Tag Archives: slavery

Finding God in our mess – Characters: Joseph, Part 3

30 Oct

Life can feel so messy. Have you ever been in one those the seasons of life where it seems like things keep going wrong? Just when you think you are getting past one hurdle, here comes another one. You jump one, then two, and you barely make it over the third, and you’re so tired, and you jump to clear the fourth hurdle, but you’re flagging strength doesn’t take you nearly high enough, and you crash into the hurdle, losing balance, crumbling to the ground. Been there?

Joseph was there. In this second installment in our series titled Characters, we’ve been following the life of Joseph, one of the patriarchs of ancient Israel, as he faces one hurdle after another. There are more to come. Will Joseph crash?

We read about Joseph’s life in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. In chapters 40 and 41 we return to the topic of dreams.  Remember how 17-year-old Joseph had dreams about his family bowing down to him? That didn’t go over well. At all. His brothers responded by selling him into slavery, and he was purchased by an Egyptian official, Potiphar. God was with Joseph and he prospered serving in Potiphar’s house, until Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. Though he ran from her, she lied to Potiphar saying that Joseph was making passes at her. Potiphar threw Joseph in jail, and life was awful again. Yet God was with Joseph, and in prison he prospered again, earning favor with the warden. This is when the dreams start again, but it is not Joseph who is dreaming.

Two men in prison with him have dreams: the king’s chief cupbearer and chief baker.  If you want to read the story, open your Bible to Genesis 40:8.  Both men had been on the King Pharaoh’s bad side, and the king jailed them. In prison they both have mysterious dreams. The men don’t know what the dreams mean, and they tell this to Joseph. Joseph says to them, with confidence in God’s ability to provide interpretation, “Tell me your dreams.”  Again God is with Joseph, and he interprets the dreams.  The dreams are prophecies, and they come true.  Disaster for the baker, and restoration for the cupbearer.

In chapter 41 the text tells us two years go by.  Now the Pharoah, the king of Egypt, has some dreams.  Weird dreams.  My dreams can get pretty weird too.  I don’t know about you, but I have always had dreams, from childhood till now.  Sometimes they are nightmares, especially when I am sick.  That can really set off the weirdness at night.  Have you ever woke from a dream thinking, “Whew…it was just a dream…I am so glad that wasn’t real!” because it seemed real, and it was weird or awful.  Well, King Pharaoh has some strange dreams, and no one can interpret them, even the magicians and wise men of Egypt. 

Guess who is there watching the King desperately trying to understand his dreams?  The cupbearer.  Remember him?  He was one of the guys in prison with Joseph who had a dream. Joseph interpreted it, and the cupbearer was restored to favor with the king.  Now the cupbearer, watching the king struggle to interpret his dreams, remembers, “Wait…there was this guy in prison, Joseph, who interpreted dreams.”  He tells the king, and the king summons Joseph. 

What Joseph says when the king asks him to interpret the dream is awesome.  Look at Genesis, chapter 41:16. Joseph says to the king, “I cannot do it.”

That’s bold.

When the king calls, you answer.  When he says, “Jump,” you jump.  And when he says, “I heard you can interpret dreams,” you say, “Let’s do it, what is your dream?”  Not Joseph.  Joseph says, “I can’t.  But God can.”  See the humility in Joseph?  He has changed.  Even after being in prison for over two years, he isn’t angry at God.  He is devoted to God.  Joseph had gifts from God. He was dreaming dreams and was discerning them as a young boy, but it is possible in those early years he was not using his gifts in a God-honoring way.  It could be that he used his dreams to “show up” his brothers.  But when Joseph turned to God and found his identity in God, those gifts became powerful tools for good, as we have read in Genesis chapters 40-41. 

We all have gifts from God, and when we are asking God for his power to use those gifts for the mission of his Kingdom, our gifts are beautiful and powerful tools for Him.

Back to the story, we see Joseph using his gifts for God. Pharaoh tells the dream, and God gives Joseph the interpretation.  The dream was God’s message that a famine is coming on the land, and they need to prepare. 

