Philemon

The bible study I’m a part of took a look at Paul’s letter to Philemon this week, so I’m going to reflect here a bit after my study and our discussion.  I definitely have a lot to grow in terms of bible study participation.  I neither communicated well nor listened well.  Hopefully that will change as the study progresses. 

First, I had this letter memorized in the NIV (from participating in teen bible quiz), so I was most familiar with that translation.  As I ventured out beyond the NIV, I tried to look at some other translations, and the underlying Greek.  Verse 5 in particular jumped out to me, which I rendered as, “I hear about the love and faithfulness that you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.”  That doesn’t quite bring out the distinction between Jesus and the saints (Paul uses two different words which can be translated as toward), but this seemed more vibrant than the NIV’s “because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.”  Notably, I think Paul is commenting on Philemon’s love and faithful loyalty toward the saints and toward Jesus.  Philemon is demonstrating loving faithfulness in his actions toward God and God’s people, enough so for Paul to hear about it. 

Verse 6 also made more sense as I studied it further, “I pray that the fellowship/partnership (gk koinonea) of your faith would effectively grow toward the knowledge of every good thing that’s ours in Christ.”  Seeing the Greek word koinonea excited me, because it brings out tones of not just partnership, which Tom Wright highlights, but also of rich, Christian fellowship.  Both the ESV and the NIV render the beginning of the verse to like this, “I pray the sharing of your faith would be…” To me, the term “sharing your faith” seems foreign to the New Testament but very common in contemporary evangelical lingo.  Perhaps that’s why Tom Wright, Eugene Peterson, and the TNIV translate along the lines of “partnership” instead of “sharing your faith.”  For me, this fits in better with the rest of the letter, which is not primarily concerned with evangelism (though evangelism is important!) but with the reconciliation of a runaway slave to his master, which will hopefully result in liberation for Onesimus.  Among other things, this would mean that Onesimus could continue helping Paul in Philemon’s place (verse 13)  Verse 7 brings out the depth of joy and affection which Paul feels toward Philemon.  It’s clear that Philemon is a very dear friend in the Lord, and that Paul is deeply encouraged and joyful because of his vibrant, godly life. 

This, I think forms the basis of the appeal for Onesimus.  He appeals on the basis of love (verse 8), on the basis of a deep affection and encouragement (verse 7), and on the basis of a shared partnership and fellowship in the gospel (verse 6).  This is why Paul can make a very bold appeal to Philemon.  Of course, this love is not just toward Philemon, but also toward Onesimus, whom he calls, “my very heart.” (verse 12)  Paul cares deeply for both, and for their sakes and the sake of the Gospel he makes the appeal for reconciliation (there’s interesting connections here with 2 Corinthians, perhaps worth exploring elsewhere).  Paul also drops subtle hints of their equal standing before God, which he develops elsewhere in Colossians and Ephesians.  He wishes that Onesimus could “take your [Philemon’s] place” in helping Paul, and urges Philemon to welcome him back, “as much more than a slave, and a brother in the Lord!”  The deeply subversive nature of the christian gospel fascinates me.  Paul recognizes the legal and practical bases on which Philemon could punish or even kill Onesimus, but he urges him to consider the Gospel, to consider what I have done for you, to consider our koinonea in the faith.  These clearly trump the reasons which come from an earthly point of view (what about the other slaves; our economy is based on slavery! etc).  Paul persuades christianly.  He doesn’t lord his authority over Philemon (though he does remind him of their past together).  That’s one thing I think we need to learn from Paul: how to persuade christianly.  As christians, we have to learn not to beat people up with scripture (or anything else).  Instead we have to argue on the basis of love and affection.  We have to persuade in the shining light of what Jesus has accomplished.  To beat people up or “lord over people” in the name of Jesus, even for something good, is to undermine the faith we declare (especially when we beat up our brothers and sisters!).  God, help us sort this out!

But of course, the greatest theme we see here is the theme of reconciliation.  The ministry of reconciliation which we have been given is astounding.  As God made his appeal through the apostles, “be reconciled to God!” so he continues to do into the present age.  We are to be his ambassadors, his peacemakers, his agents of reconciliation.  Undoubtedly, this won’t be easy.  Sin is nasty.  The full fruition of sin in the fall works out into a fractured and divided humanity.  We have blood feuds which go back generations.  Yet, we must hear God’s desire for reconciliation, and prayerfully step between the slave and his master, all in the name of Jesus, motivated by His love and power.  The world desperately needs this news.  Reconciliation won’t be quick or easy.  Indeed, we won’t see its full fruition until the parousia, until God puts the whole world to rights, but we absolutely have to anticipate it now, because our labor is not in vain:  Happy are the peacemakers, because they will be called children of God. 

