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What Philemon Taught Me About Citizenship

Paul was a Roman citizen. In fact, based on the account in Acts 22:23–29, Paul benefited from the status of cives Romani — citizens who had full legal protection under Roman law. What’s more, Paul inherited his citizenship through birth, a distinction that gave him a certain prestige among those who might have purchased citizenship.

As they were yelling and flinging aside their robes and throwing dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, directing that he be examined with the scourge, so he could discover the reason they were shouting against him like this. As they stretched him out for the lash, Paul said to the centurion standing by, “Is it legal for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and is uncondemned?”

When the centurion heard this, he went and reported to the commander, saying, “What are you going to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.”

The commander came and said to him, “Tell me — are you a Roman citizen?”

“Yes,” he said.

The commander replied, “I bought this citizenship for a large amount of money.”

“But I was born a citizen,” Paul said.

Therefore, those who were about to examine him withdrew from him at once. The commander too was alarmed when he realized Paul was a Roman citizen and he had bound him.

It’s important to understand that being within the boundaries of the Roman Empire did not automatically make you a Roman citizen. For example, most people living in First Century Judea would fall under the legal status of Provinciales – peoples who fell under Roman control but had few rights compared to higher classes. In the book of Philemon, Onesimus didn’t even enjoy that limited legal status, for Onesimus was a slave.

Not Citizens, Not Even People

Slaves lacked legal personhood in the Roman Empire. The question of citizenship was a moot point because they were property, not people. In the First Century, there were few protections for slaves. Masters could use corporal punishment, sexually exploit, torture, and even kill their slaves with little fear of reprisal. After all, they weren’t abusing a person. In their minds, they were doing nothing more than mistreating property, worthy of no more consideration than a piece of furniture. (See Marcel Mauss. 1979. “A Category of the human mind: the notion of the person, the notion of ‘self'”.)

Professor Keith Bradely puts it this way in Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome:

In Rome and Italy, in the four centuries between 200 BC and 200 AD, perhaps a quarter or even a third of the population was made up of slaves. Over time millions of men, women, and children lived their lives in a state of legal and social non-existence with no rights of any kind. They were non-persons – notice that in Plutarch’s story the slave does not even have a name – and they couldn’t own anything, marry, or have legitimate families.

Their role was to provide labour, or to add to their owners’ social standing as visible symbols of wealth, or both. Some slaves were treated well, but there were few restraints on their owners’ powers, and physical punishment and sexual abuse were common. Owners thought of their slaves as enemies. By definition slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising institution, where slaves were seen as akin to animals.

The public distrusted slaves, who were the first to be blamed for any public disturbance or crime. The capture of escaped slaves was a national obsession. An escaped slave was known as a fugitivus — a term loaded with the same derision we might reserve for illegal alien. Harboring an escaped slave was illegal, and captured slaves would often be whipped, tortured, or killed. Any slave returned living to their master would be branded on the forehead with the letter FUG, for fugitivus.

This is the climate under which Onesimus meets Paul sometime prior to the book of Philemon. Onesimus has no legal right to be in Paul’s presence. He has no right to expect any special treatment. He should entirely expect Paul to tun him into the authorities as a fugitive slave with no rights. At worst, this journey could be a death sentence for Onesimus, but something about Paul draws the slave to him.

A Message Greater Than Citizenship

There is no evidence at all that Paul holds Onesimus’s lack of legal citizenship against him in the book of Philemon. This should come as no surprise from the man who wrote 1 Corinthians 9:19–23.

Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law — though I myself am not under the law — to win those under the law. To those who are without that law, like one without the law — not being without God’s law but within Christ’s law — to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.

Or who wrote Romans 1:13–17.

Now I want you to know, brothers, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now) in order that I might have a fruitful ministry among you, just as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish. So I am eager to preach the good news to you also who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.

Or Galatians 3:27–28.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.

Paul knew the gospel is not constrained by social class, by geopolitical boundaries, by national allegiances, or any other worldly division we might create. Christ’s gospel is for all, and if we put artificial boundaries between lost souls and the truth of Christ, even those of citizenship, then we are like the Pharisees of Matthew 23, who “lock up the kingdom of heaven from people.”

Onesimus would have known of Paul by reputation at the very least. He would have known of this prophet who spoke of a faith that eliminates all social status. Before meeting him, Onesimus saw Paul as a safe space, a place where he could learn of the man called Christ without fear and from a person who would treat him as a person, not as property,

An Aside on Applying Authority

We often speak of Biblical authority in terms of direct commands, implications, and apostolic example. I also respect the notion of the silence of the scriptures — the idea that if you cannot find authorization for something, then the silence on that topic is prohibitive; it’s not something God wants from us. The book of Philemon hits all of these in terms of how a disciple of Christ should treat a non-citizen in regards to the gospel.

1. Direct Command

Onesimus has not yet reconciled his legal status when Paul writes this in Philemon 1:15–17:

For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave — as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me.