Look at how Pharaoh responds to this.  Read Genesis 41:37-38, where Pharaoh sees the evidence of God in Joseph’s life, and thinks, “I want this guy on my staff.”  Pharaoh scoops Joseph up immediately, placing him in charge of all Egypt!

Let’s take a step back and notice the hurdles in Joseph’s life to this point: he went from losing his mother who died during the birth of his brother, to being the favorite son of his father, to having his coat of honor stolen from him, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers, to being a slave in Potiphar’s house, but achieving success, only to have Potiphar’s wife lie about him, resulting in being thrown into jail.  How about that for a life of ups and downs?

Finally things come full circle in Genesis 41:41 as Pharaoh puts him charge of Egypt, even including giving Joseph a new robe.  You can bet the robes Joseph wore now were fancier than the one his father gave him years before.  But as Joseph puts on that Egyptian robe, did he remember his father?  Did he think of his brothers?

As we continue in Genesis chapter 41, look at verse 51. Joseph marries, and has two sons.  Even though he marries an Egyptian priest’s daughter, he names his sons in honor of God’s work in his life.  God has made him forget his trouble and his father’s household.  Yet he is talking about his father’s household. So he hasn’t forgotten.  Maybe the family drama still stings a little.  Or a lot.  Yeah, he is now second in command of all Egypt.  He is at the heights of power and wealth and fame.  Yeah, he has a family now.  God is good, and has blessed him, and Joseph is faithful to God.  But that doesn’t mean the memories are wiped clean.  That doesn’t mean the past doesn’t still sting a bit.  

At the end of Genesis 41, we learn that a major famine has come upon the land, as was predicted through Pharaoh’s dreams.  Under Joseph’s leadership, then, Egypt not only prepared enough food for its own people to make it through the famine, but they had so much extra, they were able to sell food to people from other nations too. That fact will have significant ramifications for Joseph, which we’ll see as we continue the story in the next post.

For now, no matter how messy your life has been, know that God is faithful. Keep pursuing him, even in the mess.

When God is nowhere to be found – Characters: Joseph, Part 2

29 Oct
Photo by Brunel Johnson on Unsplash

Have you ever felt utterly alone and abandoned by your family, friends, and even by God? If so, you’re not alone. Maybe people hurt you. Maybe you made a bad choice. Maybe life turned out different from your hopes and dreams. There are many ways we can find ourselves in despair. Keep reading as our character for this week had a very similar situation in his life. There might be something helpful to you as you read his story.

In the previous post, we met 17 year old Joseph, and we learned that his family had a lot of drama, some of which seems to be his own doing. This is a blog series on Characters, people who lived in ancient Israel, people who were flawed and troubled, but people who God still used. At the conclusion of the previous post, Joseph had angered everyone in his family, including his father, who loved Joseph more than any of his other sons. The drama is about to get worse. Way worse.

As we continue the account in Genesis 37, verses 12-36, we read that Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers, and the brothers see this as an opportunity to vent their jealousy and hatred of Joseph, as he is far from home, from the watchful care of their father Jacob. They debate what to do, including killing Joseph, believe it or not, but the oldest, Reuben, intercedes, and they agree to kidnap Joseph and sell him into slavery.  In the process they take Joseph’s special coat, put blood from an animal on it, and give it back to their father Jacob, telling him Joseph had died. 

Imagine this experience from Joseph’s perspective.  17 years old.  Kidnapped by your brothers.  Sold into slavery.  That had to be horrible.  This is human trafficking, perpetrated by his own brothers. Imagine the darkness in Joseph’s soul.

How would this crisis have impacted Joseph?   Have you been through a crisis, a life-changing event?  It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Joseph’s, where he was kidnapped, and sold into slavery, betrayed by his own family.  But perhaps you can think of a difficult situation that happened in your life. 

Crisis can (and should) turn us to God. 

Crisis doesn’t always turn us to God.  Crisis sometimes makes us bitter.  Angry.  Harsh. 

How has crisis affected you?

