Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Colossians 5, a Study in Philemon: Most Radical Book in the Bible


You might be thinking, where is she getting Colossians 5?  It is very clear to me that the book of Philemon can be considered the fifth chapter of Colossians.  It was sent along with Colossians to the church there; it names all the same people; even the main character of Philemon’s story, Onesimus, is mentioned in Colossians 4.  Also, some of the main themes of Colossians, especially the last chapter, bear directly on Philemon, which is one of the most radical, revolutionary books in the Bible.  I can’t say for certain, but I don’t think anything like this book exists in the sacred literature of any religion or the ancient world. 

The end of Colossians can be separated into three sections:

3:18-4:1.  These verses bear resemblance to Ephesians 5.  The underlying concept is mutuality and equality before God; “the ground is level at the cross.” 

It is interesting to me that Paul directs his words to men, fathers and husbands.  Love and do not be bitter against your wives, and do not embitter and provoke your children.  Could anything be more true today?  Women do not have to be told to love their husbands and children.  We probably love too much.  But men can take so much for granted, and be so focused on the outer world and not on relationships, and they can have so much trouble with un-dealt-with anger that spills out in other ways.  Women have plenty of their own issues, but the target here is men, and very applicably so.

The next verses vex people because they think the church supports slavery.  Three reasons:  Paul doesn’t directly condemn it here; it exists in some form in Old Testament Israel; and the so-called Christian founders of our country allowed it, or worse.  Slavery is a blight on our country, but critics should study the issue in more detail before concluding the church and Bible in general support it.  Mainly, the slavery of the Bible was not the same as American slavery; that doesn’t get our history off the hook, and too many people who claimed to be good Christians ignored the problem for a long time, just like too many people in the last century turned their noses up at the civil rights movement.  But we can’t blame the Bible.  Philemon makes it very clear that Philemon may have had a legal right to keep Onesimus his slave, but he didn’t have a spiritual basis to prolong that relationship.

Here in Colossians it is the same, “you both have one master you answer to.”  To all employees who question their bosses’ judgment, that verse applies.  We, of course, can leave the employ of certain people or organizations; we don’t because we feel financially trapped, but we are rarely legally trapped in a job. 

Section II is 4:2-4:6.  The theme here is prayer, mainly for open hearts and open doors.  Two key words are mystery of Christ and seasoned with salt.  The first has several meanings:  that Christ is freely now for Gentiles as well as Jews, that Christ indwells all the church (Christ in you, the hope of glory) as a sort of down payment for eternity; the relationship of Christ with the church, and the second coming.  You can see how all these are related, really, into the state of our current relationship with Christ and the future glory.  “Seasoned with salt” could mean that we are flavorful and pleasant in our speech (nothing worse than unsalted green beans!), or that our speech is a preservative, or that our speech has a sting to it!  The main idea seems to be good, though, more than convicting.  Grace, the deep word of the Christian experience, is the key to the metaphor.  (all Biblical metaphors have contextual keys).

Section III:  4:7-end.  These are all personal references. 
·         I am always amazed that a man who probably had no friends before conversion died with so many.  Either grace transformed him, or it freed him to be who he really was!  (or maybe both). 
·         Also, he is reconciled to Mark;
·         he has led Onesimus, the runaway slave and probably thief, to the Lord;
·         he is only accompanied at this time by two Jews (those of the circumcision), Mark and Jesus/Justus;
·         he is going to send Onesimus with Tychicus to take the letter, and Tychicus will tell more personal news about Paul’s situation;
·         The church in Laodicea and Colossae are supposed to swap letters (showing that these are not just for one body, but for all)
·         He mentions Demas, who later forsook him (II Tim) and Luke.

Colossians is the book of second chances, so we come to the fifth chapter, Philemon.  Philemon is very short, and very specific and direct.  It is about a private matter, but not really.  Nothing in the body of Christ is purely private.  Everyone would have known that Onesimus had run away, and he was coming back with the letter and Tychicus.  Philemon had to make a decision, or maybe more:  he had to choose to forgive, and he had to choose to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ as well as in his common humanity (in the flesh as well as in the Lord). 

Paul is asking Philemon to do something totally revolutionary.  Philemon is already a leader in the church, a spiritual and affluent man in whose home the church met; he has a wife and a son who is also apparently a strong Christian.  He is not of Jewish background, but pagan, so he has already made great strides.  Paul has great respect for this man, and love.  But he asks him to do something very difficult, to take a big step in his walk with Christ and one that would bring him criticism by his culture and probably puzzled looks from some of the people in the church. 

Paul could ask this, or even command this, as part of apostolic authority.  He does not, but appeals to Philemon’s love for God and for Paul.  But Paul is not asking without giving.  He is willing to give up Onesimus, who has been a companion and helper (Paul refers to himself as Paul the aged; we don’t know how old he was, but probably not sixty; however, he had health problems).  Paul is also willing to pay back whatever it was that Onesimus stole, or perhaps the money Philemon lost by not having his worker. 

I think there are many, many ethical and world view lessons in this book:

1.     Everything is under Christ’s control.  There are no parts of our lives that don’t fit in his kingdom authority.
2.    There is radical equality under Christ’s control.
3.    Grace demands.  We think of grace as a free gift, but it is bigger than that.  I would refer you to Tim Keller’s book, The Reason for God, p. 189.  A woman said to him:  “If I was saved by my good words, then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through.  I would be like a taxpayer with rights—I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life.  But if I am a sinner saved by sheer grace, then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.”
She got that right, although I am not sure we believers are there yet!
4.    God makes even a bad situation good within his purposes (verse 15—read it!).  This is where faith in grace comes in.  Just as the tragedy of the cross resulted in great things for us, tragedies in our own lives can somehow bring resurrection.  For one, Philemon will grow spiritually.  Secondly, the church will benefit.  Third, Onesimus will learn.  Fourth, society will eventually get it that slavery flies in the face of human equality. 

Why is this book in the Bible?  Maybe I should ask, who do you need to forgive and give up your rights to hold something against them?

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