Time is of the Essence

1 Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 2 Peter 1:1-2 ESV

At first glance and, if taken at face value, it would appear that this book is a second letter from the apostle Peter. After all, the opening salutation presents “Simon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1 NLT) as its author, and later declares this to be the second letter he has penned.

This is my second letter to you, dear friends, and in both of them I have tried to stimulate your wholesome thinking and refresh your memory. – 2 Peter 3:1 NLT

Yet over the centuries, there have been those who have argued that Simon Peter was not the author of this letter. They cite the paucity of references to the letter by the early church fathers. In fact, the earliest reference to Peter being the author comes from Origin in his commentary on the Gospel of John, written sometime in the third century.

The lack of external evidence to support Peter as the letter’s author does not invalidate the internal proof provided by the letter itself. Its content and style are very similar to that of 1 Peter and a comparison with the sermons of Peter found in Acts reveals the use of similar vocabulary and grammar.  The internal evidence alone is sufficient to conclude Peter as the author. In the opening section of the letter, Peter gives a personal testimony of his presence at the transfiguration of Jesus.

For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. – 1 Peter 1:16-18 NLT

In verse 14 of the opening chapter, Peter reveals how Jesus had forewarned him of his own pending death.

…our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me that I must soon leave this earthly life. – 2 Peter 1:14 NLT

This is a clear reference to the conversation Peter had with Jesus not long after they had shared their last Passover meal together.

“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God.” – John 21:18-19 NLT

There are those who point out the dissimilarities between the two letters and draw the conclusion that Second Peter was written by an unknown author who used Peter’s name to give his letter authenticity. But there is no overly compelling proof to conclude that the letter was written by anyone other than the apostle Peter, the “servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:1 ESV).

Assuming Peter to be the author and considering his reference that this was his second letter, he appears to be writing to the same audience he addressed in his first letter. In his earlier epistle, Peter wrote a circular letter intended for congregations located in the cities of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, located in the region of Asia Minor. These small, fledgling flocks were made up of both Jews and Gentiles who had placed their faith in Jesus Christ. As a result of their decision to follow Christ, they found themselves suffering persecution and ostracization. The cities in which they lived were part of the Roman Empire and their neighbors and friends were primary Greek-speaking Gentiles who viewed Christianity as a strange and potentially dangerous religious sect.

There are indications within the letter that Peter was writing with a sense of urgency. It is believed that he wrote this letter from Rome sometime around 67-68 A.D. The writings of the early church fathers indicate that Peter spend the last decade of his life in Rome and was eventually martyred there. If their assessment is accurate, then Peter would have been in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero, who launched his infamous and deadly persecution of Christians sometime around 64 A.D.

The letter has the feel of a last will and testament, almost as if Peter knows that this will be his final communication with his brothers and sisters in Asia Minor. He seems to know that the intensity of the persecution against them is going to increase. With the church’s continued growth and expansion, the enemy was going to intensify its opposition. So, Peter wanted to prepare his readers to remain strong, even in the face of his pending death and the inevitable increase in their suffering.

…our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me that I must soon leave this earthly life, so I will work hard to make sure you always remember these things after I am gone. – 2 Peter 1:14-15 NLT

Peter had been a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, having obeyed the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and taken the gospel of the Kingdom to “the ends of the earth.” Like Paul, Peter had made it is his life’s mission to tell the good news concerning Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. And, along the way, he had suffered greatly for his efforts. According to church tradition, Peter was eventually put to death by the emperor Nero, and his means of death was crucifixion – upside down.

Regardless of how Peter died, it seems evident that, as he wrote this letter, he was well aware that his days on earth were numbered. His words contain an urgency and unction that stress the need for watchfulness among the body of Christ. His greatest concern was the threat of false teachers, “who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1 ESV). As the original apostles of Jesus grew older, there was a pressing need for the next generation of godly leadership within the church to step up. Since Peter seemed to know that his mission was drawing to a close, he had a deep sense of concern for the ongoing well-being of the countless flocks that had sprung up around the world. Who would lead and care for them when he was gone? It was the philosopher, Aristotle, who opined, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” And Peter was smart enough to know that, with his departure, there would arise a host of individuals who would gladly fill the space he vacated. These “false teachers” would prove to have a dangerous and, ultimately, deadly influence on the church if left undetected and free to propagate “their evil teaching and shameful immorality” (2 Peter 2:2 NLT).

Peter’s opinion regarding these people is far from opaque. He is brutally honest in his assessment of their character and intent.

These false teachers are like unthinking animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed. They scoff at things they do not understand, and like animals, they will be destroyed. Their destruction is their reward for the harm they have done. They love to indulge in evil pleasures in broad daylight. They are a disgrace and a stain among you. They delight in deception even as they eat with you in your fellowship meals. – 2 Peter 2:12-13 NLT

Not exactly a flattering endorsement of their leadership or moral character. But Peter knew they would be influential and solicit a following among the uneducated and gullible. Their words, though false, would sound persuasive. Their promises, though empty, would offer hope in the midst of all the difficult circumstances facing these local congregations. That’s why Peter opened his letter with a reminder of their faith in Christ.

I am writing to you who share the same precious faith we have. This faith was given to you because of the justice and fairness of Jesus Christ, our God and Savior. – 2 Peter 1:1 NLT

For Peter, it was essential that his readers remain committed to their faith in Christ. They were going to be bombarded with other truth claims that would attempt to undermine the sufficiency of Christ. These false teachers were promoting new “knowledge” that was intended to supplement the insufficient teaching of the apostles. But Peter took the same stance as the apostle Paul.

