The Christian and the Internet | The Voice 7.42: October 15, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

The Christian and the Internet

Few inventions in technology have so thoroughly transformed life as quickly as the Internet. From a government project in the 1960s to a communication platform for a small but growing coterie of fans in the 1990s, the Internet now commands the interest of billions around the world. Most people now have access to the Internet available at all times through computers or smartphones; we are able to access all sorts of information and communicate with all kinds of people around the world at any moment. The Internet might well usher in the greatest transformation of communication and learning since the development of writing.

For a long time many Christians approached the Internet with great ambivalence and concern. While Christians ought to have many concerns about how the Internet is used, most recognize how essential the Internet has become to modern life and communication. Within this century the yellow pages has become a relic of the past; a local church without a website or some social media presence might as well no longer exist, for who would be able to find out information about its presence and assembly times? Even if a person felt compelled to attempt to avoid using the Internet, their information and many of the processes they rely upon for life and services still do. The question is no longer regarding whether Christians will use the Internet; we now must grapple with how the Christian can use the Internet so as to glorify God in Christ.

Above all things we must recognize the Internet as a tool, a means by which information can be accessed and shared. It has become fashionable to blame the Internet for a host of social ills; while the Internet may facilitate, normalize, or provide easy access to sinful pursuits, all of the underlying desires and temptations existed long before the Internet was created (1 John 2:15-17). Far too often the Internet proves to be a mirror into the soul of those who use it; the ugliness, as well as the beauty, of the Internet simply reflects the ugliness and beauty present in humanity (James 1:23-25). The Internet, therefore, will be for us what we make of it: we decide whether to use the Internet for good or ill and profit or waste. We can learn to master our use of the Internet, or we can be tempted into allowing time on the Internet to become our master (cf. James 1:13-15).

Christians can use the Internet for many good purposes. Christians do well to promote and distribute the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection through websites and social media (Matthew 28:18-20). Christians can associate through social media networks, encouraging one another through spiritual messages and the maintenance of friendships around the country and the world, and able to effectively pray and support others in times of distress and difficulty (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16). Christians can develop private forums in which they can ask spiritual questions of each other, grapple with difficult subjects constructively, and argue out various positions on doctrinal issues, with iron sharpening iron (cf. Proverbs 27:17).

Christians must be on guard against the use of the Internet for evil purposes. For decades pornography has driven the technological development of the Internet, a not insubstantial percentage of Internet traffic is devoted to it; we must diligently strive to avoid such dehumanization of sexuality and encourage each other to do the same (Matthew 5:28, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20). If you can think of a vice or a sin, there are groups of people on the Internet who freely practice it and promote it; likewise, the Internet is saturated with false teachers promoting false doctrines, and we must diligently test the spirits to see what is true and false, hold firm to the good, and resist the evil (Romans 12:9, 1 Timothy 4:1-4, 1 John 4:1). It does not take long for us to learn to avoid reading the comments section on any prominent article, for in them we find all sorts of contentiousness, ugliness, and evil spouted forth with great vitriol (Ephesians 4:29, 31).

The Christian must learn discernment if he or she will effectively use the Internet. Anyone with a few dollars can now post a website and disseminate any information, or disinformation, they desire. In past times it proved difficult to access information; these days we are overwhelmed with information, and it now proves difficult to sort out good information from bad, the profitable from the frivolous. Major political and economic forces have learned how to utilize the Internet to influence people’s minds, hearts, and wallets, and often purposely mischaracterize and distort truth in order to advance their agenda. Christians must prove wise as serpents and innocent as doves in such matters (cf. Matthew 10:16): we must learn discernment and not spread disinformation or allow ourselves to be swept away by the propaganda machine of the people with whom we agree, and we must strive to speak truth according to the ways of God in Christ, seeking to honestly set forth what God has made known versus the opinions and doctrines of men.

The Christian must exercise self-control and discipline on the Internet (cf. 1 Peter 4:7). We must avoid the temptation to gratify lusts, to spend all our money, and to dedicate most of our time to the Internet. We can easily find ourselves distracted by the Internet for hours at a time. We may find it difficult to get substantive work done, or maintain or cultivate real life relationships, all because we have spent too much time on the Internet. For their physical and spiritual health Christians ought to establish some discipline in terms of their Internet use and know when to step away to refresh themselves, dedicate themselves to the work and study of God’s purposes, and interact with fellow Christians and members of their community (1 Corinthians 6:12, Galatians 6:10, 2 Timothy 2:15).

Within a short time the world has become dependent on the Internet. As Christians we must find ways to use the Internet to glorify God in Christ and to build one another up in Christ; we must strive to avoid temptations to sin, develop the ability to express ourselves according to righteousness, and develop self-control and self-discipline in our use of the Internet. May we strive to glorify God in Christ in all we do, online and offline!

Ethan R. Longhenry

James | The Voice 7.41: October 08, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

The Letter of James

Exhortations to faithfulness prove always prescient for Christians. James felt compelled to provide many such important exhortations to his fellow Jewish Christians throughout the Roman Empire who would listen; we cherish his instruction as found in the letter of James.

The letter of James is the twentieth book in modern editions of the New Testament; it is often categorized as one of the “catholic” or universal letters or epistles. Its author calls himself James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1). While some have suggested he is James the son of Zebedee or the other Apostle James, the author does not identify himself as an apostle. The author of James is most likely James the Lord’s brother, also known as James the Just. He became a believer in Jesus in His resurrection; he gained prominence as an elder in the church of Jerusalem, considered a “pillar” of the faith by Paul, and highly influential in the church in Jerusalem, and therefore has the authority and standing among Jewish Christians to write such a letter (cf. Acts 1:14, 12:17, 15:13, 21:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:7, Galatians 1:19, 2:9, 2:12, Jude 1:1). Scholars are divided regarding whether James wrote the letter or not; Martin Luther infamously cast aspersions on the canonicity of James, no doubt on account of the discomfort caused by James 2:14-26 and its indictment of faith only. We have no reason to doubt the letter’s authenticity. James wrote to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” and his language provides no evidence of appropriation for another audience (James 1:1); therefore, he wrote a general letter to all Christians of Jewish descent throughout the Roman Empire. Since the same Gospel was preached before Jews and Gentiles, and much of James’ exhortations are consistent with all Jesus had taught, we recognize the validity of James’ instruction for believers among the nations as well as for those among the Jews (cf. Galatians 2:6-9, 3:28). James the Lord’s brother had already gained prominence by 44 (cf. Acts 12:17); the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus testified regarding his death in 62 by unjust trial and stoning at the hands of the Sanhedrin under Hanan the High Priest after the Roman procurator Porcius Festus died but before his successor Lucceius Albinus could arrive (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.9). The Letter of James was therefore most likely written between 44 and 62; it may be the first, and most assuredly among the first, of the books of the New Testament to be written. James wrote to Jewish Christians around the world to exhort them toward greater faithfulness according to the teachings of the Lord Jesus.

