Book Review: Reading Between the Lines, Volume 2, by Glen Scrivener

Reading Between The Lines (Vol 2: NT)

Like all good sequels, there tends to be a gap between the first and the second, a gap some would say was simply too long.

I have, however, finally gotten round to reviewing Volume 2 of Glen Scrivener’s excellent devotional: Reading Between the Lines. Find my review below.

This is, once again, a longer version of an original review written for the Scottish Free Church Books.

Volume 2: The New Testament

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Volume 1 took the reader through the Old Testament, Glen’s second book of short devotions takes us through the New. Once again the focus is not on daily applications to specific issues and actions but rather a consistent and helpful pointing to Christ. As Glen works through the New Testament, his time spent dwelling on the Old shines through, and his devotions helpfully weave together a picture of Scripture that points to the absolute centrality of Christ.

This consistent engagement with the whole of Scripture is really helpful for two reasons. The first is that through constantly referencing and linking the Old to the New, Glen both shows how God’s Word is wonderfully woven together around the Good News of Christ, whilst pointing away from his own writing and back to Scripture. In his introduction to the work, Glen writes (4) “if you’re pressed for time, read Scripture not Scrivener!” In producing devotions rich in Scripture, he helpfully affords us that opportunity.

From a more practical point of view, Glen’s constant engagement with both testaments serves to add variety to the structure of the studies and the interaction required. Whilst we know the Word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12), and we can so often enjoy the beauty and awesome truth of it, it’s a widely accepted truth that quiet times can be hard. We so often struggle with daily devotions, and Reading Between the Lines does its best to help with that. By varying the structure of different devotions, breaking some down into short sections for example, Glen offers a bit of variety each day. Helpfully, his use of the Old Testament serves to offer the same. Some days require a short passage to be read from both the Old and the New, others offer reflections on passages within the devotion. God’s Word is a wonderful thing, and I found these devotions helpful in reminding me of that, even when my heart didn’t want to sit and read just then!

The variety with which Glen approaches Scripture is matched only with with his love of pictures. An evangelist by trade, Glen tells short stories, paints quick pictures, and offers helpful anecdotes. Our American friends may struggle with his affinity for cricketing metaphors, but such pictures help the reader thoughtfully engage with passages of Scripture that may seem alien or odd, or that we may think we already know so well.

I enjoyed Volume Two as much as the first, and would encourage those who are struggling in their quiet times, and those who simply want to decide what notes to use next, to give it a go. Each study is short, and wonderfully clear. As I said above, Glen doesn’t try to produce a legalistic application for us to implement every day, but rather he seeks to point us back to Jesus. His aim, for me, was wonderfully summed up at the close of a devotion on 2 Corinthians 3. Glen writes (413) “If you want deep and abiding change in the Christian life, don’t gaze at yourself. Don’t gaze at the law. Don’t even gaze at the spirit of the law. Gaze at Christ himself.”

Not everyone enjoys Bible reading notes, not everyone will enjoy the style with which Glen writes. But in times such as these, it is so crucial that we are setting aside time on a daily basis to be learning from and resting in our Heavenly Father. So if you do want to start your day by gazing at your Saviour, and you’d value some simple, short devotions to help you do that, then it may well be worth giving Reading Between the Lines a go.

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)

Book review. Dirk Jongkind: An Introduction to the Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge.

An Introduction to the Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale ...

Alongside the release last year of their Greek New Testament, Tyndale House also produced an introduction to their edition, written by one of the editors of this critical approach to constructing a New Testament as close to the Greek original as humanly possible, given the available evidence. Dirk Jongkind and Peter Williams have produced an authentic and complete New Testament edition, which engages with a wide variety of source manuscripts and asks questions of popular understandings of key words, phrases and verses.

It was to Dirk Jongkind that the task of penning the introduction to this edition fell, and his Introduction is a gentle and clear editorial defence of their work.

Jongkind’s Introduction is an engaging read, illustrating the enormity of the task that the editors faced, accepting the challenges with which they engaged, and explaining their methodology and process through simple, short sections and worked examples. Throughout the short book, Jongkind’s scholarly background is of course evident, but this is wonderfully paired with a pastoral sensitivity towards the subject matter.

The Introduction to the THGNT acts as a helpful introduction to the discipline of textual criticism, as well as the challenge of textual transmission through the long manuscript history of the texts of the New Testament. Any translation of an ancient work is in impressive undertaking, but as this Introduction shows, the problems facing the translators of ancient works are multiplied when dealing with Scripture.

This reviewer found several key themes recurring throughout Jongkind’s book, and I’d like to briefly dwell on them now.

