Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lessons from Philemon: The Gospel Changes How We Relate to People

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
Philemon 12-17

Last week we learned about Onesimus, Philemon's runaway slave. Though his name meant useful, he was anything but useful as a slave. In fact, after some time he ran away, potentially stealing from his master to fund the journey. Onesimus fled to Rome to disappear into the crowds. There he met the Apostle Paul who shared the gospel with him. Onesimus was saved and was forever changed by the gospel. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he began serving others of his own free will. Through Onesimus' conversion story we learn that the gospel changes everything. In fact the entire Christian life can be summed up as the ongoing process of allowing the gospel to change us. This week we see that the gospel must change how we relate to other people.

In the passage above Paul asks Philemon to do a remarkable thing. Paul sends Philemon's runaway slave back to him and he asks him to receive Onesimus no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Moreover, Paul requests that Philemon receive Onesimus as if he were the Apostle Paul himself. Now by the common perspective of the day Onesimus, being a runaway slave, was a criminal. Philemon could have him whipped or worse. Yet, Paul expects better of Philemon based on the gospel. He tells Philemon that his relationship with Onesimus has been changed by the power of the gospel. No longer are they merely master and slave. From this point on, throughout eternity, they are first and foremost brothers in Christ. Whatever else factors into their relationship, this must be considered first.

Has the gospel changed the way you relate to people? Do you continue to manipulate and use people to get your way? Are you stuck in your old racist habits? Or has the gospel thoroughly changed your relationships? Simply put the gospel should be the primary determining factor in how we relate to other people. If a person has accepted the gospel then, no matter what else they are to us, we must relate to them first and foremost as a brother or a sister in Christ. Now this has a whole host of implications for the lives of believers, but here are two. First, it means we must forgive other believers. If God has seen fit to forgive them, how can we refuse?! Second, it also means that we must treat those we date with respect. Hopefully you know the Bible commands us to date only believers (2 Cor. 6:14-15). If the person we are dating is first our brother or sister in Christ then you can't use that person for personal gratification. You must respect them and honor them as a child of God. 

What about those who aren't believers? The same principle holds. The gospel should be the primary determining factor in how we relate to other people. If a person has not yet accepted the gospel then, no matter what else they are to us, we must relate to them first and foremost as a lost person in need of the gospel. Even if they are cruel or mean to us, we must remember that they desperately need someone to show them the grace and love of God. Our every interaction with them ought to be colored by this need. One implication of this truth for today is that even as many Christians experience fear that sharing Jesus with Muslims might put them in danger, we must remember that first and foremost they are people in need of the gospel. Regardless of what happens we must share God's love and grace with them. We dare not return evil for evil. We must overcome evil with love. 

Which of your relationships needs to be changed by the gospel? 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lessons from Philemon: The Gospel Changes Everything

I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. 
Philemon 10-16a

There are certain moments in life that simply change everything... moments that are so significant that after they occur nothing is ever the same again. Like the moment you hear the preacher say, "I now pronounce you man and wife." Or that first moment you lay eyes on your child. These moments change us. They affects us deeply both because of their innate power and because they are a forerunner of a host of other changes bursting into our lives. In Paul's little letter to Philemon we learn that the most significant of these life changing moments is the moment of salvation.

Onesimus had been a slave in Philemon's household until, severely unhappy in his bonds, Onesimus seized an opportunity to escape. It was dangerous to be a runaway slave in first century Roman society, if caught one could be killed. So Onesimus did what many other runaway slaves did. He did his best to disappear into the crowds of Rome, the largest city in the empire. As providence would have it, Onesimus found himself in the company of the Apostle Paul imprisoned in Rome for the sake of the gospel. Perhaps it was seeing a man so willingly submit to chains for the gospel that caught Onesimus' attention. Either way, Onesimus heard the truth about Jesus from Paul. He was moved by the Spirit, and responded in faith. Onesimus was never the same again.

In verse eleven Paul uses a play on words to describe the significant change that took place in this fugitive's life. The name Onesimus was commonly given to slaves in the first century because it meant "useful." Yet, Paul says that our Onesimus was decidedly useless as a slave. Yet, once he had received the gospel, he was changed. Perhaps for the first time in his life Onesimus found himself wanting to serve others. He began selflessly ministering to Paul's needs and helping in the advance of the gospel. Onesimus was a changed man. Though these details are not recorded in Scripture and therefore are not beyond scrutiny, church tradition tells us that this very same Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus and was eventually martyred for his faith in Rome.

What we learn from Onesimus' life is that the gospel changes everything. It changes who we are. It changes our character. The Apostle Paul certainly knew this. The gospel changed him from a murdering enemy of Jesus to an apostle and great missionary of the faith. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here!" Simply put, if the gospel hasn't changed you, you aren't a Christian. So I must ask. Has the gospel changed you? 
Jesus Himself said, "Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matthew 7:22-23) So don't consider what you have accomplished, but what the gospel has accomplished in you. Has the gospel changed you? If not, then allow me to share with you the same powerful truth that the Apostle Paul shared with Onesimus in hopes that the Spirit will use this opportunity to reach down and change your heart today. 

All of us have sinned against God, rejected His authority, and gone about living lives our own way. In this way we have made ourselves enemies of God, rightly deserving His wrath and punishment. But God is loving and gracious. So in Jesus He took on the nature of humanity and paid the penalty for our sin. He took our punishment on the cross. He died in our place and then he beat the power of sin and death by his resurrection on the third day. So that "if you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)

For further reading...
  • Philemon- Check out the full letter to Philemon. It's only 25 verses.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Before You Begin...

Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
John 1:32-34

Certain things in life are prerequisite to the journey ahead. You don't begin a road trip without first checking to make sure you have enough gas in the tank, air in the tires, and oil in the engine. Neither do you start a hiking trip wearing only your PJs and house shoes. It's the same with our Christian walk. Before you begin any undertaking for the Lord you should make sure you have what is necessary.

In today's passage we find Jesus about to embark on His public ministry, but before He begins, one thing is necessary. Jesus gets baptized and at His baptism the Spirit descends on Him like a dove and remains on Him. That last point always escaped my notice, but it is important. You see the Spirit's lighting on Jesus is not merely a sign to identify Him as the Messiah. It is much more than that. The Spirit resting on Him is both a symbol of His kingship (kings in the O.T. were often anointed with oil as a symbol of God's Spirit) and an important empowering preparation for His ministry. This is Jesus' Day of Pentecost. He is being filled with the Spirit and empowered to go out and perform His ministry.

If it was necessary and fitting for Jesus' ministry to begin with a Holy Spirit anointing, then how much more is it necessary for us? Notice that none of the gospels record Jesus having a single convert or performing a single miracle before His anointing with the Spirit. Therefore, we must be careful to remember that we are not called to do anything for God, as though we were capable of accomplishing anything of substance without Him. Rather we are called to do great things with God...good works He has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10). How does one get the Spirit? The passage says that it is Jesus who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit. Every Christian at their salvation is filled with the Spirit. It is given to all believers to empower and guide them along their journey, but we must learn to walk and minister in it. So before you begin making your own plans today, be sure to ask for God's guidance and blessing through His powerful Spirit.

For further reading...

  • Matthew 4:1-11- Several of the gospels follow Jesus' baptism with the Spirit immediately leading him into the desert to face temptation. 
  • Romans 8- Life through the Spirit.
  • I John 4- How to recognize the Spirit of God.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Better than Ezra?

While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”
Ezra 10:1-4

It's hard for me to read about Ezra in the Bible without thinking of the band Better than Ezra. I am fairly certain that their name has nothing to do with the Ezra of the Bible but if it does that would be a real challenge. Ezra provides such a strong example for believers to live up to that it would be hard to do much better than he did. Ezra was a man who held God's Word in high regard and dedicated himself to it. Could that be said of you? Ezra 7:10 says, "For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel." He was passionate about keeping God's commands and teaching Israel to do the same. He was sent by the Persian King Artaxerxes to help rebuild the temple and ensure that God's laws and the king's laws were being kept. As soon as Ezra arrives back in Judah some of the leaders come to him to confess that the people have fallen into sin (9:1-4). They have started marrying foreign women from the surrounding nations. Ezra's response to their sin changed everything.

But before we turn to look at Ezra's response we must pause to consider the people's sin. It can be hard to understand from a New Testament perspective and it sounds offensive to post-modern ears to say that marrying foreign women is a sin. It's very important that we read Scripture carefully. The problem wasn't really that these Jewish men were marrying women with a different skin color or language. The Bible isn't against interracial marriage. The problem is that these women didn't worship God. At this time in history only Jews worshiped God. Thus, the Old Testament often uses the term "foreign" in way that is synonymous with idol-worshiper. Still not convinced? It is clear from Scripture that God has no qualm with marrying a foreigner who converts to Judaism. Ruth was a foreign woman as was Rahab. Yet both of them received the Jewish God as their God, both married Jewish men, and both are in the family line of Christ Jesus Himself. The problem wasn't that Jews were marrying Gentiles but that they were marrying idol worshipers. People who worshiped other gods were being brought into the people of Israel. This brought the whole company under the threat of God's judgment. It also brought significant risk that these women would entice their husbands away from worshiping the one true God to worshiping idols. (Even the wise King Solomon fell into this trap.) So then the issue at hand is not interracial marriage but being unequally yoked in marriage with an unbeliever, which the New Testament itself also speaks out against. (2 Cor. 6:14-18)

Ezra's response to their sin is truly instructive. He does not yell in anger. Nor does he call an assembly to quote the Bible to them. Ezra simply mourned over the sin of the people and went before God on their behalf. He mourned because he knew God's judgment could break out against all of Judah. But I believe he also mourned for God because his people were throwing His offer of forgiveness and grace back in His face. Ezra's righteous mourning opened their eyes to the seriousness of their sin. It had such an effect on his people that they not only freely confessed their sin and joined him in mourning over it but they also became willing to put their sin away. Do you mourn over the sin of those around you? Have you ever considered how much of an impact your response to sin can have on those around you? What if your lost friend at work based his opinion of Christianity on your response to sin in the office, would he become a Christian? If your child's future walk with the Lord depended on your response to the sin in music, TV, and the movies that you watch, would you expect her to be a strong believer twenty years from now? The righteous life and righteous response of a few can have a big impact on our society. Even when our world disagrees with us over sin, a righteous response to sin can give them reason to think, to reconsider their beliefs. So today I encourage you to mourn over sin. Mourn over your own sin and the sin of others. Mourn over how our culture celebrates it. Mourn for those who will face judgment apart from the grace available in Jesus. Mourn for our God who deserves all glory yet is all too often met with disrespect and contempt.

For further reading...
  • 1 Cor. 7:12-16- It should be noted that the New Testament doesn't advocate divorcing our unbelieving spouses. This is in part due to the possibility that some of us may have married prior to coming to Christ, but it is also because your marriage to a non-believer doesn't endanger the entire nation like it did for the Old Testament people of God. 
  • 2 Cor. 6:14-18- Christians are specifically instructed, however, not to marry non-believers.
  • Exodus 12:43-49- Part of the Old Testament law that makes provision for foreigners to become a part of the people of God. Circumcision was the sign of God's covenant with His people, so prior to Christ being circumcised was how one entered into that covenant with God and joined His people.