If there’s any question how Paul views this statement, see verse 21, where Paul writes, “Since I am confident of your obedience…” These are not the words of one who views this as a request. It is a command. Onesimus is a brother in Christ above all, legal status notwithstanding.

2. Example and Implication

Paul writes, in Philemon 1:9–13:

I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place.

  • Paul taught Onesimus the gospel and baptized him into Christ.
  • Onesimus was still a fugitive slave when Paul converted him.
  • Therefore, Paul’s actions demonstrate that citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is of greater urgency than earthly citizenship.

Paul sets an example for us that demonstrates how we should conduct ourselves in similar circumstances. If, for example, I have opportunity to teach an undocumented immigrant — an illegal — then my responsibility is to their soul first. Any earthly citizenship is purely a secondary consideration. It will be important to reconcile that problem eventually, but it’s not the first concern.

3. Silence of the Scripture

There’s no record that Paul alerted the authorities about Onesimus. There’s no record he berated or tried to turn away Onesimus as an illegally free slave. There is evidence to the contrary that Paul insisted Onesimus fix his legal status before learning about Christ. The lack of these details means they were not part of Paul’s encounter with Onesimus, nor should they be part of the way we conduct ourselves in similar circumstances.

The Promise of a Better Kingdom

Worldly nations are inherently broken. Rules for citizenship are often discriminatory and overwhelming. And what do they get us? At best, we have a few worldly rights and privileges afforded in a transient geopolitical entity surrounded by imaginary boundaries that have no meaning beyond a tentative agreement with other such entities. Jesus Christ offers us something better.

Philippians 3:20–21

…But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself.

1 Peter 2:9–10

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The book of Philemon teaches me that heavenly citizenship is better than and more important than earthy citizenship. Being a Christian is more important than being an American (or insert your own country here). In my life, I should put Christ first, not America first. I should seek to share the greatness of Christ, not make my nation great. The only question of citizenship I should ask of anyone is whether or not they are part of Christ’s kingdom.

Paul did not idolize his citizenship, and neither should we. My call is not to make proselytes to American civic religion but to bring lost souls to Christ. My call is not to teach Western culture but to teach the grace and forgiveness of Christ. It is not to make you like me, but for me to prefer you and help you on your spiritual journey. Through Him, we add to the citizens of His kingdom, which knows no class, no race, and no boundaries.

What Philemon Taught Me About Grace

For such a small book, there are many lessons in the book of Philemon that apply directly to our daily Christian lives. For me, the biggest of these is a lesson about grace. Philemon teaches us about God’s grace and forgiveness. In turn, that teaches me about the grace and forgiveness I should show others.

Grace from God

Philemon 1–3:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother: To Philemon our dear friend and coworker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home.

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

Paul opens his letter to Philemon with a statement commending God’s grace and peace to Philemon. This reminder of God’s grace is important because Philemon is going to need to show a great deal of grace himself. For the rest of this letter, Paul doesn’t speak explicitly about the grace of God. Rather, he shows God’s grace working in Philemon.

Philemon 9–16:

I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will. For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave — as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

In short, Paul tells Philemon that he met the escaped slave Onesimus, taught Onesimus the gospel, and now sends him back to Philemon as a baptized brother in Christ. He appeals to Philemon to treat him as such and to forgive him for his sins against Philemon.

Keep in mind:

  • Onesimus had broken the law by running.
  • Onesimus had sinned against Philemon by running.
  • He could fix neither while with Paul.
  • Paul taught him and baptized him anyway.

Was Philemon a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16–21) before making things right with his master? Was Philemon truly forgiven of his sins — even the outstanding ones? I’d say yes. Paul calls Philemon “my son” and “part of myself.” He calls Philemon a “dearly beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord.” This is not language to describe someone still lost in their sins. This is language describing someone who has experienced sanctification and whose sins have been blotted out.

We don’t have to have everything figured out and resolved before coming to Christ. We have a High Priest who is sympathetic to our struggles (Hebrews 4:14–16). He knows what it is to be human. Therefore, He extends grace in our time of need. That includes when we need forgiveness. Onesimus receives forgiveness. He still needs to put things right with Philemon, and he intends to do so, but he does so forgiven of his sins.

We too may have long-running challenges or things we still have to put right when we understand our need for God’s grace, but we shouldn’t let those stop us. Repenting of our sins doesn’t mean we come to God in a perfect, spotless state. That would undermine our need for God’s grace. Rather, we come to God with a contrite and humble heart, acknowledging our past sins, and resolving to be better in His name. That is the magnitude of God’s grace.

The Grace We Show Others

We need to show this kind of grace to others as well. That’s what Paul asks Philemon to do in Philemon 17–21:

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it — not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self. Yes, brother, may I have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

There are three big points I take out of this:

1. Grace Comes Before Judgment

We can split hairs here as much as we want, but the principle is this: if someone expresses interest in Christ, we should not turn them away because of the sins in their life. We should not deny baptism in Christ because of unresolved wrongs. Yes, we should always work with each other to overcome sin and hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct, morality, and attitude. But we don’t have to start perfect.

