Abundant Life

A thought I scribbled on 7 June 2011. Was I being fair?

Too many people are just thanking God that they’re still alive.

Yes, life is a wonderful gift from God, and yes we should be thankful for it.

But Christ lived, and died, not only that we should have life, but that we should have it abundantly (John 10:10).

So don’t just settle for being alive, take the opportunities God is giving you to fill your life, and other people’s, with the blessings He provides.

And don’t just thank God for your life, thank Him for the amazing way He has enriched it, thank Him for the unique gifts, opportunities and experiences He has given you in your abundant life.

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Goldilocks and the Three Prayers

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for as long as I can remember. I started watching regularly towards the end of the Tom Baker era, and Peter Davison was the first Doctor I saw from beginning to end, so I guess those two are my ‘favourites’ though I can see merits in all of them (yes all of them!)

I’ve enjoyed the 21st Century reboot as well, but there was one particular change that bothered me. I think it bothered me so much that I even complained about it on internet message boards! It was the change in episode format and story length.

In the good old days the episode was generally around 25 minutes long, and a story typically ran over 4 episodes. That gave opportunities for classic (or not-so-classic) cliffhangers, but more importantly it gave a degree of flexibility to the story length. If necessary the story could be spread over a shorter or longer number of episodes – I remember the all time great Genesis of the Daleks was a 6-parter. In theory you could also have a one-off 25 minute story if you wanted to. Somewhere in my archives I probably have a list of all the stories that I could check to see if they ever did that – but I won’t!

The reboot changed the format more in line with the current US TV vogue. There was a 13 episode ‘season’ which had on underlying/overarching storyline ‘arc’, but within that were 45 minute episodes that were usually self-contained stories. Yes there was the occasional 2-parter but they were the exception, and in any case putting together 45 minute episodes naturally gives less flexibility than 25 minute ones.

Many stories work brilliantly within that format, but more often than I’d like, I’d see stories that seemed either padded out or squeezed to fit them into the required number of minutes. In my perfect world I would let the writers write a story that worked, of whatever length was necessary, and I’d let the director film it in as many parts, of whatever length, so that they would work on screen for maximum audience satisfaction. So a 30 minute story one week could be followed by a 2 hour TV movie the next, followed by a 90 minute story spread over two weeks with a terrific cliffhanger in the middle.

Of course that’s not how TV schedules work these days – I don’t know if they ever did. If you want the flexibility to produce a moving picture that is the perfect length for the story you want to tell, cinema is your best hope.

Other art forms aren’t as restricted by schedules – although some might be moving that way, as Billy Joel noted in his 1974 song The Entertainer:

I am the entertainer,
I come to do my show.
You’ve heard my latest record,
It’s been on the radio.
Ah, it took me years to write it,
They were the best years of my life.
It was a beautiful song.
But it ran too long.
If you’re gonna have a hit,
You gotta make it fit –
So they cut it down to 3:05.

I recall a magazine interview Mark Knopfler gave, back in the late 1980s I think, although he’s told the story on other occasions. He spoke about being in a bar, listening to “Telegraph Road” which was on the jukebox, and he found it overlong, overblown and lifeless. Straight afterwards, he heard Buddy Holly’s “Rave On!”, about 13 minutes shorter, which was the complete opposite, and to Knopfler’s ears sounded so much better for it.

Of course he wasn’t comparing apples even with oranges, but rather with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding! Completely different songs, trying to achieve entirely different results, with entirely different things to say. Each one works perfectly well in its own terms.

You might be wondering by now, just what all this has to do with my Christian journey? Well these examples were brought to mind when I was reflecting on this blog. What I like about the blog format is that I can write as much or as little as I want on a particular subject. I can even produce a series of posts on a theme (as I intend to shortly) to extend the scope wider if I feel it’s necessary.

But I’m still not convinced that I’m getting it right. There’s a danger of me writing too much, and just getting boring, or overly-analytical. I feel there’s even more danger of me not writing enough. I usually think about my posts for a few days before I write, though some are more spontaneous. I’ll tend to write them out in draft form, then read over them again a short time later to correct obvious grammar problems and generally tidy them up. But still I often look back on a post and realise that there was so much more I could have added to explain my thoughts, and my faith, more clearly.

