Previous article in this series: October 1, 2022, p. 19.
In our last article we saw that the church must have a culture of compassionate care. Saints minister to fellow saints in the service of Christ. Thus we want the church to be a place where we faithfully and lovingly care for the needs of one another.
If we will understand rightly the spiritual relationships we are to have in the church, we must begin with God. This is true because our understanding of reality must always begin with God. This is what John Calvin wrote long ago, “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating Him to scrutinize himself.”1 If we do not begin with God, then our understanding of compassionate care will begin with a skewed perspective of self and what others ought to provide according to my own standard. Any standard that begins with me will always be wrong. We must begin by looking at God!
First and foremost, a ministry of caring for each other compassionately reflects the God who cares compassionately for His people. The basis for this compassionate care is God’s covenant. There are many books on how the members of the church are to care for each other, but many of them neglect this covenant basis. It is good for us to go back to covenant basics before looking forward to what these relationships look like.
The covenant, as revealed throughout Scripture, is the relationship of love and fellowship that God sovereignly establishes with His elect people in Jesus Christ. The covenant is not only a doctrine to be understood, but it is an abiding relationship of friendship and fellowship we have with our God through Jesus Christ. It is not enough to call the covenant a relationship between God and His people, because there are many different kinds of relationships in life: an earning relationship like between an employer and employee; or the justice relationship between a prisoner and judge; or a relationship between friends. The first two are much different than the latter. Our relationship with God is friendship and fellowship. James 2:23 identifies the relationship Abraham had with God: “and he was called the Friend of God.” Just as this was Abraham’s relationship with God, so also it is the relationship that the spiritual seed of Abraham have with their God. For this reason, Scripture uses many different pictures to describe this deep, abiding relationship of love we have with God. He is our Father and we are His children (Rom. 8). He is our Bridegroom and we, as the church, are His bride (Hos. 2).
A study of God’s covenant in Scripture shows how rich and deep it is, which must then be applied to our personal relationships within the church. This relationship of love is based on the relationship God has in Himself. The three persons of the Holy Trinity live a perfect relationship of eternal love in the bond of perfectness (Col. 3:14). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit know each other intimately and fully. They never fight or disagree. Instead, they are one, as Jesus said in John 17:21, where He prays for the church, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee….”
For the glory of His name, the God who is love in Himself (I John 4:8) has determined to bring His sinful, elect people into a relationship of love and fellowship in which these people know and experience the blessings of this love. God so loved His people that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). What manner of love the Father has bestowed on us that we should be called the sons of God (I John 3:1)!
Although there are many different aspects to this covenant, we want to focus on the perfect compassionate care of God in this relationship. Throughout our lives, no matter how dark and lonely our way is, we do experience perfect compassionate care in the relationship we have with our heavenly Father. Biblical words and phrases that help us understand His compassionate care are these: “with us,” “comfort,” and “admonish.”
The beautiful scriptural preposition of the covenant is “with.” In His unconditional love, God is with us. He is with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4). When we pass through the waters and the fires of the sufferings of this life, God promises, “I will be with thee” (Is. 43:2). Because the Lord is with us, we have nothing to fear. We have nothing to fear because absolutely nothing can separate us from His love (Rom. 8). Not only is God with us, but He is in us. God dwells in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who takes up residence in all of God’s people. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19). The Lord is so with us that He is in us. Amazing!
The everywhere-present God, our Father, who is in us by the Spirit is always with us. He promises never to leave us or forsake us. He is with us in the sorrows of the valley, the river, and the fire of hardship and suffering. He is with us in the joys of a wedding, a birth, an adoption, a baptism, a confession of faith, and a sinner repenting. He is with us while He chastens us.
Our Father’s unfailing presence with us is unconditional. It does not depend on what we do. Although we lose the sense of God’s favor when we sin, this does not mean He departs from His people. This does not mean He cuts off the relationship or we lose the fellowship He establishes, maintains, and perfects. We lose the experience of God’s favor and love when we continue in our sin, which is contrary to His holy Being and will. Yet, He is a God who remains with us. His presence with us in love is not dependent on what we do. The more we learn of God’s covenant love the more marvelous it is.
What does this mean for our fellowship with each other within the church? In stark contrast to the cancel culture of our day, we do not simply cancel from our lives people we judge to be toxic. There is a time to sever close ties when a church uses the key of Christian discipline to excommunicate a member (see I Cor. 5). But we do not individually cancel a relationship with those who hurt us. We are to reflect the unconditional love of Jehovah God in our relationships, even when we are sinned against. This is Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you; that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 6:44, 45). Loving those who sin against us is one of the ways we reflect the Father’s love for us.
Remember the other words that express this relationship of fellowship: comfort and admonish. The New Testament word that can be translated either comfort or admonish means literally “to come alongside.” In the sufferings and struggles of this life our Father comes alongside us. Notice the beautiful covenant language. Picture a dejected son sitting on the side of his bed with his head buried in his hands and tears streaming down his face. Mom and dad are on each side of him with their arms around him to console him. This is the idea of coming alongside in love. When the sufferings of this life overwhelm us, we are never alone. Even when no one else sees our tears, we are not alone. Our heavenly Father sees us.
He comes alongside us in His Word and Spirit to comfort and console us. This is what Paul says in II Corinthians 1:3-5, “Blessed be the God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.” In our suffering and tribulation, God comforts us—He comes alongside us to console our troubled souls. Chiefly, our God comforts our troubled souls by declaring His love for us, which is seen most fully in the work of Jesus Christ. When we sin and repent of our sin, He comforts with Christ’s finished work. When we endure suffering, He comforts us with the assurance of His unchanging goodness. He is a God who never withholds any good thing from His people (Ps. 84:11).
We reflect the covenant comfort God gives to us by coming alongside others to comfort them in their sorrows and trials. As parents, we comfort our children when they hurt. In our marriages, one spouse brings encouragement and comfort when the other is down. In the church, we have many opportunities to love each other and come alongside each other with comforting words from Scripture.
When we sin against others and God, He comes alongside us to admonish us. This admonishment is also done in love. Admonishment may include chastisement, which yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12). He comes alongside us to warn us of the way of sin, as He warned the people of Israel through Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. If we question Him in wrong ways like Job did, God comes and reminds us that He is God (see Job 38, as God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind). He comes alongside us to admonish for the sake of strengthening our faith and turning us from sin.
This is the way our relationships in family and church should be. Parents, grandparents, and teachers warn their children of sin. When those children live in sin, parents and/or teachers admonish them, calling them to repentance. Children are called to confess their sin and turn from it in the power of the Holy Spirit. Within the church, we should do this with one another. There should be a freedom to address sin with each other and a readiness to hear this.
We should want marriages, parent-child relationships, and friendships where comforting and admonishing happen regularly. Do you have this? We should desire meaningful relationships in which the focus of the relationship is growing in faith and godliness. We want this because this reflects the most meaningful relationship we have in this life and in the life to come: our relationship of fellowship and love with God. When the glory and beauty of God’s covenant love shine upon us, we want to reflect it. As the moon reflects the light of the sun, so also we reflect the light and beauty of God’s covenant love in our relationships. It is only a reflection. And our reflection is dim because of sin. But it is a reflection nonetheless.
To this reflection we will turn next time by considering what it means to have meaningful relationships in home and church.
1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 37.