Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

True Feminism is not about special privileges for women, but about equal dignity, value and opportunity for all people, regardless of gender.

Last week it was claimed on national television that ‘Islam is the most feminist religion.’ Since that claim, many have been debating its accuracy.

Sometimes that best way to disprove a claim is not to show why it’s wrong, but simply to point out an alternative that clearly trumps it.

So, here’s a few things Biblical Christianity gives women:

  1. A knowledge that they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This means women and men may equally be representatives of God – ambassadors of His authority in ruling over creation, and communicators of His character in their love and care for other creatures and fellow human beings. No other religion contains the concept of ‘The Image of God,’ being applied to all people.
  2. As ‘Daughters of Eve,’ women have a wonderful and unique privilege of giving life in a way a man cannot. ‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.’ (Genesis 3:20). It’s significant to see that this statement is made immediately after the man is told that because of the curse of sin, he will labour and toil, and eventually die and return to the dust. As an act of faith, he knew that this was not a final word, since God would show His ongoing patience, care and love for humanity through Even and all her daughters; and ultimately in her descendant who would be the saviour of the world (Genesis 3:15).
  3. In Old Testament Israel, women were often given special protection under the law, in recognition of the fact that they were more likely to be the victims of violence from men (eg. Deuteronomy 22:25-29). To our modern 21st century western ears some of these laws seem patriarchal, however if we understand them in the cultural context of the time, they are laws that are pro-woman. These laws have provided some basis for the Western legal system that allows liberty, equality and protection for all citizens.
  4. Jesus welcomed, healed, taught, ate and drank with women, may of whom were considered outcasts by the culture of the time. (John 4:1-45) His confrontation of a gang of men about to stone a woman caught in adultery exposed their hypocrisy in assuming her guilt, and their moral superiority. (John 8:2-10) As far as Jesus is concerned, women and men are to be given equal opportunities to receive grace and forgiveness; as well as in the gracious call to repent and turn from a sinful lifestyle.
  5. In Christian gatherings men and women sit together. This may not sound significant to us today, but in the first century it was a radical departure from the Synagogue practice of separating men and women. Not only this, but women were active participants in the worship, both praying and prophesying in church – also a radical liberation of women (1 Corinthians 11:5-16 – The caveats in this passage about head coverings are to do with cultural sensitivities, as well as honouring the God-given distinctives between genders.)
  6. In Christ, women and men are ‘Joint heirs of the grace of life,’ (1 Peter 3:7) and ‘all one in Jesus Christ,’ (Galatians 3:28). Neither gender deserves grace any more or less than the other, since grace is not about deserving, but about God giving freely without partiality.
  7. The Christian hope for the New Creation is that many aspects of this world that give rise to discrimination, bigotry and oppression (not just between genders, but also between race, class, role, etc.) will pass away. ‘Heaven’ will not be populated by men served by virgins (Islam) or women as child-producers for new worlds (Mormonism); neither will it be populated by homogeneous, gender-neutral angels (A culturally popular idea, started by Swedenborgianism, the religion of Helen Keller). Rather, the New Heavens and Earth will be filled with the glory of God as Men and Women, both transformed into the image of Jesus, love and serve God and one another in full freedom and holiness. Adam’s words of Genesis 3:20 will be somewhat reflected in that this renewed humanity will be called ‘The Bride, the Wife of the Lamb’ (Revelation 21:9) An incredible dignity and honour will be bestowed on women by having attributes of their gender bestowed on this redeemed, eternal community.

So I wonder. Which religion is the most feminist?

WHat about Pro life

Abortion & Euthanasia are hot topics. Both are generally framed, in popular culture, in terms of human rights and dignity:

“It’s a woman’s right to determine what happens to her body”

“Everyone has the right to die with dignity”

Because of this framing, those who oppose abortion and euthanasia in principle, can easily be characterised as being dispassionate and against human rights. Christians may be painted as hypocritical, or as forcing women to see through an unwanted pregnancy, or making people suffer unnecessarily.

Our modern conception of ‘universal’ or ‘inalienable’ human rights has emerged out of Europe in the last few centuries, with two key catalysts being the French Revolution and the American war of independence. The American declaration of independence famously states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

There is a good case for arguing that this emergence of the concept of human rights was allowed and fostered by Europe and North America’s Judeo-Christian ethical framework. The Bible’s anthropology views human beings as being made in the image of God:

26Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

To be ‘in the image of God’ means to reflect God’s character and actions in our own character and actions, and is intrinsically related to the idea of ‘sonship’ – ie. the image is not merely functional, but relational; we are designed to live as children of God, joyfully obeying, and delighting in the privilege of participating in theFather’s own work in the world.

The goal of a human being in God’s image is to bring honour, or ‘glory’ to God. An accurate and joyful reflecting of God in a human being, ultimately means that God will be the primary focus and cause for all creation to worship him:

In love 5he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace. (Ephesians 1:4-6)

This image also gives human beings inestimable dignity and significance above all other creatures, and imbues us with a sense of purpose and hope. ‘Human progress’ is an outworking of this innate drive within us to be always moving forward, with the goal of human flourishing in harmony with the creation around us. This dignity, however, is designed to be found not in and of ourselves, but in the context of right relationship with God. As soon as the relationship is severed, the image becomes distorted, and begins working ‘in reverse’.

Man lived by love. Now, cutting himself off from God as his ‘supply’ he became a creature of self goodness, self righteousness, self holiness, self veracity, self love. Self love we call self-centred love, and theologians speak about eros although that is a word not used in the New Testament. It is self love, and it is centred on glorifying itself. Eros causes most of the misery that there is in the world. Man sees his answers to life’s problems in himself. (Geoffrey Bingham, “God’s greatest gift: Glory”)

Genesis presents this image as a ‘primeval instinct’ in human beings – in other words, it is present in all people and in all (or most) human societies. The adoption of Christianity as the ‘offical’ religion of much of Europe enabled this concept of be explicitly taught, and became ingrained in the psyche of the ‘Christian’ West.

