Friday, June 06, 2008

Philemon 4-7

4I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 6I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. 7Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.

Paul prays a prayer of thanksgiving to God (Philippians 1:3) first because of the faith and love of Philemon and the local church. It’s not some generic faith and love; rather, it’s their faith “in the Lord Jesus” and love “for all the saints” (Colossians 1:3-4). Paul doesn’t dwell on that like he did in Colossians; he moves on in v6 to pray for Philemon to be active in sharing his faith. In this letter, Paul will be asking for Philemon to be active in sharing his faith, and he knows that God must provide it. In other words, Paul prays that God would work a right response from Philemon, because he’s going to ask Philemon to respond rightly. If we don’t understand the sovereignty of God, this prayer makes no sense. Why would Paul ask God to do what Philemon must do? It’s because God works in His people “to will and to act according to His good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).

Notice the motive Paul gives Philemon for being active in sharing his faith. It’s so that he “will have a full understanding of every good thing [he has] in Christ.” This is similar again to the prayer for the Colossians (1:9-10) – “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” This prayer implies that Philemon lacks an understanding of every good thing he has in Christ. It always takes the application of our faith to realize the glory of Christ in us. Knowing God, understanding “every good thing” we have in Christ, comes through the application of one’s faith in daily living, but also and especially in difficult circumstances. Paul wants Philemon’s faith to be much more than an intellectual pursuit. When we see the fruit of our faith, we understand the blessing of God, who is working in us, conforming us to the image of Jesus. That’s a “good thing”! James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Let’s also consider the “active in sharing your faith” portion of Paul’s prayer. What does that mean? We might think this means sharing the gospel with unbelievers. But that’s not exactly what Paul is talking about here. Paul is speaking of actively sharing your faith in terms of your daily living. W.W.J.D. – “What would Jesus do?” In every circumstance, how would Jesus respond? Answering that question and doing the same is being active in sharing your faith, according to Paul. And Philemon has a glorious opportunity to do just that regarding his situation with Onesimus. What would Jesus do? Jesus would see the repentant return of Onesimus as being like the prodigal son, and Jesus would run to him and embrace him with open arms, restoring to him the fullness of fellowship, no longer as a slave but as a brother. Would Philemon be active in sharing his faith in this way? We’ll see.

Finally, in v7, Paul points to Philemon’s love as a source of “great joy and encouragement.” The love of Philemon has “refreshed the hearts of the saints.” Calvin says that Paul “has great joy and consolation, because Philemon administered relief to the necessities of the godly. This was singular love, to feel so much joy on account of the benefit received by others. Besides, the Apostle does not only speak of his personal joy, but says that many rejoiced on account of the kindness and benevolence with which Philemon had aided religious men.” Here, as well as in v12 and 20, Paul uses a word translated “heart,” but it’s not the normal Greek word for “heart.” Instead, it’s a word that points to the emotional aspect of the depth of our being. It’s as if he’s saying, “heart of hearts,” or “depths of our affections.” In the context, Paul is saying that he overjoyed and consoled to the point of tears from Philemon’s sacrificial and generous love as he provides for the needs of the brothers in Colosse. In a casual reading of this letter, we probably miss the genuine outpouring of the heart from an emotional perspective; but it’s clearly there. Yet Paul has motive for laying it out this way; we can’t miss that. It’s part of his appeal to reach a desired outcome – the right course of action to build up the Body of Christ.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Philemon 1-3

1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, 2To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote and had this letter delivered at the same time as Colossians. In Colossians, he calls himself “an apostle by the will of God.” Here he introduces himself to Philemon as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” This different salutation is crucial. Both introductions serve to advance the point of the letters. Colossians is addressed to folks who lack an authority, plagued by false teachers claiming authority for themselves with no source. But Paul comes along and, though he hasn’t met the Colossians, claims apostolic authority by the will of God Himself. That’s a critical claim for Paul’s audience to hear. And here with Philemon, in reality the same audience (the congregations of Colosse), the issue that Paul is addressing is one of slavery and freedom, and so it’s more than appropriate that Paul would introduce himself – the great apostle, free in Christ – as a prisoner.

Now it’s true that he was a prisoner of Caesar in Rome, but his real imprisonment is to Christ Jesus. He is a bondservant for the gospel, for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. And let’s just acknowledge that prior to receiving and contemplating the truth of this letter by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit, Philemon would have never been willing to consider himself a slave or a prisoner. But afterward? We don’t know the details of what went down. But tradition says that Onesimus was indeed received with open arms; and that would make Philemon a prisoner like Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ for the advancement of the gospel. Do you think the gospel advanced? You bet it did, and it all began with this simple introduction from the apostle Paul. But it didn’t end there.

Paul works on Philemon with genuine, heart-felt rhetoric throughout this letter, and it begins here. Paul calls him a dear friend and fellow worker. It’s an encouragement for this slave owner and house church host to be who he is. He is a believer in Christ, so he needs to act like it. Apphia and Archippus are thought by some to be members of Philemon’s household, perhaps a wife and son, but since Archippus is named a fellow soldier, others believe they were leaders in this Colossian congregation (Colossians 4:17). And the letter goes out to them, as well as the entire church that meets in Philemon’s house. This is no private affair. The situation Paul is dealing with is open to the brothers and sisters in this congregation – and rightly so. What we deal with as siblings in Christ affects each other. Knowing that, Paul desires grace (undeserved favor in spite of demerit) and peace (relational, subjective and objective, not circumstance-based) from God the Father and Jesus Christ to be with this entire home fellowship.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


This tiny book – written in Paul’s own writing and delivered at the same time as the letter to the Colossians (60 AD) and only one chapter in length – is Paul’s personal letter to a slave owner, Philemon, who hosted a house fellowship in Colosse. Paul writes to address Philemon regarding his runaway slave named Onesimus, who had apparently run into Paul in Rome and become a Christian by his teaching. Paul handles this situation with the utmost care, using smooth language to encourage Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ upon his return. Though Paul could have commanded a specific response – the forgiveness and release of a slave – he instead issues a powerful appeal to Philemon, knowing that a voluntary right response is more valuable than a compelled right response. Paul puts his own friendship with Philemon on the line to evoke the proper response; and though we’re not told the outcome here or elsewhere in Scripture, there is a tradition that says God’s grace, through Paul’s technique, accomplished the right behavioral response from all parties involved. Let’s read and learn from Paul’s letter to Philemon.

1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, 2To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 6I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. 7Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. 8Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- 10I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you. 13I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-- 16no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. 17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back--not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. 22And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. 23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Interestingly, we can view this letter concentrically. V1-3 and v23-25 are parallel in the sense that they each mention five names and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. V4-6 sets the prayerful mood of Paul for his audience, while v22 recalls the prayers of his audience for Paul. In v7-8, Paul notes how Philemon has refreshed the hearts of the saints, and v20-21 points out that Philemon must also refresh the heart of Paul by his response to this issue. In v9-11, Paul points out that Onesimus is his spiritual son; in v18-19, Paul points out that Philemon is his spiritual son. Also, the role of father is exchanged: first Paul is the father who forgives and restores Onesimus, and second, Philemon is the father who can receive Paul’s payment for the sins of Onesimus. In v12, Paul sends Onesimus, and in v17, Philemon must receive and welcome Onesimus as if the one coming were Paul himself. Lastly, v13-16 represent the axis for this concentric letter. Danny Olinger says, “Here, the argument of the whole is summed up precisely and formally advanced. Paul, in building to this point, now persuasively puts forth the main thesis of the letter. Paul desires Philemon not to do anything by compulsion, but of his own free will even as Philemon now finds himself enjoying the freedom that comes from being united to Jesus Christ… Philemon is put in the opportunity of ministering to Paul through Onesimus. Paul petitions Philemon to express his own freedom in Christ and in imitation of Paul by sending Onesimus to him.” Over the next few days, Lord willing, we'll take a closer look.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Jude 24-25

