Imitate God

1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Ephesians 5:1-5 ESV

Imitate God. At this point in his letter, Paul issues a lofty and seemingly impossible call to action. And yet, that’s been the theme he has been expressing from the very beginning.  what Paul has been suggesting throughout his letter. In the opening lines of chapter one, Paul reminded his readers that God had chosen them “before the foundation of the world” so that they might “be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). In other words, that they might by holy as He is holy. He prayed that their hearts would be enlightened, so that they might “know what is the hope to which he has called you” (Ephesians 1:18 ESV). Paul wanted them to understand that God had a future in store for them that included their glorification. The day was coming when they would be sin-free and fully righteous. And he assured them of the security of that future by declaring, “God, being rich in mercymade us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4, 5-6 ESV). 

There had been a time when they had been “without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12 ESV). But now they had been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 ESV). They were sons and daughters of God and, as such, they were to emulate and imitate their Heavenly Father. That is why Paul so strongly stressed their new relationship with God.

…you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God… – Ephesians 2:19 ESV

As members of the body of Christ, they were being “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22 ESV). It was through the mystery of the church that “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10 ESV). And Paul’s prayer was that they would understand how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is” (Ephesians 3:18 NLT) and “be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God” (Ephesians 3:19 NLT).

Paul had commanded the Ephesians: “let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.” (Ephesians 4:23-24 NLT). According to Paul, God had identified the Ephesian believers as His own by placing His Spirit within them (Ephesians 4:30). So, they were to conduct their lives in such a way that they accurately reflected their status as God’s children.  And the greatest expression of their new divine nature was a life marked by Christ-like love.

 Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. – Ephesians 5:2 NLT

Jesus had imitated His Father. In fact, Paul described Jesus as “the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul described Jesus as “the exact likeness of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT). And yet, thought Jesus was fully God, He “did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Philippians 2:6-7 NLT). In doing so, Jesus displayed His godly character. He obeyed the will of His Father by displaying the selfless, sacrificial love of His Father.

He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:3 NLT

Jesus always did exactly what His Father commanded Him to do. He gained strength from doing His Father’s will. That’s why He told His disciples, “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). He told the Pharisees, “I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will” (John 5:30 NLT). He declared that He had come down from heaven to do the will of the One who had sent him (John 6:38). In His humanity, Jesus perfectly modeled what it means to imitate God.

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” – John 5:19 ESV

God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son as the sacrifice for the sins of mankind (John 3:16). And Jesus laid down His life willingly, not under coercion.

“The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.” – John 10:17-18 NLT

He was the visible, tangible expression of God’s love. He imitated God by loving as God loved. And Paul calls the Ephesians to “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ” (Ephesians 5:2 NLT). In a sense, Paul is stating that Christ-likeness equals godliness. To be like the Son is to be like the Father. To imitate Christ is to imitate God, because they are one.

But Paul wants his readers to know what imitating God looks like in everyday life, and he does so by listing those characteristics that display ungodliness.

Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes—these are not for you. – Ephesians 5:3-4 NLT

People who display these kinds of qualities don’t look like God. Immorality, impurity, and greed are signs of godlessness, not godliness. They mark the lives of the unrepentant and unredeemed. They are diametrically opposed to a life of selfless, sacrificial love. Immorality involves lust – the desire to satisfy and fulfill selfish passions at the expense of others. Impurity has to do with moral and physical uncleanness. It describes the lives of the unsaved Gentiles.

Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity. – Ephesians 4:18-19 NLT

And greed or covetousness is an insatiable desire for that which has been forbidden by God. In the end, it is a worship of self, which is why, in verse 5, Paul ties covetousness closely to idolatry. To covet another man’s wife is to believe that you deserve what belongs to another. Your passions and preferences take priority over the needs and desires of others. But Paul boldly and unapologetically states that “everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5 ESV). Those whose lives are marked by selfishness and self-indulgence were never really redeemed by God. They fail to display the divine nature that Jesus died to make possible. And their unrepentant behavior provides proof that they are unredeemed and still living as enemies of God. And this was not the first time Paul issued this warning against the unrighteous. He wrote the very same thing in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NLT

And he repeated the same warning to the church in Galatia.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

Paul is not threatening Christians with the loss of their salvation. He is simply emphasizing the expectation of spiritual transformation in the life of a believer. The indwelling presence of the Spirit of God will produce tangible evidence of a salvation in the form of increasing sanctification or Christ-likeness. The true believer will experience a supernatural transformation of life that shows up actions and attitudes. Their lives will model the character of Christ and, in doing so, will imitate their Heavenly Father.

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. All rights reserved.


Grieving Rather Than Growing

25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.  Ephesians 4:25-32 ESV

Paul wanted the Ephesians believers to live in the present and not the past. They were to embrace their new identity in Christ and to to consider the deceptions and lies that had characterized their former lives as dead and discarded. Those things had been “put away” (apotithēmi) or “cast off,” and replaced by the truth of the gospel. And because they had been equipped by the apostles,  prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers God had provided, they were able to build up the body of Christ by speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 5:11-15).

As members of the body of Christ, they were to dwell together in a spirit of mutual love that was based on the reality of the life-transforming power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Their lives were to be characterized by truth and not lies. There was no place in the family of God for deception or falsehood. Christianity was not to be a competitive sport or a comparative religion where spiritual  status was measured by merit or social standing. It was to be a community of undeserving recipients of God’s grace, who had been filled with His Spirit, and equipped with spiritual gifts intended for the good of whole body.

