Tag Archives: church

Can we say “I love you” non-romantically? 3rd John, Part 1

16 Sep
Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

I recently heard the true story of a boss who was very controlling, difficult and demanding.  As a result was a very stressful person to work for.  His employees always felt like they were on thin ice around him.  One day one of the boss’ employees was meeting new people at a dinner party, and as they talked they asked each other the normal questions people ask when they’re meeting each other for the first time: “Where are you from?” and “Do you have family?” and “What do you do for a living?”  As they answered these questions, they realized they had a common connection in the guy who was the boss.  Here’s the thing, though.  The other people at the dinner party didn’t know the guy as a boss. They went to church with him, and they talked about him glowingly, that he was a great caring guy.  As you can imagine, the employee was shocked to hear his boss went to church.  And he could not conceive of his boss as being a caring guy.

Have you known anyone like that?  Some people would call that a hypocrite.  Or inconsistent.  Would people say that of you and me? I ask this because we’re going to be studying a letter in this week’s series of posts that talks about that kind of life.

This summer we’ve been reading other people’s mail.  Ancient letters.  We read a couple letters that a guy named Paul wrote.  One to a friend named Titus, and another to a friend named Philemon.  Then last week we met another letter writer, a guy named John.  He wrote three letters that are in the Bible.  Last week we studied his letter commonly called 2nd John, and today we’ll see that his next letter, 3rd John, has many similarities with 2nd John.  The writer of these letters, John, was one of the disciples of Jesus. John is sometimes called the Dr. Seuss of the New Testament because in all his writings he uses a few words and he repeats concepts over and over again. 

For example, John loves to talk about walking.  In 2nd John he talked about walking in truth and walking in love, so you might remember that I said last week were we were going to focus on walking in love, which is the feature of 2nd John, and this week we’re going to focus on walking in truth, which is the feature of 3rd John.

So go ahead and read 3rd John before we continue, and see if you can understand what John means by “walking in truth” and what it might have to do with the mean boss who was a nice guy at church. After you’ve read the letter, continue below.

Verse 1 starts just like 2nd John did with John, the writer, identifying himself as “the elder.”  We believe at the time John wrote this, he was probably the only one of Jesus’ original 12 disciples still alive, very much in old age, having served many years in ministry.  It could be that by this point, as the only one of the 12 remaining, he held a position of great respect among the churches, so he was “the elder”.

Next John tells us he is writing to someone named Gaius.  Last week he wrote to “the chosen lady” which we think was a metaphor for a local congregation.  3rd John seems to be a letter specifically to one person,  Gaius.  Why would John write a letter specifically to him?  Let’s try to uncover the reason.

To start, take note of how he refers to Gaius, as a “dear friend,” and one whom John loves in the truth.  That means John considers his relationship with Gaius to be close; he is important to John.  When John says that he loves Gaius in the truth, that should stick out to you.  Why?  Because we don’t talk like that!  Have you ever said to anyone, “I love you in the truth”?  I highly doubt it. 

We might say, “I love you a lot” or “I love you so much.”  But “I love you in the truth?” Uh… No.  What does that even mean?  Well, you might actually have heard people say a phrase very similar to what I think this means.  Have you ever heard Christian people say, “I love you in the Lord”?  Or “I love you as a brother or sister in Christ”?  We don’t use those phrases a whole lot either, but sometimes in a church family, we talk like that because we want to specify the kind of love that we’re communicating.  We don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea!

In our culture, it has become somewhat more normal, I think, for people to say “I love you.” Just a plain old “I love you,” without meaning it romantically.  Sometimes they say it humorously like, “I love you, man!”  But more and more, I’m hearing people say “I love you,” to their friends, non-romantically, and I think that’s a good thing, meaning that perhaps we’re becoming freer to express sentiments of love that way.  But there are still times when we want to express loving-kindness and we don’t want it to be confused with a romantic expression of love, so we add a few words on the end.  In a church family we might say, “I love you in the Lord,” or “I love you as a brother or sister in Christ.”  I think that is what John is doing when he says to Gauis, “I love you in the truth.”  When he says, “he loves him in the truth,” John is describing the deep familial bond that he has with Gaius as a fellow follower of Jesus.  For John, “the way of Jesus” is the one true way of life, and when he says, “I love you in the truth,” John is simply saying to Gaius that they are a part of the Christian family, and John really cares for him.   

