October 22 – Prison Letters – Making a Strong Church

Read Acts 19:1-20:1

In our current devotional series, we are looking at the “prison epistles” of Paul.  These are letters written in the early 60’s a.d. by Paul while he was in prison in Rome.  During that time, he wrote letters to believers in Philippi, Ephesus, and Colosse as well as a personal letter to Philemon. But, as we saw with his letter to Philippi, each of these letters has a back story of previous encounters or knowledge of the situation.  In fact, the New Testament describes a wealth of investments made in this church.  Here is just a short list:

  • Acts 18 – Paul  makes a brief visit, leaves behind Priscilla and Aquila
  • Acts 19 – Paul  stays for more than two years
  • 1 Corinthians 16:8 – Paul is in Ephesus while writing 1 Corinthians
  • 1 Corinthians 16:19 – Priscilla and Aquila likely have a house church in Ephesus
  • Acts 20 – Paul meets with Ephesian elders
  • Ephesians – Paul writes the letter we are looking at
  • 1 Timothy 1:3 – Timothy serves in Ephesus
  • 2 Timothy 4:12 – Paul sends Tychicus to Ephesus
  • Revelation 2:1-7 – Apostle John writes to Ephesian church

Why so many touches?  Because the church is precious to God.  It is the bride of Christ.  Like those in Ephesus, every individual follower of Jesus in the church today has been rescued out of a past that includes idolatry where something was ascribed greater value than God.  Like the Ephesian church, every church needs to learn to work together as a united body of Christ.

It is no wonder, then, that God makes many personal investments in your life as well.  He does so through His word, through His messengers, through the circumstances of life, through the broader people of God.  Are you attentive and responsive to these touches?

One final note . . . in spite of the many first-century investments in the church at Ephesus, it does not exist today.  That is a good reminder to us that each generation is forced to go back to the instruction of the Word of God to ensure that it is living out the biblical essence of the church in the midst of changing times and culture.  Keep going back to the Book in order that your church is all that God intended it to be!

Steve Kern

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October 21 – Prison Letters – Generosity: Meeting Needs and Meaningful Worship

Read Philippians 4:10-23

Much like you today, Paul lived at a time and in a culture where money was necessary.  As he traveled about on his missionary journeys, he was reluctant to ask those benefiting from his ministry for money.  In fact, he often chose to make tents and serve at his own expense (Acts 18:1-5; 1 Corinthians 9:6-15) instead of demanding “payment.”  The Philippian believers, however, were not only aware of his financial needs, they repeatedly gave financial gifts to him.  Those gifts met real needs (Phil. 4:16).  Those gifts made them partners in the gospel together with Paul (Phil. 1:5).  Paul was very grateful for the gift and the resultant blessing that the Philippians could expect from God (Phil. 4:17, 19).  Are you a faithful participant in God’s work through the local church and its missionary endeavors?

But their gifts did more than meet the apostle’s needs, enabling him to carry out his ministry with a singular focus.  Verse 18 gives us another perspective on giving.  As Paul described the financial gifts from these dear friends, he said, “They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” (v. 18b)  In referring to their offering, he used terms that were reminiscent of the Old Testament sacrificial system where animals were offered to God.  But he also speaks of the pleasure that God finds in such gifts.  Even though money is essentially odorless, Paul describes it as a fragrant offering…like a sweet smelling perfume in the nostrils of God…when it is given with the right motives for godly purposes.  Even though God does not personally benefit from the gift given in the sense that He was running low on money, He finds great pleasure in our generosity.  God smiles in delight over such gifts.

You see, the divine perspective on your giving is an important one.  It moves your generosity into the realm of worship.  Your gifts can bring pleasure to the God of heaven.  Don’t lose sight of that important aspect of your generosity.  Consider that the next time (and each time) you give!

Steve Kern

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October 20 – Prison Letters – Relational Harmony and Situational Peace

Read Philippians 4:2-9

Relational harmony and situational peace . . . all of us yearn for those two things.  And yet, as you probably realize, harmony and peace are often goals that we are pursuing and not always our current experience.  At any point in time, a relationship may be better described as tense rather than harmonious.  And given situations may seem to foster more anxiety than they do peace.  Exactly there is where Paul’s counsel applies.  Believers are not exempt from relational and situational challenges.  Instead, they are ones who, in the midst of those challenges, go the extra mile in pursuit of interpersonal unity and inner serenity.