Hopefully I will improve as a writer over the next weeks, months and years. And one of the advantages of a blog is that I can go back later to revise them if I really need to, although I’ll try to avoid that if possible, and maybe add links to better articles, or footnotes, instead. I’m not George Lucas and this blog isn’t Star Wars. I’ll try to avoid tinkering. If Greedo should have shot first, then I can only apologise.

Thinking about this also reminded me of other places where I’ve noticed the problem in Christian life. And the first of these is in sermons.

I haven’t been a Christian for that long – less than four years at the time of writing. I don’t have a vast personal experience of the variety of preaching styles that are available, but I’ve heard a few, and I’ve also heard that one of the hallmarks of some denominations can be the length of sermons. I hope I’m not stating the obvious when I say that I don’t mind how long the sermon is, as long as it’s appropriate for the message being delivered. Actually I hope I am stating the obvious there!

I was troubled to read this statement by James MacDonald in an article titled 5 Things We Do Today Instead of Preach the Word (on page 3):

“Twenty minute sermons”

I don’t know how it works at your church, but for us it takes 5 minutes to set the rig up and another 5 or 10 minutes to take it down. If you’re only preaching for 20 minutes, that gives you 5 minutes to drill. You’re not going very deep, are you? It takes some time.

Judging by the comments on the article there were several others who shared my concern. Of course, I’m not arguing in any way that 20 minutes is always long enough to explain even a single verse, but 45 minutes? An hour? 2 hours? How much is enough? How much can the congregation take? How much will sink in? If you preach the most devastatingly insightful and life changing message of the last 2000 years, but you’ve lost your audience, then what glory will God get from it?

Some services are unrestricted, while others are strictly scheduled, especially when multiple services are running through the day, so the preacher’s hands may be tied in some respects. But I would like to think that room can be found for flexibility in most cases.

I’m not going to make arguments comparing Jesus’ sermons and teaching, because what is written doesn’t necessarily reflect everything He said, and there are often layers of meaning to read into His words. But at other times He was able to encapsulate a major message in the simplest of ways, and that simplicity is something I cherish and want more of from my spiritual leaders.

There is a time for every sermon under the sun. Sometimes that time will be 20 minutes or less. Sometimes it will be 2 hours or more. Let wisdom decide.

And finally to something I’ve struggled with many times – prayer.

I’ve thought about prayer a lot over the years. Talked about it. Prayed about it! No doubt I’ll blog about it plenty in the future. I don’t understand how it can be so easy and yet so difficult at the same time – particularly public prayer.

More than once I’ve been asked to pray at the start or end of an occasion, and the person before me has reeled off what seems an unfeasibly long prayer, full of the right turns of phrase, and making my own words that follow feel pitifully inadequate. In some circles there’s almost a cachet surrounding lengthy prayer.

But again, does the content justify the length? I don’t believe any of the people listening to the prayer need to be told the same thing in half a dozen ways. And I’m absolutely sure that God doesn’t. It saddens me that I’ve found myself not sharing a sense of God’s presence on occasions but instead thinking of Jesus’ words:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

(Matthew 6:5-13)

The Lord’s Prayer is 66 words in the New King James Version. Of course that’s not enough to cover everything that you may wish to pray about on every occasion, but as a model it comprehensively refutes the idea that a lengthy prayer has more innate worth than a short one. And in case you want another example, turn to Luke 18, and say together with me:

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

But I say yet again that a short prayer isn’t always appropriate either. It’s all about proportion and balance. I’ve had quiet times alone with God when my prayers have gone on for twenty minutes, half an hour, or more. God knows it all already, so it’s really for my benefit as my conversation with Him helps me understand more clearly the situation and what He wants me to do in it.

And there will be times of corporate prayer where much does need to be said, and something serious will be lost if we short-change ourselves.

So let’s use the right prayer for the right occasion, be it 7 words, or 66, or 1000. And let’s give God thanks for the amazing privilege of speaking to Him directly about whatever concerns us.

(1894 words, excluding this line!)

