For many churches, September has been circled on their calendars in anticipation of all their classes and groups being back together. Even the churches that have been meeting are looking to this Fall as being the next step in defining what they will look like in a post-COVID world.
In God’s providence, students and adults using Explore the Bible will examine what real unity looks like and where it comes from as we study Paul’s letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. These three Bible books along with Ephesians are considered the prison epistles of Paul. Most scholars believe that Paul wrote these while under house arrest in Rome (see Acts 28:16-31) during the years of 60-62 AD. Less than thirty years had passed since the resurrection of Jesus and people were just ten years removed from the Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15:1-35). Some people were teaching that accepting Jewish practices, especially circumcision, was required along with belief in Jesus. At that council, the apostles recognized that salvation was through faith in Jesus alone and declared this truth for all to hear. Paul was one of the men who carried the decision of that council to the Gentile believers. We should not be surprised to find the theme of unity with other believers one of the issues addressed by Paul.
Early in his letter, we find Paul calling the Philippians his partners in the gospel (1:5). Paul also challenged Philemon to consider him a partner when making his appeal on behalf of Onesimus (Philem. 17). By extension, this partnership included the church that met in Philemon’s home in Colossae. (Archippus is listed by Paul in Col. 4:17 and Philem. 2).
Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon were all written as Paul sat in Rome waiting to appear before Caesar. We can assume this idea of partners was an important thing to Paul as he sat in house arrest. Paul knew he was not alone in taking his stand with Christ. There were partners standing with him, seeking to live Christ-honoring lives in their locations. Paul represented those believers while inside the walls of that Roman house while they represented him outside those walls. They expected each other to represent Christ well in word and in deed, with Paul expressing the joy he found in their partnership. They were counting on each other to do the right thing.
In Philippians 1:27, we find these words: “Just one thing: As citizens of heaven, live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or am absent, I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, in one accord, contending together for the faith of the gospel, (CSB). Our shared partnership in the gospel should impact how we live our lives. How we treat each other as believers and a high moral standard should be evident for all to see.
Paul’s call for unity stands in contrast to the unity found in the land of Shinar. Following the great flood, people migrated toward Shinar and decided to build a city that included a great tower. In Genesis 11:4 we are told that they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let’s make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth.” (CSB). God’s desire was for them to spread out and fill the earth (Gen. 9:7). God had told Adam and Eve to do the same thing (Gen. 1:28). Instead, the people rejected God’s desires and fed off the fear of what lay ahead in the yet-to-be-explored parts of the earth. They were united but were misguided in their purpose and allegiance.
Our prayer is that as students and adults study Paul’s letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon we will gain a deeper appreciation of the partnership we share in Christ and that we will understand that our purpose behind that unity is found in obedience to Him and Him alone.