He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. – Ephesians 4:16 NLT

What Paul describes in verses 25-32 is a lifestyle of radical change. The characteristics that marked their old lives were to be done away with. Lying, anger, stealing, and abusive language had no place within the body of Christ. And the Ephesians were not the only congregation to have received that message from Paul. He penned the very same sentiment to the believers in Colossae.

But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds. Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. – Colossians 3:8-10 NLT

Paul used comparative language to make his point to the Ephesian church. Rather than lie, they were to tell the truth. Instead of allowing anger to consume them, they were to resolve their disagreements quickly. Those who had once made a living from theft were to earn their way and share their resources with others. Foul and hurtful language was to be replaced with words that were helpful and encouraging. Again, Paul was calling them to do an about-face, to make a radical change in their behavior that reflected the revolutionary alteration God had made to their nature.

For Paul, a believer whose life failed to reflect the change brought about by the saving work of Jesus Christ was an anomaly and an unacceptable probability. That is why he continually stressed his expectation of tangible transformation in the lives of those to whom he ministered. .

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. – Philippians 2:1-4 NLT

According to Paul, not only would failure to experience life transformation result in a lack of fruit and effectiveness, it would also end up bringing sorrow to the Spirit of God.

…do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. – Ephesians 4:30 ESV

One of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit is to empower and equip the believer for a life of godliness. It is the Spirit who makes possible the believer’s sanctification or growth in Christ-likeness. So, when a believer fails to experience or exhibit life change, it grieves (lypeō) or saddens the Spirit of God. His greatest desire is to continually transform the believer into the image of Christ. The Spirit is a permanent resident in the life of every believer and will accompany them all the way to their ultimate glorification. He acts as God’s seal of approval, ensuring that the believer’s future status as a citizen of the coming kingdom is assured. Or, as Paul put it to the church in Corinth, the Holy Spirit is our guarantee of all that is to come.

It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us. – 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 NLT

…we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5;4-5 NLT

And Paul shared this incredible news with the Ephesians as well.

The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him. – Ephesians 1:14 NLT

That’s why Paul insists that the Spirit would be grieved by their failure to submit to His  life-transforming power. While glorification is the ultimate outcome of the believer’s faith in Christ, God wants to begin the process in this life. That’s why Paul insists that their present conduct should reflect a hope in the promise of their future state. They have the Spirit of God within them and the power of God available to them. So, their lives should reflect that reality even now. Paul would have fully agreed with the words of the apostle Peter:

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.

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


A Petition for Continued Transformation

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:14-21 ESV

Paul had been given the responsibility “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things,” (Ephesians 3:9 ESV). The mystery Paul was tasked with revealing was the church, the body of Christ that was to be comprised of people from all the nations of the earth. It would combine both Jews and Gentiles into a single, unified family of adopted sons and daughters of God. And the Jews and Gentiles who made up the church in Ephesus had been woven together into God’s glorious, multicolored tapestry of redemption.

And with that thought in mind, Paul offers up a powerful prayer on behalf of his brothers and sisters in Ephesus. He knew that their unity was under assault. He was well aware of the pressures they faced, living in a pagan culture where their faith in Christ made them outliers and, at times, social pariahs. Followers of Christ were often considered counter-cultural and even a threat to the status quo. Many of the believers in Ephesus had walked away from their former faith systems and, in doing so, had alienated family and friends. By placing their faith in Christ they had turned their backs on the false gods of the prevailing culture and were attempting to trust their lives to a Savior they had never met and a God they couldn’t see.

So, Paul shares with them the content of his prayer for them. In doing so, he lets them in on another secret or mystery. While they had been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), redeemed through His blood, forgiven of their sins (Ephesians 1:7), promised an inheritance (Ephesians 1:10), saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), and reconciled to God (Ephesians 2:16), they were not yet complete.

Their salvation, while fully paid for by Christ and sealed by the presence of the Spirit of God, was to be constantly evolving. Their faith in God was to be constantly increasing as their knowledge of Him continually grew. Salvation was not a static, once-in-a-lifetime experience, but a dynamic process that resulted in the ongoing transformation of the believer’s life into the likeness of Christ.

There was to be a progression from immaturity to maturity and spiritual infancy to adulthood. Peter put it this way: “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 NLT). In the very next chapter of this letter, Paul states virtually the same thing. He describes the role of Christ-appointed apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.

Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. – Ephesians 4:12-14 NLT

For both Peter and Paul, faith in Christ was about growth in Christlikeness. It was not enough to simply know about Christ. The Christian was expected to become like Christ – to bear His likeness. In fact, the first time the term “Christian” is used in reference to Christ’s followers is in the book of Acts.

For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. Acts 11:26 ESV

The Greek word for Christians is Χριστιανός (transliteration: Christianos; phonetic pronunciation: khris-tee-an-os’) and combines Christos (anointed) with the suffix meaning “follower”; i.e. follower of Christ (Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary). So, Christians were followers of the anointed one. But Jesus expected His disciples to do far more than follow Him. At one point He told them, ““A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matthew 10:24-25 ESV).