Methodological Introduction

As mentioned above, Jongkind’s work engages with scholarly practice in an accessible way. As he explores the manuscript history of the texts of the New Testament, the author illustrates the challenges facing the editors of this new edition. His ready engagement with the key concepts of textual theory and translation rarely strays into an over-complication, and his use of examples allows challenging issues to be understood in just a few lines. Issues such as copying errors, manuscript traditions and the impact of a decentralising Early Church are addressed, and Jongkind presents a considered approach to dealing with them.

Through his sixth chapter ‘How Decisions Were Made’, Jongkind walks the reader through an overview of the editorial approach in this project. From scribal activity, to manuscript groupings and ecclesiastical influences, Jongkind explains the rationale behind decisions made. Again, often complex ideas are simply presented. Considering (67) a “much quoted text-critical rule…[that] ‘the more difficult reading is to be preferred to the easy reading’ (lectio difficilior potior, literally ‘the more difficult reading is the stronger one’),” Jongkind brings up questions behind the phrase, distilling them into one: what is the most difficult reading? This simplification allows Jongkind to explain the role such a rule can play in textual criticism. (68) “Still, the rule points toward the need to weigh possibilities.” This is but one example in how Jongkind navigates the presentation of complex methodology in a helpful, simple and informative way.

Jongkind also addresses the reasons why the THGNT differs from traditionally favoured Greek texts: the so called Textus Receptus and the Byzantine Text. Devoting a short chapter to each, Jongkind asks questions around the rigidity to which they are clung to, suggesting that the editorial decisions made for this project provide some answers. Again, there is a sensitivity in his approach to these texts, probing questions are definitely asked, but in a helpful manner.

Practical Implications

As the editors approached this work, it was clear that they sought to move away from allowing modern preconceptions to impact their thinking. This is demonstrated in decisions regarding practicalities in presentation and textual selection. The order in which books appear in the THGNT is one such example. Jongkind explains that the order of books conforms with other Greek New Testaments, putting the Catholic Epistles before the Pauline corpus (35). His reasoning for this change is well supported by manuscript evidence. That said, in a somewhat lighthearted manner, Jongkind explains that they made no other such changes, as, for a readership brought up on the order of English Bibles (36), “the repositioning of the Catholic Epistles was already sufficiently disturbing.”

One other such practicality Jongkind addresses is paragraphing. Again a return to the original manuscripts is seen here. The prologue with which John opens his Gospel, traditionally seen as 1:1-18, is not so strictly bound in earlier manuscripts. Indeed (37), “there are virtually no manuscripts that exhibit the modern conclusion that the prologue ends at 1:18.” The ancient paragraphing does not indicate the separation suggested by our modern translations, and asks interesting questions of how we can read the opening of this Gospel account.

Jongkind preempts many of the queries and responses one might have to the THGNT, as well as elaborating on things such as paragraphing, that might pass us by without this helpful guide.

Textual Applications

This Introduction raised two key areas of application for me, and Jongkind was at pains to stress both throughout his book.

The first is perhaps most encouraging to the ears of the believer. We can have supreme confidence in the New Testament texts we possess. (103) “The meaning of each book and chapter of the New Testament is not in doubt or uncertain – and when it is, it is not because of textual variants.” We can have confidence in Scripture. God’s word, revealed to mankind through Scripture, is still God’s word. This project, if anything, affirms that. And Jongkind makes that clear in his closing chapter. (109) “The important thing to take away from this little book is that you have every reason to read the Greek New Testament with confidence and pleasure.” We can read the Greek New Testament, and of them, good translations, with both confidence and pleasure. Enjoy God’s word, knowing that it is His word, and that it has much to teach us.

Secondly, I enjoyed the repeated emphasis on the need for a close reading of Scripture. The editors poured over each one of the 135 000 words to be found in the Greek New Testament. Many of the examples of problems, revisions or variations, that Jongkind provides come from just a word or two. The scrutiny with which the editors approached this text is apparent, but it provides a lesson. The closeness with which we read God’s word can impact what we learn from it. Close, careful study, in the original language or of a good translation, will ultimately be for our edification, and for God’s Glory.

I enjoyed this Introduction immensely. The production of the THGNT is approached with respectful diligence, and clarity is offered around at times controversial decisions. Jongkind has the humility to recognise valid concerns with their editorial decisions (97), and offers helpful responses to such questions. The book acts as a helpful springboard with which to approach this new text of the Greek New Testament, but I found it a joy to read as a personal reflection upon the place of textual transmission, language and revision in the Bibles we use today. God’s word is eternal and unchanging. It was encouraging to find that scholars such as this so clearly demonstrate that to be the case.

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.

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.

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.

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.