Any attempts to categorize or provide much of a contextual frame in James’ letter prove highly speculative. After a standard epistolary introduction (James 1:1), James exhorted Jewish Christians to be thankful for trials and their subsequent development of faith and to pray to God for wisdom in full faith, not doubting (James 1:2-8). The rich ought to humble themselves in their transience and the poor to trust in their exaltation in Christ; those who endure trial are blessed; God does not tempt anyone, but all are tempted by their desires; every good gift comes from the Father, in whom there is no variation, and who brought believers forth by the word of truth (James 1:9-18). Christians must be quick to hear and slow to speak and anger; man’s anger does not produce God’s righteousness; believers must both hear and do the Word, for those who hear only are self-deceived; religion is only as good as control of the tongue; pure and undefiled religion demands visitation of the marginalized and avoidance of sin (James 1:19-27).

James continued by exhorting Christians to show no partiality when practicing the faith: in the assembly the rich were being honored, while the poor were set aside, which is transgression; those who transgress in one aspect of the Law are guilty of the whole of it; judgment is merciless to the unmerciful (James 2:1-13). James proceeded to thoroughly demonstrate how faith without works is dead: Christians cannot just speak a thing and assume it is done; even demons believe God is one and they shudder; Abraham justified by works as well as faith; believers are not justified by faith alone; as body apart from spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26).

James warned Christians about teaching: they will endure a stricter judgment (James 3:1). Any who might bridle the tongue is a mature believer, but no man can fully tame the tongue; James set forth the dangers of the tongue and asked how believers could bless God but curse man with the same tongue (James 3:2-12). James contrasted the worldly, demonic wisdom of selfish ambition and jealousy with the godly wisdom from above of patience and gentleness, exalting true peacemaking (James 3:13-18).

James condemned the Christians for their quarreling on account of their passions: they desire, they ask for things to spend on their passions, they do not receive the spiritual blessings for which they have not asked; they are adulterous, trying to be friends with the world and God at the same time (James 4:1-4). Instead God would have believers draw near to Him, to resist the Devil, and to humble themselves (James 4:5-10). Christians ought not judge one another, but leave judgment to God (James 4:11-12). Christians should not boast in arrogance, for their lives are but a vapor; they ought to qualify all they plan in terms of God’s will; to know the right thing and to not do it is sin (James 4:13-17).

James ripped into the wealthy that oppress the poor and warned about imminent judgment (James 5:1-6). Christians suffering do well to remain patient and not grumble against each other, deriving strength from the example of Job and the prophets, and to not swear (James 5:7-12). James provided exhortation to those in specific circumstances: the suffering should pray, the happy should sing, and the sick should call for anointing by the elders and to be healed by their prayer (James 5:13-15). Believers should confess their sins to each other and pray for each other; Elijah proved a powerful example of the power of prayer (James 5:16-18; cf. 1 Kings 17:1, 18:1, 41-46). James concluded his letter with encouragement to bring back lapsed Christians, for those who do so save their souls and cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).

For generations Christians have drawn much strength and edification from the letter of James. All can grasp his practical wisdom and do well to apply its message to their lives. May we all heed the Word of truth and find salvation in God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Tribalism | The Voice 7.40: October 01, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

Tribalism

While Western society exalts the individual and his or her empowerment in many respects, individuals almost invariably continue to seek to identify themselves with “their people,” whoever “their people” may be. “Their people” is their tribe, one of the most basic elements of human society throughout time.

For most of human history tribes were rooted in family connections: a collection of related individuals banded together to find food, protect the group from attacks from other tribes, or perhaps attacking other tribes themselves. Successful tribes expanded in numbers and territory; very large tribes, or a federation of tribes, developed the first city-states and nation-states, as exemplified in Genesis 10:1-32. Many people to this day think of “their people” in terms of a tribe or clan based on family connections.

While tribalism may have fostered community among a group of people and facilitated growth and flourishing among its members, it has also driven hatred, hostility, and aggression against others who are not part of the same tribe. Throughout human history people have been driven to hate and kill other people just like themselves because the others were not of the same tribe, ethnic group, or nation-state. Those people in other tribes were denounced as subhuman, animalistic, or evil in order to justify such terrible behavior.

The United States of America has attempted to transcend ethnic tribalism through an open and malleable culture: the great “melting pot” of the world. To a large degree the project has succeeded: while most people retain some pride in their families and ethnic backgrounds, most privilege their identities as Americans and their shared American culture over their particular tribal background. And yet, paradoxically, Americans have still sorted themselves into various tribes based on religious views, political ideology, race, geographical locations, and even in terms of sports or collegiate loyalties. Sometimes people come together for a shared nationalistic purpose; many other times it proves far easier to fan the flame of tribal loyalties and resentment.

Tribalism proves the default position for people on earth, no matter any pretensions to the contrary. People may attempt to prove their individuality, yet they tend to do so in certain categorical or tribal ways, since they also want to fit into a given group or tribe. People then justify those in their preferred tribe no matter what; likewise, they find fault with those in other tribes as well, regardless of what may actually be true or just.

The Kingdom of God in Christ is unique inasmuch as it calls upon all of its citizens to transcend tribalism by privileging their relationship with God and each other over any tribal loyalty. People of all nations and tribes are invited to participate in the Kingdom (Revelation 7:9). We do well to note how the earliest conflicts in the church centered on tribal loyalties: Greek-speaking Jewish widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food, and later on many Jewish Christians could not countenance the idea of Gentiles being welcomed into the Kingdom of God without submitting to the Law of Moses (Acts 6:1, 15:1). In both situations the Apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, rejected such tribalism within the community of the people of God, making sure all widows received their daily distribution by selecting Greek speaking men to serve, and affirming how God has welcomed the nations without needing to submit to the customs of Moses (Acts 6:2-7, 15:2-9). Paul later provided theological anchoring of the premise: on the cross Jesus killed the hostility between Jews and Gentiles by taking away the laws of ordinances which divided them (Ephesians 2:11-18). In Christ God has welcomed the nations into His people (Ephesians 3:1-10). And so, by extension, all tribal markers which might divide people in the world prove of lesser significance than the faith in Christ which provides salvation for all (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). Christians are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ (Philippians 3:20-21); all other loyalties must prove secondary.

