Friday, June 13, 2008


Time for a rare movie review:

The Sean Penn directed
Into the Wild is based on Jon Krakauer's best-selling book about Christopher McCandless, a 1990 Emory University graduate who leaves his family in the dark as he heads out on what would be a deadly adventure into, as the title declares, the wild.

Krakauer's painstaking research diligence always pays off for his books - I especially enjoyed Into Thin Air, the non-fiction account of a Mount Everest disaster - and this film is pretty faithful to his research. Read the Wikipedia entry here.

As for my critique of the film, it was entertaining despite some undoubted but necessary speculation. Watching the main character experience revelation was valuable; always a "moral" fellow, he lacked a spirituality thanks in part to his frustration with his parents' relationship and materialism. But that morality found foundation in his journey through God's creation - an amazing frontier of nature that many of us certainly forgo in our lives for the sake of things. Ultimately, it was his last friend, an elderly widower who confronted him about God. The film did a nice job portraying the presence of God as light shining down on us at just the right time.

Finally, Jesus makes His appearances throughout, some in positive light, and other times succinctly mocked. The film does not reveal that McCandless had any relationship with Christ, despite his spiritual smile at the wonders of his experience in God's creation. In the end, the experience of death was cold, perhaps accurate for one scared, alone, and in the wilderness, rather than one unafraid, among family, and in the comfort of the palm of God's hand.

But what would you expect from Sean Penn? I wondered as the credits rolled how many people marvel at God's creation (the outerparts of His realm), like Psalm 19:1-6, without taking that next step into His Kingdom (the inner sanctum), like Psalm 19:7-14.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Philemon 22-25

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.

Paul concludes with one more request and final greetings. His request, found in v22, reveals that he expected to be released from his Roman imprisonment – as a result of the prayers of God’s people – and planned to visit Colosse. If for no other reason that he would have to deal with Paul face-to-face on this matter, Philemon ought to forgive and release Onesimus. We don’t know if he made it to Colosse, but tradition certainly gives us reason to believe that he was released from this first imprisonment. And furthermore, tradition suggests that Philemon obeyed Paul and released Onesimus, who possibly went on to serve in the church even as a prominent leader. The greetings are short here, but it’s a similar list of names as that in Colossians. And the conclusion is a benediction, that the grace of Jesus would be with their spirit. That’s the Book of Philemon – as much the Word of God as the rest of the Bible.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Philemon 17-21

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.

In v17-20, Paul makes three requests. In v17, it’s, “Accept him as you would me.” Paul provides additional motive for Philemon – his very friendship. Paul is effectively saying, “If you want our friendship to remain in good standing, then you will do what I’m asking you to do regarding our mutual friend, Onesimus.” But it’s not so much a threat as a plea. In v18, the request of Paul is to “charge his debt to my account.” Paul offers to pay Onesimus’ debt. His offer is real, but clearly secondary by comparison to the right response of simply forgiving the debt. In v19, Paul adds another motive for Philemon to respond rightly as he desires. Philemon owed his own faith, his “very self,” just as Onesimus did, to Paul’s ministry. We see Paul’s third request, to “refresh my heart in Christ,” in v20. Again, that word, “heart,” refers to the very core of Paul’s being, especially emotionally. Paul calls Philemon his brother, desiring a benefit from him in the Lord. The way that Philemon could benefit Paul would be to release Onesimus. Can you imagine what Onesimus thought of Paul? Calvin says, “When Onesimus saw so distinguished an apostle of Christ plead so eagerly in his behalf, he, must undoubtedly have been much more humbled, that he might bend the heart of his master to be merciful to him.” Who am I to be loved this way – by another human? Much less by the Lord of creation!

Finally, in v21, given all these motives for action, Paul encourages Philemon by saying that he is confident he will obey. But it’s not really a command; it’s an appeal. Nevertheless, it is so strong an appeal that it might as well be a command. And Philemon is sure to do even more than Paul is asking of him. As Calvin notes, Paul’s example reveals “how affectionately we ought to aid a sinner who has given us proof of his repentance. And if it is our duty to intercede for others, in order to obtain forgiveness for those who repent, much more should we ourselves treat them with kindness and gentleness.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Philemon 14-16

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.

V14-16 reveal Philemon’s interests in this ordeal. In v14, we see that Paul appeals instead of commanding, as he could have done, in order to draw a more valuable response (spontaneous and voluntary rather than considered and coerced, 2 Corinthians 9:7). Paul wanted Philemon’s consent to have Onesimus as a gospel-sharing team member; in so doing, he acknowledges that Onesimus was to blame in the past and affirms through personal knowledge that he is changed. Paul releases Philemon from all potential skepticism and doubt about Onesimus’ genuine repentance.

In v15, Paul points out how God works all things for good (Genesis 45:5; 50:20). If your slave stole from you and ran away, that would appear to be a bad thing. At the very least, you’d be angry about it. But Paul suggests that it happened to Philemon for a good reason. Slaves in that culture were only slaves for seven years. So Onesimus would have gone free anyway. Furthermore, as Calvin points out, “So long as Onesimus was at heart a runaway, Philemon, though he had him in his house, did not actually enjoy him as his property; for he was wicked and unfaithful, and could not be of real advantage.” But now, having become to Philemon a brother, Onesimus will be his forever, as a bondservant of love, which is what we are all called to be to one another. I am yours; I belong to you. Do with me what you will. And you are mine; so be ready and willing to serve me when I am in need. That’s Paul's mentality here.

V16 is a clear appeal from Paul for Philemon to free Onesimus from the yoke of slavery. Onesimus has become a brother in Christ, better by far than a useless slave, and even better than a useful slave. Paul calls Onesimus his dear brother, and then points out that he would be to Philemon not only a useful slave, as opposed to his former uselessness outside of Christ, but also a dear brother in the Lord. Calvin’s comments here are a worthy conclusion: “Onesimus lived in a religious and holy family, and, being banished from it by his own evil actions, he deliberately, as it were, withdraws far from God and from eternal life. Yet God, by hidden providence, wonderfully directs his pernicious flight, so that he meets with Paul. [Thus] proceeds a profitable doctrine, that the elect of God are sometimes brought to salvation by a method that could not have been believed, contrary to general expectation, by circuitous windings, and even by labyrinths.”

Monday, June 09, 2008

Philemon 8-13

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.

Paul makes his appeal, beginning with a disclaimer in v8-9, revealing his own interests in v10-13, and showing what Philemon’s interests should be in v14-16. Given his apostolic authority, Paul could have boldly commanded a specific behavioral response based on the law of love – what Philemon “ought to do;” but he’d rather make an appeal based on the freedom of love – also what Philemon “ought to do.” It’s a subtle but significant difference. And what ought to be done is not Paul’s to determine; nor is it Philemon’s. There is an unspoken and unwritten Christian duty here, determined by the Spirit of God at work in His people. In v9, we see that Paul’s appeal is not for his sake, though as an elder (an old man) and as a prisoner of Christ he could demand that it be so; rather, Paul’s appeal is for the sake of Christian, brotherly love, that love would be magnified as a great conqueror within the framework of Christianity.

V10-13 reveal Paul’s interests in this ordeal. In v10, Paul reveals that Onesimus is his spiritual son, a convert to Christianity through Paul’s ministry, literally “begotten” (gennao) by Paul while in prison. In v11, Paul uses Onesimus’ name in a play on words. Meaning “useful,” Paul contrasts his name with his former attribute of uselessness. But now, as a believer and brother, he is living up to his name – useful to both he and Philemon. The purpose of this play on words, a form of humor, was to further soften Philemon, as Onesimus had run away from him and had also likely stolen from him, as v18 implies. In v12, Paul says that Onesimus is his “very heart.” As mentioned earlier, this word is much stronger than the normal Greek word for “heart.” Calvin says of Paul’s language, “Nothing could have been more powerful for assuaging the wrath of Philemon; for if he had refused to forgive his slave, he would thus have used cruelty against “the [heart]” of Paul. This is remarkable kindness displayed by Paul, that he did not hesitate to receive, as it were into [the very depth of his being], a contemptible slave, and thief, and runaway, so as to defend him from the indignation of his master. And, indeed, if the conversion of a man to God were estimated by us, at its proper value, we too would embrace, in the same manner, those who should give evidence that they had truly and sincerely repented.”

Paul makes one final appeal for his own interest, saying that Onesimus was useful to him there in Rome, and yet he was sending him back to Philemon. Calvin adds, “This is another argument for the purpose of appeasing Philemon, that Paul sends him back a slave, of whose services, in other respects, he stood greatly in need. It would have been extreme cruelty, to disdain so strong affection manifested by Paul. He likewise states indirectly, that it will be a gratification to himself to have Onesimus sent back to him rather than that he should be harshly treated at home.” Finally, in speaking of “taking your place,” Paul is saying that Philemon had the first right of response to Paul’s call for aid. Thus Philemon had the opportunity to come to Rome himself or send Onesimus back as a suitable replacement. Either way, Paul’s point is that though he is in prison for the gospel, he is not at all alone. Calvin comments, “He who endures persecution, for the sake of the gospel, ought not to be regarded as a private individual, but as one who publicly represents the whole Church. Hence it follows, that all believers ought to be united in taking care of it, so that they may not, as is frequently done, leave the gospel to be defended in the person of one man.”