The Power to Obey

21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. – Philemon 1:21-35 ESV

Paul’s use of the word “obedience” seems odd in light of the fact that this entire letter has been couched in terms of a request. Just a few verses earlier, Paul had admitted that he could have used his authority as an apostle and simply issued a command to Philemon but he had refused to do so. He wanted this to be Philemon’s decision.

…though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you… – Philemon 1:8 ESV

Because all of this revolved around a relationship, Paul had not wanted to dictate the terms of Philemon’s decision or to use coercion to force his hand. He knew that any healing between the two men would have to come from the heart and not the head.

I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. – Philemon 1:14 ESV

So, what prompts Paul to bring up obedience at this point in his letter? And why does he express such confidence that Philemon will do the right thing? I think it goes back to what Paul knew and believed about Philemon. He had every confidence that Philemon would respond positively and correctly because of his relationship with Jesus Christ. Remember what he said about his friend earlier in his letter: “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (Philemon 1:5  ESV).

Philemon had a track record of doing the right thing. And Paul was confident that his friend would face this latest test with the wisdom and strength of the indwelling Spirit of God. Philemon was not left to his own devices or relegated to operating according to his sinful flesh. He was a new creation. He had a new heart. He had a supernatural power available to him that would enable him to respond with justice, mercy, grace, and love.

Paul’s confidence was in the power of God to reform the hearts of men. He knew that the reconciliation of these two men was God’s will and that God would equip Philemon with the strength to obey that will. Paul knew from personal experience that, because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, nothing was impossible. He confidently told the believers in Philippi,  “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).

His prayer for the believers in Ephesus had been that God would “from his glorious, unlimited resources…empower you with inner strength through his Spirit” (Ephesians 3:16 NLT). And Paul had been confident that God would answer that prayer, boldly claiming, “Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20 NLT).

Paul believed that Philemon would obey the will of God because Paul believed in the power of God. His job had been to present the facts of the case to Philemon and then leave the result up to the Spirit of God. The resolution of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was going to have to be divinely empowered. It had to be a “God thing.” If Philemon tried to accomplish this in his own strength, he would fail. If he attempted to muster up the resolve to free Onesimus from slavery and treat him as a brother in Christ, only to please Paul, he would end up having regrets and harboring resentment over his financial losses.

If Philemon’s motivation to do the right thing came from an external source, his decision, no matter how righteous in nature, would be shortlived. It wouldn’t last. But Paul had every confidence that God was going to work a miracle of heart-transformation between these two men. And, as a result, God would get the glory. The news of their reconciliation would spread. The paradigm-shifting precedence of Philemon emancipating his former slave and treating him as his social and spiritual equal would leave an indelible mark on the community. And the only explanation would be the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And Paul rested in the knowledge that God would accomplish far more than even he could imagine. Philemon, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, would far exceed Paul’s words of counsel and his hopes for reconciliation.

He closes his letter by asking Philemon to prepare a room for him. He fully expected to be released from his house arrest at any moment and had every desire to visit his friends in Asia Minor. And, as always, Paul was grateful for the prayers of all those who had been praying for him during his confinement in Rome. Never one to take the petitions of others lightly, Paul found great encouragement in the knowledge that his needs were being lifted to God’s throne in heaven. And he believed that God would answer those prayers.

Finally, Paul provides Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus with greetings from some of their mutual friends. He includes Epaphras, an evangelist whom Paul describes as “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:23 ESV). This doesn’t mean that Epaphras was imprisoned with Paul in Rome, but that as a fellow minister of the Gospel, he shared the risks that Paul did. He was “imprisoned” or held captive to his role as an ambassador of Jesus Christ.

Paul adds the names of four other individuals and then closes his letter with the words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 1:21 ESV). And it’s hard to imagine that Paul did not have in mind the words spoken to him by God regarding the empowering nature of His grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Philemon had all the power he needed to do all that God was calling him to do.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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The Cost of Giving Advice

17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. – Philemon 1:17-20 ESV

It’s quite easy to give advice to others. In fact, it comes naturally to most of us. Sharing our opinions and providing free counsel to our friends and family members just seem like good things to do. We can even back up our good intentions from the “Good Book.”

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. – Proverbs 11:14 ESV

But even the best counsel, motivated by the best intentions, doesn’t always produce the best outcomes. Telling someone what they ought to do, without providing them any hint as to how to do it, can be demoralizing and even damaging.

Paul was asking Philemon to accept his runaway slave back with open arms. Not only that, but he was also advising Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother and not as a slave. And everything Paul wrote to Philemon was biblically sound and spiritually appropriate. It was wise counsel coming from a godly and well-meaning friend. And yet, from Philemon’s perspective, it was all “easier said than done.” Paul, under house arrest in Rome and with plenty of time on his hands, could write Philemon a hundred letters full of godly advice on a wide range of topics, but at the end of the day, it was Philemon who would have to turn Paul’s rhetoric into reality. And that was not going to be easy.

And Paul was quite clear in expressing how he expected Philemon to treat Onesimus.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. – Philemon 1:17 NLT

Philemon was to show Onesimus the same courtesy and respect he would extend to Paul if he were to walk in the door. That was a tall order. Paul was asking Philemon to respond in a manner that was antithetical to logic and social protocol. For him to treat any slave with that kind of respect and honor would have been unheard of in civil society. And yet, Paul was asking him to extend this kind of courtesy to a runaway. Remember, Paul told Philemon that Onesimus was “no longer like a slave to you” (Philemon 1:16 NLT). That was easy for Paul to say. But in Philemon’s social circle, everyone would have known that Onesimus was his slave. And when he returned, they would have expected Philemon to deal with him according to Roman law. To not do so would have set a dangerous precedent. If Philemon failed to punish Onesimus for running away, it might encourage other slaves to follow his example. Other slave owners in the community, and possibly in the church, would have viewed his kind and gracious treatment of Onesimus as unacceptable behavior.

And Paul was fully aware of the gravity of his request of Philemon. He knew his request would not be easy to follow, and it could also prove costly. Paul was cognizant of the fact that Onesimus represented a financial investment for Philemon. In the economic system of Rome, Onesimus had a monetary value that was greater than his human worth. He was a commodity whose appraisal was based on his production capacity or resale value. So, when Paul asked Philemon to set Onesimus free, he was asking his friend to take a substantial hit to his bottom line.

But look closely at what Paul wrote next: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Philemon 1:18 ESV). You might say that Paul was putting his money where his mouth was. He was backing up his wise words with the promise of action. Paul was personally investing himself in the process of reconciliation between these two men.

When Paul told Philemon, “charge that to my account,” he was essentially saying “impute the debt of Onesimus to me.” It was like saying, “put it on my tab.” Paul was committing himself to make up any financial liability Philemon might face as a result of following his advice. Paul was willingly putting skin in the game. And Paul’s model for this kind of selfless and sacrificial commitment was Jesus.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

Jesus had come to earth so that He might reconcile sinful men to God. And in order to do so, He took on their debt. He bore their sins on the cross and died the death they deserved to die. And because those who place their faith in Christ enjoy a renewed relationship with God the Father, they have the capacity to view things from a totally new perspective. Consider Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth.

So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. – 2 Corinthians 5:16-19 NLT

Philemon and Onesimus had both been reconciled to God through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. But Paul deeply desired to see Philemon and Onesimus reconciled to one another. They had both been set free from slavery to sin and death, and now they could live in newness of life together. And Paul was willing to invest himself in the process of reconciling their differences – even to the point of underwriting the financial debts of Onesimus.

And Paul made his commitment clear, telling Philemon, “I will repay it” (Philemon 1:19 ESV). And Philemon knew he could trust Paul to keep his word. And Paul added a little extra incentive for Philemon that basically stated, “You owe me.” This should not be viewed as a threat but as a gentle reminder that Philemon owed his new life in Christ to the ministry of Paul. He had sacrificed his life in order to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to Philemon’s community and, as a result, Philemon had been reconciled to God. By placing his faith in Jesus, Philemon’s debt had been paid in full.

Nothing would make Paul happier than to hear that Philemon and Onesimus had been reconciled. And he let Philemon know his decision to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ would be all the payment he needed.

Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. – Philemon 1:20 ESV

Telling others what they ought to do is easy. But how willing are you to commit yourself to help them follow your advice? What cost are you willing to pay to see that your wise words are followed? Paul was willing to put his money where his mouth was. Are you? Are you committed to walking alongside the ones with whom you freely share your counsel and dedicate your time and resources to see that they have what they need to succeed?

This all reminds me of the story of the chicken and the pig. In debating the degree of their commitment to a typical breakfast of bacon and eggs, the chicken bragged about how some brave chicken willingly made provision for the eggs. But the pig responded by pointing out that while the breakfast required the chicken’s participation, it demanded a pig’s total commitment. Paul wasn’t content to simply wise counsel. He was totally committed to seeing that it was followed, regardless of the personal cost.

Paul could have easily said to Philemon what he wrote to the believers in Philippi.

But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. – Philippians 2:17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Free to Love One Another

12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:12-16 ESV

Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon. And Paul makes it clear that this had not been an easy decision. In a sense, Paul was sending his very heart. He loved Onesimus as if he was his own son. This young man had come to mean a great deal to the apostle and it must have grieved him deeply to think of him leaving his side. But Paul wanted to do the right thing. He knew that the rift between Onesimus and Philemon needed to be healed.

But as difficult as it was for Paul, stop and consider the feelings of Onesimus. They say there are two sides to every story, and in the case of Onesimus, we know next to nothing about how he came to be a slave, why he ran away, or what kind of conditions he had lived under while serving in Philemon’s house. But it seems likely that his decision to escape his condition as a slave was motivated by something. Perhaps it was nothing more than the natural human desire to be free.

It is fascinating to speculate on the back story of Onesimus. Perhaps he had sold himself into servitude in order to pay back a debt he owed to Philemon. Or he could have been born into his condition, the unfortunate son of slave parents. Then there’s the very real possibility that Onesimus had been a prisoner of war who Philemon purchased from the slave market.

But regardless of how Onesimus had come to be a slave or why he had decided to run away, Paul had somehow convinced him to return. What a fascinating conversation that must have been. Just imagine how long Paul must have wrestled with the idea before he ever brought it up with Onesimus. And then, consider how Onesimus must have received Paul’s counsel that he go back to Philemon and make things right.

There were great risks involved. And yet, Onesimus had agreed to follow Paul’s advice, despite knowing that his return could result in his re-enslavement. Not only that, but he could also face severe legal repercussions for his actions. As a runaway slave, he could be beaten, sold, or even put to death. His fate would be in the hands of Philemon. But this young man had willingly chosen to take the risks in order to do what he believed to be the right thing.

In an attempt to prepare Philemon for the arrival of his former slave and newfound brother in Christ, Paul uses an interesting tactic. He implies that all the while Onesimus had been ministering to him during his imprisonment in Rome, he had done so on Philemon’s behalf. And Paul states that he had been tempted to maintain this arrangement, but had not wanted to make that decision for Philemon.

I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. – Philemon 1:13-14 ESV

Interestingly enough, Paul seemed to view Onesimus as a gift from Philemon. And yet, the only way Paul could have known about the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was because Onesimus had divulged it to him. At some point in their relationship, Onesimus had revealed his status as a runaway slave. And when Paul had heard the name of Onesimus’ master, Paul had recognized the hand of God in it all. Philemon was a dear friend of Paul’s. And Philemon had a slave who had run away and ended up in Rome, where he had met Paul and come to faith in Christ. Paul knew that none of this had been the result of happenstance, luck, kismet, or karma. It was the handiwork of God.

And Paul tried to get Philemon to view these events from a divine perspective, stating, “It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever” (Philemon 1:15 NLT). For Philemon, the loss of his slave had been nothing more than a financial setback. He had lost his property. But Paul reminded Philemon that his loss had actually resulted in great gain. He had lost a slave but was receiving back a brother in Christ.

He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:16 NLT

The young man who was about to walk through Philemon’s door was no longer his property, but a fellow member of the family of God. Onesimus was no longer Philemon’s personal possession. His life had been paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ.

At one point, early in his earthly ministry, Jesus had returned to Nazareth, where he had entered the synagogue and read from the book of Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

And having read this Messianic passage, Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant and said, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT). Jesus had come to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Of course, He was speaking in terms of spiritual captivity to sin and death, and freedom from the oppression that comes with trying to earn favor with God through human effort. And that is exactly what Onesimus had experienced. He had been set free and, as Jesus had said, “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT). 