So we can, and should, say “I love you” non-romantically to those we care about. We might need to add a word or two to clear up what kind of love we’re expressing. But maybe not.

What does this have to do with the difficult boss? Nothing just yet. But John is getting there. For now, all we have covered is his greeting to his friend. Check back in to Part 2 of this series to see where John goes next.

How to respond to deceivers in a church – 2nd John, Part 4

12 Sep
Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

How much should Christians interact with the secular world? I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is known for our Amish community, a Christian sect that practices a form of separation from the world. As I type this, I can look out my kitchen window and see my Amish neighbors wearing their traditional clothing and riding in a horse and buggy. They can look out their kitchen window and see me and my family wearing our contemporary fashions and driving cars. But we would both call ourselves followers of Jesus. I can tell you, living in this community for decades, that it works. I’m not saying that Lancaster is utopia, but for the most part, though we have a fairly diverse Christian population, we get along, allowing people the latitude to practice their faith in their unique ways, even if we might disagree.

I’ve often wondered, though, what would happen if we tried to actively convince each other that our way is right, and their way is wrong. What if we started attending each other’s worship services and gatherings trying to preach and teach them that they need to change and become like us? How would we handle that? The reality is that this very situation has happened in the past, and still does today. Not with the Amish, though! They’re not big on that kind of evangelism. Instead think of times when people might try to teach false doctrine in a church, or when a so-called cult group knocks at your door. How should you respond?

John continues teaching in the letter we call 2nd John, and he has a warning for people teaching false doctrine.  In verse 4, he wrote that he was thrilled that there were many in the church who were walking in truth, but now in verse 7 he warns them about another group, a dangerous group in the church. John calls them deceivers, those who are not in the truth, who do not practice love by obedience.

How did the deceivers deceive?  He says they did not acknowledge that Jesus came in the flesh.  In other words, these deceivers were teaching false views about Jesus.  John and the apostles who walked with Jesus, who actually knew Jesus, taught that Jesus was human and God.  These teachers were saying something different. 

So John calls them “antichrist”?  What does he mean?  John is not talking about a concept of THE Antichrist, who is considered to be a future world leader. Instead John is referring to a person who teaches something that is against or anti- true teaching about Jesus.  Jesus and his disciples, including John, taught that Jesus is 100% human and 100% God, while these deceivers said something else.  John comes strongly against them. 

So in verses 8-9, John has a further warning for the church about losing what they have worked for.  He calls it “running ahead,” and “not continuing in the teaching.”  What does all this mean?  To continue in the teaching is the idea of remaining faithful to the true teaching about Jesus.  If you remain faithful, or continue in the teaching, John says in verse 8 that there is a reward.  Running ahead, then, is the opposite of continuing. The deceivers were “running ahead” when they taught false concepts about Jesus.

This is another reminder, as we have seen many times in the short letters of the New Testament, that faith is not merely assent but allegiance.  Faith does not stop at belief, but absolutely must work itself out in obedience.  This is what John already said in verse 6, “this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.”  If you do not have obedience to Jesus, therefore, you do not have faith.  He goes on to clarify this in verse 9 when he writes that the person who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ, “does not have God.”

As he continues in verses 10-11, John answers the question, “What should we do about the deceivers who bring false teaching about Jesus?  Further, what should we do about about people in the church who do not obey the teaching of Jesus?”  His response is, “Do not welcome them in your home.”

Can you feel the tension in this?  I feel it. We want to guard ourselves from false teaching for sure, but aren’t Christians supposed to be welcoming? Why would John say that we shouldn’t welcome people? Maybe if we built a relationship with them, we could earn the right to talk honestly with them? But if we just deny them, it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to connect with them.

On one hand, in Psalm 1 we have a teaching that is very similar to what John says about being separate from those who call themselves people of faith but who are living a sinful live or teaching false doctrine.  On the other hand, we see Jesus himself interacting with sinners, talking with them, spending time in their homes and attending their parties.  

