Commands and Appeals

Wherefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting, yet for love’s sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus (Philemon 1:8-9).

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Theodore Roosevelt made this “proverb” famous as a way of describing his governing policy. He preferred diplomacy so as to resolve differences but made it clear how he could use force to accomplish his purposes.

In the short letter Paul wrote to Philemon, a letter which raises more questions than it answers, Paul wishes to use the spiritual equivalent of speaking softly while carrying a big stick in order to persuade Philemon regarding the condition of Onesimus. Paul is an Apostle of Jesus Christ, one granted power and authority (cf. Colossians 1:1). All of the province of Asia would have heard of the mighty acts which Paul had accomplished in the name of Jesus in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:1-20). The authority granted him by the Lord Jesus and his personal commitment to the Lord’s purposes were unquestioned in Colossae (the likely home of Philemon; cf. Colossians 4:12-16, Philemon 1:1-2). Paul would have been entirely in the right to issue a command to Philemon to act as Paul believed he should (Philemon 1:8).

Yet Paul has great respect for Philemon. Paul thanks God for him in his prayers, having heard of his love and faith for Jesus and the Christians (Philemon 1:3-5). Many Christians have been refreshed by him, and he is likely hosting the assemblies of the church in Colossae in his house (Philemon 1:2, 7). By all accounts, Philemon is seeking to please the Lord Jesus and to do His will in all respects.

Therefore, Paul does not think it best to enjoin, or command, what Philemon should do; instead, for love’s sake, he will beseech, or appeal to, Philemon to act as he should (Philemon 1:9). Paul will go on to make his request: to not penalize Onesimus the slave of Philemon in any way on account of his departure and time spent with Paul, but instead to receive his slave as a fellow brother in Christ (Philemon 1:10-17). Paul wishes for whatever would be charged against Onesimus to be charged against him instead (Philemon 1:17-19).

We have so many questions to ask regarding this situation and especially about the aftermath of the letter and what happened among Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Even though we will not come to a complete answer to these questions in this life, we can share in the same trust which Paul maintained: since Philemon seeks to live for Christ and glorify Him, and Philemon seems to be aware of the “debt” which he owes Paul (cf. Philemon 1:19), we can have confidence that Philemon did the right thing on the basis of Paul’s appeal. Yet we must ask: if Paul had instead decided to maintain his boldness in Christ and command what was necessary, would we feel as confident that Philemon would have done the right thing? If Paul had not first so commended Philemon for his faith and manner of life, thereby giving us confidence in his faith, would we have any basis upon which to believe that Philemon would be well-disposed to do the right thing?

As Christians, when we consider what is written in the New Testament for our instruction, it is easy to conflate commands and appeals and consider the two as completely synonymous. This is understandable: as servants of God in Christ, we should seek to follow after both what has been commanded in the name of the Lord as well as the appeals made toward thinking, feeling, and acting in holiness and righteousness (Colossians 3:17, 2 Peter 3:11-12, 1 John 2:3-6). If anyone comes away from Scripture thinking that what is commanded is all that is required and therefore anything regarding which an appeal is made is less than required and thus optional is still thinking in worldly, carnal ways, and has not fully imbibed the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16). Appeals can be made because there are commands and the Lord Jesus behind them!

While we ought to follow after both those things which are commanded and concerning which appeals are made (and, to be fair, many things regarding which appeals are made are also commanded in other places, and vice versa), in terms of communication, there can be a big difference between a command and an appeal. A command is more forceful, and might rub someone the wrong way. To have to make something a command, at times, could imply a lack of trust and confidence in the one being commanded. An appeal, especially when made in a way that appreciates the faith of the one to whom the appeal is made, can often lead to the same desired end more effectively. If the appeal does fail, then the “big stick” can be used.

Another “proverb” of our time which speaks to the same reality is that one can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. We should not compromise the Gospel message or God’s standard in order to make the message more palatable to people. There will be times when people are going to be offended and rubbed the wrong way no matter what we say or do. Yet everyone appreciates being appreciated. Every Christian is sustained in their faith by encouragement (Hebrews 10:24-25). People often do not mind being encouraged toward a higher goal or better service toward God but do not respond as well when they are berated, denounced, or denigrated because they have not done as well as they could. None of us are perfect; all of us fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Sometimes people do need a wake-up call, but how many times are commands dictated and rebukes blasted when a loving appeal would be more accurate and effective?

There is a time for commands, but there are also times for appeals. We might carry the “big stick” of the Word of God, but that does not mean that we do well to use it constantly to beat up on other people. Instead, let us seek to persuade men through appealing to them by the message of God. Let our presentations of the Gospel really be good news, not bad news. Let us make sure that we are truly encouraging one another, exhorting each other toward greater faithfulness to God in Christ, growing together in the Way!

Ethan R. Longhenry

When They Ask

“And it shall come to pass, when ye are come to the land which the LORD will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, ‘What mean ye by this service?’ that ye shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.'”
And the people bowed the head and worshipped (Exodus 12:25-27).

After so many years, things were proceeding very quickly.

God had been terrifying the Egyptians with plague after plague. The final plague was about to come upon them; Israel would soon be released. Moses is preparing the people for their imminent departure.

One would think, in such circumstances, that there was enough to deal with for the present. Mobilizing a large group of people for a treacherous journey is a daunting proposition. And yet we see Moses providing legislation regarding the Passover and its expected future observance in the land of Canaan! What is going on?

Moses understands the immense significance and meaning involved in what God is doing for Israel. Yes, God is delivering this specific generation of Israelites out of the land of Egypt, out of bondage, and toward deliverance and the land of promise. But this is the story of God and Israel and the basis of everything that will come later. God is the God of Israel because of His promises to their fathers and because He delivered them from the land of Egypt. God loves Israel, and that love was declared powerfully in that deliverance. God is worthy of all honor, praise, glory, and obedience, because He is the Creator and acted powerfully against the Egyptians in ways no other god ever even claimed to act.

Therefore, the Passover was not merely for this generation of Israelites. The Passover was for every generation of Israelites as a way of continuing the story of Israel and its God. Each successive generation, in turn, would come to an understanding of the God of Israel and the acts of deliverance He wrought for their ancestors. For those Israelites enjoying the blessings of the land of Israel, it was a moment to give thanks and to appreciate what was done to allow them to enjoy the life they lived. For those who found themselves cast out from the land of Israel, the remembrance fostered the cherished hope that God would again act powerfully in their generation for their deliverance as He had so long ago.

The observance is very intentional, designed to be full of meaning. It is the perfect means of communicating a message across the generations: children will participate and will want to know what is going on. God has provided Israel with the most important teachable moment for successive generations: if the children do not understand why they should honor the God of Israel as their God, the time will come when they will have no reason not to turn their backs on Him and to follow after other gods. If they do not understand what makes the God of Israel distinctive and special, worthy of all honor and glory, they will not honor or glorify Him.

That generation of Israelites did not prove to be as far-sighted in their understanding; they would end up dying in the wilderness. The next generation would enter the land of Israel; but of the generation afterward it could be said that they did not know the LORD or the work He had done for Israel (Judges 2:10). Little wonder, then, that we read of all the sinfulness, rebelliousness, and idolatry of that and successive generations in the days of the Judges. Far later, in the times of the later kings of Judah, we are told that they observed the Passover in ways not seen since the days of old (cf. 2 Chronicles 30:1-27, 35:1-19). If the Passover is not being observed, then Israel is not remembering the act of deliverance which God wrought for them. If the Passover is not being observed, then the next generation has no opportunity to ask for understanding as to what it means. If the next generation never has that opportunity, they never learn about who God is and what He has done for Israel. All of a sudden, Israel’s idolatrous and rebellious history makes more sense.

Religious experience in activities that are laden with spiritual meaning are extremely important. They remind us of God’s saving acts of deliverance, His goodness, His power, His love. They are designed to help us to keep a proper perspective, always thankful for what God has done, remembering why we honor God as the Lord of our lives and how all things are to flow from that submission before Him. Yet, just as importantly, such experiences give children the opportunity to learn about God and what is really important. God has provided such teachable moments for us so that we may have opportunity to impart such understanding to our children as we have received from those who have gone on before us. This is not a task to be off-loaded upon someone else; we are given the opportunity to explain to our own children the reason why we believe God is Lord and how He has powerfully acted in order to provide deliverance and salvation for all mankind.

But that conversation can only happen if we are participating in God’s work and participate in those actions invested with spiritual significance. That conversation can only happen when we really believe that God is Lord of our lives and that all things should flow from our submission to Him. Our children can only see the power of God’s saving activity when they see it not just explained but lived as well. If we merely pay lip service to God while serving idols, our children will see it. If we live as if we do not know God and what He has wrought for mankind, then our children will more likely than not continue in that same path. But if we honor God as Lord, our children will likely do the same.

Children’s questions are extremely important; that is how they learn about life and what is really important. Let us take the opportunities we are given not only to explain to the next generation what God has said and done, but why we should even follow God in the first place, recounting His glorious saving acts for mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Abiding in the Teaching of Christ

Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son (2 John 1:9).