That verse is found in the middle of a discourse by Jesus in which he was discussing the ability of the truth to set men free. And he describes all those who sin as slaves.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” – Philemon 8:35-36 NLT

Prior to coming to faith in Christ, Philemon had been a slave to sin. But he had been set free and now enjoyed status as a son of God. But the same thing was true of Onesimus. He had also been set free from slavery to sin and death, and he had become Philemon’s spiritual brother. So, why would Philemon continue to treat his brother as a slave?

Paul was asking both of these men to make difficult decisions. Onesimus had made his choice and was returning home. But Philemon still had a choice to make. How would he respond? What would he do when he saw Onesimus?

Jesus came to change the condition of the human heart. He died so that men might experience the life-transformative power of God, that could not only restore fallen men to a right relationship with Himself but with one another.

“The supreme work of Christianity is to transform men, so that out of their transformed lives shall come the transformation of all social conditions, and the victories of righteousness and of love.” – G. Campbell Morgan, Living Messages of the Books of the Bible

Paul greatly desired that these two men, who both meant a great deal to him, would allow their faith in Christ to transform the relationship between them. Paul knew that their choice to live as brothers rather than as slave and master would be a testimony to the Gospel’s power. And it would spread throughout the local congregation and into the community.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Heart of the Issue

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) – Philemon 1:8-11 ESV

Bringing up a difficult topic with someone you care about can be tricky. An attempt to point out someone else’s faults, failures, or blind spots, even if done with the best of intentions, can turn out poorly. Confrontation is risky. That’s why, more often than not, most of us choose to avoid the conflict altogether. But Paul loved Philemon too much to remain silent. And he knew that this particular issue had far greater implications than just the relationship between Philemon and his runaway slave, Onesimus.

For Paul, this was all about the body of Christ. Yes, he had strong affections for the two men mired in the middle of this situation, but he also had a heart for the spiritual well-being of the church. The relationships between believers within the local body of Christ were vital to the spread of the Gospel because they were evidence of its life-transformative power. There was no place for division or disunity among believers, a message he communicated to the church in Corinth.

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. – 1 Corinthians 1:10 NLT

So, as Paul prepared to bring up a potentially controversial issue with Philemon, he had the greater good of the body of Christ in mind. He knew that Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus would have a ripple effect on the church. Because of his leadership role in the church, Philemon was admired by its members and his actions carried great influence.

It’s essential that we understand the nature of the problem that Paul was about to address with his friend. Philemon was a believer but also a slaveholder. This was not uncommon in those days. In fact, it was quite normal because slavery was a vital part of the Roman economy. In the early days of the church, as the Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire, people from all walks of life were coming to faith in Christ, including slaves. The message of faith in Jesus was non-discriminatory. It was not reserved for the rich or religious, the upper class or the highly educated. As Paul pointed out to the believers in Corinth, the Gospel was for the foolish, the powerless, and the despised.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

It would appear that Philemon was a relatively wealthy individual, with a home large enough to host the local fellowship of believers. He also had the financial resources to purchase bondslaves. But, while Philemon was well-resourced, he had not been purchased his salvation. It had been a gift, a point that Peter makes perfectly clear.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT

But Philemon, like every other individual who had come to faith in Christ, was having to deal with the impact of the Gospel message on his daily life. He was a Christ-follower, but he also remained a businessman with financial obligations. He was also a citizen of the Roman Empire with certain legal rights and responsibilities. And as a slaveholder who had recently suffered a financial loss when one of his slaves had run away, he would have known his rights concerning redress and legal recourse.

But little did Philemon know that his runaway slave had just happened to run into his friend, the apostle Paul. One of the things I love about this story is the way it so subtly portrays the sovereign will of God. The last thing Philemon expected to hear from Paul was an update on his runaway slave. And yet, here was Paul getting ready to announce the news that, not only did he know Onesimus, he considered him his child in the faith. Philemon’s runaway slave had become a fellow follower of Christ and a personal friend of Paul’s, ministering to him during his imprisonment in Rome. What a bizarre turn of events. And one can only imagine the look on Philemon’s face as he read this surprising news from Paul.

But don’t miss the sovereign hand of God in all of this. At some point, Philemon had made the conscious decision to purchase Philemon as a slave. It had been a fully legal transaction based on sound financial planning. But then, somewhere along the way, Onesimus had come up with a plan of his own. He ran away. He had taken the risk of seeking his freedom, knowing that, if caught, he would face severe punishment or even death. And hundreds of miles away, Paul had made a plea to have his case tried before the emperor in Rome, where he was then taken and placed under house arrest.

Each of these decisions was made by a man, but as the book of Proverbs points out, their plans were orchestrated by God. He was operating behind the scenes in ways they could not see or know.

We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps. – Proverbs 16:9 NLT

You can make many plans, but the LORD’s purpose will prevail. – Proverbs 19:21 NLT

We have no details concerning how Onesimus met Paul. But he did. And we can rest in the knowledge that God was directing the steps of this young runaway slave so that his path would cross that of Paul’s. God had fully intended for the slave of Philemon to encounter the prisoner of Nero. And the life of Onesimus would never be the same. But Philemon’s life was also about to undergo a radical realignment as Paul presented him with a paradigm-shifting request.

As an apostle, Paul knew that he had the authority to force Philemon to do the right thing. But instead, he appealed to Philemon’s heart. Paul wanted Philemon to act out of love, not out of obligation or duty. So, he let Philemon know that it was “for love’s sake” that he was making his request. Paul knew that love would be the only thing that could heal the broken relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. It was going to take a miracle for this slaveholder to forgive his former slave. But for Paul, forgiveness was not going to be enough. He was out to change the relationship between these two men in ways that neither one of them could imagine.

Paul makes an interesting side comment to Philemon, stating that Onesimus “was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” (Philemon 1:11 ESV). The Greek word Paul used is achrēstos, which means “unprofitable.” It’s not exactly clear what Paul in inferring by this statement, but he could simply be implying that, as long as Onesimus was on the run, he had been no use to Philemon. But his absence had proved extremely beneficial to Paul. This young man had been ministering to Paul during his house arrest. But I think there is a more significant meaning behind Paul’s use of this term. As a slave, Onesimus had been little more than property to Philemon. His value was based solely on the work he did for Philemon or the price he could bring at auction.

But now, as a brother in Christ, Onesimus was a valuable member of the faith community and an asset to the Kingdom of Christ. At one time, Philemon had considered Onesimus to be foolish, powerless, and despised. But Christ had changed all that. Now, Onesimus was a joint-heir with Jesus Christ. He was a valuable and valued member of the body of Christ. He had gifts to share and a part to play in the ongoing spread of the Gospel.

Paul wanted Philemon to view his former slave through the lens of the Gospel. God was going to use Onesimus, someone the world once “counted as nothing at all…to bring to nothing what the world considers important” (1 Corinthians 1:28 NLT). In the world in which Philemon lived, slavery was an important part of his livelihood. It was a powerful force in the local economy. It was a common practice that few questioned and virtually all had learned to accept as the status quo. But Jesus had come to replace man’s ways with God’s ways. The Gospel was meant to be a game-changer, shining the light of God’s love into the darkness of a fallen world.

And Philemon was about to have the light of God’s truth illuminate the recesses of his own heart, revealing yet one more hidden area of sin that needed to be exposed and expelled by the love of Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Faith in Action

I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people. – Philemon 1:4-7 ESV

It’s not hard to recognize Paul’s intense and sincere love for Philemon. These are not the pious-sounding platitudes of a pastor, but they are legitimate expressions of love from a close friend. And Paul tells his friend that news of his faith and love causes him to offer up prayers of thanksgiving to God. Paul is grateful for the tangible expressions of life change that have become evident in Philemon’s life. His faith in Jesus Christ’s love for him has resulted in visible displays of selfless love for the people of God.

The apostle John used this same combination of faith in Jesus and love for others in his first letter.

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. – 1 John 3:23 NLT

And John went on to call for a consistent and persistent kind of love that would reflect the believer’s new relationship with their gracious and loving Father, who is the source of all love.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

John emphasized that the believer’s capacity to love others was evidence of their newfound relationship with God and was made possible because God had loved them enough to send His Son to die in their place as the payment for their sins.

We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:19 NLT

Paul complimented Philemon for his love of others. But you can sense that Paul is setting Philemon up. He is lovingly preparing his friend to hear some news that will likely prove difficult to receive. It will involve Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus.

Paul begins by explaining to Philemon the content of his ongoing prayers for him: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (Philemon 1:6 NLT). Paul has already complimented Philemon for his love for others. But he wanted Philemon to know and experience the full impact of the Gospel in his life. Paul deeply desired that his friend’s faith would grow in depth and intensity so that he might know and experience all the fulness of joy promised to him in Christ. Jesus had told His disciples:

“Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:9-13 ESV

Paul wanted more for Philemon. He was not content to allow his friend to rest on his laurels or to become complacent in his faith. While there was obvious evidence of fruit in Philemon’s life, there would always be room for further growth. And Paul wanted Philemon to understand that God’s transformative work in his life would never be complete in this life. It would be ongoing and never-ending. And Paul made it a habit to pray for the continual spiritual enlightenment of all those he loved and to whom he ministered.

I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance.

I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 1:18-20 NLT

Paul wanted Philemon to know that his love for others was contagious, having spread far beyond the confines of their local faith community. News of Philemon’s love had reached the ears of Paul, as he sat under house arrest in Rome. And Paul told him, “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love” (Philemon 1:7 ESV). But why? What was it about Philemon’s actions that caused Paul to rejoice and be encouraged? Paul provides the answer:  “because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Philemon 1:7 ESV).

As an apostle, teacher, and fellow Christ-follower, Paul found great joy in watching believers live out their faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. When he was able to witness the body of Christ functioning as intended, he couldn’t help but be encouraged. Unity and true community within Christ’s church was important to Paul. That’s why he told the church in Philippi:

…complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:2-4 ESV

Philemon had no idea what was coming. As he, Apphia, and Archippus read this letter together, he must have been deeply encouraged. But the other shoe was about to drop. Paul was preparing to test Philemon’s faith in a profound way. His concept of what it means to love others was going to be stretched. His ideas regarding justice and mercy were going to be challenged as never before. His secular and sacred worlds were about to collide, causing him to reconsider his faith in a whole new light.

Philemon had a blind spot. But he was not alone, and this is probably the reason Paul had included Apphia and Archippus as recipients of his letter. The topic Paul was about to bring up was going to be controversial for each and every member of the local congregation who met in Philemon’s home. They would have known about Philemon’s runaway slave. And most, if not all of them, would have been familiar with and agreeable to Philemon’s legal rights as a master. But Paul was about to rock their collective world.

While the early church seemed to have no problem with slaves coming to faith in Christ and even attending their local fellowships, a social stigma remained. There was a lingering sense of separation and segregation. And Paul addressed this issue repeatedly in his letters to the churches. He was out to tear down the societal standards of his day that were creating division within the body of Christ. In their place, he called for a sense of oneness in Christ.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 NLT

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28 NLT

In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 NLT

While the world outside the doors of the church was practicing segregation, enslavement, and every conceivable form of social prejudice, Paul was calling the body of Christ to practice “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 3:3 ESV). There was no place for division and disunity in God’s family. Everyone stands as equals at the foot of the cross. And as Paul reminded the believers in Rome: “For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11 NLT).

No, in God’s Kingdom, all share the unique and undeserved privilege of adoption as His sons and daughters, regardless of race, creed, color, or social standing.

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 3:4-6 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

From the Pen of a Prisoner

This letter is from Paul, a prisoner for preaching the Good News about Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy.

I am writing to Philemon, our beloved co-worker, and to our sister Apphia, and to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church that meets in your house.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. – Philemon 1:1-3 ESV

Paul’s letter to Philemon provides a fascinating glimpse into the culture of the 1st-Century. It is a somewhat uncomfortable read for 21st-Century Christians because it deals with a topic that most of us find reprehensible and off-putting – that of slavery. Yet, slavery was an everyday and unavoidable reality for those living in that part of the world at the beginning of the new millennium.

Slavery was ubiquitous throughout the Roman Empire. In fact, the inhabitants of the empire were comprised of two basic groups: Those who were free and those who were slaves. And an individual’s status as a slave usually had nothing to do with their race or ethnicity. Yes, many slaves were members of conquered people groups who represented a particular race, but they had not been enslaved for that reason. Their slavery had been the result of war. Roman slaves included prisoners of war as well as those captured and sold by pirates. But it was not uncommon for Roman citizens to end up as slaves due to economic hard times. If someone was unable to pay a debt, indentured servitude was their most likely fate. They would work for their lender until their debt was paid in full.

Sadly, there were also cases where financially strapped families would raise money by selling their own children into slavery. It is estimated that 1 out of every 5 people living in the Roman Empire were slaves, and by the 1st-Century, the primary source of slaves were the children born to slaves. A child born to a female slave was also a slave, regardless of the status of the father.

With all that as background, Paul’s letter to Philemon should come into greater clarity for us. When reading the apostle’s comments concerning Onesimus, a runaway slave belonging to Philemon, it would be easy to question why Paul fails to condemn the practice of slavery outright. Why doesn’t he demand that Philemon set this young man free? What is preventing Paul from attacking the institution of slavery and exposing his friend’s obvious injustice toward his fellow man?

But we have to understand that Paul was not out to revolutionize the culture of his day through the radical overturn of the social fabric. He, like Jesus, was a revolutionary, but with an agenda that focused on change within the human heart, not within the political and civil structures of society. You get a glimpse of Paul’s perspective on all of this in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world. Each of you, dear brothers and sisters, should remain as you were when God first called you. – 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 NLT

Paul was not encouraging insurrection on the part of the slaves. He was not fomenting a spirit of revolution or sedition. But he was calling for Christians, regardless of their social status, to have a radically different outlook on their identity. You get a sense of his agenda from reading his letter to the believers in Galatia, another Roman province.

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28 NLT

Paul encouraged the Colossian believers to focus on their unity in Christ, not on their social status or ethnic identity.

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. – Colossians 3:10-12 NLT

So, as we begin our study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, it is essential that we consider the social conditions of the day alongside the spiritual concerns that drove the apostle’s heart. Paul had no love affair for the institution of slavery. And the content of his letter contains neither a stinging condemnation or a subtle condoning of it. Slavery will not be the subject of this letter. But freedom in Christ and a love for our brothers and sisters in Christ will be. So, it is best if we read it from a 1st-Century perspective and with our ear tuned to hear Paul’s heart for the life-transformative power of the Gospel.

As Paul opens up his letter, he identifies himself as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:1 ESV). He is desmios, one in bonds. Paul was writing from Rome, where he was being held under house arrest while awaiting his trial before the emperor. It is no coincidence that Paul uses this terminology to introduce himself to his friend, Philemon. The rest of the letter will deal with another “prisoner” or bondslave by the name of Onesimus. Interestingly enough, Paul and Onesimus were experiencing a somewhat ironic change in circumstances. Onesimus, the slave, was enjoying the life of a free man, while Paul, the Roman citizen, was experiencing the life of a captive.

But Paul was a prisoner for Christ Jesus. He had been confined for his ministry on behalf of the gospel. He was not a prisoner of war or a captive as a result of an unpaid debt. No, his imprisonment was on behalf, and because of his faith in Jesus Christ. And Paul was perfectly content with his situation. In fact, he told the church in Philippi that he had learned to live with any circumstance that came his way, knowing that Christ would use it for his good and God’s glory.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

Paul’s letter, while addressed primarily to Philemon, is intended for a much broader audience, including Apphia, Archippus, and the rest of the members of the church that met in Philemon’s house. It is clear that Philemon was a well-respected member of the local congregation in Colosse. And he played a major part in the church by providing his home as a meeting place for their worship services.

Christian congregations were dependent upon the hospitality of wealthy members who could furnish their own houses for this purpose. This note then contains an indication of the social status of Philemon. In a large city there would be several such assemblies. Whether the church at Colossae had more than one place of assembly is not known. Probably they did. – Hiebert, D. Edmond. Titus and Philemon

So, Philemon was a leader in the local fellowship and a person of influence. That’s probably why Paul was addressing his letter directly to him. Paul knew that if he could help enlighten Philemon, it would spread throughout the congregation. While this particular issue involved Philemon and his runaway slave, Paul realized that it had far greater implications that would impact the entire faith community.

Each of their relationships with one another were to be influenced by the Gospel. Their new natures, provided by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, were to alter their conduct and attitudes. In another letter, written to the entire membership of the church in Colosse, Paul reminded them that they had been raised to new life with Christ, and their behavior was to reflect that new life.

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. – Colossians 3:10-15 NLT

As members of one body, whether slave or free, they were called to live in peace. And Paul wraps up the salutation of his letter to Philemon with his heartfelt prayer for his friend and the members of the local fellowship in Colosse.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. – Philemon 1:3 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Imitate Good

11 Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true.

13 I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

15 Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, each by name. – 3 John 1:11-15 ESV

John has managed to pack a lot of information into the closing verses of his third and final letter. After portraying the actions of Diotrephes in stark contrast to those of Gaius, John turns his attention back to his dear friend. He reminds Gaius to model his life after those who do good and not evil. John has clearly established Diotrephes as someone whose actions are evil, but he is not declaring Diotrephes to be an unbeliever. The Greek word John used is kakos, and it can refer to someone behaving in a manner that is unacceptable or not as it should be. Their actions are wrong and, therefore, harmful.

The habit of Diotrephes to put himself first was unacceptable because it was antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus regularly instructed His disciples to pursue a life of humility and service, and He provided His own life as a model for this kind of behavior.

“Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” – John 13:34 NLT

Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. – John 15:12-13 NLT

Jesus did that which is good (agathos). The actions of His life were admirable, pleasant, upright, and honorable. Jesus was the consummate servant, giving His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). And the apostle Paul provides a sobering reminder that, as followers of Christ, we are to share the mindset of Christ.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. – Philippians 2:3-5 NLT

That is exactly what John means when he tells Gaius to imitate that which is good. Jesus, though God, displayed no illusions of grandeur and refused to flaunt His divine glory in the face of sinful men. Instead, He willingly took on the nature of a slave, laying aside His divine privileges in order to serve the needs of humanity. Paul explains the mindset that drove the behavior of Jesus.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
   he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT

And this is the very mindset that John desired his dear friend to emulate. Diotrephes was modeling his life after the manner of this world. He was following the example of leadership, as displayed in the culture. But Paul told the believers in Rome to let God transform their way of thinking.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. – Romans 12:2 NLT

Only God can produce in His children the kind of behavior that is good, pleasing, and perfect in His sight. And He does so through the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit. The actions of Diotrephes were the normal and natural outflow of a heart that was under the influence of the sin nature rather than the Spirit. The apostle Paul provides an extensive, yet not an exhaustive list of the “evil” actions that flow from a flesh-based heart.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

Notice his mention of jealousy, selfish ambition, dissension, and division. These were the very kinds of things evident in the life of Diotrephes. But Paul provides a list of the kinds of characteristics that mark the life of someone who is living in the power and under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. – Galatians 5:22-23 NLT

John told Gaius, “Remember that those who do good prove that they are God’s children, and those who do evil prove that they do not know God” (3 John 1:11 NLT). In a sense, he was reminding Gaius of the teachings of Jesus: A tree is known by its fruit.

“A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thornbushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.” – Luke 6:43-44 NLT

Only a good heart can produce good fruit. Again, John does not seem to be insinuating that Diotrephes was unsaved, but that his behavior was evidence of a flawed relationship with God.  He claimed to know God but failed to live in obedience to the commands of God. And John addressed this problem in his very first letter.

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:4-6 NLT

As far as John was concerned, there was only one way to truly know God, and that was through a relationship with Jesus Christ. In his gospel account, John opened with the bold and exclusionary claim: “No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us” (John 1:18 NLT). But this was not something he made up. He had heard the claims of Jesus Himself:

“Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. (Not that anyone has ever seen the Father; only I, who was sent from God, have seen him.).” – John 6:45-46 NLT

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!” – John 14:6-7 NLT

Jesus made it perfectly clear: No one could truly know God without coming to a knowledge of Jesus as the Savior sent from God. He was the conduit of God’s grace, providing a means by which sinful men could be restored to a right relationship with their Heavenly Father. And the “good” actions of Gaius were evidence of his newly restored relationship with God. His changed behavior was proof that he had seen God, and it was because he had believed in the One sent by God.

John wraps up his letter to Gaius by encouraging him to extend hospitality to Demetrius. We have no idea who this individual was, but it is clear that John held him in high regard, noting that he had “received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself” (3 John 1:12 ESV). In other words, Demetrius, like Gaius, walked the talk. He was walking according to the truth of the Gospel, allowing his behavior to flow from his beliefs.

John closed his letter with a declaration of his desire to see Gaius face-to-face. While writing a letter of encouragement was helpful, he would much prefer an up-close and personal visit with his brothers and sisters in Christ. The growing number of faith communities springing up all over Asia Minor and the rest of the world made personal visits by the apostles nearly impossible. Travel was arduous and expensive. Driven by their pastors’ hearts, they longed to personally visit each and every congregation, but it was physically impossible. So, they wrote, encouraged, admonished, and prayed. And they continued to perform their God-given responsibility “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Subtle Snare of Self-Glorification

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. – 3 John 1:9-10 ESV

After praising Gaius for his generosity and the hospitality he extended to the visiting evangelists, John points out the actions of another individual within the local fellowship. In this case, John has nothing good to say about this man, whose name is Diotrephes. In fact, John describes Diotrephes as someone “who likes to put himself first” and “does not acknowledge our authority” (3 John 1:9 ESV). This member of the church was resisting John’s authority as an elder and apostle. He saw himself as a leader within the local congregation and had stood opposed to the ministry of the visiting evangelists. John accused him of refusing to “welcome the brothers” (3 John 1:10 ESV). Not only that, but Diotrephes had also tried to prevent anyone in the church from meeting the needs of these men, even punishing those who did by throwing them out of the church.

This man was the antithesis of Gaius. We have no other details regarding his life other than what John describes here, but it is not difficult to assess that this man was selfish and self-centered, motivated by a need for control, and unwilling to love others in the same way that God had shown love to him. Diotrephes saw John and these visiting evangelists as a threat to his authority.

Notice that John does not accuse Diotrephes of propagating false doctrine. This man was not preaching another Gospel or denying the deity of Jesus. He was simply refusing to acknowledge the authority of John as an apostle of Christ and rejecting the ministry of those who had been divinely gifted to minister to the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11).

Diotrephes was not teaching falsehood, but he was modeling an attitude of pride and arrogance that had no place in the church. And his actions were just as dangerous and destructive as those of the false teachers and prophets who were wreaking havoc on congregations throughout Asia Minor.

In a way, Diotrephes was preaching a different Jesus because his actions were in direct violation of the teachings of Jesus. During His earthly ministry, Jesus had used the Pharisees and religious leaders of the Jews as examples to be avoided, not followed. According to Jesus, these men, who had set themselves up as religious and civic authorities over the Jews, were actually deceptive and destructive. They were looked up to as leaders, but Jesus had warned His disciples, “don’t follow their example” (Matthew 23:3 NLT). And He provided ample evidence for emulating their behavior.

“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’” – Matthew 23:5-7 NLT

For these men, leadership was all about authority and power. They flaunted their positions and gloried in their prominence. But Jesus went on to warn his followers:

“The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12 NLT

And with that statement, we see the difference between Gaius and Diotrephes. One was humble and willing to serve, while the other was marked by pride and an overwhelming need to be the center of attention.

This kind of attitude was particularly repulsive to John because he knew from first-hand experience how it stood in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus. He would have well-remembered the occasion when Jesus had confronted him and the other disciples over a conversation they had one day while walking along the road. When they had arrived at their destination in Capernaum, Jesus had asked them, “What were you discussing out on the road?” (Mark 9:33 NLT). But they were too embarrassed to answer Jesus “because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34 NLT).

So, Jesus had sat the disciples down and delivered them the sobering news that “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else” (Mark 9:35 NLT).

