thoughts from it.  When studying Scripture, you want to look for repeated words, as well as for words that are the major words in a section – communicating the main idea. So as you read these verses, look for some repeated words and big ideas.

2 CO 5:1 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

 2CO 5:6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

So what did you identify in the way of repeated words?

  • The word “Groan” is repeated several times.
  • The words or ideas about “home” … “tent” … “dwelling” are repeated.
  • The word “Confident” is repeated several times… as well as when it says “we know”

And what do you see as the big idea?

Rather clearly, the idea of having a goal of pleasing God would seem to be the direction the passage is moving, leading toward verse 9 in particular.

Putting that all together …

  • 1. We are made for an eternal life in a heavenly dwelling… (that which makes us confident)
  • 2. We are currently dwelling in a place with definite problems… (that which makes us groan)
  • 3. We should determine to live with goals that are beyond this world… (that which makes us motivated)

So let’s look at each of these three big ideas.

  1. We are made for an eternal life in a heavenly dwelling… (our confidence)

a. It is a permanent home.

5:1 – Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

This pictures more than just an everlasting place to live, it also anticipates an eternal relationship with God.  That is so much bigger than simply muddling through a short life here, no matter how great that life can be, no matter how much may be accumulated in this life. Whatever, it is brief and soon passing away, to be replaced by an eternal reality.

We need to remember the original creation of man. Why did God create mankind, doing so in His image?  It was for the purpose of having a relationship that was the ultimate sort of perfect!   And then sin messed it up!  But God’s grace and plan of restoration was even bigger yet!  And so that is the purpose for a perfect and eternal home – to restore all things to the way they were meant to be. As it says in the passage: Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose.

This is our confidence. And what also bolsters our confidence?

b. The Spirit is our down payment.

2 Cor. 5:5 – Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Those last seven words are only a single word in Greek. And the idea is, like when you buy a house, the making of a down payment or earnest money is the guarantee of more to come… of a final, full payment. This word has carried over to modern Greek and is the word for an engagement ring.

So though it is true that we don’t have in our current possession all the blessings that will be ours, we can have total confidence that it is promised and totally certain.

Yet, even with these confident assurances, the current situation is our very mixed reality of living with difficulties and complications.

  1. We are currently dwelling in a place with definite problems… (that which makes us groan)… and I think the passage would lead us to make four observations about those problems …

a. It is temporary

How many of you can remember, years ago as a child, considering you’d probably be alive to see the dawning of a new millennium?  And then doing the math to think about how old you would be when that happened?  But it looked so far away!  What might you be doing then?  And living where?  It was SO far away, you could hardly imagine it. But now, that memory seems like only a few years ago!  And now, that millennial transition is over 20 more years since the Y2K scare!  That time went very fast, as does life; and there is a sadness to that consideration that may even make us groan.

b. It is fragile.

Remember that Paul was, by trade, a tentmaker. Surely he thought about life, ministry, theology, big issues, etc. while he was working on tents. And what better illustration of the aging process than an aging tent. The older the tent, the more it was tattered, developing holes that needed to be repaired (human tent surgeries!), and the more that it simply wore out and became frail. It you’re a person of that time who was living in a tent that was getting ravaged by the elements of time, you might wish for the day you’d be able to trade it in for a new tent.

And here’s another reason for this tent illustration of the human body to be such a good metaphor: it was actually used of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In John 1:14 it says of Jesus … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. The Greek word for dwelling is of a tent / tabernacle. Christ took on our human form, our tent, to be like us in all things, yet without sin (Hebrews 2:14-18).

But when we consider our tent, our tabernacle – and as we hear of all the illnesses and problems of others around us – we must conclude that our physical house is rather frail. I happened to have an annual doctor’s appointment this week, which of course meant that I had to wait in a room by myself for a lengthy time. And I was looking at all the anatomy posters on the wall. On one hand, it is quite amazing; but on the other hand, there are so many little pieces that have to all work together that it is amazing we sustain life at all!.

c. It is painful.

For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened …

Maybe you have to get as old as me to realize this, but it is painful. And not just physically, it is painful in the amount of sadness, loss and injustice that is seen. For example …

… of a class of people who are insiders and get away with pretty much anything, while others are vilified and prosecuted.

… of children and innocent civilians who become victims of crossfires and ethnic cleansings in international conflicts.

… of the accumulation of family and friends who were dear to us who pass on – sometimes in an untimely fashion.

d. It is deceitful.

 We live by faith, not by sight.

The temptation, of course, is to live by sight. It is to take matters into our own hands now and fix them and make things the way we would like them to be.

  • There are times when it will seem that the unsaved world is winning and experiencing endless joys and the good times.
  • There are times when it seems the people of this world are more successful by their scrupulous means.
  • There are times when it seems God is taking too long to answer and provide what is obvious to you that He should provide.

But it is our duty, yes, our privilege, to rather walk by faith and trust even in what cannot be seen … which Paul wrote earlier is “eternal.”

  1. We should determine to live with goals that are beyond this world… (that which makes us motivated)

And here again is the pinnacle moment of the passage from vs. 9 … So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

a. We work to please God.

The verb for the phrase “we make it our goal to please” was a Greek word that means to “seek honor by doing something.”  This is the idea of having a reward in mind, an honor, and then figuring how to gain that reward. In my high school coaching years I had a great young woman on my team who was not only a fantastic state champion runner, she was also an excellent student. About her sophomore year, we talked about goals and objectives, and she determined she wanted to win both he scholar athlete award and be valedictorian of her class at the end of her senior year. We talked about intermediate objectives, she did them, and in the end she accomplished exactly what she set out to do. And we should wish to strive this way in our Christian lives in terms of goals for pleasing God.

b. We work to be prepared for judgment.

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

This is of course a very sobering verse. When the Corinthians read this word from Paul, the immediate picture that would come to mind what was known as the Bema seat in Corinth. This was a raised stone platform where officials gave public addresses and heard legal cases, typically located at the center of the ancient forum, or marketplace in a given city. It was to this place that Paul himself was brought by the Jews before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia. Their claim was to say, “This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.”  But Gallio refused to judge the case.

Let me be very clear that this future judgment seat has nothing to do with the issue of salvation. This is not a judgment about who gains eternal life, but is rather a judgment of those who are believers and members of God’s family – to determine reward, or a lack of reward. And you want to be ready for it.

Notice that there is not just a negative side to this judgment, but a positive side as well.

The only time I’ve been before a judge as a defendant is in traffic court, and the only chance I had there was to hope that the punishment would not be too bad for driving too fast. I sure would have liked it a lot more if the system would have allowed me positive points for all the courteous driving I’ve done, and not just fines for the once or twice I’ve exceeded the speed limit, always only when going to the hospital to visit a sick church member, of course!!

So, how’s your tent life coming along?  Do you have some holes and thin spots?  Well, someday you’ll be done with the camping life and living in such a temporary home. You’ve got a house just up ahead … actually, it’s a mansion.  So, chin up! Go do something productive for the Kingdom of God right now. Seriously.

The Goal of Our Faith – 1 Peter 1

As I confessed to the church family a couple months ago at the end of a sermon, I think I’ve been a rather cheerful pastor in my preaching, keeping the tone quite positive most of the time. And while I don’t think that’s wrong in the big picture of things, I have to say that I’ve probably erred in not saying hard things as frequently as likely I should have.

So, now, as we head into a new six-week sermon series, I am not setting you up for a month and a half of brow beating. The tone will surely remain largely positive. Yet, even so, it is within the setting of a hard, bold, and in-your-face proclamation that lies at the heart of my determination to do this particular series of messages.

Before I come right out and state it, let me again be a nice guy and contextualize it in a broader context. Tri-State Fellowship is a great church; it always has been uniquely blessed since the day it was founded by the original visionaries 35 years ago. Few churches have sustained such year-after-year, peaceful blessings and operation as has this congregation, and that is due to the committed ministry hearts of the congregants who have been in and out of these walls. I know this through not just observation around me, but through years and years of pastoral conferences and ministerial gatherings where stories are shared and battle reports reviewed as to what is happening in one another’s congregations. Our problems here in Hagerstown are few; our blessings are many; we are unique.

However, even having said that, I must, in a pastoral/shepherding sort of way, report that both in the past and in the present I have seen and do continue to see too many who are not giving their most ardent personal commitment to deep discipleship. They are not affording it the rightful place that it deserves in their lives and in the lives of their families. It has therefore too frequently been a major component that contributes to an explanation as to why marriages struggle and fail, as to why children do not value truth and church and thereby fail to become a next generation of committed followers, and as to why there are countless and endless life struggles to successfully navigate the complexities of living in a fallen world.  Most often, at the heart of this insufficiency, is a lack of commitment to individual discipleship and biblical growth, along with simply not prioritizing the church and its ministries in the schedules of life. It is simply evident that too many people “do God” and “do church” as secondary priorities, or only when there is nothing more interesting to do, or when the sports, recreation and vacation schedules have an occasional opening.

What I’m saying is that too many have had sad results in their personal lives and families because, sadly, they have not been serious enough about what is the most important stuff. And it is that word – serious – that underlies this series. So, I’m calling this preaching plan for these six weeks through mid-March “Seriously!?”   Like, when you hear about something that it is bigger/more/beyond what you expected, you might say, “Really??”  And then, when that expansive thing has some big demands upon you, you might say, “Seriously??”

So here is an overview of the big idea of this six-part series: When realizing how difficult, time-consuming and strenuous some new commitment will be, we might find ourselves asking the rhetorical question, “Seriously?!?”  But any worthwhile lifetime value is going to require time, energy, commitment and resolve. Maintaining physical fitness, for example, does not happen without a serious level of devotion. And this principle is likewise true for spiritual fitness. We need a continual renewal of commitment to timeless and eternal goals. So, seriously, let’s talk about this; and let’s do it for ourselves and the generations of our families to come.

The Scriptures in multiple places give us what is essentially a list of goals that we may pursue that will cause our lives to be truly “serious” as we seek to apply them in a daily fashion. So let’s begin by talking about what one portion of the Scriptures defines as worthy goals for our Christian faith.

And we begin by talking about some things we need to know, because knowledge leads to action. You may have heard the phrase used that “orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy” … meaning, that what you know and believe will lead to what you do and put into practice.

As we turn to 1 Peter 1:3-16, I believe we can see three goals that we should know about, relative to our faith in Christ …


1 … the knowledge of the salvation we possess in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3-9)

1PE 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

We have four gifts in the knowledge of our salvation in this paragram, stated as coming to us from God’s great mercy …

  • living proof of eternal life – in Christ – Peter answers the question: “What proof is there that there is any hope for life beyond this world?” The assurance comes from the living Savior Christ, whom he had seen – crucified and risen. This is not a sacrifice that can’t be found or is merely memorialized in some grave or shrine. This sacrifice is living, having come back to life from the grave, giving a “new birth” of life to those who believe.
  • an inheritance that can’t be lost – everything about an inheritance in this world is subject to ruin or potential loss.

I have once in my life been an executor of an estate, and it was a grueling and trying experience. But think about estates/inheritances that are of this world. Everything about them is tenuous and subject to easy loss …

  • Unforeseen medical / nursing home costs can eat up an inheritance.
  • Houses / lands can be lost in one way or another, or even stolen.
  • Investments may turn bad and even lose their entire value.
  • Taxes and expenses can quickly swallow up resources.

But the inheritance that we have promised to us from the Heavenly Father through joint heirship with Jesus Christ cannot be lost or fade. And this is because it is in heaven and is not subject to the uncertainties of this world. It is even safer than a safe deposit box with only one key, because it is stated in the passage as being kept by God’s power.

This leads us to have a sense of great joy and peace as to what we possess and what is our certain future. HOWEVER … there is in our current earthly situation a “BUT” … though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials…  which leads to a third mercy in the knowledge of our salvation …

  • preservation through trials …
    • This is a normal experience of this world. It will not always go swimmingly well, but we are ultimately shielded from fully destructive forces. And …
    • Suffering is a good gift with positive benefit to our faith, as our relationship with God is deepened by it all. Think back to who some of your best friends are from the past – those whom you really know on a soul level – and more than likely it is someone with whom you walked through a difficult time together (war buddy, teammate, friend in sickness, co-worker in difficult times). The trial brought you close; and so it should with God, as we struggle through the difficulties of this life.
  • the beginnings of the final reward of salvation – notice the present, active tense “are receiving” … how? Mainly through the perspective of being an eternally-related member of the Kingdom of God, in a world largely oriented to the Kingdom of Darkness. The world out there is CRAZY, but that’s not your life, your world, your family, your kingdom. You are related to better stuff than that, and you grow to see and understand this truth more and more as time goes by and you see the grand hand of God in the details of your life.

 And here is a second goal of our faith …

 2 … the knowledge of God’s grand plan, as learned through the Scriptures (1 Peter 1:10-12)

It is a great truth to know that, though sometimes the world seems entirely out of control and that evil prevails, the real truth is that God has a plan that He is working out over the centuries and millennia …

1PE 1:10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

Think about the prophets of the Old Testament. They knew a lot about God’s master plan and wrote about what had been revealed to them. It was amazing stuff, including hundreds of prophecies that came true, particularly about Christ. Yet, they only knew parts of God’s plan; and they knew that there was a lot more that they did not know. For example …

… don’t you suppose Isaiah was curious about why he wrote about a Messiah who would rule and reign, yet also be smitten and afflicted?

… don’t you suppose Daniel wondered what he was writing about when he spoke of the prince to come who would be cut off?

… don’t you suppose Ezekiel was curious about the nations coming together with kings from the north and the south… and about the Temple being rebuilt…

… and Micah, who wrote of a ruler to come out of the lowliest of towns … of Bethlehem?

Even for these members of God’s varsity “A” team – the Old Testament prophets – they merely had bits and pieces but not the whole picture. It was as if they had 300 pieces of a 1,000-piece puzzle, and no box cover!  The pieces were REALLY interesting. But exactly how did they go together … and when … and what did it look like … and how did the “kingly” sorts of pieces fit in with the “suffering” fragments?

These guys died without understanding it all, but understanding that someday, other people – whom they essentially served – would come along who would understand it all. And that was good enough for them.

We are those people they served; we hold the completed record here in our hands today; we have the beginning of the story, and an account of its end. And we know its purpose; we know who the Messiah is and what he accomplished. And we have help (God within us) as to how to live until that day we are reunited with our Creator.

And it was not just the A-teamers of God who were fascinated by this, the text says that this progressively-revealed, master plan of God dazzles the angels. Hey, I don’t know what angels know completely. I would guess that they know a lot at this point. But it is interesting to see how they are often pictured as curious creatures. So, if the prophets and angels are curious, should you not be also?  Indeed, yes… while also thrilled to possess all that you do know through understanding the Word of God.

And then here is a third goal of our faith as seen in Peter’s writing …

3 … the knowledge of a way of life that features obedience and holiness (1 Peter 1:13-16)

1PE 1:13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Peter essentially says three things here: Set the way you think / Set the way you behave / Set the overarching attitude you will have.

About the mind – “prepare your minds” … in Greek this is the old KJV “gird up the loins” literal translation. It pictures the wrapping of a rope around flowing ancient garments – to tighten them against the body for active movement. The picture is to do this with your mind.

About the way you behave“be self-controlled” … literally means to be sober and under control, to be determinative. Don’t live like a drunk fool!

About the overarching attitude – “set your hope fully” … this would be a Greek way of saying to put all your eggs into one basket, the mental bin of all that you know, possess, and will receive about Jesus Christ.

So how do you get ready in these ways?  As it essentially says in verses 14-16, you unplug from the old way of life with its mere desires, and you plug into the new eternal truth of being like God in character.

Don’t be stupid!!  Be smart. Seek to be like God in character.

It would be like growing up for years in a totally crazy family where everything was out of control, and even when things seemed to go rightly for a while, they would always reverse, and everything would fall apart again. You only ever knew a dysfunctional way of life, for there was no way to live life apart from that. But then, out of the blue, you get adopted by a new family that has made available every resource for success in life. All you have to do is live it out in the way that others before you in this family have done and found fulfillment. So, it would be stupid to be in this new family, but act like you were still living with the crazies!

Having these goals and fleshing them out is the way to go. But it takes a conscious commitment to enact them in your life and as the pattern for the values system of your family. So I’m calling to all of you: Don’t just exist as someone who is not as bad as much of the world – as someone who is better merely because you possess eternal fire insurance. But, make it your goal to really move forward, to make the time count, to truly connect to the stuff that is real and is eternal. Seriously??  Seriously!!  We’re going to talk some more.

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 Bookings.com; 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!