Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Recommended Commentaries: Ephesians

The following annotated bibliography below is intended to aid those pastors or serious laymen who wish to purchase volumes on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. While God has blessed me with an expansive exegetical library, I find it impossible to own or otherwise acquire every volume on each subject. As such, there are certainly works omitted from the list below that deserve inclusion, but I only list those items with which I have personally worked.

In each category I underline the volumes I most recommend.


1. Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 2002).
Highly technical.
Simply put, this is the finest exegetical commentary in English. Hoehner is a master exegete and this volume is ample attestation of his scholarly acumen. The commentary is a mammoth, single volume work. Though originally planned to be part of the Baker Exegetical Commentary series, the work exceeded the length requirement and was published as a stand alone volume. If you can only by one technical commentary, this is the volume every evangelical pastor should own.

2. Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Ephesians (New York: Carter, 1864).
Hodge was a phenomenal theologian and biblical expositor, and this volume provides almost 400 pages of penetrating analysis. Greek is usually translated, making it accessible to the English-only pastor. A fine example of rich theology produced from solid exegesis.

3. Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians - Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 1999).
A wonderful mid-range commentary. It is scholarly and therefore “technical”, but written in a style accessible to the English-only pastor. O’Brien has a fine grasp on the Ephesian letter and his insights are provocative and noteworthy. The preaching pastor will find much here to edify his soud, and perhaps even suggest directions for faithful preaching. An excellent second volume to compliment Hoehner.

4. Marcus Barth, Ephesians – Anchor Bible Commentary (Doubleday, 1974).
Technical. This is a two-volume commentary, covering Volumes 34 and 34A in the Anchor Bible Commentary series. Altogether, there are over 800 pages of exposition and analysis. Barth breaks from many modern scholars and embraces Pauline authorship of the letter. He does take some unexpected turns in interpretation, but does a wonderful job providing information for the readers own reflection. One of the major strengths of the commentary are the numerous “theological comments”, which are lengthy (and rich) discussions of various issues. An important work and necessarily dialogue partner for those wishing to interact with Ephesian scholarship.

5. Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians – Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1990).
Highly Technical. At over 460 pages, Lincoln’s commentary is comprehensive and stands as one of the current standards. For exegetical discussions Lincoln is an essential dialogue partner, but I found little value here in understanding the theology of the letter. Likewise, there was little to offer the preaching pastor. Lincoln rejects Pauline authorship. Important for those wishing to interact with the scholarly community.

6. John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians (New York: Carter, 1861).
Highly technical. This commentary spans over 485 pages and is thoroughly works with the Greek text. Though dated, it contains many valuable insights. In his day, Eadie was simply one of the very best New Testament expositors. For those wishing to work through the Greek text of this letter you will find Eadie a sure-footed guide. There is a modern reprint by Solid Ground Books.

7. Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians-The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1996
Moderate to Non-Technical. This volume is one of the most significant contributions on Ephesians from an evangelical author. Snodgrass’ exegetical analysis is superb. His sense of the flow and thought of Ephesians is on target, though at times he misses the grandeur of Paul’s theology. As with most of the other volumes in the series, the application section can many times be weak. Still, there is much here for the evangelical pastor. This work will prove to be a great aid in preaching and teaching Ephesians.

8. A. Skevington Wood, “Ephesians” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 11 – Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor (Zondervan, 1978).
Non-technical. A worthy addition from an evangelical perspective. Wood holds to Pauline authorship and, though non-committal, retains the traditional view that it was written from Rome. Greek is transliterated, and the commentary lacks any technical discussions. Overall, its exposition of the text is solid and deserving of our attention.

9. Margaret Y. MacDonald, Colossians, Ephesians – Sacra Pagina (Liturgical Press, 2000)
Moderately Technical. MacDonald writes from a mainline, non-evangelical approach. Rejecting Pauline authorship (of both Colossians and Ephesians), her commentary nevertheless contains a wealth of scholarship and information. She excels at interacting with other portions of scripture and generally sees the theological thrust of the letter. I would not recommend this for the preaching pastor, though it may hold some interest to those of a scholarly bent.

10. Mark J. Edwars (editor), Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians-Ancient Christian Commentary, New Testament VIII (Intervarsity Press, 1999)
This volume contains selected quotes from several Early Church period figures. Helpful and illuminating. Generally should be used a a reference to dig into the original sources, though Edwards provides many citations that have been translated into English for the first time.

11. John Calvin, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians… - Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume XXI (Baker Books, 1993, reprint)
Calvin was the finest expositor of his age, and few have equaled him since. His command of the Greek language and his theological acumen make this volume one of the best treatments on Ephesians in history—though the historical situation in which Calvin wrote is clearly visible. See also his volume of sermons based on Ephesians listed below.

12. Francis Foulkes, Ephesians – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Eerdmans/IVP, 2002 reprint)
I found this to be a dandy little commentary that interacted well with both the text and theology of the letter. Foulkes interacts well with key Greek terms (always transliterated), which offers the contemporary pastor good material for sermon preparation. Foulkes is open to the possibility that an imitator penned the letter instead of Paul, though he does not firmly hold that conclusion. For the price, you don’t have much to lose in purchasing this volume (though perhaps not much to gain, either).

Sermons, Expositions, & Puritan Writings:

1. Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesiasns – Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Eerdmans, 1998 reprint).
Twenty-four sermons on this important letter. Chrysostom is an example of patristic preaching at its finest. His stays close to the biblical text and the preacher will find much personal value here.

2. John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians (Banner of Truth, 1973)
This is a distinct volume from his commentary on the same letter (see above). This work has went through various reprints in English from at least the 1600’s forward. The letter to the Ephesians was Calvin’s favorite portion of Scripture, a truth which is testified to in these warm, deeply-moving expositions. This book represents Calvin at his sermonic finest. So impacting are these sermons that on his deathbed, the Reformer John Knox had his wife read them to him aloud.

3. Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin – 12 Volumes (Reformation Heritage Books, 2008 reprint).
Volume One consists of expositions of Ephesians 1, and Volume Two covers Ephesians 2 as well as various portions of the rest of the letter. Historically, there has been a high demand for Goodwin’s writings, which have been reissued over 47 times since they first began to appear in the mid-1600s. His writings display a pastoral and scholarly zeal.

