paul

Trustworthy Sayings (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

"I thank our Lord Jesus the Anointed who empowers me, because He saw me as faithful and appointed me to this ministry. Despite the fact that at one time I was slandering the things of God, persecuting and attacking His people. He was still merciful to me because I acted in ignorance apart from faith. But He poured His grace over me, and I was flooded in an abundance of the grace and faith and love that can only be found in Jesus the Anointed. Here’s a statement worthy of trust: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, and I am the worst of them all." (12-15) 

There were a number of hymns or of catechetical teaching in the early Church. This appears to be one: "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners." But then Paul adds to it: “I am the worst of them all.” He talks about his new life in Christ in other places in his writings:

  • ‘If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creation; old things are passed away’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in this body I live by the faith of the Son of God’ (Galatians 2:20)

So Paul is new!  There is no doubt about it! But nothing can alter the fact that Paul was the man that did all these things and is capable of doing them again without the presence of God in his life. You’ve heard the phrase, “That’s gonna leave a mark?” Sin leaves a mark. I will bear the scar of my shoulder surgery. No matter how healthy I get, I am the man with a repaired shoulder. Paul bore the scars of his sin even as those scars revealed the kind of healing only God can give.

 The apostle Paul never forgot his former sins and the grace of God that transformed him. The story of Paul’s conversion is repeated no less than six times in the New Testament (Acts 9, 22, 26; Gal. 1 & 2; Phil. 3; 1 Tim. 1).  And as Paul himself tells it, his awareness of his sinfulness actually escalates:

  • 1 Corinthians 15:9 - “I am the least of the apostles.”
  • Ephesians 3:8, written later – “I am the very least of all saints.”
  • 1 Timothy 1:15, written later still, and after probably about 25 years of walking with God -  “I am the chief of all sinners.”

He does not say, “I was the chief of sinners.” He says, “I am the chief.”  He does not single out the sins that previously defined him. He does not say, “I am the chief of persecutors.” He is not wallowing in a past that haunts him. This is more of a general realization.

“The sign of growing perfection is the growing consciousness of imperfection.... The more you become like Christ the more you will find out your unlikeness to Him.” – Alexander Maclaren

“When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less.”  C.S. Lewis

Paul doesn't kill Christians anymore, but he is more aware than ever of his constant need for God’s mercy.  The closer a person walks with God, the more he is aware of the depths of his sinful nature, which in turn drives him to a deeper appreciation of the grace of God.

"But it is for this reason I was given mercy: by displaying His perfect patience in me, the very worst of all sinners, Jesus could show that patience to all who would believe in Him and gain eternal life." (v. 16)

Notice: the main reason Paul was given mercy was not so that he could be awesome. It was so he would have a testimony for the Kingdom of God. Christians can see in Christ's dealings with Paul the pattern which they can expect for themselves. (The word translated “who would believe” is literally “who are about to believe.”)

Any testimony that points to the saved instead of the Savior misses the point. Paul didn’t want Timothy to think about Paul; Paul wanted Timothy to think about Jesus. God saves us not because we are awesome, but because he is awesome. We give our testimony so that others gain hope: if God is patient and loving with them, God will be patient and loving with me.  No case is too hard for God. He delights in hard cases. If Paul can be saved, you can be saved.

A side note about testimonies: Paul is writing this to Timothy, who knew Paul’s story. Paul is trying to show Timothy the proper kind of humility he needs to have. I think Timothy is supposed to take up this mantra: “I, Timothy, am the chief of sinners. If anyone is in desperate need of God’s grace, it’s me.” Yet Timothy did none of the obviously bad things Paul did. Every testimony counts as a story of how God has shown patience and love to a sinner in desperate need of salvation. ALL have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. While WE were sinners, Christ died for us.

We have a tendency in Christian circles to put certain kinds of testimonies on a pedestal. I know why we do that – it is meant to find a “chief of sinners” whose life gives us hope (if God can save them, He can save me). I wonder if, at times, we kind of slip down in our chairs and think, “I will never give my testimony. I am just too ordinary…my sins are not that exciting…no one will be in awe when I am done talking.” Don’t ever think that God can’t use your life to show the glory of his patience and love. Every testimony counts as a story of how God has shown patience and love to a sinner in desperate need of salvation.

"May the King eternal, immortal, and invisible—the one and only God—now be honored and glorified forever and ever. Amen." (v.17)

Paul’s acknowledgment of who he is does not push him into a dark corner of shame and despair. It brings out worship, as if the only way we can appreciate the beauty and grace of God’s forgiveness is by continuously seeing the ugliness of who we are without God.

­­­­­­_________________________________________________

The “gospel” we hear preached in our day is a positive message that will help you achieve your full potential or feel good about yourself, succeed financially, or solve your problems.

That’s not the heart of the gospel. Biblical principles will help you in practical ways, but that’s not the good news. The Gospel is that Christ came to save sinners. If you think you’re a basically good person, you are not going to fully understand why Christ came to save you. If you think you have few faults and shortcomings, you will not understand what it means that Christ came to save you.

In Luke 7 we read a story about the connection between honest acknowledgment of who we are and deep response to Christ.  Jesus contrasts the casual and even disrespectful way that one of the Pharisees treats him and the way a local prostitute responds to him. She knew she was in desperate need of Christ and needed an ocean of forgiveness. The Pharisee thought he was tight with God and barely needed any.  What does Jesus say? “Those who are forgiven little love little. Those who have been forgiven much love much.” 

In other words, grace flows from us to the degree that we recognize the grace that has flowed into us.

Do you ever find yourself in a place where you don’t care about other people, or you lack empathy or kindness, or you feel lukewarm in your faith? If so, you may not need to work on feeling kinder or more passionate. You probably are forgetting how much you have been forgiven, how much God loves  you, how much he has given you grace when you were a mess.

You know when I love my wife the best? On the days I realize how much she puts up with from me. I melt inside. I am humbled and amazed at her love.  In fact, the more I am aware of my faults, the more it keeps me in a place of humility, gratitude, and service. On the days I forget, I am a jerk. On those days, I am better than her; I deserve her respect and admiration; I have the right to be treated as if I am awesome! And that never ends well. But if every day I am humbled by an awareness that I must be forgiven much – that in our marriage I am the worst of spouses, the chief of sinners – than I have to approach every situation from a place of gratitude and perhaps even awe at her capacity to love me.

To remember how much we have been forgiven is the surest way to fill our hearts with gratitude. Paul says, “May the King eternal, immortal, and invisible—the one and only God—now be honored and glorified forever and ever."

Look at the God he praises: eternal, not limited like us; immortal, not mortal like us; Spirit, not bound in flesh like us. In other words, only a God can save me – more specifically, only this God, revealed in Christ, can take the disaster of a man and make something beautiful.

I often hear the longing expressed that it’s hard to have a heart of worship.  A heart of worship cannot be taught. It cannot be forced or orchestrated. You can go to the biggest conference with the biggest band and the most emotional preacher and the coolest arts and have a great emotional response to all that’s going on around you. That’s an experience of a particular kind of worship, but I don’t think that’s the heart of worship.

We see hear in Paul’s letter to Timothy where the heart of worship begins: a recognition the wretched, broken life that we bring to the table – followed by an awareness of an indescribably powerful and holy God who loves us anyway, who offers us enough grace and forgiveness to cover any amount of sin and damage we have accumulated. That’s when the overflow of our hearts becomes the worship of our lives as we humbly take the grace we have been offered and pass it on to those around us.

That’s a statement about life in the Kingdom of God that is worthy of our faith and trust.

____________________________________________

“Unless you have been down into the depths of your own heart, and seen the evil that is there, you will not care for the redeeming Christ, nor will you grasp Him as a do those who know that there is nothing between them and ruin except God’s strong hand… Unless we feel the common evil, and estimate by the intensity of its working in ourselves how sad are its ravages in others, our kindness to others will be as half-hearted as our love to God…. Those who know the plague in their own heart, and how Christ has redeemed them, will go, with the pity of Christ in their heart, to help to redeem others.”
- Alexander Macleran

We may say, “I am a thief,” or, “I am a liar,” meaning that I have committed these sins, they weigh upon my shoulders, they are the splinters of my self-hewn cross... We say so in shame. But we do not thereby express an ultimate or God-ordained identity. Quite the contrary. We mean, “This is what I am in a disordered sense, because of what I have done, and because of the evil that I am still fearfully tempted to do.”  Or we might put it this way: “This is the fashion in which the image of God has been deformed in me, so that I am not myself, and my face, my very identity, is sludged up with sin.” - Hutchens and Esolen, “Identity Thievery,” Touchstone

What is the Goal of the Church? (1 Timothy 1: 1-11)

Paul, an emissary of Jesus the Anointed commissioned by order of God our Savior and Jesus the Anointed, our living and certain hope, to you, Timothy, my true son in the faith. May the grace, mercy, and peace that come only from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ mark your life. As I said that day I left for Macedonia, stay in Ephesus and instruct the unruly people in the church, once and for all, to stop teaching a different doctrine. Tell them to turn away from fables and endless genealogies. These activities just cause more arguments and confusion.  Instead, they should concern themselves with welcoming in and bringing about the Kingdom of God, which is all about faith. Our teaching about this journey is intended to bring us to a single goal—a place where self-giving love reigns from a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a genuine faith.  Yes, some have walked away from these traits and have fallen into a life of endless blabber and nonsense— they wish to become scholars of the law, but they don’t know what they are talking about, and they make these grand pronouncements but clearly don’t understand what they just said.  (1 Timothy 1:1-11)

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Kids ask all the time, “What’s that for?” It's a natural question. We see designed things, and we figure they were designed with a goal in mind. It’s cute when you are explaining tools, funny when you are walking through a store, and awkward when they start discovering themselves. Then they start to discover they can come up with all kinds of ways to use the new things they find. You tell them what a hammer is for, but they find out all kinds of things they can do with it. You tell them what the intended use of the family scissors is, but they soon realize it can also be used on the dog. You tell them the purpose of having good clothes and run-around clothes….

Part of growing up is understanding the purpose and design of things. We can get frustrated if we aren’t on the same page with other people about what a thing is meant to be. What is the purpose of the following:

  • Fishing – To catch fish? To relax? To talk?
  • Supper? - To eat? To connect?
  • Marriage - Happiness? Family? Love? Growth? Spiritual symbolism?
  • Church services? - For the saved or the unsaved? To learn? To connect? To feel?)

 Another part of growing up is learning the difference between what we CAN do with things and what we SHOULD do with things. We can harm ourselves and others if we ignore what we should do with a thing and instead settle for what we can do. For example, we should use our Lungs to breathe, be we can inhale harmful intoxicants if we want to. Sex should be an activity that both creates new life and unites us physically, emotionally, even spiritually with our spouse. We can use our sexual organs to do a lot of other things instead.

 Part of growing up is learning the purpose of a thing – What is that for? – and then committing to fulfill that purpose. Part of growing up in Christ is learning the purpose and design of the church -  Not what CAN it be, but what SHOULD it be?

_____________________________________________________________________________________ 

According to Paul, the Church (of people) exists to bring about the Kingdom of God, through faith, characterized by love. Love is not Eros - the love of the worthy, the beautiful, that you take for your benefit. It is Agape love, which is irrespective of the merit of the object of love. It acts sacrificially for the benefit of the other.

How we won't accomplish the goal: ignoring core doctrine and engaging in endless debate about secondary issues or speculative ideas. The goal of church is not to get so caught up in speculation and debate about issues that do not involve Jesus Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection, and the necessity and means of salvation he offers us.

  • The Jewish people in Paul’s time did this with genealogies. They would find obscure people and basically make up a story for them, and they would make every connection they could to try to fit into the family of someone important… but none of it mattered.
  • The Greeks were more enamored with the myths, the equivalent of Hollywood gods and goddesses, fantasizing about a life of luxury and indulgence with the gods. 

It doesn’t build anyone’s faith and it certainly doesn’t promote love. It’s a religion of trivia. And it usually results in self-promotion, pride, and self-righteousness. We have our own things within the church that distract and polarize us. When I was growing up Mennonite, churches split over whether or not women should wear a head covering. One church started over a hymnal issue. That’s silly. I am not sure it’s any sillier than some other things we divide over.

  • Demanding that others agree with a particular Bible teaching from a particular perspective (Creationism; End Times)
  • Overhype of encounters with the supernatural (stories of visiting Heaven or Hell)
  • Following people or movements religiously (Leaders become infallible; conferences or churches become meccas)
  • Arguing about a particular approach to a complex issue (Growing Kids God’s Way;  Marriage teacher X;  Biblical Economic Model)
  • Hyper Patriotism or political loyalty (“You aren’t following the issue like I am? You aren’t an unwavering Democrat or Republican or Independentt?)

God created the world in a particular way; there will be a time when God wraps up the world; Heaven, Hell and the supernatural are very real; marriage and the family are big deals Biblically; we are supposed to be good stewards of our money; as long as we have the freedom to impact our government by our voices and our votes, we should.  So please hear me clearly. NONE OF THOSE THINGS I LISTED ARE BAD THINGS. But they shouldn’t consume our time or become our priority. None of those issues further the goal of the church. They can help us; they can give structure to how we live and view the world, but they should not dominate your thoughts, time, or conversation.

They CAN, but it SHOULDN’T. If you are passionate about any of these things personally, awesome. Study, learn, pray, be discerning, be God-honoring in how you prioritize it and in how you communicate about it to others, But these things should not divide us. It’s not what church is about. Part of growing to maturity in Christ is understanding the purpose of the Church and committing ourselves to fulfilling that purpose. Speculation and division and anger over secondary issues is not the purpose of the church.

If it doesn't inspire us to the kind of love Paul mentions here, it’s doing nothing to build our faith characterized by love for the purpose of building the Kingdom of God. We need to major on the majors. We need to be about the Gospel.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

How do we accomplish this goal, this design? We live IN FAITH and WITH LOVE when we surrender to Christ three crucial things: 

  • A Pure Heart: What We Want (Attitudes, motives, priorities). This is not a call to perfection. It’s asking, “Do you love what God loves? Do you value what God values? Are you motivated by love or guilt? Are you earning God’s favor by right living or honoring God through right living? Do you treat others well because they bear God’s image or to impress other people?
  • A Clear Conscience: What We Do (Actions, thoughts, words).  A pure heart had to do with interior motives; this reminds us that our action need to align with our heart. We can say anything we want to about how we feel about ourselves and our relationship to God, but what do we do matters. Does our exterior lives confirm what we claim is happening on the inside? 

If I said that I loved my wife – my attitude, motives and priorities were all aligned properly – that would be admirable. But if I constantly mistreated her or betrayed her with my words or action, you would have good reason to believe that I am lying. My conscience would in no way be clear. Our interior lives and exterior lives are meant to align. A truly pure heart leads to a truly clear conscience. And in that kind of community – whether in the home or in the church – the Kingdom of God flourishes not just because of what is happening in us, but what is happening around us because of us.

  • Genuine Faith: What We Believe (Doctrine, truth). We need to increasingly understand “the reason for the hope that lies within in us.” The reason we even care about a pure heart and a clear conscience is because of the person of Christ. And we learn about Christ through Scripture. Genuine faith is built on a trust in the person and work of Christ and the reliability of the message in Scripture. For this reason, a church community has to be one in which we all are continually striving to learn the truth of Christ and experience the presence of Christ.)

