Posts Tagged ‘love’

Before everything we know, there was Love. Father, Son and Spirit in deep communion; loving, giving, honouring one another.

Out of this communion of loved flowed a Plan. A plan to create others who would be the objects of, and participants in, this love. These creatures would be the gift of the Father to the Son.

The Father spoke a word, ‘Let there be Light’. Immediately, in joyful, loving obedience the Son sprang into action, and in harmony with the Spirit who was hovering over the formless void, formed light – the basic building blocks of a creation that would reflect the glory of His Father. Because of this joyful unwavering obedience of the Son to the Word of His Father, the Son would become known in the future to his creatures as ‘The Word’.

As the Father continued to speak, the Son and Spirit formed and filled the vast void, bringing order from chaos; fullness from emptiness; giving abundance, fruitfulness and life to every corner. As the Father looked upon each stage of the Son’s and Spirit’s work He spoke with love, ‘It is good!’

As the Son formed a world that reflected his Father’s glory, the Father through Him was forming an inheritance that would be for His Son’s honour. The Spirit was honoured in that every creature that had breath depended on His ongoing presence for their life, and as they lived and breathed and had their being in Him He made sure that every breath was an action of worship to the Father and His Son.

Then, the crowing act of creation. While creation was good and glorious and perfect, it was not complete. It required one more thing that would make this world the perfect gift for the Son – creatures made in his image. What greater honour could the Father bestow upon His beloved Son than to fill this creation with creatures who each displayed the Son’s glory? More than that: what better display of HIs love for the Son than these creatures forever worshipping the Son for His love towards them?

Written in the Book were the names of those who would be created to be for the praise of His glory. And a decree was made: the Son will be glorified by being united with these creatures; by becoming one of them, and by doing so catch them up into the love and joy of the Divine fellowship. His entering their lives will be such that His display of love will win their hearts and worship forever. This decree involved the entry of sin into the creation, and as a result of sin would come suffering and death – in order that the Son may share in their suffering and embrace them in their death so that he may be praised not only for His glory, but for His glorious Grace.

And so this Book would come to be called, ‘The Book of Life of the Lamb who was Slain’.

The triune God took dust – dust that was designed for this very purpose – and shaped a human being. A creature full of glory, stamped with the image of the Son, and filled with the Spirit. A creature designed love their God and love their neighbour; given the honour of being the only creature in the vast universe to participate in the divine family of love. A creature who would embody the planned union of the Son with them through the gift of being male and female, husband and wife.

Fill the earth – it’s all for you. Rule over it, care for it, be my stewards and representatives to every creature. The destiny of this creation is tied to your destiny, because I have made you to be my children.

It was no surprise to God when these creatures rebelled. It did not throw Him off guard, or make Him wonder what to do next. He had already decreed that His Son would redeem them, and the glory from that redemption would be greater than the glory of Eden. And so in the midst of the curse he gave a promise. A son of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. That which had been done by one man would be undone by one man. The curse was given in order that blessing would come that far exceeded anything that the man and woman could ever hope or imagine.

As sin and violence spread across the creation like gangrene, the love of God only grew to match it. When the first Son of Adam killed his brother if jealous rage, he was confronted with forgiveness and grace, even though his brother’s blood cried out to God for justice. When the inclination of every person’s heart was only evil all the time, God set his loving favour upon one man Noah and his family – chosen by grace – so that when God’s righteous judgement fell upon humanity in a great flood, the human race, carriers of the promise, would be saved, and allowed to rebuild in a baptised, cleansed creation. When this rescued humanity – descendants of Noah – continued in their hard hearted rebellion, refusing to fulfil their creational mandate, they were in mercy scattered across the face of the earth, and through the confusing of their language was enabled the rise of culture and diversity, of tribe and tongue and nation, of physical and social diversity. Despite their hard hearts they were inexorably driven forward towards the Goal, as God oversaw the rise and fall of nations and kings and heroes and their stories; the creation of literature and art, of music and song, of culinary delights and technology; the gathering and storing and growing of knowledge and science. Over all this was the ever abiding presence of God, ever wooing, calling, speaking; every breath of life an opportunity for His creatures to reach out and find Him, to come home to the waiting Father.

The time came in the flow of human history for the Plan to be taken up to the next gear.

One man called Abraham was chosen. He was told,

You are the start. Through you, the seed of the woman will come.

He was no-one special or good – an idolater living among idolaters. He and his wife were elderly, and had no children. He was one of the most unlikely, unqualified and unsuitable candidates for the rolling out of God’s plan of salvation; however God had set His love in him, and used Abraham’s simple faith as a catalyst to produce in him a life of obedience and hope.

