Accepting The Cup

Great thoughts by Stephanie Elkins.

Moments Matter

Imagine for a moment that you are at a very formal dinner party and your very important host has personally poured individual cups for each of the guests. They are handed those cups, one by one, by the host himself. Some of the glasses are fancy, others are plain, some are fuller, some hold less, and some appear to even come with differing types of drinks in them. As the host makes his way around the table, you wonder a bit nervously what your cup will be like. Will you know how to hold the glass correctly? Will you actually like the drink? If so, how in the world can you appropriately ask for more? If not,…you know instinctively that in this setting, your tastes don’t matter. Whether you like the drink or not, your role and your responsibility is simply to take the cup, receive it graciously, and drink…

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Philemon 23-25; Brief Thoughts: The conclusion

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

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

Paul concludes his great request by reminding Philemon that he is a part of a community of missionaries. His final greeting includes the names of brothers who have not yet abandoned Paul, but have remained in the mission field with him. His concluding remarks are both a gracious reminder that Christians are obliged to one another and a kind warning that, if Paul is not able to see Philemon, one of these other brothers will.

Grace and Peace are again reiterated to Philemon. As a bookend, Paul concludes his letter with the same greeting as verse three. This is exactly how we ought to address one another as Christians. Open with grace and peace, present concerns, and then close with grace and peace. Consider that for a moment – how often do we offer grace and peace before we lay our request before others? Further, how willing are we to grant grace and peace regardless of the answer or response we receive? Consider what it would look like if we actually did this.

Paul’s incredibly great letter closes with the same charity that he began with.

So who are these brothers?

Epaphras – (Colossians 1:7-8, 4:12, and Philemon 1:23)

Epaphras had a prominent role in the evangelism and teaching in the church at Colossae. His efforts helped to establish the church are mentioned earlier in this letter. Epaphras was a native of the Colossian church, so identified here as “one of you.” He certainly served the church well through teaching the grace of God thoroughly and with much affection. His affection for the church at Colossae is evident in his report to Paul in 1:8. Indeed, such affection for the community of faith is vastly increased when the community of faith has responded to the Gospel with love and affection. Epaphras must have felt a great deal of love for the faithful and he must have reveled in the encouragement from such a family as the Colossian church. This is precisely the encouragement that the churches should give to its ministers. Churches ought to so fiercely follow after Christ and exemplify the changed heart of Christianity that their ministers cannot help but speak of them to others.

In addition to serving the church of Colossae, Epaphras was a “fellow minister,” “a servant of Christ Jesus,” and “a fellow prisoner” with Paul. He was obviously one of the men that Paul utilized in the teaching of the church. He was also a man who exemplified Christian service to the extent that he was recognized as a “servant of Christ.” What a tremendous honor to be identified with such a title from the hand of Paul. His imprisonment and difficulties in his missionary journeys proved a testing ground for the fortitude of the brother who went along with him. Indeed, Mark left the missionary team in Pamphylia (Acts. 15:37-40), The Jews followed Paul from town to town attempting to crush his teaching (Acts 16-17), and, after this letter, Demas will abandon Him as well (2 Tim. 4:10), leaving Paul alone in prison. With this refining in mind, consider the honor given to Epaphras. He does not abandon the work and remains faithful even into prison.

Epaphras also had a deep love for the Colossian believers. He is described as “struggling on [their] behalf in prayer” (4:12). The term used for “struggle” is the same word that we derive the English word for agony. An apt descriptive term, Paul cites that Epaphras is in agony, striving and fighting on behalf of the Colossian believers. Such a labor is not foreign to pastors and ministers of the gospel. Indeed, it is common for a minister to labor in prayer and agonize over the souls of those they shepherd. Sleepless nights and severity of prayer are commonplace among pastors and disciple-makers alike. The content of Epaphras’ prayers for the church is that their character would be refined and that they would exemplify the will of God. That is to say, that they would exemplify the character and nature of God, living out His will on this earth. Epaphras’ prayer has nothing to do with their material well being or safety. Amidst persecution and difficulty, his prayer is that they would be faithful and strong. In their fortitude and strength they will live out the will of God, thereby testifying to His great grace and mercy.

The power of Epaphras’ prayer is only heightened by Epaphras’ own disciplined efforts. This is a man who puts into practice the strength he asks for others. May we all be so disciplined in our efforts toward gospel ministry that we are identified as serving the church in this way.

Aristarchus (Acts 19:29, 20:4, 27:2, and Philemon 1:24)

A Macedonian believer, Aristarchus was one of Paul’s “companions in travel” (Acts 19:29). He was present at the riot in Ephesus and spent significant time with Paul in Ephesus. In the midst of extreme danger, Aristarchus remained faithful to stand by Paul. Further, exemplifying the Macedonian spirit, Aristarchus has given all of himself to the mission of God. He has sacrificed his own comfort and position by following the Lord even to prison. This man is a bold follower of Christ who stands by Paul in some of the most difficult circumstances. Even in this letter, he is a “fellow prisoner.” What a great encouragement to have brothers such as Aristarchus who will serve even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Mark (Acts 12:12, 12:25, 15:37-39, 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24, 1 Peter 5:13)

John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, was greatly involved in the ministry of the early church. He was a member of Paul’s missionary cohort early on until he fell sick and had to return home. He and Barnabas worked to advance the Gospel apart from Paul for a time before they were evidently reunited at Paul’s request in 2 Timothy. Mark’s own journey was one of transformation. He went from being a nuisance to being a valuable part of the mission of God. In his first attempt to live on mission, he was overcome with sickness and then rejected by the leader of the mission. Yet, he persisted and grew as a disciple, faithfully proclaiming the gospel when given the opportunity. So, over time, he is transformed from the sickly and annoying boy that Paul does not want to bother with being one whose presence is requested because he is “useful” (2 Tim. 4:11).

So it is with many Christians. As we grow in the Lord we often find the journey to becoming useful to be a long and rather slow process. Most Christians are more akin to John Mark than Paul. We seldom have a Damascus road experience that changes us overnight. Most of us must walk through failures and successes and learn slowly. Although we have been changed in a moment, we still must grow into that change as Mark grew.

Demas – (Col. 4:14, 2 Tim. 4:9-10, Philemon 24)

Demas is referred to in Philemon as a “fellow worker.” He was one of the cohort of Paul that traveled and served with him. However, somewhere between the writing of Philemon and 2 Timothy, Demas fell “in love with this present world.” No matter the devotion he once showed, his faith did not prove to be genuine. It is valuable to recognize that Demas’ affections were for “this present world.” Demas lacked an eternal perspective and thought it better to achieve in this life rather than the next. Let this serve as a warning. Strive to maintain an eternal perspective, lest you fall away for the affections of this life.

Luke – (Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 1:24.)

Luke is often a misunderstood character in church history because of the position he holds as “physician.” In modern times, physicians are men of extreme education who are venerated as highly skilled purveyors of life. However, in the first century, physicians were not highly respected men. Often slaves served as physicians and the designation as doctor bore little more significance than asserting a special responsibility. Some have speculated that Luke might have been a freed slave that joined Paul on his missionary journeys after his master set him free. It is common to speculate that Theophilus, the one to whom Acts is written, may have been Luke’s master. However, fascinating these speculations, nothing can be proved.

As a physician, Luke serves as the prototype for medical missions. Moreover, he shows the value of maintaining a physician in the service of missions for the sake of tending to Paul’s ailments. The medical profession during the first century was not a highly regarded field. Often scorned as useless in favor of idolatry, doctors were considered a rejection of the cultic practices of common roman religion. While there were some places where physicians were employed alongside temple practices, most were rejected as superfluous. The fact that Luke is used by God in such a tremendous capacity as Paul’s traveling companion is a rejection of the power of idolatry.

Imagine for a moment: you enter a city and find a temple of idol worship that claims to heal the sick through observance of ritual sacrifice. People are sick and are clamoring for their false gods to answer their pleas. You happen to have a physician who knows that the answer is for them to eat some fruit, take a particular herb, and drink lots of water. People begin to get better as a result of the physician’s advice and now you have an open door to the gospel. The education and talents of a man rejected by the common practices of the world are thereby used to advance the Kingdom of Heaven!

Further, there is no doubt that Luke utilized his education to write both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. His ability to write served to record the history of the early church and the story of Jesus. His ability as a physician, while not specifically stated, was certainly used to keep Paul and his companions healthy, and the surrendering of his gifts to God was used as a part of His mission. God used a talent often rejected by the culture of the time, to advance His kingdom.

Luke remained with Paul through Paul’s imprisonment. His affection for Paul as a brother is evident in his presence with him in Philemon 24 and in 2 Timothy 4:11. While everyone else left Paul in prison, Luke remained. He was devoted to Paul. More than that, He was devoted to the gospel work.

Consider the contrast between Luke and Demas for a moment. One surrenders everything in this life for the sake of following a gospel call that will inevitably land him in prison or end in death. The other abandons the glory of heaven for the glory of this life. Which one are you? Demas or Luke?[i]

[i] These entries were originally published on noviselkins.wordpress.com in the study through Colossians.

Philemon 21-22; Brief thoughts

21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

There is no more intimidating visit than a man who has laid his life down for the gospel who has asked for a favor. Consider for a moment Philemon’s position. He is a leader in a church that lives in relative ease and is surrounded by a great many brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul is a man who has surrendered every comfort in effort to spread the gospel of Jesus. The magnitude of such a character could intimidate the strongest of men. By concluding his letter with a clear statement of expectation followed by a promise of his own appearance, Paul is expressing both hope and issuing a warning.

Paul’s hope is based on confidence that the gospel does and will transform Philemon to live contrary to the world’s system. The nature of the gospel is transformation. Because Philemon has claimed to follow Christ, he ought to be transformed and thereby compelled by his own new nature to defy the world’s systems. If he truly believes, Philemon will obey. Do not misunderstand, Philemon is not compelled to obey because Paul is somehow forcing obedience. Philemon is compelled to obey because the gospel demands that Christians exemplify the freedom of the gospel in there everyday life. Thus, slaves must be released and made family in the same way that Jesus has done for those who believe. Christians can be expected to manifest a changed life because they have been given a new nature that is free from sin and is being renewed after the image of God (c.f. Rom. 6:1-11, Col 3:9-10, Rom. 8:9-11). Confident that this change of nature has been wrought in Philemon, Paul trusts that he will do “even more than [Paul] say[s].”

Simultaneous with his expression of confidence, Paul issues a warning – “I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you” (v.22). He is coming to visit. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the first church planter, the founder of the church in Colossae (where Philemon lives and hosts the church). Paul intends to follow his letter with his presence. The colossus of Christian missions is coming to visit following the letter he has sent with his “child” Onesimus. What can Philemon do except grant the request? If he denied such a request, then the gospel has not taken root in his heart and he is not a believer.

Paul’s warning is couched in surrender. Notice the language – “I am hoping through your prayers to be graciously given to you” (v.22). Paul is surrendering his right to command and acknowledging that Philemon’s prayers and efforts have value. Paul hopes to be “given” to Philemon. His efforts to visit are in order that he might pay the debt of Onesimus (c.f. v18). Paul is coming to take on the debt of his child, Onesimus. Yet in his coming he recognizes that Philemon’s prayers have contributed in some part to Paul’s own success. Further, he is aware that Philemon is in a position to refresh him and to aid him in the ministry. He has surrendered his right to command and has entrusted himself to the hands of Philemon. He is coming and he is coming in grace.

Paul’s concluding statements to Philemon exemplify how Christians are to treat each other in difficult situations of reproof. Note the structure of his appeal in verses 17-22.

  1. He establishes Philemon as a fellow leader (v.17).
  2. Accepting Philemon’s point of view, Paul takes on the debt of Onesimus (v. 18-19)
  3. He provides a clear statement of expectation (v. 20).
  4. He assumes the best response from Philemon (v. 21).
  5. He submits himself to Philemon’s hand and acknowledges Philemon’s efforts (v. 22).

This conciliatory attitude ought to be present in all Christian community. Christians are to be marked by our love for each other (John 13:35). So that love should be evident in Christian interactions within the church. Here are three things that Christians ought to take from Paul’s example.

  1. Assume the best in other believers. Because the gospel has transformed the hearts of believers, Christians ought to assume the best of one another. Further, Christians should express that assumption in words that are obvious and unambiguous. We ought to tell each other what we expect with transparency and forgiveness.
  2. Make expectations known. The world tells you to manipulate those around you. So great is the pervasive nature of deception in this world that entire academic degrees hinge on learning to manipulate and deceive people into doing what you desire. Christianity demands honest transparency. Christians are to be honest and open with those who they interact with. In this way a Christian lays everything out before others and entrusts him or herself to the work of the Lord.
  3. Prepare to speak in person. Paul’s confidence in Philemon is not the only step he takes to ensure Philemon’s obedience to the gospel. He is also coming to visit. In his visit, he will most certainly discuss Onesimus’ condition and offer to pay whatever has been lost. This kind of direct communication is common in Christianity. As those who have surrendered pride in favor of grace, we are uniquely suited to have loving discussions that engage each other with honest integrity.