Philemon – Letter to a Slave Owner

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Paul’s letter to Philemon is the shortest letter that Paul writes incorporated into Scripture, but it is also one of the most profound applications of the Gospel in life that there is.  Philemon is a slave owner.  In our context today, that sounds like a horrible thing.  However, in that day and age, it was a fairly normal way of life and, while that is not a defense of slavery, the life of a slave back then was not what we think about when we look at the horrific reality of the African slave trade and its impact throughout the world even up to today.  Slaves worked in more of a “service industry” type of a setting, working for a master, often getting paid for doing the tasks required of them.

There were rules about the conduct of slaves, however.  Because their masters “owned” them, they were able, at times, to inflict harsh punishments on their slaves when things were out of line.  In the case of Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves, the offense he committed (stealing and running away) was punishable by death.

Apparently, though, while Onesimus was away he came to faith in Jesus Christ and also met Paul.  Now, Paul is sending him back to Philemon and Paul’s appeal for him is that he would be accepted as a Christian brother, not as a slave, a thief, or a runaway.   Paul even offers to pay whatever debt might be owed for his offense.

This really is a beautiful picture of the Gospel’s truth in our lives as well.  We too have offended God by our sin, running away from our relationship with Him.  At some point, though, when we encounter Jesus and our status before God is changed.  We are no longer sinners, subject to death for our sins, but are, as Paul writes, heirs to the promise and co-heirs with Christ.  Rather than returning to God guilty, Jesus has taken our debt on Himself so that we can come before God clean and pure, with a restored and renewed relationship!

Titus 3 – Saved for Good

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Paul’s closing words to Titus could be read as a deeper explanation and examination of what he writes to the church in Ephesus.  Specifically, in Ephesians 2, Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Here, Paul expands on these words, relating them to Titus with regards to the church in Crete and what it means for them.  In doing so, Paul gives us a greater understanding of God’s work in the process of salvation.  What we learn is that God’s work doesn’t begin at the time of salvation but long before as the Holy Spirit builds up our faith and brings us to the point of decision, when we place our faith in Jesus Christ.

Knowing this brings a greater revelation of what it means to be under grace!  We hear that God chose us, and that grace is given and available to all.  What we don’t often hear, however, is that God’s work in our lives, the love, and grace that He shows to us, is actually present and active even before we come to Him.  It’s truly amazing that God’s love for us is there long before we show our love for Him.

But it isn’t just what happens before we come to faith that is important here, it is what we are saved for, which is to “do good.”  In other words, we are called to live our lives in direct response to the love that God shows us.  That means staying away from things that would distract us, things that would take us off track, and things that would draw us away from God’s love and our calling.

Titus 2 – Salvation or salvation?

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As Paul is writing to Titus, he is imploring Titus to teach and encourage transformed living in a way that is applied to all who are believers.  It isn’t simply enough to have leaders who reflect the transformative work that is done by the Holy Spirit, all must live in this way.  This is a response to our eternal Salvation, and yet at the same time is part of “earthly,” contemporary (current time) salvation as well.

Far too often we get “salvation” mixed up as being something that happens to us when we die.  When we believe in Jesus, we know that we will “go to heaven” after we die.  But if this is the extent of the salvation that we understand, we are getting a very small picture of what God is actually doing in our lives.

The work of our salvation begins even before the very moment that we place our faith in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit’s work in us, building up our faith.  God is constantly at work in us, reforming and reshaping us into the image of His Son.  We call this “sanctification,” and it is a very important part of the Christian life.

Not only is God working on us in this way, He continues to work in this world to bring about redemption and restoration to all of His creation.  This is something that He has been doing since the very beginning and something we also are called to participate in through the careful tending and treatment of this planet.

When we limit the scope of God’s salvific (salvation related) work to a sort of “escapist” mentality line of thinking that is only true for us when we die, we grossly limit and box in God’s extraordinary work throughout history, culminating, but not ending in the work of Jesus Christ when He went to the cross.

Titus 1 – Do Good

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Paul opens his letter to Titus explaining both why he left Titus in Crete and what he should now be doing while he is there.  The Cretan churches were in some manner of disarray, needing sound leadership and a strong hand to guide them.  To facilitate this, Paul encourages Titus to work on appointing elders in every town throughout Crete.  The Elders, leaders in those communities, should live as examples as to how those in the church should be.

Though Paul seems to emphasize “good works” here as a major theme, it is important to note that all of this comes from his application of the Gospel message onto the lives of believers.  In the instance of the Cretan churches, there is a stark contrast in the way that “all Cretans” live and the new life that they are called to as believers in Christ.

It is interesting here that Paul lumps laziness with “law following” as part of the things that need to be rebuked and corrected.  Indeed, it is much easier, and takes much less effort to just follow the rules with no real thought or internal change.  What is more interesting, I think, is that Paul tells Titus that they must “do good,” citing the example of those who are appointed elders, as the way of faith.

This would seem, to many, as Paul advocating for “works righteousness,” exchanging one set of laws for another.  However, what he is suggesting is to actually live into this transformed life.  “Doing good” by way of the law is simply following the rules… doing good in response to the Grace of God in Jesus Christ is a sign of a redeemed and transformed life.

Especially for those who are new to the faith, there are some boundaries that are necessary to help foster growth and encourage change and transformation.  In the same way that a young, newly freed Israelite nation needed the law to show them the boundaries of their new freedom, so too do we need some boundaries to foster our freedom in Christ.  What is important, though, is that those boundaries don’t become laws for us, simply following the rules for the sake of the rules, rather than living in response to God’s love for us.

Introduction to Titus

While the book of Acts lays out the journey of the Apostles, especially Paul, as they move from Jerusalem outward, proclaiming the Gospel and planting churches, no mention of Titus is found.  Because of this, little is known outside of the references Paul makes to him in his other letters.  From what we can glean, though, Titus was a very close friend and worker with Paul.

In fact, when Paul went to Jerusalem to discuss the spreading of grace to the gentiles, who were uncircumcised, as recorded in Acts 15, Titus went with him (Galatians 2:1-3) as an example of a Gentile that God had gifted (and who was uncircumcised).

The book of Titus was written sometime between Paul’s first letter to Timothy and his second.  It would have been written after he was released from his first imprisonment in Rome when Paul was traveling on his 4th missionary journey.  Titus had been traveling with Paul but was left in Crete to manage the churches there.

After Paul had gone on to a number of other places, he wrote Titus to instruct him on how to correct matters that had arisen in the Cretian church.  Like the letters to Timothy, Paul also warns Titus against false teachings which were creeping into the churches in Crete.  Paul also gives Titus his personal authorization to deal with dissenters and those opposed to the Gospel or Titus’ leadership.

As is always true for Paul, his words are a practical application of the grace that God has shown to all and has given to those who believe.  This rings true for those in leadership as well, all of whom should be working to apply this grace in their daily lives and be teaching it to all those they come in contact with.

Grace, Faith, and “good deeds,” are all major themes in this short letter.  The “good deeds,” however, are not to be the product of human ingenuity, legalistic religion, or tradition, but rather the work of God’s grace through faith in the power of God as manifested in Christ, the Savior.

Exodus 12-15 "Barrier or Baptism?"

  1. Israel’s route out of Egypt and to the Promised Land was not direct. How do you think they felt heading in the “wrong direction?”  Have you ever felt this way in your life?  What do you think about that journey now?
  1. Israel’s first response when they saw Pharaoh coming after them was to complain and panic. What does this say about Israel’s ability to trust?
  1. The “Egypts” of our lives erode our ability to trust others and to trust God. How have you seen that in your own life?  Has this happened in the life of this church?  How can we regain this ability to trust, both individually and corporately?
  1. Part of the great escape involves God’s presence moving through the people to defend them from behind. Have you experienced a particularly difficult time in your life where you felt God’s presence very close to you?  How did that change your perspective of the situation?
  1. God provides Israel a way out that is both amazing and probably a little scary, walking through the middle of the sea. Have you ever had a “Red Sea” experience?  Do you think the Israelites considered not going through?  Did you?  What did you end up doing?
  1. The other side of the Red Sea is not the Promised Land, it’s the wilderness. In Scripture, the wilderness brings a time of transformation; what was God trying to change in the Israelites?  How have you experienced the wilderness of transformation in your own life?  How has HCRC experienced this recently?  What was/is God working on?

