build up

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You will notice that building projects are going up all over your neighborhood, so it is in your church. Building up never stops, but this is how it starts…

Could you imagine getting a personal letter from the apostle Paul? That’s what we peer into when we read the letter to Philemon. By the time Philemon got this letter (58-60 AD) Paul would have had a reputation. I am sure when Philemon got this letter his adrenaline was pumping and heart fluttering.

Paul wrote the letter while in prison at Rome. It is also where he wrote Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians. In fact, Philemon, lived in Colossi, which is modern-day Turkey. We do not learn much about him. What we know is from this letter. There was a church that met in his home. His son was a minister. And he must have had some wealth as he had a slave and likely he had others.

The bulk of the letter is about Onesimus—a runaway slave. We do not know a lot about Onesimus either, but what is known is that he ran away from Philemon and went to Rome. For whatever reason he was not able to hide or blend into the crowd and was caught and thrown into prison. In prison, he connects with Paul who is in prison too. Paul is there for preaching about Jesus.  Paul’s ministry isn’t stifled by his circumstances, rather Paul continues to proclaim the good news to a captive audience. Onesimus hears and comes to faith. As Paul learns Onesimus’ story he encourages him to reconcile with his master.

Thus the thrust of the letter is Paul pleading to Philemon to receive back Onesimus, not as his slave but as a brother in Christ.  Paul is an inbetweener. He is in-between both Philemon and Onesimus. Have you ever had to be an inbetweener?  Can you think of two people not in a right relationship with each other, but you are in a right relationship with both of them?  May this letter encourage you as an inbetweener.

The beauty of this story is that it is true story. While there are many stories about forgiveness in the Bible this letter is a living example of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:11) or Unforgiving Servant (Mt. 18:21ff). It is an incredibly personal letter. Yet it is a fitting letter in a series of letters that Paul writes to churches, in which he mainly addresses divisions and relationships within the church.  Paul is aware that the number one thing that destroys the church, its mission, and the reputation of Christ is two believers living in unforgiveness. On the flip, two believers walking in forgiveness magnifies Jesus.

There are two types of people in the church that Paul often addresses. The first type of person TEARS DOWN. These people look for ways to cutdown others. They speak words that are discouraging, critical, and are quick to point out faults and failures. They are the kind of people you love to avoid if you are needing encouragement, but love if you are needing someone to empathize with your own critical spirit. The second type of person BUILDS UP.  They are the kind of person who encourages, sees the good, speaks truth in love, and has the knack of pointing you back to Christ.

Can you think of someone close to you who tears down or builds up? How would others describe you? Paul is known for building up people. He is a disciple of Christ who makes disciples of Christ, which necessitates one who will build up the church and those within the church. Paul’s letter to Philemon helps us to see what building up one another that looks like.

1. Give thanks to God for people and circumstances (v.4)

To give thanks is ironic considering Paul’s circumstances. Where is Paul again? He is in prison. What would that be like? Notice Paul doesn’t mope. He doesn’t curse God. He knew this would be a result of his calling and following Christ (Acts 9). Instead, Paul is engaged in writing letters of encouragement to others from prison. Also he is taking the opportunity to share the gospel and is leading people to Christ in prison. In fact, the gospel is reaching the ears of those in Caesars household (Phil.4:22).

Thankfulness is a choice. Gratitude is the attitude that gives fortitude to your faith. Would others around you consider you a thankful person? Are you thankful for the cards you were dealt? You might not have had a choice in the kind of family you your born into. You have learned that you cannot control the actions or words of your parents, spouse, children or friend. Maybe you’ve experienced someone walking out on you or you have felt the wounds of neglect or abuse. It is most difficult to chose to be thankful when you don’t feel it, but rather feel pain, abandonment or bitterness.

I am the son of two unmarried teenage parents. They married to appease their parents but the marriage only lasted a few years. I lived with my mother and observed a revolving door of relationships. I felt I had to be the responsible one. I would stay up late waiting for her to come home from her outings. My mother failed lived up to my high expectations. I thought if she’d just change to what I wanted things would be better. I had much self-pity. Even when my mom and I came to Christ I was still unthankful. I thought if only the church could fix my family. When I went to college I chose a college far away from home.  However, my sour feelings still followed me. After I finished college, I couldn’t find any other job alternatives, but moving back home with my mom and working with her. It was a summer of irony. God in His providence was giving me an opportunity to forgive as if to say, ‘Justin, If I you do not reconcile with your own mother. you will not be an effective agent of reconciliation to the world.’ It was true. I was about to go to South Africa on mission that fall. Living in unforgiveness could have derailed the mission and my faith. As hard as it was I sat down with my mom and thanked for working three jobs to support me while I was young. I thanked her knowing it was not easy to raise a young boy being only a teenager herself. I thanked her for loving me.

Beware of self-pity and pitying others. Can you hear those close to Paul saying? “Poor Paul. Why would God let such a person be thrown into prison?” Others might have mailed him letters saying, “Dear Paul, you know you could have avoided imprisonment if you just kept your mouth shut,” “You can’t save the world,” “Maybe prison is just God’s way of saying, ‘Take a break.’” It is clear from Paul’s writings that certain people were aiming to tear down his apostleship and most of them came from within the church. Isn’t that a shame? It’s a shame it also happens today. It might even be happening in your church.

It takes a mature Christian to look at difficult people and circumstances and say, “God is using this. God is eternal and sovereign. Everything he does or allows is good.” Do you believe God is using every person or circumstance to make you more like Jesus? What about those harsh or hurtful words? What about that hard thing that occupies your thoughts? God comes to you through difficult circumstance or difficult people. God is at work in the things we see as bad, ugly, painful or hurtful. Remember, God is for you!

If you need proof just survey the Bible. You will see dozens of examples of men and women gripped with gratitude despite unideal circumstances. Joseph was abused by brothers and falsely accused by Potifar’s wife, but in the end sees how God used bad for good (Gen. 50:20). Jeremiah preaches for 50 years and sees no one turn back to God, rather they drag him through the ditches. This weeping prophet hopes in God (Lam. 3). Then there is Job. Everything is taken from him. To make matters worse he has friends who give him bad advice and his wife encourages him to curse God or die, but in the midst of it he sees how God was making him like gold (23:10). Jesus himself was rejected, abused, abandoned, betrayed, and disrespected, yet forgave those who did not understand what they we doing to him. Each bore sacred sorrow, yet praised God.

Joseph Scriven grew up in Ireland. He faced many difficult circumstances in his life namely losing two fiancés before he was to be marry. In the midst of the hardship he went to the One who was most faithful. He put pen to paper and wrote ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’.

Like these examples you and I are in God’s university. The problem is it’s not a 4-year degree and then you pass. For some of us it is lifelong. Each person and situation is a unique subject to learn how God uses all people and circumstance for his glory and purposes in you. Chose to be thankful.

2. Build up others by focusing on the work the Spirit of God (v.5)

Why is Paul so thankful for Philemon? He sees God’s work in Philemon. He has visible characteristics of God that are manifesting themselves. If you are a follower of Christ you too are showing the world the powerful work of what the Holy Spirit can do with someone. For Philemon, the visible characteristics were his love for people and his faith in Jesus.

What would the person sitting next to you say are the visible characteristics you are displaying right now? Can you imagine what an encouragement that would be to have someone point those things out to you?  This is what the apostle Paul is doing with Philemon. He is building him up in Christ by sharing with him the ways he is seeing Jesus in him.

Are you this kind of person? Or are you critical of others, especially of people in your church? There are many excuses one can create for being critical of others. Criticism is almost thought of as a spiritual gift or strength. One can spend more time finding faults in others or shooting holes in the pastors message than looking for ways to build up the Body.

Do you recognize the name William Wilberforce?  William Wilberforce made it his lifework to abolishment of slavery in Great Britain. It was a seemingly impossible work that brought him much discouragement. Wilberforce was at the beginning of his career, but John Wesley (who was nearing the end of his career) caught wind of Wilberforce’s discouragement and jotted him a note just 6-days before his death. He wrote, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it… That He who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir, Your affectionate servant, John Wesley”  Wesley had the right words at the right time to help his brother continue on the right path.

Paul focuses on the good he sees in Philemon. Paul has the right words at the right time to help his brothers continue on the right path. He focuses on the character of Christ in Philemon, namely his “love for the saints,” which will be the very character needed when he reunites with Onesimus.

3. Affirm others through prayer and fellowship (vs.6-7)

Philemon’s faith had already been active; but now wants it to be ‘effective’ in relation to Onesimus. It’s as if Paul says, “I have seen how effective your faith is within your house church. Now extend that same faith to your brother Onesimus.”

The world would say to Philemon, “Onesimus owes you. Make him pay. Mark him as a runaway the rest of his life. Make him feel the weight of what he did to you. Pour on the punishment. Tighten his chains. Don’t forgive him.” Doesn’t that sound miserable? Yet that is where we often gravitate, but there is no personal or corporate benefit to unforgiveness. Unforgiveness imprisons you to the past. It clings onto the pain. It feeds the open wound with anger, bitterness, retribution and other ungodly characteristics. Unforgiveness gives Satan an open door. It is a welcome mat to the devil. Unforgiveness hinders your fellowship with God. It simply paralyzes your walk with God. In fact, unforgiveness angers Him because it is opposite his redemptive heart.

Yet on the flip-side, forgiveness makes you most like God. It frees you from the past and produces other godly characteristics. It removes the ugly graffiti from your spirit and lets God shine. Forgiveness is a most visible expression of the gospel. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32) “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col. 3:13)

Philemon is a treatise on Romans 12:17-21 “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Paul has been a recipient of Philemon’s faith and love, moreover, he has been a recipient of the love and forgiveness of Jesus. And he sees the image this would be to the world, the church in Colossi, and his brother Onesimus. Paul says, “Philemon, you’ve got all these great characteristics that God is working in you, continue in them bless ‘our brother’ Onesimus. Jesus has forgiven him and so must you. Whatever difficult emotions this fuels with you, remember that love and faith you have in Christ. Embrace Onesimus. He is coming your way soon.”

Paul’s letter to Philemon shares the basics or ABC’s of building one another up:

  • Affirm others through prayer and fellowship.
  • Build up others by focusing on the Holy Spirits work.
  • Chose to be thankful for people and circumstances.

The Spirit of God has likely brought to your mind a relationship that needs building up. Maybe, like Paul, you are an inbetweener. How do the examples of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus bring healing on your own journey with Christ? Which of the three characteristic of one who is forgiven do you need to work on today?

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walking in true love

Have you ever seen a blueprint? In college, I worked in the corporate office of a West Virginia coal mine. Part of my job was delivering blueprints from the engineers to the contractors. A skilled engineer draws a blueprint or builds a prototype, which shows in great detail what the design is to look like. In order for the building to look like it is intended the builders must follow the pattern laid out in the blueprint.

The prototype of walking in love is Jesus Christ [Ephesians 5:1-2]

When it comes to walking with God, Jesus is the blueprint and prototype for how you are to walk. Ephesians 5:1-2 says, “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” A faithful follower of Christ will imitate Christ, like a carbon copy of the original blueprint.[1]

The illustration given for imitating God is a child. Paul commands followers to “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” What can we learn from children about imitating? Children are natural imitators. Children mimic their parent’s words [what they hear] and actions [what they see]. God knows you are wired to imitate from the womb. Therefore, as a child adopted into the family of God imitate your Father [cf. 1:5; Romans 5:5].

The goal of imitating God is Christlike love, “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us.” What is your definition of God’s love? What do you learn about love from the example of Christ? Christ’s love—true love—is built on sacrifice.[2] He loves sinful people because He has a perfect, sacrificial, and unconditional love [cf. 4:32]. He became the substitute sacrifice for your sins, which is the ultimate demonstration of love. He did not do this because you deserved it; rather sin deserves is death. He loves sacrificially and freely because that is who He is.

It is impossible to imitate God in everything, but you can imitate God by walking in Christlike love. Continual conformity to Christ is the journey of a Christ follower and love is your chief mark of Christlikeness. Christlike love motivates you to live holy, which means your thinking, attitude and behavior is characterized by Christlikeness [cf. Galatians 2:20].[3]

Paul will now contrast walking in the love of Christ with walking in the way of the world [vs.3-4]. We live in a world so willing to share their love with things that do not satisfy. What do people love other than God?