But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted, just as Eve was deceived by the cunning ways of the serpent. You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach 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 11:3-4 NLT

These people are false apostles. They are deceitful workers who disguise themselves as apostles of Christ. But I am not surprised! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. In the end they will get the punishment their wicked deeds deserve. – 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 NLT

All of the apostles found themselves battling these false teachers who were promoting half-truths and flat-out lies concerning Jesus and the gospel. Jude was merciless in his assessment of these people.

…some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. The condemnation of such people was recorded long ago, for they have denied our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. – Jude 1:4 NLT

So, as Peter began to pen his message to the churches in Asia Minor, he called his readers to seek an ever-increasing knowledge of God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son.

May God give you more and more grace and peace as you grow in your knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord. – 2 Peter 1:2 NLT

It was only as they focused their full attention on the Godhead that they would be able to recognize and withstand the onslaught of falsehood headed their way.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Stand Firm and Stand Together

12 By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. 13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. 14 Greet one another with the kiss of love.

Peace to all of you who are in Christ. 1 Peter 5:12-14 ESV

Even when attempting to close out his letter, Peter could not refrain from offering one more exhortation to his readers. You can sense his pastor’s heart as he expresses his care and concern for their spiritual well-being.

Peter mentions Silvanus, an individual he describes as “a faithful brother.” He is likely the same Silvanus who accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. – 2 Corinthians 1:19 ESV

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. – 1 Thessalonians 1:1 ESV

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 1:1 ESV

Silvanus was a Greek name and its Roman form was Silas. In the book of Acts, Luke mentions Silas 12 different times and describes him as having been an apostolic emissary, carrying an important letter to the Gentile converts to Christianity.

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter – Acts 15:22-23 ESV

There has been much debate over the centuries as to what Silvanus’ exact role was in regards to this letter. There are some who believe that Silvanus acted as Peter’s personal secretary or amanuensis. When Peter states, “By Silvanus…I have written briefly to you…,” they interpret it to mean that Peter dictated his thoughts to Silvanus, who then wrote the actual letter that was read to the various church throughout Asia Minor. The apostle Paul was known to use this process with some of his letters. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Tertius, his amanuensis, identified himself.

I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. – Romans 16:22 ESV

So, it would not have been uncommon or unexpected for Peter to use someone like Silvanus to pen the actual message to the churches. This personal greeting from Peter at the end of the letter would have been a reminder to its readers that its content was from him.

There are others who believe that Silvanus was simply the messenger, chosen by Peter to take the letter to the churches located in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. Peter’s reference to Silvanus as “a faithful brother” is meant to identify him as a trustworthy messenger who was carrying an actual letter from the apostle Peter. It was important to Peter that the recipients of the letter also receive Silvanus as more than just an errand boy tasked with hand-delivering Peter’s message. He was a proven and faithful co-worker who had served alongside the apostles and would be an invaluable asset to the churches in Asia Minor.

But regardless of whether Silvanus penned Peter’s letter or simply delivered it, Peter provided his reason for sending it in the first place.

My purpose in writing is to encourage you and assure you that what you are experiencing is truly part of God’s grace for you. – 1 Peter 5:12 NLT

Their suffering for the sake of Christ was all part of God’s plan for their lives. Peter describes it as “God’s grace” for them – the true grace of God. This is the same grace he had mentioned just a few sentences earlier in his letter.

…after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. – 1 Peter 5:10 ESV

Yes, they were experiencing suffering, just as Jesus had in His earthly life. But Peter wanted them to know that their present suffering would result in their future glorification, just as it had for Jesus. The author of Hebrews provides much-needed encouragement when it comes to facing the trials and difficulties of this life.

…let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. – Hebrews 12:1-3 NLT

By focusing on the faithful suffering of Jesus and recognizing that His pain was our gain, we are better able to endure the difficulties we face in this life. He is seated in the place of honor beside His Heavenly Father. His suffering resulted in glorification. His humiliating and painful execution was followed by His glorious exaltation. And the same will be true of all those who place their hope and faith in Him. They too will one day be glorified, exalted, and enter into the presence of God Almighty. And Peter reminds his readers that, at that time, God will “restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10 ESV). That very thought led Peter to exclaim, “To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:11 ESV).

There was nothing they would face in this life that could remove them from the protective power of God’s grace. He would watch over them and preserve them, guaranteeing that they would one day receive the future inheritance He had ordained for them. This was the very message Peter used to open up his letter.

It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see. – 1 Peter 1:3-5 NLT

Even if their suffering for the sake of Christ was to result in death, they could rest easy knowing that their death would usher them into God’s presence. But should they live and their suffering were to continue, they would see it come to an end with the Lord’s return. Their salvation was guaranteed. Their future was secure. The apostle Paul gave a powerful exhortation to the believers in Corinth, challenging them to never give up.

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NLT

He was encouraging them to live with the end in mind, and that was Peter’s point as well. He challenged his readers to “stand firm” in the grace of God. Their Heavenly Father could be trusted. His promises were true and He always kept His word.

As Peter wraps up his letter, he makes a rather interesting reference to “She who is at Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13 ESV). It is believed that Peter is using the name of the ancient and infamous city of Babylon to refer to Rome. At one time, Babylon had been the 800-pound gorilla in that part of the world, having dominated and defeated the other nations, including Israel. They had terrorized the world, establishing a far-reaching empire that spread their idolatry and immorality as far as the eye could see. And Peter sarcastically refers to Rome as nothing more than the latest version of ancient Babylon. Like Babylon, their 15-minutes of fame would come to an end. But in the meantime, Peter was writing his letter from Rome and sending greetings from the believers who lived right under the nose of the Roman emperor.