Update 8 November 2012 – This article describes a different perspective on the length of church services, and sermons. I don’t agree with the rigid structure it suggests, but I can see its merits, unlike most of the commentators!

Feeling Low

In this article I’m going to be deliberately vague. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. Why? Three main reasons, in no particular order:

  1. To protect my own privacy. I don’t think it’s wise for anyone to lay bare the full details of their private life to the world. It’s no secret that I’m a sinner, because we all are. My own sins may be viewed by the world as greater or lesser than anyone else’s. What I consider to be sin in my life may be viewed as nothing of the kind by others, and the reverse is also possibly true. Small groups and close Christian friends provide the outlets for detailed discussion, confession and repentance.
  2. To protect the privacy of others. Do I need to explain this? The people closest to me, or those involved in whatever situation I write about, may well recognise incidents and individuals. Some might even feel offended or exposed that I’ve publicised something about them. But I will always be careful not to reveal personally identifiable information about anyone I know in this blog. If I speak on public matters then I’ll try to use wisdom and discernment. If I make any mistakes along the way, I trust you to let me know.
  3. Ultimately I should be able to refer to issues broadly and vaguely without losing sight of the meaning behind them. And by keeping to generalities rather than specifics I hope that more people will see parallels with their own lives, their owns journeys, their own struggles – and in that way we can encourage and support one another.

So… I’m feeling low.

I expect that nearly all of us have experienced the pain of rejection. It’s just one those things we have to go through at some time in our lives. I’ve been through it several times in mine – well I’ve been around for over 40 years so I can’t be too surprised at that. But I went through it again this week and it hit me hard. I don’t know if it feels different because it’s the first time I’ve really been through it since I found Christ.

It isn’t the only thing that I’m going through. My other issues are less usual, but equally difficult. All I can say is that I’ve got a lot of painful situations all going on together, and I’m really struggling to come to terms with them all.

And that’s where my head was when I went to church on Sunday, and I wept as I worshipped, and then some of Jesus’ words came to me and I didn’t understand exactly why.

Then a dispute arose among them as to which of them would be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a little child and set him by Him, and said to them, “Whoever receives this little child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me. For he who is least among you all will be great.” – Luke 9:46-48

I can honestly say that I have no desire at all to be great, either on earth or in heaven. I have no interest in status, or in fame or fortune. I’d like to think that I’ll make a positive difference in some people’s lives, and I wonder if one day I may make a bigger impact for God, but my satisfaction will be in knowing in my heart I did well, not in any external recognition.

So in theory, to be least is just fine with me, just fine.

In theory.

But I broke down inside at that moment, because it suddenly felt as if I was not even least, but I was nobody. And as little as it matters if I’m ‘nothing’ to ‘everybody’, I have such a need to be ‘something’ to ‘somebody’. And not just ‘something’, but something significant.

I’m not alone, I have family and friends, and I know I mean something to them, but it isn’t enough.

I’ve heard on more than one occasion that God is enough. That we can find complete fulfillment in our relationship with Christ. I’m sorry but I don’t believe that, and I don’t think it’s a Biblical viewpoint either. Read Genesis, and notice that everything God sees in His creation is good, or very good. What is the first thing he sees that is not good? In Genesis 2:18…

And the LORD God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”

Some people can live a successful single life, Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 7, but that isn’t my gift.

I need to make clear at this point that I wasn’t just yearning for a wife on Sunday. I had an overwhelming vision of myself as servant to everyone; putting everyone’s needs before my own; wanting to talk to my spiritual brothers but not wanting to interrupt them, because I don’t matter as much as the people they’re already talking to; not wanting to be in the conversation I was in, but unable to extricate myself from it because the person who was speaking to me was more important than I was.

That isn’t the real me, well not the whole of me. Yes I try to put other people first most of the time, but I certainly have a selfish side as well and it manifests itself more often than I’d like.

But at that moment I was small, I was insignificant, I was nothing.

There have been some times in my life – and I think this is also something that many Christians experience – when I have been acutely aware of my insignificance as an individual, but at the same time I have felt God’s love for me, and been overcome by the awesome wonder that the Creator of the universe knows me intimately and cares for me deeply. Those moments are among the most amazing of my life.

