THE CHURCH’S PEOPLE
May 20, 2007
The American industrialist Andrew Carnegie once wrote, “Take away my people but leave my factories, and soon grass will grow on the factory floors. Take away my factories but leave my people, and soon we will have a new and better factory.” That is a way of emphasizing the primal importance of people in all the enterprises of life. That certainly includes are life together as the Lord’s people.
It is interesting that in Titus 3, verse 14, Paul refers to the church on the island of Crete as “our people” – “and let our people learn to devote themselves to good works so as to help cases of urgent need and not be unfruitful.” “Our people!” At the same time in 1 Tim. 3:5, you will notice the apostle Paul making reference to “God’s church” (ESV). God’s church and our people are the same. That means that a great part of Christian living will be learning to live as people who belong to God and as people who belong to one another at the same time. You and I belong to each other by virtue of our relationship to the Lord and by the fact that he allows us to be a part of his household, a part of his family. While we are belonging to God we belong to each other, and that makes all the difference in our lives.
With that fact in mind, it is so interesting to read Paul’s last three letters and to notice the people who are mentioned by name. It is instructive as to what we should expect in our efforts to live as Christians from day to day. Failing to be aware of what it is going to mean to belong to God and to belong to each other at the same time, some people have lost their faith over the years. Some have focused upon themselves only, and some have failed to be what the Lord wanted them to be. At the same time, remembering that belonging to God and belonging to each other at the same time is one of the richest blessings of life some have grown closer together, have seen their lives become fuller and richer and have born great fruit to the Father’s glory. Each one of us will be in one of those two categories, and I would like for us to think about that as we study along this morning.
Realistically, we have to say on the one hand that there will be some who will let us down and break our hearts. Even belonging to God and belonging to each other, we should expect to run across some who are not what God wants them to be. We shouldn’t be surprised if we find from time to time individuals who are not as mature, or not as spiritually strong, or not as loyal and devoted to the Lord as he wants them to be or as we expect them to be. If you journey through 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus with me for just a moment, you will notice this.
There will be some people who make shipwreck of the faith. In 1 Timothy 1:19-20, Paul urges Timothy to be “holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” Hymenaeus and Alexander were two people well known to Paul and Timothy, but we aren’t given much other information about them. But one thing we do know is that they had quit paying attention to their consciences, and having rejected conscience, they soon found themselves twisting and ruining the faith which had been delivered to them and making a failure of their journey.
These two individuals were guilty of the saddest thing in life. Some years ago I heard Walter Buchanan preach on the saddest thing he had ever seen. In introduction to his lesson, he made note of the fact that at the time he had been preaching for some thirty years, and he had seen some sad things. He had seen people grow sick and pass away long before their time. He had seen marriages fail; he had seen young people grow up and waste their precious lives; but he said the saddest of all the things he had ever seen was people leaving the Lord. These two people had done it. It is a sad thing. We don’t want to ever see people make shipwreck of the faith, but sometimes they do.
Secondly, there shouldn’t be any surprise to us that we will sometimes see people who, having turned away from the Lord, will want others to go with them. I believe it is the same Hymenaeus who appears over in 2 Tim. 2:17. Notice that here in verse 16 Paul is telling Timothy to “avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some." Notice that they are swerving from one of the most basic things about the faith, the resurrection of Christ. Hymenaeus, if he had made shipwreck of his own faith, wasn’t content for it just to stay that way. He is making an effort apparently to see that others depart with him. When Paul mentions their talk spreading as gangrene, he wants us to imagine standing on a hill watching a flock of white sheep down against the floor of a green valley. He wants us to see that flock spreading out across the pasture. He wants us to see the influence of these who have swerved from the truth spreading.
In Acts 20, Paul had earlier warned the elders of the church at Ephesus that there would arise men from among them who would try to draw others away after them. Apparently Hymenaeus was doing that. Sometimes you will be frustrated to find that while you are working to try to build up God’s family, there will be people who will be at work trying to take folks away from it. Don’t let that ruin your faith. It was happening then; it happens still.
Then in the third place, you will notice that sometimes there will be people who are turning away from you, turning their backs on you personally and letting you down. Just as sometimes people swerve from the truth, there will be people you thought would stand with you who won’t. Paul, who is in a Roman prison, says at this point, “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” To appreciate this situation, you have got to think first what it would have been like to be in a Roman prison. The circumstances would have been miserable in the extreme. You and I might not be able to imagine the discomfort and the disgust that experience would have brought. Paul was able to endure it because he “loved the Lord’s appearing,” according to verse 8 of this same chapter. Demas, on the other hand, had come to “love this present world” and had therefore deserted Paul in his hour of deepest need.
