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.

October 24th — Philemon 15: God’s Eternal Purposes

For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever

–Philemon 15 (ESV)

I hate the saying that “everything happens for a reason”.  In this fallen world, I’m not sure that it does.  Try saying this to someone who just lost a child to cancer or who lived for years with abuse or who watched a family member waste away in opioid addiction.  It would be morally monstrous to say that God intended these things to happen.  Sometimes bad things that God neither caused nor desired happen to good people.  Asking “why?” proves fruitless and dispiriting.  But if there is one lesson of the Cross of Christ, it is this:  there is nothing, not even the death of God’s own Son, that cannot be redeemed.  Every misfortune, no matter how devastating, is a chance to grow closer to God, to be conformed more and more into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).  We will have trouble and suffering in this world (John 16:33).  The only choice we have is whether to allow that suffering to crush us or to remake us into something better.  Perhaps a story will illustrate this best…

Joseph in the book of Genesis was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, as he was the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel.  This caused great jealousy in his brothers who hated his hubris and his coat of many colors.  So they sold him into slavery in Egypt.  Joseph ended up in prison and was even falsely accused of rape.  But he continued to listen to the voice of God, and he stayed faithful.  He eventually rose to the title of vizier of Egypt, second-in-command to the pharaoh himself.  When a famine that Joseph had predicted hit the land, Egypt was ready, but Jacob and Joseph’s brothers were not.  So, in a climactic scene, Joseph’s brothers come before him to beg for food, unaware of who they are talking to.  Joseph bursts into tears and reveals himself to his brothers.  He could have taken revenge on them, or at least rubbed their noses in his success.  Instead he says this:

Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 45:5-8)

Twice, Joseph says that God was the one who sent him to Egypt.  But wasn’t it his brothers, jealous and murderous, who did that?  No, according to Joseph, God used these terrible circumstances to bring about a greater redemption, not just for Joseph’s brothers but for entire nations.  As Joseph says later, “as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).  The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Paul is saying something similar in today’s verse.  He’s being a bit clever here by using the passive phrase “parted from you for a while”.  Of course, Onesimus had run away of his own volition, perhaps with stolen goods in tow.  This was not a mistake, but active rebellion.  Yet Paul sees a greater purpose at work here.  By running away, Onesimus came into contact with Paul who subsequently brought the young man to Christ.  The salvation of Onesimus redeemed the sin of Onesimus.  On top of that, Paul says, Philemon will now get this new and better Onesimus back.  Think of the story of Job, a righteous man who lost everything, only to have it restored in full at the end.  When confronted with his profound loss, Job worshipped God and said, “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).  Nothing is guaranteed to us in this life and every good thing we have comes from God (James 1:17).  God works out everything not only for our good (Romans 8:28), but for the good of His kingdom.  No matter what happens to us, if we give it back to God, He can use it for His purposes.  We must, like Joseph and Job, continue to stay faithful, to worship God and bless His name even when our world is crumbling around us.  Perhaps what we are losing is nothing in comparison to what we will gain (Philippians 3:7-8).

I want to end with the final word of today’s verse:  “forever” (Gr. aiónios).  This word means eternal, everlasting, and unending.  Onesimus is being returned to Philemon for good, but not just here on earth.  Through his redemption in Jesus Christ, Onesimus is now joined to Philemon forever, into eternal life.  That one word carries a lot of weight.  Paul is reminding Philemon that Onesimus is not just a slave anymore, but a brother in Christ with whom he will spend eternity.  In light of yesterday’s meditation, perhaps we would be more peace-loving and merciful and courteous if we remembered that we will literally spend eternity with our fellow believers.  So much of what we feel and experience, from true suffering to our petty jealousies to our greatest triumphs, are as nothing in light of eternity.  I’ll give Paul the last word:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.  (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)



October 23rd — Philemon 14: Consent and Courtesy

…but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.

