November 4th — Philemon 25: The Gift of Grace

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

–Philemon 25 (ESV)

In a piece of music, grace notes are added, not because they are needed to make the melody, but because they make the melody more beautiful.  The Graces of Greek mythology, Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”), bring charm, beauty, human creativity, and fertility.  People who are considerate or thoughtful are said to have “good grace”.  A particularly skilled dancer is said to be “graceful”, while an agreeable or charming personal quality is sometimes called a “saving grace”.  You can sometimes receive something unexpected through another’s “good graces”.  Archbishops are referred to as “Your Grace”.  Are you starting to see the picture?

The Greek word charis, as we’ve already discussed, means gratitude, favor, joy, and goodwill.  The English word “grace” comes from the Latin gratia which means favor, charm, and thanks.  It is, for my money, the most beautiful word in our language, and one that has remained uncorrupted.  To hear this word is to breathe a sigh of relief, to relax one’s shoulders, to even let a smile creep across our lips.  Grace is not necessary for life, but what is life without it?  Without grace, we are mere animals, slaves to the instinct to destroy and hoard, living lives that are nasty, brutish, and short.  The world leads us to expect nothing but tragedy.  Grace is the spirit of comedy, the unforeseen joy so absurd that we cannot help but laugh.  Grace opens us to creativity and adventure; every newborn baby is grace incarnate.  If you’ve ever caught your breath at a beautiful sunset or gotten lost in a conversation over a cup of coffee or danced to your favorite song or had a really good cry, you’ve experienced just a taste of grace.  It is the most superfluous thing in the world; it is the most essential thing in the world.  Trying to define it is like trying to remember a dream after you wake up.  “For by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8).  It’s about so much more than heaven.  It’s about being saved: from misery and death, from failure and despair, from the mundane and ordinary, even from ourselves.  It’s what our faith is all about.

Paul ends his letter as he began it, wishing grace upon Philemon or, more specifically, on his spirit.  In Greek, that last word is pneumatos, which means spirit but also wind and breath.  Our spirit is as insubstantial and essential as our breath.  As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”  (John 3:8).  Grace speaks to that part of ourselves that we cannot get a hold of, just as you cannot catch the wind.  Paul wants, more than anything, for Philemon to experience grace, because only through that experience can he truly welcome Onesimus back as a brother.  More than that, it is only through grace that all of them — Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon — can enter everlasting life.  For the Holy Spirit is offered as a free gift by our Heavenly Father through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  It is a foretaste of heaven.  In the words of Jonathan Edwards, “Grace is but Glory begun, and Glory is but Grace perfected”.  Eternal life does not begin when we die; it starts today.  Instead of telling the world about heaven, wouldn’t it be better to give them a taste of heaven by showing them grace?  Maybe we should start by offering it to ourselves.

Only Christianity is foolish enough to make the love of God unconditional.  But that is our message for the world.  Even if you are a thief and a runaway, even if you are a rich man making money off the backs of the poor, even if you are a prisoner condemned to die, God loves you.  God loves you, God has forgiven you, God is not mad at you, and God will never leave you nor forsake you.  Let us allow the grace of God into our spirits so that we may offer it to a world literally dying for it.  Author and minister Frederick Buechner summarizes my point better than I could ever hope to:

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too. (Wishful Thinking, p. 38-39)

May the grace of Jesus Christ be with all of you.




November 3rd — Philemon 24: Four Portraits of the Christian Life

…and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

–Philemon 24 (ESV)

In the introduction to this series, I mentioned that Philemon contains a surprisingly large cast of characters.  Tucked away in this verse-long greeting from Paul are four fascinating biographies.  Studying history is its own reward (said the history major), but I think they also have lessons to teach us today.

Mark:  The first time we meet Mark, he’s naked.  At least, it is traditionally thought to be Mark in this memorable passage from his own gospel, set in the Garden of Gethsemane: “And a young man followed [Jesus], with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked” (14:52-53).  Following Jesus isn’t always glamorous.  This young man’s full name is John Mark, who is presumably the same as Mark the evangelist, author of the gospel, who is presumably the same as the Mark in today’s verse.  One early church historian (Hippolytus of Rome) claims that they were three different people, but that is not the scholarly consensus anymore.  So I’m going to treat all of these “Marks” as the same person.  With both a Semitic name (John) and a Greco-Roman one (Mark), he, like many early Christians, straddled two worlds.  He was born in Jerusalem to a woman named Mary, whose was influential enough to be Peter’s first stop after his miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12:12).  Mark joined his cousin Barnabas (Colossians 4:10) and Paul on their first mission to Jerusalem (Acts 12:25).  He then accompanied the two apostles on their first missionary journey, but turned back for reasons unknown at Perga and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).  This caused a major rift between Paul and Barnabas, with Paul accusing Mark of desertion while Barnabas stuck up for his cousin (Acts 15:36-40).  The argument was so divisive that Paul took Silas on his second missionary journey instead of Barnabas, while Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus.  Some speculate that the real reason for the division was Paul insisting that Gentile converts like Mark did not have to abide by Jewish law, which had been a point of contention between Paul and Barnabas (Galatians 2:13).