4. James Fergusson, A Brief Exposition of the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Printed in London, 1659).
Fergusson was a master Puritan expositor. The contemporary pastor will find much value in his phrasing and expressions. Fergusson is both “meat and bone”, he gives both essential stability in understanding and needed nourishment in application. For Puritan writings, this volume is remarkably succinct.

5. Paul Baine, Commentary on Ephesians (London, 1658)
A meaty Puritan exposition on this important letter. This work has been reprinted by Tentmaker Publications in a fine smyth-sewn hardcover binding. Bayne offers the expositor a goldmine of memorable phrases and I found his main points correlate well even to modern audiences. I relied heavily on Bayne as I preached through this letter.

6. William Gouge, An Exposition of the Whole Fifth Chapter of St. John’s Gospel…also Notes on Other Choices Places of Scripture (London, 1631)
The end of this volume contains expositions on miscellaneous verses of the fifth and sixth chapters of Ephesians. Gouge spends much time discussing the domestical duties of Christians (a favorite theme among Puritans), a subject that needs serious attention in our anchorless age.

7. John Locke, A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul (1832).
As the title suggests, Locke provides a paraphrase of each portion of the letter, followed by some brief notes and comments. The notes are extremely valuable, and the paraphrase is a wonderful tool for understanding the ‘gist’ of what Paul is communicating.

Monographs, Overviews, & Misc. Volumes:

1. Lincoln & Wedderburn, The Theology of the Later Pauline Letters—New Testament Theology (Cambridge, 1993).
In this little volume Lincoln enjoys an expanded discussion on the theology of the Ephesian letter. Slightly more valuable than his commentary, but lacking direct engagement with the text (by design). A worthy voice in the contemporary discussion, but lacking in value for the preaching pastor.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New Poll: Theology

I'm trying to get a handle on what type of person frequents this blog. Help me out, and take the poll on the left side bar. Thanks.

Economic Stimulus Check's

I will not utter a peep regarding the political and theological ramifications of this, but for those who simply want their check from Big Brother, here is the information:

Economic Stimulus Checks!

Those economic stimulus checks could reach your bank account this week! You'll get your check soon if you have direct deposit with the IRS and the last two digits of your Social Security number end between the following numbers:


00-20: Your check should arrive today!

21-75: Your check arrives next Monday

76-99: The Monday after that (May 12)

Paper checks arrive between May 16 and Jul 11

Monday, April 28, 2008

Daily Devo - Monday, April 28, 2008

"…and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ."

Philemon 6 (ESV)

Most of us have been to at least one funeral. As is typical, the minister and various family/friends stand to declare the virtues of the deceased. Sometimes we sense disconnect between the person described and the person we actually remember. However, even though these descriptions may be fanciful, they do remind us that there is honor in a life well-lived.

How, exactly, does one define a life well-lived? What would such a life look like? Generally we list such attributes as 'kindness' and 'gentleness'. Others may consider 'self-control' or 'selflessness' as virtuous. One person might believe the tell-tale sign is 'friendliness', while another would list 'hardworking'. We could go on…

In his letter to Philemon, the Apostle Paul points to the true mark of a life well-lived. All other marks, while in many ways good, are in and of themselves insufficient. A life well-lived is a life lived according to its original purpose. A shovel works well when we use it to dig. We can also use it to slice tomatoes, though all would admit such a use deviates from its design. Most people live life contrary to the purpose for which they were made. This is a sad truth, but more importantly it is a dangerous reality. Though belief in the reality of Hell doesn't "sell" very well in our modern culture, the fact is that Hell exists for people who live contrary to their original purpose. Despite what we may hear at funerals, Hell is full of hardworking, kind, and friendly people who lived contrary to the reason for which they were created.

Paul is reminding Philemon that the purpose of life—indeed the mark of a life well-lived—is for the sake of Christ. God created human beings in order to bring Him glory. Our purpose is to bring pleasure to Him, even as He showers us with love and blessings. Our churches are full of people who are "nice", "kind", and "friendly", but who fail to live their lives for the sake of Christ. To rephrase the eminent puritan John Flavel, "Christ shall be the center to which all lines of my [life] are drawn."1 This is our great and glorious purpose, and the very center of our lives to which all spheres of life should point. In other words, we are to be the best parents we can be for the sake of Christ. We are to be hardworking employees for the sake of Christ. We are to be kind to the waitress for the sake of Christ. We are to treat our spouse with love and affection for the sake of Christ. We are to be patient and tender to our children for the sake of Christ.

Our purpose is so very simple: live our lives in such a way as to demonstrate the beauty of Christ to the world. Flavel goes on to say that the best artist in life is the one who "can most lively and powerfully display Jesus Christ before the people". 2 One day we will all meet Jesus Christ face to face, and he will ask us one simple question: "what in your life was done for my sake?"

A life well-lived is a life lived for the sake of Christ.

In the original quote John Flavel was speaking of his own ministry as pastor. The unedited quote is as follows: "Christ shall be the center to which all lines of my ministry are drawn". The Works of John Flavel, Volume 1, p 33 (Banner of Truth).
2 Works of John Flavel
, Volume 1, p 39.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Daily Devotion - Friday, April 25, 2008

“…and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”
Philemon 6 (ESV)

In my household the summer of 2005 is referred to as the “Summer of the Chickens”. By all accounts, it was a complete fiasco. The gist of the story is that I stopped by a local farm market the day they happened to be selling chicks. Overcome by the adorable little yellow buggers, I succumbed and brought 15 of them home with me. Keep in mind I had no pens and no food. To make matters worse, I lived in a downtown urban center—certainly a violation of multiple city ordinances. All was well and good—until those little buggers decided to grow. Hastily I built pens, secured food, and struggled to keep the fowl from smelling…well…foul. In over my head, several friends came to my rescue and the birds eventually received proper homes.