God signed and sealed his promise to Abraham through a covenant of blood. Ancient treaties were sealed with each party both making promises, and preempting a curse upon themselves if they were not true to their word. God’s promise with Abraham and his descendants was different. Paralysed by God, Abraham could only watch passively as God vowed His faithfulness to His promise, invoking a curse upon Himself as He passed between the halves of the slaughtered carcasses of animals. The message was clear: if this covenant was ever broken, God would take upon Himself the consequences.

The message became clearer when Abraham was called by God to offer his miraculously born son Isaac as a sacrifice. Assured if God’s loving faithfulness, Abraham obeyed, even though he could not see how this would end well. However he knew two truths that enabled him to act: Firstly, if this God who had appeared to him in Glory had made a promise, He would provide the means for his son’s life to be spared; and secondly, even if Isaac were to die, this God was able to raise the dead.

The loving faithfulness of this God was displayed to Abraham and Isaac on the mountain when He intervened at the last minute, and provided a ram in the place of Isaac. Saved from death by a substitute, Isaac lived, and Abraham’s hope was confirmed. God had reaffirmed His covenant promise: nothing will stop His plan to restore blessing to His creation; however, this plan will be accomplished through a death.

Abraham’s descendants grew, as promised, into a great nation. Living under a cruel tyrant as slaves in Egypt, their groans were heard by God who had never forgotten His promise to Abraham.

The gods of Egypt were shown to be the empty, loveless forgeries they were, as God in his loving wrath sent plagues of judgement upon Egypt, that the Egyptians  and Pharaoh might know that He is the Lord. Then, on the eve for their deliverance, the Israelites were given a sign that would be etched in their memories and stories forever. This sign pointed them back to the moment of Isaac’s salvation, and became the template for the central focus of their worship from that time on.

For every firstborn son a lamb must be slain, and its blood painted on their doorposts. As the judgement of God passed through the land that evening, those homes marked with blood would be spared. Every home that night contained a dead body – either that of the firstborn son, or of a lamb that was slain in his place. If the Israelites had at that time insight into the eternal decree of God, they might have said, ‘My son is saved! Our name must be written in the book of life!’

Now a freed people, on the way to the promised land, God showed them time and time again that He had set His love upon them. At Sinai he gave them no question to doubt their identity as His beloved, chosen and cherished people. They could say of themselves,

We are Israelites, and to us belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To us belong the patriarchs, and from our race, according to the flesh, will come the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.

Despite their hard hearts and their complaining, He continued to prove to them that He is,

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…

…and He patiently remained with them for the forty years they were in desert on their way to the Land He had promised.

He gave them his Law through a prophet, Moses. In this law was life – all who obeyed would know blessings, freedom and joy and peace; but in this law was also death – all who disobeyed would know cursing, slavery and judgement. This Law revealed to the the very loving character of God, but also revealed their own character as rebels and sinners. This Word through Moses the Prophet pointed them to a time when another Prophet would come – one like Moses, but whose words spoke not condemnation, but forgiveness and eternal life.

He gave them the Tabernacle, the visible sign to them that He was their God, and He dwelt with them as His people. At the centre sat the mercy seat. This was symbolically the throne of God, although there was no visible image, since God is the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, because heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Him.

Yet this seat was not only the centre of government, but the centre of atonement. Once a year, the blood of the sacrifice would be carried into the most holy place, and sprinkled on the mercy seat. The very throne of God was marked with blood; blood that spoke of His people’s sin, carried to the place of mercy. God was bearing His people’s sin; the blood that was on their hands splashed onto his heart.

Along with this, yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, sacrifices would be brought to the tabernacle, and as the blood flowed into the ground like the blood of Abel, and as the smoke of the burnt offerings rose into the sky as a pillar, the Israelites would be reminded that their God is a God of mercy, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. They would come to the tabernacle with hearts weighed down by sin and shame, but leave with the assurance that their God forgives iniquity and transgression and sin.

As each priest helped them offer the sacrifice, as they placed their hands on the head of the animal and say its throat cut and its blood pour out, they were pointed to the time when a Great High Priest would come, and once and for all make the perfect sacrifice, and pour out the blood that would cleanse their hands and hearts and consciences.

And once a year at Passover their families would gather, eating bread and lamb and wine and bitter herbs and recall the goodness of their God who rescued them from slavery and death; when in love their God caused His wrath to pass over them.

Once in the Land, the people proved time and again that they remained the stubborn, hard hearted people they were in the desert. Judges came and went, and still each of them did what was right in their own eyes. Their eyes longed to have what the nations had; their hearts longed to be like the nations were. When they demanded a King, it was not so they may be ruled justly by God’s representative, but so they may be like the rest of the world. And so in love God gave them what they asked for – a king who fitted their own criteria. He was preparing them to receive the King of His choosing, the one who would foreshow and foretell of the Seed, the Lamb, the Prophet, the Great High Priest.

God spoke to this King, David, with promises of a Son who would be King and of the Eternal Kingdom he would establish; and David responded with songs and that told of God’s loving faithfulness, of His promises to save, and His comfort in trouble, of the joy He gives to those who worship Him, and of His call to the nations to serve him with fear and rejoice with trembling and kiss His Son who gives them refuge.

No King that followed was quite like David. Through a divided kingdom and kings who did evil in the eyes of the Lord, setting up places of false worship, making unholy alliances with pagan kings, assassinating their predecessors and eliminating their rivals, God was teaching His people to not put their trust in princes, in men with whom there is no salvation, whose breath departs and whose plans perish. No king could be quite like David, because David was not the paradigm – he was only a shadow of the real King who was yet to come.

In love, God sent His prophets. With tongues cleansed as if by fire from the altar, these men reminded the people of God’s covenant faithfulness, called them to remember and turn and believe the good news that their God reigns. They spoke of the judgement that would come to cleanse the world and humanity that He loved of sin and darkness and death. And they spoke even more clearly of the one who who accomplish this: the One who would be the Almighty God yet also a Son of Man; a great King, yet also a Suffering Servant; the anointed Messiah, yet born into obscurity; a lion of the tribe of Judah, yet also the Lamb who was slain. This One would bring about the Day of the Lord – a day of great wrath, yet also a day of great mercy; a day when justice and love will be shown to be one.

Yet, the people’s hearts remained unchanged. What the Law, weakened by the flesh could not do, could only be done by the Father sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. Everything was imprisoned under sin, so that the promise of what was to come was the only option, and faith would be the only means of receiving it. But the fullness of time had not yet come.

To show beyond question that Israel’s – and the world’s – hope was to to be found not by might or power but by the working of the Spirit of the Lord, God’s people were sent into exile in a foreign land; their cities burned, their temple destroyed, their priests slaughtered, and the mercy seat lost, melted down to fill the coffers of their captors. Decimated and broken, the remnant languished in Babylon, asking, ‘How can we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?’ They heard through the prophets that God’s presence had accompanied them into exile, and as they sat by the rivers of Babylon He enabled them to sing – of Jerusalem in her former glory; of the promise of a King, of the hope and a future that God had planned for them, when the Spirit would be poured out and bring new life to dry bones; where the Loin would lie with the lamb and a child would no longer be afraid of snakes; where the Temple would be rebuilt, and they once again would dwell with their God in a new heaven and a new earth.

Almost two generations later the remnant returned with laughter and joy, and were like those who dream. The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt, and new temple took shape – yet nothing was like it used to be, and most certainly was nowhere near the promised renewal they had heard of in exile.

One more prophet came, and spoke one more time of the Day of the Lord: the day when the ‘sun of righteousness’ would rise with healing in its wings, when they would go out like leaping calves from the stall, and when all wickedness will be trodden down and turned to ashes. But they must wait. In the scale of human history; the millenia since Eve first heard the promise, the Day was just around the corner. The horizon of their future was starting to be faintly tinged with gold as the sun began to rise.

Two thousand years of history of this small, humble and hard hearted nation stand as a testimony to the nations of the love of God; a showcase of grace; a display of His unending patience; a picture of how the Father loves His enemies, the Spirit continues to strive with the hearts of sinful men and women, and the Son resolutely determines to prepare His bride.

The story of God dealing in love with His people Israel speaks of how He sets His favour on His elect from every tribe and tongue. From the nations around – Sheba, Moab, Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Babylon, Ninevah, people were drawn to this God who was close to His people when they prayed, who gave them such righteous statutes and laws. God was showing that while His special electing love was upon this people, He had also set His love on those from all the nations – true to the promise He had given to the one man from whom this nation had come.

Four years later – ten generations to us, but a blink in the timing of God – love was embodied. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. The glory of the One and Only shone forth in the form of a helpless infant, laid in a feeding trough, in the town on David. Only shepherds and pagan astrologers came to worship him; the only King who acknowledged him tried to kill him. For thirty years he lived in obscurity, loving his parents by obeying them.

When the time came for him to appear in public, his Father publicly declared His love:

This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Only two more times would the Father speak audibly – once to call us to

Listen to him

and again to declare His intention to glorify His own name through him. No other voice from heaven was needed, since Jesus was and is the voice of the Father embodied in flesh and blood. Anyone who has seen him has seen the Father because all he did was what the Father gave him to do; and anyone who has heard him has heard the Father, because he only ever spoke the words his Father gave him to speak.