With the rise of secularism – ironically also with the French Revolution as its ‘flagship’ event – we have held onto the idea of personal dignity and worth, but jettisoned the belief in a personal, relational and moral Creator on which it was founded. And because the foundation for this belief has been removed, the belief itself has had to be adapted to fit a secular worldview.

Human dignity has now come to be understood as something intrinsic to our humanity in and of itself. This dignity is preserved through:

  1. Freedom of choice. I should be the only one to make decisions about myself and what affects me.
  2. Minimisation of suffering. I am entitled (as much as possible) to a life free of pain and suffering, both physical and psychological.
  3. Justice. I should be treated rightly and fairly.
  4. Longevity. The above should happen for as long as possible, especially since this life is all that counts.

These things are good, and important to human flourishing. They are also things that the Bible upholds as good, and which people are called to seek for others if they are truly loving their neighbour.

However, they are not presented at things that a person should demand for themselves. Very often the ‘Pro-Choice’ argument is presented in this way – as a right to dignity that people should be encouraged to insist on for themselves. This right to self-determination generally trumps the principle of ‘As long as you don’t cause harm to others.’ And so in the abortion debate, true humanity is denied to the foetus, so that it cannot be claimed that his/her rights are being infringed; in the euthanasia debate little attention is given to the impact of ongoing grief on friends and relatives who lose their loved one. The debate becomes one of relative merits, since there is no longer a sense of absolute truth given by God about the nature of human life; it is now up to us to determine its nature and limits.

In Jesus we see a human being of true dignity. Jesus shows us what it looks like for a person to be living in and expressing the true image of God – he is in fact described as, ‘The Son… the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.’ (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is literally, and eternally the Son of God the Father, and in his incarnation (ie. entering the creation and taking on humanity) he shows us what a true son/daughter looks like – that which we have been designed for.

Significantly, we could argue that Jesus forewent all of the four previously mentioned criteria for human dignity – while still maintaining dignity!

  1. Jesus made it clear that he was not here to do his own will, but God’s (eg. Luke 22:42, John 5:19). He was joyful in his obedience to God, willing to always put God’s and other people’s needs before his own, even if that meant ‘losing’ his own freedom of choice.
  2. Jesus certainly did not shrink from suffering, because it was for the sake of others and for God’s glory (Matthew 8:14-17, 20, Luke 22:42). He willingly entered the extreme suffering of crucifixion, facing not only the physical pain, but also experiencing in his soul the pain of abandonment by the Father himself, as he bore the consequences of our sinfulness.
  3. In this suffering Jesus endured rank injustice from the hands of his enemies (1 Peter 2:20-23), but did not retaliate or demand justice for himself. He knew that his Father is completely just, and that in the end no wrong will not be righted, and no right will go unrewarded. So, in the cross he faced from God what he didn’t deserve, in our place, so that human beings may be forgiven and not get what we deserve!
  4. Jesus was only 33 when he died – a short life by most standards. However he knew and taught that this life is not all there is – that those who live by faith in God have a hope beyond the grave that reaches int eternity. Not only that, but the experiences of this life – including the suffering – are used by God to shape the nature of our life beyond the grave. Because of this he was free to not shrink back from suffering or even death, because when seen in the light of eternity this life is a blink in time, yet none of it is wasted, no matter how short.

Because of who Jesus is and what he accomplished, God calls people to repent and turn to faith in Jesus. It is through being reconciled to God through him, that a person has their view of life and death and ethics reoriented back to the way God designed us to see things. The life that flows out of faith in Jesus finds fulfilment and purpose, identity and dignity in living in harmony with God, and no longer depends on having a drive to find those things within oneself or in the systems of this world. A follower of Jesus seeks to be like him, in seeking to live first for God and for others, not for themselves:

‘…the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this:that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.’ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

You’re all doomed. The world will be ending shortly, and Bill Shorten is the Anti-Christ.

Not really.

But it got your attention. So read on…

It occurred to me that in all the discussion and debate around so-called ‘marriage equality,’ I haven’t seen many Christians quoting from the book of Revelation. So I thought I’d give it a go.

The book of Revelation is a book that is profoundly relevant to both first century Christians and twenty-first century Christians, and in fact all Christians in between. I believe that both those who confine it to a first century milieu (sometimes called ‘Preterists’) and those who see it as largely a yet-to-be fulfilled end time scenario (sometimes called ‘Futurists’) have a faulty way of interpreting the book.

Revelation contains images that communicate the truth about a reality (‘apocalyptic’). The visions John sees are not literal previews of actual historical events to come, but an ‘uncovering’ of the true nature of God and His work in the world through Jesus Christ, and the true nature of the worldly system of rebellious human beings, in partnership with Satan, trying to undermine and overthrow God.

The original readers would have understood the book to be describing their exact situation, and giving them hope to see that behind all the tumultuous events of their time, the Father is seated on the throne and overseeing it all, and that his Son is the true King and saviour in home they can rely 100%.

Revelation helps us as Christians to not be surprised when we see a great divergence between ourselves and the world; when, as Jesus himself predicted, the world hates us, tries to shut us down, and even kills us. In this age our cry is not, ‘Will you save us?’ but ‘How long until you do?’. The book gives us a sure hope for the future culmination of God’s plan to make the kingdom of this world into His Kingdom, when we will see Him face to face and know the gentle touch of his hand as He wipes the tears from our eyes.

“The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.” (Revelation 13:15-18 NIV)

John’s terrifying vision of a dragon and beasts is an expose of Satan’s strategy to undermine God by mimicking His work in order to lead people into idolatry (ie. worship and service of anything that is not God). The Dragon of 13:1 is the Devil, the ‘Father of lies’, who attempts to usurp the Father; He brings forth from the sea a beast which mimics Christ (often identified the ‘Anti-Christ) and claims to be a powerful, resurrected saviour. The second beast is the first beast’s PR machine: it points people to the first beast and leads people to worship it, as it mimics – you guessed it – the Holy Spirit.

Having the mark of the first beast is a sign of ownership and loyalty. It marks the person out as one who was a worshipper of the beast; one who has surrendered their rights and privileges in order to be part of the worldly system.

Those who don’t have the mark – who refuse to give in to idolatry – are marginalised by the world, unable to even buy or sell in order to make a living and feed their families. Christians at the time were literally facing this exclusion, as they refused membership in trade guilds that demanded a pledge to the trade’s patron deity, and as their refusal to honour Caesar as God resulted in their execution.

The message for Christians was not ‘Whatever you do, don’t take the mark!’, but something much more comforting: after an unfortunate chapter break, in 14:1:

‘…there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.’ (Revelation 14:1 NIV).

Do you see the parallel? The redeemed already have a mark on them – the name of the Father and of the Lamb! Christians are owned by the Father, who has purchased them with the precious blood of Christ:

‘Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.’ (2 Corinthians 1:21-22 NIV)

So what we see in this passage is a call for Christians to stand firm on the grace of their salvation, knowing a rock-solid security in Christ, as the world around them seems bent on going to hell in a handbasket.

Notice that the 144000 are not called to fight the beasts or lobby for their downfall. That’s the job of the Lamb, their champion, who will lead the charge and defeat the beasts; and they can rest assured that they will share in his victory. (What a counter-cultural image – three ferocious monsters defeated by a lamb!).

‘What’s this got to do with gay marriage?’ I hear you say. Well, if you’ve persevered this far through my very long introduction, you’re about to be rewarded with the application.

Christians do not fit into the world today any more than they did 1900 years ago. It should come as no shock to us if our faith in Christ results in us being ostracised, demonised or even ultimately killed. Jesus’ promise  of hatred from the world was not just for his immediate disciples, but for anyone who would be his disciple.

Sadly, the church in the west today often seems more interested in winning the approval of the world than in standing with the Lamb and risking losing everything. When the world says to us, ‘If you don’t support marriage equality, you’re disgusting bigots!’ we seem eager to jump through any hoops the world wants us to, even to the point of agreeing with them when they tell us, ‘Jesus never said anything against homosexuality, so it must be OK.’ or ‘Jesus hung around with ‘sinners’ and didn’t judge them.’

By doing this, we are giving in to the campaign to set up an antichrist. An antichrist is not necessarily one who is explicitly opposed to Christ, but is a rival, or alternative christ. It is a christ made in the image of the father of lies; a christ that is appealing to a world filled with people who are rebels at heart and who will do anything but worship the true and living God. A christ that says, ‘Your sin is not that bad after all; in fact, you’re all OK doing whatever you like! See then kingdoms of the world? I will give them all to you if you simply bow down and worship me.’

So it is no coincidence that in a number of countries that have already legalised same-sex marriage there are a growing number of Christians who are being fined and forced out of business, simply because out of loyalty to the true Christ they are refusing to participate in same-sex wedding by providing their professional services. Already a church has already faced legal action for refusing to perform a gay wedding. Already Christian ministries are facing disadvantages for not complying with ‘anti discrimination’ rules, and are being labeled ‘homophobic’ even if they have said nothing publicly and explicitly about homosexuality.

How are Christians to respond to something that many are saying is inevitable? While different Christians have various views on this issue, as well as on how involved we should be in lobbying against the change, I think one thing is sure: Christians in the West who hold firmly to the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality will find themselves increasingly marginalised as our culture moves step by step further away from the Christian values imbibed in it from the era of Christendom.

But it’s not cause to panic. And, in my view, it’s not cause to go out with placards and protest and demand that the beast of human rebellion and haughty independence not be worshipped.

Do we really believe that the Father is sovereign over the rise and fall of kingdoms and cultures? Do we really know that the only thing that is ultimately inevitable is the victory of Christ and the uniting of all things under Him? Are we willing to accept the truth that the decline of a culture into immorality is simply a sign of the wrath of God that is upon it, and is designed so that the grace and kindness of God may be even more magnified as He redeems people from the miry pit of their hard-hearted sinfulness?

We should not overlook what happens next in John’s vision:

‘Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth —to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water. (Revelation 14:6-7 NIV)

As he stands gazing, at on one hand the seething mass of rebellious humanity revelling in its worship of the beast, and on the other hand the glorious risen Lamb with his redeemed people, he hears of the one thing that can bridge the vast gap between the two: the Eternal Gospel. It is a Gospel that calls people to repentance in light of the unavoidable fact of God’s judgement in and though the One He has appointed – Jesus. It’s a Gospel that calls people to true worship of the true God, who created all things, including – and this is easily overlooked – the ‘springs of water.’ In 7:16 we see these springs mentioned:

‘“…the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”’ (Revelation 7:17 NIV)

So the Gospel is also a call to sinners to come and drink at the springs of living water that God’s grace and mercy provide.

This is the main task of the church, and even more so as we feel like we are being assaulted from every side. We are not called to preserve or reform the social and political structures of the world; they are only temporary and are doomed to pass with the rise and fall of civilisation under the hand of the Father. It is only as we faithfully proclaim the Gospel that we will see hearts transformed, with the fruit of right, Christ honouring living coming as a result.

