November 2, 2019, 3:43 PM

Journey Through Scripture: Philemon 1:15-25

Philemon 1:15-25   

15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever,  16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother -- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.  20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.  21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.  22 One thing more -- prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.  23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,1  24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.  25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. ~Philemon 1:15-25

Interpretation (Exegesis) of 1:15-25

In verses 15 we see a real life application of Paul’s statement in Romans 8:28, “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Or better what we might call “providence” – the idea that God is active in our lives and world to bring about his purposes in ways we can’t see or understand. In this case Paul wonders if, “perhaps”, this is the case here. Notice Paul can’t say for certainty which implies not all life experiences are necessarily God given. Often such providence is a matter of faith rather than sight. (NT Wright, “Tyndale New Testament Commentary”, pg.184) What God may have done is take Onesimus away for a time so that Philemon may receive him “back forever”.

What this means is explained in verse 16 as “more than a slave”, but a “beloved brother”. Onesimus’ faith in Jesus has two results for Philemon. First he will have a relationship with Onesimus “forever”, likely a reference to eternal life – so that now they will both live for eternity in Christ at the resurrection. Second he may still be a slave legally and socially, but in a deeper level he is no longer just a slave, he is a brother in Christ. The point is not if Philemon should free him, but that this new relationship in Christ implies a new relationship to each other. Onesimus can’t be seen as a tool, but as a fellow child of God. In a sense Paul leaves the implications of that open! Without overturning the entire social order, Paul lays the groundwork for what would become an early Christian questioning of slavery by such saints as St. Patrick.

Paul places his own self on the line for his convictions in 17-19. He starts with the rhetorical question, “if you consider me your partner”, which of course Philemon considers him more than that – Paul is an Apostle! But this sets the stage for Paul’s now command to welcome Philemon as if he were Paul, calling back similar identification we saw earlier in the letter. Not only that, but Paul goes further in verse 18! If Philemon owes any debt that Paul will be responsible. In a sense Paul is imitating Christ. Just as Jesus took on our debt so too Paul is taking on that of Onesimus. The text possibly implies Onesimus stole something when he left, maybe money to live in Rome. Regardless, and perhaps knowing the money was likely spent, Paul makes himself the debtor. It is important to remember that the consequences for a slave who stole from their master and fled could be severe. Paul may be placing himself at more than economic debt, but willing to take any punishment on Onesimus’ behalf. This is the type of love Paul expects and it’s the type he now models to Philemon. Of course Paul also knows Philemon owes his faith to Paul’s ministry, and so has a greater debt to Paul. This fact Paul reminds Philemon of in verse 19 when he says “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”.

This knowledge of debt owed, and Paul’s final argument for how Onesimus ought to be received back, gives Paul the confidence in 20-22 to not only openly state he knows what decision Philemon would make, but also expects to be welcomed as a guest soon! Verse 20 is a general request to have that debt given to Paul, which he says would refresh him. This request being made on the basis of the greater debt Paul reminds Philemon he owes himself. Which is why in verse 21 Paul can be confident in his obedience. Considering Paul downplayed giving any command earlier in the letter, what is this obedience? It is an obedience to Christ! Paul is the parent saying, “well, you can do what you’d like, but I’d be disappointed in you if you made that decision”. Paul is masterfully reminding Philemon of his higher duty to Christ over this duty to Roman society while also avoiding any commands that would imply the Church was going to lead a slave rebellion against Rome. Often the Bible is primarily concerned with our personal decisions over political maneuverings. With that expectation out of the way, Paul knows he can expect to be welcomed as a guest in verse 22, with the hope of even being there in person. Likely Philemon knows that means he will have to tell Paul directly what decision was made. In either case, the ball is now in Philemon’s court to either make the right decision that reflects his faith in Jesus and debt to Paul, or rather to ignore those concerns and follow Roman justice in punishing Onesimus. Considering the tradition that Onesimus eventually becomes a Bishop – it’s fairly clear to say which decision Philemon made!

