Acts 17: just another God?

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV).

The scene that met Paul in Athens was typical of the Roman Empire of the day. 

As he wandered through the Areopagus, at the heart of the bustling ancient city, he was confronted by the presence and veneration of countless gods, goddesses, and mystery divinities. The ancient world was “very religious”. Just as much as our own contemporaries worship celebrities, money, fashion and sex, the ancients were worshippers. In many ways they worshiped the same gods as the world around us, they merely personified them. In Plutus they had a god of money, in Aphrodite a goddess of sex. So when Paul passed the “objects of worship” in ancient Athens, he was met not with idols of meaningless false gods, but with manifestations of the false gods the Roman world had raised up as a result of their sinful rebellion against God.

In the absence of an object of True Worship, human beings then and now turn to objects of comfort and self-centred gain and worship them. The Roman merchant would pray to Neptune ahead of a sea voyage – to ensure calm sailing and safe arrival of their cargo. The Roman soldier would pray to Mars before battle, to beg for victory over inferior foe. The traveller would submit to Mercury when setting off on a journey, to ask for safe roads and swift travel. You get the picture. In the absence of a true focal point for human worship, the sinful heart erects false gods to come to. 


The Roman world was full of gods. There was a god or goddess for every event and occasion, and if you couldn’t find anything at home, then divinities from abroad were more than welcome in the Roman pantheon. The polytheistic religious attitude of the ancient world incorporated the likes of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, and Mithridates from the Orient. If you still couldn’t find the god you needed publically, then the household gods, or lares, were personal deities found and worshipped in small shrines in every Roman home. There was no state religion, because the state was religion. The Emperor himself encouraged worship of the imperial ancestors, and imperial cults sprung up across the empire venerating past and present Roman Emperors.

So when Paul moves to speak of this Unknown God, he makes a radical call.

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17: 29-31 (NIV).

Paul calls his Athenian audience to repent. Because his True God is not some metal or stone image carved by their sculptors. Nor is he content with ignorance and half-hearted service. Paul’s Christian God does not want you only to heed him on odd days of the week, or at times when you need a hand in a crisis. Paul’s Christian God wants repentance from ignorance, and lives given over to Him before His final judgement comes. This message itself is even more countercultural. The gods were certainly seen as powerful and mighty beings. But they were by no means sovereign. The current gods of Rome and Greece were believed to be ruling (under Jupiter, the King of the gods) merely because they overthrew a divine race of Titans and stole their power and authority. There is no sense in which their rule is eternally assured, certainly no sense in which their sovereignty is so total as to one day call the men of the world to a final judgement. Such teaching contradicts everything the ancients believed. Even their notions of judgement at death were profoundly different: with most believing that all the deceased passed on to a shadelike existence in the underworld, where a mere few enjoyed the semi-passable eternal existence of the Isles of the Blessed.

No, Paul and the faithful of the Early Church taught one God supreme in authority, sovereignty and judgement. And when Paul made known the unknown God, he was asking his pagan audience to turn from their false gods and humble themselves before the one true God. The one God who could satisfy them, the one God who could save them.

Paul was not preaching just another god to fit into their crowded marketplace. He was preaching the one true God, the one true saviour and the one true judge. 

James and the ‘Crown of Life’: the crown in the Ancient World.

Image result for ancient victor's crown

James wrote his New Testament epistle to scattered and persecuted Christians struggling to stand firm in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage and challenge them, offering practical wisdom on the outworking of their faith in their lives, the need to endure, and the reality that God changes the believer.

His short letter opens with a section dedicated to facing trials and temptations in God’s strength. He exhorts his readers to cling to spiritual provision (vs16-18) during times of great spiritual challenge and danger (vs13-15). In verse 12, James encourages his readers by looking forward together.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12 (NIV)

Blessed are those, writes James, who stand firm under pressure, who keep on in the trials and temptations of life, because at the end of all that is the crown of life. The prize, the goal, the crown of life. James’ words echo Paul in 2 Timothy 4:8, where the Apostle speaks of what lies in store for him, and those who are faithful to Christ.

there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing

2 Timothy 4:8

Both writers use the same Greek word to describe this crown – στέφανος – meaning crown, or wreath. And it was a word with majestic implications. Not as the crown of a king or queen as we might imagine today, but far more accessible, though just as noble.

The στέφανος in the Ancient World

The use of στέφανος in the ancient world is widespread, and by the time the New Testament was written, in the first century AD, the word had been used in the context of this crown/wreath for nearly a millennium. Homer (Il. 18.597) spoke of the crowns worn by girls in group dances and in the sixth century BC the Athenian playwright Euripides spoke of men garlanding their heads with wreaths of roses (Hipp. 73f). In the more immediate Roman context, Pliny (Hist. Nat. 18.2.6) records how certain priests, known as the Arvals, wear crowns at festivals, a tradition he suggests was instituted by Romulus himself.