The reason we even care about a pure heart and a clear conscience is because of the person of Christ. And we learn about Christ through Scripture. Genuine faith is built on a trust in the person and work of Christ and the reliability of the message in Scripture. For this reason, a church community has to be one in which we all are continually striving to learn the truth of Christ and experience the presence of Christ.)

If Christ is who he claimed, and the Scripture reliably tells me about Him and His plan for the world, then my response is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love my neighbor. If that is the priority of our heart, and that is what is expressed in our actions, then that is “the journey  intended to bring us to a single goal—a place where self-giving love reigns from a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a genuine faith.

 

Proclaiming the Message (Colossians 4:2-4:6)

“The Blue Angels are the friendly face of the U.S. Navy and Marines and put on aerial stunt shows before live audiences across the country most every week. The scandal has sullied their reputation and that of the military branches they represent, Navy investigators said.” (“Blue Angels dived into porn, homophobia and harassment, study says,” cnn.com)

 We cringe at this story not just because of the impact of their actions on the people in the story, but because the Blue Angels were supposed to be the face of an organization that represented their country. Their role - and their failure in it - reminds us of something important: we are the friendly face of the Kingdom of God. We are constantly representing Christ. Nobody has to officially send us or appoint us – followers of Christ are in that role 24/7. I was thinking of how this news story could read if it involved me and my walk with Christ.

“Anthony is one of the friendly faces of the Kingdom of God, and he “puts on” a display of what discipleship looks like every week.”

 So far, so good. But there are at least two different ways that paragraph could end.

  • “His recent scandals have sullied the reputation of the church and the Christ he represents.”
  • “His recent success has bolstered the reputation of the church and the Christ he represents.”

 So are there ways we can prepare so that we can more effectively represent Christ?  As Paul closes his letter to the Colossian church, he gives us some insight:

Pray, and keep praying. Be alert and thankful when you pray. And while you are at it, add us to your prayers. Pray that God would open doors so we can go on telling the mystery of Christ, for this is exactly why I am currently imprisoned. (4:2-3)

Here’s the first thing to note: We are to ask God to orchestrate the opportunities. We don’t have to leave where we are to be a missionary (to be on mission). If we want to have an impact in the world for the Kingdom of God, pray that God will open doors where we are. Big trips gets headlines; ordinary friendships usually don’t. But it’s ordinary friendships that change the world for Christ. I have talked to plenty of people who feel they are wasting their lives because they are just stuck in an ordinary job around ordinary people from one ordinary day to another.

I would challenge us to see the holiness and the potential in every moment in life. We don’t have to leave to do something meaningful (though “go” is certainly part of the great commission). The reality is that as long as we are near other people, we are in a position to impact eternity. I love this quote from C.S. Lewis about the importance of each person and each moment in our life: 

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. 

It is a serious thing…to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. 

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe… proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. 

Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors…” C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

 Every day, in every conversation and interaction, we are representing Christ to someone who will live forever.  It’s the “weight of glory” not because we give it, but because we carry the truth of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit with us wherever we go, and we dim it or reveal it all the time.

We don’t have to wait for something special. We can simply pray that God orchestrates circumstances in even the most ordinary moments of our life so we can more fully proclaim the message of Christ. Then, we actively look for these things to open up with our family, our friends, at work, with our neighbors, and even at church. That co-worker who annoys us is not merely a mortal. Our neighbor is not just a person next door. God will bring opportunities to reveal the presence of the love of Christ. We need to be alert and ready. 

After stressing God’s role, Paul reveals ours: 

“Pray that I will proclaim this message clearly and fearlessly as I should. Be wise when you engage with those outside the faith community; make the most of every moment and every encounter. When you speak the word, speak it gracefully (as if seasoned with salt), so you will know how to respond to everyone rightly.” (4:4-6)

If God orchestrates the opportunities, we bring the message. We need to own our faith so we can state it clearly and fearlessly. In order to do that, we need at least two things.

 We need knowledge. We need to know what Christianity has to say about the essentials of our faith as well as cultural hot topics. We learn this through the Bible, sermons, classes, books, podcasts, videos, conversations… This doesn’t mean we have to have degrees or have to be an expert that answers every question. But we should in some sense constantly be learning. If you have a question that bugs you – search for answer. If you don’t know what to think about the Trinity, or the reliability of the Bible, or same-sex marriage, or why God’s moral claim on our life is for our flourishing, seek to understand. Even currents events deserve your attention – not all of them and not all the time, but be prepared to learn so you can offer a perspective as a Christian on the environment, or immigration, or health care.

 We need experience. We need to live a committed life so all the information is not just head knowledge. What does it mean to serve God? Why is sanctification a blessing even though it feels like a trial? What does it mean that those who lose their life will find it?  How does God meet us in the midst of our pain? Husbands, what does loving your wife like Christ loved the church look like? 

We need to engage wisely (v.5). We need to understand the context in which the gospel message is shared. How do we do this?

  • Learn what people love. What is it that moves them? What are the stories that shape how they view the world?  (Think of how Jesus used parables). What do they think are the most important issues of the day? Conversations with your NASCAR neighbor and your film festival neighbor will probably be very, very different. You will have to take the time to listen and understand what it is that captures the imagination of those around you – then pray that God opens doors of opportunity and gives you wisdom and boldness. 
  • See their life.  How has their history impacted how they will think of Christ, the church, or even Christians for that matter? Why? What do they think of when they hear “God,” “love,” “father,” “forgive,” and “family”? Take the time to learn about the things that have formed them. Take the time to get to know people and enter into their story. Not only does it honor them, it gives you insight into how to most effectively communicate the love of Christ.
  •  Speak their language.  As you learn what they love and see their life, you will increasingly learn how to speak their language. We instinctively know this when we talk with kids or when we go to other countries. We also learn this in marriage (the love languages, for example). It’s just as important when trying to communicate spiritual truths. In an article about copywriting in advertising, the writer made this point: “Words matter, and people crave connection. We have to start thinking, “How can I speak of Jesus in ways that will resonate with those around me?” When Paul wrote that their conversation was to be  “seasoned with salt,” he was writing to people in a city located near a famous lake from which salt was harvested. He knew the context.

Pray that God will open doors and give you wisdom. Be fearless and clear when the opportunities arise. (Check out this link for a look at “Christianese,” or language that we might know what it means but non-Christians don’t).

Finally, we need to respond gracefully (v.6)

“When you speak the word, speak it gracefully (as if seasoned with salt), so you will know how to respond to everyone rightly.”

 The story is told of a time when a British diplomat named George Brown asking someone to dance at a diplomatic reception. He received this response: “I shall not dance with you for three reasons. First because you are drunk, second, because this is not a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem and third, because I am not a beautiful lady in red; I am the Cardinal Bishop of Lima.”

We need to learn how to say graceful things in a graceful manner. There is much to be said for personal character and integrity. I don’t mean our lives have to display perfection. I simply mean that we must “put on” (to use Paul’s term)  humility, self-control, patience, kindness, and love.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

So how do we proclaim the message effectively? Pray for God opens doors, then step through as the “face of the Kingdom of God,” praying for the wisdom and strength to enable us to show the love and truth of Christ to the world.

Life Together: Submitted to Christ (Colossians 3:16-4:1)

“Submit” and “obey” are two words that don’t usually bring out the best emotions. Perhaps we think of submission as something we endure from some overpowering bully, like a mixed martial artist who submits his opponent. Perhaps we think of a family, school, a church or a business where all that mattered was authority and obedience, and it was experienced in a way that was mean, cold, harsh, or demeaning. Perhaps we think of obedience or submission as being weak, or being told not to think for ourselves. Perhaps we think of being a victim, abused by those who want to dominate and control us rather than compel or love us.

So here’s a question: What does the Bible say about power and submission?

 Let’s go back to Paul’s letter to the Colossian church.

  • Paul began Colossians by demonstrating the supremacy of Christ in every area of life.
  • Because Christ is above all, we are not enslaved to human traditions and expectations about what it means to be righteous or holy.
  • We are free – from the power and condemnation of sin, and to become people who “put on” compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience and forgiveness.
  • In this life of freedom in Christ, the differences that we cite to create division and pride – race, nationality, gender, and social position – are gone.
  • We are to put on love as the thing that holds together all the goodness we are free to have and to do in Christ.

Next, Paul gives a very practical demonstration about how this looks in their community:

Let the word of God richly inhabit your lives. With all wisdom teach, counsel, and instruct one another. Sing the psalms, compose hymns and songs inspired by the Spirit, and keep on singing—sing to God from hearts full and spilling over with thankfulness. Surely, no matter what you are doing (speaking, writing, or working), do it all in the name of Jesus our Master, sending thanks through Him to God our Father.” (v. 16-17)

 

So the Colossian Christians were to do at least four key things: Let God’s Word richly inhabit their lives (read, listen, think, and absorb the truth found in God’s revelation); teach, counsel and instruct each other (challenge and encourage others with love); sing with gratitude (respond to God in thankfulness for who He is and what He has done); and do everything in the name of Christ (live transformed lives). Sounds great! What will happen when we do this?

Wives: be submitted to your husbands as is appropriate in the Lord. Husbands: love your wives, and don’t treatthem harshly or respond with bitterness toward them. Children: obey your parents in every way. The Lord is well pleased by it. Fathers: don’t infuriate your children, so their hearts won’t harbor resentment and become discouraged. Slaves: obey your earthly masters in all things. Don’t just act earnest in your service only when they are watching. Serve with a sincere heart , fearing the Lord who is always watching! So no matter what yourtask is, work hard. Always do your best as the Lord’s servant, not as man’s, because you know your reward is the Lord’s inheritance. You serve Christ the Lord, and anyone who does wrong will be paid his due because He doesn’t play favorites. Masters: treat your slaves fairly and do what is right, knowing that you, too, have a Master in heaven. (3: 18- 4:1)

 

Hmmm. Two thoughts strike me. First, this seems like an odd thing to write at this point in the letter. Second, this section seems to have a lot to with power: those how have it and those who don’t. In order to understand what is happening here, we need to know something about life in first century Colossae.

________________________________________________________________________

 As far back as the fourth century BC, there is record that the Greeks viewed the household to be a miniature version of the order found in society, the realm of the gods, and ultimately the universe. Aristotle even identified the three key relationships within the household that mattered: “The smallest and primary parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.”  Aristotle believed free men were by nature intended to rule over their wives, children, and slaves because they were created by the gods to be better. His writing is pretty clear on this point, noting that “the one gender is far superior to the other in just about every sphere,”  and that “the slave has not deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.” .

Considering this type of philosophical background, it's probably worth understanding how life looked like for women, children, and slaves in the Greco-Roman world before we look at Paul's Christianized household code.

Women existed to please the men around them, and a husband could do with his wife (or wives) whatever he wanted. Marriages were typically based on economic considerations. Wives were often young teens who married much older men. They were more important than slaves, but in many ways they were just property of their husbands. The reason for marriage was not “love” in our usual sense, but to bear legitimate children and to keep the family line going. Demosthenes noted: Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children."

They had almost no voice in the home or in the city. They could not testify in court because they were considered unreliable liars (that was true in Judaism as well). Some were educated; most were not. They rarely joined their husband and his friends for meals, which was where all the important conversations happened. They had to be faithful while the husband could be promiscuous.

The father also had authority over his children no matter their age. They were to submit to his will even after they had families of their own.  Once again, his children existed to serve and please him. He could set them outside the city to die when they were babies if he didn’t like what he saw.  He had absolute control over their lives.  They were meant to bring him honor and perhaps wealth.  It was all about him, not them.

The head of house was also free to beat his slaves, servants, wives and children, into submission (see the posts on Philemon for a more nuanced look at the reality of slavery at the time).  

This is what had formed the perspective on Paul’s audience. In this cultural milieu,  Christians were already finding themselves butting heads with both the culture and the law as they came to grips with what it meant to follow Christ. They were now part of a "new humanity" in which the divisions of race, gender and freedom were meant to dissolve in mutual love toward Christ and each other. For example, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, were sharing common meals together in their meetings (1 Corinthians 11). This was unheard of.  Meals separated the free men from everybody else.  While the Romans passed laws forcing widows to get remarried, the early church helped the widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16) without insisting they get remarried.

This was not necessarily sitting well with Rome. The early Christians were called “haters of humanity,” because they so willingly broke down the structures that the Greeks and Romans believe brought stability to the nation and honor to the gods. So when the husband/father became a follower of Christ, his conversion brought him and his household shame and suspicion in the eyes of the Romans and Greeks. They were pretty sure this man and his family were on the verge of being traitors to their country, the gods and the order of the universe.  

So Paul has his work cut out: he does not want to add shame, suspicion or even persecution by dismantling the structure of the household. What he needed to do was show believers how to enter into an imperfect Greek culture and apply a gospel of love and servant hood that reflected the heart of Christ.

This brings us back to the question of power vs. submission and authority.

 I have heard this passage quoted as an example of how Paul just wanted men to be at the top of every relationship. That kind of observation misses the point. Paul was not imposing a new power structure onto marriage. He was showing them how to redeem a flawed cultural reality so that they could live at peace in their city while offering everyone the dignity and honor they deserved.  This may seem like an odd conclusion to reach from this passage, but let's go back to Genesis.

The power struggle between people entered the world as a result of sin entering the world. We read of women in in Genesis 3:16 that, as a result of the fall: “With pain you will give birth to children. You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” (NET Bible). I saw a website for wives that posted this verse with the comments: “Could your desire for your husband be a little stronger? Could you let him rule over you a little more than you did last week?”

They are missing the point badly. This verse is not a promise of blessing; that’s an observation about how life will not look in a fallen world.  Rebellion broke the world. Genesis 3 is not a list of how things ought to be; It's an explanation of how things have become.  One thing we learn right away: The fallen nature craves power and hates servanthood. But the New Adam, Jesus Christ, came to redeem not just people but the ways in which people have grown comfortable in their fallen state.

Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, did not seek the position His power offered him. Instead, he became a servant and gave his very life for those he loved as an example for how we are to live. Three examples from Scripture:

  • Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5–8). 
  • In speaking to them about authority he said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28). 
  • When his disciples argued amongst themselves about who would be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus told them that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). 

In Colossians, Paul is showing how redemption looks in relationships. Now men (the culturally privileged and powerful) have to care for the people within their household for their own sakes with the same level of committed self-sacrifice that Christ himself showed for us all. Men must learn to genuinely love and serve those whom their culture said they could use and control. The redeemed nature chooses service over power.

This was unprecedented in the history of household codes.

 No one is told that they are better. No is told they have a right to rule. No one is told what their rights are, or what is owed to them. They are all told what their responsibilities are to those around them: mutual service to honor Christ. The language is different, but the principle is the same.

From this perspective, there is much we can learn from the household codes about confronting our own lives.

  • Do we feel like we actually are better than others because they don’t have the same education, level of success, background, appearance or spiritual training?
  • Do we feel like we deserve to be in a place of privilege?
  • Do we feel like our spouse, kids, parents, employees, or friends are there to serve us and make us happy? 

When we follow Christ, we are called to sacrifice power, pride and privilege.  Are we learning how to genuinely love and serve those whom we assume we can use and control?

 When we all find ourselves kneeling at the foot of the cross, we look up and see only Christ, not other lording over us. If we look up and see our spouse, or our parents, or our boss, something has gone wrong.We look down and we see only the ground, not people we are lording over. If we look down and see our spouse, or our kids, or our employees, something has gone wrong. And when we look around, we see everyone around us eye-to-eye, remembering that God so loved the world – and we are called to nothing less. 

New Life: Risen With Christ (Colossians 3:1-3:14)

So it comes down to this: since you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on heaven above, where He is seated at God’s right hand. Stay focused on what’s above, not on earthly things, because your old life is dead and gone. Your new life is now safely enmeshed with Christ, who is in God. On that day when the Christ—who is our very life—is revealed, you will be revealed with Him in glory!" (Colossians 3:1-4)

 

This is the solution to a life in which we are enslaved to sin (read Colossians 2 to see what that looks like). Awesome! But…how does that work? How do we “set our minds” and “stay focused”? Let’s keep reading (picking up in verse 5):

"So kill your earthly impulses: promiscuous sex, impure actions, unbridled lust, evil desires, and greed (which is idolatry). It’s because of these that God’s wrath is coming, so avoid them at all costs. These are the same things you once pursued, and together you walked in the path of evil. But now make sure you put off such things: anger, rage, spite, slander, and abusive language. And don’t go on lying to each other since you have traded the old self and the evil it did for a fresh new you, which is continually renewed in knowledge according to the image of the One who created you. In this re-creation there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and conqueror, or slave and free because Christ is above all, and dwells in us all. Since you are all set apart by God, made holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a holy way of life: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Put up with one another. Forgive. Pardon any offenses against one another, as the Lord has pardoned you, because you should act in kind. But above all these, put on love! Love is the perfect tie to bind these together. Let the peace of God control your heart (the peace you were called to as one body), and be thankful. (Colossians 3:5-14)

 

In this passage, we see three important principles that should help us find the freedom of new life in Christ.

Identity: Know who you are (1-4)

The Bible gives at least three images to describe our life “enmeshed” with Christ:  Getting out of jail, being adopted, and putting on new clothes.

  •  Getting out of Jail: It used to be the case that we were in chains, slaves to our sinful nature. We could not live freely. We might have moments of good living when we thought we had been set free, but we were just walking in the courtyard. No matter what, we would enter lockdown again. Christ opened the prison door; He set the captives free. Now we can truly walk out of the prison of sin.
  •  Being Adopted: It used to be that our character, reputation and nature were the result of the Family of the World – priorities, worldview, default reactions, loves, habits, tendencies.  Christ brings us into the Family of God, where all these things undergo a process of change. My priorities increasingly reflect God’s, etc. As we go through sanctification, we begin to naturally reflect our new family’s character, reputation and nature. We will fail at times, but that doesn’t mean we get kicked out of the family. In this family, we pull each other closer with the love of the Father.
  •  Changing Clothes: We make a decision: will I dress with my family colors or not? Will I present myself in such a way that when people see me, they see who I am now? Do I wear a jail uniform even though I am no longer a prisoner? Do I wear the styles and slogans of the Family of the World, or the Family of God? I have to dress myself every day. What will I put on?

 We have to remind ourselves of this identity. It won’t necessarily be easy. Old habits die hard. We could keep on our prison clothes and go hang out in the yard. We could pursue our old family and honor their habits. We could keep the old clothes.

Clarity: See who you were (5-11) 

In order to make the decision to “kill” our earthly self (stay out of jail, new clothes, etc), we need to understand what is at stake. If we don’t think our old life was that big of a deal, we probably won’t make changes that last. So, why do you need to “kill” these things? Why is God angry? Look at the life that unfolds when you indulge your earthly desires:

  • Greed -  You have a lust for more, be it sex or anything else. You want what is not yours. If you get it, it’s still not enough.  It doesn’t matter who you hurt or what impact you are having on others, you take what you want. It’s relentless; you are driven, you are always hungry for more.  Paul starts with an external activity, then moves into the heart – it’s greed, and it’s idolatry. You are worshiping things (at least on the surface); ultimately, you are worshiping self.
  • Anger – Of course, you are never satisfied. There is a “slowly building, settled animosity” as your frustration boils over, the rage – you lash out since you have no reserve. If you are a person who struggles with anger, Paul identifies at least one reason for it: greed or lust. You are driven to get something you want but don’t have, and when you don’t get it, or when you do and it fails to satisfy, your anger builds and then spills over onto the people around you. First you used them as simply things to satisfy your demand for more – sex, attention, respect, money, authority, admiration, comfort – then you abuse them verbally and emotionally (slander and abusive language).
  • Deception  -  You live and speak deceitfully. This may simply mean they had a problem with lying, but I wonder if this doesn’t have more to do with the duplicity of their lives. They claimed to be followers of Christ, but they were still living in lust, greed, and rage. The phrase translated as “abusive language” is the same word for “blasphemy” – somehow, they were blaspheming the name of God as the lashed out at other.  The Jewish converts knew the commandment, “Don’t take God’s name in vain,” which was actually not an admonition against swearing. It meant don’t claim allegiance to Christ falsely.  Don’t lie; particularly, don’t lie by claiming allegiance to Christ while living in allegiance to the world.

 What’s at stake? More than just a relationship with Christ. Your relationship with others matters too. That list of contrasts (slave or free, etc) highlights the problem of  division, where people tend to reject others with prejudice. This list covers nationality, religion, education, and social status. This is an issue of pride. I am better than you. Why? I am American…I have more money…I have an education or skill set…I don’t work for other people…I have a good reputation…I understand the finer things in life… (All of these have their opposites, I might add. Look how redneck I am! A country boy can survive!)

We might think, “It’s not a big deal if I sleep around. No one is getting hurt. It’s not a big deal if I am greedy – why shouldn’t I want more? It’s not a big deal if I get angry – it’s justified; they had it coming! Slander? I am just telling people what that jerk is really like!” If you don’t understand how destructive these things are, you will never understand why God is angry. If, however, you see the impact they have on you and on others, you will begin to get a little angry too. Your heart will begin to break for the damage people experience.

 If you or someone you love has been sexually used and discarded, or experienced the damage that rage can bring, or lived with chronic lying and the untrustworthiness that follows, or had their faith rocked by hypocrisy. - if you or someone you love has experienced this, you know why God is angry. They more you begin to understand the heart of God for those whose lives are wrecked by lust, greed, anger, gossip, and lies, the more you will put that away from you.

Priority: Be who you are (13-15)

"Since you are all set apart by God, made holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a holy way of life: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Put up with one another. Forgive. Pardon any offenses against one another, as the Lord has pardoned you, because you should act in kind. But above all these, put on love! Love is the perfect tie to bind these together. Let your hearts be ruled by Christ’s peace (the peace you were called to as one body), and be thankful."

 

Here’s the thing: Your identity is given to you Christ. Your clarity will result from the work of the Holy Spirit in you. Your freedom is a gift from God. But you choose your clothing. And how your dress yourself will have a huge impact in how you experience life in the Kingdom of God.

 I think we have a tendency to be complacent. “God saved me; He wanted me in His family. Awesome. He can do the work.”  So we sit back and wait to stop being angry, or lustful, or jealous, or peaceful.  We just expect to start feeling kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, loving, and thankful. That’s not how it works (according to Paul).

 You have been freed from the power of greed, lust, anger, lies, and pride. But you must make a choice: Will I dress myself in the clothes of my new identity, or will I put on the uniform of all those things I once was? You didn’t have a choice before; now you do. You are free to become who you are.

  • Do you want to be compassionate? Clothe yourself with compassion.
  • Do you want to be kind? Clothe yourself with kindness
  • Do you want to be humble? Clothe yourself with humility.
  • Do you want to be gentle? Clothe yourself with gentleness.
  • Do you want to be patient? Clothe yourself with patience.
  • Do you want to be forgiving? Clothe yourself with forgiveness.
  • Do you want to be loving? Clothe yourself with love.

This is the opposite of the idolatry of self – every action is a sacrifice you make for the sake of Christ and with the help of Christ for others.  It will bring freedom from the control of sin and self-destructiveness in your life, and it will bring peace to your family, church and community. It’s one of the beautiful ironies of life with Christ: it’s when we lose our life that we find it. It’s when we offer ourselves in service that we find freedom and bring peace.

We have to connect to Christ. We have to understand our identity. We have to see ourselves and our lives with clarity. We have to prioritize the life Christ has given us. We have to commit to what we have been given. Then we have to choose to dress like a Child of the King.

 

True Freedom: Secured By Christ (Colossians 2:16-2:23)

Plato told a story in which people are trapped in a cave, watching shadows on a cave wall and thinking it’s reality. Occasionally, some of them recognize the shadows for what they are and leave the cave, entering into the sunlight of truth and experiencing Reality for themselves.

It might surprise you to know that the Apostle Paul tells a very similar story. The Colossian church had a problem with living in the shadows. Paul started out his letter to them by stressing the preeminence of Christ in everything, then noted how glad he was that the Colossians were rooted in and built on Christ, because He was the source of all that mattered. God had brought them to life.

“Be strong in the faith, just as you were taught, and always spill over with thankfulness. Make sure no one deceives you through some misleading philosophy and empty deception based on traditions fabricated by mere mortals. These are sourced in the elementary principles originating in this world and not in Christ. You see, all that is God, all His fullness, resides in His body.” (7-9)

 

 These elementary principles all come back to one thing: I can save myself. I am good enough. Paul goes on to say that God, through Christ has triumphed over every force (spiritual or physical) that would tell you that you can save yourself and publicly displayed their ineffectiveness and Christ’s effectiveness.

“It was God who brought us to life with Him, forgave all our sins, and eliminated the massive debt we incurred by the law that stood against us. He took it all away; He nailed it to the cross. He disarmed those who once ruled over us—those who had overpowered us. Like captives of war, He put them on display to the world to show His victory over them by means of the cross."

 

But here comes the problem. Some false teachers wanted them to go back to the world’s “elementary principles” that would keep them in a spiritual cave. So Paul tells them what this will look like: 

"Don’t let anyone stand in judgment over you and dictate what you should eat or drink, what festivals and feasts you should celebrate, or how you should observe a new moon or Sabbath days—  all these are only a shadow of what shall come. The reality, the core, the import, is found in Christ.Don’t be cheated out of the prize by others who are peddling the worship of heavenly beings and false humility.People like this run about telling whoever will listen what they claim to have seen; but in reality they testify only to an inflated mind, saturated in conceit—not in the Spirit. They are detached from the very head (Christ) that nourishes and connects the whole body (of Christians) with all of its nerves and ligaments, a body that grows by the kind of growth that can only come from God.Listen, if you have died with Christ to the world’s legalistic ordinances, then why are you submitting yourselves to its rules as if you still belonged to this world? You hear, “Don’t handle this! Don’t taste that! Don’t even touch it!” but everything they are obsessed about will eventually decay with use. These rules are just human commands and teachings. They may seem wise, but they are promoting self-imposed forms of worship, self-humiliation, and bodily abuse. No matter which way they try to tether their bodies, they cannot harness their desires." (Colossians 2:13-23) 

______________________________________________________________________________________________

Let’s put some context to this discussion.

 The Jewish converts had been raised on the book of Leviticus, a book about how sin may be put away. It gives different types of laws to avoid sin (ceremonial, moral, civil, dietary); it provides five offerings to make up for all the times they still sinned anyway. There were feasts and festivals (some associated with the New Moon) and a temple full of symbolic things and activities. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the "types" are but the “shadow of good things to come.”(Hebrews 10:1) – specifically, Christ.*

It pointed toward the real thing. It was meant to give hope. It represented something greater in a way that served as a promise: So it’s  not that shadows are bad – in fact, people need to be faithful to God if they felt that strictly adhering to these customs were important for their spiritual growth and maturity:

There may be a believer who regards one day as more sacred than any other, while another views every day as sacred as the next. In these matters, all must reach their own conclusions and satisfy their own minds. If someone observes a day as holy, he observes it in honor of the Lord. If another eats a particular diet, he eats in honor of the Lord since he begins by giving thanks! If yet another abstains from that same food, he abstains out of respect for the Lord and begins his meal by thanking God too.” Romans 14:5-6

 

So there is a way to honor the Lord with these observances. But a "shadow" is an out-of-proportion, imperfect representation of the thing it reveals. Problems arise when people mistake the shadows for the Real Thing. Paul identifies two ways of “staying in the shadows” that rob us of the ability to be fully united with Christ, and as a result be denied the fullness of the new life and freedom he has given us. These two shadows are moralism and mysticism.

  • Morality is a good thing, but Moralism says, “If I do, I can be good enough.” It detaches us from Christ because we are trying to harness our own desires: that is, to live lives of holiness and purity on own power.  
  • Supernatural experiences are a good thing, but Mysticism says, “If I experience enough, I will be good enough.” Both are shadows that will detach you from Christ.

If you are content with either of these approaches to God, you will either become proud or be driven to despair. With these two categories in mind, let's look at the breakdown of shadowy problems in the CO 

“What you eat and drink”

This refers to Old Testament laws that focused on diet and hygiene. The problem was not in the regulations; it was that this physical “clean” was only a shadow of the genuine spiritual “clean” that Christ gives to us. For us, it’s probably not “Don’t go to Red Lobster or eat bacon.” It’s probably more along the lines of, “I don’t have a TV…I grow kids God’s Way… I only listen to Christian music and read Christian books…I only watch movies rated PG or less…”

 None of those things are bad in themselves. If God convicts you that in your life this is important, honor Him with your obedience. That’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you think you can become clean enough for God, that’s moralism, and you’re in trouble. This is still a version of “Don't Handle, Taste or Touch!” which come from the idea that I can be in control of my holiness and goodness – I can manage my life if I just try hard enough that I can be clean enough for God.

 Eventually, nothing else will matter as much as your self-imposed regulations of what it means to be good enough, and you will constantly be looking for all the ways in which you are currently failing. When you do well, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t do what you do. When you fail, you will despair because you believe God and everyone else thinks you are a terrible person. 

“Festivals, feasts, moons and days”

In the OT, it clearly mattered to God whether or not his people did this with sincerity. Many times, the prophets warned of God’s anger and frustration at how callous, shallow, hypocritical of forgetful his people had become. There was an understanding that honoring the festivals and feasts pleased God and brought reward, and dishonoring them displeased God and brought punishment (often in the sense of, ”If you don’t honor my presence, I will remove my presence.”) Conclusion? Faithful observance make me a good, holy person. Once again, the problem is not in the holiday or festival; it was that they were just shadow pointing to the reality of Christ, and the people had made them the most important thing.

We aren’t Jewish, so we don’t observe the Feast of Trumpets, for example. What do we do instead?  We have Sundays, Christmas, Easter, the National Day of Prayer, The March for Life, 40 Days of Purpose, Prayer Circles, Blood Moons, and every big push in Christian circles that is promoted as being the crucial thing that will bring God’s blessing if we just observe them properly.

Once again, none of those things are bad. If God convicts you that in your life it is important that you observe any or all these things in a particular way, then by all means do so. That’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you attempt to honor God and therefore earn his blessing, that’s moralism, and you’re in trouble.

When you do well, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who aren’t as committed to the cause (Are they embarrassed of Christ? Are they Laodiceans?). When you fail, you will despair because you believe you have let God down, and now you are in trouble – so you try even harder the next time to do even more.

“Worship of Heavenly Beings/False Humility”

Some of the Jews thought angels were intermediaries between God and men. Other sects actually tried to be an angelic presence on earth. There was a desire to know more about God, but they got so enamored with the messenger that they forgot the message. They began to believe that Superior knowledge and experiences made them important.  What should have fostered a desire for others to know and experience God instead became a desire to be known and seen for their experience.

 There are still people and groups in Christianity that put a lot of stock in those who convey information about visits with angels, or being caught up into heaven, or having supernatural encounters in which they spend time with really important people and are given crucial insights. If you have a genuine supernatural encounter with God, that’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if they become the standard by which you gauge if you are doing things right or getting to know God, this is mysticism, and you are worshipping the shadow rather than the One who casts it.

 Here, I think, is a good rule of thumb: When the story deflects glory, drop the story. If people give a message so that others will follow them and not the One who is the point of the message, that is precisely the kind of person you should not follow.

 The pursuit of or fascination with angels and visions will take you captive – nothing else will matter as much as your experiences. If something glorious happens, you will become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t have the connection with God that you do. When you don’t have them, you will despair because you believe something is terribly wrong with you, and you will become increasingly radical in what you will do to recapture the experience. 

Do you see what is happening here? If we live in such a way that we mistake shadows for the real thing, we are disconnected from Christ and we can’t grow. We will long for the fullness of life with Christ, but we will never find genuine peace, joy, love, hope, contentment. We will never understand genuine grace, or forgiveness, or worth, because we sought them in the shadow of the One who offers them.  So what is Paul’s solution?

“So it comes down to this: since you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand.  Stay focused on what’s above, not on earthly things, because your old life is dead and gone. Your new life is now hidden, enmeshed with Christ, who is in God.”  (Colossians 3:1-3)

 

It's a huge worldview shift.  In the next post in this series, we are going to look more closely at what Paul means by the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

_______________________________________________________________________

* Some examples of the types and shadows in the OT that point toward Christ:

Feasts

Unleavened Bread – holiness: "Purge out therefore the 'old leaven' that ye may be a 'new lump,' as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Feast, not with 'old leaven,' neither with the 'leaven of malice and wickedness.' but with the 'unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.'" 1 Cor. 5:7,8.

 Law: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (Hebrews 10:1)

 Temple: “The priests serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.” (Hebrews 8:5)

 Offerings: In the first covenant, every day every officiating priest stands at his post serving, offering over and over those same sacrifices that can never take away sin. But after He stepped up to offer His single sacrifice for sins for all time, He sat down in the position of honor at the right hand of God.”  (Hebrews 10:11-12)

A Place To Call Home (Insights From Philemon)

God has placed within us all a longing to belong. Sometimes we feel it in our families; sometimes we don’t. The same goes for school, work, social circles, and church. We long for that place that will always take care of us and never leave us.  A place where we don’t have to wear make-up, and we can wear sweats until supper time. In this sense, home is something bigger than “house” or “family” or “what I know.” Home is a place we want to go, and when we leave, we want to return.  

When Paul writes to Philemon about how Philemon was to welcome Onesimus back, he’s talking about building a home, a koinonos, a community of  people with common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17)). It’s an active word, an event word, a group word. It is not passive, solo or selfish.  It’s about life together in Christ within a church community. And in order for that life to be a meaningful reflection of God's heart for the world,several key things must be in place.

Equality (in Christ)

 Paul wrote to Philemon, “Open your heart to [Onesimus] as you would welcome me…accept him as a brother…” There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We all bear his image. Christ died for all of us. We all are made righteous because of what Christ has done, not what we can offer. None of us can earn our way into heaven or grace. True church community doesn’t elevate men or women, rich or poor, extroverts or introverts, blue-collar or white-collar, single or married, pastor or parishioner.  True church community doesn’t put people on a pedestal based on background or education.

 This can be hard. We might want to be noticed. We might want to believe we simply are better than others. We might want to be able to rule… but that’s not communion. That’s not self-sacrificial, broken living for the sake of those around us. We give up our right to pride, to be noticed, to be seen. We give up pointing out our background or degree or importance. We give up our expectations that others serve us. We give our claims to power. 

In a church community of genuine communion, we will do our best to make sure the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.  When we look up, all we should see above us is Christ.  When we look down, all we should see below us is dirt. All around – those whom Christ loves. That, I think, would feel like home.

Trust (in Christ)

Paul noted that God may have been at work in this situation in ways that Philemon did not understand: “Perhaps that is why [Onesimus] is parted from you.”  The verb in Greek indicates that God parted Onesimus from Philemon. In other words, God is often at work in ways we don’t understand. We should be actively looking to see what good God is bringing out of situations that look bad – which also means actively looking to see what God is doing in even those who have hurt and offended us.

This is not easy. It’s one thing to look for how Christ is working in the beautiful people who make you happy, but the ugly ones who tick you off? Really? The person who gossiped about me? Overlooked me? Said some things that really hurt me? Shamed me? Who betrayed me? We must give up our right to anger, judgment, bearing a grudge, giving excuses, getting even, hoping for something bad to happen. 

Trust reminds us that God might be working in their life too. This good news for all of us. For every time I trust God in the midst of a situation like that, someone else is trusting God about me in the midst of a situation that I cause. We are all in this together. This doesn’t mean that God causes every situation.  And trusting that God is present and working is different from not speaking truth or enabling ongoing bad behavior around us. But I think we would be surprised at the things that are redeemable.

In a church community of genuine communion, everyone will be looking to see God at work in the lives of others in the midst of their sins and imperfections. That, I think, would feel like home.

Love (from Christ)

 The Greeks always had a pragmatic reason for doing loving things:

  • hospitality made trade and travel safer
  • self-sacrifice in war helped create military machines
  • the love of children or parents kept households together
  • male friendships were the basis of politics and business.

 Paul had a different approach. He says, “I choose to appeal to you on account of love” and then shows Philemon what the love Paul was talking about looks like. “And if he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me. Look, I’ll put it here in my own handwriting: I, Paul, promise to repay you everything.”

 “Charge it to me,” is a commercial term of paying the debt of another. When Paul “wrote with his own hand” (v.19), it was a legal promissory note that Philemon could use in a civil suit and sue Paul for the money (or Paul’s estate, if Paul died).  Who would show love for the sake of showing love? Who would embrace someone else as part of their family if there was no practical payoff? Where did Paul get the idea that a third party could pay the debt of another? From Christ, or course, who died for us all while we were sinners, dead in our trespasses and sins.

One sign that we understand the gospel is that we don’t simply know about it – we live it. We try to find ways to embody Christ’s commitment, love and sacrifice for those around us.  We are committed to a life that imitates Christ’s death by being broken and spilled out so that others may live. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he had quite a bit to say about love. Among other things he wrote, “Love patient, love is kind; love is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It does insist on its own way, and it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

But there’s an interesting twist when it comes to translations. In 1 Corinthians 13, there are no adjectives in the Greek. We translate them that way (“Love is patient”), but in the Greek it’s a mass of verbs, things love does and does not do. At one point Paul even takes what would normally be two Greek adjectives and makes a new verb. It should read something like this: “Love patients; love kinds; love does not envy, boast, act arrogantly or rudely. It does not insist on its own way; it does not act irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

 That’s the kind of love where people are breaking off a piece of their heart constantly for others. It’s not a place where you show up and take and absorb and simply accept the sacrifice of others. It’s a place where you accept and give.  You receive to pass it on. It’s a church community where we seek to bear burdens that are not ours, to pick up the pieces when we didn’t break it.  It’s a church community where we say, “Charge it to me. I will spend time in nursery with kids that aren’t mine, and bring food to a potluck when I know others don’t, and mentor someone who should have known better.”

It’s a church community where we choose to bear the weight of grace not because there is something in it for us, but because Christ bore the ultimate weight of our sins and gave us the greatest grace of forgiveness and salvation – and we have opportunity to do what we can in remembrance of Him. 

That, I think, would feel like home.

Confronting Blind Spots (Insights From Philemon)

The Johari Window is a model by which to gauge how well we know ourselves, and how well others know us. Basically, it breaks down our exterior and interior life into 4 quadrants: Open (the Arena); Hidden (the Façade); Unknown (Here There Be Dragons); an the Blind Spot (Bull in the China Shop).

The Open Quadrant contains areas where who we are is seen and known clearly by ourselves and by others.  This is the ”Are you not entertained?” portion of life. We know who we are and others know who we are, because we show it. There are no secrets here. In the arena, there is nowhere to hide, and we are seen in all our glory or frailty. If our lives are such that we weren’t ashamed if we are an open book, that’s generally a good thing.

However, there is a danger:  We can put too much into the arena. Kids have no filter and it’s cute, but when if an adult would ask you to come into the bathroom and see what their poop looked like, you would think something had gone wrong somewhere. Maturity requires learning how to live the kind of life that can be lived openly and without shame while exercising judgment when it comes to sharing openly and without offense.

The Hidden Quadrant contains areas of who we are that we know and others do not.  Sometimes, that's appropriate. I don't share everything about my marriage with other people. There are some things about my walk with God that are intensely personal . That’s not necessarily bad - some stuff should be private - but if we aren't careful we can become reclusive or hypocritical. We need to find a trustworthy person or an accountability group so that we do not become hypocrites (with a false façade) or a coward (afraid to show someone who we are).

The Unknown Quadrant contains areas of who we are  that are not seen by us or others. Nobody knows how our interior or exterior life will look because we’ve never done something that would trigger a particle kind of response.  There are some unknowns that are just out of our control. Sometimes we, just have to cross some bridges when we get there: Will I be a good parent?  What will my wife and I do when the kids move out? What’s going to happen after high school/college? How will I handle deep grief? What will I do if my faith is shaken?

However, there are some unknowns in life that we can get to know: Could I teach Sunday School to kids? What’s it like to sing karaoke?. If I was honest with my spouse would he or she reject me? Would my home life be better if I didn’t work so much? What would happen if tithed? Some of these unknowns are more important that others – I doubt my final words will be, “I wish I had sung karaoke.” But others are important for getting me out of my comfort zone and building a resume of life experiences. Sometimes, we need to build bridges so we can get there.

The Blind Quadrant contains areas of who we are that are seen by other and not by us. In football, "the blind side" is a reference for how a quarterback can’t see what’s happening behind him when he’s poised to throw. When he gets hit, he gets leveled, because he did not expect to see that coming. There are areas of who we are that, when someone else points them out to us, we can feel blindsided:  

  • “Do you know what you sound like when you talk with your kids?”  
  • “Bill was really hurt by your sarcasm.”  
  • “You know that problem in your marriage that you always blame on your spouse? It’s you.”

Philemon has a blind spot - he doesn’t know that he has sin that needs addressing. Paul needs to speak truth, and that truth needs to be presented very, very carefully. In Paul's letter to Philemon, we  see at least three characteristics of how truth-tellers can speak effectively to those with blind spots.

1) Truth-tellers Affirm (v.4-7)

"I am constantly thanking God for you in my prayers because I keep hearing about your love and faith toward our Lord Jesus and all those set apart for His purposes….Thank You, Father, for Philemon. I pray that as he goes and tells his story of faith, he would tell everyone so that they will know for certain all the good that comes to those who put their trust in the Anointed One….You are out there encouraging and refreshing the hearts of fellow saints with such love, this brings great joy and comfort to me."

Philemon was apparently a wealthy and kind man. He hosted a church in his home. He had earned a reputation for love. Philemon “refreshed the hearts of the saints,” a military metaphor for the rest an army takes while marching toward a war. That’s a solid resume. It’s worth affirming. Don’t forget what God has already done in people. Let them know what you admire before you tell them what you don’t. Paul used this with non-Christians (the philosophers in Athens) and with Christians (like Philemon). He never compromised his message, but that didn’t mean he was an ungracious messenger.

2) Truth Tellers Invite Change (v.8-21)

Paul has to address a sinful attitude in Philemon, but he doesn't want to simply coerce Philemon into outward obedience.  He want Philemon's change of life and heart to be freely chosen. Why? Because that was the approach of Jesus:

  • Jesus didn’t tell the rich young ruler, “Sell your stuff! Do it! Now!” (Matthew 19)
  • Jesus didn’t say, “I will come to you and make you rest!” (Matthew 11)
  •  Jesus didn’t say, “Peter, love me!” (John 21)
  • Jesus didn’t say, “Behold, I batter down the door!” (Revelation 3:20)

Paul didn't say, “Just do it because I say so and God says so!” He wanted Philemon to choose to see, to choose to come into the open. So he wrote this:

"Although I am bold enough in the Anointed, our Liberating King, to insist you do the right thing, instead I choose to appeal to you on account of love… I make this request on behalf of my child, Onesimus, whom I brought to faith during my time in prison. Before, he was useless to you; but now he is useful to both you and me. Listen, I am sending my heart back to you as I send him to stand before you…But I didn’t want to make this decision without asking for your permission. This way, any goodwill on your part wouldn’t be seen as forced, but as your true and free desire.”

Truth-tellers invite change. Their goal is not just to control actions – their goal is to see Christ transform the heart and soul. 

3) Truth Tellers Stay Engaged (v.22)

“One more thing: you should get a room ready for me as I hope to be released to you soon in answer to your prayers.” 

Godly truth-tellers find away to communicate clearly, “I am not your enemy.” In this case, Paul says, “Oh, and I am looking forward to hanging out with you soon.”  Philemon was the same friend Paul had before. It's not as if he suddenly became an ogre.  When Paul said he was looking forward to spending time with and being refreshed by Philemon, I suspect it sent a clear message of ongoing friendship. Sometimes the message and the messenger are deeply intertwined. We need to communicate we care through not just our words, but our time and our presence also.

___________________________________________________________________________

So how do we apply this? Here are some questions to ask so you can speak Truth when you are in a situation in which confrontation needs to occur (particularly when you are about to blindside someone):

  •  What is the blind spot in my friend? (Is this just my opinion, or have I and others noticed a pattern?)
  • Is it my business to point it out? (Have I earned the right or do I have the authority to speak into this person's life?)
  •  What can I say to affirm and invite even as I challenge? (How can be a gracious messenger?)
  •  How will I show I am not their enemy? (Not just with my words, but my presence, my posture, my attitude, etc)
  • How can I stay engaged? (What is my follow-up plan to show that I love and care about them even as I offer a challenge?)

Runners and Rulers (Insights From Philemon)

Paul  wrote to Philemon, “So if you look upon me as your partner in this mission, then I ask you to open your heart to him as you would welcome me.” When Paul talks about partnership in a mission, he uses the word koinonos - one with common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17)). There is a mutual partnership aspect. It’s an active word, an event word, a group word. It is not passive or solo.  It’s about life together in Christ within a church community.

Disunity is not an option for followers of Christ. Unfortunately, Philemon and Onesimus were undermining this project. Through them, we learn two important things: If you are a follower of Christ committed to doing life together, you shouldn’t run, and you shouldn’t rule.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Don't Run

Onesimus is a runner. He apparently stole from Philemon, took off, was captured, and ended up in prison. The Bible doesn’t say if he knew Paul before or if he just happened to meet him in jail, but there they are. While in captivity, Onesimus commits his life to following Christ. Paul says he’s now a “dear brother in the Lord” who lives up to his name (“useful”) and ministers to Paul.

 If I were Onesimus, I would be thinking, “Awesome! I’ve got Paul on my side. Paul will set Philemon straight on the whole ‘servant’ thing, pacify him, and tell him to give me what I deserve now!”  But Paul’s apparently thinking, “Awesome! Onesimus is a follower of Christ now. He’s in the family. Now he can fix the relationship he broke!”