Sometimes we want God to forgive our wrongs and punish those of others. We want God to be patient with us while swift to wrath with others. This is how we often treat sin we see in others — especially sins that make us personally uncomfortable or that we somehow rank as worse than our own. Instead we should see sin the way God does: as a separation from Him, yes, but also an opportunity for grace.

2. Grace Compels Us to Growth

To clarify, this does not contradict Romans 6:1–14. Those of us who have been baptized have died to sin. We therefore work to reject sin in our lives and serve God in purity of heart and conduct. But this is a work in progress. Even Paul never felt he attained perfection. See what Paul says in Philippians 3:12–14:

Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.

We are all works in progress. I still struggle with certain temptations and even sins, and I have to accept the fact that you do too. Your struggles may not be my struggles. Your struggles may be more visible or more currently controversial than mine. But my obligation to show you grace is no less. Onesimus does not return to Philemon a perfect person, but Paul expects Philemon to show him grace the same way God shows grace to all of us.

3. Grace Is Generous

Philemon 17–18:

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

It’s not enough for Paul that Onesimus intends to put things right with Philemon. He offers to set things right on Onesimus’s behalf. It’s not enough to acknowledge someone has to set things right in their lives. We should be the first to offer, “I can help.” In Paul’s case, he writes that he’s willing to pay off any money Onesimus might owe his master. Paul’s statements about wishing to keep Onesimus with him suggests he is even willing to buy Onesimus’s freedom himself.

It’s quite likely Onesimus did take money, at the very least for passage to Rome. On foot, the journey from Colossae to Rome would have taken three or more weeks. If you instead travel across the Aegean and Adriatic seas, it only takes about eight days. Additionally, I think the fact that Paul even writes this demonstrates that he already knows Onesimus owes Philemon recompense. It would have come out in their studies together if Onesimus was as repentant as Paul claims. It’s likely Paul writes this to give Philemon a chance to show additional grace and forgive that debt. True grace makes us generous.

How would you or I respond in a similar situation? A modern equivalent would be to study with and baptize an undocumented immigrant. We know they can’t perpetually live in that state and remain pleasing to God. What then are you willing to do on that person’s behalf? Your answer speaks to the extent you allow grace to drive you.

Grace Covers All

1 Corinthians 15:9–11:

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. However, I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me. Therefore, whether it is I or they, so we proclaim and so you have believed.

Think about where Paul came from. There was no way Paul could ever undo all the pain he had caused when he persecuted Christians. He could not release all those he imprisoned. He could not bring Stephen back to life. He could not undo the consequences of his past sins. Paul understand the greatness of God’s grace perhaps better than any other New Testament writer because he experienced its extent firsthand.

You can repent from your sins without fixing everything. You may still continue to struggle with sins that you struggled with before baptism. There may be consequences that continue to affect others after baptism. You can even have unresolved problems with a government and still find God’s grace. He can wash us of all these things.

Then the question becomes what you or I do with these unresolved sins. Paul had to find peace with what he could not fix and press forward in His resolve to serve God. Onesimus resolved to put things right — both personally and legally. He would go back to Onesimus, and we never hear the end of that story. It’s not important if we know whether or not Philemon released him. The important thing is Onesimus’s repentance and follow-through.

Would you teach Christ to:

  • Someone in an unscriptural intimate relationship?
  • Someone who has had an abortion?
  • An undocumented immigrant?
  • A long-time drug addict?

Additionally, would you personally help them right what they can? If we are going to show grace in our lives, then the answer to all of these has to be yesWe have to be willing to cover a multitude of sins with our grace and forgiveness just as God has covered ours. God’s grace is great, and the letter to Philemon exemplifies the depth and the extent of that grace. It shows us what it means to live that grace. Sin is terrible, yes, but God’s grace is greater.

Sin is an opportunity for grace. When God forgives us, we have a chance to reflect on grace’s power in our lives. Let’s then use the opportunities we have to extend that grace as well. The world needs grace, and they should experience that grace through grateful recipients of it. They should see grace in us.

Link: Many Churchgoers Want Sunday Morning Segregated

Link: Many Churchgoers Want Sunday Morning Segregated … by Politics

More than half (57%) of Protestant churchgoers under 50 say they prefer to go to church with people who share their political views. And few adult Protestant churchgoers say they attend services with people of a different political persuasion.
Those are among the findings in a new report on churchgoing and politics from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.
“Like many places in America, churches are divided by politics,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “And churchgoers under 50 seem to want it that way.”

Bob Smietana for Christianity Today

While the findings are less dire than the headline leads you to believe, I can personally attest to feeling unwelcome in a congregation because of politics. The ironic part is that my main efforts concentrate on removing politics from influencing our Christian walks, but to those heavily invested in worldly politics, their removal feels like a political agenda in and of itself.

I can’t help but think of the challenges faced in the church in Corinth as outlined in 1 Corinthians 1:11–13:

For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by members of Chloe’s household, that there is rivalry among you. What I am saying is this: Each of you says, “I’m with Paul,” or “I’m with Apollos,” or “I’m with Cephas,” or “I’m with Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name?

