It is Finished! So, Get to Work! – A Sermon on the Ascension

The following is a sermon preached on Ascension Sunday, 2017. You can listen to the sermon here:

GOODBYES SUCK

You know, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s goodbyes. Anyone else here hate goodbyes?

Yeah, and the fact that I hate them so much means I’m not really very good at goodbyes.

Sometimes I get awkward and silent. Sometimes I get awkward and really chatty! Heck, sometimes I get awkward and I make poor choices, like the one time when I was getting ready to say goodbye to my family when they dropped me off at college.

They were looking forward to a final dinner with me, in the school cafeteria, before they left. But I was worried about the awkwardness of saying a tearful goodbye between packed tables and chairs, so I suggested that they just leave.

Let’s just say that my family wasn’t very happy. And me? Neither was I. I ate my first college meal all alone.

Goodbyes suck. And I often suck at goodbyes.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, for one thing, this is my “goodbye” sermon here at St. Peter’s, and I wanted to give an excuse for this sermon, if it sucks!

In all seriousness, I do want to thank this congregation for being such a good place for Rachel and me to serve and grow alongside you. Thank you for loving Rachel and me as our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will miss you all very much as we move to Illinois this week.

Anyways, I don’t want this goodbye to get TOO awkward, so I’d better keep on preaching!

I think that goodbyes are bad because they so often leave our stories unfinished.

And we humans tend to hate unfinished business. It’s so much better when the story has an end! Sometimes, even a bad ending is better than no ending at all!

Think about it, if you’re watching an important game on TV – say, Alabama vs. Auburn – would you rather see the ending, even if your team loses, or have the power go out and completely miss the final minutes?

Stories without endings are frustrating. And that’s why it’s so hard to say goodbye.

That’s why Death – the ultimate goodbye, if you will – is so horrible.

It’s not really an ending, not for those of us who go on living, anyways. Instead, Death leaves our stories hanging, with words left unsaid and promises left unfulfilled.

I think here of parents in Manchester this week who were forced to say goodbye to their children all too soon, thanks to the suicide bombing. Or the Coptic Christians in Egypt forced to say goodbye to their loved ones too soon, thanks to the bus attack.

Goodbyes suck, because they leave our stories unfinished.

(Note: For other sermons, check out my Sermons page.)

WHAT ABOUT THE ASCENSION? DOES IT SUCK?

Is the Ascension of Jesus Christ, then, just another awful goodbye?

Continue reading “It is Finished! So, Get to Work! – A Sermon on the Ascension”

Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:

  • promote your justice
  • embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and humbly obey Your will,

even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Introduction

I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?

Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?

I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?

I know I do.

In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!

Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.

Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.

Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.

ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?

But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?

I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?

Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!

Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.

Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.

In order to get ahead,

  • you have to know the context,
  • you have to know the rules,
  • you have to know the goal.

Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.

So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.

The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.

The Main Point

In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)

1 Corinthians 1:18 says:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.

You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!

I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.

However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.

Sounds great, right?

So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?

Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!

This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”

In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.

The world expects

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.

Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.

You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.

You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!

For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!

  • Climb the ladder!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!

That’s where the world’s ways get us.

Where every human is

  • an egotistical island,
  • competing with God,
  • alienating other humans,
  • and abusing creation.

Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],

the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.

Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”

Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.

Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12

And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.

(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)

Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.

But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!

That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”

But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”

These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].

Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”

  • To the poor in spirit
  • Those who mourn
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • And the reviled

And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.

Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.

That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”

Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.

The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation

Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.

Jesus is saying:

  • (1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
  • (2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
  • (3) Take heart! If you humbly and gently refuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
  • (4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
  • (5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
  • (6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
  • (8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.

God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.

However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?

What if we’re NOT

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

How should we respond to the Beatitudes?

While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,

I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructive challenge to followers of Jesus.

There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.

It’s almost like Jesus is saying,

“OK, you want to follow me?

You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.

It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.

You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.

Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.

SO,

  • if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
  • if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
  • then you better show concrete concern for
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • and the weak!

And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”

Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse

Brothers and sisters, remember:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!

That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.

  • Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
  • Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
  • Because you’re scared of losing your job,
  • Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.

But let’s not kid ourselves!

FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!

Want to read more about what the Bible has to say about these kinds of issues? Read this book! (Affiliate Link)


Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees

So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?

We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.

Abortion

First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.

Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.

As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.

Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.

Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.

Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.

Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.

I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.

However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.

We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.

I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.

Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.

Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?

We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.

However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would humbly obey Your will,
  • even if it costs us our reputations,
  • and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon

(A chapel message in a Christian school.)

There are a few things you should know about me:

  • I am a student at a Christian seminary.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian college.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian high school, and a Christian middle school.
  • Before that, I was home-schooled, and I grew up in a Christian home.

Oh, also: I’m the world’s worst sports fan.

I’m serious. The students in my youth group give me a hard time about it. Every week, they’re like, “Josh, did you see the game?!” “Josh, are you going to watch the game?”

And I’m like, “Game? What game? I don’t even know which sport’s season it is!”

World’s. worst. sports fan. I’m telling you.

The one redeeming quality about my sports fandom is that I’ve stuck with one team through thick and thin: the University of Michigan Wolverines. Go Blue!

Now, I know that the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes is but a pale imitation of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn down here. But up North, this rivalry was and is a big deal.