The rest of the letter, verses 23-25, are standard conclusion with a final blessing. Several of these names also appear in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (Col 1:7, 4:10-14) which is why many believe these letters were written at the same time to the same people. The final conclusion of Paul’s blessing for the grace of Jesus to be with their spirit also appears elsewhere. (Gal 6:18, Phil 4:23, and 2 Tim 4:22) This is evidence of a consistent “High Christology” of the bible – the idea that Jesus is God, fully divine and not just a human teacher or prophet. Firstly, remember that “Lord” was used to translate the Divine Name in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Calling a person “Lord” in Jewish writings, which Paul was, already would present some indication of more to Jesus than a prophet. But not only does Paul refer to Jesus as the Lord, he also references Jesus as the giver of grace to the inner human being, their spirit. If Jesus is not God then this could be blasphemous! Paul is putting Jesus in the place of God as the giver of grace – which implies that Jesus is that God of grace.  

Application and Takeaway

Providence is one of those concepts we often downplay, ignore, or forget. We seem comfortable talking about “luck”, which is impersonal – but not providence. Yet, God’s providence is a major part of Scripture!

We Christians are “theists”, and not “deists”. Theism is the idea that God is an active agent in the world. Deism believes instead that God is inactive – merely an observer at best. Many, in fact, don’t even believe in an afterlife! But Jesus, who is God incarnate, is the ultimate answer to deism. For in Jesus, God (as the Second Person of the Trinity) literally showed himself to be so concerned for our world that he came down from heaven to become Jesus the Christ. Jesus then healed the sick, cured the blind, calmed a storm, and performed other miracles before dying for sin and rising again. Jesus shows that God is indeed active in the world.

Many of us will never experience that level of divine intervention in our lives. Instead God works behind the scenes in many ways. This work is providence. Too often we Christians fall into the trap of becoming “functional deists”. We may claim we believe God is active, but in heart and action live like God is not. We too often live as deists. The challenge for us is to learn to trust God is active, and to live instead as Christians who believe the same God who became Jesus is the same God who even now often guides us by his providence in the world.

The takeaway this month

In what ways do you find yourself living as a deist rather than a Christian? Ask God to help you both see his working in your life and trust him to guide you.



September 27, 2019, 11:09 AM

Journey Through Scripture: Philemon 1:7-14

Philemon 1:7-14

"7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.  8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,  9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love -- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.  10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.  11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.  12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel;  14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced."
~Philemon 1:7-14

Interpretation (Exegesis) of 1:7-14

After setting the stage with the idea of fellowship (koinonia) among the Church in Christ, Paul gets to his main point: his request to Philemon on how to treat the runaway slave Onesimus. Love “is the surest sign that Christ is being formed in his people” (NT Wright, “Tyndale New Testament Commentary”, pg.178) and this is how Paul approaches the issue – love rather than compulsion.

Starting in verse 7 Paul praises Philemon again for the benefit he has received due to Philemon’s work in the church. Paul has received “much” joy and encouragement! And not from just any work, but from the love Philemon which had a practical result - that of bringing refreshment to his fellow Christians. The “heart” in the Bible is the seat of the emotions and desires, (Luke 6:45, Acts 5:4, Rom 9:2) and so Philemon’s love has brought a peace and satisfaction by addressing the deep seated needs of his brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul reminded him of that fact so as to expect him to continue in this love with the returned Onesimus!

Verse 8 is a connecting verse (“for this reason”) that leads into the method of Paul’s request. It is important to see that Paul has authority (“boldness in Christ”) he believes he ought not to need use. He may not have secular authority to address an issue between a master and slave, but he did have authority in Christ as an Apostle! (S.J. Eales, “The Pulpit Commentary: Philemon”, pg.2-3) Not only that, but Paul points out Philemon has a “duty”. The Greek word has the idea of that which is proper, fitting, or appropriate (Eph 5:4). Paul sets the stage by informing Philemon what he ought to do – what is the appropriate Christian way to handle the issue. Make no mistake, this is not an open ended discussion - nor is love being used to deny moral demands. Paul is clear that there is a duty to perform, but refuses to command it. Instead he desires Philemon to voluntarily do the right thing.

It is this voluntary basis of the right thing that Paul states in verse 9. In spite of Paul’s authority as an Apostle, and in spite of the reminder about Christian obligation, Paul says he would rather appeal to a higher motivation: that of love. Love in the Bible is not an emotion, but a commitment or faithfulness, often in context of God’s covenant – an act of the will. Paul is not saying “I appeal to warm feelings you have for Onesiums” but rather “I appeal to you on the basis of your commitment to Jesus and the Body of Christ, his Church”! In other words Philemon ought to do his duty, which Paul makes sure to remind him of, without needing to be commanded to do it! For extra measure Paul even points out he is not in a position to enforce anything, being both old and in a Roman prison! Perhaps this is even a rhetorical device – similar to Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings saying “you wouldn’t deprive an old man of his staff, would you?”, Paul is saying “Come now, Philemon, you won’t really make an old man in prison force you to do your duty will you?”

Only in verse 10 and 11 does Paul begin to give Philemon his request! Paul has worked Philemon into a sense of agreement over his need to do his duty out of love – and now Paul tells him what that duty is! Like many things in the Bible, this was not likely easy for Philemon. Perhaps Philemon wanted to follow Roman law and severely punish his slave Onesimus? What would the social and political consequences be for Philemon to treat his slave as a brother in Christ? Perhaps he would rather take the easy way, punish Onesimus, and have everything return to normal. Remember that this letter was very likely handed to him by Onesiums. What do you think Philemon’s reaction was when he got to this part of the letter?

But Paul has other plans for how this ought to work out, and he argues this by making an identification between himself an Onesimus. For now Paul has become a father to him! The Church Fathers agree that this is a result of Paul bringing Onesimus to Jesus – this is the language of a new Christian. Not only that, but Paul uses a play on words to praise Onesimus. The name “Onesimus” was a common slave nickname that meant “useful”. (Craig Keener, “The IVP Bible Background Commentary”, pg.645-6) Perhaps, Paul says, he was at one time “useless” to Philemon, now to Paul he most certainly is! Not just to Paul but to Philemon as well. In what sense? In context of ministry for the Gospel - the very thing that Paul praised Philemon for his own work in earlier. If Philemon truly cares about the Gospel then he will care about his new brother in Christ and the work he does as well.   

Verses 12 and 13 delve more into Paul’s new connection to Onesimus. Paul calls him his “own heart” that has been sent back to Philemon in 12. And in 13 repeats the fact of his usefulness. Not just useful, but “service” in the place of Philemon. The word “service” here is not the usual one for “slave”, but instead diakonas, from which we get the word Deacon! Philemon can’t be with Paul, reasonably so, but Onesimus can and is helpful for the Gospel. Paul has subtly established certain equality between master and slave, arguing Philemon should start seeing Onesimus as an ambassador and free servant, a deacon, rather than a mere slave. Philemon may have escaped as a slave, but he returns as a son and free servant in Christ. For in Christ all roles and relationships have been changed and Paul expects Philemon to act accordingly to this new reality of Onesimus as a child of God. (Darrell Bock, in “A Biblical Theology of the New Testament”, pg.308)

For those reasons of being useful to the Gospel and as a new son in Christ Jesus Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him. But as St. Chrysostom said, “Nothing so shames us into giving like bringing forth the kindness bestowed on others, and particularly when the intercessor is more entitled to respect than they” (Homilies on Philemon 2, in “Ancient Christian Commentary”, pg.312) Here Paul reinforces the earlier point: Philemon ought to do what is proper and good without needing to be compelled. The word the NRSV translates as “without your consent” is in Greek literally “without your mind”, “mind” being the idea of opinion, viewpoint, or intent. Paul desires for Philemon, who is already one in Jesus, to be of one mind on what is proper here. The result of coming to one mind (“in order that”) is that this good deed towards Onesimus would be something willing out of love. Just as in verse 8 Paul wants to refrain from using his authority in this situation, Paul again restates his desire to see Philemon doing such good works in Christ out of a genuine willingness to do so, even if such willingness was prodded by Paul! In a sense it’s a very parental approach. Like a parent saying to their child “you’re not really going to do that are you?” The parent is not commanding their kid, but the implication is clear as to what their child ought to do. Paul is forcing Philemon to think through his next actions and if they will align with Christ or not.

Application and Takeaway

God has given us commands and a duty to perform as Christians, but ultimately he wants us doing it out of desire and not compulsion.

Through Paul God has given us an image of life in Christ as being of one mind with Christ which results in good towards our fellow Christians regardless of social demographics.