C. S. Lewis described this Christ-emulating behavior as only he could

“Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has – by what I call ‘good infection.’ Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christ is simply nothing else.” – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

But Paul knew that growth in Christlikeness was impossible without divine aid. That’s why he prayed that God, “according to the riches of his glory” (Ephesians 3:16 ESV), would empower the Ephesian believers “with inner strength through his Spirit” (Ephesians 3:16 NLT). Paul makes it clear that Christlikeness is the work of the Spirit of God. It can’t be self-manufactured or produced through human effort.

Belief in Christ was to result in behavior that emulated that of Christ. But that kind of behavior modification was only possible through the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit. His power alone could transform mere mortals into sons and daughters of God whose lives reflected the character of Christ. It began on the inside, in the inner being. It was not about outward modification of behavior but about the transformation of the heart. Paul’s prayer was that the Ephesians might know what it was like to have Christ dwell in their hearts through faith. Unlike other religions, Christianity is focused on the “inner” man. It is not about adhering to a list of do’s and don’ts or keeping a codified compendium of rules and regulations. No, Christianity is about the power of God transforming the hearts of men so that they might model the life of Christ – from the inside out.

ultimately, Paul wanted the Ephesians to know just how much God loved them. They had been given the Holy Spirit so that the nature of Christ might be revealed in them and the fullness of God might be experienced by them. Their God was not distant and unknowable. He had saved them so that He might have an intimate and personal relationship with them. And it all began with His Son. Paul told the believers in Colossae, “in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. So you also are complete through your union with Christ, who is the head over every ruler and authority” (Colossians 2:9-10 NLT). And Christ had taken up residence in their lives through the indwelling presence of the Spirit.

Paul wanted the Ephesian believers to grasp the full significance of their salvation and to experience the full force of God’s love for them. Paul didn’t want them to settle for less. His prayer was that they would “experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully”… and “be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God” (Ephesians 3:19 NLT).

And he closed out his prayer by declaring his firm assurance that God was ready, willing, and able to do all that he had requested.

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. – Ephesians 3:20 NLT

It wasn’t a matter of whether God could or would answer Paul’s prayer. The whole purpose for the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God was so that the children of God might be transformed into the likeness of the Son of God – all for the glory of God. And that’s why Paul ends by declaring, “Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:21 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.

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


Faith, Hope, and Love

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit. – Colossians 1:3-8 ESV

Paul describes the believers in Colossae using three of his favorites terms: Faith, hope, and love. He mentions their faith in Christ and their love for all the saints. And he indicates that these two qualities are based on the hope that is laid up for them in heaven. Because they have a secure hope in the future salvation promised to them because of their faith in Jesus Christ, they are able to love others as they have been loved. This triad of Christian character traits was near and dear to Paul’s heart. In fact, in his great “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, Paul summarizes his statements on love by writing, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT).

For Paul, faith, hope, and love were the non-negotiable essentials of the Christian experience. In writing to the church in Corinth, he expressed his admiration for them and expressed that they had been blessed by God with every spiritual gift.

God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 1:5-7 NLT

And yet, despite their giftedness, the Corinthians were a divided church, bickering over who had the most impressive of the spiritual gifts. They had missed the whole point and were allowing the gifts that God had given them to create a hierarchy of spiritual elitism marked by pride and arrogance.

So, as Paul wrote to the fledgling church in Colossae, he emphasized the three characteristics that were essential to living the Christian life and honoring the name of Christ: Faith, hope, and love. Paul had used the same trifecta of godly qualities when addressing the believers in Thessalonica.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 ESV

In Paul’s theology, faith was an ongoing experience, not a one-time, once-for-all action that ushered in one’s salvation. While faith was essential for experiencing God’s saving grace as expressed through Christ’s sacrificial and substitutionary death on the cross, it did not stop at the point of salvation. Faith was to be a dynamic and ever-increasing quality in the life of the believer. Paul told the Corinthians believers that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7 ESV). He commended the believers in Thessalonica for their ever-expanding faith.

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. – 2 Thessalonians 1:3 ESV

When speaking of his own life, Paul stated, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 ESV). He no longer relied upon his own strength and his capacity to produce good works in the flesh but, instead, he relied upon the sanctifying work of Christ – by faith. He truly believed what he wrote to the church in Philippi: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 ESV).

And for Paul, love was the greatest proof of a truly transformed life. According to the author of Hebrews, without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). But Paul would qualify that statement by adding, “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1 ESV). Love for others provides demonstrable proof that we have been loved by God and had our hearts transformed by the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit. As James so eloquently put it, faith that produces no tangible evidence is not really faith at all.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. – James 2:14-17 ESV

James was not inferring that we are saved by works, but he was emphasizing that saving faith produces godly fruit, such as love for those in need. The apostle John would echo that sentiment.

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20 ESV

And according to Paul, both faith and love are founded upon the hope of our future glorification, promised to us by God and provided for us by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus was intended to provide us with proof that there is life after death. This world is not all there is. That is why Paul told the Corinthians, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ESV).

And Paul went on to stress the essential nature of Christ’s resurrection. If He is not risen from the dead, then our faith has no meaning whatsoever. It’s little more than a pipe dream.

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-14 ESV

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. – 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 ESV

Ultimately, our faith is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ because it is His resurrection that assures us of our future hope of glorification. And Paul went on to assure the Corinthians of the unwavering reliability of God’s plan for our future glorification.