Christians do not eliminate all previous forms of identity when they become part of the Kingdom: Paul still remained Jewish, and even appealed to his tribal loyalty as a Pharisee when it served his rhetorical purposes (Acts 23:6); Paul still spoke of his fellow Christians in ministry as either part of the circumcision or not of the circumcision, i.e. Gentiles (Colossians 4:11). Likewise, in a very real way, Christians do become their own tribe: their primary loyalty is toward each other, they privilege their identity as Christians over other identity markers, and they are to become as one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Galatians 6:10, Philippians 3:20).

Yet the “tribe” of Christians is to be something entirely different from all other tribes in the world. Tribes work diligently to draw strong boundaries, the “in-group” and the “out-group”; Christians strive to invite and encourage everyone to become Christians themselves according to the will of God (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Timothy 2:4). Tribes are at best suspicious and at worst hostile toward anyone outside of their tribe; Christians are to love their neighbor as themselves, and love their enemies, and do good to them (Luke 6:27-36, 10:25-37). You cannot be skeptical of or fear the person you love and assist! Tribes will do whatever it takes to build themselves up and tear down their opponents; Christians must live according to the truth of what God has made known in Christ and live and act justly and righteously (Galatians 5:17-24). Tribes puff themselves up in arrogance; Christians humble themselves, seek the best interest of others, and glorify God (Philippians 2:1-11).

Tribalism is part of the ways of the world, providing some community benefits but corrupted by sin and the powers over this present darkness toward factionalism, division, and alienation among peoples. Tribalism can only truly be transcended through God in Christ; only in the church can God’s purposes be manifest to the principalities and powers, people from every language, tribe, and nation, joined together by a shared faith in Christ, glorifying God in their words and deeds. Unfortunately Christians far too often bring their tribal factions and loyalties into the body of Christ, contrary to God’s purposes and giving the nations a reason to blaspheme. All Christians must examine themselves to make sure they are privileging their loyalties to Jesus in His Kingdom over any worldly loyalties, and do not allow the faith in Christ to be torn down because of petty worldly factionalism and divisions. May we all serve God in Christ and share in His transcendent Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Interpreting the Old Testament | The Voice 7.39: September 24, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

Interpreting the Bible: Interpreting the Old Testament

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

Despite its reputation the Old Testament proves extremely important to the faith and understanding of the Christian. In the pages of the Old Testament we learn how God interacted with His people; we can learn from their mistakes and their successes. We are given an opportunity to understand matters of holiness, righteousness, justice; the words of the prophets resonate to this day. Above all things we learn about the promised Christ and the Kingdom God would give Him, a Kingdom without end. We do well, therefore, to explore how we can most effectively understand and interpret the Old Testament.

As always, we must first read the text so as to understand it, asking the basic questions regarding the author and the material itself (who is speaking/acting, and to/towards whom? When did it happen? What is being done/said? Why is it being said/done? Etc.). As we then consider how to interpret the text, it is good for us to keep in mind four levels of interpretation which we are about to explain. A given text may not have all four levels present; nevertheless, we must consider which levels are present so as to properly understand God’s revelation (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15).

The first level of interpretation is to consider the message as it relates to its direct audience. What did the message mean for the people who first heard it? How does understanding the immediate context help us understand what is going on in the passage? For instance, the “Ten Commandments” are given in Exodus 20:1-17 to the Israelites in the wilderness standing near Mount Sinai; Isaiah the prophet has material relevant to the Israelites from the eighth through sixth centuries BCE. We also must make sure we maintain appropriate covenant and time distinctions. Genesis 38:1-30 represents a good example of why this is important: Judah and Tamar are acting at a time before the Law of Moses and therefore not specifically subject to it, and so it would not be consistent to apply a law given later upon this situation where it may not have yet belonged. It is important to first consider what the material or message meant to the people involved or the people to whom it was first spoken.

The second level of interpretation is to consider what message may be presented to later Israelites. In what ways might later Israelites repurpose or apply a given law, story, or message? A good example of this is in Genesis 2:2-3: God rests on the seventh day of the creation. In Exodus 20:9-11 this idea is used to demonstrate the reason for the Sabbath: as God rested from His work on the seventh day, so all Israelites are to rest on the seventh day. This level of interpretation, while perhaps not immediately seen as relevant, proves extremely important in a later time: Hebrews 4:1-11 demonstrates that for the Christian there is another layer of interpretation of God’s Sabbath rest: God permanently rests from creation, and therefore we await our permanent rest. Since the same event may carry different implications for Israelites and Christians, we must discern this level of interpretation.

The third level of interpretation involves whether there is a reference to the coming Christ within the message. We see in Luke 24:27, Acts 17:2-3, and Acts 18:28, among other passages, how critical the prophecies of the Old Testament were in the early preaching of the Gospel. These references take two forms: types and prophecies. A type is a shadow in contrast to the substance (cf. Colossians 2:17); we see that Jesus is the true substance for which earlier Israelites provided a glimpse in shadow. As Moses delivers God’s people by His power, Jesus Himself delivers the people (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-19). As Elijah and Elisha could perform many signs, so Jesus was able to perform similar signs and then some (cf. 1 Kings 17:1-2 Kings 13:21). There are also many prophecies of Jesus, establishing things true of Himself and His life before they occurred: born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), to suffer and die (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), to be raised again (Jonah 1:17, Hosea 6:2). We do well to be careful; not everything has a Messianic referent, and we must make sure our interpretation of the Old Testament maintains integrity even as we look for the Christ in the story.