I wonder if Paul’s “will-I-live-or-will-I-die” prison experience gave him a special vantage point from which to view both relationships and situations.

Did he reflect on his relational tension years earlier with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41) as he wrote about Euodia and Syntyche?  These two women had worked along with Paul for the cause of Christ.  And yet, it seems that the two could not get along with one another.  But Paul points out that relational harmony is worth pursuing.  It is important enough that it can merit outside help and mediation.  Would you describe your relationships as harmonious?

Did Paul draw from his own past prison experiences and anxiety evoking situations as he invited his readers to take their anxious thoughts and, in prayer, exchange them for the peace of God?  The promise that the apostle gives here is not one of a changed external situation but rather a promise of a changed orientation and attitude of peace in the midst of the situation.  Real situational peace is not so much a reflection of picture perfect circumstances as it is that of surrender and trust demonstrated towards the God of heaven.

Indeed, relational harmony and situational peace are worth pursuing.  Even if you would not currently use those terms to describe your relationships or circumstances, aim for the goal with the instruction that God provides.

Steve Kern

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October 19 – Prison Letters – Someone to Immitate

Read Philippians 3:15-4:1

Imagine teaching a young child how to use scissors with merely verbal instructions or teaching an elementary aged student how to shoot a lay-up in basketball with only a written description of the process.  It would be much easier if there was someone to demonstrate how.  When we have someone to imitate, things are much simpler.

For three chapters now, the apostle Paul has shared his love, concern, and instruction with believers in the city of Philippi.  He has done so through words on a page.  Now, as he rounds the corner towards the final chapter, he reminds them that he has given them an example to imitate.  This was not a prideful claim of perfection.  That was made clear in the previous verses where he stated that he had not “already been made perfect” (3:12).

No, instead of being a statement of prideful perfection, this invitation flows from the recognition that there are two extreme “imitation options” out there!  The desirable one is the one that he had lived.  It was a pattern of life that others were now practicing.  Paul was asking all of those believers to imitate that lifestyle.  You too should seek to imitate people who model consistent lives lived in light of eternity.  These are people who live as if this earth is not their home (vv. 20, 21).  They are looking forward to the return of Jesus, who will bring about life transformation

At the other end of the spectrum, there are people whose lives are just the opposite.  Instead of being worthy of imitation, their lifestyles are worthy of warning and even tears of grief (vv. 18, 19).  They are enemies of the cross, living as if life on this earth is all there is.  Their lives are lived for themselves.  They even boast in the very things that should cause them shame.  Be aware of such people!  Don’t imitate them.  But you should also be careful not to write them off.  Allow yourself to be moved to tears (and to prayer) as you encounter such people!

Have you, in your mind, identified people, who, although imperfect, are modeling what the Christian life should look like?  Recognize that only Jesus should be worshiped, but don’t be afraid to allow their example to become a hands on demonstration of what it looks like to follow Him.

Steve Kern

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October 18 – Prison Letters – Changing Your Past Perspective and Future Pursuits

Read Philippians 3:1-14

Rejoice in the Lord . . . put no confidence in the flesh.

Christianity’s focus is not self.  It is the Savior.  It is not my accomplishments.  It is Christ’s sacrifice.  It is not your pedigree.  It is Christ’s passion.

Just think about Paul.

If anyone had reason to focus on self, lifetime accomplishments, and personal pedigree, he was the one.  He was born a Jew from one of the elite tribes.  Starting with his circumcision at eight days old, he had kept the requirements of the Old Testament law as well as anyone could.  His zeal for the rules of faith was depicted in his membership in a privileged group called “Pharisees.”  He was pleased with his own accomplishments and highly revered by others.

But then came his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus.

That encounter changed his perspective for the rest of his life.  Those things once categorized as “gains” were now placed in the “loss” column.  Those things once seen as boast-worthy were now inconsequential.  It wasn’t that any one of those aspects of his past was bad, but not one of them individually nor all of them collectively endeared him to the Lord.

Now, there was something of superior value to him.  Of foremost priority was knowing Christ . . . being found in Him.  Paul’s current grasp of those truths caused him to rejoice immensely.  And his desire to understand and experience more of that reality caused him to strain intensely.  He committed his life energy to that end.  His focus had become the Savior.