Whereas the essential human condition and challenges remain consistent throughout time, many things have changed over the past two thousand years. Empires have come and gone; the Gospel message has spread throughout the world; people who believe in Jesus today often come from very different places and cultures than that of first century Jewish Palestine. Different people with different societal and cultural norms have looked at Jesus for the past two thousand years, and unsurprisingly, we now have all sorts of different views about who Jesus really is and for what Jesus stood.

Yet this is not a new challenge. Within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, many of the Greco-Roman world, profoundly influenced by Greek philosophy, also looked into the claims and life of Jesus of Nazareth. They found Him compelling, but there were certain things that the Christians were saying about Jesus unacceptable to them. The Christians claimed that Jesus was the Son of God and God the Son (Acts 8:37, John 1:1); well and good, but they also claimed that He was God the Son in the flesh (Colossians 2:9, 2 John 1:7). Surely God would never humiliate Himself to the point of becoming flesh. No; it was not truly flesh; He only seemed to be flesh, these Greeks would say.

These Greeks influenced by Jesus but still holding onto many Greek philosophical principles were forming the various groups called the Gnostics; many of the “gospels” that are promoted with great fanfare today, like the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Judas,” were written by these Gnostics. They viewed Jesus as a most superior teacher of philosophy, a divine being who only seemed to be human, advocating (depending on the group) either complete asceticism or license to satisfy the desires of the flesh in the name of superior understanding and a complete division between the flesh and the spirit, among other things. Sure, there were a couple of similarities between the picture of Jesus promoted by the Gnostics with the picture of Jesus promoted by the Apostles and the early Christians, yet the differences remained stark.

What did all of this mean? A lot of people today think that different views of Jesus can be maintained acceptably before God, but such was unthinkable in the first century. John perceives the threat Gnosticism poses to the work and identity of Jesus of Nazareth: the power of the Incarnation is denied, the ability of Jesus to identify with humans and their suffering is rejected (cf. Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8), and the Biblical presentation of man as body and soul combined is being thoroughly undermined (cf. Genesis 1:26-27, 2:5-9). The differences between the Apostolic presentation of Jesus of Nazareth and the Gnostic presentation are real, and critical aspects of the faith are rejected by even tolerating the Gnostic view. John will have none of it: those who do not abide in the teaching, or doctrine, of Christ, do not have God; those who abide in that teaching have the Father and the Son, since the Son is the exact imprint of the nature of the Father (John 10:30, Hebrews 1:3). Those who have left the teaching of Christ engage in evil works, and they are not even to be greeted (2 John 1:10-11).

These are very sharp words, and to many modern ears, it sounds intolerant. His words are designed to be intolerant to a significant degree, mostly because of his desire to maintain the integrity of the teachings regarding Jesus. It is one thing to believe the principles of Greek philosophy; it is quite another to attempt to re-imagine Jesus as a Greek philosopher and in the process distort His message and His identity. None of us were given the right to make a Jesus of our own image according to our own desire; therefore, it is right to defend the teaching of the Christ who actually lived, died, and was raised (1 Peter 3:15).

To understand the true nature of the Christ is always a challenge. We are all creatures of our time and age; we are programmed by our environment, family, friends, culture, and society to think in certain ways and to accept certain propositions as true. None of us can completely transcend those ways of thinking; in various ways, we will all see Jesus somehow in ways more like us than like a first century Palestinian Jew. Since Jesus is for all men, this is acceptable up to a point; Jesus is compelling precisely because He speaks regarding the human condition in general, and not merely to first century Jewish concerns (e.g. Matthew 5-7). That is likely why John emphasizes the need to abide in the teachings of Christ: we did not walk with Him and talk with Him, but we all can learn the things He taught and the things taught regarding who He was and is and ever will be (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2).

The challenge is for us as much as it was for those in the first century: we must abide in the teachings of Jesus. Some of the things Jesus said and did are easily acceptable; those should be a given. Yet in every society and in every age there are aspects to Jesus’ existence, nature, life, death, resurrection, and instruction which stand completely against the commonly accepted wisdom of the day. It is hard to fight against cultural norms; little wonder, then, how so many have not abode in the teachings of Christ, but have instead invented a Jesus better suited to their own desires and more consistent with their own expectations. That tendency has not changed; nevertheless, we must stand against it. We must accept all of the teachings from Jesus and regarding Jesus in Scripture, no matter how consistent they are with what we already believe or how popular they are with our fellow man. Let us strive to abide in the doctrine of Christ and not deviate from Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The New Old Treasure

“Have ye understood all these things?”
[The disciples] say unto [Jesus], “Yea.”
And he said unto them, “Therefore every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old (Matthew 13:51-52).

This episode of teaching was over. Now was the time to receive the feedback, something with which we are familiar. Jesus had spoken many parables, and most likely had explained them (cf. Matthew 13:1-50, Mark 4:34). Did the disciples understand them? And do the disciples understand their importance?

They answer affirmatively. One might wonder if the answer is sincere– do they really think they understand the parables, or are they questioning inside and do not want to bring those questions to the surface? Since Jesus does not seem to question their response, and since Mark 4:34 gives us the impression that He explained the parables, we are justified in taking the disciples’ answer at face value. It will be made evident that they do not yet really understand what the Kingdom is all about, and how the Kingdom of God in Christ is far different from their expectations, but they probably do get the basic message of the parables.

Jesus then provides this cryptic parable of sorts as a conclusion to the matter. Those who are “scribes made disciples to the Kingdom,” or “scribes trained for the Kingdom,” are compared to a homeowner who brings new and old things out of his treasure.

The force of this statement is in its imagery: the master of a house bringing out old and new, not just one or the other. The reference to “scribes” makes Jesus’ referent clear– He speaks of the Scriptures. Jesus, after all, came to fulfill the old (Matthew 5:17-18), and in so doing, inaugurate the new (Hebrews 9:15). And while there is a definitive break in covenant– as Deuteronomy 4:2 says, one cannot amend a covenant, and those who are part of the new covenant are not bound to the old according to Hebrews 7-9– it is not as if there is complete discontinuity between the two. Jesus’ words resonate with the Old Testament– One Creator God Who is just but merciful, ruling over His Kingdom. Jesus Himself, in many ways, represents the ultimate goal of that which had been written. But Jesus is not just repeating the way things always had been; the Sermon on the Mount made that clear enough (Matthew 5-7). These teachings in the parables are the same– they continue with many of the themes of the old yet point to a new reality.

The direction and force of the parable, therefore, are clear enough, but who is the referent? We are told that “every scribe made a disciple to/trained for the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who are like this master of the house. Yet who are they?

That “they” are somehow followers of Jesus is evident; “they” are “made disciples” or “trained” in the direction of the Kingdom. Whether or not they become disciples because of their training– they know the old message, and then saw Jesus and how He conformed to the old and points in a new direction– is possible, as in the scribe whom Jesus commends in Mark 12:28-34. It is also quite possible that they are disciples of Christ trained for a scribal role who do such things.

This would not be of such note had Jesus just referred to them as “disciples,” as He so often does. He instead speaks of “scribes,” something He otherwise does for followers of His only in Matthew 23:34. There are plenty of references to scribes in the New Testament, but normally it speaks of the professional class of Jews who were responsible for knowing the Old Testament Scriptures, for transcribing and copying those Scriptures, and to provide instruction to the rest of the people who otherwise would not have access to said Law. Their great affection for the Law led them to be hostile toward Jesus and His claims; they, with the Pharisees, are condemned as hypocrites throughout Matthew 23, and they are part of the group conspiring against Him (Mark 14:1).

In context, the “scribes” are either all of the disciples or at least some of the disciples. They are the ones whom He is training– of whom He makes disciples– for the Kingdom. They will be given roles of teaching, instructing people in the ways of Christ (Matthew 18:18, Acts 2:42). Perhaps this is a way Matthew is referring to himself– he is a disciple, he will be one of those Apostles, and here he is writing a Gospel, a scribe writing out the story, connecting the old and the new.

The application, however, is relevant for all of those who teach in the Kingdom, and in many ways for everyone who participates in God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not new; it has its roots in God’s revelation of Himself in the creation, to the Patriarchs, and to Israel. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of God is not exactly like what has come before. It functions quite differently than the nation of Israel did.

Thus Jesus emphasizes the power and importance of the parables. Notice that this statement of Jesus is the conclusion to the matter of these parables. The disciples understand the parables; they are told, therefore, that scribes made disciples/trained in the Kingdom will bring out the old and the new. To know and understand the parables is to be trained in the Kingdom. One might say truly that there is more to the Kingdom than what can be divined in the parables; but one certainly cannot understand the Kingdom if one does not understand the parables concerning it which Jesus spoke!

The Kingdom has old and new elements as illustrated in the parables. We do well to be made disciples and trained in the Kingdom, being the scribes of God’s intention and desire, properly instructing and encouraging others in the truths of the Kingdom and the faith. Let us serve the Lord and understand His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry