slavery

Free - From Slavery To The Shadows

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 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.

“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 Christ.” (7-9)

Paul goes on to say that God, through Christ, has beaten all the principalities and powers – that is, every spiritual or supernatural force - and publicly displayed their ineffectiveness and Christ’s effectiveness. Then he adds:

“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. There are those who want them to rob them of the freedom Christ has offered. There are those who want them to go back to the world’s “elementary principles” that will keep them in a spiritual cave. And 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.[i] 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)

Shadows aren’t bad things in and of themselves, because they point toward the real thing. In a drought, you want to see the shadow of clouds across the land. On a hot day, you want to see the shadow of a tree. But those don’t exist without the cloud or the tree; we would be foolish to exalt the shadow and ignore that which cast it.

The same it true of spiritual realities. The Old Testament was full of shadows: the Law; various people whose lives we now see as in some ways prophetically revealing of God; the promise of physical blessing to Israel that pointed toward spiritual blessing in Christ.

One could argue that even the pagan cultures had shadows. Tolkien and Lewis were fond of pointing out how fictional myths of the gods captured our greatest fears, longings and desires. They were stories we made up about what we feared or longed to be true. In Jesus, all the deepest human longings and hopes were fulfilled truly and ultimately in history in a real world in a real way.

So shadows aren’t bad things. They point us toward the Shadow Caster. But a "shadow" is an 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 can rob us of our prize: that is, rob us of 1) fullness of the new life and freedom he has given us in this life, and 2) our heavenly reward. I’m going to address two shadows in this passage that Tim Keller calls moralism and mysticism.

“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 only listen to Christian music and read Christian books… I don’t shop at certain stores.”

None of those things are bad in themselves. If God convicts you that in your life this is important, honor Him with your obedience. But if they become the standard by which you think you or others 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 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 as well as how you are succeeding. If you do well, you will tend to become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t do what you do. When you fail, you will tend toward despair because you believe God and everyone else thinks you are a terrible person. 

“Festivals, feasts, moons and days”

There was an understanding that honoring the festivals and feasts pleased God and brought reward, and dishonoring them displeased God and brought punishment. Their conclusion? Faithful observance made them good, holy people. Once again, the problem was not in the holiday or festival or in obedience; it was that they were just shadow pointing to the reality of Christ, and the people had made them the most important thing.

What do we do? We have Sundays, Christmas, Easter, the National Day of Prayer, The March for Life, 40 Days of Purpose, Prayer Circles, 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, 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? Don’t they care like I do?) When you fail, you will despair because you believe you have let God down, and now you are in trouble, and probably everybody else around you thinks of you as a failure – so you try even harder the next time to do even more.

Here, I think, is a good question to ask in relation to the quest to do the right things: Is doing good things about honoring God or elevating the person?

  • Is my self-control about my work or the fruit of the Holy Spirit in me?
  • Am I doing this to be good or as an act of worship to honor the God I serve?
  • Do I need to be noticed?
  • Am I more interested in behavior modification or heart transformation? (Do I want to ‘surrender my desires’ or merely ‘tether my body’?)
  • When I tell my testimony about a changed life, does Jesus increase while I decrease? Do people go away talking about me or Jesus?
  • When I look at others, do I try to see what God is doing in them or settle for what they are doing for God?

“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.

And to make it worse, they expressed false humility. Elliot’s Commentary explains it well:

“Humility is a grace, and is unconsciousness, and cannot live except by resting on some more positive quality, such as faith or love. Whenever it is consciously cultivated and “delighted in,” it loses all its grace; it becomes either “the pride that apes humility,” or it turns to abject slavishness and meanness. Of such depravations Church history is unhappily full.”

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, or even simply having overwhelming ecstatic experiences.[1]

If you have a genuine supernatural encounter with God, that’s an important part of God’s work in your life. But if those moments become the standard by which you gauge if you are doing things right or getting to know God, or if your experience becomes the measure by which everyone else’s walk with God is judged, you are giving in to mysticism, and you are in danger of worshipping the shadow rather than the One who casts it.

The pursuit of or fascination with angels and visions will take you captive when nothing else matters as much as your experiences. If something glorious happens, you will tend become proud and sit in judgment of those who don’t have the connection with God that you do. Sometimes people even feel pressured to lie about what they’ve experienced. 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.