And it was really interesting, back when I was in middle school and high school, to observe what would happen each year in November when the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went at it.

I’m from Toledo, OH, which is on the border with Michigan, so the fan split was about 50/50 – Wolverines on one side, Buckeyes on the other.

And each year, on the day after the big game, you could tell who the true fans were…

It was the people still cheering for the team that lost. Continue reading “Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon”

Son of Man, Can Your Bones Live?

What would it have been like, on the first Holy Saturday?

What would it be like, tonight, if Jesus has been dead for almost 33 hours?

All the hopes and dreams of tonight’s readings – shattered. Blown away by the cold winds of death. Jesus of Nazareth lies in a dark grave, and we, his shell-shocked followers, gather to make some sort of sense of this week’s events – to salvage some sort of hope from this week’s wreckage.

And so, some sorry snots get up to try and encourage us. They open up the Hebrew Scriptures and read about our great God.

  • Remember, when He made the heavens, earth, and humans?
  • Remember, when He rescued Noah?
  • Remember, when he stayed Abraham’s knife-laden hand?
  • Remember, when he rescued us from Egypt?
  • Remember, when he promised to bring us back from exile, restore our fortunes, and open our… graves?

It’s too much, too soon. Shut up and sit down! Leave us mourn and weep awhile! Jesus is dead! The one we thought would save us is dead!

It’s been over a day. It’s been almost 2,000 years.

Can these bones live?

Can these bones live?

The question haunts us. The answer is so obviously “No! Of course not! They’re bones! No flesh, no breath, no life!”

And yet, God asks Ezekiel. And He asks us. Can these bones live?

And sure, we know the answer, but sit with this awhile.

Can these bones live? Can Christ’s bones live?

Surely this question must have flickered in someone’s mind on the first Holy Saturday. And, yes, we know the answer, but sit with this awhile.

Look at the world! Dealing in death, day by day. Wars. Famines. Floods. Diseases. Droughts. Death.

Can these bones live?

Look at the Church! Claiming with her lips to follow Jesus Christ, and yet so often proving with her life that she wants no such thing. Scandal. Hypocrisy. Idolatry.

Can these bones live?

Look at yourselves! I’ll be honest, the question “can these bones live?” is put to every preacher facing a congregation! If the Spirit doesn’t move, I’m throwing hot air at dry bones!

Can your bones live?

But then, look at me! Just as scandalous, hypocritical, and idolatrous as any – and yet here I stand, presuming to proclaim the Word of God to you.

Who do I think I am? Can my bones live?

Can all these dry, dead bones live?

Friends, there’s a reason why we’re here, though it’s so dark, so late. Sure, it’s to bring in, bright and oh so early, the celebration of Easter.

But it’s also because keeping vigil is what the Church does every day. We keep vigil for the sake of a suffering and dying world. We keep watch for our bridegroom to return and wipe away every tear, to right every wrong. We stay awake at the world’s late hour, surrounded by so many dry, dead bones.

Can these bones live?

Yes. They can. But, what do they need in order to do so?

First, they need some WATER. Did you notice how often water has appeared in tonight’s readings?

  • The waters of creation, out of which God called the dry ground – out of which He formed human beings.
  • The waters of judgment, through which God saved Noah and his family in the Ark.
  • The waters of redemption, through which God rescued Israel from the Egyptian house of slavery.
  • And the waters of cleansing, by which the Lord promised in the prophets to wash away His people’s guilty stains.

Water, water, everywhere! Except the dry valley.

I think the dry bones need some sort of water.

They also need some sort of SPIRIT. You know, God’s Spirit, His breath, His wind, who hovered over the waters at creation.

  • Who filled the first humans with life.
  • Who led God’s people.
  • Who inspired and preserved the words of Scripture we read this evening.
  • Who rushed upon the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision – making them into a great army, alive!

Dry bones need the Spirit.

But, the question isn’t “Can these bones get wet and windy?” It’s “Can they LIVE?!”

And, if they’re going to live, they’re going to need a RESURRECTION.

  • They need the defeat of their most ancient enemy: Death!
  • They need Death’s reversal! They need Death’s death!
  • They need exactly what God promised Ezekiel: to open their graves, and lift them up, living!

Amen! Glory, glory, hallelujah!

But, if I hear Ezekiel’s glorious vision read at the first Holy Saturday, I’m tempted to lose it at this point. To bitterly ask those gathered:

When?! That sounds great, but when?! When is God going to do this?!

For over five hundred years since Ezekiel, we’ve been falling into our graves over and over again – and staying there! Sure, it’s no longer in Babylon, but we’ve been invaded and harassed and dominated here in Judah ever since!

Is it really that much better to fall into the grave under Rome’s heavy heel, like Jesus?

Why not Babylon’s?

Why not Assyria’s?

Heck, why not Pharaoh’s?

When is God going to turn things around?!”

Thankfully, I wasn’t in the audience back then. But we’re here, tonight. And maybe you’re similarly tempted to lose it and freak out sometimes in church!

All this pretty Jesus-talk, when for over 2,000 years the Church has travailed in the midst of a deadly and dying world.

We thank Jesus for our oversized meals, cars, and houses, while thousands fall into their graves around us – tired, hungry, destitute, and alone.

So, on the first Holy Saturday and the 2,000th, the question is roughly the same:

When?! When is God going to turn things around?!

