JohnSWilson3 Blog

“…you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”
July 31, 2010, 2:35 pm
Filed under: O Letter to Philemon

After Paul writes his letter to the church in Colosse, he is led by Christ to write a letter “to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home.” While it seems initially Paul is writing to the church that meets in Philemon’s and Apphia’s home, Paul later references “brother” focusing on Philemon personally.

This is the only letter in the New Testament that is specifically written to a household, and specifically to Philemon the head of a household where the church in Colosse meets. It is possible that the church in Colosse, like that in Jerusalem, met house-to-house, so Philemon’s home could be one of several homes where the church gathers together. As I read these opening words it appears that Philemon and Apphia are married and perhaps have a role similar to Aquila and Priscilla who worked with Paul in Ephesus and Corinth. They offered up their home as a place the church could gather in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, share their meals together, and mutually edify one another. It seems that Archippus, one of Paul’s trained church planters lives in Philemon’s household. It is possible that Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, met Philemon and his wife while in Ephesus. They received Christ Jesus as Lord through seeing the church gather in Priscilla and Aquila’s household. Perhaps Philemon and Apphia sensed God calling them also to do the same in Colosse, to open their home to a church. Since Epaphras and Archippus were working with Paul and called by the Lord to plant churches this opened “a door for the Word…(to) proclaim the mystery of Christ” in that region.

This church in Colosse was growing organically in Christ and Paul heard many times of their “faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints,” specifically in relation to Philemon, whom Paul must have felt some kinship towards. When we learn Christ together in community, in face-to-face relationships, we will learn to live by the life of Christ and it will be manifested in our love for one another. We will refresh “the hearts of the saints.” How we need to mutually refresh the hearts of one another when we gather together! Paul makes a great point as he shares these words. As we live in this organic way, allowing Christ to be head of our gatherings and living by His life, this life of mutual love, this manifestation of the “fellowship of the faith,” we will grow “in full knowledge of every good thing in us for Christ.” Is this mine/your experience? May God move us forward in Christ Jesus and experience all that He has purposed for our lives, the fullness of Christ!

Paul’s main point in this letter is really nothing more than an application of this line of thought. This church, specifically how it relates to Philemon, being the head of his household, must face a societal issue. Will he “welcome” his run away slave, Onesimus, as he would welcome Paul? Will Philemon accept Onesimus “as Christ accepted (him), in order to bring praise to God”? Will the church that meets in his house welcome Onesimus, the run away slave? How the body of Christ has divided themselves because being deceived by the human traditions of society! The whole issue surrounds not Onesimus the run away slave but Onesimus but the “son” in the Lord of Paul. The “son” whom Paul helped to receive Christ Jesus as Lord. The one who is now “useful both to you and me.” Onesimus “who is my very heart,” the one whom Paul felt was taking Philemon’s “place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.” Onesimus the one who according to Christ was “no longer…a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” who was “very dear to (Paul) but even dearer to you, as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”

Will Philemon, Apphia and their household allow “the peace of Christ” to rule in their hearts by receiving Onesimus as an equal, as “members of one body”? Will they themselves “as members of one body”? “There is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” Paul asks Philemon, who was helped himself in receiving Christ Jesus as Lord by Paul, to reflect on the fact “that you owe me your very self.” How quick we are to judge others according to the flesh! Paul perhaps is reflecting on his second letter to the church in Corinth: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Onesimus is one that Christ died for! He is a new creation, just like any of us, no matter what place we hold in society, “the old has gone, the new has come!” To think differently is to be thinking in the flesh which had died with Christ on the cross. What Paul wrote, in his letter to the church in Colosse, was also directed specifically toward Philemon, “as members of one body.” “God made (us) alive with Christ” and because we “have been raised with Christ” we are to “set (our) hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set (our) minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Onesimus died and his “life is now hidden with Christ in God” just like Philemon, we are all equal at the cross!

No church will ever move forward in Christ unless they are living by the life of Christ both in the good times and in the unpleasant times. In fact it is during the testing of our faith, deciding to trust Christ and love each other unconditionally, no matter the circumstances, will the church move forward and see the fullness of Christ in our gatherings. Philemon and this church in Colosse have an opportunity to be further “built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” as they live by His life of grace and truth. There decision will show whether they are going to live by Christ’s life, in whom they “have been given fullness in Christ, who is head over every power and authority,” or fall into denial about their being dead to the flesh.