 It seems much easier to run away after we offend someone, especially if the consequences are daunting.  It's hard to fault Onesimus on this point, especially considering the way in which runaway doulos were handled at that time. Philemon was apparently well respected for his kindness and generosity, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which Onesimus could have just returned without there being significant consequences (see my previous post for the life of a doulos).

But Paul knew what he was doing. If Onesimus was truly a follower of Christ, then he had committed to a particular way of doing life.  We'll look at how Paul handles Philemon as well, but for now let's focus on Paul's challenge to Onesimus: Followers of Christ cannot run from conflict. Onesimus ran physically; we can run just as far in other ways as well.

 1. We run from the reality of our actions

I was sitting at a coffee shop a couple months ago when I overheard a someone tell a friend about some interaction between her and her boyfriend. From what I could tell from her own very confident presentation of herself, they were both jerks in that situation. But her conclusion was: “I’m a lot of woman. If he can’t handle me, that’s his problem.”  That’s running away from your actions. Any time we say,“They started it. I had a bad day. I wasn’t feeling well. It’s just my personality!” we are running away from the reality of the impact our actions have on others.  

2. We run from our emotions

First, we can do this by minimizing an issue.  “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal. They’re tough – they can handle it.”  Sometimes, other people do need to learn how to let things go. But other times, this reaction shows how we are able to minimize significant issues – usually when we were the one at fault. If our life was a movie, we would star in “Honey, I Shrunk The Problem!”

 I’ve noticed a tendency to do this in the mornings when I’m tired.  I become critical and snappy, and it’s so easy to drive my boys to school in awkward silence thinking, “My boys are upset because they can’t handle it when I’m just trying to help them become men.”  Actually, I am passive-aggressively whining about every little thing that’s out of place and didn’t annoy me last night when I wasn’t tired but became the most important thing of the morning.”  If I want a good life together with my boys, I can’t deflect and minimize. I have to be an honest person.

 Second, I can pretend something didn’t matter to me when it really did. The other night, my wife and and I were talking about a situation in the community in which I felt I needed to be involved.  She said, “Why do you feel obligated to be involved in that? You don’t have time!”  And I said, “How can you lack so much empathy?” It was not one of my better moments.

 At that point, we both wanted the conversation to end. I was watching an NBA playoff game and Sheila had a book. We both thought about running away into those diversions. Five years ago, we might have sprinted into the safety of our own little worlds. But we are trying not to be runners, and we stayed there, which forced some introspection.

 I realized I had lashed out with an unfair criticism because I wanted to avoid what I was really feeling. I had run from myself, then tried to deflect my failure onto her. So I had to acknowledge to Sheila: “You know what? That wasn’t fair. I wasn’t honest.  I don’t have time to get involved in this thing. You’re right. I said what I did so I didn’t have to acknowledge something else I am struggling with.” And then it was time for the hard work of honesty.

We can’t run away from reality emotionally by minimizing our impact on others or hiding from ourselves. It will kill relationships.

 3. We run from the situation

We think, “If I just go here – in another room, in another house, with another friend, to another job or church – this problem will go away. “ Don’t misunderstand: there are some problems that require distance, in particular situations of abuse or volatile emotional conflict. Space can be a blessing in certain situations if it is uses wisely and purposefully.

 But in general, running away from conflict won’t resolve the situation or the heart of the problem.  Running might feel good – ah, peace! – but whatever instigated the conflict will probably just pop up in another situation, because all the core reasons the conflict happened in the first place have not been dealt with.

  • Why do my friendships keep eroding?
  • Why is every boss such a jerk?
  • Why am I getting consistent critical feedback in this area?
  • Why did I feel comfortable saying something so mean?
  • Why did I think it was okay to act so selfishly?
  • What is causing me to believe that I am owed something by others?

There’s a common denominator in all the situations we are in: us.  If we keep running when we should be staying, we will never see ourselves clearly, we won’t change, situations won’t change, and we will never stop running. Staying means revisiting the situation, revisiting the people, swallowing hard and being just as honest in self-confrontation as we are in confronting others.

That’s hard – but so is not changing. “Staying” has the potential to bring life. Paul said, “I am sending Onesimus to stand before you” with this goal: “You will have him back forever.” We can’t run.  We must stand.  It’s the only way to genuinely build relationships and a community that will stand the test of time.

Don't Rule

If Onesimus’s problem was that he Ran, Philemon’s problem was that he Ruled.  

Paul does not say this directly, but the letters to Philemon (and to the Colossian church of which he was a part) offer reminders about what ought to be happening – and you usually don’t have to correct things people are doing right. In this case, Philemon had some work to do. He is fighting to overcome a lifetime of social, emotional, relational, and spiritual baggage. This may be a trickier issue for Paul to handle, because Philemon probably didn’t even see it in himself. He grew up in a culture in which the following mindset was pervasive:

  •  “The Greek finds his personal dignity in the fact that he is free.” (Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). They scorned anyone who did not have freedom – in this case, the doulos, servants or slaves.
  •  Aristotle said slaves were “living tools,“ slaves by nature, almost like animals.  “The doulos belonged by nature not to himself, but to someone else” (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). The Romans had a saying translated as “a slave has no persona," no personality. He has no identity or status apart from what his master and his usefulness granted him.  In fact, in legal cases, the “character” of the doulos was considered representative of the master's character.
  •  When we read the dramas and poetry that has survived from Paul’s time, we see that the Athenians viewed people like Onesimus as skilled and productive, but assumed they were con artist acting nice but planning devious things.

Philemon was used to being one of the free Greek citizens whose worth and dignity was defined by freedom (except his doulos to the civil law – that was the only way that word was used for free Greek citizens).  He had been raised to simply accept his culture’s perspective, probably without thought.  That kind of indoctrination does not go away overnight. He had given his life to follow Christ, but how easy it must have been for him to default to his former perspective:

  • “Onesimus has no rights; he’s not my equal.”
  • “Onesimus is by nature meant to serve me.”
  • “Onesimus betrayed me – he is a con artist.”

We we see in Paul’s letter a call to face our sinful attitudes and the way they impact others. It seems much easier to ignore our ingrained pride or elitism, or simply refuse to hear that we could possibly be contributing to the problem.  An obvious connection is the sinfulness of thinking we are better than others because of their race or gender.  Other forms of elitism are more subtle. But when we refuse to deal with the pride within us, we take on the mindset of rulers.  It’s not pretty. I suspect we all struggle in some area of our life with “ruling”, believing that we are intrinsically just better than other people in certain areas. Christian rulers have certain attitudes in common:

  • They think people who don’t have as much money or things must be lazy or dumb or bad Christians.
  • They think people who struggle with a sin they don’t are more deserving of judgment by both God and other people.
  • They believe usefulness is a marker of worth.
  • They assume people who don’t experience God the same way they do are automatically not as spiritual as they are.
  • They elevate or disdain certain people based on class, skill set, personality, or interests. It’s no surprise that the most important people are just like them.

Paul didn't’ let Onesimus run, but he’s not going to send a Runner back to a Ruler. Paul says of Onesimus, “receive him” (v.17) – literally, “take him into your home with kindness.” Onesimus is Philemon’s “brother,” a term the Greeks NEVER applied to anyone other than a blood brother – until now.  Paul said Philemon was a doulos to God – an idea which the Greeks NEVER applied to someone’s relationship to the gods – until now.

 Paul was saying (and I paraphrase), “Philemon – your view of people is deeply wrong. You think others aren’t as good or deserving or useful as you are. You and Onesimus are brothers, so you should protect, defend and honor him. You are both doulos to God, so your character needs to match your master - forgive and receive Onesimus as Christ has forgiven and accepted you.” 

If Philemon takes Paul seriously, there is no way Onesimus – or Philemon’s other servants – will be treated as “living tools” lacking intrinsic value or worth.  In fact, if the early Christians reading this letter took Paul seriously, any system of slavery, exploitive servitude or arrogant elitism would only whither and die. If all followers of Christ are truly brothers and sisters, a community of compassion, service, honor and love is the only way the God's spiritual kingdom can be embodied on earth (see the quotes about the early church at the end of my previous post to see how this played out in the 1st and 2nd century). 

Don’t run. Don’t rule.

Live bound together as brothers and sisters, servants of Christ.  Commit to being part of a spiritual family that loves deeply and sacrificially.  It won't be easy – but life together never is. It’s risky, vulnerable, and humbling. But it’s the only way to truly build a church, and it’s the only way to experience genuine life together in Christ.  

_______________________________________________________________________________

SOURCES and RESOURCES

The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary , N.T. Wright

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon,  Douglas Moo

"New Testament: Philemon," (enterthebible.org)

"Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline," (bible.org)

"The Epistle to Philemon," (www.ccel.org)

“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” by Eric McKiddie (pastoralized.com)

 “Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” by Andy Naselli, andynaselli.com.

“What Were Early Christians Like?” at Christianity.com

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

"Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians," by Mike Rogers (healingtothenations.net)

“Resisting Slaver in Ancient Rome,” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/slavery_01.shtml).

"Women, Children, and Slaves," http://www.ancientgreece.co.uk/staff/resources/background/bg18/home.html.

"Doulos," http://wenstrom.org/downloads/written/word_studies/greek/doulos.pdf.

The Best Way To Change A Culture (Insights from Philemon)

Paul, a prisoner of Jesus the Anointed One, with our brother Timothy, to you, beloved Philemon, our fellow worker… I make this request on behalf of my child, Onesimus, whom I brought to faith during my time in prison. Before, he was useless to you; but now he is useful to both you and me. Listen, I am sending my heart back to you as I send him to stand before you, although truly I wished to keep him at my side to take your place as my helper while I am bound for the good news. But I didn’t want to make this decision without asking for your permission. This way, any goodwill on your part wouldn’t be seen as forced, but as your true and free desire.

  Maybe this is the reason why he was supposed to be away from you for this time: so that now you will have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave—as a dear brother. Yes, he is dear to me, but I suspect he will come to mean even more to you, both in the flesh as a servant and in the Lord as a brother. So if you look upon me as your partner in this mission, then I ask you to open your heart to him as you would welcome me. And if he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Look, I’ll put it here in my own handwriting: I, Paul, promise to repay you everything. (Should I remind you that you owe me your life?)    Indeed, brother, I want you to do me this favor out of obedience to our Lord. It will refresh my heart in Him. This letter comes, written with the confidence that you will not only do what I ask, but will also go beyond all I have asked. 

- From the book of Philemon, The Voice

______________________________________________________________________________

Though Paul’s letter to Philemon is often used to accuse Paul of supporting (or at least being okay with) slavery, the criticism misses the deeper purpose of this letter. Paul presents a radical message that to Philemon would have undermined everything he had been taught about masters and slaves, and could only lead to a world without slavery. 

Slaves made up about 40%  of the Greek and Roman population. This seems like an astonishingly high number, but slavery in some fashion formed the backbone of their economy. I say “in some fashion” because slavery could mean a lot of different things at that time. There were absolutely brutal forms of slavery (particularly for captured soldiers and criminals), but there were other forms that bear little resemblance to what we think of today. The Apostle Paul used the word “doulous,” which can mean anything from a servant to a slave.  It’s a term that was used freely in the New Testament to describe quite a few different positions in society or relationships:

  • Jesus took upon himself the nature of a doulos (Philippians 2:7)
  • We are all either the doulos of sin or of Christ (Romans 6:17-18)
  • Paul said he was a doulos to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:19)
  • Onesimus was a doulos (Philemon)

I appreciate the succinct way in which the translators of the ESV summarized the problem of translating both the Hebrew and Greek words that the biblical writers used to talk about slavery:

"A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings—either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America. 

For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context.    "The ESV Translation Committee Debates the Translation of “Slave” 

There were no bankruptcy laws, so indentured servitude was how the lower class or bankrupt found work and worked off debt. This type of doulos was very different from the image we have of slavery. Many were highly educated, and were doctors, professors, teachers, administrators, public servants and even policemen. Since Onesimus was apparently an indentured servant (specifically one who worked in the household and not the fields), I want to focus on that aspect. 

Household doulos were much better off than even the free-born poor. The poor were often day laborers competing for jobs that went to the doulos. Slaves like Onesimus were paid for their work, which provided them the means to eventually buy their freedom. Some owned other doulos themselves (think of the parable of unforgiving servant, who owed his master – but was in turn owed by another worse off than he was). 

In Judaism, the ebed (a word used to cover slaves, servants, ambassadors, subjects, or simply those who were indebted to another) were released after 7 years, and they were given a portion of herds, crops, and lands. In Greek and Roman culture, doulos such as Onesimus had typically earned their freedom by the age of 30 after an average of 10 years of work. In the city of Rome, a freed doulos enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership but also active political freedom, including the right to vote. The even had a title: “the free ones.” 

This system was the way for someone like Onesimus to move up in society and become a successful free man. Even nobleman were known to sell themselves into the service of greater noblemen so they could move up in the Greco-Roman world.  Onesimus himself probably did not ask Paul to abolish the institution of slavery, since what most likely had awaited him on the other side of his service to Philemon was a comfortable life and reputation. For a doulos who was a bondservant or household servant, their story often ended well.  

There were, however, three bad ways the story could end poorly.

If a freed doulos had not earned the patronage and favor of his owner, buying one’s freedom was not necessarily helpful. A doulos had to be, above all things, useful (which is what “Onesimus” means). The doulos were commodities, investments. It’s not as if the owners were educating them and giving them responsibility out of the goodness of their heart. The useful doulos earned the master’s “stamp of approval.” The lazy ones did not.For those that did not, their eventual freedom would not necessarily be a good thing. They would become one of the working poor who scrabbled to survive and lost the day jobs to the doulos with patronage. They might choose to stay with the household even though they were free, but if they had not shown themselves to be useful, they now served in a reduced status with only a taste of freedom and a portion of the master’s provision. 

A runaway doulos was a nobody, a nothing, outside of his usefulness to his master and the state. As much as a doulos could gain honor, privilege and status when he was useful, he lost it all immediately and usually irretrievably when he ran away. Runaway doulos were now useless because they were untrustworthy, and they forfeited all their ties and privileges. They were a lost cause. Their owners could pretty much do with them what they wanted. Typically, a captured runaway was either: 

  • sent to hard labor, which was a death sentence.
  • branded (the Latin word for fugitive began with an “F,” which was burned on their forehead)
  • crucified 
  • whipped to death

Escape was basically a death sentence, if not literally than economically and socially.

When doulos revolted, the Romans brutally crushed the individuals involved and slaughtered the groups with which they associated. Spartacus (70 BC) had more than 70,000 in his rebellion; Rome eventually smashed the revolt and crucified 6,000 slaves. 

________________________________________________________________________________

Philemon was apparently a wealthy man, so Onesimus was probably in the category of “household servant.” Assuming that the biblical portrayal of Philemon is accurate, Onesimus was probably not running away from abuse and poverty; he was most likely publicly humiliating a man who invested time, money and trust in him, and whose patronage was giving him access to a better life than many around him had. And now, he was in trouble. Captured and awaiting impending judgment, Onesimus sought out a new person to serve. His choice of Paul – himself a prisoner - shows the level of desperation.   

Paul must be wise. 

