When God’s people hear “Be patient” (James 5:7-8) from the Holy Scriptures we must come armed with more knowledge and understanding than the world in our circumstances if we are to be obedient to this… More
“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. If there is no other way to live.” – Paul Kalanithi
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”–Jesus
Death is probably one of the most uncomfortable subjects in modern America. It is something we would rather just not talk about, yet it is one of the most common aspects of human existence. Everyone who was born is destined to die and yet we spend most of our life running from this very idea trying to block it out with entertainment, with work, with sports, some with “religious” and spiritual exercises and yet at the end of the day death comes for us all. This may seem like a grim opening but it is a reality that we all must at some point deal with in this life.
The opening quote that I put on this blog is actually from a book called When Breath Becomes Air. It was written by a Christian neurosurgeon before he died in his mid-30s. In it he wrestles with the reality of the fact that he has his whole life ahead of him and yet it is all gone in one moment, one doctors visit, but at the same time nothing was taken from him that wasn’t already certain. He wasn’t promised a long life with lots of Kids with his wife. He was never guaranteed that finishing top of his field in medicine would produce the life changing research he hoped would occur. His life had changed and yet it in some way it didn’t.
I just finish reading it a few days before my 32nd birthday, probably not the most exciting time to read a book about death, but it did make me think back over Scripture and what Scripture continually reminds us of the reality of death; from the garden of Eden were they were cast out and death became a reality, through to the Gospels and the book of acts as brothers and sisters of Christ lay down their lives for the sake of Jesus. Death is a common occurrence in Scripture, for it is the result of the fall and the painstaking reality of sin around us and the need for a reconciled relationship with God and for restored creation.
However as we await this great day, death should remind us of the greatness of our God all the more. We are not promised tomorrow as Paul’s quote points out. We all know that tomorrow’s uncertain, all we know for certain is that there will come a points when everything we know and love in this life comes to an end, and yet more and more we don’t think about it. We ignore the idea that it is possible, we let it sit in the back of our minds unattended. However I challenge you to think about it more often than not, not in a manner that leads to sadness put in a manner that leads back to Christ. Each and every day the opportunity remains for us to deny ourselves and the goals of the flesh to pick up or cross to follow Him and make Him the center of all that we do, all that we will be, all that we may love. The reality of death is the true reality that we have life, and as a believer the truest life possible.
Therefore, as Christians we of all people should be most acutely aware of death and all the more the return of Christ. In the Gospels Jesus is continually reminding his disciples that the return is at hand, and they will write to the church to continually seek first the kingdom of heaven, to look for the return of Christ, like a thief in the night unknown to us. The question though is will we be found seeking, will we be found working, living, breathing for Him or for the world around us. The reality of the return or of our own death on this earth is the reminder that we are not our own we are Christ’s, we are here with the purpose and mission to glorify the name of our God, to seek the welfare of those around us for the good of God, and to call men and women to faith.
We are all aware that our time is coming short whether we were given 30 years or 90 years on this earth is blinking of an eye In comparison to the totality of God’s great universe. What will you do with that time? What will you do with the gift that God has given you today? How will you use that time for the growth of the kingdom. Will you invest in your family for the glory of God? Will you take the truth of God to neighbors and friends who you put off for fear of what they may think?
We have one life to live, one day to die or the return of Christ to come, Let us be acutely aware of that reality and by being aware of it may we live it out.
Last week we looked into the greeting and first remarks of Paul to Philemon, and saw how much affection and bond of friendship Paul feels towards Philemon. We also saw how in the first 7 verses of this small letter Paul is preparing Philemon to hear the request he is about ask of him. Paul employs a careful and calculated gospel-logic in his appeal, and we can learn much from it.
Now let’s turn our attention to Philemon 8-16
Paul here states clearly that though he could’ve commanded Philemon to obey his command with the power he wields in his God given apostolic ministry, for love’s sake he rather appealed to Philemon and simply asked, as a friend asks for a favor. Remember how Paul began the letter? He didn’t begin with his usual “Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus…” but “Paul, prisoner for Christ Jesus…” Now, there is a place and time for a command and a call to obedience rather than appealing using his apostolic authority. Paul even gives two reasons as to why he could command him. First is that Paul is older than Philemon and second is that Paul is a prisoner of Christ. But by simply asking rather than commanding Paul is making much of the love that should exist between two Christians.
By this example we get a window into the nature of the work of elders. If our work isn’t done with a sense of grace to it, it is done wrongly. Even more, elders of all people must be those who draw disciples with grace rather than dragging them by force. In this manner, leaders worth anything should be those who serve the people graciously rather than those who dominate or stand over and above the people only to look down disdainfully.
And did you notice what it is that elders are to teach the people? Look at v8, “…to do what is required.” Paul is only asking Philemon to do what godliness demands, nothing more. And here yet again we see the pattern for all who minister to others, the only thing we should teach or ask others to do, are those very things required of us to do in the Word of God and nothing else. So hear me closely: if you ever receive instruction from a leader that asks you do something other than what the Bible requires, not only call them on it, but it is your duty to disobey them and obey God instead. But if they plead or ask you to be holy graciously (like Paul’s doing here) and they point you toward the Truth, you should obey them.
v10 Paul says “I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whose Father I became in my imprisonment.” That he became Onesimus’s Father means that God through the ministry of Paul redeemed Onesimus, and that because it was Paul who shared the gospel with him it is fitting that Paul be viewed as his Father in the faith and that Onesimus be viewed as his son in the faith. Pail isn’t implying any opposition between God’s Fatherhood or God’s power to save with his own, rather Paul is seeking to show what God has done to save Onesimus through him. It is also striking and shows the power of God’s work through the proclamation of the gospel that a runaway slave would now have and own the name of ‘son.’
Never forget how strong the gospel is and how easily it re-makes us.
Whatever lie about yourself that you believe, whether you believe that you never measure up, that you’re too fat, too skinny, too tall, too loud, too shy, too young, too old, too much of a failure, etc., when you embrace the gospel what God says about you becomes more real and tangible than what you or others say about you. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) Also don’t miss how Philemon would’ve heard this because v19 reminds us that Philemon himself was saved by God through Paul’s ministry and therefore he is also a ‘son’ to Paul through the gospel. So all of the sudden, because of gospel-grace, Philemon and Onesimus, master and slave, are equals as brothers in Christ.
v11, “(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)” There is a wonderful word play at work here in the original Greek. Paul states that before Onesimus became a Christian he was useless to Philemon, but now that he’s been saved he is useful for Philemon and for Paul. The word play exists here in that Onesimus’ own name literally means ‘useful.’
Thus, by becoming united to Christ by faith and becoming a Christian Onesimus literally becomes what his name means – useful.
Because Onesimus is useful to Paul in his gospel-labor, Paul says in v12-13 that he is sending him back to Philemon even though it would have been a very great help to keep him. Paul doesn’t waste words, when he says in v12 that sending Onesimus back is like sending his very own heart he means that to part with his new ‘son’ in the faith is like parting with his own heart. What language to use here! Have you ever had a brother or sister in Christ so dear to your own heart? They truly are a gift from God, and if you’ve known what that kind of relationship is like, you’ll understand how painful and difficult it is for that relationship to come to and end. v14, “…but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” Paul wanted to keep him, but didn’t want to act without the voluntary consent of Philemon. Even here in v14 we get a hint that Paul is asking Philemon something, but he hasn’t quite gotten there yet. What Paul is being implicit about here he will be explicit about in v17-21. That Paul didn’t just do what he wanted to do and would rather have Philemon agree to his request freely is gracious to say the least.
Saying more, I’d say this is the profound gospel pattern that’s at work within each of us. Rather than coercing us against our will, the gospel transforms us from the inside out so that everything in our hearts wants to obey call of the gospel and be reconciled with those at odds with us. The grace of God is irresistible. Once you see it, and once it takes a hold of you, you won’t turn away from it because everything in your heart will want it.
Lastly, look to the end of our text, v15-16, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
Paul here gives a reason why Onesimus, under the sovereign plan and ordination of God, might have been allowed to run away. Hearing that God may have been behind the departure of his slave would have soothed the heart of Philemon because God intends a good purpose out of a frustrating thing. The reason given in (v15) is that because Philemon lost him for a moment, maybe now he’ll gain him forever. Meaning that Onesimus’ status as a slave is temporary, it will end one day, but Onesimus’ status as a forgiven, adopted, and redeemed member of the family of God through faith in Christ is forever, and that will never end. This changes things for these men. Sure they may be master and slave for a moment in the whole grand scheme of things but for all eternity what will they be? Brothers in Christ; worshipping the King of kings, and basking in His glory forever and ever.
Who would of ever thought this could’ve happened? Onesimus lived in a religious and holy family and by leaving Philemon’s household he deliberately went far from God and from eternal life. Yet God, in His wise and hidden providence, wonderfully directs his fleeing so that he meets the Apostle Paul. The elect of God are sometimes brought to salvation by a method that could not have been believed.
The gospel changes everything, amen?
“If we’re not growing, we’re actually declining.”
Have you ever heard that before? The cultural business trends and models have crept into the Church and given pastors and congregations a skewed view of successful ministry. It’s easy to fall into, really. Numbers equal success and expansion is the fruit of faithful ministry; or is it?
We all want to grow. We want to see fruit and we often times consider numerical growth as fruit and a blessing from the Lord. But what if decline is blessing? Can a shrinking congregation, a downsizing small group, or a program being completely eliminated actually be a blessing? Pastors, could you rejoice in this? Congregants, could you encourage each other in this?
Most of The Publicans readership is familiar with Ahab and Jezebel from 2 Kings. Their partnership in leading Israel was wicked through and through and it was in this wickedness that “growth” was rampant. When anything goes, often times, an increase in numbers will result. But God raised up Jehu (2 Kings 9-10) to deliver His judgement on the wicked house of Ahab.
But it’s not Israel’s growth during idolatry that drew my attention. It was 2 Kings 10:32 and the sovereignty of God that jumped off the page at me. Here it is in several versions:
ESV—“In those days the LORD began to cut off parts of Israel…”
NASB—“In those days the LORD began to cut off portion from Israel…”
HCSB—“In those days the LORD began to reduce the size of Israel…”
NLT—“At about that time the LORD began to cut down the size of Israel’s territory…”
Why would the Lord reduce the size of territory? Why would the Lord intentionally hamper growth? Perhaps it’s because the Lord didn’t understand then what we know now, namely, that if we are to be successful then we must be growing. And growth is up to us: how we present ourselves, whether or not we are relevant, and making the masses comfortable (I hope you can read sarcasm).
Don’t misunderstand me, I pray that God saves all 13,241 people who reside in Greene County, Illinois (we’re pretty small, huh?) and that Christ’s Church explodes in genuine, heart-exuberant, God pleasing praise and worship until the glorious appearing of the Lion of Judah! But is that God’s plan? What if God’s plan is to cut off parts of Eldred Baptist Church? What if God’s plan is to reduce the size of the local body in our area? What if God’s plan is to prune Greene County and in so doing enrich worship in Spirit and in Truth in those who belong to Christ thereby bringing purity to our worship, a pleasing aroma to Him? What if we started defining successful ministry by the accuracy of the presentation of the Gospel, the authenticity of the heart in worship and adoration of the King, with humble submission to God’s perfect will and way, regardless of what the latest Christian magazine or best-selling book on growth tells us is success?
Brothers and sisters, I pray to encourage you in times of growth and decline, the Lord is Sovereign. Preach the Gospel and praise God as He grows or declines the church; after all, the Church is Christ’s and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
C.H. Spurgeon: Of all I would wish to say this is the sum: my brethren, preach CHRIST, always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme. The world needs still to be told of its Savior, and of the way to reach him…We are not called to proclaim philosophy and metaphysics, but the simple gospel. Man’s fall, his need of a new birth, forgiveness through an atonement, and salvation as the result of faith, these are our battle-ax and weapons of war.
John S Hammett: …a successful church and a successful pastoral ministry is one that pleases Christ by honoring God’s Word and his design for the church…If God has given us instruction in his Word concerning his people, he is honored and a church is successful to the degree that it follows his instruction. Thus, the successful church is the faithful church.
The Holy Spirit through Paul: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives growth.
 Lectures to My Students, vol 1, 1897
 Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, pg. 352-353
 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, ESV
“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” – Mark 13:32-37
We have all become accustom to hearing the predictions of the day that Christ will return. Joseph Smith, the father of the cult religion Mormonism, claimed that all Mormons alive in 1830 would live to see Christ’s return. He was wrong. Harold Camping not once, but twice, predicted the date that Christ would return. First, he claimed Christ would return September 6, 1994 and when that did not happen, he later stated that Christ would return May 21, 2011. Again, he was mistaken. Anyone who claims to know the day or hour that Christ will return is wrong. We simply do not know that information.
The above passage in Mark tells us that no one knows the day or time that Christ will return, only that He will return and we are to be ready. We may not know when He will return, but we can be sure that He will. And as a result we are to be, as Jesus tells us here in Mark, like servants diligently doing the Masters work until He returns. We should be making a concentrated effort to live for eternity even now. We should not be sleep-walking through this life spiritually, we should be awake and alert, actively pursuing a life that means something for Christ.
Paul echos what Jesus says here when he says in Ephesians 5, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). And also in Colossians 3 when he writes, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:1-2). We don’t know when Christ will return, but we know He is returning and therefore we need to make the most of the time.
We get so caught up with work and school and deadlines and vacations and weekends and future plans that God gets placed on the back-burner. So often we live life and God is not on our mind and His work is not in our plans. And that should not be the case. D.L. Moody once said, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at something that doesn’t really matter.”
And what matters is Christ. What matters is living in light of eternity. Let’s be found diligently doing Christ’s work when He returns or calls us home.
An old country song goes like this: “Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.” Most of us would not put it so bluntly, but we all find it hard to be humble. The problem with us is that we forget who we are in the grand scheme of things. We must remember that we are but dust created in the image of God and made to display His worth. One particular passage of Scripture is thoroughly helpful in turning our eyes off our own navels and onto God’s glory: Philippians 2:5-11. By meditating on the gospel in this text, even the most prideful among us will be leveled low.
To stay in a humbled position…
Feast your eyes on the matchless glory of Christ (vv. 5-6)
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…”
Paul ascends to breathe the air of Mount Everest in this ancient hymn of the church. He speaks of Jesus’ divinity and equal status as God with the Father and Spirit. By bringing us to heaven, Paul reveals the amazing condescension of Christ coming to earth and the cross. Getting a fresh look at the majesty of Christ always has the effect of humbling the believer’s pride. When Isaiah saw the Lord seated on His throne, he cried out, “Woe to me!…I am ruined. I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). When Peter saw Jesus’ glory in the fishing boat, he fell on his knees before him and cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Make it a practice everyday to behold Christ’s glory in His Word and carry it with you. This will put a check on your prideful moments during the day and remind you who you really are apart from Him. Before you open your Bible, pray with Moses, “Show me your glory, Lord” or with the psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things from your law.”
Contemplate Christ’s humbling Himself in the incarnation (v. 7)
“…but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…”
The steps toward humility are not upward, but downward. Christ stepped down into this world, humbling Himself greatly for us. We must follow Him if we wish to be properly humble. We would be wrong to assume that in the incarnation, Christ was subtracting certain aspects of His divinity in order to save us. It isn’t subtraction going on here, but addition. Stephen Wellum, in his book, God the Son Incarnate, helps us see this when he writes, “Paul’s point then, is not that Christ exchanged the ‘form of God’ for the ‘form of a servant’ but that he manifests the ‘form of God’ in the ‘form of a servant.’ The text says nothing about Christ emptying his divine attributes. Rather, he empties himself by adding to himself a complete human nature and a willingness to undergo the agony of death for our sake and for our salvation.” Wellum quotes theologian Donald Macleod, who also informs us by writing how Christ, “had glory with the Father before the world began (Jn. 17:5)…He possessed all the majesty of deity, performed all its functions and enjoyed all its prerogatives. He was adored by his Father and worshipped by angels. He was invulnerable to pain, frustration, and embarrassment. He existed in unclouded serenity. His supremacy was total, his satisfaction complete, his blessedness perfect. Such a condition was not something he had secured by effort. It was the way things were, and had always been; and there was no reason why they should change. But change they did, and they changed because…Christ did not insist on his rights.”
The thought that this glorious a subject would choose to undergo birth as a human baby with all the limitations of life in this fallen world is truly astounding and ought to keep us ever humbled.
Think over the servant-hearted nature of Christ (vv. 7-8a)
“...taking on the form of a servant…”
It was this divine Sovereign who dwelt from eternity past in perfect fellowship with the Godhead who stooped to wash the filthy feet of the disciples. God’s Agent of creation who lit the fire of a million blazing suns with His powerful words washed a mixture of sweat, dirt, and animal feces off the feet of fishermen. In one of the key passages in John Mark’s account of the gospel, Jesus defines His mission in this way: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)
Behold the wonder of Christ crucified for sinners (v. 8)
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The lowest step was not the manger. It was the cross of Calvary. Keith and Kristyn Getty, ponder the wonder of the cross in their song Gethsemane, when they write:
“What took Him to this wretched place,
What kept Him on this road?
His love for Adam’s cursed race,
For every broken soul.
No sin too slight to overlook,
No crime too great to carry,
All mingled in this poisoned cup ‚
And yet He drank it all,
The Saviour drank it all,
The Saviour drank it all.”
The first place we all must look in our struggle with pride is the cross. As low and despised as the cross was, John presents it as the place where Jesus reigns in the fullest extent of His glory. We see at the cross so many things: the ugliness of sin that it would crucify God’s Son, the wrath of God against sin, and the love of God in Christ for sinners that He would go to such an extent to save us.
Worship the now exalted and glorified Christ on bended knee (vv. 9-11)
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Once we come to this point, we are properly humbled. We realize we are nothing and Christ is worthy of all the glory. Now that we are on our spiritual knees where we belong, Paul reminds us that Christ’s pre-incarnate glory has been restored and he promises us that one Day every soul will acknowledge it. Paul’s phrase comes from Isaiah 45:23 where we see this One to receive all glory is none other than the only God Himself. We must make it our aim each moment of the day to keep our spiritual knees bent. Christ will receive all the glory and we must give it to Him through our daily lives.
Get busy serving others in the name of Christ
It would be easy at this point to be so eclipsed and engulfed in this glorious gospel that we forget that it carries with it everyday ramifications. The gospel is never given to us so that we can simply bask in its light and forget the world outside. Christ didn’t die to simply make us worshipers, but to make worshipers of His glory through us. Christ humbled Himself to serve us so that we would follow His lead and humble ourselves to serve others too. Look for humbling and lowly acts of service Christ may be leading you toward. It may mean doing something uncomfortable for you and yet the very doing of it will help you flesh out this gospel theology. There are widows around us who don’t see God’s love in action. There are neighbors around us who wonder if there is such a thing as authentic love. Whether it be a mission trip, a chance to work in the nursery, or the opportunity to bring food to a hurting family, only we will give an account to God for how we practically live out this gospel. But whatever we do, we must carry the humbling gospel message with us and serve out of this glorious news.
In a fallen world, tragedy visits us all.
Tragedy may manifest itself in natural disasters, a broken home, betrayal of a friend, loss of a job, or death of a loved one. For some, the incomprehensible strikes, questions rage, doubts swirl, and we cry out to God in desperation! Our tragedy drives us to the only Refuge and He protects us within His walls and provides for us in His love. Such was the case with the passing of Job.
Job Allen Peterson, my nephew, lived an hour and twenty-four minutes on July 8, 2017. Tragedy. Death is a tragedy. It is not our friend; in fact, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:26, says that it is our enemy. Death is an enemy of God, the Author and Giver of life. Death, too, is an enemy of ours as it steals that which God gave the unique of all creation; namely, his breath in our lungs. But this tragedy is not like any other I’ve ever been a part of.
It was truly a day of thanksgiving when, on Thursday, November 24, my brother-in-law quietly shared with me that he was expecting his second child. I can remember the joy that filled my heart for him as we sat on the porch swing and praised God. I was like a seven-year-old boy bursting with excitement over new news when only weeks later I clued our congregation in on our upcoming blessing when I accidentally let the cat out of the bag while preaching. Children are a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3-5) and our family celebrated and praised the Giver of Good Gifts.
While we, the family, were awaiting the phone call following the first sonogram, Job’s parents were receiving news that would change their lives forever. There was something wrong. There were tests and phone calls and doctor visits and more tests and waiting and waiting and waiting…praying and praying and praying.
The baby that we would come to know as Job didn’t have kidneys, a bladder, or lungs. No kidneys meant little-to-no amniotic fluid and no amniotic fluid meant his lungs wouldn’t develop. Who knew that a kidney transplant was possible on an infant or other means were possible remedy the bladder issue? But no lungs? How could this happen? Would God intervene? Certainly, He is capable. But is He willing? A miracle is what was needed. So, we prayed. We dove into the Word. We trusted. We cried. We struggled. We rested. We prayed. We praised. We cried. We trusted. We prayed. As long as he was in the womb, there was still a chance; there was still time. But that day came and Job never developed lungs.
The incomprehensible had struck but the incomprehensible wasn’t the passing of Job; it was the comfort, peace, strength, and supernatural faith that God gave his parents and the rest of Job’s family. I’ve been processing this for a while now and I’ve had to change my use of adjectives. It became clearer and clearer that my description of God’s grace as “unbelievable” was a poor representation of the God who is not unbelievable but is incomprehensible.
Let me explain.
(1) Just days before receiving the news that his baby would likely not survive, God reveals himself to my brother-in-law, graciously gives him new life in Christ and ignites a flame of passion for knowing the Lord that could not be extinguished by even this tragedy of tragedies.
(2) Amidst the struggle and the pain, Job’s parents consistently rested in the sovereignty and goodness of God and committed to praising God if He chose to save Job and to praise God if He chose not to. Which was not mere lip-service but is a reality of life for them.
(3) On Saturday, July 8, the Lord delivered Job safely into the arms of his mommy who carried him, protected him, provided for him, and nurtured him. In spite of the odds, and in spite of the doctor’s best guess that Job would not survive the delivery, our Gracious God gave Job’s mommy and daddy an hour and twenty-four minutes together.
(4) As Job passed from this life to the next, together, we praised, we prayed, we cried, we held his little hands, and stroked his beautiful hair, and we felt the presence of God like never before.
(5) As Job’s mommy held him tight to her breasts, as tears of joy and pain rolled down her cheeks from deep within, you could hear the faint sound of worship in song coming from his mother who had only minutes to share the most important message Job could ever hear; God’s glory & goodness in Jesus Christ.
(6) Four days later, we gathered around a tiny casket and praised the God who gives life. There were a few tears and our hearts were saddened but that was not the focus of that day. The “God of all comfort who comforts us in our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) was present. The God who provides “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) was present. The God who “is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1) was present. The focus of Job’s funeral was on the supernatural comfort, peace, & strength that is promised to those who belong to Lord of Hosts and was provided by God through this storm.
Who is this God who gives such good gifts? Who is this God who strengthens the weak, comforts the afflicted, and can put a song on praise on our lips amidst the pain of such loss? He is Jehovah Jireh, the Lord who provides (Genesis 22:14). He is Jehovah Rapha, the Lord who heals (Exodus 15:26). He is God and He is Good and all that he does is good (Psalm 119:68).
“I love you, O Jehovah, my strength. Jehovah is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I will call upon Jehovah, who is worthy to praised and I am saved from my enemies” (Psalm 18:1-3).
Words are not enough. Blogs are insufficient. But it is our privilege and honor to give what we can as an offering of praise…“Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3).
The heart of Paul’s letter to Philemon has to do with the person of Onesimus. He was Philemon’s slave who had somehow wronged his master (v18), fled and through an unknown sequence of events met Paul in prison (v9), was converted (v10), and became a useful partner to Paul in the gospel (v11-13). But Paul knew the existing law in Rome demanded that Paul return the slave Onesimus to his rightful owner Philemon. In this letter Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back (v17), to forgive him (v18), to treat him no longer as a slave but a brother (v16), and to return Onesimus back to Paul so he can continue to labor in ministry alongside him (v13, 21). We’ll get to all this soon in the coming posts, but today focus on verses 1-7, which is made up of 2 sections: v1-3 where we see the greeting, and v4-7 where we have Paul’s first remarks.
The Greeting (v1-3)
I think it’s fair to say that in Paul’s greeting to Philemon we see things we’re used to seeing in Paul’s greetings, and we see things we’re not so used to seeing in Paul greetings. We’re used to seeing Paul’s name at the beginning of his letters, this is simply how one wrote letters in the first century. We’re used to seeing Paul include Timothy with himself in greetings, (he does it in 5 of his letters), and he did it here because Philemon had probably met Timothy in Ephesus where Paul was being held in his Roman prison. We’re used to seeing names to whom the letter is addressed in Paul’s greetings, and we’re used to seeing Paul say v3. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” appears in the greetings of all 13 of his letters, and shows Paul’s affirmation of the deity of Christ by linking the Father with the Son.
We’re not used to Paul addressing letters to individual people. Of all 13 letters only 9 are addressed to churches while the remaining 4 are addressed to 3 different people: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. v2 shows us Philemon was a personal friend of Paul’s in that Paul calls him a beloved fellow worker, which also means Philemon was a minister of the gospel as well. We see Paul mention “Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier” who very well could be Philemon’s wife and son who also knew Paul well. We actually here of Archippus in Colossians 4:17 where Paul calls him a fellow soldier and encourages him to fulfill the ministry he’s received from the Lord, which shows us that Archippus was undoubtedly one of the leaders in the Colossian church along with Philemon. We’re not used to Paul identifying himself as a prisoner in his greetings. Out of all his letters the only ones where he doesn’t introduce himself as “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus” are Philippians, both letters to the Thessalonians, and here in Philemon. Plus, only here in Philemon do we see Paul identify himself as a prisoner in the greeting. That he does this rather than identifying himself as an apostle is telling and purposeful, and it sets the tone of the whole letter.
By beginning this way the letter immediately feels personal, gentle, and more like a friendly appeal than a letter of full blown apostolic authority. Don’t get me wrong, the letter is still from Paul and Philemon knew that, but Paul is intentionally going out of his way to reduce the feel of ‘command’ here. It also would have reminded Philemon of the severe hardship Paul has had to face in preaching the gospel and in comparison with Paul’s suffering for the gospel the thing Paul is about to ask Philemon to do will seem very small in comparison to what Paul has gone through.
So you see, even in this greeting Paul is already at work, using gospel-logic to prepare Philemon for what he’s about to ask him.
The First Remarks (v4-7)
As Paul concludes his greeting, he begins with his first remarks, and these first remarks are exactly what you’d think they’d be if you were listening to a conversation between close friends as a fly on the wall.
Paul genuinely, warmly, and honestly expresses his affection for this man. Why? Paul’s not just buttering him up in preparation for what he’s about to ask him, no. He gives reasons for this affection in v5 and v7, and Paul prays for Philemon in v4 and v6. Look at reason 1 in v5 = Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward the Lord Jesus, and Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward all of the saints. Because of these things Paul says in v4 that every time he remembers Philemon he always thanks God. v7 contains reason 2 = Paul’s heart has received much joy, comfort, and refreshment through Philemon’s love for him and for Christ’s Church. Apparently to Paul, to the Church in Colossae, and to many others Philemon is like water to a thirsty soul, refreshing. Because of this refreshment Paul says in v6 that he prays Philemon’s knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ becomes full through the sharing of His faith. This means that Paul is asking God to refresh the one who has been such a refresher to others. And specifically that God refresh Philemon by making his knowledge of all the good things he has in Christ, full. Paul is asking God to give Philemon more of God. What a prayer!
Now, we cannot read to quickly through v4-7, as if there just mere niceties because if we do so we’ll miss what God means to teach us about Philemon, and we’ll miss what God means to teach us about what happens in our hearts if we truly love Him.
There are two implications for us here:
You cannot claim to truly love Christ if you have no love for His Church
This is precisely what Paul sees in Philemon’s heart, and what prompts Paul to thank God for His work in and through this man in v4-5. Christ and His Church are separate things and they are the same thing. They are separate things in that love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church are different loves. They are the same thing in that love for Christ leads to a deeper love for Christ’s Church. The principle at work here is this: the more you seek to love Christ the more you’ll find your heart beginning to love the very things that Christ loves. What does Christ love the most? His glory. What is the primary means Christ employs to display His glory among the nations? His Church. Therefore the more one grows in love for Christ, the more one will naturally grow in love for His Church. More so, Christ and His Church are intimately connected so that if you turn away from one you inevitably turn away from the other. God placed this twofold love in the heart of Philemon, and Paul loved it, and thanked God for it.
Has God placed it in you? What do you feel about the Church? Do you feel a love, respect, yearning, and desire to be in it and used by God so it grows more and comes to bring a lasting influence on the cities we live in? Or, do you feel somewhat neutral or disinterested in the Church? Are you just putting on a face and going through the motions, faking your Christianity before the eyes of the world? Philemon’s love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church shows us the normal pattern for all believers. If we truly love Him we’ll truly love His people.
The normal pattern for all believers is to be laboring within the Church
v6-7 show how Philemon was not only a spectator, attender, and member of the Church, but that he was involved in the lives of the people, being used by God to refresh His people. This is the normal pattern for all believers. I want to say something here that may catch you off guard. I once heard Mark Dever say, “If you aren’t helping others follow Jesus, I don’t know what you mean when you say you’re following Jesus.” Do you think Church is just about what you can get out of it? Is it just about how myself and the other elders, or the worship team, or the Bible studies cater to your needs? Is it just what we can offer your kids? I hope not. If you’re here and not seeking to help others follow Jesus, you’re nothing more than a barnacle on the bottom of the boat. If you’re a barnacle don’t be afraid you’ll still be loved for sure, but you can be sure of this – the Christians around you won’t let you settle for something less than Biblical reality, and because of that they’ll keep pressing into you in as many ways as they can think to get you moved from a barnacle on the bottom of the boat just along for the ride to a worker on deck.
In these 7 verses it is crystal clear that Philemon’s life has been radically changed because of the gospel. He now exists to serve His master, the Lord Jesus, by ministering to others. This is what the gospel does. Philemon’s not refreshing in and of himself. You or I are not refreshing in and of ourselves. The thing refreshing about Philemon is the gospel, flowing into him, and flowing through him to others.
May God do such a work in us.
Each week I go through two texts of Scripture to understand them, absorb them, and preach them on the upcoming Sunday morning and evening. This process involves as much prayer as it does study. Here are ten things I pray for each week about my preaching.
In the Study
Lord, give me words for Your people.
This is the first thing coming into my heart when I open my Bible. I understand that I am opening it not just for the sake of my own soul but for the sake of the souls in my church. So yes I’ll have a slow and steady eye on the text, but I’ll also have an eye on the congregation as well.
Lord, give me words of precision.
Having the congregation in view increases the urgency of having a quality sermon for the congregation. What is a quality sermon? A precise sermon where the point of the text is the point of the sermon. Where attention is given to God’s agenda in the text and submitted to. In this sense I seek only to say what God has already said.
Lord, give me words of passion and power.
As I’m slowly working through the texts and as the sermons begin to take shape before me I begin to desire that these sermons not be merely information passed from me to them. I want the demeanor in which I preach to match the demeanor of the text. I don’t want to be unaffected myself and want to affect my hearers with the truth. I want passion and power, unction from the Spirit of God in preaching the Word of God, a feeling sense of the truth I’ll preach. I cannot create this on my own, so I plead with God to create it in me.
Lord, give me words for Your praise.
Lastly, as both sermons are close to being completed I remember the ultimate aim in preaching – the glory of God. Yes the text must be understood, yes the people must grow, and yes I must grow myself. But above all these things God must be honored and glorified. I complete my sermons and ask God to use this small effort to build His Church and make much of His name.
In the Pulpit
As I approach the pulpit I am aware that this moment is the culmination of a weeks worth of study and struggle with the text. It is the moment where I’ll reap the consequences of a diligent week of study or a poor week of study, and it is always my preference to reap well than poorly! It is the moment that never ceases to amaze me that God works to build His Church through flawed preachers like myself. Knowing all of these things fills my walk to the pulpit with the following five requests.
Lord, use me to challenge, use me to convict, use me to comfort, use me to console, and use me to change Your people.
