My head is full of things I want to say, but I don’t have the energy to write, so for now I’m just going to share this blog post, which I read a couple of months ago, and which I hope you’ll find helpful if your emotions are troubling you…
I would be very interested to read your comments on this article, Frank Viola’s interview with Greg Boyd:
It’s a lengthy interview, in which Greg discusses some of the ideas in his latest books, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and its shorter version Cross Vision.
The principal argument of Boyd’s work is that when you read the whole Bible – specifically the Old Testament – through the lens of the cross, all kinds of problems we have with the picture of an angry, violent OT God can disappear. In Boyd’s words
On the cross, God stoops to meet us, and to enter into solidarity with us, right where we are at, which is in bondage to sin and to Satan. And he does this to free us and to bring us where he wants us to be, which is united with him in Christ. The cross is thus the paradigmatic example of God mercifully stooping to accommodate people in their fallen conditioning.
In a similar way, every time we prove ourselves incapable of living up to God’s ideal behaviour, God will Himself “stoop to accommodate” us. This even extends to allowing Himself to be portrayed in the Bible as something other than His “true” self, because culturally His people have been conditioned to believe that this is what a god is “supposed” to look like.
In fact, many passages that exalt Yahweh as a warrior contain phrases from songs that Israel’s neighbors sang to their own warrior deities. The biblical author just switched out the name of the pagan god and replaced it with Yahweh.
After reading the whole interview a few times I’m left with several thoughts. The first is that I want to read Cross Vision, and understand the reasoning – scriptural, cultural and logical – that lies behind Boyd’s claim. Because I very much want this to be true. To finally have a solution to one of the most troubling issues of Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) faith would be beyond exciting.
And that leads me to my next thought, which is that when something seems to be too good to be true, it usually is. This lens of the cross, while on the surface it seems totally Biblical, is surely just too simple. I find myself returning to Isaiah 55.
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the Lord.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.’
And the most troubling thought of all is this: if I can use God’s “stooping to accommodate” as an explanation for the particular “atrocities” mentioned in the book, why can’t I use it to explain anything at all that I don’t like? And how can we tell the difference between the times that God is pleased with an action and the times that he is accommodating us? And how does this then apply outside of scripture, in our daily lives? What can we trust to be God’s genuine will? Do we just follow the 10 commandments and for everything else do our own thing, confident that God will accommodate us?
There are answers to these questions, the simplest one being that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us we can have confidence in what He says to us. But nevertheless I think Greg Boyd’s ideas are just as likely to unsettle as to comfort us, and if I can be sure of one thing, it’s that his books will not end the debate about the “Old Testament God”.
But I’m very much looking forward to reading more.
It’s hard to express in words how much Pastor Samuel Cole means to me. I first met him around the time I gave my life to Christ, and he has been close to my heart ever since, although I hardly see him these days, to my great regret.
Sam introduced me to some great music in one of his side roles as a gospel DJ. But more importantly he showed me what it means to live as an ambassador for Christ. His love for God, and for people, shone brightly. His passion for improving the lives of young people, and bringing them to knowledge of Jesus, was clear to see. His faith, energy and joy were an inspiration.
And on a personal level, Sam has helped to shape my faith, and my life, in such a positive way I could never find suitable words to thank him. We rarely had time to share one to one conversations, but when we did they were very precious. I vividly remember one evening in Leicester during a church event. Sam took me on a guided tour of an area he was redeveloping for worship services and talked to me excitedly about his plans. I think he knew I had something on my mind though, and this was a pretext for giving me an opportunity to share it.
I spoke to him about my concerns. The details of the conversation will remain private, but I can tell you that he shared insights from his own life, he spoke with real compassion and understanding, and he filled me with hope, determination and faith which have never left me since then, even through my lowest points. I wouldn’t be the man I am today without Pastor Sam’s intervention. I would be a much poorer human being in many ways.
Nearly five years ago Sam’s wife Dena phoned me and asked me to come and see them. I did so, and when I sat down with Sam he revealed to me that he had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. It was shocking news. I remember laying my hand on him and praying what I felt was a pathetic prayer. I just didn’t know what to say, but I cried from my heart for healing.
From that day to this I continue to pray to God for a miracle. I pray that one day Sam will stand, will walk, will speak, and will declare and demonstrate God’s goodness and omnipotence, just as he was doing when I first came to know him. I pray that until that day comes, Sam, Dena and their children will never lose hope, but that they will continue to trust in our Lord, experience His peace, and live in His strength.
I’m not just writing to pay tribute to this man, who I call Pastor, but who is also my brother and my friend. I want to ask you for practical help. There is currently a crowdfunding page created by Sam and Dena, attempting to raise £12,000 to buy a standing wheelchair for Sam, which will improve his quality of life, and which would actually be an answer to one part of my prayer for him.
Here is the page: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/dena-cole-1
I don’t have a huge number of followers, but if each one of you was to donate just £21 (about $26) then we would reach the target. I know that for some of you that is more than you could afford, but some of you could probably donate much more.
I ask you to pray for Pastor Sam and his family and friends. I ask you to prayerfully consider giving what you can to this cause which is very dear to me. And I ask you to share this story as widely as possible.
If, by the time you read this, the crowdfunding project is over, then please consider donating to the Motor Neurone Disease Association to help others with this debilitating illness.
Thank you all for reading this, and thank you Sam for the light you’ve brought into my life.
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
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved and fellow-worker,
2 and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house:
3 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
4 I thank my God always, making mention of thee in my prayers,
5 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.
6 that the fellowship of thy faith may become effectual, in the knowledge of every good thing which is in you, unto Christ.
7 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
8 Wherefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting,
9 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 useful, beneficial 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.