The Holy Spirit and the Family of God (From Galatians)

[This was composed for and originally posted on my campus ministry’s website: http://xa-ncsu.com/blog/post/38 on August 26, 2009]

A few words are in order before I dive into the text. First, welcome! I’m hoping that this blog will be, among other things, a delightful record of our study of God. More than that, I’m hoping that it will be a challenging record of God’s study of us. As we gaze upon God, we are hopefully challenged, inspired, amazed, and humbled. We feel love and love; receive grace, and give it. What I hope to highlight in this post, primarily through the letter of Galatians, is the familial aspects of the Trinity. More specifically, I want to examine the role the Holy Spirit plays in God’s family. Hopefully this will help us as a group relate better to the person of the Holy Spirit, and better understand his role as a member of the Trinity.

Because I’m drawing mostly from Galatians, a little bit of context for the letter is due. This is one of Paul’s first letters, written to a young and budding group of believers in Galatia, a church which Paul himself had founded. The church was budding, but also had problems. While the church was predominately Gentile (non Jewish), a group of people, presumably Jews, were throwing young Christians into confusion. These people were insisting that faith in Jesus was not enough, that what truly marked God’s family was the Jewish law, especially circumcision. This was causing all sorts of dissension within the church, creating division rather than unity. Paul spent most of his effort addressing this problem.

Paul responds by first establishing his authority. Although he formerly persecuted the church, he had had an experience with the risen Jesus that was separate from those of the 12 apostles. He had received revelation directly from Jesus; he hadn’t made up the gospel or gotten it from someone else. Nevertheless, he was in agreement with the other apostles. He had stayed with them on several occasions.

In chapter 3, Paul launches into a detailed examination of the Old Testament. His goal here is to show that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, is to be part of God’s family. Nothing more is required. In fact, by going further, one is in danger of separating what God intended to be joined. Paul goes back to Abraham, arguing that the promise given to Abraham is not set aside by the Mosaic law. Rather, the law was “put in charge to lead us to Christ.” His entire is argument is beyond the scope of this post, but I believe his goal in chapter 3 is to get to verse 26: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” He wants the Galatians to realize that they are already members of God’s family. Because of Christ’s work, all of those with faith in Christ Jesus are part of the family. Faith becomes the determining marker of God’s family. It’s not circumcision, gender, or social status: only faith.

Chapter 4 begins by noting that, not only are we children, but we have received an inheritance. This inheritance is the “spirit of his son … by which we call out ‘Daddy! Father!'” By the time he returns to Old Testament discussion in verse 21, he continues to discuss family. This time, he uses the story of Hagar and Sarah to illustrate the fact that they are children of the promise, not the children born into slavery. This in turn launches into a discussion of Christian liberty in chapter 5. Finally, in chapter 6 he exhorts them to keep running the race, to focus on the cross of Christ, to not give up or give in.

And where is the Holy Spirit in this? His activity pervades throughout Paul’s thinking and writing. The aspect I wish to bring light to is the Spirit’s activity in the family of God. For Paul, the Holy Spirit is intimately connected with the becoming a Christian, with becoming part of the family. In chapter 4, he declares that, just as Isaac was born by the power of the Spirit, so were we. Also, the Spirit does what the law cannot, impart life. What strikes me is not only how personal the Holy Spirit is, but how active he is in the family of God. The Eastern Orthodox churches, which have historically had a much fuller view of the Holy Spirit than the West, have sometimes caricatured the Western view of God as “two guys and a bird.” But we see the Holy Spirit birthing us as sons and daughters, imparting our very life in God, our breath in God. We see him bearing witness to this with miracles. We see this all on the basis of faith in the Jesus, and not our background. As we try to walk by the Spirit, may we not view him as a mysterious force, or as somehow less a person that the Father and the Son. Instead, may we walk with him as he is, a vivacious, active God who births, marks, and testifies to our membership in the family of God, who empowers us to overcome the sinful nature, and in whom we eagerly await the judgment day, the day where God will put the whole world to rights and fulfill new creation.