GOD'S CARE FOR US
Readings: 1 Chronicles ch. 26; Philippians chs. 3 and 4
I am sure we shall all agree that one of the greatest comforts of our lives is this ability to meet around the emblems, conscious of the faithfulness of our Heavenly Father for that promise He has made that He will never, never leave nor forsake His children. But God does not only remember His promise, He is always watching His children and remembering all that they are doing in His service. Everything that is done in the spirit of true faith and concern for the wellbeing of the Truth is remembered, written indelibly in the Divine memory. Well, of course, we are well assured of this, but little evidences of it come to us from time to time in the course of our readings, and if we are attentive as we approach these points in the Word of God, what a comfort and help they can be to us day by day, because there are so many adverse circum-stances which subtly suggest to us that we are fighting a lone battle. We are not: God is always with us. The Scriptures, we say, are full of these little reminders of God's surveillance of our lives, if we are ready to discern them.
We have one instance in our reading from the First Book of Chronicles. Ch.26 at first appears to be simply factual details concerning the apportioning of various offices of state preparatory to that epoch in Israel's history which was perhaps the summit of their prosperity, the coming reign of Solomon in all his glory. There is this chapter with, we might say, just more lists of names; but if we are attentive we may have noticed that having listed the eight sons of Obed-edom the inspired chronicler reminds us in verse 5 that "God blessed" Obed-edom. Special mention is made of Obed-edom's firstborn son and his offspring in verse 6: "Also unto Shemarah his son were sons born, that ruled throughout the house of their father; for they were mighty men of valour." Moreover in verse 8 we read: "All these of the sons of Obed-edom: they and their sons and their brethren, able men for strength for the service, were threescore and two of Obed-edom."
Why this blessedness? I am sure the answer comes immediately to mind when we remember what was recorded in the 13th ch. of this book, how that Obed-edom's household were made the custodians of the safety of the ark of God when, back in the early days of David's time, the ark of God had been under some disreputable handling. We can -conclude from the verses we read in that chapter that Obed-edom and his household accepted this charge with the utmost deference and reverential care, and thus they were blessed. We see that it was a lasting blessing. When the time came for all these state officials to be appointed, an honoured recognition was afforded to that particular character and his sons and grandsons.
We note that the blessing was appropriate. Obed-edom, we may safely conclude, had cared reverentially for the ark, this token of the Divine presence in the midst of Israel; and so when the time came for the extension of all the tokens of the Divine service with the imminent building of the Temple and all those great deeds associated with that event, appropriately that family was blessed in that particular role.
If we can recall, we say, such little glimpses of the Divine regard for the efforts of His children it will be a very great help to us when perhaps a problem or a trial arises in our lives. When we get a trial come along, a problem, what is our first instinct? Well, as natural men and women, surely it is perhaps to wring one's hands and grasp at some immediate possible solution, when we would do far better to think about these lessons in the written Word of God, and first of all, as we are enjoined, go to the throne of grace where there is mercy and "grace to help in time of need." And, of course, further help comes to us all if we look at the lives of devoted servants of God who arose in later times, whose lives most certainly were motivated as we have indicated.
Well now, in our New Testament readings we are again in the company of the apostle Paul. This Epistle to the Philippians which we have concluded this morning is one of the so-called prison epistles. We know that he apparently wrote a number of epistles during that imprisonment in Rome while he was on remand. He was waiting for his appeal to Caesar to be heard, which he had been constrained to make upon the accusations made against him by his own countrymen, the Jews. Paul, of course, had a number of imprisonments. We recall how, writing to the Corinthians in his Second Epistle, he listed the many trials he had had to face and said that among them was "in prisons more frequent." He had experienced imprisonment for a short time at Philippi itself, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, but from his writings we remember especially two of the occasions, this one during which this Epistle to the Philippians was written, and then that final one which came later, apparently, when he penned that last letter to Timothy.
In writing his epistles during his imprisonment Paul on both occasions referred to running a race as being a type of the life of the Truth, basing his service to the Lord Jesus Christ on the figure of an athlete in those games which were so beloved by the ancient Greeks, and apparently also by their Roman conquerors. You know how in the Second Epistle to Timothy Paul writes of the course as then being virtually finished as far as his life was concerned. We might look at his well-known words in the 4th ch. of his Second Epistle to Timothy, verse 7: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing."