In Jesus all of our relationships are to take on new meaning. Onesimus was not longer just a slave – but a son to Paul, a child of God by Faith in Jesus, and called a deacon rather than slave. Do our relationships in the Church look different than those in the world? Why or why not? In what ways do we need to grow in Christ to view each other how God sees us?

It is natural for people to fight over social status and rank in human society. It is natural for people to want to keep their faith in Jesus to themselves so that we act like anyone else in the world. But God calls on us to be different. If we are all one in Jesus, and if there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female in Christ (Gal 3:28) then our relationships with each other shouldn’t be based on those categories. Instead we relate to each other as being in Christ, as being one with Jesus and so one with each other. If this is the case then our actions to each other have different rules than the way our culture may tell us to act. We should consider what the good in Jesus is and become of one mind to do it without compulsion, but act in love towards God which brings us love towards our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.

The takeaway this month:

In what ways do you see yourself doing good out of compulsion or mere duty rather than love? Pray this month for Jesus to move your heart into one of willing consent with his will rather than just obedience to command.

September 20, 2019, 11:00 AM

Journey Through Scripture: Philemon 1:1-6

Background to this Book

This letter by Paul to a Christian named Philemon is one of the shorter books of the Bible. The purpose of the letter concerns an escaped slave of Philemon, Onesiums, who at some point encountered Paul while in prison, came to believe in Jesus as the Christ, and who has now returned with this letter. In it Paul pleads for grace to be shown Onesimus, in spite of the legal rights Philemon may have had under Roman law. Even more, not just grace, but Paul argues Philemon should not see Onesimus as a slave - but as a fellow brother in Christ!

Interestingly, this letter and Colossians seem related, to the point where it is probable they were both sent at the same time to the same people. Even more interesting, based on the connection to Colossians, Onesimus the slave likely became the Bishop Onesimus of Colossae as recorded by the Early Church. Truly God calls people from any social background to serve him as leaders in his Church!

Philemon 1:1-6

"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker,  2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:  3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God  5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.  6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ."
~Philemon 1:1-6  

Usually Paul’s letters begin by asserting his apostolic authority or calling for the Gospel, but uniquely here in v.1 he calls himself  “a prisoner of Christ Jesus”. Though Paul calls himself that elsewhere in Scripture (Eph 3:1) this is the only time he does so as a title, and he will use this phrase twice more in the same letter (Phlm 1:9; Phlm 1:23). If Colossians and Philemon were sent at the same time then it is interesting to note that in that letter Paul calls himself an “apostle by the will of God”. For his personal letter to Philemon Paul is stressing his status as in prison for the Gospel over this authority as an Apostle. This reflects the way Paul makes his argument to Philemon throughout the letter – as an appeal to his conscious rather than an assertion of power. Timothy, who traveled with Paul and was a major supporter of his ministry, is listed as well.

Philemon is addressed directly as a “dear friend” and “co-laborer”. Being called a “dear friend” seems to indicate Paul had a close connection with Philemon and is making an appeal to him on a personal level. Paul also acknowledges his work for the Gospel as a “co-laborer” and in so doing adds to his argument, as St. Chrysostom pointed out “if Philemon is a fellow laborer then…apart from any request, Paul says, you have another reason for granting the favor. For if he is profitable to the gospel and you are anxious to promote it, then you should be the one pleading with me” (Homilies on Philemon I, in “Ancient Christian Commentary”, pg.311)

Paul then addresses his letter to three more persons in v.2: Philemon, Apphia (likely his wife), and Archippus. Calling Archippus as “fellow solider”, and the reference to him in Colossians 4:17, suggests that he is an active minister for the Gospel in some way (See Philippians 2:25). In addition Paul addresses the “church in your house”. Though the letter may be personal, the issue is not private! Likely the entire church in that area would have been talking about the runaway slave. Perhaps even various opinions had formed over what do to. Roman law was very harsh and strict when it came to escaped slaves so as to discourage a massive revolt. But Christians were supposed to be different, and now the church was possibly facing a controversial choice. How Philemon treated Onesimus on his arrival could set the standard for how that Church treated enslaved persons in Colossae for the future – and so Paul addresses the personal letter to the whole Christian community in that house. At the time, Christians had not yet begun to own ot build special buildings, and instead met at the homes of wealthy patrons or patronesses such as Nypha (Col 4:15)

Paul understood the new Church of Jesus was in a precarious place  -already under pressure from Roman culture and threat of Roman authorities in some places. If he advised Philemon to take full legal remedy against his new brother in Christ, Onesimus, then it would undermine his Gospel that in Jesus there is no longer “slave or free” (Galatians3:28 ). But if he made a direct command to free Onesimus or not punish him, then it could be seen by Roman authorities that the Church was even more of a dangerous social movement and the entire church at Colossae may be in danger from the Empire! And so this personal letter was addressed to the entire church that met in this house.