Paul could write a blistering missive that condemns the whole system. He could command Philemon to free Onesimus and take on Rome. But the early church was already under suspicion for challenging Rome’s social norms -  they took care of widows instead of the forcing them to follow the typical custom of going into temple prostitution to support themselves. Since Rome tended to view any shaking of the social order as suspicious, the early church was already under scrutiny. A Roman guard would read his letter and see what he was recommending to his followers. If it looked like Paul was encouraging revolution, Paul and the letter’s recipients would probably be killed, and nothing would change.

Even if he could start the overthrow of Rome’s social order, the people would just substitute one form of injustice for another. We see it in history (the French Revolution); we even see it in the popular stories today (think of The Hunger Games, or Captain America). If you change the laws on an issue but don’t change the hearts of the people effected by the issue, the same problem will just keep coming up.

Paul it goes for something much bigger than merely Onesimus's freedom: His goal is to change Philemon’s heart. Paul cared about the life of the doulos in Rome (more on this in the next post), but he knew that to truly change a cultural of slavery and serventhood he had to get to the root of the problem: sin, which resides in the human heart, which can only be resolved through Christ. As important as an outward transformation is, the message of the Gospel neither starts nor ends with external control:

Mark 7:20-22: “Jesus went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' " 

Luke 6:45: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

Paul is challenging the hearts of society’s gatekeepers, the ones who stand to benefit from this inequality. He knows that changed hearts change cultures. Paul is challenging those who demand that those around them be useful, or they are worth nothing. Paul is challenging the way in which we can see people as things that exist to serve us and make us happy, not image bearers of God for whom Christ gave his life. 

A transformation inside - if it’s genuine – will inevitably result in a change outside. In this case, the best way to change a culture of inequality, dehumanization, and injustice is to change the hearts of those who perpetuate it. Paul wants to turn all the subservient and abused doulos into human beings of intrinsic value and worth. According to historical records, the early church responded to this teaching in a way that sent a clear message about the value of all people in all situations in life.

  “They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh…They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all….They are poor yet make many rich… they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified… They are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers….”  From“The Epistle to Diognetes”, (130 A.D.)

“[They] pray… for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of [Christ’s return]… On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God's Church, they [minister to them].But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another…”   From “The Apology of Tertullian” (197 A.D.)

Historian Rodney Stark summarizes this way in The Rise of Christianity: 

"Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. . . . For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable."

So what's the best way to change a culture?

Through a loving, faithful presence that  challenges injustice and exhorts people to let their hearts to be transformed with the truth and justice of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

___________________________________________________________________________

SOURCES and RESOURCES

The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary , N.T. Wright

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon,  Douglas Moo

"New Testament: Philemon," (enterthebible.org)

"Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline," (bible.org)

"The Epistle to Philemon," (www.ccel.org)

“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” by Eric McKiddie (pastoralized.com)

 “Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” by Andy Naselli, andynaselli.com.

“What Were Early Christians Like?” at Christianity.com

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

"Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians," by Mike Rogers (healingtothenations.net)

“Resisting Slaver in Ancient Rome,” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/slavery_01.shtml).

The Community of the Righteous: Refreshing Rest

The book of Romans was meant to establish peace between the believing Jews and Gentiles in two ways: By highlighting the mercy of God to both (salvation, justification, sanctification and righteousness), and by showing them their mutual obligations of service. Before Romans 12, Paul wrote about the importance of holy living. 

Next, Paul shifted his focus to getting along in religious matters not essential to salvation (such as eating habits and the observation of holy days).

“None of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone... don’t put a stumbling block or obstacle in anyone’s way… Make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (building up; growth don’t cause your brother or sister to fall.” (Romans 14:5-20)

This call to service was not a passive call. No, this was a call to actively create a community characterized by people committed to peace as well as helping each other grow, build and encourage each other. What has to happen for a community like this to grow?

1. We must embrace essential Christian beliefs (14:22) 

“How blessed is the person who has no reason to condemn himself because of what he approves!” Think of the core claims in the historic creeds in the church: Jesus is God incarnate; because of His life, death and resurrection our sins can be forgiven and we can be redeemed. Paul wrote that Jesus “is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14) and has broken down the walls between Jews and Gentiles, between those near and far from Christ. If that's true, it’s important that our beliefs about Jesus – and salvation, righteousness, and justification - are in agreement with Scripture. Otherwise, peace will always feel elusive.

2. We must keep non-essential beliefs between ourselves and God (14:22), but live them  in faith (14:23) 

 “If you have a conviction, keep it to yourself before God... whoever compromises their convictions is condemned… but everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Have you ever said or thought and of the following:

  • “You know, I really need to correct Bob’s view of end times. All true Christians are pre-trib (or post-trib.)”
  • “Sally should know that she is wrong about the days in Genesis. I think I’ll argue and hurt our friendship.”
  • “I think all secular entertainment is wrong (or all Christian entertainment should be whole-heartedly supported)!”
  • “Christians should never drink alcohol.”
  • “You should boycott (or support) company X or you are out of God’s will.”

 If you have ever said or thought something along those lines, Paul is talking to you. If God has convicted you on one or more of these matters, you must be faithful to this conviction. But others are not necessarily required to agree with you. Own them boldly – but not coercively. They are not essential doctrines of the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).

3. We must accomodate the failings of those who are “weak” - for their growth (15:1-2) 

“We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should all be concerned about our neighbors and the good things that will build their faith.” Let’s say you are spiritually strong. What follows from that? Sacrificial service. This is actually the attitude Christ had toward us (15:3-5). The more we live in sacrificial service, the more we embody the heart of Christ for the world. What will happen if we do this?

"So accept one another in the same way the Anointed has accepted you so that God will get the praise He is due. For, as I am fond of saying, the Anointed One has become a servant of the Jews in order to demonstrate God’s truth. Effectively this confirms the promises He made to our ancestors and causes the non-Jewish nations to glorify God for His mercy… I pray that God, the source of all hope, will infuse your lives with an abundance of joy and peace in the midst of your faith so that your hope will overflow through the power of the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:7-13, excerpted) 

And then, just before Paul wraps up Romans, we see why Paul longed to see this:

"My brothers and sisters, I urgently plead with you by the name of our Lord Jesus, the Anointed, and by the love of the Spirit to join together with me in your prayers to God for my success in these next endeavors. Pray that I will be rescued from those who deny and persecute the faith in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem will meet the approval of all the saints there. If that happens, then my journey to you will be filled with joy; and, if God wills, I can find refreshing rest in your presence. I pray the God of all peace will be with you all. Amen." (Romans 15:30-32)

 Romans 15:32 uses a word for “rest” that in the original writing is unique in the entire New Testament. It's synanapaúomai, a mix of sýn (“identify with”) and anapaúō, ("pause completely"). To rephrase it,

“If that happens, then my journey to you will be filled with joy; and, if God wills, I can pause completely with those who identify with my struggles. I pray the God of all peace will be with you all. Amen.”

We talk a lot about the role of the church in our culture as one of taking a stand and being a moral voice for God, of raising the bar in personal integrity and morality, and/or being evangelistic. In plenty of other places Paul challenges the church in these areas. But we see here two crucial roles that often get overlooked.

We need to struggle together so we understand each other. 

  • This means honesty about ourselves. If we have never been stunned by seeing our sinful self clearly, we will never understand the anguish others feel when God’s Spirit enlightens and convicts them.
  • This means accountability. If we have never experienced how humbling it is to confess our sins to human ears, we will never understand what it costs someone to confess to us.
  • This means acknowledging our pain, grief, shame and disillusionment. If we have never wept over the hardness of this world, how will we weep with those who weep? If we have never taken the measure of our own burdens, we will never ask others to help us, and we will never understand when someone else asks us to help them.
  • This means boldly living our faith. If we have never suffered fro the sake of our commitment to Christ, we won’t be able to identify with those who have. Maybe it’s Lent…tithing our time and money…being bold with friends about our faith…taking a stand in college or at work… 

We need to “pause completely” (rest together) so we can refresh each other at certain moments in our lives. 

  • Comforting instead of confronting.
  • Listening to a problem instead of fixing it.
  • Letting a conversation wander instead of making it pointed and purposeful.
  • Putting aside our differences about non-essentials and simply resting in the peace that comes from a unity about Jesus.
  • Entering into someone else’s world by asking about their stories, their hobbies, their family, their lives, their hopes and dreams – simply because they are people of worth, who bear God’s image, who are flawed and imperfect but loved by God anyway.

The Evidence of Righteousness: Service (Romans 12-15)

How do we know beyond doubt that we have truly entered into this grace-gift of “life in Christ?”  In the face of all kinds of opinions about what constitutes true Christianity, how do we know if we truly are “in Christ”… and how do we evaluate our own walk? If we listen to the patter on the street (internet posts, magazine articles, FaceBook debates, etc.) the test is sincerity. As long as you’re sincere…you’re good to go!  And it isn’t merely the test for Christianity. It seems to be the test for all spirituality.

 Now, I’ll admit that sincerity is a good and noble thing, but if the basis upon which our sincerity rests is wrong, profound sincerity does not make it right!  If I sincerely believe that a homemade bridge over a raging  river is safe for my vehicle to cross --- yet the engineering study says that the materials used in the bridge’s construction are only sufficient for foot traffic --- which premise will ultimately win, sincerity or facts?

 So, how do we know if we have truly entered into this grace-gift of “life in Christ?”  Paul and James, in particular, offer wisdom on this subject.  The text for today is actually all of chapters 12 through14, and part of chapter 15.  I’ll only be reading selected verses.  Here’s the starting point….

 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1,2)

 While it’s absolutely true that God declares us totally righteous when we surrender our lives to Him, that is only the first part of the salvation journey.  God also initiates an on-going process in our lives; a process that Anthony talked about two weeks ago in the message on sanctification. In this part of the journey we participate….and, as we’ll see today, it really isn’t optional. 

At salvation, God sends His Holy Spirit to live in us, and it is the Holy Spirit’s internal influence that begins the transformation process in us. But it’s just the beginning, and Paul continually reminds us to be filled with the Holy Spirit, moving along a continuum from “indwelt by the Spirit” to “being continually filled by the Spirit.”  

 The goal of this internal action of the Holy Spirit is to radically change our lives! God doesn’t leave us in the state He finds us. The love of God is pure, and the power of His Holy Spirit is pervasive, so much so that He draws us out of our place of woundedness and brokenness, and gradually brings us into a place of health and usefulness. And this process was never intended to be optional.

 This surrender to Christ must, in time, show itself in service for God, not to secure His salvation but to display His presence. Both Old and New Testaments (including the teachings of Jesus) underscore the principle that “obeying His commands and decrees” is the evidence of His Spirit within us, thereby proving that we have been saved and reconciled to God. Let’s look at a couple times where God laid out the basic definition of who a disciple is. 

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:24-26  (NIV)

Jesus begins by saying, “If anyone would come after Me,” he will:

  • deny himself—put aside selfish ambition; no longer live to please self
  • take up his cross—endure personal loss, whether through opposition or disappointment or pain
  • follow Me—continually be transformed into the likeness of Jesus’ life and teachings in all aspects of practical daily living. 

All disciples put Jesus ahead of the desires/demands of family and of self. All disciples choose to die to their own rights. All disciples hand over all that they have….every resource (whether time, relationships, preferences, money, possessions, or goals) to Jesus.

 Anyone who tries to add Jesus to the life they already have, while maintaining control of their life, is not a disciple and, therefore, not a Christian. Genuine Christians, realize they are “not their own, but bought at a high price,” and they order their lives accordingly. If we were to continue reading on through the next several chapters of Romans, we would find Paul giving specifics, as to what the evidence of service looks like (Rom 12:1 thru 15:13).  Let me summarize what Paul describes!

 1) Righteous believers commit themselves to God.  That is what the first two verses in chapter 12 talked about (“offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God).

2) Righteous believers serve one another. “So you see, it isn’t enough just to have faith. Faith that doesn’t show itself by good deeds is no faith at all—it is dead and useless.” (James 2:17)

3) Righteous believers obey authority.Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow.” (Romans 13:1-2)

4) Righteous believers love their neighbor. It’s easy to become completely immersed within a “Christian Bubble” and alienate ourselves from the rest of our city— judging, and shaming and avoiding the world around us. Our lives as Christians should not be characterized as us versus them. It does not help us to love well. Let’s not be shocked when people who are not following Christ act like people who are not following Christ. God loves everyone. It’s a message that is radical, controversial, and, some would even say, absurd. But according to the Bible, it’s true, and as followers of Christ we should boldly say the same thing.

 5) Righteous believers depend upon Christ. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

 Grace in Graceless Places, a book currently being used in our men’s Wednesday night study group, offers the following observation: “The essence of a true and sincere relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, is that we are transformed into the image of Christ and we begin to think as He thinks and do as He did.  When we do this, our defining life-narrative moves from ‘me and my wants’ to ‘Him and His Glory and mission.’   

This is the path to living a fulfilling life; one that is rich in spiritual blessing.

The Source of Righteousness—Sovereignty (Romans 9:1-11:36)

I suspect that all of us, at some point in our life, have asked or heard one of the following questions:

  • Why did God let a person I love die?
  • Why didn’t God save my job (or health)? 
  • Why did God cause the hurricane in the Philippines? 
  • Why didn’t God heal my marriage? 

All of them are some version of, “Why did this happen on God’s watch? What does this say about God’s character and nature?” As we are reading through Romans, we get to this statement in Romans 8:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30)*

Paul goes on in the following chapters to note that God is the potter and we are the clay; He can do what he wants with us. This part of Romans has raised quite a few question over the years. What does foreknow and predestine mean? How much does God control or manipulate the circumstances in our life – including our salvation? And what does this say about God’s character and nature?

________________________________________________________________________________

To answer this, we have to take a look at sovereignty. Sovereignty is simply “supreme power or authority.” A sovereign is a king. It’s not a word that resonates with us. After all, our nation fought to be rid of a king.  Thomas Jefferson wrote to Washington in 1788:

“ I was much an enemy to monarchies before I came to Europe. I am ten thousand times more so, since I have seen what they are. There is scarcely an evil known in these countries, which may not be traced to their king, as its source, nor a good, which is not derived from the small fibers of republicanism existing among them.”

This dislike of a ruling nobility and a longing for self-rule has probably built momentum since then.  We still see it in pop culture (think of the recent hit “Royals”), and we increasingly hear that “nobody can tell me what to do.” When I googled “sovereignty,” these were the top three news stories:

  • “Will U.S. Sovereignty Be Lost at Sea?”
  • “Ukraine Defends Its Sovereignty.”
  • “CIA Drone Violates Pakistan’s Sovereignty.”

They all have to do with self-rule.  Our history, culture and even our definition of words clash with the claim of the Bible: God is the sovereign, the King, the one who created and now rules over everything, including us. He sees all things that can be seen, knows all things that can be known, can do all things that can be done. Nothing in creation escapes is out from under his “supreme power and authority.”

The question is, “What does that mean?”

Every Christian perspective on God’s sovereignty agrees that God is the Primary Cause of all that exists because He created it. 

We understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." (Hebrews 11:3) 

Things happen because God, the Creator and Ruler, makes them happen as an ongoing active cause, or because things and people respond to the rules and order God put in place in the beginning.So here’s the question: if God is sovereign – He is the ultimate creative power; he made it, He owns it, He rules over it – what role do we play? There are at least three different ways of understanding how God’s sovereignty effects our lives.(These categories provide very broad overviews; I recommend you follow up with the resources at the end of this post). **

1. God’s sovereignty compels (or coerces) us

The most extreme form would say that everything happens because God makes it happen. Every time something happens, God made it happen. It couldn’t be otherwise.

‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’ (Isaiah 46:10)

"Surely as I have thought, so it will come to pass; and as I have purposed, so it will stand." (Isaiah 14:24)

 "For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who shall disannul it? His hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?" (Isaiah 14:27)

And the end of the day, sovereignty means that anything God wills, will happen – and He wills everything that happens.

2. God’s sovereignty allows us

God has settled in his mind that there are certain things he’s going to do. However, God in his sovereignty allows for human freedom and natural law to impact the world. In this perspective, a sovereign God has limited Himself in order to accomplish good things: a cause and effect world, and people whose lives have moral significance.  God is permissive, not coercive.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not willing anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”  (2 Peter 3:9-10)

“[Jesus] almost always waits for some input or participation from those He came to serve. He waits for those who need to be cured to ask for His help, or for their friends and relations to do so… Often the healing process is initiated when someone in need of a cure touches Him. He does not tell the hungry crowds to just “feel full”; He waits until the disciples bring him loaves and fishes, which He then distributes. His mother has to pester Him and the water has to be brought to Him before He changes it into wine. And his disciples have to wake Him up before He quells the raging wind and quiets the seas.”  (Katherin A. Rogers)

At the end of the day, sovereignty means that God has willed to permit us some freedom to accept or reject His will.

3. God's sovereignty directs and redeems us (providence). 

  • History. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 1:20 ).
  • Nations. I know the plans I have for you…” (to the Israelites in captivity, Jeremiah 29:11-13)
  • People. “You intended to harm me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

At the end of the day, sovereignty means that God has willed to providentially direct and redeem whatever happens.

__________________________________________________________________________

Christians have spent a lot of time over the centuries wrestling with which one of these best captures the idea of God’s sovereignty.  Ultimately, I think they all boil down to this question: What is this sovereign like? Can God be trusted? The Bible uses many adjectives to describe God’s nature, but I think they all hinge on one thing: Is God good?

“Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is deeply, thoroughly good; His beautiful, loving kindness is everlasting.” (Psalm 106:1)

 That phrase is repeated constantly in the Old Testament: goodness, connected with beautiful, loving kindness. That’s the million dollar question. Do I believe God is good? Do I trust the character and nature of God? If I don’t, no explanation will be good enough. I will always second-guess why God allows the world He does. But if I do, any explanation may be helpful, but it will be unnecessary. 

  • Why did God take my Dad?
  • Why doesn’t God save your job (or health)? 
  • Why did God cause the tsunami in the Philippines? 
  • Why didn’t God heal your marriage? 

We might be able to find some reasons, but ultimately, in the deep way that keeps us awake at night, we don’t know.*** But is God good? That’s the question. Do I trust Him???

“[Jesus is] not under my control. He lets things happen that I don't understand.  He doesn't do things according to my plan, or in a way that makes sense to me.  But if Jesus is God, then he's got to be great enough to have some reasons to let you go through things you don't understand.  His power is unbounded, but so are his wisdom and love…If you have a God great enough and powerful enough to stop your suffering, you also have a God who's great enough and powerful enough to have reasons you don't understand."  (Tim Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus)

_______________________________________________________________________________

ENDNOTES

*“Did foreknow” is used five times in the New Testament. In all cases it means God knows all things ahead of time (Acts 26:5; 1 Peter 1:20; 2 Peter 3:17; Romans 11:2) not that he orders all things ahead of time. In Chapter 10 Paul prays that Israel will be saved even though they are the foreknown and predestined.  He then tells the Gentiles there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – “the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses those who call on him.” In Chapter 11, Paul says that God did not reject Israel “whom he foreknew,” then says “what they sought they did not obtain.” In other words, the section in its entirety seems to use “predestine” as a way to convey foreknowledge of what will be freely chosen (or rejected).

Romans 11 wraps up this discussion in verse 32: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, notes, “Certainly it is not "all mankind individually, for the apostle is not here dealing with individuals, but with those great divisions of mankind, Jew and Gentile. And what he here says is that God's purpose was to shut each of these divisions of men to the experience first of an humbled, condemned state, without Christ, and then to the experience of His mercy in Christ.”

**For a more detailed discussion of three ways in which Christians have tried to understand God’s sovereignty and man’s free will/responsibility, check out these articles at Theopedia: “Calvinism” (http://www.theopedia.com/Calvinism); Arminianism (http://www.theopedia.com/Arminianism); and Molinism (http://www.theopedia.com/Molinism)/

***Christian philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga has this to say about the “why” question as it relates to free will: “A world containing creatures who are significantly free… is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can't cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren't significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can't give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil.”

Sanctification: A Parable (Romans 6-8)

 CHAPTER ONE: The Ruins*

You live in a broken, run-down house. You’ve been here as long as you can remember. You know nothing else. For a while you were able to at least keep it looking nice on the outside, but it’s always been falling apart.

The landlord seemed like a great guy at first. (2 Corinthians 11:24)  He allowed you to skip rent. He let you host all the parties you wanted – he even helped fund more than one. Sure, your friends trashed the place, but you trashed theirs, so it all seemed fair in a messed up kind of way.

But you slowly realize that the landlord is a hard owner. You thought he was your friend. He isn’t. The landlord keeps promising that you will have a better house and a better life if you will just do one more thing: fix the roof, mend some pipes, hang new drywall, repaint, rebuild the foundation that keeps sinking further into the sandy soil. But all those things cost money that you don’t have, so you borrow money from the landlord. Nothing ever pans out. You end up spackling over holes in the wall and wrapping duct tape around leaking pipes, but you know your house is going down. (Jeremiah 19:13)

It doesn’t help that you are really sick. You feel as run down as your house looks. Maybe it’s the asbestos in the walls, or the lead in the paint, or the leaky pipes in the stove. There’s something toxic about this house. It’s killing you. But as far as you know, this is all you have. This is the only place to live. You hate the person you have become in the house you’ve allowed to fall apart.

Your house is in ruin. Your life is in shambles. And to make things worse, you realize one day that somebody is following you. Literally. He’s one step behind you everywhere you go. When you are finally able to catch a glimpse in a mirror, you realize… it’s you.

Not just like you, but a zombie version. You look like one of the Walking Dead. By the end of the day, he’s got a hand on your shoulder. The next morning, he drapes his arms around you and makes you carry him everywhere you go. He stinks. He’s dead weight. (Romans 7:24)

You call your landlord hoping he can do something, but he already knew. “Yeah, they always show up in my houses.”

“Who is it?”

“It’s you. It’s just the real you. The dead you.”

“Why did it show up just now?”

“Oh, it’s always been there. You’ve been dead for years. You just couldn’t see it. ”

There’s nothing you can do. The landlord doesn’t care. Most of your friends hang out somewhere else, and the ones that show up don’t know what you are talking about. They don’t see the dead you. They try to help do things like paint the siding that is falling off the side of the house. (Jeremiah 8:11)  It’s tough for them to paint. They carry the dead with them too, and they don’t even know it.

 ________________________________________________________________________________ 

CHAPTER TWO: Bring Out Your Dead!**

The next day a man, a stranger, walks onto the porch. “Bring out your dead!” he calls cheerily. (John 11:25)

You don’t watch Monty Python, so you don’t get the joke. “What makes you think there are dead here?”

“I can smell it on your breath; I hear it in your words (Romans 3:13); I see it in your eyes. Oh – and it clings to you like a monstrous burden. This house has killed you. Your landlord cracked the gas lines and installed the asbestos. Your landlord made sure there are no detectors for smoke or gas. Your landlord likes his tenants dead. But you were meant to be alive. (John 5:21) And I can get rid of that body of death and make this house livable.”

“How can I trust you?”

“Why do you think you even know that you are dead? You thought you were tired and sick. I showed you what was real. I opened your eyes. You needed to know. (2 Timothy 2:26) You can trust me because I bring you truth that will set you free.”

 “Why me?”

“Why not you? I care about you. I seek and save people and situations that seem hopeless (Luke 19:10). Plus, I would like to move into this house (1 Corinthians 6:19), and where I am, there is no room for death and ruin,” the Man said with a twinkle in his eye (1 Corinthians 15:55).

“Where would I go?”

“Why would you want to go?”

You sit quietly for a long time. Your father always said you got what you deserved and never helped with your house or your health. Your landlord pretended to be your friend while guiding you down a road to death. Your friends had taken their dead selves to their dead parties on dead city streets.

You look around at the shambles all around you. You remember the landlord’s harsh, condemning voice (Revelation 12:10). You feel the dead weight of your sins, failures and inadequacies on your back (Isaiah 43:24). You’ve never known anyone who seemed to care about you and your life. He offers a new start. He offers a new identity. He offers to make all things new (Revelations 21:5).

Finally you whisper, “I have no future. I have no hope. Everyone offers me death. There is nowhere else to go. You are the only one who has ever offered me life (John 6:68). So…yes. Let’s do this. I and my house are yours.”

The Man stands up and lifts my dead self off my back and onto his. “Well done. You have asked for resurrection, and I will give it. I’ll pay what you owe and get the deed to the house. I’ll be back in three days, because resurrection is neither cheap nor easy. But when I return, I will show you what life is supposed to look like.” (Hebrews 2:14-18)

You watch him until he is out of sight. You wonder what he is going to do with all the dead he takes upon himself as he walks through the town. Then you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

When you awake at dawn three days later, you know everything has changed.

 _____________________________________________________________________________

CHAPTER THREE: ReBuilding***

You have a hard time believing the changes. No more debt. No more creditors knocking at your door. Now the rain stays outdoors and the plumbing stays in the pipes. Your front door actually latches now. It’s…amazing. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

But the Man – you’ve started calling him the ReBuilder - has a bigger plan than you realized. He wasn’t going to just uncondemn the house and sweep up the garbage. He is planning to turn your shack into a mansion. When he first told you, you said, “Awesome! Go right ahead!” But the ReBuilder smiled and said, “Not without you. It’s our house. We work together. You need to give yourself to this project” (Romans 12:1)

You’ve got nothing to offer once again, but the man is ready for that too. He gives you a blueprint and all the tools you need. He gives you a fund to draw from for building materials, expert advice and help, etc. Since he’s the architect, designer, builder and inspector, He will be available every day – leading, guiding, protecting, correcting.

But you have to set your alarm, get out of bed, put on the tools, pick up the lumber, swing a hammer, get splinters, and break and rebuild a few things. You are going to invest some sweat equity into this house (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Some days are better than others. You notice other houses in the neighborhood that are also being transformed by this… ReBuilder… and it’s easy to be jealous of other houses that look nicer– or proud of the ones the look less advanced. The ReBuilder just shakes his head. “Build your own house with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). I’ll worry about the others.”

You get hurt; you get tired; you put walls at the wrong place and shoot yourself with the nail gun. You question the ReBuilder’s blueprint. You argue when He shows you something that is not up to code.

You sometimes think it was easier just to have the old house. You occasionally find your old landlord crouching outside your door (Genesis 4:7), wondering if he can hang out for a while. “Take a break,” he says. “Don’t take life so seriously.” Some days you actually invite him in and you hang out. It sometimes fun for a while, but it never ends well. You feel worn down again, almost as if your dead self was back, hand on your shoulder, whispering emptiness and loneliness into your ear. Your landlord always ends up roaring through your house, demolishing everything. (1 Peter 5:8)

But the Rebuilder helps you resist, and the old landlord has to leave. (James 4:7) More than once he has picked your sneaky Dead Self up by the collar and thrown him out on the street. You apologize to the ReBuilder when this happens. He hugs you. He doesn't yell (1 John 1:9). His forgiveness is a gift too (Ephesians 1:7).

But you have to spend days –even weeks - cleaning up the mess. You pick up all the stuff you can, and the Rebuilder gets the places you can’t reach and corrects the damage beyond your ability. He helps you make a plan to resist and avoid this situation the next time (Ephesians 4:27; 2 Corinthians 2:11).

There are some days you wonder why the ReBuilder even puts up with you. But he never leaves you on your own. He remains true to his word. He holds you to the code but patiently helps you when you miss the mark. He teaches you how not to shoot anyone with the nail gun. You know you are in this together, that he is for you, that he will restore you and help you even when you are at your weakest (Psalm 51:10-12).

So every day you arise and build, and you find increasing satisfaction in the affirmation of the ReBuilder and the pleasure of a job well done (Nehemiah 2:17-18; Matthew 25:23).

________________________________________________________________________________ 

CHAPTER FOUR: ReBuilt and Alive**** 

It’s not all work. He fishes with you on still waters. You both shoot hoops at the YMCA and join friends at Buffalo Wild Wings for March Madness. Being around him restores your soul (Psalm 23) even while your callouses thicken. You realize that you are absorbing his ideas, his language, his priorities, his way of living life abundantly (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Others join you. Some bring their dead; some have been set free. Some still live in shacks; others are working with the ReBuilder on mansions. The Rebuilder welcomes them all. He didn’t come to condemn the dead to their bare cold shacks. He came to save them and rebuild their lives (John 3:17). You invite even more to hang out with you. (1 John 3:10)

And slowly but surely, your house is becoming a mansion (Philippians 1:6). You find that you easily congratulate others whose houses are flourishing, and you compassionately help neighbors who are struggling. The blueprint makes more sense than it used to. You look forward to your alarm clock. The old landlord still comes around, but more than ever you see through his lies (John 8:44). He rarely makes it past the bottom step of the porch. Your Dead self stays on the sidewalk.

You notice a neighbor starting to work on his house. He looks miserable. You take him some water one hot, miserable day (Mark 9:41) and find out he found a blueprint. “Oh,” you say, “Did you meet the ReBuilder?”

“No,” says your neighbor. “Why would he want to help with my house? It’s horrible. I am going to fix it up enough so the ReBuilder will notice. I think I can make mine nicer than yours. Once I make it good enough, I’ll be ready for the ReBuilder.”

You say, “This isn’t Field of Dreams. This isn’t, ‘If you build it, he will come.’ It doesn't work that way. Put your tools away. Stop trying to do it yourself (Isaiah 64:6). Unless the Rebuilder builds it, your labor is useless (Psalm 127:1). It’s making you angry and annoying your neighbors, and the next big storm is going to put you back at square one.” (Matthew 7:24-27) He returns to his works. His Dead Self turns and smirks at you as you walk away.

You find that, the longer you work with the ReBuilder, more than a few note that you are starting to look more and more like Him (Ephesians 5:1). You are humbled and encouraged; your friends used to comment on the eerie similarity between you and your former landlord (John 8:44; 1 John 3;10). This is much better.

“But,” they say, “what’s with the ongoing work? You told us this was a gift.”

“Working side by side with the ReBuilder is also a gift,” you say (1 Corinthians 1:9). “I don't deserve to be his apprentice. Who am I to swing a hammer on this house? Who am I to cut expensive trim, and build a strong chimney? I brought nothing to this project, but he gives me everything I need to build great things (Colossians 3:1-12).

“ He has given me far above what I could ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). I just wanted to know Him and understand what kind of person gives grace to the failures and life to the dead (Philippians 3:10).  I just wanted to be near him and be like him. And then all these things,” (here he waved his hand to show his house, his tools, the work of his hands, the campfire where he sat with his friends) were added unto me (Matthew 6:33). This, my friends, is what happens when obedience responds to grace. This is life” (John 10:10; Romans 8:12-14).