There are two things this does not mean for Christians as we face the demise of culture. Firstly, it cannot mean smugness. We cannot stand on the sidelines wagging our fingers saying, ‘I told you so – but then what else should I expect from reprobates like you?’ Remember, we only stand with the Lamb on Mt Zion because we have been redeemed. That is the only thing that separates us from our pagan neighbours: the gracious redeeming work of Christ.

And secondly, it does not mean we remain silent on the moral issues that face us. The Gospel is the good news of redemption from the power, penalty and pollution of sin. That means sin must be a topic we discuss whenever we are attempting to communicate the Gospel. When sin increases, grace abounds even more (Romans 5:20) – in other words, seeing the horror of sin only serves to magnify the lavish grace of God that rescues us from that sin. Out of love for our neighbours, we cannot stop pointing out their sinfulness, because then the Gospel will be seen for what it is – the best news ever.

Recent events in Indonesia, with the execution of two men caught for drug trafficking, have caused many to speak out with their views on the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment.

There are two things that bother me when it comes to this issue.

  1. Christians (often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment to be right and call for its reintroduction and application to all crimes touched on by Old Testament law.
  2. Christians (also often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment as evil, primitive and barbaric, with no place in modern society.

Let me start with the second first. Such a view casts moral judgement on the principle of capital punishment by calling it wrong.

Straight away this view has a problem because it runs up against the God of the Bible who not only commands and upholds the death penalty in Old Testament Israel, but who Himself actually practices the death penalty. ‘The wages of sin is death.’ (Romans 6:23) ‘The day you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Genesis 2:17) ‘The soul that sins shall die.’ (Ezekiel 18:20). Death is a fitting penalty for all who defy God and defame HIs glory. The punishment fits the crime. Any attempt to overthrow the eternally valuable Creator of all things deserves the fitting penalty of exclusion from His favour for eternity. Death is not merely the ceasing of animation of our physical bodies, nor the termination of existence, but existing under the curse of God, with all the blessings of ‘common grace’ removed. Death is ultimately God getting the justice that He deserves, and so He is perfectly within His eternal rights to see that justice is served.

For this reason – the eternal worth of His glory – God delegates to human beings, creatures made in His image to rule over creation, to be defenders of that glory by administering justice in creation. And so Genesis 9:5-6 he states:

‘…for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’

The primary thing at stake here is the image of God, before it is the bearers of the image. This is not primarily a defence of the worth or value of human life, but a defence of the glory of God, which is supposed to be accurately portrayed and worshipped by all creatures under humanity’s headship. The logic here is that any person (or animal) who attacks the bearer of the image is essentially attacking God, and so forfeits their own right to live. This exempts their executioner from the same crime, because what is happening here is not revenge or retribution, but justice. Crimes in Old Testament Israel that were punishable by death all in some way can be traced back to this offence of attacking or defiling the image of God.

(If you think that makes God out to be selfish – in that He is only concerned with His own honour – that concern is answered by a Trinitarian understanding of God; but we don’t have time to go into that here. Wait for a future post in which I will address that.)

So, as I mentioned at the start, if we declare the death penalty in principle to be wrong, evil or barbaric, we risk being guilty of the heresy of Marcionism – the view that the god of the Old Testament was an angry, spiteful god who was replaced by the nice, loving tolerant God of Jesus and the New Testament. Or at least they portray God, who was angry and malicious in the Old, having been pacified by gentle, meek, pacifist Jesus.

We also risk cultural arrogance – assuming that somehow we today are more intelligent, morally astute, or just ‘better’ than those who came before us or who still practice capital punishment, because we have somehow ‘grown up’. That’s a very Western, arrogant stance to take.

Not only that, but we as Christians risk caving in to pressure from the world to conform to its values and principles, largely in the name of being liked by the world. Just because the world – using the rhetoric of compassion – declares something to be wrong and unjust, does not automatically mean that it is. We should be seeking to, ‘take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:5), not accepting unquestionably every thought and making look like obedience to Christ.

So what about the second view? You may think that in light of all I have just said I would be an advocate of that view. I have just shown Biblically that capital punishment is right, right?

Not so fast. This second view, that we should insist and expect our governments to apply capital punishment can tend to overlook a significant shift that took place in the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. In the Old, God’s chosen people constituted a national, political entity. The Kingdom of God was expressed in the people of Israel, defined by their ethnic, political, and religious distinction from all the nations around them. All this was preparation for the coming of the Messiah, and when He came, personified in Jesus, a momentous shift occurred. Jesus stood before the representative of one of the most powerful human empires and declared ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ (John 18:36) This statement signifies the change that would happen with the establishment of the New Covenant. No longer would any one nation be God’s representatives and mediators of His promises; the Kingdom of God was now being opened up to people from every tribe and tongue and nation, and its citizens will be defined as all those who declare, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ regardless of their earthly location or allegiance.

What this means is that Christians have no place to insist that secular national governments and rulers act as if they are administrators of God’s Kingdom. That place is reserved – and filled – by the risen Jesus. To try to get Old Testament Israel’s laws introduced as the foundation of secular government not only ignores the reality of Biblical fulfilment (that fact that Jesus’ arrival means that many of Israel’s ceremonial and civil laws are now obsolete and done away with), but also gives to that government a level of responsibility that God has not given it. Christians are nowhere called to lobby or campaign for change to worldly governments’ policy or practice, but rather to pray for, pay tax to, and honour their rulers, and by doing so honour God who instituted them (Romans 13:1-7). This implies living with laws that we do not necessarily agree with, or see as unrighteous.

