one striving for God's reign to come to earth, bringing his peace, wholeness, completeness, and health to all aspects of life.

Revelation Devotionals

I am sharing a few devotionals I have written for local churches, in case they can be helpful for anyone...  Here are some Revelation devotionals.

Day 1: Overview of Revelation

Before we dive into our passage, we are going to spend this first day “flying over” the book of Revelation as a whole, so that we can try to gain an understanding of its genre and purpose.  In other words, we are going to explore what Revelation is and what it’s for.  Perhaps you already find yourself yawning, but be assured that this information will be helpful in grasping this challenging book and perhaps the entire story of Scripture.

Let’s begin by briefly considering Revelation’s genre.  What, you may be wondering, is a genre?  Genre is defined by the dictionary as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”  So basically every work, whether literary or musical, can be placed within a category based on its style, form, or content.  And this is certainly true of the books of the New Testament.  Contrary to the opinion of some, the books of the Bible did not fall from heaven.  Though they are inspired by God and are distinct from any other works because of this, they are not utterly unique in their form or style.  Instead, they tend to follow the conventions of other works in their genre from the same time and place.  For example, Paul’s letters, like Galatians or Romans, conforms to the style of letters written in this time period and part of the world.  His letters, though they are unique and inspired, follow the structure of thousands of other letters archaeologists have found that would be defined as Greco-Roman letters. 

So what is Revelation’s genre?  Are there any other works written in history similar to this strange book?  The genre of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, and in fact we have access to many works written around the same time and in the same part of the world that conform to the very same style and form.  In other words, Revelation is part of a genre that was quite well-known at the time it was written, and its features are very similar to the features in these other works.  John J. Collins, one of the foremost scholars on apocalyptic literature, has defined this genre, and the beginning of his very long definition is: “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient.”[1]  In Revelation we have John, the writer of the book, being shown a revelation by an angel, and similarly in other apocalyptic works a human is shown a revelation by an otherworldly being.  And in many other ways works that are a part of this genre match up with Revelation.

What does this all mean?  What it does not mean is that Revelation is just like all these other works and is not unique.  It does not mean we should see it as just another work, since it fits into this common genre of apocalyptic literature.  The fact that it conforms to a genre has nothing to do with whether it is unique, or special, or inspired.  While it conforms to much of the form, content, and style of other works in this genre, it is distinct from them.  It is special because the vision in it is true.  It is a vision from God’s angel – from God!

What it does mean, however, is that we must read and interpret and understand this work in the ways that apocalyptic works were meant to be read and interpreted and understood.  Reading and interpreting works in ways they were not meant to be read or interpreted can cause all sorts of problems; foremost among those problems is that we make works say things the authors never intended them to say.  If we read a work of poetry as if it is a historical account, or if we read a tabloid as if it is a recipe, we will get confusing or disastrous results.  We must read and interpret and understand each written work according to its genre. 

Applying this to Revelation, we must read it and understand it and interpret it in light of its genre.  This means that we do not read it as if it is a blueprint or breakdown for what events are going to happen at the end of time.  This is not what apocalyptic literature was for, and this is not how we should interpret Revelation.  Rather, the purpose of apocalyptic literature was to encourage.  It was to cause those who were going through terrible times to see behind and beyond the difficulties, and to realize that salvation was coming.  Evil would be toppled.  Good would prevail.  Salvation was coming. 

This is the purpose of Revelation.  It was an encouragement, originally, to the 1st century Christians who were being persecuted at the hands of Roman emperors.  In this vision John basically gave these persecuted Christians a glimpse into the truth that God would prevail, no matter how bad their situation was right then.  The evil they were being confronted with would be swallowed up by God, and good would reign.  God will win in the end, so they should keep going!  They should persevere!  They must not give up, because all their struggles and pain were not in vain!

It is in this way we must read this book today, as an encouragement to us.  Just like those Christians, we have struggles and we confront evil.  For us in America, this does not result in outright persecution or martyrdom (although there are thousands of Christian martyrs every year around the world).  But whatever the struggles and evil we face, we must take encouragement, and remember that God will win in the end.  Evil will be destroyed, and good will reign.  There is much imagery in this book we may not understand, and we should do our best to study and learn so that we can understand better.  But the bottom line is that God is in control, no matter how out of control this world seems.  And God and good will win.  This ought to bring us comfort and encouragement in the midst of life’s challenges and hardships.

How is this understanding of Revelation’s genre and purpose different from your understanding, or from what you have previously been taught?

What challenges or evil are you facing in your life?  How could the truth that God is in control in the midst of these things help?  How could the truth that God will win, and evil be destroyed, help get you through?