But Mark’s story ends happily.  There was clearly a reconciliation between the two leading to Mark assisting Paul in Rome.  Colossians 4:10 indicates that Paul expected Mark to make his way to Colossae, and he commands that they “welcome him”, while in 2 Timothy he calls Mark “very useful to me for ministry” (4:11).  We can see, once again, the power of Christ to reconcile even bitter divisions.  Race, family loyalties, and theological differences can lead to great divisions if we allow them to.  But the work of the Kingdom is bigger than that.  We should be bigger than that, too.

Aristarchus:  As the name suggests, Aristarchus was a Greek — Macedonian, to be more specific (Acts 27:2).  He hailed from Thessalonica (Acts 20:4) and is listed as one of Paul’s “traveling companions” on his third missionary journey (Acts 19:29).  On that trip, he got to be a part of one of my favorite incidents in the New Testament (Acts 19).  In Ephesus, a silversmith named Demetrius is angry that his sales on shrines to Artemis are hurting due to all the people converting to Christianity.  So he decides to whip up a mob on the pretext that Artemis is being blasphemed.  Poor Aristarchus gets swept up in the mob which pours into the theater in the city (meanwhile Paul has to be held back from joining the riot).  Most people have no idea why they’re there, but rioting is always fun, am I right?  For two hours, the crowd screams about Artemis until finally the town clerk (of all people) quiets the ruckus with the simple argument that there are courts for this sort of thing, people.  Despite this brush with death, Aristarchus continued on with Paul into his native Macedonia (Acts 20:4).  As today’s verse indicates, he stayed with Paul all the way to Rome.  Perseverance, even in the face of great persecution, can reap great rewards.  Aristarchus should inspire us to not let tribulation or persecution deter us from preaching the gospel.

Demas:  Demas was, like Aristarchus, probably a native of Thessalonica.  His first appearance is in today’s verse and its parallel in Colossians 4:14, indicating that he was one of the many faithful ministers working in Rome with Paul.  Unfortunately, just a couple of years later, Paul writes, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10).  With that, Demas disappears from history.  He began well, but he was like the seeds sown among thorns in Jesus’ parable: “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22).  He is a mirror image of Mark, who rejected worldly things that had separated him from Paul in order to pursue his ministry of reconciliation.  Unlike Demas, our life and our love must be singularly focused:

  • You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  (James 4:4)
  • Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him…and the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 12:15, 17)

We must put God first and reject any worldly thing, no matter how noble, that puts itself in His place.  To do anything else is adultery against our first love and a desertion of our calling.  May Demas be a warning to us all.

Luke:  Luke was a Gentile physician.  He was likely converted by Paul and was a companion with him on his missionary journeys.  This is indicated in the book of Acts, the second book of his two-part series that begins with the gospel bearing his name.  The book of Acts has a bizarre tendency to slip into first person, which seems to indicate that Luke was adding his own memories to the story (as opposed to his gospel, which is obviously based on interviews, particularly with Mary and Peter).  He seems to have spent a long time in Philippi, ministering there until Paul’s journey to Rome, which is why he shows up in today’s verse.  He would be one of the few people to stick with Paul to the end of the latter’s life (“only Luke is with me” [2 Timothy 4:11]).

Luke is a favorite of mine, as he ably combined education and a deft writing style with deep empathy.  Luke’s gospel highlights women in a way unique to the Bible, and the evangelist seems to have a particular sympathy for the outcast, perhaps because of his work as a physician or his Gentile status or both.  He has a sly sense of humor and a historians eye for the telling detail.  Luke experienced neither the highs and lows of Mark and Demas nor the dramatic events of Aristarchus.  Instead, his life shows us the value of steadfastness, of careful study, and of faithfulness.  Our lives may seem quotidian, but if we give our talents to God, as Luke the physician did, we can bear tremendous fruit.  If you’re having a boring or tedious day, think of Luke quietly toiling away on his gospel or tending to the sick, and do whatever small task you have in front of you for the Lord.  You may be surprised what he can do with just a mustard seed of faith.

November 2nd — Philemon 22: Compassionate Living

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you

–Philemon 22 (ESV)

When we ask someone to have compassion, we are making a serious request.  The word “compassion” is derived from the Latin compassio from the roots com (“with”) and pati (“to suffer”).  To have compassion is to suffer with someone, to experience their pain along with them.  I once joked that my church should have the seeker-friendly slogan “come suffer with us” because that’s what the Christian life is really about.  We “rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).  This goes beyond mere empathy, which is simply understanding how another feels.  Compassion means walking with someone through their suffering, becoming a part of their experience.  That is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.  We are mystically part of a single organism, for we have all died and all now live in Christ.  So, as Paul says elsewhere, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  If the book of Philemon has taught us anything, it is that the Christian life is not meant to be a solitary affair.  It is lived in community, for good and for ill.