24To Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy-- 25to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

Jude ends his little letter in a slightly unusual way. Most New Testament epistles end with a benediction, a blessing from God towards the audience. But this epistle ends with a doxology, a blessing from us towards God. Now there are plenty of doxologies in the New Testament, but most of the time, it’s the benediction that wraps it up, because we need the grace and peace of God to help us obey the commands that usually come in the epistles. But Jude doesn’t give us that. Instead he praises God with a doxology – but it’s a unique doxology, because Jude praises God specifically for His benedictions and blessings towards us. So it’s like a benediction within a doxology. And it’s an appropriate way to end this little letter. And there are five parts to this doxology. The first part is praise to God for preservation from sin. The second part is praise to God for His perfecting grace. The third part is praise to God for His exclusive deity. The fourth part is praise to God for His sole mediation: Jesus is the only way of salvation. And the fifth part is praise to God for His inherent worthiness.

First, we are to praise God because He has the power to enable us to persevere in the faith. God alone is our hope and our refuge. It is ultimately God who keeps and guards us. We are urged repeatedly to persevere in faith, but we are also repeatedly comforted that God will preserve us. Now we need to remember here that we can slip and get off track in the race marked out for us, but we can’t fall beyond the reach of our Father. If we persevere in faith until death, then it is because God preserved us.

Second, we are to praise God because He is making us perfect. His sanctifying grace not only keeps us from falling but also presents us before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy. He doesn’t just take away our sins; He grants us His righteousness. These are two essential aspects to salvation. Jude is saying something similar. He doesn’t just keep us from falling in sanctification; He also presents us before Himself as pure and blameless in glorification. And all of this occurs with great joy – on the part of the redeemed and on the part of the Redeemer. That’s amazing!

Third, we are to praise God because He is exclusively God and exclusively our Savior. Interestingly, the New Testament refers to Jesus as Savior 16 times and God the Father as Savior 8 times. Jude is referring to the Father. But fourth, Jude adds, “Through Jesus Christ,” to remind us that God saves through Christ. Jesus is the only way to be saved. So we are to praise God because He saves through Jesus Christ. Fifth and finally, we are to praise God because He is worthy. His is the glory, majesty, power, and authority, over all the ages through history. And it’s His now – and forevermore! When we praise God, we’re not giving Him something that He doesn’t already have; we are acknowledging something about Him that He already is, exalting Him for His characteristics in their infinite perfection and proclaiming His glory with all that we are. The sole purpose of mankind is to declare that glory. We do that as everything in our lives is done for His glory, with His exaltation in mind, and we do that as every situation of our lives is understood and contemplated in the light of His ultimate glory.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Jude 17-23

Jude has told his audience negatively to beware of false teachers, but he hasn’t told them positively how to prepare for false teachers. That’s what he does in this section. In v17-19, Jude says to remember what the true teachers have said, in v20-21 he gives an exhortation to growth that has four parts to it, and in v22-23 he says to show mercy. In this very complete and positive way, Jude gives instructions on how we can not only survive and defend in this world where Christianity has been infiltrated by false teachers, but how we can thrive and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

17But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. 18They said to you, "In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires." 19These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. 20But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. 21Keep yourselves in God's love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. 22Be merciful to those who doubt; 23snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear--hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

It’s discouraging to see false prophets in the church. You want to think that at least the church would be a safe place. But the reality is that there’s never a time when you’re completely safe from false teaching. We’ve got to remember that and be on our toes. So Jude begins in v17-18 by calling his audience to remember the various biblical admonitions regarding false teachers. The apostles prophesied of unbelievers scoffing. Matthew 24:11; Acts 20:29-30; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 3:1, 4:3; 2 Peter 3:3 There are a number of places we could go in Scripture to see these warnings. In v19, Jude again lists some characteristics of these false teachers. “Don’t forget what they look like!” They’re worldly-minded. They present themselves as super-spiritual, but actually they are completely carnal, consumed with the things of this world. They claim to have spiritual gifts, but they don’t really even have the Spirit. And they cause division. Now be careful with this last one, because often those who stand on the truth of God’s Word and the sound doctrine are those who are accused of being divisive. It’s those who depart from God’s Word who are the divisive ones. So Jude says first, “Remember the Word of God.”