Peter refers to these believers as “likewise chosen” by God. This was the way he had addressed the recipients of his letter.

God’s chosen people who are living as foreigners in the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. – 1 Peter 1:1 NLT

They were not alone. There were other believers going through the same difficulties.

Remember that your family of believers all over the world is going through the same kind of suffering you are. – 1 Peter 5:9 NLT

These people did not live in the Internet age. They did not have access to social media and instant information. There was no way they could communicate with other believers and know what was going on in other cities or countries. News traveled slowly. And it would be easy for the various churches to assume that their particular difficulties were unique to them. But Peter assured them that their struggles were common to all.

After sending greetings from the church in Rome and from Mark, his ministry companion, Peter encourages the believers in these far-flung churches to “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14 ESV). It would seem odd that Peter was suggesting that the believers in the church located on Pontus should hug and kiss one another. Yes, brotherly love and affection are essential for every local body of believers. But it makes more sense to view Peter as calling on each of these believers, regardless of their location, to express love for their brothers and sisters all across the world. In a sense, Peter was encouraging them to send a “kiss of love” to one another, understanding that distance could not separate them from the other members of their God-ordained family. The Greek word for “greet” is aspazomai and it means “to embrace” or “to receive joyfully.” Peter wanted the churches in Asia Minor to see their family as far larger and more significant than just their local congregation. The body of Christ was growing and spreading and, while they could not physically see their brothers and sisters in Christ, they could “greet” them with expressions of love and mutual concern. And they could all share in the peace that was theirs through Jesus 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Anything But PC

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 1 Peter 2:18-20 ESV

Peter has encouraged his readers to view themselves “as people who are free” but also “as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16 ESV). Because of their relationship with Christ, they had been set free from their old way of life. Through placing their faith in Christ, they had experienced the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and been made sons and daughters of God. But their new status as God’s children required that they not “slip back into” their old ways living (1 Peter 1:14 NLT). They were no longer slaves to their old desires and passions. The Spirit of God living within them was a source of life-transforming power that made it possible to live distinctively different lives. That is why Peter charged them “you must be holy in everything you do” (1 Peter 1:15 NLT).

Peter knew that they needed a timely reminder of their new life in Christ because the difficult conditions in which they were living had begun to cast doubt on the efficacy of the “good news.” Their faith in Christ had actually produced some unexpected negative consequences that probably left them wondering where the abundant life was that Jesus had promised (John 10:10). Much of their trouble stemmed from the harsh treatment they received at the hands of the Roman government. Nero was emperor at the time, and he was cracking down on this radical and subversive sect that followed the martyred Jewish Rabbi. Christianity had begun to spread throughout the Roman empire and he viewed the growing number of its adherents as a threat to his power. The Roman historian, Tacitus, provided a graphic and unflattering description of Nero’s egregious treatment of Christians.

“Covered with the skins of beasts, [Christians] were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired.”

Yet, surprisingly, Peter encouraged the Christians to whom he wrote to “submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed” (1 Peter 2:13-14 NLT), and all for the Lord’s sake. Peter knew this admonition would be difficult for his readers to accept and even harder to pull off. It’s likely that these very same individuals had heard of some of the saying of Jesus and wondered if Peter was offering a contradictory form of teaching. After all, it was Jesus who had said, “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT). They had accepted the truth regarding Jesus and Jesus had said, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 NLT). So, why was Paul now telling them to submit to an ungodly Roman government that treated them as worse than slaves?

So, what exactly did Peter mean when he told them to “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16 ESV)? Were they slaves or freemen? The interesting thing is that Peter refers to them as “servants” of God. The Greek word is δοῦλος (doulos), which can be translated as servant, slave, or bondman. It was often used metaphorically to refer to “one who gives himself up wholly to another’s will.” In a sense, Peter was informing his readers that while they had been set free from slavery to sin, they had actually become slaves to God.

Their new relationship with God, made possible through the atoning work of Jesus Christ, had freed them from the condemnation of sin and death, but it had not released them from their worldly circumstances. They were still living under Roman rule. They were still surrounded by unbelieving friends and neighbors who viewed their faith as strange and even dangerous. They were still experiencing pain and suffering, just as they had before they came to faith in Christ and, in some cases, things had actually gotten worse. But now they answered to a different Master. They were free, but in a completely different sense. That is why Peter drops the non-PC directive, “You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel” (1 Peter 2:18 NLT).

This must have come across like a brick to the forehead. It would have been as shocking to them as it is to us living in the 21st-Century. How could Peter demand that slaves who had come to faith in Christ remain in their unjust and inhumane circumstances? Wouldn’t Jesus want them to experience the joy of physical as well as spiritual emancipation? And yet, what Peter was telling them was in keeping with the teaching of Paul.

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

What both of these men were trying to convey was that freedom in Christ had nothing to do with earthly circumstances. Jesus had not come to set people free from physical, financial, or societal forms of slavery. In Christ, an actual slave was just as free as his believing master. His social status as a slave had no bearing on his standing before God. That is why Paul wrote:

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

Earthly conditions and circumstances do nothing to change a believer’s relationship with God. He shows no partiality and offers His free gift of grace to all who will believe, whether they are enslaved or free. This is made clear in Paul’s letter to his friend, Philemon. It seems that Philemon had a slave named Onesimus who had run away. But in God’s providence, Onesimus had come into contact with Paul and come to faith in Christ. When Paul realized that Onesimus was actually Philemon’s runaway slave, he sent him back with a personal letter to his friend. In it, he pleaded that Philemon accept Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ.