Though every week is different, filled with joys and challenges of all shapes and sizes these 10 things have, at least for me, remained true and constant. I hope they encourage you in your own preparation.
A little over a month ago I began preaching through the book of Ezra, that book right after Chronicles that deals with all the people coming back to the promise land, and rebuilding. No, not Nehemiah with the walls and all that really cool leadership lesson stuff. This book is about the depth of mercy God goes too in order to restore His people. In this little book we see the people broken down and defeated. They have acknowledged that they have sinned and God brings them home from exile. There is a lot to unpack in this book as we see them struggle with maintaining their convictions and following after God, yet God is long suffering and patient with his people, bringing prophets and men of the Word again and again to point them back to the truth of Who God is and reminding them that God has a purpose for them.
Now I say all that to point to something that happened a week before we started preaching through the book. One of my members asked me honestly after reading the book what this has to do with the church and why we would study something like Ezra. Now I love my church and I totally see where he is coming from in that we don’t usually think about preaching through Old Testament texts like Ezra. We love texts on King David and even Nehemiah; I mean leadership lessons galore there. However there is just as much meat in the harder texts of the scriptures such as Ezra, the Minor Prophets (which I wrote on earlier in the year), Kings & Chronicles, Judges, Ruth or Esther. These texts are often overlooked or simply relegated to Sunday School material, when they have some of the most amazing stories about the work of God in the lives of real people. In these lesser preached texts, we get to see God actually change things over the course of human history. This is where I explained the importance of Ezra.
For a church like mine in the midst of transition and revitalization we need to see the part of God where He is for his people. The story of Ezra shows a people who lost hope in their future. They didn’t see how God could us them anymore, even though He set them apart and had done great things in the past, for them it is simply past, but not with God. Ezra shows us that God works in long term swaths of history, what was once broken down and dying can be restored to new life through the preaching and teaching of the word of God (Ezra 5), through the faithful walking of His people under his word (Ezra 3,6,7) and through faithful obedience to the truth (Ezra 9-10). Ezra shows us that the Christian life is filled with ups and downs, but God remains and His people will be renewed. This is why Ezra was such an important book to be preached, not only for a church in transition or revitalization, but also for a church plant talking about what makes them a community of faith verses just a random group of people who meet and talk about God stuff, or even an established church who needs to be reminded of the Great work of God in the history of His people.
The lesser preached books, mostly it seems being Old Testament biblical narrative, are essential to our Christian faith because they are essential to the revealing of who God is and how God works. We can’t avoid them because they are hard and above all you can’t avoid them because they seem, irrelevant. If there is one thing we know to be true is that the word of God is never irrelevant and the narratives of the scriptures especially. God is the central figure in all of His word and the full revelation of Jesus begins in Genesis and is woven into the whole tapestry of scripture, to leave out large swaths of the story in preaching to our congregations is to miss out on the work of God and to deprive our people of seeing God’s work in the live so the saints through all of history. So For preachers; preach boldly the hard narratives and skipped over books, and for congregants; yearn for such preaching that shows the whole of God’s Word to be true and authoritative. Also pray for the Lord to open your own eyes to see his work through the lives of those who have gone before, through the struggles and victory of God’s people.
There sat the world’s most outspoken Christian evangelist, chained to two Roman guards behind a locked jail cell. If most of us found ourselves in Paul’s shoes, we’d have thought for sure this was a sad day for the Gospel. “Poor Gospel”, we’d think. “Your days of victorious spreading have now come to a screeching halt. I guess I might as well just retreat to the cold recesses of this cell and silently go over some memory verses to reassure me. There’s no point trying to preach now.” Yet the Apostle Paul knew better than all this. He wrote to the church of Philippi, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Php. 1:12-14).
We may be tempted to see such circumstances as hindrances to the gospel spreading, but Paul saw them as opportunities which served to advance the Gospel. Paul knew that God often allows the troubling trials into our lives for His own divine purposes. Paul knew after watching Stephen’s martyrdom that persecution has a way of lighting a fire under God’s people to spread the Gospel elsewhere. It was Paul’s travel companion Luke, who wrote, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles…Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1b, 4). So God could even use the terrible stoning of one of His own children to get the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem. An early Christian named Tertullian was right when he stated, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
What does this have to do with me, you may wonder. While you may not face much persecution for your faith at the moment, you probably do encounter “trials of various kinds.” In order for us to “rejoice” with Paul or “count it all joy” with James, we must understand that God allows all this to advance His Gospel, not send it in retreat. His Gospel knows no such thing as retreat. We must see every screaming toddler, every financial burden, every unexpected doctor’s call, and every natural disaster as events guided by the hand of our sovereign God to advance His Gospel. We must learn to behold the invisible King of glory as He sits on the throne of heaven, guiding all things according to His perfect counsel. All human authorities from ages past to today and into the future cannot stop or silence His gospel. North Korea’s emperor says, “No evangelism allowed!”, and South Koreans send thousands of Bibles into their territory via giant balloons. China says, “No other churches authorized!”, and hundreds of millions of Christians gather with greater earnestness in underground churches and in houses. As Paul said to young Timothy, “I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:9). No chains can hold back the gospel from going forth.
What should this mean for us?
Rejoice when you encounter obstacles that seem to stand in the way of Gospel advancement.
Rejoice not in the obstacles themselves, but in the God who secretly works through them and despite them to accomplish His purpose of spreading His glory.
Rejoice as you consider that God is currently making a way in your personal life and in the Church universal to extend His Gospel to those He will redeem.
Rejoice as you consider the words of Christ when he said, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd…My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:16, 27-28). Rejoice as you believe the promise, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).
May we keep our mind’s eye on the multitudes John saw around the throne praising the Lamb who purchased them with His blood (Revelation 7:9). Then, let us put on the armor of God and commit to advance Christ’s Gospel, come what may. Since the Gospel never retreats, may we never retreat in declaring it until the trumpet sounds and our King comes to rescue us.
What gospel do you believe in? Do you believe in a gospel that says “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are” (Jonathan Leeman). Do you believe in that gospel? Or do you believe in a gospel that says, “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are. But in His grace and by His Spirit He doesn’t leave us as we are. No, He slowly and surely makes us into different people. People who love Him and hate sin. People who refuse to do life alone but do it in the community of the local church. People who grow in godliness, eager to reflect His holy character and glory to this fallen world.”
Which gospel do you believe in? The first version presents Jesus as Savior, the second presents Jesus as Savior and Lord. The first version points to our new status as children of God, the second points to our new status as children of God as well as our new job description as citizens in His Kingdom. The first version has a view of God’s grace saving us, the second has a view of God’s grace not only saving us but sanctifying us as well.
Everything in the first version is true, wonderfully so. But there’s much more to be said. My guess is that most of you would say you believe in this second version of the gospel, and that’s a good thing. But I am coming to you today with a pastoral question, “Are you sure about that?” So please pay attention to not only what God is about to tell you through His Word, pay attention to how you respond to what is said in God’s Word. Why? Your response to these things reveal which version of the gospel you really believe as well as which version of the gospel you’re really living out.
The passage we’ll be walking through today is Matthew 18:15-20, where Matthew would have us consider three points today, all aiming at how we as fellow believers do life together when one of us wanders and how to restore such a person(s) to a right standing within the church.
Notice What’s Before Our Passage (18:10-14)
In the verses that lead up to our text today, we find Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. In this parable Jesus says, “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of My Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (18:12-14). See here the great love of God for His people. It is so great and so vast that if one of them wanders off, He will always go after them and bring them home. Jesus shows Himself to be here in Matthew 18 what John 10 says He is, the great Shepherd of the sheep. And being the great Shepherd of the sheep, He not only has a great love for the sheep but He also sees to it that every sheep in the flock will remain in His hand until the end. None of them will perish or be snatched up by a wolf or some other intruder.
Church, since this is how God loves His people, since this is how Christ loves His Sheep, isn’t this to be how we love one another? Paul similarly, in Galatians 6:1-2 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness…Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This means when we come together and commit to one another in the membership of the local church, we commit to chasing down the wanderer, bringing back the sinner, loving one another despite our own foolishness, and pursuing the offender so that they are brought back home.
Into this context, comes one of the most detailed explanations of how to do church discipline. That this parable of the lost sheep comes before v15-20 gives us an example of the spirit in which church discipline is to be carried out. Not to punish, but always to be aiming at restoration, at winning back the wanderer.
Notice What’s In Our Passage (18:15-20)
Jesus has already told us that every one of us is to be about the business of pursuing, chasing, and bringing back the wandering sheep in our midst. But now suppose the shoe is on the other foot, what then? Did you notice the first words in v15? “If your brother sins against you…” If you’re the one sinned against, are you still to chase them down? Or does someone else do that? To see it in yet another manner, get out of your shoes altogether and get into the shoes of another and suppose you’re the one doing the sinning against another. What is supposed to happen then? What actions are you to take? What does the church do? Or the offended party? These are deep questions, loaded with all kinds of baggage, that God has not left us in the dark with. The light of His Word shines into our disobedience with all manner of grace.
Here Jesus gives us four steps that make up the whole process of church discipline.
Step One – Private Admonition (v15)
In v15 we learn that the very first step in the church discipline process is to go to the person who has sinned against you personally and privately. This means when sinned against, you don’t sound off to the whole church about how bad they really are and how they’re the worst thing that’s come into this church in years. You don’t refuse to talk to them anymore, give them the cold shoulder, or close yourself off from them. You don’t build up a bitter resentment in your heart toward them. No, you go them and bring it up privately. They may be aware of what they did, they may not. But by going to them privately you’re protecting the offender’s reputation by keeping the circle of people who know about this offense as small as possible. And you’re also protecting yourself from gossiping about them to others in the church by going to them immediately and personally.
When you go, what do you speak with them about? In v15 when it says “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” it implies that you’re intentions in going to them are to make them aware of their sin and seek repentance from them for their sin. You’re not going to condemn the person, you’re not going to tell the person off, you’re there to share what they did or what they continue to do, how it crossed the line of right and godly behavior for a Christian, and to see if they feel a godly remorse over what has happened and desire to make things right. If they listen to you, express sorrow over offending you, and repent Jesus says you’ve gained your brother back! I’ve often found that when this occurs the result of such a meeting is a much deeper relationship in the future. But if they refuse to listen, don’t acknowledge that what they’ve done or keep doing is sinful even though it’s clear in Scripture, you move onto to step two.
Before we get to step two notice something else here in step one. This initial step doesn’t involve any kind of official organization or leadership in the church. It’s simply between you and the other person, which is where Jesus intends church discipline to begin. In this light see that step one of church discipline is just a normal part of Christian discipleship where we are seek to do spiritual good to one another. I think if we got this step right more often, most of the discipline cases in churches would be solved right away. But sadly in this fallen world, rather than humbly seeking restoration and repentance with those who sin against us, we too quickly go the opposite way, wrongfully involve way too many people in what should be a private matter, and destroy relationships and reputations.
Step Two – Group Admonition (v16)
In v16 we learn that the second step in the church discipline process is not to give up but to again revisit the offender, with one or two others. Now, there is no timeline given here as to the exact amount of time required between these two visits. Patience, love, and grace should allow at least some time between the first and second visit to let the private admonition sink in. But if in time it is clear that the offending member is remaining unrepentant the one who went by themselves now must carefully choose one or two others, probably ones that know and love this person, or an elder, and go back to give another admonition. That a few others go back echoes Deut. 19:15 which says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” That additional witnesses must be involved at this point encourages the one doing the sinning to come out of their sinful isolation, and encourages the individual sinned against to think deeply about whether or not this case is serious enough to warrant the sound judgment of a few others, or if they’re just making a bigger deal of this than is necessary. If they do deem it worthy of another visit, though the circle is still intentionally kept small here, a small group’s plea with the wanderer to return does make the admonition a bit weightier as well as harder to ignore.
Hope remains, for the offender could hear and heed the second warning, and if they do, you’ve won them back and will rejoice to bring them home! But if they do not, step 3 comes into view.
Step Three – Church Admonition (v17a)
In v17 we learn that the third step in the church discipline process is again, not to give up, but to tell it to the church. As we’ve seen throughout these steps, here also we do not receive a time requirement between step two and three, so patience, grace, and love should allow at least some time between the second step and the third step. When it’s clear that the offending member is still remaining unrepentant Jesus is clear, the matter now comes to the entire church. This is not strictly just telling it to the elders, not strictly just telling it to the pastor, but it really does seem to be the whole body or the entire local congregation in view here. Of course the elders need to take the lead here, they need to be the ones who decide how and when the church is to be told about it to ensure this is done orderly and graciously, but through them the matter is to come to the whole of the assembly. Do you think this is unloving or embarrassing? Remember the parable of the lost sheep. When the first two steps have been employed and the wandering member has refused to listen we’re not to give up, but in this third step we’re to enlist the whole of the congregation to go and gain back the wanderer. David Platt, in his commentary on Matthew says of this third step, “God loves us so much that if we are caught in sin, He will send an entire army of believers to us as a demonstration of His love and mercy.” In this step the circle is no longer small. It is intentionally large. Large enough, by God’s grace, to wake the wanderer out of his or her sin.
So again hope remains, the offending member who has not repented could hear and heed the warnings when they see the whole church pursuing them, and if they do, they are won back! But if they do not listen to the whole church, the final step, step 4 becomes a necessity.
Step Four – Excommunication (v17b-20)
Look at v17b, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” What does this mean? It means that when the offending member refuses to listen and repent after these first three steps, Jesus now commands one thing – excommunication. Though probably stirred quite a bit from the whole sermon up to now, our modern sensibilities are now in full shock. ‘Isn’t the church supposed to be welcoming to sinners? Isn’t the church a where sinners find hope? Isn’t the church where sinners find rest? Yes, of course. The Church of Christ is a very safe place for sinners, but it is not ever to be a safe place for sin. To excommunicate someone isn’t to forsake them or to forget about them, no. To excommunicate someone is a public declaration from the church of which they are a member, that this church no longer believes their profession of faith is true. So by excommunication, they cease to be a member of that church and cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper any longer.
In 1 Cor. 5 we see an example of this when Paul instructs the Corinthians to excommunicate a certain man (who had sinned grievously) so that he would be delivered “…to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). See it is restoration in view even here at this last step not punishment. So when this happens we should never forsake the person, but in treating them like an unbeliever we ought to pursue them with the gospel urgently. And just in case anyone is thinking ‘Who gives you the right to do such a thing?’ see v18-20. Here we receive the promise of authority in v18, that the church holds the keys of the Kingdom so that whatever is bound or loosed on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven. Here we also receive the promise of support in v19, that the Father will give His full support to what we agree about in prayer concerning these difficult matters of discipline. Here lastly we receive the promise of presence in v20. This is not a blanket statement about God dwelling in the midst of His people’s prayer, it’s specifically about God dwelling in the midst of His people’s prayer about excommunicating a wayward brother or sister. So when we do the tough work of church discipline, God encourages us with His authority, His support, and His presence.
Notice What’s After Our Passage (18:21-35)
We’ve seen what’s before and in our passage, now see what’s after it. In v21-35 we find the parable of the unforgiving servant, which asks “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? (18:21). No, Jesus says, “…not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (18:22). Lesson? That the passage describing how church discipline is done is surrounded before and behind, shows us church discipline must be carried out with gospel grace. How often will God forgive us for our sin? His grace never ends. Ours shouldn’t either.
In an age where this topic is as popular as a parent publicly spanking their child…
-We must remember that not all discipline is bad.
-We must remember that the exercise of pastoral authority is not the same as the abuse of pastoral authority.
-We must reject the belief that church discipline is a bad thing, and come to embrace the belief presented to us in the text, that the neglect of church discipline is a bad thing.
-And we must reject the critical/judgmental spirit that we’re all prone to, remembering that because we’ve received extravagant grace in the gospel, we now must extend extravagant grace with the gospel as well. These things are commanded by Christ for the wanderer’s good, for the purity of the church, and ultimately for the glory of God.
“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)
A few years ago my Nephew Eli and I were playing with Lego blocks. We had stacked them all into a giant tower. It was our creation. We designed it and we put it together. When we were finished he leaned in close to me and with a mischievous smirk on his face whispered, “Let’s knock it down.” And we could have done that. We designed it. We created it. We put it together. We could do whatever we wanted with it. It was our creation. I suggested, however, that we show his dad what we made, so we did. And then I believe we knocked it over. It was a lot of fun.
