All posts by John and Stephanie

Loving Jesus and making our way in this world

What is Required? Philemon 8-9a; Brief Thoughts

8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love’s sake…

What is required of the Christian? Freed from the law of Sin and death, Christians now live by a law of Spirit and life (Rom. 8:2). Christians are no longer required to live by a law. Rather, they have been set free from the law and given the freedom to live in grace. The grace that Christians receive from God is astounding. God, the sovereign ruler over all things, sacrifices His own son for a people who utterly reject Him as God. Indeed, He saves those who are His enemies (Romans 5:10). He extends grace to those who despise Him and kneels down to serve those who fail Him (John 13:14).[1] His grace is extended to those who hate Him.

What is required of the Christian? Nothing… and everything. God offers redemption freely and without cost to the one who will believe. Though He requires nothing, it is a gift that surely demands everything. Grace is given freely with no invoice. When someone becomes a Christian, their hearts’ affections change. Christians surrender everything they have, which amounts to nothing, in order to find life, which is everything.

What is required of the Christian? The Lord answers the same question in Micah 6:8 – “To do justice and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). The Lord requires that you do what is just and live in humble obedience to Him. The Christian is to stand for what is just. Notice, Micah’s command is not simply to avoid injustice. He does not merely call His people to avoid what is wrong. Rather, He calls His people to do what is right! They are to actively pursue what is good and right. Justice is what is required.

Justice is required, but not as a term for admission into grace. Rather, justice and mercy are the evidence that grace has been given to the Christian. The Christian walks justly because he has been transformed by grace. Grace moves in the heart of a man to change from corrupt to clean (c.f. Col. 3:9-10, 2 Cor. 5:17, and Romans 6). God’s grace needs no demands of obedience. The magnitude of the gift of grace is enough to compel obedience to the precepts of God. The Christian stands for justice, not because he is commanded to do so, but because he, being born wicked, has been supernaturally transformed and made just by the grace of God. It is not by works or effort of their own that the believer is capable of doing what is just. It is because God is gracious to him.

It is important to note that Paul would not be out-of-line to command Philemon to set Onesimus free. He could, justly, demand that Philemon surrender his worldly rights in relation to Onesimus on the basis of his own citizenship in Heaven. But Paul acts towards Philemon with the same grace that God does towards us. He reminds Philemon that He could command what is required, but he would rather appeal to Philemon’s redeemed nature. A nature that has been granted to him by a loving and forgiving God. Philemon, once a slave to sin, must extend the same unmerited favor to those in his charge.

Paul’s appeal to Philemon is based on love. The term translated love in verse 10 is the word “agape.” Agape has a connotation of self-sacrifice and surrender. So here, when Paul states that he is appealing to Philemon for the sake of love, he is asserting a call to surrender the “rights” that Philemon considers himself to hold. Philemon was well within his rights to exact punishment from Onesimus. Onesimus had run away from the assigned position of a slave. The Bible does not tell us how Onesimus became a slave, but according to the social and political system of the first century, Philemon’s enslavement of Onesimus was seen as just. Yet, because Christians have a citizenship that transcends this world, a world in which slavery does not exist and is never acceptable, Philemon is behaving contrary to his citizenship.

Are there areas of your life where you have compromised the precepts of the gospel for the sake of social norms? Have you surrendered the rights that earthly citizenship affords for the sake of love? Remember, Christian, we are subject to a higher citizenship.

[1] Consider how Jesus engages with Judas.

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Philemon 8; Accordingly

8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required,

Justice and moral engagement therewith are not appealed to in a vacuum. Justice and morality are developed most fully in the context of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the subsequent relationship that develops with Him. So, Paul begins his direct exhortation with, “accordingly.” According to the gospel that has been so evident in Philemon’s life already. According to the love that Philemon has shown to all the saints. According to what has occurred in Philemon’s life. Paul sees an injustice in keeping a slave and the answer to that injustice is in the “accordingly.”

