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Philemon 1: the Gospel changing lives and reconciling believers and transforming communities

This evening we are invited not only to read this letter, but see the way the Gospel was changing lives in the first century. For this personal letter opens up a window on an entire series of relationships. It reveals to us that St Paul led people from all kinds of places to faith in Christ Jesus.

Firstly, it is a letter that is written to a man named Philemon, and Philemon was a significant figure in the Colossian church. In fact we know that the Church met in Philemon’s house. So he is a wealthy man. He’s a man of property. And he’s man known for His faith and love for all the believers.

Secondly, it’s a personal letter of appeal, it’s written on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who had wronged his master, by running away with his possessions. And it’s written to effect reconciliation between the two men.

Thirdly, it is letter that reveals to us how the theology Paul wrote about is worked out through the life of the early church. On a church level Paul has already written to the Colossians and he’s told them that: “God forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness”.

And now he follows this letter up by addressing one particular situation:

Onesimus, left Colossae secretly, he would have taken possessions, to sell on his journey and travelled to Rome, with a dream of freedom. And maybe Onesimus thought he had gotten away with it, maybe he reached Rome under his own steam, or maybe he was arrested and imprisoned.

It doesn’t really matter how he came to be there, but what matters is that he didn’t escape from God’s providential plan. Some 932 miles from home, Onesimus must’ve thought that he was far enough away from Colossae to be safe.

If only he had read Psalm 139: ‘If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. ’

How true those words are, for at the far side of the sea, the Lord brings Onesimus into Paul’s life. One man a slave trying to live as a freeman; the other a freeman living in chains for the sake of the Gospel. And a freeman who has become like a slave for the sake of Jesus Christ, and a man who preaches that the greatest freedom is living under Jesus as Lord and Master.

And though this encounter, the run-away slave chooses to place his faith in Jesus, and enters into fellowship with Paul in Rome. Somewhere, along the way, Onesimus tells Paul his story. You can imagine the conversation.

Oh you’re from Colossae, I know Colossae… You know Philemon, I know Philemon… You what?!?

Let me help you put some of this right. Let’s try to sort this mess out.

So Paul writes this incredibly ingratiating letter, to his friend Philemon, he praises his faith and love for the saints, he tells him of the troubles and the chains he is experiencing, he appeals to his old age, and then he lets Philemon have the truth.

Just as Philemon is bursting with joy and the kind words Paul is sharing. Out comes the truth.

‘Though I could command you’, Paul writes, ‘For loves’ sake I appeal to you. For my child Onesimus.’

Notice that Paul doesn’t side step the issue. He could have kept Onesimus with him. He could of simply paid a slave price to set him free. But Paul doesn’t do that, he knows that this is an opportunity to reveal how the grace of God works in our lives.

It doesn’t bypass the consequences of our actions. Sometimes we have to face up to potentially difficult, even dangerous situations, but in doing so it changes us.

For Onesimus, whose name means useful or beneficial, was actually rather useless, but now by the grace of God he is living up to his name. He has been useful to me. He has ministered to me in your place. And now he is useful, no longer as a slave, but as a brother.

And Paul continues the letter with even more gracious words for Philemon, writing receive him as your would receive me, I know you will do this and even more, and prepare a guest room for me as I trust that by your prayers I will be coming to you.

Then he signs off. Passing on the greetings of all the other believers who will be eagerly watching the example Philemon will set.

And apart from the record of this letter that seems to suggest that Philemon did free Onesimus, we have also the tradition of the early church that credits Onesimus as having a role in collecting and preserving and passing on these letters of Paul and therefore being useful not only to Paul and Philemon but also being useful to us.

And we can see how the Gospel that transforms slaves and makes brothers, also transformed society and continues to transform lives today. As people love and forgive and include and welcome sinners back into relationship today.

But I think the real challenge of this book today is what must we do. Are we like Philemon needing to forgive someone today? Do we need to allow them back into our hearts? To extend love to someone who has hurt us, stolen from us, and insulted our generosity? Is this letter calling on us accept someone in particular back into our family?

Or are we like Onesimus, do we need to retrace our steps, to return may be even as far as 932 miles back to Colossae, to ask for forgiveness? Maybe we thought we could run away from something in our lives, but every time we come to worship, every time we pick up the Bible, we’re reminded that we need to be reconciled!

For this is the challenge of the book of Philemon for us today. To live the theology of the Gospel through reconciled and reconciling lives!


Breaking the Idols of Your Heart; How to Navigate the Temptations of Life

I don’t know how you feel about the Ecclesiastes but when I hear my Bible Study group is to spend a term exploring the book my heart sinks. I mean apart from the ‘there is a time for everything’ passage and of course the ‘remember your Creator in the days of your youth’ bit, the rest of it seems a little dark and depressing. I saw the book of Ecclesiastes is essentially nihilistic, denying life’s value, meaning and purpose.

Then I picked up this book by Tremper Longman III and Dan Allender, it appeared to have a really helpful angle on studying, understanding and applying the book of Ecclesiastes to the Christian’s life of discipleship. Now in college I was made to read Tremper’s ‘Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation’ which was worthy if at points a little dull. So I wasn’t expecting ‘Breaking the Idols of Your Heart’ to be quite so engaging, easy to read, and enjoyable as I found it.

It seems that the starting point for their exploration of Ecclesiastes is the idea that the Teacher’s study of this life can serve to disturb our spiritual complacency, shake us from our idolatrous trust in the things ‘under the sun’ and point us towards what is truly worth living for. In seven chapters, the authors’ examine in a fresh way our desire to find meaning in control, relationships, work and money, pleasure, wisdom, even spirituality and immortality.  

Each chapter follows the same pattern. Opening with Dan’s narrative rooting the study of Ecclesiastes in the lives of Noah, Joan, Jack, Marcia, Jessie and Mimi, a fictional church house group, going on to Tremper’s wrestling with the Teacher’s seemingly paradoxical statements about life’s meaning, and ending with a few questions for self-examination.

It is a topical rather than linear study of the book of Ecclesiastes, but I think it would be appropriate for private devotional or small group study (though you would have to pad the questions out a little). I think sometimes the fictional narrative is fits too comfortably with the study as a whole. This raises questions for me about what we do when our lives don’t strike a chord with our beliefs and understanding of Scripture. But on the whole I found this book engaging and uplifting, it helped me to understand Ecclesiastes place within the wider narrative of the Bible. So I happily commend it to you. 

Music: The Sanctus

In his book, God the Holy Father (c.1897), the great Scottish Congregationalist P.T. Forsyth wrote,

holiness is the root of love, fatherhood, sacrifice, and redemption… The Church of today has gained greatly in its sense of the love of God. There are still greater things waiting when she has moved on as far again, to that holiness whose outward movement is love, which love is but the passion to impart. You can go behind love to holiness, but behind holiness you cannot go.

Surely, what was true of the church of P.T. Forsyth’s day is even more evident in our day of ‘love songs to Jesus’. Don’t get me wrong, I have some sympathy with the provocative and intimate language of love in worship (some of Charles Wesley’s hymns were accused of being too sensual for congregational worship), but there is always a balance to be struck between the intimate and immanent and the mighty and transcendent.

The hymn we will consider now is definitely one that helps to redress the balance and remind those who come to worship that they stand before a holy God. It was written by the Rev. Reginald Heber, an Anglican clergyman and missionary Bishop to Calcutta, in 1826. Sadly, he died quite suddenly, later that year, at the age of 42.

Rev. Reginald Heber entered ministry in Oxford on 24th May 1807. At that time he wrote to his friend John Thornton, ‘Pray for me, my dear friend, that I may have my eyes open to the truth … and if it please God that I persevere in his ministry I may undertake the charge with a quiet mind and a good conscience’. His biographer Arthur Montefiore notes that ‘Heber was a star whose lustre was as steady as it was clear’.

After marrying Amelia Shipley on 9th April 1809, Rev. Heber moved to Hodnet where he devoted himself to the pastoral work of the church and became a strong supporter of overseas missions. In 1814, he refused an appointment as Canon at Durham Cathedral preferring to commit himself to the quiet parish ministry, to his poetry and letters. However, in 1823 Rev. Reginald Heber was persuaded to take up the appointment of Bishop of Calcutta.

Reginald Heber’s two best known hymns are ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’ and this one, ‘Holy, holy, holy!’ The poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson called it ‘the world’s greatest hymn’.  It takes its inspiration from Isaiah 6:1-5, where the prophet sees Christ seated on the throne and the hem of his robe filling the temple, then Isaiah cries out: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Today, we sing it in wonder at our thrice holy God who is both merciful and mighty, who in His power and love purifies us so that we can enter His glory. It is a wonderful hymn that addresses God with the grandeur He deserves:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Get rid of the organ! And guitar! And everything else!

If you want to start a fight in cyberspace, I find the best way is to call attention to the previous practice of Reformed churches and show how far we’ve fallen from that. The most interesting feedback I’ve had on my personal blog and on Twitter is when I’ve made posts about unaccompanied Psalm singing.

I even had someone try to instigate a conversation on Facebook on this matter after my last piece on the necessity of singing Psalms in worship. I didn’t bite then so I will now.

The Reformed view of worship established at the Reformation and never repudiated – but confirmed – by later councils was that the best way of praising God in the worship of the covenant people was to sing God’s word back to him without accompaniment.

There is no evidence of the apostolic church using instruments in their worship. There is no command to use instruments in the New Testament. There is in the Old Testament but the Reformers and their direct followers saw those stipulations as being part of the ceremonial law of Israel. That law was fulfilled in the perfect sacrifice of Christ, what need did God’s people have for these instruments anymore? As Calvin writes in his comments on Psalm 149:2: “The musical instruments he mentions were peculiar to this infancy of the Church [i.e. before Christ], nor should we foolishly imitate a practice which was intended only for God’s ancient people.”

What changed? And why?

The truth may be that we were more concerned with the ways of the world than with the command of God.

Look at the instruments that have been used – the organ and then the praise band. These are instruments that are ideally suited to the popular culture of the time. Our use of instruments may have been an attempt to look acceptable to the outside world. It’ll attract the kids! The organ was the original seeker-sensitive innovation.

Whenever we have seen instruments introduced to the worship of God we have seen unfortunate consequences. The organist can become the tyrant that makes the Lord’s Day his excuse for a personal recital. The praise band can be more concerned with their own sound and tastes than truly helping the people of God to worship.

Reformed worship should be simple. The singing should be edifying for those in the congregation. It should also be different to the outside world. If the URC wants an identity how about this: “The URC? Oh, they’re the crazy ones that sing without instruments.”

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. This has the benefit of being a Psalm of lament. How many of those have you sung recently?

This post is deliberately provocative. I’m being highly hypocritical in writing it as I serve in churches where I choose hymns aplenty and they’re accompanied by organ and piano. 

1 Timothy 2:5-7 – The Gospel is for all

The first few verses of 1 Timothy 2 called us to pray for everyone because God wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (vv.1-4). From verse 5 onwards, Paul continues this ‘zooming out’ from focussing on his own salvation (1:12-15) and look to the bigger picture, just like you might rapidly zoom out on Google Maps from your address to see an image of the whole world from space.

The Gospel is not just about the Lord’s grace to Paul, but to all people. Paul states that there is only one God and only one mediator between God and men (v.5). Salvation may have come from the Jews, but it cannot only be for the Jews. Paul knew this from the time of his conversion as God revealed to Ananias that Paul was God’s “chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15).

In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul explained God’s salvation plan: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Here, Paul unpacks his soteriology (theology of salvation) a little more by stating that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all men” (v.6), echoing Jesus’ own words in Mark 10:45. On the cross, Jesus ransomed us from Satan’s grasp. Through faith in Christ and the grace of God, we are rescued from the realm of sin and brought into the holy and righteous realm of the one true God. Baptism, the sacrament of faith, is comparable to the Exodus as we, like the Israelites, are led from slavery into freedom. Jesus has won the victory over sin for us and we can stand firm in him against the devil’s tactics and temptations.

This is indeed good news! Paul says that it was “for this purpose” that he was “appointed a herald and an apostle…and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles” (v.7). For us too this is the reason why we are Christians, chosen and sent by God to bring good news to a dying world. This is the centre of all that we believe and all that we do. Without grasping and being transformed by Christ’s redeeming death, everything else is meaningless.

We can fall into the trap of thinking that we can ‘pick and choose’ our mission, whether it be ecumenism or creation care, church growth or global partnerships, spirituality or social justice. There are so many valid and worthwhile things that can, if we are not careful, override the main thing and lead us astray.  The main thing is Christ crucified and risen. Our prime mission – just like Paul’s – is to proclaim that good news to all people. 

On the significance of the resurrection

I was asked to write an article for our church news sheet the other day on the significance of the resurrection. So to prepare me for this I started reading Adrian Warnock’s book ‘Raised with Christ; How the Resurrection Changes Everything’. And this got me thinking, I guess many of us know the comfort of the cross; we look fondly on it for assurance of forgiveness, freedom from sin, knowledge of God’s love for us. I would imagine that all three of us (Phil, Paul and I) have articulated these truths several times over. I guess we are comfortable and at home with these truths and our congregations are too.

Yet there is Word far more challenging and perhaps comforting in the good news of the resurrection. It is the calling not simply to what Martyn Lloyd Jones described as ‘dead’ orthodoxy but to a living faith. It is the calling to come to God’s house expecting to be thrilled by the nearness, the power and the tenderness of God with us.

I think in my own choice of hymns and preaching I can focus too much upon the cross. I’m not saying that this is wholly bad because the cross is certainly central to our faith, but the resurrection should be also. So significant is the resurrection that the apostle Paul writes: ‘if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). For it is the resurrection that sets apart Jesus’ death from that of any other martyr. It is the resurrection that explains the growth of the Christian faith from a handful of Galilean peasants to a thriving faith throughout the Mediterranean world. It is the resurrection that makes it possible for us to have, not simply true beliefs but, living faith- a relationship with Jesus.

Jesus said, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’ (John 14:23). This encounter with the resurrected Jesus who makes his home with us, by the Spirit, has been the experience of Christian people right through the ages.

The Welsh Methodist, Howell Harris (1714-1773), described his own experience saying: ‘Suddenly I felt my heart melting within me like wax before fire, and love to God for my Saviour. I felt also not only love and peace, but a longing to die and be with Christ. Then there came a cry into my soul within that I had never known before – Abba, Father!’ It can be intimidating to read of people who have had such intimate and profound encounters with Jesus in the Spirit, but I believe that these accounts are genuine and should give us hope that Jesus has yet more to offer us.

Christian faith shouldn’t be a static thing. It should be a living growing deepening journey as we discover just how faithful and true Jesus is.

Father God, we thank you for the good news of the resurrection and the living relationship we have with Jesus through it. Speak to us by your Spirit help us to know more personally your love for us, so that in our daily lives we would know the joy of true communion with you. Help us to come to your Word and to worship with expectant hearts willing to be thrilled by your limitless grace. In the name of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

Welcome to ReformationURC

This blog is an exciting new venture for engagement in the life of the URC. The articles here are written by those passionate about Jesus Christ and committed to the truth that the Reformed Church must always be reforming – according to the Word of God.

The writers are unified in their belief in the 5 solas of the Reformation:
Sola Scriptura – scripture alone
Sola Fide – faith alone
Sola Gratia – grace alone
Solus Christus – Christ alone
Soli Deo Gloria – To the glory of God alone.

We pray that this would bring glory and honour to God’s name.