–Philemon 14 (ESV)

In the era of #MeToo, that word “consent” just jumps off the page, doesn’t it?  It’s insane that we have become so degraded sexually as a culture that we have to tell people to ask someone if they’re o.k. with it before trying to have sex with them.  But the issue is much larger than just sex.  Our culture rewards those who take what they want regardless of how it affects other people.  This hyper-individualism has led to what one psychologist has called a narcissism epidemic.  This narcissism manifests itself not only in the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault, but also in our high divorce rates (“I don’t love him/her any more”), abortion (“it’s my body”), and general political polarization (“this country would be perfect if it weren’t for THEM”).  We only associate with people who look and act like us and only consume media that reinforces our pre-existing beliefs, because to do otherwise might damage our fragile egos and slow our “pursuit of happiness”.  And this is not an age-based phenomenon.  Millennials get blamed for a lot (and we are an egotistical bunch, no doubt), but ask anyone who works in retail who the most entitled customers are and you will hear some hair-raising baby boomer horror stories.  We are all guilty of seeing other people as just extras in the movie starring me.  To treat others as fully human, with an inner life just as rich as ours, takes intentionality, and, I believe, the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  In short, consent is only just the beginning.

This verse continues yesterday’s thought.  Paul wished to keep Onesimus as his personal slave, but he chose not to.  He chose to do this out of respect for Philemon and so that Philemon could make the free choice to do right by Onesimus.  Again, Paul had the right as an apostle to demand Philemon’s acquiescence, but chooses instead to allow room for God’s grace to work.  The key word here, of course, is “consent”, which is gnómé in Greek.  That word carries the ideas of purpose, opinion, decision, and decree.  This is clearly not just a passive acceptance, but an active approval of an action.  Paul doesn’t just want Philemon to accept his advice, but to wholeheartedly embrace it.  Paul knows first-hand of Philemon’s goodness, so he can trust that Philemon will do the right thing.  This stands in stark contrast to “compulsion” (Greek anagké).  That word means constraint, need, force and violence.  It carries an almost-traumatic ring to it, as if the goodness of Philemon would have been forced at gunpoint.  That “good cop, bad cop” motif is carrying over here.  However, in this verse, you begin to get the sense that Paul has no intention of using compulsion.  He is following the command that his fellow apostle Peter gives: “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3).  Gaining Philemon’s consent is the only righteous path.

Courtesy is a lost virtue in our society, but it is required of Christians.  Though we are to stand firm in the truth of the gospel, our actions are always to be done in a way that respects the feelings and opinions of others:

  • If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:18).
  • Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:1-2).
  • Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.  (Ephesians 4:32)

This requires active humility, as many people do not deserve courtesy and respect, and, indeed, will show us discourtesy and disrespect.  We are not to answer in kind, for “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).  We must be especially careful about how we speak to one another, for “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).  In fact, read all of James 3, which pretty much encapsulates my point.  The final verse of that chapter:  “and a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:18).  Our Lord declared peacemakers “blessed” in the Sermon on the Mount, saying that they would be called “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).  Quarreling and anger do not lead to the righteous life that God requires.  Showing respect and deference even (or especially) when our feelings have been hurt will bear much fruit.

How does this all relate to today’s verse?  Well, consent and courtesy go hand-in-hand.  This is especially true for those in a leadership role, for as we have seen in previous meditations, Christ modeled servant leadership.  Elders are not to use compulsion to keep the flock in line (except, perhaps, in extreme circumstances), but rather they are to treat others in accord with the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31) and to gently guide those under their care into gnómé — active, joyful consent.  To bring this full circle, the analogy of sex is illuminating here.  A healthy sex life does not involve a sort of grudging acceptance of the inevitable (“fine, just don’t wake me up”).  No, sex is intended to be a joyful, active, mutual event in which both partners respect each other and make it their goal to please the other.  Truly enjoyable sex involves selflessness, which paradoxically brings more pleasure than selfish sex does.  These same principles apply to any relationship.  We are to seek joyful, active, and mutual participation in the kingdom with other believers, treating them as we would wish to be treated.  By putting others’ needs first, we will sow seeds of grace and peace and reap a harvest of love, joy, and righteousness.  So let us be peacemakers today.

