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Freedom for Slaves June 15, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 34:8-22.

Summary: In this passage, God pronounces judgment on His people. This stems from the following sequence of events:

  • the Babylonians had been besieging Jerusalem
  • the people of Jerusalem – along with King Zedekiah – made a covenant before Him that they would free their Hebrew slaves
  • the people of Jerusalem freed their Hebrew slaves
  • the Babylonians withdrew from Jerusalem – leading to a (temporary) cessation of their siege
  • the people of Jerusalem re-enslaved those whom they had freed.

In particular, by re-enslaving those whom they had freed, they have violated His command in Deuteronomy 15:12.

Thus, He declares that He will cause the Babylonians to resume their siege of Jerusalem. The city will fall, and many of His people will be slain.

Thoughts: Here, we see that the people of Jerusalem reneged on their promise to free their slaves after the Babylonians (temporarily) withdrew from their city. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

Since King Zedekiah had been warned about this, he called the people together and, with everybody’s consent, proclaimed freedom to the slaves as God had commanded. But this was done in bad faith, for soon afterwards the slaves were taken back into slavery, and so treachery was added to cruelty. From this we see that they not only wronged their own brethren by imposing on them perpetual slavery, but they also wickedly profaned the sacred name of God, for they were violating a solemn oath.

This disappointing turn of events caused me to ponder the vows that we often make to God during trials – where we declare that if He will rescue us from our troubles, then we will honor Him for the rest of our lives. Yet we swiftly break our promises after He rescues us from our troubles. Clearly God knows that we cannot honor our vows – so why does He choose to rescue us from our troubles? Perhaps He has decided to adopt a long-term perspective when dealing with us. He knows that sanctification is a process, and He is willing to accept some amount of backsliding on our part. What He desires is that we also adopt a long-term perspective when dealing with Him; instead of making rash vows, we should maintain our confidence in Him and His sovereignty.

This passage also furnishes another example of God’s concern for those who are less fortunate. Indeed, His zeal for those who are less fortunate is displayed throughout this book, as He repeatedly charges His people with mistreatment of the poor, the fatherless, the widow and the foreigner. Perhaps this passage should remind us that, as modern-day believers, we must continue to serve as His conduits of blessing to those who are less fortunate today – lest He level the same charges at us that He presents in this book.


Advice About Widows, Elders and Slaves August 24, 2013

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Timothy 5:1-6:2.

Summary: Paul begins by telling Timothy to reprove older people as he would his own parents – instead of harshly rebuking them; he should also show brotherly gentleness to younger people. Indeed, he should have a serious demeanor with everyone so that nobody can complain about him.

Paul then tells Timothy that the church should take special care of widows who are destitute. Now those widows who are not destitute should perform godly duties at home among their own families to train themselves for worshiping God, as God has commanded that this should happen. In contrast, destitute widows have nothing to distract them from their single-minded devotion to God, and so they give themselves to unceasing prayer, while those widows who indulge themselves are living useless lives. Timothy should warn his church about this so that all of the believers in Ephesus can live exemplary lives. Indeed, any believer who neglects his relatives has no reverence toward God; moreover, they have less excuse than unbelievers in this matter, since they have 1) God’s light and 2) natural affections.

Now Paul states that the church should only look after widows who:

  • are elderly
  • had been content with one husband
  • have done good deeds for fellow believers
  • have a generous spirit
  • have performed acts of kindness.

Paul then states that the church should not look after widows who are not elderly, as their age would make them desire marriage – abandoning their calling. Widows who remarry and abandon their calling bring shame on Christ and the church; they will be led further away from God until they reject Christianity. These widows also indulge in gossip. Thus, he advises these widows to refrain from declaring that they have a single-minded devotion to God; instead, they should:

  • remarry
  • manage the business of bringing up a family
  • care for their homes as housewives

so that malicious people cannot slander them. Indeed, some of these widows have already been placed under Satan’s control.

Paul reminds believers that they should care for the widows in their own families.

Now Paul shifts gears here; he asserts that those presbyters who carry out their responsibilities diligently should receive even more honor than the widows who are being looked after by the church – especially if these presbyters are diligent in teaching the Word. To support this assertion, he quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7; people agree that:

  • they should be kind to brute beasts
  • people deserve to be treated fairly

so they should not deny a livelihood to their presbyters. Also, presbyters should not be burdened with unsubstantiated accusations. Yet those presbyters who live dissolute lives should be severely punished. He solemnly appeals to Timothy – who is in the presence of God and the excellent angels – to pronounce judgments without prejudice, remaining impartial.

Paul then tells Timothy to not assent to illicit ordinations so that he will not share in the guilt of others; he should not pollute himself.

Now Paul rebukes Timothy for his excessive austerity so that Timothy can be useful to God and to his neighbors.

Paul then encourages Timothy by noting that although some known hypocrites are harming the church, God will publicly expose all sinners in His good timing – even those whose sins come to light more slowly. Also, sometimes godliness wins people’s approval speedily, while sometimes it remains unnoticed; yet God will make all righteous people shine like the dawn in His good timing.

Paul again shifts gears here; he insists that slaves should be faithful and diligent in carrying out their duties, and they should sincerely respect their masters as people who have been placed in a higher position than them to rule over them; thus, no one will speak badly about God’s name and the Gospel. Paul concludes by stating that slaves should willingly submit themselves to masters who are also believers, as they all share in God’s grace; Timothy should constantly emphasize these truths in his teaching.

Thoughts: In this passage, we see that Paul states that the church should not support widows who are not elderly. Calvin offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 11 of chapter 5:

Living an undisciplined life of luxury is equated with not being dedicated to Christ, to whom they had consecrated themselves. Paul had seen this happen many times, and to prevent it happening again, he says that no woman should be enrolled as a widow whose age would make her desire marriage.

Now Calvin’s note that “Paul had seen this happen many times” implies that there were many younger widows in the church at Ephesus at that time. In that case, why were there so many younger widows in Ephesus (not including younger widows who were unbelievers)? Perhaps the life expectancy of an Ephesian man was well under 60 – leaving many Ephesian women as widows before they reached 60. One must wonder if inadequate health care, poor diet or warfare played a role in depressing the life expectancy of an Ephesian man. Ephesus was one of the most prominent cities in the Roman Empire at that time; did these believers belong to the lower strata of Ephesian society?

In verse 22 of chapter 5, we see that Paul exhorts Timothy to avoid joining others in performing illicit ordinations. Calvin offers some insights on this point:

Paul undoubtedly wanted to protect Timothy from the endless complaints that are leveled against godly servants of Christ, when they refuse to give into the self-centered requests that are constantly being made of them…Some people seek to ordain someone on the slender grounds that he has given one or two reasonable performances. A prudent and earnest bishop should resist such impetuous desires, as Paul tells Timothy to do here.

It can be inferred that some people in Ephesus wanted Timothy to ordain them – or their friends – as ministers, despite the fact that they were not fueled by a desire for purity. If Timothy refused to perform these ordinations, perhaps these aspiring ministers sought the assistance of less scrupulous ministers. Perhaps illicit ordinations were not uncommon in the early church, since there were no written rules regarding the selection of ministers before Paul wrote the Pastoral Letters to Timothy and Titus. In that case, the early church would have resembled the “Wild Wild West”; to extend that analogy, Paul would have been the sheriff who came to town, restoring law and order through his efforts.

In verses 1 and 2 of chapter 6, Paul states that slaves should be diligent in fulfilling their responsibilities and respect their masters. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 1:

Nobody gives to a ruler or master what is his due, unless he reflects on the fact that God has raised him to his eminent position and thus honors him as one of his subjects. While such people may not deserve to be honored in themselves, the authority that God has bestowed on them entitles them to be honored.

These two verses are consistent with the other passages in Paul’s letters where he discusses slavery; my understanding is that his main point is that slaves should remain in their current positions and live exemplary lives so that the progress of the Gospel would not be hindered by their actions. Now our church does support Route One Ministry, which aims to minister to women who have been exploited by the sex industry. I thought about how our support of that ministry meshes with Paul’s main point. Eventually, I concluded that the Bible consistently condemns idolatry and sexual immorality; since these women, as slaves, were compelled to commit the latter sin, their slavery was detestable in God’s eyes and so He approved of their emancipation. On the other hand, what if a slave in the antebellum South was being constantly beaten by their master? Moreover, what if a master refrained from corporal punishment, but he refused to let his slaves learn how to read and write? It seems that in either case, the slave should remain in their current position according to Paul’s main point. I wonder how the antebellum abolitionists interpreted these verses.

Final Greetings September 6, 2012

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Here are my thoughts on Philippians 4:21-23.

Summary: Paul begins by telling the Philippians to greet all believers in a Christian manner; also, his personal companions and fellow-travelers greet them. In addition, all of the believers in Rome – including the slaves and freedmen who are attached to the palace – greet them.

Paul concludes by praying that the grace of Christ would be with them.

Thoughts: Strolling through Philippians was rather enjoyable; it even served as a welcome break from my relatively in-depth strolls through Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Ephesians. To understand why many believers have delighted in reading this letter, one must peruse Alister McGrath’s introduction to Lightfoot’s commentary:

Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is one of the gems of the New Testament. Freed from the need to engage in controversy with his opponents, Paul was able to share his joy in the gospel with his beloved fellow believers in Philippi. Even though he wrote from prison, Paul’s letter exults in the joy of the gospel and the great hope which it brings to those who know Christ.

I should also note that the personal nature of this letter provides the reader with a glimpse into the lives of various Biblical characters, including Epaphroditus, Euodia, Syntyche and Clement. Yet Paul’s intimate connection with the Philippians does not preclude him from defending the Gospel in this letter – he still needs to refute the threats of the Judaizers and the Antinomians. Thus, the “warmth-to-defense” ratio in this letter is not infinite – yet it is high compared to the other epistles that I have strolled through. I am now curious as to which of the remaining Pauline epistles contains a similar “warmth-to-defense” ratio – perhaps Philemon fits the bill.

