6. Week Six: Running In Community
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all.
My daughter was a swimmer through high school, but after college, she took up running. After several years working out in other ways, she’s been running again this past year, having moved to a new city where she met other runners. In fact, they had great plans for a girls-only weekend away to run in a half-marathon, but Covid-19 interrupted. So one day she just ran that distance on her own, but a few days later her friends decided they wanted to do it too. She was amazed at how much easier and faster it was running with a group rather than alone.
The race of the Christian life is designed to be run in community. We’re there to encourage and care for runners around us. That’s part of everyone’s race! We keep each other going when life gets hard and we feel like quitting the race.
What is it about the church’s purpose that requires us to gather and build into each other’s lives? Paul wrote Timothy describing the church in three ways: “the household of God . . . the church [ekklēsia, meaning called out ones, i.e., those called to gather]1 of the living God, the support and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). As a household, we’re family, called brothers and sisters. We gather not only to preach and teach the truth but also to obey the commands to “admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) —this week’s Soul Food.
We’ve already focused on Paul as a bold runner who stood for the gospel truth, even when it was unpopular or led to opposition or persecution.
This week’s lesson centers on how Paul lived out what it means for the church to be family as we run the race together.
Part One Study
As we reflect on how Paul ran in community, we’ll pause where we left him last week arriving in Jerusalem at the end of his third journey and pick up the story there next week. This week we’ll reflect on what we’ve already seen these past few weeks and look for insights from his letters about his community.
Let’s start with Paul’s partner on his first mission team. Barnabas’s name means “Son of Encouragement” and was given to him by the Apostles to reflect who he was (Acts 4:36). We saw early examples of that when he interceded for Paul with the Apostles and then later searched for him to recruit him to aide the work of the church in Antioch. I suspect that encouragement came in handy when they encountered opposition and persecution.
That initial trip included a young John Mark, who deserted Paul and Barnabas and went home. So when Paul was ready to make a second trip to check on and encourage the church plants, “Barnabas wanted to bring John called Mark along with them too, but Paul insisted that they should not take along this one who had left them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. They had a sharp disagreement, so they parted company. Barnabas took along Mark and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and set out, commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers and sisters” (Acts 15:37-40). Between the two teams they then visited all the areas where they’d previously ministered.
I don’t have to tell you that a sharp disagreement doesn’t reflect God’s character. But we all know that it’s not uncommon for Christian leaders to get angry at each other when each person holds his own perspective as the right one. (And this sadly doesn’t apply just to leaders.)
So here’s a great encourager longing to give John Mark a second chance.
On the other hand there’s Paul whose call was to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Being focused on the work before him, he felt that Mark had proven that he wasn’t up to the challenge, making him a liability to the work. So they disagreed to the point that they had a heated argument over it.
Sometimes that’s what happens in families and churches because we’re all sinners. We see issues through the lenses of our personalities and giftedness and fail to seek God’s wisdom and pursue peace. In this case, thankfully, God brought good from it: the split led to two mission teams rather than one, Barnabas mentored Mark who matured and even wrote a gospel, and eventually Mark and Paul worked together again (Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11).
Who were Paul’s companions on his second journey? Because of the break-up of the original team, Paul set out with Silas, a prophet (Acts 15:32) and one of the “leading men among the brothers” who had been entrusted by the apostles and elders at the Jerusalem Council to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch (Acts 15:22). As Paul and Silas revisited churches and traveled to new cities, the team added Timothy, Luke, Priscilla and Aquila for various legs of the trip.
When Luke wrote about Paul’s third trip, he threw in the names of several others who traveled along parts of the journey: Erastus, Gaius, Aristarchus, Sopater, Secundus, Tychicus and Trophimus. Paul’s letters indicate that there were countless others who supported him in the cities where he stayed and many who even went on the road with him. In fact, you’ll notice other names as we read from his letters.
Growing up I pictured Paul and Barnabas and then Paul and Silas alone or with one or maybe two others periodically, but the details in Acts tell us that there was usually a group surrounding Paul. These companions included other Christian leaders and some disciples—all working together to support Paul and his call to share the gospel with the Gentile world.
Meditate On What You’ve Just Read, The Notes On Your Charts And These Verses, Recording Your Insights Into The Questions That Follow: Romans 16 (Particularly Noting The Large Number Of Women); 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10; 2 Corinthians 7:5-7; 8:16-24; Philippians 2:19-26; 4:14-19. (To Date These Letters, See The Chart “Paul’s Final Journeys” In The Appendix On P. 61.)
- How can you use or adapt ways that Paul’s co-laborers and brothers and sisters in the churches encouraged and ministered to him to support those in your church community?
- What is God saying to you through Paul and Barnabas’s disagreement?
- Do you have close companions to run with you as you follow God? An encourager? A fellow worker with gifting and ministry similar to yours who provides practical wisdom? Do you need a helper? Without giving names, share how their presence in your life affects your attitude and service. If you can’t think of any person(s) in any of these categories, reach out to someone who might fill that gap, or become that person for someone else.