But Paul desires to hear that Philemon will accept Onesimus as a brother in the Lord that he would “refresh (his) heart in Christ.” Paul seems to be, even though he wrote the letter the way he did, “confident of your obedience…knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” We must “let the word of Christ dwell in (us) richly,” learn to listen to Christ speak to us inwardly and through one another and follow His directions. Living by the Spirit is listening and obeying His teaching and admonishment through “one another with all wisdom” being grateful that God would speak to us! When we live by Christ’s life, clothing ourselves with Him, we will follow what He says, we will bear the fruit of His life: “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” That’s living by the Holy Spirit! It is about living by His grace and truth. May “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Part 3
July 21, 2010, 2:01 pm
Filed under: N Letter to the Colossians, O Letter to Philemon

Paul has been describing how we manifest Jesus’ life to others in this last section of Chapter 3 of Colossians. Paul describes it as “whatever (we) do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Doing something “in the name of the Lord Jesus” doesn’t mean we do something because it’s just the right thing to do, but because it is the fruit of our life in the Lord. We must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. How we live is a demonstration of His life in us. By faith we “put to death” the old man, the flesh, by accepting we “died with Christ” to the things of this world and are completely forgiven of all sins by His cross; and by faith we “put on the new self,” the New Man, by accepting that we are “alive with Christ,” that He is our life. We do so by learning Christ together in community. As we learn Christ together from house to house and in the walk of life together with our Lord He will display Himself, His glory through us:

“Wives, voluntarily cooperate with your husbands as is fitting to the Lord. Husbands, sacrificially love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, listen to your parents in everything for this is well pleasing in the Lord. Father, do not provoke your children or they will become disheartened.” See notes for translation (1).

Paul’s intent was not so much as to change society by giving an alternate set of rules, but to enlarge Jesus Christ in His people so that change comes from an inward relationship with Jesus Christ. How often we try to make outward changes to either family life or working relationships, or society in general, without love. How often we enslave ourselves to some other human tradition. We have forgotten that our homes are the most important area of any society. Change the home, change society, change the world. But Jesus did not just die to change the world, He died and rose again to bring into existence His Church, a new creation, to reveal Himself through the body of Christ, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So while I say that changing the home can change society and the world this is an effect not the purpose of Christ.

Paul now takes some time to write to the Christians in Colosse about slaves and masters. Evidently he has Onesimus in mind as he writes these words. Onesimus will be traveling with Tychicus to take this letter to the church in Colosse. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon of Colosse in whose household Onesimus was a former slave but had run away. Paul somehow came into contact with Onesimus and he received Christ Jesus as Lord. Here we have another instant of how important the church gathering in households can have a tremendous affect not just on a household but on society in general.

Men were masters or lords of their homes, especially in the case of slaves and free persons who worked for the family. Because they lived in a pre-industrial society most work was done by the home. Masters could treat their slaves however they wanted. They were property to be bought and sold and slaves or free persons were not specific to any one ethnic group. A master of a household, whether a man, husband, or widowed female if they knew Jesus Christ as Lord now had a tremendous life to be shared within their household! Most lived with their slaves and free persons which meant a daily interaction with them as well as when the church gathered at their home, sometimes almost daily! How this institution of slavery became at odds with Jesus Christ’s life of freedom and grace as the church gathered under Christ’s headship! How Christ came in mightily to a home when Jesus Christ became Lord and head of the household! Providing for others, showing “compassion, humility, gentleness and patience. Bearing with each other and (forgiving) whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” struck the death knell of slavery for those who lived by Jesus life!

Slaves or free persons who believed in the Lord Jesus were now free in Christ! Free from sin, free from the flesh. Alive in Christ and members of one body! Today we would say these would be workers in a business, since during and after the industrial age slavery was no longer needed, not to say a horrendous human tradition that was begun and perpetuated by human evil and exploitation. If we work for someone, no matter if they know Jesus or not, if we are living by the Spirit then we will listen to, or obey our “earthly masters” or managers “in everything.” Jesus again said He came to serve not to be served. So we follow the instructions of our managers and do the work we have been assigned and “not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.” The slaves and free persons were to see their masters/managers, if they knew Jesus, as being alive with Christ. They were to see themselves as fully able to function within the body of Christ as they gathered in the households that they served. In Christ there is no “slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” A slave will see his master/manager as in Christ. A master/manager will see his slave as in Christ. There are no more distinctions of slave or free but as members of one body and function freely together. How crazy to take a glimpse of a gathering in Colosse in the 1st century with slaves and masters together in the same room freely functioning by the life of the Spirit! The slave giving “a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or interpretation…for the strengthening of the church,” which includes his master!