-Ask God to help you remember he is always in control, no matter how out of control life feels.
-Thank God for his promise through Scripture that he will conquer evil and good will win.
-Ask him to help those for whom persecution and martyrdom are real evils they must confront.

Day 2: A Picture of Shalom

Today we will move on to our ginormous passage for this week, Revelation 21.  This is a beautiful vision, the climax of John’s vision, and a passage full of hope and wonderful imagery.  Take a couple minutes and read slowly through this chapter.

What stood out to you from this chapter? 

What did you have a question about or not understand?

What was hopeful or encouraging?

This chapter is a beautiful picture of what John calls the New Jerusalem, or the Holy City.  When we describe John’s vision we speak of heaven.  The central thrust of this chapter is that we, as God’s people, will be together with God!  We will be his people, and evil will be no more.

The situation being described in this vision is a picture of the Hebrew idea of shalom.  Shalom was a word loaded with meaning.  It meant peace, health, wholeness, rightness in relationships, completion.  If shalom exists, there is no strife, no sickness, no damage.  Before sin entered the world, there was perfect shalom, but after sin, there was never true shalom.  Even in the purest love strife came; even in the healthiest person sickness loomed; war would eventually destroy even the most stable times of peace.  Throughout the Bible we see God’s people longing for the reversal of the effects of sin, longing for the return of shalom.  The Israelites tried to get a taste of it by going to the Temple and worshipping, and the prophets prophesied about it.  Finally in Jesus, the way was opened for a return to shalom, a return to true and lasting peace with God.  And here in this chapter, John receives a beautiful vision of what that final return to shalom will look like.

What will be true of this shalom?  We will consider three important details.  In verse 1 we see that John mentions that “there was no longer any sea.”  We might gloss over this detail, but it is significant.  In Old Testament times the sea was always equated with chaos, uncertainty, and danger.  The sea was unpredictable, and powerful.  At that time no one had ever been able to go to the bottom of bodies of water or explore them; hence their understanding of the sea as a deep, dark, scary place they could not control.  Many myths in Old Testament times personified the sea as a powerful god that was terribly frightening and threatened to swallow up sailors or flood the land if it was not appeased.  This is similar to the way the sea is spoken about in the Old Testament, so when this verse says there is no longer any sea, it is suggesting that there is nothing to fear.  There is no more deep, dark, scary force out there; there is security.

Second, we learn that this glorious city has twelve gates, each made of pure pearl.  Certainly John’s vision of the Holy City is symbolic here, as is common in apocalyptic literature.  Most likely the twelve gates and the twelve foundations represent the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve disciples, although it is debated what precisely was intended with this imagery.  Regardless, what is important for us is that although these gates are marvelous, in verse 25 we learn that apparently they are merely for adornment.  John says that “on no day will its gates ever be shut.”  This is a picture of utter peace; there are no enemies to lock out! 

Finally, there is no more strife or separation in our relationship with God.  We are with him, face to face.  And all is right between us.  Verse 4 even tell us that God will wipe every tear from his peoples’ eyes.  He is with us and comforts us and takes away all the scars of this life, of what John calls “the old order.”  In this perfect shalom there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain.  We are in God’s presence, where there are no more tears.  In fact, verse 22 tells us there is not even a temple in the city, because the Father and the Son are its temple!  This is a beautiful picture of God and his people reunited.

The promise of Revelation 21 to the first century Christians who were being persecuted and killed because of Christ is that shalom is coming.  Peace and security and wholeness of relationships are coming.  As God says in verse 7, “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” 

It is clear what these Christians of the first century needed to overcome: persecution, pain, sin, and fear.  Our lives are different, but we still need to overcome many things.  What do you need to overcome so that you can “inherit all this”?

Which part of this picture of shalom do you long for the most?  Which part of this picture seems the most out of reach?

Is this picture of wholeness and peace encouraging to you? 

Is there any sense in which the “passing away of the old order of things” frightens or threatens you?  Spend some time pondering this question and we will pick it up tomorrow.

-Thank God for this promise in Scripture that perfect shalom is coming, and that when we are with him there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
-Ask God for help to overcome the challenges and obstacles in your life.
-Confess the areas of your life where you have failed to overcome, where you have sinned, where you have participated in the “old order of things.”
-Thank God that even now you can be in his presence and receive his comfort, even though he does not physically wipe every tear from your eyes.

Day 3: Passing Away of the “Old Order”

We closed yesterday with a very important question: Is there any sense in which the “passing away of the old order of things” frightens or threatens you?  After having more time to consider this question, how would you answer?