This theme is picked up by the author to the Hebrews when he says, “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (13:3).  Thus we come to today’s verse.  Paul has completed his appeal to Philemon and is now sending greetings to the church at Colossae (to whom the letter would be read; see verse 2).  Primacy of place is given to Epaphras.  This saint is mentioned in two other places, both in the book of Colossians:

  • Just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit. (1:7-8)
  • Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.  For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. (4:12-13)

These verses are all we have to go on, but they do paint a picture.  Epaphras was a native or at least a resident, of Colossae.  He was probably converted by Paul, perhaps (like Philemon) while Paul was ministering at Ephesus and went on to found the Colossian church.  The title of “servant” here is sometimes Pauline code for “bishop”.  If Philemon was a bishop, it seems odd that there would be two (though ecclesiastical hierarchy was in its infancy), but Epaphras was obviously a clergyman of some kind.  He was also a faithful man of prayer who embodied the full meaning of compassion.  He worked as a missionary or travelling clergyman in two other cities, and he was the one who brought Paul the report about Colossae that inspired the writing of the letter to the Colossians.  At the writing of Philemon, he is clearly with Paul in Rome.  Like Philemon, he is one of the quiet servants of God who would have gone unnoticed to history were it not for these brief mentions.

What are we to make of Paul calling Epaphras “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus”?  The most obvious explanation is that Epaphras had been arrested in Rome for preaching the gospel.  This is possible, of course, but it seems unlikely to me.  The Romans mostly left Christians alone before the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.  It seems more plausible to me that Epaphras was staying with Paul while he was under house arrest and supporting his ministry, just as Onesimus was.  Either way, he chose imprisonment over freedom for the sake of the gospel.  Moreover, as I mentioned in my meditation on Paul as prisoner, he was a prisoner in Christ Jesus (en Christō Iēsou).  That little word “in” could be translated “into Christ Jesus.  He, like Paul, had been baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3) and now lived as a bondservant of Christ.  He is living out compassion, suffering with Paul and striving in prayer on behalf of his beloved Colossian church.

Let’s not ignore the end of the verse, in which Epaphras sends greetings.  In our age of instant communication, it has paradoxically become easier to disconnect from people.  Because we can talk to someone in an instant, we often don’t actually bother to do so.  But a crucial part of a compassionate life is remaining in contact with others, particularly our brothers and sisters in Christ.  If the Lord brings someone to mind that you haven’t seen or talked to recently, send greetings.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s a call or a text or an email or a Facebook message or a carrier pigeon, just let them know you’re thinking about them and that you care.  Loneliness is an epidemic in our country, and deaths of despair are on the rise.  A simple greeting can be literally life saving.  Moreover, it builds up the body of Christ, just as our circulatory and nervous systems keep our physical bodies living and connected.  So, like Epaphras, let us show compassion to one another today.


November 1st — Philemon 22: Preparing a Room

At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

–Philemon 22 (ESV)

There is an old Yiddish proverb:  “we plan; God laughs”.  There is a special melancholy to this for the Jews, who are such meticulous record-keepers and planners, and yet who throughout history have their plans upended by God and man.  But they do not give up hope.  To pick just one example, at the Seder dinner at Passover, the fifth ceremonial cup of wine is left untouched because it is Elijah’s cup.  The door to the room is left ajar while Scripture is read, in hopes that Elijah will arrive and announce the coming of the Messiah.  To my knowledge, he has yet to make a physical appearance (although he is said to attend every circumcision ceremony; an empty chair is left out for that purpose).  But here we see the confluence of expectation and hospitality that hearkens back to the birth of the faith.  For Abraham entertained three strangers by the oaks of Mamre, and in return for his hospitality he was promised a child and an everlasting heritage (Genesis 18).  As the book of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2).  So the Jews continue to make room for God to arrive, a hospitality born of hope.  Just this week, we have seen the Jewish community of Pittsburgh come together in the wake of the slaughter of 11 of their own.  They have taken turns every hour day and night sitting in the morgue with the bodies, as Jewish tradition dictates that bodies cannot be left unaccompanied until after they are buried.  So we see that hope and hospitality do not end even in death.  We Christians could probably learn something from this.

Paul clearly had big plans.  The lax nature of his imprisonment and the lack of seriousness with which the Romans were taking his “crimes” meant that surely he would be released soon (cf. Philippians 2:24).  He hopes to make another missionary journey through Asia Minor and visit Philemon, so he asks for a guest room.  He may well have made it.  Tradition has it that Paul was released from prison, only to be arrested once again under Nero’s persecution after the Great Fire of 64 AD, which we’ve already discussed.  He had hoped to make it to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28), but it’s unclear if he ever got that far.  Either way, his expectations for a second act in his ministry proved short lived.  He would be beheaded on the Via Appia sometime between 64 and 68 AD.  We plan; God laughs.  Even so, Philemon preparing for Paul’s arrival would put him in the proper attitude to receive Onesimus, which was probably Paul’s motive all along.