Slaves, servants, workers as they live by Jesus’ life who is their life, will show His grace and truth to their masters/managers who do not know the Lord. These masters/managers will see Jesus on display and they will come face to face with the reality of the life of Christ and they to will have to make a decision, to confess Jesus as Lord and become a part of His body or reject Him.

Paul finally then says: “Masters (lords), provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master (or Lord) in heaven.” If the master of a household was a follower of Jesus Christ then as they live by His life, how they relate to their slaves were to be counter to what the world says. They are not to be sexually immoral, impure, or evil towards their slaves, being angry towards them, showing “rage, malice, slander” or speaking “filthy language” to them, which “belongs to your earthly nature,” the flesh, because they have “died with Christ to the basic principles of this world” and are now “alive with Christ.” When living by His life a manager will demonstrate Jesus’ life, His righteousness, His fairness, His grace, His mercy.

Paul had these thoughts in mind as he was finishing this letter to the church and in a moment to write his personal letter his “dear friend and fellow worker” Philemon who was master of the household where the church met and had previously owned Onesimus, now a brother in Christ. Would Philemon and Onesimus live by Jesus’ life, seeing each other as dead to their sins and alive with Christ, able to forgive one another, letting “the peace of Christ rule in their hearts, since (they were) members of one body”? May we let the Lord Jesus live deeply within us and through us to one another in the body of Christ and manifest His life in ways we could never imagine!

(1) Jon Zens uses Thayer’s Greek Lexicon to use the non-military use of the word “subject” which is “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” Jon Zens, “What’s With Paul And Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Timothy 2,”Nebraska: Ekklesia Press, 2010, 118. Husbands ‘agape’ your wives, is “Christian love” and is selfless or sacrificial from W.E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 381-382. “Obey” means to “listen” with intent of following the instructions from Vine, 438. Other parts of verses 18-21 are from Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear KJV-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, 1975, The Zondervan Corporation, 593.

Some thoughts on Greco-Roman households

I come now to the ending of Chapter 3 of Paul’s letter to the church in Colosse regarding wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters. I had to take a day or so and mull this section over. So this blog will focus just on this cultural context. It would seem obvious in retrospect to gloss over these few verses but I wanted to look at the Greco-Roman culture to see how this context affects how we understand these verses. This entire letter was meant to be read to all the members of the church at Colosse and Paul wanted this letter also read to the church in Laodicea and presumably the church in Hierapolis, perhaps that met at Nympha’s house.

The church gathered together mainly in homes, meeting from house to house, and possibly around town as they met each other in daily life. Because the church met in homes the families or the households would be a major place in society where the life of Jesus, being lived out by His followers, would have the greatest affect. We know from Paul’s travels that when the head of the household received Christ Jesus as Lord the rest of the household would be tremendously affected in ways completely unimaginable in Western society today. These homes and therefore the church was a mix of wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters.

I found most of the following information from an excellent resource by Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch, titled “Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches” (1). Households in the Greco-Roman world of the first century were basically of two kinds either urban cities/towns or agrarian farms. Each household could be different culturally, dependent upon it either being Roman or a lower class citizen such as Greek, Jew, etc. In either case households often had slaves or servants to help with the work of the household. The household, like society at that time, was also dominated by the male. “Public space (in the home), agricultural tools, and political activities belong to the world of men. Private space, domestic tools, and family activities belong to the women.” Although this tended to be confined to the higher class families of “status and affluence.” In general “no ancient Mediterranean man would have thought that a woman could be his equal; only a man of similar education and social status could be. Only a man could be equal to a man, a woman to a woman.” Men and women of higher social class families during “formal dining…dined apart, though for informal family dining, the whole family ate together.” Reclining instead of sitting was reserved “to men and prostitutes, it being considered improper to female modesty and proper shame for respectable women to recline,” this lending itself to sexual immorality by the men with prostitutes at the formal dinner. It seems though, in general, Romans did not preoccupy themselves so much with “gender distinctions” as to social class and wealth.