There are numerous examples where Jesus does this.  He attends parties with sinners.  He talks with the woman caught in adultery. He purposefully reaches out to the Samaritan woman at the well, and it is clear that her lifestyle was far from the straight and narrow.   What do we see in every one of these situations?  Jesus indulging in sin?  Of course not.  What we learn is that he called them out of a sinful lifestyle.  “Repent and sin no more.” 

Also take note that clearly Jesus did not have the attitude of “Well, I’m the savior of the world, so I don’t go to parties.”  Or “I don’t talk with people who sin.”  He did go to the parties and the places where sinners congregated. He is our example, and that means we can and should reach out as he did. He also confronted false teaching wherever he heard it, whether from the religious leaders or from his own disciples. So John’s teaching in 2nd John is in line with Jesus. While we can and should have genuine relationships with people, we shouldn’t accept false teaching into the church or our homes. When we hear it, we would be wise to graciously and lovingly respond, asking the person to consider changing their view. If they will not, we can just as lovingly agree to disagree. If a person is malicious in their attempt to push their teaching, then a church leadership team can and should respond to that person, even to the point of denying them access to the congregation.

But this requires sensitivity and self-awareness.  As we interact with people like Jesus did, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I being pulled down in the midst of those relationships?  Or am I able to maintain my faithfulness in Christ amidst the pressures and temptation, such that I can have an ability to lift people up?” We need to have honest people around us who we invite to speak into our lives, people who will confront us if we struggling with temptation.  So have a humble mindset, don’t think of yourself as a Christian superhero that rescues sinners.  Trust in God.

Love is practice? 2nd John, Part 3

11 Sep
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Are you a good lover? Many of us when we hear that question, jump in our minds to an erotic understanding of “lover,” but that is not the kind of love I’m referring to. Are you good at being loving? The problem with answering this second question (“Are you good at being loving?”), is illustrated by the confusion we can have with first question (“Are you a good lover?”). What I mean is that we so often we think we know what love is, but what if we don’t? Is it possible that we assume love is one thing, but it is actually another? In our study this week on the ancient letter in the Bible commonly called 2nd John, we’re learning what it means to walk in love. But what is love? To answer that question, we turn to Jesus as our teacher and guide.

In the previous post I suggested that rather than ask “What would Jesus do?” we should ask the question: how can I learn to love like Jesus loved? 

So let’s investigate a Jesus kind of love for a bit. 

The love that Jesus taught and lived is not emotion or feeling.  What we normally think of when we think of love is a feeling or simply an opinion, saying, “I like this or that!” but saying it very emphatically, “I love it!”  The reality is that opinions can change, even about things for which we have said, “I love that!” It is okay if our opinions change about them.  There is nothing wrong with changing your opinion.  You might like something very passionately one year, but grow bored with it another year.   Last week my brother texted me asking if I could bring some baseball cards to our family Labor Day gathering.  A couple of his sons have really been getting into baseball, and he wanted them to see our cards.  I say, “our” cards, because my brother and I collected together.  In approximately 1986-1990, when we were in upper elementary school, middle school, and into my early years of high school we blew a lot of money on baseball cards.  At that age our ability to earn money to spend on cards was fairly limited, but we still ended up with around 10,000 cards.  At the time, I would have said that I loved collecting baseball cards.  Now I look at the boxes of cards taking up space in my closet and think, “That was fun.  I really hope they’re increasing in value! But I’m not passionate about them anymore.”  I don’t like collecting baseball cards anymore. It was an opinion that changed.

Love is different from an opinion. The word John uses for “love” is “agape,” and when Jesus teaches and show us love, he, too, is using the word “agape” to depict a love that is different from opinions and feelings and emotions.  Love is a choice, a conviction, and it does not change.  Agape love is an other-focused way of life in which we care for the other person. It is what you should do, which is not always what you want to do.  It means you love enemies.  It means you love those who cannot return or repay your love.

In many contemporary societies, love is often equated with feelings and eroticism, which is not what John is talking about.  But our society’s view of love is not all bad, as it also conceives of love as commitment, which is very similar to where John goes next in his unique description of love.