Here, I think, is a good question to ask in relation to genuine supernatural encounters with God: When I think or talk about it, who increases: me or Jesus? Does what happened cause people to think about me or Jesus? Does my story of emotional rapture cause people to think about me or Jesus? Does my testimony of healing cause people to think about me or Jesus? Does my miraculous conversion story cause people to think about me or Jesus?

  • I wonder if this was why Paul wouldn’t talk about being caught up into heaven, and why in his epistles he never talked about raising a young man from the dead (maybe because his sermon killed him, I don’t know J (Acts 20:9-12)
  • Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Zeus and Hermes. I think I would probably love to tell that story if someone thought I was a god. Paul never talks about it.
  • Peter heals the lame (Acts 3) and paralyzed Acts 9), gets visions from God (Acts 10), and raises a woman from the dead (Acts 9). People tried to position the sick so his shadow would fall on them (Acts 5)  – and Peter never talks about it in his New Testament writings.

What they experienced brought them closer to Jesus, and what they did pointed others toward Jesus. We don’t read that they continued to pursue a replication of those things. They just faithfully did what God put in front of them to do. I wonder if that’s why Paul wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind, I press on…” In the context of that verse he was not talking about hardship or failure. He was talking about success (Philippians 3).

The Law is a good thing  - it is a ‘schoolteacher’ to show us how God has designed us to live – but it is a shadow of the Lawgiver who fulfilled it. We can settle for trying to ‘tether our bodies’ when what Jesus offers is a transformation of our desires that will transform our hearts (and our bodies will follow). We will never find the freedom to flourish in God’s Kingdom through behavior modification. Because of Jesus, we are freed from the bondage of perfect living on our own power and drawn into righteous living through the power of God.

Supernatural experiences are a good thing – they reveal the reality of “God with us” – but the experiences are a shadow of the One being experienced. We are free to simply pursue Jesus, and allow God to decide if, when, and how He will reveal Himself in a miraculous way.

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 in and enmeshed with Christ, who is in God.”  (Colossians 3:1-3)

But we will talk more about that next week...

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

Feast of 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.

The 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)

The 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. 12 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)

[1] Read up on the New Apostolic Reformation. The book God's Super Apostles: Encountering The Worldwide Apostles And Prophets Movement is a good place to start.  Tim Challies offers a good review/overview of the book. 

[i] An unusual word that appears to reference athletes who won the Games, then had their rightful reward taken away.

[ii] “It might seem strange that on the rigid monotheism of Judaism this incongruous creature-worship should have been engrafted. But here also the link is easily supplied. The worship of the angels of which the Essenic system bore traces, was excused on the ground that the Law had been given through the “ministration of angels” (see Acts 7:53Galatians 3:19), and that the tutelary guardianship of angels had been revealed in the later prophecy. (See Daniel 10:10-21.) For this reason it was held that angels might be worshipped, probably with the same subtle distinctions between this and that kind of worship with which we are familiar in the ordinary pleas for the veneration of saints. It has been noticed that in the Council of Laodicea, held in the fourth century, several canons were passed against Judaising, and that in close connection with these it was forbidden “to leave the Church of God and go away to invoke angels”; and we are told by Theodoret (in the next century) that “oratories to St. Michael (the ‘prince’ of the Jewish people) were still to be seen.” The “angels” in this half-Jewish system held the same intermediate position between the Divine and the human which in the ordinary Gnostic theories was held by the less personal Æons, or supposed emanations from the Godhead.”  - Elliiot’s Commentary

 

Freedom From Slavery (John 8)

As part of the series we are in on the Gospel of John, I (Jeff Martin) will be speaking from John 8:31-59. This passage in John 8 continues to focus on Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem.

It describes an encounter in the Jerusalem Temple between Jesus and a group of Jews from Judea, which included a number of Pharisees. Recall the context from last Sunday – this is right after the incident with the Woman Caught In Adultery. The Pharisees were very publicly reminded of their sinfulness.

There is quite a bit of back and forth in this encounter with Jesus. The Pharisees rarely concede an inch to Jesus on any of His points. Almost every time Jesus makes a proclamation, the Judeans, led by the Pharisees immediately make a rebuttal or negation of Jesus’ statement. At one point, Jesus just unloads. It’s quite stunning, and shows the passion that Jesus has for the truth, specifically how He defines it. Let’s read this passage together.[1]

John 8:31-59

31b So Jesus said to the Judeans who had trusted him, “If you obey what I say, then you are really my disciples, 32 you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33 They answered, “We are the seed of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone; so what do you mean by saying, ‘You will be set free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Yes, indeed! I tell you that everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. 35 Now a slave does not remain with a family forever, but a son does remain with it forever. 36 So if the Son frees you, you will really be free! 37 I know you are the seed of Abraham. Yet you are out to kill me, because what I am saying makes no headway in you. 38 I say what my Father has shown me; you do what your father has told you!”

39 They answered him, “Our father is Abraham.”

Jesus replied, “If you are children of Abraham, then do the things Abraham did! 40 As it is, you are out to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did nothing like that!  41 You are doing the things your father does.”

“We’re not illegitimate children!” they said to him. “We have only one Father — God!”

42 Jesus replied to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me; because I came out from God; and now I have arrived here. I did not come on my own; he sent me.  43 Why don’t you understand what I’m saying? Because you can’t bear to listen to my message. 44 You belong to your father, Satan, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. From the start he was a murderer, and he has never stood by the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he is speaking in character; because he is a liar — indeed, the inventor of the lie!  45 But as for me, because I tell the truth you don’t believe me. 46 Which one of you can show me where I’m wrong? If I’m telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?  47 Whoever belongs to God listens to what God says; the reason you don’t listen is that you don’t belong to God.”

48 The Judeans answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying you are from Samaria and have a demon?”

49 Jesus replied, “Me? I have no demon. I am honoring my Father. But you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking praise for myself. There is One who is seeking it, and he is the judge.

51 Yes, indeed! I tell you that whoever obeys my teaching will never see death.”

52 The Judeans said to him, “Now we know for sure that you have a demon! Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever obeys my teaching will never taste death.’ 53 Our father Abraham died; you aren’t greater than he, are you? And the prophets also died. Who do you think you are?”

54 Jesus answered, “If I praise myself, my praise counts for nothing. The One who is praising me is my Father, the very one about whom you keep saying, ‘He is our God.’ 55 Now you have not known him, but I do know him; indeed, if I were to say that I don’t know him, I would be a liar like you! But I do know him, and I obey his word.  56 Abraham, your father, was glad that he would see my day; then he saw it and was overjoyed.”

57 “Why, you’re not yet fifty years old,” the Judeans replied, “and you have seen Abraham?”

58 Jesus said to them, “Yes, indeed! Before Abraham came into being, I AM!”

59 At this, they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus was hidden and left the Temple grounds.

In verses 31 through 59 of John chapter 8, I believe Jesus is offering a way to freedom from slavery to sin.  The Jews reject Jesus promise for freedom. Instead, they make a claim to freedom via their inheritance as the seed of Abraham. Jesus assures the Jews that His way is the only way to true freedom in this life and eternally, and that they would do well to “do the things Abraham did!”, if they want to make the claim to his inheritance.

We will look at why would we want this freedom Jesus offers, what this freedom looks like, Jesus’ promise ( You Will Know The Truth and The Truth Will Set You Free!), and where we begin.

WHY WOULD WE WANT THIS FREEDOM JESUS OFFERS?

So we can be free from sin (v.34).  One of the effects of sin is shame. Our shame ultimately causes us to withdraw from those we love, including Jesus, our family and friends.

  • To honor God as our father (v.42)
  • To gain eternal life (v.51)
  • To carry out God’s desires (v. 43), which will help us grow deeper in love with Him and strengthen our faith and trust in Him.

As our love, faith and trust in Him grows, we will look to Him no matter the circumstances of our lives. Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 [2], which states that He was sent to:

  • heal the brokenhearted;
  • proclaim freedom to the captives;
  • let out into light those bound in the dark;
  • comfort all who mourn.

We see Jesus doing this all throughout the gospel of John (the Samaritan woman, the lame man, the woman caught in adultery), and I have clearly seen him do this in my life (more on this later). The love we experience as we move deeper in relationship with Him, enables us to do these things for others as well.

As I grow into deeper faith in Jesus, I understand one major difference between the old me and the new me, and that is:   My faith was shallow and weak. I did not trust in the leadership of Christ Jesus then, as I more fully do now. 

WHAT DOES THIS FREEDOM LOOK LIKE?