It is thought-provoking to consider that Demas is a man who appears in other circumstances in scripture. In Philemon 24, Paul mentions this Demas as his fellow worker. The next time we meet him is in Colossians 4:10. Paul just mentions Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas. He says nothing about Demas. And a few years later when we meet him, Demas has forsaken Paul “having loved this present world.” Do you see the progression in Demas’ decline? What once was a strong bond has now weakened, and he has turned away and left Paul in his hour of deepest need. This week as I worked on this study I ran across a quote attributed to Frederick the Great. I’m not sure if that is where it came from, but it says, “The more I get to know people, the more I love my dog.” Maybe that is how Paul would have felt as he had to think of how Demas had left him.
I remember the experience of the Lord at the end of John 6 where, trying to teach the people, he goes from having the multitude around him so great that they are ready to take him by force and make him king, to having nobody left with him but the twelve. He has to turn to them and say, “Will you also go away?” That seems to be a part of the experience of living for God. Sometimes that kind of loneliness does occur. There are people who make shipwreck of their faith. There are people who try to shipwreck other people’s faith. There are people who will leave you and let you feel alone when you have been shipwrecked.
And then it is also true that there are people who, when you are at your lowest, will try to do what they can to make it worse. In 2 Tim. 4:14, Paul, urging Timothy to come to him, says, “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself for he strongly opposed our message.” I don’t know if this is the same Alexander we met in 1 Timothy 1. It could be, I suppose. But he clearly has some sort of a grudge against Paul. He has strongly opposed Paul’s word. That can be taken in a couple of different ways. Either he had opposed the preaching of the gospel of Christ, or as some scholars believe, he had opposed Paul’s testimony at the first defense in the Roman court of law. This fellow seems to have had such ill-will against Paul that he would try not only to destroy Paul’s work, but to see to it that Paul’s life gets taken from him, and that he would do the same thing to anybody who, like Timothy, might appear to take Paul’s side. Can you see that realistically, in God’s church, as we deal with people who are not always what they ought to be, opposition will be encountered from time to time. I don’t want to be among them, but maybe sometimes perhaps I have been. I don’t want other people to treat me that way, but maybe sometimes they will. But I do know that if I am going to live in God’s church, I am going to have to have a faith that will sustain me through those types of experiences.
On the other hand, there are even more people in these letters who have, despite their own problems and difficulties in life, such a love and loyalty and a capacity to be a blessing. We want to be careful to always remember that in God’s church there are people who will enrich our lives unimaginably. Let me just quickly point out some of these folks to you as we survey Paul’s last three epistles.
There are in the church people who will risk their necks to refresh your spirit. In 2 Tim. 1, after Paul mentions those in Asia who had turned away from him like Demas had, he says in verse 16, “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.” Here is a man who had already shown himself to be a great servant of the Lord by the way he had cared for the Lord’s people at Ephesus. It had been a habit, a long standing way of life for him. But when he heard that Paul has been imprisoned again at Rome and things are not looking good, this fellow made the thousand mile journey to Rome, and you can imagine his actions there. While other people are turning away from Paul, he is asking after Paul in every dungeon in Rome until he finally finds that one prisoner, changed by his hands and feet to a wall in a dungeon somewhere, in a miserable condition of dirty and tattered clothing, unkempt and uncared for. And he takes his stand by that man, tending to that prisoner’s needs, encouraging him, being with him at a time when it would have been dangerous to be a Christian in a Rome under Nero’s power.
It is easy to look at the other people, but don’t forget there is an Onesiphorus, a beloved brother who was willing to put himself out for Paul. If you think about that, there will be people like him in your life, too. If you will be fair, if you will even take the trouble to look, you will see people acting very much that way.
Luke was a friend like that with Paul, too. He says in 2 Tim. 4:11, “Luke alone is with me,” not because he was the only one who was interested, but because other folks were busy. Luke, the beloved physician, was with him – maybe he was tending to Paul’s health while he was a prisoner in that dungeon. Maybe he was the penman who wrote down the letter as Paul dictated it. Perhaps the gospel of Luke of written during this period of time. But this man, who had been a traveler with Paul through some of the most dangerous times in Acts, was with him still.
Someone wrote, “When trouble comes, your soul to try, you love the friend who just stands by. Perhaps there is nothing he can do; the thing is strictly up to you, for there are troubles all your own and paths a soul must tread alone; times when love cannot smooth the road nor friendship lift a heavy load; but just to know you have a friend who will stand by until the end; whose sympathy through all endures, whose warm handclasp is always yours; it helps someway to pull you through although there is nothing he can do. And so with fervent heart and cry, God bless the friend who just stands by.” That is the friend Paul had in Luke.
In the third place, notice that while Paul was going through this, there were also Christians who were busy doing their service to the Lord in responsible ways. Some of these are people Paul himself had sent. Notice that when he says in verse 10, “Crescens had gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia” (Dalmatia became Albania later on). Titus was preaching the gospel there apparently. Verse 12 says, “Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus” (probably to replace Timothy in the work he was doing if he came to Rome to see Paul). Then notice in verse 19, people like Priscilla and Aquila and several others who were mentioned, are busy at work. This is also the case in Titus 3:12, 13. Now think about this. I remember a brother who, the first time I talked to him, said nobody was doing anything but him. The last time I talked to him, 20 years later, he said that nobody was doing anything but him. There are some folks who have that mindset. Frederick Collins wrote, “Always remember, there are two kinds of people in the world – those who come into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am,’ and those who come into a room and say, ‘Ah, there you are’.” There were people who were busy at work.