In regarding children, especially the male children “once thrust into the male world, sons found themselves subject to stern discipline and testing from their fathers in order to prepare them for the anticipated ordeals of manhood.” While this can be true in most cultures it was even more so during this era. Children were highly prized as sons helped in preserving family property and girls in contracting good marriages to increase social status. Because of this period of time “birth rate was low, (and) families had few children” because “many of those who were born died, and others were subject to infanticide or exposure, which Greeks and Romans used as a method to control family size. These exposed babies were often raised as slaves.” (2)

The Roman world was run by slaves, but “no one race was enslaved,” in fact “some slaves had been free neighbors who fell into debt, or who were defeated in war.” In that day and age “slavery was a personal misfortune that could arouse pity in the audience, but it was not understood as a social evil.” “Many slaves were used in agriculture, but in an urban context, their professions were as diverse as those of the free workers.” In fact some slaves actually “managed powerful masters’ resources.” “In the city, they sometimes lived independently of the master. Sometimes they managed one of the shops on the street in the front of the master’s house.” Interestingly “a man could pledge his wife, children, or himself against a debt; sale into slavery would follow on nonpayment.” “A slave with a family life” was “bound to the estate and produce slave children, an increase in the owner’s property.” In fact female slaves were often bought for the purpose of bearing children and then the children were sold by their masters later “during their child-producing years.” Female slaves “were degraded especially through sexual exploitation and physical abuse.” “The harshness of their life among other reasons led many slaves to run away, sometimes in small groups.” (3)

So this church in Colosse, as well as Ephesus and all other churches from the Greek/Roman culture, finds itself with a gathering of believers (perhaps with unbelievers watching or walking into the gatherings) of wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters and living by the grace and love of Jesus in the households in that period of time! No wonder the world saw Christians, as they lived by Jesus life, “turning the world upside down”! It is so hard for us, in the Western world, to really grasp the kind of changed life the Holy Spirit must have done in these peoples lives to love one another they way they did given the cultural context of that day and age. To follow Christ was truly to live by a different life! Only in places of great social distinctions and human injustice would we truly see the life of Jesus bring such tremendous freedom but also such persecution. He who has been forgiven more loves more.

(1) The authors hold that “the traditional preindustrial family was a center of production rather than consumption. The labor and skill of the members produced most of the items of household consumption.” Information was found primarliy in pages 41-47. Osiek, Carolyn and David L. Balch, Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 42.
(2) Ibid., 65.
(3) Ibid., 74-80.

Thoughts about Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon

I’ve read through what has been known as Paul’s prison letters from Rome many times. As you read the letters it is apparent that they were written within a short span of each other. It is evident that they were written after his taking the financial gifts to the poor Christians in Jerusalem and his arrest and trials in Jerusalem and Caesarea since the collection of the gift is not mentioned. The letters also seem to be more generalized, especially Ephesians, even more so than found in his letter to the Roman Christians. The structure of the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians are much more similar than any of his letters written previously. Because of Paul’s description of how Christian slaves and masters should express Christ towards one another it seems that this perhaps was Paul’s reasoning for what he wrote about in his letter to his good friend Philemon.

The order that Paul wrote these three letters seems to be Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians. This follows Frank Viola’s thoughts from his book “The Untold Story of the New Testament Church.” Colossians and Philemon seem to be written right after each other since Paul lists the same “fellow workers” that are currently with him: Timothy, Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, Demas (Colossians 4:10-13 and Philemon 23-24). The two letters of Colossians and Philemon must have been written within the first year of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome since at the end of the book of Acts Luke is with Paul recording the Paul’s journey to Rome and mentions that “Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.” It is possible that Paul’s “friends” mentioned in Acts 27:3 included most of the names of his fellow workers listed in Colossians. Sadly, this Demas is perhaps the one, a few years later, who would be described as deserting Paul “because he loved this world.” “Jesus, who is called Justus” a Jewish fellow worker is also with Paul during the writing of Colossians. Perhaps these were some of Paul’s assistant church planters that he trained during his years in helping plant the church in Ephesus.

Ephesians seems to have been written later or was written to all of the churches since it is more general in nature, focused specifically on the church, and only mentions “Tychicus” who is taking the letter to this church. Tychicus is also mentioned in Colossians who seems to be the carrier of both letters at the same time to the Colossians and Ephesians. Paul seemed to have taken pains at forming the Ephesian letter with an outline, perhaps taking parts of Colossians as his background. Because Ephesus was the major city of Asia and Paul’s primary location of church planting it would make sense that the letter would be sent to the church in Ephesus and be used for copying to send to other churches in the region and beyond.

