A Shelter for God’s Afflicted People (Part Three)

Isaiah 14:32

What answer shall be given to the envoys of that nation? “The Lord has established Zion, and in her his afflicted people will find refuge” (NIV).

What will God’s afflicted people find in Zion? They will find refuge.

Tragically, Israel under the law covenant never found this. After Isaiah’s time, they experienced seventy long years of captivity after Jerusalem fell. Read Jeremiah’s wailings over the fallen city (the book of Lamentations) to sense their anguish. When they began to rebuild the temple, they wept (Ezra 3:12), and the walls of the city were still lying in ruins (Nehemiah 1). Even when Nehemiah led them to rebuild their walls, they were never free. By the time of Jesus, a dark deception clouded the minds of their leaders. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin (John 8:31-34 ESV). They failed to bow before the Lord who offered them the greatest refuge.

Finally, great destruction came to the earthly Jerusalem, as the Lord Jesus prophesied (Matthew 24:1-3; 15-25) when the Romans destroyed their city under the command of General (later Emperor) Titus. The lament of Jesus over Jerusalem was fulfilled: Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:38-39 NIV). Weep for all those who try to find safety in an earthly Jerusalem.

Yet the church will surely receive this refuge. We are children of the Jerusalem that is from above (Galatians 4:26). We have come to the real Jerusalem. But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22a NIV).

  • It will be a place of glory and joy. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwellingis with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away (Revelation 21:1-4 CSB)
  • It will be a place of holiness. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27 ESV).

In this present age, the real church, a gathering of followers of Jesus Christ, imperfect as she still is, functions as this refuge for God’s people. The church is:

  • A place of acceptance. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7 NIV)
  • A place of encouragement. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near (Hebrews 10:25 NLT).
  • A place of comfort. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too (2 Corinthians 1:5 ESV).
  • A place of peace. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful (Colossians 3:15 NIV).

The task before us is to show to those not yet believers the glory of our Rock of Refuge, the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you know Him? It matters not where you are today. We are concerned about you, that you have the hope of glory in Jesus Christ. And we want you to know joy and peace as you trust in him now. We invite you to our Shelter, the confident expectation of sharing eternal life in Christ!

Grace and peace

When a Church Gathers

But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3 NIV).

The local church is a gathering or assembly of God’s people committed to the Lord and one another for worship, the spread of the good news of Christ, and the good of each other. The first century Corinthians wrote to the apostle Paul with some questions. Though they were richly blessed (cf. 1:4-9), they struggled about spiritual matters. So, they reached out for help. (Too often these aspects of the Corinthian church are overlooked. They had issues, and they knew they had some and sought help for them, even as they failed to take other issues seriously. This sounds like a typical church to me!)

Paul wrote his brothers and sisters in Christ to help them apply the instruction of the Lord to their local situation. Believers in Christ have heard the good news, yet we need the teaching of the word to know how the message ought to transform our thoughts, ideas, attitudes, and actions. We have the benefit of this instruction, but we need to listen to it carefully and to apply it to our local gatherings.

We can lose sight of the point of the above verse through discussions about the exact nature of prophecy and other related spiritual gifts. The point that Paul makes in 14:1-25 is that all verbal contributions during worship must be intelligible to all, or they are profitless and so loveless (13:1-13). Paul told them that intelligible prophecy was far superior to speaking in tongues, which required an interpreter for anyone to profit. Using prophecy as an example in contrast to tongues (14:2), Paul set forth what people ought to experience when a church gathers. I mean a shared experience. Each one is to contribute according to their growth in grace, spiritual gifts, and wisdom. We should not attend as mere consumers but as helpers of one another.

We should experience strengthening. Every local gathering is to build itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). This requires each part of a local body of believers to function. In this chapter, Paul spoke to their failure repeatedly (14:3-5, 12, 17, 26). He told them to speak in an intelligible way that would build up the church.  We must sense that the spiritual strength of others is our responsibility. We need to look at ourselves. How has the Spirit of the Lord equipped me to make others stronger:

  • In their consecration to God (sanctification)?
  • In their participation in the mission (shared evangelism)?
  • In their communication with God (prayer)?
  • In their understanding and application of the word of God (Bible study)?