The word then was well established. Indeed, it had far reaching popular connotations. I’ve long been taught that New Testament uses of this word were connected to the crowns given to victors in ancient sporting contests. Such an idea is often suggested alongside citation of 2 Cor 9:25 or 2 Tim 2:5. There is certainly truth in this, and this was a common use of the στέφανος, but the connotations of this word reach far further than just that. James uses the word because it is one with real weight and meaning behind it.

As suggested by some of the citations above, the ancient world attributed such crowns to religious settings. Wreaths or crowns often played roles in cultic celebrations, they were holy dress, worn by priests and linked in many cases directly to the gods.* Crowns extended beyond the priesthood in many cults of the ancient world through processions and feast celebrations. Again the ancient record is littered with references to specific people wearing wreaths and crowns on certain feast days or at certain festivals, in recognition of the god or goddess they worshipped. Such crowns seemed to carry connotations of salvation and protection in the ancient world as well. the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, in one comedy, describes a slave saved from a beating because he was wearing a crown (Pl. 21f), whilst the emperor Tiberius was known to wear laurel wreaths during thunderstorms because of their association with averting lightning (Plin., Hist. Nat. 15.134f).

Wreaths and crowns then, appeared in a myriad of contexts in the ancient world. But of course we must note their link to sporting contests. Victors were crowned with wreaths of olive, at the Olympic Games in Greece, such wreaths were cut from sacred olive trees with a golden sickle. The victor was crowned, and Xenophon (Mem. III.7.1) tells how after the Delphic Games, the victor was lauded in a procession which ended at his house, which was then also crowned in a wreath as an extra show of honour and victory! These crowns were immense honours, a sign of supreme earthly fortune, and often accompanied by rich prizes of gold or olive oil to represent that. To win such a crown was the greatest prize, a sign of quasi-immortality before all mankind.

There is more we could say on the στέφανος. These crowns played roles in the marriage ceremonies of the ancient Roman world, in the honouring of the dead, and in the oracles and Mystic Cults that abounded. But what is clear to see in all of these settings, the στέφανος was a very special prize. It was reserved for special individuals, on certain days or occasions, and carried with it connotations of salvation, glory, victory and completion.

The Στέφανος for James’ Audience

So what then, would this word have meant to the original readers of this letter? What would James’ readers, scattered former Jewish Christians facing intense persecution for their new faith, have made of this particular sentence?

James was telling battered and bruised believers, that no matter what they faced now, when they crossed that finish line, when they ran or stumbled or crawled over the line into the arms of their Saviour, that this crown awaited them.

The στέφανος was holy. It was set apart for specific people and specific contexts. And it was glorious. It embodied hope, victory, status, salvation. James didn’t use the word lightly when describing the prize his readers had in store for them. He knew their earthly experience was tough. Like the athlete sweating it out in the ancient games, or the worker toiling in the sun, longing for the day of rest that came with the next festival. Their στέφανος was a wonderful prize, one that signalled an end to their present suffering, and the awarding of all the good gifts that come with such a prize. But whilst an earthly crown of laurel or olive may fade away, James spoke of the στέφανος of life. Here was a crown that would never perish, spoil or fade. Here was a victory, a celebration, a religious moment that would never end. Here was the ultimate prize. James meant it when he said the one who carries on to that prize is truly blessed!

To a readership struggling under widespread persecution, social ostracism and the everyday sufferings of the ancient world, this crown of life must have leapt off of the page. An unimaginable prize described in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly exhilarating way.

What about Us?

James wrote to encourage suffering believers to keep on, to lean on their Father, to live out their faith practically and well in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage them to press on in the trials of life towards a treasure that will never perish, spoil or fade. He wrote to encourage them towards their reward: the crown of life. His message rings true for us today. In a world where life can bear down on us, sufferings closing in from all around, and persecution for our faith can take many forms, James holds out the crown of life.

This στέφανος was a picture of the ultimate prize. A picture of rest from toil and struggle. A picture of a great and glorious reward after a bitter and long contest. A picture of victory. The wonderful news of the Gospel is that that same crown is held out to us today. The Gospel promises eternal life, eternal rest, eternal victory. Christ makes us heirs and coheirs of eternity. In Him, the Christian who endures is given a great and glorious rest, with Him for all eternity. And wonderfully, the Gospel promises (Romans 8:39) that God will keep his saints keeping on. The ultimate prize is there for the believer who perseveres. So lean on your Father, hide yourself in Him, and keep on until we claim the prize: an eternity with the God we love.

