Paul’s (and Timothy’s) letter to Philemon is one of those New Testament books that doesn’t get much love. It only contains a meager 25 verses, so what could it possibly say to us today? Lots…
Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever spent any significant amount of time reading or studying Philemon…not once. I’m sure I’ve breezed through it before but if you would have asked me any question about the letter 2 weeks ago I would have nothing to say. And that’s a shame because it’s such an awesome letter. About 2 weeks back I decided to start reading through Philemon. I chose it for no good reason other than it being covered in a commentary by NT Wright on Paul’s prison letters that I happen to own. And so I began a little Bible study, along with the wisdom of NT Wright, and I was in for quite a surprise.
As I said in my last post, these past few weeks since I’ve moved to Philly to begin seminary have been a time of renewal for me. I feel a new sense of the Spirit working and moving in my heart, or “holy barbecuing all up in my soul.” This has ignited a new desire to read and study God’s Word with a new perspective. I’ve read two books recently (on my Kindle) that have helped to form this new perspective…
This one is by Lesslie Newbiggin and I HIGHLY recommend it. He talks in depth about how the Church participates in God’s mission for the world in societies that are pluralistic and tend to shun groups with any universal claims to truth. A big part of this discussion is about the role of the Bible in shaping authentic community that embodies the truth of the Gospel that we proclaim. This, in Newbiggin’s assessment, is the only way the Church will be heard in our pluralistic society. He uses an analogy of a surgeon with an endoscopic tool to describe the Bible’s role. We are like the surgeon – on a mission to save the life of the patient, the world. We use a special tool, the Bible, that we control with our hands. However, as we perform the surgery, we don’t look at our hands or at the tool. Instead, we watch a video monitor that shows us what the tool is seeing inside the patient’s body. The tool in our hands literally becomes an extension of our hands. Newbiggin explains that as we immerse ourselves in the story of the Bible we should become less focused on the Bible itself and more focused on what we are doing with the Bible in the world. Just like the surgeon, we will need some time to learn the tool and perfect our surgical skills. We’ll need to read into how the tool works and what all the buttons do, but after that we don’t continue to take apart the tool and study every piece that makes it function. We use it to heal people.
This one is by NT Wright and I would recommend it as well. Something about the way NT Wright talks about Scripture really gets me excited. His “For Everyone” commentary series on the New Testament seems to be very good. As I said earlier, I only have one part of it, but I’ve heard great things about the rest from several different people. In this book, Wright talks about what it means to say that “Scripture is authoritative”. He answers that question by saying that the authority of Scripture is really God’s own authority exercised through Scripture in order to energize and bring about the new creation in His world that has begun with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scripture has the authority to bring new life.
One thing is for sure: I’m excited about immersing myself in God’s Story as it is told in our Old and New Testaments. I’m excited about what NT Wright calls improvising that Story for today’s world. We are ALL caught up in the great story of God and we ALL have a role to play. Borrowing again from Wright, we have the last four acts of the play – Creation, Fall, Israel, and Jesus – and now it is time for the New Testament people of God, the new creation people, to have our turn. While we must be true to the last four acts and to the beginning of act five recorded in the New Testament, we have been given a freedom in the Spirit to interpret God’s story, to act out His new life, in our world. It is time to we begin to embody the Word and its life-changing power to heal and renew our world.
So what might the story of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, where slaves become brothers, have to say to us today?
…stay tuned for part 2.