Maybe this is best described by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians in that all of us, who have turned to Jesus as Lord, will see, as in a mirror, that we are slowly being changed into His very image. Not into Him, but someone that we, and others, would begin to recognize as reflecting Jesus, in our thoughts, words and deeds. [3]

So, from the time we begin to place our trust in Jesus as Lord, until the time of His return, or until our last breath, we should see progress in the transformation of our lives, to be more like Him.  From the old to the new, we are reborn!]

JESUS’ PROMISE - YOU WILL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE!

In verses 31 and 32 below, we see how Jesus calls into obedience, those Jews who have placed their trust in Him, with freedom as the outcome. Please note the logic or sequence in verses 31 and 32: first trust and obey, then freedom follows.

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had trusted him: “If you obey what I say, then you are really my disciples, 32 you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Immediately thereafter, in verse 33, the Jews make the appeal to their inheritance.

33 They answered, “We are the seed of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone; so what do you mean by saying, ‘You will be set free’?”

What does Jesus mean?

34 Jesus answered them, “Yes, indeed! I tell you that everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin.  35Now a slave does not remain with a family forever, but a son does remain with it forever.

Paul explains in Romans 6:16, when we present ourselves as obedient slaves, then to the one we obey, we are slaves. Either we are a slave to sin, which leads to death. Or we are enslaved to obedience to God, which leads to our being made righteous. Jesus then reinforces that He is the source of freedom from slavery to sin.

36“So if the Son frees you, you will really be free!”

There is a kind of natural deconstruction of verses 31, 32 and 34. What do we need to do? Be a disciple. How do we become a disciple? By obeying Jesus. What do we need to know?  The truth. Why do we need to know the truth? To be set free from slavery to sin. So, obeying Jesus by being His disciple leads us to the truth, and the truth leads to freedom from slavery to sin.

WHERE DO WE BEGIN? Be a Disciple!

In Jesus’ era, there were many rabbis (which means scholar or teacher). Rabbis had disciples who were their students or followers. The use of this word “disciple” by Jesus is intended to describe this relationship. The relationship between a disciple and their rabbi is very close:

  • not only did the disciple learn facts,
  • reasoning processes and
  • how to perform religious practices from their rabbi,
  • the disciple also regarded their rabbi as an example to be imitated in conduct and character.

The rabbi, in turn, was considered responsible for their disciples. [2]

You can see from Jesus’ use of this word disciple that He expects us to go deep in our respective relationships with Him:

  • By learning truth from Him, through reading the Word and in prayer,
  • Understanding His reasoning processes,
  • Participating in His religious practices, and
  • Imitating Him.

This requires us to engage in more than just a head level knowledge of who He is and what He is about. He in turn has a responsibility to us! Which He fulfills via His Holy Spirit who is the comforting Counselor who convicts us of sin, leading us to righteousness and the Spirit of Truth, guiding us into all truth – primarily through the study of His word and by prayer.

CONCLUSION

The Lord encounters us every day, in His creation, and most importantly in His word and through prayer. He has sent His Spirit, the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. To bring revelation of scripture, to guide us into His truth. The Lord loves us. He desires us, to be in relationship with us. He wants our hearts. To this there can be no doubt. Just consider what He did for us on the cross. He wants to free us from bondage to sin and usher us into an ever deeper understanding of what it means to be children of the Living God.

I can’t escape this sense that I am to share my story, about the sin in my life and the goodness of the Lord in setting me free from the bondage of sin bit by bit as we move deeper together in relationship.

I am a modern example of the prodigal son. That is, I spent about 35 years of my life, living life my way, which was away from the Lord and deep into sin. I was knee deep in the “miry clay” of sin and it is Jesus who has lifted me out of the clay and set me on the rock of His salvation.

I grew up in a Christian home. We went to Church nearly every Sunday. We attended Bible Camp in the summer, attended missions in the inner city of Detroit with my Grandmother, and I read my Bible regularly. But, as a teenager, I engaged in activities that were in rebellion, otherwise known as sin, toward God. These activities included a fair amount of partying with various drugs and alcohol.

More critically I entered into a very intimate emotional and physical relationship with my first girlfriend, which, given our ages, neither one of us was prepared for. This relationship resulted in her pregnancy, which was terminated. I have not interacted with her since that time, but given how this impacted me, I can only venture that she was impacted far more deeply than I can imagine. This was a pivotal experience that shook the foundation of my life, and rather than repenting and turning to the Lord, I turned away and I decided I could “fix” the emotional mess I was in, on my own.