*Take for example Dionysus. Ivy was a sign of this god, and Euripides describes how the followers of Dionysus wear crowns of woven ivy in worship of him, signifying a fellowship of life and death (Bacc. 177)

The Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

In Revelation 1:5, the writer, John, gives Jesus Christ three unusual titles. It is the last of these I want to pick up on: the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

A grand sounding title, and on the face of it an elevated position, but the resonance of this mighty name to the early readers of this final book of the New Testament shouldn’t be overlooked.

John wrote his Revelation to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are cities in what is modern day Turkey. In the first century, however, they were cities on the prosperous Ionian coast, a region that had belonged to the mighty Roman Empire for several hundred years.

These cities thrived on major trade routes, enjoyed prosperous regional government, and faced up to powerful local demagogues, all under the rule of an increasingly powerful Imperial throne. John likely wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Traditionally seen as a reign characterised by religious persecution (Eusebius, the 4th century historian, strongly advanced this view) it seems more likely that such persecution was more localised, but regardless of its spread, there were clearly tough times for the faithful church.

John’s Revelation is written to seven struggling churches. Facing persecution, struggles, false teachers and assaults both internal and external, John writes to challenge and encourage. So when he writes ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’, what would that have meant to these young, struggling churches?

Local Assurance

In 112 AD, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a man named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emperor Trajan. Though several decades after the time of Revelation, and in a province to the North of modern day Turkey, rather than the West, the letters of Pliny provide a small window into the contemporary situation faced by the seven churches John addresses. Pliny writes to his Emperor, detailing how he rounded up Christians and tried them. The charges seem to have been nothing more than simply being a Christian.

“I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.”

Pliny the Younger, Ep.96.

Judging by the replies Pliny records, Trajan was not particularly interested in this matter of provincial justice, but it highlights just how powerful local rulers could be. Pliny executed Christians for confessing their faith, and refusing to recant. No other ‘crime’ is recorded. The seven churches of Revelation faced similarly powerful local govenment. Imperial officials carried behind them the weight of Rome, and their decisions could very quickly become life and death. For John to label Jesus Christ the Ruler of such figures would have been a mighty comfort. Even in the backwaters of Asia Minor, Christ was sovereign over the kings, emperors, governors and officials. No government can stand up to Christ, so take heart, wrote John, because the faithful are in Christ.

The True Emperor

The greatest source of power in the ancient world was of course the Emperor himself. A supreme ruler with a quasi-divine statues, the Roman Emperor was sovereign over almost all of the known Western World. Domitian, the Emperor at the likely time of writing for Revelation, was particularly powerful. Previous struggles for the imperial throne were forgotten, the Flavian Dynasty had now ruled for around fifteen years, and strengthened the power of the throne. Domitian was an authoritarian figure, regularly overruling the Senate, and reinstituting the idea of the Imperial cult – that the Emperor and his household were divine.

With such a powerful Emperor, one who even declared himself to be a god, how could such a small group of churches in Asia Minor stand any chance? Because on their side was the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

The Emperor looked all powerful. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be divine. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be sovereign over the Earth. Christ is.

John could give Jesus such a powerful name because it was true. He was the exalted Lord of all creation. All powers and authorities stem from Him. The seven suffering churches of Asia Minor could cling on to this King because He was the True King. They knew that. They may have to suffer for it, but they knew it.

As Paul wrote only a few decades before John’s letter:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11.

God’s True King truly reigns, and one day even the most powerful Emperor will come to see that to be true.

What About Us?

We still live in a world of kings and powers. They might no longer be Emperors, but through politicians, celebrities, business billionaires and tech giants, our lives can very often feel ruled over. Christians across the world face very real persecution to this day. For some this means life and death, for others it means losing their job, their families or their homes.

We make kingdoms of our own too. We try to push ourselves ahead of others, we try to rule those we consider beneath us. Whether in business, family or some other sphere, we humans love to envisage ourselves as our own rulers. Kings and Queens of tiny nations carved out of our own successes.

Against the thrones and powers of this world what hope does the small and suffering church of Christ cling to?

They cling to the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

There is no higher throne than that of Christ. His kingdom will not endure for a while, but for an eternity. So don’t forget our heavenly nation. As we begin a New Year, as we face the challenges and struggles of living for Christ in a difficult world, let’s seek His kingdom. As we labour for our nations, as we try even to build our own mini kingdoms, let’s remember that we do so as citizens of Heaven. Let’s live for our True King, the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth, Jesus Christ.

‘Systematic exploitation’ and the freedom of Christ.

