Philemon 1-2, 8-18
SML I thought it might encourage our hearts this afternoon to take account of the work of God. And start here in Numbers with this wonderful statement, “At this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!”
Of course, literally, it was applying to the end of the wilderness journey. They had come to the end of it, and God had been with them in all the way, despite all the failure and difficulties that had come in, And, as Nehemiah tells us, their footwear was not worn out and their clothes were fresh (Nehemiah 9:21). As we sometimes sing,
Garments fresh and foot unweary,
Tell how God hath brought thee through. (Hymn 76).
So literally, at this time, that word was applicable to the work of God that had gone on and had brought the people safely through the wilderness and they were about to come into the land.
But it applies in a whole range of things. This, I think, is going to be the song eternally: “What hath God wrought!” It takes us back to the Cross when we see the wonderful basis that was laid so that everything that God had ever intended to bring about, and every realm of blessing, was perfectly justified and brought to pass through what Jesus did at Calvary. And it reminds us that this has an application in all sorts of ways. Perhaps as we come to think of it later on, we will see that it begins to have an application to quite individual things in our lives: that we can look back on them and say, What has God done; how wonderfully He has wrought, how much we have been helped!
But when I read these other passages, I think it would make us value the work of God when we see it and the work of God in one another. And so I turn to this passage in Luke because here you have the work of God coming to light in a most unexpected person – this centurion. I do not think the Lord was taken by surprise by this, but you do get the extraordinary expression that He
“wondered,” or as it is sometimes translated, He “marvelled.” I think that is just to give us an idea of how the Lord delighted in the work of God coming to light in this gentile. Luke, of course, would have delighted in it too, because he was a gentile himself, and he was writing to a gentile to remind Theophilus of the greatness of what he had come into. I think Luke particularly would fasten on this with great joy as seeing the work of God coming to light. I thought we might just see how the Lord delighted in it, and the features that marked this centurion as having the work of God going on in him.
And then I turned to Barnabas, because Barnabas, and what happens in Acts 11, seems to me to be a wonderful example of the work of God coming to light. Barnabas is a real man of God, and we might just take account of some of those features that showed how truly the work of God was in him, and then came to shine in Antioch as a place, and marked the locality. Because that is where sometimes we are tested about the work of God. We are tested as to it in ourselves, and we are tested about it, perhaps, in others, and I thought we might learn some lessons about that from both Antioch and from the locality in Colosse, because Colosse was where Philemon lived, and Colosse was where Onesimus had been known perhaps as, let us call him, the bad boy. And he had been known for sort of misbehaviour, shall we say. And there had been a very real challenge to the brethren in Colosse when he came back. I think one of the reasons that Paul sent him back was, as he says to Philemon, so that Philemon might have the privilege of, as it were, donating him to Paul again so that he might be serviceable to Paul. I know that is what the Scripture says – but I think Paul would have had in his mind too that the brethren in Colosse needed to see Onesimus, they needed to see how much he had been changed; they needed to see what the work of God truly was, as coming to light in him and value him accordingly, so that they would come to Paul’s valuation, not as unserviceable and not merely as a servant, but as a brother beloved. I just thought we might look at the work of God that way and be encouraged together.
KJP I think that is very helpful. It is something we all need to value in one another, and it is good to see it coming to light in whatever age it may be.
SML Yes, indeed. And we learn it first, I think, in the way God works with us. When we buried our sister the other day, I was thinking about this – a christian comes to the end of her life, and one of the things you can always say about it is, “What hath God wrought!” It does not matter what may have come into the life of any of us, and none of us can be boastful about what good christians we have been. We are probably not very good at all. None of us can take that sort of action, but what we can do always, in looking at the life of a believer, is to say, “What hath God wrought!” He has wrought something – He has wrought something to please Himself.
Now, if you look at this passage and what happens afterwards, you can see that Balaam made a prophecy here – and that is interesting in the ways of the work of God, too; I may come back to that in a minute. But Balaam makes a prophecy, and he says, “At this time it shall be said … What hath God wrought!” And he says later on that he has not seen iniquity in Jacob. You might say that there were plenty of things that were wrong in Jacob and Israel, and Balaam in fact taught Balak to exploit one of those things that was wrong in Israel, by helping Balak to cast a snare over the children of Israel. But that is our side, and we need to see the difference between the things that we may be conscious of in us and the greatness of what God has done for us in Christ, because it is that greatness of what God has done for us in Christ that keeps us in the sense of God’s favour and blessing. I think Mr Raven said there can be no security without the real sense of the work of God in the soul (FER vol 1 p199). And that is exactly true, we all know it in our own lives, and this is something that we all experience.
KJP And it is that that goes right through.
SML Yes. It is not affected by what we are. It is not that that does not matter. There are things we find in our lives that may require self-judgment, and that can be quite a difficulty. It can be quite difficult sometimes to get rid of repetitive sins and things like that. But what shines out, and what is a beacon for us always, is what God has done, and there can be no change in that. It is done perfectly, and it was established in His beloved Son.
MJC “There is no enchantment” or “divination against Israel”. The enemy can do nothing against the work of God, can he?
SML Do you not think that is wonderful? What God has done: it stands. And we can rely on it with absolute assurance, because there is nothing, even with Satan and all his hosts, there is no divination that can affect what God has done. It is going to go right through to a triumphant end.
AWGS Do the whole of Balaam’s prophecies bring out what you are saying as to the work of God? I am thinking of the one at the end as to the sceptre coming out of Israel. Is that not looking forward, and the work of God is seen there, is it not?
SML Yes, of course. In a way the whole of the Old Testament looks forward, does it not? And indeed a good chunk of the New Testament looks forward to that day when God is going to be all in all and everything is going to be for His pleasure.
TRP Is the work of God the sovereign action of God in us?
SML Yes, I think so – what do you say?
TRP I did not deserve God working in me, did I? And God in His grace has worked in me through His Holy Spirit so that there might be something of Christ for His pleasure in me. Is that right?
SML Yes, I am sure. Something of Christ can never spring from the flesh. It cannot: it must be the work of God. And so you can look around on a company like this, and rejoice in the work of God that is in each one, and be thankful for it and count on it, count on God bringing it through. We can be very thankful that it does not depend upon us.
DWB Is that why the names Jacob and Israel are brought together?
SML Go on, tell us about that, please.
DWB I just thought, bearing on what you said, that Jacob would be the experimental side, God’s ways with us; Israel is what he is according to divine counsel, and they blend together – what God has done.
SML Yes, thank you, that is very helpful. And, as you say, they blend together, they are not opposed. We can look back on our lives and we can see the things that are like Jacob, and yet we can also often see the way that God used those things to build His work in us and cause us to have greater confidence in Him and trust Him the more. It is a very wonderful thing.
MJC Should we be looking for the work of God to come to light in one another?
SML Well, I think so. As our brother says, it is the Spirit. We are told, “He
Who has begun in you a good work” – that is God, He – “will complete it unto Jesus Christ’s day” (Phil 1:6). Paul had confidence in that in relation to the saints he was writing to. Not because they were better christians than the brethren in some other locality, but because it was God’s work. I think we ought always to be on the lookout – sadly we sometimes get distracted from that, of course – but I think we always ought to be on the lookout for it.
MJC I think that is good because we preach the gospel so that the work of God should come to light: we preach in faith.
SML Yes. You preach expecting God to work. There is an old story by somebody who went back to John Wesley and said he had preached, but he was bitterly disappointed because he had got no converts. And Wesley said to him, ‘Did you expect to get any?’ He said, ‘Well, no, not really.’ Wesley said to him, ‘Well, that was your problem to begin with.’ We need to expect God to work – not because we are good preachers, but because of His desire to bring persons into blessing. That is why He watched over them in the wilderness journey. He had promised them the land, and He was going to bring them there.
AWGS Do we need to value the work of God in each other in that way? What is our valuation of each other?
SML Yes. The Lord Jesus did that, did He not? He says of the disciples, “those Thou hast given me…… I have not lost one of them ..” (John 18:9). He valued them because they were the persons that God had given Him, and He valued the work of God in those men. You can be very thankful for that: they were not perfect any more than we are, but the valuation the Lord put on them was because the Father had given them to Him.
DJB What do you understand by the work of God?
SML Well, something that God does for His own delight and pleasure. Something that He does in relation to His own great purposes of love and blessing that will yield a result for His praise and glory for ever. But you could say something better than that, I guess?
DJB I wonder whether in particular it would bring about a greater likeness to our Lord Jesus Christ.
SML Yes, I think so. I think you actually see that in Antioch – first called christians. Persons were formed and changed – changed probably quite dramatically in some cases.