And the answer is likewise the same. We sang it, earlier:

When?

THIS IS THE NIGHT.

When did God open the grave?

THIS IS THE NIGHT, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”

So, can these bones live? Yes!

Can Christ’s bones live? Yes! For on this night, some 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ got up from the tomb. He was alive. He was dead. But he is now alive again.

Can our bones live? Yes!

How? Because Christ has provided the resurrection, the Spirit, and the water we need.

Because, through the waters of baptism, we receive the Spirit and the resurrection.

Now, we aren’t going to baptize anyone tonight. We’ll have to wait until later this morning to do so. But we are about to renew our baptismal vows.

  • Through our baptism, we are preserved, like Noah, from the waters of Sin and Death, in the Ark, the Church.
  • Through our baptism, we are ransomed and rescued, like Israel, through the waters of the Red Sea.
  • Through our baptism, we are cleansed with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, as God promised through Isaiah and Ezekiel.
  • Through our baptism, we are buried with Christ in his death, and are raised with him in newness of life.
  • Through our baptism, we are empowered and emboldened to proclaim the good news to a desperate world that JESUS CHRIST IS RISEN.

So, we can assure the world that their bones can live, because Christ has died.

We can rest assured that our bones can live, because Christ is risen.

And we can keep watch for the sake of a suffering world, because Jesus Christ will come again.

Amen.


(Sermon preached on Easter Vigil, March 26, 2016. For an idea of the readings which preceded the homily in this service, see here.)

Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?

Theology is confusing enough, much more so when you attempt to summarize it all in a single essay! Nevertheless, such was my assignment in seminary in 2015. Here are the results.


“At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross.” ~ Jürgen Moltmann[1]

Theology in Outline: A[n Attempted] Summary of the Christian Faith

We believe that, during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, God died on a Roman cross.[2] We also believe that, the third day thereafter, Jesus of Nazareth – the same person who had been crucified – rose again from the dead.

How can these things be?

How can the immortal, transcendent, omnipotent One come to a weak, immanent end?

How can a dead human leave his grave, living?

At this point, we face a crucial choice between:

  1. the posited “God” of metaphysical theism and
  2. the revealed God of the Christian faith.[3]

Should we choose the former, our Christ, canon, and confession are irreducibly docetic – the true “God” is aloof, and merely play-acting, at best.

Yet, should we choose the latter, God is irreducibly, ineluctably Triune – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe, we trust that the Triune God is who God has revealed Godself to be. Continue reading “Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?”

Faithful Faith in a Faithful God: Romans 1.1-17

I. Introduction: The Prodigal Son, Part 2

What a relief, to get out of that house.

Ordinarily, Jude would have scoffed at his father’s request to purchase farming equipment from the next city – a three-day journey!

But ever since Ethan, that rascal (you might even say that prodigal) brother of his, had returned, Jude could not stand to be in either man’s presence for long.

So he relished the chance to forget about his family tension on this farming errand.

But now he was almost home, and the painful thoughts came rushing back.

“Dad has changed. Perhaps it was early-onset dementia that caused him to forget the blessed closeness of our years together, alone, when I was not just the firstborn, but the only son. Sure, I had never been perfect, but I thought that my father was finally proud of me. That, after years of hard lessons learned, I had become the man he wanted me to be.

And then Ethan threw it all away. Continue reading “Faithful Faith in a Faithful God: Romans 1.1-17”

Jesus is Not Just "One of Us"

NOTE: The audio of the following sermon, preached on July 05, 2015 at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, can be found here. (I began with a bit of a mic issue. Ignore the garbled first 10 seconds or so!)

Introduction

The “hometown,” “home court” advantage is a very real occurrence in many areas of life. Familiar fans and supportive surroundings help us humans to perform better at many tasks, from singing to sports.

But not in sermons.

There is very seldom a home court advantage in preaching!

Family and close friends may inspire us to make the game-winning shot, or hit the highest note, but when it comes to the intimate affair of preaching God’s Word — of transcending the divide between there & then and here & now, making it clear how the words of Scripture should enlighten, encourage, confront, and challenge us — when it comes to preaching to family and friends, it’s hard.

Granted, it might be easier to impress, to invigorate, to lay on the rhetorical relish with grandiose gestures, dazzling diction, and absolutely awesome alliteration.

But that’s not preaching. That’s a show.

Preaching takes guts… It takes bravery to do the necessary hard work at the intersection between the stuff of God and the stuff of life.

Because, if what we Christians believe is TRUE, everything changes, and a preacher’s job is to make that clear.

However, when it comes to family and friends, it’s difficult to preach repentance to those who changed your diapers, calmed your tantrums, kept your secrets.

But every stressed out seminarian, every nervous young pastor preparing to preach to the home crowd, can take heart that the very One we preach, Jesus the Messiah, faced a similar challenge during his earthly preaching ministry.

Mark 1-5

Please turn with me to the Gospel of Mark, beginning on page 836 of your pew Bibles.

To understand today’s Gospel text from Mark 6, we first need a bit of context from Mark chapters 1 through 5. Please follow along with me in your Bibles, glancing at the pages as I summarize these chapters.

The biggest thing I’d like us to note is that Jesus is on a roll.

Mark’s Gospel takes off quickly into the narrative of Jesus, who, after he is baptized by his forerunner John, is affirmed of his identity by the very voice of God. He is then driven yet sustained by the Spirit through the wilderness testings of Satan.