The fourth level of interpretation is to discern what message and applications Christians can derive from the text. How can we gain encouragement from those who came before us? We must tread carefully, for the Bible is clear that the Old Testament on its own does not establish truth in the new covenant (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17, Hebrews 7:1-9:28). On the other hand, the Old Testament often reinforces truths revealed in the New (2 Timothy 3:16-17; e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:6-9, 1 Timothy 2:11-15), can provide instruction (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-11), and a source of encouragement and hope (Romans 15:3, Hebrews 11:1-40). It is clear, then, that the Old Testament is extremely valuable to the Christian and can help us learn God’s will. Let us strive to interpret God’s Word properly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Christian and Liberality | The Voice 7.38: September 17, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

The Christian and Liberality

Within many sectors of “Christendom” the word “liberal” has become derogatory and used often as a slur. Such is tragic, since according to the Lord Jesus, all who do not prove liberal will be condemned (Matthew 25:41-46)! Jesus did not refer to those who were liberal in terms of departing from the faith, of course; we speak here of a “liberal” as one who gives with liberality, freely. Previously He commended all those who proved thus liberal and welcomed them into eternity in the resurrection (Matthew 25:34-45). Yet those who did not do so were condemned and cast into eternal punishment!

Early Christians took Jesus’ lesson to heart. They were known for liberality in giving and caring for one another. The earliest church in Jerusalem witnessed many Christians selling all they had, giving the proceeds to the Apostles, who then used those resources to provide for the needs of all the Christians (Acts 2:41-47, 4:32-37). Upon hearing of an impending famine to strike Judea, the church in Antioch prepared and sent relief to them (Acts 11:26-30). Paul encouraged Christians in churches in Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia to give for the needs of Christians in Judea, and they provided abundantly (cf. Romans 15:25-27, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8:1-15, 9:1-15). The instructions Paul gave Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:3-16 presume congregational financial support of destitute widows bereft of family. The Christians to whom the Hebrews author wrote were known for their service for other Christians (Hebrews 6:9-12); John encouraged Gaius to provide for the needs of visiting Christians, and fully expected his compliance (3 John 1:5-8). Paul related how Peter, James, and John insisted that he remember the poor as he went about doing good and proclaiming the Word, and Paul proved eager to do so (Galatians 2:9-10). Paul exhorted Christians to do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10); James identified pure and undefiled religion as visiting widows and orphans in their distress as well as keeping oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).

Abundant testimony exists, therefore, regarding the liberality of early Christians, and Christians to this day do well to imitate their example. Christians must recognize how all they have comes from God; they are called to be stewards and to use that with which God has blessed them to bless and serve others (e.g. Ephesians 4:29). God stands willing to abundantly bless those who use what He gave them to benefit others, following the model of Christ Himself (2 Corinthians 8:9-15, 9:6-11). John questioned the sincerity of the love of any Christian who has the world’s goods but does not give to his brother who is in need, and would consider such a one as a murderer who hates his brother (1 John 3:11-18)! A Christian who gives liberally manifests the fruit of the Spirit and thus embodies an important characteristic of Christ (Galatians 5:22-24).

Christians do well to prove very liberal in providing for the needs of their fellow Christians. Most examples of giving in the New Testament involve Christians providing for the needs of their own; Jesus’ standard of judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 is based on how well or poorly each had provided for “the least of these my brothers”. When Paul exhorted Christians to do good to all men he made sure to emphasize the need to provide for those in the “household of faith.” Christians must take care of their own; such, in part, is how the world will know we are of Christ, by such a manifestation of love for each other (John 13:35). While the local congregation also should be involved in providing for the needs of Christians locally and abroad (Acts 2:41-47, 4:32-37, 11:27-30, 1 Timothy 5:3-16), each individual Christian should determine to provide for fellow Christians as they have opportunity on their own. There is never a lack of opportunity to give; we can find Christians locally and abroad who could use assistance; in this way we can build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16)!

We do well to recognize how the New Testament provides no authority for a local congregation, as a collective, to provide benevolence to those outside of the faith. It has proven necessary to preach and teach on these matters strongly on account of the pervasive influence of the industrial-level drive toward efficiency and specialization in the world and as seen in other parts of “Christendom.” Far too many prove far too willing to give money to the church or some other organization and consider their responsibility to give to others satisfied. The New Testament provides no such provision or hope!

We therefore rightly insist that individual Christians are given the responsibility to do good to all men (Galatians 6:10). If we insist on this, we must also practice it. It proves all too tempting, when hearing preaching condemning collective work in benevolence, to reject all benevolence or excuse a lack of benevolence. The New Testament provides no such provision; we must actually be the light of the world by doing good and proving liberal in giving, as we have opportunity, to those who are in need in the world!

Therefore the Christian’s liberality must extend well beyond giving to the local congregation on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). Let none be deceived: Christians do well and ought to give for the benefit of the work of the collective congregation on the first day of the week. Yet the responsibility of the individual Christian in giving goes beyond the local congregation: will God be satisfied if you have nothing to give people in need because you gave it all to the church (cf. Matthew 15:1-7)? The Christian must give both to the work of the local church while still proving liberal in assisting others they encounter in life.

Liberality extends beyond financial resources; we must never reduce “doing good” to cutting checks or swiping cards. God in Christ expects Christians to prove liberal not only in financial resources but also in giving time, energy, and attention. Jesus did not commend the faithful Christians for merely giving money; He commended them for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison, among other practices (Matthew 25:34-40). Did James say that pure and undefiled religion before God is merely to give money to widows and orphans in James 1:27? By no means! He insisted on Christians visiting widows and orphans, which would include financial benefits when needed, but emphasized presence and involvement in life. As humans we have so much more to give to others than money; by devoting time, energy, and other resources into people, we maintain a human connection with them, as Jesus did with those with whom He interacted.

It is unfortunate how “liberal” and “liberalism” have become “dirty words” in Christianity, for each and every Christian is called to prove liberal in doing good to all men, especially to those of the household of faith. May we be found liberal in giving before God in Christ, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hebrews | The Voice 7.37: September 10, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

The Letter to the Hebrews

Some Christians were in great need of encouragement. Yes, they should have been more spiritually mature by this time, but their resolve was wearing thin. They needed to be reminded of the superiority of what God had accomplished in Christ, and to stand firm. To this end the letter to the Hebrews was written.