Both Jesus and John do something interesting with their idea of love.  Look at verse 6.  They describe love as obedience.  “Walk in obedience to his commands.”  And at the end of verse 6, “walk in love.”  To walk in love, therefore, is to live a life of obedience to Jesus’ commands.  That’s a very different way of thinking about love.  We show our love for Jesus by how we live.  

It seems this is a theme in John’s writings because in the Gospel of John, he mentions the foundation for seeing love as obedience, when Jesus says, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  (John 14:15)

So if love is obedience to Jesus’ commands, that presupposes that we must know what his commands actually are.  And we shouldn’t assume that we just know the teaching of Jesus. 

So back to the illustration of WWJD.  That’s great, but what if we don’t know what Jesus would do?  We need to learn what Jesus would do.  We need to learn his commands.  We need to learn his way of life. 

Make it a priority to get to know Jesus.  Read the Gospels.  Spend time with him.

This takes us back to verse 2 and 3, where John said that the truth lives in us and is with us forever.  I encourage you to read John’s Gospel, chapters 14 and 15.  In those chapters we probably have the clearest teaching of the idea that Jesus lives with us.  He says things like “when people show their love for me by obeying my commands, my father and I will come and make our home with them.”  That’s pretty amazing, right?  This is the theological concept called Union with Christ.  It means that Jesus is with us. He goes on in John 14 and 15 to say a good bit more about it.  First, he says that it is through his Spirit that he is with us.  The Spirit of Jesus lives within us.  And what’s more, in John 15, Jesus says that apart from abiding in him (which is sometimes called remaining in him or depending on him), we can do nothing.  That concept of abiding in him can work itself out in many different applications, but one is that we show our love for him, or we walk in love, by obeying his commands.  And when we obey his commands, when we walk in love, Jesus says, we will have the empowerment of his Spirit to bear fruit for his Kingdom.

But here’s the key: We still have a choice.  Jesus doesn’t turn us into robots who love and obey him.  We have choice.  I often wish I was a robot for Jesus, and had no choice but to obey him.  This raises a question: Which comes first, love or obedience?  Do we obey him first, and then we grow in love for him?  Or does our love for him motivate us to obey?  If love is not emotion, then it seems best to answer that we must first choose to obey.  We might say that our love is expressed in our willful choice to obey.  And there are plenty of times when we are willing ourselves to obey, not because we want to, but because we know it is the right thing to do.  Those battles of the will are difficult.  But they are real, and we can win, especially as we practice.  So much of obedience is practice.  Can we say the love is practice?  I think we can.  We practice what we care about, right?  We’re willing to work at it.  We’re willing to struggle.  That image of love as practice is not enticing.  And yet it is perhaps the foundation of love.

How Jesus redefines “love” and “truth” – 2nd John, Part 2

10 Sep

In the previous post I introduced the ancient biblical letter of 2nd John by looking at some ways that people express themselves when they are in love. Behind it all is the question, “What is love?” Though it is such a commonly used word and concept, is it possible that we might not understand it? I think most people generally understand it, but what we need to investigate, as we read this letter, is how the writer, John, used the word “love.”

What is John talking about in verse 1 when he says, “Whom I love in the truth?”  The “truth” is his way of talking about the family of Christian faith.  As we’ll see, in both short letters of 2nd and 3rd John, John regularly mentions truth.  He continues talking about it in 2nd John verse 1 when he refers to those “who know the truth” and in verse 2 when he says the truth lives in us.  So before we answer the question, “What is love?” it seems we need to answer, “What is truth?”

Truth is an important concept that I will address more fully next week when we study 3rd John, but as we consider how John starts his letter in verses 1 and 2, because he mentions truth three times in the first two verses (get ready, because he’ll mention in verse 3 and 4 and well!), it is vital that we say a few words about truth.  John is not talking about a concept or idea of truth, so much as he is talking about the fact that Jesus is the embodiment of truth.  I know that he doesn’t spell that out here in 2nd John, so how do we know this?  Because of what John has written in other places, the most famous example of which is John 14:6, in his Gospel, when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  This was and still is a fairly surprising way to think of truth.  Truth is a person.  Jesus is truth.  John says, therefore, that there is an amazing reality that this truth lives in us and is with us forever.  How in the world does a person live in us? We’ll talk more about that in a post later in this series.  Hold that thought.

As we move on to verse 3, we read John’s greeting of grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son, who will be with us in truth and love.  There’s that idea of truth again, and that the truth is in us.  But now John has expanded the idea to include grace, mercy and peace and the idea that Jesus is with us in truth and love.  Clearly, what God is communicating to us is amazing.  God wants you to know grace.  God wants you to know mercy.  God wants you to know peace.  All through Jesus living with us and in us, Jesus who is truth and love.

Following John’s flow of thought into verse 4, we read him convey an encouraging word to the church, saying that it has given him great joy to find some of her children walking in the truth.  Walking is another idea that John will repeat.  As is specifically “walking in truth,” which we will focus on next week.  For now, he is overjoyed to find that some in the church are living out the truth of Jesus. 

Let’s continue, because John is about to reveal the specific purpose for writing, and we see the beginning of that in verse 5 when he says he has not a new command, but one we had from the beginning, “love one another.”

There was a time when people asked Jesus “What is the greatest command of the law?”  You can read this in Matthew 22.  He said, “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” and the second greatest, Jesus said, is “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus wasn’t making these commands up.  Both of these commands were originally given way, way back in the Old Testament Law.   Leviticus 19:18 for example says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  That’s where Jesus got it from.  So these are not new commands, as John says. 

It is interesting, then, to consider that Jesus, in John 13:34-35, calls “love one another” a new command.  There he was teaching his disciples just hours before he was about to be arrested and put in trial and crucified.  He says to them, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

How is this a new command?  Wasn’t it actually a really, really old command?  Yes, perhaps a couple thousand years old by that point!  And Jesus clearly knew it was an old command.  So why would he call it a new command? I suspect what Jesus was getting at was the fact that he expressed it in a new way.  He says to his disciples not, “love your neighbor as yourself,” but “love one another, as I loved you.”  Do you see the difference that makes this a new command? 

Our standard for loving other people is not how we would love ourselves, our standard for loving other people is how Jesus loves us!  Do you see what Jesus did there?  He took a command from the Old Law, a very good and important command, but he put his new spin on it, and in so doing, took it to a whole new level.

No longer are we the standard for loving others, he is the standard.  That means we need to have a clear understanding of how Jesus loved.  In another place, John 15:13, John records Jesus as teaching, “There is no greater love than this, then a man lay down his life for his friends.” That’s the kind of love Jesus gave when he went to the cross. 

Remember that phrase WWJD?  What would Jesus do?  We could specify it a bit to:  HWJL?  How would Jesus love?  You could make that into a bracelet and wear it, and that bracelet could become a reminder to you all day long to love like Jesus loved.  Not a bad thing.  We need reminders to love like Jesus loved.  We can often behave in our normal patterns or habits that might not be the same patterns or habits that Jesus used for loving people.  Reminders can help us break out of our old ways and follow the new ways of Jesus. 

Here’s the problem though.  What if we don’t know how Jesus would love?  We might think, “Of course I know how Jesus would love.”  But do we?  We would do better to ask the question: how can I learn to love like Jesus loved? 

Now there’s a question to answer!  In the next post in this series, we’ll investigate Jesus’ kind of love a bit further. 

When you’re crazy in love – 2nd John, Part 1

9 Sep
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Oh the crazy, creative, wild things we’ll do for love.  Have you ever been bonkers in love and did something like that for the one you love? 

I recently heard the story of a guy who made a necklace for his girlfriend.  He carved a small pear shape out of wood, and placed a little seashell in a divot, and then attached it to a chain and gave it to her for their first anniversary.  And she wore it faithfully, daily.  Then a year later, they were out visiting one of their favorite places, he asked her for the necklace.  He broke it in half, got down on one knee, and revealed that inside, all along, was an engagement ring. 

She said, “Yes!  And then after thinking about it awhile, she said, “Wait…it was in there the whole year?  I could have lost it!”  So creative and risky, right?  That blows my proposal to my wife out of the water.  My grandmother had given me a diamond that part of another ring that her grandmother gave her.  So I had the diamond made into an engagement ring, but once I got it, I was so anxious to propose, that I did it that night in a misty rain in the gazebo in Greenfield.  I was, and am, so in love with Michelle, but I admit I wasn’t all that creative about my proposal.