As we discussed in day 1, the purpose of apocalyptic literature was to encourage.  And the first century Christians for whom Revelation was originally intended needed encouragement!  They needed assurance!  And they needed hope.  They were being persecuted, tortured, and killed for their faith in Jesus, and things only seemed to be getting worse.  Evil seemed to be taking over, and the hope of Christ’s resurrection, hope that had changed their lives and brought them redemption, may have seemed far off.  They needed to hear that this Jesus was still in control, that evil would be overcome, and that all of the pain they were experiencing would pass away. 

To these weary Christians the words of Revelation must have been an incredible comfort: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”  They were hungry for the order of things to be shifted, for the current power structures to be toppled, for everything to change.  The promise that God was making everything new, and that the old order had been toppled, would have surely brought about loud celebrations! 

Likewise, for those among us who deal with daily injustices – who are poor or discriminated against, who lack physical or mental abilities, who don’t have enough money or enough power or enough to eat, who struggle with health or who feel powerless to change their situation – for these the thought of everything being made new is thrilling. 

What about the passing away of the current order is exciting to you?  What in your life would you really like to be different, but you feel powerless to change it?

However, the thought of power structures being toppled, of everything changing, might not be so exciting.  The thought of our lives being uprooted and changed completely might be more than a little unsettling.  It might frighten us, because a lot of us actually like how our lives are going pretty well.  Sure, there are things we would change if we could, but on the whole we like life.  We have people we love, we are plenty successful, and we have hope for the future.  And in the midst of being so comfortable, the promise that it will all be overturned, that the entire order will pass away, and that everything will be made new, is scary.

What area(s) of your life are you very comfortable with?  What aspects of life would you rather not be altered?

The truth is that this promise from Scripture ought to bring nothing but hope and joy, no matter how we are feeling about life right now.  This world, at its very best, is but a shadow of what it was intended to be.  The greatest joys we feel in this life are but a taste of the ultimate joy we will feel when we are in God’s presence.  Paul talks about his relationship with God by saying, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  Even a great apostle of God who spent his entire life seeking Christ and sharing his love knew he had only experienced a hint of the joy he would feel when he could see God face to face! 

If we like our lives the way they are right now, we must remember this truth.  The best of life is but a small taste of the goodness that has always been intended for us, the goodness we are promised if we are in Christ.  We also must remember that the trappings of this life are not what life is about; life is about our relationship with Christ and the redemption he is bringing to our lives and to the world. 

And if we are longing for Christ to redeem the whole world, we must never be too comfortable, because the world is very far from a state of shalom.  The injustices of the world, the sufferings of those we know and don’t know, must make us uncomfortable.  We must so identify with those who are persecuted and disenfranchised and poor and sick that we long with them for the current order to pass away. 

Spend a few minutes asking God to help you have eyes to see the injustices around you, and to have a heart that cares for the hurts of those you know and don’t know.

Thank God for the good that is in your life, for whatever aspects of life that are good and peaceful and comfortable.  Thank him for all the good things he has blessed you with, good things you might be resistant to changing. 

Ask God to help you have a loose grip on the comforts and joys of this life, knowing that even the wonderful things in this life are a shadow of the good that is coming to those in Christ.

Pray for a passion to help those without Christ, who still must find their way back to God.  Ask God to break your heart, even in the midst of the many blessings of your life, for those who do not have the hope and joy and peace and purpose that is found in Christ.

Day 4: Partners on a Mission

Our ginormous passage for this week, Revelation 21, provides a beautiful glimpse into what John calls the new heaven and new earth.  It is all about our ultimate hope, being with our Maker in heaven and everything being set right.  Along with everything being made new, Revelation speaks a lot about the old order of things passing away.

Take a couple minutes and re-read Revelation 21.  Pay attention to what is promised and to what is passing away.

What did you notice?  What stuck out to you that you did not see the first time you read the chapter? 

As we discussed yesterday, this vision of the old order of things passing away can inspire either incredible excitement or uneasiness.  Yesterday we were challenged to consider other perspectives if this inspires fear or discomfort.  If the passing away of the current order makes us nervous, this means we are probably too comfortable with our lives and must long with the hurting and broken of our world for the renewal of all things. 

Perhaps part of our discomfort with the passing away of the old order is that we are frightened for those we love who do not know Christ.  This chapter makes it clear that there is incredible joy awaiting those in Christ but punishment for those who reject him (see verses 8, 27).  While we must be careful not to formulate too much of our theology of salvation or the afterlife from Revelation, since it is apocalyptic literature and must be read in light of that fact, it is still true that the Bible as a whole promises that those who reject Christ will in the end be rejected.  Maybe this is the reason why you get uncomfortable when thinking about the current order passing away. 

Whatever the reason for our discomfort, though, we ought to have nothing but joy about what awaits us.  Nothing we are experiencing now is even worth comparing to the glorious joy we will experience when everything is made new in heaven (Romans 8:18).  And as for those we love who do not know Christ, this must not bring fear but must make us passionate to share Christ with them and do whatever we can do to help them find their way to God.

This is what we are speaking about today: partnering with God in his mission, which is to save the whole world through the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross.  He is making everything new, and he is restoring all of creation to his original intention, and he has called his people, the Church, to partner with him in this great mission.  We are to partner with him to bring his Kingdom, his reign, his rule, to bear on the world right now.  We are to help make things right even now, even before he does in a final fashion in the end. 

We as Christians are not called to hunker down in our church huddles, keeping all interactions with that sinful world to a minimum, while we wait for God to come back and finally set everything right!  That is not what God wants—an idle Church that does nothing to set the world right now!  Rather, God wants his people to be his partners, loving others with the hands of Christ, addressing injustices in our neighborhoods and around the world, sharing the good news with everyone we encounter, and influencing the world and those we know for the good.

Just like the promise that the current order of things will pass away should not inspire fear, it also should not inspire such excitement that we begin only living for heaven.  There are many Christian circles where the focus of Christianity becomes heaven, becomes the next life.  “This world is sinful,” they say, “but just keep your eyes focused on heaven, that glorious place where we do not have to deal with all this sin!”

Have you ever been around Christians whose only focus is heaven?  Have you encountered Christians who seem disconnected from the world because they are trying so hard to stay separate from its sinfulness?  What are your thoughts on this attitude?

This mindset is also flawed.  We cannot be so excited about heaven and about everything being made right that we miss living the lives God has called us to live.  We cannot be so excited about seeing God one day that we miss the ways he is asking us to partner with him right now! 

We have a role in bringing God’s reign to this earth right now.  We have a role as his partners to do his work—to share his love with those far from him, to address the injustices in our neighborhoods and the world by acting to bring justice, to care for others with the love of Christ, and to do whatever else our Father leads us to do. 

Do you see yourself as God’s partner in your daily life?  If you always saw yourself as his partner, what difference do you think this could make in your life?

The picture of perfect Shalom we see in Revelation 21 is a beautiful picture, and we ought to long for that day with joy.  At the same time, we must not so long for that day that we fail to do what he has asked us to do in the world.  We are his partners, his hands on earth, and we are on a mission to help bring healing to the world right now, just as Christ did in his daily life.  To love those around us, to address injustices in the world, to restore relationships, to make wrongs right through the love and power of Christ.  It is our job to partner with God in what he is already doing to redeem the world and bring his shalom to it.  


-Ask God to help you see yourself as his partner.
-Thank God that he has considered you worthy of joining him in the most important work.
-Thank God for the great blessings he has promised in the future.
-Ask God to help you not get overly focused on the future but to work toward his mission in the here and now.
-Talk to God about whatever is on your heart: your fears, your struggles, your frustrations, your joys, your hurts, your hopes.

Day 5: A Return to Eden

More than anything, this chapter of Revelation is one that should make us celebrate.  It is one that ought to make our hearts leap at the goodness of God.  This chapter and the following verses in chapter 22 make it clear that the entire Bible is about God creating and then finding a way to redeem his creation.  Here at the very end of the Bible we find ourselves again in a garden. 

Read Revelation 22:1-7.

These verses continue chapter 21 and give further detail of John’s heavenly vision.  We learn here that there is a river of life in this Holy City, and it flows from the throne of God through the middle of the city.  On both sides of the river is the tree of life, with loads of fruit, and its very leaves provide healing for the nations.  What a beautiful picture!  In this perfect, glorious place is a river, right through the middle of the city, with trees of life on either side that heal the nations!

What is more, verse 3 tells us that there is no longer any curse!  No more is there sin and no more are there the effects of sin.  There is no guilt or shame or hurt or pain!  And most importantly, there is no separation from God—we are told that his throne will be right there, and we will serve him, face to face!  Many see in this passage a sort of inclusio, which is a term that means there are two similar items at the beginning and ending of a work that sort of bracket the work and tie it together.  In other words, people see the garden depicted in Genesis 2-3 and this garden as one gigantic bracket around the Bible, which ties it all together.  I think this is a beautiful way to see this chapter: a return to Eden.  God finds a way through his work of redemption to reclaim what he intended for his creation all along: his people living with him and serving him and loving him face to face.