On Sunday I still knew of God’s love for me, but I couldn’t feel it. I still don’t feel it now, so I’m still struggling, but I know it’s there. I think I’ve just allowed the temporary troubles of life to take over my mind and flood my heart with sadness. God hasn’t gone anywhere, but I’ve shut myself off from Him.

I need to reconnect with Him. I need to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. I need to keep praising His holy name because he has been so good to me. I don’t need to keep feeling low. I need to lift up the name of Jesus, knowing that He will in turn lift me.

Imagining John Lennon as a Christian

I don’t know everything he said, and of course even less so everything he thought, or how his views and beliefs changed throughout his life, but I think it’s reasonable to say, from my limited knowledge, that John Lennon didn’t consider himself a Christian. he gave quite a strong hint in 1966 when he said:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and i will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.

But I was thinking about “Imagine” yesterday, and the idea came to me… I wonder whether there would be much negative reaction if one of today’s popular Christian songwriters were to pen these words:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

I’ll grant you that there probably isn’t enough direct reference to God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit in there, but look at the words. I’ve omitted the first verse for obvious reasons, but we’ll return to that later. In the lyric above I can see echoes of so much of what Jesus said during his earthly ministry.

Imagine there’s no countries… I think of Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?”

Nothing to kill or die for… in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus says

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.

Also consider the description of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21:4

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

And no religion too… no religion! Yes, read what Jesus had to say about religion, the soulless hypocritical show of tradition and law; the total opposite of the relationship with God, our Father, that Christ exemplifies. You can find his statement on the subject in Matthew 23:1-36. He doesn’t sit on the fence.

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

“Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Imagine no possessions… no need for greed or hunger… in Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus exhorts us not to worry about such things as clothes and food, which we will be provided with if we first seek God. This is straight after He warns us not to serve mammon – money. Also look at His instructions when sending out the apostles to preach the gospel and heal the sick, the simple lifestyle described through Matthew 10:9-10.

I hope some day you’ll join us, And the world will be as one… A brotherhood of man, Imagine all the people sharing all the world… it reminds me of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:20-23:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

I also think of Paul’s description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, which starts:

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

It seems that the kind of world John Lennon is imagining looks very similar to the one that Jesus pointed to, and that Christians are praying for and working towards.

So what does he have against Christianity? Why is he so convinced that it will go? Maybe the answer is in that first verse, the one I can’t imagine Matt Redman writing…

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Lennon is looking for a world where everyone lives for today. In itself I don’t see that as an un-Christian way of living. Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow, not to store up treasures on earth. The difference is that Christ tells us to store up treasures in heaven. But Lennon doesn’t want heaven or hell, because (in my opinion) he doesn’t want to face the consequences of those places being real. It’s too difficult to live by the all the rules that have been written down in scripture, and if the consequence of breaking those laws is eternal damnation, well I can understand why that would worry him.

This world view seems to be laid bare in his song “God” in which he finally claims “I just believe in me.” Self-reliance and self-determination are sweet incentives to draw you into atheism, but they are delusions, and truth is rather that “No man is an island entire of itself.”

The fact is that it is too difficult to live by God’s laws, and be “righteous” by ourselves. We can all look at our lives and see so many reasons why we don’t deserve to go to heaven. And that’s because we simply don’t. We’ve disobeyed the eternal, omnipotent ruler of the universe so many times and that makes us deserving of eternal punishment.

But God loves us and understands our weakness, our imperfection, our inability to live up to His standard. So He’s given us an escape route, another chance, he offers us salvation in the form of Jesus Christ, sent not only to show us the perfect example of how to live, but in His death to take the punishment that would otherwise be ours. Accept Jesus as your Lord, and your Saviour, and you are clothed in His righteousness, accepted by God.