The letter to the Hebrews is the nineteenth book in modern editions of the New Testament. At no point in the letter does the author identify himself or specific recipients of the letter; he is known to the letter’s recipients, sends greetings from Christians in Italy, and he planned to visit them with Timothy in the near future (Hebrews 13:23-24). For this reason many throughout time considered Paul as its author; his apostolic authority lent credence to the letter and explains its presence in the canon. Barnabas and Apollos are also viable candidates for authorship, but we cannot identify the author with any certainty. The letter is called “to the Hebrews” since its content suggests its recipients need reminding of the superiority of the new covenant to the old covenant, a message which Jewish Christians would need to hear. Perhaps these Jewish Christians lived in Judea and Jerusalem; perhaps the letter was designed to be distributed among all the Jewish Christians in the dispersion. The appeal to the message of the Apostles in the past tense in Hebrews 2:3-4, the present consideration of the Temple service in Hebrews 9:1-10, and the reference to Italy from someone traveling in Pauline circles in Hebrews 13:23-24 strongly suggest the letter was written in the 60s, although any date before 70 remains possible. The letter to the Hebrews was written to encourage Christian, most likely of a Jewish heritage, to grow in their faith and stand firm in it without reverting to Judaism.

The letter to the Hebrews has no standard epistolary opening: its author began with a powerful declaration of God having spoken first through the prophets now spoke through His Son, through whom He created the world, who manifests the image of His substance, and who upholds all things (Hebrews 1:1-3). Through appeals to many passages in the Old Testament the Hebrews author demonstrated Jesus’ superiority to the angels, recognizing the latter as spirits ministering for the sake of the saved (Hebrews 1:4-14). And so, if the Law, mediated by angels, had strong consequences, how much more for those who spurn the message of Jesus through the Apostles, whose message was affirmed abundantly through the work of the Spirit (Hebrews 2:1-4)? God has subjected the world underneath Jesus’ feet, who became man in order to be as an elder brother and save mankind as a merciful and faithful high priest (Hebrews 2:5-18). Moses was faithful in his work as a servant, but Jesus came as the faithful Son, thus worthy of more glory, and whose house Christians can become by faith and endurance (Hebrews 3:1-6). The Hebrews author then meditated on Psalm 95:1-11: believers must make sure none are falling away, deceived by sin, like the generation of Israel in the Wilderness (Hebrews 3:7-19). The weekly Sabbath is not the rest of Psalm 95:11; there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, the full rest from work as God took after the creation, and Christians must diligently seek to enter it; Christians must prove obedient, for the word of God is living and active, and no creature is hidden from God’s sight (Hebrews 4:1-13).

The core of the letter to the Hebrews featured discussions of Jesus as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 4:14-10:31). The Hebrew author exhorted Christians to hold fast to their confession because of Jesus as their high priest, tempted in all points yet without sin (Hebrews 4:14-16). The Hebrews author explained the nature of the Aaronic high priesthood in the Old Testament, and identified Jesus as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:1-10). As an aside the Hebrew author chastised the letter’s recipients as having not yet reached maturity despite their time in the faith; he would press on beyond the fundamental issues (Hebrews 5:11-6:3). Those who turn aside deeply endanger their salvation, but the Hebrews author remained convinced of better things regarding his audience; God swore by Himself to assure Abraham of salvation, and Christians have the assurance of Jesus the high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:4-20). The Hebrews author then explained who Melchizedek is and how Jesus was a high priest like him, superior to the Aaronic and Levitical priesthoods (Hebrews 7:1-28 ; cf. Genesis 14:18-20). Jesus proved to be high priest by offering Himself once for all, a mediator of a new and better covenant under better promises, as prophesied by Jeremiah (Hebrews 1:1-13; cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34). The Hebrews author explains the nature of offering and atonement under the old covenant as the earthly copy of the heavenly reality, and then identified Jesus’ sacrifice as sanctifying that reality once for all; the blood of Jesus is superior to the blood of bulls and goats, and inaugurated the new covenant (Hebrews 9:1-10:18). On account of Jesus’ sacrifice Christians can boldly draw near to God in Christ, not wavering in confession and not forsaking the assembling of one another; those who turn aside after learning of the truth face severe consequences (Hebrews 10:19-31).

The Hebrew author worked diligently to encourage those receiving the letter (Hebrews 10:32-13:25). They must remember the sufferings they experienced earlier and maintain patience to receive the promise (Hebrews 10:32-39). He then spoke of the nature of faith and illustrated it through the trust of the men and women of old, the heroes of faith, who persisted in the promise despite difficulties in the present (Hebrews 11:1-38). They did not receive the promise; Christians have (Hebrews 11:39-40). Christians thus do well to look toward Jesus, run the race without becoming weary, endure the discipline of the Lord, pursue sanctification, watching out for the profane, come to Mount Zion, not Sinai, and not refuse God who speaks in Christ, for He is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:1-19). Christians do well to serve God faithfully, loving each other, showing hospitality, remembering the disadvantaged, honoring marriage, finding contentment in what they have, following the pattern of those who taught them the truth, obeying their leaders, praying for them and the author (Hebrews 13:1-7, 15-19). Jesus remains unchanged; thus His people should not be led astray by false teachings, willing to bear Jesus’ reproach, seeking the Kingdom (Hebrews 13:8-14). Having prayed to God in Christ to grant his audience maturity to accomplish His will, the Hebrews author identified his purpose in exhorting them in a few words, spoke of Timothy’s release, indicated a desire to see them with him, gave greetings from all in Italy, and provided a standard epistolary conclusion (Hebrews 13:20-25).

We can only hope that the Hebrews author’s original audience found the letter as encouraging and insightful as their fellow Christians have ever since; the letter to the Hebrews provides a wealth of theological insights, exegetical constructions, and compelling exhortations which Christians can mine over and over again for profit and edification. May we hold fast to our confession, take solace in Jesus as our high priest, and live to glorify God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Edification | The Voice 7.36: September 03, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

Edification

What is it then, brethren? When ye come together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying (1 Corinthians 14:26).

If you hang around Christians or a church long enough chances are you will hear someone talk about “edification” or being “edified.” Edification is a term used frequently by Christians yet not nearly as often in society in general. What is edification all about?

In English, edification has come to mean “the instruction or improvement of a person morally or intellectually,” according to the Internet dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary agrees, also recognizing “to build or establish” as an archaic meaning. Edification or “to edify” translate the Greek terms oikodome and oikodomeo. These terms are rooted in the language of construction: their basic meaning is “a building” or “to build,” respectively, and even in the New Testament are occasionally used to describe physical structures or their construction (e.g. Matthew 23:29, Mark 13:1-2). Therefore, as Thayer’s Lexicon notes, these terms become metaphorically used to describe a spiritual construction, or building up, of people: “to promote, or the act of one who promotes another’s growth in, Christian wisdom, piety, happiness, holiness.” The English term ends up where the spiritual use of the Greek intended to go.