Image result for unbelievable tom holland tom wright

I recently watched the UnBelievable interview with Tom Holland and Tom Wright.

I enjoyed it immensely, and if you haven’t yet watched it, it’s a few years old but still an interesting conversation to listen in on.

One thing that stood out for me was the use of a particular phrase by the writer and historian Tom Holland. Holland claimed that the ancient world was built and sustained through the concept of what he called “systematic exploitation”.

Holland goes on… “the entire economy is founded on slave labour, the sexual economy is founded on the absolute right of free Roman males to have sex with anyone that they want anyway that they like. And, in almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel to our way of thinking.”

Holland’s comments reveal a cruel and oppressive nature in the ancient world, that, rightly, clashes with our own ways of looking at the world. This is not a blog post aimed at dissecting why it is we are so uncomfortable with such behaviour, though for a timeless book on such questions, I would recommend C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

The Oppression of Rome

Holland is speaking of Ancient Rome with these comments (he reflects them back to Greece as well – but his focus is the later ancient power). And the Rome he describes is the Rome in which Jesus lived and died, Paul wrote and travelled, and the Early Church was founded and grew. In the Italian peninsula alone, some studies suggest the slave population was around 3 million by 100 AD. Another study reckons between 5 and 6 million slaves empire wide by 260 AD. That’s nearly 15% of the entire imperial population, enslaved and oppressed.

Holland mentions the sexual oppression of the ancient world, and there was certainly a culture of manipulation and abuse in this regard. Prostitution, adultery and paedophilia were commonplace in the Roman world, some thought of as respectable, some regarded as crass. Little of it was considered wrong or evil.

The ancient world was built on the systematic oppression of the poor, vulnerable, alien and needy. Much of what went on in Ancient Rome ought to repulse us. But this was the everyday world of the Early Church. Before they became Christians, respectable men and women would have viewed sex completely differently, would have happily owned other people for the simple sake of household chores and business matters, and would have turned a blind eye to the brothels, slave markets and sexually licentious drinking parties that they both walked past and engaged in.

Christianity in Context

Such a context ought to shock us when we read passages like these of Paul…

“The body… is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.”

1 Corinthians 6:13-17 (NIV)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

Colossians 3:22-24 (NIV)

An open sexuality, prostitution and slavery were so commonplace in the ancient world. Let’s take these two cases in turn, because Paul has something to say about the oppression of Ancient Rome, and the way (and reason) Christians ought to respond to it.

Sexually: Christians must be different. Sex is God’s gift to mankind, to be wonderfully and joyfully embraced in marriage. Prostitution contorts this. It breaks this marriage bond, distorting God’s good gift into a broken thing. More than that, the Christian is now united not only with their spouse, but with Christ! The Christian is one with the Lord in Spirit. How could something so holy, pure and good be united with a prostitute? Paul is radical in this teaching. Prostitution isn’t a perfectly fine everyday occurrence, its a distortion of God’s pattern for relationships and the world, and the believer must flee from it. Paul speaks of the prostitute here too. Her body is united in sexual immorality. This is a concerned message. Prostitution, sexual licentiousness, it doesn’t just turn one person from a right view of and relationship with the Lord, it takes two. Paul is urging Christians to flee from this sexual oppression, for their own sake as well as the sake of those they would be oppressing.

Paul is just as radical with slavery. Elsewhere in Scripture, Paul urges masters to be kind to their slaves, forgiving them their errors and treating them justly. But here, Paul speaks to slaves themselves. Paul commands them to obey their masters, to work hard for them, as for the Lord. A radical teaching! It is not a command to flee their oppression, but rather to respond to it in gracious subservience. There is so much that could be said on these two passages, and both betray huge topics that must rightly be explored. But in Paul’s response, there is one unifying theme that stands starkly against the systematic exploitation of the Roman world in which he writes.

Freedom in Christ.

In the Roman world, freedom was a big deal. Paul repeatedly used his freedom as a Roman citizen as defence in Acts, and citizenship (as discussed in my earlier blog) was a big deal. But even such freedom came with the recognition that you were part of the Roman machine. You were subservient to the Emperor, the elites, the laws and cultural quirks of Rome. True freedom, taught the Early Church, is only found in Christ.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

Christ has set the believer free. Free from sin, shame, oppression and evil. Free from serving and doing what is wrong. Free from the final and ultimate punishment that our broken and sinful hearts deserve. Christ has set us free to live for Him.

“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

Galatians 5:13 (NIV)

“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom to cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”

1 Peter 2:16 (NIV)

The Christian in the Roman world, and the Christian today, is called to a wonderful freedom in Christ. But that freedom is a calling from a life of sinful slavery. So, urges Paul and Peter, don’t use your freedom to carry on as you were. Live different.