MLF So in the words of John Newton, ‘I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind but now I see’.
He was a trophy of divine grace. You could say of him, “What hath God wrought.”
SML Yes indeed, and every one of us is in exactly the same position as a trophy of divine grace, and that is what is going to shine eternally: something like Christ that will shine for ever in you and me. In one sense we can hardly believe it, but that is what God has done, that is what He has wrought.
AWGS That involves cost.
SML Yes, go on.
AWGS Does not the cost go back to what you said earlier – to Calvary?
SML Yes, God wrought there to bring about the perfect basis for everything that He had in mind so that He could bless. He can bless whomsoever He will; He can work in whatever heart He will – there is nothing that can stop Him. There is no divination that can get in the way of what God is going to do. I think that should encourage us, too, because we can get very troubled by things. Troubled by things that happen, perhaps, in our localities; troubled by things that happen in the world; troubled by things that happen in our work, our businesses, and so on. There is an underlying reliability that every Christian can trust in, and that is that God is going to bring us through triumphantly to the end.
KHW Did Jacob come to the realisation of this in his own experience when he said, “the God Who shepherded me all my life long” (Gen 48:15)?
SML I am sure, and he confidently committed those lads to God. He said,
Jehovah “bless the lads” (v16). He wanted – as enjoying the wonder of God’s work, and understanding it, in a little anyway – he wanted others to come into the blessing of it. You get things like, “who shall bring an accusation against God’s elect?” (Rom 8:33). Well, that would have been an encouragement to these people in Israel, because the conditions of the people was pretty mixed, the same as the conditions that we are in are pretty mixed. But you get what God has done, and nobody can bring a charge against it.
DJB While we rightly recognise that the work of God is sovereign, is there such a thing as making way for it in our souls?
SML Well, I think so. Perhaps when we come to look at them at Antioch we shall actually see some progress made in that way of how the work of God is forwarded. Because it is God’s work we can count on it, and we can count on it growing almost despite the circumstances. But have you some thought about it?
DJB Well, no, I did not seek to anticipate Antioch. But, simply, we should not just be as it were sitting by to see what God would do. Should we not be promoting the work of God in making way for it, do you think?
SML And one way we do that is by prayer. We need to pray for help that God’s work might be forwarded in our own hearts and souls. It does not grow automatically.
TRP And another way, is it not, that we search out the glories of Christ.
SML Yes, and be occupied with Him. It is a great thing – I think it is Mr Darby who says, that when I look at Christ I not only see what I ought to be, I get what I ought to be. By contemplating Him and seeing His perfections and His blessedness we actually learn something and grow and the work of God is prospered in our own souls. I think perhaps we see that in the passage in Luke, because we see here a man who took account of Christ, and learnt from Him actually, because he saw that the Lord Jesus was here, and he had absolute confidence in what He could do, and he saw Him as One Who was here – and I use this word carefully, and I do not think I would say it if Scripture did not say it – as a Man under authority, a Man who had come to make God known, and to act for God in every way. He came with that sort of confidence, and he had learned something of Christ I think, even before he ever sent this message to Him.
TRP The Lord was here physically. He is not here physically now, but the Holy Spirit is. Do you think the Holy Spirit delights in promoting the work of God in each one of us?
SML Yes, I am sure. He has come particularly to glorify Christ, so what you said earlier about being occupied with Him – the Spirit delights to forward that in our hearts.
MJC Do you think the elders of the Jews got it wrong?
SML I thought it was very interesting that these persons were there and the Lord said, “Not even in Israel have I found so great faith.” He was really challenging them. They claimed to be God’s people; they should have been, they should have been like this man. But it had not happened, and the Lord actually challenges them. It must have been a tremendous challenge to them. These were the leaders of the Jews and so forth, and they should have known better.
MJC They thought, did they not, that the Lord ought go with them because the centurion had done a good work, he had built a synagogue for them. He was therefore a good man and deserved the Lord’s grace. That was not the thought at all, was it?
SML No. We can be thankful for that! But the Lord just rejoiced in this. He rejoiced in it because he saw someone that the Father was drawing to Him. He says, “No one can come to Me except the Father Who has sent Me draw him” (John 6:44). That means there is a work of God going on with somebody. The
Lord just rejoiced in having this man coming from such an unlikely source – a
Roman centurion – a man in whom the work of God was going on. And the Lord welcomes it so blessedly and endorses it and comments commendably upon it. I think it is a challenge to us sometimes. When we see the work of God do we rejoice in it? Do we rejoice in somebody being prospered and helped?