Edification, therefore, is about building up other people in Christ and being built up in Christ, not unlike the process by which a building is built. The Apostles encouraged Christians to think in these terms: they spoke of individual Christians and the church as temples of God in whom the Spirit of God dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20), and envisioned the church as a temple founded on the Lord Jesus as cornerstone and the apostles and prophets and being edified, or built up, through the efforts of Christians (Ephesians 2:20-22). Paul considered the work of the church in general terms as the means by which it edifies, or builds itself up, in love (Ephesians 4:12, 16).

But what does this edification process look like? The prophets and Apostles were given, and shepherds, evangelists, and teachers continue to be given, the task of equipping Christians for the work of ministering and to thus build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12). Thus, we can be built up in faith through the words of the prophets and Apostles as well as from the instruction, mentoring, and encouragement we receive from shepherds, preachers, and teachers. All things which Christians do in their assemblies are to be done unto edifying (1 Corinthians 14:26). Therefore, sermons, class instruction, prayers, songs, the Lord’s Supper, and the collection are to be done in ways that facilitate the edification of all Christians present. For this reason Paul insisted that all messages be comprehensible to the Christians present, for how can Christians be edified in their faith if they have no understanding what was said (1 Corinthians 14:3-19)? All Christians are to work to build up and edify their neighbor (Romans 15:2): the work of edification is not limited to the assembly, but should also be practiced as we have opportunity to provide a word of instruction or strength, pray, or provide some other meaningful gesture which strengthens the faith of our fellow Christian. By extension we ought to live as the light of the world so as to give those who are outside of the faith reason to believe and come to repentance in Christ Jesus (Matthew 5:13-16).

We do well to note the disconnect between the Biblical concept of edification and the casual way the term is often used today in “Christendom.” Many times people will speak of an intensely emotional or sensory spiritual experience as “edifying”; many people will consider themselves “edified” when they experienced a spiritual or emotional high. Whereas there may be times for such emotional experiences, if there is nothing substantively gained in faith, no compelling moral instruction grounded in Scripture, or no real strengthening of faith experienced, it is not “edification.” It was an emotional high. While we should not disengage our emotions from our spirituality, an experience need not be highly emotional to be edifying. We can know if a given spiritual experience is truly edifying by whether a substantive addition has been made to our faith on account of it: if another brick has been added to our spiritual temple, so to speak. Thus, just because someone says a thing is “edifying” does not make it so in reality; we have been warned that not all things edify (1 Corinthians 10:23).

Edification is a crucial element of our faith and working together as the body of Christ in the church. Edification, after all, is one of the primary means by which we are to influence one another for good and be influenced in turn (Ephesians 4:11-16). Christians must pursue those things which truly edify in the faith: participating jointly in activities surrounding the faith, the acts of the assembly, and preaching, teaching, praying, singing, and giving in other contexts. Christians must give thought to how they speak so as to make sure their words will truly build up and not tear down or cause other hindrances (Ephesians 4:29). There may be times when tearing down is necessary so as to build more properly on the foundation, but demolition without reconstruction only serves Satan’s purposes. Thus all things should be done so as to build up (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Christians do well to hold to both the original metaphorical concept behind edification as well as its practical meaning in life and faith. Edification demands building up, adding on to a construction project. As we speak with each other, exhort each other, instruct each other, pray for each other, etc., we should envision ourselves as seeking to help fortify and build each other’s “building,” and receive assistance in building up our “buildings” as well. It is not for us to tear down other’s “buildings” through judgmental attitudes, indifference, neglect, undue chastisement or rebuke, or through hasty or angry words (Ephesians 4:25-29, James 4:11-12). If we are reduced to petty infighting or strife on account of selfish ambition, strife, jealousy, or envy, and tear down each other’s work in Christ on account of it, only Satan wins! And yet we must turn to God in Christ in Scripture to understand what precisely can build that “building”; it is not mere emotional experience but substantive messages which promote growth in Christian faith, virtue, and character. May we all seek to edify each other and thus build up the body of Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Basic Hermeneutics (2) | The Voice 7.35: August 27, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

Interpreting the Bible: Basic Hermeneutics (2)

We have spent some time investigating the means by which we may better understand the Bible. We recognize how important it is for us to read the Bible and to diligently study it (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Peter 3:18), and we have begun to explore the guidelines by which we may interpret God’s Word in a profitable and consistent manner. Previously we established that the first such guideline of hermeneutics (another term for the interpretation process) is to interpret the text literally unless there is a compelling reason otherwise. We also explored how the Bible uses figurative language and how important it is for us to identify figurative language and to interpret it properly. Let us now continue exploring basic guidelines for interpreting God’s Word.

2. The sum of God’s Word is truth. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 119:160:

The sum of thy word is truth; And every one of thy righteous ordinances endureth for ever.

While it is good for us to investigate God’s Word in depth and analyze passages in great detail, we must never interpret any passage so as to create contradiction within God’s Word. God’s Word represents one harmonious whole consisting of many individual parts. Sadly, too many “miss the forest because of the trees” when interpreting the Scriptures.

A good example of this tendency may be found with the concept of predestination. There have been many who have come upon passages like Ephesians 1:1-13 and come away with the impression that God has pre-determined precisely whom He would save (and, by necessity, precisely whom He would condemn). Nevertheless, in Romans 2:11 we see that there is no partiality with God, and the Scriptures attest in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 that God does not desire anyone to perish but that all would come to repentance. Since the sum of God’s Word is truth, we recognize how predestination in Ephesians 1:1-13 does not preclude God from desiring all men to be saved in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9; God does not pre-determine who is saved or condemned. There is no contradiction here!

We also see this in many discussions regarding baptism. Many people will focus on passages like John 3:16 or Romans 10:9-10 and assert that these passages present the “only” things necessary for salvation. Nevertheless, the Scriptures attest in Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-7, and 1 Peter 3:21, among other places, that baptism is also necessary for salvation. Again, the sum of God’s Word is truth: belief and confession per John 3:16 and Romans 10:9-10 are necessary for salvation, but baptism is also necessary for salvation, based on Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38, and 1 Peter 3:21!

It is clear, then, that God does not desire for us to read His Word with “tunnel vision”: we must always keep the whole of His Word in mind when reading the Scriptures.

3. Let the Bible interpret the Bible. Another principle of interpretation that we ought to consider is to allow the Bible to interpret the Bible whenever necessary. Interpretation is all too often a human endeavor, fraught with human error and fallibility. It is all but certain that each and every one of us has made mistakes in interpretation in the past, present, and future. It is always best, therefore, to allow God to interpret His own Word whenever He does so!