…in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”  – 1 Corinthians 15:52-55 ESV

We live by faith in the present because we have hope for the future. The God who will fulfill all that He has promised regarding the hereafter is fully capable of meeting all our needs in the here-and-now. And because we rest in His unfailing love for us, we are able to express that same love to all those around us, including our enemies.

And Paul commends the Colossian believers because the gospel continues to bear fruit in their lives.

…it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth… – Colossians 1:6 ESV

Their faith, hope, and love were anything but static. Each was increasing daily and being manifested in their lives for the world to see. The missionary work of Epaphras had been productive, resulting in their salvation and ongoing sanctification. Paul wanted the Colossians to know how proud he was of their perseverance and determination to continue to pursue faith, hope, and love – even in the midst of the difficulties and distractions of life in a fallen world.

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. All rights reserved.


An Alien and Undeserved Righteousness

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 ESV

With His telling of the parable of the unrighteous judge, it appears that Jesus was taking a bit of a diversion from discussing the shortcomings of the Pharisees. But in many ways, the parable was just another in a long line of stinging indictments of these self-righteous men who had made a god out of their religion. While Jesus has begun to focus His attention on His disciples in an attempt to prepare them for what lies ahead, He has not stopped exposing the arrogant and uncaring nature of the Pharisees and their fellow religious leaders.

In His previous parable, Jesus told the story of “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man” (Luke 18:2 ESV). This man, by virtue of his role, was meant to be an unbiased arbiter, settling disputes between two parties. But how could he do so if he “neither feared God nor respected man?” And this man’s presence in the story was meant to reflect the attitude of the Jewish religious leaders. According to Jesus, they were guilty of the same thing. And by using the term “judge,” Jesus was not offering them a compliment. The Outline of Biblical Usage describes a judge as “one who passes or arrogates to himself, judgment on anything.”

The Pharisees were quick to judge, condemning others for their lack of religious zeal and their failure to keep all the man-made rules and regulations they had appended to the Mosaic Law. At one point Jesus had delivered a strong word of warning against these men.

“…what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Luke 11:46 NLT

They had become self-appointed judges of the people who feared no repercussions from God. In fact, they actually thought they were doing God a favor by holding the people to such high moral and ethical standards. But like the widow in the parable, the poor and disenfranchised of Israel were longing for justice. They were seeking a judge who would act righteously and deliver justice on their behalf.

Consider closely verse 9 of this chapter. Luke records that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV). It seems obvious that Jesus was focusing His attention of the Pharisees who were still lingering on the edges of the crowd that followed Him. Despite all He had said against them, they had not gone anywhere. But Jesus was not just addressing the Pharisees. Their longstanding attitude of spiritual superiority and self-righteousness had infected others.  They had gone out of their way to teach their flawed philosophy of religion to others, something for which Jesus held them accountable.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:15 NLT

As far as Jesus was concerned, self-righteousness was a dangerous and deadly heresy that led people to rely on their own efforts and merits to earn favor with God. It was a dead-end street that eventually terminated with eternal separation from God. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). The apostle Paul would later quote from the psalms in order to convey the same universal and inescapable reality:

“No one is righteous—
    not even one.
No one is truly wise;
    no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
    all have become useless.
No one does good,
    not a single one.” – Romans 3:10-12 NLT

Self-righteousness is the greatest form of blasphemy because the one who practices it sets himself up as God. He elevates himself to the place of the Almighty, determining his eternal state based on his own biased judgment, rather than that of God. Anyone who believes he has earned a right standing before God has diminished the deadly nature of sin and devalued the righteous standards of God.

There is no way to get around the fact that in order for anyone to consider themselves to be righteous based on their own efforts, they must lower God’s standard for holiness. Which is really diminishing the holiness of God Himself, because He is the ultimate standard by which we are judged. So, rather than using God as the gold standard for holiness, men begin to compare themselves with one another. According to the apostle Paul, this horizontal matrix for measuring holiness is not only flawed but foolish.

…we wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant! – 2 Corinthians 10:12 NLT

So, in His parable, Jesus relates the story of two men who have gone to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a Pharisee, an icon of religious rectitude. The other was a tax collector, who represented the spiritual dregs of society. Yet, Jesus places both men in the temple courtyard where they are praying to God. But that is where the similarities end. Jesus portrays the Pharisee as a self-consumed man with an over-inflated sense of self-worth. He stands in the temple courtyard and boldly prays:

“‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

His words are the epitome of arrogance and pride. In a blatant display of self-righteous self-congratulation, he declares his moral superiority to the God of the universe. And he does so by comparing himself to the tax collector who is standing nearby. To the Pharisee, the differences between the two men could not be more obvious. Based on his religious zeal and faithful adherence to the smallest requirement of the law, he holds the moral high ground. He has earned the right to be heard by God.

Yet, Jesus quickly moves the focus from the fictional Pharisee to the tax collector, who “stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow…” (Luke 18:13 NLT). In starks contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector epitomizes humility and a high degree of self-awareness. He knows exactly what he is and what he justly deserves.

“O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” – Luke 18:13 NLT

Fully aware that his sin separates him from a holy God, this man pleads for mercy. He confesses his sinful state and, in a sense, places himself at the mercy of the court. He is more than willing to let the Judge decide his fate but he longs for justice coupled with mercy and forgiveness.

And then, Jesus dropped the bombshell:

I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of Jesus’ statement. He is declaring that the tax collector, a self-admitted sinner, is declared to be righteous by God. This is a judicial act by which God, in His sovereign authority, deems the unrighteous to be righteous in His eyes. The apostle Paul would expand on this marvelous thought in his letter to the believers in Rome.

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 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. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. – Romans 3:21-25 NLT

Jesus was hinting at a reality to come. He was going to go to the cross and offer Himself as the sinless substitute for sinful mankind. And all those who were willing to recognize and confess their sins and place their faith in Him would be imputed His righteousness as a gift from God. Jesus would take on their sin and, in exchange, they would receive His righteousness. But this “great exchange” begins with the sinner’s willingness to confess his desperate need for a Savior. Like the widow who needed a judge to settle her case, sinners are dependent upon the Judge of the universe to rule in their favor. Not based on their own merit, but according to His mercy and grace.

The apostle Paul, who in his former life was a dedicated and zealous Pharisee, offered his radically altered understanding of how one is made right with God.

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT

At one time, Paul would have been that self-righteous Pharisee standing in the courtyard singing his own praises. But, mercifully, Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus, blinding his eyes, but helping him see for the first time the sin that separated him from a holy God. He went from being a self-righteous Pharisee facing an eternity separated from God to a self-confessing sinner who received the righteousness of Christ and the assurance of eternal life.

So, Jesus wrapped up His little parable with the sobering statement:

“…those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

The apostle Peter would reiterate the words of Jesus in his first letter:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. – 1 Peter 5:5-6 NLT

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

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

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

A New Standard

37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

39 He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Luke 6:37-42 ESV

Today’s passage contains some of the most misunderstood and misapplied verses in the Bible. And our failure to interpret them properly has produced damaging results. The first eight words found in verse 37 form one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses in all of Scripture: “Judge not, and you will not be judged.”

And this verse is most commonly quoted by someone who has had some flaw or moral failure in their life pointed out by a friend or acquaintance. These words from Jesus get used as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card that allows the accused party to save face. Rather than acknowledge their fault, the accused simply points their finger back at their accuser and uses the words of Jesus against them. In a sense, they are saying, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Or, in other words, “Who are you to judge?”

But as always, context is key to understanding and interpreting Scripture. This statement from Jesus is part of His sermon on the mount. It is contained within a much larger section of teaching that was aimed at Jesus’ newly appointed disciples. He is sharing with them some never-before-heard insights into life in the Kingdom of God. And much of what Jesus states in this message from the mount runs completely counter to their preconceived concepts of the Kingdom and life in general. Jesus has told them that they must love their enemies. He has declared that the poor, the hungry, and those who weep are the truly blessed ones – those who have found favor with God. And, not only that, those who have a relationship with Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, will be blessed because they will be hated and despised. To the 12 disciples and everyone in the audience that day, these words from Jesus had to have sounded like complete madness. When the Messiah showed up and established His Kingdom on earth, it was supposed to be a time of great joy and abundance. The long-anticipated Son of David would rule and reign in power from His throne in Jerusalem, having conquered the Roman oppressors and ushered in the glorious Kingdom of God on earth.

So, all of Jesus’ talk of poverty, hunger, hatred, and love for enemies made no sense. It seemed out of place and illogical. But Jesus was speaking of a different kind of revolution that was going to come about. He had come to renovate hearts and lives, not to realign the chess pieces on the political playing board. Jesus’ mission was to conquer sin and death, not the Roman Empire. And His message was meant to convey what life would look like in the spiritual Kingdom He was going to establish on earth. As He would later tell the Roman governor, Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 ESV). Jesus was not interested in setting up an earthly Kingdom that consisted of vast tracts of land, opulent palaces, a well-equipped army, and a population of happy and fully satisfied citizens. He was out to redeem those who were spiritually enslaved and condemned to a life of eternal separation from His Heavenly Father.

With Jesus’ arrival, the Kingdom of God had come to earth in the form of its King. But the physical Kingdom itself would not come until later. With His first advent, Jesus had come to recruit citizens for His future earthly Kingdom. But in order to live in that Kingdom, these people would have to be radically changed. Their old sinful natures would have to be eradicated and replaced. There would have to be a complete transformation in their character in order for them to live in the Kingdom to come. As Paul told the believers in Corinth:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ESV

So, as Jesus was teaching His disciples, He was attempting to get them to understand the new criteria for holiness and righteousness that would determine inclusion in His Kingdom. And it was radically different than what they had always understood. When Jesus told them, “Judge not, and you will not be judged,” He was not suggesting that they refrain from all forms of judgment. He was warning that they must use the right standard when judging one another. That’s why He went on to say, “Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back” (Luke 6:37-38 NLT). 

Jesus was letting His disciples know that if they chose to judge and condemn others by their own set of standards, God would turn around and use those same standards to judge them. If they chose to withhold forgiveness from others, they would find themselves unforgiven by God. And if they failed to be generous to others, God would withhold his blessings from them. That’s why Jesus said, “the amount you give will determine the amount you get back.”

This was all going to require heart change. The natural man is inherently judgmental. He is condemning and unforgiving. His character is marked by selfishness and self-centeredness. And the standard he uses to determine his relationship with others is usually weighted in his own favor. But Jesus is calling His disciples to a completely different way of life that is governed by a different set of standards.

And to ensure that His disciples understood His meaning, Jesus gave them a series of illustrations in the form of a parable. He presented the comical image of a blind man leading another blind man. Because both men lack sight, they will end up in the same place: the ditch. One of the men must have his eyes opened in order to properly guide the other. Then Jesus applies this image to His disciples, encouraging them to take advantage of their relationship with Him as their teacher. Jesus could see things they couldn’t see. He had insights to which they were blind. They were going to have to have their eyes opened to the truth if they were going to be able to lead others in the future.

And Jesus wanted these men to understand that they were going to have to grasp and apply these truths before they could teach them to others. Their criteria for judgment were going to have to change. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (Luke 6:41 NLT). Jesus was going to expose and extract the logs in His disciples’ eyes. They had all kinds of spiritual baggage they were carrying around with them. Their understanding regarding the Kingdom, God, righteousness, forgiveness, holiness, and redemption was going to have to change. At this point, their eyes were effectively blind and their spiritual sight was obscured by the logs of legalism and self-righteousness.

Jesus lets them know that they are going to have to do some serious soul-searching and spiritual surgery before they are ready to lead others.

“First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” – Luke 6:42 NLT

But even that would prove impossible if they attempted to do it on their own. The disciples were just beginning their 3-year journey with Jesus that was going to expose their lack of faith, their misunderstandings regarding the Kingdom, their selfishness, and their desperate need for “power from on high” (Luke 24:4). They had so much to learn and just as much to unlearn. But they were on the verge of a life-transformative mission that none of them could have foreseen.

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

Never Give Up On Growing Up

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

25 Brothers, pray for us.

26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.

27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 ESV

Like Peter and the other apostles, Paul had a strong expectation that the believers to whom he wrote would grow up in their salvation (1 Peter 2:2). Spiritual immaturity or stagnancy in their faith was unacceptable. He told the believers in Colossae that his preaching of Christ was intended to bring about salvation and sanctification.

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. – Colossians 1:28 ESV

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, he told them that his responsibility as an apostle was to “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And then he added that this work of building up the body of Christ had a lofty end goal or objective:

This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. – Ephesians 4:13 NLT

The work would never be done. Full spiritual maturity would never be achieved – at least, not in this lifetime. And Paul expressed to the Galatians his intention to keep pouring into them until they bore the likeness of Christ.

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. – Galatians 4:19 NLT

You might say that Paul was a man possessed. He could not bear the thought of any believer failing to experience the fulness of salvation offered to them in Jesus Christ. And this included their sanctification, the divine process by which believers are transformed into the likeness of Christ through the power of God’s indwelling Spirit.

So, as he begins to wrap up his letter to the believers in Thessalonica, Paul let’s them know of his desire for their holiness. It was his life’s passion and his constant prayer to God on their behalf.

Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy… – 1 Thessalonians 5:23 NET

Paul knew that spiritual maturity was the work of God, not men. That does not mean we do not play a part, but that the work of sanctification is impossible without divine assistance. Paul has already told the Thessalonians that their sanctification was God’s will for them (1 Thessalonians 4:3), but now he reminds them that it is also God’s work. Only God can transform sinners into saints. Only He can replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).  Only He can radically alter their old natures, transforming them into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).

That is why Paul was constantly asking God to do what only He could do to bring about the spiritual maturity of His children.

I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. – Ephesians 1:16-18 NLT

Only God has the power to save and sanctify. And only God is capable of securing the spirits, souls, and bodies of His saints, so that they might remain “blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 NLT). By his use of the word “blameless,” Paul is not suggesting the possibility of achieving a state of sinless perfection in this life. He is simply reiterating a point he had made earlier in his letter. Their ability to one day stand before God “without fault” or “free from blame” would be the work of God.

May he…make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. – 1 Thessalonians 3:13 NLT

The ability to maintain a life marked by righteousness and holiness is a gift from God, just as salvation is. No one can save themselves and no one can preserve their saved state through self-effort. It is the work of God. And Paul assures the Thessalonians that God can be trusted to do what only He can do.

God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful. – 1 Thessalonians 5:24 NLT

God could be counted on to do His part. But they had a role to play as well. Paul has made that point perfectly clear throughout his letter. They would need to maintain their commitment to “serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV). They must continue to “walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:12 ESV). He expected to hear that they were “standing fast in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 ESV). And they could not afford to let up on their commitment to “live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans” (1 Thessalonians 4:4 ESV).

Their sanctification was a joint effort, powered by God, but requiring their willing and eager participation. If God’s will was their sanctification, they were going to have to adopt His will as their very own. It was essential that they make Christlikeness their primary passion and lifelong objective. And there was to be no goal less than full maturity in Christ. This meant that their sanctification would not be complete until they died and went to be with the Lord, or they lived long enough to see Him return at the Rapture for His church. Either way, the commitment to spiritual maturity and their ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ was to remain their highest priority.

The apostle Peter reminds us that, because of our faith in Christ, we have been given all that we need to live godly lives. We lack nothing.

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. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires. – 1 Peter 1:3-4 NLT

And the apostle John provides us with further assurance of our completed transformation into the likeness of Christ.

…we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

Paul closes his letter with a request. He asks the Thessalonians for their prayers of intercession on the behalf of himself and the rest of his ministry partners. The work of sharing the Gospel required divine assistance. Paul coveted their prayer because he knew that he was in the midst of a spiritual battle “against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT).

Finally, Paul asks that they express his love to all the members of the congregation and to make sure that his letter is read to everyone. And then he closes with a final blessing, asking that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon them. For Paul, the unmerited favor of God was a truly remarkable gift that never ceased to amaze and delight him. It was the key to salvation, sanctification and, ultimately, the glorification of all believers.

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

More and More

1 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ESV

Paul had an overwhelming desire to see the Thessalonian believers face-to-face. But this was about far more than a chance to reconnect and get reacquainted with old friends. Paul had something far more important in mind. As he told them in the previous section of his letter, the motivation behind his desire to see them again was that he “might supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV). He had sent Timothy “to establish and exhort” them in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:2 ESV). 

And while Paul has confessed that Timothy’s good news regarding their faith and love had brought him comfort, he still felt the pressing need to see them so that he might “fill in the gaps” of their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT).

It seems quite obvious that Paul loved these people. He had a pastor’s heart that cared for their spiritual well-being. And while their faith was strong, even in the midst of trying circumstances, Paul knew that there was much they needed to know if they were going to remain strong in the days ahead. The battle was far from over. The enemy had not thrown in the towel. The opposition had not given up their efforts to demoralize the sheep and discredit the shepherd.

So, Paul feels compelled to share with them one final word of counsel. He has complimented them on their faith and love. He has described them as “standing fast in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 ESV). But there is one more thing they need to hear him say.

we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV

Paul was not admonishing these people or demanding that they correct their sinful behavior. In fact, he added the statement, “…just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV). They were already living in a way that pleased God. But Paul wants them to know that they were going to need to do so “more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV).

In the short time Paul and Silas had spent in Thessalonica, they had instructed them how they ought to walk and please God. The Greek word translated as “walk” is peripateo, and it was a favorite term of Paul’s. It could be used to refer to the physical act of walking, but Paul commonly used it as a metaphor for spiritual life. When he used the term “walk,” he was referring to the daily conduct of one’s life. In those days, the average person went from place to place by walking. It was the primary mode of transportation. You couldn’t go anywhere or conduct your life without utilizing walking. So, Paul used this normal, everyday means of mobility as an analogy for living the Christian life. And he used it often.

who walk (peripateo) not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… – Romans 8:4 ESV

Let us walk (peripateo) properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. – Romans 13:13 ESV

Only let each person lead the life (peripateo) that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. – 1 Corinthians 7:17 ESV

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk (peripateo) in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called – Ephesians 4:1 ESV

walk (peripateo) in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.  – Colossians 1:10 ESV

As followers of Christ, their spiritual walk or manner of life was to be distinctively different than that of their lost friends and family members. They were to live set-apart lives, marked by holiness and righteousness. But their spirituality was never meant to remain in a static state. Being saved was never meant to be a one-time event but was to be an ongoing, regularly occurring, and lifelong transformational process. The apostle Peter referred to it as growing up in salvation (1 Peter 2:2).  Paul told the Ephesians believers to “grow up in every way into him” (Ephesians 4:15 ESV) – referring to Christ.

There is no place for complacency in the Christian life. At no point are we to become satisfied with the status quo. We are not the ones who get to determine whether we have successively achieved spiritual maturity. And Paul makes that point perfectly clear to his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification – 1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV

Paul put it in blunt terms. What God wanted of them and for them was simple: Their sanctification. But what did he mean by this? The Greek word he used is hagiasmos, and it can be translated as “holiness.” It derives from another Greek word, hagiazo, which means “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” To be holy was to be set apart or consecrated for a specific purpose. In the case of a believer, they were set apart to God. To be sanctified is the process of being constantly and consistently set apart for God’s use. It involves a separation from all that is ungodly or unrighteous. Or as Paul liked to put it, it involves putting off the old and putting on the new.

 …put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22, 24 ESV

Just a few verses earlier in his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul challenged them: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do…” (Ephesians 4:17 ESV). They were not to conduct their lives in the same way they had before. In fact, in chapter two of Ephesians, Paul pointed out the stark difference between their new life in Christ and that of their old, pre-salvation nature.

…you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked (peripateo), following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. – Ephesians 2:2-3 ESV

But Paul stressed the change that had taken place in their lives.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… – Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV

The lives of the Ephesians believers had been radically changed when they placed their faith in Christ. The same thing was true of the believers in Thessalonica. And that change was to be tangible and visible. It was to be evident in their behavior and in every facet of their daily lives. And just to make sure they understood the non-negotiable and all-pervasive nature of this change, Paul provided them with the details.

God’s will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 NLT

There was to be no compromising of their faith. There was no place for their old habits in their new life in Christ. Or as Paul put it to the Corinthian believers:

…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT

The old adage, “something old, something new” wasn’t going to cut it with God. He expected life transformation and had provided His Holy Spirit to make it possible. A life marked by sexual sin and immorality was unacceptable for the Christ-follower. It violated the will of God and failed to model a life of holiness. In the Greek culture of that day, sexual promiscuity was an accepted way of life. It was Demosthenes, a Greek statesman and orator who wrote:

“We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day to day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes.” – Demosthenes

In a culture marked by self-indulgence and the willful gratification of all sexual desires, the Christian was to live in such a way that distinguished them as having been set apart or consecrated to God – separated from the profane and dedicated to His glory. To do so, Paul states would require self-control. They would need to control their physical passions and desires, choosing instead to “live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways” (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5 ESV).