The contemporary church has “staffed these things out”, with the result that strengthening has been selectively and inadequately done. Paul did not write chapter fourteen to “the elders and the staff.” He wrote to all, and all are to contribute to strengthening. Our churches need immediate and drastic change.

We should experience encouraging. Like strengthening, encouragement requires knowledge of one another. We need to grasp the life experiences and present situation of our brothers and sisters in the Lord to be able to encourage them. This necessitates an atmosphere of trust, awareness of acceptance, and the absence of perfectionism. People sin, people fail, and people suffer. We must expect others to need encouragement from us. We come with hearts taught by grace (Titus 2:11-12) and motivated to lift others up graciously and kindly.

We should experience comfort. To comfort, we draw upon the comfort that we have received from our God and Father (2 Corinthians 1:3-11). We receive comfort, and we act from comfort to comfort. This is one reason that a close walk with the Lord is important. We have learned how the Lord reached out to us in our misery or shame, and we apply those principles to our interactions with those hurting. Some matters cannot be learned from sermons and seminars. The Lord teaches us in the furnace of affliction, and because we have felt the heat, we know what cools and calms the soul, so that it again produces fruit.

These three ought to be an important part of our gatherings as a church. Wise words, kind attitudes, and beneficial actions show forth the beauty of the glory of the Lord. Become a part of what the church ought to be and not a contributor to what it is not.

Grace and peace, David

God at Work

Thoughts for a Monday on 2 Corinthians 7:5-7

Every disciple or learner of Jesus Christ desires to experience God at work: in the world, in one’s nation and community, in one’s local church, and in one’s own life. We want to see God glorified, people coming to the Lord, and God changing us and providing for us. What we may not want is the way our Father in heaven carries out his activity in our lives. We want God to just speak a word and all will be well. We seem to prefer that the Lord would do it the easy way and act apart from his chosen means, such as the good news about Jesus and the efIMG_0547 (2)forts of his people, especially the latter. Getting people involved means that there will be a mess involved of some sort or another. Since God has chosen to use means in a fallen world, pain will also be part of the process, and we’re simply not happy about pain and suffering and troubles. Like the rest of us, the apostle Paul had to experience troubles as he served the living God. Here he tells his dear brothers and sisters in Christ in Corinth about what he experienced, so that they can know how God is at work in their lives.

God worked through troubling circumstances (7:5). We require reminders about God’s sovereignty. God is always in charge of every circumstance of life (Rm 8:28). Nothing happens apart from his will of purpose, though he permits much that is against is will of precept. God will achieve his plan to bring glory to his name through Christ and his people. But in the day to day accomplishment of his plan, a lot of sinful mess happens. As God’s plan progressively occurs, the Holy Spirit constantly acts with the Scriptures, and in and through followers of Christ to produce the successive steps of change that God has willed. As we are in the midst of the macro, meso, and micro events that the Spirit uses, we can become quite perplexed (cf. 4:8). But our perplexity and troubles do not mean that God has lost control. From our place in the middle of swirling events, it is impossible to see the whole picture, apart from what God has revealed in his word.

Paul, like us, was caught in the middle. And it hurt! It is not easy to be pressed against the grinding wheel as the Lord of heaven and earth sharpens his instruments. God has predestined us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:29). Paul says that this affected his entire person, both inside and out. There might be a slight emphasis here on toll this was taking on his body. Since we are a functional unity of physical and spiritual, what affects the one affects the other to some degree.

On the outside there were conflicts. (Notice the plural.) It is impossible to know exactly what these conflicts were, since Paul does not say. He was somewhere in Macedonia at this point, and in that place he had experienced persecution. He seemed to always be in come conflict with false teachers. But at this time, he only mentions conflict in general. Not all our troubles are of our own making. We should realize that Christ’s people may encounter opposition of various kinds from those outside because of Christ and the gospel.