Jesus’ parable of the sower, found in Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23, Mark 4:3-9, 13-20, and Luke 8:4-8, 11-15, is a good example of this. Jesus presents the parable in all three accounts, and later on His disciples ask Him to explain it to them, which He does. Since Jesus Himself explains the parable to us, we have no need to wonder what He means! This way there is much less room for error!

4. Consider the Context. It is very difficult to understand what a text means without understanding the context in which the text is written. As it is often said, “a text without a context is a pretext”! Many times statements are ripped out of their context and abused in interpretation to attempt to prove an idea or practice that never entered into the mind of the writer or into the mind of God!

A clear and obvious example of this would be the statement, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”, found in Acts 19:28. If the statement somehow stood alone it would give us reason to pause and to ask whether Artemis of the Ephesians were really great or not. In context, however, the statement’s purpose is clear: it is the rallying cry of the Ephesians, challenging Paul and the message of the Gospel which he promoted in Ephesus. Since it is said by the enemies of Paul, and therefore the enemies of the Gospel, we recognize that Luke is recording a historical event without giving approval to the statement. Artemis of the Ephesians, in truth, is not “great”.

We can take this same principle and apply it to the promises made by Jesus regarding the gift of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16-18, John 15:26, and John 16:7-11. These passages are often cited attempting to demonstrate that all believers will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in this measure. Nevertheless, in context, we see that Jesus is speaking to His twelve disciples and provides this special promise to them that is specifically fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 1:4-5, Acts 2:1-12). Context will guide us to proper understanding and interpretation.

We have seen, then, some of the basic guidelines of hermeneutics, or the interpretation process, by which we may properly discern God’s purpose for our lives in His Word, the Scriptures. Let us give consideration to these guidelines and always remember that not a few have gone terribly astray from the Lord’s paths not because of God’s Word itself but how they have decided to interpret what God has said. Let us labor to be approved workmen, without need to be ashamed (2 Timothy 2:15)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Christian and Race | The Voice 7.34: August 20, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

The Christian and Race

Few subjects prove as fraught with difficulty, pain, suffering, and awkwardness as race, especially race in the United States of America. Some people wish to deny the existence of race and/or racism; others conceive of their fellow man primarily and almost entirely in terms of race. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes on the spectrum and attempt to sort out the matter of race relations in America.

Race is a social construct. Humans have found all sorts of ways to differentiate among various groupings of people, but have not always done so on the basis of the distinguishing characteristics normally subsumed under the idea of “races.” The idea of “races” as currently conceived is a product of the past few hundred years, often in the service of justifying European imperialism and slavery. These theories of race pervaded all Western thinking by the 19th century; it was taken for granted as “common sense” to white people that they were biologically racially superior to other people, a premise agreed upon by most religious and secular people alike. Only within the past 50 years have such theories regarding race been demonstrated as false through scientific inquiry; while there may be some genetic markers that are consistent among members of a given “race” and not seen in members of other “races,” one could say the same thing about ethnicities or other ways in which people might categorize each other. Therefore, race as conceived of in Western civilization is not biologically mandated or driven; it continues to exist according to social conventions.

We cannot find race as a form of biological or even social categorization in the Scriptures; where certain translations might use “race,” “birth” or “nation” would be more appropriate. Unfortunately Christians in past generations sought to justify their racial ideology with Scripture, appealing to “each according to its own kind” in Genesis 1:25, the mark of Cain in Genesis 4:15, and/or the curse of Ham and Canaan in Genesis 9:25. Such was a shameful distortion of the teachings of Scripture; other passages strongly insist on the singular origin of all humanity (e.g. Acts 17:26). In Acts 17:26 Paul indicated how distinctions among people are most frequently seen in Scripture: from one man God made every nation (Greek ethnos) to dwell in their distinct boundaries at distinct times. We derive the English term “ethnic” from ethnos; ethnos is often translated as “Gentiles” when contrasted with the “Jews.” Thus, in Scripture, we are all from different nations; we are not of different races.

Nevertheless, even if race is not an accurate category according to biology, race remains a culturally constructed reality in America. As Christians we cannot pretend that race does not matter; even if it has no significant biological grounding and even less Biblical merit, race remains a predominant means of categorization in American society and culture. Various forms and means of racial segregation persisted in America for many generations; should we then be surprised when people of the same “race” end up developing their own distinct culture or subculture within America, and maintain a form of racial identity? Numerous studies persistently show how Americans retain racial bias, even if often implicit or subconscious. According to Scripture we have every right to say that all of us are part of the human race (Acts 17:26); we have no right, however, to deny the differences which have arisen among people on account of the persistent categorization by race. Perhaps one day in America race will cease to be a predominant form of categorization in society; on that day we can lay race theory to rest fully; however, that day has not yet come, and Christians ought not to marginalize others because of it.

The New Testament is unambiguous about whether certain groups of people are superior to others: all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God, and in Christ, not only can all find salvation, but all stand equal in the sight of God in Christ (Romans 3:23, Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:1-18). Unfortunately, for many years, far too many Christians did not uphold this teaching, and on the basis of their theory of race advanced the cause of white supremacy. To this day certain groups claim white supremacy is consistent with the teaching of God in Christ; nothing could be further from the truth. As there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ, so assuredly there is neither white nor black in Christ (cf. Galatians 3:28). Christians must acknowledge the violence done to people of color in the name of white supremacy and lament how it was often done “in the name of the Lord.” Christians should take every opportunity given to denounce white supremacy wherever it may raise its head and to powerfully and unequivocally proclaim the Gospel truth of man’s fundamental equality before God.

Race proves particularly fraught for white people in America, for most white people do not really believe themselves to be a distinct race or manifesting a distinct culture. White people in America tend to presume their understanding of America and race is normative; they often have difficulty understanding how their experience is not “normal,” and often could never be “normal,” for people of color. White Christians do well to heed James’ advice and be quick to hear and slow to speak, proving willing to endure discomfort and to have their viewpoint expanded by the perspectives and experiences of people of color (James 1:19). Through such interactions white Christians may learn to see the world with a different set of eyes and recognize how so much they take for granted is a luxury many people of color have not been able to enjoy, and only because of this societal construct. White Christians can then work to advocate for and uphold the integrity of people of color, striving to make good on the Gospel truth of the equality of all people before God.