I learned about another guy who was way more patient and creative. This other guy started writing love letters to the girl he was dating.  She would write back.  They didn’t live far apart, but the letters would a great way to pour out their hearts to one another, and a wonderful record to keep of their relationship.  Well, after three years, and 13 letters, he asked the girl to get all the letters out, and he started arranging them.  And this is what she saw.


Can you read it?  The first letter of every love note spells out “Will you marry me?”  She also said, “Yes.”  What is so amazing is that year by year as she was receiving the letters, she didn’t know they were slowly spelling a proposal.

When you’re in love it seems you can’t help it, can’t stop it, you are just flowing with it.  The emotion, the energy, the creativity. 

All summer we have been reading other people’s mail.  Ancient letters.  Not love letters.  But letters in the Bible.  As we’ll see in this next letter, there are other views on love that we need to hear.  Thus far we’ve read the letters that Paul wrote to Titus and Philemon

Today we turn to another writer.  John, who was not only a disciple of Jesus, but also possibly Jesus’ first cousin.  We’re not talking about John the Baptist, who was another cousin of Jesus.  We believe the disciple John wrote the Gospel of John, and then also the epistle of 1 John, and the short letters of 2nd and 3rd John, as well as the book of Revelation.  Going by word count, John wrote 20% of the NT, third behind Paul and Luke.  John was one of Jesus’ inner three disciples, Peter, James and John.  Because of this privilege, they had some unique experiences, such as seeing Jesus’ transfiguration.  John was the only disciple who visited Jesus at the foot of the cross, at which time Jesus asked John to care for Jesus’ mother, Mary.  John would go on to be a leader in the early church.  We believe, of all the original disciples, he passed away last.  Most scholars believe that while much of the New Testament was written around the years 50-70 AD, John wrote all of his works in the range of 85-100 AD.  Lastly, John is often called the Dr. Seuss of the New Testament because he uses the fewest variety of words and he repeats them often. 

As we’ll see, both of his very short letters of 2 and 3 John talk about truth and love, but in 2 John we’re focusing on love and next week when we study 3rd John, we’ll focus on truth.  So go ahead, open a Bible to 2nd John, and read it.

In verse 1, the writer begins by identifying himself with the title, “The elder.”  We think John was the elder or leader of the churches in Ephesus.  As you’ll see, the name John is not mentioned anywhere.  Then he mentions who he is writing to, and it is quite curious.  The recipient is “the chosen lady and her children.”  This could be a real person, but as we’ll see in the content of the letter, it seems that John is using “the chosen lady and her children” as a metaphor.  The chosen lady most likely refers to a church, probably the local congregation he is writing to.  Throughout scripture the church is often referred to in the feminine, for example when Paul calls the church the bride of Christ.  And her children, then, would be the people in the church.

Check back in to the next post, and we’ll see John begin to talk about love.

The world-changing power of forgiveness – Philemon 8-25, Part 4.

29 Aug
Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to forgive someone who hurt you? Did you find it difficult to do so? It can be scary to forgive, especially when the pain runs deep. Will that person respect your forgiveness? What if they hurt you again? Are they really sorry? How do you truly know? There are many questions surrounding broken relationships, questions that can make forgiveness seem murky. In our study of Philemon, Paul is addressing a situation of brokenness, and one that needed forgiveness. But this wasn’t any ordinary brokenness, and what Paul is asking is, well, a lot.

If you want to catch up on the broken situation I’m talking about, start with Part 1 of this series, and continuing reading Parts 2 and 3. Then look at verse 17 of the letter to Philemon.  Do you see where Paul says to Philemon, “If you consider me a partner”?  It is almost certain that Philemon would have considered Paul a partner.  Guess what Greek word Paul used there for “partner”? Koinonia.  Remember that from the previous series on Philemon 1-7, when we discussed verse 6? “Sharing” is the word koinonia, and it means “fellowship, sharing or participation.” Paul has come full circle, and then some!  Paul says, “Welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me, as a close friend, because that’s what Christians do!”  Further, if Philemon is to welcome Onesimus, just as he would welcome Paul, do you see how Paul is putting Onesimus on an equal level with himself!  That’s the kind of amazing equality that we all have in Christ.