I enjoyed my afternoon designing and creating block towers with Eli. However, if you were to ask me if I would ever willingly become a block in order to save other blocks (if I could ever do such a thing) I would think you were crazy. Never would I lower myself to the point of being a block to save other blocks. Why on earth would I ever do that – not a chance.
But this is exactly what Jesus did for us. We are told in John 1:14 that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He became one of us in order to save us.
Philippians chapter 2 tells us that Jesus (the Creator of the universe, who was God Himself) “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus humbled Himself and took on flesh in order to die for sinful humanity, and as Paul makes clear in Romans 5 “one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). Jesus didn’t die for a people who were warm and welcoming toward Him, but He died for rebels far from Him. When it comes down to it how often are we willing to help those who are against us? Typically not very. However, Jesus lays down His life for sinners like you and me.
He left heaven, and all its splendor, to dwell among us. Jesus came to save sinners. What a gracious God we serve. I know we are right smack dab in the middle of the hot summer months and Christmas is over and done with until next December, but it is never a wrong time to consider what God has done for us in Christ. God left heaven to become a “block” in order to save other blocks.
This week I wanted to quickly draw your attention to another free eBook, because we all love books. This one is a helpful study guide on the book of Revelation by Vern Poythress.
If you have ever been interested in studying the book of Revelation in its historical and original context this is a fantastic little book. For all the fictional novels and hyper-dispensationalism that has taken over the fields of modern day eschatology, this little book helps us to see the original context and unpack how it would have been received and encouraging to the original audience, and as such how we too can find comfort in the truth of God.
The book can be found at the link below:
Here is a brief overview of the book of Revelation in regards to how Poythress will approach the book and help us to see its importance on the Christian life.
The Purpose of Revelation
Many people either fear the Book of Revelation or have an unhealthy interest in it. But God designed this book for a very different purpose. Revelation is meant to produce in you comfort, courage, hope, and praise. Do you believe that?
Look at the very beginning of Revelation. Rev. 1:3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” God knew that many people would feel timid about this book—that many would say to themselves, “I can’t understand it.” So he gave you special encouragement to read it. Make a point of reading it once or more during the next few months.
In the verse I just quoted (1:3) we already receive a hint about the contents of Revelation. God tells us to “keep what is written in it.” Revelation does not give us information just to tickle our fancy. We are meant to “keep” it, to take things to heart. We ought to be transformed by what we read, to become more faithful servants of Christ. The Book of Revelation is a very practical book.
Note also what it says in 1:1: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” To whom is the Book of Revelation written? Not to PhDs, to experts, to prophecy fans, to a narrow inner circle of specialists. God writes it to “his servants”—the servants of Jesus Christ. If you are a follower of Christ, this book is for you. You can understand it, because God knows how to communicate to you. In addition, let me say the obvious. The Book of Revelation is a revelation, “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1). “Revelation” means an unveiling, a disclosure, a display of who God is and what he promises to do. The Book is not a concealment, a puzzle, a riddle, as some people think. It is not a puzzle book but a picture book. Its message is so clear that a child can grasp it and be encouraged.
1. What is the purpose of Revelation?
2. In what way is it accessible to ordinary readers?
3. How might reading it be an encouragement?
Additional free books by Both Vern Poythress & John Fram can be found at their Website: https://frame-poythress.org/ebooks
Here we face the difficulty of knowing who is speaking. Earlier in John 3:1-21 we had difficulty knowing whether it was the apostle John who was giving his reflection on the evening meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus in v16-21 or Jesus Himself speaking there. Here, for the second time now in John 3, we have a similar scenario. Is v31-36 the continued response of John the Baptist to his disciples? Or are these verses the apostle John’s reflection on the Baptist’s response to his disciples? I’m inclined to believe that v31-36 is the apostle John once again giving his reflections on what has just taken place, but I’m also inclined to believe that regardless who you believe is speaking here, be it John the apostle or John the Baptist, the meaning of this passage stays the same.
Let’s dig in shall we?
In John 3:30 John the Baptist uttered his second most famous words, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” What follows this famous saying in v31-36 are four reasons that prove why Jesus ought to increase and why John the Baptist along with everyone else ought to decrease.
Reason #1: The Heavenly Origin of Christ’s Person (3:31)
A contrast is displayed for us in this verse between Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus is One who is from heaven and above all while John the Baptist is one who is from earth, belongs to the earth, and speaks in an earthly way. This contrast clarifies to us and convinces us of not only the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist but the difference between Jesus and every man that has ever lived. There are two kinds of people in the world: common man and the Christ, sinners and the Savior, mankind and the Messiah. We are depraved, He is divine. We are created, He is Creator. We are rebellious, He is resplendent. We are earthly, He is heavenly. Jesus has no equal. The disciples of the Baptist who remained with the Baptist might have missed this point. Perhaps that’s why they were still following the Baptist and not following Jesus. Perhaps they thought the Baptist was the real Messiah. Here in this verse they, and we centuries later, are reminded that though a man may be a great teacher and gain a large following all men are ‘of the earth’, speaking things ‘of the earth’, and belonging ‘to the earth’ while Jesus is above all. Because of Jesus’ heavenly origin, He must increase and everyone else must decrease.
Reason #2: The Truthful Certainty of Christ’s Unique Testimony (3:32-34a)
In v32 we see that Jesus doesn’t teach theory, He doesn’t teach a mere hypothesis, He doesn’t teach what someone else revealed to Him. No, Jesus teaches what He knows. “He bears witness to what He has seen and heard…” means Jesus, being the eternal Son of God now become true Man, has for all eternity been with the Father, communing the Father, and knowing the Father’s nature and sovereign plans for all of history. And it is all that He has seen and heard from the Father that He now bears witness to in His earthly ministry. For ages, God had revealed His Word to His people by His prophets. When Jesus comes we do not see another prophet continuing in the long line of prophets, we see the end of the line. When Jesus comes we do not see God’s Word revealed to another teacher, we see God’s very Word come to teach. John Piper helpfully describes this is his book Peculiar Glory saying, “The point here is that…a people who for centuries have been accustomed to be governed by a written revelation of God…are now confronted with the divine author of that very book, present in human form, teaching with absolute authority.” Lesson? The testimony and teaching of Christ is both true and certain as well as utterly unique.
Though this is the case v32 also tells us that in general man isn’t concerned with His testimony, man isn’t interested in His testimony, and that man does not accept His testimony. This is indeed a sad state of affairs because the testimony of Christ declares the power of God into the plight of mankind. It’s both what we need most and what we seem to hate the most. It’s similar to last years Super Bowl. The beloved Atlanta Falcons were leading with a only few minutes left, and all they needed to do was run the ball. Run the ball, get tackled, run the ball, get tackled, run the ball, get tackled, kick a field goal, and win! But they very thing they needed to do the most, they didn’t do. And as sports almanacs for years to come will show, they blew the biggest lead in Super Bowl history. It was such a blunder that folks around Atlanta began using a new verb. Anytime anyone blew a lead or did something extremely foolish it was said that they ‘Atlanta’d’ it. Similarly, that mankind rejects the very message meant to save, reveals not only the folly of our hearts apart from grace. It reveals that, by and large, mankind has ‘Atlanta’d’ the gospel.
v33 gives another illustration when it brings up the seal. In ages long ago, seals were used to denote authority, to convey a guarantee, or to display ownership. Seals like these were put on letters, stamps, and on flags so often that even those who couldn’t read recognized the seals of great and powerful leaders. It is in this sense v33 speaks. Whoever receives (or whoever has received) the testimony of Christ sets his seal to this, that God is true. So, when we receive the testimony of Christ we are doing far more than meets the eye. We are simultaneously acknowledging the heavenly origin of Jesus’s teaching, acknowledging that we are who He says we are, that Jesus is who He says He is, and acknowledging that God is truthful and truly holds the authority He says He does. At the moment of belief God’s truthfulness is driven home to our hearts, we submit to Him, He receives the honor and glory He is due, and we conclude exactly what v34a says, “For He whom God has sent utters the words of God…”
So while the lost world hears the words of Jesus and hears nothing but foolishness, all the saints past, present, and future hear the words of Jesus and hear God’s very word to them. Because of the certainty and truthfulness of Christ’s testimony His testimony must increase, and ours must decrease.