Paul urged men and women to live sexually pure lives, they are now free in Christ to pursue sex in its right place, in marriage. They are now free to show love to the oppressed by treating them lovingly, not abusively. And Paul commanded slaves to live humble, hardworking lives. Because they are free to do so. Free to honour their masters, submitting to them as though to the Lord, because they are free to live for Him. Knowing, as every Christian knows, that their freedom is eternal and far outlasts the cares and worries of this earth, no matter how great they may be.

The Roman world was built on a systematic oppression of minorities, the impoverished and the vulnerable. Christ’s Church is built of free men and women, of brothers and sisters born not of the same earthly parent, but won through the wondrous actions of Christ on the cross. The Roman world was never truly free. But in the Early Church, men and women were living truly free lives in the ancient world. Living different, living free.

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.

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.

‘Food sacrificed to idols.’ 1 Corinthians 8 in Context.

This blog is a little different. My church recently had a sermon on 1 Corinthians 8. In this chapter Paul addresses the response of the Corinthian believer to the problem of food that has been sacrificed to idols (vs1).

The pastor who preached this sermon was really helpful in unpacking the cultural background Paul is writing in and this blog is my effort to put those thoughts down on screen for people to engage with.

Paul’s argument in this chapter is that this sacrificed food is as an issue of strong/weak believers. In a similar manner to his teaching in Romans 14 and 15, Paul encourages believers for whom this food is not an issue to be wary of the impact it may have on believers who may still see such food as defiled. If it could be a stumbling block for someone, Paul says he would never eat meat again, rather than defile a brother with sin!

But why is this an issue? Whether preaching this text in church or tackling it in a personal devotional, let me flesh out the cultural background to Paul’s instruction.

Roman religion was transactional. If one wanted to thank the gods for something, or ask the gods for something, or even to apologise to the gods, then they had to give something. Sacrifice. The worshipper parted with a sacrificial item in return for the good favour or grace of the god or goddess to whom their worship was aimed.

And food was a common sacrifice in the Roman world. The gods feasted on the action of giving and the aroma of the sacrifice. A portion of the food may have been burnt in order to send up to heaven this fragrance of sacrifice, but the food “sacrificed to idols” that Paul was concerned with would have been more than just what was consumed by the fire. The food would be a gift to the gods, left in the temple and consecrated as holy to a particular god or goddess. But the food could then go on to be part of a sacrificial feast which the people shared with the gods.

Food sacrifices could include bread, grains, wine, fruit, meat, cakes and much more. It could even include whole animals, which would be roasted over a fire, part consumed by the flames and part by the priest and the people.

So what was the problem facing Christians in this setting? Temples, idols and altars were everywhere. Think of Paul in Acts 17. In verses 22-23 Paul talks of how he walked round the city seeing their many “objects of worship”, so many in fact they even have an altar to an unknown god!

Because it was so widespread, the Christian couldn’t avoid the religion of the Roman world, and in the food sacrificed in the temples of the ancient world, they were faced with a moral dilemma. Could they eat it? The Christian knew such food, which was available all over the towns and cities they lived in, was sacrificed to gods that didn’t exist and thus had no power or meaning. But they also knew such food was defiled (1 Cor 8:7). It was offered to false gods and idols. It was food of pagan religion. Could the Christian eat it?

Paul says yes.

But should they?

Paul says maybe.

If it would cause the weaker brother, unable to move past the purpose of the food sacrifice, to stumble into the sin of eating food offered to a god who is not God, then it ought to be rejected. But if those involved recognised that food “does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (vs8), then they were free to eat, what difference does it make asks Paul?

Food was sacrificed to idols as part and parcel of pagan religion in the ancient world. Much of that food was then kept and distributed by the priests and temple workers, it was often free to take and eat.


Should the Christian get involved? Paul says this is a matter of freedom, but also of showing grace to the weaker brother.

We ought to read this passage as a challenge to our own freedoms. By God’s wonderful grace we are eternally free in Him. There is much we can do as we live for Him. This specific example, food sacrificed to idols, though an issue for the Corinthian church, is rarely an issue for the modern church. But Paul’s point translates directly. Are we to put exercising our freedoms above looking our for the moral purity of our brothers and sisters? By no means. Just because we are free to do something, might not mean it is right. If it were to cause our brother to sin, we ought to mirror Paul in his meat eating example of vs13. If doing ‘x’ might cause our weaker brother to sin? Then it would be better that we never do ‘x’ again!

In grace we are free. But in our freedom we can extend grace.