Taking care of the needs of others is a heavy responsibility. This is certainly true in our churches. All children of God require assistance in the strengthening of their faith, growth in their knowledge of God, and help in letting go of hurt in order to become more like Christ. The Puritan William Attersoll writes, “It is no small thing to comfort and strengthen the weak and feeble, and to give rest to the soul & body, that hath been tost & troubled with much affliction”. 1 The church is full of hurting, broken people who need consistent love and never-ending gentleness if they are to continue on towards spiritual maturity. It is our duty to come alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to stir up in them an increase of the graces of God.

God’s plan for achieving this spiritual growth is the Word of God demonstrated in our lives, and spoken through our lips. Paul commends Philemon because he actively shared his faith with his fellow believers. They heard him constantly refer to the truth of God’s word, and saw the effects of the Word applied to his daily life. Both his message and his lifestyle were powerful testimonies of his faith. Paul’s prayer is that the Word of God spoken and lived would become effective in the lives of those close to Philemon.

Christ did not only save us from hell, he also saved us for heaven. He did not merely remove sin, he also implanted holiness. He did not simply release us from the shackles of spiritual ignorance, he released us into the garden of spiritual knowledge. The Apostle Peter makes this point when he writes, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Christ brought us to life; now, therefore, is the time to grow, to be strengthened, and to truly live! Often, people use Philemon 6 as a proof text for the need to evangelize. While evangelism is important, this verse is not referring to the sharing our faith with nonbelievers. Instead, it is a call for all of us to actively share our faith with each other—in order that we may all grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ.2

It is not enough to have faith—we must also seek the increase of it, in ourselves and others.

William Attersoll, A Commentary Upon the Epistle of Saint Paul to Philemon (London, 1612), p 125.
The word “share” is actually the Greek word koinonia, which often means “to share, to participate in”. It seems that Paul is praying the Philemon’s fellow believers will “share in” the faith that is manifest in Philemon’s life.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Daily Devo - Thursday, April 24, 2008

“… that the sharing of your faith…”
Philemon 6 (ESV)

I loved playing high school basketball. I would space-out in English class thinking about it and dreamt of it at night. I hung posters all over my wall and could name every major player in the NBA. My friends and I would watch NBA games and try to decipher plays and patterns, and of course we watched Hoosiers about 65 times. There was only one problem—I completely stunk. Though I went to a small Christian school and had a graduating class of only 7, I was sequestered far down the line of the 2nd string. To give you some idea of how bad I was, my average game-play my senior year was about 1 minute 30 seconds (yes, per game).

But then something truly remarkable happened—I got the chance to attend a Pistons/Bulls game. This was in the era of the Piston’s “Bad Boys” days with Spiderman Sally, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and Dennis Rodman (before he wigged out on everybody). At the game, I got the once-in-a-lifetime chance of meeting Michael Jordan. OK, so it was brief and all he said was “hey kid”—but for a 16 year old fan it was amazing. Going back to school and basketball practice I determined I was a ‘new man’. No longer would I be sentenced to 2nd string. After all, I had met the greatest player in the world. Oddly, my coach didn’t seem to see the significance of this—and still gave me the job of holding down a metal chair at the sideline.

Knowing someone with great faith, like knowing someone with great athletic ability, doesn’t mean it will somehow ‘rub off’ on us. In the verse above, Paul is praying that the members of Philemon’s church will “share in” the strong faith of Philemon. But Paul is not saying that such faith will ‘magically’ rub off on them. A puritan preacher once noted that “No man can be saved by another man’s believing, no more then be nourished by another man’s feeding”.1 Certainly Paul is urging Philemon to live in such a way as to nourish faith in others (see tomorrow’s devotional on this), but if we are to truly share in the faith of others we must bring something to the table—a God-given desire to grow spiritually.

This is what the prophet Habakkuk meant when he wrote “..the righteous shall live by his faith”(2:4b ESV). We do not get to heaven because someone close to us is a Christian, nor do we become mature in Christ simply because we know some who are.

It doesn’t help with basketball, either.


1 William Attersoll, A Commentary Upon the Epistle of Saint Paul to Philemon (London, 1612), p 77.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Daily Devo - Wednesday April 23, 2008

“…and I pray…”
Philemon 6 (ESV)

As a small boy my imagination soared whenever we went to Grandpa’s house. Being some distance away, it was a rare trip; yet one that was filled with wonder and seemingly endless exploration. One sensed that the inside of his house tottered on the threshold of the doorway of time as it was filled with ancient relics and outdated trappings. Tools, cooking utensils, and even the vacuum cleaner were all pre-World War productions. The ticking and chiming of the grandfather clock, the sight of hand-spun blankets, and even the smell of mothballs tickled by childhood fancy. One image, in particular, stands out in my memory as best capturing the ‘essence’ of my grandfathers house—it was the picture of an elderly man (much like my own grandfather) kneeling in prayer. I loved staring at this picture. Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I was drawn by its magnetic faith. It held the mystery of a Chesterton novel, the beauty of a rainbow trout in a sun-lit stream, and the hypnotic power of young love. That simple picture portrayed a depth of faith and relationship to God that I am still striving for these many years later.

The Apostle Paul regularly referred to his prayer life throughout his writings. Rarely does e actually describe his prayer life; rather, he simply lives his prayer life out before the recipients of his letters. Paul understood not only the importance of prayer, but also its distinctive beauty and exceptional power.

The beauty of prayer lies in the world that it opens to us. As the old saying goes, ‘reading is the window to the imagination’. Even more so, prayer is the window to the very glory & presence of God. Hebrews 4:16 calls on believers to boldly draw near to the throne of grace” (ESV). The prophet Isaiah, who in prayer was ushered before this very throne, says, 'In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple’ (6:1). Can you imagine the scene of this wonderful throne? The biblical writers, struggling for words to convey the limitless majesty of God, use terms like light (Ps 27:1), ‘a rainbow like emeralds (Rev 4:3), ‘a crystal-clear sea like glass’ (Rev 4:6), and ‘the perfection of beauty’ (Ps 50:2). When we bow the knee in prayer, we enter into the presence of beauty itself. Once seen, God becomes the precious jewel that we will give up all to possess. The puritan John Dod once said that “a man that has the spirit of prayer has more than if he had all the world”.1 When we see the beauty of God—possible only in a life marked by prayer—the wonders of the world become little more than mud and clay.