You don’t have to imagine no heaven and no hell. You can live for today without fear of tomorrow. You can live in peace, in a brotherhood of man, eliminating greed and hunger. You can do it without nationalism or xenophobia, and without religion. All you need is love – God is love. (1 John 4:16)

A Final Word…

While I was researching the notion that “Imagine” is an atheist anthem for the purpose of this blog post, I came across the following article which runs along very similar lines to my own, but with (mostly) different scriptural references. You might be interested to read the opinion of a Professor of Theology and Public Issues and compare it to mine – I’m never likely to be a professor of anything!

http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/opinion/141124/faith-and-reason-imagine-really-atheist

Confessions of a Procrastinator

I’m always wishing there were more hours in the day, so that I could find the time to do all the fantastic things I have planned. Building web sites, studying, organising my paperwork, keeping fit. But no, I’m stuck with the same twenty-four hours that we all have to make do with, and once I’ve got up, got ready for work, travelled to work, done my working day, travelled home, changed, eaten, and gone through my email and paperwork, there’s just not enough time to do anything.

A few weeks ago, half way through the Euro 2012 Football Championship, I realised something odd was happening. Somehow, despite the challenges of my limited hours, I was managing to watch two football matches every day. And you know what, the teams I was watching weren’t even of much interest to me! So I was finding over three hours a day to sit and watch a half-meaningless sporting contest, and none of the everyday essentials I’ve listed above were compromised – not a single one!

It was a real wake-up call. More interesting matches were coming up, but I knew that after the championships were done I could dedicated a good chunk of time every day to those life-enhancing productive tasks that I’d wanted to do for so long. And you know – most of what I wanted to do was for the glory of God, or to help me build my relationship with Him. There couldn’t be a better motivation, surely?

Well, the championships finished – congratulations Spain – and I found myself dealing with a few tricky personal and family issues. That kind of thing happens to us all from time to time, and it’s right to deal with them properly and look after your family. All right.

So now I’ve got those issues under control and I can start dedicating my time.

Ah, but the Olympic Games have just got going. And there’s all these amazing sports that I don’t have any interest in except for once every four years, and it’s happening in my country, so it’s extra special, and there’s so many amazing stories, and great coverage for more than twelve hours a day on up to twenty-four high definition channels. I have no choice, do I?

The truth is, I do have a choice, and every time I choose to spend several hours watching sport instead of putting things right in my life, either practically or spiritually, I’m making a bad choice. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying sport, and there’s nothing wrong with taking some time out to relax, enjoy frivolous things. In fact there’s times when you absolutely must do that, to release some of the pressures of life.

But when you feel the Spirit stirring inside you, telling you there are other things you need to do, and when you ignore that instruction and do your own thing instead – then there’s something wrong.

It’s not that I’m neglecting God completely. I keep up with my daily Bible reading plans, I pray morning and evening and frequently through the day, and He is on my mind almost constantly, convicting me, comforting me, encouraging me and guiding me. But you know, most of that is really easy. It’s when He asks me to do something a bit more difficult, something more time-consuming or more intellectually demanding, that I let Him down.

And I’m telling myself now that when the Olympics are done I can dedicate a good chunk of time every day to those life-enhancing productive tasks that I’ve wanted to do for so long, but if I don’t start dedicating time now then what excuse will I find after the torch’s flame is finally extinguished?

Careless Words

I lost a Facebook friend today. I hope it’s temporary. I lost her because I challenged her about a status she wrote. It sounded like she was saying a news item was evidence of prophecy from the Book of Revelation being fulfilled.

I asked “what verses are you referring to?” And then I commented again about how careful we need to be as Christians making those kind of statements without backing them up. I compared such statements to those of Harold Camping, who instead of being very unspecific was actually very specific, and made himself – and to an extent Christians as a whole – something of a laughing stock.

I should have been more careful myself about how I expressed my opinion, because it probably came over as an attack when I was actually trying to provide loving guidance. And I certainly would have done better to offer that second comment in a private message instead of on my friend’s wall. It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re passionate about something, and ironically we both made mistakes because we’re passionate about the same thing – leading people to Christ.

I’m making my apology to my friend privately, and whether she chooses to accept it is her decision. Here I want to explain a bit more clearly, and more fully, a mistake I think many Christians make.

I’ve been thinking recently about how frustrating it can be, that the Bible starts and ends with the two books that can lead to the most arguments, misconceptions and ridicule, both between Christians and non-believers, and also between fellow Christians! Please let us never forget that the core message we need to declare is in the heart of God’s word – in the Gospels. It’s the message of salvation through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m not saying the rest of the Bible is insignificant, but it has to always be read with reference to Christ’s love, His promise of forgiveness, and our commission to spread that news to the world.