That encounter on the road to Damascus impacted how he viewed his past and what he pursued in the future.

In light of what Christ has done for you, does your perspective of the past need to change?  Do you need to ascribe different value to previous accomplishments because you now see what really matters?

In light of the countless realities about Christ which you do not yet fully grasp, do your aspirations for the future need to change?  Do you need to redefine your life goal and the prize you are pursuing?

Steve Kern

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October 17 – Prison Letters – Observing and Affirming

Read Philippians 2:19-30

Depending on the person and the circumstances, you may tend to be blind as a bat and silent as a squirrel.  What do I mean by that?  The blind bat never sees the qualities/actions of others that merit recognition.  He fails to recognize.  And while squirrels are not always silent, it seems to me that the noise they make is never pleasant.  They seem to chatter only when they are quarreling with another squirrel…otherwise, they are pretty quiet and never affirm.  The squirrel fails to verbalize.

In our text for today, Paul seemed to have done a good job at both recognizing and verbalizing.  He gives a glowing description of two different men:  Timothy and Epaphroditus.  As you think about the affirmation you could extend to members of your family, consider some of these broad categories.

Timothy’s uniqueness- He was a “one of a kind” (v. 20).  He demonstrated a selfless compassion for others that Paul had seldom observed elsewhere.  In what positive ways are those closest to you different from most?  Have you expressed that to them?

Timothy’s faithfulness and trustworthiness- He had proven himself over time (v. 22).  Paul mentioned that without hesitation and wasn’t afraid to send him as his own representative as he sought information about the welfare of this congregation of believers he loved so much.  There are times when passing along privileges and responsibilities can be the greatest expression of affirmation.

Epaphroditus’ titles – Paul called this man “my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier” (v. 25).  Each of those terms seemed to place Epaphroditus at the same level on the organizational chart as the famous Paul.  What adjectives and titles do you use in referring to your family?  Are they endearing and elevating?

Epaphroditus’ reception – Paul considered Epaphroditus to be worthy of a hero’s welcome home (vv. 29, 30).  He had risked his life for the cause of Christ as an extension of the Philippian church’s love for Paul and their participation in the apostle’s ministry.  How have those you know demonstrated courage?  In what ways have they taken risks because of faith convictions?

If you are to grow in the affirmation you demonstrate in your family relationships, you will need to open your eyes to recognize the reasons and open your mouth to verbalize them!

Steve Kern

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October 16 – Prison Letters – Consistent With Your Claim

Read Philippians 2:1-18

As I read some estimates of the number of Christians in the world, I was surprised to see that many sources suggest that there are over 2 billion!  Translated, that would suggest that nearly one in every three people is a Christian.

Frankly, I rather doubt that number.  I doubt it on the basis of the definition of “Christian” I prefer.  “Christian” is more than a person who attends a church occasionally.  A “Christian” is not necessarily one who has grown up in a tradition.  To be “Christian” is not a default setting because a person would not classify himself/herself as an atheist, as Islamic, Hindu, or any other faith orientation.  No, to be a Christian is to identify the fact that you have sinned against God, who is holy, and then to, by faith, trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as your only means of rightstanding with God.

I hope that you are the latter type of “Christian”!  If you are, then Paul, in the first half of Philippians 2, describes the kind of attitude and conduct that is consistent with your claim.

Those united with Christ seek unity with other believers (vv. 1, 2).  In fact, Jesus Himself presented this unity as not only a defining characteristic of His followers, but also as a persuasive quality in the lives of unbelievers (Jn. 17:20-23)!

Those united with Christ act in humility towards others (vv. 3-11).  This humility will cause us to hold others in high esteem, yea even higher than we regard ourselves.  It will cause us to lovingly and sacrificially serve those around us.

Those united with Christ are characterized by obedience (vv. 12, 13).  Through this obedience, we are working out that which God is working in us.

Those united with Christ refrain from complaint and argument (vv. 14-18).  Talk about something that will set you apart from others!  This definitely will.  In fact, those who do so will distinguish themselves like stars in the night sky!

So, if you are a Christian, make sure that your attitude and conduct are consistent with your claim!

Steve Kern

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