Philemon: the Radical Call of God

Paul wrote this letter most likely while he was imprisoned in Rome to Philemon, a believer in Colossae who seemed to be the leader of a house church. Paul wrote on the behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, who had either run away from him or overextended his visit to Paul whom Philemon might have sent him to on an errand.

Either way, it seems that Onesimus could have faced a severe punishment upon his return home if Paul didn’t first encourage Philemon to welcome him in the same way Philemon would have welcomed Paul:

So if you consider me your partner, welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.

Philemon 17

When this letter was written, slaves, although they had rights under Roman law, were still subject to severe punishment in the case of rebellion and runaways, including torture, branding, and crucifixion. In fact, there seemed to be a constant fear of “servile rebellion,” that it was almost considered a civil duty to severely come down on runaways lest masters become responsible for a mass-servant insurrection.

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Walking through the hills of California’s valley

So it was a big deal when Paul urged Philemon, Onesimus’ master, to welcome him as he would welcome Paul. He even tells Philemon to no longer treat him as a slave in regard:

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Philemon 15,16

Paul’s command to Philemon was radical. Not only was Philemon discouraged from punishing Onesimus, but he was to essentially treat him as a free man. This was probably absolutely unheard of in the Greco-Roman society and something that Philemon might have really struggled with.

Paul’s challenge to Philemon is the same challenge God presents to all who want to follow Him. His ways are generally completely counter-cultural, and yet His Spirit empowers us to overcome these fears and strongholds that keep us from following His will so that we can actually start looking different from the rest of the world. That has always been His purpose with the Israelites and is still His purpose for all who believe in Him today: to point toward His glory by walking according to His Spirit.

Here are just a few examples of the influences culture has had on my thinking that God has been renewing my mind in:

  • Prioritizing personal comfort and happiness
  • Finding value and identity in others versus Christ alone
  • Believing that I need more clothes and things to be happy
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The Book of Romans (Part II): Finding Freedom in Unconditional Love

This is a continuation from my previous post about the Book of Romans. I wanted to split this post up in two parts only because there was too much to say in just one entry!

Along with walking in the grace of the Holy Spirit, when studying Romans God also highlighted to me the difference between His love and the way the world does love.I think since sin entered into the world in the Garden of Eden, God has been teaching mankind what unconditional love looks like. It is completely opposite to the world’s kind of love, which must be earned through looking a certain way, acting a certain way, having a certain skill, etc. Therefore, this kind of love, the one that needs to perform, is conditional and therefore not true love.

In Romans, Paul points out that God chose to bless Isaac before he was born. This is is significant since Isaac didn’t have a chance to “earn” God’s love, showing mankind that His love is unconditional. There shouldn’t be any confusion on mankind’s part that love is at all earned.

Even before [Isaac and Esau] had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.”

Romans 9:11,12

This revelation of the world’s kind of love (which isn’t actually true) and of God’s true unconditional love is so freeing. If we come to grasp the reality of this absolute truth, that all we need to do is receive and accept His love to get it, then no longer do we have to live in insecurity. We don’t have to perform. We don’t have to be “perfect” according to the world’s standards. We don’t have to have perfect bodies, clothes, skills, etc. And we don’t require other people to perform in order to “earn” our love.

It also showed me that God’s unconditional love is not about feelings (it’s

Our teacher for the Book of Romans
Our teacher for the Book of Romans

about action) and not dependent on feelings. Yes, God had deep affections for His people, which are a result of love, but even if the Israelites weren’t acting in a way that would give God pleasant feelings, His care and provision for His people was always there because His love wasn’t conditioned upon having pleasant feelings.

People mistaking their own feelings, affection and attraction to one another for unconditional love is probably a major reason why close relationships can be challenging. As soon as the other person stops “acting” in a way or “looking” in a way that makes the other person feel good, then the love grows cold. Resentment, bitterness, and irritation spring up, which shows that something in the relationship wasn’t lining up toward true love:

…love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…

1 Corinthians 13:4,5

This just showed me how important it is for me to be filled with God’s unconditional love so that I can unconditionally love others. If I’m feeling resentful or irritable toward someone, it’s probably because I’m requiring the other person to behave differently so they can continue to give me good feelings toward them. But that’s not what love is all about. There are no expectations or requirements for God to love us. He doesn’t stop providing our needs because we’re being prideful or annoying or stubborn, etc. And PRAISE God for that or else we would all be completely unlovable people!

Book of Romans (Part I): Finding Peace in His Grace

Studying Romans was AMAZING! Romans and 2 Corinthians are definitely my two favorite New Testament books. But we still have many more books to get through so that might change 🙂

Paul wrote this letter to the Roman church somewhere between 54-57 AD. The Roman church was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers as Paul addresses both directly.

The main idea of the book was that both the Jewish and Gentile believers were saved through grace by faith, not through the law. This truth, which was the very essence of the gospel, was supposed to unify them:

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…

Romans 3:21-24

 

For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants…

Romans 4:15,16

I want to share the definition of “righteousness” according to the Hebrew Greek Lexicon:

  1. in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God
    1. the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God
    2. integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting

From this definition, I see that Paul isn’t just talking about a righteousness that “gets us people into heaven,” but about a righteousness that produces the correct way of living today.