It seems important at this point to note that something is missing in chapter 37.  Scan through the chapter.  It is a glaring omission.  What, or rather who, is missing?  God.  Not a single mention of God.  Not when Joseph is dreaming.  No mention when he is with his brothers.  And nothing about God when Joseph is sold into slavery.

I find it striking that God is nowhere to be found in this part of the story.

Hold that thought, as we see how crisis affected Joseph.

We’re going to skip over chapter 38, as that is a separate story.  Go to chapter 39 where the story of Joseph picks up.

We learn right away in Chapter 39 that a significant change has occurred in Joseph’s life.  Slave traders take him to Egypt where we meet Potiphar, one of the Egyptian King Pharoah’s officials, and Potiphar buys Joseph.  So a physical change has taken place as Joseph is far from home in a new land.  But there is a spiritual change as well.  Look who is mentioned in verse 2.  God is with Joseph, and Joseph prospered.  The Lord gives Joseph success in all he does. 

Back up with me a moment.  Think about all that Joseph has gone through.  I wish I could know if something changed in Joseph while he was in the hands of the slave traders.  The text doesn’t tell us.  But the presence and blessing of God in chapter 39 is quite striking when you consider the total absence of God in chapter 37.  Could it be that Joseph went through a dark inner struggle while he was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery?

Did he wrestle with God like his father Jacob did, as we saw last week?  The text doesn’t tell us, but to me that is a possible explanation for the absence of God in chapter 37 and the presence of God in 39.  Also, God is faithful in our trials.  He is there.  He was always there, even when it didn’t seem like it.  Even when the circumstances don’t change, he is there. 

We don’t know how long Joseph was in the caravan of slave traders.  Weeks probably.  Maybe months.  But imagine being a 17 year old boy in that circumstance. Can you imagine all the emotions he’s got going on!  He was in a home where he knows he is the favorite and he is beloved, but he also knows and feels the hatred of his brothers on a regular basis. Then he is sold into slavery! I suspect he cried his heart out to God.  I suspect a change took place in Joseph’s relationship with God.  And God changed Joseph.  His identity became about who he was to God and not who he was to his father and to his brothers.  When we realize our identity in God, he is sufficient for us, even when the trials of life continue. 

We read that Joseph rises in favor in Potiphar’s estimation, as Joseph was very capable and blessed by God in all he did, so Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of his whole estate.  Because of this, God blessed Potiphar too. 

Then more trouble comes.  It’s like Joseph is a magnet for drama.  We read that Joseph is very handsome.  And Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him. Joseph’s response is amazing, showing the change that God has worked in him.   Look at Genesis chapter 39, verses 8-12.

Joseph refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances saying, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”  Here he shows his concern for purity, for following God’s ways.  Especially note verse 12 where he flees temptation.  Joseph is an amazing example for us in this.

But Potiphar’s wife is jilted and angry, and she lies to Potiphar, saying that Joseph initiated the advances on her.  Potiphar, angry, imprisons Joseph.  And yet what do we read in Genesis 39:21?  The Lord was with Joseph!  Basically the same thing happens in the prison as what happened in Potiphar’s house.  Joseph is put in charge, and God is with Joseph and blesses all he does.  But Joseph is still in jail.  So his circumstances are still difficult.  Just because Joseph is close to God and being obedient, he is still in prison.  Righteous living does not always mean that immediate results and rewards will come. When we find our identity in God, though, we find that we have all we need, even if our circumstances don’t change.

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.

How to transform your life from useless to useful – Philemon 8-25, Part 2

27 Aug
Photo by Linh Nguyen on Unsplash

Have you ever felt useless in life? Maybe you watch others around you, friends and family, and it seems they are successful, advancing, making a difference in the world, enjoying life. Then you think about your life, and maybe you see a past littered with failure, broken relationships, and poor choices. Even if that describes you a little bit, know that you are not alone. Today we meet a man with a broken past. In fact, he was described as useless. At the outset, though, let me give you a hint: there is hope!