Reason #3: The Spirit-filled Loving Bond of Christ’s Authority (3:34b-35)
The next reason we’re given that Jesus should increase is a Trinitarian reason. In v34b-35 we read “…for He gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand.” In order to understand the giving of the Holy Spirit by the Father to the Son, think about how God gives the Spirit to us. The Spirit awakens our dead hearts, grants us the ability to repent and to believe, and we’re converted. Once converted the Spirit takes up residence within us, begins sanctifying us, and gives us certain gifts to be used within the Church that we’re to fan into flame with the help of the Church. These gifts vary: prophecy, teaching, exhortation, generosity, mercy, administration, serving, singing, and hospitality among many others. What we see then within the Church is the same Spirit giving different gifts to all of us with the intention of all us employing these gifts in the service of one another.
But when it comes to God giving His Son the Spirit without measure, we see something entirely different. Jesus was not given certain gifts of the Spirit in some measure. No, when v34 says God gave the Spirit without measure we’re meant to understand that God gave His Son all the gifts of the Spirit in full measure. Thus the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus fully, equipping Him with all that was necessary to do the work He came to do.
There’s more Trinitarian glory to see here. Just as Jesus has the full measure of the Spirit, so too, Jesus has the full measure of the Father’s love and because of this great love the Father had for Him, He gave all things into His hand. Remember how Jesus begins the Great Commission? “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me…” (Matthew 28:18b) Who gave Him that authority? His Father did. Where do we see that? Here in v35. Thus, the Spirit-filled loving bond between the Father and the Son leads to the Son having all authority over all things. And our response to One who has all authority over all things is not increase, but decrease.
Reason #4: The Urgent Demand of Christ’s Gospel (3:36)
Now the moment has come. The apostle John has laid out for us a wonderful and monumental chapter here in John 3, and it ends, not only with another reason for us to decrease, it ends with a summary call of the gospel message. v36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Notice how it doesn’t say “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not believe the Son shall not see life…” No, it says obey. This means the way we obey God is to believe in Jesus. What do we believe in? We believe in His heavenly Person, we believe in His truthful, certain, and unique testimony, and we believe in His Spirit-filled, loving authority over all things. When we disobey this final call to believe in Jesus v36 says we do not see life, we only see the wrath of God that is already on us. But when we obey this final call to believe we receive life. And as John 10:10 says, we find such life abundant.
One of the recent editions of the Tabletalk devotional begins like this: “If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have likely heard a sermon on Peter’s walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33) that included this point: as long as Peter kept His eyes on Jesus, he was alright. Only when he took his eyes off the Lord did he start to sink. This is a great lesson to learn for us as individual Christians, but is it not also a lesson to learn together as a church? When the church loses its focus on the Person and Work of Christ we quickly fall into darkness. Christianity is all about Christ, who He is and what He has done. Thus, if we make the focus of the church anything else we ultimately end up with no Christianity at all.” (May’s edition Why We Are Reformed)
I have no doubt that most all of you would immediately agree with these things, but I wonder if this sermon has brought out something ugly in you. I wonder if you’ve been patiently sitting through this sermon about the reasons Jesus must increase wondering when this sermon was going to be about you and no longer about Jesus. If that’s you, let me remind you – the theology of v30 drives v31-36 and must drive our entire soul. “He must increase, I must decrease” must impact everything we do, even everything we do here at church, including the preaching. So before a sermon is ever about us, it must be about God. About His greatness, His glory, His Son, and His Spirit.
And ironically enough, this is precisely where you and I come into this post. I think many of us have a kind of Christianity that appears to be about Christ, but is really about us. Many of us say we want Jesus to increase but we desire some glory too. Many of us say we’re sinners, but we hide our sin because we want the affirmation of others. Many of us say earnestly want to know God, but we quickly abandon personal devotion for public appearance. Many of us would say we want Jesus to be everything, but we also want to be something.
Church, “…we were made for greater, our greatest satisfaction is making His name famous. So if we’re never named among the greatest, if they don’t critically acclaim us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, we gave it up for the Savior” (Lecrae).
Last night had a great dinner with friends of mine who also serve in the ministry, during dinner he asked me why do I do schedule my sermon series the way I do. Currently I tend to go from book to book interspersing random Psalms or five-week topical series between books.
The thing that you very quickly pick up on if you talk to any pastor is all have different ways of laying out sermon series. In that regard I would agree with many that there is no necessary right way to lay out a teaching calendar: whether it be year to year, three months, or monthly sermons. Some may ascribe to the notion that to even plan more than two weeks in advance is to deny the Holy Spirit’s work in your church or you may subscribe to the school that if we are in deep prayer with God trusting in his work and purposes planning our sermon series for the year will involve allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us into those choices. Today though here are three reasons I choose to plan out a year in advance
It allows us to see the Bigger picture
By this I mean putting together a sermon series beginning in September and working all the way around to the following August we can see the different ways they connect and how they will instruct the church throughout the year. Using 2016 to 2017 as an example we began in the book of Mark to instill with in our church an understanding of the Gospel message of who Jesus is and what He did.
In middle of this series we took a break and began to speak about the Great Commission for four weeks topically walking through our job as disciple making disciples, called to spread the faith building on Jesus’ own mission in the gospel of Mark calling people to repent and believe for the kingdom of God is near.
To close out the year we are going to the Old Testament in the book of Ezra. In this book we begin to see God renew his people as he brings them back to the city that they once called home. We see a rejuvenation of worship amongst the people that didn’t believe they had a purpose any longer. For a church in the midst of great transition in a community that is transforming around them this is a book that reminds us that God has a purpose for his people and that purpose is to worship him and to make his name great growing into the temple of the living God. So in laying out the year this way I hope that the church was able to see the continuity of the Bible as informs us in both the old and the New Testament of the work of God and what He is doing, while simultaneously showing how God builds his kingdom using his people.
Allows us to more clearly teach in every aspect
By knowing what I’m preaching on Sunday mornings for a year the elders are much more easily equipped to see where else what other aspects of God and the Scriptures nee d to be highlighted in our teaching. By knowing the books of the Bible that will be teaching as well as the topical series in between we are able to know where we should be leading our small groups as well as our Sunday school, children and youth ministries. By laying out Sunday morning so completely we can see the different theological ideas that may not be addressed in that given year. So maybe were able to put in a series in our Sunday schools on giving, personal relationships, marriage enrichment, or theological studies such as who is God, what is the role of Christ and culture, what is sanctification or justification.
In regard to small group it shows us what other books we may want to cover. For example maybe our small group should study Nehemiah to see the back half of what takes place in the kingdom of God in Ezra or while preaching through the book of Mark a small group could say study the book of Matthew or John and see another angle to the gospel story. So Sunday preaching calendars simply allow us to better utilize our time in teaching to help explain the whole counsel of God.
Allows us to disciple intentional
Yearly preaching calendars can greatly enhance the ability to intentionally disciple, as spending time in a given book over the course of many months allows it to seep in and allows better questions and better connections to flow out of the text. It also allows our churches and people to really dive into a text each week before coming to worship. By allowing your church to know where you’re going and why you’re going there they are able to take a deeper ownership of their own personal walk coming into service on Sunday morning. It forces the pastor also to make sure that when studying the passage that they are answering the questions that come to mind while studying and praying that those are the same questions that have begun to germinate in the minds of those will sit in that service on Sunday morning.
I Hope this helps give you a glimpse into why some pastors choose to organize and do things the way they do. Probably this gives you a little insight into my mind and why we do things the way we do at Riverside. At the end of the day the goal is that we lead with conviction and passion for the word of God while not leaving out the work of the Holy Spirit. These yearly calendars are not put together on a whim but rather through much prayer and study. Seeking to know the people of the church as well as the direction the Lord is leading our church. It involves a lot of trust and faith in God and the Holy Spirit to lead us well in the midst of these decisions. In the end thought we know that His word does not return void. So whether you are one that listens to a sermon week to week or one who prepares it, may your heart be filled with joy at the hearing of the word of God and trust in the work of the Holy Spirit to change lives.