I find it interesting trying to determine the time line of Mark and his work with both Peter and Paul since both Peter and Paul mention Mark in some of their letters. This may have a bearing on when they were written. I’m still unsure, and we will probably never be sure whether Mark’s name being mentioned in Peter’s first letter indicates the letter was written before Paul’s imprisonment in Rome or afterwards. Tradition holds that Peter’s letters were written after Paul’s first Roman imprisonment and in fact much later, even after Paul’s death in Rome. I have thought that perhaps because of the number of years between Paul’s second and third church planting missions and his imprisonment in Caesarea that it is possible that Mark left Barnabas at Cyprus or Barnabas and Mark went back to Jerusalem and there Mark was linked up with Peter. Mark then spent time with Peter writing down the stories of Jesus life thus writing the gospel according to Mark sometime during Paul’s latter part of his second to his third church planting mission. The question is whether Mark wrote his gospel in Jerusalem, in traveling with Peter (Peter possibly visited the churches that had been planted by Paul perhaps between Paul’s second and third church planting journeys), or both, or when Peter went to Babylon (I take the literal place of Babylon in Mesopotamia). It seems that Mark went with Paul to Rome from Caesarea after having written his gospel, making Mark now a very valuable “fellow worker” in spreading the gospel. Christ was being formed in Mark in a wonderful way and he was no longer the fearful person that Paul knew on the start of his first church planting mission. Perhaps later Mark left Rome with some of Paul’s fellow workers back to Ephesus, realizing Mark’s gifts or sending him back to Peter after hearing of Peter’s plan to reach out to the Babylonians. Or did Mark write his gospel and Peter’s first letter before leaving with Paul to Rome? Much is opinion. God only knows the details that have not been filled in.

Some believe that Paul wrote Philemon while he was in Ephesus. Perhaps like John Pollock they believe that Philemon was written while Paul was in prison for a short period of time while in Ephesus during his third church planting mission. John Pollock believes that the letter to the Philippians was written from a prison in Ephesus which I also hold to as well (1). Paul’s mention in Philemon to “prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” seem to indicate that Paul was in Ephesus since it “was so much nearer to Colossae than Rome was (100 miles over against more than 1000)” (2) where Philemon lived. There is perhaps a better reason for Paul having written the way he did to Philemon and still have written it from Rome. Within the first year or so of being in prison in Rome Paul seems to have gotten word from Epaphras and others that because of certain legalists and false teachers that had found there way into the the churches in Asia, like what happened in the Galatian churches and the Corinthian church, Paul may have decided to change his plans of going to Spain after his Roman imprisonment (did his being in prison in Caesarea and Rome already cause Paul to change his mind to go to Spain that he mentioned in his letter to the Romans a few years earlier?). It seems the arguments for Paul’s need to return to Asia “outweighed” his necessity to go to Spain indicates he probably wrote the letters from Rome versus having written Philemon from an Ephesian prison (3).

These letters of Paul are among the most beloved! The letter to the Colossians gives a glorious picture of Christ, His fullness and His supremacy over “all things;” the letter to Philemon is Paul’s only personal letter in the New Testament (not a pastoral letter as tradition holds, in fact are not all of the New Testament letters pastoral letters?); and the letter to Ephesians speaks of Christ as “head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” They are the “sum” of Paul’s previous writings, like Revelation is the sum of the writing of all of Scripture (4). Because of Paul’s focus on the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ, specifically in Colossians and Ephesians, I am incline to also believe that when Paul went back to Ephesus and subsequently to Colossae, Laodicea, etc that he wrote the letter to the Hebrews, since the focus of Hebrews is to show the centrality and supremacy of Jesus over all that was written in the Old Testament to the Jewish Christians while Colossians and Ephesians shows the centrality and supremacy over all things to the primarily Gentile Christians.

Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews are each incredible letters when read together and gives us Jesus Christ in all of His glory, revealing the mystery: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

(1) Pollock, John, The Apostle: A Life of Paul, Chariot Victor Publishing, 1985, 193-202.
(2) This describes F.F. Bruce’s comments on the argument by G.S. Duncan and C.H. Dodd. Bruce, F.F., The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The new Internaional Commentary on the New Testament, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1984, 194.
(3) Ibid, 196.
(4) Ibid, 229.