So far in our study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, in verses 1-7 we’ve seen Paul profusely encourage Philemon to see himself as a lover of Jesus who also loves all of Jesus’ followers. Then in verses 8-9, Paul begins to make an appeal to Philemon, because there is a specific situation in which Paul wants Philemon to practice that love for Jesus and all his followers. Paul knows that Philemon has a broken relationship in his life, and in verses 10-21, Paul makes his appeal to Philemon to fix that relationship.

What relationship? Paul is writing Philemon on behalf of Onesimus who used to be Philemon’s slave.  But something happened.  We don’t know all the details, but in verse 18 Paul gives some clues.  It seems that Onesimus not only ran away from Philemon, but may have even stolen from him.  Onesimus then made his way to Rome where he met up with Paul.  My guess is that one of three things led Onesimus to Paul. 

First option: Paul had previously become friends with Philemon.  It is possible that Paul would have also met his slave at the same time.  As time goes by, Paul ends up in Rome on house arrest, and Onesimus runs away from Philemon, hoping upon hope that Paul will help him.  If you’ve just committed a crime, and you don’t know where to go, you often seek a person you think will be understanding.  In Onesimus’ mind, Paul fits the bill.

Second option: It could be that Onesimus and Paul hadn’t previously met, but Onesimus still seeks out Paul for help, simply because of Paul’s reputation.

Third option: Onesimus just so happens to end up in Rome and comes across Paul.  Seems unlikely, but as we all know, unlikely things happen all time. 

The rest of the story, Paul tells us.  There in Rome, as he says in verse 10, Onesimus becomes his son.  That is strong family language, right?  Paul writes like this often, calling people his “son” in the faith.  What he means is that he shared Christ with Onesimus, and Onesimus chose to place his faith in Christ, giving Jesus both his assent and allegiance.  In other words, through Paul’s ministry on house arrest, Onesimus becomes a Christian. 

In verse 11 you see Paul’s literary flourish as he uses a wordplay, and most of your Bibles will point to this in a text note.  Almost certainly Onesimus was a difficult case for Philemon, and Paul knew this. If he hadn’t previously heard the story of Onesimus’ running away, he now heard it from Onesimus. Maybe Onesimus was a bad worker, maybe he was insubordinate, a back-talker, a slacker, we don’t know. As a result, maybe Philemon was hard on Onesimus, and that led to his running away. Or maybe Onesimus just wanted to be free. When Paul describes Onesimus as “formerly useless,” it could be all of the above. But here’s wordplay: Onesimus’ name means “useful,” and what does Paul say in verse 11?  Onesimus has gone through a transformation from uselessness to usefulness.  Through the work of Jesus in Onesimus’ life, a great change has happened. Onesimus is now as his name suggests, useful!  And not just to Philemon, Onesimus, Paul says, is useful to Paul too.  Apparently Onesimus was on fire for Jesus, serving, helping Paul. 

So Paul has a tough decision to make.  Do you send a runaway slave back to their master, knowing that it might not go well for that slave?  Or do you keep him with you, especially considering the amazing change that has taken place in his life?  There’s a lot riding on this.  If Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, how will Philemon handle it?  Philemon really seems to be a good man, but Onesimus had betrayed Philemon, and Philemon could have a bad reaction. Also consider this from Onesimus’ point of view.  How much convincing did Paul have to do to get Onesimus to agree to this, after having wronged Philemon and run away?  How scared was he to go back there?  We can imagine Paul having a talk with Onesimus: “Now that you are follower of Jesus, there’s something we need to discuss. Philemon. Your master. How you treated him. Your broken relationship. Jesus is in the business of making things right. We’re going to need to deal with this.”

Now are you seeing why Paul gushes so much over Philemon in verses 1-7?  All that talk about loving all Christians?  Yeah.  It’s because Paul is dropping a bomb right in Philemon’s lap.  And that bomb is Onesimus.  Paul chooses to send Onesimus back, as we read in verse 12, which is the right thing to do. In fact, under Roman law, it was the legal thing to do. Philemon owns Onesimus, and Paul chooses to submit Onesimus to that relationship, as he says in verse 14.