You’ve heard that the best offense is a good defense. But the problem is that nobody scores. The result is a standoff. Well, Jude turns it around and says here that the best defense is a good offense. If you are scoring – growing – all the time, then your defense isn’t on the field. You’re never defending against sin, because you’re on fire with Christian growth. That’s a good place to be. I love to experience the passion of studying God’s Word, because I want to do it so much that I don’t have time to meander in the tempting fields of surfing the internet or flipping through the TV channels. That passion’s not always there, so I have to play defense at times, but it’s great to be growing. One of the best ways to defend against falling into false teaching is to attend to the positive things of the Christian life, so Jude gives us a four-fold direction for growth in v20-21:

He exhorts us to grow in doctrine, prayer, experience, and hope. Build yourself up in the most holy faith (doctrine), pray in the Holy Spirit (prayer), keep yourselves in God’s love (experience), and wait for the mercy of Jesus to bring you to eternal life (hope). That’s good stuff. First, devote yourself to doctrine. Know how to defend your faith. Why do believe this about that? Can you show me in Scripture where this happens as a result of that? And so on. Second, we’re dependent on God in this life, and so we pray. Paul tells us to put on the armor of God. We get the same thing here from Jude. People of prayer will not easily be led astray. Healthy, regular, biblical prayer is an index of a healthy Christian life. Matthew Henry once said that “those who live without prayer live without God in this world.” Third, live in the sphere of God’s love, dwell on it, delight in it, draw on it, and rejoice by it. When you are overwhelmed in the sense of God’s grace and love for you, you are not vulnerable to the false teachers’ pitch. There’s nothing we need if we lean constantly on God in Christ. Fourth, hope for mercy at Christ’s return unto eternal life. The idea here is to say, “Come Lord Jesus! Maranatha!” And nobody who doesn’t know where they stand with God based on sound doctrine, prayer, and experience, would dare long for the return of Christ apart from the mercy of God unto eternal life. Jesus is our blessed hope – but He is not that to unbelievers. So grow in those things aggressively.

Finally, in v22-23, Jude is telling us that Christians are to deal with erring brethren wisely and mercifully. Jude speaks of three categories of people in danger: those who are doubting; those who are duped and need to be saved from the fire, and those who are devoted to false teaching as need mercy mixed with fear. First, we are to be merciful to the doubting, people who are confused by false teaching. They’re not sure what to believe. We’re not to be harsh; we’re to deal with them wisely and compassionately, distinguishing between the weak and the willful. Second, the duped are those who bought into the lies of false doctrine without realizing it. They’ve been duped. They’ve committed to false teaching, having been misled, and so we need to deal with them urgently and directly – saving and snatching them out of the fire. Third, those are so far into false teaching that there’s probably no turning back. They seem gone, but we are to still be merciful to them with a godly fear. We don’t associate with them; we hate their behavior – even their clothing. But there is to be mercy mixed with fear because of God’s divine mercy shown to us.

Let Jonah’s failure in this regard be an example for us. Here’s another example, given by Derek Thomas: In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf, early on, was talking with Frodo about Bilbo’s previous adventure. Frodo says, “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him (Gollum / Smeagol) when he had the chance.” And Gandalf responds, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life… Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends… The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” And as you probably know, that’s exactly what happens. The mercy of Bilbo to that wretched creature ends up saving the day in the end. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. So we need to show mercy – mixed with fear. God holds sinners responsible for their sins, but He also reaches out to them in mercy. If you really understand the doctrine of God’s sovereign mercy, you will not be judgmental or proud. You will become a messenger of God’s mercy.