Now, you would think that this message from Jesus would have left the disciples not only embarrassed but reticent to ever bring up this topic again. Yet, in the very next chapter, Mark records another moment when Jesus had to confront the worldly outlook of His own followers, and this time it involved John and his brother James. These two men approached Jesus and asked Him if He would do them a favor.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

The audacity of these two brothers shocks us. How in the world could they make such a request after having heard Jesus say, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place?” Yet, here they were requesting that Jesus award them with the two most prominent positions available in a royal administration: The two seats on either side of the king. Make no mistake about it, they were asking for the right to rule and reign alongside Jesus when He set up His earthly kingdom.

And the answer Jesus gave these two brash brothers echoed what He had told the disciples earlier.

“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:43-45 NLT

Their request had been completely off-base and uncalled for. First of all, Jesus informed them that kind of decision was up to God alone.

“I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. God has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.” – Mark 10:40 NLT

And the right to rule alongside Jesus would have to be preceded by a willingness to suffer as He would.

“You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” – Mark 10:38 NLT

John and James had no clue what they were asking. They didn’t understand that the authority for which they longed was only available to those who were willing to suffer and serve. And Jesus used Himself as the model for godly leadership, stating, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT).

John and James were in it for what they could get out of it. So was Diotrephes. But Jesus had come to earth, not to gain, but to give His life away. He had willingly taken on the nature of a man so that He could die on behalf of sinful humanity. And yet, His humiliation was followed by His glorification.

When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. – Hebrews 3:3 NLT

John was appalled by the actions of Diotrephes. Watching this arrogant man revel in his self-exalted state of authority must have reminded John of his own moment of shame when he and his brother had asked Jesus for the right to reign at His side. John had come a long way. He had learned a great deal since watching His friend and teacher die on the cross. His encounters with the resurrected Messiah had left him a changed man. And his understanding of what it means to be a true leader had been radically altered by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.

For Diotrephes, glory was all about power and position in this life. But the apostle Paul would beg to differ. His words to the church in Colossae would provide a powerful reminder to the tendency within all of us to follow the example of Diotrephes. We are not to seek glory in this life. Instead, we are to keep our eyes fixed on heaven, where the hope of true glorification can be found.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossians 3:1-4 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Faithful Thing

Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth. – 3 John 1:5-8 ESV

Once again, John refers to Gaius as his “beloved.” He will use this term repeatedly throughout his letter. And while this word carries romantic connotations to a modern reader, the Greek word John used could better be translated as “dear friend.” It was a term of endearment that expressed the closeness and warmth behind their relationship. John had a deep and abiding affection for Gaius. It could be that Gaius was a disciple of John’s, much like Timothy had been to Paul. In his second letter to his young protege, Paul referred to Timothy as “my beloved child” (2 Timothy 1:2 ESV). And he expressed his deep longing to see him again.

I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. – 2 Timothy 1:4 ESV

The apostles developed strong attachments for the local flocks to whom they ministered and the men they trained to carry on the Gospel message. While we’re not certain of the exact nature of the relationship between John and Gaius, it’s quite evident that they were close.

It seems that Gaius had shown hospitality to some itinerant evangelists who had visited their local fellowship. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul mentioned evangelists among the “gifts” Jesus had given to the church.

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. – Ephesians 4:11 NLT

An evangelist, by definition, was “a bringer of good tidings. The Greek word is euaggelistēs and it derives from another Greek word, euaggelizō, which means “to preach the Good News.” Both words stem from the Greek word, aggelos, which means, “angel, messenger, or one who is sent.”

An evangelist was a messenger of the Gospel or the good news concerning Jesus Christ. These individuals expanded the work of the Great Commission by taking the Gospel to places the apostles had not yet been able to reach. And when they had visited the local congregation where Gaius was a member in Asia Minor, he had shown them hospitality. And John compliments him for his generosity and kindness, describing his efforts as a “faithful thing.” The New Living Translation accurately renders John’s meaning by describing the efforts of Gaius as an expression of his faith in God.

…you are being faithful to God when you care for the traveling teachers who pass through, even though they are strangers to you. – 3 John 1:5 NLT

It is likely that John had in mind the parable Jesus told regarding the final judgment. In that story, Jesus describes those who are blessed by the Father and who would inherit the Kingdom. And He provided the reason why:

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. – Matthew 25:35 NLT

But the recipients of this fantastic news respond with amazement, asking, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing?” (Matthew 25:37-38 NLT). And the King in Jesus’ story answers their question by stating, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Matthew 25:40 NLT).

Gaius had graciously provided food and shelter to strangers, the divine messengers of the Gospel who had shown up in their community. And these men had testified about Gaius’ kindness before the entire congregation. When John had received news of Gaius’ actions, he had been thrilled. The actions of this selfless servant of God were exactly what the Gospel was all about. The body of Christ was meant to function as a self-contained organism where the needs of all were met. God had equipped His church with all the resources it needed to survive and thrive. And the apostle Paul had reminded Timothy that those whom Jesus had gifted to the church as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, were to be well taken care of.

Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 NLT

These individuals had no source of income. They were totally dependent upon the generosity of the local churches to care for their needs. And Gaius had been one of the first to step up and welcome these men with open arms and a heart of generosity. But John encouraged Gaius to extend his generosity by equipping the evangelists for the next phase of their ministry.

You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. – 3 John 1:6 ESV

These men were divine messengers and they needed to be treated in a manner that reflected the honor and respect due to God. He had sent them and He expected His people to provide for them. And John emphasizes that “they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles” (3 John 1:7 ESV). These men were ministering on behalf of Jesus. It was in His name and according to His commission that they made their way from town to town, bearing the Good News to those who had yet to hear it. And John emphasizes that the only financial support these men could expect to receive was from the church and not from Gentile unbelievers.

The church was to care for its own and Gaius had illustrated that truth in a way that had gained John’s attention and admiration. He was proud of his “dear friend.” And he encouraged Gaius to keep up the good work, reminding him, “we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 1:8 ESV).

Some can go. Others can give. God calls certain individuals to serve as pastors, teachers, evangelists, and missionaries, and that calling requires them to dedicate themselves to the full-time use of their gifts and resources for His service. The apostle Paul spent his entire adult life answering the call given to him by Jesus on the road to Damascus. And he was grateful for the support provided to him by local congregations of believers, like those in Philippi.

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. – Philippians 1:3-5 NLT

But not every congregation followed the example of Gaius and the Philippians. Paul had to admonish the church in Corinth, reprimanding them for their lack of support for his ministry.

Don’t you realize that those who work in the temple get their meals from the offerings brought to the temple? And those who serve at the altar get a share of the sacrificial offerings. In the same way, the Lord ordered that those who preach the Good News should be supported by those who benefit from it. – 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 NLT

And Paul made his point perfectly and painfully clear.

What soldier has to pay his own expenses? What farmer plants a vineyard and doesn’t have the right to eat some of its fruit? What shepherd cares for a flock of sheep and isn’t allowed to drink some of the milk? Am I expressing merely a human opinion, or does the law say the same thing? For the law of Moses says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.”[ Was God thinking only about oxen when he said this? Wasn’t he actually speaking to us? Yes, it was written for us, so that the one who plows and the one who threshes the grain might both expect a share of the harvest. – 1 Corinthians 9:7-10 NLT

God had sent these workers into the harvest. Now, He expected them to be compensated for their work. Their sacrifice was worthy of remuneration. Their efforts to spread the Gospel and to build up the body of Christ deserved the generous support of those who had benefited from their work. Those who had been blessed were to be a blessing to others. And Gaius provides a tangible expression of faithfulness to God by exhibiting gratefulness to the servants of God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Another Gospel

Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. – 2 John 1:9-11 ESV

John, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, took his role seriously. He had high regard for the teachings of Jesus and a strong sense of responsibility when it came to the wellbeing of the body of Christ. Like Paul, his fellow apostle, John was always on the lookout for those who would do harm to the church of Jesus Christ. They were both very aware that the enemy was out to destroy what Jesus had created. And Jesus, on the very night He was betrayed into the hands of the Jewish religious leaders, had made a heartfelt request of His Heavenly Father:

“I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.” – John 17:14-19 NLT

Jesus knew His followers were going to face intense opposition. Satan was going to throw all his resources against those who aligned themselves with Jesus Christ. When his attempt to thwart the redemptive plan of God by murdering the Son of God proved an abysmal failure, Satan would ramp up his efforts to stifle the Gospel by diluting and distorting it with lies and half-truths. But notice what Jesus prayed that night. He asked that His Father would keep His followers holy or set apart by the truth of His Word.

The truth of the Gospel message was going to be the key to resisting the lies of the enemy. And John warns his readers that anyone who did not remain committed to the teachings of Jesus never really knew Him. If they ended up rejecting the claims of Jesus to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world, it would be because they never truly believed in Him, to begin with. And John bluntly states that the rejection of Jesus as the incarnation of God in the flesh was to reject God Himself.

Anyone who wanders away from this teaching has no relationship with God. – 2 John 1:9 NLT

It is interesting to note that John describes these deserters of the Gospel as “running ahead.” He used the Greek word, parabainō, which conveys the idea of passing over or stepping around something. It is often translated as “transgress.” Under the influence of the false teachers, these people would choose to walk around the truths regarding Jesus and pass on to something new and seemingly better. Convinced that they were hearing new and improved information regarding Jesus, they would leave the teachings of the apostles behind. But John warns that, in doing so, they would be turning their backs on God. And John was not making this up. He was simply repeating what He had heard Jesus say.

“If I were to testify on my own behalf, my testimony would not be valid. But someone else is also testifying about me, and I assure you that everything he says about me is true. In fact, you sent investigators to listen to John the Baptist, and his testimony about me was true. Of course, I have no need of human witnesses, but I say these things so you might be saved. John was like a burning and shining lamp, and you were excited for a while about his message. But I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me. And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.” – John 5:31-38 NLT

The testimony of God verified the claims of Jesus. And no additional truth or new revelations from the lips of men were going to replace what God had declared about Jesus. “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him” (Luke 9:35 NLT).

John had no doubt as to Jesus’ deity and His claims of divinity. He had heard Jesus boldly claim, “I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me” (John 8:18 ESV). And John had been an eye-witness to not only the crucifixion of Jesus but also His miraculous resurrection. Everything had happened just as Jesus had said it would. He had risen from the dead, and John had seen it with his own eyes. 

So, John flatly asserts that if anyone suddenly decided that the truth as testified by God was false, they were the ones who were in error. John could well remember the extremely harsh words Jesus had spoken to the religious leaders of the Jews.

“Since you don’t know who I am, you don’t know who my Father is. If you knew me, you would also know my Father.” – John 8:19 NLT

A false understanding of Jesus and His identity will lead to a false understanding of God. If Jesus was just a man, then God is a liar. If Jesus did not resurrect from the dead, then God has provided no means by which men can be restored to a right relationship with Him. The apostle Paul pointed out the futility of faith in a Jesus who did not rise from the grave.

…if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. – 1 Corinthians 15:17-18 NLT

But Paul goes on to provide the truth regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. – 1 Corinthians 15:19 NLT

And John fully supports Paul’s assertion when he states, “But anyone who remains in the teaching of Christ has a relationship with both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9 NLT). Those who remain committed to and dependent upon the promise of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone will not be disappointed. To know Jesus is to know the Father. That is why Jesus claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!” (John 14:6-7 NLT).

John wanted his audience to know that they were to have nothing to do with those who preached a different version of Jesus. If their teaching contradicted that of Jesus and the apostles, the church was to have nothing to do with them.

If anyone comes to your meeting and does not teach the truth about Christ, don’t invite that person into your home or give any kind of encouragement. – 2 John 1:10 NLT

When it came to the Gospel, there was to be no place for toleration of alternate versions or new insights into who Jesus was and what He had come to do. The apostle Paul accused the church in Corinth of happily putting up with all kinds of false messages, including “a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed” (2 Corinthians 11:4 NLT). He issued a similar condemnation to the church in Galatia.

I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News. – Galatians 1:6 NLT

This was a real problem in the early days of the church, and it remains so even today. And the warning John gave to the members of the church in Asia Minor is just as relevant for us as it was for them.

Anyone who encourages such people becomes a partner in their evil work… – 2 John 1:11 NLT

The Gospel is the Gospel. It is not to be added to, distorted in any way, clarified, or amplified. In fact, the apostle Paul warns that anyone who tampers with the Gospel message as testified by God, proclaimed by Jesus, and preached by the apostles was to be cursed.

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed. – Galatians 1:8-9 NLT

Serious and sober words because the message of the Gospel is the key to eternal life.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson