Partnership at a cost: Philemon

In his short New Testament letter to Philemon, Paul asks for something absolutely outrageous.

Philemon is all about partnership. Paul celebrates the encouragement his friend has been to him (and others) in the past “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement,because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), and looks forward to being with him for a time of fellowship again soon, “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” (vs22). But in between these two clearly tender remarks, which illustrate their close brotherly relationship in the Lord, Paul asks of his friend an outrageous request.

It is a request, an appeal. Though Paul says he could pull rank and order him to obey (vs8), he appeals, vs9, out of love. And the appeal is for the slave, Onesimus.

“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”

Philemon 10-11.

Paul is appealing on behalf of this slave Onesimus, who clearly belongs to the well-off Philemon. Onesimus has fled from Philemon’s house, clearly he has wronged his master (either by running away or perhaps some other misdemeanor – the letter doesn’t make that clear). But somehow he has ended up with Paul, and now, wonderfully, he has come to a saving faith in Christ. Paul shows this in calling him “my son” – and we are told in Colossians 4:9 that he is a “faithful and dear brother.”

So Paul makes this appeal: formerly this slave was useless to you Philemon, he wronged you, but now he is in right fellowship with me and before God, and he is of use to you again, accept him back into your household. And accept him not as a slave (vs16) but as a brother. In fact, Philemon, receive him as you would receive me (vs17). 

This is an outrageous request, because Philemon and Onesimus couldn’t be more different, and in real terms: they couldn’t be more estranged.

They were not two friends who had a falling our, or siblings who had a row. This is two men at polar opposite ends of the social spectrum, and Paul asks the ‘greater’ of these two men to accept the ‘lesser’ as though they were brothers! It’s the Queen accepting the beggar as a brother, or the CEO promoting the secretary to be her partner. But more than this: Onesimus has wronged Philemon, he’s a runaway slave, Philemon is within his rights to have him put to death! In Roman times the slave was the ultimate possession of the master, and if that slave fled, crucifixion was a perfectly acceptable (and common) punishment. Onesimus had wronged his master in a serious way, there was no worldly coming back from this. And yet Paul appeals. Forgive and embrace him, says Paul. Not as a debtor, not as a slave, but as a brother. Paul is asking the important Philemon to ask a criminal social outcast to be his equal. It’s a radical call to working out his heart of partnership in a costly situation. In the social standing of the day this was the utmost folly. But Paul doesn’t care, he’s only interested in these men enjoying and living in a successful partnership for the Gospel.

Onesimus is, in a worldly sense, next to nothing. He was a possession, and one that needed to be destroyed for his crimes. Philemon was a big deal, he was a homeowner, a slaveowner, clearly a man of social standing. It’s a radical plea from Paul, but it’s made on one qualification only

Onesimus is useful to Paul, and to Philemon. How? Because Onesimus has come to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And because of that one fact, he was useful. Paul is making a pun here – Onesimus’ name means useful: in his crime he was useless, but now, made right in Christ, he is useful. And his use is incredible.

Paul thanked Philemon for the way his love “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), likewise Paul hopes that if Philemon obeys his appeal here he will “refresh my heart in Christ” (vs19). The Christian refreshes his or her brother and sister by displaying a Gospel-centred Christ-like love towards them. Any Christian, from the slave to the master, the PhD to the sixth-form drop out, can encourage their brothers and sisters, can be useful to them. God is merciful to use each and every one of us. In our church, our ragtag bunch of Christians from all walks of life, every single person is useful. Because every single person can point us back to the Gospel.

And clearly, from the outrageous nature of Paul’s request, that is the thing that matters most for any and every believer.

Outcasts. The social stigma facing Early Christians.

To become a Christian is a huge decision. It’s life changing. It’s transformative. It’s hopeful.

And in the Roman world, it was a really, really hard thing to do.

When the Christian accepted Christ, he was rejecting the other gods of the Roman world. He wasn’t just adding in another god to a crowded pantheon, he was rejecting the rest in favour of this one true God. This was because the radical call to Christian belief was completely at odds with the whole Roman understanding of their world. There was a real stigma attached to accepting Christ, because it involved rejecting the gods of Rome.

The scholar Larry Hurtado lays this out clearly in his 2016 book on the Early Church.

“Practically everyone was presumed to honour the gods, and your own gods were supplied as part of your birthright.”

Hurtado, Destroyer of Gods, 2016, 78.

To become a Christian, to accept only one true God, is to turn your back on your whole prior understanding of yourself. Such a statement rings true today, but the stigma attached to this choice in Roman times was wide reaching. Religious belief defined every civic event, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief determined every legal and social process, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief shaped how the family interacted. The household gods (known in Latin as the lares), intimately personal to every household, were now in stark opposition to the new faith of the convert. And so the family religion, the makeup of how the very family unit defined itself? The Christian rejected that.

The Christian went from socially ‘in’ to a societal outcast overnight. The stigma around these believers was so real and so painful because their belief was so offensive to the Roman worldview. How dare these Jesus-followers reject the gods of their fathers? How dare they claim that their God is the only way?

They did it because of the wonderful answer Jesus made to that very question.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6.

The Jesus these early Christians followed was the only true God, and trusting in Him was the only way that any man or woman throughout the Empire could be right with this God.
The same is true today. The Christian life is hard, trusting in Christ requires the believer to turn his or her back on the world. It can make us societal outcasts. It can make our families, friends, even our spouses reject us and deride us. But at the end of the day it is wonderfully worth it because it is the only way we can be right with God. Jesus Christ is the only truth we can be sure of in a world of fake news and post-truth. Jesus Christ is a God who is wonderfully unchanging. And though following Him can be as hard in the twenty first century as it was in the first, it is just as worth it.

Ignatius: Focussed on Unity

Ignatius was headed for his death.

And that is one of the first things we know for sure about him.

He’s another one of the Early Church figures about whom it is almost impossible to piece a biography together. Born in the early first century (c.AD 35) Ignatius rose to the position of bishop in Antioch, a church leader in one of the important Early Church centres.

His death came about in AD 107, as he was taken to Rome and executed for the charge of atheism. One of the most common charges levied against early Christians, atheism – denying the Roman gods – could be punishable by death, and for Ignatius, it was.

Traditionally Ignatius is seen as one of the disciples of the Apostle John, whether or not this was the case, it seems that he likely succeeded Evodius as the second or third bishop of Antioch. In this role, he spoke and wrote extensively against heretical divisions, sending letters to churches throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

Quite why Ignatius was taken to Rome for his execution is unknown, when persecution arose Christians were normally punished locally by the imperial provincial authority. Despite this peculiar circumstance, we know he endured a long journey to Rome, where he then met his death. On his way to the imperial capital he wrote many of his extant letters and it is these that provide most of his legacy. Letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia and other cities throughout the empire have survived. His letters often dwell on the themes of unity, submission to church leaders and fellowship through the Lord’s Supper.

Ignatius sought to encourage a unity built around a mutual encouragement and growth in the Gospel. He spoke against those who would seek to divide the church through falsehoods and lies, and encouraged a united submission to the undershepherds Christ had raised up. His letters betray his primary concern as he went to his death in Rome: the faithfulness and unity of the Church. His letters urge his readers to “follow the lead of the bishops” to “take heed to often come together to give thanks to God” and to “revere the deacons” among many other commands. Ignatius has a picture of a global Church gathered in local churches; under the authority of local church leadership, serving and growing in the glorious Gospel of Christ.

Eventually he went to his death, and as with so many of the other Early Church martyrs, his focus in death as in life is a challenge to us all.

Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment … come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”

Ignatius of Antioch

In death as in life, Ignatius looked towards and rejoiced in Christ. In his ministry he encouraged his flock to do the same, and in his own life he sought nothing more than to attain to Him.

His life reflects the words of Paul to the Philippians, written during Ignatius’ own lifetime.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Philippians 1:21.

Paul, and a little later Ignatius, saw life as being rightly lived when it was lived for Christ. And death? With death comes the great reward for the Christian is to be united with Christ for all eternity. Ignatius reflected this Pauline ambition, to live in such a way that Christ was glorified, and to die with the wonderful and certain hope that today he would be with Him in paradise.

Citizens of Heaven

Paul’s Claim

Being a Roman citizen was a big deal. It afforded protections, rights and liberties simply not available to other classes. And until the third century, this status was the prize of the chosen few. The advantages are seen in the book of Acts. Having been beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, Paul and Silas alarm their captors by revealing that they are in fact Roman citizens (16:37-38). But in Acts 25, Paul uses his citizenship for the ultimate end: to appeal to directly to Caesar.

Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared:“You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

Acts 25:10-12

Paul could make this appeal because he was a citizen of Rome. His special status meant he had the right to special treatment. The vast majority of those living inside the borders of the vast Roman empire were not citizens. They were either allies or aliens, but neither had the rights of the citizen. It was a special claim and a special status, it was a big deal.

After Caracalla

In AD 212, the Emperor Caracalla changed what citizenship meant. Before his rule, citizenship was a prized asset, the possession of the few and a key social marker distinguishing the privileged few from the masses.

But in AD 212 Caracalla issued an edict of universal citizenship. Suddenly, this changed everything. This edict (the inventively named Edict of Caracalla) granted citizenship status to ever free man in the Roman Empire. You might think this was a wonderful thing, suddenly everyone was special! But the reality is, when everyone is given this special status, it’s not longer really that special.

When citizenship was reserved for a social elite, it had meant something. Clearly it meant enough for Paul to get the special treatment his status deserved. Citizenship status mattered in the ancient world, and when Caracalla challenged that, it became a far less important commodity.

Citizens of Heaven

But up until the third century, this language of citizenship was impressive. In Acts 16 the revelation that they had been beating and mistresting Roman citizens shocked the captors of Paul and Silas. In Acts 25 it led to an appeal straight to Caesar. Citizenship in the ancient world really did matter.

And so as Paul wrote to the small Philippian church, he reminded them where their citizenship truly was, and this was incredible news.

Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philippians 3:20

Paul tells the first century Philippian church – slave or free, man or woman, Roman, Greek or Jew, that they have citizenship. But this citizenship is not the flimsy Roman kind, great as all that is, this is citizenship of a much greater kingdom. An eternal one, a heavenly one.

The Philippians are citizens of Heaven. This is their status. The perks and privileges of citizenship are theirs. Not just any citizenship, but Heavenly citizenship. The Bible fleshes out what this means for the believer. Our citizenship is so special because not only it is of Heaven, but we are adopted by the King of Heaven.

The heir of the Roman Emperor had special access to his court. Paul could appeal to see the Emperor as a perk of citizenship, but the heir to the empire? He could walk right into the throneroom at any time. We are citizens of Heaven, and we are adopted children of the King of Heaven.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

1 John 3:1a

In fact, Hebrews tells us that quite literally we can approach the throne room of God because of this new status of citizenship and divine relationship.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:16

And as children of the King? We are heirs and coheirs with Christ.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Romans 8:17

Scripture is wonderfully clear on the status of the believer. We are God’s children, citizens of and heirs to His kingdom. And this is something God has bestowed upon us. The Bible explains what this  bestowing means for the believer. It means God has bestowed love on us (1 John 3:1, Ephesians 2:4), grace (1 Cor 1:4) and indeed every spiritual gift (2 Peter 1:3-5, Eph 1:3).

Our heavenly citizenship is an incredible status. Such language was music to the ears of the small and suffering Early Church, and it ought to cause us to rejoice as well. So let us reflect on and rejoice in our status, and let us obey Paul: let’s eagerly await the return of our Saviour from this Heavenly kingdom.

Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Though known for his Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras is one of the least well known Ante-Nicene apologists.


Athenagoras was born in c.133 AD. Known as Athenagoras of Athens, his birthplace may well not have been in the city, but he certainly lived and flourished there. Like other Early Church figures such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras came from an educated background. Coming from Athens, with its rich history in philosophy and education, he’d had plenty of opportunity to engage with the Stoics, Platonists and every other school of thought on offer.

So much like Justin, Athenagoras looked into them all, and as a young man he converted to Christianity. He styles himself an “Athenian, Philosopher and a Christian” in his Plea, and this sense is certainly carried through his writings.

Though he was believed to be a prolific and well known writer, with a long list of works likely circulating round the Western Mediterranean, only a few have survived antiquity. He is known as an apologist, and his career fell shortly after the first generation of Christian apologists. He was also a scholar. His treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead is notable for being the first complete exposition of this doctrine in Christian literature. But his most famous work was his apologetic Plea for the Christians. This work was written as an ‘embassy’ on behalf of the Christians, made by a philosopher to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Lucius, his son and co-ruler. The speaker presents his case in the philosophical style, addressing the emperors eloquently and logically. The work claims the treatment of the Christians to be unjust, and by a careful setting out of the beliefs and doctrines to which these Christ-followers ascribe, he presents his case.

The work is rich in ancient literature, quoting pagan poets and philosophers as well as Christian texts and Scripture. The work states three common accusations the Christians face: atheism, cannabalism and incest. It then answers each charge, pointing to the God they believe in in answer to this opposition. Athenagoras’ Plea answers the charges by pointing to the truths that drive the Christian faith. Amongst other things, he elaborates on monotheism, on the Gospel and on love as a key motivation for the Christian believer.

His Plea also provides a wonderful quote on the character of the Early Christians he is defending and it makes for wonderful reading.

Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds they exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.

Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, 11.

Athenagoras is describing the church. In this mix of people, there are some unskilled, some uneducated and some old women, cast offs from society. But, he says, though they may not possess the education or the eloquence to defend the doctrines of the faith rhetorically, they live out the Gospel in their deeds. By sharing their God in the way they act, they are persuading their neighbours, friends and family of the truth. It is a wonderful snapshot of Early Church life, and a wonderful side note to the main thrust of his work: on the value each member of God’s family had. Some of the church, says Athenagoras, were not valuable to the world, and may not have been all too clever with words or rich with possessions. But they had incredible value in living Christ centered lives, loving others and living out the Gospel day in day out. The Church had educated figures such as Athenagoras, who could (and did!) write long defences of the faith. But Athenagoras reminds both his critics then and his readers now that living out a life faithful to the Gospel offers genuine witness to the transformative power of the cross.

The Gospel was good news for everyone in Roman society. And every member of the local church had the wonderful responsibility of sharing that Gospel in their words and deeds. And they didn’t need the philosophical education of the Athenian elite to do it.

Athenagoras died in around 190 AD. His exact date of death is unknown, as are the circumstances in which he died. But what is known is that he was a brilliant and in many ways respected scholar. He engaged with emperors, governors, philosophers and peasants, and he saw the hope of every man as lying in the acceptance of the Gospel of Christ.

Describing God

Hear, O man. The appearance of God is ineffable and indescribable, and cannot be seen by eyes of flesh. For in glory He is incomprehensible, in greatness unfathomable, in height inconceivable, in power incomparable, in wisdom unrivalled, in goodness inimitable, in kindness unutterable. For if I say He is Light, I name but His own work; if I call Him Word, I name but His sovereignty; if I call Him Mind, I speak but of His wisdom; if I say He is Spirit, I speak of His breath; if I call Him Wisdom, I speak of His offspring; if I call Him Strength, I speak of His sway; if I call Him Power, I am mentioning His activity; if Providence, I but mention His goodness; if I call Him Kingdom, I but mention His glory; if I call Him Lord, I mention His being judge; if I call Him Judge, I speak of Him as being just; if I call Him Father, I speak of all things as being from Him; if I call Him Fire, I but mention His anger. You will say, then, to me, Is God angry? Yes; He is angry with those who act wickedly, but He is good, and kind, and merciful, to those who love and fear Him; for He is a chastener of the godly, and father of the righteous; but he is a judge and punisher of the impious.

Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycus, 1.3.

I love this description of God. Written in the second century, it comes from Theophilus’ Ad Autolycus, an apologetic document defending the Christian faith to a pagan friend. It’s beautifully written, and Theophilus pens it in response to the mocking scoffer who cries: “If you see God then, explain his appearance to me!”

And Theophilus does. And he does so in a brilliant way.

I don’t want to say too much about this description, read it again, it’s a beautiful piece of writing and I think it really speaks for itself. But I do want to say two things about how it is that Theophilus answers his friend.

He does so by pointing him to the God we meet in Scripture.

The was Theophilus describes God here is beautiful, and it is done so it leans on Scripture. To pick but a few of Theophilus’ lines.

In speaking of God’s unfathomable greatness he evokes the praise of Psalm 145:3. In describing His glory as Light and Word he reflects the Gospel account of John 1:1-4. As a God who judges justly, and who is angry with the wicked: Psalm 7:11. As the Father of the righteous? 1 John 2:1.

The way Theophilus describes God is by speaking of the God of Scripture, and this is exactly how we ought to speak to those who come against us and the God in whom we believe. God doesn’t want us to defend Him. When the disciples saw the Samaritans opposing Christ, they turned to Jesus and asked:

“Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

But Jesus turned and rebuked them.

Luke 9:54-55.

God doesn’t call us to defend Him. That’s not to say we shouldn’t respond to accusations against Him, to abuse or slander. But we respond by representing Him. That is what we are called to do.

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5:20.

The Gospel calls us to represent God, and to do that by appealing on God’s behalf: be reconciled to God. Our instruction is to respond to opposition by sharing the Gospel in love with those around us. And this is because of our second point, the second way Theophilus shares about God here.

Theophilus shows the beauty and awesome wonder of God by dwelling on His Character.

Theophilus’ description of God makes us stop and go “Wow.”

He uses Biblical language to paint a picture of who God is. But he doesn’t try to sell him, or add to him, or dress him up with anything else. Theophilus lets God’s awesome character speak for Himself. Our God is beautifully attractive. We don’t need to add to Him and His Gospel with human ‘goodies’ or incentives. What can we add to a God who is this amazing?

Theophilus’ description of God silences his opponent because the awesome wonder of God is dazzling. But it’s not a perfect description. The greatest picture of God is found in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Christians, keep your eyes on Him. Unbeliever? Explore who He is in the pages of the Gospels.

This is a beautiful description of God. But to explore the greatest picture of who God is, turn to Matthew chapter one and just start reading.

Unchanging God: changing us.

In his 4th century homily on Hebrews, John Chrysostom had this to say of Hebrews 13:8.

“In these words, ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and forever:’ yesterday means all the time that is past: today, the present: forever, the endless which is to come. That is to say: You have heard of a High Priest, but not a High Priest who fails. He is always the same.”

John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 13:8-9.

John captures the writers’ meaning in these words: our Lord, Jesus Christ, is unchanging now and for all time. He is constant. He is good, loving, sovereign and faithful. Always. He is always the same.

John recognised this in the fourth century, a time of growth and excitement among the Early Church. The Emperor Constantine had legalised the faith, and his endorsement of Christianity was leading many to convert to belief in Christ. On the flip side, heresies like the Arians of North Africa were spreading fast, and posed huge challenges to the faithful Church.

This was a time of great change, but John recognised that the one thing that didn’t change was his God. The Bible is clear that our God does not change, indeed, in the book of Malachi, God Himself tells his people that He is as He is.

“For I, the Lord, do not change.”

Malachi 3:6

Our God does not change, this is a clear Scriptural truth, and one recognised by the teachers and preachers of the Early Church. But what does that mean for us? A good friend of mine challenged me on this the other day. She and a friend have been reading None Like Him by Jen Wilkins (thoroughly recommend), and Jen challenges her readers by asking why it is we are so willing to ascribe this unchangingness to people. “Oh he’ll never change, it’s just how he is.” “I’d love her to come to faith, but she’ll never change her ways.” Sound familiar?

I’m certainly guilty of thinking like that. But the Bible doesn’t tell us that. In fact, it tells us the complete opposite. The Bible tells us that we can change, and it calls us to do so.

Jesus’ mission was to call people to repentance.

The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1:15

Whilst Peter’s sermon at Pentecost leads him to exhort his onlookers:

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”

Acts 3:19

Scripture calls for repentance, the Christian life is quite literally about changing your ways. Our God may be unchanging, but in His merciful grace, we are not.

Clement of Alexandria, the second century author (find out more about him here), wrote his Exhortation to the Greeks in the 190s AD to beg the pagan Greeks of the Roman Empire to accept salvation. In true pastor/preacher style, Clement admits he’s gone on a while (12 books in fact!) as he closes the work.

“I have run on too long… as is natural when one is inviting men to the greatest of good things – salvation.”

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation, 12.

The message of the Gospel is an exhortation to salvation. It is a call to change. To repent. To quite literally turn from the sinful life to a life lived for God’s glory. It’s a call for change before an unchanging God.

So when we think of change, there are three things to remember. One amazing truth, and two wonderful challenges.

  1. God is wonderfully unchanging. That means He is always who He says He is. He is a loving father, a Holy God, and a wonderful saviour. For more on who God is and what he is like, check out this blog by The Gospel Coalition.
  2. If God is unchanging but we are not: don’t label anyone as unredeemable. The Gospel is so powerful that as the old hymn goes, “the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” God’s Gospel is powerful to change hearts and minds, pray big prayers for our unbelieving friends and family, and thank God for the wonderful change He has worked and is working in your own heart.
  3. If people are changeable: don’t lie to yourself about sin. This is a hard truth, but the phrase “oh, it’s just how I am” or “It’s just a character flaw, I’ll never change” is a fundamental untruth. Only God never changes. We must face up to sin, and fight it. Confident that in God’s goodness we will defeat it, and if not in this life, then there is a promise of a perfect sinless life to come. This same truth applies for people we know as well. We cannot accuse someone of always being this or that, but we can challenge them on unrepentant sin, because in God’s goodness repentance can happen, and grace is on offer for the sinner who comes anew to the foot of the cross.

God is wonderfully unchanging. Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. People change. People can come to the Gospel. Pray for that change. Pray for that Gospel change.