The Bible constantly commands us to be hospitable, to strangers and especially to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Since they all say roughly the same thing, I’ll spare you a bullet list but here are some citations to meditate on: Leviticus 19:34; Isaiah 58:7; Romans 12:13; Titus 1:8; 1 Peter 4:9.  Jesus said, “whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).  Hospitality is welcoming all, and doing the least act of service, as if it were for Christ Himself.  This is scarier than it sounds.  I have said that the home is a center of Christian life, a “haven of blessing and peace”.  To open that haven to others is to make yourself vulnerable.  But it is a crucial virtue to combat the tendency to isolate ourselves from others.  Especially in the 21st century, it is very easy to bunker down in our homes and insular communities and only interact with others superficially and sparingly.  The command to hospitality forces us to open our lives to others in ways that may make us uncomfortable, but will also help us to grow more into the image of Christ.  Indeed, Jesus says that, when we throw a banquet, we are not to invite our friends and families and other well-off people, but instead “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13).  Our houses (and our churches) should be spaces where people feel welcomed and safe.  Unlike the innkeeper in Bethlehem (Luke 2:7), we are always to have room for the poor, because you might be welcoming Christ Himself.

But why be hospitable?  Won’t people take advantage of us?  Isn’t it just a lot of trouble?  Well, yes to both those questions.  But don’t forget that Jesus mentioned a reward.  Our Lord says, “in my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).  In short, we are to prepare room for Christ in others because Christ is preparing a room for us.  Just as we are to forgive because we have been forgiven, so we are to prepare a room for others because God is preparing a room for us.  Just like the Jews, we practice hospitality because we have hope.  Yes, hospitality is a lot of trouble, but remember that Jesus said, “in the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  Despite all the common sense reasons for not doing so, we open our doors to strangers because that is the only way that Christ can reach some people.  The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh opened their doors and now 11 of them are dead.  Yet they will, I’m sure, continue to welcome others, because it is what the Law requires.  We, too, should continue to welcome others because it is what love requires.  We cannot let hope be drowned by fear.  So let us prepare room for one another, not only in our homes but in our hearts, so that at Christ’s return He “may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (Book of Common Prayer, collect for 4 Advent, p. 212).


October 31st — Philemon 21: Obedience to Love

Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say

–Philemon 21 (ESV)

If you need training in becoming a UN diplomat or a corporate negotiator, try feeding a picky toddler.  My daughter knows that she has to eat “real food” before she can have something sweet.  So it ends up going something like this:  “eat your chicken nuggets and some of your apple slices and you can have a cookie.”  (a little later)  “o.k., eat at least one chicken nugget and one apple slice.”  (still later) “just eat a chicken nugget and drink some milk, please, before you starve to death.”  She is testing me, of course, trying to find the absolute minimum she has to do to get what she wants.  Children do this all the time, testing boundaries to see at what point they start to get in trouble.  Then they go right up to the line and turn to you with a mischievous grin.  Anyone with a sibling will remember the age-old game of putting a finger inches from your sibling’s face, and when he or she complains, you say “but I’m not touching you”.  It seems to be human nature to follow the rules only as far as we have to.  We will do what we must, but no more.

Jesus had no time for those who just followed the rules.  He tells the following parable in Luke’s gospel:

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?  Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?  Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’  (17:7-10)

Serving God involves so much more than just fulfilling religious obligations and “doing our duty”.  The Pharisees were masters at being religious and had a long list of duties that they fulfilled.  But Jesus condemns them (Matthew 23) because they do their deeds for the wrong motives, in order to stoke their vanity and to increase their prestige and position.  They lay impossible burdens on the backs of others while doing little themselves.  Here, I think, is the key verse: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).  Or, to put it another way, you missed the forest for the trees.  The Pharisees had become so concerned with the minutiae of following their own religious laws that they had neglected the broader command of God.  Their outward holiness masked their inward corruption.  This is the danger of just “doing your duty”.  I fear that 21st century Christians look more like the Pharisees than Jesus.

In today’s verse, Paul encourages Philemon to go beyond surface obedience.  The implication here is that he wants Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom, so that he may return to help Paul in his ministry.  This is why I would say that accusing Paul of being an apologist for slavery is missing the point.  The letter of the law says that Onesimus should remain a slave, but grace says that he has been set free.  “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6b).  This is the message of the gospel: that Christ fulfilled and superseded the Law: “for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).  He is “the end” of the Law not in the sense of abolishing it, but in the sense of being the reason for its existence.  “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).  We become right with God not by fulfilling a list of religious obligations, but simply through faith in Jesus Christ, accepting His work on our behalf.  So doing the minimum by “being religious” (whatever that means) is not only Pharisaical, it’s pointless.  We literally don’t have to do anything to be right with God because the work has been done for us.

So does this mean we have nothing to do, that obedience is a meaningless word now?  As Paul would say, certainly not!  Remember: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).  And what does it mean to love God?  For once Jesus gives us a direct answer: “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15).  At first this seems like a circular answer, for His command is to love.  But that’s kind of the point.  If you read on in John 14, you will see that Jesus promises his disciples the Holy Spirit (“the Spirit of truth”) who will reveal the Father to them.  Christ’s commands are, of course, the ones found in Scripture, but there is so much more than that.  Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we have constant access to Jesus.  Thus, obedience to Christ flows from our relationship with Christ in prayer, Scripture, worship, and service.  Obedience is listening to God’s voice through whatever means He might wish to speak and following through immediately, completely, and joyfully.  We ought to listen to those over us in the faith (as Philemon listened to Paul), and be obedient to the Church.  We should practice accountability with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Most of all, we must listen our own conscience, trained in Scripture and prayer, and follow the prompting of the Spirit.  Obedience to Christ is about so much more than doing the minimum in order to get into heaven, like my toddler doing just enough to get a cookie.  No, we follow Christ by cultivating a relationship of love with Him and spreading that love to all those we meet.  Let our lives be lived in obedience to the extravagant love and grace of God.



October 30th — Philemon 20: Benefiting Others

Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

–Philemon 20 (ESV)

This verse is a “greatest hits” of Philemon.  He calls Philemon “brother” (see verse 16).  He puns again on Onesimus’s name (verse 11).  He asks to be refreshed (verse 7) in his heart, or more specifically his splachna (verse 12), in Christ (verse 6).  Paul is pulling all the threads together to conclude his argument to Philemon.  After pushing Philemon pretty hard for a few verses, Paul eases up here.  He is just asking for a favor, one friend to another.  In the end, that’s what this whole book comes down to.

There is a Latin phrase that has gotten a lot of play recently due to the culture of conspiracy theories that thrives online.  That phrase is “cui bono?”, which translates “to whom is the benefit?”  This is an idea, articulated by Cicero among others, that crimes generally benefit the perpetrator, particularly financially.  So you can often discover the true source of a crime by discovering who has the most to gain from it.  You can see how this sort of thinking can lead to conspiratorial ideas, as there is always an explanation for events that goes back to the One World Government or “international bankers” (read: Jews) or the Deep State or whatever.  But it’s not a bad question to ask in other contexts.  In today’s verse, Paul asks Philemon to provide him “some benefit”.  That word “benefit”, appearing only here in the New Testament, is onaimēn, a form of oninémi (you can see the pun on Onesimus’s name here).  The word is variously translated: benefit, profit, favor, and joy.  The feeling is a bit like Christmas morning or discovering that you’re getting a raise at work — it’s a joy that comes from receiving bountifully.  This feeling is often missing in the Christian life, because ministry can be difficult and thankless, and life’s inevitable suffering does not bypass even the most devout.  All this can lead one to cry “cui bono?”  If I’m sacrificing so much for the gospel and seeing so little benefit, what’s the point?

The answer can be summed up in phrase that is basically the slogan of the church I am a member of:  “it’s not about you and it’s not about me.  It’s about the Kingdom”.  We do not live for our own benefit; we live for Christ:

  • For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15)
  • For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:7-8)
  • For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:19-20)

As we mentioned yesterday, we were bought with a price, ransomed by the blood of Christ from death.  Therefore, our life no longer belongs to us.  We live to benefit Christ and His kingdom in whatever way he sees fit.  The great commandment, to love God and to love our neighbors, compels us to live for the benefit of each other.  If you do receive a gift, use it to serve others (1 Peter 4:10).  Blessings from the Lord do not exist for us to hoard and accumulate to ourselves; they are to be freely shared.  That is the message of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).  Those who put that which God has given them to work will receive a reward, while those who hide their gifts away will receive condemnation.  The gifts of the Spirit are given “for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).  I think Paul sums it up best in a passage worth quoting in full:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:3-11)

Cui bono?  Who benefits from living a life in Christ?  Everyone.  For Christ is exalted, the hungry are fed, the prisoners visited, the sick cared for, the distressed comforted.  Orphans and widows are given a family, while injustice and oppression are opposed.  In doing all of this we are blessed, “for from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16).  Life in Jesus involves following the way of Jesus, which is the way of self-denial and the Cross (Luke 9:23).  But through this sacrifice we receive life and peace (Romans 8:6).  This is the upside-down logic of the gospel, in which the only way to receive is to give, the only way to be first is to be last, and the only way to live abundantly is to die daily.  So let us benefit one another today.



October 29th — Philemon 19: Writing with a Thorn in the Flesh

I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.

–Philemon 19 (ESV)

There is a beautiful scene in the 2006 film Amazing Grace in which William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) goes to visit an aged John Newton (the brilliant Albert Finney).  Wilberforce, a member of British parliament, is debating whether or not to introduce a bill for the abolition of the slave trade.  Newton had been a slave ship’s captain before his conversion, and now he is a clergyman, living in sackcloth.  He also penned one of the greatest hymns ever written, “Amazing Grace”.  Newton’s eyesight is failing, but he is (with the help of an amanuensis) writing his memoirs about the horrors of the slave trade.  “Although my memory is fading,” he tells Wilberforce, “I remember two things very clearly:  I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior.”  He asks Wilberforce to publish his confessions, and he weeps with sorrow and relief.  Then Newton turns his cloudy eyes to the young MP and cries out, “‘I once was blind but now I see.’  Didn’t I write that, too?…Well, now at last it’s true.”  And what a truth!  Inspired by the words of this visionary blind man, Wilberforce and his fellow evangelicals would turn the tide in Great Britain against slavery and, in 1807, the slave trade was abolished in the Empire.  Such things happen when great sinners put their lives into the hands of a Great Savior.

The apostle Paul also liked to use an amanuensis.  I always picture him pacing back and forth in his jail cell, gesticulating wildly, all the while some poor young man is scratching away furiously with a quill pen.  At the end of Romans, there is a little verse I’ve always liked: “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord” (16:22).  I always wonder if dear Tertius just sort of snuck his name into the Bible.  In fact, if you want to be pedantic, when someone asks you who wrote Romans, you should reply “Tertius” and watch the confusion blossom on their face.  Anyway, all this is to say that Paul put pen to paper very rarely.  He would occasionally end his epistles with a personal, handwritten greeting (e.g. 1 Corinthians 16:21 & Colossians 4:18).  But the implication of today’s verse is that Paul wrote the whole letter of Philemon by hand himself.  This underscores just how deeply important Onesimus was to him, and, perhaps, how sensitive this transaction was.  I get the feeling that all of the business in the previous verse about debts, combined with Paul’s “oh-and-by-the-way” reminder that Philemon owes Paul his “own self” (presumably, his salvation), that there was a need for confidentiality here.  Paul is writing this like a private contract — “here’s my signature,” he is saying, “I’m good for whatever payment you’re owed (and, actually, you owe me!).”  As Proverbs says, “argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret” (25:9).  This is also in keeping with the principle of Matthew 18:15, which we’ve discussed already, that conflicts should be resolved in private between the two parties, if possible.  Paul is demonstrating the value here of prudence, privacy, respect, and trust between Christians.

I’m about to journey into complete speculation here, but I think that writing this letter was also a physical sacrifice for Paul.  In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, Paul says:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

There has been endless speculation about the exact nature of this “thorn”, but many people think it may have been poor eyesight. In Galatians 4, Paul mentions that he preached the gospel to them because of a “bodily ailment”, and they gladly received him.  He goes on: “For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me” (v.15).  At the end of that same epistle, he writes one of his customary handwritten greetings, commenting “see with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (6:11).  It’s possible that Paul didn’t have bad eyesight and the “thorn in the flesh” was something else entirely; we just don’t know.  But remember what happened when Christ confronted Paul on the road to Damascus?  Paul saw a bright light and heard the voice of Jesus, causing him to fall to the ground.  Afterward, “Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:8-9).  The Lord later restored his eyesight, but I can’t help but wonder if He left Paul a little myopic (physically) in order to keep him humble.

Blind men are forced to develop their other senses to survive.  Perhaps God wanted Paul to be able to hear His voice clearly, and so he limited Paul’s vision.  Whatever the reason, just as for John Newton, Paul learned how to experience the sufficient grace of God.  Like Newton, Paul was an evil man in his younger days, murdering and enslaving others in service to a corrupt culture.  And like Newton, Paul discovered the amazing grace of God in Jesus Christ, and, in so doing, changed the world.  Jesus once said, “if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14).  But maybe, this once, we should take the lead of these blind men, for perhaps they see things that we cannot.  They can hear that sweet sound that saves wretches and finds the lost.  They are great sinners who discovered an even greater Savior.


October 28th — Philemon 18: Debtors Forgiving Debts

If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

–Philemon 18 (ESV)

Debt is the curse of our age.  The great financial collapse of 2008 was caused by unpaid mortgages, and student loans have enslaved a generation.  Predatory lending practices run rampant, particularly in our poorest communities.  Even “legitimate” forms of debt, like credit card and medical debt, send millions into bankruptcy every year.  “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender” (Proverbs 22:7).  The rich can invest their money and become even richer because they charge interest to the poor.  To take Jesus a bit out of context, “for to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12).  This is just the way of the world, the price of living in a capitalist society that has produced unprecedented material abundance.  Inequality is just baked into the pie, so to speak.  There is nothing we can do about it that won’t make the problem worse.

Except the Bible has a solution:  don’t charge interest.  The prohibitions against usury are manifold and unmistakable:

  • If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. (Exodus 22:25)
  • You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. (Deuteronomy 23:19)
  • …lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:13)
  • But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High… (Luke 6:35)

We, as Christians, are not to charge interest when lending money.  In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that if someone steals from us, we are actually to give them even more, never refusing a beggar (Matthew 5:40-42).  The only way to end the cycle of poverty is through radical generosity.  For we cannot worship both God and Money (Matthew 6:24).  In light of my previous meditation about seeing Christ in others, Proverbs reminds us that “whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed” (19:17).  This is why the early Church held property in common (Acts 2:44-45; yes, it’s socialism, but the only kind of socialism that works: small-scale, and under apostolic authority).  If we truly believe that our treasure is in heaven (Matthew 6:20), we will not hold too tightly to our earthly mammon.