Yet prayer also holds exceptional power. In it we are granted God’s strength and wisdom. Through it our spirits are fortified, and because of it our fears are abated. When we bow the knee before God the Redeemer strikes a death blow against the sin that has entangled us. Dod also says that “Either prayer will make a man give over sinning, or sin will make a man give over prayer.”

Distinctive beauty…exceptional power…and one remarkable, life-giving, wondrous God.

1 Old Mr Dod’s Sayings (London, 1671).

FAITH QUESTION - Did Judas go to Hell?

Question from Craig in New York

FAITH QUESTION: Did Judas go to Hell?

Judas, of course, was one of the original twelve Apostles and the one who betrayed Jesus to the Temple's authorities for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-16). Although the Apostles later discovered that he had been stealing money all along (John 12:6), from the biblical evidence it seems that during Jesus' three years of ministry few suspected Judas of being morally bankrupt. Yet, Scripture clearly teaches that Judas was (1) never truly converted to Jesus and (2) never truly repented of his sin.

Even though Judas was with Jesus and the other disciples from the very beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry, the Bible clearly records that he never truly believed in the saving message of the Gospel. John 6:64 says "'But there are some of you who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him." Only a few verses later, Judas is identified as one of these "non-believers" who would eventually betray the Messiah (see John 76:70-71). Scripture also firmly teaches that Jesus fully knew who would betray him. John 13:11 ominously states, "For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "Not all of you are clean." John 17:11 uses strong language when it refers to Judas as the "son of perdition", a biblical term for one who will receive ultimate judgment from God. Though he feigned obedience to Christ, Judas was a fake. He used pious language and seemed to be "Christian" externally, but inwardly he never gave his heart and life to Christ.

Scripture also tells us that although Judas regretted his decision, he never truly turned from his evil ways towards God. Note the follow passage from Matthew 27:3-5: "Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, 'I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.' They said, 'What is that to us? See to it yourself.' And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself." True biblical repentance is not only a turning "away from" sin, but also a turn "toward" God. It involves a complete change of lifestyle. One may regret one's crimes without ever really becoming a better person. The Apostle Paul speaks of something similar to this when he writes, "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10). Judas certainly regretted his action, but in a worldly way that lead only to death--both physical and spiritual. Judas not only died physically when he committed suicide, but he also died spiritually when he refused to submit his life to Christ. As such, he was condemned eternally to Hell.

The clearest indication of what happened to Judas after his suicide comes from the lips of Jesus himself. He says, "...but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born" (Mark 14:21). Jesus clearly did not think that Judas would spend eternity in Heaven. Whatever judgment was waiting for him was severe and horrible. Hebrews 10:31 tells us that "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God". By rejecting Christ as Messiah, it is into those hands of wrath that he fell.
Questions for Pastor Josh can be submitted via Email. "Faith Questions" is a feature in the monthly newsletter of Indian River Baptist Church. This blog republishes those Questions, along with others not selected for print publication.

T4G Messages online

The audio of the messages & panel discussions of the Together for the Gospel conference are now available online, compliments of Sovereign Grace ministries. I might also recommend downloading the lectures/panel discussions of the 2006 conference.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A tremendous tragedy

A few days ago we received news that our nephew in India died of a drug overdose. This young man married our sweet niece---a young woman deeply loved by my wife and I. God had blessed this young couple with a beautiful child. Despite his addiction, this young man simply adored my niece and showered her with love and affection.

Yet there was a deep darkness and depression in his soul--for which he ran to a substance instead of the Sustainer. I am no judge, having spent far too many days in my own 'dark night of the soul' because of my unwillingness to taste the sweet savor of Jesus. There has been, and is, so much sin in my life that I shudder at the thought of it. Its heinous mark stains and devours like an acid--yet Christ is the cure who cleanses and heals. Even in the fog of this tragedy the promise of Christ's healing brightly penetrates this darkness.

I see you Jesus, help me see you more clearly...

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
Habakkuk 3:17-18a (ESV)

Experiencing his own difficulties, the author of the (non-inspired) book of Tobit writes “As for me, I exalt my God, and my spirit rejoices in the King of heaven" (13:7). Despite our sorrow, I choose to exalt my God. I choose to rejoice because my God is King of Heaven itself.

As the puritan John Dod once said, "Much sin, much sorrow; much holiness, much happiness". Praise God for the holiness of Christ, which is made available to us through his work on the cross. It is in his holiness, applied to me, that I find the happiness that alludes the world.

In tragedy we see Christ most clearly. Praise God, then, that even tragedy can be so tremendous.

Daily Devo - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

“…my God…”
Philemon 4a

Two words…
Five letters…
One clause…
…simple, perhaps even simplistic in its presentation, but nothing short of majestic in its vision.

Here we find a statement that serves as a potent confession of faith as well as a sweet comfort to that faith. It declares and then confirms, dictates and then aids, diagnosis and then heals. Other than the very name of Christ, there are perhaps no words that taste sweeter to the lips than the statement “my God”.

When Paul refers to God as “his”, he is making a bold declaration that echoes Old Testament language. Several times God promises that “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.”1 The issue isn’t ownership, but rather relationship.2 Paul is doing nothing less than publically declaring his everlasting and unbreakable relationship with the sovereign Lord of the universe—made possible only through Christ. It is this relationship that is the source of Paul’s faith, hope, and love. David exhibited the grandeur of this relationship with God when he sang “O Lord, my God, in you do I put my trust” (Psalm 7:1). Much later the Apostle Thomas, after placing his finger into Christ’s wounds, declared “Thou art my Lord and my God”. Though many claim to believe in “a god”, only those who come through Christ have the privilege of truly knowing him as a loving Father. William Jones, a puritan minister, writes “the Devil can say, God; and he trembles at it: but he cannot say, ‘my God’: this is proper [only] to the faithful”.3

When we truly come to understand that God is “our God”, a garden of comfort and peace is made available to us. Perhaps no biblical writer understood this God-given comfort better the David. At a low point in his life he writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?”4 On another occasion, when he feared death was near, he offered these powerful words, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” 5 David is reminding us that when we come to grips that God is “ours”, neither life nor death can overwhelm us. No difficulty in life, nor even the shadow of death that will one day fall over us, can separate us from the love of God.

Praise God that he is my God.

1 Exodus 6:7; see also Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; Ezekiel 36:28.
2 This isn’t to deny that God doesn’t in a real sense “own” us. We are his children, his subjects, and his possessions. Yet we are also his ‘friends’ who boldly have the right to approach his throne.
William Jones. A Commentary Upon the Epistles of Saint Paul to Philemon, and to the Hebrews: Together with a Compendious Explication of the Second and Third Epistles of Saint John (London, 1635).
4 Psalm 27:1
5 Psalm 23:4

Monday, April 21, 2008

Daily Devo - Monday, April 21, 2008

“…because I hear of your love and of the faith..”
Philemon 5 (ESV)

My first summer job was selling cherries at a road-side stand in Northern Michigan. The duties were simple: sit there, bag cherries, and sell them to customers who stop. To a 16 year old boy, it was the most boring job on the planet. Often I would leave my stand to see the sites, goof off at the beach, or simply find a tree and take a nap. Of course, being only 16 I thought I could do this unnoticed—until the boss came around one day (he noticed the profits at my stand had plummeted and came to investigate). Thus my days of selling cherries came to a screeching halt.

With only the foolishness a teenager can muster, I actually applied to work there again the next summer. They didn’t even need to look in my employee file, since my reputation preceded me. I was told something like, “based on your previous work history we do not feel you are a suitable asset to this company”. So much for my teenage dreams of financial security.

In the verse quoted above, the Apostle Paul indicates that Philemon’s reputation had preceded him—though in a way much more favorable than in my own situation with the cherries. Paul heard reports of Philemon’s love and loyalty to the ministry. We don’t have too many details, but the picture that emerges indicates that Philemon genuinely cared for and loved those in his small congregation. We see evidence here of a caring, nurturing pastor who demonstrated patience, gentleness, kindness to those under his care. Likewise, we sense in Philemon a man who held firm to his passion for God and strove to bring glory to God in every domain of life.

Sometimes it is said that Christians shouldn’t try to earn the favor of others. Such a sentiment is, of course, absolute nonsense and foreign to the Gospel. We shouldn’t live for the favor of others, certainly; but we must seek to earn their favor in order to demonstrate to them the wonderful message of salvation through Christ. Our reputation with others, particularly those of the outside world, is an important part of our ministry. Some serve as pastors, others as Sunday school teachers, and still others as prayer warriors. Yet all share in the common ministry of making our individual lives a lighthouse for the glory of God. Hebrews 11:2 urges elders in the church to “obtain a good report”. We do this most effectively by living out the gospel in our daily lives. D.L. Moody once said, “A holy life will make the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns, they just shine”.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Daily Devo - Sunday, April 20

“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.”
Philemon 4, 5 (ESV)

My oldest son simply adores his mother. If we play a board game he must be on her team. If we are discussing where to dine out, he sides with mom’s choice of restaurant. If I ask him his opinion about a plan or idea for the family, his immediate response is ‘what does mom think about it?’ He is faithful and unswerving in his devotion to my wife. Though I ‘play the victim’ on occasion (“what about Dad?”), the fact is I deeply admire his loyalty to her.

Something similar is going on in the letter to Philemon. Paul is praising Philemon for the love and faith he has shown to God and the “saints” (a biblical word for those who have given their life to Christ). Paul knows of Philemon’s faithfulness and unswerving loyalty to the people in his congregation, and he deeply admires him for it.

Yet some translations mess this verse up horribly. While a good translation overall, the NIV rearranges the words so to separate faith from love. In that translation, they have Paul praising Philemon for his faith to God and his love to the saints. The original Greek does allow a little wiggle room in translation, but there is not much justification for such a radical rearrangement. So why do some translations do this? It is simply because they misunderstand faith. They view faith as something we have for God, and thus rearrange the passage to make sense in English.1 Of course scripture does usually use the word ‘faith’ when referring to our trust in and loyalty to God—but the word is broader than that. Pistis, the Greek word we translate as ‘faith’, can also mean ‘loyalty, faithfulness’. Paul is saying that Philemon was loyal to both God and God’s people.

So many people claim to love Christ, but care nothing for his bride. The nineteenth-century poet Robert Southey once blurted out, “I could believe in Christ if he did not drag behind him his leprous bride, the church.” Though he was a nonbeliever, so many Christians have a similar attitude towards the body of Christ. Is she leprous, diseased, and tattered? Most certainly, yet Christ continues to draw her near to himself. In many ways, we prove our love to Christ by our love for his Church.
1 Elsewhere in Scripture Paul does use this language. In Colossians 1:4 he praises the Colossian believers for the (1) faith to God, and (2) love to the saints. But there the original Greek clearly demands such a translation. Some scholars try to rearrange Philemon 5 to make it “fit” Colossians 1:4. Yet is it probably more wise to see that Paul is emphasizing something slightly different when writing to Philemon. Considering that Paul is requesting that Philemon forgive Onesimus’ offense, it is understandable that he is reminding the church leader of his loyalty (which serves as a strong encouragement to extend that loyalty to Onesimus as well).

Friday, April 18, 2008

Together for the Gospel - Day Three


Our morning session on Thursday began with a potent message from John Piper exalting Christ as the true (and only) prize of faith. C. J. closed out the session with a warm and heart-felt call for pastors to guard our hearts as we engage in day-to-day ministry. Without a doubt, this proved to be the single most impacting conference I have ever attended.

The worship, led by Bob Kauflin, was simply outstanding. 5,000 voices sang nothing but the classic hymns of the faith (a few were redone musically)--and did so with passion, power, and enthusiasm. I was deeply moved when an auditorium of voices broke out in spontaneous praise, clapping, and shouts of joy when the lyrics referenced Christ's victory on the cross and other Christ-exalting moments.

Best T4G-Day 3 Quote: A radical willingness to suffer and perish is the only form of authentic ministry (John Piper).

Books We Received At the T4G Conference (for free!)
* 8 of these were given away at the Band of Bloggers luncheon, but I now forget which ones.
1. Why We Are Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be (DeYoung & Kluck)
2. The Truth of the Cross (Sproul)
3. English Standard Version-Pocket Edition
4. Young, Restless, and Reformed (Hansen)
5. The Courage to be Protestant (Wells)
6. Preaching the Cross (Dever, Duncan, Mohler, Mahaney)
7. The Gospel According to Jesus (MacArthur)
8. Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry (Ascol)
9. Christ and Culture Revisited (Carson)
10. A Tale of Two Sons (MacArthur)
11. Worship Matters (Kauflin)
12.. Women's Ministry in the Local Church (Duncan & Hunt)
13. Above All Earthly Powers (Wells)
14. Culture Shift (Mohler)
15. The Future of Justification (Piper)
16. Christ is All: The Piety of Horatius Bonar (Haykin & Brooker)
17. The Faithful Preacher: Three Pioneering African-American Preachers (Anyabwile)
18. Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution(Jeffery, Ovey, & Sach)
19. In My Place Condemned He Stood (Packer & Dever)

I think there were 3 or 4 more, but I caught my wife going through my bags this morning before I had a chance to get the books to the office. She admitted taking a few, but won't tell me which ones until she is finished reading them (she mumbled something about me being overly possessive about my books. I disagree, but did inform the police of her theft).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

FAITH QUESTIONS: Should churches talk about politics?

ASK THE PASTOR: Should churches talk about politics?

To bring some precision to the question, let us define something as political when (a) it relates to the policies of our nation and (b) when it does not fall within the ethical domain of Scripture. Thus defined, I firmly believe that politics has no place within the ministries or programs of a local church. Political issues are never mentioned from the pulpit in my church, and we choose not to display political literature (such as voting guides). It is our desire that people assemble with us for the sole purpose of learning and responding to God’s glory. As such, we refuse to engage in any activity that will distract our people from this primary purpose.

Yet many American Christians (even worse, pastors) wish to use the pulpit as a place to bemoan the secularization of America or to decry the socialist (or perhaps even conservative) agenda of whom they perceive to be the opposing political party. The two chief offenders are liberal congregations and fundamentalist congregations. Both of these suffer from a serious departure from a biblical understanding of God’s kingdom. Christ clearly taught us that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). This is not because worldly affairs are unimportant. In fact, I would maintain that Scripture encourages (or at least allows for) Christians to be active citizens, but their citizenship in a national entity is utterly distinct from their citizenship in Christ’s heavenly kingdom—and Christ does not want his disciples to confuse the two. John McArthur recently said that “what happens in American or world politics is irrelevant to the kingdom of God”. 1 Our kingdom-mission is the same regardless of our nation’s policy on NAFTA or taxation. When we allow politics to enter into the worship or teaching ministry of our services we dilute (and perhaps even hinder) our ability to engage in kingdom work.

Scripture does call us to take a stand on moral issues, regardless if these have become politicized. We have the obligation to call for national repentance. Most importantly, we are ordered to pray (as congregations) for our political leaders. Even here we only do these things because of their direct relation to our mission (to display Christ’s holiness and love).

We must stay focused on the kingdom-mission of proclaiming the gospel. When we move from it ever so slightly, we are in danger of losing it all together.

1April 16, 2008 – Discussion panel. Together for the Gospel Conference-2008.


Questions for Pastor Josh can be submitted via Email. "Faith Questions" is a feature in the monthly newsletter of Indian River Baptist Church. This blog republishes those Questions, along with others not selected for print publication.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Together for the Gospel: Day Two


Another excellent day of worship and challenging lectures. Sproul's lecture was clearly the best of the conference thus far, though the other gentlemen certainly did not disappoint. I was moved by the honesty and humility of all involved.

Best T4-G Day 2 Experience:
Lunch with Sharper Iron guys. Great fellowship and stimulating conversation.

Best T4G-Day 2 McArthur Quote: Never offer Jesus as the person who can fulfill the fallen sinner’s desires. Jesus smashes the sinner’s self-indulgence, attacks his smugness, shatters his confidence in his religion, crushes him under the full weight of God and declares him guilty.

Best T4G-Day 2 Dever Quote: Pragmatism is a greater danger to the church than Open Theism will ever be.

Best T4G-Day 2 Duncan Quote: Ministers are always trying to get an interim report card. Our report card as pastors only comes on judgment day, never before.

Best T4G-Day 2 Sproul Quote: When I hear a preacher stand and say ‘God loves you unconditionally’ I maintain that such a person should be defrocked for such a violation of the teaching of God. What pagan, when hearing that, will not think ‘I have no need of repentance for my sins.’

Best T4G-Day 2 Mohler Quote:Does sin come with natural consequences? Of course it does, but those are not the consequences to fear. The consequence to fear is the wrath of God revealed against all mankind.

T4G-Day 2 Quotes Worth of Mention:

(1) There is a difference between human forgiveness and divine forgiveness and this distinction is important to know if we are to understand Scripture--we can forgive wrongs done to us but we cannot atone for them [Mohler].

(2) I don’t raise the dead. I just preach the truth [MacArthur].

(3) When I know I’m preaching to spiritual corpses, I don’t have to worry about how to make them believe. All I have to do is give them the gospel, pray for them, and love them [Dever].

(4) Hard preaching makes soft hearts. Soft preaching makes hard hearts [MacArthur].

(5) The sufficiency of Christ is the only help we have, and it is help enough [Sproul].

EXPLORING CANAAN: Obama, Marx, and the Source of Hope

Obama, Marx, and the source of hope

Recently, columnist William Kristol of the New York Times wrote an opinion piece on Obama’s comments regarding religion among small-town American voters (Is Obama a Closet Marxist?). Generally speaking, I stay far away from politics—both personally and professionally. Yet Obama’s statements are difficult to avoid, and Kristol’s column deserves notice. Senator Obama made his remarks while speaking to an elitist and far-left wing group of San Francisco socialists at a private fundraiser on April 6th. The comments surfaced when the Senator was trying to explain why he was having difficulty connecting (i.e. “securing the vote of”) small-town, working-class voters. He said, “It is not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustration.”

These statements reveal the elitist snobbery of the social architects of our day.. As a self-proclaimed member of the true intelligentsia, Obama “understands” the true reason people cling to faith: they have given up. His word-choice was “bitterness”. The working-class people have become cynical and have lost hope. In Obama’s view, they have (wrongly) turned to faith in God. They only need to be enlightened and realize that he—not God—is the candidate of hope.

What is interesting about Kristol’s column is the correlation he makes between Obama’s comments and statements made by Karl Marx, the father of Communism. In what is perhaps one of his most famous lines, Marx writes: “Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of the heartless world, and the soul of a soulless condition. It is the opium of the people.”

Both Marx and Obama believe that religion is a “crutch” (to borrow a crude expression from the former governor of Minnesota). Both hold faith in disdain, and both see religion as ultimately detrimental to true governance and progress. The difference between the two men is in their tactics. Marx’ ideas were used to force the people (volkes) off their religious opium to behold a more enlightened reality. Obama (and more importantly, secular humanists) seek to educate people that true meaning, value, and significance can never be found in a supreme being—but only within culture’s own constructs. It is important to note that the more mainstream humanists do not deny God exists, they simply believe His existence (or lack thereof) is irrelevant.

The world around us cannot understand why we, as believers, look to God as a source for strength and hope. They cringe when we submit our lives to the ethical standards of God, and they revolt when we seek to shape our own society according to those standards. As discerning believers, we must come to recognize that to some degree all political parties see our faith (at best) as a child’s dream from which we must be educated and (at worst) an addicting drug from which we must be rescued.

This makes is all the more important for Christians to boldly live out a hope-filled faith. By our lives, we must demonstrate the singular and focused vision that true hope is only found in the person of Christ. Perhaps they will never believe us, and perhaps they will even seek to silence us. But once we stop living it, then we remove from the world the only hope that exists.

Daily Devo - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.” – Philemon 4, 5

Several years ago my wife and I took a trip to India (her native home). For five blessed weeks we visited with her family, dialogued with ministry leaders, made wonderful friendships, and saw the glory of God at work in the heart of an unbelieving culture. We also took the opportunity to bless my wife’s mother, who is widowed and lives on a fixed income. We hired a local carpenter and began a 5-week construction project of remodeling her home. Several family members contributed financially to the project on the condition of anonymity. When all was said and done, our contribution was actually a minority of the total cost.

As work progressed, an awkward situation occurred. My mother-in-law understandably showed appreciation and proudly informed her friends and neighbors of what Amy and I had done for her. This was awkward because we received all the credit for something with which in reality we had little to do. We tried to explain to her that others had assisted (without breaking confidentiality), but her eyes mislead her. She only saw us, and therefore she gave only us the credit.

I find it highly significant that Paul doesn’t thank Philemon for his good conduct—he thanks God, and God alone. Certainly he thanks God for Philemon’s good conduct and life, but the praise if given to the sovereign Lord, and not to a mere finite man. In my story above my wife and I only contributed a little; but in regards to holiness and goodness in our spiritual lives we contribute absolutely nothing.

Many times we can walk carnally while intending to walk spiritually. In the church, few intend to dishonor God when we honor the service or life of those in the local body. Few desire to spurn the glory of God when we bless mothers on Mother’s Day, or remember soldiers who fell in battle on Memorial Day. Yet, when we thank them instead of thanking God for them that is exactly what we are doing. While intending to do good, we are doing nothing less than distaining the glory and splendor of the living God.

Do not honor people. Instead, honor God because of what He has done through them.

T4G Conference: Day One


The second half of the day was action packed. One Band of Blogger luncheon & discussion panel, two excellent T4G sessions, and two meaty group interviews rounded out the afternoon and evening.

I was also blessed to have two lengthy conversations: one in the afternoon with a veteran associate pastor at Capital Hill Baptist Church, and the other at midnight with a group of young ministry-minded men from Ohio (one was still in high school). All shared their stories, their faith, and their passion for Christ.

J. Ligon Duncan offered a challenging lecture of the necessity, importance, and biblical mandate of systematic theology in our expository preaching. It was a whirlwind of Scripture, and no words were wasted. He is a powerful, Christ-centered preacher--and certainly God's gift to the body. Thabiti also gave an excellent lecture on the nature of race and ethnicity. He challenged all of us to 'shatter the patterns of thinking about race' and to 'shake up our neighbors' with the biblical conception of race. So, what was this radical new viewpoint on race? Simply, the modern paradigm of categorizing humans into numerous races is unwarranted and certainly unbiblical. Scripture teaches that there is only one race--the human race, all of whom are made in the image of God.

Best T4G-Day 1 Experience: Listening to the voice of 5,000 thousand men signing A Mighty Fortress is our God.

Best T4G-Day 1 Quote: "The blood of Christ should leave its stain on our thinking" - Thabiti

Daily Devo - Tuesday, April 16, 2008

“I hear of your love and of the faith you have
toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.”

Philemon 4b

A few years ago I sat with a married couple who constantly fought over the husband’s mother. She had moved into the couple’s home several months earlier and immediately tension began between mom and daughter-in-law. The husband felt tore between two women he loved and couldn’t choose between them. He wept in my office as he stated he loved both women equally.

But, therein lies the problem—God never intended him to love both women the same. While he is certainly commanded to cherish and provide care for his mother, he is called to love his wife significantly more. He is supposed to love both—but not equally.

The same is true of the church. Scripture bends over backwards to drive home the truth that Christians must love everyone. Romans 13:8 tells us to “Owe no one anything but love”. Love is the basic requirement and the foundation for all our relationships. In the Philemon verse for today Paul commends the man Philemon for the love he has shown to the church in his house. He cared for them, cherished them, and adored them as his beloved—and to a much more significant degree than he did with those outside the body of faith. His love for the body was discernibly greater than his love for nonbelievers. Scriptures teaches a clear and definable inequality regarding love.

Regarding this verse, the puritan pastor William Attersoll once wrote: “We are commanded to love all, but are not commanded to love all alike. We are bound to love the godly and the ungodly, but we are not bound to love the ungodly like we love the godly”. We are tied by a stronger and straighter band of fellowship with fellow brothers and sisters in the faith. Paul clearly commands this in Galatians 6:10 where he exhorts the believers to “do good to all, but especially to the household of faith”. While we are commanded to love all, but we are simultaneously commanded to love the saints with a peculiar sort of love.

Do you save the best of your love for your brothers and sisters in Christ? Love everyone, but save the best for your spiritual siblings.

William Attersoll was a Puritan pastor and expositor in the 17th century (1591-1664). Among other works, he wrote a commentary (e.g. series of sermons) on Paul's letter to Philemon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

T4G Conference

It is 7:14 AM in Cincinnati. Soon I will be leaving the hotel and travel to Louisville for the Together for the Gospel Conference (and the Band of Bloggers luncheon).

FYI, Extended Stay hotels don't seem to provide complimentary shampoo. :o(

I will be posting blogs tonight from the (hopefully nicer) hotel in Louisville. My plan is to give the daily devo's (including yesterday's) as well as post highlights from the conference. 5,000 men are registered----should be a wonderful, God-honoring time.

I am asking for prayers, particularly from my congregation. Pray that I may be refreshed as well as challenged spiritually. I sense God is trying to push me and reshape me, and I seek to be open to this process.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Daily Devo - Friday, April 11, 2008

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Philemon 3 (ESV)

Perhaps two of the most powerful words in the Bible are ‘grace’ and ‘peace’. Despite their original importance and vigor, in contemporary Christian language they are tossed about and used in a manner that strips them of their puissant, redemptive character. We speak of a ‘graceful’ dancer or a ‘peaceful’ sunset, which is all perfectly well and good. By ‘graceful’ we of course mean the dancer flutters with ease, beauty, and seamlessness across the stage. By ‘peaceful’ we mean to express something of the handsome, relaxed, and serene backdrop before our eyes. The problem arises when we use those conceptions when thinking of biblical grace and peace.

Biblical grace is something altogether different, and exceedingly richer. F. F. Bruce defines grace as “God’s unconditional goodwill towards men and women which is decisively expressed in the saving work of Christ”. While all good things can rightly be called God’s grace, the salvation found in Christ is the most perfect expression of this grace. It is the active, potent, redeeming influence of God brought to bear directly on our lives. This is memorably summarized by many as God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”. Jesus’ bought for us something we didn’t deserve and never asked for—an eternal relationship of love with the sovereign God!

The word peace is an ancient, Old Testament concept. It describes a state, or a way of living in which we exist in joyous fulfillment with God and others. This way of living is only enjoyed by those who have experienced God’s divine relationship of grace. If grace is the relationship, then peace is the pleasure we experience in the relationship—the pleasures of unity, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, understanding, trust and acceptance. To put it another way, grace is the fire whereas peace is the warmth of the fire. Peace is a result of living in grace, which is clearly taught in Scripture. In Romans 5:1 Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV). When we live in grace, we walk in peace.

The biblical terms of grace and peace talk about a reality so much bigger than simply a life of ease, beauty, and serene enjoyment. Grace is nothing less than the creator of the universe actively expressing His goodwill in my life. Peace is the promise of true relationships that are as fulfilling as they are perfect.

Grace to you, and peace!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Daily Devo - Thursday, April 10, 2008

"To...the church in your house"
Philemon 2 (ESV)

Thousands of years ago, God spoke to a man in the city of Haran (in the Middle East). He worshipped idols, and was probably quite immoral, but God wanted a relationship with him anyway. Genesis 12 records the story, and in this story the man is told that God intends to create out of him a people—a nation, a great family. Isn’t it amazing that from the very beginning God didn’t pick the most upright? Rather, he chose one of the most wicked and broken. The story of the Bible is essentially the story of this one family, and God’s involvement with them. God directed Joseph to save this family by leading them into Egypt, and later directed Moses to save them by leading them out. Joshua led this family to their new homes, and Gideon protected the family from raiding bands and hostile nations. Saul organized the family into a kingdom, David led them to glory, and Solomon showed them the nature of true wisdom. Prophets like Isaiah and Elijah willingly reminded them of their duty to God, and Jonah did the same (though without being willing). This is the people of God, and the Bible is their story. God set them apart for a special purpose, and this job has always been simple: love God (Exod 6) and love others (Lev 19:18).

But their story doesn’t end with the closing of the Old Testament. In fact, it is only the beginning. The New Testament continues the story of this family—but with a new name. Here they are referred to as the assembly or gathering. The New Testament word for this is the ekklesia, better known to us as the church. When the first churches began—in such places as Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch—they do not seem to have been large, yet Paul appointed elders (plural) in each church (Acts 14:23). In cities where thousands converted to Christ they seemed to have all met together when they could, but normally met together in small home groups (Acts 2:46).1 Though the groups were small, they were important enough to the apostles to ensure each had multiple, godly leaders.

The church is the single most important and potent social unit the world has ever seen. It is literally God’s spiritual presence on earth, and the vessel God uses to break the power of darkness. Whether a contemporary ekklesia has thousands, hundreds or merely a few, it is still dynamic and vigorous because God’s presence isn’t increased or decreased with numbers. How sad, and how dangerous, is the detestable idea that God’s church is a mere building. It is dangerous because such a concept strips the church of its potency and resolve to be the people that God had created them to be.

In his letter to Philemon, Paul also greets the small ekklesia that meets in his home. Although it was a private letter, Paul understands that spiritual problems in one member affect the entire assembly. Though Philemon was a godly man, there was a spiritual rift between him and Onesimus. Paul wanted nothing to lessen the passion and excitement of this local gathering for serving Christ. If only the contemporary church would understand who we really are. Paul knows, Jesus knows, and we can be sure Satan knows. It seems as if we are the only ones who tend to forget.

1 Though we only have New Testament evidence for this larger gathering in Jerusalem, which had the great Jewish Temple. We should also note that we have no idea what this “larger gathering” entailed. More than likely, this statement in Acts 2:46 does not refer to one large worship service consisting of thousands. Such a display would not have been tolerated in the Jewish Temple. A more realistic picture is that small groups went to the Temple together to pray and discuss Scripture. The area known as Solomon’s porch was generally used by the rabbis to pray with and provide teaching for their small group of followers.