Paul says the only name that matters is Christ’s. We should not align ourselves with other factions or individuals that threaten to overtake our hearts. If we create divisions among ourselves over politics, then we’re not better than the church in Corinth. (Granted, we should be honest about when political voices draw us away from Christ in action or in attitude.)

Fortunately, we have the same remedy today: love. Our Christian love should overcome all secular differences. It should erase divisions, but this requires self-sacrifice. I need to be willing to sacrifice voicing my opinion on secular topics. I need to be willing to accept that someone can feel differently than me without vilifying them. I need to focus on our common faith above all so that no worldly matters may divide us.

An Overview of Philemon

Philemon is one of my favorite books, and it’s a surprisingly relevant one — both to our spiritual lives as well as to some current cultural trends. Yet it’s also a remarkably short book, one of the five shortest in the Bible. Paul’s letter to Philemon is focused yet deep, and we would do well to fully appreciate the implications therein.

The book is also unique in that it’s one of a very few letters written to individuals instead of to congregations. The letters to Titus and Timothy are other examples, and 2 John and 3 John may also be for individuals. This letter gives us an insight into how Paul interacted with his fellow Christians on a personal level and teaches us how to do the same.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Cultural Backdrop

Paul is writing this letter in regards to his time with an escaped slave named Onesimus who rightly belongs to Philemon. There’s a complication, however. Onesimus became a Christian during his time with Paul, and this fundamentally changes the relationship between Philemon and his slave. At the same time, Onesimus has broken the law, as has Paul by harboring him.

In ancient Rome, slaves were not looked upon as citizens in any way. As with the practice of slavery in the Untied States fewer than 200 years ago, slaves in Rome were property. They were soulless objects to be bought and sold as one would clothing or produce. Many Romans viewed slaves with a certain amount of fear and distrust. According to Naerebout and Singor in “De Oudheid,” there was a common saying in Rome: “As many enemies as slaves.”

According to Professor Keith Bradley, slaves were often criticized for:

  • Laziness and Loitering – People would complain about them mulling about in public entertainment areas.
  • Being a Threat – Many officials seemed to see unsupervised slaves as a threat to national security. (“They’ll revolt!”)
  • Being Murderers – Some slaves escaped captivity by killing their masters. They were often prime suspects in any murder regardless of evidence.
  • Theft – If food disappeared from a vendor’s stall, nearby slaves would face blame.
  • Vandalism – Slaves were frequently accused of defacing buildings and monuments.

Does any of this sound remotely familiar? Historian Moses Finley recounts that the tracking and capture of fugitive slaves was almost a national obsession. There were professional slave catchers one could hire to track an illegally freed slave. Those who harbored fugitive slaves faced punishment if caught. Recaptured slaves were branded on their forehead (F, for fugitivus). Slaves would even have collars to wear, proclaiming promises of reward should the slave be returned to their rightful owner. This was the climate under which Paul encountered Onesimus.

A Quick Outline

The letter to Philemon can be broken down into three basic sections:

  1. Paul’s greeting to Philemon (vss. 1 – 7)
  2. Paul’s appeal for Onesimus (Vss. 8 – 20)
  3. Paul’s confidence in Philemon (vss. 21 – 25)

Pauls’ Greeting and Thanksgiving

I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints. I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

Before Paul gets to the reason for his letter, he reaffirms the esteem in which he holds Philemon. He reiterates their common faith and relationship in Jesus Christ. When facing a challenging conversation, we should do the same. We should recall our commonalities in Christ and put our Christian love at the center of the conversation.

Can you imagine if Paul had jumped right to the part about Philemon’s escaped slave without this opening? Too often, that’s how we approach each other. “Do you know what your problem is?” “I have something I need to say to you.” We create walls where there should be bridges. In this case, Philemon has done nothing wrong, but Paul knows his request is going to be challenging. Therefore, he starts with their common ground.

Paul’s Appeal for Onesimus

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it — not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self.

When Paul reveals that Onesimus is with him, the very first thing he covers in vss. 10 – 11 is that this slave is now a Christian. This sets the tone for the rest of the letter and is the foundation upon which Paul bases his request. It’s hard to know how long Onesimus had been gone, but it’s safe to assume he was with Paul for some time. After all, Paul had time to teach Onesimus the gospel, and he calls Onesismus “my very heart.” On top of that, we know Philemon was part of the Colossian congregation (putting together Colossians 4:9 and Philemon 1 – 2), and the trip to Rome from Colossae would have been long.

Time can often make wounds deeper, and I wonder what Philemon felt when he saw Onesimus’s name in Paul’s handwriting. However, Paul doesn’t want Philemon to dwell on the past. He wants Philemon to accept this new reality that his escaped slave is now a brother in Christ, equal heir to salvation.

Look at the ways Paul seeks to help Philemon accept this:

  1. Paul admits that he wants to keep Onesimus with him, but he says he doesn’t want to force his friend’s hand (vs. 14).
  2. Paul makes the case that it might even be God’s will that Onesimus escaped and found Paul (vss. 15 – 16).
  3. Paul offers to repay any debts Onesimus might have to Philemon (vss. 18 – 19).

Would that we would advocate for one another so deeply! Paul wants Philemon to truly understand that Onesimus is now his equal brother in Christ, that their relationship has forever changed. This requires Philemon to set aside generations of tradition and possibly even prejudice. This requires Philemon to set aside the way things are “supposed to be” to accept a new reality in Christ. We can quote that there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female in Christ Jesus, but how would you or I react in a situation like this? That’s the real test of Christian love.

Paul’s Confidence in Philemon

Yes, brother, may I have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Paul assumes the best of Philemon, and we should assume the best of each other. Remember when Paul wrote that love “hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7)? This is what that hope looks like. Paul is confident that Philemon will set tradition and hard feelings aside to accept Onesimus in Christ.

Other Notes

  • Paul is under guard while all of this transpires. It’s another example of Paul’s selflessness. He’s more concerned about Onesimus’s spiritual freedom than his own physical captivity, and he undertakes the risk that harboring this slave could make matters worse for himself. This is self-sacrifice in action.
  • This is the same Paul who wrote Romans 13, stating that Christians should submit to and live peaceably with their government. Yet he’s breaking the law by keeping Onesimus around. Let that sink in.
  • Onesimus was baptized by Paul before returning to Philemon. He was able to make things right with God before fixing everything in his life. We don’t have to be perfect to respond to the gospel call.
  • The end of the letter contains some hope that Paul will be released. Unfortunately, this will not happen.
  • Based on Colossians 4:9, I like to think Onesimus delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossian church upon his return, further cementing his new relationship with them in Christ and the esteem Paul had for him.

In the coming days, I’m going to share a few more posts about Philemon, specifically about what Philemon teaches us about Romans 13, about earthly citizenship versus spiritual citizenship, and about God’s grace.

a page from the book of James

An Overview of James Chapter 5: Maturity and Trust

James has focused his entire letter on Christian maturity — both in our faithfulness to God and in our conduct toward others. It’s not enough to just call ourselves Christ followers; we must be continually striving to grow closer to Him in our behavior, our morality, and our internal attitudes. Now James concludes his letter, and he does so by talking about where we place our trust in this life. This is very much a continuation of the thoughts James shares in chapter 4.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1 – 6: Do Not Trust Wealth

Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! Look! The pay that you withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived luxuriously on the land and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned — you have murdered — the righteous man; he does not resist you.

James is exceedingly clear: you and I should not put our hope in our worldly possessions. He goes so far as to condemn those who amass their wealth at the expense of practicing mercy and justice. He uses prophetic language to get his point across.

  • Their silver and gold corrodes, probably from stagnating in storage for too long rather than being used by those to whom they owe wages.
  • The corroded silver and gold testify against and will consume them.
  • Withheld pay cries out.
  • The workers’ cries reach the ears of God.

James goes as far as to say that these wealthy individuals who seek ways to cheat their workers and withhold pay are guilty of murder. We live in a culture where such behavior is written off as “just doing business” or “looking after our shareholders.” This is not right. If we’re privileged enough where others rely on us for their livelihood, we should never engage in such practices. If we’re not in that position (as most of us will not be), we should never condone or justify this kind of greed. God believes it more important that we look after the needs of others than our luxuries.

Verses 7 – 12: Trust Instead In God

Therefore, brothers, be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near. Brothers, do not complain about one another, so that you will not be judged. Look, the judge stands at the door!

Brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience. See, we count as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome from the Lord. The Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. Your “yes” must be “yes,” and your “no” must be “no,” so that you won’t fall under judgment.

James contrasts the impatience and callousness that can come from trusting in our wealth with the patience and strength that comes with trusting in the Lord. He puts this patience in context of a farmer who has to keep a long-term view of their work, knowing that a lack of patience could result in a ruined crop. Our trust in God encourages us to be patient with Him as well as with one another.

Take people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Job as examples of this kind of patience and trust. Their examples testify to us that our patient faith can endure anything through the Father. These people should be role models to us, not simply icons of faith. We should look at they way they endured their trials, at the ways they overcame discouragement and outright persecution, and resolve to do the same.

Then we get to the “above all” statement. This is the summation of everything James has written so far regarding our mature faith. Putting God’s word into action, showing generosity, overcoming prejudice, taming our tongues, growing in humility, and putting our trust where it belongs — all of this boils down to a very simple principle: be honest.

  • If we are honest with our perspective about suffering, we will understand that pains of this life are temporary and look past them to God’s greater purpose for us.
  • If we are honest with God’s word, then we will put it into practice when it demands change in our lives.
  • If we are honest with the example Jesus has left us, then we will put others before self, discard prejudice and discrimination, and seek mercy before secular judgments.
  • If we are honest with ourselves, we will be mindful of the ways we use our words, tempering our language even when incensed or frustrated.
  • If we are honest about our place in Creation, we will be humble before God and put His will before our own.
  • If we are honest in humility, then we will place our trust in the Creator rather than the perishable things He has created.

Verses 13 – 20: Trusting In Prayer

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; yet he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.

My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.

Finally, James sums up his book with an encouragement to pray. This is where we put our trust and patience into action. Do we trust in God? Then we will trust in the power of prayer. Here, the mature Christian finds peace and fulfillment. Here, we give everything over to God.

James ends with this: those who are mature in Christ, be ready to help restore those who have gone astray. With every point of maturity in this letter, the opposite can occur. We should always be willing to help each other along our journeys and restore one another when necessary. The mature Christian does not write off another Christian over secular differences or spiritual struggles. The mature Christian seeks to heal and restore.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • You can’t read James 5 and come away with the thought that Jesus and His apostles would be OK when we shrug at someone struggling to make ends meet with their full-time job to say, “Then get a second job.”
  • It’s interesting that James inserts a comment about complaining about one another in his section about being patient with God. My takeaway is that being patient with each other is part of being patient with God. “As you have done to the least of these…”
  • James makes it clear that basic honesty is the ultimate litmus test for true Christianity. If we follow public figures who claim a Christian faith, but they can’t pass the test of basic honesty, we’re following the wrong people.
  • We do find examples in other letters of withdrawing fellowship from those who have fallen away. In each of those cases, however, the withdrawn individual caused major damage to the local congregation involved. Withdrawal should never be a default course of action.

If the attribution is correct, James would have written this letter before the events of Acts 12. He would have been writing to Christians who had heard and received the gospel news and were now ready to put that gospel into action. Putting Christ on in baptism is just the beginning of our Christian journey. We should always let God’s word refine and perfect us. Let’s be honest with where we are in our assessments of where we are as followers of Christ, and let’s put James words into action, growing closer to our Savior day by day.

Link: The Manger and the Inn

The Presbyterian Outlook: The Manger and the Inn: A Middle Eastern View of the Birth Story of Jesus

Is the entire village of Bethlehem so hardhearted that no home is open to a woman about to give birth? Indeed, the “late-night arrival myth” slurs all the inhabitants of Bethlehem, not just the mythological innkeeper! In short, our Western tradition has, across the years, invented details that do not fit our Middle Eastern world as a real story about real people in a real village.

Some interpreters in the modern period consider the entire collection of birth stories as a free intervention by Luke or his sources with little if any history at its core. But, as noted, the material is Palestinian in character. Therefore, Middle Eastern culture must be the starting point of the interpreter, history or no history.

Would it not be unacceptable in any culture for a man with a pregnant wife to reject the hospitality of his wife’s family and opt for a stable as a delivery room? So how are the particularities of the text to be understood?

•••

In his ministry, we know of Jesus that “the common people heard him gladly.” That same simple welcome is reflected in Bethlehem in the story of his birth.

If the story is seen in this light, the “mean old innkeeper” evaporates, along with his non-existent inn. “No room at the inn” will no longer be adequate for the Christmas sermon. The cold, drafty stable becomes a warm, cozy peasant home which the shepherds find fully adequate, for they go home praising God for all that they had heard and seen (2:20). If they had found the family in a stable, they would have taken them at once to their own homes!

So the inn and the innkeeper evaporate. Yet much is gained. The Incarnation itself becomes more authentic — Jesus was born in and into a simple peasant home as any other village boy. The shepherds, outcasts from their society, were given a sign indicating this simplicity. They thereby discover that this Messiah comes welcoming the poor and the marginalized.

This article contains some interesting information worthy of our consideration when we study the birth of Christ. Understanding Biblical accounts in the context of the time and culture in which they transpired is critical to our being able to apply these accounts to our own spiritual lives.

Link: When White Nationalist Christians Redefined Their Neighbors

Sojourners: When White Nationalist Christians Redefined Their Neighbors

What stands out about Kittel’s speech is his attempt to embrace Nazi politics while rising above what he believes to be exaggerated rhetoric. He dismisses the possibility of systemic violence against Jews. Instead, Kittel argues for an ethical white Christian nationalism in which Jews assume a guest-status and German Christians pursue an ethno-national ideal that he believes is sanctioned by God.

Lately, I have been asking myself the following question: How can sincere Christians embrace white nationalism? My question stems less from surprise and more from a desire to understand the mechanics. In church circles and in seminary, I heard about Barth, Bonhoeffer, and those who resisted. But I rarely heard about the majority of white Christians who supported a demagogue whose rhetoric had violent consequences.

•••

For these nationalist Christians, preserving and purifying German culture was about protecting God’s creation of distinct cultural boundaries. They believed that Christians were to help others, but not in such a way that diminished what they deemed to be the cultural integrity of their particular nation. As Hossenfelder put it, “We are conscious of Christian duty toward and love for the helpless, but we also demand that the people be protected from those who are inept and inferior.”

The rhetoric German Christian nationalists used to describe Jews and outsiders oscillated. For example, a group of pastors in the town of Oberhausen wrote: “Are we then rejecting the transnational mission of Christianity? Not at all. We respect the religious and ecclesiastical individuality of other nations, but we believe that German Christianity is the religion that is ideally suited for Germans.” In some instances, it sounds as though there is room for all cultures to be respected as long as certain boundaries are not trespassed. Nevertheless, the same group of pastors say, “The Jews are the elements of decay in our Volk, therefore we stand against them in an uncompromising struggle. The Jews are our misfortune.”

It’s a white nationalist sleight of hand. The logic goes something like this: “We’re not against other cultures. We’re against other cultures invading and mixing with our culture. So, we need to protect our culture which is great [and superior to other cultures].”

The number of times we read about God wanting His people to look kindly upon the suffering, the sojourner, the marginalized is almost innumerable. In both testaments, God wants us to show mercy to others the way He shows mercy to us — without thought or recompense, without asking whether or not they “deserve” help, without reservation. When we see people hurting and in need, no matter the number, our response should reflect hearts softened by God’s mercy, not hearts hardened by fear.

Link: An American Missionary in Honduras.

America Magazine: I was an American missionary in Honduras. I witnessed firsthand the violence they endure.

Yet violence does not issue warnings, and it will not take into consideration sincerely held beliefs. I had just returned from teaching my English class for the day when I learned that one of our volunteers and our executive director, who was visiting from the States, had been attacked on the beach next to our property. Maybe 200 yards from the house, our sanctuary, they had been held with machetes to their necks, and the volunteer, one of my best friends, was raped. “We know where you are from,” their attackers had said when they let them go. “Tell anyone and we come back and kill you and all the children.”

After going to the hospital and giving her testimony to the police, my beloved friend spent the night surrounded by the rest of us on the floor, several of us with machetes by our sides and all of us unable to sleep. In the morning, she was evacuated out of the country, and the rest of us were offered the option by our board of directors to leave as well. Suddenly the cursed choice to flee this country that so many of our Honduran neighbors had been forced to make became my own. The men responsible had still not been caught, and our already limited community of volunteers was quickly dwindling as many admitted they no longer felt safe enough to continue working. The next day the rest of us left as well.

•••

The weapons that plague their streets came from us. The corruption that infests their governments is a direct result of the coups and instability our country has consistently directed or condoned for over a century. Before Banana Republic was a chic clothing store, it was a dismissive term for a country made entirely dependent on a more powerful economy outside its borders. It was merely an updated version of colonialism, and the original victim was Honduras.

Poverty and violence, the causes of these caravans, are diseases we infected these countries with. Getting mad at the migrants is like the conquistadors and white frontiersmen wondering why the Native Americans they found were always getting so sick.

Those of us who live north of the Mexican border have to learn just how intertwined our lands are and why our neighbors to the south still hear gunshots at night. I have fled from one side to the other myself and watched in vain as those I care about try to follow. But being born in paradise is no reason to condemn those still stuck in hell.

The number of times we read about God wanting His people to look kindly upon the suffering, the sojourner, the marginalized is almost innumerable. In both testaments, God wants us to show mercy to others the way He shows mercy to us — without thought or recompense, without asking whether or not they “deserve” help, without reservation. When we see people hurting and in need, no matter the number, our response should reflect hearts softened by God’s mercy, not hearts hardened by fear.

a page from the book of James

An Overview of James Chapter 4: Maturity in Humility

In his writings to help Christians grow in maturity, James has already covered topics like our speech, our prejudices, putting faith into action, and the attitude with which we face challenges and trials. The key to growing in all of these ways comes in chapter 4 — humbling ourselves. If we can learn to prefer others and God over self in all things, then we have the foundation we need to be more mature Christians.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1 – 11: Rejecting Prideful Behavior

What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.

James asserts that the enmity Christians have with others is rooted in selfish pride. Do you have problems controlling your tongue as in chapter 3? Pride is to blame. Do your prejudices affect how you treat others as in chapter 2? Pride is to blame. Are you in continual conflict with those around you? Pride is to blame.

Let’s break this down:

  • What was the last argument you engaged in online?
  • What current events have caused you to lash out at others?
  • What physical differences lead you distrust or mistreat others?
  • What secular differences between you and other Christians damage the time you spend together?

In all of these cases, pride is at the root of the problem. When we define ourselves by the pride we have in our country, in our symbols, in our institutions, in our race, in our rights, in our politics, in our anything more than our relationship with each other and with God — that’s when we have enmity among one another.

In this section, James says his readers are guilty of behaving from fundamentally wrong motives. They are acting toward each other in bad faith. He says they seek both to fulfill their evil desires and to have friendship with the world, thereby rejecting their spiritual yearning for God. Instead, it’s in our humility that we can draw near to God.

  • When I seek the approval of my professional peers more than my spiritual relationship with you, then I am seeking friendship with the world.
  • When I let my political allegiances affect how I view scripture and other Christians, then I am seeking friendship with the world.
  • When I am willing to justify and forgive something in a person I agree with on secular matters but hold you who have a different view to a harsher standard, I am friends with he world.

No matter how I justify myself or rationalize that I’m fighting for some greater good, such behavior rejects God.

Therefore, submit to God. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.

James also makes the case that we have to reject pride and embrace humility to resist the Devil. Pride and godliness cannot exist hand-in-hand, nor can godly humility and sin. If we can just set aside our pride — all of our pride, self-righteousness, and self-justification — then and only then can we mature. Then we can draw close to God. Then we can let go of our constant criticisms of others and judgmental attitudes. Our foundation is humility.

Verses 13 – 17: His Will First

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring — what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.

Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.

This passage is not a requirement to precede every plan with the words, “If the Lord wills.” Remember the context. James is talking about being humble before God, and being humble means avoiding presumptuous behavior. In his illustration, James portrays a traveling merchant planning out their travel for future markets. There is nothing wrong with planning, but James warns against presuming our futures.

We all know that our lives can make unexpected turns at any moment, but few of us live like we’re aware of it. James wants us to remember God’s hand in our lives. Instead of presuming to plan our lives around our own ambitions, we should humbly seek after a life that will glorify God.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • “So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.” It seems almost a random statement in context, but James is making a point here. We let our pride sometimes obscure what is good. (“Who is my neighbor?”) He makes it clear, as a summation to his words about humble living, that we must be humble enough to pursue goodness.
  • “But who are you to judge your neighbor?” This statement has to be kept in the larger context of apostolic writing and Jesus’s teachings. James is clearly talking about unnecessary and mean spirited criticisms here, not exercising righteous judgment to overcome sin (John 7:24).
  • It’s hard to read things like this and think that God is OK with the secular battles we Christians become embroiled in at times, especially when we get caught up in dishonesty and character assassination as a result. It’s only our own pridefulness that justifies such behavior.

James 5 will speak about maturity in the context of where we place our trust.

a page from the book of James

An Overview of James Chapter 3: Maturity in Speech

In his letter, James covers ways we can mature as Christians. The first two chapters cover growth through trials, by knowledge of God’s word, by putting that knowledge into action, and by letting go of worldly prejudices. Chapter 3 adds another layer to our Christian maturity by talking about how we use our words in how we teach and in how we generally speak to or about others. The quality and contents of our speech reveals how much we have let godly wisdom truly mature in us.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1 – 2: A Warning to Teachers

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body.

Between his warnings against prejudice and about speech, James sandwiches a small admonition that we should be cautious about teaching. We understand from passages like Matthew 28:19 – 20 that we are all called to teach. Sharing the gospel is part of how we show love to the world. Here, I believe James is talking about those who take this role on more formally. These days we might call them preachers or ministers — those people who make a profession of teaching God’s word and, in turn, receive respect and a certain amount of authority based on their position.

James says to be cautious about taking on that role, for we all have faults that can undermine the message. In the previous chapter, James talked about the way prejudice can undermine God’s message, and he’s about to launch into an exploration of the way we use our words. In the formal role of teacher, both of these will be tested often. Maturity is a key quality for those who would be the face of the gospel.

Verses 3 – 12: The Power of the Tongue

Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

James minces no words when he describes the power of the tongue. Nothing else has destroyed marriages, ruined friendships, and launched wars like the tongue. Yet it is also capable of great good. As powerful as the tongue can be to produce harm, we must also realize that the opposite is true. Through it we can accomplish great good. We must be mindful of Christ’s words in Matthew 15:18: “But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart…”

Today, we could also say that what comes out of our keyboards comes from the heart. I’ve known Christians who would be perfectly kind and respectful to my face but would only interact with me online to insult and attack me. This is not how we are supposed to behave. When we let online anonymity lull us into a sense of safety to the point where we become harsh and abusive with what we post, then we have let our words become a raging fire and a world of unrighteousness. We should hold our online interactions to every bit as a high standard as we do our spoken conversations.

We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?

We need to understand that the way we use our words with each other affects the nature of our praise to God. God no more accepts words of love and devotion from a mouth full of insults and hatred than we would accept drinking water from a polluted spring.

Verses 13 – 18: Living True Wisdom

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.

James uses wisdom as a segue between his thoughts on our words and teachings about humility in chapter 4. Are you mature in your wisdom? Then it will show in your conduct, your gentleness, and your mercy. These qualities will be evidenced by your lack of prejudice, by how you use your speech, and in the humility you show toward others and God. Make no mistake: an uncontrolled tongues is a sign of foolishness in God’s eyes.

In any given situation, are our words gentle? Are they full of mercy? Do they resist prejudice? Do they encourage peace? If they do, then our words reveal a heart full of our Savior’s goodness.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • I acknowledge that Jesus, Paul, and Peter did, on occasion, use strong words. However, a handful of isolated events over the course of multi-year ministries do not give us an excuse to ignore passages like this and delve into abusive language on a regular basis.
  • One of the best ways we can prevent ourselves from trying to praise God with an unclean mouth is to simply stop listening to others who act this way. I’m not talking about movies with bad language here; I’m talking about radio, television, and online personalities who frequently devolve into yelling messages of hatred and anger. Their bad company can corrupt your good intentions.

James 4 will speak about maturity in the context of humility.