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love, and of a sound mind – 2 Timothy 1:7. For this reason, I don’t believe in scaremongering. There are plenty of things for the faithless to be scared about in this world, plenty of worries and concerns. As Christians we have the reassurance of God’s promises that He will provide for us (Matthew 6:33), that He won’t leave us (Deuteronomy 31:6) and that He has a place prepared for us in eternity (John 14:3). It is these reassurances that will move people’s hearts, rather than the equally true promise of weeping and gnashing of teeth for those who are not saved (Luke 13:28). Yes, there is a place for that teaching, but it needs to be considered very carefully, because few will hear it.

Revelation is a very difficult book to understand clearly. It’s so full of symbolism, imagery and metaphor, and it was originally written for an audience who understood its language very differently to the way we do today. So it’s dangerous to quote it at any time with reference to current world events. There are those who believe dearly in the literal truth of every word of the Bible. I respect those people, but I’m not one of them, and I’ll tackle that particular topic in more detail another day, but for now it’s sufficient to say that I believe in the truth of the lessons conveyed in God’s word. So in Revelation, for example, there are lessons about the corruption of the secular world, about Christ’s ultimate victory over evil, and about the final judgement we will all face.

When news stories are quoted in parallel with Revelation’s prophecies, it’s almost like quoting them with reference to Nostradamus – there’s enough vagueness – and symbolism – in the language that the prophecy can be retro-fitted to all manner of events. We have to remember that Christ’s imminent return has been expected by every generation since He ascended to Heaven. He may return tomorrow, but really, why is it any more likely that it will be our generation that sees Him come, rather than any that went before, or any who will follow? Every disaster, natural or man-made, for hundreds of years, has been seen as an apocalyptic omen by some. How many presidents of the United States have been rumoured to be the anti-christ? None of this helps the Christian mission. None of it glorifies God. However sincere you are in your beliefs about the end times, you have to also humbly acknowledge that God’s timetable is not available to us, and it is presumptuous to suggest otherwise.

As I said earlier, the promise of God’s salvation, freely available to all through faith in Christ, is the message we need to get out there. When someone turns to Christ, and becomes a new creation in Him, then the Holy Spirit can really get to work on cleaning up the sin in that person’s life.

The end times are important, and are something the faithful can look forward to with a glad heart, but whenever we speak about them, the words of Christ in Matthew 24 should be clear in our minds. Read the whole chapter, and note in particular these verses:

42 Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. 44 Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

A Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to Philemon

Yesterday evening it was my privilege to lead our small group in a study of the book of Philemon. I must have read the book a couple of times before, when I’ve completed Bible reading plans, but it hadn’t stuck in my mind, so when I started preparing for the small group study it was like the first time. And I admit that after my first read-through I thought “Is that it? What is this book saying that can’t be found elsewhere? What was the point of including this as canon?” But then as I read the text more carefully, and the accompanying commentaries, I saw depths of meaning that impressed me greatly. I know that many of my brothers in Christ felt the same yesterday, so today I want to talk about the book – in my own words as much as I can, but leaning heavily on commentaries such as the NKJV Study Bible, Reformation Study Bible, and the IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Many of these resources can be accessed freely on Bible Gateway. I am also indebted to my friends who offered their own insights, some of which weren’t found in any of the experts’ notes, but which are equally valid in my eyes. I will include the full text of the book from the American Standard Version, which is in the public domain worldwide.

The Epistle To Philemon

1 – Background Information

There is some debate amongst scholars regarding the time and place where the Epistle to Philemon was written. The general consensus is that it was written by the apostle Paul around 60AD from prison in Rome. It should be understood that the form of prison Paul was subjected to at this time was more like house arrest – see Acts 28:16. So he would have been able to receive visitors, including a man called Onesimus, a slave who had escaped from his master, Philemon.

At that time in Roman society a usual punishment for a runaway slave was death. However, Onesimus converted to Christianity through Paul’s ministry, as Philemon had also done previously, and Paul urges Onesimus to return to his master, sending with him this letter in which he requests that Philemon accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

2 – The Greeting

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved and fellow-worker,

and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We should first note that Paul refers to himself immediately as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. This is a motif that will be repeated many times throughout the short letter. In fact he is both a prisoner of Christ in a spiritual sense, and for Christ in the physical. He mentions Timothy who is with him, and then addresses Philemon. Many of Paul’s letters are written to church communities as a whole, and indeed he does mention the church here, but the letter is in fact a very direct and personal one, and the intended audience is Philemon. Philemon is a wealthy man, a Roman citizen and slave-owner in the city of Colossae. His house is large enough to host a church (we do not know how large the church is). Of the other individuals mentioned in the greeting, it is believed that Apphia is Philemon’s wife, and Archippus may be their son. Archippus is likely the pastor of the church. Paul’s greeting – “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” – is quite standard for him, but nevertheless it is deeply reassuring, and a verse that is worth meditating on often. It includes the Greek charos, or grace, and the Jewish eirene shalom, or peace, and so articulates that both Greeks and Jews are welcome in the Lord’s family.

3 – Paul’s Thanksgiving and Prayer

I thank my God always, making mention of thee in my prayers,

hearing of thy love, and of the faith which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints;

Paul thanks God for Philemon. He knows that he is a man of great faith and love, and these are the qualities to which he will appeal later in his letter. His prayer here is an encouragement to Philemon.

that the fellowship of thy faith may become effectual, in the knowledge of every good thing which is in you, unto Christ.

For I had much joy and comfort in thy love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through thee, brother.

The word fellowship, sometimes translated partnership, is the Greek koinonia, referring to a community with a common and vital shared faith; and the word translated knowledge, or understanding, is epignosis – a knowledge acquired by experience. Through living a Christian life, we can attain a deeper knowledge of Christ. Another interesting word Paul uses here is translated most often as heart(s). The word is splanchna, which actually means guts. This expresses well the visceral nature of the compassion stirred in the people of God by Philemon. The word splanchna is used twice more in later verses.

4 – Paul’s Plea for Onesimus

Wherefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting,

yet for love’s sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus:

Paul now says that he could command Philemon to do what is right in God’s eyes. But he will not command, instead, in love, he appeals, he requests. There is a subtle sting in the tale of this request though. Paul refers to himself not only as a prisoner again, but as an old man, Paul the aged. The culture of that time is one where the request of an elderly man should be granted or the person denying it would be shamed. This is not the last time that Paul will use both a carrot and a stick in his approach to the slave-master.

10 I beseech thee for my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus,

11 who once was unprofitable to thee, but now is profitable to thee and to me:

Finally, Onesimus is brought into the plea. Notice that he is not referred to as Philemon’s slave, but as Paul’s child. This is of utmost importance. As the man responsible, through God’s grace, for Onesimus’s conversion, Paul is his spiritual father. The same could be said of Paul’s relationship to Philemon, so in a very real sense, Paul is saying that the two are brothers. Paul also uses a pun in verse 11. The name Onesimus means usefulbeneficial or profitable. As a slave who has escaped from his master, and possibly stolen from him too, Onesimus had certainly shown himself to be unprofitable. But now he is a new creation in Christ and can live up to his name.

Scholars have some disagreement around the name of Onesimus. On the one hand, some suggest that he acquired the name after his conversion, as Saul acquired Paul. However others note that Onesimus is actually quite a common name for Roman slaves, so it is likely that it is the one he was born with, or at least given at a much earlier date. But whatever the truth of his name’s origin, there is no doubt about its aptness.

We can see echoes of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son in the way Onesimus is intending to return to Philemon. Paul wants him to be received with joy, as we will read later.

Onesimus’s usefulness is expanded upon as Paul continues.

12 whom I have sent back to thee in his own person, that is, my very heart:

13 whom I would fain have kept with me, that in thy behalf he might minister unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

Paul describes Onesimus as his very heart, his splanchna. He would like to have kept him rather than return him to Philemon, because he has been so compassionate and encouraging to Paul. It is clear that Onesimus has qualities that will be of great benefit to the church.