This was a bad decision.

What started out as an attempt to resolve the emotional issues I was facing as part of my losing a child and the inadequacy I felt about not being able to live up to my responsibilities – due to my age, I lived my life by going deeper and deeper into behavior that was in clear rebellion against God, resulting in my having multiple marriages, and my not walking in the light of the Lord’s Word for nearly 35 years.

Fortunately for me, God is gracious and merciful and He never stopped pursuing me.

I finally began to respond to the Lord’s pursuit of my heart. And the best way I knew how to respond was to start going to church. This was in 2009. We attended church in the typical Sunday morning manner. But there was a problem for me. You see, I can get pretty uptight about being late. Adriana, in contrast, doesn’t. We are, thankfully meeting somewhere in the middle on this issue. So, we frequently arrived late to church, where we were ushered right up to the only empty seats – in the front row. To say the least, my heart was not postured in a way that allowed the Lord to penetrate it.

I think by providence, my sister and her family were attending a church here in town that met at 5:00pm on Sunday. Ahh, now I had plenty of time to get to church on time.

We started to attend this church at 5:00. Many of the times in worship were spent by me on my knees weeping as I began to turn my eyes away from me and toward Him. The Word of the Lord that our Pastor, Pastor Jim Roe shared, went straight to my heart. I can recall many times sitting in the pew just weeping over the Lord working me over – about the way I lived my life, calling me into repentance and more importantly about how much He loves me. Through continued worship, time in His Word and in prayer, I have been in Jesus’ school of character development ever since, as He sets me free from my sin.

Here’s the big question: What are we to do? We are to be obedient, obedient to Jesus as His disciple, by:

  • Worshipping Him.
  • Serving Him
  • Learning the truth about Him and what He taught by studying the scriptures.
  • Understanding His reasoning processes – thinking like He does.
  • Participate in His religious practices  (communing with Him and receiving truth of and from Him, through study of His Word and by prayer)
  • Imitating Him, by being gracious and loving others as He does.
  • Trusting in His promises.
  • Interceding via prayer with Him on our behalf and on behalf of others.

The questions are - how will you respond? Will you go deeper? Do you desire the freedom from sin Jesus held out to us in His promise?  Imagine your life becoming freed from those chains that bind us.

In closing, I would like to read a couple of stanzas from an old hymn.

In 1887, at a revival meeting hosted by Dwight Moody, a young man stood to speak, and it soon be­came clear he knew lit­tle Christ­ian doc­trine. But he fin­ished by say­ing, “I’m not quite sure—but I’m go­ing to trust, and I’m go­ing to obey.” These words were jotted down and turned into the hymnal, “Trust and Obey”.[3]

 

When we walk with the Lord In the light of His word

What a glory He sheds on our way

While we do His good will He abides with us still

And with all who will trust and obey

 

But we never can prove the delights of His love

Until all on the altar we lay

For the favor He shows, for the joy He bestows

Are for them who will trust and obey

 

Trust and obey For there's no other way To be happy in Jesus But to trust and obey

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[1] Stern, David H.. Complete Jewish Bible: An English Version of the Tanakh (Old Testament) and B’rit Hadashah (New Testament). Messianic Jewish Communications. Kindle Edition.

[2] Luke 4:18-19.

[3] http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/t/r/trstobey.htm

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.

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 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. 

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

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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. 

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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. 

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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).

Conquering the Course of Life (1 Corinthians 7)

slalom.gif

In some ways, life is like a slalom course. There are sudden turns that come too fast, rough water, fatigue, sharp turns, wakes that can send you flying or flailing. Success feels fantastic, but failure hurts. 

So how do we successfully navigate the slalom course of life? Rough waters show up in many ways: the death of a loved one, sickness, employment changes, relational breakdowns. Our lives taken sudden turns when our children get in trouble, or our friends let us down. Fatigue sets in when our ministry is unappreciated or ineffective. Success feels fantastic, but failure hurts.

A common mistake is to use all our energy to change our circumstance. When we encounter rough waters and sharp turns, we look for a different job, a different car, a different town, a different husband or wife, a different church. If we are unhappy single, we look for a spouse. If we are unhappy married we look for a way out. We’re sure that if we can just change our circumstance our lives will change for the better.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul addresses people who are having trouble on the course of their life. While his message is aimed toward several particular groups, Paul has a common message for all of them: no matter the water, the weather, or the twists and turns of life,  pursue undistracted devotion to the Lord (v. 35). 