God highlighted to me how the main message in Paul’s letter to the Romans applies to the modern church. Even non-Jewish believers today try coming up with some way outside of God’s grace to become “righteous” (to start living in integrity, purity, rightness, etc). This happens when believers start self-imposing rules on their lives and behaviors that God never told them to impose.

Let’s say a Christian is struggling to overcome some kind of addiction or unhealthy dependence on something/someone, realizing that they’ve become a slave to it (which is obviously outside of God’s righteousness). To break free, that person might start applying self-imposed rules to help them break free from their sin.

For example, someone with a porn addiction might try to cut it out all together because they feel ashamed and can’t seem to overcome it as a Christian. But if they haven’t received grace from the Spirit to walk this out, then their self-imposed rules will fail them and they may even turn back to their sin with a stronger craving. This results in more shame, disappointment and perhaps anger at God.

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My friend and I taking a break from studying at the beach!

This is why the law wasn’t able to impart righteousness under the old covenant. The Israelites’ history proved that man was just not able to overcome the power of sin without God. The same holds true today without His Spirit and grace.

Even though it is tempting for believers to take their holiness in their own hands, without God’s grace, it will always result in striving. Paul realized this, too. Whenever he set his mind to do the right thing, “death” was at hand, because he was under the temptation to do the right thing outside of the grace of the Spirit:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.

Romans 7:21

This concept is confirmed in the Epistle to the Colossians:

All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Colossians 3:22,23

Our self-imposed rules on our lives have no value to counter self-indulgence! If that is our goal, to counter overindulgence, then we must put our hope in Christ alone, not in self-imposed rules.

This should come as great news for believers. We don’t have to try to become holy because the Spirit does it for us. All we have to do is learn how to discern God’s voice so we can obey Him in whatever He’s calling us to do so that He can work in us. This, I believe, is what walking in the grace of the Holy Spirit means. And it is the Spirit’s grace (strength) alone that can bring wholeness, healing and righteousness:

…the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled us.

Romans 8:2,3

God has been faithful to bring me healing in so many areas of my life without my “help.” He doesn’t leave one part of my heart untouched. I’m sure that He has a lot more He wants to do, and I can trust that He will do it.

But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Romans 8:10,11

This blog post is continued into a second part on a different topic from Romans if you care to read on!

2 Corinthians: Genuine Love Deserves Trust

In 2 Corinthians (I wrote a bit about the church’s historical background in my previous post), Paul basically wrote to defend his ministry (and also to encourage the Corinthians to give generously).The church in Corinth had begun to mistrust Paul because they had been listening to some false “super apostles” who were teaching them lies and pointing toward themselves and their false doctrine:

…I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you.

2 Corinthians 11:2-6

So Paul spends almost the entire letter showing the Corinthians that his proven godly character, faith, and heart toward them made him worthy of their pure devotion to the gospel he had preached:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

2 Corinthians 4:5

We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart.

2 Corinthians 5:12

Unlike the false apostles, Paul wasn’t trying to point toward himself, but always to Christ.

Another reason why the Corinthians should trust Paul was because he was willing to suffer for them, just like Jesus:

We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…

2 Corinthians 6:3-5

Additionally, the false apostles couldn’t give the Corinthians anything that was good for them. But Paul led them to receive the Holy Spirit, which brought them life.

…and you show yourselves that you are a letter of Christ; prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God…Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

2 Corinthians 3:2-6

The Corinthians themselves were proof that Paul was worthy of their affection.

This pleading and reminders of Paul’s faithfulness reminds me of how God often reminded His people in the Old Testament of His proven love for them so that they would be obedient to Him:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,Hosea
    the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
    and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
    I took them up in my arms;
    but they did not know that I healed them.
 I led them with cords of human kindness,
    with bands of love.
I was to them like those
    who lift infants to their cheeks.
    I bent down to them and fed them.

Hosea 11:1-4

To me, Paul is an incredible guy because of his great love for people! Even though Paul was super mature in the faith and deeply spiritual, he did not use that as a reason to “lord it over them” in the same way God did not “lord it over” His people. Paul, like God, always wanted to meet people wherever they were at, whether struggling with sin or super spiritual, for the pure purpose of relationship:

I do not mean to imply that we lord it over your faith; rather, we are workers with you for your joy, because you stand firm in the faith.

2 Corinthians 1:24

Paul’s humility is so evident in all of his letters especially this one to the Corinthians. He viewed the Corinthians, who were still very immature in their walks according to 1 Corinthians 3:1, through Christ’s eyes. He didn’t see them for their weaknesses or failures and use that as a reason to put walls up in his heart out of protection or some superiority complex.