BED The Lord wondered at him. Did He wonder at the work of God wrought in him, do you think?
SML I think we have to be a little bit careful sometimes with these sorts of expressions, but I think it does bring out how much He rejoiced in the Father’s work and the way that it had gone on and brought this man who had absolutely no claim at all despite what – as our brother has drawn our attention to – despite what the Jews were saying about him, he had no real claim on the Lord. But it is the real proof of God’s work going on that he realised that he could draw on the power that was with Christ. And the Lord wondered – I think He wondered in the sense of rejoicing and being pleased with what the Father was doing.
BED Doing in a gentile?
SML Yes. You get another gentile later on, the Syrophoenician woman, and her faith is commended. The Lord says, “O woman, thy faith is great. Be it to thee as thou desirest” (Matthew 15: 28). She was another one who had no claim, and she had to learn, as this man had learnt already, that he had to take humble ground. This man was marked by humility – not even worthy to come to you, Lord; not even worthy for you to come into my house – he took the lowest possible ground, and that was the only ground that he could come on, and the Lord immediately responds to him.
MJC He had a deep sense of his own unworthiness, and does not that just magnify the work of God, because naturally we would not get that, would we?
SML No. I think one of the things the first Scripture brings to our minds, really, is that it is God’s work not anybody else’s. When we get to glory – I know persons will have their place in glory, in the kingdom there will be differences related to people’s faithfulness and so forth – but in heavenly glory there will not be those differences, all will just speak of Christ and what He has done and the glory of God. We will not be thinking, ‘This was Paul or Peter or Luther’ or somebody else, all the great persons – I do not in any way discredit them – but we will not be thinking of it as their work, we will be seeing it as what God has done.
TF I was thinking of that Scripture in Ephesians, “For ye are saved by grace, through faith; and this not of yourselves; it is God’s gift” (Ephesians 2:8). Do we see that here in the centurion and his faith? The Lord, just by a word, and from a distance! “Say by a word and my servant shall be healed.”
SML I think it is a wonderful passage in that way. You see the grace of God coming to light, the work of God, and the Lord Jesus just rejoices in it. I thought it would help us, when we see the work of God coming to light, to rejoice in it and be glad and thankful, and see what we can do to promote it, because that is what the Lord does. The Lord must have immeasurably strengthened this man’s faith when his servant was healed from that hour. It must have been a wonderful building up of his faith and the work of God in him!
TRP I find it a challenge: is the work of God in me manifested like it was in this man so that it gives pleasure to Christ in the day of His rejection?
SML Yes, well, it is a challenge to all of us I think. We tend – I speak for myself, anyway – we tend to hide things under a bushel. Sometimes we get great answers to prayer, even in ordinary things. Some of the greatest answers to prayer are things that we might almost be tempted to describe as coincidences. We ask for God’s help and almost immediately it happens. We ask for God’s help to get out of a difficult junction and suddenly the traffic seems to stop, or somebody stops away back, or traffic lights come on or something. You think, ‘That is a helpful thing,’ and off you go. And it is not that at all, it is something that God has done. He responds to the prayer of faith, and faith is something that is to be in exercise in all kinds of circumstances, not just spiritual things, but in things of daily life, so that at the end of a day, as I said earlier, you can look back on it and say, ‘What has God done, what hath He wrought?’
PKL Do you think there is a way in which this man almost anticipates the current dispensation we are in, the dispensation of faith? It would seem he never saw the Lord. He had so much faith he did not need to!
SML I think that is beautiful. You see the features that did mark him. I know it is the Jews that draw attention to this, but he was concerned about the Jews, he was concerned about his bondman. He was a man marked by the stirrings of grace, if you like. I do not suspect that many centurions were very interested in what happened to their bondmen or anybody else who was under them, they were there to order folk about. But here is a man who was actually concerned, and that is the beginning, that is the evidence of God’s grace.
OJP Do you think the work of God in this man was his realisation and recognition of who the Lord was in His person?
SML Yes, I am sure, and he had just such confidence in Christ, and such a sense that He was there as the great vessel, if you like, of divine grace and mercy.
OJP He comes in and calls him Lord. The woman in John 4 had not had this work, had she? “If thou knewest the gift of God, and Who it is that says to thee” (John 4:10). He knew Who it was, did he?