Not only will there be the river of life and the tree of life as there were in Eden, and not only will we be able to walk and talk with God as his first creation could, but it will be as if the effects of sin had never tarnished humanity and the world!  We will be as we were intended to be, free and unsoiled and beautiful.  And not only will we be who we were intended to be, but sin will not be present.  As chapter 21 said, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.  This is a place to get excited about!

Throughout the Scriptures we get glimpses of God’s people longing for this place, longing for Eden restored.  Ezekiel receives a similar vision to John hundreds of years earlier, even before Christ.  Listen to these similar words from the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel:

“Then he led me back to the bank of the river. When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river… Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.’” (Ezekiel 47:6-7, 12)

Here God’s prophet received a similar vision to John, the author of Revelation.  God’s people have been hungering for this promise and for this place for generations, and God has been giving us glimpses of this place to remind us that he is at work.  He has a plan to redeem his creation!

What excites you most about this picture, this return to Eden?

What effects of sin in this world are you most looking forward to being rid of?

Pause to really imagine being face to face with God, able to walk with him and talk with him without separation and without the effects of sin.  When you imagine it, what emotions or feelings come? 

When I imagine it, I feel freedom.  And love.  And peace.  No more questions without answers.  No more shame or guilt or doubt.  And no more struggle to be who I am supposed to be. 

I also feel satisfaction when I ponder this.  The job will be done.  God will have renewed everything, restored all of creation to its intention, and conquered evil forever.  I hope on that day I also feel satisfaction that I partnered with him to help bring this reign.  John’s vision actually hints at this when he says that God’s servants will reign with God forever and ever (22:5).  We will conquer with God as his partners, and we will reign with him forever.

May this ginormous passage live in your heart.  May it not overpower your heart so that you forget to live in the here and now, to partner with God on a daily basis to help make the world what it should be.  But may you live with it in your heart, knowing that whatever struggles you are facing, one day sin and the effects of sin will be no more.  While you partner with him to bring his reign, may you long for the day when you can see him face to face and reign with him forever.

-Thank God for the ways he is restoring his creation, including in your life.
-Ask God to make this vision of Eden restored live in your heart and inspire your daily partnership with him.
-Confess the ways you have failed to partner with him, either because you have been too wrapped up in the daily grind or because you have been checking out of this life and longing for heaven.  Ask for God to help you find the proper balance of longing for fellowship with him while staying rooted and invested in this world.

[1] Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 5.  In this work Collins covers many of the other works that fit in this genre and compares them to Revelation.  It is a challenging read but helpful.

Philemon Devotionals

So I am going to begin sharing a string of devotionals I have written for a local church, in case anyone else can find them useful.  Here are the Philemon devotionals:


Day 1: What is the Story?

This week we are going to dive into one of those postcard books of the New Testament, Philemon.  This first day we are going to spend a few minutes familiarizing ourselves with the story behind this letter, at least what we can gather of it. 

Begin by reading the book of Philemon carefully (it’s only one short chapter).

As is the case with any book of the Bible, there are varying opinions about what is going on in this letter, but most understand this letter in basically the same way.  This is a letter written by Paul and sent to Philemon, written on behalf of Onesimus.  We can’t know the entire back story, but what we can gather from the letter is that Philemon was a wealthy and influential member of his community, he was a leader in the church (which met in his home), and he was mentored by Paul in the faith.  Most likely Philemon lived in Colossae, since Paul addresses Archippus in both the introduction to this letter and in his instructions to the Colossians (Col. 4:17). 

During this time wealthy members of culture usually owned slaves, a perfectly acceptable practice then.  Slave owners are often implored by Paul in the New Testament to treat their slaves fairly and with dignity.  At the same time, Paul emphasized that in Christ there is no longer slave or free—we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:26-29).  We see in this letter a balance of these perspectives. 

Most scholars are in agreement that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, and he had probably run away from his master.  Paul confirms that Onesimus was “useless” to Philemon (v. 11), but now emphasizes that he is useful.  Though he was his slave, Paul implores Philemon to treat him no longer as a slave but as a dear brother (v. 16).  Though Onesimus had probably wronged Philemon and owed him a great debt (v. 18), Paul asks Philemon to “put it on his own tab.”  Through this strong, not so subtle request, Paul is reminding Philemon that he himself is in great debt to Paul, who sacrificed much to share the good news about Jesus with him.  In other words, Paul is invoking his authority over Philemon as his “father in the faith” in this request, and is asking him to wipe out the debt of Onesimus. 