Today’s verse is why commentators believe that Onesimus probably stole something from Philemon.  It seems that Onesimus was nervous about returning to his former master because of either stolen goods or an unpaid debt.  And indeed Philemon would be within his rights to demand the value of his goods back with interest, and he could punish Onesimus severely.  Paul preempts this entirely by offering to pay off any debt Onesimus may owe.  For, let’s be clear, Onesimus not only stole from Philemon, but his escape itself put a financial burden upon his master.  Paul is a prisoner and no rich man, yet he promises to pay Philemon back instead.  That “to my account” probably doesn’t refer to an actual account sheet, but it just indicates that Paul will pay the debt.  By this act, the apostle is gently reminding Philemon of the Biblical mandate to generosity and forgiveness.  Which opens up another layer of this verse.

Notice that Paul says not just “if he owes you anything”, but also “if he has wronged you at all”.  Paul is asking Philemon to offer absolute forgiveness to Onesimus on Paul’s behalf.  How can Paul make such an enormous request?  Well, because Christ did the same for Philemon.  For Philemon owed a debt he could not pay, a debt of sin that no amount of good works could cover, but Christ paid it on his behalf.  As Peter puts it, “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).  Paul himself says, “for there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6, cf. Matthew 20:28).  We have all been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 7:23).  This is the real basis for generosity.  As recipients of such an extravagant gift, how can we not willingly give to others?  This is why the Lord’s prayer reminds us that God will forgive us “as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  Think of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35), where a servant is punished for refusing to forgive a small debt after having his own enormous debt forgiven.  We are all to forgive in proportion to the amount that we have been forgiven. 

This, of course, is much bigger than just money.  I will spare you another bullet list, because I don’t think I need to prove that the central message of Scripture is about forgiveness.  We are to forgive, repeatedly, lavishly, and without prejudice.  More than that, we are, like Paul, to take on the burden of helping reconcile others when given the opportunity.  For the ministry of Christ is a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).  This may mean apologizing for things we haven’t done or paying off debts we don’t owe.  God calls us to radical, reckless generosity.  So let us forgive one another and find ways to offer the gift of Jesus Christ, in whatever form that takes today.  

October 26th — Philemon 17: Christ in Disguise

So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.

–Philemon 17 (ESV)

One of my all-time favorite movies is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  Based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian and starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, the movie tells the story of the HMS Surprise, a British Royal Navy ship during the Napoleonic Wars.  The Surprise is chasing a French privateer into the South Pacific.  In the film’s climax, Aubrey has laid a trap for the French ship, disguising the Surprise as a humble whaling vessel in order to entice the French to board.  All the while, they are really preparing an ambush.  Before this final battle, Aubrey addresses his men, and the speech ends with these words:  “England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England. So it’s every hand to his rope or gun, quick’s the word and sharp’s the action. After all, Surprise is on our side.”  We too are in enemy-occupied territory on this earth.  We too hail from a different country, a different Kingdom.  We no longer represent just ourselves — we represent the King.

This verse breaks neatly in half, so let’s start with the first half.  Paul begins by reminding Philemon that they are partners in the ministry of Jesus Christ.  The word partner here is koinōnon, which should ring a bell.  In the meditation on verse 6, we talked about koinonia in the context of sharing the faith.  Paul is hearkening back to that, although here it is more intense.  In its singular form and with no qualifiers, Paul uses this word in only one other place (2 Corinthians 8:23), referring to Titus.  There is clearly a special bond between Paul and Philemon.  Incidentally, this is why commentators assume Philemon was a bishop; it is hard to imagine Paul speaking in such terms of anyone other than an ecclesiastical equal this way.  Whatever the reason, the apostle is pulling out all the stops to entreat Philemon to receive Onesimus back.  The bond of koinonia brings with it the obligations of grace.

The second half of the verse also reiterates a theme, this time of Onesimus as an ambassador (see the meditation on verse 12).  Philemon is to receive this runaway slave back as if he were Paul himself.  This brings to mind the words of Jesus: “truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (John 13:20).  We are to treat other believers as if they are Christ.  Even beyond that, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40).  We are to treat everyone as if they were Christ, particularly the poor, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, and those in prison.  A bishop in our denomination often likes to remind us to “see Christ disguised in the poor”.  When Jesus came the first time, he did not look the way we thought He would.  Why would it be any different now?  Christ comes to us today in the person of a runaway, a junkie, a difficult coworker, an estranged family member, a little child.  We are called to receive all of them as if they were Christ.  That’s really, really difficult.  Only through prayer and by the power of the Holy Spirit can we hope to even begin this kind of work.  Let us take these words to heart:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

If we are to be ambassadors for Christ, we must stop seeing one another from a worldly point of view.  We must be about the ministry of reconciliation, treating the lost as prisoners of war.  Like Jack Aubrey, God has come in disguise to do battle for His world.  The devil never saw Jesus coming the first time, and His return will be just as much of a shock.  For now,  each one of us as believers is like a ship flying the flag of our true home, for “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).  So quick’s the word and sharp’s the action.  After all, surprise is on our side.

October 25th — Philemon 16: Brothers and Sisters in Christ

…no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

–Philemon 16 (ESV)

My favorite character on the TV show Lost was an enigmatic Scotsman named Desmond Hume (played by the brilliant Henry Ian Cusick).  [SPOILERS for Lost follow]  The show follows a group of survivors of a plane crash as they explore the mysterious island on which they find themselves.  It appears deserted of human life until they discover a hatch in the middle of the jungle.  Season 1 ends with two of the characters, Jack Shephard and John Locke (yes, the names on this show are meaningful), blow the top of the hatch off and peer down.  As Season 2 begins, we discover that there is a man living in a bunker below the hatch.  That man is Desmond.  In a flashback, we learn that Jack and Desmond have met before, while running in an empty stadium.  Shepard has a messiah complex, and, as a doctor, he is flagellating himself for not being able to heal a patient who he promised to fix (and with whom he happens to be in love).  When Jack unburdens himself to Desmond after twisting his ankle, the Scot gives Jack the advice to “lift it up” (he meant just the ankle…or did he?).  As he leaves Desmond says, “Good luck, brother.  I’ll see you in another life”.  How true that would turn out to be.  Half a world away, on a magical island, they would meet again.  And Desmond would again call Jack “brother”.

You may have noticed the “ESV” after each citation from Philemon this month.  That stands for the English Standard Version, a 2001 update of the Revised Standard Version, one of the best post-King James translations.  I like the ESV because it is both readable and true to the original languages (it is considered “essentially literal” for you translation nerds).  It is a very careful translation that sometimes differs from others, no more so than in the word “bondservant” in this verse.  I’ll let the ESV translators’ preface summarize why:

A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.”… In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, someone in the Roman Empire officially bound under contract to serve his master for seven years (except for those in Caesar’s household in Rome who were contracted for fourteen years). When the contract expired, the person was freed, given his wage that had been saved by the master, and officially declared a freedman. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the most fitting nuance of meaning in each context. Where absolute ownership by a master is envisaged (as in Romans 6), “slave” is used; where a more limited form of servitude is in view, “bondservant” is used (as in 1 Corinthians 7:21–24); where the context indicates a wide range of freedom (as in John 4:51), “servant” is preferred.

I really like this sort of nuance in translation, and it gives you some idea of how complex the issue of slavery in the Bible is.  Onesimus was already closer to Philemon than the word “slave” would convey; he was a bondservant (doulos) who might even have been set free eventually.  But Paul is calling for even more.  He is telling Philemon to treat him not just as any other man, but as a “beloved brother” (agapēton adelphon).  That is, he is to love him with the love God shows to us (agape) and as dearly as a member of his immediate family.  Just as God no longer calls us slaves but sons (Galatians 4:7), so Philemon is to accept Philemon back as a “brother”.

Christians calling each other “brother” and “sister” raised eyebrows in the Roman world.  In fact, it led to accusations of incest, since these “brothers and sisters” were getting married to each other (there were also accusations of cannibalism because of holy communion, for obvious reasons).  The Greek word adelphos did, in fact, mean a blood sibling, but it also conveyed the meaning of shared national ancestry (as the Jews) or shared belief (as Christians).  Jesus used the word even more frequently than Desmond from Lost, usually in reference to those who followed him.  He makes this explicit in the gospel of Matthew when his biological mother and brothers come looking for Him, and He responds, “‘who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (12:48-50).  Our first loyalty, even over our biological family, is to Christ and His kingdom.  As Jesus said, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).  This is a hard word (in Luke, he says we have to “hate” our parents, siblings, and children! [14:26]).  But I don’t think Jesus calls us to reject our family, especially given the commandment to honor our father and mother.  No, He simply wants us to get our priorities straight.  We are to love God and our fellow believers as much, nay even more, than we love the people we are closest to.  That is what it means to call our fellow believers “brothers and sisters” in Christ.  It is a recognition that in the new birth by the Holy Spirit brought about in our baptism, we have joined much more than a religion; we have joined a family.  For “he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12) to all who believe in Jesus Christ.  All baptized Christians are brothers and sisters.

How do we live this out?  Well, that’s a big question.  I guess we should start by following Desmond’s advice and “lift it up” in prayer.  We should be active in one another’s lives, lifting each other up with encouragement, exhortation, and intercession.  We should always seek to show agape to one another.  For, as I mentioned yesterday, we will all live as brothers and sisters for eternity.  So, in the words of the author to the Hebrews, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:24-25).  This is the work of the Christian life, so let us be about it today.  See you in another life, brother.