Well, it does seem that when those words were written the sword of the executioner was near at hand. Paul's mortal days, perhaps his hours, were numbered. But when this Epistle to the Philippians was written, much earlier, the course was still being run. Under those conditions, we say that Paul was apparently on remand. He was in a situation where he was able to receive visits from his fellow brethren and sisters; he was able to freely receive any gifts that they might have sent to him; and what have we read in that chapter? We go back to Philippians ch.3 and look at verse 2. He says: "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
Notice here the present tense € "I follow after," "I press toward the mark." Yes, for Paul there was more ground yet to be covered, more work to do. He had to show the faith steadfastly while he was under those conditions, and he expected that there would be further opportunity for free work in the Truth ahead. As we have noticed, Paul was drawing lessons from a runner in the race. We think there is some evidence that at the time of the writing of these words it may have been one of the Olympic years. If so, we may be sure that it would be the talk of the soldiers of the Imperial Guard, with whom Paul was often in contact. You know how he said that he often had contact with the Guard and as the result of that, his faith was becoming known in all the Imperial Palace.
Well now, let us reflect upon the factors influencing the performance of an athlete. An athlete would undergo rigorous physical training. He would have to give proper attention to his diet. Bodily physical exercise would be vitally important. How this was instilled into those Greek athletes and performers right from the early days of the Olympic Games, centuries beforehand! With modest beginnings, those Games had developed until they showed the apparently tremendous potentials of the human body under rigorous training. All this, we say, would have the highest priority, and we can all see the spiritual counterpart clearly enough.
If we are wise and correctly minded about our life in the Truth we shall see that we have a proper regimen of meditation, of thanksgiving and prayer. In our lives we shall make the Word of God our regular diet, we shall be reflective in the whole management of our affairs to see that at no time are the interests of the Truth compromised.
But there are other influences upon the performance of an athlete that are of a more subtle character. These are related to what we might call the social side of life. They can have a very big effect both on his training and in his actual performance upon the running track. The adulation of the onlookers would stimulate his performance, and, of course the reverse, if there were derision or contempt. It affects the adrenalin supply and all that has a physical effect upon the athlete. And of course there is the influence of the man's trainer. He will give sound technical advice, direct imparting of knowledge, truly, but far more, we think, he influences his students through the subtle channels of example and of his own prestige.
We feel that this matter of example does need some stress because example is so important, owing to our sensitivity to influences. That was brought out in our opening prayer this morning. And you know, with example goes credibility. Nothing in social relations is as valuable an asset as a person's credibility. How well this is recognised in worldly affairs, in the world of business; and it is not just based on what one might claim for oneself, it is on what one is known to be, one's reputation, how one is known to react to this and to that situation. When there is a lifetime's record to one's credit then this credibility becomes established.
What was Paul able to write to Timothy in that very last appealing epistle? Shall we just turn back to the Second Epistle, the 3rd chapter, v.10. Paul writes: "But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience." Why do we say that Paul was able to write these words? Well, what sort of impact would those words have made if Paul's life had instead been slovenly regarding doctrine; careless in conduct; if he had shown a faltering purpose and uncertain conviction and an impatient disposition? No, Paul's life, now in the past, had established his credibility.
Now we can visualise Timothy's inward response as he read those words. Yes, I can remember how Paul did this and that. What an example! I must follow that example. That is for me to follow. And you know, there is comfort there for all our senior brethren and sisters, those in our midst who may at times feel conscious that the efforts and industry that call for youthful vigour are now perhaps in the past. Let them be assured that with their very presence in our midst, along with that goes the credibility of their past service, and for that they are esteemed, they are beloved. They betoken the standards the Truth needs and will always need.Credibility is lasting, it is established and there we have the examples.
With these thoughts come a little exhortation to the young in our midst: indeed for all of us who may feel our potential for further efforts on this race to life eternal. The established credibility of seniority should be to us all an impetus to keep this good work going. Do we follow, con-sciously follow, these good examples, are we prepared to accept a certain nagging remorse that we are letting our own days pass perhaps with un-expended effort, poor or non-existent attention to the Word, lack of attention to the correct spiritual exercises which should dominate our lives?
Well, this brings us straight back to Paul, as we find him at the time of his writing of this Epistle to the Philippians. We spoke just now of how example is so important because of our sensitivity to influences, and this epistle reflect this, we think, perhaps as clearly as all the other of Paul's writings. Let us again go to ch. 1.12. He says: "I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; so that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace" € yes, the great Imperial Palace of the Caesars € "and in all other places. And many of the brethren of the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear." And as the epistle proceeds, as I am sure we noticed, the lesson becomes more concentrated. One of the immediate purposes of this epistle was the acknowledgement of a gift from the Philippians sent to Paul, in his imprisonment, by the hands of a brother named Epaphroditus. This appeared in our readings yesterday. We can see in that account the mutual influence and concern that these two disciples, Paul and Epaphroditus, had for each other.
Paul might have claimed that he had enough problems with his immediate circumstances; but no, he had much room in his heart for concern for Epaphroditus. This brother had undertaken an arduous journey to bring the gift to Paul from the Philippians and had apparently become ill in the course of his journey; and so in this 2nd ch. verse 37 we read: "Indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow." How concerned Epaphroditus was also for Paul and for his brethren and sisters whom he had left, lest they should be over-concerned for his wellbeing. Better, he thought, that they should not know about his illness. Nevertheless they had apparently heard about it, and thus he was full of heaviness, as we read in verse 26: "He longed after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye (Philippians) had heard that he had been sick."
What a lesson there is, in little verses like this, in sensitive, brotherly concern the one for the other! It is the kind of concern that builds up the spiritual framework that is the hallmark of the true household of Christ. In our reading this morning we have an example of care and discretion in dealing with a problem which might arise. We read of a little dispute which seems to have been going on between two members of the ecclesia. If we look at ch. 4, Paul beseeches two members, Euodias and Syntyche, that they settle their dispute and be of one mind in the Lord. It was apparently some matter of personal differences.
Then Paul says, in verse 3: "I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel." "True yokefellow." It has been suggested, and there may be some substance for this, that the word "yokefellow" should have been rendered as a proper noun, a person's name, the name Suzugos, because that seems to be the implication of the wording of the verse. And that word "true" in the Greek conveys the idea of one genuinely born, of sound origin. The whole phrase conveys the idea of sincerity, one genuinely yoked in the service of the Truth; the very opposite of being "yoked together with unbelievers." If Paul was addressing a particular disciple of this name, then the name fitted the character, and the implication is that when delicate problems call for settlement it is those genuinely yoked who are best qualified to deal with them, those with a single motive of seeking the best interests of the Truth.
Paul could rely on such an one to deal discreetly and really helpfully with this little problem, whatever it might have been.
Well, this sort of thing is the running of the race that we are engaged in. It is all very different from the noisy, spectacular things in the Greek games that Paul had used as his analogy, but it is the sort of thing which concerns the race for life eternal. We spoke just now of lasting credibility, of how Paul could, with humble confidence, at the end of his career refer to his past life by way of encouragement and exhortation to Timothy. That, of course, has lasted right down to our own times, centuries later. Paul, although resting now somewhere in a grave in Italy, though dead, is speaking to us through these written and inspired words. An empty life could certainly have made no impact like that over the centuries.
Now throughout this epistle, and indeed in so many others, Paul speaks of his great exemplar, the Lord Jesus Christ. In the 3rd ch. of this epistle, verse 8 we read: "Doubtless I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but loss, that I may win Christ." We know how repeatedly the apostle stresses that his readers should follow him as he followed Christ. In His supreme goodness our Heavenly Father, as we saw at the outset, sees that we have a record of the lives of past examples, and in no case is this more so than in regard to the supreme example of His own Son. So in that 2nd ch. verse 5 Paul wrote: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery (or a thing to be grasped at) to be equal with God; but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men." Without that example, without that conquest of death, all else would have been failure, whatever its excellence by human comparisons.
We have the gospel records of Christ's life and we have in those records his example, but we have been given this further token through him by our Heavenly Father, the bread and the wine week by week. Let us, then, as we partake again of these emblems, remember that supreme example, remember how it influenced Paul, and remember how, too, it can influence us. Let that mind truly be in us that was in Christ Jesus, and may the hour be very near when, in the Divine mercy, we shall be invited to share the fruits of his victory.: € E. S. J. Merry