*** Look at the last chapters in two or three of Paul’s epistles (You’ve already looked at Romans), and note his comments as he greeted people who ministered to him. Or take the names of those we’ve already listed as part of his traveling group and use your Bible app, concordance or marginal cross references to learn more about them.
Part Two Study
Because of Paul’s calling to share the gospel with the Gentiles, he never stayed in any one place permanently, so his letters and visits were his primary methods to support the truth and exhort his brothers and sisters in the churches he had planted as they gathered as God’s family.
He often wrote them about how to love one another, living out what it means to be God’s family.
We only have time to read excerpts from Paul’s letters to get a flavor of what he stressed. As you read, think about your responsibility to your own church. In our day many people think of church as a place to go, sings songs of praise and get fed God’s Word—a passive experience. But it’s essential to invest in other believers and allow them to speak into our lives because we’re family—we’re supposed to be there for one another. We’re unified in Christ, dependent on one another, never to be isolated.
Read Romans 15:1-6; 1 Corinthians 10:23, 31-33; Ephesians 5:1-2, 19-21; 6:18; Philippians 2:3-11, And Comment On These Questions:
- How would you express what’s at the heart of the church in community? What’s most important for us to keep in mind?
- If you lived out your previous answer, what would change about your church experience?
- What is God saying to you as you meditate on Paul’s exhortations?
*** Loving also involves admonishing brothers and sisters for the purpose of restoration and healing. God has entrusted us with each other’s care, which makes us responsible to speak the truth in love. We saw Paul reprimand the whole church in Galatia for the false doctrine that they had accepted and Peter for going along with the idea of separating Jew and Gentile at meals. Read these verses, and journal your thoughts: Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5; 18:15-20; Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; commands for the church in Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 4:15-16, 25; 1 Thessalonians 5:14 (our Soul Food).
Part Three Study
An important aspect of running together is supporting one another in prayer, so today we’ll look at Paul’s prayers as patterns for our own.
Meditate On Paul’s Prayers: Romans 1:8-12; Ephesians 1:15-23; 3:14-20; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:9-14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12. Then Journal Your Thoughts Based On These Questions:
- How would you describe Paul’s prayer life from reading his prayers?
- Reread each of these prayers, asking God to identify someone to pray for with each prayer.
- Jesus provided a model prayer for us that we call The Lord’s Prayer. Read it in Matthew 7:9-13. How do Paul’s prayers connect with how Jesus taught his disciples to pray?
- What is God saying to you about your prayer life?
*** Prayer is reciprocal among the family of believers. Paul prayed for the churches and asked them to pray for him. Read his requests and write down what you learn from his example: Romans 15:30-32; Ephesians 6:18b-20; Colossians 4:3-4; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2.
I’ve often called Paul’s prayers “kingdom prayers” because they focus on the big issues of extending God’s kingdom: God’s glory, believers’ maturity and walk with God, unity among the churches, spiritual growth and perseverance in the midst of hard circumstances. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to pray specific prayers for things like healing and provision, but it does mean that we recognize God’s primary concern is that we bring him glory and mature spiritually. Those bigger picture prayers should always be part of what we pray for others and request for ourselves.
At one point years ago a friend’s husband, who was in business for himself, was struggling to get enough customers, so the friend asked our group to pray for more business. As I began to pray as she requested, I had the thought that my prayers may be cancelling each other out—so to speak— because this man wasn’t a Christian and I was also praying for his salvation. What if a financial struggle was exactly what God needed to turn this man’s eyes toward him?
It was then that Paul’s prayers resounded with me. Instead of my usual prayers telling God how to fix situations the way I or my friends wanted, I turned such prayers into pleas for him to use whatever was happening for the benefit of his kingdom in the larger world and in the life of the one for whom I was praying. Paul’s prayers are perfect models of what to pray to align our requests with God’s will. (You can find a handout on kingdom prayers in the Appendix.)
My life has been enriched over the years by Christian community everywhere that God has placed my family. My strongest friendships are based on our common bonds in Christ and the work that he has called us to do in the church. Our church community supported us in so many ways when my husband was hospitalized for a month with an eye infection years ago. Friends brought Bible verses on cards to the hospital and delicious food to our house. A group of men from the church surrounded him in prayer one evening. Their actions weren’t simply helpful, but they gave me great encouragement at a hard time.
My small groups in our women’s Bible studies have helped bond me to other people in our churches when we were new and without friends. My relationships with the women enlarged our circle of friends as a family when we went out of our way to get together with them as families.
From such connections I still have dear friends nearby who worshipped with us in the same church and built close relationships as we raised our families. We are still there for each other many years later.
But one person or one group doesn’t always fill out the whole picture of what community is. In my case God in his providence also placed me in a small group of women in ministry when I was doing it full-time that have been crucial in my own growth and spiritual health. We challenge one another in ministry, soul care and serving others. We read articles and books and have great conversations critiquing them and expanding our understanding of the greatness our God and his power.
I’m so grateful for the many people who have been community for me over so many years.
1 Strong’s entry #1577 at netbible.org.