Abide with me, as we abide in Christ. This should be our invitation to one another, if we are in Christ, in union with Christ. If we are both believers in the One True God, (John 17:3) then we are in this together. But not only us, we must realize our place in the actual place He has set us. What town? What community? What local body?
“Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made full.” 2 John 13
“I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write them to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face.” 3 John 14-15
“For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, so that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Romans 1:11-12
Re-read those verses, please. As you read these verses, I hope you notice that the apostles had a great desire to be with believers. They wrote, but not out of a burning passion to remain always in a secluded room, producing sermons and writings that would then be mailed out. They had no desire to create a way to be ‘God’s-people-who-never-gather.’ They had no wishdream for a day and age when we would overcome our need to be with people, and be able to hide in caves, glued to technology. Technology is amoral, neither inherently good or evil. Yet the attempt to use it to replace what God calls good, cannot be called good. Some have replaced Body life with listening to a person preach, and are languishing with a lack of all that we are experience in true fellowship with one another.
While both John and Paul experienced imprisonment, they never assumed that God had changed His mind–that somehow God did not want them, or other pastors and teachers, to be with the flock. They did not view their circumstances saying “oh, since the government holds me captive, keeping me from fulfilling my duties among the people of God, perhaps God agrees and does not want me to be a pastor. Perhaps all God’s people are ok being alone.”
As we ponder these passages together, let us consider: Do you long to be with the people of God, or has that desire waned due to this past year’s circumstances? And, do you still enjoy being part of a local church, under the leadership of faithful elders, or have you chosen your own shepherds from a smorgasbord of sources?
It was love that led The Word to take on flesh, to be God with us, Emmanuel. It was for the joy set before Him that He endured the cross. He expressed His great desire, alluding to the joy set before Him, in His prayer in John 17:22-24
The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. Father I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which YOu have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.
He wanted to be with us, so He came. God is holy, and cannot allow sin in His Kingdom. (This makes no sense to us if we have not pondered His holiness. More on that to come as we study Titus this semester.) His desire to be with us, His steadfast love toward us, to have a people for His own possession, is displayed by His coming and dwelling among us. He wanted us to be with Him for eternity, in His kingdom, so He became our Redeemer and He cleansed us from all unrighteousness. He makes us holy, He purifies us.
He purifies our desires, as we gaze at our LORD, as we share the Psalmists affections to be in His presence and behold His beauty (Psalm 27:4ff; Psalm 84).
The Apostles’ Desire
He drew together His people, and promised to build His church. He is building it still, in spite of what we see that makes us wonder otherwise. And in spite of our fickle desires that change with the passing of time and the ebb and flow of worldly philosophies.
Jesus promised that He would ensure His Words would be passed down. He told His disciples that the Spirit would bring to mind all that He taught, and they would in turn be trusted to pass it on to future generations. The New Testament writers are all of one accord–they shared Jesus’ desire, they too desired to be with those they taught. And they taught that each member has something to add, some way to serve in the Body.
Their writings teach us of the church, which by definition is Christ’s Body, and we are all members of one another. We cannot grow in holiness apart from this fellowship. Our fellowship is with God and one another, that we may share in His joy (Romans 12:3-5; 1 John 1:1-4; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).
Your Pastors’ Desire
To that same end, joy amidst sweet, pure, fellowship with God and one another, the apostles gave instructions for churches. Those instructions are not outdated. In such a small space, I will only briefly touch on these. In our generation, the overwhelming majority are not rooted to place, to family, to community. We are rooted inwardly, to self and all that we feel ourselves to be. And we spread our devotion far and wide across the internet. As laws and mandates and news clips let us know that government eclipses our Lord’s teachings, some shrug their shoulders and say “eh, whatever.” Some say “NO!!! I love my family! You will not keep me away, you will not take my God given responsibility away from me!” Others say “ok, I will comply, this is for the greater good.”
And when a state official recently told citizens that churches do not need to gather for worship because ‘God is wherever you are’, those of us who know God’s Word say “NO! You sir are not in authority to tell Christians how to worship, or to define worship, nor do you have authority to contradict the Word.” This man’s words betray that he does not know how God defines ‘church.’
If you butcher the Scriptures, isolating texts, you can rip a text out of its proper context in order to support whatever view you want to uphold. You might run to the Gospel of John, isolate where Jesus says those who worship will no longer need the temple, rather they will “worship in spirit and truth.” And you may sit smugly and say “I worship, all by myself, wherever I am, in spirit and truth.” But, is this the whole Truth? And Whose Spirit? Is this what the text is teaching? This is not faithful exegesis, rather this is error.
If you read through the New Testament, looking for what is taught about church life, you will run into the Pastoral Epistles. We call them Pastoral because they do give instruction for how to appoint elders and deacons, and how to structure church life, and how to carry out church discipline. From the New Testament we learn that God desires us to be rooted in families, in a local church, and in our communities.
The question we must ask ourselves is, do we disregard these instructions, or submit to them? (Titus 2:15) Do you submit to a pastor who shares the desires of John, Paul, and Jesus–that we would be a gathered people, sharing life, loving one another? (even if it looks a bit different than year’s past…)
I encourage you to spend some time this week, immersed in His words, that He may refresh your inner man and awaken within you a desire for sharing life in His Body. If you set your mind to it, it is quite possible over the next week to read all the Epistles, Romans-Jude. Carve out the time to read, or perhaps listen on a Bible App while going about household duties. Another fruitful exercise: find a recent article on the underground church in China or North Korea. Ponder their faith, their desire, their devotion. Or consider Corrie Ten Boom, and the fleas she was finally thankful for that allowed her and others to gather around the Word, in a concentration camp.
Then come back to these questions from earlier: Do you long to be with the people of God, or has that desire waned due to this past year’s circumstances? And, do you still enjoy being part of a local church, under the leadership of faithful elders, or have you chosen your own shepherds from a smorgasbord of sources?
I am thankful for my pastors, and when I am absent due to sickness or mandates, I mourn. I mourn with Jesus for the brokenness of the world, for the circumstances that have affected many, and for the waning affections of His people. It could be that circumstances will be met with a response that changes the way our gathering looks (like many, we did Zoom Bible Studies in March-June 2020, and outdoor prayer gatherings, and then outdoor Bible Studies…) or the way our fellowship plays out. Yet–circumstances should never cause us to lose our devotion to Christ, or our devotion to one another. (see Romans 12:9-13; 2 Cor. 11:3-6)
LORD, awaken in us a desire for all that You love. Renew us! Let us see Your glory, and bask in Your goodness and Your hesed. Show us how to be Your people, how to share in the fellowship, how to not neglect the fellowship even if it looks a bit different than years past. Open our eyes that we may see wonderful things in Your law (Psalm 119:18). Amen.