_______________________________________________________________________________

ENDNOTES

*CHAPTER ONE 

Among other horrible things that happened during Bible times, captive soldiers were sometimes forced to carry a dead body until the rot of the corpse killed them. The Roman poet Virgil wrote: “What tongue can such barbarities record,
 Or count the slaughters of his ruthless sword? 
Twas not enough the good, the guiltless bled.  Still worse, he bound the living to the dead:
 These, limb to limb, and face to face, he joined; 
O! monstrous crime, of unexampled kind!
 Till choked with stench, the lingering wretches lay, 
And, in the loathed embraces, died away!”  Commentators note that,  when Paul was looking for an analogy about how much he hated the part of him prone to sin, he most likely built from this image when he wrote:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24)

__________________________________________________________________________________

**CHAPTER TWO

Christ sets us free from that dead weight that’s been killing us. Why? Because He can, and he loves us.  We just need to ask. Then we are set free from that body of death. Here’s how Paul explains it in Chapter 6 (beginning in verse 2).

"We died to our old sinful lives, so how can we continue living with sin? Did you forget that all of us became part of Christ when we were baptized? We shared his death in our baptism. When we were baptized, we were buried with Christ and shared his death. So, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the wonderful power of the Father, we also can live a new life… We know that our old life died with Christ on the cross so that our sinful selves would have no power over us and we would not be slaves to sin… "

________________________________________________________________________________

***CHAPTER THREE

Sanctification is Spirit-driven obedience as an act of worship.

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (Romans 12:1)

But a living sacrifice wants to get off the altar sometimes. That old body of death is hanging around.

“On the one hand, I serve the law of God in my mind; but on the other hand, the carnal side of me follows the law of sin.” (Romans 7:25)

This is an image for the process of sanctification. Initially, we are set apart (sanctified) when we are justified by Christ. It changes our identity. We are no longer spiritually dead, enslaved to sin. Now we are alive and renewed. In an ongoing manner, the justified person who submits to God's will is becoming conformed to the image of Christ. Colossians 3:1-12 gives a great description of how the process takes place:

Since you were raised from the dead with Christ, aim at what is in heaven, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Think about the things in heaven, not the things on earth. Your old sinful self has died, and your new life is kept with Christ in God.  Christ is your life, and when he comes again, you will share in his glory. 

So put all evil things out of your life: sexual sinning, doing evil, letting evil thoughts control you, wanting things that are evil, and greed. This is really serving a false god. These things make God angry. In your past, evil life you also did these things. But now also put these things out of your life: anger, bad temper, doing or saying things to hurt others, and using evil words when you talk. Do not lie to each other. You have left your old sinful life and the things you did before. You have begun to live the new life, in which you are being made new and are becoming like the One who made you.

This new life brings you the true knowledge of God.  In the new life there is no difference between Greeks and Jews, those who are circumcised and those who are not circumcised, or people who are foreigners, or Scythians. There is no difference between slaves and free people. But Christ is in all believers, and Christ is all that is important.

God has chosen you and made you his holy people. He loves you. So you should always clothe yourselves with mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”

See this tension? Though we are freely justified, we still have some work to do. Fitting the mold of goodness doesn’t come naturally. God will continue to do a work in us through the Holy Spirit, but there are some things we do as well. We see this tension other places in the Bible as well.

  • God works in us for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
  • God helps us bear good fruit (John 15:4).
  • God equips Christians to do his will (Hebrews13:21).

At the same time the Bible also states:

  • We must work out their salvation (Philippians 2:12).
  • We work to supplement our faith with virtue and good works (2Peter 1:5-7).
  • We commit to abounding in the work of the Lord (1Corinthians 15:58).

Justification is a declaration, but sanctification is a process.

__________________________________________________________________________________

****CHAPTER FOUR

"We died to our old sinful lives, so how can we continue living with sin? Did you forget that all of us became part of Christ when we were baptized? We shared his death in our baptism. When we were baptized, we were buried with Christ and shared his death. So, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the wonderful power of the Father, we also can live a new life… We know that our old life died with Christ on the cross so that our sinful selves would have no power over us and we would not be slaves to sin... “ (Romans 6:2 and following)

Baptize meant to "put into" or "immerse" so that the thing baptized takes on the properties of the thing into which it was baptized. Garments were "baptized" in dye so that the garments took on the color of the dye. Cucumbers were “baptized” so that they became pickles. Christians absorb the righteousness that comes from Jesus’ death and resurrection. But part of devotion is making a choice about to whom you will offer yourself.

Surely you know that when you give yourselves like slaves to obey someone, then you are really slaves of that person. The person you obey is your master. You can follow sin, which brings spiritual death, or you can obey God, which makes you right with him. In the past you were slaves to sin—sin controlled you. But thank God, you fully imitated the pattern of our teaching. You were made free from sin, and now you are slaves to goodness.” (Romans 6:16-18)

This pattern of our teaching” refers to melted metal cast into a mold and conforming to the impression that is sunk or cut in the mold. They used to pour themselves into sin, and they conformed to its pattern. Now they are choosing to pour themselves into the truth about Christ, and they conformed to it. They looked like goodness.

"If we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him…You should see yourselves as being dead to the power of sin and alive with God through Christ Jesus. So, do not let sin control your life here on earth so that you do what your sinful self wants to do. Do not offer the parts of your body to serve sin, as things to be used in doing evil. Instead, offer yourselves to God as people who have died and now live. Offer the parts of your body to God to be used in doing good. Sin will not be your master, because you are not under law but under God’s grace."  (Romans 6:1-8; 11-14)

 “To live” in something was to be wholly given to it. An ancient writer, Aelian, wrote: “The Tapyrians are such lovers of wine, that they live in wine; and the principal part of their life is devoted to it.”  Not only do we soak up righteousness (which is a passive word of transformation)  We can be wholeheartedly devoted (an active verb).

_____________________________________________________________________________

CONCLUSION

Building on a previous definition, Sanctification is Spirit-empowered obedience as an act of worship in response to grace. When we see our righteous works as responsive worship to a God who so deeply loves us, our obedience, our righteous acts, become a profoundly personal expression of trust in God. Conformity to the image of Christ follows commitment and obedience. We aren’t obedient in order to be justified; we are obedient so we can increasingly enjoy the life we have been given in and through Christ. Sanctification reminds us:

  • We need renewal and transformation all the time. Be humble.
  • What we choose to do matters. Be purposeful.
  • God does not coerce; God invites. Invite others.
  • God’s Spirit and ongoing grace are vital. Be dependent on Him.
  • A sanctifying God loves unsanctified people. Extend this grace to others.

Justified (Romans 2-5)

Have you ever tried to justify yourself?

  • “The sun was in my eyes.”
  • "My alarm didn't go off!"
  • “I had questions about my homework assignment but it was late and I didn’t want to bug you or my classmates…”

 Justification is what happens when we give a reason for something we did. In a deeper sense, we justify because we want to remind ourselves and others that we are good. Justification is our way of proving that what we do is okay – so we must be okay too. In a more formal sense, justification is a legal term. Something that is justifiable is shown to be “just, right, or reasonable.” (Merriam-Webster). It’s that which absolves us of guilt. If the scales of justice were truly balance, our reasons/excuses would counterbalance the bad things we’ve done.

Justified.

____________________________________________________________________________________

When Paul wrote in Romans 1 that Gods’ wrath is being revealed against godlessness (our broken relationship with God) and wickedness (our broken relationships with others), he gave quite a list of things:

  • sexual activity outside of God’s design
  • injustice
  • criminal activity
  • lusting for more
  • mean, aggressive attitudes
  • gladness when others suffer
  • intentional homicide
  • the love of quarrelling
  • Deceit
  • Exploitation
  • Craftiness
  • Destruction of reputations and character
  • Fighting God’s will
  • Enjoying doing wrong and hurting others
  • Ego and Arrogance
  • Creatively devious
  • Rebellion against authority
  • Unwilling to think and act rationally
  • Untrustworthiness
  • Heartlessness/mercilessness
  • Enablement of all the above

In all these cases, the people were worshipping “the creature more than the creator.” It’s idolatry. An idol is something other than God that you think justifies your life choices – or even your life. By the end of Romans 1, Paul’s Jewish readers were probably nodding their heads and thinking, “Oh, yeah. Let the judgment roll! Godless, idolatrous heathens…” Then Paul starts Chapter Two this way (and I paraphrase Romans 2: 1-8):

“All of you Jewish people who are reading this and judging? You do the same things as part of the habit and routine of your life. Why do you think you should avoid being judged? It appears that you think God’s kindness, mercy and patience are insignificant and contemptible. If you thought they mattered – if  you understood the depth of your depravity and the cost of Christ’s love – you would have repented from your sins. You would be changed. Instead, you’re stubborn, unrepentant, people who choose idols. You are going to face the same wrath of God as the people you so smugly judge.”

What were these idols, these justifications? We see the list beginning in Romans 2:17:

  • “But I’m a Jew”
  • “But I trust/rely on the Law”
  • “But I am close to God”
  • “But I have lived in God’s will and I approve of it fully”
  • “ But I knew every detail of the law”
  • “But I am a guide to the morally blind”
  • “But I am a source of radiance to sinners in darkness”
  • “But I am a wise instructor of the foolish”

This is not a bad list in and of itself.  But it had turned into idolatry of a different kind. These were things the Jewish readers thought were “just, right, and reasonable” and would make them okay:

  • “You call yourself a Jew” – the Idol of Nationality
  • “You trust/rely on the law” – the Idol of Moralism (Moses)
  • “You brag about being close to God” – the Idol of Identity (Abraham and the covenant)
  • “You know his will and approve of it” – the Idol of Self-Righteousness
  • “You know ever detail of the law” – the Idol of Knowledge
  • “You are a guide to the morally blind; a source of radiance to sinners in darkness; a wise instructor of the foolish” – the Idol of My Amazing Self

All the things that they thought made them “just, right and reasonable” - their opinions of themselves, their reputation, their place in their community and in the eyes of God – had all become idols that were showing them to be unjust, wrong, unreasonable, and frankly unlikable. No wonder Paul says: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24). The fact that God’s name was blasphemed would hardly have surprised them. But the fact that God’s name was blasphemed because of them? That’s…intimidating. Depressing. Deflating. That will knock your spiritual legs out from under you.

Paul did not sign off his letter at that point. He’s working his way toward a gospel message of hope and restoration. But they wouldn’t understand the beauty of God’s justification until they saw the worthlessness of their own attempts at justification.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

We can be like the Roman Christians. We can hear about the Romans 1 sins and be in complete agreement: “That is so wrong.”  We want the picket lines and sermons and blogs and news stories and campaigns and conferences about abortion, and sexual sin, the breakdown of the family, unjust taxation and the murder rate in Detroit and exploitation. Of course God’s wrath is for that. Thank God I’m not in their position. But you are. We all are.

  • We have harmed children (with our words and attitude)
  • We have given in to sexual sin
  • We have contributed to the brokenness of our own family
  • We have used other people
  • We have been dishonest with our money
  • We have gossiped
  • We have chosen to be blind and irrational about our choices
  • We have been untrustworthy
  • We have secretly taken pleasure in the embarrassment or failure of others.

Paul says God could use our own deeds will judge us (Romans 2). All God would have to do at Judgment Day is play back a record of the moral standard to which we held others and judge us by it. 

  • All the times we said, “That’s wrong. That’s gross. That’s out of God’s will or design. That’s against nature. That’s ignorant. That’s mean. That’s self-centered and cruel. That’s using people.”
  • All times I said to my wife, “Be more patient with the kids.”
  • All the times I told my kids, “You are not using your time wisely!”
  • All the times I have thought, “He needs more self-control.”
  • All the times I thought, “Wow, she was really inconsiderate.”

God could just take my quotes and match it to my life. Guilty. Sometimes, God name is blasphemed because of us. Our justifications won’t matter.But look at my theology and doctrine. My great emotional experiences! My spiritual disciplines! My good moral decisions! My godly kids!  My reputation! Those make me okay! I am surely justified.” If you think that, you are an idolater. You are worshipping what you have done and what you have to offer; you are trying to justify yourself and make yourself righteous and acceptable to God and others by your own merit. But Paul says (Romans 3:10 and following):

  • “No one is righteous” – legal condemnation of guilt
  • “No one understands” –blind to truth
  • “No one seeks God” – bad motives
  • “All have turned away” – broken wills
  • “Our throats are open graves” – words betray inner decay
  • “We are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery mark our way, and we don’t know peace.”  - we leave a trail of destruction
  • “We have no fear of God.” – if we did, we would take life more seriously

We have to understand how unjustifiable we are before we can understand the beauty of what Christ offers to us. We must fully acknowledge that we are the worst sinner we know (that’s how Paul saw himself in 1 Timothy 1:15). Charles Simeon, a preacher from the 18th and 19th century, wrote, “There are but two objects that I have ever desired…to behold; the one is my own vileness; and the other is the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And I have always thought that they should be viewed together.”

This bring us to the good news of genuine justification.

But God has a way to make people right with him without the law, and he has now shown us that way which the law and the prophets told us about. God makes people righteous through their faith in Jesus Christ. This is true for all who believe in Christ, because all people are the same: Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard, and all need to be justified by his grace, which is a free gift.

 They need to be made free from sin through Jesus Christ. God sent him to die in our place to take away our sins. We receive forgiveness through faith in the blood of Jesus’ death. This showed that God always does what is right and fair, as in the past when he was patient and did not punish people for their sins.  And God gave Jesus to show today that he does what is right. God did this so he could judge rightly and so he could make right any person who has faith in Jesus." (Romans 3:21-26)

This is the “gospel, or “good news.”  It literally means “good herald.” It’s from the word angeloi, which referred to a man whom the emperor would send from a battlefield to declare victory.The gospel is not advice to show us what we are supposed to do to be righteous and justified; it's the good news of what Christ has done so we can be righteous and justified.

On our own, we are dead in our sins; we owe a debt that we cannot pay; we can never do enough to justify our life.  But Christ paid the debt. This good news is for us, but it’s not about us. It’s about Christ. Because of the sacrifice of a Christ who loves us, all our sins, flaws, failures, inabilities, and weaknesses are not only balanced, they are swept off the scales.

In Romans 4:7-8, Paul quotes David from Psalm 32. “Blessed are those whose wrongs have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the person whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” Paul and David did not say, “Blessed are those who do not sin, and who through obedience avoid sin.” They said people were blessed when their sins were covered, and God did not charge to their account what they deserved.

Christ has made it possible for every terrible thing we do in life to be made right. He will balance the legal scale of justice. Because of Christ, we are made right (“righteousness”) and good. That is our only justification.

Since we have been justified through faith in Christ, we are able to experience true and lasting peace with God through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, the Liberating King.  Jesus leads us into a place of radical grace where we are able to celebrate the hope of experiencing God’s glory.

 But think about this: while we were wasting our lives in sin, God revealed His powerful love to us in a tangible display—the Anointed One died for us.  As a result, the blood of Jesus has made us right with God now, and certainly we will be rescued by Him from God’s wrath in the future. If we were in the heat of combat with God when His Son reconciled us by laying down His life, then how much more will we be saved by Jesus’ resurrection life? In fact, we stand now reconciled and at peace with God. That’s why we celebrate in God through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed.” (Romans 5:1-2; 8-11 - The Voice)