On the contrary, Paul remained vulnerable and open to them. It was the Corinthians, however, who had hardened their hearts toward God and Paul:

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

2 Corinthians 6:11-13

Studying Paul’s character and heart has showed me that he really isn’t the prideful, arrogant and abrupt guy I initially thought he was when I first read his letters a few years ago. He truly exemplifies the type of love that Christ had (and still has) for people. Everything he did, he did out of love. This is the kind of deep love and humility I aspire to!

Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. 

2 Corinthians 12:19

1 Timothy: Standing Up for Truth

I love Paul’s first letter to Timothy, his disciple, written in about 64 AD, because it reveals the battle (and the solution) that teachers of God’s word face.

Paul and some elders had laid hands on Timothy and commissioned him to teach the word at the church of Ephesus. Timothy obviously had a gift and had proven godly character, and Paul and the other leaders saw that in him:

Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress…

1 Timothy 4:14-16

But Timothy, after some time in Ephesus, had grown discouraged. It appears that some were causing disunity and disruption, and some were giving him flak for his age:

Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth…

1 Timothy 6:3-5

Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge…

1 Timothy 6:20

Let no one despise your youth…

1 Timothy 4:12

Despite Timothy’s hardship, Paul urged Timothy to stay, encouraging him that he was meant to be there:

I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine.

1 Timothy 1:3

Timothy wasn’t experiencing hardship because he was a failure or just no good at teaching the truth. Defending the truth would be a fight. It wasn’t going to be smooth sailing. And the best thing that Timothy could do was keep his head down, continue to grow in godliness and teach the truth in love:

…some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith…

1 Timothy 6:10-12

This short letter has inspired me to stand up for God’s word and remain faithful to learning and teaching. Nothing is more important than knowing the truth about God and His heart. And it’s totally worth the discomfort and hardship, because the revelation of truth is what sets people free and leads people closer to God.

If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed.

1 Timothy 4:6

1 Corinthians: The Pursuit of Love

The church at Corinth, which Paul helped to establish in around 50-52 AD, was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers.

Paul most likely visited the church on three separate occasions and probably wrote at least four letters to the Corinthians. The first letter he wrote isn’t actually in the bible. There is evidence for this first “missing” letter out of 1 Corinthians:

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…

1 Cor 7:1

Then, Paul probably wrote the church another letter (which is not in the bible) in between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. This assumption is based off what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians:

For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart…not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.

2 Cor 2:4

So it looks like this:

  • 1st letter – not in the bible
  • 2nd letter – 1 Corinthians, written between 54-57 AD (in the bible)
  • 3rd letter – not in the bible
  • 4th letter – 2 Corinthians, written around 57 AD (in the bible)

One of the reasons I wanted to point that out is because the content of the letters can reveal a lot about the historical situation, which leads to more solid interpretations that we can apply to our lives. Not that the information above is critical for making good interpretations, but there are many passages in the bible that can be taken out of context and applied to our lifestyles today incorrectly. There are obviously tons of controversial passages in the bible that people have different opinions (including a few in 1 Corinthians that I won’t go into here), but I’m so thankful for learning how to inductively study the bible as it has helped me come to many of my own conclusions regarding a lot of these difficult passages.

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Me and my beloved fellow bible students!

The original reader of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was probably mostly Greeks. It might have been that their predominantly pagan background influenced the way they were still conducting their lives despite their conversion. Paul says that they were still “people of the flesh”:

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ…For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?

1 Cor 3:1,4

Paul then addresses all of their issues (that also revealed their spiritual immaturity):

They were wise in their own eyes (prideful):

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.

1 Corinthians 3:18

They had assumed God’s role of judgment :

…do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.

1 Corinthians 4:5

They had taken pride in their gifts and talents:

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

1 Corinthians 4:7

They had adopted the sexual standards of their culture, and worse:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans…

1 Corinthians 5:1

These verses don’t cover everything that the Corinthians were doing outside of God’s will, but I just wanted to show that part of Paul’s purpose in writing was to address some of the things he had heard about them.

But Paul didn’t write to just to point out what they were doing wrong, but to encourage them to walk in unity and in love. Instead of being in competition with one another and instead of quarreling, they were to be “one-minded” since in reality, they were truly one with God having the same Spirit within them:

Has Christ been divided?

1 Corinthians 1:13

 

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building

1 Corinthians 1:9

 

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit

1 Corinthians 12:13

The Corinthians were to understand the concept that they were truly one in Christ. If they came to accept the reality of oneness in one another, they would stop trying to tear each other down in competition but rather build one another up.

This leads Paul to what I think is the main point for the Corinthians:

Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 16:14

If the Corinthians pursued after love, then they would grow spiritually and move onto to greater spiritual wisdom that Paul actually wanted to impart to them. Even though they were still to pursue the spiritual gifts, Paul showed them that growing in unconditional love was even more important, because then they would know how to use their spiritual gifts properly:

But strive for the spiritual gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way…Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these there; and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8,13

The pursuit of unconditional love should be one of the highest priorities of all believers. Knowing His love not just in our heads but in our hearts leads us to walk in the way Christ walked, and brings freedom, joy, and greater authority in our God-given callings.

I also wrote about 2 Corinthians in this blog post if you care to read!