And, once again, Paul puts his thoughts in simple, easy-to-understand terms:

God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7 NLT

Not a lot of wiggle room there. Paul leaves no room for negotiation or debate. God’s will was their sanctification. His expectation was holiness, not impurity. He was interested in set-apartness, not sameness. And if anyone rejected this idea was not rejecting the teachings of Paul, they were actually disobeying and, ultimately, denying the will of God Almighty.

Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:8 ESV

Paul was teaching the need for ongoing life transformation. The Thessalonian believers were to walk and please God – more and more. There was to be no end to their spiritual journey. At no point were they to assume that they had arrived. Salvation was to result in ongoing sanctification – a never-ending, Spirit-empowered conformity to the image of Christ.

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

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

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

Reconciled to God

For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10 ESV

The church at Thessalonica may have been small, but it had been effective. They were suffering persecution for their faith, but they were not allowing it to diminish their joy in the Lord. Paul compares their lives to an instrument “sounded forth…everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 8 ESV). The Greek word he used is exēcheō, and it means “to sound forth, to echo forth.” Their actions and attitudes, outward expressions of their faith in Christ, had traveled well beyond the borders of their city and into the surrounding regions.

There is no indication that the Thessalonian church had sent out actual missionaries to carry “the word of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:8 ESV), but their lives were witness to the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In spite of their less-than-satisfactory circumstances, they were exhibiting the sanctifying power of the Spirit in their daily lives. And because it was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, and it stood on the Via Egnatia, the Roman highway to the East, it hosted countless travelers who would have heard the news of this fledgling religious community and their faith in God.

Paul makes a somewhat hyperbolic statement in order to indicate the powerful nature of their witness.

…your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything… – 1 Thessalonians 1:8 ESV

Obviously, Paul and his traveling companions were still having to share the Gospel wherever they went, but they were hearing more and more stories of those who had come to faith because of the witness of the Thessalonians believers. And Paul provides details regarding the exact nature of their testimony.

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God… – 1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV

The Thessalonian believers were living proof of the power of the Gospel, providing irrefutable evidence that God could transform idol-worshiping, sin-enslaved people into Spirit-filled, faith-empowered disciples of Jesus Christ. And their lives were in direct keeping with the transformative power of the Gospel as Paul described it to Titus.

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God… – Titus 2:11-12 NLT

In the first part of verse 9 Paul mentions “the kind of reception” he and Silas had experienced when they arrived in Thessalonica on their second missionary journey. It’s interesting to note that the New Living Translation renders Paul’s words as “the wonderful welcome.” But that seems a bit of a reach when you consider the actual facts surrounding those fateful days nearly a year earlier. As Luke records in Acts 17, Paul and Silas had initially found a somewhat receptive audience to their message.

…some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. – Acts 17:4 ESV

But this handful of eager converts were not the only ones to “welcome” Paul and Silas to Thessalonica.

But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar… – Acts 17:4 ESV

When Paul describes those events, he uses the Greek phrase, hopoios veisodos, which can be translated “what manner of entering in.” He seems to be emphasizing the harsh nature of their “welcome.” They were met with strong resistance from a group of Jews whom Luke describes as “wicked men.” And yet, a great many devout Greeks and not a few leading women in the city had chosen to hear and receive Paul’s message regarding salvation through faith alone in Christ alone.

And it was this unwelcoming welcome coupled with the decision of the Thessalonian believers to accept Christ that gave their witness its power. They had come to faith under extremely difficult circumstances. And they had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV). Their decision to follow Christ had not been made in a stress-free environment full of encouraging friends and family members. Each of the individuals who placed their faith in Christ had done so at great risk to their lives and livelihoods. When they had chosen “to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures” (Titus 2:12 NLT) and accept Paul’s message concerning the Messiah, they had placed themselves in direct opposition to the Jews and Gentiles in their community. They had become outcasts and targets for persecution.

Paul reminds them of the decisive nature of their decision:

you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. – 1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV)

They had chosen to leave behind a lifestyle of idolatry. They had turned their backs on the pagan practices of their past and had “turned to” God. The Greek word Paul uses is epistrephō, and it conveys the idea of returning or reverting. It can be translated “to come again.” These people were experiencing the joy of coming back to God, having been cleansed from their sins and made righteous in His eyes because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. They had been reconciled to God, a powerful reality that Paul described to the believers in Colossae.

You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault. – Colossians 1:21-22 NLT

This image of lost, sin-enslaved people returning to God with full access into His presence and their sins fully forgiven is what the Gospel is all about. Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of the reconciling nature of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in his second letter to the church at Corinth.

“…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 NLT

The Thessalonian believers had come back to God. And now they were serving the living God, not a man-made, lifeless idol with no capacity to provide help or hope. And they were serving the one true God, not one of many false gods whose statues could be found all over the city of Thessalonica.

And as part of their reconciliation to God, they had confidence that He would one day send His Son back to earth to redeem and rescue them from this sin-marred world. God had not only transformed their lives in the here-and-now, He had promised them eternal life in the hereafter. And they were willing to suffer now in order to gain what God had in store for them in the future.

And their belief in the one true God came with a guarantee of His Son’s ultimate return, which is why Paul encouraged them “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10 ESV). They might suffer for their faith in this life, but they would be delivered from the wrath of God to come. All because they had placed their hope in the gracious gift of God made possible by the sacrifice of the sinless Son of God.

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

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

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

The Heart of the Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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