The antitype of walking in love is sexual immorality [Ephesians 5:3-4]

How is walking sexual sin the opposite of walking in Christlike love? Sexual sin loves secret self-indulgence, while Christlike love is openly self-sacrificing. Sexual sin seeks to share the altar with God, but in most cases it dethrones Him from His high place. In the Ephesians 5:3-4, Paul shares how love of sexual sin takes many forms.

3 forms of physical immorality [v.3] Biblical Definition Biblical Replacement
Fornication, 

Sexual Immorality

Any kind of sexually related sin [pornea]—pornography, masturbation, adultery, etc. [1 Corinthians 6:18; Jude 7; 1 Thessalonians 4:3]. Wait for sex until marriage [1 Corinthians 6:12-20; 7:2]; run from any sexual immorality [1 Corinthians 6:18]
Uncleanness, Impurity Moral impurity; sexual thinking; lust [Leviticus 11-12; Matthew 23:25-26; Hebrews 1:3; James 1:27; 4:8]. Purity of Heart; holiness [1 Thessalonians 4:3-8]
Covetousness Greed; inward desire to acquire what you cannot have [Luke 12:15; Matthew 6:24; 2 Peter 2:3; Colossians 3:5] Contentment [Philippians 4:12-13]; do not covet another man’s wife [Exodus 20]

All forms of physical immorality are a serious cancer to your soul. So serious they “must not even be named” among God’s people [cf. 5:12].[4] It is not that you should not talk about these sins, but you must be careful to not create an atmosphere that tolerates these sins. You cannot avoid living in a world where these sorts of sins are become less shameful and less secretive. Although they are common that does not give you an excuse to indulge. Sexual immorality is not only in a physical form, but it also can be in a verbal form:

3 forms of verbal immorality [v.4] Biblical Definition Biblical Replacement
Filthy language, obscenity Sexually degrading; obscene talk; shameless; disgraceful; dirty talk Build up and encourage one another to follow Christ [4:29; Colossians 3:5-17]. Put on thankfulness. “What comes out of your mouth or what you laugh at reveals your heart” [Matthew 15:18].
Foolish talk Stupid words; silliness; childish; moronic
Crude joking, 

course joking

Verbal immorality; vulgar; perverse; buffoonery; sexual innuendo

Verbal immorality is not just for dirty old men. Turn on your TV or listening to the Billboard Top 25 songs and you will see that dirty sexy talk sells. Dirty language is common and cheap, but it must not be the talk of followers of Christ. Sure Jesus hung out with dirty rotten sins, but He never stooped to their potty mouth language or laughed at their dirty jokes.

The remedy for immorality is thanksgiving.  How can thankfulness help remedy immorality? While immorality is self-centeredness [cf. Romans 1:21], thanksgiving is Christ-centeredness. Thanksgiving is rooted in a radically different heart, which understands it is does not deserve God’s grace. Thanksgiving—being content in Christlikeness—is the antidote for all immorality. What happens if a person continues to walk in sexual immorality?

The consequence of walking in sexual immorality is hell [Ephesians 5:5]

A person who walks in sexual immorality often describes it as living hell. Sexual sin is like working under the whip of a ruthless slave master. Walking in immorality not only feels like hell, but also it will pave your road to hell, “Everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” [v.5]

Drinking from the well of sexual sin never satisfies. The hurt and hopelessness left in the wake of sexual sin can be horrendous and handicapping. Sexual sin is like poison ivy with an all-consuming itch. The more you scratch the infected area the more you itch and the more it spreads. Sexual sin will poison you to death.

The consequences of continuing a life of immorality are serious and sobering, now [in this life] and later [in eternity]. First, those who are steeped in these sins are habitually involved as a pattern of life [cf. Hebrews 12:14]. A follower of Christ cannot walk this way for long without the Holy Spirit bringing about conviction sin and change of life. Second, immorality, impurity and greed are summed up as “Idolatry”.

How is immorality the same as worshipping a false god? Idolatry is when you love something more than God. An idol is more than a carved image; it is a God-substitute. Are you grasping onto an immoral idol? The Bible is clear—idols must be demolished.

Follower of Christ, you are called to be alive to Christ and actively loving Him. Know everyday is a battle for the mind. Your battle is between active love for the world and passive love God will come to a head—choose whom you will love. If you love the world more than Christ you have allowed the world to rob, rape and exploit your love. Think of loving the world like sleeping with the enemy. Immorality is always risky; therefore, pursue purity because it is always safe. A.W. Tozer said,

“Men think of the world not as a battleground but as a playground. We are not here to fight, we are here to frolic. We are not in a foreign land, we are at home. We are not getting ready to live, we are already living, and the best we can do is rid ourselves of our inhibitions and our frustrations and live this life to the full.”

How can I fight the temptations of sexual immorality? First, draw a line in the sand. Commit to God, “I will never put myself in situation where I will be tempted to fall into sin.” Second, put off old sinful ways and put on walking in Christlikeness. Make this your biblical battle plan. Third, maintain accountability. Keep clear guardrails and safety nets that together help you avoid your temptations. Fourth, consider the cost of your commitment to Christ. Reputation takes a lifetime to build, but a moment to destroy.


[1] Imitation is a theme in Paul’s letters: 1 Corinthians 4:16; 10:31-11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9.

[2] cf. Leviticus 1:17; Isaiah 53:10; 2 Corinthians 2:15-16; Philippians 4:18.

[3] A thread about living a life of love appears a lot in Ephesians: 4:2; 15-16; 5:2. 25, 28, 33; 6:24

[4] Saints = believers, holy ones.

thankfulness

dsc02957I have a lot to be thankful for. Yet sometimes it is difficult to have an attitude of gratitude. Thankfulness is the attitude that displaces my sinful tendency to complain and thereby release joy and blessing into my life.

The Bible has much to say about the attitude of thankfulness: “Oh, that men would give thanks…” (Psalm 107:8)

In 2003, I had the opportunity to visit the Ukraine in the middle of a cold winter. While I was there I had the opportunity to meet the Sekret Family. Pastor Sekret is a minister that pastors a few small churches outside of Kiev. He had to work a job outside the church to support his family. During my visit they made me feel so welcome. Little did I know until I left that they feed me the best they had day for dinner. It wasnt much, a loaf of bread, spicy mustard, and a ring of sausage. Their kitchen table was partially a bed that overflowed into their kitchen. What I remember the most was the prayer Mr. Sekret gave before we ate. The family stood, and gathered behind their chairs and held hands with one another. The prayer was simple, but heart felt: “Slava Bog, doosha smachna,” which means ‘praise God for this great food.’ These were truly thankful people.

Why are we not thankful people? We are told that the great danger lies precisely in our constant contact with “stuff”. To many our things may seem too common, and become customary. B.B. Warfield once said to his students, “As the average man breathes the air and basks in the sunshine without ever a thought that it is God in His goodness who makes the sun to rise on him…It is your great danger. But it is your great danger, only because it is your great privilege. Think of what privilege it is when your greatest danger is that the great things of religion may become common to you!” Emerson said, “If the stars would come out only once a year, everyone would stay up all night to behold them (we see the stars so often we don’t bother looking at them anymore).”

Thankfulness is a decision no matter how common or crazy the circumstances are around you. A thankful person decides that there is no better option than to be thankful. Thankfulness comes ONLY when we decide to have faith in God as our PROVIDER. The PROVIDER is always at work in our lives and for this be thankful!

Think about how crazy it would be to be stuck on an island alone your entire life. As hard as it may be there are many things to be thankful for. In Daniel Defoe’s depiction of Robinson Crusoe he shares these examples. “I have been on this deserted island for 27 years, but it is beautiful! I am sick of these coconuts, but it is food! I am all alone, but at least I don’t have to worry about others in my business.”

I might not be on a deserted island, but daily I have a decision to have the attitude of thankfulness. I certainly have a lot to be thankful for: I have a home, a loving family, enough food, clothes for my back, a pluthera of possession, and I have a God who is utterly amazing.