2 Timothy 4 – Inconvenient Truth

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Once again Paul makes a number of remarks that have come to pass in a number of concrete ways once again in the present time.  In a culture which celebrates truth as being “relative” to each individual, people are becoming less and less open to hearing the teachings of Scripture, the message of the Gospel, and the call of God to live a transformed life.  People are happy enough to simply be “good” people, even “spiritual” people, but all without the commitment of faith and religion.

And why not?  Christianity, as well as all of the other major religions, has its dark marks throughout history.  We are imperfect people, seeking to follow the will of God, and messing it up far too often.

Through it all, however, the message of the Gospel has not changed, and the call of God to live in response to grace has also not changed.  Scripture tells that we are to flee from sin in all its various forms.  It also outlines what sin is.  Unfortunately, as we “progress” in society, those boundaries seem to mean less and less.

Paul says that a time will come when people will no longer listen to sound doctrine, but instead will seek to hear only what they want to hear.  We have seen this happen in the church far too much in recent history.  In one sense, this is the reason that we have so many denominations of Christianity in the Church today.  It is also the reason why we continue to fight and argue about peripheral things rather than focusing on the unity that Scripture calls us to as the Body of Christ and the message that we are called to proclaim together.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News for everyone, but good news doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t challenge or ways of life.  Grace abounds through all things, but God calls us to not conform to this world but be transformed by the Holy Spirit’s work in renewing us each day.

2 Timothy 3 – Mark My Words

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I’ve talked to a number of people over the years who are completely surprised and baffled by the moral decline in society in the present age.  More and more is seems as though people are given to doing whatever they like and the line between good and bad is becoming quite grey, if it exists at all in people’s minds.

For a while, there as a widely held belief that Scripture pointed to a society that was always progressing towards a more idyllic state, which would be the manifestation of the beginning of the 1,000-year reign of Christ described in revelation.  This belief emerged after the middle ages when many aspects of the human experience were developing rapidly and the quality of human life had risen dramatically.

All of this was pretty much destroyed by 1945, after two devastating world wars.  It became all too obvious that society was indeed headed down a different path.  This, however, shouldn’t have been surprising for us.  Scripture is actually quite clear that:

  1. Sin has infected every part of our lives, we are not capable of saving ourselves
  2. The closer we come to the end, the more corrupt and godless society will become
  3. It is Jesus Christ alone who will set up His Kingdom here on earth

Paul’s encouragement, in light of this reality, is once again to hold fast to the teachings of Scripture.  In the face of increasing godlessness, of moral decline, and of persecution, Paul reminds Timothy that it is God’s Word that will provide the foundation for perseverance in faith.

Things have not changed today.  Moral decline is an everyday reality; Christian faith is being challenged and the “relative truth” teachings of western culture allow for any type of sin and lifestyle.  These things are creeping their way into the church as well.  While we are not called to be judges and haters of others because of their choices, but rather to love them with the love of Christ, we too much be careful, holding fast to the Word of God so that we persevere in the faith and do not fall victim to the temptations of the world .

2 Timothy 2 – A Trustworthy Saying

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Paul offers a number of “trustworthy sayings” to Timothy and other recipients throughout his career.  In each of these situations, Paul is encouraging the reader to remember the truth of the Gospel, simplifying it into something that was easy to remember.  In our chapter today, he does this for what would likely be his last time.

The truth of this statement is telling, though, because of how it both addresses the situation that both Paul and Timothy are in, and it also acts as a reminder for both of them given the trials that are to come for them.  Because of the work of Jesus Christ, we have hope in every situation, a hope that extends beyond any physical trials or tribulations that we could ever endure.

We are called to perseverance through the difficulties of life as well.  Scripture often refers to this as part of our “sanctification.”  God doesn’t cause our trials, but He is always at work in us and through them to build us up and shape us into the image of His Son.

A lot of emphasis, in the midst of the persecution of the church in this time, was placed on staying true to what you claim to believe.  Though Scripture’s theology throughout the New Testament is that, once you receive salvation, there is nothing you can do to lose it, there is something to be said for the importance of not disowning Christ publically.  Doing so brings into question everything we claim to believe.  The prospect of disowning Jesus should be a gut check for us as to whether we are fully committed, or whether we are just trying to get our “get out of hell free” card.

No matter where we fall on this spectrum, though, Paul points out in the last phrase that Jesus is always faithful to us.  The promise of salvation is extended to all and there is nothing that we can do to preclude ourselves from it.  Thanks be to God that His Love and Faithfulness know no bounds!

