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The bonds of Christ – Don Fortner

August 2006 | by Don Fortner

‘There is no doubt’, wrote A. A. Hodge, ‘but that if there be but one God there is but one church; if there be but one Christ there is but one church; if there be but one cross there is but one church; if there be but one Holy Ghost there is but one church’.

All God’s saints in heaven and on earth are one church, one kingdom and one family. All the members of that one, universal church are brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 3:15). In Christ, all true believers of all ages and all places are one (Ephesians 2:14; Colossians 3:11).

All have the same Father. All have been adopted by the same eternal, electing love. All have been redeemed by the same precious blood. All are called by the same Holy Spirit. All have the same Elder Brother.

All are saved by the same grace. All are heirs to the same inheritance. All are married to the same Husband, members of the same body, and united to the same Head. Christ is not divided. And his body, the church, is not divided. All true believers are one in him.

One of the greatest blessings God’s saints possess on this earth – and one of the greatest joys of heaven – is the fellowship of brethren. As we follow Paul and his companions from Malta to Rome, let us observe how precious his brethren were to him and learn from him to love and esteem one another as brethren in Christ.

Shipwrecked

After being shipwrecked on the island of Malta, Paul’s preaching was obviously blessed of God to the conversion of some – perhaps many. Those who were converted became very gracious and generous. They highly valued the man who was used of God to bring the gospel of Christ to them (Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:15).

All winter long they lodged and fed Paul, Luke and Aristarchus, honouring them highly as the servants of God. Paul had ministered to their spiritual needs. Therefore, they thought it only right that they should take care of his material needs (1 Corinthians 9:4-11).

When the time came for Paul and his friends to leave, these Maltese brethren supplied them with everything needed for their journey to Rome. God had graciously provided his shipwrecked servants with the refreshing consolation of newborn brethren among a barbarian people. What a tender parting their separation must have been!

Examples of generosity

The young converts of Malta stand as examples to all believers in their generosity and esteem for God’s servants. All who are privileged to sit under the ministry of a faithful gospel preacher should esteem that man highly for his work’s sake – and support him generously (Galatians 6:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

Remember the Lord Jesus Christ considers that whatever is done to his servants is done to him (Matthew 10:40-41). God’s servants are not hirelings. They do not preach for gain. But the labourer is worthy of his pay (Luke 10:7).

No man going to war should entangle himself with the affairs of this world (2 Timothy 2:4) and no servant of God should seek material wealth. But, by the same token, it is only reasonable that those to whom he ministers should provide for his daily needs – and do so with sufficient generosity to relieve him of material concern for himself and his ­family.

This generosity should extend beyond the local church caring for its own pastor. As we have opportunity, it is our responsibility to use our financial means to provide for faithful gospel preachers everywhere, so that they may give themselves entirely to the gospel ministry.

Favour and providence

Acts 28:11 provides yet another lesson about divine providence. Luke tells us that they left Malta on another ship from Alexandria. The ship that had been wrecked in the storm was also from Alexandria (Acts 27:6).

Here are two ships, both from Alexandria, both going to Rome, both caught in a horrible storm. One of the ships sailed safely to Malta while the other was completely destroyed.

The interesting point is this. The ship that sailed safely through the storm carried a crew of pagans sailing under the sign of Caster and Pollux, gods of the sea! The ship that was wrecked, whose passengers and crew were cast into the winter sea, carried at least some who were beloved servants of God.

It is no accident that Luke records this. The Holy Spirit intends us to understand that favourable providence is no indication of God’s favour, and providential hardships are no indications of his displeasure.

God wrecked Paul whom he loved so that he might open the door for him to preach to chosen Maltese barbarians! But the Lord preserved the other ship, filled with men for whom he had no gracious designs, without disturbance or harm.

Pity the people whom God leaves alone! Read Psalms 72:1-18 and 92:1-15 and thank God for his special providence – even when it brings you through bitter storms and freezing waters!

We found brethren

After leaving Malta for Rome their ship docked for three days at Syracuse in Sicily and for a day at Rhegium. Apparently it was a trading vessel making regular stops.

Then they came to Puteoli, a city near Naples. From there Paul, his friends and the soldiers would travel to Rome by land. But at Puteoli, says Luke, ‘We found brethren’ (vv. 12-14). What a wonderful statement!

Apparently, Paul had won favour with the centurion who guarded him. He treated Paul with exceptional kindness, allowing him a great deal of liberty. The first thing Paul did when he came to Puteoli was to search out and find the people who worshipped God (v.14).

How these people heard the gospel we are not told. But here, too, God had his elect. Persecution had scattered believers all over the Roman world, and wherever believers were scattered, there the leaven of the gospel was at work.

Paul made it his business to seek out those who worshipped God wherever he went. It was as natural as it would be for any man passing through a town to look up his relatives who lived there. Is that the way we feel towards God’s people? Are they precious in our sight as they were in Paul’s?

Refreshed and encouraged

The saints of God are a family. The blood that unites us is the blood of Christ. Paul looked up his brethren because he needed their fellowship. Sheep are social creatures that flock together. They do not like to be alone. The only time they are alone is when they are either sick or lost.

Paul, Luke and Aristarchus had been sailing for five days with ungodly men with whom they had nothing in common. But at Puteoli they found brethren and were refreshed.

Once they met these redeemed sinners they fell in love with one another immediately. The brethren at Puteoli constrained Paul and his companions to stay with them for seven days. They wanted God’s servants to stay over at least one Lord’s Day so that all the church could meet them and hear them preach the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ.

Then the brethren from Rome who came out to meet Paul also greatly encouraged him (v.15). By one means or another they heard that the apostle, who had written to them long before, was now approaching.

They had never met him except in spirit. Yet they showed great love for God’s servant – for they too were of the same family. They all loved the same Saviour so they loved one another. Paul thanked God for them and was encouraged by them. They seem to have cheered and inspired the old warrior for the battles he was yet to face.

Someone has said, ‘A church should be a fellowship of encouragement’. That is exactly what these Roman believers were to Paul.

Content

At last Paul was delivered as a prisoner to Rome (v.16). He came in chains because of his faithfulness to Christ. In Rome, by God’s providence, he was given great liberty to make Christ known, dwelling in a rented house with a guard constantly at his side.

Paul had finally made it to Rome to preach the gospel! It seems to have mattered little to him that he had fulfilled that ambition as a prisoner. As far as he was concerned, he was ‘the prisoner of Jesus Christ by the will of God’.

He seized the opportunity now set before him to preach the gospel and to write a significant portion of the New Testament. Knowing that God had brought him there and that God would use him there, Paul was content, even though imprisoned (Philippians 4:12). Would you be?