It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. 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 1:15-16 NLT

Technically and legally, Onesimus was still a slave and Philemon had a legal right to discipline him for having run away. But Paul was stressing the change that had taken place in their relationship due to their common faith in Christ. Philemon and Onesimus were no longer to view themselves from the worldly perspective of master and slave, but as brothers in Christ. From the worldly point of view, nothing had changed. Onesimus was still a slave. But from God’s vantage point, the relationship between these two men had been radically and permanently transformed – forever.

Peter wanted his readers to understand that their faith in Christ was not meant to be a panacea for all their worldly problems. They would still face trials and tribulations. If they were a slave, they would still remain so even after coming to faith. If they were poor, their circumstances were not guaranteed to change just because they had accepted Christ as their Savior. Regardless of their earthly circumstances, they were children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of God. And nothing could change that. And Peter reminds them that “God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment. Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you” (1 Peter 2:19-20 NLT).

As long as they lived on this earth, they were to seek to live holy lives, regardless of their particular circumstances. Whether slave or free, they each had an obligation to live in a manner worthy of the gospel that had transformed them into sons and daughters 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Not What They Were Expecting

38 And he arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. 39 And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.

40 Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. 41 And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.

42 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” 44 And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea. Luke 4:38-44 ESV

After casting out the demon(s) from the man in the synagogue, Jesus made His way to the home of Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:29), two of His disciples who lived in the town of Capernaum. Upon entering the house, He discovered that the mother-in-law of Simon (Peter) was bedridden, suffering from the effects of a high fever. Luke’s account of this scene differs slightly from that of Matthew and Mark. They both indicate that Jesus healed the woman by taking her by the hand. But Luke states that Jesus “rebuked the fever.” As he has done before, Luke places the emphasis on the words of Jesus. When Jesus had cast out the demon, the crowd had responded, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” (Luke 4:36 ESV). When Jesus had taught in the synagogues, Luke reports that he was “praised by everyone” (Luke 4:15 NLT).

So, while Matthew and Mark place their emphasis on the physical touch of Jesus, Luke focuses on the power and authority of His words. Just as the demons were subject to the command of Jesus, so was the fever. Whatever illness had caused the fever was immediately eliminated from the woman’s body, leaving her completely whole. So much so, that each of the gospel authors indicates that she set about preparing a meal for her son-in-law’s guests.

For Luke, everything about Jesus revolved around His God-given power and authority. He records that Jesus began His ministry by visiting the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth and reading 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 ESV

After reading this text, Jesus told the audience, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 ESV). In doing so, He was making the bold claim that He had been sent by God and was the Messiah, the anointed one for whom they had long waited. He was filled with the Spirit of God and had the power and authority to proclaim good news to the poor, set free all those who were enslaved and oppressed, and restore sight to the blind. He had come to declare that “the time of the Lord’s favor has come” (Luke 4:19 NLT). 

News of what Jesus had done for Simon’s mother-in-law soon spread throughout the town of Capernaum. By that evening, Jesus found Himself surrounded by people who were sick, lame, and even demon-possessed. What’s interesting to note is that Luke indicates that Jesus “laid his hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40 ESV). For some undisclosed reason, Luke changes his emphasis and focuses on the “hands-on” approach of Jesus. Yet Matthew reports that Jesus “cast out the evil spirits with a simple command” (Matthew 4:16 NLT). Each of these men wrote their respective gospel accounts with a particular audience in mind and with a specific message concerning Jesus that they were trying to convey. Matthew was an eye-witness to these events, while Luke was writing based on interviews he had conducted with those who were there at the time the events took place. The slight variations in their accounts do not reflect contradictions in the Scriptures, but they simply reflect each man’s attempt to communicate his particular message concerning Jesus. 

Each of the gospel authors was trying to illustrate the power and authority of Jesus. Just as the Isaiah passage had predicted, Jesus was preaching, teaching, proclaiming, healing, releasing, and displaying the favor of God to sinful men and women. He was the Messiah. And even the demons were subject to His commands.

And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” – Luke 4:41 ESV

Jesus spoke and they were obligated to obey because they recognized Him for who He was: The Son of God. The demons were not worshiping Jesus but they were acknowledging His identity as the Messiah. They inherently understood that Jesus was more than just a rabbi from the town of Nazareth. When He spoke, they were forced to obey His command. They had no choice but to do as He said because He had the full power and authority of God behind His words.

But Jesus “rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ” (Luke 4:41 ESV). At first glance, it might seem odd that Jesus prevented the demons from declaring His identity as the Son of God. But Jesus was on a God-ordained mission that had a firm and highly specific timeline attached to it. The testimony of the demons could have led the people to see Jesus as the political/military Messiah they had been looking for. His obvious power over the spiritual realm could have led them to speculate that He could just as easily defeat the physical enemies of Israel, such as the Romans. As we will see later on in Luke’s gospel, the people were looking for a Messiah who would set them free from Roman rule and oppression, and, on more than one occasion, they would attempt to take Jesus by force and make Him their King. So, Jesus silenced the demons, refusing them to declare His true identity. He had a job to do and it would not be complete until He had faithfully obeyed His Father’s will by sacrificing His life on the cross.

After a busy day in the town of Capernaum, Jesus sought a place of refuge, to rest and, most likely, to seek time alone with His Heavenly Father. But the crowds were persistent and eventually found Him. The needs of the people were great and they begged Jesus to remain with them. You can sense that they knew He was someone special and they wanted to keep Him for themselves. But Jesus responded by informing them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43 ESV).

The people of Capernaum were focused on the physical benefits that Jesus seemed to provide. They had seen Him heal the sick and set free those who were demon-possessed, and they wanted more. But Jesus had a different agenda in mind. He had come to preach the good news of the kingdom of God. Whether they believed Him to be the Messiah or not, Jesus had not come to set up an earthly kingdom or rule from a throne in Jerusalem. He had come “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19 ESV). God was preparing to show His undeserved favor and mercy on a condemned and death-deserving mankind by offering His Son as the substitutionary atonement for their sin debt. They were looking for a Messiah who would set them free from Roman rule, but Jesus had come to provide freedom to those who were held captive by sin and death. And as Jesus would later state, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 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

Delivered to Die

1 And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” 14 And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. Mark 15:1-15 ESV

It proved to be a long night for everyone involved. Jesus had been arrested late Thursday night and taken to the residence of Caiaphas, the high priest. His interrogation by Caiaphas and the other members of the Sanhedrin had lasted well into the early morning hours of the next day. During that time, Peter had denied Jesus and fled the scene in tears. And even Judas, the disciple who had chosen to betray Jesus, had stuck around to see what happened next. When he saw that Jesus had been condemned by the Sanhedrin, he had a change of heart. Matthew records that “when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood’” (Matthew 27:3-4 ESV).

But his feelings of regret and remorse, while probably sincere, were of no benefit to Jesus. Judas’ decision to betray his Master had helped seal His fate. And while Judas returned the blood money he had been paid for his dastardly deed, it did nothing to assuage his guilt. In a final act of contrition, Judas took his own life (Matthew 27:5).

Meanwhile, having convicted Jesus of blasphemy, the high priest and the council convened an early morning meeting to determine their next steps. They knew that the Roman authorities would find the charge of blasphemy to be insufficient cause for authorizing the death of Jesus. So, they met one last time to deliberate on what additional charge they could bring against Jesus that would warrant His death and force the Roman governor to give his seal of approval. And it seems that they chose to accuse Jesus of high treason. If they could convince Pilate that Jesus was a dangerous revolutionary who was fomenting insurrection against the Roman government, they would achieve their goal of eliminating Jesus once and for all.

Having determined their strategy, the members of the high council had Jesus bound, and they moved en masse to the palace of the Roman governor. And Luke tells us that, once they had the ear of Pilate, these men wasted no time in pressing their charges against Jesus.

“We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” – Luke 23:2 ESV

If there was one thing the Roman government would not tolerate, it was any form of sedition. They knew from experience that the key to maintaining order in any of their vassal states was to deal with rebels quickly and harshly. And as the local representative of the Roman Empire, Pilate was responsible for maintaining law and order in his region. So, when the Sanhedrin accused Jesus of being a would-be king of Israel, it got the attention of the Roman governor.

But as Pilate looked at the unimpressive figure standing before him, it is likely that he found the charges to sound a bit far-fetched. Jesus did not have the look of an insurrectionist. There was nothing about Jesus’ appearance or demeanor that would give the impression He was a threat to the Roman government. In fact, the prophet Isaiah described the Messiah in less-than-flattering terms:

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
    nothing to attract us to him.
He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. – Isaiah 53:2-3 NLT

So, Pilate turned to Jesus and asked Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:2 ESV). There was probably a tinge of sarcasm in Pilate’s words. In a sense, he was asking Jesus, “Are YOU the king of the Jews?” Was this disheveled looking man the reason Pilate had been forced to have this early morning meeting? Was He really the cause of all the turmoil taking place?

But all Jesus said in response was, “You have said so” (Mark 15:2 ESV). He didn’t deny the charges or attempt to defend Himself. He didn’t proclaim His innocence or expose the hypocrisy of His accusers. But while Jesus remained passive and quiet, HIs enemies barraged Pilate with a litany of additional charges against Jesus. And Pilate was amazed that this prisoner was able to maintain His composure and refrain from answering the growing list of charges against him. At one point, he even asked Jesus, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” (Matthew 27:13 ESV). But Jesus refused to respond.

Amazingly, despite all the charges leveled against Jesus, Pilate reached the conclusion that He was innocent. He told the members of the Sanhedrin, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4 ESV). But refusing to accept Pilate”s verdict, they intensified their efforts, shouting, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place”  (Luke 23:5 ESV). They wanted to paint Jesus as a dangerous radical who was inciting trouble all throughout the region, from Judea all the way to Galilee in the north.

But again, Pilate seemed to sense that their problem with Jesus was religious in nature and had nothing to do with Rome. This man was no threat to the empire. Pilate seems to have been intrigued by Jesus. In his gospel account, John reports that Pilate questioned Jesus further about His supposed kingship.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” – John 18:33 ESV

And Jesus responded by asking Pilate whether his question was motivated by personal interest or simply based on the accusations of the Sanhedrin. Pilate, taken aback by Jesus’ words, demanded to know what was really going on.

“Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” – John 18:35 ESV

And Jesus responded with a clarification of the nature of His kingdom.

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” – John 18:36 ESV

To Pilate, this sounded like an admission of guilt, so he asked Jesus, “So you are a king?” and Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37 ESV). The issue was not so much whether Jesus was a king. It had more to do with the nature of His kingdom. The truth was that Jesus was a king, but not like Caesar. And He was not interested in overthrowing Rome and dethroning the emperor. His kingdom was not of this world. It was spiritual in nature. And this discussion led Pilate to conclude that this was nothing more than an internecine squabble among the Jews. So, he attempted to extricate himself from the situation by offering a compromise solution.

Over his years as prefect, Pilate had established a custom of releasing a single Jewish prisoner in honor of Passover. It made sense to Pilate that Jesus would be the obvious choice on this particular occasion. But he was surprised to hear the Jews demand the release of Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer. They specifically requested that Pilate keep Jesus under lock and key, while setting free a dangerous criminal who was a real threat to the Roman empire.

Evidently, all the commotion that morning had attracted a crowd. So, Pilate, in an attempt to pacify the crowd, had offered to release Jesus “the King of the Jews” (Mark 15:9 ESV). But the Jewish religious leaders had whipped the crowd into a frenzy, inciting them to reject Pilate’s offer and demand the release of Barabbas. When Pilate asked what He should do with Jesus, the crowd shouted, “Crucify him” (Mark 15:13 ESV). Confused by the intensity of their anger, Pilate asked, “Why? What evil has he done?” (Mark 15:14 ESV), and the people simply shouted, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:23 ESV).

And sadly, Mark records that Pilate acquiesced to the demands of the people. While he felt certain that Jesus was innocent, having done nothing worthy of death, Pilate feared the growing anger of the mob.

So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. – Mark 15:15 ESV

And everything was happening just as the prophet Isaiah had predicted hundreds of years earlier.

Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:8 ESV

The King of the Jews “was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7 ESV). And in just a few hours, the Son of God would become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 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

Grace and Peace

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

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

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4 ESV

As is obvious from the book’s title, this is a second letter written by Paul to the congregation of the church in Thessalonica. There may have been other letters written as well, but they were not included in the Canon of Scripture. There is no indication as to how much time had passed since Paul had written his first letter, but it is clear that he had received new information regarding the spiritual state of affairs in Thessalonica and he felt compelled to pen his response.

Paul was still in Corinth, some 358 miles away, when he heard the latest report concerning affairs in Thessalonica. Driven by his pastor’s heart, but hindered by the distance between them, Paul immediately put pen to paper in an effort to clarify the confusion that had entered the church through false teachers. This was a constant problem for Paul and the other apostles. As soon as they proclaimed the good news regarding salvation alone through Christ alone, others would appear on the scene, declare themselves to be teachers, and begin offering what Paul elsewhere refers to as “different gospel.”

For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. – 2 Corinthians 11:4 ESV

These “false” teachers were propagating their own version of the truth, adding to or taking away from the message concerning Jesus that Paul and the rest of the apostles had been divinely commissioned to preach. But as Paul told the churches in Galatia, these individuals were to be treated as enemies of God and as threats to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:8 ESV

But before broaching the subject of the doctrinal controversy going on in Thessalonica, Paul addressed his audience in his usual gracious manner, expressing his strong affection for them and complimenting them for their “steadfastness and faith” in the face of all the persecutions and afflictions they were having to endure. The members of the Thessalonian church were still relatively new converts to Christianity and they were living in a predominantly pagan culture heavily influenced by both Greek and Roman culture. Located on a major trade route, Thessalonica was a cultural melting pot and enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. As the capital of the Roman province of Macedon, it also benefited from the protection provided by Caesar’s powerful legions.

But all of these factors made Thessalonica a particularly hostile environment for those who had chosen to place their faith in Christ. While considered a rather pluralistic society, there was strong resistance to Christianity from the Greeks as well as the small contingent of Jews who called Thessalonica home. The small but growing band of Christ-followers were feeling intense pressure from all sides as they attempted to live out their new faith under less-than-ideal conditions.

But Paul, writing on behalf of his ministry companions, Silvanus and Timothy, compliments the Thessalonians for their steadfastness and perseverance under fire.

We proudly tell God’s other churches about your endurance and faithfulness in all the persecutions and hardships you are suffering. – 2 Thessalonians 1:4 NLT

While the circumstances around them were difficult, these faithful few were not giving in or choosing to give up. In fact, Paul emphasizes that they were handling the pressure with remarkable poise and persistence.

…your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. – 2 Thessalonians 1:3 ESV

Paul opens his letter with his usual salutation, declaring his desire that they enjoy the ongoing benefit of God’s grace and peace. While Paul used this same phrasing in many of his letters, it should not be seen as some rote and therefore, meaningless line. He meant what he said. His desire that they experience God’s grace or unmerited favor was real. For Paul, the grace of God played an indispensable role in every believer’s salvation, but also in their ongoing sanctification. Without the benefit of God’s grace, no one could come to faith in Christ.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. – Romans 3:24 NLT

And God’s grace continues to play a vital role in the believer’s transformation into the likeness of Christ. He graciously provides each and every believer with His indwelling Holy Spirit, who provides the power required to live the Christian life. And Paul warned the believers in Galatia just how futile and foolish it is to try achieve spiritual maturity without God’s grace, as demonstrated by the Spirit’s enabling power.

After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? – Galatians 3:3 NLT

Paul knew that without the ongoing benefit of God’s unmerited favor, the Thessalonian believers would never experience the fulness of joy and the abundant life Christ promised to give them.

But he also knew that the peace of God was another essential resource in their ongoing spiritual transformation. In his letter to the churches in Philippi, Paul described this peace as that which “exceeds anything we can understand” (Philippians 4:7 NLT). And he assured them that God’s “peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

When Paul commended the Thessalonians for their faith and love, and complimented them for their steadfastness and faith, he knew that it was all attributable to the grace and peace of God. He was at work in their midst. He had saved them and He was also sustaining and supporting them as their spiritual journey continued. Paul was fully convinced in the reality of God’s ongoing participation in the life of every believer, a belief he expressed boldly and often.

Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. – 1 Corinthians 1:7-8 NLT

The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 NLT

The Thessalonians were in good hands. They had everything they needed for living the godly life because of the grace of God the Father. And as Peter reveals, Paul was not alone in this confident assertion.

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. – 2 Peter 1:3 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

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

Reason to Rejoice

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Philippians 1:12-18 ESV

One of the truly amazing things about Paul is his attitude of selflessness and total lack of self-obsessiveness. While he held the title of apostle and had been hand-picked by Jesus Christ Himself, Paul never saw himself as better than those to whom he ministered. He knew he was a leader and took seriously the responsibilities that came with his position. It was as if he lived by the counsel given to elders in the church by the apostle Peter.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. – 1 Peter 5:2-3 NLT

But unlike the average elder, Paul had responsibility for a much larger and geographically dispersed flock. He had helped plant churches throughout Asia, Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia. And even though he was writing this letter while under house arrest in Rome, he didn’t make it all about himself. In fact, his focus is clearly on those to whom he is writing. And he seems to be aware that they were upset over news of his imprisonment and pending trial in Rome. But rather than milk their sympathy and make it all about his less-than-ideal circumstances, he assured them that everything was okay. He attempted to assuage their concerns over his well-being by giving them a rather up-beat appraisal of his situation.

“…what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” – Philippians 1:12 ESV

Basically, Paul assured them that “it’s all good!” There was nothing for them to worry about because God had His hands all over Paul’s circumstances. And Paul even seems to brag that everybody in the Emperor’s Imperial Guard was now aware that Paul was in prison because of His faith in Christ. It’s important to remember that the whole reason Paul was in Rome was because he had been accused of bringing a Gentile into the restricted area of the temple, and in doing so, violating Jewish religious laws. This was a crime worthy of death. And Paul had appealed for a hearing before Caesar because he knew he would never get a fair trial in Jerusalem, where the Jewish religious leaders were out to get him.

So, when Paul states that even the Roman guards had figured out that his imprisonment was due to Jesus Christ, it was because he had been busy sharing Christ with each and every guard he met. In the book of Acts, Luke records, “When we arrived in Rome, Paul was permitted to have his own private lodging, though he was guarded by a soldier” (Acts 28:16 NLT). In other words, Paul was under 24-hour watch, with a litany of Roman soldiers taking turns to guard him. And you can only imagine how Paul took advantage of this captive audience to relate the good news of Jesus Christ. As a result, the gospel was spreading throughout the Imperial Guard and the court of Nero.

From Paul’s perspective, as long as Jesus Christ was lifted up, that was all that mattered. And he was stoked that his imprisonment had actually emboldened the believers in Rome to step up their game and increase their influence over the pagan culture in Philippi. He joyfully related that, “because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear” (Philippians 1:14 NLT).

And Paul revealed that he was unconcerned and unaffected by the news that there were others preaching the gospel in his absence. In fact, he was glad to hear it. Yes, he realized that there were some who were doing it for the wrong reasons. He describes them as being motivated by envy and rivalry. These individuals were jealous of Paul and his notoriety. They saw him as competition and were taking advantage of his incarceration to elevate themselves to positions of power and prominence. But, as long as the gospel was being shared, Paul was joyous, not jealous. He also knew that there were others who preached the gospel with pure motives, and he rejoiced in their work as well.

“…the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice.” – Philippians 1:18 NLT

Remember the context. Paul is under house arrest in Rome. He is under 24-hour guard and facing a trial before Nero, the Roman Emperor and a notorious enemy of the followers of the Way, or Christians. It had been several years since Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and his hearings before the local authorities on trumped up charges.

He had no idea what the future held for him. But he will later allude to the only two options that seemed possible: Acquital or death.

“For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.” – Philippians 1:20-24 NLT

And Paul was willing to accept either outcome. If God chose to release Paul, the apostle would simply return to his work of sharing the gospel just as he had been doing. But if the divine decision required Paul to die, he would do so gladly, fully believing that “to die is gain.” But Paul’s main concern seems to be for the Philippian believers. He wants them to be encouraged, not discouraged. He doesn’t want them to worry about him or to lose sleep over the possible failure of the gospel. Paul’s imprisonment was not going to bring the spread of the good news to a screeching halt. There were other messengers.

And Paul wanted the believers in Philippi to know that they too had a job to do. His forced absence should motivate and mobilize them, not lead to despair and defeat.

“Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. – Philippians 1:27 NLT

Paul gave a similar charge to the believers living in Colossae.

“We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.” – Colossians 1:9-10 NLT

Imprisonment was not an impediment for Paul. He saw it as just one more way to spread the gospel to those who desperately needed to hear it, including Roman guards. And Paul didn’t want the Philippian believers to let his incarceration to cause them consternation. As far as Paul was concerned, it was all part of God’s will and part of the divine plan to spread the gospel around the world. And, as long as Jesus Christ was being proclaimed, Paul had more than enough reason to rejoice – even while under house arrest.

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 Call to Holiness

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

2 To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:1-2 ESV

As we begin our study of Paul’s letter to the believers in Philippi, it’s essential that we establish the historical context behind this document. Obviously, the opening line, which serves as the salutation to the letter, establishes Paul as its author. But we also find the name of Timothy, his young protégé and spiritual son in the faith. Timothy was alongside Paul as he penned this letter while under house arrest in Rome.

Paul had ended up in Rome by virtue of a series of complicated and, obviously, God-ordained events that had begun with a plot on his life. Paul had returned to Jerusalem in order to meet with James and the other leaders of the Jerusalem church. He made a report regarding his work among the Gentiles, and this news was met with great joy. But, while James and his associates were excited about what was obviously a sign of God’s hand upon Paul and his missionary efforts, they reported that the believing Jews in Jerusalem were less-than-enthusiastic about Paul’s work because of some disturbing rumors they had heard. It seems that Paul had been accused of teaching Jews that, once they came to Christ, they no longer had to keep the law of Moses. James presented Paul with the basic gist of the rumor.

“…they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.” – Acts 21:21 ESV

James was concerned that once these Jews heard that Paul was in town, they would stir up trouble for him. So, he recommended that Paul go through a period of purification, signaling to his critics that he was still a faithful Jew. Paul had agreed to the recommendation and, as the seven days of purification were coming to a close, he had made his way to the temple to complete the process. But Paul ended up being accused of bringing a Gentile into the restricted area of the temple reserved solely for Jews. A mob descended upon Paul and they had every intention of putting him to death. But Paul was rescued by Roman soldiers and put under arrest. A small faction of the Jews swore an oath among themselves that the would fast from food or drink until they had put Paul to death.

When the plot was exposed, Paul was shipped to Caesarea where he appeared before the Roman governor, Felix. Paul would remain in Caesarea for two years, under house arrest. Eventually Felix was replaced by Festus, who decided to send Paul back to Jerusalem for trial. But Paul, knowing that he would not receive a fair trial in Jerusalem, appealed to his right as a Roman citizen to appear before Caesar in Rome. He was granted his request and was shipped to Rome, where he remained for two years under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar.

It was from Rome that Paul wrote this letter. But why is any of this background information relevant? It is because the entire letter to the Philippian believers is filled with words of encouragement. Here was a man who had spent years facing trumped-up charges that had left him imprisoned for a crime he had not committed. He was still facing a plot on his life and the prospect of appearing before Caesar with no guarantee that his trial would end in either his acquital or release.  In fact, he would tell his brothers and sisters in Philippi:

“For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die.” – Philippians 1:21 NLT

Long before Paul ever arrived in Rome, he made a similar statement to the believers living there.

“If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” – Romans 14:8 NLT

So, here was Paul, writing to the believers in Philippi and attempting to encourage them in their faith. And the words that Paul writes to these people carry far more significance and weight where you consider the circumstances under which he wrote them. Consider this well-known declaration by Paul found later on in his letter.

“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.” – Philipiians 4:11-12 NLT

And he follows this expression of contentment in the face of adversity with the confident assertion: “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NLT). This was a man who knew what he was talking about. He was not offering pious-sounding platitudes, but well-tested counself based on his own personal experience.

Paul had a strong attachment to the believers in Philippi because he had played a major role in their coming to faith. Early on, in the book of Acts, Luke records Paul’s arrival in Philippi, a Roman colony. Paul had the privilege of leading to Christ a woman named Lydia, along with her entire household. Her home had become the meeting place for the fledgling congregation. It was in Philippi that Paul and Silas were imprisoned for casting a demon out of a young slave girl whose masters profited from their use of her as a fortune teller. Once freed from her demon, she was of no use to these men and they turned their anger against Paul and Silas. After having been severely beaten, Paul and his companions were imprisoned. But Paul was not someone who let obstacles stand in his way, even the bars of a prison cell. It was while they were in prison that Paul and Silas led to Christ the jailer in charge of their care.

Once released from jail, Paul and Silas eventually made their way to Thessalonica, but it seems that Paul made at least one return trip to Philippi some time before the penning of his letter to them. His letter was in direct response to a gift he had received from them that had been delivered by a man named Epaphroditus. Paul would use this young man to deliver his letter, allowing him to return home and put to rest any concern they had over his well-being. It seems that Ephaphroditus had become deathly sick during his time in Rome, but had recovered.

“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need,  for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.” – Philippians 2:25-26 ESV

Paul was happy to send him home and included a word of commendation, praising Ephaphroditus for risking his life in order to minister to Paul’s needs.

But back to Paul’s salutation or greeting. He describes himself and Timothy as servants. The Greek word he used is doulos, and it refers to a bondservant or slave. It literally meant, “one who is subservient to, and entirely at the disposal of, his master; a slave.”

So, Paul doesn’t set himself as some kind of superior leader who deserves respect and honor, but describes himself as a lowly slave. This is the same designation Paul used when writing to the church in Rome.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God. – Romans 1:1 ESV

Little did he know that, when he wrote these words, they would be prophetic. He would later become like a slave, living under the auhtority of the Roman government and completely subservient to their will. But he would see be serving Christ even while subject to the power and control of Rome.

And Paul addresses his letter “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” They are saints or hagios, a Hebrew word that carries a depth of meaning. It is often used to refer to holiness. But it can also mean “to be set apart.” According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, hagios was used “of things which on account of some connection with God possess a certain distinction and claim to reverence.” Like the temple itself and the items found within it, believers have been set apart by God for His use. They belong to Him. Which is what led Paul to tell the believers in Rome:

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. – Romans 6:13 ESV

Paul had a deep desire to see his brothers and sisters in Christ live up to their calling as children of God. And he will plead with them to live lives that are set apart, reflecting their unique status as saints of God.

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel… – Philippians 1:27 ESV

Here was a man well-acquainted with what it means to suffer for his faith. He had first-hand experience with what it looks like to live as hagios in a world that stood in direct opposition to all he believed in and stood for. At the core of his message to the Philippian church will be Paul’s call to spiritual maturity in the face of adversity. They were a relatively healthy congregation, but they were surrounded by darkness and faced with the constant temptation to compromise their faith. And he will use his own walk with Christ as an example of what holiness looks like in real life.

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:13-14 ESV

And Paul knew well, that this determination to press on and strive for the goal of Christ-likeness would require the grace and peace of God. But as Paul also knew, he could do all things through Christ who provided all the strength he needed.

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