The End of the Race, Just Do It

So here we are at the end of the race – the end of talking about the Life Race and the Apostle Paul, and the end of you having to hear stories from me about running and about coaching runners. I’m sorry to always subject you folks to this (well, maybe only a little bit sorry), but it has been such a big part of my life both as a runner and as a coach of runners. Oh what I would give to be able to just run again for even five minutes!!

But even having apologized for the extended metaphor, as was said at the beginning of this journey three months ago, I am bolstered by the fact that Paul used the metaphor five times in his writings – under the inspiration of Scripture. So, if you love another sport, see if you can count five occasions where your sport is mentioned in the Bible by direction of the Spirit of God through the human author! Soccer? Sorry.  Football? Nope.  Boxing? You get a couple references.  Baseball? After the first words in Genesis 1:1, “In the big inning …” it never appears again.

Often the most difficult portion of a race is the final stretch. Success is best accomplished with a specific, advanced plan to finish well. About 8-10 years ago when coaching HS runners, I had a highly-gifted young man who was among the best in the state of Maryland. However, several times he had been outkicked at the end of races by another of the top runners in the state, including in the state championships. So for his senior year, we began in August with a specific plan to address this issue.

At the state finals, he was leading his opponent by a decent margin and our plan seemed to be working. But once again this particular fellow came roaring from behind; and I’m yelling, “He’s coming, he’s coming!”  That runner managed to pass my guy in the last 50 feet of the race. I was so upset about it that I took the clipboard in my hands and whacked the ground with it, and it shattered into several pieces. I really shouldn’t have done that, especially since there was a camera at the finish line that was pointed in my direction and caught the whole thing on video; and then it went viral on the internet for a time!  Ugh.

But, the truth was that he finished his race well; he ran a great time. He was all-state three times. The other guy was just a very good all-around runner. My boy got his college paid for, competed well, and has been a college coach himself in recent years.

Again, to finish well – in a running race, or the Life Race – it takes a plan set out in advance and adhered to over the long-haul of time.

Multiple times in Paul’s writings we see him speak with some anticipation of his possible earthly demise. This is evidence that he thought much about it and that he anticipated it warmly. He thought of it as gain, not loss. His only concern was that he finish his race well.

We don’t know how Paul specifically had his earthly life end. Tradition says that it was by being beheaded; and all the evidence would point to that as probable. As a Roman citizen he would be exempt from death by the horrible tortures that befell many of his Christian brethren. Citizenship would also save him from the disgrace of crucifixion, which would appear to have been the means of Peter’s execution (John 21:18, coupled with tradition).

So, is this what happens to the best of people who follow Jesus? They lose their head (literally) or get crucified upside-down? By God’s grace we have largely been spared from that ignominy in our time and culture. Even so, such horrific deaths of Christian brethren are met daily in our era in various corners of the earth. This century is one of great martyrdom. It is a dirty, little secret that we don’t think or talk about that very much. It is awful, but even at its worst it is temporary compared to the gain and the rewards that follow for eternity. And God has that big picture in mind, whereas we tend to only have our earthly picture in the frontal lobes of our brains.

I can tell you from running marathons that the very best part of the race (but also the very worst part of it in terms of pain) is the final mile. The cumulative wear and tear of 25 miles has settled in deeply, but the prospect of finishing and gaining the award for having competed well makes the suffering almost sweet.

The idea – in running or in the Life Race – is to keep one’s fixation on the prize at the end. Paul did it; those who have gone before us have done it; and you can do it. So … just do it!  “Just Do It!”  That would be a great slogan for a running gear company, wouldn’t it? Wow, here I am at the final sentence of the final devotional, and I realize I should have named this series “Just Do It” instead of “Life Race!”

<< So this is the end of the Life Race and the end of our “race” of 60 devotionals. We’ll be back again in two weeks on September 18th at the beginning of the next series called “The Other Side of the Tracks: Looking Beyond Ourselves.”  >>

Summary of 2 Timothy (2 Timothy 4:1-8)

A recent speaker at my Rotary Club was the local registrar of wills. He spoke of the importance of a final will, talking about how not only does such direct the distribution of material assets, but how it also represents a final statement of what you want to say to those remaining. Such documents have value to the extent that they are fully legal directives, and locally we may choose to have them secured in the vault at the office of the registrar for a very small fee.

People are interested in hearing the final words of an individual before they pass on into eternity. Surely for a person who realizes that time has come, they are going to say what holds the greatest of depth and meaning for them. And this is what we have in the final of Paul’s writings: the second letter of Paul to his dear disciple and son in the faith – Timothy.

These were hard times for Paul. He knew the end was very near, and he was writing essentially from a Roman dungeon. The theme is about faithful endurance through difficult days, and this is a rather timeless theme for Christians in a fallen world.

So how should the Christian endure in such a hostile culture and context and finish well in the Life Race?

  1. Be Scripture-oriented and truth-infused

2 Timothy 4:1 – I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

“Preach the Word” … no person with my school and seminary background can hear that phrase without thinking of the sculpture at the center of Dallas Theological Seminary. This biblical phrase is the motto of the school – the preaching of the Word of God so that it can be clearly presented and clearly understood.

This is ground zero for the successful Christian life … the Life Race. There is simply no connection to God, nor is there a successful way of living life in a manner that counts for eternity without a significant understanding of Scripture. And yet, it is oft resisted or set aside for another day by God’s people. Learning the Scriptures involves a large measure of “want to” and of work, diligence, discipline and thinking.

So Paul is telling Timothy that he has one charge or commission that is above all others in his service as a minister/pastor/elder/shepherd – to preach God’s Word. And receiving and applying God’s Word is therefore logically the most important commission for all of us as well.

As we would put together a sort of personality profile on Timothy, the picture is one of a more timid and gentle soul than the feisty Apostle Paul. He was a guy who seemed to sometimes need to be a bit “pumped up.”

So Paul is exhorting Timothy to be a two-season preacher, and of course this is not referring to winter and summer or anything of that sort. Rather, it is “in season” and “out of season” … essentially all the time. Clearly there were going to be times when the preaching ministry and church leadership work was going to go well, but others times when it was going to struggle. Through it all, Timothy was to be faithful and diligent in the teaching of the Scriptures – that would be his guide and measure of success, not the current seasonal response.

This teaching ministry would at times also feature varied tones. First there is a negative slant that involved reproof and rebuke – often not a natural proclivity for a typical pastor who is by personality frequently a lover of people with a soft heart. But secondly, there was a positive tone – to exhort with gentle patience and instruction.

Let me ask you:  As a general pattern of life, do you enjoy preaching and Bible teaching? Do you enjoy reading Scripture and expositional writings about the Word? Do you have a plan of life that you are executing with a goal to be known as a life-long learner of God’s truth? If not, you are being foolish and hurting yourself terribly. I know, I know; we’re a bit crazy about this around here … certainly the most academic of local churches, but there’s a strong reason for it!

  1. Be mindful of the big picture over the immediate passion

2 Timothy 4:3 – For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

Our own Chris Wiles once wrote: Your average preacher is the spiritual equivalent of the TV weatherman.  He pays enormously for an academic education, then he gets put in front of an audience that expects him to be entertaining—and gets furious when he tells them something they don’t want to hear.

Paul understood this. This is why he tells the young pastor Timothy to press in, because times are tough and there will always be rivals. Paul knew that Timothy would face an era where people turned from God’s truth to instead embrace a seductive lie.

It has always been true that people, apart from a solid biblical understanding, will drift to places and teachers that will tell them what they want to hear more than what they need to hear. They will choose to be informed by preachers or other public voices who feed their immediate passions rather than majoring upon THE big picture of biblical truth and faithfulness.

The text says they will “accumulate” such teachers (literally means “to pile up”); and in our generation we can see this sort of thing with the plethora of the tele-evangelist types who sound good but say nothing. We see it in the way so many ministries have become a great show on a great stage (not that having a nice stage and lights is wrong … or a guy standing there who can communicate truth in creatively engaging and accurate ways). We see this by noting how rare it is to have a church anywhere that has faithfully preached an evangelical gospel message for, say, 150 years or more.

“Itching ears” – what does this mean?  It is when a person wants to hear what they want to rather than what is actually said. I’ll give a dangerous illustration that could make everyone mad … try to get the point of it, OK??  I’m going for a big idea, don’t have itching ears … Donald Trump! Those who hate him only hear what they want to hear about him – something negative, and they don’t hear balancing statements or give credit for accomplishments largely overlooked. BUT, those who love him at all costs because he represents a felt need for radical change, they overlook what is too many times a lack of dignity befitting the position he holds.

The point is that people gravitate to hear and most recall what they want to hear. Paul is saying that this is a pattern of a great many people – to only hear and support the teaching of Scripture that comforts them, rather than what might often need to discomfort.

When people do not hear what challenges them, they wander off the path, having discarded godly warnings and advice. They end up satisfying their natural passions and interests. And these are the things of this world, convincing themselves of the myth that they are in close relationship with God. In fact, they are substituting a temporary picture and vision of life in place of a vision that is better, TRUE, and eternal!

  1. Be consistent in godly duty and responsibility

2 Timothy 4:5 – As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Paul tells Timothy to be responsible with his duties, whether they come easily or if they involve hard work and even suffering.

Sober-minded = his internal disposition – to think clearly and deeply.

Endure suffering = his disposition toward hostility directed at the gospel; this is inevitable, and enduring shows genuine trust.

Work of an evangelist = this disposition toward those outside of the faith, recognizing that people are lost without Christ and in a doomed and hopeless condition.

Fulfill your ministry = his disposition toward those inside the faith … the word means to fill something up to the brim. Though directed toward a sort of “career minister” in Timothy, we all have gifts and abilities granted to us to be used throughout our lives to help others.

Paul faced his pending and inevitable demise with courage, with conviction, and with words of encouragement for the rough road ahead …

2 Timothy 4:6 – For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Drink offering – This is an inference to the OT sacrificial system. The drink offering was something poured on the lamb of sacrifice daily before the burnt offering. In Philippians 2:17 Paul said, “But even if I am poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice…”  Now it is happening.

The word for departure used here is one that in the Greek language speaks of loosing a boat from its moorings; or it could have been a description of soldiers breaking down a camp to move on.

Yes, moving on – to glory – this was to be Paul’s soon experience … the end of the race, and we’ll talk about that tomorrow.

Summary of Titus

Even the most gifted of leaders cannot be every place at every time and in touch with every situation that develops. This was especially true in the early church era as church communities were being developed in disparate cities around the Roman world. An ongoing leadership presence needed to be in place at each church plant. Paul himself had spent some time teaching in most of these locations, but for ongoing leadership it was not as if he could put together a group email, Facetime his buddies or use a resource like WhatsApp to keep in touch with his younger apprentices.

There was therefore a need for Paul to reproduce other leaders who could be discipled to carry on the work in his absence. We regularly come across various of these individuals listed in Paul’s writings. And foremost among them was his special son in the faith: Timothy – speaking of him in 1 Timothy 1:2, To Timothy my true son in the faith.”  The letters Paul writes to him and to Titus are – as we named the prior series of the Pastoral Epistles – the nuts and bolts as to how to make local church ministry work, even with all its complexities.

If a church is to thrive over a long period of time, rising generations of leaders need to be taught, developed and unleashed to do the same with others as years go by. The same is true of our families. We need to know the Scriptures and teach and live them in front of our children and grandchildren if we want to see generations of followers of Christ. None of this happens without intentionality.

So Paul told Timothy to be intentional with an active discipleship process…

2 Timothy 2:2 – And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.

And to Titus, whom Paul had assigned leadership in a difficult environment on the island of Crete, he wrote about church leadership development …

Titus 1:5-9 – The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

Paul further wrote to Titus about older generations influencing the younger …

Titus 2:2-5 – Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.

3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

Everyone fits into this process somewhere. Most folks are, at the same time, both in a process of personal growth and enrichment while also actively taking a part in passing truth and wisdom along to others down the line. There is a “hand up” and a “hand down.”  Taking / Giving.

Is that you? Do you have both going on? You’re not one of those people who only go through life with a hand up, are you? Only ever taking in what others minister to you, while never actively passing it on to someone else? Man, don’t be that person! We ain’t got time for that!

Summary of 1 Timothy

The final three summaries we will cover this week of Paul’s final three letters encompass what is termed “The Pastoral Epistles.”  Paul was imprisoned in Rome for about a two-year period and then released. Though the details of what followed are a bit sketchy, it is generally believed that Paul was relatively free to travel for about 4-5 years and visited a number of the established churches.

We wrote extensively and in great detail on the Pastoral Epistles previously here on our devotionals page. It was about a year ago that we preached a series on these two letters to Timothy and a single letter to Titus. The series was called “Nuts and Bolts” and can be searched under that title.

Timothy served in leadership in Ephesus, and Titus on the island of Crete, each being appointed by Paul to stay and help with the local church situation. Both had experiences in other places. We would not be entirely out of bounds to think of these young men that Paul had discipled as pastors in these churches, though the roles might be a bit different than what we think of as a pastor today.

Whether it be in 2017 or in about A.D. 66, leadership in a church is difficult. There is responsibility for a wide variety of personalities, all of whom are scattered across the sanctification spectrum from new believers, to longer-term disciples with more advanced knowledge of the Scriptures and Christian living. Every one of them remains a sinner, and though redeemed by grace they are all still housed in the flesh and blood container of a fallen creature in a fallen world. The church leader is one sheep called to be a shepherd of other sheep.

From the outside of a situation, leadership always looks easier than it actually is on the inside. I look at the Baltimore Orioles and wonder why in the world the management cannot see in players and strategies the wonderful things that I see so obviously!  If only they would let me manage the team, surely they would win more games!  And even though I actually do believe what I just wrote, I’ve known enough from my life experiences of leading many different entities that it is probably more difficult than it looks to me on the outside.

The same is true in a church. Pastors tend to be kind-hearted souls who want to bless others and make everyone happy. Rare is the pastor who does not hurt when any part of the flock is disappointed or critical about actions taken with 100% good and pure intentions. Being often gentle people, there is a tendency to not stand up strongly to those who let their fleshly exuberance and strong-willed opinions be expressed. Apparently Timothy was such a fellow as to shy away from intense interactions; and thus it is that Paul writes to encourage him toward strong and assertive leadership …

1 Timothy 4:11 – Command and teach these things. 12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Leaders are going to fail and make judgment mistakes from time to time. The issues faced are often very difficult, and a personal sense of reward or fulfillment is slow to realize. In the heat of confusion and crises in the lives of people, it is easy to “mellow down” like Timothy. That is why support and prayer is so helpful from all in the church family.

Summary of Philippians

The well-known Dallas Theological Seminary professor and Promise Keepers speaker Howie Hendricks used to love to comment on the book of Philippians. He especially liked the passage in the first chapter that talked about “circumstances” (quoting today from the New American Standard Version – the text in most common use during Howie’s lifetime)…

Philippians 1:12 – Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.

Howie liked to imitate conversations when he preached, using a sort of sad, Eeyore-like, woe-is-me voice to mimic someone not exactly walking in the power of the Spirit and the joy of the Lord. He would say something like this, going into an altered voice … “So I said to this fellow, ‘How are you doing?’  And he looked back at me and said, ‘Well, not so bad I guess, under the circumstances.’  And I said to him, ‘Under the circumstances?  What are you doing down there?’”

I once did a sermon series on the book of Philippians that I entitled, “Living above the Circumstances.” Indeed, the book of Philippians has a theme throughout that comments upon what it means to live a joyful Christian life in spite of the inevitable sorrows and difficulties in a fallen world. It really coordinates well with our current series on all of Paul’s life.

Again, this is one of four letters (and likely the last of these) that we believe Paul wrote during his first Roman imprisonment. Recalling the passage in Acts that speaks of this …

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!

Under house arrest and guard by official Roman soldiers, Paul was able to receive visitors openly. Among them was a leader from the church in Philippi named Epaphroditus. Knowing of Paul’s situation, the church sent money to him in order to help facilitate better conditions in his life situation, sending it by this good and capable fellow. So the letter back to them is essentially an extended thank-you note with a great deal of additional thought and detail …

Philippians 4:14 – It was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. 17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

The primary theme reverberating throughout Philippians is of Paul’s multiple comments about joy and rejoicing, even in spite of “the circumstances.”  Paul always saw God’s hand in everything that happened to him and around him. At times the circumstances would not seem to make sense, but ultimately he would come to see and understand the bigger picture. His life was about serving God, either by living or dying … either was good and in his mind a win-win situation …

Philippians 1:21 – For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.

I suppose all of us have circumstances we would like to see changed or reversed. We pray about it and hope for a change; and sometimes it happens, though other times the suffering continues. But in it all we can rest in a brighter and larger plan of God. We’re not abandoned by Him, even when events seem to be against us. We are not beyond being used by Him, even in the most morbid or awful situations and places of life.

It is when we get to a place where we can find joy even in the down circumstances of life that we can know we are actually running the Life Race well. So do you have any circumstances you need to crawl out from beneath today?

Summary of Ephesians

As Diana and I were beginning our family and multiplying boy after boy in our household, this was the time that James Dobson was probably at his personal peak of ministry on the subject of the Christian family. I was always struck by how much he wrote and taught about the specific topic of dealing with sibling rivalry and conflict. My memory at the time was that though this might happen in other homes, our kids would always love one another and get along especially well.

Did I ever tell you the story about the hammer that went flying through the air? Or about the time one boy accidentally punched another at the dinner table, and then when he realized he drew blood from the older sibling, he ran? The wounded brother immediately took off after him with me in third place. Being younger at that time and before osteoarthritis was my residual reality, I was able to ankle tackle the older before he killed the younger.

Truthfully, our boys were probably less combative with one another than is the reality in most families, but there was enough to make me grow to understand why Dobson wrote so much about it. Now that they are grown, they often get together and do things with one another, truly caring deeply as brothers. And that always warms my heart.

As a parent, you love your kids – all of them deeply and all of them the same. And so it hurts to see them not love each other. Why wouldn’t they understand this and feel this, you think. God loves his kids – his chosen ones in the church family, and it grieves him to see them be less than fully loving and committed to each other.

And let me tell you of another entity that loves everyone and is grieved when people can’t get along and therefore get into scuffles large and small … and that is pastors and church leaders … people like the Apostle Paul, for example.

There is no major theme that is blatantly evident in the letter of Paul to the Ephesians. But when you read through it, you cannot help but see how much Paul draws their attention toward God’s love for them, and therefore of the love and commitment they should have for one another. Though the church at Ephesus had much about which to be commended, apparently there was yet some ground for them to cover in terms of deep relationships.

As a church, Tri-State has always been one that most often has excelled in loving relationships and interpersonal commitments. But we can do better; we can be better; we can yet grow more in this regard. And it is good to be reminded that intentionality in this matter is not inappropriate. So here are some passages that Paul wrote to remind his friends in Ephesus of this truth, and may the Spirit remind us again as well …

Ephesian 1:4 – For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

4:1 – As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

5:1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Summary of Colossians

I know, I know, this is sorta shameful; but the favorite family movie for our boys at our house over the years was Dumb and Dumber. If you don’t understand that, well, it’s a guy thing I guess. There is a scene where Harry and Lloyd are driving across the country and getting near the Rockies. But one evening after a gas stop, Lloyd goes to drive back onto the Interstate and makes a wrong turn at a fork in the road, heading east rather than west. Many hours later when Harry wakes up and sees nothing but prairie around him, he says, “I expected the Rocky Mountains to be a little rockier than this.”

Taking the wrong fork in the road can make a big difference … in driving, or in theology. The Colossian church was being led by false teachers onto an errant fork in the road, and Paul determined he needed to address it in a letter.

The wayward teaching was an embryonic form of something that would later be known as Gnosticism. It was an odd mix of Jewish legalism, philosophically deep knowledge, exclusivism and elitism, and an emphasis upon angels as mediators between God and man. When it came to understanding who exactly Jesus was, this teaching saw him as some sort of phantom-like intermediary angelic thingamajig, certainly not the perfect son of God.

Of course, this is a problem … or another word we could use is “heresy.”  For Jesus to be the substitutionary sacrifice for sin, he must be human. And for him to be perfect, he must be divine. This is why the doctrine of the virgin birth is so significant. Jesus is the unique union of a 100% sinless human, while also being 100% God. This is called the “hypostatic union” … the joining two hypostases, which in Greek is the word for the substance or nature of something.

If you lose either the humanity or the deity of Christ, you lose everything. It is a fork in the road that takes you in the opposite direction of truth. This is the problem at the front door of varied cult groups as well as much of theological liberalism.

Paul, during this time of his two-year confinement in Rome, writes to the Colossians primarily to confront this errant teaching by affirming and detailing the truth. The result is some of the best writing in Scripture that defines the person of Christ.

Colossians 1:15 – The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

What a great paragraph! It essentially says, “When you see Jesus, you see God because he is the exact image of him. He was not created; he was the creator who has existed always both before and above all things, even holding everything together. Risen from the dead, he is supreme over everything as head of the church. And everything that was and is the essence of God is seen dwelling in Jesus in bodily form.”

Add to this chapter 2, verse 8 – For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form. Boom!

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he spoke of the many difficulties and challenges he had to endure in the course of his life. And then he said, Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (11:28)  This concern we will note much in our final studies about Paul, how even while imprisoned he had the regular worry about how the various churches were faring that he and others had established. And so he writes to them on different occasions to deal with issues and questions in these early years of seeing the Christian faith established.

These writings serve the purpose for us of not only learning about church history, but of also defining the central doctrines and teaching about our faith. This is incredibly valuable, and to not understand something that is as important as this is to be dumb (and dumber).

Summary of Philemon

I often like a snow day where I’m stuck at home, though certainly not for 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 is like as he spends two years in Rome, under guard.

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 a number of his letters to churches and individuals. Today we look at the single chapter and letter of Paul to Philemon.

Have you ever wanted someone to do something, all the while realizing that it is indeed going to cost them some money 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, 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 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 do as Onesimus had done.

So Paul writes to implore Philemon to accept him back. Paul speaks of the great benefit he has received 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.

I am especially fond of this letter because of verse 18If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.  Paul is saying to Philemon that if it is a matter of not accepting him back because of financial loss, that the owner should charge the loss to Paul’s account and he would make good on the debt. 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.

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

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.

Thanksgiving and Prayer

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’s Plea for Onesimus

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.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 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.

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.

Outsiders Become Insiders (Acts 28:17-29)

As a child growing up, my family’s home was on an elevated property just across a country road from the first fairway and hole of an exclusive country club. It was absolutely gorgeous. Sloping down into a valley through which a stream traversed, with another half of the layout ascending a mountain crested by an old-growth forest, the view from our front porch was spectacular.

But there was one big problem. I could never go there, play there, walk there, or anything else. My family did not have a membership; only an elite class of select people could be a part of it. Though totally beautiful, it was forbidden territory. I was an outsider. I could only look into it from beyond the “no trespassing” signs.

Then, during high school, I played on the school’s golf team. And by great fortune, this country club was secured by the school as our home course. I got to play there regularly. Though welcomed on the course and in the clubhouse at certain specific times, I was still not a true member.

Over the course of time, the property was sold and it became a public course that all were welcomed to come and play, and even to join in membership.

This illustration carries a sort of picture of the big idea of what the life ministry of Paul was all about in proclaiming the gospel. Prior to Christ, the way to God was only through the nation of Israel. One had to be a believing Jew who was faithful in trust and observance, or one could become a proselyte. Others were somewhat half in and half out, known as god-fearers. And finally, after the completed work of Christ, the path to a right relationship with God was fully opened to all Gentiles as well.

The story of the book of Acts is largely that of Luke relating how this process evolved, particularly through the specific efforts of the Apostle Paul. The big idea is in central focus in these final paragraphs. Paul meets with the Jewish community in Rome, sharing with them the big picture of the expansive work of God – pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture and the hope not only of Israel, but of the world. Some believe, many more reject it.

The end result is that (as in verse 28) the gospel goes to the Gentiles, who will listen and respond to it with the growth of the church around the world over the next 2,000 years. Is it not a wonderful truth that God’s grace has made all of this possible! Without it, we would indeed all be lost.

This expansive grace of God’s expansive passion for the lost world will be much at the heart of our next sermon series (beginning on 9/17). The major application there will be for us to have a likewise expansive view of reaching intentionally beyond ourselves to people who are different from us, thereby living out God’s heart for all groups and peoples to come to grace and be one together as the church of Jesus Christ.

Until then, we’ll finish this series over the next two weeks and eight devotionals by looking at the letters that Paul wrote in the latter years of his life.

Paul Preaches at Rome Under Guard

Acts 28:17 – Three days later he called together the local Jewish leaders. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. 18 They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death. 19 The Jews objected, so I was compelled to make an appeal to Caesar. I certainly did not intend to bring any charge against my own people. 20 For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”

21 They replied, “We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of our people who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you. 22 But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect.”

23 They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. 24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

26 “‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.” 27 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ [from Isaiah 6:9,10]

28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” [29 – Some manuscripts include here – After he said this, the Jews left, arguing vigorously among themselves.]

Blooming Where You are Planted (Acts 28:1-16)

All of us who have lived a while and sought to use our lives to serve God as opportunities would arise can probably testify to times where unexpected circumstances changed our plans, the end result being a pleasant surprise we would ultimately credit to God’s sovereign work in our life.

When I was age 15 and having completed my first year of high school, my good church youth group friend and son of the pastor invited me to go with him to work for the summer at a camp in southern New Jersey. I recall not being entirely excited about this, but I had no better plan for my summer and agreed to join him. I was going to work with the grounds crew at a very cool camp that had three lakes with cabins and a host of rustic buildings.

When I arrived, I found out that I was targeted for an immediate change in plans. They were short on having a sufficient number of counselors for the campers, and my pastor (who was on the board of directors) told them he thought I could do it. They gave me a Bible test, and all of those years of filling out Sunday School lesson books (on Saturday nights under the threat of my parents’ discipline) paid off. A week later I was the counselor in a cabin with seven 10-year-old boys. One of the responsibilities was to deliver a devotional each night at bedtime, on any biblical topic of our choosing. It was a first time that I did such a thing, and a first time that I felt God’s gifting to speak through me in illustrative and creative ways to teach truths from the Word of God. I helped 10 children that summer trust in Christ. Looking back, that was a “step one” in all else that has followed in my life over the past 47 years of college, seminary, and three church ministries.

The Apostle Paul had many experiences where his presumed plans fell through, only to see himself in an unexpected set of circumstances that God had divinely orchestrated for him to preach the gospel. Today’s passage is another of these. Shipwrecked on an island, Paul presents Christ through miraculous powers and abilities, being set up for such by surviving a venomous snake bite. Ugh! My lifetime phobia is snakes. My favorite movie quote is from Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes? Anything but snakes!”

Paul learned the great truth that things happened to him, so that things could happen in him, so that things could happen through him. He knew that there were no accidents with God, that God orchestrated all the events of his life down to the finest of details. Paul lived out the language idiom of “blooming where you are planted.”  The apostle oft found himself planted in some strange soils with severe conditions for growth and fruit. But he trusted God to use him in those circumstances to live not under them, but above them.

Do you currently have some life circumstances you don’t like? Have you considered how even these have not come to you without having passed by God’s superintendence over your life? How might God use you even in those moments to live well for Him and testify of His grace in your life?

Paul Ashore on Malta

Acts 28:1 – Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

7 There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. 8 His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. 9 When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. 10 They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.

Paul’s Arrival at Rome

11 – After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. 12 We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. 13 From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. 14 There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. 15 The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged. 16 When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.