October 22nd — Philemon 13: The Democracy of the Dead

I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel

–Philemon 13 (ESV)

What compromises can we make with the existing culture without compromising the gospel?  You probably have a red line somewhere in your mind beyond which you will not cross, but surely there is also a large gray area approaching that line.  We give ourselves a lot of forgiveness for little compromises with the sinfulness of our culture because, hey I’m just one guy and what are you gonna do?  Yet somehow, when we look at history, such nuance eludes us.  Because of course we would have stood up to the Nazis; of course we would have been abolitionists; of course we would have stood for reason during the Salem witch trials; of course we would have joined Luther’s crusade against indulgences; of course we would have rejected medieval decadence just like St. Francis.  The people of the times who made compromises, whether because of their own moral calculus or because of cowardice, we view as the villains.  With the hindsight of history, knowing (for example) that the abolitionists won the day, we stand in judgement over our fellow believers who didn’t hold the views we do.  And, in one sense, we’re right.  The Nazi’s were bad; slavery was evil; the Salem witch trials were a travesty of justice; the Reformation corrected grave heresies, etc.  But in another sense, we are lacking that most important Christian virtue: grace.  It is hard to really know how we would have lived in a previous era of Christian history, and it would behoove us to think about how our time, rife with corruption and abuse within the church and shadowed by the ongoing genocide of abortion, will be viewed in the future.  As our Lord said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).

All of this is to preface what we would call, in post-modern parlance, a “problematic” verse.  Paul is pulling another deft little rhetorical move here.  He is saying that Onesimus has proved so “useful” to him that he was tempted to just keep him around as his personal slave.  He presumed that Philemon would have, in another circumstance, sent Onesimus to him to help during his imprisonment.  Essentially, Paul is arguing that he is doing Philemon a favor by returning his slave to him, even though it is actually what is legally required of him.  To keep Onesimus would have been theft, yet Paul knows that Philemon would have allowed it for the sake of the gospel.  All of this is well and good, but don’t you kind of want to take Paul by the lapels (by the tunic? the toga? — I don’t know) and scream in his face:  “Slavery is wrong!  Just set him free!”  We want to see Paul make a strong case for the abolition of slavery as the ultimate application of the gospel.  In fact, he seems to do the opposite, defending the institution by using its own internal logic, not only here, but as a metaphor for the Christian life (e.g. “now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” [Romans 6:19]).  This has led many people to question the morality of the Bible as a whole.  For if the great apostle of Christianity could defend slavery, why should we take him seriously about anything else?

Now, I’m going to stop here and say that I’ll have a whole post about the Bible and slavery in November, so put a pin in this one (suffice it to say, setting Onesimus free might have been nearly impossible, and a really bad idea to boot).  Instead, I want to address the idea that Biblical ethics can be discarded because it comes into conflict with our current morality.  G.K. Chesterton once called tradition “the democracy of the dead” and there’s something to that.  We have a tendency to buy into the modernist idea (begun in the Renaissance) that the story of human history is one of progress out of ignorance and superstition into enlightenment and scientific certainty.  Thus, the ideas and traditions of those who came before us mainly exist as cautionary tales.  Christians even fall into this trap, attempting to defend the Bible by how “progressive” its moral ethic was (and, make no mistake, Jesus and Paul were not just progressive, but radical).  But being progressive is not equal to being right.  Movement forward can be detrimental if you’re moving in the wrong direction.  As C.S. Lewis put it:

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.  (Mere Christianity)

We want to move closer to Jesus, and that often means moving away from our contemporary culture.  By the way, this is not a political statement, or at least not an endorsement of any particular political position.  Modern “progressivism” is wrong-headed and anti-Christian in many ways, but so is modern “conservatism”.  We need to stop interpreting the Bible through the lenses of our preconceived notions, and forcing Scripture to fit our preferred political narrative.  If you think following either the party of Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi or the party of Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump is the path to salvation, I feel nothing but pity for you.

So how do we interpret texts like Philemon 13?  Again, I’ll get into the specifics of the slavery issue later, but a few general principles should be adhered to.  First, we cannot just throw out our own conscience and moral compass.  If something in Scripture disturbs us, it’s a prompt to look deeper, to study the context, to seek out commentaries and language studies and the like.  Don’t just throw the Bible out as irrelevant and outdated garbage because you don’t understand a passage.  If we believe that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), it behooves us to treat it with due reverence.  Second, we ought to look at what the traditional interpretation of a passage has been, particularly from the early Church.  This reverses the usual scholarly trend, but I’d say the older the commentary, the closer to Jesus’ own time, the more likely it is to be sound teaching.  Protestants look warily at Church tradition, because, as Luther pointed out, popes and councils seemed to be constantly contradicting each other.  However, this becomes less and less true the further back you go, and the councils of the first millennium A.D. enjoy near-universal acceptance within the Church.  Third, it’s a good idea to approach your pastor or priest with problematic passages.  In my experience, most pastors are thrilled to find a lay-person who is engaged with Scripture, and they would be delighted to talk things out with you.  Take advantage of their education and experience to deepen your understanding of the Word and to draw closer to Christ.  Christianity, including the interpretation of Scripture, is meant to be lived out in community and under authority.  Lastly, and most importantly, bathe your reading of the Bible in prayer.  For the Bible is not an end in itself.  It is a vehicle through which God seeks you, your heart, your mind, your very life.  God wants a relationship with you.  So pray through the hard passages of Scripture.  God may be teaching you something new today.

October 19th — Philemon 12: The Heart

I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.

–Philemon 12 (ESV)

You feel it when watching a horror movie.  The heroine, clad in a white nightgown, has been awoken by a noise.  She grabs a candelabra and slowly walks down a long hallway toward a door that is ajar.  A floorboard creaks; her breathing quickens.  “Hello?” she calls.  Do you feel it?  Somewhere behind your belly button, a twisting sensation ties up your guts in knots.  This is visceral, gut-wrenching terror.  Or perhaps you’ve had the more pleasant sensation of seeing that person you have a crush on turn to you and smile.  In that same spot in your belly there is a swooping sensation that almost knocks you off your feet.  As you talk to him or her, it is replaced with a sort of warm glow.  Or maybe, when faced with a difficult decision, you decided to “go with your gut”.  Much of our decision-making and our social and emotional life is mediated by our gut (psychologists call it our “adaptive unconscious”).  We may be rational creatures, but we do the things we do largely because it just “feels right”.  You might say we operate a lot more with our hearts than with our heads.

Today’s meditation will be about one word:  “heart”.  In Greek, that word is splachna.  This is not the usual word for heart (which is kardia, whence “cardiac”).  No, this is the word for “guts” or “intestines” or “internal organs” (splachna — it’s almost onomatopoeia, isn’t it?).  This is the same word that is used in this verse about Judas: “now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels (splachna) gushed out” (Acts 1:18).  Indeed, the King James translation of Philemon 12 is probably the most accurate one: “Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels”.  So, that’s kind of gross.  But that word is also used in a couple of other places that widen the meaning beyond the purely physical:

  • …because of the tender (splachna) mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high. (Luke 1:72)
  • And his affection (splachna) for you is even greater, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling. (2 Corinthians 7:15)
  • For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection (splachna) of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:8)
  • So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection (splachna) and sympathy… (Philippians 2:1)
  • Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts (splachna), kindness, humility, meekness, and patience… (Colossians 3:12)

For the Greeks, the gut was the center of powerful emotions like anger and romantic love.  For a Jew like Paul, the gut was a place for feelings of affection, kindness, benevolence, and compassion.  I think both readings of that word hold up here.  Much as we now say that we “followed our heart” for both powerful and gentle emotions, so does Paul use splachna to evoke feelings of both passion and tenderness.

So what does it mean that Paul is calling Onesimus his “heart”?  I think he is trying to convey that Onesimus is now much more than just another slave.  He represents, in his person, the love and compassion that Paul feels toward Philemon.  Paul is giving Onesimus to Philemon as a gift of love, a deep, heartfelt, gut-level gift.  That’s not to say Paul sees Onesimus as property (though the law will require him to be treated as such), but to demonstrate the extravagance of both Paul and Christ’s love for Philemon.  Paul wishes he could be there in person to minister to Philemon.  Instead, he is sending the next best thing.  It is almost as if Onesimus is a viceroy, emissary, or ambassador for Paul, just as Paul is an “ambassador for Christ” (Ephesians 6:20).  Indeed, we are all “ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).  Just as Paul sent Onesimus, and just as our Heavenly Father sent His Son, so Christ sends us, his “heart”, to the world (John 20:21).

That last point is the lesson of today’s verse.  If we are to love our neighbors as Christ loves them, it will involve our whole being, not just our heads, but our splachna, too.  We must pray for Christ to give us His heart and His eyes to see others as He sees them.  We don’t want to get too invested in people because they will hurt us; they will break our hearts.  And that’s absolutely true.  But may we let our hearts break with what breaks the heart of God.  We must, as Paul sent Onesimus, send our hearts to those in need, even though we may get rejected.  Paul had no guarantee of success with this letter.  Philemon would have been within his rights to ignore it and have Onesimus executed.  But Paul stepped out in faith and put his heart, indeed his guts, on the line.  Is God asking you to do the same thing today?