In Revelation 7:9 we are invited to see a beautiful picture: people from every nation, tribe, and people standing before God’s throne, praising Him. God’s goal for Christians in Christ is not to eliminate every difference or distinction, but to have all hostility among people killed through what Jesus accomplished on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). Paul did not cease being Jewish when he was converted (Acts 23:6); those of the nations remain part of those nations, yet maintain a stronger loyalty to the trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ (Philippians 3:20-21). Through the church God declares His manifold wisdom to the powers and principalities (Ephesians 3:10-11): people from every walk of life who remain very different people and yet are one in Christ (John 17:20-23). Christians are at their best not when they deny all differences among people but celebrate each person’s and each group of people’s distinctiveness, recognizing how the body of Christ is not a factory churning out thousands of the same part but made up of different parts all working to build up the whole (1 Corinthians 12:12-28).

Thus race may be a social construct but remains one acutely felt by Americans; as Christians in America, we must denounce racism and embody the Gospel imperative of racial and ethnic inclusivity, all in ways which glorify God in Christ. May we uphold the truth of God in Christ, strive to build up the body of Christ, and invite all to serve the Lord Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Philemon | The Voice 7.33: August 13, 2017

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

Paul’s Letter to Philemon

Onesimus was a runaway slave. It was necessary to make all things right, but that could lead to injury or death. Paul leveraged all the influence in his command to assist Onesimus with his owner Philemon.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is the eighteenth book in modern editions of the New Testament. Paul and Timothy are listed as its authors (Philemon 1:1), but throughout Paul’s voice is manifestly pre-eminent. The presence of Philemon 1:19ff may indicate the rest of the letter was dictated to an amanuensis. Pauline authorship of Philemon is not seriously questioned even among scholars. Paul speaks of himself and Epaphras as “prisoners” of the Lord Jesus (Philemon 1:1, 9, 23); for this reason Philemon is reckoned as one of Paul’s prison letters along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Paul sent greetings from Epaphras and wrote not only to Philemon but also to Apphia, Archippus, and the church in their house (Philemon 1:1): Paul had a special message for Archippus in Colossians 4:17, said Epaphras was “one of them” in Colossians 4:12, and assured the Colossians that Onesimus would make know to them his affairs in Colossians 4:9. Philemon therefore is most likely a Christian in Colossae, of some means, able to host the church there in his house; perhaps Apphia and Archippus were his relatives (wife and son?), and were at least part of the household. We therefore believe that Paul wrote Philemon at the same time he wrote Colossians, most likely from prison in Caesarea, and delivered both letters by the hand of Onesimus the subject of the letter of Philemon (ca. 59-60; cf. Acts 23:23-26:32). Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave who converted to the Lord Jesus, to show mercy and clemency.

Paul began his letter with a standard epistolary introduction to Philemon, called “beloved” and a “fellow worker,” along with Apphia and Archippus and the church in their house, also suggesting the letter, and the pressure and influence suggested therein, was to be read before the whole congregation (Philemon 1:1-3). According to his custom Paul then gave thanks for Philemon in his prayers, having heard of and been comforted by Philemon’s love for his and encouragement and refreshment of his fellow Christians (Philemon 1:4-7).

Paul then made his plea for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-22). Paul could have commanded Philemon in this matter, but preferred for the sake of love to exhort him (Philemon 1:8-9). Paul besought Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, considered as a child begotten in prison, previously of lesser value but now of greater value to both Paul and Philemon; Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon in order to make things right but could have continued to benefit from his ministration while in prison, so that Onesimus’ service would be as a freewill offering of Philemon to Paul, and not under compulsion (Philemon 1:10-14). Paul suggested Onesimus’ temporary separation from Philemon was fortuitous, to have him no longer merely a slave but now as a beloved brother in Christ (Philemon 1:15-16). Thus, if Philemon considers Paul a partner (in the faith), Philemon should receive Onesimus back as if he were Paul (Philemon 1:17). If Philemon has been wronged or suffered monetary loss on account of Philemon, he should charge it to Paul’s account; Paul wrote in his own hand how he would repay it and not so subtly reminded Philemon that he owed Paul his own life besides (Philemon 1:18-19). Paul most likely continued in his own hand to implore Philemon to provide him joy and refresh his heart in Christ, yet remained confident that Philemon would not only obey what Paul wrote, but would go beyond what Paul said (Philemon 1:20-21). Paul asked Philemon to prepare a place for him, for he intended to visit Philemon in the near future (Philemon 1:22). Having provided greetings from Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, Paul concluded his letter to Philemon with a standard epistolary conclusion (Philemon 1:23-25).

Paul’s letter to Philemon displays a masterful rhetorical hand addressing a challenging and fraught topic. Philemon has the legal right to do whatever he desires with Onesimus as a runaway slave. Paul appeals to Philemon according to the higher calling of God in Christ Jesus, encouraging him to welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ, and giving the congregation in Colossae plenty of reasons to encourage Philemon to do the same. By professing confidence in Philemon to do the right thing Paul gave him the benefit of the doubt and provided Philemon every reason in the world to be generous and merciful and receive the commendation of God, Onesimus, and his fellow Christians for doing so.

Paul’s letter to Philemon delicately handled the extremely challenging topic of slavery in Christianity and Greco-Roman society. Paul neither justified the practice of slavery nor did he explicitly agitate for its abolition. Instead Paul addressed this individual slave owner and appealed to him in the name of God, love, his own salvation, and the higher bond of brotherhood in Christ to encourage him to take back his runaway slave and treat him well. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles made it their main purpose to overthrow existing societal structures. Nevertheless, over the subsequent centuries, it proved all the more difficult to maintain the institution of slavery when both master and slave would share equally in the faith and at the communion table of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Galatians 3:28). By the medieval period serfdom proved more culturally predominant than slavery; throughout the past two millennia efforts toward reduction or abolition of serfdom or slavery have most often been led by those influenced by Jesus and the teachings about equality of all people in the New Testament.

We have no insight as to the conclusion of the matter; Colossae would be struck by a major earthquake in 60-61 and the town would never fully recover. We would like to think that Philemon welcomed Onesimus back warmly; we have no idea whether they survived the earthquake and its aftereffects, although it is highly unlikely that Paul was ever able to visit with Philemon. Nevertheless somehow both Colossians and Philemon were preserved. May we all obey the Lord Jesus, serve one another, and glorify God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

1 2 3 4 35