This works both ways on this issue. Both sides can insist that their view is based on Biblical, Christian principles; one on the truth of the Bible, and the other on Jesus’ principles of compassion. Yet insisting that our government conform to either of these is still expecting the kingdoms of this world to adjust and conform to make themselves out to be the kingdom of God. And the Bible is clear: the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over all creation will not be made manifest by the kingdoms of the world conforming to His rule, but by their eventual fall and replacement by His rule:

‘…there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ (Revelation 11:15)

What happened in Indonesia in the execution of two Australian drug traffickers was a indeed great tragedy, but not because the Indonesian government has no right to enforce capital punishment on those who commit crimes it sees worthy of death. It was a tragedy because it highlights the fact that we live in a fallen world as fallen people in which death reigns – even before any executions have taken place. The fate of these two young men who faced the justice system of an earthly ruler should be reminder to all people that we all stand accountable before a much greater, infinitely more just, Ruler of our souls, who will never be unfair or mistaken in His verdict and sentence upon us. This is the Ruler who, in the face of our certain death, stepped down into our situation, placed himself into our chains and stood in the prison cell in our place. This Ruler faced the execution squad for the crime of treason that we are guilty of, and ensured that through faith we may receive not justice, but mercy. In the cross the Father’s justice was satisfied, as the blood of the true Image of God was shed in the place of the one’s who had taken the image and defaced and defiled it. Now this Ruler stands as our Judge – a judge who is ready to pardon death-row sinners on the basis of His own self sacrifice.

In His goodness and mercy, God brought these two Australian men to know and trust in this truth before they died.

Will you also believe and trust?

Some estimates have up to 90% of the population of Rome were slaves or slave origin in 1st & 2nd centuries, and 30% of the whole empire! Slavery was very much a part of the social fibre. Slaves technically had no civil rights, yet by New Testament times slaves were permitted to ‘marry’ (although their children remained the property of their owners), and many slaves were paid, which enabled them to eventually buy their own freedom and even sometimes enter into business partnerships with their former masters. Slaves were named by their masters (‘Onesimus’ means ‘useful’ and was a common slave name); many freed slaves changed their names to noble names to escape the stigma of slavery. A number of names mentioned in the New Testament are such ‘upper class’ names, probably because a fair number of Christians were former slaves, possibly given their freedom because their owners had also become Christians.

It was not uncommon for someone to enter voluntarily into slavery as a means of paying off a debt they owed, and on these occasions it was a contractual agreement based on a certain amount of money or a certain time of servitude.

There were both slaves and maters in the Christian community. Nowhere in the New Testament are masters called to release all their slaves, nor for slaves to try to escape; instead Christian masters are called to treat their slaves with kindness and fairness, and slaves to respect and obey their masters; and (where applicable) they were to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. In most cases, it would have been unloving for a master to release a slave who had no other means of living.

Neither are Christians called in the New Testament to lobby or demonstrate for the abolition of slavery in the empire. In fact the idea of lobbying and protesting for social or political change is virtually absent from the Bible. Not only were the majority of Christians in no place to have any social or political influence, living in an empire where the government was never to be questioned; but they also understood that their mission was not to reform the political and social structures of this world, but to proclaim Christ in light of the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, which will mean the eventual downfall of the kingdoms of this world. So Christians were called to honour and pray for the government (yes, the same government that had crucified their Lord and Saviour, and who were hostile to Christians and the Gospel, with an Emperor who had proclaimed Himself to be Lord and God!), and to entrust themselves to their faithful Creator while doing good. They were to have confidence in their sovereign God who through history has been behind the rise and fall and fortunes of nations and empires, engineering history to come to just the right moment for the entry of the Son into this history. If the Nations were in the Father’s hand to that point, they could trust that He was still at work in the nations from that point onwards.

Slavery was never fully abolished in the Roman empire, however from the first century onwards it did begin to decline, and the civil rights of slaves improved. It’s clearly no coincidence that this change in society was happening at the same time that a revolutionary, grassroots movement was growing explosively throughout the empire – the spread of Christianity.

Paul’s words in Philemon are a testimony to the transforming power of the Gospel.

11-14 – Personal change

In verse 11, Paul uses a play on words: Onesimus means ‘useful’ or ‘profitable’ – yet he was obviously lazy or disobedient or just plain absent, and so ‘useless’ to Philemon. Maybe he had fled after being disciplined by his master – and Roman law placed no restrictions on how harsh the discipline of slaves could be. But he Gospel had done such a work in him that he was now obviously a changed man – not so much in ability as in attitude. The Gospel takes a heart that is self centred and rebellious, and transforms it to one that is willing to serve others, as well as to have a confidence in God’s provision and Fatherhood that enables us to accept our position in life and not attempt to control our own destiny.

Why do you do what you do – in your study and career? Because the world has told you that you will only be a ‘useful’ person if you get a degree and a establish yourself in a career that will contribute to the advancement of society? Or, do you desire to be useful more for the Kingdom of God than for the kingdoms of this world? Your real usefulness is not in your skills, but in your identity in Christ, and how that flows into a life lived for Jesus.

15-16 – Relational change

Onesimus’ and Philemon’s relationship has changed: from Master and ‘useless’ slave, to beloved brothers.

This is no trivial thing. Paul highlights the radical nature of this change by using two contrasting words for timeframes: ‘he was separated from you for a little while’ – literally, ‘an hour’ or ‘a moment’; ‘that you might have him back forever’ – literally, ‘eternally!’ And this verse is a parallel to the first part of verse 16: ‘no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a beloved brother.’ ‘Slave’ corresponds to ‘little while’ and ‘beloved brother’ to ‘forever’.

But the parallel contrasts go even further:

philemon parallel

If we were to read just those words in the right hand column, we get an idea of how Philemon is now to view and relate to Onesimus: ‘That you might have him back forever, better than a slave, as a beloved brother, even dearer to you, and in the Lord.

With Onesemus’ coming to faith in Christ, something has happened that is so radical and permanent that things can never be the same again. Onesimus has, in the words of Colossians 1:13, been ‘delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ Remember, the letter to the Colossians was written at the same times as Philemon, and delivered to the same people. And so it is no mere coincidence here that Paul, in describing the nature of the kingdom of Jesus uses a word taken straight out of the vocabulary of the slave market: ‘redemption.’ This was a word used to describe the transaction made when a slave, or someone on behalf of a slave, purchased their freedom by paying off fully the debt they owed.

We were once all slaves to sin, death and fear. We had no rights and no citizenship in the Kingdom of God, because we all voluntarily entered into a contract of slavery by rebelling against God and incurring a debt so huge that were would never ever be able to repay it. Yet we have tried – thinking that somehow our own goodness would be enough to pay it off, or else trivialising our sin in order to make the debt seem less serious than it is. We have all squandered our master’s assets, and fled from Him, trying to hid from him and the wrath we deserve in the great metropolis of human pride, ambition and sophistication.

Into this disaster that is humanity alienated from God, steps Jesus the Son of the Father. While He is free from sin, he willingly enters into our weaknesses and failures – indicated by his baptism where he takes the place of repentant sinners – and experiences in himself all the outworking of our sinfulness – both in his life on earth and in his going to the cross where he not only faced the full, just, and complete wrath of God in our place, but also where he paid in full the price that we could not pay – the price of our freedom: our Ransom.

But that is not the end. We are not just freed slaves, sent off to try to make a life for ourselves. The Father has adopted us into His family. He has filled us with the Spirit who enables us to cry out, “Abba, Father!” He has guaranteed a place for us alongside His own beloved begotten Son, and we now share in His inheritance!

This is earth shattering, revolutionary news! If we fully grasped the lavish grace that the Father has poured out upon us in Jesus we would be dancing in the aisles; we would not be able to contain ourselves for the joy; we could not shut up in declaring this wonderfully great news to our friends and neighbour and colleagues; we would never be satisfied with broken or half-hearted relationships, or with squabbles and divisions in the body of Christ. In short, we would be such a different people that the world would be forced to sit up and take notice and ask, ‘What is it about these people, that they love one another – and us – so much?’

If you are reading this and are not in a place of trusting in Jesus, then you are still in slavery; still captive in the the dominion of darkness. No amount of self effort or denial will contribute one iota to rescue you or solve your dilemma. Your only hope is in Jesus – the only one who is able and willing to reach into your dark place and rescue you by paying your debt and making you a member of the Father’s family. I urge you to put your trust in Him.

And so Philemon, if he is to be true to the work that Jesus has done in his own life, can do nothing else but to now treat Onesimus in light if Jesus’ work in Onesimus’ life. ‘We no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view… if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)

In verse 17  Paul tells Philemon to accept Onesimus as he would Paul, ie. as a partner – an equal and a coworker in the Gospel.

History is filled with failed experiments at human harmony. Whether it’s race or ethnicity, religion, education, or social status. We have a delusion that we will one day grow out of our prejudices and learn to get along with each other. Hostility and resentment, cannot be ‘grown out of’ – it can only be broken by the power of grace – a grace so great that it is able to forgive us of our own enormous debt and reconcile us to God.

Colossians 3:11: ‘Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.’

A Christian who refuses to be reconciled to others is a walking contradiction – as reconciliation is at the heart of our faith. A Christian living in the grace of God that enables us to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, for our friends, and even for our enemies, is a walking display of the glory of God. It is through us – His church – that this transforming Gospel power will spread to our communities, so that we will not just see this world become a better place (that is really a pathetic, weak and second rate option), but people rescued from darkness, and lives transformed eternally, to the glory of God.

I pray that you may know this overwhelming, transforming grace.

Paul is a prisoner in Rome – possibly during the time described at the end of Acts (During this time he also wrote Ephesians, Philippians & Colossians). Philemon lives in Colossae, and most likely became a Christian through Paul while in Ephesus (19). He is a respected leader in and host to the Colossian church (2). For whatever reason, one of his slaves, Onesimus has either escaped or not returned on time from an assignment, possibly using his master’s money as he did so (18), and has made his way to Rome, maybe hoping to avoid recapture by being lost in the crowded city. In what the world would call an amazing (but mere) coincidence, Onesimus encountered (or sought out?) Paul. It may be that Onesimus became a Christian at this time, and a deep friendship and sense of partnership in the Gospel developed between them. (10,12) Onesimus is now sent back to Colossae to be reconciled with Philemon, along with Tychicus, who is the courier for the letter to the Colossian church (Colossians 4:7-9). (It it significant to note that in Colossians and Ephesians Paul gives very clear a detailed instructions about slave-master relationships. Clearly this was an issue that was prominent in his mind in light of this encounter with Onesimus.) This letter is is both about personal reconciliation and unity between people in the church, and about social transformation. The Gospel impacts us in a deeply personal way by transforming relationships between individuals, but it also, through the combining of these individual transformations, brings about a wider social transformation in which the culture of a community is changed. The way that Paul opens this letter gives us the foundation for any kind of reconciliation within the church, and of any kind of social transformation. Potentially this letter could cause a rift between Paul and Philemon – and even between Paul and the church in Colossae. Possibly some tension was already there, if word had got back to Philemon that Paul was advocating for Onesemus. It is significant then to take note of how Paul addresses Philemon. Firstly, unlike in most of his other letters, Paul does not introduce himself as an ‘Apostle’. In the letters where he is addressing significant and controversial issues, or giving clear instructions about leadership in the church, Paul uses that title as as way of asserting his authority. As an apostle, he was entrusted with a responsibility to bring Jesus’ commands to the church (As Jesus commissioned his Apostles in Matthew 28:20 to ‘teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.’) However, Paul does not seek to pull rank on his friend Philemon. Rather, he described himself as a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’. This describes not only the reason he is, literally, imprisoned in Rome: it is because of his proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus that he has been arrested, imprisoned awaiting trial, and possibly may soon be executed; but it also describes his understanding of His calling an mission in life. He is a prisoner not only for or because of Jesus, but a prisoner of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul says, ‘The love of Christ compels us’ when talking about his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel. The word ‘compel’ implies that he has been captured, and has no choice, no other option than to do what Christ, his loving master, demands of him. Secondly, Paul speaks of his as his ‘dear friend [agapato] fellow worker’. I wonder how different some of our confrontations and attempts at dealing with conflict on a personal or community level would be so different if we began with an affirmation of our love and partnership with the other person? Paul does not view Philemon as a potential opponent or enemy, but as a beloved partner in God’s family and in the ministry. So Paul is not writing in order to get Philemon to obey him; rather, he is writing because to not do so would be disobedient to Christ, and he wants Philemon to have the same attitude in how he chooses to respond to Onesimus. What is at stake here is not primarily domestic or church harmony, but the honour of Christ Himself. Repaired relationships is not the end in itself, because it is the repairing of relationships in the Gospel that bear testimony ultimately to Christ – our love for one another will enable to the world to see that we are disciples of Jesus, and so in the end He receives the glory. And so Paul speaks not as an Apostle who stands over Philemon, but as an equal partner in serving Jesus. Paul does not want Philemon to obey Paul, but Christ. There is also something very significant about who Paul addresses this letter to. Primarily this is a letter to Philemon, urging him to deal with a matter that, we could say, was his own personal business. This was about his slave, whom he employed. Any disputes he and Onesimus may have had were personal and private – or were they? In our modern world of individualism and privacy laws we might say ‘Yes. Whatever happened between these two men was no-one else’s business, least of all the church’s.’ Yet, Paul includes, ‘and to the church that meets in your home.’ in his greeting. Very clearly the church in Colossae was not merely a group of people who gathered a few times a week for meetings. They were a community that did life together. Their gatherings were in a home – not in a building reserved just for services and ‘religious’ activities, and so they did not have, as we tend to, a clear distinction between the ‘secular’ and the ‘spiritual’ in life. When we’re told in Acts (4:32) that the Christians had ‘everything in common’ that means not only a certain attitude towards their possessions, but an attitude to one another. Why would you be willing to sell land and  houses in order to share with your fellow believers unless a depth of relationship and loving trust was already established? Why would you be free to give to help a brother or sister in need unless you already shared with one another a depth of openness and vulnerability in your lives that their burden became your burden and laying down your life for the sake of your brother or sister is a natural reaction to their problem? So Philemon’s problem with Onesimus was not his personal private issue. He was a member of the community of the family of God, and like it or not his actions impacted on the life of this community. This was a matter for which the church should not only hold him accountable, but also a problem in which they should be providing support, comfort, encouragement and advice. Galatians 6:2 says, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ This is not an optional extra; it is not a last resort when everything I have tried on my own doesn’t work.  Maybe this is why often ministry can become a tiresome burden and so many pastors burn out – because they end up so often trying to deal with issues that people have been trying to fix on their own so long that they have now escalated to a catastrophic level. If we as God’s people were to be sharing our lives on a deeper level – and I don’t mean living in each other’s pockets every hour of every day – then many of our personal and relational battles may be nipped in the bud before they develop beyond control. Paul has no qualms about making this problem public, and it’s unlikely that Philemon would have had a problem with him doing so, as we see in the next verses that this Gospel community dynamic was already happening in Colossae: In verse 5, Paul gives thanks for the two things that Philemon was known for: love and faith. These are the two authenticators of genuine salvation, and they go hand-in-hand. Sometimes within the Christian community we may see a polarisation towards one or the other; some will say, ‘This person has declared their faith in Jesus. That’s good enough for me! Who am I to judge them?’ We might hear that kind of comment in the context of a celebrity making a public statement about God, or turning up at a church, even when their lifestyle doesn’t seen to correspond to their profession. Or a bit closer to home, it may be that we say, ‘This person prayed the sinner’s prayer, or went up to commit their lives to Jesus and so we know for sure that they’re in the kingdom; or ‘this person has their theology sorted out, and they can explain the Gospel clearly in five simple sentences.’ Others might say, ‘Believing in Jesus is pointless unless you give yourself to serving, doing good, fighting for justice for the oppressed and feeding the poor,’ or ‘That person may not hold to what you consider to be orthodox theology, and they may disagree with you on what the Gospel actually is, but at least they are out there doing something!’. It is not faith verses works. Both genuine faith and loving works are the fruit of God’s work of salvation in a person’s life. We talk about faith, hope and love as being a summary of what it means to be living a true Christian life – it’s a trio we find all through the scriptures. Hope is the certainty of what God will do for us in Christ, based on what He has done for us in Christ. Faith flows from this hope, as the Father revels to us His faithfulness displayed and promised in Jesus and we respond by putting our trust in Him; and because Jesus has set us free from slavery to sin and death, this faith expresses itself in love – for God and for our neighbour. So faith and love are the fruit of our hope in Christ. Just as faith without works is dead, so too works without faith are simply a personal self-justification project. So Paul rejoices and thanks God because he sees the two operating in Philemon’s life. Notice that his love and faith are very specific: His love is ‘for all his holy people’ – not a general philanthropy or social action, but a commitment to the body of Christ; and his faith is ‘in the Lord Jesus’ – not a self confidence or a ‘faith in faith’ where if we believe had enough we will receive what we want, but a complete trust and dependance on Jesus, where He is his all in all, and his life is shaped by a desire to see Christ exalted and made known. Paul goes on to flesh out each of these. Verse 6 speaks of the nature and fruit of faith, and verse 7 the nature and fruit of love. Firstly, Philemon’s faith is not a personal, private one. By trusting in Jesus he automatically is in partnership, or ‘fellowship’ with others who share his faith. Keeping your faith to yourself was almost unheard of in New Testament times; is was unthinkable to separate your faith in Jesus from being part of His body. Christians faced – and still do – severe persecution simply for not keeping their faith private, and often in countries where Christians are persecuted it is the church congregations that are attacked when they are meeting; church buildings are burned; and those who facilitate the gathering of Christians – pastors and leaders – who are imprisoned. Being part of the church is not just an activity we do as Christians, it is an intrinsic part of our identity. So much so that Paul reminds Philemon of the fruit of his ‘partnership [with others] in the faith’: a deepening understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.’ Philemon’s own faith will grow and deepen as he lives it out in the context of community, and in this context specifically as he includes his brothers and sisters in the process of restoration and reconciliation with Onesimus. Secondly, if Philemon’s sharing of his faith with others has led to a benefit for him in his faith growing, in a similar way his active love for God’s people has produced the same effect for others. Most of our modern English translations are a bit politically correct here in translating the word, ‘hearts’. The KJV translates this verse literally: ‘…the bowels of the saint are refreshed by thee…’. In Jewish thinking the heart was the seat of the will, while the bowels were the set of the emotions. Compassion, mercy, tenderness, passion, all came from the bowels – hence our saying, ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this…’ Philemon’s active, faith-filled love for his brothers and sisters had fostered in them not a mere will to do good, but a passion to love that came from within them; a love that was no longer something they did, but something they were. But this is not mere motivation or self-help. In Isaiah 63, when Isaiah is calling out to God on behalf of the people who are in exile, he prays:

Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and of thy glory: where is thy zeal and thy strength, the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me? are they restrained? Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting. (Isaiah 63:15-16 KJV)

Isaiah is calling on God, as the compassionate Father, to be moved with compassion and tenderness and mercy and to come and save His people. This is the tender compassion that the Father has shown towards us in giving HIs only Son, whom he loves, to become the lamb who would take away the sin of the world. It is this mercy that the Father has displayed in extending grace to his enemies and pardon to rebels through the cross; it is the tenderness that Jesus his shown by willingly and joyfully going to that cross where He gave all of himself for us. So what is taking place in the Colossians through Philemon’s ministry is not simply that they are better Christians or human beings, but they are people who are reflecting the character of the Father; they are being transformed into the image of Jesus himself. Philemon is not just doing a good thing by loving his brothers and sisters; he is being part of the Father’s work in His people to bring them to the goal he has for them. It’s no wonder then that Paul can say, ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement.’ He sees in Philemon the powerful working of God. And it is no wonder too that Paul now goes on to speak with a sense of great confidence about the problem that is before them because he knows that Philemon is a man after God’s own heart (bowels!). He begins his discussion of the issue with verses 8 and 9: ‘Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.’ He is confident that the love of God that is at work in Philemon will prevail in this situation. Next time, we will see how Philemon is called to exercise this love, and how the love of God is able to overturn obstacles and transform relationships for His glory.

redletter

‘Red Letter Christians’ approach the Bible with the premise that the foundation and starting point for understanding the Gospel should be the direct words of Jesus, as quoted in the Gospels. This is a corrective, they claim, to the traditional approach of evangelicals in which the Pauline epistles are the lens through which the rest of the Bible is interpreted. It sounds all good and pious to say that the actual words of Jesus himself should be our starting point, and the rest of the Scriptures be interpreted through them. There are however a couple of problems with this approach:

  1. Not all the words of Jesus have a direct application to us in the same way they did to those to whom he spoke. As with all biblical passages, we need where possible to understand the situational context in which they are spoken, and to understand what they meant to them then, before we ask what they mean to us today. A classic example of this is Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus commands this man to ‘sell all you have, give to the poor… and come follow me.’ Why then do Christians own things? If these are Jesus’ direct words, shouldn’t we all obey them literally and refuse to own any property? No, we understand that these words were given to this man at that time because it addressed both the deepest need and biggest problem he had – loving his riches more than God. This does not mean we cannot learn from this story, nor take action to remove those things in our lives that have become idols; however this example shows us that simply ‘obeying the words of Jesus’ is not always as simple as it sounds.
  2. Sometimes, especially in the Gospel of John, it is hard to be clear on exactly where the words of Jesus end and those of the Gospel writer begin. For example, is the world’s best known verse, John 3:16, (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.) the words of Jesus or John? My Red Letter bible has them in red, and continues the quotation right through to the end of verse 21. However some commentators would suggest that the quotation ends with verse 15 – and 16-21 are John’s commentary on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, directed to the reader. So, we have a problem if we are going to give a priority to the quoted words of Jesus, in that we cannot say precisely what they are!
  3. It’s really a false distinction anyway, to suggest that the direct quotations of Jesus are somehow more authoritative or inspired than the words of the New Testament writers. As Jesus commissioned his apostles, he commanded them to ‘[teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:19) Along with this, he had already given them the promise that the Holy Spirit would, ‘teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’ (John 14:26) What this means for us is that the words we have in the New Testament – be they direct quotations of Jesus or the testimony of his apostles – are equally inspired by the Holy Spirit, and all an accurate communication of all that Jesus commanded.

We need to have an implicit confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit to faithfully communicate the will and mind of God to us in all of the Scriptures, and to avoid making false ‘red letter’ distinctions.