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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.

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 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.

a page from the book of James

An Overview of James Chapter 2: Maturity in Unprejudiced Grace

James 2 continues the theme of maturity presented at the beginning of the book. When James opens his letter, he challenges his readers to view trials as opportunities to grow rather than obstacles to lament. He asserts that every trial we overcome helps us mature as Christians. Enduring them makes our faith and relationship with our Savior all the stronger. This maturity leads us to put our faith into action, and James says we are blessed when we look into the perfect law of liberty and then do what we find there.

This theme transitions directly into the thoughts of James 2. When we put our faith into action, we will lose all prejudice and learn to treat others with grace and fairness regardless of any worldly differences that might otherwise separate us.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1 – 13: Letting Go of Prejudice

My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

The Sin of Discrimination

The first way we put our faith into action is by letting go of our prejudices. Most translations read “favoritism” in verse 1, but what James describes comes down to prejudice. In this book, James uses economic status as the basis for prejudice, but we could replace this with any form of discrimination, and it would work just as well. A Latino man versus a white man, a homeless mom versus a business person, a gay person versus a straight person, a pacifist versus a veteran, a Democrat versus a Republican — if we make one person in any of these pairings feel less welcome in our congregations, then we are showing the exact prejudice that James describes.

This is not to say we never deal with sin. This is not to say we never teach about difficult or controversial topics. But anyone should feel welcome and cared for among Christians. How can we ever hope to bring people to Christ if we discriminate against  them? When we do so, we betray the righteous judgment Christ says we ought to exercise in John 7:24, and we become judges with evil thoughts, pushing people away from salvation based on our own fears and mistrust. James does not mince words here. In verse 9, he says that we commit sin when we discriminate. This is not a matter of opinion. It is not a matter of politics or cultural preservation. It is sin.

The Cure for Prejudice

The cure is in verse 8 — love your neighbor as yourself. Verse 13 says mercy triumphs over judgment. If we start with love and mercy as a foundation, then it’s easier to let go of our prejudices. When we see each other as God sees us — as souls in need of His grace — then we can be gracious to each other and look past whatever differences that may otherwise come between us. This takes effort, however.

  1. We have to admit to our prejudices. I cannot make any progress if I am unwilling to admit that I have indeed discriminated at times. If someone accuses me of being racist, my initial temptation is to dig my heels in and deny it. But I have to objectively look at the facts. This may begin by simply asking the other person what I did wrong. If I am unwilling to self-examine, then I am like the person in James 1 who looks in the mirror and forgets their face. I have to be brutally honest with myself.
  2. We have to unlearn our prejudices. We all have learned prejudices. Once we acknowledge them, then we can correct our course. We can talk to others to see how we can do better. We can get to know those we’re tempted to fear or distrust. We may also have to turn away from TV, internet, and radio personalities who fuel and reinforce prejudice. I cannot say I am trying to overcome lust while keeping a folder of porn sites to visit; nor can I overcome racism while listening to influences that fuel hatred and fear. I have to unlearn the old to learn a better way.

Paul addresses this issue in the context of baptized believers in Galatians 3:27 – 29; in contrast, James applies the principle more broadly. Still, I wonder how Galatians would look different if updated for today’s challenges.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no American or foreigner, citizen or immigrant, patriot or protestor; 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.

Verses 14 – 26: Faith in Action

James bookends his thoughts on discrimination with putting our faith in action. Essentially, he’s saying, “Learn God’s word and do it. Actively resist discrimination. Put your faith into action.” If that doesn’t emphasize the importance of overcoming our prejudices, I don’t know what does. This is one of the works that shows we have a faith in Jesus Christ, and James makes it clear that faith and action are symbiotic.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.

Faith and Action

James uses a simple illustration to show how faith and action work hand-in-hand — providing for those in need. If I see someone in need, and I just give the traditional thoughts and prayers platitude, what good have I done that person? Yes, I should pray for that person, and then I should put my faith into action and provide for that person as well. In this illustration, prayer without giving is empty, but prayer with benevolence shows God’s grace to one who needs it. I become an instrument of His love.

In the following verses, James issues a challenge. Show your faith by doing nothing. How will you ever do that? Instead, our humble, obedient, and gracious works testify to our faith in God. From worshiping God the way He wants to be praised, to teaching those we can about salvation in Christ, to showing love and grace to those around us; we show our faith through action.

Two Examples of Faith

  1. Abraham. First, James talks about the faith of Abraham in offering Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham already had a relationship with God. Abraham had already shown his faith in numerous ways. What more could he have to prove? The truth is that we are never done working for our God, and faithful living can prove difficult at times. Still, we push forward, faithful and obedient to the God who loves us and saves us.
  2. Rahab. In contrast, Rahab knew little of God when the spies came to Jericho in Joshua 2. She had heard of God’s help to Israel, and she believed God would help them conquer her city as well, so she helped shelter the spies. In turn, Rahab survives the conquest of Jericho and even ends up in Christ’s lineage.

In choosing these two examples, James shows how our faithful action can honor God regardless of where we are in our relationship with Him. Abraham had an established and long relationship with God. Rahab, in contrast, was a prostitute from an idolatrous background. Both pleased God with their works, for those works demonstrated their faith. Faith comes alive when we act on it.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • James 2:13 recalls the parable of the unforgiving slave in Matthew 18:21 – 35. The king showed mercy to his slave, but the slave was unwilling to show that same mercy to another slave. We are all equal in our humility before the Father. Let’s not think so highly of ourselves that we deny the mercy we hope to gain.
  • James 2:5 – 7 feels extraordinarily contemporary. We see an unrighteous person who has had great success in this world, and we rally around them despite their obvious sinfulness. Sometimes we even defend their right to mistreat their workers or unfairly game the system, and it just makes no sense from a Christian perspective.
  • James is among the books Martin Luther challenges as canonical. (Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation were the others.) “In a word, [James] wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task in spirit, thought, and words. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture.” (Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, 1522.) Luther’s main point of contention is chapter 2:14 – 26.

James 3 will bring us more insights into maturing our faith, focusing primarily on our speech and then touching on wisdom as a cornerstone for our spiritual growth.

Link: Love the Immigrant

Timothy Archer: Love the Immigrant

Listening to some people talk about immigrants, you’d think that the majority are conniving scoundrels seeking to take advantage of legal loopholes. Such people do exist. I remember talking with some young men in Argentina who would come to the U.S. every year as tourists, then go work illegally in the ski areas here in this country. They were merely taking advantage of the system.

There are even criminals who take advantage of porous borders to commit crimes. Again, these do exist.

But the majority of the people coming to our southern borders are desperate people trying to find a way to survive. They aren’t trying to take advantage of anybody or anything; they are looking to protect their families as best they can.

Too often, we use our secular laws as a reason to override Christ’s teachings on love and grace to guide our lives. Both Peter and the author of Hebrews call on us to think of ourselves as sojourners in this life. Wherever you fall on the immigration debate, we all first have to look at other people as souls in need of God’s love. Failing to see this is how people of Jesus’s day failed the Samaritans; it’s how some early Jewish Christians failed their Roman brothers and sisters; it’s how the Pharisees failed many lost in sin. If we cannot extend grace and love — even when someone breaks our secular laws — then we do not know God’s grace.