2 Timothy 1 – Thankful

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Given the context of where Paul is writing from, no one would blame him for complaining or even, at the very least, expressing some desire to either be free or be done with it all.  Chained in a dungeon, facing his execution, and deserted by all of his friends and companions, it would seem a good time to just give up.  Rather than complaining, though. we see Paul open this second letter to Timothy with thanksgiving.  How many of us, put in the same situation, could say we would do the same?  I know I wouldn’t.

Paul, though, keeps everything in focus.  Yes, it is likely that his life will end soon.  He has also come to realize that his work for God is also nearing its end.  Yet that doesn’t keep him from continuing to encourage Timothy or to care for the Church.  He knew of the persecution that was going on throughout the Roman Empire and his first concern was for those persecuted, that they would not let go of the Gospel Message.

To make sure of this, Paul builds into Timothy, one of the major leaders of the Church at this  time.  He implores him to hold on to what he was taught and to “fan the flame” of God’s gift to Him.  Though the path may be dangerous, Paul doesn’t see this as a time to maintain the status quo.  Instead, he reminds Timothy of the empowerment that we have received through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We are not called to shrink back, to hide until our own safety is assured, but rather we are called to live into the hope that we have by being willing to risk everything for the sake of the Gospel.

There is nothing that the enemy can do to take away our hope, to separate us from God’s love once we have accepted Christ into our hearts.  However, there is plenty the enemy can do to prevent us from getting to that point.  One of the ways is to make us fearful so that we don’t spread the Gospel message.  Paul doesn’t want the church to fall into this trap.  The message must go out no matter what the cost!

Introduction to 2 Timothy

Paul’s second letter to Timothy came approximately five years after the first.  When his first imprisonment in Rome ended, Paul went on his fourth and final missionary journey, eventually ending up back in prison in Rome.  All of this took place under Emperor Nero who was known for his brutal torture and persecution against Christians.  This became especially true after the great fire in Rome in A.D. 64.  Nero blamed the fire on the Jews but lumped the Christians in with them as part of a “new branch” of Judaism.  Nero’s persecution led to the Martyrdom of both Paul and Peter.

Unlike Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, where he stayed in a rented house and was visited by many people, this second time imprisoned saw Paul in a cold dungeon, chained like a common criminal.  Whereas his first letter to Timothy focused more on Timothy, his charge, and leadership of the church in Ephesus, this second letter contains a much more personal touch, speaking to Paul’s desires for himself as well as the anguish that he is going through.

In many ways, this was Paul’s farewell letter.  Chronologically, 2 Timothy is the last letter that Paul wrote.  Personally, Paul mentions that his work is done and that he will likely be taken from this life very soon.  It is also clear that Paul is very lonely.  Some sources say that Paul was guarded and imprisoned in a place that few could find.  Many had deserted him and others were barred from seeing him.  Only Luke (which we assume is the writer of both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts) was with him.

Yet even in this state, Paul shows a deep concern for the churches knowing that they too are enduring harsh persecution.  He once again encourages Timothy to hold on to what he has learned and to not stop preaching the Gospel, even if it means suffering for the message of Christ.

1 Timothy 6 – Pursue Righteousness

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Paul warns Timothy once again with regards to those who would cause him to veer off course through false teachings.  There is a sense here that Paul is making a distinction between what looks good and what is actually good.  The truth of the Gospel message brought and taught by Jesus Christ is the true good that must be held to in the church.  Against all other teachings, thoughts, or possibilities, this truth is what brings freedom, life, and true gain.

This world has an infinite number of things that pretend to offer comfort, power, and even hope; a way to make ourselves secure.  Yet all of them are empty and hollow, offering nothing but bondage endless worry.  It is true, what they say, the more money you have, the more worry you have as well.

Things like money are not inherently bad.  As a matter of fact, money is a way that God uses to provide for and bless us in our life here on earth.  We can work and acquire it, being thankful to God for his provision in our lives and remembering that all the blessings that we have come from Him alone.

In doing this, we maintain the proper orientation of our lives, keeping God first in all things, living thankful lives in response to His grace, and therefore giving a “good confession” of our faith to all those who are around us.  This life, however, is not something we can do on our own.  Paul continually encourages Timothy to hold on to the truth he has learned, which is our charge as well.

