“You have often refreshed the hearts of the saints.”
So Paul wrote to his good friend Philemon, as he thanked God for his love for all the saints. The church at Colosse met in Philemon and Apphia’s home, and it’s not hard to imagine what life must have been like for the household. No doubt every day there was constant coming and going of visitors in and out of the house. There was a guest room for visitors (Phm 22) which was probably well used. Apphia must surely have cooked many meals for guests. When you arrived at Philemon’s home you were always sure of a warm welcome – you never felt like you were intruding – they were the sort of people who were always pleased to see you and who were genuinely delighted to have people stay. Can't you just picture Philemon and Apphia sitting with people far into the night, giving comfort and counsel, praying with them, refreshing them in the depths of their souls. This word ‘refresh’ is used elsewhere in Greek of soldiers resting. What a beautiful image of Philemon’s ministry: to battle-weary believers worn out from fighting against temptation or persecution or false teaching or mockery and rejection, he brought relief. A word in season to encourage or advise or exhort or cheer up. You know the sort of person, don’t you? You feel better after being with them. You seek them out when you’re feeling low. When people were discouraged and run down, they went to find Philemon.
Christian fellowship is a joy and a blessing. As we spend time with like-minded brothers and sisters we are meant to refresh one another’s hearts. God pours his grace from heaven into our weary souls through the conduit of our fellow Christians—their encouragements (and loving rebukes), their smiles, their hugs, their wisdom; as we listen to their preaching, praises and prayers, God strengthens us. This is why the weekly public worship of our local church is so vital if we are to keep running the Christian race.
Christian conferences are not more important than our weekly worship services, but when they work well they can be a wonderful source of refreshment. I’m writing these words at 17,000 feet somewhere over Africa as I travel home from one such time of refreshment. I’m thankful to the Lord for the privilege of getting to know some 150 brothers and sisters I knew virtually nothing about before last Friday. Tertullian quoted a non-Christian contemporary who said incredulously of Christians, ‘They love one another almost before they know one another.’ That was certainly my experience at the Evangelical and Reformed Conference of South Africa, meeting at the Skogheim Christian Conference Centre.
Everything about the conference was terrific—it was extremely well organised, the setting is beautiful (Port Shepstone, on the shores of the Indian Ocean), the food was excellent (I quickly developed a taste for Rooibos tea and Milk Tart), the teaching was biblical and warmly applied. But what really makes a conference a success is the attitude of the people who attend. I had been assured by a previous speaker at the conference that the people were exceptionally warm and appreciative and this proved to be no exaggeration. There were forty people attending the conference for the first time, including myself; what a blessing it is when God’s people are friendly and open towards visitors rather than cliquey; when they are genuinely interested in others rather than wrapped up in themselves; when they are eager to learn rather than ready to criticise. It’s always a joy to visit believers in another culture and see the same gospel that we ourselves believe working with the same power and doing the same work of saving and sanctifying sinners in an entirely different part of the world. It was especially moving to see the fruits of the unifying, reconciling power of the gospel in a part of the world blighted by so much division in the past, as black, white and coloured ate together, laughed together and stood and sang praise to their one God together in both English and Afrikaans.
Why not look for a good conference near you if you’ve never been to one before. I recommend the Evangelical and Reformed Conference at Skogheim if you’re in the area, but there are many others. Go and have your heart refreshed, and refresh the hearts of others. And let’s especially commit to doing this work of mutual refreshing all the more in our own congregations as we gather each Lord’s Day.