Slaves and Masters June 6, 2012

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Here are my thoughts on Ephesians 6:5-9.

Summary: Paul begins by exhorting slaves to obey their (external) owners with:

  • conscientious solicitude
  • singleness of mind

as part of their obedience to Christ. Slaves should not only obey their owners when they are present, but they should obey them when they are absent; their souls should desire God’s will and aim to please Him. They should serve cheerfully and patiently, as they are truly servants of Christ. Indeed, at the Last Judgment, everyone will receive from Christ according to their deeds, whether they were slaves or freemen.

Paul concludes by exhorting owners to treat their slaves with conscientious solicitude and singleness of mind, as this is God’s will; they should neither treat them with contempt nor in an overly severe manner, as Christ is their Master in heaven, and He will punish them for such actions.

Thoughts: In this passage, Paul exhorts slaves and masters to treat each other in light of the fact that they are all slaves of Christ. Hodge offers some intriguing thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 9:

Slaves are not commanded to refuse to be slaves, to break their chains and repudiate the authority of their masters. They are required to obey with alacrity and with a sincere desire to do their duty to their masters, as part of their duty to Christ. Masters are not commanded, as an immediate and imperative duty, to emancipate their slaves, but to treat them according to the principles of justice and equity. It is not to be expected that men of this world will act in conformity with the Gospel in this any more than in other respects; but believers will. And the result of such obedience, if it could become general, would be that first the evils of slavery and then slavery itself would pass away as naturally and as healthfully as children cease to be minors.

Now Hodge’s point that slavery itself would eventually cease to exist if all slaves and masters followed Paul’s exhortations is well taken – yet I doubt that this goal will be achieved before the Second Coming. In particular, Americans are painfully aware of the United States’ checkered past in this regard. As Hodge wrote this commentary at the conclusion of the antebellum period, did he believe that the Civil War could have been forestalled? Ostensibly many of the slaveowners in the South viewed themselves as Christians, and they were probably aware of this passage. Did they employ this passage in making their case for the preservation of slavery? How did abolitionists of the antebellum period view this passage? Could a believing slave escape if their master failed to treat them with “justice and equity?” Was the Emancipation Proclamation crafted in accordance with God’s will as expressed in this passage?

Slaves to Righteousness February 24, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on Romans 6:15-23.

Summary: In this passage, Paul addresses an objection that could be raised to his main point at the conclusion of the preceding passage – namely, believers are not subject to God’s law (either the Mosaic law or the natural law that is written on men’s hearts) but live under a gracious dispensation. The objection in question states that believers are free to sin since they are not subject to God’s law; of course, Paul strenuously opposes this point. To show that believers do not have a license to sin, Paul brings up the example of slavery, which was not uncommon in the Roman Empire. By definition, slaves are continually compelled to obey their masters. Now it turns out that men only have two choices in life – either they can be slaves to sin, which is guaranteed to result in death, or they can be slaves to God, which is guaranteed to result in life. Paul is thankful that though his readers had made the former choice, they have now turned to the latter option; he also notes that his example of slavery is quite relevant to them, since their sinful natures keep trying to “re-enslave” them. He then exhorts them to show the same fervor in obeying God – being sanctified in the process – as they showed when they obeyed sin – and became more wicked in that case. Paul concludes this passage by noting that just as obeying sin results in death, obeying God results in eternal life, since believers serve a risen Savior.

Thoughts: As noted in my previous post, I struggle to understand the nature of our slavery to righteousness; why do truly regenerated believers need to strive to obey God? Hodge notes the following:

Similarly, the more completely God reigns in us, and the more completely we are subject to his will, then the greater our freedom – that is, the more we act in accordance with the laws of our nature and the end of our being.

To me, this smacks of predestination, and not so much of free will. Yet somehow we are commanded in verse 19 to “offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.” Why would we need to willfully enslave ourselves to righteousness if we are truly subject to God’s will? Does this relate to the free will that we exercise in being justified in the first place?

In verse 17, we see the phrase “the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” Hodge clarifies this phrase as follows:

Form of teaching means the Gospel, either in its limited sense of the doctrine of free justification through Christ, of which the apostle had been speaking, or in its wider sense of the whole doctrine of Christ as a rule both of faith and practice. The former includes the latter. He who receives Christ as priest receives him as Lord. He who comes to him for justification comes also for sanctification. Therefore obedience to the call to put our trust in Christ as our righteousness implies obedience to his whole revealed will.

It is clear that genuine justification must be followed by sanctification. That is, it is not sufficient for someone to merely claim that they trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior; their subsequent life must reflect the truth of this statement. Of course, this is an incredibly difficult and challenging endeavor. Most, if not all, of Jesus’ commands in the Gospels are extremely demanding and involve denying oneself and solely depending on Him. Even mature Christians struggle to live a life that is worthy of His calling.