Jesus embodied the compassion of God towards the sick and unclean, the lame and demon possessed, the outcast and the sinner. He gathered around himself of rag-tag team of men – fishermen, a tax collector, zealot, a traitor, and a doubter, and other nobodies, and entrusted with them the task of announcing the Kingdom of God to the world. He welcomed women and children, centurions, samaritans and canaanites. And he showed stern love and compassion to the self righteous pharisees and teacher of the law by exposing their hypocrisy speaking the truth.

As he knew his public ministry was drawing to a close, this King took the role of a servant, the humblest of all positions, and washed his disciples’ feet, loving them to the uttermost. The lamb that was decreed before the foundation of the world to be slain, ate with his friends the meal that had for nearly 1500 years been foretelling this moment. The Great High Priest was about to make the ultimate sacrifice of atonement – Himself. God had provided a substitute to save the lives of Isaac’s descendants – at that substitute was himself.

For three days and three nights the embodiment of Love was in the heart of the Earth. With troubled heart to the point of death; betrayed, abandoned and denied; falsely accused and mocked; handed over to Gentiles and shamed, and finally nailed to a tree as he became the curse that had first touched the ground when Adam and Eve first rejected love.

The Good shepherd became the prey, as bulls surrounded him like roaring and ravening lions; the King of Zion succumbed to the raging of the nations; the one in who the Father delighted became the man of sorrow, acquainted with grief; the Servant who was to be high and lifted up, was lifted up like a snake on a pole, and his blood fell to the ground like Abel’s, crying out for justice.

The Father’s face no longer shone upon him, and he cried word that had never before been heard in the eternal fellowship of the the triune God:

Why have you forsaken me?!?

Yet God was not not torn apart by this, because this moment was the moment when His love shone forth brighter than it had ever been before. The Eternal Spirit was in Him as he offered himself unblemished to God, and as he breathed his last he called to the Father he could not see,

Into your hands I commit my Spirit.

As he was laid in the tomb, and as his friends and family mourned, the Sabbath began.

There was nothing more precious to the Father, since the first word of creation, than these three days and nights. The Son had loved the Father to the uttermost, and for the joy set before him was obedient to the point of death. And the Son had loved to the uttermost the creatures made in his image, taking their sin and shame into the grave.

What else could the Father do, but raise Jesus from the dead, seat Him his right hand and give him the name that is above every name, and call all creatures in heaven and earth and below the earth to bow the knee and pay him homage. The resurrection is the Father declaring to the world,

This is my beloved Son, whom I love; listen to him! I have glorified Him as I promised I would.

Side by Side, in perfect unified Love, the Father and the Son together send the Spirit into the world, who poured into people’s hearts the love of God. He cased them to cry out,

Abba, Father dear!

and to kiss the Son in whom they have taken refuge.

Like a flood, the revolution of love began to wash across the world. Kings tried to crush it, but their swords were ineffective against the relentless love of God. Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth became witnesses of the glory of the one and Only, and His family grew as more and more heard the Good News that the God, who is Love, reigns.

Scattered across the centuries are countless trophies of love. Frightened disciples turned into bold proclaimers; an angry murderous Pharisee, whose heart was softened and conquered; legalists turned to lovers of grace; pagan philosophers, prison guards, soldiers, tax collectors, widows and orphans, slaves and masters, all the beginning of the new creation.

As with the returned exiles of old, God’s people now wait for another Day. Again, the horizon is tinged with gold, as the cry of the Spirit and the Bride goes out, ‘Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.’ On this day the curtain will be pulled aside to reveal the full glory of the One who has been with us always, and every soul will stand before Him. On that day no-one will dare say, ‘if God is Love, then why…?,’ because the God of Love will be before their eyes, and the sign of His love will be the nail-scarred hands – the only man-made thing that will enter the new creation.

On that day tears will be wiped from our eyes, and death and crying and pain will be no more. We will know as we are known. The Bride will stand before the Lamb without wrinkle, blemish or stain, and they will be one. Love will be complete.

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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.

‘The Universe doesn’t give a damn about what we like. The Universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. That’s the one thing that I really hope people will understand… we should rejoice in this remarkable accident that led to our existence… You are more insignificant than you ever thought, and the future is miserable – and those two things should make you happy, not sad.’

Lawrence Krauss

‘What if in the beginning there was love. Father Son and Holy spirit, the ultimate community of truth, beauty and goodness, who out of the overflow of their life make a world – and yes it’s a world that’s full of all sorts of incredible physical forces and all sorts of incredible darkness and selfishness; and yet, shot through the whole thing is the self-giving love, the glory of the Lord? Doesn’t that make sense of what we think to be the most important realities in life?’

Glen Scrivener

Hear the full quotations here at The Evangelist’s Podcast