Verse 3 is a standard phrase for Paul, desiring his readers to have grace and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ; a variation of this appearing at least ten times throughout the letters. (eg Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3). Paul in all cases hopes his letters bring both: God’s grace and peace for that church. In addition Paul is placing the God our Father and the name of Jesus as “Lord” on equal footing! This shows an early high Christology – that already in Paul there is a very high view of Jesus as equally God, as fully divine. “Lord” was not just an honorary title but also the word used to translated the Divine Name Yahweh in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Not only that, but Paul is asserting that grace comes through Jesus as well as the Father, something blasphemous if Jesus isn’t fully God! Though some scholars assert Jesus’ divinity was a late development, statements like this demonstrate that already by the time of the Apostles Jesus was seen as both God and Man.

In verses 4-5 Paul informs Philemon of his thanksgiving prayer for him and the church in his house - praising Philemon and the church for their love towards “all the saints” and their faith in Jesus. On one hand this is an encouragement for them to continue in their faith as they are doing, but on the other it seems Paul is subtly starting his argument on behalf of Onesimus. In a way Paul is reminding them of the Christian command to love *all* the saints! It’s Paul saying “well, of course you love everyone, right? I’ve heard how faithful you are! Now, it’s time to act that way towards Onesimus!”

The main theme and key verse for Philippians is in verse 6 which will urge Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a fellow believer in Jesus. Paul begins with the Greek word “hoti” which is a connector meaning “so that” – in that v.6 is connected to the prayer mentioned in vv.4-5. His prayer of thanksgiving is “so that” the “sharing” of their faith may be “may become effective” when they “perceive” the good that can be done for Christ.  

The word translated by the NRSV as “sharing” is “koinonia”. In other places this word is translated as “fellowship” and is an important word for Paul in such places as 1 Cor 10:16, 2 Cor 6:14, 2 Cor 13:13, Phil 1:5, and Phil 2:1. It means more than community, sharing time together, eating, or other associations. Instead it explicitly means to participate in each other (Darrell Bock, in “A Biblical Theology of the New Testament”, pg.307) – for the Church is a new community with new social dynamics that transcend old social barriers. Even further, koinonia means “Christians not only belong to one another, but actually become mutually identified” (NT Wright, “Tyndale New Testament Commentary”, pg.176) such that how one is treated all are treated and the debts of one belong to all.

This idea of koinonia is the center of Paul’s petition as the letter progresses. Paul is saying here that his prayer for their love and faith is so that they may have this koinonia – and that having it will result in (“become effective”) a proper “perception” (or knowledge). This new knowledge as a Christian koinonia will guide them to the right solution created by this social problem caused by Onesimus’ return, and so this right koinonia will result in the greater good done for the Gospel – for Christ.

Application and Takeaway

God's view of the Church is not just as an organization, nor is being a member of the Church just having a name on the rolls.

Though Paul, God has given us an image of the Church as a koinonia, a community of mutual connections in our Lord Jesus Christ - and through that koinonia God makes effective in us his grace to do his good works for Christ.

What would this mean to live out a life of grace as a community? What does this mean to be a "member" of St. Stephen's if the goal is Biblical Koinonia? How can we at St. Stephen's better become a koinonia?

Often Church membership is seen as a club member - as just a name on a list. But the Bible says that being a member of a Church is a commitment to love and serve Jesus as part of a living community of Christians, on mission to grow as disciples and spread the Gospel. Being a member is a high calling indeed!

Obviously life happens! Some will have more or less energy, more or less time, more or less resources. The point is not we all give the same, but that we live as a true part of the Church community.

The takeaway this month:
What is one thing you can do this month to help St. Stephen's become more of a true koinonia of Christ in Sherman?