Not only that, we need to be listening for the direction of the Holy Spirit in our lives, seeking His direction in all things.  When we do this, we will find ourselves faithful followers of Christ, content with that which God has blessed us, and truly rich in all that is of eternal consequence.

Exodus 6-12 "Exit Strategy"

1. What are some of the “Egypts” you are facing in your life? They could be big things like addiction or more common things like anxiety. What about systemic things like economic status or person biases?
a. Think about this church. What are some of the “Egypts” we are facing?

2. Everyone faces obstacles and barriers to freedom in their lives, they are the Pharaohs of our “Egypts,”. Some are external to us while others are inside of us. What are some “Pharaohs” that you are facing?
a. Think about this church. What are some “Pharaohs” that we are facing?

3. Think of a time when God showed up in a powerful way in your life. How often do you think about that moment? Are there ways in which you honor God with the freedom you experienced since then?

4. Blood is a major theme of the Exodus and throughout the Bible as well; why do you think the way out of Egypt is so bloody? How does your life demonstrate how difficult, even bloody, leaving Egypt can be?

5. Why is the Passover necessary? What tangible difference does it make for you to admit your own powerlessness and trust the Rescuer?

6. Why is the way of trust both so difficult and so appealing? How is this way different from the way you’ve lived your life?

*Some questions taken from Leaving Egypt by, Chuck DeGroat

1 Timothy 5 – Treating Others

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Chapter 5 seems to be full of rules and regulations about how to treat different groups of people within the church.  At first glance all we really see is “do this” and “don’t do that,” “take care of this group” but “that group can take care of themselves.”  Honestly, given the teachings of Jesus and the freedom that Paul touts so often, this seems like a bit of a reversal to all that.

However, Paul’s continuing desire to equip and empower the believers to live into their faith sometimes requires some boundaries and rules regarding how that all works out.  These things, like some of the boundaries that we have in our own churches, are necessary things to have in place so that the church can continue to function, so that people understand practical examples of what “loving your neighbor” and “freedom” mean, and so that the church isn’t caught in a position of enabling people to be lazy or advantage of her generosity and thus sinning in some way, shape, or form.

We often talk about Law vs. Freedom as if there can only be one or the other.  People tend to see rules and policies as part of the law, something that enslaves us or keeps our hands tied.  While there can be truth in that, boundaries that govern the limits of our freedom are often a good thing.  In the case of Timothy and the church in Ephesus, allowing younger widows to be “on the list” could encourage idle behavior… or worse yet encourage sins like gossip and slander.  Churches must tread carefully in these circumstances, balancing the joy of generosity with the danger of enabling.

The same can be true with regards to the treatment of leaders.  All leaders should be held accountable to the higher calling that they have in the time of leadership.  However, we must also be careful to not allow the discontented voice of 1 or 2 to sway the perceptions of all.  Once again, we must balance these things, taking appropriate action when necessary and also trusting in God’s call on their lives.

1 Timothy 4 – Teach These Things

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The persistence of false teachers and false teachings within the church is not limited to the church in Ephesus.  Therefore Paul’s warnings are also not limited to just the church in Ephesus.  Throughout the history of God’s people, there have always been those that have fallen away, led astray by the lies of the enemy.

Satan has never stopped trying to infiltrate the flock, offering promise after promise that turns out to be deception.  A fruit that will make you like god, “deeper knowledge” that differs from Scripture but is somehow more insightful, a “true” way to salvation that you have to work for, the allure of power, wealth, influence… there are so many ways that the devil lies his way into our hearts.

Paul warns Timothy to be on his guard for these things in the same way he warns the Ephesian church to guard against the attacks of the enemy by putting on the full armor of God.  Knowing the true enemy is half of the battle… and for Timothy and the church in Ephesus, the enemy is not the false teachers but rather the deceiver and the deceit.

How is Timothy to counter these things?  Paul implores him to “hold on” to what he has learned and to continue to teach Biblical truths.  Don’t get side-tracked with meaningless rabbit holes or empty small talk.  Hold fast to the truth of the Gospel for it is the only truth that can truly set you free.

Many are the ways that the enemy will try to stop us.  Paul recognizes that Timothy is young, but youth does not negate God’s work in and through his life.  He has been given this change, as have we all, and we must not allow the poison of the enemy get in our way.  We must give ourselves wholly to the God, persevering through all trial, and continuing to preach the Gospel that all may hear and be saved.