He is couching this invocation of authority in deferential terms, praising Philemon for his love and obedience.  After a little bit of this “buttering up,” he makes his strong request for Philemon to obey him and forgive Onesimus.  Paul also seeks to assure Philemon’s cooperation by addressing this letter not only to him but also to the entire Colossian church.  The whole church would hear Paul’s request for Philemon to forgive Onesimus and treat him as a brother, so no matter what Onesimus had done to wrong him, it is almost certain that Philemon would let it go. 

Paul closes with the real kicker in verse 22.  He says, “And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.”  Wow.  Paul must have really cared about Onesimus, because he had laid it on thick!

It is easy to see this “postcard” letter of the New Testament as only a directive of Paul to Philemon without much spiritual value, but that view is mistaken.  We can learn many important lessons from this short letter, and we will dive into those lessons over the next few days.

What important lessons do you think we can learn from this letter after reading through it?  

Have you ever been wronged in a serious way, so that you would have a hard time even seeing the person who wronged you?  Are there certain wrongs you refuse to forgive?  How does this correlate with Paul’s words to Philemon?

Have you ever wronged someone in a serious way and realized that you will probably never be forgiven for it?  When you think of this, what do you think of Paul’s words to Philemon?

Spend some time in prayer, asking God to use even this small letter in his Word to impact your life.  Spend some time communicating with God, both sharing your heart and listening to his voice.

Day 2: Constrained By Community

“This is most certainly not a private letter, even though
its message is directed at Philemon.”[1]

As we talked about yesterday, this letter was not merely addressed to Philemon.  Paul also addresses the letter to Apphia, Archippus, and the church that met in Philemon’s home (v. 2).  By mentioning the house church in the greeting (which Paul does in no other New Testament letter), he “turns what might have been a private letter into a public appeal and perhaps democratizes to some degree the way the Onesimus matter is to be handled if Philemon is not to lose face with his fellow house church members… The eyes of the church will be on him, watching how he responds to Paul’s appeal.”[2]

This is important, and this is the lesson we are going to explore today.  If we are followers of Christ, we do not merely sign up to be individual Christians.  We sign up to be a part of something far bigger than ourselves, a part of the community of believers.  We do not and cannot follow Christ by ourselves; we follow Christ together. 

Therefore, our decisions must not be made on our own, in a vacuum.  They must be made in company with those we are following Christ with.  We must open our lives and open our ears and open our hearts to hear what our brothers and sisters in Christ are saying.  We must be honest about our challenges and struggles and listen to the advice and encouragement of our fellow Christians.

Is this something you find easy or difficult?  Do you tend to seek the advice of others or treat personal issues as if they are strictly personal and confidential?  Are you open to sharing your life, including your struggles, with your fellow Christians?  Are you open to hearing what they have to say to you on such matters?

The church at Colossae would have watched Philemon’s response to Paul.  They would surely have expected him to honor Paul’s request and forgive Onesimus.  This request may have included an expectation for Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery, and the church would watch to see whether Philemon would listen.  But even more than watching, the church would help Philemon determine his response.  They would speak into his life, would give their advice and encouragement, would challenge him to respond appropriately.

Paul saw the church as a body working together; its members were tied together permanently, forming a community that did life together.  They were not individuals who all happened to go to church so they shared something in common; they were a community, a body, who shared everything in common.  In Paul’s view, addressing the church along with Philemon was perfectly appropriate, because it was a community decision.  Not only was Onesimus from their community and not only would his status affect all of them, but because Philemon was a member of the church, his decisions affected the entire body.  His decisions were not his own…

Philemon was constrained by his community.  Though we like to speak a lot in our culture about our personal rights and our personal choices and our personal decisions, if we want to be a part of Christ’s body we must in some sense give up on some of these personal boundaries.  We must be willing to have our freedoms constrained, our lives observed, and our decisions challenged.

What do you think about this idea?  What is most challenging about it?

Are you willing to share your “personal” decisions with the community you follow Christ with?  Are you willing to be constrained by your community?

Spend some time asking God to break down the walls that might be in your heart around this issue.  Ask him to give you great humility, to be willing to lay down your rights and submit to your Christian brothers and sisters in your decisions.

Day 3: Forgiving, and then Embracing

“We must not think evil of this man.”

The quote above was uttered by the grandfather of a little girl ruthlessly shot and murdered by Charles Roberts in 2006.  This man killed five little girls on that day for no reason, and then he killed himself.  Totally senseless.  I cannot imagine the rage I would feel if that were my little girl.  I cannot imagine how I’d even continue to function.  In the aftermath, it was not the killings that got the most attention, but the response of the Amish community that had been attacked and had lost five of its children.  People were flabbergasted at their response, one of immediate forgiveness.  I confess that I, as a follower of Christ, could not even resonate with their response.  I knew they were responding in the way Christ would, but I wanted revenge for them.  My anger at and disgust for this man and what he had done was greater than any desire to forgive him.

Yet the Amish community did not take a couple years to hate this man and then slowly offer forgiveness after they had a chance to heal.  Incredibly, they offered instant forgiveness.  And not only did they offer forgiveness from afar, in theory.  They went to the wife and parents of the killer and literally embraced them, expressing love and forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted them. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him.  Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, wrote an open letter to the Amish community, saying, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

Can you imagine embracing those who have wronged you terribly?  How difficult is it to forgive those who have abused you, taken advantage of you, stolen from you, or slandered you?  When you are eventually able to forgive, how difficult is it to go to the next step and actually embrace the ones who have most deeply wronged you?

This is the next lesson we learn from this short letter from Paul to Philemon: as Christians, we are called both to forgive and to embrace those who have wronged us.  There is no room for revenge among those who follow Christ.  There is no room for grudges.  As we have been forgiven lavishly, we must forgive lavishly.  As we have been embraced by God after our sin led to Jesus’ death, we are called to embrace others whose sin leads to our pain.

It is clear from Paul’s letter that Onesimus had greatly wronged Philemon.  If not, Paul would not have spent so much time imploring Philemon to forgive him.  He clearly had done him wrong and owed him a great debt (v. 18), yet Paul asks him to instantly let it go.  Erase it.  Forget it.  Then he asks him to go a step further.

Do you remember being a child and having to “make up” with your sibling or another child with whom you had a fight?  I remember being able to mutter the words “sorry” or “I forgive you” without much problem.  But when my parents asked me to go a step further and “give him a hug,” that’s where it became challenging.  Hugging someone is a vulnerable position, a position of trust and openness.  That’s what Paul was asking Philemon to do.  Don’t just say you forgive him—go a step further.  Embrace him.  Show him love.  Treat him as a dear brother, as a loved one.  In order to embrace someone from the heart, there can be no more residue of anger or bitterness or hostility.  You cannot hold someone at bay any longer; with an embrace you are letting them back in, choosing to trust them again.

Clearly there are times in abusive relationships where we must choose to protect our hearts and hold someone at bay, even if we forgive them.  But for the most part, we must both forgive and embrace those who have wronged us. 

What is most difficult about this for you?  Do you think you could get to the point where you are able to embrace those who have most wronged you?  What steps do you need to take to begin offering real forgiveness to those who have hurt you?

Spend some time in prayer, asking God both to forgive you for all the ways you have wronged others and to help you forgive those who have wronged you.

Day 4: No Right to Retribution

In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells the parable of the unmerciful servant.  The basic gist of the parable is that the servant of a very powerful king owed the king a great sum he could not pay.  In order to recoup some of the debt, the king ordered the man and his family to be sold.  The servant begged the king on his knees to have mercy, and the king was moved.  He canceled the man’s great debt and let him go! 

Then the servant left and saw a fellow servant who owed him a small debt by comparison.  He grabbed the man and began to choke him, yelling at him to pay up.  The man begged him for mercy, but he refused and had him thrown in prison until he could pay.  When the king heard about this, he was very angry and threw that ungrateful servant in prison until he paid back every penny he owed.  Jesus concludes by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). 

This is not a true story and is a parable to get a point across, but it seems that Jesus is saying that as God has forgiven us without making us first pay for what we have done, we ought to forgive others without requiring retribution, without ensuring they have paid for their sins.  The one who is wronged must offer forgiveness before that person is punished, even before that person admits their fault or asks forgiveness.

This is also a way of thinking and living that is very contrary to the dominant viewpoint of our culture.  In our culture, we have the right to hold accountable those who have cheated us or hurt us or abused us or stolen from us.  We have the right to sue them, hurt them back, or, at the least, shut them out of our lives. 

This aspect of our culture is not too different from the culture of Paul’s day.  Though his culture was much more based on honor and shame, so that if one had dishonored another he would be shamed until he repented, the same principle applied: retribution for wrongs was the norm.  But in his letter to Philemon (and in many other places in his writings), Paul challenges Philemon to lay down his right to retribution.  Though as his owner Philemon had the right to punish Onesimus harshly for what he had done, Paul says to completely let it go.  He tells him to release his right to retribution.

Many think Paul gave this word to Philemon because Onesimus had become a Christian in his absence.  Since he was now a follower of Christ and a brother in the Lord to Philemon, Philemon must offer forgiveness to him.  Many also say Paul is instructing Philemon to release Onesimus from his bonds of slavery because he is a believer and there are to be no such boundaries between believers. 

But I think it goes beyond this.  I think giving up our right to retribution applies also to those who are not believers.  Surely when Jesus said that if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also, he was not speaking about something done by a fellow believer.  Or when he says that if someone steals your cloak, offer him your tunic as well, surely he was not speaking about relationships within the community of faith.  He displayed this in ultimate fashion when he asked God to forgive those who crucified him.  His mockers, his tormenters, his killers, he instantly forgave.  He laid down his right to retribution.  In the same way, Paul instructs Philemon to excuse the wrongs Onesimus had done. 

We are also called to give up our right to revenge.  We are also called to forgive without ensuring punishment for those who have wronged us.  It is challenging for all of us who are a part of our culture to give up rights, but our right to revenge and retribution is one that all Christians must lay down.

What is most difficult about giving up your right to revenge?

What emotion do you feel when you are called to forgive, even though the person who wronged you has not apologized or shown remorse?

Have you ever felt the great freedom and joy that comes with offering forgiveness in this way?

Ask God for the strength not to claim your rights but to give them up, especially your right to retribution.  Ask him for the strength to forgive as he has forgiven you.

Day 5: Submitting to Forgiveness

It is common to think mostly of Philemon when we read this letter, since the entire book is addressed to him, and since Paul’s requests all rest firmly on his shoulders.  But I think we can also learn an important lesson from thinking of Onesimus in this situation.

He had done something pretty terrible, and all were in agreement that he was in the wrong.  Paul, clearly a huge fan of Onesimus, admits that he had a big debt.  And now Onesimus is being sent back to the one he has wronged, to submit again to him.  Sure, he was hoping that Philemon listened to Paul and forgave him, but that may not have happened.  And even if it did, submitting to him again after what had occurred had to be extremely difficult.

I think one of the main reasons people who have committed terrible sins against others do not apologize is not because they are not sorry for what they have done but because apologizing is one of the hardest things we must do in life.  Walking up to someone we have wronged in a big way and saying sorry—submitting to them in the process—is harder, in some cases, even than forgiving a great wrong.  This is what Onesimus was asked to do by Paul.  Walk back to your master, the one you have wronged, the one who has the legal right to take great vengeance on you, the one who has surely been very angry with you—and submit to him.  Admit what you have done.  And accept whatever his response to your actions is.  That’s tough!

It might be easier to be a hero, to offer forgiveness and have others marvel at your grace and mercy.  But to ask for forgiveness and to allow another to forgive you is an act of great humility.  It is unglamorous, and can be painful.  Yet if we are to become the community of believers God has called us to be, we have to excel at submitting to each other.  We must get used to going to those we have wronged, whether our offense is small or great, and submitting to them humbly, not knowing whether they will immediately offer forgiveness or not. 

How are you doing at submitting to others and asking for forgiveness?  What is the most difficult part of this for you?

What difference could it make in our church if we all embraced humility in this area and excelled at going to one another and submitting to being forgiven of wrongs?  What difference could it make in our families?  In our neighborhoods?  In our places of work?

Jesus speaks clearly about the need for us to be reconciled to one another.  Something that has always bothered me about his words in Matthew 5 has to do with going to someone to resolve an issue if they have something against me.  He says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).  I have never liked the way this verse calls on me to go to someone else if they might be upset with me.  I always sort of twist the verse around in my mind to mean that if I am holding a grudge against someone else I need to get it fixed.  But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. 

He is saying that if anyone has anything against us, if we have hurt someone else in any way, we should stop whatever we are doing (even leaving a time of worshiping God) and go to that person and work it out.  We ought to apologize and submit to them and ask forgiveness.  As Christians, we do not have the luxury of blazing through relationships and assuming all is fine unless someone comes to us and tells us we hurt them.  We must be more caring than that, more attuned to the feelings and emotions of those around us.  And if we hurt others, we must not wait for them to tell us so—we must go to them and make it right.  We must submit to forgiveness…

Spend some time asking God to make it clear in your mind and heart if you have hurt anyone, and ask him for the strength to go to that person and make it right…

Pray for whatever else is on your heart…

[1] Ben Witherington, The letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: a socio-rhetorical commentary on the captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 54.
[2] Witherington, 55.