Justice and morality can be appealed to in two different senses. The first and most common in modern society is the concept of a social contract. (Feel free to look up social contract and see what it means. For the purpose of this blog, I am defining it as – that which society views as just or unjust based on how it affects others in society.) This is the appeal that says, we do what is just because it is best for society. This is the appeal that most modern movements are based on. Social activism is practically a way of standing up with many people and saying, “See, we all agree!” If society agrees that something is good, then it must be…. Maybe? The social contract method of appeal can be a powerful motivator toward justice. Usually, these kinds of justice movements that are based on society’s accumulated view are generational and often short-lived. Telling someone, “Everyone believes this to be wrong!” Does not offer any actual authority because “everyone” could be wrong. Further, a social contract may work for the benefit of all people on occasion, but, more often than not, social contracts work in favor of the loudest and most prominent group in the debate.

However, Paul does not appeal to Philemon on the basis of society or even a social contract. He does not state that Philemon needs to do what is right because “everyone knows slavery is wrong.” Of course, in Paul’s time, almost no one confessed slavery as wrong. Though we could be tempted to think that we have now grown and now live in some evolved society of a greater morality, the truth is we have merely relegated slavery to positions acceptable in society. Between pornography/sex trafficking and general educational disparities of rural/urban versus suburban areas, we have managed to relegate slavery to acceptable areas of society – the profane or economic. If we appeal to the social contract in order to engage in justice or morality, we inevitably neglect justice for the sake of compromise with society. This is effectively what society has done. Yet, it is not the champions of social contracts that inspire nations to justice. It is those who stand on a higher ground of principle or authority that change the world and see justice exalted. It is those who lay down their lives for a greater message that are venerated as heroes.

The second and less common appeal to justice or morality is the appeal to a higher morality or deeper truth. This is an appeal that is based on a much deeper reality than a social contract can provide. That is to say, there is no one in society that is going to agree with this source. The call to justice here sets a man apart from society. Though all the world tells Philemon that slavery is ok and Onesimus should be punished and placed back in servitude, the gospel sets Onesimus free and demands the same of those who claim to follow the gospel! This appeal to the gospel is more than just a call to believe in Jesus. It is a call to Philemon to BE a Christian.

It is easy to minimize the difficulty of what Philemon is called to do. However, a simple survey of anti-slavery writing will easily uncover the difficulty of those who are convicted by the societal injustice but feel entrapped by the system they live in. Thomas Jefferson is, debatably, the most obvious example of this conflict. He argued that slavery was wrong, but that it must be left up to a future generation to abolish it… because it would be too hard. This is the result of a man who sees injustice through the lens of a social contract. Injustice may still be noted and appalling. Yet still, it will remain in light of other considerations. Not so with those who profess that justice is answered from a higher morality or deeper truth. Those who believe in a higher morality must live in that higher morality. They must fight for justice because it is just. They stand up for life because murder is wrong. They call from freedom because slavery is wrong. So the gospel demands a pursuit of freedom for the lowest of society because all who trust in Jesus have been redeemed from the lowest place. The message of the gospel demands justice and morality that may or may not be agreed on by society. It demands that those who have been forgiven by Jesus must also forgive those who wrong them. The gospel calls a man to spread justice across the earth because it is the gospel. In short: the gospel demands that adherents act “accordingly.”

So Paul pleads with Philemon: “Accordingly…”

Brief Thoughts: Philemon 6-7

6and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

The prayer of Paul for Philemon’s effectiveness draws attention to the practical outworking of the gospel. He specifically prays that Philemon’s faith would be “effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” Paul’s concern for Philemon is not that Philemon would chiefly understand the theology of the gospel. Nor is his interest that Philemon would necessarily grasp nuanced truths about God’s character. Rather, Paul’s words to Philemon directly connected to the reality of gospel effectiveness. For Paul, faith must have hands. Faith must change the way we work and walk in this life. So, the call to Philemon is that his faith would overflow through effectiveness. That is to say, that Philemon’s faith would be evidenced in his own life through the outworking of his own hands.

To what extent must faith become effective? Faith must become effective in “every good thing.” Consider that for a moment – “every good thing.” Christians do not get to choose the good they want to do. Believers in Jesus must pursue “every good thing.” This is what James explains when he states, “to him who sees what is good and fails to do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). Further, the word translated “full knowledge” indicates an active participation in the attainment of knowledge. In this simple phrase, Paul is urging Philemon to engage fully in learning the good things that Christ has birthed in the hearts of believers. Indeed, it is the good that is in us. The good that has been placed in our hearts when we were transformed through faith in Christ. This good does not spring from adjustments made to our actions, but from adjustments that have been wrought to our hearts. Christians do good because they are changed. Likewise, justice and righteous deeds ought to flow from within the heart of a believer.

From the overflow of the heart, the believer brings praise to Christ. These good things that are in us are present for the sake of Christ and His glory. James asks, “does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (James 3:11). Likewise, the words and deeds of a Christian must bring forth only praise to Christ. The world judges our Lord through our testimony. Therefore, we must strive to live a life that is above reproach and exalts the name of Christ at all times. For, “every good thing that is in us” is “for Christ.”

Philemon has been an exemplary brother in the past. His love for the saints and for Paul has been a model of charity and grace. Yet, even the most disciplined and loving members of the kingdom are susceptible to blind spots in their own senses. Because we live in a fallen world in which injustice is normative and sin is acceptable, it is easy to overlook errors that are so easily granted in our society. So it is with Philemon. He has accepted the practice of slavery and of exacting punishment from slaves who have sought freedom. Still, in many other areas of life, he was kind and gracious to the other saints. So Paul, before bringing up Onesimus and Philemon’s obligation to him, Paul reminds Philemon that he has loved the saints well in the past and his character is one of love and grace to the church.

What follows this encouragement and friendly urging will be a gentle, yet firm calling to abandon slavery and forgive Onesimus.

Sharing Your Suffering: 3 Things

A little more than 5 years ago I was afflicted with a disease that causes constant pain. The skin on my feet, hands, and parts of my legs hardens and constricts the muscles and joints. The constricted tension causes the nerves around those areas to become inflamed. This disease also causes sinus blisters in my nose that sometimes restrict breathing and cause relatively frequent migraines. In short – this disease thing stinks. Sometimes I have a limp, sometimes I can’t see straight, sometimes I just hurt, but it is always present with me. A silent thorn digging into my body with extreme patience and fury.

Like most people, I don’t like to admit weakness. I can be a proud man and want to be strong. So I seldom let people know that when I am in pain. I’ll smile and push through the pain, letting people forget that I am the way I am. I’ll try to hide my slight limp. I’ll squint my eyes or look down at the ground in order to keep the bright lights from hurting my head. I know that I’m not the only one who does this. Many people hide their pain from those they love. Whether it is physical pain or emotional, people don’t like to show real pain. But why? Why hide it? Perhaps, if they forget I have this affliction, maybe I can forget too? Maybe if they can’t see it, it will hurt a little less? Maybe I am afraid to burden them with my own trails? I know not why we hide our afflictions from the people we love, only that we do. So here are three things that result when we try to hide our brokenness and three things you can do to change that.

Results of Hiding:

  1. When we hide our affliction, we are robbing ourselves of grace. The grace of God covers us and His grace is, indeed, enough. However, in His infinite mercy, God has given us a tremendous support system to dispense grace in this life. The community of the faithful is to be a group in which we can bear our burdens out in the strength of a group that share a common love for one another. So, to hide our pain is to forego this benefit from the community of faith.
  2. When we hide our pain, we deny others the freedom to express their own pain. No individual thinks that they are perfect. No matter how arrogant a person may be, there is not a person who genuinely believes they are perfect. The problem is that people often think other people are perfect. Sin has taught us to think that other people are better off than we are. Sin causes us to think that other people are perfect and we need to be perfect as well. But, people need to know that you are not perfect. People need to know that it is ok to be broken. They need to see it modeled. When you share your brokenness with the community, you are granting the community permission to not be perfect. They will follow your lead.
  3. When we hide our failures, we fail to grant grace to others who are struggling as well. Being a perfect person helps no one. They will not see Jesus if you are perfect. Rather, they will see Jesus if you are broken. The reality is that: when you are perfect, you are passively sending a message to those around you. You are telling them that they cannot be imperfect. Yet, when you are being redeemed by the working of the Holy Spirit in your life, then people can see the victory over the failures. They can see that broken people can be rescued. Sometimes the best thing you can do is prove that you aren’t good enough.

What to Do:

  1. Admit your frailties one to another. It is not earth-shattering to know that if you will admit your struggles, others will too. But be prepared. Honesty also brings criticism. You must be prepared to grant grace to those who will not grant it to you. Perhaps they’ve not yet learned to give up perfection. Be honest about your pain. Sure, no one can hurt or think less of you if they don’t know. But no one can help you or encourage you either. Further, you may find out that you are a source of strength to others because of your brokenness.
  2. Live in open and honest community with others. This is basically a restatement from number 1, but a necessary one. You need other people. Introvert, extrovert, or whatever. You need people. God designed us this way and you must take advantage of it! Living in honesty community with others is difficult. It means when you ask someone, “how are you?” you really want the answer. When someone asks you, you are honest in your response. Brothers and sisters should not leave things to lay unanswered. Instead, believers seek reconciliation, restoration, and love with one another. This is honest community. Sometimes it is frustrating and difficult because we hurt each other, but it is always grace giving and the result is always love.
  3. Submit to the wisdom of others. When I was first afflicted with my disease, it was rough. I often had to use a cane to walk and found it difficult to accomplish tasks that I was assigned. I was working on a house for a missions group with a team of about 20 and my foot was essentially useless. On my crew were two students who knew my stubbornness and knew my own weakness. They insisted that I sit when I was limping, and that I stopped working when they saw I was hurting. After the trip I spoke with a doctor who told me that they probably saved me some severe nerve damage because they forced me to sit. Since then I have learned to trust those who know me. They know my weaknesses better than I do, so when they address something, I listen.

Maybe you don’t have a disease or struggle with something that causes you physical pain. There are still struggles you deal with. Depression, anxiety, dark feelings, and the like are all too common among believers. Yet, I believe if we are honest with one another, we will often find victory over the darkness. Though the struggles will not necessarily disappear, you can find greater victory by engaging in the community of faith.

Are there any tips you would add? How do you deal with struggles?

Brief Thoughts: Philemon 4-5

4I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,

Philemon was a house church leader in Colossae. His prominence among the community of faith was one that held sway and influence over a number of brothers and sisters in Christ. So Paul begins his instruction to Philemon by reminding Philemon of their mutual relationship. Though Paul is in prison and Philemon is in comfort, they share a shepherding relationship in the church. Confrontation looming, Paul seeks to remind his brother, Philemon, of that relationship.

Paul begins to approach the issues that need addressing by praising God for the good Philemon has done. Invoking the authority of God and, thereby, passively reminding Philemon of God’s position in their relationship. Paul’s reminder to Philemon in verse 4 is a not-so-subtle attempt to remind Philemon that he is being brought before God. Anytime someone says they have been thanking God for you, it ought to make you examine yourself to see if there is anything God is going to correct. This is especially true when a man such as Paul reminds you that he has labored over you in prayer. As a student wanting to please his teacher, so Philemon must have had some desire to please Paul, the great missionary founder of the churches in Asia.

The reason for gratitude over Philemon is the news of his love and faith. Philemon has made sacrifices for the community. He voluntarily gives over his home and time to the work of the Lord. This is a unique sacrifice that should not be overlooked. While Philemon may or may not be an elder (scripture does not tell us if he held the title pastor), he is the host of the church. Hosts don’t get time off. Hosts surrender their own space so that the community can meet in their home. If someone else is tired or sick, they can stay home and just skip for the week. But the host cannot. So Philemon has shown himself to be loving and faithful.

Moreover, Paul is probably referencing even further dedication to the love of the saints and the provision of their needs. It is, no doubt, with great joy that Paul prays in gratitude for Philemon. His constant care and love for the church has made its way to Paul’s ear. Paul, who founded the churches of Asia and dealt specifically with riots, rejection, and all sorts of pitfalls, must find extreme delight in those who carry on the work when he is gone.

Take note that Paul is particularly struck by his love toward “Jesus and all the saints.” Philemon is gently reminded that his love for Jesus is good and that it extends to ALL the saints. Not merely those of high social standing or those who are in particular positions of prominence. The love of Jesus must extend through the hearts of His disciples to everyone. Jesus’ own words explain this even further in Matthew 25:31-40 when He speaks about the final judgment and the day that the King will say to those who are condemned that they have failed to provide for the least and therefore have failed to provide for Him. Loving the lowest in society is loving Jesus. There is no hierarchy in the Kingdom of God. There is only one King and He made himself lowest (C.f. John 13). We are to follow His example and be as He is.

The gospel is the great equalizer. Titles of “slave” and “master” are no longer applicable in the context of the gospel. Philemon’s relationship to Onesimus has transformed from slave to brother. To what extent does the gospel change society’s structure? To what end does the gospel defy the social morae’s of the time? In every way! The gospel defies injustice and demands that believers live above the base morality of society. When a believer is confronted with injustice they make war against it. Believers do not submit to the unjust luxuries of society no matter how integrated they may be. Slavery was an integral part of society in the first century. No matter how easy it made life or how dependent on slavery the economic structure may have been, Christians are called to live the gospel! That means there can no longer be slaves. The gospel must transform all of life. We should not be surprised if the gospel requires great cost from those who believe. After all, we are all once slaves, now free.

Philemon 3; Brief Thoughts

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This simple greeting is so commonplace for Paul that our eyes sometimes fly right past it. Take a moment and look carefully. It is one of the most powerful and revealing greetings a heart can muster. Paul proclaims “grace and peace” (v.3). This opening greeting declares the intent of Gospel communication. Grace and peace. Paul has some strong words for Philemon. They are words that Philemon may be troubled by and tempted to reject. So Paul initiates his letter declaring that unmerited favor. Grace… that gift of life that cannot be measured by currency or value. That priceless free gift that costs us nothing and because of which we give everything. Paul begins by assuring the heart of Philemon: grace is found in this message.

Married to grace is peace. For indeed, peace is found chiefly in unmerited favor. Peace is something that is only available in complete surrender, in complete reliance on grace. Peace can only truly be found in the receipt of grace. Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, has taken your sins, died on the cross to pay the penalty for those sins, and has risen to overcome death. In His death, anyone who believes in Him is free from sin and, in His resurrection, all believers are given a new spiritual life that will go on for eternity! An eternity of peace with God… because of grace. We who were slaves to sin shook our fists in God face as enemies (Romans 5:10). God, “being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6). Trust in Christ to find peace.

Grace and peace. These words so often evade our homes and our work. These character traits seem ever one step beyond our hands. Beyond our work. Beyond our ability. Yet, they are available and are at hand in one moment of dependent surrender. This is difficult for humanity – surrender. It does not come easily to our rebel souls. It is counter to our nature. It is counter to our intuition. Indeed, we all are runaway slaves who need grace and peace from our master. And yet, through surrender to Christ, comes grace and peace. Grace and peace.

The second half of the verse reasserts the magnitude of Paul’s letter. Paul speaks directly for God, delivering his invocation of grace and peace “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” His authority is not found in his experience, though vast; nor his wisdom, though great; nor his fortitude, though considerable. His authority to write these words comes from the Lord, Jesus, master of all. He uses the word “Father” so you would understand the love of God. He uses the term “Lord” so you would recognize that Jesus is your King and master! What a great and powerful Lord He is! Grace and Peace await us. Submission to a loving Father who rules over all, from whom all grace and peace come. What joy!

Paul’s beautiful invocation would certainly pierce the soul of any Christian. Slaveholding Christians must recognize the inconsistency of serving a master who voluntarily sets them free while insisting on the captivity of their own fellow man. The Lord Jesus Christ has set you free from bondage and has given you freedom. This freedom was not granted because you have been good or made the right choices. Rather, the grace and peace of Jesus Christ transcend your own rebellion to bring freedom to your soul![1]

[1] This same sentence is addressed in similar language in “Thinking through Ephesians; a short devotional journey” by J. Novis Elkins.

Philemon 1-2; Brief Thoughts

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:

Paul and Timothy write to Philemon to encourage him to welcome Onesimus, the runaway slave, as a brother in Christ and to free him from slavery to sin and death. As they have been freed in Christ, so the gospel is one that should set every man free from slavery both spiritual and physical. In this simple letter, Paul endeavors to engage Philemon as a brother and encourage him to voluntarily forgive Onesimus and make him a brother, no longer a slave. Whatever offense Onesimus has caused, Philemon needs to be able to forgive it and do what is right. That is to say, Philemon needs to be able to forgive the past and free the slave – because that’s what the gospel does.

This greeting identifies Paul as a victim of circumstantial wickedness (imprisonment for Christ) like Onesimus (a victim of slavery). It also sets Paul apart from Philemon. Paul was alone with only Timothy to support him. Indeed, he had been abandoned by many! Contrary to Paul, Philemon is surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul even lists, specifically, a “sister and a “soldier.” A family member and a protector. Whereas Paul is condemned by soldiers of a wicked government, Philemon has a soldier of Christ in his home! Whereas Paul has only Timothy to console him, Philemon has an entire church! The stark contrast between luxury and prison cannot be lost. Paul is clearly making a point by asserting the blessings of Philemon. It is as if Paul is saying, “you have no reason for complaint about property, condition, or company.” It is no great thing for Philemon to release a slave in order to gain a brother.

Further, Paul knows that others are watching Philemon and he is reminding Philemon that he has the eyes of others upon him. The church that he labors to serve as a “fellow worker” is the very audience to which he is attempting to model Christ. So it stands to reason: if Philemon wishes to display the freedom of Christ and the love of Christ in his own actions, then it follows that he should forgive Onesimus and set him free. Paul’s greeting serves as both a loving salutation and a gentle reminder of the responsibility of one who leads the church.

Finally, Paul’s greeting to Philemon passively asserts the truth that no one in the church should compartmentalize their lives to allow un-forgiveness. Philemon is a part of a community. That community meets in his home and is intimately acquainted with him. Philemon cannot avoid them or live hypocritically before them. This is the nature of a healthy church community. A healthy church is one in which members of the body cannot hide from each other. They cannot simply pretend that they are holy and pursuing Christ in all areas of life and then simply go home and do as they please. Healthy communities engage each other on a level that does not allow for isolation and compartmentalization.

Unfortunately, compartmentalized faith is all too common in the modern western church. Men will serve as bastions of holiness in their church community while living a debauched life away from that community. Women will put themselves pillars of godly womanhood when present in their church, then they will gossip and slander others when away from the community. In a healthy church, this should not happen. A healthy church is in contact with each other in all spheres of life. The eyes of the church community are all looking out for one another and are helping to urge one another on towards unity. There is no hiding when you have surrendered your life to the exposing light of Jesus Christ. Love exposes our failures and redirects us to love one another through a personal connection.

Do you have a community like this? Philemon was held accountable by loving brothers and sisters. Such accountability would, no doubt, give him the support and love to forgive Onesimus and bring him into the community. Do you compartmentalize your faith from your everyday life? Strive to serve and love others in a transparent community of faith! Surrender your privacy so that you might delight in the community of Christ.

The I pastor strives to live in this sort of authentic community. If you live anywhere near Brazoria, TX, come join us as we struggle to live transparent lives worshiping the King of Glory together! We don’t always get it right, and we are far from perfect. Come walk this life in community. More info available here: www.sgfbrazoria.org