Jesus then returns from the wilderness and begins his preaching ministry in Galilee — boldly:

“proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'” (1:15)

He then calls his first disciples, who join him in his whirlwind ministry of preaching and teaching with authority, healing the sick, and casting out demons. So much for chapter 1!

In chapter 2, he challenges Jewish conceptions about the forgiveness of sins, fasting, and keeping Sabbath.

In chapter 3, we witness the first hints of outright opposition to Jesus on account of his unorthodox Sabbath practices, yet this is immediately followed by a description of Jesus’ growing crowd of followers.

Unfazed, Jesus calls and appoints the twelve apostles. He challenges the experts in Jewish Law, and scandalously stretches the boundaries of family.

In chapter 4, he teaches in parables, before commanding and calming the wind and the sea.

In chapter 5, he upsets an entire region by casting out a legion of demons. And before we get to chapter 6, he reverses death itself for the sake of a synagogue official, and reverses disease for the sake of a woman with a discharge of blood.

In the face of FAITH,Jesus tells the dead to get up. He calls the physically, financially, and relationally destitute one “daughter.”

Jesus is on a roll.

Jesus is up to something BIG, something NEW. He is bringing in the very kingdom of God, unexpectedly centered around HIMSELF, and NOTHING, NO ONE –

  • not winds,
  • not waves,
  • not Pharisees,
  • not scribes,
  • not disease,
  • not destitution,
  • not demons,
  • not even DEATH – can stand in his way.

Well, maybe one thing can.

Our Text: Mark 6:1-13

We’re now on page 841, Mark chapter 6 begins this way:

“He [Jesus] went away from there and came to his hometown [Nazareth], and his disciples followed him.

And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”

And they took offense at him.”

Now, before I get to two negative aspects of the Nazarenes’ reaction, let’s consider two positives:

First, in verse 2, they are asking the right questions.

They recognize that Jesus has wisdom, mighty works, mighty hands – things which should have reminded them of God himself:

The God who, according to Jeremiah (51:15),

“made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.”

The God who, according to Deuteronomy (4:34 and 7:19), rescued Israel from the house of slavery with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Jesus’ wisdom and mighty deeds should have persuaded them that God was up to something big, something new.

The Creator was re-creating. The Redeemer was rescuing and restoring — like Jesus had just done with Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman in chapter 5.

Second, in verse 3, everything the hometown crowd says is factually correct!

  • Jesus was in fact a carpenter by family trade.
  • And although it’s perhaps a slur, or a reference to Joseph’s prior death, Jesus is in fact the “Son of Mary.”
  • He did in fact have siblings.
  • He was in fact from Nazareth.

So, what’s wrong with the hometown reaction? Let me focus on two things:

First, their reaction shows us that you can ask the right questions with the wrong attitude.

Sure, Jesus’ wisdom and mighty deeds should have persuaded them that God was up to something big, something new – and that they might have to change their lives because of it.

But instead, they ask their questions with incredulous skepticism:

Just who does Jesus think he is?

What right has he to say these things? To act this way?

We know who he really is. We watched him grow up!

He’s just one of us, a normal Nazarene.

Second, then, their reaction shows us that you can know the facts and miss the point.

In fact, sometimes, you can use the facts in order to miss the point!

You can miss Truth with a capital “T” by focusing on the lowercase.

That’s what they’re doing here. The scandalized hometown crowd is bringing up the familiar, comfortable aspects of Jesus’ existence to give themselves a way out from underneath Jesus’ powerful claims on them and their future.

After all, they don’t have to repent in light of the coming Kingdom of God if this “King Jesus,” what with his preaching and working wonders like some kind of prophet, is really just the homeboy handyman who’s out of his mind, right?

So, Jesus responds:

“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”

And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.

Citing a familiar proverb of the day — something close to “familiarity breeds contempt” – Jesus steps into a long tradition of rejected prophets — those sent by Yahweh to diagnose the sins of his people and point them back to covenant loyalty, but repeatedly rejected because of their intensely unpopular proclamations.

Hear the haunting words of 2 Chronicles 36(:15-16). Commenting upon the faithlessness of Judah, it says:

“The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.

But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”

(…speaking there of the Babylon exile)

Friends, Jesus is the remedy! He is Yahweh’s true Prophet! He brings us back from exile. He is the King in the Kingdom of God, with dominion over demons, disease, and death! 

And yet, in the face of stubborn unbelief at Nazareth, Mark is willing to say that Jesus was UNABLE to so a mighty work there.

Sure, he healed a few sick people, but whereas elsewhere in the Gospels it is the crowds who marvel at the mighty words and works of Jesus, here he himself is STUNNED by their unbelief! 

Conclusion:

Sisters, brothers: You can know the facts, and miss the point. Because FACTS aren’t FAITH. 

FAITH is not merely intellectual assent to true propositions about Jesus. Look back at Mark 5, to Jairus and the bleeding woman!

Faith is about entrusting yourself, your entire life, to Jesus as your King – your only Hope, your only Lord.

When you hear “faith,” think “faithfulness.” Think “trust.” Think “loyalty.”

Faith is something absolutely necessary for a relationship to exist. This is true with humans, and it’s true with God.

Knowing the right things, having the Creed memorized backwards and front, is not the same as life-changing loyalty to Jesus Christ.