SML Yes, I think so. And of course, the delightful thing with her is that she came to know it too, she came to exactly the same thing, and she was a Samaritan, equally outside of the true range of Judaism, an outsider who came to acknowledge the wonder that there was in the Person of Christ, a Man Who told her all things she ever did and had not condemned her.
MJC Do you think in that way the work of God cannot be hid. The test is, can I recognise it?
SML Yes, and there is a strange Scripture, too, “for the sake of meat do not destroy the work of God” (Rom 14:20). I have often pondered that, because in one sense you cannot destroy God’s work: there is no divination that works against it. But it does mean that you can damage or set it back in some way, and that is to make us very careful.
MJC Yes, I think that is right. I feel the need to be more sensitive in these things.
SML Yes, and that is what I think is so wonderful about what the Lord does here. He immediately responds. There is a work of God going on, and the Lord does not raise any sort of questions or be very interested, really, in what these Jews have to say. He sees the work of God and immediately He responds to it.
AWGS That passage in Romans reads, “Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ has died” (Rom 14:15). That is wonderful, is it not?
SML Yes. And that reminds us, of course, that there is that which is absolutely stable and cannot be changed and nothing can damage, and that is very wonderful.
AWGS We get the idea of intercessory service here, do we not, by the centurion? Is that something we need to be well aware of ourselves? The intercessory service that has gone on before, for ourselves; and the intercessory service that should be seen in us, for others?
SML Yes, I am sure. And that raises the value of prayer, because if we are going to intercede for one another it takes time, it is something that needs some commitment. I always remember, there was a sister who lived in Sheerness. After she had died, a brother told me when they came to clear out her house they found long lists of people and things that she was praying for. And some of them, of course, because she had not updated it very much, some of them were persons who were long with the Lord. But that did not matter: there was somebody who had committed herself to the service of prayer. Even when you pray for somebody not knowing they have been taken, and you continue to pray for them – well, the Lord says of prayer, “before they call, I will answer” (Isaiah 65:24). God hears prayers before they are even uttered and He takes account of them. We sometimes pray for things that have happened already. I offered to pray for somebody once for an examination, but I forgot about it, and after the thing was well over I thought, well, I promised to pray about that exam – well, I can pray now. Well, God heard it before I prayed. He knew what I was going to do, He knew my weakness in forgetting it, but He was not going to hold that against me or the person who was to be prayed for. These are things that we can rely on – it is the work of God. God is sovereign and He can choose to honour anything He chooses.
SGP Does the work of God stand in contrast to the works of the flesh?
SML Yes, totally.
SGP I was thinking, there are growing problems in the world now of things of the flesh – drink, drugs and whatever. Sin besets the human race and has become a major problem. Men cannot say that there is no sin, there is not sin of the flesh. But the work of God, we can pray for that and we can pray for the liberation – you were saying we cannot alter circumstances, but God changes lives, does He not?
SML Yes, I think we see that actually in the passage in Acts. These persons in Antioch – I take it they were pagans before they heard the gospel. It is very interesting, I think, the way the work of God comes to light, because it does not come about through the apostles or famous folk. It comes about through a group of people whose names we do not even know. They were christians, and they had been Jews, and they were scattered on the occasion of Stephen being put to death. And they were driven out – they were afraid, I suppose – and had to leave. Some went away and only spoke to Jews. But then there were these brethren who got to Antioch, and they were so full of the grace of God, and so full of the blessedness of what God had done in them, the work that had gone on in their hearts, that they wanted to share it with everybody. I admire these brethren immensely, because I think if I had to leave my house because of persecution and fear I think I might keep very quiet about it when I got somewhere else in case the same thing happened again. But these people were not like that at all. They were so full of God’s work that they wanted others to come into it too. They wanted to share it, and so they spoke to these others and it says, “the Lord’s hand was with them.” God’s work was going on. And that is what it means, I think, when it says, “The Lord’s hand was with them.” It was the work of God that was going on in the souls and hearts of these people so that they believed and came into blessing. And then you see the great change that comes about, because when Barnabas goes down to Antioch he sees the grace of God. I do not think that was just he saw the grace of God in the fact that the gospel of God’s grace was being preached, he saw the grace actually working out in these people who had not been Christians before but now they were, and he rejoiced in the work of God. And I think you see something of the features that you see in that centurion. Real features of Christ, actually. You see Barnabas’s humility, you see his love of seeing what God was doing and promoting it. You see the blessedness with which he goes and gets Saul of Tarsus and brings him into this, because Barnabas realised that some help was needed here and Saul was the man to do it. It is a very great grace when somebody of Barnabas’s stature makes way for someone else. It was not that Barnabas was a nonentity by any means – he is called an apostle later on in
Acts, and he was a man who is described here as, “a good man and full of the Holy Spirit”. There was a great work of God in Barnabas, but that was what enabled him to rejoice when he saw it in others.
TRP Why are the spiritual attributes of Barnabas listed here? It does not say that he was a gifted evangelist or a gifted teacher. It just gives his attributes.
SML I think the attributes justified the man. Barnabas had already proved himself. When Saul came as a new convert back to Jerusalem, the people there were understandably afraid of him. They thought he was just trying to get into the christian company so he could get a few more names of people to take off to prison or perhaps put to death and they were afraid. And Barnabas – there were two things with him: he was prepared to take the risk and go and see Saul, and if Saul hauled him off to prison, well, he was prepared to accept that. But the other thing that marks out Barnabas was that he knew what the work of God was, and how great it was, and that it was perfectly capable of converting a man like Saul of Tarsus. And so I think Barnabas went in faith to Saul, believing that God was working, and he found, of course, that He was. Barnabas was a man who was well able to identify God’s work.
TRP The first attribute is, “a good man.” The Lord says that only God is good. Is that a definition of the greatness of the work of God in Barnabas?
SML Yes, I think so. And let us remember when Luke was writing this – it is important. Luke was writing it considerably after the event. It is probable that the Acts were written while Paul was in prison, or house arrest, anyway, in Rome for two years. That was when this was written. It was long after the dispute between Paul and Barnabas. I like the way that Luke writes, “a good man and full of the Holy Spirit.” He was not writing Barnabas off because of some dispute that he had had with Paul. I have never managed to sort out which one was right in that dispute anyway. But never mind that, let us not go there! But the simple fact is that, after that event, Luke is still writing about Barnabas and saying he was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit. He is giving him every credit he could. Later on he is going to say, “the apostles Barnabas and Paul.” That is at Lystra, and Lystra you remember was where they came out to try and sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, and I think that Barnabas took a lead there in trying to stop them, and it was an older and more experienced man than Paul just taking a lead to try and stop these folk. He started rending his garments and so on, and Paul followed on. I think Paul took his lead there from Barnabas, and I think Luke records it accordingly. We must not write folk off just because of something, some minor altercation that develops in a locality or between two brothers or two sisters or something like that. Remember the work of God: a good man, full of the Holy Spirit.
DWB He was not marked by self-interest.
SML No. Very important that, is it not?
DWB We have to face the fight with the Lord.
SML Yes. The Lord was here without any self-interest. It is one of the great features of Christ. He did not come here with any end of His own to serve. He came to secure everything for God’s glory, everything for the Father.
MJC What is involved in abiding with the Lord?
SML Well, let us just go back a bit, to a scripture I nearly read, actually. The Lord, inviting those two persons, John’s two disciples, to abide with Him that day. They were with the Lord and they would have just seen how He was and the way that it encouraged them. One of them immediately, Andrew, went out and found Peter and brought him to the Lord. He had found somebody who was worth bringing folk to, and he had taken some character from Christ. But what have you got in mind?
MJC Well, I was thinking, too, that, in the light of what we have said about furthering the work of God, if I seek to abide with the Lord it will further His work in my soul.
SML Yes. Quite simply, the Lord speaks about abiding in me and bearing much fruit (John 15:5). The important thing there was that they were the branches from the vine; they were drawing something from Christ. And that is a very wonderful thing. Again, if I can quote JND, he says somewhere that one evidence of abiding in Christ is quietness of spirit (vol 12 p187), my portion is elsewhere and I go on. Things may come into upset you, to disturb you and all the rest of it: evidence of abiding in Christ, drawing from Him, drawing every source from him – it keeps persons from even doing things that would damage the work of God or set it back. It keeps us in line with Christ as drawing from Him.
PJC You have spoken about how, as believers, we can recognise the work of God in one another. But what about the unbelievers? How are they going to recognise the work of God in us?
SML Well, that is an interesting question you raise, and perhaps we should enquire a bit about it. Have you some thought about it?
PJC I was thinking about it because of the way that they were first called christians in Antioch. I think it was the unbelievers that called them that. I just wondered – is it connected with display of the person of Christ in us? Others notice that we are not like unbelievers.
SML Yes, I think that is helpful. And I do not think, of course, this was a commendation, exactly – it was probably a term of abuse, bearing in mind the kind of society that these people were in. But there was something that shone out that showed these people were different, they were taking character from the
Lord. And it should come out in our lives, in everyday things, that you are careful in matters of righteousness, for instance. Lots of people do not think certain things matter at all. You are careful in the way you speak about the Lord, and God. There is a very real difference. There is a man who was converted – he has written a testimony for me for Living Water. He was a biker, and he got converted in a police cell. He had been arrested with a whole lot of his friends. None of them would give evidence against one another and so they were all released, the police could not make a case, and so the result was that he went home with the same people that he had come with. But he was changed and he said they noticed that ‘I did not use a swearword all the way home’. Something of the likeness of Christ was coming out. A change came about. They sought the grace of God. These persons lives were changed, and they were changed so that they became like Christ and expressed something of God’s grace rather than something of their own self-interest.
SGP The term “christians” described those ones who displayed the features of the Lord Jesus Christ.
SML Yes, I am sure, and this was actually what happened. It would have been promoted by this teaching that Paul and Barnabas undertook, “for a whole year they were gathered together in the assembly and taught a large crowd.” No doubt the work of God was promoted through the study of the Old Testament I suppose, and seeing the things of Christ that were written there, and being taught by those that had known the Lord personally and so on. And they were being formed together as those that expressed something of the Lord Jesus.
TRP Unbelievers recognise goodness. They say, perhaps, you are a good neighbour and other things like that. That in itself is a testimony.
SML Yes, and it is important to see where it springs from. We have got some good neighbours, they are not Christians, sadly, not yet; but they are good neighbours, they are thoughtful, considerate. But this springs from a work of God, actually – a real change within. And that is the difference. I think sometimes, you know, it springs from the fact that we are conscious of our link with the Lord. One of the ways we express that is that we worship Him. Worship Him at home in our private prayers; worship Him when we come together. There is a collective witness to a change, in that way. The fact that you are a good neighbour or helpful or something like that is the fact that God has worked in your heart and He has made you that.
DWB Is it important that they were gathered together in the assembly?
SML Yes, indeed. Say on.
DWB I thought that was a needed point at the present time, that we do not neglect the assembling of ourselves together. The gathering together of the saints also adds a testimony, too.
SML There would have been a testimony in these people coming together anyway – a large crowd. People would have noticed them, and perhaps some people came to see what was happening, and may have found the grace of God there, too. It was not a static thing, was it, this? The work of God expands and grows, and as a result there is blessing. Think of what blessing is going to spring from this company at Antioch! It is going to become a base for Paul and Barnabas at the beginning, and later for Paul and others. It was obviously going to become a place where God’s grace and love were to be known.
We had better just press on for a couple of minutes to Philemon. As I said at the beginning, you have got somebody here, Onesimus – he is a runaway slave as we know, he had been a slave in the house of Philemon. It seems he had run off with some money if nothing else, from what Paul says later, “if he owe anything to thee.”
I think it is rather marvellous that Onesimus came under Paul’s influence at all. I used to think that Paul was in prison and he found Onesimus in prison and spoke to him about Christ and Onesimus came to know the Lord that way. But the timetable does not quite add up, because this was one of the epistles that was written during Paul’s – what I call his house arrest. You remember at the end of Acts it tells us that when they got to Rome Paul was allowed to live in his own hired lodging with the soldier that had been allocated to him. And “he . . . received all who came to him . . . with all freedom unhinderedly,” it says (Acts 28:30-31). And I think, in some way, the work of God must have gone on in Onesimus before this. When he was in Rome, perhaps he heard that Paul was there. He must have heard something of Paul, perhaps from Philemon himself, or in Philemon’s house. The local assembly met in Philemon’s house – the church in his house. I think Onesimus must have heard something about Paul when he lived in Philemon’s house, and when he found that Paul was in Rome he must have gone along to Paul and been one of those whom Paul received, and through God’s grace, the work of God began in Onesimus and brought him under Paul’s influence, and Paul was able, through the grace of God, to bring him to know the Lord Jesus. Paul had seen that work of God begin and grow, and he had seen the change that had come about in Onesimus. A wonderful thing is the work of God actually developing in a soul! And the time comes when Paul says, ‘this is so good I am going to send him back to Philemon so that he can see just how wonderfully God has wrought.’ And that is what happens.
But as I said at the beginning, I think it was also so that those in Colosse might be truly convinced. We know how sceptical we are at times, sadly. We think, ‘Huh, repentant is he, well I think not, it is just a show. It is just something that will pass, he will go back to his old ways.’ We think like that sometimes, alas. It is one of those things that we are perhaps a bit prone to. And Paul says, ‘I am going to send Onesimus back so that everybody in Colosse can see what a valued brother he is and what the work of God truly is and say, “What hath God wrought!”’
AWGS So they were to receive him, Onesimus, “once unserviceable to thee, but now serviceable to thee and to me.” Is there something we need to learn there? We might find someone coming along – we say, well, maybe we should not receive him. But we should, should we not? if we can see the work of God there developing.
SML I think that is the important thing about this: can we see the work of God and forward it? I am going to tell you a story about Sevenoaks, and I can tell it with perfect assurance now because there is nobody left in Sevenoaks who was there at the time when this happened, except me (sadly). We had a couple of people who came along to the preaching three or four weeks running. A man whom I knew a little because I had been to school with him, and a young woman that he was obviously interested in. I never found out what her name was other than her christian name. And they came along and they showed a real interest in the things of the Lord, perhaps she more than he, but there was a real work of God going on. And one of the sad things that happened was that there was a very sort of picky spirit about the place, and persons wanted to know all kinds of things. I remember something in particular and I thought, ‘Oh dear, why does somebody say that.’ I think it was the sister who referred to the Lord being crucified on this earth, this world. And somebody said ‘Oh no, no, no, He was crucified between the earth and the heaven’. Now, that is strictly true, but it was just so unnecessary and it made people feel so unwanted and so hurt. It did not forward the work of God at all, and after about three or four weeks they disappeared and we never saw anything of them again. I feel sad about that. I feel sad that I was part of that company that did it. But, as I say, I can talk about it quite freely because I am the only person left. But it reminds us of how important it is to identify the work of God and to do everything we can to forward it.
BED The Lord said of Himself, “I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:29). That is what people should see in us, is it? And that is how we should be and this is what we see in Paul in this letter, is it?
SML Yes, I think so. He was relying on the work of God in Philemon. He expected Philemon to accept Onesimus. We can rely on the work of God in persons because we know how it is in ourselves. We know the work of God, and we can rely on the work of God not only coming to light but developing, and people doing the right thing for the right reason because of the work of God. That is what happened with Philemon. He was going to do the right thing. Paul did not have any doubt. But he does everything he can to help him. He says, ‘If he has stolen some money, put it down to my account, I will pay you.’ It was not necessary for Paul to make that offer, but he is wanting to forward God’s work in every possible way and remove every obstacle that Philemon might think about, so that God’s work goes forward, not only with Philemon, but with Paul, and with Onesimus, and with the company in Colosse. What a wonderful rejoicing I think there must have been in that company when they saw Onesimus, not only back with Philemon, but absolutely changed, a man in whom there was such an evident work, evidence of the work of God!
TRP Paul was the vehicle of Christ’s love. Am I a vehicle of Christ’s love?
SML Yes, well, what a challenge that is. But you see how quickly it must have developed with Onesimus. He could not have been converted very long. And I think it is wonderful that if we really set ourselves and pray about this and commit ourselves to this kind of thing, the Spirit of God delights to forward it and to bring about a situation where, just like Barnabas, we rejoice in the work of God, just like these people in Colosse. They responded and received this brother, not only as somebody who was repentant and had come back, but they could see the change and received him as a beloved brother. And, as a result, there would be a song in their hearts, the song we began with, “What hath God wrought!”
Hampton 24 November 2018
Key to Initials
David W. Bond, Worthing
David J. Burr, Birmingham
Marcus J. Chapman, Croydon
Philip J. Coldrick, Cambridge
Bernard E. Deacon, Basildon
Tim Frame, Hampton
Mark L. French, Woking
S Mark Lemon, Sevenoaks
Paul K. Lewis, Yeovil
Oliver J. Painter, Yeovil
Stewart G. Painter, Yeovil
Keith J. Parkin, Hampton
Roger Pons, Sevenoaks
Andrew W. G. Spiers, Defford
Keith H. Wickens, Eastbourne