On the inside there were fears. (Notice the plural again.) From the letter we can discern that at least some of these involved Titus and the Corinthians. How was Titus received at Corinth? How had the Corinthians reacted to the painful letter he had sent? Had he caused them too much pain? Had Paul boasted too much about the Corinthians to Titus? Had Titus fallen into physical harm on the trip to or from Corinth (cf. 11:26, travel at that time could be very dangerous)? How extensive was the influence of the false teachers at Corinth? How widespread was the ungodly conduct in the Corinthian believers (cf. 12:20-21)?

I used to build homes. One of the great joys of doing that was that you could watch the steady progress from the site work to handing the keys to the new owner. Each day you could usually start from where you had the previous day. Problems from the weather or vandalism were relatively rare. But not in the gospel ministry where we have an enemy who daily seeks to ruin all we’ve accomplished. For this reason, we need to rely on the Lord in prayer constantly

God worked to comfort Paul (7:6). Here is one of the great “but God” interventions that we see in the Bible (cf. Ephesians 2:4). We need to know these, because we are in ongoing predicaments that would be hopeless, if not for the truth of “but God….”

Here is a reminder about God as the believer’s comforter. This is one of God’s characteristics; the present tense uses shows that it is one of God’s timeless attributes. Who is God? He is Sovereign and he is Comforter. God breaks into the unpleasant, painful, perplexing circumstances of his people to produce comfort. This is who God is. Paul experienced God this way. So will all who reach out in faith to him. This is God’s agenda during the new covenant age. As you read 2 Corinthians, you can see that the book of Isaiah was on Paul’s heart. It tells of the restoration of the God’s people through Christ and the gospel. And now in Christ, the new creation is here, and God is bringing comfort to his renewed people (Isaiah 49:13).

God worked through Titus to bring comfort to Paul. Christ’s people are God’s coworkers, not only in spreading the gospel and doing good works in the world, but also in comforting and strengthening one another. This is why as the temple of the living God (6:16) we should be acting to benefit other believers. God gave comfort through Titus’ presence. Titus was one of the gospel partners closest to Paul, serving as the apostle’s envoy or representative on many occasions. When Titus was on the scene, it was like Paul was there. Now Paul was glad because his dear friend was with him. Sometimes friends just need their friends with them. God gave comfort through the report Titus was able to give about the repentance of the Corinthians. As Paul’s emissary, he was able to give Paul a correct gospel evaluation of their spiritual condition. And it was good news (Proverbs 25:25).

Observe that Paul’s sorrows and joys were not limited by the boundaries of himself. He found joy in what God was doing in the lives of others. This is how our lives ought to be in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26). Christ’s followers must not live for their own benefit! Others ought always to be on our hearts.

God worked in the Corinthians to produce change in them (7:7). Can people change? Yes, by God’s grace we can! People in Christ can change because Christ lives in us by the Holy Spirit.

So then, what happened in the Corinthians? They expressed their longings, which showed that their hearts were opening up to some extent, whether towards Paul or in a far reaching change of mind. They had deep sorrow, which Paul will speak more about in 7:8-11. They developed zeal. The nature of this zeal is unspecified at this point, but he will mention it again in 7:11. Clearly, Christ desires zeal in his churches; he has a distaste for lukewarm people (Revelation 3:15-16). We ought to examine ourselves. Do we have these three characteristics? If not, we are in a worse condition than the church in Corinth.

What their change produced in Paul—joy! Here is hope for those serving Christ. Because God is at work, he can bring joy out of deep sorrow. But there’s more; his joy was greater than before. See the change that God can bring in his people. Paul confessed his conflicts and fears, and those experiences were painful. But now he has a greater joy. It’s a strange path, isn’t it?

In Christ we can know the greatness of God, who comforts the downcast. Yes, our present condition might be filled with conflicts outside and fears within. But God uses them as opportunities to make his surpassing comfort known to us. Troubled believer, through faith in Jesus Christ draw near to God today. Cast your burden on him, and he will sustain you.