First, he addresses those who are unhappy with their relational status, and he begins with those who are married:

 “But because of immoralities let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband give his wife the affection owed her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does, and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control. “ (1 Corinthians 7:2-5)

    Paul is not saying sex is the only or most important reason for marriage. He is answering a specific questions Corinthians had about marriage at that time and in their circumstances. Considering the culture in which they lived, it’s no surprise they had some questions about sex.

As noted earlier in 1 Corinthians, some of the Christians thought it was okay to hire prostitutes, and now others were wondering if it really spiritual spouses should have sex at all. Paul says no to the former and yes to the latter, but he moves the subject beyond just sex – affection matters too. (For what it's worth, Paul may have been married at one time. He was an exemplary Jew (Philippians 3:4-6). Jews believed that an unmarried twenty-year-old man was sinning by not being married. Paul was likely a member of the Sanhedrin (as he “cast my vote” in Acts 26:10), and only married men could be members of the Sanhedrin). Basically Paul says (and I am, of course, paraphrasing):

“Here’s what you need to navigate the slalom course of marriage. Self-sacrifice is the rough water; responsibility the fatigue. Your body isn’t yours alone. It belongs to God first and your mate second. The entire relationship - including sex -  not just one person’s duty and the other one’s privilege. You need to meet each other’s sexual and emotional needs, and you need to hang in there even when you want to drop the rope and call it quits.

‘But he/she brings out the worst in me!’  Yep. That’s one way God reveals who you really are. Don’t change mates - change yourself by the grace of God. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, part of the “body” of Christ on earth. Like Christ, you are called to be a loving servant, blessing when cursed, forgiving, interceding, confronting in love, and sacrificing. Don’t serve with expectation of earning something in return; it will only lead to resentment. You are trying to please the Lord and your spouse, not get something from them.”

Next, Paul addresses those who are single:

“(vs. 7-9) I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, but I say to the unmarried and the widow that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn. (Vs 28) But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. (Vs 32-34) But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided."

If I may paraphrase Paul again, I believe he is saying something like this:

Here’s the reality. You are on the slalom course of the single life. There’s basically one thing you need to know in order to navigate that course, come rough waters or fatigue: Marriage is a challenge. It’s hard. Staying single will free you from the relational challenges of marriage and free you to serve God with undivided attention. Sexual temptation is the rough water; loneliness the fatigue. If God has given you the ability to stay the course, stay the course. The slalom is not necessarily easier on the other side of the lake.”

On the slalom course, you can’t change the course – but you can learn how to navigate in such a way that the challenges become the very things that bring you joy. Paul says in verse 7 that successfully navigating both marriage and singleness is a “gift,” and he uses the same word he uses in 1 Corinthians 12 to describe spiritual gifts that God gives believers. Some are able and willing to please God better while being single, others while being married. Paul summarizes his teaching on singleness and marriage with this line in verse 17: Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches."

If you read the entire chapter, you will see that Paul applied this principle even more broadly:

"Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave." (vs. 18-21)

That may seem like an odd list to include with marriage and singleness, but all of these "stations" in life were a big deal at the time. Marital status played a huge factor in social standing in Greek, Roman, and Hebrew culture; circumcision was such a contentious issue that the first church council in Acts had to deal with it (and there was a method to reverse a circumcisions); slaves were scorned by everyone.  Jewish men routinely thanked God for not making them a woman, a Gentile, or a slave.   

In the cultural context, Paul tells people that in the midst of their circumstance - no matter how dire - they were to live as a believer, not because their situation was perfect, but because God was present.  Meanwhile, Paul gives advice on how to make that circumstance better (or in the case of slavery, a hope that it will end). Husbands and wives, give affection and show submission to your spouse; Gentile Christians, don't feel obligated to get circumcised; Jewish Christians, don't feel the need to reverse a circumcision; slaves, Christ has made you as free as anyone else - and if there is a way to make your physical reality match your spiritual one, that's ideal. And while Paul does not address slave owners directly, surely there is an implication for them as well. 

The bottom line? Live devoted to God, no matter how dire the circumstances.

To Paul ,the most important thing was not changing circumstances (though he offers a path of hope). The most important things was changing our stance in the midst of our circumstance.

 - Based on the sermon notes of Scott Norris, 9/16/12