And, to be sure, faith cannot merely be produced by sheer force of will. We would be nothing but faithless were it not for God’s grace.

But faith does involve our wills, our entire selves. It is something we commit to. It is something that, by God’s grace, we participate in.

And it is something that can be rejected.

Now, there are some in the world who would be perfectly comfortable to come right out say “I reject and refuse Jesus as Lord.” Unbelief can take the form of outright opposition to Jesus. In the Gospels, we see this in those who want Jesus dead.

But that’s not the rejection Jesus receives here at Nazareth. And, my guess is, that’s not the refusal he receives from me, from you, either.

Because, see, we’re prone to the subtler (and therefore greater) rejection of Jesus by making him to “just one of us.” 

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Jesus was and is fully human. He doesn’t save us from a distance. He dove from heaven’s heights into the muck and mire of our sin-stained existence to bring us back to God.

But this salvation involves repentance. It requires turning away from our faithless pursuit of Sin and Death. And it requires the faithfulness of turning toward our faithful God.

Salvation does not require us getting back to God on our own efforts or merit, but it does entail complete and utter dependence on and allegiance to Jesus as King.

But, as we’ve seen, we can escape total allegiance to King Jesus if he’s “just one of us Nazarenes.”

Friends, King Jesus is not “just one of us“!

He has his own agenda of cosmic redemption. He has his own approach, which often appears upside-down to us, because it involves repentance and self-sacrifice, because it includes suffering on a bloodstained Cross before the triumph of the Empty Tomb.

King Jesus is not “just one of us“!

So the uncomfortable question stands: Are we loyal to King Jesus above all else? Or are we loyal to a “Jesus” we’ve made in our own image?

King Jesus is not “middle-to-upper-class-American-Jesus.”

Don’t get me wrong, he cares about the welfare of those around the world and those in this country more than we do. His agenda surely has implications for life here in the United States of America, and it very well might require the hard work of being faithful with many resources and possessions.

But, hear me:

King Jesus doesn’t just want to add a pearly gate to our picket fences. He doesn’t just want to stamp a Jesus-approved ticket to heaven on our pre-existent American Dream.

He wants us to crucify the American Dream!

He calls us to abandon our self-centered agendas of upward mobility, and instead to take up our crosses! To adopt his others-focused agenda of self-sacrificial love!

And just like it was for Jesus’ hometown crowd back then, our easiest way out of this required repentance now is to make Jesus’ message a little less demanding and his mission a little bit more like our ownuntil finally, faithlessly – though we may worship Jesus with our lips – in our hearts, we worship only ourselves.

Briefly notice with me that, in Mark 6:7-13, Jesus sends out his disciples to do what he himself had been doing: preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick.

King Jesus’ followers carry forward his mission. Do we?

Will we, in faith, entrust our entire lives in allegiance to him? No matter the changes? No matter the costs?

Will we refuse to make Jesus into “just one of us”?

King Jesus has dominion over disease, demons, and death. Does he have dominion over our dreams and desires?

By God’s grace — given to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord — By God’s amazing grace, may these things be so, may we follow him faithfully.

Amen.

Concerning Romans

Well, judging by my blog stats for the past 48 hours — as compared with the past few months — I’d get many more views on this post if it concerned the chaos at Cedarville University!

However, my schedule and blood pressure won’t allow me to devote any more time to my shameful alma mater at the moment. I’ve got a presentation at the 2014 Southeast Regional Meeting of ETS tomorrow (see my previous post, and come to my presentation at 5:00pm in room S009!), and even though Beeson Divinity School’s Spring Break is right around the corner, I’ve still got a fair share of reading to get done. 

Nevertheless, given the current discussion in my New Testament Theology — two classes on Romans — I thought I might re-post two of my previous works: 

  1. Romans. Revisited. (or “The Argument-Story of Romans”): my final write-up for Dr. Chris Miller’s course on Romans and Galatians at Cedarville University. We were due to have an oral exam on the last day of class, in which we talked-through the logic of the epistle. I wrote this summary the night before the exam, and was given the opportunity to present it to the class. I now present it to you! Feel free to give me some push-back! 
  2. Romans 13:1-7 — A Contextually-Appropriate Reading: a paper I wrote for the same course as mentioned above, in which I defend the following thesis: “Far from being a comprehensive condensation of the apostle’s beliefs regarding any and all governments past and present, [Romans 13:1-7] is a specific and historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, discouraging them from political unrest, disobedience, and rebellion in order to protect their testimony and the effectiveness of the Roman church in the gospel mission.”

That’s all for now. Grace and Peace. 

~Josh

The Perfect Translation

Over the break between semesters at Beeson Divinity School, I’m reviewing Bruce Waltke’s The Dance Between God and Humanity: Reading the Bible Today as the People of God and Philip Goodwin’s Translating the English Bible: From Relevance to Deconstruction for Liverpool Hope University’s Theological Book Review.

I’ve just finished the latter, and hope to write my review in the next day or two. However, I’d like to share the following quotes on Deconstructive Literalism and The Perfect Translation, because I find the concepts intriguing as a student of Eugene Nida’s dynamic or functional equivalence (when it comes to both NT Greek and modern Spanish), and a newcomer to relevance theory, which Goodwin uses to provide a way forward in the shadow of the KJV tradition. More on that later. In the meantime: 

“What Aichele has noticed is that if the interpreter wants to ‘see’ the source text, he or she would prefer not to have another interpreter standing in the way. The problem with a dynamic equivalence translation, then, is that it does not permit deconstruction of the source text. The translation represents an ideological undertaking which itself can be readily deconstructed, but does not provide access to the source. (207-8).

[…]

“Now, of course Ryken and Collins, whilst advocating concordant translation on the one hand, also desire, on the other hand, to maintain the control over meaning to which Aichele refers, by implicitly linking concordance to thematics. In other words, concordance is seen as desirable because it reinforces the theme (‘the message’, again) of the text, to which it is seen as a servant. They leave unexamined the question of what to do when the phenomenon of concordance might be turned against thematics, to undermine it — to deconstruct it. One man’s exegesis is, however, another’s deconstruction. A concordant translation of a text might serve equally to reveal Aichele’s ‘defects and problems’ or Ryken’s ‘full exegetical potential’ — to reinforce its ‘intention’, or to undermine it. I will argue that it does both. (208).

[…] 

“The perfect translation is the one whose relationship to a source text is such that it permits both the construction of the releveant interpretation of that text, and its deconstruction.” (209). 

(Italics: original emphasis; Bold: added emphasis)

The Epistle to Philemon: Analysis and Application

 

As the briefest member of the Pauline corpus, the epistle to Philemon is a letter of recommendation for the sake of reconciliation in which the apostle Paul brings the gospel truth of mutual participation in the body of Christ to bear on an estranged relationship – making a delicate request of his friend Philemon to receive back a certain Onesimus into full fellowship as a brother in Christ.[1]

Comprehension of the passage’s contemporaneous Greco-Roman epistolary landscape facilitates a knowledgeable analysis of its constituent parts.[2] Subsequently, the interpretive insights yielded by this examination facilitate an application of the letter to the contemporary Christian church.

Greco-Roman Letters

Originally referring to “an oral communication sent by messenger,” the Hellenistic ἐπιστολή eventually encompassed a wide variety of documents – from commercial to legal, political to personal.[3] As Greidanus notes, the basic form of a Greco-Roman letter was tripartite, consisting of introduction/opening, body, and conclusion.[4]

The first section named the sender and addressee, often including a brief greeting and “a wish for good health.”[5] Most difficult to analyze formally, the body of Hellenistic letters was flexible enough to encompass content suited to each writing’s particular communicative act.[6] Finally, “greetings to persons other than the addressee, a final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes a date” comprised a typical conclusion to Greco-Roman epistles.[7]

In contrast to literary essays and official documents of the day, written to general audiences apart from any relational context, Paul’s letters are more private and personal – exhibiting his pastoral concern for those to whom he was a representative of Christ and an elder in the faith.[8] Nevertheless, the Pauline epistles arguably exceed their contemporaneous correspondence in length, structure, and didactic intent.[9]

Although Paul understandably followed the prevailing Greco-Roman form in his own letters, he nonetheless freely adapted the epistolary conventions of the day to suit his own purposes.

For example, as O’Brien notes, although “on occasion the more intimate letters of the Hellenistic period began with a thanksgiving to the gods for personal benefits received,” Paul expanded and developed the introductory thanksgiving/blessing section in his writings more often than any writer of his day, yielding a mix of Hellenistic form with Jewish and Christian content which is present in most of his letters.[10]

Similarly, Paul often modified the Greco-Roman form by including a concluding paranetic section of exhortation after the body of his letters.[11]

Analysis of Philemon

An appreciation of Pauline epistolary form in Greco-Roman context yields important interpretive insights relating to both the parts and whole of the letter to Philemon, in which Paul displays remarkable tact as he advances his request for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.[12] 

Although lacking a definite section of paranesis, the epistle is composed of

  • an opening greeting (Philem 1-3),
  • thanksgiving/prayer (4-7),
  • body (8-22),
  • and closing (23-25).[13]

Opening Greeting

Of immediate note, Paul atypically refers to himself, in the midst of an otherwise standard greeting, not as an apostle (cf. Gal 1:1) or servant (cf. Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1), but as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philem 1; NRSV) – perhaps best explained by his desire throughout “to entreat rather than command” (cf. 8-9), but also to stress Onesimus’ usefulness to him in his captivity (cf. 11-13).[14]

Sender (“Paul…and Timothy”; Philem 1a), and addressee (“Philemon…Apphia…Archippus…and the church in your house”; 1b-2) thus identified, Paul’s signature greeting of χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη (3) functions as a benedictional transition to a section of thanksgiving and prayer (4-7), which – as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus – introduces the letter’s main themes.[15]

Thanksgiving/Prayer

As Bruce notes, “the ground of the thanksgiving and the substance of the prayer are closely related to the purpose of the letter.”[16] Paul gives thanks to God because of Philemon’s love, faith, and refreshment of “the hearts of the saints” (Philem 5, 7).

The content of Paul’s subsequent prayer, then, is that “the sharing of [Philemon’s] faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (6; ESV).

However, the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου is better translated as “the mutual belonging which is proper to your faith,” referring to, as Wright puts it, “the mutuality of the Christian life which, springing from common participation in the body of Christ, extends beyond mere common concern into actual exchange” – a mutual belonging which lies at the heart of Paul’s argument and requests throughout the epistle.[17]

In addition to introducing the key themes of love/heart (cf. ἀγάπη, 4,7,9; σπλάγχνα, 7,12,20) and mutual participation (cf. κοινωνόν, 17), the thanksgiving/prayer rhetorically establishes mutual goodwill as an exordium in which Paul emphasizes characteristics of Philemon to which he can then appeal.[18]

Body

The main request of the letter’s body – of noteworthy length in its Greco-Roman context – is that Philemon should receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul (17b).[19]

Although Paul makes use of every persuasive tactic at his disposal – including concession of apostolic authority (8; 19b), emotional appeal (9, 12), pun (11), and appeal to honor (14) – the main thrust of the argument depends on the “mutual belonging” (6) between Philemon and Onesimus now that the latter has become a Christian during Paul’s captivity (10).[20]

Regardless of the exact nature of the past estrangement (about which Paul remains virtually silent), Philemon is urged to interpret the seemingly unfortunate state of affairs as an opportunity for eternal reconciliation (15-16), transferring any debts that Onesimus had incurred to Paul’s own account instead (18). In receiving back Onesimus, Paul’s “very heart” (12b), as “a beloved brother” (16), Philemon would continue his refreshment of the saints’ hearts (7) by refreshing Paul’s heart (20).[21]

Here, then, is an analogous microcosm of the gospel itself – a fulfillment of Paul’s prayer for κοινωνία (6) and of the cruciform “ministry of reconciliation” of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Colossians 1:24-29.[22]

As Wright notes, just as in Christ God reconciles the entire world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), “God is in Paul reconciling Philemon and Onesimus” – who both owed a debt, so to speak, to the apostle for their conversion (Philem 10, 19b).[23]

Confident of Philemon’s compliance with his reconciliatory request (21), Paul makes an additional request for lodging based on Paul’s hope for release from imprisonment and subsequent travel to Colossae to be present with his audience (22) – an epistolary structure known as the “apostolic parousia,” revealing Paul’s consideration of his writings as substitutes for his physical presence.[24]

Closing

Finally, Paul reports the greetings of his gospel co-workers to Philemon (23-24), before reverting to the plural to include the other addressees (2) in his concluding benediction.[25]

Application

If the consensus interpretation that Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave is correct, then Deuteronomy 23:15-16 would seem to mandate that Paul not return the fugitive to his estranged master. [26]

However, the reality of their mutual belonging in Christ compelled the apostle to facilitate the reconciliation now possible due to the Messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 5:16-21).

Nevertheless, Lightfoot reveals a potential hurdle for modern readers of this ancient text when he notes that, though “the word ‘emancipation’ seems to be trembling on [Paul’s] lips…he does not once utter it.”[27]

The first step in resolving this frustration involves the clear delineation between the context of slavery in which Onesimus lived, the transatlantic slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries, and the modern day slavery of human trafficking and forced labor – for it is far too easy to conflate the three in indignation at Paul’s failure to request Onesimus’ freedom.[28]

Then, once the anachronism of expecting Paul to be a modern abolitionist is noted, it can be clearly seen that, as Bruce observes, though the epistle to Philemon “throws little light on Paul’s attitude to the institution of slavery,” it brings “the institution into an atmosphere where it could only wilt and die.[29]

After all, the same κοινωνία that enabled Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled could not help but destroy the dynamics of slavery within the kingdom of God and body of Christ – where “there is no longer slave or free,” but all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

According to the world, Onesimus belonged to Philemon as a slave. According to Christ, they belonged to one another as brothers.

Although here in Philemon, as elsewhere (cf. Col 3:22-4:1), Paul stops short of prohibiting slavery, it is clear that he understood the gospel of Jesus Christ inescapably to transform the divisive condition of humanity into a restored, eternal unity which transcended all temporal divisions (cf. 1 Cor 7:17-24; Col 3:11).

Paul’s tactful requests reveal that the bond between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in the Lord (Philem 16) was far stronger than the social expectations of master and slave.

Transcending the issue of slavery – yet simultaneously striking at its very core – Paul’s masterfully crafted epistle to Philemon reminds Christians in every age to apply consistently the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their relationships, in spite of individualism’s siren song, which might tempt them to manipulate and dominate instead of to mutually belong to one another in κοινωνία.

Furthermore, readers of Paul’s letter to Philemon should follow his peace-making example by seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in their respective contexts – no matter how discordant or seemingly insignificant.

This brief letter thus coheres with the biblical theme of unity. Because God is one, his people are called to be one as well – a community of forgiven women and men, Jews and Gentiles, even slaves and masters who forgive each other’s debts and refresh each other’s hearts in the κοινωνία of their faith in Jesus their Messiah.[30]


[1] Philemon is categorized as a letter of recommendation by D. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 211-2 and W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 431. This paper assumes the “consensus view” of the epistle’s provenance: namely, that the apostle Paul is addressing Philemon of Colossae regarding the estranged slave and now convert, Onesimus. The creative reconstruction of J. Knox, in which the extant epistle to Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) which was written by Paul to Archippus (Philem 2), master of Onesimus, is here ignored; cf. J. Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon, 1959). For critical responses to Knox’s claims from the consensus view, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 198-202; G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 217; and N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, TNTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 164-6.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “Greco-Roman” and “Hellenistic” are used synonymously.

[3] P.T. O’Brien, “Letters, Letter Forms,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 550.

[4] S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 315; cf. W.G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973) 27; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551.

[5] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[6] Doty, Letters, 34-5.

[7] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[8] O’Brien cites the intensely personal letter to the Galatians and Paul’s emphasis on apostleship at Gal 1:1, 15, 16; 5:2. O’Brien “Letters,” 551.

[9] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 426.

[10] Although notably absent from the epistle to the Galatians. P.T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 69; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551-2; Cf. 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 1:3-4; Rom 1:8-10; Eph 1:3-14; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-14; 1 Thess 1:2-3:13; 2 Thess 1:2-12; 2:13-14; Philem 4-7.

[11] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 316; cf. 1 Cor 16:13-18; Rom 15:14-32; Doty, Letters, 27; pace Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, who include thanksgiving and paranesis in “the fairly typical [Greco-Roman] structure,” claiming that NT thanksgiving sections “performed what all writers considered a common courtesy.” Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 430. While a definitive stance is impossible sans a comprehensive study of Hellenistic epistolary literature, it seems best to emphasize the distinctiveness of Pauline thanksgiving and paranesis.

[12] See A. Patzia, “Philemon,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 706. As a letter of recommendation, the passages closest extant parallel is perhaps a letter from Pliny the Younger to a certain Sabinianus, requesting that he mercifully receive a penitent freedman. Pliny, Letter, 9.21; cited by Aune, New Testament, 211 and J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 318-9.

[13] Pace Doty’s suggestion that Philem 21 contains the formulaic paranesis. For robust examples of Pauline paranesis, see Rom 12:1-15:13; Gal 5:13-6:10; 1 Thess 4:1-12, 5:1-22, the other examples cited by Doty, Letters, 43.

[14] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 333; cf. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 205; Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 172. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV].

[15]  “Grace and peace” is a modification of the Hellenistic greeting χαίρειν, designed both to affirm the grace and peace of God which his readers already possessed and to pray that they might enjoy/embody such blessings more fully; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551. On the epistolary function of Pauline thanksgivings, see O’Brien, “Benediction,” 70.

[16] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208.

[17] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 175-6; cf. 2 Cor 1:6-7; 4:10-15; Col 1:24; T.G. Gombis, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2010) 40; pace suggestions of κοινωνία here as evangelism (so NIV, Philem 6) or vague generosity (so Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208-9; and Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 335). The concept of Christian mutual belonging can be seen to have its roots in the “fellow Israelite” laws of the Pentateuch – the example par excellence being Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

[18] Aune, New Testament, 211. The theme of mutual belonging is also expressed in the use of fellowship terminology in the epistle’s opening and conclusion: ἀδελφὸς (1), συνεργῷ (1), ἀδελφῇ (2), συστρατιώτῃ (2), συναιχμάλωτός (23), and συνεργοί (24).

[19] Doty, Letters, 35.

[20] Although Patzia rightly acknowledges the “continuing questions of interpretation” relating to the location of Paul’s imprisonment (Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea) and the timing/nature of Onesimus’ conversion, neither issue is central to the discussion at hand of mutual belonging in Christ; Patzia, Philemon, 705. Rhetorical arguments noted by Aune, New Testament, 211. As Patzia notes, per rhetorical criticism the epistle can be structured into exordium (4-7), proof (8-16), and peroration (17-22). Patzia, “Philemon,” 704.

[21] Aune, New Testament, 211-2.

[22] By “the gospel,” I am primarily referring to the atonement as the act in which God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his attributes to bear on our sinful condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. See A.J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth. (New York: T&T Clark, 2012).

[23] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 181, 186-7; cf. Paul’s use of sonship as a metaphor regarding conversion: 1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 6:13; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22.

[24] Doty, Letters, 36; O’Brien, “Letters,” 552.

[25] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 224-5; Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison, 223. The list of names at Philem 23-24 mirrors that found at Col 4:10-17, except for the omission of Jesus Justus (Col 4:11). Of note, though impossible to explain fully, is Epaphras’ designation as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” instead of a “fellow worker” as the others. However, Bruce notes that, as “the evangelist of the Lycus valley” in which Colossae was located (cf. Col 1:7; 4:12), Epaphras “would be personally known to Philemon,” and thus merit distinct mention. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 213-4. The concluding benediction of Philem 25 closely resembles Gal 6:18 and Phil 4:23.

[26] Bruce, Caird, Lightfoot, and Wright all adopt the consensus view. Deuteronomy passage cited by Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197, fn. 19.

[27] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 323.

[28] Although an analysis of first century slavery far exceeds the scope of this essay, a potential aid in differentiating between ancient and modern slavery when it comes to Philemon is Gombis’ critique of the consensus view’s failure to acknowledge Paul’s language of ἀδελφὸν…ἐν σαρκὶ at Philem 16. It is likely that Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship was different than that between a normal master and slave. See T.G. Gombis, “Philemon and Onesimus: ‘Brothers in the Flesh’” (paper presented at the International Meeting of the SBL, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11 July, 2013).

[29] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197-8. Similarly, Wright notes that, although “inveighing against slavery per se [at the time] would have been totally ineffective,” Paul’s subtler message mimics Christ’s approach to cosmic change from the bottom up, from the inside out. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 168-9.

[30] Cf. Deut 6:4; John 17:20-23; Eph 4:1-6.