Next, remember that there were people who had their own problems to deal with. It is easy to think when you are under the gun yourself that your problems are worse than everybody else’s. Paul mentions in 2 Tim. 4:20 that he left Trophimus, who was sick, at Miletus. Trophimus was a brother from Ephesus who had been trusted to help take the contribution to Jerusalem. He was a brother over whom a riot started in Jerusalem, which ended up causing Paul to be in prison two years and then sent on to Rome. This brother had been with Paul through thick and thin, but now he was sick. He was unable to travel and unable to do other things, so Paul had left him where he could be cared for. Give other people room for the problems in their own lives and the responsibilities that they have to bear that you might not even know about.
And then be aware that there are also people who have worked through problems and are doing better, and have shown that they can be trusted to serve. These are the success stories that we don’t pay enough attention to. We are not always aware of the cases where people were under pressure, the tempter was really working on them, there were huge challenges to their faith, but they overcame. John Mark is a man like that here in 2 Timothy 4. “Get Mark and bring him with you for he is very useful to me for ministry” (v. 11). You remember John Mark, part of a great household in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12), cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10), accompanying Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey until they got to Perga, but then he turned around and went back home. It so offended Paul that when it came time to go on the second journey and Barnabas wanted to take Mark, Paul was so unwilling that he split from Barnabas on account of John Mark. But it says something about both Mark and Paul that at this late juncture twenty years later, John Mark has proven himself and is useful for ministry and Paul is willing to allow him to serve, wants him with him. People can change, and many are in the process of changing. So many have overcome difficult struggles.
And then there are some people who will be there with you just as soon as you let them know you need them. Timothy was like this. Paul was in prison in Rome and Timothy was at work in Ephesus. Paul writes to him in verse 9 and says “do your best to come to me soon.” Then he says to him in verse 13, “bring my cloak I left with Carpus at Troas; bring the books and the parchments, but come to be with me.” And he says in verse 21, “do your best to come before winter.” And you know that Timothy would have dropped what he was doing and headed in that direction. There are people in your life who will be there if you will let them know you need them. God’s people are your people, but they are not mind readers. And in their busy lives as they deal with their own responsibilities and their own problems, you will have to let them have an open door, an opportunity to help you and to build a sense of belonging that that involves.
Living With People
If there are these two kinds of people, if that is the reality of life, then what do we do as Christians? First, we are going to need some convictions that are stronger than our concerns about the personalities around us. You and I are going to need to focus first on our ties to the Lord and to let that be the anchor as we deal with people. A.W. Tozer, some years ago in his book “The Pursuit of God” wrote, “Has it ever occurred to you that 100 pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other. They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So, 100 worshippers meeting together, each looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity conscious’ and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.” What you and I need to do is to have convictions about the Lord’s way that are stronger.
Secondly, we have to be people who will keep our balance. At times when we feel low and we think folks have let us down, it is important for us to refocus and be honest about the situation, and to confess that the Lord has in his house a lot of great and wonderful people who have done noble things and have blessed our lives. They deserve for us to give thanks for them and to them. That has a way not only of helping us but of encouraging faithful servants of the Lord, too.
Third, we need to be the people that we are supposed to be. There is no excuse to look around longingly until you think you see somebody else who has fallen a little short. That doesn’t make it alright for you or for you to act that way. In all of these passages, where Paul names names, he tells Timothy, “You war the good warfare. You hold to the truth. You be loyal to the Lord. You come and be with me. You watch out for people like Alexander who did me much harm.” Keep your balance, but be the person the Lord calls you to be through the gospel of Christ. Timothy is not told, “Secede from the church; compromise with these fellows; get along with them.” No, he is told, “You stay at your post and do what you should do. The Lord will bless you in that as time goes along.”
Muretus, a very learned and yet very poor man, on one occasion fell ill. He was taken to a place where the destitute were kept in those days, and the doctors discussing his case in Latin, said, “This poor creature is of no value to anyone. It is unnecessary to spend time and effort on one so worthless.” But Muretus, the scholar that he was, spoke to them in Latin and made this remarkable utterance, “Call no man worthless for whom Christ died.” All the people around you, whether they are as strong as they ought to be or not, are worth something because the Lord died for them. He did for you, too. He did for me, too. And I am, like you, going to end up on one of these lists someday as somebody who was either a blessing or a problem. Which are you today? Do you need to confess the name of Christ and be baptized into him? Are you needing to determine to be a blessing today? Can we help you in some way? If so, won’t you come while we stand and sing together?