Paul continues.  In verse 18 he says that if Onesimus has done Philemon any wrong, or owes Philemon anything, he should charge it to Paul.  As we said in Part 2 of this series on Philemon 8-25, it is highly likely that Onesimus did something more than just run away; in the process of running away he probably stole money and possessions from Philemon.  Paul knows this, and does not want that offense to get in the way of Philemon embracing Onesimus as a brother.  Paul wants this reunion to go well.  This could be an amazing example to many people of the power of Jesus, and how Jesus wants to reshape the world.  A master welcoming back his runaway slave who stole from him?  The normal response for Onesimus’ behavior would have massive punishment, maybe even death.  Also Philemon’s honor was at stake in the community.  Paul knows that if Philemon acts in a surprising upside-down Jesus kind of way, Philemon’s forgiveness and brotherly-welcoming of Onesimus could have significant ripple effects in Colosse. Imagine the people in the city talking as word gets out: “Did you hear that Philemon welcomed back a slave who ran away from him, and stole from him?” That would get notice! Sure some people, maybe even many people, would think Philemon is crazy, but they would still be seeing an amazing example of forgiveness and brotherhood that Jesus brings to the world. What an impact that could make in the church!  In the world!

Therefore, what we see Paul pushing for is the beginning of the eradication of slavery.  This is how Christians can clearly say that slavery is not supported by the Bible.  This is an upending of the social order and seeing God’s Kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven.  Paul is teaching Christians to be willing to go against the conventions of their day, in the name of Jesus.  To cross color lines sacrificially, lovingly.  To repent where they need to repent.  To forgive.  To pay for crimes they didn’t commit.  This is a distinctly Jesus way of life, isn’t it?  That kind of self-sacrifice, Paul says to Philemon, is what it takes to be the church.

Still Paul isn’t done.  In verse 19 he says he is writing this with his own hand.  Often Paul would just talk and one of his friends would write.  But he is writing this one himself.  It is very personal and important to him.  It could be that his friend wrote the rest of the letter, but at verse 19, he picks up the pen and says, “Philemon, I’m serious about my offer to you to charge Onesimus’ damages to me.  I will pay it back.”  And then he gets back to some, well, could we say, urging?  Manipulating?  Maybe.  Paul says, “by the way, Philemon, remember that you owe me you very self.”  I don’t know what that means.  Paul doesn’t say.  It could be that Paul guided Philemon to faith in Christ. We don’t know. Clearly, though, Paul is pulling out all the stops to help Philemon see things his way.

Then he lays it on a bit thicker in verses 20-21.  Read those verses. How much does Paul want Philemon to forgive Onesimus and welcome him as a brother?  So much.  He wants a benefit from Philemon, so Paul tells Philemon to refresh his heart, as he said Philemon was so good at back in verse 7.  Then he says in verse 21, “Philemon, I know you will do even more than I ask.”  Maybe Paul is trying too hard here.  What we know by all his cajoling is that this situation is extremely important to Paul.  I read this letter and think, “Did Philemon have any choice but to do what Paul is asking of him?” Then Paul finishes up the letter with some further greetings and a closing blessing of grace.

But let’s go back to that question: Did Philemon have a choice?  Sure, he did.  With Paul far away in Rome, Philemon had a choice.  Paul couldn’t make Philemon agree and receive Onesimus, no longer a slave, now a brother.  Philemon would have to overcome his personal anger, embarrassment, and hurt.  He likely felt betrayed by Onesimus.  He would also have to overcome societal pressure that said masters do not forgive slaves.  In a society of honor and shame, Onesimus had greatly shamed his master, and the common response by the master would be severe punishment.  What Paul is asking Philemon to do, then, is radical, earth-shattering, Jesus kind of forgiveness and acceptance.   Paul’s teaching that all are one in Christ, that Jesus removes the distinctions between slave and free, is right, but it presents a tall order for Philemon.  What will he do?

What did he do?  We don’t know for sure.  Ancient historians tells us that there was an Onesimus who eventually became a Christian bishop.  Maybe it was this Onesimus, and if so, that would indicate a possibility that Philemon did exactly what Paul asked him to.  We really don’t know.  Scholars also point out that because we still know the content of the Paul’s letter to Philemon, that, too, is an indication that Philemon received Onesimus as a brother. Why? Because this letter was almost certainly private, and Philemon could have crumpled it up, thrown it away, and burned it. Most likely, he didn’t, and instead allowed the letter to become public, copied and transmitted to many other churches, so they could also benefit from Paul’s teaching. Again, how did Philemon respond to the letter? We don’t know for sure.

The better question is: what will we do? And we attempt to answer that next in Part 5.

Defining true Christian fellowship – Philemon 1-7, Part 4

22 Aug
Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

What is fellowship? How does it look in your life, in your church? How do you know if you are doing it right? As we have seen in our study through Philemon verses 1-7, Paul has been giving his friend Philemon feedback on what Philemon has done with his life. Paul has many nice compliments for Philemon (see Parts 1, 2, and 3 for what we have covered previously). We’ve arrived at verse 6, and Paul is far from the end of his encouragement to Philemon. Is Philemon fellowshipping right?

In verse 6 we face a problem, though, as scholars tell us it is difficult to translate.  Here’s how the NIV 1984 translates it:

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

Paul, to Philemon (Philemon 6, NIV 1984)

When you read the words, “sharing your faith,” what comes to mind? Evangelism, right? Sharing the Gospel. Some kind of proclamation of the content of the good news of Jesus. But most scholars believe that is not what Paul is talking about. 

For the word “sharing,” Paul uses the word koinonia.  It is a Greek word that carries the idea of sharing.  But more commonly it is translated in the New Testament using the English word: “fellowship”.  Paul, therefore, is talking about the fellowship of our faith.

What is fellowship?  Churches are sometimes called fellowships.  Faith Church has a room in our building called a fellowship hall, and we also have a Fellowship Serve Team, which is responsible for, among many other things, administration of our kitchen and meals. So there seems to be a connection between fellowship and food.  Fellowship is not equal with food, but the two concepts are connected because of what so often happens around a table of food.  People talk.  People open up.  They share life.  Fellowship is about close relationship.

There are also times in the New Testament when this word is translated as “participation.”  In other words, there is no way we can truly have a fellowship of faith by just meeting together on Sunday mornings.  Sunday mornings are important, and they should launch us into a life of worship and fellowship.  This is why I really encourage you to participate in groups.  Place yourself in settings like Sunday School classes, and small groups, and ministry teams where you can develop deeper relationships.  But fellowship doesn’t stop there.  Fellowship means you invite people in your home, take them out to coffee or lunch, and going deep.  It is one reason why I love our informal runner’s group at Faith Church.  We train together, talk about how race prep is going, hang out, run races, and more than that, we share life. 

So if that is what fellowship is, sharing life together, what is Paul trying to say in verse 6?  One bible commentator, NT Wright explains this a lot more clearly. He points us to Paul’s mention of Jesus in verse 6:

“Paul uses ‘Christ’ here, as in some other passages, as a shorthand for the full and mature life of those ‘in Christ’, so that ‘unto Christ’ refers to the growth of the church towards that goal. Paul’s desire is that the fact of mutual participation, enjoyed by Philemon and his fellow Christians, will result in the full blessing of being ‘in Christ’, i.e. the full unity of the body of Christ.”[1] 

N. T. Wright

What a wonderful picture of what the fellowship of faith can accomplish!  Our fellowship motivates us toward discipleship. Again, Paul is setting a stage.  He wants Philemon to agree with him that all Christians can enjoy the mutual participation of being in Christ, just like Philemon and the other Christians in Colosse enjoy.  Paul is nearly ready to explain why he is talking about this.  He is building toward the “therefore” in verse 8.  For now, we simply need to see what Paul is saying as really important.  Churches should have as their goal that the people in the church grow a more and more mature life in Christ, such that all can mutually participate together in the blessing of being in Christ.  Paul is talking about the strong bond of a church family. 

How can you strengthen the bonds of your church family? Are you participating in a group? What will it look like for you to be more like Philemon?

[1] N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 183.