14 but without thy mind I would do nothing; that thy goodness should not be as of necessity, but of free will.

15 For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him for ever;

16 no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Here, the appeal is made explicit. Again Paul refuses to coerce Philemon, instead insisting that the decision must be made by his free will. Verse 15 recalls Genesis 50:20, where the evil plans of Joseph’s brothers were used for good by God. There is a definite suggestion in the word translated perhaps, which is tacha, used sometimes in Jewish literature to introduce a divine explanation. Also in this verse, Paul compares the temporal nature of Onesimus’s disobedience and escape with the eternal bond he and Philemon will share in Christ. The bond is described beautifully in verse 16.

17 If then thou countest me a partner, receive him as myself.

Paul emphasises here that Onesimus is an equal to both him and Philemon, and that Philemon should receive him as such.

At this point it is worth recalling James 2 and the truth that faith without works is dead. Paul has extolled Philemon for his faith, but it is necessary for that faith to be put into action. The idea of accepting a runaway slave back as a brother is so utterly counter-cultural in Roman society, that it could have wide-reaching ramifications in the whole community. It is hard for us to imagine how difficult it would be for Philemon to grant Paul’s request. But what an amazing example of Christian forgiveness and restoration it would demonstrate.

18 But if he hath wronged thee at all, or oweth thee aught, put that to mine account;

19 I Paul write it with mine own hand, I will repay it: that I say not unto thee that thou owest to me even thine own self besides.

And as an amazing example of Christ-mindedness, these verses are hard to top. Just as Christ who was without sin, became sin for us and paid the price for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), so Paul offers to pay all that Philemon may be owed for Onesimus’s past sin. he is determined that Onesimus’s account should be cleared and that he should be accepted as a new man. The last half of verse 19 can be read in many ways. It sounds like a veiled threat, that Philemon owes Paul his very self. But is it not true that as Christian brothers and sisters we do indeed owe everything to each other? We should be willing to make any sacrifice – greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my heart in Christ.

21 Having confidence in thine obedience I write unto thee, knowing that thou wilt do even beyond what I say.

Paul speaks of the joy Philemon’s right response will give him. We must remember that Paul is imprisoned. As encouraging as his letters are to their recipients, and as strong as Paul’s faith is, there must be times when his spirit weakens. He must have both good and bad days, and he needs encouragement to lift his spirit, just as we all do from time to time. What an encouragement it will be to Paul, for Philemon to receive Onesimus as his beloved brother. And Paul is so confident that this will happen – even more than he asks. There could be no reason for Paul to use that phrase except that he utterly believes it to be true. This is the final confirmation of Paul’s trust in Philemon’s faith and love.

22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I hope that through your prayers I shall be granted unto you.

But just in case Philemon is in any doubt of his own ability to grant Paul’s request, here we have a last push from the apostle. Asking for a guest room to be prepared, because he hopes to be released from prison, and will visit to see how everything has turned out.

5 – Farewell

23 Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, saluteth thee;

24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow-workers.

25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Paul ends his letter with greetings from fellow Christians who are with him in Rome, and a graceful benediction. As an aside, it is sad to note that Demas, who is mentioned here amongst the fellow workers, later abandoned Paul after he found that he ‘loved the world’, see 2 Timothy 4.

6 – Epilogue

The survival of this letter and other evidence suggests that Onesimus did indeed deliver it to Philemon and was accepted by him. His ultimate fate is not certain, but it is possible that he is the same Onesimus who later became bishop of Ephesus.

The Epistle to Philemon was used by both sides in the abolitionist debate of the 18th to 19th centuries, wrongly in my mind because Paul does not make judgements on either side. One thing is clear in this and other writings of his, though, and that is that he expects slaves to be treated as equal human beings, with respect and compassion, and that is certainly not the way they were treated in the Western slave trade at that time, or in modern slavery that continues today in India and elsewhere. We should always consider scripture through the lens of the culture it is being written in, and in this respect Paul is a radical thinker by any measure.

But this letter is not about slavery, it is about relationships. It is about forgiveness and restoration. It is about faith and love. It is about doing what is right for our Lord Jesus Christ when the world around us wants us to do the opposite.