At this juncture we need to pause and talk about slavery in the Roman Empire.  Even just saying “Philemon owns Onesimus” feels wrong.  But that is what was going on.  He was legally seen as property. 

Doesn’t it seem really odd that Philemon, a Christian, owns slaves, and that Paul would send a runaway slave back to his master!  Shouldn’t Philemon set his slaves free?  And shouldn’t Paul say, “Onesimus, you are not going back there into slavery”?  Yes, it seems like that should be happening, but none of it did.  As we’ll see, Paul has a whole lot more to say, but for now I want to point out that slavery in the Roman Empire, while it was awful, as slavery always is, was not like slavery in our American past.  Frankly, American slavery was worse.  A horrible, racial, terrible evil.  It was evil in the Roman Empire too, but it was not racial, and slaves actually had some measure of opportunity for freedom and advancement.  What I do not want you to hear me saying, though, is that slavery was okay in the Roman Empire.  It was different than American slavery, but it still was not okay.  It was evil and wrong back then and went against God’s desires.  I, too, wish Paul would have said more to denounce it.

So what did he say?  Next if Part 3 we continue observing his flow of thought, which will have significant implications for not only Philemon and Onesimus, but so much more, including the practice of slavery.

Learning how to be a good employee from an unexpected source – Titus 2:1-10, Part 5

19 Jul

Are you a good employee? How do you know? Do you receive good evaluations? What would your bosses say about you? In this post we’re going to learn how to be a good employee from an most unexpected source.

In this series of posts on Titus 2:1-10, Paul has been talking to various groups in the church: older men and women, and younger men and women. That pretty much covers it, right?  Especially when you consider that parents are to lead their children. But nope, there is another group.  It might have been the largest group.  Do you know who Paul hasn’t talked about yet?

Slaves.  In the Greco-Roman era around first century AD, there were millions and millions of slaves.  Slaves in the churches?  Yes.  Slavery was a normal part of that culture, though theirs was a different kind of slavery than what we are used to in our American past.  Ours was racially based. There’s was not.  You could become a slave through war, for example, when Rome defeated your country and conscripted all your people.  Slaves could also earn freedom, become Roman Citizens, and gain property and wealth.  But slavery in any era is still slavery: slaves are people owned by other people, and at times the owners could treat their slaves horribly.

So why were there slaves in churches? Shouldn’t the Christians set their slaves free? As we look at verses 9-10 where Paul addresses the slaves in the churches in Crete, I first want to confirm that Paul is not supporting the concept of slavery.  Paul’s approach to the institution of slavery will come up on this blog in the near future when we finish Titus and study the next short letter in the New Testament, Philemon, so we’ll get there.  For now, Paul is simply providing teaching for slaves who are Christians, and how they should live the life of Christ in their current enslaved position. 

He says, “Please your masters.  Don’t talk back or steal, so you can be trusted.”  Interestingly, in Ephesians 6, Paul says, “slaves obey your masters because it is the right thing to do, not just to win their favor.” Now here in Titus he says that slaves should obey their masters to win their faith in Christ. See what he says in verse 10, “so that in every way slaves will make the teaching about God our savior attractive?”

Paul is showing how much he is concerned for the mission of God.  Imagine, in other words, a Christian who also happens to be a slave behaving with respect and truth and honor before their master.  That will stand out.  Especially if the master is a jerk.  That will increase the likelihood that the master could become a Christian.

Even though slavery is illegal in the USA, and many parts of the world, it is still an awful problem. As I mentioned above, we’ll talk about Paul’s thoughts on the institution of slavery when we study the letter of Philemon in a few weeks. Because Paul doesn’t address the institution of slavery in his letter to Titus, what can we learn from his teaching to slaves? I think there are some principles in verses 9-10 that carry over to employees and employers.  How many of you are an employee who has a boss?  Me too.  In my denomination, I have a District Field Director and a Bishop who are my bosses.

I’m not saying our bosses are like slave driver, by the way!  What I am saying, though, is that they way you work, the way you handle your employment, will say a lot to your boss about your faith in Jesus.  Maybe your boss is a Christian.  But maybe not.  You make the teaching of Jesus attractive by working hard, by being competent, trustworthy, and creative. 

So we need all these groups in the church.  Especially, we need the older to teach the younger.  First, older men and women, you set the example for the younger by how you live.  Live lives of discipleship to Jesus, clearly showing the young what it means to be selfless, committed to Christ, passionate about the mission of his Kingdom. 

And then train others to follow Jesus.  Teach them to live like Jesus.  Meet with them.  Weekly.  Read the Bible together.  Talk about how to apply it to your lives. 

Who is your Titus?  This passage is a discipleship passage.  Paul is discipling Titus through a letter, and in turn he wants Titus to disciple or train the people in the churches in Crete to train others.  Who are you investing in? You’ve got a really wonderful guide here in Titus 2:1-10.  As you meet with a person, read this passage, maybe for starters, and talk about how their life and your life is demonstrating all these areas that Paul is talking about.  So, who is your Titus?

How Peter could tell slaves to submit to masters without dignifying the institution of slavery

11 Jul

Image result for does the bible condone slavery

Does the Bible condone slavery?  The passage we are studying this week, in particular 1 Peter 2:18-20, seems to do just that.  As I mentioned in this week’s first post, Christian slave-owners used this passage to support slavery.  Imagine being a slave hearing sermons telling you to submit to your master, even when he beats you.  Here’s how authors Powery and Sadler describe it:

“The God [slaves] met in these sermons was firmly on the side of their tormentors, opposing their freedom, reifying the status quo.  The religion they were offered did not emphasize the love of Christ in response to their choice of will, but the subjugation of their wills as a divine duty to other humans who laid claim to their bodies.”  – The Genesis of Liberation, page 1

It is a wonder that Christianity became and remains so prominent among African-Americans.  Is there perhaps more to the story?  Let’s see what we can uncover.

What we are looking at this week is a key principle Peter taught in 1 Peter 2:13: “submit to created human authority, for the Lord’s sake.”  Yesterday’s post examined how Peter applied the principle to government.  In the second of three illustrations, today Peter mentions something incredibly hard for us to hear.  In 1 Peter 2:18-20, he speaks to Christians who were slaves, and he says “submit to your masters, even to those who are harsh and maybe beat you.”  Whew. That is a tough passage.  What was Peter thinking?

First of all, slavery in the Greco-Roman Empire had some differences from slavery in our American history.  Our slavery was racial.  In Peter’s day, it was often not racial.  Slaves in the Roman Empire could earn their freedom, become citizens, purchase land, and rise in society.  Slavery was very widespread, however, and as Peter indicates, it could be brutal.

From our vantage point in 2018, given what our nation went through and still struggles with, to hear Peter say to a slave in verse 18, “submit,” and in verse 19, “it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering,” we cringe.  We want him to say, “Slave, you throw off your chains and be free!”

But Peter doesn’t say that and you can see a Southern slave owner in 1850 pulling out his Bible and proclaiming, “Look, it says right here in 1st Peter 2 that slaves should respect their masters.”  And that’s exactly what those slave-owners did!  Their way of interpreting the Bible, and the racism inherent in their interpretation, is a factor that led to our bloody Civil War.  Those slave-owners were wrong.  They interpreted this passage wrong.

Peter is absolutely not trying to support slavery and beatings.  Peter is talking to Christians who were currently slaves, giving them advice on how to handle the difficult situation, from a distinctly Christian perspective.

Peter says to them, “submit.”  Why though?  Because when they consider the freedom they have in Christ, they will best serve the cause of Christ by being submissive and respectful to the authorities around them.  God is the focus once again, as Peter notes in verses 19 and 20.  “Be conscious of God,” he says, and “This is commendable before God.”  The principle has nothing to do with whether or not slavery is right or wrong.  The principle is simply, submit for God’s sake.

Peter is laser-focused on the mission of God.  “Christian slaves,” he is saying, “you have a grander mission, the mission of Jesus, to see people become followers of Jesus, and so therefore, you give every part of your life to that mission.”

But maybe that doesn’t help you understand Peter’s heart.  Maybe you’re still thinking, “Yeah, but Peter still could have told those slaves that the mission of God also included their freedom from slavery.  God wants slaves to be free.  And therefore, he should have told them to rise up and rebel.”  If you’re thinking that, you’re not alone.  There is a significant portion of the my thinking that agrees with you.

But let’s give Peter the benefit of the doubt, that he too likely thought through this.  He had already in verse 16 said that they were to live as free men. And yet, Peter knew what would happen if Christian slaves chose to take their freedom from their masters.  Think about the slave rebellions in our American past.  They generally didn’t go well.  They almost always led to increased pain and suffering for slaves.

I suspect Peter was well aware of this and had witnessed this.  If the Christian slaves chose to embrace their freedom in Christ and not submit, they would not only face increased beatings, but they would also forfeit just about every opportunity to win their masters for Christ. Peter sees a much improved situation for slaves who are respectful, submit, and through their good lives provide a much greater chance of reaching people for Christ.

But isn’t Peter, then, preserving the institution of slavery?  Shouldn’t he still condemn it?

Even though Peter doesn’t condemn the institution of slavery, and in fact, no biblical writer does so, they did however, lay an ingenious groundwork for slavery to be abolished.  Biblical theology absolutely supports abolition of slavery and the total equality of all humanity. That discussion goes beyond the scope of this post, but I do think it is important to mention it briefly.  The biblical writers talked about racial equality, about freedom in Christ, about how in Christ there is neither slave nor free.  But we are all one in Christ.  They made a culturally-shocking theological argument against slavery.

As Christians we should passionately pursue abolition.  Thankfully slavery is no longer a part of our American situation, but the reality is that there is more slavery, globally-speaking, now than there was during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.  There is much work to be done, and we Christians should be leading the charge for abolition.

Check back in tomorrow as we look at the final illustration Peter uses for how to submit to authority for the Lord’s sake.

One Bible passage slave owners used to justify owning and beating slaves

9 Jul

Image result for slavery chains

Southern Christians who were slave-owners in our American past used the Bible to justify how they could sing praises to God at church on Sunday and then beat their slaves Monday through Saturday.  Were they right?  Does God condone slavery?  As we continue our study through 1 Peter, this week we come to one of those passages that slave owners cited to support their ways.

Turn to 1st Peter 2:13-25, and what do you read?  Look at verses 18-20, and you’ll find Peter says, “Slaves submit to your masters.”  Then he even says that if a slave receives a beating and takes it respectfully, he is being commendable to God.  What’s more is that Peter goes on to point them to Jesus as the ultimate example of one who was beaten for God’s sake.  It almost sounds like Peter is saying, “Slaves, just take your beatings with a smile.  That’s what Jesus did, and so you should too.”  Is Peter saying that slavery is okay?

All week long we are going to try to answer these questions and look at how this difficult passage might apply to Christians in our day.

First, we need to tie in to the previous verses 11-12 where Peter tells these Christians to “live such good lives among the pagans, that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God.”  That sentence is key to understanding 1 Peter 2:13-25.  Peter is writing to Christians who were a tiny minority in the vast, powerful Roman Empire.  He is thinking of the mission these Christians have.  It’s not a mission Peter made up.  It was the mission Jesus had given to Peter and the other disciples.  Three decades later, Peter conveys that same mission to Christians who never knew Jesus and yet believe in him and want to follow his way.  That mission, Peter recalls, is to live such good lives that the people around them will be impacted for Christ.  Allegiance to the mission of God, therefore, is the baseline for all Christian behavior. 

With that mission in mind, Peter has a principle to share, a principle that will guide these Christians about how they should live in a culture that was toxic to them.

The principle is in verse 13: “Submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.”  Before we examine how Peter illustrates this principle, including slaves’ response to their masters, we need to understand this guiding principle in verse 13.  And to understand this principle, we need to do a bit of study. Let’s examine each of the principle’s three parts.

The first part I want us to look at is the phrase: “every authority instituted among men.” How many words in that phrase?  Five.  But in the original language in which Peter wrote, he only used three words.  “Every human institution” is the simplest English way to translate the three words Peter wrote in Greek.  So why does the New International Version of the Bible add those other words?  Well, the scholars tell us that the words “every” (pas) and “men” (anthropos) are pretty much straight from the Greek.  Easy to translate with one word each.  The words “authority instituted among” are a bit more difficult to translate.  There is only one Greek word in that phrase.  I suggest that “institution” is the best English word to translate it. But it has some other elements that can help us more fully understand what Peter is referring to.

The word Peter used for “institution”, ktisis, has at its root the concept of something created.  That means that these are not God’s institutions.  They were created.  So Peter is not talking about the Kingdom of God.  He is talking about institutions created by humans.

Additionally, “ktisis” carries the idea that those created institutions have authority.  What are some examples of human-created institutions that have authority?  Governments.  The State.  Police forces.  School systems.  Many even use the word “authority” in their title.  The sewer authority.  The water authority.  The port authority.  There are actually a lot of them.  As we’ll see tomorrow, Peter is going to mention a few human institutions that were in power in his day.

To summarize, the first phrase in verse 13 is “every human created authority.”

Now we come to the second phrase, which can be a tough pill to swallow.  It is the words, “submit yourselves”.  Peter says to the Christians that they should submit to these created institutions.  For a guy who just said in verses 2:4-10 that these Christians are a holy nation, a people belonging to God, it’s actually kind of shocking that he says “submit to human authorities.”  Imagine being in the room at the house church when someone first read this letter out loud to Christians.  They could easily have been thinking, “What?  Peter, you’re confusing.  You just told us that we a holy nation belonging to God.  Why should we submit to human authorities?”

To answer that we need to first look at what he means by the word “submit”?  Submit is the concept of obedience to the orders that the authorities give.  To submit is to obey.  It’s actually a pretty simple concept.  Thus far, as we have been looking at his principle in verse 13, we have put two phrases together, and they say: “obey the orders of the created human authorities”.

The third and final part of the principle is the phrase “for the Lord’s sake.”  Peter says that they are to “obey the orders of the created human authorities, for the Lord’s sake”.  That last piece is crucial.  It’s putting God at the priority.  The submitting to or the obeying of human authority is to be done for God.  God is the focus.  There is a godly, spiritual purpose that undergirds why we submit to human authority.  Flowing from what he said in verses 11-12, the “live good lives” phrase, you could even say that in order to promote the mission of God’s Kingdom, we Christians submit to human authority. But how?

Peter is not saying that submitting to human authority is the mission of God’s Kingdom.  Submitting to human authority is like a key that can help unlock a door to advance the mission of the Kingdom. Again, I ask, how?

As we seek to answer how Christian submission to human authorities could advance the Kingdom of God, I want to muddy the waters even further.  The fact that these Christians were being persecuted leaves us feeling like something is off here.  You would think that Peter would say, “That persecution is wrong, and you should not stand for that.  You need to rebel and fight back and free yourselves.  Overthrow the oppressor.  Take up arms!”  In other words, Peter says “submit” when it seems like he should be saying, “Don’t submit!”  But Peter doesn’t do that.  Why? Is he wrong?

No, Peter is not wrong.  He has the right focus: the Lord’s sake.  Peter knows that if the Christians are submissive and obey, they will be in a far better position to advance the Kingdom of God.

But you might say to yourself, “Yeah, but Joel, where should we draw the line?  Isn’t there a time and place to rise up and rebel?”  Very good question.  We’re going to get to that.  But first, let’s keep walking through the passage and see how Peter illustrates the principle of how submitting to human authority will actually help advance the Kingdom of God.  Tomorrow we’ll look at the first of three illustrations: submitting to the State.