Archive for the ‘Soteriology’ Category

wa075-035055-27Recently I and a couple of my student leaders attended an ‘Interfaith Welcome,’ to which we were invited by a University chaplain. We did so partly to show respect to the team who operate ‘Oasis’ (the religious centre on campus), and partly to observe and give feedback to the Christian club’s leadership team so they could make wise choices about how they as a Christian club would relate to and interact with the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy.

Having observed similar events in the past, I went with certain expectations, and was not disappointed to have them all met.

After being welcomed, our attention was directed to large bowl containing pebbles, which the presenter then submerged in water – symbolically representing the many religious faiths which while unique, make up the one riverbed, united by the water of our common ideals and humanity. We were invited to take a pebble from the bowl (I declined, as I did not know what we would be required to do with this pebble once we had it).

We were then give a series of pithy thoughts, including a story of a man who left his village with his only destination being ‘away from here’; a quotation from the Dalai Lama: ‘All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.’; and a call for people of all faiths to be working together on campus, focussing on ‘mutuality’.

Participants were then invited to return their pebble, this time to create a line of stones, indicating that we are all, ultimately, on the same path together.

The ceremony concluded with a ‘Christian’ blessing (which contained nothing distinctively Christian),  followed by an Aboriginal blessing, and an invitation (which was not taken up) for anyone else to add a greeting or blessing from their own tradition.

The three of us then made a discreet exit to avoid being included in the group photo that was to be posted on Facebook.


I called this post ‘The Failed Interfaith Experiment’ because this experience highlights a number of reasons why I think such endeavours will never become the revolutionary, culture-changing phenomenon that their proponents often envisage.

Firstly, this event was entirely ‘horizontal’ – in that it was simply people talking to people, interacting with people, talking about (or implying) the Divine rather than addressing Him (or She, It, etc…). It implicitly  presented religion as a human endeavour, and contained no acknowledgement of divine presence or activity. This approach would not resonate with the majority of ‘religious traditions’ in which activities such as prayer, singing, reading, preaching, meditation and many other things are understood to be direct connection and communication between humans and the Divine.

While this could be seen as a positive thing – we weren’t expected, for example, to pray in a way that was incongruent with our understanding of God – it means that these kinds of events will not be able to offer any kind of ‘spiritual nourishment’ to the participants; they will be largely humanistic, rather than spiritual. The moment they cross over into spiritual activity someone will inevitable be excluded or offended.

Secondly, in their attempt to be inclusive of everyone, the organisers of the event were actually being exclusive. Anyone coming from a conservative religious tradition – such as an Evangelical Christian, and Orthodox Jew, or a Wahhabi Muslim – would not feel free to participate without compromising their own convictions that their faith is the only path to truth and to God. Some would find the Dalai Lama’s quote not only untrue, but even offensive, especially if their people have faced horrific suffering at the hands of people of other ‘religious traditions’.

So such an event is inclusive only of those who either already hold to a universalist or syncretist theology, or who have not really thought through the implications of their participation and how it could implicitly compromise the convictions they hold dear.

Thirdly, this kind of event actually holds very little appeal to the majority of secular, religiously apathetic Australians. This was evidenced by the fact that apart from us three, there was only one other white Australian present who was not a part of the Oasis team (ie. who was there voluntarily). The message of interfaith activities is, ‘No matter what your beliefs are, we are all on the same path,’ and this is interpreted by the average non-religious person as, ‘So if what you believe doesn’t matter in the end, why even bother with religious belief at all?’

This means that interfaith activities end up being essentially ‘in house’ and have very little potential for having any impact on the wider community.

Fourthly, these kinds of activities contain their own inherent contradictions which cause them to lack any ring of authenticity.

As I have already mentioned, while claiming to be all inclusive, they exclude those with conservative faiths.

Statements like the one made by the Dalai Lama cannot actually be maintained: Do all religious traditions really carry the same message? Does this include the tradition held to by ISIS that lead them to slaughter, rape and pillage? Or the ancient cult of Molech in which children were sacrificed to fire? Or the modern American Hebrew Israelite movement that declares white people to be devils? The Dalai Lama’s claim is ignorant and naive at best. While sounding warm and fuzzy, it actually offers no real solution to those who are wanting to both authenticate their own faith, and relate well to those of other faiths, because it ignores the fact that our differences are significant and do matter.

In an attempt to offend no-one, these events can often contain much ambiguity, relativism and obscurity – apart from the repeated dogmatic claim that this is how things should be. Making an absolute claim that there are no absolutes is symptomatic of confusion, not clarity. It may appeal to the emotions – in which case it becomes a handy excuse for not standing form on one’s convictions – but it does not ring true to a mind that is interested in truth, reason and consistency.


I have tried to write this post from the perspective of an objective observer, uncoloured (I hope) by my Christian convictions. However I must also point out that there is another reason why the Interfaith Experiment is a failed one.

It is worthy of notice that many interfaith activities, at least in the West, are initiated by those coming from a liberal, ‘progressive’ Christian perspective. In all cases they flow out of a milieu in which the Gospel and the authority of Scripture has been watered down or abandoned altogether. In this sense, while interfaith proponents sincerely believe they are working for God and the gospel (whatever they believe that to be), they are in fact, in the words of Gamaliel (Acts 5:39), ‘…fighting against God.’

‘All worship the same God,’  ‘All religions are the same,’ and ‘The key to world peace is interfaith cooperation,’ are relatively recent ideas in human history. Future generations should not be surprised if they observe that such ideas and those who promote them will have slipped into obscurity as yet another attempt by humanity to rule ourselves and solve our problems apart from the True and Living God made known in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Resolve logoIntroduction

At Resolve 2016, Flinders Evangelical Students explored the issue of pluralism – an issue facing both our society and the church.

As part of this exploration, we invited Geoff Boyce, Coordinating Chaplain at Flinders University to speak in our ‘Respond’ section of the conference. Geoff has, over a period of years, developed an approach to chaplaincy that has sought to respond to the reality of pluralism, and the contemporary context on the university campus in which Christians can often be less represented that other faiths, due to both the increasing secularisation of Australia, and the increase of migrants and international students.

Our aim in having Geoff speak was to listen respectfully to someone with whom we do not agree theologically, but whose approach we want to understand, so that we may be more gracious and respectful in our response both to him and to those with similar views.

What can we affirm?

Hospitality

Geoff helpfully highlighted for us the significance of hospitality as a Biblical principle, exemplified by Jesus. God’s work through human history has been one of inviting, welcoming and drawing people to Himself. By contrast, much of human enterprise has been about exclusion – keeping our own patch safe, and keeping the ‘other’ at arm’s distance, being unwilling to learn about and from those who are different to us. Geoff and his team have developed (and designed) Oasis as a venue centred around hospitality, where people from many cultural and religious backgrounds may engage, form friendships, and learn from each other. For this we are grateful, especially in that this hospitality has been extended to us in our freedom to use Oasis for our gatherings.

Genuine enquiry

Geoff also highlighted the danger of looking at others and trying to understand them ‘through Christian spectacles’ – ie. with unrecognised assumptions that come from our Christian worldview which can prevent us from truly understanding a person. For example, the best way to learn about Islam is to speak to and get to know a Muslim, rather than to hear about them from another Christian. This may well lead to us to discover more about what we actually have in common as fellow human beings, and to help us better understand and respect our differences.

Authenticity

Geoff helpfully emphasised for us the importance of desiring authenticity for others; in other words, wanting – for their sake – that they be truly themselves, not the person we think they should be. This is God’s desire for all people – that they be the people He has created them to truly be, free from the burdens and stereotypes placed upon them by other people who are really trying to deal with their own insecurities by manipulating people to become more like themselves. This is the Biblical idea of ‘maturity’ – when someone is fully human, and thus fully alive.

Relationships

Geoff also called us to focus on relationships, pointing us to the fact that relationship is at the heart of the Kingdom of God. God desires a relationship with His people, and He so works that those in a relationship with Him express this in the way they relate to each other. It can be easy for us to allow the task or the method of our mission to get in the way of genuine, loving relationships both with fellow believers, and with those around us who aren’t Christians. The moment we lose sight of the call to love God and neighbour, we will treat people as targets to win, or commodities to exploit.

Where do we differ?

Our view of Scripture.

Geoff mentioned that ‘the Scriptures were written in the exile;’ and that it was only in this time when the Jews themselves were outcasts that ‘they figured it all out.’ This is a view of the Old Testament that has emerged out of the late 19th and early 20th century ‘higher criticism’ movement that began to question the church’s traditional understanding of the origin, authorship and interpretation of the Bible. Coming from a rationalistic worldview that emerged from the Enlightenment, scholars and theologians who follow this more liberal or ‘progressive’ approach tend to emphasise the human element of authorship of scripture over the divine. Rather than viewing the historical books of the Old Testament as actual and accurate history, they prefer to see in them a ‘mythical’ element – stories that were written at a much later date than their actual historical setting, with the intention of providing a basis for meaning, identity and purpose for the discouraged and oppressed Jews living in captivity in a foreign land.

From an Evangelical perspective, such a view of Scripture undermines their authority and veracity, as expressed in the ES statement of faith: ‘[We affirm] The divine inspiration, trustworthiness, and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given, its entire sufficiency for our knowledge of God, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.’ The conservative view of the Old Testament books, held to by most Christians for most of history, is that they were written much earlier, either during or soon after the time of the events described, sometimes by eyewitnesses, and always by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:10-11, 2 Peter 1:21) to record an accurate account of events. These men, enabled by the Spirit, also spoke of things to come, primarily the sending of the Messiah. Thus, Jesus could say that the Scriptures spoke of him. (John 5:39). This view sees the Bible and its story as something overseen and coordinated by God, not ‘figured out’ by human beings. It is a story of God actually working throughout human history in historical acts of salvation to bring all things to the point of Him entering the world in the person of Jesus. The Christian faith is founded securely on historical events through which God has revealed Himself, not the more pop-culture idea that it is based, along with most other religions, on principles of conduct and ethical/moral behaviour.

While we can agree with Geoff’s point of hospitality being a key idea in the Bible, I would be unsure about a hermeneutic that seeks to ‘read the whole bible through the lens of hospitality.’ We can all be guilty at time of imposing on the Bible a particular framework, and us Evangelicals can be just as culpable of this as anyone. However I am not convinced that ‘hospitality’ is the one or primary framework or ‘lens’ through which we should read the Bible, such that we look for it in most if not all passages we read. Geoff pointed us to Jesus’ rejection at the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30 as an example of this ‘hospitality hermeneutic’. He suggested that hospitality was the key issue here: the fact that the two stories Jesus mentioned were of non-Jews being accepted and included by God (a Sidonian widow and a Syrian official), and this is what enraged the people and made them want to kill him. While I agree that the problem was, as Jesus says, ‘…no prophet is acceptable in his hometown (Luke 4:24), it was not the issue of the ethnic identity of the people in the stories that was taken issue with, but his accusation of the Nazarenes that they would not accept him unless he performed signs and wonders. This sets the scene for the ongoing issue Jesus faced with the Jews – that they demanded of him a sign – which comes to a head in Luke 11:29 when he says “This generation is an evil generation. It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”

These are not the only occasions when we see Jesus ‘picking a fight’ with people who do not accept him as the Messiah and Son of God; and in the Nazarene synagogue it is he who starts the conflict by speaking scathingly of those who were otherwise, ‘speaking well of him and marvelling at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22). It is difficult to see how this, and many similar incidents, are an expression of hospitality, at least as described by Geoff.

Our view on the urgency of the Gospel

Geoff advocated strongly for an approach to those of other faiths which is only comfortable with another changing their view when it is entirely on their own terms and through their own initiative. He supports a model of ministry (specifically for chaplaincy) which is, ‘…no longer the ‘rescuing’, ‘telling’ salvation paradigm, but the hospitable, listening, empowering and long-term-committed mentoring (‘walking beside you’) paradigm, directed toward individual and corporate well being.’

Such an approach to institutional chaplaincy is understandable and expected, given the brief of a chaplain to work primarily for the well being of the organisation and the individuals within it. However it is a model that unfortunately discounts the fact that the Gospel is a message of salvation that is to be proclaimed, and must be received through repentance and faith. It is not merely a set of tools to be used in promoting individual and corporate wellbeing and harmony (although these are outcomes that should be expected as fruit of Christ at work in people through the Gospel.)

The ‘rescuing, telling salvation paradigm’ is unavoidable when we see the ministry of both Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. ‘Repent and believe the Gospel’ is the summary statement of Jesus’ preaching given in Mark 1:14, and must be held alongside his ‘hospitality’ statements (eg. ‘come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28) is said in the immediate context of him just having pronounced woes upon towns that had rejected him!). Not simply a set of ideas and principles that can be explored and considered intellectually or emotionally, it is a message that carries with it a command to be obeyed:

‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:30-31)

This command is given in light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the coming Day of Judgement, from which God wants people to be saved. If Jesus, as he claimed, is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), then we truly love people by pointing them to him, and calling them to put their faith exclusively in him.

Our view on ‘comparative religion’.

Geoff encouraged us to look at the things we have in common with those of other faiths. That will be the point at which hospitality will be able to happen, as we use these commonalities as our starting point in creating open, trusting friendships (see diagram).

He suggested that the key point of commonality between all religions is love: the Golden Rule:

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12).

This is a popular idea today, especially when people are trying to make sense of and find solutions to the problem of religiously motivated violence and abuse. It is suggested that if all religious people simply practiced this as the heart of their religion, there will be harmony.

While it is true that many (but not all) religions contain a principle that in some way resembles Jesus’ Golden Rule (See table below), there are some problems with such a claim.

Golden Rule

Firstly Jesus, echoing the Law given through Moses, stands apart from the other religions in the way he phrases the Rule. His is the only one that is together entirely unconditional (ie. not for spiritual merit, or in order to receive good in return), proactively loving (as opposed to simply avoiding doing harm to others), and non-exclusive (not just within one’s own community.)

Secondly, unlike some religions in which the central theme is the effort humans must make to be good, the Golden Rule is not the central theme of Christianity in that sense. Christianity is based around not what we do, but what God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to enforce the law, but to fulfil it. What we were and are unable to do (love God and neighbour perfectly), he has done on our behalf, hand in hand with taking at the cross the punishment we deserve for our blatant unwillingness to love. In Jesus Christ God has done for us what we should have done for Him, and because He has perfectly kept the Golden Rule, we may be reconciled to Him:

‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’ (1 John 4:10-11)

Our call to love is the outflow from the centre of our faith, which is in the person and cross of Jesus.

Our view of the Kingdom of God

Geoff told us that the Kingdom of God is about relationships. While that is true in as much as all that the Triune God does is about relationships, the Kingdom language used in the Scriptures is not primarily about communicating the truth of relationship as much as the truth of God’s authority. Entering the Kingdom of God means coming into a place of submission and allegiance to the King – the cry of Christians is ‘Jesus is Lord!’ and the message conveyed by Jesus’ resurrection is that he now reigns at the Father’s right hand and has been appointed as the coming judge of all people.

That being so, how are we to recognise the Kingdom of God in action in this life? Primarily, it must be people who are both acknowledging the lordship of Jesus over their lives and the world, and who are living in such a way that their actions give glory to Him.

This must necessarily be more than people of any faith or creed showing friendship and hospitality to one another. While we can certainly acknowledge that Jesus as King rules over all people regardless of their awareness of him, we can only call something a true expression of his kingdom where people are doing what they do ‘in his name’.

Because all people are made in the image of God, friendship and hospitality will be given expression in some form no matter how ‘fallen’ we may be, as long as we are human. However, as long as we are seeking to live outside of the lordship of Christ, such actions will ultimately be another expression of our rebellion. Because our deeds can in no way change our status before God, ultimately ‘…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.’ (Isaiah 64:6)

Geoff told us, in the context of speaking about inter-faith friendships, that ‘God is doing his thing – he doesn’t need the church.’ This is really a straw-man argument. I have rarely heard anyone say words to the effect that, ‘God does need the church.’ He is bigger than the church, and technically could accomplish all He wants to accomplish apart from the church – except for the fact that in His plan that the Church is actually central to all He wants to accomplish! His goal in all He is doing in this world is to prepare the Church to be a spotless bride who will be presented to his Son, Jesus. Because of this the church is described with such terms as, ‘God’s household,’ ’The pillar and foundation of the truth’ (Titus 3:15), ‘a kingdom, priests to his God and Father,’ (Revelation 1:6), ‘a chosen race… a holy nation.’ (1 Peter 2:9). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the church (the people, not the institution) is the visible expression of the Kingdom of God, and the instrument God uses to bring people into the Kingdom though its proclamation of the ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ (Matthew 24:14).

Conclusion

I want to reiterate our thankfulness to God for the opportunities we have to gather freely as God’s people at Flinders Uni, and the role that Oasis as a location and as a team has played in making this possible. This space is a privilege that very few groups like ours around Australia and the world have.

We also appreciate the friendship and hospitality extended to us by Oasis team volunteers, staff and chaplains, and affirm their genuine desire to work for the wellbeing of students at Flinders. Flinders ES members and friends should be encouraged to participate in and assist with any activities in Oasis as their conscience gives them freedom to do so.

The relationship between ES and Oasis has not been without difficulties through the fifty years of us operating on campus, and it is important to acknowledge that this relationship has been strained at times, especially as the transition was made from a mainly Christian chaplaincy based ‘Religious Centre’ to a multi-faith and inter-faith ‘Oasis’. It is important also for us to acknowledge and be repentant of those things done and said by representatives of ES that have not reflected the love and grace of Christ. While we cannot take responsibility for the way in which others may perceive or interpret our actions, the love of Christ constrains us to make every effort to not merely speak the truth, but to speak it in love.

It is also important to remain firm on the commitment we have to our convictions as evangelicals – a commitment to the absolute truth of the Gospel, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the call to proclaim Jesus at university. Compromising on these would not only lead us to be disobedient to Christ, but would also annul our reason for existing as a club. The testimony of history is that Christian student groups who have assumed, lost, or denied the Gospel have eventually lost traction and finally ceased to exist, as they have nothing to offer to people that the world is not already claiming to give.

This means that we need to be always carefully and prayerfully thinking through what it means for us to be operating in the environment of a secular institution, a pluralistic culture, and an inter-faith setting such as Oasis. This is a similar issue to that wrestled with by the Israelites as they lived in exile in Babylon: They were called by God to remain distinctly seperate as His holy people, yet at the same time told to ‘…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7).

There is no simple formula to apply when working out our relationship with the university and with Oasis. We walk the tightrope somewhere between the compromise of full-blown partnership and the ‘bunker mentality’ of full separation, and we need the wisdom of God to guide us as we seek to navigate between these unhelpful extremes. ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (Romans 12:18) is a verse that we must apply to everyone, not just to Christians or those who may provide some benefit to us. This principle is motivated not by pragmatism, but by sincere love (Romans 12:9). Because of God’s grace, we can be confident that He will enable us to practice this sincere love towards our friends in Oasis in such a way that we will not compromise the Gospel or our mission, to the glory of God.

salvation grid

In preparing talks on the book of Hebrews, I have been trying to imagine the original audience to whom the author was writing. Most likely it was, like most churches then, a mixed congregation(s) of Jews and Gentiles. But also, like most churches throughout the ages, it would have been mixed in terms of where people were at ‘spiritually.’

This is a helpful thing to ponder, especially in light of some of the difficult and controversial passages in Hebrews that have been used by some to debate whether or not a Christian can lose his or her salvation, and have been a cause of consternation to others who have become fearful that that they will. You can find them here: (Hebrews 6:1-9, Hebrews 10:26-31, Hebrews 12:15-16, Hebrews 12:25-29)

No-one can be absolutely certain about how the Hebrew congregation was composed, however if it was a normal church it most likely contained:

1. The Doubting. Those who believed in Christ, but struggled with doubts and personal assurance. (Note that this is different to the Unbelieving – we are not saved by having personal assurance. If doubt is a battle, that shows that faith is at work in us. The Unbeliever does not see doubt as a problem)

2. The Unbelieving. Those who knew they did not believe in Christ, but were there to either find out what it was all about, or because a believing friend or family member brought them along.

3. The Nominal. Those who professed faith in Christ, but whose faith was actually misplaced and were not actually born again. The Nominal person may have still been very active in religious activities, but their confidence was in something other than Christ – eg. their own works.

4. The Assured. Those who knew they were saved, and in fact were genuinely born again children of God through faith in Christ.

Depending on where someone sat, the relevant exhortations from Hebrews would be different.

I’m guessing that the main group that the writer had in mind was this third group – the Nominal, but he did not disregard the others. His aim was to see everyone move into the fourth quadrant – the Assured. However for the Nominal to come to this place they must first see that they actually fit into the second group – the Unbelieving, and then to realise they must trust Christ in order to be among the Assured.

These – the Nominals – are the ones to whom the warnings of chapters 6, 10 and 12 are directed. They are the ones who have tasted and participated to some degree in the life of the Kingdom as expressed in the church, but because of their false assurance they were in grave danger. They were the ones most likely to be drawn away into the Temple rituals and Jewish ceremonial laws, since their ‘faith’ would not have proven itself to be fulfilling, not to have delivered what had been promised, and since they must likely were already basing their confidence in their own works, it would be an easy thing to slip into a more explicit works-righteousness of the Ceremonial Law.

So the writer is not warning Christains about losing their salvation. Rather, he is warning those whose confidence is falsely in other things – even though their profession is in Christ – and calling them to stay ‘within the fold’, as that is the only place they will continue to hear the truth of the Gospel of grace, and over time as they continue to hear, will be brought through to a complete and true faith in the Jesus who saves thoroughly and permanently.

Where do you fit on this grid? I pray that it is in the fourth quadrant – the Assured.

If you are the Doubter, it’s time to read some things God says about how you can be assured of your salvation.

It is unlikely that you will put yourself in the third – the Nominal, but possibly you are, if your confidence is in anything other that Jesus as your only saviour. Make sure you are trusting in Christ alone, and that your life shows the fruit of one who is truly born again.

If you are in the second – the Unbeliever – then the call is simple: Stop you unbelief, and receive the gift of faith that will enable you to trust Christ.

This chapter would have to be one of the most confronting and shocking passages in the whole Bible; yet also one of the most profound and significant. If it were adapted into a screenplay it would not pass the censors; some verses (9, 25, 26, 36) carry connotations that I dare not explain in this context. The chapter begins with images of tenderness, compassion and love, but by verse 15 the reader is shocked into revulsion as the language deteriorates into crude, even semi-pornographic imagery. This is definitely a chapter that Sunday School teachers should skip.

Yet this passage is a very significant one, because it highlights three key ideas:

  1. The nature of God’s covenant relationship with His people,
  2. The degrading horror of human sin, and,
  3. The magnificence of God’s lavish grace.

Israel’s history is retold, using the imagery of a woman and her marriage to a prince.

3

Amorites and Hittites were two dominant inhabitants of the land of Canaan when Israel entered the land, and continued to be a thorn in their side throughout their history. Abraham began life as an Aramean (a region north of Samaria, in modern day Syria), living in Babylon, as much an idolator as his neighbours, until God in grace singled him out and called him to be the recipient of the Promise. God is reminding the Jews of their origins; in and of themselves, they are no different to anyone else. The only thing that makes them unique is not found in themselves but in the action of God in making His covenant with them. God had made it clear (Deuteronomy 7:7, 9:5-6) that His choice of Israel was not because of them, but because of his faithfulness to His promises to Abraham – which were made not because of Abraham, but because of God’s purpose for the nations.

4-5

Not only are they of pagan origin, but they are not even of worthy pagan origin. This child that symbolises Israel was rejected and discarded by her parents, thrown into an open field as soon as she was born. Infant abandonment was not uncommon in the ancient world. The most common victims were girls, who were left to the mercy of the elements and wild animals. Local laws stated that if an abandoned child was rescued, its rescuer had the right to make the child their slave; and if it was rescued with its birth fluids still on it, the birth parents had no right to claim it back, since by their actions they had relinquished all legal ties with the child. This child was unwanted from the moment of birth, considered worthless and unclean, and had received the immediate sentence of death; a child left in a field would only last hours before weather or wild dogs killed it.

6-7

A Prince rode past the field, saw this abandoned baby, and decided to rescue her. By his decree, this child was not to die, but live, and be brought into his household. Yet this is not just another child to add to a collection of slaves. God repeats Himself in verse 6 to drive this point home: the statement ‘…In your blood, live!’ was most likely a legal term declared over a child who was being adopted. Unlike the god of the nations, God does not see people as slaves, but as members of His family – as sons and daughters.

This corresponds to the period of time when Israel were slaves in Egypt, and God heard their cries and determined to send them a deliverer. The child, while adopted by the prince, was still living like a slave (slaves in the Ancient Near East were normally sold naked, so that their buyer could see exactly what he was getting).

8-14

The girl reached puberty, and the appropriate age for marriage. Rather than find a husband for her among the slaves, the prince married her himself! Verses 8-9 depict the marriage ceremony and the first night in the bedroom: ’you became mine,’ was the result of him making his vow to her; ‘spreading the corner of my garment over you,’ was symbolic of her coming under his care and protection and headship, of sharing in all that is his. Verse 9 describes an incredibly intimate moment after the bride and groom have made love for her first time.

Does it bother you that God depicts his relationship with His people by using such images of marital intimacy? Yet this is intended to communicate the depth of intimacy and openness for which we are created; an unashamed, free giving of our entire selves to Him, just as He gives His entire self to us. Human relationships and marital intimacy are supposed to be a reflection of this, since we are made in His image. This is why any sexual expression outside of committed, faithful, loving, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is considered an abomination by God – it is not merely breaking laws about sex, but is a degradation and distortion of the image of God in a person, and hence an attempted degradation of God Himself.

Overnight this abandoned Canaanite slave girl found herself exalted to the place of royalty and international renown. Yet she was reminded that her glorious position was never anything of her own doing: ‘…it was perfect through the splendour that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.’ (14)

15-34

Verse 15 breaks in with devastating force. What was this new queen’s response to all of this tender, generous love shown to her by her rescuer and husband? She ‘played the whore’! This was no mere secret extra-marital affair. She used her privileged position to indulge herself in complete ungratefulness to her husband. She took all that he has given her – clothes (16), jewels (17), embroidered garments (used for special ceremonial occasions) (18), gourmet food (19), and squandered and defiled it all in her adultery. And in the ultimate act of rebellion she sacrificed their own children! (20).

She set out to destroy and defile all the good things she had received, thinking that her satisfaction will be found in anything except her own husband.  This is the essence of idolatry. As Paul describes it in Romans 1:23-25,

‘…they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator, who is forever praised. Amen.’

Idolatry is looking to find in created things that which only God can give us, and which only He has the right to give. Just as Adam and Eve looked to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, human beings ever since have forsaken God’s glory to worship and serve the creation. Things that are good in themselves, nevertheless become the most evil, vile and corrupting force simply because they are set up in the place of God. An idol is anything that we take from God’s good creation, thinking that it will serve us and our own desires, but which then turns and enslaves us so that our desires become captive to it. We think it will give us dignity, worth, security, identity and fulfilment, but instead it robs us of all those things and sucks us dry. As our idols steal our joy, we seek bigger and better and more exciting idols thinking they will solve our emptiness, but they just make our slavery greater.

We see this progression happening with this adulterous queen. She turned from the local Canaanites to the great nations of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon (26-29) but even after this ‘you were not satisfied’ (29). And in the ultimate degradation, we see her paying her ‘lovers’ – she sank lower even than a prostitute, and men would only sleep with her if she payed them to.

35-43

Finally the adulterous queen is brought to justice, and her punishment fits her shameful crime. She is stripped naked, stoned, and her corpse hacked to pieces – by the very idols she had sought her satisfaction from! God’s judgement is to had us over to the outworking of our own sin. To live in the degradation, shame and alienation that sin brings is the essence of Hell. God sends to Hell those who have chosen it over the joy of knowing Him.

44-59

The seriousness of the people’s sin is rubbed in by comparing them to Sodom and Samaria. Sodom was known as the epitome of pagan sinfulness, being destroyed by God by raining sulphur (Genesis 18 & 19), and Samaria (The northern tribes) were considered even more given over to idolatry, and had been captured and scattered by the Assyrians 150 years earlier. Yet the sin of the people of Judah, smugly sitting in Jerusalem thinking they were OK, made these two peoples seem righteous by comparison! So much so, that, ‘…your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before (55) – ie. they will be restored to their former glory; but you will be restored to your former status, as an abandoned child, left to die in the wilderness.

60-63

This is the most shocking part of the entire chapter!

God has just brought his case against the people, and shown them that they deserve all that they are about to receive from the hands of the Babylonians. Justice would demand that the prince cancel the covenant, divorce His wife, strip her of all that He had given her, and cast her out into the streets with nothing, left to be destroyed by her sin and her idols, and abandon her forever – just as her original parents did. But He doesn’t!

In the face of horrific, degrading, abhorrent sin, God remains true to His gracious promise to bring restoration to the world. He will ‘remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth’ – ie. the promises made to Abraham: ‘…in your blood, live!’ – and establish it as ‘an everlasting covenant’ (60). This is lavish grace. We may often think of grace as God being a bit soft, thinking nice things about us, and saying, ‘You’re all right, I guess!’ However true, biblical grace is when we, deserving the worst, are given the best; when God acts with pure unmerited favour towards those who have spat in His face and shown nothing by disdain for Him; it is God loving his enemies and praying for those who persecute him (Matthew 5:43-44). Grace leaves us with no delusion that that we deserve in any way any of the good that God does towards us in saving us from our sin. Grace is not God overlooking or ignoring sin, but accepting sinners on the basis of the atonement that He Himself, at His own cost, makes for sin (63). This is why God is so explicit and crude in his depiction of sin; so that the beauty and magnificence of Grace may be seen for what it truly is.

This section also contains a hint of the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring blessing to the nations. The restoration of Samaria and Sodom have never happened in a physical way, however in the book of Acts we see the Gospel go out to Samaritans and then to Gentiles. God’s people will receive ‘…your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you (61) – in other words, God will do something new – a New Covenant – that will bring the pagans and the estranged Samaritans in to become one family with the Jews. This covenant was established through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. Ezekiel 16 gives a message not just for 6th century BC Jews, but of all people everywhere:

  1. Know the purpose for which you are created: An intimate relationship with God
  2. Recognise the greatness of your sin; the destruction and degradation it brings, and the judgement it deserves; and
  3. See the lavish grace towards you, displayed in the death and resurrection of Jesus for your sin, and put your trust in Him.

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.

man ignoreJesus’ death changed everything?? Really?

You may question this claim that Jesus’ death changed everything. While it could be argued that many of the improvements in civilisation have connections with the Christian worldview and Christian ethical values, we must admit that the world in many ways seems the same – if not at times even worse – than it was the the time of Jesus. There is still plenty of violence, injustice and war. There is pain and suffering, caused both by human beings and by natural processes beyond our control. And while many Christians (and others) seem to speak of a change that is coming, possibly very soon, the world seems to be just going on as it always has.

However, by saying the death of Jesus changed everything I am saying that Jesus Christ, unlike anyone before or since, has given us a perspective that not only helps us to understand why the world is the way it is and how we fit into it, but which also gives those who trust in him a sure, certain and unshakeable hope in the future not just for them, but for the world.

Easter is a reminder that the heart of the Christian faith is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection (coming back to life) of Jesus – but it does not have implications just for Christians, but for everyone. Let me explain why the death of Jesus changed everything:

1. It shows us once and for all who God is 

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

This part of the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the great ‘unveiling’ of God. In the past God has communicated something of who He is, in very specific ways, but in Jesus we are give the full, crystal clear picture. Notice how the writer says that God spoke through prophets, but He has spoken by his Son. Jesus is not just another prophet, but is himself the Message. That’s why Jesus was able to say, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ If we want to know who God is, we simply need to look and listen to Jesus. The first think he shows us is that God is all about relationships. He is the Father, who has a Son. That’s what Christians are talking about when they say God is One God in three persons -the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is a God who relates, and who loves, and His loves overflows towards us in that He want us to also have a relationship with Himself.

But notice also how he unpacks a very specific way in which Jesus unveils God to us: the line, ‘he had provided purification for sins’ is a reference to Jesus’ death. Jesus shows us that God is willing to enter right into our human situation, and walk alongside us in our suffering, pain, loneliness, grief and doubt. The answer to the question, ‘Where is God when I suffer?’ is ‘Right there in Jesus, hanging on the cross. If anyone knows and can sympathise with us in our human situation, it is Jesus.’ In Jesus we see that God cares so deeply about the problems of the world and our lives that he doesn’t just deal with them from a distance in a clinical or judicious way; instead He comes to lift us out of our mess by coming right down to be with us in the thick of it.

This leads us to the second way that Jesus’ death changes everything:

2. It gives us an answer to the dilemma of injustice and evil

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his tolerance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)

A dilemma we may have when we think about the problems of this world is, ‘If God is supposed to be all good and all loving, then why hasn’t he done anything about the problem of evil? The answer is that He has been incredibly tolerant – or patient – and the reason he has been patient is because the problem of evil actually starts and finished with us. If He were to simply wipe out all the evil of this world, then none of us would be left, because we are all complicit in some way with evil and injustice – even if it’s simply the fact that we don’t dedicate our whole lives to working to help others who face injustice.

In fact, sin is more than just the things we do or don’t do. It’s not a list of broken rules, as if God is keeping a ‘naughty or nice’ record to decide if we’re good boys and girls. Sin is a state of the human heart that has said ‘No’ to God. It is an attitude of defiant, self-sufficient rebellion. It is high treason against the one who not only made and rules the whole universe, but who also owns the right to our affections and loyalty. The ‘sins’ we commit are simply the evidence that our hearts are far from God, and the pain we experience as a result is simply God allowing us to see how foolish we are to trade a relationship with Him for our own ambition.

Rather that wipe us all out as we deserve, God has chosen another way – a way in which justice can be preserved, but we can still be reconciled to Him. This way is Jesus’ death. The phrase ‘sacrifice of atonement’ means that Jesus has taken our place, and faced the punishment we deserve. Instead of punishing us, God has punished him. It may not sound just for God to punish someone else in our place – until we see that Jesus willingly, voluntarily, and out of a deep love for us, went to the cross to pay this price.

And so, we are told, if our trust is in Jesus, we are ‘justified’ – brought back into a right relationship with God through full and complete forgiveness. If you have ever experienced forgiveness – either someone who forgave you, or visa versa, you will know how liberating that is. Because of Jesus, those who trust him can know this liberation multiplied by a million, knowing that God will never, ever again hold anything against you.

3. It shows us that death is not the end.

Now Thomas… was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

Jesus’ death is not the end of the Easter story. On Sunday morning, when some of Jesus’ followers came to embalm his body, they found the tomb empty, and then came face-to-face with Jesus, alive again.

You may feel that the claim that Jesus came back from the dead is the most unbelievable part of the Easter story. We all know that people don’t just come back from the dead, especially after they have been brutally beaten and crucified as Jesus was.

However, if you could believe there is a God, who created and runs this entire universe, then it really is is no stretch to believe that He is capable of raising a person from the dead. So I am not going to try to prove to you that it happened, I’m just going to tell you it did, and why it is so significant.

If Jesus had remained dead, we would never know, never be sure, if God had actually done enough to deal with our sin, forgive us, and bring us to Himself. However, Jesus’ resurrection is like God the Father’s way of saying, ‘Jesus has done it! He has lived the life you failed to live, and he has willingly died the death you deserve to die, and so now I am going to raise him from the dead and make him the one that anyone can put their trust in to be forgiven and reconciled.’ The fact that Jesus is alive today is an assurance to anyone who trusts him that God will, hands down, accept you into His family.

It’s more than that though: Because Jesus died and came back to life as a human being – as one of us – his resurrection is the promise to us that life for does not need to end at the grave. Probably the most famous statement from the Bible is Jon 3:16: ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.’ This eternal life is a quality of life that is so solid, so durable, that it never wears out or perishes. And it starts now for anyone who trusts Jesus. It is a life in which we are set free to become the person we are truly meant to be; the person God created us to be, who is able to truly love God and love our neighbour – and to find that the most satisfying, fulfilling thing to do.

Finally, there is one more way in which Jesus’ death – and resurrection – has changed everything:

4. We all have to respond to what God has done for us in Jesus.

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

In the 1960’s, a version of the Bible was published with the words on the cover, ‘The Man You Can’t Ignore – the life and teaching of Jesus’. He still is the man you can no longer ignore.

The leaders of every other religion will tell you that the solution to human problems is simply, ‘Work hard at being good, and if you work hard enough, you may make it in the end.’ Jesus stands alone and says to us, ‘It is done. I did it for you. I did what you were unable and unwilling to do. So simply trust me.’

This is what the word ‘repent’ means. When I repent I basically say to God, ‘You are right, and I am wrong. On my own I am lost and hopeless. My only hope is that you will will do something about my mess.’

To repent means to no longer put your confidence in yourself, but in Jesus. It means trusting that He is alive, and that He has the power to transform you through forgiveness to become the person you are meant to be.

Because Jesus has died and come back to life, we must respond to what God has done in Jesus. We may receive what He has done, or we may outright reject it, but we cannot sit on the fence. He has not given us that option.

If you are reading this blog today it is no coincidence. God is calling you to respond to Jesus by putting your trust in Him and acknowledging that He is the only one who has the right to rule your heart. I urge you to put your faith in him. You may feel that to do so seems like the most difficult and risky thing to do. You may feel that you have too much to lose – the respect of friends or family; a certain lifestyle that at the moment seems to be making you happy; maybe even the dreams and ambitions that have brought you here to study at Uni. Being a follower of Jesus may mean losing some things in this world; however what you receive is far, far greater and more enduring.